“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.”


“An Eye for an Eye” Horror by Andre P. Audette

The Ancestors of Demeter knew the ways of the earth. They farmed an abandoned mining town between a frac sand pit and an overgrown forest, harvesting wild onions and ramp and repairing the land worn by layers of human settlement. The community was largely solitary, although members would occasionally appear at small town festivals to trade incenses and seer services. Children were homeschooled, often succeeding well beyond their non-Ancestor peers academically, and a few had gone to nearby Christian or Jewish schools to study history, engineering, or pre-med, though they rarely completed the program of study.

I was an Ancestor of Demeter, and I have seen things no one has seen or should see.

Our people believe in the duality of sight. Growing up I learned many things about the earth. We were taught to observe things that we were told others could not see. The way the seed broke open to give life. The ways trees fell after a slow decay. The way mosquitos pierced the skin to draw out their life’s blood. And to really see.

On the sixth of the month Thargelion, we would see as our community gathered to sacrifice of our harvest. But some years on that date there was more to see, as the community celebrated our wisdom of sight. On years where Ancestors reached the master number – age 11 – our community held a special ceremony where the master would be paired with another to gain new sight. I partook in the ceremony three times as a child.

Our families would go to the woods under the tallest tree in what we knew of the forest. There we observed and learned what we could see through the dark. There was hot fire that had been burning since the Noumenia. It was the only time we ate of the flesh of our animals; the three largest male sheep were slaughtered and cooked for the community. We drank wine made from our vineyards, and feasted on herbs, morels, and other delicacies gathered from our lands and preserved for the night. We danced, sang, and those old enough would try to conceive a child, who in a duodenary cycle would also be paired. When the moon crested, the eldress would announce the name of the one who the master would be paired with.

Both masters would drink of the ram’s horn, a special drink I have neither seen nor heard of anywhere else, a mixture of wine, tea, nightshade, rapeseed oil, and plants from the steppe. The masters would shriek with joy upon receiving the substance, lying next to their pair as the substance would overtake their senses. Meanwhile, the community’s celebration had ceased, as there was work to be done. Carefully, the eldress would use the tools from the fire, passed down from our ancestors. A spoon-like knife, dipped in the drink of the ram’s horn, would extract one eye from each master. It was a beautiful sight as we children observed the red and clear liquids, blue eyes and brown eyes, and other pure colors of the process. Then using the air, ice, and eye buckle, the eyes would move from master to master. As the children lay there for the next few days, we took care of their bodies as their eyesight restored. Then they experienced the duality of sight.

As a ten-year-old Ancestor, I tended the vineyards, carefully cultivating the root system, pruning the vines, and watering them extensively. I had been selected for the role because of my knowledge of the process and my ability to control the weeds. Though my knowledge of history, religion, and mathematics was average, I had found my niche. Next year, I would find my pair. I hoped it was one of two girls who attended school with me. They could see things about religion, in particular, that I could not. Persephone had beautiful blue eyes that shined in the sun in summer days. When she smiled, her eyes crinkled in the corners as if the eye itself was smiling. Erinys had deep green eyes that looked almost pained beyond her nine years, the kind that could see the passing of time. When you talked to her, she looked as if she could see through to your soul to know you better than you knew yourself. Their beautiful colors would pair well with my deep brown, earthy eyes better than my younger brother, the only other child near my age.

The eldress prepared me well for my pairing. As I worked in the vineyard, she spoke of how sight is a spiritual experience, how all the great healers in the ages restored sight beyond seeing the world as it is. She instructed me on the intimacy of sight, to experience what others could not and to make memories from our sight. Though she was well advanced in years from me, I felt as though I had a glimpse of her sight in her life and beyond. I felt ready to be paired.

Despite my training, though, on the night of my pairing, I was nervous. I knew that my sight would soon become a responsibility for others, for them to see the vineyard and the land of the Ancestors through my eyes. I ate and drank the rare gifts we had produced. I made small talk with my brother, Erinys, and the eldress as we feasted. I tried to take in all the sights of the night, though even as it was a celebration of sight – my sight – my sight memories are shallow and few. But I remember one sight more vividly than any other to that point in my life. As the fire glowed around us, as the community looked at me and the eldress stood next to me, I watched the faces of each person as my pair was announced. It was as if time slowed down for me to catch a photograph of each person. And when the name had fully escaped the lips of the eldress, I saw the space between the lips and the nose begin to rise, the mouth corners rise more than they fell, a small white glimpse of teeth show, and the deep eyes flash with a viridescent flame as Erinys’s name was called and she gave an awkward smile before being consumed with congratulations by others. I suppose it was almost a first experience of love as we drank of the ram’s horn together and I felt the warmth of her soul as she lay down next to me.

After that night, I also remember waking up to a new and wondrous sight. Nothing like what I saw before the ceremony, nor like the dreams, nor fantastical in any way… The wondrous sight was to see not only from my perspective, but to see what Erinys saw as she also awoke. I had entered a new world of consciousness, seeing my brother propping my head up as I also saw Persephone propping up Erinys’s head. I moved my head to face my brother but perceived not only his face as I looked straight onward, but also the bark of the tree that Erinys examined as she stood up. Erinys must have fallen to her knees as I then saw the leaves and detritus of the forest on the ground as I tilted my head upwards to see a morning sun. The light hurt my eyes, so I too quickly looked down to the ground. At once, I could see deeply into both the sky and the ground, experiencing the dual nature of the earth as I learned of my duality of sight.

From that day forth, Erinys and I had become a special pair, to be able to see and share in the experience of each other. I saw as she read the scrolls of our religion and began to understand the words for the first time. She saw as I tended the vineyards, strengthening the roots and uprooting the weeds. At night we even shared dreams, mythical and frightening, mundane dreams of our class at school, or of our work. The day after, we held an intimate understanding of each other’s experience, not even needing our other senses to describe what we saw. My world expanded by two as my brown and green eyes took in new sights, not only of my own experience, but of Erinys’s too.

At times, she might close my eye in moments of rest or of private matters, and I the same with her. On particularly sunny days, she might close my eye and I could see the sunshine through her eyelid, or see her phosphenes dance around as I closed my eye to have our splashes of colorful lights create an aurora of various shapes. As we grew, I longed to learn more of her life and to see what else I might experience, and to share my experiences with my eyes wide open. Maybe it was more than I should have.

Erinys continued advancing in her study, and I began to care for larger plots of land. We got to experience the pairing ceremonies of other children, as they entered into our world of sight duality. With each ceremony, we came to understand more and more the gift we had been given, to experience the world in ways the unpaired could not. Erinys and I cared for each other and worked to ensure that our sight experiences would be as beautiful as possible for the other. Though we never said it out loud or even dared to think it in a romantic way, I had never loved or known love before or since.

Erinys soon received exciting news. She had been accepted to university to continue her study of religion and philosophy and would be leaving our community for a trial semester in the fall. I was genuinely excited for her, and for me, as we would experience the vision of a world different from our own. I could tell she was nervous by the way her hand shook when she signed the paper to attend the school, and in the long talks I observed, reading the lips of her parents and the eldress as they reassured her that the education would benefit our community if she remembered where she came from.

The world of university was exciting. Casting away our agrarian way of life, Erinys was now in a world flooded by people and buildings, all new sights to take in. Everyone wore funny, non-utilitarian clothes. The living spaces were all cramped together, and the food was just laid out in a giant room. She read lots of policies about what she could and could not do at the school: no visitors past 8pm, any visitors of the opposite sex must sign in and out, feet on the floor at all times, no plagiarism, no alcohol, no tattoos, a faith statement with things I did not even understand… Still, with all the rules, this world still seemed so large with so many choices. Erinys had a roommate, a Christian looking girl named Dalia, whose eyes reminded me of my own: brown and simple. She decorated their room with pictures of people and dogs, a homemade-looking metal cross, and of trees, which reminded me too of my life back home. I went outside to look at the trees that looked incredibly similar, but Erinys closed my eye.

Erinys studied lots, reading thicker and denser books than I had seen before. She studied a chapter titled “Matthew,” and a line “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” I knew the phrase by heart after she memorized it and repeated it on an exam, a strange phrase for an Ancestor. There were also religious stories that bored me, enough that I went outside to work while Erinys read. Sometimes I would close her eye to help her focus in preparation for her exams. The wonderful images I imagined I would see were becoming more routine: sit in class and watch a man in a brown coat talk, eat food, and go back to her room to read books. I made sure each morning to try to catch a sunrise or the rainfall from back home to lessen the routine. In a way, I thought, this must be part of the beauty of the duality of sight – coping with the mundane relations of the world. I would tell Persephone about Erinys’s studies, her blue eye smiling at the thought of Erinys and I sharing a new world together.

Things changed one night, as Erinys went away from the usual college buildings. She walked down a dark street, and I could see parts of her roommate walking alongside her under the occasional streetlight. They approached a rundown house that had red cups laying out on the front lawn. As they went inside, there was a haze around a bunch of people drinking alcohol, dressed in weird varieties of clothes while others had no shirt. As Erinys talked to them, she began moving closer toward one of the men standing there. They started toward another room in the house, the bathroom, and it was there that I witnessed her having sex with the man, right in front of the full-length bathroom mirror. She could have closed my eye, but she left it open for me to see. I stood outside in the vineyard, unsure how to communicate anything to her. This was not part of our relationship. Eventually she closed her eyes and fell asleep on the floor of the bathroom. I scrawled a note for her to see as soon as she woke up: “don’t do that again.” I wanted to cut that godforsaken eye out, but I was too afraid to lose my connection to Erinys. And there was a strange part of me that liked what I saw.

Erinys continued spending more time away from her college campus, sometimes with the man from before, sometimes with other people, all the time leaving my eye open. She never communicated a note back to me and continued living her life as if I was not seeing and experiencing it too. I started sleeping more to block out the sights, but there were only so many hours of the day I could convince myself to sleep. She stayed awake for what felt like days on end, seeing and doing things no Ancestor should see and do, and dragging me along.

One evening I decided to go out for a long walk on a dark night. It was late – almost as late as when Erinys and I were paired – and I passed along the outskirts of the forest. Erinys was out too, as usual, in a dark part of town. For the first time since the initial excitement of university, it almost felt as if we were seeing eye to eye again, so to speak. That is, until I realized what Erinys was carrying. She had a hammer in her hand as her roommate carried the metal cross from her room. I was no university educated person, but somehow it seemed as if they were not out to build a religious altar.

My fears turned out to be true, as they went to the same rundown house as before, with the red cups still outside. My step pace increased as theirs decreased, as they came to the door and didn’t knock or wait to be let in. What I saw then was nothing like the beautiful red blood shed during a pairing ceremony. This was the blood of anger, as Erinys and her roommate went through the rooms of the house, catching various men off guard as they hammered and gouged their eyes, right before my very own. The men were left dead, with hammer holes where their eyes were and their genitals lying beside them.

I vomited in the woods. I left her eye open to see it.

The next day I told the eldress, who sent for Erinys at university. But Erinys was not there, I observed. I saw her walking the streets of the city, entering a store with thousands of little boxes on the shelf. She made a purchase and went to the bathroom with my eye closed. I saw her leave the pharmacy and pick up the hammer she had stashed in a dumpster and enter a nearby house. This one I had never seen before, but I immediately felt the terror as I saw an old couple sitting in their chairs and watch Erinys approach them with the hammer.

As she left the house, my eye saw a neighbor watching Erinys leave. I saw lights flashing. I saw the ground getting closer as Erinys fell. Then I watched the ground for hours, unsure of what happened. I thought about asking the eldress to remove Erinys’s eye from my head, but I knew the sin of the memories could not be removed.

Eventually, my sight was covered by a white sheet, and Erinys must have been moving as the lights flashed beyond the white sheet. In the days to come, I saw what I’ve now come to understand as an autopsy room, as medical examiners put scalpel to my eye to test if it was truly Erinys’s. The experience of the morgue ended as Erinys was pushed into a crematorium, and my eye and sight were soon no more.

In time, the police came for the Ancestors and our community became no more. The eldress was sentenced to prison, the children were placed in protective care, and the adults removed from our land. Despite these challenges, the rest of the community still tries to practice the duality of sight.

I try not to.

While the crematorium was the end of my physical eye, the duality of sight is a spiritual experience, as the eldress explained to me years ago. Erinys conceived a child with one of the men she murdered, and I now see her fate. When Erinys’s eye is open, I see her repeatedly giving birth in a forest much like ours, as a beast stands before the fire to consume the child. I cannot look at the beast directly, for it is a sight and color that, as I said before, is a scene no one has seen or should see. But I see the piercing stare of the beast reflected in the eyes of the child as it is consumed. I have tried to keep Erinys’s eye closed as much as possible, but I still have dreams that cause both eyes to awaken, along with the vision that haunts me to this day. With even the best mechanical tools or attempts to remove the eye, the spiritual roots of the eye remain. The flames burning behind the eyelid where the eye used to be are so bright as to keep me awake all night. The flame has only intensified, as have the episodes of the beast needing new Thargelion sacrifices.

Therefore, this is my last testimony of my life as an Ancestor. It is time that I join my pair, my beloved Erinys, and to sacrifice on behalf of the people who have given, and taken, so much from me.


Andre P. Audette is a little-known writer from a little-known town who writes about little-known subjects to explore the (little-understood) human experience. 


“Portrait” Classic Horror by Nick Young

I am not — have never been — given to flights of the fantastical.  To be sure, from time to time, like many of my contemporaries, I have been enthralled by Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft and Hodgson.  But they were fictions, diversions from the mundane, nothing more.  Certainly, I never for a moment believed these entertainments were attempts to render true experiences.

Yet, now I have the gravest reason to doubt that judgment, for I myself have been witness to an event of such extremes that it cannot be counted as anything but lying beyond the precincts of the natural world.  And because it is so far from reality as normal men understand it, I can only confide the particulars in this journal.

The story begins shortly after Christmas last when my dear friend Hugh Fletcher was having tea of an afternoon in an Oxford Street cafe not far from Cavendish Square Gardens.  He and I had met while both at Eton and become virtually inseperable mates.  We maintained our close bond after graduation when my path took me to the London School of Economics while he pursued his dream of studying art.  The choices fit our personalities — I, the pragmatic, materialistic qq one; Hugh, much the romantic, fond of poetry and the serendipitous.  And, I should say, a painter who possessed genuine talent.  At the age of twenty-six, he was beginning to gain a modest reputation in the city for the quality of his work, which was on offer at a small gallery in Vauxhall.

On the day in question, as Hugh recounted it to me, while having a second cup of tea and reading from a newly purchased edition of Shelley, his attention was drawn to a young woman who had risen from her table in a far corner of the cafe and was preparing to leave.   

“She was singularly striking,” he told me, “tall, ivory-skinned, with great, dark tresses cascading around her face, encircled with the lush collar of a rich fur coat.  It would have been sufficient,” he went on, “just to savor her unrivaled beauty as she passed a few feet away, but as she neared the door, she turned and locked her smoke-grey eyes with mine.  It lasted only an instant, but the effect was profound.”

The woman then exited the cafe into the chill late afternoon as snow was just beginning to fall upon the city.  Hugh said he did not hesitate a moment, but leaped from his seat, shrugged into his chesterfield and rushed into the street.

“I could not explain my actions, save that I knew I must not allow her to get away.”  Within a block, as he weaved rapidly among the sidewalk throng, he had caught sight of her.  And as he neared her at a corner, though he was behind and she had not seen him, she stopped and turned.

“It was uncanny,” he told me. “With certitude, I sensed that she knew of my approach, that she expected it.”

To be sure, Hugh was taken somewhat aback, further unsettled by the way those eyes of hers bored into him, seemingly able to discern his innermost thoughts.   He stammered an introduction and expressed his fervent desire that she agree to sit for him while he painted her portrait. 

Her name, she replied, was Lizbeta: and at first, she demurred, explaining that she was not a professional model and that her time in London was limited before she must return to her native Romania.  But Hugh was insistent, pressing his case and proferring one of his business cards, which she accepted.

“I returned to my flat in a fever,” he said, “and spent the night unable to banish her from my thoughts.  And when I fell at last into fitful sleep, it was she who dominated my dreams.”

The obsession persisted upon his awakening, depriving him of an appetite, prompting him to pace nervously about his atelier, unable to concentrate on finishing a modest commissioned still life he had begun. 

At precisely 10:00, as Big Ben tolled the hour, Lizbeta rang his studio bell.  Hugh welcomed her with delight, noting that in the morning sunlight spilling into the room, she was even more ravishing than she had appeared the day before. 

“Although she still insisted she was an unworthy subject,” Hugh related, “she had found me flattering and persuasive enough to agree to a sitting.  But, of necessity, it would be a single sitting.   She had no choice, she said, having been summoned to return to Bucharest the following day to deal with pressing family affairs.”

With little time to lose, Hugh hastily arranged his studio, positioning his easel and mounting a freshly gessoed canvas upon it.   He bade Lizbeta to recline on a divan of brocade and mahogany, posing her in such a way that the sunlight brought out the finest qualities of her lustrous hair and perfect complexion. 

“I knew that I had but a few hours with her, so I rushed with a speed I did not know I possessed to block in the essentials of the painting and begin rendering her likeness.”

And paint he did, using every available ray of light until the late afternoon shadows deepened and Lizbeta made ready to leave.  Hugh expressed his dismay at her departure, so smitten had he become.

“I inquired when she would return to London so that I might present her with the painting.  She did not know, so I asked if she might leave a shipping address.  She promised to send it as soon as her business in Bucharest was completed.”

And with that, Hugh said, she turned her mesmerizing grey eyes on him a final time and left.

Now commences the strangest part of this tale.  Hugh immediately returned to the canvas, feverishly working his brushes and oils, attempting to reclaim from the memory of Lizbeta each curve, every contour, line and shadow, the very essence of her extraordinary beauty.  Using what lamplight he had at hand, he pressed on into the night, until exhaustion overtook him and he slept.

The next morning he arose at first light and without hesitation, returned to his obsession.  Since I hadn’t spoken with him in several days, I rang him up at the noon hour just to make idle conversation.  Instead, he implored me to come to his atelier immediately to view his latest work.  There was in his voice a tone of urgency such that I left my office at once.

When I arrived, Hugh barely took the time to let me into his studio before he was at his canvas again.  And as he painted, he recounted the whole story of his encounter with Lizbeta. It took but one glance at the woman’s image to understand why he said it had been “branded on my soul.”  Her face and figure were perfection and her eyes possessed a depth of power and mystery that was mesmerizing,  indelible.   

But it was not only his desire to capture the woman’s  every nuance that was driving him forward.  He could not account for it, he said, but his paint was thickening, becoming more viscous and hard to handle. 

“When I apply it to the canvas, it pulls at the brush — more so, it seems, with every passing hour — as if it doesn’t want to let go.  I’ve never encountered this before, but it is imperative that I complete the painting as soon as possible.”

It was clear that his distraction was total, so I took my leave with a wish to see the portrait once he’d completed it. 

The rest of my day was crowded — appointments through the afternoon, a dinner engagement with a client that led to brandy and cigars at my club.  By the time I reached the door of my apartments, it was almost midnight.  And no sooner had I entered than the telephone began to ring.  It was Hugh, frantic.

“You must come at once!”

“But the hour . . . , ” I protested.

“At once — do you hear me?!”

Quickly, I rushed to the street, hailed a cab and was delivered presently to Hugh’s studio.  The trip was short, but it gave me enough time to conjure dark thoughts about my friend’s obsession and his grip on reality.

When I arrived I found the door to his atelier unlocked, which I thought was odd, so I entered with a degree of caution, calling his name repeatedly but with no response.  I could see very little because the only light in the room was provided by a floor lamp Hugh had moved beside his easel, which was positioned in such a way that the back of the canvas was turned toward the door.  With my trepidation growing, I walked slowly forward.  Perhaps, I thought, Hugh was so absorbed in his work that he neither heard me enter nor call out to him.  But as I neared the easel, what caught my eye was not my friend.  Instead, beyond the edge of the painting in the pool of light thrown by the lamp were his palette and one of his brushes, both gleaming with wet paint, lying on the floor.  They did not appear to have been placed on the parquet but rather dropped or cast down. 

My heart by now was pounding in my chest.   I fought against my worst fears overwhelming me as I stepped around the easel and turned my full attention to the canvas. 

Now, you who know me have always judged me a sober, eminently rational individual.  So, too, do I consider myself.  I ask you to weigh what I recount next with that in mind.

I was aghast at what I beheld.  At first, my eyes refused to believe, but there was no denying what was in front of me.  It was the figure of a woman in an emerald-green gown reclining on the very divan that sat a few feet from me, just as I’d seen Hugh painting hours before.  I say the figure of a woman because this was not Hugh’s careful rendering of the ravishing Lizbeta, but a grotesquerie — a withered, gnarled crone whose grey hair hung in matted ropes, framing a face, shrunken and deeply creased.  Her mouth was open in a hellish grin, baring teeth blackened with rot.  And the astonishing eyes that my friend had found so compelling were now but sightless sockets.

But what was most horrifying, what caused me nearly to faint dead away, was that held tightly in the outstretched grasp of  this corpse was the figure of Hugh himself!  Against all reason and the laws of God and Nature, there was my friend clutched firmly in the embrace of two stick-like arms and bony fingers that curled around him more akin to the long talons of a bird of prey.  His countenance was that of a man overwhelmed by hysteria — eyes wide with anguish, mouth open in a plea for salvation, and one arm thrust out towards me, fingers extended to their extremity.  My mind reeled.  If only I could find it within myself do something — anything — to help him!

At that moment I hit upon an idea.  It was improbable, yes, but no less than what I saw upon the canvas.  Perhaps, I thought,  if I could paint out the hideous figure of the woman, its power over Hugh would be broken  and he would be restored to the world.  Swiftly, I retrieved the palette and paintbrush from the floor.  I gripped the brush and dipped it into a thick pile of a deep blue paint.  I recalled Hugh’s description of how the pigment had grown thicker, and I noticed this myself straight away. As I neared the tip of the brush to the canvas, to a spot over the hag’s face, I had the sensation of an electric shock course through my fingers and hand, and the bristles were pulled as if by a magnet onto the painting’s surface.  Reflexively, I jerked the brush away, though the tingling in my hand lingered.  I thought this a passing strange occurrence, but I concluded it must have been a momentary episode of static electricity and nothing more, so I again lowered the brush toward the painting. 

This time the effect was more pronounced.  As the tip of the bristles came into contact with the canvas, not only did a sharp tingling ripple into my hand but extended part way up my arm.  At the same moment, I beheld a large globule of the thick paint flow up the handle of the brush until it touched my fingertips.  Again, there was the sensation of a magnet’s pull, this instance stronger than the first.  And this time, with amazement, not only did the paint continue to ooze upon my fingers, but I saw the tip of the paintbrush bristles actually penetrate the surface of the canvas!

Horrified, I used my left hand to tear  myself free of the force which was growing in power.  Deeply shaken, I realized what Hugh’s fate had been and that I dare not risk a third attempt to alter the painting.  And, I can confide in these pages, I was overcome with raw fear, so much so that I hurled the palette and brush to the floor, and, with a long, wrenching backward look over my shoulder at the image of my friend frozen in his eternal torment, I turned and, God help me,  I ran!


Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, The Green Silk Journal, Short Story Town, CafeLit Magazine, Fiery Scribe Review, Sein und Werden, Typeslash Review, 50-Word Stories, Sandpiper Magazine, Pigeon Review and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.


“Silver Lining” Horror by Roseanne Rondeau

“Hey, you alright?”

Nick opened his eyes to a dim swamp-green haze. He lurched to his feet, weaving his fists in the direction of the voice.  Pain shot through his skull, and he grabbed the side of his head. His fingertips traced the edge of a sticky crater under his matted hair. His vision doubled and he staggered falling backward against iron bars. He slumped to the floor. 

When Nick’s eyes opened again, he lay motionless. His body ached and the wound hiding under his hair throbbed. He studied his environment.

 He was surrounded by cavernous walls glowing faintly with a blue phosphorescence.  Heavy brackish fog snaked throughout the cave and disappeared into blackness at the far end. There was a sourness to the air making his eyes water.  Thick oxidizing bars pressed against his spine blocking the only exit he saw.  This was a cell, and he was the captive.

A man with greying skin and untamed white hair emerged from the recesses dragging a tattered blanket and humming to himself. Nick watched him scamper in and out of the darkness until he stopped and squatted at the edge of the shadows. He placed a tied bundle of fabric on the cave floor and worked the knot. Unfolding the loot, he pulled out a broken stick and set it aside, then he rummaged through a pile of yellowing bones. He lifted one, held it to his eye and peered through the shaft. He showed it to the stick and giggled, “Oh, it’s a good one.”

 He secured the bundle and set it aside, then gently picked up the stick and carried it along with the bone and blanket to an outcropping of blue rock. He nestled the stick in the blanket next to him.  He sniffed and turned the bone between his fingers.  Placing it in his mouth, he rolled it back and forth like a fine cigar, every so often offering it to the stick.

 The old man sucked and chewed at the bone. He shook it trying to dislodge the last bits of dried marrow at its center.  Nick turned away in disgust.

The old man caught the movement and darted to Nick’s side.

“Hi,” he said, grinning, the scent of carrion wafting around him. Nick grimaced. The man pressed his papery skin against Nick. “I’m Hazen,” he said, nodding so fast Nick thought his head might pop off and roll across the floor. Hazen pressed his palms on the warm flesh of Nick’s arm and leaned closer.

“Get away from me. I don’t give a shit who you are.”  He shoved Hazen backward. “Don’t touch me,” he growled. Hazen skidded across the rocky floor scrubbing the flesh off his knees. Nick jumped up and gripped the bars of the cell. “Someone better get down here, now!” Hazen dragged himself from the ground, stumbling.

“Stop,” he pleaded. He grabbed Nick’s hands pulling and prying at them.

“Hey, I know you’re down there!” Nick’s voice reverberated through the corridor.

“No, stop it, they’ll come. Be quiet,” Hazen tugged frantically at Nick’s arm. Nick rammed his elbow across Hazen’s cheekbone, blood splattered through the air as his skin split. Hazen dropped to the ground moaning and cupping the side of his face. Red seeped through his fingers and ran down his wrist. He rocked back and forth whimpering.

“Thought we could be friends,” he said looking his bloodied hands. He touched the wound on his face, wincing.

 “Pathetic. There’s nothing I want from you,” Nick said glaring down at the crumpled body on the floor.

“But I know how to stay alive,” he whimpered. He gathered his stick and blanket and crawled into the shadows of the cave.

#

The wound on Hazen’s cheek had clotted and was a dry brown smear when he re-emerged from the back of the cave. He draped the tattered blanket over his shoulders as he moved along the cave wall, tannin tainted mist swirling in small eddies behind him.

Nick was still gripping the bars and staring down the corridor. He listened to the muffled whistling, stomping, and uproar of a crowd in the distance.

“What’s down there?”

Hazen kept one eye on Nick as he approached the front of the cage and peered through the bars.

“It’s the Game Room.”

“What the hell is the Game Room?”

 “Can you remember, before here?” Hazen whispered as he pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and looked at Nick.

“Don’t mess with me,” Nick spat. Hazen shied and backed away.

“Look around. This isn’t Earth.” Hazen ran his hand over the sparkling blue cave wall.

“Make sense or I’ll crack the other side of your face.”

Hazen winced and paced the room. “Can’t we be friends?”

“You’ve already got one.” 

Hazen looked at the stick in his hand. His voice thinned, “I been here a long time.” He picked at the wound on his cheek. “No one stays.”  His hand trembled through his snarled hair as he paced the void in the center of the cave, his eyes darting. He raised the stick to his ear. He shook his head. “No…I can’t. It’s mine,” he whispered.  His pace quickened as he argued under his breathe. A few moments later, he stopped and nodded. Hazen placed the stick on a glimmering outcrop of rock then walked toward Nick.

 “Here,” Hazen stammered, “you… can have it.” The rotting blanket dangled from his hand like a prized pelt.

Nick slapped the offering to the ground. “Get that away from me!”

Hazen shrieked as the blanket sank to the mud. He pulled the blanket from the floor and stroked it against his cheek.

 “I just want someone to talk to…another… person,” he whispered.

His focus drifted as he mumbled into the tattered fabric, “A silver lining…mom said find the silver lining.” He nodded, staring into the blackness at the back of the cave.

Nick grabbed him by the shoulder.

His vision cleared and he stared at Nick. “You have a choice,” he said, “you don’t have to go to the Game Room. Stay here. Stay with me.”

Nick dropped his grip and stormed back to the bars, bellowing down the corridor. Hazen stumbled to his side. “It’s not so bad here,” he rattled.  His eyes jumped between Nick and the darkened hall, “stay…please.”

Nick’s demands boomed and echoed through the thick air and bounced off the hallway walls.  “Stop, you got to stop,” Hazen pleaded.  Nick shouted louder. Hazen slumped to the floor at Nick’s feet. “Please, don’t call them,” he moaned.

“It’s about damn time.” Nick glared at three advancing shadows against the hallway wall. “Results,” he said, and looked down at Hazen. The spot at his feet was vacant. He looked over his shoulder, but the old man was gone.

Nick dropped his grip on the bars as the figures drew close. The slick skin of their towering frames glistened in the pale light. Folds of skin connected their arms to their torso, like the wings of a bat, and rippled with their every step. Nick stared into the gaping hole hiding behind a mass of urchin-like tentacles dangling from the center of their faces. They spoke in clicks and snaps as they stared down at Nick with tiny coal spot eyes.

Nick backed away.

“Hazen?” He scanned the shadows behind him. The barred door swung open, and the creatures entered the cave. “Hazen!” Nick screamed and scrambled backward.

In one flowing movement, the creatures surrounded him with their fleshy wings and shoved him into the hallway. The door slammed shut.

Hazen pressed his hands over his ears until Nick’s screams faded down the corridor.

#

Nick peered down the grid that lie spread before him. He was the only human lined up for the game. All the players stood on the starting squares like pawns in a life size game of chess. He did not recognize any of the creatures assembled here, but he could tell they were also here against their will.

Nick turned his attention to the playing field. It reminded him of old coliseums he’d seen on television except the ground was divided into a giant checkerboard of colored squares. Some squares were yellow, some red, others were covered in a grassy mat, but most of the squares were made of textures he’d never seen before.

His thoughts turned to Hazen cowering on the floor muttering about staying alive. He had to find a way out, now. Blood surged through his legs, and he bolted from his square, heading for an archway twenty yards behind him. Before his third step touched turf, he slammed to the ground jolting and convulsing. A small black ball whizzed and circled above him, electricity zipping across its surface ready to strike again. Nick crawled back to his designated square.

As the crowd packed into the stands, they taunted and jeered the players.  A whistle sounded and a hologram appeared. It demonstrated a mock game and a visual set of rules. Nick’s jaw tightened.  The object was simple- get to the other end of the game board alive.

When the Grand Marshall, king or whatever it was called, rolled a multicolored die, the player that was up, had to move through the squares to that corresponding color. Easy enough, except according to the hologram half the squares held things that could kill you. The yellow squares, at least, were safe zones.

Violence erupted down the line, and Nick watched three electrified balls whiz past him. Another whistle blew and the crowd exploded. The game had begun.

Each player took their turn and stepped onto the squares. It was Nick’s turn and he looked to the Grand Marshall. Hazen was sitting at his feet.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Nick lunged toward the stands. A black ball snapped to attention spitting white hot sparks and drove him back to the game.  He glared at Hazen.

 Hazen buried his face in his blanket. “I tried to help,” he cried.

The Grand Marshall rolled the die. Nick made his choices and survived. Hazen watched each player as they advanced across the board. Bloody corpses littered the grid, and only a handful of players crossed the halfway line.

It was Nick’s turn again. He glared at Hazen then looked to the board. Hazen absently chewed his fingertips and rocked back and forth gripping his blanket. The Marshall rolled. Nick had to get to a rust-orange square.

He studied the board. His first two jumps were yellow squares, safe zones. He made the moves easily. Then he contemplated his options. The square in front was covered in weeds and grasses. The squares on either side of the grass were covered in a red powdery clay. He stared at the clay, then back to the grass. He wiped his forehead and stepped toward the clay on his right. He stopped. Something rippled below the surface. Two serpentine heads poked from the clay, hissed and spit venom at each other, then darted below the surface again and out of sight.  Nick jumped to the grass and froze. Nothing happened.

Hazen sighed. The Marshall looked down at him, made a clicking noise then reached out his large smooth hand, and stroked Hazen’s head.

Nick still had another move to make to reach the orange square, but the end of the game board was in sight.  Another roll and he would walk off the grid and deal with the old man. He should have warned him.  He tightened his fists, glancing at Hazen sitting like a dog at that monster’s heels.

Nick let out a breath. Sweat rolled down his forehead and he wiped it away. The crowd hooted and stomped rattling the stands.

A red clay square was in front of him. To the left, the square bubbled with a pungent gel, the vapors burning his nostrils. He looked to the right. That square was a solid block of concrete. He looked at the red clay again and didn’t see any movement, but he didn’t trust it. 

“Come on, come on…” Hazen whispered, chewing at his nails. Nick eyed the cement one more time then scowled at Hazen. He jumped, landing firmly in the center of the mortar.

Hazen’s mouth dropped. It happened so fast that Nick still had a smirk on his face when his body hit the ground. As his feet landed on the cement, laser wires sprang from below and sliced through his flesh. He hit the ground like a carcass in a slaughterhouse.

#

Hazen pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and rocked in the darkness of the cave. He heard them coming and looked up. The creatures chattered back and forth as they opened the cage door. They whistled and clicked in Hazen’s direction and slid a large bowl toward him.

 Hazen poked through the gift, passing by black entrails and yellow leathery hide, until he saw the glint of crimson. Human muscle. He held it reverently as he gave thanks to his mama for teaching him to find the silver linings. He offered the first bite to the stick.


Roseanne Rondeau fell in love with sci-fi, ghosts, and speculative fiction at a very young age and enjoys writing these types of stories. She lives in New Hampshire with her family and has been published in Midnight Times, Alien Skin Magazine, and Nocturnal Lyric.


“Beyond the Light” Supernatural Horror by Ethan Maiden

The fresh smell of sea air wafted its way through the car window as I arrived at the familiar retreat. My home from home.

Over the horizon the I spotted the endless blue of the North Sea, appearing as if from nowhere behind the tall hills and cliffs of the east coast.

Thornwick Bay lies in the heart of the Flamborough clifftops, a picturesque painting of the East riding Yorkshire landscape. The site attracts families and tourists interested in hiking, sightseeing and dog walking. At just 4 miles north east of the popular coast of Bridlington, there is opportunity to head out to the pebbled beach depending how volatile the blustery weather is on the day.

            The site holds many activities such as swimming pool and clubhouse complete with arcade games that enjoy gulping your spare change as holidaymakers down their expensive alcoholic drinks. The entrance to the park is a long stretch of road, equipped with fishing lake and walkway that heads up to the local pub – The Viking, a pub from yesteryear serving exceptional food and strong cask ales.

            The most prominent feature of the area is the old lighthouse that stands tall on the cliff tops staring out to the North Sea. First lit in 1806, the lighthouse has a history of guiding vessels to both Bridlington and Scarborough with the white giant standing at almost twenty-seven metres tall. At the summit, the steel railings of the balcony and huge lantern face.

            Some places in the world, a person can just make a connection, an unexplainable bond with the landscape. For me, it’s Thornwick Bay, the place that I hold dear to my heart. This place which is home from home. This place that terrifies me to the core.

So, why have I come back?

*

I first visited the site when I had been six-years old and returned every year since until I was thirteen.  Back in those days, mobile phones had just shown glimpses that one day they would take over the world, Woolworths still sat on the Highstreet and Michael Owen was giving the Argentinian defence nightmares in the World Cup of 98.

It was also when Thornwick Bay wasn’t being run by a larger enterprise. The clubhouse still had the green and purple carpet where your shoes stuck to the spilt beer, the fish and chips were served in old-fashioned newspaper and the only thing to do as a kid was play on the muddy grass.

            My sister and I were excited. Nothing beats being a kid going on a cheap caravan holiday with cotton candy and sugared doughnuts. We were a middle-class family. Rarely did we go abroad, instead mum and dad saved for two of these caravan holidays every year. We didn’t crave plane rides to exotic places, maybe because we didn’t know any different.

            Mila was eight at the time. The five-year age gap causing irritation from time to time. Whenever a friend was over from school, mum told me that I had to somehow involve Mila, which was a pain because all I wanted to do was talk about girls and play Resident Evil or Cool Boarders on the Playstation.

            Mila on the other hand with her brown pigtails and chubby face was finally coming out of her Disney princess and unicorn phase, falling into that stage where interests changed, yet couldn’t pinpoint what to do to stimulate her mind. The result was that Mila developed a fascination in trying to get involved in everything I was doing.

            On holiday though, I enjoyed her company. She was my little sister after all.

*

            For as long as I can remember, I’ve been what many would describe as a loner.

            Approaching forty-years old, I’ve never married or had kids. Regretfully, I don’t think I will ever have the chance to bring a family to the seaside to thrive on that British childhood that Mila and I had.

            When I pulled up outside the caravan I’ve rented for the weekend, I just sat for a few moments, taking in my surroundings. I’m back. Back where it happened. Back to the place where mum and dad pledged they’d never return throughout their lives. This place that drove mum to her early grave.

            Beside my caravan is a small park, made up of a few swings, a slide and seesaw. There were a few kids with their families, but the park was quiet being in October and out of season.

            There was cold in the air, the waning voice of winter on the horizon, the smell of cold. Inside the caravan I dropped my overnight bag thinking about the closure I needed. That bag signified that I was coming back, and that thought was futile.

This place has haunted me since that summer in 98, and now was the time to build up the courage, to rip off that bandage of guilt.

*

I’d entered the caravan just as nightfall came knocking.

            I remember it was night because I recall the moon being so large and the vast number of stars in the clear black sky.

            Mum and dad were watching a movie – some thrilling detective movie by the look of it. There was a smell of burning and a half-eaten pizza on the side.

            They’d told us to be back by nine – no later.

            I walked in with mud on my hands and a distant look on my face.

            ‘You guys have fun?’ mum asked, not taking her eyes off the TV.

            I couldn’t reply.

            Had I had fun? I couldn’t remember.

            After a few seconds, which felt like hours in the silence, mum turned to look at me.

            Her smile cut short: ‘Will? Where’s Mila?’ she asked.

            I looked back and shrugged, ‘can I have some of that pizza?’ I asked moving forward.

            ‘Will, where’s Mila?!’ mum asked again.

            Dad had finally embroiled himself in the impending volcanic conversation. He’d jumped up and circled the exterior of the caravan finding no sign of my sister.

            All the while, I was gnawing on burnt yet delicious cheese pizza.

            ‘She out there?!’ Mum called.

            Dad came back in and shrugged.

            ‘Will, where is your sister?!’ mum finally erupted.

*

I settled down and had a cold beer with whiskey chaser on the side in the clubhouse bar – aptly named: The Lighthouse. As it flowed down, I could feel the nerves beginning to calm, only ever so slightly though. I couldn’t get her out of my head. She’s waiting, I can feel it. I must take my mind to another place.

Focusing on my surroundings, I concentrated on the bar. Gone is the homemade pub grub of the old clubhouse, now replaced by modern and generic food that is overpriced and clearly straight from the kitchen freezer.

Outside, children played on the larger park, field, and sandpit. It’s cold as ice, but kids don’t feel the cold, do they? Or maybe they do … I would imagine Mila certainly did.

In the distance, the lighthouse flashed, its beacon drawing me in.

I’d put this off for far too long.

The memory of what happened that night is still blurry, like a smudge on a camera lens, there’s a picture there, only I can’t make it out.

After a few more drinks I decided that it was time. Time to face the past, to face my demons.

Over the field I walked in the perishing night, my shoes trudging in the soft moist grass. At the end of the entrance road, I turned left and down the long stretch of country road flanked by tall foliage swaying in the icy gusts. Soon I passed The Viking pub, seeing the smokers stood outside laughing and joking. If only they knew what dwells here, deep in the crust of the cliffs.

Those caverns hide a dark secret don’t they, Will?

Before I knew it, I’d arrived at the lighthouse and fear gripped my senses.

*

Mila was found the next morning.

            She was floating face down in the shallow water on the rocky beach. It was the owner of the café that had found her. She’d screamed so loud that a hiker on the cliff came running to help.

            Mum and dad were inconsolable as expected. Me? I had been in a trance since the night before wondering why I hadn’t had breakfast and wondering what all the fuss was about. It would be days later after we arrived home that reality would sink in. I’d fall into a despair that any other feeling would be inferior. Mila was gone and she was never coming back. Mum and dad blamed me; I could see it in their eyes. They never out right told me as much, but I could see it.

            The doctors had said the trauma of what happened blanked out my memory and that’s why I couldn’t explain what happened to poor little Mila.

            Even now after all these years later, as the memories slowly come back do I question what happened that night.

*

Making my way past the lighthouse, I stood on the cliff top.

            Peering down I saw the hard waves crash into the protruding rocks below. On the cliff was a steep walkway down, manmade in the earth and dirt with wooden steps. As the terror of what I might find down there gripped hold of me, I contemplated turning and running , just like the coward I am.

            As I did, I looked up and saw the small girl at the top of the lighthouse. She was stood on the balcony, holding onto the rails with white hands. It was hard to tell whether she was stood or floating but either way she was looking down at me with pale blue eyes, glinting like the stars behind her head.

            A thrust in my heart told me what I already knew that the figure was my little sister.

            There was a gash on her head and her body looked … unnatural.

            Like a contortionist, her limbs were crooked.

            The way she had been found.

            After few rotations of the gleaming light of the lighthouse, the apparition of Mila disappeared.

            Whether my mind had played tricks or not, seeing Mila was a warning that if I didn’t face the thing tonight, then I would be haunted forever.

            The thing in the cave that took her from me.

            With the last pluck of courage, I started my descent down the steep steps down the cliff side and toward the beach. Toward the cave. 

*

Mila and I had been playing on the park.

            As the night drew in, I suggested we head back to the caravan to mum and dad.

            But Mila, being the age of inquisitiveness said that she was wanted to see the lighthouse. Checking the time, we had another hour or so before we had to be back. I’d said we had to be quick because the sun was setting.

            Once there we’d looked out to sea, breathing in the freshness that only the coast can bring. That’s when Mila pointed down to the beach.

            ‘What’s that, Will?’ she asked.

            Following her finger, I squinted.

            In the sea, something was floating.

            A body.

            At first, my mind processed it as maybe a wide sheet of material or something else. But I quickly calculated that the navy leather clothing and grey hair was in fact a person. An old man by the look of it.

            ‘We need to get help,’ I said.

            ‘We can help, Will!’ Mila yelled.

            Looking around, I saw no one in the area. No one to help.

            I nodded, starting down the steps, with Mila close behind. Rushing onto the beach, we ran straight to the sea and found nothing. The thing floating in the water was gone.

            Frowning I looked back at Mila, ‘we should get back, Mila,’ I muttered.

            Something felt off. I couldn’t explain what but certainly felt it.

            ‘I don’t get it,’ Mila said. ‘Have they sunk?’

            ‘We’ll get back to mum and dad and call the police,’ I said taking her hand.

            I turned and started to pull Mila with me and that’s when I saw the movement in the cave to my left.

            The old man was staring at us

*

Inside the cave I made my way over the rocky and slippery surface, the familiar feel of sliding on the moss underneath my feet.

            When I got to the end of the cave, I looked out at the blustery waves, the tide spraying up before me. Around me the shadows hid deep in the cave interior, nothing but the occasional flash of the lighthouse providing any light.

            ‘I know you’re here,’ I said.

            Only the splashing waves answered.

            ‘I said, I know you’re here,’ I said again.

            And then he came, moving from the darkness to my right-hand side.

*

Mila and I entered the cave, calling out after the old man.

            At the far end of the cave, he sat upon the rock, a statue glaring out to the ocean. From the back of him I saw the long grey hair drop to his shoulders beneath a white cap and he wore a navy leather jacket.

            ‘Were you just in the water?’ I asked.

            For a moment the old man just sat.

            Without turning, he said: ‘I’m always on the water.’

            ‘You looked like you were in trouble …’

            ‘Here, to the water and then to the lighthouse,’ the old man replied. ‘Then I get to see beyond the light, until I venture here again … back to the water.’

            ‘Do you need help? Is there anyone we can get for you?’ I asked.

            ‘Help? I’ve been alone so long, yes, so very long. It gets awfully lonely in that lighthouse.’

            ‘Lighthouse? I didn’t think there were any lighthouse keepers left these days?’

            The old man fell silent. Then he turned. He was old in the face with a bushy white beard, his skin weathered. As the light from the lighthouse came around, Mila and I saw something that made our knees fall weak. On the right side of his face was exposed skull and bone. His eye socket was black. The left eye was glazed over with a milky white glaze.

            ‘Yes, it gets awfully lonely here,’ the old man said.

            Mila screamed. Her sound echoing off the cave walls.

            ‘Aww, don’t scream, child. Do you want me to show you what is beyond the light?’ The old man asked, stood, and held out a gloved hand.

            I turned to run, grabbing Mila by the arm. We skittered over the rock until I lost my grip. Then a noise that I have never forgot, one that has haunted my life since that night.

A quick yelp followed with a dull thud.

            Turning back, I saw Mila laid on the rock, blood seeping from her head.

            Creeping up from the dark, the old man appeared, moving unnaturally.

            Mila looked at me with terrified eyes, the blood from her head falling into the rockpools.

            Slowly, she held up her hand for help.

            I turned and ran.

*

I’d read about the old folklore tale long after those adolescent years.

            The lighthouse keeper who had tragically died when the isolation had become too much to cope with. Since then, he had wandered the caves in search for company. Or so the old tale had gone.

            Knowing the truth, I’d thought of myself psychotic.

            Years later, I’d wanted to tell my parents the truth. They’d never had the closure of what happened to their daughter. Only I held the key to the secret, and I’d kept it to myself in fear of being locked up in an asylum.

            Saying it now makes me still wonder what is real and what isn’t. The ghost of a lighthouse keeper searching for company.

            And he’d found it with Mila.

            I’m so sorry for being such a coward.

            ‘I’ve come to see her,’ I said.

            The lighthouse keeper said: ‘She’s great company, the little one. We have shared so many stories.’

            Tears warmed my cheeks in the blistering cold.

            ‘She’s my sister,’ I said. ‘I should have protected her from you.’

            ‘You should have. You could have.’

            ‘Let me see her.’

            The old man turned and faced the cave wall. Out of the shadows, Mila stepped forward, the blood matted on the side of her face. The same innocent expression etched on her like the last time I’d seen her alive. She looked upon me with crystalised eyes.

            Collapsing to my knees I pleaded: ‘Forgive me, Mila. I’m sorry that I left you.’

            ‘You have nothing to be sorry for,’ Mila said. ‘I’m keeping Edward company now.’

            ‘No, you lost your whole life because of me.’

            Mila placed her palm to my cheek. The cold was unbearable, making my face go numb.

            ‘You’ve wasted your whole life, Will. Why don’t you join us here in the lighthouse? You loved it here at The Bay, a home from home you called it. We can show you what’s beyond the light. Will, it’s so beautiful, something you’d never be able to comprehend until you see it. Would you like that?’

            I thought about the meaning of my life.  

This place had meaning.

            I nodded.

            ‘Come,’ Mila said holding out her hand.

            I stood and reached out as Mila backed to the shadows of the cave.

            I followed eagerly.

            ‘Mila! Mila! Where are you?’ I called out, the echoes hitting the waves.

            As I walked into the shadow I was transported to the clifftop. Above the lighthouse swirled. Next to me, Mila held my hand as we looked down the same way as we did all those years ago.

            ‘Are you ready to see what’s beyond the light?’ she asked.

            Turning to her I said: ‘I’m afraid.’

            ‘There’s nothing to be afraid about, dear brother.’

            Taking a deep breath, I stepped forward. Mila let go of my hand as I fell over the cliff side. On my way hurtling down, everything drew into slow motion. The light from the lighthouse, the sound of the waves, everything moved at a snail’s pace.

            I watched the night sky.

            The lighthouse grew smaller.

            As I felt the otherworldly impact and sudden pain, I blinked.

            Standing on the lighthouse, I gripped the steel balcony. Down below on the beach, my body was still and staring up at us.

            Next to me, Mila took my hand again. It wasn’t cold anymore. Mila felt warm to touch.

            Behind, Edward sat in the lighthouse, a broad smile upon his face as he watched us.

            ‘Are you ready to see what’s beyond the light, dear brother?’ Mila asked.

            Over the horizon I saw the lights of Thornwick Bay. I’d be here forever, in my home from home.


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


“Mrs. Thornton’s Thanksgiving Surprise” Horror by Chere Taylor

You ever fantasize about that one hot teacher? She’s usually blonde, beautiful and damn sexy. She styles her hair into a loose bun with individual strands of soft yellow curls framing her face. The two top buttons of her white blouse are never fastened. Revealing just enough cleavage to tease while still remaining respectable.

Well, no one ever had thoughts like that about Mrs. Thornton, our biology teacher.

Of course I can’t read other people’s minds, but Mrs. Thornton sort of discouraged lustful thoughts. If not through her physical appearance (She was plump, without being fat. She held her body rigid, but she didn’t move stiffly) then with her forceful personality.

She inspired fear in all of her students with this mystical idea of adult authority. We would never reach that kind of adulthood, her attitude implied, no matter how many years we gained. No matter if we obtain mortgages and car payments, children and grandchildren. Her authority was as unattainable as the clouds in the sky. And just as untouchable.

It was under that authority I married my childhood sweetheart during my senior year in high school. I’m African American, medium brown skin, and clean shaven. My wife Jen Lowe was white. Mrs. Thornton was all to happy to express her disapproval at the time.

“Greggy,“ she called me. A name I absolutely detested. “Now that you’re a married man, I hope you’ve given some thought about manual labor. Something involving your other muscles.”

How I hated her.

Still, after two years we were baby free and living a reasonable happily ever after. That is until Jerry invites us to Thanksgiving Dinner.

“How about it, Greg?” Jerry says on the phone. “I’ll do the cooking this time.”

That right there tells me something is wrong. Normally, I invite him to Thanksgiving. It’s part of an unspoken pact we made when we both lost our parents at the age of sixteen. Not to mention, I’m also the better cook.

“You? You know how to roast a turkey?” Unbidden, I picture Jerry with his spiky blonde hair and impish grin, pulling a hot burning mess out of the oven, flames leaping everywhere.

“No, of course not. Don’t go crazy over this, but do you remember Mrs. Thornton?

“Yeah.” My fingernails immediately rises to my teeth to be gnawed on, and I force it back down again. Such a stupid, childish reaction to a long ago memory.

“We got married last month. She’s going to do all the cooking.”

A beat of silence while my mind digests this.

“Fuck no.”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Well, good for you then, Jerry. Good for you. You know I always thought Thornton was such a …” Suddenly I feel Jerry’s anger radiating from my phone. I swallow the rest of my thought and let my words to trail off.

“Bitch?” He replies coldly.

The term I’m actually thinking of is lesbian. But Jerry would have been offended by that too. I keep silent.

He laughs. “I’m sure she’d agree with you. She’s well aware of her reputation at our school.

“So, she’s changed?”

“Let’s just say she was covering up her true nature. The real Thornton as you call her is a kind, sensitive and yes even a sensual individual. She brings that side out of me as well.”

Really? I think to myself. She must be involved in some serious BDSM then. Now I picture Ms. Thornton in dominatrix gear. Shiny black hair pulled in it’s usual tight bun. Her chunky body stretches unbearably tight in a leather corset. Her spit-less mouth is hard and unyielding. Except instead of holding a black whip in one hand, she wields a kitchen carving knife. You’ve been bad Greggy!

Part of me wants to chuckle at this image, but instead I accept his invitation.

A week later I’m standing at the front door of Jerry’s apartment. Jen is still back in the parking lot, unpacking a Turkey Tetrazzini casserole for our hosts. Even when invited to Thanksgiving, she still doesn’t understand that she’s not responsible for the turkey this time. It’s something I find both endearing and irritating about Jen.

I could just knock of course and enter. There’s no need to wait for Jenifer. Yet, part of me hesitates. I’m not sure why, except I do know really. Because I feel like I’ve just been sent to the principal’s office and behind that door was some monstrous version of principal Garret, just waiting with a wooden paddle for my ass.

You’ve been bad, Greggy.

I shudder.

Jen joins me, her frizzy, red curls bouncing up and down as she rushes to my side.

“I wonder what she’s like now.” Jen asks as she stands with me before the unopened door.

“Don’t know. Jerry says she’s changed a lot.”

“What’d she say when she found out we hooked up?”

I shrug. “I don’t think she approved at the time.”

“Why? Was it the black or white thing or cause we’re too young?”

“Probably a little of both.”

“Really?” Her brown eyes sparkle and her lips split into a wide grin. “I hope it does bother her then. I hope she clenches her ass a little tighter each time we …”

She stands on her tip toes and kisses my slanted smile. That’s my Jen-ger fire.

“They’re taking a long time to answer the door,” she says as she settles back down.

“Oh, well …The reason could be because I haven’t …uh, knocked yet.”

Jen raises both eyebrows at me. “You’re twenty one years old and you’re still afraid of her?”

That does it. I grasp the door knob, and the door surprisingly swings open unlocked.

Jerry comes bounding toward us like an enthusiastic puppy dog. “Hey gang. Nice to see you. Can’t wait to start the festivities huh?”

We shake hands, then I watch carefully as Jerry and Jen press their lips on each other’s cheeks. The two of them had dated a few times in high school before she met me.

He’s married, I remind myself.

Yeah, but dude is Mr. Thornton now. Who could blame him if …

“Where’s your wife?” I ask with a tight smile.

“Oh Becky? She’ll be down shortly. Wants to make an entrance, I guess. Can I offer you something to drink? A tour of the place?”

Becky? Becky Thornton? I never knew her first name. It sounds ridiculously casual when combined to the dark, brooding name of Thornton.

Jerry gives us a quick tour of the apartment. It’s modest but clean. When we’re done, Jen offers to keep an eye on the food in the kitchen while Jerry and I escort ourselves to the living room, beer cans in tow. Truth is she wants to make sure we continue our male tradition of bumming in the living room with the football game on.

There is a wide screen television available but no one turns it on yet. Not with the elephant in the room. I decide to dispel it immediately.

“So you’ve done it, dog.” I lean across the coffee table and fist bump him. “You had sex with a teacher. That’s every guys’ dream.” Just not with Mrs.Thornton.

He may have detected my unspoken subtext. “It’s strange how love can come for you from unseen corners. Sometimes, there’s a special someone who can see you, Greg. I mean the real you, when no one else can. I used to think I was a piece of shit. It effected everything I did. Caused me to be a real grind. Becky saw through that crap and she wouldn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself. She saw the adorable, fun-loving kid in me. She loved me even when I couldn’t love myself.”

“You seem happy.” I mean it.

He smiles and takes a sip of beer. “Put the blame on Becky”.

At that moment a woman enters the room carrying a tray loaded with hors d’oeuvres. I don’t recognize her at first, she is so demure, so quiet. Her hair is tied into a loose braid that lays almost sexily across one bare shoulder. She wears a blue dress. While her body is still thick, there is a looseness to it that I never saw before. Flowing where there once were blockages. Yielding, where she was once was hard. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mrs. Thornton?

“Greg,” she says when she sees me. She put the tray down on the coffee table and takes both of my hands in hers.

There should be butterflies and flowers entwined in that braid, I think to myself.

“Mrs. Thornton.” I reply. The name still slides out despite her remarkable change.

“Please call me, Becky” She peers over my shoulder. “And Jenifer. How nice to see you again. You caught quite a catch with Greg.”

They exchange hugs and kisses and we all sit down.

At first no one says a word. It’s just too weird. This former teacher who had to be at least in her mid thirties, lurking among us and dressed like a Disney Princess. But Becky manages to soothe our nerves. We talk about marriage, the prejudices against youth and age, (not racial refreshingly enough.) The societal pressure to have children. How hard it is to save money on minimum wage jobs.

Surprisingly Becky isn’t condescending about any of it. If Becky ever was the teacher I remember, the one that used to assign me the job of fetching coffee and picking up after the other students, there is no sign of her now. I allow myself to relax.

And then the fire alarm goes off. A loud BRRREEEEE sound that causes my heart to skitter in my chest.

“What the fuck?” Jen says and rushes into the kitchen ahead of Becky. Jerry and I exchange glances and follow the girls.

It’s just like it was in my imagination. Except instead of Jerry holding the burning bird, it’s Becky with the blackened turkey on a tray. Her face is in total shock.

“It’s ruined.” She screams over the alarm.

Suddenly I picture the four of us in a parody of a Rockwell painting. Instead of happy, warm, white faces sitting with delight at the table there’s Becky with the burnt up bird. Jen snickering behind her cupped hand. Jerry attacking the smoke detector with a broom stick. And my black ass taking it all in. Call this artwork, Freedom from Fucked Up Idealism. I laugh out loud.

Becky seizes on me. Eyes fierce and full of hate. I take an involuntary step backwards.    

Then Jerry rescues me by circling Becky in his arms. It’s like he’s roping a horse at first, but eventually Becky stops struggling and relaxes against him.

“I wanted everything to be perfect,” she whispers.

“I know you did.” He kisses her nose.

**********

Becky isn’t the same after that. We sit down to dinner, Jen’s turkey tetrazzini, now the star of the show. Plenty of unburnt side dishes. No reason why we can’t continue as before. But I sense a darkness in Becky. An inability to realize that this is just one of those things you recall with fondness later in the years to come. Remember darling when you burnt up the turkey? Ha ha ha.

She begins with little comments.

“Sit up dear, you’re slouching”

Jerry, who is in the middle of one of his crazy stories, straightens up with hardly a glance at his wife.

A few moments later, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

“Babe, will you let me finish?” To Becky’s point, all that mashed potatoes in his mouth looks pretty disgusting, I think inwardly.

“I would if you could tell the story correctly. What would help is if you chew and swallow your food first.”

Now he rolls his eyes. “Babe, just stop it. Okay, stop it.”

Becky seizes on him the way she did to me earlier. Eyes blazing.

“Gerald …” Gerald? “Let’s discuss this in the kitchen, shall we?”

Suddenly I feel sorry for …Gerald?

“Fine.” He throws his napkin on the plate and the two of them go to the kitchen.

Soft murmurings drift toward us. Jen and I strain to hear what’s going on.

“Wow. I hope I don’t ever get that bitchy.”

“You have.” I say distractedly. I’m still thinking about that Gerald name. How it’s sudden use seems like a threat and why is that?

She gives me a playful shot in the arm.

When they return Jerry/Gerald is noticeably subdued. He shuffles to his chair face down, lips pucker forward in a frown.

Becky looks maliciously pleased …as if she just roasted Jerry’s cock and ate it.

“Jerry, you cool?” I ask.

“Leave me aloooone!” He wails. The wounded cry from my own childhood when Mommy gives me or one of my brothers a pow-pow for bad behavior. He turns around in his seat so his back is facing us.

My mouth opens wide. I blink.

“What did you do to him?” Jen whispers.

“We had a discussion about how rude it is to correct your wife in public.” Mrs. Thornton continues while attacking her meal as if she were merely commenting on the weather.

“What the fuck?”

“No cursing if you please. We are all adults here.”

Three of us are adults. I look at Jerry. There is a tear running down his cheek.                   

“I’ll speak to you anyway I like, you Disneyfied skanky-ass bitch. What the fuck did you do to Jerry?”

“Jenifer,” Becky says brightly or really Mrs. Thornton. Because that’s who she is now. “I want to see you in the kitchen. Now.”

“Bet ya’ ass, I’ll see you in the kitchen. I’m not scared of you.” She shoves her chair so violently from the table that she almost tips over backward.

The situation is moving too fast. I wish there is a pause button I could push so that I have time to think.

“Jen,” I shout at her as she rises.

She turns on me. It’s that same headlight glare she gives me, when we get into our own little tiffs at home. Don’t you dare stop me, that glare says.

So, I don’t. Instead I return my attention to Jerry. I snap my fingers in front of his face. He ignores me completely.

Jen and Thornton depart for the kitchen. I hear the same soft mutterings as before. But no shouting from my Jen-ger fire. No sounds of cussing or the crash of broken dishes. That alone makes me nervous. I’d relax more if I could hear the angry noises of them arguing.

Jen returns to the table with that same headlight glare. So, she’s still in there. I tell myself. I close my eyes with relief. Mrs. Thornton also returns with that same pleased, just ate roasted cock for dinner expression.

“Jenifer, do you have something to say?” She asks pointedly.                                             

Jen’s thumb creeps into her mouth. Her other hand tugs on her left earlobe. “I sorry,” she replies around her thumb.

“Good girl” Mrs. Thornton replies. “Maybe we can now enjoy the rest of our dinner in peace.”

“Hell no.” I rise from the table. “I don’t know what you did to my friend, or my wife. But the shit stops here. You understand? Bring back both of them!”

Mrs. Thornton hardly glances away from her meal. “Let’s discuss this in the kitchen.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Now she looks up. Some dark emotion briefly crosses over her face and then passes. Apparently my refusal isn’t part of her game plan.

“Why not?”

“Because you do something to them in the kitchen. I don’t know what. Cut off their cocks …”

“I cut off your wife’s cock, Greggy?”

My face grows warm. I’m not sure what I hate more. That she stings me with my own suggestion that Jen has a cock, or the use of my vile nickname.

I get up and walk around the table until I reach her. I lean my head towards hers. “Undo the shit you did to my wife and Jerry. You do that or I’ll …”

“What? Call the cops?” She interrupts.

But I see the trap. What could I possibly tell the police? Excuse me officer, but Thornton here turned my wife and friend into mindless idiots. Please put her in jail.

She raises her hand. “No, that’s quite alright. It’s a shame you’re not as brave as your wife.”

“What?”

“Because you’re afraid of me. That’s obvious.”

“I’m not afraid of you.” On its own my left hand starts to tremble so I pound it on the table once more for emphasis. Jerry jumps at the sound.

“Then prove it. Let’s discuss this in the kitchen.”

I close my eyes and imagine the good ending. We enter the kitchen that is still the same modest cooking area it’s always been. There’s no caldron bubbling with magic. No bats flying about the cabinets. But there is the oven, a common every day oven. I’ll open it up, shove her in and crank the temperature to 500 degrees. Isn’t that how it worked in Hansel and Gretel? The witch gets cooked.

The good ending.

I reopen my eyes and stretch out my arm in a you-first gesture. Thornton leaps at my invitation and rushes towards the double doors that leads to the kitchen. Part of me knows my oven plan is useless. In reality I’m walking to my doom, but I still don’t hesitate. Maybe because despite the contradictory evidence, it’s hard to believe this five foot tall woman could possibly be a threat to my six feet and three inches self. But mostly it’s because of Jen. Even though those tearful brown orbs don’t belong to the same woman who gazed at me with admiration when I told her I was going to be the CEO of my own company some day, I can’t disappoint my Jen-ger fire. Despite her changed personality, she can’t ever be allowed to think me a coward.

It’s not like she’s going to cut off my cock and eat it for real, I tell myself. I imagine again Mrs. Thornton in her leather outfit wielding a knife. Goofy and terrifying at the same time.

I steel myself. We enter the kitchen.

          ********

When we come out, my mind is thick. A blur.

I trip over my shoelaces and fall to the floor. That starts Jen snorting,

“I’m telling!” I say hotly as I stand up. I’m telling on you, Jen.”

“I don’t care” she sing-songs. “Who ever tells it, dealts it.”

“That’s about farts.” Jerry says pointedly.

“Enough, all of you!” Mrs. Thornton re-enters. The grownup who’s in charge. I love her. At least I think I do. She’s much nicer then Jen. That’s for sure.

You want to know what happened, right? I know you do. It’s hard to explain ‘cause I not the same no more. I not grown up no more.

She cut me, alright. But not my wee-wee. Eew, that would be gross. That’d hurt a lot too. But she didn’t do that. No, she cut the part of me that makes me smart. Bye, bye grownup Greg. He’s gone forever. I don’t mind much really. ‘Mostly ‘cause, I forgot what grownup Greggy was like.

I sit back at the table and Missus Thornton nods. She’s happy now. She says that if I’m good I can join her in the bedroom later tonight. That might be fun. I tell her okay, but I not smart no more. She say that don’t matter. She say I always was a good student.


Chere Taylor lives in Orlando, Florida and shares her home with her teen daughter, two chihuahuas, five cats and one X-ray Tetra fish. She enjoys reading and writing and tends to have a sneaky respect for the inexplicable. Chere has studied creative writing at Western Illinois University and her fiction has won several contests on Scribophile and the Fiction Factory website. She has been published in several magazines including A Thin Slice of Anxiety and Granfalloon. She also currently has a story under consideration for the Pushcart Prize. 


“A Child’s Garden of Witches” Horror by Tom Koperwas

Ten-year-old Billy Winthrop and his sister, Sally, were tossing horseshoes at a rusty stake in their sand pit when a girl in her early twenties stepped out of the neighbour’s woodlot and strolled across the patch of fallow ground, to the cedar fence delineating the property line. The black-haired girl, tall and lanky, bearing a crooked smile, leaned heavily against the rail and said, “Hi! I’m your new neighbour. What are your names?”

Billy, being the older of the two, answered first. “I’m Billy, and this is Sally. She’s eight.”

“How nice,” replied the girl. Arching her eyebrows, she studied them with her dark sloe-eyes. “My name is Veronica Lakehurst, but my friends call me Nicki.”

“Nicki’s a silly name,” blurted Sally.

“Stop that,” said Billy, looking crossly at the tousle-haired girl in saggy jeans and a tattered T-shirt. “It’s rude to make fun of a person’s name.” Turning to Nicki, he said, “Sally’s what you call a tomboy. She can’t help what she does.”

“That’s okay,” said Nicki pulling a keychain out of her pocket with a fob shaped like a black cat’s head dangling from it. “I guess I can’t help what I do either.”

Placing two fingers in the eye holes of the cat’s head, she depressed a thumb stud, releasing a trigger action blade—the cat’s claw. Grinning, she nicked a piece of wood out of one of the cedar pickets. “For me, nicking things is like chewing bubble gum,” she explained. “It keeps me calm. The way I see it, the world’s cutting itself to pieces anyhow, so a nick here and there makes little difference.”

Laughing, she turned and walked off into the woods, the sharp sound of the cat’s claw nicking trees echoing into the distance.

“She’s weird,” whispered Sally.

“Yah,” said Billy, his eyes filled with curiosity. “Let’s keep an eye on her.”

****

Billy and Sally got up early the next morning and filled a bag with snacks and their father’s high-powered binoculars. After breakfast, they headed out the door and down the street that wound around their neighbour’s woodlot. It was a pleasant spring morning, the usual line of trucks rumbling past in the sun, filled with skids, waste, and recyclable materials. Nearing the entrance of the plant, they left the road and crossed the field to the old oak with the abandoned  treehouse. Climbing the makeshift ladder, they entered the empty structure.

The two children didn’t need the binoculars to read the big new sign hanging over the entrance gate: LWM — LAKEHURST WASTE MANAGEMENT.A new fleet of trucks, some parked, some in motion, had the big green letters LWM painted on their sides. Coveralled employees ran around attending to the long line of public vehicles snaking into the plant. The stately Lakehurst estate stood in the distance, the woodlot extending behind it. Far beyond the woodlot, the high roof ridge of the siblings’ home could be seen peeking above the trees.

As usual, the 44-foot-long, 96,000-pound, 6400XT WOOD HOG HORIZONTAL WOOD GRINDER was busy chewing up piles of skids into wood chips.

“Hey, someone painted out the word HOG on the big chipper!” exclaimed Billy, peering through the binoculars. “And changed it to the word WITCH. Now it’s a WOOD WITCH!” 

Billy turned the focusing thumb-wheel on the binoculars to bring the image in closer.

“I can make out some smaller words too… The WOOD WITCH… and her most familiar friend: Cleave Wilson.

Sally grabbed the binoculars away from her brother.

“Brrr… and look at the creep running the machine,” she exclaimed, thrusting back the binoculars. “That must be Cleave Wilson. Mr. Werewolf himself!”

Billy looked, and his mouth fell open. The man’s lantern-like head had a broken, twisted nose, and a pair of wild, feral eyes under bushy, beetling eyebrows. Big knife-shaped earrings hung from his pointed ears. A wide-brimmed hat perched awkwardly on a thick mane of waist-length hair. A long, tapered beard hid his chin. His overalls, black and sleeveless, ran down to his square-toed boots. Cleave Wilson, the familiar friend, short, muscular, and squat, had sinewy arms covered in patches of bushy fur-like hair, and tattooed hands with knotty, abnormally long   fingers.

Sally leaned back quietly into the shadows of the rotting treehouse and whispered, “What’s a familiar friend, Billy?”

****

 Sally lay in the dark in her little pup tent with the flap pulled back, eyeing the garden patch that Nicki had started on the far side of the fence. Billy lay in the larger tent next to hers, snoring. The children had gotten permission that morning from Mom to “camp” in the backyard. By coincidence, they had seen Nicki strolling in the garden that afternoon with a red-haired boy dressed in bright red clothes, kissing and hugging him.

A crescent moon was rising over the horizon when the flames of a fire suddenly illuminated the darkness. In the light of the burning wood, Sally could see Nicki and Cleave Wilson turning over the garden soil with shovels. Long sticks protruded from the garden, with different paraphernalia affixed to them: a cauldron, a dagger, a mask, and poppets.

Sally reached into Billy’s tent and patted him on the head. “All right,” murmured Billy, as he turned over and looked out his tent.

“We read about those things hanging on the sticks when we looked up what a ‘familiar friend’ was,” whispered Billy after a long moment. “The cauldron is for holding potions and elixirs. The Traveler’s Mask is used for teleportation. The poppets… they’re used to cast spells on people.”

“Nicki’s a witch, then!” declared Sally. “The Wood Witch!”

“And Cleave is her familiar,” replied Billy. “So I wonder what they’re doing digging in the garden at night?”  

**** 

  “What will you children come up with next?” said Evi Winthrop, clapping her hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing out loud. “Our new neighbour a witch with a familiar, working in her dad’s waste management plant. Now, really!”

Five-foot-two Evi, feeling tall with her fine brown hair piled up in a beehive, leaned precariously against the creaking fence, staring at the garden next door with its equal-sized sections of bright red and blue flowers.

“So the garden looks like a triangle bent in the shape of a cat’s claw,” she continued in a gently mocking voice. “It doesn’t mean it’s a witch’s garden. And you say the red flowers are a red-haired boy and the blue flowers are a boy you saw several weeks ago with this Nicki Lakehurst. He had blue eyes, and he was dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt. C’mon…”

“I told you Mom wouldn’t believe us,” Sally said to her brother.

“But Circe turned men into animals…” pleaded Billy. 

“That doesn’t mean our neighbour has been transforming boys into flowers with the power of dark magic. Circe, as you know, was a sorceress and a goddess. Ms. Lakehurst is just a neighbourhood girl. And now you say you saw another boy with her. A blond boy wearing yellow clothes.”

“That’s right, Mom,” said Sally. “That means the last section in the witch garden will be filled with yellow flowers.”

“All right, then,” said Evi, drawing herself away from the fence. “We’ll see. I agree the garden is a little odd. But the girl is probably growing different-colored flowers simply to remember all her boyfriends by. That’s the only reasonable explanation.”

****

 “I called right away, Detective Thorndike, when I heard the request on the news for information about those three missing boys,” said Evi to the tall policeman standing next to her on the edge of the roped-off garden. “My children had told me they’d seen the boys. Of course, I didn’t believe any of that nonsense about witches and familiars.”

“We’re glad you called,” replied the detective, bending down to examine the overturned earth where the flowers had been. “Your children’s testimony was invaluable,” he continued. “In fact, it helped us break the case of the missing boys.”

Evi smiled effusively at the policeman’s stolid face.

Detective Thorndike stood and looked toward the portable police laboratory parked on the nearby street. Evincing a wry smile, he said, “Of course, we didn’t believe the children’s tales of witches either, Mrs. Winthrop. LWM never had an employee by the name or description of Cleave Wilson. We did find some graffiti in impermanent paints on the big Wood Hog machine; the name Wood Witch and the word cleave. The sun and the rain had erased the rest…”

“That’s what the press are calling Nicki Lakehurst,” interjected Evi. “The Wood Witch.”

“The Case of the Wood Witch, I believe,” Detective Thorndike muttered dryly. 

“The lab found DNA traces of the three boys in the Wood Hog,” continued Thorndike, his face darkening visibly. “And here in the soil of the garden, right at our feet. The Wood Witch, as they call her, had evidently… ground up the boys in the big chipper and, well, buried them here. She won’t admit to having had an accomplice, and we can’t prove she did, even though it’s highly probable. She went completely hysterical when we put her in the jail cell, at least until the prison psychiatrist gave her a piece of wood to whittle with her little cat’s claw.”

“My goodness!” exclaimed Evi.

“No, we couldn’t find evidence of this Cleave fellow, or any of the so-called witch paraphernalia your children told us about. To us it’s just another murder case—no matter how sensational and weird the press makes it out as.”

****

Billy and Sally dashed across the field to the old oak with the abandoned tree fort to get another look at the WOOD HOG HORIZONTAL WOOD GRINDER where they had seen Nicki’s familiar friend. They were in such a hurry they failed to notice the three pairs of tiny hands protruding from the soft, freshly overturned earth. Three pairs of poppet hands: one pair red, one blue, one yellow. Three pairs of hands reaching up toward the tree house, as if pleading for help, for love, for hope.


Thomas Koperwas is a retired teacher living in Windsor, Ontario, Canada who writes short stories of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in:AnotherealmJakob’s Horror BoxLiterally StoriesThe Literary HatchetLiterary VeganismBombfire;Pulp Modern Flash; Savage Planets; Dark Fire Fiction; Blood Moon Rising MagazineCorner Bar MagazineFree Bundle Magazine.


“Charles-Never-Charlie” Horror by Mark L. Anderson

Raleigh pulled to a stop outside the bright, fenced lawn of Charles-Never-Charlie’s home. He didn’t know how the old man did it, keeping his grass as green and manicured as the lawns in Better Homes and Gardens, and at his age. The man couldn’t have been fewer than ninety years old, and Raleigh wouldn’t be too surprised to find out he’d lived for centuries. A world without Charles-Never-Charlie hardly seemed possible.

Raleigh’s mother had always told him that Hemmings was cursed, that nothing good could happen there. The anxiety in the back of his brain told him the same. “Leave,” it said when he crossed the dilapidated train tracks.

“Charles-Never-Charlie is a very old man. It is good for his friends to check up on him,” Raleigh argued with himself.

“His life is lonely by choice. There’s something wrong with him and wrong with Hemmings,” that intuition in the back of his mind whispered.

“Nothing is wrong. I shouldn’t be afraid all the time,” Raleigh reminded himself. The voice of intuition took a seat in the back of his mind, but it did not relent. It painted the walls of its home in mold self-portraits and festered.

Charles-Never-Charlie was the only neighbor to whom Raleigh or his family had ever been close. Hemmings, which had once been a true small town with a school, post office, and church, was now a place people moved to mostly to be left alone. Even as a child Raleigh had thought of how nice it would have been if Hemmings were still a real small town where people knew each other. He wondered if his life would have had a better, a more certain path had he been born into a simpler time.

Perhaps he could have been a blacksmith’s son. Eventually, he would lift the hammer himself fashioning horseshoes, iron stakes, and functional tools to till the land. On Friday nights he’d venture with his friends to the grange hall where men and women hollered and danced. The laughing boys would jostle him about his crush on the miller’s daughter. Later, they would pass hidden behind the building to sip on dank bottles of barley wine and whiskey filched from their solemn parents, regaling each other one thousand times of their imagination’s grand exploits — with not one ounce of expectation of living up to their claims.

But that was not life in his century, and that had never been Hemmings. Hemmings had been born as a ramshackle logging town. When the industry moved along it was left to wither, and it may have died altogether if it weren’t for the larger city ten miles down the highway where people worked, and prayed, and yelled at their children’s teachers. Hemmings was a town too stubborn to die, so instead, its bones smoldered while hardy stalks of yellow plants threatened to take their land back. Not one yard was untouched by the influence of the creeping wild save for Charles-Never-Charlie’s.

X

Without knocking, Raleigh stepped into Charles-Never-Charlie’s house. He knew he was always welcome. He called out for his friend, yelling as he came to a green door at the back of the house. As a child, he imagined that the door belonged to an aged tree, the kind of tree in the old-growth of fairytales, and if he were to open it, it would lead him to a secret world below the forest floor.

Charle’s-Never-Charlie’s voice hearkened from behind the door, suggesting Raleigh head out for a walk while he finished what he was doing.

Following the suggestion, he stepped down the road and surveyed the houses and alleys that had once been as good as his own backyard. Of course, he could no longer duck under fences and spring and lope, sneaking through his secret boyhood paths, though he was certain the paths were still there. No, many of those paths cut through neighbor’s yards and seeing a strange man crawling under a fence was the sort of thing that would bring eager shotguns to aim. An adult could never know this place the way he had in his youth. Children know in such a way that even rocks have names. They know which tree trunks hold forgotten Byzantiums of insects. They know how to sneak between brambles to secret clearings, and which pines and willows they can sit under without angering the wasps.

That vision that saw magic and wonder was gone from Raleigh’s spirit. He now possessed a different kind of sight. Chipped paint peeled off the sides of houses, derelict cars rusted to orange in front lawns, and if children laughed and played they did so hidden from the passing of a stranger.

Here and there Raleigh saw new houses that stood like too straight teeth outshining their neighbors. Maybe, Raleigh thought, all the old houses would eventually be torn down, and from their corpses these new houses would rise and prosper, dominating the landscape as the larger city sprawled ever nearer and threatened to swallow Hemmings. Or maybe, and the thought intruded on Raleigh’s mind as if it were hopeful, hard times would come as they always came for the people in Hemmings. The people who lived in these shiny, new homes, with their perfect children and well-behaved canines, would learn what their neighbors had always known — that cars break down, that rust and entropy were an unstoppable foe, that each year they would care less and less for the upkeep against a wild place that did not condone their presence.

Raleigh’s mother said that Hemmings was cursed. But he did not believe in curses, so he did not worry about them. He believed in socio-economics and worried about socio-economics. He believed in, worried about, and lost sleep over dead-end jobs, specifically his own.

As he walked he passed by an ugly, brown house with a lawn of beaten dirt where a german shepherd slept tied to a chain, its back rotting away with mange.  It seemed some cosmic rule that there always had to be at least one terrifying dog in town. He crossed the narrow road, but still, the dog stirred from its slumber, snapping up and rushing out at him. It choked itself snarling at the end of its chain. When he was growing up, there was a street Raleigh avoided because of a pair of dalmatians— yes, dalmatians, their names were Spot and Dairy—  that made his spine shiver with fear. Any time he passed near their fence they would leap, possessed by a child-hungry devil of bite force and rage, and he knew one day they’d surely make it over the top of the fence and sink their teeth into his tiny, vulnerable body.

But there was also a nice black labrador that wandered freely about the town. Sometimes Raleigh would encounter it as he ambled about on his adventures. He never knew who owned the dog. It seemed like a free citizen. The only time he ever saw the animal growl or display any ill temperament it was standing outside Charles-Never-Charlie’s yard. The dog, usually a pond of tranquility, braced and yelped at the edge of the old man’s fence as though threatened by some unseen foe. It was enough to make Raleigh afraid of the old man’s house for some weeks after.

X

By the time Raleigh circled back to the house, Charles-Never-Charlie had finished whatever he had been doing and sat on the deck awaiting his friend’s arrival. He was a short and wiry man with a white beard that hung all the way down to his belly, and his arms were too long. When he saw his friend he sprang to his feet with a litheness unexpected of one so advanced in years. He was like long stalks of ancient grass whipping in the wind.

“Come on in, lad,” Charle-Never-Charlie bade his young friend as he stepped inside. The nimble oldtimer had lit a nice fire in the hearth that had begun to jump and crackle, extending a gentle warmth through the small sitting room. The warmth set Raleigh’s muscles at ease. He hadn’t noticed how tense he was from the cold and from his lingering thoughts of the past and future.

The room spoke of an appreciation of older ways of living. There was no television, no computer, no digital clock or appliance to be found. The only things that betrayed the near lack of electricity were the lamps standing in the corners of the room which were presently turned off, as the curtains had been thrown open providing the room with ample natural light.

The fireplace had always seemed to Raleigh to be older even than the house itself. It was made of foreboding, grey stones. As it burned it hinted of history. It whispered of primordial eras when people clung to heat to ward off the callous fingers of dark that crept through their doorways threatening knowledge of cold secrets beyond their understanding.

“Something’s a-troubling you. I could smell it as soon as you came in,” said Charles-Never-Charlie. His accent was thicker than usual, but Raleigh still could not place its origin. Perhaps Northern European, or a hint of Irish, he thought. Or perhaps the man had been to many places in his life and picked up linguistic quirks from all of them.

“Smell it, it’s that easy to read me,” remarked Raleigh.

X

“What do you think that nose is for? If you weren’t too far in your own head already it would be telling you all sorts of important information. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I’ll tell you what’s strange. There’s people out there that need watches to tell them their hearts are beating.” The old man laughed and slapped his knee.

It wasn’t a huge laugh, but seeing Charles-Never-Charlie laugh was a marvelous thing. When he laughed he did it with his whole body. It started down in his toes and shot up through his belly, leaving up through his throat like a balloon expanding to the walls of the room. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t obtrusive. But it was somehow more complete than it could have been coming from another person.

“How do you do it?” asked Raleigh, “The world has changed so much. How do you not feel lost and left behind? I already feel like life has sped off on a runaway train and I’m running behind it, and it’s blowing smoke in my face and I’ll never catch up. I always thought by thirty I’d know what I was doing. I’d have a sense of direction.”

The younger man fidgeted in his seat and rubbed his hand on his other arm as if trying to bring himself back into his own body.

“That’s no problem, lad. It got in your head is all. The wrong sort of thing crawled in your ear and now it’s making a nest in there, laying eggs. Ain’t nothing you gotta do by thirty. Forty. Fifty. Nah. You don’t need to fester on it.”

“I don’t want to price check lamps and pillows for the rest of my life. And that’s where I’m headed. I hate it. I clock in for eight hours, get yelled at by people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and I go home and fall onto my bed too tired to do anything but sulk around the apartment.”

As he spoke Raleigh’s eyes were drawn to the tall, cedar grandfather clock along the wall. Minutes were passing. He really should head home soon, he worried. He knew he needed his sleep before dragging himself into the next work week.

The old man tugged him back into the conversation, “Suppose I could do something to take all those burdens away, would you accept the offer?”

“I hate complaining. I really do. How about we talk about something else. Are you ever going to tell me where you got your name?”

Charles-Never-Charlie wrinkled his nose. It moved slightly askew of how noses usually moved, as if  he’d practiced the gesture while he had a different kind of nose and when he got this one it didn’t quite move the same. “I asked my question first, lad. You answer mine, and perhaps I’ll finally answer yours.”

Raleigh reflected. Something in his friend’s tone made him uneasy. The little hairs on the back of his neck wanted to stand up, but the air in the room was too warm and comfortable. “Okay, okay,” he said, “Honestly, I’d do anything to free my mind from these anxieties, so if there were something you could do that would help of course I’d accept the offer. Yes.”

Yes — a word said without coercion or lie that satisfied an ancient covenant of consent. But Raleigh didn’t think of things in those terms. His world was rational. It was not a world where the wrong word could let wrong things in.

Charles-Never-Charlie smirked and rose to make some tea. He bid Raleigh remain seated while he put together something nice. In his cupboard were shelves packed with dozens upon dozens of unlabeled glass jars containing dried herbs and ingredients of all varieties. He pinched a green leaf, a brown powder, and a piece of rust-colored bark for Raleigh’s tincture, and he pinched from three different jars for his own. As he worked and the water heated to a boil he hummed a song to himself, absentmindedly.

It was a song nobody else remembered.

It lilted and lifted from his lips like a puff of wild cotton drifting in the wind. Things weren’t passed down like they used to be. Before the world grew modern, a good song or a great poem could persist for thousands of years. It could bend around new instruments and languages and still move through the breath of each new generation.

The same was true of fears. Before radio and television, before electricity could cross the world in a lick of lightning, before the age of the printing press and the great novels, people would sit around fires and in that dim glow tell the tales their great grandparents had told them. They would speak in hushed, low, certain words that another child had been taken. Its mother had seen the light in its eyes vanish, and she knew down to her marrow that some creature had replaced her child.

The monsters of the old times weren’t smart. But people weren’t either. People had grown very clever, and if there were any monsters lurking at the edges they would have to be clever too. Yes, a clever monster would refrain from acting until the light behind the eyes was already gone. Then no discerning mother would ever notice what was wrong with her child.

Raleigh sat back in the comfortable chair and waited for his drink to be ready. He wondered if the herbalist was making him some sort of holistic anti-anxiety tincture.  The room had grown quiet and warm. It was peaceful in a way that his apartment in the city could never be. But he wasn’t sure he could stand quiet like this for very long.

“You like mint, right lad?” called Charles-Never-Charlie from the other room. Raleigh assented and the herbalist pinched some dried peppermint and added it to both tinctures to mask the more obtrusive flavors.

X

“Chores are calling my name. I really shouldn’t stay too much longer,” said the young man as Charles-Never-Charlie delivered him a mug of steaming liquid.

“Nonsense, lad. I never met a mop or broom that could string together a sentence. Now sip down that tincture and you’ll be feeling better soon,” said the old man.

Raleigh did as he was told and began to sip down the drink, cautious not to burn his mouth. Immediately the muscles in his face began to relax and he felt his body open up like a locked chest.

“I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like Hemmings after dark. Maybe I’m more comfortable in the city where there are street lamps and lights shining out from businesses and houses at all hours. It feels like I’m never actually alone. If I call out, or scream, someone will hear me at least.”

“Well don’t leave just yet, lad. I suppose I can tell you the story of my name,” the old man began. “It’s a story from far away and long ago.”

“A land of rolling green hills it was, hills that blanketed the Earth as far as the eye could see. A beautiful place, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I can smell the westward wind blowing in over the wild grasses on those humid summer nights even now when I close my eyes. A comfortable, good life I had, but it was coming to an end.” As Charles-Never-Charlie spoke, twilight began to reach across Hemmings. The glow of the hearth began to dominate the room. It reflected in the storyteller’s eyes in flashes of orange that appeared to be coming from inside of him.

“Scared folk lived in those parts, but they were merry. They knew how to dance and sing, and many a bottle of fine ale was poured to that cause. But they were rightly mistrustful of an old man who came from far away. In those days, in small places, a person would spend their whole life on the same plot of land. Their friends would be the ones who were born beside them. A person who moved in from somewhere else could never be one of your own. No, at the bottom of a green hill they would leave an old man from elsewhere alone. When he came into the shop they would look at him through eyes of spades and pitchforks, though they would take his money as he acted decently enough.
            “My kind has always been found in small places. Swamps, outskirts, hovels, and hidden valleys, that is where we make our home. We’ve come to know we’ll always be outsiders. And when our welcome wears thin, we leave.”

Raleigh knew there was something amiss about Charles-Never-Charlie’s story, but he couldn’t focus well enough to understand. Though it was past time for him to leave, he could not rouse the attention to move. One moment he was inside the story, floating, watching an old man limp across green hills, and the next moment he would snap back into his own unmoving body that felt firm as a weeping willow anchoring a riverbank.

“Lonesome as I was, one day I made a friend. His name was Charlie,” continued the storyteller. “While the rest of the townsfolk avoided me, this young man was unafraid of an aged hermit. He was not like the other people. He was driven by curiosity, with an endless appetite for tales of far-off lands. ‘Tell me again of the Barrow,’ he would say. Or, ‘Is it true that people fish off the end of the world, and what they catch can cure even death?’ A frail lad he was and in his own head all the time. Poor Charlie couldn’t relax and revel and enjoy himself like all the others. Nobody disliked him. No one mistrusted him. But we walked under the big blue sky and he told me that he was born in the wrong place or the wrong time, that he belonged somewhere else. You have always reminded me very much of him.” There was a devious thistle in the old man’s eye.

The voice that Raleigh had pushed to the back of his mind rose from its chair and yelled at him to go now. It beat its fists against the walls. But Raleigh’s body was settled as the stones in the ancient stove. It would not move no matter the fire it contained.

As Raleigh’s presence shrank, Charles-Never-Charlie’s expanded until it filled every corner of the room, every bristle of the carpet, every year-line in the wood of the grandfather clock. He was no longer only a man. Charles-Never-Charlie was the fire and the hearth, the licking orange tongue and the weight of stone; he was the green walls and the ticking of the second-hand, he was the night creeping in.

“One day my young friend was particularly downcast. I hurt to see him so. His green eyes that usually shone in the sun didn’t turn a single time from the muddy ground as we walked. Some lass had snuffed out his heart, and he felt he was doomed to the life of an old bachelor. ‘Alone, alone. I’ll die old and alone.’ he bemoaned to me. I told him it wasn’t the worst life, but in those parts that was somewhat of a lie. An old man would have only squalor and suspicion to look forward to as the years advanced if he was without a wife and children.

“He was young, not even your age, but he was already well on his way to becoming an old miser in those parts. Though to me he seemed a being full of wonder, I could tell there was already a bitterness steeping away in his core.

“I wanted to help my friend. So I told him to steady me as we walked to my cottage at the base of the hill. I was very old then, you see, and I’d grown quite weak as my body succumbed to the decades.          Decades and decades I’d put that body through. But it’s no good. A body cannot last forever.”

The old man, who now seemed like something else entirely, stared into the fire. In his green eyes, a forest leaped with flame. In a moment of powerful clarity, Raleigh sensed in his friend some deep pain beyond understanding. It was a pain of distance and of indescribable loss.

“There’s something you should know about me,” continued the old man. “I do not want to die. You can sleep. You can forget. But I was not born with these luxuries, and in the swirling night, memories and thoughts berate me and cannot be placated. No, I must not die. I refuse to do it. I absolutely refuse to give mortality power over me.

“I led my friend Charlie down to my cottage. Or rather, he led me, old and frail as I was. It was a fresh, bright day, but there was a chill to it. And if I spent too long away I would be shaking for warmth. Inside, the walls had kept in my heat and I was safe. Death could not dance above my head. I told Charlie that if he were to let me I could take away all his unease and fear for the future.

When he was nearly asleep I led him to a rounded green door. It was an old door, older than the house or even the country I was living in.”

Charles-Never-Charlie clasped Raleigh’s hand and helped him to his feet. The natural instincts of Raleigh’s body were gone, and if it weren’t for his companion, he would have fallen on his way to that green door that smelled of damp earth. As it swung open, Raleigh saw stairs reaching down into depths hidden in shadow. It felt like the stairs went on and on and never came to a stop and all the while Charles-Never-Charlie whispered in his ear.

“When I left that house, people called me Charlie, of course. But it never fit. I could still hear my friend in the back of my mind, so it felt wrong to be going by his name. We talk, even to this day. Of course at the time he didn’t have anything kind to say, but eventually we came to an understanding. I tried having people call me Charles, just Charles. It was better, but still not right. I had to constantly remind people to call me Charles — never call me Charlie, and over time that became Charles-Never-Charlie.

“I left that old country when people became suspicious of an old man who had been old for too long. It’s never good for my kind to draw attention to ourselves. I stowed myself away on a great ship, and traveled for many difficult years before I came to Hemmings. It is a good place. Quiet. It is a place where stillness remains despite the turning of the world.”

The steps led down and down. Raleigh wondered if they would ever stop, or if they led all the way to the center of the Earth. As his friend led him through the chamber they passed small fires that gave way to darkness as the passage twisted and turned, leading further and further into the recesses. It smelled of mold and rot, and things older than he could fathom.

“You must forgive me if it sounds silly, but there was something else. The name reminded me of my first name, a name that has since passed forgotten in a tongue that not one soul remembers how to speak. It was the tongue of a cruel people.

“They were not clever. They were afraid.”

X

In the quiet hamlet of Hemmings, an old man named Charles-Never-Charlie passed away. The newspaper obituary stated that he had no living relatives, but left his home and all his worldly possessions to a young friend.

At times Raleigh tried to talk to the young man in the back of his mind, but the friend did not want to speak to him. The back of his mind was not an excellent home. Its walls were painted in mold.

Raleigh’s mother did not like that her son had moved back to that cursed hamlet hidden in the pine trees and the lonely wind. She said he had changed. Whenever he spoke to her, that friend in the back of his mind banged against the doors and windows. But he didn’t worry about that. He knew they would reach an understanding in time.

Hemmings was the sort of place where a person could pass forgotten and lonesome, rocking in a chair, staring at a fire in an old stone hearth. But he was never lonely. It was good to have a friend.


Mark L Anderson is a writer living in Spokane, Washington where he served as Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He also co-founded the Broken Mic reading series and has traveled across the U.S. reading poems in coffee shops and living rooms. He works as a barista at a vegan bakery and he sincerely hopes you enjoyed your latte. It has a heart on it. 


“Julie’s Package” Dark Horror by M.P. Domingos

The brown package had come at the wrong time of day. Loeb stood on the porch half awake and barely dressed in his blue bathrobe. There was a breeze, and the morning’s sunlight was falling in through the old oak that left dappled patterns of white and yellow on their small front yard.

For such a small package it sat heavy in his hands, and Loeb had never seen a piece of mail quite like it; perfectly square, clean and, with smooth edges. He saw no mail delivery stamps and he thought how someone must have dropped it off on their stoop overnight. The only markings he could find were his wife’s name written on one side in careful, elegant, handwriting.  Below that, almost to the edge, were the letters “S & B”.

Loeb smiled to himself at how it had an air of pretension.

S&B.  Stan & Boyd. Sonny & Bono. Satan & Beelzebub.

He stood there for another moment and stretched before going back inside to where the kitchen met the den.

“Julie?” He paused and waited for a response he knew wouldn’t come. “Package came.” Still nothing—but the silence of the house allowed his mind to wander, and he thought back to the time when the house wasn’t as quiet.

Julie would be in the kitchen again, dancing, and dressed in her pajamas. She would grab his free hand to try to make him dance. But he didn’t like to dance, and she knew this. And instead, he would stand, and smile and he would try to make her laugh but would fail.  And she would smile back, and he would grab her by the waist to pull her in and smell her hair and it would smell like almonds.  And then she would see the package in his hands and her eyes would widen, and she would jump into his arms and she would be so light that he would give in finally and dance with her right there in the kitchen, still hanging off of him as if she weighed nothing.   

But now a shadow had passed over her, and there was the silence.  At times he thought he could see the shadows as they came on.  But even if he missed the shadow, he could see the change come to her eyes. How it would come and go and would remind him of how sunlight changes in a field as the clouds shift overhead.  Yes, it was just like that.  She called them “her shadow friends,” and as time went on these friends had begun to visit more often and she had begun to hate him more and to blame him for all the things she thought had been done to her. Loeb kept his hand on the package briefly and then went to go change for a run.

When he got back, he entered through the side door. He was older now. He knew this. He also knew that his body took a lot longer to bounce back from things than it had in the past.  

I’m as old now as my father was when I was a teenager.

Strange concept. The idea of it. That it would always be just him and Julie. That the doctors had confirmed the reality that he now accepted, but that Julie never would. That even after years of trying, even after years of methods and procedures, each more extreme than the last, there was no way out of it. This reality in his mind was simply another example of the universe just being the universe—to dole out servings of cold hard irony, and to bring together two people who were both equally hoping to have many, many children, and who were both equally unable to have any.

As he walked back into the kitchen, the sweat was still running off of him, and he heard the television moaning from the backroom.  The kitchen table where he had placed the package earlier was now empty.

I see you’ve taken what you wanted.

He assumed she had taken it while he was out, and this fact didn’t bother him. Neither did her likely retreat with it back into the downstairs office, the same office which had lately become her place of refuge. What did bother him was the laughter he could now hear coming from that same place of refuge. Laughter that was not his wife’s, and which had came on so soft and distant, that he thought it had come from somewhere outside or up the street. 

Relax. She’s fine. You’ve both been so spooled up lately. All that weight on your backs for no reason.  

More laughter came from the office. This time it was louder, more metallic sounding. It seemed to linger in the air, like so many voices from an old radio. Loeb stared toward the office and imagined Julie talking to no one in particular behind its closed door and then he heard her.

“Loeb, are you here?”

Her voice was muffled from behind the door, and he didn’t answer at first, partly from his lack of desire to deal with her right then, and partly from the fear of the state of mind she may be in. But when she called out again, he finally walked over and put his ear to the door, grabbing its brass handle as if he were going to open it. But he didn’t open it.

“Julie, is that you?”

His question went unanswered with a silence that he had become accustomed to. It was a silence which seemed to grow louder each day, even if their lives had become emptier. She said it was the silence that she couldn’t stand. It was the silence that had caused her to retreat into that office each day—and it was him.

“We can fill it with kids,” she said. “Adopt enough to fill a whole house.”

We can fill it.

And they had tried to. They had filled out the paperwork. They had done the interviews. But the interviews didn’t go well, and the whole complicated process began to stall out. And when Julie fired their adoption consultant, things quickly went downhill. On the final day of what would become their last interview with the last agency on their list, she told the interview panel, if they didn’t approve them right then and there, she would kill herself. They didn’t even get a rejection email after that one. Instead, one week later Julie went back down to their lobby and threatened to kill the interview lead along with her family.

But time moves on, as it tends to do. The silence of the house remained, and Julie began to fill it in other ways.  Her favorite and most regular method was to keep the television on constantly, and loud enough for her to hear it wherever she was in the house, which was more often than not, the office.  Loeb found this annoying at first, but he eventually grew accustomed to the constant noise.  

He had finally told her there would be no kids. No kids, Julie. None of it. At least not until they figured things out. Until she got some help. But she would have none of it. He was to blame. And now, here he was, standing by this closed door, listening for his wife, and hoping she was all there. She had not answered him yet.

“Julie?” He said.

The door opened with a part of Julie’s face showing through the cracks. She looked him up and down with her eyes, as if he had just knocked on the front door to sell her rain gutters. It had been so long since he had seen her eyes–really looked at her eyes, and he had forgotten about the green in them. He thought of that green, and he thought of Italy all those years ago when he had first noticed that about her.

You remember don’t you, Julie?  At the fountain, in the Piazza Navona? But now your face looks so tired. We’re both so tired.

“Christ, Julie. You scared me.”

“What are you doing there?”

Loeb tried to look past her, to see what she had been doing, but she noticed and closed the door to block his view, leaving only a small crescent of her face still visible.

“I heard laughing. I thought maybe you had a friend over,” he said.

She scrunched up her nose. It was in the way that she used to. Then she smiled, and this surprised him, and he smiled also.

“It was probably the t.v. You left it on all morning again,” she said.

Loeb paused for a moment to reach out to her but touched the door instead.  

“Yes. You’re right,” he said, “I shouldn’t have that thing going constantly like I do.  It can get expensive.”

“Mmmm,” Julie responded. Her face changed, and she looked at him like she had remembered something she had forgotten. “We don’t have many expenses like other couples our age. I think we can afford to leave the t.v. on.”

Before he could speak again, she closed the door, and in the background of the house he heard a talk show go to commercial and the sound of laughter again.

The day moved on and Julie hadn’t come out from the office. The house began to retreat into dusk with the waning blue-grey light entering in through the kitchen windows. Loeb stood at their kitchen counter, eating, staring toward the coarse electric yellow light coming in from under the door to the office. 

Up the street a dog barked. He finished eating and walked to the office door once again and put his hand on the cold doorknob and waited.

Nothing, still.  It can’t keep going this way. 

He heard Julie’s voice begin to come through the door in steady rhythms, as if she were having an earnest conversation with someone on the other side. It was a rhythm that she had often used with him in the past, but as she spoke, he could hear another voice intermixed with hers. This one was fainter and more muffled, but it was there, and in a rhythm that seemed to answer Julie’s voice, as if it were responding to her questions.

“Julie?” He heard both voices stop.

“Loeb?  Come in. Come here.”

“Hi. What is it babe?” Loeb said.

“Come here,” she repeated.

Loeb pushed at the door and it relented and opened up, and his eyes bristled as they adjusted from the darkness of the rest of the house to the brightly lit room.

“Julie?” 

“I’m right here,” she said. 

She was sitting cross legged on the floor in a pair of her floral p.j.s behind their dark wooden desk. The package sat open and empty on her lap, and her stomach moved to the rhythm of her breath. She was staring at the wall as he walked over and there was a shadow falling on her face that magnified her pretty looks but made her look tired at the same time. 

“You okay? You feeling ok?” He said.

She looked up at him with an annoyed look that was quickly replaced by a smile. Her face brightened and she scrunched her nose again.

“Come closer, silly. Let me show you something.”

Loeb walked over and kneeled beside her and put his hand on her cheek.  

I still love you. Sometimes we are born at the wrong time though.  Sometimes all the feelings in the world can’t change bad timing. This can’t last, you know? It can’t go on like this much longer. 

“Look,” she said. She was excited and her hands were shaking as she reached down and picked up a small black vial the size of a jelly jar.

“Look,” she said again. Julie placed it in his hands.

It was light, very light and very small, and he didn’t understand how that was possible. 

“That’s it? That’s all that came?” he said.

“That’s it. It’s all I need; that and the instructions. Look. Just—look.” She was almost on the verge of tears from happiness.

 “I don’t understand. That package was so heavy. There had to have been more.” Loeb said.

Julie, giddy, started to laugh. “Loeb. Stop talking and look at the label.”

He looked at the label that was off-white and had the same elegant writing he had seen earlier.

No.6 Pregnancy Balm

“The Morning Star”

The blood rushed to his head and Loeb could feel his ears begin to burn and his face turn red.

Julie reached out and gently touched his hand with hers.

“Here. Read this,” she said as she handed him a piece of paper. “This explains how it works.”

But Loeb pushed the paper away.

“Goddamn it, Julie. Goddamn.”

Loeb could see a shadow come over her face again. It was like a shade closing behind her eyes. The pink of her ears turned white and with a burst of energy that surprised even him she bounced to her feet, propelling herself toward him and began pushing and punching him in the chest.

“Jesus, Julie, relax. Stop. I don’t get it, that’s all.”

“What don’t you get, Loeb?  I’m stupid?”

“I didn’t say you were stupid. But this…” he held up the vial, “this, is stupid.”

He grabbed one of her arms with his free hand, and this seemed to stop her, at least for the moment.

“Come on. Jules. Listen to me.”

Her face darkened even more at the sound of his pet name for her.

“No!” She said, and she pulled her hands free and slapped him in the face.

“Julie. Please. Just relax. Let’s talk about this.”

Loeb leaned forward past her and put the vial down on their desk.  She was crying now, silently crying in quiet fits and convulsions, and he could hear the moaning of the television in the background. He went to hug her since he wasn’t sure what else to do.

“No, you don’t. No, you don’t. You don’t get to move past this like you usually do. Not now. You know exactly what this is all about.”

She turned back and picked up the vial from the desk. Loeb grabbed her hand, trying to take it back from her.

“No. But that’s the thing. I don’t, Jules. I don’t know what this is all about. Except that this looks like scam to me. I’m more pissed that some company could take advantage of you like this.” 

“Doesn’t matter.”  She said, shaking her head. “It’s going to work. They said the Program would work. They showed me how. They showed me everything. I saw how it all worked and it was beautiful.”

“Ok. And who’s ‘they’ anyways?”

“What’s the point? You don’t care.”

“I do care. S & B. That’s on the label. Who are they?”

“The Company. The ones that run the Program. There’s an online questionnaire to start, and later they email your initial profile back to you and you go on from there to the next steps. They work with you through the whole thing.” 

Her face looked tired, although there was a strength to her voice that seemed to propel her forward. He knew that this strength was derived from anger based on that same emptiness and silence that she blamed him for. She had never received what she had wanted and had been promised. It was the thing that she considered taken from her.

“Julie. Listen to me. What could they possibly offer that could solve our issue with a single product? What kind of questions could they possibly ask that could give them any insight into our situation?” 

“They ask the things you would expect, Loeb—family history, life goals, medical history, how long you’ve been trying, what the particular issue is, things like that.  Later, they go into more personal things. In the end, I talked to them for hours, for days, but afterwards it was like a giant rock had been lifted off of me. It felt so good, Loeb. It felt so good. I felt so unburdened by it all.  And then they analyze the specific chemistry of your body and all your genetic predispositions based on the blood and saliva samples you send in—”

“Blood samples. Julie, seriously do you hear yourself now? Do you?” 

“Whatever, Loeb. Then they customize the first phase of the treatment plan—”

“I know it was disappointing for you. I know you wanted this bad. Maybe we talk adoption again. There’s always another way.”

“We’ve already tried all of that. If you had really wanted that it would have worked out, but you really never did, did you? I know you always thought it wouldn’t be the same, and anyways, it’s too late for that now.”

“What do you mean it’s too late? What does that even mean? Listen to me. You’re an educated woman. But you should know better. You’re just having a rough time of it lately. Just take a breath.”

“I hate you.”

With that Julie turned away and began to read to herself from the pamphlet, looking occasionally at her watch, before looking back to the instructions again, and then back to the watch. He stood there, watching as she took a bit of cream from the vial and spread it on her stomach, then placed the vial down and went back to silently reading from the pamphlet. The conversation was over, so he walked back to the kitchen and the door slammed behind him.

It was well past midnight when Loeb woke up in the living room where he had fallen asleep earlier in the evening. As he went to the kitchen he saw the same flow of light coming again from under the office door, but also the occasional quick shadow of busy movement from inside.

Still at it. 

From outside came the sound of aluminum cans hitting the ground. It was close, and Loeb walked into their bedroom to the window that had a full view of the front street. But before he could get to it he found his wife, fast asleep and naked, laying on the comforter of their bed.  Loeb’s mind quickly went back to the movement he had just seen coming from under the door of the office. He had seen light, he was sure of it, maybe not the movement, maybe he wasn’t remembering that part right, but the light, yes, he was sure he had seen light coming from under the door. But when he ran back to the office, this time with baseball bat in hand, no light came from under the door. And of course, when he opened it, all he found was darkness, and no one there.

I’m remembering wrong, that’s all. I’m just tired.

He heard the sound of a car starting now. It was loud and sounded like an older model accompanied by the whirring noise of a worn or loose fan belt. Loeb ran back to the bedroom where Julie still lay sleeping, unmoved by the noise, and he looked out the window.

The car had its headlights off and was idling out front of their house. The front end had a deep red rust color with the back half an ugly pea green.  Heavy exhaust billowed from the muffler, and its cab was completely dark, save for the red glow from the cigarette of the driver.   The car revved its engine again and began to slowly accelerate, rolling down the block and away from their house, before coming to a full stop. Loeb looked down at his sleeping wife and walked to the porch.  As he got there, he paused to look at the still idling car, which began to slowly accelerate again, as if it were reacting to his presence. He could still see the red cherry of a lit cigarette. Loeb took a step down the stairs but as he did, the car gunned the gas, and took off in an explosion of noise and fumes, and sped off, disappearing past the darkness of the intersection by the corner of their house. Silence returned to the night.

“Dick,” Loeb said out loud to himself and he walked back inside. He found his wife, awake and naked standing in the hallway just outside their bedroom, staring past him toward the front door.

“Jesus. What are you doing?” He said.

Her eyes shifted back to his face and she spoke slowly.

“Living with my choices Loeb. That’s what I’m doing.”

Loeb shook his head. He was too tired.

“Julie, I can’t do this now. It’s late.”

Julie looked at the door again and this time kept staring at it as she spoke.  

“You can’t wait for them, Loeb. Even if you’re excited and you really, really, want them to come.  That’s the very first rule they tell you.”

“What rule? What are you talking about, Jules?”

“You. I’m talking about you,” she said. “They just saw you outside hovering like an idiot and they probably didn’t deliver the next treatment. So now I have to wait until who goddamn knows when. And I’ve waited long enough. You’ve already made me wait long enough.”

Loeb looked at the front door and then back at Julie.

“Who. Tell me who that was out there, Julie.”

“Maybe if I call them they’ll come back, I don’t know.”

“Is this still about the cream? Was that them just now? Do you have any idea how shady that is?  They weren’t delivering anything. They were casing our house. That’s probably their endgame here—that would make more sense anyway,” Loeb said.

“Well, they weren’t Loeb.  No one was casing our house. They were here for me. To help me.”

“Julie, it’s a scam. You know the only thing that will help our situation? Science. Modern science. And we’ve already tried all of that. So internet cream won’t fix it. Nothing will fix it. Nothing will either of us. Ever.” Loeb stopped speaking.  He had gone too far and softened his voice. “Listen, don’t you think it’s just a little weird that a company would swing by late at night in a crappy car to deliver the goods? You don’t think that’s strange?” he said. 

His voice trailed off.  He heard the television again.

“No.” Julie said. “What I want isn’t weird at all. You may think so, but I’m trying to fix something that’s been broken for a long time now. Something you broke. I want a baby, Loeb.  They said it’ll work, and I can feel it working. I can feel it filling in something that wasn’t there before.”

“But Julie, do you hear yourself?”  Loeb continued speaking softly and placed one hand on her face. “You’re an educated, intelligent, modern woman, but you’re also talking crazy.”

She began to cry again.

“I’m crazy? I’m trying to do something here and all you can do is sit there and judge me and sit in this goddamn house waiting for something. Well there’s nothing to wait for Loeb, because this house is dying, and I will not sit in its silence another day with all that weight falling on me. I won’t do it anymore! A baby. I wanted a baby!”

All of her anger, all that buried anger, came spilling out now, and everything else seemed to drop away from around them. There was nothing left. Nothing else to say; nothing left for them to do really. And so she walked back to the office, and she closed the door behind her.

The next day Julie didn’t leave the office. Loeb left the television on for her. He went for a run. He ran errands. The day went on as it should, and at its end he was tired even though he had no reason to be, and so he walked into the bedroom and found Julie, who had finally left her sanctuary, already there, fast asleep on top of the covers.  She was naked, except for a thin wrap of gauze wound tightly around her belly.  Deep pockets of shadow sat below her eyes. He looked at her face and then back down to gauze that had cream around its edges. 

We’ll work through it.  We always do.

“But it only works if I’m involved in some way, Julie,” he said out loud.  He watched her blonde hair rising and falling with each breath as she slept; the rising and falling of it.  

It all keeps going around us, doesn’t it? Going and going. None of it ends, until the breathing stops. It’s all a miracle no one understands, really.

  Loeb lay next to his wife, and he felt his tired body start to let go to sleep and separate from itself like he could float above it—like he could look down at the chaos below him before floating back off into nothingness he had come from.  He thought about this feeling for a while, and then he fell asleep.

He woke up sometime later in complete darkness. His head hurt. He could see nothing but could smell cigarettes. For a moment he wasn’t sure where he was. It was like a light switch had been turned off inside him. He had been blindfolded, and he realized his arms hurt as well, and they were spread apart above his head in the shape of a “v”. His head began throbbing more with pain and he could feel the slow movement of liquid, likely blood, down his face. His mouth was unbound, and he felt it was the only free thing of his that was without pain, and he let out a slow strange noise that grew in the air. He seemed to hear that sound outside himself, and he was surprised that he could make a sound like that. Then he felt hands and he smelled cigarettes, and he could no longer feel the pressure of the blindfold on his eyes and could see again. Around him on the walls were mirrors, all partially covered by white cloth. A large mirror sat on the floor in front of the bed, uncovered and facing him. There was a slash of blood on the wall next to him, and in the corner an old man sat watching. The Old Man’s skin was yellowed and tight and sat like a mask on his face. He looked over at Loeb and smiled, showing teeth that were orange and black, either from long term neglect or decay, or both. Loeb watched him take a drag from a cigarette. 

Julie walked out from the bathroom.  She had a knife in her hand, and she looked at Loeb and began to walk towards the side of the bed.   

“Julie, who is that? What are you doing?” Loeb said.

She reached the bed and smiled, lifting the knife above Loeb’s feet before pausing and then jamming the knife into the bedpost where it remained. She pulled the bedspread down from the rest of his body, and he realized he was naked. She made tight folds with it around his ankles.

“Honey, what are you doing? Who is that? Why is he here?”

Julie said nothing. She began to walk along the wall staring into the mirrors as she went.  The Old Man took a folded piece of white cloth from the nightstand and covered the mirror on the floor.  He took out a small vial of liquid from his pocket and poured it onto Loeb’s stomach.  Loeb tried to break free, convulsing as the Old Man began to rub the liquid into his stomach, and thighs, then down to his legs.

Again, Loeb tried to free himself, but the ties wouldn’t give, and he collapsed onto the bed.

“Julie, let’s talk about this.  If you’re caught up in something, it’s ok. We can get through that.  But don’t do anything you can’t take back.” 

Julie took the knife again from the bedpost and slowly traced the outline of his chest cavity with its tip.

“I told you already, Loeb, they’re here to help. They made a promise. I made a promise. They’ve given me what I wanted. It’s all very clear and specific. The debt has to be paid with the blood of the father.” The Old Man smiled as she said this.

Julie, her eyes glass-like, dead, looked at the knife in her hand before bringing it to the center of his chest.

“You don’t need to do this. I love you. I can help you; I can show you.”

She moved the blade to Loeb’s lips to quiet him, then down his chin and back to the center of his stomach.

“You’ve already helped by just being here, Loeb,” she said. “We’ll all be fine soon.”

“Look. Look. Look. Please…we can fix this.”

The Old Man was still watching, still smiling, as he reached over to take a pillow from the bed.

“Shush now,” he said as he placed the pillow down over Loeb’s face.

“Don’t worry Loeb. Don’t worry, I love you too.”

Later that morning a strong wind will pick up and the blue light of dawn will come through the green leaves again. In all the front yards, tired parents will watch their wide-eyed children play, and the older couples, whose children have moved on and had children of their own, will drink coffee on their porches.  The sound of the morning will visit the air again. Then we will watch the cold, low sun burst through the trees and turn all the shadows into color. That light will dance on the grass in the yards around us and it will dance in the empty streets. All the lovely people will think to themselves how the day will be warm, quiet, and bright.


M.P. Domingos is a writer living in Northern Virginia in a house full of people and animals. He writes when he can, often on an old computer, and edits at night after the kids have gone to bed. He has previously published poetry in the Dillydoun Review and Rue Scribe. You can find him on Twitter at @mdomingoswriter.


“Robert, Howard, and the Devil” Fiction by Thomas White

About three months ago, Robert Shivers, the life-long friend of Howard Foker, had unexpectedly gone into the hospital for a few nights for minor surgery. Shivers had given Howard the key to his apartment so that Howard could feed and care for Robert’s hamster, Blinky.  Howard was oblivious, however, to the surveillance cameras, embedded in the apartment’s walls, originally installed by Robert to identify any burglar intent on kidnapping his beloved pet.

Howard had no sooner settled comfortably into Robert’s easy chair to watch the new autumn lineup of reality TV shows, than there was a scratching   noise from Blinky’s cage:  clawing the bars, the little pest was furiously demanding its feed.  Just like its master: always annoying Howard with irritating demands. In fact, the more Howard watched Blinky, the more he wondered if Robert actually had not been turned into this hamster by a wizard’s spell. The random shuffling, followed by sudden bursts of frenetic activity, then the way it greedily slopped its food and water – all very Robert Shivers.

   While poking through the kitchen closets looking for the little monster’s vitamin-enriched meal, Howard discovered a thick envelope. On it, in Shivers’ childish scrawl, were the words: “My Stimulus Package.” Stuffed inside the envelope was a smaller   packet on which Shivers had written: “Boy, this is hot.”  Gently opening it, Howard’s attitude toward Robert was about to change forever.

 Stapled together were advertising glossies featuring images of kitchen appliances, a generic, stock photo of the Statue of Liberty, set against the skyline of New York City, and assorted printouts of objects, such as jugs, for sale online. A sticky note was attached to the documents on which Robert Shivers had scribbled, “Wow, what a turn-on!”

Included with this stash was also a notarized statement which read:

“I, Robert Shivers say, under penalty of perjury, that I have an intense erotic desire for nonhuman objects. I find myself completely unable to lust after any human being no matter their gender…”

In addition, among the papers was a copy of a letter from Robert addressed to the executive producer, Jay James, of the new reality TV cable program, “It’s a Wild, Weird World,” which specializes in presenting to its audience – in its own words – “the unbelievable – uncensored.” The letter read in part:

“Dear Mr. James,

I have watched your show with great interest. I understand you are seeking guests with shocking and completely unique life-stories. I believe I can fulfill your program’s needs as I am just such a potential guest (my appearance being offered at your normal rate). Please see my attached affidavit with attachments. I think that the story of people who have sexual desires for only nonhuman objects would be of considerable interest to your audiences who tune in every week in search of ‘the unbelievable – uncensored…’”

   Stunned, Howard blinked his eyes: one can think he knows a person but actually never really know him. Huge difference between hanging out with this dude at the Big Hit sports bar watching Monday Night Football and getting a peek into his creepy, private world.

Who but a twisted weirdo could get an orgasm from a toaster? And even though the Statue of Liberty was a woman and was made by the French, it seemed really bizarre if not downright unpatriotic to be sexually aroused by America’s iconic symbol –  I mean the Statue of Liberty for god’s sake!

But Howard, his stomach grumbling its complaint against his skimpy breakfast, headed   for the kitchen again but this time more to satisfy his hunger for food than his curiosity about Shivers’ twisted inner life.                                                     

    Rummaging around for a can opener, Howard immediately found yet another clump of documents crammed into a dusty hole in the back of the kitchen’s cupboards’ walls; delicately opening the scruffy plastic-wrapped bundle stinking of mildew, he lightly pawed the shiny but stained upmarket  furniture catalogue advertising the usual items: blonde floor lamps with pale white shades, rainbow-colored, starkly-crafted chairs, smoothly-contoured black coffee tables, slab-like soft floor beds piled with cheery little patterned cushions.

   Then shocked, he looked closer and gasped – or, more to the point, gurgled an explosion of saliva: a glossy image of the pudgy body and face of Robert Shivers, naked except for black socks, was shown on one of the catalogue’s pages, hunched over a blonde floor lamp with a virginal white shade, a lusty, demonic grin on his face.  Had Robert somehow Photoshopped a selfie of his face and body into this catalogue to live out his twisted fantasies among this porno-utopia of upmarket sexually attractive nonhuman objects?

Howard’s conclusion was inescapable: Robert Shivers was not a normal pervert.

                                                    ***

Sideling into his favorite Starbucks a few weeks later, Howard, still unsettled after his discoveries, almost spilled his latte as he absent-mindedly found a table, and fretted over this new information about Robert. Howard knew that he had to calm down, get beyond the shock of it all, and get focused on the business implications. It was a sick, cynical world, but one could find financial health, not to say happiness, in the problems of others. Now he had to just figure the angles.

How would he approach Robert about selling Robert’s bizarre personality to tabloid shows?  With his vast marketing experience in the mass media Howard was sure he could help Robert – for a lucrative commission – to make high-level reality TV executive contacts, who would pay Robert handsomely for his completely unique story of a life spent sexually attracted to upscale furniture, kitchen appliances, and the national icon of America.

 It was a delicate matter though as he did not want Robert to know that he had been rummaging through his personal papers. He needed his flunky friend’s good will, yet at the same time Howard had to figure out how to approach Robert about his weird desires without revealing how Howard discovered them – otherwise Robert could be open to a potential lawsuit for the violation of Robert’s privacy. (Howard, despite these sober concerns, smiled briefly when he thought of Robert being interviewed on TV about how he ‘dates’ a toaster.)

A taunt, sinewy arm with blurred tattoos flipped over Howard’s shoulder like a large stiletto knife. Howard’ s eyes followed the arm up to a face stuffed full of jutting, stained teeth that had not seen a dental cleaning in years – nor a cosmetic surgical makeover: thin wrinkled lips carved into a stony face, wandering unfocused, washed-out bluish eyes, and a small patch of dry grey hair on an otherwise bald, skull-tight head. His ruddy facial skin was littered with large warts. Howard thought vaguely of a diseased tropical plant –  or the face of the 1950s Yul Brynner but with a completely unknown, creeping skin condition.

The odd man suddenly yawned widely, sending waves of swampy bad breath into Howard’s face.  Tearful, and almost gagging, Howard half whispered, half-choked, “Who are you?”

Despite the grotesque appearance, the man’s voice was gentle. “If you know this song then you know who I am.” He began to sing slowly, hypnotically, as if he were crooning a seductive lullaby:

“Pleased to meet you

Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah

But what’s confusing you

Is just the nature of my game…?”

The man’s arm twisted slightly; a business card dropped into Howard’s lap as if it were a magic trick; glossy-lipstick-pink, spotted with little devil masks, the card was inscribed with black, very dramatic script:

“Edmund Lappe’

Therapeutic Wizard

By Appointment Only”

Edmund Lappe’ winked, then began softly crooning again:

“So if you meet me

“Have some courtesy

Have some sympathy, and some taste

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I’ll lay your soul to waste…”

Lappe’ then pointed his middle finger at Howard’s nose, as if the wizard were making an obscene gesture, and waved it. Howard felt his face drip heavily as if he were sweating a river; it was his flesh sliding off like chunks of melting snow, drenching his shirt cuffs.

“Hell’s bells, I am melting like a goddam wax dummy in an oven!” Howard whined. His Starbucks coffee mug, his laptop, and his too-tight undies then vanished, too. Howard and everything in his world had been vaporized. Edmund Lappe’, his Satanic Majesty, a man of many faces and names, who enjoyed serenading the Damned with the Rolling Stones’ 1968 smash hit, then called Robert Shivers to report the good news: that as per his agreement with Robert for a lucrative commission on Robert’s tabloid TV story profits, Lappe’ had eliminated the slimy Howard – who had inexcusably violated Robert’s privacy and failed to properly feed Blinky as instructed – from the face of the earth.    


Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.


“The Power of You” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Rayfox East

I saw him as soon as I entered the ticket hall. In the pre-show crowd he sat alone, staring into a plastic cup of water at a table near the gents. He poured a sachet of sugar into the cup and swirled it with a dirty finger and stared at it again. Here was a for-sure oddball – perfect fodder for Anorak UK.

Eccentrics (the juicy ones) are easily spooked, so I joined a larger group of attendees first. Beer and excitement had loosened tongues. A woman with a husky voice declared a lack of confidence had scuppered her romantically; a short man in a tall hat confessed he had been passed over for promotion five times; a well-to-do couple jostled their son to admit he was unpopular at college. Most reasons for coming were like that.

Mine was no better. A feature on vegetable sculptors had been cited on breakfast TV, now my blog Anorak UK (tagline: Tales from the Eccentric Frontline) brought three times the ad revenue. Thus I could afford the £300 ticket for tonight’s event – my next feature. And I had spotted my first source already.

Five minutes before showtime I approached the man’s table. In his cup floated a dead fly, drawn by the sugar, which he picked out and devoured in tiny bites.

He coughed when he saw me and wiped his fingers on his beard. The beard was ersatz, hooked around his ears; and his eyebrows, I saw, were a different colour at the roots. He stank of tobacco. His skin was loose from fasting – a strong breeze would treat it like a sail. No ring on his hand – but then, his fingers were too slender to have kept one on.

“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.

He shrugged guiltily.

“Me too.” I said, pleased I had switched on my recorder. “Although I don’t have much appetite for crowds.” I was pretty sure he’d agree, but he stared at me like an animal in a trap. He stood up quickly, pushed away the cup and, as he fled, delivered me a look of such frantic loathing I was briefly stunned.

The call came to take our seats in the auditorium. By ill luck my seat was one row in front of his. For the next hour he would be literally breathing down my neck. His manic glare was all I could picture as the lights dimmed.

‘The Power of You’ proclaimed six screens, the words pulsing to a Wu Tang track. With a hail of sparks the great Mindy Coleman strode onstage. The applause brought dust from the rafters and shook the seats. She was a magnesium flare in a room full of moths, every stitch the international self-help guru and network TV host (Doing You on CBS). Buoyed by the crowd I tried hard to catch her eye.

Not one clap from behind me. Dour sod – £300 he paid!

“Oh, thank you all for coming! You know, it’s not everyone who has the courage to come out to one of my seminars. You’ve already overcome limitations to be here tonight. Give yourselves a hand!”

Palm-stinging applause from everyone but the fly-fisher.

“If I know one thing, it’s that every one of us has power. We can use that power against ourselves or to launch us forward. Tonight I’ll share a taste of how to find your power and unlock your dreams. Oh, so many faces!”

When the self-activation period came, it was for the sake of our hands and throats. Mindy Coleman supercharged us, no one could stop talking. Her glow was impossible to dim. It was only the well of silence behind me that polluted my uptake of her doctrine.

Offended by the man’s resistance, since it showed me up as an easy convert, I loitered by the gents in ambush. But he slipped past, armpits projecting wide stains, and scuttled to the exit. For no definite reason I followed. Whatever secret had made him come would be humiliating, and right then I wanted it to be.

He turned away from the bright car park and skirted the walls of the centre, keeping in shadow. I turned the next corner and lost him. The cold air and abundant shadows brought me to a halt. What was I doing here, the stink of the bar bins eroding my cologne?

Then I saw him. A shadow leapt over the wooden screen around the bins. My god, was he so desperate? But no, the ticket cost a fortune…

What I heard next was the squeal of a bat or rodent, stamping, then a wet crack. Some plastic items clattered on the tarmac. I kept still, expecting the man to climb out, having retrieved, possibly, a cache of drugs.

Then I heard chewing. Wet and grisly, like a bear chewing fish.

I hurried back inside as an electronic bell signalled the end of the self-activation period.

The second half was billed ‘Living Your Truth in the Digital Age.’ I had seen a spare seat behind him. Now I claimed it. But he did not reappear in the audience.

Mindy Coleman came on to raptures, brushing the fingers of the front row. My eyes were fixed on the empty seat. His sugar-water sat on his armrest, attracting flies.

Feeling spiteful, I knocked the cup onto his seat cushion mid-cheer, so that if he came back I would watch him squirm.

Carpe Diem. What does it mean?” Mindy yelled as the music faded. “Let me hear you!”

Seize the day! came the cry rehearsed in the first half.

“And what day is that?”

Today!

The smell of bins made me twitch. There he was, shuffling along the row in front! He sat, felt the wetness and froze, staring dead ahead. Mrs Coleman took a backseat to his reaction, the dye trickling down his neck. What did he need motivation for? He was already so unrestrainedly vulgar.

With no clear trigger, the whole thing started to revolt me. Mindy was more predator than prophet, a lack-of-confidence trickster. And these misfits were easy prey. The gist for my feature would be: cynic milks the vulnerable for money.

When the curtain fell I raced to the foyer, but I lost him in the loud, happy exodus. I could hear horns bleat as the crowd drained from the car park, bound for promotions, marriages, start-ups and affairs.

I looked until my Prius was alone in the car park, weighing up whether to search local bars. But my heart slumped at the thought. My trophy had escaped, dour sod. His smell was all that was left – I had to replace the air freshener. That’s what I get for £300 worth of journalistic inquiry!

On the M40 I thought of Cheryl. Pretending she was with me made the journey faster. I turned on the radio, seeking Mindy Coleman’s broadcast frequency but it was off-air.

Towards midnight it began to rain, fat drops like marbles, then the rain began to flash blue and red. A siren scared me, waving me over. I checked the speedometer – well within the limit – as the police car parked in front. After a while an officer approached, strafing a flashlight over my windows and roof.

Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..

“Where’s your luggage?” he asked once I’d lowered it.

“I don’t have any luggage.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Is there a problem?”

The policeman’s torch crossed the backseat. He patted the roof. “Alright. It’s been a long night, I guess. Drive safe.”

I let the policeman drive off first, shaking my head. He looked younger than me, too. When did that happen? It was my birthday next month. I knew Cheryl had some plans for it, but I wished it wouldn’t come all the same.

I stopped for a coffee at Knutsford services. The reek of the toilets was not unwelcome after hours of driving – sharp enough to keep me awake. I bought a sausage roll and ate it in the Prius.

The sky was fuzzy lilac when I arrived home. Cheryl had left the light on by the front door, but the rest of the flat was dark. Rain had softened in the last hour and I listened to the peaceful sound for a minute or two before locking the car and letting myself in.

Inside there was a note from Cheryl saying there was take-out in the fridge. Since the microwave beeped loudly I ate it cold, thinking about how to bulk out my feature. I could reach out to Coleman herself, overstate my influence and weedle for a one-on-one. As she herself put it: Give yourself permission to chase your dreams.

I heard Smudge rattle the catflap as I washed the plate and headed upstairs. It was dark under the bedroom door, Cheryl asleep. I ran a bath and undressed in the hall, spotting Smudge asleep in her basket – she must have raced upstairs ahead of me – and settled in the bubbles for a calm half-hour. I scratched a few notes on my mental pad, towelled and crept into the bedroom.

Cheryl was warm, her breathing excited by a dream. I tossed and sweated for two hours, unable to fully rid from memory his BO and tobacco stench. At last I tried to lie still and make sleep come to me. The clock read 02:54.

Something probed my lower back – a dislodged spring, sliding between vertebrae. It lanced up with a pain too intense to accept as real. My disbelieving hand found a thin blade sticking through my navel. My scream was a wet hiss – my hand dropped – a numbness like early death spread until I couldn’t speak. The bed churned like a sick stomach. Two slender hands clawed through the mattress, tipping Cheryl’s numbed body so at last I saw her terrified eyes.

From the gutted mattress he emerged, dripping sweat on our faces, eyes gemmed by the moon. His stench engulfed the room; he seemed bigger than the room could possibly allow. From a crusty pocket he withdrew a long serrated knife and giant fork, spilling condiment sachets and lint. His hands were shaking.

“I am brave enough.” he rasped. “I am strong enough. I give myself permission to chase my dreams.”

 He undressed in the moonlight, put on a child’s bib, and fulfilled the most courageous act of his life.


Rayfox East was born in Bangor, Wales, and lives in London, trading a sea breeze for city smog. He is not as well-travelled as his stories, which have been published in four continents, but plans to catch up before the next pandemic hits. He works as a website manager for a UK charity.


“The Monsters Under My Bed” Dark Fiction by Mikayla Randolph

Beneath my bed, three distinct monsters have resided. Three monsters I now call mine. Near constant companions, their presence outlasts kindergarten friendships, first loves, false families, and any other menace I’ve encountered. A special connection formed long ago barred them from being discovered by anyone but me. No, they are my monsters. My burden to bear. Mine alone. No sight, no sound, no stench, nor pain could give them away to anyone but me. Throughout life, they’ve followed me from small town to big city, from house to home, and journeys abroad. No matter where I find myself, I find them there too.

My first monster was a hideous sight to behold. Eyes – large and black with red hollows and a heavy stare, tracked me in utter darkness. They followed my every move, every inch, every breath. Even as I cowered beneath the covers, I felt those eyes watching me. Always watching. Stiff, reptilian hands oozing with slime, long and bony – Nosferatu-like in shape – but covered in scales, snuck up the side of my bed. Its claws glinted in the moonlight. At the foot of the bed, its tail slithered up and crept beneath my blanket, set to strike, to circle my feet, and drag me underneath. Its split tongue slid between rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth, waiting to consume me.

I screamed for my parents, for my siblings, for anyone who dared come to my rescue. They flashed on the light, checked beneath the bed, and declared it nothing more than an act of my imagination. As they left, keeping on a lone nightlight on at my insistence, its throttle kept ringing in my ears. The deep pant of a creature craving blood and flesh, ready to leap upon its prey and devour it at any second. With white knuckles, I clung to my blanket and learned it would stay in its place if I refused to move, not an inch, not a breath. I feared sleep but discovered that the monster preferred me awake and afraid. Little children must taste better that way.

My second monster was far more ordinary. Far less terrifying to behold, barely even worth a heartbeat’s skip if we’d passed on the street. I cannot recall when this new monster replaced the former; I’d wondered how and why but assumed it’d simply scared the creature away. This monster was just a man. Or at least a shadow of one. Maybe not even male at all. My memory of him is most hazy. At times, I recall him having deep-set eyes and a scar, of being large and imposing. At other times, those depictions seem wrong. Whatever it was, it was clever. It was crafty. And it was angry.

He whispered venomous words with delicious glee. Not just threats, though they were plentiful too, but worse: my innermost fears spoken aloud, given form, and perfectly executed when it would pain me most to hear. His dirty fingers clutched a long dagger, always dripping with blood, as a disturbing grin marked his excitement. He laughed. A deep callous laugh that crawled into my ears right as I finally began to drift asleep, foreshadowing the atrocities he intended to commit.

Yet, for all the dread he caused, he never did raise that knife to me. Never plunged it in deep, over and over until the blood spouted freely from my body, and never left only a drained corpse behind. No. Instead, he just kept cackling and taunting, whispering words only I could hear, knowing they cut deeper than any blade.

The third monster tricked me. One night, before climbing into bed, I checked beneath to see how the man looked that day, only to discover that he’d apparently vanished. Nothing. No trace, no creature, no man, just dust and air. At first, I froze, startled by the sight, until relief crept in. With a smile, for the first time in a long time, I lay in bed happy, reveling in the warmth and safety. Not this time, not this night – no – now I was going to finally rest in peace. And sleep wrapped around me like a soft song sung just for me. I slept. For a while. 

In the dead of night, a jolt of electricity burst through me, and my eyes darted open; my body dripped in sweat. It was here. It was back. Something came for me. Something far worse. I peeked below the bed with trembling hands but saw nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t here for me this time. Perhaps, this time, it was here for someone else.

In a panic, I bent over my partner’s lips so my ear hovered a mere inch away. I listened for their breathing. Strong and steady, it flowed, and their hot breath warmed my cheek. In an instant, I was up, out, and moving to the nursery. On my tiptoes, I snuck in, trying not to wake my child or alert the monster. I watched their little belly moving in and out, each breath accompanied by the tiny whisps of snores, the angelic picture of a child sleeping peacefully. Relief returned; my loved ones were safe. I crept back to my room, back to my bed, back to rest. I hoped.

Once more, I checked beneath the bed. Once more. I saw, heard, smelt nothing. I lay in darkness with my eyes wide, my mind alert, and my pulse racing; I waited for the monster. I sensed it; the hairs on arms rose despite the warmth of my comforter. All I could see were varying shades of black and night and nothing. Still, I felt it. It was near. I waited; it was waiting too. We remained at a stalemate, each waiting for the other to strike, attack, and defend. For years, we waged this motionless war.

These are my monsters. They are mine, just as much as my hands, my voice, or my mind. I keep them in thought, in memory, and in my company. I need them. When they are near, I cannot sleep. Without them, all I can manage or want is sleep. See, you may have forgotten – I mentioned it so long ago: they haven’t always been my monsters. They have not always been there. They’re not constant companions, just near enough.

There have been times, the darkest of times, when I did not sense my monsters. Or at least I did not care. On those nights, rare but bleak, I’d step into bed without checking what manner of monster lay in wait below. If it clawed at me in the darkness, or slashed me to bits, or suffocated me with nothingness, then so be it. I had no strength to fight. And sleep was calling. Those times when I most needed a companion, it seemed it was just me. Alone. I’d sleep soundly those nights – mostly – long and deep from the exhaustion.

The next day, I’d awake wishing my monsters would return. That’s what made them my monsters. That – despite their horrific appearances, hideous voices, and the dread they inspired – I wanted them to come back to me. I’d rather the sleepless nights with one of my monsters lurking below than the hollow alternative. After all our years together, at odds, I’d finally claimed them as my own. Tamed them, as much as any monster can be tamed. Each night, I want nothing more than to reach a hand down my monster, to let it clutch my fingers, and to feel something in the darkness.


Mikayla Randolph resides in California, where she is a customer relations liaison in the tourism industry. She is currently editing her debut novel, a modern gothic horror. When not writing, she enjoys reading, traveling, and taking too many photos of her dogs. Twitter: @Mikraken


“Last Chance Cabin” Horror by John Ryland

David stood in the doorway of the empty cabin. His breaths came in rapid pants, fogging into the empty room. The wind gusted behind him, swirling snow onto the floor at his feet.  His tired eyes swept the room through another frozen breath. There was a small stove near the center of the room, a cot along the far wall, a desk and chair, but not much else.  After trekking for days through knee deep snow, the cabin looked like the Ritz.

     He stomped the snow from his boots and stepped inside, shoving the door closed against another gust of wind. With no windows, the room went pitch black, so he opened the door again with a reluctant sigh.

     Moving into the room, he went to the stove. His hand touched the metal, searching for warmth he knew wouldn’t be there. He pushed the hood of his parka from his head and scanned for fire wood. There was none.

     There were also no traps, no snowshoes, and no other sign this was a trapper’s cabin. No pictures hung on the walls, laying claim to it. The room was bare. It was a last chance cabin, built and left open by the state to aid unfortunate souls trapped in the weather, like him.

     Him. The man who considered himself a survivalist, an outdoorsman. He’d allowed himself to get lost in the middle of winter. The embarrassment and shame he felt had long since faded, giving way at an adamant desire to survive, and the possibility that he might not.

     He knew that most of his toes were lost to frostbite, and probably some of his fingers. He hadn’t eaten in days, sustained only by snowmelt to drink. The weather had come down on his third day out here. That was four days ago. He was lucky to be alive.

     David ran his gloved hands over his beard, knocking the frozen spittle from his face. He needed to start a fire. Even though he’d found shelter, he would still freeze to death if he didn’t. The cabin would be better than the snowbank he’d slept in last night, but it was still freezing.

     With no hope of finding wood outside, he looked around the room. Whatever he burned would have to come from the cabin. His eyes went to the wooden, ladder back chair. That would do. Now, all he needed was something to start a fire. If he still has his pack, he could use the flint, but that was long gone. 

     He went to the desk and snatched one of the drawers, expecting it to be frozen shut. It released easily and flew out of the desk, dropping to the floor. A stack of old, crumpled papers fell out, along with a few stray matches. He smiled, thankful for his fortune. 

     David stuck his hands into the iron stove. He could see the tiny flames lapping at his bare flesh, but he couldn’t feel it yet. That would take a while.

     He smashed the drawer and fed the fire carefully, smiling though his body was shivering. He’d be okay now. The cabin would shelter him, and the fire would warm him. With any luck he’d find something to eat, and in a few days, he would be strong enough to travel.

     “It’s going to be alright.” His voice echoed back to him sounding hollow and unsure.

     David fed the last of the drawer into the fire and leaned back in the chair. The cast iron stove popped as it expanded with the heat. It was still very cold in the cabin, but the mere sight of a flames felt like heaven. The fire lifted his spirits, lending him the energy to explore his sanctuary.

     He spun in the chair and lifted some of the loose papers from the drawer. He expected notes from previous occupants. What he found was several pages of chicken scratch that were barely legible.

     He dropped the papers back on the desk and picked up a sheet of paper from the floor. It had fallen from the drawer and somehow avoided becoming a fire starter. The handwriting was rough and uneven. Like a man who was freezing to death, he thought. He shook his head and tossed the paper onto the desk. He had his own problems, reading someone’s else’s didn’t appeal to him. Yet. Maybe, if he got bored later. Boredom was a luxury of those well footed in the land of the living. He wasn’t quite there yet.

     He got up and stumbled to corner, searching both cabinets. Nothing was left but frozen dust. He went to a wooden box built into the floor and opened the lid. His eyes bulged when he saw the stacks of canned goods.

     Dropping to his knees, he groped one of the cans and pulled it out. Holding it in the dim light of the open stove door, he read the label. Beans. A smile slid across his cold face. It wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it would do nicely. His hand washed over the cans, counting eleven of them. If he were prudent and rationed them, he could make them last two weeks easy. By then the weather would break and he could walk out of here.

     David peeled back the top of the can and dug his knife into the frozen beans. The few slivers of ice danced on his tongue, reminding him how to taste. A hot meal would warm him, and the full belly would let him sleep well. “It’s going to be alright.”

     He picked up the can by the lid, peeled halfway back from the top of the can. Eating with two fingers, he savored the first lukewarm bite like it was a seasoned steak. He moaned and shoveled more into his mouth.

     When he forced himself to stop at two cans, his stomach clamored for more, but he refused. He wanted to eat everything right now, but it wouldn’t help him much. At best he’d be able to stay a few days then would have to search for food again.

     Instead of gorging on the food, he broke up another drawer and stoked the flame. He closed the door to preserve the fire and pulled the bed close to the stove. He sank into the simple cot with a sigh. His body ached, and now that his feet were thawing, his toes were starting to hurt.

     He wrapped himself in the wool blanket and stared at the stove. He watched the flame dance through the thin crack around the door and drifted off to sleep with a smile.

      David sat up on the cot, his eyes going to the door. The heavy timber still laid across it though it trembled at the mercy of the elements. He’d heard something. He told himself it was the wind and laid back down. The sound was just the wind. Nothing else. He pulled the cover tight around his shoulders and settled back into the cot.

     His eyes had barely closed when the sound came again. Now that he was awake, he knew what it was. It was a howl. He opened his eyes but didn’t move. It couldn’t have been a wolf. They’d be in their den this late at night, especially when the weather was up.

     When the howl came again, closer, he sat up on the cot. The cabin was pitch black except for the faint glow of embers escaping the stove. His eyes darted around the room, making sure it was secure. The only way in or out was the door, and it was barred. Whatever was out there wasn’t going to be getting in.

     Now wide awake, he broke up the fourth of the five drawers and fed the coal bed. The dry wood ignited instantly, and a fire sprang forth. He smiled, watching it dance on the new fuel as it consumed the splintered drawer.

     He clutched the blanket to his shoulders and slid closer to the stove. The cabin was much warmer than it had been, but it was still cold. There was a chill in his bones that might never go away.

     His eyes followed the stove pipe to the ceiling. It was the smoke that brought them, he thought. They would smell the smoke and know a human was nearby. Wolves were smart. They knew a human couldn’t survive in these conditions long. To them a human was just another meal, especially in the dead of winter.

     He got up and checked the door. It was thick and sturdy and the bar across it was solid. With most of the cabin buried in a snowbank, the door was the only way in. He’d be okay.  

     The echo of a long, screeching howl filled the cabin and he jerked around, looking behind him. His heart hung in his throat. That one was close. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf. Maybe some kind of big cat? 

     It might be something else.

     David shook his head, pushing the thought from his mind. It was a wolf, or a big cat. That’s all it could be.

     He went to the desk and rifled through the pages, eager for something to occupy his mind. Pulling the chair closer to the stove, he opened the door and examined them. The writing was hard to read. In the dim light, his eyes narrowed, as he slowly began to decipher the first line.

I don’t know what it was, but it was something big.

     His brow furrowed as he sifted through the pages, finding the beginning of the letter. The writer introduced himself as Addle Fleming and explained that he’d gotten lost in the woods. He stumbled onto the cabin by a stroke of luck. A fur trapper by trade, he’d gotten caught in an unexpected storm on his way home from running his lines. He spent two paragraphs explaining his surprise at not being able to find his way, since he’d lived here all his life.

     David nodded and scratched his cheek. “It happens, my friend.” He shifted back to the second page and began reading again.

      I don’t know what it was, but it was something big. At first, I thought it a wolf, or a mountain lion, but I don’t know   now. As it got closer, it began to not sound like either.

David cast a wary eye at the door and sighed, then went back to the letter.

      It is close now. The door is solid and I’m sure it can’t get in, but it’s still unnerving to hear. I’ve got plenty of wood and several cans of beans and a few packs of dried fish. I should be fine for a few weeks. Surely the weather will break then.

     He looked into the fire, rubbing his face. Addle Fleming had gotten himself into the same predicament as him. It’s not an unusual situation, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. This was, after all, a last chance cabin. It was built and stocked for this very situation. Of course they both shared similar fates. This was rough country, especially in winter.

      I was woke from sleep by a scratching at the door. It wasn’t hard, but more of a testing. Something was curious. I thought it might be another traveler, so I went to the door and yelled. No one answered. I pounded on the door and whatever it was ran away. I opened the door. There were big tracks in the snow, to big for a wolf, or even a cat. All I had was a lantern, and I couldn’t see none too good. I don’t know if they were my tracks or not, so I closed the door and barred it. I don’t know what it was.

     A howl pulled David’s head up from the letter. He swallowed hard as his eyes swept the room. The letter was right. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf or a big cat. It sounded like-

     “No.” David stood, tossing the pages back to the desk. He couldn’t allow his mind to begin to wander. There were plenty of legends and ghost stories about these mountains, but that’s all they were. Sure, people went missing, but they probably froze to death and were buried in the snow. In the spring, before the weather allowed much travel up the mountain, their bodies were found by the animals and eaten. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it explained all the disappearances.

     That, he thought adamantly, was what happened. That and nothing else. He paced the room then came back to the stove. His eyes went to the papers and he shook his head.

     He wadded the first two pages and tossed them into the fire, smiling as the flames consumed the writing. Good riddance.

     Sitting back in the chair, he pulled the middle drawer from the desk. Two stubby pencils and a few pages of loose paper fell out. He tossed the two pencils into the fire and laid the papers on the desk before breaking up the drawer.

     After feeding the fire, he looked back at the new pages. The paper had yellowed, and the writing was different. Another occupant of the cabin had left his account. His hand had a slight tremble as he picked them up. Leaning closer to the fire, he began to read.

I ain’t even got no idear what the hell made the noise.  wernt no wolf like I thought it was. It’s got to be a lot bigger. I could hear it walking on the roof last nite. I thought it could be a bar, but it cut lose a howl and I knew it wernt no bar. Sount like a woman hollerin. A woman in some kinda pain.

     David sighed. The letter wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong either. The howl didn’t sound like a woman screaming, or a wolf, or even a big cat. It sounded like all three in one. He swallowed hard and slid closer to the stove, holding the letter to the light.

       I dun herd the damed thing screeming for 3 nights in a row now. It keeps me up so I sleep some when its day     time. Last nite it come real clost agin. It was scrachin at tha door. Not hard. Like it was testin it, in case it did want to come in.

     David picked up the first set of pages, examining the passages that spoke of the scratching at the door. Both stated the same thing. Had the same thing happened to both men or had Addle read the first letter and thought he’d heard scratching? It could have been the wind and the power of suggestion. Being cooped in such a small place had a way of working on a man’s mind sometimes.

     The door rattled against a gust of wind then went still. The sound of David’s thundering heart filled his ears as he stared at the brace on the door, waiting. His eyes widened when a soft scratching came against the wood. Something hard moved against the door, pushing it against the bar holding it closed. The tension on the door released, then another long scratch from top to bottom.

     David bolted from the chair and went to the door, slamming his fists against it. “Get out of her!” he screamed. The wind gusted again then went silent. 

     He turned and leaned his back on the door. The soft light of the fire cast long shadows in front of the stove. Inside, a knot popped in the flames, and he jumped, yelping like a kid.

     An unsteady hand wiped across his lips as he scanned the room. He needed to know what happened to the others. That would tell him what to expect. He hobbled across the room and fell into the chair. His toes were hurting, but they would have to wait. He had to know.

     I herd it again. It was on the roof when I shot at it. I spent up all my shot but one. When I was dun shootin it just left. It wernt skeered of the shot. It wanted me to shoot at it to spend all my shot up. It new I could not kill it. I don’t know what it is. God help me.

     David sifted through the papers and found a similar passage in the newer letter. Addle had a pistol and shot every bullet but one at the sound, having the same effect.

     He shook his head. “Don’t you see,” he said, his voice faltering. “That’s what it wants. It wants to torture us. Drive us crazy. That’s what it wants.”

     The screeching howl ripped through the cabin. He jumped and spun around quickly. He stared at the ceiling, his eyes wide with freight, ignoring the bead of sweat running down his temple.

     “I hear you, you bastard.” His eyes swept back and forth across the ceiling, then came back to the papers in his hand. He nodded. Yes. The secret was in the letters. They would tell him what to do.

     This is my third day. The screeching has been relentless. I can not sleep. I don’t know what it is, but I know it is big. I know that it knows I am here. Why doesn’t it just bust the door in and come get me. I only have one shot left. One shot, and I am saving it.

     David’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the paper. Saving it for what? he wondered. For yourself? He shuffled the page to the back and bent closer to the fire.

       I do not know what is happening to me. I hear things from everywhere. The door, the roof. I hear scratching and howling, and today there is a new sound. Like the wings of a giant bird. But how can I hear it through the  snow? Something is outside waiting for me. I cannot stay here forever and it knows it. Soon I will have to try to make a break. I think that’s what it is waiting for.

     David leaned back in the chair with a heavy sigh. That was his plan too, but now he was second guessing it. But what was he to do? He could last two weeks, if he rationed the food and melted snow to drink. After that it would only be a matter of time. If he waited, he’d be weaker. That was what they wanted, wasn’t it? Whatever was outside could wait him out and it knew it.

     He looked at the box in the corner. Why wait at all? he asked himself. Eat all the food now, get some energy back, and go. Don’t wait. Don’t play the game. Maybe the element of surprise would be in his favor.  No, he thought. Maybe that’s their plan. They want me to think I’m surprising them, but they’d really be surprising me. He nodded his head, stroking his beard. No, you bastards, not this time. I’ll outthink you.

     He stumbled to the cot and fell into it. He was still tired. He just needed rest. He laid down and pulled the covers over his head. Rest. That’s all I need. Just some rest. I’ll be fine. Beneath his eyelids, his eyes darted back and forth. A smile pushed his beard back. Just some…. He didn’t finish the thought before he fell into a restless sleep.

     David awoke suddenly. He sat up in the bed, disoriented. Where was he? He looked around the room and found the faint orange glow in the shape of a square. Other than that, the room was pitch black. He tilted his head, still breathing heavy. What was that shape? What was the light?

     He wiped sweat from his brow and stood. The cold washed over him instantly, setting off the shivers. He was freezing. He grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders as he staggered forward. He extended a hand toward the source of light. There was also heat. Good.

     He bent forward, bringing his nose to within inches of the stove. He could smell the coals, the hot metal. His mind lurched forward, telling him it was the stove in his cabin.   

     He smiled and took another step toward the light, and the heat. His left foot struck the iron leg of the stove and shockwaves of pain tore through his damaged toes. His feet. Yes. He remembered now. His feet were hurt. Frozen. The pain helped him strip away the fog as he slowly put things together in his mind.

     Despite building up the fire, he couldn’t stop shaking. Shivering. He pulled the sock from his foot in uneven tugs. The fabric rolled slowly back as he unfurled it from his skin. His toes were black, the skin hung on them loosely. The last three were solid black. They were done for. The big toe and the one next to it were discolored near the tips but might be saved.

     Using the tip of his hunting knife, he peeled the dead skin from his pinky toe. It fell away, revealing a wet lump of black tissue. He grimaced and peeled the skin from the next two toes.

     They were gone. There would be no saving them. If he were in the hospital, they could amputate and save his foot. But he wasn’t in the hospital. He was miles from civilization and his chances of getting back were growing slimmer with each black toe he found.

     He ran a hand over his hair and sighed. The longer the dead tissue stayed on his foot, the more he would lose. Shivering wildly, he crowded closer to the stove, straddling it. The dead toes had to come off.

     Outside, another howl pieced the night. They’re celebrating, he thought, shaking his head. They knew that in this condition, he wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

     The blade of the knife was hot. David grimaced as the metal seared his foot. That was a good sign. If he could feel it, he was in live tissue. Moving quickly, before he could change his mind, he brought the heel of his boot down on the back of the knife. The metal slid through the flesh, lopping off his last three toes.

     He fell back onto the cot with an agonizing scream. In the distance, another howl answered his. He pounded his fist into the cot, gritting his teeth until the pain subsided enough to sit up.

      The hope of cauterizing the wound as he amputated the toes vanished when he saw the bloody stumps. He shook his head, then looked at the stove. A knot tightened in his stomach. He had to stop the bleeding.

     David awoke with a start. He sat up on the cot and looked around. The smell of cooked meat hung in the air. His mouth almost watered with delight, but then he remembered what had been seared. The pain in his left foot screamed when he hauled it up, inspecting the wound. The flesh was red and swollen, but the bleeding had stopped.

     David paused, his hand holding the coiled wire of the stove handle. His eyes went to the cabin door as it pushed in against the thick timber. A long, scraping sound filled the cabin. He picked up a boot and hurled it at the door. When the sound stopped, he opened the stove and stuck the blade of his knife into the bed of red coals.

     The knife hadn’t been hot enough before. He couldn’t make that mistake again. If he passed out before cauterizing the wounds, he could bleed out. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d die alone and in pain and that son of a bitch outside would howl all night.

     He was halfway through his third can of beans when the sound of crunching snow filled the cabin. His eyes went to the ceiling, tracking the sound of the footfalls. It was walking on the roof. Whatever it was, it was right there. If he had a gun, he could kill it. He could shoot it through the ceiling.

     A scream filled the cabin, but it took a moment for David to realize it was his own. He screamed and the creature answered with a hollow, piercing howl of its own. He screamed again, and the creature answered again.

     David laughed loudly. “You son of a bitch! Not me. You’ll not get me.” He dropped the can and opened the door of the stove. He wrapped a gloved hand around the handle of his knife and removed it. The blade was glowing red.

     He bent and shoved the blade into the flesh at the base of his toes. His scream tore through clenched teeth as the hot steel sank into his skin. Outside, the creature answered his cry.

     David awoke, slumped on the cot. He opened his eyes, watching his breath fog before him. Each ragged breath turned to smoke as it left his body then dissipated in the air before him. He straightened himself and looked at the stove. The warm glow was gone. He’d been asleep long enough for the fire to burn down to hot ash.

     Groaning as he bent forward, he opened the door and looked inside. The stray embers awoke as he blew on them. The fire hadn’t gone completely. That was good. He reached down for some firewood but stopped.

     His hunting knife lay on the floor next to his foot. Next to the knife two lumps of black tissue lay on the floorboards like rotten grapes. Brushing the toes aside with a grunt, he picked up the wood and tossed it into the stove. 

     He wrapped the blanket close and slid closer to the stove. Gripping the papers with a trembling hand, he tilted them to read by the light of the fire.

      I went outside. The snow has stopped, but it is waist deep. Walking out will be nearly impossible, but I can’t stay here. The scratching at the door was worse last night. I slept in the corner with my pistol, but it never broke through. I think it might be easier to just give up. It’s going to get me either way. I’m just prolonging things. I still have one bullet left.

     David shook his head. “Don’t give up, man. You gotta make it. If you made It so can I.” His eyes went to the next entry.

     I cain’t take it no more. the howling and screaming is driving me crazy. It’s like a pack of dogs outside. It comes from everywhere at once. I know it ain’t wolves, or no mountain lion. I wish I knew what it was, that way I might have a chance of beating it. I been here a week and it’s getting hard to stay. I wish it would knock the door in and come after me.

He swallowed hard and flipped the page to the back. Wiping sweat from his lip with the back of his hand, he continued reading:

     I may get my wish. Whatever it is was at the door. The screaming made my blood run cold. This might be my last entry. I done ate all the food I had. I didn’t wanna die  cold and hungry. If it comes through the door I’m going to turn the gun on myself. That way I won’t be alive when it gets me. Either way I’m almost done for. I’m either going to           freeze, starve to death, shoot myself, or make a break for it. Or whatever the hell that thingis will get me. I just wish I knew what it was. I ain’t never heard nothing like this.

     David tossed the paper onto the fire and rubbed his face with both hands. His options were pretty much in line with old Addle, except he didn’t have a gun.

     He pulled the blanket tight over his shoulders and slid up to the stove, nearly touching it. He extended his hands to the stove, watching them shake. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on making them be still. When he looked again, they were shaking worse.

     “Dammit.” He moved his hands closer but misjudged in the dim light and brushed against the hot steel. He jerked his hand away and looked at the tips of his fingers. Small circles of gray, ashy skin stared back at him like so many dead eyes.

     Outside the door, a screech rang out in the night.

     “You liked that, didn’t you? You bastard.” Anger rose in his chest as he stared wide-eyed at the door. “You’re not going to get me.” David shook his head and armed sweat from his brow. “You hear me!” he screamed. “You’re not going to get me.”

     He huddled back beneath his blanket and shook his head. “You’ll never get me,” he mumbled. “Maybe you got the others, but not me.” He shoved more wood on the fire and wiped sweat from his face. No, he wasn’t going out like that. Not him. “You’ll never get me.” His eyes went to the door. “Never!” he screamed. His laughter filled the cabin as another howl rang out in the night. “Never!”

     Outside, the howling grew louder. Closer.

     A young man wearing an Alaska Wildlife Management uniform exited the cabin. He shook his head as he stepped into the bright sunshine. Putting the empty gas can down, he wiped his hands. 

     The mountain side around the cabin was awash with lush green grass and wildflowers. Jagged rocks, gleaned from the mountainside by ice, littered the landscape. The scene was typical for this time of year, rugged and beautiful.

     “I don’t get it, boss. It seems like a good cabin. Got some years on it, but it’s still sturdy.”

     “It’s not my call, Tom. The big boss wants it gone.”

     Tom Rutherford looked at his boss and shrugged. “I know all that stuff is weird and all, but it’s still a good cabin.”

     “They did find a dead man in here. He’d slit his own throat. And all those notes about things attacking them. It’s nuts.”

     “Do you think it’s true. The stuff in the notes, I mean.”

     The older man laughed. “You ever been snowed in way out here?”

     “No.”

     “It’s not fun. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. If you’re injured, maybe got a touch of fever it’s worse. The isolation on top of the cold and hunger alone gets to some folks. I’m surprised they didn’t find the older notes when they restocked last year.”

     “Probably not much reason to inspect much. There wasn’t a body before.”

     “Guess you’re right there.”

     Tom scanned the mountainside and shook his head. “But both sets of notes claimed to hear noises. You’d think with all the snow it’d be silent out here.”

     The older man nodded. “You’d think so, but it’s not. Listen.”

     Both men stood in silence as the wind picked up. A low whistle resonated along the mountain side.

     “What’s that from?” Ton asked.

     “It’s just the wind on the mountain, the rock formations and the terrain. It’s a geographical anomaly. I’ll bet with some snowfall it sounds pretty creepy at night. If the weather really gets up, like it usually does around here, it can sound pretty wicked.”

     “Surely you don’t think it was all the wind.”

     “Look, Tommy boy. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff that happens in these mountains. Take some wind, some weird rock formations, and a fella who’s tired, hungry, and scared to begin with. There’s no telling what he might hear. There’s also no way to tell what he’ll think he hears.”

     Tom shook his head. “It still sounds like a stretch to me.”

     “My guess is that the first guy that heard it thought he heard something. He got scared and left a note in the drawer. The next guy probably heard it and might not have thought anything about it. Until he reads the note. Then he starts thinking too much. It’s cold and dark, miles from anything and you’re on your own. Days and days, holed up in a tiny cabin with nothing to do but think. Like I said, your mind can do weird stuff.”

     “But what happened to the other guys? They never found any bodies.”

     “I suppose they panicked and make a break for it. Got lost in the snow and froze to death. Early in the spring the animals found them. It happens. You should read the ‘Bone Report’. Some crazy stuff.”

     “But this?” Tom jerked his thumb at the cabin. “The report said he sliced his own throat after cutting off five of his own toes. That’s a lot for the power of suggestion. Do you know how desperate a man would have to be to do that? It doesn’t make sense.”

     “And some kind of monsters stalking them makes more sense?”

     Tom shrugged, conceding the point. “Still seems like a heck of a reason to burn down a last chance cabin. A lot of people have been saved by these things.”

     “They’re building another one back up the ways a bit. They’re also leaving a pamphlet explaining the nature of things for outsiders. Hopefully, we’ll avoid this mess again.” He looked at Tom and shrugged. 

     “I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

     “If you’d ever been snowed under you would understand it better.”     

“I hope I don’t find out this way.” Tom looked up the mountain. He sighed and shook his head, wondering if it was really the wind, or if there was something out there. Above him, the wind gusted. Moving through the rugged terrain, the slightest of whistles drifted down into the valley.


Mr. Ryland notes:

“I have published work in Eldritch Journal, Otherwise Engaged, The Writer’s Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Subterranean Blue, and others. My collection Southern Gothic and novel Souls Harbor are currently available on all major markets. My upcoming novel The Man with No Eyes, will be published by Moonshine Cove Press in March 2022.”


“Nocturnal” Dark, Psychological Poetry by Todd Matson

I
Shake the diagnostic
decision tree.  What falls out?
Schizophrenia or bipolar mania?
Posttraumatic stress or night terrors?
Something not classified as mental illness?

II
Enough with the analysis.
This is not some manic episode.
Not another word about antipsychotics –
abilify, seroquel, zyprexa, these are not for me.

I have no melatonin deficiency.
Ambien is not what I need.  My circadian
rhythm is as it should be, awake all night, asleep all day.
Insomniacs are not the only creatures who don’t sleep at night.

Mindless slurs against the nocturnals will
solve nothing.  Mice, raccoons, and possums –
I understand them.  Bats, coyotes and cockroaches –
they know what they’re doing.  Do you honestly believe
millions of years of evolution has driven them up a blind alley?

The nocturnals come out under
the cover of darkness to eat in peace,
to avoid being seen, smelled and devoured.
Benzodiazepines – xanax, klonopin, valium, these
would only make them sitting ducks for vicious predators.

Stealth is survival.
Do you think me insane?
Night is the time to be awake,
aware, hyperaware, hypervigilant.

You have not experienced
my calamities.  You have not dreamed
my dreams.  You have not lived my nightmares.
When they come for me, let them come in the light of day.

Let them be seen 
for the cowardly ghoulish
fiends they are.  Put them on notice.
I am nocturnal.  I am hungry.  I smell blood.
I will be hunting them in their pitch-black nightmares.

Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, has been published in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, Bluepepper, and The Chamber Magazine, and has written lyrics for songs recorded by a number of contemporary Christian music artists


“Aperture” Sci-Fi Horror by Dan A. Cardoza

“That building across the street is another Freedom Tower, Carl, take a look at all the glass in front. See how the facade looks like a skinny pyramid, or a spaceship being launched?” Carl passes the fumes of a nearly empty gallon of Carlo Rossi back to his street friend Andy.

“Here dude, you need this more than me.”

Andy takes the last pull from the jug and wipes the cheap burgundy off his cracked lips, “You got to open up your mind, Carl-o.”

~~~

Part of controlling someone is telling them, “No one else will ever love you.”

After they got married, Jack would often say, “Even if you were lucky enough to find someone to replace me, in time, they’ll turn into a monster too.” At first it was sex and smoking in bed. Chloe believed everything Jack ever said. 

When they’d finally married, started out, Chloe never asked for the perfect apartment. But, here it was, and it was theirs, 52 East End Avenue, Number 39, New York, 10028, on the Upper East Side. 

They’d been awed by the panoramic view of the city, the East River, Brooklyn all from their small patio. 

The apartment occupies the entire 39th floor of the building. The building is a modest 82 stories that points into the sky. 82 is the same number of moons that circle Jupiter.  

It’s something he wanted to purchase, not Jupiter, the building, and the Subaru telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii.

When they’d bought their 2,700 sq ft. apartment, they’d noticed all fine artisanship and amenities. They especially the admired how the common living area featured an open, eat-in kitchen. Chloe had loved the casual dining, “It’s like Paris.” Each room is a jewel with an exquisite view. 

They loved how the wrought-ironed fenced-in patio offered vistas as far as any telescope dreamed, up and down the East River. It was perfect for dawn and the sun, moonscapes, and the chivalry numbness of winter.

Come winter, Chloe fancied herself on a chair on the patio, listening to the built-in decibels of the alabaster snowflakes, each snowflake a gift from a dark cloud. 

The living space, where the so-called living gets done, offers a breathtaking view of the Brooklyn skyline across the back of the silver scaled East River. On a clear day, you can bend your

eyes around the corner far enough to view the Freedom Tower. Freedom and self-discovery is what Chloe had been promised when they’d married. 

Chloe’s childhood is in the Hampton’s, where it remains, and in Paris, in a meager flat her parents still own. Chloe is quite sophisticated but she’s not of the personage to display it. He finds that quite appealing.

The flat in Paris offers a view of Rue de Monnttessuy Avenue. The Rue intersects a street, just a block away from that skyrocket, the Eiffel Tower. Most of the family still summers in Paris.

Jack and Chloe met in college, Harvard, Boston. Jack paid his way by skimming the books of a moving company. He’s smart, received a degree in Operations Management in the high tech industry.

Today, Jack works for one of the top tech companies in all of New York. It’s headquartered in Lower Manhattan, near Broad and Wall next to where all the green gigabytes are stored. 

Chloe received an unassuming Masters of Arts Degree in Education. Chloe worked in Harlem, with the disadvantaged, grades 4 and 6. Her life was this low-paying teaching gig that she’d loved. 

Notwithstanding, Jack requested Chloe quit her job, a request fraught with the burden of cognitive dissonance on her part. He’d said he could advance his career if only his charming wife were at his side or at home in the luxury apartment. Stratospheric advancement, even a board membership was in reach of his ever-growing tentacles. She could have said no. 

But, she really loved Jack, not so much his politics, or the smell of decay from his eroding character. 

It wasn’t long before the couple had become perfumed in the stink of wealth. Jack grew dour. Wealth hadn’t filled his worldly appetite, nor did pot, meth, or heroin. 

This Jack guy, this new corporate Jack, was the same guy who’d screwed Chloe’s brains out all night under a collision of sexy stars in the Boston Commons Park. Security had to remove them. They were damned near knotted and stuck together. It was after 3:00 AM before they had to leave. Jack loved Chloe. Chloe loves Jack, but less each day.

Everyone supported the lovely couple’s choices, including Chloe’s dwindling number of friends and her family. Jack had made sure of that. He’d provided her with everything she’d wanted, except a baby.

Chloe flops on the toilet to wiz. Her knees pleasantly stick together from Gucci Bloom Body Oil. She places her feet about a foot apart, barefoot toes pointed in. She’s model gorgeous. She’s holding a long cigarette between her fingers. It’s a Newport 100. She looks up at the exhaust fan in the ceiling as it adjusts the zoom. The tiny camera remains hidden behind the quickening blade passion. It takes pictures. It switches to video capacity, as the exhaust fan chops Chloe’s beautiful face into segments. It will practically drool over cut up clips later that night. Chloe imagines the walls having eyes.

Chloe lifts her delicate chin and bellows smoke into the fan in the ceiling. Chloe stands and swishes her paisley shirt as if she’s doing the Tango with a ceiling ghost. She flushes the commode, neglects the bidet, and saunters out of the bathroom suite. 

A few of the screenshots he’s taken look promising. Maybe he’ll print out her face and nail it to his headboard, along with the other subjects.

There were formal Thanksgiving’s, spring vacations, back at the Hampton’s, and France of course, so that Chloe could catch up with everyone. Jack had found creative excuses for leaving their time together. He was always in demand somewhere, somewhere was always more important.

Each year, Jack made it more difficult for Chloe to recreate. Chloe missed her family, but she remained loyal to her skittered marriage.

Chloe had felt alone during the end of year holidays. Her husband had been away. It was just her and the snow in Upper Manhattan. A private birthday on a yacht along the East River in previous fall, their wonderful view out every window, their envious life, hadn’t been enough to fill her inside. Chloe felt she’d be less lonely if she were a shadow on the backside of the moon. She needed something more, it needed something more, his production was tanking.

One day, Chloe felt as if she could walk on water, right across the East River into Brooklyn. After all, she’d gotten the news that she was pregnant. Jack wasn’t at all happy, but he hadn’t rebuked her as usual. She was only human after all. So she’d missed a period or two, sometimes forgetting her birth control, he’d forgive her. 

Her smile had returned. Her tomorrow’s were growing deep inside her. And then–and then in a matter of three years, she’d lost two nearly full-term babies, Amy and Josh. Chloe imagined her womb a turnstile of death and destruction. She and Jack had searched long and hard to find Babyland at Pinelawn. It was the perfect setting, a Memorial Park in New York City singularly for the unborn, infants and children. It was one of the few places Chloe felt comfortable visiting.

Her obstetrician had said, “Chloe, it’s your Endometriosis. We’ve been over this before. Our extensive imaging has revealed that the only thing growing inside you are tenticles.”

“You make it sound so alien, Doctor,” Chloe had said.

“Shall I refer you to a psychiatrist? Medication can do wonders. And, Chloe, there have been so many advances of late.”

Chloe had shaken her head back and forth, implying no! But she’d said, “Yea, sure.”  

“Here’s her number, take it. Her name is Dr. Camille Stone. By the way, Camille means perfect in French. She owes me. Give her a call, Chloe.” 

Each level of the building, each room overlooking the beautiful East River has eyes, millions and millions of lenses, impossibly so. Most of the lenses are low voltage, and consume infinitesimal bits of electricity. Every tiny camera is state of the art, distance, zoom, high def. Each monocle is wired to record on a designated DVR. Each DVR sits on a stand in his large, air-conditioned studio. The room’s thermostat is set at a perfect 33 degrees. There’s a lot to keep track of, but he’s very intelligent and up to the task, up there. 

Each DVR saves limitless imagery: Credit card and banking account numbers, medical records, debit card pins. Each and every prying camera gorges itself until satiated on eBay, and Twitter accounts. He’s gotten to know just about everyone in the building quiet well.

After months of therapy and the right combinations of medication, Chloe seems less anxious. She thinks more clearly and has feelings again. That gnawing angst that has paralyzed her appetite has all but disappeared, at least for now. She’s gotten her weight back. Chloe chooses to read a lot. She enjoys staring out the patio door glass, onto the East River, and Brooklyn, and into the skyline that seems to blur itself into another universe. 

Chloe has been accused of turning the plush modern sofa and the glass coffee table next to it into her personal office space, as if it mattered. And Jack isn’t kidding. His work doesn’t pay him for having a sense of humor.

One evening, after Chloe’s fixed Jack a wonderful dinner, she thought to chill in her designated landing space. She’d molded herself into a comfortable piece of clay on the gorgeous grey sofa. She fingered the mouse on her notebook as if it were her sensitive clit. She’d been given a new Lenovo ThinkPad, P15s, Gen 1-15.6. Somehow the electronic pheromones that it emits feel crazy good to Chloe. 

Seasons laser across the patio door’s glass in the same direction as the East River, west. Nothing stays the same in New York City, including the years. Everything outside the patio’s large window seems to lust in direction of the cities harbor and into the Atlantic Ocean. The invisible wind, the sun, the clumsy dim-witted moon, all head west, month after month, out to the sea. Sometimes Chloe feels like moving along too in the direction of permanence.

Chloe exits her custom-built shower. It’s stereo surround sound in an onyx enclosure. The owner purchased the bath marble from the Carrara quarry in Italy. It’s the same quarry Michelangelo release David from. The dreamy shower is the size of a new Mercedes Benz, with all its whistles and bells. 

Chloe straight arms the bathroom counter and stoops over the rim of the golden sink. She attempts to wipe away the steam on the mirror. She does this until her patch is mostly a circle and squeaky clean. She can see herself clearly through an opening she’s created. The opening view captures her lovely, vulnerable body. She cups her full breasts, still aching from her last miscarriage. Her nipples are pink spring rosebuds. Their darkness has dissipated. He’s dying inside, behind the mirror, to kiss each bud into bloom. He needs the numbers back home for the council. He has to procreate.

She presses closer as if to disappear into the mirror. There is a lovely pout on her lips as if her reflection is a new lover. He knows what she is thinking, says inside his skull, “It won’t be long, pretty.”

He stiffens his back as if he’s just had a hit of cocaine. He does everything he can to keep from igniting. There are times when the male gender can feel out of control. 

Chloe moves out of view to fetch a luxurious towel. She doesn’t know how close he’s come to breaking the glass and entering her world.

~~~

Chloe has a diagnosis, one Jack isn’t sold on. She’s suffering from post-partum depression. Chloe disagrees and thinks post-partum depression is simply an expensive word you pay psychiatrists to pronounce. She quits therapy, and cancels any future psychiatry appointments. 

Once she’s out of medicine, she takes over-the-counter Tylenol. Tylenol seems to work as well as Effexor. Actually, anything works. And so, she quits eating, again. At least Tylenol fills her stomach.

Defenseless, Chloe invites her morbid thoughts into her mind. It is in there, crawling around in the fissures. She can’t control the sensation, which is becoming an aphrodisiac. She wants to feel it. 

It slithers on the scales of its belly ribs, and enters her thoughts. Iprobes, using its coiled fullness. It squirms and wriggles inside the folds of her gray matter, searching and waiting for the wetness. She grows completely comfortable, vulnerable to its girth and the fact that it exists in her thoughts. 

They’d first meet on the elevator, the 39th floor, Chloe and the apartment complex owner. He was headed out of the building for the day. Chloe was off to her cute restaurant in the basement, the Cafe Chez Marie. She was dying for fresh coffee. This had been back in her teaching days.

“You are 39,” he quips. Chloe blushes and peaks up at his platinum hair. He is tall. He’s is as handsome as any model she thinks. He looks forward to meeting her husband. They share the usual introductory chitchat, but there’s something else going on here.

Later that evening in his expansive studio, he reviews the elevator video. He intermittently captures a screenshot and then Wi-Fi’s the pic over to the printer, over and over again. He uses a ruler to measure the distance between their hands when they’d clutched the guard rail in the elevator, on their way down to the lobby. 

At the 1.02 point of action, he notices both of their hands gripping the elevator rail. He measures the distance. Their hands were exactly 23 inches apart when the elevator started. By the time the video’s action clip reaches 1.42 minutes, he measures the distance again.  He’s determined that the distance between their hands had shortened to 17 inches by the time the elevator landed on the lobby floor.

Based on his calculations, Chloe’s hands had moved 5 inches in his direction. He smiles. He’s a chic magnet. He can almost smell the wetness of a new spawn.

It’s the third of March, almost spring. Chloe is browsing: Pinterest, Google, and something familiar on YouTube.  It’s this guy who repairs and repurposes furniture. She’s been intrigued and impressed with his imagination and creativity. As a distraction, she’d booked a few of his videos. She loves Haden the Handyman.  Haden’s channel is all about refinishing vintage furniture, and all the care and sanding that goes with handling raw wood. Repurposing feels right to Chloe somehow. 

Chloe stumbles around on her computer, and trips over a new URL. 

It’s as if someone or something is controlling her Google searches. She happens upon a men’s cologne add. It is for Creed Aventus Eau De Parfum 100ml. The imp in her wants to taste the model’s skin. He’s posed in black silk P.J.’s while sitting back in a leather chair in his master bedroom suite. 

Directly behind him is an open black window in the background.  Chloe imagines the background a celestial slate board rift with chalky bits of stars. Something inside her wants to enter his world out there.

His pajama top is unbuttoned. Luxurious fur runs the distance from below his navel to the beginning of his throat. He’s smirking at Chloe. She knows it. He’s looking straight through her.  His hair is not so much silver-white platinum, but rather quaffed liquid mercury. Chloe’s nipples harden and pulse with life. Her skin is a river of goosebumps. 

It’s only a start, but Chloe gets up and walks over to Jack, who’s working at the kitchen table again. She hesitantly taps him on the shoulder. Jack has brought work home he’s focused on, and so it takes a while for Jack to respond. He has a good reason to be distracted. Jack turns to Chloe. Chloe gestures at her notebook. Jack makes that clicking sound again, using the disgust he so often finds between his tongue and teeth.

Jack goes back to his laptop screen.

It watches and records.

Chloe drifts back to her accusatory office.

Not long after, Chloe is pleasantly surprised to discover Jack watching over her shoulder. Just maybe, she thinks, Jack will display some interest in this little nothing YouTube channel she’s discovered. It’s not like she wants to start a furniture repair business. She simply likes the idea of making something old turn newish again. She would like to share this with her husband.

Jack turns sour and says, “Ok Honey, furniture repair is unrealistic. The upfront cost alone certainly doesn’t justify the expense. Jack thumbs the stubbles on his chin, his new compulsion. “Chloe, what in the hell do you know about refurbishing vintage furniture? Jack demands.  

Not waiting for an answer, Jack stomps back to his office at the aquamarine table.

The gorgeous dining room light, not quite grown a grown up chandelier, seems to warm the space, unlike its cold mini cameras that continue to watch the scene unfold.

Chloe gets up and slides the patio door wide open, next the screen door. She’s flushed and needs comforting, stands a minute, looks up into the stars. 

After, she walks back to her intimate sofa, leaving the patio doors wide open. Chloe curls her socked feet under her rump. The same gorgeous rump Jack couldn’t keep his well manicured hands-off so very long ago. 

Chloe gets up again, this time she walks in the direction of the second bath, near the elegant front door. Jack imagines her peeing, maybe crying again on the toilet, boohoo. But Jack’s mostly busy looking at a work email from a friend. His laptop wants Jack to Google skydiving deaths. Jack has deadlines to meet, God-damn it. Doesn’t anyone understand? 

Chloe slowly returns to the sofa and sits. She looks long and hard at the moon. It’s platinum too. She insists on lettering the wind blow west in the direction of change. The opaque darkness and loneliness on the East River have never looked so beautiful.

A half-hour drifts into an hour. Jack searches and searches the entire house. Jack needs to remind Chloe how much pressure he’s been under lately, and how upsetting the thought of her new adventures have become to him, all stupid one day purchases, refinishing, sanding, and glazing. And those damned sales, just to get rid of a shit-load of wooden inventory nobody wants anymore. Jack’s mind is headed for a car wreck.

Chloe had no intention to open a refinishing business. Chloe had simply attempted to communicate with Jack, perhaps work on saving their marriage by sharing something, anything. All she wanted to do was to make sure they were still human, and not following out of love?

Jack walks out onto the patio. It’s freezing cold. She’s never left the door wide open before. Jack looks over the patio railing, straight down at the buildings flashing blue lights. Jack imagines the lights spinning clockwise, blue lights of madness. He’s a horrified child again, stuck on a shaky Farris wheel.  

Jack refuses the uptake of reasonable thought. He tromps back inside, grabbing the patio door handle. He slides the door shut with a smack and locks it tight, unlocks it and locks it again.

Jack backs away from the patio door a few steps.  Next, he becomes transfixed at his computer screens reflection in the glass panel, the stack of emails.  He looks beyond the reflection into the impending darkness. His wife has committed suicide. Jack begins to dial 911 and hesitates. 

In the windows reflection, Jack’s cursor is pulsating manically. The cursor, like the police cars lights, has turned cobalt blue. Everything is cobalt blue through Jack’s new crazy looking glass. Jack feels as though he has the spade of hearts stuck in his throat. He’s going to have to face everything alone now.

Who’s going to believe he hadn’t pushed her over the railing? Who’s going to download his Google searches? After all, Jack’s night hasn’t been all work. 

Jack’s searches: How to best divorce your wife so she won’t take all you money. Pushing someone to their death/top ten dating sites/how to cheat the bitch out of her alimony? /how to tell your new love how much you hate children?/the deadly effects of Ricin?

Jack mulls over an email he’d received from a government attorney he knows, Mr. Tom Jennings. Mr. Jennings works for the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Heads up dude, call me in the morning, you’re going to be indicted for fraud and insider trading.”

Jack had opened and closed the email over an hour ago. 

The cameras are viewing Jack’s behavior in real-time. Someone or something already knows the 411.

Jack’s hands feel clammy and sweaty. His guts are wriggling eels. He’s got acid electricity reflux. Epinephrine car jacker’s are running red lights through the intersections of his synapse. 

Jack fixes his eyes on the patio door handle. His fingerprints overlap Chloe’s. It’s obvious who shut the door after Chloe jumped. Jack has an urge to wipe the prints clean. But that’s tampering with evidence. Jack chooses not to wipe. How about becoming a fox, and opening the lock with a butter knife? But that makes little difference. 

Jack is saddened by a long buried thought. He remembers how his older brother had gotten himself written out of his mother’s trust fund. How Thomas had embarrassed her and tarnished the family name. 

Jack is too aware of all the forensic evidence stored on his company’s hard drive, as well as well as somewhere far away in a data farm in Iowa or out in the Ethernet.

Jack’s laptop is stingy, it is holding back those sexy pictures of his hotel tryst, an affair he had affair with a coworker named Andromeda. The undercover photos had been taken and sent to Jack just like the shit-load of other incriminating emails. A private detective he’d hired had traced the emails to the Public Library on 66th street. From there, any further evidence had disappeared into some kind of black hole.

Jack and Chloe had recently upped their life insurance payout totals. 

Jack opens the patio door again. His face is swollen and numb. His hands bloody from clinching his fists. He shuffles forward over the threshold into another world. Jack presses up against the rail, never thinking to look up again. His fingernails splinter against the iron rail like hickory kindling cut with a hatchet. Jack loses control of the steering wheel nearly half way down to his death.

Chloe Rings his doorbell. He takes the longest time to open his ornate entrance, not wanting to appear too anxious. He peaks through the vertical slit between the door and door jam, created by the hallway lighting.

Chloe blurts out, “What is that smell in your apartment?” 

“I’m so very sorry,” he says, “I’ll open a window, come in. As he pivots in the direction of his massive studio, he adjusts his sclera from black to white, and turns off the ultrasonic sound.

 Chloe says, “No, no, I didn’t mean…I love the scent of furniture wax.” 

“39, follow me, take a quick look.” he insists. It loves control more than Jack ever imagined. Building worlds is in his wheelhouse. 

It contemplates how the building’s complex has been blessed in a honeycomb of planned cells. Each cell a prismatic hexagonal chamber of wax meant for the incubation of mammalian larva. 

In the expansive craft room, rest a pair of Antique French Nightstands. He refers to them as French Provincial Cane Bedside Tables.

Chloe stands mesmerized, as the building’s ownerexplains how the nightstands had been a bargain on eBay, costing only $4,995.00. The special furniture polishing wax is meant to be the finishing touch on the restoration project.

Chloe marvels how he’s going to give the two antiques to Goodwill Industries for their annual fundraiser raffle. Jack never gave anything of himself away.

Time is of the essences in the vast preparation room. It is a sexual monster and it shows.

Before Chloe knows it, she’s nearly chatted an hour away. There’s certain numbness around her swollen lips, this feeling of heaviness clear up into her tummy. It’s a good feeling though, she thinks, not a bad one. She’s pregnant.  

With Jasmine, the modern on level 24, it had been more difficult. A full 2 hours had been needed, she was insatiable. Jasmine loves cooking, the smell of basil. 

And Theresa, 18, last August, the perfume of espresso had lured her into his masterful, foul stickiness. Theresa’s downfall had been her lust for his La Marzocco Linea Mini Espresso Machine. Theresa is two months away from her birthing.

He had become well acquainted with Chloe, but, he’d taken his time to get to know her, like all the rest. After all, he reads everyone’s emails, and monitors there phone calls.  And he knows so much more his assigned city. 

He thanks Chloe for stopping over.

After the coupling, he walks Chloe back to the elevator. She admires the tall, dark and handsome stranger, as he gently places her finger on the 39th floor button.  

Later, it will retire to the studio and pleasure himself over the day’s recorded videos. 

He’ll watch the one with Chloe in the elevator and observe closely how she erotically sniffs at her armpits while on the ride down to her floor. It imagines she finds her new scent quite zesty. It slobbers as she touches her cheeks with her silken hands, cups one of her firming breasts. She’sblushing fuchsia. Iwatches as she tugs at her Cashmere sweaters V-neck, admiring her cleavage and dampness. How she waves her hands over her face, stoking the fires of submission.

Chloe Exits the elevator and slowly walks up to her apartment door. She unlocks it and enters. Chloe closes the thick door quietly. She then engages the deadbolt. She dares not disturb Jack, She’s sure he is still busy at work.

Chloe thinks this the beginning of the better part of her life. 

It observes Chloe as she anxiously walks through the empty living space directly to the patio. She senses something alarming. At the patio she presses up against the railing and looks down. 

It claws at an itch on the edge of a wing. Its brain is a fevered swamp of new life.

Chloe looks down at all the flashing blue lights. This time, the blue lights are police cars, not the flashing blue lights that warn pedestrians as a driver exists the underground parking. The signaling blue lights are meant to warn the homeless they are about to get run over. The building owner is delighted that the exit is dangerous, thus driving the homeless to camp across the street. 

Her actions tell it that she is relieved. 

Chloe walks back to her favorite sofa. She sits and thinks. Chloe dials 911. Of all her senses, her sense of smell is the most heightened. Everything molecule in her world is Carnauba wax and Google baby clothes. 

Several stories up, in its studio, it continues to watch Chloe. It has met his world’s projected monthly quota. Soon, there will be a new one of them, and then Chloe’s disposal.

It is a rock star. Its appetite is insatiable. Its numbers are tops again. There will be another bonus. It is just one of many across the Promised Land. Who needs a spacecraft to create a new planet?

It smells more like a bat than artificial intelligence. It wishes it had teeth and didn’t have to suck like a leach. It hangs upside down, more than it crawls. It needs to procreate. It is looking over your shoulder. It is becoming a God of a new planet, his assigned city, The Big Apple.

“Andy, maybe you’re correct about that pointing spaceship Building. From the looks it,” Carl points across the street as FDNY hoses down the messy sidewalk, “I think one of your aliens dropped out of the sky last night.”


Dan’s most recent darkness has been published by Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Black Petals, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Bull, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights Podcast, Cleaver, Close to the Bone, Coffin Bell, Dark City Books, Entropy, HorrorAddicts.net, Mystery Tribune, Suspense Magazine, The Yard Crime Blog, Variant, The 5-2.  Dan has been nominated for Best of the Net and best micro-fiction. 


“Shinigami” Demonic Horror by Mick Benderoth

My divorce. Signed, sealed, delivered. Rid of the bastard. Sitting in my new apartment, free, reborn, Miss. Not Mrs.

My art collection, Pollack, Klee, Jim Dine, a few Atget photos and my prize, a  signed Picasso sketch from his “artist and models” series I bought years ago when I ventured to Mus’ee Picasso in Antibes. Art all up. Left facing a large, empty white wall. Nothing to hang.

My friend, Geisho Moraki, told me of an up and coming Japanese American woman who just won a Guggenheim fellowship. She had been trained at The Mona Lisa Room, in the Louvre. Her name was Moishi Suroshi. She took commissions. I called her. She was charming and outgoing. “Come on by anytime. I’m always here”.

“Noon, tomorrow?”

“Cool. I’ll steep a fresh pot of green tea. We can chat, do a little bonding, like to know something about who wants my work. See they get a good home”.

Moishi’s studio. Washington Square, Greenwich Village. Uber pulls up to an old brownstone, scaffolding up the face, under renovation. I climb the steps, find Moishi’s name on the intercom. Press. Nothing. Press harder. Nothing. Then, the door jars open wide enough for a short, Asian crone to stick her head out. She has a squinched, wrinkled face, long uncombed white hair streaming down her back, no teeth. Hoarsely screeches, “Intercon don’t work. Can’t fix it. Donno know why. I’m the caretaker. Have to open the damn door all day. Who you looking for?”

“I have an appointment with Moishi Suroshi”.

“Oh yeah, that artist girl in the penthouse loft. Take the elevator. If it works. If not, long walk up steps, six flights. Good luck”.

Thank god the rattle trap elevator works. I walk down the hall toward an open door, bright daylight streaming out. Smell of oil and Turps fills the air like perfume. I lean in. Call. “Moishi, Moishi Suroshi?”

Musical voice echoes, “Maddy Guilford?”

“That’s me.”

“Be right out. Teas steeping.”

The loft was gynormous, half studio, half living space. Moishi’s paintings adorn the walls. An abstract expressionist, Moishi’s use of color, texture, stunning. A beautiful young woman in paint splashed Oshkos overalls comes from behind a large ornate tapestry  dividing the space. She carries a tray with a black metal teapot and two cups. Sets it on a small table.

“Nice to me you, Maddy. Holds out her hand. “Moishi Suroshi. We shake. Moishi artfully pours the tea. I lift my cup, take a sip. Hot, hot, hot. Intoxicating. I feel exhilarated, yet relaxed.

Moishi sits on her stool in front of her easel  that holds a painting in progress.

“Geisho, told me you have a Klee, a Dine, an original, signed Picasso, thank god no Warhol, a fine place for a painting to live. So, what do you have in mind?” Knock at her door. Moishi answers. The old crone’s head pops in, ”You rent due soon. You always forget. Remember this time”. Old crone’s squinted, cloudy eyes stare too long at Moishi. Wild crooked grin. Never breaking eye contact, crones pulls head out, closes door. Uncomfortable. Moishi, “Sorry about that. You were saying…”.

Me, “I don’t have a clue. I have a big white wall, so, something, something…?” Suddenly the studio turns cold, ice cold. I shiver, continue, “Something that…”Moishi abruptly cuts me off. Her face ashen, her eyes wide, motionless. Moishi, brashly, “Horizontal. Two feet by six, black on white primed canvas, Japanese calligraphy.” She snatches her sketch pad, a hunk of charcoal, slashes out twelve Japanese letters. Collapses on her stool, charcoal drops to the floor. Face color returns, “That was so weird. Flashes through my mind. My hand, I don’t know. It wasn’t mine, just wrote”.

Me, awkwardly jocular, “Your, your muse took control”.

Moishi, elsewhere, “Something like that.”

Me, spell-breaking, “Well, it’s extraordinary, bold, stark, commanding. I…I love it”

Moishi, resolute, “Finish it tonight.”

“Wow. Do you always work so fast?’

Softly, “Never. Never. A slowpoke”. Then curtly,This piece…demands…fast!

Take out my checkbook, “Your fee?”

Still brash, “I’ll price it when it’s finished. Pick itup in the morning. I have to get it to where it belongs”. Now wearily, “If…if you don’t mind, I’m  suddenly terribly tired”.

Me, perplexed, “I…I understand. What’s a good time to…?”

“Early, very, very early.”

“Nine?”

Curtly, again. “Earlier. Earlier. Six, seven. It will be ready”. She stands. Body trembling. Slips behind the tapestry.

Momentarily motionless. I feel confused, unsettled. Moishi’s  mood swings strange. Go figure.

In the hall. “Damn!” The elevator’s out. I take off my heels, stumble down six flights, through the front door. Holding my shoes, barefoot, I

hail a cab, go home. Hand shaking, I pour some scotch. Too much. Pop a Xanax. Out like a…

Morning. My cell alarm pulls me from a deep sleep. Six am. I quickly dress, call Uber.

Moishi’s building. I don’t ring. I knock. The old woman snarls out. “She not here. She gone”.

“Gone? I came to pick up a painting. She said she’d be waiting.”

“Well, she ain’t here. Left this note.” I grab it. Rip it open.

Note: “Couldn’t wait. Had it sent.”

Sent? What the hell? Call Uber. Head home. Package room. Immediately. Murry behind the counter, “Perfect time, Mrs.…”

Irritably. “Miss, now. Now, Miss”.

“Big package. Think the guys will have to take it up when they’re free.”

“Fuck that! If the damn thing’s not in my apartment immediately I’ll…”

“Ok, ok. I’ll…I’ll take it up myself”.

My apartment. More Xanax. Scotch chaser. This is way, way off normal. Not new normal. Weird normal.

Doorbell. Murry with the painting. Wrapped haphazardly, in linen. Linen? I tip Murry. He leaves. I unwrap. There it is. On canvas. Moishi’s sketch realized. Mesmerizing. Need to get it hung immediately.

Measure once, measure twice. My father, a carpenter. Use three twenty-pound hooks. Unframed, it has no wire. Hang it just the way itis. Problem solved, artfully. Owns the wall. Someone has to see it. I spontaneously invite Geisho, his wife Allison, Mary Ann, my paralegal, and Randall, right and left-hand man, over to see my acquisition. They all show. I have the painting draped in the linen. Unveiling. “Ta dah!’ I whisk off the drape. Gasps, praise from all but Geisco. He’s laughing. “Jesus. She painted you that. It’s a riot.”

I snap, “What are you talking about? What’s so damn funny?’

“Your painting. The word  is Shinigami. A Japanese demon, the death bringer. The myth says his name should never be written. It will free him. A fairy tale. She pulled a fast one you”. They all join in laughing, laughing at my painting.

Sensing my displeasure, they leave. I sit facing…Shinigami, feeling like a fool. Two glasses of wine, a Xanax.

In bed watching the late news. On the screen, an ambulance, police, crowd of onlookers, the Hudson waterfront. Some guy talking. “I was jogging. Saw it wedged between the rocks. Checked it out. Dead body…no fucking head.” TV reporter grimly faces the camera. “Finger print analysis  identified the body as Moishi Suroshi, a local artist. Apparent macabre murder”. Freaked, I frantically grabble for the remote. Turn it off. Moishi. Murdered. More Xanax. Down for the count. Images flash. Geisho, Allison, Mary Anna, and Randall’s faces. Huge distorted feces, laughing hysterically at my painting. Deep rasping echo of a voice, reverberates through my mind. “Kill them. Kill them. Saw me. Kill all.” Nightmare.

Geisho’s apartment door. I stand wearing a shower curtain, slit cut at the top for my head. A gleaming sharp meat clever in my hand. I knock. Geisho answers. “Maddy, what are you doing…never finishes. Swish! Geshco’s head thumps to the floor. Blood spurts from his neck. Splashes the ceiling. His trunk collapses. Blood spurts, spurts, spurts from his neck stub with last few heartbeats.

Allison runs from the kitchen. She screams. Swish! Thump. Two heads. Husband and wife, facing each other on the floor.

Dead of night. Walking down an alley. Throw cleaver into a dumpster. Repeat with the blood drenched shower curtain.

Sit up quaking in my bed. Sweat running down my face. Dash to kitchen, pour a stiff scotch. Drink it down. Gotta cut back on the drinking. Shower. Go to the office. The place in chaos. Randall, tears stream down his face. “He’s dead. Both dead. Geisho and Allision. Horrible. Horrible.” Shoves the Daily News into my hand. Front page, “Lawyer/Wife beheaded”. Dead faint. Flashes. Blood. Blood. More blood…everywhere. Regain consciousness. Confused. Staff surrounds my chair. We commiserate over our horrid loss. I go home. Scotch. Xanax.

Morning, hung over, I have coffee seated at my marble bistro table. I can’t process. Moishi, Geisho, Allison. Suddenly I shake out of control. My head snaps to the painting. Cold sweat. Mind blanks. Unearthly voice. “Kill him, kill him. Saw me. Kill him.”  Black out. Nightmare. Randall’s distorted, laughing face. The Voice, kill him, kill him, saw me, kill him.

Randal’s gym. Men’s locker room. He’s putting on workout clothes. I’m there. Randal, shocked. “Maddy? How the hell did you…? Cleaver. Swish! Thump.

Wake up on my bedroom floor. Blood covered. It was no dream. Am I the killer? The painting? Shinigami? Not possible. I rush into the living room. Grab letter opener from my desk. Slash! Slash! Slash! Rip the painting to shreds. Pull it off the wall. On the floor. Kick it! Kick it…manically. Smash the frame. Carry it to the utility room. Jam it down incinerator chute. What in god’s name should I do now? I go back to my apartment. Panic attack! “Dear God! The painting! Back on my wall. Drop into a chair. Mental white out. Mary Ann’s face. The voice, “Kill her, kill her. Saw me. Kill her.”

Mary Ann’s apartment. I hide around the corner. She exits dressed for work. Sneakers on, dress shoes in hand, New York style. I turn the corner. Walk quickly behind her. She hears. Turns.”Matty?”

Swish! Thump. Roll. My apartment. Still seated. Eyes locked on the painting. Slowly, slowly, indescribable monster materializes. Is it smiling? Speaks. Shinigami. It points. Speaks. “Kill…you, kill you. Saw me. Kill you”. Entranced. I stroll zombie-like to the kitchen. Take butcher knife from drawer. Automatically draw it across sharpening steel. Return to Shinigami, its voice repeating, “Kill you, kill you, saw me, kill you.”  Knife pursed. I methodically slit my throat. Blood gush. Hit the floor. Barely alive. Foggy eyed. Apartment door opens. Old Japanese crone steps over my body, smiling toothlessly. Takes painting off the wall. Last words I hear. Crone speaks to painting. “All done. We go now”. That voice, horrifyingly content, “Yes, yes, go now, all dead, all dead, go now.” The crone drags Shinigami out the door. My last breath gurgles.


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


“The Flea” Horror by Antaeus

Yannick Cassady was fussy about his hair. It had to be brushed ‘just so’ at all times. The obsession was a carryover from his childhood. His mother always brushed his hair the same way before he went off to school. But, unfortunately, she had died when he was ten, and his father followed soon after.

Until he joined the Army at seventeen, Yannick was raised by his abusive, short-tempered uncle and his kindly, fastidious aunt. The only thing that kept him grounded was combing his hair like his mother used to. His quick temper was his uncle’s legacy and his forgiving nature, when he evoked it, a gift from his aunt.

Some people would go so far as to call him finicky but not to his face. You see, Yannick was constantly being pulled in two directions. Sometimes he could be a quick-tempered brute of a man and at other times a sympathetic and caring friend.

Besides being overly concerned about his hair, Yannick was regimented in his routine. It was a holdover from his Army days. Out of bed by 6 a.m. sharp, he was in and out of the shower by 6:20. Breakfast was usually finished by 6:45. Finally, Yannick would be dressed and groomed by 7:29. The routine never varied, not in thirty years.

By 7:33 a.m. on workdays, the sour-faced ‘Loan Aficionado’ was always out of the house and on the road. In fact, the cell phone on the bathroom counter read exactly 7:30 a.m. when the big man looked into the bathroom mirror before heading out the door.

That’s when Yannick noticed the flea.

The fastidious, middle-aged loan officer couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the flea jump from the shoulder of his immaculate white shirt onto his hair. The voice of Mrs. Fisher, his high school biology teacher, echoed in Yannick’s head. Fleas are parasites that feed on blood. They use that blood to fertilize the fifty eggs per day that they lay.

Yannick bent over the sink with trepidation and ruffled his perfectly groomed hair. He saw two fleas fall into the white marble sink. He crushed one with his thumb and missed the other. The second flea leaped from the sink with a jump that would make Javier Sotomayor’s world record high jump look minuscule. It jumped again and disappeared into a small crevice at the edge of the vanity.

The digital readout on the cellphone blinked and read 7:32. Yannick began to panic. My hair, my hair. It’s a mess, and I’m going to be late for work!

Luckily, when Yannick ran the brush through his hair, every strand fell into place like the obedient little fiber soldiers they were. By 7:35, he was in his SUV and, tires squealing, headed downtown to the Littlefinger Bank.

* * *

The security guard unlocked the door and greeted a red-faced Yannick. “Good morning Mr. Cassady,” he said. The angry senior loan officer just brushed past the guard without answering. As he rushed by, Yannick’s shoulder connected with the guard’s chest. Off-balance, the guard started to fall but grabbed the door handle and righted himself before he toppled over. Yannick hurried to his office without apologizing.

The other bank employees gave each other the “Stay away from him today” look. Most of them had suffered through one of his verbal beatings and didn’t want to experience it again. Even the bank manager returned to his office and shut his door.

Yannick hurled his briefcase into a corner and sat behind his desk as he recalled Mrs. Fisher’s warning. A female flea can consume fifteen times its body weight in human blood daily.

The former high school wrestler’s muscles bulged when his head began to itch again. He’d been fighting the urge to scratch his head all the way into work. Yannick reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a hand mirror. He had to see where the itching was coming from. Flea bites cause painful, itchy red bumps and their eggs hatch in only one day. More of Mrs. Fisher’s trivia he didn’t need or want to know.

Was that a little red bump at the very edge of his hairline? Yes, there was a small red bump there. That was the exact spot causing all the itching. Yannick swore a string of cuss words that would have made a bowlegged, old salt of a sailor proud.

Just then, there was a knock at the office door. “What!” Yannick cried.

“Mr. Cassady, Mr. Brennen, your nine o’clock is here,” his secretary said.

“Can’t you see I’m busy? Tell that loser to come back tomorrow, or I’ll foreclose on that shithole he calls a house.”

“Yes, Mr. Cassady, I tell him to come back tomorrow.”

“No. Wait a second, Brenda.”

Yannick took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Quick to boil and quick to cool, that’s my boy,” his mother used to say. He recited these words as though repeating a mantra, and he felt himself growing calm.

“Tell Mr. Brennen I’m giving him a ninety-day extension to pay his mortgage and tell him I’m sorry to hear about his wife’s passing. By the end of ninety days, thanks to the late payment interest fees, what he owns will double, then I’ll foreclose on the jerk.

And, Brenda, ask Reno the guard to come into my office, please.”

Brenda’s voice had a friendly tone when she answered this time. “Yes, certainly, Mr. Cassady.” She seemed impressed that Yannick, usually an unforgiving loan officer, was acting with compassion, which was entirely out of character.

When Reno came into his office, Yannick apologized for knocking him down and gave him two tickets for dinner at the new steakhouse in town.

Dumb guard. Now he’ll go out of his way to be nice to me. Better owed than to be owed. That’s my motto. Those tickets didn’t cost me a cent. I told the restaurant owner that he’d have to give me two dozen free meals if he wanted me to okay his business loan.

The rest of the day found Yannick canceling appointments and watching the little red bumps multiply. By closing time, he was pounding fleas on his desk, but he never scratched his itchy head, not even once. Finally, when quitting time came, the frustrated loan officer broke his routine, and for the first time in thirty years, he was the first one out the door.

* * *

Yannick was in such a hurry to get home and into the shower that he was doing eighty miles an hour on a two-lane forty MPH road. The road started to curve, and that’s when he felt the flea bite his ankle. Yannick tried to ignore the bite at first, but the flea bit him again and again. He was beside himself with anger as his ankle began to itch like a bad sunburn.

Reaching down with a hand the size of a small ham, Yannick scratched his ankle. When he brought his hand back to the steering wheel, he could feel something crawling among the hairs on the back of his hand.

His rage reaching new heights, Yannick smacked the back of his right hand with his left. The blow was so powerful that it caused the steering wheel to jerk downward. The car swerved to the right side of the road and headed for the guard rail. Yannick quickly shoved the steering wheel to the left, overcompensated, and had to jerk it to the right again. The flea jumped down to the floor and began biting his ankle again.

When he glanced into the rearview mirror, Yannick saw that his face was the color of a beet, and his eyes were bulging like they were trying to leave their sockets. When the flea bit him again, Yannick looked down, smacked his ankle, and watched the flea jump away. That’s when the thin veneer of a civilized man shattered, and he reverted to an apelike mentality.

Shouting a string of profanities, the near-insane man began to pound the floor with his fist, trying to crush the flea. Time and time again, he tried, and time and time again, he missed.

A flea can jump thirty-thousand times without stopping. Mrs. Fisher’s piece of useless trivia only served to fuel Yannick’s anger. Now every fiber of the crazed man’s being was focused on only one thing, crushing the flea.

Thump went the big man’s fist hitting the floor. Smack went his fist when it hit the passenger seat. Thud went his fist on the center console.

“I’ll kill you, you little bastard. I’ll crush you, just like I crushed your partner,” he shouted.

When Yannick heard the sound of an airhorn, he looked up just in time to see the bumper of an approaching semi fill his windshield.

* * *

When he regained consciousness, the groggy loan officer found himself pinned to his seat by the SUV’s dashboard. Evidently, he had reflexively steered the vehicle away from the semi and into the dense woods. The windshield was gone, and the giant oak before him had made the front of the SUV’s hood look like an accordion.

Yannick flexed his fingers and toes and was surprised to find that everything worked. He thanked God that he wasn’t paralyzed, just pinned immobile by the dash and steering wheel. He gave a tentative push with his arms; the dashboard didn’t move. He pushed harder and felt something wet slide down from his forehead. It tasted like blood.

Angry now, the barrel-chested man leaned forward and pushed with all the strength he had. The dashboard creaked but didn’t budge.

It was growing late, and the sounds of cars on the road had diminished significantly. The wood grew quiet as Yannick looked into the rearview mirror, which had somehow survived the windshield’s destruction.

His bloodshot eyes took in the path of destruction the SUV had made when it barreled into the woods. Yannick could see the guard rail beyond the swath of devastation. The railing had been peeled back like a ripe banana. It lay, like a limp penis, on the slope leading down to the woods.

Damn semi driver never even stopped. Who doesn’t stop to help a person who’s in trouble? Someone who’s doing something illegal, that’s who. Oh, well, someone will see the wrecked guard rail in the morning and call 9-1-1—nothing to do now but wait for daylight.

As the setting sun’s dappled rays illuminated the SUV’s crumpled hood, Yannick noticed the fleas hopping toward the shattered windshield. There were thousands of the little critters—no, more like millions of the tiny bloodsuckers—and they were all headed toward him.

Once again, Mrs. Fisher spoke to the panicking man. A female flea can consume fifteen times its body weight in human blood daily.

Yannick’s skin paled when he saw what was following them—thousands upon thousands of ticks.

Ticks are tiny bloodsucking parasites. So Mrs. Fisher said in her schoolteacher’s voice, inside Yannick’s head. They can grow to hold six hundred times their body weight when they have not fed.

When the powerless man heard the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes, he looked up, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Their numbers blackened the fading sky.

Now you’re in big trouble, Yannick, Mrs. Fisher’s voice seemed to say. Mosquitoes can drink three times their weight in blood, and there’s an awful lot of them. As the Army of bloodsuckers converged on the helpless victim, Yannick screamed.


Antaeus writes from a lakefront home in Southwest Florida (USA).


“Musk” Fiction by Mehreen Ahmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” the listeners gasped. 

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

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

“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.

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

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

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

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

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


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


“They Flew Over the Mountains” Fiction by Fariel Shafee

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

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

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

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

“Come here.  Help me.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am wounded.”

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

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

“Water,” he whispers.

“Of course,” she obliges.

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

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

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

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

He is as cold as a corpse.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he is curt.

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

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

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

“For me?” he whispers.

Jane nods.

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

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

Jane nods.  She does not why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your injury.  How did you get hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“yes, almost done.”

“Almost?”

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

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

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

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

Mother nods.

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

Father gets up for coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Taxidermy Beach” Fiction by Douglas Ford

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

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

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

            The air over Taxidermy Beach hangs quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            A growl diverts his attention.

            Looking over his shoulder, he sees it.

            A coyote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            See the moon? says the driver.

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

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

            Arch asks about the errand.

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

            Arch looks and freezes.

            He sees the urn.

            The same urn held by Claire.

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

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

            Jared.

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

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

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

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

            Jared answers quietly, almost a whisper.

            My parents. 

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

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

            I do.

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

            I know that.

            I suspect you do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

We’ve met before, haven’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he removes his arm, and the door closes.


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


“The 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.


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.


“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/