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

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

First, find two butterflies. 

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

Second, set the table. 

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

Third, wait until the moon rises. 

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

Four, begin scooping. 

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

Repeat until the second eye is out. 

Fifth, reach forward. 

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

Sixth, transform. 

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

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


“Shadow Dance” Dark Fiction by Dylan Webster

Dark Fiction by Dylan Webster “Shadow Dance”

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

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

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

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

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

But, there they are. 

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

I swear…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

So, I took it. 

And so, I am here now. 

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

Both of which I need, I guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Shit. I forgot to lock the front doors.

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

It is really dark tonight.

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

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

I freeze. A chill brushes against my spine. 

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

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

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

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

I wait, build up the courage, then sprint. 

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

Oh shiiiiit! 

“Shiiiit!”

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

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

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

You fucking idiot

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

Although, the windows are still writhing.

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

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

Antique. Old. 

Oh God, what am I doing?

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

I’m forgetting to breathe. 

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

I swivel and open my eyes. 

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

Oh God – 

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

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

The figures all seem to press in on the glass. 

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

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

I decide to continue my sprint from before. 

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

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

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

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

Oh God! 

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

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

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

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

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

Oh God, I’m fucking losing it. 

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

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

I turn around and –

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my God. Oh my God. Ohmygod!

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

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

Suddenly, I think of Natalie.

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, shit. Fear. 

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

It fears me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I can’t; the glass is shattered. 

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

How’s it going? Good.

Busy today, isn’t it? Sure is.

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

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

Walters Art Gallery – $10,000

Hampton Inn $5,325

Pierce’s Park – $2,400

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

Dickhead Boulevard – $5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Regards,

JENNY.

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

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

A click.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was I doing again?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upon reaching my cubicle, I remember why I left.

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

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

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

“What seems to be the problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

No, I tell him, not at all.

His smile fades.

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

* * *

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

A murmur of gibberish floats in the air.

“Tragic sad condolences. Thoughts severance family.”

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

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

Harvey has jumped in front of a bus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click-clack, click-clack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I am alone inside a metal box.

I can leave now. I’m free.

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

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

A dangerous thought crosses my mind.

Would it really be so bad to see it for myself? Just to satiate my curiosity—one peek, that’s all. It’s strange. Minutes ago, I wanted nothing more than to be free of this place, but now I feel like I haveto know the secret of this building. The question would haunt me if I left now.

My hand glides to the button labeled ‘33.’ The motion is graceful, almost effortless. Against every impulse of my rational mind, I press the button.

One by one, I watch the numbers tick up. Judging by the elevator’s long ascent, the building is much taller than I remember, impossibly so. The temperature falls chill, and I feel my breath start to hitch, as though I’m scaling a mountain.

A chime marks the end of my journey. 33, the analog interface reads.

The elevator opens to a cramped hall. A single, dim bulb lights outside the elevator. To my right is a dead end. To my left is a long stretch of hallway. I can’t even see the end of it through the darkness.

This must be where Harvey turned back and gave up, I realize. Unbearable anticipation swells in my chest, and when the lift closes behind me, I feel trapped.

The far end of the hall calls out to me in a way that defies the senses. I can’t explain how; it simply does. So I walk, guided only by the bulbs that light up one-by-one with my approach. Dear Christ, the smell; a single whiff makes my uvula quiver and my chest heave. It’s like I’ve buried my nose in it, the oxygen tainted with the scent of melted caramel and fly-swarming manure.

The smell heralds its arrival, of course. The black, bubbling sludge seeps from every orifice of the corridor, between the cracking seams of the walls and ceiling. It thickens to a fine paste on the floor, and I’m forced to wade through the ankle-deep puddles at my feet. It weighs me down every step, cold where it touches my bare skin.

Strange as it is, I’m not afraid. The pounding in my heart could be likened more to excitement more than anything else. And that terrifies me. Have I already gone mad? Am I no different than the mindless beasts wandering the office floor? I can’t be sure anymore. But I must walk.

As I walk further, the squalor spreads. The drywall has crumbled, revealing crumbling supports infested with rot. It looks more like a cave dwelling than a building now. I stand before a door, made of aged, termite-eaten wood with a greasy gold knob. There’s a sense of finality at this threshold, as if all the answers I seek are waiting on the other side, for better or for worse.

I open the door.

My eyes widen and water.

Dear God.

The walls are flesh, and the floors are flesh, and the room is beating, living flesh. I can only describe the texture as meat: red, pulpy meat.

My coworkers are here too. They cling to the walls like helpless babes, sucking on the teat of red, ringed tendrils. I watch their swollen lips pucker around the tip, and how they seem to shrivel for moments like they’re being drained from a straw. They feed from the tendrils. The tendrils feed on them.

Their cheeks are sallow, skin sunken. Their upper halves are identifiably human, but their lower halves bulge and swell beyond recognition, all slugs’ tails that beat contentedly on the floor beside their torn clothes. Black sludge pours out from their flabby skin, slipping through the gaps of intestine on the floor. My heart skips a beat, as I realize the cause behind the fallen ceiling tile in my cubicle.

What?

At the center of the room sits a thing that defies classification. Bulbous and huge, it sits in a coil of itself, with that same pinkish slug’s tail as its brood. It lacks eyes, but bears many nostrils, in places where nostrils don’t belong. Its upper half sags beneath the weight of six breasts, and its mouth is a gaping sucker lined with teeth. Stringy cords adorn its body, connecting it to the walls of the chamber. It is the beating heart of this building.

It’s so beautiful. Mother! Mother, mother!

She has no eyes to see me but she must know I am here.

I tremble and shake with joy. I ache to be closer. I ache to be with her. I ache.

I take my last step closer, triggering metamorphosis.

My head is about to burst. I can feel it, birthing out of me.

BLISS.

My jaw is forced open by something from within. The bones crack loudly, the sound ringing in my ears. At last, a wriggling tail protrudes from my mouth, large and fat. The worm emerges from its willing host. For the first time it feels warm air on its smooth, segmented body. I am grateful to have nursed such a precious creature into existence, for this is what I’m meant to do. My agony is a small thing, compared to the euphoria of serving mother.

I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough.


Sam Bostwick is a Midwest-based author with a love for the strange. He is studying English at North Central College. 


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Contents

Short Fiction

“Stitched Jack” Short Story by Billy Stanton

“Papa’s Candy Store” Dark Fiction by Hanna Bäckström

“The Event” Sci-fi Horror by Kate Bergquist

“Midnight in the Presidential Palace” Historical Horror by Kevin DG Johnson

“Shift of Doom” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

“Addictive Sunglasses” Dark Fiction by Callum McGee

“Proof” Dark Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

“Specimen” Horror by Ron Sanders

“The Puddlers” Dark Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

“Warmth that Chills” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

“Never Again” Dark Fiction by R.P. Singletary

“Urban Appetites” Horror by Kilmo

“My Heirloom You’ll Be” Dark Fiction by Dimas Rio

“Tomato Seeds” Dark Fiction by Maggie Hall

“The Guest” Science-Fiction by James Hanna

Flash Fiction

“Tide Turners” Flash Horror by Billy Stanton

Two Works of Flash Fiction by Dylan Thomas Lewis: “Hallowed Cliff” and “They Did It for their Freedom”

“Mary’s Garden” Flash Horror by Thomas Falater

Poetry

Three Dark Poems by Joseph Farina: “icon”, ” the danger in reading words in darkness alone” and “portrait”

“Eye Spy” Dark Poetry by Michael Lavine

The Next Issue Appears December 2

Any time is a good time for chocolate.

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Contents

Short Fiction

“Stitched Jack” Short Story by Billy Stanton

“Papa’s Candy Store” Dark Fiction by Hanna Bäckström

“The Event” Sci-fi Horror by Kate Bergquist

“Midnight in the Presidential Palace” Historical Horror by Kevin DG Johnson

“Shift of Doom” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

“Addictive Sunglasses” Dark Fiction by Callum McGee

“Proof” Dark Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

“Specimen” Horror by Ron Sanders

“The Puddlers” Dark Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

“Warmth that Chills” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

“Never Again” Dark Fiction by R.P. Singletary

“Urban Appetites” Horror by Kilmo

“My Heirloom You’ll Be” Dark Fiction by Dimas Rio

“Tomato Seeds” Dark Fiction by Maggie Hall

“The Guest” Science-Fiction by James Hanna

Flash Fiction

“Tide Turners” Flash Horror by Billy Stanton

Two Works of Flash Fiction by Dylan Thomas Lewis: “Hallowed Cliff” and “They Did It for their Freedom”

“Mary’s Garden” Flash Horror by Thomas Falater

Poetry

Three Dark Poems by Joseph Farina: “icon”, ” the danger in reading words in darkness alone” and “portrait”

“Eye Spy” Dark Poetry by Michael Lavine

The Next Issue Appears December 2

Any time is a good time for chocolate.

The Chamber Magazine October 2022

Contents

Short Fiction

“Garden of Moths” Dark Fiction by Colt Fry

“Hurdy-Gurdy” Horror by Billy Stanton

“Mentone” Supernatural, Psychological Thriller by Sjoerd van Wijk

Things Have Been Strange Around Here” Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

“Mr. Fate” Horror by Billy Stanton

“The Dare” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

“Cat People” Urban Horror by K.C. Callender

“Ryan O’Shaughnessy Battles an Ape” Dark Urban Fiction by James Hanna

Flash Fiction

Three Works of Flash Fiction by Conor Barnes: “The Dream Eater”, “The Duel”, and “Void”

“Safe Space” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Caldwell

“Just a Phase” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Caldwell

Poetry

Two Dark Poems by Joseph A. Farina: “syndrome” and “skid noir”

“The Uncanny Resurrection of Tellurian Scenes” Dark, Surrealistic Poetry by Ashleigh Genus

Five Dark Poems by Meg Smith:  “Offleash Werewolf Park”, “Maxime”, “Backstairs Ghost”, “The Crocodile, Unbound”, and “The Incorruptible”

“A Skeleton’s Toast” Dark Poem by Thomas White

“Getting Ready to Stalk the Living” Dark Poem by A.J. Huffman

Three Dark Poems by John Tustin: “The Room is Yellow”, “Spitted Nails”, and “Stigmata Blood”

Three Dark Poems by Stephanie Smith: “Breeding”, “The Dance”, and “Thorns”

The Next Issue Appears November 4

“Things Have Been Strange Around Here” Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

"Things Have Been Strange Around Here" Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

Andrew Heiss saw her through his window on the ground floor, peeking onto the street that led alongside their apartment complex. It was a dark day spattered with rain that drizzled down the glass, slightly obscuring his view. That didn’t stop Andrew from being able to make out her figure in the rain. Penelope’s rain jacket marked her as a splash of bright yellow in the dismal scene. Her back was turned to him while she stared at the passing cars in front of her. Her blurred arms lifted to remove her hood, exposing her blonde hair to the downpour. It immediately matted down with water, turning two shades darker as it soaked. Andrew’s grip tightened on the windowsill as her hair began to gently float. One tendril at a time drifted into the air as if gravity no longer insisted. A sharp spike of pain was nagging at his hands as the edges of the windowsill cut into his flesh, yet Andrew paid it no mind. A halo of hair surrounded the back of Penelope’s head now, like a monstrous spider was flaring its legs around her head. He was just about to back away from the gutting spectacle when he noticed Penelope turning back toward their apartment window. Very slowly, methodically, not expending any energy. A stroke of fair skin became visible again amidst the yellow. Andrew waited for a nose or drops of light blue eyes to show from beneath the hood, but the pale skin didn’t end. Only smoothness unmarked by facial features. He felt blood dripping from his palms onto the wall.

She did not have a face. The hair fell limp to her sides.

            Andrew jolted awake, inhaling sharply at the sight of his dark room. He sat up and slouched forward, peeling his sweaty legs apart and ripping off the blanket. The coolness of the night air was welcomed. He looked to his left and saw Penelope sleeping soundly next to him. The rise and fall of her small frame was so slight he sometimes frightened himself into thinking she was dead. That wasn’t the only sleeping scare he had experienced with her, either.

            The kitchen light was excruciating, but the darkness didn’t feel comfortable tonight. Andrew wiped sleepy seeds from his eyes and made some chamomile tea to sip on. He needed to shrug off that nightmare. He didn’t dream often, but occasionally he would be struck by dark dreams so bizarre and twisted that he would be affected for days afterward. As if a film was left on him, a faint slime he couldn’t see. He turned on his phone and let the stimulating blue light sweep him away from the bad memories for a moment. He swiped through some photos that he and Penelope had taken the other night when they were on a date, and then landed on a video he had taped the night prior to that.

            Andrew frowned. He didn’t recall taking that video. The thumbnail was just darkness, so curiosity compelled him to play it.

            The moment it started he instantly remembered why he had taken it. He was in their bedroom, and Penelope was standing facing the door. She was sleepwalking again, and just like all of the other instances, she could not be woken up. In the video Andrew was shaking her shoulder, saying “c’mon baby, wake up, don’t do this again. I have to get up early in the morning. Please.”

            As usual, it was to no avail. Penelope continued walking toward the closed door, gently knocking her head as she met her obstacle. She made no sound or movement with her other limbs. Just steadily walked. That was all the video contained. After the dream he just had, Andrew wished he hadn’t watched it.

            He and Penelope had been dating for three months now, and just started living together the past month. At first Andrew felt like they were moving a bit fast, but rent was expensive by himself; besides, what’s the worst that could really happen? She wouldn’t be on the lease, and Andrew was pretty sure he was falling deeply in love with her.

            He took a sip of his chamomile tea and opened the notes app on his phone. He never did spend money on a physical journal when it was more convenient to type your thoughts whenever you needed to. The last few entries had all been about Penelope’s sleeping habits.

            February 26th, 1:13 AM

            I keep trying to wake her up. I don’t know why I keep trying when I know the result is the same, so maybe I’m really just going insane. But I don’t know…I had another nightmare just now and I can’t stand her not being able to wake up. It freaks me out.

            February 27th, 4:01 AM

            The paramedics just left. She was sleepwalking and fell and hit her head, so I called 911. They asked me if she was on any medication or drugs, and I said no. They asked me all of the usual things, like family health history and whatnot, and then asked if they could take her to the hospital because she wouldn’t wake up. I said no. They insisted. I insisted as well and said no. They eventually left. In the end they had told me she didn’t sustain any injuries, so I didn’t see the point in having her stay somewhere else for the night when I knew she would wake up at the same time anyways. So I guess we will see.

A creaking sound interrupted Andrew’s reading, and his head snapped toward the source of the disturbance. It seemed to have come from the bathroom. He placed his cup in the sink and walked into the small space. Black ropes of fear tugged at his throat. He knew it was childish to be afraid of the dark, but as of late, the dark had harbored nothing but ugly and unknown things. As he reached for the light switch, his eyes flickered to the mirror. There was no reflection in the glass.

            He stifled a scream that came out as a strangled yelp, and jerked backward. His finger caught the light switch as he did so, and beautiful light illuminated the bathroom. He saw a man with large, frightened eyes and accompanied with a horrific bed-head. After a minute his breathing calmed and his heart rate returned to normal. He waved a hand in front of the mirror and blinked. He roughed up his hair. He smiled and relaxed. Yes, his reflection seemed to be behaving normally. However the trick of the darkness in the mirror had rattled him to his core, and it was at that moment that Andrew knew he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight.

            He crawled back into bed with Penelope. Like usual, even his small scream didn’t wake her up. He drew his knees to his chest, and waited for the sun to rise.

–––

            Penelope got up at 8 o’clock on the dot, just like she did every single morning. She sat straight up, yawned, and hugged Andrew before she got out of bed.

            “You look beat. Did you sleep badly last night?”

            “Yeah, I slept awful. I had a horrible dream about you turning into some kind of monster. Fun stuff.”

            Penelope put on her robe and turned to him. “I’m so sorry, honey. I’ll make you some breakfast and coffee and maybe that will help a little bit.”

            It did help, a little bit. Being awake for the rising sun was a horrible feeling when you were sleepless, and Andrew couldn’t fight off that sickening sensation of sleep deprivation no matter how much coffee and bacon Penelope gave him. As he finished off his coffee, he asked, “this is a weird question, but do you ever get freaked out by mirrors? Something about them makes me feel uneasy.”

            Penelope poured her own coffee and sat down with him. “Yes, I do. Some cultures regard mirrors as portals to other realms, and I think I agree with them. Sometimes I don’t think the reflection is really me.”

            “Yikes. That’s a horrifying thought. I wasn’t going to go that far. In fact, I was all wired up last night from my nightmare and for a second I thought I didn’t have a reflection at all! I turned on the light, though, and obviously I saw that everything was fine. Still, I couldn’t sleep after that.”

            Penelope stared into her coffee. Her eyes had that slightly glazed look she would get when she was lost somewhere else completely. Andrew often wondered where she went. “I think there’s a lot of things we don’t know,” she said at last.

            Andrew was going to have her expand on that statement before she picked up her phone and shot out of her chair. “It’s 8:45. You should get ready so you’re not late.”

            He barely made it to work on time. He settled into his desk, and was content to have his mind wander to the monotonous work in front of him. It was a welcome escape from the chaos of the night.

            5 pm rolled around very slowly, as if time were attempting to elude him. At long last he slumped into the driver’s seat of his car. Thank god he lived a five minute drive down the road. He would buy a bicycle if he wasn’t so lazy.

            He was at a stoplight when he happened to look over to his right. An elderly lady was driving a garishly red Prius. He had never seen one that color. “I hope I have a better taste in design when I’m that old,” he muttered, and the light turned green. The lady in the red Prius turned right to merge onto the freeway southbound.

            There was one last intersection just before he got home. Normally Andrew was so zoned out while driving that he didn’t notice small details in his surroundings. However today he felt a strange prompting to look outside his right window again. An elderly lady in a blistering red Prius was right next to him.

            Andrew looked back toward the road, then whipped his head back in the former direction. He stared for a moment. His eyes had to be deceiving him; he knew this woman had taken the freeway south. There was no way to loop around toward his neck of the woods fast enough to catch up with him. Yet despite the impossible circumstances, here she was. She drove off past his apartment complex, a sharp honk alerting Andrew back to the road ahead of him. The light was green. The world felt thick around him as he shifted into gear. Almost like he was in a dream.

            The apartment was quiet when he entered the cramped space. A one bedroom studio was all he and Penelope could afford, and that was with two incomes. He threw his keys onto the kitchen counter and crawled into bed. Penelope was working the closing shift at the restaurant tonight, so he didn’t have to worry about being disturbed. Exhaustion quickly overcame him as he sighed in contentment. He rolled over to his left in an attempt to get comfortable when he noticed the drawer in Penelope’s nightstand was very slightly ajar.

            Andrew felt like they were close to each other most of the time, but it was times like these that made him feel like there was a side to her he didn’t really know. We all have our secrets, but he felt like she had a lot more than he did. She was quiet, reserved, and creative. When she spoke, her words were always well crafted and meaningful. While this was something Andrew loved about Penelope, it was also something that tickled at him. He was not a snooping kind of person and respected privacy, but traits like hers brought even the most trusting person to do a bit of detective work. Besides, she always kept that drawer locked. It was impossible to resist.

            The drawer made a slight noise as it opened that made Andrew flinch. The rest gave way easily to reveal a single piece of paper and a pen. The paper rustled in his shaking hands as he delicately unfolded it. He curled his fingers into his palms in an attempt to relieve the clammy sensation, to no avail. There was a lot of text, and Andrew had no idea when it had been written.

            How does a god fill in all the gaps?

            I ask this because I have never struggled with it before. I have never dreamt of such a place that is its own realm with its own entities. In fact, I have also never been able to write so clearly, or come back from being awake only to find that the world here has moved on without me. I have determined that all realities must be dreams of sleeping gods, upon which all religion is founded. Is this realm mine to do such? I don’t know. I barely have any power here. I cannot change things at will nor transport myself with a mere thought. I have to muster incredible willpower to simply move through a wall; this is what has made me realize this place is real. I have found that when I do acts like this, bizarre disparities occur. Objects will duplicate or simple physics will momentarily glitch, so to speak. What’s worse, I have fallen in love with a denizen here. That’s you, Andrew. Please do not be alarmed. We will speak when I get home. I am excited to share the truth with you. The future is bright.

            Your love, Penelope.

            The paper was hurled against the wall in a crumpled ball. Andrew rolled over onto his back and covered his face with his hands. He grabbed a pillow and threw it as well, then tugged at his hair. “God, I have to call her.” He fumbled the phone out of his pocket. The minute it took to ring felt like an eternity, and the voicemail message was like sealing his own coffin. “Damn it!” He stood up out of bed and paced around the small living room. “She’s going insane. I should’ve been talking to her more about how she’s feeling. I knew she was bipolar or something.” His breathing quickened when he thought he saw her standing outside the window. He ran over to the glass, only to see strangers passing by on the sidewalk. He caught his breath, lost it, and caught it again. The air was getting stuck in his throat. He couldn’t breathe. What did people do when they were hyperventilating again? The cabinet under the kitchen sink was torn open to grab a plastic bag. In, out, in, out.

            Once he could breathe again, he sat down on the sofa to think. It was two hours before she got off work. He didn’t know how he was going to be able to wait that long. Besides, the thought of her coming home to approach him about these ‘ideas’ made him feel sick to his stomach. It was already twisting in knots. Of course Andrew didn’t believe a word she was saying, but when he thought back to her sleepwalking a wave of paranoia swept through him. He didn’t have anyone to call and talk to about it. Except for perhaps the hospital.

            He punched the number into the keypad on his phone, and hesitated. Andrew was not without mental crises throughout his life. If someone had submitted him to the mental hospital against his will, he might have never trusted them again. He needed to hear her out and give her a say. So he waited.

–––

            The bottle of vodka was half empty by the time the door opened. A jangle of keys and rustle of quiet footsteps were the only cues Penelope had come home. Besides Andrew sitting in the living room right in front of the door, of course. It was a studio after all.

            “How was work?” Andrew asked, and then chuckled a little bit at his casual tone in such a dire situation.

            “Oh, you know, busy as usual. Even for a Thursday night. I have to tell you, I had a few tables that made me just want to––ugh! God, I seriously don’t understand some people, you know?”

            “No, I actually think I do understand most people.” The words came out a lot more sloshed than Andrew preferred, then he decided he didn’t care. “The thing is, Penelope, I don’t understand you.”

            Penelope sat down next to him on the couch in a way that made her bounce off the cushions a bit. She ran her hands through her hair to get it out of her face. Another thing she did that signaled her mind was somewhere way different than the current conversation. “Mm, I assume you’re referencing the letter you must’ve found.” Her nose wrinkled in an exaggerated frown. “You know it’s not good to snoop in other people’s property, baby.” The frown broke into a wide grin. She poked his nose. “I’m just kidding hun. I wanted you to find it. What did you think?”

            Andrew’s neck rolled his head over to look at her, leaning into the couch. “Oh, what did I think? I wonder what I think.” He stood up and parted his hands as if he were introducing a character in a freak show. “I think you are certifiably insane, darling! And you need serious help! Unless you were joking, of course. In which case it would not be very funny anyway.”

            Penelope looked at him with a demure expression. “Are you so blind to the world around you that you haven’t been noticing anything strange lately?”

            Andrew took a swig straight out of the bottle. “Funny you should mention that! Yes, actually. The thing we have discussed endless times; you don’t wake up when you sleep and it freaks me the hell out! We don’t even have to mention, oh, the nightmares and potential hallucinations and all that jazz. So yes, I guess you could say things have been strange around here.”

            “Nightmares and hallucinations? Don’t you think you’re the one that might be insane?”

            “Do NOT turn this around onto me. You are the one who wrote that schizophrenic delusion of a letter. I am not involved in the conversation about who’s crazier right now.”

            Penelope chewed on her lip and twirled a strand of hair between her fingers. “Alright. That’s not what I wanted to talk about anyway.” She leaned forward. “Andrew, where do we go when we sleep?”

            “Penelope, you know that’s a question that’s never been answered for sure. I know you have your theories, but we cannot entertain ideas like–”

            “Answer the question, please!” Her foot was tapping against the ground.

            “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Go ask a brain doctor. If you are so fascinated with the subject, do actual research. I would love to know the answer as well, but it’s pointless to chase these sorts of things. They drive you mad because they are endless.”

            A slight smile tugged at her small lips. “What if I told you I know where we go?”

            Andrew shifted his weight from foot to foot. “If your answer is what I think it is, I would call you insane.”

            She went on regardless. “Andrew, most dreams are the playthings of a brain burning off steam. You know, discharging excess energy and emotion. That’s why so many dreams are emotionally fuelled and symbolic. When you lucid dream in these playgrounds, anything can happen because you are inside yourself. However, once in a blue moon you will come across what I call ‘realms’. Whole other multiverses that the dreaming soul accidentally stumbles upon. I believe that if you lucid dream in these worlds, you become a god of sorts. That’s how religion was founded, and how there’s so many of them!” Penelope stood up and walked over to Andrew. She placed her hands on his chest and looked up at him with baby-blue eyes. “I am not of this world, Andrew.”

            He stepped back, leaving her standing a few feet in front of him. He set the bottle of vodka on the kitchen table and shook his head. “I am so sorry, but you need some serious help, hun. Is it ok if we make an appointment for you to get some professional help? It’s ok to reach out. Honestly I’m glad you’re telling me all this.”

            Anger flashed through her face. “The only reason I can’t immediately prove it to you is because my power is weaker in a developed realm. The rules are already set here and I have to break them. I know how to show you.” She pushed past Andrew into the kitchen and withdrew a knife from the knife block. Her arm was raised when Andrew screamed and slammed into her.

            “NO! You’re not ok, Penelope. Let me help you. LET ME HELP YOU.”

            He wrestled the knife out of her hands. She was screaming now, hitting him and scrambling to get her hands on another weapon. He pushed her to the cold kitchen tiles, resting all of his body weight on her slender frame. Her hands beat on his back and her cries pierced his ears. Using his right hand he reached down into his back pocket and dialed 911.

            “Yes, this is an emergency. Hi, I need you to get here as soon as possible, my girlfriend is having an episode and is trying to hurt herself. Please, I need you to hurry, she is extremely unstable and she needs to get to a hospital. Yes, here’s my address. Across from the 24 hour grocery store. Yes, thank you.” He threw his phone onto the ground and looked down at Penelope. She had stopped struggling and was staring blankly into the distance. Cautiously, Andrew pushed himself off her to pick her up and carry her to the couch. “It’s ok. Everything will be ok.”

            The ambulance arrived shortly afterward accompanied with two police vehicles. The flashing lights signaled a blur for Andrew through the following events. Penelope didn’t protest as the paramedics wheeled her into the back of the ambulance. She only stared directly at Andrew with hatred in her eyes.

            A sheriff approached Andrew. “We need to ask you a few questions. What led to her having a psychotic break? Was she showing any clear signs of distress?”

            Andrew clenched his fists. The screams were definitely heard over the call, and that made him look extremely bad. “She’s been acting really strange the past few days. She sleepwalks and won’t wake up no matter how hard I try, to the point where I called the ambulance one time. This morning she was commenting about how things aren’t what they seem, or something like that. The main thing was that she wrote a letter about how none of this is real and we’re all in a dream. She brought it up to me tonight and when I told her that was crazy, she tried to hurt herself to prove it.”

            The sheriff nodded and scribbled something down on his notepad. “Do you have that letter?”

            “Yes, actually. Allow me to go grab it.” He ran inside his apartment to fetch the crumpled paper on the bedroom floor. He rounded the foot of the bed. It wasn’t there. His brow broke into a cold sweat. I know I threw it around here. He grabbed clothes and threw them around, shoved items off the dresser, tore the blankets off the bed. Nothing. It was simply gone.

            His heart pounding out of his chest, he walked back to the sheriff. “I am so sorry, I seem to have misplaced it. She might’ve thrown it out without me knowing.” Which was a lie.

            The sheriff’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t comment. “Screams were heard over the call, including shouts of ‘let me go’. Could you please explain that to me?”

            “She was trying to hurt herself with a knife and I knocked it out of her hand. I was laying on top of her when I made the call so she wouldn’t try to do anything worse.”

More scratching on the notepad. “Miss Penelope has not indicated that she has been abused, but we will continue to question her about her home life. In the meantime, she’s being submitted to the hospital to stay overnight until we have more details. Do you know of any family of hers we can contact? She was not responsive to the question.”

            Andrew shook his head. “No, as far as I know she hasn’t contacted her family for years. I’m her only emergency contact.”
            “I’ll put you down as primary contact, then. That’s all for tonight. We will continue our investigation with her and if necessary, the hospital will contact you in the morning to discuss your plan of action. Good night Mr. Heiss.”

            The sheriff walked back toward his car, glints of red and blue reflecting off everyone’s faces. Andrew stood there until they left, and then there was nothing but him and the darkness.

–––

            The ringing of his phone pierced through the heavy silence of the night. Andrew jolted awake, slick with sweat once more from another nightmare. No-faced Penelope was back, and this time she was in his mirror.

            The phone went quiet, and then began ringing again. Andrew rolled over and squinted at the light emanating from the screen. It was a number he didn’t recognize, but no one called him at 5 in the morning. He answered. “Hello?”

            “Mr. Heiss. This is Strawberry Fields hospital. We were performing our night checks on our patients and we found Penelope to be missing from her room. We do not understand how this has happened, other than the possibility that perhaps you have helped her escape. Is she with you now?”

            “What? No, she’s not. How could she have escaped? Are you not a huge hospital?”

            “We are. Everyone is on full alert and we are trying to figure out what happened. The only other explanation is that a staff member may have assisted her in getting out. Since she is regarded as being a danger to herself, we have police searching for her as we speak. We ask that you attempt to contact her and find out her whereabouts. If you do, please call emergency services as soon as possible. We will call you back when we have more details.”

            “Wait!” Andrew shouted, but the hospital had already hung up. He sank back into the bed and pulled the covers over himself. The shadows were growing long and it was so dark in the apartment it appeared that they were dancing in the corners. He scampered out of bed and turned on the light. The shadows retreated, and he let out the breath he was holding. Until he heard a resounding thump in the bathroom.

            No, no. He could not handle this. Creaks came from the bathroom, as if someone was walking. His heartbeat was going so wild he thought he was going to have a heart attack. He leapt back into his bed with the lights still on and pulled the covers over himself. Eventually, the noises ceased.

            He knew he would have to go in there. If not just to prove that nothing was there, to prove he still had some semblance of mahood left within him. At this point he was acting pitiful. He kicked the blankets back off, and marched out of the bedroom. Penelope was crazy, nothing she said was true, and the apartment was locked. Andrew assured himself he was being completely irrational.

            The bathroom was a black hole in the apartment. It seemed blacker than usual, like no light could escape it. Mustering all of his courage, Andrew stepped into the bathroom. He forced himself to look at the mirror. There he was, barely noticeable in the tiniest captures of light. Another sigh of relief. He flicked on the light switch.

            He screamed, fell backward onto his bottom, and screamed harder. His hands tore at the wall behind him. Penelope was in the mirror, smiling down at him. It seemed like she was having trouble arranging her face. Her eyes kept moving in unsynchronized movements, and her smile looked like it was molded from playdough.

            “I…told you…I’d show you! All dreams!” She giggled, and it was a wet laugh.

            Andrew tore out of there. He was wearing only his boxers as he ripped through his door and ran as fast as his legs would allow through the crisp night air. The sun was coming up soon, and he only had to run until it did. He would find the solace of the light eventually.

            Yet until then, darkness surrounded him. It swallowed him up and found him at every turn, and in the obsidian realms of unseen corners, Penelope followed him.


Bio pending.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Dream Errors” psychological horror by Jay Charles.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Mr. Fate” Horror by Billy Stanton

"Mr. Fate" Horror by Billy Stanton

The poster seemed an immovable and ancient feature of the stone facade of the theatre, so perfectly was it fixed to the wall and so antique was its appearance. This impression of antiquity came not from any fading, yellowing or other cosmetic damage to the thin paper; rather, the advertisement was in perfect nick, as fresh and bold and inviting as it had probably been at the moment of its original printing. It was instead the imagery, the colour and the overall design that spoke of some bygone, even timeless, age: white-faced clowns in conical hats laughed silently, flame-haired girls in black leotards gyrated down the edges of the bill, great exotic animals glittered with gold and silver trappings like they’d been plucked from a march alongside Hannibal and strong-men and acrobats completed their long-forgotten routines with a dignified flourish. ‘MONKEY MADNESS’ was boasted by a subtitle in thick black lettering below a poorly-rendered illustration of caged primates at play. ‘POOLEY’S CIRCUS’ was the headline spelt out in blue on a gold sash, which clashed with the overall deep red background of the piece, and was held aloft by a tiny suited figure in a far-right corner. If one cared enough to squint, there was a name scrawled beneath the feet of this near-silhouette: Mr. Fate.

It was Mr. Fate alone that was the unlikely star at the Odeum tonight. The appearance of this promotion that relegated him to the status of a sideshow was surely little more than either the desperate trick of a showbiz pauper, trying to hoodwink a passing potential audience with the promise of greater and more varied thrills than those which were actually going to appear this evening, or admittance of defeat in the face of a current budget which couldn’t extend to any new marketing materials. To Richard, this seemed odd: surely a solo act at this venue, such a historic staple of the West End, would be expected to hold a much higher standard of operation, and be in possession of enough capital to at least be able to print up a solo bill? Richard couldn’t imagine the process by which this result had been signed off by everyone from personal agent to theatre manager, social media content producer to board member. He did not, however, quibble. After all, it was the tantalising promise of the unusual and unexpected that had drawn Richard to the hellscape of tourist-land against all his better instincts. It had been the limited but provocative copy of the Time Out listing (“Mr. Fate: Music Hall, Vaudeville and Variety Classics, Comedic and Musical, from an Accomplished Pro; remember how it used to be done and weep for the present”) that had first sparked an interest in him; it appeared to represent a temporary passing over at this theatre, for the length of a very limited engagement, of another musical adaptation of an old film that was familiar to far-flung overseas visitors mainly because it was also safe enough to have reached them without being withheld by their national censors, and this was surely be welcomed. Richard had only been made more curious by his inability to find out much more about the show or the performer anywhere else, as every online source for the theatre’s schedule or content repeated those same few words ad nauseam and without addition or amendment. 

So he’d purchased his ticket online- at a cost far, far below the usual three-digit figure for even the cheapest, most pillar-obstructed plush velvet at the conventional shows- and now he stood in line for admittance at the Odeum for the first time in probably decades. The same gold-blue-red colour scheme of the poster was repeated in the simple awnings that had been fixed around the theatre’s doorways. There was no name on these boards and no further suggestion of what was to be seen within. Mr. Fate was, it appeared, an open secret not to be shouted about too loudly. Was the Odeum embarrassed? Did this explain the front of a circus, rather than the admittance of only a single disreputable performer? Was tonight- and the rest of the week- a stop-gap presentation that had arisen out of the commercial necessity of keeping the doors open even when more popular shows left an unfortunate gap in the calendar that needed filling? If the last of those suggestions were truly the case, then the men-behind-the-curtains must have been rubbing their hands together in unexpected delight: there were enough people outside, and within the foyer itself, to suggest an evening at at least two-thirds of capacity. 

The crowd, Richard noticed, was oddly mixed. There were tourists, true, who stood around slightly perplexed, quite possibly utterly unaware of what tickets had been foisted upon them by whoever was organising their vacations, and on the verge of a nasty shock. There was also the expected humble elderly contingent, clearly anticipating a night of cloyingly sweet nostalgia, and currently blocking passages of entrance with their tiny, trembling frames. Other people were evidently aficionados of this sort of thing; a combination of scholarly-looking types, probably carrying Dickens’ biography of Grimaldi in their coat pockets, and men who lived up to every negative physical stereotype of the dedicated follower of obscure and esoteric interests. Amongst this lot, however, were two unexpected classes (and the emphasis was really on the word ‘class’ in one instance). First, there was a slice of the self-contented, clearly affluent, friendly but unfriendly, grey haired and silver-watched crowd that propped up the business of most genuinely culturally-important institutions in the city, while forever loudly twittering in their little groups about their shared holiday plans and cosseted opinions, all of which were both definitively received well in advance and frighteningly un-insightful. Richard knew that this type was as well-disposed to decorative nostalgia as their more age-advanced and modest forebears entering the lobby, even if their nostalgia was often of a supposedly superior sort; but he was still somewhat surprised to see them pick Mr. Fate over another evening spent in the company of the same Schubert symphonies they’d heard performed live six or seven times already. The presence of another societal subsection was far more startling: teenagers and twenty-somethings, the majority of them self-consciously retro in their appearance and dress sense, although retro in a way that spoke of very different periods and subcultures than the ones that Mr. Fate had winged his way in from. Richard found their appearance on this scene somewhat puzzling; even at such a low cost, he hardly imagined that this was the sort of thing that could part them from their cash, and he wondered where exactly they could have picked up an interest in, or even much awareness, of traditional vaudeville or the crusty mildew melodies of the music hall. Scattered about were the disbelievers who formed the rest of Richard’s tribe, and who were surveying the scene with much the same confusion as himself. 

The doormen were mute; they swung the doors open to each ticket-holder with an unpleasant robotic motion, their eyes confessing their decision to situate themselves- in every aspect but the physical- in some other distant place. When Richard finally made his way past them he tried not to look at them too much; they were almost frightening to him, like zombies from show nights long-passed, reanimated by the devil dust Mr. Fate had blown into their restful faces once he’d prised open their coffins. Indeed, an odd drowsiness had settled upon the general evening since his arrival, for all the denseness of persons. Richard was reminded of the sort of hypnagogic drift that directed his thoughts on the verge of sleeping; he seemed now to be almost guided across the carpet, past the gilt-framed bills that added an ostentatious greeting note to those who had struggled their way inside, and towards the bar in the manner of a semi-sleep-walker, a somnambulist who would have fitted in well as an act alongside the rest of the circus folk that once populated Pooley’s Circus. A vodka with ice was in his hand without him being too conscious of its purchasing; he sucked on the decorative lime that he peeled from the edge of the glass unaware of any bitter flavour or breaking of social decorum. He noticed many of those around him bore a similar manner in their expressions and movements. They appeared to alternately glide or jerk about the place in a way that set Richard to thinking of another old treat: namely the mechanical jockeys that used to complete their horse races along steel beams in glass-fronted cases at the drop of a penny in the seaside arcades. Eyes were glazed all about; conversation was conducted haltingly in whispers or monotone; the teenagers looked ready for a nap, let alone the old folks. The only real point of great animation came from a middle-aged, rotund fellow further down the bar. Richard moved closer to him, hoping some of this life and energy would rub off upon him and knock him from his stupor. 

He came to regret his decision almost instantly. The man was bloviating loudly and looking for a target who wouldn’t try to squirm away from the forceful flood of his words. His wife, obviously worn down by the constancy of his torrential downpours, was a mute and detached figure whose current perfect silence and stillness was most likely a consistent feature of her personality, and not a result of the same spell which had been cast upon most of the rest of the room. The man’s eyes fixed on Richard’s, and he extended his hand for the shaking in a needlessly violent motion. Indeed, every one of the man’s actions was made with the hope of projecting a self-confidence, a superiority, a great satisfaction that outranked that of his conversational partner. Richard was caught between slinking away and defiantly meeting him halfway. He opted for the latter approach. He shook the man’s hand. 

“I’m Graham.” 

“Richard.”

“Nice to meet you, Richie. Nice to meet you. You looking forward to the show?”

Richard nodded, somewhat rankled at the patronising liberty taken with his name. “I’m curious about it.”

“Me too mate, me too.” 

Graham’s voice was plummy and utterly untraceable to any particular region of the country. He wanted to be known as an everyman, and occasionally- purposefully, theatrically- he dropped an aitch or an arr in the hopes of further solidifying and signalling his position as such. 

“What bought you here tonight?” Richard asked. 

“I want to see if this bloke- this Mr. Fate- is up to it.”

“Up to what?”

“Up to it. I want to see if he can do it properly like he promised; like it used to be done. How it was done when we still had a sense of humour we could be proud of in this country.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t resist when I saw it. We need proper variety back nowadays, y’know. A good old laugh at teatime on a Saturday- that’s what held us together as a people back in the day. The ones nowadays, half of them try it and haven’t got the wit or the skill. Not since Jerry died. He was the last one, the last old pro.”

“I was never much of a fan.”

In truth, Richard thought Jerry was a twirling fool; a purveyor of hack gags- cleaned-up for the early evening audience- and mediocre dance steps, an old twinkle-toes with a barely-disguised mean streak. He’d always seemed the sort who’d knock a couple of quid off a contractor’s pay based on the length of time they stopped for a tea break and had outlived his time on television by a good few decades, supported by the last vestiges of a soppy audience. Richard’s contempt was probably audible in his clipped dismissal and it put Graham on the defensive. 

“You’re wrong there, pal. He had something for the whole family. The whole lot could enjoy him.”

Strictly the dewy-eyed grandmas thought Richard, but he said nothing. Graham looked around for someone better to talk to. He could round up no one else and turned back to Richard to strengthen his argument.

“It’s lads like him who made us what we are. He made your struggles during the week- slaving your guts out- worth it; he made you forget it all. Nowadays, you turn on the television and all you get is hectored; everyone’s got something bad to tell you, everyone’s got something bad to say about you. You’ve got to feel guilty all the time. Like you want to hear all that after you’ve been sweating it at the foundry. You want a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz, a few cheeky laughs; it puts a new burst in you for Monday morning. Without people such as Jerry, I tell you, we’d have fallen behind the rest of the world a lot earlier; we’d have been too miserable to make it in after the weekend, and the whole bloody thing would have ground to a halt. Like it has now.”

“I’ve always preferred the sketch comedians from that time.”

It was an opinion offered as a peace-making gesture on Richard’s part, one chosen instead of- quite fairly- enquiring on the exact date that Graham had last toiled at the foundry.

“Fair play to you there, fair play. They were great. Don’t see much of their like either now. That’s all the special interest groups and the bloody elites diluting it all, telling us what we should like rather than giving us a bit more of what we actually do like.”

Richard, tiring of the same old talking-points, decided to change tack. “I don’t know if Mr. Fate is going to be much like Jerry. He seems to be doing something a few decades older.”

“It’s close enough, isn’t it?”

Richard supposed it was. He excused himself and went for another drink. Some of his sleepiness had worn off, and he now put that earlier strange mood down to the warmth of the lobby. 

There was more of a crush now around the bar. Richard joined the back of it and noticed the woman next to him was crying. No, not just crying- sobbing, bawling her eyes out. Her partner held her to his chest, stroking her hair. 

“I don’t want to go in, Charlie. I don’t. I don’t.”

Her partner pattered her on the head and pushed her face further into his coat. He said a few more comforting words, but the woman kept weeping; she began to shake more and more, and Richard thought her legs were going to give way. The man ushered her away and they were lost to Richard’s sight for a few seconds; when he caught a glimpse of them again through the throngs he could see that the man was all but forcing her towards the open doors of the auditorium. He whispered in the usher’s ear as they were asked to present their tickets, and the two of them together helped carry the woman to her seat. 

Richard only had time to briefly consider if she had some form of agoraphobia before he was ordering his second drink. It arrived and he downed it one. The bell rung. 

“Seats please, ladies and gentlemen!” 

An usher, holding an old brass megaphone, was standing on the balcony that led to the upper stalls. His silver buttons gleamed in the overhead fluoresce; he wore little white gloves and thick, shining black shoes. His hair was slicked back so forcefully that his forehead and brow jutted forwards with an unnatural, furious tightness. He lifted the megaphone to his lips again. 

“Enjoy your trip with Mr. Fate!”

There were a few cheers for this, which were followed by a low murmuring. Then Richard was caught up in a rapid pouring forward of the crowd towards the waiting doors. Behind him, he could hear a couple more members of the audience crying as they too were propelled onwards by the irrepressible movement around them. There was no question of turning back, or slipping out of the mass; everyone had very quickly become too tightly packed. Richard felt himself being lifted off his feet; the ushers gave up on checking tickets and simply stood aside to let the crowd through with vacant grins. Richard turned his head as the sobs behind him turned to screams; he tried to see if people were being crushed, as he felt he might soon be. He saw that a line of people was pushing the rest of the audience forwards from the very back of the congregation. The faces of these stormtroopers were red and contorted with the pressures of their exertion. Richard wanted to shout at them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, but his chest and lungs were being too heavily pressed to allow for speech. He focused only on his breathing- and blocking out the terrible wailing- as he was carried into the stalls. As he came through the door, a good number of those in front of him collapsed, and soon Richard too was rolling down the aisles with them, bruising his back as it hit against individual steps. When he stopped falling he was lying atop a groggy, near-purple middle-aged woman. He apologised profusely and helped her up. She said nothing, put a friendly hand on his shoulder, and then went in search of her seat. To his left, Richard saw Graham laughing delightedly in Row BB. He gave Richard a thumbs-up; apparently, nearly everyone here was desperately, devotedly on his side- they were willing to kill to get a bit of that old variety back.  

Indeed, most of the crowd had reacted as if this display was the normal, accepted way of entering a performance hall. As people pulled themselves up or were caught against the backs of the first row of seats, they then worked themselves free, adjusted their clothes and hair, and wandered off with a calm, even contented demeanour. The banshees of the crush had been silenced; there was an expectant, excited hush in the place now. Richard could see a few others looking around with a similar sort of apprehension as himself, but the pressures of conformity soon weighed, and even they went about seating themselves in much the same way as the rest of the room. 

Richard, too, followed their lead and sat himself down. Gazing up at the balcony and the rest of the stalls, he noted that his early guess of two-thirds capacity was an underestimation- surely, this was a near sell-out. Richard’s neighbours were composed mainly of the same geriatric folks he’d seen on arriving, broken up only by the occasional forty-something like himself, and a couple of youngsters- their dress sense caught somewhere between 1965 and 1995- perched somewhat uncomfortably at the end of Row KK. A few of the oldies were sucking on hardboiled sweets like they’d stepped out of some cheap advertisement. One of them proffered a bag of humbugs to Richard; he politely turned down the invitation. 

There came a great whirring noise, and then a long musical note, the sound of which was somewhere between that of a church organ and the burst of a laser gun. The stage and its red curtains lit up in splashes of purple, blue and yellow light and an elegant behemoth of a Wurlitzer came up through a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. It shone in pure, blinding white, was topped by silver pipes, and was decorated by dancing green and gold bursts that hopped jauntily across the multiple cascading keyboards and up into a system of buttons and pullies. A man in a wide-cut grey suit, his hair also slicked back to an impossible point like the announcer’s, made an unlikely medley out of Autumn Leaves and Everybody Loves My Baby. There came coos of delight, hands clapping, other tunes being hummed in counter-point. Richard himself could not help but get caught up too, leaving behind any wondering about how exactly this instrument had been installed in the theatre, and how much such an operation would have cost. Surrendering himself, he drifted out of his body to float above the innocent pier of seaside memories, a wash of striped-bathing suits and Sunday bests below him. The music seemed at once an orchestrated version of the sound of two penny pieces clattering down in the push machines, the clicking of a hawker’s camera offering deckchair candids to pretty factory girls and dads in rolled shirt-sleeves, and the meetings of steel forks and plates cleared of haddock, chips and even lemon. Richard’s spirit perched itself upon the top of a helter-skelter, an enormous tower in red-and-blue spirals, that had grown to a size of several hundred feet, and was still soaring upwards, carrying him towards the muggy clouds of a hot bank holiday afternoon. Then he was cast off and was falling towards the grey nothingness of the sea, straight through the nailed boards of the pier walkways, before he was caught on a lattice of fine, oiled ironwork beneath the pier, and suspended- crucified- in perfect, beaming happiness. The dancers and fairies of the circus bill poster flew in loop-the-loops high above him, becoming angels; he watched them go, as an acrobat, carrying a cartoon weight, made easy work of walkathons up-and-down the inches-thin handrail of the platform above him. The music started coming to an end; Richard was struck by melancholy as he became aware that these weren’t his own memories, dreams or visions, but just the construction of some great shared store of memory and imagination, all of it infinitely sweetened beyond reality, and not much beyond ghosts flattened and mulched into universally familiar patterns. But it was all sweet, so, so sweet, that it hurt to reawaken to the murkiness of the theatre. The magic lantern clicked off. The Wurlitzer sunk back into its subterranean resting place, and he was left choking on his tears. 

Before his nostalgia could curdle any further, Richard’s attention was stolen by someone shouting; he saw a youngster breaking for the doors. He was met by an usher who bear-hugged him and manhandled him back to his seat, letting the kid writhe and kick out the whole way. Once plunked back down, a guard was kept.

Before the audience could protest, a man appeared on the stage; a spotlight turned on him and made his face blue. The response was immediately rapturous, geed up by the tender majesties of the organ.

“You remember, don’t you,” the man said, in tones attempting for the sonorous but letdown by an underlying asthmatic weakness, “the glory days of theatres such as these?”

He approached the front of the stage, then dropped and backward-rolled and stood again on the spot he’d started from. 

“Magic and laughter, tears and delightful delicacies. France’s finest legs kicking the cancan, jokes and routines from the funniest men alive that would send you- the audience- into convulsions. Indeed, didn’t it seem like every hall needed a standby St Johns ambulance, to cater to those whose collars had gotten too hot, or who had been forced into cardiac arrest by the brilliantine brilliance of the final punchline?”

Members of Richard’s row were nodding. 

“Do you remember Charlie?” The man imitated the Tramp’s walk. 

“Do you remember the songs?” He offered a line of a Flanagan and Allen favourite. 

“Do you remember the tricks?” He produced a pack of cards from his suit pocket and showed a five of clubs to the audience. “That was your card, wasn’t it?”

There were chuckles. The man walked closer to them. Richard could see him better now; white paint had been caked upon a face approaching old age, marked by a surfeit of deep, dark wrinkles. Around each eye was drawn, in black wobbly lines, a large circle, and these were connected by an even shakier line across the bridge of the nose to form a false pair of round spectacles. His eyes were brown but animated, even fiery. His teeth were stained yellow. He repulsed Richard and made him involuntarily draw back in his seat to escape the gargoyle leer that was now fixed upon them. The stage had been claimed by a sad Pierrot partly infused by the spirit of a particularly malicious Harlequin. 

“I am Mr. Fate,” said the man. He was acting as his own compere; there clearly was no support, no other attraction. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played. I hope you’ll bear with me.”

A roar boomed over the theatre’s speakers and made every one start.

“Exit, pursued by a bear!” Mr. Fate bellowed. He ran off stage left; then his head appeared round the curtain, caught in a paroxysm of panting pain that was too real, too immediately suggestive of a genuine and sudden heart-attack victim, to be in any way amusing. Roaring and growling continued to fill the auditorium. Mr Fate ran towards stage right, his suit shredded and a large pair of boxer shorts, in the customary bright red love heart pattern, showing through the remains of his trousers. Now the audience- or parts of it, at least- laughed. He disappeared around the curtain again, and then stuck his face back out with the same grotesque expression upon it as previously, except now he’d become aware that no one thought this particularly funny, and brief flashes of both frustration and sadness passed across his otherwise fixed countenance. His response to this negation was to double-down: his fake agonies only became more outrageous, more monstrous. 

He re-emerged into the fullness of the spotlight, with only his boxers and heavily-polished brogues remaining to cover him. The crowd liked that. Mr. Fate pretended to be embarrassed, shielding his modesty with outstretched hands. 

“What a way to begin my show!” 

He stepped up again to the lip of the stage. 

“Like I said, I’m not used to venues of this size. Not at all, not at all. Holiday parks, holiday camps, that’s more my thing. Performing for the tanked-up inbreds who can’t afford a trip abroad, and who end up bored out of their skulls in the wind-blasted rot of coastal England. But even those places are going away. Good riddance, I say. Especially if I can get gigs at all the world’s Odeums, eh?”

The tone of those words had been serious- poisonous- and met with general bemusement. Mr. Fate grinned, stood back, and caught a cane that was thrown in from off-stage. He twirled it and picked up the tune of the Flanagan and Allen number again. 

We’re always on the outside

On the outside always looking in

We never know how fortunes are made

For the sun, when it shines, finds us still in the shade

We’re always on the ebb tide

But we’ll keep on trying till we win

For we know someday we’re gonna be on the inside

Instead of the outside always looking in.”

He performed a few rudimentary dance steps as an unseen small orchestra caught up the pensive melody; Richard thought Graham would be happy, as the routine seemed to have been half-inched from one of Jerry’s. It turned into a fake foxtrot and then a waltz, Mr. Fate taking his cane as a willing partner.

“Isn’t it hard to find a dame these days, fellas?” 

The question was asked in a New York drawl. He followed it by throwing away his prop and dancing the Charleston, wildly and with a relish that belied his age. Then feet were caught in a choreographed tangle, and he was on his back, staring up at the stage lights. It was from this position that he performed the next and final verse, gifting the slender words a real, precious wistfulness. 

Were very ordinary people

We never make any fuss

Were the easygoing kind, 

if you look around youll find

Theres a million like us

Were always on the outside

On the outside always looking in.”

He rolled onto his stomach, resting his face in his hands and looking out cutely at the audience, then jumped up as the orchestra struck a new tune. He sang it in a quavering voice.

Twas down in Cupid’s Garden

 I wandered for to view 

The sweet and lovely flowers that in the garden grew, 

And one it was sweet jasmin, the lily, pink and rose; 

They are the finest flowers that in the garden grow. 

I had not been in the garden but scarcely half an hour, 

When I beheld two maidens, sat under a shady bower, 

And one it was sweet Nancy, so beautiful and fair,

 The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear.”

The orchestra continued playing as Mr. Fate bowed to the audience and shuffled his way off-stage. There was applause, but also a palpable edge of disquiet; the song was much too old to be familiar to anyone in the room, as Richard suspected the first may well have been to most of the audience also. He had thought himself more likely to hear variations on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life or similar, but Mr. Fate was chasing some form of authenticity, with a wide historical remit, at the very least. 

When he returned, Mr. Fate was wearing a top hat and tails. His face was still tainted blue by the spotlight. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome your kind response to my first routine. It is the sort of thing that one dreams of during yet another night in a motorway-adjacent Travelodge, kept awake by the howls of a domestic in your neighbours room while trying to keep down the cheap lager and slimy Hunter’s Chicken the janitor-cum-chef managed to under-microwave. It’s a tough life on the road, I tell you. A tough old life. You know, the other day in one of those places I met a fellow with one leg called Smith.”

He turned to the audience expectantly and was met with silence. He visibly sighed and made a tiny gesture to the gallery. A voice boomed out of the speakers, crackling, almost warped.

“One leg called Smith? What was the other one called?”

Some laughs, mostly polite. 

“‘Cor blimey. Let’s go again, eh? Woman gets on to the bus and says to me ‘I say, is this the Barking bus?’ Me, I respond ‘No, madam, this one just goes toot toot’.”

The same response followed.

“A waiter in a top London restaurant was sacked today for having his thumb in the soup when he served it. A topless waitress has been dismissed for two similar offences.”

There was more appreciation for this one. Mr. Fate looked a little disheartened.

“That more your line is it? A little bit blue? Oh, I say! Boys will be boys, won’t they? Lucky for you, girls, otherwise you’d get no fun … now … listen!”

Mr. Fate spun and broke into a fit of maniacal laughter. The sound rang out through the hall; it grew to such a pitch that it could almost have shook the balconies and rattled the lighting system. Richard’s discomfort rose. He wanted to turn and flee from the sound, the horrible unceasing sound, but he worried that any break would be met by the ushers in the same mysterious manner as the teenager’s earlier attempt at gaining freedom. Richard turned his head, battling against the cackling assault that near-paralysed him, and saw the usher was still looming over the boy. Very few others around seemed to notice this or care very much. 

A few laughs eventually rose to uncomfortably meet Mr. Fate’s, and this apparently spurred him into stopping. He smiled, and the orchestra played another tune. Mr. Fate once again broke out the same limited dance steps as earlier, enlivening them with a couple of strategically placed, still fully-trousered, moonings of the crowd, each one accompanied by a fluttering upwards of his coattails. He belted out the words with gusto. 

When I was a nipper only six months old

My Mother and my Father too

They didn’t know what to wean me on

They were both in a dreadful stew

They thought of tripe, they thought of steak

Or a little bit of old cod’s row

I said, Pop round to the old cook-shop

I know what’ll make me grow.

Boiled beef and carrots, Boiled beef and carrots

That’s the stuff for your ‘darby-kel’

Makes you fat and it keeps you well

Don’t live like vegetarians, on the stuff they give to parrots

From morn till night, blow out your kite

On boiled beef and carrots.

When I got married to Eliza Brown

A funny little girl next door

We went to Brighton for the week

Then we both toddled home once more

My pals all met me in the pub

Said a feller to me, Watcha Fred!

What did you have for your honeymoon?’

And just for a lark I said

Boiled beef and carrots…”

The invisible orchestra cut out, and Mr. Fate fell into a cross-legged sitting position. 

“The great Harry Champion, that one. Truly great. Not like me, not like me. Oh, I know I’m not up too much,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”

He looked out at his wide-eyed following. 

“I’m like so much of you lot. ‘Theres millions like us. I came along too late, much too late for myself. Or I just let my time pass, without grasping it properly-“

He stopped and smiled sympathetically at them all. 

“Doesn’t have to be that way, though, does it? Does it? That’s why you’re all here, after all. Because it doesn’t have to be.”

Someone in the audience whooped. Richard looked around to see who was so excited by Mr. Fate’s melancholic pleas and saw another member of the audience being restrained by the doors. The balcony announcer took hold of the woman’s wrist and dragged her back to her seat. It was Graham’s wife. Mr. Fate took no heed of her. 

“I’ve given you a bit of a reminder of what was, in my own sorry way. Now it’s your turn to do the rest, to do what we’ve come here for. Now, we can get time back. Our time. Better, happier times, the real thing. And it will be better than this, I promise, so much better. Don’t you want that, boys and girls?”

The crowd grew more and more excited. The room was melting for Richard now; reality was dripping away and congealing on the floor in thick, gloopy puddles. He could see this was a false world before him; an alien world, a terrible place, a bad photocopy, an ersatz reproduction printed in the wrong hues and with the lines smudged. He tried to stand, but another usher came up behind him and pushed him down. He could see, out the corner of his eye, that a small army of them had arrived from somewhere- like they’d shot up out of the old floorboards- and were pinning down any resisters, any who weren’t now fixing the stage with the same rictus delight, or waxen death-mask serenity, as the rest of Richard’s row. Most of those being held were audience members of his age or younger, but even scattered amongst those of fewer years he could see others who were consenting and exuberant. So many in the hall now seemed to him possessed of some secret knowledge, an idea of a secret aim to the proceedings, that he’d arrived tonight completely unaware of. He wondered how many were like him. Who had spread the word to the others? Had it even been put abroad, or had the educated not otherwise just been drawn here by a mysterious instinct, a voice that whispered to their most futile desires? Had Mr. Fate this evening been in their heads, their hearts, telling them things from inside that could never reach Richard; trilling in the gaps between his gags and songs in a tongue only to be understood by the initiated? 

“Cover their eyes!” Mr. Fate pointed at the usherette militia, directing them. A smooth, supple pair of hands cut off his view of the stage. 

“Sing along!” Mr. Fate bellowed. “I need all of you that can manage! It won’t work without most of you willing- willing! I’ve got a sheet for you to read from, there’s no excuse! Start the music!”

The fantasy orchestra started up again. The Wurlitzer sounded deep, rumbling, sizzling hellfire from below the pit. 

“Time again, time again!” Mr. Fate shouted, and leapt into the words of the song. The crowd joined, uncertainly at first, but then with great enthusiasm, with glory in their bellies and golden syrup in their mouths. The song turned from the rinkydink to the sublime; it could have filled the greatest cathedrals in the world and sent the sheer grey sullen spires of God toppling. Richard struggled against his captors, but more hands were placed on him, more held him in place.

Well smile again

With the sun through the rain

As we welcome back those good old days we knew

No more goodbyes 

No more heartaches and sighs

Well awake to realise our dreams come true

Those happy days, happy ways

Are the things we sigh for

Theyll all come true, Mister Blue-

Richard felt the ground shifting beneath his feet; the whole hall began rocking left and right at a tremendous velocity. The hands confining him slid and skidded across his face and body; behind him, the bodies to which they belonged tried to keep themselves upright. Flashes of blue and red light blinded him when his eyes were free. The sideways movements turned into great lurchings backward and forwards. Richard gritted his teeth and dug his fingernails into the hard plastic beneath the thick velvet of his armrest; blood started dripping down his fingers. Mr. Fate took an opportunity to encourage the crowd.

“C’mon now, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Don’t be frightened! The golden pathways are opening for you; all you’ve lost is returning, all that’s passed is coming back. This is what we need!”

Someone- Graham?- cried out. “England! My England!”

Mr. Fate finished the song with the audience.

What ya gotta cry for

Turn the lights on

For the darkness has gone

Arm in arm lets sing a grand refrain

The world is with us 

So well smile again.”

Everything stopped. The theatre was still. The hands were withdrawn from Richard’s eyes, and the ushers melted back into the walls’ scarlet shadows. Richard looked around him; much of his row was caught between a new radiant happiness- old faces crinkled in children’s expressions of wonder- and an ambiguous dabbing at wet eyes with the edges of hankies. The young couple at the end of the row looked around in search of something or someone, or some clue as to the outcome of this mass seance. 

Mr. Fate, who had been missing from the stage when Richard’s vision had been restored, returned.

“You’ve done a wonderful job. Oh, joy of joy, day of days! Isn’t it a shame we don’t have any windows in this place? But I’ve popped backstage, ladies and gents, and let me tell you- this isn’t the same city we left behind! Oh, it’s so much better.”

He gave a little jig and sang a song of his invention. 

Start again, start again, oh what can be, what can we be, now we can start again. We’ve left the cruelty of our age behind; the bitterness and the division. Oh Christ, how cold we’ve all been, eh? How bloody, bloody cold. Well, throw off your shawls, Mother Brown! Chuck the hot water bottle out from under the eiderdown. Go you lot, go!”

The majority of the audience thew themselves from their seats and once again battled their way towards the door, clambering and clawing their way over each other to get towards- what? Mr. Fate’s promised land, a new shining paradise beyond the foyer? Richard watched the crush develop- the lost and lonely stragglers, regretful or befuddled, joining after the worst of the stampede- and remained rooted in his seat. Mr. Fate had gone again; the stage lights were dimmed and eventually shut off. A kinder, gentler usher than the earlier paramilitary equivalents appeared at his elbow and helped him gingerly out of his seat and towards the door. No words were exchanged; Richard’s guide, although pinched and grey, walked with a puffed chest and a solemn stateliness.

They passed through the foyer and then out the the theatre; the usher left him and went back inside. Richard looked about and his legs buckled, and his head almost hit the pavement as he swooned. As Mr. Fate had promised, the Strand was indeed not the Strand he had come in from; the cladding and chrome, the lurking monsters of concrete frames and glass exteriors were gone from the margins of the scene around Charing Cross, and the familiar chain restaurants and shops had been replaced on this great stretch of life. The occasional horse-and-carriage or cart held up the lanes of early motorised hackney carriages, half-open to the elements and stinking with their dense fumes. The buildings had taken an almost Victorian appearance, a long line of tall soot and smoke-stained facades dropping down into the striped canopies and block-colored awnings of fancy shops. The people hurried about- the pace of their lives had changed little- but they were long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats and suits in great acres of fabric or peculiarly dumpy and formless dresses.

A pair of brogues stopped at Richard’s crown. A hand came to meet his, and after a few seconds of exertion from a samaritan almost out of puff, Richard was standing with a comforting arm around his shoulder. The man holding him was Mr. Fate, smiling warmly with his yellow teeth and his flaking make-up. 

“Bit of a shock, isn’t it? Even for the most willing ones, it will be.”

Richard nodded. He couldn’t form words. 

“Nineteen twenty-six. For God’s sake, I wish I’d got a better year. I hoped to avoid the Blitz at least; I managed that. But the crash is right around the corner.”

He shrugged his shoulders. Richard stood gaping at him. 

“Still, it’ll be alright for me. Entertainment’s always boomed in hard times, and I’ll be on a bill with the best- heck, I’ll steal most of their routines before they’ve even thought of them. Bully for me. I’ve got my public. It’s the others I worry about. I needed them- of course- but I worry they didn’t quite think things through. To be honest, I think I took most back further than they were expecting. Not quite a Christmas Eve recording at the BBC Studios, is it? All dancing girls in elf costumes, and the comedian as a great big erect Santa. That’s what they really wanted- if they ever really did know for sure what they wanted. Oh, well. They’ll pull through. They’ll find a silver lining, and so will you. Call me if you need help.”

Mr. Fate slipped a business card into Richard’s coat pocket. He started to stroll away, with a grand promenade air, but Richard stumbled over and grabbed at his poleyster sleeve.

“Is there any way back?” 

It was all he could manage to say, and he had to lean right into Mr. Fate’s ear to make himself heard. Mr. Fate shrugged once again. 

“Get a few hundred of those who want to go the opposite way in a room and give it your best shot. It’s the only way. You might be able to round up a nice little crowd after the crash. They might even be knocking down your door to go forwards a little. Good luck with it, if you decide to make a go of it.”

Mr. Fate patted his shoulder and was away and swallowed by the Saturday evening crowd. An old song resounded in Richard’s head. 

Life begins at Oxford Circus…”

He watched a car hurry past and contemplated throwing himself under the next, or beneath the hooves of a horse. But then one of the old contraptions stopped before him and he climbed in and asked for the place the song had named. As they merged with the rest of the traffic, and avoided the masses of jay-walkers and delivery boys who recklessly pelted off the kerb and slipped through the tiniest spaces between the cumbersome vehicles, he tried to send himself back again to the latticed metalwork underneath a long-distant pier, on a hot summer’s day from someone else’s photo album, but found the sun had long since already set and all the joys of the seaside had disappeared into the black of the night. He wept.  Back at the Orpheum, a blue-overalled workman, overseen by a courtly, august shade in all-black, carefully extracted the POOLEY’S CIRCUS poster from the wall, rolled it up and pushed it inside a cardboard tube. He received a nodded dismissal from his inspector and went down the side of the building, bill in hand, towards the tradesman’s entrance. The shade watched him all the way, before turning, stepping back inside the theatre and motioning to a waiting usherette to lock the front doors. 


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and film-maker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli’, dealing with the rituals of modern British drinking culture, is currently in post-production.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Cruel” dark, legendary fiction also by Billy Stanton.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“The Dare” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

"The Dare" Horror by Kate Bergquist

We snuck out to the Goat Man’s place every Halloween night. It was our secret tradition. First, my brother Joey and I did some bad-ass trick-or-treating, racing from house to house throughout the neighborhood. Our covert mission was to score at least a handful of candy at each stop to stuff into our pillowcases. We only had about two hours before our parents would return to pick us up in the station wagon, and we didn’t want them to know where we spent most of the evening.

Out behind Pine Woods Cemetery.

That’s where the Goat Man lived, alone, in a rambling Victorian cottage. Perched on a knoll down a long driveway behind the cemetery, it boasted all the hallmarks of a real haunted house, right down to its crooked shutters, peeling paint, and squeaky iron gate.

In other words, it was scary freaking perfect.

All us kids called him The Goat Man, but he didn’t herd goats or even own them. He didn’t possess any goat-like qualities, either, except for the gray hairs that sprouted from his chin like steel wool. His real name was Earl Ruskin. He was a hunched over and skinny old man, perpetually dressed in a tattered black suit, even in summer, and he wore thick wire-framed glasses and kept his straggly white hair pulled back into a rat tail. He seemed like a hundred years old to us then, but looking back, he was probably only sixty.

I even felt sorry for him, sometimes. I was a sensitive, nervous girl, the kind who worried about missing cats and dogs in the neighborhood and often went out to search for them. To me, Earl was sort of a stray human. The way I figured it, he probably didn’t deserve all the things people said about him. Maybe he just needed rescue from a lifetime of loneliness.

People rarely saw him out and about in real life, but we all heard the whispered stories.   If you stare at his face for more than ten seconds, it changes from human to wolf. Some older kids said he chased them from the cemetery one night, and that he could run lightning fast. He was behind them, and then, in a flash, he was ahead of them, levitating above one of the headstones.

And if that wasn’t scary enough, some of my fifth-grade classmates said they peeked in through his dining room window one night and saw him eating handfuls of spiders. Some of them crawled around on his face and hands while he was chewing. Well, it didn’t take long for that story to morph into Earl slurping brains from a silver ladle, dipped from the open skull of a dead goat. Hence the moniker.

Our dad told us that when Earl was young, he was more of a normal guy with a just few odd quirks. His family owned the old shoe factory in Milford for generations. When Earl inherited it, the Ruskin Shoe Company was one of the largest employers in our little corner of Vermont — half the town worked there. Earl was good to his employees, too, and for the most part they all liked him well enough; he was a fair and even-handed boss; he didn’t talk much, and he never came down on anyone too hard for being late or for asking for a raise.

But he was a loner, and never socialized, not even at company events. He often stayed late at the office so he could walk home in the dark. And he didn’t have one single friend that anyone could recall.

Earl was also shy around women. But he earned the name Earl the Hugger because during the holidays, at bonus time, he hugged each female employee when he handed out checks. He never said a word to any of them, just gave them the eye, if you know what I mean, and pressed them close for a few furtive seconds. Some of the women squirmed, others giggled, and some outright declined.

He never tried to hug the men.

His peculiar holiday hugs added to his creep factor. And despite his decent looks and wealthy bachelor status, no one wanted to go out with him.

Including my namesake, my aunt Emmaline. She was a beautiful, raven-haired young widow with ethereal blue eyes and a gentle smile. As the story goes, Earl was love-struck, and tried without success to garner her affection.

Still grieving the loss of her own husband from a car accident, Emmaline was upset by Earl’s behavior. He waited for her in dark hallways, and often hovered near her desk, staring at her. One Saturday morning, Earl showed up unexpectedly at the house. He held a huge bouquet of dead roses. When Emmaline saw who it was, and what he carried, she fled upstairs and dove under the bed. My dad, who was only eleven at the time, slid underneath to hide with her. She told him Earl had rancid breath and questionable manners, and that something about him frightened her. There’s something wrong with that man, she told him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Emmaline needed a fresh start. She had big plans for a whole new life, and had just accepted a position as a Shore Excursions Manager with a major cruise line. She couldn’t wait to see the world. She gave her two-week notice to Ruskin Shoes, and was on her final countdown to freedom.

But tragically, on her very last day at Ruskin, a massive fire erupted at the plant, right in the middle of second shift. All the employees managed to escape the flames – all but Emmaline. As a shift supervisor, she must have felt it her duty to go back in to make sure everyone had gotten out safely. But she never made it back out again.  

She was only twenty-two years old. Her whole family —and the entire town for that matter — was devastated by her death.

Including Earl. Although the Fire Marshall deemed the fire purely accidental, caused by faulty wiring, Earl was so broken he couldn’t rebuild. Instead, he became a black-suited recluse, and the object of two generations of childhood mischief.

                                                            #

“Check out the moon, Emmie,” Joey said, his breath trailing clouds. “It’s like a huge severed head rising behind the pines.” It didn’t look that way to me; it was missing the whole severed part, all the blood and gore. Besides, there was a bit of a gravity problem.

“Severed heads don’t rise, they fall.” But the moon was really big and full that Halloween; it cast long, eerie shadows on the gravestones. I kept my head down as we crossed the wooded path through the cemetery, just in case Earl was floating nearby. That would be a gravity problem, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

We crept to edge of the high row of overgrown shrubs by the front gate. As the wind rose, the temperature dropped, and both of us shivered in our costumes. The cold stung our faces and numbed our hands. There we crouched — a hairy biped and elegant princess – staring up at the Gothic windows.

A milky light flickered inside.

Joey lifted his furry mask. “I go first,” he mumbled, his mouth full of Snickers. He was a year older, almost twelve, a lot bigger than me, and very bossy. Last year he went first, too.

“Okay.”

“Look at me and count to three.”

I watched, giggling, as he reared up to his full height and beat his furry chest. I attempted a deep, royal intonation. “One…two…three…and a dare from thee.”

“I’ve got a good one, your Highness.”

“Pray tell, Bigfoot.”

“I dare you…to knock on the Goat Man’s front door, and when he answers, tell him you’re cold and you want to come in.”

“Are you crazy?” No one, to our knowledge anyway, had actually ever stepped foot inside the Ruskin house. Except for Earl, of course. Even the Amazon delivery drivers never made it past the front porch.

“It’s a solid dare. You’re a sissy if you say no.”

Last year, he dared me to clang a bell at the front gate and then toss some candy onto the grass. The previous year, I dared Joey to drape toilet paper on all the low-hanging branches. Harmless, innocuous stuff.

Until now. This dare felt a full level higher on the danger scale.

But I was pretty confident that Earl wouldn’t answer the door.

With dramatic flair, I flipped my white and silver embroidered veil over my right shoulder. “I hereby accept on one condition.”

“What.”

“You go with me.”

Joey didn’t say anything. But I could tell he was thinking about it.

“Time’s it?” I asked, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.

Joey checked his watch. Then he cracked a wicked grin. “It’s Goat Man time!”

We dropped our stuffed pillowcases and squeezed through the narrow opening in the gate.          

                                                            #                                                                     

Shimmering moonlight flooded the stairway. In fine princess fashion, I ascended the steps slowly, regally, admiring the ornate trim and gingerbread cutouts. I held on to the balustrade as I climbed, noting how steep and uneven the steps were. Almost twice as steep as normal stairs. At the top of the landing, I looked back down, and Joey gave me a tense wave before ducking behind the railing. I turned to the imposing, wrought iron front door, with its elegant scrollwork and reached for the black iron door knocker.

My heart skittered as I took a deep breath, and knocked.

At first, silence. I backed away from the door to see if Joey was still at the bottom of the stairs. He urged me on with a verbal push.

Sissy.

I stepped forward and knocked again.

And heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door. 

A male voice, “Yes? Who is it, please?”

I wanted to run. But I was frozen in place. 

The door opened a crack. I heard a sharp intake of breath. And then it opened wider. Standing there, in the flesh, was The Goat Man.

He wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. He wasn’t skinny or hunched over. He wore a dark suit and slippers. And his suit wasn’t worn at all; quite the opposite. It looked expensively stitched, made with very fine material. His white hair was shiny and thick, brushed back from his forehead. His skin wasn’t even wrinkled; he was clean-shaven. He didn’t even wear glasses. His twinkling gray eyes looked very surprised to see me.

“Um, hi,” was all I could manage.

Then I saw his face clearly, and realized that the look I saw there was much more than surprise. It was raw pleasure. He broke a smile; his teeth were small and very white.

“Come in, come in, oh my dear–you must be so cold out there!”

I took a tentative step across the threshold. The door closed behind me with a swoosh and a soft thud.

I wasn’t scared then. Not yet. The veil shrouded my face; it felt like it protected me.

“Are you lost? No one is with you? Oh, my sweet dear, that’s such a pretty costume. And such a lovely veil. You look like a lost little princess bride. And a princess needs a house befitting royalty.”

He bowed dramatically, gesturing me to enter. I took another step inside. The heat hit me full blast. It must have been eighty degrees in there. An antique woodstove cranked in a corner of the kitchen, and I could see a fire roaring in the grand fireplace in the living room.

“Would you like a cup of herbal tea, dear? That’s what I’m having. It will warm you up.”

I found my voice; timid and hoarse. “It’s not what I thought.” I forced a smile. “Neither are you.”

“Ah. Lots of scary stories out there about me, eh?” He laughed and his whole body shook. “Do I look like some kind of decrepit old monster to you?”

I gave him a cautious look. Shook my head. “You really don’t even look that old.”

“Tell me, what do they call me these days?”

“The Goat Man.”

“Ah. Hadn’t heard that one.” As he pondered it for a moment, he picked something out of his right ear. I hoped he wouldn’t ask for further explanation.

 He grinned and leaned in close. His breath smelled like decayed fruit.  

“My name is Earl. Earl Ruskin. And what is yours, my dear?”

He held a delicate teacup. It had tiny black birds painted on it. I could see his fingernails were clipped short. He seemed very elegant. I felt shy in his presence, maybe even star-struck. Meeting Earl was kind of like meeting a celebrity. And he seemed so sweet, so nice.

So safe.

I gently moved the veil away from my face and looked up at him, directly into his eyes. In my mind, I quickly counted to ten.

I was relieved to see his face stayed human.

“Emmie,” I said, “Short for Emmaline.”

Earl’s pale eyes bulged. That made me a bit uneasy. Then, his jaw started trembling. I was started to regret accepting this dare. Joey was going to have to give me all of his candy to make up for this. Gray hairs sprouted from his chin. The skin on his face rippled. He let go of the tea cup and I braced for the crash.

But it didn’t fall. It hung there, tipped over and suspended in mid-air. The tea stayed in the upside-down cup. The cup twirled a bit in the air but stayed aloft.

 “Oh, it is just as I have always hoped!” Earl exclaimed. “Just as I have prayed! Yes! My prayers have indeed come true!”

Earl slipped his left hand into his suit coat pocket.

I was completely mesmerized by the levitated teacup. We were having a gravity problem. A big one. And now I was scared. Earl flipped his hand from his pocket and flung sparkles at my face. “Princess dust for the princess bride,” he said.

Everything happened so fast. I winced and coughed; the cup dropped and shattered. I took a step backward, away from the shards, away from the dust that stung my eyes and nose. There was a loud noise, it came from Earl’s mouth, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He looked down at the mess, then at me. His lips were moving.

He grinned. His teeth were all yellow, decayed. Slimy. His hair was thin and brittle and pulled into a rat tail. I felt so dizzy. I couldn’t control my arms or legs. As I tried to steady myself against the spongy wall, I could see into the living room. 

Blooms of black mold patterned the walls. The impressive gold drapes were shredded. The tiles in the fireplace were cracked and some were missing altogether. The heavy dining room set had fallen to ruin; some of the chair legs were broken. Everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. The table was on its side, the varnish bubbled and cracked. A marching column of insects emerged from the cracks.

Earl’s voice dialed back in, loud and tinny. “You’re so, so beautiful. Even more than she was.” His suit was torn and threadbare; it hung in ragged strips from his skinny frame.

I took a shaky step backwards; my hand was sticking to the wall.

A large spider scuttered across my left foot. Earl flicked out a bony arm and grabbed it in a second, popped it into his mouth, crunched it. “Mmmmm.” His pointed, yellow tongue darted out and licked his cracked lips. He rubbed his sunken stomach and belched. Something gray glistened at the edge of his shriveled lips.

He tilted his head, bemused by my horrified expression. “Oh, my dear, what kind of host am I? You must be starving.”

I screamed, but the sound didn’t come out of me. It went in; I felt it blast through my veins like lava, ricocheting into my muscles. The pain knocked me off my feet; I slumped to the floor.

                                                            #

I think I passed out for a few seconds; as I came to, my head seemed a little clearer. But unfortunately, my Halloween nightmare was still playing out in high definition. I drew a shaky breath. The hallway floor seemed to be rippling. Earl was swaying in front of me, his mouth moving incessantly. Black house flies buzzed in and out of it.

I thought of my parents, how upset they would be when Joey and I weren’t at our usual pick-up spot in front of Jensen’s Pharmacy. We had let them down. My mom said the worst thing to do to someone you love is lie to them. Joey and I didn’t lie, really. We just didn’t tell them the whole truth. Was I being punished? If so, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.

It just wasn’t fair. Halloween was supposed to be fun-scary. And the impossibility of what I was seeing had put me into some kind of split-brain mode. Part of me terrified, the other part angry.

I decided to focus all my energy on the angry part.

“You’re just a horrible…thing!” I screamed at him, and the words punched out of me like hot coals. Earl cackled and danced around like an emaciated marionette. He started to sing, oh yeah, oh yeah, I’m just a thing called Earl. Come here little lady and I’ll take you for a whirl. Yeah baby, you’re my princess girl…then he lunged at me with a clawed hand, his feet hovering several inches from the floor.

I ducked away from the swipe. “Ugly stinking lump!”

Come here, my beautiful one. Emma—Emma–Emmaline. With the ocean blue eyes. We are destined to sail together across the sea of life.

“No one would ever want you! I hate you! And my aunt hated you, too!”

That hit the mark. Earl’s feet struck the floor, hard. He fixed me with a vicious stare.

My outburst made me realize something. Something important. Something that might save my life.

I was no snuffling little sissy.

“You’re a very cruel child,” Earl said, as if correcting me, and bared his disgusting teeth. His eyes were red slits. He opened his horrible mouth wide, and this time, the flies that issued from his mouth buzzed like tiny chainsaws, swirling into a funnel. Dozens of them. Hundreds.

 I flashed back to a family camping trip up in Maine. We were staying near a lake and I was playing in a sandy area near some low bushes. All of a sudden, I heard my dad yelp. He was running up from the lake. I could hear him yelling, Run, Emmie! As fast as you can, in a straight line! To the car! Get inside and close the doors! And the swarm of bees was an undulating black cloud around his head, and I turned and–

–fled down the Goat Man’s hallway, away from the bees, trying to stay in a straight line, trying to stay upright; the floor was still moving beneath my feet. Run, Emmie! Don’t flail your arms! I felt a few of them pinging me, sharp little zap zaps on my head, pinch, ping, then my face, my arms.

Hold your breath, Emmie! It makes the bees blind. That was the hardest part, when all you want to do is scream out, ragged and raw. But more than anything else, I wanted to see my dad’s face again. And my mom’s. And Joey’s.

So, I held in my breath. I held back my screams.

I burst into a bedroom and slammed the door closed behind me. I dragged a heavy chair against it. In the dim light, I spied a canopy bed, heaped with quilts. I grabbed the top one and stuffed it under the door. I glanced around for a closet, but there wasn’t one. The only place to hide was beneath the bed. So that’s where I crawled. I could hear my heart hammering in my chest. A few bees still crawled on me; some were stuck in my veil. I tried to make myself small and breathless. The stingers hurt. I washed them with silent tears.

Everything seemed quiet. No buzzing. No sign of Earl. As soon as my heart found a slower tempo, I lifted the edge of the bed ruffle and peered out.

This room was very clean. Nothing fancy, just clean. The windows were small and dark. One ceramic lamp rested on a wooden table; it flickered like candlelight.

I was gathering my courage to slide back out and check the windows. I could bang on them. Yell for Joey. Maybe they would open. Maybe Joey had already run back and called the police. I couldn’t stay here. I had to find a way out.

That’s when something swung past my face, like a pendulum.

I heard a rustling, creaking noise in the bed. And a pitiful moan.

And realized the pendulum was a bony arm.

I flew out from beneath the bed, too terrified to look. I was at the window in two steps, and immediately my heart sank; I could see they would never open.

They were fortified with metal security bars.

I shrank into the curtains. Where could I go? I forced myself to look at the bed. The lump of quilts moved and turned, and then coughed. I could see the shape of a human head. Then a voice; female, weak, and very raspy. “Is…someone there?”

I was still terrified, but at least she wasn’t Earl. And I prayed she wasn’t worse.

Please, God, don’t let her be worse. “Um, yeah.”

The woman jerked at the sound of my voice. She pushed the blankets to her lap and looked over at me. Then she started to weep.

“Oh, lady, I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m not mean like Earl.”

Was this his mother? She looked very old. Her skin was thick and leathery, like elephant skin. Didn’t she pass away like a zillion years ago?

“Earl is more than mean, child.” She reached for the glass by the bedside, took a feeble sip. Her upper body was skeletal. Her gray, braided, hair fell to her elbow.

“Then you should leave here. Leave with me.”

“I can’t. He would never allow it.” She patted the blanket and motioned me to come closer. “Let me see you, child. I haven’t seen anyone other than Earl in a very, very long time.”

She seemed so nice. But I had been fooled by that “nice” trick before.

“What’s your name, little one?”

“Emmaline. But I go by Emmie for short.”

Her smile was sad. “That’s a lovely name. Did he…hurt you, Emmie?”

“I think he wants to.” I saw the woman wince, press her fingers against her eyes. I wanted some answers. “Is he…a demon?”

“He’s a very sick human being. He’s evil. He is very practiced at it. He can make you see things, awful things, things out of a scene from Hell.”

A heavy rapping at the door. Then two more sharp knocks, louder. The door had a red tinge around the edges. It was starting to bulge. The woman bolted upright. I could see fear shining in her eyes. “Child. Listen. You are in terrible danger. He’s very angry.”

Her eyes darted about the room. Where could we go? I couldn’t see any way out other than back through the door. “Quick,” she said, “get under the covers. I’ll hide you.”

She reached over and rustled around in the drawer in the bedside table. “Earl has plenty of evil tricks in his arsenal. But — I’ve got one too. I only wish I tried this years ago.”

The door erupted right off its hinges. I dove under the blankets. I could see a blood-red glow even through the heavy black wool. I wondered if Earl’s rage had turned him into a dragon. I was having trouble taking a full breath; it was if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. I heard the woman scream out, “No! I forbid you! She is not yours; she will never be yours!”

I heard something pop, then a squelchy noise, followed by a small explosion. And then, the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It sounded like the hellish howl of a dying animal.

The old woman pulled me tight to her, covered my head with a blanket. “Brace yourself, child. Don’t look. Just hold on to me and don’t let go.” We were out of the bed and moving through some kind of tunnel. It felt like my skin was melting. I held on. We crawled through muck and slime and smoke. Something hard fell against my shoulder. My knee pressed into a nail. I was choking. We kept crawling. The heat was unbearable. The old woman was wracked with coughs but she kept going, pushing, pushing me forward, and then a sudden, delicious blast of cold air; I heard voices, lots of them, Joey was screaming my name, and there were sirens, and someone yelled, two survivors–the female adult is critical with second-degree burns and a female minor is stable. We are in transport to UVM Medical Center.

                                                            #                     

I was on the bench seat, getting hydration therapy. The EMT told me my parents and brother were following us to the hospital. The old woman was strapped in a stretcher beside me. Paramedics attended to her, busily attaching wires to her chest and administering intravenous fluids. Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked over at me with the kindest eyes.

I studied the intricate pattern of scars on her face. Her private road map of a life of pain.

She still had a kind of beauty, haunted and ravaged. She motioned for me to come close.    I slid off the bench seat and pressed my ear near her mouth.

“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.

I nodded, then leaned back in.

“My name is Emmaline, too.”


Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Broken Doll” horror by Kate Bergquist.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“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