“Shinigami” Demonic Horror by Mick Benderoth

My divorce. Signed, sealed, delivered. Rid of the bastard. Sitting in my new apartment, free, reborn, Miss. Not Mrs.

My art collection, Pollack, Klee, Jim Dine, a few Atget photos and my prize, a  signed Picasso sketch from his “artist and models” series I bought years ago when I ventured to Mus’ee Picasso in Antibes. Art all up. Left facing a large, empty white wall. Nothing to hang.

My friend, Geisho Moraki, told me of an up and coming Japanese American woman who just won a Guggenheim fellowship. She had been trained at The Mona Lisa Room, in the Louvre. Her name was Moishi Suroshi. She took commissions. I called her. She was charming and outgoing. “Come on by anytime. I’m always here”.

“Noon, tomorrow?”

“Cool. I’ll steep a fresh pot of green tea. We can chat, do a little bonding, like to know something about who wants my work. See they get a good home”.

Moishi’s studio. Washington Square, Greenwich Village. Uber pulls up to an old brownstone, scaffolding up the face, under renovation. I climb the steps, find Moishi’s name on the intercom. Press. Nothing. Press harder. Nothing. Then, the door jars open wide enough for a short, Asian crone to stick her head out. She has a squinched, wrinkled face, long uncombed white hair streaming down her back, no teeth. Hoarsely screeches, “Intercon don’t work. Can’t fix it. Donno know why. I’m the caretaker. Have to open the damn door all day. Who you looking for?”

“I have an appointment with Moishi Suroshi”.

“Oh yeah, that artist girl in the penthouse loft. Take the elevator. If it works. If not, long walk up steps, six flights. Good luck”.

Thank god the rattle trap elevator works. I walk down the hall toward an open door, bright daylight streaming out. Smell of oil and Turps fills the air like perfume. I lean in. Call. “Moishi, Moishi Suroshi?”

Musical voice echoes, “Maddy Guilford?”

“That’s me.”

“Be right out. Teas steeping.”

The loft was gynormous, half studio, half living space. Moishi’s paintings adorn the walls. An abstract expressionist, Moishi’s use of color, texture, stunning. A beautiful young woman in paint splashed Oshkos overalls comes from behind a large ornate tapestry  dividing the space. She carries a tray with a black metal teapot and two cups. Sets it on a small table.

“Nice to me you, Maddy. Holds out her hand. “Moishi Suroshi. We shake. Moishi artfully pours the tea. I lift my cup, take a sip. Hot, hot, hot. Intoxicating. I feel exhilarated, yet relaxed.

Moishi sits on her stool in front of her easel  that holds a painting in progress.

“Geisho, told me you have a Klee, a Dine, an original, signed Picasso, thank god no Warhol, a fine place for a painting to live. So, what do you have in mind?” Knock at her door. Moishi answers. The old crone’s head pops in, ”You rent due soon. You always forget. Remember this time”. Old crone’s squinted, cloudy eyes stare too long at Moishi. Wild crooked grin. Never breaking eye contact, crones pulls head out, closes door. Uncomfortable. Moishi, “Sorry about that. You were saying…”.

Me, “I don’t have a clue. I have a big white wall, so, something, something…?” Suddenly the studio turns cold, ice cold. I shiver, continue, “Something that…”Moishi abruptly cuts me off. Her face ashen, her eyes wide, motionless. Moishi, brashly, “Horizontal. Two feet by six, black on white primed canvas, Japanese calligraphy.” She snatches her sketch pad, a hunk of charcoal, slashes out twelve Japanese letters. Collapses on her stool, charcoal drops to the floor. Face color returns, “That was so weird. Flashes through my mind. My hand, I don’t know. It wasn’t mine, just wrote”.

Me, awkwardly jocular, “Your, your muse took control”.

Moishi, elsewhere, “Something like that.”

Me, spell-breaking, “Well, it’s extraordinary, bold, stark, commanding. I…I love it”

Moishi, resolute, “Finish it tonight.”

“Wow. Do you always work so fast?’

Softly, “Never. Never. A slowpoke”. Then curtly,This piece…demands…fast!

Take out my checkbook, “Your fee?”

Still brash, “I’ll price it when it’s finished. Pick itup in the morning. I have to get it to where it belongs”. Now wearily, “If…if you don’t mind, I’m  suddenly terribly tired”.

Me, perplexed, “I…I understand. What’s a good time to…?”

“Early, very, very early.”

“Nine?”

Curtly, again. “Earlier. Earlier. Six, seven. It will be ready”. She stands. Body trembling. Slips behind the tapestry.

Momentarily motionless. I feel confused, unsettled. Moishi’s  mood swings strange. Go figure.

In the hall. “Damn!” The elevator’s out. I take off my heels, stumble down six flights, through the front door. Holding my shoes, barefoot, I

hail a cab, go home. Hand shaking, I pour some scotch. Too much. Pop a Xanax. Out like a…

Morning. My cell alarm pulls me from a deep sleep. Six am. I quickly dress, call Uber.

Moishi’s building. I don’t ring. I knock. The old woman snarls out. “She not here. She gone”.

“Gone? I came to pick up a painting. She said she’d be waiting.”

“Well, she ain’t here. Left this note.” I grab it. Rip it open.

Note: “Couldn’t wait. Had it sent.”

Sent? What the hell? Call Uber. Head home. Package room. Immediately. Murry behind the counter, “Perfect time, Mrs.…”

Irritably. “Miss, now. Now, Miss”.

“Big package. Think the guys will have to take it up when they’re free.”

“Fuck that! If the damn thing’s not in my apartment immediately I’ll…”

“Ok, ok. I’ll…I’ll take it up myself”.

My apartment. More Xanax. Scotch chaser. This is way, way off normal. Not new normal. Weird normal.

Doorbell. Murry with the painting. Wrapped haphazardly, in linen. Linen? I tip Murry. He leaves. I unwrap. There it is. On canvas. Moishi’s sketch realized. Mesmerizing. Need to get it hung immediately.

Measure once, measure twice. My father, a carpenter. Use three twenty-pound hooks. Unframed, it has no wire. Hang it just the way itis. Problem solved, artfully. Owns the wall. Someone has to see it. I spontaneously invite Geisho, his wife Allison, Mary Ann, my paralegal, and Randall, right and left-hand man, over to see my acquisition. They all show. I have the painting draped in the linen. Unveiling. “Ta dah!’ I whisk off the drape. Gasps, praise from all but Geisco. He’s laughing. “Jesus. She painted you that. It’s a riot.”

I snap, “What are you talking about? What’s so damn funny?’

“Your painting. The word  is Shinigami. A Japanese demon, the death bringer. The myth says his name should never be written. It will free him. A fairy tale. She pulled a fast one you”. They all join in laughing, laughing at my painting.

Sensing my displeasure, they leave. I sit facing…Shinigami, feeling like a fool. Two glasses of wine, a Xanax.

In bed watching the late news. On the screen, an ambulance, police, crowd of onlookers, the Hudson waterfront. Some guy talking. “I was jogging. Saw it wedged between the rocks. Checked it out. Dead body…no fucking head.” TV reporter grimly faces the camera. “Finger print analysis  identified the body as Moishi Suroshi, a local artist. Apparent macabre murder”. Freaked, I frantically grabble for the remote. Turn it off. Moishi. Murdered. More Xanax. Down for the count. Images flash. Geisho, Allison, Mary Anna, and Randall’s faces. Huge distorted feces, laughing hysterically at my painting. Deep rasping echo of a voice, reverberates through my mind. “Kill them. Kill them. Saw me. Kill all.” Nightmare.

Geisho’s apartment door. I stand wearing a shower curtain, slit cut at the top for my head. A gleaming sharp meat clever in my hand. I knock. Geisho answers. “Maddy, what are you doing…never finishes. Swish! Geshco’s head thumps to the floor. Blood spurts from his neck. Splashes the ceiling. His trunk collapses. Blood spurts, spurts, spurts from his neck stub with last few heartbeats.

Allison runs from the kitchen. She screams. Swish! Thump. Two heads. Husband and wife, facing each other on the floor.

Dead of night. Walking down an alley. Throw cleaver into a dumpster. Repeat with the blood drenched shower curtain.

Sit up quaking in my bed. Sweat running down my face. Dash to kitchen, pour a stiff scotch. Drink it down. Gotta cut back on the drinking. Shower. Go to the office. The place in chaos. Randall, tears stream down his face. “He’s dead. Both dead. Geisho and Allision. Horrible. Horrible.” Shoves the Daily News into my hand. Front page, “Lawyer/Wife beheaded”. Dead faint. Flashes. Blood. Blood. More blood…everywhere. Regain consciousness. Confused. Staff surrounds my chair. We commiserate over our horrid loss. I go home. Scotch. Xanax.

Morning, hung over, I have coffee seated at my marble bistro table. I can’t process. Moishi, Geisho, Allison. Suddenly I shake out of control. My head snaps to the painting. Cold sweat. Mind blanks. Unearthly voice. “Kill him, kill him. Saw me. Kill him.”  Black out. Nightmare. Randall’s distorted, laughing face. The Voice, kill him, kill him, saw me, kill him.

Randal’s gym. Men’s locker room. He’s putting on workout clothes. I’m there. Randal, shocked. “Maddy? How the hell did you…? Cleaver. Swish! Thump.

Wake up on my bedroom floor. Blood covered. It was no dream. Am I the killer? The painting? Shinigami? Not possible. I rush into the living room. Grab letter opener from my desk. Slash! Slash! Slash! Rip the painting to shreds. Pull it off the wall. On the floor. Kick it! Kick it…manically. Smash the frame. Carry it to the utility room. Jam it down incinerator chute. What in god’s name should I do now? I go back to my apartment. Panic attack! “Dear God! The painting! Back on my wall. Drop into a chair. Mental white out. Mary Ann’s face. The voice, “Kill her, kill her. Saw me. Kill her.”

Mary Ann’s apartment. I hide around the corner. She exits dressed for work. Sneakers on, dress shoes in hand, New York style. I turn the corner. Walk quickly behind her. She hears. Turns.”Matty?”

Swish! Thump. Roll. My apartment. Still seated. Eyes locked on the painting. Slowly, slowly, indescribable monster materializes. Is it smiling? Speaks. Shinigami. It points. Speaks. “Kill…you, kill you. Saw me. Kill you”. Entranced. I stroll zombie-like to the kitchen. Take butcher knife from drawer. Automatically draw it across sharpening steel. Return to Shinigami, its voice repeating, “Kill you, kill you, saw me, kill you.”  Knife pursed. I methodically slit my throat. Blood gush. Hit the floor. Barely alive. Foggy eyed. Apartment door opens. Old Japanese crone steps over my body, smiling toothlessly. Takes painting off the wall. Last words I hear. Crone speaks to painting. “All done. We go now”. That voice, horrifyingly content, “Yes, yes, go now, all dead, all dead, go now.” The crone drags Shinigami out the door. My last breath gurgles.


Mick Benderoth was a screenwriter/filmmaker working in Hollywood. He now lives and writes in New York City. Contact: alexanderbenderoth@gmail.com


“Darkroom” A Dark Tale by Mick Benderoth

A high fashion photographer’s life is not as glamorous you’d think. Myriads of too beautiful models…they start to look the sameI’m top dog, Dax Miller. Twenty-five years. Jaded. Just another job.

Then, WHAM! No…not the models…the model’s agent, Samantha Brooks, The Brooks Agency CEO. Cool, calm, collected. Class on the half shell. Venus. Lauren Bacall at thirty-five. Shoulder length, page boy, dirty blond, coiffed hair, oversize blue tinted glasses, tailored Cassini silk business suite, Italian high heeled shoes topped with a solid gold Tiffany ankle bracelet. Knocks me out. Unapproachable. Don’t even try. I don’t. I just keep shooting. Prada’s Spring line. But I can dream.

In the darkroom. Printing the days shoot. Don’t trust anyone else to do it. Burn out assistants by the dozen. Alone. Deeply immersed. Outside Red-light signals, Do Not Disturb. Universal. A knock at the door. What dimwit can’t see the light. Pissed, I walked through the black security curtains, closed the darkroom door, step into the small ante-room. I unlock, open the door. There stands Samantha Brooks leaning against the jam. “Loved what I saw on the monitor, Dax. Guess that’s why you cost so much. Got anything to show me?” Before I could recognize the innuendo, Samantha pushes me inside the ante-room, kicks the front door shut with her heel, pins me to the wall.

“This door lock?”, in a sultry voice. “Oh, here it is”, CLICK.”  Dare I say it. Yes, she is. Outrageous. Two hours later, adjusting her clothes, she saunters into the studio. Not even turning, “Dinner, Dax? Per Se, Masa? Your call. Tables at both”.

My, my, my.

Desire grabs my libido, twists it, twists it again. I’m addicted to a woman I know little about, save she owns the hottest modeling agency in the city, country, world. Captivated. Falling. Hard. Was she using me? Of course. For what? I don’t give a damn. She had me. I’ll pay the price.

Obsessed. I need to know more. One evening, late, late, dead of winter, coldest ever, we leave my Soho loft, always my place, never hers…a whole  brownstone, flat iron district. I escort her to her limo. She grabs my hair. Deep kiss. Icy breath. “Goodnight, Dax.” Walks away. Turns to me, “Tomorrow”.

“Of course,”.

“Till then”.

Limo peels. A peeling limo. Cut me some slack.

I decide to tail her home one night. See her infamous New York City digs. I follow her in my Porshe. Her limo drives to a desolate, run down part of the city. This ain’t no flat iron district. I park way behind, get out and follow her, as she purposefully walks through side streets and alleys, then…disappears. I search. Nothing. I hear loud voices from a boarded vacant store. I peek through in window. Mindboggling. Candle lit room. Circle of dark purple robed woman, wearing disfigured masculine face masks. The only differentiation, their shoes. There it is, gold Tiffany ankle bracelet. Samantha Brooks, delivers a hissing, bitter vent ,“The male patriarchy governing the world must be obliterated. We must infiltrate the belly of the beast, disembowel it from within until…it is dead. Extreme prejudice our mandate”.

I turned to slip away, accosted. By two masked, robed women, something wacked me hard. Unconscious. Inside the room, I revive, face to mask with the ranting leader, Samantha Brooks, “Now they send spies to eradicate us. An example must be made!”.

Stripped nude, bound to a chair. Brooks herself grabs me by the hair, no kiss this time, as her apostles smear me with lipstick, mascara, eye liner. The group bursts into wild, crazed laughter, pointing at me, as Brooks holds a mirror up to my eyes. My face, a horrible, bizarre, debauchery.

Brooks forces liquor down my throat, douses me with it. Two women drag my chair out onto the center of the deserted street.

A make shift sign slapped on my naked chest “Dead Men”.  Brooks, sternly. “Enough”. They scattered in the night. I shiver in the frigid air. I see him. My savior. A  bedraggled homeless man from the shadows. “Whatya been up to buddy? Whatever it was, looks like ya lost”, he cackles. “You need some TLC”. Got money?”

Whispering, weakly, “Much as you want”.

Police station, smelling of liquor, draped in a blanket. Lawyer by my side. I tell Detective Dalgliesh, yes, Dalgleish, my ludicrous, terrifying tale. I do not identify Samantha Brooks. She’s mine.

Monday. My studio. Closing out the shoot, there she stands. Sultry smile. No glimmer that I know…everything.

I conceive my plan. Tech nerd buddy, Arch Clafield fashions a remote control Minox, triggered by a wireless switch. The darkroom. Hide the camera atop the wall timer. The switch, under the enlarger.

I instinctively know the inevitable moment will be manifest…it is. I take her, now reviled, with a perverse sexual vengeance, kissing, pawing, tearing. Nude, sweat glistened bodies making not love, nothing near it. Switch secretly hit, camera silently clicks. It ends quietly. We dress, go to dinner, part with a steamy kiss.

I  process, enlarge every print, making sure Samantha’s face is clearly recognized. I stand, stare as they hang drying, slip them in a manila envelope, lable it in red marker SAMANTHA BROOKS.

I get to the deserted street, before the group arrives. The dreaded torture cell. I use my Amex platinum to slip the lock. Stale, high-end perfume redolence choke. I place the envelope in the center of the room, and leave.

Next day. My entire studio staff way freaky, nonstop cacophony. Archy, smiling slyly shows me the Daily News. Front page. Samantha Brook’s disfigured frozen body in a drainage ditch, kicked to death. Victim of an unsolved, brutal murder. I didn’t wish her this. This is what she got. Revenge, served frigid. In my darkroom. Developing prints. A gun is pressed hard against the back of my head. The last sound I hear is the hammer cock.


Mick Benderoth was a screenwriter/filmmaker working in Hollywood. He now lives and writes in New York City. Contact: alexanderbenderoth@gmail.com


“Bandit” Fiction by Millicent Eidson

Harry despised getting up early, but if he was going to fit in a run, his jam-packed lobbying schedule required it. As he burst out of the condo elevator, he tripped over the mop bucket and his Air Jordans slid on the gleaming marble before his momentum was stopped by the glass entry door. Shaking a bruised hand, he glanced around for someone to blame.

“Fuckin puta.” The spit from his lips was aimed at a young pregnant woman, no more than a teenager, cowering on her knees with a sponge in her hand. “What’s your name, bitch?”

“Dee, Denise. I’m sorry.” The words slipped her lips in a whisper.

“Duh, dunce Duneze. You’re gonna remember me as the guy who got you fired.”

In the cool October dawn, the streets were damp from an overnight shower and slickened by colorful fallen leaves. With gentrification of the neighborhood, Harry hoped to make a killing when selling his Columbia Heights unit, but the nights remained a risk for gang shootings. Around the corner, a shell casing in the gutter and bullet holes in the beat-up Chevy confirmed noises he had heard at three o’clock.

Wiping at his brow, already beading sweat with his brisk pace, he refocused on the morning’s schedule. He had to buttonhole some key members of Congress over a bill scheduled for a floor vote later in the week. If a company labelled their product a food supplement instead of a drug, the Food and Drug Administration exempted it from oversight. Some major and minor adverse health effects prompted do-gooders to argue for tighter governmental control. But thank God there were more vocal advocates on the side of the supplements, willing to pay him big bucks to maintain their market freedom.

By the time of his return to the condo, the cunt was gone. Add her sorry ass job to the morning’s checklist.

#

Whether it was the stress of the firing or the long scary walks between buildings for bending and cleaning, Dee was in the hospital a few weeks before her due date. With no medication, she pushed baby Jessie out on Halloween. Last fall had started with promise—a scholarship to Howard University. But too many tasty whisky sours at a dorm party led to this. The mewling five-pounder with the satin skin and dark doe eyes made up for all the trauma. Nursing came naturally, despite all the remembered cautionary tales from long-gone aunties in Alabama.

#

The condo was only a shrewd financial investment and place to lay his head during the D.C. lobbying. Harry’s real home was in Big Stone Gap, southwest corner of Virginia in the heart of Appalachia, and he hurried back there in time for the fall election. Only five thousand people, coal country, and one of the most conservative towns in the state. The hundreds of thousands earned in consulting fees paid for a beautiful old farm, which he didn’t work, but the autumn gold foliage was spectacular.

Family and friends—those words had little relation to Harry. Everyone was a means to an end. Around Veterans Day, as the evenings frosted and multicolored leaves carpeted the soil, his heart softened. When spotting an annoying raccoon scratching at the back door, he let the animal in. It was sociable—maybe others had fed it before. Pansies. But after scrounging under the sink, he located the old dog bowl and some stale Purina Dog Chow, leftover from the coonhound he dumped along the rural road after it bit him.

The coon was soft and gray, maybe fifty pounds, so shouldn’t be begging. But the ringed tail and white-framed black mask reminded Harry of his ancestors’ frontier days—didn’t they brag about being descendants of Davy Crockett?

Harry kicked out his booted feet and leaned back in the hand-hewn wooden kitchen chair. He kept popular with the local citizenry by buying their craft products, even though he despised their folksy ways. Anyone who didn’t spend a thousand dollars on a suit clearly didn’t value themselves enough for Harry to respect them, either.

The ridge had record snowfall, contradicting the hysterical Dems who screeched nonstop about climate change. So Hairy, his kindred spirit, spent the cold months inside, amusing Harry by dipping dog biscuits into the water bowl to clean them with his cute versatile paws. As Hairy chomped the coonhound treats into tiny pieces, Harry downed shotglasses of the local hooch, and poured a few drops into the water dish.

“Join me, bud.” He smirked when the coon lapped it up. The only heavy effort either made was Harry shoving another log in the woodstove, keeping them both toasty.

#

When the warmth of spring allowed outside playtime, Dee bragged to other moms about Jessie’s advanced development. At only five and a half months, Jessie supported her own weight when playing in the pocket garden a few blocks from Columbia Heights Village. Dee lay next to her in the grass, inhaling the floating scent of hyacinths and rubbing the smooth glossiness of  white magnolia blossoms dotting the area like snowdrops.

Dee was distracted, cobbling together odd jobs to put food on the table while the neighbor lady took in one more-too-many infants in her unlicensed day care. Her favorite time of the day was Jessie’s bath in the kitchen sink. She was proud of Jessie’s beauty—the glistening, smooth skin that smelled like heaven, and the soft dark curls. She pressed her lips to Jessie’s, and the baby giggled.

#

On the pleasant April afternoon, Harry’s impatience showed with every rapid movement as he circled the Tidal Basin, Japanese cherry blossoms budding pink and purple. This was the only time of the year he enjoyed being this close to the Deep State.

When admiring a bud straight on, the vision in his left eye became cloudy, but no pain or itching. He swiped the eye and didn’t feel any discharge or tearing. As he glanced around at the larger tree, there were a few white floaters. His Dad had cataracts before drinking himself to death at seventy. Only in his forties, Harry was way too young to have that problem, at least the eye issues.

He perched on a step of the Jefferson Memorial, clear view of the Washington Monument piercing the sky above the rippling water of the Basin and tourists whooping on paddle boats. Thumbing through the names on his phone, he located one of his White House contacts.

The guy was a special agent of the U.S. Secret Service, and they served in Iraq together before Harry was discharged for insubordination. Harry refused to implicate the guy in his misdeeds—the only nice thing he did in his life. So a favor was owed. The agent referred him to an ophthalmologist who used to be at Walter Reed before his own military service was cut short—something about harassment of an Army nurse.

“But he’s top notch, I promise,” Harry’s comrade assured him.

Within two hours, Harry had cleaned up from the run and Ubered to one of the sprouting office towers in Crystal City. After dilation, the doc gazed into Harry’s eye with the ophthalmoscope.

“No inflammation in the anterior segment or the vitreous cavity.  That’s good—nothing wrong with the front or middle of your eye. Let’s shift to the retina at the back.”

The doc adjusted his position. “Fuckin’ A. Never seen one of those before.”

Harry’s slight drawl deepened with fear. “Hey, don’t freak me out. What’re ya talking about?”

“Live nematode—worm—swimming slowly in the subretinal space.”

#

Seemingly overnight, Jessie developed a vacant stare and droopy head. At the emergency room, the doctor scratched his forehead. “I’m sorry—not sure what’s going on. If it was infectious, she should have a fever.”

Dee rocked Jessie as she sucked on the bottle. “But it’s not my imagination.”

“She’s appears to be drinking well, how’s her appetite?” the doctor asked.

“She still eats fine—no throwing up, no loose stools.” Dee held the baby more closely. “But something’s off. Jessie’s different.”

The uptight intern shoved thick glasses higher on his nose. “I did a thorough physical exam. As you can see, there are no skin changes. My stethoscope revealed no gastrointestinal or respiratory abnormalities.”

 “There must be somebody else we can talk to,” Dee insisted. She let go of her hands for an instant and Jessie flopped against her chest. “She was sitting up fine until three days ago.”

“I don’t have enough evidence to call in a specialist on a Friday night,” the intern responded, stubbornness strengthened. He experienced the wrath of highly paid superiors more than once. “I need stronger evidence to disturb them before Monday. But I can take a blood sample.”

Jessie screamed bloody murder with the needle stick, oceans of tears flooding down from her inky eyes. She wasn’t a hundred percent weak, requiring both Dee and a nurse to restrain her.

In the tiny apartment on Sunday, Dee covered one ear to block the fighting neighbors and held the cell phone to the other.  Jessie had a high proportion of eosinophils, one of the WBCs or white blood cells, but they didn’t know why. When Dee complained that Jessie could no longer turn over on her own, they scheduled an appointment with a neurologist for Monday morning.

Back at the hospital the following day, Dee shifted her weight on the chair, unable to sit still. The plump seventy-year old lady who introduced herself as Dr. Bautista set down her hammer. “I can confirm the reduced muscle tone you described, and decreased deep tendon reflexes.”

The younger eye doctor leaned against the wall, waiting for his senior to finish. “Good news—there’s no indication of vision problems when I look inside her eyes. However, she is unresponsive to tracking my visual stimuli, and there are some subtle involuntary eye movements, what we call nystagmus.”

Dr. Bautista, in a grandmotherly gesture, scooped the infant up. “We’ll admit baby Jessie and run more tests.”

 #

Harry’s temper overcame his judgment and he shoved the eye doctor away, leaping to his feet. “How can I get a worm in my eye?”

He ran well-groomed hands through thick auburn hair. “Maybe when I was in Iraq. Other guys ended up with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, and I land a parasite.”

But his naturally suspicious mind hit the pause button, and he grabbed the collar on the doc’s white coat, pulling him close. “Say ‘ah’, doc, I want to smell your breath. One of those three martini lunches, and you’re trying to extort me for some exotic, expensive treatments.”

The ophthalmologist was equal to Harry’s bluster. “Sit your butt back down in my chair, hombre, and I’ll take photos to prove it to you. While those are developed and analyzed, I’m sending you to a parasitologist for blood and stool samples. If you can’t poop today, maybe she’ll extract a sample digitally—I bet you’d like that.”

The next day was typical D.C. spring rainy gloom. Winds roared in from the Appalachians and scoured the cherry blossoms—tourists hit the highways and airports to go home. The National Cherry Blossom Parade was cancelled, and Harry stopped back at the eye doctor’s office.

“I think you’re full of shit,” he greeted the specialist, after admiring the striking twenty-something receptionist for ten minutes. “Everything’s coming back negative on my other tests. But I do appreciate the intro to the Korean doc for the parasite consultation. I’ll give it a week so it won’t seem creepy, then ask her out.”

Confident of the results, he dropped back into the exam chair. “It’s morning, so presumably you haven’t had those cocktails with lunch. Check my eye again and I dare you to find something.”

The ophthalmologist smirked. “Sure, why not? And then I’ll show you the photos of your fundus.”

After adjusting the ophthalmoscope, he grinned. “Active little bugger you got there. Moved to a different spot.” Before Harry could explode out of the chair again, the doc opened the screen to his laptop and pulled up the photo file. “See that squiggly little worm? Not supposed to be there.”

Harry still wasn’t satisfied. “Fuck it—there’s no guarantee this photo is from my eye. I don’t know what kind of scam is going on, but it’s impossible for me to have something like that.”

“You’re welcome to a second opinion,” the doc responded. “But I can knock it out with a laser, and the sooner the better.  I’m already seeing serious damage, including optic atrophy and attenuated retinal blood vessels.”

Harry acquiesced. “Let’s get it over with, I’ve no time to waste.”

The scary names for his problem refocused him on the eye doctor. Diffuse unilateral subacute neuroretinitis or ocular larva migrans—Harry tilted his head up, froze his smile, and tapped the footrest as the ophthalmologist prepped the equipment.  The laser got the worm—there was no more evidence on repeat check-ups.

#

During the days after the initial neurologic exam, cultures done on Jessie’s blood and cerebrospinal fluid were all negative for any bacteria. Viral meningitis—that was the diagnosis of record. When Dee asked for an explanation, Dr. Bautista explained it was an inflammation of the lining of the brain and the spinal cord—a foregone conclusion with neurologic signs and no bacteria.

The next recommended step was a lumbar puncture—sticking a needle in Jessie’s spine. The cerebrospinal fluid drawn out had a high number of eosinophils, forty-five percent of the WBCs, with normal less than one. As the nurse went to retrieve Jessie’s mother, Dr. Bautista reflected that the name sounded wonderful in its Greek origin—‘eos’ for dawn and ‘philein’ meaning to love. But when Dee returned, she explained that the cell was implicated in a long list of nasty problems—asthma, allergies, parasitic infections, and disorders of the skin, gastrointestinal system, blood vessels, or connective tissue.

“Whatever’s going on, it’s reflected in the blood, too.” Dr. Bautista handed Dee the test results. “Current sample has twenty-seven percent eos, when normal tops out at six.”

After a brain scan the next day, the doctor reviewed all the results in her darkened office. First she slipped the CSF and blood slides under her microscope. Despite the lyrical origin of the eosinophil name, no one would dispute that they were weird. The cytoplasm, primary gel-like substance of the cell, was filled with large rough particles stained a nauseating yellow-red or orange when exposed to the eosin dye. Lobes with cell nuclei were broken up and irregular, staining dark and threatening. Of course, the strange-looking cell wasn’t the culprit—just the body’s response to fight off something else.

Most dramatic of all were the magnetic resonance images Dr. Bautista pulled up on the laptop. Acute demyelinating or disseminated encephalomyelitis—ADEM. The destruction of the protective myelin sheath was indicated by multiple small lesions in the brainstem at the rear of Jessie’s skull. Dr. Bautista picked up the phone to summarize it for the mother.

“I’m sorry, Denise, but the scans aren’t good. Jessie’s body is attacking its own covering of nerve fibers. This can happen after viral or bacterial infection.”

Initial treatment included an injection of immunoglobulin antibodies through Jessie’s vein. But the next day, her eye movements worsened and she began smacking her lips. Her head was arched back, arms and legs thrust out, and toes pointed down.  Dr. Bautista administered a steroid injection to reduce the inflammation, with no effect.

For someone so sick, Jessie kept eating, drinking, and breathing normally. But the nurses had to feed her. Dee tried to do it on her daily hospital visits, but when Jessie shrieked and pushed away, the staff took her back. At night alone in the bed they had shared, Jessie transformed in Dee’s dreams to a creature out of a horror movie.

One month later, when the hospital said there was nothing more they could do, an ambulance took Jessie to a specialized rehab center for children. She was blind. The muscle stiffness remained and she was diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy. Worst of all, the previously bubbly, affectionate infant appeared to have no cognitive function at all—dead inside.

Dr. Bautista could never confirm for Dee what changed her vibrant child to a conscious but uncomprehending, barely-alive form. One diagnosis was briefly discussed, with no laboratory confirmation. Neural larva migrans or NLM—invasion of the brain or spinal cord by parasites.

 Dee had no clue how Jessie could have been exposed to parasites. She didn’t even understand what they were. The amount of soil that slipped into Jessie’s tiny lips in the park never crossed her mind. Pica or geophagia, a predilection to eating dirt—none of the health brochures at the hospital warned about it. As Dee and Jessie had slept cuddled on the single mattress, the neighborhood raccoons explored the park, helping themselves to a few veggies from the community garden and relieving themselves in the dirt.

#

Before Harry left the heat and humidity of D.C. for the refreshing altitude of the Appalachians, the Virginia Department of Health interviewed him in detail about his life and habits. They blamed Baylisascaris procyonis, the most common intestinal roundworm of raccoons. In the raccoon intestine, the female worm can be nine inches long as the coon poops eggs into the soil, ready to penetrate a human’s intestinal wall after ingestion and migration to the nervous system and eyes. When the State Public Health Veterinarian asked to trap and test Hairy, Harry refused to cooperate.

“At least let us collect some of his stools from the environment,” the old broad begged. She could have been right—Hairy did make occasional messes inside. But Harry hadn’t been home to let Hairy inside for two months, since the eye problems started. Animal lover, the state concluded, afraid of what the big bad guvm’t might do to the creature.

The crickets chirped and bird song was muffled as low sun rays glanced through the thicket of mountain laurel and clusters of bell-shaped, purple-streaked flowers. The air was so dense, he could see water molecules dance in the light beams. At least, out of one eye. The retina had detached in the left one, and he was legally blind on that side. Taking it in stride, he thought the black eyepatch added a rakish air, intriguing to the ladies. Recumbent on the bright blue Adirondack chair, Harry shook the plastic container with the dog biscuits. Despite months apart, Hairy scampered into the meadow as programmed. Soft patches of black and gray fur floated in the sunbeams after the shotgun blew him apart.


In the short story “Bandit”, economic stratum and access to power influence the outcome from exposure to a mysterious microbe. Through the MayaVerse HOME | DrMayaMaguire, Dr. Millicent Eidson explores the threats of animal diseases based on work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments. Awards include best short play from Synkroniciti and honorable mention in the 2020 Jim Martin Mystery Story Contest sponsored by the Arizona Mystery Writers. 


“The Collector” Fiction by Andrew Hughes

The Chamber Magazine
thechambermagazine.com

Perculus knelt in the center of a patch of dense reeds, his trousers undone and Sophia’s bodice clutched in his fist, when he heard the rustling to his left. He dropped the lacy thing and reached for his belt. Yanking it far too tight, so it cinched slicing lines into his stomach, he stood and looked around. 

            “Hello?” His voice quivered with shame that teetered on fright. “Mr. Halopen?”

            Silence.

            He waited in the quiet, unsure that he could continue the act after a fright like that, but there was still a chance. Her scent clung to the garment, overpowering his senses, filling his chest with each inhalation, not even the repugnance of the swamp could cool his lust. Soon, he thought. Soon he would smell her again.

            Perculus knelt back down and began adjusting his belt, easing the tension that constricted his abdomen, when he heard it again. The crack of a branch, followed by something else. A slithering. It was behind him now. Thoughts of the noble girl were flushed from his mind, the vats of lust refilled with cool dread. Slowly, he adjusted his posture, straightening his back until his eyes peaked above the fluttering tips of the reeds.

            Sight of the swirling green stalks faded to the swampy landscape. Black barked trees, some standing, some fallen, all covered in flaky, parasitic moss. Ground absorbent and wet. The occasional rock or stump. As he scanned the swampland, Perculus passed a tree that seemed to be a few years from folding over upon itself under the weight of accumulated moss. He continued his searching when a shadow shifted. He looked back at the tree. His heart pulsed. Yes, there was something hiding behind there.

            Perculus kept his eyes trained on the trunk and felt amongst the soggy ground, searching for something to strike with. His fingers came across the bodice and the rock it rested upon to keep the marshy ground from staining the lace perfection. Perculus swore beneath his breath. He knelt down, snatched up the bodice, and hung it atop the patch of reeds. Then, he grabbed the rock, a fist sized chunk of limestone, and stood.

            Slowly, he eased his way through the reeds, trying to contain the noise of the shivering stalks, but when his boot met the muddy ground and gave a loud squelch, he abandoned the silent plan and darted forward as fast as his legs would go. He swung around the trunk, raised the rock, and brought it crashing down. The blow gouged an ugly chunk of dead wood and the tree groaned in protest. Perculus sucked in a deep breath. What was this foolishness consuming his heart? He, the son of a hero of the 3rd Comets War was afraid of things in the swamp?

            Perculus felt a soft tap on his hip and he spun with the rock raised. He brought it hurtling down and stopped inches from her face.

            “Oh by The Ancients Cassandra,” he said, tossing the stone. “What are you doing out here?”

            The blacksmith’s youngest daughter stared up at him. She flashed a wide toothy grin and waved her pudgy, muck stained fingers. Perculus looked out at the swamp. They were some two miles from the outskirts of the village. There was no footpath that led here, no old horse trail. This place was useless and empty. He choose it for that reason. Because if anyone were to find him here… He remembered the bodice. He could see it amongst the mess of reeds. What if someone went looking for Cassy? They would follow her tracks here. They would search for her and they would find it.

            “Okay,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. “I need you to do this for me Cassy. Put your hands over your eyes and don’t move until I come back. Understand?”

            Cassandra nodded and moved her hands to her face, leaving black smudges across her cheeks. That was fine, he could fix that on the walk back.

            “No peeking.”

            Perculus picked up the rock again and entered the reeds. He took the bodice, knelt down, and placed it upon the rock. Then, he pulled a handful of stalks from the patch and covered it best he could. It was an unconvincing disguise but it would do for now. They needed to get out of here before someone came looking.

            Perculus stood back up. Cassandra was where he’d left her, eyes still covered. Good. Now he just had to follow the tracks back home. As he exited the reeds, he looked at the footprints leading back towards the village. Cutting through the mud, he could see his as clear as the stars on a cloudless night, but there, next to them, a path of massive, three pronged impressions stained the mud, leading all the way back to where Cassandra stood, her hands now hanging down by her side.

            “Cassy?”

            Cassandra smiled and her face rippled inwards, the mask peeling away to the black thing beneath.             Perculus screamed and stumbled backward into the reeds, his head striking the rock. As the black thing filled his vision, he took in a final inhalation of Sophia.


Mr. Hughes notes that “The Collector” is part of a larger work in progress.

Andrew Hughes has been writing and publishing short stories for the past decade. One of these, The Crab Catcher, was recently reprinted in Brilliant Flash Fiction’s Best Of anthology. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a criminologist, and taking care of the world’s most adorable white husky.

Fiction by Ethan Maiden: “Pulp”

Detail from photo by Anni Roenkae from Pexels
Detail from photo by Anni Roenkae from Pexels

A strange name given for such a strange find: Pulp.

The reason I call it this is because I have no other word in my limited vocabulary to explain it. It’s small, black and has the density of rough dough.

Then there’s the colours. Those beautiful and unique flickers of microscopic light in the thing that make noises, words of a language I’ve never heard before.

I’d been walking down the riverside like any other day, the route I take home from work. On the opposite side of the river beneath the bridge, a black patch no bigger than a football caught my eye. At first, I believed it to be some kind of stain, perhaps oil or tar embedded upon the weathered stone holding up the banking.

However, the angle of the sunlight made the patch sparkle with fizzling colour. It was attractive: calling.

My visceral instinct was to leave it alone, to hurry on past and forget about this peculiar patch hugging the waterline.

But then it moved.

It didn’t drip down the rocky surface with liquid texture as expected. Instead the stain slithered in the slowest of motions; changing shape and contracting with itself.

Safe to say the inquisitiveness (or naivety) got the better of me as I raced forward to the river crossing not thirty feet in front of my position.

I had to find out what this thing was.

Some inner conscience suggested that maybe some animal was in danger, overcome with a substance and needed help to be set free back to the wild.

Panic set in when the stain vanished from view. My strides turned into a full blown sprint as I rushed over the creaky wooden crossing and back down the graveled footpath.

I kept my head over the banking, watching the water splash against the rock with murky turbidity.

Still no sign of the stain; my heart raced ready to implode.

I’d suffered from anxiety since I lost my brother to a drug overdose almost eight months ago. He’d been two-years my elder and fallen into the wrong crowd, no matter how much we tried to help him it fell on deaf ears.

Not being able to find the insignificant blob brought all those anxieties flooding back in my body. Too much to bear. I stopped closing my eyes before I passed out. Oxygen intake was minimal as my legs turned to cigarette ash and I fell hitting the ground hard with my backside.

Trying hard to concentrate on my breathing, the world span in shuddering movements making the vomit swell in the pit of my stomach.

The flop made everything suddenly stop dead like a fairground ride coming to a sudden halt.

My senses returned.

Anxiety washed away with the flowing water; my breathing returned to normal as I saw the dough wiggle onto the path. Crouching over the thing I remained cautious; in my twenty-three years in this world I had never witnessed anything as surreal.

The shuffling black blob stopped moving and began to spread on the gravel, thinning out like a puddle, perfectly circular.

That’s when I saw the lights up close.

Blinking rainbows of colour. Colours I’d struggle to describe. Purple intertwined with green with flashes of orange. It was beautiful, like looking up at the night sky observing a fireworks display. The colours wrapped themselves around one another and I couldn’t help but become transfixed.

The voice from the black puddle spoke to me in a tongue not from any place on the earth, yet for some unconceivable reason I was able to understand.

‘I can show you things, secrets beyond this world,’ it said.

‘What are you?’ I asked, my eyes still invested in the lights.

‘Nothing that can be told, but can be shown if you take me.’

I asked, ‘take you, where?’

‘Take me with you, wherever you go and I will show you the places beyond.’

The lights on the black puddle flickered like a power failure slowly fading out. I was left blinking, still crouched over this thing with a severe headache. The black mass had now retracted itself back into the blobby dough – the pulp.

The lights, I wanted to see those gleeful lights again.

Reaching down, I took the black blob into my hands; its texture – smooth and bone-dry. Before anyone could see I rushed home with the putty squelching between my fingers.

I lived alone on the east side of town in a rundown block of apartments. A few girls had come and gone in my disastrous love life up to now, they usually leave when the realisation hits them that my ambition is non-existent and my overwhelming anxious needs take precedent. I’m the kind of person that enjoys routine; anything against the norm brings back that desire to wallow in a shell of self-pity.

Yet, here I am taking this otherworldly thing into my life, somehow against my wish, but it’s attractive … addictive.

I’ve come to see that I don’t need anyone. I have something that no other person has.

I have Pulp.

*

I’ve come to learn that I also don’t need food anymore, I haven’t eaten for over sixty hours and I still feel great. I don’t need so-called friends, Pulp told me that all they do is stab me in the back anyways, which I can believe. That’s why I smashed my mobile phone to smithereens, goodbye social media and good riddance to the backstabbers.

There has been a few knocks at my door wondering if I’m all right from certain people.

‘Hey, are you in there?’ Katy had asked from behind the door.

I replied pretending with a few coughs, ‘I’m fine, just the flu I think.’

Katy had been one of those girl’s I spoke about earlier. She ended the relationship, “friend-zoning” me because of different life aspirations, really I knew it was due to my skydiving psyche.

‘No one has heard from you in days,’ Katy said. ‘Your phone is off; you’re not posting anything online … are you sure you’re all right?’

Another cough, ‘I’m fine … like I said, just the flu.’

Those pesky folk, they think that they can just walk in and out of my life when it suits.

No thank you.

They seem to accept and leave without too much persuasion.

I’m a hindrance you see, Pulp told me that’s what they thought.

The same old question – ‘are you all right?’

I’m more than all right, if only they could see what I have been shown. If only they’d had their eyes opened to the true beauty that exists outside of our perceived reality.

They’re not ready to see my little friend just yet. It told me as much.

I speak with Pulp constantly; it’s all I need in my life now.

Asking its name, it just answers with something far too long for my lips to relay back. I’ll stick with Pulp, it doesn’t seem to mind.

Night and day I stare into the surface of the abyss, transported between the colours, the beautiful colours. I feel them, flashes of light from a distant world: a paradise beyond comprehension.

Everything is lost when I float in between the eternal space. Emotionless. I forget the anger, the anxiety, the need for love and sexual desires – everything.

Because in this void is freedom that I have never experienced.

Just me and the colours intertwining and embracing one another like passionate lovers.

Sleep has evaded me too. When I try to rest, I just think of staring back into Pulp. I just want  to forget everything in this world now I understand the truth of what is beyond.

‘There is much more that you are not ready to understand, child of the earth,’ Pulp said.

It was dead at night and I asked Pulp to take me back to the colours, to relax in the void.

‘I am ready,’ I replied. ‘Please, show me.’

‘If you wish to seek out the truth behind our existence, then you must take us back to where we met.’

‘The river?’ I asked. ‘It’s the middle of the night, but I can do that,’ I said, shaking my head erratically. ‘Sure … sure … sure … anything you ask.’

I stood, dropping the blanket that had been wrapped around my frail body to keep warm. I must’ve broken the record in weight loss over such a short period of time. My bones were visible through my skin, I could feel every solid lump. In the bathroom mirror, my face was no better, huge bags drooped below my distant eyes. The hair on my head had receded at rapid rate.

My teeth: yellow and fragile like a corpse.

‘The body is nothing more than a vessel,’ Pulp said feeding from my insecurities. ‘It’s the soul that will endure into the next phase of existence.

As I went to gather my coat from the floor, Pulp informed me that I wouldn’t be needing it.

When I questioned why I wouldn’t need clothes in the middle of the night, Pulp answered: ‘To see what is beyond, then you must come in the purest of forms. I shall keep you warm, child of the earth.’

My hands took hold of Pulp and it expanded, spreading and then wrapping its warm doughy body around me. It felt ecstatic. Loving.

Outside I set off, feeling the slight breeze hit my face. When we reached the riverbank I crouched down in the exact same place where I found Pulp.

How long had it been now since I met this savior of mine, three days? Two weeks? I couldn’t be sure anymore, time had become irrelevant as everything else. All that mattered now was seeing the truth of what was beyond; learning the secrets of this existence.

‘You have been a great host, child of the earth,’ Pulp said sliding off my body into an even puddle on the floor.

The cold hit me straight away, knifing my naked body.

Pulp started to flash its otherworldly colours.

I watched, mesmerized by the beauty.

‘You have fed me life with your soul, and in return I shall show you what lies beyond,’ Pulp said.

Pulp started to rise on the river’s edge, morphing from puddle to standing mirror.

I stood before it still gazing into the void of colour and ecstasy.

‘Come, child. Come and see!’

Raising my hand, I held my palm against the abyss, reaching out to touch the intertwining colours, to feel their love and warmth.

Tears spilled from my eyes due to all its magnificence.

‘Come with me … come and see what lies beyond.’

I stepped forward as all the colours suddenly vanished.

Losing my footing I fell forward as Pulp dropped to the banking in a heap of dough.

The water tore at my body with its icy blades.

I momentarily debated grappling against the cold and fighting my way back to the banking.  

But my weak and aged limbs made no such effort. As my head bobbed up and below the surface I saw Pulp shuffle its way down the banking and into shadow like a feral animal.

I’d been sucked dry.

Suddenly I realised I was the insignificant one; a pawn in a much grander universe. It was time to leave this world that I no longer understood behind and seek out what lies beyond.

Pulp promised me such things.

The body is just a vessel … It’s the soul …

I didn’t want to believe that it was all treachery on Pulp’s part; I wasn’t just some host to feed the thing before it sent me to death.

No, there’s more, I’m sure of it.

I was ready to see the truth – to awaken.

The body is just a vessel …

Falling to the bottom of the river I wondered if I would ever see those magnificent colours again as all other lights went out.


Bio:

Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire.
Writing fiction has become a hobby over the past couple of years and he hopes to one day publish a novel.
Ethan notes Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft as influences behind his work.