“The Armoires” Horror by Dylan Nicholson

"The Armoires" Horror by Dylan Nicholson

Finally, he realised he didn’t know where he was at all. It was dark, and as he opened his eyes it grew no brighter. He expected shape and form and colour, but there was none of any. He blinked and waved his hand in front of his face, but it was useless.

For a moment he thought that perhaps he was dead. It was black and still and quiet and there was nothing at all. He thought death would be that. But he pinched the soft cold flesh of his palm to see if it were really true, and it stung and rang up his arm.

He was there alright; somewhere, someplace. He speculated who he might be, but his name was no clearer than his hand in front of him. He wondered where he’d been, or what he did, but the answers to these questions were obscure and hopeless. He tried again and again to remember his own face, he tried to think of what he looked like in the mirror, but the black around him fell into his mind and coated it like dark felt.

There was hope, however.     

In the briefest moments, he almost knew himself.  But then in others he didn’t. He felt complete and distant and alien to his body all at once. It was strange. He hated it. He racked his brain some more, still rooted to the spot, until he felt unwell.

He took a deep breath, and it rang and bounced around in the nothingness like he might be in a well or bore hole. The space was vast and confined and seemingly nothing at all. He stayed the thoughts about the space around him and thought about one thing he must do, and that was find a way out of the darkness.

After an age of standing still, he finally put one foot in front of the other, he could still do that at least, and took off walking in a direction that he chose based on no assumption at all.

He walked and walked and walked; the darkness never ceasing, his eyes never adjusting and his breath never softening. He went on this way for what seemed like hours. Maybe it was. Perhaps minutes. In the nothingness he found it hard to keep track of much.

After he had started to grow used to the sound of his own feet padding along beneath him, suddenly something rose out of the darkness and stung his eyes like swarm of fervent bees.

There was something blooming out a cloudy mess of dull orange, far away across the space. He squinted and for the first time in what seemed like his entire life, he could see shapes again. He looked down at his hands at last; they were old and wrinkled. That gave him nothing. He felt like he might have been younger than he looked.

He walked on, faster still, looking over himself as he went. He could see a baggy suit on him; trousers creased around his legs and scuffed old boots on his feet. He even wore a tie.

He closed the distance between himself and the glowing thing, bounding and leaping, half furious, half euphoric at the gift of his new sight. As he came closer and the last dregs of darkness crumbled away from the glowing entity, his nearly virgin eyes could discern what it was.

It was an old brass gas lamp, coated with messy slicks of oil and grime. It had a glass sleeve around the flame, which was burning away quite heartily. He bent down and looked closer. The flame danced so beautifully, lapping at the air like a fat orange tongue that he had the sudden urge to dig his scrawny fingers into its path. He wanted to feel something that wasn’t abject. That wasn’t darkness. That wasn’t nothingness.

He might have just done that if he didn’t see the leather book laid neatly beside the lamp. He took a step back then. Now, he could the whole scene; the handsome wooden table in which the lamp sat, lined with taut green leather and the newly discovered brown book. He saw too that the table had a modest drawer facing outward towards him, as if it had been set down in just the right place so he would be close enough to open it.

He knelt and shimmied towards the desk like it might be a violent animal. He extended his hand tentatively and slowly slid the smooth wooden drawer out of its mother structure and felt around inside.

Inside was a quill. A white feather as soft as the purest snow on the first day of advent, and a nib as sharp as the very nails that hammered through Christ’s palms.

He retracted his hand, the quill now in his fingers and he analysed it. It was perfect and pure and as fresh as could be. He thought about what he was going to do with it. If all else failed, at least he could dig the nib into his wrists and maybe put out the light for good. But that was a last resort.

He went to the thick leather journal next to the oil lamp and he opened it slowly. It creaked and he could tell the leather was good and new. Inside the pages were pressed perfectly, with crisp paper so neat the pages flapped like a bird’s wings when he turned them. He was surprised paper so clean and intact had writing on it, but it did. A neat script it was, with lettering so perfectly pronounced and delivered it lead him to believe that only an angel could have written it.

But an angel would not have written what it said.

It was foul and putrid. It was full of type and lexis so evil and noxious that they made him gag and bring up sour bile and spittle into his mouth. He was tremoring like a geriatric, like a dying man, and for a disgusting breath he was ashamed. He held the book up close to his eyes then and blinking heavily under the sultry orange lashings of the lamp, he gave the final verse his full attention; beginning to end, once, twice, thrice, until he knew what was waiting for him.

The final words were few, but the impact was colossal. His eyes pulsed and bled cold clear tears as he read and re read the beautiful, horrid verse.

“Is 100 enough? Foul and capricious. Bitter, bitter, bitter as you are. In one of them. Armoire or closet. Cupboard or pen. There it is. With foul white hide and great white teeth. And eyes of glorious ruby. And a love for flesh. It is in there. Somewhere. In the great 100. So, tell us, bastard. Which is it? One door must not be chosen. One door left untouched. And make it good and make it right. Then the door might come to light.”

He froze. It’s all he could do.

The intimate dark was not so intimate anymore. He looked around the nothingness and wondered if something really was in there with him. It suddenly felt like it. He was sweating and his hand that held the leather book was trembling. He wanted to cry and curl up on the floor like a baby. Was he a bastard? Who wanted him here? Who wanted him dead, here in the darkness? Who knew something he didn’t?

He tried not to cry but it was futile. He couldn’t remember what anything outside of the darkness looked like, so he cried for that, he could see a solid wooden armoire about 20 yards away in the gloom, so he cried for that, and he had a horrid itching along the back of his neck that told him he was not alone, so he also cried for that. He wiped his eyes and grabbed up the lantern and slowly made his way towards the armoire in the darkness ahead of him.

It towered over him as he made his way to it. It was a beautiful thing; carved precisely and strikingly, with Parisienne styling and glazed in emerald-green paint. It stood eight or nine feet high, the fat body housing two doors propped up on four tiny bent legs. It had bulbous golden handles and a pinpoint gold engraving deep into the thick coarse wood. There was already a key in the lock. A fat strong key, almost medieval in form, waiting to be turned.

He wanted to turn it, he had never wanted something so badly, it was fundamental to him now, to turn this fat old key and swing open the thick old wooden door. He almost did, and before he could blink twice more his hand was hovering on the key’s metal spine. He caught himself, stayed his hand and thought about the omnipresence of the note, and how they were watching.

“That’s cheating,” he squealed, enraged.

His voice went no further than the wooden thing beside him before it malnourished and died in the exposure around him. There was no echo. He looked around, then back over his shoulder, then again over his other shoulder, trying to spot who was watching him. They were cheating, he told himself. He must choose his doors wisely. He would choose. They wouldn’t trick him. They had already snatched him, kidnapped him, doomed him. Now it was to be death by his own hand?

He felt a blackness over him, like his skin and cells were the void everywhere here with him and then he thought, if this was indeed the pit of despair, then why wait any longer than need be.

He took a breath and then turned the key and swung open the door.

It creaked loudly as the old hinges grated on each other. He didn’t dare look inside. It would be there. The thing. Waiting.

There was darkness for a moment. He waited for red eyes to appear. He waited for the thing with white skin and sharp teeth to come for him. But nothing came.

He held up the lantern and sent away the gloom. The armoire was empty. The only thing in the empty wooden shell was a name, written on the back panel, in the same beautiful hand as that devilish verse in the leather book. It read; Jenny Belford

He didn’t know that name. He didn’t care. He cried and laughed and jumped up and down. He had won this one. He laughed and laughed until his throat burnt. Once he took hold of himself, he noticed something underneath the writing.

A small photograph. A polaroid. A school portrait. A girl, skin like plate and a plaintive look to match, with her face framed by crisp black hair. The longer he looked he found that he knew Jenny Belford after all. She sat on the precipice of his consciousness, her name and form and relationship to him shrouded in a fog so thin he could almost pass through and take her out and know. Know who she was. And then, perhaps, he would know who he was.

The longer he looked at the photo the more he became aware of the sickness in his stomach. The mournful look on Jenny’s face wasn’t so much mournful as downright hateful, he realized that now, and he was realizing her frozen eyes were crusted with fury and pain. He knew now that the eyes were not frozen in a photograph, they were simply staring at him. He was in the darkness with her then, the shroud and fog lifted, and her cancerous gaze made him weak and feverish. He knew Jenny Belford after all.  He fell to his knees and let out a weak mouthful of vomit.

“No,” he managed.

He heard a howl from far off in the cavernous nothing. It roared loudly, horridly, like a dying wolf, like a burning fox, and he was so very scared. It echoed around, that shriek of the primordial. It was the beast. It was waiting for him. In a way it always had always been waiting, one way or another.

He tried to source from which direction the horrid noise had come but it rang and rolled around him so quickly that he gave up.

All he knew was that it was in there with him, somewhere. He raised his head and as his eyes took focus again, he found himself peering out into the gloom. There he saw the next armoire, and then beyond that, barely discernible, the next one still.  He turned back to the open armoire beside him without looking at Jenny’s photo, and behind that one, half visible in the gloom, was another emerald-green shape. Then further behind that, another one. And another. They were all facing him, none were placed here at random, he was sure of that. He couldn’t look any longer. He couldn’t. Wherever he turned his head, he would see another armoire, doors waiting for him, out in the dark.

The howl came again. Louder now. In one of these green prisons it was sitting, waiting.  Like the verse said, it had pale skin and a terrible grin and white teeth, and red eyes and it was going to eat him if he let it out. He was the bastard, and it was the thing with red eyes and white skin. He was the capricious one. The verse said so. They had caught him. All he had was that name. But he would never tell them. They said they knew. But he was there. He was there with Jenny Belford. He knew. He knew her and she knew him. But he would never tell them that. Jenny Belford. Maybe he was capricious and evil out there where the sun shone and life went on as life does, second by second, smile by smile, breath by breath. Something rustling to his side made him turn slowly. He stopped breathing for a moment as he turned back to the armoire. Something was there. He felt cold, sick again, unable to stand.

There was a woman inside the armoire.

Pale, gaunt, eyes wide, grinning a sick grin like a broken doll. The woman was staring at him. It was Jenny Belford. He knew her from the picture. She grinned and her eyes were fat and wide and full of evil things. He turned away but he could hear her stertorous breathing, almost hissing through her clenched teeth. There was a howl again, from one of the 99 armoires sat around him in the expanse of black cavern. He said he would be brave and wouldn’t cry. He’d been telling himself that since he awoke. Jenny’s the ghostly breathing dropped to a growl. He looked to the next armoire, just across from him, no more than ten paces away, and wondered if that would be the one to open next. If so, what would be in it? As Jenny’s horrid growling grew, he wondered which door he would open next. Louder and louder was her breath now. And he wondered and he wondered. He wondered which one he was going to open first. Or next. Or last. And he wondered what would be inside. And he wondered, if the monster with white skin and red eyes, would be the worst thing he’d find.

Dylan is a writer of short fiction, screenplays and poetry. He is a die-hard horror fan and by night you will most likely find him reading something by Shirley Jackson or Clive Barker. He lives in London and works in the Film & TV industry.’

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

L'inconnue de la Seine: masque mortuaire woman's death mask face

Paris, 1885…

The world seemed to be steeped in slate. Paris was silent but the streets were crowded with hundreds shod in black, giving the impression of a populous of ghosts. Their steps bled together into a whispering that filled the street like the sound of a light wind. There had been music and the sounds of wheels rattling against the stones, but that had long since gone, leaving nothing but the procession behind. L’Arc de Triomphe was draped in yards upon yards of black crepe.

The funeral of Victor Hugo drew the city’s gloomy attention, and stray mourners flitted through the cold streets like circling vultures. The city was full of the bereaved, but no prayers were said for one poor soul in particular.

The corpse in question floated motionlessly in the ash-gray Seine, the frigid water barely seeming to part around her. She almost seemed imbedded in it. A butterfly pinned under glass. Her insipid skirts fanned out in the water like the tail feathers of a downed bird. In this manner, frozen still and face down, she drifted listlessly to the Southwestern side of the Île de la Cité and towards the stone arches of Le Pont Neuf. 

The constable who patrolled the bridge in the mornings had already sent notice to the coroner about the woman, and the corpse catchers were gathered at the base of one of the arches, long, curved metal hooks upright in their hands and bristling above their head like spears. Bets had already been placed between the three men on the state of the body: murder or suicide? It certainly wasn’t going to be any type of natural. Natural causes don’t end up face down in the Seine.

When the corpse had drifted close enough to reach, the corpse catchers cast their hooks out, tangling in her skirts and hooking over her side. They drew her unceremoniously from the cold water and loaded her onto a stretcher, peering down into the rigid white face.

“Quite a young thing,” one of the men observed, squinting down at her, “Just looks like she’s sleeping.”

“A damn shame,” another muttered at the same time as the third snapped, “Well, she ain’t sleeping. She’s dead.”

The first man made a rude gesture at the third. “I know that, tu salaud! I just meant she looks peaceful — she’s even smiling, look at her!”

True to his claim, the young woman’s face was arranged in a mask that seemed more alive than dead. Her eyes were closed, wet lashes clumped together in small dark triangles, her water – darkened hair still tied back in a simple knot, and her closed lips curled softly into the ghost of a contented smile.

It was this youthful, almost living face that drew Doctor Jean – Louis Léger’s eye when he found her on his table. She’d been stripped of her sodden dress, and she lay bare before him, her modesty preserved by a thin white sheet, her blonde hair twisted in a cushion under her head. He conducted his examination in the quick, personable manner that he always used, speaking to the corpse softly under his breath. It was something his colleagues continually made fun of him for — speaking to the corpses, but it was something Doctor Léger insisted on. The bodies were his patients and they had carried the souls of their owners while on this Earth, they deserved the same care and dignity as the living.

As he spoke to her and poured over her body, finding no blemishes apart from the natural, he began to feel strangely like he was examining a living woman. Her chest didn’t rise but her cheeks held faint color and her limbs moved with an elegant pliancy uncommon to the dead.

“Ah, mon cheré,” he said, tilting her head to the side to press her neck, looking for breaks or markings, “I know twenty living women who would pay an obscene number of francs for skin as soft as yours.”

He spent several hours with her in the cool, tiled examination room, and found nothing that could hint to the cause of her death other than the circumstances of her discovery. She must have thrown herself into the cold waters of the Seine before and allowed herself to sink into the murk, surfacing the next morning with the gray sun. He wondered which one of the corpse catchers had won the bet this time. The nameless death certificate listed her cause of death as suicide, and she was only identified by the moniker L’Inconnue de La Seine — The Unknown Lady of The Seine — on the papers and the tag affixed to her right toe.

Doctor Léger restored her shroud and called an attendant to fetch her and bring her to the mortuary upstairs to be displayed in the window with her fellow unidentified in the hopes a passerby or on the street would recognize her. For the first few hours of her installment there no one paid her any mind; the city was preoccupied with mourning the great writer. However, as the day passed, rumors of the beautiful corpse with an untroubled smile began to creep through the city like the many branching fingers of a tree root, gradually becoming more and more elaborate as it spread.

One said the La Morgue de Paris was keeping a living woman imprisoned in their museum gallery as a product to sell to the highest bidder, another claimed that anyone who looked on her face would be cured of all ills, yet another theorized the corpse was cursed and would bring death to anyone who looked on her. Doctor Léger laughed at each of the florid stories as they were brought back by colleagues and assistants from their lunches and breaks. Not all of them saw the situation as humorous as he.

“But, Monsieur,” one of the more superstitious assistants asked, “it’s not exactly a regular body.”

Doctor Léger looked up from the body he was examining for signs of poisoning and chuckled. “My good man, you’ve worked in this business long enough to know there is no such thing as a regular body! They all have something irregular about them! Now hand me that scalpel, would you?” 

Doctor Léger was considered by most, and especially by himself, to be of a practical nature, having a clear knowledge of the distinction between fact and fiction, but as the day wore on into evening and the mortuary gradually emptied of the living, the rumors began to weigh more heavily on his mind. He sat back at his desk, watching the flickering of the gaslight against the wallpaper of his small office. The forms he’d been filling out to transfer back over to the police sat in a carefully ordered pile before him — they’d started making his eyes cross. Maybe he needed glasses. None of the display corpses had been identified that day, the young woman included. Though, her body had attracted quite the crowd of viewers as the rumors about her spread.

Doctor Léger tsked, pushing himself out of his chair and tugged on his jacket. There was nothing unusual about the corpse and he’d prove it to them! He stepped out into the cold tiled hall, musing as he went. He was the last living resident of the morgue by that time of night — again, nothing unusual for him. He had never taken a wife, both of his parents had passed years ago, and the only sibling he had moved to London. In short, no one was expecting him home. He would take his time examining the body again and report his findings to whatever silly gossips he could get his hands on come the next morning. Hopefully, the correct information would be printed by lunch. A young suicide of an unidentified woman, a regretful tragedy and nothing more.

The curtains had been drawn over the display window, heavy swaths of purple velvet that Doctor Léger thought to be too decadent. It was a morgue for God’s sake, not a boudoir! Alas, it was out of his hands, even though he’d spoken those exact words to the appropriate figures. So, the velvet curtains remained, later accompanied by gilded gas lamps that dripped with glass crystals. The place was turning into a damned tourist trap. 

The row of stretchers was evenly spaced, the metal shimmering under the flickering flames, their occupants as still as the steel below them. Some of them lay completely bare, skin appearing like wax in the half-light; they almost appeared to be their own memorials, cold tilted headstones carved in their likenesses. The woman’s corpse, Doctor Léger noticed with a bit of satisfaction, was still mostly covered with the white sheet. Even in the orangey dark the body stuck out from the rest, her hair reflecting bronze, her face full of more life than half the people who’d come to see her. He stepped up onto the raised platform and picked his way to the proper stretcher and disengaged the lock on the wheels.

The stretcher screeched and rattled as Doctor Léger rolled it down the deserted hallway, the corpse quivering atop it. The exam room was colder than the rest of the building, and the wavering gaslights gave the space a cave-like feeling or one like it was submerged in water. He locked the stretcher wheels again, leaving the body on the stretcher in the center of the room like an opera singer lying in repose on stage. Her peaceful smile and lightly shut eyes could be the tragic illustration of a show poster in the box office of Le Palais Garnier. 

Doctor Léger couldn’t stop himself from imagining the scene; the fair, blonde maiden who surrendered herself to the suffocating water to join her lover in death. The lady herself wouldn’t know, but the audience would weep softly with the knowledge that the lovers wouldn’t meet again in Heaven. Suicide, of course, being the most tragic of sins to offend France’s Catholic sensibilities. It would make the entire thing more tragic, and the maiden would lie alone on the stage, bathed in the swaths of blue light from gaslights shown through colored glass, at the bottom of the river but at peace. The black crepe screens would fall before the heavy final curtains, the veil of Death stealing her away from the audience.

But then that beautiful girl would rise from the boards and float off stage to wait for final bow; the unknown woman under Doctor Léger’s examining fingers would never rise. She’d sink into the ground and then into the earth, becoming nothing more than dirt. He sighed, pulling the body’s eyelids back, revealing blank eyes, white with calcium deposits. Nothing particularly unusual there either, and, when Doctor Léger removed his fingers, the lids drifted shut like closing shuttered. He examined the corpse top to bottom, finding nothing unusual, and grumbling to himself about the intellectual failings of the average Parisian, fetched a large syringe from a metal dish at the side of the room. With careful, practiced precision, he slipped the thick needle between the ribs and into the spongy, unmoving lungs. When he pulled back on the plunger, a pinkish brown liquid began to be sucked back up into the glass receptacle. Doctor Léger withdrew the needle and held it up to the light, shaking it slightly. It moved easily. Water. Stained with blood from the vessels in the lungs rupturing due to the strain of trying, and failing, to breathe. 

It was as he’d first assumed. A drowning, no signs of foul play, as simple as that. Now she’d be left to rot. The light playing across her features created the illusion that the eyes would open and the faint smile would spread across the face, reveling in the simple joy of one’s heart continuing to beat. 

A very strange thought stole through Doctor Léger’s mind, an unavoidable feeling, a purpose. Yes, she was dead, but what if she wouldn’t rot? What if she could continue just as she was? He had a duty to care for the dead, to grant them their dignity; maybe he could grant more to the unnamed woman. Doctor Léger could have sworn he saw the pale lips twitch and a chill ran through him, the rumors about the corpse rushing to mind. There was something unusual about it, that was undeniable. Her features were still fair and elegant, her skin and limbs still supple and flexible. She seemed to be an incorruptible saint.

The Seine had been her rebirth.

And suddenly, Doctor Léger knew what he must do. He fetched the plaster powder from a storefront down the road that was being refinished and mixed it in a bucket with water from the examining room tap, moving on to other preparations as he waited for it to thicken. He opened the corpse’s abdomen and removed the organs, setting the heart aside. The jugs of alcohol kept for the preservation of bodies gave him some trouble; they were heavy, and he was unsure of how much to use or how long to keep the corpse submerged. The fumes made him cough, burning his nostrils. He gutted several stuffed chairs for their stuffing and refilled the abdominal cavity with it. The corpse would keep its shape and the removal of the organs would limit the buildup of gas.

The heart was the first thing to be covered in plaster, white creeping slowly over the purple flesh, hardening around the lines and veins of the organ until it dried into a perfect sculpture. The heart was returned to the ribcage and sewn in. Applying the mixture to the rest of the body was a delicate matter. Doctor Léger posed the limbs after the model of a Greek statue, driving long nails through joints with a crunch to prevent them from shifting and propped up others. Plaster was applied with a brush, making sure it sank into every crevasse, immortally intombing the muse. The face took the longest. Doctor Léger made certain each detail was captured in stark relief, as delicate and peaceful as the moment she’d appeared before him the first time.

The hours passed as Doctor Léger worked. More layers were applied and dried, a length of cloth was draped about her and also frozen, one dead hand clutching it demurely to her chest, the rest of the fabric twining about her body and pooling at her feet. He had some trouble getting her to stand, but this was solved with the inclusion of a heavy base that the body was fixed to.

The sky was just beginning to lighten beyond the windows when it was done. Doctor Léger staggered back, falling against the wall, dizzy from exhaustion and the caustic smell of alcohol and blood. He had achieved immortality. It stood before him in sweeping planes of plaster and the slight curl of a smile on the face of an angel.

The others who worked the morgue would be arriving soon, and, through his haze of delirium and triumph, Doctor Léger knew he must hide her. They wouldn’t see the angel, her benevolence or power, they’d prefer to put her in a box and let her rot. Yes, he needed to keep her a while longer. Now dry, the statue was heavy, unwieldly, and Doctor Léger was gasping for breath and wiping rivulets of sweat from his brow by the time he’d deposited the statue in his office. Stepping back, he reeled to the side, his legs collapsing underneath him, and he caught himself roughly on the edge of his desk. A drink. Yes, he needed a drink and a rest.

Doctor Léger stumbled to his desk chair and groped in the bottom drawer for the bottle of whiskey he kept there. He didn’t bother with a glass, instead electing to drink straight from the bottle, staring across his dim office at his creation; she was beautiful. Perfect. He slumped back in his chair, taking another draft of whiskey, his eyelids beginning to droop. There was an odd hissing noise he hadn’t noticed before. For an instant, he imagined the woman opened her eyes and fixed them on him. He gasped. They were white and expressionless, but not plaster. They were the eyes of the corpse woman.

Doctor Léger lurched upright, rubbing his eyes. The illusion was gone. The eyes were sealed with plaster, not open. Disquieted, he pulled a cigar from the case on his desk and stood, wobbling to inspect the statue. The hissing had gotten louder, the infernal noise. It sounded like the hissing of a snake. Doctor Léger heard a thousand souls condemning him in the hiss. He shook himself. Nonsense, he’d done right, by the will of God. He’d made an angel. He huffed and pulled a match from his waistcoat to light his cigar. The scratching noise immediately preceded a blast of white and noise, the spark catching the loose gas in the air from the gas lamp that had been broken as Doctor Léger navigated the statue into his small office.

The blast and the ensuing fire burned hot and fast, quickly consuming La Morgue de Paris, sending white tongues of fire up into the navy early morning sky. While the fire brigade was able to save the rest of the street and the main façade of the building, everything inside was consumed. Everything except a strange sculpture that stood white and undamaged in the destroyed former office of Doctor Léger, coroner. An unidentifiable set of remains were also discovered in the ruins, and were assumed to belong to the coroner himself as he had gone missing the same morning, his house left empty and locked.

The statue was removed from the wreckage and placed into the care of the owner of the building who promptly passed it off to a private collector, citing a ‘strange and watchful’ sensation surrounding it. Rumors flew throughout the city; the resemblance to the unidentified corpse that had taken the city by storm the days prior was quickly recognized. The most sensible and believed of the theories said that Doctor Léger having thought the dead woman was beautiful, commissioned an artist to create a statue in her likeness, and realizing his own loneliness, had set off the blast intentionally. Small replicas of the statue bearing the name L’Inconnue began to be sold across the city, becoming quite the popular trinket to own. Though those that laid eyes on the original began to whisper about a curse on it, a bad spirit. They said they could hear crying coming from it at night, and, sometimes, that the eyes cried tears of muddy river water.

Chloe Spector is an aspiring novelist and writer in the process of obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from Berry College. This is her first publication.

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“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.”


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

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?”


            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.


            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.


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.