“The Morning After a Rainstorm” Dark Fiction by Hayden Sidun

On a morning in the last weeks of summer when fall began to conquer Earth, the sun rose ever so slowly above the horizon, and the wind rustled the leaves in the treetops and made the branches gently sway from side to side in the breeze. Some leaves fell on the grass below, disconnected from the roots of life, left to wither away and die alone. Those that had suffered the same fate simply blew around near the ground, falling helplessly but with grace nonetheless. The grass moved with the leaves, giving in to the silent breeze, the morning dew that coated it evaporating into the air. The scene was like crack for poets and painters and outdoorsmen and those who enjoy the gentle touch of Mother Nature.

To those who pay attention to the calendar, it was the first day of September. But nature does not go by a clock or a calendar, for time is but a human concept, a way to measure the movements of nature and prepare for its typical changes. To the grass and the trees and the leaves blowing about, the sun was rising above the horizon after a night of unforgiving rain. The birth of daylight was simply the continuation of an endless and repetitive routine, and at that moment, it was the only thing that mattered to the elements of nature.

Some liked to spend their mornings in the park. It was a nice break from the urban prison that surrounded the freedom of the outdoors, a little patch of fresh air and peace in a city trashed by pollution and hurry. People jogged and bicycled all along the dirt trails forged throughout the park. The trees and the ways of nature in the park were too familiar to those who frequented it, as though the park were another home for them. Likewise, there were always one or two homeless people sleeping in the park on any given night, for cold as the night may be among the trees, the sense of protection and comfort was all too good to pass up. The joggers seldom bothered the homeless, the homeless seldom bothered the joggers, and Mother Nature seldom bothered either.

And as the sun rose above the horizon to welcome September, a single line of tire tracks cut down the middle of one of the dirt trails. The serenity and silence of nature’s realm were interrupted by the buzz of a bicycle speeding down the trail, like a bee flying between flowers. The bicyclist pedaled as hard as he possibly could, barely taking time to slow down and enjoy his surroundings, for time and timeliness meant everything to him. He had only been gone for about twenty minutes, according to his watch—about halfway through his ride.

He was rather good at bicycling down the park’s many trails, and it had been his preferred morning exercise for years. He cared about money almost as much as he cared about time, for he had a lot, perhaps too much, of both. The trails were all too familiar to him, the terrain holding no surprises unless perhaps a storm should strike down a tree or two. No major surprises were in store for him that morning except that the ground was slightly damper and the leaves were a little bit browner. Few big rocks were present on the trail, the trees offered a blanket of protection from the blinding, squelching sunlight, and on occasion, he would pass by a black-tailed deer frolicking among the trees. That’s the way he liked it.

There was an old tree stump that he marked as the halfway point of his morning rides. It belonged to a Monterey cypress before it gave into a storm and fell a few years ago. The stump was slanted upward, just perfect for leaning against, and a little bit of moss layered the very top of it. He would often sit there for just long enough to catch his breath and hydrate, but he often just enjoyed the surroundings, the birds chirping, the trees swaying in the wind. And on that morning, he did just that—careful not to dampen his clothes as he leaned back on the rain-stricken stump, of course—before mounting on his bike once again and making his way back to the trailhead.

He wasn’t too far away from the trailhead—perhaps only three or four minutes—when he pushed down on the pedal with his foot and it refused to turn. The bicycle pedals revolved fluidly and flawlessly throughout the ride, and he bought it only the week before, so why would it break down? Whatever the reason, he pushed down on the pedal again and squeezed the hand brakes as hard as he could.

“Shit!” he yelled as gravity got the best of him. He fell as effortlessly as a leaf falling to the ground in the wind, his shoulder colliding with the ground, his bicycle landing on top of him.

He sat on the ground, the mud staining his clothes, the breeze blowing past his face like a paintbrush moving across a canvas. The trailhead was about ten minutes away by foot, but the sharp pain in his shoulder compelled him to simply sit in the mud and stare at his broken bicycle. He saw mud caked onto the chain and groaned as he rubbed his face with his dirty hands, the intense pain in his shoulder turning his groans into anguished screams. Perhaps someone will come along and help, he thought as he looked around the area, hoping to see a figure coming toward him or hear some rustling in the woods. He sighed and otherwise sat curled into a ball on the side of the dirt trail, turning his head from side to side every now and then, holding onto his shoulder with the opposite hand.

Not ten minutes passed before he heard footsteps coming from the direction of the trailhead. He turned his head and smiled as a young man wearing a black tracksuit emerged from around the bend, sprinting down the trail, kicking up dirt with each step. The young man looked at him and slammed the brakes on his legs, stopping dead in his tracks, his eyes wide as he looked down at him.

“You need any help?” the young man asked, pulling his earbuds out and stuffing them in his pocket.

The injured man could feel the young man’s eyes searching for something, his stare piercing his soul, having a look around as though he was an open house. But he nodded his head and explained, “My bike is broken. I think I dislocated my shoulder.”

The young man knelt in front of the man, reaching his hands toward him. “May I?” the young man asked. The injured man nodded and removed his hand from his shoulder as the young man pulled the injured man’s neckline over his shoulder, revealing a giant purple bruise, almost as dark as amethyst and with a small hill-like bump in the middle.

“Can you put it back?” the injured man asked.

The young man shook his head. “Looks to me like you broke it. We should get you to a hospital.”

Great, the injured man thought. Tons of hospitals in the city and none of them are any good. He sighed and said, “Well, if we’re going to move forward, I’d rather do it on a first-name basis. I’m Will.”

“I’m Dart.” The young man smiled as he covered Will’s shoulder with the shirt.

“Dart? Like the bar game?”

Nodding his head, Dart replied, with a tinge of annoyance in his voice, “Yes, like the bar game. It turns out my parents like to party; what can I say?”

Dart stood up and reached his hand out to Will. Will’s hand—chapped, scraped, and covered in dirt—met Dart’s, and he picked himself up and met Dart’s eyes. Dart had something in his eyes, an island of happiness slowly drowning in a sea of regret, like a weird smoothie that one cannot help but taste. The look in his eyes was coupled with a smile stricken with pity, lips without teeth, definitely forced. Alas, Will’s need for help was more important than his distrust of strangers, and he could fend for himself anyway.

Dart led Will off the trail and among the trees. The ground became rougher and rockier, and the openness of the park became crowded with trees. Will looked behind him, his eyes widening. The dirt trail was gone, blanketed by layers of wilderness, and he looked up, the sky only occasionally peeking through the cracks in the leaves. There was no one around except him and Dart, and the trees echoed that.

“Where are we going?” Will asked.

“We’re taking a shortcut.” Dart was focused in front of him and walked in a straight line, almost mindlessly and robot-like.

“What about the bike?”

“We’ll get it later.”

“That bike cost me five hundred dollars.”

“I said we’ll get it later.” There was a pang of frustration in his voice, as though Will were inconveniencing him. Dart sighed, a slight smile coming about his face. “Did you hear about those murders in the Headlands? Police found the bodies stabbed underneath some redwoods. I think one of them was bludgeoned too.”

Will stopped walking, a bead of sweat running down his face. “I really think we should head back to the trail.”

Dart laughed, his hand retreating to his pocket. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re going to a hospital, remember?”

“I’d really rather go back to the trail. I promise I can manage on my own.”

Dart spun around, rage striking his expression. “I said don’t be ridiculous!” he yelled, the trees absorbing his words. He withdrew something from his pocket, a blade about as big as his hand, and lunged toward Will, the blade raised in the air. In the blink of an eye, the blade pierced Will’s skin, tearing through his body, the blade’s serrated edge ripping open one of his lungs.

Will screamed, his voice broken and gargling, the taste of blood filling his mouth. He fell to the ground and looked up at the treetops of the Monterey cypresses he loved so much, his vision becoming lighter and blurrier. He could no longer see or hear Dart, but only some rustling nearby, and after a few agonizing moments, he saw Dart standing over him and bringing a heavy rock down on his face. Will flinched as the rock came closer, his eyes closing, a quick breath of woodland air entering his nose. It was not long before Dart was the only living and breathing person standing among those trees.

Dart retrieved the blade and dragged the corpse across the ground, propping it against a tree. The head, smashed-in and covered with fresh, strawberry-red blood, hung downward as though it were looking at the stab wound. He sprinkled some leaves on the corpse, and the trees helped him with that. Dart made his way back to the trail, the broken bicycle becoming visible not long after, the corpse probably already starting to rot away underneath the tree. On the trail and in the parking lot, he wore a toothy smile and greeted passersby, the gruesome murder utterly absent from his mind. Perhaps he would disappear into the Marin Headlands or make his way down to the Monterey Peninsula.

The trees and the leaves and the creatures who live among them were not concerned with time. They move with the wind and the weather and remain unbothered, silently awaiting all that was yet to come. By then, the sun was entirely above the horizon, and people outside the park were waking up and drinking their morning coffee, some of them already on their way to work, others coming home from a long night. Society had welcomed September on a gorgeous day after such a stormy night. On occasion, when the wind separated the leaves and let the clear blue sky slightly come into view, the sun shone down on the park and illuminated the remains of an innocent bicyclist.


Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, Button Eye Review, The Chamber Magazine, and Potato Soup Journal. Outside of school and work and when not writing, he is involved in local politics and often finds himself sorting through his thoughts and surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.


“The Thwarted Kingdom” Fiction by Titus Green

Major General Thomas Harrison, 1616-13 October 1660

He stirs, opening his crusty-lidded eyes, leaving reluctantly the dream of a parliament of saints which left him contented. He hears the distant church bells wistfully, knowing he will hear them chime just one last time. Their dense resonance deepens his sorrow, as they signify the church and the sermons he’ll never attend again. He groans and picks up the empty drinking vessel off a slimy, dank floor. Hadn’t he implored Christ to fill it with water as he whispered scripture with hands clasped and throat parched?

There is no furniture in this dark, fetid cell at Newgate Gaol. A narrow shaft of morning light, from the pitiful concession for a window, illuminates the jacket of his tattered Bible propped up against the wall. Seeing the amber radiance light up the face of God’s great volume cheers him with its hint of revelation. Could God be showing this as a sign not to give up his belief?  Did it support the stunning prophecy that Daniel saw in the Persian tyrant’s dream all those centuries ago? Fulfilment of this prophecy is his main concern now, as he prepares to be publicly eviscerated by order of the king.

His eyes widen as the sun’s ray settles on the gold thread of the intricate brocade pattern covering this 1640 edition of the Bible he has never, on principle, called the Bible of King James. His excitement grows as the book seems to glow brighter and brighter. There can be no doubt: “It is a sign! The coming of the days of our Lord is nigh and the Kingdom of Heaven is imminent at last! Oh, thank you Lord for not forsaking me in my darkest hour.” The euphoria numbs his senses, and he pays no attention to the faecal stench of the overflowing privy which is just yards away.  “Although I shall die, by shining your light you show me the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. A path that I will soon take without fear.”

He clasps his hands and mutters intense supplications to the mute god of the Testaments, praying more than anything to lose the sensation of pain when the hangmen take the red-hot blade to his belly.

“Lord, I beseech you to ready for me this last journey. Walk with me and guide me up your sublime steps to the door of Heaven I implore you.”

“That’s right. Say your prayers, Harrison. The Almighty’s the only one listening to you now.” He hears the hideous cackle of Ives, one of his gaolers, at the door and the rusty friction of the lock mechanism being operated. This is followed by the screech of the bolt that will reinforce his captivity for just one more bleak night. The oak door, reinforced by iron panels, creaks open, surprising a squat spider nestling in its hinges which scrambles for refuge in a wall nook.

Ives, a course, ugly man whose buck-toothed face is covered in sores, enters carrying a bowl of gruel and a cup of water.    

“Here’s yer breakfast. Eat it up heartily for it’s to be your last on this ere’ earth!”

He places the items on the freezing cold floor and grins at his shivering prisoner.

“What’s the matter Major General?” He says using the captive’s title sarcastically. “Are you shaking with eagerness to meet your master at Charing Cross tomorrow? I hear they’ve got a special hurdle to take you there in style!”

Harrison does not answer, considering conversation with the man to be sinful. He has treated Ives’ colleagues with the same reticence during the months of imprisonment, speaking only for the necessary transactions to gain him minimal comforts, such as not having to wear shackles and obtaining a couple of blankets. He refused their offers of ale for a couple of groats. For this snub, one of them spat on his Bible, and he suspects they have spat in his food, poisoning it with their loathing. He peers into the gruel and sees the maggots who remind him of the turncoats and traitors of the Levellers who dumped all their principles for pardons and personal enrichment. Where were these Judases now? How would they be able to look their children in the eyes, clasping their pieces of silver? Godless, avaricious sinners they were who would be scorched by hellfire in due time. His beliefs tell him to welcome his brutal death that is coming soon, as he is dying for the most glorious cause: the ending of carnal man’s world and the ushering in of God’s.

“I wonder where they’ll stick your head Harrison. I’d say it’ll be on the gates of Parliament.” Ives sneers, and Harrison recalls the day he and Cromwell stormed into the chamber and scattered the dithering rump parliament. Now a very different parliament was dismissing him, with a jury full of turncoats, opportunists and knaves sending him to death.

“Get away! Leave me to pray with what time I have left,” he tells Ives curtly.

“Ha! Don’t trouble yourself. No amount of prayers can save you from hell, Harrison, because that’s where God sends killers of kings.” Ives spits on the floor and then reaches for a bucket outside the cell. He throws the bucket of water diluted with pig offal and urine into the condemned man’s face. Harrison grimaces and retches several times, cursing Ives and wishing the Lord would hand him one of his favourite cavalry rapiers so that he could run the insolent dog through with one decisive thrust. He reckons Ives is abusing him for refusing to gift his gold ring to him on the morning he will be sent for. He is not going to gratify this sinner’s avarice.

“I’ll be back at dinner. We’ve got a little surprise meal prepared for you. You can call it your last supper.”

“Get out you blasphemous wretch!” cries the major general, and moments later he is alone, forlorn and reeking of piss. However, despite his wretchedness he resolves to do one last thing, ask one final question and find one critical answer: when will the Messiah rule in the Kingdom of Heaven?

***

Hours later, after the rotting pig’s head has been thrown into his cell­­––the last hideous insult of his captors––he doubles the concentration in his prayer as the light filtering through the narrow slit in the wall gradually fades. With the closure of the day comes his sombre understanding that his last day of life has passed. He has just one more morning to live and one central role to play in a horrific ritual of English justice. He will be killed on a scaffold and his death will be as gruesome as that suffered by the doomed, drugged victims of Aztec sacrifice pageants. The golden lion of royal vengeance was going to be set on him; he was  going to be the first of the regicides to feel its iron claws tear into him at Charing Cross. He was going to be their main example of maximum punishment after all. An example that spoke not in words but in disembowelment while conscious and said: shed royal blood and see what happens.  He’d been a ringleader and advocate for trying the king, strutting through corridors in his breeches, giving sanctimonious speeches and preaching the Fifth Monarchy’s coming to reluctant ears. He had grabbed the doubtful by the scruffs of their necks and drilled the Book of Daniel into their minds, leaving spittle on their cheeks. Then, in that January like no other, he’d picked up the tatty quill, dipped it in the ink and scribbled his signature in the third column of the grainy parchment that authorized the beheading of the king. Now eleven years later, that same document that condemned the king to die condemned him also; the smudged wax seals next to the regicide’s signatures sealed his doom in this grim parallel. He pictures the damning scroll, no longer mere material but the living agent of the Stuart bloodline’s revenge which refused to decay. It hovers in front of him, and its surface starts rippling and within seconds it has become a three-dimensional resemblance of the executed king’s face. King Charles’ eyes glow and his lips twitch into a grin and Harrison cries out. The vision vanishes.

More time escapes in the darkness and he groans in pain at the wounds from civil wars one, two and three that never properly healed. The cracked ribs on his left side caused during the Battle of Powick Bridge ache still. That day he saw Prince Rupert leading a cavalry charge in the distance with his sabre brandished like the Macedonian Alexander. He had been a formidable enemy, a foreign mercenary both virile and terrifying riding against the soldiers of England’s new constitution with his weapons brandished. 

He grips his Bible, his eyes straining in the meagre light of a solitary candle, reading for the thousandth time the passage in the Book of Daniel where the Hebrew soothsayer satisfies Nebuchadnezzar with his description and interpretation of the King of Babylon’s baffling dream:

In the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race: it will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms and itself last for ever.

As his eyes scan this Old Testament paragraph, he searches desperately for a deeper understanding of its import because he is now troubled by very serious doubts. Had they misinterpreted these ancient, obscure scribes? Was there contrary meaning buried in this cryptic prophecy? God forbid, had they been deceived? Did its future verbs describe the republic’s destiny, or the House of Stuart’s restored fortune? He steps into the text, becoming an invisible witness to the scene in the scripture, standing between Daniel with his boyish looks and flowing locks, and the stern, bearded king dressed in his shawl and covered in gold. “Tell me what I dreamt,” Nebuchadnezzar commands, and Daniel, speaking in a sonorous voice, obliges his master. He explains the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream with its golden head, silver arms, bronze belly, iron legs and brittle clay feet about to be smashed into smithereens. Harrison is absorbed by this spectacle, this epic biblical dialogue taking place in his mind. His concentration increases when Daniel explains that the disintegration of the statue’s feet symbolized the end of the Babylonian King’s kingdom and its absorption into the greater and more glorious Kingdom of Heaven. The tyrant Charles was long dead, but instead of the Fifth Monarchy, the glorious republic of mankind that he and Hugh Peters had promised to the soldiers of parliament, there was this wicked, licentious hound with continental manners and a crown on his head; the whoreson of the tyrant returned to the throne!  

With shaking hands, he puts his Bible down. His furrowed face is cadaverous in the candlelight. Scurvy fills his body and yet he barely notices the physical pain with the greater spiritual trouble that preoccupies him. The crumbling feet were supposed to presage the end of Charles Stuart’s reign and the demise of all royal tyrants for eternity, but yet here was the perfidious noble bloodline restored!

“Was it not prophesied by Daniel that we were destined to be the Fifth Monarchy that ushers in the Kingdom of Christ? Oh God, have we gravely mistaken this message?”

The graffiti scoured onto the wall opposite, some of it centuries old and written in unreadable Middle English, refuses to answer. He has stared at it for hours during breaks in his prayer and reverie, only making out meaning in isolated Latin phrases. They are curses: vulgar, defiant messages from the doomed of the past to nameless captors now long since buried by the years. Now, here he was treading in these pitiful strangers’ condemned shoes. Was he destined to be just another obscure victim in history’s vast catalogue of tyrants, and how would Major General Thomas Harrison’s deeds be depicted in the pamphlets and conversations of posterity?

He starts at the sight of Oliver Cromwell, or more precisely his exhumed corpse, watching him from across the cell within the confinement of a gibbet with heavy corrosion on its bars. What remains of the former Lord Protector’s face looks like that of a melting wax dummy. The distended features are covered in muddy slime and the eyes have liquified. His decaying doublet is teeming with maggots which pour out of his collar and sleeves.

“Oliver!” he stammers.  “It is frightful to to see you in such a wretched condition, but I know this is merely your temporal body and that you are now surrounded by angels in Paradise.” Cromwell’s corpse is silent.  

“Has the Lord God given you a sign when the Kingdom of Heaven shall reign? Will it start in 1666 as the auguries say? Will the Fifth Monarchy rule for eternity as the scripture tells? I am desirous of an answer, for the Stuart bloodline now sits upon the throne of England again and I am beginning to dread that our time will never come to pass.”

The phantom fades gradually, blurring into translucence. Desperate for assurance he summons his past, delving into memory to seek signs of the destiny of the Fifth Monarchy, which he is certain will bring a thousand years of peace to Earth. He recalls various battles, with the deafening blasts of cannon, the fluttering standards engulfed in smoke and the cacophonies of cavalry charges still as vivid as the day he experienced them. He thinks of the Putney Debates of 1647 at which, jostling with powerbrokers and agitators of the New Model Army, he had to shout to make himself heard in the raucous din of the assembly rooms. That was when he called for the king, that ‘man of blood’, to be tried for treason and faced a barrage of haughty resistance from ruddy-cheeked, affluent landowners with agendas and mistresses across England. Carnal men who wished to maintain the sinful conditions of the world.

Then he recalls the time he was assigned to escort the captive King from Hurst Castle to face the extraordinary court in London. At one time the trial had seemed no more than a fantastic, idealistic dream. And then, God brought his fist of retribution down upon the table of England and demanded justice be done and it was. Praise be to the Lord, the most ancient and venerable judge!

He supervised the cavalry escort, making sure to select the most disciplined and vigilant horsemen to ensure the sly rogue would not escape on his watch. God had given him this vital mission, and he would not fail. He remembers his amazement at the diminutive, gently spoken man he had accompanied in the carriage; his fragile appearance and manner were so incongruous with the rampaging tyrant of his imagination that had cavorted across the country so destructively and flattened it with his hubris. He had bowed but refused to address him as your majesty when he introduced himself and led the prisoner to the carriage. Harrison was pleased by the look of pique on the face of the deposed monarch so accustomed to deference.

On the way to London, the rattling sound of the coach substituted for conversation as it made its way through the rutted roads and for most of the journey there was a wary silence between them. This was broken as they were approaching the capital city, when the king leaned forward and spoke:

“Colonel Harrison. They say you are plotting to do me harm. What say you? Is there substance in these rumours I hear?”

He looked at the haughty tyrant, determined not to show any fear. He responded with silence at first, but the king would not be denied.

“Well? Speak! What do you have to fear from me now that I am your prisoner?” Charles Stuart spoke the words with aristocratic scorn and Harrison recoiled at them. The snake! The treacherous serpent of sedition that sued for peace while mustering foreign armies! He was not about to disclose anything to him. As for nothing to fear, he was aware of the abstract threat of this traitor’s extant children, should their despicable throne ever be restored. However, he saw no harm in giving this criminal a hint of the justice coming to him. Harrison answered:

“You may put your mind at rest on this point, for the Lord has reserved you for a public example of justice. What is done will be open to the eyes of the world.”

The king expelled a mocking laugh. “And what, pray, will happen when this ‘divine justice’ you speak of has been served? Who is to rule England’s subjects? Who is to keep order? Or maintain the peace?

Keep order. Maintain peace. If only royalty was as rich with its appreciation of irony as its vaults of gold! Harrison hesitated, thinking it unwise to share his innermost convictions with the enemy. Then he answered:

“The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race,” he said quoting the scripture, before adding: “And this will be Christ’s kingdom, not the Stuart’s, the Tudor’s or any other mortal despot’s. This kingdom will last for eternity, unspoiled by the arrogance and lust of men like you!”

“Is that so?” asked the king with an ironic smirk.

“It was Daniel’s prophecy in Babylon,” Harrison replied defiantly.

The king clasped his hands together, with his dainty fingers full of jewels encased in gold rings.

I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. We are the divinely ordained, Harrison. Don’t you understand? God requires us to exist and carry out his work. We will never be usurped!”

***

The autumn wind howls, like a final lamentation of his life as seconds dissolve, minutes escape and hours desert him. Soon the sun will make its final appearance on the horizon of his existence. The clock of the heavens will say time’s up with its bloody orange smile. He shivers and pulls the blanket closer, considering the futility of sleep on this night. There will, by god, be no reason to be wide awake on the morrow.

He relives the show-trial, seeing Pompous Pilate Judge Orlando Bridgeman stymie his attends to defend himself and shout him down at every turn while the calculating Solicitor General Heneage Finch destroys his reputation with sanctimonious rhetoric in the Old Bailey dock. Worst of all, he catches the smug faces of fellow regicides and signatories of Charles’ 1649 death warrant grinning at him from the safety of the public gallery.

Soon he hears the chiming of distant bells announcing the day of his slaughter. The sunlight peeks through the aperture, this time not illuminating anything profound except his filthy smock. He has spent the last hour praying desperately to God for an answer to the troubling question of the Fifth Monarchy’s future. Neither words nor cryptic epiphanies came. At seven o’clock there is the sound of a convoy of boots in the corridor. The rusty locks are worked, and instead of Ives a cluster of dragoons in lobster-tail helmets enters the cell.

“Thomas Harrison!”

Harrison needs effort to rise and the guards with a strict death schedule to keep are in no mood for delay. A soldier steps forward and pulls him to his feet. The former commander and favourite of Cromwell is so gaunt and weak that his execution seems unnecessary. Summoning his last traces of strength, Harrison composes himself for his escorts.

“So, I am to be crucified like the Son of God? Quartered like a pig?  But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me.

As he leaves the cell, a sense of being watched forces him to turn around. Where he lay, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statue stands. To his dismay, all parts of its anatomy from its bulging biceps, chunky pectorals and chiselled abdominals glitter brilliantly in gold. Suddenly, rays of sun shine through the narrow aperture in the wall and strike its torso, causing a dazzling starburst. As the light passes across Nebuchadnezzar’s face, it morphs  into the features of Charles I and then into the nearly identical visage of his son who was restored to the throne.

“Lord help me! Royalty is immortal,” cries Harrison as he is led out.


Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published writing can be found at http://www.titusgreenfiction.com.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mr. James,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleased to meet you

Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah

But what’s confusing you

Is just the nature of my game…?”

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

“Edmund Lappe’

Therapeutic Wizard

By Appointment Only”

Edmund Lappe’ winked, then began softly crooning again:

“So if you meet me

“Have some courtesy

Have some sympathy, and some taste

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I’ll lay your soul to waste…”

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

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


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


“The Devil Prefers Darjeeling” Gothic Fiction by T.L. Beeding

It was difficult to see the house numbers through the fog. The grey, musty effluvium had boiled in off the Thames just as Claire Dennings had encouraged herself to set out, before evening began to fall. Though light at first, it quickly became an impediment, reflecting the street lamps’ light in massive halos of diffuse, sickly yellow. If it was a warning, Claire tried her best to ignore it. There was nothing – if anything – that could stop her, now that her heart and mind were in full agreement about her illicit endeavour. 

Her errand took her in the direction of London’s seedy underbelly. Painted ladies of the evening, tucked away in dark alleys and standing on corners more frequently the further she walked, eyed her suspiciously. Hoarse shouts of an undefinable nature became commonplace, both from pubs and establishments that had no markings as to the natures of their business – though Claire could make an educated guess as to what that business was. Yet she kept her head down and walked on with purposeful stride. If she had to place herself in disreputable clutches for a while whilst seeking the answers she was desperate for, then so be it. 

Eventually, a turn down a dimly-lit avenue brought her in the vicinity of the address she was searching for. Claire slowed her pace, peering up at each ramshackle. Now, coming upon the end of the road, her hope slowly began to deflate. That is, until she finally caught a glimpse of the abode she needed: 36 Stepney Way.

Claire checked the curled number written on the sheet of foolscap tightly clutched between gloved fingers, before glancing back up to the dilapidated stoop. A single street lamp with a weak flame was the only source of light, yet the brass numbers tacked to the face of the facade’s chipped wood gleamed brightly. Claire blinked, squinting further. Everything else about the residence was either crumbling or decayed, but the numbers were freshly polished – a testament to catching the attention of passersby. It was most certainly the right place. With a heavy sigh, Claire folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her reticule, then stepped through the rusted iron gate and onto the rickety wooden steps. She knocked three times, swallowing down a sudden sensation of being watched. 

After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, shuffling footsteps drew Claire’s rapt attention. The door unbolted, slowly creaked open – revealing a handsome woman of middle age with grey eyes. She was dressed modestly, in sharp contrast with the housing and area she called home. A closed-mouth smile stretched across her face, wrinkling only at the corners of her eyes. 

“You must be Claire Dennings.” 

Claire’s heart dropped into her stomach. “How do you—”

“I know of all who seek my assistance, my dear,” the woman crooned softly, opening the door wider. It led into a rather pleasant-looking entry hall. “Please, come in.” 

Claire nervously followed the woman through the house, which was just as deceptive on the inside as its owner. The innards boasted of well-bred aristocracy, entry hall leading into a sizable parlor. An overstuffed damask sofa sat in the far corner, beside a window draped with curtains of black velvet. A circular table sat in the very centre of the room, flanked by two wooden chairs and dressed with sheer fabric that hung nearly to the honeysuckle carpeting. Atop the table, a large, unlit black pillar candle stood beside a black-painted spirit board. Aside from these items of furniture, the room was bare. 

Chills immediately overcame Claire, freezing her to the floor. The woman swept to the table’s opposite side, seemingly as though she were about to take tea with a guest – nothing more. 

“I…” Claire began, losing her words faster than they had come. 

The woman only smiled wider. “Uncertainty is natural, my dear. The unfortunate thing of today’s strict Christian values is that it limits our knowledge of what lies beyond the man-made concept of devotion to one almighty power. The ideology that only one exists is ridiculous.” She tilted her head. “Tell me; when your darling Albert passed, was it not the supposition that God intended for his time to be up?” 

Claire swallowed, pressing her lips together. Asking how the woman knew of Albert would be moot. “Y-Yes….”

“But you do not believe that to be the case?”

“I…do not know what to believe.” 

“Albert was murdered, was he not?” The woman’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Taken not by an act of God, but by an act of Man?” 

Tears stung the backs of Claire’s eyes. “Y-Yes.” 

The woman smiled softly. “Then the Good Lord should not be to whom your prayers are directed.” 

Claire took the lace handkerchief from inside her reticule, wrangling it. Dabbing at her suddenly tear-blurred eyes. It had been an answer she was terrified to hear, yet desperation gave her no alternative. Albert had been her everything. The rock she had laid her foundation upon, the strength that supported her fragility. Without him, life held no meaning. She had prayed countless nights since the news of his death first reached her; since she had been forced to identify his mutilated body drug up from the banks of the river. Prayed for either an end to her own life, or the return of his in some way. Claire had passed it off as hysterics until she had heard of the woman in Whitechapel who could purportedly summon the deceased. Could give those who had lost a loved one a brief time to say their goodbyes. It came with a cost – of what type, the eavesdropped gossip never said – but she no longer cared. One more night with Albert was worth any price to be named.

The woman gestured to the chair before Claire. “Pray, take a seat. I believe I can help you in obtaining what you most desire.” 

Clair slowly dropped into the chair. She set her reticule in her lap, sniffling as the woman struck a lucifer from a pearl matchbox to the side of the black candle. “What must I do?” 

The candle’s wick caught, sputtering somewhat before taking on a steady flame. The woman shook out the lucifer, discarding it into a hidden receptacle on her side of the table. “We shall find out soon enough,” she replied, taking a seat in her own chair. Her hands, slender and manicured, reached across the table. “Take my hands, love.”

Claire laid her trembling hands across the woman’s palms. Her grip was firm – almost reassuring. She closed her eyes, tilting her head toward the vaulted ceiling and taking a deep breath. “Close your eyes. Focus deeply on dear Albert. Focus on what it is that you want most out of an encounter with him.” 

Claire did as instructed, allowing her eyes to fall closed. She drew a deep, shaky breath, filling her lungs with the stale air of the parlor. She brought to focus Albert’s face, youthful and bubbly. The face that had charmed her, even as a young girl. It appeared in the darkness of her mind, smiling brightly – bristling the thin mustache he had proudly grown before his untimely death. She could almost hear his baritone laughter, at some wily joke or another he liked to recant with her from his visitations to the gentlemen’s club. What she wouldn’t give for one more blissful night with him, the chance to speak her goodbyes…and tell him how much she loved him, just one last time. 

The woman across from her chuckled. “I see.” 

Startled out of her reverie, Claire snapped her eyes open. The woman looked forward again, slowly opening her eyes. They sharpened, focusing upon Claire with an almost amused twinkle. She squeezed her hands once. 

“You wish for the chance to spend one last night with your dearly departed husband.” 

Claire licked her lips, nodding. “Yes. Desperately.” 

The woman smiled again. “It is indeed possible, though it may come at a hefty price.” 

“What price?”

The chuckle returned; low, knowing. The woman sat back in her seat, releasing Claire’s hands and stroking her chin. 

“I am unsure; his prices vary, depending on the service requested of him.” 

A chill fingered Claire’s spine, forcing her to sit upright. “Who is ‘he’?” 

“An old friend.” The woman reached once more to her side, coming back up with a piece of paper and an inkwell. She dipped the tip of her pen into the jar, scribbling something across the sheet. When she was finished, she slid the paper across the spirit board. Claire took it, turning it rightside-up; on it appeared to be a list of instructions. At the very bottom, the words ‘loose-leaf Darjeeling’ was underlined twice. She looked back up, trying to swallow down the sinking feeling in her stomach. 

“What is all this?” 

“Instructions, dear Claire. Instructions on how to summon him.” The woman stood, licking the tips of her fingers. “He is able to provide you with what you seek, but just remember the most important instruction of all – the one which I underlined.” Her smile turned crooked, just as she doused the candle flame with her fingertips. It hissed ominously into the dark silence. 

“He prefers Darjeeling.” 

***

Claire read the sheet of instructions over and over when she left the woman’s house. Mouthing them to herself to commit them to memory. Upon returning home, any second thoughts Claire had quickly vanished as she bolted the front door and made her way to the kitchen. Carefully setting the set of instructions on the breakfast table, she lit three tallow candles in a candelabra and set to work digging through cupboards for the ingredients required. Thankfully, she was a lover of Darjeeling herself, and had several sachets of loose-leaf to choose from. She set to work boiling a kettle of water, and setting the breakfast table with a full service tray of milk, sugar, honey, fresh blueberry scones and two cups of the finest china she owned. Once the water was boiled and spilled into the china pot for pouring, she brought it and the candelabra to the table and sat without a word. 

Claire glanced the instructions over yet again, careful to read every word. Biting back the uneasiness that clutched her heart. The last instruction had yet to be completed Once the tea was steeped and she had worked up the confidence, she grasped the handle of the teapot and stood. Beginning to pour – first into the cup set at the empty seat across from hers.

“Lord of the Underworld…I invite thee to tea.”

She repeated this phrase thrice, as the china cup filled nearly to the brim. She was sure to leave enough room for milk and sugar – as the instructions made clear. Then she began to pour herself a cup. 

“Ah – Darjeeling. And a fine quality, at that.” 

The deep voice startled Claire into a scream. She nearly dropped the teapot, whirling on her heel; catching herself before the ceremony – and her fine china – would be ruined. The empty chair was now occupied by a man, angular face cast in attractive shadow from the flickering candles. Golden hair spilled across his shoulders, matching golden eyes as he watched Claire with an amused smile.  

“Dear lady, whyever are you frightened? Did you not mean to summon me on purpose?”

Claire stared at her visitor, quaking with shock. “I-I…I did mean…”

The man rose, gently removing the teapot from her iron-like grasp. Once setting it on the table, he touched her elbow. His skin was pleasantly warm. “Please, do sit down. You look upon the verge of fainting. There we are.”

Claire allowed him to assist her to her seat, into which she sank heavily. Disbelievingly. She couldn’t help but continue to stare in silence as the man reseated himself, pouring milk and honey into the steaming cup before him. Once he had finished, setting his silver spoon to the side of his saucer, he put the cup to his lips. The smile then turned satisfactory. 

“Perfectly brewed.” He sat back in the chair. “Thank you. Darjeeling has always been a favorite of mine.” 

Claire cleared her throat, too nervous to move. To speak. So many thoughts rushed through her head all at once that it caused her world to spin. She squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again; the man still sat across from her, watching her with the same amused twinkle that the woman in Whitechapel had. 

“Does your mind still denounce my existence?” He chuckled humorously. Taking another slow sip of his tea. “A funny thing, the human brain. A finely-tuned machine capable of quite amazing feats, yet malfunctions often due to strong emotion of any kind. I fear I shall never understand it.”

Claire did her best to regain control of her composure. She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. Bit her lower lip to stop it from trembling. 

“Who…who are you?” She finally found the courage to ask. 

The man set his teacup upon its saucer, brushing a hand through his glossy hair. “I have gone by many names, some of which are rather unsavoury. Some of which are completely false, fabricated by men who cannot tell the difference between fallen angels and true elements of evil.” He flashed her a polite smile. “But you may call me Lucifer.” 

Claire’s heart pounded. “L-Lucifer. The Morning Star. God’s favorite son.” 

Lucifer held up one finger. “Former favorite son – but yes, I am the very same.”

“The…the devil himself.”

Her guest frowned, golden eyes glimmering in the candle flame. “That is one of the unsavoury names I mentioned. Also a falsehood. Though I may be devilish at times I am not, in fact, of that species.” After yet another sip of tea, the perturbed expression left his face. “But enough about myself. Let us focus on the present.” He inclined his chin toward her. “Pray, what is your name, dear lady?” 

“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly. 

Lucifer nodded once. “Claire. And you have summoned me because you wish for a sizable favor; one only which I can assist with. Yes?” 

Claire nodded. 

“And what might that favor be?” 

“M-My husband…Albert Crestworth Dennings. He was slain a fortnight ago.” Tears threatened to well in her eyes once again. “During a dispute that he was not involved in, but merely tried to pacify. Slain in cold blood for being a Good Samaritan.” A small whimper escaped her throat; she pressed her fingers to her lips. “Pl-Please, forgive me….”

Lucifer shook his head, voice sympathetic. “You needn’t ask forgiveness for a rational reaction, dear lady. Yet, I find myself asking; since it is apparent that Albert Crestworth Dennings was a soul of purity, whyever seek the services of the Lord of the Underworld?” He shrugged helplessly. “A soul as purebred in nature as his goes directly back to its Creator.” 

Claire frowned. “B-But…the woman in Whitechapel…she told me that only you could offer any sort of hope for me. That only you could give me one more night with Albert, for a price.” 

A knowing look smoothed Lucifer’s expression. “Ah,” he said slowly, deliberately. He stuck a finger through the handle of his teacup. “I should have suspected.” 

“Suspected what?” Claire demanded, voice growing stringent. 

Lucifer shook his head. “Lilith. She always does like to play sinister little games with humans.”

“What does that mean?”

Lucifer’s golden eyes returned to hers, brows folding into a look of genuine guilt. “My sister. It is of her opinion that humans are the dregs of creation – to which, she does have most of a point. But to this end, she cares not of anything else but to bring mankind harm.” Lucifer flipped his wrist. “Humanity is the Lord’s most precious possession, for which his most loyal of children were cast to the wayside. It is, I fear, quite a long story.” Lucifer sipped his tea once again. “Suffice it to say, Lady Dennings, that you were led into a trap. A lamb to the slaughter, as it were.” 

Claire’s heart clenched so hard that it squeezed a gasp from her lungs. “Wh-What do you mean by that? Speak, demon!” 

Lucifer’s eyes glowed, a frown knitting his brows. “I ask that you please watch your language. I am mostly a well-mannered gentleman, but my fury hath no bounds.”

Claire sat back in her chair, appendages abruptly going numb. Her chest and stomach followed suit, effectively drowning her body in pins and needles that kept her bound to her seat by no means of her own. She could only stare helplessly until the glow slowly subsided from Lucifer’s eyes, returning once more to a dull, golden sheen only lit by candle light. 

“Now. What I mean is that Lilith has so cleverly entangled you into a spider’s web, from which there is, unfortunately, no escape.” Lucifer drained the remainder of his tea, then began to refill his cup. He stirred in more milk and sugar. “However, I am far more merciful than what is written of me.” His expression once again turned guilty. “I am unable to provide what Lilith has promised, nor am I able to revoke the price you must pay now that I have been summoned.” He held up one finger, forestalling the torrent of terrified words that began to tumble from Claire’s numbed lips. “Yet, it is within the realm of possibility that noble Albert Crestworth Dennings may be able to visit, provided that you present me with the necessary tools.” 

The numbness paralyzing Claire began to recede, setting her skin to fiery pins and needles. Once she was able to move once more, she rubbed a hand across her forearm. It stung badly. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand.” 

“It is quite simple, really. A conjuring spell, as old as time itself, is the answer to your conundrum. The required components are easy enough to obtain, through sheer will and some manipulation. Done through my power, summoning the spirit of Mr. Dennings will not be difficult.” Lucifer contemplated her over the rim of his teacup. “And to that end, darling Claire, I would like to present a proposition.”

Claire sniffed, failing against holding back her tears. “You act as though I have a choice in the matter.” 

Lucifer granted her an empathetic dip of the head. “Point taken. However, that does not mean I cannot try to make the deal on even ground. The price is set – and it is quite high. A life of servitude to me, in exchange for the chance to live one more night with Mr. Dennings.” Lucifer took a slow sip. “But as I said, I am merciful. Seeing as you were duped into this contract, I am willing to grant your wish many-fold. As many nights as you require with Mr. Dennings, at any time. So long as you continue to serve me, and obtain fresh ingredients for the spell each and every time.” 

Tears poured down Claire’s cheeks. She had known her venture to be doomed from the start – either by deception or unwillingness to follow through. She had never imagined herself to be in total agreement with all of its aspects, even after being tricked to accept it. Her willingness to persevere into so wretched a life frightened her. But in the end, she would receive what she sought. Many times over. She could only hope now that Albert, once he returned, would not be disappointed in her. 

“I accept.” 

Lucifer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket, standing and moving to her side. Gently dabbing her tears. He grasped her abandoned teacup and pressed it into her trembling, pale hands; steam began to rise from it in curled tendrils once more. 

“Drink, my dear. Darjeeling is quite good for the constitution.”

***

At first, the conjuring spell was far from simple, as Lucifer had claimed. While most items could be found within the man-made wilderness of London – herbs, animal blood, tallow candles, and of course loose-leaf Darjeeling tea – the most vital ingredient was the hardest of all to obtain. Claire found it easiest with the weakest of society; drunkards splayed unconscious in alleyways, those just stumbling out of opium dens in a brain fog. Foolish and desperate men, easy to enthrall with feminine charm – which always ended on the point of a freshly-sharpened knife. It took all the strength Claire could muster to drag the bodies to secluded areas, quick enough to perform the dark sacrament and gather the blood in a vile before life took its final bow. 

But despite misgivings and guilt, Lucifer upheld his end of the bargain. Each time she finished her ritual slaughters, scampering home to prepare tea with the vile of blood, Albert came with him. Filling her with warmth and light. And each time tea was over, the hunger to host again grew ever stronger. Visceral. It began to consume her, devour her thoughts. She wanted more. Claire soon began to stalk the fog at night, through the slums that first led her to the life she now lived. The more robust and lively the offering, the stronger the conjuring spell worked, keeping Albert with her longer. She became so incensed to her nightly vigilance that she unknowingly gained many reputations and many names – just as Lucifer had before her. Eventually, Lucifer stopped attending tea, leaving Claire to drink the entire pot herself  It was no wonder, then, that she had always preferred Darjeeling tea.


T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.

He shrugged guiltily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what day is that?”

Today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..

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

“I don’t have any luggage.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Is there a problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“The Jets” Psychological Horror by Keith LaFountaine

When Jan came home from work, she found her husband curled in the fetal position on the living room floor. He had stuffed two pieces of cotton in his ears. In the distance, Jan heard the approaching growl of the F-35s – at least, the one that was trailing behind his four other pals. They were making so many loops it was challenging to keep up with their schedule.

            Dropping her bag next to the kitchen counter, Jan rushed toward her husband, her heels clicking against the wood floor. The door slammed behind her, and when she reached Peter, the jet came thundering over their house, the sound of its engine drowning out everything in a hundred-foot radius.

            “Peter!” she shouted. She felt the strain in her throat as the words slipped out, but the jet engines stole their power. She wrapped her arms around Peter, pulling him into a seated position. He trembled to the point that she worried about the possibility of a seizure or some other serious injury. But no – when she looked in his eyes and pressed her palm against his cheek, she saw her Peter there, lucid as ever – terrified, certainly, but conscious.

            “Baby,” she said, cradling his face, “what’s wrong? What happened?” She plucked the cotton out of his ears. To her shock, they were soaked with blood.

            “Did you hear them?” Peter whispered. “Oh, God. Jan – the screams! Can’t you hear them?”

*

            Peter slept soundly, his snores rumbling in their tiny bedroom, his mouth hanging ajar, a thin line of drool spilling down his bottom lip. It was six-thirty – a far cry from the usual time they went to bed (or, when she would lay up at night knitting, when he would crack open whatever paperback he’d brought home from the used bookstore down the road). Odd, but not a crime. Truth be told, she couldn’t get the image of the blood-drenched cotton swabs, nor the fear in his tone when he spoke. As she returned to the living room, Jan figured that whatever Peter had experienced more than earned him an early night.

            She considered grabbing her knitting needles from the bedroom but instead decided to make a quick dinner. Crossing through the living room and into the kitchen, she rummaged around the fridge until she found some soup she’d made the night prior. As she put the pot on the stove, the drone came again – soft and in the distance, but unmistakable.

            “Christ,” Jan muttered under her breath. The Governor had warned that they would be starting night runs soon, but a part of her foolishly hoped better ideas would prevail. Ideas like not bothering people with cacophonous jets around the time they were preparing dinner.

            Slapping a pot onto the stove’s electric coil, she scooped in a few spoonfuls of the cold soup and turned the burner on high. As she watched the burner turn a bright crimson, the first of the jets came flying over the house. As it did, the structure shook with it. The whiskey bottles on their bar rattled around; the pictures on the walls twitched left and right; dust shifted from the lamps and fell to the floor; the windows made an awful grating sound as they chittered about. And that was just the first jet. There were five, each as droning and annoying as the next. Sure enough, as steam rose above the warming soup, the next came. Again, the house did its little jig.

            That was when she heard Peter screaming from the bedroom.

            Instinct kicked in. Leaving the soup behind without flipping off the burner, Jan dashed through the kitchen, hooked left, and sprinted down the short hallway toward their bedroom. Upon flinging the door open, she saw Peter standing naked in front of their window, the one that overlooked the driveway. She saw a jet speeding ahead into the distance in the darkening sky, turning left, heading toward the highway. The third jet came, and it seemed to put a little oomph into its engine. The roar was so loud Jan felt her ears pop, and the glass of water on Peter’s nightstand came tumbling down on the floor, where it shattered, sending jagged blue pieces of glass skittering every which way.

            If Peter heard the sound of the glass breaking, he didn’t indicate it. Jan yelled at him as she approached, straining her voice to do so. Even before he turned, her heart lurched. Dark blood streamed from his ears like there was an internal leak in his brain. Maroon tributaries ran down his neck and his chest, dripping onto the floor. And still more came. Her stomach wobbled when she saw the blood was being pumped out, fresh batches dousing his earlobe and slicing down the side of his face.

            When her husband turned, her heart jolted again. The fourth jet came flying over, and in the wake of its fading drone, she heard her husband whisper something. In his right hand was one of her knitting needles, its pointed edge glimmering with a devilish hunger, backlit by moonlight.

            “Peter,” she said, trying to enunciate. The fifth jet, the last of the bunch, was still approaching. “Peter, give that to me.”

            “Can’t you hear them?” Peter cried. Tears ravaged his cheeks, burning down his face, parallel to the blood pumping from his ears. “Jan, you have to hear them! They’re…they’re crying, Jan! God, they’re screaming! Why can’t anybody hear them?”

            The fifth jet tore through the sky, its sound ripping the world in two, and that was when Peter drove the knitting needle into his bleeding ear. Jan didn’t hear the sound of the needle puncturing his brain, nor did she hear her screams. The jet engines stole all.

            She ran as he fell, catching his body before his head cracked against the wood floor. The F-35 flew away, twisting to follow the group, and as it did, Jan sobbed, unsure of what to do or who to call. In her arms, Peter seized, his body jerking around uncontrollably, and eventually Jan had to lay him down on the floor, run to the kitchen for her phone, and call 911. The stove’s burner hissed as the soup boiled over the sides, unleashing gouts of white smoke.

*

            In the weeks that followed Peter’s death, Jan participated in a handful of police interviews, answering the same questions repeatedly: did your husband have a history of depression; what happened prior to his suicide; did he have any enemies that you know of; did he often talk about being upset with life or wishing he could disappear? Aside from pricking her heart again and again with barbed needles, the questions served only to prove how ridiculous the notion of Peter’s suicide was. It was the word to describe what happened, yet it didn’t explain any nuances. The Peter she knew was buoyant and hopeful. The Peter that had died…well, he had been someone else entirely. Driven mad by the jets, as odd as that was to say. Jan only allowed herself to consider the cause-and-effect of the jets when she was alone at home, often wallowing away in a steep glass of wine, sitting in sweatpants stained with her hot tears.

            And still, overhead, the jets thundered on.

*

            The first night after the funeral, Jan drew a hot bath. She found some salts and bubble bath squirreled away under her bathroom sink, and she dumped half of each into it. After lighting a few candles and putting calming music on, she brought a bottle of rosé and uncorked it. Then, settling into the warm water, she drank and cried.

            When the first jet flew overhead, she rolled her eyes, pulling one hand from the bubbly water to flip off her ceiling. As silly as the gesture was, something settled in her gut then: a comforted rage, satiated for the moment, even as she remained confused and addled by the trauma of that night. Sucking down some more wine, she listened to Hozier croon from the speaker on her sink, and she closed her eyes, settling deeper into the bath. Warm water licked at her chin, and she placed the bottle on the side of the tub, resting her weary, tear-streaked eyes.

            The second jet came screaming by soon after. The description was too accurate, though. Jan opened her eyes as it passed overhead. She did hear screaming. A high-pitched wail. The kind she would have expected in a cheesy slasher movie, with Jason cutting down a few too-horny-for-their-own-good campers. But then the sound was gone, fading into the distance. Until the next jet came, and she heard it again. This time, she kept her eyes closed. In the darkness, she saw a mouth, unhinged; a tongue pulled back in reflexive terror; eyes with dilated pupils; hands clutching something close, holding it tight, some precious thing.

            Jan shook her head and sat up in the bathtub. Water sloshed over the side, spilling onto the tile floor, and the cold air in the bathroom raised goosebumps on her chest.

            It can’t be, she muttered, shaking her head. It’s the trauma. It’s losing Peter. I’m just hearing things.

            When the third jet boomed by, she heard it again, though. This time the screaming was more pronounced: an unmistakable wail of terror, a word she didn’t recognize. It was screamed in a higher register, and when the deeper boom of the F-35’s engines kicked into gear, the word was lost to her.

            But she heard it with the fifth jet. It stole her breath. Jan reached her hand up to her neck. Her heart thumped in her chest, hard and fast, and she whispered her husband’s name, though that sound was stolen by the engines and the screams, too.

            The word she heard, clear as day, was HELP.

*

            The Governor’s email was about as bare bones as she expected, given the lack of clarity in her initial query. Underneath her email, which (among other things) requested a stoppage to the jets flying over her neighborhood, was a cold response.

            Dear Mrs. Anderson: we understand your concerns and apologize for any inconvenience. However, Governor Scott stands firmly in support of our military and will not hinder their pursuit to protect our freedom.

            Jan rolled her eyes and cursed under her breath. After snapping the laptop closed, she stood from her living room couch and returned to the kitchen. Typical politician bullshit. Jets doing loop-de-loops over residential neighborhoods protected her to the same degree that Brent the Mall Cop did while standing outside the Macy’s in South Burlington.

            The jets returned that night. With them came the screams, the pleading for help, the sound of vocal cords breaking. Jan huddled in her bedroom closet, slamming the door shut behind her. But even the additional walls were unable to drown out the sound of terror. The engines roared overhead, shaking the house, and with the shrieks came new sounds: wailing bombs falling to the ground, exploding; the chatter of gunfire, pocking an arid landscape, shattering bones and spraying the soil with blood; the faint moans of the dying, holding bloody stumps where elbows had once been, holding throats that seeped crimson, gurgling and coughing; another high-pitched warble as an additional bomb blasted the Earth, akin to the sound Wile E. Coyote made after falling off a ledge.

            When the final jet passed over, Jan pawed at her cheeks. They were awash with hot tears. Even as the engines faded into the distance, she heard the horrors of war in her head, drilling deeper, wrapping around her brainstem with fiery hands. As if acting on instinct, she curled into the fetal position and pressed her palms against her ears. In the dark closet, the sounds of destruction were omnipresent.

*

            “Jan, you can’t just leave!”

She’d expected Andy, her boss, would say something along those lines, but the truth was her role was easy to transfer into a remote role.

“I just do a lot of writing,” Jan retorted, putting her cellphone on speaker and rushing around her bedroom. She yanked a red suitcase from her closet, zipped it open, and tossed it on her bed. “I’ll still hit my deliverable, don’t worry. I just – I need to get away. Losing Peter, the aftermath. I just need to get away.”

            “I get that. And I told you that you could take some time if you needed it. Nobody would be upset if you did that.”
            Forgoing folding, Jan heaped clothes into the suitcase. She checked her watch. She still had time. The jets wouldn’t come by for another hour – by then, she would be a few counties away, safe from their engines, safe from the cries of terror and the whine of exploding shrapnel.

            “Andy, I can’t lose the PTO,” Jan demurred. She grabbed a phone charger from her nightstand, averting her eyes from the window, the place that still stank of blood, even after being professionally cleaned. “I just need you to listen to me, okay?”

            Her boss’s sigh was heavy, and her phone’s speaker crackled. Then, Andy said, “Fine. I can give you two weeks. Just stay in the state, okay? But I need you in the office after two weeks. Got it?”

            “Yeah, got it,” Jan said. “Thank you.” The phone beeped three times, indicating the call was over, and she returned focus to the suitcase.

            Forty-five minutes, Jan thought when she finished packing. She glanced once again at her watch. Her heart thumped hard and heavy in her chest. Blood pounded in her ears, and a faint metallic tang coated the back of her tongue. Ignoring her palpable fear, she grabbed the suitcase by the handle and lugged it out of her bedroom. In the kitchen, she snagged her car keys. They jangled when she stuffed them into her pants pocket.

            She turned back once to look at her living room. The sun streamed in through the window, laying out a blanket of yellow warmth on the floor. The couch looked inviting, with its soft cushions, and the remote on the coffee table called out to her. Throw something on the TV, it said. Watch a show. Relax.

            Turning away from the hell that had once been her haven, Jan opened the door and slipped out. She fumbled with her keys for a brief moment before stuffing the silver one into her lock. She twisted hard, and the ka-chunk of her lock slamming into place sent a stone of heat spiraling up into her chest. Jan stuffed the keys back into her pocket and marched toward her car, still lugging the suitcase by hand.

            Once Jan stowed it in her trunk, she slid behind the wheel and stuffed her large black key into the ignition. As she turned it, her motor made series of ruhruhruhruhruh sounds, as if it was gasping for breath.

Heat flashed in Jan’s face. She tried again, turning the key.

Ruhruhruhruhruh.

            “Please,” she whispered to her dashboard. “You can’t do this. Not now. Please.”
            On the third try, the motor coughed to life, though the sound of her car turning over was about as lazy as a car could sound. Jan glanced in her mirror – and that was when she saw the traffic on the road behind her.

            As Jan turned her car around, she glanced at the clock. Thirty-two minutes. She still had time. With thirty minutes, she could make it to Montpelier. Hell, if there weren’t any Stateys lurking in their green cars and the roads were clear, she could make it in less than twenty.

            But traffic wasn’t moving. A black SUV blocked her into the driveway, though the driver behind the wheel – a white woman with a frazzle of blond hair and two kids in the back seat – laid on her horn and opened her mouth, likely hurling some expletive. Jan fought the instinct to thrust her palm against her horn, too. The Mom in the SUV certainly couldn’t move.

            Ten painstaking minutes passed. Every thirty seconds or so, Jane craned her head to look down the road, seeing the long line of cars get shorter. The SUV was long gone. Now, blocking her in was a ratty Toyota. Rust ate away at the white exterior, while duct tape covered one of the back windows. It crept forward, its tires crunching over the pavement.

            “God damn it!” Jan roared, slamming her palm against the wheel. Thoughts swirled in her mind: if you just left twenty minutes earlier; if you didn’t pack that book; if you didn’t take the time to call Andy until after you arrived. If, if, if: the self-critiques stripped her bare, squeezed at her heart, and sent the pounding pulse of panic into overdrive.

            They’re coming, she thought. Christ, the jets are coming.

            It was an additional five minutes before she was able to sneak into traffic, cutting off a blue Honda, which earned her a squeal from its horn. She flipped the bird out her window and drove on, pulling into the right lane and speeding by the expanse of cars. As she approached the end of Pine street, she saw what had cut her precious time in half. A construction crew was actively churning the ground up at the intersection. Through the hole, she saw a pipe gushing dark black sewage. The smell was so fetid it managed to sneak through her car’s ventilation system. Jan wasted no time aggressively passing by the mess, cutting right at the next intersection and going up the hill toward Shelburne Road. Her brakes squealed as she pumped them, slowing to a stop at the next intersection. A sixteen-wheeler with pictures of produce on its side blew by, its engine uttering a churning gargle. The sound sent a flash of anxiety coursing down Jan’s spine. She resisted the urge to recheck the car’s clock. She knew time was running out – what was the use in wasting precious seconds?

            There was an accident up by the onramp, which slowed traffic to another halt. Jan let out a riotous bellow when she saw the Jeep’s smoking hood, dented inward, and the BMW’s shattered taillights. They were pulled off to the side of the road, in Jan’s lane, and a uniformed cop was ushering traffic forward while another took down notes. Jane crept forward, her foot slipping between the brake and the gas every few seconds. She looked up at the sky. It was a perfect powder blue. The sun still shone down with its friendly yellow rays. Birds chirped and cawed as they flew overhead. It was, by every definition, an impeccable day in Vermont.

            But they were coming. The roars, and the cries, and the destruction. They were coming.

            It only took a few minutes for the cop to wave her through, but it felt like eons to Jan. She sped forward, weaving by the cop and sliding onto the onramp. Twisting with the road’s circular descent, her body absentmindedly rocked back and forth. Then, when she hit the straightaway, she slammed her foot on the gas and sped forward. As she merged into the left lane, she checked her clock.

            Ten minutes.

            The cars in the right lane honked their horn at her. Jan ignored them, just as she ignored the needle on her speedometer, which was approaching ninety-five miles an hour. Before her, the highway spread out: two lanes, revealing open fields and lush trees on both sides. Up ahead, there was a bend in the road, and she slowed down to eighty. The last thing she needed was to spin off the road.

But as she took the turn and stared at the giant green road sign that read MONTPELIER: 32 MILES, she heard them. In the distance still, behind her surely, but they broke the sky, nonetheless. The echo of their engines was unmistakable, a cry of fury, high-pitched and warbling. With the echo came the softest whisper, a plea, a desperate suggestion.

Save us, please!”
           

Jan hit the gas again, even as she roared by a statey’s green car. His lights flew on, and he pulled into her lane. The silver Toyota that was behind her hit its brakes to allow the cop to enter. The speedometer’s needle climbed again: eighty, eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five. She didn’t know how far she could push her little Subaru, but as she approached the big 100, the car started to shake. In the sky, those sounds grew louder, piercing the protective barrier of her car’s cabin, sliding through the glass windows, writhing its way into her ventilation system. The drone was louder, the plea more hurried than before, the voice sounding as though it was right next to her, seated in the passenger’s seat with hands clasped and eyes watering.

Please, save us!”

The cop’s lights were flashing a frenzy of blue and red, and its sirens were warbling, though the roar of her Subaru’s engine drowned out some of the noise. Up ahead, there was another curve in the road coming: a sharper one, where the only thing keeping her from crashing down into an expanse of forested mountain roads was a metal guardrail. Jan looked in her rearview mirror and realized blood was seeping from her ears, trickling down her neck, tainting her white blouse.

The curve came fast and hard, and Jan pulled her wheel to the right. Well, tugged was more what she did, as the wheel resisted being turned at such speeds. As her car careened around the curve, the wheels on her left side lifting off the ground, the first jet flew overhead. With it came the sound of a bomb falling, whisking through the sky with a cartoonish howl, soon followed by a distant boom. The voice beside her was only growing more frenzied, more desperate.

“Please help us!” it shouted. Jan could tell it was a mother’s voice. There was something about the desperation with which the woman shouted. She was not scared for herself but her children. In an instant, Jan could see them, their faces pressed against the hot fabric of the woman’s dress, their eyes peering through her the gaps between her fingers, looking up at the sky with wide-eyed dread. And then, when the bombs boomed, they screamed, and their screams were akin to the screeching of metal on metal or the whine of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock.

Jan realized that it was not just the screams she heard but also the sound of her axles snapping as her Subaru desperately tried to make the turn and maintain its hellish speed. Jan jerked the wheel to the left out of instinct, trying to avoid the car turning over. Another scream, this one purely from her car, and the Subaru bucked.

The second jet passed overhead as the Subaru flipped sideways, smashing into the guardrail. Hot sparks jetted from her door as metal tore through metal, and her window shattered, sending sparkling fragments through the interior of her car. The Subaru flipped end over end, burnt metal breaking off and clattering across the road. The cop swerved behind her, managing to avoid disaster. Black smoke rose in the air as the cop car slammed on its brakes, as did the stink of burnt rubber. It was going too fast. The vehicle further ahead, a black SUV, not unlike the one that Jan saw while leaving her house, hit its brakes, likely in response to the sight of a cop car speeding toward it, lights flashing and siren blaring. The cop slammed into the back of it, and the sirens were cut off with a petulant wee-whoo.

Blood stained Jan’s face. Darkness swarmed her vision. She was held in place, upside down, by her seatbelt. As consciousness waned, the jets continued to pass overhead, and she heard it all, more intensely than ever before. She heard the gut-churning sound of limbs being torn from shoulder sockets, of children screaming for their mothers with outstretched stumps spurting dark blood. When the third jet screamed overhead, she saw the mother again; only, her eyes were wide and empty, her body torn apart by gunfire. Blood seeped into the sand underneath her, congealing the particles, turning them as dark as sackcloth. In the distance came the next round, carrying more horrors with it, but Jan did not hear them. Darkness overwhelmed her vision, the black spots swelling into each other like hungry amoebas, and she spiraled into the void, wishing for death, praying for silence.

*

            She came to in a warm bed, and for a moment Jan wondered if the afterlife was that simple. But when she craned her right eye open, she recognized the stark white walls and the acidic smell of chemical cleaners. Life crept back into her veins, and with it came the dread of living.

            Beside her, a machine beeped endlessly. Its monotonous tone drove into her ears like a dull nail, and she winced as it picked up with the rapid beating of her heart. Soon enough, it started to chime, flashing red and orange lights. Not long after, her nurse came in.

            “Good to see you awake,” she said. “I’m Annie, your nurse. Let me just shut this thing off.” With a quick hustle, she moved across the room and sidled up to the machine, tapping its screen a few times. The alarm, and the chirp of her heart rate, dissipated.

            “Thank you,” Jan croaked. “Can I…” She licked her lips. God, her mouth tasted like cotton. “Can I get some water?”

            “Sure, hon,” she said. “I’ll check with your doctor, make sure you’re cleared to have oral fluids. Okay?”

            Jan nodded, and Annie left the room, closing the heavy wooden door quietly behind her. Jan pushed her head back into the pillow, trying to find the right crease. She wanted to sleep, wanted the yawning blackness of infinity to swallow her again.

            The TV on the wall was on. From it, she heard the drone of a news anchor. Last night, the President continued strikes…

            “Please. help us.”

            Jan jerked her head to her right. There, sitting in one of the metal chairs, was the woman. Half of her face was a burnt mess of scarlet flesh. An eyelid was fused over its glassy sphere, and her bottom lip was torn in two. Charred blood glistened under the hospital lights, and when the woman spoke, only one side of her face emoted. The other eye, the one that was caked in dried blood but still lucid, sparkled with terror.

            “Please,” the woman begged. “My children.”
           

“No!” Jan yelled, the cry cutting through her dry throat. “No!” Beside her, the machine began to beep again, its rapid tone wailing. Or was that the woman? Or her child? Jan turned again, and she saw the woman holding a wad of bloody cloth. From it peeked a small hand with half the fingers missing, in its place bloody stumps.

            Overhead, the first jet droned by.

            The machine continued to wail, and Jan mimicked it. She grabbed at the IV in her arm and pulled, yelping as a scarlet haze tinted her vision, at the lancing pain that tore up her arm. The IV didn’t come loose, and soon enough, another nurse – not Annie, but a heavy-set white woman with brown hair and bloodshot eyes – came barreling into the room. She shouted some medical jargon out the door before rushing to Jan’s bedside.

            “Hey, that can’t come out,” the nurse said in a calming voice. Was it southern? An accent blunted the edges of her vowels.

            “The jets!” Jan wailed, still clutching the plastic tube in her arm. “Can’t you hear them?”

            “I know,” the nurse said. “They’re definitely annoying. It’s okay, though; you’re safe.”

            Jan looked in the nurse’s eyes, searching her green irises for some sort of recognition. But she could see the truth in her blankness: she didn’t hear the screams, the bombs droning, the chattering gunfire. She heard nothing more than a loud engine. At that moment, Jan recognized herself in the nurse: how she must have looked when she rushed over to Peter.

            Tears slipped out of her eyes. Another jet droned overhead. With it came the mother, a thousand mothers, screaming for help.

            Jan released her IV and grasped the nurse’s sleeve. The fabric of her scrubs was almost papery. “Please,” she moaned, her voice hovering above a whisper, “please kill me.”
           

The nurse shook her head. “It’s going to be okay, Janice. Everything’s going to be okay.”
           

“Why can’t you hear them?” Jan sobbed. “Why can’t anybody hear them?”

            And then Annie came rushing back into the room, along with a security guard. In Annie’s thin hand was a vial of clear fluid, which she attached to Jan’s IV with a quick twist.

            “It’s okay,” Annie said, her voice calming. She pushed on the vial’s plunger, and Jan felt cold fluid seep into the inner fold of her right arm. Annie twisted the vial off and then pumped fluids in behind it. Another cold, seeping feeling. Jan’s heart slowed in her chest, and the machine stopped its annoying screams.

But the jets continued to thunder overhead.


Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. His short fiction has been published in various literary magazines, including Dread Stone Press and Wintermute Lit. He tweets from @KL_writing, and his work can be found on his website: www.keithlafountaine.com.


“Telemarketing is Evil” Horror by Thomas White

Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles that could be seen in a wide angle from his corner office. The late afternoon shift would begin in about an hour.  Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.

 Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bobbing about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations ensuring that they were sticking to business not chatting with their lovers – or drug dealers.

Rory was supposed to be updating profit-loss spread sheets but today he was feeling like a low-performing slacker himself, preferring to just stare at his computer, too morose to even waste his time fiddling around on social media. Frustrated, he considered the absurdity of his current workplace situation. John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead the company was barely breaking even. Moreover, the quality of the available telemarketer had hit rock bottom: ex-whores, drunks, crack addicts. It was a sad day when management had to listen into routine sales calls, not for quality, but for criminal activity. 

Not that it mattered: as any blind fool could see this so-called “business” was in steady decline. When he had come into the telemarketing profession ten years ago there were actually a few hiring standards. His first company had even had an HR rep that screened applicants for bad references – or an unsavory past. Now it fell upon him, the irritated, unwilling Rory J. Ribert, to go through the motions of “vetting” the dregs of society and other barbarians who flooded Dial-N-Smile with their resumes. Nevertheless, Rory never screened any applicant for a criminal record. Results were all that counted. It was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – even if they were ax murderers, he did not want to know.

 Indeed, he often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer – something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of a criminal made such a person especially effective   in the telemarketing business.

The office intercom buzzed. Jane Chowders, the foyer receptionist – who doubled as the accountant –  spoke in her usual whiny, quasi- nasty voice. “Rory your 2pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”

 Last night he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas so today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience. Good thing too, as the earlier 1:45 appointment had been a disaster. Rory had shown the applicant – completely unsuitable as a salesman –  the door after a two-minute interview.

The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2pm appointment – a spectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque pink tumor. Lost in this cheap baggy   polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive – the very qualities an aggressive sales firm was not looking for. He also reeked powerfully of mothballs and stale smoke as if he had been living in a closet or cheap room. This odor alone would drive away other reps before Dial -N-Smile’s drooling, sadistic floor monitors did. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: Do not hire this loser.

 Immediately the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a smug smile and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking. What rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”

“Good question John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory, “Who – what –  is he – and why is he here?”

 “His name is Simon Sorter and he is going to be our new top biller – believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.

  “I rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. (Hell’s bell’s was the old fool losing his marbles?).

“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon and the guy has some amazing talents.”

 “From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills”, noted Rory.

 Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something but Simon Sorter reappeared wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.

 “I was just telling Rory here about our glory days when we did Fortune 500 account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.

 Simon Sorter cocked his head sidewise as if he were a puppet on a broken string.   Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.

Then without a word, Simon marched to an empty work station, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine product list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script – nor did he smile.

 Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our bottom line.”

Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically – depending on which magazine he was hustling. During the next hour a flabbergasted Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.

When selling the magazine Retirement World, he became “Pappy Smith”, his voice aged and frail. Marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel-type – code-named “Rod Piston” –  his sales spiel threatening and gruff. These performances were followed by others just as remarkable: Gun News made Simon into “Tommy Guns” who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms; Computer Time transformed this normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality – “Simon Server” – tossing off techno-babble with the greatest of ease. In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes Simon Sorter must have assumed –  and shed –  at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names.

His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the firm’s top rep’s billings by 50%.

“Now pal. you know why we used to call him Morphing Man”, happily purred Mr. Jeffy.

 “Yeah, I must admit that it is damn incredible. How did he get like that?”

 Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone. “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment but later got into sales with me. Sometimes, it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”

“Yeah, maybe being a bit nuts is ok –  but not a psycho……”

 From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the computer-generated customer list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his nose. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like the corpse on display. Or considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more the dead inspecting the living….

 A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat. “You Rory Ribert are no longer required as sales manager of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: so this was it, he was being fired – dead meat. Jeffy, the sorry bastard, had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who smelled like he slept in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army.

 “Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants like his earlier appointment: a little mumbling man, with a weak, shifting gaze, referred   by the unemployment office jobs bank for a telemarketing position requiring at least fair communication skills.

“That is something we need to talk about,” coldly replied Jeffy, peeping out of the shadows.

“Better not try to screw me you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”

 He then bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy singsong cheerfulness. “Looks like we’ll have to part ways partner…”

From the same pocket that had contained the magazine product list, Simon whipped out a knife-cum-paper opener: the “Mr. Jeffy voice” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court and paying a lawyer. The bad news is that you won’t be ‘seeing’ – or calling – anybody any more. You are useless phone time now Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air…” As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light.  Simon Sorter’s features morphed into every twisted, ghastly facial appearance and expression known to humanity: gnashing feral teeth, wild, yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black, rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a museum of interactive, evil masks:   his face melted into Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Saddam Hussein’s, Ted Bundy’s, Pol Pot’s. Still powerfully griping Rory’s arm, Simon Sorter raised the knife-cum-paper opener to the ex- sales manager’s quivering throat. 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Aphorisms for a New Viscosity” Dark, Offbeat Humor by Robert Garnham

Franz Kafka, 1906

Another bright morning, just me and the jungle, the fierce sun penetrating the thick luscious canopy, the call of monkeys and birds of paradise. I’m alone here at the research centre, yet again. Someone was meant to come and relieve me, but there’s been no word of a replacement. I eat cereal on the porch of the old wooden building,  feeling the intense heat and humidity rising from the forest floor. Sometimes the humidity is so high that my glasses steam up the moment I step outside. Often, I don’t even bother wearing clothes, though they put a stop to this because they reminded me about the live-feed web-cam.

          Occasionally, schools tune in to see what I’m up to. They’ve instigated a dress code.

          As you may have guessed, I’ve been out here quite some time, extracting certain mucus elements from a species of frog which only lives in this exact geographical area, for the construction and understanding of the technologies which go into the production of masking tape. There’s nothing I don’t know about masking tape. I’ve got so much masking tape lying around that I’ve started to use it for other things. Last week I made a hat out of masking tape, but when I put it down, thousands of ants somehow got stuck to it. I’ve still got the hat somewhere, decorated with all these ants. It’s really quite disgusting.

          I spend most of the days out and about, telling myself how lucky and privileged I am to live here, while looking for frog mucus. The only way to get the frog mucus, – once you’ve found the frog – (and it can only be the male of the species) – is to show it photographs of female frog, and within seconds, you’ll get a healthy supply of the stuff coming out of their mouths. I’ve mastered the art of wiping frog gobs. I’ve got a whole fridge filled with the stuff.

          The phone rings. It’s my boss.

          ‘Just checking in’.

          ‘Anything to report?’

          ‘Nothing, really’.

          ‘How’s the company doing?’

          ‘Let me be frank with you, Bob. Masking tape isn’t selling like it used to. There are so many alternatives these days. There’s talk of restructuring at the higher levels of the company. Now I don’t want you to worry, but they’re talking about budgets and there’s been murmurings – just murmurings, mind you – about research and development. Why should we be developing a product which isn’t selling as well as it should? Anyway, keep this under your hat, for the time being’.

          ‘My dead ant hat?’

          ‘Your what?’

          ‘Nothing’.

          ‘Anyway. All the best, and keep up the good work.’

          It was good to hear from Jeff.  But I could tell that there were things going on which worried him. Ominous, looming, like the daily afternoon thunderstorms. The times I’d spent in the city, beavering away at the technological forefront of the masking tape industry, were some of the best of my life, and it pained me to think of those poor masking tape technicians in their white lab coats, demoralised and filled with existential dread.

          Mid-afternoon, I pause amid the test tubes. I’ve got a swab of frog gob in one hand, a test tube in the other, and the thought suddenly occurs that what I’m doing is completely meaningless. The whole time I’ve been out here in the jungle, the viscosity of masking tape has only ever improved by 0.06 Chatwins, (a Chatwin being the unit of measurement of masking tape viscosity named after my predecessor’s pet tortoise). With a lot of hard work and effort I could improve the viscosity to perhaps as much as 0.08 Chatwins, which equates to masking tape sticking for an average of six minutes longer under certain climatic conditions. Nobody, I tell myself, will ever win the Nobel prize for that.

          I put down the test tube and I put down the frog gob swab. I take a deep sigh and I run my fingers through my hair. I then open the door and go out onto the wooden porch.

          The jungle seems alive. Through the canopies I can see the dark clouds looming for the daily afternoon storm. There are rumbles in the distance, booming, reverberating through the heightened air almost fizzing with expectation. Behind me, of the ten test samples of masking tape I’d stuck to the wooden wall of the hut, seven had already given in to the humid air and fallen from their place, an eighth was hanging limp. Hopeless, I tell myself. Absolutely hopeless. How aptly they seemed to symbolise the fortunes of the MccLintock Masking Tape Company.

          The clouds darken further. There’s a flash of lightning, accompanied by the furious hooting of monkeys who, all things considered, should be used to it by now. But it always takes them by surprise. Then a boom, a ferocious boom which shakes the peaty earth, rattles the boards of the wooden porch. And that’s when the rain starts, intense, pelting arrows of sheer rain clattering against the corrugated iron of the shack roof, the fleshy jungle vegetation, rivulets of water cascading from the gutters and sides of the shack. The last lingering strip of masking tape falls from the test wall, gets carried away by a sudden stream of water which snakes across the wooden floor of the porch. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me. The thunder booms and crashes.

          Hang on, what was that?

          I blink as the water runs down my face. But it’s not a mirage. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me.

          ‘Give me your masking tape’, he shouts, above the wildness of the storm.

          ‘I . .I . .’.

          ‘I admit it is hopeless. The only meaning in our lives is that we eventually die. But before that happens, give me your masking tape’.

          ‘I’ve got loads of the stuff. How many rolls do you need?’

          ‘Depends on their viscosity. Are we talking anything approaching 11 Chatwins?’

          ‘How do you know about Chatwins?’

          ‘Often, during my many years as a clerk working for an insurance company, I would require masking tape of the highest viscosity that Prague could offer. Now, are you going to give me those masking tapes, or am I going to have to shoot you?’

          ‘You’d better come inside’.

          The air is heavy, humid, oppressive. Franz Kafka, in his business suit and tie and a very formal looking long over-jacket, approaches me warily, the machine gun still trained in my direction.

          ‘I had plenty of masking tape. But I gave them all to Max Brod, and he destroyed them. Do you know for how many days I’ve trekked through the jungle, just to find this place?’

          He clambers up onto the porch. It’s just me and him, surrounded by the forest. If he shot me now, I tell myself, nobody would ever find out. Well, not until the next person logs in to the live feed webcam. Sees my body on the porch. Sees the door open, the jungle beyond.

          ‘I’ve got loads of it. Help yourself . . Take two rolls, three. It doesn’t matter. Just . . Just don’t shoot’.

          ‘The joy of masking tape is not the ownership of masking tape, it is the fear of existing in a world without masking tape, and from this emerges all self-torment on account of that fear’.

          ‘Just don’t shoot’.

          ‘The notion of an endless cosmos is at once nullified by the dread which comes from contemplating eternity without masking tape’.

          ‘I’ve told you, take as much as you need!’

          ‘One of masking tape’s most efficient means of seduction is the challenge to contemplate a world in which nothing sticks’.

          ‘True . .’.

          He looks at me with that famous deep stare. It bores right into the very depths of my soul.

          ‘Why are you pointing that weapon at me?’

          ‘Do you know what it’s like to live a life of complete hopelessness? I, more than any other person who ever lived, can truly claim to be Kafkaesque, in every action I undertake, every word I utter’.

          By now we are inside the cabin and I have backed myself as far into the corner as I can. The work surface is littered with test tubes, frog gob swabs and spare bits of masking tape.

          ‘I’m going to turn around’, I tell Kafka, ‘And reach into this cupboard, OK? For inside, I have masking tape aplenty’.

          Franz raises the machine gun, ready to fire at any second.

          ‘Do it’, he says.  ‘It is only our conception of masking tape which lets us call it by that name’.

          I turn, reach into the cupboard, grab several rolls of masking tape, then turn back and offer them to him. He smiles, puts down the gun, and, with his delicate, long fingers, takes them from my hands.

          ‘Cheers’, he says, and he turns, and leaves.

          The storm rages as I watch him depart, his black jacket merging with the gloom at the heart of the jungle, the wet branches and fleshy leaves bending, dripping as he makes his way deep, deep into the foliage.

‘To be honest, we disabled the webcam as soon as you started walking round in the nude’, Jeff says, the next day. ‘The last thing this company needs is a big scandal’.

          ‘So there’s no way of checking the footage?’

          ‘Afraid not, Bob’.

          ‘You know what the silly thing is?’

          ‘Go on’.

          ‘If he’d have asked nicely, I’d have given him as many rolls as he wanted. Why did he need a machine gun?’

          ‘You know, those rolls are property of the McCLintock Masking Tape Company. That’s going to have to come out of your wages’.

          ‘I know’.

          ‘Say, Bob’.

          ‘Yeah?’

          ‘Are you OK out there? We could find a replacement, you know. Sharon down at the South Pole research centre says she’s getting fed up with the cold. You could always swap, you know?’

          I look around the cabin. The test tubes, the scientific equipment, my bed in the corner with its mosquito net.

          ‘I think I’ll stay. I feel fine here, Jeff. You know that? I feel pretty fine out here’.

          I put the phone down and go out onto the porch. It’s another bright, warm, humid morning. My glasses steam up. I put on my dead ant hat, gather my swabs, and go wandering off into the jungle.


Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.    


“Furry Children” Dark Fiction by A. Elizabeth Herting

The dog and the cat were seldom in agreement, that was just a given. There were very few times over the course of an average year when they would actually work together for the greater good. Like when food was dropped onto the floor or the back door left open just a crack, allowing them a brief taste of mutual freedom. In times like that, Marie would always hold back, giving them a quick moment to savor their victory before intervening in any given situation. She wanted them to be a team, for that is what they were. Dog, cat, human, all starting out a new chapter in life–the three of them against the world.

            Now she watched as they sat, side by side, heads swiveling in perfect synchronicity, clearly fascinated by something that Marie couldn’t see. She turned, suddenly, to look behind her, feeling more than a little ridiculous. Perhaps a stray bug had somehow gotten in, a loose floating string or an errant beam of sunshine? Nothing. Complete still silence.

            Marie shook her head and turned back to watch them. She saw, in complete wonderment their fascinated expressions, both feline and canine. She calmly tried to tamp down the sudden chill that tickled the base of her spine. It’s only the beginning, way too early to be cracking up, she thought sadly. He has only been gone for two weeks, I need to keep it together.

#

            Marie couldn’t recall the exact moment when her marriage began to unravel, but remembered it was pretty anti-climatic. A mutual exhaustion after trying too hard for over twenty years, with a dash of infidelity thrown in for good measure. She was loathe to admit it, but they were the typical middle-aged couple, slowly growing apart as their waistlines grew out. The spark was still there, but neither one of them cared to look for it anymore, or remembered how it all began in the first place.

            John, of course, just had to have the typical mid-life crisis, trading her in for a younger model–that stupid, overused cliche in the flesh. A new fling, she assumed, who would give him children since Marie never could. Not for lack of trying, but it seemed that Marie was the problem. She was barren. Or whatever the cold, impartial medical term was for it these days. Marie made her peace with it long ago, letting her “furry children” fill the painful void in her heart, but it would seem, that Johnny had not.

            They had gone through several sets of pets throughout the years, living a comfortable life together, such as it was, or so she thought. The day he left, he talked about taking the animals with him, but Marie wouldn’t relent. She’d never give them up. They’d only been in the new house for about a year and there were too many other things to fight over. Bills, mortgage, mistress and a thousand other things that made Marie want to dive under the covers in complete despair. He could walk out on her, on their marriage, but he would never take them. Never.

#

            The dog eagerly wagged his tail, almost in greeting, as the cat rubbed her face against the dog’s front leg, purring loudly. Marie looked around the room again, trying to figure out what had them acting so strangely. The real estate agent told them when they bought the house that something bad  happened here. Marie didn’t want to know anything about it, but Johnny looked into it. Something about a murder-suicide. They’d gotten such a good deal on the house that Marie refused to entertain the notion of a haunting, that stuff was pure nonsense as far as she was concerned. Now, with her animals acting this way, she wondered if maybe there was something to it after all? Hadn’t she heard somewhere that pets could see things that their owners could not?

            “Hello?” she said out loud to the empty room, “Is there anybody here?”

            As if in response, a late autumn breeze lifted the curtains around the open window, making Marie jump a little. That’s all it is, she thought in relief. No ghosts, just a passing distraction outside, they’ll calm down in a minute or two. The dog let out a sudden bark making Marie nearly leap out of her skin. He walked right past her and sat down heavily, making a small whining noise. The cat jumped down from her perch and joined him there, both of them looking up in anticipation. She heard it then, a slight noise behind her. Some sort of shifting as Marie felt a sudden jolt of adrenaline, her heart slamming against her chest.

#

            He told her in the garden, while both of her hands were buried deep in the wet earth. Marie was very proud of her garden, she’d started out as an Iowa farm girl and had managed to keep that part of her identity even living out here in the wilds of suburbia.

            He was in love he said. He hadn’t planned for it to happen, but it did. She needed to let him go. She remembered standing up and grabbing the shovel, turning the dirt over and over while he stood pleading with her, insisting that he no longer loved her, that their marriage was finished. They would both be better off he told her, this had been coming for a long time–it was time to be honest about it. She couldn’t remember a thing after that, just the endless digging and turning of her beloved soil until she could no longer hear him.

            Now she stood crying in her shower, great heaving sobs of misery that he would betray her this way, that he would break his vows. The steam and hot water were washing her body clean, but the shower was unable to cleanse her broken heart, her shattered soul.

#

            The dog came into the bathroom, alerted, like he always was, when Marie was upset. She turned the water off and opened the glass door, noticing that he had a large object in his mouth. He loved to play “keep away” with her, waggling his entire back end and playfully growling as Marie fumbled, trying in vain to grab it from his mouth. The dog was covered in dirt, with what she assumed was topsoil from her garden. A foul smell assaulted her as she reached out in a panic and managed to get a hold of it.

            A hunk of blackened, rotting flesh came off in her hand as the dog pulled the severed arm away, enjoying their little game as usual. He turned and dashed away, forcing Marie to run through the house completely naked to chase him down. She caught him near the compost pile in her garden, the dog reveling in his newfound treasure. Pieces of dismembered corpse were strewn across her tomato patch and onto the lawn like a gruesome crop ready for harvest. Marie picked up her battered old shovel and went to work reburying her faithless husband.

#

            Marie knew without looking that she was no longer alone, but then again, she always could sense when he was near and had for over twenty years. A blast of hot, rancid breath hit the back of her neck as the cat and dog pranced and leapt all around her, delighted in this supernatural reunion.

            “Honey, I’m home,” Johnny croaked into her ear, fresh earth plopping onto the floor as his one good arm snaked around her shoulders, “I’ll never leave you again.”

            Marie didn’t know what to expect when she finally turned around, but she knew one thing for certain. Johnny was finally honoring his vows and “til death do us part” was about to take on a whole new meaning.


A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by “Adelaide Books,” “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

For more of her work/contact her at aeherting.comtwitter.com/AmyHerting or facebook.com/AElizabethHerting


“Furry Children” appeared previously in Friday Fiction and Dark Fire Fiction.

“The Son of Immortals” by Valeriya Salt

I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am the one who will live forever. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet.

The golden boat of Re has finished its way in the celestial Nile and submerged in the darkness of Nun. I found myself wandering around the tombs of deceased kings who have already met Osiris in the Afterlife. I try to remember what I’m doing here in the middle of the night but fail. The night is dark and quiet. Khonsu’s crown shines brightly and lights my path with its cold silver light.

Quiet voices interrupt my thoughts. They sound from one of the tombs. Coming closer, I can see the dim light of torches. The voices sound louder. There is no doubt I’ve met the tomb robbers. Disgusting thieves, sons of dishonoured Seth, doomed to be punished in the Afterlife! Their souls will be eaten by the gigantic serpent Apophis and will be condemned to eternal death. They, who dare to steal from the kings, deserve nothing but a miserable death without a burial.

There are three of them on a doorstep of the underground tomb, ready to smash their way in, to defile king’s eternal peace, taking gold and jewellery, and all other of the king’s belongings, throwing his mummy out of its golden coffin.

I’m going to call my guards to arrest the robbers. Instead, my mouth produces a weird, heart-stopping scream. This scream belongs neither to a man nor to an animal. What is wrong with me? I can’t recognise my voice.

One of the robbers turns around. His face is pale like linen. His eyes stare at me in horror. He drops his torch and runs, leaving his peers and screaming like a lunatic. His friend shouts to him, but noticing me, just freezes on the spot.

‘The king… the spirit of the king,’ he mumbles in shock.

‘How dare you touch the royal tomb?’ I shout, trying to grab his shoulder, but my hand goes through his body and catches the air.  I see the thief falling, his eyes are wide opened. I lean over him, trying to have a closer look. He has stopped breathing. He is dead. I have no chance to stop the last one as he disappears into the darkness, following his peer.

I sit down on the ground in front of the tomb, examining my hands and wondering what happened to the robbers, where my guards are, and what, for all the gods’ sake, I’m doing amongst the tombs at night. Struggling to follow the flow of my thoughts, I start to read the writing on the tomb. It is a traditional plate with the name of a king on the door’s seal.

Oh Thoth, the Adviser of the kings, give me all your divine wisdom and knowledge! The king’s name on the plate is… Userkaf Smenhkare Meriamun, the name of my brother. And straight away, I see the face of Userkaf in front of me. He is my exact copy. Even our mother, the Great King’s Wife, queen Nefriru, couldn’t distinguish us. We are the same height, with the same short black hair, the same big black eyes, the same straight long nose, which we have inherited from our great father. We were born together, yet I was the first who came out of the queen’s blessed belly. I was the one and the only heir to the throne. My brother, Userkaf, was brought up to become Chief Priest of Amun-Re, but he always desired more. Always jealous, always despising me, always wanted to be the first.

I remember his face, but it’s blurry. I feel the cold water filling my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe. I try to break free, but my brother’s hand is squeezing my throat tighter and tighter. I try to push him, to call for help, but my efforts are weakening. I’m not a good swimmer. I never have been. The grimaced face of my brother, an agonizing blurry reflection of myself… then… here I am. I am dead.

I cry, ‘Oh immortal gods, I call on you! Let me take my revenge. Let me free the throne of Isis from the usurper. Let me be judged by Osiris in the Underworld. Let me travel together with Amun-Re in his golden boat in the skies and let the name of my brother be forgotten forever.’

#

The light of the oil lamps and torches is fading, and the whole palace is going to fall asleep. Only heavy steps of guards in the corridors and the murmur of fountains in the gardens break the silence of the chambers.

I don’t remember how I appeared here. I just wished to come back home to my palace in Niwt-Imn, to see my wife, young and beautiful Mutnefert, and our son, my only heir, Senenmut. I wish everything that has happened to me was a dream, a bad nightmare sent to me by the demons of the night. I wish to wake up. I wish…. to be alive.

I enter my chambers and… Oh Seth, I can’t bear to see my beloved wife in the arms of my brother, the murderer Userkaf. Using our similarity, he took my throne, my name, and now… he sleeps in my bed with my wife. She has been tricked the same way as all others. She believes that it was Userkaf who drowned in a river, not me. It was an accident, the will of Hapy, the river god who took Userkaf to his underwater palace. Of course, it was a lie she’s been told.

I’m afraid they can notice me. Coming closer to the bed, I realise they both are deep asleep.

My Mutnefert, my great queen, my only love. I always loved her. I have been in love with her since I was twelve, and she was only ten, but my brother desired her as well. When our mother, the Great King’s Wife died, our divine father took Mutnefert as his new Great Wife, but he was too ill and too old. As soon as he joined Osiris in the Underworld, Mutnefert and I married.  Userkaf couldn’t control his passion, though. He tried to seduce her a few times, but she loved me. She has always been the most loyal of my wives.  Oh, Atum, the creator of the world and all people, give me a body, and I will claim everything back from my brother. I will take my revenge.

#

I am only ten, but I can read and write fluently. I am short but strong and agile. My father always took me hunting lions and panthers. I have even caught one for my little managerie. My father told me that I was born to be a warrior. I was born to be a king, but I am preparing for the life of a scribe. The almighty gods have sealed my voice inside my throat, so I can’t speak. I never could tell the truth. I never could tell that my uncle Userkaf drowned my father and took his name and his crown.  I am just a boy now. My life is under threat. I am scared to death. Why, oh almighty gods? Why have you chosen this body? The body of my only son, Senenmut?

I sit now at the reception chamber together with three king’s scribes and write everything that is said in the king’s presence.

‘…And you are informing me about this situation only now, Great Vizier?’ The king sits on his golden throne. His head is crowned with a high fancy headdress. Tiny golden bees, colourful butterflies, and lotus flowers made from the lapis-lazuli move with his head’s every movement. Long golden earrings shine in his ears. Heavy wide bracelets decorate his wrists and ankles. His lips shine with a golden balm. He smells of lotus and rose oils. He wears my long robe and richly decorated sandals. He doesn’t hesitate to take everything from me.

Ineni, the Great Vizier and the major of Niwt-Imn, kneels. He leans lower and lower until his forehead touches the floor. Ineni is fat, old, and a coward. His bald round head is shines with sweat. He is afraid to make his lord angry, but doesn’t hesitate to tell him the latest rumours.

‘I didn’t want to bother my king with the information that hasn’t been proven yet. I just wanted to wait to be sure that—’ he mumbles under his heavy breath.

‘To wait? To wait for what? For the prince of Kush and his allies to summon a new army? When their barbarian soldiers will stay at the city’s gates?’ the king sounds furious.

Ineni crawls on his fat belly, coming closer to the king, kissing his toes with gold-covered nails.

The ruler only grimaces. ‘Do the viceroy and his chieftains remember that their sons were brought here by my father during his last campaign and have been living here ever since? Does he remember that his oldest daughter is one of my wives?’

‘There is something else, my Lord, you should know,’ the vizier whispers, looking behind his back at me and other scribes.

‘What is it? Speak!’  Userkaf waves.

‘The rumours are spreading in the city, Your Majesty. People keep talking…’ Ineni stammers.

‘What? Speak! Your king orders you.’ He presses his sceptre to the vizier’s head and raises his chin, staring into his eyes.

‘My sources reported that some of the high priests are involved as well. I’ve been informed that the viceroy has offered a deal to the priest of Sobek, the governor of the south who believes that… that you, our divine Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, have been killed by your twin brother.’

The king only laughs, but I see his face goes paler. ‘Tell the priest of Sobek his suspicions are absolutely baseless. I would like to talk to him with regards to all the nasty rumours he spreads. As for our viceroy, I think I need to remind him to whom he should be grateful for allowing him on the throne of Kush.’

He grins, and I feel a chill runs down my backbone.

#

            I follow the king to his private chambers, trying to be as quiet as possible. Nephthys, the goddess of the night, has covered me with her dark veil. I am almost invisible, hiding behind wide lotus-shaped columns of halls and corridors.

Tiyu, my Kushite wife and another victim of Userkaf’s deceit, has already been brought here and been waiting for the king. He comes into the room and nods to the guards to leave them alone. I have no choice but to cringe behind the nearest column. If somebody notices me here, I will be beaten fiercely.

‘Ah, my gorgeous wife.’ My brother smirks, circling like a kite around its prey. ‘I haven’t seen you since the day of our wedding. We need to see each other more often.’

She looks different from all other queens. She’s taller than women from Kemet, and her long hair is wavy. She has been brought here as a guarantor of peace between my country and Kush, and I took her as my third wife. I love my Mutnefert and I am not interested in other women. I am not like my lascivious brother who’s obsessed with sensual pleasures. He has lots of women, spending almost every night with a new one or sometimes even with a few.

‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty. I’m happy to serve you, my Lord,’ she whispers, all her slim body starts to shiver.

‘If so, you need to talk to your father, the viceroy. Tell him to go back to his nest and sit there quietly, if he wants to save his crown, his land, his…’ He touches her chin. ‘And your heads.’

She closes her eyes. Her body shivers even more. ‘My Lord, my divine husband, I am sure you’ve been mistaken. Whoever told you this about my father, told you lies.’ She falls on her knees in front of him and starts to cry. ‘My father is the most loyal servant you have.’

He doesn’t want to listen to her anymore. He grabs her long curly hair and smashes her head onto a low table.

It’s unbearable to hear her scream. If only I could help, could stab a sword between his shoulders, but I am only a boy and I am scared to death. I hold my breath, trying not to cry, not to show my presence.

He squeezes her neck. ‘Now, you can write to your father how women in Kemet’s villages felt when his soldiers raided my lands.’

I leave my hiding place and hurry to my chambers.

#

I can’t feel my body. Am I a spirit again? I find myself in the king’s dinner chamber now. I can see the whole room, but nobody can see me. I am a spirit, an incorporeal being, something that doesn’t belong to the world of men.

The king enjoys his dinner, surrounded by his cupbearers, musicians, half-naked dancers, fan bearers, and all kinds of servants and slaves. Ineni, the Great Vizier, is also presented. Userkaf reclines on a low sofa, a golden band in the shape of a cobra crowns his short black hair, smothered by coconut oil. He wears a long white kilt. One of the slave girls massages his naked shoulders and neck.

Ineni fills his goblet with wine instead of a cupbearer, whispering the latest gossip in the king’s ear. I know what is in his mind. I can read this shameful plotter’s thoughts.

My father gave the title of the governor of the Southern Land to Hapuseneb, the priest of Sobek, the man of the greatest wisdom, experience, and honour. His family has been loyal to our house for many generations. Ineni couldn’t bear such a turn. Addicted to limitless power as much as my brother, he’s tried to overthrow Hapuseneb many times but failed. He knows his time is coming now.

The musicians play a simple quiet tune, and the half-naked dancers gyrate and flex in their fancy dance.

The king strokes his favourite cat. The embodiment of the great goddess Bastet purrs happily. Golden bracelets decorate its four paws; a golden collar embraces its neck.  

Ineni wants to say something to the king, but the appearance of the chief guard interrupts him.

‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty,’ the man starts, kneeling in front of the king.

‘Speak in the presence of the immortal god.’ Ineni waves to him, waddling and puffing on his low sofa like a hippopotamus on a river’s bank.

‘Forgive me my intrusion, my Lord, but Harmachis, the chief of Your Majesty’s chariotery, begs to see you now.’

‘Harmachis? Harmachis, the son of Hapuseneb, my wisest and the most loyal governor?’ Userkaf chuckles.

‘His Majesty is relaxing, don’t you see?  How dare you interrupt the rest of God?’ Ineni gets up from his couch. ‘The audience time is tomorrow morning. You know the—’

Userkaf waves. ‘Bring Harmachis to me.’

Ineni only grimaces.

The guard bows and opens the door, letting the young man in.

‘Speak in His Majesty’s presence!’ Ineni proclaims from his place to a kneeled Harmachis.

‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty, may you live forever,’ Hapuseneb’s son starts under his breath.

Userkaf makes an impatient gesture, ordering him to be as brief as possible.

‘I beg you, my Lord, for my father. He’s been ordered to come here, to the capital. He is kept under home arrest in his villa on the west bank. He’s—’

‘Your father is accused of treason and sabotage. Tomorrow, he will be questioned by my chief of security. This shameful case will be investigated. If you believe that he hasn’t done anything wrong, if you don’t question his loyalty to the throne, why are you so worried? I’m sure if his heart is pure, he will be able to prove this to my investigators.’ Userkaf makes a circle around the young man and gestures him to rise from his knees.

‘My Lord, I don’t question your fair judgement. I know that the gods advise you. Your voice is the voice of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. She can’t be mistaken. She can’t accuse an innocent servant of Your Majesty in treason. But there are so many people, my Lord, who are jealous and sneaky. They are pulling a veil of lies in front of your divine eyes, trying to distract you from Maat’s wise advice—’

All of Harmachis’s wordy speeches are in vain. My brother doesn’t listen. He circles the young charioteer, staring at his longish golden hair, his pale skin, bewildered by his deep blue eyes.

‘You look different,’ he says finally, paying no attention to Harmachis’s pleas.

‘My mother, my father’s second wife, was from the Sea People’s country. I inherited her features, my Lord,’ Harmachis sounds confused.

‘I hope you inherited from her such features like loyalty, honour, and integrity, because none of them I can see in your father.’

‘My Lord, I—’

‘It’s enough speeches for today.’ Userkaf turns away from him. ‘I question your father’s loyalty, not yours… at least, not at the moment. Take a seat, have dinner with us, tell us how dedicated you are to your duties and your king.’ A mysterious smile crosses my brother’s lips.

Harmachis takes a seat on the floor, next to the king’s sofa. Userkaf makes a gesture to his slaves, and they fill a goblet with wine for the king’s guest.

The cat, unhappy about the disturbance, jumps on its place next to the king and starts to purr again, begging for food.

Userkaf smiles and gives it a piece of a roasted duck. It purrs even louder, enjoying the bit, licking the king’s fingers in gratitude.

‘You see, he knows who’s in charge.’ The king nods at the cat. ‘He’s loving and loyal to his master. Sometimes he’s like my people—forgets his place and starts to bite and scratch the hand that feeds him, strokes him, and gives him shelter. When he does this, I need to show him who’s a master here, and he becomes pleasant and obedient again.’

Harmachis chokes on his wine. His eyes look at the king with hope, ready for everything to save his father’s life, title, and honour of his family.

‘Why don’t you eat your meal? These duck and figs are delicious.’ Userkaf takes one of the baked figs and offers it to Harmachis.  ‘Try it. Don’t upset your king even more.’

‘I’ll do everything to please you, my king,’ he murmurs, taking a fig from the king’s hands with his lips.

Userkaf’s narrow eyebrows arch. ‘Leave us alone,’ he orders.

One by one, the servants leave  the chamber. Ineni doesn’t move from his low couch.

‘You’ve heard me, Great Vizier.’ The king doesn’t look at Ineni, he stares at the young charioteer, tempted by his eyes, his golden hair, his big lips.

I disappear.

#

I am a little scribe again. I sit on a low bench together with two other scribes and watch the king reinstating the priest of Sobek in his duties.

Hapuseneb kneels in front of Userkaf, his chief of security, and the vizier. His body shakes under the long white robe. All his jewellery was taken away from him on the first day of his home arrest and given to the king’s treasury. His shaved head is covered by ashes in a tribute of grief and obedience.

‘His Majesty the King, may he live forever, honours you with his forgiveness,’ Ineni proclaims, and the scribes start to scratch on their papyri, trying to catch every word.

I start to write down as well, but instead of words, I draw. I draw what I can’t say aloud. I draw my plan, the plan of my revenge.

‘The mercy of our king is truly limitless,’ Ineni continues. ‘He deigns not only to save your life and honour of your family from the greatest shame but also he leaves you to perform your duties as a priest of Sobek, the lord of all waters. However, taking into consideration all the charges against you, His Majesty orders you to be suspended from the post of the governor of the Southern Land.’

Userkaf nods in support of his words. ‘Remember, Hapuseneb, I’m watching you.’

‘I’m grateful to His Majesty for his mercy. I know Maat, who always judges fairly, advises my king that there is no guilt on me.  I know, oh the greatest of the kings, that the Eye of Re guides you through the darkness of lies to the light of truth. It shows you my loyalty is undoubted.’ Hapuseneb raises his eyes to the king.

Userkaf gestures him to rise from his knees. ‘I’m very pleased that you finally understood the seriousness of the accusations against you, Hapuseneb.’ He smiles his crooked smile. ‘Try not to disappoint me again.’ He takes a step closer to the priest. ‘Next time, even your son, who is very sweet with me, won’t be able to save you.’

He turns around and leaves the chamber. Ineni, the chief of security, scribes, fan bearers, and all other servants follows their lord.

I glance at Hapuseneb. He stands still, his head is bowed, his eyes are full of tears. I approach to him and take his hand. I give him my drawings. I stare into his eyes. My drawings… they are showing him how I’ve been killed by my brother. They are showing him the future. He knows now the favour of the king costs his son dearly. He knows what to do. He accepts his fate. He is ready for his revenge, and so am I.

#

It is a huge feast in the palace. My brother adores such types of entertainment when he’s partying till late at night, getting drunk with his generals and chief officers. 

I am too young for the feast. I am supposed to sleep in my chamber as all little princes do, but I am here, hiding behind a column. I am here. I feel the future. I don’t know how, but I feelwhat is going to happen.

The music plays louder and louder, drunken guests try to dance, shouting, laughing, and falling on low couches. Userkaf is on his low sofa, embracing one of the slave girls. He looks tipsy and bored. His usual entertainment doesn’t amuse him anymore.

‘Where is Harmachis? Where is my favourite and most loyal friend?’ He turns to one of his guests. ‘Why doesn’t he celebrate with us?’

The officer sends one of the servants for Harmachis, but after some time, he returns alone.

My brother frowns. He doesn’t like to wait, even less he likes to ask for something twice. He sends the chief of security to bring him Harmachis immediately. A couple of hours pass before the chief of security returns. Userkaf is drunk and furious, but he doesn’t want to show it to his guests.

‘My Lord.’ The officer kneels in front him. ‘We’ve found him.’

‘Where is he? Where has he been? You make me wait… again.’

‘I didn’t mean to disappoint you, my Lord, but…’ The officer struggles. ‘Harmachis was arrested this morning together with Your Majesty’s wife, queen Tiyu, when they tried to cross the border with Kush.’

‘What?’ Userkaf jumps from his couch. ‘Why? How? It is… it is…’ he stammers, his eyes shine in anger.

‘It is treason, my Lord.’ The officer bows his head lower.

‘Why did you hide it from me?’

‘I didn’t want to upset my king until we would know the details of their plot. I know, oh my Lord, that Harmachis is very close to Your Majesty—’

‘Where are they now?’

‘Queen Tiyu is under arrest. She is locked in her private chambers. It was the order of the Great Vizier. Harmachis is in prison. He is waiting to be interrogated.’

‘Question them, torture if needed, and send my treacherous wife back to her father with the greatest dishonour. Make Harmachis suffer as he makes me suffer from his treason.’

#

The king’s army like a cloud of sand moves south-east to the land of Kush. The king is in a chariot of fine gold, adorned with his accoutrements like Horus, the lord of action, like the war god Montu, like Sobek, the lord of the waters. The royal serpent on his crown spills fire. Trumpets sound, troops start their march down the hill to meet the enemy’s army. Hundreds of thousands of Kushite soldiers are killed. Hundreds of officers and aristocrats are captured. Beja, the viceroy of Kush, and all his family follow the king’s chariot as the most precious trophy of the king’s victory.

I am a bodiless spirit again. I observe the battlefield, captured by the whirlwind of countless dead soldiers’ souls—free and wild, just like I am. .

The battlefield is covered with dead bodies, abandoned without a burial. The rivers of Kush turn red, filled with blood. Cities are in ruins, and the moaning of Kushite wives is spreading all over this endless desert. Sekhmet, the ferocious mother of war, has a rich harvest of souls in these lands.

Userkaf took his revenge. Surrounded by his officers and generals, he returns to Niwt-Imn to worship the gods, who granted him the victory.

#

The king disembarks from his royal barge at a quay on a riverbank and looks up at two obelisks of red granite with golden pyramids atop. This is the threshold of the house of deities. This is a gateway to another world that is accessible only for the king and the priests. Crowned with the double crown and carrying the ceremonial flail and the sceptre, with an artificial beard made from fine golden threads, he sits on a golden throne on a long pole, supported by bearers.

The procession passes the main gates and enters the first square court. It crawls through the endless gateways, roofless courts with sacred lakes, and halls with columns, where the light shades gradually, preparing the king and his retinue for the meeting. The king with his eyes half-closed looks focused.

His body has been cleaned by the waters of a sacred lake. The priests purified him by burning holy oils and giving him special salts to chew and so to make his mouth clean and ready for the uttering of his prayers. His body is fully prepared for the conversation with the gods, but his mind is as dark as the waters of the Nile. His heart knows no mercy.

I’ve assisted priests in purification as it was the will of the king. Userkaf wants to get rid of me as he’s already done once. Is he afraid of his ten-year old nephew? Is he afraid of me spying on him and, one day, taking over his throne? He wants me to become a priest of Sobek now. He wants to lock me up in the temple, far away from the court.

It is the time to worship the river god, Sobek-Re, who gives mightiness to the king, who makes the king’s heart fearless, who makes the king’s body unreachable for arrows and spears, who protects him in a battle.

The king enters the shrine, and I follow him as that is what he wishes. There are only the king, Hapuseneb, and I in the chamber.

I carry a richly decorated casket—the offering to the god. My hands are numb. The horrible content of the casket makes me feel dizzy.

The first words of a hymn start from somewhere above the ceiling, and the service begins. There is a huge pond in the middle of the chamber. In its sacred waters, the embodiments of Sobek enjoy their meal. The king offers the first bloody piece of meat, and one of the divine creatures opens its massive jaws with razor-sharp fangs. Its brothers and sisters, feeling the smell of blood hiss and gnash their teeth, ready for the feast.

The spicy fume of the lamps fills the chamber, the hymn sounds louder. Userkaf is on his knees in front of Sobek’s statue. Only the pond separates him from the deity. He takes the casket from my hands and, slightly turning it to Hapuseneb, pronounces a short prayer, ‘Oh Great Father of all the waters, oh mighty Sobek-Re! Please, accept this offering from your obedient son.’ The king opens the casket.

Poor Hapuseneb screams in horror. The head of his son, Harmachis, stares at him from the casket.

Userkaf grins. ‘I’m sure that my Lord, mighty Sobek, enjoys the taste of the traitor. The pieces I’ve offered him belonged to the body of your handsome but disloyal son.’

Hapuseneb’s eyes are full of tears. He saw this scene in my drawings long ago. The reality hurts even worse.

I open my mouth, and for the first time in my short life the sound as loud as thunder comes out, ‘Murderer! Murderer and usurper!’

Userkaf tries to rise from his knees, but I push him forward and…

The powerful and bloodthirsty embodiments of Sobek are ready for a new portion of the offering. The king screams and shouts, but the heavy wooden doors are too thick. Nobody from the outside can hear his screams.

The pond turns blood red. Userkaf stretches his hand, covered in blood, trying to get out of the pond, but Hapuseneb has no mercy. He steps on the king’s fingers and pushes him back. A few minutes later, Sobek is satisfied with his offering.

Hapuseneb looks into my eyes with sadness and hope. I give him the casket. He kisses Harmachis’s forehead and turns to me. He dashes to open the heavy doors. He falls on his knees and proclaims, ‘Long life and prosperity to the king, may you live forever!’ I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet. I am the son of immortal gods and I will live forever.


Valeriya says about her life:

“I am a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. I studied History and earned my Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, I’ve lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, I have a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. My short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.


“Last Chance Cabin” Horror by John Ryland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It might be something else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Outside, the howling grew louder. Closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “No.”

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

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

     “Guess you’re right there.”

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

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

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

     “What’s that from?” Ton asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mr. Ryland notes:

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


“Body Neutral” Dark Science Fiction by DL Shirey

He looked 18 or 19, well within the desired age range Avril was hired to target. His sparse scruff of wannabe beard was the same sandy color as his hair. There was no subtlety in the way he stared at Avril. He pushed off from the wall he had been leaning against and gave a playful shove to two of his half-dozen cronies, parting them to get a better look.

          “Da-amn,” he said, elongating the word into two syllables, adding, “Look at this chiquita.”

          For Avril, a male/dominant like this was golden. His reaction would have a greater influence on the marketing statistics than these other six teenagers combined. Yet it was Avril’s job to treat the m/dom like any other consumer: forget he was cute, don’t add twitch to her hips or throw back shoulders to thrust out her chest. Just be a normal girl walking the mall, don’t even think about the stats.

          The outfit she wore today was stylish, yet bland: a long-sleeve cashmere turtleneck that showed just a hint of tummy, vintage Levi’s that fit well, but not too tight, and scruffy Chuck Taylor’s. People were to see Avril as a fashionable young woman in her early twenties, but not linger on her clothes or the shape of her body.

          Avril loved modeling. She enjoyed being the focus of attention, turning heads and feeling eyes upon her. It was exciting. Yet, thanks to some training in disciplined anatomics, Avril kept color from flushing her cheeks. Any change to her body could skew the results for this job.

          She glanced at the m/dom and made sure he was looking, then shook back her shoulder-length purple hair. Avril’s earpiece registered his eyetrace.

          “I’d die to get with that,” the m/dom said and followed with a mime. He pulled the trigger of his finger pistol and mouthed POW as the mock bullet exited his opposite temple. A head snap completed the improv until the laughter of his fellows brought the m/dom back to life.

          Avril ignored the performance.

          A chime from her earpiece indicated that the requisite amount of consumer impressions had been reached. It had taken three laps around the mall to achieve the numbers. Now Avril could relax a bit and let go a few of her anatomizations.

          Mall walks were hard work, even for someone trained as a Variegate. Well, partially trained. Avril had cut short her apprenticeship to model full time. She felt she had mastered her craft enough and it seemed like a good decision. Her career was progressing nicely. The agency had booked her for more runway jobs and even paid for Avril’s travel to better-paying mall gigs, like this one. If she could maintain her numbers, Avril’s future would be filled with the glamour and attention she craved.

          She stretched her neck to pull out stress. Twenty minutes of forced anatomics took its toll. Tremendous muscle control was needed for a Variegate to configure specific body features, such as lifting the cheekbones or elongating the neck. She’d been told that a few more years of apprenticeship would train her to modify properly, without the stress that novices endured.

          But Avril knew better and her status proved it. She was still a rising star at the agency, though that one job had gone terribly wrong. Every model had a bad day now and then, even full-fledged Variegates. Avril pushed the incident from her mind.

          She trudged up carpeted stairs to the nondescript offices on the third floor of the mall and her skin darkened with each step. Coloration was one of the easier things to turn on and off, and reverting to her normal skintone saved energy. This assignment called for a specific look, so until the job was done, Avril could not totally unbuild her present augmentation. It took hours to construct the required anatomy and only minutes to lose it, should Avril’s concentration slip.

          What she wouldn’t give to let the strong hands of a masseuse soothe her aches and stiffness. Avril often scheduled a massage following a job, not only to relax, but also to luxuriate in the feel of strong hands on her skin. Being touched was something she did her best to avoid while working.

          She opened an anonymous door to a very small room. There was one desk on the far wall behind twin monoliths of frosted glass. The panels were four-feet wide, parallel to one another, and stretched floor to ceiling. They did not resemble a toaster, but that was the appliance Avril thought about each time she stepped between the opaque partitions. She couldn’t move for two minutes and by the time the download was complete, her skin color would be its normal, cinnamon brown. Cinnamon toast, she thought.

          But the colors most important to Avril were the ones appearing on both slabs of glass; silhouettes of her body, front and back, rendered in reds and greens and blues. This was a visual aggregate of everyone who had fixed eyes on her; the colors translated to hot, medium or cold depending on which body parts had been gawked at the longest and those ignored:

hair

face

neck

shoulders

arms

hands

chest

stomach

waist

hips

butt

thighs

calves

feet

The colors mixed and pooled into a body-cloud of subtle color variations: reddish browns and rosy yellows on all the popular parts, violets for areas receiving mixed assessments and shades of blue for least viewed regions. Finally, streams of numbers tallied themselves next to each body part. These were viewer stats based on audience type, categorized by dom, subgroup, age and sex.

          Avril’s earpiece chimed again and she sidestepped from the toaster. The colorful outline of her body remained on glass. Avril studied the numbers and smiled. Round Three had registered neutral viewer stats on most body parts, except hair— those numbers exploded. Which was the whole reason for today’s job, to see which hair color attracted the most attention.

          Avril felt a small pang of conflicting emotions; virtually no eyeballs had lingered on her tummy. Totally blue, for the third time today. She was pleased to a point because it meant she had remained body-neutral and wouldn’t have to re-do the session. But it could also mean that the poof of belly fat was viewed as unattractive. Avril didn’t like that. Neither would the agency.

          Back to business, Avril thought.

          She walked over to the desk, referred to the assignment board and typed Purple #122-3479-3 on the console. Thumbing the ENTER key made the anatomic heat-map disappear from the twin towers of glass.

          Avril removed the purple wig from her scalp and placed it on the plastic headform. She raked her manicured nails where it itched most, just above her ears. Her stubbly sidewalls were growing out and would soon need another buzzcut. Avril rubbed, but did not scratch, between the five tight rows of crocheted braids, pulled back from her wide forehead. She checked to see that the tiny ring of elastic at the nape of her neck was still doing the job of holding the braids taut.

          On to Round Four; twenty minutes with the jet-black wig and she would be done for the day.

          Avril pulled on the hairpiece, aligning the mop-cut bangs above the arc of her eyebrows. She rarely wore make up, but this job stipulated lipstick. She reapplied the designated shade. One final check in the full-length mirror and she was ready for Round Four. There was only a moment’s hesitation as she pulled down the sweater to try and hide her belly. Avril was capable of redistributing her body fat, as she did for runway jobs, but there were only so many anatomical balls she could juggle at one time.

          This was the one regret Avril had for leaving training; not being able to render all those fine details that a certified Variegate can do to perfection.

          By the time she reached the mall’s first floor, Avril had repigmentized her skin and double-checked that all configurations were in place.

          She recognized many of the people she had passed in previous rounds. Repeat eyeballs were an important metric. The eyetraces of those who had noticed her before would be compared, the differences measured, and any reactions to Avril’s hair analyzed in micro-impressions. Avril tried to walk the same path, at the same speed, with the same posture, to gather as many Repeaters as possible.

          “Wasn’t her hair purple before?” The f/dom said it, a robust black lady, pack leader for six mall-walking seniors, all women. They were clad in colorful workout clothes, stretching in preparation for their walk, adjusting socks and sweatbands.

          Avril had seen them before, gathering like a flock of hens, the f/dom headmost in the pecking order. She and Avril had locked eyes before. Now, the woman was really giving Avril the once-over.

          “Kids these days.” The f/dom was talking to her group, obviously speaking loud enough for Avril to hear. “I mean, she struts around here with clothes tight enough to show everything God gave her.” The gaggle clucked and muttered in agreement.

          Avril assumed the comment was about her breasts. Had she not been on a job, Avril could have shocked the women by increasing her cup size. It would require her to release the hold on the other body parts she was governing and rechannel fluids to her chest. Avril could only imagine the looks on their faces as her bust enlarged.

          Avril caught herself smiling, then realized how the last few seconds might affect the results of Round Four. She needed to concentrate on maintaining the required configuration and keep walking or she might have to abort this black-wig session and start it all over again. One thing the agency did not like was a re-do.

          Avril elongated her stride slightly, intending to put distance between her and the seniors.

          “Step lively now, ladies,” came the voice from behind.

          Avril needed to tamp down her emotions, or at least keep them from affecting her appearance. Others watching her might see a thrusted chin, knitted brow or a narrowing of eyes. Any body differential could adversely affect the numbers.

          Dealing with Instigants, like these women, was the worst part of mall jobs. Avril wanted to stand up for herself, but that would negate an entire day’s work. Sure, the data-collection system would weed out stats from anyone who instigated verbal contact with Avril, hostile or otherwise. But if a confrontation escalated to a certain level, it could nullify a whole job’s worth of data gathering. Especially if an Instigant touched Avril.

          “I’d rethink that outfit if I was you. That top is too short,” the woman said from behind, between breaths, “And those jeans, a little snug in the crotch, don’t you think?” The mall-walkers chittered with laughter.

          Avril realized she was clenching her teeth and the first taste of panic made her mouth go dry. What if the woman caught up and put a hand on Avril’s shoulder? Any unexpected physical contact and Avril could lose control of her body. It had happened in the past; that sudden gush of adrenaline would undo everything Avril was holding together.

          Avril couldn’t afford another invalidation, the agency wouldn’t stand for it. She decided to make a hard right, go up the stairs to the second floor, hoping the women would not follow. But her escape was cut short by a familiar pack of teenagers.

          “Chiquita,” the m/dom said as his posse blocked the stairs, “Long time no see.”

          He angled his scruffy beard into a smirk, then reached out and grabbed one of Avril’s hands. He whispered something close to her ear.

          It wasn’t the disgusting words that made Avril repulse and push away, it was ebbing of her restraint. She could feel all those little dams of muscle control start to give way. As hard as Avril tried to resist, the backslide progressed. And with it came fear.

          The older woman changed instantly from antagonist to ally. She stepped up beside Avril. “Keep your paws off of her, young man. Who do you think you are?”

          Avril held up her hand to keep the woman from intruding.

          The m/com laughed and grabbed Avril again, this time by both her shoulders. Rage coursed through Avril’s body and she could no longer maintain the tenuous hold she had on her anatomy.

          Avril shoved the m/dom. Hard.

          “No, I got this,” she said to the woman. Avril’s voice lowered to a growl.

          “That’s right. You go girl. Show ’em what you’re made of,” sang the chorus of mall-walkers.

          Avril snatched off the black wig and threw it to the ground. She swallowed hard, letting loose an Adam’s apple that wasn’t there before. Fists clenched in anger, Avril took one threatening lunge toward the m/dom.

          “I ain’t fighting no girl,” the teenager said as he backed off. “Or whatever you are.”

          The flimsy sweater tightened around Avril’s bulking shoulder and arm muscles as they returned to normal girth. Avril took another step toward the teenagers and felt his penis and testicles descend, pressing on the inseam of his jeans.

          “What in God’s name,” the old woman exclaimed when she saw the coarse stubble shadow Avril’s cheeks and chin. “Time to move on, ladies.”

          It took every bit of restraint Avril had to keep from taking a swing at the scruffy teenager. The m/dom stood his ground for one long moment, then pushed past his six sidekicks and retreated up the stairs. They all followed.

          Avril felt the heat leave his cheeks. He could have sped up the process, but didn’t have the strength. All he could think about was how the agency would react. His budding career was in jeopardy now that it had happened twice.

          Picking up the wig, Avril walked back toward the office. He tried not to make eye contact with the shoppers who stopped and stared. Avril knew many of them had seen him before, as his earpiece chimed over and over again, still registering their eyetraces.   Everyone was looking at Avril.


DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.


“Seven Urns” Dark Fiction by Hayden Sidun

“Do you ever feel worthless?” the boy asked. He tugged at his father’s coat, the innocence of a young child exuding from his soul. His eyes, brown as mud and easy to get lost in, were drowning in tears, a trail of dried teardrops staining his cheeks. They were met by his father’s eyes, locked in a dazed stare, searching for the right words to answer the boy’s question as though those words were spelled in the boy’s eyes.

The father wanted to say yes because it was the truth. He was there when the fire occurred, standing on his half-cut lawn, sporting a horror-stricken expression, heat consuming his body, thick black smoke staining the baby blue sky. He did nothing when the first roof shingles caught fire, nor did he do anything when flames ate the rest of the house. What could he do? 9-1-1 had already been called, firefighters and paramedics dispatched, and he couldn’t be the hero of the story when he had a family in his own house to look after. So he stood on his property across the street from the scene, emergency vehicles flooding the street, the screams of painful death assaulting his ears, the smell of smoke billowing from the burning house filling his lungs, beads of sweat dripping down his face. When the fire subsided—or rather when first responders killed it—he stood there, his feet stuck like glue to the grass, watching paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses out of what remained of the house.

Little did the father know that his son, only nine years old and still with little knowledge of what the world around him was really like, curious as any child (or any person, for that matter) would be, stood on a stool next to the window, watching in awe as his father did outside, sporting a horror-stricken expression as it struck his father’s, the windows hot to the touch. He couldn’t have known that his neighbors were burning alive in the blaze; his innocence let him believe that the blood-curdling screams he heard were only those of fear and maybe a little pain. But the boy’s interest subsided as the fire did, and as his father stood in the same place and watched paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses from what remained of the house, the boy ran to his bedroom and cried into his pillow.

“Why would I feel worthless?” the father asked.

“We watched the fire, Daddy.”

The father looked toward the altar, where his neighbors’ urns were lined up on a cloth-covered table. The bodies were too charred, burnt enough in the house that it wouldn’t make sense to put them in caskets. Nevertheless, the image of their corpses stained his memory, even at the funeral and especially in the days before. It would probably be long before he forgot what the young couple and their plentiful children looked like before the tragedy, but alas, their remains embodied their legacy.

The father would often spend Saturday nights with his neighbor, and more often than not, they would shoot pool in his garage and listen to music that evoked nostalgia, both men always with a beer in their hand. The boy’s mother—she was probably talking to someone somewhere in the church—shared a similar friendship with the neighbor’s wife. The boy himself would often play with the five young children who lived across the street, enjoying himself and the time he spent with his friends and neighbors despite at times being outnumbered. The house that burned to the ground was the young couple’s first together, and that house was the only home their children knew. The father could still remember when the couple first moved into the house, and he remembered each time they brought a newborn home, but those memories burnt and collapsed as the house did.

“There was nothing we could do but watch,” the father told his son.

“Nothing?”

A tear formed in the father’s eye. He shook his head, wanting to hide the truth from his son, knowing he couldn’t. “Nothing.”

The father still couldn’t explain why he didn’t turn off the evening news that night. Perhaps he was curious about what the press had to say. The evening news had never been a pleasant thing to watch, and of all the house fires they’d covered over the years, he never expected one would be in his neighborhood, on his street, within eyeshot of his house. But he sat on the couch nonetheless, locked in a dead stare at the television screen as monotonous anchors told millions about the house fire that killed seven. He doubted that anyone cared or bothered to listen to the anchors, and maybe the anchors themselves couldn’t bother to care.

But he cared, as did the boy. He cared when the screaming replayed in his mind, keeping him awake in the darkness of the night. He cared when he finally closed his eyes to sleep, dreaming only of the horror he witnessed earlier that day. He cared when he, the most obvious witness and someone who knew the family well, was asked to identify the bodies at the coroner’s office and relived that day as he tried to recognize the seven bodies lying on a table. The coroner told him it was okay if he couldn’t identify the bodies, so the father walked out of the room. Looking up, he still doesn’t know who is in what urn.

“Do you think they’re alive somewhere else?” the boy asked, his tinny voice beginning to tremble.

“Maybe.” The father hung his head and whispered, “Probably not.”

“Why not?”

The father looked down at the boy and met his eyes once again. “Well, maybe they are. No one, not even the smartest of the smart, really knows what happens after we die; it’s the single greatest mystery of humankind. So we make an educated guess, maybe live our lives accordingly, and hope we’re right in the end.”

“Do you think they’re happy now, Daddy?”

The father shook his head. “Why would they be happy?”

The boy shrugged. “Because their pain is over now.”

Looking at the urns again, the father told his son, “They died in pain and long before they were supposed to. Those kids? They deserved to live long, happy, fulfilling lives, and their parents deserved to watch them grow and live out the rest of theirs. They’re not happy, son; they’re the farthest thing from it.”

“So they’re sad?”

“Yes. They’re very, very sad.”

“I’m sad too.”

“Me too, buddy. Me too.”

The father took his son by the hand and walked into the center walkway between all the pews. Together, they walked toward the door, saying goodbye to their deceased neighbors, taking a moment to remember them one last time. All the father wanted was to leave the events of that day behind, but the fire still burned in his memory, the screams still played repeatedly, and the air still smelled of smoke. He had a family of his own to think about, a responsibility that saved his life and kept him from running into the fire to save his neighbors, but something still nagged at him. He wanted to do something to save them and wished then more than ever that he had done something, anything at all, to save them, and as he walked out of the church with his son by his side, he felt more worthless than he had ever felt in his life.


Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, and Button Eye Review. Outside of school and work, he is active in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.


“Offshoots” Dark Fantasy by Cecilia Kennedy

At the Neon Studios Salon, tails creeped luxuriously along the napes of necks in shades of lavender and pearl—and I wanted one—one that hissed and shimmered, one that blinked with long eyelashes and snaky curves. My mother said that no self-respecting daughter of hers would ever go there. Rumor had it that the walls were filled with the bones of the dead, but it was also the best place to get the latest hair styles, the kind that all of the boys at school liked.

            To get a boy to like you, everyone knew you had to have the stair-step bob with the long, leafy tail that sprung to life, growing in the back—the one that made the boys sneak a hand up there and run the tail through their fingers, hoping it would lick them.

“I’ve seen the way boys behave when girls your age grow a tail, letting it swing to and fro while walking, swaying their hips. Don’t ever disrespect yourself like that. Don’t get used,” my mother had said, but I didn’t see the harm.

            The tails were mesmerizing. Everyone I knew wanted one, and everyone’s grew in differently, in different colors. My friends told me that after the stylist washed their hair and trimmed it, they pulled out a sharp knife and cut an indentation in the nape of the neck. They said the stylists kept gems in various shapes and colors in a special drawer and would insert one into the cut. My friends swore that it didn’t hurt at all because the knife was incredibly sharp, and the stylists had a special license to perform light surgical procedures. Once the gem, which was gel-like, was inserted, the stylists pricked it and seeds oozed out. Over time, the tails grew, developed, licked fingers, or playfully hissed.

            The Neon Studios Salon didn’t exist inside of a mall, wedged between a movie theater and an arcade. To get to it, I borrowed my mother’s car (on the pretense of running errands) and drove it through wooded streets, just past the center of town, where all of the country clubs shared views of forest canopies in the summer. All kinds of women—important women—snuck off to the salon while their husbands played golf. They didn’t let their tails grow too long, and they modified the bob cut just a bit—enough to be stylish, but still acceptable in their social circles. I didn’t have to worry about any of that, and neither did my friends. We were young and had nothing to do with country club circles.

            At the edge of a wooded street, stood a massive, Craftsman-style home, with white trim. From the outside, it didn’t look like much. It didn’t look like it could be the hub of modern style.

However, there was a sign, done up in soft purple, fluorescent lights that flashed “Neon Studios Salon,” but not in that creepy, motel-by-the-side-of-the-road way. More like a dream-sequence music video in pulses of desire and mystery. Inside, walls the color of deep eggplant gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling. The air smelled of perfume and fruit-scented hairspray and shampoo. Mirrors shined, etched in gold. A stylist, Rochelle, who was blond with a violet, glitter-streaked tail that slapped the air behind her, took me to the shampooing station to begin my appointment. Already, I knew I was in excellent hands. I ignored what I thought were groans and shrieks coming from the walls, somewhat drowned out by the latest Top 40 hits blaring through the speakers, booming with synthesizer beats. I still heard the noises faintly and wondered if Rochelle heard them too. They sounded sorrowful, anxious, and if I looked close enough, I thought I saw the walls move. But it was clear that Rochelle didn’t want me looking at the walls. She’d turn my head in the sink whenever she caught me straining my neck. The ashen flakes that fell all around, though, were hard to ignore. They landed on the sleeves of the protective black cape Rochelle game me, and in Rochelle’s hair. Someone came by to sweep up the piles that accumulated on the floor, and I wondered if they were the remnants from the dead—the bones in the walls. I wondered if that’s what made this place so special.

            In the main salon area, Rochelle worked quickly to chop off my shoulder-length locks, shaping my hair into a sharp bob with distinct stair-step layers in the back. Then, she took out a knife.

            “Most people say it doesn’t really hurt,” she told me. “Sometimes it does, though. Just depends.”

I nodded my head. She opened a drawer at her station and showed me the gems I could choose. They all looked impossibly beautiful, but I eventually settled on a diamond-shaped, green glittered gem.

            “Don’t move,” she said, “and uncross your legs. Otherwise, your body will be uneven and so will your cut.”

After injecting the back of my neck with a topical numbing agent, Rochelle made the first cut, which felt like fire, searing and burning, despite the numbing solution, but I refused to scream or cry—or jump. Why would I? Pain was a part of the deal. I’d be entering the world changed, and everyone would notice, especially the boys.

            “There. All done,” Rochelle said, before pricking the diamond gel pack, letting the seeds run smooth and warm down my neck. She then massaged the area to work the seeds in and told me not to wash my hair for 24 hours at least. I left the salon with everything my babysitting earnings could get me, which included a 20-ounce bottle of lavender jasmine shampoo (specially formulated to help tails grow), matching conditioner, mousse, and hairspray.

            At first, my mother didn’t notice. The nub that formed on my neck was my secret, and I’d gently rub it, just to make sure it was still there. Within a few weeks, though, the seedlings started to sprout, growing like ruffles on lace collars, trailing down my neck, weaving themselves into one sturdy strand of brilliant garden green, speckled with light. Never mind that when I went to the beach that year, I wore a skimpy bathing suit, much too revealing for a girl my age. Never mind that I blossomed and spilled out of the spaces strategically cut into the bathing suit. It was the tail that enraged my mother the most.

“Oh, you’re getting attention all right. The wrong kind of attention. And everyone’s talking about you—all of the neighbors—all of my friends. I’m so embarrassed.”

            While I was somewhat ashamed because of what my mom said, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d look in the mirror, pull the lovely strand across my shoulder and over my neck and admire the way the glint of green picked up lighter shades in my eyes. It hissed happily, darting between my fingers, and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look without it.

            The solution to my problem, I believed, was silence. I shut my mother out. We stopped talking. I stayed longer after school, went over to my friends’ houses more often—my friends who all had tails, just like I did. Besides, a tail didn’t mean you had to do anything with a boy. You just could if you wanted to, at least, that’s what I thought until my friend Jodi mentioned the walls at the Neon Studios Salon. I remembered the rumors but hadn’t thought about them for a while. Despite what I had experienced when I got my hair cut, I brushed the sounds and the ashes off as nothing. To me, the rumors had to be entirely untrue.

            “Oh, no!” Jodi told me one day at her house. “If you get a tail, you have to follow through or else. The bones in the walls are from virgins—other girls who got tails but didn’t follow through.”

            “Follow through?”

            “Yeah, you know?”

            “Have you . . . followed through before?”

            “Yeah. It’s no big deal. But if you don’t, well, the walls know. They whisper their secrets to the owners of the salon. They find you in the middle of the night—or in the middle of the day.”

“That’s not true.”

            “Remember Betsy Mulligan?”

            “She moved.”

            “She didn’t. Her tail grew in, but she didn’t follow through. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw Betsy Mulligan?”

            “We were eating ice cream at the mall. And then, I don’t remember what happened next. I guess her parents picked her up or something.”

            “No. She was snatched up off the street. Her virgin bones were ground to powder and stuffed inside the walls. The sacrifices of virgins—not the shampoos and gels and seeds—make the tails grow.”

Jodi’s news was alarming, and I half considered cutting the tail off to maybe break the spell, if it could be broken that way, but I couldn’t. I loved it—the whole look. I couldn’t imagine going out in public with out it. I’d be so plain with just a naked stair-step bob. I’d be nothing special.       

            But I couldn’t let myself get sacrificed, either, if the rumors were true. As much as I hated my mother, I didn’t want her to grieve the loss of a daughter. So I followed through, with the first boy I met a party. We spent fifteen minutes in a closet together. For me, the experience was underwhelming, but necessary. He wanted another date, said he thought we bonded, reached for my hair, but the tail pulled away. In fact, the tail lasted longer than the boy, and I left the party with my life intact, but wondering if anyone would notice. Would anyone, such as my mother, be able to tell that I followed through?

Eventually, there were signs. The green strand grew long, sassy, and started to hiss. Apparently, you’re not supposed to let it get too long. You had to get it trimmed, but I liked the length. My mother, on the other hand, believed the length was a new source of embarrassment.

            “It looks awful. Even your friends haven’t grown their tails to the length you have. Why do you insist on just destroying yourself?” Then, she yanked the front of my hair, turning my face towards her, and asked, “Have you had sex? Tell me now. I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me.”

My mother’s threats were never empty. Her rage knew no boundaries. If I left the room, she’d follow me, and there were no locks on the doors in our house. Those were the rules.

            “Yes! So what? At least I had the decency to not get sacrificed to the salon. So there, Mom. You happy? Happy, Mom?”

My mother put her head in her hands and mumbled something about how she’d be able to take care of a pregnant daughter.

            “No, Mom,” I said. “I’m not pregnant. We were careful.”

            “So will there be more—boys? Times?”

For the first time in a long while, I saw a smile on her face. Her shoulders began to shake as she laughed. A big, powerful, triumphant laugh that rang out through the streets. I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

            She never spoke badly about the tail again. In fact, she let me grow it out longer, and later, when Dad left us, she went to the Neon Studios Salon and got one too—in blazing red.

            “I don’t think so. It wasn’t that great.”

From then on, every afternoon during the rest of my high school years, we’d sit on the front porch. Mom would pour me a glass of champagne, and we’d watch the cars go by, our shimmering tails, hissing and snapping at the air.


Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola


“Shinigami” Demonic Horror by Mick Benderoth

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

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

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

“Noon, tomorrow?”

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

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

“I have an appointment with Moishi Suroshi”.

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

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

Musical voice echoes, “Maddy Guilford?”

“That’s me.”

“Be right out. Teas steeping.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moishi, elsewhere, “Something like that.”

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

Moishi, resolute, “Finish it tonight.”

“Wow. Do you always work so fast?’

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

Take out my checkbook, “Your fee?”

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

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

“Early, very, very early.”

“Nine?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: “Couldn’t wait. Had it sent.”

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

Irritably. “Miss, now. Now, Miss”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“The Little Wild” Dark Fantasy by Julian Grant

The ‘Little Wild’ is what she called it — and it shall be ours forever. 

We had bought the farmhouse when we finally had had enough of the city (Poppy agreed, the city had become too dangerous and noisy). As we were both older, without children, having met later in life at the Popular Culture Association Conference in Boston, we were both determined to make our soon encroaching Senior years as enjoyable as possible. We made for an unlikely couple what with Poppy’s paper on psychoanalytic theory and gender in Fairy Tales while my own talk was a stump speech for the Graduate Program in library science we offered at Northwestern. We bonded on archival methods, preservation, organization, and best practices marrying almost a year to the date of our first encounter. No odder couple had there perhaps been. We were visually unique as well. She, Rubenesqueand committed to smoking a pack a day while I maintained the thin physique that I had championed while at school. Poppy would tease me as the ‘Jack Sprat the boy who would eat no fat‘ nursery rhyme hero and I was, too polite to ever voice her comparison. 

We were both in our late forties when we finally moved to the country and bought the large, old farmhouse that had been abandoned by its previous owners which needed some work before it could be occupied. The house was a mess of disrepair and neglect but Poppy was determined to make it into something beautiful. She took on the restoration project with gusto while I busied myself at my job as a senior archivist at Northwestern University Library’s Special Collections Department.  I had worked there since graduating from university (the same one where Poppy studied it turned out) having spent several years working on my master catalog on the variant manuscripts and publications of George McDonald. His ‘Golden Key’ was the basis of my theory to the Princesses, Giants, and Fae who gamboled through his writings. 

Together, in our new home, we both worked diligently to put everything to order. I sanded, plugged, and painted inside while Poppy took on the front garden. We both agreed that the garden acreage in the back of the house was best left as is. Originally the farm had boasted a small greens and herbs bounty that had exploded into a warren of wild, overlapping vegetation. Thick snarls of basil, celery, and lettuce we were stumped to identify (I found it finally — flashy trout back) had swallowed the full garden with a thick entangled row of white ash soaring above us at the edge of the property. All of the original farmland had been sold off and developed into housing plots that loomed around us and the area we now called ‘The Little Wild’. 

I spent a lot of time out there, sitting on the back porch facing the overgrown garden looking up at the night sky. The air was so clear here that I could see all of the stars each evening.  

“You’re not afraid to be alone out here?” Poppy asked one night as she joined me by my side. “I mean, you don’t feel like you need someone else around.” 

She put her hand on mine where it rested on my knee and squeezed gently. “It’s okay if you are,” she said softly, but firmly.  

“No,” I replied.

Unlike Poppy, I saw no gossamer strands of mystery here or anything to worry about. I was content living in our idyllic home with Poppy by my side and had no fear of the unknown or metaphysical wonders at work in the dark. Here, in the peace of our home, I could ponder the play and nonsense of McDonalds’ work as I rejoiced in the peace and quiet. Poppy’s study, in the spare bedroom upstairs, was where she wrote and dreamed and lived with the myriad of creatures that made up her life’s work. As a bibliophile, all I needed were my books and the serenity of our farm. Wrapped in a blanket on the back porch as I graded papers, Polly would slip out to smoke, having agreed that cigarettes inside was a to-be-avoided decision. I abandoned my study of syntax, language, and idiom as I turned to her.

“Look, there are fireflies,” Poppy cried as she snapped off the small reading lamp we had set up for my work. Instantly, we were transported into the thick dark you only find outside of the city. As a formerly dedicated urban creature, I had lied to Poppy when I told her earlier that I was not afraid to sit alone in the dark in ‘The Little Wild’. Being fully alone in the dark was something I did not relish — but I knew that my fears were irrational. The little tests I would set for myself to push beyond my natural reservations were long ingrained. It would not serve my wife to know how my heart started to race, the spit souring in my mouth as the velvet crush of night consumed us. 

The flitter-fly of the insects coasted above and beyond the snarls of brambles and vegetables. In the dark, I reached for my wife’s hand, wiping it on the blanket as I willed my heart to stop its pounding. We sat that, neither of us speaking as Polly sighed, her cigarette forgotten.

The next thing I knew, the fireflies were gone and I was alone on the couch in the dark. 

“Poppy?” I whispered, glancing about myself as I wiped the sleep from my crusted eyes. 

“Poppy?” I whispered again, my voice hoarse as I sat up and looked about the garden for her. There was no sign of her anywhere in the backyard.  I stood from the couch and made my way up to our bedroom, where she might already be abed. It wasn’t uncommon for me to doze outside only to find her asleep.

She was not there either — nor were any of her clothes or belongings strewn about on the floor as they had been when we returned home after dinner with friends a few hours earlier.  The empty rooms sent me into a panic; it felt like I had awoken, like Rip Van Winkle only to find the world had changed alarmingly.

I glanced outside towards ‘The Little Wild’ as a light, amber-colored spilled from deep within the snare of shadowed greenery. Peering outside the window, I could see pockets of illumination sparking to life in the black night.

“Why would she go back there?” I wondered as I slipped back downstairs, grasping the flashlight by the back door. 

Stepping out into the now cold very early morning, I tried to turn the light on only to realize that the batteries were not working.

“Polly?!” I cried, a little louder now, concerned that she might be back there with a little candle or match. She would have surely taken the flashlight to find her way – and if she too discovered that it wasn’t working, perhaps she was finding her way by candlelight?

Underneath my feet, the ground was slick showing the clear track of what I could only assume was Polly moving deep into the ‘Wild’. I rubbed at my face, pushing the last of sleep away as I saw two, three amber lights pop to life in the garden. There, deep in the brickle, flickering lights too big to be fireflies sparkled as the tantalizing aroma of roasting meats tickled my nose.

I pushed further into the weeds, inwardly cursing myself for not thinning the stalks and strands of wild weeds and bushes that created the maze that was our back garden. Polly had loved how rich and untamed the world was – “…a home for small animals and perhaps more,” she’d teased one night as I nodded in half-agreement.

As I pushed further into the bush, I recited to myself the various eponymous fairytales and legends I knew that had influenced Irving’s classic tale. The third-century story of the legendary sage, Epimenides of Knossos, the Christian story of the Seven Sleepers, and the German folktale ‘Peter Klaus’ all boasted elements of the rudely awakened sleeper finding the world changed much to their shock and dismay. My own revelation was surely more prosaic and I would soon find my wife curled up reading or perhaps writing by the candle. I had long learned to tolerate the eccentricities of our marriage and Poppy’s whims as she was endured my endless and systematic organization. 

“It is what makes us special,” Poppy had smiled, one night when we were in bed talking, as couples do, of the faults and findings of their marriage. “I dream, you do and together we shine,” she said, snuggling next to me.

I crouched down as a robust wild rosebush blocked my path, the lights of the golden yellow candles just beyond.

“Did you bring food out here?” I called as again, the scent of rich-seasoned beef came to my attention. She’d brought home the remnants of the prime rib she had out tonight and perhaps she had fancied a late-night, early morning snack as she explored the garden. Again, another eccentricity one learns to live with when married. Poppy enjoyed her food. 

“I’m not hungry,” I called out. “But I’ll bring out some wine if you’d like?”  

As Poppy was the one who had chosen this spot for our impromptu rendezvous, it seemed fitting that we should enjoy ourselves. She would be happy to see me and I could only hope that tonight would be like all other nights when we were together: uneventful and peaceful. The night air was warm and heavy with the scent of the wildflowers in bloom from ‘The Little Wild’ as I struggled through into the other side.

“Shall I get the wine then?”

I pushed myself through the small gap in the foliage, marveling at how my larger-than-me wife could have navigated such tight quarters. As I pushed through the final cover, my eyes popped wide as I beheld the miniature fantasy world before me.

There, under four stanchions burning bright, my wife danced in abandon with the sprites and fairies I had read about throughout my life but never believed in. A pig, impossibly small, roasted on a spit turned by leaf-clad people all clapping and singing as Poppy gamboled and played with them.

You must understand, fables, myths, and fairytales may have been my area of study – but like most academics dedicated to any discipline, I had long lost the fancy and marvel that made the tales special. My world was one of order, versioning, and cataloging. Poppy was the true believer while I was the skeptic. I no sooner believed in the world of fairy as I did the modern-day equivalents of Bigfoot or Elvis or other celebrities still alive after death. None of this made any sense to me.

Yet, there, right in front of me, my wife danced in miniature and smiled and laughed as the assembled peoples celebrated her. None paid any mind to me at all, impossibly large, as I watched the joyous celebration unfold. I could barely breathe as the dance continued unabated. 

“How are you doing this?” I called out. “This isn’t possible.”

She looked at me finally, smiling as she danced, and called out, “I will always love you.”  

The crowd cheered louder than ever as Poppy continued her dance with the sprites and fairies. She smiled at me again, that beautiful smile of hers which always made my thrilled heart ache.

And then I woke, on the couch on the back patio as the sun blossomed across the sky. It was now morning and I had spent the night outside apparently.

I laughed, hardly able to contain myself, as I gathered up my papers and books, none the worse for wear for having spent the night outdoors, looking forward to sharing with Polly my own Winkle story. Orkney’s tale of the Ring of Brodgar immediately came to mind as well, as did H.G Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes as I clambered up the stairs. I was now Zelazny’s science-fiction protagonist Corwyn having survived the underground lair with otherworldly people. Poppy would adore this.

The doctor says it was the combination of early menopause, her BMI, and the cigarettes that caused the heart failure. She’d died sometime earlier, while I was sleeping on the couch apparently. He assured me that she hadn’t felt any pain. 

I had been a very lucky man. I was forty-eight years old, and Poppy was forty-nine when she passed. Each night she dances still in ‘The Little Wild’ and if I am careful and the time is right, I am able to go and see her in the wee midnight hours. I have a lot of work to do still. I have to write the story that Poppy always wanted me to write, and then publish it as a final gift. It will be an epic tale about two people who are both immortal and whose love endures. It will begin as all good fairy tales begin.

Once upon a time…


Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by Dark Fire UK, Quail Bell, Avalon Literary Review, Crepe & Penn, Alternative History Magazine, The Chamber Magazine, Clever Magazine, Peeking Cat Literary Journal, Danse Macabre, Fiction on the Web, CafeLit, Horla, Bond Street Review, Free Bundle, Filth Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash & The Adelaide Literary Magazine.  Find out more about him at juliangrant.com


“The Flea” Horror by Antaeus

Yannick Cassady was fussy about his hair. It had to be brushed ‘just so’ at all times. The obsession was a carryover from his childhood. His mother always brushed his hair the same way before he went off to school. But, unfortunately, she had died when he was ten, and his father followed soon after.

Until he joined the Army at seventeen, Yannick was raised by his abusive, short-tempered uncle and his kindly, fastidious aunt. The only thing that kept him grounded was combing his hair like his mother used to. His quick temper was his uncle’s legacy and his forgiving nature, when he evoked it, a gift from his aunt.

Some people would go so far as to call him finicky but not to his face. You see, Yannick was constantly being pulled in two directions. Sometimes he could be a quick-tempered brute of a man and at other times a sympathetic and caring friend.

Besides being overly concerned about his hair, Yannick was regimented in his routine. It was a holdover from his Army days. Out of bed by 6 a.m. sharp, he was in and out of the shower by 6:20. Breakfast was usually finished by 6:45. Finally, Yannick would be dressed and groomed by 7:29. The routine never varied, not in thirty years.

By 7:33 a.m. on workdays, the sour-faced ‘Loan Aficionado’ was always out of the house and on the road. In fact, the cell phone on the bathroom counter read exactly 7:30 a.m. when the big man looked into the bathroom mirror before heading out the door.

That’s when Yannick noticed the flea.

The fastidious, middle-aged loan officer couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the flea jump from the shoulder of his immaculate white shirt onto his hair. The voice of Mrs. Fisher, his high school biology teacher, echoed in Yannick’s head. Fleas are parasites that feed on blood. They use that blood to fertilize the fifty eggs per day that they lay.

Yannick bent over the sink with trepidation and ruffled his perfectly groomed hair. He saw two fleas fall into the white marble sink. He crushed one with his thumb and missed the other. The second flea leaped from the sink with a jump that would make Javier Sotomayor’s world record high jump look minuscule. It jumped again and disappeared into a small crevice at the edge of the vanity.

The digital readout on the cellphone blinked and read 7:32. Yannick began to panic. My hair, my hair. It’s a mess, and I’m going to be late for work!

Luckily, when Yannick ran the brush through his hair, every strand fell into place like the obedient little fiber soldiers they were. By 7:35, he was in his SUV and, tires squealing, headed downtown to the Littlefinger Bank.

* * *

The security guard unlocked the door and greeted a red-faced Yannick. “Good morning Mr. Cassady,” he said. The angry senior loan officer just brushed past the guard without answering. As he rushed by, Yannick’s shoulder connected with the guard’s chest. Off-balance, the guard started to fall but grabbed the door handle and righted himself before he toppled over. Yannick hurried to his office without apologizing.

The other bank employees gave each other the “Stay away from him today” look. Most of them had suffered through one of his verbal beatings and didn’t want to experience it again. Even the bank manager returned to his office and shut his door.

Yannick hurled his briefcase into a corner and sat behind his desk as he recalled Mrs. Fisher’s warning. A female flea can consume fifteen times its body weight in human blood daily.

The former high school wrestler’s muscles bulged when his head began to itch again. He’d been fighting the urge to scratch his head all the way into work. Yannick reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a hand mirror. He had to see where the itching was coming from. Flea bites cause painful, itchy red bumps and their eggs hatch in only one day. More of Mrs. Fisher’s trivia he didn’t need or want to know.

Was that a little red bump at the very edge of his hairline? Yes, there was a small red bump there. That was the exact spot causing all the itching. Yannick swore a string of cuss words that would have made a bowlegged, old salt of a sailor proud.

Just then, there was a knock at the office door. “What!” Yannick cried.

“Mr. Cassady, Mr. Brennen, your nine o’clock is here,” his secretary said.

“Can’t you see I’m busy? Tell that loser to come back tomorrow, or I’ll foreclose on that shithole he calls a house.”

“Yes, Mr. Cassady, I tell him to come back tomorrow.”

“No. Wait a second, Brenda.”

Yannick took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Quick to boil and quick to cool, that’s my boy,” his mother used to say. He recited these words as though repeating a mantra, and he felt himself growing calm.

“Tell Mr. Brennen I’m giving him a ninety-day extension to pay his mortgage and tell him I’m sorry to hear about his wife’s passing. By the end of ninety days, thanks to the late payment interest fees, what he owns will double, then I’ll foreclose on the jerk.

And, Brenda, ask Reno the guard to come into my office, please.”

Brenda’s voice had a friendly tone when she answered this time. “Yes, certainly, Mr. Cassady.” She seemed impressed that Yannick, usually an unforgiving loan officer, was acting with compassion, which was entirely out of character.

When Reno came into his office, Yannick apologized for knocking him down and gave him two tickets for dinner at the new steakhouse in town.

Dumb guard. Now he’ll go out of his way to be nice to me. Better owed than to be owed. That’s my motto. Those tickets didn’t cost me a cent. I told the restaurant owner that he’d have to give me two dozen free meals if he wanted me to okay his business loan.

The rest of the day found Yannick canceling appointments and watching the little red bumps multiply. By closing time, he was pounding fleas on his desk, but he never scratched his itchy head, not even once. Finally, when quitting time came, the frustrated loan officer broke his routine, and for the first time in thirty years, he was the first one out the door.

* * *

Yannick was in such a hurry to get home and into the shower that he was doing eighty miles an hour on a two-lane forty MPH road. The road started to curve, and that’s when he felt the flea bite his ankle. Yannick tried to ignore the bite at first, but the flea bit him again and again. He was beside himself with anger as his ankle began to itch like a bad sunburn.

Reaching down with a hand the size of a small ham, Yannick scratched his ankle. When he brought his hand back to the steering wheel, he could feel something crawling among the hairs on the back of his hand.

His rage reaching new heights, Yannick smacked the back of his right hand with his left. The blow was so powerful that it caused the steering wheel to jerk downward. The car swerved to the right side of the road and headed for the guard rail. Yannick quickly shoved the steering wheel to the left, overcompensated, and had to jerk it to the right again. The flea jumped down to the floor and began biting his ankle again.

When he glanced into the rearview mirror, Yannick saw that his face was the color of a beet, and his eyes were bulging like they were trying to leave their sockets. When the flea bit him again, Yannick looked down, smacked his ankle, and watched the flea jump away. That’s when the thin veneer of a civilized man shattered, and he reverted to an apelike mentality.

Shouting a string of profanities, the near-insane man began to pound the floor with his fist, trying to crush the flea. Time and time again, he tried, and time and time again, he missed.

A flea can jump thirty-thousand times without stopping. Mrs. Fisher’s piece of useless trivia only served to fuel Yannick’s anger. Now every fiber of the crazed man’s being was focused on only one thing, crushing the flea.

Thump went the big man’s fist hitting the floor. Smack went his fist when it hit the passenger seat. Thud went his fist on the center console.

“I’ll kill you, you little bastard. I’ll crush you, just like I crushed your partner,” he shouted.

When Yannick heard the sound of an airhorn, he looked up just in time to see the bumper of an approaching semi fill his windshield.

* * *

When he regained consciousness, the groggy loan officer found himself pinned to his seat by the SUV’s dashboard. Evidently, he had reflexively steered the vehicle away from the semi and into the dense woods. The windshield was gone, and the giant oak before him had made the front of the SUV’s hood look like an accordion.

Yannick flexed his fingers and toes and was surprised to find that everything worked. He thanked God that he wasn’t paralyzed, just pinned immobile by the dash and steering wheel. He gave a tentative push with his arms; the dashboard didn’t move. He pushed harder and felt something wet slide down from his forehead. It tasted like blood.

Angry now, the barrel-chested man leaned forward and pushed with all the strength he had. The dashboard creaked but didn’t budge.

It was growing late, and the sounds of cars on the road had diminished significantly. The wood grew quiet as Yannick looked into the rearview mirror, which had somehow survived the windshield’s destruction.

His bloodshot eyes took in the path of destruction the SUV had made when it barreled into the woods. Yannick could see the guard rail beyond the swath of devastation. The railing had been peeled back like a ripe banana. It lay, like a limp penis, on the slope leading down to the woods.

Damn semi driver never even stopped. Who doesn’t stop to help a person who’s in trouble? Someone who’s doing something illegal, that’s who. Oh, well, someone will see the wrecked guard rail in the morning and call 9-1-1—nothing to do now but wait for daylight.

As the setting sun’s dappled rays illuminated the SUV’s crumpled hood, Yannick noticed the fleas hopping toward the shattered windshield. There were thousands of the little critters—no, more like millions of the tiny bloodsuckers—and they were all headed toward him.

Once again, Mrs. Fisher spoke to the panicking man. A female flea can consume fifteen times its body weight in human blood daily.

Yannick’s skin paled when he saw what was following them—thousands upon thousands of ticks.

Ticks are tiny bloodsucking parasites. So Mrs. Fisher said in her schoolteacher’s voice, inside Yannick’s head. They can grow to hold six hundred times their body weight when they have not fed.

When the powerless man heard the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes, he looked up, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Their numbers blackened the fading sky.

Now you’re in big trouble, Yannick, Mrs. Fisher’s voice seemed to say. Mosquitoes can drink three times their weight in blood, and there’s an awful lot of them. As the Army of bloodsuckers converged on the helpless victim, Yannick screamed.


Antaeus writes from a lakefront home in Southwest Florida (USA).


“Aperture” Sci-Fi Horror by Dan A. Cardoza

“That building across the street is another Freedom Tower, Carl, take a look at all the glass in front. See how the facade looks like a skinny pyramid, or a spaceship being launched?” Carl passes the fumes of a nearly empty gallon of Carlo Rossi back to his street friend Andy.

“Here dude, you need this more than me.”

Andy takes the last pull from the jug and wipes the cheap burgundy off his cracked lips, “You got to open up your mind, Carl-o.”

~~~

Part of controlling someone is telling them, “No one else will ever love you.”

After they got married, Jack would often say, “Even if you were lucky enough to find someone to replace me, in time, they’ll turn into a monster too.” At first it was sex and smoking in bed. Chloe believed everything Jack ever said. 

When they’d finally married, started out, Chloe never asked for the perfect apartment. But, here it was, and it was theirs, 52 East End Avenue, Number 39, New York, 10028, on the Upper East Side. 

They’d been awed by the panoramic view of the city, the East River, Brooklyn all from their small patio. 

The apartment occupies the entire 39th floor of the building. The building is a modest 82 stories that points into the sky. 82 is the same number of moons that circle Jupiter.  

It’s something he wanted to purchase, not Jupiter, the building, and the Subaru telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii.

When they’d bought their 2,700 sq ft. apartment, they’d noticed all fine artisanship and amenities. They especially the admired how the common living area featured an open, eat-in kitchen. Chloe had loved the casual dining, “It’s like Paris.” Each room is a jewel with an exquisite view. 

They loved how the wrought-ironed fenced-in patio offered vistas as far as any telescope dreamed, up and down the East River. It was perfect for dawn and the sun, moonscapes, and the chivalry numbness of winter.

Come winter, Chloe fancied herself on a chair on the patio, listening to the built-in decibels of the alabaster snowflakes, each snowflake a gift from a dark cloud. 

The living space, where the so-called living gets done, offers a breathtaking view of the Brooklyn skyline across the back of the silver scaled East River. On a clear day, you can bend your

eyes around the corner far enough to view the Freedom Tower. Freedom and self-discovery is what Chloe had been promised when they’d married. 

Chloe’s childhood is in the Hampton’s, where it remains, and in Paris, in a meager flat her parents still own. Chloe is quite sophisticated but she’s not of the personage to display it. He finds that quite appealing.

The flat in Paris offers a view of Rue de Monnttessuy Avenue. The Rue intersects a street, just a block away from that skyrocket, the Eiffel Tower. Most of the family still summers in Paris.

Jack and Chloe met in college, Harvard, Boston. Jack paid his way by skimming the books of a moving company. He’s smart, received a degree in Operations Management in the high tech industry.

Today, Jack works for one of the top tech companies in all of New York. It’s headquartered in Lower Manhattan, near Broad and Wall next to where all the green gigabytes are stored. 

Chloe received an unassuming Masters of Arts Degree in Education. Chloe worked in Harlem, with the disadvantaged, grades 4 and 6. Her life was this low-paying teaching gig that she’d loved. 

Notwithstanding, Jack requested Chloe quit her job, a request fraught with the burden of cognitive dissonance on her part. He’d said he could advance his career if only his charming wife were at his side or at home in the luxury apartment. Stratospheric advancement, even a board membership was in reach of his ever-growing tentacles. She could have said no. 

But, she really loved Jack, not so much his politics, or the smell of decay from his eroding character. 

It wasn’t long before the couple had become perfumed in the stink of wealth. Jack grew dour. Wealth hadn’t filled his worldly appetite, nor did pot, meth, or heroin. 

This Jack guy, this new corporate Jack, was the same guy who’d screwed Chloe’s brains out all night under a collision of sexy stars in the Boston Commons Park. Security had to remove them. They were damned near knotted and stuck together. It was after 3:00 AM before they had to leave. Jack loved Chloe. Chloe loves Jack, but less each day.

Everyone supported the lovely couple’s choices, including Chloe’s dwindling number of friends and her family. Jack had made sure of that. He’d provided her with everything she’d wanted, except a baby.

Chloe flops on the toilet to wiz. Her knees pleasantly stick together from Gucci Bloom Body Oil. She places her feet about a foot apart, barefoot toes pointed in. She’s model gorgeous. She’s holding a long cigarette between her fingers. It’s a Newport 100. She looks up at the exhaust fan in the ceiling as it adjusts the zoom. The tiny camera remains hidden behind the quickening blade passion. It takes pictures. It switches to video capacity, as the exhaust fan chops Chloe’s beautiful face into segments. It will practically drool over cut up clips later that night. Chloe imagines the walls having eyes.

Chloe lifts her delicate chin and bellows smoke into the fan in the ceiling. Chloe stands and swishes her paisley shirt as if she’s doing the Tango with a ceiling ghost. She flushes the commode, neglects the bidet, and saunters out of the bathroom suite. 

A few of the screenshots he’s taken look promising. Maybe he’ll print out her face and nail it to his headboard, along with the other subjects.

There were formal Thanksgiving’s, spring vacations, back at the Hampton’s, and France of course, so that Chloe could catch up with everyone. Jack had found creative excuses for leaving their time together. He was always in demand somewhere, somewhere was always more important.

Each year, Jack made it more difficult for Chloe to recreate. Chloe missed her family, but she remained loyal to her skittered marriage.

Chloe had felt alone during the end of year holidays. Her husband had been away. It was just her and the snow in Upper Manhattan. A private birthday on a yacht along the East River in previous fall, their wonderful view out every window, their envious life, hadn’t been enough to fill her inside. Chloe felt she’d be less lonely if she were a shadow on the backside of the moon. She needed something more, it needed something more, his production was tanking.

One day, Chloe felt as if she could walk on water, right across the East River into Brooklyn. After all, she’d gotten the news that she was pregnant. Jack wasn’t at all happy, but he hadn’t rebuked her as usual. She was only human after all. So she’d missed a period or two, sometimes forgetting her birth control, he’d forgive her. 

Her smile had returned. Her tomorrow’s were growing deep inside her. And then–and then in a matter of three years, she’d lost two nearly full-term babies, Amy and Josh. Chloe imagined her womb a turnstile of death and destruction. She and Jack had searched long and hard to find Babyland at Pinelawn. It was the perfect setting, a Memorial Park in New York City singularly for the unborn, infants and children. It was one of the few places Chloe felt comfortable visiting.

Her obstetrician had said, “Chloe, it’s your Endometriosis. We’ve been over this before. Our extensive imaging has revealed that the only thing growing inside you are tenticles.”

“You make it sound so alien, Doctor,” Chloe had said.

“Shall I refer you to a psychiatrist? Medication can do wonders. And, Chloe, there have been so many advances of late.”

Chloe had shaken her head back and forth, implying no! But she’d said, “Yea, sure.”  

“Here’s her number, take it. Her name is Dr. Camille Stone. By the way, Camille means perfect in French. She owes me. Give her a call, Chloe.” 

Each level of the building, each room overlooking the beautiful East River has eyes, millions and millions of lenses, impossibly so. Most of the lenses are low voltage, and consume infinitesimal bits of electricity. Every tiny camera is state of the art, distance, zoom, high def. Each monocle is wired to record on a designated DVR. Each DVR sits on a stand in his large, air-conditioned studio. The room’s thermostat is set at a perfect 33 degrees. There’s a lot to keep track of, but he’s very intelligent and up to the task, up there. 

Each DVR saves limitless imagery: Credit card and banking account numbers, medical records, debit card pins. Each and every prying camera gorges itself until satiated on eBay, and Twitter accounts. He’s gotten to know just about everyone in the building quiet well.

After months of therapy and the right combinations of medication, Chloe seems less anxious. She thinks more clearly and has feelings again. That gnawing angst that has paralyzed her appetite has all but disappeared, at least for now. She’s gotten her weight back. Chloe chooses to read a lot. She enjoys staring out the patio door glass, onto the East River, and Brooklyn, and into the skyline that seems to blur itself into another universe. 

Chloe has been accused of turning the plush modern sofa and the glass coffee table next to it into her personal office space, as if it mattered. And Jack isn’t kidding. His work doesn’t pay him for having a sense of humor.

One evening, after Chloe’s fixed Jack a wonderful dinner, she thought to chill in her designated landing space. She’d molded herself into a comfortable piece of clay on the gorgeous grey sofa. She fingered the mouse on her notebook as if it were her sensitive clit. She’d been given a new Lenovo ThinkPad, P15s, Gen 1-15.6. Somehow the electronic pheromones that it emits feel crazy good to Chloe. 

Seasons laser across the patio door’s glass in the same direction as the East River, west. Nothing stays the same in New York City, including the years. Everything outside the patio’s large window seems to lust in direction of the cities harbor and into the Atlantic Ocean. The invisible wind, the sun, the clumsy dim-witted moon, all head west, month after month, out to the sea. Sometimes Chloe feels like moving along too in the direction of permanence.

Chloe exits her custom-built shower. It’s stereo surround sound in an onyx enclosure. The owner purchased the bath marble from the Carrara quarry in Italy. It’s the same quarry Michelangelo release David from. The dreamy shower is the size of a new Mercedes Benz, with all its whistles and bells. 

Chloe straight arms the bathroom counter and stoops over the rim of the golden sink. She attempts to wipe away the steam on the mirror. She does this until her patch is mostly a circle and squeaky clean. She can see herself clearly through an opening she’s created. The opening view captures her lovely, vulnerable body. She cups her full breasts, still aching from her last miscarriage. Her nipples are pink spring rosebuds. Their darkness has dissipated. He’s dying inside, behind the mirror, to kiss each bud into bloom. He needs the numbers back home for the council. He has to procreate.

She presses closer as if to disappear into the mirror. There is a lovely pout on her lips as if her reflection is a new lover. He knows what she is thinking, says inside his skull, “It won’t be long, pretty.”

He stiffens his back as if he’s just had a hit of cocaine. He does everything he can to keep from igniting. There are times when the male gender can feel out of control. 

Chloe moves out of view to fetch a luxurious towel. She doesn’t know how close he’s come to breaking the glass and entering her world.

~~~

Chloe has a diagnosis, one Jack isn’t sold on. She’s suffering from post-partum depression. Chloe disagrees and thinks post-partum depression is simply an expensive word you pay psychiatrists to pronounce. She quits therapy, and cancels any future psychiatry appointments. 

Once she’s out of medicine, she takes over-the-counter Tylenol. Tylenol seems to work as well as Effexor. Actually, anything works. And so, she quits eating, again. At least Tylenol fills her stomach.

Defenseless, Chloe invites her morbid thoughts into her mind. It is in there, crawling around in the fissures. She can’t control the sensation, which is becoming an aphrodisiac. She wants to feel it. 

It slithers on the scales of its belly ribs, and enters her thoughts. Iprobes, using its coiled fullness. It squirms and wriggles inside the folds of her gray matter, searching and waiting for the wetness. She grows completely comfortable, vulnerable to its girth and the fact that it exists in her thoughts. 

They’d first meet on the elevator, the 39th floor, Chloe and the apartment complex owner. He was headed out of the building for the day. Chloe was off to her cute restaurant in the basement, the Cafe Chez Marie. She was dying for fresh coffee. This had been back in her teaching days.

“You are 39,” he quips. Chloe blushes and peaks up at his platinum hair. He is tall. He’s is as handsome as any model she thinks. He looks forward to meeting her husband. They share the usual introductory chitchat, but there’s something else going on here.

Later that evening in his expansive studio, he reviews the elevator video. He intermittently captures a screenshot and then Wi-Fi’s the pic over to the printer, over and over again. He uses a ruler to measure the distance between their hands when they’d clutched the guard rail in the elevator, on their way down to the lobby. 

At the 1.02 point of action, he notices both of their hands gripping the elevator rail. He measures the distance. Their hands were exactly 23 inches apart when the elevator started. By the time the video’s action clip reaches 1.42 minutes, he measures the distance again.  He’s determined that the distance between their hands had shortened to 17 inches by the time the elevator landed on the lobby floor.

Based on his calculations, Chloe’s hands had moved 5 inches in his direction. He smiles. He’s a chic magnet. He can almost smell the wetness of a new spawn.

It’s the third of March, almost spring. Chloe is browsing: Pinterest, Google, and something familiar on YouTube.  It’s this guy who repairs and repurposes furniture. She’s been intrigued and impressed with his imagination and creativity. As a distraction, she’d booked a few of his videos. She loves Haden the Handyman.  Haden’s channel is all about refinishing vintage furniture, and all the care and sanding that goes with handling raw wood. Repurposing feels right to Chloe somehow. 

Chloe stumbles around on her computer, and trips over a new URL. 

It’s as if someone or something is controlling her Google searches. She happens upon a men’s cologne add. It is for Creed Aventus Eau De Parfum 100ml. The imp in her wants to taste the model’s skin. He’s posed in black silk P.J.’s while sitting back in a leather chair in his master bedroom suite. 

Directly behind him is an open black window in the background.  Chloe imagines the background a celestial slate board rift with chalky bits of stars. Something inside her wants to enter his world out there.

His pajama top is unbuttoned. Luxurious fur runs the distance from below his navel to the beginning of his throat. He’s smirking at Chloe. She knows it. He’s looking straight through her.  His hair is not so much silver-white platinum, but rather quaffed liquid mercury. Chloe’s nipples harden and pulse with life. Her skin is a river of goosebumps. 

It’s only a start, but Chloe gets up and walks over to Jack, who’s working at the kitchen table again. She hesitantly taps him on the shoulder. Jack has brought work home he’s focused on, and so it takes a while for Jack to respond. He has a good reason to be distracted. Jack turns to Chloe. Chloe gestures at her notebook. Jack makes that clicking sound again, using the disgust he so often finds between his tongue and teeth.

Jack goes back to his laptop screen.

It watches and records.

Chloe drifts back to her accusatory office.

Not long after, Chloe is pleasantly surprised to discover Jack watching over her shoulder. Just maybe, she thinks, Jack will display some interest in this little nothing YouTube channel she’s discovered. It’s not like she wants to start a furniture repair business. She simply likes the idea of making something old turn newish again. She would like to share this with her husband.

Jack turns sour and says, “Ok Honey, furniture repair is unrealistic. The upfront cost alone certainly doesn’t justify the expense. Jack thumbs the stubbles on his chin, his new compulsion. “Chloe, what in the hell do you know about refurbishing vintage furniture? Jack demands.  

Not waiting for an answer, Jack stomps back to his office at the aquamarine table.

The gorgeous dining room light, not quite grown a grown up chandelier, seems to warm the space, unlike its cold mini cameras that continue to watch the scene unfold.

Chloe gets up and slides the patio door wide open, next the screen door. She’s flushed and needs comforting, stands a minute, looks up into the stars. 

After, she walks back to her intimate sofa, leaving the patio doors wide open. Chloe curls her socked feet under her rump. The same gorgeous rump Jack couldn’t keep his well manicured hands-off so very long ago. 

Chloe gets up again, this time she walks in the direction of the second bath, near the elegant front door. Jack imagines her peeing, maybe crying again on the toilet, boohoo. But Jack’s mostly busy looking at a work email from a friend. His laptop wants Jack to Google skydiving deaths. Jack has deadlines to meet, God-damn it. Doesn’t anyone understand? 

Chloe slowly returns to the sofa and sits. She looks long and hard at the moon. It’s platinum too. She insists on lettering the wind blow west in the direction of change. The opaque darkness and loneliness on the East River have never looked so beautiful.

A half-hour drifts into an hour. Jack searches and searches the entire house. Jack needs to remind Chloe how much pressure he’s been under lately, and how upsetting the thought of her new adventures have become to him, all stupid one day purchases, refinishing, sanding, and glazing. And those damned sales, just to get rid of a shit-load of wooden inventory nobody wants anymore. Jack’s mind is headed for a car wreck.

Chloe had no intention to open a refinishing business. Chloe had simply attempted to communicate with Jack, perhaps work on saving their marriage by sharing something, anything. All she wanted to do was to make sure they were still human, and not following out of love?

Jack walks out onto the patio. It’s freezing cold. She’s never left the door wide open before. Jack looks over the patio railing, straight down at the buildings flashing blue lights. Jack imagines the lights spinning clockwise, blue lights of madness. He’s a horrified child again, stuck on a shaky Farris wheel.  

Jack refuses the uptake of reasonable thought. He tromps back inside, grabbing the patio door handle. He slides the door shut with a smack and locks it tight, unlocks it and locks it again.

Jack backs away from the patio door a few steps.  Next, he becomes transfixed at his computer screens reflection in the glass panel, the stack of emails.  He looks beyond the reflection into the impending darkness. His wife has committed suicide. Jack begins to dial 911 and hesitates. 

In the windows reflection, Jack’s cursor is pulsating manically. The cursor, like the police cars lights, has turned cobalt blue. Everything is cobalt blue through Jack’s new crazy looking glass. Jack feels as though he has the spade of hearts stuck in his throat. He’s going to have to face everything alone now.

Who’s going to believe he hadn’t pushed her over the railing? Who’s going to download his Google searches? After all, Jack’s night hasn’t been all work. 

Jack’s searches: How to best divorce your wife so she won’t take all you money. Pushing someone to their death/top ten dating sites/how to cheat the bitch out of her alimony? /how to tell your new love how much you hate children?/the deadly effects of Ricin?

Jack mulls over an email he’d received from a government attorney he knows, Mr. Tom Jennings. Mr. Jennings works for the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Heads up dude, call me in the morning, you’re going to be indicted for fraud and insider trading.”

Jack had opened and closed the email over an hour ago. 

The cameras are viewing Jack’s behavior in real-time. Someone or something already knows the 411.

Jack’s hands feel clammy and sweaty. His guts are wriggling eels. He’s got acid electricity reflux. Epinephrine car jacker’s are running red lights through the intersections of his synapse. 

Jack fixes his eyes on the patio door handle. His fingerprints overlap Chloe’s. It’s obvious who shut the door after Chloe jumped. Jack has an urge to wipe the prints clean. But that’s tampering with evidence. Jack chooses not to wipe. How about becoming a fox, and opening the lock with a butter knife? But that makes little difference. 

Jack is saddened by a long buried thought. He remembers how his older brother had gotten himself written out of his mother’s trust fund. How Thomas had embarrassed her and tarnished the family name. 

Jack is too aware of all the forensic evidence stored on his company’s hard drive, as well as well as somewhere far away in a data farm in Iowa or out in the Ethernet.

Jack’s laptop is stingy, it is holding back those sexy pictures of his hotel tryst, an affair he had affair with a coworker named Andromeda. The undercover photos had been taken and sent to Jack just like the shit-load of other incriminating emails. A private detective he’d hired had traced the emails to the Public Library on 66th street. From there, any further evidence had disappeared into some kind of black hole.

Jack and Chloe had recently upped their life insurance payout totals. 

Jack opens the patio door again. His face is swollen and numb. His hands bloody from clinching his fists. He shuffles forward over the threshold into another world. Jack presses up against the rail, never thinking to look up again. His fingernails splinter against the iron rail like hickory kindling cut with a hatchet. Jack loses control of the steering wheel nearly half way down to his death.

Chloe Rings his doorbell. He takes the longest time to open his ornate entrance, not wanting to appear too anxious. He peaks through the vertical slit between the door and door jam, created by the hallway lighting.

Chloe blurts out, “What is that smell in your apartment?” 

“I’m so very sorry,” he says, “I’ll open a window, come in. As he pivots in the direction of his massive studio, he adjusts his sclera from black to white, and turns off the ultrasonic sound.

 Chloe says, “No, no, I didn’t mean…I love the scent of furniture wax.” 

“39, follow me, take a quick look.” he insists. It loves control more than Jack ever imagined. Building worlds is in his wheelhouse. 

It contemplates how the building’s complex has been blessed in a honeycomb of planned cells. Each cell a prismatic hexagonal chamber of wax meant for the incubation of mammalian larva. 

In the expansive craft room, rest a pair of Antique French Nightstands. He refers to them as French Provincial Cane Bedside Tables.

Chloe stands mesmerized, as the building’s ownerexplains how the nightstands had been a bargain on eBay, costing only $4,995.00. The special furniture polishing wax is meant to be the finishing touch on the restoration project.

Chloe marvels how he’s going to give the two antiques to Goodwill Industries for their annual fundraiser raffle. Jack never gave anything of himself away.

Time is of the essences in the vast preparation room. It is a sexual monster and it shows.

Before Chloe knows it, she’s nearly chatted an hour away. There’s certain numbness around her swollen lips, this feeling of heaviness clear up into her tummy. It’s a good feeling though, she thinks, not a bad one. She’s pregnant.  

With Jasmine, the modern on level 24, it had been more difficult. A full 2 hours had been needed, she was insatiable. Jasmine loves cooking, the smell of basil. 

And Theresa, 18, last August, the perfume of espresso had lured her into his masterful, foul stickiness. Theresa’s downfall had been her lust for his La Marzocco Linea Mini Espresso Machine. Theresa is two months away from her birthing.

He had become well acquainted with Chloe, but, he’d taken his time to get to know her, like all the rest. After all, he reads everyone’s emails, and monitors there phone calls.  And he knows so much more his assigned city. 

He thanks Chloe for stopping over.

After the coupling, he walks Chloe back to the elevator. She admires the tall, dark and handsome stranger, as he gently places her finger on the 39th floor button.  

Later, it will retire to the studio and pleasure himself over the day’s recorded videos. 

He’ll watch the one with Chloe in the elevator and observe closely how she erotically sniffs at her armpits while on the ride down to her floor. It imagines she finds her new scent quite zesty. It slobbers as she touches her cheeks with her silken hands, cups one of her firming breasts. She’sblushing fuchsia. Iwatches as she tugs at her Cashmere sweaters V-neck, admiring her cleavage and dampness. How she waves her hands over her face, stoking the fires of submission.

Chloe Exits the elevator and slowly walks up to her apartment door. She unlocks it and enters. Chloe closes the thick door quietly. She then engages the deadbolt. She dares not disturb Jack, She’s sure he is still busy at work.

Chloe thinks this the beginning of the better part of her life. 

It observes Chloe as she anxiously walks through the empty living space directly to the patio. She senses something alarming. At the patio she presses up against the railing and looks down. 

It claws at an itch on the edge of a wing. Its brain is a fevered swamp of new life.

Chloe looks down at all the flashing blue lights. This time, the blue lights are police cars, not the flashing blue lights that warn pedestrians as a driver exists the underground parking. The signaling blue lights are meant to warn the homeless they are about to get run over. The building owner is delighted that the exit is dangerous, thus driving the homeless to camp across the street. 

Her actions tell it that she is relieved. 

Chloe walks back to her favorite sofa. She sits and thinks. Chloe dials 911. Of all her senses, her sense of smell is the most heightened. Everything molecule in her world is Carnauba wax and Google baby clothes. 

Several stories up, in its studio, it continues to watch Chloe. It has met his world’s projected monthly quota. Soon, there will be a new one of them, and then Chloe’s disposal.

It is a rock star. Its appetite is insatiable. Its numbers are tops again. There will be another bonus. It is just one of many across the Promised Land. Who needs a spacecraft to create a new planet?

It smells more like a bat than artificial intelligence. It wishes it had teeth and didn’t have to suck like a leach. It hangs upside down, more than it crawls. It needs to procreate. It is looking over your shoulder. It is becoming a God of a new planet, his assigned city, The Big Apple.

“Andy, maybe you’re correct about that pointing spaceship Building. From the looks it,” Carl points across the street as FDNY hoses down the messy sidewalk, “I think one of your aliens dropped out of the sky last night.”


Dan’s most recent darkness has been published by Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Black Petals, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Bull, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights Podcast, Cleaver, Close to the Bone, Coffin Bell, Dark City Books, Entropy, HorrorAddicts.net, Mystery Tribune, Suspense Magazine, The Yard Crime Blog, Variant, The 5-2.  Dan has been nominated for Best of the Net and best micro-fiction. 


“Then the Lady Sang” A Macabre Story of Two Brothers by Fariel Shafee

Mrs. O Brien shut the window with a bang and put the large puffy white pillow on her face.  Everything in this room was white or light blue.  Even the medicinal mixture she took at 11 pm was light blue.  That was not by choice, though.  She would have gotten up an hour early to oversee breakfast and to tend to the newly planted saplings by the fence, to make her presence known to the workers.  But instead, she had decided to sleep. Perhaps she wanted to be in another reality where that piece of paper did not sit on the little gray table by the fireplace.  She also wanted to forget the call from the other world that had pervaded her air after dinner, when she had visited her room for her regular medication.

She had heard it before she lit the candles.  It was a bizarre sound that was harsh and it made her feel squeamish at once.  When she made it to the dresser, found the matches and lit the candles, the room looked unfamiliar, as though a misty veil had covered her furniture. 

After she had gone to bed, the sound came once again, penetrating the wooden window and the dawn pillow.  The sound was shrill and coarse, artless, as though a large dodo had been released from a hellish farmhouse to wander about in confusion and squeak, to eat up the new lemony leaves and the wood shavings scattered by the workroom, before the awkward bird would bang onto the verandah and collide with the rocking chair.

She knew there was no bird.  The face she had seen.  It was a momentary perception.  The eyes were large and dark, and the hair was long and disheveled, as though the uninvited visitor had left her house while she was busy tidying herself up.  Her skin was wrinkled and pale.  The person was short, around four feet tall.  She could have been Mary, had she been thirty years younger and a foot and a half taller.  But Mary was a gentle soul.  Also, Mary was dead.

Mrs. O Brien had squarely placed the blame of the unearthly visitation on that spoonful of sleeping medicine, though that tag would perhaps disobey causality.  It was the face first, and then she opened the drawer, took out the bottle. No, it was the syrupy bitter fluid.  She did not wish to think.  The liquid in the bottle was good.  It helped her not to think.

Now, in the dining room, the two brothers, Adam and Jones sat at the opposite sides.  The two hardly ate together.  Adam would leave for work: gunning down rabbits in the marsh or foraging.  His main objective was to discover signs of black gold seeping out through a crack.  The boy from Pike’s Hill had gotten rich.  He now owned a farm and a mansion. Land sold for cheap in the locale, and others did not have to be told what they did not have to hear.  Finders keepers.  One day he could be king.  But Jones — he might not exist.  Perhaps Adam felt sympathy for his brother now.  He felt a hollow sac floating erratically inside his soul.  Mrs. O’Brien’s older son, though, saw no reason for extended, cheap sentiments.  He, however, was hungry.

The piece of paper was off white.  It sat still in the living room.  They all pretended not to have seen it when they walked past.  It looked mundane, like those useless pieces of trash you never read.  They wished they had not read it!  The demands made were heavy.

Jones would leave for the war.  He, like the rest, knew that there was no escape but to a certain bloody death.  A boy who ran days back was shot in the head.  They had left the corpse in the street.

Adam did not say much to his brother while they munched, and then sipped the tea together.  A little bell jungled from the verandah.  Perhaps there would be no other Christmas together.  Perhaps this was the end of time for one.

“I will be back in the evening,” was all that Adam said, as he got up, picked his thick waterproof bag and his large boots. 

Jones nodded.  He did not wait for his mother.  He would walk into the study and write some important letters.

“Dear Ruth,” he started to scribble. “My darling, I do not know if we will meet again.”

He had started the letter at night, once her mother had left for the room.  Inside his strong, undaunting cage, he felt lost still.  Within the frame of bravery there was sorrow creeping in in the same manner the songs of life and love were dispersing out.

In candle light, the room had looked mysterious just like life that night.  What did it all mean in the end?

He had sat on the red cherry chair that was built years back and had remembered himself and Ruth chasing a small dear within the woods in summertime.  The shriek was sudden.  It shook him as though he was already hit by a bullet.   It sounded like a bird.  The creature, he thought, was in pain, as though it was being dragged to be sacrificed, and saw the sharp blade hanging. 

Jones tried to shrug off the fears of the night gone away, now that the sun was bright.  Tomorrow he would be elsewhere, marching to glory or damnation.

Jones collected himself and closed his eyes for a moment.  When he looked out through the window.  It was a bright Monday.  Far away, the workers had started to till the land.  Most of them were women.  Jones was one of the last men to be called in for the war.  Their influences were all exhausted.  “Was it unmanly?” he thinks.  Mostly it was his mother.  He had duties towards the family too.  Who would look after the old lady, the property?  It was she who had reached out, spoken personally, pushing back the inevitable.

Now even under the lusty vivid sun, dust had dispersed all about the scorched earth.  At times, the thirsty trees looked blurry or washed out.  The saplings were near the fence.  Mother had planted some herself.  Those were a mix of fruits and flowers. 

Jones scanned the yard for a bird – a big bird.  It could be an unseemly flightless creature, perhaps flaunting red beaks, large yellow eyes, and a tuft on top of its crown.  What could indeed have squeaked in that manner while he sat alone at night?

He, however, remembered the ensuing image.  After the squeak, there was a pause.  He was scanning the room for more candles, and for the rifle.   Finally, what he had seen could not be expressed properly.  It was a human body, a female.  The picture persisted only for a few moments before it disappeared, as though the atoms had dispersed all about with a bang.  The apparent human was small, about four feet tall.  She had long disheveled hair and large red eyes.  Jones did not know if it was blood, but the crimson within which the eyeballs floated looked vengeful, as though the world should be torn down into pieces.  She wore a gray robe that fell down to the ground.  But he felt that she was floating, that her legs were not on the earth.  She had looked at him for a moment, only.  But how loathsome was that look – as though he ought to rot, lie wounded and alone in the battlefield!  A very cold shiver had then traversed through his spine.  Jones did not wish to write any more.  He needed to grab a drink.

Now that life was in full rhythm of the day he was writing once again.  He was thinking about Ruth and what life could have been in a year.  But that wrinkled hag kept popping up from elsewhere, from right inside his head where the night’s moments had settled with some permanence.

Mrs. O Brien sat up on the bed and poured some water into her glass.  The jug was on the table, and she had filled It herself at night.  No, she had not forgotten the routines even in her distressed moments up until the morning.   She was a little dizzy still, and the room looked hazier than usual, as though the edges of the desk and the nightstand were blurry.  She saw those large eyes in the midst of the room again.  This was just a figment of her mind.  Then she opened the drawer of her bedside table and took out an album.  It was an old item and the off-white cover had stained into yellow here and there.  Inside, pictures from another decade popped out.  Here she was with that other girl, and there, again in the beach, baking in a summer of desires and hidden contempt — both smiling profusely though.  The black and white still images ushered a variegated reel of events from the past.

Mary was younger than herself.  She was also thinner and taller.  Her hair was the red of burning bushes, unlike Mrs. O Brien’s solid black.   Mary was also less worldly wise, too open, and too loud.   She was direct about her desires, about her unhappiness with Mrs. O Brien’s rendezvous.  He had betrayed Mary first.  But she was direct with Jill.  Yes, Jill – that is what she called her.  Jill didn’t have the right.

As the Mrs. O’ Brien of today shuffled the pages of the album, the funeral was dragged back from the past.  There she was in all back.  Mary was nailed in for good.  The only living sister stood right next to Jim, Mr. O Brien of the future that is.  She could have opted for some space, out of respect for Mary.  But the emotions then were strong.  Mary had slapped her the night before.

The death was not Jim or Jill’s fault.  The death was nobody’s fault.  Mary had gone to the forbidden corner of the enclave.  She had fallen.  She had fallen a hundred feet to her demise.  Almost all her bones were broken.  Jill could have warned her about the spot her sister had chosen for her art project.  But did she really owe that?  It was common sense, wasn’t it?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a warm little tear drop on her cheek.  She was unsure who she was crying for – the dead or the one who might soon become the fallen.  She then saw that face in a flash – the hag.  It was her memory.  The face was ugly and old.  Mary would shout and then forget.  Her anger never persisted.  Not through decades.  Would she be so mean as to seek revenge – come for an innocent boy?  Was it her own guilt that had made that face up?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a shiver.  Then she got up, put on her silk robe, headed down to the kitchen. 

Life and time would persist.  She would face both boldly.

Adam felt a little numb as he made his way through the swampy patch.  He wore a dark short coat and black plastic boots.  His thin lips were colorless and his short hair stuck closely to his scalp.  A solid brass stick helped him keep the balance.  His right leg was weak – a fall from many years back.  The doctor had feared that he would not walk again.  But he did get up, cross the room on his own and then walked up to the school bus.  He had felt angry then about his own stupidity, about the hare he wanted to trap.  But now that leg had saved him. 

Adam felt sorry for Jones.  He wanted to hug him at the breakfast table.  But his brother had put up his usual shield of defense – impermeable pride that drew a line.  Adam, so, had simply smiled.  It was a nervous, curt smile.  Jones had nodded.  They had both quickly stared at the rifle that hung upon the wall next to the head of a large dead brown bear.

As the day progressed, Adam passed through the thin thorny shrubs and moved into the rocky part of the landscape.  The stones were dry and reddish with some speckles of blue and gray.  The earth was scorched and rough.  He would find no black gold here.  He wanted something flat in the roughness – peace. 

In half an hour Adam reached the edge where steep rocks have made up the boundary between earth and untouched paradise.   He had found that edge where a single tree stood tall.  The leaves were few and long, slightly faded.  There was a nest at the top.  He could not see the birds.

It is now 11 am.

Adam sits and takes out his water bottle from the bag.  The heat will recede in an hour.  He wants to watch the birds circle above-head and then gaze at the lush below.  The plateau beneath has a river.  In it, fish swim in schools of abundant colors.  Wild beasts guard their very own kingdom.  In the evening, Adam wants to watch that elusive green flash and then walk back home.  Tomorrow, there will be gun shots.  Jones will be in a barrack.

Soon the afternoon melts into evening.  Light begins to flicker away.   A mysterious thickened veil obscures much of reality.  The moon is up in the sky as though it is half transparent within the daylight not yet removed.  Perhaps it is time to leave.  One more moment – he decides.

As Adam sits and watches a single white bird circle the sky, he hears a strange chant.  It is faint, as though the source is far away.  But the softness soothes him immediately.   He had heard of singing mermaids.  Those fishy maidens were unreal.

The air now is cooler, and Adam closes his eyes.  The sound gets louder, yet remains soft.  The tune is from a far away land and carries with it the allure of a beautiful life as it mixes with the breeze, wraps him from all around.

When he opens his eyes, he sees a maiden standing by the tree.  She is tall and slender with a head full of crimson hair.  Her lips are full and red.  Her silver robe extends to the rocks below as though she could flow away on a smooth and silky wave. 

She looks at him for a moment, but that look pierces into his soul.  He knows her, he thinks.  She is part of his very own flesh.  Then she disappears.  Adam tries to find her behind the tree, but she is nowhere. 

Only a feather floats in the air.

“My love, life is sweet,” he whispers.  “Why is it that we fight?”

Adam thinks of getting up to return home.  Maybe he will hug his brother this night.  He will hold him tightly and wish him well.  In the morning Jones will ride alone to the West.

As Adam gathers his belongings – the empty water bottle, a pair of binoculars and a small blanket, he feels a sharp pain on his palm.  The pain soon propagates up to his shoulder and the unearthly tune returns only to fade away.  It is only then he hears the rattling sound of the snake.  He bites his lips. 

Home is far away.  Nobody knows his location.

Wednesday morning that same week is sunny unlike Tuesday, when the sky cried out its agonies.  The earth looks fresh now.  But the O’Briens are somber, quiet.  One of them had departed. 

They are clad in black, standing in front of the coffin.

At night on Monday, when the sky was still clear, and when the announcement had come that the war had ended, Adam was happy and sad.

He did not look for Jones.  Instead, he had gone back to the study, and had torn down the note written to Ruth.

A boy had found the body in the forest the next afternoon.  Adam did not look anguished or unhappy, though his arm was blue.

Mrs. O Brien now looks at his son and his peaceful face and wonders if life to him had been kind in the very last moments.

She looks again for the face, the unhappy sister she had lost.  The maiden though is nowhere.  Nothing squeaks. 

“We are ready,” someone announces.


The author has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art.  She has published prose and petry in decomP, Blaze Vox, Illumen etc.


“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


“The Sea of Purple” A Tale of a Terrifying Future by Ethan Maiden

Welcome to Evergreen.
	Tis a place known to no map in the old world. Its beauty lies rich and vibrant; endless green farmland and vast woodland surround it, protect it, this village of endless spring. 
	As residents we know not of winter, of snow or rain, we only know of warmth and the eternal youth the fruit shall bring. 
	We are not allocated a traditional name one associates with people of a similar appearance in the old world. Instead, we are given a letter from birth by our Elders. 
	I am K. Along with me, there are three other K’s in the village, all born on the same cycle.
	Teachings of the old world cite that offspring come from the womb of a woman, in Evergreen we come from the womb of the earth. We are chosen by a greater power to come to this place and mask in the beauty, forever young until the time comes for us to return from which we came.  
	We’re assigned chores by the Elders.
	Some of us are assigned washing duties, others prepare the meals.
	And some pick – the fruit.
	The fruit grows in the spanning fields, spawned from some ancient and otherworldly force known only to us as - The Sea of Purple. 
	I pick the fruit, it’s no bigger than my palm. The round squidgy texture glows with an orange shimmer. The basking colour inside makes it hard to resist, it’s inviting to just take it into your mouth and bite down. The juices would flow through our veins, making us ripe once again. 
	However, we’re forbidden to eat the fruit by the Elders during the picking; we eat when they tell us to eat. 
	I usually pick three baskets of fruit a day, although I can tell the quantity is dwindling as I’m struggling to now fill one. The fruit is becoming harder to find and that means a summoning by the Elders is imminent.
	The fields are flanked by fruit trees on either side, most of which are just shy of my height. Approaching is a familiar face. It’s one of two J’s of the village. She has pale flesh, blonde hair in a ponytail hidden behind a white veil. J’s dress is red, flowing above her tight white tunic and flaring from the waist.
	J and I had always been close. We’d attended the teachings of the Elders together, learning about the old world. When J was assigned picking duty I was ecstatic, spending time in this field searching for the orange glimmer all day, one can become quite lonely.
	‘Good day,’ I said as we met. I looked in her basket and saw a dozen pieces of fruit, not nearly enough for this time of day. ‘The fruit runs scarce for us it would seem.’
	She nodded looking down at her basket, ‘Madam Elder will be announcing a summoning any day now.’
	I concurred, ‘aye, I believe it would be your time to bless the earth.’			
	J crouched down to the hard dirt and ran her hand over the loose gravel. ‘Tis a great honour to become one with the earth again,’ she said standing, her face falling distant. ‘I have to say that I would have enjoyed more time with you before I leave.’
	Tis true; the feeling was mutual. 
	As residents of Evergreen, we are forbidden to have any physical contact with another. Physical relations result in rotten fruit, and that could bring an end to our beautiful society. But it would be a lie to say that I didn’t feel the warmth flare in my body when I laid eyes on J.
	‘Aye, it’s a shame our friendship will be over prematurely,’ I said, feeling a small ache in my chest. 
	When we returned to the village, we placed our half-filled baskets in the temple hall ready for collection. 
	W, who is one of the food preparers came and looked what we had managed to scrape together. He was a bullish boy with a few strands of hair mopped over his shiny head.  
	‘Is that it?’ he sniggered. ‘With what the others brought, I will barely be able to feed the village.’
	‘The fruit is hard to come by at the moment,’ I said.
	W looked up at J, ‘it shall be you who redeems the fields then, huh?’
	‘And with great honour,’ she replied without hesitation.
	As I made my way back to my shed I wondered about J’s words. She would have liked to spend more time with me? This sounds foreign, I’d never heard of any member of the community with a distaste of giving themselves to The Sea of Purple. 
	A peculiar notion. Since birth from the ground I have always looked forward to when my time comes to nourish the fields. It’s our purpose to serve the Elders and give ourselves to The Sea of Purple. 
	There was tightening in my chest, a prodding burden. I couldn’t get J out of my head, her pretty face refusing to leave my vision. 
	I entered my shed and bolted the door.
	The community sheds were identical. They were made from the wood of the forest, sculptured from thick trunks. It was a haven, a place to recuperate before the next day’s hard work.
	We had a wooden block to lay on and rest and at the moment - think. 
	When the dark came, we would stare out to the night sky and prey to the Great Ones, as Madam Elder taught us. 
	They have given us a sanctuary to live until we are called back to the gut of the world, she had said on many a teaching. 
	Yet tonight, I couldn’t forget J. 
	Dinner was served in the temple as nightfall fell upon the village. 
	The temple was a vast structure, towering above all else. It was where the Elder’s resided and seated the entire village, twenty-three of us on either side of the long table. At the head was another table that faced us seating the seven Elders, with Madam Elder at the center. She was tall, thin, with a mop of blonde hair to her bony shoulders. Madam Elder had small piercing eyes, hazel in colour and dressed in a long white robe with blue collar. The other Elders were matched in the same clothing. Three male and three female, all with the same stern and piercing expression as they watched us. 
	Along the middle of the table were bowls of fruit, shining under the candlelight.
	Across from me sat J, the glow in her face from earlier had become absent.
	With a twang of the drum, Madam Elder rose, towering like a goddess.
	‘As you all can see, the fruit is falling in numbers by the day,’ Madam said, her voice
echoing off all the walls. ‘The time has come for a summoning, where we will grace the earth and
be rewarded with new life. It is tomorrow, under the night sky where we shall present our gift to
the great Sea of Purple.’
	Madam Elder looked over to J and smiled, ‘do you accept this honour, child?’ she asked.
	‘I do,’ J replied.
	Madam Elder then turned to the other J sitting further down the table, ‘and you, child?’
	‘Yes, Madam,’ the burly boy replied.
	‘Then it shall be tomorrow where you shall arrive in your purest forms. Tonight, you will
feast,’ Madam Elder said holding out her hands. ‘But first we pray.’
	Madam Elder sat and we all placed our palms on the table in tandem. 
	It was Papa Elder sitting to Madam’s right who spoke the words:

Thank you for the fruit, 
It shall fill our veins and replace our blood.
We shall remain young, faithful and ready at your will,
when the time comes, we shall bow in all your grandeur.
There is no death in Evergreen, only rebirth.
It is under your guidance and grace,
that we continue to live free and in paradise.
	Amen.

	‘Amen,’ we all said together.
	‘Feast, children,’ Madam Elder instructed.
	Then we ate and ate well. The aches in our bones vanished. The lines under the elder’s
eyes reversed and youthfulness flourished across their brows.
	My eyes locked with J’s, a sadness laid between us that I’d never felt before.
	After dinner, I went back and laid in my shed, staring at nothing. J’s face, that’s all I could
picture as the darkness drew in.
	When the knock came on my door, I sprang up, thankful for the distraction. It was J stood
outside, her eyes glistening in the light of the burning torches planted around
the village.  
	‘J, are you all right?’ I asked.
	She nodded and took my hand within hers. ‘It’s my last night in Evergreen, I was
wondering if you’d accompany me to the place where this world falters and the next begins?’
	My head told me to stay and decline the offer, if Madam Elder found out that we’d been
out together then the repercussions would be dastardly. Yet, my heart pushed me out the door, my
hand gripping J’s tightly.
	To the north of the village sat Eden hill, the tallest point that looked out over the village
and endless woodland. It was forbidden to venture there, only the Elders were permitted to look
beyond Evergreen. Planted in the middle of the hill was the tall oak, the tree full of bloom which
held the ripest of fruit. Again, it was the Elder’s privilege to taste the fruit that fell from the tall
oak.
	‘I don’t think we should be up here, J,’ I said as she dragged me up the final steps of the
incline.
	‘I am giving myself to Evergreen,’ she replied. ‘To gaze upon where the sky ends is
something I have to see.’
	We reached the top of Eden and fell to the ground exhausted. 
	Nothing could have prepared me for what flowed beneath the other side. A terrain of
colour swirled in a pool of purple where the night sky ended. The greens and oranges
mingled and caressed one another back and forth.
	The Sea of Purple. 
	It was glorious. 
	‘And there it is,’ J said. ‘The place where Evergreen ends and another world begins. The
Sea of Purple, the great one that comes alive when summoned.’
	‘What do you think is beyond this great sea?’ I asked fixated on the sparkling pool.
	‘The book of Evergreen speak of a place not like ours.’
	‘You read Madam Elder’s transcript?’ I asked aghast.
	J didn’t directly answer me, she just said: ‘The book speaks of a world where people like
us grow old … together. A place where the night sky is alive with twinkling light and a white sun.
Tis a place where people like me and you hold one another, where we give life to offspring.’
	I frowned, ‘the fruit?’
	J smiled, ‘the fruit does not exist in this other place.’
	‘Then how do the Elder’s stay young?’
	‘There are no Elder’s,’ J replied. ‘In this other world, you grow old until the time is right.’
	It almost killed me but I managed to pull my eyes away from the purple vortex and stared
into J’s eyes. 
	‘I think we need to be heading back,’ I said.
	J smiled and nodded, ‘you know, I would enter this void now to see this other world, if
only you’d come with me.’
	I reclined in fear as J grabbed my hands.
	‘We could be more,’ she continued. ‘Evergreen isn’t the end, there is so much more, it’s
just Madam Elder is reluctant to share her knowledge. We could leave and grow old together, K. I
have read the transcript and know this to be true. My heart aches as I know yours does too, we
could be together in another life.’
	‘Tis true that I feel something odd whenever I think of you. Yet leaving Evergreen is not
something any of us should consider. We are a family and the family needs the fruit.’
	J peered down solemnly. ‘I know you’re right,’ she whispered. ‘It was unfair of me to
bring you here.’
	‘No, I’m glad I saw such beauty.’
	‘It is beautiful,’ she replied staring at the void of purple.
	‘I wasn’t talking about the sea,’ I said, my eyes now firmly on her.
	J stared back and bloomed.
	Back at the village I walked J back to her shed and bid her goodnight. As I strolled down
the path back to my dwelling, I saw the tall imposing figure of Madam Elder stood outside the
temple.
	‘K, come forth,’ she said.
	The tone in her voice made my chest pump.
	‘Yes, Madam.’
	‘What are you doing out of your shed at such a time?’ she asked.
	I declined to answer, one does not tell lies to Madam Elder.
	‘You’ve been somewhere you shouldn’t have?’ she probed.
	She knows … she knows I have seen where the world bounds with another … the Sea of Purple.
	‘Aye, Madam,’ I replied. ‘There is no excuse for my treason. I shall serve with any debt
you deem adequate.’
	Madam Elder placed her long finger against my lips and stared into my soul with those
bright eyes. ‘Shushh, child,’ she whispered. ‘In Evergreen, thou shall be tested by many a thing.
Tis how you come through those tests which determine what kind of Evergreen resident you are.’
	I nodded.
	Madam said: ‘Tomorrow is the summoning, where we bring forth the great one, the one
who will cherish us with life, I would like you to stand beside me, child.’
	My eyes studied her, ‘that would truly be an honour, Madam,’ I said.
	‘Then go and rest,’ she replied.
	As the warmth of day returned, I felt different. The words of Madam Elder had placed me
at ease, even though she knew of my treachery.
	At breakfast and lunch, I kept my head down. I felt two sets of eyes staring at me as I ate:
J’s and Madam Elders. They were both watching me, I could feel it, both for different reasons.
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a flicker of sorrow losing my lifelong friend at the
summoning. But that is what we have to sacrifice to live here in Evergreen, the eternal beauty and
life comes with a price. I had to shun away those warm feelings in the pit of my stomach.
	I locked myself away the shed for the rest of day, surprised that there were no knocks at
the door. I thought that J would give it one last attempt to run away to this so-called other “old
world”. 
	Yet, J did not come forth. Instead I was left with nothing but my thoughts and they were
consumed with the Sea of Purple.
	The drums boomed out as darkness fell on the village.
	It was time.
	In my small wooden cabinet was the summoning attire. It consisted of a long flowing
white robe, blue collar and the mask carved from the woodland trees. I placed it on the front of my
face and tied the rope behind my head. The mask was heavy with thick slits chipped out where my
eyes fell. The masks of the villagers matched with one another, the Sea demanded we appear equal
during a summoning.
	Once ready I exited the shed. Many of the other residents were already stood outside with
their masks on and flaming torches in hand. I grabbed my burning torch and waited patiently. 
	The whole village fell silent. No sound other than the flickering flames.
	The Elder’s walked down the road, Madam’s flowing dress made her appear as though
floating like some goddess. She wore the huge Elder wicker mask that matched her grandeur. Papa
walked next to her followed by the other Elder’s; they strode straight ahead with purpose. Behind
the Elder’s: the two J’s. Both of which were absent of clothes, their pale flesh looking as pure as
when they came into this world.
	The village followed behind them in tandem.
	When the head of the group reached me, I waited to see if J would give me one last glance
… she didn’t.
	I studied her naked body and felt that warmth enter me again. J’s long blonde
 hair now
dropped to her bare shoulders. She was true beauty to behold, only matched by that of Evergreen
and the Sea of Purple.
	I joined the group as the Elder’s marched us to the bottom of Eden hill. There we stopped
and Madam Elder took off her mask turning to face the group. 
	‘Tonight, we summon the one that shall bring us fresh and eternal life,’ Madam said. ‘The
great one shall take their prize and bless us with the fruit that binds us together, maybe even create
us new lives to cherish.’
	Madam Elder held out her arms to bring forth the two J’s. They walked up and stood
beside her, one on either side. 
	Madam bellowed: ‘The chosen ones must now leave us to rejoin with the earth from which
they spawned.’ Madam Elder looked at me, a shot of cold eyes, ‘K, join me,’ she said.
	The group all turned and when I stepped forward, they parted without hesitation.
	Reaching out I took Madam Elder’s hand. She placed me next to J and I felt my heart beat
faster, a longing to hold her one last time. 
	Madam Elder continued, this time her voice louder – unworldly: ‘Great one, the one who
resides in the Sea of Purple and wonder. Come forth and take these offerings we give to you. Bless
us with your beauty and wonder.
	Silence.
	Followed by rumbling beneath my feet. 
	Madam’s eyes grew bigger, ‘the great one has heard our plea, now all must shield your
eyes, we are too inferior to gaze upon the great ones wonder,’ Madam said picking up her mask
and placing it back upon her crown.
	The rumbling was followed by an almighty growl that made my ears yelp.
	The ground shook harder as I clenched my eyes as tight as I could.
	There were shrieks, whistles and gusts of wind as the darkness came alive. 
	I twitched my hand with contemplation to reach over and take J’s.
	The sound boomed and was thunderous before slowly subsiding and fading away back to
silence.
	Instinctively I reached out and grabbed nothing but thin air.
	‘You are now free to open your eyes,’ Madam Elder said.
	Quickly, I snapped my hand back by my side before anyone had the chance to see my
conflict.
	J was gone.
	‘The great one has taken the offering, be gone now and prey that they bless us with fresh
life,’ Madam ordered.
	The residents of Evergreen took their leave back to the village.
	As I went to walk, Madam grabbed my arm.
	‘Tis with great bravery that you shunned your desires,’ Madam whispered. ‘You have
proven yourself to be a noble resident. Perhaps there is potential to be an Elder in you,’ Madam
said.
	‘Really? An Elder, me?’ I asked aghast. 
	‘Many a more challenge shall come forth, my child. It is how you deal with those
challenges which determine Elder status.’
	‘But Madam, I’m K, next in line for the summoning.’
	Madam took off her mask and smiled. ‘If there is Elder status in you then the great one
shall spare you, child, just as it did with me. The Sea of Purple and wonder are more than we
could ever imagine. If you are chosen, there are secrets that you shall learn. Until then, rest.’
	The following day I headed out to pick the fruit. 
	Specks of crimson sprayed the fruit trees with chunks of pale flesh scattering the fields and
on the floor. Crouching down I ran my hand over the remains of J, now seeding the earth.
	‘Your beauty will endure,’ I said.  
	As I stood, I peered into the distance, gazing at the shimmer of light.
	Flashes and sparkles of orange.
	Fresh fruit had begun to grow.
	The Sea of Purple had given us our blessing.

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


“Blue Genie” Horror by Robb White

Part 1: Lottery Ticket

Rebecca rounded the corner of Giant Eagle’s main entrance to check out the produce. She had  white bean soup for dinner in mind, although leeks weren’t her favorite recipe item. No matter how much they were washed, grains of sand wound up at the bottom of the bowl. 

The voice behind her jarred her out of her cooking reverie, thrusting her into one worse:  Eleanor Ragsdale, her one-time best friend, looked at her with scrunched-up face behind the shopping cart where a chubby toddler waved around a piece of paper and screamed, “Mommy! Boo-gee-gee, boo-gee-gee!”

“Hello, Becky.”

“Hey there, Ellie.”

They wore matching frowns. These rare but always awkward meetings in public always distressed Rebecca, reminding her of her losses: the husband and family she never had.

“Everything OK, hon? You made such a sour face I thought a tarantula jumped out of a bunch of bananas.”

Rebecca forced a smile. “Ah, I see you brought your helper.”

The child’s name—what was it? Some clever-cutesy thing.

“Boo-gee-gee!” the child howled.

“Blue Gee-nie, Rainbow, Blue Gee-nie.”

Blue Genie?

Eleanor’s face, never her strongest feature, bloomed with pride; her expansive bosom beneath the double chin was, she suspected, the main reason why Bill had been lured away just before senior prom. Acid reflux shot up her esophagus every time.

The child thrust a paper at her.

“Becky, Bow wants you to have it.”

Rebecca leaned down to the child’s level. “Thank you for the lovely picture.”

Hardly lovely . . . A genie caricature, not Disney’s Aladdin, either—huge teeth, jet-black goatee and matching spit curl peeking beneath a turban cinched with a ruby pendant. Rainbow’s genie leered at her with a stare that tracked owing to his bulging eyes. The asymmetrical nose and mouth had been applied by stickers. Rainbow’s work. The whole cockeyed alignment made him more sinister. 

The little girl shifted buttocks in the cart, releasing noise followed by gaseous vapor.

“I farted!”

“Yes, you did, honey-bunny.”

Rainbow kicked her mother’s thighs, yelled: “Mommy, go! Cu’cakes!”

“Say ‘You’re welcome’ to the nice lady, so we can get you a yummy cupcake.”

That elicited a mini-tantrum.  

“Shush, Bow, sweetie, we’re going!”

Mugging for her friend, Eleanor delivered an eye-rolling visage of an overwhelmed parent accompanied by a theatrical sigh. “Sometimes I envy you single women. I really do.”

Mother and daughter headed to the bakery section. Eleanor gave her child a smooch on her mop of curls. Rebecca burned with a pang of envy.  She clutched the child’s blue-faced genie, her meager crumb from a feast she’d never enjoy.

A clerk behind a counter where razors, tobacco, and matches were sold along with lottery tickets muttered “Good luck” to a customer. She’d never bought a lottery ticket in her life, not even when the country was consumed with lottery fever after a massive jackpot. Something propelled her toward the window.

“What’ll it be?”

A placard behind the clerk showed penciled-in sums for the Powerball and Mega Millions drawings. Staggering figures: 67 million and 118 million.

“Ma’am?”

“Sorry,” Rebecca replied, “is there one for less money than those two?”

“Wow, that’s a first.”

“What is?”

“Somebody wanting less money. Well, there’s Ohio Classic. A lousy hundred grand.”

“OK.”

“Brought your lucky genie with you, huh?”

Rebecca’s face turned hot. She didn’t realize she’d placed Rainbow’s picture on the counter.

“I’ll take that one, the last one you said.”

“Auto play?”

Rebecca had no idea what that meant.  “Yes.”

“One dollar.”

Ticket in one hand, genie in the other, she abandoned any idea of food. When a customer’s cart triggered the automatic doors, she fled. 

* * *

Part 2: Make a Wish

Nothing for supper the last two nights but Mac & Cheese and a can of Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti. Replacing the bundle of celery in its row, she dug out the ticket from the bottom of her purse and walked over to the same counter she’d purchased the ticket.

The clerk behind the counter was different and seemed intent on ignoring her. Becky noticed the ticket scanner at the end of the counter. A small rectangle of LCD screen above the laser scanner beamed digitized joy: “Welcome! Place Ticket Here.”

She inserted it. Nothing happened. She was about to crumple the ticket and toss it into the receptacle next to the magazine kiosk when the clerk grimaced at her, said, “Put the barcode inside the viewfinder, ma’am.”

Becky’s face flushed; she immediately reversed the ticket.

What happened next came out of dream time that slowed everything to a molasses crawl. Bells clanged, party whistles whooped, and the tiny machine proclaimed in a tinny voice: “Winner! Winner! Winner!”

Her face turned crimson. Everyone in earshot stopped pushing carts to watch.

The clerk sidled over, her scowl replaced by curiosity. “I ain’t ever heard that much whoopty-doo before.”

A crowd gathered around like bees in a hive. People pointed at her.

“Could be a mistake. Gimme the ticket.”

She slid it under Plexiglass.

A deep male voice behind her mumbled, “Damn if I’d hand over that ticket. She’d pull back a bloody stump first.”

Rebecca stood there, still as a post, hoping the crowd would go back to shopping. The opposite happened: more people wandered over, magnetized by the small commotion. Every person in the checkout lines was looking her way. Being stared at brought back the worst time in her life. That old terror welled up.

“Winner! Winner!” the machine kept bleating.

“Can’t find nothin’ wrong with it,” the clerk said. “Looks like it’s the real McCoy.”

Real McCoy . . . her father’s expressions . . .

“How much is it . . .”

“The whole shebang, lady. You got yourself a hundred thousand, cash money. What’s your name anyway? We gotta put you up on our Winners’ Board.”

The clerk jabbed a thumb over her shoulder at a poster board. $5, $10, $20, $100, and $500 denominations were written beside the names of customers in black Magic Marker. Beneath: “Congratulations to All Our Winners!!!” was slathered in glitter.

“You beat ‘em all, hon.”

Rebecca protested she didn’t want her name on it. She was terrified she was gibbering. Her vision lost clarity in moments of panic like this. The edges of things blurred—furniture, people’s faces.

She gripped the counter to keep from falling to the floor; her knees gave out. She clipped the counter with her chin going down to the floor.

Before the light faded, a face loomed above hers: a man’s, not unpleasant. His face stared down at her from the edge of the crowd surrounding her, the only one not expressing panic or concern.

She would recall his frank appraisal later in perfect detail.

When she opened her eyes, the man was still there. This time he was smiling. He swiveled his head at the crowd pressing in. “Folks, move back! Give the woman some air! C’mon, folks, move back!”

Kind but forceful—like her father. No matter what state the grieving family was in when they arrived at the funeral home for calling hours, he was a pillar of strength. He knew exactly what to say and to whom. He gave the same pep talks to the same kinds of people year after year until his stroke. His favorite being the “The-Lord’s-Will-Be-Done” speech he used inside the parlor. In the hospital once, she caught his expression in the convex security mirror in the corner, but it was distorted into a grimace of rictus, a look that terrified her young mind.

The man was striking in looks: a full head of closely barbered hair slightly graying at the temples, deep brown eyes, and a strong jawline. Not Hollywood handsome but good looking by Midwest standards. The slim gold watch on his wrist winked under fluorescent lighting; she noted the gemstone ring, the ironed points of his shirt collar.

The man helped her to her feet.

“Let me help you,” he crooned.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she repeated, rising to her feet slowly.

Nonetheless, the stranger had her triceps in a firm grip, leading her as if she were blind, past the onlookers, through the Express Lane and out the pneumatic doors.

“Let go,” she pleaded, “you’re pinching my arm.”

“I’m so, so sorry.”

They stood on the pavement beside racks of white, yellow, and orange mums for sale. She blinked into the late autumn sun, her stomach queasy. Behind the store’s plate glass, people stared at them. She wanted to get away, far away.

The strange man’s eyes bulged.  “Wait! Your lottery ticket!”

He rushed back inside. She stood transfixed, fearful she’d stumble or faint again. Her stomach roiled with bile. An odd sensation of floating in a cone of ambient light hadn’t yet receded from her vision.

The man came out the exit doors guiding the ticket clerk.

“I brought her,” he said unnecessarily. The ticket woman glared at him.

“I wasn’t gonna hand this ticket to nobody but you,” she said.

Rebecca meekly thanked her.

The man’s smile was radiant. “You never know, dear. Decent people turn into dogs when it comes to this much money. My name’s Ted—Theodore, actually—but I go by Ted.”

“Thanks for—thank you . . .Ted.”

She lacked a handy exit line to depart gracefully. Before she realized what was happening, he was walking beside her, talking the while, in no hurry. She wondered if he was a salesman, maybe a telemarketer. That seemed unkind for his assistance.

Mentally fatigued and drained, she barely replied to his banter. Instead, she thought of Delphinia, her ginger cat, asleep on the ottoman. 

“I hope you don’t consider me presumptuous,” he said, standing beside her car door, “but I told you my name, you haven’t told me yours.”

“Rebecca.”

“A beautiful name,” he whispered, “my mother’s name.”

Rebecca thumbed the key fob. The chhkk of the door unlocking soothed her jangled nerves; she set the ticket in the cup holder and shut the door.

He gave her that look again. She drove off, her heart thumping.

Three days later, answering the doorbell, she found him on her porch with a box of candy and a bouquet of red gladiolas.

* * *

She looked back on that moment as pivotal. She had choices. She could have borrowed a page from Ellie Ragsdale’s book and told him to shove off and take his flowers and candy with him. Or cocked a hand on her hip in the doorway, put Ellie’s arch look on her face and growled, “Say there, Teddy, this doesn’t have anything to do with my coming into a hundred grand now, does it?”

She did neither. She stood there blushing like a moonstruck girl, cutting her eyes from his beaming face to the flowers, then to the candy, then back to his face. Her armpits perspired and a moustache of perspiration began forming above her upper lip.

Before she could say anything other than a stammer of greeting, he was inside the foyer.

His “excuse for dropping by” was her fainting spell, but she wondered how he knew where she lived. The funeral home’s name and number remained changed since her father’s death. Her social awkwardness, aggravated by her semi-reclusive life, left her confused and self-conscious.

Handing him a microwaved cup of decaf, she almost blurted out that her lottery winnings would be deposited in her bank account any day.

Ted was a good listener—in fact, he was a great listener. He really looked at her when she spoke. Not many people do that, she knew. She used to ask Ellie to stop interrupting the middle of her sentences with the beginnings of hers, a rebuke that bounced off Ellie’s head.

He wanted to know about her. It thrilled her.

When he checked his watch, apologizing, saying he had to be somewhere, she was aware of her keen disappointment.

“Thank for the coffee, Rebecca. Do you mind if I call you that?”

His mother’s name, he’d said—

“Call me Becky. My friends all do.”

A tiny fib, she thought. What friends? Job’s comforters, the lot of them or traitors like Ellie.

She didn’t own a cell phone, much less have a “presence” on social media platforms. She wasn’t sure what that meant when he asked her about “family online.” She kept a shoebox in her bedroom closet full of old photos, most dating from her parents’ time. Her father tall beside the casket, neatly shaved, black tie, and suitcoat, beaming, thick horn-rimmed glasses—his first funeral. Her mother in a Jackie Kennedy hat, looking shyly at the camera. They were flawed by camera flash and revealed red eyes like raccoons, not a plain, middle-aged couple. 

The “Bill photos” she could not bear to look at.

Ted was a successful contractor, often on the road in neighboring counties with various projects.

“I don’t get my hands dirty anymore,” he sighed between sips of the bland decaf. “I miss hard work—you know, tearing off a roof, replacing pipes, work that makes you feel good at the end of the day.”

Over the course of two months, they “dated,” although she didn’t like to think of their relationship so formally. He hinted about past relationships that “hadn’t panned out” or were “amicable splits.” She inferred these were amorous events in other states. He briefly mentioned a grown son and daughter that he flew out to visit during holidays.

“Randi’s currently in Indianapolis,” he mentioned. “Ronnie’s in Nevada.”

He didn’t pry into her past, and yet she found herself revealing secrets she thought had been clamped down. He always backed off when he felt he’d trespassed onto private grounds. She reassured him that was not the case, always revealing more than she expected to.

On their first date, he begged her to take him on a tour of her house.

“It’s like a palace, so many rooms. I’ll bet you haven’t even been in some in years.”

She didn’t want him to think she was some kind of neurotic spinster—was that the word people still used?

She took him downstairs for a look at the embalming rooms.

He followed, commenting on the size of the green-tiled walls and high ceilings, ignoring the scuppers in the corners and the unsold display caskets lining one wall, their satin and polyester liners having turned an antique white over time.

She flipped a light switch. Fluorescent lights crackled.  She stood aside to let him enter.

“So, this is where the magic happens?” He lost his smile when he noticed the expression on her grim face. “Sorry, that was tacky.”

“No, no,” Rebecca replied. “It’s just that I haven’t been down here in years.”

The faintest smells overlay the quiet of a room long shut, a familiar redolence of formaldehyde, disinfectant, and the pungent aromas left in the wake of hundreds of corpses.  Powerful olfactory memories tumbled from her neocortex—too many to banish like the dust motes swirling in the faint light streaming from the glass-block lights above their heads at ground level.

He walked along the counters, one hand trailing, passing through the dust over the array of instruments laid out and kept at the ready:  graspers, scissors, staplers, the boxes of gallons of embalming fluid neatly stacked in the corner, extra tubing coiled like transparent snakes on the gleaming counters, the scalpels for making slits beneath the armpit and groin for draining fluids.

Her father’s image arrived unbidden—splash gown rolled to the forearms, the black hairs of his hands vigorously massaging the muscles of “the decedent” (never “the dead” or “the body”). After arrival from the hospital or nursing home, he first had to eliminate blood clots after rigor once the body was stripped and washed on the slab.  Her first jobs as his assistant were to set the face, cant it at a 15-degree angle for proper viewing upstairs. She’d glue the eyelids, seal the mouth in a natural expression—“extremely important,” her father insisted, because embalming fluid would make it impossible to change the features later.

Ted asked simple questions, nothing gross.

“I’ll bet you were great at the makeup.”

“My father taught me to do hair and makeup first. My mother and I pitched in. It was expected. I was still in high school. He thought it would be a good idea to learn a few things before mortuary science at Gannon.”

He had wanted her to succeed him as he had succeeded his father in the mortuary business. Her failure to finish mortician college crushed him. Not even her mother’s death from stage-4 breast cancer hurt as much as that betrayal.

The unasked question hung in the air.  Ted looked at her.

“I—I left school before completing my associate degree,” she said. “See, it was my turn to insert the trocar—”

“Trocar?”

“An instrument designed for removing fluids. It goes into the abdomen.”

She felt that rapid, heart-fluttering sensation as though she were standing in that same room, not here. The 3-sided cutting point, its obturator, and cannula all flashing back to a tactile memory of that day when she hesitated at her instructor’s direction to place it inside “Benny.” Benny was the foam corpse students practiced on.

“What happened?”

“I fainted.”

“I . . . understand.”

“No, you can’t. My father never understood how a stupid practicing dummy made me faint after I’d worked on so many bodies down here right beside him. But it happened. I fainted to the floor. I left school that evening.”

Before she knew it, she was sobbing in Ted’s arms. They made love for the first time that night.  She was so grateful for the release of pressure that she wanted to please him. Unlike her teenaged lovemaking with Bill, this was adult sex. She had her first orgasm.

Weeks passed in bliss. Ted drugged her with sex.

“My God, I’ve missed so much,” she told him in bed that first night.

She dressed for him, made herself more attractive. She tossed out all her negligees and sleepwear for more erotic attire.  She made him meals that took hours to prepare. It seemed that, more than the lottery winnings, her wish for a lover was granted in spades.

Ted pulled the Blue Genie picture attached to the fridge and crumpled it to throw it away.

“You don’t need his magic now. You have me.”

“Please, don’t,” she begged. “He granted me my wish.”

“You mean the money?”

“No, you.”

She understood that men were the sex-seekers, and this was what they craved beyond the homemaking, the dinners, and pillow talk—even more than the tenderness and gentle kisses in daytime. Still, it was strange, unsettling to see him lean against the counter so casually with that look on his face. He slowly undid his belt and shove his pants down to his knees. The bulge in his underwear drew her gaze.

“Come here,” he ordered.

She walked to him, zombie-like, hoped he meant to kiss her passionately. Instead, he pressed her shoulders down, guiding her over the rough fabric of his clothing.

“Do it.”

Her first blowjob. It seemed harsh; it seemed . . . like rape.

He hissed something, gurgled, then grasped the back of her head and thrust his crotch into her. She adjusted to the aggressive rhythm of his thrusts, unable to control anything. She was less afraid of gagging than of what she might see if she removed his erection and looked up into his face.      

* * *

“Get that, hon.”

He sat at the table in his underwear reading. She wanted to protest she was the one doing some work; the moment passed, so she dried her hands on a dish towel and went to the door.

A man in his mid-twenties stood there. At first, she thought he was a salesman, but he didn’t look the part. In fact, he was scruffy looking with long hair and a dark, untrimmed beard. Tattoos on his hands looked crudely drawn, something done in a jail. A duffel bag lay at his feet.

“I’m Ron,” he said. “Where’s my dad here?”

“Your d-dad?”

“Did I stutter? Yeah, my dad. Ted Mayfield.”

Ted shouted from the other room: “Who is it?”

“Your son . . . he says.”

The man brushed past, exclaiming, “Hey, old man, what’s up?”

She turned to behold father and son embracing. Ted gave the youth a hard clap on the shoulder.

“What took you, Ron.”

“Hon, this is Ron. Ron, Becky.”

They shook hands. Father and son walked away, both talking, conversing in a shorthand she didn’t understand. She heard “Seattle” and “docks,” but that was all she understood.

She wondered if she should say something about the duffel bag. Instead, she closed the door and returned to the kitchen.

“Where’d he go?”

“Oh, Ron’s going to stay with us for a couple days. I know, it’s sudden. He should have called, the rascal. I swear, hon, if he weren’t big enough to eat apples off my head, I’d tan his hide for him.”

“Ted, this is not—this is an . . . imposition.”

A fatuous word, but she had nothing else in her vocabulary to fire.

“I told him he could stay at the end of the hallway upstairs.”

“Ted, I don’t let strangers barge in here on a whim.”

Strangers? He’s my son, damn it! I haven’t seen him since last Christmas.”

They’d never argued. This was a shock. She finally relented to Ted’s pleadings, and agreed to “a few days, no more.”

He kissed her neck—more a dismissal than an apology. “That’s my girl!”

Ron stayed out of sight, avoided her. She told Ted to ask his son to share a meal with them that evening. She wanted things to be normal. This seemed like an appropriate truce to bring her and Ted back together. Ted told that morning Ron expected to get work in Cleveland “soon.”

“He’s short of money at the moment. This’ll make all the difference in the world to him—and to me.”

She thought being “short of money” ironic. That expression was on Ted’s lips often these days. She’d already “loaned” him $300 for a contracting job in Andover that fell through at the last minute and left him short of spare cash. “Just to tide me over, sweetie.  That farmer ripped me off. I lost twenty-two hundred on the job. I’ll have to go to court to see any of it back.”

On the day Ron was packing to leave, upstairs waiting for his Uber to take him to Cleveland, another knock at the door summoned her away from the Highsmith novel she was reading in the breakfast nook. She slammed the paperback shut—her first quiet moment dissolved. She was glad Ted had left her alone for a while. She was suffocated by the constant presence of father and son in the house. Her romance had evolved through a rapid progress of honeymoon stage through mid-life crisis to a stressful being taken for granted. Ted hadn’t volunteered to pay a dime for household expenses since that first week she allowed him to move in. 

She parted the sheers and looked out the big front window. A dark-complected male sat behind the wheel of a Honda Civic with its engine running.

Thank God, his ride is here, she thought.

She opened the front door to signal the driver to wait while she called Ron. But she found herself looking into the face of a young woman, age hard to discern because of the matte-black, dyed hair, the purple-tipped bangs, and lip studs at each corner of mouth, all topped by a large nose ring. Her tattoo sleeves, if anything, looked more elaborate than her brother’s and extended to the backs of her hands.

“Hey, I’m Randi. My father said you’d be here to let me in.”

Hell, she told her reflection in the bathroom mirror five minutes later where she ran to weep silent tears. I’m in hell.

* * *

The sanctity of her home wasn’t just gone, it was obliterated—first by Ted, then by his son (whose job mysteriously “evaporated”), and now by his surly daughter; she moved in across the hall from Ronnie. Randi moved ghost-like about the house, rarely speaking to her unless the encounter couldn’t be avoided.

“Randi’s had a hard time,” Ted told her, sheepdog look on his face as phony as everything he said nowadays.

What else is a lie, she wondered. Had he stalked her from Giant Eagle that very day the scanner bleated out “Winner!”?  

“You told me you always wanted a family,” he complained over breakfast, his tone surly. “You said that was your fondest wish, huh.”

She got up without a word and went upstairs to cry alone in her bed, muffling the sound of her sobs with a pillow. She thought about her simple life before Ted. The life she thought she hated. Tending the tomato-and-pepper garden out back, feeding the birds and squirrels, grooming Delphinia, tossing dinner scraps to the occasional stray cat.

She would have traded this life for her former existence in a heartbeat. Another old expression of her father’s flitted across her mind’s eye, one used frequently after her disgrace from college: 

Worse always come to worse . . .

* * *

Part 3: Careful What You Wish For

The catastrophe was complete the day she discovered $500 she kept in a linen closet missing. She accused Rand.

“Bitch! I didn’t touch your money!”

Screaming brought Ted downstairs.

“Hey, hey! Why are my two favorite ladies squabbling?”

“Your daughter’s a thief!”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress lately, babe. Take it easy. Maybe you only thought you had money in that drawer.”

“Who told you it was hidden in a drawer? Go ahead, ask your daughter. She’s been sneaking around ever since she showed up.”

“C’mon, Becky, that’s harsh. Randi, did you take the money?”

“Hell no.”

“That settles it.”

She’d stepped out of the shower an hour ago and caught Ronnie leaning against the wall looking at her. She was so flustered that the towel dropped to her knees before she could gather it up to her chest.

“You’re a real redhead,” he said. “Most redheads are dye jobs or else go bald.”

Angry, shocked, disgusted all at once, she screamed, “Get the hell out of here, you lout!”

“Kiss my ass,” Ron said.  He smiled, winked, and flipped her the bird from behind as he casually walked down the hall.

She’d avoided the upstairs bathroom because of the mess Ron and Randi left it in. Sanitary pads and Kleenexes spilled out of the wastebasket, urine spots on the toilet lid, her ceramic figurines broken or chipped. Splashed shower water seeped into the grout and popped it loose in places.  Worse now that boyfriends picked up in bars spent weekends sleeping with her. Randi thought it funny to splash water all over the mirrors, floor, and walls. Two nights ago, Rebecca’s bladder aching, she risked a quick trip to “their” bathroom. Big mistake. Cracking the door, she saw outlined against the shower curtains Randi and a rail-thin male engaged in coitus.

“Wait! You hear that? It must be that bitch out in the hall.”

“Babe, who—uh—gives—uh-uh-uh—a shit,” the boy grunted, not pausing in his humping.

Randi took the money, no doubt, and it went to keep her and her sleazy boyfriends in drugs.

Ted having been out of the house for two days, she planned to confront him as soon as he got back. I almost said ‘home,’ she realized. He has no right to bring his lowlife children into the house my parents worked for all their lives.

Ted arrived in the foyer around ten-fifteen, very drunk; the booze reek reached her before she stood in front of him. He fumbled at placing his jacket a coat tree hook like some blindfolded child trying to Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

“Shit,” he growled. The whole rack of coats, mostly hers, tumbled to the floor.

“I want to talk to you,” she demanded.

“So, talk, light of my life.”

“Look at me, Ted.”

“I am lookin’, Re-becca, mine, and I’ll tell you what I see. I see someone who’s going to the bank with me tomorrow. Someone whosh—who’s going to keep her goddamn promise to put me on a shared checking account like I been askin’ for the last got-damn week.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That can be arranged.”

Said with an icy coldness that rooted her to the floor. He staggered toward her, and she stepped aside to let him pass. Instead, he stopped in front of her and slapped her hard across the head. She flew into the wall and collapsed to the floor.

“See what you made me do, cunt?’

He stepped toward her. She cowered, raising her hands to cover her face and head in case he meant to swing again.

“Hey, sweetheart, look, I’m sorry! It’s just you jumped me comin’ in the damn door like that—”

She scuttled away, on all fours like an insect, launching herself up the stairs, stumbling, slamming into Ron coming downstairs. He gripped her under the arms and raised her up.

“Hey, what the hell’s going on?”

She broke free and bolted past him to her bedroom. 

The following days were all eerie silence and hostile glares from Ted’s children. On the fourth day, he laid down the law, bringing them all together at the supper table. She wasn’t permitted to cook or even set the table. He served London broil (underdone) and asparagus (overcooked), and a store-bought Mississippi mud cake that stuck in her craw. Ted tried to jolly them into “pleasant  conversations about everyone’s day.”

“Like, what the frig we s’posed to say?” Randi snapped.

“Language, Randi. Just be pleasant.”

Randi turned to her and sneered, “So how was your day?  Mine was fine, thanks for asking and see you later.”  She jumped up from the table, knocking Rebecca’s wine glass to the floor, grabbing Ted’s car keys from the sideboard. The door slamming behind her rattled the dining room windows.

Ronnie laughed. “Ha, ha, Randi’s on the rag.”

Ted stared at his son as though some secret communication had passed between them. She shivered. She pushed food from one side of her plate to the other.

“May I be excused?”

Ronnie snorted.

“Are you sure, sweetie? You hardly ate.”

“Yes, I’m fine. It was good, thanks. I’d like to go upstairs and nap. I’ve had a migraine all day.”

She slammed the door loud enough for them to hear downstairs. She waited ten minutes and crept down the stairs, shoes off, placing her feet carefully, locating places she’d memorized years ago to avoid the creaking steps. Her father suffered from insomnia toward the end, and she didn’t want to alert him to her presence. Meetings between father and daughter in those days were fraught with shame and a burning anguish she found unbearable.

When she thought they were sure she was asleep upstairs, she worked her way to the oaken pocket doors and held her breath, listening.

Ronnie: “You sure about this?”

Ted: “Are you stupid? You can see she’s going to give us all the boot any day.” 

Ronnie: “Yeah, but I thought—”

Ted: “Thought what, Ron?  Thought we’re going to get another shot at a hundred grand?”

Ronnie: “We—I mean, you been doin’ good so far, right? Cracking into her checking and savings accounts, right. You always said the women were too embarrassed to report you to the cops.”

Ted: “Chickenfeed, Ron. I want a big score this time. This property’s worth a couple hundred grand, easy. Who knows what else she’s got squirreled away for her lonely old age? I mean to get it, son. Every goddamned dime of it.”

Ron: “I can do this one, you want. Choke her out just like her damned cat. Won’t even need the railroad gloves to keep from getting scratched.”

Ted: “No way. She’s all mine. I’m looking forward to it. That nagging bitch is going for a stainless-steel ride on that slab in the cellar.”

Ronnie: “Ha-ha. Wait! I heard something.”

Ted: “Heard what?”

She glided away like a phantom into the semi-darkness of the big hallway as soon as she heard the scrape of a table leg.

She had no sleep that night. Like those cups she used to place over the eyeballs of the decedents to keep the eyes from sinking into the face, she lay awake staring at the moving shadows the big maple’s branches outside her window cast on the ceiling.

At dawn, she rose. A little tired—but also exhilarated. Her brain swarmed with images all night. She knew she didn’t have much time. Ted was returning from one of his mysterious “errands” after lunch, and they were going to the main bank downtown. Once his signature was on her accounts, her days were numbered.

With Ted gone, Randi off on another drug binge with a new boyfriend, only Ronnie remained in the house to worry about.  Around seven, she came downstairs and found him sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.

“Everyone gone, I see?”

“Yep.”

She removed the Blue Genie picture from the fridge, folded it, and put it in her pocket.

“What is that ugly-ass thing anyway? It crept Randi. Dad said not to touch it or you’d have a shitfit.”

“Just a keepsake from an old friend of mine from years ago, her daughter gave it to me.”

“Whatever.”

She smiled, said: “I told your father I’d get busy cleaning out some junk in the basement.  He’s been pestering me to do it for weeks now.” She tried to get the tone right. She didn’t want him suspicious and come down there looking for her. Lately, he reminded her of a pit bull who followed his father’s voice commands—just barely.

“Ha-ha, you mean like a dead body? Like in what’s-that-movie, Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Psycho, moron.”

“Whatever.”

“Who knows? Maybe my father kept dead folks down there if the family didn’t pay the bill.”

“That’s sick, lady.”

“I know.” 

* * *

Part 4: Your Third Wish Is Granted

The drug would help. She’d gone through Randi’s room that morning with the vacuum cleaner switched on but searching drawers until found her stash of MDMA and Ketamine inside a pair of electric-blue bikini panties. Googling “Mollies” and “Special-K,” she learned about dosages and side effects. Her father’s drug cabinet in the prep room was loaded with various combinations, but none she trusted that old.  

She cut out a small portion of MDMA for herself, laughing to herself, thinking it was exactly like a recipe: “Two tablespoons MDMA, set one tablespoon aside.”

Her sensibilities needed to be dulled when the time came. No more fainting spells. Hard work ahead, she told herself. Suck it up, bitch, borrowing from Randi’s vocabulary for her own pep talk. She’d studied it in textbooks years ago, watched her father hundreds of times.

* * *

“More iced tea?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Ted avoided looking at her through dinner—a sure sign he’d moved closer to carrying out his designs on her.  Randi, ever surly, wanted to be off fornicating with some “rando male,” as she eloquently put it to her father when he ordered her to stay for dinner.

“I don’t recall that last one being so friggin’ wonderful,” Randi whined.

Marijuana smoke had wafted from both back bedrooms all afternoon. Ronnie and his sister were still high, giggling at each other across the table. The weed worked to her advantage.

She thought it odd how obstacles in one’s path were smoothed away when you needed it.  Like her smiling blue genie coming to her aid. 

Ted sipped his tea. “I’m going out later,” he mumbled at her.

“Oh, want some company?”

Giggles from the siblings.

“No, no. It’s a job site in Rome I got to check out.”

“Long way for a job, Dad,” Randi quipped.

That cheap wit sent her brother into a raucous burst of guffaws.

“Rome, Ohio. God damn it, you two morons. Off Route Forty-Five. Christ, you nitwits.”

His bad-tempered swearing was another sign she was on a short clock.

Ted gulped the last of his tea and stood up—or, rather, he tried to.

“Got-damn.”

“Something wrong, sweetheart?”

“Wrong, you idiot? My legs! I can’t stand up!”

Peals of laughter from his children, Ronnie nearly falling over from belly-laughing.

“Let me help you, sweetheart.”

“What . . . what . . . are you doing?”

“Wrapping your legs in duct tape so you can’t move.”  All deadpan delivery but her heart thumped, and she fought dizziness. In seconds, Ted was secured to the chair legs. The next seconds were critical. She had to keep clear of his fists, his fingers.

“Ronnie! Randi!”

“Holy shit, I can’t get up,” Randi complained; “my legs are cramped up.”

Ron suddenly looked sober. He looked at his father, shook his head like a dog casting off water, and swiveled his head to take in Randi.

“Going on . . . what’s going . . . Hey, bitch, what . . . you do to them?”

“Ron, look out!”

Before he could rise, she brought the hammer down on his head. He sat there stunned like a bull in the kill chute hit with a cattle gun. As fast as she could, she wrapped Ron’s torso to the chair.  Randi tried to bite her when she did the same to her, foaming at the mouth, screaming, and cursing. Rebecca had never heard most of those words.

She returned to Ted, re-wrapping him thoroughly around legs; then she moved to his chest, careful as a bird avoiding a snake. He slathered her with curses, entreaties—a mishmash of hate-and-love gibberish, slurred from the drugs she’d put into his tea.

Randi and Ronnie received the same attention.

“What now, you crazy slut?”

“You’ll see. You will all see.”

It was safe to go down into the basement to gather her supplies set aside that afternoon, humming a Puccini aria. Upstairs, Randi screamed “Help!” but her dopey condition made it sound like someone wheezing.

“Go ahead, wear out your lungs, Randi,” she whispered. “That way I won’t have to listen to your potty mouth.”

Lugging everything she needed up the steps, she placed identical items—bucket, tubing, scissors, scalpel, trocar, and tape—around each chair leg for easy reach.

She stood up. “Before I begin, I’d like to say a few words.  You’re all scum and you deserve what’s going to happen.”

A slushy volley of oaths, imprecations, and threats were hurled at her from all three at once.

“You can’t move, but you’re going to be aware of everything happening,” she resumed. “The best part is that you can look at one another across the table as it happens.”

“Becky, Listen, angel, Becky, Becky, what’s . . . going . . . listen to me . . .”

“Better you experience it,” she replied, ignoring Ted’s pleas. “Words won’t suffice.”

She started with Ronnie; the heaviest male meant the most blood.

She cut a small patch of his Levi’s below his belt with her scissors. “Sorry if I hit flesh. This will pinch a bit. There now. Better if you don’t squirm so much.”

“K-kill you—”

When she made the incision with a short, scythe-like flick of her wrist, he howled in pain.

“I know that hurt,” she said softly, “but this will hurt worse so don’t move too much.”

She fed the tube into his abdomen, poking it around to find the best location for placement. The other end she fed into the bucket.

The pump would be faster, but gravity would do the trick.

“Oh God, no.”

“Oh God, yes.”

Ted glared at her while she worked on him, played the tough guy, ground his teeth as she cut into him an inserted the hose. “You and your boy should time out together,” she said, “if I did my calculations correctly.”

Instead of the onslaught of usual cursing—silence. It was as they they’d morphed into a bizarre medieval tableau with herself as the maestro. Three pairs of eyes bored into her face, looked across the table at the remains in the dinner plates, and saw the same fear and terror in one another’s expressions.  

Randi sobbed and cried, begged her not to hurt her, offered to do sexual things to her if she’d stop.

“That sounds interesting, sweetie, but you deserve this almost as much as your scumbag father.”

When she inserted the tube, Randi evacuated her bowels, filling the room with a nauseating stench.

Meticulously, painstakingly, she moved around each one, taking away dinner plates and glasses, utensils. She checked bindings, retaped tubes as needed; it couldn’t be helped—their contortions, struggles to move against the tape locking each one into his or her place at the table.

Clips on the tubing held off a too-quick exsanguination. The tinny drip, drip, drip of blood was the only sound other than her turning on the faucet to wash and wipe her hands frequently. The human body is a warehouse of filth and bacteria, her father always said.

Fifteen minutes, eighteen minutes, twenty minutes. Their movements against the restraints grew more sluggish, their eyes acquired that filmy glaze of dead birds. Each bucket filled at the same pace.

Seeing their eyes cloud and their sensibilities fade, she knew it was time. The dose of MDMA she took hit her like a fist. At first, she feared it was too much; then a warm, fuzzy glow of sensory overload rocked her backward on her heels. She adjusted to the new feeling.

“Time for the pièce de resistance.” she announced to her sluggish guests at the table.

With a flourish, she placed the gleaming bone saw in the middle of the table, polished to silver brightness.  Every detail of this Last Supper for Ted and his worthless clan of home invaders had been spun out of her anguish that night she lay awake.

They all recognized it at the same time. Randi vomited up a yellow bile that spattered the table and dribbled off her chin. Ron, silent, strained against the tape. Ted wheeled his head in her direction, the light in his eyes not yet faded, a final plea for mercy.

She placed the black tarp all around the chair legs, tucking it here and there; the carpeting was going to be trashed regardless, so the idea was to keep blood out of the tongue-and-groove floorboards beneath the carpeting and therefore visible from below.

“I’m done with you all,” she said.

She went round removing all the clips. Blood that trickled gushed into pails. One by one, their heads lolled, then sagged on their chests. She gave each a tap with the hammer in case anyone played possum. None did.

The girl who couldn’t stick a trocar into a foam dummy had the strength—albeit with a little help from Randi’s supply—to dismember each limb from three adult human beings. Arms piled up on the table. By midnight, legs joined them. At two a.m., all that remained were the heads. Her forearm tendons aching from sawing, she detached all three, Ted last, and placed them in a row, all staring through sightless eyes in the same direction.

Taking a break, she drank half a fifth of vodka from Ron’s room, passing out until the sun pawed her eyelids, forcing her awake. By late afternoon, still groggy, half-drunk and a little high, she staggered into the dining room and saw her work in toto. She opened a window to remove some of the coppery smell of blood and other fluids; however, cadaver flies homed in on the feast in seconds and she was forced to shut the window. 

Limbs were taken out to the garden first, followed by the heavier torsos, which consumed most of the time she allotted for the whole task. A Wagner opera playing from the kitchen for accompaniment, she was indifferent to body parts and placement into the separate holes.

Memorial stones she’d made as a little girl and retrieved from the shed—tiny cement hexagons decorated with plastic colored stones—were placed where the heads were buried.

“I have my family now, Genie. All thanks to you.”

She unfolded Baby Rainbow’s picture of the blue genie and attached it tenderly to the refrigerator with kitchen magnets. She couldn’t be sure, tired as she was, but she thought he was staring right at her, his big-toothed smile agleam—smiling and winking right at her.


Robb White is the author of 2 hardboiled detective series: Thomas Haftmann & Raimo Jarvi. White has been nominated for a Derringer award and “Inside Man,” published in Down and Out Magazine, was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories 2019. “The Girl from the Sweater Factory,” a horror tale, was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards. When You Run with Wolves and Perfect Killer were named finalists by Murder, Mayhem & More for its Top Ten Crime Books of 2018 & 2019. “If I Let You Get Me,” a crime story, was selected for the Bouchercon 2019 anthology. 


“Melinoë” Microfiction by Maria Balbi

Hours after the accident, the campfire’s lights give my kindergarten class hazy features.

“Bedtime Story!” Maggie wipes ashes from her face.

“Mother of Ghosts!” Tommy rubs his eyes.

In my feverish state, I repeat, to keep the kids calm, the collector of souls’ local legend.

Silent flashlights twinkle among the trees.

Is it the search party?

A slight puff of smoke emanates from Tommy’s arm.

Crude barking approaches.

Dense mist engulfs the kids.

“She is here.” Maggie coughs.

An ethereal veiled woman opens her arms as they join her entourage of unburied.

Our corpses are still burning inside the bus.


Maria Balbi (She/Her) is an Argentinean Psychologist living in Buenos Aires with a grumpy cat named Benito and a tendency to abuse Dulce de Leche. Her works were published in HellHound Magazine and Friday Flash Fiction.  @alejandrabalbi9


“Musk” Fiction by Mehreen Ahmed

“Not even the fragrant musk was as intoxicating as this story.” 

The storyteller told sitting on a swollen root of an aged tree on the edge of a forest. He addressed a gathering of enthralled people.

One dreary afternoon, under the opaque clouds, when the mists had curtained much of the peninsula’s profile, a tea boy made tea. He had a stall near the same place where the storyteller was also telling his stories. It was the boy’s job to make tea as long as the storytelling lasted. He made it in an iron cast kettle over a makeshift stove kindled by dry wood and brown leaves. The kettle steam was a beacon that fueled the desire of many to travel thus far. The brew carried a distinctive aroma.

The storyteller had a large following. They gathered here not just to listen to the story but also to indulge in the hot tea served from the stall. This storytelling helped the boy’s business to flourish. The boy poured the tea in small pottery bowls and handed them over to the rapt listeners. The more they drank, the more they listened.

This tea boy was an orphan. He was fifteen. He lived with the storyteller who had adopted the child when he lost his parents in the last great flood. They had lived on the sea line of a rugged peninsula. This place didn’t have much to offer apart from a school, a spice bazaar, and a few odd dry-fish shops. 

Deeper into the woods on the same peninsula, the storyteller now lived with the boy. They lived in a hut near a shaded pond. Tall poplars and their verdant saplings rendered much of this shade. In the evening, when they lit a lantern in the hut, a glow would illuminate a darkly spot outside and light up a pond’s pod corner. The jungle’s wild animals transformed in the full moon, especially the musk deer. This sparked the storyteller’s imaginations.

Neither the jungle nor the deer knew what treasure it possessed, not at least until the musk pods were wrenched out of the deer bodies. The deer didn’t know how crazy earthlings was for its musk. It couldn’t smell its own. The others could. The sensuous properties drove humans to madness, wild with gluttony where fantasy fed reality.

Where would they stop, though? How far would they go to get it? Not even the formidable amazon could stop them. And it was not just the musk but insatiable human greed … said the storyteller and stooped to pick up an object loosely stuck on the bottom of the tree trunk. His breathing intensified. Inch by inch they stole the natural providence. They ate away like bite-sized like termites into the planet without replenishing: poaching animals, cutting trees, mining gemstones: red rubies, green sapphires, blue lapis lazuli, the sparkling diamonds. His audience listened mesmerized as he told them this old story retold, and the tea boy to sell innumerable kava clay bowls. His coffers filling up soon with silver coins and gold jewels.

No matter, this storytelling was free. No one ever paid to listen. But drinking tea was essential, said the storyteller. Because the delightful tea glued those stories together. Even on a hot day, it had to be served. People tread miles to come here to listen, but more so for the thirst of the tea. No other could make it like this boy, magic in the brew, the word rang true.

One day it happened. The storyteller stopped and looked closer at the object he held in the tip of the index finger. It was a cast-away gold ring that also had a story to it. 

“What happened?” the listeners gasped. 

Sitting on the ground, they looked at him hooked to the hot tea. Today, the mist of the day and the tea vapour played a twister in the sky.

“The tea boy became sick,” said the storyteller. “He couldn’t make tea anymore. The boy lay cold on the ground of his hut groaning in agony.”

“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.

There was no afternoon tea. People fidgeted and looked at the empty stall. But the tea never came. 

“It was not the story, you see?” the storyteller told. “But it was his tea which brought them here.”

Where was the boy anyway? His listeners wanted to know. They demanded to see him. He grimaced and pouted his mouth in hesitation. But they were adamant. They stood up, held hands, and formed a niche circle fomenting unrest. They protested in a slogan, “no tea, no story” and walked in the circle. In the beating heart, this addiction baffled the storyteller who then realised that he had failed to stir them. He morosely nodded his sage white head as he relented and asked them to follow him to the hut.  By then, the night had fallen a full moon lit up a yellow pathway.

It was a menacing jungle. But people didn’t mind. They walked over sodden leaves, shed snakeskins, dry blood, fallen horns and ivory, torn human clothing, hanging bats, and swinging monkeys. They must find the boy. They paced up and they reached the hut beyond the poplar pond. The bare bone sat unadorned on earth’s blue bowl. Not stark as Mars, Earth’s fowl-play tarred and scarred.

The storyteller asked them to wait outside as he went in to find the boy. But people were restless. They couldn’t wait it out. The mob forced themselves into the hut and looked in a frenzy for the prized fugitive. However, when they searched the small hut, they didn’t find him, at all. What they found though, was the last thing they had dreamed of. They found a white-bellied musk deer instead. He was the same small size as the tea boy, lying lengthwise across the space without a musk pod.


Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award. Her book is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice.