The Saturday Night Special: “The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce (1898, The Project Gutenberg Text)

Ambrose Bierce October 7, 1892
Ambrose Bierce
October 7, 1892

By THE light of a tallow candle, which had been placed on one end of a rough table, a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light upon it. The shadow of the book would then throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent and motionless, and, the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.

The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness—the long, nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged faces—obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity—farmers and woodmen.

The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco: his footgear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found among the dead man’s effects—in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.

When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.

The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.

“We have waited for you,” said the coroner. “It is necessary to have done with this business to-night.”

The young man smiled. “I am sorry to have kept you,” he said. “I went away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of what I suppose I am called back to relate.”

The coroner smiled.

“The account that you posted to your newspaper,” he said, “differs probably from that which you will give here under oath.”

“That,” replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, “is as you choose. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as a part of my testimony under oath.”

“But you say it is incredible.”

“That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true.”

The coroner was apparently not greatly affected by the young man’s manifest resentment. He was silent for some moments, his eyes upon the floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his eyes and said: “We will resume the inquest.”

The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.

“What is your name?” the coroner asked.

“William Harker.”



“You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?”


“You were with him when he died?”

“Near him.”

“How did that happen—your presence, I mean?”

“I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him, and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories.”

“I sometimes read them.”

“Thank you.”

“Stories in general—not yours.”

Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humor shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.

“Relate the circumstances of this man’s death,” said the coroner. “You may use any notes or memoranda that you please.”

The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held it near the candle, and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he wanted, began to read.


“…The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged from the chaparral, Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly, we heard, at a little distance to our right, and partly in front, a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.

“‘We’ve started a deer,’ said. ‘I wish we had brought a rifle.’

“Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and imminent peril.

“‘O, come!’ I said. ‘You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot, are you?’

“Still he did not reply; but, catching a sight of his face as he turned it slightly toward me, I was struck by the pallor of it. Then I understood that we had serious business on hand, and my first conjecture was that we had ‘jumped’ a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan’s side, cocking my piece as I moved.

“The bushes were now quiet, and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.

“‘What is it? What the devil is it?’ I asked.

“‘That Damned Thing!’ he replied, without turning his head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.

“I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.

“Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember—and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then—that once, in looking carelessly out of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage, and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulders and fire both barrels at the agitated grass! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud savage cry—a scream like that of a wild animal—and, flinging his gun upon the ground, Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke—some soft, heavy substance that seemed thrown against me with great force.

“Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan’s retreat; and may heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.

“All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly. During the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard from the throat of man or brute!

“For a moment only I stood irresolute, then, throwing down my gun, I ran forward to my friend’s assistance. I had a vague belief that he was suffering from a fit or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but, with a feeling of such terror as even these awful events had not inspired, I now saw the same mysterious movement of the wild oats prolonging itself from the trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and look at my companion. He was dead.”


The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether naked and showing in the candle light a clay-like yellow. It had, however, broad maculations of bluish-black, obviously caused by extravasated blood from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in strips and shreds.

The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their curiosity, and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the handkerchief upon the dead man’s neck, the coroner stepped to an angle of the room, and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another, each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only thing that was new to them being Harker’s testimony.

“Gentlemen,” the coroner said, “we have no more evidence, I think. Your duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to ask you may go outside and consider your verdict.”

The foreman rose—a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.

“I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner,” he said. “What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?”

“Mr. Harker,” said the coroner, gravely and tranquilly, “from what asylum did you last escape?”

Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose and solemnly filed out of the cabin.

“If you have done insulting me, sir,” said Harker, as soon as he and the officer were left alone with the dead man, “I suppose I am at liberty to go?”


Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The habit of his profession was strong in him—stronger than his sense of personal dignity. He turned about and said:

“The book that you have there—I recognize it as Morgan’s diary. You seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying. May I see it? The public would like—”

“The book will cut no figure in this matter,” replied the official, slipping it into his coat pocket; “all the entries in it were made before the writer’s death.”

As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered and stood about the table on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper, and wrote rather laboriously the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:

“We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”


In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries mentioned can not be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away; the part of the entry remaining is as follows:

“… would run in a half circle, keeping his head turned always toward the centre and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.

“Can a dog see with his nose? Do odors impress some olfactory centre with images of the thing emitting them? . . .

“Sept 2.—Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively disappear—from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all that were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it, and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! I don’t like this. . . .”

Several weeks’ entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.

“Sept. 27.—It has been about here again—I find evidences of its presence every day. I watched again all of last night in the same cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not sleep—indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable! If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.

“Oct. 3.—I shall not go—it shall not drive me away. No, this is my house, my land. God hates a coward….

“Oct. 5.—I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a few weeks with me—he has a level head. I can judge from his manner if he thinks me mad.

“Oct. 7.—I have the solution of the problem; it came to me last night—suddenly, as by revelation. How simple—how terribly simple!

“There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail, for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a hill.

“It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.

“As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale’ I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see.

“And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!”

From Wikipedia:

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842– circa 1914) was an American short story writer, journalist, poet, and American Civil War veteran. His book The Devil’s Dictionary was named as one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature” by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. His story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has been described as “one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature”, and his book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (also published as In the Midst of Life) was named by the Grolier Club as one of the 100 most influential American books printed before 1900…”

“Window” Dark Science-Fiction by M.P. Strayer

“Okay, Mom. Last one.”

Donna Cheever leaned—immured where she sat in a colorful mound of crumpled paper—and plucked the green envelope from its perch among the bottom branches of the family’s seven foot artificial pine tree. Behind her the twins capered madly about the den clad in new AR headsets, interacting with a host of genial digital beings only they perceived. Richard was looking at her with an eager smile that seemed to transform him briefly into the little boy Donna hoped so futilely he would remain forever, and which she thought now endearing and mysterious. Twelve years old, Richard was just beginning his voyage into broody pubescence, and that smile, bright and unassuming, was increasingly rare. Donna arched a brow at her husband, as if to ask: What have you done? Tony, seated next to Richard midst a great piling of balled paper, smiled back and nodded, as if to respond: You’ll see.

“Go on, hon. Open it.”

She popped her thumb beneath the seal.

Inside was a slip of white stationary on which was printed a single couplet. Donna read: “I came from the machine that writes our documents and such… You’ll find my brother… at the one that makes our lunch?” She laughed. “Tony what is this?”

“Not sure,” the colonel answered as Richard sprang to his feet and bounded away, shreds of wrapping whispering in his wake like dry leaves. “But if I had to guess I’d say it’s a clue.”

“A clue?”

“Mom in here!” called Richard from the kitchen. “C’mon!”

Tony put his chin in his hand. “Wonder what that’s all about.”

Donna stood, an avalanche of paper tumbling across the floor.


They found Richard at the Fabricator. The first thing Donna noticed was that several of the machine’s element canisters were reading low. I’ll have to order some more calcium, she thought. Carbon too… And then, scanning past the holiday greeting cards affixed by magnets to the Fabricator’s sleek black façade (from other military families, each presenting in miniature a portrait of striking similarity to the one currently hanging above the Cheevers’ fireplace: N.U. officers in dress blues, posed with spouses and children on wide lawns in front of sprawling homes, beneath rolling flags: the stars and stripes of the former United States, and the swinging sword and sunburst of the New Union), she saw another green envelope, taped over the dispensation bay.

The second note read:

Well that was easy, but Dickey showed the way… Find my sister on your own this time, in a cottage where the girls like to play.

Too easy, Donna thought, feeling herself swept up in the game. She uncovered the next clue in the twins’ playhouse in the backyard (at a hundred square feet, complete with functioning bathroom, kitchenette, and state-of-the-art nanny surveillance system, the designation was something of a misnomer), taped to the entertainment center’s wireless projector. She took down the now familiar green fold.

“Look at you go! That one was obvious, I know… Seek my mate where it’s dry, hiding beneath a cup of snow…

“How did you do this?” she said to Tony, brandishing the slip.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” His grin faded and he looked up as, overhead, a fleet of airships went tearing west across the pale December sky, causing the playhouse’s walls to rattle. He was the only one to react to the sound of their passing. In the other world Tony occupied, on the opposite end of their torn country, jets were a vital component of everyday life; for Donna and the kids, for whom the logistics of war were more an abstraction than anything, the drone of distant turbines was so regular it scarcely registered.

The next one took a bit longer, but she got it eventually: tucked under the high-definition, holographic snowglobe on the mantel back in the living room. The envelope hadn’t been there that morning, Donna was sure of it. So Tony had enlisted the help of the twins in this escapade, who joined them now in their flashing goggles looking very proud for having accomplished the mission Daddy had set for them while their momma was being distracted outside.

So it went. Clue after clue the green envelopes conducted her through the house—out, into the garage, to the kennel of the home security drone (courtesy of the New Union, for the colonel had many enemies); inside again—Richard and the twins racing ahead in their excitement, Tony on point. Lastly she was led into her bedroom where, as another set of jets shook the sky above, Donna beheld hanging on the wall a black rectangular pane, perhaps three feet wide by six feet tall, with a red bow stuck to its upper corner.

“Merry Christmas Mom!” the children trilled in unison.

“What is it?” She stepped closer and could see her reflection—featureless smudge of skintone—appear across its surface. The device looked like a television screen or computer monitor and it was thin as tapestry.

“Window on,” said Tony.

The pane lit up, becoming a sheet of lambent silver like the backing on a mirror.

“Tony,” Donna said. “What—”

“Juniper,” he said. “You there? Come out and meet the family.”

For a beat nothing happened. Then color flooded the screen, and Donna was staring at an amused and pretty face not her own, so clear and textured it seemed the only thing that separated them was a layer of glass.

She jumped. It was a woman’s face, taut and tan, green eyes twinkling. The sides of her head were shaven. Her short pink hair arose in a wispy spume from the crown of her scalp and her cheeks were high and pointed. A metal stud glinted in the left nostril of her bladelike nose. She had on a sleeveless neoprene shirt and matching compression shorts (Spin clothes, Donna thought of them) and her arms and legs were slim, muscular, sinewy in the way of old tree roots, and her bust was small and flat. She peered at Donna out of a radiant silver void, as if suspended in a prism. She was smiling.

“You must be Mrs. Cheever,” she said. “I’m Juniper. I’d offer to shake, but…” She shrugged and held up her hands: What’re ya gonna do?

“Hi Juniper!” said the twins in tandem, coming up to the screen.

“And you’re the girls I’ve heard so much about,” she said. “Who’s Ally?”

“That’s me,” Ally said.

“Then you must be Erin.” Juniper smiled at them, one to the next. “Nice to meet you.” She put her hands on her thighs, leaned forward at the waist. “Those are some sweet headsets. Did Santa bring them for you?”

“There’s no such thing as Santa,” said Ally.

“Wow,” said Erin, craning her neck, pushing her goggles up onto her forehead like the world’s tiniest bombardier. “It knows our names…”

She,” Tony said. “She’s a real person, hon. Be respectful.”

“That leaves Richard,” Juniper said. She gave him a lingering, appraising look. “Handsome boy. Nice jammies.”

Richard flushed and looked at the floor. 

Juniper giggled.

“Tony,” Donna said, turning. “What is this?” She glanced back at the girl in the screen. “Who is that?”

“That is a Window,” he said. “It’s an interactive smart display. Juniper is one of its apps.”

“She’s… an app?”

“Technically she’s a personal trainer. Your personal trainer.”

“I’m a real-time, on-demand fitness instructor,” Juniper said. “And yes, as Colonel Cheever just explained, I’m a person, not a bot—here to fulfill all your family’s health and wellness needs. You’re signed up for premium membership. That includes training, nutritional advice, round-the-clock consultations, blood analysis. The works.”

“You got me a trainer?” Donna’s hand went unconsciously to the budding paunch harbored beneath her sweater. Why would he get me this? she thought.

“A Window,” Tony said. “It also has a video messaging system, so we can chat while I’m away and it’ll be like I’m right here in the room with you.” He looked at her. “You seem… underwhelmed.”

“Huh?” she said. “No Tony. It’s great.”


“Really,” she said. “I like it.” She watched the girls, exploring the boundaries of the device; the trainer above, looking on and laughing. Richard stood off to the side, observing furtively, shoulders slumped, hands in his pockets.

“Are you sure?” Tony asked. “Because if not we can return it. I just thought it was something cool. Rodrigs got one for Eloise and said the family loves it. Said the chat feature really helps during deployments.”

“No Tony, honest,” Donna said. “I like it. It’s unexpected, is all. I look forward to using it. Thank you.”

She raised up on her toes and kissed him on the lips.

“Excellent.” He put his arm around her shoulder and faced the screen. Juniper and the girls were giving dap, bumping knuckles to their respective panes as if all that existed between them was a veil of glass. It was uncanny; she seemed so present. So tangible. Donna wondered where the feed originated, how much space actually divided them. She couldn’t say yet how she felt about the device (there was no denying the spell of insecurity the wiry trainer provoked)—but she had to concede the technology piqued her interest. And the chat feature would be nice. No substitute for the real thing, but still…

“Thank you,” she said again, meaning it. She leaned and kissed him on the cord of his stubbled neck.

“Merry Christmas love,” he said.


He left the following morning. To a battlefield in California, faraway. He couldn’t predict when he would return. “Might be a while,” he told Donna, before walking down the drive to the automated town car idling at the curb. “These rebels… They’re just kids. They have the conviction of kids who don’t know better.” He shook his head. “Have Juniper walk you through the Window set-up, will you? We’ll talk when I can.”

She watched as the town car drove away and disappeared and, like a kind of sendoff, a brace of bomber jets roared westward out of the base nearby. Off to rain fire on the heads of the secessionists, Donna supposed. Where her husband was headed. Her husband the hero.

Gone again.


“No need to be shy, Mrs. Cheever. This is part of the process. Think of it like a check-up.”

“Please Juniper. Call me Donna. Or Don. And you must understand this makes me uncomfortable.”

“Of course, Don. I get it. But since we can’t meet in person, this is the only way I can get a sense of where we’re at and where we’ll go from here.” She smirked. “What? Think you got something I haven’t seen before? Now strip, girl. Let’s see them moneymakers.”

Donna laughed. Her blouse was halfway off her shoulders when a thought occurred to her and she dropped her hands.

“How do I know you’re the only one who can see me?”

“There are strict privacy parameters governing the operation of the Window,” Juniper said. “Tell the truth, tech is not my wheelhouse, but there are a buncha firewalls that make our stream pretty much unhackable. And as far as other people being here with me now, I would have to disclose that information to you. If I didn’t I would lose my job and probably face some jail time, too.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Still she hesitated.

“I’ll prove it to you,” Juniper said. And before Donna could say anything more, the trainer pulled her shirt up and over her head and cast it aside, facing into Donna’s bedroom with her lean chest bare to the world.

“Juniper!” Donna gasped, looking away.

“Told ya,” the trainer said. “Just us in here. See? Nothing to worry about.”

She didn’t have a single tan line. No scars or stretch marks. Her breasts were straps of muscle from which jutted two tiny pink nipples and her waspish waist was sharply defined. Toned wasn’t the word for it, Donna thought, the woman was ripped—and for an instant she was lost in a startling vision of dainty hands, perhaps her own, tip-toeing down the warm ingots of the trainer’s naked abs, so vivid the ends of her fingers tingled and a pleasant heat, not so much confusing as surprising, bloomed in the pit of her stomach—then she realized she was staring and looked away again. Her heart was thudding.

“Okay Don. The ice has been broken. Shall we continue?”

After a moment, Donna did.

When she was finished she stood before the Window in bra and panties, her ears and cheeks burning, neck flushed. She waited.

“Jeeze,” Juniper said. “You’re gorgeous!”

Donna’s blush deepened. “Thanks.”

“I’m serious. And I want you to remember it. You don’t need me. You’re already a healthy, beautiful human being. But our bodies are works-in-progress, and there’s always room for improvement. Right?”

“If you say so.”

“Let’s get started.”


They began with three sessions a week, each lasting about forty-five minutes during which they would enact together a series of exercises ranging from bodyweight calisthenics and plyometrics to yoga and recuperative stretching, as well as twice-monthly meetings in which they went over Donna’s progress. Though her initial reaction to the gift had been lackluster (in fact, with its implications of a certain inadequacy, the device had hurt her feelings), she came to enjoy her work with Juniper, and by February the twins were joining in the weekly yoga classes and Richard was on a weightlifting program. By summer, as the insurgency in the west raged on, the pace was upped to five sessions a week, Donna felt better than ever, and everybody in the house had come to regard the girl in the Window as a trusted friend.


One day Donna came home to find Richard in her bedroom.

He was standing at the Window, gazing into it, the fingers of his right hand at rest lightly on the screen. As soon as Donna entered the hand fell and he turned to her with stricken eyes that set her internal alarms to ringing. “What’s going on?” she said, striding forward.

Richard spun as if to block her view and stove his hands into his pockets. “Nothin,” he said.

She looked at the screen. Juniper was there, smiling.

“Afternoon Don,” she said.

“Juniper.” Donna looked at Richard. “What are you doing in here?”


He made as if to leave but Donna caught his arm.

“What have I said about using the Window when I’m not home?”


His eyes were flat, distant; his aspect surly. He would not look at her. 

Donna sighed.

“Close the door behind you,” she said, letting him go.

He left.

“Sorry about that,” said Juniper. “Kid just wanted to talk. I didn’t know you had rules against it.”

“What did he want to talk about?”

“Oh, usual teenaged boy stuff. Apparently some maid has spurned our Richard’s advances.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all. I think he just wanted a woman’s take on the situation. And, you know… It’s not exactly the sort of thing a guy feels he can talk to his mom about.”

“He can talk to me about anything.”

“Sure. But I’m a foreigner here, and thus my opinion is unclouded by bias. Besides,” she said. “You know how kids are. Teenagers can be secretive We still on for tonight?”

“No,” said Donna, shaking her head. “No I don’t think so. I’m feeling tired right now, and I still have to get dinner ready, and later I have a chat scheduled with Tony. I just want to rest.”

“You’re not coming down with something are you?” The trainer’s eyes sparkled with concern. “Summer bug or something like that? Because you’ve been sleeping well, according to my charts…”

“No, nothing like that. It’s just these chats with Tony… They take a toll. You know?”

“Of course. The distance has gotta suck. You should know I’m also here for you if you need me. Day or night. Total health is about more than just physical wellbeing.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Donna said.

“Please do. And listen to your body.”

She logged off.

Donna remained as before, looking at the blank screen.


“When you coming home, baby?”

Tony’s grin faltered. 

“I told you I can’t say. The guerillas are pushing back hard. I’m responsible for an entire battalion. We can only do so much with drones in a fight like this; this war requires boots on the ground, and those boots need directing. We have to stop them here. If we don’t…”

He didn’t finish. Donna wagged her head. “Okay,” she said.

She said no more. Tony watched her. He was in a field tent somewhere in the Sierra Nevada and in that longitude it was early evening and he was alone. On his end the chat was being streamed through a laptop and his wife’s face appeared small and sad and for a moment he was panged by his inability to palliate her loneliness. From Donna’s perspective it was as if his upper body studied her from a lamplit alcove cut in the very wall. As if she could but reach out a hand and stroke his cheek.

“Hey,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“How about how great you look. The work with Juniper is really paying off.”


A pause. The colonel’s grin returned. Tentative. Devious.

“The kids asleep?”

Donna knew what he was getting at and she smiled then a bleak and melancholy smile despite her worry and frustration. Sex through the Window amounted to no more than mutual masturbation with a convincing projection—but it was better than nothing. Besides, Donna thought, it was sort of kinky. Sort of fun. Hot, even. Especially with the figure she’d acquired since Tony’s deployment, which made her feel sexy and powerful and which, having earned it with her sweat, she was learning she enjoyed showing off. Perhaps a bit of distraction wasn’t what she needed right now—no, what she needed was her partner back—but it couldn’t hurt, either.

She stood, turned and went into her bathroom, Tony calling after her: “Don? I wasn’t trying to upset you, I just thought—”

When she came back she was naked and her husband’s protests were cut short, as if he’d forgotten how to breathe. She liked that.

She sat in the floor in front of the Window, propping herself on her elbows. Arched her back. She flashed him a coquettish smile. The colonel’s face lit with a combination of surprise and excitement that Donna loved. She brought her knees together slowly, and then, slowly, parted them again. “What?” she said. “You just thought what?” Her hand lifted from the carpet. Touched her breast. She traced the skin of her areola with the tip of her index finger and the nipple stood erect as if fanned by an icy whisper. She saw Tony rise stripping off his shirt and fumbling with his belt and her hand circled lower, lower, skating like a breath across the smooth flat span of her stomach.

“Well?” she said.

She was almost there when she saw something in the Window that made her stop.

“What is it?” Tony said. “What’s wrong?”

Donna was on her feet, arms covering her breasts and groin.

The colonel glanced hastily over his shoulder as if he thought someone might be sneaking up on him and reached for his sidearm, never far. He was still alone. Donna came up to the screen and stood scrutinizing it intently. Had she really seen that just now? she wondered.

But there was only the murk of Tony’s field tent, three thousand miles away. Only Tony, topless and bewildered. Donna stepped back and frowned.

“Don? What is it? Is it the kids?”

“It’s nothing,” she said. She did not sound certain.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I thought maybe the machine was glitching out.” She smiled wanly. “I’m sorry. I’m such a spaz. I’ve gone and spoiled the mood, haven’t I?”

He looked round again, his eyes mischievous, hopeful.

“Have you?”

Yes, Tony,” she said, and at the expression of boyish despair that went tumbling down his face Donna laughed, notwithstanding the misgiving in her pounding heart.  


Later she stood at the Window again, dressed in a bathrobe and studying the silver home screen.

She was thinking: What was that?


Is it even possible?

What she’d seen was a pair of translucent green eyes hovering disembodied in the upper corner of the Window’s pane, observing Donna as she pleasured herself and alight with an unmistakable glee she recognized at once. After all: she saw it many times a week, often as she struggled through the final set of whatever tortuous routine Juniper had devised for the day. Donna believed that look evidenced a mild sadistic streak and thought probably all good personal trainers had a cruel vein running through them. But Juniper was not supposed to be able to make herself appear on her own. The policy was one of numerous security measures in place to protect the Cheevers’ privacy and Donna didn’t understand how it could be breached. She wasn’t even sure it had been, and the longer she stood staring at the changeless argent rectangle the more she became convinced the fleeting vision was just her imagination. Although why she would imagine Juniper’s eyes on her as she was achieving climax with Tony was something she didn’t want to think about. Discomfited by this track of thought, telling herself she was acting paranoid, Donna turned from the screen. She went to her bureau against the far wall and began hunting through its drawers for a set of nightwear: cotton pajama shorts and one of her husband’s old holey infantry shirts.

She did not turn around as she dressed, but if she had she would have seen that the Window’s screen was no longer blank. A figure had materialized in the pane: pellucid, partial, a faint silhouette like a person manifesting in a bank of fog. Spectral. Watching.

The figure receded. And when delicate prickles like wraiths’ fingers fluttering at the nape of her neck did prompt Donna to face about and regard the device, she was confronted only by an empty screen.


Beyond the shut door to Donna’s bedroom the house was quiet. Down the hall the twins snoozed soundly in their bunks. Across from their room Richard’s door was closed and locked. A blue light shone through the gaps surrounding this door, emanating from the room within.


In a dream Donna was thrashing in the undergrowth of a torrid jungle and it was dense and verdant and she was fighting it as the boiling green closed in and threatened to engulf her like a crashing wave… She woke panting to the realization she couldn’t breathe. Coughing fire, she sat up in bed and clawed the air; then her body heaved and she flopped to her side and puked on the floor.

That’s when she saw Juniper in the Window. The trainer was naked, lying on her stomach with her chin in her hands, toes kicking behind her. She tilted her head and gave a little wave:

“Hi Don.”

What—” was all she could manage. She coughed; her body was wrenched by a paroxysm of pain; she fell from the mattress. Now her eyes and nose were burning, her vision hazed, and the room seemed to be spinning around her. She inhaled and whooped breathlessly; it was as if she was drowning in air.

Juniper laughed.

“Did you know crude mustard gas can be made from just four elements? I bet you didn’t—weapons of mass destruction are your husband’s forte—but it’s true. Carbon, sulfur, chlorine, hydrogen. All of which can be purchased through any common household Fabricator. Easy enough to make if you know the proportions, although not so easy to control once it’s vaporized. Isn’t that interesting?”

Donna pressed her mouth and nostrils into the nap of the carpet and discovered she was able to breathe a little easier. With her first draught of semi-clear air a single imperative leapt into her mind like a shout:

The children!

Juniper, as if reading her thoughts, went on:

“The gas is fatal to adults if they’re exposed to it for too long—but I wouldn’t worry if I were you. A strong woman like yourself… It could take hours before the effects became lethal. But with kids…” The trainer shrugged. “Who can say? Their constitutions are just so underdeveloped…

Donna pushed to her feet. Now was not the time for questions. Impelled by a fierce instinct she had never before experienced, she tore the coverlet from her bed, bunched it against her face and rushed into the hall. Juniper watched her go, smiling.

The trainer was waiting for her on the flat screen in the twins’ room when Donna burst through the door.

“Gee,” she said. “That’s too bad… It appears you’ve come too late.”

The girls were in the floor in their matching pajamas, entangled in one another’s arms, foreheads together, as if frozen in an act of shared comfort. It would have been a sentimental image if not for the vomit that coated them and the utter motionlessness of their mirrored forms. Their stillness was lapidary in that moonlit gloom and it struck Donna with the force of awful irrevocable certainty. She went to them and dropped to her knees, moaning through the blanket. When she touched them their bodies jostled bonelessly. Ally’s mouth fell open.

“Ouch,” Juniper said. “Don’t I know that hurts. I found my parents just like that in the rubble of our apartment after an NU airstrike leveled my hometown. It was one of those central-nowhere California burgs along the interstate, and it was wiped from the map that day. My parents, my brother, my friends. All gone. The New Union believed our town sheltered a rebel stronghold. That was two years ago, at the start of the Revolution. The man who’d ordered the strike was a captain by name of Anthony Cheever.”

Donna stood.

“Course, the cap’n goes by colonel now. I imagine he scored a nice commendation for what he did that day…”

Donna looked down at her girls for the last time. There was nothing she could do for them now. And she did not grieve them, not yet; rather, she was bolstered by the knowledge that while they were gone her son might still be saved. She went out the door, Juniper calling after her:

“Better hurry!”

The boy’s door was locked. Donna kicked it in without thinking. She found him splayed in the floor, prone on his stomach. As she turned him over Richard’s television winked on, and there was Juniper, looking down.

“Here’s our little man! You know, if it weren’t for him none of this woulda been possible. Dickey here was my skeleton key.”

Donna ignored her. She held the back of her hand beneath Richard’s nose. C’mon, she thought. Please…

“Wasn’t hard neither,” Juniper cajoled. “Boys. They’re so easy to manipulate. All I had to do was show him a lil bit of skin with the promise of more if he gave me what I needed to access the home network.”

Yes, Donna thought. It was there: breath, flowing. She could feel it coming and going, so faintly on her skin. Richard was alive.

“Told him if he did that we could have all the fun we wanted in the privacy of his bedroom. Course that’s the problem with these smart homes: one network controls everything. Your appliances, for example. The ventilation system, for another.”

No time for relief. Donna scooped Richard into her arms and took off running down the hall, the stairs and out the front door, Juniper’s mad laughter ringing in her ears…

The black night air was cold and clean. Donna let the coverlet down from her mouth and breathed. The air was more delicious than anything she’d ever tasted. She was weeping but didn’t know it. In her arms Richard’s brow knotted and he began to cough. Donna looked back at the house they’d flown, rearing against the starry sky, its windows dark.

She’d forgotten about the Hound.

The security drone came barreling into the yard, steel limbs flashing in the starlight. Donna saw the headlamps of its eyes first, streaking towards them. She had time to discern its open maw, its terrible talons, and then—still driven by a ferocious survival instinct she hadn’t known she possessed—she understood in a flare of insight that the machine was under Juniper’s control, and it was coming for them. She also knew the Hound was a weapon designed to subdue and kill dangerous people (Threats, Tony called them) and if it got its claws on her there would be nothing she could do.

She hugged her son to her chest and ran, bare toes digging in the grass.

The Hound was closing in when she came in sight of the playhouse. She achieved the door, hoping against hope it was unlocked, knowing if it wasn’t they were finished. The knob twisted in her hand; the door swung. She stepped inside and slammed it shut behind her, threw the latch and sank to her heels. A moment later there was a tremendous crash at her back—the entire structure shuddered for the impact—and Donna rose, turned, and backed away into the tiny cell, staring at the door as it shivered in its frame. There came another crash. A rift appeared in the wood, wide enough Donna could see the moving glint of steel on the other side as the drone tried to fight its way in.

She looked round as if to seek an exit but there was none.

With a click and whir the wireless projector snapped to life. Juniper’s slim nude likeness luminesced across the far wall.

“Hi Don! Boy you’ve got yourself in quite a pickle haven’t you?”

Another vicious crash. Another splinter lanced across the door.

Donna spun.

“Why are you doing this? Whatever was done to you it wasn’t us. Let us go! Please!”

Juniper sneered. 

“I wonder: how many times has your husband been rewarded for blasting some innocent town out of existence? How much collateral damage has he dealt in the name of his fascist union? No one I knew was part of the Revolution when the bombs began to fall. I joined the cause the very next day.”

“Please,” Donna sobbed. “Please. He was just following orders…”

Juniper scoffed.

“Well. He had his and I have mine. I must say the infiltration went more smoothly than anticipated. You service families are so predictable… One of em gets a new toy and all the rest just have to have one too.”

Rodrigs, Donna thought. The playhouse shook as the drone attacked again. She could hear the door beginning to give. Richard stirred. Opened his eyes.

“Mom? I don’t feel so good…”

He retched. Donna looked over her shoulder to see the Hound’s red eyes flickering through the cracks in the door.

When she looked back Juniper had changed positions and her legs were spread and she was watching the door as it came down, piece by piece. At the sight of what the trainer’s hands were doing a surreal swoon descended over Donna and she sat in the floor.

“No one will know what happened here,” said the trainer, gyring her hips. “No one. Your husband will come home to find his house in ruin, his family murdered by the technology he thought would keep them safe…”

“Mom,” said Richard. “Momma…”

“…And I’ll be here, watching. Every moment.” Her voice rose: “Such privilege. Such…”

There was a snap like a bone breaking and the door shattered.

Juniper cried: “Yes! Yes, yes, yes!”

“Momma,” said Richard.

She heard a noise behind her like the points of many knives skittering in the floor. The urgency of Juniper’s cries increased. Donna pressed her face into the crown of Richard’s head, tasting the reek of the gas trapped in his hair, and closed her eyes.

M.P. Strayer resides in Corvallis, Oregon. Most recently, his work has appeared in Alien Dimensions, Loch Raven Review, and Carmina Magazine. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Finding a Home for a Rescue Man” Dark Fiction by Mike Neis

The man reached for my chest. I could not move or scream. “What’s wrong?” he said. “You agreed to this, remember?” His fingers were knives. They pierced my skin. Blood ran down his arm as his hand plunged deeper and deeper…

That was the part when I woke, clutching my chest. I got up and opened the curtain. 

It was already noon. The hotel walls were a pale, scratched green, like the color of hibiscus leaves beset with white flies. At one time, those walls were a hue that would have been soothing, but decay had made them splotchy, unsightly, rather like the metropolis in which I lived. 

A tent card, old and limp, advertised a nearby brothel. A muted TV showed a nautilus consuming a crab, its legs disappearing through rippling tentacles.

Like a barnacle on a ship, I had attached myself to Coraldeth, a company. I was constantly pushing out tendrils in the hope of catching something, and I had just caught a juicy one. I sat down at my computer and communicated my plans for this new project.

Years ago, I worked with animals in a small office, I think. Dogs and cats, I think. One day a man approached me and offered a different career. I cannot remember his name or his face, but I must have agreed.

I started work with Coraldeth. The preparation for my new job involved darkness, needles, and blood, but at the end of it I became a resourceful talent manager.

The Metro was a huge city, sucking life out of the districts that surrounded it. If I had ever been to those places, I could not remember them. The city was a giant hive, but unlike bees, no one worked for the collective good. I knew I did not.

Many girls arrived at The Metro from the districts, transfixed with the sound of the buzzing hive, the movement, the opportunity. Those girls would do anything to escape the rural poverty and oppressive local government. I did not blame them. 

In desperation for something resembling the family they had just left, they clung to their old religion, like a hermit crab to its shell. The Metro had churches for them, of course. The girls did not understand that the churches were rotten like all the other institutions of this foul city.

I had sourced all my girls from the churches. I felt comfortable there. The talent was just the right kind for me to use. I was the only manager who recruited this way.

Leilani was my juicy one. She had a high forehead, large dark eyes, pouty lips, and pale skin smoothed out over an expressive face. She was soloing at St. Konan’s, a church in a vast industrial area where I had discovered many girls. They sang well but could never become stars until I had them processed. 

I started with Leilani the same way I did with all the other girls. After Mass was over, I would ask to have a word. It was important to get them alone. I would tell them I was a talent scout and that I could make them a star. Their eyes would always light up. 

I took Leilani to a diner where she ordered a beans and rice meal typical of her district. As she straightened her blouse, I noticed its collar had tiny kittens embroidered into it. She worked at the boot mill, a foul facility that made its workers silly with the chemicals they used. Back where she came from, her mother limped on her left foot when she was tired, and her father always asked the same question about dinner when he arrived home to a household with six daughters and three sons. 

Besides singing at her church, she also taught religion to the children and visited the old folks’ home. I chewed on my BLT sandwich and kept her talking. I would need to get her far away from this parish.

I told Leilani about being a star, and that a large entertainment organization with the right connections was necessary. I told her that Coraldeth could make her famous and that everyone would want to see her. I also told her that every star needs to have cosmetic work done.

She was nodding her head. She took the “cosmetic work” without reacting, so I moved in to close the deal. I told her that all my stars underwent a special procedure which turned ordinary people into spectacular singers. I gave her examples of celebrities that Coraldeth had already transformed. Leilani hung on every word.

I pulled out a contract for her to sign while I casually lied about other prospects I was about to choose from that day. I pointed out the pay, the benefits, and the support. I neglected to mention how the procedure causes lost memory, and other long-term health problems. The money always helped. As soon as I gave them money, they would give me their trust. They would quit their jobs and be ready to do anything.

She signed immediately. She did not even ask about the side effects of the procedure.

Once they signed, I took my projects to “Doctor Ernie,” a fat old sea slug of a man. In the middle of his loose jowls sat a small mouth with jutting lips, usually hanging open. His rapacious smile displayed rows of chipped teeth. He would laugh when I called him “Doctor Ernest” in front of the girls. They often got nervous at this point, and I had to work hard to keep them calm. Leilani asked to bring a friend. I told her there was no time, and that I would look after her.

The procedure took a couple of hours. I waited in a nearby park that had a half-dried lake and occasional patches of grass. A homeless man approached me and held out his hand. 

“Little help?” 

I told him I had something for him. Putting some gloves on, I walked around to an alley adjoining the park. The surprised look on his face when I caught him on my backhanded fist was amusing. So was his ragdoll appearance on the ground when I walked away. 

My projects usually needed a few days to recover. After some rehearsing, I would take them to The Docks, a lawless part of The Metro with foreigners, money, and contraband.

Kids thronged to “Squawkers,” a night club where aspiring musicians could get a start. The chain link fence had trash wedged into its openings. Puddles of luminescent waste filled the potholes, and the night hid the faded paint on the outside walls. Inside, the tired smell of cigarettes and addictive drugs filled the air. It was there that Leilani gave her first performance.

I had recruited the band from lists that Coraldeth provided me. The musicians came to gigs with their tattoos, colored hair, filed teeth and surgically altered appendages. I ignored their appearances and paid them, making everyone happy. 

The chaotic slam of drums destroyed the pre-performance quiet. A guitar screech was so loud you did not need ears to hear it. Leilani started jumping across the front of the stage, screaming, and thrashing with such energy that her body parts barely seemed connected. The band banged out song after song with wrenching intensity and the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy. 

At the end of the evening the band milked its final note, while Leilani ran from one side of the stage to the other, screaming and crashing into the musicians. They laughed. When the curtain fell, she stood rooted just behind it while the musicians put away their gear. 

“Leilani, why are you standing there like that?” I asked. She turned to me. Emotion twisted her face as she realized she had finished her first successful concert. She sprinted in my direction and slammed into my chest, nearly throwing me to the floor. Her tiny body convulsed with sobs as she clung to me.

She was so different from my other girls. Usually, they would strut off stage with the cold arrogance of an established star, waiting for everyone to bow down and worship. Ernie’s procedure was supposed to take the emotion out of my projects, but it did not work this time. I did not report this to my bosses. Leilani had made a lot of money for everyone that night.

Just as strange, Leilani continued going to church every Sunday. Again, I did nothing. She was far away from St. Konan’s, and the schedules of churches and night clubs rarely conflict. Protective of my investment, I accompanied her, and even got to know the pastor. But she no longer sang as cantor. She belonged to me. 

After church we would sit outside for donuts and coffee. She would gaze at me with those surgically enhanced eyes and ask me questions. I could not remember much about my past, so I described my job. I told her a few stories of how I handled club owners who did not pay. She looked at me like a small child, infatuated with a grandpa. She made fun of the gray on my temples, laughed at my jokes, and called me “Papi.” 

She would break off pieces of her donut and feed them to the pigeons as they surrounded her. I would laugh, and she would hide her face.

And what a voice. No disappointments with the procedure this time. Leilani’s voice grew from two and a half octaves to five. Once, just for fun, I measured her singing with a studio oscilloscope. She nailed every pitch, exactly. With a little coaching, she mastered the use of breath, dynamics, and microphones. She could growl, yodel, and scream precisely on key, and it all came so easily to her.

Her favorite music was a kind of techno chick pop. She sang it with a gritty voice, broadening its appeal. She packed night clubs with girls who dressed like her. Then the boys came. As her celebrity grew, I could hire some of the best writers in the industry for new material. 

Her emotional fits after concerts did not subside.

“Leilani, are you okay?” I asked when she was, once again, in tears.

She slapped herself in the face and grunted like a pig. “I wish I wasn’t losing it all the time. What’s my fucking problem?”


We were trapped in a spider’s web. I was hanging limp. As she shook the web with quaking emotion, blood began to flow in my veins. I also began to struggle, thinking, “maybe it is not so hopeless.”

A knock on my hotel door woke me. I opened my eyes and rolled over. I ignored the aches of my aging body as I hobbled to the door.

It was Leilani. She was looking down at the floor. 

“Can we go to the zoo?” 

“What time is it?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

“About ten in the morning. Can we go to the zoo? I know it’s stupid, but can we go?” Then she looked up at me with those big, merciless eyes.

It had been so long since I had been there. Would I even be able to find it?

Her eyes lit up. “Thank you. I’ll be in the lobby.”

The zoo smelled like manure and the day was hot. The enclosures, although large, had been denuded of all vegetation. Fascinated with the monkeys, she jumped around, saying “Hey monkey! Hey monkey!” Then she looked back at me, searching for any sign of disapproval. A laughing snort escaped my chest. She went back to jumping around, hooting, and calling, “Aaaack! Aaaack!” 

After she figured out that I was just laughing, she leapt up and grabbed a hook under the eaves of the monkey house and swung. She kept playing the monkey, leaping around on all fours. 

I was laughing all afternoon, and my chest felt a vigor it had not experienced in years. Then we got to the wolves. The enclosure had one wolf only. It was old, graying at the muzzle. Its canine gait and the way it scratched at its ears made something tighten deep in my stomach. I felt like I had a word on the tip of my tongue. Then the wolf stopped pacing and looked directly at me. Its eyes had a ravenous, longing hunger, like it had lost something long ago.

Leilani stopped jumping around and looked at me. “Papi. Are you okay?”

I shook my head as if waking. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”

We stopped in front of the pigeons in lofts. The sign described how they could always find their way home, no matter where they were. A nest holding tiny eggs was inside one of the cubbies. Leilani put her head on my shoulder. Her touch felt electric. No one had touched me in a long time.


We visited the zoo every week. I did not report any of this.

One rainy night after a concert, the limousine failed to show up and take Leilani, so I drove her myself. “Papi. Please take me up to my room,” she said as I pulled in front of the hotel. It was nice to be staying at shiny places with huge lobbies for a change. I shut off the motor and accompanied her. She needed a couple of attempts with the hotel key, but finally her door opened, revealing a pigeon walking about on the floor.

“Leilani,” I said. “Why is there a pigeon in your room?”

She covered her face and sighed. 

“He crashed into my balcony window, and I couldn’t just leave him there. But he seems better now.”

She approached the bird. It was tame in her hands. “Could you open the sliding door for me please?”

I opened the door, and she walked out on the balcony. She whispered a few words to the bird, and then cast it out to the sky. Its silhouette flapped against the lights below.

“Thank you for helping me, Papi,” she said, looking up at me like a small child. That girl was such an idiot. She did not understand how I was using her.

I went out to a convenience store for some marijuana. I got the good stuff this time. I went back to my car and smoked a bowl. Then I fell asleep.

Small hands freed me from the lofts. I was overjoyed to feel the air of the sky. I knew the ground, the trees, the houses below me. My wings had awakened and knew where to go.

When my eyes opened, I was still high. I did not notice or care whether it was dark or light. I turned on the ignition, pulled out onto the street, and drove. I passed through traffic lights and rotaries. Left, left, straight, right, left, straight. I drove on and on through empty streets.

It was still dark when I pulled in front of a small set of worn identical houses by a dirt road with no sidewalk. I got out of my car and approached the third door.

The lock, like many locks in The Metro, was fingerprint activated. I pressed my hand to the device, and it turned green. I pushed. The door gave me some resistance and then it creaked open. 

The walls had paintings of animals, especially dogs and cats. The air smelled of stillness, nothingness. The furniture of the sitting room was coated with dust and cobwebs. The refrigerator in the kitchen had food that was brown and rotted. Then I went into one of the bedrooms. My room. 

A guitar leaned against a corner by the closet. I picked it up and sat down on the bed to tune it. I played. My fingers knew exactly what to do. The melody was in a minor key, haunting me, calling me. I thought of incense and the colors of stained-glass windows.

The song ended. I got up, put the guitar back and straightened the covers on the bed. Why did I do that? My bed. It was meticulously made. 

I felt tired. The long night and the marijuana were catching up with me. I crawled back onto my bed and collapsed.

I was banging against a door. It would not open. The bones in my hands were breaking. My blood was spattering the floor. The door was beginning to crack.

I woke, went to a desk, and started digging through the drawers.

I found a small, green book in the first drawer. I paged through it and a number caught my eye. The number was in large script, and it had been crossed out in a single stroke that cut through the page. I could still read the number, however. 

I picked up an old phone on the desk and heard a tone. I dialed and listened to the ringing. A woman answered. 


Her voice was gentle and tired. It had a singing cadence, a lilt typical of the northern districts. I knew this voice. My eyes squinted. A response broke out from deep in my chest.


“Benjamin? Benjamin? Is that you?” 

She called out away from the phone, desperation screeching through her voice. “Richard! Richard! It’s Benjamin! He’s on the phone now!”

A man’s voice took over. “Benjamin? We’re sorry. We didn’t mean any of those things we said. Where have you been? What happened to you?”

“Dad. I’m okay. I know it’s been a while.” 

I felt confused. My insides felt like paper tearing into pieces.

“Wait. I don’t think I should have done this. I’m sorry. I have to go now. I’m sorry.”

“Benjamin…Wait! Don’t go! Where are you?”

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Goodbye.”



I put the phone back on the desk. My fingers, shaking, sifted through the drawers. I found a photograph of a man holding a dog, with a wall of cages behind him. His head was tilted back laughing and his eyes were closed. In another photo, that same man was holding a guitar alongside a few other people. A woman held a tambourine. They were standing in front of a church. I felt sick. This man was a churchgoing, guitar-playing animal-loving pussy!

I closed the desk drawer and walked out back to my car. I got away, but the feeling that I had torn something would not go away.


Leilani had become a master of working an audience. She had a smirk that never left her face as she gestured with her microphone. Her emotion-driven performances gave her a stage presence I had never seen before. In hit after hit, her voice dominated radios and bars across the Metro.

I began staying at my old house, despite the long trips involved. I cleaned it up, painted the walls and bought new furniture. Then, Leilani started staying in the bedroom opposite mine. She tried to hide it, but she was giving food to stray animals. Whenever I found a bowl of food on the porch, she hid her face in her hands. 

“I’m sorry, but he looked so hungry.”

I did not really care, but she seemed to want to hide these activities from me and even from herself.

The trajectories of my projects ran their course, like everything else of this brutal world. The fans were fickle and few of my girls had the talent necessary to continue for long.

But the fans were not the worst thing. The procedure did not take long to catch up with my projects. After a couple of years, they could not hit the high notes anymore and their pitch would deteriorate. Even worse, they would become paranoid and argumentative.

Leilani’s crying was getting worse, but at least she was still making money. Otherwise, I would have had to develop another girl quickly. I wondered how difficult moving on would be or if it was even possible. I was squeezing in concerts, and taking her to the movies, the zoo, and other outings every day.

The end came faster than I anticipated. I was coming back home with milk and burritos, and I found her seated at my computer, hanging up the phone. I felt my stomach crinkle up. Did I close out those password-protected files before I left?

Her eyes were creased, and her face was frozen. “Is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“What you’ve done to all those other girls? Is that going to happen to me too?”

“Leilani. None of those girls were like you.”

“I suppose that means they never trusted you like I did.”

“No. It’s not like that.”

“How long before you get rid of me too? It seems like I don’t have much time left, do I?”

“Leilani. That was different. You’re different.”

“You’re lying! I’ll bet that’s what you tell all of them!” She got up and started gathering her things.

“Where are you going?”

“Away from you!” Her movements were quick and clumsy. 

I was walking behind her. “Leilani! No! You’re different. I have taken you into my house. I don’t want you to go. I don’t care how many fans you have. I don’t care about the money. You don’t understand what’s really going on. Please. You have to believe me!”

She was not even looking at me. I reached out as she approached the door, and she batted my hand away like it was a snake.

A cab had arrived and was waiting to pick her up. She walked out and slammed the door. Then she was gone.

I plopped down in front of my desk and opened a tracking program on my computer. The procedure had placed a transmitter in her head. I watched a little brown dot on the computer, superimposed on a map of the city. When I figured out where she was going, I got into my car, bracing myself for what I had to do. I could have done it all remotely, but I wanted to see her.

She was going to a church nearby. I drove as creatively as possible, through alleys and across yards. When I arrived, Leilani was getting out of the cab, grim and determined. 

With my previous projects, the last step was simply separating the girl and moving on. But not this time. My hands shook as I pulled out my phone and accessed the Leilani file. I wanted to throw up. I looked at Leilani and pressed “END PROJECT.”

The effect was immediate. Leilani put a hand on her right temple, stumbled, and then collapsed in front of the doors of the parish office. The procedure had given me the option of initiating what would appear to be a memory-wiping stroke, usually lethal.

A man in black emerged. He looked at her, and then at me. His eyes narrowed. He called for help and crouched down beside Leilani. I got back into my car and drove away.

I knew the pastor would not expose what he saw. He was in a government church, and Coraldeth had lots of ties with the government. 

Because of Coraldeth’s connections, the public records of Leilani’s celebrity would be deleted. The star would disappear. 

I sat, stuck in traffic, in places I had never seen. The sun set and traffic eased. I refueled two times as the night wore on. The sun rose again. That man in the photograph with the guitar would not go away. The words “traitor” and “murderer” kept slipping out of my mouth.

I went back home. For the next few days, I played guitar in my room. The following Sunday I drove to the church where I had last seen Leilani. My heart was pounding. What could I have been hoping to find?

I sat in the same pew where she and I sat. Mass began. Leilani had always been so emotional and so compassionate towards animals, and she hated it, considering it her worst weakness. But it was, in fact, her greatest strength.

After Mass I climbed into my car and left. I sent a text to my boss, saying I needed to talk to him. 

As I pulled up to my house my vision was getting awful, like looking out through a tunnel. I had to watch the ground with every step. As I opened the door, my right temple felt like it was splitting open. Spots of brilliant colors were flying though my eyes. I pushed through the door and felt relieved that I was in my own place, instead of a hotel.

As I struggled with spiraling pain, I turned on the TV and saw a nature show. I collapsed into the bed and tried to focus on the screen as the spots and colors got bigger and bigger in my eyes.

The show featured a frog that could remain dormant in the desert ground for months, or even years, and then wake again with the next big rainstorm. 

The agony in my right temple spread throughout my whole body. My room, the nature show, and the bed were slipping away. 

The pain gave way to a sleepiness, and I felt like I had been sleepy for such a long time. Existing in a sort of half-life. Not my life. Somebody else’s life.

Then the strangest thing happened. The spots in my eyes became dogs and cats, of all breeds, and of every color. Hundreds of them were barking and meowing in a glorious cacophony, and they were all coming to me. Gentle guitar music played.

The animals crowded out everything else. They shielded me from the nightmare that had become my dreadful world and enveloped me in their paws, their muzzles, and their fur. I reached out to them and laughed.

Mike Neis lives in Orange County, CA and works as a technical writer for a commercial laboratory. His work has appeared in The Stray Branch, Rind Literary Magazine and elsewhere. Besides writing, his outside activities include church music, walking for health, and teaching English as a second language. His blog:

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“The Royal National Deadboat Institution” Dark Fiction by P.J. Brown

“There’s going to be a party tonight,” said the voice at the end of the line. It pauses. 

I wait patiently for it to continue. In my line of business, you don’t get party invitations. You get instructions for the clean-up. 

“The boat’s name is ARTEMIS. The man in question will drop off the side at exactly nine-fifteen-pee-em. Have you written that down?”  

I glance at the blank notebook page in front of me. I don’t even have a pen. “Yup,” I say to the caller. “All here. Let’s talk coordinates. And money, of course.”

“Money?” The tone rises to accommodate the caller’s incredulity. ”I thought you people were a charity?” 

“No,” I say, stretching the syllable to make it clear I think I’m speaking to a Grade A Moron. “Those are the other guys. They do the good stuff for free; I do the bad stuff for a fee. It keeps the balance.” 

“How much?” 

“A hundred and fifty.” 



Have you ever heard someone go puce with rage? I have, and increasingly on the regs. Once you get an ear for it, you can hear the whoosh of red blood cells scrambling up arteries and having a freak-out session in a caller’s cheeks. It’s a nice sound, one of my favourites.  

I prepare myself for the less welcome – but usual – negotiations, shouting, and threats. To my surprise, however, they don’t come. The caller must be in a hurry. Probably wants to check on his vol-au-vents

Whoosh. “…Fine.” 

We swap details about the “boat” (undoubtedly a yacht), the coordinates, and my NatWest bank account details. Then I hang up. 

“A hundred and fifty?” Jonas looks as disapproving as he can behind his luxuriously conditioned, combed, and waxed beard. “That’s just greed.” 

“Hmm,” I reply, not disagreeing. “But if you get there first, you get half the deposit. That’s almost £38k, Jonas.” 

“I know what half is.” 

Jonas and I have an agreement. He’s Teignmouth’s branch manager for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, also known as the RNLIMy little business is the RNDI

That’s the Royal National Deadboat Institution. 

There’s nothing national or royal about it. But my enterprise is too niche to be noticed by anyone who’d haul me up for copyright violations. Besides, I thought it was funny.  

My name is none of your business, but I’m Teignmouth’s first freelance water-specialising hitman. That’s killing and disposing of bodies in water, not killing with water. The latter’s similar and we share a union, but it’s a different line of the profession. 

There’s a call for what I’m doing. Nine calls in the last ten months, actually. 

As for Jonas, I’d met him six months ago during what should’ve been a simple job. It was a total balls-up on my end as I’d been running about twelve minutes late. 

My then-target had been dumped out of his yacht at eleven-thirty-five-pee-em, and the sky that night was a gorgeous navy sprinkled with stars. I had the target’s photo, my crappy boat, the coordinates, and a fat five grand already deposited in my account. My instructions were the usual: make sure the guy never makes it back to land and the body can’t be found, blah-blah-blah. 

This client sounded sure of what he was doing, which was a new one. I’d had a few medium-fry drug smugglers who were all hard-man bluster over the phone but obviously trying to hide the fact they were thick as shit. More recently, I’d had a wife who was bored with waiting for her husband to die. She admitted to wanting his goodies before getting too old to ensnare another rich schmuck. That had been it so far. 

However, as he delivered the job’s details, this new client sounded laid back, almost sanguine. I got no whoosh noises from him when I said my price – which, to be fair, was lower back then. He even volunteered some information I’d been too wary of asking for.  

“That’s what I heard about you. Gets it done, but does it cheap.” 

Only one client had called me “cheap” before – and I’d guess the only cocaine smuggling they’d done was sneak a baggy into brunch with the girls. 

Anyway, this was all interesting, but I was feeling cautious. My client sounded like an overly-oiled machine, which told me this wasn’t the first time he’d dipped his toes into the world of freelance water-specialising hitmen. And, though he sounded cheery, something in his tone told me I’d be curling into a permanent ball of agony if I mucked this up.  

Thankfully, he didn’t leave me guessing. He confirmed it thirty seconds before I cut the call. 

“I shouldn’t have to say this, but some people try to take advantage of my natural leniency and good spirit. If the gentleman ends up ‘reanimating’ himself and making it to shore, I’ll make sure you never get to perform the same miracle.” 

I was careful to make my gulp inaudible. 

“The same goes if the gentleman’s remains – God Rest His Soul – spark the curiosity of the police in whatever country they end up in. Are we on the same page?” 


“Repeat it back to me.” 

“What, all of it?” 


“Um…” I was panicking. “I might be paraphrasing here, but –” 

“Fuck it.” The client cut me short. ”Half now, half when it’s done. You’ll find five thousand pounds in your account within the next three minutes.” 

And that was it. 

In two minutes, I checked my bank account on my phone. £735. I refreshed the page and was greeted with the same amount. I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and refreshed. £735. 

The guy was a great big liar. A bullshitter. The scum that covered park ponds and suffocated the fish. I threw my phone at the bed and heard the screen crack as it ricocheted off the metal frame.  

It bleeped and refreshed before it hit the carpet. £5735. 

Well, I figured the first digit was a five. The smashed screen made it hard to tell. 

He’d made the transfer in precisely three minutes. I’ll admit it, I was impressed. This client was the nectar and ambrosia we freelance water-specialising hitmen deserved. He was a fine-postured god that towered over the slumped shoulders of men. 

The first thing I did was buy a new phone. A mid-range one with a decent internet data bundle and enough memory for five or six game apps. Then I purchased a couple of new shirts and a pair of black jeans that made my legs look lean and sexy. At four-twenty-pee-em, I treated myself to a full fry-up for sustenance. 

By six-thirty-pee-em, I felt like rodents were trying to force their way into my arsehole. 

That meant I was nervous. Some people have ants in their pants when they get skittish. I get “bum-rats,” as my mother used to call them before dragging me to see a doctor. I’d been diagnosed with nothing, but she’d been handed the damning judgement of “a disturbing turn of phrase.” 

By seven-pee-em, my bum-rats had stopped trying to force their way into my rectum and were content with nibbling the delicate rim of my anus. Perverted mind-rodents aside, I hoped I wasn’t due another bout of haemorrhoids. I chugged a litre of water, made a pot of peppermint and fennel tea, and called my girlfriend on my new phone. 

When my girlfriend eventually made it to my mother’s house (I had money now, but the tail end of COVID-19 meant the housing market reeked), I was sound asleep in my bedroom with one hand buried halfway up my backside. She left again without saying a word, and I woke up at eleven-oh-six-pee-em.  

By the time I’d grabbed a torch, got to the beach, started the boat, and found the right place, I was almost fifteen minutes late. The yacht was now just a speck on the horizon, and the target had probably swept fifty metres in any direction.

I had no choice but to scour the murky surroundings with my shitty wind-up torch and the power of a desperate prayer. 

Ten minutes on – which felt like a panicked lifetime – I’d lowered myself to bobbing around and yelling the guy’s name when I heard the roar of a fast-approaching speedboat. In it sat Jonas, though I didn’t know his name then, looking dashing and noble in his fluorescent Sou’wester and matching waterproof poncho. 

His eyes gleamed with utmost concentration and the courage of his convictions. His glorious beard hadn’t fizzled into a matted mass of pubic-looking hair and sea salt. It was as luxurious and well cared for as I’ve ever seen it since, with beads of seawater clinging to the curls and glittering like opals. 

He looked how I imagined Poseidon to look. I wanted nothing more than for him to hold me tight, pull me down into the depths, and turn me into his merman-in-waiting.  

I haven’t felt the same way since, but sometimes I dream about it and wake up all flustered and embarrassed.  

I was gawping at Jonas like a moron when I noticed he’d killed the speedboat engine and was talking at my dopey, unresponsive face. A split second after I’d realised this, he started snapping his meaty fingers near my eyes and ears.  

“Hey,” he said over and over, “can you hear me?” 

My tongue felt as dry as an old carpet in a hot country somewhere, like Spain, maybe, or Burkina Faso, but I managed to snatch at his hand and sweep it from under my nose. His warm palm felt knobbly with callouses. I held on for a smidge longer than I should have.  

“Yeah,” I croaked, stepping back and feeling the boat lurch beneath my trainers. “I’m fine.” 

Jonas didn’t look all that impressed. “Are you the one who called us?” 


His eyes darkened with annoyance. “I need you to stay with me,” he said and started clicking at me again. “Your friend could drown.

I couldn’t let that happen. Drowned bodies are dead bodies, but unweighted corpses have a nasty habit of washing up with the tide. If I didn’t find this guy, my business and bollocks would be toast. 

“Yeah, I called you,” I began – but quickly changed my mind. “I mean… no, I didn’t.” 

If we weren’t standing in wibbly-wobbly boats, I think Jonas would have taken a swing at me. He’s not a patient man.  

“I’m also looking for the dude,” I said truthfully. “I got a call about nine hours ago.” 


“You’re wasting my time.” Jonas started his engine, his eyes sunken with rage under his stupid yellow hat. “I have a good mind to report you to the police.” 

“No, don’t do that!” I said, startled. My voice got lost under the roar of churning water as Jonas sped off. 

“Shit,” I thought again, aloud this time. This was going to be my first failure. I knew the combination of semi-skill, cunning, and wicked good luck couldn’t keep me going forever, but I wasn’t ready to hit my “First Fuck-up” milestone yet. I’d been in business for less than a year and had done fewer than ten jobs. I had bills to pay and a mouth to feed, even if it was only my own. 

After the third job, I’d also decided to “splash out” (ha, freelance water-specialising hitman humour) and ordered a set of wall-installed lasers that pulse out light shows in response to soundwaves. I’d gone for the “pay in instalments” option, and it was past the 30-day returns policy. If this guy didn’t die properly at sea, I’m the one who’d be drowned. 

In debt, but still. 

I could see Jonas, who’d stopped about a hundred metres away. His boat was better than mine, as was his torch, which looked like it had the power of a trillion candles. He was shouting into a megaphone, repeating the guy’s name and sounding more urgent by the second. I was about to trail after him when something caught my eye near the side of the boat. 

The beam of my shitty wind-up torch had finally proved more than worthless. I could see crimson silk, the sodden object shaped like two fishtails smushed together. 

A bow-tie. 

The target must be close. 

Without turning on my engine, I started jabbing my torch beam around the same patch of sea. If Jonas happened to look over, I’d look like I was losing the plot. But he thought that anyway, and I shouldn’t even care. 

He could’ve pulled it off when swimming to shore, I thought, growing more doubtful as nothing revealed itself. But the water was calm, and the tie remained in sight. 

I threw the torch beam out a stretch further and saw something. It was a hand, lily-white and surfing the gentle waves. If my luck came in, an arm – and hopefully the rest of the body – would still be attached. 

I didn’t have the patience to be subtle. Revving up my boat engine, I chucked a light, strong net in the hand’s direction and zoomed forward, holding on to the net’s edge. My boat seemed surprised by the sudden surge, and the bow dipped violently. I lost my balance as I pitched forward, my arm muscles effing and blinding as I dragged whatever I’d caught on board. 

The dude was as dead as a drowned whatever, but I recognised his puffy face from the client’s photograph. His already considerable stomach was bloated with party nibbles and seawater. His dress shirt had come untucked, and I could see a roll of pale, hair-speckled belly underneath. The guy clearly never waxed. 

By the looks of it, he’d also never taken swimming lessons. My calculations (i.e., I glanced at my watch) told me he’d hit the water about fifty minutes ago. If he’d struck his head or broken a limb, then drowning was on the probable end of the possible scale. But there wasn’t a bruise or bloodied gash on him. Likewise, both legs would’ve been in total working order if the guy’s lungs had bothered to keep up. 

“It’s like you didn’t try,” I said, smacking his stomach with the boat’s emergency oar. His blubber roiled like a blancmange on a high-speed vibration plate. Revolted and delighted in equal measure, I hit him again. 

“Ten grand!” I squealed, whapping and whupping at this guy with the paddle. “I get paid ten grand for this!” 

My pounding began to get rhythmic, which was the first sign of me getting bored. Hitting this dude had become a chore, and I still needed to make sure his corpse was untraceable. 

Meanwhile, the inside of my speedboat was mottled with blood. I’d whacked the guy a couple of times with the oar’s tapered side, and one blow had ripped into his torso. In the moonlight, I saw the glisten of pulsing organs. The stench was foul. 

The dude coughed. 

Before I could react, I was caught off-guard by a bellowed “OI!” and the rough buzz of another speedboat eating up waves. 

“Jeepers,” I said, lurching over the body to get to the stern. “I forgot about the other one.” 

The guy tried to grab my ankle, but I kicked his hand hard enough for me to almost slip. The blood slicked everywhere meant he couldn’t get a good grasp anyway. I slammed the start button to “ON” and yanked at the ripcord, which promptly snapped. More annoyingly, the engine sputtered like a nursing home resident choking on rice pudding and clapped out. 

I told you I had a crappy boat. 

The guy hacking up blood and seawater on the deck screamed, clutching his blubbery belly. He looked like Carrie from that old Stephen King book seconds after she’d been voted Prom Queen. His hands were trying to push his intestines back in, so he was probably in pain.  

“Not now,” I snapped as he tried to scream again. I grabbed the emergency oar. I wasn’t thick enough to think I could out-paddle a working speedboat, but if I smacked the RNLI fella before he’d pulled up, I could take his head clean off. 

That would make two bodies for me to hide. Still, I’d only have to buy a tin of paint rather than a whole new boat. 

I braced myself as Jonas came closer (though I hadn’t learned his name yet). I stood like I was trying to trap a sheep between my legs and practised swooshing the oar upwards to make perfect, direct contact with Jonas’ chin. My arm muscles were twanging like crazy, fizzling like conga eels dumped in a salt pit.  

I felt very, very tired. 

It didn’t help the guy had started rolling around, squealing like a stuck pig. The boat was going to capsize if he kept it up. 

My overworked mind was threatening to blow a fuse. I stared at the guy who was supposed to be dead, holding the oar aloft as if I’d single-handedly won the Oxford v. Cambridge Boat Race. All I could think about was the paramedic who’d visited my school over twenty years ago. 

“If you ever come across a multiple car pile-up,” he’d said, “ignore the ones that are screaming and focus on the ones that aren’t. They’re the ones who’re really fucked. The people, not the cars. Cars don’t scream, stupid.” 

That probably wasn’t the exact quote, but the sentiment is the same. 

This dude had drowned, been violently assaulted with a paddle, and disembowelled within the last hour. Why was he less dead NOW than he was twenty minutes ago? Rasputin had nothing on him, and that was making me mad.  

I could hear Jonas shouting into his megaphone, but knocking the head from his shoulders had lost its appeal. I was hyperfocusing like crazy on this prick on my deck. 

He was weakly kicking his in-perfect-working-order legs and blowing his globby cheeks in and out like a pufferfish. His eyes were spongey and waterlogged, like overcooked poached eggs. I knew I’d vomit like no tomorrow when I got home. 

Being a creature of bad habit, I decided my best option was to start whacking this bloke again, but in the head this time rather than the stomach. 


I brought the oar down full force, feeling the vibrations through the wood as I shattered his nose. His face looked weirdly gooey when I brought the paddle back up for a second smackeroo. Then I noticed that half of it had stuck to the oar. 

I hit him again, and it sounded like slapping cold custard. I’d never seen a skull crumple before, and I can’t say I enjoyed it. 

But when I was about to deliver my third strike (dude was dead, but in for a penny, in for ten grand), something yanked at me so hard I fell backwards into the water. 

I could – and can – swim just fine, but the sea was cold. I was also covered in this guy’s pulped-up face, really freaking shattered, and starting to feel like ten grand wasn’t worth it. I’d get an office job. I’d pull pints. I’d start an underground fight club for Wine Mums if I still felt sadistic the day after. 

Unfortunately, the party was just getting started. 

When Jonas saw Half-Face on the deck of my clapped-out boat, he started bellowing like a wounded hippo. I wondered if he’d known the guy, which would account for all the distress, but then I realised that the RNLI bloke was one of those Really Good People who cared about stuff and other human beings. The kind of person who washes and separates his recycling and walks instead of taking his car. He probably took the “Get Off One Stop Early!” bus campaign seriously. 

Part of me wanted to swim away. It was all over; I’d dispatched the target, but there was no way I’d get out of this without a ruined business and a hefty prison sentence. Or, I thought, remembering the client, something even worse. 

If I started swimming now, I would be back on the beach within an hour and maybe have thirty minutes or so before the police turned up. That would be enough time to apologise to my mother and explain that she needed to pay off the credit card debt for the lasers. I’d go with the pigs, admit to everything, and the client wouldn’t be able to get me as easily in prison. I’d do my twenty years and then become a better man. Give to the community. Teach kids how to read and cheat at Texas Hold ‘Em. I could open my own casino if giving back to the community ended up being profitable. 

Then something felt slimy against my ankle, and I started kicking and shouting in panic. It got tighter the more I thrashed, and I was plagued by horrible images of octopuses sticking themselves all over my body and sucking at my peach-like skin until I turned into a bloodless sponge. 

I’d hated octopuses since seeing one through the curvilinear lens window at Plymouth aquarium. It looked mean and had eyes like a goat’s. I cried for the rest of the day, and Nan-Nan got shitty with me after the first few hours. Days like that stay with you. 

A hard, calloused hand gripped my arm and pulled. I screamed louder and kicked out at the millions of cubic litres of seawater pressing against me. 

“Stop struggling.” He was deathly cold in his calm, and I stopped jerking about at once. “You’ll have the boat over.” 

He yanked again, and I thought my arm would dislocate from my shoulder. So I reached up my other arm the way toddlers do when they want Daddy to pick them up for a cuddle. Jonas obliged, but I swear I saw his eyes roll as he did it. I’d ask now whether I was wrong, but the guy frightens me. 

As he hauled me over the gunwale, I took the opportunity to lightly squeeze his biceps. Nothing creepy – just a few butterfly-light flutters with the tips of my fingers and thumbs. Jonas probably mistook my curiosity for shivering or a twitch. 

Once I could tell what was under his sou’wester and (at least) two knitted jumpers, I figured Jonas was ripped. Like, not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ripped, that would be alarming, but Brad Pitt from Fight Club ripped. Which was weird because his blue-green eyes looked haunted by a grim, salt-speckled weariness, and his eyelids were more wrinkled than the old Oggy Oggy Pasty uniform balled up underneath my bed. 

I couldn’t see the rest of his face because it was hidden by his yellow hat and a bathroom rug-sized beard. I guessed he was about fifty, maybe fifty-one. 

“How old are you?” I asked once he’d dumped me unceremoniously back into my boat. 

“What?” he snapped. 

As my heartbeat slowed to a more even pace and the floaters cleared from my vision, I noticed my left calf was tightly bound with seaweed. So, not a malevolent, leg-sucking family of octopuses. Phew. 

But as the feeling oozed back into my frozen extremities, I noted that my right hand was dipped in refrigerated beef mince. I looked down and saw I’d been stroking the gaping wound in Half-Face’s half-face. Practically rubbing my fingers against his newly-exposed back teeth. Ew. 

“How old are you?” I repeated, more to stop myself from screaming and soiling my pants than anything. 

Especially when the three-time corpse opened his remaining eye. 


“Actually, forget it,” I said, my voice high enough to attract any dogfish hanging around. “Age is just a number… shall we go back to your boat?” 

“Nope,” said Jonas, hooking what was probably a hook to my ring bolt. “I’m going back to my boat and towing you in. I radioed for the police while you took a dip.” 

“Are they coming out here?” I asked, despite seeing Half-Face start to prop himself up on a flabby elbow. The boat rocked with the shift of dead weight. 

“No. I said I’d be fine. I said it’s a small guy. Not that bright. Easily incapacitated. But I am going to tie you up.” 

A thrill ran through my entire body, though I genuinely couldn’t tell if it was down to the corpse trying to sit up or Jonas turning to me with an arm full of rope.   

Sadly, Jonas didn’t appear to have any confusing thoughts about binding my limbs together. Still, he sure was perplexed when Half-Face shambled to his feet. I tried to make the situation better by shrinking down out of harm’s way – and got flicked in the eye by Half-Face’s dangling small intestine for my trouble. I wondered if that was something likely to cause an infection. 

“Not dead?” said Jonas, sounding puzzled. His eyes travelled down Half-Face’s soaked dress shirt (water and blood) and saw he’d been split open like a piñata at a psychopath’s birthday party. “Oh.” 

For a dead guy, Half-Face could move fast. One second, he and Jonas were gawping at each other; a second later, he’d lifted Jonas off his feet and was trying to chew off his chin. Luckily, the RNLI guy had a lot of beard to get through first. 

I’m not going to sound very heroic here, but I had no idea what to do. Jonas’ feet were going crazy, like he was auditioning for Singing in the Rain on Air. When I tried to stand up, I got a noseful of yellow welly boot. When I ducked a second flailing kick, I nearly caught my head in Half-Face’s gaping torso cavity. Crawling around would cause the boat to capsize, and I didn’t know if Half-Face would let go of Jonas without some more serious bodily harm thrown his way. I was stuck. 


Half-Face was obviously a zombie. I didn’t know how or why it had happened but knowing the basic facts gave me something to work with. I also knew that a zombie would keep going without eyes, limbs, or even a few vital organs until someone destroyed its brain. 

Just one snag; I’d already done that ages ago. I had the chunks littering my boat to prove it. Even now, globs of brain matter were coming loose and hitting the deck like fat, ripe raspberries shaken from their bush. 

But I had to do something. I didn’t like Jonas, the way he’d insulted me, or the fact he was a GIANT GRASS, but leaving him to get his face ripped off by a zombie seemed a tad harsh. 

My knife had got lost in the seaweed/bloodsucking octopus struggle, and the oar was on the other side of the boat. I peered over the side into the water for either inspiration or the resurgence of my Suddenly Magical, Floating Knife. 

That’s when I saw her. 

It was Nan-Nan, looking like she did when she was fresh from her divorce, with a face like a pickled walnut and her mouth pursed tighter than a cat’s anus. “The problem with your grandfather,” she said, as she lifted the cigarette to her lips, “is that he keeps his brains in his trousers.” 

I knew it wasn’t actually Nan-Nan, who was hopefully still alive since dinner at Mum’s last night. It was a memory-based mirage born from a man’s desperation to live. 

“Do you forgive me for ruining the day at the aquarium?” I asked Mirage Nan-Nan.

“Of course, honey. I’ve definitely not clung on and treated it as the defining facet of your personality for almost a quarter of a century.” 

Definitely not Nan-Nan. Last night she refused to walk with me to the shop. But I had the answer I needed. 

“Thanks, Nan-Nan,” I said to the water and flexed my fingers. Then my arm shot out, cobra-like, as my hand burrowed itself between the zombie’s legs. 

I didn’t just squeeze. I squeezed, twisted, and yanked downwards as hard as I could.

Even Jonas, with the tip of his nose in the zombie’s mouth, looked disapproving as he heard the wet rip of saggy flesh. Thankfully, Half-Face had trousers on, so I didn’t come away with a handful of scrotum or anything. 

He also dropped Jonas. 

And, inevitably, turned to lunge at the dick-wad with his dick still wadded in his hand.  

As I gazed into the milk-white jelly of his remaining eye, his flayed jaw opening wide like a snake preparing to swallow an egg, I felt the bum-rats go absolutely fucking insane. 

Thankfully, Jonas turned out to be 1) far less distractible than me and 2) an ex-hockey champ or something. With a mighty swing that would’ve left me spinning with the momentum, he oared the zombie without as much as a teeter. 

The body crashed backwards into the water as the head sailed twenty metres away on the other side. 

“Dead now?” Jonas asked. 

We watched as the headless corpse flipped itself over and started a brisk front crawl towards Teignmouth beach. He could swim, the lying bastard! 


“We’d better catch him,” said Jonas, not looking at me but pulling his boat closer so he could step on. “Get in.” 

“Get the head first,” I said, seeing that it was also floating towards the shore, albeit at a much slower pace. For the first time, my client’s words echoed in my memory. 

“If the gentleman ends up ‘reanimating’ himself and making it to shore, I’ll make sure you never get to perform the same miracle.” 


“Get the head! Get the head! Get the head!” I screamed like an enthusiastic onlooker at an orgy. I expected Jonas to argue, but he unhooked the rope connecting his boat to mine, revved the engine, and surged forward. 

Catching a wet, slippery head in churned-up water is no easy feat, but I managed it. Then Jonas and I took turns stomping on it until it turned to a gushy pulp. It screamed a bit, but we didn’t care. Jonas looked annoyed as heck about his beard, which was half the length it was before. I even saw a few beard hairs stuck between the zombie’s teeth. 

Then Jonas started racing towards the shore. A good job, too, as Half-Face was obviously an Olympic swimmer in his afterlife. 

“You a monster hunter?” Jonas asked as sea spray slammed its way into my eyeballs.

“Uh, not really, no.” 

Jonas stared straight ahead. 

“Hold onto something,” he said when Half-Face came in sight. I went for his hand, but he removed mine the same way you’d pull a tiny jellyfish out of your belly button. I settled for holding on as tightly to the boat side as possible. 

As we ran over Half-Face, I felt the propellers slice into his dead back. 

“Keep holding on.” 

Obviously, Jonas was bitter about something because he ran over Half-Face twelve times. It felt like sitting in a Smart car and going 50mph over a dozen speed bumps with the roof torn off.  

Then we hauled in the remains, and Jonas tossed me a knife that looked like one you’d use for skinning elk. “Cut him small.” 

As I started with an arm, chipping away like I was whittling wood, I felt like I owed the RNLI guy the whole story. 

“I’m a freelance water-specialising –”   

“I don’t care.”

“My company’s called the RNDI.” 

“You’re disgusting.” 

Finally, in desperation, I blurted: 

“What’s your name, then?” 




We managed to eventually work it out as we cut the body into steak-cut chip-sized pieces, chucked them overboard, went back to sink my boat, had a swim to wash off as much blood and gore from ourselves as possible, and then started the journey back to shore. 

We both agreed that Jonas would now be in as much trouble as I’d be if the police decided to have a forensics team investigate his boat. He also made no bones about obviously hating me and thinking I was a waste of space. He wrestled with turning me in and accepting his punishment as a necessary sacrifice or letting “scum” back onto the streets of Teignmouth and getting off scot-free. 

So, I struck a deal in exchange for his silence: 

I tell him about all my jobs. Every detail. If Jonas gets there first, half the deposit goes to his charity, and the “victim” gets to see another day.  

If I get there first, the money and the life are mine. 

Whether I’m successful or not, I get paid some, but fouling up too many jobs is bad for business. Before Jonas, I had five stars on YELP. Only three months post-Jonas, it went down to four-point-five. 

I’ve not had another zombie (?) since, but if I do, I need to flash the red torch, and Jonas and I will momentarily join forces. 

He’s unhappy about this agreement, but I’m looking forward to it. 

Oh, and the client apologised when Jonas ripped him a new one. I called to let him know the deed was done (using the landline back at the RNLI cabin – my new phone was fucked), and Jonas grabbed the receiver and started ranting. 

I got a shame-voiced “sorry” and an extra ten grand, which Jonas took for his charity.

I wasn’t stupid enough to argue. He’d earned it.

P. J. Brown has recently delved into fiction writing, with a particular interest in horror, the absurd, and comedy mash-ups of both. She’s a content manager and (occasional) stand-up comedian from Devon, United Kingdom. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Kids” Dark Mythology-Based Flash Fiction by Sophie G.

Jehi killing Gavaevodata as illustration for Sophie G's dark fantasy "Kids"
Jehi killing Gavaevodata

“Don’t kill him!”

The shrill voice of a materializing tall figure stunned the man. His sacrificial dagger fell on the stony floor of the temple with a reverberating clang in the darkness.

She repeated. “Why in my name, are you doing this again?”

The gawking man did not bend to retrieve his blade. “You… you’re…”

The black woman-shaped figure moved an impatient hand in the air, jingling her many golden bracelets. “Yes, yes, I am your reverence, your she-devil, Jahi.” Bending to pick up the forgotten blade she continued, “Again, what’s all this? Why do you keep sending me these… these small humans?”

The man adjusted his red robes with shaking hands. “Because…uh… well, you are, I mean we worship you.”

“I know that. But what’s with this?” She pointed vaguely to the black satin-covered altar and the unconscious child on it.

The man bowed low. “Your Most Viciousness, Your Highest in Deception…” 

“Enough with the formalities.” Jahi interrupted him. “What’s your name?” she asked while moving the child’s leg with two fingers to sit on the platform, making a face. 

“I’m Dahak, the High Priest of your demonic cult,” the man replied. “My… My Lady?” he added consciously.

“Fine, Dahak, my High Priest, why do you keep ‘sacrificing’ these small people?”

Dahak glanced at the child furtively. “We… uh, present you with our own offspring to earn your delectation?”

Rolling her yellow eyes she asked, “And why do you need my delectation so badly?”

Dahak gulped, his eyes darting between her and the child. “Because we need more power to conquer the neighboring nation.” 

Crossing her bleaching pale legs, she leaned back on her palms and asked, “What’s your beef with them? Did they steal something of yours?”

“N- No, My lady.”

“Killing someone from your nation?”

“They’re actually against killing, My Lady.”

“Ugh!” She scowled. “I’d despise them for that alone. So what have they done to you?”

“Eh…” His bald head was glistening with sweat against the chill.

Jahi snapped, “Eh, eh, what is it, you miserable creature?” Leaning forward to take the trembling Dahak under her scrutiny she suddenly purred. “Are they worshipping a wrong god?”

Dahak stammered, “Not to my knowledge.”

“What then?” She shrieked, getting up and towering over Dahak who blurted, “They have the wrong outfit.”

“What in hell’s name are you babbling about?” Her long nails were digging deep into Dahak’s shoulders.

“Their men, they wear long robes,” he said.


“My Lady!” Dahak wailed. “That’s for women to wear. They disagree, claiming that men need to move freely and women are at total ease with pantaloons.”

Jahi let go of him abruptly. “That’s it? All you want is they stop wearing skirts?”

“That is fundamental in the values of a well-orga…”

Jahi cut across him, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just stop sending these offerings.”

“But My Lady, you are the darkest, the most cunning, and the most powerful she-devil of all time. Surely you find the children useful to form your future army and thus grant us…”

Jahi sniggered. “My army? I don’t need an army to rule and I don’t want your –what did you call them? Children? If I wanted them, I’d have stayed with that pathetic excuse of a creature, your ancestor, Adam.”

Turning with a jingle of her round earrings she looked coldly over her shoulder. “They’re pretty useless to me anyway.” she said. “Stop sending them over.”

“But then the war, My Lady!”

“Ugh, you men and your wars! I’ll make them wear pants. Happy? No more children? Good. Gotta go meet Darius.”

The temple fell into silence except for the steady breath of the sleeping child.

So. Ganji currently lives in Persia where she works as a professional teacher/ translator of fiction. Her main genre to work with is Fantasy and Myths and that has been her field of study with a BA of English Literature and an MA of Art Research. “Kids” is her first published work in English.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“To the Ground” Dark Fiction by Patricia Mariel

Georgia paced around the room, shoe in hand. She was looking for her vape in her boyfriend’s car when she stumbled across a sparkly, blue, size 11 platform heel. She had left for spring break to go visit her grandmother in Puerto Rico and when she came back, she finds one heel. Who even leaves behind one shoe? Did she walk out with a limp? What a wannabee Cinderella move. She knocked over a vase accidentally. Dead wet flowers spread across the checkered floor and that sparked something inside of her. She pushed over Frizz’s desk, making a hole in that cheap gypsum board wall. She called Frizz ready to cuss him out, but it was going straight to voicemail. 

“What’s your freaking problem dude? I leave town for one week and you’re already messing around with other women? Whose heel was that, Frizz? Call me back before I burn down your house!” she said. 

She went back inside her soon to be ex-boyfriends house and didn’t wait for a call back. Georgia gathered all of Frizz’s clothes from the closet and put them in a pile in the living room. She pulled out the lighter she always carried around in case her friends forgot theirs and lit his clothes on fire. As she thought about what she would tell the police, a sense of Déjà vu hit. When she was just nine years old, she had witnessed her mother burn her fathers clothes, just like her. I guess arsonists run in the family.  She didn’t let that bother her too much, good people do crazy shit all the time. Plus, he deserved it, right? 

The fire had expanded, the curtains and the rug were basically ashes. A faint voice was heard screaming in the distance, but she ignored it, she was used to hearing things that weren’t there. She walked outside and lit a cigarette. Her phone rang and she quickly answered it. 

 “Babe, I just heard your voicemail. What are you talking about?” he said.

“I’m talking about the fact that I found a heel in the backseat of your car,” she replied.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Georgia. What heel?” 

“Don’t play stupid, Frizz,” 

“I literally have no idea what you’re going on about.”

“Okay cool, well your house is on fire,” she added. 

“What? Georgia you better be kidding.” 

“Or what?” 

“Georgia, please tell me you didn’t burn my house down,” he asked hopefully. 

“Bad news—” she said. 

“Jesus, Georgia!” he yelled. “Is my mom, okay? What is wrong with you?”

She hung up the phone and the fire was already massive. His mom? There’s no way she was in there, she would’ve come out. She brushed it off and finished her cigarette, putting it out on the moist ground. As she was about to grab her keys, police lights filled her vision, followed by a fire truck and Frizz’s car. The cops ran and tackled Georgia holding her head down against the ground, while the fire fighters hosed the house down before entering. 

“Why would you do this? This makes no sense!” Frizz shouted, crying. 

Georgia couldn’t answer. The police officer was hand cuffing her while she laid there. Instead, she was asking herself how she ended up in that situation again. They pulled her up and Frizz got closer.

“What is your problem, Georgia?” 

“Whose heel was in your car, Frizz?” she asked.

“What heel?” he responded. 

“The sparkly blue one,” she answered. His face turned bright red; his eyes popped out of his head from shock. Right then, the fire fighters began bringing someone out in a stretcher, a white cloth covered their body, but they knew who that body belonged to.

Frizz shouted at Georgia, trying to get closer to her but failed when the police officers separated them. They grabbed on to Georgia, walking her to the car before Frizz could try to hurt her.

As they were about to close her door, Frizz yelled, “They were my heels.”

Is that a sex thing?

Patricia Caro is a latina writer from Puerto Rico. When she’s not writing she spends her time designing clothes and accessories. Follow @pmcarocruz on twitter.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Ro-Langs” Horror by Val Votrin

"Ro-Langs" Horror by Val Votrin

On a bleak day in early December 1947, a small party of three crossed into the Kham region of Tibet from Tachienlu. The party was led by Peter Goullart, a representative of the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives based in Likiang. 

Goullart was born and raised in Russia and fled to China after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. A short, balding, bespectacled man with a disarming smile and the talent of making friends among people of all cultures, he spoke fluent Chinese and, through his twenty eight years in China, acquired a deep understanding of the country and the areas he lived in – the city of Shanghai and the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. A person of much ambition and skills, Goullart was eager to explore uncharted areas in north China and was not afraid of anything.

This was his first visit to Kham. His companion, a young man called Wuhsien, Goullart’s trusted assistant, had never visited these parts either. This is why Goullart hired a local man – a humble Tibetan merchant – to guide him through the Tibetan highlands. They were heading to Garthar, a village about a hundred miles away from Tachienlu, where there was a trading post and a cattle farm. Their goal was to find the locals out there who would be willing to engage themselves with a new modern creamery or another co-operative – for spinning and weaving, or knitting, or soap making, or leather tanning, or metal working, or any other small business Goullart, and the wider Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, were so keen about. Of course this was Goullart’s official goal as the “Depot Master of Likiang”, as his formal title went. His journey was reluctantly authorised by his superiors who had never entirely supported his plans to visit this ‘Outer Darkness”, a no-man’s land, strange and remote. Was there any sense to discuss the setting up a proper craft with the barbarous tribes who inhabited that place and who could not even speak Chinese? So Goullart’s journey, hesitantly approved and hastily planned, looked more like an exile than an appointment.  

Nothing else was mentioned during conversations with his superiors and all paperwork for the journey arrived on time, but Goullart also discerned some understatements, some subtle hints in the speeches of his colleagues and superiors. They seemed to be fearing something – something, they thought, he would surely encounter in the Tibetan mountains. But they had never been to Tibet themselves, and he concluded that this was the usual Chinese superstitions – a fear of strangers and those strangers’ demons hiding in the unknown. Had he himself not been one of those crazy strangers who, quite conveniently for his Chinese peers, agreed to be sent to the outer darkness? After the Bolshevik horrors he had seen, after watching his mother die in exile in Shanghai, raving in her agony, blurting horrible curses – was he supposed to start fearing the strange Tibetan demons? 

Certainly not.

They made a start on an early morning and, having passed through a few dark, picturesque gorges, plodded along until evening. His companions spoke little so Goullart was left to observe the beautiful landscapes around him. The sun was shining brightly and there was no snow. Goullart looked back – and there behind him, at the end of a long gorge, was a vision of Tachienlu, with its pagodas and temples, framed by the flanks of the gorge as if a stage set with a fabulous castle. A turn of the road – and this heavenly view disappeared, making Goullart’s heart sink in a strange foreboding. 

They stayed in a tiny hamlet overnight. Next morning they started a gradual ascent. It began to snow around noon but, despite the poor visibility and the fatigue of the climb, they managed to reach the top of a 15,000-foot-high pass. Overcome by the altitude, Goullart almost fainted near the top, and it was only his inborn tenacity and pride that kept him going.

At last, breathless and panting, they reached a perfectly flat, windswept top, with several fateful mani stone piles and a few battered prayer flags swaying in the wind on their poles. It was noon and Goullart recalled his companions’ words that the road would become impassable in the afternoon due to the wild winds. They made it to the top of the pass just in time.

The sun was shining again. The sight of majestic glittering peaks and emerald-green forests of rhododendrons around him made Goullart forget about his fears and frailties. They began descending towards a divine-looking blue lake gleaming beneath. A few hours later, they passed a pebbly beach and turned into a narrow valley on the side of the lake. A roaring stream foamed along its bottom, and they started following it down, stepping from one mossy stone to another. It was a very slow progress, but at last the dark, narrow valley turned into a broad and flat one – and Goullart realised that they reached the Roof of the World, the famous Tibetan plateau, a vast, undulating land framed in snowy ranges. Everything was visible, clear and sharp, with objects appearing nearer than they actually were. The yaks on the slopes of distant mountains looked like black beetles. It was about two o’clock, the sun started setting behind the high mountains and the icy winds sprang up – the winds so cruel that it was hard to breathe. So the three people were hurrying up to reach a shelter. The road was empty, their progress became much quicker and it took them just an hour or so to arrive at Garthar. 

The village of Garthar was a row of dingy houses made of rough stones, with tiny windows and flat roofs. It was mostly populated by the Chinese along with their Tibetan wives. It struck Goullart how unusually quiet the place was. There were no lights anywhere, the street looked desolate, and the only sound was the howling of dogs. Amidst the absolute stillness, this mournful sound was frightening. 

The humble Tibetan guide came up to Goullart, shaking with fear.

‘This is a bad village, sir. Something has happened here. We must run from here’.

‘Bollocks!’ said Goullart, aflame with curiosity, wanting to know what had actually happened in this isolated place. Was that a natural disaster the locals had fled from? Or an outbreak of plague?

‘No, sir, very bad,’ the guide insisted. 

It was getting darker very quickly, and suddenly they saw that someone had emerged from around the corner and started walking up to them. The man moved in an unsteady gait, swaying and dragging along his legs as if he could not bend his joints. The Tibetan guide was gaping in horror at the dark figure approaching them.

Ro-langs!’ he shrieked and darted away with almost unnatural speed.

The man came closer, its face a black hole under a traditional felt hat. Clearly he was walking towards them. As he was some ten yards away, he stretched out his hands and broke into a faltering run. That is when Goullart realised the meaning of the word the guide had uttered before running away. He screamed and strode away towards one of the houses, leaving Wuhsien gawking at the dark figure that was already near him.  

Goullart burst into the house, ducking under a low doorway. The house was empty, the hearth cold. Goullart quickly shut the door, locked it and stood still, listening hard. He was all covered in cold sweat and was trembling. But the only sound he could hear was the roar of the wind. Even the dogs stopped howling. 

As he stood there listening to the roaring wind, Goullart clearly recalled the stories he had heard about the ro-langs so often when Tibetan merchants visited him in Likiang. It seemed that all of them, or their family member, or a friend had encountered a ro-langs once or even oftentimes, and Goullart would invariably listen to those spine-chilling stories with attention, nodding his head and tut-tutting compassionately. The ro-langs was a horrible creature of Tibetan folklore, a walking corpse risen from the dead by a malicious spirit or a ‘ba’ po, an evil sorcerer. One ro-langs could depopulate a whole village and turn its residents into other walking dead by simply touching them. Although Goullart happened to have listened to dozens and dozens of those stories, some of them told by actual witnesses of the ro-langs’s devilments, he had never taken them seriously and had always thought those were just the wives’ tales. Even now, after he has met the ghoulish creature, he could not quite believe that the man who he had briefly seen was a ro-langs

 Standing in the middle of an empty hut and listening to the howling wind outside, Goullart tried to start thinking rationally. Indeed, what did he flee from? What did he fear? That man was probably a local resident, who perhaps was quite ill. Goullart has seen too many locals suffering from various diseases. In fact, in his first days as a Depot Master at Likiang he set up a clinic for the local residents and started treating some very simple illnesses – conjunctivitis, trachoma, scabies, small wounds and sores. He also treated other, more serious diseases like dysentery. So why he, with his experience of helping people, fled from a needy patient when he could stay and help? 

Goullart shook his head in frustration. He has now regained his composure completely.

And then came a sound. Amidst the roaring wind, he heard a monotonous banging against the entrance door. It was almost as if someone was trying to kick the door in with a frozen wood log. The door made of wooden planks was trembling and creaking. 

Goullart looked around. His new abode was a rambling log house covered with a wooden-plank roof. As in most Tibetan houses, the ground floor was entirely intended for keeping cattle and storing forage and dried cow dung. There was also a large and dark kitchen which served as a dining room. On the first floor Goullart found several rooms, most of them filled with stores of barley, wheat, corn, yak butter, brown sugar, rock salt, cooking oil, potatoes and some salted pork hanging in big chunks under the roof. One room was a bedroom, very small, with a tiny window covered with a translucent yak bladder. There was a crude bedstead heaped with barley straw, a small table and a chair. A low partition separated it from the other rooms.   

The window was just above the entrance door and Goullart was keen to find out where the weird sound was coming from. After some thought, he tore away the yak bladder and, not without difficulty, thrust his head out of the window. 

The pallid moon sat high in the sky surrounded by unknown, hairy stars, its ghastly light shining upon the whole valley. Everything in sight – the village, each abandoned house, the road and every single rock on it – looked white and breathless as if bleached out of life by this acid light.

There was a lonely figure, charcoal-black in the deathly moonlight, standing motionlessly on the road. This was Wuhsien – Goullart could clearly see his hat and his bag lying beside him. Their Tibetan guide was not seen anywhere.

‘Wuhsien!’ Goullart called out loudly. ‘What are you doing there? What is going on?’

The black figure on the road stirred and drew closer to the house. This was indeed Wuhsien, his face clearly visible in the moonlight. But this face was now still and livid, his glance unmoved and fixed at something in front of him. He moved with the similarly rigid gait as the first man did, rocking from side to side and dragging his feet, and Goullart’s first thought was that Wuhsien had suddenly caught the same illness as the one all local residents seemed to be suffering from.

Then he realised that, while he was trying to draw Wuhsien’s attention, the monotonous sound he heard before still continued. He looked down and what he saw made his blood freeze.

There was the first man at the door and he was trying to enter the house. Yet he seemed to be unable to bend down to get under the low doorway, so he was just throwing himself against the door in equal intervals, as if he was a kind of a mechanical puppet. At some point, his hat fell off his head and Goullart saw the top of his head, a bare skull with skin slipping off in long shreds along with black hair. Next second, he felt a horrible rotting smell coming out of the figure that was trying to break through the doors.

Gasping from terror, Goullart pulled himself back into the house and stepped back from the window. As he was feverishly thinking what to do now, the monotonous sound from the downstairs continued. Even if he kicks the door out, he will not be able to come in, Goullart thought. This rational thought calmed him down a bit. After all, he was on the first floor and was hence relatively safe as the stairs leading to the first floor were narrow and steep. Even if those two walking corpses could break through the door, bend down and get into the house, they would not be able to go up the stairs with their stiff legs. 

But how long will he last here under this siege? Yes, there is enough food in the house to get going for months; but there is no water or a slightest hope that someone will soon find out and rush here to save him. 

The roaring wind outside became quieter but only to give way to another sound – a mournful wailing of the dogs who started howling with a new force, as if sensing a new threat. Goullart came up to the window and looked out.

The road was not empty anymore. It was full of silent figures – men, women, small children – and all of them were walking to his shelter. All of the local residents seemed to be here, and all of them walked with the same rocking gait that was already so familiar to him. His heart sank as he watched this horrible procession in disbelief. Soon all of them stood in front of the house, and, while there were no windows looking out to the backyard, he was sure that the house was now completely surrounded by the ro-langs.

Suddenly the monotonous banging downstairs was interrupted with a loud creaking. The door, he thought and rushed to the top of the stairs. 

It was dark on the ground floor but he could still discern that the frail entrance door was beaten in and was now laying by the doorway. Someone was stepping into the house. Goullart stood above the stairs, peering into the dark space below. There was a movement there and a series of sounds as if a stack of frozen firewood walked in by itself. The source of this sound was covered with a thick black blanket of the darkness.

Whatever has just entered the house, it seemed it was not able to go up the stairs. Goullart rushed to one of the storage rooms where he had earlier spotted the matches. With the box of matches, he returned to the stairs, went down a few steps cautiously and lit a match.

The light revealed dreadful, swollen faces peering at him with white eyes. Dead children. The room was full of the child ro-langs, standing there motionlessly side by side.

Goullart flinched with a stifled cry. Seeing the light, the crowd of the ro-langs swayed forward and one of them, pushed by others, managed to creep onto the lowest step. He stood there, waiving his straight little hands, trying to clutch to something that could help him get onto the next step. Goullart was looking wide-eyed at the thing. The child must have been around six when he was turned into a ro-langs. A nice round face, now blackish, pale-eyed, with evil expression. He was staring up at Goullart, and suddenly a long black tongue sprang out of his mouth with a little hiss. The crowd of other ro-langs was surging behind him, trying to push him up the stairs. 

Goullart darted again to the storage room and returned with a long pole. Whether this was a mop pole or something else did not matter at the moment. As if playing a sort of billiards, Goullart punched the horrible creature to the chest with the tip of the pole. The little ro-langs reeled back and fell on the heads of others who quickly came apart and let him fall on the floor with a thump. 

There was silence as no one downstairs was not moving. Goullart stood waiting, a pole in his hand like a medieval spear. Then suddenly a stir downstairs, and another child ro-langs appeared on the stairs, pushed hard by others from behind. 

This time it was a girl aged around ten or eleven. She did not look dead, only her eyes were white and blind, giving her face a wicked expression. She hissed showing the same terrible black tongue. Goullart hit her right in the face with a pole, and she silently dissolved in the crowd of the walking corpses.

Waiting for another ro-langs to emerge for their hopeless ascent, Goullart realised that he began feeling tired. He did not eat anything for the last five or six hours and was thirsty. It was very cold, with frosty draughts chilling through every inch of the room. He rushed to the nearest storage room and tore a chunk of salted pork off the rope it was hanging on. There was no knife seen anywhere so he simply sank his teeth into the meat. It was very hard and incredibly salty but at least it was edible. During his life in China, he had seen worse food. The trouble was that there was no water. 

As he desperately looked around figuring out which storage room was best to search for water, he suddenly sensed a look directly towards him. Hu turned around and saw that a ro-langs’s head just appeared above the top of the stairs. The corpse’s wild, white eyes stared at him with such malignity that Goullart shuddered. The head bobbed up and down as the corpse was being pushed by others from beneath. 

A pole in his hand, Goullart quickly stepped towards the thing and punched it with a pole, as he has already done. This time, however, the pole cracked and broke into two pieces, and the dead child – it was a husky boy of around fifteen, as Goullart could spot – managed to hold his position. Another ferocious push from beneath and the corpse fell on the floor at the top of the stairs and started crawling, hissing and writhing like a snake, towards Goullart. And there was already another terrible head emerging above the stairs, peering at Goullart with abhorrent eyes.

Goullart cried in despair and quickly retreated to the nearest storage room, slamming the door in the face of the first ro-langs. It was a shaky door without a latch inside and Goullart had to barricade it hastily with heavy wooden boxes with provisions stacking them one on another. Almost immediately, the door wavered under a blow but the boxes were quite heavy and stood the attack.

The room was small and dark. The light came in only through the top of the doorway where the door fell short of the upper doorframe. Goullart heard the banging, thumping and hissing and knew that the room outside was filling with the ro-langs. How long will he be able to withstand the siege? He examined the room almost by touch and soon concluded that the provisions stored here consisted almost entirely of barley, wheat and salt. No water; indeed, no single drop of any liquid.

Utterly exhausted, he perched on a wooden box. The door was now creaking under the same monotonous banging he had already heard outside. 

He must have fallen asleep because a carefully forgotten memory came to him – a room in a cheap hotel in Shanghai and his mother, gravely ill, on her deathbed, her face luminous and peaceful. Suddenly, without the least warning, she sits bolt upright on her bed, her arms extended in front of her, her hands twitching like claws. Her throat issues a sort of animal growl and she croaks, ‘Where are you, wretch? Where are you?’ Her unseeing eyes are bulging, her mouth becomes square like a mask of Greek tragedy. Terrified out of his wits, Goullart tries to make her lie down again, but her strength is enormous and the hands like steel. She gashes him deeply in the arm, croaking again, ‘Just let me find you! I will tear you apart limb from limb!’ Goullart, her only son, sinks by her bed in horror, unable to move. Then, just as suddenly, she falls back on her pillows and soon opens her eyes, smiling gently. She is his poor, dear mother again. ‘Where was I?’ she whispers. ‘I do not seem to remember what happened to me.’ Then, ‘I feel very, very drowsy, Peter, my boy.’ She closes her eyes and, in a few minutes, it is all over.

Goullart opened his eyes with a start. The door was creaking from the monotonous bangs from the outside. 

They will never stop, he thought. They are dead. They will be ramming this door until it breaks apart. These heavy boxes will not stop them either – they will eventually break through them.

His whole body trembling as if he had a fever, Goullart got up and stood there, completely at a loss as to what to do. An hour passed by or perhaps just a few minutes.

At some point of time, he felt a faint draught touching his face. He stretched out his hand and felt a little hole, a slit between the logs, sharp icy wind blowing through it. He stuck his fingers into it and tried to pull. Soon he realised that the back of the house was not made of wooden logs but of planks similar to those the entrance door was made of. They might have been thinner than logs but still very hard to pull off with bare hands. 

He descended on the box, his heart racing, his mouth dry like sandpaper. His foot stumbled across something lying on the floor. This was a fragment of the pole – Goullart must have unknowingly brought it with him while fleeing from the ro-langs

Acting very carefully, Goullart put it into the slit between the planks and pressed with all the weight of his body. The planks creaked. He pulled again. Behind him, the monotonous banging against the door was going on.

He was pulling on the pole, gently but strongly, and the planks started giving way. He knew this because he could feel a widening stream of cold, fresh air blowing out of the hole. 

Finally, one of the planks came off. He threw away the pole and, in one powerful thrust, tore off the other plank. There was now a hole big enough for him to squeeze through, letting the chilly wind and the pale dawn light into the dark storage room. He looked out this improvised window and saw an uneven, wet, ledged surface a bare handbreadth away from him. 

The back of the hut was adjacent to the cliff wall. 

Without hesitation, Goullart put his legs out of the hole and, setting his feet against the wall, climbed out of the hole. He started slowly crawling down, sometimes pressing his back against the wall and clawing at bumps and wrinkles on the house wall. Soon he reached the bottom of the dark, stinky space between the hut and the cliff and started walking to the side which seemed wider and where the morning light looked brighter. Closer to where the back of the house ended, there was a tiny stream flowing down the surface of the rough rock, and Goullart pressed his lips against the water smelling of the yak and mountain herbs and drank for several long minutes. 

The water enlivened him. Cautiously he peered out from the shady space behind the hut. The village seemed as desolate and abandoned as when he was looking at it out of the window above. The sun was already high, the crimson dawn coming over snowy mountains.

Goullart sneaked along the side wall and looked from around the corner. Not a single ro-langs near the house. Flattening himself against the wall, Goullart started feverishly weighing up his options. He could run up to the nearest house and lock himself up. But will he find any food and water there? He could also take a flight down the road in an attempt to meet someone and ask for help. But on their way here, they did not meet anyone, and now it was clear why – the folks from neighbouring villages must have heard about the calamity befalling Garthar and would not venture to approach the cursed village. 

He was about to give up in despair and run up to the closest house but then recalled the stories of those who had happened to meet a ro-langs. They mentioned that the walking corpse is afraid of water and would never venture to cross a stream or a river.

As far as Goullart could remember the map, there was a small river to the west of Garthar, a source of water for the villagers. On the map, it seemed to be located quite close to Garthar, a short 200 yards away. 

While he was frantically calculating the distance to the river, he heard a strange sound. He looked from around the corner and almost knocked up against a ro-langs, the abominable black tongue nearly touching Goullart’s face. The ro-langs stretched out his hand but Goullart was already at a safe distance, running to the river. 

However, having run a few yards, Goullart stopped, breathing heavily. In these high altitudes, running was a difficult sport. He looked round. A crowd of the ro-langs emerged from nowhere and was after him. The morning sun seemed to have galvanised them as they shuffled along the road quickly and in unison. At another point of time, Goullart would have had a good laugh looking at their distorted faces and clumsy movements. But just at the moment he had absolutely no desire to laugh. He was gasping for breath, his breast nearly bursting, his legs feeling as if he wore shackles.

Pulling himself up, he started to run, sometimes slowing to a walk. But even this way, he moved quite slowly, much slower that those chasing him that had no need to breathe. The whole of his short, chunky frame seemed to resist this unnatural physical effort. Looking back huntedly, he could see that his dreadful chasers were catching up with him.

Yet he was the first who reached the river. The ro-langs were just some few yards from him, and he could smell horrible stench emanating from their mass. 

Contrary to what was shown on the map, the river was not small at all. Goullart could actually hear a loud sound of the mighty stream before he reached its banks. It was a tumultuous mountain river swirling down the rugged cliffs, white with foam. There was a small pebbly bar near the place he reached where the locals took in water for their use, and from here began a river crossing made of large boulders. They were wet and looked slippery but this was the only bridge visible. 

Goullart stepped onto the nearest stone and started picking his way across the river. Looking back, he saw in terror that the ro-langs did not stop before the water obstacle but began crossing the river as well, one by one, mainly children who appeared to be more dexterous. Several ro-langs fell to the river and were carried away by the swift running waters, and most undead remained on the river bank. But few remaining child ro-langs were stepping from stone to stone deftly, coming to Goullart nearer and nearer. He could clearly see their horrible black faces and wild white eyes staring at him blindly.

He has already reached the middle of the river where the bridge stones stood almost completely submerged. His clothes were completely wet from the thick water spray; his feet were numb from the cold. Overcome with panic, turning back frequently, he stepped onto a stone, his foot slipped and Goullart tumbled into the seething water. 

He opened his eyes under the water and saw outspread five fingers of a little black palm passing just an inch from his face before the wild river seized his body and hit it against a stone.

When Goullart regained consciousness, he found himself lying under the stone vaults painted with colourful murals. He was in a large square cave all painted with the parinirvana scenes and the images of the Gongpo, Tibetan evil spirits. There was a fire burning in a hearth in the middle of the cave, and an old man sat near it watching the boiling pot closely. He was dressed in a traditional Tibetan robe with long, wide sleeves and wore a tall fox fur hat. When he saw that Goullart had regained senses, he got up with a wide, friendly smile on his face and stood above him, looking down at Goullart. 

‘One rib,’ he said in Chinese. ‘And a couple of bruises. You are lucky to have only one rib broken and a couple of bruises after you have swum in that river.’

‘Where am I?’ said Goullart, wincing from pain in his chest bound up tightly.

‘You are not Chinese,’ said the old man. ‘Where do you come from?’

Goullart chose not to answer. There was something strange about the old man. His wizened, brown face radiated with anticipation as if he knew something about Goullart that Goullart was completely unaware of. He turned away, went to the hearth and starting stirring in the pot.

He was not answering any of Goullart’s questions over the next few days. Goullart would fall asleep and then wake up and the old man would give him a cup of noodle soup. He regularly supplied Goullart with meat and butter tea and examined his rib from time to time. The pain, quite excruciating at first, has gradually remitted and Goullart was finally able to breathe and walk freely. 

One evening, bringing another cup of soup to Goullart, the old man suddenly broke silence.

‘If you were Chinese,’ he said with the same gentle smile, ‘I would kill you.’

Goullart only looked at him in astonishment.

‘My children,’ said the old man. He spoke good Chinese but sometimes slipped into muttering. ‘Good boys, chased you all over the place but you were quicker.’ 

There was a pause and then Goullart asked, ‘You call them your children?’ 

The old man replied in his usual evasive manner, ‘You’ll be fine soon, very soon’. 

Another day passed, and the old man said sipping butter tea, ‘There are too many Chinese in Kham. But no Chinese in Garthar. I have stopped them from coming to Tibet. My children are good, very good.’

 Goullart gave him a long glance.

‘Your things kill not only Chinese,’ he said. ‘They kill everybody. You have committed a horrible atrocity, breached a divine law. You must put them back to sleep.’

The sorcerer put his cup of tea on the floor carefully. He did not smile anymore.

‘What is done cannot be undone,’ he said in a low voice, rather to himself. 

There was a day-long pause before he spoke again. Goullart sat near the hearth looking at the dancing fire. 

‘I pulled you out of the river,’ said the sorcerer behind him. 

‘Why?’ said Goullart not turning back. 

‘I did not know why. You looked so peaceful floating in the water. A good man, I thought, still alive. I saved you from the water so that you could tell me good, harsh things. The truth.’

‘Thank you,’ said Goullart.

The sorcerer laughed. 

‘Thank you, eh? How long have you lived among the Chinese? Five years? Ten?’

‘You cannot turn all Chinese into the ro-langs,’ said Goullart and heard a long sigh. He thought that there would be another day-long pause in their conversation but the sorcerer said, ‘I know. But I have to be trying.’

Goullart turned to him.

‘Will you let me go?’ he said.

The sorcerer sat motionlessly resembling a statue of one of those ancient, fierce deities he worshipped.

‘I can see your future,’ he said, ‘You will never see the snow of your homeland again. You will leave China soon and will never return to Tibet, despite your desire to see it once again. You will die among the Chinese but with Tibetan words on your tongue. There is a path from here to the road to Tachienlu. Somebody will pick you up at the crossroads. Take the bag, there is some food and water in there. And don’t say thank you for there is nothing for you to thank me for.’

Peter Goullart came back to Likiang safely. In 1949, he left China on a plane to Hong Kong, fleeing the advancing communists. He had never returned to Tibet. He died in Singapore in 1978. His last words that he uttered lying unconscious were the only ones in Tibetan he knew, ‘Konan ndro? – Gartha la’ (Where are you going? – To Garthar). 

Val Votrin is a published speculative fiction writer based in Haarlem, The Netherlands. His English language prose has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, The Eunoia Review, Trafika Europe and The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories, Vol. 2 (Valancourt Press, December 2021). His novel “The Oracle Seller” is forthcoming in Vraeyda Literary this spring.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Bedguard” Horror by Josiah Furcinitti

Man falling into darkness from "Bedguard" by Josiah Furcinitti

Maybe he’s cheating.

The emptiness which has grown between them each night, inch by inch, is a dark gray storm cloud on a beach day, pregnant with the possibility not of rain but of something far worse than a ruined vacation, a sign that a storm is on the horizon; that trouble is indeed here. Each night waking with her legs and feet cold due to the deprivation of his constantly warm body against hers, something to which she had grown accustomed in their marriage, is a thunderclap booming in the hollow places of her mind, a crashing boom saying that her husband of fifteen years no longer loves her, no longer finds comfort in her arms, can no longer be satisfied with her love for him.

She lays on her bed on this January evening, having woken up an hour ago with her usual 2 AM full bladder (it’s like the thing is on a schedule, she thinks every time she wakes and sees the clock), body and heart feeling tense and heavy, bogged down by her anxiety. Though she has been trying for the past hour, she is unable to get back to sleep.

As she struggles against the intrusion of this horrid explanation of her husband’s distance, the voice of her therapist echoes in her brain, assuring her that, “such thoughts are manifestations of your anxiety,” telling her that, “such imaginings, especially based on such scant “evidence” (Anna could picture her clear as day doing the air quotes with her fingers), while they ought not be merely pushed away (and here, doing a pushing gesture; therapy with Dr. Matthews was no mere auditory event), they also ought not be given right to run amuck in your mind to such an extent that they are keeping you up and hurting your relationship with your husband.”

But of course, it wasn’t just the distance in the bed, though that alone would’ve been enough to freak her out. It was also the far-off, almost haunted look in his eyes when he was “zoning” as he put it; it was the way his answers seemed shorter and more terse; it was the way he wasn’t nearly as playful with her as he always had been up to this point.

“Oh, but those could be symptoms of so many different things!” Mind-Matthews countered, “Stress at work, trouble entering REM sleep, a strained family relationship,” she went on, the possibilities pouring out of her mouth smooth as a lake on a windless day, hands working and moving with each option as though kneading them like invisible dough into something far more palatable than infidelity.

But, she thinks, answering her therapist, the space between us is the worst. From the first night of our marriage until these past five days, he has always slept snuggled right up against me, as close as he possibly could be. It was like he couldn’t sleep unless he was touching me in some way. And now…

She turns to him now, looks at him, watches his back –

(why his back, he always used to sleep on his back, not on his side with his back facing me, why all of a sudden – )

expand and contract with his deep breaths, each intake announcing itself with a light snore, something she has always found endearing rather than annoying. She takes her own deep breath and reaches out and shakes him lightly.

“David. Hey, David.”

He draws a sharp breath and turns toward her, his sudden waking producing a snore of the sort that, done more regularly throughout the night, probably sent many a man to the couch.

“Huh – “

He turns around towards her and she can tell his sleep has not been deep or restful. He has bags under his eyes the size of suitcases and his face is a sickly yellow-pale.

“What’s up, baby?”

“Well… I – I’m sorry to wake you, love.” She smiles at him, laughs nervously. “You know what, it’s not even that big a deal, we can talk about it in the – “

He turns and flips on the lamp on his side of the bed and then props himself up on his elbow as he turns to face her again. He smiles back and puts his right hand on the left side of her face, brushes gently at her cheek with his thumb, a gesture that never fails to calm her.

“We can talk about it now. Better to face whatever it is while it’s still fresh on your mind. Did you have another nightmare?”

“No, I haven’t had one tonight. Not yet anyway.”

She had indeed been plagued with nightmares for the past week or so: another possible cause, Mind-Matthews pointed out, to the current flare-up of her anxiety; lack of sleep was a famous perpetrator of all kinds of breakdowns of the mind and emotions. These nightmares were incredibly reminiscent of the nightmares that she used to have as a child: indeed, she had forgotten that she had even had such horrid nightmares until, with a sick familiarity like a past trauma being triggered by some sense, these ones arrived. Then and now, she could never remember exactly what happened upon waking, but she always woke with the sense that she had narrowly avoided something; something evil and sentient, something meticulous and insidious, something not content with merely attacking, but something that enjoyed the hunt as much as, if not more than, the kill. And she always felt upon waking that the slimy residue of whatever beast haunted her dreams was still in the room, that it wanted her to know that she had only just missed it, but that she ought not worry – that it would be back.

She takes a deep breath.

“Babe…” She pauses for a moment before letting it out. “Are you – are we good? Like, we’re happy, right? And our marriage is good? And – ”

The more she stumbles on, the bigger his smile grows.

“Honey,” he cuts her off, gently; “you are amazing and we are amazing. I love you more every day that I get to know you and be with you. There is certainly nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with us.”

The smile falters a bit.

“Where is all this coming from? Did something happen?”

“Well, no, not exactly. I mean, like, it’s just – it sounds so silly.”

He brushes her cheek again with his thumb and she takes a deep breath and goes on.

“Well, it’s just that for the past week or so it seems like each night you’re moving farther and farther away from me throughout the night. And, you know, we both sleep like rocks normally; I remember your brother telling me that when you guys were younger and shared a room he used to check to see if you were still breathing sometimes because of how still you were.”

She laughs a little.

“And, I don’t know, it just seems like you’ve been more – “ she pauses, thinking for a moment, hands moving in unconscious imitation of Dr. Matthews, “ – more stressed. Or distracted. Or something, I don’t know.”

He nods slowly, thoughtfully, taking it in.

“Honestly, honey…” he pauses, thinking, and Anna’s blood pressure spikes. She loves nearly everything about this man, even after six years of marriage, but this is the one thing that drives her up a wall, especially with her anxiety being what it is. When she is upset about something and he is trying to talk her through it, he will think about it, start to say something, and then pause to think some more, as though he were being asked to give a speech on the spot that will change the course of history rather than merely trying to comfort his anxious wife. She knows he is just a thoughtful man and is trying to be careful with his words, but it drives her nuts all the same.

“Yes?” She says, goading him on, a hint of annoyance creeping into her voice. Most times she lets him do his thing in his time, but her patience in the midst of anxiety at a normal hour, let alone at three AM, is about as plentiful as breathable air in a middle school gymnasium.

“Well, honestly, I haven’t been sleeping well the past week. I’ve been super exhausted. And I’ve actually been having some pretty awful dreams as well.”

His smile is totally gone now, replaced by a look she hasn’t seen before: fear bordering on terror.

“It’s pretty weird – I usually don’t remember my dreams, if I even have them at all. But these ones are super vivid. And they’re pretty much all the same too. We’re laying in bed together and you’re asleep and I’m awake and at first, it’s like the atmosphere of the room changes somehow; everything seems darker and there’s this weird smell in the room like rotting meat or something. Then out of nowhere my heart starts racing and I get this feeling of absolute terror and fear; it almost feels like I’ve developed some kind of supernatural sixth sense and I can tell something is coming for me.”

His breathing picks up and she can see beads of sweat forming on his upper lip and his brow.

“And then I hear a slithering, slimy noise from under the bed like the world’s biggest snake escaped from the zoo and came to our house and I want to scream and jump out of bed and tell you that we have to get out of there, but I’m paralyzed, I’m frozen, I can’t move or speak – “

His words are running together, each phrase running out of his mouth on rapid gusts of breath.

“And then the slithering starts to happen on the bed frame and I can feel the mattress moving as though something is trying to climb on it and then – “

He is shaking now and Anna sits up all the way, the sheets pooling around her waist, and she grabs him and pulls him into an embrace. She can each hot breath against her breasts, can feel the sweat coming off him and dripping between them.

“It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a dream. I know it’s scary, but it’s only a nightmare. Trust me, if anyone knows nightmares, its me.”

She rubs his shoulder and he lets out a little nervous laugh.

She pulls back for a moment and put the back of her hand against his forehead.

“You know what, you do feel a little warm. Maybe you’re coming down with something. A fever can cause some pretty strange nightmares, you know. I remember once my sister had a temp of 103 and she had a waking nightmare that there were spiders crawling all over the ceiling, poor kid.”

His breathing is slowing down now and he reaches up to wipe the sweat off his brow. As he does, she sees light scratches all up and down the inside of his arms and on his ribs, some fresh, some beginning to heal already. Her heart skips a beat. She thinks about asking him, even opens her mouth and feels the words starting to form, but just before they are out, she stops them. He is just beginning to calm down and she doesn’t want to upset him again.

“Do you think you could go back to sleep?”

He thinks for a moment.

“Yeah, I think so.”

He looks up at her, his eyes pleading.

“Do you think you could hold me for a little while I fall asleep.”

She smiles at him and pulls him back into herself.

“Of course.”

She holds him and after a while feels his breathing finally slow and before she knows it, she is asleep too.


She doesn’t know whether it is the thump or the scream that wakes her, but before she can even begin to register what she is hearing, she rolls to the now empty side of her bed that her husband usually occupies and looks over the side. He is there on the floor, on his back, chest heaving with huge, hitching, hyperventilating sobs. His breathing is way too fast and he is shaking and he is going to pass out if he doesn’t calm down soon.

Well then, why don’t you get the hell out of bed and try to stop that from happening, idiot? Her own internal voice screams at her and she rolls the rest of the way out of bed and kneels down beside him, rubbing his arms and chest, whispering “shh” and “it’s okay” and other little comfortisms that bypass her rational mind entirely and flow out naturally as she tries to calm him.

After a minute or two, he calms to the point that she no longer fears him hyperventilating himself into unconsciousness and she reaches up and grabs one of his many open water bottles from his nightstand. She unscrews the cap and, after helping him to sit up against the nightstand, raises the bottle to his lips, telling him, “Drink.”

He takes two long gulps and then pulls back. He moans.

“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

He moans again and she forces him to look her in the eyes.

“Babe. Did you hit your head?”

“No,” he moans, “I fell on my butt.”

“Do you think you can get up?”

He straightens against the nightstand and pushes himself off the floor. Anna helps to steady him and helps him climb back into bed.

“It almost got me this time, Anna. I could feel it and smell it.”

His eyes are half-lidded and he speaks in mumbles and she is sure that he must be half-asleep, despite the fall; that his mind was still clinging to whatever nightmare had pushed him over the edge of their bed, like milk holding the scent of whatever it’s next to in the fridge.

“You’re okay baby, you’re okay. Just go back to sleep. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

He mumbles something else and turns over. She rubs his back for a little while, until his breathing deepens once again, and then she turns over and attempts to call sleep back to her own mind.

But every time she closes her eyes, she sees him writhing on the floor; she hears him weeping, hears his voice telling her that he could “feel it and could smell it,” and now she could swear that she, too could feel something, could smell something in the room with them.

When, after about half an hour of restless tossing and turning, she finally accepts that sleep, like a cat, cannot be controlled but can only be lured if it wants to be lured, she sighs and grabs her phone from under her pillow.

She does her usual fruitless scrolling through the usual social media platforms, seeing all the colors and words and lies, but not really taking any of it in. Halfway through her Facebook News scroll, an idea comes to her. She opens Amazon. She searches Bed guard.

As she scrolls through the results, her first thought is a flood of memories. Her mom and dad were very strict on Anna sleeping in her own bed once she turned two – not only because they were ready for their privacy once again, but also because, as a young child, she tossed and turned like a student the night before a test. In fact, on more than one occasion, they had come into her room in the morning to find her sprawled on the floor next to her mattress, having rolled off at some point in the middle of the night.

But when her dad died only two years after, she spent nearly every night in her mother’s bed, leading her mother to buy a bed guard of the very same sort of those which she was seeing. The padded railing with a cloth mesh netting across brought back memories long since forgotten: looking at it as she pretended to sleep as her mother wept softly into the pillow, waking up with her face in the netting and seeing the red tattoo it left on her cheek as she brushed her teeth.

Her second thought: damn, these are expensive. The first page had 15 different options, with prices ranging from $25 to $99, this one claiming that, “Twin, Queen, King: no matter the size, we’ve got you covered!” the other assuring her that, “even a baby elephant couldn’t fall off the bed with this guard in place!” She snorts at this, checks the price, snorts again. $99. For that, she could just buy a nice air mattress to put next to the bed. At least it would continue to have use once this – whatever this was – passed.

She finds a middle-of-the-road one for $50, sees it has same day shipping and will arrive before 10 PM, and adds it to her cart. She checks out and then turns to her husband. He is still sleeping, his breathing still deep and regular, and then checks the time. 5:19 AM. If she can fall asleep before 6 or so, she can get at least two more hours of sleep, which might be enough to stave off extreme grumpiness, so she turns over and soon thereafter falls asleep.


“Babe, I really don’t think this is necessary. I mean, last night was the first time I’ve fallen off a bed, maybe ever.”

He speaks to her from across the room as he strips off the robe he wears after showers and before bed and folds it carefully, putting it over the back of his desk chair.

She thought that perhaps he would protest, at least a little, and this feeling was confirmed the moment she saw his face as he walked into the room and saw the bed guard already installed on his side of the bed. Though he is a man far sweeter and less macho than most men she has met, he is still a man and thus still had his pride. But she was ready for this.

“And hopefully it will be the last. But until we’re sure that these nightmares have worked themselves out of your system, perhaps it would be better for your body and for both of our sleep just to have this as a safety net – no pun intended.”

She walks over to him, hugs him from behind, rubbing his chest.

“If anything, do it for me. It’ll make me feel a whole lot better to know I won’t wake up to find you in a pool of blood on the floor because you hit your head on the corner of the night table after rolling out of bed.”

He laughs and spins in her arms so that they are face to face.

“I guess it’s better than those little corner guards you put on everything when you babysit for my sister’s kid.”

She makes her eyes go comically wide and her voice jumps up into Mickey Mouse range as they always do when they are joke-lying.

“No yeah, definitely didn’t buy any of those.”

They both laugh and kiss each other, lightly at first. Then the kiss deepens and he lifts her and she wraps her legs around him and he carries her to the bed.


She can hear him cursing under his breath as she climbs out of sleep the next morning. She blinks and turns around. Her eyes are still blurry with sleep, but she can see that his side of the bed is empty; he is next to the bed kneeling down and looking at the bed guard. She blinks again and her eyes clear and she draws in a sharp breath, then utters her own curse.

“What the hell happened?” she asks once she has caught her breath.

“I have no idea.” He doesn’t look up at her as he answers, he just continues to study the bed guard. A fist-sized hole has been ripped in the center of it and there are tiny brownish-red droplets hanging off the ragged ends of the mesh around the hole. She can see the graying speckles of three-day growth on his face through the center of the hole and she realizes that she has never seen more than the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow on him. “I must have punched it or ripped through it somehow. I think I had another nightmare last night. I don’t remember it, but I feel exhausted, like I didn’t sleep at all last night. And – “

He stops himself; she prods him.


“And I’m scared, Anna.” He finally looks her in the eye. “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I know something is going on.” He stands and begins to pace next to the bed. “Maybe if I sleep on the couch tonight. Or if I get a hotel room or something, I don’t know.”

She gets out of bed and walks around to him.


It’s as though he doesn’t hear her. He continues to pace and goes on.

“I mean, maybe just changing the scenery. I don’t know, maybe I can take some NyQuil or something and – “

David.” She speaks with force, not quite yelling, but close. He finally stops and faces her. “I know you’re scared, honey.” She walks to him and hugs him. He cringes a little at first – it breaks her heart into a million pieces, but she goes on anyway. “And I don’t know what’s going on either. Maybe you saw something last week that brought up some childhood trauma –“

“No, I’ve been thinking about it and – “

Or,” she cuts him off, “maybe it was something you ate,” she lifts a finger before he can interrupt again, “or maybe something else totally that we don’t understand. We both struggle with anxiety and depression and we both know full well that these kind of things are sometimes cyclical and seasonal. Maybe this is just a new season and a new thing to deal with.”

She lifts her hand up to his face and rubs her thumb against his cheek, imitating the way he comforts her.

“Whatever it may be, I am here with you and for you and we will figure this out and everything will be okay.” She looks deep into his eyes, gauging whether he is really listening. “Everything will be okay,” she repeats, holding his face in both hands.

He takes a deep breath and smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.

“You’re right, of course. Everything will be okay. Listen, I’m gonna shower and head off to work, okay? Johnson will kill me if I’m late again.”

She looks at him for a moment, debating whether to argue the point with him. She sees in his eyes that further arguments or pleadings will do nothing and forces a smile.

“Okay babe. Wash your butt good, you stink.”

He crinkles his nose at her and gives her a gentle push away, but she can tell his heart is not in it. He walks off to the bathroom and she looks down at the torn bed guard, wondering how in the world he could’ve done this, especially without waking her.


“Just let me do it, okay?” He raises his voice at her for only the second time in their marriage.

He was quiet when he got home that day, quiet during dinner, quiet while washing the dishes after, quiet in the shower. She tried to start conversations several times, but after the third failed attempt while they washed dishes together, she joined him in his silence. The silence ended when, after watching their show together, David gathered his blanket and pillow into his arms and climbed out of bed.

“Babe? Where are you going?”

“I’m sleeping on the couch tonight.”

He put up a hand before she could even begin to respond.

“Babe, it’s not up for debate. Look at this.”

He gestures with his full hands at the bed guard.

“What if I do that to you in the middle of the night instead of to that thing? How’s that gonna feel?”

“David, you’re not gonna do that to me. You’ve never been remotely violent to me, sleeping or awake and – “

“But we really don’t know what could happen, do we? As you yourself pointed out, this is unprecedented. We will figure this out together and if, after a couple nights on the couch, I’m not punching or ripping holes in anything, I’ll come back to the bed. But for now – “

“Babe, come on! This is – “

“Just let me do it, okay?”

They are both silent for a moment, both breathing heavy in the heat of the argument. He crumbles first. He comes around to her side of the bed and kneels down in front of her.

“Listen, babe. I would never forgive myself if I accidentally hurt you because of some stupid nightmares, okay? It’s just a couple nights and I’m just down the hall. It’s for the best, Anna. You see that, right?”

She still doesn’t agree, would still rather be able to keep an eye on him, but once again that male sense of pride and stubbornness is more than she has the energy to deal with. So, she takes a deep breath and responds, “Yes, David, I see. Just a couple nights though.”

“Yes,” he says, smiling, “just a couple nights.”

He kisses her on her forehead, then each cheek, then on the lips and lingers there for a moment.

“I love you, Anna.”

“I love you too.”

He kisses her once more and then stands again and walks around the bed and, after giving her one more look, down the hall to the living room, closing the door gently behind him as he goes.


The creaking of the bedroom door wakes her.


No response. For a moment, there is no sound at all. Then the door opens all the way and he shuffles in.

“Hey baby. Can’t sleep down there? That couch is absolutely awful on the back.”

Still no response. He comes to his side of the bed, dragging his feet as he goes. He stands before it for a moment, then grabs the bed guard and tries to rip it off.

“Wow, wow, wow, what are you doing?” Anna says, shifting over and grabbing his forearms. She feels the muscle rippling under her hands and he is still not saying anything.

“Babe.” Her voice has a little more alarm in it now, but he still acts as if he doesn’t hear her.

She gets out of bed and pulls his arms to his side, leads him to the bottom of the bed so that he can climb in around the bed guard. He doesn’t put up a fight, and for that Anna is grateful.

“Come on. Should’ve listened to me in the first place.”

She finally gets him into bed and tucks him in.

“Goodnight, baby.”

Still nothing. He has never sleepwalked like this before; but he has also never had nightmares like this before.

Time to pick up the therapy conversation again, Anna thinks as she drifts off.


This time, she is sure that it is neither the thump nor the scream that wakes her; it is the rustling of the bedsheets. First, the slimy progress over the bedsheets of what sounds like a den of snakes slithering onto her husband’s side of the bed and then the louder rustling of him being dragged off of it with them in their descent. Her eyes flick open and the first thing she sees is her husband being dragged through the bed guard, which has been mangled even further, the padded railing ripped in two, one arm reaching straight up into the sky and the other at a slight downward angle. His eyes flutter open and look directly into hers just as he is about to fall and he opens his mouth to scream and as he does a slimy red tentacle tipped in long white claws slides up his chest and into his mouth. Instead of a scream, he emits a strangled choking sound and then he is gone and she hears the thump and him being dragged under the bed.

She breaks her paralysis and goes to the edge of his side, looks over. He is already gone, but she sees the trailing end of one tentacle. It scratches at the floor as it retreats under the bed. Just before it disappears, it stops for a moment and she stares in horror as it turns over, nail side down, and hundreds of tiny eyes look at her and wink all together.

She screams as the thing disappears and she screams as the darkness encroaches and she screams as she passes out.

8 (Epilogue)

She wakes sometime later, her heart already racing, her breath already hot and fast in her throat. She looks at the clock on the nightstand and sees that it is 2:17 am.

Just a nightmare, she tells herself, just another nightmare.

She tells herself this over and over as she rubs the new scratches on her arms and as she settles back into her side of the bed, where she awoke.

Even though, she thinks, even though I know I fell asleep on his side of the bed but it’s okay, I didn’t really because it was only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare.

She tells herself this over and over and over even as she starts to fall asleep, even as she hears –

But it’s not real, its only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only –

– a slimy rustling movement under her side of the bed.

Josiah Furcinitti lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts with his wife. While he has
always enjoyed reading and been interested in writing, he began studying and delving into the
craft in the past year. He is currently working on his first novel as well as other short fiction.

“Memorex” Dark Literary Fiction by Leah Erickson

"Memorex" Dark Literary Fiction by Leah Erickson


The word came out in a wondering gasp as Trish reached into the box  and lifted the object out.

                            MEMOREX HQ 120 VIDEO CASSETTE LIFETIME WARRANTY 

The paper sleeve was faded black with a flat, eighties-style graphic in fuchsia, lime green and yellow. Some of the edges were bent and torn. But when she slid the cassette out, it felt solid and substantial in her hand. Written on the label in her own careful girlhood cursive, in Sharpie:

                                    STAR BRITE AND THE DREAM STEALERS

The large cardboard box that had been delivered to the front door had been addressed to her, at her new home, the house that they had just bought on a quiet cul de sac in the Stoney Acres development. But the name had been her maiden name, not her new married one: the sight of the unknown, unexpected package made her go still inside. She could feel the beginnings  of cold panic starting to flood her veins. She had to fight it back, stay present, because she could feel herself start to disappear, to fade around the edges like fuzzy static….

…of course she had known something bad was going to happen. Of course! Many times that week she had thought she had seen  a shadowy figure at the edge of her vision. It was the shape of a large man. It seemed very real, but would flicker and disappear if she looked at it directly. It didn’t matter, though, because she could still feel its menacing presence. Watching her. Waiting.

Rob was still at work, but would be back soon. She flicked a furtive glance down the street, then grabbed the box and darted inside, kicking the front door shut with a bang behind her.

Though the box was large and bulky, she held it as far from her body as she could, as though it were a bomb that could detonate at any moment. Set it on the kitchen table, keeping her eyes locked on it as she grabbed blindly for a knife from the wooden knife block which had been a wedding present. Her hands were slick with sweat and she fumbled and  nearly cut herself as she sliced roughly through the tape along the box’s seams. She opened the outer, then inner flaps…

On top was an envelope on which was written in shaky script, I lost you long ago, Patricia. Inside was a photograph of herself that she had never seen before. It was obviously taken with an old point-and-shoot, non-digital camera. It was a photo of her as a young girl running across her front yard, and  it was nighttime. She was wearing shorts. It looked like a firefly summer night. Was she playing tag with the neighbor kids, or was she running away from something? The scene was illuminated by what seemed to be car headlights, bleaching out the lawn, throwing weird shadows from the dark hedges…

She slammed the photo face down onto the table and scrunched her eyes tightly shut, pressing a thumb into the center of her forehead, willing herself to stay present in her body and not fade away. Because there was no time to waste.

The box was full of things  that she recognized as hers, but she had not seen in so many years that they seemed like a stranger’s. A few sad looking Beanie Babies, a small plastic trophy for winning  a relay race at Field Day, a couple of high school textbooks. A baggie of cheap, mismatched earrings. A large pallet of eyeshadows, smokey, glittery hues dug through straight to the pan. Random items, as though someone had blindly swept their arm across a messy bureau top in haste, dumping the clutter, without care, into the box.

It wasn’t until she got to the bottom that she saw the video tape. Star Brite and the Dream Stealers? She hadn’t thought of that movie in years. It had been an obscure children’s fantasy movie that someone had taped from television when she was a kid. She had watched it over and over again, most likely because no one had bought her any other videos. As she held the cassette in her hand, a song, the ghost of a melody began to play in her head. Scraps of half-remembered lyrics. Watch me soar through open doors, no denying, feels like flying…

She couldn’t remember much else from her childhood, which was like a vague lunar landscape in her mind. But she remembered the feeling of watching that video. The way it had made her feel safe and happy.

She slid the cassette back into the paper sleeve and she jogged to her bedroom, shoved the tape into one of her drawers under some t-shirts.

This, maybe just this, she could keep.

Then she rushed back to the kitchen, threw the rest of the junk back into the box, and carried  it out the back door. Opened the lid to the trash bin. She had to turn it on its end, angle it diagonally to get it to fit, pushing it down, down, DOWN.

She sensed a presence, someone watching, and her head jerked up into alertness. Scanning the yard, she saw nobody. Then she saw where a flicker of movement had come from: her next door neighbor, a pug-faced older woman with clipped gray hair, had lifted the curtain of her kitchen window and was frowning at Trish  in concern. That’s when she all at once realized that she was breathing fast, sweat dripping down her back, mouth gone dry. She stopped what she was doing. A small, frightened smile twisted her lips as though the corners were hooked with fishing wire. Don’t look at me, please!

When the woman dropped her curtain down again, Trish unfroze and gave the cardboard box one more hard shove down into the bin, slammed and reslammed the lid, and hurried back into the house.

She had forgotten the photograph. “He can never find out,” Trish whispered in a hiss  as she lit the gas stove top on high, then held the photo over the flames until it started to burn at its edges, a bright glowing rim of chemical blue, chemical green.


Rob came home and they ate dinner just like they always did, on the thick plates of stipled pottery that had been on their wedding registry. 

It had only been four months ago, their wedding. That day seemed so long ago now.  The stiff  outfits and the posing for photos, the pressing of bodies and well-wishes, and then after, the all-inclusive in Cancun, where…they had mostly slept, rousing themselves to visit the flickering , disorienting light of the casino, or to spend a few hours on the small, littered hotel beach, where at Trish had resisted, but then felt obligated, to gather up the single lost foam flip flops and drink bottles and deflated foil balloons that washed in on the waves…

It had all happened so fast it was like being abducted on a dazzling space ship and then abruptly deposited here, in this house, in this life. And ever since, the two of them felt shy together. Like two commuters, strangers, pressed together in a shared train compartment.

That evening as she loaded the dishwasher and tried to act casual, Trish’s heart  flailed in her chest like a trapped bird, and she felt a bit dizzy. But she couldn’t faint, she had to concentrate. She told herself she was thirty-one, an adult. That she had chosen this life, she had a new name, was building an excellent credit score, belonged to the right neighborhood association…and there were no shadow creatures following her. The idea was delusional. But her self soothing thoughts sounded like lies, only made her more certain that she might scream or pass out.  Compulsively, without realizing what she did, she began mouthing words. First silently, only moving her lips. Then out loud, singing the words in a thin quavering voice:

“When the night terrors have begun, I will shine straight to the sun…when the clouds form above, I shoot out my beams of love…”

Rob looked up at her quizzically from where he sat at the table, answering email on his laptop. “What are you singing?”

At first Trish didn’t answer. There were flashes in her brain of bright animated cartoon stars glimmering in a friendly cartoon sky. And a sense memory of the smell of dust and ozone. Whatever it was, it made her feel calm enough to sing a little louder:

“No denying, feels like flying, as I soar through open doors, no more tears, hey hey hey….”

Her young husband smiled hesitantly. “I’ve never actually heard you sing before.” He was also thirty-one, slightly built. Boyish, yet balding prematurely.  He had graduated from seminary school, which made him always seem  young-old to her. All that education, but without the life experience to bolster up his knowledge. It seemed a bad combination, and it made him seem adrift, lost. She often caught him giving her long, wondering looks, studying her, and she felt he was looking for more than was actually there.

“It’s just this silly song from a movie. From when I was a kid.”

“Oh.” He said, nodding gravely. He knew nothing about her childhood, and had learned not to press her. All he knew was that in the ten years they had dated, she had never invited him to visit her family, and had no family at the wedding. Well, you know, they’re busy. And they don’t like to travel. His own close knit, large family had felt sorry for her, rushed to fill in the void, to make Trish one of their own. And she was happy to let them, and to let any talk of her own past fade away.

His parents had paid for the wedding, all of it. Helped them get the house. A starter home in a nice neighborhood, and the brothers had helped them do the kitchen. Real granite countertops, recessed lighting, nickel hardware. Standing in it now, it was glossy and beautiful. A place where nothing bad could happen.  

But then, for a quick panicked  moment, she was convinced she had caught a whiff of the acrid chemical smell of the burning photograph, that hot acid-green flame. Her heart raced as her mind lurched back to the cardboard box, which now seemed like a living, pulsing thing that could escape. Surely she had crammed it in deep enough, into the bin. Tomorrow was garbage day, and it would be gone…

“Trish, are you okay? You went away for just a minute.” Her young-old new husband smiled uncertainly  as he tried to catch her eye. Tried to connect.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. It’s just been a long day..” 


The next day Trish went to her job as usual, to teach her class of kindergartners. She loved her kids, truly only felt at ease with five and six year olds. She loved to bring home their art, their self portraits that often featured giant heads with tendrils of limbs coming straight out of them, no bodies, smiling and floating unmoored in empty space, their names printed across the tops in large jagged irregular letters.

But even here in the classroom, as she guided the children through letter-of -the -day activities, then an art project of tissue paper collage, and on through music time, she didn’t feel truly present. Her mind was elsewhere. Always distracted. Looking around for the shadow creature. She could feel its presence, even if she couldn’t see it. Its black gravitational pull, cold as deep space. Shaped like a man, but she knew it was a monster. It could be in the hallway looking in. It could be lurking in the coat closet. Only her constant vigilance could keep it away, keep the kids safe.

Finally, it was nap time. As the children settled down on their mats, she could hear their soft inhales, exhales, snuffling and snoring. She was all at once exhausted. She closed her eyes, and let herself drift. Her body was so tense that she could hear creaking if she turned her neck.  She breathed deeply, pressed on her temples to ward off a tension headache. Breathe in, breathe out.

After some moments, there was a flickering sensation  on the insides of her eyelids. Then the flickering arranged itself into shapes, dream-like images. There again was the friendly cartoon sky. But now, Star Brite’s glittery rainbow chariot pulled by two pink-maned stallions flew across with a soft whoosh. Then the  song started to  play again in her head, and the urge to move her lips, to lip synch, was overpowering:

When the night terrors have begun, I will shine straight to the sun

Not only did she see the images and hear the music, but now there were other sense-memories. A sensation of watching the video on the huge blocky cathode ray television. She remembered the static field emitted by the TV screen. The way she could run her hand across the dusty screen, and hear the staticky pop of electrodes. That smelled like ozone! If she pressed her nose against the screen, she could feel the static fuzz tickling her eyelashes, her tongue—

—Her reverie stopped when she was startled by a noise: a whispering, hissing noise that made her gasp aloud. But it was only one of the children’s puffer coats that had slid off the knob to the floor.

Stupid, to be so scared of nothing! A bit desperately, she tried to return to the safety of the memory. Once her heart slowed down, she was able to ease back in. Lovely details rose to the surface of her dream consciousness. She remembered pressing her face right onto the TV screen as her mother had told her not to do, so close that Star Brite was nothing but a field of glimmering pixels. And Trish herself was dissolving into it, into an analog wave of electrons, into Star Brite. Soft static buzzing on her face, fuzzing her eyelashes. It all felt so soothing, so easy. Like a benediction. Sometimes she would rewind parts of the video again and again, in a sort of blissful bounce. No one was there to tell her not to. Forward, back, forward, back. Until she attained a kind of ecstasy.

But the bliss of memory was jolted by an intrusive voice that seemed to whisper Into her ear : “Remember how you were always scared to get to the end of a video?” 

It was true, she was, but sometimes she dared herself to do it anyway, when she was watching at night all alone. To see what came after the credits were over. Because it seemed that there must be some great secret at the end, something bigger and scarier than she could ever imagine. It would spook her badly, when a video came to its end. The credits finished, the music fading out. And then the startling  FBI warning came on, before the screen would turn white, and there was a high pitched droning noise, before the screen turned to a final, terrifying black: this is what always made her whimper in terror and run from the room, hands clenched over her ears…

The sound of children giggling from their mats on the floor brought her suddenly back to the present, the classroom, her eyes dry and blinking. Uncomprehending.

“What are you laughing for?” She asked, her throat tightening so that her voice was high and tense.

Little Jack Bove, newly six, with his bristly dark hair, narrow stalk of neck, and large green eyes that never missed a thing. Out of habit he raised his hand before answering,  “Because you were singing, Mrs Moore! You were singing in your sleep that you were flying through the sky!” The children started up laughing again, now louder.

“No more talking,” she said more sharply than she had intended, looking away so no one could look into her eyes.


When she got home, she rushed to check the trash bin at the side of the road. Empty! The cardboard box was gone, as though it had never existed. Rolling the bin back to its place outside the back door, she felt shaky with relief when she entered the kitchen, collapsing into a chair. She was safe now. If the box was gone, those shadowy figures that lurked at the corners of her vision were surely gone, too. And to be honest with herself, it was probably all in her head, anyway, and she should never speak of it to anyone.

Maybe there had been, in fact, no box. And maybe the video cassette was something she had kept close, all this time. It had always been hers. She had just forgotten about it.

Rob got Chinese takeout on the way home, that they ate at the table, on their wedding pottery, like they always did on Fridays. A ritual that they had cultivated in their new marriage, something to anchor them together.

Their new/old marriage. Rob was a  corporate pastor, at a tech company. His first job out of seminary. He counseled everyone from the CEOs to the IT team. There had been layoffs recently, it had been rough. She knew this wasn’t how he thought things would be, and tonight he looked glassy eyed and distracted.

“Hey,” she said brightly, as she broke open a fortune cookie. “Did you want to watch an old video I found? It was my favorite movie when I was a kid, I was just talking about it.”

“What movie?”

“Star Brite and the Dream Stealers.” 

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s kind of weird, no one has. I mean,it’s no big deal….” She glanced at her fortune: DON’T LET YESTERDAY TAKE TOO MUCH OF TODAY. She rolled it up into a tiny ball in her fingers.

“Trish, of course I want to see it! I don’t know anything about when you were a kid.”

“I mean, it’s no big deal, whatever…”

“Trish…” Now he looked  grave, and was looking at her too closely. It occurred to her at that moment that she had always been his project, since he’d rescued her, a sad scholarship kid who lived in his dorm and never went home for holidays.  Maybe he loved her too much. It would break his heart, to know she didn’t believe in god. Maybe this was all a mistake.

But she had to, at least, try. Try to get closer to him. Try to share at least this one thing, because it wasn’t fair to keep everything a secret. She fetched the cassette from its hiding place. All at once it felt important for him to watch it with her, together. 

“I’ve had it all this time and forgot.”

Rob was pouring himself a small bourbon as he did more and more recently. “How was school?” he asked.

“Okay,” she said as she fumbled with the wires that connected the VCR to the television. They had never tried hooking it up before. Rob had boxes of vintage video tapes that he brought from his childhood home, but they hadn’t gotten around to watching them yet. “Am I doing this right?”

“Yeah, you got it…I think. Make sure you got the yellow cord plugged in. Just click through it til you see the blue screen. No…yeah. There you go.”

She slid the cassette in and waited.  It whirred, hiccuped, and then simply…stopped.

“Oh, I guess it was at the end, maybe. I’ll rewind it.”

“So what IS Star Brite and the Dream Stealers? Is it a cartoon?”

“Yeah. Seems like they showed it on TV once and apparently I was the only one who saw it.” She squinted to find the rewind button, pressed it.

“Was it a toy? A franchise?” Rob knew his franchises. He had a whole bookshelf devoted to Star Wars, Marvel  and He Man paraphernalia.

“I don’t know, I never saw a toy. It was sort of a fantasy story? It’s like a knock-off of a franchise I guess. Or an amalgam of knock-offs.  Star Brite is like, the guardian of dreams? She protects the night sky, and she protects people from, like, bad dreams. She flies around in a sparkly rainbow colored chariot. But then there was the Duchess of Darkness, who has a bunch of these little googly eyed furball creatures that are The Dream Stealers. They steal people’s dreams and trap them in a giant crystal. Then they,  like, insert nightmares in their place, if I’m remembering right…”

She trailed off, because the tape had stopped rewinding and was now making a deep grinding noise.

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

“Well that tape must be twenty, twenty-five years old at least, right? These things degrade. Or the tape heads might just be dirty. It’s not your fault…”

“I know that!” She hadn’t meant to shout. But somehow the task was beginning to feel dire: she had to make it work. If she could just see the video again, just rewind to the beginning, then time itself would go backward. To when the bad things hadn’t happened yet, and never would. 

“Trish? I mean, speaking of bad dreams,well, are you, um, still taking the lorazepam the doctor gave you? I know you weren’t sleeping much at all this week. I see you looking at the ceiling sometimes at three AM and you look…you know….”

“I don’t need the pills, I’m fine.” She ejected the tape, inspected it, and put it back in. Held her breath and pressed play.

First a heavy beat of  silence. Then something lurched forward and the sound came blaring on, so loud it made her jump. The tape was near the end, because it was the scene  where Star Brite was zooming around the night sky in her chariot, zapping the crystals of stolen dreams with her ray gun, setting them free. Star Brite with her flowing blond tresses, her star headdress, and overly large blue eyes. Something about the screen image looked strange, as though the colors were out of alignment. Vibrating at the edges.

No denying, feels like flying, as I soar, I say NO MORE!

And even the song was different than  she remembered. Shriller, more hollow and sped-up.

“Can’t you rewind it? Trish?”

“No. It won’t go back any further. I guess we’ll just have to watch from here…”

Now it was really at the end, it had reached the crescendo where all the characters  were singing together, even the Dream Stealers, holding hands in a big spinning circle, before the image exploded into a shower of glittery stars, and the ending credits began to scroll.

“It looks like an anime, sort of. Gotta be Japanese. So this was your favorite, huh?”

“I don’t know. It’s…not quite like I remembered it. It’s just kind of…different.”

“Well, I guess sometimes things aren’t as great as we remember them.” Her young-old husband was looking at her with his lips slightly parted, thinking for a long moment. “Trish, you know you can tell me anything, right?”

“I…” Her eyelids began to flutter, “of course I know that. We’re married, aren’t we?”

“Aren’t we?” He laughed to make it a joke, to make it okay. She could feel him looking at her with deep concentration. As though she were an ancient screed or a palimpsest, from a seminary class.

She had her hand held up, ready to spring forward  to press STOP. But then she held herself back. Because all at once, she was tired  of being afraid all the time. She wasn’t a child, after all: she would no longer let herself be afraid of what was at the end of the video.

She had forgotten that it was recorded from TV. Before the credits were even over, a voice over was talking about the shows coming on next. Then it switched to a commercial for some kind of oven cleaner, showing a woman in rubber gloves wiping down a counter, clearing a path of dazzling white through grimy black, then tossing back her glossy hair, about to say something to the camera.

But her words were cut off when the picture began to dissolve into blurred bars of static, and something else was coming into view. It must have been taped over a home movie, because now she was astounded to see a fuzzy, staticky image of the kitchen of her childhood home. The camera panned the room haphazardly. It was full of people, faces she knew, her grandparents, her aunt…then suddenly, abruptly, the camera  zoomed onto her own face. She was just a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a stricken expression as the lights dimmed and the room began to sing “Happy Birthday.” Someone slid a lit birthday cake in front of her, and the reflection of the candles made her large brown eyes look even  more deep-set into her narrow young face.

“Look at that!” Her husband exclaimed. “It’s you! How old are you here?”

Trish quietly, flatly, read aloud the digital date stamp in the corner of the video. The person filming zoomed out again, and began to swing around  the room. Zoomed and focused on the doorway in back of young Trish, where there stood leaning a large man, a tall man, who was wearing a raggedy flannel shirt rolled up over his meaty forearms. Baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He wasn’t singing along, had his arms folded and was smirking down at the girl…

Trish felt sick to her stomach. Somehow she thought she’d never see his face again. Like something from a nightmare, it felt like something had just pulled her down suddenly into brackish dirty water and she was drowning.

Then the scene began to fade out, slowly, like a flickering ghost, and another home movie was bleeding in. Someone was in the back of a car and filming the road speeding by beneath them. The car radio was faintly playing something that sounded like country music, bluegrass, it was twangy and  yearning and lonesome. The yellow dashed lines on the road seemed to pulsate like a migraine. Flash of the sky, a dark jagged line of trees, telephone poles flashing by going faster…

Trish suddenly became aware that she had stopped breathing, and had become faint. She stabbed at the stop button. But it would not stop.

Her husband was frowning at the screen, leaning forward. “What is this? And who was that man in the other frame? I saw your face, Trish. Who was that…”

It wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t rewind, now a new scene blipped abruptly onto the screen. They were  outside of her old house, it was twilight, the streetlights were on, it was too dark and shadowy to make out any details but she could hear the sound of hard breathing, the sound of someone running, fast. Someone in the distance calling out in a singsong , Patricia, where are you?

She tried to shut it off again but her vision was flickering like a strobe, she couldn’t see what she was doing. She grabbed for the connecting wires at the wires but her sweaty hands were shaking, she couldn’t move fast enough, STOP STOP STOP!

Someone suddenly came up behind her, a man had his arms around her, she screamed. But it was  her own husband, who reached around her and somehow made the tape stop, made it eject. 

“Oh my god, Rob, how did you do it, it…it wouldn’t stop…” 

Her husband yanked the cassette from the machine with a violence she had never seen in him.


He was looking at the cassette with a fierce expression. An expression of…anger. He who spoke so beautifully of the light of the covenant, Augustine’s theology of love, now wore the face of  someone she did not recognize.

He did not answer when she called, “Rob, where are you taking it?” She could hear him stride resolutely out the back door, to the shed. She went to the back door and opened it; from the shed she heard the sounds of a hammer hitting and shattering plastic, again and again and again. When he came out he held a mass of broken plastic panels and unspooled tape in his hands. He threw them into the trash bin without a second look.

When he came back into the house he sat back on the couch, drank down the remainder of the bourbon, fast, and she could hear how hard he was breathing. Could see the way his hand shook ever so slightly.


He met her eye for a moment, and there was a fierce, flinty rawness there. Just for a moment, like a glance into the too-hot sun. Then the moment passed. He looked down, gathered himself.

When he tried to speak, it came out first as a small croak. He cleared his throat, but said nothing more. Again, he caught her eye, and this time she didn’t look away, because she couldn’t. And she realized they were sharing a conspiratorial smile. And, strangely and painfully, laughing.

Leah Erickson is the award winning author of the novels “The Brambles,” (2017) “Blythe of the Gates,”(2018) “The Gilded Lynx,” (2019) and “The Vesper Bell.” (2022) Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines including The Fabulist, Pantheon, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Coachella Review, and the KGB Bar Literary Journal. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Children of Sin” Dark Fiction by Nick Guthry

Granville Street in Vancouver, "Children of Sin" Dark Fiction by Nick Guthry

It is a Friday night during summer in the not-to-be-out-poshed neighbourhood of Point Grey, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Former Colony of the British Empire. Ancestral lands of the Coast Salish group of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Earth (for readers of the far future). The temperature outside is sixteen degrees Celsius, and if you’re not a smoker and you practice mindfulness, you can almost smell the Pacific Ocean of nearby English Bay. It is also the year 2012, which necessarily arouses all kinds of idiosyncratic associations in your silly human mind.

Now we are there, and we see John Foreskin, twenty-something-year-old, white cis hetero male walking briskly down West 14th Avenue, a distinct hitch in his giddy-up. His hands are buried deep in his pockets. His shoulders are doing the work of the popped collar he is not wearing. And at first glance, we correctly infer a combination of nicotine, diuretic fluids, and refined sugars. The continent among us feel an almost organic contempt.

Some twenty paces back, at the house where John rooms, his millennial associates are busy debasing themselves under the false pretence of immortality. All are still young enough to mistake their looks and vigour for signs of inner virtue. John Foreskin finds parties to be exhausting, sullying affairs where one mixes what one is with too much of what others are. And John Foreskin knows that too much mixing leaves a person as nobody, least of all themselves. At the tender age of twenty-something, he has already begun cultivating the sternness that he will eventually come to associate with adult-male-juvenile hairlines, especially on solitary walks like this. But tonight, he just needed to get out.

He arrived in Vancouver over a year ago following a stint of tree planting up north. Then after couch surfing for a couple of months, he finally found a room in this student house near UBC. It’s an expensive part of town, Point Grey, but the number of people in the house, as many as eight at a time, keeps the rent low. Plus the house itself is in shambles, one of the last student houses of its kind in the neighbourhood. Most of the others have been torn down and replaced with family homes, families that stare at John and his housemates and wonder what’s wrong, where the parents are, and why caucasian youth seem to age so rapidly. John’s not a student anymore, but he can pass for one and is even younger than some of his housemates, so there are no connotations of predation, at least within the house. But the neighbourhood parents don’t seem to want him anywhere near their children.

At the start of John’s walk, he encounters some of them, well-to-do thirty- and forty-somethings, smugly toeing the line, fulfilling nature’s prerogative, then signing up said prerogatives for extracurriculars. Their small children are, by all appearances, in heaven, totally aloof to the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition.

I alone am at fault, John tries to convey with a meek smile, as the mass of baseless pride lodged in his forehead embarrasses even the smallest of the children. They gawk while the parents can only usher them to the opposite edge of the sidewalk, can only wonder what ungodly chance of nature could spawn such a creature. John digs his hands even deeper into his pockets, trying to take up as little of the sidewalk as possible, determined not to light a cigarette till he’s at least off his own street. 

If there is a track, their lives are on it, John thinks.

And yet, there is no envy this time, if only because…John senses nothing magical about them. And John, being a twenty-something millennial prone to mood swings, is all about magic. Whether magic is anything other than the caffeinated whimsy of youth is a question for another time, another phase of one’s life.

John plods on, his pace brisk, and finally reaches a busy strip. West 10th. Lighting his first cigarette of the walk, he employs a steady, vacant gaze to accumulate several small victories over passersby who make the mistake of underestimating him. As he passes a yoga studio, it occurs to him that he will probably never preside over the docile harem that his pedigree would have surely justified in bygone times. That his greatness is not immediately apparent to others seems to accord with the discomfort he feels around men of greater height, strength, ability, and overall life force. These encounters, by no means rare, interrupt, but do not extinguish, John’s distinct sense of being somehow special, somehow great.

He next passes a string of establishments boasting both bars and grills, establishments where skirts are weaponized in the name of shaking what one’s mother has given one, flaunting it if one has it, and, more concretely, paying one’s rent and tuition. But the Skirts never regard John in the same way they regard the other cis hetero male patrons, and John tells himself this is because he isn’t “daddy material.” 

On the outdoor patios, wheat-bellied daddies hush their wives to better hear themselves agree about sports and oil prices. In their satiated eyes, John discerns first the inherited will to dominate, and then, hidden beyond that, the withering, still-born form of the utterly dominated. Beside each pear-shaped patriarch sits the tragic tendency of the dominated to imitate their masters: at the sunburnt age of fifty-something, each wife has become trapped in an uncanny impersonation of her husband.

The sun finally sets.

John Foreskin plods on, passing various hipster cafés where he knows he’d encounter more of his own kind: men hopelessly caffeinated and drowning in entertained possibility as they vent gasses barely visible to the human eye. These café men are a different breed, more wiry and high-strung, far more susceptible to dysentery and yellow fever (and every other ethnophilic fever for that matter), but otherwise brighter and better preserved than their inert patio cousins. Barely able to contain themselves at either end, they, too, set a strong example of what John needs to fear becoming, for with age their skittish momentum becomes more weakness than virtue. They have no business imbibing that much caffeine, let alone with milk and sugar. But they carry on as their bone density decreases, and their inner cheeks become more discoloured from the daily friction of violent wiping. John knows swamp ass to be an epidemic in Vancouver, not just in his own house. But nobody ever speaks of the things that go on in the café bathrooms. They walk into them urgently then walk out, however many minutes later, head held high, without even once confessing the shame that has transpired within, the shame that follows them back to their seats, that lingers in the bathroom, waiting to accost the next visitor. The music and the quaint furniture of these cafés encourage the delusion that this is Paris circa 1929, that one of the loose-bowled Xanders, or Julians, by virtue of his name and his tortoiseshell frames will be the next Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, the delusion that this is capital-c culture. Warmed-up croissants and for-here espresso cups help make it so. But it is all a lie. The sugar content of the cookies betrays the time and place as Post-Colonial Privilege, population: Children of Sin.

Lurking in the darkness, John feels the call of the lighting and the plush leather. He braves isolation though, as he passes one café after another. He knows the ruggedness he strives for can never be achieved by protracted sitting in air-conditioned environments. Nor will sugar (crystalline levity) help lower his hairline.

When he finally veers off the main strip, back towards his own neighbourhood, the female baristas of Vancouver West breathe a collective sigh of relief.  For now, they are safe from John’s prickly, craven glare. John is still twenty-something. He still thinks that women find his mix of eccentricity and inner torment attractive. He has not yet become self-conscious of his particular brand of courtship—his latching on—and so has not yet become ashamed of it. In the coming years, certain interactions with down-to-earth females, invariably of lower blood sugar, will give John the inkling that his schtick is passed expiry, and that serious adult partnerships will require that he bring something other than self-pity and mommy issues to the table.

Closer to home now, down the back lane of West 44th, John Foreskin walks to exhaust himself. He lights another cigarette and begins raking his fingernails across his too-hairy forearms. He is a creature of the night., his audience is at once nowhere and everywhere. If no omen presents itself in the next few seconds, he’ll have to pass by the house like a loser, past the music and boozy chatter, and keep walking until he gets that unmistakable feeling that the night has run its course. 

Suddenly, he sees it. Abandoned. Left out for the taking. An old exercise bike. A relic from the days when men’s socks were longer than their shorts.

From when those patio fucks could still run a mile.

It is John’s now. He can lift it. And it’s only twenty or so meters to the house. 

This is it.

It will be my outlet for when leaving the house feels impossible. 

John will sweat on his own terms now, long before he’s ever left his room, long before the sun can have her way with him, and then again long after his final encounters of the day. He will have his own secret exercises, and the other men in the house will wonder where all of his new vigour has come from. And the women of the house will be the first to notice and the longest to look as his thighs transform into twin promises of stamina and virility. 

As he lugs the bike into the yard, then through the kitchen, John Foreskin thanks God and the Universe that nobody is around to witness the indignity of his labours. He hears them out on the front porch and in the living room, jabbering at high speed, but he ducks down to the basement before any of them notice.

John has completed his quest. He’s sweating and more alive than he’s ever been in his entire life. Removing his shirt, he stands in front of his full-length mirror to confirm his self-image.

Screenwriter, repped by The Tobias Agency.  Editor to novelists and academics. Deeply interested in how we, as individuals and societies, inhabit and shift paradigms. Debut Novel “Good Boy Alchemy” to be published Summer 2023. Twitter @Nick Guthry

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Steel Tomb” Horror by Ricardo D. Rebelo

"The Steel Tomb" Horror by Ricardo D. Rebelo

The morning sun burst through the clouds creating golden Roman columns of light as far as the eye could see.No highways out here or skyscrapers, no city lights to contaminate the sky at night allowing for the galaxy’s canopy to blanket you. 

Beneath all of this was the Robert Baker a former Norwegian whaling vessel that was currently commissioned to do the very opposite of what it was intended. The Baker all 200 tons and 200 feet of it had been purchased with a generous donation from a millionaire by the Sea Angels, a group formed to stop whaling all over the world but for the most part in the Antarctic Sea. Here the Baker hunted the last of the world’s whaling fleet which came almost exclusively from Japan.

This day as the sun began to burn off the morning mists Carlos Santos stood watch on the forward sponson. Even with the sun coming up the chill in the air cut through his parka and bones as if they had no substance at all. He may have well been wearing a robe made of tissue for all the good it did. The Baker was close to finding its prey so Santos would stay on watch until hypothermia set in if that was what it took to see the Japanese whaler.

Santos had graduated from Miskatonic University with a doctorate in biochemistry. He could have easily taken job-creating food additives that would have made him very rich. Instead, Carlos chose to work for slave wages on a ship that hunted whalers. The Baker did not defend the cetaceans with guns and bullets, The Sea Angels was a peaceful organization that abhorred violence. Their mission was to remind the whalers of the evils of taking from the earth more than what was needed. The Barker had spotted Chikuzen Maru, a giant whaling ship out of Shimonoseki Harbor in Tokyo, Japan. 

 A small boat was dropped from the Baker to try to close the distance between the Maru and the whale. Santos stood on the deck holding a handful of butyric acid in an attempt to try to lob it far enough to the other ship. Butyric acid is essentially rotten butter. The plan was to contaminate the deck of the ship so that they are unable to process the whale. The Japanese had learned to become completely indifferent to the Baker and the Sea Angels as a whole. The crew would turn water cannons on the small craft until it could no longer pursue while the other sailors caught and processed the whales. 

At that moment a spearman on the forecastle of the whaling ship locked a harpoon into place and began to aim at the massive whale. He shot the harpoon at the back of the behemoth. A gout of black bile erupted from the wound. The gunner looked behind him and gave a thumbs up to the captain on the bridge of the Maru. The creature stopped moving. The black Icor spewed like an exploded oil derrick. The whale began to sink.  Santos was frozen in terror. He had seen many whales fall to Japanese ships but this was different. Something seemed wrong.

The sailors on the Maru made their way up to the bow of the ship preparing to retrieve their prize. At this time the Baker’s small scout ship had reached the port side of the ship and was attempting to lob bottles of the butyric acid onto the deck. Santos could see that the cable which was connected to the harpoon was becoming taught. “My God,” he said to himself, “The cable beginning to pull the ship down on its port side.”

No whale, no creature born of the sea has the power to drag down a Japanese whaling ship of that size. Something was coming out of the water. It began to wrap itself around the cable. Carlos’ eyes began to ache as he strained to see what could be possibly crawling up the line. And then it dawned on him, it was a tentacle. Not like any he had ever seen before. It had an iridescent color that betrayed any single shade in the spectrum. It looked magical coming out of the steel blue and seafoam of the ocean. 

The tentacle had reached the massive speargun. The Gunner was frozen in terror. He had always been on the dominant side of the violence but today his luck would breathe its last gasp as the tentacle writhed in front of him and then penetrated the gunner through his groin and up out of his mouth. The creature impaled him and began to writhe even more shaking the body back and forth until it paused and flexed, engorging itself and causing the gunner’s body to erupt in a spasm of gore. Once the monster was relieved of the crew member the tentacle wrapped itself around the harpoon gun and ripped it off the deck.

The crew of the Maru was scrambling to deal with the massive hole left on the port side of the ship that was created by the unceremonious removal of the harpoon. 

Santos ran into the wheelhouse of Robert Baker. Captain Oliveira was looking out the windows with his mouth agape. His hands were so tight on the wheel that the half-moons of his knuckles were bleached white. “Captain,!” Carlos shouted and the entire bridge crew turned to him. “Call back the small boats!” Carlos insisted, “Captain!” but he was frozen with shock. 

Just at that moment, a sound erupted in the air. A sound deep, sonorous, and deafening rumbled and shook everything. The windows on the bridge of the Robert Baker cracked. Santos put his hands against his ears to try to muffle the noise but to no avail. He was leaning up against a hole where the port side window had been when Santos saw the whaling ship being wrapped in tentacles that were as long as city blocks and four decks tall. Once it had been completely wrapped the tentacles dragged the ship into the abyss. At some point, it cracked in half and the bow and stern came rushing to meet each other. The pressure of all of this created a massive wake coming directly at the Robert Baker. 

Carlos’ mind kicked into gear and he ran to the aft of the bridge and down the ladder onto the next deck and into a large empty cargo area. He could feel the ship listing heavily to one side, knocking him into the bulkhead. Carlos found the energy to dog the watertight door and then collapsed onto the floor which was once the ceiling.

For an undeterminable amount of time, Santos swam into the abyss of unconsciousness. Slowly the black veil began to part and he could feel the world around him freefalling slowly. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He was on the Baker. His mind looked for more answers like what happened? The monster ate the Maru and the wake ate the Baker so he was somewhere in the hold of a dying ship in the grips of the frozen Arctic ocean. But how can he be alive? Was he alive? The pain in his bleeding ears from the pressure of the fathoms trying to crush the Baker was the answer. He was very much alive. The bulkheads around him were screaming. They too were in a fight for their lives one that inevitably they would lose. Carlos could feel the ship continue to freefall. The pressure continued to build and then almost mercifully the Baker hit bottom. The momentum caused Santos to hop in the air for a moment and all around him sounds of steel being crushed and rendered loose from the hull created a symphony of destruction. He took a few deep breaths to try to steady himself. Closing his eyes Santos tried to imagine himself lying on a beach with the sun warming him. While he was trying to mediate his way back to lucidity he heard a noise that could not possibly be genuine. Across the room was the hatch that he used to lock himself into the bulkhead. By dogging it he inadvertently created the air-tight compartment that kept him alive as the Barker itself entombed itself at the bottom of the sea. But the sound, the sound was that of someone or something attempting to open the hatch. Could it be one of his shipmates that against all odds survived the freefall? The hatch creaked a bit more and he could see the wheel begin to turn. Who on earth could it be? Santos felt his sanity slowly swim away on a wave of horror, Who the hell could be out there? The steel continued to screech and moan as the wheel continued its turn. It was death he reconciled, death was on the other side of that door. It had come down through the fathoms to offer him the last kiss that would steal his breath for eternity. The wheel was about to lock into its final position. Santos braced himself for what he was sure would be a tidal wave of water that would be the soil of his tomb. Then with one last creak, the door flew open. Santos closed his eyes and covered his ears awaiting the inevitable and then…nothing. The only thing Santos could hear was the beating of his tortured heart. No water, no steel collapsing around him, no screams from the abyss, just…nothing. He waited and waited with his eyes clamped shut hoping to hold out the horror and yet still nothing. Santos decided that it was time to look and see what hell had wrought for him so slowly he began to open his eyes. At first, everything was a blur then things began to focus. Before him was the bulkhead and set in that bulkhead was the door. A door that was now opened revealed nothing but darkness. Within that darkness, a stench came to meet him. A stench of thousands of years of rot and decay marinated in the salts of the deepest sea. Santos took a few steps toward the ebon mouth of the hatch door. He was out of his mind now in a place where he could only react out of instinct as everything he had understood his whole life had become meaningless and inapplicable to whatever or wherever he was. Reaching out he tried to touch the abyss but nothing met his touch. Darkness opened upon darkness. He stepped through the portal and his feet rested on what could only be described as the beach. Soft, wet sand combined with algae and vegetation crushed under his feet. But how could this be? Santos returned to the cabin and took the emergency 12-volt lantern off of the wall which had illuminated the compartment and headed back out of the hatch. 

Now with the dim light illuminating the world outside the door, he could see that he was not on a beach but on the floor of the ocean itself. Fish were flapping and suffocating all around him. They must have been displaced when the air bubble formed around the Barker. “What air bubble?” wondered Santos, and how? He walked slowly trying not to lose his footing with all of the vegetation and rocks around him. After a hundred yards or so a light began to form in front of him. The light began as an emerald dot and bloomed out into a large orb and then outlined the bubble of the dome that surrounded Santos and the Barker. Santos was frozen watching this unfold. His mind had no context for what was happening. He was mollified by it. 

He then saw what looked like a squid, a squid the size of a ten-story building. It stood on the outside of the bubble still in the deep ocean. Santos felt like a fish in a bowl. Slowly a massive tentacle not unlike the one he saw impaling that Japanese gunner pushed itself through the bubble and began to come for him. Santos turned and ran as fast as he could back toward the compartment. Just as he reached the hatch the tentacle wrapped itself around his waist. All of the air in his chest was pushed out from the pressure and he gasped to refill his lungs. Slowly Santos was dragged back into the bubble. He prepared himself for the inevitability of being dragged into the ocean itself and drowned. The tentacle twisted so that Santos was now facing it head-on. He looked directly into the eye. Santos was mesmerized staring into the emerald orb. The iris looked as if it were the home of green galaxies swimming in the vastness of space. Intoxicated with fear and wonder Santos’ mind finally collapsed.

Ricardo Rebelo is the writer and director of the award-winning PBS Documentary Lizbeth a Victorian Nightmare. He is a professor of Media Studies at Bristol Community College and screenwriting at the University of Rhode Island. Ric was the Director of the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival and the Rock and Shock Film Festival for a decade. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Foot of Thy Womb” Surreal Fiction by Gretchen Gormley

"Foot of Thy Womb" Surreal Fiction by Gretchen Gormley; Photo showing underside of right foot.

Shuffling socks down to the kitchen. Mindlessly pour coffee, stir in cream until it’s a burnt golden brown, like that will soften the fact that I don’t like coffee and have never been able to acquire the taste. Wince at the bitterness.

The world is quiet outside the house. Beyond the kitchen window, the neighborhood stretches out endlessly, squat and sunbaked in the Georgia summer. Alphabet houses. Neat hedges. It’s the same house, the same neighborhood I grew up in, but it feels different to live here alone. Gillsville is a small enough town that it can shrink down all around you. 

A bicyclist drifts down the road. Lazy. Slow, like the motion of a great cloud.

Breakfast. Two eggs rolling on the countertop. Place a spoon crosswise—stop them from falling to the floor. Turn the burner up. 

I should wait for it to sizzle hot, should wait for it to heat more than the lukewarm sun as it pours through the window, but I don’t have the patience. The omelette will be damp and floppy, but it will be fast. 

Crack one egg against the side, thumb against heating metal to keep yolk from dripping down into burner. Watch the egg pool and congeal, yellow like a child’s drawing of a sun in the center of the pan. Sunday school coloring books. Crack the second. 

A strange noise, one that doesn’t belong to eggs or kitchens. It could possibly belong to a hospital’s birthing ward, raw and wet and vital.

I look down. It looks up.

An eye, swimming in the egg whites that surround it. Yolk clumps thick and yellow at one edge. A bit of blood is seeping out into my breakfast. 

Vomit tastes acidic and rotten on my tongue as I bend over the trashcan, sweating palms pressed against fuzzy pajama pants. A glass of water filled by the sink tap. Swish it and spit. 

The longer I don’t look at the pan, the longer I can pretend there’s only poorly cooking eggs in it. But something is hissing like bacon on the stove, and the smell of cooking flesh hits my nostrils. 

I turn the burner off and look back at the thing in the pan.

A slow blink—no eyelid, but a slimy film, not unlike the egg whites surrounding it. It bobs, rotating and rolling in the pan.

I think it’s looking at me.

Not looking at me like someone might look at me across the street. Looking. The way the priest looks at you after you say something awful in confession. When you don’t even need to see a face to feel the eyes.

Breathe in, push nausea down. Tell myself it’s some poorly formed mutant chicken, a tragedy of factory farming. Blinking because the heat of the pan is creating some expansion or burning that simulates motion. Grab the pan and tip it over the trash can.

I take the spoon, scrape metal against metal. Watch eggs slump down into garbage on top of sick, the eye lost. Folded in with the mess.

It’s been years since I prayed, but I consider it now. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Eye In My Trashcan. I wonder if the words would still come on reflex, summoned up from eighteen years of godliness.

My mouth still tastes like vomit.

Slippers are soft under my feet as I slide them on. Trash bag crinkles as I haul it up and sling it with me out the door. Not quite full yet; plastic sags. Why take out the trash when it’s not full yet?

Because the sun is nice on my shoulders as I step outside. Because I was already going out to grab the mail. Because the garbage truck comes tomorrow and what if I forget to do it later? Because I don’t want it in my kitchen. Not when it could be staring back, every time my eyes dart that way.

Take it out to the big trash bin, swing it over the edge and scrunch my nose at the smell as I close the lid down. Grab the mail and go back inside. Slow paces. Not running.

Not running. Not running when I press my back against the coolness of the fridge and slide down to the kitchen floor. Blood into egg yolks slammed in front of my eyes. Hug my knees to my chest. Not running.

It’s on the television when I get home from work the next day.

I’m curled up on the sofa, hands warmed by the plate of my microwave burrito. Fingers sore from hauling around the big canned soup crates at the grocery store. I’m thumbing through channels when I see it, and my burrito goes sour.

The story is this: A local woman was taking communion, and a piece of bread was a fat lump of flesh in her mouth. Everyone is talking about miracles.

They say it’s a sign of God in the modern times.

Father, Son, Eye In The Trash, Flesh In The Mouth. Holy Spirit. 

A week later, they’re having a big party at the church down the road. The church I went to every Sunday as a child. To celebrate. I put on a dress that feels foreign and scratchy against my skin, eggshell blue like I used to wear when I stood between my parents and my sister Mary during mass. Mother, Father, Mary. Judith. Picture perfect, every week.

I haven’t been to this place in two years. I think I could probably walk the way with my eyes closed. It looks the same as it always has, from the simple white chapel to the wide green lawn to the smiling faces. 

The only differences: the fervor living on everyone’s tongue, and the fact that the lawn is decorated like it would be for a birthday party. Picnic tables all laid out with paper plates and pot luck Tupperware, balloons tethered in bunches. The smell of hot dogs cooking somewhere. 

I see my sister and her husband hand in hand as she speaks to some of the other women of the congregation. I want to gravitate her way out of sheer awkwardness, but she’s deep in conversation. Father Lowe is shaking hands near the front stoop of the chapel, and I avoid his eyes as I navigate my way through the crowd. I take a plate and sit between two women who used to pinch my cheeks when I was little. 

“It’s been so long since we’ve seen you, Judith,” one is saying, and the other is saying “I’m so glad you’ve returned to the flock,” and I wonder why I came. The small talk is like cardboard and the food is the same. 

There’s a little girl pouring lemonade on rice crispy treats a few seats away from me, fingers and face sticky. Any appetite I had is long gone.

I would say I only came because my sister invited me, but then, she’s invited me to a thousand community cookouts and block parties on this lawn, and I’ve never come before. Maybe I showed up because the trash collector missed my house this week. The bin is still standing at the end of my driveway.

“Judy?” My sister calls when she finally spots me. Her voice is warm and excited, and I feel my grimace turn into an actual smile. “I didn’t think you would come! I haven’t seen you in ages, you should really come around more often.”

I disentangle myself from the picnic table, and Mary is hustling over the lawn to me—I say hustling, but she’s not actually moving that fast with her eight and a half months pregnant belly weighing her down. She’s smiling wide, though, and she pats my back fondly when she wraps her arms around me.

“We had lunch together last week,” I remind her. 

“Still!” She insists. “I’m glad you came. I mean I suppose you’d have to be crazy not to come back for this. Even out-of-towners have been driving by to have mass with us. Though, I think most of them probably just want to see the Bishop when he comes. A Bishop! Here in Gillsville! I wish Mom was here to see it, you know?”

She’s right that our mom would probably cry if she heard about something so big happening in our little town. Gillsville has one newspaper, and the biggest story we’ve ever gotten here was a particularly big cabbage. Now, we’re showing up on national news networks. 

She would probably throw a whole party of her own at me going back to church, whether or not I was going to mass or just eating the stale hot dogs. 

“We should have lunch again,” I say to change the topic. “I could make—”

A retching noise, and conversations pause. Heads swivel. 

The little girl with the sticky face is doubled over, mother fussing and holding her hair back as she throws up onto the fresh mowed grass. Her mom pets her face and swings her up onto her hip, expression turning exasperated when she glances to the table and sees the awful junk her daughter was combining on her plate. 

The crowd moves away from the vomit, and some of the regular volunteers are getting cleaning gloves and trash bags to handle the mess. 

I’ve turned back to my sister, and they begin to cry out.

A wordless shout. 

Then: “Lord, Lord! Oh my Lord!”

Look back. People are on their knees.

“It’s—It’s—Holy God”

They’re crossing themselves. 

Words are falling reverent from Father Lowe’s mouth. “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end—”

I look down at the grass. At the vomit they’re kneeling for. 

A strip of meat. Pink. Alive, twitching. 

A tongue. 

Around it, pearly teeth gleam in the sick. 

I turn around and I walk home. Down the street and past the trashcan still sitting at the end of my driveway. I guess I was right that I could do it with my eyes closed, because I don’t remember a single step of the way. 

The party was meant to go from noon ’til six on Friday, but it doesn’t even slow down until Saturday night. I can hear the noise even from my kitchen, can see the fervor growing as the news coverage lasts all day. 

Everyone is talking about miracles, but I’m thinking about that eye floating in my eggs. My mom always said that when angels appeared, they said ‘Be Not Afraid.’ Because sometimes what’s wonderful terrifies us. 

But when I think about that little bit of blood mixing with yolk, I can’t help it. My gut feels queasy and my hands sweat like mad. I’m afraid.

Plastic gloves. An hour shifting through the bin. A plastic bag inside a paper bag inside an empty snack box. Bury it and mark it with a stone. 

They canonize the First Miracle of Gillseville on the same day that my sister calls crying. She was supposed to have her baby. Only, instead of a baby it was just a man’s left foot.

At first I think she’s sobbing, but when the phone static dies down I realize she’s saying grace, again and again she’s saying grace. 

My nephew was going to be named Joey, after his dad. He was going to wear little pajamas I knitted for him. He was going to have a nursery painted green. Not blue, because my sister hates all that ‘pink for girls, blue for boys’ crap. Not pink, because that’s for girls. 

But grief isn’t mine to have here, and my sister doesn’t seem to want any. I go to see her in the hospital and she’s still smiling and weeping and saying grace. 

They’ve wrapped a baby blanket around the foot. I almost ask her if it’s still going to be called Joey, but instead I just pat her hand and smooth her hair from her face. 

I’ve never heard of the Consulta Medica before, but apparently they’re a big deal. They swarm around my sister’s bedside running tests and asking questions. They’re here to see if it’s a miracle. They handle the foot so carefully you would think it was the second coming. 

I don’t know why they go through all the tests. They could’ve just gone home after seeing that the foot had a pulse. But it takes three days before my sister is on the news talking to a Bishop and holding up the swaddled appendage like a proud mother. 

I guess they had to check to see if it was the real deal. 

It turns out it is, because the next one that comes to town is the pope. 

News vans swarm when the pope comes to Gillsville. Streets are crowded. Everyone’s renting out their spare rooms for all the tourists. They all wish the place was bigger, or that we could move it a town over. But it’s not happening a town over, it’s happening here. 

I go to mass with my sister and her husband. The chapel is so crowded that they set three extra rows of folding chairs behind the pews. Any other time, and I would have to endure all the smug satisfaction from the community at my return, but everything is hectic and there are so many new faces that no one looks my way as I take a seat to Mary’s right. 

When people hear I stopped going to church, they normally think I stopped going because I stopped believing in God. They’re wrong. I stopped going to church for two reasons. The first is that just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I believe he’s good. The second is that there is something wrong with me. 

The altar boys walk between the pews, hands laden with incense and censer, bread and wine. Father Lowe follows after, head bowed. Then the visiting Bishop.

Guess the big man’s too big for our little church. I’m not surprised, though some people look disappointed. The pope has bigger fish to fry than our small town mass. He may be here, but he’ll be some fifteen miles out in a hotel and surrounded by his own secret service.

The congregation settles back down as it begins.

Stand. Hands raised. Sit. The Liturgy of The Word. 

Everyone is talking about miracles. That includes Father Lowe. Proof of God on earth. Father, Son, Foot of The Womb. Hail Mary, first and second. 

I knew about my sister, and I knew about the teeth and tongue. What I didn’t know about was the hands they found inside a butchered lamb, the growth that turned from a tumor into a man’s arm, the right foot that doctors found in the place of some poor girl’s appendix. 

Then the Bishop. Word from the pope, he says. 

We’re supposed to put Him together. 

Stand. Sit. Hands clasped together, raised to the ceiling. Watch as Mary takes communion and stay in my seat. I don’t want any bit of holiness in my mouth. If I did, I would’ve eaten my omelet. 

Hug my sister goodbye after pleasantries. Walk home. Pick up the stone, move the earth. Look into the eye, gunky and caked in blood. Still looking right at me. Same way Father Lowe looked at me when I left confession wishing I could jam words back into my mouth. When I told him about a girl I met at summer camp, and the fact that there is something wrong with me.

Tuck it back into the paper bag. Place it between my heel and the earth and crush down. Back into the box, back into the ground. 

Who He is, I don’t know. What I do know is, He’ll be missing an eye.

A Pope, a bishop, and a disembodied hand walk into a church service. It sounds like the start of a bad joke. Maybe it will be, one day, and I just haven’t come up with the punchline yet. Only the hand doesn’t walk so much as twitches while they carry it. A little white box and it’s lain out like in a bed.

A sharp inhale to my right, and my sister is clutching me. I don’t look her way. I watch as they bring the hand to the altar, as they remove it from the box and place it at the wrist. It’s not the last piece, not by far, but—

But there He is. The shape of Him. 

Set out like for an open casket, a funeral in reverse. The torso is there, the legs set carefully beneath. There’s little Joey at the ankle, alongside his twin. There’s a head, still strange and misshapen. Hairless, a mouth but no lips. 

Father, Son. Foot of The Womb, Flesh of The Mouth. Holy Spirit. They said Jesus would come back to us, but I guess they never said he wouldn’t come in pieces.

Gretchen Gormley (they/them) is a writer based in British Columbia where they are studying creative writing and literature. They were a semi-finalist for the 2020 North Street Book Prize under the pen name Celia King, and they were the winner of UBC’s 2023 ESA short story competition.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Roots” Horror by Alan Caldwell

Doran found the little cemetery by accident. He had missed the switchback loop of the Pinhoti trail and had turned West well past where he had intended. He soon found himself on a small flat saddle between two unfamiliar ridges. He stopped and surveyed his surroundings so as to gain his bearings. In doing so, he realized his mistake. He mentally cursed himself for missing such a familiar path. He also cursed the agency workers who should have marked the trail more clearly. He wasn’t worried. He could see the stream bed in the valley below and hear its waters rushing over the stones. He knew it was the only flowing water for miles. He knew he could follow it back North to where the trail was clearer. Doran wasn’t shaken in the least, just slightly perturbed that he had wasted so much time. He had so little time these days. 

Just as he started to descend the hillside, Doran noticed a large flat-surfaced stone about five feet tall and eighteen inches wide protruding from the earth. The top was rounded, not as if by geological forces, but by intent. It looked like a rustic tombstone. Doran knelt before it, brushed the surface with his hand, and realized there were shallow and worn letters chiseled into its surface. It looked like a rustic tombstone because it was. 

Doran wet the surface with water from his hydration bladder and rubbed it in earnest with his red bandana so as to discern the letters. The letters were so worn and shallow he could only identify one or two with any certainty, not nearly enough to identify a name or even a date. He brushed away the leaves in front of the stone and realized there was a clear indention in the soil’s surface, as if a large section of ground had collapsed. Doran had seen this phenomenon before when a casket deteriorates and the weight of the soil sags into the opening. His ancestral Appalachian highlanders could scarcely afford a vault that would have permanently precluded such a collapse.

Doran walked in expanding concentric circles around the large stone, searching for other graves. He soon identified five more burials by locating similar but smaller stones barely protruding from beneath the decaying leaf litter. None of the smaller stones showed markings of any kind and none of the other graves shared a collapse or sagging of the soil. 

Doran returned to the original grave and, using his fingers as a rake, began removing every bit of decaying material until he reached the black loam beneath. When he had finished, he could discern the entire plot and even the rectangular arrangement of smaller stones which formed the plot’s border. Doran was pleased with his work but wasn’t quite sure why he had gone to the trouble.

As he made his way back North toward the trailhead, Doran couldn’t stop imagining what life might have been like for the man in the grave, and make no mistake, only a man, and probably only a partiach, could have warranted such a large marked stone.

 Doran fancied and envied what must have been a simple and peaceful existence.  As he drove back to his apartment in town, he imagined himself walking those ridges, shotgun in hand, searching for a wild game supper. He reasoned that the entombed man might have farmed some small valley plot of corn to make clear liquor to sell for his family. He thought of a stone fireplace as he watched the orange glow of his electric space heater. He could almost smell cornbread and hardwood smoke as he drifted off to sleep.

All of the next week, as he wrote emails and tallied sums on digital spreadsheets, Doran found he could think of little else but the mountain patriarch. 

On Saturday morning, just before daybreak, Doran prepared his pack and drove to the trailhead. He laughed aloud when he hiked past the switchback he had missed last Saturday. It seemed well marked, and he couldn’t understand how he missed it. He was glad now that he had. Maybe, he thought, it was destiny that he should find the grave.

Doran ascended the hill and found the saddle and the stone quickly. He sat down in the center of the now-exposed grave. Doran decided he had never seen a more beautiful and peaceful spot. Doran then reclined on the grave and surveyed the canopy just beginning to sprout its early green and the wispy cirrus clouds that sailed through the early April sky.

Doran soon drifted off to sleep and began dreaming of cabins, and cornbread, and cool summer swimming holes. When he awoke, he felt an odd impulse. Capitulating to that impulse, he began digging deeper into the soil of the grave. He dug till his forearms ached and blood seeped from his fingertips. Soon, Doran unearthed what looked like decaying and sagging slats of wood held together by a web of fine rhizomes. Doran removed one of the nearby border stones and began hammering at the boards till they gave way. 

At this point, Doran rested. His hands ached and bled, and lactic acid filled his arm and shoulder muscles. Dora looked into the now-open casket and could identify a human form, not one constituted of flesh and blood but of roots, large and small, woven so tightly and perfectly that all but the finest features were discernible. Doran removed the wooden cadaver from its resting place and lay it on the adjacent leaves. Doran then looked again at the stone. The letters were now clear and formed a familiar name and he knew what he must do.

Doran slid through the broken opening and into his final resting place. He soon began to feel the root tendrils growing around his legs and feet. He then detected the scent of woodsmoke and cornbread and could hear the clear stream rushing over the stones in the valley below.

Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in Southern Gothic Creations, Level: Deepsouth, oc87 Recovery Diaries, Black Poppy Review, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Biostories, Heartwood Literary Journal, American Diversity Report, and Rural Fiction Magazine.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Mask” Dark Fiction by Jim Tritten

Aztec warriors brandishing macauhuitl (from the 16th-century Florentine Codex)
Aztec warriors brandishing macauhuitl (from the 16th-century Florentine Codex)

The eyes…the eyes…the eyes. He tried to turn away, but his muscles wouldn’t obey. His head spun back to stare at…the eyes. Light Robin’s egg blue irises not even found in most Scandinavians. A dilated pupil in the center of wide-open eyes strongly suggested visceral pleasure. The smudged whites were ravaged by age. The eyes. They bulged noticeably from the face. Large black lashes ringed the lids, abnormally spaced apart — frozen open in astonishment. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes.

“The eyes are extraordinary, aren’t they?” 

He turned to face the voice of a young Hispanic male dressed in a dark suit and sporting a red tie. 

“Yes, I can hardly see anything else.”

“Pardon me for interrupting, but I thought I might be able to help you. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Diego Montoya. The clerk here in the gift shop called me. I have some expertise in these indigenous Mexican masks. Perhaps I might assist?”

They shook hands.

Diego continued, “I’m the assistant curator here at the Museo Nacional de Antropología y de Arte Indígenas.”

“Nice to meet you, Diego. I’m Renato Pérez, from New Mexico.”

“Small world, I’m originally from Albuquerque, and I received graduate and undergraduate degrees from the University of New Mexico.”

Renato smiled. “Go, Lobos.” 

“What are you doing here in old Mexico, Renato?”

“I thought I’d come and do a bit of genealogical research. Family folklore says we’re descendants of a conquistador who accompanied Oñate. I confess I’m totally captivated by these masks. My father has a collection of historic indigenous Mexican masks. We’ve exhibited them throughout the southwest. I’ve been thinking about starting my own collection.” 

Diego turned to view the wall. “Yes, these old masks can certainly captivate. Take, for example, this one. Once you can break free of the eyes….” Diego pointed at the mask. “Consider the overall shape of the face. It’s Caucasian — larger than life-sized by about half, but proportionally accurate. Notice the skin, more of a pinkish hue than found in most Hispanics.”

“Why would they exaggerate the skin tone?”

“Many of these theatrical masks were supposed to be a parody of the Spanish. They have purposely exaggerated features. The eyes are obviously larger than life, and so is the nose.” Diego explained, “Yes, the nose is hooked, extending the overall mass further. Bulbous. Look at the flared nostrils — like the nostrils when a bull is about to charge.

“The red paint on the inside of the nostrils makes you wonder whether the idea was to emphasize the internal blood of the character.”

“Did the indigenous peoples have such hooked noses?”

“Not normally, but this is not a mask depicting a native. The mask represents a European.”

“The nose is bigger, and the ears are fuller than those on any person I’ve ever seen.”

“Yes, artistic license. Exaggerations, perhaps to indicate the character had excellent hearing. The ears are normally shaped. Perhaps larger than on most people. A surprisingly small lobe extension at the bottom.”

Renato leaned to the left and the right to view the ears from a different perspective. “Do you know where this mask originated?”

“We do. This is an original from the Tlaxcaltec people.”

Renato interrupted. “Say that again?”

“Of course, it is pronounced ‘lash caltec.’ They originated in what is now a state east of Mexico City. The ancient Tlaxcaltecs allied with Hernán Cortés and helped overthrow the Aztec Empire. They had a major role in taking the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Their language was Nahuatl. Can you say ‘nah watl?’” Diego reached up, lifted the mask from its peg on the wall, and handed it to Renato.

Renato mumbled, “nah watl,” then added, “Surprisingly light.”

“Yes, carved from zompantle, a soft white wood native to eastern Mexico. Easy to work by hand with basic tools.”

Renato rotated the mask and ran his hand over the cheeks. “The finish is smooth.” 

“Burned to remove splinters. Then sanded and polished before being painted. Look at these eyebrows.” Diego pointed to the face. “Painted on.”

Renato fingered strands of long black hair hanging over the ears. “The entire mask is not wood.” He ran his hand across the top and across smaller locks dangling over the forehead.

“No, the creator used horsehair most often on a mask like this. I’m not sure about this one, though. Might be actual human hair.”

Renato’s stomach tightened as he took a rapid, light breath. “Human hair?”

“Yes, sometimes the masks were made to represent a specific individual, and the use of original hair or teeth was considered appropriate.”


Diego laughed, “Yes, my friend, but not in a mask like this. Look!” He took the mask from Renato and turned it face up with the mouth clearly displayed. “The mandible on this character juts forward, so the elongated, massive lower teeth clear the upper lip and appear outside the mouth.”

“These two are extra long.”

“Yes, the lower canines are extremely exaggerated and connected to only three lower incisors.”

“What are they made from?”

“This is some carved wood added to the main portion of the mask. Real teeth were probably too difficult or simply not available.”

Renato touched the large dirty white teeth and peered inside. “I can’t see anything inside the mouth.”

“No, the artist wanted you to focus on the power of these teeth, perhaps indicating the model had powerful jaws and could tear you apart.”

Renato shuddered and felt his mouth lower into a grimace. “The lips are a bright blood red. Matches the inside of the nostrils. Also, this reddish tinge around the mouth, on the cheeks. Even on the top of the hook on the nose.”

Diego chuckled. “Yes, perhaps he ate something and didn’t have a napkin.”

“The character appears to be old. These painted lines represent wrinkles, right?”

Diego rotated the mask to expose the multiple lines streaking the cheeks, nose, and brow. “Wrinkles, for sure. Sometimes the mask is made more horrible than the original character, especially if the mask was used in a pageant. For example, those used in the Baile de los Viejitos depict wrinkled old men. When you analyze the performance, the dance and masks simply mock old men for their lecherous behavior. So perhaps this character also is supposed to be mocked.”

“Or feared. Why does it have these slits under the eyes? I can look right through the mask.”

“Of course, how else would the wearer see?” Diego handed the mask to Renato. “Put it over your face and look in the mirror.”

Renato stepped to his left and lifted the mask in front of his face. He could smell paint, varnish, and a hint of burned wood. He shook his head and fit it to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. The wood was rough on his skin. The black hair hung over his scalp and tickled the back of his neck. After a minor adjustment, he could see through the slits. Renato’s body tensed and breathing ceased. His skin tingled as the tickling from the back of his neck spread down his chest and up into his face. He turned and gazed into the mirror. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

Diego clasped his right shoulder. “The mask, my friend, is called temiktiloni, in Nahuatl.”

Renato spoke through the mask, “What does that mean, Diego?”

“El asesino, my friend…”

“…The Killer.”

“What’s this?” The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport customs agent stood back, eyes wide open, gaping at the shiny wooden piece of wood with dark stone chips along the edges. 

Renato finished the unwrapping to reveal a three-foot-long weapon. “It’s called a macuahuitl.”

The agent squinted her eyes and nose.

Renato explained, “maque awitl.” Renato turned the blade to reveal the other side. “The word comes from an Indigenous Mexican language known as Nahuatl.”

“Is this a sword?” The agent’s face screwed up as she shook it from side to side.

“No, more like a long flat ax, but look here, it’s shaped like a cricket bat. You pick it up by this grip — with this one, you can only fit one hand around it.”

Renato grasped the light green handle shaped like a snake but decided he wouldn’t use it to illustrate his next point. “You’d swing it through the air.” He laid the weapon back down and swung his empty hand above his head in a broad circular motion. He made a “swooshing” sound with his mouth.

“What are those teeth along the sides? Aren’t they sharp?” The agent ran her forefinger along the outer edge of the dark stones. “Ouch!” Blood oozed from a long, thin wound.

“Those are obsidian shards. Notice how they are fit to both sides of this polished flat piece of wood. They’re extremely sharp, as you just found out.”

The agent placed her finger in her mouth and nodded. “Yes.”

“It’s one continuous piece of wood. A strong warrior would use this weapon to decapitate a horse. Well, the taller two-handed version could. This one might easily take off a human head.”

The agent’s mouth turned down, and her nostrils flared. “Is the…manchuka…real?”

Macuahuitl. Try it — maque awitl.”

“Forget it.”

“No, this is only a replica. The last known original burned in Madrid over a hundred years ago.” Renato sensed he was not going to have a problem with the agent. He re-wrapped the macuahuitl, careful not to touch the razor-sharp dark pieces of stone. Renato saw the agent shift her attention to the bubble wrap still in his luggage.

“What’s in there?”

“A mask.”

“Let’s see.”

Renato lifted the mask from the bubble wrap package and set it on the examination table. He peeled back the tape holding the package together. When he removed the last layer of covering, he stepped aside to allow the agent a direct view.

The agent recoiled, eyes wide open. “Good God, those eyes are…well, the whole thing. I mean, it’s disgusting. Why in the hell would you want to bring anything like that out of Mexico? Should’ve left it behind for the cartels. What you gonna do with it?” She shook her head as she held a tight grimace.

“Put it on the wall of my house, along with the macuahuitl.”

“You crazy? I hope you don’t have a wife or girlfriend. No way I’d let anyone put up those things in my house. Why don’t you give it to someone you really, I mean really, hate? You got an ex who’s sucking you dry?”

Renato turned his back to the agent and re-wrapped the mask. His hands trembled as they made contact with the hair.

“Reminds me of folklore tales told by my granny. You better watch out having those things around. Might be more to the story than you know. Take that ugly mask and the manchuka thing…or whatever the hell you called it…and get outta here.”

Joycelyn smiled at Renato, withdrew her key from the lock to his house, and stepped through the door. “Welcome home, my dear.”

Renato rushed forward to give the blonde a warm hug and a kiss. “Welcome back, yourself. How was Washington?”

“Exciting as always. Can’t wait for the day I actually get a job at headquarters. This back-and-forth is killing me. How was the flight back from Mexico?”

“Not too bad. I wish you could’ve come visit me, for part of the time anyway.”

“I would’ve if I could’ve swung the time off. Always another crisis. Never ends.” She dropped her purse on the table near the door and her luggage on the mat. “So, what’s got you so excited? You wanted to show me something right away?”

“First, a glass of wine.” They moved to the sofa, and Renato poured from the bottle he had been decanting. “Salud.” They clinked glasses and sat a while as they got caught up.

“So, you verified your family came with Oñate from Santa Bárbara, that’s south of Chihuahua, right?”

“Yes, although the origins of the expedition are in the silver mining area around Zacatecas. What I found most interesting is that our family roots go back to the original conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés. The first Pérez must have come over on the initial expedition from Cuba.”

“Not too many people I know can trace their lineage back to Cortés.”

“I really want to show you some of the artifacts I brought back with me.” Renato refilled their glasses and led Joycelyn into his study.

Joycelyn’s left hand flew up to her mouth as she inhaled sharply as she entered the room. “My God, what’s that?”

“Striking, isn’t it?” Renato beamed.

“The eyes, they’re horrible.” She lowered her hand and inched closer to the mask hanging on the wall.

“It’s a theatrical prop.”

Joycelyn backed away from the wall. “What possessed you to bring such a grotesque object back here?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I had this overwhelming need to take it.” Renato walked over to the mask and touched the left cheek. “Fortunately, this beauty was for sale in a museum gift shop.”

“Beauty? Really? Sure, they didn’t pay you to take it?” She finished her wine and extended her glass for a refill.

Renato chuckled and filled both glasses. “No, but the price was quite reasonable. On the other hand, the macuahuitl was a bit expensive.” He lifted the weapon off its mounting and held it out to her.

“Do they go together?” Joycelyn backed away from the macuahuitl and sat on the corner of the desk.

“No, the macuahuitl is a replica of what the ancient indigenous peoples used to fight my ancestors. The mask was used in some village pageants. Absolutely nothing to do with each other.” He put the weapon back on its wall mounting underneath the mask. “I find them absolutely captivating.”

“Well, I might think of a few other words to describe both of these things. Why would you want to put them where you can see them while working at your computer?”

“I only want to admire them for a while. Perhaps I will find another place for them at some point.”

“Would you like a suggestion? Why not put them in the garage?”

Renato frowned. “You’re an educated woman. Why would you let some inanimate historical items get to you?”

“Because I am getting some very bad vibes just being near them.”

“Really? They’re lifeless — made from dead wood.”

“Why would you want to have that ugly face staring at you? Why would you want a weapon like this in your house? I mean, if I looked at those two things every day, I’d have nightmares. Don’t even think about putting them in the bedroom.”

“Well, I don’t plan to do anything other than to admire them when I’m at my computer.”

“Renato, you need to think seriously about the effect having such negative artifacts in your home will have on you. Or us!”

“What are you talking about? These are hunks of wood. They can’t affect anything.”

“Renato, they have terrible vibrations. There’s something odd about them, especially the mask.” Joycelyn rose and stood before Renato, arms crossed, eyes squinting as she looked directly at him. “I’m not going to spend any more time here as long as these…things…are hanging in public. You put them away somewhere, and I’ll be back. Thank God I kept my apartment.” Joycelyn turned and marched out of the room.

Renato heard the front door slam, and he refilled his glass. Women can be so…. He walked up to the wall and pondered his two new acquisitions. Two hunks of wood. He reached up and lifted the mask off its peg, brushing back the hair. Can’t hurt anything.

He turned towards the mirror and held up the mask in front of his face. Renato shook his head and fit it to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. He could smell paint, varnish, and a hint of burned wood. The wood was rough on his skin. The black hair hung over his scalp and tickled the back of his neck. After a minor adjustment, he could see through the slits. Renato’s body tensed, and his breathing ceased. His skin tingled as the tickling from the back of his neck spread down his chest and up into his face. He turned and gazed into the mirror. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

Renato sat in front of his computer. He read the text.

“The purpose of the masks is to convert participants into other beings or characters.”

This site usually has good information.

“Jaguar and eagle warriors dressed themselves like these animals in order to gain their strengths.”

Renato rose from his chair and walked over to the mask. He reached up, took the mask from its peg, and put it over his face — not too close. He turned to review his image in the mirror and moved the mask to the side so he could see himself. Nothing special happened. Must have had too much to drink last night. 

Renato shifted his view to the macuahuitl. He put the mask back on its peg and picked up the weapon, careful not to nick himself. Heavier than the mask. He hunkered down and raised the weapon over his head. Renato admired himself in the mirror and smiled.

After returning the weapon to its wall mounting, Renato glanced at the clock. Time to call Diego. He sat and dialed on his Skype phone +52 55….


“Diego, hola, it’s Renato from New Mexico.”

Hola mi amigo.” They exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before getting down to business.

Diego continued. “The Tlaxcaltecs who made the mask were taken from their native area and used by the Spanish to set an example for other indigenous peoples. They modeled good behavior and were used to work in the mines. The museum obtained this mask from a collector in Zacatecas.”

Zacatecas, the area where my family originated. They came north with Oñate.”

Tlaxcaltecs were involved with a series of rebellions by the native population. The Tlaxcaltecs fought on the side of the Spanish. They defeated the Zacatecos in an uprising that started after Coronado left the province to explore the north.”

“So, what does all this ancient history have to do with the mask?”

“The mask dates from the mid-16th Century. From what we can tell, the Zacatecos used it for about fifty years. By that time, some of the native groups had changed sides and were now allied with the Spanish. This specific mask was used in a type of theatrical performance teaching taboos. Might explain why the figure is a Caucasian parody.”

“You told me at the museum the mask was of Tlaxcaltec origin. Any idea why the mask was made by one group and used by another? Why does it deliberately have grotesque European features if used to teach law and order? I would think a teaching mask would be stern and powerful.”

“No, but maybe I can contact the collector. Wonder if he’s still alive. All we know is that the Zacatecos stopped using the mask around the same time as they were wiped out. It was a combination of combat and smallpox that did them in. About the time Oñate left Zacatecas for Santa Bárbara.”

“That’s strange.” 

“Surviving remnants of all of these groups intermarried with the Spanish and lost their own separate cultural identities. Most of the cultural possessions from groups like these were sold off to feed the survivors. The mask probably traded hands dozens of times before ending up with the collector who sold it to the museum.”

“Thanks for the info, Diego. Shoot me an email if you find out anything more, and we’ll talk again.”

Renato clicked the keys and commanded his computer to find Zacatecas. In an instant, on his screen were images of Spanish conquistadores with their allied Tlaxcaltec warriors holding macuahuitls, doing battle with the rebellious Zacatecos.

Renato turned toward the mirror and held the mask in front of his face. Leaning his head forward, he loosely put it into the hollowed-out back of the mask. He could smell paint, varnish, and a hint of burned wood. He shook his head and fit it to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. The wood was rough on his skin. The black hair hung over his scalp and tickled the back of his neck. After a minor adjustment, he could see through the slits. Renato’s body tensed and breathing ceased. His skin tingled as the tickling from the back of his neck spread down his chest and up into his face. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

“Hello, anybody home?”

Renato ripped the mask off and hustled it inside the armoire. “In here, honey.” He closed the door to the cabinet.

“I smell steaks. So what’cha doin’ in here?” Joycelyn walked into the study, twirling her key ring.

“Just putting away some stuff. Let’s go into the dining room.”

“What’s wrong with your face?”

He looked in the hall mirror. “What?”

“There’s something different about your face. Your eyes are bulging out. Your nose seems larger.” Joycelyn took Renato’s head in her arms and frowned as she looked at him.

Renato pulled his head free and shook it as he moved closer to the mirror. “You’re dreaming. There’s nothing wrong.” He moved his hands along his skin like he was getting ready for a shave.

“I think I know your face by now.”

He continued his inspection. “Yeah, maybe, but I’ve known it longer.” Renato shook his head and walked into the dining room. “Come on in here and let me get you some wine.”

The two made up, got caught up, and sat at the dining room table to a meal Renato had prepared.

“When did you start eating your steak rare?” She leaned forward with her fork to turn the cut bloody red side of the meat towards her.  “Is that even cooked on the inside?”

“I don’t know, today, I guess. Tastes better. More wine?”

“You get rid of the mask?”

Renato’s stomach tightened. “I put the damn thing in storage.” He raised his right hand. “I promise you’ll never see it again.” He searched her face for a favorable response. 

Joycelyn stared at him long and hard, seemingly probing for an answer. “OK.” She smiled.

Renato took a shallow breath and smiled like a load had been taken off his shoulders. “It’s been too long. Let’s hit the sack.”

After their energies were spent and their muscles slackened, Joycelyn rolled on her side. “Where did you come up with all these new tricks? Have you been experimenting with someone else?”

Renato’s head pounded as he panted, lying on his back. “What do you mean?”

“Weren’t you a bit like a wild beast? You should have seen your face when you, well, you know. I know it’s been a few weeks, but really. I would swear you were someone else.”

“I didn’t realize. Got caught up in the moment.” He continued to pant. Images of the mask swirled through his consciousness.

“It was a bit savage. I’m not complaining. Just be careful when you give me those little love bites. I think you drew blood on my neck.”


Renato picked up the telephone.

“Renato, I’ve learned a great deal about the mask. You got some time to discuss this now?”

Diego’s call surprised him, but he really didn’t have any reason not to talk to him at the moment. “Thanks, Diego, go ahead. I’ll put you on speakerphone.” Renato pushed a button, leaned back to listen…and appreciate the mask and the macuahuitl on his wall.

“Renato, the mask was fashioned to represent a specific individual of mixed Tlaxcaltec and Spanish blood. I learned the mask you have is related to a son, one of several children, a Tlaxcaltec woman who bore one of the Spanish soldiers.”

“Yes, that wasn’t particularly unusual. The conquistadores often took native women as they pleased.”

“One of the children was unusual. Cruel to animals as he grew up. About the time he was a young man, the family moved into a Zacatecos village where a number of unmarried women died under unusual circumstances. They were all hacked to death, and parts of their bodies were missing.” 

“Really? A serial killer in the 16th Century?”

Diego challenged. “Why would you think crime has just been invented?” 

“Well, you’re right.”

“Anyway, the villagers eventually figured out this young man was guilty and executed him immediately.”

“Sounds like he deserved it.”

“He did, but remember; this was the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Methods of killing the guilty individuals were quite barbaric.”

Renato remembered reading about the methods of torture employed by civilized Spain. And the explicit drawings he found on the Internet.

“Renato, this young man was hacked to death, his head placed on a pike, and the body burned.”

“About par for the course in those times.”

“Before the young man was executed, he told his victims’ fathers and mothers he raped their daughters. He told them he eviscerated their hearts while they were still alive — then ate them. A priest wrote to the Inquisition. He told the families that their daughters deserved to die. Women were the source of original sin, and they all needed to be punished. If that were not enough, he cursed the village and their descendants and vowed to come back and demonize their survivors.”

Renato’s stomach tightened. “Wow, a bit excessive.”

“Well, apparently, the villagers thought so too. So, before they hacked him to death, they cut out his heart, his tongue, broke his teeth, and scalped him alive. And, of course, they cursed him, his family, and any descendants of the family.”

Renato swallowed hard and held his breath. Exhaling, he sputtered, “I thought scalping was only in the American West?”

“Not when the Mexican indigenous tribes wanted to use the scalp to create a mask.”

Renato sat up straight and looked at the mask on his wall, eyes widening. “You mean….”

“Wait, it gets worse. The Zacatecos villagers forced the man’s Tlaxcaltec family to fashion a mask out of an unburned section of zompantle wood used in the fire. And yes, they used the hair. The young men of his family were forced to wear the mask in a pageant. The object was to warn young women about the dangers of associating with the Spanish. They would threaten the young women with a macuahuitl. By the end of the play, the villagers would ridicule the Tlaxcaltec family member wearing the mask.”

Renato sat in total silence. Bass drumbeats pounded in his ears. Sweat soaked his brow, torso, and shirt. His body started to tremble and shake.

“You still there?”

“I suppose they hacked him to death with a macuahuitl.” His neck hurt. He rolled his shoulders forward and gritted his teeth. Mouth dry — like it’s been used as a dustbin. His body flushed with warmth, starting at his feet, and rising up his torso.

“Naturally. The macuahuitl was their weapon of choice. The villagers held theater for many years until the young Tlaxcaltec re-enactors began to meet mysterious endings. Many committed suicide, some went mad, and others disappeared. Some escaped joining the Oñate expedition in New Mexico. Of course, the Zacatecos people all disappeared as a distinct tribe.”

Again, Renato was speechless. His eyes were swelling. They feel like they’re going to pop out of my head. Bright flashes of light exploded in his brain. As he looked at the mask and the macuahuitl, he realized his vision was altered. The top of his view was normal, but the view blurred about one-third the way down the vertical picture in his brain. Like cheese melting in the hot sun. The entire image in his head abruptly swirled right ninety degrees. It extended across a third of his horizontal plane. The photo in his brain then dropped directly down to the bottom of the picture. Like Salvador Dali’s painting with melting watches drooping from boxes, trees, and figures. Renato could not grasp which way was up or which way was down. He had no sense of balance and grasped the edge of the desk. His whole body quivered. His chest heaved in great spasms.

“Renato, you understand you now have this exact same mask. You might also be a descendant of the same Spanish conquistador who fathered that killer. You need to get rid of that mask!”

Renato’s stomach wrenched. He clenched his jaw and fought back the tightness in his chest and throat — and the overwhelming nausea and taste of bile. He forced open his teeth and started panting with shallow gasps of warm air. 

Renato sensed the metallic taste of blood. He smiled as his nostrils flared, and he took large, deep lungsful of warm air.

The young man turned to face the mirror. He held up the mask in front of his face. He had to lean his head forward to get his face to fit into the hollowed-out back of the mask. He could smell the fresh paint. The mask still had the odor of the flames from when they put the mask into the fire to burn off the rough edges. The young man shook his head, then his entire body, as he molded his face to the inside of the hollowed-out back of the mask. The wood was still too rough — it rubbed his skin. Why do they make me wear this? As he became more comfortable with the mask, the black hair hanging over his scalp tickled the back of his neck. He adjusted the mask. Now I can see through the slits. His body tensed. His breath ceased. He realized his skin was now tingling. He sensed a tickling sensation from the back of his neck down into his bare chest and back up into his face. He looked directly ahead and realized he could see himself in a clear mirror unlike any they had in the village. Then he saw them. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes….

The young man ripped the mask from his face and stared at the mirror. His skin hurt, and his eyes felt like they would pop from his head. He put the mask back on and repeated this same process a half dozen times. Each time more frantic. Each time the smell of paint and the fire increased. The young man’s throat tightened with each repetition until he let the mask dangle in his left hand. He was transfixed by the image in the mirror.

“Honey, you home?” 

The young man heard a woman make some noises in the distance and walk towards him. Her feet made a strange sharp sound on the floor.

“Honey, you in here?”

He watched her enter the room. 

“Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!” she screamed and collapsed.

The young man observed himself in the mirror. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes. He tried to turn away, but his muscles wouldn’t obey. His head spun back to stare at…the eyes. The center of the eyes had the color of a bird’s egg. The very center was dark black. He felt a surge of strength and pleasure — just like when…. The whites were dirty and looked older than his age. The eyes. They bulged noticeably from his face. Large black lashes ringed his lids. The eyes were wide open and dominated the face. The eyes…the eyes…the eyes.

He saw his face in the mirror. 

He saw the mask dangling from his left hand.

Again, he saw his face. 

Again, he saw the mask in his left hand. 

The mask was his face. 

His blood surged. As he took in a deep breath, heat rose into his cheeks.

He put the mask back on the peg on the wall. 

The young man stared in the mirror at the image of the mask that was now his face.

The young man turned towards the wall where he hung the mask.

He took down the macuahuitl from its mounting.

He walked towards the woman.

All these women deserve to be punished. 

El asesino swung the macuahuitl through the air. It swooshed with the same “shlock” sound made when a guillotine falls.The young man smiled and raised the macuahuitl over his head….

“The Mask“ previously appeared in: Currents: Corrales Writing Group 2015 Anthology, Patricia
Walkow ed., North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, November 2015, pp. 181-199; Writers
Anarchy IV: Horror (Volume 4), Alex Hurst, ed., Fiction Writers Group, North Charleston, SC:
CreateSpace, October 2015, pp. 64-77; The Red Fez, no. 91, July 17, 2016; Haunted Horror, A
Rainfall Publication – Rain 292, Steve Lines & John B. Ford, eds., pp.1-18; and Until Dawn: A
Supernatural Anthology (The Red Penguin Collection), JK Larkin, ed., Red Penguin Books
(September 3, 2021), pp. 129-145. “The Mask” was awarded First Place, Single Short Story in
the New Mexico Press Women 2016 Communications Contest.

If you would like to read more of Jim’s work, his novel Panama’s Gold (co-authored with Sandy Hoover and published by Red Penguin Books in 2022) is available on his Amazon author’s page.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Crone of Cader Idris” Supernatural Thriller by Victoria Male

She sensed him the instant he’d scurried over the fence bisecting her terrain from that of the hounds. Matilda was impressed, he’d survived. His friend was not as fortunate. The hounds’ snarls and snapping jaws gradually faded, no doubt to haul the corpse back to their den and pick the bones clean. She could hear the man’s – Morgan’s – blood pounding through his veins. -He was young and he was strong. He would make a feast. 

Matilda sensed his guilt immediately too. It was potent. Intoxicating. She had to practice caution, or else she could get as muddled by his remorse as he was. Taking small sips from his shame, fear, and rage, the crone encased herself in a glamor he would not be able to resist. Her hands were no longer gnarled and haggard, but smooth and dainty. A shadow of a laugh escaped Matilda’s non-existent lips. She had been beautiful once too. 

She summoned a thick veil of fog for her approach, wearing the billowing and swirling air like a cloak. If it wasn’t for creatures like her, the hounds, the giant, the scenery would be breathtaking rather than ominous. 

A change of the wind revealed Matilda to her prey. Morgan stopped in his tracks. After the hounds, he knew better than to approach her blindly. Morgan squinted to get a better look at the shrouded figure.

She, however, saw him perfectly. The cut of his jaw, the broadness of his shoulders, the boyish charm that refused to leave his features, even when wrought with turmoil as they were now. Before, he would have reduced her to a blushing fool.

Katie?” Morgan took the smallest of steps toward her.

The less she said the better. “Morgan?”

She sounded like Katie. It paralyzed Morgan in place. 

“This can’t be happening.” Morgan scuttled back when she advanced toward him, “NO! Hey! Don’t!”

But the closer she got, the harder she was to deny. All Morgan wanted was to see Katie again.


Morgan strode up to her building with a bouquet of lilies. Katie’s favorite. While he waited for her to answer his knock, Morgan tried to convince himself that this would work as much as he was about to try to convince Katie. The seconds felt longer than hours. Another knock, still no answer.

“So either you’re not home and I look like a twat, or you’re still refusing to speak with me. And if that’s the case, I want—“

Morgan was startled into silence when a latch opened. One of Katie’s neighbors. He bristled, it was difficult enough for Morgan to say this without a stranger overhearing.

“Christ, do I really have to do this through the door?” He glanced toward his car. Perhaps it wasn’t–  

“Yes. You do. Because you’re supposed to be giving me space.”

Morgan’s heart leapt. “I know…but I’m going to fight for you, Katie. So if that means camping out on your doorstep until you’re ready, or camping on haunted, bloody Cader Idris with you, so be it. Car’s all packed by the way for the latter. ” 

At last, she opened the door. “I have plans this weekend.”


“I’m not packed.”

“I understand.”

“You’re not forgiven.”


“We’ve been here before, Morgan.”

“I want to be better this time. Please. I love you. Come this weekend and then if you don’t want to try again, I won’t bother you anymore. Promise.” 

Katie scrutinized him for another hour-long moment, then reached for the lilies. 



The ersatz Katie smiled.

“How did you find me?”

That was information Matilda didn’t have. “Why are you here?” 

“Because you wanted to come, remember?”

Matilda turned away from him. He followed.

“I…I don’t know where to begin. Other than sorry. But it’s not enough. It won’t ever be enough. And now Gareth…”

The name gave Morgan pause, but Matilda kept walking. 

“You’re still angry,” Morgan slipped on a loose rock as he hustled to keep up with her, one of the innumerable scree blanketing the mountain. He pressed on, “You have every right to be.”

Matilda’s gaze remained straight ahead. Not much farther now. 

“Please.” Her lack of acknowledgement was maddening. “I said I was sorry, alright?”

Matilda didn’t give him so much as a nod. 


She turned. Where the hounds were immaculately white, Matilda’s entire form was different shades of gray. A long mop of matted locks covered her eyes. A hooked nose protruded from her face. The seam of her mouth spanned the width of her jaw. Once an alluring noblewoman and formidable huntress, time and the curse had reduced her to a decrepit hag.

Morgan was none the wiser, however. He still saw Katie, the woman he loved, and the more he stared directly at Matilda, the more he fell under her spell. She extended a mangled hand to Morgan. He took it, heedlessly following her further down the mountain.

“Where are we going?”

Not so heedlessly then. Matilda put a bony finger to her mouth while steering him into the brush. The toe of Morgan’s boot knocked against a decayed human bone. This area was strewn with them – the corroded evidence of Matilda’s past victims. But Morgan was too lost in his memories to notice. 


London was long in the rearview mirror of Morgan’s posh and ill-equipped SUV that he navigated around the winding, narrow Welsh country road. He chanced a look where Katie sat in the passenger seat, her head propped up against the window. He opened his mouth to speak, but promptly closed it a moment later.

Instead, Morgan clicked on the radio, with the hope that the music could crowd out the lingering awkwardness and animosity between them. 

The song playing was a catchy one. Katie sang along softly, though she stopped as soon as she spotted Morgan grinning.

So he turned up the volume and began singing himself. Loudly. Badly. It coaxed Katie to join back in, belting out the melody even more unabashedly than he was.

“Watch out!”

Morgan’s SUV had drifted from its lane and a sedan was headed straight toward them.


He righted his car before they sideswiped the other one, horn blaring as it passed. 

Morgan refocused on the road and silence reigned once more. Katie figured it was her turn to break it. Her gaze found the camping gear loaded into the car’s boot. “You really going to brave the mountain with me?”

“I kept the B&B reservation just in case,” Morgan chuckled. 

Katie’s tone turned reproachful. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s expensive.”

“It’s a B&B in Dolgellau, not the Savoy.”

“But you said that your shifts at the pub—“

“I know how to manage my money, Katie. I used to work at a hedge fund for Christ’s sake. I wanted to do this for you.”

“I appreciate that but –“

“But what?” Morgan glared at her, inadvertently pressing his foot down harder on the gas pedal. “There’s no winning with you.”

“Don’t try to win, try to have one conversation with me that doesn’t become a row!” Katie scoffed, “This is why I didn’t want to come.”

“And yet here you are!”

“Well, I shouldn’t be! Take me back to London please.”

Morgan pivoted in his seat to face her full-on, so gobsmacked by the demand that he missed the lorry barreling around a bend up ahead.  

“Oh sure, I’ll take you right back! How am I supposed to–” 

The lorry’s driver had taken the turn too fast, and Morgan didn’t see him until it was too late. 


Matilda had no qualms with Morgan’s retreating into a reverie, it made her hunt easier.  Yet, an errant thought slithered into Matilda’s head. Before – how long must it have been now, centuries? centuries ago her desire to devour him would have been of a wholly different sort. Matilda suppressed the pang of yearning as swiftly as it had come. She was no longer a pretty forwyn and he was no knight in search of a bride. Nevertheless, she drank in the heady, undeniably masculine musk of his flesh as she lured Morgan to his death. 

“I was going to take you back. I was. You know that, right?” His emotions were bubbling to the surface, but Morgan opted to burrow his face into his arms in an effort to shove them back down rather than to feel them. He fell to the ground. 


His head snapped up, still enthralled by Matilda’s glamor. Morgan crawled to her, his voice small when he asked, “Can you ever forgive me?” 

Matilda didn’t answer him. They had reached the altar. 


“She’s going to be okay, right?” A bandaged Morgan limped alongside the team of first responders and the doctor as they wheeled Katie’s stretcher into the ER. 

“Sir, you need to step back.”

“Say she’ll be okay and I will.”

“She has a collapsed lung.”

Morgan’s heart clenched in his chest. “You can fix that,right? You have to fix it.”

“I’ll know once we get her into surgery. You’re slowing us down.”

“But I–” he stopped himself. This wasn’t about him. Morgan stepped back to allow them to wheel Katie into the operating room without restriction. 

Morgan had never felt more helpless than when he watched her disappear beyond those metallic, sterile doors.  


Curled up against the altar, Morgan rocked back and forth. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven…I don’t deserve to be forgiven…”

Matilda crossed to him, and under the belief that she was Katie, her proximity was a comfort to Morgan. She knelt over him and pulled him to her bosom. Morgan nuzzled into her touch when she stroked his temple.  


He’d been smoking on his patio when he missed Katie’s call. He’d hesitated before playing the message – she blamed him, didn’t she? He did. 

His phone rang with another incoming call before he could listen to her voicemail: University College Hospital.

Morgan couldn’t remember what the woman on the other line said to him exactly, but somehow he’d understood her. The phrases jumbled together in his memory, “terribly sorry” , “did all they could”, “family will make arrangements”. 

It was miraculous that he’d managed to stay so composed on the phone. The second the line went dead however, he chucked the offensive device across his flat, then shoved the contents of his breakfast bar to the floor. 


Morgan returned to the present gasping for breath. His hand flew to his throat, only to discover Matilda’s ashen one already there. She tightened her grip. He could see her now, the monster that Arawn had made her into. Her eyes glowed red from behind her matted tresses.

Morgan would’ve screamed, heaved, and cursed if he’d the lung capacity. He tried to pry her hand off of his neck, yet Matilda’s strength outmatched his. She may have appeared to be a frail old crone, but looks were deceiving. Morgan thrashed and flailed, anything to get out of her hold and breathe. 

Matilda slammed the crown of his head back onto the stone altar and unhinged her jaw. The time for games had passed. As her sour breath washed over him, Morgan blindly groped for something to defend himself with. All he could see was the black void beyond her gaping maw.

Or maybe that was his vision going.

Just before she could taste him, Morgan’s fingers hooked into a rotted skull that he used to smash against Matilda’s. She recoiled with a hiss. Men never changed. 

His blow was nowhere near enough to defeat her, but it was enough to distract her. Morgan summoned every fiber of his strength to throw Matilda off of him. He slid off of the altar, swaying as he stood, then bolted from the scene.

Matilda was not one to give up easily. Jaw still distended, she let out a piercing shriek and chased after Morgan with the dexterity and determination of a black widow.

If Morgan thought he was hauling ass from the hounds earlier, this was something else. He couldn’t get off this godforsaken mountain soon enough. 


Now he knew that she was using Katie’s voice to manipulate him, but it didn’t make it any easier to resist.


His legs burned. Eyes wild, he searched for a route back to the main trail, but the darkness, his terror, and the unfamiliarity of the terrain slowed Morgan. Matilda caught up to him, so close that she clutched onto the sleeve of his coat. 

Morgan rounded on her, his fingers closed into a fist. Before he could land the punch, Matilda shapeshifted into Katie. Morgan dropped his hand. Real or not, he wouldn’t harm her. 

She’d banked on that, and in the blink of an eye, Matilda switched back and lunged at him. 

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” He broke into a sprint once more. 

The trail appeared on the horizon, but Morgan didn’t get very far before Matilda clawed at him again, her talon-like nails grazing the bottom hem of his jacket. She seized him, but this time, Morgan didn’t think twice about twisting to deliver a swift kick to her midsection. The surprise knocked her back more than the impact. 

Splayed on the ground, Matilda morphed back into Katie. She sniveled, feigning agony and feebleness to halt Morgan again. She succeeded for a split-second. Then, “Don’t do that!”

Morgan continued his beeline for the path, undaunted by the piercing cry she unleashed when he absconded. He’d almost made it to the trail when another dense curtain of fog dropped over him. It made maintaining his breakneck pace across the uneven topography more of a struggle. 

“No,” he raced through the fog with abandon. He’d nearly made it when Matilda closed in. “Stop it…”

Her talons were posed to rip into his flesh, mere millimeters away. Finally. 


Morgan hurled himself down the mountain. Gravity and rapidly gaining momentum propelled Morgan across the rugged earth and out of Matilda’s reach in the knick of time. His limbs akimbo, he desperately sought purchase on anything that could anchor him. Scree scraped his skin. Morgan managed to grasp onto a small rock, teeth gritting against the pain as he labored to pull himself out of the scrum.

An ear-splitting screech tore from Matilda’s throat as she flew after the man. They were nearing the boundary of her realm on Cader Idris: a boulder carved with runes that she could not pass. More frenzied than ever, Matilda rolled a hefty stone with devastatingly precise aim to trample over Morgan’s fingers. It worked beautifully, the weight of the rock across Morgan’s bloodied knuckles forced him to loosen his grip involuntarily. He was thrust back into the fray, but Morgan tucked himself into a ball to channel the velocity rather than fight it, which gave him the speed he needed to tumble past the boundary out of the crone’s domain.  

Morgan didn’t dare lift his head, not even during Matilda’s blood-curdling lament that he’d escaped. He might not get off the mountain alive, but he wouldn’t let himself die at her hand. 

His manufactured landslide deposited Morgan at the edge of Llyn Cau, the bottomless lake that lay at the mountain’s base. Matilda skittered to the blasted boulder that kept her trapped to her few acres of this purgatory, curious if he’d perished in the fall. It took him several minutes, but Morgan dragged himself to the water’s edge. He dipped his hand in the water to scrub the dirt from his skin, then cupped the other to drink from the lake. He caught his reflection on its surface. He looked just as weary and tormented as he felt, but Morgan was grateful that Matilda seemingly wasn’t pursuing him anymore. 

He dug into his pocket and a newly familiar voice echoed across the ancient rock shears moments later. Whereas Matilda had conjured a perfect impression, this version was tinny, and ever-so-slightly distorted. 

“Hiya. They’re about to put the tube in, but I don’t like how we left things. I don’t want to blame you for the crash, Morgan, but I have to be honest…there’s an ugly, angry part of me that does. But there’s the bigger part of me that still loves you. Even after everything we’ve been through. People will say that’s foolish but I don’t care. I forgive you, but on one condition. You have to confront your demons. To stop running and face them. Release them, and release me. So that when you love again, whether or not it’s me, you can give it freely. There’s nothing like being loved by you, Morgan. It’s why I fought so hard for it. Bollocks, they’re saying I need to go. I wish you were here. I’m telling myself this isn’t the last time we’ll talk but Morgan, I’m scared. Call me when you get this – just want to hear your voice.”

The voicemail ended. It was silent on the mountain until Morgan’s grief, the anguish he’d stifled for the past month, finally poured out of him like a dragon’s fire from its snout, as searing as it was cleansing. Matilda was fascinated by his catharsis, by the sobs that wracked his body, by the guttural noises of agony that left his trembling lips. He was a portrait of raw sorrow, and it was just as beguiling to Matilda as the visage of Katie was to Morgan.  

Pale blue had begun to paint the horizon line when Morgan’s weeping subsided. Matilda had loomed the entire scene, fashioning herself a strange sentinel to his grief. No longer encumbered by his despair, Morgan looked to the summit. There was something up there he needed. Matilda could sense it. There was something of the woman’s – Kaite’s – that remained on Cader Idris, and Morgan would not leave without it. He resolved to finish what he came here to do: to give Katie a proper goodbye. 

The wide line of Matilda’s mouth split into an impossibly wider grin as Morgan staggered to his feet. She would get a second chance with her knight after all.

VICTORIA MALE (she/her) has worked in creative development at Ivan Reitman´s The Montecito Picture Company as well as with the American division of the fast-growing South Asian media company Graphic India. Her screenplays have garnered attention from major agencies, A-list talent, and accolades. Victoria is a shrewd adaptor of biography, history, and mythology, and seeks to celebrate the complexity and the breadth of the female gaze in her written work and on screen.

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“Megaphagia” Horror by Marie Brown

The cows are back again. All seven of them, with their sunken, hunger-bright eyes and their ribs poking sharply through red-brown hides. They stare at her unblinkingly, unmovingly, and Eri wonders if they see the same clash of starvation and madness in her expression that she sees in theirs. She wonders if starvation and madness are different names for the same disease.

“Whatcha looking at, Er?” Vivian’s voice comes from behind, and a moment later, the woman herself — shapely, smokey-eyed, and wry-lipped — follows. 

Eri acknowledges her with a slight nod but doesn’t turn from the window. “Just taking in the view.”

“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” Vivian stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Eri, leaning close to the glass. Outside, sunshine pours molten gold over rippling grass and splashes of wildflowers. Farther out, pine trees bristle for miles, while mountains stand proud and brilliant. Only Eri sees the blights on the land, never eating despite their obvious need and the abundance surrounding them.

“I’m so glad we planned this.” Vivian flashes a grin, her dark curls glossy in the light.

Eri finally forces herself to look at her best friend of over ten years and hopes she doesn’t sound flat when she says, “Me too.”

“What a beautiful view.” Danny strides into the room with his usual bravado, and Vivian bursts with pleasure as he wraps an arm around her waist and pecks her on the cheek. “The landscape is pretty, too.”

Vivian giggles and leans into him. “So charming. Did you come up with that all by yourself?”

“I’m insulted you’d think otherwise.” He squeezes her playfully before looking at Eri. “Are you ready? I just finished packing our lunches.”

It takes a beat too long for Eri to shake off the darkness that settles leaden over her shoulders and stirs in her gut. “Yes, we should go.”

“Great. We’ll meet you outside.” Danny, exuberant as he is ignorant, leaves hand in hand with Vivian.

Eri turns back to the window. In the meadow, a cow lifts its head and lets out a long, mournful moan.


She can’t remember exactly when she started seeing the cows, only that it was around the time Vivian began spending weekends at Eri’s dorm. They’d been inseparable for years — ever since Ms. Jackson’s seventh grade science class, when fearless Vivian helped timid Eri pull open the flaps of a frog’s stomach for dissection — and Vivian had seen no need for that to change just because Eri was off to college in a neighboring city and Vivian was still working retail, unsure if she wanted to study fashion or go to cosmetology school or just kiss a new boy or girl every Friday night.

Her visits brought all the energy Eri adored Vivian for: feisty, passionate, bright. Eri relished her friend’s runaway laughter and dazzling confidence, the way she pushed Eri to go to that party or try on that lipstick; and in return, she knew Vivian loved Eri’s steadiness and focus, her still waters to Vivian’s storms. “I’d get lost at sea if not for you, Er,” she’d sometimes say, squeezed next to Eri in her tiny dorm bed or as they ate ice cream on the floor at 2 a.m. “You give me somewhere to come back to.”

Eri never understood, in those moments, how she could both love someone so fiercely and fear she’d never escape them.

I will always be her shadow, Eri thought with terrible certainty one night after Vivian charmed a free appetizer out of their waiter and left her number on a napkin in big, bold handwriting. I will never be the one they want, I will never be the one they choose.

She had secretly hoped to remake herself in college, be more than an accessory to her strikingly beautiful friend; but how could she turn away Vivian, her Vivian, the one who’d taught her how to walk in heels and style her limp blonde hair? The one who’d held her while she sobbed after Benjamin Gardner literally laughed at her invitation to the girls’ choice dance — and then egged his car that night, consequences be damned? The one who sometimes stumbled through the door drunk and crying because she’d fought with her mom again, her dad had come through town again, she’d been broken up with again? No, she couldn’t do that. Not to her Vivian, not to her sister in all but blood.

Somewhere in the throes of life changing, Eri began seeing the cows. Perhaps she struggled remembering exactly when because their appearances were never startling or even all that distracting; it was like they’d always been there, simply waiting to be noticed. It was immediately obvious to Eri, though, that no one else could see them — if seven emaciated cows really were standing on the campus library lawn, or on the football field sidelines, or outside her dorm while she waited for Vivian to return from a date, she was sure she’d hear some whispers, at least, some confused conversations between bookshelves or on bleachers.

She worried at first that something was wrong with her mind. Should she tell Vivian, her parents? Should she seek professional help? But the cows never did more than come and go, watching her with gaunt eyes. Occasionally one would shift on its bony legs, maybe offer up a desolate groan. They were never difficult to ignore. So as long as they only stood and stared, as long as these hallucinations — what else could they be? — never became worse, Eri saw no reason to alarm the people who loved her best. And she certainly saw no reason to risk getting noticed in all the wrong ways. Soon the cows were an ordinary part of her background, as unremarkable as the grass or sky.

Weeks turned into months turned into years. Eri moved from freshman dorms to upperclassmen apartments, sinking deeper into schoolwork and her part-time math tutoring job. Vivian continued visiting, trying her hand at various pursuits along the way: culinary school, yoga instructor certification, jewelry making. Eri kept seeing the cows. And life would carry on this way indefinitely, she thought, with Vivian in front of her and the cows behind her and Eri caught somewhere inbetween, not quite invisible but not quite seen, either.

And then Vivian met Danny.

It started the usual way: one party or another that Vivian always knew about, her effortless flirting and dancing and pulling Eri into all of it. She winked at the handsome guy near the drinks, invited him to join her with a wave. He came as if drawn by a magnet — people always came to her — and they swayed and laughed and later kissed into the early morning hours. It was a typical weekend for Vivian, pretty and pleasured, and for Eri, watching with a dull ache while the cows stared inside through a window.

She didn’t bother remembering his name, assuming he’d disappear after a week or two like all of Vivian’s flings. But he stubbornly stuck around. One night turned into three turned into an entire month with no signs of stopping; Vivian stayed with Eri as often as her ever-changing schedule allowed, and he regularly drove the two-hour round trip between their cities. Vivian giggled more and glowed brighter and practically floated when she walked.

It was more than that, though. Eri realized it when the latest guy — she still wouldn’t learn his name — showed up unannounced at her door on a night Vivian was gone, pizza box in hand, and said, “Hey, can I come in?

Eri looked at him blankly. “Vivian’s not here.”

“I know.” He smiled sheepishly. “I just feel like we’re not really friends yet. You’re important to Viv, so you’re important to me, too.”

She was almost touched in the moment before she was insulted. “You don’t have to put on this show. Vivian’s already smitten with you.”

She began closing the door, but he caught it with one hand. “Wait, please? I’m sorry. What I meant was —” he flashed that sheepish smile again “— Viv talks all the time about how amazing you are. And I like getting to know amazing people.” When Eri looked at him skeptically but didn’t close the door, he pressed forward. “C’mon, at least eat some pizza? You can kick me out after if you still think I’m an ass.”

So Eri let him stay, and they ate pizza and talked — a bit reticently on her part, at first, but with increasing ease as his warmth and sincerity drew her out. And that was the night she became friends with Danny O’Sullivan. He’d been as good as his word ever since: keeping her company through long nights of studying whether Vivian was around or not, texting her encouragement before big tests, coming to her rescue when her car broke down halfway between campus and her parents’ house. A real friend, someone who made her feel cared about, wanted even. Not the way Vivian was wanted — Eri wasn’t sure she could give men what they were looking for, if they ever looked for it in her — but it soothed some of the rawness in her chest.

She worried briefly, early on, that Vivian might be jealous of the time Eri spent with Danny. But her face was beatific when Eri confessed. “He looks out for you when I’m gone?” she said, and her voice was high and her eyes shiny. “Eri, is he real? Does someone this kind actually exist?” Her breath hitched, and she turned away. “I wasn’t sure good guys were out there. And I never thought one would choose me.”

Eri only knew half of that feeling. Outside, the cows appeared in their customary line, bellies piteously shriveled and heads bowed low.

  Months became years again. Danny and Eri graduated and took jobs in the same town, and Vivian moved in with Danny. The three of them often shared meals, saw movies, went hiking or swimming or skiing. Sometimes Eri thought the cows were appearing more frequently: every time she felt the emptiness of the seat next to her, after every dead-end first date, during the course of every inconvenient, unreciprocated crush. 

She thought, too, that they might be growing more restless — stamping discontentedly anytime Vivian asked if she’d tried this or that way of meeting people, huffing with frustration whenever Vivian said, while wrapped in Danny’s arms, that an independent woman like Eri didn’t need a relationship, anyway. Of course I don’t ‘need,’ she nearly snapped each time. I want. And that’s so much worse.

For the most part, though, the cows were as they’d always been: starving, silent, still. And if thick, choking darkness welled up in her chest with each appearance, more dense and debilitating each time, if she was barely making it to her car before the tears came hot and fast, what of it? She was ignoring the cows. She was managing.

And that was the state of her life when Danny called Eri about spending the weekend with him and Vivian at his family’s cabin in the mountains. It was a trip they made frequently, often with several of the many friends Danny and Vivian had accumulated over their years together. But something was different this time; Eri heard it in the subtle, electric thrill speeding up Danny’s voice. “I was thinking we could hike the Bridal Veil Falls trail, have a picnic at the top, and then relax awhile before dinner. How does steak and a cabernet sound?”

Steak and red wine? “Delicious,” Eri said. “What’s the occasion?”

Danny laughed jubilantly, confirming her suspicions. “Just promise me you’ll take pictures, okay?”

“Of course,” Eri answered, then said her goodbyes.

She wasn’t surprised when she saw the cows’ suffering bodies through her window, a plea in their eyes like they thought she could undo their state of famine. Anger, irrational and sharp, flashed through her. You stupid cows, she thought. How do you expect me to fill your hunger when I can’t fill my own?


Eri, Vivian and Danny hike to Bridal Veil Falls under a brilliant sky. The air is fresh and crisp, invigorated with the scent of pine needles; the trail crunches with rocks and twigs, foliage brushing their knees. It’s a sublime morning, like nature itself is smiling on Danny and Vivian. Eri feels sick.

Danny and Vivian walk hand in hand while Eri follows close behind. She glimpses the cows through the trees every few yards but gives them little attention; she’d be more surprised, today of all days, if they weren’t hovering.

“Hey Eri,” Vivian calls over her shoulder, “did you ever give your number to that cute barista you told me about?”

Eri flushes but keeps her voice level. “I don’t think he’s interested.” She doesn’t particularly feel like telling the entire truth — how, pale and trembling, she’d written her number on a napkin and shoved it at the barista who made her coffee each morning, and how, with a pitying smile, he’d promptly handed it back to her and said, “Sorry, sweetheart, you’re not really my type.”

“He never texted you? Is he blind?” Vivian says, indignant on her behalf. “I’m sorry, Er. But you definitely deserve better than a guy who can’t see what’s in front of him.”

“Thanks,” Eri says, but she’s thinking how Vivian, with her swaying hips and easy confidence, would’ve gotten much more than a simple text. 

They reach Bridal Veil Falls by noon, named for the gauzy, delicate stream tumbling over a sheer cliffside. Vivian moves towards it, but Danny hangs back, giving Eri a significant look. When Vivian turns around, they’re both ready: Danny on one knee, ring box open, and Eri frantically snapping pictures on her phone, afraid of losing one priceless second.

However Danny imagined this proposal, Eri is certain that Vivian  — with her joyous gasp, widening eyes, and hands over her mouth — exceeds all his expectations. Danny’s voice is husky with emotion. “My center of gravity shifted the night I met you. Every day since then, I’ve thought I couldn’t get any happier, and every day, you’ve proved me wrong. You astonish me, Viv, with your passion, your empathy, and your strength. And I can’t fathom spending my life with anyone else. Vivian —” He momentarily chokes, eyes glistening. “Vivian Rachel Stewart, I love you with everything I am. Will you do me the tremendous honor of being my wife?”

Tears run freely down Vivian’s face, rivaling the falls behind her. “Yes,” she finally manages. “More than I can ever say, yes!”

And then Danny is slipping the ring on her finger, they’re both laughing and crying and kissing til they can’t breathe, and Eri is thrilled for them — life is so exquisite sometimes, it’s so extraordinary when people choose each other — but she knows what’s next for her. The pressure is building, the cracks are widening; the dam breaks, and there it is, the inevitable rush of darkness in her chest. Not for you. Never for you. She’d known her happiness for them, sincere as it is, could not be unadulterated. She’d known the riptide of her wanting would not care how important the day or how significant the event.

They celebrate over a picnic lunch, the mood as effervescent as the champagne Danny brought for the occasion. They’re about to start the trek back when Danny pulls Vivian close, staring at her with profound, infinite hunger — the kind of hunger that doesn’t gnaw a person to their bones at night, Eri thinks, the kind of hunger that gives and doesn’t take.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Vivian says with a laugh, stroking his cheek. “You made sure of that.”

“I know,” Danny says, “I just never want to forget what you looked like when you agreed to be mine forever.”

Vivian’s face softens with a depth of emotion beyond Eri’s experience; and then they’re kissing again, more fervently this time, but more reverently, too, like they both can’t quite believe that this unspeakably precious person exists and is theirs. 

The cows seem closer on the way down the trail, more present somehow. They’re not flickering in and out of sight, Eri realizes; rather, they’re plodding steadily along beside her, though they keep to the edges of the trees. The change doesn’t sit well with her, small as it is. But her friends’ newly-engaged bliss is as dazzling as Vivian’s diamond in the sunlight, and she so desperately wants to be part of that brightness, to let it sear away her shadows, and so what if the cows are a bit nearer? She will not let them ruin this happiness for Vivian and Danny, she decides, even if they must ruin it for herself.

They reach the cabin and there are phone calls to be made, social media statuses to be updated. Eri sends the pictures to Vivian and Danny, then listens from the couch as the two ecstatically share the news with everyone in their wide, wide circle. The cows return to where they stood that morning — no, Eri sees, they’re a few yards closer. It unsettles her more than she likes, even more so as the afternoon passes and they’re still there, hour after hour. The knot in her stomach tightens. They’ve never stayed so long, even on the weekends when Vivian had more requests for dates than time to go on them, even through the months in which she told Eri all the technicolor details of falling in love with Danny.

She tries to ignore them, but it’s like the cows’ proximity is making her chest collapse, amplifying the darkness and its insidious croon in her ears. You will never be proposed to. You will never wear someone’s ring, you will never thrill someone with the word “yes.” You will never call everyone you know to tell them that it’s finally happening for you. These aren’t new thoughts, certainly not new feelings; but damn if they’re not more potent than ever before, digging their claws into the soft flesh of her lungs, chewing through her heart valves with ghastly, grinning teeth.

She forces herself to focus on Vivian, who’s dreamily listing off ideas for the wedding. “We’re thinking late spring or early summer of next year. We want an outdoor ceremony — around here, maybe, or in a garden. I haven’t quite settled on the colors, but I’m leaning towards pastel pink and pale gold. And roses to match, on every table and in my bouquet…” She sighs with a smile on her lips, eyes half closed; then they fly open with a delighted gasp. “Will you be my maid of honor?” She grabs Eri’s hand. “You’re the only sister I’ve ever had. Please? It would mean the world to me.”

“Of course I will,” Eri says, a bubble of warmth momentarily disrupting the darkness. How can she deny Vivian anything when her face is so earnest?

“Thank you, Eri!” Vivian pulls her into a hug. “And when it’s your turn, I hope you’ll let me return the favor.”

The bubble immediately bursts. The darkness screeches angrily, gouging bloody trenches through her chest. She mocks you, she pities you, she knows you will never be chosen and she resents the burden of your ugliness, your uselessness, your not wanted-ness —

Eri abruptly pulls back, startling Vivian. “Er? Are you alright?”

“Just a little tired,” Eri says with a weak smile. “I think I’ll go lie down for a bit before dinner.”

Vivian relaxes. “I might do that, too. I’ll get you when Danny starts the steaks, okay?”

“Okay,” Eri agrees, then retreats to her room. She pulls down the blinds, shutting out the cows’ soulless, haunted stares. She flips off the lights, lets the air still around her. Then she sinks to the floor, head pressed to her knees, fingers wound through her hair, and shudders with the effort of pulling herself back from an edge that feels dangerously like madness.


The cabernet is delectable, the steaks grilled to tender perfection. Danny lays a white tablecloth and lights candles and puts a red rose in a vase between his and Vivian’s plates. There’s a third plate, too, on Vivian’s right, and Eri feels like a rather unattractive wall fixture as she dutifully fills the space they’ve made for her.

To Danny and Vivian’s credit, though, they include her in the conversation, insisting she be present. Eri tries to welcome the distraction, but the corners of her mouth feel weighted with lead.

Fortunately, they’re too wrapped up in discussing their wedding party to notice if her smile is less than sincere. “Your brothers and their wives, of course,” Vivian says, and Danny agrees emphatically. “And Amy and Jared, they’ve been good friends to us. Perhaps Lauren and Jaycee, too?”

“Garret, Tyler, and Kyle,” Danny says, naming his childhood best friends. “You met them and their girlfriends on our Malibu trip last summer, remember?”

“Yeah, they were a lot of fun,” Vivian says. “And you met Matt and Scott when they came through town a few months ago, right? They just tied the knot themselves, maybe they’d have photographer recommendations…”

On and on they go, swapping names and relationships like they’re as abundant as air, like lovers are picked as easily as flowers. Smoke is filling Eri’s lungs, shortening her breath and blurring her vision and the darkness is louder, louder, louder every moment. They will never say, “Eri and someone.” You will always be their only single friend, they will always have to fit in your one around their twos. You will only ever fill in their backgrounds, you will always be a side character in their story —

As if reading her thoughts, Vivian pipes up with, “Don’t worry, Er. You can bring whoever you like as a plus-one.” She smiles playfully. “Who knows? There’s plenty of time between now and the wedding for you to meet someone special.”

The darkness roars. Eri stands abruptly, running for the bathroom. She’s going to be sick.

She barely hears Vivian’s concerned “Eri?” or the bathroom door slamming shut behind her. There’s only the toilet’s gaping mouth and the harsh overhead lights, the violent hacking that shreds her throat as she vomits again and again — more than she’d eaten for dinner, more than should fit in her body, she’s sure. And there’s the darkness thundering relentlessly through her, taunting her with flashes of Vivian’s sparkling eyes and teasing lips. You insult her with your presence, you degrade her with your plainness. She was born to be chosen, and how dare you exist next to her? Not for you, never for you, never and never and always alone…

When the wet, shuddering retches finally stop, Eri kneels over the toilet, gasping and trembling and leaking tears from the corners of her eyes. A gentle knock sounds against the door, followed by Vivian’s voice. “Eri? Are you alright? Oh hon, I’m so sorry. I should have realized earlier that you weren’t feeling well.”

Eri isn’t listening, though. She’s staring at the toilet bowl’s contents with a sort of detached bemusement, because whatever she threw up doesn’t remotely resemble Danny’s cooking. It’s viscous and disturbingly black, floating on top of the water like oil. She wonders if anything she ate is the culprit, but immediately dismisses that idea. She wonders if she’s caught some kind of rare disease, but dismisses that idea, too. Perhaps she already knows; perhaps that’s why she’s not surprised when she looks in the mirror.

The darkness coats her lips and chin, dripping onto her neck. The tears have left gray tracks over her cheeks; her hair’s taken on a grubby cast. Her skin is sickly white, her veins starkly blue and violet. And her eyes — sunken, bruised, and damningly black — shine hunger-bright and pain-mad, just like the cows’.

Eri falls backwards with a hysterical giggle. Just like the cows, she looks just like the cows now. She glimpses her teeth in the mirror and bares them for a closer look — each one filed to blade-sharp points, each one slick with the tarry substance. Her laughter doubles. Her darkness is visible, it’s bursting out of her, and isn’t it grand to finally be worth noticing? What will Vivian and Danny say when they’re not the most striking people in the room?

Vivian’s knocks become more insistent. “Eri, please, talk to me. Are you alright? Do you need anything?”

Eri stumbles to her feet, not bothering to flush the toilet or wash her mouth. Let Vivian and Danny see all her monstrous glory, let her be undeniable, just this once. She opens the door with a sense of impending triumph — and is entirely unprepared for Vivian to not so much as flinch. “Hey, I was getting worried about you. Are you feeling any better? Do you think it was something you ate?”

Eri stares at her numbly, her tongue supplying an automatic response. “No, it wasn’t anything I ate.” Vivian still doesn’t see her. Not the aching, not the cows, not the darkness literally ejecting itself from her body — she’s still just Eri, still just a supporting cast member in Vivian’s life, and why is she never more than that? Why does Vivian get to eat and drink freely while she starves?

The darkness rises with ugly vengeance; but instead of expelling itself through her mouth, it drops to her stomach and bottoms out. Eri is no stranger to wanting. She’s felt every shade of longing known to lonely girls; she has always been more intimate with desire itself than with any person. But this — this. This is a freefall through Tartarus; this is violence on her belly, in her blood. This is a hunger so wild it will eat all the guests if it’s barred from the feast, and Eri is no longer pulling back from the edge. She’s throwing herself over it.

“I asked Danny to put the kettle on,” Vivian is saying. “I thought some ginger tea might settle —”

“I don’t need tea,” Eri snaps, staggering past her. “I’m hungry.”

“Hungry?” Vivian says, following her. “Er, you just threw up your guts. Are you sure food is a good idea right now?”

“I’m hungry,” Eri insists. She lurches into the kitchen and Danny turns from his place at the stove, smiling sympathetically. “Hey, how are you feeling? Viv said you —”

“Get out of my way.” Eri shoves past his stupid, sloppy smile and reaches for the well-stocked snack cabinet. Granola bars, trail mix, jerky — she tastes nothing, just tears off wrappers and rips open packages as fast as her shaking hands can manage. The granola bars go down in two bites or less, the trail mix is gulped like water, the jerky is swallowed in unchewed chunks. Hunger. Hunger. Hunger. She trembles with its ferocity, nearly doubling over as it stabs her again and again. How can any living thing, human or beast, feel this and still exist? How can her heart keep beating, how can her lungs simply push and pull air?

She’s vaguely aware of Danny and Vivian standing behind her in shocked silence, a little more than friendly concern in their expressions now. Outside, the cows stamp and toss their heads, lowing one after another with increasing agitation. They cast long, skeletal shadows in the fading light, and Eri wonders if her body will eat itself, too, if her bones will eventually join the cows’ mad chorus.

She sweeps the snacks aside in disgust — they’re only worsening the hunger, offending it with their pathetic attempts to satisfy. She needs something… meatier. Rawer.

Eri stumbles to the refrigerator, scattering plastic and half-eaten refuse as she moves. It seems to snap Danny out of his reverie, since he steps closer and places a hand on her arm. “Eri, please. You’re not well. You —”

“Don’t touch me,” Eri snarls, yanking her arm away, and she doesn’t miss how her voice doesn’t sound fully human, how Danny and Vivian flinch backwards with wide eyes. Can they see her darkness now?

But it doesn’t matter anymore if they can or if they can’t. She flings the fridge door open, pawing desperately through its contents for something, anything, to staunch the cataclysmic hemorrhaging in her gut. There — an uncooked steak, bright and red as a blood moon. She grabs it with both hands and tears into it with feral vehemence.

“E-Eri,” Vivian stutters, sounding well and truly frightened now, “what’s wrong with you? Please, tell us how to help.”

Eri slams the fridge shut. She’s devoured everything worth offering up to the hunger and still it rages through her innards, savage in its wanting. Her eyes dart desperately from cabinet to cabinet, fingers winding through her hair. There’s more food here, there has to be, the hunger is barbaric and brutal and screaming and screaming —

“Eri.” Danny cuts steadily through her panicked thoughts. “Take some deep breaths. Everything will be all right.” He holds his hands out like he’s approaching a rabid animal. “We’re your friends, remember? We want to help you.”

A harsh, choking sound fills the kitchen, and Eri realizes it’s her broken-glass laughter. “Of course you’re my friends. All I’ve ever had is friends.” And then she’s yanking cupboards open and ripping out drawers, shattering their contents against the tile floor, hurling silverware and measuring cups and that idiotic kettle put on to boil as if some damn tea could fill a void deep as her lifetime. She thinks a window breaks; she thinks the cows’ bellows grow louder; she thinks she’s on her hands and knees, swallowing anything that will fit into her mouth. Plastic packaging, scraps of paper, ceramic shards — let her bruise, let her bleed, just let the hunger be filled, just let the screaming stop —

Thick arms wrap around her from behind. Danny hauls her to her feet, shouting, “Viv, call 911! She’s hurting herself!”

Eri thrashes in his grip as Vivian shakily dials. “P-please help, it’s my friend. She’s having some kind of m-mental breakdown, we need an ambulance…”

“Eri, please, please,” Danny breathes in her ear, over and over. “It’s me, it’s Danny, I’m your friend —”

With startling, sudden strength, Eri twists hard and throws Danny off. He trips backwards and catches himself against the table, and Vivian whimpers into the phone, “Please hurry.”

Danny straightens slowly, storm clouds gathering on his face. “Eri, that is enough.” All gentleness is gone, replaced by what Eri immediately recognizes as fierce protectiveness of Vivian. She’s aware, too, of the furious thunder of Danny’s heartbeat; the fleshy balloons of his lungs, their rapid in-out, in-out like fists tightening and relaxing; the rich, salty meat of his muscles and the organs quivering hotly beneath them. There’s blood in her mouth, she realizes, and the hunger likes it. The hunger demands it.

Quicker than thought, quicker than breath, Eri lunges at Danny. The darkness surges, giving her claws, and she sinks them into the soft tissues of his belly.

Vivian screams. Danny gasps, a terrible, retching sound. His eyes are bright with betrayal, and Eri almost feels triumph — finally, she’ll be the last person someone thinks of before they fall asleep — but in the same moment, he defies her by turning to Vivian as he collapses. “Vivian,” he murmurs, reaching for her, “my Vivian.” 

And then he’s gone, and Vivian is shrieking hysterically, her phone on the floor and the operator’s words hanging uselessly in the air, and Eri is trembling because even in her supremacy, it’s still her dearest friend he notices, it’s still her he chooses. When Vivian runs at her with unhinged fists and wild eyes, Eri sends her flying without a twinge of remorse, merely watching as she hits the opposite wall and slumps into unconsciousness. 

But the hunger doesn’t let her dwell on any anger. The feast is laid out, she’s a guest at the table, and she tears open Danny’s stomach — no need for Vivian’s fearlessness now — to begin. The intestines are slick and syrupy, the kidneys sweet and sour, the liver a fatty treat; she gorges on his innards with relish, and though the hunger is by no means silenced, it’s quieted to a manageable purr. The relief is euphoric, and Eri wonders what else the hunger might reward her with. Does the secret of what men look for in women lie somewhere between Danny’s spleen and pancreas? Is it in how his gallbladder bursts with sour bile on her tongue? Will she learn, in the crack of his bones and the taste of his marrow, how to be desirable?

Eventually, Eri plucks out his heart  — the obvious place to get answers, but perhaps not the incorrect one — and sinks her teeth into it like a ripe plum, the juices flowing past her mouth and down her neck. But though his lifeblood is a fine wine in her throat, though pleasure shivers through her skin, no new knowledge strikes her mind, no lightning obliterates her solitary existence.

She keeps digging, then, through lungs and ligaments and arteries, through veins and nerves and glands. Will she find what she’s looking for in the vocal cords that spoke such sweet love to Vivian? In the eyes that never left her, the ears fine-tuned to her every inflection? In the brain saturated with her face, her scent, her touch?

At last Eri lifts her gore-streaked mouth. It’s not enough. She’s chewed the best of Danny’s flesh, left only gristle and bone, and still the hunger demands more, becoming louder every second she doesn’t feed it. Outside, the cows are writhing and wailing — otherworldly sounds, the kind no animal has any right to make — and Eri raises her voice with theirs, an inhuman howl she shouldn’t be capable of producing. It’s happening, she’s joined the mad chorus, and is this the sum total of living? Mania and suffering and hunger, always, always the hunger?

A soft moan draws her attention — Vivian is stirring. She blinks blearily, wincing as she tests her limbs and slowly stands. Eri doesn’t move, slathered in blood and viscera. She sees the moment Vivian registers the wreckage, the carnage, Danny’s carcass and Eri beside it. She watches as Vivian gasps, doubles over, spills tears in a dark parody of her earlier joy. She studies how Vivian’s lips open first for a scream that doesn’t come, then for violent, earth-shattering sobs — sobs like the sun has gone out, like the stars have been cut from the sky. And that’s when Eri swells with triumph, because Vivian finally, finally feels hunger.

Vivian sinks to her knees, her cries rising to a fever pitch. “Why, why, why?” The words slur into a high-pitched keening. “Why would you do this, why?”

Eri watches her for a long, resentful moment. “Because there are people like you who are wanted,” she says. “By men, by women, by everyone. And there are people like me —” she laughs harshly “— who do the wanting.”

Vivian is hyperventilating now, eyes darting from Eri to the door to the jagged edges and kitchen utensils strewn around her. Whatever she’s about to attempt, the hunger will get there first — it’s boiling in Eri’s belly, choking her chest and mouth, and she should be angry that nothing sates it, but the terrible truth is that she enjoyed butchering Danny and she’ll enjoy this, too. The darkness swells, her fingers are claws, and then they’re sheathed in Vivian’s chest.

She hears Vivian’s last gasps, smells her sweat and blood and the perfume that was a gift from Danny; she sees the shock and betrayal on Vivian’s face — and the sudden surge of love, right before she fades. “Eri,” she whispers, “my Eri…” And then she, too, is gone, and Eri is left with the bittersweet taste of receiving her wish.

The hunger hums as she consumes Vivian’s body, content as long as it’s gnawing through muscle and fat and bone; but Eri knows now that Vivian’s death will mean no more than Danny’s. When she reaches Vivian’s heart, she bites eagerly into its ripe flesh, but there are no secrets here, either, no siphoning of Vivian’s charm and beauty. Just the carrion stench of death, and whatever monstrosity she’s become.

Only when it’s over, all too soon, does Eri hear how the cows’ unearthly bellows have become agonized screams. She crawls from Vivian’s husk to the window and drags herself up, just enough to see through the broken glass — to see massive, bleeding chunks missing from the cows’ shoulders and haunches. They’re tearing into each other, she realizes, thrashing and mauling, but she’s unsure if their frenzy is driven more by the pain of being devoured or by the desperation to devour anything, no matter how unnatural. 

She looks at herself, then, at her scrawny limbs and sunken stomach. There’s meat and marrow here, too, she thinks, and viscera for the taking. 

She could wait; police cars and an ambulance are undoubtedly making their way up the canyon right now, carrying fresh food. But the hunger doesn’t want to wait. And maybe she doesn’t, either.

So Eri slumps backwards, into the slaughter, into the hunger, and lifts an arm to her mouth. She feels nothing, just blood bursting on her tongue and a pleasant chewiness between her teeth. And when that’s swallowed, she tears off more. 

“I’m so hungry,” she murmurs around skin and bone. “I’m so, so hungry…”

Marie Brown is the pseudonym for a writer in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her former and forthcoming publication credits include Hole In The Head Review, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Agape Review, The Ocotillo Review, Fleas on the Dog, Thimble Literary Magazine and KAIROS Literary Journal.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Second-hand Skin” Dark Fantasy by Susan Oke

VM: Spring Bank 

16 May 2025 (04:51)

They say it was solar flares that did it. That changed us. But since when did the sun or radiation or whatever turn your clothes into your skin? Maybe it really was God teaching us a lesson, or the Devil having a bit of fun.

And no, we didn’t wake up like this. It wasn’t a midnight, cosmic ray revelation. It was bright and sunny, blue sky, birds singing––perfect for a lazy day off work. There I was mooching about in my onesie, trying to decide if I could be bothered to make toast, when it happened. 11:06. There’s one of those digital clocks on the cooker. I remember staring at it as my skin itched into fur. Black lines cut across my chest, black bobbly bits sprouting up like scattered currants. Don’t know what the ‘bandolier’ is for, but it tickles when I touch it.

You guessed it yet? That’s right, I’m one of the Onesie Losers. A knock-off Wookiee to be precise. My flatmate, Sophie, is a pink unicorn, complete with a surprisingly sharp horn, and her boyfriend is a big bad wolf. I’m just glad my onesie didn’t have a hood or a tail. Still got my own spiky chestnut hair and nail-bitten hands, but my feet are thick-furred, thick-soled and clawed. Saves on footwear, right? Might have to skip my next pedicure—joke! Do you know how many different onesies there are? I didn’t. Forget all the cuddly predators, we’ve got everything from Elmer Fudd to the Dark Lord wandering the streets. 

Onesie Losers for sure.

So, this is me, pacing the bare floorboards of my flat, checking out the street below every time I pass my curtain-less windows—let’s face it, fibres, synthetic or otherwise, aren’t exactly popular these days—recording my thoughts on this crappy phone. It’s supposed to help keep me sane, or so says the latest government guidelines. Worth a try. 

Ah, there they go. Our local clutter of bug-eyed midget spidermen, chasing each other across the bonnets of abandoned cars on their way to the park. At least kids still know how to have fun.

The Dog-Collars claim—no, not the ones who got caught in spiky collars and leather shorts, the other type, you know, all clerical and that––they claim we got what we deserved. They’re busy calling for everyone to repent, filling their churches with people on their knees wailing for forgiveness. I gave it a try—yeah, I was that desperate—sat on the back row, watching them Dog-Collars swishing around the pews like a murder of crows. Read that in a book somewhere or was it a Sting lyric? But crows is about right, carrion crows. People fool enough go into those churches don’t always come out again. Me, I’d rather trust them in the spiky collars, at least that’s a kind of truth, laid bare for all to see. 

We’ve all got our crosses to bear. That’s one of Ma’s favourite sayings, or at least it used to be. In those first weeks, everyone was wild-eyed crazy. Looking for something or someone to blame. Turns out there were monstrosities even us monsters couldn’t abide. The Slug-a-Beds and Couch-Potatoes didn’t last long, ripped to shreds or starved out. Still makes me shiver. If it’d happened on a Saturday morning instead of a weekday, that would’ve been me melded to my duvet or whatever. Freakshow free-for-all, that’s what they called it on social media. Afterwards, the Suits declared the slaughter ‘a necessary culling’.

Gives us a lie to hide behind, I guess.

Those of us still left look near enough human: head, arms, legs all in the right places. Some of us are lucky enough to have our own clans, but most are odd-ball unique. I mean, all I’ve got to contend with is fur and my freaky ‘bandolier’. Most of you out there, with your skirts and scarves; trousers and boots; jackets, hoodies and hats. All part of your body. All performing some kind of function. All freaking different.

It’s kind of gross when you think about it.

The Suits did some things right. Got the power on and the networks back up. Social media rallied, reformed, let us hook up with our own kind. As of now, there are 2,305 Wook-alikes scattered across England, Scotland and Wales. We don’t hear much from across the water. Just snippets about riots in Europe. Word is Northern Ireland got swallowed up by their southern neighbour in the ‘Change’. That’s what the Suits call it. Not panic/carnage/end-of-the-world chaos that trashed streets/cities/lives. Yeah, the Suits haven’t changed much. All those idiots in suit-and-tie at 11:06 on a Wednesday morning, making their announcements twice a day on the single working tv channel. It’s OK until you spot their ties twitching, like cocks trying to poke you in the eye while they ejaculate rhetoric on the New Order.

Speaking of which, time to check ReBuild. The new government app glitches half the time, but it’s the only way to get paid work. It’s full of adverts for volunteers to help in the search for a cure. No way I’m signing up to be prodded and poked by their ‘teams of dedicated researchers’. Don’t care how much they pay.

VM: Walton Street

18 May 2025 (03:29)

On my way to work. The usual building site grunt job—the fur came with muscles. Not many office-type jobs available these days, and even if there was, no way a Wook-alike would get a sniff. The Suits and Skirts have got the cushy jobs nailed.

Surprised at the number of people out and about this early. Glad I’m not the only one muttering into their phone. We’re all hanging on by the skin of our teeth/nails/claws. 

The local market looks busy. You know the one, down Walton Street, used to be a huge carpark? They call it a market, but really it’s just a sprawling patchwork of wooden pallets piled with junk. You never know what you’ll find amongst the looted belongings of the poor sods who never made it. Not clothes, though. Never clothes. When the Change hit, some tried covering up with coats and scarves and the like, ended up with a whole new layer of weird to their bodies. I see them sometimes, shuffling around. I was lucky—bolted straight out the door, never thought to grab my coat or anything else.

I miss my combat boots, my jeans, t-shirts, all of it. But clothes are an ‘anathema’ or so says every social media feed. Street bonfires devoured every last scrap. That was all right, had an almost party feel to it, helped bring what was left of the community back together. But then all that outrage turned outwards: clothes shops, shoe shops, charity shops, they were the first to go, burned to the ground by jeering crowds, egged on by clergy-types shouting about sin and the devil. You know how it went down. One thing led to another, until, when everyone stopped to take a breath and look around, nothing much was left.

There’s a real mix scavenging around the market today. The Aprons are all right. Just got to be careful, they’ve got a real stinger in those apron-strings of theirs. The PJ Brigade are a pain-the-backside, swanning around in silks and satin, with their brushed-cotton hangers-on. A group of Party Girls had just sashayed in—not as rare as you’d think at 11:06 on a Wednesday morning—it’s worth stopping for a look. All that skin, real skin, the skin we remember, on show. Don’t get me wrong, they can look after themselves. It’s something to do with the way they smell. When you’re up close, breathing in that warm, soft scent, they’re the ones calling the shots.

That’s not true for the Skins. Naked as the day they were born. Yeah, we still say that. Rare, they are. Kept safe. Kept secure. Fed, watered, admired. Put on show. People––I guess you can still call us people––pay to have a look, maybe touch, if you can afford it, just to remember what all-over skin is supposed to feel like, you know? 

I paid up, once. Made me cry.

Better get a move on. The foreman goes ballistic if any of us ‘fur balls’ are late. At least I’ve got my Wook-alike clan—online and now in my flat. Didn’t take long for Sophie to move out; not to share her gruff wolf’s lair, no way, but to find her ‘soul-mates’, aka other pink, fluffy unicorns with killer horns. Go figure. A couple of Wook-alikes, Havel and his partner Kofi, moved into her room. Real nerds, the both of them. Into all that Star Wars stuff. Spend half their time complaining about their fur: it’s not long enough, not shaggy enough, blah, blah, blah. It was a onesie, idiots. Be happy with your soft, curly fuzz. I got my onesie from a charity shop, bought it because it was cheap and promised to be warm. 

Just realised, does that mean I’ve got second-hand skin? Keeping that to myself.

VM: Spring Bank 2

25 May 2025 (01:38)

It’s been a week. Supposed to record something every day, that’s what they said, ‘process your emotions’, or some such rubbish. Well, I’ve got emotions a plenty to process right now.

I’m still sweating, heart thumping, on a proper high. Pacing my room, trying to settle. Havel and Kofi aren’t helping. I can hear them shouting at each other in the living room… something about a ‘Sky Walker’ and ‘trouble’. Well, I had trouble of my own. I was down the market, just rifling through a box of reclaimed phones, wondering if I could afford to upgrade, when I heard shouting from the market gate. A handful of the Lost were trying force their way past the two Wook-alike guards.

The Lost are too weird even for the Goths and the Punks: all writhing chains and those stupid 3-D t-shirts: fanged mouths drooling where your chest is supposed to be is never a good look. If I had my way, I’d call them the Eaters, but another group snapped up that title, obvs. 

The Lost charged the gate. I stepped in to help my Wook-alike brothers, or possibly sisters; it’s hard to tell. Chains lashed out, trying to pin my arms. I dragged the grinning youth straight into a jaw-crunching punch. The guards slapped down a couple more. Shoulder-to-shoulder, we snarled at the Lost. A full-chested, throat-ripping, roaring kind of snarl. It felt great. The Lost backed off, shouting and swearing.

 I never used to snarl, the urge crept up on me, just like the muscles.

No army patrol near the market. A stroke of luck, that. All those soldiers stuck in their green-and-browns, marching around, shouting orders, like they’re in charge. Well, OK, they are in charge, or at least they do whatever the Suits tell them. They stopped the looting, I guess. If requisitioning everything that’s not bolted down counts as ‘keeping the nation safe’.

VM: Spring Bank 3

1 June 2025 (05:34)

Now that I think of it, Star Wars has a lot to answer for. We’ve got a bunch of Jedi-types swaggering about, calling out the Vaders and generally making trouble. They’ve got their own territory around Bank Side. Havel and Kofi go there sometimes, they say it’s great, that they really fit in. Me, I’m not too sure. Don’t like the half-wild, half-desperate look in their eyes when they stagger back in the early hours. The Vaders are different, keep themselves to themselves. I guess they know how it’s going to go down if they tangle with the Jedi-types. I’m keeping clear of the lot of them. That’s not for me, whatever ‘that’ is. 

For once I’m following my ma’s advice: best keep off the streets at night.

Speaking of my ma—was I in for a surprise. Back when it first happened, when the panic took hold and I poured boiling water from the kettle over my hand just to prove to myself I was dreaming. I wasn’t. When I’d stopped screaming and ripping away clumps of fur, all I wanted was to run back home. I tore out of the house, racing through grid-locked streets, past smashed up piles of smoking wreckage. You remember that, right? It’s all a bit of a blur now—still gets to me sometimes, mostly at night, or if I doze off, or anytime I close my eyes for more than five seconds: that beetles-under-the-skin sensation, heart hammering fit to burst, hot-needles in the back of your eyes. You looked in the mirror expecting to see blood running down your cheeks and found a monster staring back at you. 

Soz, we’ve all been there. 

Right, my ma. Well, I gets there, battering at her door like I’ll cave it in, and she opens it with a ‘what’s all the fuss about?’. At first she looks no different: flowery skirt, old cardigan that she knitted herself, hairnet to keep her perm in place. I step inside, sobbing. She steps back, gives my onesie a critical once-over. Her skirt ripples around her knees and keeps right on rippling; the cable-stitch in her cardi pulses, like fat veins full of blood; when she frowns, her hairnet flexes. But it’s her glasses that really freak me out, frames twisting as the lenses contract and expand, magnifying the contempt that I’d tried all my life not to see. And then she says it: ‘I’ll not have your kind under my roof.’

I was eighteen when she threw me out, with the ‘no daughter of mine…’ speech shouted in my face. Came home to find all my clothes in black bin liners by the front door. Couch-surfed for a while; finally got a flat-share, a crappy office job, a bit of space of my own, you know, where I can think. And then, Wham! I’m a Wook-alike. I still squat to pee. No tits though, not that I had much to start with. Like I said, the fur came with muscle, everything else just kind of flattened out. I don’t miss them, if that’s what you think. It’s just… it’d be nice to know for sure, you know? 

I’ve never felt like a girl. Never felt like a boy, either. 

I was a freak before the Change hit.

It’s gone quiet in the living room. Either the boys have gone out, or they’re in their room, busy making up. Safe enough to take up my post at the living room window…

…Yes, there she is. I love to watch as this woman—the big, chunky type, her new ‘skin’ all green and gold, sun-on-leaves, that’s what it reminds me of––I love to watch as she goes through her daily routine. When the Change hit, she must’ve been wearing a square-necked and short-sleeved top with a skirt that went straight down to her ankles. She glides along the pavement, feet criss-crossed with gold, toes peeping out. I envy her all that lovely black skin on her arms. Every day she moves up and down the street, on the sunny side, stopping here and there, before settling into place. I think maybe she’s looking for someone. Closing her eyes, she smiles up at the sun, her head-tie unfolding like a sleepy cat, spreading out into a green-and-gold halo. It shivers and shimmers and the woman smiles even wider, and I smile back even though she can’t see me. Joy just seems to burst out of her. 

A Sun Sipper, according to Havel. Seen it on the news, he said. She was so happy, I said. Just wait until winter hits, he said. And then Kofi started going on about all the freaks that dodged the culling, that it was about time someone did something about it. I don’t get it. I mean, has he looked in the mirror lately? 

We’re not supposed to say ‘monster’ or ‘freak’ or ‘weirdo’ anymore. The Suits say we’re all the same underneath, that everyone should receive equal and fair treatment, and more importantly, that everyone should work equally hard. They’re always banging on about it:

<We must pull together to save our country. To save the world! Anti-social behaviour will be stamped out.> Cue gif of military boot. 

And pics like: Suit kisses cute tiger cub; Suits-with-fixed-grins linking arms with members of the Lost; and my favourite, Suits surrounded by a pack of growling Old Biddies as they hand out food parcels. 

We’re all the same underneath. I guess that’s true. Still as bigoted and mean as ever. OK, not totally fair. But not far off, either. I’m still waiting for that ‘silver lining’ Ma used to harp on about every time I used to gripe. Maybe she finally got hers. I mean, she’s not exactly house-bound anymore. Those Old Biddies really get about, lurking in groups of two or three on street corners, cackling at passers-by.

VM: Spring Bank 4

10 June 2025 (00:59)

Whispers of a so-called ‘cure’ are doing the rounds. Not the crazy claims that circulated in the first few weeks and months, but stories about underground labs and cutting-edge science. Their strapline is popping up all over the place: ‘Shed your skin. Find the real you.’ 

Not sure which of those two options is the most terrifying.

Posts on ReBuild insist there’s no cure. Or if there is, it’s years off. Accept your lot. Work hard. Pull together. Might’ve believed it if the Suits didn’t keep contradicting each other. Don’t see them pulling together or working up a sweat on a filthy building-site. 

I put my shifts in and keep my mouth shut. The actual construction workers, with their hi-vis skin, like to shout and lord it over us ‘fur balls’. But they don’t push it too far, not since one of them had his yellow bobble-head popped off by, as a newscaster put it, ‘a deeply offended Wook-alike’. The Jedi-types stumped up bail and the Wook-alike walked.

 The Army stomped around a bit, but eventually gave up. After all, us ‘fur balls’ all look alike.

VM: Spring Bank 5

17 June 2025 (01:08)

It’s all over the news! A Cure! An actual Cure! Not for us, but for the next generation. The news presenter is grinning ear-to-ear… have a listen: 

‘All type-1 females of child-bearing age will be pinged with an appointment to attend a pop-up clinic in their area. The vaccine, which will need to be administered every six-months, will ensure that all babies are be born as God intended.’

Hey, shift over. Can’t believe how much space you two take up. Come on, Havel, scrunch up a bit. 

‘Look at the newscaster’s tie, it’s going to get stuck up his nose any second!’

Shh, the pair of you, I want to catch this last bit:

‘Time to save the world, ladies. Go forth and multiply!’

Get those stupid grins off your faces. Yes, you Havel. And you Kofi. I swear, if you two could have kids, there’d been little bundles of fur toddling all over the flat. No, I don’t want a hug. I’m going to my room… I said, no!

[Slam!] Idiots. 

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not their fault. Wook-alikes count as type-1. I should be happy, right? According to the scientists there’s enough of us with ‘matching genitalia’ to make inter-breeding doable. When the Change hit, it was bad. I know that. Women miscarried; babies died. Like I said, end-of-the-world stuff. But we’re still here. I’m still here. And there’s no way they’re turning me into some sort of baby factory. 

VM: Spring Bank 6

30 June 2025 (00:16)

I’ve been ignoring the pings. And the stack of reminders. I’m tempted to delete the ReBuild app, but then how will I get work? Can’t avoid the news, though. There are posters plastered everywhere: on rusted fences, the sides of buildings, on crumbling bus shelters. 

I don’t know what to do.

VM: Spring Bank 7

5 July 2025 (00:21)

The boys were cuddled up watching re-runs when the programme cut-off for an emergency announcement: As of midnight, Sunday, only females fully committed to the ‘Babies for the World’ scheme would have access to ReBuild support circles, job boards and the sketchy but still crucial health clinics. 

I stomped around the flat, punched a new dent into our crappy chrome table. It didn’t help.

VM: Princes Avenue

19 July 2025 (00:31)

Last night, Havel came home alone. Seems Kofi decided to stay with the Jedi-types. Havel sniffled and then cried in my lap. Kofi was the love of his life, Kofi was a two-timing traitor, Kofi was this and Kofi was that. I’d started to tune it all out when Havel swiped his tongue along my ‘bandolier’. Nipples I didn’t know I had hardened in unexpected places.

So, that’s what it’s for. Should’ve guessed.

I shoved him off, slapped him down. Havel shuffled off to sob in his room.

Right now, I’m stalking the streets. At night. Yeah, so what? Anyone messes with me, they’ll regret it.

VM: Humber Street

22 July 2025 (01:23)

It wasn’t easy finding this place. There’d been hints on some of the more controversial threads about a clinic that offered more ‘bespoke’ work. I called in a few favours. They led me here. Now I’m pacing around a shabby excuse of a waiting room, trying to convince myself that this is the right thing to do. Pacing. I do that a lot. Does it help? No idea.

Sold my stuff, handed over every penny, my savings, the lot. All I’ve got left is my fur and my phone. And pretty soon I won’t even have the fur. Guess I’m committed. Can’t imagine them being big on refunds.

Here we go. A lab-coat type just pushed through the swing-doors. He almost pulls off ‘the scientist’ look, but then his tie jerks, and I see his ‘lab-coat’ for what it is: coarse rumpled skin dotted with gaping, pocket mouths.

He’s headed straight for me. I’m going to leave the voice recorder running. You never know. 

‘Caroline, is it?’


‘I’ve got you down for a standard re-fit. A popular choice.’

‘Yeah, choice, that’s what it’s all about.’

‘There’s no need to look so worried. SK453 is our latest synth-skin design. Durable. Waterproof. And, most important of all, Change proof.’

VM: Humber Street 2

25 July 2025 (02:23)

That lying, two-faced, vicious …I can’t believe what he did! According to the nurse, that sadistic whoreson should’ve sedated me from the get-go. If he shows his face in the recoup-ward, I’ll teach him what pain really means!

Wait, got to get my breath back. I’m not supposed to get too excited. Don’t want them to take my phone away.

This is how it went down. I followed that lab-coat along the corridor, claws digging into the lino like they didn’t want to let go. I’m not stupid, I knew there was a risk. I mean, no-way they’ve had time to properly test this stuff. 

Should’ve just punched him in the head and made a run for it.

The next door was white and metal and made a hissing sound when it opened. Inside was all white too. Just one white-on-white chair in the middle. Sit, he said. What choice did I have? He rattled around behind me; said, you’re lucky, you get to keep those muscles. He didn’t even ask if I was ready. Just shoved this gun-shaped thing against my arm and psshht, it was done. Hydraulic pressure, he said, no messing about with needles. The chair tilted back, sides sliding into place. 

It was like lying in a coffin.

I sneezed and then stared at the blood on my hands. My fur came off in clumps. And the hair on my head, my lovely natural hair. It dropped onto my chest, tangling with ‘bandolier’ nubs as they popped and oozed. Claws cracked and peeled away. It was agony. I couldn’t move, could barely draw in enough breath to scream. Lab-coat just watched, eyes bright, lips twitching.

When it was done, I saw that the Suits were right: we are all the same underneath. The same raw flesh, the same bright blood, the same squirming muscles attached to the same aching bones. 

A gurgling sound filled the metal coffin. I blinked and then cursed. Or tried to. The skin on my face had peeled right off too. Just sluicing away the dross, the lab-coat said over my coughed-out screams. A new face stared down at me. There was shouting, words edged with a fury sharp enough to cut through the agony. Lab-coat disappeared. More hissing, a bite of ice; for an instant it burned… and then the pain ebbed, flowed away like the light, like my thoughts.

SK453. Durable. Weatherproof. Like a raincoat. Or a tent.

VM: Queen’s Gardens

4 August 2025 (01:55)

You’ll never guess where I am. Sitting on the roof of the abandoned college building, overlooking Queen’s Gardens. Too dark, yet, to see much. Like the quiet, though. I did a course here, feels like an age ago: Media Studies. Fancied myself as a bit of a creative. Life soon put paid to that. But now I’m my own creation. Or I will be.

They kicked me out the recoup-ward, said they needed the bed. Looks like I’m not the only one dodging the ‘baby factory’ job title. Someone’s sure raking it in. 

Shed your skin. Find the real you. 

Sure, I shed one skin and wrapped myself in another. The real me? Still working on that. My new skin is plastic-smooth, like a one-piece doll’s suit. Durable? We’ll have to wait and see. Waterproof? Hopefully. Not a hair on my body, anywhere. Feel like one of those shop window mannikins, before they’re dressed up in the latest fashion. Now all I can think about is that old Dr Who episode where the mannikins smashed the shop windows and came out guns blazing. Yeah, I’m a fan. Or I used to be. The Army lot still have guns, though I hear they’re running low on ammo.

Sun’s coming up, a red rim over the black huddle of buildings off in the distance. Up here, it’s like I can feel the world turning. Change. That’s the way of it. Time to let go. Let go of everything.

Ouch! Since when did sunlight sting? Feels like static electricity… Oh, no. Not Change proof. Not Change proof. You liars! Feels like my new skin is melting. I can’t! Not again! Beetles-under-the skin, all over my body. Hot needles inside my skull, pricking…  pricking… feels like my eyes are bleeding—

VM: Queen’s Gardens 2

4 August 2025 (00:25)

Looks like I survived the latest Change. Not sure how much time has passed. Sun’s overhead, so a few hours, I guess. My skin’s gone all grey and rough and sort of rubbery. A bit like those outdoor rubber gloves you used to get in garden centres. Trying to screw up the courage to take a picture of my face. Nah, maybe later. The sun feels good, though, all warm and toasty. 

Ooh, hungry, more like ravenous. Hang on a sec… 

VM: Riverside Quay

12 August 2025 (02:14)

It’s been a busy week. I’m on a boat, crammed in with a handful of others—all different, obvs, with their own reasons for risking the crossing to France. Me, I’m looking for sunnier climes.

Remember that Sun Sipper? Well, turns out I’m more of a Sun Slurper. This new skin of mine just loves the stuff. It’s all I need to keep me going. I’m fully charged. Ready for anything. And you’ll never believe this… I can charge my phone just by holding it. Cool, right? Almost fried it on the college roof that first time. Standing there, arms raised, phone forgotten in my fist, soaking up that warmth, slurping and gobbling ’til I was fit to bust. The phone rang, snapping me out of it. Just in time. Its case was sticky hot and the battery at a hundred percent. Took a bit of practice, but I finally figured it out. Got to be careful, though. Just let a little sunshine out at a time.

Who was on the phone? That was the clinic, upping their offer of compensation for the ‘unfortunate incident during my treatment’. Ha! I took their money. Not allowed to say anything about what happened, but… well, how else was I going to pay for this boat trip?

France is just a staging post. I’m going to travel the world. Keep to the hotspots—there’s plenty of them these days—maybe find other sun seekers along the way. I tried trolling social media for ‘SK453’ hoping to find more like me, but the few that dared use the tag turned out to be more Barbie than beast. 

We started with the same synth-skin, but exposure to the world Changed us in different ways. It has to be more than just the type of fibres the skin was made of, or the environment around us when the Change hit; it’s something to do with us, as an individual, as a person. I’m still trying to work it out. But now I have hope. I’m filled to the brim with light. I know why that Sun Sipper smiled and why I couldn’t help smiling back.Inside I feel warm, whole, grounded. I can’t keep the smile off my face. Some of the others on the boat have thawed enough to smile back. It’s a start. They’re an odd-ball bunch, every one of them unique. But, you know, when it comes right down to it, it’s what’s inside that really counts.

Susan is a science fiction and fantasy novelist and short story writer. In her spare time, she works as the Review Editor for the BSFA REVIEW (the online magazine of the British Science Fiction Association). You can find her publication history on her web page:

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“I Hear the Lowing of the Cattle” Psychological Horror by Greg Gentry

We’ve been talking about addiction all wrong since day one.

I’m tired of pretending that we aren’t all addicted to something- or, in my case, someone. 

Don’t get me wrong- I’ve been hooked on pretty much everything there is. Booze, heroin, coke, whatever. But I’ve also been hooked on deep dish pizza, a TV show, a big bag of candy… Mostly, though, I have been- and still am- hooked to a person. I’m not going to be shy about it, either. It’s a girl. A woman. 

I’m addicted to this incredible five-foot six librarian named May Howard. 

She has skin the color of white clouds with the setting sun behind them. One day I was driving and the sun was starting to go down, and all of these fleeing storm clouds were in front of the sun. They had this amazing silver fringe around their edge- and no, not a silver lining. It was a silver fringe more amazing than any golden glow, and it looked like the entire universe was hiding in that glow. That’s May Howard.

She’s got wavy hair that goes down to her back but it’s usually up in some sort of, I don’t know, something. I don’t know anything about women’s hair styles. It’s just usually not down. It’s mostly brown but it has these like, really vibrant streaks of blonde on the bottom and when she’s in the right light it all looks red.  

May has this laugh like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know how I can describe it. I already used my simile about the cloud or whatever and I had to think about that for a long time. I guess though her laugh is like when you’re sitting outside on the porch during fall, and everything is still and quiet because the sun’s going down and nothing wants the night to find it, but then the wind comes along with no fear of anything and just sort of dances through what’s left of the leaves, touching the tops of the trees and vanishing like it’s playing a joke, and the wind just keeps on bouncing from treetop to treetop getting the leaves all worked up like some offended old women hearing a dirty joke at church, the wind stirring the leaves the same way a girl might run her fingers through her boyfriend’s hair. 

Ok, I’ll admit what you’re probably thinking. I wrote that while I was sitting on my porch, in fall, listening to the wind. But that doesn’t mean it’s not what May Howard’s laugh is like- it is. It really is. I know I don’t do a very good job at describing things or making them sound nice or pretty, but I wish I was… Because that’s May Howard’s laugh. It’s so pretty it makes me feel awful about every bad thing I’ve ever done. 

And another thing. 

What else about May Howard? Did I mention she’s a librarian? She is one. She’s smarter than hell, too, and she’ll make sure you know that as soon as you start acting like you think she isn’t. I don’t know why she became a librarian when I think she could’ve been probably anything else. Part of the reason I’m so addicted to this woman is because of how smart she is. I really admire that in a person, probably because I never have been very smart and there was never much for me to be except what I am. 

I’m not supposed to be writing about May Howard. I’m supposed to be writing about me and my addiction. Well, like I said, May Howard is my addiction. Right now I’m supposed to be drying out from alcohol, the old fallback after you get off something harder, like meth, which I was only hooked on for about a year in my early twenties but holy hell do I miss my teeth. 

I’m not going to see May Howard for a long time. I realize that. It’s hard to think about but I know I have to do it. I don’t have any other choice, either, since she’s three hours away, in Chicago. I’m on my Grandpa’s- that’s Pops- farm, and there’s no one around here for about ten miles. It’s just me, Pops, and the great fucking Illinois outdoors, which pretty much means corn and corn and corn and somewhere between one stalk of corn and another stalk of corn two cousins fucking each other before you get back to more corn and more corn and then eventually another set of cousins, probably related to the first set, and then more corn and more corn. 

I spent a lot of time here as a kid, but it’s different being back as an adult. I’m here now because pretty much no rehab center would take me, either because I’m dirt poor or already got kicked out. I was pretty much out on my ass and was just about ready to dive into Lake Michigan for a rather extended stay when I found a shiny, brand new, 2023 quarter on the ground and picked it up. I thought to myself, if I can find a payphone to use this in, I won’t drown myself tonight. You might be thinking, “wow, that’s fucked up!” And I would say, yeah, no shit. 

I knew the odds were pretty stacked against me. I wasn’t on anything real bad, but I was starting to go through withdrawal from alcohol which, yes, can happen, especially if you’ve been using it to self-medicate and ward off heroin cravings. I wasn’t thinking right, it was the end of September in the Windy City and I all I had was a ketchup stained cut off, and I hadn’t been able to use a q-tip in like two weeks which might seem like a minor point but was putting me really on edge because if I don’t use a q-tip like, at least once a day, my head feels like it’s all full of dirt or something and itches like hell and I can’t concentrate on anything. If I try to remember my most fucked up, black hole, nightmare oblivion type highs the one thing I can always recall is how itchy my ear- always the right one- felt because whatever place I was at didn’t have any q-tips, or at least not any q-tips I could trust or use, because, honestly, not just any q-tips will do.

Alright so anyway I was stacking the cards against myself on purpose, because I really wanted everything to be over with. For one, the chances of finding a payphone- even in a big place like Chicago- are actually pretty slim. Secondly, finding one that only costs 25 cents to make a call from- especially a long distance call- had even slimmer odds. Thirdly, there was almost no chance I’d be able to remember Pops’ phone number- which, sorry, was the next part of my deal with myself, to call Pops and ask him to put me up for a while- and fourth, even if I did remember the number it wasn’t likely to still be his number, or that he’d even still have a phone, or honestly that the old man would even still be alive- let alone home or within range of answering the phone. Also, lastly but most importantly, I knew there was almost no way he’d say yes. 

But he did. 

So here I am. He agreed to take me in if I’d help out around the place and stay clean while I was here. So that’s roughly what I was up to before I got where I am now, give or take a few things. 

This morning I got up at 5 a.m. sharp and ate breakfast with Pops. I came downstairs and he had an empty bowl sitting across the table from him just like when I was a kid. I sat down, yawned, and poured some corn flakes into my bowl, then splashed milk on top of it. I ate the first spoonful slowly and carefully, like it was hot, wondering if it would taste the same as when I was kid. It did but it didn’t. It was still bland and boring, but that didn’t bother me like it had when I was younger. Now, as a grownup, I found I actually kind of liked the simpleness of it, the texture. I guess part of knowing you’re not a kid anymore is when bland cereal starts to be an alright way to start the day. 

“Thanks for the cereal,” I said. 

“You’re welcome. Easy cooking.”

We ate silently for a few minutes. I looked past Pops’ bald head and out the window. Grey fog hugged the ground in a mean way that made me think of a boyfriend who suspects his girl of cheating looking over her shoulder to see who she’s texting. I could see the dim shadow shapes of trees through the fog and in that light they looked like monsters waiting to kill me. Not much sunlight had made it over the rim of the world yet and what little had was as bland as my cereal. 

“Room warm enough last night?”

“Yeah, Pops.”

“All right. It’ll get colder as the days go by. Fall now. Almost October.”

“I like it cold when I sleep.”

“Well if it gets too cold up there just let me know and I’ll find you another quilt.”


“Need your help clearing out that old shed today. Tom Higgins down the road wants to come look at the tools in there, buy ‘em for scrap. We should sort through it all first.”

“Okay, sure.”

“You feeling up to that?”

I shrugged. He was looking at me very carefully over our bowls of cereal. I blinked. Pops’ eyes are a sharp brown like oak, and they have the same, round knowledge as an oak tree. Like they’ve been there since the beginning of you and they’ll be there for the end, too. I think he knew better even than I did how much he was saving my life with that bland cereal and that round stare. 

“I’m healthy enough to do pretty much anything, I guess.” Pops nodded but his eyes didn’t leave me. 

“Still too thin. You need to eat more, maybe.”

“I’ve always been thin.”

“Well, you were when you were 14, anyway.” Pops looked back down into his bowl and stirred the milk with his spoon. My heart felt like a wet dishrag somebody was wringing out to lay over the sink divider. 

“I never gained much weight between then and now,” was all I could think to say. 

“Neither did your dad, ever. Your sister has gotten fat, though.”

“Well, she’s had a couple kids. I haven’t.” I thought for a minute. “That I know of.” It was a gamble on if he’d laugh or not and he didn’t. He did smile, though, and the top whites of his eyes vanished as he rolled them up to look at me.  

“Sasha sends me pictures of the girls every month or so. Hard to believe Annie’s already in fifth grade.”

“Fifth?” I asked. Someone must have missed a dirty dish on the stove or something because the rag in my chest got wrang out again. “I thought-”

“It’s all right,” said Pops kindly. “You’ll have time to catch up. And you will. You don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“I haven’t been much of an uncle.”

“You’ll have time to catch up,” Pops said again. He stood and reached for my bowl. I pulled it back and stood by myself. Then I grabbed his. 

“You’ve been pulling triple double duty. Great grandpa, great grandma, grandpa, grandma, and uncle. I’m sorry. Now let me wash the dishes.”

I turned away and he didn’t say another word. I could tell he was still standing, watching me. Then I heard him sit down just about as I reached the sink and got the water running. My eyes stung but I tried to keep myself together. I looked up out the window. I could see the shape of his reflection, like the shape of those trees. 

The water got too hot and burned my hands. I pulled them back with a hiss and turned the water down. The last of the milk sloshed around the basin in a thin white dream and was sucked away forever, whirling down the drain. The pain from the water had cleared my head and made me think of how many different ways the body has of protecting itself from harm. My hand had done what it could to tell me it was in danger and it had cleared my head. Every part of the body does what it can to send messages to the brain to help the brain protect itself, but the brain can just say “fuck off” to all that and decide to kill itself after a bad day. How’s that for fair? 

The body wants to survive. But sometimes I think there’s a part in all of us that really wants to destroy everything. Our brain sends out these little signals of destruction like our stomachs send out signals for hunger. Sometimes you spend so much time being sad and wanting to kill yourself you start to just get used to it, and when you are happy it’s like you don’t really deserve it, because somehow it invalidates how sad you felt before. 

But then, sometimes, you’ll find a shiny little quarter on the ground that reminds you you might deserve one last chance if you ask nice enough. And that’s how you end up burning your hand while you wash dishes and look at that, the dishes are done and you’ve been staring out the window at fog for who knows how long. 

I looked down at my hands. They were red and fresh looking. I bent my fingers. Right then and there I thought that maybe living was just surviving one day at a time, going as far as you could on a 25-cent deposit and doing your best to do your best until you ran out of credit. 

I looked back up at Pops’ reflection. I picked up the rag and wrung it out into the sink so it would dry. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of self-destruction. What it means, how it’s done, how it can be avoided. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but sometimes I get my ideas about self-destruction and self-preservation mixed up.

Addiction, obviously, is a form of self-destruction. But like I already said- there’s a lot of different types of addiction, and we’ve been talking about them all wrong. Self-destruction is addiction, though. It’s addiction to a hatred of yourself. You can’t self-destruct unless you hate yourself. 

It’s easy to hate yourself. It’s also extremely hard, and extremely exhausting. You go through life and you see other people being happy and you hate yourself for not being able to be happy, but you also hate them because maybe sometimes you do try your honest best and you fail at being happy while these other fucking morons are happy for no reason at all. I think there’s a lot of jealousy involved in hating yourself, too. You hate yourself because you don’t measure up to someone else. Maybe it’s a guy who got picked by the girl who didn’t pick you, or something like that. Part of you thinks, “fuck that guy. I’m better than him. Why’d she pick him over me? What does he have that I don’t?” But then another part of you- the real part- doesn’t think but knows that she picked him because he’s honestly just better than you. 

That’s self-destruction. And like hate, it’s an addiction.

Everything was damp in the shed. The fog was hanging on, even though by this time of day the sun should have convinced it to take a leave of absence. Every time I grabbed a piece of equipment, it slid through my gloves and left behind a wet, smeary trail of orange rust. Piece by piece, I rubbed away the history of Pops’ farm by dropping rusted metal into the weeds and letting the fog tear into it, sinking wet fingers into soft metal and scraping away flecks of rust like seconds out of time. 

“Lot of water comes through that roof.”

Pops pulled a glove off and ran a hand through his hair. His eyes were fixed on the jagged hole in the roof of the shed. Fog crept through like an invader and spread across the ceiling, hovering above us, watchful present and disgusting. Damp pieces of wood, too old and too roughly hewn to be 2x4s, hung at odd angles, dangling out the bottom of the hole. The skeletal beams of the rotted roof looked like the last few rotting teeth in a person’s mouth. 

I leaned against the workbench beside Pops and looked up into the hole. 

“Do you ever feel bad about what’s happening to the place?”

Pops shook his head and pulled his glove back on. 

“No. It’s just an old building and I don’t need it anymore.”

He turned back to the shelves of tools and chains and whatnot, walking his slow shuffle across the cracked and uneven concrete. I watched him go, wondering a little at how someone could spend so much time- in his case, over sixty years- living and loving in one place, only to not care when it fell apart. But I guess he saw it as a farm, and since he wasn’t a farmer anymore, it didn’t matter so much. All he needed was a house.  

“That’s enough for now. Let’s go back in.”

He brushed past me, holding his left arm in his right. The wrinkled skin of his forearm was visible between his glove and the rolled cuff of his flannel. The skin was dark with liver spots. Never in my life had Pops quit after just an hour of work. 

I scanned my eyes over the shelves, shrugged, and followed him out of the shed. I pulled the crooked door shut behind me and tied the frayed twine to hold it. Pops was halfway to the house already, sliding his boots over the wet grass. He was a shadow in the fog, and I decided I didn’t really want to follow him into the house just yet. 

I watched to make sure he made it up the porch steps, then turned around and walked back past the shed into the thickening grass. 

I walked until I reached the cattle fence. I remembered from childhood that it had once been painted pink, but even as a kid it had been rusting. Now it was entirely dull brown, flaky, broken, and crooked, just like everything else in this place that had once been my life. I put my hands on it and stared out at the expanse of weed choked pasture. Everything was filled with small hollow pits of black, spaces between the weeds and piles of hay and grass where no light touched, where not even the fog wanted to poke and prod. 

On the north end of the pasture stood a line of tall deciduous trees, solid like statues, hazy in the gray. I leaned on the fence and it creaked. Nothing anywhere moved except for that sound, and I’ll be honest with you, I felt myself get a little choked up. 

When I was a kid, the place hadn’t been like this. It had always seemed green and bright, and there were cows, and the fence was still a little bit pink, and Pops hadn’t seemed so old, and I’d had cousins, my sister, my parents, my grandmother. The farm had been a family then, and now all the family was gone. Staring at my childhood paradise as an adult, I felt a little sick, and I thought I understood how Pops could feel the way he did about the shed falling in. Good, a part of me thought. Good. Let it fall in. This place is a tomb. Let it bury what I thought were memories and hide them from me before I realize they were only dreams.

I know it was foggy when I was a kid. I know there were rainy days and bad days and days where I felt lonely. The thing is, I just don’t remember those days as much. I remember the good ones, and that’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I have something to hold on to. A curse because it’s hard to let go. 

I remember being a kid and thinking about how much better it must have been before I was born, when it was my dad and his brothers who lived and ran and played here as children with their friends and cousins. I thought everything here was old then, but when you’re a kid, that’s how you view the whole world. As an adult, you see everything as ancient. That’s proof to me that everything, time as well as happiness or whatever, is relative. Fake. Made up. Defined by how much shittier today is than yesterday. 

I felt my hands begin to shake. I hadn’t thought about my addictions or using or doing anything all morning, but just then I remembered why I- why everyone- has addictions. It takes the fog out of life and makes you think that there’s still pink paint on the fence, that the metal isn’t cold even through your gloves and that the pasture isn’t dead forever.

My stomach turned and I had to get out of there. My mouth was filled with an awful taste and I felt like my head was gonna explode. I let go of the fence and turned away and everything stayed still, frozen in time, or in fog, or in memory, or just in my own stupid head. My feet crashed through damp grass and my hands spread through fog. I started to breathe faster, and my right ear really started to itch, with that feeling of dirt. I quickened my pace, and then, suddenly, I stopped. 

I didn’t even really mean to. I kind of slid a little. 

I stared straight ahead, into the whirling miasma of fog, at the distant shape of the house that stared back at me with blank windows like dead eyes. Eyes that weren’t surprised at what I was hearing. 

Behind me, somewhere in the pasture, I could swear I heard cows. 

Cows make a strange sound. They don’t moo. They aren’t cute or funny. They’re either sad or terrifying. Low is a much better word for the sound they make. It’s low and mournful, like a long hum, like a piece of ancient machinery buried deep in the earth. They make a sound that seems like it comes from everywhere, from every direction at once, from inside you, almost, and it’s even more fucked up when you know there’s no cows anywhere- within miles- within lifetimes. 

I realized I was holding my breath and let it go. Steam whirled in front of me and the only movement, the only proof of anything left living in the whole gray world, vanished. The land yawned before me, and again, I heard the lowing of the cattle. Ghostly, tired, and wondering. But of course, there were no cattle to be seen. 

Hello again. It’s me. 

The entry about the cows was yesterday, and now it’s tonight- or, I guess, about 32 hours after I wrote that last entry, which was about twenty minutes after it happened. What happened in between doesn’t matter. 

What I came here to write about is what you asked me to write about. Addiction. I keep losing sight of that. But maybe isn’t that a good thing?

Tonight I realized that I’d hardly thought about May Howard since my first day back with Pops. He’s been keeping me busy, and I’ve been reminded that there’s a life outside the one I’ve been living the past decade or so. A good life, too. 

Pops and I run things into town. We sell scrap, we get groceries, we listen to obscure country songs on his truck radio. We get lunch at the diner and we say hi to people I recognize from childhood, people who don’t seem real because they shouldn’t be able to exist outside of my memories of them. When you leave a place for a long time, it kind of just goes on pause in your mind, like the only reason anything’s happening there is because you’re there. It’s hard to imagine a place you’ve left behind continuing on after you, hard to imagine the people going on about their daily lives, crawling here and there like ants or slugs and living the same as they always did. The whole time I was in Chicago I imagined Pops and everyone else in Rock City as moments gone by, things I could think about or picture but never really see again. Now that I’m here, back in Rock City and back in Pops’ home and life, it’s Chicago that seems imaginary, gone, and lost in time. 

And I find myself thinking of May Howard. 

Today I wondered how she was doing at the library. I pictured her checking out books to little kids, helping old men and old women find books about young people doing young things. I thought about how pure and wholesome she would look under the library lights, book in hand, smile on her face. I can imagine her as the only thing alive in what is now becoming my old life, and maybe that’s only because I think of bringing her into my new life. May is the only part of that old world I can imagine going back to. 

Obviously, I had other friends, people I recognized at the gas station, places I liked to go, whatever. But when I think of seeing those people or places now, they’re like dreams. They’re black and white. May is color. May is green and lively. And I think about rescuing her from that awful world, that labyrinth of sin and addiction and loneliness. I didn’t belong there, and neither does she. May would love Rock City, the farm, and Pops. She would transform it, bring life back to it. I could walk her through the pasture, and the fog would be gone. I could wrap my arms around her on the porch and watch the sun set, watch the leaves turn red and flaming while I buried my face in her hair and murmured jokes to her about our future, silly names for our future children, maybe. If I brought her here and showed her all my favorite childhood places, it’d be like they were alive again. She’d bring them back to life. Right? 


She’d love it here. 

And she’d love Pops. 

Then eventually she’d love Annie, and Sasha, and the whole farm would be filled with laughs again. I could fix the hole in the shed roof, no problem. I’d be up there at sunset, tired as hell, and May would come out on the porch and call me in for dinner. Annie would follow her out and call me Uncle. Pops would clap me on the shoulder and tell me well done, and then we’d all go inside, and I’d be tripping over kids, maybe mine, or maybe Sasha’s, or maybe second cousins or something like that, and there wouldn’t be enough room for all of us at the table, and that life I thought I had- the one I thought my dad must have had before me- would be real, real for me and the kids, because I was giving it to them. 

I thought about this today, riding home in the truck with Pops and watching the fields go by. And I’m thinking about it now, sitting alone at the dining room table, while Pops reads the paper in the living room. 

Once I’m okay again, I’m gonna bring May here. And she’s gonna love it. 

Today was damp again, and gray clouds hovered oppressively close to the ground in a way that reminded me of my math teachers in school making sure I wasn’t cheating. Everything, always, is wet. Dew and wet hang on things, clinging to them like memories. Pops didn’t have much for me to work on today, so I went out searching for more of those memories, thinking that maybe after a long walk I could shake them off me like a dog shakes off water. 

I cut through the pasture after hopping the fence and felt the house and barn and sheds watching me as I went. I felt like if I turned around, they’d be right behind me, breathing down my neck, but of course when I actually worked up the courage to turn, they were right where they should have been- sinking, frozen in time, falling apart. 

I don’t know what it is about Rock City or Illinois in general. It all feels so old, especially compared to other states. It’s like the roads don’t go anywhere except to other roads. Nothing has been built since 1980. Everyone and everywhere feels like someone important just left, and we’re all going blue in the face waiting for them to come back. Every town is small and every road is lined with cracks like veins. People move from place to place, dreary, and the only ones moving quickly through these dying towns are the people trying to escape. They haven’t found out yet that these towns reach out with damp hands, grab you, and pull you back. 

Eventually I made it to the woods on the north side of the pasture without anything stopping me. I wandered slowly, listening to water drop off leaves and dead branches creak in the wind. 

I walked until I found an old junk pit we used to dig through as kids. It had been started before Pops and Grandma bought the farm, but Pops had added to it plenty. Most of the good stuff was gone by now, but I crouched down in the mud anyway and started digging with my work gloves, thinking maybe we had missed something as children. 

I didn’t expect to enjoy the digging, but somehow I did. Water trickled around me slowly and it felt enchanted, like this forest wasn’t haunted but lived in. Soon my fingers found something hard in the dirt, and to the music of that enchantment I dug away at thick clumps until I was able to pry free a square metal object. I picked away at enough dirt to realize it was a skeleton key lock that had once been part of a door. I held it up and stared at the dirt filling the keyhole and grooves of the metal. What secrets had it once kept hidden? What eyes had peered through this keyhole? What sounds of love and midnight anguish had once been held back by this lock?

I began to wonder and suddenly found that I didn’t want to know. I felt a chill up my spine as I thought of a door, somewhere, with a large open square in it where the lock should have been. I thought of the door swinging open in a breeze blowing through cracked windows, opening and opening to reveal two skeletons locked in a passionate embrace. 

And then, I heard a low, mournful lowing. 

I dropped the lock and shot to my feet. Wet leaves and sticks fell off my body. I wasn’t sure how long I had been kneeling in the dirt, and I felt like it had been trying to claim me. I heard the sound of the cows again, and hurried out of the woods. 

When I stepped into the pasture I realized how dark it was getting. There were no shadows, but the clouds above were violet with the loathing yearn of early nightfall, the sickening squall of an autumn cold anxious to fall. 

I heard the sound again, closer this time, and that chill returned to my back. There was a sudden flash from the sky above, and I saw the outlines of cattle standing in the pasture, staring at me. 

Their eyes were hollow black holes and their bodies were bone. They had no skin, no meat, no muscle or fat. They were white skeletons, still and watching. Then the lightning vanished and they did, too. I made a run towards the sinking silhouettes of tired buildings falling under the weight of a night sky beyond the pasture. 

The lightning only flashed once more before I made it out, but the cows had turned their heads to follow me, and their eyes were even emptier than before. 

It’s early morning but still dark. Rain is pounding the house, and my room is being lit by lightning. I can’t stop thinking about the buildings, the equipment, the things around the farm that are stuck in the gale. I know what it’s like to be a piece of junk left out in the storm and in the cold. I know what it’s like. 

I’ve been the lock, I’ve been the remnants in the junk pile. I need someone to dig me out. 

I’m going to go to back to bed. I’m gonna go back to bed, and think of May. 

Think of May, and anything but the cows. 

It was early morning when I told Pops I was leaving. The storm was over, but the drizzle stayed. The light was weak and watery and I could hear water dripping off the eaves of the house. The windows were blurry with mist, but Pops’ eyes were sharp and clear. 

“You’re going back to Chicago.”

“But I’ll be back. A few days, at most. She just has to get her things together.”

“Did she tell you that?”

“No, but I know.”

He didn’t answer. He gave me a long, flat look that took me back to when I was a kid and had done something wrong. Then he shrugged, and the tops of his blue suspender straps wrinkled. 

“There will still be room for you if you decide to come back.”

“Pops, look- I am coming back. I’m- I’m not even leaving. It’s like- like I’m running an errand. Going to the store.”

Then he said something that thudded to the floor and left a mark in the wood. 

“People aren’t errands to run.”

He stood up and took my bowl. Only the milk was left, and a few soggy corn flakes. A little ring remained where the bowl had been, another scar on a table that had seen children grow up and adults grow old. 

“Pops,” I called over my shoulder. I heard the shuffle of his slippers stop. “I love you. And I’m grateful.”

There was a long silence. I heard the water dripping resolutely off the eaves. It was a constant, annoying sound, not calming like people say it is. It made the inside of my ear itch, and I tried to scratch at it with a finger. Far, far away, I thought I heard something that wasn’t the rain, and tried to push it out of my head by filling that space with thoughts of something else. 

May. May. 


We’ve been talking about addiction all wrong since day one- myself included. We think about it like a self-destructive magnet, pulling us slowly but surely to a bad end. But let me tell you this- I thought about May that whole long, miserable drive to Chicago, and that made it a lot less miserable. Addiction doesn’t have to be like that- a bad magnet. It can be, maybe, a life preserver. Something that keeps you going, keeps you moving. Yeah, that’s dependency, but no one blames someone who’s drowning for needing a life preserver. Again, yes, that’s dependency. But is that so much worse than the alternative?

I listened to the radio and drummed my fingers on the wheel. I looked over at the empty passenger seat and thought about May in it on the way home, the funny jokes I’d tell and questions she’d ask. I thought about what I’d say if she was nervous, how I’d make her feel better. I imagined how I’d look to her, what the first thing I said would be. 

I figured she’d be sitting at her desk in the library, looking down, light bouncing off her glasses. There’d be a cluster of people between us, coming and going, and I’d have to move slowly to get through them. Then she’d look up from her papers, a pencil in her hand, and she’d see me, standing there, a little homely but mostly humble. I’d wave, and she’d smile, and that would be it. 

That would be it. 

The city is approaching. The sun’s going down and Chicago splits the horizon, a colossal cluster of jagged shapes scratching at a gray sky. The buildings are crooked teeth, misaligned and confused. Lights come on as I get closer, winking on in great blocks. 

I know what you’re thinking right now.

 I know you’re thinking you wish you could be in May’s position- that someone would come along and whisk you away from everyday life, rescue you from losing another part of yourself to every passing second. I want to point out, though, that I’m not a knight in shining armor or a hero or anything like that. I’m just a guy, and not much to look at. All I have on everyone else, on all those other guys I hate so much, is that I care more. They say they care, but they don’t. Would any of them drive all this way, leave the home they just got back for a girl? Hell, no!

That’s all I got, because it’s all I can get. I already messed up so much and lost so much I have to make something new out of myself to keep up. Pops was right. People aren’t just errands to run. May isn’t an errand- she’s a commitment, a choice, and so is Pops. Other guys wouldn’t see it like that, wouldn’t get it, but I do. I get it. 

There’s mist, water droplets, beading on my windshield. They split the passing lights into kaleidoscopes, colors that run and bleed and shatter. The whole world is flickering, blinking on and off, as it passes away into the before, and I keep moving forward, into next, and what, I hope, will quickly become my after. My now. My forever. 

Later, I reach the library. I park across the street and I look at it for a moment. It’s a huge building, square, brick, with massive windows and a peaked green roof with these elaborate sculptures at each peak and corner. Its windows glow with a warm golden light, spilling onto the street. The sky beyond is dark and gray, with some lines of purple that I think of as veins, veins carrying not blood or water but time, because that’s all the sunset or the horizon is- time in colors, time passing, and time passed. 

My car is still running. Heat pours out of the vents and I can feel it baking my skull. My heart is thudding so hard I can hardly believe it’s mine. The wipers are going, swish-swish, back and forth, a metronome. The street outside is cold and damp, but the library, ancient, is warm, stable, constant. 

I turn off the car. The key clicks back, the wipers stop, the heat comes to a whispering rest, but my heartbeat marches on, endlessly, into the horizon, maybe, or wherever it is that heartbeats go….

I walk across the street. I swear I can see each individual raindrop. Everything is heightened, everything is fast and slow and brighter than usual, I can smell rain on the pavement, on me, on the cars, on…


I picture her. I pull open the heavy wood doors and step into the warmth, shivering. I smell the library- the books, the carpets, the patrons. 

I step into a large, warmly lit room. Warm and dim. It’s just like I pictured- she’s at the desk, people moving here and there between us. She’s looking down, writing, in a puddle of light. I work my way through the shifting groups, the moving crowd. I near the desk, and May looks up. 

She sees me. I have to grin awkwardly to keep my mouth closed. I feel my eyes water. Slowly, nervously, I raise one hand in a wave. She waves back, and I take a step forward. My eyes fall to the slightly crooked nametag pinned to her wool sweater. 


I stop in front of the desk. She lifts her eyes, shining and blue, up to me. Her smile widens. 

“Hey,” I say. My head is filled with that pounding. I can hear every secret being whispered, every page being turned, every drop of water falling outside the building. I hear my own voice when I finally open my mouth again. “How are you, May?”

I hear her voice, soft and beautiful, when she answers. 

“I’m doing well. How are you?”

I hear my own voice, my own heart. 

“I’m- well.”

I hear her answer. 

“How can I help you today?”

I hear my heart sink. The inside of my ears are itching furiously.

“I- I’m not here for help. I’m here for you. To see if you would come back with me.”

I see her frown. I swear the light dims, the raindrops freeze. I hear her answer, again. 

“I’m sorry. Have we met before?”

Far off, like something from a dream, I hear the lowing of the cattle.

Mr. Gentry writes: “My name is Greg Gentry, and I am a high school English teacher as well as a general lover of books and horror. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, and though I typically work on novels, I have been enjoying trying my hand at some short stories the past few months. “

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Hardships of Keeping Decay at Bay” Fantasy/Horror by Barlow Crassmont

No one is ever prepared for the stench that strikes after the third day.  It hits like a mighty blow, knocking the wind out of one’s gut, challenging the equilibrium, buckling the knees. They say one can’t smell oneself; or at least I recall them doing before my Big Sleep.  

It’s not possible. We’re constantly exposed to our own odor, nullifying its aroma on a minute by minute basis, making it imperceptible in the long run.  

But those who preach said rhetoric haven’t been buried six feet under for weeks (months? years?) on end, then risen from eternal sleep, much against their will, their flesh resembling a torn up suit, hanging off their bones like a flimsy curtain.  The living talk, they theorize, ponder and mull over; yet the living do not know.

On the fourth day after rising, I split from the undead herd. They wandered aimlessly ahead, their arms dangling like deceased branches of weary trees, their legs leading them as involuntary limbs go.  I stopped, receded, then separated. None saw me depart – or they might have, and knowing I would be of little use as sustenance, ignored my exodus.  I was free to roam wherever I wanted, and be who I wanted. The dreary loneliness I felt, merely burdensome at first, soon morphed into an affliction I could not shake off.  

An overwhelming hunger roared in my crumbling belly, which I hoped would resolve itself in time. When it hadn’t, I fed on dead raccoons and possums I found on the vast nothingness all around me. They were scattered as random gifts from the underworld’s Lords, a charity for those of us who still acknowledged their occasional goodwill. The animals’ carcasses were nearly rotten, swarming with maggots and flies that even scavengers avoided at all costs. Their taste was so pungent that I wondered if starving wouldn’t be a more preferable experience.

I walked for days, strolled about for weeks, and meandered this way and that even longer, or so it seemed.  In my soulless state, time was an unfamiliar entity, its passage as still as a towering mountain.  

Ultimately, I came across the Hills of Hades, their silhouette swaying back and forth across the horizon like a gentle wave posing for a photograph.  If my legs were not weary up until now, they soon would be, for after the strenuous trek in my recent wake, my eyes came across the jagged Gehenna Gradients.  Their spiked backs towered into the skies, resembling a lower set of fangs, piercing the dark clouds like vaporized cotton candy.  I climbed for what felt like years; in all likelihood, it took even longer. 

Seasons changed during my ascent.  The sunshine I enjoyed at the halfway point gave way to an endless downpour that turned the path into a thick mud bath, in which I could move not forward nor backwards.  Eventually, the ensuing snowfall hardened the soil just enough to make walking a possibility, and despite the poor visibility, I gradually made my way over the summit, which allowed the most magnificent view of the underworld so far.  

Soon thereafter, the weather improved again, and I witnessed the blooming of flowers, spurts of grass and efflorescence of leaves amongst the trees, as if they were millions of snapshots running at motion picture speed.  My descent towards the crescent moon, during which I tumbled several times, and broke my arm in multiple places, took but the fraction of time that my ascent had.  But the discomfort my fractures caused were countered by the grand views before me.  In the distance, scattered lights flickered on top of a valley like fireflies across a meadow.  A town was within my reach, and hopefully, the end to my present solitude.

The valley upon my descent saw the end of the aforementioned rebirth of nature, and soon gave way to an above ground graveyard. The dead, human and animal alike, were scattered like cosmic dust under my footsteps, the fetor of which I gradually adjusted to, as I did to my own malodor. The outskirts of town were less dreary, and as I passed the obligatory Welcome to Ghoulville sign, the path was illuminated by uncountable carved pumpkins, ghostlike decorations, and mounted scarecrows and skeletons alike. Mid-Autumn festivities were already underway. 

I blended in among the locals, like a fitting creature of the night, minding my business, abstaining from offending anyone accidentally.  The chilly breeze no longer produced an aroma I recognized (with the exception of my own mustiness), and this I took for a good omen.

And then, a miraculous sight.  A wonder, marvel, call it what you will.  It was at the intersection of Incubus avenue and Wraith boulevard that I first saw it.  Her, to be more exact.  She flew above my head on her decrepit besom, her white hair flailing in the frigid wind, the graceful figure reminiscent of an angel from the eternal fires below.  The giggle she emitted resonated across the lifeless graveyard of tombstones, the echo of which stayed with me long after she vanished from sight.  I walked in the direction of her flight, drawn to her hellish aroma like a magnet to metal, hoping to run into her at some point, by chance or will or a common fiendish destiny.

From the few undead and shifty succubi I came across, I inquired about her name, origin, and general whereabouts. There weren’t too many female conjurers in Ghoulville, so based on the physical description I gave, a bulky werewolf told me her name was Olwyn.

“She hails from the suburbs of Occultown,” he said. “Her father was an ancient mummy, her mother a prosperous sorceress. Olwyn had higher ambitions, so she ventured beyond her hometown. And you’re in luck, for she has a thing for decomposers.”

She has a thing for decomposers.  The words echoed in my hollow head, bouncing back and forth between the dusty cranium, until they were the only thought I possessed.  

But what if… 

I mean, what if she… 

and if I… I mean, it could… right? 

Why not!  

The thought alone made me giddy with delight and glee. I had to find courage to approach her, charm her softer side, appeal to her kinder senses. If only she could tolerate my decaying flesh, which, in time, will render me a gaunt skeleton.  It would be asking a lot of her tolerance, but what the hell: I’ve less than one life to live, and pondering about what ifs at this stage is rather fruitless.


Trick-or-treaters lined up across the burial ground like an army of the soulless and the spectral. It was impossible to tell ghoul from ghost, demon from beast, or goblin from incubus in the misty darkness.  Monsters and undead alike marched the cold, silent streets, their baskets resembling crates of bones and bloody organs.  

I searched for Olwyn far and wide, my eyes scanning the skies and the ground alike, until I spotted her descending at the far end of the large metal gate. She opened the heavy iron door, the creak of which attracted me to it like a forbidden siren song. My approach was slow, apprehensive, nearly nerve-wracking.  Had I possessed a beating heart, it would’ve leapt out of my chest and splattered on Olwyn’s pale, ghost-like face once I stood in front of her.  

She wiped down her broom, and saw me approaching from the corner of her eye. At length, she spoke without making eye contact. Her words, like a melodious harmony from the depths of purgatory, sang to my lifeless ears, one of which was barely hanging on (yesterday I secured it using a used piece of tape which had nearly lost its stickiness).

“I’m going for a walk among the tombstones,” she said, her words uttered at the volume of whispers rather than normal speech. “My grandmother is buried around here. If you’ve got nothing to do, you can join me.” 

The contentment within me was overwhelming, and the exultation uncanny. Yet I was still self-conscious about the foul smell my body emanated.  It had gotten so bad that it repulsed my own nostrils, and those I passed across the dead wasteland flinched and rolled their eyes more often than not.  So I kept a distance between Olwyn and myself, hoping it’d be enough to keep her repulsion at bay.  

The crispy leaves crunched beneath our feet as we meandered between the dilapidated tombstones and the ominous cobwebs that hung from the decaying tree branches. Olwyn told me of her strict upbringing, and how she wasn’t allowed to date until her eighteenth birthday.

“And even then, my boyfriends had to be either mummies or warlocks,” she said. With each minute she let her guard down, and her smile flashed her rotting teeth the more we exchanged personal revelations from our past. “I detested such limitations, and vowed to venture beyond the silly constraints once I moved to Ghoulville.”

“I never chose my current state,” I said. “One endless night, long after sunset, I woke inside of a crumbling coffin, several meters underground. When I rose, the world as I knew it was a thing of the past, and there was no one I could relate to.” 

She listened with her eyes, never overreacting with an unnecessary nod or a perfunctory verbal gesture. Even the glances she directed in my direction were a melancholy collection of sympathy and understanding.  I wanted to consume her, to bite into the succulent flesh of her left arm, right there and then, decency be damned.  And I would have, if my newfound affection had not superseded my craving for flesh.  

When we reached her grandmother’s grave, she stood speechless, and eventually shed a few tears.  The dim moonlight mixed with the fog to create an atmosphere of caliginous solemnity.  Olwyn graced her grandmother’s stone with her long, bony fingers, and exhaled a condensed breath in the frigid air.

“She taught me all I know,” she said. “How to cast spells, mix potions, how to fly, even how to patch up decaying, rotting flesh.”  Her eyes met mine, causing my knees to buckle.  “If you’d like, I could help you with that.”

I heard, but had not listened.  Could it be? Did she just say what I think she…?  No, surely not.  I mean, it’s too much, too good, can’t possibly be true.  After all, I knew where I was, and nirvana surely this was not.  

Or was it? 

“W-what…?” I uttered the words without belief, without conviction.  “You hardly even know me.”

“That may be, but I know a kind soul, and in the land of the dark and the sinister, a pair of amiable eyes sticks out like a broomstick in a blade field.”  

As her final syllable resonated, bouncing off the battered gravestones, my heretofore uncertainty and self-doubt evaporated like mist in the morning sunlight.  Here I was, mere nobody, who had lived an insignificant life, only to return as the disintegrating walker, and find elation in the unlikeliest of places. If this was a dream, I hoped never to wake up. 

As Olwyn and I walked towards the festivities in the town square, I felt like an undead brought back to life. The omnipresent, newfound night all around us became more dazzling. I could finally embrace my eternal darkness.

The perpetual solitude, which had weighed so heavily on my lifeless heart, at long last melted away, like a fistful of ice held over a scorching flame.


We held hands in the morning watching the sunrise, we held hands in the afternoon as the sun passed the zenith, we held them at eventide as dusk gave way to the crescent moon in the heavens above.  Olwyn’s presence was equivalent to a life saving antidote for one who was sure of his imminent demise: she made today bearable, and tomorrow worth looking forward to.  We got to know each other’s idiosyncrasies: she preferred to cook her food before consuming it, and I made due with an occasional roadkill here or there (she didn’t mind my ensuing rotten breath, as long as I cleaned the few teeth I had left afterwards with the herbal toothbrush she provided for me).  She fixed my leprosy, and my flesh soon resembled that of a living man, in texture if not in color.  And the stink that my pores emanated?  Gone, like a sinful soul in Hades.

Olwyn introduced me to her friends, and soon I met most of Ghoulville’s locals.  We attended various sacrifices, black magic rituals and random offerings to the Gods of darkness.  And we would’ve remained a happy couple, for all eternity, and beyond, if not for Milford the Mummy.

He appeared beyond the fiery horizon, aloof and forlorn, looking for company, love, but most of all, to snatch my happiness away. Having crawled out of some ancient tomb, risen from millennia long slumber, and wrapped in an infinitely long bandage, he was nothing more than a rotten corpse masquerading as a layer of decrepit attire.  More clever than he initially let on, he must’ve heard the rumors circling the town.

Did you hear about Olwyn and the undead bloke?

Are they a couple? Her taste is crummier than her company, I’d say.

He’s not as rotten as he seems. She helped him with his decay, and he’s better now. Doesn’t even crave living flesh anymore.

Still, no bachelorette in all the underworld can hold a candle to her. She could do better.

We could all do better.

Milford took a keen interest in my one and only like a coyote pouncing on an innocent rabbit.  He meandered about wherever she happened to be, his shoulders slouched, and his bandage slightly undone (a deliberate gesture, to be sure).  Well aware about the miracles she worked at fixing my leprosy, he clearly hoped she’d sympathize with his ragged affliction, and approach him with her services.  I spotted him early on as he impersonated a poor-man’s shadow, tailing us from afar, resembling a foolish schoolboy.  I watched his every move, and whether he knew it or not, I suspected his intentions.  Not wanting Olwyn to think me a jealous type, I kept my distrust to myself.  Deep down, I hoped he’d get bored, lose interest, and go away on his own, to rot away for a few more millenia in some pyramid’s tomb.  But alas, seldom do the likes of us get what we want.  More often than not, our worst fears pin us down. Like an undesirable virus, the more we avoid it, the more likely it finds its way into our bloodstream.

It was a cool winter afternoon when Olwyn asked me to pick out several roses from the Valentinus garden.  I thought the endeavor simple enough, so I ventured in there by my lonesome.  Yet my brittle hands struggled to grip, hold and grasp the thorny stems.  After multiple attempts, I cut the roses either too short or too long, eventually ending up with various sizes, neither of which was to Olwyn’s liking.  When I returned empty handed, my fingers appeared as shattered and mangled as half eaten chicken wings.

“Ouch”, Olwyn said. “Someone’s got clumsy hands.”  She bandaged my wounds, adding a touch of healing herbs from the Prashina desert, and two leaves from the dark depths Haelan caves. I could feel the numbness replacing my previous discomfort, and embraced the ensuing tingling; but especially her gentle kisses, which felt like specks from Venus. 

Afterwards, Olwyn ventured into Valentinus’ garden, picking the flowers herself, and cutting the stems according to her likes. But her gardening skill was no better than mine; the hands she greeted me with were also wounded, pricked in several places, the blood dripping in her wake, like red sprinkles of warm rain.  

“Clumsy hands?” I remarked, a sly grin on my face. “Look who’s talking.”  

“If I don’t wrap this properly, I won’t be talking much longer.”  The blood now sprayed from her hand like a minuscule sprinkler.  Pressing on the wound with the side of my jacket stopped it only temporarily.

“I need to get this bandaged,” she said. “Or you’ll be celebrating our anniversary over my 

tombstone.”  She found jesting the best cover for a dire situation.  Try as I might, I could never reciprocate with the same level of wit.

“If that happens, we’ll share the same coffin.”   

“What if it’s too tight? You know how I like to stretch and spread my limbs like an octopus.”  I threw my hands up, unable to match her aphorism.  

The abandoned Phantom Pharmacy, on the corner of Gul and Vijand, was a testament to the modern ennui of Ghoulville, a landmark of healing and remedies that once was, when the town was known under a different name, and housed citizens who benefited from its remedial qualities.  The front windows were broken in several places, and the cracked door could easily be opened from the outside.  The interior smelled of dampness and mold, and cobwebs covered the shelves like gossamer that sprouted from darkness itself.  I searched the various shelves for bandages, shuffling through packages of expired pills and pain relievers, while Olwyn meandered about, mindlessly walking through webs that eventually covered her face as a veil of crumbliest entanglement.  

From the distant corner, adjacent to the deserted front counter, and illuminated by the narrowest stream of afternoon light, a piece of rayon fabric fluttered about.  We spotted it at the same time, but Olwyn was closer to it.  She grabbed it, and upon pulling on its edge, proceeded to unroll it until the several feet of it made its way to her hand.  She wrapped her bleeding finger, and looked for a sharp edge on which to cut it from its source, which was still shrouded in the shadows.  A faint sigh, unfamiliar to me in texture and pitch, caused me to turn in the direction beyond the counter. Olwyn was just as surprised by the sight of a shabby mummy, its eyes cloudy windows of both despair and devotion for my beloved.  Its wrappings were stained, a thick shade of black and brown dust enveloping the original layer; it was more mud colored than white.  

“Oh,” Olwyn uttered, genuinely astonished. “I’m sorry. I…” She still held onto the thing’s linen.  With its claw-like nails, the withered creature sliced it, separating itself from Olwyn’s bandage.  Remains of her blood were visible on its shriveled end, which exposed part of its rotten arm where the wrap around her finger used to be.  In shame, it retreated from her, like a shy child.  She stared at it in wonder, her initial shock transforming into sorrow.  She extended her hand towards it, frightening it even more.

“It’s all right,” Olwyn said. “Here, I can fix it for you.”  

And here I thought she’d only used that line on me.

The thing rose from its cower, embracing her offer, coming out of its shell of bashfulness.  Olwyn handled his linen gently, enveloping her hands, and the mummy’s arm until the decay was covered under a fresh wrap, the previous stains gone and seemingly replaced by her glorious fingerprints.

“I’m Milford,” the mummy said. The voice was equivalent to sandpaper rubbing stone. I had heard and seen enough. By the time she turned to look for me, I was already outside, observing the last remnants of the setting sun as if its trajectory mimicked the decline of my own heart from this afterlife into another.   

Olwyn had done nothing wrong but help a creature in need, a ghoul of the night like the rest of us, yet I could not shake off the sting. Was that fair to her? Or to Milford?  All I knew, all I felt, was the negative fervor within. It was too potent, malicious, and it overwhelmed any logical pushback I may have been able to produce. My bitterness was only accentuated by the length of time she took to finally come outside. The bandaged creature followed her, limping along like a wounded stray dog she had shown the tiniest affection to. They were chatting, giggling at inside jokes, flirting like teenagers.  I walked away, hoping it would entice her to join me and pick up the pace.

She never did.


Back at her place, I held my tongue, hoping to speak only as a reply.  The smile she flashed while at the pharmacy was still on her face, and judging by the glow in her eyes, the wrapped bag of bones she made friends with was as well.  

“He’s sweet, don’t you think?” she said.


“I had not thought of him that way,” I said, my words barely resonating.

“Well, not sweet maybe, but you know, cute. Vulnerable. Like a child, almost.”

“I don’t know any children that are five thousand years old.”

“You know what I mean. He’s just so…”

“Cute? You said that already.” 

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

“Oh? I must be hard of hearing. Consequence of my condition, I suppose.”

She rolled her eyes.  What did she expect? For me to embrace the sweet/cute/vulnerable nonsense with open arms?  This level of naivety I did not expect, not from her.

“He asked me to help him with his skin infection,” she said, avoiding eye contact.

And there it was.  She had me in the toughest of spots.  If I agree, I’m a dupe. If I object, I’m the overbearing jealous type.  There was no way out.

“Say something,” she said. “If you don’t want me to…”

“You’ve helped me with my problem. It’s only fair you help him with his.”

She leapt over and hugged me, thrilled at my response. Yet her hug was a cold one, absent of the typical tenderness I had grown accustomed to. Was this the end? If not, it certainly felt like the beginning of one.

For the next few days, I told Olwyn I was unwell (caught a bug, best to mend it alone) that I’d be on my own, to recover, and spare anyone else the possible infection.  But what I really hoped was that my absence would make her appreciate the bond we had, and that no decrepit bag of bones was worthy of ruining it. Hers was a temporary infatuation, a briefest of instances accentuated by the Mummy’s decrepit state, and would surely fade after a few days. It simply had to.

To distract myself from the despair in my shriveled heart, I attended Santiago the Skeleton’s house warming festivities atop of the acute Haunted Hill, over which dark clouds perpetually hovered.  Among the lycanthropes, the bloodsuckers and the grim reapers, there was a young apparition from the Victorian era, who, I was told, went by the name of Camryn. She stood solitary by the fireplace, hovering while flipping through old photos of Santiago’s ancestors, while the rest of us feasted on the fresh animal guts out of the blood stained barrel.  My stomach having been deprived of food for so long, I got full rather quickly, and wanting to spare myself an involuntary retching, I walked over to her.  A little chat with a single girl surely would make me feel better about Olwyn’s friendship with the detestable bandaged dwindle. 

Standing behind her, my belching gave me away, and spared me the embarrassing opening line.

“Excuse you,” she said, without looking up.

“Yes, please do.” I covered my mouth in an apologetic gesture.  “I fear I may have eaten too much.”

“I don’t know how you can eat that junk. It’s disgusting.”

“One must eat, or perish. You don’t partake in sustenance?”

“Would I look this transparent if I did?”

I extended my hand to her. “I’m —”

“I know who you are,” she said. “You’re Olwyn’s ex.”

“No, I’m her boy—”

“Soon to be, anyway.” She chuckled. 

A jest, albeit a poor one. It must have been. Ha ha. To each his own.

“Olwyn and I… we’re…”

“Yesterday’s news. She’s got a new beau, from what I hear.”  This got me fuming, against my better nature.

“What would you know about it?”

“More than you, apparently. Olwyn’s been looking for someone like her daddy all these years. She’s finally found him.”  

Camryn was an angry, spiteful, malevolent spirit. Unhappy in her life, and even more despondent post-mortem, she found joy in spreading misery among those merrier than her. I was warned of phantoms like her, but never believed I’d actually run across one. Her intention was to make me angry, outraged. If only I hadn’t allowed her to.

“Fuck you,” I said, storming out.  Her giggling reverberated down the hall, and followed me outdoors, where I kicked several carved pumpkins until one ultimately got stuck onto my foot.  I dragged it all the way to the graveyard, where a parched tree served as my resting place for the night.  The visions my nightmares produced were frightful and ghastly, and contributed to me waking several hours prior to sunrise. I sat, awake, attentive and aware, more than I can ever recall being. Simmering in my misery, and the inevitable torment that was to come, I shut my eyes, but could not ignore the harsh, strident sounds that screeched from the merciless world all around me.


Breakfast of rotten eggs, cooked over easy, served with a side of monkey brain, did little to increase my appetite.  Olwyn’s preparation was absent of her usual chatter, and felt obligatory rather than joyful.  We both expected the other to start the conversation. Little did she know that her stubbornness was nothing compared to mine. I’d take my resentment to the grave, if need be. I already have. At least once.

“Where have you been the last few days?” she asked. 

“At Santiago’s.”  I chewed the food, but didn’t taste it. At length, I swallowed it; it landed with a thud of a handful of sand.  Dull, uninspired, and flat.  

“All three days?”

I nodded: yes.

“What about you?” I asked.

“Oh, you know… this and that.”  

“Look,” I began. “I’m sorry about the other day. I don’t know what came over me.”

“I’m sorry, too.” She smiled, and we both put the incident in the distant past.  I held her hand until it began to sweat, and even thereafter.

“The Headless Horseman is having a bonfire at the edge of town tonight,” Olwyn said. “Everyone’s invited.”

“Including Milford?” I regretted the poor timing of the joke as soon as it left my rotting lips.  She let go of my hand, and distanced herself from me, as if I was the plague.  My subsequent sorry was a bit too little, too late.

“Wow,” Olwyn said, shaking her head.  She grabbed her broom from the corner of the room, leapt on it, and skyrocketed through the crumbling roof until she was but a speck reminiscent of a crow against the gray skies.

The bonfire burned high and bright, its flame nearly reaching the moonlit clouds.  Ghoulville’s citizens surrounded it like curious observers of the underworld’s true emblem.  Frankie was taken aback by the scorching heat, while Vlad the Vampire embraced the warmth as if it was the sustenance he had been in search of for several millennia. I meandered about alone, greeting Walter the Werewolf (We’re way overdue for a boar-and-elk barbecue!), waving to the Swamp Monster (When will you stop by for a swim? he shouted at me; I shrugged, throwing my arms upwards), and shaking hands with the trio of Killer Clowns, whose acute fangs showed like ebony colored knives every time they flashed their demonic smiles at a familiar acquaintance. 

All the while, the fire burned like the infernal pits, its heat perspiring me whole, despite me not possessing sweat glands.  There was no sight of Olwyn, and by the time I made a full lap around the pyre, I was a toasty, sweltering mess, and a poor sight even for someone as pathetic as  Milford.

He stared at the flame, despondent and alone, watching it with the wonder of a child exposed to his first hellfire.  I greeted him out of pity, and only when he turned and waved to me did I notice a loose end of his linen flittering inches away from the flame.  I pointed to it, but he was aloof to my meaning.

“Have you ever seen one this big?” he asked.  With his face covered, I could not tell if he was joyful or frightened.  The loose wrap was kissed by the fire, and began to blaze ever so slowly, unbeknownst to Milford. I wanted to say something, to walk over there and put it out for him, but found my compassionate mind at odds with my bitter heart.  The spark expanded, and eventually reached his left arm. He turned and stared at it, frozen.  

Did he expect it would go out by itself? 

I watched his anticipated demise from where I stood, deciding to abstain from helping.  

It’s not my fault. Some fellas are just clumsy, and ought to be more careful. 

As the thoughts ran through my head, and Milford found his torso immersed in a blazing fire, several spectators rushed to his aid, only to stop themselves short at the fear of the growing conflagration. Above our heads, a blurred flash zoomed by like a muted flash of lightning; by the time we adjusted our eyes, we saw Olwyn at Milford’s side, covering him with her black robe as his burning arm turned into dissipating smoke.  When she was sure he was ok (Are you hurt? Let me see… it doesn’t look too bad. Either way, I have just the ointments for such burns, etc.), she looked around, at length making eye contact with me.  Her eyes were angled, narrow, nearly squinting.  An iron stare crammed with disapproval and animosity.

“Were you just gonna stand and watch him burn?” she asked.

“I… I was afraid of the flame …” It was a lie I no longer believed, and she least of all.  Olwyn helped Milford mount the broom – a spot that was mine not long ago – and as he held onto her, they rocketed into the heavens, and vanished out of sight, leaving a dust of sparks in their wake.  The flame flickered, the wood inside it charred and glowing. Its illumination cast long, swaying shadows across the rugged pavement. Absent-mindedly, I watched them lap the bright fire, like drunken members of a folklore dance. Yet, I could not find my own, no matter how hard I tried.


Since rising from the tomb all those weeks ago (or was it months? or perhaps years? decades?), I’ve not experienced the torment as I had that night.  Sleep was hard to come by, peace of mind an impossibility, and as for my self-esteem, it was non-existent as the compassionate God they spoke of during my previous life.  My arrival in Ghoulville, at first glorious and filled with newfound infatuation, had turned into a burdensome state of resentment towards a woman that I loved, and a walking dead man who had done nothing to me.  And I had no one but myself to blame.  

Well, no more.

I’ll apologize to Olwyn and Milford, and beg their forgiveness. He is not half as bad as I make him out to be, and without her, I would’ve succumbed to complete decay long ago.  If she loves him, and chooses to spend her days by his side, who am I to stand in their way? Her happiness is my utmost priority, even at the expense of my own.  I was long overdue for a proper maturation. No time like the present.

The morning mist was still hovering over the garden as I picked several flowers, and placed them in a fading newspaper (I dug it out of a decomposing pile of trash).  Their colors, aroma and texture injected me with a newfound warmth I hoped to share with Olwyn and Milford, if only they would accept my atonement.

I sniffed the bouquet all the way to Olwyn’s collapsing home, where I saw her from afar leaning against the fence, with Milford next to her.  They were pleasantly chatting, and appeared rather friendly. Very friendly. Yes, perhaps a bit too much.  

My eyes were instantly drawn to their hands, fingers which were intertwined in a manner reminiscent of Olwyn and I only recently.  At the sight of this unexpected courtship, my stomach turned in a flash. The flowers fell from my grasp, like nature’s delicate porcelain, crashing to smithereens on the soft ground.  Whatever I retched on the gravel path smelled neither foul nor sweet, for my sense of smell was absent.  

Before I had recovered from the unpleasantness, I watched Olwyn and Milford’s mouths meet, tongues interact, mucus being exchanged.  It was the vilest display of my undead existence yet. Nausea overcame me, and the heart in my chest that’s been inactive for so long, began to beat with the force of a thousand generators.  I wanted to die, to perish, to cease from this existence and all possible others, yet I felt more alive than ever, much against my desire.

I crouched down, and hid behind the nearby bushes.  Not wanting them to see me, I pondered my next move, as tears I didn’t even realize I was capable of producing poured out of my dim eyeballs, like minuscule waterfalls.  All strength left me, I felt as weak as a newborn, and just as vulnerable.  If cessation was on its way, I’d welcome it with open arms.

I heard Olwyn giggle and chuckle, and was reminded of the joyful laughter we shared in better times.  The memory made me even more miserable and wretched, and as the agony gradually passed, it was replaced with a cold, ruthless hatred towards those who brought such suffering upon me.  My eyes, my mind, my decrepit frame: all they wanted was to reciprocate such pain onto another.

When I rose, no longer caring about being seen, Olwyn was not by the fence.  Milford stood at the same spot, whistling some buoyant tune I associated with the foulest purgatory.  It irked me like an itch I could not scratch, and wanting to put it out, I walked towards him, like a soldier no longer afraid of death.  His rottenness I could not sense like I once could, yet I wondered if he could sense mine.

“Milford,” I said, with a quivering voice. “You’re looking better.”

“Hey. What brings you here?”

“Is Olwyn around?”

He looked towards the ruin that was her home, then pointed to it.

“What’s the matter? You forgot your tongue in Olwyn’s mouth?”

“Zeke… I …” He put up his hands, as if surrendering. But it was too little, too late.

I grabbed the loose end of his linen, and with a swift motion, pulled it. It rolled rhythmically, causing him to spin several times, as a large part of the wrap ended up in my hands. The more I pulled, the more his decaying flesh was exposed.  It resembled a burned victim set infinitely on fire, until the skin was shredded mincemeat. At length, he spun several times, until vertigo overtook him, and by the time I pulled the last strand of his flimsy linen, Milford was nothing but a decrepit bag of bones and dust that masqueraded as flesh.  No longer held together by the wrap, he fell apart, like a poorly pieced together lego toy, and collapsed on the ground into infinitesimal pieces of dirt and ancient powder. 

The ensuing smoke clouded my weary eyes, and as I coughed up Milford’s remains from my inactive lungs, I saw Olwyn standing just beyond the polluted mist.  Her eyes were red, fierce, staring at me with equal disbelief and animosity.

“What have you done?” she shouted. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, YOU MONSTER!?!” She knelt down, scooping her latest lover’s remains in her hand. Her subsequent tears poured and dripped onto the pile of dust.  She continued to shout, curse and howl at me, and rightfully so. I was out of words, and out of excuses. Acting out of anger and severe heartbreak, I had done what felt right at the time. Yet now, as seconds and minutes passed, I regretted my action, and wished I could take it back. But some things can no longer be patched, no matter the level of remorse, no matter the regret.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, for whatever it was worth. At this point, likely nothing.  She may have heard me, or not. But she did not believe me. Either way, it did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore.

 “I’ll be leaving now.”  I turned, walked away, and did not stop until I was miles away from the outskirts of Ghoulville.  

I never saw Olwyn again.

I know not how long I roamed aimlessly in this underworld. The terrain changed multiple times, the flatlands turned into hills and valleys, then into flat prairies once again.  Rain came and went, snow piled on endlessly, only to melt after giving way to soothing sunshine that made everything grow again.  When the fields in all directions resembled those of the past, I spotted a slow moving herd meandering about against the blue horizon.  Their sluggish and uncoordinated walk drew me towards them, and before nightall, I had caught up.

The first sensation was the unbearable stench, a stink I used to emit myself, but had grown unfamiliar with since. Its absence in my life was equivalent to an unpleasant vegetable I abhorred as a child.  Yet now, as an adult, I found a new appreciation for it.  Not only did it not bother me, but I found it enticing, alluring, nearly captivating.

The undead herd walked slow but steady, their heads never turning, their eyes never straying from the horizon.  I blended in amongst them, and instantly mimicked their wooden movement.  We drifted about, chasing the setting sun in slow motion, and I wondered if the herd even noticed my heretofore absence. 

Barlow Crassmont is an English teacher who dabbles in poetry and fiction in his spare time. When he’s not juggling and idling in amateur cardistry, he spends hours pondering what kind of fiction would result if fused by the best works of Egar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Before his hair turns too gray, he aims to experiment with such synthesis.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Stalker” Fantasy by James Hanna

Ollie is a stalker.  I say this to define him not delimit him; his receding brow, poached-egg eyes, and sunken chin inspire to no nobler assessment—nor does his voyeuristic stare imply that he is anything other than a seeker of second-hand spoils.  I do not know him from Adam—I do not even know that his name is Ollie—but I have to call him something if I am to purge myself of a rather loathsome series of events: a sequence that started six weeks ago when I first saw him sitting at my kitchen table.  “Already?” I said when I spotted him in my kitchen; I had at first mistaken him for a tradesman, the gardener who came monthly to my bungalow home, but when he looked in my direction I realized that he hadn’t been invited.  His gaze was too humble, too unintelligent, and conveyed little more than impotent longing—as though he would have liked to engage in conversation but lacked the facility of response.  Were it not for his clothing, a neatly-pressed woolen suit, I would have considered him to be a tramp who had wandered into my house.  I sat across from him at the table and curiously returned his stare.

He would have to leave, of course, but I saw no good reason to call the police.  In spite of the intrusion, he seemed too chubby—too soft in body and soul—to survive very long in a jail.  Anyway, I did not want the help of the police: as a retired probation officer, a veteran with thirty years street experience, I was not intimidated by this short creature and could easily have cuffed him up myself.  I wondered if I had done so at some point in my career—if he was among the many miscreants who had threatened me in open court after I had put them in jail.  But he aroused no affinity: his face was that of a total stranger and his presence in my kitchen conveyed not a hint of Karma.  It seemed, in fact, that it was he who expected retribution: he was trembling as he watched me as though he were expecting me to punch his face. 

I decided to fix breakfast—not because I was particularly hungry but because I did not want to give him credit for interrupting my daily ritual.  I prepared toast, coffee, and scrambled eggs for two, watching him from the corner of my eye as I worked.  He did not stir in the chair, not even after the breakfast was ready and I had placed a small helping in front of him.  Ignoring the plate, he watched me as I ate, his face so solemn that it became inhibiting for me to chew.  Finally, as though doing me a favor, he picked up a single piece of toast, took a few bites from the center, and discarded the crusts onto his plate.  The timeliness of the gesture suggested that he did have a modicum of intelligence—enough to realize that he had overstayed his welcome and it was time for him to go.  I rose from the table, took him by the elbow, and gently walked him to my front door.

Opening the front door, I hesitated: a heavy cloudscape blanketed much of the city, so obscuring the view from my Russian Hill home that I could barely see the bay.  Even Alcatraz, that formidable rock, seemed irrelevant in the fog—a landmark less than a floating companion to the garbage scows that were heading out to sea.  “Do you want an umbrella?” I asked him.  He did not reply—nor did I expect him to.  It did not console me that he was probably a mute; a month of retirement had made me too nostalgic for clamor: the din of the streets, the clanging of jail cells, even the occasional pop-pop-popping of a Glock seemed preferable to the sacrament of silence.  I had almost considered returning to work, but a bullet still lodged in my hip, a souvenir of a gun battle I’d been in a month ago, had given me an overdue hint of my mortality.  I had almost become grateful for my post traumatic stress: my exaggerated reflexes and hyper vigilance were useful in the tennis matches I now played daily at the club.       

“Do you want an umbrella?” I asked him again.  He smiled faintly but made no reply, and so I escorted him to my front gate.  Frowning and shaking my head, I unlatched the gate and pushed him out onto the sidewalk.  “Now you can go,” I said; he smiled once again.  He then straightened his tie and walked in the direction of Polk Street.  


He was sitting at my kitchen table the following morning.  His eyes were still hungry, like those of an orphan, and he was still wearing his neat, woolen suit.  A bump on his forehead, larger than an egg, suggested that he had fared poorly on the street, and I wondered if I should have given him money for safe lodging in a hotel room.  But he did not really strike me as destitute; probably he had enough cash for a room and his plush but humble appearance had contributed to his getting mugged.

Watching him closely, I put on the coffee and opened the refrigerator door.  He showed no interest as I fixed breakfast—another indication that he did not lack for funds—nor did he move a muscle when I placed his helping in front of him.  He just sat as I ate, his eyes roaming the room in the manner of a stockroom clerk taking inventory.  Eventually—I’m sure it was out of courtesy—he picked up a single piece of toast, nibbled at the center, and dropped the crusts onto his plate.

“Are you ready?” I asked him.  I had decided to deposit him at a shelter in the Tenderloin District—an imposing chore since I would have to forgo the doubles match I was scheduled to play in an hour.  This was not an easy sacrifice; I had honed my approach shot to the point that I was now assured of a quick put-away at the net—a feat that distracted me from the seductions of memory and the constant throbbing in my hip.  Still, I did need to get rid of him—an accomplishment that did not seem likely if I allowed him to hang around my neighborhood.  And a shelter in the Tenderloin would not endanger him quite as much as jail; he did not seem totally without resources—not if his intrusions into my home were any indication.  At the very least, he was adept at picking locks. 

When I had finished my breakfast, I rose from the table and took him by the elbow once again.  He hung his head as I led him to my front door, his manner so passive that I felt the urge to bully him.  Instead, I guided him through the gate and out onto the street where my car, a newly-purchased Ford Hybrid, was parked.  After fastening him into the passenger seat, I slipped behind the steering wheel, turned on the motor, and began the downhill descent towards the Tenderloin. 

He lifted his head as we turned onto Van Ness Avenue and then looked intently through the passenger window.  The shops, civic centers, and city parks seemed like novelties to him—sights so compelling and rare that I began to feel like a tour guide.  But the city had grown unconvincing to me, as though it were an estranged girlfriend whom I no longer wanted to take to bed.  And so, as I turned onto Ellis Street and headed towards Glide Memorial Church, I began to pity him. 

As I pulled into the church parking lot, I hesitated: the church, a magnificent relic, did not seem a promising sanctuary but an edifice that was itself in need of charity.  Still, a large group of homeless people were queued up outside it, waiting to be let in for the noon meal.  Later in the day, when the doors again opened, many of them would be back in the hope of acquiring a cot for the night.  But the sight of the church did not dampen my sense of mission; instead, I felt a perverse thrill of accomplishment.  Since Ollie was an intruder in my home, he did not deserve a comfortable deliverance.  He was in fact lucky that I hadn’t taken him to the police.

I pulled into a parking space, turned off the engine, and looked at him sternly.  “Are you ready?” I asked him again.  His lack of response seemed appropriate; the deteriorating church with its marginal bounties was not at all conducive to anticipation.  

Shrugging, he unfastened his seat belt and opened the car door.  He then stepped from the car to the parking lot where he stood stock still as though tied to a stake.  I watched him for a second or two, afraid that he would change his mind, but his face was so impassive that he reminded me of a statue.   I hit the accelerator, backed up the car, and eased back into the city traffic.


He was back in my kitchen the following morning.  The sight of him again sitting at my kitchen table was practically a relief since it spared me the irritation of further suspense.  He had already made himself toast, perhaps to save me the trouble of feeding him, and the crusts were deposited neatly on a saucer in front of him. 

He looked at me and smiled, and his smile bore a hint on condescension as though he were convinced that he had done me a favor.  I shook my head sternly, not letting on that his presence now challenged me.  Getting rid of him was going to be a bigger task than I had anticipated—a project rather than a chore, and I was somewhat in need of a project.  I studied him carefully and began formulating my plan.

I decided on Vegas.  I usually went there once or twice a year, so the trip would not be an inconvenience for me.  I did not go there for the shows or the gambling but for the sensual vacuum it provided me: a sense of unreality not dissimilar to the sight of Ollie in my kitchen.  And so Vegas seemed a good place to unload him; given his doggedness, his obvious talent for obsession, it would be easy enough to hypnotize him with a slot machine while I made my escape.  With any luck, he would then wander into a hotel room, startle a tourist, and get himself thrown in jail on a trespassing charge.

This time I handcuffed him.  He stood obediently as I placed his hands behind his back, slipped the bracelets over his wrists, and set the safety locks.  He even turned his palms outward, an indication that he had been handcuffed before.  “We’re taking a holiday,” I said.  He smiled—an expression of irony rather than gratitude; his obvious contempt for boundaries suggested that his entire life had been a holiday of sorts.  “Vegas,” I added and he nodded pleasantly.

He was humming as I led him to my car—a jaunty tune belonging to an old truck commercial (“You asked for it, you got it—Toyota.”).  I doubt that he meant anything by it—probably it was the last thing he remembered seeing on television—but I felt somewhat vindicated as I fastened him once more into the front seat of my car.  Under the circumstances, a Hybrid would have to do him. 

We drove all day and half way through the night, hitting the Vegas strip a few minutes after midnight.  But although it was late, the strip was jammed with tourists: a transient sight that justified my contempt for excess baggage.  I parked in front of the Sands Hotel then carefully removed the handcuffs.  When his hands were free, he patted me on my shoulder, a gesture that alleviated my sense of discord—the vague but uncomfortable notion that I could be reported for kidnapping him.  He rubbed his wrists as I led him into the hotel restaurant, and he straightened his tie while we waited for a booth.  We snacked on hamburgers (he again ate very little) then I led him into the casino where I bought him a stack of silver dollars.  “Go for broke,” I said, a statement that struck me as somehow redundant.  

I sat him in front of a dollar-slot machine and ordered him to insert a coin.  He complied gingerly, probably because his wrists were still sore, and I pulled the lever for him.  The tumblers, as though wise to my plan, produced three lemons as they pop-pop-popped to a halt.  A landslide of coins tumbled into his lap.  “Go for broke,” I repeated.  He glanced at me, startled by his luck, but picked up another dollar and slipped it into the slot.  This time, he pulled the lever himself: the tumblers again whiled, stuttered to a halt, and three more lemons fell into a row.  Again, a flood of coins poured into his lap, a flow so abundant that it looked as though the machine was trying to bury him.  He clapped his hands eagerly and began feeding coins back into the machine.  He was humming as he worked—that same stale commercial—but his attention was so fixed upon the tumblers that I was able to stroll lazily from the casino and return to my car.

I drove for several hours before stopping to rest at a motel near Fresno.  I slept until noon then got back into my car and finished the remainder of the drive to San Francisco.  The street lights were on when I arrived at my home, but the house looked rather dark, and so, I checked the windows and locks before entering.  In my eagerness to validate my deed—a neat but unsavory triumph—it rather disappointed me that there were no signs of entry.

Once inside the house, I continued my inspection, walking from room to room and opening the closets and cabinets.  The search was unnecessary but engaging, a reminder of the many houses I had searched for weapons and drugs, so it did not bother me that my efforts now seemed lame—a triumph of compulsion over practicality.

When I had finished my inspection, I locked the front door and turned on the TV.  Since retiring, I had resumed my addiction to television—news and sports mostly although I was not immune to the reality shows.  I did not watch the reality shows out of interest so much as a sense of obligation, the ethical notion that a foray, once begun, had to be seen through to its conclusion. 

I sat in my recliner, still stiff from the drive, and grimaced as the screen came alive.  I was immediately irritated by the fruity glow of the Tivo screen: its extensive display of unwatched programs hung before me like a list of chores.  I picked up the remote from the side table, warily lowered the volume, and watched Survivor.


The following morning, he was back.  He was sitting at my kitchen table and stroking a towering stack of coins.  Perhaps he intended to pay me for our short vacation—a notion I did not dismiss as excessive.  He had profited from our excursion, after all, while I was still stuck with the task of getting rid of him.

I decided to take a small break from him.  Retrieving the Chronicle from the front porch, I sat on the opposite side of the table and began reading the news.  I read only the crime reports—another habit I had fallen into since leaving the probation department.  The muggings and drug busts seemed surreal to me now, and I could enjoy them as though watching a sport.  After all, I was no longer responsible for controlling the behavior of criminals.

When Ollie started humming again, I put down the paper.  He was humming the theme tune of Leave It to Beaver—that iconic classic from the sixties about a kid who always fucked up.  Since I had repeatedly failed in my attempts to dispose of him, the implications of the ditty seemed timely and wholly deserved.

But this time, I would be successful.  I had thought it over, while reading the paper, and had decided to fight banality with banality: I would implement a scheme so artless, so stunningly trite, that even an aspiring haunt would be stymied by it.  I would maroon him on an island.

I decided to take him to Kauai.  I had visited the island several years ago and had been struck by its many anachronisms: sunken shipwrecks, prehistoric trees, and jaunty, wild roosters that strutted about like plantation lords.  Since Ollie was clearly a man out-of-place, I had little doubt that he would find his element among the fossils.  If not, let him rot in a tropical jail.

I turned on my computer, went on-line, and booked two airline tickets to Kauai: one of them round-trip and the other one-way.  I then cuffed up Ollie and marched him out to my car.  I popped the trunk out of pragmatism—not spite: the sudden realization that I had made stalking too attractive to him.  When I shut him in the trunk, he bawled like a calf and began to kick furiously at the locked lid.  Ignoring the racket, I dashed back into the house, stuffed some clothes into an overnight bag, and quickly returned to my car.  The thumps became fainter as I drove to the airport, muffled by the heavy base from my CD player.

Arriving at the airport, I parked the car in the long-term-parking garage and let Ollie out of the trunk.  His suit was torn and he was bleeding slightly from the scalp, a superficial graze that I was able to clean up with a handkerchief.  “You do have a choice,” I said to him sternly.  “Don’t think that you don’t have a choice.”  He looked at me solemnly, his eyes wide with fear.  “Don’t flatter yourself that I’m kidnapping you.  You do have a choice.  You can come with me now on another vacation, or you can accompany me to the city jail.”  He winced at the mention of jail, his eyes now wider than doorknobs.  “Now I know you’ve been to the jail,” I said.  “Have you been to Kauai?”  He shivered and shook his head.  “Come on then.”  He began to relax as we headed towards the terminal and soon he was ambling beside me like a faithful dog. 

I flashed my police badge as we passed through security.  The security officer nodded, intuitively aware that I had a renegade in tow, and allowed me to herd Ollie through the metal detector.  I displayed my badge again as we boarded the plane—a pertinent reflex since I suspected I would have to break out my handcuffs once again.  My suspicions were confirmed only half way through the flight when an ear-splitting cry from a female passenger woke me from a nap.  Turning my head, I saw that the seat beside me was empty, that the beverage cart lay capsized, and that the stewardesses had cornered Ollie at the back of the airplane.  When the woman screamed again, I knew that the worst had happened—that she had forgotten to lock the bathroom door and Ollie had pushed his way in.  I sprang from my seat, shouldered my way past the stewardesses, and grabbed him firmly by the shirt collar.  He did not struggle as I hauled him back to his seat, nor did he flinch when I pulled out my handcuffs, encircled his wrist, and then fastened his arm to my belt.  He in fact looked relieved, as though it were he who needed rescue, and he spent the rest of the flight leafing through an airline magazine with his free hand. 

I released him from the handcuffs when we landed in Kauai.  I had hoped to lose him at the airport, but he gripped my hand tightly as I walked through the concourse and followed behind me like a child.  He was clearly overwhelmed by the bustle of airports and seemed hopeful that I would protect him from these new surroundings.  “Tuck in your shirt,” I said to him finally.  He complied eagerly as though the gesture would convince me not to ditch him.

I rented a car, a white Ford Fiesta, and we headed towards the Na Pali Coastline: a rugged expanse of rain forests, waterfalls, and steep cliffs.  I drove quickly, stopping only to visit a scuba shop where I bought him some goggles and a spear gun—not to provide him with tools of survival but to maximize the dangers to which he would be exposed.  Perhaps he sensed my intentions because he hesitated before accepting the gifts and held them tentatively in his lap as we drove along.

After an hour, I turned off the highway and followed a narrow dirt road towards the coast.  The rainforest embraced us like a church, caressing our eyes with a warm filtered light that appeared to sanctify my scheme.  Even a wild rooster, perched cheekily by the roadside, shared in the pregnancy of the moment.  Son, he seemed to say, I screwed three hens before breakfast.  Top that!!  Since the rascal was protected by state law, I rather hoped that Ollie would track him down and eat him—an infraction that would earn him several months in jail.  

I pulled off the road when I spotted a steep hiking trail leading down the mountainside.  “Let’s go,” I said, getting out of the car.  I immediately began my descent towards the coast, not bothering to wait for him since I knew he would follow after me.  I walked for an hour before stopping to rest on a low bluff overlooking a stretch of sand: a beach so isolated that it reminded me of Fantasy Island, a popular TV show from the eighties.  I rested until Ollie caught up with me and noticed with satisfaction that he looked exhausted.  “Hungry?” I said.  He nodded, and I handed him the spear gun and goggles.  I pointed towards the ocean.  “Fetch dinner,” I said.  “I’ll start us up a fire.”

I suspected that Ollie was not a good swimmer, but I knew also that he would not hesitate to go into the ocean.  The desperation in his face, the perpetual plea in his eyes, convinced me that he was less afraid of drowning than the thought of displeasing me.  We hiked the remaining half mile to the beach, and I watched him critically as he dropped his clothes onto the sand.  His body was slumped and anemically pale—so pale that he looked like an alien when he put on the goggles and walked stiffly towards the ocean.  I watched him flounder among the waves and waited until I could see only the tip of his snorkel peaking above the water.  I then dashed back to the forest and began my ascent towards the car.

A rooster crowed as I finished my climb: a piercing Halleluiah that seemed to trumpet my liberation.  But the rascal was probably mocking me, and so, I left little to chance.  After driving to the opposite side of the island, I registered at a Holiday Inn under an assumed name.  I then enjoyed a modest celebration: body surfing, deep sea fishing, and touring the local gardens.  I stayed on the island for almost a week, changing my hotel each day—a tactic that disenthralled me after I found myself involved in a rather cloying affair with a divorcée from Sacramento.  Tiring of the woman’s incessant chatter, I found it convenient not to tell her of my whereabouts when I made one of my daily hotel switches.  On the seventh day of my vacation, when I had relaxed to the point of boredom, I took an early flight back to San Francisco.


The next morning, when I entered my kitchen, he was there.  He was sitting at my kitchen table, buttering a piece of toast, and he did not seem to notice me when I walked into the room.  He was as brown as a berry and smelled strongly of fish, so it took me a moment to recognize him.  I stood there, watching him for a minute or two, and then sat down at the opposite side of the table.  

Leave,” I said firmly.

  He raised his head, smiled, and then put down the toast.  Nodding pleasantly, he folded his hands in front of him and gazed compliantly in my direction.  For a moment, I was afraid he would honor my request—a concession that would have only put off the problem.  Since he would be certain to return, it was essential that I take full responsibility for his disappearance.  And there were still many places I could dump him: the Australian Outback, the Alaskan tundra—perhaps I could even sneak him aboard the NASA shuttle.

I retrieved the newspaper from the porch, returned to the table, and began reading through the travel section.  While I read, he went back to buttering the toast—an effort so prolonged that he looked like an artist touching up a painting.  I was grateful for his predictability, his total simplicity of soul—these qualities assured me that his luck could not possibility endure.  But his transparency in no way affected my resolve—my steely determination to get rid of him entirely. 

I sighed, shaking my head while suppressing an inevitable pang of pity.  This time, I knew what success would require and this time his frolic would end.  I studied the paper and planned my campaign while he puttered around with the toast.


He has come to see me each day for the past month.  He shows up in my kitchen every morning at 7:30 sharp and makes his departure around noon.  He seems oblivious to the intricacies of my plotting—a masterful plan that will relegate him once and for all to the graveyard of unwanted guests.  And he continues to eat little: half a piece of toast with an occasional pat of butter is usually enough for him.  On Sundays, he takes jam. 

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Ghost Riders” Dark Fantasy by Aidan Alberts

Hurtling through the shrouded cover of the burning town of Paradise, Frank’s fingernails carved deep into the black leather of the steering wheel. He did not appreciate the mechanistic sound of a cocking shotgun, or the way the gun’s silver barrel scattered little beams of vermillion light in his personal space. The twelve-gauge muzzle pushed into the side of his forehead, while he bit his lower lip.

Frank couldn’t believe his luck after minutes before he had narrowly escaped death by fire, only now to find himself on the wrong side of a gun. Earlier this morning, he had stared up at the pitch-black fortress of smoke that rose like a dark tide out of the mountains. Back burns, fire breaks and any thought of containment were useless when it came to controlling this magnitude of fire. For the people on the west side, the wind was a blessing and for the unlucky souls to the east, it was their damnation. Every town cradled eastward in the Sierras was bound to be devastated. Already at least ten thousand structures had been lost. 

As a volunteer firefighter, he was the last one to take the retreat order. On the way out he would pick up any stragglers as well as his sister’s dog. He still had not forgiven her for the final choice she made and how it all ended up. Before she turned away from this world two years ago, he remembered the sorrow that had taken over her eyes. Those light blue eyes that were a mosaic of emerald and russet brown. He knew his decision to leave last was less than smart, but he was a prideful man who had always had a keen sense of duty to his community.

Frank came to regret his decision. He hadn’t planned on picking up a man on the side of the road who now held him at gunpoint and set his truck on a new course. Instead of taking the next left and saving his sister’s dog, he was now racing into the eye of the fire tornado.

“Do not even ask to slow down. It ain’t happening.”

Frank never gave birth to any words knowing it would not matter anyway and pressed harder on the gas pedal. The prodding muzzle lifted off his temple. The blood flowed back into the violated area of his scalp and the pale white circle of skin turned to a slight pink. He thought better of side eyeing his captor. Here, in the town of Paradise, driving seventy miles an hour in a thirty miles per hour zone, Frank prayed. Pretty quickly his atheism was incinerated when he saw cabins engulfed in nightmarish fire. Frank started to pray to a god he didn’t know the name of and impatiently waited to hear back. Oh, I am going to die anyway, might as well try.

“Why do you wish to throw your life away?” asked Frank.


“She cannot be saved,” said Frank. “This scale of wildfire is like no other we have ever seen. Twenty percent of California is burning. The best you can hope for is to die through asphyxiation. Most won’t be so lucky. If she truly is still in the cabin’s basement, all you will find is——”

“Shut it and drive.”

Frank’s eyes seared with smoke while sweat dripped causing his vision to blur. He had no choice but to take a hand off the wheel to wipe his eyes clear. Sparks smacked into his soot-covered windshield as if a portal to hell had opened releasing the Devil’s horde of fiery creatures. All around them flame-coated pines cracked and exploded violently, vibrating the already unsettled driver. Frank knew rounding every curve led deeper into the fire, lowering his odds of survival. Why at a time like this was he worrying about his sister’s dog, Wally, who was trapped at home a few miles behind him? That adopted mutt was the only remembrance of his sister, and he loved the warty old fleabag. He would have turned around right away if it were not for the guy with a gun. The battered chassis of the truck continued to barrel onward through the ravished town of Paradise. 

“My daughter is alive. You’ll see,” said the guy with a country twang. 

While Frank continued to sweat it out, the man with the gun turned his face out of view, grimacing at the idea of losing his daughter. His attention shifted off Frank for a moment as he recalled holding her tiny pale hand, praying that her wasting disease would not take her away from him. His soul would die strand by strand as he would run his fingers through her five-year-old hair, and it would fall out with each gentle stroke. 

“Take a right here,” Frank’s captor said.

Frank obeyed. The truck lurched, swinging them both to the left side. He took his foot off the gas for a moment before remembering the gun and pressing back down.

Rounding the curve, both riders found themselves faced with a wall of fire. A pine had fallen with its branches swarming with flames, dancing, and leaping twenty feet in the air. If not for the light of the fire, the black smoke from the pine would have made the road impossible to see. Instinctively Frank hit the brake.

“C’mon hit the gas you moron!” The shotgun muzzle shoved back on his already tenderized scalp and this time drew blood.

Frank put his foot to the floor. The fire truck surged forward, a thirty-ton machine of power rumbling onward reaching nearly sixty miles per hour.

As the truck smashed into the tree, a downed trunk with burning branches was instantly transformed into a cloud of embers and coals. The remnants of the trunk swung outward like a lever and rolled down the hill. A fiery log of death no doubt crushing any curious small mammal unwise enough to peek out of its burrow. 

The truck survived the collision but not without leaving a tree-sized dent in the bumper and hood. The blazing crimson truck continued to careen down the debris-covered road with the determination of an escaped convict. Frank caught his breath, turning to face his captor.

“Can I at least know your name if you are going to make me die here?”

Silence. The shotgun shifted uneasily in the man’s hands.

After a few moments of silence, he said “Jerry, Jerry Hawkes.”

This was not the first time that Jerry’s life had come close to an end. A few years prior, he had been hiking and came across an old rusted double spring bear trap. He only noticed it because a tiny black bear cub wailed in its clamped jaws. Its plush fur and little leg smashed inside spiked metal teeth. Little pink tendons hung exposed, and shards of bone were strewn around its flailing body. He could not help but run over to it regardless of the likelihood of a nearby mother. Getting on his knees he made eye contact with the little dying cub. Seeing those brown eyes reminded him of his daughter as he attempted to pry open the unforgiving trap. Behind Jerry came the distinctive sound of branches cracking and bushes being crushed. There was no time to get out his revolver. Almost instantly he was pressed into the ground, hands barely protecting his head. His body was thrown about in the grass like a ragdoll. She bit his arm and tore out red muscle, nerves and tendons and he screamed unleashing even greater fury from the momma bear. Slashing a razor blade claw across the side of his head, she nearly scalped him. Each new bite smashed into him like a sledgehammer armed with teeth. Then she suddenly stopped and leaned in to meet his face with hers. The hot breath from her snout filled his senses with the smell of blood, manzanita, and dead fish. Satisfied that Jerry was dead, the bear bounded away into the bushes. After a few moments, Jerry feebly pushed himself up to his feet however, nightmarishly the bear came barreling back out of the undergrowth. The force of the contact knocked him off a fifteen-foot escarpment into a ravine full of white thorn bushes. Jerry laid there in a semi-conscious state for a few hours, his blood staining the dirt and his mind drifting through dreams of pain and hopelessness.

Daddy come on, you’re gonna be late! You said you were going to be here.

The fire truck jerked, bringing Jerry back to the situation at hand. 

“I assume you have buckshot loaded in that thing of yours? And that there is no way for me to convince you that we should turn back?”

“Yes and yes.”

“Are you going to shoot me if I turn around? Do you even know how to drive one of these trucks?”

The sound of the shotgun left Frank with a headache, ringing in his ears, and a hole in the cabin’s roof. Dark smoke poured into the front seat making both passengers cough and wheeze.

“What the—heck is—” his face red with coughing and gagging, “—is wrong with you.” 

“Faster now! Next time it’ll be you with a gaping hole in your skull. No more looking in the rearview mirror. There is nothing back there you need to see.” Jerry grabbed the mirror and broke it off.

Mountain road curves kept Frank busy as the truck’s tires started to melt on the hot cement. Frank’s visibility was now limited to just ten feet in front of him. Great swathes of slate-gray smoke clouds blindfolded his windshield and filtered down through the new jagged hole in the roof. 

Frank pointed at the roof, “I can’t see, I have to slow down.”

“I don’t care a rat’s tail,” Jerry gestured with the still warm gun, the words displacing the smoke wafting around his face.

Frank’s lack of visibility left him with no choice but to drive on top of the centerline. The road’s double yellow line quickly gobbled up by their machine of pumping pistons and revolving tires. From above it would seem that a melting fire truck was unzipping the yellow zipper of hell.

Somewhere above, the argent full moon failed to penetrate the deep black void of smoke. The fire created its own obscurity that had wrapped its onyx soul around Paradise. 

Surrounded by the glow of maroon and cinnabar, white beams of the headlights skewered through the torched trees. The vehicle rattled over orange coals and roadkill passing the occasional doomed cabin. Trapped in their cabins, the forlorn souls were ringed by fire and at first sight of the truck, they became hopeful. Fear consumed them once more as the shimmering truck lights faded away. 

Their backs pressed into their seats as the truck climbed suddenly upward. The climb was what Jerry was waiting for.

“Only a half a mile stretch to the top,” said Jerry. “Faster!”

The truck’s engine roared, guzzling gas and belching out exhaust. As Frank’s luck would have it, power lines slammed across the road directly in their path.

The silver muzzle prodded harder into Frank’s skin making it clear there was only one way to go. The chrome bumper battered into the pole of damaged wires blasting millions of neon yellow sparks all over the truck. 

“You idiot!” yelled Frank.

Jerry brought the metallic barrel down hard on his skull. Frank’s vision went dark for a second. His foot instinctively pushed down the brake pedal. 

Fortunately, no more blows came as the truck slowed to a stop.

Through his glazed eyesight, slumped against the driver side door, Frank watched as Jerry swung his passenger door open and sprinted towards a burning cabin. He disappeared into an entryway that billowed out black gloom.

Please die in there, thought Frank.

Frank sat and worried about that devilish chrome shotgun as he gingerly touched the gash on his scalp.

Studying his surroundings, Frank knew that the gift of fire had become a curse on mankind. 

How did it get to this point?

He felt the urge to flee but something wouldn’t let him go.

His thoughts were interrupted by the two silhouettes that stumbled out of the front door. Jerry’s arms were wrapped around a small body with the shotgun still slung over his shoulder. Both figures collapsed right outside the cabin. 

Darn it. Why me? 

Kicking his door open and hopping down, he sprinted towards them.

A little girl that must have been Jerry’s daughter was sprawled out with her face buried in the ashen dirt. She looked small but at the same time aged, more than you would expect for someone so young. A brown velvet sweater decorated with pink and yellow polka dots was wrapped around her delicate shoulders. Jerry on his back remained unmoving. 

Frank carefully lifted the little girl up and carried her slumped body over to the fire truck. Setting her down in the backseat of the truck he felt a slight pulse and positioned her head so her airway would remain open. She is still alive

Climbing up into the driver’s seat, Frank willed himself to close the door, but his arm faltered, and he cursed. Shifting his vision from his outstretched arm to the bleary glass, he saw that Jerry had not budged. The cabin behind Jerry was now a tower of flame.

Getting out of the truck, Frank sprinted to Jerry. He hooked his arms around Jerry’s drenched armpits and dragged the soot-covered dead weight towards relative safety.

The dark sky ebbed with streaks of crimson. In those amorphous clouds of smoke and gas, shapeless patterns crowded into phantom figures that left Frank paralyzed. He rubbed his eyes with one hand, but the specters did not disappear. Red eyed cows plowed across the ragged skies, their brands glowed amber with fire. Hooves made of steel, shadow tusks for horns and a gail of hot wind blew over the land from their wide nostrils.

Frank froze in place and dropped Jerry’s limp body on the ground as he backed away.

The hell tornado continued to whip spiraling circles around the three earthly fire bound souls. All Frank could do was helplessly watch the sky.

The cold maw of the abyss yawned as it spilled out streams of ghostly horses. The rolling plumes of leaden haze thundered. Frank saw cowboy spirits riding hard, releasing guttural and mournful cries that deafened his ears. Their entry into this world fueled the fire and burned down Frank’s sense of reality. 

Gaunt faces of riders emerged from the cloaked blackness. They rode on the backs of hoofed beasts. Leaping over cactus clouds pronged with flames, quarter horse phantoms snorted tongues of fire and pranced in the sky. 

Frank plugged his ears as their wordless shriek echoed across endless skies.

Separated from the truck by a span of thirty feet, he instinctively sprinted back towards the truck, passing Jerry’s prone body.

An unseen root wrapped around his ankle. Frank landed hard and a couple of his teeth shattered. The taste of warm liquid iron filled his mouth.

Frank flipped onto his back. Through a thin film of blood that was dripping from a new veiny gash in his forehead, he saw Jerry rise to his feet, his murder weapon cradled in his arms. 

“You were just going to let us die in there.”

From his supine position he looked up at the sky again, confused as to why Jerry was not seeing what he was seeing. 

“Get up and show me how to drive this thing.”

Scrambling to his feet Frank hobbled towards the driver’s seat. Leaning into the cab, he rotated the battery knob. After turning the knob, he climbed up into the driver’s seat and pushed the truck’s ignition switch. A high pitch sound indicated that the power was on. Pressing the engine button, the truck roared to life. As Frank was disengaging the emergency brake, he noticed Jerry with his hands on the steering wheel and the shotgun resting on his lap.

Lurching forward, Frank grasped the silver barrel, tearing it from Jerry’s grip. Simultaneously Jerry kicked him in the chest, sending Frank flying out of the truck onto his back still clinging to the shotgun.

Popping up to his feet, Frank leveled the shotgun at Jerry as the truck started to move down the hill. In the truck’s rear window, Frank caught the eye of the now awake little girl gazing in his direction.

Frank watched the girl with her hands pressed up against the glass. She was dark with soot and on her wrist dangled a charm bracelet.

He looked down at his own wrist, his sister’s bracelet. Frank thought about his sister and reminisced about her final note to him before she made her choice. He had memorized every word:

I hope that this isn’t our final goodbye but if it is, maybe my decision was a mistake, but then again maybe that is what makes us human in the end, that we make mistakes. 

Maybe in the next existence we will meet again and I can tell you all about how I feel now; maybe I’ll appear in the slideshow of the many images that will be set in motion when your life comes to an end; maybe when you join me I’ll be holding our little Wally, his pink tongue poking out of his toothless mouth; maybe we will meet again and you can bring me my bracelet; maybe this isn’t our last goodbye and I will be one of those hummingbirds you smile at as they hover over your wisteria; maybe I’ll be a tiny raindrop that lands in the cupped palm of your hand; maybe, just once, you will look up at the night sky, and see an ochre streak of light that lets you know that I am coming home to sit beside you. 

Always think of me in that way Frank; never think of me as anything less than your sister.


Frank’s finger hovered above the trigger. His instinct to fight for his life urged him to pull the trigger on the man who sat in front of the wide-eyed little girl.

Jerry slammed the driver side door shut as the truck continued to roll on its downhill trajectory.

Frank lowered the shotgun.

Backing off towards the firestorm, Frank watched as the truck picked up speed and raced off down the road they had arrived on.

Frank let himself weep now as the shimmering hunk of metal slipped into the smoky void. He stood all alone in the driveway of the burning cabin. All around him, trees hissed, and the wind battered his ear drums. A little patch of cement was now the only firebreak between him and the flames. The cabin sprayed out fiery debris that rushed across the pavement.

Here I come Dolores, thought Frank.

Frank had always aspired to one day die in a way that was memorable. But there was nothing memorable about the impending wall of crimson death that flickered around him. Soon, he would be incinerated and become just another number, another casualty of senseless destruction. He would be forgotten to time and creation. 

Frank looked up at the swirling void above him, hoping for some rescue such as the beat of helicopter blades or a sudden change of weather with a miracle of water. Perhaps another smoking fire truck would come barging through the gloom to pick him up and drive off into the blazing sunset.

No one came.

It was just him and the silver shotgun. Firearm cradled in his arms. 

The fire encroached closer.

Standing in the center of the shrinking safety of the driveway, Frank watched as his clothes caught fire. He tore off the flaming tatters and found himself standing bare as a newborn baby. The crematorium began cooking him with its wagging tongue. His vision wavered and he turned towards the volcano of a cabin. 

Piles of bright planks and charred beams fell leaving a gaping hole and the doorway morphed into a bright orange oval. Out of this scorching portal came a muscular and bulky fiery horse. A long face spilling out a mane of flaming hair. He traced the contours of its bulging leg muscles that betrayed its power. The raging beast of white fire sucked in air and wood as it slammed into the concrete. 

On its back, a crowned rider with a set of ruby eyes—if blood orbs could be called eyes. A jet-black shadow forming a dusky pulsating body. The monstrous figure moved closer to Frank. 

The rider extended a dark hand like tendrils of squid ink diffusing into seawater. 

Frank raised the shotgun and fired, crackling the air as his shot struck nothing and ricocheted off what was left of the cabin.

The shotgun fell from his limp hand. 

The rider’s hand remained extended as wisps of black curled around his forearm and wrapped around his body as if he were a dead pharaoh. He fell victim to a certain type of hopelessness that one faces when confronted with the monstrous black hole of the unknown. 

Then he thought of Dolores.

Time passed millisecond by millisecond as the brilliant fire-curtain of this world began to roll back, and all began to morph into silver glass. A great silence fell over his soul, and he felt a wave of self-realization that revealed to him his own selfishness. Frank wanted to tell his sister that he was sorry for having taken her for granted and that now he wanted to make everything okay. He had always loved her unconditionally and Frank now understood her choice. 

Swirling through his mind, his sister appeared with her copperish brown hair falling across her forehead, her cheeks pink red with kindness, her slight smile warm, and her eyes, those light blue irises with shining specks of bronze and green. Those eyes were focused on him. 

Frank remembered his dreams where he would reunite with his sister and hug her, tears running down his cheeks falling onto her shoulder. He longed to sit with her again by the green pond, watching ducks dive out of sight into the depths.

All that mattered to him was commitment to those who he loved. Acceptance—true loving acceptance—of his sister was everything that he could have asked for in this final moment, and now he was satisfied with the life he had lived.

As all his senses began to leave him, he heard his sister’s words echoing clearly in the chaos he was leaving behind:

We will meet again…

Frank smiled and laid down as the world collapsed down into him granting him restful sleep, closing the weary eyes of a man who had now found solace. 


Somewhere far down the hill, fleeing from a fiery world, a little girl’s face pressed up against a passenger side window. In the sky, she saw red eyes framed by muscular black hides stampeding into the funnel of the fire tornado. Bone-white grins of clenched teeth chased after the sleek shadows. Figures twirled cords of formless lassoes, with their curved backs leaning forward on their steeds. Deathless eyes set on the horizon of infinity, riding forever across the endless skies. 

Keeping her eyes on the road disappearing behind them, the little girl waved at her past and for the first time she felt strong. Her attention turned to the sky, following the trail of the riders. Through her tears, she searched for the face of the man with the gun, but she found no sign of him in the sky. 

As her arm grew tired, her hands rested on the cold glass. She was too young to put together the words that could have described what only she and Frank had seen. 

Ghost riders in the sky.

This story was originally printed in Fiction on the Web.

Aidan Alberts graduated from UC Santa Cruz Spring of 2022 with a B.S. in Earth Science. Since graduating, he has learned that he prefers books over rocks. The Karl Lamb short story prize was awarded to him for his story Hymn.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Judy’s Turn to Die” Horror by Gerri R. Gray

There are some things in this world that can neither be forgiven nor forgotten. Betrayal is one of them.

Judy Richter had been my best friend since elementary school. We were like sisters. Inseparable. We shared a bond that kept us connected for many years, through good times and through bad. A bond that was unbreakable, that is until Johnny Hornsby came into the picture.

You see, Johnny was the love of my life. He was good looking, sweet-talking, and a real boss dancer. No one could do the twist, the stomp, or even the mashed potato as good as Johnny. I gave him my teenage heart, along with my virginity, in the back of his Ford Woodie station wagon, where he kept his surfboard. He told me how much he loved me. He even promised to marry me. And, despite all the warnings from my girlfriends that he was no good, I truly believed he was sincere.

No girl should have to die at her Sweet Sixteen party. But I did, back in 1963, surrounded by faceless silhouettes and pink and white balloons, as Bobby Vinton’s voice crooned from the speakers of my record player, “bluer than velvet were her eyes.” Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not the death of my physical body that I’m speaking of, although that would have been preferable. It wasn’t even a spiritual death. It was something far worse than that: it was the death of my innocence. 

Johnny and I had just finished dancing to The Contours’ hit record, Do You Love Me. He told me all that dancing worked up a thirst, so I went over to the punch table to get us each a cup of punch. When I returned, Johnny was gone. I looked everywhere for him but he was nowhere to be found. I felt so confused. Where had he gone? Was he all right? He had never ditched me at a party before.

Later on, just as Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet began to play, I saw Johnny waltz through the door with my best friend Judy Richter by his side. He had his arm wrapped around her the way he used to wrap it around me. Judy flashed me the meanest smile I had ever seen, and I was mortified when I saw she was wearing Johnny’s ring! They strolled past me like a king and a queen as if I weren’t there and began doing a slow drag to the music. Soon they were kissing with such passion that I thought for sure they were going to make out right there on the dance floor.

I suddenly felt everyone’s eyes on me, and I heard them whispering and laughing behind my back. I felt so humiliated, so heartbroken. I just wanted to curl up and die. I tried to pretend that it didn’t bother me, and I told myself, that’s the way boys are. However, the tears staining my lilac embroidered, chiffon party dress betrayed me, as did my lover and my best friend.

How could they do that to me? How could they be so cruel? It was all too much to take. And then something strange happened to me. I felt something inside my brain snap like a rubber band. My tears of sadness became tears of rage. I felt like making a scene—and I did! I opened my mouth and screamed. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. I went ape and threw the punch bowl on the floor. It broke, sending pieces of glass and fruit punch all over the place. I picked up the glass cups and, one by one, hurled them at my guests. One hit Danny Bleecker in the face, breaking his brand new Buddy Holly glasses. Another bounced off of Betty Valentino’s bouffant and hit Mary Lou Kaminski in the forehead, knocking her unconscious. When I ran out of glasses to throw, I pushed the table over and let out a savage growl. Nobody was whispering or laughing at me anymore. They were all screaming and running for the door, some slipping on the wet floor. It was sublime! I continued to rampage until two men strapped me to a gurney and took me away in an ambulance. 

Hey, you would snap too if it happened to you.

Nine months later, Johnny Junior was born, out of wedlock, with protruding ears, bulging eyes and a condition known as facial palsy, which left him unable to laugh or smile, or express any facial movement whatsoever. He was taken away from me after I gave birth to him, and was raised by strangers until we reunited, years later. It infuriated me to learn that these people had horribly abused my son. But it warmed my heart to read in the newspaper that their dismembered bodies had been found in garbage bags along the Massachusetts Turnpike. The killers were never caught.  

The day I returned to my hometown with my son, now a fully-grown man, we moved into the white clapboard rooming house on Main Street, run by old Franklin Jasper and his wheelchair-bound wife, Essie. Neither of them wanted to rent to us; they had their reasons—all of them cruel. But, with the help of Johnny Junior, I managed to persuade them. 

After settling in to our new home, the first thing I did was to get in touch with my old friend-turned-nemesis Judy Richter, who now went by the name Judith Hornsby. I phoned her at the real estate agency where she worked. Using an assumed name and under the pretense of selling a house, I arranged for her to meet me at the Jasper place. The appointment was set for two o’clock that afternoon, and she was right on time, eager to earn her five percent commission, just as she was all too eager to steal my fiancé so many years ago.

“Hello. I’m Judith Hornsby, from the real estate agency,” she announced, a phony smile plastered across her carefully made-up face. She extended her right hand to shake mine while her left one clutched the handle of an expensive-looking leather briefcase, no doubt filled with contracts and forms and other paperwork pertaining to her sales trade.

Restraining my urge to do her bodily harm, I shook her hand in as cordial a manner as I could bring myself to muster and returned the smile. Unlike hers, mine was genuine. I had waited nearly a lifetime for this glorious day, planning for it, rehearsing it over and over again in my mind, dreaming about it until it became an all-consuming obsession gnawing at my sanity like a disease-carrying sewer rat. I invited her inside and shut the door behind her, taking care to secure the deadbolt lock.

“Are you having a party?” she inquired as she gazed around at the pink and white balloons decorating the room. 

Still smiling, I nodded my head. “Today’s my birthday.”

Seeming a bit surprised, she wished me a happy birthday, and then her eyes shifted to my lilac embroidered, chiffon party dress. It was obvious that she was trying hard to hold back her laughter. “Oh my, what a cute dress,” she commented in a polite but condescending voice. Her compliments had always been as fake as her eyelashes. “I haven’t seen anything like that since the early sixties. It’s so…so retro.”

“I do hope you’ll stay for my party, Judy. You don’t mind me calling you Judy, do you?” I asked. Before she could answer me, I added, “There’s birthday cake with candles, party favors, and records to dance to. It’ll be dreamy. Just like in the old days.”

I could tell by the expression on Judy’s face that she was feeling uncomfortable. She began to squirm a little bit, and that pleased me.

“Uh, thank you, that’s very kind of you,” she replied, choosing her words with great care. “But I’m afraid I have a three o’clock appointment over in Marshfield and I’m a bit pressed for time. I’m sure you understand. Now, as far as putting this house on the market, I’ll need to speak to the Jaspers, since the property is in both their names.”

“Of course,” I nodded. “Follow me and I’ll take you to them. Old Frankie boy and Essie are waiting for you in the dining room.”

“You know, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about you that seems awfully familiar,” she remarked. “Maybe it’s your eyes, or your voice. I’m not quite sure. Have we ever met before?”

“I don’t think so,” I lied, enjoying my little game of cat and mouse far too much to reveal my true identity to her before the start of the party. “I’m sure I would have remembered if we had.”

“It’s just the weirdest thing,” Judy continued, unable at this point to focus on anything other than my face. “You really do remind me of someone—a girl I knew a long time ago.”

“You’re mistaken,” I said as I opened the dining room door and ushered her in. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

Seated at opposite ends of the table, under a festive canopy of pink and white balloons and plastic streamers, sat the Jaspers, the top of their heads crowned with glittery paper hats, while multi-colored party blowers dangled from their grayish lips. In the center of the table, next to a large and very sharp meat cleaver, sat a cake frosted with white icing and pink writing that read: Happy Birthday Leslie. The orange glow from the cake’s sixteen candles cast shadows across the mannequin-like faces of the old couple.

A look of horror suddenly raced across Judy’s face. “Oh, my God!” she shrieked. “You’re Leslie! I thought you looked familiar! But, but, how? I mean, I thought you were…”

“Committed to a state mental hospital?” I completed her stuttering sentence for her. “Yes, it’s true. I was. But I’m all better now. See? Just as good as new. That’s why they let me out. I’ve waited so long to see you again. What’s the matter, Judy? Your face has gone all pale.”

“Just what the hell is going on here?” my nemesis demanded to know. “Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?” She called out to the Jaspers, but they didn’t answer. Nor did they move or blink an eye. Silly Judy, she couldn’t tell they were corpses until she ran over to them and tried to shake them awake. They slumped down in their chairs. “Jesus Christ! They’re dead! Did you kill them, Leslie?”

“No,” I replied in my most sarcastic-sounding voice, “they accidentally stuck their heads in a plastic bag and tied a belt around their necks until they suffocated. Don’t be so stupid. Of course I killed them!” 

Judy’s eyes grew wide with horror. “You’re insane! They should have never let you out of that institution! I’m calling the police!”

She reached into the pocket of her blazer and extracted a cell phone, which I promptly swatted from her hand. Before she was able to retrieve it from the floor I stomped it with my foot, smashing it into pieces. 

“You bitch!” she screamed. “You crazy bitch! That was a two thousand dollar cell phone! I’ll see that you pay for that if it’s the last thing I do! I’m out of here!”

I could tell Judy was about to make a run for it, so I grabbed the meat cleaver from the table and blocked the door. “Leaving so soon? I wouldn’t hear of it!” I yelled. “Don’t you know it’s rude to leave a birthday party early? Don’t be rude, Judy. Have some cake. I baked it just for you.”

Judy’s face turned ugly. She told me to “get screwed” and to shove my cake. She hurled vulgar derogatory names at me and demanded that I get out of her way so she could leave. Her rudeness was truly appalling, her conduct most unladylike. And I told her so. She took a swing at me with her expensive leather briefcase and missed. I took a swing at her with my meat cleaver and sliced off a small chunk of flesh from her upper arm. A gush of blood rushed out of the wound. The sound of her scream was pleasing to my ears.

I pressed the cleaver firmly against her throat and ordered her to take her place at the dining room table. With tears streaming down her terrified face, she nodded and obeyed my command. So far, this was turning out to be a very good day!

I cut a big wedge of cake and placed it in front of her on a paper plate. “Have some cake,” I said. 

She shook her head in defiance. 

I pushed the cake closer to her. “I said, have some cake!”

“I don’t want any cake,” she bawled. “I just want to go home.”

“Dammit, Judy!” I was beginning to lose my patience with this one. “I told you to eat the damn cake! What’s the matter? Are you afraid I put rat poison in it? Maybe some razor blades? Crushed glass? Eat it, you ungrateful, back-stabbing slut!”

Judy picked up her fork, but instead of sticking it into her slice of cake like a normal person, she stabbed it into my arm and then leaped out of her chair, running straight for the door. 

My adrenaline was pumping so hard I was beyond feeling any pain. I lunged at her, knocking her to the floor. I rolled her over and began bitch-slapping her mascara-streaked cheeks. It was an exhilarating feeling for me, even though she made me break a couple fingernails. After my hand tired, I pulled her up by her hair, and shoved her back into her chair. I then proceeded to bind her hands and ankles together with balloon string and plastic streamers before yanking the gold band from her finger.

“What are you doing, you heartless bitch?” she cried. “That’s my wedding ring!”

“Johnny was mine, and you stole him away from me,” I hissed. “That ring was meant for me! It belongs on my finger, not yours.” 

“Is that what this is all about?” Judy asked, as I slid the ring onto my finger and admired it. “That’s ancient history, Leslie. It was decades ago! So Johnny chose me over you. Get over it, bitch. Besides, the man is dead and buried now. Let him rest in peace!”

I glared into Judy’s eyes. “I have one question for you: why did you betray me like that? You were my very best friend in the whole world, and I trusted you.”

Judy let out a venomous laugh. “It’s about time you knew the cold, hard truth, Leslie. I was never your best friend. In fact, I’ve always hated your guts! Yes, that’s right, Leslie. I hated you. And still do. The very sight of you literally turns my stomach, and always has.”

Judy’s words stabbed me in the heart like a dagger.

“You were chunky and ugly, and still are,” she continued. “None of the kids at school, including me, could stand to be around you. We all laughed at you behind your back. So did the teachers. Here’s a newsflash: I only let you hang around me because my mother made me. She felt sorry for you. All the while I was secretly wishing you’d drop dead! You don’t know how glad I was when I heard they locked you in a padded cell in that mental hospital. And I prayed that you’d grow old and die in there so I’d never have to lay my eyes on your ugly face again.”

Judy’s eyelids were swollen and her face had turned an exquisite shade of black and blue. It was quite becoming on her. But I felt she needed a little something extra to complete her look. I placed the palms of my hands firmly upon the back of her head and shoved her face down into the birthday cake, despite it being covered with lit candles. She screamed into the frosting and hot wax. 

“Yes, Judy. You were always the pretty one,” I conceded. “And now I’ve made you even prettier!”     

I called out to Johnny Junior, who was hiding in the kitchen, to bring out my birthday surprise. Moments later, he entered the dining room, pushing Essie Jasper’s wheelchair with the disinterred body of my beloved Johnny sitting in it. He was mostly skeletal, his bones held together by the remains of leathery connective tissue and rotting clothing. But in my eyes he was as handsome as ever. And this time he was all mine. “Surprise, Judy! Johnny’s come back to me!” 

She let out a piercing scream, like I knew she would. It was so loud it made my ears ring. I thought for sure she’d shatter the lenses of old Frankie boy’s glasses like an Italian opera singer shattering a crystal wine goblet when their voice matches the resonant frequency of the glass, but she didn’t. Instead, Essie Jasper’s glass eye popped out of its socket and landed on the dining room table, where it spun around like a Hanukkah dreidel before rolling off the edge and onto the floor. I was delighted!

“Oh, sweet Jesus! What have you done?” Judy wanted to know, after she finally cooled it with the god-awful screaming.

“I invited Johnny to my party,” I replied. “And, as you can plainly see, he accepted my invitation.” 

“You demented lunatic!” she screeched. “Everybody always said you were nuts, but this is beyond insanity! What sort of twisted fiend goes to the cemetery and digs up a dead man to bring to a party? I swear to God you’re going to rot in hell for this!”

“Don’t be such a twat, Judy,” I said as I placed a Bobby Darin record on the turntable. “You’re just jealous.” I turned to my beloved Johnny. “I’ve saved the last dance for you, my darling.” I wrapped my arms around him and lifted him out of the wheelchair. Despite not having much meat left on his bones, he still had some weight to him. He smelled like decay and damp earth, just the way a man should. The aroma was like a weird aphrodisiac, and I felt my lady-parts start to quiver. As our bodies swayed to the music, magic filled the air and I was sixteen again, transported back in time. It was ever so beautiful… until Judy had to go and spoil it all by breaking free from her restraints and smashing a chair over my back. There just seemed to be no end to her rudeness. Johnny and I crashed to the floor, his skeletal remains coming apart. It was now my turn to let out a scream. Johnny Junior grabbed my ex-best friend and threw her against the wall with such force that the back of her head put a delightful dent in the plaster. I beamed with pride, as any mother would.

Judy started back up with the screaming and tried to come at me again. Johnny Junior locked her in a reverse bear hug, allowing me to pick up poor Johnny’s now detached humerus and beat her in the head with it until she slipped into unconsciousness, giving my ears a rest.

We strapped her into the old lady’s wheelchair and gagged her mouth so she wouldn’t disturb the neighbors with her silly screams. And then we waited until nightfall. Under the dark cover of a starless sky, Johnny Junior wheeled her down Main Street and over to the cemetery on Dorsey Road, while I followed close behind, carrying our shovels and a lantern. The caretaker of the cemetery had locked the gates at sundown, but I didn’t fret. I simply picked the padlock using a little trick I had learned from a fellow inmate at the hospital. It worked like a charm! The hinges creaked as we swung the gates open.

By the light of the lantern, we made our way up a meandering lane, past a dozen or so rows of tombstones and a fancy mausoleum filled with snooty stiffs from our town’s only millionaire family. It didn’t take us long before we arrived at Johnny’s gravesite. It was just as we had left it the night before with a huge pile of excavated dirt alongside it. We wheeled Judy to the foot of the open grave. I undid her straps and Johnny Junior tilted the wheelchair forward, depositing Judy into the murky pit. She landed with a thud like a sack of potatoes. 

She came to just as Johnny Junior and I had started filling in the hole with shovelfuls of dirt. She squirmed about the rocks and roots like a giant earthworm, which was amusing to watch. And then, to my dismay, the gag came loose from her mouth. She suddenly turned religious and cried out, “Oh God! Help! Help! Save me!”

“Keep you voice down, Judy. You’ll wake the dead,” I laughed. “Besides, God has better things to do than waste His time on the likes of you.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” she cried. “Why?”

Judy never was very bright.

I paused my shoveling for a moment and let out a sigh before enlightening her. “You want to know why? I’ll tell you why. Because… it’s my party, and I’ll kill if I want to!” 

I tossed in another scoop of dirt and smiled, content in the knowledge that Judy Hornsby—no, Judy the Ratfink Realtor Richter—would never sell another house. And it was just as well since the housing market had already hit rock bottom… just like Judy.

Gerri R. Gray is an American novelist, short story writer, editor, and lifelong aficionado of horror and dark humor. She currently has ten published books with HellBound Books Publishing and over two-dozen books with other publishers. She is a member of Ladies of Horror Fiction, and one of her short stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A part-time antique dealer and former B&B proprietor, Gerri lives in upstate New York.

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“The Abyss” Dark Science-Fiction by Brady Ellis

We should never have gone to the moon, I understand that now. Throughout human history there have been myths and fables about the price of curiosity and hubris, of greedily seeking more than we were meant for. Babel, Icarus, The Rotating Wheel –so many tales of warning and yet we never learn. If all those years ago I had said “man is not meant to go to space,” it would have been laughed off as cowardly superstition, and yet I think how much pain might have been spared. 

When the president first asked me to head the Apollo program, I could not have been more honored. My team and I all knew our work was making history, that this was to be a great leap for the history of humanity. How could we have known that leap would be one into an abyss? Since the dawn of time man has looked to the stars with wonder, dreaming to sail among them and know what lurks beyond our home. Perhaps it was some Pandora gene in us all this time, driving humanity towards our doom. We should have been grateful with what we had and explored the oceans instead. We should have appreciated the stars from our view on the ground and left well enough alone. But we have always been a reckless lot.

God forgive me, why did we send a manned craft?

Perhaps there is no point in my writing this. After all, the whole world saw what happened that day in 69. We all cheered when we saw the crew set foot on the moon, all watched in stunned amazement as they took those first steps. And then just as quickly we all felt our blood turn to ice when those things stepped out of the shadows before the camera –those towering pale creatures with the empty eyes. Even now I can see poor Neil, my friend, approaching the nearest one, hand outstretched in greeting. Sometimes I wonder if those things could hear us screaming, the whole earth screaming, seconds later as all three astronauts lay floating dead among them.  For myself, I still hear the last seconds of those men’s screams, those men we sent to die out there in the abyss. Most people only talk about what was heard after the camera went black -that single word from the dark echoed by a dozen voices: “repent,” along with the short blare of that distorted choir hymn. I don’t care what it was or what they meant. All that sticks with me are the screams of those men we condemned. 

There has never been a retrieval mission for the bodies or craft, no serious figure has even suggested it. After what the whole world saw that day, it seems that for once humanity reached an unspoken but unanimous agreement: never again would we reach for the stars. After untold generations of wondering if we were alone in the universe, one swift answer to that question has sent us retreating inwards. The American and Soviet space programs are no more, and in most respects these past thirty years have seen the steepest drop in technological advancements since the dark ages. 

Like everyone else, I’ve tried to move on, took a simple teaching job back home in Boston that gave me the first chance in years to reconnect with family. It was a smarter choice than I realized at the time now that the government has added steep restrictions on interstate travel on top of the ongoing martial law. But of course, it doesn’t really matter where you go anymore, there’s no outrunning the trauma anymore than there’s any outrunning the moon. It’s always with us. 

Sometimes people recognize you  out at the park or store, and there’s that brief moment of wondering how bad things may get before they just give you a look or say “go to hell” and move on. For the most part I’ve been lucky and have no real right to complain, not with what has happened to plenty of the other people from Apollo. In the past five years alone one of us was shot dead and two more are still hospitalized after attacks. For the longest time my wife insisted I try to pull old strings and get us in witness protection, but that hope died years ago. What most people don’t realize is that for ages now just about everyone in the government has at least as much disgust for us scientists as the public does. If anything, I’m shocked the current administration hasn’t just thrown us all to the mob, and the truth is I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

If the lunar incident had been all there was it would still have been too much for our world. But of course not even a full month later the missing probe, Mariner 7, crash landed through that house in Gary, Indiana. Most people believe poor Sandra McDougal was killed in the ruble, but a few of us have seen the official police reports and photos. By this point I had lost the clearance to know what they found in the probe’s remains but after seeing what it had done to McDougal I can’t say I want to know. That pale puppeteer body that lurched out of the house, that took down two cops before they could subdue it, that wasn’t a human anymore. All these years later Gary is still quarantined from the world, and while I would like to hope the rest of its people are doing well it feels safe to assume there is at least some truth to the ghost stories.

I still get a lot of questions from people who assume I’m any less in the dark than the rest of them. Everyone wants to know if there’s a method to lunar entities’ games or if it’s all just random. I don’t personally think knowing either way would bring comfort, because the truth is at this point humanity hardly needs any help making new nightmares from our trauma. We still don’t know who actually replayed their original message on the emergency broadcast system, just like we don’t know what became of the ground crew at Cape Canaveral. In the past people used to speculate how some tragic event or great threat might unite humanity in a common goal, but when the real nightmare came it brought no such ambition. The only thing we’ve been united in is our fear as we all just try to bury ourselves and hide from the world outside. We cheered for the curfew, because who wants to be caught in the moonlight now anyway? We accepted the interstate travel restrictions just as easily as we did the ban on travel in or out of the country. And we’re already on our second ‘dear leader’ with all the answers, despite all the further pain born from the Jim Jones administration. 

I don’t think anyone misses televisions though.

Even after all that has happened, I don’t think I’ve fully processed the Manhattan Rapture. It’s simply too big, too horrific, too unreal even for the world we now live in. Ten years to the day of the original moon landing, an entire island of people just vanished overnight. Of course, now we’ve got all these cults and weirdos claiming it’s all part of some grand design. I don’t know how a healthy mind could have watched the original Apollo footage and called those things angels. No angel could have done those things.

But even I’ll admit they may be right about these being the end times.

I’m told it’s not just the humans, but all animals and bugs too, that were wiped from Manhattan. It’s like they dropped a bomb on the place, but instead of bringing fire and rubble this one simply took, took life without struggle or sound. In the blink of an eye our greatest city became our greatest ghost town. The truth is that I think for most of us it’s worse than if this had been a normal bombing, because we don’t even know these people’s fate for sure. There are no bodies to mourn, no visuals of a world transformed, no answers to that ever-present question of why. 

The only time in my life I felt anything close to the constant dread that now haunts me was a young man in the navy, back at the height of the pacific war. Like now, there was that dread because you knew the enemy would strike again, you knew they were out there planning. But of course, there were two comforting differences back then. The first was obviously that we could fight back, we had a chance of responding. The second is the difference which bothers me most. Back in that war you at least knew what your enemy wanted, what the goal behind their actions was. But now we live in an age where the enemy can make a million people vanish in a second with no notice, where they can toy with us and terrorize us for seemingly no reason at all. So we panic and we hide and we fight each other because we have to fight someone, we have to set free this fear and rage that fills us all. Still each day we wonder, is the big attack coming? Is this all leading up to some grand finale? I think the truth is we all hope it is, because no matter how bad that finale might be, it would at least offer some finality, some escape from this endless torment.

For myself though, I don’t believe there is any end to the nightmare, not for all of us at least, because I think I’ve finally realized what this all is. For so long we were sending things up to space, poking and prodding and seeing what we could learn to feed our curiosity. Now the tables are turned though, and it’s they who are running the experiments, doing what they will to us all just to see what happens and to watch us squirm. We humans gazed too long into the abyss, and now that abyss is gazing back. 

It has taken me a long time to put any words down about my thoughts on this nightmare, but I finally did find a reason to. I could never craft the apology the world deserves for my role with the Apollo program, because no matter how much guilt and shame consume me the crime is simply too big for my words to offer any healing. So instead I’m writing these words to offer my confession. A lot of people from our program aren’t here anymore, and more than a few people have asked me how I manage to keep on despite everything. The shameful truth is that even after all that has happened, I am still curious. As much as it fills me with disgust, I still want to know more, want to see more, just like they do. It is not that I haven’t learned anything, but that I haven’t learned enough. 

I cannot learn enough. 

We gazed long into an abyss that has swallowed us whole, but I gaze deeper still.

Brady Ellis is a writer from Appalachia, Ohio, a graduate of The Ohio State University with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and the associate of multiple infamous cats. When not writing he can be found fueling his caffeine addiction or wandering through the nearest woods.

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