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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“New England Gothic” Dark Fiction by Elizabeth Gauffreau

Do you remember reading “A Rose for Emily,” in high school English class? You know the story: William Faulkner’s tale of a prideful vestige of a bygone era who kills her lover and lives with his corpse in her house until she dies, the townspeople’s discovery of the lover’s skeletal remains at the end of the story all Southern Gothic and delightfully chilling? Well, our town too has its story of a woman who killed a loved one and kept the corpse in her house as she went about her business–although in our case, there was nothing Southern, Gothic, or delightfully chilling about it. You must have heard about the case. It made the national news.

On a chilly morning in April, we were all in our respective homes in our quaint New England town eating breakfast, reading the morning paper, watching the morning news, when police cruisers came to Sycamore Street. The reason for their arrival could not be determined by looking out the window, and we poured ourselves another cup of coffee. Then a coroner’s van pulled into the driveway of Marjorie Broe’s small, gray ranch house, and, in due course, someone was wheeled out of the house in a bag. Marjorie must have passed away. Sad, we’d seen her working in her yard just the day before, and she’d looked in perfect health. Still, she was in her seventies, so not a complete shock. Then Marjorie herself emerged from her front door with a uniformed female officer, who led her to one of the cruisers and drove her away. Who, then, was in the bag? The yellow crime scene tape went up. The state police crime lab van arrived, followed by the local news vans.

It didn’t take long for the news media to inform us that the person who had died in Marjorie’s house was her eighty-five-year-old sister Anna. We had no idea Anna had been living there. She’d stayed with Marjorie the previous year, but no one had seen her in months, and we assumed she’d gone into a nursing home. Marjorie, the media informed us, was staying with friends while her sister’s death was being investigated.

Something wasn’t right here. The contents of Marjorie’s small, gray house on Sycamore Street were being methodically removed in sealed bags. The circumstances of Anna’s death slowly began to come out. She hadn’t died where she’d been found. She had died well before Marjorie called the authorities. Her injuries were inconsistent with a fall. Marjorie was arrested.

As we waited for the final autopsy results to be reported, we remembered an incident that had happened about six months before Anna’s death, the last time she kept her weekly appointment at the beauty parlor to get her hair done. She was quite infirm by this time, barely able to walk unaided. Her one pleasure left in life was her weekly shampoo and set, done in the old-fashioned way with brush rollers and the big bubble dryer. Marjorie drove her to the beauty parlor as usual, but instead of helping her sister out of the car, Marjorie leaned across her to open the door, pushed her out, and threw her cane out after her. Then Marjorie just drove off. And she never went back to get her. The shop owner drove Anna back to Marjorie’s house herself. Marjorie was none too happy to see either one of the, muttering about never being a allowed a moment’s peace as she slammed the door. After that no one could recall seeing Anna until she was wheeled out of Marjorie’s house in a bag.

In her youth, Marjorie was a beautiful girl, with fair skin, fine features, and dark curly hair that had no need of the beautician’s ministrations. She had a smile I was about to describe as radiant, but, no, I don’t think it was. Marjorie had an impish smile, the smile you see on the face of someone who has never experienced a moment of boredom in her life. Back in those days, she appeared taller than she actually was, with a figure that the older generation described in the old-fashioned way as willowy. She had a real gift for playing the piano. She’d learned to read music before she started school, and she could play any song by ear after hearing it only once. As you can imagine, she never missed an invitation to a party. When she was crowned Miss New Hampshire of 1952, none of us was surprised.

After her reign as Miss New Hampshire ended, Marjorie married Billy Broe and settled into married life. She was active in her church, singing in the choir, serving on the altar guild, visiting shut-ins, contributing her best coconut cake to the bake sales. She volunteered at the school when the teachers needed extra help, and she started a book group at the public library. She babysat our kids when the young mothers among us needed to run errands unencumbered. The kids would come home all sticky from eating graham crackers and molasses because Marjorie was fearful of hurting their little hands and faces if she scrubbed them clean.

Billy bought her the house on Sycamore Street, and she made it into a nice little home for the two of them, picking out the furniture, painting the walls, sewing all of the curtains and slipcovers herself, at last finding a place for all of their treasured wedding gifts. She even painted the exterior of the house herself, faithfully, every five years, standing on a step ladder with her hair done up in a red bandana as she waved her paintbrush at passersby. Marjorie and Billy never had children, and of course there was speculation as to the reason why, but I don’t think we were mean-spirited about it. I hope we weren’t mean-spirited about it.

As for Anna, she was ten years older than Marjorie, so she wasn’t in the picture much. As far as any of us could recall, there had been no animosity between the two sisters growing up. They’d just never been close. As adults, Anna had her life as a single woman earning her living in a neighboring town, and Marjorie had her life with Billy.

In 1984, Billy died of a massive heart attack shoveling their front walk. A neighbor found him face down in the snow with the shovel still in his hand. When the paramedics got there, they didn’t even attempt to resuscitate him. They just loaded him into the ambulance and took him away. Something happened to Marjorie after Billy died. She dropped out of her community activities and stopped attending church. She gained weight. Her features coarsened and sagged. Her hair thinned and lost its curl. Obviously, we tend to let ourselves go when we’re grieving, but this was different. We all lose our looks as we get older, too, but this was different. Something happened to Marjorie.

Years went by. The people on Sycamore Street reported that an elderly woman was now living with Marjorie. This woman could be seen passing in front of the picture window pushing the vacuum cleaner, out sweeping the front walk on warm days, working side by side with Marjorie in the flower beds. We weren’t surprised. Even with the changes in Marjorie following Billy’s death, we’d expect her to take in a relative in need. We’d expect her to be kind.

The news reports were muddled. Marjorie denied to the police that she’d hit her sister. Marjorie admitted backhanding her sister but not killing her. Marjorie admitted killing her sister but not on purpose. Marjorie confessed to killing her sister out of malice to put an end to her constant demands. Marjorie recanted her confession. Marjorie was arraigned to stand trial. Marjorie was found fit to stand trial. Marjorie was found unfit to stand trial.

In the end, none of that mattered. In the end, blood told the story. There was blood in every room of the small, gray house on Sycamore Street: in the kitchen, in the living room, in the hallway, in the bathroom, in the dining room, in both bedrooms, and on the enclosed porch. There was blood on Marjorie’s clothes in the hamper, blood on more of her clothes in the trash in the garage, and blood on paper towels in the trash. Marjorie had followed Anna through the house for the better part of a day, beating her until she went down and then beating her again when she managed to get up, the blows delivered with such force that the diamond ring Marjorie wore punched patterns into her sister’s flesh. When Marjorie finally tired of it, she delivered a series of kicks that left Anna with twenty-two broken ribs, in addition to the two black eyes and carpet-bombing of bruises on her face and chest, finally leaving her on the floor to bleed softly, gently into her brain until she died. Then Marjorie dragged her sister’s dead body across the living room floor and shoved it down the steps to the enclosed porch, where she left it for three days while she puttered about the small, gray house on Sycamore Street, stepping over the body and back when she went out to the porch to water the plants.


Elizabeth Gauffreau writes fiction and poetry with a strong connection to family and place. Recent fiction publications include Woven Tale Press, Dash, Pinyon, Aji, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and Evening Street Review. Her debut novel, Telling Sonny, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.


“Telemarketing is Evil” Horror by Thomas White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Thin Skin” Horror by Kilmo

The tall figure in the drab olive parka grimaced as another gust of freezing drizzle slapped into his face. Five hundred miles from the Scottish Highlands and the weather had followed him like an old friend. Ben gave the whistle he’d borrowed from the P.E. department a blast mildly surprised it still worked with all the water in it.

“You, Jaxon, isn’t it?” he scraped wet hair out of his eyes. “Play by the rules, or I’ll send you off.”

The youth who’d just thrown a punch at his opponent gave the teacher a surly look and went back to chasing the ball.

“Sir?”

Ben felt a tug on his arm.

“Wait son. Not everyone can be on at the same time. You’ll get your turn.”

“No, sir. That’s not what I meant. Whose dog is that? Is it one of those fighting breeds?”

“What dog? Where?”

Ben peered through the rain. Sat at the edge of the sodden playing fields was a dog, a very big black dog, staring at the pitch and Ben got the feeling it wasn’t the ball it was interested in. He strode toward the mutt making flapping motions as he tried to imitate something large and dangerous.

The stray didn’t budge.

“Go on shoo. Get out of it.” For a moment Ben’s feet slowed. “I said shoo. Go find your owner.”

A growl began deep in the animal’s chest and Ben glanced back. The teams on the pitch had come to a halt. He supposed even footie paled in comparison to watching the new teacher get ripped to shreds.

“Right,” muttered Ben under his breath. “Think a wee jessie like you’se going to scare me? Where I come from, you’re nothing but a poodle.”

He was close enough by then to make a grab for the hound’s neck and he was just debating his next move when it made it for him.

“Agh, gerroff,” screamed Ben as what felt like a beartrap closed around his knee. “Help! Call the police!”

The dog was really getting stuck into its work now worrying at his leg like it was trying to snap it in half.

“Teacher, teacher, you Ok?”

The sound of stampeding feet reached Ben’s ears and with a last snarl the dog let go. As Ben finally toppled over, he saw his attacker’s eyes. They were the green of jade in an emperor’s tomb, and they did not belong in a dog like that’s face.

Sprawled on the sodden grass Ben gingerly peeled up his trousers.

‘You little . . ..’

Ben finished with a few choice words that weren’t intended for underage ears and was surprised to hear no answering giggles. For a rare moment, his group of inner-city hoodlums had been struck dumb. As his fingers traced the ragged edges of the wound the dog had left, Ben realized he was clutching something. He flung the broken collar to one side. There was going to be hell to pay when he caught up with the hound’s owner.

Something electronic was being tortured next to Ben’s ear. He groaned as the sound resolved into the rattle of his telephone and flung out an arm.

“Hallo?”

Memories of yesterday’s events began to crowd through Ben’s mind – the hospital, the concerned face of the principal telling him to go home and rest. He groaned louder, there’d been a policeman too, and last but not least, the bloody wound he’d hidden under a blanket when he’d collapsed on the couch.

“It’s me laddie, you Ok? You don’t sound very good.”

Ben snapped back to the present. It was Gran, ever the early riser she’d phoned to check up on his big move to live with the sassenach’s.

“Gran . . .? I’m fine.”

Ben blinked the last of the sleep away momentarily surprised. He really was fine; he even felt quite good as he realized a glorious day was beaming in through the flat’s windows.

“That’s a relief. How are you settling in? Been mugged yet?”

Ben grinned. As far as Gran was concerned anyone from the city was a dangerous criminal, or worse.

“Not yet Gran.”

“Well don’t you go doing anything stupid. You’re my favourite grandson.”

“I’m your only grandson.”

The sound of laughter echoed down the line.

“Ah, but I’d liked to have had more. Much more.”

When Ben had finished placating the woman who’d raised him from infancy, he replaced the phone. He’d carefully avoided telling her anything about the attack. The last thing he wanted was the old dear bouncing around her cottage pulling her hair out over tetanus and rabies.

Ben stared at the end of the couch and the lump where his leg was hidden under the blanket.

“One, two, three.”

He whipped it back half expecting to see a stump, but after all the fuss and bother the bandage looked embarrassingly small. There wasn’t even a hint of blood.

“Plenty yesterday though.”

Ben reached gingerly for the gauze. A stern looking nurse had told him to leave well alone, but Ben was an inveterate fiddler. He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the damage.

“Oh.”

Ben stared at the spot where the dog had dug its teeth in in a neat row of nearly identical puncture marks.

“That was quick.”

Where there should have been scabs, or puss, or anything that showed evidence of how much it had hurt, there was just a row of silver scars. Carefully Ben put his foot on the floor and raised himself off the couch. He had a bit of a limp, but that was all. He hobbled to the window. Below him the city’s rooftops spread into the distance. The principal had said a week off, and there was a whole city to explore.

It was getting dark by the time Ben returned from browsing the record shops and second-hand stalls and the lights on the tower block’s walkways had just clicked on when he stepped inside.

“Lift’s out again bud,” said a Rasta with grey dreadlocks jammed underneath his woolly hat. “Third time this week.”

Ben finished stabbing at the lift’s buttons and looked around despairingly.

“Stairs are that way. Hope you haven’t got far to go.”

The man disappeared outside as Ben hobbled toward a fire door marked “stairs” pushing it open to find a nearly lightless shaft decorated in industrial grey paint. He waved his hand in front of the motion sensor and cursed when nothing happened.

Halfway up his wound finally decided it had had enough.

“Damnit,” Ben wiped his brow as he struggled past another landing. Maybe he should sit down for a moment? He hadn’t seen anyone during the whole climb although occasionally voices reached him from below. He’d just let his eyelids close as he tried to ignore the dull thud of pain when he was stepped on.

“Oh my God!” said a woman’s voice before Ben’s hand shot out and grabbed the figure about to continue her journey downwards at a much faster pace.

“Get off me. What the hell are you doing sitting there in the dark? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”

“I’m really really sorry,” said Ben clambering to his feet. “I had an accident yesterday and I’m having a bit of trouble climbing these stairs.”

There was a pause and the sound of panicked breathing calmed.

“I nearly went down the lot, all at once.”

“I know, like I say I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

“Trainers,” said the woman absently. “I’m going for a jog. You’re the new guy, aren’t you? The teacher that’s just moved in?”

“That’s right.”

“Do all people from Scotland like lurking around in unlit stairwells then?”

“Only the troglodytes like me.”

There was a small chuckle that quickly stopped.

“Well . . . no harm no foul, I suppose. Hope you get better quick.”

She was already moving off, but before Ben could stop himself his mouth had opened, and words were coming out.

“Let me make it up to you. Come round for a brew. I don’t know anyone yet in town.”

He still couldn’t see her face, but her back had stopped a few steps down.

“How do I know you’re not a weirdo? There’s plenty of them round here.”

“Ermmm, we could leave the front door open?”

There was another chuckle, longer this time.

“Ok new boy.”

“I’m in flat . . ..”

“Don’t worry. I already know.”

“Great,” Ben’s mouth flapped as he tried to think of something to say. “Give me a shout this evening?”

“Bye Ben.”

He felt his cheeks grow hot.

“Bye . . . wait. What’s your name?”

“Eden.”

It had been a success Ben decided as he finished clearing away the last of the plates. Ok, they hadn’t fallen into bed, although that had been exactly what was on his mind when he’d opened the door and seen the woman standing outside. Eden was beautiful, from the tips of her fingers to her clear blue eyes. She was everything her name implied. She was also nobody’s fool, and it looked like she wanted to know what she was dealing with before she decided where she wanted it to go. Besides, decided Ben, it was nice just to know someone on the block.

He flicked out the kitchen light, drying his hands on his jeans as he crossed the front room and stopped. It was nearly midnight and the place should have been in darkness, but outside the moon sailed fat and silent and so huge it seemed to fill the window from side to side. Even the walls were painted silver. Ben felt a vein in his temple begin to throb. What was up with him? He could barely tear his eyes away from the sight.

He looked at his foot. It had begun to throb too.

A second later he was doubled over as pain seared up his back. A second after that and Ben began to scream.

Ben was starting to get used to waking up confused, but it soon became obvious something was badly amiss this time. He was lying curled up in the middle of the room, and there was no sign of his clothes. His eyes travelled round his devastated flat as he stood up trying to avoid broken glass. It looked like every stick of furniture had been smashed and there were gouges in the walls big enough to lose your finger in.

A knocking began to fill the air that quickly turned into pounding. Ben grabbed his dressing gown before his front door could fly off its hinges half expecting armed police to come bursting in.

“What was it then? A party?”

He squinted blearily at the short gray-haired man vibrating with rage in the hall.

“Kept me up half the night you did. Howling and moaning and carrying on. Who’d you think you are?”

“I . . . I . . .,” stammered Ben.

The man stuck his finger under Ben’s nose and leaned in.

“One more night like that and I’m coming down here mob handed.”

Before Ben could say anything else his neighbour was striding down the corridor leaving him to retreat into what had been the safety of his flat. It felt like returning to a war zone.

By the time Ben had managed to deal with the worst of the mess he needed to talk. He eyed the phone and sat on the one unshattered stick of furniture he still possessed.

“Eden?”

“Ben, I was wondering if you’d call.”

“Do you fancy going for a drink? I could do with a friend right now.”

There was a pause and then Eden’s voice returned.

“Sure.”

They’d walked into the city centre at dusk, or in Ben’s case limped, with him growing increasingly worried he was losing it. He’d never been a paranoid person but every time he looked over his shoulder, he got the feeling something had ducked out of sight, and beyond the street lights the shadows were full of movement.

“What’s wrong Ben? You seem jumpy.”

For a moment he was at a loss for words.

“You’ve lived round here a long time, haven’t you?”

“Since I was a kid, yeah.’

“So, you’d know if anything bad had happened locally?”

Ben had kept the TV on all day, but there’d been nothing he could find on the news.

Eden gave him a look.

“Like what?”

“An attack? A mugging maybe?”

“Well, all sorts of things go down round here. It used to be much worse, but it’s still a rough neighbourhood. Not everything gets reported. What’s happened Ben? I like you, but I need to know. I don’t want to have to point out we’ve only just met . . . but . . . well . . . we’ve only just met. You know?”

She looked away and Ben felt a twinge of guilt. He’d no right to get her mixed up in whatever was happening to him, but he was far away from home in a strange city, and he had nowhere else to turn.

“The bite.”

“The dog bite?”

“Yeah, I think it might be infected.”

“Then go to the hospital.”

“I’ve been. This . . . this . . . is something different.”

Now it was him having trouble looking Eden in the eye and for a moment he was distracted by movement on the street’s far side. A dog was sitting on the kerb watching him. Soon it was joined by another.

“We have to go.”

“But we’re nearly there. What’s wrong Ben?”

“I don’t know. Something’s up.”

For a moment Eden didn’t move, and then she shook her head and raised her eyes to heaven.

“Why is it always the loonies? Why?”

Ben might have laughed, but where there’d been two dogs now there were three.

“Come on I’ll tell you what I mean back at the flat.”

He talked a mile a minute on the return journey. Ben couldn’t help himself as the words poured out. He’d covered everything from politics to religion before even coming within sight of home. Anything to avoid the thought that was growing at the back of his mind. When they reached the underpass, he paused. The lights were out.

“What’s the matter Ben? Scared of the dark?”

Eden’s eyes flashed in the streetlights before they stuttered and died, a minute later and they were back.

“No,” he shuffled in the tunnel’s direction with a feeling like something had walked over his grave and glanced at the sky. But there were only clouds overhead, no moon, and the sight made him feel happier than he wanted to admit.

They were halfway down when the first silhouette appeared.

“Eden. . .”

“It’s just a stray. There’s loads of them round here these days.”

The dog growled and filled the air with frantic yapping.

“Don’t go near it,” Ben sounded like he was looking at an unexploded bomb. “It might have something nasty.”

But Eden was already bending down with her hand outstretched.

“Hush now,” said his neighbour. “Who’s a good boy?”

They were still waiting to see what Eden’s new friend would do when more dogs began to stream down the grass. Before long there were so many they’d blocked the footpath completely.

“Erm, Ben?”

“I see them. Let’s go a different way.”

The pack began to run, but as Ben pushed Eden behind him the lead dog’s ears flattened.

There was a pop, and the underpass lights flickered on.

“What the hell’s it doing?” said Eden peering over his shoulder.

“It’s submitting,” answered Ben watching the dog lying on its back with its paws in the air. It was looking at him and whining. The others had stopped too, and at the pack’s edges the first were slipping into the night.

“That was because of you, wasn’t it? They were going to attack. You stopped them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”

The next day Ben was looking at a squat concrete building on the edge of an industrial estate. A river curled round its side and across the black water stood the sort of forest whose trees looked like they’d be better suited for hangings than the tiresome business of growing and putting forth leaves. Ben checked the ID tag on the collar again as litter swirled past his feet.

“City pound.”

Next to the title was a number and a barcode. If the dog had had a name, they hadn’t known it. Ben let himself through the security door as distant howling reached his ears. Inside cheerful pictures of puppies and smiling children were everywhere. There was even a poster made from multicoloured handprints intermixed with paws. Only the security glass in front of reception let you in on the lie. Ben supposed some dog owners must get pretty upset when they learned their pet’s fate.

“Hallo?” said Ben leaning toward the grill.

There was silence and then the sound of muffled barking grew louder for a moment. A woman with the pale skin of a Russian princess and jet-black hair framing a face with barely any wrinkles had appeared from the murky interior. She gave Ben the sort of predatory smile that made him think of crocodiles.

“Can I help you?”

“Well, yes. Is this one of yours?”

Ben deposited the torn collar in the security draw and watched her slide it over.

“Ah.”

“That’s right hen, ah. That dog took a chunk out of me the other day. What’s it doing loose?”

The woman behind the glass had taken a step back to examine the evidence and when she looked up her eyes stayed in the shadows.

“I’m sorry you were troubled. That particular dog managed to escape. But it’s recently returned. I’m afraid she has a mind of her own.”

“Are you in charge here?”

“I run this place now, yes. My name’s Lykania Holyhead.”

“Well Miss Holyhead I want her put down. She’s dangerous.”

“Of course, it’s natural you should feel that way.”

The woman must have taken another step back, thought Ben although he hadn’t seen her do it, and for a moment he felt like he was talking to something in an aquarium. Only her face floated in the darkness lapping at the window’s far side.

“If you’d wait there a moment. I’d like you to identify the miscreant. We wouldn’t want to destroy the wrong animal, would we?”

Ben nodded and propped himself against the counter as he surveyed the room. Before long, a frown grew on his face. The tracks he could see must have been there weeks, and as he looked other things began to leap out at him. Why was the date on the calendar from the month before? Even the plants were in the last stages of their death throes. Ben took a step forward. The marks on the floor . . . he peered closer. At first, he’d taken them for mud but there was something else he knew of that dried to that colour. He followed them round a corner where they ended at an office marked: “Manager”.

The hairs on the back of Ben’s neck rose, and when he pushed the door wide, he knew why as the smell hit him like he’d been punched in the gut. A corpse was examining a spot on the ceiling from its position tied to a chair.

“Jesus.”

“No Ben. Not here.”

Slowly Ben turned around. Lykania Holyhead had appeared behind him and up close he could see what he hadn’t noticed before. It hadn’t been the feeble lighting that had meant he couldn’t see her eyes. They were black, not a shred of colour existed in those sockets. By her side was the dog from the sports fields.

“Who are you? I mean who are you really?” said Ben searching the room for a weapon and finding none.

“An agent of change. A catalyst for a return to the natural order. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it, Ben. What was it like for you when you saw the moon was full?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Denial’s not good for you. You should know that. How about I help you remember?”

The woman had brought the darkness with her and it began to leak through the doorway like mist with Lykania Holyhead following after. When her fingers brushed his it was like an explosion had gone off in his head and in its wake came images. Images Ben knew had been lurking at the bottom of his mind since that night at the flat, only now they’d been stirred up.

The first was of the moon, big, and fat, and somehow nearer than it had ever been before. The next was a confused welter of views from the high rise, stairs, and concrete, badly lit corridors, and doors that only yielded to his paws when he jumped up. Ben frowned . . . paws? But then he was outside and the homeless tramp clutching his bottle of cheap rot gut in a shop doorway took any conscious thought away. Ben knew what he’d been trying so hard to forget then: blood, so much blood he thought he could swim in it and never be clean again.

A lightbulb popped showering him with glass and Ben was back in the room with Lykania Holyhead’s eyes an inch from his own.

“I’ve got a friend who wants to talk to you.”

She clamped a phone to his ear and although Ben’s mind was screaming, he knew the wolves he could hear were real.

“Ben?”

It was his grandma and Ben thought of the lochs beneath the louring Scottish hills, how dark it got up there in winter, and how the pine forests looked like they could swallow you alive.

“Yes.”

Howling surged in the background.

“I haven’t got long sweetheart. This time I’m not coming back. My job’s done. You’re a grown man now. You don’t need me.”

“Gran . . ..”

“Hush bairn. You should listen to her.” Ben watched his face swim in Lykania’s black marble stare. “She wants what you want. What we want. Listen to your heart Ben. You were always happiest running free.”

Then the rest of the memories burst through Ben’s head like a tsunami, and he could see it all. The moon riding high amongst the clouds as he and the pack called to it and down below the huddled yellow light of towns glimmering in the night.

“You’re . . . you’re not my real Gran, are you?”

“No lad. But you are my blood.”

For a moment, the howling grew louder and the wet snap of bones breaking reached his ears. Then the phone went dead.

“Well Ben?” said Lykania Holyhead and as more of the bulbs fused the air rippled like the surface of a pond and he was left looking at not one woman, but three, with a beautiful green eyed brunette crouched panting at their feet.

It was a week before Eden went looking for her neighbour. Not that she hadn’t been worried. Her days at work had been spent with her only half in the room and when Friday had finally drawn to a close, she’d nearly run out the door. Eden stared at the dog pound. There was a sign tacked over its entrance.

“Closed for necessary repairs.”

“Must be pretty serious with you loose,” said Eden taking in the dogs watching from their spots amongst the parked cars and empty warehouses. It felt like they were waiting for something, and Eden had a feeling she knew what as she pushed the door open half wishing it didn’t swing back so easily through the dust.

“Anyone here?”

Eden’s lip curled with distaste. The place smelt foul. Dog food and excrement were all mixed together in the stale air, and the spot behind reception was empty. She headed for a corridor where the light was marginally brighter, and a draught stirred the dead leaves of a plant.

“Hallo?”

Soon Eden found herself in a large room lit by grimy skylights that shone on rows of cages. As the animals inside caught sight of her, baying erupted from every direction and they began to thrash against their prisons – one was by far the loudest. Metal sang as it slammed against the wire mesh.

“A temporary measure, trust me,” said a woman’s voice from the shadows of a doorway. “I want to make sure when I release them there’ll be no going back.”

The barking was so loud it was making Eden’s headache, but the stranger didn’t sound even slightly bothered.

“Where is he? I know he came here.”

Eden threw the note Ben had slid under her door in the woman’s face. After the incident in the underpass, he’d left her on her doorstep with hardly a word. The next morning she’d noticed the message.

“You’re looking at him Eden. Looking at him in all his glory.”

The huge dog . . . Eden stared. The beast slamming against the cage was no dog, she’d seen enough nature programs to know the difference between a wolf and man’s best friend. Eden’s eyes narrowed, but somewhere deep inside an unfamiliar voice was starting up.

“What are you saying?”

“He warned you, Eden, or he tried to, at least.”

“Ben? BENNNNN? Where are you?”

Eden’s attention was on the building’s depths, and with the dogs going wild, at first, she missed what was happening to the woman. But when she looked again, determined to get the real truth out of her, she was having some sort of fit. Her head was between her knees with her arms twisted up behind her spine like someone was trying to hang her from a meat hook and as she jerked and thrashed Eden heard the pop of dislocating joints and tearing gristle. At last, she tumbled out of sight still caught in the seizure’s throws and Eden stared at the space she’d left behind with her ears full of howls and barking. The wolf was watching her. It scraped one paw against the cage’s lock and whined softly in the back of its throat.

From somewhere far above Eden watched herself slide the cage’s deadbolt back before a roar that silenced every animal in the room split the air.

Slowly, Eden turned to the spot where she’d last seen the woman. A shadow was unfolding on the wall back there, an impossible inky stain stretching jaws so wide they looked like they could swallow worlds. She was still watching it when the wolf flew past at shoulder height. As it disappeared from view Eden snapped into movement and her fingers tore at its companions latches until the floor was awash with snarling canine backs. Not one of them headed toward the sound of the battle painting the smooth enamel tiles with contorted snarling demons.

Eden risked one more glance as the noise of a woman’s agony filled the room. The wolf had something by the throat that snapped and slid between forms like oil. Then she was running, and it was only when she was outside that she dared look behind.

“Ben.”

The sweet fresh air she gulped down helped but it still didn’t stop the sight of the pound beginning to collapse like an origami trick seen in reverse. It was still shedding dogs as its walls came down and when she eventually saw the hulking shape of the wolf appear amongst the collapsing brick, she took a half step forward.

“That you?”

Eden felt ridiculous although she knew she shouldn’t after what she’d seen, and the animal had fought to protect her, hadn’t it?

As the last masonry sucked into the void that had opened like a hole punched through the night the wolf’s eyes travelled over her. But although she could see the traces of blood round its mouth Eden felt no fear. When it turned to watch the shapes swimming in the river before disappearing among the gnarled trees, Eden felt a shudder run through her. What was climbing the bank on the other side were its twins, ragged, and starved, but wolves nonetheless. Eden turned to her protector, but he’d gone. A moment later a splash reached her ears as another black shadow followed the pack.

Eden raised her middle finger at the taxi that had just sent a wall of water sluicing over her legs and ducked into a short cut. It was night-time and winter had turned the city into an assault course of snow and freezing ice that matched her mood ever since the night on the industrial estate. She’d picked up a local newspaper the next day to find the words “Gas Explosion Levels City Pound – Dogs Freed” plastered across the front page and when the cops had inevitably appeared at her door, she’d kept her mouth firmly shut.

“Must think I’m stupid,” muttered Eden as a rent in the clouds revealed a fleeting glimpse of the moon riding full in the sky. She hadn’t realized so much time had passed.

The shape waiting for her at the alley’s end far end stayed invisible until far too late.

“What do you want?” said Eden as she finally caught sight of the huge dog with startling green eyes. “If you’re looking for him, I’d imagine you have a much better idea of where he’s gone than me.”

The dog got up, stretched, and yawned, for all the world like it had been taking a nap in the sun not on a freezing British street. As Eden watched the creature pad toward her, she knew there was nowhere to go. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape what it intended and as it opened its jaws wide, she realized she didn’t care.

“You win, take me to him then.”


Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol, to a pub car park, to Dark Fire Magazine, CC&D Magazine, Feed Your Monster Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, The Wyrd, Sirens Call, and The Chamber Magazine. He also has a story published in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.


“The Jets” Psychological Horror by Keith LaFountaine

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

            That was when she heard Peter screaming from the bedroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

            And still, overhead, the jets thundered on.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

            “Jan, you can’t just leave!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruhruhruhruhruh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Ten minutes.

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

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

Save us, please!”
           

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

Please, save us!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Please. help us.”

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

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

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

            Overhead, the first jet droned by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the jets continued to thunder overhead.


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


Appearing in The Chamber September 10

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Three Dark Poems by Fabrice Poussin

Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.  

“Thin Skin” Horror by Kilmo

Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol, to a pub car park, to Dark Fire Magazine, CC&D Magazine, Feed Your Monster Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, The Wyrd, Sirens Call, and The Chamber Magazine. He also has a story published in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.

“The Jets” Psychological Horror by Keith LaFountaine

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

“Telemarketing is Evil” Horror by Thomas White

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

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

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

“New England Gothic” Dark Fiction by Elizabeth Gauffreau

Elizabeth Gauffreau writes fiction and poetry with a strong connection to family and place. Recent fiction publications include Woven Tale Press, Dash, Pinyon, Aji, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and Evening Street Review. Her debut novel, Telling Sonny, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.

Next Issue: September 17

“The Son of Immortals” by Valeriya Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What is it? Speak!’  Userkaf waves.

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave my hiding place and hurry to my chambers.

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Userkaf waves. ‘Bring Harmachis to me.’

Ineni only grimaces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My Lord, I—’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I disappear.

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why did you hide it from me?’

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

‘Where are they now?’

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Valeriya says about her life:

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