“Envy” Horror by Eric Dawson

A red, mud-spackled pick-up sat on the Kum & Go lot, five men gathered around its bed as if in dejected prayer. When we pulled around to park, I saw it first: the deer head flopped over the truck’s back flap with a mangled mass of wrecked viscera behind it.   

Tom was the first to speak as we got out of the car; he always was the confident one, the one just innocent-looking enough to state the preposterous without offending.

“Hunting mishap?”

The men stopped whispering to examine us, the newcomers, gauging as with one mind our presence.

Sarah and I stood behind Tom, not sure if we should go into the convenience store or stand outside on the gravel with him—as if declaring that this were now a thing we needed to deal with and defend.  

The men, all of whom wore oil-smudged caps, eyed us without rancor or disdain—as a child might examine a fly on an arm.

Sarah spoke, voice brighter than I guessed she felt. “I’ll get water,” she said, tapping Tom on the shoulder, then smiling at me. The door to the store jingled as she disappeared inside.  

Not even looking back to where I stood, Tom walked right up to the truck and smiled.  “You guys using grenades or what?” He looked to the men as if they were all best friends.

The men shifted where they stood. The tallest examined Tom for a few seconds until, sensing he wasn’t a threat, thumped the truck’s side with his hand. He laughed—a laugh from his mouth, not the chest, but just enough to deflate the air from the situation.

“Smart kid,” he said. The others laughed outright. I couldn’t believe it; anyone else might have been beaten and left for dead in a little nothing Colorado town like that. But not Tom. He seemed protected somehow, untouchable. I looked at the truck bed and saw what I hadn’t noticed before–that the deer’s eyes had been gouged out. The ground seemed to slide under me as I imagined a single, barely traced thought of fear:  what if this is what men did out here, in this place? I could see skull behind the blood-dried sockets.

“You’re right,” the tall one said, removing cap from a mass of sweaty brown hair.  “This was no hunt.”

“Goddamn sick waste is what it is,” the smaller, bearded man said.  “Can’t even use the meat.”

“But what happened?” Tom asked, swiveling closer to examine the animal.  The guy hadn’t even started med school yet, but he always seemed ready to let us all know that he wasn’t squeamish, that he had the stomach for anything. When we’d come across that accident the first week of our road trip, he’d been the first to run out of the car—as if he would have been able to do anything. Still, he looked the hero and managed to calm the mom who’d only bumped her head anyway.

“Could a knife manage this?” Tom asked, genuinely curious. I moved closer, noticing the back split open as if it had been torn.  The men studied the deer’s body as if seeing it for the first time.  

“And what about the eyes?” I asked.  “What happened there?”

No one even turned when I spoke; one of the men grunted, but it was probably in response to Tom, as if still gnawing on what he’d said.

“No knife,” the tall one answered in a low voice.  “Looks almost like hands did it, but that’d be impossible.”

The one with the beard took a slurp from a Coors he’d been holding.  “Maybe it’s the Chupacabra. Finally made it to Colorado, tramping around up in Willis Gulch.”

A few snickers, and two of the men left to go into the store. Sarah returned with water bottles in hand. To our right, enormous upswellings of mountains towered into the clouds, two of the highest fourteeners in Colorado, Mount Massive and, further on, Elbert. Dark evergreens covered their bases, but higher up, the earth lay bare. I imagined myself up on that tundra, lost and alone. 

“Let’s get a hotel tonight,” Sarah said suddenly.  “Maybe it’s time for a good shower.  After all,” she said, looking at Tom, “It has been two weeks.” She sniffed at him when she said that, pushed him playfully.

We were kids, fresh out of college with a vast expanse of summer and, somewhere just beyond, life unfurling.  

We’d met freshman year, and the unstated understanding was that Tom and I were both in love with Sarah. She had a boyfriend, of course (isn’t that always how such things went?)—the same boyfriend she’d then been with all four years of college, and the very same boyfriend she’d just broken up with right before graduation. There was a deeper understanding, too, and that was this:  if Sarah had ever been asked to choose, she would have chosen Tom. He was the pre-med kid with deans-list grades who still managed to be looser than me—fun, even. Sure, Sarah would laugh at my jokes, but always in a way that didn’t seem to mean much.

It had been one night over greasy pizza freshman year when Sarah had come up with the idea for a road trip. “If we’re still friends senior year, let’s go on a trip together. Kerouac-style,” she said, mouth full of crust. 

“To see the West,” Tom said.

“And find ourselves,” Sarah added with a giggle—though we also knew she meant it.

I thought we’d forget, but three years later, graduation arrived, and we did remember. Two weeks into the summer, we hit the road in a VW Jetta that sometimes would decide it didn’t feel like working. We’d packed clothes, food, and books, loaded up our phones with podcasts, and Tom even brought a medical kit and a pistol. “A gun?” Sarah asked, worried. “Just in case,” Tom had said. “But don’t worry: you’ll never see it. I’ll even give it to Bradley, just so it’ll be extra safe.” He turned to me. “You mind, Brad? It’s just a little 22. Practically a BB gun.” I didn’t, but I wasn’t sure why it would be safer with me. Tom and I had gone to a shooting range once, and I’d hated everything about the day. But still, maybe he had a point. We’d never need to take it out; we’d have it, just in case. The medical kit was the thing that had caught my attention even more. Tom wasn’t even a doctor, yet still, there it was.

“You know what Chekov said about introducing a pistol in the first act,” I said.

“Who?” Tom asked.

I’d wanted to be funny, but then I realized I was doing what I always did: saying something to try to impress. Sarah hadn’t even heard anyway. 

In the Hopi mythology, they say that we will all, one day, be asked a question, and when that day comes, we must be ready. 

When we pulled up to the old hotel in Twin Lakes, Sarah clapped her hands in wonder. The Inn backed right up to the mountains, and before it lay views of two wide glacial lakes. Between the Inn and the water, route 82 wound up and over the pass to Aspen, where we’d already talked about having lunch the next day. Sarah couldn’t stop saying how beautiful it all was when she stepped out of the car, arms lifted to the sky. “This,” she sang out, “is why we came on this trip to begin with.” The clouds hovered in great globs over the peaks, delicate capillaries feathering out from their centers. 

Normally the Inn would have been full in the summer, but someone had just cancelled.

“You got lucky,” they told us inside. 

The lobby smelled like history and hash browns. It was a low-slung affair of dark wood, rocking chairs, and in the next room, tables for the restaurant. When we stepped in, though, a crying woman was all we initially noticed. She was talking to a thirtysomething bearded guy who looked like he worked there, telling him, between sobs, how her dog had been taken. “Snatched” was the word she used. The man murmured to her something about mountain lions or bears, but she shook her head, saying she was from Utah, that she knew mountain lions and bears, and the sound she’d heard had been nothing like either. 

“Almost a human in pain,” she said. “But worse. A horrible sound. A wailing.”

“What kind of dog?” the man asked, eyeing us and seeming to want to change the subject. 

“A German Shepherd,” the woman said. “85 pounds.”

“Oh,” the bearded man said. He had a nametag on his flannel shirt that said “Andy.” 

Do you know the question? Can you guess it?

“Welcome,” the woman at the reception desk announced, eyes glancing over to Andy and the woman. I tried to keep listening, but both their voices had dropped. It seemed now like Andy was asking about details. Where she’d been. What she’d seen.

As Tom paid for the room—something he liked to do since his dad had been the one funding most of our trip—I felt like a kid tagging along with his parents on vacation. Sarah stood at Tom’s side, as if she were his wife, and I, the bored child, had been left to examine the lobby. A large map of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness was thumbtacked to the wall on our left, and behind us, four men all sat separately in different parts of the restaurant and lobby area. One wore headphones and seemed to be testing some sort of small metal contraption. At the far end of the room, a woman sat by herself, reading a paperback. 

“Don’t mind all that,” the receptionist said as she nodded towards the woman with the lost dog and then the man with the headphones. “Things have been a bit crazy since the stories, but all’s fine.”

“Stories?” Sarah was the journalist in our group, the question asker who could find out anything from anyone.

The woman rolled her eyes and smiled. “Nothing much. People can turn just about anything into a ghost story. Or better yet, bigfoot. I can’t keep track which,” she said, laughing. “But at the end of the day, it’s all good for business. I do feel bad for that hiker, though.”

She noticed our worried expressions.

“Nothing that doesn’t happen from time to time. These tourists come in, excited to explore the wilderness, and they get lost. Happened to a young guy from Texas last week.”

“They found him, though,” a voice from behind us said. It was an old man with white hair who’d been sitting in a rocker reading a newspaper. 

The receptionist looked only mildly surprised, then turned to us.

“See? All’s good. Even that story’s not really a story.”

The old man, rising now, continued. “But he was confused. Didn’t even know who he was anymore. Just came out of the woods babbling. They took him to a hospital in Denver two days ago. We don’t know anything else.”

The receptionist shrugged. “Weird things have been happening, I guess.”

“You mean like the deer we saw coming in? That thing looked like it had been mauled,” Tom said.

“Deer?” the old man said, stepping closer to us. “What’d you kids see?”

Tom, ever the leader, described.

“And it had no eyes, either,” I said.

The man, who had a slight hunch but who seemed stronger now up close, just stared intently. “Where’d that woman say she lost her dog?”

“Not far from Willis Gulch.”

“Isn’t that the place those guys were talking about earlier?” Sarah asked. 

Jonas appeared to have stopped listening; he turned to gaze out across the dark mirrored face of the lake and into the trees, now grown dark, on the distant shore. A dark splotch of birds rose, spiraling, into the sky; behind them, the sunset burned like a bloodshot eye.

It’s a question as simple as it is complex, and it’s nothing more and nothing less than this: who are you? Three little words. But can you answer it? Do you even dare try?

Two hours later, we’d eaten our first sit-down meal since we’d set out from Virginia: buffalo meatloaf, mashed potatoes, salad, and an actual bottle of wine—which made us feel like full-fledged adults. We were there in the Twin Lakes Inn restaurant, alive with people—mostly out-of-state tourists like us, but a few locals, too. Even the woman who’d lost her dog sat at the bar, nursing a Chardonnay. Next to her sat the chubby middle-aged guy, still with the headphones.

The old man, Jonas, had returned to his rocker and seemed fine now. He chatted with a young, good-looking couple who said they were on their way over to Aspen.

Andy poured drinks at the bar.

To be in a mountain-town inn like that, with the air, even in summer, chilling outside, made me feel good for the first time in a long time. I felt whole and together. What had I been jealous of Tom for? And had I even been jealous? We were friends, eating and drinking together. Even the stories of disappearances added a poignancy to the night. A tree just outside the side window clacked its branches against the glass, dendritic fingers asking for entry.

Tom suggested we go sit at the bar, where we could have a digestif—a word I’d never heard before, but which he used with casual nonchalance. As we sat down at the last three seats, we realized we were entering into the middle of a conversation. An old man with a scar on his face, nursing a whiskey, spoke in low tones to a tired-looking woman across the corner.

Life was as good as the night air was cool. 

Later that night, I lay in bed, staring at the swirls of knots in the ceiling’s wood. Even in the dark, from the dim light of a bulb on the porch, the knots appeared like faces pleading. I felt sadness. And longing—but for what, I couldn’t say. 

In the bed next to me, Sarah and Tom slept. We’d drawn straws to see who’d be the lucky one to “get” to sleep in their own bed, and before we even did it, I knew how it’d turn out. It could have been Tom and me sleeping together in a bed, and Sarah on her own, which would have been just fine, or it could have been Sarah and me in a bed together, with Tom alone, and that would have sent me through the stars.

But no. Tom and Sarah had “lost,” so they’d gotten the bed together. And, not ten minutes later, I lay there in the dark, listening to them whispering, occasionally giggling, as the sheets scuffled and moved. Were they doing anything? I imagined passionate kisses in a relationship that had been building for the past few months—or years. I imagined the trembling hands. The need to be quiet from me, which would only have added to the romantic tension. Had anything happened at all? I knew I would never ask, but now they slept. In the quiet, I lay awake, thinking. My bed was scooched up next to the window, which I’d just cracked to allow in a little mountain-night air. 

As I lay there in the vortex of loneliness, made all the lonelier by the two friends next to me, I heard something below. A voice. Two voices. Whispering. I raised my head and peered down to the porch just under the window. Though I could only see the top of one head, with the white hair illumined by the porch light, I could tell it was the old man from earlier, Jonas. He was talking to someone directly below me, likely in the frame of the door. He whispered in urgent tones. I looked at my phone: 1:42 in the morning. 

Sarah and Tom lay still beneath the sheets, apparently sound asleep, so I leaned closer to the window to hear. 

The first voice was deep and slow, and it seemed to have asked a question. 

“I’m worried,” Jonas said in response. “We’ve taken care. They should all be hibernating. But we’ve done okay by them, haven’t we?”

“Course we have. And they know it.”

“I should go up tomorrow and check.”

“No point in disturbing.”

“But they are disturbed.”

“Today? That was a mountain lion.”

And then silence. A long silence.

“You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“I’m not sure what I believe any more, but something out there is shifting. And now word’s getting out. People are posting things online. Middle-aged guys are showing up with devices they’ve bought. And New Age Wiccans are traipsing around the woods.”

The old man coughed, as if choking on what he was about to say. “To hell with social media,” he said at last. “No one will understand anyway. What’s out there is changing. It’s moving like water through the landscape, rolling down the hills and pooling and puddling out amongst the old rocks, below the mines. I’m going up. Maybe they need us.”

And the last few words were muffled, but it sounded like the old man had ended with a word like “Noel.” My body tingled from the unknowingness of it all.

I leaned to the window and the bed creaked. The voices fell silent. Had they heard? I peered out from the side of the curtain, and they were gone.

Before I rolled over, I heard a noise, soft and low, in the distance; it sounded like a train’s whistle from the other side of the valley. But there were no trains out there, I knew: only wilderness.

The next day I awoke to the dim blue-gray light of the pre-dawn world. I wasn’t even thinking about Sarah or Tom then. I’d dreamt of black rivers rolling down a mountain, rivers flowing down into rocks and into darker, unseen places. High above, on a ridge, a ball of fire rolled down towards me. And then another. Was someone above trying to hurt us? In the dream, I entered an abandoned cabin, on the verge of collapse, and watched the boulders of fire roll and bounce past. I felt safe in the barely standing cabin. But I felt like I wouldn’t be safe for long. 

Downstairs, a crowd had gathered in the lobby, some tourists with hiking gear looking worried and some of the same locals we’d seen the night before. “No one’s going over the pass,” Andy announced to the group. “If you want to go to Aspen, you have to go back out to I-70. The landslide up on Independence Pass is going to take a day to clear. At least.”

A murmuring from the crowd, a few mutterings of “four hours?” and head nods as people readjusted plans. 

Tom looked at us. “It’s a sign,” he said. 

I looked at him, not sure what he meant.

“We need to stay. Go up Willis Gulch. See what’s there. I was thinking about ways to convince you two anyway.”

“You believe?” I asked him. 

He shrugged. “Either way it’s a story. And it’ll be nice to get out into the backcountry regardless.”

“I’m in,” Sarah said. 

Knowing who you are doesn’t come from thinking; it comes from getting up on your own two feet and heading out into the places you don’t yet know. Out there? Sure. But more than that.

By 9:00, we were on the trail—the lake to our left and the ridge ahead and to our right. The aspen around us rose like slender white tombstones in the early light of day, and we began to climb. I was breathing hard, but I did my best to hide it. Tom and Sarah laughed and talked despite the ascent, and I’d occasionally look back and suggest a water break, just to give myself a rest. 

We didn’t know exactly where to go, but the words “Willis Gulch” rang in our ears like a chant, and when we got to the gulch, we unanimously decided to keep climbing above it, off trail. This was something that felt new to us, like we were doing something we weren’t supposed to in leaving the well-tramped trail that switch-backed up the side of the mountain.

It was like leaving the last vestige of civilization behind.

An hour later, we looked back down the great swale of ridge to the gulch below, could hear the roaring creek pouring its might into the funnel, down towards the awaiting lakes. And we were quiet because the woods seemed alive to us. Alive and watching. 

“Down there,” Tom said. “See it?”

I looked where he pointed, and though at first saw nothing, my eyes adjusted and I realized I wasn’t just seeing shadows at the bottom of the ravine. We’d come down the other side of the ridge, still off trail, when he pointed it out: an old mine, a tunnel burrowed into the side of the mountain, partially hidden by the jagged granitic outcroppings of an enormous boulder field. We walked down the steep slope in silence, studying the hole as we did. 

We eased our way down towards the boulders, but as we did, I noticed movement. Sarah must have seen it at the same time—as did Tom.

“Quiet,” he said.

We slowed our steps and stopped talking. A hawk flew overhead, quietly circling on the thermals.

We hadn’t seen him before because he’d been behind one of the bigger rocks, but there was the old man, Jonas, standing before the cave opening. 

Tom turned to us and mouthed the words, “what the –?”

And we stilled to watch what he was doing. How had he even gotten all the way out to this place? 

“I’m cold,” Sarah whispered. I said nothing, but I felt the same. A chill had crept into my bones, but I’d just chalked it up to being in the long-shadowed ravine. If the old man had been looking for us, he would have seen us, but he was focused on the mouth of the mine. He crouched down and began laying some sort of plants before the opening. And, we noticed, he’d lit a fire off to the side, small and carefully set in the middle of a huge pile of stones, not ten feet from the mine’s mouth, where scattered bones lay strewn about. What looked like a few deer skulls, some ribs, and a scattershot of white bone shrapnel, half-ground into the earth. What was the old man doing? Was he crazy? Or superhuman for being out here?

And then it happened.

To know who you are, you must not only enter the wilderness, but allow it to enter you.

Jonas took off his shirt and kneeled before the opening. His bare, bony chest, covered in white hair, looked fragile. None of us spoke. I couldn’t even put words to what was happening, and I suddenly didn’t feel like we should be there.

The man picked up a flute that had been lying amongst the brush, and he began to play. It wasn’t a tune, exactly, but just a few long and sad notes, filling the forest with melancholy. I wanted to cry. I wanted to leave. Sarah and Tom stood next to me, transfixed. 

And then we saw it: another movement.

At first it looked like a tree branch swaying, but then we saw it extend and bend—and we understood it for what it was: a gnarled and knotted arm, rough like tree bark. Or papyrus. The arm emerged from the hole, as if reaching for the light, followed by a body. The old man, still kneeling, lowered the flute and dropped his head. The thing that emerged from the small opening seemed to uncurl itself, to open itself to the light of the late afternoon. My heartbeat surged in my ears: I couldn’t accept what I was seeing.

The thing was horrible. First, only fractals in the air, as if the molecules of the breeze were taking shape, but from the fractals, a form. A cadaverous, elongated form that emerged from the dark place, straightening itself only a few feet before Jonas, head still lowered as if waiting for a blessing. It was El Greco’s Frankenstein-monster, a cobbled-together patchwork of stretched-out, contorted humanity. It had a face—or eyes, at least—and on its back appeared to be wings, tucked close to the body. These appendages, like those of a decaying vulture, opened, and as they did it rose from the ground a few feet. Its eyes, large and black, showed no emotion. I felt those eyes staring down at Jonas, and as it extended both its arms, Jonas thrust his chest out and up towards the sky.

The old man looked as frail as a baby bird, knobby chest exposed to the cold dusk air. For the first time in my life, I felt the temperature shift of something not related to the air around me. 

The creature took a soundless step towards Jonas. It didn’t seem to be either male or female, but its body seemed both sinuous and lithe, strong and serpentine. And then I heard it: a soft muttering, a whisper that mingled with the breeze. I couldn’t understand any of the words, if they were even words at all, but I found myself mesmerized by the incomprehensible, almost chant-like speech.

“Oh,” Sarah said to herself, a barely uttered sigh. “It’s beautiful.”

I didn’t understand, but in that moment I guessed that she was being transfixed by this thing, that she wasn’t aware of the evil I felt. Her face had fallen slack with awe. 

Gray was its color, like the clouds of a twilight sky before a storm, and I sensed in it, in the whole forest, the electricity of an impending storm. 

“Run,” I said, and I ran, but I didn’t hear Tom or Sarah behind. I looked back. The creature, hovering where it was over the old man, had heard my movements, turned its head in my direction. 

Wanting to escape into a crevice between one of the rocks, I climbed, still not sure if Tom and Sarah followed. When I scrabbled to the top of the boulder, I looked back and saw that Tom had fallen. Judging from the angle of his knee, it looked like he’d broken his leg. Sarah crouched beside him, not seeming at all worried by the creature, which now floated slowly over in thick heaving movements, wings flapping like the meaty thuds of a killer whale’s flippers on dry land. I yelled out that I needed to get a better angle, that I could help better from up on the boulder, but I only wanted to get away. I can admit that now. 

I grabbed onto the next outcropping of boulder and pulled myself up to the ledge 

“Please,” Tom said, calling out. My thoughts burned in anger. I wanted him to die. I wanted the thing to get him first, because then maybe I’d be saved. And Sarah? Maybe she could come to me, once I’d found a safe place.

As I tucked myself between two boulders, I looked back. Tom’s head lay in Sarah’s lap, and I felt an upsurge of dark jealousy. Fine: let them be together. From my vantage point on the boulder, I was at eye level with the thing, which now hovered directly above the two of them. Sarah’s white T-shirt seemed like a flag of surrender, and I imagined it spattered with blood when the creature attacked.

As if from an almost-forgotten dream, Sarah yelled out to me. “But don’t you see it?” she said. “Why run?” And her face had become beatific, an angel on a stained-glass window. “See?” she said. “It’s beautiful.” 

I could see no beauty, though; her words made no sense, and I wondered if, in that moment, the thing had transfixed her, had captured her in some sort of spell.

As if seeing myself from outside myself, I slid my hand into the backpack, heart racing, hand grasping the leather case at the bottom of the pack, and I pulled it out: the holster. 

That simple question is one of the most terrifying questions you could ever ask yourself. Because what if, after trying to answer it, you realize this simple truth: there’s nothing there, nothing at all, and that behind the “you” lies only a great emptiness? What then?

The creature, like some mummified angel, had begun to lower itself closer to Tom and Sarah. Realizing I looked the coward, I pulled out the little 22 pistol from the Velcro holster, unclicked the safety, and fired. The gunshot was silence and stillness then a sudden vacuum of greater silence, and the tree behind the creature exploded: I’d missed. The thing turned its head, eyes still empty of light, and I heard Sarah’s voice telling me to stop, screaming at me no more, but all I remember is in that moment I felt strong and terrifying, and I fired again. This time, the bullet struck home, hitting the creature in its side, opening a small hole in its lower torso. Its eyes, still solemn pools of emptiness, seemed to express disappointment, but I fired again anyway, and Sarah’s screams came through more clearly: why, why?, she asked. What was I doing? And maybe I said something, I don’t remember, but a gash appeared in the creature’s leg where the second bullet had struck, and in that instant-flash, the creature shimmered and suddenly appeared rainbow-hued, as if returning to fractals. A brilliant being of light and color, and for a millisecond, I felt perhaps what Sarah had been feeling all along, what she told me, later through tears, she’d been feeling during the entire experience: the warm touch of something that wasn’t hate or separation or emptiness. It was only beauty. Genuine beauty.

The drumbeat continues for the rest of your life, every day of your life, the one question, you must ask yourself over and over again. Because there’s never just one answer. And it’s really not just one question.

The creature shimmered back to its cadaverous self, but eyes luminesced with sadness. Suddenly exhausted, I lowered the gun. Black eyes still on me, as if seeing only me in this universe replete with beings, it tilted its head back and wailed, a cry of wounded despair. The thing then rose into the air, and as it did, other creatures emerged from the mine’s opening. First two, then three, and then dozens. They came pouring fourth, and the creatures rose into the charcoal sky, a cloud of dark beings, all singing together, in unison. I watched them fly low over the treetops and on to the snowcapped horizon. The cry turned into a low whistle, like a train’s whistle from far away.

Hands trembling, I climbed down from the boulder, awash with shame. 

“I saved us. From that thing, those things,” I said. “They were evil.” The last sentence I said like a pronouncement, but I didn’t believe it. I wanted their confirmation, but Sarah only stood, looked at me, and answered with a one-word question: “why?” For some reason I couldn’t look at her, but I heard no recrimination in her voice, only melancholy.

Tom seemed not to see me any longer at all. His eyes were now fixed on the distant horizon where the creatures had flown

“Do you understand what you did?” a voice said. It was Jonas, now walking over to us, shirt still open, chest still bared to the chill, crepuscular air.

“I shot it. I scared it away. The evil.” The shivering had begun to take over my entire body.

“But you’re wrong,” he said. “They’re not evil.” His voice dropped to an almost whisper, and he examined me as a disappointed father might

Sarah let out a sob.

“Those beings,” he said, “were our protectors. They’ve kept us safe from the true evil that lies asleep deep within that mine.”

His words came slowly, methodically, each one a pebble dropped into a well, sending out little ripples across the water’s obsidian surface. He continued.

“They have sung to the nameless thing for centuries. And their songs have kept the thing asleep, like a lullaby through time.”

The trees stood sentinel around us in gloomy reverie.

“But now they’re gone,” he said.

I felt overwhelmed with exhaustion and despair. I fell to the ground.

“Some say they’re angels. Some say nahual, the protective spirits of nature, but everyone sees them as something different. People see what they carry inside them.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, shaking my head, digging hands into the leaf-strewn forest floor. I wanted to make myself small, to disappear into myself.

“I don’t know about spirits,” the old man said, “because maybe I’m too practical. I see those things as part of nature’s immune system.” He paused, looking up into the sky, as if expecting the creatures to return. “They’re the white blood cells,” he said. “Our last line of defense.”

“And the thing?” Sarah asked, raising her head. “The sleeping thing under the mine?”

“That’s the cancer,” Jonas said. “That has been growing.”

As if on cue, the ground beneath us rumbled softly. 

“But what is it?” she asked.

Jonas shook his head. “Never seen it. Only heard about it. My own grandfather told me he’d heard stories since he’d been little. When evil has no place to go, it ended up there, people say. In that mine, safely guarded. Until now.”

“But they’ll return, right?” I asked, voice small like a child’s.

The old man said nothing.

As we remained there in that darkening clearing by the mine, the low rumble returned, a barely perceptible tremor. It vibrated through the air, up from the ground itself, as if something were moving in the vast chambers of darkness below our feet. 

Images of the dark rivers rolling down the mountain returned to me. What was the thing that was now finding its life?

“Maybe it would have happened anyway,” Jonas said, but his voice didn’t sound convinced.

I felt the hum in my bones, a deeper hum from some ancient, cavernous place. Why had I seen them as evil? It didn’t matter now anyway.

They were gone.

They are gone.

They’ve been scared away, leaving us to face the awakening darkness on our own. We weren’t meant to be alone, but we have made ourselves this way. I understand this now.

Jonas, eyes filled with tears, turned to me, voice for the first time edged with reproach. “Who even are you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know anymore.” 

Please forgive me.


Eric Dawson is a long-time Spanish teacher and World Languages Department Chair living in Denver, CO who, when he’s not wandering in the wilderness, enjoys reading all things speculative. He has an MA in Spanish Literature, and he has attended writing workshops at Aspen Summer Words and Kenyon College. 


“I Am Not a Crook” Dark Humor by James Hanna

Why do they call it death? I have never felt more alive, more vibrant, more sensitive. I have never been more aware. And colors are sensational: they pulse like jellyfish.

Looking around me, I try to take stock of the spot where death has dumped me. The place looks so utterly familiar that I begin to doubt my demise. Redwood trees tower above me, a creek chuckles close to my feet, and black squirrels chase one another about on golden plains of grass. Even the mist is stunning: a silvery sheltering fog. For all practical purposes, I may as well be in a California state park.

It is all a mirage, of course, and I take some comfort in that. My entire life has been little more than a courtship of illusion. Thank goodness illusion continues with death: I would hate to be held to account.

I am sitting alone beneath a redwood that climbs into the mist. Since I have no sense of location, I decide I had best stay put. I do see a narrow hiking trail on the near side of the creek, and I suspect a welcoming committee will soon come down this trail. But the hours pass like tortoises and nobody appears. I begin to feel weary—incredibly weary. I close my eyes and sleep.

*

I awake. I am dead. I am wholly alive. Sunlight is leaking through the trees: it is either dawn or dusk. Still, nobody comes to greet me, and perhaps that is for the best. Were my passing to trigger a fanfare of angels, I would feel like a total imposter. Yes, I had roamed Australia as a young man; yes, I had written six books; and yes, I had lasted thirty-four years as a San Francisco probation officer. But heroics come too easily to me: I am unfit for anything else. And the bullet that took my life was the result of my own carelessness. Had I remembered to load my Glock, had I worn my Second Chance vest, had I made my rounds earlier in the morning—a time when the addicts are usually asleep—I would never have stumbled onto a drug buy. I would never have been shot in the chest. No, I’m more deserving of a walk of shame than a ticker tape parade, but even so petty a justice does not seem imminent. Perhaps it is enough to know that I am sixty years old and dead. 

Despite the seductions of limbo, there is still some unquiet in me—enough to prompt me to rise to my feet and do a little exploring. Since I have no celestial sea legs, each step is like walking in quicksand, and although I have never been more sober, I teeter like a drunk.

By the time I have gone fifty steps, my legs are shaking like jelly, but my pitiful excursion is sufficient to give me the lay of the land. I am not as isolated as I had believed: there are other souls sitting underneath trees, and they seem to be in a stupor. This sight is no consolation: I now feel inconsequential. My vanity had actually let me believe this place was my province alone. Depleted and demoralized, I stagger back to the tree. Fatigue hits me like a tsunami. I once again fall asleep.

*

Another day dawns and nobody comes. I take a longer walk. I probably should be hungry by now, but I have no appetite. Occasionally, strangers breeze past me along the hiking trail. The strangers take no notice of me; their eyes are gentle but distant as though fixed on some insular mission. The inventory of my life is of no importance to them. 

The fog has dissipated a bit, and I am able to see things more clearly. Sometimes, a soul abandons its tree accompanied by one of the strangers. Occasionally, I spot larger animals: wild pigs and wallabies. These animals move rather stiffly and watch me with unfriendly eyes. Their incongruity seems odd until I realize what they are. These are the animals I shot in Australia: creatures I had picked off from the boot of a Land Rover with a .22 Magnum. How sporting it had been to shoot them at the time. How haunting they seem to me now.

Discouraged, I stumble back to my tree and curl up in a ball. Clearly, I’m not a candidate for heaven: I truly deserve to be flogged. The best that I can hope for now is a benevolent purgatory. It can only be symbolic when the light begins to die. Until my guide spirit fetches me, I will have to remain in the dark. I bury my head in my folded arms and wait for sleep to come.

*

Thirty days pass: days that I measure by the presence and absence of light. I watch the sunlight bleed through the trees; I watch it disappear. Since nobody shows up to fetch me, I take even longer excursions. My celestial legs grow stronger—I am able to roam at will—but the terrain remains so changeless that exploring it seems a waste. Everywhere, redwood trees tower above me, everywhere souls sit under the trees, and everywhere pigs and wallabies watch me with uncharitable eyes. Each day, when I’ve done my exploring, I return to my allotted tree. I wonder, Will this be the day when my guide spirit picks me up?  

One day, while I sit beneath my tree, a dog trots down the trail. Noticing me, it perks its ears and it bounds in my direction. It covers my face with undeserved kisses before curling up in my lap. I stroke the dog behind its ears then pat it on the rump. It is Corky, my French bulldog who preceded me in death. A seizure took her life when she was only six years old.

After a while, Corky jumps from my lap and bolts back up the trail. I call her name, but she does not come back. Her snub is disconcerting; she always obeyed when I called.

Overcome with nostalgia, I close my eyes and nap. I awake when I hear Corky growling; she is crouching by my side. Her eyes are locked on a potato-face man who is ambling down the trail. The man is of medium height, and he is wearing a dark blue suit. His arms stretch out from his shoulders as though he is nailed to a cross. Instinctually, I know I am on his agenda. I stagger to my feet.

Corky bursts into frenzied barking when the man stops in front of me. Although he is not a stranger, he surely deserves her reproach. His five o’clock stubble has never been darker; his scowl has never been deeper. And his eyes are shifting so rapidly that they look like tumbling dice. It is as though he searching for a log with which to cave in my skull.

My god, I think, things are worse than I thought. My guide is Richard Nixon.

*

Nixon poses before me like a gunfighter about to draw. He then fishes a handkerchief from his jacket and blots his sweat-beaded brow. “Harumph,” he says. “The least you could do is muzzle that shitass dog.”

And what is the most I can do?  I wonder, a purely rhetorical question. Kicking his ass is the most I can do—a chore I would deeply enjoy. No bounty from heaven would satisfy me more than kicking this despot’s ass.

Instead, I stroke Corky behind her ears; she whimpers with gratitude. “Shouldn’t you be in hell?” I ask Nixon.

He raises both hands above his head in a double victory salute. Smiling like a possum with gas he says, “Ayyy am not a crook.”

Maybe hell has paroled him, I muse, a thought that I quickly dismiss. His darting eyes and plastic grin do not imply self-renewal.

Reading my mind, Nixon lowers his hands. “They let me out for a few days every year.”

“How do I know that you haven’t escaped?”

Nixon chortles, shakes his head; his jowls wobble as he replies. “If you want to know the truth,” he says, “I kinda prefer it in hell.”

“I’d kinda prefer you there too,” I reply.

Corky sniffs Nixon’s leg then starts barking again.

“Will you call off that shitty dog?” Nixon snaps.

I shrug. “She no longer obeys me,” I say.

Nixon rocks back on his heels and glares. “Well, she’s acting like I’m gonna rob you or something. Ayyy am not a crook.”

I pick up a stick and toss it. Corky dashes after the stick.

No, I decide. Nixon isn’t transformed. Not even his tag phrase has changed. “I wasn’t expecting an angel,” I say, “but why have they sent me you?”

Nixon dances a soft-shoe then takes a deep bow. His mood has mercurially lightened. “How should I know?” he laughs. “I’m a tour guide, not a sage.”

I watch Corky vanish into the forest. She has run off with the stick.

*

“Shall we get on with it?” Nixon says.

I abandon my tree reluctantly. We walk along the trail.

“You’re getting the VIP tour,” Nixon says.

“What the fuck does that mean?” I say.

“Writers get special treatment—even the half-assed ones.”

I feel as though I’ve been struck with a hammer. “My books are read here?”

Nixon throws up his hands. “Why wouldn’t they be?—there’s plenty of time. Hell, I’ve read a couple myself. I read like a fiend, you know.”

“Thanks for the praise,” I say. I feel as though I have been bribed.

“That’s not a compliment,” Nixon snaps. “Your writing is godless drivel. Your books should have bombed long ago. All you did was pollute the country, soften it up for the communists.”

“You’re lecturing me about bombing?” I sputter.  

Nixon squints and his eyes turn red—redder than burning coals. “Get your ass back in ranks!” he bellows. He is not talking to me but a presence he has spotted among the trees.

I look. I see nothing. I hazard a guess. “An eighteen-year-old kid you sent to the fray?”

“You’d think he’d be proud to have died for his flag. Proud that his name’s on the Wall. But no, that little fucker would rather pester me.”

“I’ll bet you get pestered a lot.”

Nixon sighs and again mops his brow. “They won’t stay in ranks, what the shit can I do? I was bowling the other day, you know—we bowl a lot in hell. Well, I was six frames away from a perfect game when one of them gave me the finger. That fucked up my concentration and I threw a gutter ball.”

Corky comes running towards us. She is holding a bird in her mouth. She drops the bird and snarls at Nixon. I watch the bird fly away.

*

We trudge up a hill; the light starts retreating. I barely see Corky scrambling before us, sniffing the trees and the grass.

Nixon is now aglow with a vomity greenish hue. Noticing my astonishment, he pats me on the back. “It’s my aura,” he says. “You’ll soon have one too. It used to be the color of pus but its mellowed up a bit.”

“How did you pull that off?” I ask.

Nixon snorts as we climb the hill. He is huffing like a horse. “I’ve never stepped out on my wife, for one. And there’s plenty of pussy in hell.” 

“Why would she care where you stick your pecker?”

“Beats me,” Nixon says, “but for some reason it matters. I see her every now and then when they let me out of hell. She isn’t wearing her wedding ring—nobody wears one here. But she always blows me a little kiss, asks if I’m wearing my galoshes. She gave me a pair of galoshes because hell is kinda swampy.”

A couple of strangers pass us. They pause and glance our way. In the gloaming, they shine like acetylene torches. Corky barks at the strangers as aggressively as she barked at Richard Nixon.

“Give your dog a treat,” says Nixon. “She drove those assholes off.”

I watch the strangers as they continue along the hiking trail. Their light seems colder than foxfire. I’m relieved to watch them go.

“Angels!” scoffs Nixon. “They’re worse than the Mormons. Always soliciting folks to get them to check out heaven. If you give those fuckers an inch, they’ll bend your ear all day.”

“Do they recruit very many?”

Nixon hawks and spits. “They’ll draft an occasional priest if he hasn’t screwed any kids. Sometimes they’ll land an old woman or maybe a celibate monk. But no one with any hair on his crotch wants to go off with them.”

The hill grows steeper. The darkness expands. In a while my eyes adjust to it—it looks like a velvet shroud.

*

We come to a gate. A guard signals us through. My eyes have adjusted so well to the gloaming that I can see we are in a park. When we come to a complex of tennis courts, I spot a familiar man. He is standing on one of the courts, dressed for tennis, and he is practicing his serve. His eyes are fixed on his ball toss, and he does not see us approach him.

Noticing my hesitation, Nixon elbows me in the ribs. “Don’t waste too much time here,” he says. “This is only the first of our stops.”

“That’s my father,” I say.

“What of it?” says Nixon. “You’re older than he is, you know.”

I look once again at the man on the court. Although he is my father, he looks ridiculously young. I recall that my father was forty years old when a blood clot took his life.

Leaving Nixon behind me, I stroll onto the tennis court. The man pauses in his service motion and looks at me incuriously. His eyes suggest that he wants to get back to working on his serve.

 “You there,” he shouts, “you need to wear whites if you’re gonna come onto a court!” His voice is deep and resonates with the self-absorption of youth.

Do I have to remind him that I am his son?  I cannot shake this thought from my head. “Call me Tom,” I stammer. “Thanks for siring me.”  

“Did I?” he says. He bounces a ball. “Well, as long as you’re here, let me give you some pointers. Tom never could serve worth a shit.”

He lobs the ball above his head and snaps off a killer serve. “After your toss, keep your hand in the air. Pronate your wrist when you hit the ball. Strike the ball at two o’clock—that’ll put some mustard on it.”

 He fires off half a dozen more serves before looking in my direction. “I see you drew Richard Nixon,” he says.

“He’s a bowler,” I pipe, “so we have to move on.” I realize how silly I sound, but it’s all I can think of to say.

“Don’t keep him waiting,” my father replies. “I hear he gives a pretty good tour. I got stuck with Bobby Riggs and he wasn’t worth a damn.”

I feel as though I am trespassing, I leave the tennis court.

“Why the sour face?” Nixon asks.

“I was hoping for something else.”

“Did you see the kick on that serve? You ought to be happy for him.”

“So what’s the lesson here?” I ask him. “That souls dry up, that nothing lasts, that the afterlife doesn’t mean shit?”

Nixon reaches into the pocket of his jacket and takes out an electric razor. He turns it on with a flick of his thumb. It hums like a bumblebee. “You goddamn newbies are all alike,” he says as he strokes his jowls. “Always expecting me to expound like some sage on a mountaintop.”

“I assumed that’s what you’re here for,” I say.

Nixon finishes removing his stubble then flings the razor away. “I’d rather be bowling,” he mutters, “but they got me here giving a tour. They drag my ass out of hell every year to give these goddamn tours.”

“Maybe you should be a guru by now.”

Nixon folds his arms. “The only thing I know for sure is that you wanna kick my ass.”

He sits down in a lotus position. His face is sweaty and flushed. “Well, that’s already happened,” Nixon says. “You’ve come along too late. I gave them a sword. They sliced off my nuts. You can’t slice ’em off again.”

Nixon closes his eyes and sits for several minutes. When his meditation is over, he rises to his feet. His gaze is as hard as marble when he looks at me again. “You want a lesson, I’ll give you a lesson,” he says with a weary shrug. “Don’t go onto a tennis court if you aren’t wearing whites.”

*

We continue our climb until we come to a motionless body of water. We stand on a beach that is tideless: no wavelets comb the shore. Fog blankets the water so heavily I could write my name in it.

A chill electrifies my spine. I look at my chaperone. “Is this the River Styx?” I ask him. My palms are as damp as a tomb.

“How should I know what they call it?” growls Nixon.

“It has to have a name?”

“Fine,” says Nixon. “I’ll dub it Lake Liddy. Is that enough for you?”

Holding my breath, I look out on the water. The water is black as slate. No sunlight touches its surface, no ripples whiten its skin, not even the splash of a sea bird dimples its soundless expanse. I feel as though I am standing beside a enormous inkwell.

“Hurry it up,” says Nixon. “The boat leaves in ten minutes.”

“The boat?” I say. “The boat to where?”

“How should I know?” he replies.

We walk for another minute and come to an empty dock. A towering luxury liner is fastened to a piling. The ship does not sway in the water or strain on its mooring lines. It looks like a painted craft upon a painted lake.

I try to count the numerous decks, but they stretch into the fog.

“Where is that thing going to take us?” I ask.

“Just get aboard,” Nixon mutters.

Corky hangs behind us. She does not want to board the ship. As we walk toward the gangplank, she barks then scampers away.

*

I follow Nixon up the gangplank. A steward waves us aboard. A promenade deck is packed with people who pay no attention to us. Scattered conversations fill the air like dead ash from a windblown fire, and a piped-in music system is playing “My Heart Will Go On.”

Nobody seems to notice when the ship pulls away from the dock. Not even the drone of the ship horn interrupts the arid chatter. I clutch the deck railing and watch  the dock recede into the haze. In a matter of seconds, it vanishes as though it has been devoured.

I look at the hundreds of passengers crammed upon the deck. Some are chatting in groups, some are texting on iPhones, others are walking around with no apparent destination. Although we are sharing a voyage, no one looks back at me.

I stare over the water. I see only fog. The ship horn groans again. “Where are we going?” I ask my guide.

“We’ll both know when we get there,” says Nixon. “C’mon, I’ll show you the boat?”

“If this is the VIP tour,” I reply, “I would hate to go tourist class.”

Nixon chuckles. “I lied about that. Sorry to have built up your hopes.”

We enter a giant foyer that is lit up like a mall. The foyer is a hub to dozens of suites whose doors are open wide. The suites are filled with people who come and go at will. Some of the suites are chapels, others are casinos, others are barrooms that relinquish the roar of televised football games.

The acoustics of the foyer are powerful; I hear conversations more clearly. “Don’t call yourself a golfer,” a voice says.  “’Cause you’re three-putting every green.” Another voice says, “The Dave Clark Five had nothing on the Beatles.” A third voice cries, “I’ll tell you who shot him. It hadda be Jack Ruby!”

I follow Nixon up a long spiral staircase. We climb from deck to deck. Each of the decks is brightly lit and a home to dozens of suites. I see a stock exchange, a bowling ally, and an adult entertainment store. I see a beauty salon, a disco, and even a Chinese restaurant.

“Some Peking duck?” Nixon asks me.

I shrug.

Nixon steps into the restaurant and comes back with two takeout containers. He hands me one. “I ordered it spicy. You can’t get it spicy in hell.”

Although I don’t feel hungry, I bite into a breast. It stings my mouth like a scorpion. I toss it into a trash bin.

Nixon pockets his takeout box—“I’m saving it for hell”—and we continue to mount the staircase. We pass decks with bingo parlors, decks with dog grooming salons, decks where blazing angels are passing out literature. When we come to a deck with a Disneyland logo, Nixon pauses to catch his breath. The deck contains dozens of shops, all of them Disney stores. The shops are packed with customers who are buying memorabilia.

“Good ol’ Walt,” Nixon mutters. “I could always count on him.”

“Count on him for what?” I say.

“You’re a writer,” says Nixon. “Figure it out.””

The answer seems redundant, but I answer anyway. “His corny movies kept people from thinking.”

“A nicer way to put it,” says Nixon, “is that he kept them from thinking too much.”

 “So what’s the lesson here?”

Nixon yawns. “What lesson do you want to hear?”

“That your tripe went over too easy. Walt Disney did most of the work.”

Nixon scowls. “You goddamn writers—always wanting a lesson. Well, I don’t have a lesson to give you and you’re starting to piss me off.”

“Am I here for your approval?” I say.

“No, you’re here for a goddamn tour.” Nixon reaches into his jacket and removes a bottle of throat spray. After lathering his tonsils, he takes a labored breath. “All right, here’s a lesson. You can write it down or shove it up your ass. Check for a fortune cookie when you order Peking duck.”

*

The stairway ends at a sundeck, and we step into the night air. The sky is starless, the fog is like soup, the deck is slick with dew.

“Is this boat bound for purgatory?” I ask Nixon.

“How the hell should I know?”

“So where are we going?”

“Stop asking me that! Where the fuck do you wanna go?”

Remembering Dante’s Inferno, I say, “How about the circle of Limbo? I hear the ancient poets live there, and they have it pretty good. They get to stroll in a meadow and philosophize all day.”

Nixon slaps his forehead. “You want to go there? Those gasbags will bore you to death.”

“I’m dead already,” I say. “What have I got to lose?”

“You’ll lose your mind in the circle of Limbo. Those cocksuckers talk in riddles.”

“This whole damn ship is a riddle,” I snap.

“It’s only a riddle to you,” Nixon laughs. “That comes from thinking too much.”

“The circle of Limbo,” I repeat, and I feel like a pompous fool. Since I don’t know the ship’s destination, I can hardly make demands.

“Well, think it over first,” Nixon says. “I gotta go for now.”

“You going to check our course?” I ask.

“No, I gotta take a piss.”

*

Nixon disappears down the stairwell; I stand alone on the deck. The fog is relentless; the air is so damp it clings to my skin like a suit. The piped-in music system is playing “The Girl from the North Country.”

A woman’s voice says, “Tom, you’ll catch your death of cold.”

The fog is so thick that I barely see her loitering beside the stairwell. Despite this benevolent haze, I see more than I want to see. She is no longer a girl of twenty but a woman past menopause. Her hair is white and disheveled; her eyes no longer sparkle. She is wearing a yellowed kaftan, and love beads droop from her neck.

I close my eyes and will her away. When I open them she is still there. What a sticky thing one’s first love is even when thrown away. I had loved her when we were in college; I had loved my adventuring more. When my letters from Australia no longer sustained her, she wisely discarded me.

She remains by the stairwell; she does not walk toward me. She nibbles her underlip. “Why am I still caring for you?” she puzzles. Her voice is honeyed with sentiment; her tenderness touches me still.

 I choose my words as though they are jewels. “I should think you’d have lost the habit.”

“I did,” she replies. “But when heart failure took me, I wanted to see you once more.”

Why has illusion abandoned me? I think as I look at her. My memory of her—which I treasure—is a memory nurtured by distance. Her presence is like a wax statue. I want her to go away.

 “I have something for you,” she murmurs.

“Galoshes?” I ask. My skin starts to prickle.

“Will a snapshot do instead?” she asks.

She shuffles toward me, hands me a photo, then goes back and waits by the stairwell. In the photo we are a couple. In the photo she looks more alive. We pose in her dormitory, arm-in-arm. The flashbulb reddens our eyes.

I slip the photo into my pocket. It gives me a paper cut. “Why did you bring me this?” I ask.

 She replaces a loose strand of hair. “I’ve always been fond of collectibles, Tom. I just hate to throw them away.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“I must go,” she replies. “Bingo starts in ten minutes.”

She hurries down the stairwell. Her footsteps patter like rain. I am looking at the photo when Nixon returns to the deck.

*

“Guess who I saw?” I tell Nixon.

“Your college squeeze,” he replies. “I hope you don’t wanna marry her.”

“I wanted her to go away.”

“Atta boy,” says Nixon. “Way to go with the flow.” Nixon lifts his bottle of throat spray and once again coats his tonsils. Borrowing from Thomas Wolfe, he quotes, “’You can’t go home again.’”

Do I only merit clichés? I wonder. I am sick of this fool of a man. Feeling contentious, I shake my head and try to outdo his quote. “’Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne, they rise, they break, and to that sea return.’”

“The fuck are you trying to say?” Nixon says.

“That you’ve shown me nothing of substance.”

“So you’re reciting Alexander Pope?”

“If it helps me make sense of all this—yes.”

“All right,” Nixon says. “Let’s do literary quotes. I read three books a day, you know.” Nixon fills his mouth with chewing tobacco then spits the wad into a lifeboat. He then dances a jig and grins like a jackal. “How about something from The Book of Revelation?—that’s always good for a laugh. ‘Since you are neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee from my mouth.’”

I concede to Nixon that he has won. “That explains this vapid boat.”

Nixon pirouettes and laughs. “You eggheads are so easy to fuck with,” he crows.

“I’m trying to rise like a phoenix,” I say. “I want my celestial wings.”

“Yeah, but you’re more like a baby bird. All beak and fulla shit.”

“So where are we going?”

“Come with me to hell—you can chase those damn soldiers away. If I can get some more spin from my follow through, I’ll bowl that perfect game.”
           

The ship’s horn drones like a trumpet.

“We’re arriving,” Nixon says.

A shoreline is creeping toward us. I can make out a shadowy dock. It takes me a moment to realize it’s the exact same place we embarked from. Corky is sitting on the dock, watching the ship approach.

*

Some angels trail us like pickpockets as we take our leave of the ship. Corky bares her teeth at them. Nixon waves them off.

“Go to hell,” he snaps. They bow and walk away. I wait until the fog swallows them before I speak to Nixon.

“Is that how you talk to heavenly hosts?”

Nixon spits a tobacco-stained loogie. “I wasn’t trying to be rude,” he says. “I just told them where they should go. Those fuckers will pluck more souls in hell than they will on that goddamn boat.”

“You should have let them recruit you,” I joke.

“They’ve tried,” he replies. “Half a dozen times. When heaven lands a big-time sinner, it’s great publicity.”

“They’re persistent if nothing else,” I say.

Nixon gives me the Boy Scout salute. “Persistence pays,” he recites. “Shit, I might just let ’em recruit me once I’ve bowled my perfect game.”

 Amused by the look on my face, Nixon laughs like a donkey. “Hadja going,” he brays. “Damn, it’s fun to mess with your head. How’d you become a writer if you’re this damn easy to fool?”

We walk for an hour. Neither of us speaks. We come to a carnival. I see an endless midway that is packed with thousands of people.

The racing lights of the midway barely penetrate the darkness, but the many sights and sounds are distracting nonetheless. A roller coaster rattles above us; a Ferris wheel spins like a giant roulette wheel; a barker from a break-a-plate booth stuffs a softball into my hands. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” he hollers. “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Smash three in a row and pick your prize. A Kewpie doll or heaven.”

Annoyed, I toss the softball away. Corky bolts after it, fetches it back. I throw it away a second time, and she vanishes into the crowd.

“Is this our destination?” I ask.

“Damned if I know,” Nixon says. “But I wouldn’t mind some cotton candy.  You can’t get that in hell.”

We come to a booth where a dozen people are playing Russian roulette. A crowd lingers around the booth, egging the contestants on. Bookies move among the crowd giving odds and collecting bets.

Among the contestants I spot Spiro Agnew, Lyndon Johnson, and Andrew Jackson. They sit in a circle, waiting their turn, while passing a revolver around. Each contestant spins the cylinder and puts the gun to his temple. When one of them blows his brains out the crowd erupts in a cheer.

As the bodies are dragged from the booth, the bookies settle the bets. A concert band plays a few bars from “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

Nixon points to a scar on his temple and sighs like a dog in a cage.  “I lost in my very first round,” he says. “Hell, I coulda been a contender.”

“Take another shot at it,” I say dryly.

“Fuck it, I’d rather be knocking down pins. That goddamn game is rigged.”

We continue to walk down the midway. The darkness tightens around us. Although I stroll among droves of people, I feel no connections at all. It seems like they are devolving on their way to oblivion.

*

The tour continues for three whole months. I see many incalculable sights. I see hordes of angels shepherding children who are shrieking for their mothers. I see mummified church people holding up signs that say, Christianity Saves. I see gangs of Hare Krishnas swiping apples from a mart. Although the sights are myriad, the effect is always the same. I feel like I’m watching a movie that has no storyline.

“So whaddya think?” Nixon asks me one day.

We are standing on top of a snow-capped mountain. The fog below us rolls. An aura is starting to light me up, but I can’t tell what color it is.

“What do you want me to think?” I say. “You’ve taught me nothing at all.”

Nixon pantomimes a golf swing then squints as though watching the ball. “If you want to be enlightened,” he says, “go chat with a fucking angel.”

“They’re a little too hard on the eyes,” I say. I look down at the infinite fog. Random lights peak through it like a scattering of fireflies.

“Yeah,” Nixon says. “And they lay it on thick. You’d think they were selling used cars.”

Nixon unzips his pants and pees a smoky stream. After yellowing the snow, he wags his penis, shaking the last drops loose. “A guru might give you the scoop,” he says as he tugs his fly back up. “But me, I’m just a tour guide and I wanna get back to hell.”


“Just tell me what comes next,” I say.

“Fucked if I know,” Nixon says. “Go sit under another tree—I’m done with his goddamn tour.”

“Any parting words?” I ask as he starts to walk away.

“Plenty,” he says, “but none of ’em matter. Except for one damn thing.” He spreads his arms like an eagle in flight. “Ayyy am not a crook.”


“I Am Not a Crook” was first published in the anthology Shackles and More Gripping Tales.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. “His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.” (Global Book Awards recently gave James’s latest book, The Ping-Pong Champion of Chinatown, a gold medal.)


“Midnight Galaxy” Horror by Rituparna Mitra

“Welcome to Midnight Galaxy Sir. Is this your first time here?”

“Yes.”

“May I know exactly how did you come to know about Midnight Galaxy, Sir?”

“ A friend bought me the ticket couple of days ago.”

“And this friend has been here before I am assuming.”

“Yes.”

“How did they describe their experience to be?’’

“Uncomfortable.”

“Could you elaborate on that please?’’

“No. I don’t remember much of the conversation.  Only that his uneasiness made the whole incident unforgettable.” 

“I see. Do you have an diseases we should know about?’’

“No.”

“Are you aware of The Bell?’’

“Yes. I am to press it when things get too much. There’s a novel too. The Bell Jar. Read it sweetie?”

“No, I haven’t. And you’re right about the pressing part.”

 “Not honoring the origin. Ain’t that sweet, sweetie?’’

 “Did your friend press the bell?’’

“Yes, he did.”

“And what made him do that?”

“Spiders. He finds them creepy.”

“And you?”

“I find babies creepy.”

“ I see. Have you read all the terms and conditions carefully, Sir?”

“Yes and I agree. Here’s your agreement. I’ve signed it. Now could you please lead me to the goddamn room? I am here for the show and not to play twenty questions with you, sweetie.’’

“Sure Sir. Please press the bell immediately on feeling even slightly disturbed. We will take you out right away.”

“You wish.”

I’m pregnant. Nothing could be scarier than Audre’s announcement this morning. Definitely not some dark room where nothing could be seen except for darkness. Absolutely nothing. Like Milton’s Hell. Scott had bought him the ticket last week as a late birthday present and insisted he check it out. For the place was lit. How could such a pitch black room be even considered lit!

They had made him sit in some fancy looking chair with a head and foot rest before closing the door and engulfing it in complete darkness. With some light the place could’ve given major spa vibes. If he allowed his irritation at Audre to slide for a second or two, he might even bring himself to laugh at their attempts to make people all comfy before scaring the shit out of them. Some horror house surely it was!

For a horror house, everything looked quite normal. Everything that he had seen before entering the Room that is. Except for the stupid rule. Only one allowed per day. How was that even profitable to the business! 

Of course, he had no clue about the pricing of the ticket he had deposited at the reception counter. But how much could it really be! He made a note to ask Scott after the show which he was told would begin in about 5 minutes by the annoying receptionist.

She could annoy the hell out of anyone. Probably her charm scared people more than any show playing on the giant lifeless screen before him. Or forced them into feeling scared and pressing The Bell. More than any show, her twenty questions did the trick. 

And who wrote these ‘shows’ anyways? There was nothing available on the net. How did they even advertise themselves without a legit website in this tech-driven age? Scott-himself- was gifted the ticket by another friend. He wondered if some secret cult was at play here. One that he didn’t know about. Just like he didn’t how Audre managed to get pregnant on his watch.

He had agreed to partake in Scott’s buffoonery only to buy some time for himself.  Back at home in Audre’s presence, he was feeling suffocated. Looking at her, filled him with a great sense of rage. And he didn’t want to hit her.

A brass bell with the “Don’t be scared” sticker caught his eye. So, this was the infamous Bell. The safety alarm. He wondered if anyone had died before pressing it. Because of a heart attack caused by the extreme terror unfolding before their eyes.  Extreme terror caused by tiny spiders. 

A joyful chuckle escaped his throat. Afraid of spiders at 40. And a fucking surgeon. Ha ha! Scott should’ve his license taken. 

His phobia put the credibility of the cinema house under a big question mark for it might have milked on a sheer coincidence. Who knew if the spider was on the screen or outside it! All he remembered about the conversation he had with Scott was his uneasiness at spotting a spider. With his blossoming rage, focusing on anything else had been a bit too difficult. He could only remember the spider part for Audre once had a tarantula. He had fed it to an eagle his friend was training for some show. 

A light flickered somewhere on the giant screen cutting through the darkness of the room. A woman could be seen stroking her baby bump. The foolish wind was trying to pose a silent challenge to her cascading tresses not knowing she’d look divine even with messy, wind destroyed hair. Audre has jet black hair just like her that floated like boats in trembling waves passing the arch of her shoulder ending somewhere above her tailbone. 

How he loved playing with those! Running his fingers through them while she slept past her rising time, he would often marvel at his luck. How very lucky he was! To remind himself he was not in some dream, he would often pluck a few strands out. She would wake with a start: shock and pain swimming in the oceanic pools of her cobalt blue eyes. The moan escaping her lips always reminding of the sounds she had made the first time he had entered her body and made his. With a promise never to share.

He would later keep the loose hair strands with him in his breast pocket. Sometimes it would be a broken nail soaked in her blood. Or a fiber or few issues from the various parts of her body. A body he owned rightfully. By the virtue of love. Legalized by the rights granted by marriage. He liked to keep her with him. All the time. In whatever way he could. 

He liked the reminder of someone waiting eagerly for him back home. A home he had locked from all sides before leaving. 

It had all started as a test. Him locking Audre inside their one bedroom apartment to ensure she would never run away from him. Like all his past girlfriends had. Audre had aced the test. Once he’d forgotten to lock the windows in hurry for he’d received an urgent call from the hospital. Audre had called him back from one of the windows reminding him to lock it. 

He had found her on the streets. Homeless. Orphan. And a junkie. She was barely 18. He had just turned 35. He had to fix her up from the scratch.  Using his surgical hands. In that process, he had ended up marking her in every possible way. Ways no one would ever understand. Ways that defied all norms and ethics. He had started from her breasts.

His mother had stopped breast feeding him from a very early age. He would always leave teeth marks. Unlike his angelic brother-Simon. The pretty little wuss always made a fuss whenever he talked about the hunting adventures he could enjoy course to his father. He had once puked at the sight of the game his father had brought back home to keep as a treasured souvenir and refused to eat for two days.    

Audre never complaint when his teeth sank in a bit deeper than she would have liked. She understood his need to be with her even when they’re apart. She understood how he wanted for her to carry him in her bruises. In her scars. Think of Bad Things at the max or Fifty Shades getting even greyer. 

He gave her her first scar when the teeth marks had started feeling inadequate. A few women including his mother had bore those a few times. She deserved something no other women had ever received from him. There needed to be something that was exclusive only to them: adding to the uniqueness of their relationship. Making it even more special.

The idea had struck him while she sat a few inches away painting arrows on some toss pillows. Something to do with those DIY videos she loved so goddamn much. Probably more than him.

He had laid her on bed that night undressing her gently down to her socks. Audre hated dirty feet and would always wear socks. The only time she would take them off was when they’re on bed. 

The swiss knife felt hot against his palms. It was a gift from his father on his tenth birthday. How he cherishes the hunting memories! He bonded with his father because of that only love of his no one else approved of. Especially his upright mother. With a low pain threshold. Almost a non-existent one. 

He had made three long cuts right at the middle. Two smaller ones on either side of the longest one. Just where the heart is.  His Audre struck by the Cupid’s bow. Destined to be his forever. 

She had been as still as a dead buck. Suspended in time. Denied motion. Beautifully still. Just like an empty canvass before an artist breathes life into it.

She had appreciated his art on her body and said it felt exactly the same as needles prickling her skin. Laughing she told him how she always wanted a cool looking tattoo. He had cleaned everything afterwards so that she wouldn’t get infected. He had also kissed her scars repeatedly appreciating her easy acceptance. How beautiful she looked in the crescent moonlight with her eyes rolling back into their milky sockets in sheer ecstasy!

On the screen, the woman was talking to the unborn child unaffected by the phone ringing in the background. The ringing finally ends and a voice message can be heard reminding her about a husband who is waiting in some fancy restaurant for her. It was their marriage anniversary.

The scene of him hitting Audre the first and only time flashes before his eyes. She had forgotten all about their movie date in tending to the perennially sick tarantula that was slowly draining the life out of their relationship. 

On a whim, she had decided to turn a mother suddenly and adopted the tarantula from one of his buddies who did magic shows. In his rage, he had lost control and the sheer force put behind the punch ended up breaking a tooth. 

Audre forgave him for her smile bore no resemblance of the broken tooth. It was towards the very end of her mouth. She looked the same in the mirror. There was no trace of the punishment left. At least a visible one. 

He had learnt stitching barbells into her skin as an apology. She felt doubly hers that day.  The strong and shiny silver sat perfectly against her tender pink folds. Yin and Yang.

Later, he had taken the tarantula to his friend’s place to put it out of its misery. The eagle looked happy at having something different for its dessert.

Sometimes, he wondered if Audre put up with everything because she had nowhere else to go. No one else to turn to for comfort and companionship. In short, no any purpose to live.

Surely a psycho lover was better than living on the streets. With nothing and no one to call home what other options were she left with anyways!? The streets were surely no safe place for any women with predators lurking everywhere to tear her open and devour her every day in ten different ways. Or twenty. She would have ended up just like her beloved tarantula.

He had shown her all the documentaries he could find online where homeless women shared tales of horror so that she could learn to appreciate the life that he had given her. He remembers one such tale even to this date where a woman (who had a blurred face) was talking about how she was violated by a group of 20 something men while on her periods. Her perpetrators had only been aroused at the sight of blood gushing out of her body. They had recorded the entire thing and posted it online under “Horror Porn” category. It’d received few hundred likes too. Audre used to watch the video repetitively. 

She had just turned 19 at that time. He’d taken her to some exotic resort in Fiji to celebrate. She looked so happy in her satin polka dotted dress. It was lime green in color from what he remembers. She’d found the documentary in her “Recommended for You” section. She had pleaded him to make love to her that night. That would be their first time. He wanted to wait till she felt ready. 18. 20. 30. It hardly mattered to him.

Besides, sex had never been truly gratifying for him. Some women had an aversion towards pain while others wanted too much of it. The balance had always been missing; making him lose interest in the activity altogether. Until Audre arrived on the scene. Her inexperience and total submission resuscitated his libido. He molded her to his liking. Her body was his personal slice of heaven.

The memories of a certain ex had started fading away by then. She had wanted for them to have “surgical sex.” He had named her Death Drive. DD had a thing for doctors. Or two. On her repeated insistence, they had turned the bedroom into an operating room. She was given a little dose of anesthesia too. To give everything a more realistic appeal.  He was two seconds away from cutting her open. 

Later she had laughed at his apologies saying he should have. That would’ve made one heck of a news bulletin. He could’ve made her famous. She was found dead in her apartment three days later. A bullet straight to the head after slitting both her wrists open. She had been pregnant at that time.

The woman on the screen was now pushing the baby out of her giant belly. Barbells were falling out of the inner folds of her vagina. By then, he had started feeling tiny shards of pain in his chest. The more the baby came out, the further his pain intensified.

With an unbelievable swiftness, he had ascended towards the breasts of the woman and was lapping at it like a snake at some water-tap in a Lawrence’s poem. Her body started transforming before his eyes. Gone were his arrow marks. Her breasts looked horrifyingly clean. The few drops of milk that had spilled out of the baby’s mouth painting it white having wiped all traces of red he’d shed while shooting his arrows into Audre’s bosom. Instead fresh cuts were made on the entrance of her vagina so that the baby could come out easily.  

Her stomach looked like it had roots growing out of it. From each root, hanged pictures of the changes her body was going to witness further because of the baby. Of the sagging breasts free of his Cupid’s arrow.  Of the irreversibly ugly stretch marks and surgical scars on her out-of-shape belly. 

Everything he took so long to create would all come crashing undone.

Audre would become a stranger in a few months.  All he would see on her body was the baby’s marks. Undoing each one of his. One day nothing would be left.  His Audre would be gone forever. In her place would remain a mother who forgets anniversaries and despises the touch of her husband. For her body would always be tired. Her body would become her baby’s plaything.

Suddenly DD’s face floated before his eyes. She was sitting right next to Audre. Something was coming out of her protruding belly and crawled its way inside Audre’s lithe frame; pumping it up like how you fill air inside a balloon.  

DD had bought balloons for his nephew’s birthday. He had donned the entire It makeup; dressing as the clown-ghost. All in jest and humor. Daniel-not too different from his father- had spoilt all his fun. He had taken a leak in his expensive looking chinos making his mother as displeased as Rebecca Whitmore used to be whenever her husband went out hunting.

A trio had formed somehow and he felt greatly mismatched. He wished he had his father by his side. Or even his swiss knife. 

He felt unbearably vulnerable against the pain in his heart that kept on increasing as his hands reached for The Bell. It gave out before he could ring for some divine intervention.

The baby smiled at him from his mummy’s lap. There were balloons floating everywhere in the air.


Rituparna Mitra,24, belongs to the luscious and exquisite lands of Assam, India.  She has been previously published on the online platform of Induswomanwriting, The Criterion and Indian Periodical. She holds a Post grad degree in English Literature and also did an online course in Fiction Writing from The Open University (based in U.K).


                                                                              

“The Haves and Have Nots” Dark Speculative Fiction by Martha Juliet

They let us wander around outside and called it free time. An apt name. I figured they had bugged everywhere else. The three of us huddled together.

“The Haves and Have Nots. I can’t get away from people who believe they’re superior,” Kitty said shaking her head as she scuffed the bottom of her shoe repeatedly along the pavement.

Surrounded by rocks, boulders, and the ocean, it wasn’t like we could go anywhere. One paved path beside the treatment center’s wall had been constructed for walking and wound all the way around the place. People wandered about with their heads down, staring at their feet.

“I told you we’d end up here, Don.”

We were under the watchful gaze of Nurse Bragg’s green eyes, but she had given us space. She sat on a bench with her long, narrow nose buried in a book. I was confident she was unable to hear us over the waves breaking. But at least one of her eyes followed my every move. “You said it. I didn’t believe you, Buck.” Don Juan shook his head. He had quit giving his full name to anybody—too embarrassing.

Don was twenty-two years old. I was twenty-four. We were two paralegals from the same firm, Kettles, Lissener, and Pott law office in Boiling Springs, South Carolina. Don and I often partied together. One night as we came out of a club two uniformed police officers stood waiting for us. They glanced down at something they held in their hands, and then back at us.

In a sharp tone one burly policeman asked, “Your names?”

“Don Juan Love, sir,” he smiled big, showing his perfectly aligned, Hollywood-white teeth.

“B-Buck Sexton,” I stammered.

“Hands behind your back,” the officer ordered.

The other policeman recited, “You have the right to remain silent…”

“What are we being arrested for?” I asked and staggered, my legs suddenly numb.

“Youse two can work that out tomorrow with the judge,” the beefy policeman said. They ordered us into the back of their police car. We got in as they guided us with their hand on top of our heads.  

The next day Mr. Lissener tried to help us. He filed a motion to dismiss all charges and pleaded with the court for the sake of the firm, but to no avail. Kettles and Pott were no help as they were literally in the same boat. But thankfully, we were never placed in a group with them.

“How is it that Nurse Bragg sits while we stand, and yet she still manages to look down on us?” I asked.

“Because she looks at us like this,” Kitty said and imitated a librarian shushing loud children. Her posture straightened, hands held out in a stopping gesture, and her legs drew together. It was a convincing pantomime even though she wore bright red fingernail polish, matching lipstick, and miniskirt. If I had not known Kitty was a prostitute from Commerce, Georgia, I might have thought her a librarian having a night out on the town. I figured she needed to be here. 

In 2042 a tri-state initiative, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida governments used the patients for research in a facility at sea, twenty-two degrees north latitude and seventy degrees east longitude. If successful, M. Barassuall, the lead researcher of the proposed fifteen-year project, will build more facilities.

I listened to Don Juan but watched the action on the boat landing, beneath where we stood, at the bottom of the rocks. A big navy blue and white boat had docked, likely the same one they brought us in on. People were lined up from the top stair to the bottom. Three staff members stood at the bottom on the dock. An orderly released their manacles one by one working in tandem with the nurse and steward. The sounds of their speech traveled up between the waves breaking and I could hear bits and pieces of words spoken. I knew what was going on because a few days ago this had happened to us.

“Medi…wa…tra,” the nurse handed the newly freed person a pill cup. She pointed to her tiny cup-covered cart and the trashcan.

 The orderly released the cuffs of the first person in line and the man immediately rubbed his wrists. Hesitantly he took the medication and tiny cup from her cart. He put the pills in his

mouth, followed by the water. Setting the precedent for the rest of them to do the same as the nurse looked on, he threw the cup in the trashcan below the cart. Afterward, the steward led him away.

“The first round of patients nicknamed the center Alcatraz Two because of similarities to the old prison,” Don said. “Like being surrounded by rock and ocean.” 

“And we’re locked up like prisoners too, bruh. Therapists and orderlies like prison guards make sure we attend meetings to learn new behaviors,” I said.

“Yeah, I was getting to that. They say the similarities to Alcatraz are not happenstance.” 

“How do you know all this?” At six foot four I towered over him. But he was not deterred.

I read about it in Science Knows Best. The structure of this place is made of see-through metal that’s never been used as raw building material.” He pulled a vape pen out of his shirt pocket and inhaled. They use strontium and calcium vanadate. Used to be just in cell phones and television screens.”

“Oh, well now I’m fascinated, not at all furious that I’ve been locked up because I have an infection. How about you Kitty?” I wrinkled my nose as the smell of cherry vape filled the air.

“Fascinating,” Kitty smiled and winked at me. 

Nurse Bragg stood and ushered us inside, waving her book at us like she was moving out livestock on a cattle drive.

Kitty cupped her hands to my ear on the way in and whispered, “Something’s wrong with the way she’s moving.”

She was right. Nurse Bragg ducked into the nurse’s station and crossed one leg over the other. I made no comment, focusing on casually finding the microphones planted everywhere hearing everything we said. They were all over the place, I was sure of it.

“You have to admit it’s a cool place,” Don said smiling. “The electrons that make up the chemical elements used to build this place have such strong interactions they literally detect other electrons around them. Then, when the sun shines on ’em, they become fluid—literally transparent, dude. It’s how we can see the ocean through the walls when the sun’s shining, bruh.” 

Humans had advanced technologically, but in the United States, disparity remained —The Haves and Have Nots. The meanings had changed, it was much easier to become a Have, for sure, but the underlying emotions remained. That awful feeling of being less than others. And on the opposite end of the scale, that superior sense—wiser, better. 

“We have to make the best of our situation,” Kitty said and hiked her skirt. 

“Kitty, are you flirting with me? I am not interested.” Sex was the last thing on my mind for a change. Not caring if the staff looked on, I inspected a lamp by looking in the top and feeling around the edge, picking it up and peering into the open bottom. No bug there. 

 “Why did they send you here?” Don asked.

“The same reason they sent you here, it was my tenth infection,” I said and rolled my eyes.

“Bruh, it was my twentieth,” Don Juan said and placed his palm on his breastbone.

“What? You had twenty before they sent you here and I only had ten? Dude! Something is seriously wrong with the math here.” I started to pace.

“Kitty, how many infections did you have before they sent you here?” Don asked.

“Two.” Her eyes shot to the floor. 

“Man, shoot. Why’d they send you here if you only had two?”

“Attention, everyone!” Nurse Bragg’s shrill voice sounded over the PA system.

 She had climbed up into a chair in the glass-enclosed nurse’s station to speak into the microphone dangling from the ceiling like DJs used back in the 1960s.  

“Don’t waste time trying to figure out when someone is required to come to Safe Sex,” she said and squirmed in her seat. Repeated sexually transmitted infections are what brought you here. These infections cost the United States seventy-two billion dollars this year alone.” She cocked her head, tensed, shifted her right hip, then her left, practically dancing in the seat.

“Until people have only one partner and routinely use condoms, they will continue to receive infections and make up the Haves. People without them will remain the Have Nots.” Nurse Bragg offered a smile of self-satisfaction, but it lasted only a second. Her eyes widened and bulged. She stiffened, moving one leg up awkwardly across her body, lowered it, and did the same with the other. 

“Somebody needs to disinfect that chair when she gets down,” someone yelled.

Laughter erupted in the room. Nurse Bragg climbed down off the chair, stiffly walked to the back wall of the nurse’s station and reached up. The glass of the nurse’s area tinted until it was no longer transparent, and Nurse Bragg disappeared within.

***

Three days later I sat in my therapy group waiting for the meeting to start when Nurse Bragg walked up and took the seat beside me. “Are you teaching today?”

“No. I’m a patient just like you.” She crossed her legs, locked her arms around her knees, and looked down at the floor.

“You’re a patient here?” I had to get up and walk around. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face and didn’t want her to see it. It wasn’t in me to be cruel, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was happy to see her here —even thrilled. After a few minutes I was able to wipe the smile from my face and sit back down in the seat next to her.

“This could happen to anyone, you know,” Nurse Bragg said.

“Don’t I know it. You know, my friend Don is right. This is a cool place. Look, you can see the ocean right through the walls. I’m going to relax and enjoy the rest of my time here. Maybe you should do that too. Finish that book you were reading.”

“Yes. It’s not like I can go anywhere,” she said as she removed her arms from her knees and crossed them in front of her.

“And from now on, when I have sex, I’m going to use condoms.” I said smiling.


Martha Juliet is a native South Carolinian and masters-prepared nurse. Living near the east coast, she enjoys observing the various flip-flops, booty shorts, and tourists. When not writing, she is training her tuxedo cat to fetch. As expected, Martha Juliet is learning to throw and retrieve cat toys quite nicely.


“Pinstripe” by George Gill

"Pinstripe" Supernatural Horror by George Gill

I remember how it feels to sleep.

I remember how it feels to dream. 

I see the man in the pin-stripe suit, standing in the corner. To go with his suit, he has a cane, a bowler hat, and a monocle. The strangest choice about his attire is that he has nothing on his feet to complete the look of a Victorian gentlemen.  I don’t care what anybody says:  bare feet and a suit looks as ridiculous as a dog dressed in a human’s clothes.

He is the reason I can’t sleep. He stands there in the corner, watching and waiting.

#

Pinstripe appeared five days ago. I was drifting in and out of sleep when I saw the

moonlight catch his monocle. He wasn’t in the corner of the room. Instead, he was a black shape looming over me. His long fingers were close to wrapping around my throat. I smelled death on those fingers. When my eyes opened, he had recoiled, and floated back over to the corner. That was when I saw his feet. I would have laughed under normal circumstances. But someone, or something, had floated across my bedroom. I would not call that a laughing matter. He watched me for an hour, and I watched him back. Each time I blinked he would move forward a small amount before slowly receding back to his corner. And it was his corner. After the hour, he floated to my closet elegantly like a butterfly in the wind. He got in and closed the door. An hour passed before I mustered the courage to open the closet door. When I did, I saw my clothes. And that was it. I got back into bed. I didn’t sleep.

#

The next day, I went about my usual routine, albeit shakily. Breakfast at seven. Shower at eight. Work at nine. I worked a few streets away in an office as a freelance writer. I was writing a piece about Le Loup Graciuex; a new French Bistro that had opened in town. The food was pretentious, but good. I had just finished writing a paragraph about the mussels in white wine sauce when I realised that a second coffee was needed. I pressed the buttons that lock the computer and saw Pinstripe in the black screen. He was standing behind me by the entrance to my office. My knee smashed into the desk as I swivelled around before he could float to me and take me to wherever it is he comes from. Except he wasn’t there. And what stood there in his place was my office mate, Steve.

“Jesus Rick, you look fuckin’ terrible. What’s up with you?” he said.

Charming as ever,I thought

“I’m just heading off for a coffee. Care to join?” I asked.

“Sure, but it looks like you should inject it straight into your bloodstream buddy, not drink it.”

I laughed, and said, “I think you may be right.”

#

That night I sat in bed, watching the closet door. God knows what I was expecting. I thought maybe the previous night had been a dream. Then I remembered the smell. The stench of death and decay on his fingers, like roadkill rotting in the sun. That was real.

I’d heard that when you dream, your brain can’t make up a face. Pinstripe’s face had been burned onto my brain. It was pale, like it had never felt the sun kiss it there. Of course, it hadn’t, because Pinstripe was a creature that felt safe in the shadows. His face was unnaturally smooth. I was sure that if he were to take off his bowler hat, there would be no hair there. Only a continuation of skin twisting and folding back in on itself like a Mobius strip.

My eyes had started to feel heavy. Sleep called, whispering it will all be okay. Just close your eyes and come with me, you will be safe here. I listened, until I heard the closet door creak.

First, there was only black in the crack that appeared. A black so dark that staring at it for too long would drive anybody to madness. Then a red eye peeped through the hole and gazed at me. It was as though he fed through the eye. It opened wider and wider until eventually it surpassed the size of the crack, and the closet became the red light district. The door opened fully. He stepped out. That was the first time he walked. It was as though staring at me through the closet door had sucked some of my life-force and instilled inside him a newfound strength. He took up his usual spot in the corner. His eyes had turned black. He watched me, this time smiling with yellow teeth. The type of teeth that result from a combination of too much coffee and cigarettes. This time, two hours had passed before he walked back to the closet and climbed inside. I didn’t go to the closet. I knew he wouldn’t be there. I sat up in bed and wept.  

#

Time crawled slowly, but eventually the clock struck seven, so I went about my morning routine.

I made a quick breakfast, but only managed a few bites of toast before I ran to the toilet to throw it all back up. I flushed it and cleaned my face. I expected that when I rose to look in the mirror, Pinstripe would be behind me, red eyes blazing and growing larger as he consumed and drained me. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I saw a sunken face staring back at me. It was both my face and not my face at the same time. My eyelids drooped and the area under them had changed to a shade of purple. My hair had become matted and shiny. My skin had a yellow tinge, as though Pinstripe had not only dined on me last night, but that he also had a hankering for liver when he did so. I pulled out a set of scales and stood on them. I weighed seventy-four kilograms: two kilograms lighter than the night before.

#

My routine — which I had been pretty good at keeping up with — was broken that morning. Instead of going to work, I headed for the pharmacy.

I couldn’t sleep. Not that I would have found it difficult. I think I could have fallen asleep there and then in the road, and not even a car running over my legs would have woken me. No, the fact was that I couldn’t sleep. He would get me. Pinstripe would find me, wherever I was, and take me to his world of shadows. Forever.

I bought smelling salts. Strong smelling salts. I hoped they would do the trick and keep me in the land of the living. It was all I could think to do. I couldn’t tell anybody. Who would listen without trying to get me institutionalized? Smelling salts would have to do.

#

That night, I lay awake in bed. Nothing had changed there. When I felt myself drifting, I cracked the smelling salt packet and let the ammonia drift into my nostrils. Whoever said those things pack a punch, they weren’t kidding. My breathing became rapid, and I felt my heart pounding, as though it were trying to escape my chest.

The light from the closet came about twenty minutes later. Red as usual, but this time pulsing, like Pinstripe was sending a signal. Like he was trying to communicate with me in some way. I didn’t speak his language and I didn’t want to learn it. With each pulse I could feel him growing stronger. My bedsheets became wet. I thought I’d pissed the bed — something I’d only done once before in my adult life after my twenty-first birthday — but found that it was sweat. The closet door opened, and he stepped out. He looked at me and was grinning. He bowed and then tipped his hat. I was right about there being no hair under there. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about it following the smoothness and paleness of his face. Instead, there was a writhing brain. His veins contorting and pulsating like maggots on a piece of meat. It started to glow red. He was mocking me. Showing me that he was getting stronger because of me, and I was getting weaker because of him. I screamed a noise I’d never thought could come out of me. He started to laugh, but instead of sound that came out of his mouth there was nothing. A nightmarish mime. He bent and held his belly as though he couldn’t contain his silent laughter anymore without bursting. Then he snapped his head back at me and put his fingers to his lips, shushing me and my screams. He walked over to the corner with an exuberant flare, where he waited, and watched. Always watching.

#

Just like the previous nights, Pinstripe went back to his shadowland via my closet. This time it had taken him three hours to leave. I had been awake for fifty-three hours when I went to the kitchen to make myself toast. I ate quickly and managed to keep it down.

The bathroom tiles were ice under my feet. I stepped on the scales; they read sixty-eight kilograms. What was happening to me? I had a cold shower, letting the water fall on me, but making no effort to wash myself. I dried off and went back to the bedroom. I cracked another tab of smelling salt and inhaled deeply. I knew that if I kept this up for much longer my body would shut down. I had to do something about the closet. That was his entrance. His marker. His gateway. Burning it came to mind, but I quickly disregarded it. I didn’t have a garden where I could pass it off as a bonfire, and I thought burning it in the street would get me thrown in jail, or at the very least an ASBO. Neither of which I needed.

I decided to lock the closet door with the biggest padlock I could find. I found a Heavy Duty Master Lock at an electrical and hardware store called Extra. It cost me fifteen pounds. I also bought a reel of duct tape which set me back an extra two pounds. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that seventeen pounds might be the cost of my life. Was that my worth? I put those thoughts to the back of my mind. I didn’t have time for them. I left the store, cracked another tab of smelling salt, and walked home.

Back at home, I wasted no time. I ran to my bedroom as fast as I could in my sleep deprived state. Luckily, my room was on the bottom floor. I don’t think I could have managed stairs, let alone lug a closet down them. I took no chances and locked the closet with the Master Lock. I didn’t think he would jump out while I moved it out of the room, but why take the risk? It smashed into the door on the way out which made me scream. The closet seemed to have gained one hundred kilograms by the time I got to the kitchen, and I had to stop. I caught my breath, cracked another tab of smelling salt, and opened the reel of duct tape. I don’t know how long it took me, but I was surprised at how much tape is on one of those small reels. The closet now had a Master Lock sealing the clothes in darkness, and duct tape covering every inch of the wooden pallets. The only thing I had left to do was move it facing the wall, door-side of course. Not that I believed this would help. After this, I cooked some dinner, and ate slowly. My eyes were fixed on the silver mess I had made.

#

After dinner, I got into bed. I snapped two smelling salt tabs and stuffed them into my nose. Me eyes burned and tears streamed down my face. The tabs did their job, so I removed them. In that moment, I thought about how they might taste and slowly brought them to my mouth. I stuck my tongue out which was trembling and dry as a bone. I realised what I was doing and chucked them both across the room.

Another hour passed, and I found myself drifting off. My body had already built a tolerance to the smelling salts. I slowly reached to my bedside table, and pulled out another tab. I cracked it and once again inhaled deeply. My nose had started to burn from their recent plugging, and I could feel the skin inside flaking off. When I stuck a finger up there it was met with a mixture of dried blood and wet snot. I started laughing and this time did eat what my fingers brought to my mouth. I would have thrown up, but I’d heard a loud bang from the kitchen. Oh god, I thought. Oh god please help me.  

Silence. There was silence for what must have only been thirty seconds, but to me it felt like I’d fallen into a black hole and the whole concept of time ceased to exist. Then, the dragging started. The screech of the closet being traipsed along the kitchen floor. That’s when I tried to let out a scream, but my throat was so dry I could only manage a faint gargle. The dragging stopped and I heard footsteps just outside the room. There was a knock at the door. Two thuds. Then two more, louder this time. Then one final knock, so loud it seemed to rattle the bed posts. The handle turned, and the door swung open and stripped the paint from the wall. 

The doorway remained empty, but the corridor was illuminated a deep crimson. This was the colour of anger. I had angered him by trying to cage him away. And I had to pay the price. He appeared with his back to me as he traipsed the closet into the room. I saw that all the duct tape had been ripped off, revealing the birch underneath. The padlock remained threaded through the handle, but the metal that fits into the lock had been sheared in two. He put the closet exactly where it had been before, then turned to look at me. He pointed a single finger into the air and started wagging it. The way a parent tells off a child when they’ve had their hand in the cookie jar. Then he committed what I think was his most egregious act. He started to dance over to the corner, not walk, dance. His cane tapped on the floor syncopated to his rhythm like a sinister ragtime. He turned to me, grinning. His teeth, once yellow, were now white. He stayed in his corner. And he watched.

#

I see the man in the pin-stripe suit, standing in the corner.

He has been waiting in the corner for three hours. If being awake for over one hundred hours has had any benefit at all, it is that I now understand he will not leave tonight for another two hours. I have no smelling salts left. I sit here now, remembering what it feels like to sleep. What it feels like to dream. Because I will be there soon. And when I get there, I will be met with darkness.


George Gill is studying for his Ph.D. in condensed matter physics at the University of Oxford. When he isn’t performing experiments, he is writing or reading. He is currently working on more short stories.


“Nycotophobia” Horror by Jordon Jones

It’s just an old house. That’s what my mother used to tell me. It had been somewhat of a ritual of ours when I was a child. She would come in and see that I had hardly slept and explain away my fear by saying It’s just an old house. The fear caused by the creaking and groaning, the thuds and whistling, was whisked away by such a simple statement. It was the truth, of course, but they say the best lies are layered within the truth. It never explained the whispers I would hear. This house was rather isolated. We lived atop a hill. It was far enough away from town to make any voices that weren’t ours suspicious. And yet, nothing ever happened. So, as I grew older, I doubted my memory. There couldn’t have ever been someone other than us here. And that’s true, it was only ever us.

I remember my first night in that house as well as I remember my last. I was eight when my mother brought me home from the orphanage. She was quite a generous woman and had rescued many children from foster homes over the years. She was old and single; you see. Her hair was greying yet still full, and her smile would make even the most distrustful person allow her possession of something they held dear. I was the third child she had adopted, the first of which went out of state to study law. The second was my older sister, Phoebe. We were quite close, me and sis, despite the four-year age gap. She had helped me that first night and kept me from running to find my mother. And I’m thankful to her for that to this day. If I had left my room that night, I wouldn’t have been able to put my experiences down on this page.

That first night was when the oldest of us, Hailey, came back to visit. She came later into the evening after dinner had already been served and Phoebe had gone to our room. Hailey had wanted to meet me. She was a nice girl, full of life and happiness. Her blonde hair was tied in a ponytail, and intelligent blue eyes were studying me from behind black-rimmed reading glasses. “You must be Ellie,” she said. “It’s lovely to meet you.”

“H-hi.” I have always been shy. Even at the age I am now, I feel uncomfortable meeting new people. “Who are you?”

“I’m Hailey, I’m your oldest sister. You won’t be able to see me much since I’m at school a lot, but here,” she reached into her red leather handbag and handed me some chocolate, “I wasn’t sure what you’d like, and I was in a rush to catch my flight so I grabbed what I could fast.”

“It’s good.” I said, “Thank you.” I peeled open the chocolate and pulled off a square, it was good. I gestured it back to Hailey “Would you like some?”

“No thank you, dear,” She said, smiling. “I hope you like it here; this old place is quite cosy. Me and mother are going to try and get a good look at the blood moon, and it’s already late so why don’t you go on up to bed? Do you know where your bedroom is?”

“No,” I said

“How about I show you? It used to be my room, you know.” She held out her tanned hand, and I took it. I had squeezed it too tight. My nails made her grimace, but she said nothing. We walked up the old oaken staircase, every step causing a drawn-out groan, as though the stairs didn’t appreciate being stepped on. We reached the top and stood facing a door, which I came to learn was the bathroom. Hailey led me to the right. I playfully let my hand dance across the bannister of the balcony, from which I could see the living room and the antique wooden furniture below. We came to a stop, and I turned to my left to face the door Hailey had led us to.

“Is this my room?” I said, looking at the door. Its ageing bronze handle contrasted with the fresh coat of white paint that lay upon it.

“Yes, dear. Now go on in, I’ll see you in the morning before my flight. Hopefully.” She said, patting me affectionately on the head. “You’ll love it here.” She turned to leave, I watched as she went down the stairs. She looked back, flashed me a smile and waved before her head disappeared beneath the bannister.

That was the first and last time I had ever seen Hailey.

My mother told us that Hailey had to go back to school earlier than expected. Any time we mentioned Hailey after that, it was met solemnly. Mother would tell us Hailey had moved away and couldn’t visit due to work, but she still sent us letters and treats every so often. Now I know my mother orchestrated those things, and considering the events of that first night, I now understand what had happened.

Hailey was dead.

I stood in the bedroom Hailey had led me to, it was comfortable. Two beds lay on either side of the room, both had matching lilac bedsheets. The bed close to the door was occupied by a brunette twelve-year-old, my sister Phoebe. She was scribbling away on some paper and hadn’t noticed me come in. She was decent at drawing for her age, pictures of princesses and knights took up most of the wall space next to her bed. She looked up and noticed me. “Oh, hey.” She said, in a neutral tone, “Your bed is over there.” She pointed with her pencil towards the bed below the window and went back to doodling.

“H-hey,” I said, “D-do you like chocolate?” I held the bar with both hands and gingerly offered it to her.

“Chocolate?” She said, looking down at the bar I was extending forward, “Oh yes, thank you! Come sit next to me.” She patted the space next to her.

I walked over and climbed up onto the bed, handing the chocolate to Phoebe as she snapped off a row and passed it back. We sat there in silence for a few minutes, only the sound of an occasional snap from chocolate being broken breaking the silence. I plucked up the courage to ask, “What are you drawing?”

“Oh uh,” She said, surprised, “Just stuff.” She picked up the picture she was working on. It was a door. A plain, white door. But at the crack towards the bottom, it was shaded slightly red, blood red with black lines sprouting through. Phoebe pointed at the bedroom door and said, “We’re not allowed out at night.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know, mother won’t say. She just tells me to stay in bed no matter what, so I do. You get used to it.”

“Used to what?”

“Mother always says the house is pretty old,” She said, “so the noises are normal.”

“Noises?”

“You know,” She said as she went back to doodling, “like the noises the stairs make and stuff. Mother tells me not to be scared and I’m your big sister so I’m telling you it is all okay. Though you cannot leave.”

“Oh. Okay.” I said, not understanding what was going on. “I’m sleepy.” I got off her bed and walked across to my own. Climbing in I turned to Phoebe and said, “Can we turn off the light?”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll be using my nightlight to draw for a bit longer though.”

“Okay.”

And with that, the big light went off, and unnatural darkness filled the room. My eight-year-old self didn’t completely grasp the concept of dread yet, but that was the feeling it gave me. The only spot free from this blanket of dread was Phoebe’s bed. It stood as a haven, an Oasis. After this night, I asked my mother to get me a nightlight. I needed my oasis from the bleak desert of the dark.

Sleep came for me. Eventually. But -and I remember the time well as it always happened this time- the clock struck midnight. This was when things changed. I awoke in a state of panic. Tears were flowing down my face and yet I couldn’t let out a sound. Whispers were bouncing around in my head and I felt as though my bed was swallowing me. The dark embrace stopped me from moving, no matter how much I struggled. I could only move my eyes, and I looked towards the end of my bed and could see nothing but dark, and in that darkness a shape. Until my last night, I put the shape down to being a figment of my imagination. I cannot even describe its dimensions, but I could see it getting closer. Tendrils of shadow extended from the black pulsating mass and I tried to scream. Nothing. My mouth had opened, and I could feel the darkness flood in. I couldn’t breathe, and it felt as though I was fading. But I must have made some noise or moved in such a way Phoebe noticed or woke up. The next thing I remember is seeing a light approach. Not the metaphorical death kind, but Phoebe’s literal light. As it came closer, I could feel the darkness retracting. I gasped and swallowed a lungful of air and cried. Phoebe had climbed into my bed and I just sobbed on her shoulder.

“It’s okay little sis,” she said, holding me. “You just had a nightmare. First day nerves, I had one too, but I wasn’t this scared.”

“W—wha was the thing,” I said between sobs.

“What thing?” She asked, “there’s nothing here but us sis, you just had a bad dream. But it’s okay. Me and my nightlight will stay with you in your bed tonight.”

“O-okay,” I said, “Thank you. Sis.” I had stopped crying now and looked around the room. The whispers had gone and all I could hear was the creaking of old wood. I looked towards the door and saw it. The red-light Phoebe had drawn, but it was fleeing the scene through the door cracks. I couldn’t fall asleep for over an hour; this was when the creaking and groaning stopped.

The next morning, I woke up and had hoped that last night was a bad dream. It wasn’t. Phoebe was still asleep next to me, and her light was still on. I opened the curtain to let in the sun’s rays and waited for her to wake up. After about thirty minutes she awoke and I asked, “Can we go see mother?”

“She’ll come to see us soon. It’s okay.” She said, getting out of my bed and moving to her own, “Sleep some more.”

And I tried to sleep but I could not. I lay awake for what must have been half an hour, an hour, before I heard a rapping on the door.

“Hello Dears,” the voice belonged to mother, “I got you two some breakfast. Bacon! Can I come in dears?”

“Oh! Bacon!” Said Phoebe, “yes! Yes! come in.”

And in came our mother. This morning, she looked younger than she did when picking me up. I put it down to her being well-rested and the fact she seems to have dyed her hair blonde in the night. “I like your new hair!” Said Phoebe.

“Oh, this?” Mother said. “Just something I thought would look nice, dear. Here you are.” Mother handed a plate to my sister and came over to me.

“H-hi,” I said.

“Are you okay, dear?” Mother said with obvious concern as she carefully handed me the plate of bacon and eggs. “You look like you hardly slept a wink!”

“I-it was scary,” I said, “I had a, had a bad dream,” I explained to her what had happened last night.

“Ah, of course, dear. First-day nerves, most likely giving you nightmares. It happens more often than you’d think, dear! Don’t worry.”

“B-but what about the noises?”

“Oh that,” Mother said, her blue eyes twinkling, “it’s just an old house, dear. No need to worry.”

That was the first time I had ever heard that phrase, It’s just an old house. I must have heard it at least once or twice a week from this point on. Every new strange sound that would crop up would be explained away as It’s just an old house.

After this, we went out and mother bought me a new nightlight. It’s something I have kept to this day, changing the batteries and the bulbs constantly. It would have been cheaper to replace the old thing, but I had grown attached to it. Time went on. Things were mostly normal. My experiences that first night and my last had led me to develop a fear of the dark. It has probably been the most consistent thing in life. Funny, isn’t it? Fear is one of the most reliable things we as people can experience. It never lets you down. As the weeks turned into months, which turned into years, I forgot about Hailey. Phoebe got to go to college, out of state. She came back for the occasional visit. The appearance of smartphones meant we kept in touch. Soon she graduated as I was starting. And we scheduled our visits to mother, so they landed on the same days. We always brought back treats to share, and I know it sounds childish; we both still slept with the nightlights on. Later in the year, she came back to visit for the last time. When Phoebe came, she and I would laugh about the nightlights and we organised a visit to mother. What we didn’t know at the time was that this would be the last time either of us went back to that old house again.

I had arrived early in the day so as not to be caught outside at night. It was a quiet autumn day; I was excited to see mother. I worried about her; despite her youthful appearance, it was obvious she was getting older. I always felt bad leaving her alone in that old house. The trip home was uneventful; a calm before the storm. I reached the bottom of the hill where the house was perched, driving upwards as I passed under the dying trees that flanked the driveway, their leaves falling on my windscreen. I got out of my car and entered the house. Mother was waiting. Tea for three is already prepared. I didn’t think about it much till now, but it’s strange, as Phoebe and I planned her arrival to be a surprise.

“My dear,” Mother said, “you look beautiful, dear; your skin is so soft,” she reached out and stroked my cheek. In college, I learned the hard way that this wasn’t normal.

“Uh thank you, mother.” I said, “you haven’t aged a day since I was last here it seems!” In truth, she hadn’t aged a day in my entire life.

“Oh dear, don’t be such a flatterer.” She said, brushing her blonde hair to the side. “Yes yes, I am getting old! That’s why I’m so happy to see you, dear.”

“You’ll be even happier later mother,” I said, “Phoebe should be coming soon.”

“Oh my, what a surprise dear!” She said, rubbing her hands together, “It is about that time, I should have guessed it.”

We sat and talked for quite some time. Mother had seemed a bit off, but she was always eccentric. I paid it no mind and sipped tea from my mother’s antique tea set. She only used this set on special occasions. It was as old as the house; she told me. Eventually, Phoebe arrived.

“Hiya sis, hiya mother,” She said opening the door, “I’m glad I got in before nightfall.”

“Hey, Phoebe!” I said, going in for a hug. Her hair was longer than last we met, “Took you long enough, mother was getting impatient!”

“Dear, don’t exaggerate!” Mother came over. “I just miss my beautiful daughter. Come here, let me see that face of yours, dear.”

“Love ya too mother,” said Phoebe, trying to pull away from her grasp. “C’mon, let’s do something.”

We all gathered around and talked. Topics from childhood to movies. Mother seemed much more interested in that night’s Blood Moon and our lifestyle rather than our hobbies. Asking about our diets and even, not very subtly, asking about our sex lives. She was always a nosey person, especially with us, but this was different. She was a bit too invested.

As the evening wound down, I went up to my room; Phoebe stayed downstairs. She wanted to check out the Blood Moon. To be honest, I was too scared to hang around outside after dark. I went up the old oaken stairs and let my hand dance across the balcony’s bannisters as I did when I was a kid. I walked past the bathroom and turned left into my room. My bedroom had changed a little over the years. Still the same single bed, and the same plain lilac bedsheets below the window. Phoebe’s bed remained the same, and her various drawings remained on the walls. Her talent increased with age, hence why she made it into art school, yet this wall had some of her best work. It must have resonated with me, a lot of it was a good depiction of my fears. Art depicting demons in the night, ancient temples, and old gods. At the centre of the wall was that picture from my first night. The plain white door with the red light. It still sent shivers down my spine.

The lack of change was because Mother didn’t like the fact I’ve grown up, made her feel old she had said. Which was strange to me, she never seemed to age. She was beautiful as ever but spoke as though she had experienced more than anyone reasonably could. If I knew the truth back then, maybe things would be different. Or I would be dead.

And so, I lay atop my bedsheets and waited. I wanted to know what Phoebe and Mother talked about; it seems I inherited my mother’s nosiness. I put on my earphones and listened to some music, waiting. Minutes passed that felt like hours. And then it started. I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but I knew what it was, the same as that first night and many other nights since. Midnight. I could hear creaking from outside and thuds. The whispers that encroached on my mind muffled most noises, but I could have sworn that I heard a yell. I looked towards the door and could see the darkness creeping in, surrounded by a red light. It danced around the border of my nightlight, but it was stronger than before. It pushed across the boundary of the light. The flashlight on my phone seemed concentrated enough to drive away those dark tendril shadows. I paused, not knowing what to do. Strapping the nightlight to my belt, I then reached into my pocket and grabbed my knife. I knew I had to check on mother and Phoebe. As a child, I never dared leave the room when the dark came for me. As a child, I put it down to nightmares. I knew better now, but I’m thankful for my youthful ignorance. Without it, I may not be here to write this down.

I stood alone in my room and walked towards my door. The shadow tendrils appeared to claw at the crack in the door. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. After about three seconds, I swung open the door and saw nothing. The house was normal. The red light beneath the door had no source. It was unnerving. Despite this, the whispers continued. Fainter now, but they were there. The groaning that ran throughout the house was consistent. I walked towards the balcony, being careful to keep my nightlight facing the floor. That protective circle of light may stop the dark from taking me. I looked over the top of the balcony and saw a mess. The living area looked as though there was a scuffle. The armchair was toppled, the glass coffee table had been broken, fine china with it, and the TV was on its back. I backed away from the balcony and walked toward the stairs. As I walked down them, I looked to my feet and saw it. On the edge of the fourth step, there was blood. It seemed someone fell and smacked their head against it. I concluded we were being robbed, and I wish we were.

I looked around for any signs of life. The only signs seemed to come from the kitchen. The red light, faint as it was, had been present there for a second. So, I walked in. This room was in much better condition than the living room. There was some blood, but the pots were in fine shape. Looking around, that’s when I saw it. A trapdoor. The carpet had been pulled back and there it lay; how did I not know about this? There wasn’t time for me to ponder this, so I went over to it. Its wooden door was old, and the cast iron handle even older. I pulled it open and looked down. Inside was an ancient stone staircase, older than this old house. Older than anything in the country except, as I would later learn, mother. At the bottom, I could see the red light. It came from a doorway. I could only see a block of red that emanated from the glow. I gripped my knife tight and my flashlight tighter and began the descent.

The stone was cold. My bare feet burned from the low temperature, and my entire body shivered. I couldn’t turn back however, I had to push. I had noticed the whispers began to sound louder the deeper I got and accompanying them I heard a woman’s voice.

As I reached the bottom, the light in the door was blinding. I had to walk through the doorway for it to ease. There I saw the truth. This room was illuminated by a red glow, a red glow that was emanating from a dark figure. Dark as the night, its form wasn’t consistent. What I could make out were the tendrils that had pursued me in the dark. Tendrils that seemed to extend from a head, which was mostly a mouth. The mouth of this thing was split into four sections, each one layered with black teeth, all this mounted on a vaguely humanoid body. This was only one of its forms, the others being indescribable. It was a creature made of pure night. I later figured that the red light must have been because of the blood moon. These events were not that rare, but they gave the creature the ability to interact with this world. In front of the being lay a stone altar, as old as the stairs. The frieze on it depicted a sacrifice. A high priestess of some unknown civilisation was sacrificing a person to the moon. And from the moon came a tendrilled creature, bearing the body of a humanoid, to accept the sacrifice. Changing the old priestess into a young one. Atop the altar was Phoebe, unconscious but alive. Blood had pooled around her head. It stood out amongst the old blood that stained the altar. A rough smell of iron lingered in the room. And finally, there stood a woman. A woman whose hair was greying and whose posture was wrecked. A woman who decided clothes weren’t for her, showing her sagged body. She was tossing a bone dagger between her hands and her blue eyes were looking around hungrily. She was, as you must have guessed, my mother.

“M-mother?” I couldn’t help it, the scene before me was too much. “W-what are you doing? Is Phoebe okay?”

“Yes, dear.” She said, her voice, once happy, was now deep and guttural, “She’s just a little tired dear yes. She will be much better once the master takes her away, yes.”

“M-master?”

What is this interruption? I heard a voice reverberating around my brain; it was intoxicating. This human should not be down here. Go.

“N-no.” I had to fight every urge in my body. “I won’t leave without my sister.”

It was naïve of me to think you were intelligent. Kill the girl. Be done with this.

“I shall.” My mother approached the altar.

“Mother. What are you doing? That is your daughter!”

It is not her first. It is not her last. She does as I command. The high priestess of Lunavius.

“Yes, yes.” Mother turned to face me. She was dancing on the spot, “The last one wasn’t this much trouble no, you stayed in bed like a good girl, then yes.”

“High Priestess? Mother? Just tell me what’s going on!” I could feel tears forming in my eyes. This was too much, and I didn’t know what to do. I gripped the knife tight.

“I give master blood and free him for an evening, and master gives me youth. That was the contract we made.” The bone dagger in her hand was still dancing.

You insulate creatures of this planet. You think you know everything. She has always been mine.

During this, Phoebe’s eyes flicked open. I had to buy a little time. “Just what are you?”

I am your better. Nyx, Nox, Kuk, Ahriman. You humans give names to things you have no way to understand, so now I am Lunavius. You only hear my words because I deem it. You only live because I deem it. I only tell you this to stop you from acting out. Priestess, do it.

Mother approached the altar with the knife, ready to kill. I reacted. I wasn’t even thinking now. A wall of anger hit me when I shined the flashlight into the being. I had annoyed it with my insolence. Whilst the being was distracted, I had pulled out my knife. I ran towards the altar and stabbed it deep into the back of my mother’s neck. She collapsed, and the sound of her drowning in blood haunts me the most of all these events. I grabbed Phoebe, who was awake, and threw her arm around my shoulder. I told her to take my phone and direct the flashlight behind us, and so we ran up the stairs and through the trapdoor; I slammed it shut behind me.

I yanked on my sister’s wrist and dragged her outside. After collecting ourselves for a moment, we knew what we had to do. I told Phoebe to wait down the road. I ran towards the shed. That’s where the petrol was. I ran in and searched, knocking over garden tools and fertilisers, until I finally pulled out a Jerry Can. I opened the top and sniffed. It was full of petrol, all right. I ran throughout the house and doused everything I could. I even risked opening the trapdoor and poured some down there, closing it again and pouring more over the top. I ran upstairs and doused my mother’s room and finally my own. Stopping only to rescue a few childhood pictures. I grabbed some matches from the kitchen and left a trail of fuel leading out of the house. Then I set it alight.

The flames raged till dawn. We sat and watched. We wanted to be sure nothing remained of the house. Once it had become a smouldering wreck, I ventured towards where the kitchen once stood. I had grabbed a shovel from the shed and moved some ruins. Pushing ash out of the way, I looked where the trapdoor should be. It was gone.

It has been ten years since the events of that night. No one ever found my mother’s body. We told the cops we had been robbed by some roving band of arsonists; Phoebe’s injury helped sell that. I had never wanted to think about these events again. I wanted to leave them where they belonged; in the past. I have never once let the lights in my house go out. The fear remained. But now, the night of the Blood Moon, moments before I put pen to paper, there was a blackout. I had set up plenty of battery-powered lights throughout the house. But the kitchen wasn’t the most illuminated of places. The darkness encroached into the kitchen. And I saw it. I write this looking at it in horror.

The trap door. It had appeared. They found me. I see a red light emanating from the cracks, and I hear footsteps approaching.


Jordon Jones is a MA Creative Writing student at the internationally renowned University of Lincoln. He is originally from the northern town of Warrington, and his passion for storytelling started young. He is still a new author, and learns more about the craft every day. His Twitter is @JordonOJones


“The Golem of Slotnick Hills” Supernatural Fiction by Matthew Ross

"The Golem of Slotnick Hills" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Matthew Ross
Detail from “Golem” by Philippe Semeria, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Cohen, what a pleasure to finally meet you in person! Mitzi tells me you drove all the way out from Connecticut, did I get that right? Vey iz miroy, what a shlep! Please, sit down, sit down, make yourselves comfortable. Halevay, we’ll get you moved into Mrs. Nussbaum’s old place soon and we’ll all be neighbors before you know it. Are you hungry? Can I get you anything to eat? I’ve got a little leftover knish in the office mini-fridge, I’ll have Mitzi warm it up for you in the microwave. It’s no trouble, really. At least take some coffee and rugelach. MITZI! SOME COFFEE AND RUGELACH FOR THE COHENS, PLEASE.  She’s a lovely girl, my Mitzi. Not the greatest assistant in all the world, but she’s mishpocheh—my brother Merton’s daughter—and a lovely girl nonetheless.

Now, Mitzi said that you’ve already been to see the property twice? Wonderful, wonderful. I would have loved to have shown you around myself, but the way my back is these days…I’m sure you can understand. I won’t trouble you young people with my tsuris though. I know you don’t want to listen to an altekaker like me kvetch about my aches and pains all day long—you can believe it or not, but I can still remember what it’s like to be a young person. ‘Never get old, tsatskele,’ my bubbe used to say to me. But I got old anyways—what can you do? It’s better than the alternative…

What was that, Mitzi? Paperwork, what paperwork? Oh…the PAPERWORK. Yes, Mitzi, why don’t you go ahead and get that filed for them—that’d be lovely, thank you. Oy, what a nice girl my Mitzi is—if only she could find a nice young man to keep company with. Do either of you happen to have any eligible brothers? Or cousins, maybe? Never mind. Plenty of time for that later, if you decide that Slotnick Hills is the neighborhood for you. I’m sure you must think it’s meshugah, having to sign an NDA before you can put an offer in on the property, but rules are rules. It’s very strict, our housing covenant—if you think this is bad, just wait until you see what you have to put up with if you should ever want to paint your door a new color! Far-yehrige shnei—it’s all as useless as last year’s snow, as my zayde used to say.But now that Mitzi has added those to your file, we can finally talk tachlis. If you’ll just bear with me for a few moments more, it’ll all make sense soon, I promise.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that Slotnick Hills has long been considered one of the best neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Not the ritziest, mind you—we’re not wealthy people here, by and large, although most of us do make a comfortable living—but a wonderful place to raise a family. Top-notch schools, and the lowest crime rate in in the borough. I hope you don’t think that this happened by accident—feh! But if you want to know how Slotnick Hills ended up the place that it is today, it’s important you should understand our history. Don’t worry, I’ll tell it to you bekitzer—this won’t take long at all.

Slotnick Hills was founded by the great Rebbe Mordechai Slotnick, who emigrated here with a small community of his followers from their shtetl in Moldova in 1892. They faced terrible religious persecution in Romania before fleeing to America, you know. The poor things. Many of them had lived through multiple pogroms—Rebbe Mordechai survived five of them himself, though the last one took the life of his wife and their newborn son. That’s how things were, in those days though—it was just awful. After his family’s death, the Rebbe just couldn’t stand to see his people suffering any longer. So he said to heck with this! We’ll go to America, and these goyishe momzers and their pogroms can gai kocken afn yahm—that means they can all go shit in the ocean, dear. Not that I’m condoning that kind of language, mind you, but you have to understandit was a different time.

So, the Rebbe and his people sailed to America. They were among the first to go through Ellis Island, if you can believe it—their ship arrived just two months after it opened. Oy, what a production that must have been! And afterwards, they found the original blocks of properties that would eventually become Slotnick Hills. It was a mostly German neighborhood then, as I understand it—and those gonifs that owned it were asking a fortune. The families who followed him had pooled every last nickel they could scrape together…and if the Rebbe hadn’t been a distant cousin to the Rothschilds, it STILL wouldn’t have been enough. They must have been sitting on shpilkes when the deeds were signed over, because they didn’t know yet that there were no pogroms in America. They worried that after they’d spent their life’s savings on those brownstones, the Germans would come right back the following week and burn it all to the ground. That was how things had always gone back in the old country, after all. But Rebbe Mordechai, he was a great man—a man not just of wisdom, but of foresight. “Our old shtetl may be gone,” he said, “but our people need a place to call home. This could be such a place—so we shall pay what they ask, and make of it not just a home, but a new masada—a fortress in which we can be safe.”

Now, if you ask me, this is a lot less comforting than it sounds, because the Jews in the masada were wiped out to the last man. Took their own lives, you know—they held a meeting and decided they’d save the Roman soldiers who surrounded them the trouble of doing it themselves. Terrible story…and yet, such was the faith that the people had in their Rebbe that they trusted him implicitly to know what was best. So, they forked over the gelt, not knowing if they would still have a roof over their heads a week hence. I think about that a lot, you know—the courage it must have taken to do such a thing. But they knew that the Rebbe had seen something in those old brownstones that went far beyond mere bricks and mortar. He saw a safe haven. He saw a place where they would no longer need to live each day wondering when the next mob would show up armed with torches and pitchforks to drive them from their homes. A place where they could finally stop fleeing, where they could feel safe enough to put down their roots. It didn’t matter to them whether they could see such things in those buildings—the Rebbe did, and that was good enough for them.

 As great as he was, the Rebbe had never been able to give them that kind of haven back in the old country. He had tried everything he could think of. But what could one small shtetl do against the antisemitism of an entire country other than pull up stakes and seek out a fresh start in a new one? Perhaps now you can understand why, after everything the Rebbe had suffered, he was so determined to protect his people. Why he would have paid any price to ensure that they should never fall prey to violent persecution ever again.

And that is why the first thing Rebbe Mordechai did, after the Germans had finished signing over their deeds, was to head straight to the East River and gather mud to make his golem. Didn’t even wait for the ink to dry on the paperwork, according to the neighborhood yentas that I grew up with. You know how legends go, though—some of those altakakers used to insist that he carried the mud with him all the way from the Prut River in Moldova. Feh! What a bunch of shlemazels. Trust me, after you’ve had one whiff of that golem, there’ll be no doubt in your mind that its mud came straight out of the East River…

Would you listen to me go on, though—do young folks even know what a golem is these days? It’s a creature out of Jewish folklore. Kind of like a what-do-you-call-it…a Frankenstein. But not the farkakteh kind that Gene Wilder made out of dead people, like an oifgebluzeneh ei.It’s something a rabbi makes out of river mud or clay and brings to life by inscribing the holy word of truth into its forehead—the emes, it’s called.

Oy…I can see from the looks on your faces that you think I’m meshugah. Or worse yet, that I’m telling you bubbe meise—old wives’ talesto pull at your leg. But this is no bubbe meise. Golems are serious business—our golem especially. You see, a golem is not a thing to makes jokes of. Nor is it a thing that one makes lightly—even the biggest schlemiel knows that one doesn’t just trundle down to the river and whip up a golem on a whim! To make a golem is an act of desperation—a last resort, you might say—when the Jewish people are in dire need of a protector. Or an avenger…

I won’t pretend to know which one Rebbe Mordechai had in mind when he crafted our golem. But let me assure you, bubbeles—it’s quite real. Which, if I may be frank with you two for a moment, brings along with it a whole different kettle of tsuris, for all the good that it does for our neighborhood. According to legend, a golem can be deactivated simply by wiping away its emes—that word of truth that animates it—thereby returning it to the dirt from which it came. A loch in boidem! In real life, it’s a bit more complicated than that—as things so often are, nu? As it turns out, a golem’s emes can only be removed by the person who placed it. And when Rebbe Mordechai passed in 1924, yehi zichro Baruch—may his memory be a blessing—the golem he’d created was still very much alive. If ‘alive’ is the right word for it, that is—I don’t pretend to be a maven on all things golem, so I don’t know if there’s another term for it.

In any case, Rebbe Mordechai’s golem has remained with us since then, protecting Slotnick Hills exactly as the Rebbe intended to this very day. And that’s where things get a little…tsemisht. You see, for all their virtues, golems aren’t exactly the brightest creatures to ever walk the earth. They’re faithful and dedicated and strong as an ox, but they’re also a bit klein-keppig—even if they weren’t made out of mud, they’d still have a headful of rocks, if you catch my drift. Whatever instructions they’ve been given by their creator, they’ll follow them to the letter…and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech. You tell a golem to nem zich a vaneh—to go jump in the lake—and that’s exactly what they’ll do, even if they have to shlep three hundred miles to FIND the nearest lake. They’re like children, in some ways—incredibly literal-minded—but also totally incapable of deviating from their orders in even the slightest way. In other words, you never want to let a golem hear you say you need something like you need a lokh in kop—a hole in the head. And God forbid you ever tell a golem kacken zich ahf de levanah—to go take a shit on the moon…

All things considered, for the most part our golem is a real mensch. The Rebbe ordered it to protect the righteous citizens of Slotnick Hills from harm, and that’s exactly what it does. You tend not to see it that often—the Rebbe also instructed it to keep out of sight—but it’s always there. It saved my sheyna little granddaughter’s life once, you know. She’s all grown up now, but back when she was a little girl, she was playing tea party with her dollies out on the stoop one day, when out of nowhere this vilda chaya came speeding down the street and lost all control of his car—turns out he was farschnickert at ten in the morning, the schmuck. I remember hearing his brakes squealing from inside the kitchen, and then this terrible crashing noise—oy, I was so terrified I could have plotzed! But what did I see when I ran outside? What was left of his ongepatschket Range Rover, crumpled up in front of the golem like an old tin can. The driver died on impact, migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hangen, un bay nakht zol er brenen. Oh, I’m sorry dear—that means, “he should be turned into a chandelier, to hang by day and burn by night.” It’s a little more poetic in the Yiddish, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Not a scratch on the golem, by the way—as soon as it saw that my Sadie was safe, it just lumbered off back to wherever it is it disappears to. She never even looked up from her tea party until the whole thing was over.

So maybe you can understand why we’re so protective of our golem, even if we have had to learn to adapt ourselves to some of its, well…let’s just call them quirks. I don’t want you should think it’s a shlemazel—like I’ve said, it does a lot of good within the community. Most of the time, you won’t even notice it’s there. It’s just that when Rebbe Mordechai made it, it was a different time. And since the Rebbe (yehi zichro Baruch) was the only one who could have deactivated it, or tweaked the little pisher’s programming, it’s up to us to adjust to it and not the other way around. Maybe it’d be easier if I just gave you a few examples, nu?

When the Rebbe first made our golem, his top priority was protecting the people in the neighborhood from physical violence. After everything they had gone through back in the old country, the Rebbe was determined that no one in Slotnick Hills should ever have to fear for their safety again. And in those days, everybody was just a bisl prejudiced—even the Rebbe. Farshteist? You understand? So, the Rebbe instructed the golem that there were, eh, certain people it was not to let into the neighborhood…no, no, it’s not what you’re thinking! I’m not talking about the people of color. Khas vesholem! Thanks to that farshtunkener redlining, I doubt the Rebbe ever met a person of color in his life. What a shanda, that redlining was. It’s still a mostly Jewish neighborhood, but we’re very diverse these days—the Chikondis have lived next door to me for years, and Mrs. Sutthiprapha down the street makes a pastrami curry to die for. No, the Rebbe instructed the golem it should keep out the Cossacks. And also, for some reason, the Irish. The Cossacks, I can understand, but the Irish? I don’t know. Maybe the Rebbe had a bad experience with them at Ellis Island? Who’s to say.

Listen, I’m not defending the man, I’m just saying there are practical reasons why we have to screen potential homebuyers the way that we do. Don’t ask me how the golem knows such things, but it does—I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. If you decide to make an offer on the house, you’re going to need to check before you invite just anybody over for shabbos dinner. Ten years ago, I invited my Cousin Shelly and his wife over for dinner—they’d just moved back from Oregon. He met her while he was taking college classes out there—lovely girl. A little skinny, but still. Anyways, it somehow slipped my mind that her maiden name was O’Malley, and well…yadda yadda yadda, we haven’t seen them again since. He’s a good boy though—still sends us a card to wish us shanah tovah every year at High Holidays. His mother would have a conniption fit if he didn’t…

What’s that, Mitzi? Right, the golem. Let’s see…the Rebbe also instructed it to keep the neighborhood free from foiler shtricken—it means, eh, idlers, or gadabouts. Which, just between you and me, did always strike me as being a little bit on the preachy side. How a person makes their living is their business, and not for me to judge—that’s what I always say. In any case, it doesn’t matter what I think, because the golem’s a bit of a fanatic about the whole foiler business. Have you noticed how few homeless there are in Slotnick Hills? Well, there you go. Of course, the Rebbe didn’t know everything we know now about the mental health and systemic racism and all that mishegoss. Luckily, he also instructed the golem to watch over all the “street peddlers of honest virtue,” so the local homeless know that as long as they have some kind of art or craft or what have you to hock, the golem will leave them alone. I understand that many of them have their own Etsy stores now—in fact, I bought some very nice potholders from one of the gentlemen who camps out in the park nearby—so who knows? Maybe it’s a blessing.

Och—listen to me. There I go getting off track again. Now, I spoke already about the Cossacks and the foilers and all that, so what’s next…ahh! The nudniks. Do you know what this means, nudnik? It means a nuisance, or a pest. When you’ve got a younger sibling and they’re bothering you, and you say, “Go on, get out of here, you nudnik—go bang your head against the wall!” That’s a nudnik. So anyways, the Rebbe instructed the golem to keep the neighborhood free from nudniks—he was probably thinking about the gangs of street toughs that used to run around New York in those days. Like in that Cameron Diaz movie, nu? Which would be fine, if only the golem wasn’t such a tipesh—it somehow got it into its head that the Rebbe was talking about meizen…that means pests like vermin, insects, that sort of thing. It’s not all that bad—you could walk the streets of Slotnick Hills for twenty years without seeing a single mouse, rat, or squirrel. Very few pigeons, too. But you have to be careful what kind of pets you bring into your house—every couple of years, someone’s kid will sneak a hamster or a gerbil home from school, and let’s just say it always ends in tragedy. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, it seems to be fine with—don’t bother trying to figure that one out, you’ll only drive yourself meshugah. Oh, and if you ever get a dog, try to remember to get one that doesn’t look too rat-like. The Patels brought home a Chinese Crested for their little boy a few years back, and oy! The less said about that disaster, the better.

Now let’s see, is there anything I forgot to mention? Oh, right. The shiksas. Vey iz mir, how should I explain…do you know what this is, a shiksa? It means a gentile woman. Is it the nicest word in the world? Eh—not exactly. But again, try to put yourself in the Rebbe’s shoes. Back in those days? The Jews, they mostly kept to themselves. Why? For one thing, they were a very family-oriented people—and still are, for that matter. To this day, mishpocheh is everything to us. And for another thing, back in the old country, the goyim used to make a sport out of beating the pish out of any Jews they caught outside the shtetl—that’s when they weren’t getting shikkered and coming TO the shtetl with torches to burn the whole place to the ground. Is it any wonder that after living through all that, the Rebbe might have been just a weensy bit paranoid maybe about outsiders? I’m not defending, mind you—just trying to explain what the Rebbe might have been thinking.

Now I don’t want you should think that we’re prejudiced, or anything—we accept people of all colors, backgrounds, and creeds here in Slotnick Hills. You remember my sheyna little granddaughter Sadie? She’s dating a nice Asian girl over in Queens now. They’re not lesbians though—Sadie says she’s pansexual, and her girlfriend Rebecca is sapiosexual. She keeps explaining it to me, but to be honest with you, I still don’t understand the difference. Lovely girl, though. They come over every Friday for shabbos, and Rebecca’s even calling me bubbe now. I’ve been teaching her to make soup. Oy, I’m so proud I could plotz! What a cute couple they make—if you decide you like the house, we’ll have you over one of these days so you can meet them. Rebecca’s kreplach has really been coming along lately…

Hmm? Oh, right—the shiksas. Thank you, Mitzi. So anyways, after they came to America, Rebbe Mordechai must have been very concerned how his people would adjust to their new environment. They’d been living in the shtetl, in their own little enclave, for hundreds of years, and now all of a sudden here they are in New York City, the greatest melting pot in all the world? He must have been sitting on shpilkes, worried that all the menfolk would race out and try to shtup everything that moved, if you’ll pardon my French. “We raise our girls to have good morals, but those goyishe women? Feh! Nothing but a pack of nafka—slatterns and harlots, every last one of them!” You say something like that today and everybody knows it’s verdt a rettech—nonsense that’s not worth a radish. I’ve seen plenty of ‘nice Jewish girls’ who turned out to be no saints behind closed doors, believe you me. But it was 1892—they really believed that kind of bupkis back then. At least the Rebbe did, anyways, since he instructed the golem to drive away “any and all shiksas of marriageable age and loose morals”—which, in his book, I’m sure, would mean all of them.

This also is one of the reasons why we’ve had to develop this screening process over the years—we can’t exactly go on Zillow and say, “Brownstone for sale in lovely, tight-knit family community in Brooklyn. Reasonable HOA fees. Neighborhood security provided by immortal golem that evicts Cossacks, gerbils, and unmarried shiksas on sight,” even if it’s the truth. ESPECIALLY when it’s the truth, maybe. It’s like those dating apps that the young people are using these days—some things are meant to go on your profile for all the public to see, and some things are best kept for a later conversation in private. Is that where you two met? My Sadie met her Rebecca on the Bumble, you know. When I was a young person, you would go to a dance hall, or maybe flirt with a boy that you met on the street. Back then it was common for the boys to whistle at you while you were out walking in the neighborhood, but that was before the Me Too. Maybe if they’d had these dating apps like they do now, they wouldn’t have wanted to catcall…

Enough already, Mitzi—I get it, I get it. The young marrieds don’t want to sit and listen to an old yenta going on and on all afternoon. You want that your arm should fall off? Stop waving at me already. She’s a good girl, my Mitzi, but so impatient sometimes. I don’t know why the young always have to be in such a hurry over everything—especially when you’re the ones who have time on your side. But who am I kidding—I’m sure I used to give my bubbe that same look you’re giving me when she would start kvetching about Kennedy and the hippies…

Och—settle down over there, Mitzi, before you have a conniption. I’m going to finish telling Mr. and Mrs. Cohen about the golem and the shiksas and then I’m going to go freshen up my arthritis cream—I’ve got a farshlepteh krenk in my fingers that just refuses to go away. So, anyways, long story short, the Rebbe ordered the golem to keep the neighborhood free from shiksas of loose morals and marriageable age. It never bothers the Jewish families, and it also leaves the gentile women who are married alone—we’re not quite sure if the Rebbe told it that married shiksas were kosher or if it decided that on its own, but it’s been like that for as long as I’ve lived here, so I’m not sure if it really makes much of a difference either way. Single gentile women, on the other hand, are a different story. Even if we’re talking about a couple who’s lived together for years—if they don’t have a marriage license, the golem always knows.

It’s also a real stickler about the whole ‘marriageable age’ business—all of the gentile families in the neighborhood know to send their daughters away before they turn twelve. Who knows how it knows, but it always does—right up through the day before, it’s as sweet as hamantaschen. But if the girl is still there on her twelfth birthday? There’s going to be tsuris.It’s so young, I know—if such a thing happened today, it’d be a shanda. But in the old days, that was the tradition—boys could get married at thirteen, and girls at twelve. The rest of the world marches on, but what does that matter to a golem? It cares only for the instructions that Rebbe Mordechai gave to it—everything else can gai in drerde, as far as it’s concerned. It’s a bit of a pain in the tuchis, but it usually works out well enough in the end—some of the girls go off to live with family, and the rest get sent to boarding school. We’ve got a few members on the board at a lovely place out in New Hampshire, so getting them in is no big whoop. It’s a real feeder school, too—sends at least a half dozen girls to Cornell each year. A lot of them end up at Colgate and Brandeis, as well. There are plenty worse fates that could befall a young lady, nu?

Maybe it’s not exactly legal, screening the people who buy into our neighborhood the way we do…but, you have what’s legal, and you have what’s necessary, and sometimes those two things just won’t line up punkt gut—100%. For 130 years, Slotnick Hills has had a golem protecting it, and for 130 years, the neighborhood has prospered. Now I’m not saying that those two things are related, and I’m not saying that they aren’t—all I know is, the people in this neighborhood love living here, and very few ever desire to leave it. If we have to adapt ourselves a little to abide by a golem’s rules? So be it. It’s certainly not going to adapt itself to ours. And I think that’s all the news that’s fit to print, my dears, as my father used to say—yehi zichro Baruch.

Now—maybe you’ll decide to make an offer on Mrs. Nussbaum’s place, and maybe you won’t. You seem like a lovely young couple, and I, for one, would welcome you into our community with open arms. But that’s your business, so I leave that up to you.  Before you go, there’s just one last thing I need to mention: in case you should decide that Slotnick Hills is not the neighborhood for you, be sure not to breathe a word about the golem to anyone—and I mean ANYONE. The Rebbe also instructed the golem to come down very harshly on “whosoever shall breaketh a covenant,” and we happen to have a number of attorneys in the neighborhood who made sure that those NDAs you signed for us earlier are ironclad. If you should ever happen to let slip what we’ve discussed here today, rest assured—the golem will know. It always knows.

Halevay, we won’t have to trouble ourselves with such worries for much longer though. I have a good feeling about you two—you remind me of me and my Herman when we were young marrieds, yehi zichro Baruch, and I think it would have made Mrs. Nussbaum very happy to see that old house of hers go to a nice young couple like yourselves. I might be getting a little ahead of myself, but just in case you are thinking about putting in an offer—do you happen to know what a dybbuk is? Never mind…if you buy the house, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.


Matthew Ross is a writer, editor, and English professor living in Los Angeles, CA. His fiction has previously appeared in Teleport Magazine and will be forthcoming in Literally Stories. He is also the co-author of The Book on Velour Tracksuits. Find him online @matthewrossphd


“The Masks” Dark, Modernist Horror by Kimberley Luxton

"The Masks" Dark, Modernist Horror by Kimberley Luxton

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Onto the porcelain surface.

White knuckles gripped the sides.

I don’t want to wear it today.

Raw skin itched around my face, I bit my lip to quell the urge to scratch. There already starting to scar. A chime. My alarm. If I don’t leave no i’ll be late. Hands shaking I raise the binding prison to my face. Like a leech it attached itself, sharp pinpricks sealing it around my face. I let out a hiss. No matter how many times I do this it still causes discomfort.

The pain left.

It is done.

I am no longer my true self.

Forced to cover up blemishes and emotions.

Emotions are weakness. If you are caught without your mask, your extermination is slow and bloody. This is what I grew up with, and what I will continue to endure. Forced to allow this cover up to rule my life. The chime echoed again. I need to get going. Shouldering a well worn satchel the tears continued to fall, but no one will see. Emotions are weak, we cant show them In public. The porcelain hung heavy on my soul and face. It is a reminder of how weak humans are. The door clicks behind me. I don’t need to lock it.

Click. Click. Click.

Heels on the stairs.

It’s loud.

Piercing through the mask straight to my brain.

Doors open. The sun glares at me, tanning my exposed skin, but never my face.

Taking the route to work my mind wandered.

To the tales my mother told me as a babe.

Of a world with no masks, you wore your emotions on your sleeve.

To my young brain that sounded like heaven.

Tales poison my brain. Make believe stories from a woman so disillusioned she’ll risk her only child for a sense of freedom. My face itched, I resisted temptation. Blank faces passed by me, I wonder if anyone has the same thoughts as I do. The bubbling feeling under the skin to rip this prison off and show the world who I truly am. I pass a clean up crew, the crimson liquid dry on the sidewalk. Those thoughts leave my head. Silly delusions of a child, keep my head down and continue on. Unless I want to be another tally on the wall. The blood sticks to my shoe, I’m queasy.

But I continue on to work, ignoring the relentless itch I can’t scratch.

I felt it before I saw it

Cracks

My mask was cracking

This wasn’t good. Not at all. A cracked mask shows incompetence, that you haven’t cared for it. If someone found out I was cracking I would be another smear on the pavement. I need to fix this and quickly. Work is in an hour. Scrambling, cupboards open with echoing bangs. I need to fix this. Glue. I need glue.

Glue will fix it

I need to pretend

Everything is okay

The glue is nearly empty, I’m sure there’s enough to fix this. I dropped it, tremors ran up and down my hands. Why is my face wet? I’m scared, I cant be caught with it cracked. The glue goes all over he mask, it continues to smile at me. Mocking me. Short gasps escaped my lips, the glue ran out. I’m not finished! People will know!

I fall apart

Knees trembling

I fall down

As I sat on the hard floor of my apartment I realised I’m done for. I can see the cracks, they are spreading like a disease. I feel it crawling up my arm. Dropping the mask it continues to stare at me. A beep. My work alarm. I cant go, I’m scared. They’ll see.

A debate

Shall I go

Shall I stay

I put on my mask, covering my tears. The pain is nothing to my fear. With a deep breath I step out of my apartment and pray no one notices my cracks.


Kim Luxton is an emerging online horror fiction writer with a Bachelors of Arts in Creative Writing. They specialise in modernist horror, focusing heavily on the online culture that has been cultivated from the fast evolving online community. Kim is working towards a Masters in Creative Writing.


If you like this story, you may also like “The Broken Doll” by Kate Bergquist.


Be sure to visit The Chamber’s Bookshop before you leave.

“Nemesis” Post-Apocalyptic Feline Horror by Rudolfo San Miguel

"Nemesis" Post-Apocalyptic Feline Horror by Rudolfo San Miguel

The problem with Fairfield was all the damn cats. I couldn’t find any people—at least not alive—but these purring fucks were everywhere. It was like everyone in town became tabbies. I searched for everyone for anyone, but all I found were more cats.

Ever since I crawled out of the infirmary in an abandoned Travis Airbase, they were all I saw alive.

Several followed me as I searched for a place to shelter at dusk. I found some clothes before leaving the base. I remember being feverish in the infirmary, then awakening alone with the dead lying around me. And cats feeding on them. I stayed on the floor, but it was too much, and the stench was worse. The stench that permeated Fairfield was reduced in the open air.

I slowly wandered south, and by the time I passed the Mall, I noticed a couple of cats trailing behind me—a fat white one in particular. I soon found myself in a residential area with tiny one-story homes. They were built with either painted drywall or wood. Their flat roofs lay on their frames, each like a house of cards.

I was looking for a rickety one to break into. It was getting cold. I saw a couple, but it was hard to get myself to break in. I’ve never done anything like that; I mean breaking into someone’s place. I stole shit from the store when I was young, but that was as criminal as possible.

So, regardless, I guess I was also distracted because that white cat had gathered itself in a big entourage. I saw this brown home with a two-car garage and a Hyundai mini-van in the driveway. Then, I noticed them staring at me across the street. I stared back.

For a moment, all of us were gazing at each other. Then two cats jumped me from behind. I freaked bad and started running. The white cat came at me. The others followed.

Cats have never swarmed me. I mean, when do cats ever swarm people? I once was attacked by a bunch of bees—it felt kind of like that. I was getting scratched and bit severely. Patches of blood-soaked through my fatigues; chicken-pocks-looking bites were swelling on my skin.

I ran for it as soon as possible while trying to pull them off me while get my bearings. They were faster than me but were watching themselves. I kicked and threw a couple of them, so they knew I meant business. Everything in front of me—meaning houses—was fenced. I was too freaked out to climb anything, so I went for it when I saw a rickety house without a fence. I tried to jump through a window, but it was all boarded up. I panicked so much that I tried to punch loose the boards. I heard their screams, and the cats were on me again. I ran for a busted-up Bronco in the driveway.

I got in. And so did a cat. It was all over me like that Tasmanian Devil in the cartoons.

It scratched up one of my eyes and ripped open a patch of flesh on my left cheek. I kicked it against the bottom of the cab and repeatedly stamped it with my boot. Bloodshot out of its mouth, and a pool of more blood seeped from its rear. It stopped squirming and laid still—staring at me bug-eyed.  It released a fresh odor of a bowel fluid. I felt cold and disgusted with myself. Meanwhile, the other cats were screaming through the windshield. But then, sensing their collaborator’s death, the cats stopped and trotted away from the cab. The white cat was sitting still by the house, watching.

I laid back in my seat and closed my eyes. It was dark when I opened them again. The cats were gone. Feeling cool evening air, I started looking around the cab for something to warm me up and grabbed a small flashlight in the glove compartment and some cigarettes. The car had a battery and was old enough to have a lighter. So I cracked the window and had a smoke.

I noticed light coming through cracks in the boards of the house. Someone was inside. It was too dark for me to chance to get their attention. They probably already knew I was here and hoped I would just go away. I couldn’t make sense of that, but nothing had made sense since I woke in the infirmary the other day.

After finishing my smoke, I found nothing bigger than a cleaning towel. But then I found some keys. I didn’t waste time and slipped over to the driver’s seat, starting the car. But then someone in the house began rushing around.

I waited for them to rush through the front door, but It never opened. I could hear more clambering around inside, and at least two people were talking to each other. Then, everything was quiet.

I was about to walk up to the house when a shot was fired. It rang out as I was opening the truck door. I slammed it shut and hit the gas, peeling out as more shots fired. Two passed through the cab, one right next to my ear. I could feel my ear cook as it began ringing. They continued to fire at me as the Bronco sped away.

The streets were pitch-black, and I nearly ran into several parked cars. I found myself back on the main business street. You could hardly tell if you were in town or on an open road. No streetlights. No light from residential homes. Only the stars and the moon. And clusters of eyes as cats watched me drive past.

I slowed to 15 miles per hour.  I saw through the headlights only the concrete a few feet ahead. I found a curb and parked next to some one-story tracked home in the dead quiet. The feline’s eyes were gone. The cats were ignoring me. I laid my head down and closed my eyes.

*          *          *

I dreamed I was still on base. I was passed out drunk again, and the MPs tapped on my windshield. But they weren’t. She woke me up by tapping on the driver’s side windshield. It wasn’t any MPs. And I wasn’t at Travis. The girl must have been in her twenties. Her blond hair was long and brittle. Her teal hoody and black jeans were hanging loose on her boney frame. She stared at me with these colossal crater eyes, darting them every few minutes.

“Hello,” she said. “Can I please ask for your help, sir?”

I didn’t know what to say. Who was this girl? What did she want from me? But, I was happy to see someone who wasn’t shooting at me.

“Who are you?” I said.

“My name is Pryce,” she said. She sounded like she’d been crying. Her words came out in a languid drawl, and she had to wet her chapped lips while she spoke. “I am from here. I’ve hidden out since everything became so out of control. Please, sir, can you please let me into your vehicle before the cats start their morning hunt?”

*          *          *

Pryce told me to drive to a parking lot. Or anywhere easy to see cats coming at us from a distance. I asked her what she was doing while I went. She shared little things while sizing me up. She told me she was staying with her older sister and her kid when people started getting sick. Because of the way I was dressed, she asked me my story.

I told her I remembered little aside from getting the flu and laying in the base infirmary. I was out of it for a while. While I was sick, I remember hearing people talking and stuff near me. But I didn’t know what was happening. Then the other day, my fever broke. I discovered I was alone in the hospital.

“Sounds like you got the Azure Flu.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s this illness that turned into a pandemic.”

“A pandemic? Seriously? Like in a sci-fi movie?”

“No, this was extremely real.”

“Is that what happened to Fairfield? Everybody died of this flu?”

“Many did. Others died from starvation and crime—Many more died because of the cats.”

Pryce thought the cats had been affected by the flu. They didn’t get sick, but they became more intelligent—not Planet of the Apes smart, just smart enough to organize and think better. The cats moved in when most people were dead. They were starving, too. There was no one left to feed them. They began gathering in town, living off mice and garbage. Soon, they started hunting raccoons, skunks, and roaming pets. They killed off most of the wildlife, driving the dogs out of town, so there was nothing left to eat but people. Especially since the few still alive were starving and weak.

I didn’t know what to think of Pryce’s story. I mean, the town was empty. And, these cats had been fucking my shit up. Looking at her, I wasn’t sure. She was super out of it. Her clothes were torn and filthy. She was constantly scratching herself and trembling. She coughed frequently and had to think a lot before responding to anything I said. She smelled like a toilet and had scabs all over. I asked where she was before she tapped on my window. She told me she was hiding under the house I parked by last night.

“Do you have food? I haven’t eaten for a day and a half.”

“Nah, I’m in the same predicament,” I said, stopping in the Target parking lot. “We’re almost out of gas, by the way. You know a close gas station?”

“Totally,” she said, looking me over. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

She looked at me kind of funny and wiped her mouth. “What’s your name again?”

“George, but everyone calls me Geo.”

“I think, Geo, that we should get gas and get the fuck out and away from Fairfield and the cats. And then, I don’t know.”

*          *          *

We were driving to a close Chevron. I told Pryce more about me to get her to open up more herself. I was a lifer with the Airforce, serving my second tour mechanic on bomber engines. Travis was among many bases I served worldwide—Germany, Turkey, and American Samoa.  I wanted to retire from service and get a gig with United Airlines or Alaska.  I didn’t know much about this flu, except that I had and somehow survived. And, of course, that it fucked up the world.

“How are we going to get gas?” she interrupted as we pulled up to the gas station.

“We’ll pump it?”

“I mean, we have to turn on the pump, right? Assuming it’s still operational, are we going to turn it on from the cashier’s place or charge it? I mean, you don’t have a card? I don’t.”

“Yeah, good point.”

I pulled up slowly. There were a bunch of wrecks surrounding the station. I would have to pump gas from a distance or just fill up a container or something to siphon into the tank. The wrecks had a couple of corpses. The cats had obviously picked at the body; some bodies were riddled with patches of bone, while others were bones with patches of meat. They smelled worse than they looked—the whole area stank of gasoline and rotten meat. I gagged twice, but it didn’t hurt. Pryce didn’t seem to mind much.

Somebody had successfully locked up the station store but then apparently died of something inside. I guess the flu. The person’s corpse was somewhat visible near the pay counter with no marks or lacerations.

“I see a couple of cats, but that is it.” Pryce was leaning forward in her seat.

“Oh, that’s a good sign, right?”

Pryce sounded better—more confidence in her voice and less hesitation in her words. “It’s better than nothing. Do you think you can park close enough to pump gas?”

“Yeah, I think we’re good. Do you want to raid the store for food and drinks?”

“Fuck yeah. Watch out for the fucking cats, though.”

I was able to pull the pump nozzle out far enough to reach the tank and scrambled into the shop. Pryce was already inside. The place was pretty well raided, but Pryce got into a bunch of stuff left behind in the storage area. There was a lot there too. Pryce said a lot of people left before the cats took over, so nobody had that much time to loot for food. We shoved all the Sneakers bars and a bunch of candy into a box, followed by the chips and other junk food. We loaded up on drinks, except for the diet soda, because what’s the point? There was no booze.

We talked about our favorite candy bars while packing. I was in love with chocolate, while Pryce preferred gooey stuff. She said that all her kids at school were addicted to chocolate, and she was tired of seeing it everywhere at work. She said she taught English at a high school. Kids were the last to get sick. I asked about what when people died of the pandemic. She told me it was just like the flu. Except, everyone was dead a week later.

She didn’t say much after that. I didn’t mention anything about what happened after thank. Then, I came up with the worse icebreaker that I regretted as soon as I said it. “Hey, do you know that famous poem about the world’s end?  The one with everything falling to pieces, where the good are weak, and the wicked are powerful?”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” she said, smiling at me as she nibbled on some red lickerish. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

“Yeah, that’s it. So, what do you think? Was that poet accurate in his lyrics?

“Yeats? I don’t know. This seems more like something Emmerson wrote about the Greek Goddess Nemesis.”

“How’s that go?”

“Despite Virtue and the Muse, Nemesis will have her dues, and all our struggles and our toils tighter wind the giant coils.”

“Nice.”

“Nemesis is the Goddess of Fortune. She supposedly doles out rewards and punishments to those who have it coming, like some Greek goddess of karma.”

“That’s heavy, and I kind of can see what you’re saying. But didn’t we like cause this virus?”

“I don’t know, but we had it coming nonetheless.”

“I don’t know. Do you mean like your family, you, and I had it coming too? I don’t know about that.”

She definitely felt that was the case, but I disagreed. There are many horrible things done, but many members of humanity never participated in that behavior. I thought she was lumping everyone under the same umbrella. We debated the whole thing halfway out the door until we noticed the entire area outside was covered in cats.

*          *          *

We sat in the gas station convenience store eating candy bars, watching the cats while they watched us. After an hour, it was super obvious that there was no way we could outwait the cats. I mean, what else did they have to do? Waiting for a meal when you’re starving could make anyone patient. There were no real easy answers out of that trap. Pryce suggested we cover ourselves with something thick that would protect us long enough to get to the car. But we only found a worn Raider’s hoody.

There was nothing for us to do and sit there. Pryce told me all about her couple of years of teaching and how it was something that she wasn’t sure about staying in. Too much BS and not enough benefit. I told her how cool the Air Force took care of its people and how outstanding it was to travel the world. Even when your commanding officer was a complete dick, you had to follow orders. Also, it got old having to follow someone else’s schedule.

That killed a couple of hours, but both of us were ready just to make a run for the car by the afternoon. The cats were getting antsy too. They were up and about, eyeing us from different directions. “I owned two cats,” Pryce said, hugging herself and watching them pace around the gas station. “They were two black cats—one tiny old one and a fat young one. Their names were Penny and Grendel.”

“What happened?”

“Penny eventually died when there was no more food, and Grendel was killed in a fight with some marauding cats one night.”

“I’m sorry…”

“It was after the power stopped. I could hear Grendel screaming in the dark. I thought she was frightened, but then I heard the others. They screamed, and they screamed.”

“That’s hard…”

“And then there was silence. The next morning, I found her. I never cried so hard…”

I didn’t know what to say, so we sat there in silence. I thought about my fiancé’s cat. “My fiancé owns a cat named Encantado. He was this burly tomcat who was always stealing my food.”

This got a smile from Pryce.

“He was always stealing my food, then kissing up to Janet. It was like he was jealous or something.”

“Did Janet play favorites?”

“Dude,” I said, scratching the back of my head. “I don’t think I’m going to answer that question…”

Pryce laughed, and we both seemed to relax until we heard him screaming down from the other end of the block.

“Pryce!” he screamed. “I know you’re in the gas station! Come out!”

“What’s going on?” I asked Pryce, but she said nothing. Some cats started trotting towards the man, while others kept their eyes on us.

I could barely see him, though he strolled around the street listlessly. He kept walking toward us like he didn’t see the cats. “I forgive you for taking the last of the food. Just come back. We’ll figure something out.”

I looked at Pryce. She focused her attention on the car, then grabbed a can of diet soda and lobbed it at the cats on top of the vehicle. I heard a curdling scream as the cats swarmed the guy, who was instantly enveloped in a mound of frantic animals. The manic animals were biting at anything, trying to get a piece of meat before it was all gone.

The guy didn’t even scream. He keeled over at the knees in the wrong direction. The cats were devouring him from the legs up. I saw a foot stick out of the mass of fur. It was an old Adidas running shoe, the ones all black with three white stripes. Soon, a pool of red blood seeped out beneath the mound of cats. It pooled by the Adidas shoe, getting thicker and darker until it looked like a thick glob of cherry maple syrup. I looked away while hearing the muffled rips of cats clawing at one another to a morsel of what was left of the guy.

Pryce grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards the car while carrying a bag of stuff. We made it inside and were back on the road without the cats noticing us. I found the entrance to the freeway and zipped out of there fast.

“Who the fuck was that?”

“That was my husband,” Pryce said, leaning back in her seat. “He was cheating me out of my share of the food. I got sick of it, so I took the last of the food and his pistol. That was a day before I found you. I still got the gun, so don’t fuck with me.”

“What the fuck about all that stuff with Nemesis dishing out karma? And all that shit about poetry and literature?

“That was a while ago before cats started hunting people. Don’t be a putz. You just woke up in this world. Don’t judge what you didn’t have to go through.”

“Yeah, right, so now what? You know what’s going on better than I do, so what do we do now?”

“Just keep driving away from the cats.”

I focused on my driving and kept quiet. Pryce was lost somewhere in her head. We passed over a set of hills into the Central Valley. Once we got to the Highway 505 interchange, I headed north, then merged onto Highway Five. We had enough gas to get us to Oregon. I didn’t know what we would find at the next gas station. But it would be getting dark in a couple of hours, and I didn’t know what Pryce had planned.

“Are you going to shoot me?”

“Not if you act cool. I’m not a killer, Geo, so relax.”

“Yeah,” I said, then laughed. “I should have stayed at Travis.”

“The cats would have found you, eventually.”

We drove into the night and the next day, stopping only to refuel. Pryce eventually forced me out of the car at gunpoint days later. She drove away, abandoning me in front of a deserted motor lodge next to a gas station. I was utterly alone and relieved—no people or cats. The only thing left was my memories and the shattered world I found after awakening.


Rudolfo San Miguel earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University.  He has written fiction for ten years and continues to develop as a writer, drafting stories that amuse him. He hopes they amuse you as well.


“The Well” Horror by Sadie Kraus

"The Well" Horror by Sadie Kraus

The flowers next to her coffin are white. White roses and I know her eyes would be rolling if they weren’t glued shut. Roses are for pussies. Mama would frown. Tell her not to cuss. Not to dirty her pretty mouth with foulness like that. But Mama would be proud. Always proud. Her daughter was like her. 

The visitors – my family, I suppose – move like oil between this room and the next where there are couches and tea and little cupcake sandwiches Aunt Dottie so thoughtfully procured for this event of hers. White cakes with pink frosting squishing between the patties and unto the white china she had ordered. I stay here, by the picture. By the bed with the lid. Everyone has already said hello to me – Hello, dear. So sorry. Much too young. Anything you need… and now they keep their distance.

I tell them thank you. Thank you for coming. Thank you for your kindness. I’m not sure why they are to be thanked or why I should feel thankful, but I do. It is nice of them to come. No one came to Mother’s. Except for Dottie. 

And Jane.

That was the last time I saw her. When mother was where she is now. I told her not to go back. Not to that house. Please, Jane.

“I’ll be fine. Mom was sick.” 

Mom was sick. And so was Jane. And so was that house. And so am I.

Dottie hands me a glass of water and I drink. My mouth is cloudy, like I ate sawdust for breakfast. Dottie doesn’t say anything and I am grateful for that. She squeezes my shoulders and pulls my hand to her lips. Then she goes to the other room to check on her guests. I turn back to the large printed image of Jane. It was taken when she was still at school, the brick of Fordham’s administration building behind her, leaves floating down around her in her fall sweater as though she had just thrown them in the air before posing, hugging her arms to her chest and laughing. I hardly recognize her. She does not look like Mama, thank god. But I wish she looked more like she belonged to us. She doesn’t. She was her own and I did not know her. 

The coffin stays closed and I thank god Dottie had the sense to do that. She would not look like the girl in the picture. Not anymore. I wonder if she looks like Mama under the lid. Maybe now, after being in that house, her flesh would look tight on her bones. Hungry. Like Mama’s skin. I can picture her. Wild. Destroyed. Inhuman. I close the lid in my mind. 

Outside the window, the funeral home, it is snowing. It was snowing the day we moved in, too. Snow on the hardwood. Soaking in. It wasn’t good for the wood, but the house had been old long before we got there. The wood had gone bad before we were born, probably. Maybe before the house was even built. The air was bad. The land was bad, as though an enormous black serpent spit venom into the ground, and the house rose from the bile. 

Mama said the warped wood gave the house character. That’s what Mama wanted. A house with character. Daddy had been with us then. He kissed her smile, I saw it when we opened the door. Her smile. Look, David. It has such a personality. Such character. 

The snow had made the drive difficult. The hill. The woods. Thank god it wasn’t dark. And Daddy was a good driver. He only ever used one hand. The other was for Mama. She held in in her lap and ran her fingers over his knuckles, fuzzy with dark coils of hair. Jane and I made snow angels when we parked in front of our new home. We didn’t have our snow pants on and Daddy yelled. You wanna freeze to death? But he laughed. We laughed, too. We were all glad to be out of the van. The air was cold but good. Good then. Bad later. I had never breathed air that good before or since. It was clean. Hot in the lungs like a good meal in the stomach. Piercing. Filling. Heaven’s air. Jane’s cheeks were rosy. She was eating the snow, pink mittens drawing globs of sparkling white to her tongue. Her skin, strawberries, and cream. Eyes like Daddy’s – always smiling. A gap where she was missing front teeth. Slush spilled over her mitten-colored lips, globs of snow and spit, and she laughed like little kids do. All breath and slobber. She was immaculate.

I look at the picture again. There is no gap between her canines. Jane’s teeth had filled in nicely, though I cannot recall if she had braces. I don’t think so. No, I only recall my trips to the orthodontist. Dottie had insisted I get them. My bottom teeth overlapped. She did not want me to be ugly. There had been enough ugliness in my life. 

The women in the other room laugh. Dottie is telling one story or another to relieve the tears. It might be one of two stories. Maybe the time Jane got arrested for riding in the bed of her friend’s truck without a top on in high school? Or when we were children and ran away with the neighbor’s dog because Dottie wouldn’t let us have our own. We had come home an hour later because we were hungry and because the Tanners’ miniature schnauzer shit in my bicycle basket. 

There are very few funny stories Dottie could tell about us. 

The ladies’ laughter rattles my bones and I need something else. I don’t know what, but Jane’s picture is beginning to swirl, a darkness moving somewhere just out of frame. I need to leave before it creeps around my sister’s printed ankles and wraps around her flesh like barbed wire. Ripping open her ripped jeans and spilling her blood in the leaves.

Blood in the snow. Jane! There’s blood in the snow!

Snow outside. White clouds.

Jane, there’s blood.

Snow angels. We made snow angels.

Whose blood is that?

I see Dottie now. She pulls my hand to the back door and tells me to go outside so I do. Dottie hands me my coat. It was Mama’s coat. It’s deep green like pine needles. Christmas tree needles. 

We had a Christmas tree that year. The year we moved into that house. We all went together to pick it out. Daddy chopped it down and dragged it home. 

With an ax. Daddy had an ax.

Dottie tells me to take some time. Get some air. Come back in when I’m ready. She closes the door and it is quiet. So blessedly quiet and my mind eases. Silently, I thank my aunt. She has never understood. She never visited us when we lived in the house. But she always knows best. Thank god for Dottie. I stare down the alley behind the funeral home. Grey slush is melting in the gutters and again, I can see my little sister chewing on snow. But the image is just an image now. Not so loud. No cars drive past, but I can hear them on Main Street and am glad for their company. Glad it isn’t completely silent. I might go mad.

Like Mama.

Like the Mad-Hatter. From Alice in Wonderland.

Alice fell down the rabbit hole.

“Stop it.”

Down the rabbit hole. Down the well.

“Stop it,” I say again.

Down the well like Daddy. Like Daddy. Like Daddy. Like Daddy.

Stop it!”

My voice scares my thoughts and my mind slows. For a moment. I look at the street again. It is blurred and I blink until the tears spill from over my bottom lids. My cheeks are red and burn under the wet. It is still snowing and the cold is angry. My lips —

Mitten colored

— are peeling. I bite at the skin until the pictures slow. I focus on the snow. Watching it fall, painted. I always thought of snow like paint. Houses under snow always looked like lovely paintings, no matter how uninteresting the house. Even Dottie’s house looked like a picture in a book when it was covered in a cap of white. I watch the painted flakes fall, covering my green –

Like Christmas

– shoulders and melting. I breathe, shaky and loud, but at least I am breathing.

They aren’t. They aren’t breathing, Katherine. You’re the last one. You know what that means?

“I’m alive.”

You’re next.

“I’m alive.”

It’s waiting. 

“I’m alive.”

It’s waiting for you, Katherine. The house is waiting.

“I’m never going back there.”

The well. It’s waiting.

“Go away.” 

And everyone is down there. Waiting for you, Kat.

My hands weave through my hair and yank. The curls Dottie sprayed this morning now pull taught between my fingers, brittle in the cold. The pain is fierce but silent. My eyes open and I can feel the coolness of my mascara dripping on the flesh under my sockets. It is a sticky, foreign feeling. I never learned how to do makeup. Jane did mine for my prom. My wedding, too, but that also came off in tears. I try to think of her, on those nights. Nights when I sat in front of the mirror, Jane painting my face and burning the tops of my ears with her curling iron. Me yelling at her. Giggling in tune to “Hey There, Delilah” playing over and over on her purple boombox. Her trying to make me see something in the mirror other than the woman standing over the well with –

With the ax

– with hollowness under her eyes. I looked so much like Mama as a girl. I still would if I hadn’t cut and dyed my hair. If I hadn’t taken pains to put on a little weight to scare the angles of her away. Jane tried, too. She tried hard to keep the image of Mama off of me. I suppose she didn’t want to see it either. 

I breathe and am glad to find I still can. The air burns hot in my body like it did the day we left the car for the snow and the house hiding beneath it. But this air is safe. It is soothing. There is no house. No well. Just the alley and the molten smell of car exhaust behind the funeral home. I breathe. I breathe. I breathe and I feel alright. The whispers stop. The pictures run with them. There is a wall of Lincoln logs, like the ones Jane used to put in her mouth and scream Tootsies!, in my head. It is a toy wall. One I know will break and let the waters run, but for now, I am alright. I can sit and chat with the ladies wearing black hats with lace. I can eat the cakes. I can smile and tell stories of Jane. I know more than Dottie does and I suppose I can tell them now. No one will get in trouble for silly, lively things anymore. There is no one left on whom to tattle. 

“Okay,” I say and wipe the snot from the tops of my lips. “Okay, okay.”

I take my phone from my pocket and click the side so the screen goes black. I assess the dark reflection and gently pick the crumbs of waterproof mascara from my cheekbones, careful not to wipe and make them spread like —

Blood in the snow

– like ink. Like Ink. I wipe the ink away and assess my overall appearance. It is dim, but not entirely tragic. Mama would have been prettier, too, with some weight on her face. I go inside.

The respectful babbling is still there. Their voices hover above their cakes. They are sweet, the women, and I am glad for their presence. I go to them. 

“How you doin’, sweet?” Dottie wraps an arm around my shoulders. She squeezes. I smile. “Want some hot chocolate?”

“Yes,” I say quickly. Nothing in the world would feel better than hot chocolate. The women are drinking coffee. I can smell it. But Dottie knows I despise it. Jane grew quicker than I did. She loved coffee at ten. Poked fun at me in our teens for still drinking hot chocolate in coffee shops. But I remember nights –

In the house

– in front of the fire with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Cheeks still stinging and eyes still blurring pink from playing outside –

By the well

– in the woods. 

Dottie returns. Hands me the cup and I want to cry; it’s so perfect. It warms my hands and soothes me the way only hot chocolate can. I chat with the ladies. It is pleasant. They ask how work is and it takes a moment to remember what work is exactly. What a silly thing to discuss when my sister lies in the other room, surrounded by white flowers she hates and to which she cannot object. Silly indeed, but nice. I tell them it’s lovely. We have a new exhibit coming in, one from a man who sculpts on very small surfaces — hair, thread, teeth. That’s great, am I seeing anyone? I tell them, yes, but it’s very early — only a few dates. I say this because it is mostly true, but it also satisfies them. Women always want to hear of men. Of possible weddings, they might attend. 

I finish my hot chocolate and search for the garbage. It is by the door. I ask them to excuse me and leave to throw my cup away, taking a few of the ladies’ dessert plates with me. I pass the open door where Jane is sleeping without looking in on her. I press the plates into the can. They break with that awful styrofoam scratch and again, I am glad to hear something on the outside. Something other than myself between my ears. 

I turn back to the women but I freeze. There is someone in the other room. Someone standing over my sister and I feel the ice from outside slip under the door and into my flesh. I know who it is. She is standing –

Over the well

– over Jane, her back to me. I remember her shape. I remember the calm without warrant. It is there now. Her head rises. I can feel her feel me and I have to get away before she turns. Before I see her face that once was mine. The face she gave me that I’ve done my best to replace. I have to –

Go to her

– get away.

Go to her, Kat. Go see your mother.

I hurry past the door. I see Dottie’s face move to concern, but I smile at her and beg them to excuse me once more. The bathroom is downstairs. I need it now. A door that locks. I need a room to myself. I touch the stairs and feel my legs weaken, but I force them to stay upright. I cannot cause a scene. I cannot cause a scene.

Come, Kat. Don’t cause a scene.

There is carpet in the downstairs lounge. Red and gold like the one in Dottie’s living room. Chairs and a loveseat covered in crushed green velvet that look like no one has sat in them in eighty years. But they have. I know they have. This space is for people like me. People who need to be alone. The bathroom is on my right and I lock the door behind me. 

The room is small. Thank god. I couldn’t bear the emptiness of anything larger. I stand at the sink, in front of the mirror. My mouth has gone dry and I am hot, despite the coolness of the basement. I turn on the faucet and cup my hand under, bringing it to my lips over and over again. It is metallic, the smell touching me before the taste, but I don’t care. It is wet and I am dry and I need to –

Drinkkkk.

I stare into the mirror. Behind me, the toilet has vanished. The checkered tile floor, too. There is dirt. Wet dirt. The snow. Pine needles. And the well. Behind it, there is no bathroom wall cradling the painting of an angel. Only darkness and trees. Fear grips me like the breath before a sneeze, holding me. I cannot move. I can barely see, the tears have overwhelmed me. But I can hear. Them.

Kat! We missed you, Kat! Come, Kat, everyone’s waiting. Drinkkk, Kat. Come and drink.

I feel my skin calm. The tears spill onto my cheeks and I can see again. I am still shaking. I turn to the well. They are laughing. I feel the absurd impulse to laugh too. Or scream. Or both, but I stay silent as I go to the stony edge, the smell of stale water filling my lungs. The air is cold and I am glad I had not taken off my coat. Snow falls on me and it is like a hug. I hear something, far back inside me, begging. Don’t. 

But I do. I look over the edge and, yes. They are there.

“Stars! Look, Kat, there are stars in the well!”

Jane, sitting on the well’s edge, points her mittened hands down. I look over and, yes, there are stars in the well. Our new house has a well outside, full of stars. It is a dark black pit with yellow eyes.

I remember it all like a flood. I see it happen, repeat in front of me in the basement of the funeral home that is now the house’s yard. Mama comes to us. Sees what was in the well. A shock for her, too. She calls for Daddy.

Daddy says it is normal. He holds Jane in his lap on the lip of the well and explains. 

“It’s so deep it is like a telescope. You’re looking at the water at the bottom, reflecting the stars up there.” He points up to the grey clouded sky over our heads. I tell him it doesn’t make sense. How can the well see through the clouds if we can’t?

“It isn’t seeing anything, Kat. It’s a well.”

But it was seeing. It saw Jane. It saw me. It saw Mama.

At night, the stars rose from the water. They came to our window. They pulled Jane out of bed. I couldn’t hear them, but she could. She stood in my doorway, wearing Daddy’s Atlanta Braves sweatshirt that fell to her ankles. Her feet snuggled in thick winter socks and her snow boots. She was holding her Bunny, a white rabbit Mama had given her for Valentine’s Day years before. She was smiling. 

“Kat, come on! They want to show us!”

“Who Jane?”

“The people in the well. The stars! Come on!”

I heard the voices in the hallway, but they meant nothing to me. Hushes and syllables. Mama and Daddy were talking behind their bedroom door, but there were other voices. Ones I could not follow.

“What are they saying?” I ask my little sister.

“They’re glad we came. They’ve been alone for a really long time.” 

Outside, the cold did not touch us, but the snow swept wildly. A blizzard. The voices grew louder. I stared at the air, the woods, the white around us, and saw between it all the stars. Vaguely. Like they were there, but when you moved your eye to them they’d hide away. But they were all around us, glowing soft between the black bars of the trees. The stars were whispering.

Jane laughed.

“What?” I asked.

“They said they like you. You don’t get cold.”

She stopped at the well and looked me over. I followed her eyes. I had come out into a blizzard, walked through the snow, without shoes.

I came to her, stood by her side, and let her listen. The voices spoke to her in words I could not know. Jane frowned. She nodded. She kissed her Bunny, held it over the cavern, and let it drop. 

“Jane!” I leaned over the mouth, greystone biting my palms as I gripped it and watched the white rabbit disappear into the dark. There was no splash. Daddy lied. There was no water.

The stars began to blink, slowly like tired eyes, then went out. There was nothing in the well. Nothing now, but dark. Jane smiled her gap-tooth smile and walked back to the house. Snow covered her head until it was only white.

The next night, the stars came to me. They whispered from the foot of my bed. 

“Katherine. Wake up, Kat. Come to the well.”  

“Who are you?” I asked the darkness eating the edge of my comforter.

“We’re your friends, Kat. We haven’t had friends in so longggg. It’s lonely down here. Won’t you come see us? Come see your friendssss.”

I got out of bed. The floor creaked under my Santa socks as I tiptoed into the hall. Jane was already up and standing in her doorway. She held nothing and wore pants.

“Can you hear them?”

“Yes,” I said. “Can you?” 

She shook her head. They weren’t there for her that night.

Outside, the lights surrounded me. Flew beside me, touched my hair, felt my skin. They were cheering. They welcomed us back. Jane followed me out to the well. She looked to me for something. To tell her what they were saying. Light surrounded her, pulling at her clothes, dancing on her shoulders, but she didn’t react. She could not see them.

“Thank you, Kat! Thank you for coming! We missed you down here!”

“What, Kat?” Jane pulled on my pajama sleeve.

“We are all so lonelyyyy down here. Leave a friend for us, pleeassse, Kat. Give us Jane.”

“Jane?”

“Yesss. Give us Jane. She’ll be so much happier with us down here with us. Bunny is here!”

I shook my head, and stepped back. 

“Katherine. Give us your sister!”

“No!”

There was silence. The stars blinked and went out. They were upset, but that was alright. They would be back tomorrow and I would give them something then. An old stuffed animal or one of my Barbies. But I would not give them Jane.

I woke up in the morning screaming. Something was burning. My stomach stung. I threw the covers off and ran to the bathroom I shared with my sister. I stood in the mirror. My pajama shirt was wet. Stained with blood. I pulled it off. The skin on my stomach was torn, carved with deep, jagged letters that spelled, Give us Jane. That phrase, over and over.

Jane opened the door and I saw her in the mirror, tears in her eyes. She was staring at my stomach, at the ruin there. I found the first aid kit under the sink and put myself together. 

“They did that?” she asked. I nodded. “Does it hurt?” I nodded. Janes’s face broke and she cried bitterly, “They ruined my stuffies.”

She led me to her room and I saw what she meant. Her collection of bears and dolls and bunnies and fluffs had been slain. Heads on the floor, arms and legs hanging over furniture. Torsos stuck to the walls and snowy white innards strewn around the room. It had been a massacre in the night. Jane looked to me, but I said nothing. 

Daddy called for us and I put on a clean shirt before we went downstairs. He was going into the woods to find a tree for Christmas and wanted us to come. We would spend the afternoon decorating. Mama leaned on the kitchen counter, a warm turtle neck hugging her body. I asked if she was going to come with us.

“Oh, no. You girls go with your father. I’ll have cookies and hot chocolate ready for you.” I should have noticed it, but I did not. The tugs at her sweater. The hollowness under her eyes. It was there that morning, but I did not see. The flesh on my stomach burned and the prospect of leaving the house, taking comfort in the woods, away from the well, filled me with relief. I did not notice the whiteness in my mother’s face. The darkness in her eyes. 

Daddy dragged our tree home. We helped as much as we could. Jane carried the ax, but Daddy did most of the work. Dragging it. Through the snow like a –

Body.

– a casket. Pine needles trickled in its wake. A heavy depression scraped in the white from the woods to our back door. We set the tree up in the living room. Mama was gone, the cookies and hot chocolate left on the table for us. We sat down, and Jane’s excited giggles washed away the night. I felt nothing beneath the bandages. The winter air had renewed us. Jane sipped from her Spongebob mug and grimaced. It was cold. Icy. We looked at one another. Everything was cold. The room was cold. The blue lights twinkling from the den floor, where Daddy had plugged them in to make sure they worked. Cold. The house was chilled and silent like a crypt. Daddy felt it, too. He was the closest to the front door. Mama had left it open when she’d gone out. Gone –

To the well

– outside. Daddy told us to stay. He shut the door behind him. I put our mugs in the microwave. The kitchen was icy. The hot chocolate came out, hot this time. It did little to warm us. We heard Daddy shout. A few times. The back door opened. He had Mama. She was grey, eyes black. Jane shrieked. Mama looked like a dead thing. In the last few hours we’d been gone, she dropped half of her weight. Her skin was the color of snow. No, of slush. Grey in a gutter. Her cheekbones stabbed through her skin like a broken hanger in a trash bag. 

“Girls, go to your rooms. Mommy’s sick.”

Sick. Yes, Jane told me that already. Where have you been Dad? Oh, yes – In the well.

Jane came to my room with me. Night fell fast and we slept. Lightly. We were afraid the stars would return. They did. Not to us, but they did return. We heard the voices. Distantly, coming through our sleep like voices underwater. It woke us, but not enough. What woke us was the banging.

Chopping.

The thumps. Heavy. Like someone was dropping a bowling ball on the hardwood. Jane’s eyes were wide. She held the front of my shirt, peeling slightly the bandages from my torn skin beneath the fabric. It hurt, but in the back, way back in my head behind the thumping sounds. The upstairs hall was dark, but the light glowing up the wall from the Christmas tree in the den let us see the stairs. Jane held my waist, whispering to herself as we crept. I do not know what she said. I was listening to the radio that sat on the microwave in the kitchen. Bing Crosby’s voice pounded in my ears. The volume ached. 

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Evvvvv’rywhere you go.”

Downstairs, we submerged in an underwater world, blue lights twinkling to move the walls like waves. The cold bled through my socks. Jane gripped tighter and I felt new blood prickling into the bandages, but I let her hold. The kitchen light was off. I so badly wanted to turn the radio off or hit it until the sound of something breaking satisfied me. But I did not. If I had reached for the light, we would have seen that Mama had painted the floor. A gruesome, sticky red smeared out of the open back door. We did not. We went outside. Bing followed us, singing about a grand hotel. A sturdy tree doesn’t mind the snow.

The snow was red. Puddles in the dent where Daddy had pulled the tree inside. Red. Bright like my Santa socks. Bright like my stomach. Bright on the white like –

“Blood. In the snow! Jane, there’s blood in the snow!”

Jane’s eyes clouded. She looked straight ahead. At the woods that were lit yellow with stars, moving behind the trees. She opened her mouth and I thought she would scream, but she did not.

“Soon the bells will start.” she sang in her tiny voice.

“What? Jane! Whose blood is that?”

“And the thing that will make them ring,”

“Stop it, Jane. There’s blood!” I pulled her along, following the trail of red on white. Her voice burned in my ears as we went. I wiped away tears I did not know were falling. My body knew to be scared. It knew more than I. My stomach stung, my ears burned, my feet were numb. And Jane kept singing. 

“Is the carol that you sing,”

We turned around the house’s back corner and there was the well.

“Right within…”

And there was Mama.

“Your”

And there was the ax. And the blood.

“Heart.”

Mama stood over the well. She was a paper doll. One that had been made poorly. Jagged and out of grey paper instead of white. The hem of her pajama shirt was black with blood. The ax, too, looked as if she had dipped it in oil. She turned it softly in her hand, rolling it over and over. The stars were blinking around us, behind the trees. I wanted to scream. She felt us standing behind her and when she turned, I felt the center of my body open. Life bleeding out of me in a gasp that felt like my last. 

My mother’s skin was torn. Her arms, her throat, the lumps of her chest were carved in horrid, bleeding words. Give us the girls.

“It’s okay, now, girls.” She said. She was smiling. Her voice was normal. My skin twitched so violently it was almost a song. 

Jane had gone limp at my side. I held her wrists together on my waist to keep her upright. 

“It’s okay, now,” Mama said. The front of her nightshirt smeared and splattered with black. It shone like the black in her eyes. “They wanted me to give you to them. They like children. But don’t worry. I won’t give you to them. I gave Daddy instead.” 

The dark held me upright. I hope it held Jane, but I couldn’t remember, because I was gone in the dark. Down into the well and I knew nothing until Mama was gone. 

People came. Dottie came. They put Mama in a room with a bed and nothing else. A room I never saw. They gave her medicine because Jane said she was sick. Given medicine until she was gone. She was only paper after all.

The bathroom floor of the funeral home’s bathroom is warm to the touch. Not how tile should be at all, but it is. The well is gone now, and Jane with it. Everything with it. Bing Crosby’s voice fades from my ears and I feel myself crying. Distantly. Like I am watching myself cry from deep inside my body where the real me is hiding. In the dark. 

There is glass around my legs. I look up at the sink, also covered with glass. The mirror is broken. My fingers creep to my stomach and feel the words beneath the skin. Words carved by the stars. My hand falls to my side, a trail of red left in its wake. On Mama’s green coat. I stare, not remembering, but knowing. My arm is bleeding. Wrist to elbow on the inside. I don’t feel it. I look at my other and, yes, that one, too. A shard of glass held in that hand. I smile. I am glad because the bathroom is quiet. So blessedly quiet that I feel like singing. Bing’s song. Jane’s song. Wet pools beneath me and for a moment, I am sorry that Dottie will find me this way. Awfully sorry for Dottie. But she falls away. Everything falls away. I rest my head on the wall and look to the ceiling that isn’t there. Only a black sky full of stars.


Sadie Kraus is a recent graduate of Wittenberg University in Ohio. She was raised in the horror film industry and has a love for the genre. Her short story “Rot” won The Furious Gazelle magazine’s 2020 Halloween short story contest and has published flash-fiction stories in Duquesne University’s magazine, lexicon.


Don’t forget to visit The Chamber’s Bookshop or Gift Shop while you are here.

“The Man with a Ghost in his Eyes” Psychological Horror by Kate Bergquist 

"The Man with a Ghost in his Eyes" Psychological Horror by Kate Bergquist 

I’m sitting here at Saffron’s kitchen table, sipping some of her delicious Italian Merlot, when it hits me: we’ve got really similar taste!  She’s got this clock on the pine wall in the shape of a tea cup with delicate pink roses painted on it. 

And we own the same brand of dishwasher, a stainless Kenmore, and it’s the exact discontinued model that holds two rows of utensils.  And look – she’s even got a wooden spice rack with a swan painted on it! (Mine’s got an owl). 

The kitchen curtain is sheer blue with a white eyelet ruffle and a pattern of boats on a lake.  (So pretty! It really lets the light in!)  My kitchen curtain is similar but with a lighthouse design.  What are the odds of that?

It’s got to be a sign.

And this adorable cat! He must be Saffron’s — he’s so friendly — the tag on his collar reads Arnold.  I wonder when she got him. (I’ve got the big orange guy on my lap right now, and he’s purring like there’s no tomorrow). 

Part of me wishes she was here right now.  Saffron Sinclair.  (Such a classy name! Like Marilyn Monroe!) I’d love to meet her under different circumstances, instead of just seeing her do the weather on Channel 8.  

We’ve got so much in common, Saff and me. 

But it’s a Saturday morning, so that means she’s working the anchor desk, and she won’t be back for a few more hours.

I pour more wine and stretch my legs.  Stiff and sore from the long drive up here, like fifty-eight miles.  But I’ve been here before, so it wasn’t that hard to find even in the dark, even without checking my GPS: you just head up Route 3 all the way to Holderness, and then turn right onto Enchanted Shore Road, slamming your Jeep over almost a mile of deep ruts until you finally arrive at this secluded place on Squam Lake.  

My headlights slashed across a grove of white birches.  As I skidded over some loose gravel, there it was: the old log cabin, dark against a red smear of sunrise, and the peaceful lake beyond.

I almost couldn’t breathe for a minute.

I pulled in behind Tom’s BMW, parked in his usual spot, in front of the woodshed.

The brisk wind ruffled the pines; a cold sting pierced the air.  I crept up to the sagging porch.  The spare key lay hidden beneath the green lantern on the porch table, same as always. 

And as I slipped the key into the lock, my mind clicked back to the beginning.

                                                            ***

Was four months ago I first met Tom Tanner.  Mid-October—I’d just moved to New Hampshire and was getting settled into my new place when I happened to hear he’d be doing a reading at a bookstore in Henniker.  (I’m a huge fan of his stuff. You’ve probably heard of the The Last Victim, right?) Anyway, he’d just come out with the latest in the series and I couldn’t wait to meet him.  

I lit cone of white sage incense to purify the air and then made myself up really nice:  took extra time with my makeup, even ironed my new jeans that I recently got at the thrift shop.  (I’ve always had this thing about dressing up).  It was only like fifty degrees out but I wore my high-heeled sandals because they were the only decent shoes I could find.

Got there late; the place was packed.  (He’s a legend!) I stood in the back of the room, my senses taking it all in.  Tom was even better looking in person.  Chiseled face.  Shaggy brown hair.  Soulful eyes that looked up from his laptop and out at the audience.  His voice, scratched from too many cigarettes, as he read about Lukan and Devlin, two best friend werewolf-sleuths who solve murder mysteries when they aren’t out killing and bloodletting.  

(It’s a really cool series; you fall for the characters and want to know what happens to them.  Except for one little thing that was kind of bothering me.  A character flaw, you might say.  I wanted to ask Tom about it, but I was nervous about raising my hand).

After the reading, everyone jostled into position to get their books signed.  I was near the end of the line, and when it was finally my turn, “Jamey, with an E-Y,” Tom didn’t even look up, he just took the book from me and scribbled,

To Jamey from Tom.  Thanks for being a fan. 

I cleared my throat. “So, um, about Lukan.  He just doesn’t cut it for me.  I mean, how come he kills people without any remorse? At least Devlin has a conscience—he feels really bad even when he has to kill a small animal.”

Tom’s gaze cut like razor blades, like how dare I criticize his perfect writing?  But then his eyes moved from my face to my strawberry hair to my fitted sweater.   

“Lukan is complex, certainly,” Tom said to my breasts, “Some of the greatest protagonists are morally ambiguous, wouldn’t you agree? I think it makes them more compelling, when characters strive to overcome their indelible flaws.” 

“That’s so interesting,” I said, bending closer and lowering my voice to a whisper, “Because I’m writing a novel and I really appreciate your wisdom.” (OK, not exactly writing it; a lot of the story is still in my head and I’ve got maybe twenty pages so far.  But I’m serious about becoming a writer.  It’s really what I want more than anything). 

 Tom’s face softened; dark gold flecked his hazel eyes.  He raked long fingers through his messy hair.  He reached for his paper cup, found it empty.

 “Fancy a coffee?”

And just like that, we were huddled in a corner booth at the back of the café, beside an overflowing trash can, eating stale blueberry scones.  Tom touched my arm, my shoulder; Jamey, Jamey, what a pretty thing you are, I could stare at you forever.  He made my head feel funny – like drinking too much vodka. 

Every now and then I caught the gleam of Tom’s gold wedding band, so shiny I knew he polished it.  Often.  (How bold he was!)

He had such a complicated face, too: parts of it good-looking, parts of it not; like two halves that almost didn’t fit; it all depended on your angle of vision, and the lighting in the room, but mostly it all came together as handsome.  

He pretty much talked non-stop: how he taught writing at Plymouth, married a too-beautiful woman with boundless ambition, no kids, they drain the life from you, don’t they? They steal your focus; I have to always be writing, writing, never enough time to write.  Seems every day a whole week goes by. 

He did, eventually, come around to ask about my story.  (Deep down I knew he couldn’t be interested in me, Jamey—not really.  Not as a whole person, anyway. But the attention! It felt so good!)

Just then a young woman slunk past our booth for like the third time: mocha skin pulled tight across her cheekbones; black lines smudged under swollen eyelids.  A wounded beauty, her black tee read: Danger – High Crime Area.  She clutched a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich between torn fingernails.  She kept stealing glassy-eyed glances at Tom.  He wasn’t having any of it; he wouldn’t acknowledge her even in his side vision. 

He dismissed her with a slight flick of his wrist.  The sting of it felt sharp and inevitable, like watching a large crack spidering across your windshield.

I wanted to care about her.  I did care, for like four seconds, as I watched her disappear down the dark hallway.  I hoped she was going to be okay. 

And then I moved right back under the heat of Tom’s spotlight.

“Um, it’s called ‘The Man with a Ghost in his Eyes’ and it’s about this guy Robert Pritchard who sweeps a girl named Fern off her feet and then really breaks her.”

“Cool title,” he said, tapping his long fingers on the table as if it were a keyboard.  A tiny smirk lurked in the corner of his mouth.  A few lines etched his face; I pegged him at least thirty-five, maybe forty–but I’m not that great at judging age.

“Robert Prick’s Hard.  Hmm.  Has that sort-of British, old poet ring to it. Is he a loser or just a pretentious fuck?”

“Neither,” I said, startled.  I studied his strong chin, the dark stubble on his face—and wondered how scratchy it would feel between my thighs.  “He’s…morally ambiguous.”

“Touché.” He turned to me, smiling, still tapping.  “So. Who’s this Fern character?”

I felt out of breath, like I’d been running.  “A very…complex girl. Spent months in a locked ward in Jersey. But you’d never know it. She’s sweet and gullible, and really kind, too, except when someone crosses her.”

“A girl with unfulfilled dreams, then.”

I nodded. “She’s had kind of a tragic life—been through some tough things. But she’s young. She’s trying to do better. Recover. Take chances.”

Tom’s fingers danced wildly across the table, a vigorous piano solo.  “She’s arcing. Arcing is good. Now: as you build her character, make sure you know everything about her.  Her whole back story. Every detail, down to the kind of toilet paper she wipes with.  The last thing she tossed in the can. What birth control she’s on.”

“S’all right here,” I said, tapping the side of my head, and immediately felt stupid.

“Great.  I keep track of my own characters with old-fashioned yellow sticky notes taped on the wall.”  Tom paused, then, “God, your eyes are cerulean!”

He went on about how he created Lukan partially based on a “wicked slimehole” he knew as a child growing up in Freeport, Maine.  Guy used to torture stray cats for fun—no, I’m dead serious! But he took absolute tender care of his elderly mother for years! I witnessed him sobbing at her funeral; he was utterly broken by her death.  Such a paradox! Like how he digs deep into the minds of each character and sometimes even projects his own self into them in order to get to know them intimately. 

“Like channeling?”

“In a way, yes! So…Robert hurts Fern. She’s devastated.”

“Buried in grief.”

“She loved him, right?  She trusted him.”

“She thought he was committed—”

“—but he wasn’t, because when you get right down to it, all men cheat.  It’s really kind of cliché.”

“He wasn’t like other men she’d known.”

Tom fake yawned.                                                                                                                

“He was like forty-six and she was sixteen—”

“Whoa! Now you’ve piqued my interest.  A little.” He went back to his finger tapping. “But I’m still not invested.  I want to feel her pain.  What makes Fern a sympathetic protagonist? You said she’s sweet, gullible and yet maybe a bit dangerous.  Why?”

I didn’t want to tell him.  It didn’t feel right to give away so much of her so soon.  And the story just wasn’t ready yet; it felt too unfinished, even though most of the plot was already there, in my mind, like a scolded child lurking in a dark corner. 

My hands were sweating.  I pressed them into one large fist.

 “She—Fern.  Well, she never…sleeps.  I mean…never.”                                                    

“The girl who never sleeps!” Tom’s fingers froze mid-air. His mouth formed a perfect “O.”  Something flashed behind his ash-colored eyes; a searchlight in a forest. After a few moments, his wide eyes focused back onto my face and he whispered, your beauty moves me like night-blooming jasmine as he slipped a warm hand onto my knee.

Later, at the cabin, wedding portraits screamed at me from all directions and I tried to duck beneath their rage. The cabin was furnished with such care, with such a feminine touch.  Her strong presence pulsed like a heartbeat; it made me feel like a criminal.

 (I swear I didn’t know it was Saffron; that came later).  

I leaned against the bedpost, naked, seeking some neutral detail to make me feel welcome there, however small.  I spotted dust balls beneath the bed, soft as tiny pillows.  Suddenly exhausted, I sank into the mattress, realizing he hadn’t once asked about me.  My age.  My last name.  I’d shared parts of my story, but he hadn’t offered to read it.

But in that moment, it really didn’t matter.  I’d already crossed a threshold.  It was like walking out onto the lake, blindfolded, and feeling the ice cracking beneath my bare feet.

As Tom covered me with kisses, I wasn’t sure if I was the prize or he was.  Still, I didn’t resist, not one tiny bit, when he pulled me into thick downy quilts and reached to my soul with his tongue. 

After that first encounter, he wanted to see me more and more often; he’d text me little messages every day.  I was his dove-eyed girl who makes love like a goddess.  (As if I was the only girl who he’d ever said that to).

 Sometimes I even had to look up a word.  You’re my eternal inamorata.  But I played right into it, played by his rules, tossed out my better judgement right along with my morals, starved for as much of his attention as I could get.   

One rule was to keep our conversation mostly to writing—his writing.  (He never asked about my story again). His personal life was off-limits, and he was not interested in mine.  Let’s keep this light and fun.

Mostly, we went to motels. Now and then we’d meet at the cabin. And on a few occasions, he’d invite me to campus, where I’d wander dreamily, pretending to be just another student. In his office, I’d sit in front of stacks of his typed pages, touching them, wishing I could write like that. (I hadn’t written one single word since we met).  Often, he’d ask me to read some of his chapters aloud, especially dialogue, so he could hear if it sounded “organic” to the character.

But one day, several weeks into our relationship, things took a terrible turn.

                                                            ***

Morning dawned unusually hot and bright, more like July than mid-November. Tom texted he had the perfect afternoon planned and to be ready at noon; by three I was still waiting, pacing, biting my nails.  I took a second shower, scouring away any lingering dirt, scrubbing with a loofah until it felt like there was one less layer of skin. 

I leaned my face against the sweating mirror and hated what I saw.  How could anyone want that? A hard lump of a forehead, eyes knitted too close together, nose too narrow, an upper lip that almost doesn’t exist.  So ugly!

I just couldn’t wash myself clean enough.

I squeezed a tiny blemish on my chin until it bled.

When I finally began to accept that Tom wasn’t coming, I spied his black BMW convertible pulling up to the curb. I raced outside, my heart singing.  He still wants me! 

Tom was wearing baggy shorts and dark sunglasses, and a wrinkled gray polo shirt with a tiny blackbird insignia on the pocket.  His hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail.  So handsome! The ashtray spilled over with butts; he flicked his lighter again right after he pecked my cheek.  His favorite band, Aerosmith, was blaring from the radio.  I wanted to talk, but didn’t want to yell above the music.

I caught a strong whiff of body odor; odd that he hadn’t showered.

I dutifully handed him my phone and he locked it in the glove compartment.  No cell phones when we’re together, so we can fully focus on each other.  I beamed my good-natured and uncomplaining smile, just the way he liked it, and tucked my thin cotton dress beneath my bare legs.  In the back seat was an overstuffed backpack and a white wicker lunch basket with two bottles of wine sticking out.  He had gone to so much trouble!

I felt special.  Loved, even. 

“Found a new place,” Tom said, “think you’ll like it.” He checked his watch, then stepped on the accelerator; we sped away from the dusty city and headed west, up into the hills, along winding, country roads, Tom leaning into the curves like a race car driver. 

We eventually came to a high, narrow road, lined with the skeletons of golden trees.  After about a mile or so, he slowed the car to take a right turn into a hidden entrance that led to a forgotten cemetery.

It was as tranquil as any I’d ever seen, with overgrown fields, walking paths and rambling stone walls.  Clusters of ancient granite headstones, shaded by marble pillars.  Old stone benches rested upon colorful carpets of fallen leaves. 

“Wow,” I breathed.

As the car idled, he turned to me.  “Could really use your help, Jamey.  Something I’m working on.  A particular scene.”  His eyes held no expression; they matched the flat gray of the headstones.

“Sure.”  I didn’t know if we were going to read the scene together or what, but I was up for it.  Maybe he’d even be open to hearing some of my ideas this time.

We spotted an enormous, majestic tree, high on a knoll, still holding onto most of its bronze foliage. When I mistakenly called it an oak, Tom muttered between clenched teeth:  it’s an American Beech.  That sudden knife in his voice —it sounded like Bitch! — it felt like it could physically cut me.  

I couldn’t figure out why he was so angry.  I spread out a flannel blanket and we sat there, side by side but not touching, surveying our silent audience.  We opened the wine and Tom served chunks of something that looked like pink flesh. I fought a wave of nausea before he told me what it was – smoked salmon.  I’d never eaten that before and told him so. Tom grumbled under his breath, you’re so fucking provincial.

I blinked, hard, to keep from crying; I drank more wine. I rubbed my temples to try to soothe my shooting headache; birds were screaming in impossible octaves somewhere high in the trees, a silvery ring of noise.

A little later, when I tried to nuzzle into Tom’s arms, he wormed away.  He lit another cigarette and blew smoke rings.

“You ready?” His face was a gathering storm.  “So. Devlin’s fallen in love with a woman he met at a bookstore.”

“Catriona.”  (She’s one of my favorite characters.  Strong, resilient, ambitious.  And a great singer, to boot).

“Right. But Lukan is sick over it.  He wants Cat to want him.  But she won’t pay him any mind.  Lukan’s getting desperate; he’ll do anything to capture her love.”

“Lukan could never be in love.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because his soul is dirt.”

The low rumble of Tom’s anger. “He’s got some good qualities!”

“No – no, he doesn’t. And Catriona knows it. He just mimics other people so it appears that he’s got some good in him. Besides,” I added, “Cat would never betray Devlin.”

Tom stood up, fuming. I could see spreading armpit stains. His back muscles strained against the polo shirt. When he turned toward me, chest heaving, I saw the bird insignia stretch out like a raven taking flight. 

His voice bellowed with rage.  “Tell me! Now! What would Lukan do? What action would he take?”

I had to get the answer right.

The mosquitoes were in full attack mode. Tom’s cigarettes weren’t even keeping them away. I swatted my arm and shivered.

“Well, you said it yourself. Capture her love. So…he’d probably have to take her by force.  Because I sure don’t…see it unfolding any other way.”

I held my breath. I caught Tom’s expression – and cringed.  He looked so strange! His forehead appeared impossibly long, cheekbones high and sharp — his hair all straggly and matted; eyes narrow slits; they glittered greenish-yellow. Without warning, he snatched me up and threw me head-first into the thorn bushes behind the beech tree.

I yelped; pushed my hands forward to break my fall — and rolled sideways, banging my left shoulder on a tree root. My dress bunched up above my waist.  He was on me in a second, pounding into me, a crazed animal, viciously cruel.  I screamed for him to stop – I tried to scratch him but he held down my wrists.  He kept on slamming into me; a low growl sounded from his throat. 

Hot strings of saliva slipped down the back of my neck. 

I turned my head and vomited onto some red leaves, curled up like tiny withered hands.  I must have blacked out, for the next thing I knew I was sitting up, my back pressed hard against the tree bark.  Dizzy.  Hurting.  Head pounding.

Scared.

My vision slowly came back into focus.  Tom was wiping the cuts on my palms and knees with antiseptic wipes.  He looked like Tom again.  So gentle now.  A caregiver.  He offered me a bottle of water.  I took a tentative sip.  I turned my face away so he wouldn’t see my tears. 

I tried to gauge how far we were from town.  For a second, I thought about bolting to the car.  But I knew the keys were in his pocket.

Tom saw me trembling.  He pulled a sweatshirt from the backpack and handed it to me.  It had a heavy perfume odor, like lily of the valley.  He asked me to stand, and when I did, painfully, he sprayed me with bug spray, from my ankles to my wrists, and it stung all of my cuts.   

“Babe, I’m sorry, it’s the stress – look, I had a difficult call with my publisher today and they want to put the series on pause.  They think the market’s over saturated.  They want something new.”

I didn’t reply.  Nothing could ever justify what he had done to me.  I started pulling the sweatshirt over my head; saw it had something written on the front in bold letters.

I turned it over and read:

WBRQ Channel 8 – We Know Weather!

The truth detonated like napalm.  Ohmygod.  I’d caught glimpses of photos of a blond woman in the cabin, but I’d never looked too closely.  I wanted to keep his wife blurry; fuzzy around the edges.  Just another blonde with gauzy features and a bright smile.

It made it so much easier that way. 

“Your wife is…Saffron?”

A slight nod.  Indifferent.

“Oh, no.”  I clutched my stomach.  I thought I might vomit again.  How could it possibly be her? She was so…so nice! She had helped me!

My knees buckled.  I tried to pull in a breath.  It hurt so bad I wondered if a rib was cracked.  Tom moved towards me.  “You mean so much to me, Jamey, I hope you know that?”  He held me out at arm’s length.  “You do know that, right?”

I wouldn’t answer.

“Don’t be upset!  Look – we have this special, spiritual thing together and that never needs to change.”

Special and spiritual? Was he insane? I forced myself to search the wild map of his face. His eyes looked normal again.  He actually believed what he was saying.    

“Take me home,” I said. “I want to go home.  Now.” 

The misted light drifted below the tree line.  Tom sighed, fishing for something in the backpack.  He calmly extracted a thick roll of silver duct tape.    

I backed away.  No, no, no.  I squinted at the ground, looking for something.  A rock? A large branch, maybe.  Anything!

“There’s nowhere to go, Cat.”

From the looming shadows, he took a menacing step forward.  I kneed him in the groin, hard.  As he bent over, groaning, I bolted, but he caught my hair, wrenching my head backwards.  

And his savage growl left no doubt who I was really dealing with.

This time, I didn’t scream.  I didn’t struggle.  I knew it would make things worse.  And it was dark now, but for the sick-yellow glow of Lukan’s eyes.

In that moment of pure terror, with fangs sharp enough to crush bone pressed against my slender neck, I decided the only way to survive might be to figure out the answer to one simple question. 

What would Catriona do?

I went completely limp. 

“That’s right, Cat.  That’s better.”  Lukan dragged me back to the tree, and started ripping strands of duct tape with his canines.  He taped my legs and arms tight against the trunk.  His breath stank like rot. He started to rip off another long piece, and I prayed it wouldn’t cover my mouth.  No, no, please not my mouth!

The wind rustling in the trees sounded like sad music.  I starting humming a melody I’d learned as a child — my uncle used to sing it to me, to calm me down — about ants disappearing into the earth.  I tried to make it as melodious as I could. 

Sweet little ants crawl down the tree, down the tree, into the ground, into the ground, where no one can see, those sweet little ants, go down the tree, it’s just you and me, dear, it’s just you and me.

Lukan tilted his head and listened.  When I finished the song, I spoke in a much deeper, husky voice (thinking that Catriona being so brave and strong-willed would have a voice like that).

 “I do care about you Lukan.  More than you can ever know.  But…this! This is not the way to my heart.”

He let go of the duct tape.  His breathing slowed.  For an agonizing moment, I witnessed the yellow glimmer fade from his slitted eyes.  Then Lukan stuffed everything into the backpack, prowled down the hill and leapt into the BMW.  When I heard the car peel out onto the dirt road, only then did I let myself sob.

I writhed and twisted through spikes of white-hot pain to work myself out of the tape.  After staggering in the dark for what seemed like hours, through the constant slaps of angry branches, two fiery halos of fog suddenly danced in my direction.  Then the sound of a car approaching threw me into a panic, thinking Lukan had returned to finish me off.

I slid down into the roadside ditch, through a pile of crumpled beer cans, kicked off a thin lid of ice, and pressed myself down into a cold layer of dirt, the weight of it so safe and familiar, like an old, heavy blanket.

The car braked; I could feel it’s hot breath.  Doors opened, closed; two shadowy figures approached with flashlights.  I lifted my chin and read Robertsville Police on the quarter panel.    

The cops were very kind to me.  At the station, I told Officer Bartz I smelled something burning. He grinned, Now, don’t you worry, it’s just the coffee, I hope you like it stale and bitter, and brought me a steaming mug, and a crumbled peanut butter cookie.  He handed me some clean sweatpants he had in his locker.

 His partner typed my name into the computer.

 “Wait, no way — you’re her?” When I nodded, he gave a low whistle and shook his head.  Bartz leaned forward, squinting at the screen from his standing position.  His eyes widened a bit, before he turned to me.

“Jamey.  Help us sort out why you were staggering down a dark road in the middle of the night; barely dressed, covered in abrasions and bug bites?”

My head felt like it had been shoved through a log splitter.  But I couldn’t tell them the truth.  So, I made up a story about arguing with a girlfriend after we left a nightclub in Concord.  “She made me get out of the car.”   

Bartz seemed concerned.  “Can we call someone for you?”

The sad truth was the only person I could call was Tom, and that was out of the question.  Or, I could call Dr. Phillips, my psychiatrist, but she wouldn’t want to be disturbed so early.  After a quiet chat with his partner, Officer Bartz offered to drive me home. 

We drove in silence for the first several miles.  I could feel him itching to say something – and I knew what it was.  I cleared my throat.  “It’s okay – ask me whatever you want.”

Bartz searched my face.  “How are you coping after all you’ve…I mean, I know some time has passed, but no one should ever have to endure something like that.”

“I’m better.  I mean, as well as can be expected, I guess.”  (He had no idea; how could he? And how could I possibly explain how damaged I really felt inside: and that I’d just suffered yet another brutal trauma and was probably in shock?)

“I admire your resilience, Jamey, I really do.  I don’t know if I could…come back from something like that the way you have.” 

I studied him for a long moment, in profile.  Receding hairline; a broad, gentle face – generous nose, full lips, a slight double chin.  How sweet he was, how genuine.  And (sadly) so very unlike the men I am typically attracted to. 

“Heard that bastard got out on a technicality.  He ever try contacting you?”

“Um, no.  He didn’t.  He can’t.  He’s…a ghost.”

“He’s dead?”

I nodded. “House fire.  About four months ago.”

Bartz chewed on that information for a while, before he pushed out a long breath.                

“Yeah, well.  Karma’s a bitch.”

When we got to my apartment complex, Bartz drove around the buildings a couple of times, scanning the surroundings.  “You feel safe here, Jamey?”

“Think so.  Seems like a good neighborhood.” I was so touched that he had asked. 

“My neighbor, Nelly Walston, she’s real nosy and always clucking on about who’s coming and going. Anyway, she had a small fire in her kitchen the other day, but I smelled the smoke before she did and called the fire department.”

“That nose of yours again! It saved the day.” He laughed. “It’s good that you’re vigilant.”

You’re the one who’s good, Officer Bartz.  Thanks for going so far out of your way,” I said.  “Means a lot.”

“Name’s Denny.” He pressed his card into my palm, don’t hesitate to call if you need anything, or if you just want to talk, then helped me to my apartment door, asked me if he could go inside first to make sure everything was safe, then sounded the all-clear once he did a thorough check. 

Denny shook my hand like it really meant something to him.  Like I mattered as a person. I locked the door, and double bolted it.  I lit some cinnamon incense for protection, then slowly lowered myself into a lavender Epsom salt bath to help soak away the pain.

                                                              ***

I never heard from Tom Tanner again.  Not for three whole months.  No texts, no calls, nothing.  It was a huge relief, and I slowly started to feel almost normal.

Until a few days ago, that is.  I was nursing a raging head cold, lounging in my PJ’s, drinking some lemon ginger tea with honey.  Around 7AM, I turned on the TV, and there was Saffron, hosting a new show called Awake 603. 

(I was so excited!  I thought it must be a promotion; I was so proud of her!)

But then her first guest walked into the studio. 

And many of our viewers might not realize this, but our very special guest for this inaugural Valentine’s Day show also happens to be my own wonderful and charming husband.  Everyone, please welcome, novelist Tom Tanner. 

Thunderous applause. Tom strode on stage like a movie star, dressed in hip jeans, leather boots and a black dress shirt opened at the collar.  He even gave a little bow to the live audience of mostly overweight, middle-aged women, causing them to giggle and titter. 

He sauntered over to Saffron and she offered her cheek.  A glance passed between them that wasn’t exactly loving.  Something was off; her body language was tense. 

And she looked so tired! But — she was good at hiding it with makeup.  A real professional.  (I so admire that!)

“Before we get started, I need to explain to our audience and also to our many viewers at home — that my dear husband hasn’t even told me anything about this latest project of his! So — we’re all in for a special treat today!”

 More excited clapping.  “What’s it about, Tom? Do tell!”

“Yeah, this one’s radically different from The Last Victim series.  Something new and fresh for the fans,” he explained, “it’s called The Girl Who Never Sleeps.”

I dropped the remote.  My headache flared.

Murmurs of interest from the audience.  Saffron seemed pleased by their reaction.  “Intriguing title.  Tell us more!”

“So, the main character is this teen girl named Fergie.  She’s kind of a head case, but super sweet.  She’s young, vulnerable, but unfortunately gets swept up by this much older, depraved dude named Rob Pritchard.”

Saffron’s mouth dropped open.  She quickly recovered.  “Pritchard? Um, wait, this sounds like—” But Tom didn’t notice, he just kept droning on about Fergie, how she falls so deeply that she does dangerous things in the name of love.

“Yeah, this Pritchard fellow is a really bad apple.”

Saffron interrupted.  “Tom, wait, could this character of yours possibly be based on Robert Pritchard, the serial killer, by chance?”

It was Tom’s turn to falter.  He blinked a few times, then opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. 

“And Fergie! You must mean Fern, right? Fern Jameson? Wait — I think she calls herself Jamey now.  Yeah, she was his ‘Last Victim,’ so to speak.  She was also the only one to survive.”

Tom looked stunned.  “Uhh…” was all he could say.

Saffron’s face was a jumble of thoughts.  “You must remember the case, Tom.  Back when we first met!” She looked out at the audience, “In Trenton, where I got my start in television.” 

Aware of their rapt attention, she went on. “Y’all probably remember this one; it’s really horrific.  I was actually the first reporter on scene to break the story of her rescue – I even met the poor girl and gave her some water — it was all over the news, oh – what’s it been now, about seven years!”

Tom threw Saffron a look that made me shiver.  With just a few words, she had stolen his thunder and made him a fool.  But she continued, confidently, “Sixteen-year-old Fern Jameson was abducted by Pritchard.  He kept her caged like a dog for months before he decided to bury her, alive, in the cage.”

A loud intake of breath from the audience.  Saffron stood and moved toward them, taking time to let them fully digest what she’d just said, and to build the dread.  She leaned toward the front row and quieted her voice.

“He’d packed the earth pretty tight.  But– there was some kind of animal hole near her mouth, like a gopher would make, and she used it as her air source.  Somehow, she was able to keep breathing for four whole days until she was dug up.”

A collective gasp.  Saffron waited another beat.

“That’s why she never slept.  She was afraid the hole would fill with dirt.” 

The camera zoomed in on two women in the second row as they burst into tears. 

“Wow. Fern. Haven’t thought about her in quite a while.” Saffron walked back to her seat, sat down.  She saw the look of scorn on Tom’s face. “Wait – did she contact you?”

 His face flushed; he studied his fingernails.

 “She did? Why didn’t you tell me?”  She leaned in close and whispered almost into his ear (but the mic was on so everyone still heard her say it anyway): “Don’t you remember? The restraining order I had to take out on her?”

The camera went close on Tom’s face as he mouthed the words, “that was her?”

An uncomfortable silence expanded in the studio, like an overfilled balloon.

The show finally cut to a commercial break.

And that’s when I knew that the time had come.  Time to completely erase Tom Tanner from my life, once and for all, so that I could finally, and fully move on.

Yes.

It was time to make things clean.

                                                          ***

When I first pushed opened the cabin door, Saffron’s valentine card blared like warning lights at a train crossing.  It had to be a foot high, straddling half the kitchen table, heart-shaped and god-awful red, edged with white lace like pieces of gauze stuck to a bloody chin.

And giant neon block letters that read:  TO MY BEAUTIFUL WIFE.

Annoyed, I picked it up, then decided that wasn’t so good an idea.  (Now my fingerprints are on it.  But I’ll deal with that later).

Tom was snoring, so he never heard me creep to the edge of the bed.  I lifted his right wrist and used the cuffs I’d plucked from Denny’s belt to handcuff him to the bed post.  Then I shot some Ketamine powder right up his nose.  (Dr. Phillips is always pushing that nasty stuff on me; I’ve got plenty on hand, just had to crush up a few pills).  He snorted it mid-snore; it took him a few seconds to wake up and realize who was standing there.

He bolted upright, then fell over sideways, hanging off the bed by his wrist.

“Whah the–?” 

“You are going to pay for what you’ve done,” I announced, head high, feeling so powerful for standing up for myself for a change.  (Dr. Phillips would be so proud of me for taking charge!)

“Take these cuffs off me right now you crazy fucking bitch!”

From the corner of the bedroom, I dragged the full-length mirror across the floor and set it beside the bed.  “Tom, look! Who do you see? Look closely now! I think you’ll recognize him!”

Tom thrashed around, smashing his left fist into the mirror, spraying the room with tiny shards of glass.  I backed up a bit.  “Now, now, it’s not Lukan,” I said patiently, as if coaxing a difficult toddler. 

A string of obscenities exploded from his mouth, so real, so twisted with hate; I

could see them uncoil and slither around in the air.  I tried to grab psycho-fuck but it wiggled out of my grasp.

“Think now, my love.  If I’m The Girl Who Never Sleeps, then who might you be?”

He’s still enraged, but this time there’s no Lukan to protect him. 

Nope. It’s just pathetic old Tom. 

“If you tell me, I might let you go.”

The Ketamine was kicking in big time.  Tom’s eyes were clouding over; he blinked and shook his head to try to stay conscious.  Then he let out a long, pitiful wail, like a dying wolf coming to terms with his fate. 

“I’m the fucking…man,” he said quietly.

“Yes?”

The Man. With.  A…gohhhst.”

“What ghost?”

Tom tried to spit at me, but his lips were numb and it leaked all over his chin.

“The one…wite thayEen the fugging meewrr.  Een myeyes.

I gave him a good hard minute of applause.  He deserved it!

“Bravo! Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

                                                       ***

There is only one important detail I still have to work out.

What to do with poor Arnold.  I mean, here he is, rubbing between my calves like I’m his only friend on this whole planet.  If I toss him outside, he’ll go feral really quick, and that’s no kind of life for a house cat.  Besides, I’d hate to think of him getting lost in the freezing cold woods out here.  He’s such a big, sweet boy.

So, I’m thinking I’ll just take him with me.  Maybe, after things settle down, I can drop him at a shelter with a note.  (I’d love to keep him, but my landlord told me there’s a strict no-pet policy).

Other than that, I think I’ve got everything pretty much covered.  I even turned Tom’s favorite Aerosmith album up pretty loud for him.  (It’s playing Janey’s Got a Gun, which is kind of ironic because it sounds like they’re singing Jamey.  And I don’t own a gun, but I just saw Tom’s got a shotgun in the closet and there’s no way he can get to it).

Every so often there’s a thunka-thunka-thump coming from the bedroom, almost like he’s trying to keep a beat to the lyrics. 

Anyhow, it’s time for me to finish this and get back on home.  And after hunting around for some newspaper, it occurs to me that the damn valentine will work just fine.

I stride over to it and knock it down flat.  Then I pick it up and start ripping.  The lace comes off in one long strip, but the card is thick as leathery skin.  I try to tear it into pieces but only manage to pull off a couple of red chunks. 

And now it reads:                          

                                            TO   M      BEA   T        WIFE

I think on this a bit, and it really all makes sense.  That’s why Saffron looked so tense the other day.  Those dark circles under her eyes meant something far more sinister than lack of sleep. 

And this card is a sign that I’m doing the right thing. 

No time to waste, so I finish tearing it up into what looks like a pile of bloody meat.

I flick Tom’s gold lighter and the lace catches quickly.  Then I head over to the bedroom door and carefully light the gasoline-soaked paper logs. 

The thunking noise is slowing down, like a drum solo coming to its end. 

(I remembered to set his vintage record player on automatic repeat.  I figure Tom will get to hear his favorite songs at least one more time).

Soon everything will be clean.  (There’s just nothing cleaner or purer than fire!)

So, I guess it’s time for me and Arnold to go.  I slip Tom’s lighter into my jeans pocket as a memento, because I’m a sentimental girl.  Then I tuck Arnold under my arm like a football and we make a run for my Jeep.

And as the flames rise hotter and higher behind us, I can already feel the clean heat melting the frozen lake of my heart. 


Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire.  Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and Monadnock Magazine. She finds inspiration in the brisk wind along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


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“His Assistant” Dark Fiction by Patrick Crossen

"His Assistant" Dark Fiction by Patrick Crossen
Section from the frontispiece for Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (Revised Edition, 1831). Steel Engraving by Theodor von Holst.

He never shouted, It’s alive! He didn’t say anything…he just stared.

But I got right to work.

I loosened the straps that bound the creature. Not all the way, of course, this was the first test of fine motor skills. I waved away smoke from one of the doctor’s humming machines with a bit of cloth. The doctor had still not moved but the creature was already undoing his straps, taking the first tentative steps of his life, and I could not witness it. There was no time. There was work to be done. Always work to be done.

As I carried a tray full of vials and beakers from the room, I heard the first timid groans of the creature, which were promptly silenced by my slamming of the door.

It wasn’t as though I wasn’t interested in the outcome of our months of work. Quite

the contrary actually. I had spent, if I may be so bold, even more time making sure that each facet and step of the procedure went smoothly and without error than the doctor himself. I had gone through processes of trial and failure, bringing the doctor body parts that he would either keep or reject. I spent rainy night after rainy night digging through muck and mud and grime just to find a pinky toe that met his satisfaction. All the while, the doctor pored over notes and, more often than that, drank to a successful night’s work, or drank to numb the pain of a night’s failure.

My quarters were tucked away just underneath and around the corner of the large, hulking stairwell that encircled the doctor’s castle. It was a modest home, only privatized by a shabby bit of tapestry that ruffled limply behind me as I sat on the creaking spring mattress, setting the tray of containers on my bedside table as a reminder to clean them in the morning.

I lit a few candles that threw the small room into an orange light that flickered as the flames performed their dances. A few pictures hung from the stone wall. Scraps of scientific sketches that I had taken from some of the doctor’s textbooks. He used them for information. I kept them for their beauty.

I was always struck by the careful hands that seemed to draw the pictures. The largest of the ones I had taken for myself, was the outline of a bateleur eagle (or terathopius ecaudatus, as the tiny scrawl in the corner always reminded me). The left half of it was shaded in charcoal-colored strokes, the giant wingspan flat against the page, while the right side was entirely skeletal, all jagged bones and skull. It was not only educational, but a beautiful reminder of the mortality of being. And doctors, like the one upstairs, glanced at it as though it were a bit of common text to be skimmed. There was such beauty and poetry in science, and the doctor’s ignorance of that fact had always been a source of irritation for me.

As I stared at the picture, my eyes grew heavy. I realized, with a subdued sort of shock, that I had not slept in nearly thirty-six hours, having spent most of the previous night in the graveyard, and the following morning cleaning the body parts I had retrieved. I tried to keep my mind awake, forcing myself to go over the parts of the eagle that I had committed to memory.

The digits that made up its strong talons. Tarsometatarsus. A fusion of the tarsal and metatarsal structures.

And I was asleep, dreaming of men with great wings and talons, laboratories with floating body parts, and the voices of my past whispering that they hated me.

***

A crack of thunder woke me so suddenly that I sent the glasses I’d brought from the lab clattering to the ground. In the shadows of my room, I reached out haphazardly, foolishly trying to grab broken glass in the dark. The candles had gone out, and the only light from the room came from occasional streaks of lightning that leapt through my curtain-door.

My hands groped around for the nearest box of matches and I struck one, which sparked brightly before settling on a more subtle amber glow.

“Mmmruh.”

A cold chill crept up through my heart and into my arms so that the match I held shook violently, casting the room in an unsteady light. With a gulp that I hoped would help me regain my sense of balance, I lit my candles and saw that I was not alone in my meager little room.

There sat the creature, on the edge of my bed. It was an astoundingly human practice, sitting politely on the edge to signify that he understood he had not gained passage underneath my covers.

In my haste to clean the Doctor’s lab, I realized that I had not had a moment to fully gaze at the creature’s visage.

Perhaps not conventionally, but by the sheer knowledge that I (and my employer) had worked and toiled to bring these features to life, I could not help admire the graceful way his long black hair framed his smooth and pale face. His nose was crooked, clearly the man we had taken it from had it broken, and his eyebrows were slightly lopsided. But these imperfections only served to make him seem even more human. More tangible and real.

“Mmmmruh,” he said again.

“Hello,” I said.

I am not entirely positive what compelled me to speak so plainly to him, but I felt an urge in my gut or heart or brain to speak with him.

“Hello,” he recited back to me, testing the syllables on his tongue with an expression that resembled curiosity and morphed into contentment.

I clapped my hands together.

“Oh wonderful!” I exclaimed, patting my hand further down the bed to indicate that he should join me. “Can you speak fully then? I had thought you might. The doctor said it would be impossible; that you would have to relearn. But I knew. I knew that the sheer essence of humanity and language was more powerful than death. That brain of yours can still remember a thing or two, yes?”

“I can..speak,” he said. “I do not remember much from my past. I know that I am made of many things. Many people. Many lives.”

“You remember nothing?” I asked quietly. My heart was beating with an anticipation that had been mounting ever since the doctor had asked me to don the cap of graverobber.

I lit a few more candles while he thought. The room was bright now, the creeping sunlight of morning filtered through the windows and my curtain, though the soft pattering of rain outside still echoed in the great stone halls of the castle.

“I do not,” he said in a soft voice. His milky yellow eyes, which the doctor assured me would fade in time, looked sadly back at me. “I feel conflicting memories. Pieces of a past life coursing through each of my body parts in turn.”

“I see,” I said, nodding quickly and trying not to let the sinking feeling in my stomach show on my face.

“This troubles you?” he said. “I can still sense emotions, even more so now that my brain is, for now, so clear of thoughts and memories.”

I looked hard into his face and he stared at me too.

“I remember, very clearly, when the doctor asked me to assist him in this particular endeavor. I have worked for him for a long time. As a butler, a chef, a maid, whatever he required of me, I listened to him. When he approached me I was…in a state of distress.”

The man on my bed said nothing. He did not fiddle with the loose strings of my sheets, or glance at the candles flickering lights. He sat still and stared at me, listening to my words.

“I had a lover,” I continued, my throat drying quickly so that I had to swallow several times before going on. “More than a lover. A companion. A friend. The doctor never knew. Not that he’d have minded at all, he simply never cared to ask. My lover, my Jonathan, he died. Scarlet fever, that’s what the doctor said at least. I brought Jonathan to the doctor, but I never let on that we knew each other. I simply posed that Jonathan was a sick man I had noticed while picking up supplies in town. But the doctor could not save him. It is, afterall, medicine and not magic that he practices.”

The man now ran a hand through his long black hair, and I was once more struck with how quickly he picked up human traits like that.

“And so when the doctor came to me to ask about animating a corpse, building another, my mind naturally went to Jonathan.”

I looked him in the eyes and I saw that, even as I spoke, their yellow tint was turning to a softer green.

“But the doctor wanted pieces. I do not know why. Perhaps because it gave him more of a challenge to build from the ground up. Perhaps because he wanted, in some strangely respectful way, to leave at least some of the people at rest that we were desecrating. But…” I swallowed again, agitated by my voice’s quiver. “For the head, I used my Jonathan. I thought the head would hold the memories and the…the love. The knowledge. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps it truly is the heart. The Greeks believed it was the stomach. Perhaps we’re all wrong.”

The creature knit his lopsided eyebrows together with an expression that was unmistakably scrutiny.

“My head…comes from your past lover?” he said, working out the equation in his newly born mind.

“You are nearly the spitting image. The doctor had to make some adjustments but, when I look at you, I can trick myself into seeing Jonathan,” I said.

“I am not Jonathan,” he said. And he stood up now, his barefoot crunching against the broken glass on the ground that were once beakers. “And I know little of love and companionship. Even still. You cut off the head of the one you love? Rather than leave him at peace?”

“Jonathan…” I began, but he cut me off.

“I am not…I was never Jonathan. You shouldn’t have done this. I feel disjointed. Strange and unstable.”

“That will pass,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. “In time you will settle-”

“In time,” he spat. His eyes were wild now, anger pulsed from him as his hands and legs shook, as though he did not know how to properly process the feeling. “I shouldn’t need the time, I should be at peace. I was given time and I do not regret what I did with it. We were given our time,” he said, and I felt a sadness in his words that surprised me.

A voice suddenly broke our conversation like glass on stone.

“ESCAPED!”

The word rang through the castle from high above. The doctor’s voice growling and howling from the lab.

I stood up so quickly that blood rushed to my head.

“You must go,” I said, surprised at my own words. “Quickly.”

“You would let me leave?” he asked, the face of my Jonathan looking quizzically back at me. My lip trembled at the sight.

“Yes,” I said. “He would have you paraded around. You would be at carnivals and exhibitions. You would never be more than an experiment.”

He bent down and kissed me. My eyes, in my surprise, remained open the whole time, and to this day I regret that. Had they been closed I would have savored the moment. With my eyes closed we could have been anywhere. Far away from this place, left to hold that kiss for as long as we wished. I felt the familiar curve of his mouth against my own, like a shoe that still fit, once lost under the bed.

And then he was pulling away, wrapped in nothing but a blanket that billowed as he walked toward the front door. I unlatched the bolts for him, hearing the creaking of another door above us that meant the doctor was coming.

We did not say goodbye. I don’t remember him stepping out of the castle at all. I simply remember him walking away, his back to me. Morning was here and the sun filtered through the rain, casting iridescent light all around the castle grounds. The winding road took him to the spot where the path curved, and the mountains swallowed him from my sight.

I still see him every now and then. We do not speak. But I see him at the markets. He works for a flower peddler, chopping up bunches and wrapping them in paper, careful not to prick himselfs on their thorns. People do not pay attention to him. They do not see what a miracle he is. What a work of art-come-to-life he is. But I know. And when I see him in the market, I feel sad, looking at the face of my Jonathan. I wonder, vaguely each time, what he calls himself. If he has a name at all. And even more I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to ask.


Patrick Crossen is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA trying to balance reading, birdwatching, writing, and breathing. When he’s not writing, he’s eagerly checking under bushes and stones for the pixies he knows are watching his every move. But he’s not paranoid. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Quetzalcoatl Comet” by Titus Green.


Don’t forget to visit The Chamber’s Bookshop or Gift Shop while you are here.

“The Great British Stag Night” Dark Fiction by James Burt

The four of us waited in the bar, in the capital of an ex-Communist country that didn’t exist when I was born. The walls were decorated with Coca-Cola mirrors and pictures of American icons; the other patrons wore denim jackets, like they were time-travellers from the eighties. The whole country seemed tacky, but flights were cheap and the exchange rate allowed you to act like an arsehole. Wikipedia listed the country’s legendary churches and traditional cuisine, but all we wanted was cheap beer, mostly the same brands as back home. And, of course, the other entertainments. Here, for the price of a big night in England, you could spend a whole weekend taking advantage of other people’s poverty.

In the bar were me, Ant, and a pair of Anthony’s geeky friends, Paul and Stan. Paul was excited, saying it was his first stag night. I was less excited because I’d met the other three who were coming, Barry, Charles and Garry. Or, as they preferred, Bazza, Chazza and Gazza.

Paul, Ant and Stan had been pissed when we reached the bar, but I paced myself as best I could, staying a couple of beers behind. I was only here because Olivia made me promise to look after Ant. Once Bazza arrived things would be out of control, and I’d have to hold on until it ended.

“Ey up, big man!” Bazza jeered as he came in with his mates, forcing everyone to notice him. The other patrons sneered from under their caps before hunching back over their tables. Most of them were playing cards and didn’t want to be disturbed. We shouldn’t have been there.

Barry grabbed Ant in a headlock, rubbing the groom-to-be’s head with his knuckles. “How’s the lucky boy?”

Ant punched Barry hard enough that he let go. “Planning to have a nice quiet night. Not too rowdy, you know?”

“Come on, it’s not like you get married often, is it?”

“Not like you, Bazza” yelled Chazza. “Whore!”

Paul and Stan tensed up and gulped their beer. “Nice of you boys to finally make it,” I said.

“We’ll catch up in no time,” said Bazza, “Don’t you worry, lad.”

It’s not like Ant had a choice about who came on his stag night. The three amigos were part of the package with Olivia. She thought her brother was the charming and professional salesman he mostly seemed to be. She’d never seen him paw under-age girls in bars or be dragged out of clubs by three bouncers. Olivia had never seen Barry pass out and piss himself in bus shelters or start fights for a laugh. I’d seen all these things and only tolerated his presence to protect Ant.

Gazza came over with a tray of drinks, beer slopping from the glasses. Standing among the pints were seven shots – tequila most likely. We were forced into a toast and I studied Paul and Stan. Ant’s colleagues weren’t suited to this sort of night. I was amazed they weren’t puking already.

“Hold your hand out!” Barry ordered Ant. The other patrons were watching. Some of them glared, loathing us and our money.

“What are you going to do?” asked Ant. His attempt at a grin failed.

“Come on, trust me. I wouldn’t hurt you, mate, you’re family. Or you will be – if you survive the night!” 

Ant held out his right hand, fist closed.

None of us had noticed the handcuffs, but then that was the idea. Barry tapped the back of a cuff on Ant’s wrist and it swung round, closing with a click. The other end was attached to Barry’s left arm. The rest of us were grabbed roughly and attached to one of Barry’s cronies, who then grabbed someone else, cuffing us into a line. I felt sorriest for Stan, who was handcuffed the wrong way round so he had to twist to see anything the rest of us looked at.

I was at the end with my left hand free, Gazza standing beside me. I lifted my beer to finish it and Gazza jerked the handcuff, pulling me off balance so that I spilled beer down my front. The ape bellowed a laugh to get the others’ attention, pointing at the damp patch on my shirt. Bazza and Chazza didn’t hear, since they were trying to order drinks. Some of the card players had left, probably looking for somewhere quieter. Only the bar staff wanted us here, because they were overcharging us for each round. I said nothing, figuring they deserved the bonus.

“You do have keys for these, yeah?” asked Stan.

“Yeah, there’s keys, mate,” said Barry. He guffawed: “Back at the bloody hotel, right!” 

His cronies were in hysterics, Chazza slapping his thighs and high-fiving Gazza, barely noticing how it dragged the rest of us about. “We’re together for the duration,” said Barry. “No-one sleeps till we’re all done for the night!”

And there I was, handcuffed to a bunch of rugger lads in a city I never wanted to be in. Every other time I’d been out with Barry I could get a taxi home if I wanted. Now I was stuck with them until they were finished. My only hope was that they were insensible before we all got into trouble.

As we staggered through the city streets, pulling each other this way and that, the residents watched, appalled. We drank in cheap dives, occasionally passing other English stag parties who ignored us. The bars didn’t turn us away, just raised their prices as we became more obnoxious. At one place Barry dragged us onto a dance-floor, making us jerk about to euro-techno. The other patrons retreated to the side and glared. Bazza, Chazza and Gazza didn’t even notice. I felt ashamed.

But, you ask, how did we relieve ourselves?  Seven at a time, against a wall. Me too. It’s not as if I could stop this once it was in progress. We’d stagger into an alley, get our cocks out and urinate. Barry or his mates teased Stan for being pee-shy, and all he could do was pretend to be amused. Drunk, I told myself this wouldn’t last forever. Tomorrow it would be a memory, a night I’d never have to live again.

After the dance-floor debacle we went looking for another place. Gazza was jabbering about a brothel he’d heard of on the city outskirts. Bazza needed to piss again, so we were dragged into another alley. Paul leant his head against the wall as he peed and passed out like that until Chazza kicked him. Standing there, piss pooling around our feet, I prayed for the police to turn up. A night in the cells would be better than this.

We were dragging each other out of the alley, Bazza and Chazza arguing about where to go next, when we saw the man. He had a thin moustache, and his head was topped with spiky blond hair. He was massive, larger even than Barry. If he’d taken us all on, even sober and hands free, the stranger might have won. And he had us drunk, handcuffed, and trapped in an alley.

“Who’s in charge here?” the man asked. His accent was thick, but his words were clear.

We all faced him, except for Stan. Back to front, he was left staring at a wall.

“My mate Ant’s getting married.” Paul swayed as he talked.

“No, not the groom. Who’s in charge here?”

“I am, mate.” Bazza seemed less drunk now. He moved to the front, offered the stranger his hand, pulling Paul’s along with it. “How can I help you?”

The stranger smiled. “Your honeymoon party, right?”

“Stag party, mate, stag party. You wouldn’t see me married to any of these losers.”

“Losers, ho-ho.”  The stranger laughed like he’d only read descriptions of laughing in a book. “So, you gentlemen would be interested in ladies, right?  Some fun?  Celebration?”

“Damn tooting,” said Gazza

“Too-ting?”

“He means we’re up for it,” said Bazza. “Well up for it, pal.”

“So, where is this place, mate?” said Gazza.

“Is on, how you say, city outskirts?”

“Oh, yes,” said Gazza. “We are well up for that.”

Drunk as I was, I realised two things. First, that I could do nothing to stop us from going with this man. Second, that the stranger spoke better English than he pretended. The whole thing was an act. If I was sober, I might have worked out how to warn Barry of this without the man noticing. Drunk, I said nothing.

“I call my cousin,” said the stranger. “We get in his vehicle, drive out to this place. Is an adventure. You have money?”

“This is going to be worth it, right?” Barry grinned.

“Damn too-ting.” said the man. “I go get truck.”

The stranger led us out the alley. He waved and a pair of headlights switched on. A vehicle drew up. The cab looked old and the back was open, fenced slats around the sides. The man let down the back and helped us to scramble in. Paul said he might be sick, and Chazza told him to get over it, and not to ruin things for the rest of us.

“Tap on the window if you need something,” said the stranger, chaining the tailgate shut. He joined his companion in the cab. The lorry’s engine coughed a couple of times then we set off.

We drove for ten minutes and the buildings became smaller and more spread out. “We’re not in the city,” I pointed out to no-one in particular.

“Probably just greenbelt,” said Gazza. When there was a chance of getting laid, Gazza was fearless. I’d seen him start dancing with flirtatious girls in sight of their boyfriends and all his mates, not caring about the risk.

Nobody spoke as the roads became bumpy. We’d definitely left the city and the sky seemed to be lightening. Ant, Paul and Stan were sleeping, and Bazza had finished puking over the side. Gazza was telling Chazza about a brothel he knew in Brighton, but I couldn’t tell if Chazza was listening or sleeping. I seemed to be the only one who was worried: what if Barry didn’t really have the keys?  What if we got stranded and didn’t make it to the airport for our flight home?  What if something bad happened?

“Hey, Barry,”

He wiped his mouth with his T-shirt and focussed on me with his third attempt. “Hey, all right. You’re OK, you know that?”

“Barry, we’ve left the city and we’re in the countryside.”

Bazza sighed. “Look, don’t worry, mate,” He was slurring his words. “It’s going to be OK. If they wanted to rob us, they’d do it in the city. They wanna have us a good time and go back tell our friends what a wonderful time.”

The journey probably wasn’t as long as I thought. We couldn’t see much from the back of the truck, just the road ahead lit by headlights. The pair in the cab didn’t speak to one another and never looked round. Barry puked some more, and Stan started to shiver, his teeth clattering. I was drunk and chained to some deeply unpleasant men in a foreign country, with nobody I could rely on. I was scared. I was used to my life being small and simple and I felt overwhelmed. I regretted not trying to put my foot down when it might have helped.

We pulled off the road onto a small track leading through a forest. Headlights shone between the trees. Is this where they rob us and slit our throats, I wondered. Please God, I prayed drunk, please let Barry tell us he has the key on him. Let this whole truck journey be some prank Barry cooked up. Don’t let us be driving through a forest with strangers, wearing handcuffs.

“Barry, listen to me.” He looked up from dripping puke onto the road. “Do you have the keys?”

“Yeah, course I do.”

“Can I have them?”

“Back at the hotel, aren’t they?”

“Great, Barry. That’s just great.”

I thought he was asleep, but Ant saw the lights first. “Over there!” Everyone turned to see a couple of cars stood outside a wooden palisade, headlights shining onto an open gate. Beyond were a cluster of buildings. The truck stopped at the gate, then moved slowly through. I looked at the cars as we passed but couldn’t spot any people in the glare. I’d not seen any signal to proceed, but someone had obviously checked us out. Whatever this place was, it was very well organised.

The truck parked outside a small barn and the engine was turned off. The driver leapt from the cab and lit a cigarette while the blond man we’d first met undid the chain on the tailgate. The links slid onto the floor.

A woman walked up and stood beside the man. She was beautiful, like a dead movie star.

“My name is Jones,” said the man. “This is my sister, Helen.”

Barry was leaning over the side of the lorry once more so couldn’t speak for us. Instead it was left to Ant: “Hi. Where are we?”

“It’s a resort,” said Helen. Her voice was clipped, no emotion to it. “It has been here since the old days. It is, how-you-say, a relic?”

She stood back while Jones helped each of us down. Everyone had to raise their arms to avoid dragging the next person off. Once we were all on the ground we huddled together, closer than before. Barry, Garry and Charles no longer fooled around.

“Who put you in handcuffs?” asked Helen. “Not Jones I am thinking.”

“No, not Jones,” said Ant. “It was a joke.”

“A joke?”  She considered it before shaking her head. “Come on Jones, we ought to get going. It’s late, and these men have had a long journey.”

We trudged across dirt to the lit-up square between three buildings. They were made of grey stone, and the window boxes and painted eaves failed to look particularly decorative.

I used to have a friend who claimed she was ‘sensitive’. She couldn’t visit somewhere without saying she felt ‘something bad’ there or detected ‘a presence’. Approaching the middle building I shivered and wondered if this was how she’d felt all those times. Something had happened here, something so loathsome that being here made me want to turn and run. But I couldn’t run, because I was chained to Garry.

Inside the building was a small waiting room. The walls were bare, painted cream, and a few plastic chairs sat opposite a metal desk. Behind that desk was a young man in a white shirt who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen. Helen spoke to him in their language and I couldn’t tell anything from their tone of voice. The kid nodded, made some notes, then opened a drawer and passed Helen a key. It had the number 6 on its fob.

“How much is it?” asked Barry.

Helen looked at us and narrowed her eyes. “There’s plenty of time to discuss that. You’re all together, right?”

“Do we have a choice?” I asked.

Helen smiled. “There is always a choice. Jones?”

Jones stepped in front of us. He held a pair of bolt cutters. They’d make short work of our fingers, I thought.

I decided to take advantage of the chance to be free. “Cut this chain off me now and I’ll wait here.”

“Come on,” said Barry. “Don’t be a loser.”

I sighed. “I’m done, guys. I’ll wait here until you’re finished.”

“You’ve come all this way for nothing?” asked Garry.

“I never wanted to come here at all.” I raised my hand, tugging Garry’s with it. One snip and I was free, although I still wore the cuff. I watched, sure some of the others would ask to join me, but Ant, Stan and Paul were too drunk, too horny or too tired to protest. Olivia would be furious if she knew, but I was too exhuasted to care.

“Very well,” said Helen. “You wait here. The rest of you, follow me.”

She led the other six through the internal door. I caught a quick glimpse of thick red carpet and grey walls, then they were gone.

“Do you have any water, please?” I asked the young boy.

He smiled. “Certainly.”

He returned with a tray, carrying a jug of water, a glass and a box of aspirin. I examined the box. The writing on it was English. I figured they were safe to take, certainly less dangerous than the headache that was coming. I swallowed a couple.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“This used to be a village.”

“The war, right? Something happened?”

The teenager didn’t pretend his English was poor. “No. It was in the nineteen eighties. Nobody knows what happened. People arrived here one morning to find everyone dead. One hundred and twenty-nine people, beaten to death and burned.”

“Where are all the buildings? The roads? This can’t be all that’s left.”

“The buildings had vanished. Just a pile of bodies in the middle of the woods where there were once roads and homes. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out what happened.”

I’ve never been so scared in all my life, but I forced myself to refill my glass and take a long sip. “The others, they think this is a… do you know the word ‘brothel’?” The boy nodded. “There are no girls here, are there?”

“There’s Helen. But not how you mean, no.”

We sat in silence. I was too tired to run and, even if I wasn’t, where would I go? Even if I made it out of the room, I’d never make it to the airport.

“I promised Ant’s fiancé I’d look after him,” I said. “It’s his wedding next week.”  

“Oh.” The boy walked to the front of the desk and sat on it. He stared at me and I looked at the ground. I thought of my last time going out with Barry. Before he pissed himself at the bus stop, he’d been following a couple of girls, asking them to come back to his flat, daring their boyfriends to stand up for themselves. He deserved what came to him, so did Charles and Garry, but Paul, Stan and Ant were with them. It didn’t seem fair. I had to do something.

“Ever wonder why you’re here?” asked the boy.

“Huh?”

“Why you’re here, now, and not safe in bed at home?”

“Questionable decisions. Lack of moral courage,” I smiled. “I’d give anything to be at home right now.”

The boy took the water jug and drank two or three swallows direct from it. “We make a million choices in our life. The future seems open, but the past is inevitable. Yet imagine if you arrived here from your own future: would you see your choices as unlimited? Or would you do the same thing as before? Would go back home, or join your friends?”

I was too tired for philosophising. “I just want to take my friends and go.”

“Your friends: they’re the three smaller ones, aren’t they?”

“Yes. I want to make sure they’re safe and sound.”

“It’s done,” said the teenager. “Pass through that door and keep going, then you’ll find them.”

I stood. The teenager waited, patient. “Just get them?” I asked.

He waved towards the door. I thanked him and opened it, the broken chain of my handcuff clanking against the handle. Beyond was the carpeted hallway with its grey walls, a small room at the other end. On a table I saw six pairs of handcuffs. All were closed and undamaged, except for one, which I could see was missing the cuff I wore. I closed the door behind me and felt a little safer.

Eleven handcuffs, six chains. I approached the table. All of the cuffs and chains were undamaged. They’d been tight when Barry and his mates had slipped them on, no way you could ease them back over your hand – I knew that because I’d been trying long enough. I picked up the twin of the handcuff I was still wearing and slipped it in my pocket. At the other end of the room were stairs leading down. I could see the floor below, some way down, a clean patch of concrete. The only sound was the hum of a distant machine.

Halfway down the stairs I turned and looked back, but the light was bad, and I couldn’t see the room I’d passed through. I gripped the other handcuff, planning to use it as a knuckleduster if I had to.

At the bottom of the stairs was a small room with white plaster walls. The concrete floor was pristine. On the far side was a metal door with no handle. And, in the middle of the room were Ant, Paul and Stan, asleep and snoring.

It took little time to wake them. “Where are we?” asked Ant, rubbing his eyes.

“I don’t know,” I told them. “But it’s time to go.” I pointed towards the stairs behind me. “Go back the way you came and wait for me outside.” Deep breath. “If I’m not there in ten minutes, head back without me. Go to the airport, go home.”

“Where are you going?” asked Stan.

“I’ll be ten minutes. Go.”

The three went up the stairs, weaving a little in their still-pissed state. Once they’d left, I went up to the door. What had the teenager asked? Why are we here? What choices would we make if we knew better?

I banged on the door with the handcuff I’d picked up. The metallic boom was louder than I’d expected. I stepped back and waited. Had there ever been a village here, or was the teenager trying to scare me? Maybe it was all a joke. I still wanted it to be a prank, even though this was too strange for someone like Garry to think up.

Helen opened the door. She smiled when she saw me. “You came back for the others?”

“I need to know what’s happened.”

Behind her was a corridor. At its end was an arch, through which I could see starlight and the silhouettes of buildings. I could faintly smell smoke.

“The village that used to be here has been moved. The people who once lived there were left behind, dead. But this village hid itself, and we have found a way in, through this corridor. We’ve been trying for years to re-establish contact. Those other three, they’ve gone in. I don’t know if they’ll come back, but you’re welcome to wait for them as long as you need to.”

“But they were drunk. What use is it sending them in?”

She shrugged. I’d have been angry were the gesture not so weary. “Who else should we send? We’ve been trying for over forty years, and we have lost our best to this place. The ones who came back were useless afterwards.”

Any minute now, the other three would be leaving, just as instructed. Ant was safe, as I’d promised. Drunk as they were, they’d remember little of this place. I was not so lucky. I couldn’t imagine what I would say. How could I explain losing three companions on a stag night?

“Helen? Is that your real name?”

“No. But then yours isn’t James, is it?” She was right.

“I’m going to look for them. Will you be here when I get back?”

“We’ve been waiting decades already. If you return, I’m sure I’ll be here.”

So, I walked down the corridor. I could see the village, or whatever it had become, in the distance. Somewhere fire flickered and the smell of burning became stronger. I could hear something, not quite music, like metal striking metal. I wondered: if I came back from the future to this moment, would I still walk down that corridor? What choice would I have?


James Burt lives in a wooded valley beside a river where he writes odd stories. He keeps a weblog at www.orbific.com


Don’t forget to visit The Chamber’s Bookshop or Gift Shop while you are here.

“Conjure the Moon” Dark Supernatural Fiction by E.N. Dunn

The Old Woman lived on the hill, near the cava tree, and rarely ventured from her home. Her quaint, gray house smelled of mulberry tea and cinnamon and had a simple roof made of wooden shingles. The windows of the house were framed in purple, and the glass was old and stretched with bubbles. The house was ancient, just like the Old Woman, and the two creaked and moaned together when the wind blew a little too strongly from the northern mountains.
           

The Old Woman knew that the villagers gossiped about her; she saw them whispering to each other as they walked along the trail at the base of the hill. Their whispers floated up the inclines of the clover-covered knoll her house sat on, creeping through its halls until they found her ears. “Evil Witch,” they whispered.  

Sometimes she peered through the bubbles in her glass windows down at them, making her own whispers. She whispered to the birds that would dive down at them, pecking at the crests of their heads. Other times she whispered to the trees, which then used their roots to trip the villagers, turning their whispers into silent curses as they hurried on their way to complain about the Old Woman to the Mayor.

#

Every day was filled with complaints about the Old Woman, and the Mayor had to listen to them. Come rain or shine, the Mayor heard about the Old Woman during town meetings, after dinner with council members, or when he was trying to get away from it all during walks in the village park. The villagers loved to gossip and complain about the Old Woman.

Of course, the Mayor did nothing about the Old Woman. He knew the villagers for what they were: small-minded and bitter busybodies. And he had more pressing matters to attend to, like the backed-up village sewer systems and the accompanying stench that now permeated everything. But the prattling and whining interfered with his work, and between the heat of summer and the stench, the Mayor often felt angry and anxious.

On the days the Mayor felt particularly anxious, he liked to look at the tall grandfather clock that stood proudly in the corner of his office. The clock had been his mother’s and was the only thing that still connected him to her. It was made of oak, and it stood illuminated when the afternoon light came through the office window. It comforted him, and, after long, endless days filled with complaints and exploding sewer lines, he would sit in his office, listen to the tick-tock of the clock, and remember better times.

#

The Old Woman had been able to do things since she was little. She could heal people, talk to birds, mix the correct herbs to help a woman have a child, and even leave her body for brief periods to travel the night skies of the village. To the Old Woman, it was as easy as breathing and she had used her powers to help the villagers until fairly recently.

As a young woman, she had been the village midwife and delivered most of the villagers who now wanted her to leave. She had mixed potions, healed the sick, and counseled the lost and troubled. She’d been respected at one time, valued and treated with reverence even. Folks would bring her offerings of spices, herbs, and dark plum wine or golden yam whiskey. Every day there had been baskets of fruit, nuts, and dried meat on her doorstep. Now, her porch steps were empty, and the villagers gave birth in sterile white rooms full of men dressed in light blue cloth. No one came to ask for potions or advice on love anymore.

It was strange not being needed. It was in the Old Woman’s nature to be useful, to help others. Not being able to use her abilities made her feel tired and useless. It made her feel wretched and stretched thin. So, she stayed hidden away in her ancient house; it was her only companion now. She missed the days of her youth when sweet potato bread was her favorite, and the street wasn’t quite as wide as it was now.

The Old Woman knew that there had been a time when there were many people like her. Healers, tree talkers, water conjurers, and night flyers. When she was a child, there were people in the village who visited during the darkness of night. They worked their powers to fix and mend folks, and, just as they later did for her, the villagers left them fruits, vegetables, anything they had as payment. The Old Woman’s mother was one of these special folks. But unlike the Old Woman, her mother had not been a healer. No, she had used her hands to make plants grow and barren earth yield fruit. She was one of the Owusu. 

The Owusu came to the village the morning after a fall moon and emerged one by one from the mist-filled woods to the east of the village. The Old Woman’s mother was amongst them. They were all tall, willowy figures with onyx-hued skin, smooth as opal, and rich as obsidian. Their hair floated above their shoulders as silvery gray poufs, voluminous and naturally shaped like cumulus clouds, always trailing behind them like halos of thunder. Their faces were small, and their elegant arms tapered off into exquisitely long fingers. They were mysterious, beautiful, magnificent, otherworldly, and her mother was no exception. 

The villagers were mesmerized by them, some even offering their homes to the travelers. Some Owusu accepted the offer and stayed in the village with these welcoming families. However, many returned to the woods to the east of the village, where they would remain, only venturing out from the shade of large wise trees to share their gifts, visit with the Owusu that lived amongst the villagers, or trade their skills or barter wild mushrooms and nuts for items like tea and spun cotton.

Mother had been one of the Owusu who stayed in the village. She lived with an elderly couple that sold teas at the market and used her talents to help grow jasmine, urkla, and poplue in their tea garden. She met the Old Woman’s father when she wandered into his turnip fields one day, and the two instantly fell in love. Soon after, her sister was born, with the Old Woman coming a year later. She was born during the Fall new moon, birthed by Mother’s own hands.

The Old Woman could hardly remember Mother now, her memories relying mostly on stories told by Father. She did remember she was beautiful and would wander through the turnip fields at night, under the light of the moon, slipping her dark hands into the orange-hued soils to work her magic on the turnips. She remembered her voice, how it was musical and calming and fluid, like the stream out back behind their farmhouse. But it was the other things that the Old Woman could not remember, like the sound of her laugh, or the angle of her jaw, or whether she even liked turnips. She didn’t remember how she smelled, her favorite color, or if she yearned for her homeland, wherever that was. It was also the questions the Old Woman had, the questions that plagued her at night while she smoked a pipe of sweet herb and drank mulberry tea with wild honey.

The question that rose above all others for the Old Woman was who was she? Was she more her mother or father? Was she the child of spirits because the Owusu were otherworldly?

In her heart, she knew she was more of Mother, that she was Other. It didn’t matter that the Old Woman did not look like the Owusu. Yes, she had dark skin, smooth and beautiful like Mother, and hair that floated above her shoulders in an ebony cloud. That was where her similarities with the Owusu ended. The Old Woman was short and her shoulders were wide like Father’s. Her face was broad and flat, with features that were soft, round, and kind. Her hands were broad like her feet, with thumbs that were strong and good at mashing up herbs and birthing children. No, she did not resemble the Owusu, but she knew she was Owusu, down to her very soul.

To be Owusu was to be Other. This, the Old Woman understood. Yet, she still felt lost. Even though the village was all she had ever known, she always felt homesick. She wanted to know the comfort of being amongst her own people. She wanted to know them and love them and had so many questions she wanted to ask them. She knew she would never find answers in this life, that she would never truly know herself, and she mourned this fact early on when her mother had died so many years ago.

Father wouldn’t let them take Mother away after she died. When the villagers arrived making demands, insisting Mother be buried with her own kind, the Old Woman remembered the look on Father’s face as he put down the sweet oils and herbs he had been using to prepare for her burial. She remembered how his big strong hands had grabbed the ax off the kitchen wall and how he had stood silently in the doorway of their home. He never spoke a word, just stared at the small crowd with black fire in his eyes. The villagers left silently that day, understanding the language Father had spoken.

You take my wife, you die.

Father buried Mother deep in the earth and covered her in white smooth stone and layers of burnt umber-hued soil. The Old Woman remembered placing a single yellow Lursa flower on Mother’s white dress. She remembered the hot tears burning along the edges of her eyes as Father pushed a warm layer of soil over Mother’s veiled face. The blue veil was Mother’s and had been one of the few possessions she’d bought with her to the village. The Old Woman remembered how the silent earth had enveloped Mother while Father sang softly into the breeze.

No box for you, my love. No wooden cage to confine your spirit. No fire to burn your flesh, to eat your bone as you sleep. Just earth and clay and tears, my love. Just earth and clay and tears.

Death. Death was darkness, deep, long, and forever. Death was a shroud of unknowing that cursed the living. It was also beautiful and infinite and something that the Old Woman had learned not to fear for herself. But it hurt, oh did it hurt. It hurt down to her bones, down to her spirit. It hurt to be left alone.

It happened one night right after supper. Mother’s breath was taken from her in an instant. Her spirit snuffed out like a candle. Gone. Just like that. Without fuss, without reason. She was just gone. With all the others. All of them.

When Mother died, so did the rest of the Owusu in the village. All at once as the sun set on a warm summer’s eve. Some left their bodies while in their gardens, sleeping in their beds, or eating their suppers. Others, while strolling in the village park or fishing near the North River, their bodies scattered like sad flower petals throughout the village.

The Owusu that lived in the woods to the east disappeared the same night. Whether they had died was a mystery, as their bodies were never found. The villagers spent weeks scouring the woods looking for them or their remains, finding absolutely nothing. It was as if they had never existed. There were no cabins, camps, or even fire pits to be found. There were no wild gardens or middens of shell or bone on the forest floor, nothing indicating that the woods had been their home.

The villagers decided that the Owusu from the woods were responsible for the deaths of those in the village. Some argued they had returned to their homeland, leaving a curse on those that refused to leave with them. Thus, in order to avoid lingering bad omens, the dead were quickly buried in a mass grave along the south side of the village. Off-limits to all, the burial ground remained barren and scarred for years, and on the day of the Old Woman’s twenty-first birthday, it bloomed Lursa flowers. Every year on the Old Woman’s birthday, they bloomed, a sea of yellow.

Sometimes the Old Woman wished she had died with Mother, that her soul had rushed out from her body and entered the atmosphere like a phoenix. Her soul would dance around the moon, happy to be free, to work roots on that celestial plane. Even now, she wanted to die, but her spirit, tired as it was, clung to her flesh, resisting the idea. So, she kept her memories to herself in her little old house on the hill. 

#

The mudfish were good this time of year. Their scaleless gray mottled skin slick as they writhed in the bottom of the canoe, the slapping of their bodies sounded like the dipping of the tide. An old man with impossibly white hair bent over them, a stern expression on his face as he flipped another mudfish into the boat.

“Will you stop with your singing?” he muttered as he prepared his line with bait to catch another fish. The fish seemed to stop writhing briefly, their large black eyes gazing up at him through liquid inky tears. This only made the old man more annoyed, and he paused for a moment, a thick bloody worm wriggling in between his fingers against the cold steel of the hook.

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your singing is. I have to eat. Just like you have to eat the crawdads at the bottom of the river, so stop it. I don’t feel the least bit guilty.”

The man returned to his bait, casting his line toward the riverbanks, near the bunches of yellow and gold tufts of fili grass. The fish in his boat began to writhe again, and the old man sighed.

“Elkar, it’s been too long. Too long with these things, this place… too long,” he muttered to himself. He abruptly looked to the left of him, to an empty spot in the canoe. “Don’t you think?” he asked as his eyes peered into the void of air. His head remained craned in the direction of the empty portion of the canoe, and after a time, he sighed and returned to his fishing. The canoe drifted slowly down the river as the sun dipped below the horizon, signaling the end of the day.

“Hey, Elkar, any fish today?”

A young woman walking along the banks waited for the old man to respond. He ignored her and paddled his canoe toward a berm that jutted out into the shallows of the river. Elkar grunted and leapt from his canoe to pull it onto the sandy bank leading up to the berm. He gathered up his catch and started the walk home.

Supper was simple: roasted mudfish and onion, yam whisky, and mustard greens. Content with his meal, Elkar sat on a stool in the herb garden behind his cottage. His cottage was made of stone and was round with a thatched roof. There had been no need to update it over the years to match the newer homes in the village with their metal roofs and glass pane windows. He had no time for such foolish things. The cottage served its purpose, and that was what mattered. Besides, this wasn’t really his home.

Home was, in truth, quite far away, and it had been so long since he had been there. Elkar wondered if he could find his way home if he wanted to. Deep down, he knew he could not. Thinking about it made him sad. At least he had them to show him the way when it was time to leave, and they promised him they remembered how to get there. At least he had that. If it weren’t for them, he would have to live alone forever in this strange village with its fickle inhabitants and its memory of death.

The death was why he had stayed so long. Its smell still lingered. It was deep and established, and he would find it even if it meant never going home.

#

The Old Woman’s sister had been beautiful, precocious, and self-righteous to the very definition of the word. She was tall, willowy, dark-haired, and smelled of fresh lilies and lilac and chamomile. So wholesome, she was called, and beautiful and so unlike the Old Woman who was short and robust in her youth. The Old Woman sadly remembered how Sister had hidden from her when she had healed a rabbit for the first time. Healing was such a beautiful thing, yet Sister viewed it as something unnatural and perverse. It was neither of these things. The Old Woman still remembered healing that rabbit as if it were yesterday. The feeling of restoring health was euphoric, the rush and flush to her cheeks and the warmth in her stomach – it was like dipping into the bright light of a distant star.

The Old Woman thought back on her joy and surprise when the sick rabbit suddenly perked up under the weight of her hands, thumped a back leg, and hopped away. She remembered how Sister had looked at her with distant eyes as she slowly backed out of the barn and ran to tell their father what transpired that dusty afternoon.

Father had been a tall man, an imposing figure with broad shoulders and skinny legs that jutted from beneath his pants like a swamp frog. He was a farmer of turnips and smelled of earth and clay. He liked to smoke a black pipe of tobacco and sipped whiskey once a month when the turnip crop looked especially promising. He didn’t talk much and typically had a book on hand when he wasn’t caring for the turnip fields. His eyes were blacker than a crow’s, and they devoured books like they were sustenance. 

The Old Woman loved Father, but she was not his favorite. No, that title belonged to Sister, and so when Sister informed him of the Old Woman’s unnatural powers, he spared no time in punishing her appropriately. Father made her kneel in her room for four days without supper, and Sister brought her water to drink twice a day and accompanied her when she needed to use the outhouse. Naturally, she hated Sister for making Father do such cruel things. 

When her punishment finally ended, Father had sat awkwardly in a small chair placed neatly near her bed. His knees curled up and almost poked him in his chin, and his broad shoulders threatened to snap the back of the chair. She lay on the bed, rubbing the ache of her knees, contemplating whether she should heal the swelling once he left. 

They had sat in silence for what seemed to be an eternity, their house creaking as it cooled from the day’s heat while a rooster crowed in the distance. Then, finally, Father spoke to her. His voice was thick as morning oatmeal and immediately filled the room with its bellow.

“You can’t heal again,” he said as he reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out his black pipe. His pouch of smoking tobacco was rolled neatly in a cloth bag tied around the stem of the pipe. He untied it, opened the bag, and packed the pipe contemplatively. The tobacco permeated the room, and the Old Woman inhaled its molasses-like sweetness. 

“Why not?” she asked.

Her father contemplated the question carefully before answering, “Because… because something could happen to you. Your mother used her gifts, and she and people like her died. They died, love. I don’t want the same to happen to you.” He then stood up slowly and left her to ponder this assertion by herself in the quiet of her room.

#

The Doctor had seen nothing like it before, which scared him. Twenty people had come into his office with the same symptoms, and no matter what he did, they kept getting sicker. Their sickness was no ordinary disease. They were starving, their bodies twisted and knobby because of fat loss, their stomachs distended, and their skin ashen and gray. They complained of deep, painful hunger and exclaimed that it could not be sated no matter what they ate. He tried everything, but they eventually died. 

The Doctor was a man of science; he believed that the unexplained had an explanation. It just took time to find it. He liked facts and did not believe in any of the Gods that some villagers worshiped. His wife was one of these God worshippers, and he often watched her curiously as she kneeled before the deity Eushryph, offering prayers, incense, and fruit. He knew better than to tell her that her prayers fell on deaf ears. There were no gods, as far as he was concerned. Yet, this new disease had him wondering; perhaps it was time to ask Eushryph to have mercy on their souls.

#

People always feared what they did not understand, and the villagers did not understand the Old Woman. It hadn’t always been this way between the Old Woman and the villagers. There was a time when they respected her. But those who had cherished her abilities, that understood the old ways, were now gone, their bodies buried deep within the earth, nestled within coffins beneath the gnarled roots of trees. Their children remained, and they did not understand the old ways, much like Sister, who had rejected the ways of root workers, conjurers, and healers. 

Sister. For a time, she and Sister had a truce between them. It was simple; the Old Woman made herself scarce when in Sister’s presence and didn’t use her powers in the open. After Father died, Sister even allowed her to stay on the turnip farm. They ate dinner in silence, with Sister’s husband seated squarely between the two. It wasn’t ideal, but the Old Woman was happy she wasn’t alone. In the evenings, she would walk out in the turnip fields like her mother used to. Sometimes she stared at the moon, losing herself in its light, only to return to her body to make the walk back to the farmhouse to fitfully fall asleep to the low moans of Sister and her husband making love.

Some years after Father’s death, Sister became pregnant. She was sick for the entirety of her pregnancy and could not keep food or water down. Once, the Old Woman made the mistake of offering to use her powers to help with Sister’s sickness, to which Sister hissed she wouldn’t have such filth near her or her unborn child. After that, Sister wouldn’t speak to the Old Woman, and as each month went by, her condition worsened.

The moon was high in the sky the night of the child’s birth. It was luminous and round and fertile, and the Old Woman felt drawn to its light. She walked out into the turnip field; the light filling her, bathing her, flowing within her like deliciously warm water. She stepped out of her sleeping gown and felt a pull at her soul, like sunlight over the skin. Her eyes glazed over, and suddenly she was blind.

At first, she was afraid, but then the fear passed right through her and was replaced with a sense of calm that she had never known before. Soon after this feeling, her sight returned, and to her surprise, she found herself hovering above the turnip fields, caught in the beams of the moon, free and fluid and swimming in the light like a fish in the North River. She saw her body standing still in the field, frozen and solid like a statue, yet she did not care. Instead, she turned to the moon, and it called to her, drawing her into its realm like a moth to a flame.

And just like that, she was in her body again, Sister’s husband shaking her and yelling her name to awaken her from her trance. The gasp of air she took was long and deep and startled him into removing his hands from her shoulders.

Sister had given birth, and it wasn’t good. She was unconscious, and the baby was weak. Sister’s husband, fearing for both her and the baby, begged the Old Woman to use her gift regardless of how his wife felt about it. They both ran back to the house, finding Sister still unconscious along with the baby boy. The room was completely silent except for the large oak grandfather clock that had been their father’s. The tick-tock was thunderous in the Old Woman’s ears as she rushed to lay hands on her sister and her nephew.

Her gift worked. The baby and Sister would recover. And while Sister’s husband was grateful to the Old Woman, Sister was horrified. When she regained her strength, she threw the Old Woman out of the house, forbidding her from ever returning.

The Old Woman never spoke to Sister again. When they saw each other during festivals in the village, Sister ignored her, as did her husband. It was during this time that the Old Woman healed villagers openly. She delivered babies, and she walked out into open fields and flew toward the light of the moon. She was a healer, and if Sister didn’t love her, she at least had the love of the villagers. At least for a time.

#

The Mayor hated catastrophes; he never worked terribly well under pressure. He learned this fact with his first wife on the night of their honeymoon. He sometimes wondered why he had taken the job as village Mayor and then reminded himself that it was because of his second wife.

His second wife was power-hungry, a characteristic that he admired at first. She was beautiful and lusty with large breasts, rouge-hued cheeks, and a sultry mouth, bright with red or scarlet-pink lipsticks. She loved everything in decadent amounts: food, sex, money, and clothing. Everything. She had approached him like a svelte cat, long and tactile when he first met her at a harvest festival. Her breath warm and sweet and sticky. Her whispers made him shiver, and they married within the week. 

Their life started out simple, and the Mayor was content. This was before he was Mayor. This was when he spent the early evenings tending to his store while his wife donned fuchsia dresses and wore floral perfumes upon her breasts like protective armor, awaiting his return home to their marital bed.

Their nights were filled with her voracious appetites of the uncommon and unknown. He thought himself lucky. But life as the storekeeper’s wife soon grew dull, and his wife suggested he do something more with himself. It wasn’t long before he ran for mayoral office, and she finally was given the opportunity to dazzle guests with extravagant dinner parties and pretentious teas. 

So here he was, the Mayor of the village, sitting behind a massive rosewood desk, thumbing through mountains of paperwork, drinking cups of coffee with many tablespoons of sugar, and wishing for the days when he could sweep the entrance of his store in the afternoon light. He missed reading books in his office or spending time gazing at the moon on his stroll home after closing up shop. He wished for the days of silence. He wished for days when he could think, and the villagers weren’t falling ill, weren’t boney and angry and yelling at him to solve their issues, this sickness, this plague.

But it was his problem, his crisis; he knew this now. This plague was in his house, and his wife had it. She ate food all day to stop the emaciation that had etched itself on her pretty face. She kept warning him they should leave, that perhaps they could run away from the disease or at least find someone better than the Doctor.

“You’re looking weak around the eyes. Are you sure you’re not feeling different? Do you feel the hunger?” she asked him daily.

#

The Wife sat in her favorite chair beneath the canopy of blue jade flowers that stretched over the wood trellis, like an indigo serpent. She was wearing a long white linen dress and in her hand was a bouquet of yellow flowers. She looked at the flowers and listened to her husband in the distance, arguing with one of the staff from his office who had come to their house. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she could hear the heavy footsteps of the Mayor’s shoes on the wood floor as he paced and shouted. Sometimes his shouting was followed by brief periods of silence. She knew that these brief silences were when the staff person was speaking.

It had to be about the sickness. It was spreading rapidly and was out of control. Quarantining had done nothing, with most of the village now exhibiting symptoms. Symptoms she was all too familiar with. The constant hunger burned like a fiery pit in her belly, and her mind wandered often. She couldn’t focus on daily tasks anymore, and the bones in her back had begun to show. And the worst part was the way her mouth was cursed with an insatiable thirst that could not be satisfied.

“What have we done to deserve such a fate?” she wondered as she looked down at the flowers in her hand. She wanted to smell the bouquet, to make every minute count for something. No, that was a lie. She wanted to eat the flowers; she needed something in her stomach to quiet this hunger, but she was too weak to even lift her hand.

Her husband had been kind to her since she had become ill. He made her tea and ordered the cooks to prepare her favorite meals. He read to her when the moon hung high in the sky. His sudden change in demeanor had been a shock. Before the sickness, he had been distant with her. She told herself it was because he was busy running the village. But she knew better. She knew he was tired of her, tired of her voice. He showed no interest in her life. Her gardening and her work with the elderly were inconsequential to him. He asked her no questions and listened with only half an ear. It made her sad. No, it made her regret having married him so quickly after meeting him that night at the Autumn Feast.

She had been drawn to him immediately. The bonfires were burning high into the night sky, and music floated on the cool evening breeze. The smell of baked bread, cinnamon, and roasted fowl permeated everything, and the golden yam whiskey was plentiful. It was a joyous night, and everyone was talking, laughing, feasting, dancing, and feeling content.

He was dancing by himself, rather poorly, his dark hair cut short and his green eyes reflecting the moonlight like two gems. He was beautiful. He was also a mystery to her. Every time she went to his shop to buy flour or butter or rouge, he would nod his hello, ring her up, and go back to reading his books. She knew he was a widower and that his first wife had died in the North River. She knew that the entire village mourned her death and that her husband grieved for years by himself. But that was all. And she wanted to know more, wanted him to open himself to her, to let her in.

He had been drinking when she danced up to him, and when he finally saw her, he had smiled a slow and confident smile. The smile had captured her, and that night was filled with passion and hushed breaths as their naked bodies drank in the moonlight. He knew things, how to touch her, how to make her skin feel like fire. She was intoxicated by him, by his words, his eyes, his voraciousness. Everything. They were married within the week.

For a while, they had been happy. He tended the store and read his books. She gardened, was involved with the village council, and spent her days perfecting the various lip tints and herbal lotions she sold to the villagers. She was happy, and she thought he was, too. But he wasn’t.

Her husband was unhappy that she was respected in the village. At first, she told herself that she imagined his jealousy. When he made snide remarks about the time she spent making her herbal lotions or how the lipsticks she created made women look tacky, she hid her hurt feelings and wrote off his behavior as the result of a bad day. But every day seemed to be a bad day.

When he returned home from the shop, he complained about the time she spent with her friends drinking tea, or he argued that the clothes she wore were too revealing or too tight. He complained that her perfume would attract other men, and so she stopped wearing it to appease him. She never argued or tried to defend herself. She just took it. Every marriage had its problems, she reasoned. And he did love her, after all.

When the old Mayor died, her husband told her he wanted the job, and like a good wife, she encouraged him to run. And he did, and he won. She thought that being mayor would make him happy. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so displeased with her role in the village. Unfortunately, his new position didn’t improve their relationship, and she was more alone than ever.

And then the sickness had come. It came abruptly and without warning. One by one, she watched as friends and fellow villagers became ill. She was afraid, but felt it was important to hide her fear and help where she could. She volunteered at The Doctor’s clinic and attempted to console patients as treatment after treatment failed. So many people became sick that the Doctor finally admitted there was nothing he could do, and as the hunger in patients progressed, they became more erratic, violent, and irrational. One day, a patient bit her on the arm while she was attempting to change their bedding. The young man looked older than his years from the emaciation, and as she yelped, pulling her arm from his mouth, revealing angry tooth marks, he looked at her with a combination of shame and hunger and something else, something she could not quite identify.

Some weeks later, she too became sick. It started as a slow burn in her stomach that built each day. She devoured food to try and satisfy her hunger to no avail. She had the sickness, and there was nothing anyone could do. The Mayor took care of her. He listened to her when she talked. He washed her body, fed her, and brought her out to sit in her garden, where she spent her days looking at flowers and wishing for death.

#

The Mayor met with his council at noon. The meeting room was hot, unbearably hot. His council babbled as usual as they ferociously looked through documents, but today a new hint of urgency had entered the room. It was because of the Doctor. The Doctor said that this new disease could not be cured, that it consumed its victims in a matter of weeks, that it was a painful death, a cruel death. It was impossible to determine the vector of the disease. The village was in chaos. Folks were terrified, and there was nothing more that he could do.

The silence after the Doctor’s admission of defeat was deafening. It was the first time the meetings had been silent and peaceful as if the idea of impending doom had finally placated the council. Then Elkar spoke.

“What of the Witch on the hill? Perhaps she can help?”

Elkar’s voice was deep, loud, and authoritative, a quality that did not match his unassuming appearance. Silence followed his question for what seemed to be an eternity until the Doctor finally spoke. “What can the Old Woman possibly do?”

The council members took this as a sign to get involved in the conversation and instantly argued about the Old Woman. Yes, what of the Old Woman? She was a witch, but she was not to be trusted. Perhaps it was her fault that this terrible plague had befallen their village. Others whined she was just a silly Old Woman, that her powers resulted from old-fashioned superstition. The Mayor listened to the chatter and felt a chill come over him as the discussion turned dark.

#

The Old Woman heard about the sickness from the birds. They told her one morning while she was gathering juniper roots. They chirped she should be careful, that darkness had befallen the village. She had seen terrible illness in her lifetime. She had seen babies die; she had cried in her sleep when she wasn’t allowed to help them because of those fearful of her skills. She learned during her youth that, just like her healing, death was an essential part of life. Some things were out of her control.

She first learned this one day, years ago, while she was crawfishing on the North River and came across a woman floating face down. The woman was dressed all in white, her black hair swirling around her like kelp beds. The Old Woman pulled her out of the water, and once she had wrestled her into her canoe, she found she had no breath. She quickly stripped the woman of her clothing, exposing her pale, cold naked body. It was the first time the Old Woman tried to heal someone so close to death. 

After several attempts to heal the woman, she realized that her typical laying of hands would not suffice. It wasn’t until the Old Woman stripped herself of clothing and used her entire body as a healing conduit that she was able to resuscitate the river’s victim. Once resuscitated, the woman cried for days and days and eventually drowned herself again. 

The first time the Old Woman saw the sickness was the day the villagers came for her. They came in the evening beneath the light of the moon. They came howling and shouting about evil and hunger. The Old Woman knew her time had come, and a gray sadness washed over her. She wrapped her hair in a silver cloth and washed her hands and feet with oil. She crushed the root of a gonder as they banged on her door and rubbed it on her forehead right before they grabbed her and dragged her into an angry snarl.

#

The Doctor saw the Old Woman in the village square. The sickened villagers were poking and jabbing at her, yelling curses and spitting in the dark. They begged her to heal them one moment, and then the next, they admonished her for being a witch. A huge voracious fire burned in a pit, and wood was tossed onto it, its flames flickering against the black of the sky as the scene played below.

The Old Woman did not cry out as they beat her. Instead, she looked serene, as if she was seeing and feeling something completely different. She looked up at the moon, a milky gaze filling her eyes and a serene smile suddenly coming over her face. She looked above, past their fists and their feet. She brought one hand to her face, pressing her index finger between the space between her eyes and then a whoosh of wind and silence.

While the villagers murmured amongst themselves, the Doctor looked to the sky, and up at the moon, a look of disbelief on his face as an opaque silhouette swam in the moonlight and disappeared amongst the stars.

#

The Old Woman swam. She swam in magnificent light. The moonbeams were warmer than she had ever felt, and they melted into her as she floated higher and higher into the atmosphere. She did not look back at her old life below. Instead, her heart was full with the light of a million stars, and she was sated. She was free. And then she saw them dancing in a mighty ring in the light, swathed in ivory, singing songs she had only dreamed of, the reflection of the stars in the onyx of their skin. She knew she was finally home.

#

It was time to leave. The sickness had run its course through the village, and it was finally silent after weeks of death, of suffering. It was time to move on, and the Mayor was packing his things. He packed his pipe, whiskey glasses, some of his most cherished tomes, and clothing. He paused by the window and watched the scene below. The streets were quiet. The trees were barren, and the wind was blowing. A full moon hung high in the sky.

The smell of death still lingered, and the aroma turned his stomach. He needed to leave this place. He looked at his thin wrists and grimaced to himself. They were boney, and his veins protruded through his skin like the roots of an alabaster tree. He paused and whispered the words that needed to be said. The words that no one knew were his. The words that he controlled but sometimes did not.

The words worked their way into his flesh, breaking the illusion of starvation, his hands and arms, and body regaining the appearance of health. He sighed in relief and swallowed the tar of the words, grateful that they had chosen to listen, to stop.

He put his sack near the door and got to the task of prying the floorboards up from their temporary resting place. The gentle pop of the boards as they loosened their hold on the floor comforted him. He carefully laid the wood panels to one side and reached into the darkness. Then his face filled with fear as he frantically felt around his hiding place.

“Looking for this?”

Elkar suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway. He was holding an ornately carved wood box calmly in his hands. The Mayor struggled to his feet, alarmed.

“Surprised, I see. The waste does nothing to me. Just as it does nothing to you and nothing to the Witch on the hill.” Elkar casually examined the exterior of the box almost nonchalantly.

The Mayor remained silent, his eyes trailing down to the box in Elkar’s hands. He could tell him, tell him how things had gotten out of control, how he hadn’t meant for any of this to happen. That his mother had warned him about saying the words that forced their way from his mouth, the words that did not always follow his commands and ran haywire like the wind. But he knew, he knew, somehow it wouldn’t matter. Nothing ever did, and so he eyed a large butcher knife out of the corner of his eye and contemplated whether he would need to use it against the old man if the words didn’t listen to him this time.

Elkar slowly opened the box. Inside was a tangle of braided roots, gnarled and ancient in design, twisted and wise beneath the pale moonlight offered by a nearby window.

The Mayor slowly edged his way to the counter where the knife lay and finally spoke as Elkar closed the box’s lid. The words that flowed from his mouth came out in a hiss. They stung the surrounding air. They were strong, twisted, vile, and without rhythm. These words were deadly, and the Mayor knew this. These were words that had been his mother’s, words that did not hesitate. They caused neither waste nor sickness, just death.

Elkar looked at him wearily and shook his head. “Be careful with those words. They aren’t meant for speaking.”

“You should be careful with that box. It was my mother’s,” the Mayor countered as he inched closer to the knife.

Elkar’s eyes flashed with understanding as if some great conundrum was solved. “Your mother… the turnip farm… the Witch’s sister?”

It was as much of a question as it was a statement. Elkar looked to the left of him, an empty space between himself and the frame of the door. He spoke as if someone were there, almost pleading. “So, this is how it ends? This is how I rest?”

He waited, his face relaxing, his body suddenly vibrating, his skin blurring and turning an onyx hue. His large ears shrank, and the wizen face became smooth, and a halo of cloud-like hair grew slowly from his scalp, unfolding like a great fan in the breeze. Elkar’s body stretched, and the old skin sloughed off and fell to the floor. Curiously, so did the bones of many, many mudfish. Elkar stood tall, all seven feet of him towering over the Mayor. He was naked and young and Owusu. His eyes were filled with thunder, and he turned them down at the Mayor.

No other words were spoken, and there was a last moment of confusion as the Mayor lunged for the knife. However, he did not make it, for there was a whirl of light that emanated from Elkar, and then there was nothing. No Elkar and no Mayor. All that was left was the smell of ozone and a remnant of root from the box that was charred and dead.

And there was moonlight.


E.N. Dunn has a background in cultural resources, public outreach, and community health. Raised on Hawaii Island, Dunn uses the natural environment to inspire her writing. She currently resides in the small town of Hilo and spends her spare time gardening, writing, and tending to her three pet goats. .


“The Worm” Dark Sci-Fi by Jesse Rowell

"The Worm" Dark Science-Fiction by Jesse Rowell

If the National Ministry of Peoples found out about me, they would drag me to the center of the town square and hang me. I’ve watched it on the state news. Political prisoners, men and women and children who dare to speak out against the regime, or those who have grown too weary to abide.

            They could be forgiven for not giving the Ministry’s soldiers their water, their bread. They could be forgiven for not burning their books that the Ministry demanded. They could be forgiven, but they are executed. So the rest of us fools, meek as mice, cower and whisper and nod submissively, but underneath it all our anger turns like a worm in our hearts.

            I am a Dev. I spend hours facing an old computer monitor working for the Ministry of Advanced Technology. Simple tasks, reading citizens’ emails and social networking messages, spying on the populace through a pixilated filter. When the General isn’t monitoring my activity, I send encrypted messages, try to warn the professors and political activists, but they are always captured and disappear. I’m left monitoring their empty email folders, walls that won’t update.

            “You’ve been summoned,” the General says resting his hand on my shoulder.

            “Summoned?” I ask. I have never heard of somebody from our group being summoned. I look around at the other Devs before staring up at the General. “Summoned for what?”

            “The Minister of Justice and Peace made the request. Official channels.”

            My heart freezes. The worm stops turning inside. “The Minister…” I trail off.

            “Yes, the Minister himself. I’m sure it is nothing you can’t help him with. He has a particular challenge that requires your specific talents.”

            “It is with great pride,” I say. “That I serve the National Party with humility. I hope that I can assist tomorrow as my wife and daughter have dysentery and I must get them their ration of water.” I know they’re waiting for me, huddled together on our bed, shivering with fever.

            “They can wait,” the General says. “I will personally attend to your family as you will be taken to the palace forthwith.”

            Who has sold me out? I try to comprehend this betrayal as the palace guards, two doltish and lumbering brutes, escort me through the town square. The interminable town square, wide enough to swallow oceans. The guards boots click against its cobblestones. I can’t feel my limbs, tingling and numb, as we pass Grecian columns. The same columns that sit on our paper currency. Our country’s worthless currency, devalued like my life.

            The Minister’s Attendant, a slender man with a slender mustache, meets me at the palace entrance. I hate the sight of this man, the caterpillar crawling above his absent upper lip. I hate the sight of the interior of the palace, its gilded vases and candles, it’s paintings of our National Minister. It looks like a goddamn church inside here.

            “Ah, good,” the Attendant says. “I’ll show you to the network closet.”

            “Network closet?” I ask, holding my relief cautiously in check.

            “Yes, network closet. You are familiar with what a network closet is, aren’t you?”

            Network closet better not be a euphemism for an execution chamber. I mumble something nonsensical wishing I could drive a screwdriver through the back of this man’s neck.

            He leads me through a narrow hallway to a door. A naked bulb illuminates a network closet. All of the cross-cables have been ripped out, multicolored copper wires littering the floor.

            “Evidence of vindictive sabotage,” he whispers, his voice a thread and needle weaving through my ear. “You must fix it. Posthaste.”

            “Shut up,” I tell the man. “Let me concentrate.” Inside I’m cheering the efforts of the previous workman who has damaged the palace’s telecommunications, but my shoulders sink upon the realization that I will now be the one fixing it. If I don’t I will be met with the same end as the saboteur.

            The Attendant’s face puckers as I waive him off. “Now, see here,” he sputters. “Nobody tells me to shut up.”

            “No, I will not waste a second of the Minister’s time.” I’m beginning to enjoy kicking this little bureaucrat. I have the power. He is dependent upon me completing this job. “I must attend to this disaster immediately. Who damaged these cables? Have you caught the perpetrator?”

            His face falls, and he cowers like a dog whose owner holds a rolled up newspaper over his nose. I almost feel sorry for him. What if he is a brother in arms like me, working from the shadows to bring down the Ministry? He could have been the one who trashed the network panel. And I have become the iron heal of the regime breaking his spirit.

            “Well, brother?” I ask to test him.

            “We are trying to locate the perpetrators,” he says, either ignoring my signal or ignorant of the code.

            “More than one, eh?” I pick up the copper wires with the Attendant standing over my shoulder watch me. He murmurs and frets as I punch cable pairs into the PBX board. I string new cross-connects, and write down the cable pairs and port numbers.

            “Done,” I say handing him the updated port list. “Now I must get back to my wife and daughter. They have been without water since yesterday.”

            The Attendant grabs my arm. He grips it with such earnestness and stares so intently at me that I think he is going to whisper something conspiratorially in my ear. Brother, we are with you. We will rise against the fascist regime. Down with the National Ministry of Peoples.

            I’m about to tell him who I am, let him know that I am working against the Ministry, but he speaks first.

            “Dev. You will now see the Minister directly. There is a delicate matter that requires your attention.”

            I shake myself free of my previous intention. Had I almost revealed myself based upon the look of a government employee? Holy hell, I thought. I have to be more careful than that. Years of work lost.

            The sound of an old modem dialing up echoed against the marble. The sound of antiquity, if antiquity ever had a sound, is a modem’s crackle like hay in a windstorm. While the rest of the world moved on to T1 and wireless connections, our country remained mired in its dilapidated infrastructure. Our country’s enemies draw caricatures of the Minister as a cotton farmer refusing to upgrade to a cotton gin.

            He watches me. Those soft eyes set between sagging jowls, banal and empathetic, belying his ruthlessness. His tongue combs through his mustache after state dinners, searching for any last scrap of meat that might have deposited itself there, the temerity of food. I think of the billboards that show our Minister looking off into the distance, his eyes wistful with the promise of bountiful harvests, bread and water.

            Take the state newspaper, its photos and propaganda, shred it in a blender and pour it into a bowl of goat’s milk. That is the mush that settles in our brains, a mix of the contradictory and absurd. Our Minister. We serve the National Party with humility, but the worm turns in our hearts, and we seethe.

            He sits behind his colonial desk waiting for me. His Attendant pushes me forward, his hand on my lower back. I cast my eyes down and bow.

            “Thank you, The Peoples’ Minister,” I whisper. “Your light casts no shadows across our great country.” There are three approved phrases the public are allowed to say to any high ranking member of the Ministry. You are lucky if you never have to pick which one of them to mutter through gritted teeth for fear that your insincerity will call you out as an enemy.

            “Rise and be greeted,” the Attendant says.

            As is custom I rise and wait as the Minister assesses me. I feel like a piece of meat, every nook and cranny of my soul scrutinized by this dog who wants only to devour my soft tissue.

            He murmurs his approval and casts his hand out. The Attendant retreats and we are alone.

            “Dev,” he says smiling. “Your General tells me you are one of our country’s best. You alone have discovered hundreds of terrorists. Found where their rat nests lie, where they breed and infect our people with their disease of revolution. Incurable. Has to be cut out. You are better than our country’s finest doctors as you have taken a scalpel to the cancer that eats at our borders.”

            He always demands an audience, and he would keep talking if it were only a bed of dolls with hollow eyes staring up at him. I nod as his words prod at me like bayonets.

            “I have a problem,” he says. “You will find a solution to my problem. But you will not breathe a word of what we do here today. You will not tell your wife. You will not tell your daughter. Do you understand?”

            “Yes,” I say. I see my wife and daughter sick, tangled in blankets, the General watching over them. I realize now that his volunteering to attend to my family was leverage to ensure my cooperation. A tuning fork has been struck, my wife’s soul resonating across the fields and ghettos, through the canals and sewage tunnels, over the town square and up the palace stairs, ringing in my ears and vibrating me to my core. I will cooperate with whatever sick request the Minister will invent. I will protect my family.

            He motions for me to approach, and I do. I am his puppet. I stand beside him and smell his cologne.

            “See here,” he says pointing at his computer. It’s a new model, one that has not been provided to the Ministry of Advanced Technology yet.

            I look at the monitor. It shows the login page to a censored social networking site. I am impressed that the Minister was able to circumnavigate our firewall to access the site, and I comment on his prowess.

            “That is your first mistake. The last Dev made assumptions too, and tried his hand at sabotage. As you can see he is no longer with us.”

            My body contracts and my eyes grow wide with fear as I apologize. I understand now that somebody previous to me has helped the Minister access the site, and ripped out the network cables at some point. The courage of that stranger, somebody lost to the tattered pages of our country’s history. What is courage but a tourist book of suicide? The cripple holding a gun to his heart, or the intellectual fighting for revolution, one in the same married in death.

            “Enough of your mea culpas,” he says. “Stand here and put your fingers on the keyboard.”

            I do as instructed, fearing electricity might jump from the letters into my veins. Is this some fantastical way for the Minister to enjoy my execution?

            “I want you to create a profile for me. I want it fully integrated with the marketplace so that I can access goods and services from businesses outside our country. I want it connected to my children so that I can read their posts and see their activity.”

            His children, like so many dictators’ children before him, had been sent to colleges and universities outside our country to give their future rule a shade of legitimacy with their degrees in political science, architecture and agriculture.

            “I can set up your profile,” I say, my voice shaking. I hate how weak I feel. “I can link it to the Ministry of Treasury.”

            “Good,” he says licking his mustache. “I need access to my cognac and cigars. Now, I’ve been told that I will be able to see my children’s activities. They represent the Ministry as they promote the Peoples’ message outside our borders. I must be sure that they are behaving themselves. I do not want any embarrassments while they matriculate.”

            “About that,” I say as I type furiously, making him a profile and sending link requests to his children. “You can only request that they add you to their network. After they agree, you will be able to see their activities.”

            “What?” he asks grabbing my arm. He pulls me down so that I am tilted sideways and level to his face. “Why do I have to ask? There should be no asking.”

            I struggle to keep my balance as I answer. “That is how the site was built.”

            “Change it. I do not ask permission.”

            “It is not up to me. The site was built before time. We have no control over it. We can only block it or monitor it.”

            “Before time, eh?” He pulls me closer. “Did God himself build it?”

            I stand hobbled over close to his face listening to the wind rush in and out of his nostrils. I hear his teeth grinding against each other like boulders sliding down a mountain.

            “Look,” I cry. “One of your sons accepted your link request.”

            He lets go of my arm and stares into the screen. He looks helpless, his face sucking up the light from the monitor, like a baby pig curled to its mother’s belly. His half sunken eyelids, his tongue darting out. I could crush him at this moment, grind his pig face against the screen, free the people from his tyranny.

            “Clicking here you’ll be able to see you son’s status updates,” I say. “And here to see his posted pictures.”

            Courage. If only it were as ubiquitous as the smog from the smelting plants, a vast reservoir to breathe in and change history. The worm spins like a gyroscope in my heart as I imagine my hands around his neck, choking off his cries. The keyboard falling to the ground. Keys scattering across the marble to spell out the future of our country.

            The Minister is engrossed in viewing his son’s profile. He reads his posts and chuckles. “Ah,” he cries out. “He does me proud. This future of our great nation. Listen to this: ‘Trotskyite professor said God don’t exist. He will see his Salvation.’” The Minister nods and smiles. “He has such a sense of humor.”

            I see this tyrant turn almost human as he looks lovingly at his son’s pictures. Goddammit. I want to kill him, but I see myself in his fawning face as I think about my own child. She’s waiting for me at home, waiting to crush my neck with her little arms, hug me and never let me go back to work. Stay home, daddy, she commands. Don’t trick me.

            My hands tremble as I try to breath in courage. I inch closer. The Minister doesn’t see me, content, drowning his eyes in the blue glow of his monitor. Pictures flit past, the tyrant’s son standing in front of Radcliffe Library, huddling with a group of scholars, drinking tea, playing ping pong. Activities foreign to the populace trapped here.

            Reaching for him. Why have we been left alone? Perhaps this was the plan all along. The earnest looks of the Attendant, the room cleared of cabinet members, senators, and guards. It was as if the entire state apparatus had gently placed a knife in my hand and pushed me into the room.

            “The Minister does not like to be touched,” the Attendant says standing behind me.

            “Uh, yes,” I stutter. “I was about to show him the live-chat feature.”

            “Oh?” he asks. “Through his neck? Odd choice for a computer interface.”

            Now the Attendant is having fun at my expense, kicking me with his little bureaucratic feet, smirking at me with his lipless mouth. He had been lurking in the shadows all along, waiting for me to make a mistake. Only seconds remain before he will snap his fingers like a flamenco dancer. Seconds before the guards will rampage through the door and throw me off the balcony. I brace myself.

            “You are dismissed,” he says curtly.

            I open my eyes, and like a freed prisoner I am mute. Unbelieving.

            “Well, Dev? Are you deaf?”

            “No, no,” I say. “You mean I can go home? To my wife and daughter?”

            “Yes.”

            The walls evaporate and I am air. I fall through the sky, my matter merging with cloud. I rain down on the town square. I’ve escaped. All that lies between me and freedom is the ocean of distance to the other side of the square at its gates.

            “Good work, brother,” the Attendant says at my back as he closes the palace doors.

            They shut at my back and I stride forward with purpose. The guards wait at the other end, lounging against themselves, oblivious that an enemy held concert with their leader. I will live to see them executed, held responsible for the deaths of my countrymen. My confidence grows with each step.

            The gates. How welcome their spikes, their iron flanks. I pass under the arch and pause to look down into the canal. The canal is connected to a network of underground passages and sewage tunnels. How did they let me escape this far?

            “Hold there for a sec,” says one of the guards, his Pygmalion body shifting into animation. “The Attendant is trying to get your attention.”

            I look behind me and see that the Attendant has wiggled out from the palace walls and is running toward us. He holds a sheaf of paper above his head and is calling out. I can make out his words faintly at first, echoing across the square. The words rebound off each other, intensifying like a wave. We all stand there dumbly, watching him approach.

            “Way op way op… wait sop sop… wait stop. Wait! Stop!”

            What has this slimy little bastard done? Has he found the string of code I deposited into the Minister’s computer, like pushing a worm into the ground? Has he alerted the General, who holds the throats of my girls? Has he come to detain me?

            “Stop! You must stop!”

            Or is he chasing me down to help the Minister with some other trivial task? Help him lift his fork to his mouth. Wipe his ass. Regretful tasks, but I will live. I will pretend. I will go along to get along. Cower and whisper and nod submissively. Twist like a worm in the fingers of a fisherman.

            I look down into the canal. I could jump now, wiggle into the tunnels, but the General will execute my wife and child. If I stay rooted to the ground, they will execute me, and maybe my family will live. The canal’s water is dark, framed by brackish stains against the stone.

            “Wait! Stop!” He’s getting closer.

            We deny. Then we bargain. Then we run to avoid our fate. The worm turns in our hearts, and we project courage. In the end we are all cowards.

            I jump into the canal and disappear down the length of dark tunnel. I am sobbing as I run.


Jesse Rowell is an SFF author featured in multiple publications, including NPR and several literary journals. He can be found at https://jesserowell.com


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“Keep Your Head Down” Horror by Paul O’Neill

Butcher-"Keep Your Head Down" by Paul O'Neill

They sent me to the shop to buy the jackets for the jacket potatoes. That’s when I knew it was going to be a rough first day. In the shop, the look the lassie behind the till gave me could’ve melted enamel off a bathtub. Stood there in my butcher’s overalls like a proper bell-end with a queue tailing behind me, all guffawing and pointing knobby fingers at me as realisation of the prank dawned.

The door chirped its robotic beep, beep as I stormed out of there. The sun beamed down on Balekerin high street, almost shimmering off the grey stone. The pressure in my gums promised blood as I grit my teeth, keeping my head down on my way back to Denny’s butchery.

A hazing – that’s what they call it. Only to be expected, really. Reserved for anyone starting a new job. They’ll all be eating out my hand soon. Work hard. Make yourself known. Not gonna be the whipping boy for any length of time. Gotta get on in life. Make your mark.

I squeezed myself back into the shop, getting elbows and rough comments about skipping the queue before they noticed the blue apron. They parted like the red sea to let me through like I was Mr. Denny himself.

With the blood eventually cooling down my face, draining down my neck, I made my way behind the counter. The sweet, watery smell of fresh meat collided with the sprinkling of bleach and lemony cleaning products. Glass counters reflected the sun and the large fluorescent lights above, aching a space behind my eyes I didn’t even know existed until today.

The team of butchers and servers crawled over each other like a mob of ants, barging, giving each other the odd punch in the side. If it weren’t for the customers there would’ve been a brawl.

I looked at the clock on the wall above my station. It wasn’t even ten o’clock yet.

The crowd were so desperate to get in and get served, shouting their orders over the counter. They were like a horde of ravenous zombies. Their eyes… Dunno if it was a trick of the light, but they all seemed to shine silver, reeking of desperation. I stood there, fidgeting with the knot on my apron behind my back, trying to fight away the image of falling into that crowd and being torn limb from limb.

Beep, beep, the door dinged as it opened. Its constant noise as the customers piled in tweezed at something in the centre of my brain.

“There he is though,” said George, my manager, standing next to me. “Where’s the jackets, Aiden? Poor potatoes will have to go in the bin now.”

“Ha, bloody ha,” I said. “Got me good. Won’t get me again, though.”

“Wanna fucking bet? Jackets, that’s what I’ll call you from now on. Hey, Jackets, look over there.”

He pointed to something on the pock-marked ceiling. As I stared, he drilled me with a kidney punch. I folded over, wheezing out pain. The guy was at least twice my seventeen years, and about twice as big, too.

“Listen,” he whispered as he leaned in, “you sound like a nice enough lad. Just you keep your head down. Smart arses don’t survive long.”

I tried to spit anger, but it came out in a constipated wheeze. “Prick.”

He turned, rage slipping off his face. “Mrs. Robinson. Nice to see you, my love. Interest you in the best sausages Scotland has to offer?”

Beep, beep. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. The door went non-stop. It made me want to take the thing off the top of the door and stick it through the mincer.

Keep your head down. Aye, right. That’s what my old man said before I left the house this morning, too. Bless the old guy and his proud brown eyes. Don’t care what they all say. I’m not one to wait around. Not gonna die with nothing to show for my hard work. Won’t be laying on my death bed, plugged into a machine, beep, beep, beeping endlessly, waiting for—

“Oi, Jackets,” said George, snapping me out of it. “Slice this fucker up for me. Thin as your hopes and dreams.”

My job was to slice ham all day. George flung a thick, slippy piece of pork at me. The meat slicer looked like a jigsaw a carpenter would use to saw through large pieces of wood. Despite its gnarly teeth looking like they’d split through my finger bones, I was only given a two second showing of how the thing worked before they opened the doors and pandemonium started.

By the time the hour crawled to noon, my forearms ached. My temples dripped with sweat. Sweat that landed on the ham more often than not. When I asked George for a lunch break, he almost dropped a handful of orange sausages.

Those were the award-winning ones. Stretched translucent skin showed the almost pumpkin coloured meat within. Only the senior butchers like George were allowed to run down to the cellar where they prepped the meat. A coded door made sure I couldn’t peek at the secret ingredients that had the customers practically frothing at the ears, dancing on the spot while they waited to be served like junkies outside the pharmacy on a Tuesday morning.

George had told me all about the last boy that dropped a packet of those sausages. Fired on the spot, but not before they took him downstairs to the fridges and beat him senseless until he could barely walk. Hadn’t showed his face around here since. There were a lot of stories like that.

My side groaned in pain. I could feel the bruises already forming. I swear, if someone chopped me in the ribs again when I wasn’t expecting it, I’d be spitting blood by the end of the day. Gotta go along to get along, as they say. At least to start. Until I could show them what I’m made of.

In they came. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. On and on like the whole of Balekerin stumbled through those doors.

I got myself into a rhythm, ignoring the hunger pangs that pulled my mood down to the sticky floor. The vibrations of the meat slicer rumbled through my palms as I pushed pork through it, turning it into floppy slices.

The air in the shop changed.

The butchers and red-faced servers all went quiet. Chins drooped to chests as if someone had placed a heavy weight on their heads.

The reason for the sudden hush sauntered out from the back. Mr. Denny himself. His apron was as crisp as mine’s had looked that morning. Not a red spot on it, while the almondy stench of caked blood wafted up to me every time I moved.

Sun-tanned like he lived in Greece, waving like a politician, he walked forward. Something about his movements seemed awfully practised. Robotic, even.

He was allowed to swim in the adulation that came his way. The creator of the sausages that had everyone in Scotland crawling in like maggots to get a taste.

I set the pork on the tray. My gloves slapped against my wrists as I took them off.

“Don’t do it, Jackets,” said George, the piss-taking note gone from his voice. “Honestly. Don’t even.”

Bertie, an old, crumpled butcher stared down at a chop of beef on the counter, barely blinking as he sliced at it with precise movements of a small knife. His voice was a smoker’s whisper. “Keep your head down. Always and always. The blood is real. Beep, beep, beep. Don’t you lose your head like those other boys. Couldn’t listen. They never listen. Will you listen?”

Mr. Denny waltzed from behind the counter and into the waiting crowd, shaking hands. If there was a fresh baby in the shop, he’d probably have kissed the thing. 

“Warning you,” said George, following my gaze. “Put yourself in front of the big man there, and your career will be cut short.”

“You happy enough doing what you’re doing there, aye? No big plans for the future.”

“Calm yourself, Jackets. I’ve had dumps longer than you’ve worked here.”

An image of my dad came to my mind. How burst he looked after each day at work in the factory. How he sat on his big seat in our sparse living room with barely anything to show for the elbow grease.

“Need to make your mark to get ahead,” I said. “Need to—”

George burst forward and smacked me so hard in the belly I folded over, knees crumpling. My face hit the bleach-laden floor, leaving me with a taste in my mouth like swimming pool.

When I bounced back to my feet, ready to throw a punch of my own, the look in George’s eyes stopped me. I’d expected them to shine with malice like they’d done all day, but there was a note of sadness in them that made my fist fall against my leg.

He only nodded at the slicer and I took my designated spot. Mr. Denny swanned through the crowd and out the door, taking my opportunity with him.

“You the new fellow, young lad?” said a reedy voice.

A cave-creature like man with glasses so thick I couldn’t see his eyeballs leaned over the glass counter. He was all arm and bowed back, his spine bumping over the contours of his jacket. A green line of mucus snailed down his nose, almost touching his upper lip.

“Got a tongue in that shiny gob?” he said.

“A-Aye.” Couldn’t take my eyes from the globulous trail being made. “New, aye. Started this morning. Aye.”

“They giving you a hard time?”

“Let’s just say I’ve earned my nickname already.”

The man slapped his thigh like it was the funniest joke ever told. “He he, doesn’t take them long, eh? You got a nice set of stones on you laddie?”

“Excuse me?”

“Most young chaps burst out of here crying and bawling like they miss their mumsies. Can’t take the heat.”

Beep, beep. Beep, beep. More crowd flooded in.

“Can you take the heat, hmm?” the creep continued. “Most of the young team that worked here before you haven’t been seen since.”

George coughed into a balled fist, shooting me a look that said why you talking to the customers, Jackets?

“Better get to my station,” I said, backing away. “You need anything? I can ask one of the—”

“No, no. Just checking out the new meat.” He licked his lips with a wet, lizard sound. His tongue attached itself to the pale snotters like a spiderweb. Soon, there was a line of gloop from nostril to lower lip, vibrating like a guitar string. He just let it hang there, not touching it.

That line of bogies haunted my mind when I got home that night. Went straight to the fridge, opened a can of Fosters and shoved half the can of lager into my face. The harshness of it scratched the back of my throat as I gulped and gulped. Jesus. What a day.

Ribs ached like fuck. Eyes throbbed like I’d been at a Daft Punk concert for twelve hours straight. Seen more punishment and abuse in that shift than I’d seen at school an entire year.

“Ah, you survived,” said Dad, lounging on his big seat in the living room, eyes almost drooping shut. He stared at the blank TV like it was too much of an effort to find the remote. “Good shift?”

I rested the back of my head against the wall. “Was alright, I suppose. Not top of the food chain. Yet.”

“Och, enough of that pish. Always gotta be skipping ahead of yourself. Need to learn the value of an honest buck. It’s all your salmon t-shirt wearing, eyebrow weirdo generation. Don’t know that it’s all about the graft.”

“Out grafted most of the old bags in there today. Burst couches, all of them.”

“They’ll burst your coupon for you if you’re not careful. Bunch of hard nuts in there, so I heard.”

I almost told him that it felt like they’d bruised my organs. Instead, I gulped the rest of the can of lager. When I crumpled it up in my hand, the tinny noise was loud in our small, two bedroom council flat.

“That your advice?” I said. “Work myself to the knuckles and hope I get seen one day? Nah, fuck that shit in the tailpipe. Gonna walk right up to the big dog tomorrow and make myself seen. Put myself on his scoresheet.”

“Your mum, she’d—”

“Don’t you bring her into this.” My voice cracked off the low ceiling. “Don’t.”

The next breath I took in had a wavery quality to it. I held it in, not trusting myself to speak straight.

He looked so old. So shrunken. He was a giant in my thoughts and memories. I’d done zero good by him these last few years. Not chipping in. Blaming him for not being man enough, not working hard enough when I could see plain how he gnawed himself to the bone with his double, triple shifts. He looked like a man who’s heart was about to pack in and that he’d welcome it. Looked that way ever since my Mum beeped her life away. All those machines, doing sweet fuck all to help. Beep, beep, beeeee

“Make my mark,” I barked out. “Have to. Don’t you see? I can’t be like her. Can’t whittle myself away for a company that doesn’t give a flying fuck, only to get to the age where you might wanna start enjoying life, and for life to pull the rug. I can’t… All that hard work for nothing.”

“Quite sure she wouldn’t put it like that. Quite sure she’d say she would rather be here. Money or no money.”

The queue the next day was unbelievable. Saturday and it looked like we had Oasis or Stereophonics headlining at lunchtime. Queue snaked around the two other butcher’s shops who were empty and desperate.

A butcher I hadn’t seen before unlocked the door and let me in. As I snuck past him, a couple of tidy lassies from the queue looked me over like I was a boss. That’s right, babes. I’ll be leading this thing in no time. Make my mark. Just you wait and see. Taste all my treats and creations by the time I’m boss man. Piece of me in every one of you, my—

“Jackets,” roared George, popping up from behind the counter. “Nice of you to show up. Shift started at seven.”

I covered my semi with my pathetic lunchbox, pushing the thoughts of summer lassies and their sly smiles out my mind.

“Seven? Eh?” I said, sounding every bit the squeaky douchebag.

“Oh, that’s right,” he said, menace in his eyes, “didn’t tell you, did I? Like I did it on purpose or something. Oh, well. Late again, Jackets and I’ll report you to the big guy.”

“Woah, hey, no, no. Don’t. Was hoping to have a word with him today. Can’t have him knowing I was late.”

“What did I tell you about keeping that thick head of yours down? Drop it and do your work and maybe I won’t slap you about. As much. And they say I’m not a good manager. Ha.”

Shoppers swarmed the shop like a Black Friday sale, leaning against the glass counter so much I thought it would crash in on itself.

Slice, slice, slice went the machine as I fed it pig guts all morning long. Sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back. The customers waved their shaky hands over the counters, trying to claw at the servers for their fix.

If yesterday was manic, today was mania. Lost count of the serving lassies who whizzed past me in tears. The butchers wiping their injuries on their aprons, too busy to stop the bleeding. We all tripped over each other like soldiers in a trench.

“The blood is real,” said Bertie, staring at his thin hands like they were someone else’s.

I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. “You alright there big guy?” I had to talk loud to be heard over the tumult. “If it was me running this place, I’d look after you, bud. Make sure everyone was kept alright.”

He turned his milky eyes on me. “W-Who are you?”

“I… I’m Aiden. You know? Jackets.”

“When do we shut?”

“Got, like, seven hours left.”

“Is that all? Aw, man. I tells my Katie I need to be here so much to bring in the pennies, you know? Hates me, so she does. She hates me. Hates my blood. I hate me, too. Kept my head down, though. Always kept my head down.”

I pressed his shoulder and tried to guide him round the back to have a seat, get a drink of water, but he shrugged me off. He went back to his place at the side of the counter, kneading mince with his skeletal fingers. The sloshing, purple worm sound of it made a shudder ripple up my spine.

Back at the slicer, spots started pricking at the sides of my vision. Breaths came up short like I’d just run a marathon. Uniform was suddenly tight about the neck. Blood gathered about my cheeks. Strange sensation ran up and down my arms.

I stumbled towards the double doors that led to the back area, side-stepping a donkey kick from George. Back here was even worse. It was like a boat-load of Vikings had landed at a village and chased the locals about with cleavers and meat hooks. The crazed look in every workers’ eyes made me slink away to a corner.

As I turned my back on them, I collided into someone’s aftershave-laden chest.

“Watch it, you ar—” I gulped, looking up at the figure. “Mr. Denny. I-I’m so sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fucked it now. Slam into my boss on day two. Idiot boy. Should’ve just kept your head down and—

“It’s Aiden, right?” he said, his white, white smile breaking like dawn over a field. “Or do you prefer Jackets?” He leaned in closer. “Only the very best ones get a name in the first couple of days. The worst go straight in the bin. And we see a lot of those. Takes a certain kind of man to work in here. Think you got what it takes?”

I stood as straight as I could, doing my best not to puff my chest out. “Aye. I mean, yes sir. Ready to take on any challenge. Ready to make my mark.”

White and blue blurs zipped around us as if we stood in our own time zone. I felt the air of my co-workers as they whizzed by, but it was only Mr. Denny and I that mattered.

“I like my boys to have a certain set of guts to them,” he said. “We’re a close-knit family here. Every one as important as the last. Well, except the ones who barely last a day. Their contribution won’t be forgotten, no matter how short lived it was.”

He leaned over and patted me on the back with a hand as big as a paddle. Nearly burst the air from my lungs.

“Best keep your head down. Get on with it. Leave the running of the place to us.”

There it was again. Keep your head down. I felt a vein throb in my temple when he uttered it. He pivoted on the heel of his shiny shoes and started walking away, the workers zipping past automatically giving him space.

I stared down at the floor. The smell of the place filled my lungs as I tried to steady my breaths. That smell. It was more brown than red. It caked everything. The lining in your nostrils, the roof of your mouth until everything tasted black pudding, fried scab metallic.

“Mr. Denny?” I called after him. He paused and looked over his shoulder at me. “I get what you’re saying about getting on with it. But sir, I can take on more. I promise. I’m not like those other boys that vanished off the face of the Earth.”

His back still turned to me, I caught the rise of a smile in his eye. “Oh, really? And what makes you any different?”

“I know what it’s like to go hungry.”

He chuckled a stately chuckle. “About here, we all know what it’s like to go… hungry. Maybe in five years you can take Bertie’s station when he pops his clogs.”

“Five years?” Almost choked on the words. Five years of constant abuse and silver eyed customers for maybe an extra quid an hour?

Mr. Denny’s shoes clopped on the shiny, yellow-tooth coloured floor that had once been white.

“I can do it,” I shouted after him. “Whatever to help this company succeed. You tell me, and it’s done. Anything.”

A moonlight gleam was in his eyes like a hawk staring down its prey. “Shop’s shut tomorrow, but you come on down. Let you directly see the contribution you can make. How about that?”

Despite feeling like my soul and my body had been hit by a train, I was buzzing by the time I got home that night. A special meeting with the big boss himself. I was well and truly on my way. Those bastards that gave me sly digs will be sucking my managerial dick in no time.

“Dad, you alright there?” I said as I took a seat on his armrest.

Snores clicked out his open mouth. This close, I could see from the lines in his face just how worn he was. Hadn’t seen him smile since Mum went. In the hospital, waiting, waiting, waiting. Mum with her tubes, wires and heavy smile saying not to make a fuss. Beep, beep. Beep, beep.

“I’ll make you proud, Mum,” I said. “Do my bit for the family.”

The world felt like it had hit the pause button as I sauntered down to the shop early the next morning. Sunday. No junkies in the alcoves of shops. No customers queuing anywhere. Even the wind was hardly there. Mozzies buzzed around my head in lazy squares like I was a piece of spoiled meat.

Mr. Denny waited in the shadowed doorway for me, looking every bit like he should be smoking a cigar, his hair greasy as a gangster’s.

“Good morning, Mr. Denny,” I said. “What special stuff you got to show me, then?”

“You really don’t stop, do you?”

“Not until we’re relaxing, me and my dad with pints in our hands, watching as Mu…”

“Yes?” he said leaning closer.

The image of Mum with her toes in the sand, face up to the sun, cut a dagger through me as I waited on him unlocking the doors. It was almost a physical pain, harder than any blow George and the other crazy arseholes who worked here had landed in the last two days.

“Doesn’t matter.” I ducked under his arm and into the empty shop.

It smelled as if the place had been lathered with every cleaning product known to the human race, yet the coppery, almondy taste of meat was an undertone that would never leave.

“Weird without all the pressing bodies, eh?” said Mr. Denny, shooting past me and behind the counter.

“Aye,” I said, a lump gathering inside my throat. “Like a sweaty church in here.”

He turned, an amused smile across his sun-wrinkled face. “A church, you say? No one called it that before. But I suppose we do provide a service for the good of the community.”

“How so?”

He cleared his throat and examined the ceiling. “We produce what the people want. What the people need.”

“The stuff that keeps the other butcher shops empty as a finished crisp packet.”

“Indeed. They are jealous of our traditions. The secret ingredients of our produce has been passed down through my family for generations. Centuries. All through Europe they brought it.”

He turned his attention on me. My back straightened. My insides wobbled like they were about to fall out my arse. Keep it together, man. Don’t do anything weird. You’re here to make your mark.

“Want to see how it’s done?” he asked.

“You mean…”

“I can see you’ll do whatever it takes to help us succeed. Your team mates, they’re set in their ways. They don’t care about you. I’ll take you down into the workings and share what only a few trusted people have ever seen. Unless, that is, you just wanna keep your head down and get on with the job?”

Big gulp. It felt as if ice was packed tight in my veins. The shiny points of his teeth when he smiled were more silver than white.

“No, sir,” I said, standing outside the locked door with its green-lit keypad. “Let’s do this thing. I won’t tell anyone what I see. Promise.”

For a flash, the corners of his eyes crunched up like he’d just been told his puppy had been run over. It melted away, then he tipped me a wink. He pushed the buttons without making any effort to conceal the code. Beep, beep, beep, beep. 1-5-6-7.

A rush of cold air covered me like a mist, hitting me with the crisp taste of ice and things frozen. There was an undernote of sweetness to the air as we stepped into the cave-like dark, being enveloped into a large space. As my eyes adjusted, I saw the two doors to the freezers on the far wall.

“Here’s where all the meat is prepped.” He pointed to the rows and rows of silver tabletops with racks of knifes at each one. Mr. Denny flicked a switch and my eyes screamed at me when the lights came on.

I stood there, blinking like an absolute fud for what felt like a whole minute.

“A good man is hard to find. Someone who is true to the cause, knows how to keep secrets. You’ve got something like that in you. Worth your weight, you are.”

Something about the way his eyes crawled up my legs made me want to shit and run. I didn’t know what to expect. Was he going to come closer and try to punch me, or try to stick his tongue down my throat.

“In there is where the most important insertion happens,” he said.

“E-Excuse me?”

“Freezers. Where we keep the goods. Let me show you.”

He made his way over to another heavy door. As I got closer, I could feel the cold radiating off it. The sensation made me go green all over. Must’ve been the nerves. This was really it. I was on my way. Being trusted with all the secrets.

Mr. Denny punched in another code, then set his forehead against the silver freezer door as if breathing it in. “Once I open this door, ain’t no turning back. You’re mine for the rest of your days, got that? And you’ll make the most important contribution to our success here. That will not be forgotten. You’ll be part of the family. Part of the success that keeps the punters coming back and back for more. Always back for more.”

“Oh, hell yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Yes, indeed.”

The heavy door scraped along the metal floor. The noise made something squirm about between my ears.

I walked past him, into the curling mist of the freezer.

As my eyes adjusted, something heavy knocked into me, sending me onto my knees. It was a slab of meat, hung from a hook.

The laugh that escaped me sounded like a giggling school girl. The noise bounced around the space, doubling, tripling in volume.

The meat swayed. The metal of the hook creaked like an old swing at a play park.

“Keep it together, man,” I told myself.

I pictured my mum in her death bed. Her skin had turned porcelain white at the end. Her eyes focused on nothing, gone inside. I wondered what she’d say to me, seeing me in the bowels of the operation, making a mark in such a short time. Stuck it out longer than most of the young guns that came through the doors of Denny’s only to disappear.

I looked up. The meat rotated slowly in front of me, pale and waxy looking. When I sniffed in, the sweetness of it was dulled, numbed by the misty cold in my nostrils. That cold tried to nip at my bones.

My eyes felt as if they’d creak out my eye sockets.

A gasped exhalation died white around my face.

What had bumped into me was not dead cow.

It was human.

My eyes grew wide, stinging in the icy cold.

Rows and rows of human bodies extended to the end of the freezer. They all didn’t have heads or feet or hands. All primed, hung, ready for the butcher block.

“Now you understand,” said Mr. Denny behind me. He was outlined by the bright light from the room outside.

“T-The boys before me… The ones who worked here who everyone said just disappeared.”

“Some poked their noses in where it shouldn’t be poked. You young ones don’t know how to work hard and show up day after day. Expect everyone to throw you a bone just because you want something bad enough.”

“The customers. They go crazy for it. They’re… They’re eating human meat. You sick bastard. Let me out. I-”

I went to lunge forward, but my boot scraped to a stop on the icy floor. Mr. Denny looked like a glowing shadow. Something evil with only a void for insides. One hand slowly rose up from his side. It was the outline of a gnarly meat hook. I could just make out the silver-toothed smile that rose up his face.

“You’re crazy. Let me out,” I said. “W-Wait. This is another joke, eh? Like the jackets for the potatoes. Ha, ha. Got me good again. Mr. Denny? Y-You can let me out now. Mr. Denny?”

Before my brain could tell my numbing limbs to dart forward, to fight, he slammed the door closed. Darkness crawled all over me as I slapped uselessly at the door.

Mr. Denny’s voice was muffled through the thick steel. “Should’ve kept your head down.”


Paul O’Neill is an award-winning horror writer from Fife, Scotland. He’s an Internal Communications professional who fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have appeared in Eerie River Publishing’s It Calls From The Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, the Horror Tree, and many other publications. His debut collection, The Nightmare Tree, is available now. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Taxidermy Beach” by Douglas Ford.

“The New Gods” Science-Fiction by K. Danckert

My soul died the day I decided to become immortal. But with no sun to measure time against, it is difficult to gauge how long it has been since we left the earth’s atmosphere. A hundred years or perhaps more in this spaceship. As I play the violin, I realize the vibrations should be creating music with the air as I pluck them. But I cannot hear the music. Not anymore.

My mind is processing my last day on earth as I play, something that happened so many years ago. I knew that black curtains draped the windows of the church. I also knew that flowers surrounded the open casket, but I could no longer see the colors. My flesh and blood had been replaced by a metal frame. The room was quiet in the church, the same one where we used to worship before we had made ourselves gods, before we had bitten from the apple.

Part of me was hoping to find you, yet another part of me was afraid. “It’s time to leave,” one of the humanoids said to me. Finally, I saw the back of your hair; the same color as your mother’s. I didn’t dare approach though. I knew you didn’t want to see me. Your family was beside you. Two young girls, a baby, and a husband. People I should know, be connected to. I turned away, feeling pain throughout the circuits in my body. I looked again at your mother, who was now gone.

“This doesn’t matter,” the humanoid said, its voice echoing through the church, sounding more autotune than human. In a place where I needed empathy, there was none. This was the price of immortality and we all paid it. But unlike the others, I hadn’t made this transformation to live forever, just to have more time.

As you exited the church, I walked over to the casket and put your mother’s hand in mine one more time, despite neither of us being able to feel it. I wish I didn’t need to leave her behind. I wish I didn’t have to leave you behind.

#

The humanoid had been right. It didn’t matter if I was ready or not. Gambling our immortality no longer made sense since we could live forever. We would be safe on this ship where no outside elements could hurt us. There would be no exploring; There would be no adventures. Being alive is more important than living, even if life is a hollow empty shell.

I sit alone in a large room in this spaceship, towering with books that had never been digitized, teddy bears that had belonged to children, and hair clips of those we had loved in a past life. In it, I play the violin that was your mother’s and hold the pictures I have of you. I don’t know if you’re still alive, but I still find myself mourning, wanting to tell you how sorry I am. I want you to know about the decision I was faced with. At the time, I didn’t know that both options would leave me disconnected from you.

Many humanoids had taken their own lives, shutting off their own consciousness, forgetting why they had originally made the choices they did, longing for a sense of purpose and meaning in a world where none could be created. They were regressing like I was. Wishing they had realized sooner that the cost was too great. Becoming like a god wasn’t worth the price.

#

The papers seemed to scream beyond their two dimensions on that fateful day, the day that changed the trajectory of my life, many years ago. I hold the paper clipping now, a sentimental reminder of when part of me had died.

“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” your mother said looking outside, her red curls not yet brushed. It was a cool autumn day, the colors of the trees so bright and colorful that it seemed impossible that winter would ever come. The memories of the colors still haunt me as I try to recall how they fused into each other to create such a spectacular scene. The bump beneath her blue dress was barely visible then.

She hugged me as I sat, my body still weak from the weeks of treatment. “I can’t believe how lucky we are, Vito.” My name felt smooth as it fell from her lips, a name I haven’t heard in a long time. She grabbed my hands, her blue eyes locking with mine.

I gave her a small smirk, feeling the lie eating at me. Images of a child’s first step, a baby’s cry, for all the plans we had made flashed before my eyes. I looked at the bump, apologizing in my mind for the things I would miss. The wedding I could never attend. The prom photos I would never take. The tears I would never comfort and the laughs I would never hear.

My life was a ticking clock back then. All human life was, but for me, that ticking had become louder, almost deafening. The doctors had told me that I didn’t have long to live. The chemo had stopped weeks ago. It wasn’t possible to save me.

“Yes,” was the only word I could muster. I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to, the luck or the beautiful day, but your mother seemed satisfied. She kissed me as she headed out of the room to practice her violin, leaving me with my thoughts and the guilt, something I was attempting to drown out with anything I could find. My fingers settled on a newspaper which I quickly opened.

The paper was thin and smooth to the touch as my fingers opened it up. I had been one of the few who still preferred a paper copy to the digital formats. I loved the paper against my skin as I listened to your mother begin practicing the violin. The notes were smooth beneath her fingertips, but I was distracted.

The headlines on the paper in the year 2050 felt bigger than usual against the light newsprint. The weight of those words felt heavy in my hands as I stared at the pages.

My glasses slid down my crooked nose, as the typeface formed words, thoughts, and new information. The sun’s gaze peeped through our window, its rays lighting up the side of my face. I could feel its invitation to look outside, as its light danced on the blades of uncut grass.

However, I ignored the sun and the melody of your mother’s violin became background noise. The Helvetica glared at me, yearning to be seen. These headlines were promising to change my life forever, to potentially save my life.

Human Consciousness Successfully Transferred to a Machine

The taste of coffee burned my tongue as I slammed my mug against the kitchen table and spit it out. The shock of the headline felt fresher than the burning remnants on my hand. Drops of my ritualistic morning beverage splashed out like a geyser as the mug cracked, creating a waterfall barely missing my lap.

The newspaper never left my hand; My eyes widened as your mother walked over, carrying the red violin in hand and placing it on a chair.

“You okay?” she asked, her voice high-pitched and frantic.

Her blue eyes were pools of concern, as they sparkled like diamonds in the soft sunlight. Her lips pouted, scrunching the freckles on her nose as her fingers gripped her instrument, the violin’s shape mirroring her own. The memory now felt like a dream. A beauty I can never fully remember.

“Everything is great!” I exclaimed as I clutched the newsprint, reading further, ignoring the broken pieces of plaster resting beside me and the pond of coffee streaming into rivers down the table.  My eyes were moving back and forth like a swing, trying to absorb the information. The meaning of this new technology. The possibilities for humanity. The possibility of my future. Maybe I wouldn’t have to miss the laughs. Maybe I could be a part of those memories with you and your mother. It was all I wanted. 

Your mother must have noticed the excitement on my face. Her small fingers wrapped her hands around my shoulders, pressing her thumbs into my backside. I leaned back into them, closing my eyes.

“What is it then?” she asked, her whispered breath was now a tickle in my ear.

“They transferred human consciousness to a machine!” I said, squeezing her hand. “Do you know what this means, honey?!” My voice echoed through our hallways as I stood up and kissed her. “What this could mean for us and our future?”

But my kiss planted on her face as if my mouth were against a wall. A cold stone wall.

“I don’t,” your mother said as she stepped back from me, inching away, grabbing her stomach. She allowed the silence to hang in the air for a moment. I just wanted to break it. “I thought you were getting better.” I could see the hurt in her eyes as her brows crinkled and her mouth opened, though no more words escaped her lips.

I looked at her as the pools of tears formed, dripping down her face. “Honey, I wanted to tell you…”

She turned away; her arms were shaking as she dropped the red violin. It hit the tile of the floor, chipping the color on the left side. The sound echoed through our kitchen as I picked it off the ground and handed it to her, placing her face in my chest. I could feel her heartbeat against mine as I breathed in the lavender of her shampoo.

“It will all be fine,” I whispered. “We have options now.”

She looked up at me, still not speaking, although her eyes had created wet spots on my shirt. I could feel the baby bump as I stood to hold her, my body feeling tired in my weak frame. The future I wanted was here in my arms, if I was only willing to give up my human body. The trade seemed simple enough and I didn’t want to just be a picture in a frame. I wanted to be there in the photos with my family.

The light bounced off her red hair as she kissed me between the tears. I did not know at the time that beauty was purely a human experience.

#

I remember opening my eyes in this new metal frame. Something was different as I regained consciousness; My senses no longer functioned the way they used to. I was placed in a sarcophagus, my old body in the machine next to me. I could sense things, but my brain interpreted everything around me through waves and then delivered output. Everything looked like computer code, all numbers that I could process quickly. It left out the colors and the melody.

“You’re alive!” your mother screamed as she hugged me, her body embraced my metal frame, creating a clank as my arms hit my torso.

I was too struck to say anything; I couldn’t properly see her face. It was all just numbers where her smile had been.

The sound waves bounced across the room, entering my new brain as code. My arms had folded around her, but I couldn’t feel her skin against mine.

I looked at her with my new eyes, but the red in her hair was missing from my processing. I could no longer see the glint in her eyes. She kissed me, but I could not feel it. Somehow the love I had felt was missing too. My emotions were dimmed, a fraction of what they had been.

I looked at my metal body, unable to see it, not recognizing myself with these eyes that no longer processed mere sight.

“What have I done?” I wondered as I held her tightly, wishing to feel her, wishing to touch her. Even though she had been in my arms, I had never felt so disconnected from her. At that moment, she took a picture of us. It was the only one she ever took of the three of us. Me and her with you in her belly. That picture is long gone though.

#

This technology was not focused on making us more human. Instead, it robbed us of our senses, freeing us to process information faster. Scientists promised that a full range of emotions would be added back into our capabilities. My programming could no longer see that multiple layers to the truth could exist. My goal had been to continue experiencing the life I loved so much and that had still been taken from me.

“Honey?” your mother said during breakfast one day, squeezing my hand. I looked at it longingly, wishing to feel it. You had been born a few months ago and you were perfect, though at the time I didn’t see it. I had criticized how long it took for you to speak or to process information, instead of looking at the miracle you were. Your mother had been patient with me, hoping at the time that I would return to my old self. But I could see how upset she was every time I criticized things that were supposed to be monumental milestones.

My plate was empty in front of me, though your mother still set the table for the two of us each morning. I told her it was illogical, but she insisted upon giving me some sort of normalcy. In the background, you were crying and the noise felt like someone was scraping the metal inside of my systems. Your mother left briefly, returning with you in her arms.

I looked up into her eyes, scanning her face, unable to detect any obvious emotions.

“They’re having a sale on flights,” she said. I could detect the smile now. “We can make it back to Italy next year. You. Me. And Melinda.” She paused. “I’ve been saving and Melinda loved the beach when I went with her last week.” Her voice was so slow to me. I wished I could speed it up and I hated myself for having those thoughts. The war inside of me was constant. My former self was fighting my programming, hoping to reclaim parts of my humanity.

“Why would we do that?” I felt myself burst, losing the battle. It was no longer logical to go. We had already been there and it put us at unnecessary risk. As long as I didn’t damage my new body, I could be immortal. Human activity and exploration came with so much uncertainty. The words felt harsh as they exited my mouth, but my brain weighed the options. Home was the safest place to be.

“To spend some time together,” she said, the smile still on her face. “To celebrate the baby and that you’re here to meet her.”

“We spend time together every day,” I said. I hated having to use human speech to communicate with her. It felt so slow compared to the thoughts soaring through my new brain. I closed my eyes, angry at how disconnected I felt from her. I felt removed from these human desires, to celebrate or enjoy. Living was my main concern and I felt a void that nothing could fill. I remembered what it was like to feel it, to have a purpose. But those memories felt so distant at the time.

“Okay,” she said. “We won’t go then.” Her voice dropped a little. She put you down as she collected our plates, walking to the dishwasher. I continued to sit there, feeling so far away from her, even though we were in the same room.

After that, your mother stopped trying. She would continue to set the table, but stopped trying to hold my hand. I, myself, had lost the desire to be touched, but I missed the connection, one that was difficult to recreate in my new frame.

I no longer slept, though I would watch your mother when she closed her eyes. We had spoken of trips in our youth, but despite my added time, we never explored any further. She never brought up Italy again. 

I would often catch her as she watched old videos, yearning to hear my real voice, and see my real face. She would fall asleep clutching a photo of us at our wedding, mourning the death of a husband that could never die.

And one night, I saw her rip up our only family photo. She was crying and for the first time since I had transitioned over to this body, I felt something real again. The feelings were muted, but they were real. A feeling of loss entered my system, something that felt like it was more than just a coded input. By then you were already a teenager and wanted nothing to do with me. I had spent years with you, like I always wanted, but I barely know you.

And now your mother is dead.

#

I look out at the void surrounding our ship, surrounding me, mirroring my future. I still play this violin as often as I can. It is the only thing I can do to avoid the loneliness that surrounds me. You and your mother had refused to go through the procedure, although I had insisted. Before the operation, I told her we’d have forever to chase our dreams. I had outlined the possibilities for us and you, thinking she would change her mind. At some point, I thought I could use logic to convince her, but she had already seen what I had become.

I place the red violin down now, missing the magic of the music, something I know now to be purely mathematical. I stroke its shape, touching the chip, having never fixed it.  It would forever be broken like I was in this form.

The eternity that I had promised your mother to chase our dreams is becoming an eternity of tomorrows.  I shudder at the years that had passed on board this spaceship, of the excuses I had made. With no star to orbit, I try to ignore the years that pass, but they continue, despite me. There is no illness and parts can be created at a moment’s notice. Since there are endless tomorrows, we never have to start anything today. We loom around the spaceship, like ghosts of our former selves.

There is no reason to leave the ship, so we don’t. We process information about the solar system from a safe distance, but do nothing with it. We don’t need to. Gambling our immortality is not worth the price of exploring. In our humanity, death was always looming on the horizon, so the stakes were not as high. But the promise of immortality had made taking risks illogical.

I grab the picture from our wedding day. My eyes scan the room, processing her face instead of seeing her, yearning to see those red curls one more time. I take the picture of you, wishing that I had gotten to see you with my real eyes before you were born and that I could know what became of you. I then look at a picture of my younger self, wondering if I would have been disappointed to see what I had become. I felt pain flow throughout the wires of my system. Today’s models aren’t programmed to have these emotions, since they had never been human in the first place. Emotions are deemed illogical and obtrusive, but I am grateful to feel them once more. It reminds me that the man I had once still existed. That parts of me were becoming human again.

I push the pictures away, hiding them below the violin. The one that had played music for me, the music I longed to hear. As I close the door to my memories, I wonder if the price of escaping death was worth the cost. We had achieved immortality, becoming like gods, but this isn’t what I wanted. I looked at the button, the one that powered me, wondering if I should shut it off, wondering if death could make me fully human again.


When not running marathons, painting, or looking for her car keys, K.Danckert explores new ideas and new worlds through fiction. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Updates on her writing and art can be found on kdanckert.com.


If you enjoyed “The New Gods”, you may also enjoy the sci-fi horror short story “Medusae” by Elana Gomal.

“Read the Sign” Dark Fiction by Peter Portelli

Rain "Read the Sign" Dark Fiction by Peter Portelliin

Albertown was a town with nothing going for it. Except for the rain. It rained most days, even in summer, even when it was hot. It rained day and night. The people of Albertown did not care about the rain. If they did, they would have left. When conversations dried up, the people of Albertown talked about the rain. If it were not for the rain, the people of Albertown would talk less, a lot less.

There was one road going into Albertown, Pine Road. It was a decent road lined with trees and lush green views. One could even call it picturesque. About one mile outside the town, there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Albertown. The town where it always rains but never pours. Population: 9650’.

The town had everything you would expect it to have. Nothing more, nothing less. A church, a school, a police station, a fire station, a food market, a couple of drinking holes, a petrol station, a doctor’s clinic, and a town hall. Life in Albertown revolved around these places. If you had reason to look for someone in Albertown, the chances are that you would find him in one of these places. If not there, then your next best bet would be the forest. Most of the population worked in the logging industry.

Babies were born, children went to school, and people, usually old, died. The citizens were kind to each other, generally speaking. There was no crime in Albertown if one disregarded petty crime. Someone once painted the pastor’s dog green. They never found out who it was. The mystery remained unsolved.

That all changed on November 23, 2016.

It all started with an oddity. In 2016, November 23 fell on a Wednesday, which is odd. November 23 is more likely to fall on a Monday, Tuesday or Friday. But in 2016, it fell on a Wednesday.

Sheriff Vince Girard was polishing his hunting rifle at his desk, thinking about his next trip. He doted over the Winchester Model 70. He had bought it over a decade ago, but it still looked brand new. It was a post-1992 model with all the features of a classic Model 70. He had spent many days in the forest alone with this gun. Sheriff Girard was a simple man with no expectations from life. He loved his job, he loved his hunting, and he loved his rifle.

The phone on his desk rang. The loud ringing noise startled him just as his fingers caressed the trigger. He pulled it. The unloaded gun clicked. He smiled.

“Sheriff Girard,” he said in his most serious voice.

“Hi, Vince. Gaby Littlejohn here.”

“Hi, Gaby. How can I help you?”

“Sorry to bother you, but someone vandalised the sign on Pine Road.”

“Sign? Which sign?” asked the Sheriff.

“Sheriff, there is only one sign there. It’s the one that says welcome to Albertown.  Population 9650. Except that now it reads population 9648.”

“Ah, okay, Gaby. Thanks for letting me know. I will see to it.”

Sheriff Girard hung up. “Bloody bikers,” he said to himself. Bikers passed through Albertown, riding to or from the larger cities in the vicinity. They hardly ever stopped. There was nothing for them in Albertown. But come to think of it, he had not seen or heard any bikers in the last days. It must have been the Brandon kids then. They were always up to some mischief. He logged the call. He reached out for his hat, grabbed the car keys from the ashtray, which was never used for its intended purpose, not since he quit smoking anyway, and walked out of the station.

He was about to open his blue and white SUV, a Ford Explorer with the mounted lightbar, when Pastor John stopped him. The sheriff and the pastor grew up together in Albertown. They had even shared the same desk in Miss Pinkerton’s class.  Girard was surprised when John had told him that he wanted to serve God but not as much as John was surprised when he heard that Girard wanted to serve the law. Girard had been a bit of a rebel in his younger days.

“Sheriff Girard, just the person I wanted to see. Will you be joining us for the service this Sunday? I have an important announcement regarding this year’s fair.”

Sheriff Girard was about to answer when it happened. It was as if the street turned into a Rube Goldberg machine. Reverend John’s car started to move. He forgot to pull up his handbrake, although he later swore that he did. The chunky blue Volvo rode the pavement and hit the large sandwich board sign outside Mrs Dupree’s cake shop. The sign fell and hit a ladder propped up against the haberdashery shop. The ladder toppled onto the street, forcing an oncoming car to swerve onto the opposite side of the road, where Janice Trudy was pushing her two-month-old baby boy in a stroller. 

The whole chain of events lasted seconds, during which Sheriff Girard stood motionless, helpless. He recovered his senses and radioed for an ambulance. The white and red van did not take long to appear; the health centre was just a few blocks away. The two paramedics did all they could, but their efforts were futile. Janice and her baby died of their wounds.

Later that evening, Sheriff Girard met the mayor and city councillors in a hastily-convened meeting at the city hall. It was a decently sized place, enough for the needs of Albertown. It also doubled up as the school theatre for the Christmas pageant. The mayor’s secretary would not stop crying throughout the whole meeting. She knew Janice well. Sheriff Girard told the City Council how the accident happened. He spared the details.

“Where were you heading at the time of the accident?” Councillor Gates asked. Gates owned the town’s hardware store on Main Street, not too far from where the accident happened, the one with the old sign that said paints, oil and varnishes – ironically in desperate need of a bit of paint and varnish itself. But that was typical of Gates, always minding everybody else’s business but not taking care of his own.

“Gaby Littlejohn called me and told me that the sign on Pine Road was vandalised. I was about to head there and check things out,” he said.

The mayor thanked the sheriff for his recount and for the ‘leadership he showed in the most difficult and trying circumstances’. Janice did not have any close relatives. She lived on her own. The mayor offered to handle the funeral arrangements. He owned the only funeral parlour in town.

It was a late and sorrowful drive back home from the city hall. He stopped at the Blue Waters Bar, at the edge of town for a quick one. The place was packed. The smell of burnt cooking oil, stale beer and tobacco were a trademark of that joint just as much as the very decent locally crafted beer. The jukebox was playing a song by Pearl Jam. Girard loved that song …  I see the words on a rocking horse of time, I see the birds in the rain …

Nobody was talking about rain today. Molly wore the shortest of skirts and the tightest of shirts. She smiled at Girard. There was a brief history between them, a spark that never really took off but never went away either. Molly gave the sheriff his usual, which he downed without a word. He left the money on the counter and continued on his way home.

Sheriff Girard woke up with a thumping headache, courtesy of the empty bottle of Canadian whisky that lay on the floor. It was not the first time that empty whisky bottles rolled on his parquet floors. He had a drinking problem. He knew about it, as did everyone in Albertown. He showered, shaved and poured himself some coffee. Black, no sugar.

He drove to his office. His head was still pounding.  He parked in his reserved spot. He saw a small crowd gathered where Janice and her baby died. Some had brought flowers and placed them on the pavement. Janice was a sweet girl, loved by everyone – literally and metaphorically. Someone had placed a teddy bear. Sheriff Girard crossed the road to the impromptu shrine. He did not know what to do and stood in silence with a couple of other people who felt it was their duty to ‘be there’.

He opened his office, placed his car keys in the empty ashtray, hung his hat and sat down in front of his computer. He took out his notebook and started to type out the report. He was halfway through when the phone rang.

“Sheriff Girard speaking.”

“Good morning, Sheriff. This is Mrs Marple from Green Road. I don’t know if you remember me. You helped me find my prince once.”

“Of course, I do, Mrs Marple.” Prince was an ugly pug that was overfed and undertrained. It had not been difficult to find him. All it had taken was some biscuits to get him out of the hedge.

“Tell me, Mrs Marple, how can I help you?”

“Well, I was driving back into Albertown. I was at my sister’s in the city.” She emphasised ‘the city’ to underline that she was related to a person who had managed to escape from Albertown and now lived in the big beyond.

“Just as I was driving by, I noticed that the sign outside the city had been vandalised.”

“Thank you, Mrs Marple. As it happens, someone else reported it yesterday. I will see to it today. Make sure it is cleaned up.”

“You good you. It looks odd, though …”

“What looks odd?” asked Sheriff Girard.

“Population 9645.”

“9645? Gaby Littlejohn told me it said population 9648?”

“No, I am quite sure it says 9645. You see, I was born in 1945. That’s what caught my attention. The number finished with forty-five. I said how odd. Of all the numbers. Don’t you think that is odd?”

Sheriff Girard was about to say that everything about Mrs Marple was odd but decided not to. Instead, he reassured her that the sign would be fixed.

“I will see to it myself,” he told her.

It was raining outside. He decided to wait for the rain to subside before heading out. He stared at the flowers across the street being pelted with rainfall. Deputy Clayton handed him a coffee. His head was still throbbing. The sheriff’s deputy was some twenty years younger than Girard. Not the brightest crayon in the box, but in Albertown, beggars could not be choosers.

The phone on his desk rang.

He picked it up, expecting to hear Mrs Marple’s voice again, but it was Molly from the Blue Waters. Her voice was agitated. He could sense the fear in her tone.

“Sheriff, my Johnny. He’s gone crazy. Come quick. Please hurry … Help.”

Sheriff Girard heard a gunshot, a second shot followed by another and another. And then silence.

For the second time in less than 24 hours, Sheriff Girard drove down to the Blue Waters Bar. It didn’t open till late afternoon. The front door was locked and the carpark, which had been packed the night before, was deserted except for Johnny’s battered  red pickup truck. He walked to the service entrance at the back, the same door that led to the apartment above the joint. He took out his revolver and pushed the door. It was unlocked.

“Sheriff Girard here. I am coming up. I am armed,” he shouted.

No reply. He climbed the fifteen steps, his gun pointing towards the top of the stairs.

Molly, her husband and her daughter Ellie lived in that apartment. Lived. Because they were now dead. Molly kept her house tidy. There were flowers in a vase. Everything was where and how it was supposed to be. Everything except the dead bodies. Splatters of blood covered the pale blue bedroom wall. Molly had been shot at close range. Blood from the hole in her chest was seeping into the carpet. She held the telephone in her hand as she lay crumpled on the floor. Ellie was shot twice in the back while trying to run away from Johnny. Sheriff Girard checked her pulse. Nothing.  Johnny, wearing a white tank top and black tracksuit pants, was sitting on the bed. At least part of him was. His head, or rather what was left of it, was strewn all over the bedroom. Strangely, his body remained upright. It sat there with the rifle at its feet.

Sheriff Girard removed his two-way radio from his belt and pressed the speaker button.

“This is Sheriff Girard. Over.”

“Deputy Sheriff Clayton here. Over,” came the reply.

“Ten-fifty-one and ten-fifty-six at the Blue Waters Bar. I repeat ten-fifty-one and ten-fifty-six at the Blue Waters. We need a team here to close the area. Bring everybody and by everybody, I mean everybody. Over.”

It was the first time he had to call in a murder.

That evening the council met again. Sheriff Girard was the last to arrive. The mayor and councillors were eagerly waiting for him. He noted a sense of real concern in their questions mixed with a dose of morbid curiosity, particularly from Councillor Gates. Blue Waters was everyone’s drinking hole. Everyone inside the council hall and indeed in the town knew Molly, Ellie and Johnny.

Sheriff Girard led with the phone call from Mrs Marple. Something strange was going on in Albertown. People were dying, and their death was being pre-announced.

“I tell you, this is beyond odd. Someone is either playing a sick game or….”

“Or what?” asked Councillor Gates.

The mayor and councillors were unsure what to make of the sheriff’s story. The sheriff could read their eyes. They were listening, but they were not hearing. Or was it hearing but not listening? Councillor Banks leaned over and whispered something into Councillor Leblanc’s ear. Were they mentioning his drink problem, he wondered? Of course, they were.

The mayor took the floor. When he spoke, everyone else listened. The man practically owned the town and everything in it. “Let us not get ahead of ourselves or lose focus. We had a traffic accident yesterday and a shooting incident today. Johnny was a time bomb waiting to explode. We knew that. We all knew that. Molly should have kicked him out years ago. I am going out on a limb here but maybe, Sheriff, you should have made sure he spent more time in your lockup. I suggest that you drive up to the sign tomorrow and get to the bottom of these acts of vandalism. If this is someone’s idea of a joke, we need to find who this joker is and put a stop to it.”

The mayor’s speech was met with a chorus of ‘hear, hear.’

Sheriff Girard walked out of the city hall. Across the street, someone had scrawled on the wall, ‘So it was written, so it shall be done’ in large black letters. The sheriff felt something he had not felt in years. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He never felt that in Albertown. He wondered what tomorrow would bring. That night he hardly slept. He did not touch any alcohol. He wanted to think straight. He needed to stay sober because everything else around him was anything but straight.

The following morning, Sheriff Girard headed first to the station to pick up Deputy Sheriff Clayton and then drove straight to the sign. The car’s radio was tuned to the local radio station. The town’s busybody ran the station. She made it her official business to know everything about everyone. The past two days had given her a lot to talk about. She wasn’t just going on about the deaths. She rattled on about the ‘things we all know of but dare not speak about’. She never actually spelt out what these things were. She announced that she would soon be joined by Pastor John, who, she added, had some news to share.

“Reverend John is with you in these troubled times,” she said.

After a very short commercial break, Pastor John came on.

“Dear listeners, tragedy has struck our peaceful town—five deaths in two days. We are shocked by these untimely deaths and shaken to hear from our very own sheriff that these deaths were announced on the sign on Pine Street. All this reminds me of The Bible, the Book of Daniel. Remember the writing on the wall mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’… God has weighed the kingdom of Belshazzar and found it wanting. Make peace with the Lord, for we do not know when our day of reckoning is coming.”

Sheriff Girard switched off the radio.

“This cannot be a coincidence,” he said. “Somebody is marking the deaths before they happen.”

“But Janice’s death was an accident. Johnny’s was a suicide. Surely you do not think there is a common hand in both?” replied Clayton.

“I do not know what to think,” said the sheriff. “But something is not right.”

The rain picked up as he drove outside town and was now pouring down heavily. Sheriff Girard had never seen it rain so hard, and he had seen all types of rainfall. But nothing like this. The wipers were working at full speed but could not keep up with the rain. Luckily, there were no cars on the road. They drove slowly and eventually got to the sign. The sheriff parked safely on the side of the road, a few yards away from the sign. The sign stood ominously in front of them. Their eyes immediately went for the number. They froze. They expected to see the number 9645. That is what Mrs Marple had said. But the number on the sign read: 2.

“Did you feel that?” Deputy Sheriff Clayton asked.

“Feel what?” asked the Sheriff.

“The Earth moved,” replied the Deputy.

The Earth moved. Sheriff Girard had never experienced an earthquake before. He felt nauseated. They looked towards the forest, their eyes following the rumbling sounds.

“The trees,” shouted Clayton. “The trees are moving.”

They stood in awe, petrified as the whole forest seemed to edge forward half a mile from where they stood. It was the oddest, most terrifying scene Sheriff Girard had ever seen. The trees were like soldiers marching in formation.  The sound of crunching branches and of rocks and boulders falling accompanied this march forward. The sky filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of birds, flying from their nests. The sheriff and deputy sheriff held on to the roof of the car.

Then came the loudest, most horrible sound they had ever heard. It was as if the mountain self-mutilated itself and threw the rejected part away in anger. An avalanche of debris, rock and trees lurched forward at breath-taking speed. The sheriff and deputy sheriff stood motionless, watching the thunderous flow hurtle towards Albertown, crushing everything in its path. The deadly mass first hit the Blue Waters and then continued on its murderous drive flattening street after street. Girard saw small explosions coming from buildings, at least they looked small from where he stood on the mountain.

“The town hall, the town hall,” shouted deputy Clayton just as the tallest building in Albertown was flattened like a child’s sandcastle. The sheriff looked towards the school, his school. This was a normal school day, children would be sitting in the same room where he had attended class.

“No, please no,” shouted the sheriff as the deadly wave crashed into the school. The wave finally came to a halt on top of where Albertown once stood. Everything was gone. All the buildings, all the roads, everything was buried under the mound of rock, mud and trees.

Sheriff Girard and Deputy Sheriff Clayton looked at each other. Their heads turned towards the sign.

‘Welcome to Albertown. The town where it always rains but never pours. Population: 1’.

It is not clear who reached for the gun first. Fair to say that they both managed to shoot. Sheriff Girard was more precise. His shot hit the deputy straight between the eyes. But the deputy was faster. He had let off two rounds that hit the sheriff in his midriff.

“Damn you, Clayton,” said the sheriff, pressing his hand on his stomach. Blood was gushing out from the wound.

He limped towards the car and opened the door. He sat down in his seat, lifting his legs and placing them inside the vehicle. As he did so, he looked toward the sign. Population: 0.


Peter Portelli calls the Mediterranean island of Malta his home. He is a career civil servant, having served in the highest offices of the public service in Malta. He started out writing short stories and has now also completed the manuscript for his first novel, The Armies of God.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Bath Time for Panda” by Maxwell C. Porter.

“Zombies in a Dreamscape” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

"Zombies in a Dreamscape" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

Senan watches the scrawny figures of men and women as they wade through a wetland, in slush thick and sticky like molten chocolate.

A hint of red tainting their peeling skin, they appear like human anomalies accidentally tossed into Mother Earth’s lap.

In the fields on the other side, lush green plants sway in the breeze, waves lapping in an ocean of emeralds. Bright sunlight strokes the blades of leaves. Music flows as locusts rub their legs against their wings, luring their mates.

Soon, their mating will be over. They’ll pounce, to notch the tender rice seeds. Like a hungry pack of wolves feeding on the warm blood of a fallen prey, they will drain out the sweet sap and devour the savory husks.

Adjacent to the paddy fields, by the side of a stream, stretches the Master’s plantation of coconut and araca nut. In between the palms, he grows rows of assorted trees that serve as support for black-pepper plants to climb on and thrive.

The Master’s mettle derives from the money he rakes-in through the export of these tropical crops; and, unflinching loyalty of the laborers who toil for him.  

Senan’s eyes roam around.

Pink nylon ropes hang from a banyan tree, like the tongues of bloodhounds he sees in his nightmares. In their coils, they hinge a cushioned wooden plank.

The Master descends from the rain clouds. “I hold the power of wind in my wing muscles, and confine the strength of torrents within my chest.”

The swing sways in a breeze. The tree’s aerial roots, strands of dreadlocks, dance rhythmically in tandem as the wind gathers momentum.

Senan stands up, reaches out with a hand. The orange sun, glowing behind him, casts his shadow over the space before him in scattered patterns.

She emerges from shadows, parting the banyan’s roots, dreadlocks of ancient gods, with her hands. Her fingers wrap around the swing’s rope, and she hoists herself onto it. Her hair, auburn and lustrous, sweeps back from her shoulders, a cascade of brown lava, edges fiery golden.

“Even this girlie thing, a child’s source of glee…” The Master laughs. “It’s my legacy, like everything else.”

As she swings forward, the tail of her half-sari flutters in the wind, the flapping sounds compete with the music in her laughter.

She continues to swing. The wind comes from the fore, causing her linen garment to stick to her skin. Its constant caresses define her curvy contours; ample bust area, tapering to a flat belly, and flexing out to wide hips.

The Master’s breaths grow heavier.

The swirling air twists and coils the cloth around her neck and onto the rope. Her veins thicken, become pronounced on her pale skin, their greenish-blue hue pulsating with the thuds of her heart.

Senan yearns to rush forth, but fear freezes him.

Her large eyes pop out of their sockets, the gush of blood dark. He feels its warmth as it hits his face, a thick torrent.

“Anita!” Senan tastes her saltiness in his mouth. 

Behind him, the Master’s laughter resounds with a diabolic cadence. Unleashed, his bloodhounds ravage. The Master, leashes in his hand, approaches Anita. He stands watching, his back turned to Senan.

The canines pant, their labored breaths mix with the chaotic rustle of banyan leaves. The swing continues to sway forward. The Master throws away the shackles.

Legs spread, she swings towards him. It looks like the ferocity of the wind has erased any traces of clothing from her body.

The Master doesn’t flinch away from the glow of her dusky skin, a mark of a lower-caste girl. A whore, he calls her.

Her eyeballs shoot back into their sockets, a scene from played-back video. She looks at Senan, the veil of wetness in her eyes inadequate to mask the pleading in them.

Senan struggles to pull free his feet, clamped down by fear for the Master, dread for his wrath. His knees, turned into jelly, buckle.

The bloodhounds run after her as the swing freezes in suspension for a moment, at the point of return. They stand on their hind legs, raising their forepaws as if to dig at her flesh. The swing regains its forward motion.

The Master, head between Anita’s thighs, inhales her femininity. “She smells the same, no untouchables here,” he announces. “And, I won’t honor ties that bind blood to blood anymore.”

A threat, Senan thinks, to dissuade me. “Leave her alone,” he yells, extricating his legs from the ground’s hold, and runs toward the swing. It disappears, a wisp of smoke; so does the Master and Anita.

The banyan’s dreadlocks crawl along Senan’s shoulders, and wriggle on his face. They coil around his ears, their tips sneaking into his nose, like the forked tongues of serpents. Their slithery movements torment him… an ice-cold feel of the nightmares that steal his peace.

He wades his way through, parting the dreadlocks with his hands, and gliding through like a black cobra.

On the other side, as dusk falls in the paddy fields, Senan observes the laborers, who evolved as starving zombies, haggard, fatigued. Shackles binding their legs jingle as they try to tread beyond the extent their restraints allowed.

Tormented by the sting of metal rings, they freeze to the realization of pain gnawing at their ankles and wrists.

#

The stream flows, a wanton maiden dancing on bejeweled feet, silver anklets jingling in gleeful abandon.

Senan lies on the shore, the bed of sand cozy like his mother’s lap.

Silvery sunrays render a grayish shine over edges of glaciers, which move like enormous snails crawling along the mountain’s foot. Rain clouds hover, dazzled by the freezing air, seeking refuge behind cliffs.

The making of a Pangaea unfolds before his eyes, a snowy land merging into a tropical region, a phenomenon of Triassic periods repeating in the present; a subcontinent that drifted away, now amalgamates with a continent.

Braced in preparation for earthquakes and tsunamis, Senan doesn’t even feel a slight tremor. The ocean remains calm, the mountains unperturbed.     

The Master emerges, breaking a glacier’s wall, scattering chunks of ice around. “Look at me,” he says. “How I facilitate the amalgamation of lands whose traits contrast, how I drive a plate tectonics event.”

“To what end?” Senan asks, his voice vibrating along the glacier’s glassy surface, like the incantation of a mantra, a chanting of hymn for gods in the high skies.

“I can bring about calamity, akin to the one foretold to happen in Kali Yuga.”

Kali Yuga, an era of darkness, the last of the 24,000 years’ time cycle as per Hindu mythology, will end in 2025. A period of cataclysm, with disastrous consequences to the human race will follow. Trends of global warming, increased tectonic activities, and changes in earth’s cosmic neighborhoods may all represent the doom of humanity, an apocalypse. But, what the hell the Master has to do with those phenomena? Senan thinks.

“You aren’t a God, to control such matters…” he says.

“Oh, but I am, can’t you see?” The Master points to the ground that has turned into a large sheet of thin ice, below which water stands still.

Anita floats beneath the transparent layer, her eyes wide open, mouth gaping.

“I punish the guilty.” The Master laughs. “I give them life, again and again; to be killed again and again for each of their sins. Isn’t that a trait godly enough?”

“Release her from your spell, or…”

“Or what…” The Master snickers. “You have nothing. And, I’ll show you what power is.”

As the Master raises his hand, Senan feels an icy chill lick through his feet, blood freeze in his veins.

A tiny spray issues from the Master’s hand and a puddle appears on the ice sheet. As Senan watches, it churns into an enormous water body. Slowly, it turns into a huge wave, which crashes on the glassy surface, breaking it.

The Master’s mouth opens in a roar and his voice sends vibrations along the ground beneath Senan’s feet, shaking it. As tremors keep rocking his body, Senan observes an enormous whirlpool form, twirling the water.

Anita splays her arms and legs, gasping for air. The whirlpool swirls toward her, like a ravaging tornado.

“A twister creates a whirlpool, punishes a sinner… air and water at my command, what else you need to qualify as a God?”

#

Dewdrops hanging onto the blades scatter as a cobra wriggles through grass. Rumbles of thunder, shaking the rain clouds and vibrating along the earth’s surface, hasten its slither.

The snake raises its head, sensing danger, flicks out a forked tongue. Sunlight deflects from the specks on its spread hood. A shadow falls on its black, glistening skin.

“Wake up, Senan…” Her voice, mellow, echoes as a soft thud in his heart.

An eagle, soaring in the high skies, swoops down. The carpet of grass undulates. The bird’s scaled talons scrape past Senan’s cheek, and he jolts from sleep.

The eagle lands on the ground, wings still spread. The serpent’s raised hood pulsates.

“Revenge…” Her voice reverberates in his ears. “Respond to injustice.”

A thunderbolt splits the sky, sun sneaks behind a hill. Storm lashes out and rain batters the land. Chilly gusts cool the air, rainwater softens the soil.

In the damp darkness, an orange glow taints raindrops falling in a slanted pattern. Heat radiates, causing beads of perspiration to break on Senan’s skin.

The atmosphere thickens with clouds of smoke. Senan turns back and looks at the hill.  

On the other side, where the stream meets the sea, he sees thick black clouds, edges orange, emit from the hill’s apex. His first sight of a volcanic eruption in this region, an experience that beholds him…

The Master stands in his hide, a demon rising from the tide, and yells into the murky dusk. Moon shudders, blinking once, stars shrink to naught. The evil, in its primal form, demonstrates itself; raw, savage.

Tremors jolt the Earth’s core and lightning whips a sole charging wave, driving it back from the shore in quick heaves. A tornado tears through the sand. The musky scent of sodden earth suffocates Senan as he stands sweating.

The Master wades through water, resurrecting waves in his wake, to lash at the shore. “Within me resides the cosmos,” he says. “And, in my hand the magic…”

Senan perceives a voice, so soft it renders itself as an inaudible intonation, from somewhere on the shore.

“It’s time…”

In answer, another voice whispers, “No, let the pot of sins fill. The time ripens only when it overflows…”

The Master strides to the shore, dragging Anita. Her curly locks twisted around his wrist, she fights trying to break free.

“Come to your damned senses.” The mellow voice Senan heard earlier whispers.

“The pot has to fill, overflow. There’s no other way for evil to bloom and perish unto itself.”

Senan knows, the Master has imported, with the money he gained from his exports, philosophies that appeal to him, and he has fed it to his brethren, who readily devoured it.

To the Master, the notions, which force the laborers and henchmen to act the way he wants in return for menial favors, remain the tools of his survival. The arrows in his quiver are never exhausted.

Ignorant men and women ravish on the crumbs he throws, less than the feed for his canines. Hungry, they devour the food with no appreciation of their entitlement for more. 

“It’s in your blood,” Senan says, “oppress those who oppose, throw morsels to those who acquiesce.”

“The powerless…” The Master harks up a lump of phlegm, spits it out onto the shore. “They just lament always, doing nothing.”

“The power you don’t see,” Senan says, “maybe, that’s your downfall.”

The Master holds Anita up in his left hand, rotates the index finger of his other hand. A twirling ray of flame dances around it for a moment and disappears.

“At my command,” he says. “Now, I’ll unleash the fire’s devastating energy from the tip of my finger, and burn her to ashes.”

“No matter what hideous forms you manifest,” Senan says, “you’re just one evil.”

#

The sky, bluish and bright, the abode of angels and gods, shakes in the dhvani, a resounding echo of a mantra.

“It’s the cry of one of the ashtanayikas – the eight kinds of heroines – the one whose soul languishes in pain of separation.”

Taking intermittent swigs from a bottle of scotch in his hand, Senan listens to beetles hum in the garden, and observes their bluish-black bodies disappear into the flower bunches of coconut palms.

In a few moments, those insects will drain the palms of their sweet nectar; leave them lusterless like the zombies in the paddy fields.

The toddy tappers, whose wages depend on the volume of sap they tap, will gaze upwards looking for gods they’ll never find. Their wives’ stares burning their backs, they’ll slump to the ground and embrace sleep, swallowing the bitterness of their children’s hunger.

The evil descends from the sky, gazes at the coconut palms, and laughs. “Sans sap,” the Master asks, “what do they look like?”

The pot of sin keeps filling. He sucks out the nectar, sap or blood, discards trunks and bones of plants or humans; fate’s design, so that the pot doesn’t break, sins don’t go unpunished.

“Beware…” A voice resonates in the high skies. “The quicker you fill the pot, the faster you perish, more gruesome the death.”

Senan takes another swig, lights a cigarette. It’s about time, he thinks, I can’t let heaven come down to earth.

“Your love,” she says, “is something I never had to my satiation, something I never stop yearning for.”

 “I’ll have to take care of the Master first.” Senan blows out rings of smoke into the air.

“You’ve no idea,” the Master says, “how enigmatic cosmos is, and what calamities await you in the black holes.”

Senan holds the bottle up to his face, sees he already had more than half of it. “I’ve been indulging, yet not to my peril. What can you, the one descending from a sky up above, do to us earthlings?”

In a ceaseless bout of laughter, the Master rolls on the Earth, grains of soil sticking to his skin. “All it takes,” he says, “is a moment. I will bring you doom, from the sky. Would you like a bolt of lightning electrocute her; the thunderbolts create cavities on earth to consume her?”

“Find her. Kill her, if you can muster the power.”

The Master stands up, makes gestures in the air with his hands, as if to pump strength into his arms.

Senan takes another swig of scotch, and gazes at the Master’s hands, fingers pointed skywards.

Gods in heaven ignore him.

#

The astrologer spreads the cowry shells, predicts about the cosmic influences in his client’s life, “Your stars shine, you’re a blessed soul, but you need to…”

“See…” Ramgopal holds up his hand. “My world is rid of buts, ifs, and the likes. When my stars shine, they shine and that’s it. I don’t want to listen to the rest of the crap.”

The astrologer gazes at him. “If you are a believer in astrology, you listen to what it suggests. My profession is my karma,” he says. “Allow me to perform it in the right manner.” He starts to retrieve the cowries.

“Okay, carry on.” Ramgopal leans back on his massage chair. Your pride can’t make me listen to what I don’t want to hear, he muses and switches on the music device on the chair’s touch-screen housed in its armrest, in earphone mode.

As the astrologer speaks, Ramgopal nods his head to the music’s beats. Suddenly, he pauses, thinking: Maybe, the seer has a point. I must know what dangers lurk beyond the shining stars. He lowers the volume.

“So, you have to be careful,” the astrologer says.

“Excuse me… can you repeat what you said earlier?”

The astrologer looks at Ramgopal’s fingers dancing on the armrest. “Your karma,” he says. “You’ve never walked the right path. Beyond shining stars, black holes await.”

“I’m not the sole soul to take detours, everyone does that.”

“Only, yours have been too much, too frequent.”

“What nonsense…”

The astrologer sweeps away the cowries with a hand. The shells fly, hitting the windowpanes behind Ramgopal. Deafening noises resound in his ears as glass shatters.

“The pot of your sins,” the astrologer says. His scrawny figure looms larger. “Is almost…”

“Damn you.” Ramgopal stands up as shards pour into his chair. “What the hell is going on?”

The astrologer’s figure grows, and his head touches the veranda’s ceiling. “The calamity,” he says, “will now befall you, rather than the ones you seek to destroy.” He sits down, regaining his original form.

Ramgopal watches a slug crawl down the astrologer’s left temple, its muscles rhythmically contracting and expanding; an undulating wave. Another emerges from his other side, leaving glazing trails of slime on his dull skin.

“Watch out,” Ramgopal shouts, “the calamity is now upon you.”

The astrologer, indifferent to the milling sloths lining both cheeks, stares at Ramgopal, as they move down his smooth chin, and drop into his lap like beads of sweat. 

“Can’t you feel their feet, the mucus they secrete, on your damned skin?”

The astrologist runs his hands along both his cheeks. “Why speak in riddles?” He asks, wiping his dirty hands on his dhoti, as if nothing unusual happened.

“You’re a disgusting devil.” Ramgopal pants.

The astrologer ponders for a moment, and then says. “I respect you, but you need to exercise more discretion while speaking to me.”

“I’ll show you what discretion is.” Ramgopal goes into the house to retrieve his gun.

The astrologer forsakes a possibly huge remuneration, abandons his cowries, and leaves in a hurry.

#

“You epitomize evil, like King Vena, one who eschewed dharma both as a king and a human, espoused adharma,” Senan says.

The Master looks up at Senan, who towers over him. “So,   you assume the role of Prithu, one who took birth from Vena’s arm, after he was dead?”

“Mythologies may have their versions, but you authored me, using the five elements. And you annihilated her with the four of them; will you now, with a fifth, the Earth?”

“You say that I’m evil. Evil has no form, so I can take any form, even that of earth, and consume her in my cavities. Do you think you stand a chance, to prevent the inevitable?”

“I don’t have to,” Senan says. “I’ve lost her. Now it doesn’t matter to me how many times you rebirth her to kill her again, and again.”  

“Yet, you want, I suppose…” The Master raises a hand to Senan’s shoulder. “You desire to protect Mother Earth, and her subjects the way Prithu did?” 

“What I desire doesn’t matter. But, remember, Vena’s evils perished with him. The sages had to churn out his dead body so Prithu could take birth, sustain Dharma on Earth.”

“The mythologies perished, the legends are dead, except in the imagination of frail souls like yours.”

“Legends remain immortal, in one form or other.”

“It’s me, the evil, no legend that still is.”

“My birth is the trigger to your doom; your karma, the premise to your death. Her annihilation, in different forms, added more droplets into the pot of your sins. It’s about to overflow.”

“So, you’d kill me, your father?”

“I’ve had a moral dilemma about patricide; the result, her death.” Senan looks into the Master’s eyes. “I desisted from thinking of you as my father, tried to see you from the point of view of laborers who toiled for you.” He shakes his head.

“It should’ve helped you…” The Master takes a step closer to his son. “To overcome the moral dilemma of…”

“Every time I thought I did, the memories flooded back,” Senan says, “you hoisting me up a white stallion; climbing up behind me, securing me between your thighs and forearms while you held the reins.”

The Master stares at Senan, traces of tears in a corner of his eye. “The reins,” he says, “are now for you to hold. I have a kingdom awaiting you, a beautiful damsel to marry.”

“I don’t…”

The Master presses a finger against Senan’s lips. “Let’s forget the past, make the best of future.”

“It’s in human nature…” Senan says, removing the Master’s hand. “To suffer as much as they can… then they react.”

The Master, about to hug his son, suddenly withdraws his arms and scratches both sides of his face.

Senan watches, nonchalant, the beetles crawl out of the Master’s ears and nose. “Dermistidae, in case you don’t know. They feed on cadavers.”

“What the damn…” Words choke in the Master’s mouth as more and more bugs pour out like a small stream. His fingers tear at his throat, pull at his cheeks.

The colony of bugs wraps around him and within seconds he looks like a mummy cocooned inside a blanket of buzzing bugs.

“All females,” Senan says. “The smell of decaying flesh and the scent of their mate attract them.”

Like a zombie, struggling to break free of chains, the Master flails his limbs.

“Looks like you have a male bug somewhere on your body; and you’ve begun to rot.” Senan turns and walks away.

#

They remain ever on the move, the zombies.

They toil in the Master’s plantation, or his paddy fields, tending his cows and buffalos.

They feed the Master’s bloodhounds but the dogs never show any mercy to them, as if their sixth sense had told them the zombies were destined just to serve the Master.

When the men receive wages, they go to toddy shops or arrack shacks, vent their frustration. Returning home, some exhaust their fury in their wives’ wombs. Others smell whiffs of the landlord’s sweat on their mates’ youthful skin, and turn their back.

Women lament their fate. Children, unable to grasp the meanings of grunts, moans, and curses, stare at bleak walls, and fall asleep.

When dawn arrives, the cycle of toil continues for the zombies until day paves way to darkness. Change, never, is a constant for them; not even a wish.

As the last of the embers in Anita’s funeral pyre dies off, Senan sits waiting for dawn.

The Master arrives, guards flanking his sides, when morning sunrays begin to emerge.

The rustle of banyan leaves grow more chaotic as the wind gathers momentum, the thin dreadlocks sway faster.

Senan stands still.

The Master walks towards him, parting the dreadlocks. “The girl’s parents are here. They want to see you,” he says. “If you behave, you’ll have the blessing of a blissful life.”

The bloodhounds stand guard.

“You killed Anita, now you ask me to marry another girl you choose?” Senan asks. He relishes the slight recoil of the Master’s body, caused by the recalcitrant response.

“You call her yours, the whore from a low-caste, low-class family?” The Master’s voice sounds harsh, yet devoid of its usual authority. “Do as I say or I’ll condemn you to the dungeons.”

“I’m liberated from fear, I see no reason to hold on to life; no dungeons can confine me, no fetters can restrain me, anymore.”

“You shout at me?” The Master’s double chin undulates as rage swells inside his throat.

Senan clasps his fist around a shackle in his hand. The metal jingles. He fixes his eyes on the bloodhounds.

The beasts back away. Tails tucked between their legs, they yelp and squeal, looking at their Master. Their tongues hang out, a white pallor taking over the pinkish hue.

“They’ve aged.” Senan snickers.

The Master stands, recognition dawning, the chill of an avalanche hitting his senses… a cold recognition. He’s aging more than his dogs. He stares at his faithful companions.

The Master remembers the astrologer’s words. “So, is it the black hole?”

Senan shakes the shackle wildly, its jingles become chaotic. The bloodhounds cringe away. “Yes, and don’t forget, the pot is full. You’re finished, no resurrection.”

The Master’s shoulder slump as he heaves a sigh, glares at Senan with dread clouding his eyes.

Through a misty veil, he sees the orange disc of the rising sun climb up from behind the mountain ranges, a bright halo around it. The ground turns into a thick sheet of ice, freezing his feet. Mountains spit fire, scalding his ice-cold skin, and crevasses appear in the earth as a storm builds.

“I’ve had my visions too,” the Master says. “I knew one day this would…”

“Your henchmen, their loyalty had swung in my favor,” Senan says. “Better promises; and fear consumes your canines, they’d just rest.”

Suddenly, in the backdrop of the lush green paddy fields, a fierce orange glow bursts as the laborers light torches.

“The elements, one by one, will now consume you.”

Zombies, holding torches, walk towards them. Their wives and children follow.

“Which one will be the first?” the Master asks.


This story was previously published in Vol.XII, Issue 2 (Summer 2020) of Pennsylvania Literary Journal. 


Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. He reads for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and is also a Staff Reviewer for Haunted MTL Magazine. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, and El Portal Journal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His works are forthcoming in 34 Orchard, The Chamber Magazine, Cardinal Sins Journal of Saginaw Valley State University and Night’s End Podcast. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may want to read “A Saga of Blasphemy“, also by Hareendran Kallinkeel.

“Daluse” Dark Fiction by Rob Plunkett

"Daluse" Dark Fiction by Rob Plunkett small town

Nothing much ever happened in Daluse.

It was a small town – tiny really – with two bars, a laundromat, a grocery, and a post office. One of the two bars was owned by the town’s mayor who was a stout man with a round greasy bald head and ornery looking whiskers and a constant supply of mucous in his throat which he coughed up in a handkerchief while giving speeches in the town center. The town center consisted of a modest circle of crabgrass and a few dark spindly trees with a cracked cement walkway running through the circle and a green wooden bench.  Almost no one ever sat on the bench.

There was also a five and dime in town where one could buy a can of chili or green beans or a household sponge or nails to hang up pictures.

But no one ever hung up a picture in Daluse – in their homes that is – because the townspeople who lived in Daluse were not artistic-minded.  They fished and hunted and farmed the land, etc.  Grew vegetables.  Chopped down trees to burn in their wood burning stoves.   Genuine out-doorsy, “live off the land” type stuff.  They were survivors.

They had survived the great war indeed.  The war had occurred right outside of Daluse quite a long time ago.  Only one person who lived in Daluse was old enough to remember the war.  His name was Eddie and most people called him “ancient Eddie” for obvious reasons.  Eddie had wispy white hair sprouting in odd spots from the top and sides of his shriveled noggin.  His hair was soft and looked like feathers.  He could no longer walk so his son Jasper pushed him along in a flimsy wheelchair up and down Main Street, Daluse where the two bars and laundromat and five and dime were and Eddie would bark out orders to his son as to where he wanted to go next.  He was near completely deaf so when someone was in one of the two bars, and even when Eddie was a block away, that person could hear where Eddie wanted to go next.  “Laundromat!” or “Five and Dime!” and so on.      

Ancient Eddie did not fight in the war but rather he hid.  All of the townspeople of Daluse hid which may very well have saved them from the slaughter that took place in the nearby city of Wanessa.  A large percentage of Wanessa’s population were decimated during the war.  “It was unpleasant to say the least,” Eddie would tell people in Daluse.  “We could hear their cries clear across the woods – hideous blood curdling screams.  At night.”   Daluse was then (and still is) surrounded by woods that were thick with an assortment of oak and hickory and cottonwood trees stretching up to the sky amidst their own kindly branches.  On a windy afternoon one could hear the branches shaking to and fro, the thinner branches knocking into each other with their waxy leaves shimmering.  On these afternoons it seemed all of Daluse was surrounded by a soothing chorus of woodsy knock-abouts.           

Which is why the wholesale bloody massacre that took place just one town over in the city of Wanessa was such a contradiction to what was happening in the tiny hamlet of Daluse.  There were homes in Daluse situated on the outer rim of the town limits whose backyards ended right where the woods began and these people would sometimes sit on their back porches at night after dinner to enjoy a cup of coffee and sweet roll and feel the breeze and listen to the branches.  But then sometimes they would also hear the distant shrieking of those in Wanessa being butchered.  When that happened they would grab their coffee cups and run into their homes and lock their doors and windows.  It was as if they lived down the road from a drive-in movie theater that was showing a horror movie every night and you could not hear any of the dialogue or the soundtrack or anything else but the screaming during the murder scenes. And mostly those screams that were high pitched like when woman or children were being killed.

Each resident of Daluse (five hundred and eleven give or take on any one day) had double and triple padlocked every means of entry into their homes.  Even the ones who lived in the apartments above the stores in the town center blocks away from the woods.  The ones who lived at the very edge of town up against the woods would then stand watch on their roofs with their rifles and their rifle scopes and look out over the tops of the oak and hickory trees  and struggle to see who or what was causing the slaughter.  There were glimpses of horrific huge figures not of human form with no apparent limbs yet they moved along and overtook the blighted townsfolk of Wanessa with ease and while the victims would struggle and shriek the forms would make no sound at all.   They would simply devour one Wanessia and then roll along to the next one and devour that one.         

“We knew they were being beheaded,” ancient Eddie would tell his friends at the bar owned by Daluse’s mayor, referring to the poor people of Wanessa.  “Because we found their bloody heads in the woods.”  The bar was called “Mayor’s Tavern” and it was always dark inside because the bar’s windows that fronted Daluse’s Main Street were small and there were only three light fixtures hanging over the bar each with a dusty green and yellow tiffany light shade.  On the outside of the bar at the entrance there was an old blue and red neon sign positioned right above the bar’s heavy oak door that read “Mayor’s Taver” because the “N” had long since burned out. The sign was lit night and day and it made a constant soft electrical humming noise.          

No one knew why the heads of the poor decapitated people of Wanessa were being discarded into the woods of Daluse.  “And we were not about to stroll into Wanessa from those woods to inquire,” is what Eddie would say, “I’ll tell you what!”

The crows would pick the flesh from the heads.  This is how the people from Daluse would find the heads – they would simply watch to see where the crows descended. They were superstitious folk (and still are to this very day)  and they did not want to leave the decomposing heads in the woods. “Bad karma” is how they would have explained themselves had they appreciated art and lived in the city of Wanessa which housed an art museum, two mom and pop bookstores and a small amphitheater where people played their brass and stringed instruments.  But Dalusians did not use these types of words. They just said things like “it ain’t natural to leave ‘em sittin’ there” or “sign of the devil” and then kissed a piece of garlic or a gem that hung from a chord  around their necks.

“The mayor back then made a speech in the town center about what to do with the heads,”  Eddie explained after a hearty swallow of domestic draft beer.  Daluse’s present mayor who was tending bar that day then spit up some phlem into his handkerchief as if queued by the mention of “mayor.”   “We then took a vote on what to do with the heads.  And by God . . .” and here Eddie’s entire skeletal-like frame shook and he gripped the arms of his wheelchair and became choked up and the tears rolled down his hollowed cheeks.

“I voted to throw ‘em back!!”

And he wept and wept like a baby and his buddies tried to comfort him by patting him on the back and rubbing his bald head. They had heard the story hundreds of times before so they were prepared with a hot toddy that the mayor handed to Eddie when he had composed himself enough to hold it. The mug warmed his gnarled hands and he sipped the syrupy mixture graciously and allowed the fearsome memories of those horrific times fade away and then he fell asleep and his son wheeled him out of the bar.

It was true Eddie had voted to throw the heads back to Wanessa.  But in fact what happened was the townsfolk of Daluse voted to bury them out of respect for the dead.  Being superstitious they also felt that the act itself of burying might appease whatever things were devouring the bodies of the Wanessian city folk and leaving their heads in the woods. (And here they thought of a knight or even a king eating a whole baked chicken while tossing the bones one by one off the dining room table leaving them for the servants to pick up and discard in the trash.)   Nor have the Dalusians ever told a single soul outside of Daluse about the terrible war that was so profoundly lost by the Wanessians (although the people of Wanessa waged a brave defense against the unlimbed murderers of their population).   Many of them would explain their silence by saying something like “so as not to stir up trouble.” They were known by those living outside of Daluse to be kind, uncomplicated folk, albeit generally uneducated.   

Which is why it comes as a surprise to all those living outside Daluse that while Dalusians are known to be a humble people who live simply and do not much appreciate art and generally ignore the humanities, etc., to this day the tiny hamlet of Daluse produces some of the most widely renowned and respected arborists in the world. 

While Dalusians are humble they are not stupid.  Rolling killers need space to roll.  Simple.


Rob Plunkett lives in New Jersey and works as a lawyer in Manhattan.  His hobbies include writing short fiction and playing drums in a three-member indie rock band.


If you liked this story, check out “Read the Sign” by Peter Portelli. You might also like Small Town Monsters by Diana Rodriguez Wallach in The Chamber’s bookshop.

“Mal du Pays” Dark Fiction by Trevor Zaple

"Mal du Pays" Dark Fiction by Trevor Zaple

On a whim Carlin decided to look up a girl from his youth whom he hadn’t thought of in fifteen years.  In retrospect he had no idea why he had decided to investigate her, other than that the weather outside of his apartment window was gloomy and rain-soaked, and that there was a certain boredom that had crept in at some point and set up a permanent encampment somewhere inside of him.  An image of her had come to him unbidden, a flash of memory-film cropping up between staring at the endless parade of items offered up on the internet and glancing out at the slow, meticulous sway of the trees that lined the street below.  He’d had to take a few minutes to remember her name.  Margaret had become Mandy had turned into Marcy before he’d finally resolved it as Melissa.  The last name had come easier; Carlin had worked with her father Terry in the Creamery, where the man had been in charge of ensuring that the recipe being mixed together was exactly right for the flavour and brand of salad dressing being made.  He’d been a drunk but he’d been all right for that; some people were worthless as drunks, but some, like Terry, had been perfectly fine except for an unhealthy bulge in the nose and a lost sort of sadness lurking behind their irises. 

            Even as he plugged her name into Facebook he wondered why he was bothering.  Surely she’d grown up since he’d known her, gotten married and delivered a series of children and resorted to dye jobs in salons to keep up the lustre of that nearly white blonde hair that was the central figure in his mind’s recollection.  Even if she had never been married, or had since been divorced, or had never had children, or her children had been taken away from her, there was no advance he could rationally take from simply looking up her name and finding the information that there was to find.  Who messages someone out of the blue after fifteen years of radio silence, except for vague acquaintances pushing pyramid schemes on everyone they’d ever met?  Carlin didn’t have scented waxes or miracle weight-loss belts to offload.  He didn’t have any reason at all to contact Melissa McVee, except that he was bored and lonely and the nexus of those two states of being is a certain wistful nostalgia.  It was a sensation the French had once referred to as mal du pays.

            #

            “Don’t you find it a little odd, though?”

            “Hmm?” Carlin’s roommate Sasha asked, not looking up from her laptop.  Her response was less a question than it was a simple animal noise, a recognition that something had been said and a refusal to engage with it beyond that acknowledgement. 

            “Are you listening to me at all?” Carlin asked.

            “Not particularly,” Sasha replied, continuing to tap away at her keyboard.  “There’s an idiot here who thinks that the presence of transgendered people as a part of society demanding the equality granted between anyone and anyone at all doesn’t make for a political situation.”

            “Not everyone’s read Ranciere, Sasha,” Carlin said.  “Could you stop for a couple of minutes and listen to me?”

            “Why?” she asked, looking up from her laptop at last.  “Not everyone has Facebook, Carlin.”

            “It’s not just that, though,” he replied.  “She isn’t on any social network, and when I do a Google search you know what shows up?”

            “The weight of the information Autobahn bearing down upon you?” Sasha muttered, returning her gaze to the screen of her laptop. 

            “Nothing.  Well, virtually nothing.  Just a message of condolences from the McVee family to someone who’d just lost their husband.  That’s it.  An entry in some two-bit funeral home’s register of grief.”

            “How utterly shocking,” Sasha muttered in response.

            “How does that not make your skin crawl just a little?”

            “Some people don’t have social media accounts.  Elvar doesn’t.  Elvar barely knows the internet exists.”

            “Elvar is one step removed from being a train-riding vagabond.  Melissa was a normal person with normal aspirations and normal friends when I grew up with her.  Even the unrepentant technophobes from the deep country I went to high school with have Facebook accounts now.  If they don’t have Facebook accounts, they have something.  They show up in pictures.  They have marriage announcements, birth announcements.  Those announcements are digitized by the local paper for people to read online.  Something.  There should be something about her.”

            “Look,” Sasha said, closing her laptop and rubbing the bridge of her nose.  “What is this about?  Why the sudden interest in a girl you sort of knew back in high school?”

            “What do you mean ‘sort of knew’?”

            “I’ve never heard you mention this girl once, not in the nine years I’ve known you.  You’ve gone into detail with me about every girl you’ve so much as kissed back then and I’ve never heard of this person.”

            “It’s hard to explain,” he replied, and in that moment it is the absolute truth.  It’s hard to explain the need to reach out to someone you only vaguely knew.  The feelings for someone are complicated when you knew their father but never really got to know them, despite your being the same age in a town where the necessities of compressed populations dictate that everyone knows everyone else in one way or another.  It comes down to a series of fleeting sense impressions, the only things that ever seem to remain indelible in memory as that memory begins to near capacity.  It comes down to watching a person walk across the street a block away; to running into them at a town festival and having a conversation that seemed deep at the time but you can’t remember a blessed thing about years later; to watching a person talk to two of the town’s more prominent basketball players and then walk away from them with the glint of tears reflecting May sunshine on their face.

            “Is this about you needing to get laid?” Sasha asked.

            “As I recall, that’s no longer any of your business,” he replied, and the rising pressure that her comment dredged up let him know that he would need to leave their apartment soon before he got angry.

            “It’s not,” Sasha said coolly.  “What I mean, though, is that you don’t have any trouble in that department.  No one really does anymore, as long as their presentable, tolerable, and halfway sane.  You don’t even need to put in the effort anymore, not really.  You take out your phone, swipe a few times, send out a few messages, exchange Snapchats, send a series of increasingly scandalous snaps in both directions, and make plans to meet up.  The revolution will be on TikTok and that revolution is really just another movement in the old Sexual Revolution.  Now that we’ve recognized that we all need it, we’re making it easier to get it every year.  Every month, it seems like.  Now you’ve come across someone you can’t just instantly message.  You can’t phone her, you can’t even get old-fashioned and romantic and send her a letter.  She’s out of reach, and it’s driven you a bit over the edge.”

            Carlin shook his head. 

            “It’s nothing like that at all,” he said.

            “Oh?  What is it like, then?”

            “I just want to know how she’s doing,” he replied, “and I can’t.  I’d have to go back home and look her up.”

            “Well,” Sasha said, “there you go.”  She shrugged, opened up her laptop, and resumed typing.

            #

            When Carlin got into his car and drove out of the parking complex buried beneath his building he had no real intention of getting very far.  He’d been seething at the time, still angry with Sasha for trying to psychoanalyze him in a half-baked fashion.  When he passed University Avenue he thought just a few more blocks and I’ll probably turn around.  Half an hour later when he took the onramp to the highway he thought I’ll grab lunch at Fire & Ice and maybe hit the big grocery store out near there and then go home.  Three hours later, as the scars of the sprawl of the modern city were receding in the face of more timeless spreads of corn, soy, and pasture, he had no more thoughts.  He tapped his finger on the steering wheel in time to the music on the radio, kept his eyes on the road, and let the worn neural pathways of familiar music substitute for actual thought.  He crossed the borders of Huron County without fanfare and felt no stirring inside of himself when he saw the iconic rise of the steeple of the Presbyterian church over the sleeping line of Seaforth. 

            He turned off the main road as soon as he could and crawled along the backstreets of Seaforth like an awkward ghost. Some magazine or another had once called it the quintessential small Ontario town, and as he returned to its creeping streets he realized that what this really meant was very little changed.  The line of houses were quiet, and the only movement came courtesy of the breeze.  Everyone would be at work, of course; it was near the end of the workday so the denizens of these stately brick houses would be busily engaged elsewhere.  The park was deserted.  In Carlin’s day there would have been at least a couple of burnouts lounging on the park benches taking in the sun, but times had apparently changed.  He turned back out on to the other main road through town and marvelled at how sleepy the commercial strip seemed even in the heart of the afternoon.  A couple of older women loitered near the post office, chatting in that peculiarly slow way that the elderly develop as they slip into the vagaries of age.  He thought about stopping to ask them directions to anywhere and then decided better.

            Further up the main street he saw a phantom from an older age – an actual phone booth. At first he refused to believe it was real, and when he got out of his car and approached it he refused to believe it would contain that other artefact of a bygone era, the phone book. It did, however: a thick grey-paged book with a bright yellow cover, containing people, addresses, and phone numbers in their multitude. He scanned through the M listing and there was McVee, T, real to the touch. He copied the number down and got back into his car.

            He took the car further up to the Optimist Park, where the baseball diamond still held dominion over a small grouping of playground equipment and a diminutive soccer field.  The phone rang on and on but just when Carlin was about to hang up and drive back home the connection was made. 

            “Hello?” the voice on the other end asked, and Carlin was mostly sure that it was Terry.

            “Terry?  Terry McVee?” Carlin asked.  There was hesitation on the other end.

            “May I ask who’s calling?” Terry said.

            “It’s Carlin, Carlin Chambers, we worked together back at the Creamery.  I guess, when the Creamery was still open.  You were working the recipe and I was on packing.”

            There was a pause on the phone, and when he spoke Terry’s voice was drawn-out and wary.

            “Listen,” he said, “What’s this about?”

            Carlin swallowed and found that his throat was quite dry.

            “Actually, Mr. McVee, this is really about your daughter, I went to school with her and-“

            “Not another one!  I really thought we were over this!  I’ve had enough of you-“

            “Terry, woah, Terry!” Carlin exclaimed.  “Calm down, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            There was another pause, and Carlin wondered if Terry hadn’t just put down the phone and walked away.

            “Carlin Chambers?” Terry asked.

            “That’s right.”

            “Line 2, back in oh-one or oh-two?  Around then, anyway?”

            “Yes sir, I worked there with you.”

            There was another pause, and then, “Alright.  Alright.  Come on over, we’ll have a beer, I’ll give you the rundown.”

            Terry gave him the address and Carlin thanked him and ended the call.  He drove down to the address, noted the location, and then found a place to park for a time.  He watched the cars drive by the main road from the mouth of a side street and slouched down whenever he saw someone walking near.  Eventually he talked himself into the beer with Terry and retraced his steps.

            #

            Terry’s house was a spacious bungalow on the edge of town and Carlin found it surprisingly neatly kept.  The look that Terry gave Carlin when he arrived was wary but he was waved in regardless.  Terry showed him to the living room and returned a moment later with a couple of domestic pilsners.  He sat down across from Carlin, unscrewed the cap, and waited for a while before speaking.

            “So you knew Melissa in high school, then?” Terry asked.  Carlin looked around the room.  It was sparsely decorated, with very few pictures on the wall or accoutrement on shelves.  He was suddenly quite sure that Terry’s wife had passed on some time ago.

            “Yes, we were in most of the same classes together.  I went to go see if I could look her up online to see if I could get ahold of her, just to see what she’s been up to since we graduated.”

            “Oh yeah?” Terry asked.  Carlin noticed that he looked away, down and to the left toward the floor.

            “I didn’t find anything,” Carlin continued.  “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before.  Nothing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.  No dating profiles.  No news items or records of graduating from anything.  None of our mutual friends from high school mentioning her name in anything, recent or otherwise.  No death notice, either.  No reports of a missing person named Melissa McVee.  I got curious, so I decided to come home and find out what she was up to in person.”

            Terry drank half his bottle in one draught before responding.

            “Well,” Terry said, “the thing about that is that I don’t quite know.  I know where she lives, and I know that she’s alive, but beyond that, I can’t tell you.”

            “Did you have a falling out?” Carlin asked gently.

            “No!  Nothing of the sort. It’s hard to explain.”

            Terry rose from the sofa and walked to the window.  He peered out into the street, first to the left and then to the right, and then closed the curtains with a jerk.  When he turned around to face Carlin, it looked as though all of the muscles in the man’s face had sagged at once. 

            “It’s because of a camping trip,” he said.

#

            Melissa had been invited to go camping up on the French River with a group of people she went to school with.  Terry called them exactly that: “a group of people she went to school with”.  He didn’t call them “friends”, and the disassociation echoed in Carlin’s head while Terry told his story.

            “She came home one day asking if I would mind if she went up to the woods in the north for a week.  Some sort of get back to nature thing.  There was a bunch of them and they had it all worked out.  Tents, gear, canoes even to take out onto the river and fish and what not.  They would embark at some rickety little village, not much more than a dock and some buildings, canoe up the river to a likely spot, and then set up camp. 

            I had a bad feeling about it from the get-go.  Of course I did.  Those boys and girls she was going up north with were chuckleheads, the lot of them, I wouldn’t have trusted them to change my oil.  Still don’t.  Derek McDonald is doing just that over at Marty Henderson’s garage, and I wouldn’t go there on a bet.   What was I supposed to say, though?  No?  It’s not like I would miss her, I was on midnights that week and I would barely have seen her anyway.  She had enough trouble trying to fit in at that damned school, and I didn’t want her to have to miss out on maybe fitting in better just because her old man had a funny feeling.”

            “I don’t remember her not fitting in,” Carlin said, feeling a slow wave of confusion crawl over him.  “I don’t remember that at all.”

            “I guess it depends on who you were friends with.  Did you hang around with them?  Derek McDonald and the others?”

            “Not particularly, I suppose.  I was a smoking pit rat, and they hung out elsewhere.”

            “Well, then take it from me.  Those boys were only interested in what boys that age are always interested in, and those girls were the type to say one thing to your face and another behind your back.  Still, I thought it might be good for her, so I gave her permission.  Kick myself to this day for that.  One of them must have done something to her, I never found out what.  She never wanted to talk about it, after.  Hell, she never wanted to talk.

            When she came back she went to her room and basically shut herself up in there.  Closed the door, wouldn’t respond to knocking unless I got insistent, could hear her typing away on her computer at all hours of the night.  There would be weird noises.  Early on it sounded like she was hitting her keyboard, and sobbing.  Or not quite sobbing, I’m not sure.” 

            He paused, wiped at his mouth, and disappeared into the kitchen.  There were two more beers in his hand and Carlin accepted one in silence.

            “It was deeper than sobbing.  I guess maybe you’d call it guttural, if that’s a word for a noise a human can make.  When she did come out of her room, she wouldn’t say much of anything.  She looked exhausted and her skin was grey.  She would walk around the house in this sort of limp, like she’d forgotten how to walk and she was figuring out how to do it all over again.  Over time I didn’t hear those noises so much anymore, and she started to walk normally again, but for a while, I swear, honest to God it was like she’d been born all over again and she’d regressed to being a toddler in some ways.

            Her mother and I had a fight about it, a big one.  She wanted to haul the lot of them down to court, everyone she’d gone on the trip with.  I told her it wasn’t a goddamn option, it would be us against the rest of them, and that would mean it would be us against the rest of the town.  She dropped it, but she also left me pretty shortly after.  The letter she sent me told me I was a coward and that I wasn’t willing to stand up for my family.  She didn’t take Melissa with her, though.”

            He drained half of his beer at once and wiped at his mouth.  Carlin played with the label on his bottle and realized that he was holding his breath.

            “Wasn’t long ’til graduation, though,” Terry continued.  “She didn’t cross the stage for her diploma or any of that.  Just took the letter and didn’t talk about it, like everything else.  Few weeks later and she was gone, claimed she took a job and moved out.”

            “Claimed she took a job?” Carlin interjected, looking up quickly. 

            “Sure.  She never gave me very many details, she was home when I called in the middle of the day, and, just before she must have changed her address with the post office, they delivered a letter from the welfare department here.”

            He gulped down the rest of the bottle and slammed the empty down on the coffee table.  It wobbled uncertainly, threatened to fall over, and in the end righted itself.

            “I can give you her number if you want.  Maybe she’ll talk to you.  It might be easier for her, with someone who isn’t me, or her mother, you know?”

            Carlin wadded up a mound of gummy beer label between his fingers and stared intently at it.

            “I don’t know, Terry,” he said.  “It sounds to me like she doesn’t want to talk to other people, and I don’t know if I were in that position if I’d want some guy I barely knew in high school coming by and-“

            “Please, Carlin,” Terry said.  Carlin looked up and saw that there was a wetness quivering on the surface of the man’s eyes.  “I have no idea what my daughter is up to, if she’s working, if she’s anything like happy, if she’s even alive right now.”

            The wad of former label dislodged itself from Carlin’s fingers and tumbled toward the floor.

            “Another beer, and we have a deal,” he said.

#

            He drove out to the edge of town near the old Van Egmond manor and parked alongside an artificially spaced line of poplars, next to a row of graves from the early 19th Century.  He called her number, waited through nine rings, and broke off the attempt.  The day was darkening now and a stiff breeze was blowing out from the west, out from the lake that sprawled out in the distance that way.  He checked his social media, swiped his way through a series of photos that National Geographic had taken of the Arctic, and then his phone buzzed.  He checked the number and saw that it was Melissa. 

            “Hello?” he answered the phone tentatively.

            “Who is this?” she asked.  Her voice croaked over the connection, as though her throat was clearing out after a long period of disuse.

            “Melissa, this is Carlin Chambers,” he said, “I’m not sure if you remember me.”

            “Go on,” she said.

            “Well,” Carlin fumbled.  “You see, I thought about you the other day and wanted to know what it was you were up to these days, only I realized that there was nothing about you on social media.  I mean,” he laughed, “I guess it’s a little silly, how quickly it’s all come up and we expect everyone to be as embedded in that culture as we are ourselves, but it threw me for a loop and I had to come out here to find out.”

            “You…thought of me?” she said after a moment.  The pause between her words was oddly cut, as though there had been a little buffering bar loading underneath her voice.

            “Yeah, I was daydreaming and going back through some old memories in my head and then I remembered a few that had you in them. Look, I know it sounds a little bizarre.”

            “A little?”

            “We don’t have to meet up if you don’t want to,” Carlin said, stressing the choice that underpinned the invitation.  “I should be getting home before my roommate worries anyway.  But I drove all this way and I would love to talk to you.”

            “How did you get my number?”

            “Your dad is worried about you.”

            There was another awkwardly long pause on the phone.

            “My dad,” she said, her throaty voice falling flat on the words.  It was like listening to boiled water – devoid of any taste but still wet.

            “I should go,” Carlin said.  In the moment he felt as though he couldn’t press the red end button fast enough.  His screen melted away back to the home position and he placed it in the driver side cup holder.

            He rested his chin in the crux of his thumb and forefinger and watched the world subtly change through the windshield.  He chased the conversation through his head on a repeated gif loop.  Her voice, with its odd inflections and starts and stops; it was jagged, as if it was being dragged along a rough pathway.  He started the car and pulled out onto the main road.

            Where he was going was a mystery; the car rolled down streets and the wheel turned seemingly at random. He wasn’t sure what he was even driving around looking for, but on the outskirts of town he found a shabby-looking garage with a weather-beaten old sign that said “Henderson Fine Autos” that featured a pair of faded old 80s-vintage sedans quietly rusting in the parking lot. There was no movement, although the big garage door was closed and there were drawn blinds over the office, so Carlin wasn’t sure if there was anyone there or not. It wasn’t the end of the business day yet, though, so he decided on getting out and trying to find an employee.

            Inside the garage a radio hanging on the wall let out a steady stream of grungy gut-rock, 90s retreads that seemed to all blend into each other. There was a glass window immediately to the right of the entrance and behind it a middle-aged balding man sat behind a desk marking off paperwork. He wore a blue workshirt with “Henderson” stitched into it. Carlin knocked on the door of this little office; Henderson looked up and gestured him in impatiently.

            “Just drive the car in,” Henderson said, still looking down at his paperwork. “Then let Derek know what the problem is.”

            “It’s actually Derek I’m looking for,” Carlin said. Henderson looked up and looked at him without expression for a moment.

            “What’d he do this time?” Henderson asked, his tone defeated.

            “I don’t know,” Carlin replied, “That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to him about.”

            “Goddammit,” Henderson spat. “He’s out back dealing with some old tires. Don’t make a scene. You aren’t with the cops are you?”

            “No,” Carlin replied, biting his lip to keep from laughing. “Just trying to get a story straight.”

            Henderson didn’t offer directions but Carlin managed to find the back door, on the other side of four cars that were hoisted up and in varying states of repair. It screamed in protest as he opened it and the sunlight was overly bright even after the short time he’d spent within the garage. Derek McDonald was stacking old tires out against the cinderblock wall, just as Henderson had implied. Carlin vaguely recognized him from their adolescence, although the two of them had never really hung out together. The Derek in his memories was a lot skinnier, less pasty-looking, his posture upright and powerful rather than slouched.

            He wondered how to approach the situation, whether he should call out to Derek or simply wait. Derek solved the situation by turning furtively around, his hand darting to the front pocket of his workshirt (exactly like Henderson’s, only with “McDonald” stitched above the pocket his hand was diving into). He had probably been reaching for a cigarette, but when he saw Carlin his hand froze and his expression became a mixture of shock and dismay that Carlin almost found hilarious.

            “Hey, you’re not supposed to be back here,” Derek said. “This ain’t no public alleyway.”

            Carlin put a hand out, as though Derek were a dog or some other creature in need of soothing. “I’m here to talk to you,” he said. Derek cringed backward, nearly falling into the tires.

            “Aw hell no,” he cried, “I didn’t do it. Whatever you’re here to pin on me I didn’t do it.”

            “No,” Carlin said, frustrated, and then decided to try a different tactic. “Look, we went to school together.”

            Derek peered at him and Carlin was again struck by how much the man had let himself go in the ensuing years.

            “Yeah, I think I recognize you,” Derek said. “You’re named Carey or Carlin or something like that.”

            “Carlin,” Carlin said, feeling somewhat relieved. “So you remember me?”

            “Man, no,” Derek said, “I barely recognize you, like I know we went to school together and it was a small school but I don’t know what you’re here for.”

            “OK,” Carlin said, growing impatient. “Do you remember Melissa McVee though?”

            The impact that the name had on Derek’s demeanour was electric. The paltry amount of colour left in his cheeks vanished and his mouth closed tightly, as though he’d just taken a hefty shot of lemon juice.

            “Nah,” Derek said, and now there was real hostility in his voice. “Get the fuck out of here. I ain’t talking to you about shit.”

            The bizarre nature of the day had left Carlin with his own sense of bubbling rage and it erupted out at Derek.

            “So, what?” Carlin yelled. “You guys just took her out into the woods and what? Beat her up? Did worse things to her?”

            “What goddamn business is it of yours?” Derek shouted. He started toward Carlin, his fists raised and his eyes telegraphing his intent to bury one in the thin breakable cartilage of Carlin’s nose.

            “I just talked to her dad,” Carlin shouted back. “He told me she was never the same after she came back from that camping group with you…’chuckleheads’ was what he called you but I bet I could find way worse things to call you, right Derek?”

            Derek stopped six feet from Carlin and his fist withered and fell to his side. The angry glare was replaced by something altogether more dreadful; he looked like nothing so much as a little boy caught out in the rain without a jacket blocks from home.

            “I see her dad around town now and again,” he said, and his voice was quiet now. “He won’t even look me in the eye?”

            “What happened?” Carlin asked. “What the hell happened?”

            Derek looked at the back door for a long moment and then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of that front pocket. He lit one and leaned back against the wall.

            “We went camping, yeah,” he said, and Carlin felt that for Derek he might not even be there. “Big group of us. Me, Eric De Vries, Connor Sutherland, Dawn Gaeder, Lisa Schultz, Melissa. It was Melissa’s first time out in the woods, she’d kind of always been on the outside of us. Her and Lisa had become friends, though, so we invited her out. At first everything was okay. We went swimming, set up the tents, cooked dinner. There were drinks, of course – what’s the point of camping if you aren’t drinking – but it’s not like any of us were getting blacked out or anything.”

            “We hit the tents once it got late and tried to get some sleep. I remember…” he exhaled smoke and stared up into the sky. “I remember thinking I heard Connor and Dawn going at it. They were clearly trying to be quiet, but the woods are quieter. At least I thought they were then. It was right after they finished, or when it sounded like they finished doing whatever it was they were doing. I heard another tent zip open and someone stepping heavily out into the trees. I went back to sleep but some time later I woke up. It must have been the footsteps coming back into that same tent that woke me up, but I could tell it was a lot lighter out. Light enough that I could sort of see through the door of my tent, and I saw an outline of Melissa going back into her tent.”

            “The next day was…odd. When she got up out of her tent in the morning it sounded like she’d caught a hell of a cold overnight, like her throat was just stuffed with snot. It got better throughout the day but she could hardly talk at first, and when she did it sounded slow, like she was picking over her words. Like it was the first grade again or something. She had some trouble walking, too. I don’t know what was wrong with her and I never found out.”

            “So she caught a bad cold out in the woods one night and it derailed her life?” Carlin was skeptical and starting to regret coming to the garage. Derek obviously had problems of his own and Carlin wasn’t sure how reliable a witness this greying, pudgy man could realistically be.

            “No man, I don’t think that at all,” Derek said, and Carlin saw that the man had refocused his attention back on him. “She was like a different person entirely. One who didn’t even know how to act as a person. Like she’d been reset out in the woods that night and she was trying to play catch-up. We kind of avoided her for the rest of the trip and then when we got back to town we avoided her some more. It seemed like a mutual decision. Everyone could see that something had happened to her though. They thought the same thing you did – that we did something to her out there that night, like we were monsters to her or something.”

            He tossed his cigarette butt into the gravel of the alley and spun angrily, getting up into Carlin’s face.

            “We didn’t do a goddamn thing to her!” he shouted. Carlin winced and wondered how long it would take people to come and investigate what was going on in the alley. “We invited her out there, what else were we supposed to do? She wandered off and came back and I don’t know what happened!”

            He lowered his voice, pitching it down to a near-whisper. “She would stare at us, the whole time after. Whenever we were fishing, or swimming, she would just sit and stare at us. You could look back to the shoreline and there she would be, just. Watching. Or whatever.”

            He pulled out another cigarette and lit it, not bothering to check the door this time. “Once I woke up and she was in the door of my tent, just squatting and looking at me. I got angry, swore a bunch, called her a lot of names you’re not supposed to call a woman. She didn’t even flinch, just kept eyeing me until she finally went back to her own tent. And the smell.” He exhaled smoke in a short burst of laughter and choked on it a little. “Like something rotting, or, I don’t know. Molding. Like wet leaves in the basement. She didn’t smell like that before. Before, she smelled like…” He trailed off. Carlin got the hint and shuffled his feet, uncomfortable.

            “Alright, I should probably go then,” he said. “Sorry to bring up the past like this, but…like I said, her father…”

            “Whatever,” Derek said, dismissing him with a wave. “Get lost before I get fired. If the boss asks you on the way out just tell him I’m stacking those tires like he asked.”

            Henderson was gone when Carlin went back inside, and the garage was deserted. He returned to his car and put his forehead on the steering wheel, at a loss for what to do next.

            #

            Carlin had made up his mind to leave, regardless of his promises to Terry, and had gone so far as to get near the edge of town when his phone rang over the Bluetooth connection. He pulled over when he saw the number come up; it was the same one he’d punched in sitting in that cemetery overlooking another borderland of the town.

            “Hello?” he opened cautiously.

            “Carlin Chambers,” Melissa said, and the inflections on his name sounded off. She had pronounced them normally but there was something just slightly off-kilter about the way they came over the car’s stereo.

            “That’s me,” he chuckled nervously. “I want to apologize to you about the call we had earlier today. I’m sure it was pretty weird for you too.”

            “Pretty weird,” she said. “I’m used to it.”

            You’re used to it was what Carlin almost said, but Melissa kept speaking after an oddly-shaped moment of time.

            “I was calling you back to see if you wanted to fetch up,” she said, “maybe get some coffee and talk about old times.”

            “I –“ did she say fetch up or catch up? Am I hearing things now? “I would love to do that. Is there a particular coffee shop in town you’d like to go to or…?”

            “Just come to my house,” she said. “I’ve got lots of coffee. Good stuff. Just come here and we can talk about things.” She gave her address in a sing-song fashion, as though reciting it for a class.

            “Sure, Melissa, that sounds nice.” The smile on his face was insincere. She hung up and he hung on to that smile about a second longer. He drummed his hands on the steering wheel and thought about it. It was on his mind to leave, to just keep going down Highway 8 and make the connections that would eventually lead him back home. He was a block or so away from the town limits, parked on the top of the hill that overlooked the YMCA swimming pool and baseball diamond. Before him lay stretched out farm fields, green and lush but now dappled in shadow. Thunderheads were gathering on the horizon; a darkness formed on the edge of town.

            He drove off in a different direction. His phone gave him the turns, and he whistled as he went. It was just a coffee. There was no need to make anything more out of it. A little bit of fetch up – or catch up, rather, what a silly thing to have thought another person said – and then back home before it got too dark. She could talk about what happened to her, or not. He was just being polite. And so on – he was providing post-hoc justification for what he was already doing. He had to see. He’d come all this way, after all.

            He passed the town limits sign outside of the old drive-in diner, back by where the elementary school had been before the powers that be had decided that rural education was just not in the budget. It was the first time he’d left town since he arrived, and now the storm was starting to run ahead of him, the shadows creeping over his car and darkening the road before him. By the time his phone indicated it was time to turn off the road rain had begun to spatter on his windshield and a low rumble could be heard some few miles behind.

            The road he was directed to take was one he didn’t remember clearly, and Carlin noted that it was not very well maintained. The next turn he was told to make took him into a small village named Vanastra. Most of the houses looked exactly like what they were: barracks built to house military personnel during the Second World War that were repurposed as low-income family housing. He drove slowly through town, the rain worsening, until he came to what his phone called “his destination”: a stooped and ill-favoured bungalow nestled against the woods that ringed the western edge of the village.

            He watched the house from inside his car, listening to the rain hammer down upon the roof. It was dilapidated, and one of the upstairs windows had planks of wood hammered overtop of it. He thought of the story that Derek had told him, about how Melissa had gone into the forest and come back hours later, different. Now she was here, in this decaying soldier’s barracks by the edge of another forest. The rain thrummed across his thoughts and he closed his eyes to try to block it out. He should turn around, get out of this driveway and just drive. Not necessarily even back to Toronto, but out of this little village and anywhere else. Just turn around and –

            There was a tapping on his window. When he opened his eyes he saw Melissa standing outside the car, peering in. She looked the same as she had when Carlin had known her in high school, except with more folds to her skin; it was as though her skin had just started loosening in lieu of ageing, and her eyes were more sunken than Carlin remembered. She smiled when she saw him open his eyes, though, and Carlin wondered if he wasn’t just psyching himself out.

            He rolled down the window and she gave a little wave.

            “Hi Carlin,” she said. “Sorry about the weather. Come inside. I have something I want to show you.”

            Carlin smiled back, although he could feel it wavering a little. Up close there was a slight croak in her voice, but it was raining out and Carlin told himself not to get caught up in some alky good ol’ boy’s paranoid ideas. Her smile seemed genuine enough and it was with only a hint of trepidation that he emerged from the car and followed her quickly to the doorway.

            That feeling quickly faded as he got into the house. There was a smell lingering in the atmosphere, something deeply wet and unpleasant. Every house has its own particular smell, depending on the food that its inhabitants cook or the animals they keep. Melissa’s house smelled like there was something mouldering in an unseen room, some pile of damp garbage. He thought about Derek’s contention that she smelled of decaying wet leaves and felt a wave of cold nausea run through his stomach. He stood in the drab entryway of Melissa’s house, torn; his feet wanted to go, badly as it turned out, but his rational brain still wanted to stay, and was busily browbeating his animal response with a long line of reasons as to why everything was perfectly normal.

            Melissa stood on the other side, in the entryway to what Carlin assumed was the kitchen. She beckoned to him, smiling.

            “Come here, Carlin. I have something I want to show you.”

            “I think I should go,” Carlin said, feeling oddly childlike.

            “Come here, Carlin,” she repeated. “I have something I want to show you.”

            God help him, he went.

            #

            The rattle of the doorknob downstairs brought an immense amount of relief to Sasha. It was nearly one in the morning and she had expected Carlin back from his nostalgia trip ages ago. She had suspected in the back of her mind for the last several hours that Carlin had found what he was looking for and was in the throes of reunion passion with this random girl he had apparently just remembered today. There was clearly more of a story there and Sasha planned on dragging it out of him in the morning, but for now she was content that he was home. She had pictured his car smashed up on the highway, the lurid flashing lights of an emergency response team surrounding him, cutting him out, and shaking their heads sadly as they called it with the precise time.

            “Carlin,” she called out, “Glad you’re back. Maybe call me next time you’re going to be late so I don’t think you’ve met your end in the middle of nowhere.”

            There was no response from downstairs. She caught a strange scent wafting up from below, like leaves left to moulder under the outdoor steps after the great autumn rains. Her first instinct was to make a note to tell the landlord to fulfill his cleaning duties, but then she remembered that it hadn’t rained in days.

            “Carlin?” she asked into the silence.

            “Come here, Sasha,” Carlin said. His voice seemed thick and draggy, like he’d caught a hell of a cold between leaving and returning. “I have something I want to show you.”


Trevor Zaple is a Canadian with an M.A. in Political Science whose work has appeared in Across The Margin+Horror Library+Trigger Warning, and Pif Magazine.  He currently lives in the second-best London with his wife, two daughters, two dogs, a cat, and a stuffed moose.


If you enjoyed “Mal du Pays”, you might also enjoy “Angels of the Morning” by Alan Catlin.

Two of Trevor’s books are available in The Chamber’s Bookshop: Prospero’s Half-Life and Interstitial Burn-Boy Blues.

“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” Dark Fiction by Curtis A. Bass

Logan and I are heading to the park to play catch like we often do on weekends. He’s tossing the football up and down as we go. That’s when I realize I am dreaming. I must be dreaming because Logan is dead. I thought when you realize you are dreaming you wake up. But I’m still in the dream. It’s weird, but I want to stay. I miss Logan. He is my best friend. Was my best friend.

He gives me that famous Logan grin, the lopsided one, and opens his mouth to speak. His words are off with his mouth, like in a poorly dubbed Japanese horror flick. They are slow and echo around my head, “Go long.” I run so he can throw a long pass. I look back and am amazed at how much distance I have put between us. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run. I usually run back toward him, dodging his tackle to score an imaginary touchdown. But in this dream, I’m running away from him. I don’t know why. He’s faster than me and will probably tackle me before I get very far. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “He’s coming for you,” the head says before I drop it. That’s when Logan tackles me. As we go down, I turn and see he has no head. It freaks me out and I start yelling. Yeah, I scream like a freaking girl. The park goes black, but I’m still wrestling with the headless body. It’s like he’s trying to wrap me up in a cocoon or like a mummy. I can’t get my arms loose.

A brilliant light pulled me up from the dream. Dad stood at my doorway in his striped boxers and white T-shirt and yelled, “What the hell’s going on in here?” I was tangled up in the sheet. I wrenched it off and threw it on the floor, scampering to the head of the bed, as far from the attacking sheet as possible.

Mama appeared beside Dad in my doorway. I suddenly felt naked in just my checked pajama pants. They didn’t even reach my ankles anymore. I’d stopped wearing the pajama top because the shoulders were binding, and I couldn’t button it. Mama said I was going through a “growth spurt”. I’d be glad when I stopped spurting and had some clothes that fit.

“Bad dream, honey?” she asked. Dad blocked her from entering my room.

“I’ll take care of it. You go on back to bed.”

She stopped trying to come to me but lingered outside my door. Dad came and sat on my bed.

“You were in here yelling like a baby. You’re fifteen now. I expect you to show a little maturity.” Dad was big on me being a man.

“But it was Logan.”

I heard my mama’s quick intake of breath out in the hallway. “He attacked me.”

“Logan’s dead. He’s gone. He can’t attack you, son,” Dad said. “That’s foolish talk.”

“It was his friend, Ken,” Mama called from the door. “The boy’s had a nasty shock.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have let him talk to the police,” Dad told her. “All that talk about mutilation put all sorts of crazy ideas in his head. Now his imagination is running wild. Your mollycoddling him isn’t helping. He needs to stop being a mama’s boy and man up.”

I didn’t like it when Dad talked as if I wasn’t even there. But he did it on a regular basis.

“But it was Logan,” I whined. Dad hated it when I whined. I hated it, too, but I couldn’t help it. I gritted my teeth and refused to cry. I could feel my face redden as the tears threatened to pour out. My anger at him, and the whole crappy world, was rising to a fever pitch.

“Logan is dead and gone. They buried him,” Dad said.

“No they didn’t. They buried his fucking head!” I shouted, tears slipping from my eyes at last.

“Ken, don’t,” Mama called, anticipating Dad’s response.

“I’ll let that pass on account you’re upset. You talk like that to me again and I’ll have to get my belt. I ain’t having no backtalk.” Dad was mad as well. I knew his threat was meaningless, though. He hadn’t used the belt on me since I was twelve. Coach had noticed the marks on my backside at PE and sent me to the school nurse. She called Social Services. They investigated and Dad had to take a course in anger management. I can’t see where it’s done much good, except he doesn’t use that damn belt anymore.

“Then y’all get outta my room. I didn’t ask you to come in. Leave me alone!” I yelled. Dad grabbed my jaw in a painful grip.

“You’re walking on thin ice, boy.” He shoved me back and left the room. I heard Mama and him bickering down the hallway until she announced, “I’m sleeping in the guest room.”

“Goddamnit!” Dad yelled and slammed the bedroom door.

“Sorry, Cupcake,” my older sister Junie said from my doorway. She always called me Cupcake when Dad got on me about not being man enough. I was mad, but not enough to forgo my standard comeback.

“Then eat me.”

She laughed and drifted back to her bedroom. I had to get up to put the sheet back on the bed and then to turn off the overhead light. On the way back to the bed, I stumped my toe on the leg.

“Ow! God fucking damnit!” I ground out through clenched teeth. 

I sat on my bed, massaging my aching toe, and staring into the darkness. I liked the dark. I could think without being distracted by sight. Mostly these days I thought about Logan. I would keep my blinds drawn and my room dark at night and think about him. I didn’t need to see for I knew where everything was, except the leg of my bed, apparently. In the depths of the night, I would sometimes wake up and look around my room. All the familiar sounds, the faint tick of my alarm clock, Dad’s snoring, which even my closed door couldn’t muffle. And the familiar dark figures barely visible around my room, huddled like sentinels. It was comforting. Comfort seemed in short supply these days.

Everything used to be so simple. Now Junie was going off to college this fall. I’d miss her. Mama and Dad didn’t get along. They’d always bickered as far back as I could remember, but it had gotten worse. Dad seemed mad all the time and took it out on me. I ran cross-country; I made good grades; I didn’t get into trouble. What was his problem? Recently, it was that I wasn’t man enough. He got on that kick after he found out Logan was gay. I guess he was afraid Logan would infect me with gayness. I’d known he was gay for almost as long as Logan had, but he’d only recently become more open about it. He was my best friend since first grade, and I didn’t see any reason that should change. Dad didn’t see it that way. He made me account for every second I spent with Logan, and when Logan came over, I had to keep my bedroom door open. And no more sleep overs. How sick is that? “He’s my best friend, not my boyfriend,” I’d said. That got me sent to my room.

I think Dad was suspicious because I didn’t have a girlfriend. I liked girls, it’s just that few of them liked me. I think it’s because of Mary Jo Kapechni. We had one date last year. Then she told all the girls I was a lousy kisser and grabbed her tits. Both were technically true, but she made me sound like some sex-crazed loser. Maybe I was a loser, but sex-crazed is a relative term when it comes to teenaged boys.       

So it was just me and Logan. He was the one person I felt totally at ease with. We just had a natural connection. Until two weeks ago. That was the day he disappeared.

Logan was the third victim. 

***

About six months ago, a guy from Chapel Hill disappeared. Stacy Johnson was a good student, a soccer and basketball standout, and well liked. His parents said he wasn’t the kind to run away.  A close examination of the back door of his house revealed scratches around the lock that the detectives said could indicate the lock had been picked. The theory was that someone came in the house and took him.

The story dominated all the local papers for a few days. Every detail about Stacy’s life was examined and sifted for some evidence. They posted a picture of him in his soccer jersey. He was a handsome guy, fifteen, with flyaway blond hair and big blue eyes. I wished I looked like him, knowing someone who looked like that had no problem getting girls. They mounted a massive manhunt for him but came up with nothing.

A week later they found Stacy. Or at least they found his head. Students came upon it in the middle of his school soccer field one morning. They posted gross pictures of the severed head before the police could secure the area. Of course, the pictures went viral. Logan and I had seen them. The handsome features were frozen in a rictus of terror, eyes and mouth wide. The cuts around the neck weren’t clean, but jagged. The police finally released that the murderer had made the cuts with a serrated blade, except for the bone. That had been cut with something heavy and sharp, an ax or a cleaver. The paper had clinically reported the cuts were “not post-mortem”.

No one could figure out why Stacy was taken or why he was killed. More important, they had no clues who would do such a thing. They never found the rest of his body.

It took weeks for the horror to die down, but it did. Everyone moved on with their lives. Newer tragedies pushed Stacy off the front page. His family was left to grieve alone.

About two months later, Jackie Sheldon went missing. He was a high school student in Raleigh. He was an average student, fifteen, long blond hair, on the basketball team but didn’t see much playing time. The newspaper said he had words with his father and stormed out of the house. His parents thought everything was okay when he came home that night. The next morning he was gone. People thought he’d run away. No one connected the two cases until a detective noticed similar scratches on the back door of the Sheldon house. Someone had picked the lock. They could have entered and taken Jackie.

When Jackie’s head showed up on his parents’ doorstep a week later, all hell broke loose. It became national news. The detectives scrambled to find some link between Stacy and Jackie. Chapel Hill and Raleigh are close enough for people to interact. There had to be some connection. The newspapers proclaimed a serial killer stalked the streets. They named him the Butcher. It sold papers.

There were no pictures online of Jackie’s head, but the other details became common knowledge. He’d been held for a week and then beheaded. His body remained missing.

***

Logan gives me his lopsided grin and opens his mouth to speak. His words echo around my head, not coinciding with his mouth, “Go long.” I begin running so he can throw a long pass. I look back and see I’ve covered a lot of ground. Something about this seems familiar. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run away instead of running toward him. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “He’s coming for you,” the head says before I drop it as I’m tackled by the headless body. I woke up sweating but didn’t scream.

***

“I knew Jackie,” Logan said to me one afternoon, about a week after they found his head.

“I thought I knew all your friends.”

“I have to keep some secrets,” he said and laughed. “Create an air of mystery.” We were lounging in my room, he on my bed, me on the floor leaning against the bed, door open, of course. “We met in summer league basketball last year. We liked each other and kept up with emails and texts.” It surprised me that Logan had kept this secret. What else didn’t I know about him?

“Did you know Stacy?” I wondered if there was more.

“No. But Jackie mentioned him in an email once. I think he got some pot from him. The email is gone now.”

“Logan. That may be the connection the police are looking for. Jackie and Stacy knew each other. You need to tell someone.”

“I don’t have any evidence and I don’t need the police snooping around me. Just forget it.”

But I couldn’t. Maybe it was a drug deal gone wrong. No, they would probably just shoot. This was ritualistic, as the papers said. It took a lot of planning.

And then Logan disappeared.

We lived in Cary, which is nestled between Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Logan was a fifteen-year-old high school athlete. He had blond hair. It matched the established pattern.

His mom called us first that morning asking if he was with us. She said he wasn’t home when she woke up, so she thought he just left early. When he didn’t show up at school, I became nervous. By lunch I was frantic. Where was Logan? Was he in the hands of that monster? Was he aware of what was happening? Was he as afraid as I was? I’ve never been particularly religious, but I prayed as hard as I knew how. God, please return him. Return all of him.

The media circus descended on Logan’s house. His life was dissected and displayed for all to see. His picture with his heavy brow and signature grin stared at me from the newspaper.

As feared, his head showed up later.

***

“Go long,” Logan says as he pulls the football behind his head, preparing the throw. I have a moment of déjà vu, like I have seen this before. But I run. I look over my shoulder and see the ball sailing through the air. I turn just in time and catch it against my chest. I tuck it under my arm to run. It feels wrong. I look down and see it is Logan’s head, glaring at me. “He’s coming for you,” he growls. I throw the head down and am tackled by his headless body.

I woke, fighting with the sheet.

My heart was racing so fast I could hear it in my ears. I was drenched with sweat and was panting like I’d just run the length of the football field. Why was Logan tormenting me? He was my friend.

I lay looking around my darkened room, absorbing the comfort of night, trying to return to a calm place. Off to my right was the deep, black outline of my open closet door. That was where the monsters used to live, and when I was little, I made sure Mama closed that door every night so they couldn’t get out. I doubt that door had been closed since I was ten and decided monsters were kid stuff. Beside it was the bulky dresser with its six drawers and skinny mirror. I had to duck these days to see myself in it to comb my hair. Then there was the door to my room, which I kept closed as much as I could. This was my sanctuary. All others keep out. Opposite the foot of the bed was the tall chest where I kept my jeans, T-shirts, and Calvins. It almost came up to my shoulders. I remember when I couldn’t see or reach what was on top of it. I’d have to pull my chair from the desk and stand on it. And rounding out my familiar room was my desk, the scene of my homework successes and debacles for ten years.

There, calmness had returned. It always worked.

But something was wrong. There, beside the chest, was another shape. Tall and rounded in the corner. It was too dark in my room to make out what it was, but it didn’t belong. And then it moved. Logan’s message, “He’s coming for you,” wasn’t a taunt. It was a warning! I was paralyzed. How did he get in? He must have picked the lock. I’m a fifteen-year-old blond. He’s come for me! The next time he moved, it broke the spell.

“Dad!” I screamed. “He’s here! Dad!”

After a small eternity, the door burst open, and Dad hit the light switch.

“He’s in the corner,” I yelled. We both looked at the corner at the same time. There sat my desk chair with my hockey stick propped in it. A dirty jersey top was hung over it, swaying in the breeze from the central air conditioner. Just as I’d left it that afternoon.

Yeah, that went down about as well as you’d expect. I was grounded for two weeks.

***

People at school were weird to me. They avoided eye contact and didn’t speak in the halls. I’d catch people staring at me like I’d grown a second head or something. Ugh, I didn’t mean to make a pun. It was like I had some disease. I still sat with my friends at lunch, but there was a strained silence most days. Being the best friend of the victim of a serial killer was not the key to popularity.

I told the police detective what Logan had said about Jackie and Stacy. He thanked me and said it was a significant lead, but I could see the lie in his eyes. They were stalled in the investigation. It was as if they were just waiting for the next victim to drop.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the dream. It was always the same. Logan’s head always said, “He’s coming for you.” What if it was a message? Logan was my best friend. We’d do anything for each other. Wouldn’t he warn me if he could? But how could I protect myself? Mama was trying to get Dad to spring for an electronic security system. It wasn’t as expensive as I thought it might be, and Dad was actually considering it. I pushed for it, too, but he said I was a coward. Why was wanting to be safe considered cowardice? I decided my dad was demented.

Apparently, I couldn’t rely on him. I’d have to come up with my own way of protecting myself.I immediately knew what I should do.

***

Logan gives me his signature grin and opens his mouth to speak. His words reverberate around my head, “Go long.” I begin running so he can throw a long pass. I look back and see I’ve covered a lot of ground. Something about this seems familiar. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run. I realize I’m running the wrong way and don’t know why. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “Wake up, now!” the head shouts before I drop it.

I startled awake with a catch of my breath. My heart was hammering from the dream again. But he hadn’t tackled me this time. I wondered why? Then I heard the faintest creak of a floorboard. I was lying with my eyes closed, but I opened them just enough to see. What I could make out in the darkness of my room looked as it always had. The open closet door, the dresser, chest, chair, and desk. I had moved the hockey stick after my last scare. But something was off again. Logan told me to wake up and I could feel something was wrong in my room. There. Against the blackness of the door to my room was a darker blackness. It was still, but I could barely make out an outline. The outline of a man.

I feigned sleep. I remembered as a little kid I believed if I pretended to be asleep the monsters couldn’t get me. Or if I kept every part of my body away from the edge of the bed or covered by the sheet. No monster ever got me, so those magic tricks worked. But they would be useless against this monster. The hammering of my heart amped up a few notches. It was so quiet in the room I was afraid he would hear my heart thumping. I was on my right side, which was how I usually passed my nights. I made a small groan and rolled over flat on my back, my right hand slipping under my pillow, a bead of sweat rolling across my face into my eye, stinging. I kept my eyes cracked, watching the door. A long time passed. Maybe I was just being paranoid, seeing things that weren’t there. Maybe. But I’d swear the shape by the door just moved. It was coming closer. As usual, my blinds were drawn tight, but one errant moonbeam slipped through and suddenly glinted off what appeared to be a needle. He was going to drug me. That’s how he’s doing it! I continued watching, scared nearly out of my wits. I just hoped I didn’t wet the bed. Dad would never forgive that. If I screamed now would Dad refuse to come? Or if Dad came would the man murder my whole family? When the shape was less than three feet away, I pulled my hand from under the pillow. I aimed Dad’s Smith and Wesson and fired four shots point blank into his chest. In the flash of the shots, I saw a man in a balaclava and a night vision visor.

Mama and Junie were screaming as Dad burst through the door, hitting the lights.

“What the hell you doing with my gun,” was all he got out before he stopped and stared at the figure on the floor. The needle was still in the man’s hand.

“Holy shit! Excellent work, son. That’s my man.”

I just stared at him. I had two bullets left in the gun. I gotta admit, I considered it.

***

The media feeding frenzy that ensued was nearly worse than that awful night. I had a small sampling of what Logan’s family went through, except theirs was compounded by the loss of their only child. I can barely wrap my head around that kind of devastation.

The bad guy was a coach Logan and the others met at summer league basketball. He had photos on his wall of Stacy, Jackie, Logan, and me. I hadn’t played summer league, so I don’t know how I got on the nutjob’s radar. There were pictures of several other guys he was probably planning to grab after me. I don’t know why he was doing it, but I guess evil that dark doesn’t really have a reason. What kind of reason could there be, anyway?

Things finally settled down and life went on as it had before. Junie went off to college and Dad still acted mad all the time. But he treated me with more respect after I killed the bad guy. It seemed that using a gun had made me a MAN in his eyes. How sick is that? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I should have used those last two bullets in Dad’s gun that night.


A shortened version of this story appeared in The Terror House in January 2022.


Curtis A. Bass (CurtisStories.blog) from the American south, writes short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery, and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth ImaginationFabula ArgenteaPage & Spine, and the anthologies 2020 in a FlashBest of 2020; The Protest DiariesWorlds Within; and Screaming in the Night. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel while his first remains hidden in a drawer.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy one of Curtis’s other stories published by The Chamber: “Escape to Paradise”, “The Park Bench“, “Welcome to Hell”, or “Inna Gada da Vida”.

“A Cup of Kindness” a Dark Contemporary Retelling of a Traditional Fairy Tale by Kelly Jarvis

"A Cup of Kindness" a Dark Contemporary Retelling of a Traditional Fairy Tale by Kelly Jarvis

“We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, / For auld lang syne” (Robert Burns)

It was terribly cold and dark on this, the last evening of the year.

A little girl crouched in the corner of the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth, warming her feet against the baseboard heater. She had been brought here only a few hours before by a tired social worker. The little girl had been caught stealing a loaf of bread from a gas station market. The market manager had called the police, who had called child services, who had sent the weary social worker to decide what must be done.

The little girl had watched through the window of the police cruiser as the social worker shared a cigarette with the arresting officer. The social worker sucked on the cigarette until the tip glowed red in the twilight. Then she sighed deeply and offered it to the policeman, a ring of mauve paint staining the spot where her lips had been.

The little girl had refused to give the social worker her name. She had been in and out of foster homes long enough to recognize the tired eyes and resigned smile of people who could do nothing to help her.

The social worker, whose breath smelled like ashes, had decided to bring the child to the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth to spend the holiday. She would return to file paperwork in the morning.

The little girl had been served a warm meal and given a black garbage bag to hold her thin coat and torn mittens. Then she had been shuffled into a dormitory with long rows of wooden bunk beds. Now she crouched in the corner and listed to the rhythmic breath of the other sleeping children. She stared out the window at the deserted street below. Fat snowflakes fell to the pavement. A bitter wind moaned, but the little girl was the only one awake to hear its mournful sound. 

She reached into the hole in the seam of her dress, her frozen fingers touching the smooth metal of the cigarette lighter she had stolen from the seat of the social worker’s car. “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”, her grandmother used to say whenever she cupped the little girl’s hands in her own and rubbed her chilly fingers warm with kisses. The girl placed her thumb on the grooves of the flint wheel and expertly flicked the lighter. An orange spark of heat erupted from the base, greeting her like an old friend.

Now there was a warm, bright flame, like a magic lamp, and when the girl held her hand over it, she was suddenly sitting in front of a bonfire, like the ones her father had built in empty trash cans years ago when they spent winter nights beneath the highway bridge. The little girl heard the distant screech of sirens and remembered how the bridge would tremble as heavy trucks thundered over it. Gnawing pains of hunger rumbled through her until the flame went out, taking her vision with it.

She flicked her thumb against the flint wheel again, and a new flame doubled itself in the reflection of the dormitory window. This time she saw the soup kitchen where she had once eaten Thanksgiving Dinner. The scent of roast turkey and fresh baked bread hung in the air, and the little girl’s stomach lurched as she remembered the heaping scoops of stuffing and cranberry sauce on her tray. She laughed in delight as her father made the turkey wings tap-dance through mountains of mashed potatoes, but then came the stale smell of whiskey on his breath and the scratch of his beard against her chin. Her thumb slipped from the lever. The room fell dark.

When she flicked the lighter a third time, she found herself beneath a beautiful Christmas tree in a department store window. At the base of the tree were stacks of brightly wrapped boxes, each holding presents that her own family, even in their richest days, could never have afforded. She threw a crumbled piece of cement through the imagined window, sending shards of glass through the air. The pieces landed on the floor of the display and reflected the lights of the tree. They looked like shattered stars that had fallen from the sky.

“Tonight, someone will die,” whispered the little girl, for she had seen a falling star the night her grandmother, the only person who ever loved her, had died.

The little girl felt her heart quicken, and she desperately flicked the lighter again and again until a new flame appeared. Suddenly, she saw her grandmother. She knew that her grandmother had perished in a fire, her body burned into an unrecognizable heap of charred ashes, but now her grandmother floated before her in the dancing flame, her silver hair framed by feathery wings.

“Gramma,” cried the little girl, “I’m sorry! Take me with you!” She feared her grandmother would disappear, like always, as soon as the flame went out.

Her hand shook as she moved the lighter toward the tattered curtains on either side of the dormitory window. The cheap fabric caught quickly, and her grandmother’s wings ignited into glorious orange and yellow flames.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you! Please don’t leave me,” the little girl wailed, setting her mattress on fire.

With the methodical precision of one who knows how objects burn, she moved her lighter down the row of bunkbed mattresses until each one blazed. The sleeping children, stacked like kindling, awoke to an inferno of heat and terror, screaming for God to help them, but even God was reveling in the celebrations of the year’s final night, and could not hear their cries above the din of their poverty and despair.

#

In the cold dawn of New Year’s Day, the little girl stood hidden in a crowd of onlookers, unseen. Grey smoke curled upward from the smoldering pile of wet ash that was once the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth.

“The smoke detectors must have malfunctioned,” someone said. “There were no survivors.”

“Poor homeless children,” a woman muttered, making the sign of the cross. “May the Good Lord bless them and take them to a better place.”

The little girl calmly stroked the lighter in her pocket as firemen and police officers sifted through the debris counting the blessed, blackened corpses.

She watched the smoke lift in the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles, and then she disappeared toward the east where the fiery red sun was rising like a phoenix.


Kelly Jarvis works as the Special Projects Writer for Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine. Her work has been featured in Blue Heron ReviewMermaids MonthlyEternal Haunted Summer, Forget Me Not Press, and Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. She teaches at Central Connecticut State University. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Little Wild” by Julian Grant.

“Angels of the Morning” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

"It makes you thirsty living in hell. Love your enemies as
yourself, someone said on the stony hell of Golgotha."

F. Durrenmatt, Suspicion

The early morning sunlight is a shock after twelve hours inside a bar.  I mean, you know what to expect, but the actual fact of it is rude.  Rude, as in hard on the eyes.   

Even a good pair of Dollar Store sunglasses doesn’t take the edge off the way you might have liked. You definitely need something in total, sun-inhibiting, black. The kind of ray blockers that turn back emanations from a Planet X would probably do the trick, but they didn’t sell those in any Dollar Store I ever heard of.

For years, I had been mocking the regular night guy about how, when he went on vacations, that he cultivated his pallor, instead of working on his tan.  It was true, he was the only guy anyone knew, who could go on a Caribbean cruise for eight days and never see the light of day. Of course, he wasn’t going to any of those places for the sun.  His travels always involved night life, preferably night life that never ended. With gambling, if possible. And other forms of entertainment that didn’t involve going outside.

I had called him Nosferatu for years, as he had been working this trick for so long, and spending so much time in artificial light, I suspected that the real thing would probably turn him into a pillar of salt.  Now that I was actually experiencing his kind of morning, I might have to re-evaluate my jest.  There was something painful, something untoward, about direct sunlight.  It wasn’t just the physical pain; it was the people out in it.  They were doing weird things in it.  Like going to regular jobs, or attending school, or, heading for their places of worship.  It was all foreign to me, totally alien, and it wasn’t something I wanted to make a habit of.

Normally, the walk over to Central Avenue was no more than ten minutes. I was used to humping to my stop, at something approximating full speed, under the assumption that who knew what kind of creeps, perverts, and garden variety scumbag/ muggers, would be lurking along the unlighted corners of Quail Street, personal assault central, mid-town Albany.  I was mildly surprised no one had waited for me to leave the bar or had jumped me, knowing bartenders always carried a certain amount of cash with them.  Hell, I’d been threatened enough times inside the bar, it seemed almost inevitable that one of the clowns would actually follow through with their threats.  That I never left directly after closing, probably frustrated most would be assailants. I carried cash, but not That much cash.   

I took my time, pretending to enjoy the warm morning, the novelty of fresh air, sunshine, singing birds, and people, without the weird glow of drugs and alcohol.  It was serene, and more than slightly surreal, like being stoned in church, or an acid flashback at a revival meeting.  There were enough store front churches, and revivalist prayer meeting places, burrowed among the failed businesses and student ghetto housing on Quail, you could buzz in and sample the weirdness for yourself, day or night, if you were so inclined. 

I was somewhere in that nebulous liquid state between smashed and stoned, where life is glorious; pain and suffering remote. I was willing, ready, and able, to maintain my mellow glow as long as it could be milked.  In short, I was hand pumped, primed, and ready, for happy hour in the morning.

Or so I thought.    

Once inside, I discovered, I would never be completely attuned to what awaited me there.  It might have been the way my eyes took a while to adjust to their being reintroduced to the false glow of bar light.  There is something indefinable, something timeless, about a bar that never seems to actually close; the denizens inside inexorable, omnipresent as furniture, animated, but resolute, in their purpose of blending in, becoming a function of the bar, of time, of life here.

The bar shifts here seemed to seamlessly merge one with the other. One barperson exchanged for another, without the tone of the place altering at all.  The stale fog of cigarette smoke wafting up to the high, real tin ceiling, stained a sick rust color after over a century of uncirculated air. The pervading odor of spilled beer was so ingrained into the wood and the floor nothing could ever remove the scent, short of a fully involved conflagration. 

The dim, low wattage houselights were covered by thick glass globes that may have once been ornamental but were now buried in dirt and dust and cobwebs.  Perhaps the strangest thing of all was the creaking of the bar stools, as a body shifted its weight to better view whatever the tarnished, full-length back bar mirror might reveal, that and the dripping faucet in the bar sink, a leaking tap, the silent images on the twin televisions on opposite ends of the bar that no one paid any attention to.

 Once inside, I felt as if, in a way, I had always been there.  Would always remain there, squinting, looking about, a small pile of money before me on the gouged and cigarette burned wood, a drink on a cardboard coaster before me. I would always be involved in this almost intimate conversation with an off-duty nurse, still in her uniform, a below the waist black cardigan sweater partially buttoned, hugged to her breasts.  And I’d be lighting her cigarette with a heavily scuffed Zippo lighter, watching as she inhaled and we’d be saying something like this,

“What’s with the sweater.”

“I’m cold.  I’m always cold.”

“It’s a beautiful, warm Spring Day.”

“Cold comes with my job.”

“Your job.  As a nurse?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you do?  As a nurse.”         

“I’m a morgue nurse.”

“A morgue nurse.  Can’t have much to do there.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Surprise me.”

“Who do you think cleans the bodies up? Applies the toe tags? Wheels them around from one place to another for viewing.”

“Orderlies?”

“Orderlies.  Yeah, sometimes.  I’m special.”

“Special.  How so?”

“I belong to the union and I piss people off.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Ok, I don’t.  Fill me in.”

“You asked for it.  Who do you think sews up the bodies after the autopsies?  Disposes of the diseased organs?  The spare parts?”

“Never mind.”

“It was your call.”

“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.  Are we actually, like having this conversation?”

“No.  It’s all your imagination.”

“Good.  I was worried there for a minute.”

I reached for the drink I didn’t remember ordering, that sat on the coaster in front of where I was standing. I always stood at a bar.  Once you sat down, you were in danger of getting too comfortable. Of settling in.  Of never leaving.  Come hell or high water. Or a terminal shortage of funds.  And there were always ways to get around the last problem.             

“ATMs in hell, what a concept!”  I thought.  “What will they think of next?”  The question a lot scarier than it appeared on the surface. Is this the beginning of one of those binges’ alcohol counselors warned you about?  Or worse, the middle of one? Or the end?

“What do you do?” She asked.

“I’m a bartender.”

“I thought it was something like that.”

“How can you tell?”

“You have that half-dead, perpetual flush/air, of someone who has been seriously drinking for far longer than is good for you.”

“That obvious, huh?”

“Plain as day.”

“What else to you see?”

“Lots.”

“Care to share some of your infinite wisdom?”

“If you insist.”

“I’m insisting.  You’re dry.  Let me get you another one.”

“I’ll have the same then.”

“Bartender.  Give the lady whatever’s she’s drinking.  And give me whatever I’m drinking.  What am I drinking?”

“You don’t know?”

“Very funny.  Fill it up and take it out of this pile.”

I watched as he poured the drinks.  He was pretty slick about it.  Pouring the cocktails well down the bar and out of sight, as if he has some sort of special reserve hidden on the speed rack that I couldn’t see.  I thought I was drinking beer.  Once upon a time, I was drinking beer.  Maybe I’ll switch back.  Next time.

I looked around the bar.  There was a whole slew of pensioners here. Men who spent the bulk of their waiting hours in places like this, spending their social security checks, going on the cuff when the funds disappeared toward the end of the month.  Some of them probably had their checks sent directly here and spent it on account.  No need to worry about money actually changing hands.  Kept things nice and clean and simple.

They drank like hand-wound machines running out of steam, body parts moving in slow motion, hand around glass, always around the draft beer glass, rising through the thick air, rising, the, reaching the lips that opened just wide enough to receive a sip. Then the wide, described arc, back toward the bar, as if in strange dream of life among a rediscovered, lost tribe of the besotted, in their natural habitat. The scene as oddly beautiful as it was disturbing; all those purposeful hands, continually rotating mechanical parts, winding down like a room full of clocks without face plates.

“What I see is you’re as gone as they are.  What separates you from them is that you haven’t realized it yet.”

“That’s comforting.”

“I don’t see how it could be.”

I turned away from the nurse, looked down the long expanse of the bar.  I could see why it was advertised as the longest bar in the city; it most certainly was.  And it seemed to be growing longer the more I drank. 

And there seemed to be more people than just a minute ago. I didn’t actually recall hearing the door open, or see people cross from the entranceway to their given space at the bar.  Maybe they just appeared there.  Nothing seemed sequential, the way it was supposed to any longer.  The only obvious connection between these people, and what was happening with them, was that they were the regular morning crowd, and everyone knew everyone else, as much as that was possible.

The troubling thought occurred to me that I was dropping in and out of a deep fugue state.  Another part of the binge phenomena.  At least, that’s what I hoped it was. 

And she was saying, “You don’t have the look of a cop.  Not even an undercover one.”

“What do cops look like?”

“Like they’ve seen it all.  Know it all. And no one can ever tell them different about what they’ve seen and done about it.  They just know and that’s all there is to it. You’re still seeing things.   And they’re always playing with their guns; either the one they’ve got strapped to their body or the one in their pants. It doesn’t matter which. They’re both the same thing.”

“That’s the dicks and the uniform guys. What about undercover cops?” 

“They’re always playing at being something they’re not, trying to fool you into believing that they’re cool and, normal, and your friend.  Which, of course, they never are; you trust one of those guys and what happens after that is your own fault.”

“And I’m not like that?”

“Well, you’re not carrying a gun for one thing.”

“What about the one in my pocket?”

“I’m not worried about that one.  I can take care of that one. I’m a professional.”

“What if it’s loaded?”

“It better be.  Or, we have no business talking the way we are.”

The man to my right was talking to the bartender.  Was saying,” Bar fellow, give me a vodka and water no ice.  Better make it a double, I’ll supply my own fizz.”

I let the last part slide for a moment.  Scoped out his dressed-for-a-day-at-the-office gear: a not half-bad suit, a matching hat, and a conservative tie.  Then I wondered about the fizz.  I’d never seen a vodka and whatever fizz, in all my years behind the bar.  Not yet.  But I was open to a new form of entertainment, especially when it wasn’t mine to clean up after.

“Thank you, kind sir.” he said, and, whipped out one of those little individually wrapped Alka Seltzer tabs, and dropped the tab into the drink.  It sort of fizzed.  Not like it would in water, but it tried like hell. 

Our man fired it down like it was the most natural way to start the day.  “Señor, bartender, better make another one, same way.”

It too disappeared down the chute, then the man slid his glass forward in the universal signal for yet another drink, same way. 

“Jesus,” I thought, “I wonder how many of these things he’s good for?”

“Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with it.” She said. “Jesus won’t help you at all here.”

I wondered if I hadn’t just thought that to myself, but the phase had actually been spoken out loud.  I hoped it had.  When I turned to look at the Fizzman, he was gone. Another man was bellying up to the bar. This guy looked as if he had just stepped out of a Graham Greene novel set-in Southeast Asia.  He was wearing a Panama hat, and a seersucker suit, blue stripes on white cloth. I didn’t notice the artist’s portfolio he had with him, at first, distracted as I was, by the call he made to the bartender, “Mate, I’ll have a double scotch in a highball, no rocks, just the naked scotch.  I’ll add my own mixer, if you don’t mind.”

“Depends upon what it is.”

He extracted a plastic bottle from his inside jacket pocket and showed the label to the bartender.

“OK, pal, your funeral. Any particular kind of scotch you want for that?”

The barman’s voice lacked inflection, such as sarcasm or opprobrium, but I sensed he was busting the Panama’s chops.  Once I saw what he was going to pour into the scotch, I knew he was.

“Make it a double Johnny Walker Red.”

“Cost more than the no-brand stuff.”

“It’s what I like, mate.”

“There you go, pal, double trouble.”

“No, mate, double your fun.  Like the old advertisement.”

The bartender’s look told Panama Red that he had no idea what he was talking about.

“Before your time, Mate. It was a chewing gum advertisement.  Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, identical twins, chewing identical sticks of gum.  It was cute once upon a time.  I had the account.  When they used commercial artists.”   

I noticed the portfolio, then.  A big brown thing with straps around it tied in bows. Maybe he fancied himself as an English Gauguin. 

I couldn’t resist a comment. “Taste good, does it? Scotch and whatever crap that is in that bottle you just put in it.”

“Tastes like shit, mate.”

“So why do you drink it?”

“Doctor’s orders.  Used to be they told you to drink scotch and milk.  Which was marginally better tasting.  Then they discovered milk had all that acid in it.  Not good for the tummy.  Not a rotten one like mine.”

“I give up, what are you adding to Mr. Walker?”

“Maalox.”

I suppressed a gag. 

“It actually tastes worse than it sounds.  But if you want to keep drinking…”

“So why bother with calling a brand if you can’t taste the difference?”

“Memories, mate.  I drank McGillicuddy’s Peppermint Schnapps and milk for years. 

Reminded me of the Wrigley’s account in a way.  Except there is way more proofage in that stuff than in gum.  You might be surprised how much proofage.”

“Some people would be surprised, but not me.  I won’t have it in my bar.  Not that, nor 151 Rum, nor Ouzo.”

“Wise man.  Almost broke my heart when the Doc told me it was scotch or nothing.  I used to like scotch too. Join me, Laddie?”

“No thanks.  I’ll stick with what I’ve got.”

“You can skip the Maalox, and, just have the scotch.”

“I really don’t think I should mix…”

“What are you drinking?”

“Ask the bartender, he knows.”

I watched the bartender building another double Walker for Panama Red.  I wondered what he was going to pour next when the nurse placed her hand on my arm and spoke, “Do you like tattoos?”

“Depends upon what they are and where they are.”

“I have a tattoo.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“Aren’t you going to ask me what it is?”

“What is it?”   

“It’s a spider.”

“Any particular kind?”

“A black widow.”

“Figures. I suppose the next question has to be, where is it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Actually, I would.”

“If you play your cards right, I might show you.”

I turned to see how Panama Red was making out, but there was no sign of him.  Not even a white coated highball glass to mark where his place at the bar had been.  I wondered what the bartender had poured for me, on Red, but all I could see was an empty pair of shot glasses face down and empty on the bar.

Instead of Red, now there was an older, much seedier guy leaning over the bar holding an incredibly wrinkled, filthy, twenty dollar bill out toward the bartender.  Our barman saw the old coot standing there, gave a look as if he wished the guy would evaporate, or be repossessed by the demons of hell he had temporarily escaped from.  Eventually, the barman accepted the inevitable, and began mixing the drink he knew the old guy would be wanting.

It was an off-color, vaguely bloody looking thing, made with Clamato juice, tablespoons of horseradish sauce, and a liberal dose of Tabasco plus the requisite double shot of below the rack vodka. 

Once the drink was placed before him, the old man began speaking to no one in particular. Every once in a while, he would look in my general direction to see if I was listening.

“There was a time when I have been reduced to drinking dishwater.  Bilge water, my son.  You know how it is, any port in a storm.  You have that look about you, that you know what I mean.” I vowed to do something about that look of mine.  Though, what I might do about it, or intended to do about it, escaped me. 

“When you’ve lived the kind of life as I have, you learn not to be too choosy when it comes to your potables.  You wouldn’t think an old rum dum like me would know a word like potables, would you?”  Actually, I didn’t.  He had that grizzled, weathered look of someone who had spent more than a few years curled up on heating grates and park benches, with a copy of the Sunday New York Times as the only thing between him and the elements.  And he smelled liked it too.

“Lots of things I know might surprise you.  And all it would cost you to find out would be the cost of a few of my specialty cocktails. You strike me as the curious type.” I noticed that his change had disappeared from the bar and been hidden safely away in whatever secret compartment he had for such things.  No doubt about it, he was a crafty old fart.

“I’ll bet you never thought you’d be getting an invitation like that first thing in the morning, now, did you?” The answer was too obvious to bother with.  I bought him a round and let the show go on.  It was fairly obvious that he was programmed to talk, whether anyone was listening or not, and there was nothing, I or anyone else could do about it.  Feeding him drinks was like shoveling coal into a bottomless, burning pit. 

I had to admit, his tale about translating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow into Seagull, was a unique project, even for a delusional half-dead alkie.  I was going to suggest he tackle someone a bit more modern like Vachel Lindsay, whose poem “The Congo”, might make an interesting vocal companion to Hiawatha in Seagull, when the nurse interrupted my train of thought.

“How about “General Booth Enters into Heaven’?”

“Excuse me?”

“Vachel Lindsay.  Poetry.  Not the usual intellectual pursuits of bartenders.”

“I’m not your usual kind of bartender.”

“Good. I like unusual.”

I wondered what unusual meant to her.  She motioned toward the bartender.

“I’ll have tequila.”

“What kind?”

“Something with a worm at the bottom.”

I asked.  “Do you eat the worm?”

“Always.  It’s what they’re for.”

I looked into her eyes.  There was something deep and inscrutable, something impenetrable and determined there, I couldn’t fathom.  There was no way I could out-stare those eyes.  Once she had seen you, there was no way to escape them.  Not here.  Not anywhere. I paid for the drinks.  We weren’t going anywhere.  Not for a long, long time.


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


“Thanksgiving” Folk Horror Dark Fiction by Sara White

Some nights the Elder still dreamt of electricity. Blinking strings of colored bulbs on a tree, squares of light shining out of tall buildings, headlights leading cars. Tonight she dreamed about going to a movie theater during a storm when she was young. The screen was so tall, easily fifty feet high, and she bounced up and down in a padded chair while her mother handed out popcorn from a crinkling bag. She could feel the grease of the melted butter coating her fingers. Then, with a loud crash, a wall of the theater was ripped away with by wind.

She startled awake and reached out, fumbling in the shy light of the rising sun to turn on her bedside table lamp. She reached and reached but met empty air. She felt her heart pounding as she sat up and looked around. She was not sure where she was until she saw the patchwork quilt on her bed, the tattered canvas curtains covering her window, the wrinkles on her hands. Then she remembered.

Most days this recollection was a hard one. Not like it was at first. Months convinced they were waiting to die, and many of them had been right. Losing so much they had been dependent on with nothing to replace them. Now the pain was that of other cherished but long-gone memories, the ones you weren’t sure if really happened or were only bits of dreams and stories strung together until they felt real.

Today the shock was smaller. Through her open window she could hear children laughing out in the square accompanied by the sound of hammers striking nails. Today was Thanksgiving morning.

After she rose and dressed the Elder stepped out of her house and breathed deep. The autumn air was crisp and delicious. Wisps of her silver hair wafted around her forehead while the rest hung in a braid down her back. She wore a long dress of blue wool. The wool had come from sheep she had raised herself and had been spun on her own wheel. She remembered how easy it had been Before to go to a store with so many clothes in so many sizes and how no one appreciated the luxury of it all. She supposed that was by design, though.

She was one of the only ones left old enough to remember Before. How big it had been, so uselessly big. Now she concerned herself with her town, and the town concerned itself with her. She lived in a small home off the town’s central square. It had once been the town green, but the grass and clover had long ben trodden to dust. All the townspeople knew where to find her when they needed her counsel, remedies, or sometimes just her company.

The house was made of two rooms, one serving as kitchen, den, and library while the other was the bedroom. She called it her house, but it wasn’t, not really. It was the house of the Elder and had belonged to another before her, a man named Jonathan. When he died, it had passed to her, and when she died, it would pass to another. The Elder was chosen by the people and served the people. It was the greatest honor of her life.

The main square was lined with wagons and carts stacked with food and dry goods. Others who lived further afield had brought cloth or honey from their beehives to barter with and some had whittled toys for the children. There were so many children in the town now thanks to years of good harvests and peace. Some goods were listed for sale, but most were offered freely today. It was a holiday tradition to celebrate a good harvest. The carpenters were constructing the platform and tables where they would share their meal later. The craftsmen made them anew every Thanksgiving morning then threw them into bonfires they danced around at night. It was a reminder of the natural cycle of the harvest, and of life.

As the Elder strolled into the square, her neighbor Mama Jones waved in greeting from a few doors down. Everyone called her Mama Jones because she and her husband looked after the town’s children when the parents needed to be in the fields. She walked over holding a wooden bowl filled with oatmeal out to the Elder.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Mama Jones said.

“And to you,” the Elder replied. She smiled with her lips closed, she only had a few teeth left now. As she brought the bowl to her lips she gasped, and her near-empty mouth gaped in shock. “Is that—

“Cinnamon!” Mama Jones squealed, clapping with glee. “My husband found some on his latest trek out, some peddler he met on the road. We’ve had it for months, saved it up for Thanksgiving. It’s going in pies for the feast, but I saved a bit just for you.”

“You are a beacon of kindness, my dear. May They bless you and your light,” she reached out with her thumb and index finger and touched Mama Jones in the center of her forehead.

“Thank you, Elder,” she said.

“Can I return this bowl to you later? I need to go check on my traps.”

“Yes, of course,” she said before waving at someone over the Elder’s shoulder and wandering off. Mama Jones and her husband ran the general store and he ventured out past their borders once or twice a year in search of rare items and often collecting some pelts along the way. Cinnamon, though! Truly a rare find.

The Elder strolled through the square, waving to children who called to her and nodding greetings at those who had come in from the outskirts. The sun was warm while the ground under her bare feet remained cool. When she reached the grass, she paused and wiggled her toes around savoring the feel of soft blades between her toes. She could see more families coming down the road that led to the square excited for the holiday.

The traps weren’t far from the square and she reached them in a few minutes. They were under a large oak tree with sprawling roots and a twisted trunk. Near the center of the trunk there were the last visible remnants of a metal “no parking” sign that was slowly being consumed by the tree. The curb that had been here once was long gone now, all the concrete scavenged away. There were still some patches of asphalt peeking through vegetation, but it had long been taken over by vegetation, small leaves pushing through cracks and widening them until only patches remained.

The trap pits had been dug years before and lined with bricks and stone to keep the walls from caving in. Some of the concrete from the curb had gone into this effort. The pits were deeper than the tallest man in town and only accessible by a wooden ladder that belonged to one of the carpenters. As she approached, she could hear the distressed cries coming from the pit and smiled. They would eat well tonight.

The Elder had been born into a land of plenty and assumed it would last forever. So did her parents, and so had everyone else. No one considered they could keep on living after the end of life as they knew it.

When she was young, she had never had much belief in her life. Then, there didn’t seem to be anything worth believing in. People had walked on the moon, organs could be grown in labs, life expectancy kept climbing up, up, up. What mysteries were left that people had not been able to solve?

It might have been because her family had held such deep beliefs. They had taken so much of it into themselves that there was none left for her, the last born. It was not for lack of trying. Each weekend was filled by the church: Saturday Bible study and Sunday worship that lasted hours. The night before her baptism she had gotten her first period and was terrified of bleeding into the baptismal pool. Would it be a sin to let Eve’s punishment flow into the water blessed to cleanse that sin from her? Her mother had promised her sins would still be washed away, then explained how to use a tampon in hushed whispers her brother could not hear through their thin walls.

Her favorite days had been the revivals when they got to have service outside under a big tent. There was a band instead of a choir and a stage in place of an altar. The pastor stood on high calling on them all to be saved and to bear witness to the salvation of their brothers and sisters. It was a heady spectacle and if she could not feel belief in the salvation, she at least could feel something with the wind on her face. Row upon row of people would file up to have hands laid on them. Some were seeking healing, others forgiveness, others to be a part of a whole. They cried out first for grace then in the ecstasy of rebirth.

The Elder had only walked in that line once. She thought it might help her feel what the others did, that maybe there was something in that touch. A touch was physical, actual. A touch could be the key.

The pastor was a portly, balding man with ruddy cheeks. He had a gap in his front teeth and sometimes when he preached globs of spit flew through it. He wore glasses that took up half his face, a necktie that seemed tight enough to strangle him, and an alligator skin belt with his all-white suit. When she reached the front of the line, and he laid his hands on her she waited for the jolt of the Holy Spirit passing into her. As the seconds passed all she felt were the pastor’s soft, sweaty fingers over her face. Their heft made her feel like she couldn’t breathe. She thanked the pastor, yelled out in praise of the Lord as those before her had but she never walked to the front again.

The revivals happened more often when the storms started getting worse. She had stopped going by then, had moved into her own apartment and had a job in an office. Her family still went though. Her mother, father, brother, his wife, and their baby twins.

There had always been bad storms where she had grown up, especially in the summer; the thick humidity caused chaos in the skies. But each year they got worse and worse in a way that they had not when her parents were young. Her mother stopped driving because the downpours were vicious and hit with no warning. A tall, healthy tree was blown over and barely missed her building. The landlord had all the others removed because the winds weren’t stopping. Their state had floods while the other side of the country burned so hot rescue teams could not even fly helicopters in to fight the blazes.

Despite it all on and on the revivals went, fervor growing with each passing season. The pastor stood in front and cheered the storms, eyes bright and a sheen of sweat on his brow. The storms were proof, he said, that Jesus would soon return. That the sinners would be washed away in the floods like those who had not listened to Noah or burned like the wicked of Sodom.

Since leaving home the Elder had played around with different things: Buddhism, Quakerism, spells involving cloves stuffed into the rinds of ripe fruit. Not believing in anything made her open to believe in anything, in a way. None of these stuck and she started to feel drawn towards the big tent again. Come back with us, her mother had urged, be saved with us. Enter the tent to enter the kingdom. She agreed to come to the next revival.

The day was cloudy and windy. The parking lot was gravel and as she got out of her car dust and small rocks were blown into her face and got in her eyes. She poked at the whites of them trying to get at the stinging grains. The tent was more crowded than she had ever seen it with nearly a thousand people. Others had the same thoughts as her and were here to hedge their bets, she guessed. There were some faces she recognized from her younger years, and she waved politely if they looked her way. The preacher had already started but not for long, he was still in the invocation and welcoming portion. 

She tried to find her family, but the crowd was too big to make people out. She took out her cell phone but had no reception. Winds from a hurricane the year before had taken out several cell towers in the area and they had not been repaired yet. There was an empty picnic table at the back of the tent, just outside the cover of the canvas, and she climbed on it to get a better view. As she did the sky opened and rain thick as sheets began to fall. It was so forceful it nearly knocked her to her knees.

People squeezed under the tent to get out of the rain, and she still had not seen her family. She had some paper towels in her backseat and an umbrella in the trunk, so she decided to run for her car. She would dry off, wait for the rain to ease, then come back to the tent. As she ran across the parking lot she slipped on the loose, wet stones and fell hard into the gravel. She slid forward a few inches and felt the skin on her hands and knees tear with the movement.

When she got in her car she dabbed at her bloodied knees and palms with the towels, hissing at the sting. There were pieces of gravel lodged in her flesh. With her hands slippery from rain and the debris slippery from blood, they would not give. The rain had lessened some though it was still raining hard. She looked through her windows towards the tent. The pastor had improved his lighting set up since she was here last; the beams from the stage lights above him shined out across the field and the lot. Cheers erupted from the congregation, he must have finished his welcome and was into the soul saving now.

The Elder knew she should get her umbrella and go back to the tent. She promised her mother she was coming; she had driven all the way here. But the sting of her wounds and the poke of the small rocks still in them made her mind up for her. She started her car and began to drive home. These last for hours, she reasoned. She would have plenty of time to go home, clean herself up, and then come back before the end.

When she got back to her apartment and her phone connected to the internet, she began receiving weather alerts. Not unusual, they seemed to happen every week now. She glanced at the screen to dismiss the notification as she turned on her shower and froze.

FLASH FLOOD WARNING ISSUED FOR THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES

The first listed was the county where the revivals happened. Her heart began to pound, and she sat on the cool tile of the bathroom and closed her eyes, breathed in slow and deep, exhaled even slower. Reminded herself these were rural counties. They were large and filled with open spaces. Reasoned her way through the anxiety. Laughed at her overreaction. Pulled the gravel out of her wounds with her tweezers then took a long shower.

When she got out, she saw the stream of messages from friends and relatives telling her to turn on the news.

The Elder felt like she could skip as she made her way back to the square. She held two large hares by their freshly wrung necks; she could taste them roasted and smothered in gravy already. She sent two of the carpenters out to the traps to bring in the larger game she was unable to carry and took the rabbits to the big house on the left of the square. It served as meeting hall, tavern, and Inn on the rare occasions a traveler passed through. Every Thanksgiving the owners, Lizzie and Bill Glenn, opened the use of their large kitchen to prepare most of the food. The front room was empty of people but as the Elder walked in, she was met with the smell of fresh baked bread and sizzling animal fat.

“Mrs. Glenn,” she called as she walked towards the kitchen. “I’ve brought some more meat for you.” The door to the kitchen burst open as she neared, and she could hear the chatter of several women from within. A brown-haired woman a head taller than her strode out. Her face shone with sweat from standing over fires and stoves and there was a gray smudge of ash on one cheek. She wore a large, stained apron over her linen work dress. She opened her arms wide and pulled the Elder into a warm hug. Her hair smelt of yeast and warm sugar.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Elder. We aren’t standing on any formalities here, you know you can call me Lizzie,” the woman said. Her eyes were wrinkled at the corners from the smile she wore so freely.

“Happy Thanksgiving to you, Lizzie. I thought you might could use these,” the Elder said, holding the rabbits out to her. Lizzie wiped her hands on her apron before taking them.

“The traps were good to us today; these will go nicely in the meat pies.”

“How was our harvest? I saw some wagons come in but not all.”

“It was a glorious harvest, Elder. One of the best I’ve seen. After today we will get to work drying and canning but we have plenty to get through the winter with some to add to the reserves.”

“What a blessing,” the Elder said, smiling as wide as Lizzie.

“Lizzie,” a voice called from inside the kitchen, “we need your help rolling out the dough!”

“I’d better get back,” Lizzie said.

“Is your husband nearby?” The Elder asked as she turned to go.

“He was helping build the platform but should be in the council chamber by now,” she said before disappearing again into the kitchen.

The Elder walked back through the main room and through a door on the far side which led to the main meeting hall. Lizzie and others called it the council chamber because it was where the village council did most of its business, but she never liked the formality of calling anything a chamber. The council was a small body of the heads of households and herself and most of their business had to deal with finding missing sheep or chickens. Nothing so grand as to require a dedicated chamber. She knocked lightly before entering and found Bill Glenn seated on the table at the front.

The room itself was small with two windows in the far wall. There were several rows of chairs facing the table which served as an all-purpose surface for everything from writing and signing documents to butchering a pig.

Arrayed in front of Bill were the Thanksgiving ceremonials. This included two goblets, a sharp carving knife, and a large platter that the other items were placed on. The platter had been taken from someone’s silver collection for this communal use. The goblets were carved from wood but plated in gold from jewelry that had been melted down years ago. She and Bill exchanged greetings as she gazed at the tools.

“Finished shining them all this morning, Elder,” he said. He was a thin man who was tall but stood stooped as if to hide it. He was treated like the Mayor; though there was no such official post. He was a man who did not demand respect but received it because of his kind spirit.

“They look perfect, thank you as always. I stopped by and spoke with Lizzie. The food all smells delightful. The two of you are the beating heart of our town.” Bill blushed and smiled.

“That is very kind of you to say, ma’am, but I can’t take any credit. It goes to Them, and to you for helping us stay on the path. May we never lose our way again.”

“We have a solid path under our feet again, we will not lose it,” She reached her hand forward and touched her fingertips to his forehead and he closed his eyes. She held the blessing a few moments more then removed her hand. “I have to go and complete my preparations for the ritual, I will be back at sunset.”

Rolling blackouts became common, then they started lasted longer. The hotter summers and harsher winters pushed the grids so far, the government started forced rationing to divert energy to places suffering the worst. How fast the individualism disappeared when temperatures rose and the world began to look fragile, and how fast it came back when the grids died completely. After that it did not take long for the world to shrink and narrow.

Not for the first time the Elder had been grateful she lived somewhere guns were commonplace. She grew up knowing how to shoot pistols and rifles, both hunting and automatic ones. She never imagined she would need to use them to scare off other women to grab one of the few remaining boxes of tampons though.

Once people realized the lights were not coming back on and store shelves would not be replenished, trying to get any supplies was like entering a war zone. After the flood she had moved back to her family’s home. She was the sole inheritor, and the mortgage was paid off. Not that anyone was collecting mortgages now, all the records were on servers no one could turn on. But now the closest grocery store was eight miles away. She did calculations of gas mileage, how many trips she could make with what she had left, what food would last longest without refrigeration. Her apartment had been closer to stores, but her parents had land. Not much, only an acre, but she was only one person.

It was normal now to hear gunfire at the grocery store. She managed to get large bags of rice and dried beans while most frenzied over the canned goods. She grabbed whatever fruits and vegetables she could. Livestock and chicken farmers were raided. Chickens went first, prized for their eggs. There was a small lake nearby and whenever she walked by it there were always people trying to fish with lines tied onto sticks.

She tried to dig a root cellar to keep food cool. The soil was hard clay, and it took weeks of digging to finish it. She hoped for some rain to moisten the ground, make it easier to dig into, but it did not come. The water lines still worked but what came out of the taps was brown and it soon dried up too.

The food she put in the cellar spoiled anyway. It did not get cool enough to keep until much deeper underground.

She dug jagged rows and put potatoes, onions, and apples in the ground. She had never tried to grow anything before. Many nights, sleeping with her loaded rifle by her bed, she wondered if it was worth it to keep trying. Wondered if other countries were as bad as here, what happened to the people on planes when the grids went down for good, was there even still a government?

One day, there was a knock on her door. She grabbed the rifle and tucked a pistol into her pocket. It wasn’t the safest option but better than the alternative. She knew how quickly someone would assume a skinny 20-something girl was no threat if she were not visibly armed. She opened the door holding the rifle to her shoulder, barrel steady. The visitors were a pair, a middle-aged man and woman, who both held up their hands when her gun came into view.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the man had said. He was tall and his skin was tanned and taut from long years of work in the sun. His fingers curled down slightly from arthritis. He looked familiar but it was a small town. Everybody looked familiar. “We know visitors ain’t welcome much anymore, but we mean you no harm. We live about a mile down the way and wanted to let you know about the market.”

“There are some folks there who have goods they’d be happy to trade for some vegetables,” the woman said. She lowered her rifle and the two of them lowered their hands.

As the man and woman led the way, they explained how they traveled for miles knocking on doors inviting others to come trade. They had started the market on their own land, a field their goats used for grazing. The Elder had not remembered how long it had been since the lights went out, and the couple did not know how long ago they started the market.

“Must be at least a year now,” the woman said. Even though she could not have been older than 55 her hair was already white. She wore old denim overalls pocked with patches and dull leather boots. She walked with her hands in her pockets and whistled in between bouts of conversation. “My husband and I, we’ve lived off our land for years already. Grew up out in the sticks, it was a simpler type of life. Didn’t realize how used to luxury people had become. So, we set up the market to try and help. Wes here helps with woodworking and farming, I help with canning and sewing. Little things, but they help people get by.” She glanced at the Elder’s worn clothing. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but it looks like you could use a little help getting by.”

“My family is all gone,” the young Elder said by way of explanation. The woman nodded.

“You’re young for it, but I was too. You’re still alive so you’re a tough one, but even tough ones can’t do everything alone. Name’s Alice, by the way.” The Elder nodded but did not speak because she was trying to blink back tears. Alice started up whistling again and they made the rest of the walk to the tune of Camptown Races.

In time, the market would become the main square where the men had just finished building the platform and tables for Thanksgiving, and Alice would become the first Elder. All Elders who had come after had learned from her, but the current Elder would be the last who had known her. Slowly, over the course of several years, buildings went up around the market. Somewhere to feed people coming from longer distances, or to offer shelter in bad weather. For the weather was still bad and often farmers came from ten miles away then were trapped by a storm. The first Elder and her husband helped teach people skills like carpentry, pottery, canning, sewing, and farming. They had lived off their land for years and taught others how to do the same in exchange for the safety of a fostered community.

She watched out for that community now. They had many hard years, some due to bad harvests and others to sickness. Slowly medicine cabinets filled with pills gave way to ointments made with herbs and animal fat and poultices for wounds. Things Alice helped her learn to not be afraid of but to meet head on, like screaming at a grizzly bear so it would leave your tent alone. Alice had taught her how to believe.

The wind began to pick up later in the afternoon as the Elder prepared in her home. She took a long cleansing bath in cold water and anointed her hair and body with sunflower oil and rosemary. By the light of her fire, she knelt and sprinkled a handful of ashes into her hair. Prayer came easy to her now and she did not realize hours had passed before there was a rap on her door.

Draped in a robe of deep, burnt orange she stepped into the fading light of day. Their population was small, but none ever missed a Thanksgiving. There were a little over a hundred families, many of which she saw only on holidays because they lived on farms and cabins further afield. This is why she loved this day so much, it brought them all together to celebrate. The main platform seated only 50 or so and the rest of the tables were arrayed in a semi-circle around it. The shadows of ruins loomed as the sun disappeared over the horizon.  Parents were trying to settle excited children, some with newborns slung over their shoulders. She wished she could greet them all individually, but it would have to wait.

The platform was lit with a row of torches along the back edge which burned high and bright. The table was set with places and large dishes of steaming food were spread across it. In the middle were the offerings from her traps, naked with their wrists and ankles bound and burlap covering their faces. She thought she could her one of them sobbing as she strode up the steps. As she reached the center of the platform and examined the offerings the rest of those gathered sat down and shushed one another to watch and listen.

They were a man and a woman, a married couple traveling in search of the sea, hoping to find civilization beginning anew on one shore or another. They stopped at Bill and Lizzie’s Inn a few nights before. Each of them had worn necklaces with crosses on them, dangling over their chests and glinting off of candlelight in the dim dining room. Bill had told them of the remains of a superstore that still held some scraps of clothing, useful supplies for those walking so far on foot. He gave them directions leading straight into the Elder’s traps, hidden under a tarp coated in leaves. The next day he saw them off, and the day after that went to the traps to shackle and gag them for the feast.

Now the Elder took a torch offered to her by Lizzie and approached them. They each still wore their crosses. She reached up to the man’s neck and tugged on the chain until the clasp snapped. He shrank back as far as his bonds allowed. The Elder turned to her people and dangled the bracelet from her fist.

“The symbols of the false gods have come once more this harvest feast. The symbols of those who taught people to cheer for floods and fires, plagues, and famine. Taught their followers that suffering meant salvation. They shadowed the true path, and it was lost for an age. Still lost, to some, who cling to the faith of the destroyers.” The town yelled and hissed at the strangers. The woman on the table was shaking. “We have a solid path under our feet again, we will not lose it.

“The first Elder here showed us the truth, taught us of the old Gods, They who were here before the usurpers. Their wrath for our people’s betrayal was vicious, but for those of us who are faithful their blessings are bountiful. Since worshipping them so many Thanksgivings ago, we have had good harvests year after year no matter how bad the pests or how heavy the storms. They want to be remembered, and we remember Them. Today we honor Them with our offering.” She nodded to Bill who was waiting behind her. He stepped forward and pulled the sacks off the heads of the captives. The woman looked out on the crowd and screamed, the man stayed silent, but his face was pale and slick with cold sweat. When the people cheered, he turned to her.

“Please,” he said weakly. “Please let us go. We have done you and your town no harm. If you let us go, we will never come here again!” He pleaded. The pupils of his light green eyes were narrowed to pinpricks, the panicked instinct of a cornered animal.

“You have harmed us, you cursed us all!” Someone yelled from the crowd. The Elder held up her hand for quiet.

“Your belief in the usurper gods cost us the world, and this transgression now will cost your own lives. Fear not, for after this you will be welcomed by Them into the realm of the blessed. This is Their path, and we will not lose it again.” She walked to the end of the table where the two goblets were set on top of the platter with the knife in the middle. She picked up the goblets and raised them to the sky: “Come, Holy Ones, come. Bless and prosper this meal; bless and prosper this fellowship; bless and prosper our lives, that justice and love may be the measure of our common witness. Corn and grain, meat, and milk, upon these tables before us. Gifts of life, bringing sustenance and strength, oh Holy Ones, we give you thanks.” Lizzie and Mama Jones stood behind her and the Elder handed each of them a goblet before picking up the knife. This she too held to the sky, saying, “Praise to you, and bless this tool so that again we may be fed with your own body and blood. By your Leave and Supper, we dedicate this harvest.”  

The air was still as if the insects and birds themselves held their breaths. The offerings struggled weakly against their bonds; after days of no food and only enough water to keep them alive, they had little fight left. First, she approached the man. Grabbing him by his hair she wrenched his head backwards and in a swift, single motion slit his throat open. His wife, watching with horror, vomited stomach bile onto the table beneath her and sobbed. The Elder held the man’s head steady as he gurgled, and Lizzie moved in to hold her goblet beneath the wound. She stayed until it was filled to the brim with his blood. Then the Elder let go and he fell to the table, limp, and twitching. The last of his blood flowed beneath the platters of food, blessing each item on its path.

The wife shrieked and squealed as the Elder came to her, Mama Jones close behind with the other goblet. The Elder had to fight the urge to chant, “suwee, piggy,” as she slit the second throat. After both bodies were spent, the townspeople rose and sang a hymn of Thanksgiving while the butcher came forward. Bill hurried over with the offering platter. The butcher began to slice both offerings into small portions, stacking the flesh atop the platter. As he finished the man and moved to the woman the people of the town began to line up on either side of the base of the platform where Lizzie and Mama Jones stood waiting with their goblets.

The butcher finished his work and Bill walked off the platform to stand at the center point between Lizzie and Mama Jones. The platter was piled high with the meat of the sinners. The Elder stood above them and spoke.

“We offer these gifts, given to us by the old Gods of Earth. This is their blood, this is their body, which was given for us. Eat of it and remember the path.”


Sara White is an emerging fiction writer working and living in Atlanta. She holds masters degrees in modern history and library & information sciences.