“Portrait” Classic Horror by Nick Young

I am not — have never been — given to flights of the fantastical.  To be sure, from time to time, like many of my contemporaries, I have been enthralled by Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft and Hodgson.  But they were fictions, diversions from the mundane, nothing more.  Certainly, I never for a moment believed these entertainments were attempts to render true experiences.

Yet, now I have the gravest reason to doubt that judgment, for I myself have been witness to an event of such extremes that it cannot be counted as anything but lying beyond the precincts of the natural world.  And because it is so far from reality as normal men understand it, I can only confide the particulars in this journal.

The story begins shortly after Christmas last when my dear friend Hugh Fletcher was having tea of an afternoon in an Oxford Street cafe not far from Cavendish Square Gardens.  He and I had met while both at Eton and become virtually inseperable mates.  We maintained our close bond after graduation when my path took me to the London School of Economics while he pursued his dream of studying art.  The choices fit our personalities — I, the pragmatic, materialistic qq one; Hugh, much the romantic, fond of poetry and the serendipitous.  And, I should say, a painter who possessed genuine talent.  At the age of twenty-six, he was beginning to gain a modest reputation in the city for the quality of his work, which was on offer at a small gallery in Vauxhall.

On the day in question, as Hugh recounted it to me, while having a second cup of tea and reading from a newly purchased edition of Shelley, his attention was drawn to a young woman who had risen from her table in a far corner of the cafe and was preparing to leave.   

“She was singularly striking,” he told me, “tall, ivory-skinned, with great, dark tresses cascading around her face, encircled with the lush collar of a rich fur coat.  It would have been sufficient,” he went on, “just to savor her unrivaled beauty as she passed a few feet away, but as she neared the door, she turned and locked her smoke-grey eyes with mine.  It lasted only an instant, but the effect was profound.”

The woman then exited the cafe into the chill late afternoon as snow was just beginning to fall upon the city.  Hugh said he did not hesitate a moment, but leaped from his seat, shrugged into his chesterfield and rushed into the street.

“I could not explain my actions, save that I knew I must not allow her to get away.”  Within a block, as he weaved rapidly among the sidewalk throng, he had caught sight of her.  And as he neared her at a corner, though he was behind and she had not seen him, she stopped and turned.

“It was uncanny,” he told me. “With certitude, I sensed that she knew of my approach, that she expected it.”

To be sure, Hugh was taken somewhat aback, further unsettled by the way those eyes of hers bored into him, seemingly able to discern his innermost thoughts.   He stammered an introduction and expressed his fervent desire that she agree to sit for him while he painted her portrait. 

Her name, she replied, was Lizbeta: and at first, she demurred, explaining that she was not a professional model and that her time in London was limited before she must return to her native Romania.  But Hugh was insistent, pressing his case and proferring one of his business cards, which she accepted.

“I returned to my flat in a fever,” he said, “and spent the night unable to banish her from my thoughts.  And when I fell at last into fitful sleep, it was she who dominated my dreams.”

The obsession persisted upon his awakening, depriving him of an appetite, prompting him to pace nervously about his atelier, unable to concentrate on finishing a modest commissioned still life he had begun. 

At precisely 10:00, as Big Ben tolled the hour, Lizbeta rang his studio bell.  Hugh welcomed her with delight, noting that in the morning sunlight spilling into the room, she was even more ravishing than she had appeared the day before. 

“Although she still insisted she was an unworthy subject,” Hugh related, “she had found me flattering and persuasive enough to agree to a sitting.  But, of necessity, it would be a single sitting.   She had no choice, she said, having been summoned to return to Bucharest the following day to deal with pressing family affairs.”

With little time to lose, Hugh hastily arranged his studio, positioning his easel and mounting a freshly gessoed canvas upon it.   He bade Lizbeta to recline on a divan of brocade and mahogany, posing her in such a way that the sunlight brought out the finest qualities of her lustrous hair and perfect complexion. 

“I knew that I had but a few hours with her, so I rushed with a speed I did not know I possessed to block in the essentials of the painting and begin rendering her likeness.”

And paint he did, using every available ray of light until the late afternoon shadows deepened and Lizbeta made ready to leave.  Hugh expressed his dismay at her departure, so smitten had he become.

“I inquired when she would return to London so that I might present her with the painting.  She did not know, so I asked if she might leave a shipping address.  She promised to send it as soon as her business in Bucharest was completed.”

And with that, Hugh said, she turned her mesmerizing grey eyes on him a final time and left.

Now commences the strangest part of this tale.  Hugh immediately returned to the canvas, feverishly working his brushes and oils, attempting to reclaim from the memory of Lizbeta each curve, every contour, line and shadow, the very essence of her extraordinary beauty.  Using what lamplight he had at hand, he pressed on into the night, until exhaustion overtook him and he slept.

The next morning he arose at first light and without hesitation, returned to his obsession.  Since I hadn’t spoken with him in several days, I rang him up at the noon hour just to make idle conversation.  Instead, he implored me to come to his atelier immediately to view his latest work.  There was in his voice a tone of urgency such that I left my office at once.

When I arrived, Hugh barely took the time to let me into his studio before he was at his canvas again.  And as he painted, he recounted the whole story of his encounter with Lizbeta. It took but one glance at the woman’s image to understand why he said it had been “branded on my soul.”  Her face and figure were perfection and her eyes possessed a depth of power and mystery that was mesmerizing,  indelible.   

But it was not only his desire to capture the woman’s  every nuance that was driving him forward.  He could not account for it, he said, but his paint was thickening, becoming more viscous and hard to handle. 

“When I apply it to the canvas, it pulls at the brush — more so, it seems, with every passing hour — as if it doesn’t want to let go.  I’ve never encountered this before, but it is imperative that I complete the painting as soon as possible.”

It was clear that his distraction was total, so I took my leave with a wish to see the portrait once he’d completed it. 

The rest of my day was crowded — appointments through the afternoon, a dinner engagement with a client that led to brandy and cigars at my club.  By the time I reached the door of my apartments, it was almost midnight.  And no sooner had I entered than the telephone began to ring.  It was Hugh, frantic.

“You must come at once!”

“But the hour . . . , ” I protested.

“At once — do you hear me?!”

Quickly, I rushed to the street, hailed a cab and was delivered presently to Hugh’s studio.  The trip was short, but it gave me enough time to conjure dark thoughts about my friend’s obsession and his grip on reality.

When I arrived I found the door to his atelier unlocked, which I thought was odd, so I entered with a degree of caution, calling his name repeatedly but with no response.  I could see very little because the only light in the room was provided by a floor lamp Hugh had moved beside his easel, which was positioned in such a way that the back of the canvas was turned toward the door.  With my trepidation growing, I walked slowly forward.  Perhaps, I thought, Hugh was so absorbed in his work that he neither heard me enter nor call out to him.  But as I neared the easel, what caught my eye was not my friend.  Instead, beyond the edge of the painting in the pool of light thrown by the lamp were his palette and one of his brushes, both gleaming with wet paint, lying on the floor.  They did not appear to have been placed on the parquet but rather dropped or cast down. 

My heart by now was pounding in my chest.   I fought against my worst fears overwhelming me as I stepped around the easel and turned my full attention to the canvas. 

Now, you who know me have always judged me a sober, eminently rational individual.  So, too, do I consider myself.  I ask you to weigh what I recount next with that in mind.

I was aghast at what I beheld.  At first, my eyes refused to believe, but there was no denying what was in front of me.  It was the figure of a woman in an emerald-green gown reclining on the very divan that sat a few feet from me, just as I’d seen Hugh painting hours before.  I say the figure of a woman because this was not Hugh’s careful rendering of the ravishing Lizbeta, but a grotesquerie — a withered, gnarled crone whose grey hair hung in matted ropes, framing a face, shrunken and deeply creased.  Her mouth was open in a hellish grin, baring teeth blackened with rot.  And the astonishing eyes that my friend had found so compelling were now but sightless sockets.

But what was most horrifying, what caused me nearly to faint dead away, was that held tightly in the outstretched grasp of  this corpse was the figure of Hugh himself!  Against all reason and the laws of God and Nature, there was my friend clutched firmly in the embrace of two stick-like arms and bony fingers that curled around him more akin to the long talons of a bird of prey.  His countenance was that of a man overwhelmed by hysteria — eyes wide with anguish, mouth open in a plea for salvation, and one arm thrust out towards me, fingers extended to their extremity.  My mind reeled.  If only I could find it within myself do something — anything — to help him!

At that moment I hit upon an idea.  It was improbable, yes, but no less than what I saw upon the canvas.  Perhaps, I thought,  if I could paint out the hideous figure of the woman, its power over Hugh would be broken  and he would be restored to the world.  Swiftly, I retrieved the palette and paintbrush from the floor.  I gripped the brush and dipped it into a thick pile of a deep blue paint.  I recalled Hugh’s description of how the pigment had grown thicker, and I noticed this myself straight away. As I neared the tip of the brush to the canvas, to a spot over the hag’s face, I had the sensation of an electric shock course through my fingers and hand, and the bristles were pulled as if by a magnet onto the painting’s surface.  Reflexively, I jerked the brush away, though the tingling in my hand lingered.  I thought this a passing strange occurrence, but I concluded it must have been a momentary episode of static electricity and nothing more, so I again lowered the brush toward the painting. 

This time the effect was more pronounced.  As the tip of the bristles came into contact with the canvas, not only did a sharp tingling ripple into my hand but extended part way up my arm.  At the same moment, I beheld a large globule of the thick paint flow up the handle of the brush until it touched my fingertips.  Again, there was the sensation of a magnet’s pull, this instance stronger than the first.  And this time, with amazement, not only did the paint continue to ooze upon my fingers, but I saw the tip of the paintbrush bristles actually penetrate the surface of the canvas!

Horrified, I used my left hand to tear  myself free of the force which was growing in power.  Deeply shaken, I realized what Hugh’s fate had been and that I dare not risk a third attempt to alter the painting.  And, I can confide in these pages, I was overcome with raw fear, so much so that I hurled the palette and brush to the floor, and, with a long, wrenching backward look over my shoulder at the image of my friend frozen in his eternal torment, I turned and, God help me,  I ran!


Nick Young is an award-winning retired journalist whose career included twenty years as a CBS News correspondent. His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, The Green Silk Journal, Short Story Town, CafeLit Magazine, Fiery Scribe Review, Sein und Werden, Typeslash Review, 50-Word Stories, Sandpiper Magazine, Pigeon Review and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.


“Silver Lining” Horror by Roseanne Rondeau

“Hey, you alright?”

Nick opened his eyes to a dim swamp-green haze. He lurched to his feet, weaving his fists in the direction of the voice.  Pain shot through his skull, and he grabbed the side of his head. His fingertips traced the edge of a sticky crater under his matted hair. His vision doubled and he staggered falling backward against iron bars. He slumped to the floor. 

When Nick’s eyes opened again, he lay motionless. His body ached and the wound hiding under his hair throbbed. He studied his environment.

 He was surrounded by cavernous walls glowing faintly with a blue phosphorescence.  Heavy brackish fog snaked throughout the cave and disappeared into blackness at the far end. There was a sourness to the air making his eyes water.  Thick oxidizing bars pressed against his spine blocking the only exit he saw.  This was a cell, and he was the captive.

A man with greying skin and untamed white hair emerged from the recesses dragging a tattered blanket and humming to himself. Nick watched him scamper in and out of the darkness until he stopped and squatted at the edge of the shadows. He placed a tied bundle of fabric on the cave floor and worked the knot. Unfolding the loot, he pulled out a broken stick and set it aside, then he rummaged through a pile of yellowing bones. He lifted one, held it to his eye and peered through the shaft. He showed it to the stick and giggled, “Oh, it’s a good one.”

 He secured the bundle and set it aside, then gently picked up the stick and carried it along with the bone and blanket to an outcropping of blue rock. He nestled the stick in the blanket next to him.  He sniffed and turned the bone between his fingers.  Placing it in his mouth, he rolled it back and forth like a fine cigar, every so often offering it to the stick.

 The old man sucked and chewed at the bone. He shook it trying to dislodge the last bits of dried marrow at its center.  Nick turned away in disgust.

The old man caught the movement and darted to Nick’s side.

“Hi,” he said, grinning, the scent of carrion wafting around him. Nick grimaced. The man pressed his papery skin against Nick. “I’m Hazen,” he said, nodding so fast Nick thought his head might pop off and roll across the floor. Hazen pressed his palms on the warm flesh of Nick’s arm and leaned closer.

“Get away from me. I don’t give a shit who you are.”  He shoved Hazen backward. “Don’t touch me,” he growled. Hazen skidded across the rocky floor scrubbing the flesh off his knees. Nick jumped up and gripped the bars of the cell. “Someone better get down here, now!” Hazen dragged himself from the ground, stumbling.

“Stop,” he pleaded. He grabbed Nick’s hands pulling and prying at them.

“Hey, I know you’re down there!” Nick’s voice reverberated through the corridor.

“No, stop it, they’ll come. Be quiet,” Hazen tugged frantically at Nick’s arm. Nick rammed his elbow across Hazen’s cheekbone, blood splattered through the air as his skin split. Hazen dropped to the ground moaning and cupping the side of his face. Red seeped through his fingers and ran down his wrist. He rocked back and forth whimpering.

“Thought we could be friends,” he said looking his bloodied hands. He touched the wound on his face, wincing.

 “Pathetic. There’s nothing I want from you,” Nick said glaring down at the crumpled body on the floor.

“But I know how to stay alive,” he whimpered. He gathered his stick and blanket and crawled into the shadows of the cave.

#

The wound on Hazen’s cheek had clotted and was a dry brown smear when he re-emerged from the back of the cave. He draped the tattered blanket over his shoulders as he moved along the cave wall, tannin tainted mist swirling in small eddies behind him.

Nick was still gripping the bars and staring down the corridor. He listened to the muffled whistling, stomping, and uproar of a crowd in the distance.

“What’s down there?”

Hazen kept one eye on Nick as he approached the front of the cage and peered through the bars.

“It’s the Game Room.”

“What the hell is the Game Room?”

 “Can you remember, before here?” Hazen whispered as he pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and looked at Nick.

“Don’t mess with me,” Nick spat. Hazen shied and backed away.

“Look around. This isn’t Earth.” Hazen ran his hand over the sparkling blue cave wall.

“Make sense or I’ll crack the other side of your face.”

Hazen winced and paced the room. “Can’t we be friends?”

“You’ve already got one.” 

Hazen looked at the stick in his hand. His voice thinned, “I been here a long time.” He picked at the wound on his cheek. “No one stays.”  His hand trembled through his snarled hair as he paced the void in the center of the cave, his eyes darting. He raised the stick to his ear. He shook his head. “No…I can’t. It’s mine,” he whispered.  His pace quickened as he argued under his breathe. A few moments later, he stopped and nodded. Hazen placed the stick on a glimmering outcrop of rock then walked toward Nick.

 “Here,” Hazen stammered, “you… can have it.” The rotting blanket dangled from his hand like a prized pelt.

Nick slapped the offering to the ground. “Get that away from me!”

Hazen shrieked as the blanket sank to the mud. He pulled the blanket from the floor and stroked it against his cheek.

 “I just want someone to talk to…another… person,” he whispered.

His focus drifted as he mumbled into the tattered fabric, “A silver lining…mom said find the silver lining.” He nodded, staring into the blackness at the back of the cave.

Nick grabbed him by the shoulder.

His vision cleared and he stared at Nick. “You have a choice,” he said, “you don’t have to go to the Game Room. Stay here. Stay with me.”

Nick dropped his grip and stormed back to the bars, bellowing down the corridor. Hazen stumbled to his side. “It’s not so bad here,” he rattled.  His eyes jumped between Nick and the darkened hall, “stay…please.”

Nick’s demands boomed and echoed through the thick air and bounced off the hallway walls.  “Stop, you got to stop,” Hazen pleaded.  Nick shouted louder. Hazen slumped to the floor at Nick’s feet. “Please, don’t call them,” he moaned.

“It’s about damn time.” Nick glared at three advancing shadows against the hallway wall. “Results,” he said, and looked down at Hazen. The spot at his feet was vacant. He looked over his shoulder, but the old man was gone.

Nick dropped his grip on the bars as the figures drew close. The slick skin of their towering frames glistened in the pale light. Folds of skin connected their arms to their torso, like the wings of a bat, and rippled with their every step. Nick stared into the gaping hole hiding behind a mass of urchin-like tentacles dangling from the center of their faces. They spoke in clicks and snaps as they stared down at Nick with tiny coal spot eyes.

Nick backed away.

“Hazen?” He scanned the shadows behind him. The barred door swung open, and the creatures entered the cave. “Hazen!” Nick screamed and scrambled backward.

In one flowing movement, the creatures surrounded him with their fleshy wings and shoved him into the hallway. The door slammed shut.

Hazen pressed his hands over his ears until Nick’s screams faded down the corridor.

#

Nick peered down the grid that lie spread before him. He was the only human lined up for the game. All the players stood on the starting squares like pawns in a life size game of chess. He did not recognize any of the creatures assembled here, but he could tell they were also here against their will.

Nick turned his attention to the playing field. It reminded him of old coliseums he’d seen on television except the ground was divided into a giant checkerboard of colored squares. Some squares were yellow, some red, others were covered in a grassy mat, but most of the squares were made of textures he’d never seen before.

His thoughts turned to Hazen cowering on the floor muttering about staying alive. He had to find a way out, now. Blood surged through his legs, and he bolted from his square, heading for an archway twenty yards behind him. Before his third step touched turf, he slammed to the ground jolting and convulsing. A small black ball whizzed and circled above him, electricity zipping across its surface ready to strike again. Nick crawled back to his designated square.

As the crowd packed into the stands, they taunted and jeered the players.  A whistle sounded and a hologram appeared. It demonstrated a mock game and a visual set of rules. Nick’s jaw tightened.  The object was simple- get to the other end of the game board alive.

When the Grand Marshall, king or whatever it was called, rolled a multicolored die, the player that was up, had to move through the squares to that corresponding color. Easy enough, except according to the hologram half the squares held things that could kill you. The yellow squares, at least, were safe zones.

Violence erupted down the line, and Nick watched three electrified balls whiz past him. Another whistle blew and the crowd exploded. The game had begun.

Each player took their turn and stepped onto the squares. It was Nick’s turn and he looked to the Grand Marshall. Hazen was sitting at his feet.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Nick lunged toward the stands. A black ball snapped to attention spitting white hot sparks and drove him back to the game.  He glared at Hazen.

 Hazen buried his face in his blanket. “I tried to help,” he cried.

The Grand Marshall rolled the die. Nick made his choices and survived. Hazen watched each player as they advanced across the board. Bloody corpses littered the grid, and only a handful of players crossed the halfway line.

It was Nick’s turn again. He glared at Hazen then looked to the board. Hazen absently chewed his fingertips and rocked back and forth gripping his blanket. The Marshall rolled. Nick had to get to a rust-orange square.

He studied the board. His first two jumps were yellow squares, safe zones. He made the moves easily. Then he contemplated his options. The square in front was covered in weeds and grasses. The squares on either side of the grass were covered in a red powdery clay. He stared at the clay, then back to the grass. He wiped his forehead and stepped toward the clay on his right. He stopped. Something rippled below the surface. Two serpentine heads poked from the clay, hissed and spit venom at each other, then darted below the surface again and out of sight.  Nick jumped to the grass and froze. Nothing happened.

Hazen sighed. The Marshall looked down at him, made a clicking noise then reached out his large smooth hand, and stroked Hazen’s head.

Nick still had another move to make to reach the orange square, but the end of the game board was in sight.  Another roll and he would walk off the grid and deal with the old man. He should have warned him.  He tightened his fists, glancing at Hazen sitting like a dog at that monster’s heels.

Nick let out a breath. Sweat rolled down his forehead and he wiped it away. The crowd hooted and stomped rattling the stands.

A red clay square was in front of him. To the left, the square bubbled with a pungent gel, the vapors burning his nostrils. He looked to the right. That square was a solid block of concrete. He looked at the red clay again and didn’t see any movement, but he didn’t trust it. 

“Come on, come on…” Hazen whispered, chewing at his nails. Nick eyed the cement one more time then scowled at Hazen. He jumped, landing firmly in the center of the mortar.

Hazen’s mouth dropped. It happened so fast that Nick still had a smirk on his face when his body hit the ground. As his feet landed on the cement, laser wires sprang from below and sliced through his flesh. He hit the ground like a carcass in a slaughterhouse.

#

Hazen pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and rocked in the darkness of the cave. He heard them coming and looked up. The creatures chattered back and forth as they opened the cage door. They whistled and clicked in Hazen’s direction and slid a large bowl toward him.

 Hazen poked through the gift, passing by black entrails and yellow leathery hide, until he saw the glint of crimson. Human muscle. He held it reverently as he gave thanks to his mama for teaching him to find the silver linings. He offered the first bite to the stick.


Roseanne Rondeau fell in love with sci-fi, ghosts, and speculative fiction at a very young age and enjoys writing these types of stories. She lives in New Hampshire with her family and has been published in Midnight Times, Alien Skin Magazine, and Nocturnal Lyric.


“Beyond the Light” Supernatural Horror by Ethan Maiden

The fresh smell of sea air wafted its way through the car window as I arrived at the familiar retreat. My home from home.

Over the horizon the I spotted the endless blue of the North Sea, appearing as if from nowhere behind the tall hills and cliffs of the east coast.

Thornwick Bay lies in the heart of the Flamborough clifftops, a picturesque painting of the East riding Yorkshire landscape. The site attracts families and tourists interested in hiking, sightseeing and dog walking. At just 4 miles north east of the popular coast of Bridlington, there is opportunity to head out to the pebbled beach depending how volatile the blustery weather is on the day.

            The site holds many activities such as swimming pool and clubhouse complete with arcade games that enjoy gulping your spare change as holidaymakers down their expensive alcoholic drinks. The entrance to the park is a long stretch of road, equipped with fishing lake and walkway that heads up to the local pub – The Viking, a pub from yesteryear serving exceptional food and strong cask ales.

            The most prominent feature of the area is the old lighthouse that stands tall on the cliff tops staring out to the North Sea. First lit in 1806, the lighthouse has a history of guiding vessels to both Bridlington and Scarborough with the white giant standing at almost twenty-seven metres tall. At the summit, the steel railings of the balcony and huge lantern face.

            Some places in the world, a person can just make a connection, an unexplainable bond with the landscape. For me, it’s Thornwick Bay, the place that I hold dear to my heart. This place which is home from home. This place that terrifies me to the core.

So, why have I come back?

*

I first visited the site when I had been six-years old and returned every year since until I was thirteen.  Back in those days, mobile phones had just shown glimpses that one day they would take over the world, Woolworths still sat on the Highstreet and Michael Owen was giving the Argentinian defence nightmares in the World Cup of 98.

It was also when Thornwick Bay wasn’t being run by a larger enterprise. The clubhouse still had the green and purple carpet where your shoes stuck to the spilt beer, the fish and chips were served in old-fashioned newspaper and the only thing to do as a kid was play on the muddy grass.

            My sister and I were excited. Nothing beats being a kid going on a cheap caravan holiday with cotton candy and sugared doughnuts. We were a middle-class family. Rarely did we go abroad, instead mum and dad saved for two of these caravan holidays every year. We didn’t crave plane rides to exotic places, maybe because we didn’t know any different.

            Mila was eight at the time. The five-year age gap causing irritation from time to time. Whenever a friend was over from school, mum told me that I had to somehow involve Mila, which was a pain because all I wanted to do was talk about girls and play Resident Evil or Cool Boarders on the Playstation.

            Mila on the other hand with her brown pigtails and chubby face was finally coming out of her Disney princess and unicorn phase, falling into that stage where interests changed, yet couldn’t pinpoint what to do to stimulate her mind. The result was that Mila developed a fascination in trying to get involved in everything I was doing.

            On holiday though, I enjoyed her company. She was my little sister after all.

*

            For as long as I can remember, I’ve been what many would describe as a loner.

            Approaching forty-years old, I’ve never married or had kids. Regretfully, I don’t think I will ever have the chance to bring a family to the seaside to thrive on that British childhood that Mila and I had.

            When I pulled up outside the caravan I’ve rented for the weekend, I just sat for a few moments, taking in my surroundings. I’m back. Back where it happened. Back to the place where mum and dad pledged they’d never return throughout their lives. This place that drove mum to her early grave.

            Beside my caravan is a small park, made up of a few swings, a slide and seesaw. There were a few kids with their families, but the park was quiet being in October and out of season.

            There was cold in the air, the waning voice of winter on the horizon, the smell of cold. Inside the caravan I dropped my overnight bag thinking about the closure I needed. That bag signified that I was coming back, and that thought was futile.

This place has haunted me since that summer in 98, and now was the time to build up the courage, to rip off that bandage of guilt.

*

I’d entered the caravan just as nightfall came knocking.

            I remember it was night because I recall the moon being so large and the vast number of stars in the clear black sky.

            Mum and dad were watching a movie – some thrilling detective movie by the look of it. There was a smell of burning and a half-eaten pizza on the side.

            They’d told us to be back by nine – no later.

            I walked in with mud on my hands and a distant look on my face.

            ‘You guys have fun?’ mum asked, not taking her eyes off the TV.

            I couldn’t reply.

            Had I had fun? I couldn’t remember.

            After a few seconds, which felt like hours in the silence, mum turned to look at me.

            Her smile cut short: ‘Will? Where’s Mila?’ she asked.

            I looked back and shrugged, ‘can I have some of that pizza?’ I asked moving forward.

            ‘Will, where’s Mila?!’ mum asked again.

            Dad had finally embroiled himself in the impending volcanic conversation. He’d jumped up and circled the exterior of the caravan finding no sign of my sister.

            All the while, I was gnawing on burnt yet delicious cheese pizza.

            ‘She out there?!’ Mum called.

            Dad came back in and shrugged.

            ‘Will, where is your sister?!’ mum finally erupted.

*

I settled down and had a cold beer with whiskey chaser on the side in the clubhouse bar – aptly named: The Lighthouse. As it flowed down, I could feel the nerves beginning to calm, only ever so slightly though. I couldn’t get her out of my head. She’s waiting, I can feel it. I must take my mind to another place.

Focusing on my surroundings, I concentrated on the bar. Gone is the homemade pub grub of the old clubhouse, now replaced by modern and generic food that is overpriced and clearly straight from the kitchen freezer.

Outside, children played on the larger park, field, and sandpit. It’s cold as ice, but kids don’t feel the cold, do they? Or maybe they do … I would imagine Mila certainly did.

In the distance, the lighthouse flashed, its beacon drawing me in.

I’d put this off for far too long.

The memory of what happened that night is still blurry, like a smudge on a camera lens, there’s a picture there, only I can’t make it out.

After a few more drinks I decided that it was time. Time to face the past, to face my demons.

Over the field I walked in the perishing night, my shoes trudging in the soft moist grass. At the end of the entrance road, I turned left and down the long stretch of country road flanked by tall foliage swaying in the icy gusts. Soon I passed The Viking pub, seeing the smokers stood outside laughing and joking. If only they knew what dwells here, deep in the crust of the cliffs.

Those caverns hide a dark secret don’t they, Will?

Before I knew it, I’d arrived at the lighthouse and fear gripped my senses.

*

Mila was found the next morning.

            She was floating face down in the shallow water on the rocky beach. It was the owner of the café that had found her. She’d screamed so loud that a hiker on the cliff came running to help.

            Mum and dad were inconsolable as expected. Me? I had been in a trance since the night before wondering why I hadn’t had breakfast and wondering what all the fuss was about. It would be days later after we arrived home that reality would sink in. I’d fall into a despair that any other feeling would be inferior. Mila was gone and she was never coming back. Mum and dad blamed me; I could see it in their eyes. They never out right told me as much, but I could see it.

            The doctors had said the trauma of what happened blanked out my memory and that’s why I couldn’t explain what happened to poor little Mila.

            Even now after all these years later, as the memories slowly come back do I question what happened that night.

*

Making my way past the lighthouse, I stood on the cliff top.

            Peering down I saw the hard waves crash into the protruding rocks below. On the cliff was a steep walkway down, manmade in the earth and dirt with wooden steps. As the terror of what I might find down there gripped hold of me, I contemplated turning and running , just like the coward I am.

            As I did, I looked up and saw the small girl at the top of the lighthouse. She was stood on the balcony, holding onto the rails with white hands. It was hard to tell whether she was stood or floating but either way she was looking down at me with pale blue eyes, glinting like the stars behind her head.

            A thrust in my heart told me what I already knew that the figure was my little sister.

            There was a gash on her head and her body looked … unnatural.

            Like a contortionist, her limbs were crooked.

            The way she had been found.

            After few rotations of the gleaming light of the lighthouse, the apparition of Mila disappeared.

            Whether my mind had played tricks or not, seeing Mila was a warning that if I didn’t face the thing tonight, then I would be haunted forever.

            The thing in the cave that took her from me.

            With the last pluck of courage, I started my descent down the steep steps down the cliff side and toward the beach. Toward the cave. 

*

Mila and I had been playing on the park.

            As the night drew in, I suggested we head back to the caravan to mum and dad.

            But Mila, being the age of inquisitiveness said that she was wanted to see the lighthouse. Checking the time, we had another hour or so before we had to be back. I’d said we had to be quick because the sun was setting.

            Once there we’d looked out to sea, breathing in the freshness that only the coast can bring. That’s when Mila pointed down to the beach.

            ‘What’s that, Will?’ she asked.

            Following her finger, I squinted.

            In the sea, something was floating.

            A body.

            At first, my mind processed it as maybe a wide sheet of material or something else. But I quickly calculated that the navy leather clothing and grey hair was in fact a person. An old man by the look of it.

            ‘We need to get help,’ I said.

            ‘We can help, Will!’ Mila yelled.

            Looking around, I saw no one in the area. No one to help.

            I nodded, starting down the steps, with Mila close behind. Rushing onto the beach, we ran straight to the sea and found nothing. The thing floating in the water was gone.

            Frowning I looked back at Mila, ‘we should get back, Mila,’ I muttered.

            Something felt off. I couldn’t explain what but certainly felt it.

            ‘I don’t get it,’ Mila said. ‘Have they sunk?’

            ‘We’ll get back to mum and dad and call the police,’ I said taking her hand.

            I turned and started to pull Mila with me and that’s when I saw the movement in the cave to my left.

            The old man was staring at us

*

Inside the cave I made my way over the rocky and slippery surface, the familiar feel of sliding on the moss underneath my feet.

            When I got to the end of the cave, I looked out at the blustery waves, the tide spraying up before me. Around me the shadows hid deep in the cave interior, nothing but the occasional flash of the lighthouse providing any light.

            ‘I know you’re here,’ I said.

            Only the splashing waves answered.

            ‘I said, I know you’re here,’ I said again.

            And then he came, moving from the darkness to my right-hand side.

*

Mila and I entered the cave, calling out after the old man.

            At the far end of the cave, he sat upon the rock, a statue glaring out to the ocean. From the back of him I saw the long grey hair drop to his shoulders beneath a white cap and he wore a navy leather jacket.

            ‘Were you just in the water?’ I asked.

            For a moment the old man just sat.

            Without turning, he said: ‘I’m always on the water.’

            ‘You looked like you were in trouble …’

            ‘Here, to the water and then to the lighthouse,’ the old man replied. ‘Then I get to see beyond the light, until I venture here again … back to the water.’

            ‘Do you need help? Is there anyone we can get for you?’ I asked.

            ‘Help? I’ve been alone so long, yes, so very long. It gets awfully lonely in that lighthouse.’

            ‘Lighthouse? I didn’t think there were any lighthouse keepers left these days?’

            The old man fell silent. Then he turned. He was old in the face with a bushy white beard, his skin weathered. As the light from the lighthouse came around, Mila and I saw something that made our knees fall weak. On the right side of his face was exposed skull and bone. His eye socket was black. The left eye was glazed over with a milky white glaze.

            ‘Yes, it gets awfully lonely here,’ the old man said.

            Mila screamed. Her sound echoing off the cave walls.

            ‘Aww, don’t scream, child. Do you want me to show you what is beyond the light?’ The old man asked, stood, and held out a gloved hand.

            I turned to run, grabbing Mila by the arm. We skittered over the rock until I lost my grip. Then a noise that I have never forgot, one that has haunted my life since that night.

A quick yelp followed with a dull thud.

            Turning back, I saw Mila laid on the rock, blood seeping from her head.

            Creeping up from the dark, the old man appeared, moving unnaturally.

            Mila looked at me with terrified eyes, the blood from her head falling into the rockpools.

            Slowly, she held up her hand for help.

            I turned and ran.

*

I’d read about the old folklore tale long after those adolescent years.

            The lighthouse keeper who had tragically died when the isolation had become too much to cope with. Since then, he had wandered the caves in search for company. Or so the old tale had gone.

            Knowing the truth, I’d thought of myself psychotic.

            Years later, I’d wanted to tell my parents the truth. They’d never had the closure of what happened to their daughter. Only I held the key to the secret, and I’d kept it to myself in fear of being locked up in an asylum.

            Saying it now makes me still wonder what is real and what isn’t. The ghost of a lighthouse keeper searching for company.

            And he’d found it with Mila.

            I’m so sorry for being such a coward.

            ‘I’ve come to see her,’ I said.

            The lighthouse keeper said: ‘She’s great company, the little one. We have shared so many stories.’

            Tears warmed my cheeks in the blistering cold.

            ‘She’s my sister,’ I said. ‘I should have protected her from you.’

            ‘You should have. You could have.’

            ‘Let me see her.’

            The old man turned and faced the cave wall. Out of the shadows, Mila stepped forward, the blood matted on the side of her face. The same innocent expression etched on her like the last time I’d seen her alive. She looked upon me with crystalised eyes.

            Collapsing to my knees I pleaded: ‘Forgive me, Mila. I’m sorry that I left you.’

            ‘You have nothing to be sorry for,’ Mila said. ‘I’m keeping Edward company now.’

            ‘No, you lost your whole life because of me.’

            Mila placed her palm to my cheek. The cold was unbearable, making my face go numb.

            ‘You’ve wasted your whole life, Will. Why don’t you join us here in the lighthouse? You loved it here at The Bay, a home from home you called it. We can show you what’s beyond the light. Will, it’s so beautiful, something you’d never be able to comprehend until you see it. Would you like that?’

            I thought about the meaning of my life.  

This place had meaning.

            I nodded.

            ‘Come,’ Mila said holding out her hand.

            I stood and reached out as Mila backed to the shadows of the cave.

            I followed eagerly.

            ‘Mila! Mila! Where are you?’ I called out, the echoes hitting the waves.

            As I walked into the shadow I was transported to the clifftop. Above the lighthouse swirled. Next to me, Mila held my hand as we looked down the same way as we did all those years ago.

            ‘Are you ready to see what’s beyond the light?’ she asked.

            Turning to her I said: ‘I’m afraid.’

            ‘There’s nothing to be afraid about, dear brother.’

            Taking a deep breath, I stepped forward. Mila let go of my hand as I fell over the cliff side. On my way hurtling down, everything drew into slow motion. The light from the lighthouse, the sound of the waves, everything moved at a snail’s pace.

            I watched the night sky.

            The lighthouse grew smaller.

            As I felt the otherworldly impact and sudden pain, I blinked.

            Standing on the lighthouse, I gripped the steel balcony. Down below on the beach, my body was still and staring up at us.

            Next to me, Mila took my hand again. It wasn’t cold anymore. Mila felt warm to touch.

            Behind, Edward sat in the lighthouse, a broad smile upon his face as he watched us.

            ‘Are you ready to see what’s beyond the light, dear brother?’ Mila asked.

            Over the horizon I saw the lights of Thornwick Bay. I’d be here forever, in my home from home.


Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire. Currently he is editing his first novel that he hopes to be completed this year. The works of Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft are influences behind his fiction.


“Mrs. Thornton’s Thanksgiving Surprise” Horror by Chere Taylor

You ever fantasize about that one hot teacher? She’s usually blonde, beautiful and damn sexy. She styles her hair into a loose bun with individual strands of soft yellow curls framing her face. The two top buttons of her white blouse are never fastened. Revealing just enough cleavage to tease while still remaining respectable.

Well, no one ever had thoughts like that about Mrs. Thornton, our biology teacher.

Of course I can’t read other people’s minds, but Mrs. Thornton sort of discouraged lustful thoughts. If not through her physical appearance (She was plump, without being fat. She held her body rigid, but she didn’t move stiffly) then with her forceful personality.

She inspired fear in all of her students with this mystical idea of adult authority. We would never reach that kind of adulthood, her attitude implied, no matter how many years we gained. No matter if we obtain mortgages and car payments, children and grandchildren. Her authority was as unattainable as the clouds in the sky. And just as untouchable.

It was under that authority I married my childhood sweetheart during my senior year in high school. I’m African American, medium brown skin, and clean shaven. My wife Jen Lowe was white. Mrs. Thornton was all to happy to express her disapproval at the time.

“Greggy,“ she called me. A name I absolutely detested. “Now that you’re a married man, I hope you’ve given some thought about manual labor. Something involving your other muscles.”

How I hated her.

Still, after two years we were baby free and living a reasonable happily ever after. That is until Jerry invites us to Thanksgiving Dinner.

“How about it, Greg?” Jerry says on the phone. “I’ll do the cooking this time.”

That right there tells me something is wrong. Normally, I invite him to Thanksgiving. It’s part of an unspoken pact we made when we both lost our parents at the age of sixteen. Not to mention, I’m also the better cook.

“You? You know how to roast a turkey?” Unbidden, I picture Jerry with his spiky blonde hair and impish grin, pulling a hot burning mess out of the oven, flames leaping everywhere.

“No, of course not. Don’t go crazy over this, but do you remember Mrs. Thornton?

“Yeah.” My fingernails immediately rises to my teeth to be gnawed on, and I force it back down again. Such a stupid, childish reaction to a long ago memory.

“We got married last month. She’s going to do all the cooking.”

A beat of silence while my mind digests this.

“Fuck no.”

“Fuck yeah.”

“Well, good for you then, Jerry. Good for you. You know I always thought Thornton was such a …” Suddenly I feel Jerry’s anger radiating from my phone. I swallow the rest of my thought and let my words to trail off.

“Bitch?” He replies coldly.

The term I’m actually thinking of is lesbian. But Jerry would have been offended by that too. I keep silent.

He laughs. “I’m sure she’d agree with you. She’s well aware of her reputation at our school.

“So, she’s changed?”

“Let’s just say she was covering up her true nature. The real Thornton as you call her is a kind, sensitive and yes even a sensual individual. She brings that side out of me as well.”

Really? I think to myself. She must be involved in some serious BDSM then. Now I picture Ms. Thornton in dominatrix gear. Shiny black hair pulled in it’s usual tight bun. Her chunky body stretches unbearably tight in a leather corset. Her spit-less mouth is hard and unyielding. Except instead of holding a black whip in one hand, she wields a kitchen carving knife. You’ve been bad Greggy!

Part of me wants to chuckle at this image, but instead I accept his invitation.

A week later I’m standing at the front door of Jerry’s apartment. Jen is still back in the parking lot, unpacking a Turkey Tetrazzini casserole for our hosts. Even when invited to Thanksgiving, she still doesn’t understand that she’s not responsible for the turkey this time. It’s something I find both endearing and irritating about Jen.

I could just knock of course and enter. There’s no need to wait for Jenifer. Yet, part of me hesitates. I’m not sure why, except I do know really. Because I feel like I’ve just been sent to the principal’s office and behind that door was some monstrous version of principal Garret, just waiting with a wooden paddle for my ass.

You’ve been bad, Greggy.

I shudder.

Jen joins me, her frizzy, red curls bouncing up and down as she rushes to my side.

“I wonder what she’s like now.” Jen asks as she stands with me before the unopened door.

“Don’t know. Jerry says she’s changed a lot.”

“What’d she say when she found out we hooked up?”

I shrug. “I don’t think she approved at the time.”

“Why? Was it the black or white thing or cause we’re too young?”

“Probably a little of both.”

“Really?” Her brown eyes sparkle and her lips split into a wide grin. “I hope it does bother her then. I hope she clenches her ass a little tighter each time we …”

She stands on her tip toes and kisses my slanted smile. That’s my Jen-ger fire.

“They’re taking a long time to answer the door,” she says as she settles back down.

“Oh, well …The reason could be because I haven’t …uh, knocked yet.”

Jen raises both eyebrows at me. “You’re twenty one years old and you’re still afraid of her?”

That does it. I grasp the door knob, and the door surprisingly swings open unlocked.

Jerry comes bounding toward us like an enthusiastic puppy dog. “Hey gang. Nice to see you. Can’t wait to start the festivities huh?”

We shake hands, then I watch carefully as Jerry and Jen press their lips on each other’s cheeks. The two of them had dated a few times in high school before she met me.

He’s married, I remind myself.

Yeah, but dude is Mr. Thornton now. Who could blame him if …

“Where’s your wife?” I ask with a tight smile.

“Oh Becky? She’ll be down shortly. Wants to make an entrance, I guess. Can I offer you something to drink? A tour of the place?”

Becky? Becky Thornton? I never knew her first name. It sounds ridiculously casual when combined to the dark, brooding name of Thornton.

Jerry gives us a quick tour of the apartment. It’s modest but clean. When we’re done, Jen offers to keep an eye on the food in the kitchen while Jerry and I escort ourselves to the living room, beer cans in tow. Truth is she wants to make sure we continue our male tradition of bumming in the living room with the football game on.

There is a wide screen television available but no one turns it on yet. Not with the elephant in the room. I decide to dispel it immediately.

“So you’ve done it, dog.” I lean across the coffee table and fist bump him. “You had sex with a teacher. That’s every guys’ dream.” Just not with Mrs.Thornton.

He may have detected my unspoken subtext. “It’s strange how love can come for you from unseen corners. Sometimes, there’s a special someone who can see you, Greg. I mean the real you, when no one else can. I used to think I was a piece of shit. It effected everything I did. Caused me to be a real grind. Becky saw through that crap and she wouldn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself. She saw the adorable, fun-loving kid in me. She loved me even when I couldn’t love myself.”

“You seem happy.” I mean it.

He smiles and takes a sip of beer. “Put the blame on Becky”.

At that moment a woman enters the room carrying a tray loaded with hors d’oeuvres. I don’t recognize her at first, she is so demure, so quiet. Her hair is tied into a loose braid that lays almost sexily across one bare shoulder. She wears a blue dress. While her body is still thick, there is a looseness to it that I never saw before. Flowing where there once were blockages. Yielding, where she was once was hard. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mrs. Thornton?

“Greg,” she says when she sees me. She put the tray down on the coffee table and takes both of my hands in hers.

There should be butterflies and flowers entwined in that braid, I think to myself.

“Mrs. Thornton.” I reply. The name still slides out despite her remarkable change.

“Please call me, Becky” She peers over my shoulder. “And Jenifer. How nice to see you again. You caught quite a catch with Greg.”

They exchange hugs and kisses and we all sit down.

At first no one says a word. It’s just too weird. This former teacher who had to be at least in her mid thirties, lurking among us and dressed like a Disney Princess. But Becky manages to soothe our nerves. We talk about marriage, the prejudices against youth and age, (not racial refreshingly enough.) The societal pressure to have children. How hard it is to save money on minimum wage jobs.

Surprisingly Becky isn’t condescending about any of it. If Becky ever was the teacher I remember, the one that used to assign me the job of fetching coffee and picking up after the other students, there is no sign of her now. I allow myself to relax.

And then the fire alarm goes off. A loud BRRREEEEE sound that causes my heart to skitter in my chest.

“What the fuck?” Jen says and rushes into the kitchen ahead of Becky. Jerry and I exchange glances and follow the girls.

It’s just like it was in my imagination. Except instead of Jerry holding the burning bird, it’s Becky with the blackened turkey on a tray. Her face is in total shock.

“It’s ruined.” She screams over the alarm.

Suddenly I picture the four of us in a parody of a Rockwell painting. Instead of happy, warm, white faces sitting with delight at the table there’s Becky with the burnt up bird. Jen snickering behind her cupped hand. Jerry attacking the smoke detector with a broom stick. And my black ass taking it all in. Call this artwork, Freedom from Fucked Up Idealism. I laugh out loud.

Becky seizes on me. Eyes fierce and full of hate. I take an involuntary step backwards.    

Then Jerry rescues me by circling Becky in his arms. It’s like he’s roping a horse at first, but eventually Becky stops struggling and relaxes against him.

“I wanted everything to be perfect,” she whispers.

“I know you did.” He kisses her nose.

**********

Becky isn’t the same after that. We sit down to dinner, Jen’s turkey tetrazzini, now the star of the show. Plenty of unburnt side dishes. No reason why we can’t continue as before. But I sense a darkness in Becky. An inability to realize that this is just one of those things you recall with fondness later in the years to come. Remember darling when you burnt up the turkey? Ha ha ha.

She begins with little comments.

“Sit up dear, you’re slouching”

Jerry, who is in the middle of one of his crazy stories, straightens up with hardly a glance at his wife.

A few moments later, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

“Babe, will you let me finish?” To Becky’s point, all that mashed potatoes in his mouth looks pretty disgusting, I think inwardly.

“I would if you could tell the story correctly. What would help is if you chew and swallow your food first.”

Now he rolls his eyes. “Babe, just stop it. Okay, stop it.”

Becky seizes on him the way she did to me earlier. Eyes blazing.

“Gerald …” Gerald? “Let’s discuss this in the kitchen, shall we?”

Suddenly I feel sorry for …Gerald?

“Fine.” He throws his napkin on the plate and the two of them go to the kitchen.

Soft murmurings drift toward us. Jen and I strain to hear what’s going on.

“Wow. I hope I don’t ever get that bitchy.”

“You have.” I say distractedly. I’m still thinking about that Gerald name. How it’s sudden use seems like a threat and why is that?

She gives me a playful shot in the arm.

When they return Jerry/Gerald is noticeably subdued. He shuffles to his chair face down, lips pucker forward in a frown.

Becky looks maliciously pleased …as if she just roasted Jerry’s cock and ate it.

“Jerry, you cool?” I ask.

“Leave me aloooone!” He wails. The wounded cry from my own childhood when Mommy gives me or one of my brothers a pow-pow for bad behavior. He turns around in his seat so his back is facing us.

My mouth opens wide. I blink.

“What did you do to him?” Jen whispers.

“We had a discussion about how rude it is to correct your wife in public.” Mrs. Thornton continues while attacking her meal as if she were merely commenting on the weather.

“What the fuck?”

“No cursing if you please. We are all adults here.”

Three of us are adults. I look at Jerry. There is a tear running down his cheek.                   

“I’ll speak to you anyway I like, you Disneyfied skanky-ass bitch. What the fuck did you do to Jerry?”

“Jenifer,” Becky says brightly or really Mrs. Thornton. Because that’s who she is now. “I want to see you in the kitchen. Now.”

“Bet ya’ ass, I’ll see you in the kitchen. I’m not scared of you.” She shoves her chair so violently from the table that she almost tips over backward.

The situation is moving too fast. I wish there is a pause button I could push so that I have time to think.

“Jen,” I shout at her as she rises.

She turns on me. It’s that same headlight glare she gives me, when we get into our own little tiffs at home. Don’t you dare stop me, that glare says.

So, I don’t. Instead I return my attention to Jerry. I snap my fingers in front of his face. He ignores me completely.

Jen and Thornton depart for the kitchen. I hear the same soft mutterings as before. But no shouting from my Jen-ger fire. No sounds of cussing or the crash of broken dishes. That alone makes me nervous. I’d relax more if I could hear the angry noises of them arguing.

Jen returns to the table with that same headlight glare. So, she’s still in there. I tell myself. I close my eyes with relief. Mrs. Thornton also returns with that same pleased, just ate roasted cock for dinner expression.

“Jenifer, do you have something to say?” She asks pointedly.                                             

Jen’s thumb creeps into her mouth. Her other hand tugs on her left earlobe. “I sorry,” she replies around her thumb.

“Good girl” Mrs. Thornton replies. “Maybe we can now enjoy the rest of our dinner in peace.”

“Hell no.” I rise from the table. “I don’t know what you did to my friend, or my wife. But the shit stops here. You understand? Bring back both of them!”

Mrs. Thornton hardly glances away from her meal. “Let’s discuss this in the kitchen.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Now she looks up. Some dark emotion briefly crosses over her face and then passes. Apparently my refusal isn’t part of her game plan.

“Why not?”

“Because you do something to them in the kitchen. I don’t know what. Cut off their cocks …”

“I cut off your wife’s cock, Greggy?”

My face grows warm. I’m not sure what I hate more. That she stings me with my own suggestion that Jen has a cock, or the use of my vile nickname.

I get up and walk around the table until I reach her. I lean my head towards hers. “Undo the shit you did to my wife and Jerry. You do that or I’ll …”

“What? Call the cops?” She interrupts.

But I see the trap. What could I possibly tell the police? Excuse me officer, but Thornton here turned my wife and friend into mindless idiots. Please put her in jail.

She raises her hand. “No, that’s quite alright. It’s a shame you’re not as brave as your wife.”

“What?”

“Because you’re afraid of me. That’s obvious.”

“I’m not afraid of you.” On its own my left hand starts to tremble so I pound it on the table once more for emphasis. Jerry jumps at the sound.

“Then prove it. Let’s discuss this in the kitchen.”

I close my eyes and imagine the good ending. We enter the kitchen that is still the same modest cooking area it’s always been. There’s no caldron bubbling with magic. No bats flying about the cabinets. But there is the oven, a common every day oven. I’ll open it up, shove her in and crank the temperature to 500 degrees. Isn’t that how it worked in Hansel and Gretel? The witch gets cooked.

The good ending.

I reopen my eyes and stretch out my arm in a you-first gesture. Thornton leaps at my invitation and rushes towards the double doors that leads to the kitchen. Part of me knows my oven plan is useless. In reality I’m walking to my doom, but I still don’t hesitate. Maybe because despite the contradictory evidence, it’s hard to believe this five foot tall woman could possibly be a threat to my six feet and three inches self. But mostly it’s because of Jen. Even though those tearful brown orbs don’t belong to the same woman who gazed at me with admiration when I told her I was going to be the CEO of my own company some day, I can’t disappoint my Jen-ger fire. Despite her changed personality, she can’t ever be allowed to think me a coward.

It’s not like she’s going to cut off my cock and eat it for real, I tell myself. I imagine again Mrs. Thornton in her leather outfit wielding a knife. Goofy and terrifying at the same time.

I steel myself. We enter the kitchen.

          ********

When we come out, my mind is thick. A blur.

I trip over my shoelaces and fall to the floor. That starts Jen snorting,

“I’m telling!” I say hotly as I stand up. I’m telling on you, Jen.”

“I don’t care” she sing-songs. “Who ever tells it, dealts it.”

“That’s about farts.” Jerry says pointedly.

“Enough, all of you!” Mrs. Thornton re-enters. The grownup who’s in charge. I love her. At least I think I do. She’s much nicer then Jen. That’s for sure.

You want to know what happened, right? I know you do. It’s hard to explain ‘cause I not the same no more. I not grown up no more.

She cut me, alright. But not my wee-wee. Eew, that would be gross. That’d hurt a lot too. But she didn’t do that. No, she cut the part of me that makes me smart. Bye, bye grownup Greg. He’s gone forever. I don’t mind much really. ‘Mostly ‘cause, I forgot what grownup Greggy was like.

I sit back at the table and Missus Thornton nods. She’s happy now. She says that if I’m good I can join her in the bedroom later tonight. That might be fun. I tell her okay, but I not smart no more. She say that don’t matter. She say I always was a good student.


Chere Taylor lives in Orlando, Florida and shares her home with her teen daughter, two chihuahuas, five cats and one X-ray Tetra fish. She enjoys reading and writing and tends to have a sneaky respect for the inexplicable. Chere has studied creative writing at Western Illinois University and her fiction has won several contests on Scribophile and the Fiction Factory website. She has been published in several magazines including A Thin Slice of Anxiety and Granfalloon. She also currently has a story under consideration for the Pushcart Prize. 


“A Child’s Garden of Witches” Horror by Tom Koperwas

Ten-year-old Billy Winthrop and his sister, Sally, were tossing horseshoes at a rusty stake in their sand pit when a girl in her early twenties stepped out of the neighbour’s woodlot and strolled across the patch of fallow ground, to the cedar fence delineating the property line. The black-haired girl, tall and lanky, bearing a crooked smile, leaned heavily against the rail and said, “Hi! I’m your new neighbour. What are your names?”

Billy, being the older of the two, answered first. “I’m Billy, and this is Sally. She’s eight.”

“How nice,” replied the girl. Arching her eyebrows, she studied them with her dark sloe-eyes. “My name is Veronica Lakehurst, but my friends call me Nicki.”

“Nicki’s a silly name,” blurted Sally.

“Stop that,” said Billy, looking crossly at the tousle-haired girl in saggy jeans and a tattered T-shirt. “It’s rude to make fun of a person’s name.” Turning to Nicki, he said, “Sally’s what you call a tomboy. She can’t help what she does.”

“That’s okay,” said Nicki pulling a keychain out of her pocket with a fob shaped like a black cat’s head dangling from it. “I guess I can’t help what I do either.”

Placing two fingers in the eye holes of the cat’s head, she depressed a thumb stud, releasing a trigger action blade—the cat’s claw. Grinning, she nicked a piece of wood out of one of the cedar pickets. “For me, nicking things is like chewing bubble gum,” she explained. “It keeps me calm. The way I see it, the world’s cutting itself to pieces anyhow, so a nick here and there makes little difference.”

Laughing, she turned and walked off into the woods, the sharp sound of the cat’s claw nicking trees echoing into the distance.

“She’s weird,” whispered Sally.

“Yah,” said Billy, his eyes filled with curiosity. “Let’s keep an eye on her.”

****

Billy and Sally got up early the next morning and filled a bag with snacks and their father’s high-powered binoculars. After breakfast, they headed out the door and down the street that wound around their neighbour’s woodlot. It was a pleasant spring morning, the usual line of trucks rumbling past in the sun, filled with skids, waste, and recyclable materials. Nearing the entrance of the plant, they left the road and crossed the field to the old oak with the abandoned  treehouse. Climbing the makeshift ladder, they entered the empty structure.

The two children didn’t need the binoculars to read the big new sign hanging over the entrance gate: LWM — LAKEHURST WASTE MANAGEMENT.A new fleet of trucks, some parked, some in motion, had the big green letters LWM painted on their sides. Coveralled employees ran around attending to the long line of public vehicles snaking into the plant. The stately Lakehurst estate stood in the distance, the woodlot extending behind it. Far beyond the woodlot, the high roof ridge of the siblings’ home could be seen peeking above the trees.

As usual, the 44-foot-long, 96,000-pound, 6400XT WOOD HOG HORIZONTAL WOOD GRINDER was busy chewing up piles of skids into wood chips.

“Hey, someone painted out the word HOG on the big chipper!” exclaimed Billy, peering through the binoculars. “And changed it to the word WITCH. Now it’s a WOOD WITCH!” 

Billy turned the focusing thumb-wheel on the binoculars to bring the image in closer.

“I can make out some smaller words too… The WOOD WITCH… and her most familiar friend: Cleave Wilson.

Sally grabbed the binoculars away from her brother.

“Brrr… and look at the creep running the machine,” she exclaimed, thrusting back the binoculars. “That must be Cleave Wilson. Mr. Werewolf himself!”

Billy looked, and his mouth fell open. The man’s lantern-like head had a broken, twisted nose, and a pair of wild, feral eyes under bushy, beetling eyebrows. Big knife-shaped earrings hung from his pointed ears. A wide-brimmed hat perched awkwardly on a thick mane of waist-length hair. A long, tapered beard hid his chin. His overalls, black and sleeveless, ran down to his square-toed boots. Cleave Wilson, the familiar friend, short, muscular, and squat, had sinewy arms covered in patches of bushy fur-like hair, and tattooed hands with knotty, abnormally long   fingers.

Sally leaned back quietly into the shadows of the rotting treehouse and whispered, “What’s a familiar friend, Billy?”

****

 Sally lay in the dark in her little pup tent with the flap pulled back, eyeing the garden patch that Nicki had started on the far side of the fence. Billy lay in the larger tent next to hers, snoring. The children had gotten permission that morning from Mom to “camp” in the backyard. By coincidence, they had seen Nicki strolling in the garden that afternoon with a red-haired boy dressed in bright red clothes, kissing and hugging him.

A crescent moon was rising over the horizon when the flames of a fire suddenly illuminated the darkness. In the light of the burning wood, Sally could see Nicki and Cleave Wilson turning over the garden soil with shovels. Long sticks protruded from the garden, with different paraphernalia affixed to them: a cauldron, a dagger, a mask, and poppets.

Sally reached into Billy’s tent and patted him on the head. “All right,” murmured Billy, as he turned over and looked out his tent.

“We read about those things hanging on the sticks when we looked up what a ‘familiar friend’ was,” whispered Billy after a long moment. “The cauldron is for holding potions and elixirs. The Traveler’s Mask is used for teleportation. The poppets… they’re used to cast spells on people.”

“Nicki’s a witch, then!” declared Sally. “The Wood Witch!”

“And Cleave is her familiar,” replied Billy. “So I wonder what they’re doing digging in the garden at night?”  

**** 

  “What will you children come up with next?” said Evi Winthrop, clapping her hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing out loud. “Our new neighbour a witch with a familiar, working in her dad’s waste management plant. Now, really!”

Five-foot-two Evi, feeling tall with her fine brown hair piled up in a beehive, leaned precariously against the creaking fence, staring at the garden next door with its equal-sized sections of bright red and blue flowers.

“So the garden looks like a triangle bent in the shape of a cat’s claw,” she continued in a gently mocking voice. “It doesn’t mean it’s a witch’s garden. And you say the red flowers are a red-haired boy and the blue flowers are a boy you saw several weeks ago with this Nicki Lakehurst. He had blue eyes, and he was dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt. C’mon…”

“I told you Mom wouldn’t believe us,” Sally said to her brother.

“But Circe turned men into animals…” pleaded Billy. 

“That doesn’t mean our neighbour has been transforming boys into flowers with the power of dark magic. Circe, as you know, was a sorceress and a goddess. Ms. Lakehurst is just a neighbourhood girl. And now you say you saw another boy with her. A blond boy wearing yellow clothes.”

“That’s right, Mom,” said Sally. “That means the last section in the witch garden will be filled with yellow flowers.”

“All right, then,” said Evi, drawing herself away from the fence. “We’ll see. I agree the garden is a little odd. But the girl is probably growing different-colored flowers simply to remember all her boyfriends by. That’s the only reasonable explanation.”

****

 “I called right away, Detective Thorndike, when I heard the request on the news for information about those three missing boys,” said Evi to the tall policeman standing next to her on the edge of the roped-off garden. “My children had told me they’d seen the boys. Of course, I didn’t believe any of that nonsense about witches and familiars.”

“We’re glad you called,” replied the detective, bending down to examine the overturned earth where the flowers had been. “Your children’s testimony was invaluable,” he continued. “In fact, it helped us break the case of the missing boys.”

Evi smiled effusively at the policeman’s stolid face.

Detective Thorndike stood and looked toward the portable police laboratory parked on the nearby street. Evincing a wry smile, he said, “Of course, we didn’t believe the children’s tales of witches either, Mrs. Winthrop. LWM never had an employee by the name or description of Cleave Wilson. We did find some graffiti in impermanent paints on the big Wood Hog machine; the name Wood Witch and the word cleave. The sun and the rain had erased the rest…”

“That’s what the press are calling Nicki Lakehurst,” interjected Evi. “The Wood Witch.”

“The Case of the Wood Witch, I believe,” Detective Thorndike muttered dryly. 

“The lab found DNA traces of the three boys in the Wood Hog,” continued Thorndike, his face darkening visibly. “And here in the soil of the garden, right at our feet. The Wood Witch, as they call her, had evidently… ground up the boys in the big chipper and, well, buried them here. She won’t admit to having had an accomplice, and we can’t prove she did, even though it’s highly probable. She went completely hysterical when we put her in the jail cell, at least until the prison psychiatrist gave her a piece of wood to whittle with her little cat’s claw.”

“My goodness!” exclaimed Evi.

“No, we couldn’t find evidence of this Cleave fellow, or any of the so-called witch paraphernalia your children told us about. To us it’s just another murder case—no matter how sensational and weird the press makes it out as.”

****

  Nicky and Sally dashed across the field to the old oak with the abandoned tree fort to get another look at the WOOD HOG HORIZONTAL WOOD GRINDER where they had seen Nicki’s familiar friend. They were in such a hurry they failed to notice the three pairs of tiny hands protruding from the soft, freshly overturned earth. Three pairs of poppet hands: one pair red, one blue, one yellow. Three pairs of hands reaching up toward the tree house, as if pleading for help, for love, for hope.


Thomas Koperwas is a retired teacher living in Windsor, Ontario, Canada who writes short stories of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in:AnotherealmJakob’s Horror BoxLiterally StoriesThe Literary HatchetLiterary VeganismBombfire;Pulp Modern Flash; Savage Planets; Dark Fire Fiction; Blood Moon Rising MagazineCorner Bar MagazineFree Bundle Magazine.


“Charles-Never-Charlie” Horror by Mark L. Anderson

Raleigh pulled to a stop outside the bright, fenced lawn of Charles-Never-Charlie’s home. He didn’t know how the old man did it, keeping his grass as green and manicured as the lawns in Better Homes and Gardens, and at his age. The man couldn’t have been fewer than ninety years old, and Raleigh wouldn’t be too surprised to find out he’d lived for centuries. A world without Charles-Never-Charlie hardly seemed possible.

Raleigh’s mother had always told him that Hemmings was cursed, that nothing good could happen there. The anxiety in the back of his brain told him the same. “Leave,” it said when he crossed the dilapidated train tracks.

“Charles-Never-Charlie is a very old man. It is good for his friends to check up on him,” Raleigh argued with himself.

“His life is lonely by choice. There’s something wrong with him and wrong with Hemmings,” that intuition in the back of his mind whispered.

“Nothing is wrong. I shouldn’t be afraid all the time,” Raleigh reminded himself. The voice of intuition took a seat in the back of his mind, but it did not relent. It painted the walls of its home in mold self-portraits and festered.

Charles-Never-Charlie was the only neighbor to whom Raleigh or his family had ever been close. Hemmings, which had once been a true small town with a school, post office, and church, was now a place people moved to mostly to be left alone. Even as a child Raleigh had thought of how nice it would have been if Hemmings were still a real small town where people knew each other. He wondered if his life would have had a better, a more certain path had he been born into a simpler time.

Perhaps he could have been a blacksmith’s son. Eventually, he would lift the hammer himself fashioning horseshoes, iron stakes, and functional tools to till the land. On Friday nights he’d venture with his friends to the grange hall where men and women hollered and danced. The laughing boys would jostle him about his crush on the miller’s daughter. Later, they would pass hidden behind the building to sip on dank bottles of barley wine and whiskey filched from their solemn parents, regaling each other one thousand times of their imagination’s grand exploits — with not one ounce of expectation of living up to their claims.

But that was not life in his century, and that had never been Hemmings. Hemmings had been born as a ramshackle logging town. When the industry moved along it was left to wither, and it may have died altogether if it weren’t for the larger city ten miles down the highway where people worked, and prayed, and yelled at their children’s teachers. Hemmings was a town too stubborn to die, so instead, its bones smoldered while hardy stalks of yellow plants threatened to take their land back. Not one yard was untouched by the influence of the creeping wild save for Charles-Never-Charlie’s.

X

Without knocking, Raleigh stepped into Charles-Never-Charlie’s house. He knew he was always welcome. He called out for his friend, yelling as he came to a green door at the back of the house. As a child, he imagined that the door belonged to an aged tree, the kind of tree in the old-growth of fairytales, and if he were to open it, it would lead him to a secret world below the forest floor.

Charle’s-Never-Charlie’s voice hearkened from behind the door, suggesting Raleigh head out for a walk while he finished what he was doing.

Following the suggestion, he stepped down the road and surveyed the houses and alleys that had once been as good as his own backyard. Of course, he could no longer duck under fences and spring and lope, sneaking through his secret boyhood paths, though he was certain the paths were still there. No, many of those paths cut through neighbor’s yards and seeing a strange man crawling under a fence was the sort of thing that would bring eager shotguns to aim. An adult could never know this place the way he had in his youth. Children know in such a way that even rocks have names. They know which tree trunks hold forgotten Byzantiums of insects. They know how to sneak between brambles to secret clearings, and which pines and willows they can sit under without angering the wasps.

That vision that saw magic and wonder was gone from Raleigh’s spirit. He now possessed a different kind of sight. Chipped paint peeled off the sides of houses, derelict cars rusted to orange in front lawns, and if children laughed and played they did so hidden from the passing of a stranger.

Here and there Raleigh saw new houses that stood like too straight teeth outshining their neighbors. Maybe, Raleigh thought, all the old houses would eventually be torn down, and from their corpses these new houses would rise and prosper, dominating the landscape as the larger city sprawled ever nearer and threatened to swallow Hemmings. Or maybe, and the thought intruded on Raleigh’s mind as if it were hopeful, hard times would come as they always came for the people in Hemmings. The people who lived in these shiny, new homes, with their perfect children and well-behaved canines, would learn what their neighbors had always known — that cars break down, that rust and entropy were an unstoppable foe, that each year they would care less and less for the upkeep against a wild place that did not condone their presence.

Raleigh’s mother said that Hemmings was cursed. But he did not believe in curses, so he did not worry about them. He believed in socio-economics and worried about socio-economics. He believed in, worried about, and lost sleep over dead-end jobs, specifically his own.

As he walked he passed by an ugly, brown house with a lawn of beaten dirt where a german shepherd slept tied to a chain, its back rotting away with mange.  It seemed some cosmic rule that there always had to be at least one terrifying dog in town. He crossed the narrow road, but still, the dog stirred from its slumber, snapping up and rushing out at him. It choked itself snarling at the end of its chain. When he was growing up, there was a street Raleigh avoided because of a pair of dalmatians— yes, dalmatians, their names were Spot and Dairy—  that made his spine shiver with fear. Any time he passed near their fence they would leap, possessed by a child-hungry devil of bite force and rage, and he knew one day they’d surely make it over the top of the fence and sink their teeth into his tiny, vulnerable body.

But there was also a nice black labrador that wandered freely about the town. Sometimes Raleigh would encounter it as he ambled about on his adventures. He never knew who owned the dog. It seemed like a free citizen. The only time he ever saw the animal growl or display any ill temperament it was standing outside Charles-Never-Charlie’s yard. The dog, usually a pond of tranquility, braced and yelped at the edge of the old man’s fence as though threatened by some unseen foe. It was enough to make Raleigh afraid of the old man’s house for some weeks after.

X

By the time Raleigh circled back to the house, Charles-Never-Charlie had finished whatever he had been doing and sat on the deck awaiting his friend’s arrival. He was a short and wiry man with a white beard that hung all the way down to his belly, and his arms were too long. When he saw his friend he sprang to his feet with a litheness unexpected of one so advanced in years. He was like long stalks of ancient grass whipping in the wind.

“Come on in, lad,” Charle-Never-Charlie bade his young friend as he stepped inside. The nimble oldtimer had lit a nice fire in the hearth that had begun to jump and crackle, extending a gentle warmth through the small sitting room. The warmth set Raleigh’s muscles at ease. He hadn’t noticed how tense he was from the cold and from his lingering thoughts of the past and future.

The room spoke of an appreciation of older ways of living. There was no television, no computer, no digital clock or appliance to be found. The only things that betrayed the near lack of electricity were the lamps standing in the corners of the room which were presently turned off, as the curtains had been thrown open providing the room with ample natural light.

The fireplace had always seemed to Raleigh to be older even than the house itself. It was made of foreboding, grey stones. As it burned it hinted of history. It whispered of primordial eras when people clung to heat to ward off the callous fingers of dark that crept through their doorways threatening knowledge of cold secrets beyond their understanding.

“Something’s a-troubling you. I could smell it as soon as you came in,” said Charles-Never-Charlie. His accent was thicker than usual, but Raleigh still could not place its origin. Perhaps Northern European, or a hint of Irish, he thought. Or perhaps the man had been to many places in his life and picked up linguistic quirks from all of them.

“Smell it, it’s that easy to read me,” remarked Raleigh.

X

“What do you think that nose is for? If you weren’t too far in your own head already it would be telling you all sorts of important information. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I’ll tell you what’s strange. There’s people out there that need watches to tell them their hearts are beating.” The old man laughed and slapped his knee.

It wasn’t a huge laugh, but seeing Charles-Never-Charlie laugh was a marvelous thing. When he laughed he did it with his whole body. It started down in his toes and shot up through his belly, leaving up through his throat like a balloon expanding to the walls of the room. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t obtrusive. But it was somehow more complete than it could have been coming from another person.

“How do you do it?” asked Raleigh, “The world has changed so much. How do you not feel lost and left behind? I already feel like life has sped off on a runaway train and I’m running behind it, and it’s blowing smoke in my face and I’ll never catch up. I always thought by thirty I’d know what I was doing. I’d have a sense of direction.”

The younger man fidgeted in his seat and rubbed his hand on his other arm as if trying to bring himself back into his own body.

“That’s no problem, lad. It got in your head is all. The wrong sort of thing crawled in your ear and now it’s making a nest in there, laying eggs. Ain’t nothing you gotta do by thirty. Forty. Fifty. Nah. You don’t need to fester on it.”

“I don’t want to price check lamps and pillows for the rest of my life. And that’s where I’m headed. I hate it. I clock in for eight hours, get yelled at by people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and I go home and fall onto my bed too tired to do anything but sulk around the apartment.”

As he spoke Raleigh’s eyes were drawn to the tall, cedar grandfather clock along the wall. Minutes were passing. He really should head home soon, he worried. He knew he needed his sleep before dragging himself into the next work week.

The old man tugged him back into the conversation, “Suppose I could do something to take all those burdens away, would you accept the offer?”

“I hate complaining. I really do. How about we talk about something else. Are you ever going to tell me where you got your name?”

Charles-Never-Charlie wrinkled his nose. It moved slightly askew of how noses usually moved, as if  he’d practiced the gesture while he had a different kind of nose and when he got this one it didn’t quite move the same. “I asked my question first, lad. You answer mine, and perhaps I’ll finally answer yours.”

Raleigh reflected. Something in his friend’s tone made him uneasy. The little hairs on the back of his neck wanted to stand up, but the air in the room was too warm and comfortable. “Okay, okay,” he said, “Honestly, I’d do anything to free my mind from these anxieties, so if there were something you could do that would help of course I’d accept the offer. Yes.”

Yes — a word said without coercion or lie that satisfied an ancient covenant of consent. But Raleigh didn’t think of things in those terms. His world was rational. It was not a world where the wrong word could let wrong things in.

Charles-Never-Charlie smirked and rose to make some tea. He bid Raleigh remain seated while he put together something nice. In his cupboard were shelves packed with dozens upon dozens of unlabeled glass jars containing dried herbs and ingredients of all varieties. He pinched a green leaf, a brown powder, and a piece of rust-colored bark for Raleigh’s tincture, and he pinched from three different jars for his own. As he worked and the water heated to a boil he hummed a song to himself, absentmindedly.

It was a song nobody else remembered.

It lilted and lifted from his lips like a puff of wild cotton drifting in the wind. Things weren’t passed down like they used to be. Before the world grew modern, a good song or a great poem could persist for thousands of years. It could bend around new instruments and languages and still move through the breath of each new generation.

The same was true of fears. Before radio and television, before electricity could cross the world in a lick of lightning, before the age of the printing press and the great novels, people would sit around fires and in that dim glow tell the tales their great grandparents had told them. They would speak in hushed, low, certain words that another child had been taken. Its mother had seen the light in its eyes vanish, and she knew down to her marrow that some creature had replaced her child.

The monsters of the old times weren’t smart. But people weren’t either. People had grown very clever, and if there were any monsters lurking at the edges they would have to be clever too. Yes, a clever monster would refrain from acting until the light behind the eyes was already gone. Then no discerning mother would ever notice what was wrong with her child.

Raleigh sat back in the comfortable chair and waited for his drink to be ready. He wondered if the herbalist was making him some sort of holistic anti-anxiety tincture.  The room had grown quiet and warm. It was peaceful in a way that his apartment in the city could never be. But he wasn’t sure he could stand quiet like this for very long.

“You like mint, right lad?” called Charles-Never-Charlie from the other room. Raleigh assented and the herbalist pinched some dried peppermint and added it to both tinctures to mask the more obtrusive flavors.

X

“Chores are calling my name. I really shouldn’t stay too much longer,” said the young man as Charles-Never-Charlie delivered him a mug of steaming liquid.

“Nonsense, lad. I never met a mop or broom that could string together a sentence. Now sip down that tincture and you’ll be feeling better soon,” said the old man.

Raleigh did as he was told and began to sip down the drink, cautious not to burn his mouth. Immediately the muscles in his face began to relax and he felt his body open up like a locked chest.

“I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like Hemmings after dark. Maybe I’m more comfortable in the city where there are street lamps and lights shining out from businesses and houses at all hours. It feels like I’m never actually alone. If I call out, or scream, someone will hear me at least.”

“Well don’t leave just yet, lad. I suppose I can tell you the story of my name,” the old man began. “It’s a story from far away and long ago.”

“A land of rolling green hills it was, hills that blanketed the Earth as far as the eye could see. A beautiful place, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I can smell the westward wind blowing in over the wild grasses on those humid summer nights even now when I close my eyes. A comfortable, good life I had, but it was coming to an end.” As Charles-Never-Charlie spoke, twilight began to reach across Hemmings. The glow of the hearth began to dominate the room. It reflected in the storyteller’s eyes in flashes of orange that appeared to be coming from inside of him.

“Scared folk lived in those parts, but they were merry. They knew how to dance and sing, and many a bottle of fine ale was poured to that cause. But they were rightly mistrustful of an old man who came from far away. In those days, in small places, a person would spend their whole life on the same plot of land. Their friends would be the ones who were born beside them. A person who moved in from somewhere else could never be one of your own. No, at the bottom of a green hill they would leave an old man from elsewhere alone. When he came into the shop they would look at him through eyes of spades and pitchforks, though they would take his money as he acted decently enough.
            “My kind has always been found in small places. Swamps, outskirts, hovels, and hidden valleys, that is where we make our home. We’ve come to know we’ll always be outsiders. And when our welcome wears thin, we leave.”

Raleigh knew there was something amiss about Charles-Never-Charlie’s story, but he couldn’t focus well enough to understand. Though it was past time for him to leave, he could not rouse the attention to move. One moment he was inside the story, floating, watching an old man limp across green hills, and the next moment he would snap back into his own unmoving body that felt firm as a weeping willow anchoring a riverbank.

“Lonesome as I was, one day I made a friend. His name was Charlie,” continued the storyteller. “While the rest of the townsfolk avoided me, this young man was unafraid of an aged hermit. He was not like the other people. He was driven by curiosity, with an endless appetite for tales of far-off lands. ‘Tell me again of the Barrow,’ he would say. Or, ‘Is it true that people fish off the end of the world, and what they catch can cure even death?’ A frail lad he was and in his own head all the time. Poor Charlie couldn’t relax and revel and enjoy himself like all the others. Nobody disliked him. No one mistrusted him. But we walked under the big blue sky and he told me that he was born in the wrong place or the wrong time, that he belonged somewhere else. You have always reminded me very much of him.” There was a devious thistle in the old man’s eye.

The voice that Raleigh had pushed to the back of his mind rose from its chair and yelled at him to go now. It beat its fists against the walls. But Raleigh’s body was settled as the stones in the ancient stove. It would not move no matter the fire it contained.

As Raleigh’s presence shrank, Charles-Never-Charlie’s expanded until it filled every corner of the room, every bristle of the carpet, every year-line in the wood of the grandfather clock. He was no longer only a man. Charles-Never-Charlie was the fire and the hearth, the licking orange tongue and the weight of stone; he was the green walls and the ticking of the second-hand, he was the night creeping in.

“One day my young friend was particularly downcast. I hurt to see him so. His green eyes that usually shone in the sun didn’t turn a single time from the muddy ground as we walked. Some lass had snuffed out his heart, and he felt he was doomed to the life of an old bachelor. ‘Alone, alone. I’ll die old and alone.’ he bemoaned to me. I told him it wasn’t the worst life, but in those parts that was somewhat of a lie. An old man would have only squalor and suspicion to look forward to as the years advanced if he was without a wife and children.

“He was young, not even your age, but he was already well on his way to becoming an old miser in those parts. Though to me he seemed a being full of wonder, I could tell there was already a bitterness steeping away in his core.

“I wanted to help my friend. So I told him to steady me as we walked to my cottage at the base of the hill. I was very old then, you see, and I’d grown quite weak as my body succumbed to the decades.          Decades and decades I’d put that body through. But it’s no good. A body cannot last forever.”

The old man, who now seemed like something else entirely, stared into the fire. In his green eyes, a forest leaped with flame. In a moment of powerful clarity, Raleigh sensed in his friend some deep pain beyond understanding. It was a pain of distance and of indescribable loss.

“There’s something you should know about me,” continued the old man. “I do not want to die. You can sleep. You can forget. But I was not born with these luxuries, and in the swirling night, memories and thoughts berate me and cannot be placated. No, I must not die. I refuse to do it. I absolutely refuse to give mortality power over me.

“I led my friend Charlie down to my cottage. Or rather, he led me, old and frail as I was. It was a fresh, bright day, but there was a chill to it. And if I spent too long away I would be shaking for warmth. Inside, the walls had kept in my heat and I was safe. Death could not dance above my head. I told Charlie that if he were to let me I could take away all his unease and fear for the future.

When he was nearly asleep I led him to a rounded green door. It was an old door, older than the house or even the country I was living in.”

Charles-Never-Charlie clasped Raleigh’s hand and helped him to his feet. The natural instincts of Raleigh’s body were gone, and if it weren’t for his companion, he would have fallen on his way to that green door that smelled of damp earth. As it swung open, Raleigh saw stairs reaching down into depths hidden in shadow. It felt like the stairs went on and on and never came to a stop and all the while Charles-Never-Charlie whispered in his ear.

“When I left that house, people called me Charlie, of course. But it never fit. I could still hear my friend in the back of my mind, so it felt wrong to be going by his name. We talk, even to this day. Of course at the time he didn’t have anything kind to say, but eventually we came to an understanding. I tried having people call me Charles, just Charles. It was better, but still not right. I had to constantly remind people to call me Charles — never call me Charlie, and over time that became Charles-Never-Charlie.

“I left that old country when people became suspicious of an old man who had been old for too long. It’s never good for my kind to draw attention to ourselves. I stowed myself away on a great ship, and traveled for many difficult years before I came to Hemmings. It is a good place. Quiet. It is a place where stillness remains despite the turning of the world.”

The steps led down and down. Raleigh wondered if they would ever stop, or if they led all the way to the center of the Earth. As his friend led him through the chamber they passed small fires that gave way to darkness as the passage twisted and turned, leading further and further into the recesses. It smelled of mold and rot, and things older than he could fathom.

“You must forgive me if it sounds silly, but there was something else. The name reminded me of my first name, a name that has since passed forgotten in a tongue that not one soul remembers how to speak. It was the tongue of a cruel people.

“They were not clever. They were afraid.”

X

In the quiet hamlet of Hemmings, an old man named Charles-Never-Charlie passed away. The newspaper obituary stated that he had no living relatives, but left his home and all his worldly possessions to a young friend.

At times Raleigh tried to talk to the young man in the back of his mind, but the friend did not want to speak to him. The back of his mind was not an excellent home. Its walls were painted in mold.

Raleigh’s mother did not like that her son had moved back to that cursed hamlet hidden in the pine trees and the lonely wind. She said he had changed. Whenever he spoke to her, that friend in the back of his mind banged against the doors and windows. But he didn’t worry about that. He knew they would reach an understanding in time.

Hemmings was the sort of place where a person could pass forgotten and lonesome, rocking in a chair, staring at a fire in an old stone hearth. But he was never lonely. It was good to have a friend.


Mark L Anderson is a writer living in Spokane, Washington where he served as Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He also co-founded the Broken Mic reading series and has traveled across the U.S. reading poems in coffee shops and living rooms. He works as a barista at a vegan bakery and he sincerely hopes you enjoyed your latte. It has a heart on it. 


“Fugue” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

The woman to my right at the bar hands me a party hat, a metal noise maker with a short wooden handle, and a shredded bright colored paper pennant.

“What’s this for?” I ask.

“It’s almost time.”

“Time for what?”

“Time.”

I look at the bartender. His party hat is tilted to one side, loosely held in out-of-place, by a thin piece of stretched elastic.  I want to ask him what is going on but I am hesitant to speak.  He looks away as I begin to address my question to him.

“What’s the occasion?”

Either he doesn’t hear me, or he won’t answer my question.  I watch as he works in the smoke congested darkness of the bar.  He is making something with his hands but I can’t see what it is.  A waitress stands by a service station tightly gripping the chrome bars that delineate her space from the rest of the bar.  Her mouth is moving but there are no words.

A man next to me says, “Smoke?”

I begin to say, “No…” but he isn’t talking to me.  He isn’t talking to anyone.

He says, “The answer is, ‘There is no occasion.’”

“For what?”

“For anything. Your question.  Your life.  For being here.  Or not.”

I turn to question him more closely, but no one is sitting there.  Nothing moving but the gray fog of the smoke.  A silence now that is almost tactile.  I can almost feel what I cannot see.  I drink what is put in front of me. The concoction is carefully aligned on a neatly folded cocktail napkin: a half-empty glass of something amber with ice cubes. I don’t know what it is, only that it must be mine.  Drinking, I feel an uncommon sense of warmth inside.  I carefully replace the glass on the napkin and wait. I can see nothing moving.  But my glass is filled once again.  I reach for it and drink.

Somewhere in the darkness to my left, near where the end of the bar might be, a footlight flashes on what must be a stage.  Followed by another, and another, in a long line of brightly colored filtered lights.  No sound is heard but shadowy figures, outlined by the eerie suddenness of the light are slapping their hands together in a motion that could be clapping.     Just as abruptly as the footlights had come on, they are switched off, a jolting shock worse than the suddenness of their unannounced presence. Then, without warning, an overhead light, the ghost light is switched on.

I can hear a greatly amplified, scratched vinyl record begins to play, the solo voice of a unaccompanied female singer.  I can’t make out the words, as they’re in a foreign language I am unfamiliar with. Her tone, though, is a universal: one of lost love and yearning, intimate yet distant.  Her voice is as distant as the mime on the stage, holding a microphone with no cord attached, pretending to sing. The outline in black of painted teardrops on the white grease painted cheeks, the red painted broken heart on the mime’s white shirt leaking large drops of imitation blood.  The blood, the tears and the unpainted lips in the ghost lighted stage.

And then, the reanimation of the room.  The noise of the crowd, the clattering of glassware, and ice, and meandering conversation.  The occasional sound of a noise maker, a tin whistle, rustling pennants, jester’s bells and cat of nine tails whip like cracks in the subdued lighting. Nothing moving on the stage. The jukebox plays. A September Song. Seven versions in succession by seven different artists.

The bartender’s hat is no longer askew.  He wears a cheap black eye mask as if he were the Lone Ranger with a shot glass instead of a six gun.  Glass tumblers disappear into his hands.  Ice explodes where alcohol meets ice.

I drink my tall drink.  A woman is standing next to me, wearing a long red evening gown, low cut in the back and front. Whenever she moved her head to speak, her green felt fool’s cap bells jungle, and the elastic of her white eye mask slips, covering one of her eyes. One eye is blue and the other is green.  I can’t hear what she is saying, but it appears by her gestures, that she wishes me to light the cigarette in the long black filter she holds between white gloved hands. 

I turn to the bar to retrieve the pack of matches that had been lying near the half-filled drink at my place.  As I turn to her, with the lighted match, there is no one there.  I hold the flickering match as it burns down toward my fingers, waiting for the sudden intake of breath, and the quick release of smoke that always follows after the lighting. I wait, and the match burns, but nothing happens.

Nothing happens until the sound of laughter around me begins.  I wonder what the joke is, who is laughing, and at what?  Or is it, whom are they laughing at?  At what? Nothing at all.

The bald man, at my left, is dressed as a clown, except for his face; a face is covered by a rubber mask   His voice is muffled as he tries to speak. I can see the area where the mouth should be, sense the movement of lips, but nothing resembling speech comes out.  When I do begin to hear, the sound is distorted as if he were speaking from under a vast body of standing water. The laughter that follows his speech also sounds far away. Indistinct, but, real nonetheless. I imagine him on a stage, dressed in an all-white suit, painted the way mimes are painted, but I cannot imagine the noise.  Noise and music, laughter and the sound of coins falling in the jukebox. 

I am drinking.  The more I drink the hotter I feel.  I gesture towards the man with the black eye mask and the party hat, but no one responds.  

I call out, “Hey, tarbendner.  I’m hot and thirsty.  Give me one of your finest coldest beverages.”   

All noise in the room ceases.  Motion is suspended.  A thousand pairs of mismatched eyes stare at me.  I can feel the heat inside.  The increasing urgency of it.  The closeness of the room, the smoke and the heat lamps intense, concentrated glow.  I drink what is placed in front of me.  Drink it and the next without asking or wondering where and why or how.  A Beer Barrel Polka plays.  Everyone laughs.  Even me.

“Try your noise maker now, sonny.” 

A disembodied voice is speaking to me in the darkness.  The voice sounds as if it could belong to an older woman.  A much older woman.  One who has never worn a long evening gown or a party dress in her life.

“Don’t ask questions.  Just do it.”

“Now?”

 “Of course, now, it’s almost time.”

“Time for what?”

“Time for the noisemakers. You’ll be sorry if you don’t have one that works.”

I retrieve my noisemaker from the bar next to my drink and crank the handle. It makes a loud, annoying sound in the otherwise silent room.

“Seems to work fine,” I say.

“Now don’t you feel better?”

The room is no longer silent. Drinks are being consumed, glasses clinking together, soda is swishing into glasses filled to the rim with alcohol and mixers. Laughter and conversation.  I do feel better.  Much, much better.

I say so. 

Everyone laughs.

Loudly as the house lights come all the way up. All the noisemakers come alive at once. Everyone screams in unison

It’s time.

I know better than to ask what it is time for.


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.