“Stitched Jack” Short Story by Billy Stanton

"Stitched Jack" by Billy Stanton, The Chamber Magazine

It was the feeling of the cold metal needle piercing his nose that woke him. The roaring burning in his throat was the next sensation he was aware of, and the iron warmth of his blood dripping into his mouth was the third. Douglas tried to move, tried to scream, but the stitching was completed quickly. He could not tear his face away from the tight sour dampness of the canvas that formed his traditional makeshift sarcophagus and which swallowed his encrusted cries. 

There were murmurings above and around him. Even in the depths of his shock, he could identify some of the voices. Gunther, one of the Swedes or whatever they were, whispered devout and passionate prayers over him that seemed to carry a solemn and flinty echo from the middle pews of an ancient and deserted Scandinavian chapel. Douglas tried to reach out to him, but the material holding him was too strong, too weighty for his limbs that had so recently spent countless minutes struggling against the vicious tides and howling squalls forcing him again and again beneath the tossed foam. Cracked Thomas was, in his usual way, less charitable to the supposed corpse than Gunther. He brusquely pushed the kinder man aside and berated him in the near-unintelligible accent that took influence from every corner of his known world. Where once he had sounded absurd, now he had the voice of all the Earth’s ghoul

“‘E went ova fivveteen minutes agow. Ya poot the steetch en ‘im ta tie ‘im in. Naw Jack Tar gost is gunna tek him. Wat’s the good en yer prayin’? Threw ‘im ova bevore ‘e teks the rast of us to ‘is fate.”

 Gunther, getting the necessary gist of his meaning, stepped away. Douglas tried to squirm, tried to give some signal that Atlantis had not claimed him, that he had come back to them to paint and haul again, but his body was not ready after its previous exertions. He was almost completely paralysed, the blood still dripping steadily- not gushing- around and between his gritted teeth. Douglas noticed he was sweating now too, and the sweat from his forehead was mingling with the blood. He could only taste the latter and not the former; his mouth was still too full of the remains of the waves to notice any fresh salty addition. 

 “Lads! Lads! ‘Eave ‘ooooooo! ‘Eave ‘oooooo!”

 Men who had been keeping a respectful, mournful distance stepped uncertainly forwards in response to Cracked Thomas’ cries, all of them hoping that another would arrive before himself to be forced into that duty which they could not fortify their own stomach enough to perform. An even greater fear flooded through Douglas, but it did nothing to revive his flagging physicality. His form stayed so unwillingly rigid on the deck that, had he had a mind to it, he would have wondered if he was not truly already dead and only granted some post-mortem purgatorial awareness of unhappy life going on without him as a fitting punishment for his multitude of sins.

He felt rough hands lifting him. This was it. Cracked Thomas was directing the doings with the same heave-ho cries he had already given to spur the action, and the crew eventually joined in with his bellowing. Douglas tried to summon something, anything, from somewhere, but he could not. As he was carried towards the side of the boat, time didn’t slow, as one might expect, but rather sped up. Before he knew it, before he could contemplate the full horror of the inevitable fate he was meeting head-on, he was ensconced in the same cold and the same wild sound and the same fury that had ravaged and pummelled him only minutes before. 

 There was little that Douglas could do but submit; his body gratefully rose to meet the intentions of his spirit, and the customary thrashings, struggles and strivings of the drowning- had he even able to achieve them in his exhausted state- were not to be witnessed by his old fellows on the timber behemoth of a ship above. A large wave sent him spinning towards the depths as if he was caught in the riptides of his adolescent memories of Corryvreckan, that kelpie-strewn maelstrom with its hungry heart that insatiably devoured the fragile boats of fishermen. Once down beneath, he did not rise again for a long time. Instead, he floated so seamlessly and slowly beneath the waves that it was as if he was lying- resting- on the seabed with the whole burden of the ocean around him as his vast sepulchre. He was settling into this sleep and letting the drowsiness fill his aching limbs when he suddenly felt himself flying upwards with tremendous velocity. He knew he had surfaced when the light of the brightest, bluest afternoon showed through even the thickness of the embracing canvas. 

A seagull swooped down and sat on his stomach. 

 “I could ‘ave sworn to God hisself that Cracked Thomas woulda been the first to come to us from that vessel.”

The seagull laughed once it had finished speaking. Another came and plopped itself down on his legs. 

“It should ‘ave been. Our lad ‘ere was a victim of pure carelessness. ‘Alf of sailors don’t know they’re bloody born. Too much of a rush, too much a-fearing of the skipper to even check proper if one of their fellows ‘as got the blood still pumping in ‘im. He did, you know. And fer his glory, they gave ‘im a collop of the old brutality to see him out. HEAVE-HO.” 

The second seagull laughed now as it imitated the onboard chorus. Douglas tried to speak to these strange creatures, these seabirds that communicated with voices and words so familiar and so friendly in the glittering dark. 

 “Don’t try, son. Don’t try. We know what you’ve got to say.”

 It was a third gull who had spoken as it perched on his forehead and started picking at the stitching on the canvas hammock. 

 A herring gull joined his friends, perching on a knee. He was followed swiftly by an oystercatcher, its orange beak gleaming proudly in the sun, which took up position on the opposite leg. It ruffled its slender monochromatic wings and called out to the heavens. The song was met by an albatross, which did not descend and take up position on Douglas’ now-crowded waterlogged frame, but instead hovered a few feet above him. 

“‘ave you been to Greece?” 

 The oystercatcher asked the question and moved up to assist the third gull with its work at the unstitching. Douglas, still not able to speak, faintly shook his head. 

“Shame. An experienced boy like you, as young as you are- would’ve thought you’d managed it.”

 Half of the canvas covering Douglas’ face flopped open; his head filled with sweltering white light and burned. The oystercatcher continued its monologue. 

 “The most beautiful girls in the world live there. Of course, all sailors ‘ave got their favourites. I’m sure you did. I ‘ad a love there; she used to bring me great big plates of fried octopus when the ship came in. I ‘ated it at first, loathed the stuff, but what’d she give me in return for finishing that plate- I’d ‘ave slurped down a w’ole Kraken. Shame we can’t talk to you in life as we do in death- I’d ‘ave asked you to pass on my fondest regards if you ever made it over.”

 “The first thing ‘e hears on entering the afterlife is your dusty old lusty memories. What a welcome!”

 The herring gull, having put his fellow to silent shame, untangled the final threads. After finally adjusting to the sun, Douglas found himself staring into the eyes of the albatross. 

“Figures of eight on the top deck, dirty songs with no meaning and the sacred ones to hold. Goodbye, fare thee well, in the lowlands low, by the ivory castle glittering beside the streams of lovely Nancy. Carved puppets, elephants and kings, inscrutable and silent, bare or wrapped in silk; presents from the Indians. Quickly inked tattoos, leering faces and hearts redder than blood. Muscles broken, falling in the muck and shit below, stumbling to bed, to not sleep, to not sleep again. Circles of ice and the sun burning layers of skin from your back. Bubbling wounds, loose black teeth thrown overboard. Forcing down dry bread and flat beer more like sludge. The stink of the tar always everywhere, inescapable, locked in your nose. An itch below the trousers, an itch that drives you to the point of madness after stopping at Ratcliffe. Maps that can’t be read anymore and stars that can’t be trusted. Mermaids winking below the waves when the summer turns the seas warm. Hot springs in the snow, rivers frozen and no way down. The stink of old clothes and flower garlands around the neck. Dark flags on the horizon, the cannons taking what little’s left of your hearing, if not your legs. ‘My son John was tall and slim, and he had a leg for every limb…’ Was the bulging pouch at the end of it all worth it? Never, but always.”

 The albatross stopped reminiscing and came and sat on his chest. The rest of the respectful seabirds went soaring back up into the distant blue, screeching and screaming joyfully to each other. 

“All that’s over now. Good riddance and bad luck. But all drowned sailors have got to go somewhere. We don’t belong on land, not anymore. That’s why they bury us at sea. What else can we do but keep an eye on our friends, and fly alongside ‘em, follow ‘em, and live off their scraps? Was it any different when we was living? When we go out the first time, as boys, we swear off other ways of life for good- even in death. We might not know it- or accept it- at the time, but it’s true. This is our belonging. Eternal.”

 Douglas spoke for the first time. 

 “I’ve heard it before. Old hands would talk about it sometimes, late at night, just before the candles went out. The birds of the dead.”

 “The birds of the dead. More blessed than the living- just.”

 The albatross took off and hovered above, waiting. The last of the canvas fell from Douglas’ body, and then he too was hovering, beating his wings against the finest, the thinnest of breezes. Below, his ship continued on its course, far from coming in, pounded by hail and rolling with the thunder. But this high- this high- the going was clear and clean and safe and shining. Tears filled his eyes. 


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com


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“My Heirloom You’ll Be” by Dimas Rio

"My Heirloom You'll Be" by Dimas Rio

The mother’s eyes widened when she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman. Fajar’s chest, covered in sweat, moved in unison with the swing of his pelvis. His lust was boiling, triggered by the sighs of Ambar’s breath. The woman, lying on her back on the passenger seat, stretched her neck, whispering Fajar’s name every now and then as if every jolt of the man’s body brought her infinite pleasure. Ambar really understood how to intoxicate her lover. It didn’t matter if Ambar didn’t actually feel the same joy. Fajar wasn’t adept at making love, but Ambar thought he had the right to taste what it felt like to be a stud. After all, Fajar had been good to her.

“This belongs to my mother,” Fajar said as he wrapped a gold chain necklace around Ambar’s neck just before they shuffled into the passenger seat. Having never had luxurious jewellery before, Ambar’s eyes were stunned by the gleam emanating from every tiny link that formed the piece. However, what caught her attention was the bulging eye – or at least that was her first impression – which was hanging from the end of the necklace chain. White diamond shards clustered around the emerald piece, holding it hostage in the middle, forcing the eye to see it all.

“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?”

 “Of course,” Fajar assured her. There was no doubt on his face, “in fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”

Ambar raised her eyebrow in disbelief. Considering their relationship wasn’t exactly the type that a Javanese traditionalist mother would approve of, this unexpected gift came as a pleasant surprise to Ambar.

I guess I am welcome to the family after all,Ambar thought. But then again, she supposed Fajar’s mother just had no choice in the matter.

Ambar’s attention shifted back to the present, where Fajar, now moving faster above her, grunted in pleasure as he climaxed. Out of breath, Fajar collapsed on Ambar’s shoulder, feeling worthy of an embrace even after only satisfying himself.

Ambar stroked Fajar’s hair as if she was lulling a child to sleep, while her mind wandered, contemplating everything that had brought her here.

“Ambar, are there no single men in your office?” Ambar remembered her mother had asked a few weeks ago during dinner.

Careful not to rise to her mother’s taunt, Ambar chose to take a piece of tofu that was laid out on the table. But as expected, her mother never waited for an answer.

“Not one man has approached you at work? Or maybe you scare them away?”

Ambar didn’t have enough patience that day. “Mom, would they hire me as their secretary if they thought I would scare people away? And my priority there is not to find a husband.”

“Just remember, you’ll only get older,” the mother replied, always scapegoating time as the enemy, “you’ll be in your thirties this year. If you don’t start looking for a husband now, when will you get one?”

“I just got a job, Mom,” Ambar stressed every word as if talking to a child, “can I focus on that first?”

But her mother didn’t relent, “I’m not telling you to quit your job. I’m just saying that, while working, you can also search for a husband. Your fortune will only grow after you get married. Didn’t you read the hadith[1] book I gave you?”

 Ambar’s face heated up. If getting married can make you rich, why were we always poor when Dad was still alive? Ambar was about to respond but chose to clear the plates from the table and withdraw from the battlefield. In her mind, she wished to get enough money fast to afford her own place, so she would no longer be trapped with her mother, although this thought made her feel like an ungrateful daughter. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Ambar knew that her salary as a secretary in a small law firm wouldn’t be able to buy the freedom that she longed for.

However, that night, as she lay on her bed, considering her options, Ambar thought that maybe it could be helpful for her to have a boyfriend. She wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if she fancied the guy. At least his presence could, for a time, stop her mother’s nagging comments every night.

Hence, in her first few weeks at work, Ambar began to look for a potential mate. It was clear to her that Fajar stood out from the rest, and it wasn’t because of his position. Well, not entirely anyway. Because even though Fajar was the owner and partner of the law office she worked in, he was different from most other young entrepreneurs in similar positions, in that he wasn’t an entitled jerk. If anything, Ambar saw that Fajar was too naive to use his power. He could only make decisions after getting validation from others, including his subordinates. Ambar could often hear Fajar’s questions to the associate lawyers in his office: Could you check the law, have we quoted them right? What is the name of the law again? So we’ve quoted the correct one, right? Does this report look good enough to you?

It was clear to Ambar that Fajar was her “in”. While physically, Fajar was definitely not her type, Ambar found his habit of always asking for others’ opinions refreshing. Ambar imagined it must be nice to be with someone who cared about what she had to say. She wanted to know more about him, but in the two weeks she had been working there, Ambar had only been trusted with filing and scanning documents. The rest, the man did himself. Accustomed to fighting to get what she wanted, Ambar knew that she had to be proactive.

One afternoon at work, when all the other secretaries had gone home, Ambar knocked on Fajar’s office and stepped inside. From behind the pile of documents on the desk, he looked up.

“Excuse me, Mas[2]  Fajar. Is there anything I can help you with?” Ambar’s voice sounded sweet, surprising even herself, “is it okay if I call you ‘Mas’? You’re still quite young, so I thought…”

Fajar didn’t answer right away; he just stared at her. Ambar panicked. Was I too forward? Perhaps he would like me more if I just acted pretty and cute like all the other secretaries here?

For a moment, Ambar suspected that maybe there was something wrong with the way she dressed. But that day, she was wearing a blazer, white shirt, and black pleated skirt. An ensemble that was very common in a workplace, if not boring.

Ambar was about to apologize and shuffle out of the room before Fajar asked, “It’s already late; you don’t want to go home instead?”

“I don’t have anything to do at home anyways,” Ambar said.

Fajar smiled awkwardly. His previous secretary had never been this straightforward. He motioned for Ambar to sit down, with Fajar’s desk stretched between them like a barricade. He handed a document to Ambar and commented that the format therein wasn’t up to the firm’s standard. Fajar had asked a junior lawyer to fix it, but the young man had to go home early due to a family emergency.

“I have to send this out to our client tonight,” Fajar tried to sound calm, though Ambar could see the nervous twitch on his face. Fajar asked Ambar to tidy up the formatting on the executive summary while Fajar would check on the regulatory references.

“If I may, can I just bring my laptop here?” Ambar asked, which prompted a doubtful look from her superior. Ambar quickly gave her justification, “So that if I have any questions, I can just discuss them with you here instead of having to go back and forth into the room.”

Fajar thought her reasoning was quite sensible. In the hours that followed, Ambar worked across the table from Fajar in his office, typing away on the laptop in front of her. Every now and then, Ambar would read a series of paragraphs from the file to him, making sure her revisions were in accordance with his wishes. From the spelling of terminologies that were foreign to her (juncto, lex specialis, and pacta sunt servanda, to name a few), cross-references to things that piqued her curiosity (“Why is the law changed so many times? How can they expect us to keep up?” “Why can’t the regulations use a simpler language?” “So lawyers are basically just copying off of the law with a little bit of paraphrasing?”). At first, Fajar just answered dismissively, as if he thought that Ambar would eventually lose interest. However, as the secretary’s questions became more and more probing, Fajar’s answers became more detailed. There was no longer any hesitation in his voice. Ambar saw, to her delight, that Fajar had started to enjoy conversing with her. She suspected that his confidence emerged after he was sure that Ambar wouldn’t doubt his words. She began to think that, like herself, perhaps Fajar just wanted somebody to act as a sounding board.

Ambar found other similarities with Fajar when they had dinner together at a cafe after working until late at night for the umpteenth time.

“Even after I opened my own law office, my mother still complained, ‘Why don’t you try working for a bona fide company first to build your resume?’, ‘My friends’ kids work in oil and gas companies offshore, and they got good benefits and everything,’” Fajar tried to sound humorous. Still, Ambar knew, even in the dim light of the cafe, that these comments had been bothering him for a long time.

“My mother is the same way, Mas,” Ambar said, “I thought she would be happy when she found out I got a job. But her complaints just shift to ‘When are you getting married?’ and so on.”

Both of them laughed, relieved to know that they belonged to the same clan: grown humans who only functioned as extensions of their parents.

Fajar said that his mother also often tried to set him up with her friends’ daughters. “She asked me to have dinner with her friend’s daughter tomorrow. Her father is a director of a state-owned company,” Fajar said.

Not knowing what to say, Ambar just nodded at first. However, when she caught the tired look on Fajar’s face, Ambar asked, “If you don’t feel like it, why don’t you just refuse to go?”

Fajar stared at Ambar as if she had just said something ridiculous. A defeated smile spread across his face, “Even if we refuse, do you think our mothers would stay silent?”

Ambar recalled her mother’s complaints whenever they argued about her future: “I know this is none of my business. But is it wrong for a mother to want the best for her daughter?” “Have I ever asked anything from you? Why can’t you just listen to what I say for once?”, “Remember the hadith, Ambar. Children must make their parents happy.”

Ambar returned Fajar’s smile, raised her glass, and toasted, “May your matchmaking dinner go splendidly tomorrow.”

Ambar thought her humour was too grim for most people, but Fajar laughed out loud at her direct remarks. She realized that she liked seeing him laugh.

But it wouldn’t change a thing anyway since Ambar realized that her chances of winning her lottery were slim. She knew that there was no way a devout prince could defy the mandate of his queen mother.

Which was why Ambar was surprised when she saw Fajar the next day, still in his office at 8 p.m. From her cubicle, Ambar could see him in his room, which was entirely framed by glass partitions. He was sitting in the chair; his eyes were glued to the monitor. But Ambar knew the man wasn’t paying attention to anything. His mind was lost in the ether, which Ambar had often caught him doing whenever he thought nobody was watching. Triggered by curiosity, Ambar stepped into Fajar’s office, but not before taking a document from her desk to make her visit look more official.

Fajar’s gaze shifted to Ambar as she entered. Ambar could see his face beamed at the sight of her – which she thought was cute.

“Don’t you have a dinner date tonight?” Ambar immediately retorted.

Hearing Ambar’s question, Fajar’s brow furrowed, “I have an online meeting tonight with a Panamanian company.”

For a moment, a sense of panic hit Ambar. How could I forget that he has a work meeting tonight? Ambar had always prided herself on being good at keeping track of things. This carelessness made Ambar curse at herself in her head, in a voice identical to her mother’s. But then she remembered something.

“I don’t recall us having a client from Panama, Mas.”

Fajar’s smile slowly grew, “If you ask my mother and my date now, they think we have.”

Ambar couldn’t hold back her laughter. It was endearing to her to see the changes in Fajar’s demeanour over the last few weeks. Like herself, the man was twisting and turning, trying to free himself from his shackles. However, Ambar knew that any struggle was futile. They were lifetime debtors to their mothers, and pursuing desires other than their matriarch’s wishes would constitute a default.

Ambar and Fajar had dinner together again that night and the night after that. And the night after that. Their conversations always lasted until the café was closed, and Fajar always drove her home afterward. She knew that they had become the subject of gossip throughout the office, from secretaries to employees to the partners’ level. Everybody must have noticed that Ambar was the only secretary who was still in her cubicle after five o’clock in the afternoon and that she would only leave the office when Fajar finished working.

“Maybe I should just wait for you on the ground floor,” Ambar suggested one afternoon.

Fajar refused and asked her not to care about what other people said. “I have learned not to bother anymore, Ambar. And you should too. It’s liberating.”

Ambar reminded him that as the owner and the management in the office, he might remain safe from any consequences, at least for now, but not for a secretary who only had been working there for a month. And she was not planning to lose her job.

“I’m the founding partner in this office, Ambar. If anyone has to worry about their position in this office, it’s them.”

Ambar raised her eyebrows, surprised. If someone had said to her that the timid man she knew a month ago was the same person as the man who now sat in Fajar’s office, Ambar would never have believed them. However, she felt a sense of pride, like a mother’s, seeing the burgeoning man she had created.

Fajar drove Ambar home again that night, stopping just outside the alley where her house was. She didn’t want her mother to know that her boss drove her home every night. Ambar knew that even though her mother always wanted her to find a mate, making sure her only daughter avoided adultery and especially being the subject of nasty gossiping by the neighbours was paramount. Regarding why she often came home late, Ambar always reasoned to her mother that working overtime was something common in a law office, even for the secretaries. Her mother never once questioned Ambar’s excuses, at least for now.

“I told my mother about us,” Fajar said. His gaze fell on their intertwined hands, “I hope that’s okay.”

Ambar was disappointed that Fajar did this without asking her first. The old Fajar, Ambar was sure, would have asked for her opinion first before telling anyone else about their relationship. 

Now that the queen mother had been made aware that her young prince had secretly been getting intimate with a peasant woman, Ambar could only guess which one of them would be called a whore. Bitterness permeated her mind, so thick that she could taste it on her tongue.

“What did you say to her?” Ambar asked, preparing for the worst.

“I showed her your picture. She said that you’re beautiful and wanted to meet you,” Fajar said.

Bullshit.

“What else did you not tell me?”

Fajar seemed stunned by Ambar’s reaction, “What do you mean?”

At that moment, Ambar found his naïveté exasperating. “Even if your mother wants to see me, it’s definitely not because she likes me. She probably wants to prove how unworthy I am.”

Despite her protest, Ambar knew that meeting the queen mother was something she couldn’t avoid, especially if she wanted their relationship to attain legitimacy. As of now, she knew that she was already floating on her space shuttle, halfway to escaping her prison. She just hoped that she would not be denied permission to land.

Fajar whispered, as if able to read her mind, “Ambar, you don’t have to worry. Even if my mother doesn’t like you, she won’t be able to do much.”

Ambar looked at Fajar, waiting for him to make his point.

“My mother is very sick.”

Fajar’s voice broke as if shards of glass were puncturing his throat. He told Ambar that his mother had stage four colon cancer. Her condition had deteriorated rapidly since she was first diagnosed with the disease two months ago. Even though she had undergone resection surgery, doctors still found cancer cells left in her body, so she had to continue with a series of chemotherapy.

Fajar said that his mother didn’t respond well to the drugs. On the doctor’s advice, Fajar decided that his mother be treated palliatively at home with the help of a nurse. Ambar knew exactly what this meant: Only divine intervention could save the queen from death. Unfortunately, Ambar knew from her own experience with her late father, that the man in the heavens could be pretty unforgiving.

“But my mother is a fighter,” Fajar continued, “the doctor said that she only had weeks to live, but it’s been two months now, and she’s still hanging on.” Fajar’s gaze was lost in the past. He then closed his eyes and took a breath as if trying to keep his soul from escaping. When he opened his eyes again, Ambar could see tears welling up inside.

“At this point, I know she must be exhausted, Ambar. I just want her to know that I will be okay… because now I have you by my side.”

Ambar suddenly felt as if her stomach was filled with rocks.

He thinks that by parading me in front of his dying mother, she can die more peacefully, and he can feel less like a failure to her. Ambar thought. She was unsure if she was interested in being made a Messiah for Fajar and his mother. She realized that she enjoyed spending time with this man simply because he gave her an excuse to avoid being at home with her own queen lioness. On the other hand, she relished the possibility of being the last woman that the queen saw before she passed. After all, she had to pay respect to the previous ruler before she could ascend the throne herself.

It was then that Fajar produced a small bronze box from inside his suit that he hung behind the driver’s seat. The sight of the antique-looking item immediately grabbed Ambar’s attention. Even under the pale moonlight that shone through the windshield, she could see the intricate snake-like carvings slither through the box’s surface. Traditional Javanese scripts, Ambar realized. The hanacaraka. She remembered her mother had tried to teach her to write and read the letters when she was in elementary school, but she would always find a way to avoid the lessons (“Why should I learn all of this stuff? Even my teacher at school doesn’t know how to read this,” little Ambar would argue). But if her mother kept pressing, Ambar would make a fuss and cry. She discovered early on that if she cried long enough, her father would eventually swoop in and save her – like the valiant prince that he was – believing that her mother was being too hard on her. Ambar realized that she had always wanted to escape her mother’s unwavering and critical gaze for as long as she could remember.

However, Ambar was surprised to find that she could understand the meaning of the ancient texts engraved on the top of the bronze box. It looked and sounded mystical; Ambar swore that it could have been a mantra.

꧋ꦔ꧀ꦭꦁꦏꦸꦔꦶꦫꦎꦱ꧀ꦒꦼꦫꦃꦭꦤ꧀ꦏꦼꦱꦼꦁꦱꦫꦄꦤ꧀ꦏꦸꦭ꧈

꧋ꦩꦼꦏꦠꦺꦤ꧀ꦭꦃꦕꦫꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀ꦠꦼꦂꦭꦲꦶꦂ꧉

꧋ꦣꦼꦩꦶꦱꦱꦶꦭꦤ꧀ꦱꦸꦂꦪ꧈ꦏꦸꦭꦧꦼꦂꦱꦸꦩ꧀ꦥꦃꦣꦠꦺꦁꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀꧈

꧋ꦮꦶꦮꦶꦠ꧀ꦱꦩꦺꦤꦶꦏꦔꦤ꧀ꦠꦺꦴꦱ꧀ꦱꦣꦔꦸꦤꦶꦥꦸꦤ꧀‌

꧋ꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀ꦧꦣꦺꦣꦣꦺꦴꦱ꧀ꦥꦸꦱꦏꦏꦸꦭ꧉

Through my pain and misery,

that was how you came to be.

By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.

From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.

Ambar saw Fajar open the box’s lid and lifted a golden chain necklace with a large green emerald glistening at its end, swarmed by hundreds of white diamonds, making it look like a staring, unblinking eye.

“This belongs to my mother,” he said as he laid it on her palm, “and I want you to have it.”

Ambar couldn’t take her eyes off the gemstone. So arresting yet intimidating its power was that she felt like challenging it.

“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?” Ambar asked, even though she couldn’t have cared less.

“Of course,” Fajar assured her, “In fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”

Ambar smiled. She suddenly remembered her father, who had always spoiled her with gifts, from dolls, toys, to a minibike. It didn’t matter to her that he had bought those items from a secondhand market by the roadside – every time her father brought something home for her, Ambar felt like a royal daughter.

Fajar wrapped the necklace around Ambar’s neck and kissed her forehead. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. It was as if Ambar’s father had come back to life, making sure that his daughter was treated like the empress that she was.

“Please come to my house with me tomorrow; it would mean so much to me,” Fajar said. The way he looked reminded Ambar of a stray kitten begging for scraps, and Ambar could not help but give in.

“Of course I will,” Ambar squeezed his hand gently. She could see that her response gave him relief. Locking his gaze with hers, Fajar shifted closer and planted his lips on Ambar’s. His hands cupped her face as if he was gulping from it. Ambar pulled her knees onto the seat and rested them on the cushion, driving herself closer, letting him savour the nectar of her lips. He earned every lipstick-tinged drop. After all, he had just invited Ambar to her very own royal coronation – neither wicked stepmother nor fairy godmother necessary. This was better than any fairy tale Ambar could ever dream of.

Scrambling to the back seat, Ambar and Fajar mauled each other as if they lusted for blood. Squirming and writhing like snakes in a cave, they felt freer than ever. Not one drop of light shone on them, and they preferred it that way. Under the shadows, they could be feral animals, not anybody’s pets.

Because the light held you captive while the darkness set you free.

What they didn’t realize was that a mother’s gaze could penetrate through even the darkest of nights. After all, she had seen a glimpse of hell and lived to tell the tale.

So relentlessly unwavering and unflinching were her eyes that shadows folded onto themselves in fear, allowing her a better sight of the abominable act that was splayed on the passenger seat just beyond the rear window.

Her eyes reddened and trembled as she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman.

§

Ambar planted a parting kiss on Fajar’s lips before she stepped out of the car several minutes later. Upon alighting on the gravel, she self-consciously pulled at her blouse and skirt, as if afraid that people would know what she had done just by looking at the creases.

Ambar glanced sideways and saw Fajar’s car starting up. The beam from the headlight and the rumbling sound from the engine disrupted the quiet night as if alerting every house in the neighborhood that Ambar, the daughter of a pious and God-fearing single mother, was once again being dropped off late at night by a man, like a dirty secret.

As Fajar drove away, Ambar raised her hands to wave at him, hoping to get a wave back or a smile. However, Ambar could see from the window that Fajar’s attention was fixed on the road; his face was devoid of any of the joy that had earlier oozed from his every pore.

He’s probably tired. It’s after midnight, and we have a big day tomorrow, Ambar reasoned to herself.

But in a split second that followed, Ambar realized that she had seen that look before. It was the look that Fajar had whenever he was alone and thought that nobody was watching.

It was as if his soul was only loaned to him, and someone – or something else – had decided to take it back.

§

“It looks good on you,” Fajar complimented Ambar when he saw his mother’s necklace encircling her neck.

It was the day after, and Ambar was back in Fajar’s car, which looked and smelled the same as it had the night before. However, unlike the gloomy man that Ambar had seen through the window last night, today, Fajar looked as chipper as ever. He kept saying how stunning Ambar was in her long-sleeved white dress and blood-red shoes. Ambar quite liked the look herself as she based it on her favorite fairy tale, Swan Lake, where the prince professed his love and released the princess from her curse, making her a true royal in the end. Her whole ensemble was her way of manifesting her destiny.

However, her mood just couldn’t align with her sunny get-up this evening, all thanks to snippy comments made by her mother just before she was about to head out.

“They must pay you a lot of money, don’t they?”

Ambar, who was just putting on her crimson shoes, stopped in her tracks and stared at her mother. Her insinuating tone was palpable; she might as well cut Ambar’s jugular with a knife.

“Do you know what people in our neighborhood have been talking about?” her mother stood in the living room, a good four feet from where Ambar sat. Wrapped in her oversized black dress, she leaned her shoulder against the wall, her arms folded across her chest as if assessing a shameful object from afar.

Ambar didn’t have time for this. She rose from her chair and headed for the front door.

“They said, ‘Look at Mrs. Endang’s daughter; she’s always being taken home late by someone. I wonder what she does for a living’,” her mother continued. Rage shook her voice.

As if rotten eggs had just been thrown at her back, Ambar turned to face her aggressor. Her eyes were burning coals.

“I don’t give a fuck what they think.”

The mother hen winced as if Ambar just spat acid on her, “Have you no shame?”

The more her mother threw heinous accusations at her, the more she wanted to mess with her mother’s head. After all, she had decided that her daughter was a whore. Why bother correcting her now?

“I thought this is what you want, Mother? Me finding a husband? I’m just doing what you told me to.”

“Not by disgracing our family in front of everybody!” her mother barked.

“You want to talk about family, Mother? Am I not your family?”

Both women breathed heavily; each was a distorted reflection of the other – arch Nemeses bound by blood. 

“You are my daughter,” her mother reminded Ambar’s position in this household, “and as your mother, it’s my duty to guide you through life so you don’t do things that you’ll regret.”

“No, you want me under your thumb,” Ambar retorted, “and you think your duty is to point out the things that I lack.” Ambar could feel her pent-up anger rolling like a storm.

“When I had to refuse the job offer in Malaysia a couple of years ago because you didn’t want to be alone, you belittled me every day for not having a job. When I finally got this job, you asked me when will I have a boyfriend,” Ambar’s voice cracked,and now that I have done exactly as you asked, you called me a whore.

Her mother just stared at her, dumbfounded, unable to refute Ambar’s tirade. Ambar believed there was nothing her mother could do other than admit defeat. But she forgot the fundamental law in this household: Ambar was the daughter, and she was the mother. And her mother would rather chew on shards of glass than apologize.

“Don’t twist my words, Ambar. I have never said such a thing. I’m just telling you what other people have said,” her mother’s voice trembled, “remember the Quran and the hadith, Ambar. Respect and honour your parents. Especially your – .”

“You can cite the Quran and the hadith all you want, Mother,” Ambar snapped, “I’m done feeling guilty for you.”

Ambar turned her back on her grief-stricken mother and walked out. In between the sound of her pounding heart, she vowed to move out of her mother’s house tonight – never to return.

§

Ambar let her fingers play with the golden necklace on her neck. The gleam of the gemstone at its center shone as brightly as ever, casting specks of light throughout the sprawling living room where she sat.

Ambar marveled at the lavish items and adornments that lay before her eyes. There was a large painting on the wall across from her, stretched from one corner to the next, depicting a traditional shadow puppet show watched by a smattering of locals. Ambar felt as if she was part of them.

As she observed the painting from where she sat, Ambar could see the hand of the puppeteer protruding from behind the white cloth, unnoticed by the rest of the audience. The yellowish glow from the chandelier in the living room made the puppeteer’s hands seem to move ever so slightly.

Annoyed by what her mind had conjured up, Ambar shifted her sight to the closed door across the living room, beyond the reach of the chandelier’s light. That was where Fajar had disappeared to moments ago. He told Ambar that he wanted to check with the live-in nurse whether his mother was in a good enough condition for a visit. “She seemed well enough this morning. But I better check since her condition fluctuates by the hour.”

Ambar glanced at the watch on her wrist – 8 p.m. It had been ten minutes since Fajar had left her in the living room, but it felt like hours. She was getting anxious, and knowing that she was sitting there alone, surrounded by antiques and relics with no one else in sight, made her uncomfortable. Determined to shake off her jitters, Ambar rose from the chair and decided to look around.

As she walked across the hall from the living room, her eyes were drawn to her right, where a massive stone carving stretched along the walls. There was a sculpture of a woman wearing a traditional robe, standing in the middle of a forest. She was extending her arms to a sickly-looking old man, offering him a bowl of water. While the woman’s eyes brimmed with care and generosity, the old man’s visage looked cunning and malicious. It didn’t take long for Ambar to realize that she recognized the scene: it was from the Javanese version of the Ramayana, the story that her father used to read to her every night.

The woman depicted on the wall was Sita, who, at that particular part of the tale, was tricked by the calculating Rahwana – who disguised himself as an old man – into giving him water. As Sita’s arms extended beyond the protective circle made by her prince, the ferocious Rahwana snatched her away and held her hostage in his castle.

The devious glint in Rahwana’s eyes sent a shiver down Ambar’s spine, yet at the same time, she couldn’t look away. The frail man on the wall, with his apparent harmlessness, drew her in, just like he did poor Sita.

Ambar thought that it was understandable why Sita didn’t suspect the man’s true intention. Carved in broad, expressive strokes, the old man seemed to have the most friendly laugh. She couldn’t only identify with Sita, but also feared for her. Ambar realized that she had also been drawn by that very laugh many weeks ago when she thought that her humour was too grim for most people.

Yes, Mother…

A voice as thin as air jolted Ambar out of her thoughts. Her gaze immediately swerved to where she believed the voice was coming from.

The closed black door.

Thinking that Fajar would emerge from behind the door and invite her in at any moment, Ambar made a last-minute attempt to smooth out her hair and dress. After all, she only had one chance to impress the dying queen.

However, after minutes passed without any sign of the black door opening, Ambar began to feel annoyed. 

How hard is it for him to ask whether his mother is in good enough condition for a visit? Ambar thought impatiently. Surely the nurse can give him a quick answer? 

Ambar’s questions floated aimlessly in the air without any answers to keep them earthbound. She turned her head to the living room, contemplating whether to just return there and wait like an uncomplaining little girl, when she, once again, saw a glimpse of the Ramayana carvings across the wall. The scheming Rahwana now seemed to be laughing at her.

Ambar quickly turned her sight back to the coal-black door. There was no way that she would spend another minute waiting there under the encroaching gaze of those relics.

Ambar drew a deep breath. She knew that she just had to walk through the door and ask nicely whether there was something she could do to help. After all, she was Fajar’s secretary. 

As she clasped her hand on the door handle, she could see a faint red gleam cast onto the door’s surface. She noticed that it came from the gemstone in her necklace. Has it always been red? Ambar didn’t care enough to remember, as her focus was to make sure she made an impressive entrance.

The door was heavier than she had anticipated when Ambar pushed it open. A long creaking sound filled the air as the door swung inwards, revealing – to Ambar’s surprise – not a well-lit bedroom fit for a queen but a dark cavern.

Ambar stood, statue-like, in the doorway, trying to adjust her eyes to the gaping darkness in front of her. There were cobbled stairs ahead, leading down to an even darker abyss. She was about to call out Fajar’s name, but something in her head told her not to. She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t want to turn back before getting some answers. She needed to find Fajar and asked him what the hell was going on. And if she had to walk down that flight of stairs to get her answers, so be it.

Ambar took out her cellphone from her handbag and turned on the flashlight app. The white beam emanating from the device gave her enough sense of what lay ahead. Unfortunately, the light was still too weak to reveal what was in store for her at the end of the pit.

Ambar inhaled deeply before started descending the cobblestone stairs. She could feel the door behind her being swung shut by the wind, engulfing her in suffocating darkness.

As she treaded deeper into the womb of the cavern, Ambar was greeted by a chilling breeze – and with it, a distant but unmistakable voice.

“I’ll fetch her, Mother.”

It was Fajar’s voice, which sounded both adoring and fearful. Every word he said bounced off the stone wall into Ambar’s ears, creating an overlapping squawk that looped endlessly.

“I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.

I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.

I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.”

Ambar stopped in her tracks, realizing that she was almost at the foot of the stairs. In front of her was a landing that led to a low archway on the right, where Fajar’s voice resounded.

The hair on Ambar’s neck stood up when she heard the sound of the walls breathing, resulting in a cacophony of whispery chants from hell. Only moments later did she realize that the panting sound was coming from her own mouth.

“You wait here, Mother. I’ll be right back,” Fajar’s voice continued to undulate in the darkness, but now it sounded closer than before.

Ambar’s heart sank when she saw a man’s shadow appear on the cobbled floor, approaching the mouth of the archway. Fajar was coming for her.

Ambar turned back to the stairs and started climbing to the black door. At this moment, she wanted nothing more than to make her legs move faster, but the blinding darkness and her godforsaken stiletto heels made her attempt at running more like a light jog than a dash.

Ambar screamed in frustration as she hobbled her way towards the upper landing, where the black door was. Her escape was now in sight. A few more steps and she would be able to ditch her shoes and sprint as fast as she could – or fight. 

“Ambaaaaar!” Fajar’s bestial roar followed her from several steps below. The thumping of his feet sounded more and more frantic as he got closer.

Skipping over the last two steps, Ambar reached the upper landing and swung open the obsidian door. Without even blinking to adjust her eyes to the piercing light, she kicked off her crimson shoes and ran for her life.

As she ran past the living room where Rahwana’s smile taunted her from the wall, Ambar felt a tightening grip around her neck. Thinking that she must be hyperventilating, she desperately pleaded for her lungs to hold on just a little longer. The main front door was right there in front of her, ready to grant her an escape. All she had to do was pay no mind to her heaving lungs and aching body and keep pushing. She was sure that she would be out in the front yard in no time, free to scream and yell to anyone who would listen. 

But the tightness around her neck intensified the closer she got to the front door. Now, barely an iota of air could enter her lungs. Ambar’s run regressed into a blundering shamble. Her mouth agape, she gasped for air. As her fingers clawed violently at her neck, she felt chain loops coil tightly around her throat. She wasn’t hyperventilating; she was being strangled by her own necklace.

Ambar’s body slumped to the floor. Devoid of oxygen, her head felt like it would topple to the ground. The front door, which before had looked ridiculously near, now seemed miles away.

From behind, she could hear Fajar’s footsteps approaching, steady and triumphant, eager to claim his prey.

“It will choke you to death if you keep running away,” Fajar spoke calmly as if he was explaining the laws of physics. Ambar could feel Fajar’s hand resting on her shoulders. He then pulled her backward, letting her rest in his arms as he knelt.

“I need your body to be well, Ambar. It’s the only way I can have my mom back,” Fajar said; his tone was as loving as ever, “but you don’t need to be scared. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise you. You won’t feel a thing.”

That was the last thing Ambar heard before her whole world turned black.

§

At least Fajar kept part of his promise. Minutes later, when Ambar regained consciousness, she didn’t feel any pain. She found herself sitting on a chair in a dingy chamber. The only light source in the room was a chain bulb that hung from the ceiling. Ambar could taste the pungent smell of rats’ droppings that permeated the air, making her gag. Tears, snot, and spit dripped down her face like melting wax, wreaking havoc with her make-up.

As she examined her own situation, Ambar could see that her hands were lying idly on her thigh, and her bare feet were resting on the cold stone floor. There was no rope tying her to the chair. Nothing that could keep her from fighting back and making a run for it. However, when she tried to lift her hands, it was as if there were iron cuffs that held them in place. Her feet, too, felt like they were weighed down by a heavy-duty ball and chain.

As her eyes darted in panic, trying to make sense of what was happening, she caught the sight of the necklace with a dangling emerald eye on its end, still coiling around her neck like a greedy snake. The previously green gemstone that formed its pupil now took on a reddish hue, making it look like a gaping, throbbing wound. Recalling what had occurred minutes ago when she tried to escape, Ambar suspected that, as unbelievable as it might sound, this life-like necklace was somehow responsible for her currently paralyzed state.

“Hi,” seemingly out of nowhere, Fajar’s face filled her whole view. Ambar opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She was as silent and defenseless as a carcass.

Fajar kept staring at her for a moment. So close was his face to hers that Ambar could see every bead of sweat leaking from the pores of his skin.

“You’re fine. You’re not hurt,” Fajar cupped Ambar’s tear-stained face and moved it around in his hands as if checking for a defect. There was a worried glint in his eyes; Ambar was unsure whether his remark was supposed to soothe her or himself.

“I love you, Ambar,” Fajar whispered as he caressed Ambar’s trembling face, “and I love my mother. I need to have you both.”

Ambar stared at Fajar in confusion. But as he moved away from her sight, Ambar was able to look ahead and got her answer. What she saw in front of her made her eyes bulge in fear.

Sitting right across from her were skeletal remains of a human, covered in filth and dirt. Its big hollow eyes were emotionless and bare, while its lipless mouth was forever grinning. Ambar couldn’t comprehend how something devoid of a soul could look so cunning.

“That horrible disease took her months ago,” Fajar lamented as he rested his hands on the bony shoulder of what once was his mother’s, “before she died, she promised that she would always be with me… that she would always watch over me.”

Fajar’s voice cracked as emotions overtook him, “But I don’t want just her presence or her memory. I want her here. I want her alive, healthy, and well.”

“And then I met you,” the man smiled that deceptively warm smile, “you’re fierce, funny, and intelligent, just like she was. Right then, I knew….”

Fajar’s voice petered out as if losing its transmitter. Ambar could see his hands move to his mother’s collarbone, where a familiar object lay bare and loose: the emerald necklace, identical to the one twisting around her own neck.

“I knew that you two would get along. Two of my favorite women, in the same body.”

Ambar managed to let out a muffled scream. Her whole body jerked and trembled, trying to free herself from the spell that rendered her immobile. But those invisible chains just would not give.

Fajar turned his attention to the dark corner of the room and said giddily, “Isn’t she perfect, Mother?”

With growing horror, Ambar’s eyes followed his gaze to the shadowy wall. There was only a deep blackness there. But Fajar kept going.

“Did I do right by you, Mother?” Fajar, ever the approval-seeking man-boy, clung to the dead woman who was pulling his strings.

Trying to make sense of it all, Ambar stared deep into the dark corner of the wall, searching for something that wasn’t there. The more she frowned, the more she felt like darkness was closing in on her, forcing her to look deeper.

And then she saw her, hiding behind the ink-black shadows. The queen of the house. Her face was as pale as the moonlight. Her body looked frail and spindly, as if the disease was still eating her away, even after she died. But there was something burning in her eyes. An untamed desire to protect what was hers. Ambar knew those eyes well. She had tried to escape those eyes all her life. They were the eyes of a mother.

Ambar could only scream and wail in silence. In the moments before darkness engulfed her, Ambar prayed that her mother could think of her, forgive her, and eventually look for her.

It was then that Fajar began to recite a passage that sounded familiar to Ambar. Every word seemed to multiply and gnaw over one another like rats, burrowing a chamber into her mind. So ethereal and mystical were those verses; she could swear they could have been a mantra.

“Through my pain and misery,

that was how you came to be.

By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.”


[1] A record of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s words, actions, and approval.

[2] A Javanese prefix used to address older brothers or other men of unknown age to show respect; it is also commonly used to convey a youthful impression of adult men.


Dimas Rio is an Indonesian-born dark fiction writer. He published his first novel, “Dinner with Saucer,” in 2007, which was shortlisted for Indonesia’s Khatulistiwa Literary Award.

In 2022, his self-published short story collection “Who’s There? A Collection of Stories” was re-published by a US-based publisher, Velox Books. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “Entrancing and unnerving” and included it as one of the notable indie books by international authors in 2022

 Dimas can be contacted on his Instagram account @dimas_riyo 


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“Tomato Seeds” Dark Fiction by Maggie Hall

"Tomato Seeds" by Maggie Hall

Three times in a week, Henry had been late for dinner. Wren noticed. Henry Jr. noticed. Elmo, the family mutt, noticed. Even two-year-old Rosie noticed as she played in the living room that third night.

“Mommy. Where daddy?”

Henry ought to know that Wren was not a fan of tardiness; he was twenty minutes late for their first date and she never let him forget it. For fifteen years they’ve known each other and not once after that first date was Henry ever late. Not until now.

The first night, Henry was full of regrets. He kissed Wren over and over, apologizing more than he needed to.

“Wren, my darling, I’m so sorry, I know how you hate it when I’m late. We had a meeting run long and I didn’t get the chance to call. I’m here now, it won’t happen again, I promise. I have Melissa sending you a cake from Oswald’s Bakery tomorrow, okay? Chocolate, your favorite. I’m so sorry.”

Chocolate’s not Wren’s favorite, but she figured she ought not to complain about a free cake. Melissa, Henry’s sixty-some-odd-year-old secretary, never did send a chocolate cake. Or any cake. She didn’t even answer the phone when Wren called her to ask about it.

Henry was late coming home again the next day. And again on Friday. That time the apology was less sincere but offered the same sorry excuse. A month or so rolled by and he wasn’t late again, but he wasn’t exactly present, either. He would often take his dinner into the office, lock the door, and wouldn’t come out again before Wren would retire to the bedroom. Henry had always kept the office locked, and Wren had respected that; Henry Jr. could be rather nosy. But it bothered her that she wasn’t allowed in there, either. She knew it was a pigsty without her to clean it.

A few weeks in to the new habits, she waited in the living room, determined to stay awake until she saw her husband again.

“What’s got you so busy, dear?” Wren had asked the moment he came out of the hall. “I hardly ever see you anymore. Henry J and Rosie miss you, you know.”

“It’s just a busy time of year for me. It won’t last much longer. Work stuff, you understand.”

Wren, in fact, did not understand.

“Who’s answering sales calls in the middle of the evening? Shouldn’t those people be spending time with their families, too?”

Henry cut a glare at Wren for her remark but didn’t entertain it as he mumbled into the dim room, “go to bed, Wren.”

She sat for a second in the stiff silence of the house. Henry let out a harsh sigh.

“Look, Wren, work’s getting a little more complicated than just making sales calls, okay? It’s been hard to keep up. When everything’s done and over, I’ll tell you all about it, okay? You wouldn’t understand it right now, anyway, and I don’t have the time it takes to explain it all to you yet. I just need you to trust me.”

Wren trusted him. She thought she did, anyway. He had never given her a reason not to. She continued to trust him even as the weeks went on and she saw less and less of him. She had grown weary of isolation and silent meals. At least he would always get the mail and take the trash out.

Weekends were fine. Fine during the day, anyway. He wasn’t home at night. They both played the roles of happy couple in public, masquerading perfection. But never any warmth. That wasn’t new; Henry had never been a fan of being affectionate in public. But he stopped touching her at home, too. The days they would spend together, Wren found herself constantly craving even just a pinky to hold.

She had started to suspect a mistress in the beginning. It would explain why they hadn’t slept together in months. But Henry had always expressed deep disgust when discussing friend’s affairs, giving Wren no reason to believe he would ever consider doing it himself. Right?

*                                  *                                  *                                 

The nights got colder, and the sun set sooner. Wren no longer delayed dinnertime for her husband. Time had started to lose meaning for her, anyway. She took a long drag off her cigarette and blew it out the bathroom window. It was a new habit. She hated smoking, but she hated drinking more, and she needed something to calm her nerves. There was a knock on the door and Wren flung the cigarette into the toilet in a panic.

“Mama?” Henry Jr. knocked again and rattled the knob.

“One second, Henry J, I’m using the potty!” She flushed the toilet and mourned the half-smoked stick as it disappeared.

“Mama, when’s daddy getting home? I got a math question for him.”

Wren opened the door to her nine-year-old tossing a baseball up in the air and failing to catch it as it came back to him. She pushed past him with a heavy sigh and a discouraging, “I don’t know, J. And no throwing in the house, we’ve talked about this.”

“Is he ever gonna hang out with me again?”

Wren bit her lip and tried to soften her tone.

“Of course, he will. He’s just been really busy these past few months.”

“Well, can you help me with it, Mama?”

Wren turned to look at her eager son. She probably could help him, but her husband was a lot better at explaining things to him than she was. When she did try, he would often swoop in later and tell his wife she did it all wrong.

Wren rubbed her forehead and caught a whiff of the lingering smell of smoke on her fingertips. The timer went off for the lasagna and she decided her next break would be once the salad was prepared. She could feel her husband’s thirty-fourth tardy looming.

“I’m sure daddy will be home soon, kid, just ask him when he gets here. Go set the table, dinner’s almost ready.”

So, he did. Henry Jr. was a model child, there was no denying that. Hardworking, good listener, a heart bigger than Texas. He was born exactly nine months after Wren and Henry Sr. got married. Wren would always boast that he was the spitting image of her husband. Same brown eyes, same unusually small toes, same stupid, big head, only Henry Jr. still had the dark curls on top.

She had envied those curls since she first met Henry in high school; it’s what drew her to him in the first place. But it wasn’t just his good looks that caught her eye, or even that he excelled in sports. He was the star of their high school’s mathletes, and there was something so sexy to Wren about a man who was good at something she wasn’t. Back then, Wren was better at a lot of things. There were paintings and gymnastics medals hiding inside their garage to prove it.

Wren’s memories clouded her focus. Her knife had missed the tomato. She stared at the blood coming out of her thumb for a long time before she processed what had happened. It pooled around the tomato slices, picking up loose seeds like boats ready to set sail. She saw herself aboard a seed, arms wrapped up in the ropes of the sail, peering beyond the dark red horizon and bracing herself for the ride over the edge of the cutting board. Her vision started to spin.

All at once the pain hit her and she screeched. She grabbed the nearest rag and wrapped it around her thumb. It continued to throb underneath the cover, and tears fell from her cheeks before she even realized she was crying. She let out a whisper of a curse and the pain subsided just a little. Looking up from her wound, she saw Rosie in the highchair, eyes wide and curious. She asked her mother, “Okay, mommy? You okay?” over and over and over again. Her voice bounced around in Wren’s head, and she slammed her injured fist on the counter in a panicked attempt to shut her daughter up.

Both children froze in the dining room and stared at Wren, white with fear of the stranger claiming to be their mother. Her chest tightened with immediate remorse, and she apologized profusely. But the kids didn’t respond. Wren mumbled something about the bathroom and grabbed a loose cigarette from her purse as she exited. Henry Jr. stopped setting the table after two seats and picked up the sippy cup his sister had dropped.

It was another dinner without her husband. But this one was worse than the others. She had never reacted to her kids in such a violent way, she could tell they were still shaken from it. Rosie had quickly exonerated her, or just simply already forgotten, as toddlers do, but Henry Jr. wasn’t so quick to forgive. When she sent him to bed, he refused their nightly routine of butterfly, cheek, and forehead kisses. Wren’s chest continued to hurt until she went to bed.

She pretended to be asleep when Henry Sr. came home, hoping he would come to bed sooner. Her finger had been stitched up by the retired nurse next door, and she made sure to leave the wounded hand visible over the blankets. Henry didn’t even touch it. Or her. More tears fell onto Wren’s pillow as Henry clicked his lamp off and turned away from her.

Wren didn’t sleep. Well, admittedly she nodded off around two or three, but woke back up before the sunrise, so she didn’t count it. She’d never woken up before the rest of the house until about a month prior, and she’d grown to enjoy it. It was like a dream, watching the sky turn from red to orange to yellow to bright blue. The sunrise was a lot more beautiful than the sunset, she had decided, especially when she could have a cigarette with her coffee as she watched from the front porch.

The baby monitor lit up as she finished a second smoke; her morning of peace was over. She hung her coat up by the door and stared at the keys on the hooks. Wren and Henry had bought the minivan together when they found out about Rosie. It was a little on the expensive side as they bought it new, so they both gave up their smaller cars in exchange. They agreed that one car was sensible since Wren would be home most of the day with a new baby, anyway. But after going stir crazy for two years, she was beyond thrilled when Henry decided to buy another car a few months back. Although, she didn’t understand why it had to be a brand new, bright red, expensive sports car. She didn’t think they could afford it, but she’d always trusted Henry, and she assured her they could. She didn’t trust him anymore. She stuffed the keys to Henry’s car in her pocket and went to get Rosie ready for daycare.

Wren was just finishing her eggs when her husband walked into the kitchen. She made sure she took longer than usual this morning so that she would catch him. She watched as he poured his coffee into a travel mug. A scarlet tie sat over his belly and Wren didn’t recognize the pants he had on. When did he have time to shop for himself? She wasn’t sure if he was ignoring her or just hadn’t noticed her yet, so she decided to announce herself.

“Morning, honey.”

Henry almost dropped his coffee at her voice, then turned to her with a plastered smile.

“Hey, hey, morning. Didn’t see you.” He looked past his wife at his daughter in the highchair, having a battle with a Cheerio on her tray. “Hey, good morning, sugarplum! Oh, you are such a beautiful little girl.” Rosie cooed in response and wriggled her tiny fingers at him. “What are y’all still doing here, Wren? Where’s Junior?”

“He takes the bus now, remember? So that he can ride with his little Sarah friend. He’s been doing that for quite a few weeks, now.”

“Oh, right, right, right.” Henry tossed a bagel into the toaster and the house was silent again.

“Listen,” Wren finally said, “I need you to take Rosie to daycare this morning. I’ve got some things to do and—”

“What? No, Wren, I don’t have time for that now, I’m running late. Why didn’t you ask me this sooner? I could’ve made sure I was up earlier.”

“Well, I was going to ask you at dinner, but you weren’t there.”

Henry’s eyes narrowed, and Wren matched it. The bagels popped out and Henry flinched. “Look, I’m late, Wren. Use that brain of yours and text me next time. Or call me. Or email me. I got you that PDA for a reason. Why are you even still here if you’ve got so many things to do?”

“Because I never see my husband anymore and was hoping he’d be happy to see me, too.”

“Look, Wren, we talked about this. Work is… a lot right now. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Right, and I’m at the bottom of the list, aren’t I?”

“Is that what I said?”

“That’s what you implied.”

Henry rubbed his neck and took a breath. “You don’t understand.”

Wren stood up.

“Try me.”

“Wren, I’m already running late—”

“Marriage doesn’t work without communication, Henry.”

“I know, but now is not a good time—”

“Will there ever be a good time? It’s been months!”

“Yes, I know it has, Wren! Jesus, I know how time works. Like right now, if you look at a clock, you’ll see that I’m running late—”

“I don’t care. I don’t care! I want to know who and what is keeping my husband away from the family that he helped create.”

Henry slapped Wren across the cheek. He’d never done that.

“Don’t you dare use my kids against me,” Henry snarled, “and stop talking over me. It doesn’t make you sound any smarter. Work is busy. I am late. That’s all you need to know, got it?”

Wren nodded and watched as he approached the front door. Her cheek throbbed underneath her hand.

“Wren, where are my keys?”

Her pulse quickened and a rock formed in her stomach.

“I don’t know, honey, I haven’t seen them. You didn’t put them on the hook?”

“Of course, I put them on the hook, I always put them on the hook, but now they’re not on the damn hook. Where are they?”

Wren pretended to look in the kitchen, then pulled them out of her pocket while Henry’s back was turned.

“Look, Henry, they’re right here on the counter. You must’ve left them there last night.” He went to snatch them out of his wife’s hand, but she held on to them. Rosie was whimpering behind them. Wren’s voice went soft. “Kiss your daughter goodbye so she’s not scared of you.”

Henry rubbed the top of his head as if something had magically grown there overnight, but he complied. Rosie giggled as he dried her tears and smothered her with kisses. Then he went for the keys again, but Wren couldn’t let go yet.

“And your wife.” She paused. She couldn’t look at him. “Please.”

Henry huffed and reluctantly kissed her injured cheek before darting out the door. Wren rubbed the remaining key in her pocket. The tears came back. She thought the kiss would fill the hole he’d dug inside her. It only tunneled deeper. She didn’t recognize him anymore.

There was once a time when Henry couldn’t keep his hands off Wren. They were just young, little idiots, madly in love with the idea of being in love. They made it through high school together and getting married was just what high school couples in their little Southern town did if they survived that long. That’s what Wren’s parents did; “full of love until forever,” they would say. Wren thought she would last forever with Henry, too. She wondered if he ever really loved her in the first place.

Wren hated her PDA. The screen was too small and the little pen that came with it hardly ever worked right. But she used it that day. She waited impatiently for Melissa to pick up her call.

“Washburn Inc., this is Angie, how can I help you?”

“Angie? I thought this was Melissa’s number.”

“Sorry, ma’am, Melissa doesn’t work here anymore.”

“What? Henry didn’t tell me he hired a new assistant.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“Henry Wilson?”

“Yes, he’s my husband.”

Another pause.

“I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this, miss, but Mr. Wilson was let go.”

Earth stopped spinning.

“What did you just say?”

“Henry Wilson was let go quite a few months ago. He didn’t tell you?”

“No. No, he didn’t tell me.”

Wren hung up and threw the stupid PDA across the room. She broke into a sob and melted against the wall. Everything inside her body shattered, every fear in her brain conjured, every ounce of love tainted. She pulled a cigarette out from her back pocket and lit it right in the middle of the living room. The house would stink but she didn’t care anymore.

Halfway through the cigarette, the landline rang. Wren let the voicemail take it, thinking it was her friend, Lisa, calling to ask why she missed Mother’s Day Out for the third week in a row. But when Henry Jr.’s recorded voice instructed the caller to leave a message, there wasn’t one. The phone rang again almost immediately.

“Hello?” she shouted into the receiver. No response. “Hello? Who is this? This is Wren!”

There was a quick gasp on the other end. The phone clicked and the dial tone purred. Wren threw that phone, too. It was a woman’s gasp.

She stood in front of Henry’s office for a long time. She wasn’t sure how long, but she knew it was long enough for Elmo to fall asleep beside her. Her hands were balled up tight. She knew whatever else Henry was hiding would be on the other side of that door. She knew everything would change once she found out what he’d been doing all this time. But she needed to know. She was tired of waiting on her husband for answers. Her stomach turned and she was nauseous.

She stuck the key in the door and pushed it just barely ajar. Elmo, likely thinking that Henry was in there, pushed past Wren, his little stub of a tail wriggling.

The office hadn’t changed much since Wren had last been allowed inside, just a little messier. The chairs were all stained and mismatched. No lights except for an ugly lamp they got as a wedding present and a small saucer light on the ceiling. The air felt wet and thick. Wren’s chest tightened more with every inhale. He had clearly not been using the vacuum she gave him to clean the carpet. She opened a window.

There were no pictures on the walls, or anywhere. There used to be a framed picture of the family on the desk but had since disappeared. She caught a glimpse of herself in a stained mirror she had hung up when they first moved in; the lighting made her look old and sick. No wonder she was becoming invisible. She touched at her face and ran her hand down her braid. She’d always been a natural blonde, but she had just dyed it the week before. Rosie called her Ariel. Henry still hadn’t said anything about it. Her eyes went glassy, and the blue in her irises lost their shine.

Wren focused herself and went to the desk, rummaging through papers and any drawer she could open. All the documents looked like gibberish to her, obviously things to do with his job—or, what used to be his job. But there was one drawer that wouldn’t open. She pulled at it a few times, but it barely budged. The only other key that she saw on his keyring was to the house, so he had to have this one hidden somewhere. She threw papers around frantically. She ran her hand underneath the desk and around the open drawers. She checked inside a couple of books. She checked every possible spot she had seen people search on TV, but still couldn’t find anything. She plopped her little body into the giant desk chair and rubbed her forehead. She needed a cigarette.

Elmo nudged her free hand for attention, and she gave him a halfhearted scratch. He moved his head around her hand, and she went under his collar; that was his favorite spot. She moved to his chest and noticed he had something she’d never seen before stuck in between his rabies and ID tags. It was a small tag, long and thin, rectangular. How could she have never noticed this before now? Was it new? She took his collar off to examine it closer and realized there was a latch to open it. Inside was a very small key.

It was a perfect fit.

The drawer was full of mail. Mail? Why would he lock mail away? She pulled them out and noticed one from the bank. Two from the bank. Three. One with a big red “FINAL NOTICE” stamped across it. Two more from a loan company. An envelope tucked away in the bottom of the stack, handwritten and addressed to Wren. It had been opened, but Wren had no memory of ever reading it. So, she decided she would.

*                                  *                                  *

Wren made meatloaf, carrots, and mashed potatoes that night. It was both the Henry’s favorites. She made sure to text Henry Sr. in hopes that he would come home early. It wasn’t the best meatloaf she’d ever made. She wasn’t even sure she remembered all the ingredients. She had been preoccupied ever since she left the office, planning and plotting how she would handle the evening. Henry’s office keys sat on the counter, ready for the big reveal. Every time Wren looked at them, her heart rate would go up and she would get a craving. She took about four, maybe five smoke breaks during her meal prep. She was beyond nauseous. The bathroom reeked of cigarettes.

Both children were already in bed when Henry finally made it home. But not Wren. Wren sat in the faint light of the dining room, staring blankly at her husband’s dinner plate. There was a butt extinguished in his potatoes. Wren was on her second bottle of wine.

Henry tried to be as quiet as possible coming in the dining room, giving her a little smile as he went to grab his plate. Wren grabbed the other side. He wasn’t getting away this time.

“I know,” she said into the silence. Henry wrinkled his brow.

“You know? You know what?”

“I know your secret,” she sang, wagging her finger at him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about; are you drunk? You hate drinking.”

“Who cares?” she grinned. Her teeth were stained red, and her breath smelled burnt. “I hated it in high school, too, but that didn’t stop you from forcing me to get drunk all the time.”

Henry tried to back out of the room. “Okay, we’ll talk in the morning when you’re sober. I’ve got some work to do.”

Wren roared a sarcastic laugh.

“Oh, do you? You’ve got some work to do? With your job that you don’t have anymore?”

“How drunk are you, Wren? What are you talking about?” His voice had just a bit of a quiver. He was nervous and Wren knew it. Her eyes burned into his.

“I know, Henry.” She stood up and pointed at the keys on the counter. Henry’s face went snow white. “You can try and try to avoid me, to avoid telling me, but I am your wife, and we don’t keep secrets from each other. I called Melissa. Only it wasn’t Melissa, it was Angie. And Angie was kind enough to tell me all about how you got fired five months ago. I thought, ‘surely that’s not true, surely my husband who exchanged vows with me wouldn’t keep this huge, huge thing a secret from me for this long. Surely, he wouldn’t.’ So, I decided to confirm it myself. I didn’t have to look very far.” She pulled the mail out from under her chair and threw it at him.

“What the hell is all of this? Are you out of your mind?”

“Things have never been clearer. I know that you got fired, I know that our house is on the brink of foreclosure, I know that you bought that stupid car with Henry J’s college fund.” She picked up the handwritten letter. “And this? Are you serious? I’m getting letters from, what is she, a prostitute? Telling me my husband owes her money for her ‘services’? Why does she know where we live? Why is she contacting me?”

“She’s not a prostitute, Wren, Jesus. I would never cheat on you, okay? Just listen—”

“Right, right. You wouldn’t cheat on me, but you would keep your unemployment and our potential homelessness a secret from me.”

“Listen, will you? Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, okay?” Henry went to hold his wife, but she shook him away.

“Oh, you’re sorry, are you? Oh boy, my husband’s sorry! That fixes it! That’ll save our house. That’ll un-fuck the prostitute.”

“She’s not a prostitute!” Henry was shouting now.

“Then who the hell is she?” Wren matched his volume.

“She was my… business partner. Alright? I had this big plan to open a business of my own, you know, like a store where I could sell watches or sinks or whatever, and she was going to help me.”

“A business.”

“Yes, a business. But I got in over my head and I… reached out for help. I’m not proud of it.”

Wren paused.

“You reached out to another woman for help?”

“Not like that, Wren.” Henry threw his hand over his head and groaned. “Look, God, she sells drugs, okay?”

Drugs?”

“Yes, Wren, drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Whatever else. I bought the car before I got fired, a little something for myself for once, then I got fired, then I couldn’t afford the car anymore, so I was trying to find ways to pay it back. I was losing money taking out loans for my business, so that’s when I—”

“When you stole money from your own family?”

“It wasn’t like that!”

“That’s exactly what it was!”

“I had to pay for the car.”

“Then sell it.”

“It wasn’t that easy.”

“Then give it to the drug woman.”

“She doesn’t want a car, Wren.” Henry’s tone was sharpening.

“Why not?”

“You don’t get it!”

“I think I’m catching on.” She crumpled up a drink receipt from Southside Casino and threw it at him. “You gambled with our money.” She threw another receipt at him. “Treated yourself to nice meals.” The letter was next. “Secretly got our family involved with selling drugs.”

“I wasn’t selling drugs!”

“What were you doing, then?”

“My store was going to be her front.”

Wren took a moment to comprehend what he just disclosed.

Money laundering?

“You don’t understand. You don’t understand any of this!”

“Well, I certainly understand that laundering money is extremely illegal! Money laundering and gambling? Are you serious? That was your plan? How could you keep this from me? How are we going to pay her back? Pay any of this? All that money from your parents, all of that was in Henry J’s college fund. And the savings. And in this house! And you’ve spent it all on a fake business you can’t even afford to open. I didn’t go to college. I married you and had your babies instead because I trusted that you would provide. That’s what you told me you would do for me. I can’t do anything to help this. I have no skills, no degrees, no experience. Without you bringing in an income, we have no money. If we don’t pay our mortgage by next week, we’re going to be homeless. Homeless. Do you understand what that means? Do you understand what you’re putting your family through?”

“Wren, I wanted to tell you it just… it kept getting worse and worse and I didn’t even know where to start.”

Wren was sobbing. She slammed her fists on the table. The light above flickered.

“Start here, Henry. You could’ve started at any one of these letters. We could’ve fixed this.”

“I’m gonna fix this, you just have to trust me.” Henry approached her, his tone flirting with the line between calm and fuming.

“Trust you? You want me to trust you? You’ve been secretly unemployed and draining every penny we had into a business that doesn’t exist, and you want me to trust you? We owe over a hundred grand and counting to some drug lord I’ve never even heard of, and you want me to trust you? You’ve ruined our children’s futures. I did trust you. I’ve trusted you for years. Years! And I thought I was doing the right thing by trusting you.”

“You’re my wife, you’re supposed to trust me! For better or for worse. Remember those vows?”

“You want to bring up vows? Vows? Let’s talk about how you broke the vow of always being honest. And faithful.”

Henry slapped her, harder than he did that morning.

“I was faithful. Don’t you dare say I wasn’t.”

Wren was seething. She didn’t deserve to be hit. Months of not being touched and the only contact she received was violent.

“Apologize,” she said.

“No. It’s the only way to shut you up.”

She rushed at him and shoved. The dinner plate fell but he didn’t budge.

“You don’t get to hit me!” Wren shouted.

“You don’t get to accuse me of untrue things.”

“You weren’t faithful, Henry. You lied to me. Every day. For months.”

“It’s not my fault!”

Wren froze. Her version was red and slanted.

“Not your fault? Not your fault? This is all your fault. You’re ruining this family. Everything. Everything is your fault.” She threw a book at him. “See? That’s your fault. You made me so mad I had to throw a book. Look at what you’ve done to me! Look at who I’ve become because of you! You didn’t think. You never do. You’re just as stupid as me! This affects all of us. Not just you.”

She shoved him again.

“Your son.”

Again.

“Your baby daughter.”

Again.

“Your fucking wife!”

She tried to shove him over the couch, but he was too heavy for her. She punched his gut over and over and over again until he grabbed her fists.

“Let me go,” she barked.

Henry slapped her for a third time and Wren spit in his face.

“Wren that’s enough. You’re acting like a child. Let’s calm down and talk.”

His voice was composed and unsettling, exactly how it sounded when he would scold Henry Jr. It only made her angrier. Wren didn’t want to calm down. Wren wanted her husband to pay for what he put her through. She squirmed in his grip and continued to scream. Her knee shot up to his crotch and he let her go. She slapped him across the face this time, again and again and again. He went to grab her arms again, but she shoved him against the couch. He tried to regain his balance and she saw an opportunity. Wren pushed her teetering husband as hard as she possibly could against the back of the sofa they bought together. He toppled over backwards.

She heard a thud, and the room was silent. She stood frozen. Everything was spinning. She wasn’t sure if it was from the wine anymore. The couch was miles away from her and she couldn’t move.

“Henry?” she whispered. She forced a foot forward. “Henry?”

Her stomach was churning with acid and regret. Her throat tightened. Another foot forward. She could see blood on the coffee table and Henry’s legs in the air. She wanted to act faster, wanted to undo the entire day. She gripped the couch and leaned forward.

“Henry?”

His head was bent over his neck and blood was spilling out all around him. Elmo was scratching at the back door. Rosie was crying from her crib. She waited and waited and waited for her husband’s chest to rise and fall. But it never did. All the anger left her body and she fell to floor as if the strings keeping her up had been cut. Her cheeks were wet, but she couldn’t remember when she started crying. She crawled to her husband and held his face, blood now soaking into her shirt and hair. She didn’t care. She wanted to be a part of him. Set sail in the ocean streaming out of him. Dock her boat on his island and claim it as her own. Then he couldn’t get away from her. Then he couldn’t keep secrets from her. Then they’d be together forever.

Her son’s sobs shook the living room.

The boat sank.

The island crumbled.


Maggie Hall is a creative writing student at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She’s loved to write for as long as she can remember, though her earlier works were less about death and more about foxes and ducks playing computer games together. She hopes her work will one day gain the approval of her cats, Bob Elvis and Dolly. They’re very tough critics. 


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“Ryan O’Shaughnessy Battles an Ape” Dark Urban Fiction by James Hanna

"Ryan O'Shaughnessy Battles an Ape" Dark Urban Fiction by James Hanna
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
                                        A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
			    “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-Lennon and McCartney

Ryan O’Shaughnessy stands in front of a strip club in King’s Cross, the red-light district of Sydney. He is a muscular man with a severe harelip—a disfigurement he welcomes since he does not want the whores to hassle him. His back leans on the wall of the club; his hands, heavy for a short man, hang loosely from the belt of his jeans. His collar is turned up Elvis Presley style; his shirt, partly buttoned, reveals his hard chest. His hair, a more stunning anachronism, is clipped into a crew cut and bristles with white flecks—yet he is not out of place in the Friday night ambiance of the street. His gaze is proprietary as he watches the drifting cars, the stationary hookers and the barker who paces back and forth in front of the club. 

            A traffic light turns red, and cars drift to a halt. The windows stay rolled up although the prostitutes beckon cheerfully; their clinging skirts and brassy shouts have no effect on the stalled drivers. The club’s marquee is also deflected: the letters pulse impotently on the shiny hoods of the cars. The letters flash kniP rehtnaP kniP.

            When the cars again move, Ryan pushes himself off the wall. The barker seems to be calling him back as he walks away from the club, but Ryan has no use for girlie shows—he is focused on earthier matters. He is a vagrant who has just been released from jail, and he is looking for a piece of ass, a couple of hits of acid and a brawl.

The prostitutes hop out of his way like frogs. Although he has been there most of the night, they know he is not a patron; his face is too scarred and menacing, and he moves like a lynx on the prowl. Ryan curls his lip as he walks, exaggerating his aura of menace. Since the streets and jails are his elements, it is comforting to be a thug.

            The city lights bloat as he waits for a break in the traffic. They leap back to size after he wipes his glasses. The goldfish bowl lenses restore his weak vision; he now clearly sees the towering boy on the opposite side of the street. The boy, his drug dealer, is as stiff as a scarecrow. His eyes sweep the sidewalk like lighthouse beams. With a wave of his hand, Ryan signals the boy who nods like a marionette. Ryan starts to cross the street.

            A traffic cop shouts, glaring at Ryan as he carelessly steps in front of a car. The cop’s white-gloved hands flutter like doves in flight. The chirp of his whistle punctuates the angry admonishment of the motorist. A chorus of horns from other stalled cars joins the blast of the whistle.

            Ryan covers his ears. He jumps to the curb, and the traffic behind him starts rolling again. Not wanting to draw more attention to himself, Ryan looks away from the cop. He walks toward the boy, but changes his mind and decides to hide from the cop instead. The police have Ryan’s number, and Ryan is too poor to buy them off.

A coffeehouse offers him refuge. He pushes the glass door open and saunters toward the counter. The prune-faced woman behind it gasps at the sight of him. She stares at him as though he’s diseased when he asks for a pack of Camels. Handing her a grungy bill from his small disability pension, he says, “Where’s the fire, grandma? You act like you’ve seen a spook.” The woman picks up the money as though it might burn her hand. Trembling, she gives him his cigarettes along with a bit of change. Ryan tears the pack open; he surveys the room, flinching when he hears funhouse laughter. Noticing a pair of drag queens at a table, he decides to make them shut up. They need to know that his nerves are raw and their laughter is pissing him off.

            The queens, lost in their chatter, do not notice him leaning over them. Although powdered like corpses, they squeal like children; their wigs bob and nod while their laughter erupts. Ryan raps his knuckles on their table. Their chatter evaporates as their grainy faces turn towards him.

            “Ladies!” he jeers.

            Unimpressed, the queens continue their chat, and Ryan straightens his back. He picks at the pack, shaking loose a cigarette. His match winks like a firefly before hitting the floor. He creeps to the door and peeps at the street. The cop’s attention is back on the traffic, and Ryan shivers with relief. It’s bad enough that specters stalk him; he does not need cops after him too.

            The towering drug dealer is still awaiting him, but Ryan moves guardedly, staring into storefronts so it won’t look like he’s making a buy. He almost steps on a fleshy street artist, displaying his paintings beneath a moth-covered streetlight. The man talks with a tourist while Ryan stoops over the paintings and feigns an interest in art. The pictures—red sunsets and bosomy nudes—only make him wary. He does not like to look at paintings because they are similar to hallucinations. The last time Ryan was in jail, a psychiatrist gave him a warning. He said, unless Ryan took soul-numbing meds, his hallucinations would only get worse. Psychiatrists talk too fucking much and oughta be pistol-whipped.

As he pretends to study the paintings, the fat painter notices him. The man’s sweaty face blanches, and his voice becomes tight. “Ya find one ya like, mate?” he bleats.

            Ryan shrugs. “I live in Hyde Park,” he snaps. “Plenty of sunsets there.” He holds out the package of cigarettes. “Have a smoke, baby. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

            The painter picks tentatively; Ryan shakes the pack. “Come on now!” he mumbles.  A bit of ash drops like a feather from the cigarette in Ryan’s mouth.

            When the man has picked more cigarettes, Ryan snatches one back, which he lifts to his own. When the flame is transferred, Ryan offers it back and the painter accepts it with shaky hands. Ryan salutes the painter dismissively then looks around for the boy.

            The streetlights cast motionless shadows—the boy is nowhere to be seen. The cop at the crosswalk orchestrates traffic as though he’s conducting a band.

            Ryan tosses the butt as a pearly cloud escapes him. The red eye scatters upon the sidewalk. Feeling like an abandoned dog, Ryan pockets his powerful hands. Fortunately, he still can lay claim to his mission: a piece of ass, some fisticuffs and a couple of hits of acid that he may have to buy somewhere else. These primitive goals are a godsend—proof that his ghosts do not own him.

            A prostrate form almost trips him—a bum. As he steps over the body, avoiding a vein of piss, a double-decker bus stops beside him. Its engine growls like an ogre, its headlights comb the night, and a pale conductress stands in the stairwell and inspects him with frozen eyes. Ryan waves the bus on and sighs like a kettle when it pulls away from the curb. 

            The towering boy, having reappeared, is now waiting for him on the opposite side of the street. He has turned his back on Ryan and is studying a movie marquee. This is an obvious guise since the ticket booth is empty. The lettering on the marquee reads Last Show Ends at Midnight.

            These words seem grimly prophetic, and a chill invades Ryan’s spine. He crosses the street, strides over to the boy and slaps him on the back. “Baby,” he laughs, “gimme some love.”

            The boy nods politely. Despite his skeletal demeanor, he seems to be callow and kind. His manner suggests indiscriminate warmth. Only the smell of him is intrusive: a pungent aroma that smells like bad meat.

            Ryan tells him, “The usual. Gimme two hits.” His thick fingers snap like a rifle shot, bringing the boy to life.

            With practiced fingers, the boy opens his jacket. Two small paper squares appear like magic in his palm.

            Ryan holds out his hand and winks at the boy. The boy’s wormy fingers relinquish the squares. Ryan pockets them hastily. Removing his wallet, he slips the boy a few dirty bills.

            The boy’s slender fingers close over the money like an octopus grabbing a crab.  When he opens his jacket to pocket the bills, his odor makes Ryan gag.

Ryan needs to disengage from this cadaverous presence, so he pretends to wind his wristwatch. The boy limps away, and his ambling gait reminds Ryan of leg irons. The boy trips as he walks.

            Ryan feels his shins prickle. His eyes flicker, dart. The clang of a jail cell comes suddenly to mind. Although his memory is fried, his instincts still protect him. He swaggers up to another street vendor as though he is merely out for a stroll.

The vendor, an old man with mocking eyes, has spread cuckoo clocks on the sidewalk. Ryan stoops over the clocks, studying them carefully. They are expertly carved and shiny with paint. The vendor holds up one of the clocks as though it’s a peace offering. “Cuckoo,” he teases. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

Ignoring the jibe, Ryan points to his wristwatch. “Stuff it, gramps. I’m traveling light.”

            He is recalling places the clock might have fit: small pockets of time that have grown so remote that they float like flotsam on the scrambled surface of his mind. Thankfully, the memories are too trite to be reliable: he remembers a dirty flat, he remembers his mother’s coffin, and he remembers a Catholic orphanage where the nuns whipped him with switches. He recalls little more than the smell of his mother: a boozy whore with huge flaccid breasts and weary bloodshot eyes. She sweated a lot from her boozing, and her sweat stank like Limburger cheese. Had she died when he set fire to the flat they had lived in and had that landed him in the orphanage? Since his dementia is growing stronger, he can dispense with these parodies of memory. It is enough for him to challenge the vacuity of the moment—a vacuum he can fill with some ass and a brawl. Hell, even a noisy party would keep the darkness at bay.

            Ryan walks away from the cuckoo clock vendor—his mission is yet unfulfilled. High above him, a street lamp is boiling with insects—a sight that ennobles his hunt. The bugs, undeterred by the heat from the lamp, keep tapping on the glass.

            An urchin comes up to him and asks for a quarter—a small teenage girl with dirty bare feet. Her face is waxy, her eyes bright as buttons. She reminds him of an elf.

            Ryan shrugs warily. Is she a phantom? He must put her to a test. “I’ll give you ten dollars to strip,” he jests. He laughs, embarrassed by his joke as the girl walks away from him. He dips into his pocket. “Oi, baby!” he cries.

            The quarter he flicks her spins like a top. The girl shakes her head as it bounces on the pavement beside her. She sits down in front of a porn shop and does not look at the coin.

Feeling himself blush, Ryan bows his head. That there are limits to his depravity is not a comforting thought. The streets are a jungle, after all, and no place for charity.

            A song from a car radio batters his ears. A voice sings, “It’s now or neverrrr…” The car hurtles by and the voice recedes. Ryan’s heart thumps like a bill collector pounding on a door.

            Across the street is the city stadium, a gray brick building with a gigantic marquee.  The marquee proclaims A Battle of Champions,and Ryan feels his brawler’s heart race. Two wrestlers in profile are featured on the marquee: men that look like gorillas. They watch him from the corners of their eyes as he hurries across the street.

Ryan pauses to light another cigarette. He blows out the match when the flame bites his fingers. Provoked by menacing marquee, he walks with a gunfighter’s swagger. Keep looking at me like that, Ryan thinks, and I’ll bash in both your skulls.

            The crowd at the ticket booth separates, allowing him a wide berth as he struts past the stadium. They are mostly foreigners—Arabs and Greeks—and their chatter is unintelligible to him. Some are glancing at the cars that slow down beside them. The hookers in the cars are cruising in pairs, but no customers join them. The cars gather speed and melt into the night.

            The chatter grows faint as Ryan strides up a hill. It is finally drowned out by the drone of deep breathing. Ryan strays towards a lamppost, props himself up and labors to catch his breath.

A police car passes him and then sinks out of sight when it reaches the top of the hill. Ryan sighs, relieved once again that the cops did not cuff him up. Before he is back in the slammer, he will have time for some ass and a party.

He is standing beside a massage parlor—a building with frosted windows that emit a hoary light. He tosses a butt and watches as it strikes theOpen sign. The parlor is beckoning him to go in, and Ryan feels his skin crawl.

Ryan holds onto the lamppost, transfixed by the parlor’s wintry light. His scalp tingles like ants are devouring it. Thankfully, his mission awaits him. The hill is now plunging. He lights another cigarette and takes a heavy drag.

The milky glow from the massage parlor fades as he starts to descend the hill. As the streets become darker, he sees only shadows. His shoes faintly echo. His spark remains bright.

*

            A piece of ass, a brawl, a couple of squares of acid. These are not diversions but staples—life values to be celebrated with beer and song. They are palpable, after all, and offer him proof that he thrives.

            He is sitting on a couch in the Last Call Saloon, a rowdy gay bar near the west side of town. He has found himself at a party: a place of music and dance. If his luck continues to hold, he will also score some ass.

            He has swallowed both hits of acid, and the walls are starting to breathe. He looks at the dancers that hover above him. Contained within cages and plumed like peacocks, they seem immune to the sweaty crowd below them. Although they are out of reach, these queens smile enticingly. Their bodies swell and contract as though they are made of elastic. A band is playing “Hang On Sloopy,” and Ryan is ready to dance.

            He can practically trace out his name in the air, and the people around him seem drugged by the smoke. A willowy singer is crooning the song, but the band is drowning her out. The drummer, a boy with a sunken chest, ought to be punched in the gut. His drumming, which sounds like a death rattle, freezes Ryan’s pulse. Ryan does not want his heart to stop, so he must keep the beat alive.

            Ryan unbuttons his shirt and starts tapping on a low table in front of the couch. His head sways like a reed in a stream, and soon he is soaked in sweat. He hesitates only to pick up his glass—a superfluous gesture since most of the beer has spilled onto the table, which glitters like blood. Ryan’s mouth is now drier than lint and aches with incredible thirst. He takes a sip of beer before continuing to flog the table.

            The bar is packed with men, some in leather. They seem irritated by his pummeling hands, but he pays them no notice. He must keep his blood pumping, or his heart will stop like an unwound clock.

A piece of ass is approaching him: a cherub-mouthed hussy with a shiny, blonde wig that spills down over her shoulders. She is far more tempting than the fickle jailhouse punks he has known, and she is toting a glass of beer. Ryan seizes her wrist as she tries to crowd past him.

            “I’ll have it here.”

            She giggles. “Naw, you don’t.”

  She holds onto the glass. Ryan squeezes her wrist. She’s giving him a workout.

            He answers, “Gimme!”

            “It’s not for you, honey.” She pries his hand from her wrist.

            Ryan leaps to his feet, but his lunge is in vain and his thumb, electrified by the rubbing of the couch, sparks feebly on her dress. He has grabbed only air, so she might be a ghost but his head still bobs with triumph. His heart is thudding like a war drum; he is going to stay alive.

            Ryan points to his crotch as she stomps away from him; he must keep the quarrel going. Rolling his hips, he announces, “She blew me!”

            She whirls around and stares at him as though he is not of this world. Her face has turned into the face of a monkey—she looks ready to bite off his head. She leans closer to Ryan. “Weirdo, piss off!” Her voice is now deep and gravelly as though coming from a well.

            “She bleeeeew me!” Ryan sings.

            Her teeth are bared. She balls her fists. She is ready to hit him in the nose, but Ryan waves her off as though she were a fly. He will not diminish his manhood by slugging it out with a queen. Ryan snorts with indignation as she fades into the crowd.

            Ryan sits down and keeps pounding the table. The acid is making him antsy; he is having a very bad trip. But a more fuckable queen is perched near the bar. This queen is vampish and slender. She is looking at him with lust in her eyes. Ryan winks at her and rises from the couch. The drums keep time with the throb in his cock as he pushes his way towards her.

            Dance, Ryan thinks, and the shadows won’t linger. Dance and goblins will turn into clowns. Dance and the phantoms of memory will vanish into the night.

            This queen has pupils like saucers—she must be high on meth—but Ryan bows deeply and grins like a fox. “Dance with me, baby?” he pleads.

            She nods and smiles thinly—a coy one is this one. He takes her arm gently, his thick fingers throbbing, and guides her out onto the dance floor.

            Releasing her arm, Ryan struts like a gamecock—a toe-to-heel motion. His knees bend and bob. This causes a spasmodic snap to his wrists; they seem tied to his knees with invisible threads, and his feet nimbly skip behind opposite ankles as he deftly raises his puppeteer hands.

Dance and shadows won’t linger. Dance and your heart will still pound. Dance and the goblins and boogeymen will go back to where they belong.

            He bumps into a waitress who is toting a pitcher of beer. His soles nearly slip as the pitcher explodes, but Ryan springs quickly and pivots full circle avoiding the beer that creeps towards his feet.

            Ryan isn’t unnoticed as he hops to the rhythm. The bouncer is watching him like a jailer, but Ryan has thwarted the reaper—he isn’t going to die. He wipes his forehead and waves to the bouncer who warningly shakes his head.

            Ryan whirls—now alone—and the strings become tighter. His hands have grown heavier. His legs feel remote. When a strobe light flickers, he feels like he’s trapped in an old-time, Charlie Chaplin movie.  The room is now stifling; his legs are cramping. Although most of the revelers have left the dance floor, a few remain. They keep dancing with Ryan who claps his hands loudly and shakes to the tune.

            The music dies in a rattle of the drums. The barkeeper shouts, “Last Call!” Ryan hears hands clapping, applauding him, and so he continues to dance. But the dance floor is barren. The cages hang empty. The room comes awash in a smoky gray light.

            The applause thickens, pauses, and then once again swells as he finishes his performance with a leg split and bow. His brow lapses forward—touching his knee; he spreads out his arms like an eagle in flight. The room starts to spin, but he holds his pose until the bouncer grabs him by the collar.

*

            The bar is closing. The street awaits him. The bouncer says, “Piss off, asshole,” so he lurches toward the door. But a silver-haired man is now blocking his way and looking at him with interest. The man’s skin is leprous, his face wan and wrinkled; his flat cold fingertips touch Ryan’s own. Ryan backs away, and this fiend does not follow—the sharp frame of a mirror contains him.

            A pair of strong headlights stabs Ryan’s eyes as he stumbles to the sidewalk. The glow of a streetlamp is brighter than flame. Although he closes his eyelids, two saffron orbs linger. They bounce like flaccid tits, even when he opens his eyes, but he can see beyond them. He can see a huge dirty building beside him, a warehouse for dairy products. He can tell by the wind, which is ripe and sour—a rancid assaultive breeze. The cheesy stink dies as the wind grows stronger. The air is freshened by warm drops of rain. The moon, which looks like his mother’s face, watches him stagger along.

            The rain passes. The street starts to dip. An angry gust of wind snatches his cigarette pack from his hand. Ryan pauses a moment, doubting his eyesight; the wind is also assailing a woman in a long, black billowy gown. The woman hurries toward him, waving her hand as though she is wielding a whip. A cab, trailing smoke, pulls alongside the curb and she slithers like mercury into the cab. Ryan shakes his head, unconvinced by this sight, then resumes walking. As he crosses the street, an approaching car comes shrieking to a stop.

            The twin orbs linger as the sidewalk accepts him. A dark silhouette, his shadow, crawls before him on the sidewalk. He picks up his pace and overtakes the shadow, but it hops back out in front of him like a prisoner making a break. Blue and red lights canter behind it as though in hot pursuit.

            The lights dance like a coven of witches. A police siren freezes his pulse. He glances about him; an alley awaits him. He leaps into the alley and hides behind a dumpster.

            The scent of ripe urine withers his nostrils as he presses his back to a dirty brick wall. The cop car streaks past the alley as though he is not even there.

Ryan peeks from the alley, his breathing still shallow. A garbled noise tickles his ears, but Ryan has no time for voices. Somewhere in the city, salvation awaits him: a fight with his name on it.

            A short distance away a crowd is collecting, the probable source of the voices. The faces are fleeting and clownishly rouged by the police car’s rotating lights.

            Ryan’s curiosity overpowers him, and he steps back onto the sidewalk. The crowd expands as he hurries downhill. Something wicked is taking place, and he must know what is going on. He orbits the crowd until an opening appears then he hunches his shoulders and bulls his way in.

            He has seen knifings before in the county jail, and the pool of blood excites him. It expands upon the pavement like an uncharted fountain of youth. The victim—some tramp with a shiv in his chest—is as stiff as a mannequin. His face looks as though it’s been carved from wood and is frozen with surprise. His palsied hands clutch the knife handle as though unwilling to turn it loose.

            A wiry policeman disperses the crowd as an ambulance murmurs then pulls to the curb. Ryan drifts away from the crowd. He has no business here. The night is not over, and Ryan needs action. He also has ghosts to outrun.

            The police car eases past him. Its lights are no longer flashing, a promising omen. Ryan’s feet skip a beat as he struts along, and he puffs out his chest like a toad.

The stadium is dark now, shadows have deepened. Small clouds of men stand by the entrance as though waiting to catch a bus. The hookers, successful now, pull their cars to the curb. They let passengers out; other passengers join them. Doors slam as the cars pull away.

            Ryan struts past the johns, feeling bold and superior. He will not waste his seed on a whore. He picks up his pace as though late for a date, and the hookers drive on by him. A few minutes of walking are all that it takes to return once again to his post near the strip club.

            The club’s racing lights are now rimmed with huge halos, but the barker seems unaware of this. He is still calling out to passing pedestrians and pacing back and forth.

            The lights in the coffeehouse seem softer, perhaps because Ryan is thirsty. His tongue feels glued to the roof of his mouth, and he cannot even swallow. He pushes the glass door open and walks into the coffeehouse. An ape of a man with a cruel, meaty face watches him from one of the booths. A bouncer, most likely, or maybe a wrestler. Could this be the brawl he is looking for? Ryan’s heart begins to race.

Feeling the ape’s eyes upon him, Ryan pays for a cup of coffee then he sits in a vacant booth that allows him a view of the street. The burgundy leather is soft on his back. The coffee, still frothy, is scalding and sweet. Ryan’s glasses are fogged when he sets down the cup, and a ghostly veil hides the street.

            Deathly fatigue arrests him. He starts to nod although the cup stings his palms; he drifts off for a moment. He wakes with a jump. The twin orbs have returned; they are bloodshot now and glitter like the eyes of a cat. They obscure the warm pool he has spilled onto the table. They leap to the carpet, the counter, the wall as he staggers out of the booth. They blur even the ape who now looks up at Ryan; the ape is unmoved by his visitor’s plight, but his huge jaw tightens and his beefy face flushes when Ryan leans over and calls him a pussy.

            The orbs glide away, redder than sunsets as the ape musters Ryan out of the coffeehouse. On the sidewalk, the orbs mingle with sharp points of light that swirl around him like a carousel.

            And Ryan is battling the ape!

            The ape grips his collar and pummels him vigorously. Ryan grunts from the punches—“Hey there!” he shouts. His specs splash on the pavement. “Ho!” The blows—not unpleasant—pound his shoulders and the cropped top of his head. One of them bangs off the door of the coffeehouse, producing a shower of tinkling glass. Now Ryan is slipping on wafers of glass and throwing wild blows at the ape. The ape’s fist pounds his mouth—he can taste his lip. It’s as plump as a sausage and warms where it’s cut.

            A wall, hard and grainy, squashes Ryan’s shoulder. He turns towards the pavement, facing it flat; it is dotted with ruby-red beads. As he pushes the pavement away, his tongue strokes his front teeth. They are still in place—just barely cracked. On the street, the headlights are swollen and spinning, but the cars are still rolling along.

            Then comes the shoe. It jolts his side, emptying his lungs, and Ryan rolls onto his back. This way he can see the ape. The ape has taken his belt off to flog Ryan soundly. He raises the belt gingerly; his hand must be hurt. He is gasping for breath.

            Ryan pumps his foot at the blurred, beefy face. Missing his target, he pumps it again. He hears a sound like a chestnut exploding. The ape is struck!

            Ryan rolls to his chest. He gropes the pavement for support. He can move without too much pain although slivers of glass cling to his palms. Ryan climbs to his feet, glancing about. The ape is on the ground, breathing raggedly. Ryan has broken his nose.

            The street is still spinning. Ryan tries to stand up straight, but a current keeps pulling his head to the sidewalk. A bleating keeps time with his galloping heart. Already, the barker is marching toward him, and out on the street, from between the cars, the policeman is blasting his whistle.

            Ryan must run—he must run for his life, he must run like a wounded gazelle. He shuffles forward, leaps over the ape, and takes off down the sidewalk. His shoes strike the ground like hammer blows; his hands slice the air like scythes. Still, the whistle grows louder. It stabs his ears. Shoes faster than Ryan’s strike the pavement behind him; hands soon will drop on his collar and neck.

            A pedestrian shouts and jumps out of his way. A vehicle skids as he crosses the street. More calls fill the air as Ryan sprints on. His lungs are tugging, his legs are like rubber—yet the footsteps behind him are mere inches away. The corner is too sharp where he changes direction. His hand skids on its heel—his knee dents a trashcan—but as quick as he falls Ryan leaps to his feet.

            Like a deer Ryan bolts, his pursuers close behind him. The whistle is dead but the footsteps grow louder—a resolute, walloping sound. The traffic light is green at the end of a block, and Ryan dashes safely out into the street. The cars wait as he passes, but their engines are snarling. Their headlights glare like flame.

            A towering blur at a bus stop awaits him—an open two-decker bus whose engine is humming. It drifts from the curb as Ryan draws near it then slowly builds speed as if entering the race. Ryan gains on the bus—he can make out the license plate. Behind him, the footsteps are gaining on him.

            The bus is now inching away from him. As the platform recedes, Ryan sucks one more breath. Although his legs have dissolved and his lungs are on fire, the vertical pole by the stairwell is only a few feet away.

            Ryan loses his balance—his run a mere stumble. His fingers close desperately over the pole. He is jerked like a rag doll but stays on his feet, his momentum preserved by the pull of the bus. Pain knifes through his shoulder—the socket is wrenched—but his burning fingers are cooled by the pole and refuse to forfeit their slippery hold.

            As the bus gains more speed, he leaps onto the platform. He sits in the stairwell and labors for breath. His chest glistens like oil. It caves and expands. Punishing blows pound his temples and ears, but the bus keeps rolling along.

            The conductress is looking down at him. Her face is as pale as ivory, her eyes are as brilliant as opals, and she stares at him like an angel of death as she waits to receive his fare. Her bony hands rest on a change maker; it winks when a streetlight hits it.

            “Almost,” Ryan says.

            He searches his pocket, locates a quarter—the precise amount of his fare. His hand shakes like a cornered rabbit as he presses it into her palm.

            “Almost, kid.”

Ryan clutches the pole and pulls himself to his feet. The iron is stained red from his grip. The girl slips the coin into the change maker, and he gives her a victory sign.

Grinning, Ryan pinches the bill of her hat and pulls it down over her eyes.
“Hah!” he exclaims. He buttons his shirt up.

He climbs to the top of the bus.


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


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“Garden of Moths” Dark Fiction by Colt Fry

"Garden of Moths" Dark Fiction by Colt Fry

Graduating college is different for everyone, I suppose—but for me—it was almost nothing. My only close friend, Grey, was so excited. When I looked into her eyes, I could see her future. A husband—handsome and kind just like she deserved—three kids, the damn works. When we stood with our caps and gowns, the crowd seemed to focus on her. A spotlight shined brightly on her, and she squealed in delight as they handed her a tiny statue of herself to wave proudly in my face. Maybe that didn’t actually happen, but feelings matter, ya know.

There would be a party for her the next night, but on this night, there was Hibachi, my treat. I hate to admit this, but it was like I was buying her dinner to celebrate her, on her special night, for her graduation. Yes, she offered to pay, and she insisted on making her party a celebration of both of us. And yes, I declined both offers and my bath of tears was drawn by myself alone.

As fire exploded around us, my heart raced a little, sizzling filled my ears and warmed my heart. Metal clanged as the chef mixed—steak for Grey, chicken for me—with freshly cracked eggs, some peppers, and all sorts of yumminess. The aroma felt like dancing barefoot as a little girl. Seriously, Hibachi is that damn good.

After a few mouthfuls of watered down sake and enough of our food to curb our ravenous appetite, Grey said, “I’m going to become a nurse and then either a nurse practitioner or a doctor.” I waited for more, but she simply scooped up a perfect mouthful with precise chopstick work and started munching.

I knew she wanted to be a nurse or whatever. Just didn’t know where this was going. Not knowing what to say, I tried to do the same as Grey, fumbling with my sticks until I decided, fuck it, and grabbed a fork. Grey was staring at me now. “Well, Evee, what are you going to do?”

My name is Evelyn, but a select special few people are allowed to call me Evee. Grey qualified with high marks. “I majored in liberal arts. I’m going to eat this tasty grub and then I’m going to work at McDonald’s.” I paused for effect. “Or become a stripper as long as red heads are still in style.”

Grey chuckled, though I wasn’t sure if she meant it. “I like your red hair.”

“That’ll be ten dollars, then.”

Grey didn’t laugh this time. “Evee, I’m serious. If you don’t care, why did you even go to college in the first place?”

I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. “To get the fuck out of Oregon?” Grey chuckled for pity’s sake and I continued. “I used my sexual charms and c plus wit to get all the way out of Redwood, and now I’ll get out of the state with my charisma and prestigious Corban University diploma. Well, as long as I don’t lose it.”

“You’re always joking, Evee. You always deflect.”

She was right, but I wasn’t done yet.

“Majored in psychology now?”

“Just like that! You did it again. I want to speak with Serious George.”

I laughed. She always resorted to “Serious George” when I pushed her too far with my sarcasm. “Look, both my parents are dead, I don’t really have much to strive for. What, am I supposed to try out for the Olympics as a mediocre runner?” The uncomfortable talk and just my own mentioning of running made me yearn for it. It’s like a reboot for my brain.

“That’s the whole reason you should be trying to find something. Don’t you wonder about who you really are?”

The clatter of metal a table away, laughter of children and indistinguishable chatter faded—and for the first time in years, I let myself ruminate on that question. Not about who I am, but if I cared enough to wonder. Part of me honestly just wanted to read, watch tv, have sex with an average looking man who didn’t ask too many questions, and run both as a hobby and to keep my lazy ass from getting too fat. All these things are great activities, but alone, was that a life? Was I a person at all if I lived like that? If I never once bothered to help other people—to even include them? Or—to run forever. What if I just Forrest Gumped for the rest of my life; worked for him. But then, those people followed him. I didn’t want people following me.

In my fantasy, I didn’t want the man’s love, only sex. I wanted to hang with Grey, of course, but I wished she was less pushy. But if she isn’t pushy, is she even Grey anymore?

And that’s where it stopped—where my thoughts have always stopped in regards to who I am. I would never let myself get any further. It was as if something inside me feared what I really wanted—was terrified of my true desired relationship with other people. And perhaps, my aversion was warranted.

Just as I realized I was staring at nothing, I felt Grey’s hand on mine. She was the only person whose touch didn’t make me uncomfortable these days. “Evee, I don’t want graduation to be the end of us.”

I shrugged. “It won’t be.” Damn, I wanted to run. I could expand my lungs, feel the air whipping around my head, stop thinking.

“You don’t know that.” Her eyes glimmered with prenatal tears. Before they could fall from her eyes, she aborted them with a wipe of her hand. Not one for abortion myself, I fought my own tears from ever developing in the first place.

“I will always be your friend, but some space will be good for you. Grey, I hold you back.” The words tasted like bland earnestness, and I realized that they were true, despite how much I hated them.

“You don’t hold me back!” Exclaimed Grey as I fought back laughter and sobbing.

“Don’t bullshit me, Sugar Cube.” I used my first and least utilized nickname for her—the one she hated most—as a weapon of endearment in that moment. “I’m being serious with you, be honest with me.”

Grey fidgeted in her seat. “I am being honest with you. You’re just as smart as I am. Just as pretty; even prettier in my opinion. You have a huge heart, Evee.”

“No I don’t,” I said, colder than I’d intended. “You do. You have the huge heart. You help people, you love people. I just sit around, satisfying my own simple urges. It’s really all I do.”

“Evee—”

“Why aren’t you confused?” I continued. “Why don’t you question whether you should be a nurse or not?”

“I do,” she interrupted.

“No you don’t! And you shouldn’t, Grey. Because you’re going to be the bombest nurse in the building. You won’t be perfect, but you’re going to do awesome, and you’ll truly care for your patients. You’ll have a great family, you’ll die old and still pretty. You don’t need me hanging on you.”

“Are you jealous, Evee?” She asked this as if the notion was the absurdist thing she’d ever heard.

I meant to say no, but instead said, “I am, but not of those things.” Having already started, I decided to continue. “I don’t even want any of those things. I just wish I felt sure about what I want.”

“I’m not always sure,” Grey said.

“Of course you are,” I countered. “You’re obnoxious, Grey. You expect the best for yourself and give your best in return. You want to be a nurse or a doctor. You want a family. You know your place in the world, and you deserve all of it. What do I deserve?”

I expected a fight to follow, but instead, she just stared at me—looked into my eyes. I could feel her searching them, trying to find the me she knew and loved. The little perfect red headed doll she hoped I would one day become. I still wonder if she ever found that little bitch in that moment. And I fear that she realized that there was nothing to find at all.

The party was lame. We both liked hardcore punk, but Grey played some upbeat pop songs I’d never heard of in order to appease her softer guests. There were too many people for my taste, dressed up more than me in fancy slacks, buttoned up shirts, dresses. Shyla, a girl I didn’t know very well and couldn’t decide if I liked, had on a low cut shirt to show off her ample ta tas, and a frilly short skirt. She did a lot of smiling and giggling for the boys as if she was on a mission to get—and I don’t mean to seem rude—any of them to have her for the evening. She might have been pushing for Asher, the only boy in the bunch I’d spent any time talking to, but she seemed to have her options open.

Grey wore an elegant silver dress, making her the absolute framed picture she was. My jeans and Severed Head of State t-shirt—a skeleton riding a skeletal horse—stuck out like a flare in a night’s sky. She did her best to keep me included, but I fought back too hard with scowls and a lack of eye contact. Pretty soon, no one paid any attention to me.

I stared out the overly clean window and I remember so clearly a little boy in a bright nearly neon green shirt chasing a moth around as the sun was almost down, lighting the street like a spotlight. I’d chased moths like this before when I was a kid, in the old apartment. As I stared out, feeling the setting sun depress me, I saw their faces more clearly than I saw the boy playing. Their deep red and black wings like capes on a flamboyant magician, their black eyes always pulled me in, forcing me to imagine secrets within them. They scared and compelled me when I was young. Mom had called them Cinnabar moths, said that they had been brought to Oregon to control a sort of weed back in the seventies. Didn’t explain why they hung around our shitty apartment.

A man’s voice tore through my thoughts. “Aiden, I told you to get back in the house!” The voice was quiet through the window—I would never have even heard it had I been paying attention at all to the party—but his angry bass-filled voice ripped through my body as if he were screaming into my ear. I’ll never forget the joy as it melted off of the boy’s startled face. His shoulders slumped, he walked in the direction of his home as though wearing weights on his shoulders. Selfish bitch that I was, I didn’t even feel for him, but for myself. I’d seen my mom’s face fade just like that.

And again, my thoughts went back to the old apartment as they always did. When we moved there, I could picture the grey sky, the fork in the rutty dirt road that at first only went left until I looked just so and could see the twisting path to the right.

There were never any kids out there when I would play or when we would pull up in the car. I could always hear playing and giggling when I would sit by the window. Sometimes I would even see them playing, but they were always too distracted to notice me—the weird red headed girl staring. I wanted to play with them, to hear my screaming voice harmonize with theirs, but I always played alone when we lived there.

Mom would sing punk songs—lighter than the ones I listen to—and she would dance. She always wore light sundresses, rain or shine. Her dark hair would whip around almost dangerously. Fuck, in that apartment it was dangerous—the dancing, I mean. There were holes in the floor below the old brown carpet. She would take me into her arms, dance all around the holes, and I would giggle until I hurt. Sometimes I would stare into her eyes, dark like a chalkboard and just as informative. She would point out little secrets in the home and explain to me why they were beautiful.

Dad would tell us to stop, that the holes would break our ankles. But then he would hold Mom and me in his strong arms and laugh with us. “Look at those fuggin’ holes, my girlies!” he would say. “Breag ya angles they will!” I hated his stupid fake accent back then, but as I stood alone at the party, I missed it so much.

He was right about dancing. The carpet, stale as if burnt by cigarettes without actually being burned, would sag into the holes—some just a few inches wide, others a whole foot. And sometimes the carpet seemed taut, enough to trick you, and you would stumble. It was almost like the carpet was alive, moving taut or hanging loose at its own will. I always believed that it was trying to trip us, but not to hurt us, only to play tricks—cheeky carpet.

That old place always smelled of chocolate, because Mom kept chocolate cosmos flowers around, her favorite flower. Sometimes even she would smell like chocolate, as if she’d been rolling around in them.

It was starting to rain outside the party—the kind of rain that only Oregon gets—the kind that tugs at your heart, or at least mine. And I remembered the moths. They would bounce playfully against the glass of our balcony. I would stare at them for hours sometimes, thinking they were like me staring at the children on the playground. They would stare back sometimes. “I wanna play with you, Evee,” they would say with their black eyes. And I would press my fingers to the glass.

Mom would come for a look too. We never said anything, just lost ourselves at the sight of them. Dad would look at us and roll his eyes. “Fuggin’ things are gross, girlies.” Mom would smile at me, her gorgeous face would wrinkle up around her eyes—and no matter how I felt—I would smile back.

Her joy faded along with her looks when she got sick. Sometimes I can only remember her beautiful smile, and other times only her coughing, eyes sunken, the dark light in them faded to ashy grey. The rattle in each exhale terrified me as a girl.

Asher ran his fingers through my hair and I gasped. I couldn’t believe he was touching me like that, it was surreal. And yet, my whole body prickled, it was hazy like a dream. The look on his face wasn’t predatory like a man looking for sex. He looked worried, caring, ready to protect me. And if I’m being completely honest, I felt safe with his touch. I yearned to be held by him.

“Please, dance with me,” he said, and I wanted to. Thinking back, that moment was a hidden crossroads for me, just like the one to the apartment. If I had squeezed his hand, let him guide me into the party, and danced my awkward ass off—then perhaps I would have fallen in love with him. I could have flashed Shyla a “loog at this, girlie” face. Would we have gotten married? Would we get jobs and get out of Oregon, away from that wretched apartment? Would I have forgotten it?

I had so many excuses. He was into classic rock music, liked to work out to AC/DC. He liked to read like a nerd, though I enjoyed the same sci/fi he did. But who reads? I did. He was halfway a jock, but he wasn’t an asshole like some were, and he was always sweet—not just to girls either—but to anyone who was genuine, whether they were popular or not. Maybe I should have said yes to him and I think the reason I didn’t, is only because that old apartment still had a hold over me.

I jerked away from him. I told him that I hated dancing. His face flashed confusion and worry, the kind of look only a sincere boy can pull off. Grey grabbed me by the arm and took me into her bedroom.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.

I didn’t answer, thoughts swirled inside me, too fast to catch and turn into words for her. I was getting hot for some reason. My legs itched to run.

She was yelling at me. “Asher is nice. If you don’t want to dance, fine, but you can’t be rude to him! He doesn’t deserve that.”

Of course she was right, but I didn’t say a word. I was breathing hard. I was angry for some reason.

“Are you okay?” Grey asked.

And that’s when I erupted.

“No! I’m not okay!” I glared at her as if I wanted to tear her apart, and I have no idea why. “I don’t belong here with this shit music, with any of these people!”

Grey reached for me. “What are you—”

I cut her off by pulling away—and I ran. I felt eyes on me as I bursted out her door. Asher chased after me. So did Grey. But they couldn’t catch me. I ran and ran. It was dark now, a half moon, and I let the cool night air rush around me, the rain pelting. My lungs opened up, swallowing my thoughts, my feelings—until all I felt was my endorphins. I ran until I was in the woods. Trees whipped past me in a haze and all I could hear was the damned old apartment calling to me. I knew as I ran that I would have to go back. I would have to face it.

As I drove on the dirt road, the crumbling under my tires filled my ears, along with the whining of my old Dodge Neon, until I became tired of it and I blared some Black Flag to shut everything the fuck up except Greg Ginn’s hypnotic voice shouting, “I can’t think straight; my mind’s a mess. I can only see straight when I’m being led.” True fucking words. A few hours left to go, I screamed with Greg, our hearts becoming one.

I thought of Mom on her last day. She was wheezing worse than usual, but she’d made breakfast. It was something called splat—like a breakfast burrito without the tortilla—and bacon. The bacon had been fine, but the splat wasn’t seasoned right. Too much salt, not enough pepper, and the sausage wasn’t cut right. The chunks were too big. I had complained like a spoiled cunt that morning. Mom just smiled and apologized before coughing for minutes into the sleeve of her white robe—her only one—striped vertically with pretty colors. I remembered the blood that mixed with her spit; how it dribbled down her sleeve. It shut my stupid ass up quick.

“She thinks she’s getting better, but her conscience won’t let her!” screamed Greg as I drove, barely conscious of the road.

Dad knocked over his chair when he went to her. She wheezed some words I couldn’t understand. Tears were stinging my eyes. For a long time I hadn’t heard anything until the banging. I jerked my head toward the balcony. The moths—a black and red sea—were smashing against the glass—so hard that some of them crushed their heads and fell dead. I’d been mesmerized by them. As my dad held onto my mom, now on the floor, writhing, fighting for each breath, I ran to the balcony door. I remember screams coming from the moths, though I know that can’t be so. Maybe it was me, or Dad, or some horrible noise escaping my mom.

I jerked, startled to find Mom now standing behind me. She slammed her palms against the glass as she nearly fell into the door. The moths continued to crash against it, and Mom only stared as she stole air into her dead lungs.

Dad shouted, “Get back here!” And then he tripped over a hole in the floor, landed with a thud, and screamed curses.

“It hurts to be alone, when it hurts to be alone,” Greg said, filling my memories with his voice.

I pulled mom away from the door just long enough to open it. The moths flooded the living room, drawn to Mom as if hungry for her, and they swarmed. She remained standing, her body covered. It had looked like a dress, the moths all over her. Despite my feelings being razor blades ripping me apart, I’ll never forget how beautiful she looked with those moths smothering her.

Dad was standing now, screaming at the moths, worried they were ripping her apart or something, but something inside me didn’t feel that way. Dad pulled Mom to the ground shrieking nonsense at the moths, killing any in his way. “It’s okay,” he said to Mom through sobs. “Evelyn, close the fucking door!” he had screeched at me with no love in his tone. I remember that he’d called me Evelyn instead of Evee. It’s weird what we remember in moments like this.

I hadn’t obeyed his order. I simply stared at the moths as they swarmed. They wouldn’t leave Mom alone. They clung to her as if mourning, or trying to save her. Dad pounded his fists into the ground, squashing a few of the moths. I remember I cried for them when I saw their dead bodies twitching until still.

The heel of Dad’s hand was blue from the liquid that left their bodies. All I felt was sadness for the moths, for my mother, for all the world that my six year old mind could fathom.

Greg finalized my feelings as I drove. “She’s black, it’s out of my hands, everything I hate.”

When Mom went still, so did the moths. They stopped fluttering, no more panic. They paused, their wings tucked in, looking like little capes or dress tails, and stared, and I swear they were staring directly at me, into my burning teary eyes.

In small clutters, they flew away, but not out through the open glass door. Instead, they found spots all around the apartment to hide in—every crevice, every secret spot—each corner in the ceilings they hid away.

As I drove I remembered how Dad had called me Evelyn, and how he hadn’t hugged me. He’d cried, wailing in ways I hadn’t known he could. His moans filled my ears, tore into my heart, and shook my body. I’ll never forget how he sounded as he cried for my mother, and I’ll never forget how unmended I felt as I stood there sobbing, all alone.

When my attention finally snapped back to the road, I smashed the brake and slid on the loose dirt. My car skidded sideways, preventing me from hitting the old bitter cherry tree. As always, I almost missed the crossroads. But there it was, that old tangled path to the right. I eased my heart, slowed my breaths, corrected my car, and rolled slowly onto the road.

My Black Flag was finished playing—probably had been for awhile—and I didn’t bother playing any more music. For the rest of the way, I listened to only the Neon’s engine and the dirt.

When I arrived, I recall fretting, but once I nutted up and stepped out of the car, a sort of serenity washed over me—a calm I can’t explain. I hadn’t expected such a feeling when I came here to this place. I’d expected dread, anger, loathing, melancholy, anything but this.

There were cars parked, but I sensed that no one was actually here. It had often felt that way when I lived here. I remember hearing neighbors, but never really talking to them.

The lobby was dirty—and as always—empty. I realized that I couldn’t really tell if this place was abandoned or not.

The lobby door was tight as if locked, but with a bit of strength, I opened it. Musky dust assaulted my nostrils. It was always like this—had always been.

I stepped into the narrow hall, greeted by a familiar creaking under my feet. The fluorescent light—the same lamp as always—flickered. The dull green wallpaper was peeling just as badly as I remembered. I felt pleasure with each creaking step—and yet—I was timid. It reminded me of ice fishing with Dad the few times he’d taken me; the sweet smell of freezing dew, the shrinking steps of my feet against crackling ice. Even the chill was here—the type of cold that doesn’t sink into your bones—just keeps you awake and alert.

I faced the door the way I would face an enemy—as if we were about to duel. I was surprised when I noticed a fairly large rectangular hole in the door, framed by long strands of splintered wood. Had someone punched or kicked it? Was this recent?

As I peered inside, it seemed that almost nothing had changed. There were still divots where the carpet sunk into holes in the floor. Still there was a dining table in the corner of the living room, though it was a slightly different table. Our table had been small, brown, circular. This one was white and square. The walls were still dirty looking no matter what—a yellowish film over the original white. It no longer smelled of chocolate, but musky like the hallway.

I put my hand through the hole in order to turn myself at an angle to get a look at what else I might see. A hand grazed mine.

I pulled back and gasped. A child’s giggle didn’t put me at ease right away. She pressed her face into the hole—a little girl—and smiled.

“Hi,” I said as I caught my breath.

Her smile remained, but she said nothing.

I didn’t know what to do, so I said, “what’s your name?”

She said nothing. There was something white on her chin.

“What’s on your face?” I asked.

Her smile morphed into a shit eating grin. “Ice cweam.”

I chuckled and before I could say anything else, she opened the door. “Come in and play, girl with red hair.” I paused, but then did as she asked.

I marveled at the way so little had changed in the house. The walls were the same piss yellow, the furniture while different in design, were placed in the same places we had put ours. The ceiling fan still hung a tad tilted, each blade now caked in dust. Whoever was renting now must not clean like my mom had. The only window in the living room was now blocked by a rusted sheet of metal, and the glass door to the balcony was hidden by a dark red curtain.

There was beauty in this place, I could see it now—just how Mom had pictured it all those years ago. It was ugly and yet, it wrapped itself around you like a quilt. It was like a friend with a twisted face that you grow to love because they tell amazing jokes and always cheer you up when you’re down—until you begin to forget about what their face looks like—even begin to cherish it.

“My name is Evelyn,” I said, hoping this would prompt her to tell me her name.

“No it’s not,” she said. Her hair was a mess, she was dressed in dirty pajamas with unicorns on them—only not unicorns with rainbow colors or any bright colors at all—realistic looking unicorns with expressions on their faces that were almost angry. She looked to be about three years old.

“Oh yeah? If my name’s not Evelyn, what is it?” I asked with a chortle.

“It’s Evee,” she said, a bratty giggle of her own.

I froze. Why would she call me that? How would she know? I forced myself to consider it nothing.

“Did you know that some people do call me Evee?”

“I know lots of things,” she answered.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. “If you know so much, then what’s your name?”

She laughed quietly. “Ice cweam.” Her own words sent her into a fit of giggles, though she again kept them quiet.

“Alright, Ice Cream, where’s your parents?”

When she didn’t answer, I took a short tour. On top of the laminate counter there was a calendar—a year behind—and on top of it was a singular moth. It was more red than black, and the way it stood made it appear heart-shaped.

“Hey, Ice Cream, you get a lot of these moths around here?”

A girl’s voice answered, but it wasn’t Ice Cream. “We do.”

I turned quickly to find another little girl—older than Ice Cream—around five or six, the same age I was when I first lived here.

“Hi,” I said, beginning for the first time to feel like an intruder. “If she’s Ice Cream, are you Gumdrop?” I was still a cheeky bastard.

“I’m Katherine,” she said, but didn’t offer her hand. She seemed shy. Her hair wasn’t as messy as Ice Cream’s, but it was un-brushed; she too wore pajamas, plain blue and not so dirty.

“I’m Evelyn,” I said, not bothering to offer my hand. She was too nervous for that.

Blushing, she said, “she called you Evee, can I call you Evee too?”

I told her, “only if I can call you Katie,” then asked, “how long have you lived here?”

She shrugged right before a man’s voice screamed, “Katherine!”

The man emerged from the bedroom, torn forest green robe, bottle of liquor in his hand. The girls cowered, Katie held Ice Cream’s hand tightly.

He seemed not to notice me as he slammed his bottle down on the counter, squashing the moth in the process. I winced. It felt just as when Dad had killed them so long ago.

My sadness heated into a bit of anger. How could he care so little for life? And these girls, how could he be so calloused? They were so cute and innocent.

It’s so weird for me to think about now, but back then, I actually didn’t want any kids. And yet, still, I felt for them.

“Katherine! Why the fuck did you let someone in!”

The girls were trembling—and there was something about his voice that got to me as well.

I tried to apologize, tried to explain why I was here, but he just started sputtering, “get out!”

There was something odd in his tone. He was ferocious, but his tone was void of anger. Instead, his voice was soaked in fear, panic spraying out of him. He sounded like a little boy screaming at his abusive mother.

I didn’t say anything snarky, I promise; I just left. My chest was tight and I was shaking, but then I thought about Ice Cream and it eased my nerves. Her messy mouth and grin reminded me of how Dad really did try after Mom had died. There was a pathway I wasn’t familiar with—and ordinarily I wouldn’t have taken it—but a singular moth seemed to be hovering over it, inviting me.

As I walked in a daze, I recalled a day when Dad had really tried. He’d called me Evee that morning. Rather than comforting me, the word sounded foreign coming from his mouth, and it made me tense up. I was too young to recognize his effort.

The lulling inviting tune of the ice cream truck filled our apartment, and I didn’t even ask. I knew he wouldn’t let me, so I just stayed still. But then—with an awkward smile—he said, “let’s go,” and so we did.

Dad had always loved rocky road, but he ordered vanilla, as if his ice cream had to suit his mood. I tentatively asked for chocolate. I remember hoping to see the other kids around, waiting in line, but none were there and none came. As we ate, saying nothing, Dad’s forced smile became real. It reminded me of when Pinocchio went from wooden to flesh.

It seemed as though he was going to take me to the playground, maybe push me on the swingset like old times, until a moth started to circle Dad’s head and his mood instantly morphed. He threw his ice cream on the ground and frantically batted at his head until he finally hit his mark. The moth, now injured, spiraled to the ground. He didn’t say anything to me about it; I didn’t either. He just stared at me, half dead, half remorseful.

The unfamiliar path led me to the playground, only it was a little different. I paused. Children’s laughter surrounded me. The aroma of chocolate was everywhere. The beautiful deep red flowers surrounded the playground like a protective gate. How could this be? Mom had always loved chocolate cosmos because of her time in Mexico. She moved there for a year to get away from the pressures of college, and had fallen in love with the exclusive flower. The reason I’d grown up with them in our apartment was that she’d had them imported. They weren’t supposed to be growing here.

Watching the kids play warmed my heart. I never thought I would feel this way, seeing children. I’d always been calloused, always thought brats just weren’t for me, but in that moment, my ovaries fluttered like butterfly wings. I was almost horny as if I wanted to make children right then and there. It was like some animals when they go into heat anytime they’re in need of procreation. I tried to chalk it up to nostalgia. All my life, I’d wanted to play with the kids in this playground and I’d never been able to, and now here they all were—right in front of me—no glass barrier. But I know now that there was another reason.

Too busy in play, the kids paid me no attention. Squealing of the old metal merry-go-round and the pitter patter of their running feet harmonized with their laughter, and I watched. None of the children seemed to notice how dilapidated the equipment was—how the paint had mostly chipped off the metal structures, the sun’s rays bouncing brightly off the dull steel. It was full of sand instead of wood chips and I remembered how it felt when the sand would fill my shoes as I used to play carelessly. What I couldn’t remember was if there were always lush dark green plants all around. There was now—mossy looking things, almost like vines—twisted around a rusted chain link fence, and even seemed to be growing within the sand. The air felt damp, almost like a forest. Just like Katie and Ice Cream, the kids were all dirty, their clothing worn down, even torn.

Moths were scattered about, all facing the children, seemingly watching as well. I smiled at them as if we were all a bunch of soccer moms proudly gazing upon our chubby little brats.

When Katie and Ice Cream joined, I said, “I’m surprised your dad let you come out here.”

Ice Cream in her feral way, said, “he’s sleeping like he always does.”

Anger swirled in me. I envisioned him chugging another mouthful of liquor, slurring his words before falling over on the floor. I steeled myself and tried to make light of the situation. “You’re silly, Ice Cream.” She giggled.

I picked up Ice Cream and put her onto the crackling weather-beaten dark blue seat of a swing and started to push her gently. Katie leaned against the support structure. She shot me an adoring face and I blushed.

“I used to live here,” I told them. When they didn’t gasp in surprise, I added, “I actually sort of enjoyed the holes in the floor. Do they bother you?”

Ice Cream said, “shhh,” but then giggled.

Katie said, “it’s okay, we can talk to Evee. My sister likes to play in them. I hate them. I always forget to look and twist my ankle. I don’t know why the people at the office don’t fix em. Evee, I don’t like this place. I don’t like what it’s done to our dad. He used to tickle us and he was funny, but now he just yells and sleeps.”

I nodded, still pushing Ice Cream. “What about your mom?” I asked.

“Get away from them!” I turned sharply behind. Their dad was marching in a stagger toward us. “I told you to leave!” he screamed at me.

The power of the snark was strong with me. “I don’t take orders from geezers,” I snapped. I was so angry at that moment. “You don’t deserve these girls!”

Every single face was on him now; mine, all the children’s, the moths. He ignored us all and came close. His glare shot to Ice Cream. “What did I tell you about eating ice cream?” he said as if eating ice cream were tantamount to killing a baby.

“But daddy, I didn’t mean—”

“You didn’t mean to? Your face is covered in it, you filthy little brat!”

The way he said the word, “brat” made my blood run cold, and I decided right there at that moment that I would never use that word again.

Ice Cream cowered, trembling. Katie and I both stepped forward as he said, “I told you before not to eat that shit, and you didn’t listen.” He stared at each of his hands, then back at the little girl. “I will have to make you listen.” His voice was frosty, jagged, like a sharp icicle ready to impale Ice Cream’s heart.

Katie jumped in front of Ice Cream. “Don’t yell at her!” she screamed. “Yell at me. I’m the one who’s been telling Evee about the holes in our floor.”

I braced myself for his anger, but it dissolved instantly into fear as he turned to me. Tears streamed down his face. “This is your fault. You’re doing this! They were mad enough that I started drinking again. I told em that I was just trying to cope. I have to cope somehow, don’t I? But now they won’t get out of my head, and it’s because of you! The girls are telling you lies because you’re forcing them to. You’re soiling us. Get out. Get out! Get out!”

I honestly wasn’t sure if he was even still talking to me, or something inside his head.

The scent of alcohol mixed with the chocolate in the air filled my nostrils and black and red haze showered us as moths swarmed.

The girls’ dad shoved me with more force than I would have guessed and I fell to the ground. Anger and fear danced inside me, anger leading. He didn’t deserve these fucking amazing girls!

He turned to Ice Cream and Katie swooped to intervene. As he swatted at the moths, he struck Katie’s face, sending her screaming to the ground. He didn’t even seem to notice as he flailed within a mess of moths.

I was angry that he’d shoved me, that he’d struck Katie, but the static cold fury that gripped my heart in that moment wasn’t due to any of that. I realized that the reason I was so mad was that he was acting just like my own father. The smell of rain mixed with the chocolate of the flowers. Drops turned to pouring and I slowly stood.

The moths were now engulfing him, and he was pleading. “I’m so sorry!” he squealed pitifully. “I didn’t mean to, I just—”

His voice was muffled now. Inaudible screams drowned in a storm of moths. They formed around him, creating a shape like a cape—no—it was like a dress. The shape around him was femenine looking. His screams ceased, his frantic waving stilled. The moths and man moved as one, growing taller as more moths flocked to the group. It walked slowly, taking steps toward me until it was close enough that I could hear the fluttering of each set of wings. I was soaked and cold and wondered how the moths could still bat their wings against the heavy water falling on all of us.

The man full of moths fell to a knee and knelt before me, lowering his face to mine. Fluttering pounded in my ears. Behind the storm of red and black, there was a face, but it was no longer the face of a man, but of a woman. My mother’s face.

My anger turned to hatred.

When Dad died, he died screaming. We’d had a fight, one of many, he went outside for a smoke, which he’d just taken up, and waved his hands around at a bunch of moths and shot himself in the head. I froze for a long time before finally running outside. At some point, I called the police, and it seemed like forever before they showed up. He looked just like this father, panicking and screaming.

“You did this to him, didn’t you?” I said, coldly. “He called me Evelyn instead of Evee, or you saw him drinking, or smoking, or maybe he yelled at me, and you killed him, didn’t you?”

The giant monster in front of me—a fluttering mess of grotesque—somehow a reflection of my own mother, bowed her head. At that moment, I couldn’t stand the creature, couldn’t stand my mother.

“You drove him to it! You deemed him unworthy, but it was you who was driving him crazy! You put him through hell, and now look, look what you’ve created! I’m jaded, I’m alone, I haven’t the slightest clue who the fuck I am!”

Children formed a cluster behind the monster, faces full of protective fury. “Get away!” I screamed. “Get away from that monster!” None obeyed, all stayed standing still.

Moth Mom kept her head down, shaking left to right and I’d had it. “Look at me!” I screamed in agony. When she only shook harder, I pleaded, “look at me! I could have gotten married, could have had a career, could have known something of who I was, but now I’m lost, Mom. I’m lost! Look at what you’ve turned me into!”

I was sobbing now, convulsing. Whatever happened would happen and I would have no control over any of it.

She finally did look up, meeting my eyes. Moths fell from her eyes, a pile of dead moths forming on the grass at my feet. She twisted her head to the side, then more, until her head was completely upside down. Her face contorted, a screeching sound conveyed her pain until through fluttering—a voice similar to someone speaking into a fan, she said only two words. “I’m sorry.”

I sobbed for every second as one by one, moths fell to the ground—twitching or still—all dead. When every single one had died, I was on my knees shaking. All the flowers were dead along with the moths, and I noticed that all of the children were weeping with me. I expected their hatred to follow, to feel tiny fists battering my useless body. But instead, they came and held me, comforted me while we all wept.

I understood Mom then. I’d never known the love of children and so I dismissed them as brats. But now that they were consoling me, I understood just how potent this was. I craved their touch, their tears, their love.

I wiped my own tears and stared into the eyes of the children, Katie and Ice Cream amongst them. I had let their father die and killed my own mother with my hatred. These children who’d once spent their days playing and laughing amongst the moths who protected them, now stood alone just as I had for so long. I’d left them with nothing.

I kicked at the dead flowers—dry and brittle—they crumbled at my monster’s feet. I continued to kick and stomp, shouting obscenities at myself until I almost stomped on a living flower. I stopped myself. Perched on top was a cinnabar moth, still alive, looking at me curiously. So slowly I reached out and it tentatively crawled onto my hand. I brought it to my face.

“I’m so sorry,” I pleaded.

It shook a little and did something similar to coughing. Red human blood escaped its mouth—just a tiny drop—onto my hand.

“I love you,” I said as it then drank the blood back in.

Calming, my breaths slowing, I peered at the children as they began to surround me. And I smiled at them.

I wasn’t meant for Mcdonald’s or a strip club afterall. Now I have children who all love me. I never got married, but I know exactly who I am now, just like Grey. I never made it out of Oregon, but I suppose I was never meant to. If you ever wanna visit, there is an old bitter cherry tree. Perhaps you’ll see only a path to your left, or maybe you’ll see a fork and a twisted path to your right. Take the one to your right and wave a hello to this ole bitch. Just make sure you treat your children right while you’re here. I get dreadfully cranky if you don’t; me and my many friends.


Colt Fry, hailing from Colorado, fell in love with writing at the age of ten, when he tried to write the scariest book in the world. It was okay. He’s better now. He loves watching MMA and spending time with his beautiful wife and rowdy tike of a son.


If you liked this story, you may also like “Night” by Amita Basu.

“Things Have Been Strange Around Here” Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

"Things Have Been Strange Around Here" Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

Andrew Heiss saw her through his window on the ground floor, peeking onto the street that led alongside their apartment complex. It was a dark day spattered with rain that drizzled down the glass, slightly obscuring his view. That didn’t stop Andrew from being able to make out her figure in the rain. Penelope’s rain jacket marked her as a splash of bright yellow in the dismal scene. Her back was turned to him while she stared at the passing cars in front of her. Her blurred arms lifted to remove her hood, exposing her blonde hair to the downpour. It immediately matted down with water, turning two shades darker as it soaked. Andrew’s grip tightened on the windowsill as her hair began to gently float. One tendril at a time drifted into the air as if gravity no longer insisted. A sharp spike of pain was nagging at his hands as the edges of the windowsill cut into his flesh, yet Andrew paid it no mind. A halo of hair surrounded the back of Penelope’s head now, like a monstrous spider was flaring its legs around her head. He was just about to back away from the gutting spectacle when he noticed Penelope turning back toward their apartment window. Very slowly, methodically, not expending any energy. A stroke of fair skin became visible again amidst the yellow. Andrew waited for a nose or drops of light blue eyes to show from beneath the hood, but the pale skin didn’t end. Only smoothness unmarked by facial features. He felt blood dripping from his palms onto the wall.

She did not have a face. The hair fell limp to her sides.

            Andrew jolted awake, inhaling sharply at the sight of his dark room. He sat up and slouched forward, peeling his sweaty legs apart and ripping off the blanket. The coolness of the night air was welcomed. He looked to his left and saw Penelope sleeping soundly next to him. The rise and fall of her small frame was so slight he sometimes frightened himself into thinking she was dead. That wasn’t the only sleeping scare he had experienced with her, either.

            The kitchen light was excruciating, but the darkness didn’t feel comfortable tonight. Andrew wiped sleepy seeds from his eyes and made some chamomile tea to sip on. He needed to shrug off that nightmare. He didn’t dream often, but occasionally he would be struck by dark dreams so bizarre and twisted that he would be affected for days afterward. As if a film was left on him, a faint slime he couldn’t see. He turned on his phone and let the stimulating blue light sweep him away from the bad memories for a moment. He swiped through some photos that he and Penelope had taken the other night when they were on a date, and then landed on a video he had taped the night prior to that.

            Andrew frowned. He didn’t recall taking that video. The thumbnail was just darkness, so curiosity compelled him to play it.

            The moment it started he instantly remembered why he had taken it. He was in their bedroom, and Penelope was standing facing the door. She was sleepwalking again, and just like all of the other instances, she could not be woken up. In the video Andrew was shaking her shoulder, saying “c’mon baby, wake up, don’t do this again. I have to get up early in the morning. Please.”

            As usual, it was to no avail. Penelope continued walking toward the closed door, gently knocking her head as she met her obstacle. She made no sound or movement with her other limbs. Just steadily walked. That was all the video contained. After the dream he just had, Andrew wished he hadn’t watched it.

            He and Penelope had been dating for three months now, and just started living together the past month. At first Andrew felt like they were moving a bit fast, but rent was expensive by himself; besides, what’s the worst that could really happen? She wouldn’t be on the lease, and Andrew was pretty sure he was falling deeply in love with her.

            He took a sip of his chamomile tea and opened the notes app on his phone. He never did spend money on a physical journal when it was more convenient to type your thoughts whenever you needed to. The last few entries had all been about Penelope’s sleeping habits.

            February 26th, 1:13 AM

            I keep trying to wake her up. I don’t know why I keep trying when I know the result is the same, so maybe I’m really just going insane. But I don’t know…I had another nightmare just now and I can’t stand her not being able to wake up. It freaks me out.

            February 27th, 4:01 AM

            The paramedics just left. She was sleepwalking and fell and hit her head, so I called 911. They asked me if she was on any medication or drugs, and I said no. They asked me all of the usual things, like family health history and whatnot, and then asked if they could take her to the hospital because she wouldn’t wake up. I said no. They insisted. I insisted as well and said no. They eventually left. In the end they had told me she didn’t sustain any injuries, so I didn’t see the point in having her stay somewhere else for the night when I knew she would wake up at the same time anyways. So I guess we will see.

A creaking sound interrupted Andrew’s reading, and his head snapped toward the source of the disturbance. It seemed to have come from the bathroom. He placed his cup in the sink and walked into the small space. Black ropes of fear tugged at his throat. He knew it was childish to be afraid of the dark, but as of late, the dark had harbored nothing but ugly and unknown things. As he reached for the light switch, his eyes flickered to the mirror. There was no reflection in the glass.

            He stifled a scream that came out as a strangled yelp, and jerked backward. His finger caught the light switch as he did so, and beautiful light illuminated the bathroom. He saw a man with large, frightened eyes and accompanied with a horrific bed-head. After a minute his breathing calmed and his heart rate returned to normal. He waved a hand in front of the mirror and blinked. He roughed up his hair. He smiled and relaxed. Yes, his reflection seemed to be behaving normally. However the trick of the darkness in the mirror had rattled him to his core, and it was at that moment that Andrew knew he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight.

            He crawled back into bed with Penelope. Like usual, even his small scream didn’t wake her up. He drew his knees to his chest, and waited for the sun to rise.

–––

            Penelope got up at 8 o’clock on the dot, just like she did every single morning. She sat straight up, yawned, and hugged Andrew before she got out of bed.

            “You look beat. Did you sleep badly last night?”

            “Yeah, I slept awful. I had a horrible dream about you turning into some kind of monster. Fun stuff.”

            Penelope put on her robe and turned to him. “I’m so sorry, honey. I’ll make you some breakfast and coffee and maybe that will help a little bit.”

            It did help, a little bit. Being awake for the rising sun was a horrible feeling when you were sleepless, and Andrew couldn’t fight off that sickening sensation of sleep deprivation no matter how much coffee and bacon Penelope gave him. As he finished off his coffee, he asked, “this is a weird question, but do you ever get freaked out by mirrors? Something about them makes me feel uneasy.”

            Penelope poured her own coffee and sat down with him. “Yes, I do. Some cultures regard mirrors as portals to other realms, and I think I agree with them. Sometimes I don’t think the reflection is really me.”

            “Yikes. That’s a horrifying thought. I wasn’t going to go that far. In fact, I was all wired up last night from my nightmare and for a second I thought I didn’t have a reflection at all! I turned on the light, though, and obviously I saw that everything was fine. Still, I couldn’t sleep after that.”

            Penelope stared into her coffee. Her eyes had that slightly glazed look she would get when she was lost somewhere else completely. Andrew often wondered where she went. “I think there’s a lot of things we don’t know,” she said at last.

            Andrew was going to have her expand on that statement before she picked up her phone and shot out of her chair. “It’s 8:45. You should get ready so you’re not late.”

            He barely made it to work on time. He settled into his desk, and was content to have his mind wander to the monotonous work in front of him. It was a welcome escape from the chaos of the night.

            5 pm rolled around very slowly, as if time were attempting to elude him. At long last he slumped into the driver’s seat of his car. Thank god he lived a five minute drive down the road. He would buy a bicycle if he wasn’t so lazy.

            He was at a stoplight when he happened to look over to his right. An elderly lady was driving a garishly red Prius. He had never seen one that color. “I hope I have a better taste in design when I’m that old,” he muttered, and the light turned green. The lady in the red Prius turned right to merge onto the freeway southbound.

            There was one last intersection just before he got home. Normally Andrew was so zoned out while driving that he didn’t notice small details in his surroundings. However today he felt a strange prompting to look outside his right window again. An elderly lady in a blistering red Prius was right next to him.

            Andrew looked back toward the road, then whipped his head back in the former direction. He stared for a moment. His eyes had to be deceiving him; he knew this woman had taken the freeway south. There was no way to loop around toward his neck of the woods fast enough to catch up with him. Yet despite the impossible circumstances, here she was. She drove off past his apartment complex, a sharp honk alerting Andrew back to the road ahead of him. The light was green. The world felt thick around him as he shifted into gear. Almost like he was in a dream.

            The apartment was quiet when he entered the cramped space. A one bedroom studio was all he and Penelope could afford, and that was with two incomes. He threw his keys onto the kitchen counter and crawled into bed. Penelope was working the closing shift at the restaurant tonight, so he didn’t have to worry about being disturbed. Exhaustion quickly overcame him as he sighed in contentment. He rolled over to his left in an attempt to get comfortable when he noticed the drawer in Penelope’s nightstand was very slightly ajar.

            Andrew felt like they were close to each other most of the time, but it was times like these that made him feel like there was a side to her he didn’t really know. We all have our secrets, but he felt like she had a lot more than he did. She was quiet, reserved, and creative. When she spoke, her words were always well crafted and meaningful. While this was something Andrew loved about Penelope, it was also something that tickled at him. He was not a snooping kind of person and respected privacy, but traits like hers brought even the most trusting person to do a bit of detective work. Besides, she always kept that drawer locked. It was impossible to resist.

            The drawer made a slight noise as it opened that made Andrew flinch. The rest gave way easily to reveal a single piece of paper and a pen. The paper rustled in his shaking hands as he delicately unfolded it. He curled his fingers into his palms in an attempt to relieve the clammy sensation, to no avail. There was a lot of text, and Andrew had no idea when it had been written.

            How does a god fill in all the gaps?

            I ask this because I have never struggled with it before. I have never dreamt of such a place that is its own realm with its own entities. In fact, I have also never been able to write so clearly, or come back from being awake only to find that the world here has moved on without me. I have determined that all realities must be dreams of sleeping gods, upon which all religion is founded. Is this realm mine to do such? I don’t know. I barely have any power here. I cannot change things at will nor transport myself with a mere thought. I have to muster incredible willpower to simply move through a wall; this is what has made me realize this place is real. I have found that when I do acts like this, bizarre disparities occur. Objects will duplicate or simple physics will momentarily glitch, so to speak. What’s worse, I have fallen in love with a denizen here. That’s you, Andrew. Please do not be alarmed. We will speak when I get home. I am excited to share the truth with you. The future is bright.

            Your love, Penelope.

            The paper was hurled against the wall in a crumpled ball. Andrew rolled over onto his back and covered his face with his hands. He grabbed a pillow and threw it as well, then tugged at his hair. “God, I have to call her.” He fumbled the phone out of his pocket. The minute it took to ring felt like an eternity, and the voicemail message was like sealing his own coffin. “Damn it!” He stood up out of bed and paced around the small living room. “She’s going insane. I should’ve been talking to her more about how she’s feeling. I knew she was bipolar or something.” His breathing quickened when he thought he saw her standing outside the window. He ran over to the glass, only to see strangers passing by on the sidewalk. He caught his breath, lost it, and caught it again. The air was getting stuck in his throat. He couldn’t breathe. What did people do when they were hyperventilating again? The cabinet under the kitchen sink was torn open to grab a plastic bag. In, out, in, out.

            Once he could breathe again, he sat down on the sofa to think. It was two hours before she got off work. He didn’t know how he was going to be able to wait that long. Besides, the thought of her coming home to approach him about these ‘ideas’ made him feel sick to his stomach. It was already twisting in knots. Of course Andrew didn’t believe a word she was saying, but when he thought back to her sleepwalking a wave of paranoia swept through him. He didn’t have anyone to call and talk to about it. Except for perhaps the hospital.

            He punched the number into the keypad on his phone, and hesitated. Andrew was not without mental crises throughout his life. If someone had submitted him to the mental hospital against his will, he might have never trusted them again. He needed to hear her out and give her a say. So he waited.

–––

            The bottle of vodka was half empty by the time the door opened. A jangle of keys and rustle of quiet footsteps were the only cues Penelope had come home. Besides Andrew sitting in the living room right in front of the door, of course. It was a studio after all.

            “How was work?” Andrew asked, and then chuckled a little bit at his casual tone in such a dire situation.

            “Oh, you know, busy as usual. Even for a Thursday night. I have to tell you, I had a few tables that made me just want to––ugh! God, I seriously don’t understand some people, you know?”

            “No, I actually think I do understand most people.” The words came out a lot more sloshed than Andrew preferred, then he decided he didn’t care. “The thing is, Penelope, I don’t understand you.”

            Penelope sat down next to him on the couch in a way that made her bounce off the cushions a bit. She ran her hands through her hair to get it out of her face. Another thing she did that signaled her mind was somewhere way different than the current conversation. “Mm, I assume you’re referencing the letter you must’ve found.” Her nose wrinkled in an exaggerated frown. “You know it’s not good to snoop in other people’s property, baby.” The frown broke into a wide grin. She poked his nose. “I’m just kidding hun. I wanted you to find it. What did you think?”

            Andrew’s neck rolled his head over to look at her, leaning into the couch. “Oh, what did I think? I wonder what I think.” He stood up and parted his hands as if he were introducing a character in a freak show. “I think you are certifiably insane, darling! And you need serious help! Unless you were joking, of course. In which case it would not be very funny anyway.”

            Penelope looked at him with a demure expression. “Are you so blind to the world around you that you haven’t been noticing anything strange lately?”

            Andrew took a swig straight out of the bottle. “Funny you should mention that! Yes, actually. The thing we have discussed endless times; you don’t wake up when you sleep and it freaks me the hell out! We don’t even have to mention, oh, the nightmares and potential hallucinations and all that jazz. So yes, I guess you could say things have been strange around here.”

            “Nightmares and hallucinations? Don’t you think you’re the one that might be insane?”

            “Do NOT turn this around onto me. You are the one who wrote that schizophrenic delusion of a letter. I am not involved in the conversation about who’s crazier right now.”

            Penelope chewed on her lip and twirled a strand of hair between her fingers. “Alright. That’s not what I wanted to talk about anyway.” She leaned forward. “Andrew, where do we go when we sleep?”

            “Penelope, you know that’s a question that’s never been answered for sure. I know you have your theories, but we cannot entertain ideas like–”

            “Answer the question, please!” Her foot was tapping against the ground.

            “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Go ask a brain doctor. If you are so fascinated with the subject, do actual research. I would love to know the answer as well, but it’s pointless to chase these sorts of things. They drive you mad because they are endless.”

            A slight smile tugged at her small lips. “What if I told you I know where we go?”

            Andrew shifted his weight from foot to foot. “If your answer is what I think it is, I would call you insane.”

            She went on regardless. “Andrew, most dreams are the playthings of a brain burning off steam. You know, discharging excess energy and emotion. That’s why so many dreams are emotionally fuelled and symbolic. When you lucid dream in these playgrounds, anything can happen because you are inside yourself. However, once in a blue moon you will come across what I call ‘realms’. Whole other multiverses that the dreaming soul accidentally stumbles upon. I believe that if you lucid dream in these worlds, you become a god of sorts. That’s how religion was founded, and how there’s so many of them!” Penelope stood up and walked over to Andrew. She placed her hands on his chest and looked up at him with baby-blue eyes. “I am not of this world, Andrew.”

            He stepped back, leaving her standing a few feet in front of him. He set the bottle of vodka on the kitchen table and shook his head. “I am so sorry, but you need some serious help, hun. Is it ok if we make an appointment for you to get some professional help? It’s ok to reach out. Honestly I’m glad you’re telling me all this.”

            Anger flashed through her face. “The only reason I can’t immediately prove it to you is because my power is weaker in a developed realm. The rules are already set here and I have to break them. I know how to show you.” She pushed past Andrew into the kitchen and withdrew a knife from the knife block. Her arm was raised when Andrew screamed and slammed into her.

            “NO! You’re not ok, Penelope. Let me help you. LET ME HELP YOU.”

            He wrestled the knife out of her hands. She was screaming now, hitting him and scrambling to get her hands on another weapon. He pushed her to the cold kitchen tiles, resting all of his body weight on her slender frame. Her hands beat on his back and her cries pierced his ears. Using his right hand he reached down into his back pocket and dialed 911.

            “Yes, this is an emergency. Hi, I need you to get here as soon as possible, my girlfriend is having an episode and is trying to hurt herself. Please, I need you to hurry, she is extremely unstable and she needs to get to a hospital. Yes, here’s my address. Across from the 24 hour grocery store. Yes, thank you.” He threw his phone onto the ground and looked down at Penelope. She had stopped struggling and was staring blankly into the distance. Cautiously, Andrew pushed himself off her to pick her up and carry her to the couch. “It’s ok. Everything will be ok.”

            The ambulance arrived shortly afterward accompanied with two police vehicles. The flashing lights signaled a blur for Andrew through the following events. Penelope didn’t protest as the paramedics wheeled her into the back of the ambulance. She only stared directly at Andrew with hatred in her eyes.

            A sheriff approached Andrew. “We need to ask you a few questions. What led to her having a psychotic break? Was she showing any clear signs of distress?”

            Andrew clenched his fists. The screams were definitely heard over the call, and that made him look extremely bad. “She’s been acting really strange the past few days. She sleepwalks and won’t wake up no matter how hard I try, to the point where I called the ambulance one time. This morning she was commenting about how things aren’t what they seem, or something like that. The main thing was that she wrote a letter about how none of this is real and we’re all in a dream. She brought it up to me tonight and when I told her that was crazy, she tried to hurt herself to prove it.”

            The sheriff nodded and scribbled something down on his notepad. “Do you have that letter?”

            “Yes, actually. Allow me to go grab it.” He ran inside his apartment to fetch the crumpled paper on the bedroom floor. He rounded the foot of the bed. It wasn’t there. His brow broke into a cold sweat. I know I threw it around here. He grabbed clothes and threw them around, shoved items off the dresser, tore the blankets off the bed. Nothing. It was simply gone.

            His heart pounding out of his chest, he walked back to the sheriff. “I am so sorry, I seem to have misplaced it. She might’ve thrown it out without me knowing.” Which was a lie.

            The sheriff’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t comment. “Screams were heard over the call, including shouts of ‘let me go’. Could you please explain that to me?”

            “She was trying to hurt herself with a knife and I knocked it out of her hand. I was laying on top of her when I made the call so she wouldn’t try to do anything worse.”

More scratching on the notepad. “Miss Penelope has not indicated that she has been abused, but we will continue to question her about her home life. In the meantime, she’s being submitted to the hospital to stay overnight until we have more details. Do you know of any family of hers we can contact? She was not responsive to the question.”

            Andrew shook his head. “No, as far as I know she hasn’t contacted her family for years. I’m her only emergency contact.”
            “I’ll put you down as primary contact, then. That’s all for tonight. We will continue our investigation with her and if necessary, the hospital will contact you in the morning to discuss your plan of action. Good night Mr. Heiss.”

            The sheriff walked back toward his car, glints of red and blue reflecting off everyone’s faces. Andrew stood there until they left, and then there was nothing but him and the darkness.

–––

            The ringing of his phone pierced through the heavy silence of the night. Andrew jolted awake, slick with sweat once more from another nightmare. No-faced Penelope was back, and this time she was in his mirror.

            The phone went quiet, and then began ringing again. Andrew rolled over and squinted at the light emanating from the screen. It was a number he didn’t recognize, but no one called him at 5 in the morning. He answered. “Hello?”

            “Mr. Heiss. This is Strawberry Fields hospital. We were performing our night checks on our patients and we found Penelope to be missing from her room. We do not understand how this has happened, other than the possibility that perhaps you have helped her escape. Is she with you now?”

            “What? No, she’s not. How could she have escaped? Are you not a huge hospital?”

            “We are. Everyone is on full alert and we are trying to figure out what happened. The only other explanation is that a staff member may have assisted her in getting out. Since she is regarded as being a danger to herself, we have police searching for her as we speak. We ask that you attempt to contact her and find out her whereabouts. If you do, please call emergency services as soon as possible. We will call you back when we have more details.”

            “Wait!” Andrew shouted, but the hospital had already hung up. He sank back into the bed and pulled the covers over himself. The shadows were growing long and it was so dark in the apartment it appeared that they were dancing in the corners. He scampered out of bed and turned on the light. The shadows retreated, and he let out the breath he was holding. Until he heard a resounding thump in the bathroom.

            No, no. He could not handle this. Creaks came from the bathroom, as if someone was walking. His heartbeat was going so wild he thought he was going to have a heart attack. He leapt back into his bed with the lights still on and pulled the covers over himself. Eventually, the noises ceased.

            He knew he would have to go in there. If not just to prove that nothing was there, to prove he still had some semblance of mahood left within him. At this point he was acting pitiful. He kicked the blankets back off, and marched out of the bedroom. Penelope was crazy, nothing she said was true, and the apartment was locked. Andrew assured himself he was being completely irrational.

            The bathroom was a black hole in the apartment. It seemed blacker than usual, like no light could escape it. Mustering all of his courage, Andrew stepped into the bathroom. He forced himself to look at the mirror. There he was, barely noticeable in the tiniest captures of light. Another sigh of relief. He flicked on the light switch.

            He screamed, fell backward onto his bottom, and screamed harder. His hands tore at the wall behind him. Penelope was in the mirror, smiling down at him. It seemed like she was having trouble arranging her face. Her eyes kept moving in unsynchronized movements, and her smile looked like it was molded from playdough.

            “I…told you…I’d show you! All dreams!” She giggled, and it was a wet laugh.

            Andrew tore out of there. He was wearing only his boxers as he ripped through his door and ran as fast as his legs would allow through the crisp night air. The sun was coming up soon, and he only had to run until it did. He would find the solace of the light eventually.

            Yet until then, darkness surrounded him. It swallowed him up and found him at every turn, and in the obsidian realms of unseen corners, Penelope followed him.


Bio pending.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Dream Errors” psychological horror by Jay Charles.

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“Mr. Fate” Horror by Billy Stanton

"Mr. Fate" Horror by Billy Stanton

The poster seemed an immovable and ancient feature of the stone facade of the theatre, so perfectly was it fixed to the wall and so antique was its appearance. This impression of antiquity came not from any fading, yellowing or other cosmetic damage to the thin paper; rather, the advertisement was in perfect nick, as fresh and bold and inviting as it had probably been at the moment of its original printing. It was instead the imagery, the colour and the overall design that spoke of some bygone, even timeless, age: white-faced clowns in conical hats laughed silently, flame-haired girls in black leotards gyrated down the edges of the bill, great exotic animals glittered with gold and silver trappings like they’d been plucked from a march alongside Hannibal and strong-men and acrobats completed their long-forgotten routines with a dignified flourish. ‘MONKEY MADNESS’ was boasted by a subtitle in thick black lettering below a poorly-rendered illustration of caged primates at play. ‘POOLEY’S CIRCUS’ was the headline spelt out in blue on a gold sash, which clashed with the overall deep red background of the piece, and was held aloft by a tiny suited figure in a far-right corner. If one cared enough to squint, there was a name scrawled beneath the feet of this near-silhouette: Mr. Fate.

It was Mr. Fate alone that was the unlikely star at the Odeum tonight. The appearance of this promotion that relegated him to the status of a sideshow was surely little more than either the desperate trick of a showbiz pauper, trying to hoodwink a passing potential audience with the promise of greater and more varied thrills than those which were actually going to appear this evening, or admittance of defeat in the face of a current budget which couldn’t extend to any new marketing materials. To Richard, this seemed odd: surely a solo act at this venue, such a historic staple of the West End, would be expected to hold a much higher standard of operation, and be in possession of enough capital to at least be able to print up a solo bill? Richard couldn’t imagine the process by which this result had been signed off by everyone from personal agent to theatre manager, social media content producer to board member. He did not, however, quibble. After all, it was the tantalising promise of the unusual and unexpected that had drawn Richard to the hellscape of tourist-land against all his better instincts. It had been the limited but provocative copy of the Time Out listing (“Mr. Fate: Music Hall, Vaudeville and Variety Classics, Comedic and Musical, from an Accomplished Pro; remember how it used to be done and weep for the present”) that had first sparked an interest in him; it appeared to represent a temporary passing over at this theatre, for the length of a very limited engagement, of another musical adaptation of an old film that was familiar to far-flung overseas visitors mainly because it was also safe enough to have reached them without being withheld by their national censors, and this was surely be welcomed. Richard had only been made more curious by his inability to find out much more about the show or the performer anywhere else, as every online source for the theatre’s schedule or content repeated those same few words ad nauseam and without addition or amendment. 

So he’d purchased his ticket online- at a cost far, far below the usual three-digit figure for even the cheapest, most pillar-obstructed plush velvet at the conventional shows- and now he stood in line for admittance at the Odeum for the first time in probably decades. The same gold-blue-red colour scheme of the poster was repeated in the simple awnings that had been fixed around the theatre’s doorways. There was no name on these boards and no further suggestion of what was to be seen within. Mr. Fate was, it appeared, an open secret not to be shouted about too loudly. Was the Odeum embarrassed? Did this explain the front of a circus, rather than the admittance of only a single disreputable performer? Was tonight- and the rest of the week- a stop-gap presentation that had arisen out of the commercial necessity of keeping the doors open even when more popular shows left an unfortunate gap in the calendar that needed filling? If the last of those suggestions were truly the case, then the men-behind-the-curtains must have been rubbing their hands together in unexpected delight: there were enough people outside, and within the foyer itself, to suggest an evening at at least two-thirds of capacity. 

The crowd, Richard noticed, was oddly mixed. There were tourists, true, who stood around slightly perplexed, quite possibly utterly unaware of what tickets had been foisted upon them by whoever was organising their vacations, and on the verge of a nasty shock. There was also the expected humble elderly contingent, clearly anticipating a night of cloyingly sweet nostalgia, and currently blocking passages of entrance with their tiny, trembling frames. Other people were evidently aficionados of this sort of thing; a combination of scholarly-looking types, probably carrying Dickens’ biography of Grimaldi in their coat pockets, and men who lived up to every negative physical stereotype of the dedicated follower of obscure and esoteric interests. Amongst this lot, however, were two unexpected classes (and the emphasis was really on the word ‘class’ in one instance). First, there was a slice of the self-contented, clearly affluent, friendly but unfriendly, grey haired and silver-watched crowd that propped up the business of most genuinely culturally-important institutions in the city, while forever loudly twittering in their little groups about their shared holiday plans and cosseted opinions, all of which were both definitively received well in advance and frighteningly un-insightful. Richard knew that this type was as well-disposed to decorative nostalgia as their more age-advanced and modest forebears entering the lobby, even if their nostalgia was often of a supposedly superior sort; but he was still somewhat surprised to see them pick Mr. Fate over another evening spent in the company of the same Schubert symphonies they’d heard performed live six or seven times already. The presence of another societal subsection was far more startling: teenagers and twenty-somethings, the majority of them self-consciously retro in their appearance and dress sense, although retro in a way that spoke of very different periods and subcultures than the ones that Mr. Fate had winged his way in from. Richard found their appearance on this scene somewhat puzzling; even at such a low cost, he hardly imagined that this was the sort of thing that could part them from their cash, and he wondered where exactly they could have picked up an interest in, or even much awareness, of traditional vaudeville or the crusty mildew melodies of the music hall. Scattered about were the disbelievers who formed the rest of Richard’s tribe, and who were surveying the scene with much the same confusion as himself. 

The doormen were mute; they swung the doors open to each ticket-holder with an unpleasant robotic motion, their eyes confessing their decision to situate themselves- in every aspect but the physical- in some other distant place. When Richard finally made his way past them he tried not to look at them too much; they were almost frightening to him, like zombies from show nights long-passed, reanimated by the devil dust Mr. Fate had blown into their restful faces once he’d prised open their coffins. Indeed, an odd drowsiness had settled upon the general evening since his arrival, for all the denseness of persons. Richard was reminded of the sort of hypnagogic drift that directed his thoughts on the verge of sleeping; he seemed now to be almost guided across the carpet, past the gilt-framed bills that added an ostentatious greeting note to those who had struggled their way inside, and towards the bar in the manner of a semi-sleep-walker, a somnambulist who would have fitted in well as an act alongside the rest of the circus folk that once populated Pooley’s Circus. A vodka with ice was in his hand without him being too conscious of its purchasing; he sucked on the decorative lime that he peeled from the edge of the glass unaware of any bitter flavour or breaking of social decorum. He noticed many of those around him bore a similar manner in their expressions and movements. They appeared to alternately glide or jerk about the place in a way that set Richard to thinking of another old treat: namely the mechanical jockeys that used to complete their horse races along steel beams in glass-fronted cases at the drop of a penny in the seaside arcades. Eyes were glazed all about; conversation was conducted haltingly in whispers or monotone; the teenagers looked ready for a nap, let alone the old folks. The only real point of great animation came from a middle-aged, rotund fellow further down the bar. Richard moved closer to him, hoping some of this life and energy would rub off upon him and knock him from his stupor. 

He came to regret his decision almost instantly. The man was bloviating loudly and looking for a target who wouldn’t try to squirm away from the forceful flood of his words. His wife, obviously worn down by the constancy of his torrential downpours, was a mute and detached figure whose current perfect silence and stillness was most likely a consistent feature of her personality, and not a result of the same spell which had been cast upon most of the rest of the room. The man’s eyes fixed on Richard’s, and he extended his hand for the shaking in a needlessly violent motion. Indeed, every one of the man’s actions was made with the hope of projecting a self-confidence, a superiority, a great satisfaction that outranked that of his conversational partner. Richard was caught between slinking away and defiantly meeting him halfway. He opted for the latter approach. He shook the man’s hand. 

“I’m Graham.” 

“Richard.”

“Nice to meet you, Richie. Nice to meet you. You looking forward to the show?”

Richard nodded, somewhat rankled at the patronising liberty taken with his name. “I’m curious about it.”

“Me too mate, me too.” 

Graham’s voice was plummy and utterly untraceable to any particular region of the country. He wanted to be known as an everyman, and occasionally- purposefully, theatrically- he dropped an aitch or an arr in the hopes of further solidifying and signalling his position as such. 

“What bought you here tonight?” Richard asked. 

“I want to see if this bloke- this Mr. Fate- is up to it.”

“Up to what?”

“Up to it. I want to see if he can do it properly like he promised; like it used to be done. How it was done when we still had a sense of humour we could be proud of in this country.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t resist when I saw it. We need proper variety back nowadays, y’know. A good old laugh at teatime on a Saturday- that’s what held us together as a people back in the day. The ones nowadays, half of them try it and haven’t got the wit or the skill. Not since Jerry died. He was the last one, the last old pro.”

“I was never much of a fan.”

In truth, Richard thought Jerry was a twirling fool; a purveyor of hack gags- cleaned-up for the early evening audience- and mediocre dance steps, an old twinkle-toes with a barely-disguised mean streak. He’d always seemed the sort who’d knock a couple of quid off a contractor’s pay based on the length of time they stopped for a tea break and had outlived his time on television by a good few decades, supported by the last vestiges of a soppy audience. Richard’s contempt was probably audible in his clipped dismissal and it put Graham on the defensive. 

“You’re wrong there, pal. He had something for the whole family. The whole lot could enjoy him.”

Strictly the dewy-eyed grandmas thought Richard, but he said nothing. Graham looked around for someone better to talk to. He could round up no one else and turned back to Richard to strengthen his argument.

“It’s lads like him who made us what we are. He made your struggles during the week- slaving your guts out- worth it; he made you forget it all. Nowadays, you turn on the television and all you get is hectored; everyone’s got something bad to tell you, everyone’s got something bad to say about you. You’ve got to feel guilty all the time. Like you want to hear all that after you’ve been sweating it at the foundry. You want a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz, a few cheeky laughs; it puts a new burst in you for Monday morning. Without people such as Jerry, I tell you, we’d have fallen behind the rest of the world a lot earlier; we’d have been too miserable to make it in after the weekend, and the whole bloody thing would have ground to a halt. Like it has now.”

“I’ve always preferred the sketch comedians from that time.”

It was an opinion offered as a peace-making gesture on Richard’s part, one chosen instead of- quite fairly- enquiring on the exact date that Graham had last toiled at the foundry.

“Fair play to you there, fair play. They were great. Don’t see much of their like either now. That’s all the special interest groups and the bloody elites diluting it all, telling us what we should like rather than giving us a bit more of what we actually do like.”

Richard, tiring of the same old talking-points, decided to change tack. “I don’t know if Mr. Fate is going to be much like Jerry. He seems to be doing something a few decades older.”

“It’s close enough, isn’t it?”

Richard supposed it was. He excused himself and went for another drink. Some of his sleepiness had worn off, and he now put that earlier strange mood down to the warmth of the lobby. 

There was more of a crush now around the bar. Richard joined the back of it and noticed the woman next to him was crying. No, not just crying- sobbing, bawling her eyes out. Her partner held her to his chest, stroking her hair. 

“I don’t want to go in, Charlie. I don’t. I don’t.”

Her partner pattered her on the head and pushed her face further into his coat. He said a few more comforting words, but the woman kept weeping; she began to shake more and more, and Richard thought her legs were going to give way. The man ushered her away and they were lost to Richard’s sight for a few seconds; when he caught a glimpse of them again through the throngs he could see that the man was all but forcing her towards the open doors of the auditorium. He whispered in the usher’s ear as they were asked to present their tickets, and the two of them together helped carry the woman to her seat. 

Richard only had time to briefly consider if she had some form of agoraphobia before he was ordering his second drink. It arrived and he downed it one. The bell rung. 

“Seats please, ladies and gentlemen!” 

An usher, holding an old brass megaphone, was standing on the balcony that led to the upper stalls. His silver buttons gleamed in the overhead fluoresce; he wore little white gloves and thick, shining black shoes. His hair was slicked back so forcefully that his forehead and brow jutted forwards with an unnatural, furious tightness. He lifted the megaphone to his lips again. 

“Enjoy your trip with Mr. Fate!”

There were a few cheers for this, which were followed by a low murmuring. Then Richard was caught up in a rapid pouring forward of the crowd towards the waiting doors. Behind him, he could hear a couple more members of the audience crying as they too were propelled onwards by the irrepressible movement around them. There was no question of turning back, or slipping out of the mass; everyone had very quickly become too tightly packed. Richard felt himself being lifted off his feet; the ushers gave up on checking tickets and simply stood aside to let the crowd through with vacant grins. Richard turned his head as the sobs behind him turned to screams; he tried to see if people were being crushed, as he felt he might soon be. He saw that a line of people was pushing the rest of the audience forwards from the very back of the congregation. The faces of these stormtroopers were red and contorted with the pressures of their exertion. Richard wanted to shout at them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, but his chest and lungs were being too heavily pressed to allow for speech. He focused only on his breathing- and blocking out the terrible wailing- as he was carried into the stalls. As he came through the door, a good number of those in front of him collapsed, and soon Richard too was rolling down the aisles with them, bruising his back as it hit against individual steps. When he stopped falling he was lying atop a groggy, near-purple middle-aged woman. He apologised profusely and helped her up. She said nothing, put a friendly hand on his shoulder, and then went in search of her seat. To his left, Richard saw Graham laughing delightedly in Row BB. He gave Richard a thumbs-up; apparently, nearly everyone here was desperately, devotedly on his side- they were willing to kill to get a bit of that old variety back.  

Indeed, most of the crowd had reacted as if this display was the normal, accepted way of entering a performance hall. As people pulled themselves up or were caught against the backs of the first row of seats, they then worked themselves free, adjusted their clothes and hair, and wandered off with a calm, even contented demeanour. The banshees of the crush had been silenced; there was an expectant, excited hush in the place now. Richard could see a few others looking around with a similar sort of apprehension as himself, but the pressures of conformity soon weighed, and even they went about seating themselves in much the same way as the rest of the room. 

Richard, too, followed their lead and sat himself down. Gazing up at the balcony and the rest of the stalls, he noted that his early guess of two-thirds capacity was an underestimation- surely, this was a near sell-out. Richard’s neighbours were composed mainly of the same geriatric folks he’d seen on arriving, broken up only by the occasional forty-something like himself, and a couple of youngsters- their dress sense caught somewhere between 1965 and 1995- perched somewhat uncomfortably at the end of Row KK. A few of the oldies were sucking on hardboiled sweets like they’d stepped out of some cheap advertisement. One of them proffered a bag of humbugs to Richard; he politely turned down the invitation. 

There came a great whirring noise, and then a long musical note, the sound of which was somewhere between that of a church organ and the burst of a laser gun. The stage and its red curtains lit up in splashes of purple, blue and yellow light and an elegant behemoth of a Wurlitzer came up through a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. It shone in pure, blinding white, was topped by silver pipes, and was decorated by dancing green and gold bursts that hopped jauntily across the multiple cascading keyboards and up into a system of buttons and pullies. A man in a wide-cut grey suit, his hair also slicked back to an impossible point like the announcer’s, made an unlikely medley out of Autumn Leaves and Everybody Loves My Baby. There came coos of delight, hands clapping, other tunes being hummed in counter-point. Richard himself could not help but get caught up too, leaving behind any wondering about how exactly this instrument had been installed in the theatre, and how much such an operation would have cost. Surrendering himself, he drifted out of his body to float above the innocent pier of seaside memories, a wash of striped-bathing suits and Sunday bests below him. The music seemed at once an orchestrated version of the sound of two penny pieces clattering down in the push machines, the clicking of a hawker’s camera offering deckchair candids to pretty factory girls and dads in rolled shirt-sleeves, and the meetings of steel forks and plates cleared of haddock, chips and even lemon. Richard’s spirit perched itself upon the top of a helter-skelter, an enormous tower in red-and-blue spirals, that had grown to a size of several hundred feet, and was still soaring upwards, carrying him towards the muggy clouds of a hot bank holiday afternoon. Then he was cast off and was falling towards the grey nothingness of the sea, straight through the nailed boards of the pier walkways, before he was caught on a lattice of fine, oiled ironwork beneath the pier, and suspended- crucified- in perfect, beaming happiness. The dancers and fairies of the circus bill poster flew in loop-the-loops high above him, becoming angels; he watched them go, as an acrobat, carrying a cartoon weight, made easy work of walkathons up-and-down the inches-thin handrail of the platform above him. The music started coming to an end; Richard was struck by melancholy as he became aware that these weren’t his own memories, dreams or visions, but just the construction of some great shared store of memory and imagination, all of it infinitely sweetened beyond reality, and not much beyond ghosts flattened and mulched into universally familiar patterns. But it was all sweet, so, so sweet, that it hurt to reawaken to the murkiness of the theatre. The magic lantern clicked off. The Wurlitzer sunk back into its subterranean resting place, and he was left choking on his tears. 

Before his nostalgia could curdle any further, Richard’s attention was stolen by someone shouting; he saw a youngster breaking for the doors. He was met by an usher who bear-hugged him and manhandled him back to his seat, letting the kid writhe and kick out the whole way. Once plunked back down, a guard was kept.

Before the audience could protest, a man appeared on the stage; a spotlight turned on him and made his face blue. The response was immediately rapturous, geed up by the tender majesties of the organ.

“You remember, don’t you,” the man said, in tones attempting for the sonorous but letdown by an underlying asthmatic weakness, “the glory days of theatres such as these?”

He approached the front of the stage, then dropped and backward-rolled and stood again on the spot he’d started from. 

“Magic and laughter, tears and delightful delicacies. France’s finest legs kicking the cancan, jokes and routines from the funniest men alive that would send you- the audience- into convulsions. Indeed, didn’t it seem like every hall needed a standby St Johns ambulance, to cater to those whose collars had gotten too hot, or who had been forced into cardiac arrest by the brilliantine brilliance of the final punchline?”

Members of Richard’s row were nodding. 

“Do you remember Charlie?” The man imitated the Tramp’s walk. 

“Do you remember the songs?” He offered a line of a Flanagan and Allen favourite. 

“Do you remember the tricks?” He produced a pack of cards from his suit pocket and showed a five of clubs to the audience. “That was your card, wasn’t it?”

There were chuckles. The man walked closer to them. Richard could see him better now; white paint had been caked upon a face approaching old age, marked by a surfeit of deep, dark wrinkles. Around each eye was drawn, in black wobbly lines, a large circle, and these were connected by an even shakier line across the bridge of the nose to form a false pair of round spectacles. His eyes were brown but animated, even fiery. His teeth were stained yellow. He repulsed Richard and made him involuntarily draw back in his seat to escape the gargoyle leer that was now fixed upon them. The stage had been claimed by a sad Pierrot partly infused by the spirit of a particularly malicious Harlequin. 

“I am Mr. Fate,” said the man. He was acting as his own compere; there clearly was no support, no other attraction. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played. I hope you’ll bear with me.”

A roar boomed over the theatre’s speakers and made every one start.

“Exit, pursued by a bear!” Mr. Fate bellowed. He ran off stage left; then his head appeared round the curtain, caught in a paroxysm of panting pain that was too real, too immediately suggestive of a genuine and sudden heart-attack victim, to be in any way amusing. Roaring and growling continued to fill the auditorium. Mr Fate ran towards stage right, his suit shredded and a large pair of boxer shorts, in the customary bright red love heart pattern, showing through the remains of his trousers. Now the audience- or parts of it, at least- laughed. He disappeared around the curtain again, and then stuck his face back out with the same grotesque expression upon it as previously, except now he’d become aware that no one thought this particularly funny, and brief flashes of both frustration and sadness passed across his otherwise fixed countenance. His response to this negation was to double-down: his fake agonies only became more outrageous, more monstrous. 

He re-emerged into the fullness of the spotlight, with only his boxers and heavily-polished brogues remaining to cover him. The crowd liked that. Mr. Fate pretended to be embarrassed, shielding his modesty with outstretched hands. 

“What a way to begin my show!” 

He stepped up again to the lip of the stage. 

“Like I said, I’m not used to venues of this size. Not at all, not at all. Holiday parks, holiday camps, that’s more my thing. Performing for the tanked-up inbreds who can’t afford a trip abroad, and who end up bored out of their skulls in the wind-blasted rot of coastal England. But even those places are going away. Good riddance, I say. Especially if I can get gigs at all the world’s Odeums, eh?”

The tone of those words had been serious- poisonous- and met with general bemusement. Mr. Fate grinned, stood back, and caught a cane that was thrown in from off-stage. He twirled it and picked up the tune of the Flanagan and Allen number again. 

We’re always on the outside

On the outside always looking in

We never know how fortunes are made

For the sun, when it shines, finds us still in the shade

We’re always on the ebb tide

But we’ll keep on trying till we win

For we know someday we’re gonna be on the inside

Instead of the outside always looking in.”

He performed a few rudimentary dance steps as an unseen small orchestra caught up the pensive melody; Richard thought Graham would be happy, as the routine seemed to have been half-inched from one of Jerry’s. It turned into a fake foxtrot and then a waltz, Mr. Fate taking his cane as a willing partner.

“Isn’t it hard to find a dame these days, fellas?” 

The question was asked in a New York drawl. He followed it by throwing away his prop and dancing the Charleston, wildly and with a relish that belied his age. Then feet were caught in a choreographed tangle, and he was on his back, staring up at the stage lights. It was from this position that he performed the next and final verse, gifting the slender words a real, precious wistfulness. 

Were very ordinary people

We never make any fuss

Were the easygoing kind, 

if you look around youll find

Theres a million like us

Were always on the outside

On the outside always looking in.”

He rolled onto his stomach, resting his face in his hands and looking out cutely at the audience, then jumped up as the orchestra struck a new tune. He sang it in a quavering voice.

Twas down in Cupid’s Garden

 I wandered for to view 

The sweet and lovely flowers that in the garden grew, 

And one it was sweet jasmin, the lily, pink and rose; 

They are the finest flowers that in the garden grow. 

I had not been in the garden but scarcely half an hour, 

When I beheld two maidens, sat under a shady bower, 

And one it was sweet Nancy, so beautiful and fair,

 The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear.”

The orchestra continued playing as Mr. Fate bowed to the audience and shuffled his way off-stage. There was applause, but also a palpable edge of disquiet; the song was much too old to be familiar to anyone in the room, as Richard suspected the first may well have been to most of the audience also. He had thought himself more likely to hear variations on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life or similar, but Mr. Fate was chasing some form of authenticity, with a wide historical remit, at the very least. 

When he returned, Mr. Fate was wearing a top hat and tails. His face was still tainted blue by the spotlight. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome your kind response to my first routine. It is the sort of thing that one dreams of during yet another night in a motorway-adjacent Travelodge, kept awake by the howls of a domestic in your neighbours room while trying to keep down the cheap lager and slimy Hunter’s Chicken the janitor-cum-chef managed to under-microwave. It’s a tough life on the road, I tell you. A tough old life. You know, the other day in one of those places I met a fellow with one leg called Smith.”

He turned to the audience expectantly and was met with silence. He visibly sighed and made a tiny gesture to the gallery. A voice boomed out of the speakers, crackling, almost warped.

“One leg called Smith? What was the other one called?”

Some laughs, mostly polite. 

“‘Cor blimey. Let’s go again, eh? Woman gets on to the bus and says to me ‘I say, is this the Barking bus?’ Me, I respond ‘No, madam, this one just goes toot toot’.”

The same response followed.

“A waiter in a top London restaurant was sacked today for having his thumb in the soup when he served it. A topless waitress has been dismissed for two similar offences.”

There was more appreciation for this one. Mr. Fate looked a little disheartened.

“That more your line is it? A little bit blue? Oh, I say! Boys will be boys, won’t they? Lucky for you, girls, otherwise you’d get no fun … now … listen!”

Mr. Fate spun and broke into a fit of maniacal laughter. The sound rang out through the hall; it grew to such a pitch that it could almost have shook the balconies and rattled the lighting system. Richard’s discomfort rose. He wanted to turn and flee from the sound, the horrible unceasing sound, but he worried that any break would be met by the ushers in the same mysterious manner as the teenager’s earlier attempt at gaining freedom. Richard turned his head, battling against the cackling assault that near-paralysed him, and saw the usher was still looming over the boy. Very few others around seemed to notice this or care very much. 

A few laughs eventually rose to uncomfortably meet Mr. Fate’s, and this apparently spurred him into stopping. He smiled, and the orchestra played another tune. Mr. Fate once again broke out the same limited dance steps as earlier, enlivening them with a couple of strategically placed, still fully-trousered, moonings of the crowd, each one accompanied by a fluttering upwards of his coattails. He belted out the words with gusto. 

When I was a nipper only six months old

My Mother and my Father too

They didn’t know what to wean me on

They were both in a dreadful stew

They thought of tripe, they thought of steak

Or a little bit of old cod’s row

I said, Pop round to the old cook-shop

I know what’ll make me grow.

Boiled beef and carrots, Boiled beef and carrots

That’s the stuff for your ‘darby-kel’

Makes you fat and it keeps you well

Don’t live like vegetarians, on the stuff they give to parrots

From morn till night, blow out your kite

On boiled beef and carrots.

When I got married to Eliza Brown

A funny little girl next door

We went to Brighton for the week

Then we both toddled home once more

My pals all met me in the pub

Said a feller to me, Watcha Fred!

What did you have for your honeymoon?’

And just for a lark I said

Boiled beef and carrots…”

The invisible orchestra cut out, and Mr. Fate fell into a cross-legged sitting position. 

“The great Harry Champion, that one. Truly great. Not like me, not like me. Oh, I know I’m not up too much,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”

He looked out at his wide-eyed following. 

“I’m like so much of you lot. ‘Theres millions like us. I came along too late, much too late for myself. Or I just let my time pass, without grasping it properly-“

He stopped and smiled sympathetically at them all. 

“Doesn’t have to be that way, though, does it? Does it? That’s why you’re all here, after all. Because it doesn’t have to be.”

Someone in the audience whooped. Richard looked around to see who was so excited by Mr. Fate’s melancholic pleas and saw another member of the audience being restrained by the doors. The balcony announcer took hold of the woman’s wrist and dragged her back to her seat. It was Graham’s wife. Mr. Fate took no heed of her. 

“I’ve given you a bit of a reminder of what was, in my own sorry way. Now it’s your turn to do the rest, to do what we’ve come here for. Now, we can get time back. Our time. Better, happier times, the real thing. And it will be better than this, I promise, so much better. Don’t you want that, boys and girls?”

The crowd grew more and more excited. The room was melting for Richard now; reality was dripping away and congealing on the floor in thick, gloopy puddles. He could see this was a false world before him; an alien world, a terrible place, a bad photocopy, an ersatz reproduction printed in the wrong hues and with the lines smudged. He tried to stand, but another usher came up behind him and pushed him down. He could see, out the corner of his eye, that a small army of them had arrived from somewhere- like they’d shot up out of the old floorboards- and were pinning down any resisters, any who weren’t now fixing the stage with the same rictus delight, or waxen death-mask serenity, as the rest of Richard’s row. Most of those being held were audience members of his age or younger, but even scattered amongst those of fewer years he could see others who were consenting and exuberant. So many in the hall now seemed to him possessed of some secret knowledge, an idea of a secret aim to the proceedings, that he’d arrived tonight completely unaware of. He wondered how many were like him. Who had spread the word to the others? Had it even been put abroad, or had the educated not otherwise just been drawn here by a mysterious instinct, a voice that whispered to their most futile desires? Had Mr. Fate this evening been in their heads, their hearts, telling them things from inside that could never reach Richard; trilling in the gaps between his gags and songs in a tongue only to be understood by the initiated? 

“Cover their eyes!” Mr. Fate pointed at the usherette militia, directing them. A smooth, supple pair of hands cut off his view of the stage. 

“Sing along!” Mr. Fate bellowed. “I need all of you that can manage! It won’t work without most of you willing- willing! I’ve got a sheet for you to read from, there’s no excuse! Start the music!”

The fantasy orchestra started up again. The Wurlitzer sounded deep, rumbling, sizzling hellfire from below the pit. 

“Time again, time again!” Mr. Fate shouted, and leapt into the words of the song. The crowd joined, uncertainly at first, but then with great enthusiasm, with glory in their bellies and golden syrup in their mouths. The song turned from the rinkydink to the sublime; it could have filled the greatest cathedrals in the world and sent the sheer grey sullen spires of God toppling. Richard struggled against his captors, but more hands were placed on him, more held him in place.

Well smile again

With the sun through the rain

As we welcome back those good old days we knew

No more goodbyes 

No more heartaches and sighs

Well awake to realise our dreams come true

Those happy days, happy ways

Are the things we sigh for

Theyll all come true, Mister Blue-

Richard felt the ground shifting beneath his feet; the whole hall began rocking left and right at a tremendous velocity. The hands confining him slid and skidded across his face and body; behind him, the bodies to which they belonged tried to keep themselves upright. Flashes of blue and red light blinded him when his eyes were free. The sideways movements turned into great lurchings backward and forwards. Richard gritted his teeth and dug his fingernails into the hard plastic beneath the thick velvet of his armrest; blood started dripping down his fingers. Mr. Fate took an opportunity to encourage the crowd.

“C’mon now, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Don’t be frightened! The golden pathways are opening for you; all you’ve lost is returning, all that’s passed is coming back. This is what we need!”

Someone- Graham?- cried out. “England! My England!”

Mr. Fate finished the song with the audience.

What ya gotta cry for

Turn the lights on

For the darkness has gone

Arm in arm lets sing a grand refrain

The world is with us 

So well smile again.”

Everything stopped. The theatre was still. The hands were withdrawn from Richard’s eyes, and the ushers melted back into the walls’ scarlet shadows. Richard looked around him; much of his row was caught between a new radiant happiness- old faces crinkled in children’s expressions of wonder- and an ambiguous dabbing at wet eyes with the edges of hankies. The young couple at the end of the row looked around in search of something or someone, or some clue as to the outcome of this mass seance. 

Mr. Fate, who had been missing from the stage when Richard’s vision had been restored, returned.

“You’ve done a wonderful job. Oh, joy of joy, day of days! Isn’t it a shame we don’t have any windows in this place? But I’ve popped backstage, ladies and gents, and let me tell you- this isn’t the same city we left behind! Oh, it’s so much better.”

He gave a little jig and sang a song of his invention. 

Start again, start again, oh what can be, what can we be, now we can start again. We’ve left the cruelty of our age behind; the bitterness and the division. Oh Christ, how cold we’ve all been, eh? How bloody, bloody cold. Well, throw off your shawls, Mother Brown! Chuck the hot water bottle out from under the eiderdown. Go you lot, go!”

The majority of the audience thew themselves from their seats and once again battled their way towards the door, clambering and clawing their way over each other to get towards- what? Mr. Fate’s promised land, a new shining paradise beyond the foyer? Richard watched the crush develop- the lost and lonely stragglers, regretful or befuddled, joining after the worst of the stampede- and remained rooted in his seat. Mr. Fate had gone again; the stage lights were dimmed and eventually shut off. A kinder, gentler usher than the earlier paramilitary equivalents appeared at his elbow and helped him gingerly out of his seat and towards the door. No words were exchanged; Richard’s guide, although pinched and grey, walked with a puffed chest and a solemn stateliness.

They passed through the foyer and then out the the theatre; the usher left him and went back inside. Richard looked about and his legs buckled, and his head almost hit the pavement as he swooned. As Mr. Fate had promised, the Strand was indeed not the Strand he had come in from; the cladding and chrome, the lurking monsters of concrete frames and glass exteriors were gone from the margins of the scene around Charing Cross, and the familiar chain restaurants and shops had been replaced on this great stretch of life. The occasional horse-and-carriage or cart held up the lanes of early motorised hackney carriages, half-open to the elements and stinking with their dense fumes. The buildings had taken an almost Victorian appearance, a long line of tall soot and smoke-stained facades dropping down into the striped canopies and block-colored awnings of fancy shops. The people hurried about- the pace of their lives had changed little- but they were long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats and suits in great acres of fabric or peculiarly dumpy and formless dresses.

A pair of brogues stopped at Richard’s crown. A hand came to meet his, and after a few seconds of exertion from a samaritan almost out of puff, Richard was standing with a comforting arm around his shoulder. The man holding him was Mr. Fate, smiling warmly with his yellow teeth and his flaking make-up. 

“Bit of a shock, isn’t it? Even for the most willing ones, it will be.”

Richard nodded. He couldn’t form words. 

“Nineteen twenty-six. For God’s sake, I wish I’d got a better year. I hoped to avoid the Blitz at least; I managed that. But the crash is right around the corner.”

He shrugged his shoulders. Richard stood gaping at him. 

“Still, it’ll be alright for me. Entertainment’s always boomed in hard times, and I’ll be on a bill with the best- heck, I’ll steal most of their routines before they’ve even thought of them. Bully for me. I’ve got my public. It’s the others I worry about. I needed them- of course- but I worry they didn’t quite think things through. To be honest, I think I took most back further than they were expecting. Not quite a Christmas Eve recording at the BBC Studios, is it? All dancing girls in elf costumes, and the comedian as a great big erect Santa. That’s what they really wanted- if they ever really did know for sure what they wanted. Oh, well. They’ll pull through. They’ll find a silver lining, and so will you. Call me if you need help.”

Mr. Fate slipped a business card into Richard’s coat pocket. He started to stroll away, with a grand promenade air, but Richard stumbled over and grabbed at his poleyster sleeve.

“Is there any way back?” 

It was all he could manage to say, and he had to lean right into Mr. Fate’s ear to make himself heard. Mr. Fate shrugged once again. 

“Get a few hundred of those who want to go the opposite way in a room and give it your best shot. It’s the only way. You might be able to round up a nice little crowd after the crash. They might even be knocking down your door to go forwards a little. Good luck with it, if you decide to make a go of it.”

Mr. Fate patted his shoulder and was away and swallowed by the Saturday evening crowd. An old song resounded in Richard’s head. 

Life begins at Oxford Circus…”

He watched a car hurry past and contemplated throwing himself under the next, or beneath the hooves of a horse. But then one of the old contraptions stopped before him and he climbed in and asked for the place the song had named. As they merged with the rest of the traffic, and avoided the masses of jay-walkers and delivery boys who recklessly pelted off the kerb and slipped through the tiniest spaces between the cumbersome vehicles, he tried to send himself back again to the latticed metalwork underneath a long-distant pier, on a hot summer’s day from someone else’s photo album, but found the sun had long since already set and all the joys of the seaside had disappeared into the black of the night. He wept.  Back at the Orpheum, a blue-overalled workman, overseen by a courtly, august shade in all-black, carefully extracted the POOLEY’S CIRCUS poster from the wall, rolled it up and pushed it inside a cardboard tube. He received a nodded dismissal from his inspector and went down the side of the building, bill in hand, towards the tradesman’s entrance. The shade watched him all the way, before turning, stepping back inside the theatre and motioning to a waiting usherette to lock the front doors. 


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and film-maker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli’, dealing with the rituals of modern British drinking culture, is currently in post-production.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Cruel” dark, legendary fiction also by Billy Stanton.

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“The Dare” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

"The Dare" Horror by Kate Bergquist

We snuck out to the Goat Man’s place every Halloween night. It was our secret tradition. First, my brother Joey and I did some bad-ass trick-or-treating, racing from house to house throughout the neighborhood. Our covert mission was to score at least a handful of candy at each stop to stuff into our pillowcases. We only had about two hours before our parents would return to pick us up in the station wagon, and we didn’t want them to know where we spent most of the evening.

Out behind Pine Woods Cemetery.

That’s where the Goat Man lived, alone, in a rambling Victorian cottage. Perched on a knoll down a long driveway behind the cemetery, it boasted all the hallmarks of a real haunted house, right down to its crooked shutters, peeling paint, and squeaky iron gate.

In other words, it was scary freaking perfect.

All us kids called him The Goat Man, but he didn’t herd goats or even own them. He didn’t possess any goat-like qualities, either, except for the gray hairs that sprouted from his chin like steel wool. His real name was Earl Ruskin. He was a hunched over and skinny old man, perpetually dressed in a tattered black suit, even in summer, and he wore thick wire-framed glasses and kept his straggly white hair pulled back into a rat tail. He seemed like a hundred years old to us then, but looking back, he was probably only sixty.

I even felt sorry for him, sometimes. I was a sensitive, nervous girl, the kind who worried about missing cats and dogs in the neighborhood and often went out to search for them. To me, Earl was sort of a stray human. The way I figured it, he probably didn’t deserve all the things people said about him. Maybe he just needed rescue from a lifetime of loneliness.

People rarely saw him out and about in real life, but we all heard the whispered stories.   If you stare at his face for more than ten seconds, it changes from human to wolf. Some older kids said he chased them from the cemetery one night, and that he could run lightning fast. He was behind them, and then, in a flash, he was ahead of them, levitating above one of the headstones.

And if that wasn’t scary enough, some of my fifth-grade classmates said they peeked in through his dining room window one night and saw him eating handfuls of spiders. Some of them crawled around on his face and hands while he was chewing. Well, it didn’t take long for that story to morph into Earl slurping brains from a silver ladle, dipped from the open skull of a dead goat. Hence the moniker.

Our dad told us that when Earl was young, he was more of a normal guy with a just few odd quirks. His family owned the old shoe factory in Milford for generations. When Earl inherited it, the Ruskin Shoe Company was one of the largest employers in our little corner of Vermont — half the town worked there. Earl was good to his employees, too, and for the most part they all liked him well enough; he was a fair and even-handed boss; he didn’t talk much, and he never came down on anyone too hard for being late or for asking for a raise.

But he was a loner, and never socialized, not even at company events. He often stayed late at the office so he could walk home in the dark. And he didn’t have one single friend that anyone could recall.

Earl was also shy around women. But he earned the name Earl the Hugger because during the holidays, at bonus time, he hugged each female employee when he handed out checks. He never said a word to any of them, just gave them the eye, if you know what I mean, and pressed them close for a few furtive seconds. Some of the women squirmed, others giggled, and some outright declined.

He never tried to hug the men.

His peculiar holiday hugs added to his creep factor. And despite his decent looks and wealthy bachelor status, no one wanted to go out with him.

Including my namesake, my aunt Emmaline. She was a beautiful, raven-haired young widow with ethereal blue eyes and a gentle smile. As the story goes, Earl was love-struck, and tried without success to garner her affection.

Still grieving the loss of her own husband from a car accident, Emmaline was upset by Earl’s behavior. He waited for her in dark hallways, and often hovered near her desk, staring at her. One Saturday morning, Earl showed up unexpectedly at the house. He held a huge bouquet of dead roses. When Emmaline saw who it was, and what he carried, she fled upstairs and dove under the bed. My dad, who was only eleven at the time, slid underneath to hide with her. She told him Earl had rancid breath and questionable manners, and that something about him frightened her. There’s something wrong with that man, she told him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Emmaline needed a fresh start. She had big plans for a whole new life, and had just accepted a position as a Shore Excursions Manager with a major cruise line. She couldn’t wait to see the world. She gave her two-week notice to Ruskin Shoes, and was on her final countdown to freedom.

But tragically, on her very last day at Ruskin, a massive fire erupted at the plant, right in the middle of second shift. All the employees managed to escape the flames – all but Emmaline. As a shift supervisor, she must have felt it her duty to go back in to make sure everyone had gotten out safely. But she never made it back out again.  

She was only twenty-two years old. Her whole family —and the entire town for that matter — was devastated by her death.

Including Earl. Although the Fire Marshall deemed the fire purely accidental, caused by faulty wiring, Earl was so broken he couldn’t rebuild. Instead, he became a black-suited recluse, and the object of two generations of childhood mischief.

                                                            #

“Check out the moon, Emmie,” Joey said, his breath trailing clouds. “It’s like a huge severed head rising behind the pines.” It didn’t look that way to me; it was missing the whole severed part, all the blood and gore. Besides, there was a bit of a gravity problem.

“Severed heads don’t rise, they fall.” But the moon was really big and full that Halloween; it cast long, eerie shadows on the gravestones. I kept my head down as we crossed the wooded path through the cemetery, just in case Earl was floating nearby. That would be a gravity problem, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

We crept to edge of the high row of overgrown shrubs by the front gate. As the wind rose, the temperature dropped, and both of us shivered in our costumes. The cold stung our faces and numbed our hands. There we crouched — a hairy biped and elegant princess – staring up at the Gothic windows.

A milky light flickered inside.

Joey lifted his furry mask. “I go first,” he mumbled, his mouth full of Snickers. He was a year older, almost twelve, a lot bigger than me, and very bossy. Last year he went first, too.

“Okay.”

“Look at me and count to three.”

I watched, giggling, as he reared up to his full height and beat his furry chest. I attempted a deep, royal intonation. “One…two…three…and a dare from thee.”

“I’ve got a good one, your Highness.”

“Pray tell, Bigfoot.”

“I dare you…to knock on the Goat Man’s front door, and when he answers, tell him you’re cold and you want to come in.”

“Are you crazy?” No one, to our knowledge anyway, had actually ever stepped foot inside the Ruskin house. Except for Earl, of course. Even the Amazon delivery drivers never made it past the front porch.

“It’s a solid dare. You’re a sissy if you say no.”

Last year, he dared me to clang a bell at the front gate and then toss some candy onto the grass. The previous year, I dared Joey to drape toilet paper on all the low-hanging branches. Harmless, innocuous stuff.

Until now. This dare felt a full level higher on the danger scale.

But I was pretty confident that Earl wouldn’t answer the door.

With dramatic flair, I flipped my white and silver embroidered veil over my right shoulder. “I hereby accept on one condition.”

“What.”

“You go with me.”

Joey didn’t say anything. But I could tell he was thinking about it.

“Time’s it?” I asked, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.

Joey checked his watch. Then he cracked a wicked grin. “It’s Goat Man time!”

We dropped our stuffed pillowcases and squeezed through the narrow opening in the gate.          

                                                            #                                                                     

Shimmering moonlight flooded the stairway. In fine princess fashion, I ascended the steps slowly, regally, admiring the ornate trim and gingerbread cutouts. I held on to the balustrade as I climbed, noting how steep and uneven the steps were. Almost twice as steep as normal stairs. At the top of the landing, I looked back down, and Joey gave me a tense wave before ducking behind the railing. I turned to the imposing, wrought iron front door, with its elegant scrollwork and reached for the black iron door knocker.

My heart skittered as I took a deep breath, and knocked.

At first, silence. I backed away from the door to see if Joey was still at the bottom of the stairs. He urged me on with a verbal push.

Sissy.

I stepped forward and knocked again.

And heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door. 

A male voice, “Yes? Who is it, please?”

I wanted to run. But I was frozen in place. 

The door opened a crack. I heard a sharp intake of breath. And then it opened wider. Standing there, in the flesh, was The Goat Man.

He wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. He wasn’t skinny or hunched over. He wore a dark suit and slippers. And his suit wasn’t worn at all; quite the opposite. It looked expensively stitched, made with very fine material. His white hair was shiny and thick, brushed back from his forehead. His skin wasn’t even wrinkled; he was clean-shaven. He didn’t even wear glasses. His twinkling gray eyes looked very surprised to see me.

“Um, hi,” was all I could manage.

Then I saw his face clearly, and realized that the look I saw there was much more than surprise. It was raw pleasure. He broke a smile; his teeth were small and very white.

“Come in, come in, oh my dear–you must be so cold out there!”

I took a tentative step across the threshold. The door closed behind me with a swoosh and a soft thud.

I wasn’t scared then. Not yet. The veil shrouded my face; it felt like it protected me.

“Are you lost? No one is with you? Oh, my sweet dear, that’s such a pretty costume. And such a lovely veil. You look like a lost little princess bride. And a princess needs a house befitting royalty.”

He bowed dramatically, gesturing me to enter. I took another step inside. The heat hit me full blast. It must have been eighty degrees in there. An antique woodstove cranked in a corner of the kitchen, and I could see a fire roaring in the grand fireplace in the living room.

“Would you like a cup of herbal tea, dear? That’s what I’m having. It will warm you up.”

I found my voice; timid and hoarse. “It’s not what I thought.” I forced a smile. “Neither are you.”

“Ah. Lots of scary stories out there about me, eh?” He laughed and his whole body shook. “Do I look like some kind of decrepit old monster to you?”

I gave him a cautious look. Shook my head. “You really don’t even look that old.”

“Tell me, what do they call me these days?”

“The Goat Man.”

“Ah. Hadn’t heard that one.” As he pondered it for a moment, he picked something out of his right ear. I hoped he wouldn’t ask for further explanation.

 He grinned and leaned in close. His breath smelled like decayed fruit.  

“My name is Earl. Earl Ruskin. And what is yours, my dear?”

He held a delicate teacup. It had tiny black birds painted on it. I could see his fingernails were clipped short. He seemed very elegant. I felt shy in his presence, maybe even star-struck. Meeting Earl was kind of like meeting a celebrity. And he seemed so sweet, so nice.

So safe.

I gently moved the veil away from my face and looked up at him, directly into his eyes. In my mind, I quickly counted to ten.

I was relieved to see his face stayed human.

“Emmie,” I said, “Short for Emmaline.”

Earl’s pale eyes bulged. That made me a bit uneasy. Then, his jaw started trembling. I was started to regret accepting this dare. Joey was going to have to give me all of his candy to make up for this. Gray hairs sprouted from his chin. The skin on his face rippled. He let go of the tea cup and I braced for the crash.

But it didn’t fall. It hung there, tipped over and suspended in mid-air. The tea stayed in the upside-down cup. The cup twirled a bit in the air but stayed aloft.

 “Oh, it is just as I have always hoped!” Earl exclaimed. “Just as I have prayed! Yes! My prayers have indeed come true!”

Earl slipped his left hand into his suit coat pocket.

I was completely mesmerized by the levitated teacup. We were having a gravity problem. A big one. And now I was scared. Earl flipped his hand from his pocket and flung sparkles at my face. “Princess dust for the princess bride,” he said.

Everything happened so fast. I winced and coughed; the cup dropped and shattered. I took a step backward, away from the shards, away from the dust that stung my eyes and nose. There was a loud noise, it came from Earl’s mouth, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He looked down at the mess, then at me. His lips were moving.

He grinned. His teeth were all yellow, decayed. Slimy. His hair was thin and brittle and pulled into a rat tail. I felt so dizzy. I couldn’t control my arms or legs. As I tried to steady myself against the spongy wall, I could see into the living room. 

Blooms of black mold patterned the walls. The impressive gold drapes were shredded. The tiles in the fireplace were cracked and some were missing altogether. The heavy dining room set had fallen to ruin; some of the chair legs were broken. Everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. The table was on its side, the varnish bubbled and cracked. A marching column of insects emerged from the cracks.

Earl’s voice dialed back in, loud and tinny. “You’re so, so beautiful. Even more than she was.” His suit was torn and threadbare; it hung in ragged strips from his skinny frame.

I took a shaky step backwards; my hand was sticking to the wall.

A large spider scuttered across my left foot. Earl flicked out a bony arm and grabbed it in a second, popped it into his mouth, crunched it. “Mmmmm.” His pointed, yellow tongue darted out and licked his cracked lips. He rubbed his sunken stomach and belched. Something gray glistened at the edge of his shriveled lips.

He tilted his head, bemused by my horrified expression. “Oh, my dear, what kind of host am I? You must be starving.”

I screamed, but the sound didn’t come out of me. It went in; I felt it blast through my veins like lava, ricocheting into my muscles. The pain knocked me off my feet; I slumped to the floor.

                                                            #

I think I passed out for a few seconds; as I came to, my head seemed a little clearer. But unfortunately, my Halloween nightmare was still playing out in high definition. I drew a shaky breath. The hallway floor seemed to be rippling. Earl was swaying in front of me, his mouth moving incessantly. Black house flies buzzed in and out of it.

I thought of my parents, how upset they would be when Joey and I weren’t at our usual pick-up spot in front of Jensen’s Pharmacy. We had let them down. My mom said the worst thing to do to someone you love is lie to them. Joey and I didn’t lie, really. We just didn’t tell them the whole truth. Was I being punished? If so, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.

It just wasn’t fair. Halloween was supposed to be fun-scary. And the impossibility of what I was seeing had put me into some kind of split-brain mode. Part of me terrified, the other part angry.

I decided to focus all my energy on the angry part.

“You’re just a horrible…thing!” I screamed at him, and the words punched out of me like hot coals. Earl cackled and danced around like an emaciated marionette. He started to sing, oh yeah, oh yeah, I’m just a thing called Earl. Come here little lady and I’ll take you for a whirl. Yeah baby, you’re my princess girl…then he lunged at me with a clawed hand, his feet hovering several inches from the floor.

I ducked away from the swipe. “Ugly stinking lump!”

Come here, my beautiful one. Emma—Emma–Emmaline. With the ocean blue eyes. We are destined to sail together across the sea of life.

“No one would ever want you! I hate you! And my aunt hated you, too!”

That hit the mark. Earl’s feet struck the floor, hard. He fixed me with a vicious stare.

My outburst made me realize something. Something important. Something that might save my life.

I was no snuffling little sissy.

“You’re a very cruel child,” Earl said, as if correcting me, and bared his disgusting teeth. His eyes were red slits. He opened his horrible mouth wide, and this time, the flies that issued from his mouth buzzed like tiny chainsaws, swirling into a funnel. Dozens of them. Hundreds.

 I flashed back to a family camping trip up in Maine. We were staying near a lake and I was playing in a sandy area near some low bushes. All of a sudden, I heard my dad yelp. He was running up from the lake. I could hear him yelling, Run, Emmie! As fast as you can, in a straight line! To the car! Get inside and close the doors! And the swarm of bees was an undulating black cloud around his head, and I turned and–

–fled down the Goat Man’s hallway, away from the bees, trying to stay in a straight line, trying to stay upright; the floor was still moving beneath my feet. Run, Emmie! Don’t flail your arms! I felt a few of them pinging me, sharp little zap zaps on my head, pinch, ping, then my face, my arms.

Hold your breath, Emmie! It makes the bees blind. That was the hardest part, when all you want to do is scream out, ragged and raw. But more than anything else, I wanted to see my dad’s face again. And my mom’s. And Joey’s.

So, I held in my breath. I held back my screams.

I burst into a bedroom and slammed the door closed behind me. I dragged a heavy chair against it. In the dim light, I spied a canopy bed, heaped with quilts. I grabbed the top one and stuffed it under the door. I glanced around for a closet, but there wasn’t one. The only place to hide was beneath the bed. So that’s where I crawled. I could hear my heart hammering in my chest. A few bees still crawled on me; some were stuck in my veil. I tried to make myself small and breathless. The stingers hurt. I washed them with silent tears.

Everything seemed quiet. No buzzing. No sign of Earl. As soon as my heart found a slower tempo, I lifted the edge of the bed ruffle and peered out.

This room was very clean. Nothing fancy, just clean. The windows were small and dark. One ceramic lamp rested on a wooden table; it flickered like candlelight.

I was gathering my courage to slide back out and check the windows. I could bang on them. Yell for Joey. Maybe they would open. Maybe Joey had already run back and called the police. I couldn’t stay here. I had to find a way out.

That’s when something swung past my face, like a pendulum.

I heard a rustling, creaking noise in the bed. And a pitiful moan.

And realized the pendulum was a bony arm.

I flew out from beneath the bed, too terrified to look. I was at the window in two steps, and immediately my heart sank; I could see they would never open.

They were fortified with metal security bars.

I shrank into the curtains. Where could I go? I forced myself to look at the bed. The lump of quilts moved and turned, and then coughed. I could see the shape of a human head. Then a voice; female, weak, and very raspy. “Is…someone there?”

I was still terrified, but at least she wasn’t Earl. And I prayed she wasn’t worse.

Please, God, don’t let her be worse. “Um, yeah.”

The woman jerked at the sound of my voice. She pushed the blankets to her lap and looked over at me. Then she started to weep.

“Oh, lady, I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m not mean like Earl.”

Was this his mother? She looked very old. Her skin was thick and leathery, like elephant skin. Didn’t she pass away like a zillion years ago?

“Earl is more than mean, child.” She reached for the glass by the bedside, took a feeble sip. Her upper body was skeletal. Her gray, braided, hair fell to her elbow.

“Then you should leave here. Leave with me.”

“I can’t. He would never allow it.” She patted the blanket and motioned me to come closer. “Let me see you, child. I haven’t seen anyone other than Earl in a very, very long time.”

She seemed so nice. But I had been fooled by that “nice” trick before.

“What’s your name, little one?”

“Emmaline. But I go by Emmie for short.”

Her smile was sad. “That’s a lovely name. Did he…hurt you, Emmie?”

“I think he wants to.” I saw the woman wince, press her fingers against her eyes. I wanted some answers. “Is he…a demon?”

“He’s a very sick human being. He’s evil. He is very practiced at it. He can make you see things, awful things, things out of a scene from Hell.”

A heavy rapping at the door. Then two more sharp knocks, louder. The door had a red tinge around the edges. It was starting to bulge. The woman bolted upright. I could see fear shining in her eyes. “Child. Listen. You are in terrible danger. He’s very angry.”

Her eyes darted about the room. Where could we go? I couldn’t see any way out other than back through the door. “Quick,” she said, “get under the covers. I’ll hide you.”

She reached over and rustled around in the drawer in the bedside table. “Earl has plenty of evil tricks in his arsenal. But — I’ve got one too. I only wish I tried this years ago.”

The door erupted right off its hinges. I dove under the blankets. I could see a blood-red glow even through the heavy black wool. I wondered if Earl’s rage had turned him into a dragon. I was having trouble taking a full breath; it was if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. I heard the woman scream out, “No! I forbid you! She is not yours; she will never be yours!”

I heard something pop, then a squelchy noise, followed by a small explosion. And then, the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It sounded like the hellish howl of a dying animal.

The old woman pulled me tight to her, covered my head with a blanket. “Brace yourself, child. Don’t look. Just hold on to me and don’t let go.” We were out of the bed and moving through some kind of tunnel. It felt like my skin was melting. I held on. We crawled through muck and slime and smoke. Something hard fell against my shoulder. My knee pressed into a nail. I was choking. We kept crawling. The heat was unbearable. The old woman was wracked with coughs but she kept going, pushing, pushing me forward, and then a sudden, delicious blast of cold air; I heard voices, lots of them, Joey was screaming my name, and there were sirens, and someone yelled, two survivors–the female adult is critical with second-degree burns and a female minor is stable. We are in transport to UVM Medical Center.

                                                            #                     

I was on the bench seat, getting hydration therapy. The EMT told me my parents and brother were following us to the hospital. The old woman was strapped in a stretcher beside me. Paramedics attended to her, busily attaching wires to her chest and administering intravenous fluids. Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked over at me with the kindest eyes.

I studied the intricate pattern of scars on her face. Her private road map of a life of pain.

She still had a kind of beauty, haunted and ravaged. She motioned for me to come close.    I slid off the bench seat and pressed my ear near her mouth.

“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.

I nodded, then leaned back in.

“My name is Emmaline, too.”


Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


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

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“Cat People” Urban Horror by K.C. Callender

"Cat People" Urban Horror by K.C. Callender

“When lightning strikes yah, it turns yah into a cat.”

Those were the words of grandma. Even after she died fifteen years ago I can still hear her guttural voice when she replied to my question, “What happens when lightning strikes you grandma?” I thought people died when lightning hit them but thanks to my superstitious Grandma we all turned into …

There are two types of people in the world: cat people and of course just people. Cat people are people, mind you. It’s just their unsettling penchant for felines that separates them from the rest. I never knew my grandmother to be a cat person but the way her mustache grew stringy and long like whiskers, I had no reason to doubt it – she was one of them.

She died on July 16th 1993, in Room 456 of Freetown Hospital – now derelict – with a tube poking out her nose and her neck connected to a noisy machine. Mom said that the machine generated wind and blew it into her lungs so that she could breathe. Grandma died an easy death. We all expected it. She lost her left foot in the war, the right one to Diabetes and she was lucky enough to be one of the first people in Freetown to get a heart transplant. Now who would put a Freetown native on the city’s long transplant list? Dad thought that the heart she received was indeed the heart of a …

I thought I had rid my life of those kind of people after the passing of grandma but my wretched twenties found me moving back to Freetown with my wife, Mandy. I lost my job in the city and the rent was too high for someone who mopped floors and emptied corporate trash bins for a living.

Freetown’s population was dwindling. There were more houses than people now. The delicatessen and the coffee house were still there. The chapel’s steeple was still the tallest thing in the area. My house was still in the same lot – still had up the Christmas lights and the reindeer of the front,  a deck with awning, a grill, and of course a vegetable garden. It was so empty the whole town probably heard when I parked my old Chevy in the front and got out, slamming my luggage on the ground and waving at Ma who stepped out holding a rifle across her chest.

“Wasn’t expecting yah boy!” She yelled, cigarette hanging from the corner of her chapped mouth. “Come on in before the cats get yah!”

Cats?

“Aww,” Mandy gushed, cheeks turning red as she ran up the steps to greet her cigarette-puffing mother-in-law. “I didn’t know yah had kittens Gray.”

I didn’t know either.

“Kittens? These ain’t no kittens. These ‘re some tigers! Hunt all day eat all night, my babies looking for more than tuna these days. Be careful callin’ ‘em kittens, now that’s a felony!”

Mandy paused then turned to look at me like she was internally yelling, “Help Me Gray!” But I owed her one for persuading me to come back home. I picked up my luggage and walked past her towards the door. Ma pointed the rifle at me and joked, “Yah ain’t taller than this fella yet but yah still my baby!” then pinched my cheeks like she was gushing at a toddler.

When we got in I was expecting to see cats. The kitchen hadn’t changed. Ma’s messiness hadn’t either. The tap was dripping in a steady haunting rhythm, the fridge was as rusty as a wet nail and the sink was full of dishes and leftovers. I swore I saw a mouse too. Ma, who just propped the gun by the door said, “Don’t worry. The cats would get him.”

“Ma, where are the cats?” I asked, opening the fridge to grab a beer. I tossed one to Mandy.

“They come at night. That’s when yah see them. Don’t worry. They’re real friendly.”

Whenever mom spoke of the cats her tone held a tincture of eerieness. As if there was something different about those cats. Something sinister. I bet they weren’t just cats. Maybe she adopted a tiger and was reluctant to show us in fear of being judged. Even that stupid thought calmed me more than the thought of a house full of…

Dad turned the corner to the living room, nearly knocking me over with his hissing electric wheelchair. He handled it like a car, maneuvering the joy stick to reverse into the living area. I hadn’t seen dad in years – he looked ten times skinnier and the vertex bald patch was getting wider, now he only had sideburns and a mighty mustache (the type that hung over the lips). 

“Hey bud. Good to have yah back home. The lawn could do with a trimmin'”

“Yah haven’t cut the grass in ten years pops?” I said, tossing him a beer. He caught it, opened it and chugged. 

“Oh hell yea he cut the grass just not as good as you Gray pudding.” (Can’t believe she still calls me that). 

“Yeaaa…” Dad echoed, like he was just about to say the same thing. He was a bit slow with getting words out, must be the stroke. The doctor called it expressive aphasia.

“Come on. Have a seat!”

The dining table was more nostalgic than the town itself. It was the same one that I grew up with – Bingham tablecloth with a plastic over it, that coffee stain on mom’s end and a small tear on my end. They changed the vase though. 

“What happened to the old ones?” I said, pointing at the centerpiece.

Ma had just turned away from the fridge carrying a large pie; she kicked open the oven and tossed it in. Mandy’s eyes followed it gleaming like a little girl who’d just won big at the county fair. The smell was satisfying but Ma’s next words killed my appetite. 

“Ehhh… that one’s been a goner since last February. The cats knocked it over. Broke it into so many pieces. Couldn’t put it back together again… like Humpty Dumpty.”

Cats. She keeps talking about these cats but not one in sight. The thought of them in my room made me sit up straight. Mandy rubbed my hand, “Whats the matter dear?” She asked.

Nothing.

“So how’s Freetown been since I’ve been gone?” I asked, cutting into the pie.

Ma just sat down to eat. Dad rolled over to his place. Mandy gestured for us to hold hands and say grace. 

“God. Bless us. Bless this food. Bless these souls. And most of all thank you Jesus for bringing our little Gray Pudding back home.”

I was a bit nervous. Thought she was going to pray about or for the cats. But she kept it low-key. Less cat talk the better. 

I cut a slice for each of us. Ma lit a cigarette and pulled on it in between bites, “Freetown’s been same old same old. Everyone you knew is either dead or bedridden. Only had a few young gals left. Not that much to go around if you know what I mean,” she said and winked at me. “Billy knocked up Angel. Hugh knocked up both Claire and Jenny. Now Frances is pregnant.”

“Who’s Frances?”

“A thirteen year old down the street. Remember the Perkins, the old miners, Catholic couple?”

I remembered them vaguely. They used to go to church every day of the week except Mondays. They had a daughter named Chelsea. She used to play with us until one day we never saw her again. Rumor had it that she got sent away to a Catholic boarding school out of town. 

“The youngest one been fooling around with a couple o’ them bad boys from outta town now she’s about to pop!”

Dad shook his head in disgrace. “That’s why I’m blessed to have a boy!”

Mandy tried to stifle a laugh. I saw a truck lurch forward through the small kitchen window. The driver just tossed a cigarette butt out. 

“What about Billie Jean?”

“Billie Jean,” Ma said, rubbing her chin and slitting her eyes to look at the ceiling.

“Yea. Used to be our neighbour before the fire took the house,” I reminded her.

Dad hit the table causing Mandy to jerk. “Aha! Blonde little Billie Jean. Your first crush!”

“The poor things. House was never insured. Heard her mother fell in love with the plumber from East Fryes and they moved in with him only two months after the fire. Love sure is convenient.” She said, stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray. She pulled out another one and lit it.

Dad’s fork hovered over his plate for a while. He stared at it like he thought his secret telekinetic powers would bring the food to his mouth. “You know son. I think you did a good thing by leaving this old town.”

“Why’d you say that pops?”

He slowly pulled a napkin to wipe his mouth clean. “It’s just that… the… people here are getting old. Ain’t no youth like it was in the old days. Everybody has just gone. Gone with the wind.”

At this moment, as if nature was copying his words, a ghostly gust blew. It was the remnant of a pur. Like the cry of a …

“Folks like us. We’ve never been to the big city. But you. You did it. You’ve been places ma, me and all the generations before us have never been.”

“Yea… you made a wise choice son,” Ma chimed in, “And yah picked a good one too,” she said smiling to Mandy.

“Yea. He sure knows how to pick em.”

Mandy blushed, hardly looking away from her pie. “What’s the secret recipe?” She asked. She must have felt it too – that level of uneasiness that made her so desperately want to change the subject.

“Oh my. It’s a family secret,” Ma replied.

“Hmmm… well I’m part o’ the family now. Let me in!”

Ma cracked open a Mountain Dew with her teeth. “Okay dear. You’re right. I should tell yah the recipe. But don’t be scared when I tell yah. Yah still wanna hear?”

“It’s her foot.” Ma’s eyes landed dead on mine when she said this. “Grandma’s foot,” Then that insidious drunken chuckle followed. She pulled hard on the cigarette, it burned to the middle then she blew a cloud of smoke out. Mandy choked, fanning the thick fog. 

Mandy glanced at me. “Well… she sure as hell has a tasty foot!”

Ma hit the table three times, laughing until she coughed, hawked and spat in the sink but missed.

“Kentucky’s where I’m from by the way,” she said turning to Mandy. “We had a farm. My mom used to help make the juice. She used to crush all them berries with her foot. So she does the same with her pies. I seen her get those store-bought berries and stomp on ‘em til they nice and mushy.”

Mandy nodded. I knew she had some reservations now by the pace of her chewing.

A silence as slurred as dad’s speech interlaced with the knocking of cutlery on poor man’s China came after that. Every one had his head bowed. Ma started picking the ash from her fingers. Mandy looked at me then lifted her beer for a toast. “Cheers. To Grandma’s foot!”

“To Grandma’s foot!” We all said and knocked bottles. 

#

Fortunately Ma didn’t give my room to the cats. She left it just how I left it – a child-sized bed with the Batman bedsheets, a lamp, study table and my stratocoaster all packed below the sloped wooden ceiling.

“So it wasn’t such a bad idea to come back. See. I told you?” Mandy said, climbing under the dusty covers. “Didn’t know you had an attic bedroom while growing up. You’re cool as school,” she said, playfully bumping my arm.

“Yea.” The lamp flickered then died. We sat in the dark.

“Whats the matter?” her voice came. “Is something bothering you? I could see it at the table. We can leave if you want too. I mean I’ll go wherever you go.”

Mandy’s soft lips pressing on my cheek was all I needed to resist me from bolting out the door and getting onto the next Greyhound.

“No. It’s just that so much has changed. Ma wasn’t a chain smoker when I left. She wasn’t that into cats either.” I looked to the darkness where I saw Mandy’s face last. The darkness didn’t let up, not even an outline of her face just yet.

“Yea… what’s up with your folks and cats?” she joked.

“Yea… what’s up with my folks and cats.”

Mandy had already pecked me, turned and said goodnight. Before I could say anything else she was asleep. It was with great trepidation that I pulled the covers to my nose. Every shadow in the room could’ve easily been a cat. That’s just how things were now. Everything was a cat until proven otherwise.

That night I dreamt about …. 

#

Billie Jean. 

There she was, standing infront of the fridge in the back of the store, twirling her hair and snapping loudly on some gum. She must have heard me coming or she heard my voice, whichever one, the soft widening of her eyes told of an unexpected but pleasant surprise. 

“Look what the cat dragged in…” 

I paused at that comment. I paused a little longer at her racoon left eye.

“Don’t ask questions. My old man ain’t changed. Still drunk off that Jim Beam… he still thinks I look like mama.”

“Hell Billie Jean. I thought you said you were gonna get out. Can’t believe yah still stuck in Freetown.” 

“Yah the only lucky soldier. Get out while yah still can.”

“Well. You can say that twice. I’m back.”

“For good?”

“Looks like it. Atleast for now. Ain’t got work in the big city. All the folks with higher education gettin’ them better jobs if you know what I mean.”

“Yea. I know. Only University around these parts is the flour mill. Ain’t nobody learn shit.”

We both started off laughing. Ma had been trying to get me to work at Freetown Flour Mill since I graduated from elementary school. It was guaranteed to get a Christmas turkey on the table every year and definitely enough to raise three kids. Dad used to work there and he raised us good – well until he got the stroke.

I was so deep in thought I didn’t realise how close Billie Jean was to my face, “Yah still look like Kurt Cobain,” she blushed, brushing my hair from my forehead. “You still play guitar?”

“Haven’t touched it since but I see ma still held onto it.”

“Yah should play again for me someday. Like you used to.”

She winked, giggled and walked past me to the counter where she rest a six-pack of beer, a bag of sugar and a pack of Wrigley’s. She wore a ripped denim shorts, short enough to reveal half her butt cheeks, a pink brassiere and went barefoot. That was the Freetown way of dressing for a store stop. “Bye Gray.” Still flat-chested and somewhat rude. Still my Billie Jean. My eyes followed her until she disappeared down the street.

“Thirteen fifty,” said the cashier who looked half-asleep. Harris convenience store was still standing. Back then it was the face of old Mr. Harris himself behind the counter. This was probably his son. I pulled out some rumpled bills and put them in his hand. 

“Preparing for the storm eh?” He said, staring at the two tins of corn I just bought, “That ain’t going to be enough.”

Before I could say, “What storm?” the dull voice of the reporter from the overhead TV caught my attention. 

“A thunderstorm warning has been issued. The greatest storm in Freetown is approaching and about to make history. An active front is expected to move over the northwest of North Carolina in approximately ten days. It is expecting to bring heavy rain and strong winds. The Mayor of Freetown is asking all residents to take safety precautions immediately, abandon all mobile homes that can blow over in high winds. The Freetown Hospital can be used as a shelter for all those residents who are unable to leave.”

Freetown hospital? “Ain’t that where grandma died?” I asked, looking back at the lazy-eyed cashier.

“My pops died there too. It’s the only hospital we have. Thirty twenty five.”

His eyes glazed over my pockets, then he began packing more tins that I’d just run back to get. “Have a good day. See yah after the storm.”

“Are you going to evacuate?”

“No. My store is sturdy, more concrete than my house. I’ll stay here. Should only pass for one night.”

That was the Freetown state of mind right there. Nothing could harm us. We were so forgotten even nature must have thought us unimportant. I nodded and walked out the door. 

#

The storm.

It was coming in ten days. The sky was crispy blue but in the near distance some gloomy dense clouds closed in. Strange. I roused the lawnmower to a rattling start, stuffed a cigarette in my mouth and started on the front lawn. We didn’t have a fence so it was legal for Billie Jean to watch me (bareback and sweaty) from her lawn chair in bikini and sunglasses, sunbathing the Freetowm way, whistling at me every chance she got. The heat made her look wavy. I kept my eyes on that dark haze from afar, untrusting of the weather, let alone the weatherman. 

“Yah think they lied?” I asked dad who was sitting by his bedroom window, pointing out the patches of grass I missed. 

He too saw the darkened skies. “Might as well pack up and head for Freetown Hostel.”

“It’s not a hostel dad. Hospital.”

“Ain’t that the same thing?” He joked.

“No.  When you say it that way, makes it sound creepy.”

“I bet it is creepy. That thing shut down since hell knows when. Probably full of mice and cats.”

The lawnmower choked and died. Two yanks and it was back up and rumbling again. I didn’t like the idea of sheltering in an abandoned hospital especially where Grandma died. Let’s head out of town. That’s what I thought. Didn’t get a chance to actually say it, that’s because a solid roar tumbled overhead like a stampede in the sky. The sun’s rays dulled within seconds, clouds merged to form a black ceiling. Then raindrops like daggers came pelting down. I looked to Billie Jean but she was gone. Shutters shut, lights out. 

“Get inside boy!” Dad yelled. 

The only bulb in the kitchen, hung from a feeble electric cord, swinging and spattering shadows. It blinked a couple of times then went out.

“Mandy!” I screamed. She came through the doorway that gave on the kitchen feeling her way towards me. “What happened? What was that loud noise?”

“The storm’s come. Where’s ma?” 

Her eyes glowed in shock. “But I thought they said ten days. We ain’t had no time to prepare. We’re gonna die. All of us!”

Dad rolled over to a trap door in the far end of the kitchen, “Never thought I’d have to use this in my life. Come on, let’s head down to the cellar!”

“I’ll get mom,” Mandy called, getting ready to turn around.

“No. I’ll do it. You head down.”

The torrents of rain were like God’s angry fist, punching with the intention of beating our little house down. We could’ve been smashed in no time. I found mom passed out on the bed with two empty whiskey bottles laying beside her. I shook her, did the sternal rub and all but nothing. She had this strange staccato breathing like she was choking so I knew well enough to turn her on her side. Her eyes fought to open themselves, a thick drool trailed down her lips, she coughed and said, “Gray… Gray… leave me here. I – I can’t leave without them…”

“Without who?” Now why did I ask? A flash of lightning struck, showing up a small grey cat with humongous white-out eyes on the boudoir.

“The cats…”

I dragged her outside. The boudoir was dark again. Only God knew if it was still there or if it moved. Only He knew if it was now behind me. Dad was waiting by the trap door, Mandy was emptying the fridge and cabinets of anything that could feed us while we were down there. I lifted Ma on my own down the stairs. The wind slammed the door shut behind us.

#

The Cellar.

Dingy. Dark. Smelled like a mixture of old mouldy paint and small animal poop; reminiscent of a confined space locked up for years. The circle of white light from the flashlight pointed at me. Dad had put it down. I heard him trying to light an old lantern. A few squeaks, the smell of gasoline, the raking of a matchstick then pop, a tiny flame engulfed the room. Now I could see everybody. Huddled together, each of us looked more scared of what could possibly be hiding in the cellar than the relentless storm outside. The plaster on the walls was peeling, the bricks were crumbly and mouldy. The staircase was crooked. Two wooden pillars flanked its rear, some pipes and cables ran across the ceiling. I spied the corners, had to be a rat somewhere.

Ma lay on me. Her drunk snores overpowered by the thudding downpour and the lashing wind. Dad’s lips were moving but the storm was too loud to hear him speak. He looked helpless in his chair but he did his best to protect us.

Booom!

Mandy jumped and clung to my arm. Dad released a relieved sigh. We were fortunate enough to have this forgotten cellar down here. The cloudburst ran on for thirty minutes atleast; we heard the clanking of metal on metal and the pelting of trees, banging on our roof. 

Ma was starting to come around, a few paces away from me she lay on her back mumbling. At first it seemed benign but then the mumbling transformed into weird chants like she was under some type of spell. Her chest raised from the ground making a small arch, her eyes rolled back slowly then her body shook.

“She’s seizing again,” Dad said, rolling over to hold her.

Mandy gave me a startled glance. She was thinking what I was thinking. That was no seizure.

Somehow her voice climbed to a pitch louder than the storm. She just kept saying, “We abandoned them… we can’t leave them… we abandoned them… we can’t leave them… we abandoned them…. we can’t leave them.”

Mandy and I were smart enough to know who she was referring too: the cats.

I began scanning the room for any sign of those white-eyed monsters.

“Your mom is crazy,” Mandy bent over to whisper in my ear. I had no other emotions inside me but fear. The flame in the lantern was getting smaller. A premonition louder than the storm outside swept across the room. I looked to the trapdoor- it flapped… once… twice… thrice.

Ma was now standing, pacing the floor in her white nightgown. We had no idea if she was awake and knowing or if she was unconscious and possessed. Anything could’ve happened now. 

“We need to let them in… we need to let them in…” Mandy grabbed her before she reached the staircase but she scratched and pushed her violently to the floor, hissing and chattering like one of them.

“Ouch!” Mandy cried, glancing at the sharp slashes she made on her left arm. Ma was at the trap door now. I was too scared to stop her. Dad couldn’t do anything in his wheelchair. Just as soon as she un-latched it, a lull came. She paused, pulled her hands to her face and then fell backwards.

“Ma!” I screamed.

Dad rolled over to her.

“The cats are out there. She was going to let them in. It’s all a trick!” cried Mandy, her face cold with fear.

Dad looked at me while he brought Ma’s face to his, patting her cheek but she didn’t wake up. 

It was as if no storm had ever passed. No more squalls. No more rain. Just some residual thunder rolls. We waited for thirty minutes more when we were sure the storm had passed. Mandy tremulously unlatched the trap door. It was just the kitchen and a panoramic view of a giant dark thunderhead above us.

“Oh man… it took our roof,” Dad said sadly, moving up the rail in his wheelchair. 

The frontdoor dangled on one hinge. We had to step over shards of glass to get outside and when we did, the scene was unbelievable. Freetown was vandalized: ravished trees lay in the middle of the road, houses were now pieces of wood scattered around like a pack of cards, a thick veil of haze lingered close to the ground. Mandy helped me lift a small branch from off the hood of my Chevy. We all crammed inside, Ma and dad in the back, Mandy in the passenger seat looking back with her mouth fixed open and me, driving. The Chevy started up with an agonizing whinney. 

Then all of a sudden Mandy and dad started yelling, “Drive, drive!”

Through the rearview mirror, spinning towards us at a dizzying speed like a life-size top toy, was a tornado. Twisting and pulling everything in its path to its center, whirling at a slant. My mouth dropped and I couldn’t bring my lips back together. The Chevy zoomed over the fallen branches like they didn’t exist. Keeping my eyes ahead and behind me was hard enough, causing the car to swing from side to side. A smaller cyclone of black dust formed behind it, funneling from a thunderhead and when it reached the ground the Chevy bounced. I had enough gas in the engine.

“Gray!” Mandy cried. Another smaller tornado formed. There were now three on our tail, each leaving a trail of destruction behind it.

“Gray! Watch out for that cat!”

A tiny cat with the same wide white eyes stood ahead on the damp road. It was drenched. It had patches of white fur, wore a necklace and a pink … bikini? chewing on what looked like gum.

Billie Jean? I thought leaning closer to the window screen. 

We forgot that what was behind us was more deadly than a small seemingly harmless cat on the road. “Gray! Drive!” Mandy wrestled with me for the steering wheel. “The cats are coming. The cats are coming. The cats are coming,” Ma chanted.

“Shut up!” Mandy said looking more terrified than ever. I slammed the accelerator. The tornado was almost ready to whip us into the air. 

“Where are we going?” Mandy cried, as I turned up the hill and tore through a copse. On the other side stood the spooky remains of … 

#

Freetown Hospital.

The tornadoes turned off track as if happy we went where we went. The building looked untouched; faded and brown-bricked with windows either boarded up or too grimy to see through. The rain drizzled but it gained momentum quickly. Soon it was a downpour, rushing us through the moss-covered door.

The inside was quiet. The ground was full of leaves and decomposed debris. Still… it felt like someone was there.

“Hello?” I called. Only my echo replied. Dad rolled down the corridor checking each room then he turned to face me. “Nothin’ here,” he called. 

Some tiles in the ceiling were missing, exposing faulty wires and scampering vermin. A staircase led us down to the basement which had more corridors. A sign with the words Maternity Wing hung on a closed door. 

“That’s where yah were born,” Ma said, her breath landed on my shoulder. She was back to herself, not as perky though. It was as if the storm sapped all the energy out of her.

I paused for another look down the corridor then opened the door to find some Freetowners huddled like a pack of scared kids on Halloween night in a haunted mansion. I immediately recognized the guy infront as the guy from the store. He was holding a baseball bat, ready to swing as if expecting a ghoul to barge in any minute. A pregnant girl sat in the corner, holding her belly wincing. That had to be Frances. A boy in football jersey kneeled beside her caressing her hair. They all seemed relieved but scared at the same time. 

“Is the storm over?” The store guy asked. 

“This ain’t no storm,” the pregnant girl cried, “This is a message from Hell!”

“Yea! They took my Billie Jean!” another guy got up and lunged at me.

I warded him off with my hand but his chest was up, he was ready to fight me. “Billie Jean you say?” I asked.

“Yea… my girl. She, she was with me then the lightning struck and I didn’t see her anymore. Where’s she? You’re that new kid from down the street. She’s been talking ‘bout yah a whole lot. What did yah do with my Billie Jean!”

The store kid raised his bat. That assuaged him enough.

“Can someone tell me what’s going on?” The pregnant girl said, looking to me as if she expected me to know everything. 

I looked around at dad and Ma and Mandy. “Has anyone seen any cats around?”

“Cats?” the store kid asked, “Yea. Cats been around Freetown for years.”

Like if a bulb went off in her head, the pregnant girl got to her feet and ran to me, “Yea… I seen ‘em too. They got big white eyes.”

“What are you saying?” The guy said, pacing the floor seeming to be on the verge of pouncing again. 

“My grandma used to tell me this story about a storm… she said that Freetown was gonna get it someday… and the lightning when it strikes… it turns you into… cats.”

All I got were blank stares. The pregnant girl sat back down when a cramp came.

“It’s like the storm wanted us to come here. There’s something here that someone wants us to see…”

“Something like what?” the store kid asked.

“I don’t know. We were all born here and we’ll probably die here.”

The store kid let the baseball bat fall to the ground. There was a great sense of dismay in the room.

“Dude. You’re trying to say that the lightning turned my girl into a …”

A sound like a bark pedaled through the roof. The door flung open and a shadow moved in. Whatever was coming to the door was towering. Mandy clung to my arm. 

“We need to go now!” I said.

“Are you nuts? That thing is coming for us!” someone cried.

I stormed through the door and ran the other way. I didn’t care who followed me. Neither did I bother to look back at whatever was there. I came up on a dead-end. The store kid punched the wall in frustration. Mandy gave me a sidelong glance and held my hand, mouthing the words I love you. We all turned around, each of us anticipating the worst sight to ever be seen.

About halfway down the corridor, sat a row of white-eyed cats. More cats came from behind them and sat on top the row below it, building a wall of ….

The pregnant girl screamed then fell to the floor. 

I spied a half-opened window in the room to our right. Room 456. We could exit through there. I grabbed Mandy and ran towards it but something stopped us. Inside, lying on a frayed cot, with a tube in its left nostril and a ventilator attached to its neck, wearing a pearl necklace and a floral dress was a large furry cat with amputated hind limbs; its whiskers so long they could almost touch me. And with a smile wider than its face, it said, “My little Gray, I see the lightning didn’t get yah yet!”


K. C. Callender is a young Barbadian emerging writer with a soft spot for speculative fiction. Her work includes prose, poetry and song and has appeared in Planet Bizarro Press. Her poem ‘Black Beauty in Resistance’ was awarded bronze & published in the 2011-2012 Arts NIFCA Winning Words Anthology. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Nemesis” post-apocalyptic feline horror by Rudolfo San Miguel.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Envy” Horror by Eric Dawson

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

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

“Hunting mishap?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To see the West,” Tom said.

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

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

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

“Who?” Tom asked.

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

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

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

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

“You got lucky,” they told us inside. 

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know the question? Can you guess it?

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

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

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

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

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

She noticed our worried expressions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom, ever the leader, described.

“And it had no eyes, either,” I said.

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

“Not far from Willis Gulch.”

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

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

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

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

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

Andy poured drinks at the bar.

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

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

Life was as good as the night air was cool. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Course we have. And they know it.”

“I should go up tomorrow and check.”

“No point in disturbing.”

“But they are disturbed.”

“Today? That was a mountain lion.”

And then silence. A long silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at him, not sure what he meant.

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

“You believe?” I asked him. 

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

“I’m in,” Sarah said. 

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

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

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

It was like leaving the last vestige of civilization behind.

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

“Down there,” Tom said. “See it?”

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

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

“Quiet,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

And then it happened.

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

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

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

And then we saw it: another movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah let out a sob.

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

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

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

The trees stood sentinel around us in gloomy reverie.

“But now they’re gone,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what is it?” she asked.

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

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

The old man said nothing.

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

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

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

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

They were gone.

They are gone.

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

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

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

Please forgive me.


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


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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corky sniffs Nixon’s leg then starts barking again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll bet you get pestered a lot.”

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

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

*

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

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

“How did you pull that off?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do they recruit very many?”

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

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

*

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

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

“That’s my father,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why the sour face?” Nixon asks.

“I was hoping for something else.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe you should be a guru by now.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“It has to have a name?”

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

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

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

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

“How should I know?” he replies.

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

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

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

“Just get aboard,” Nixon mutters.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some Peking duck?” Nixon asks me.

I shrug.

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

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

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

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

“Count on him for what?” I say.

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

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

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

 “So what’s the lesson here?”

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

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

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

“Am I here for your approval?” I say.

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

*

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

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

“How the hell should I know?”

“So where are we going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I gotta take a piss.”

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “I have something for you,” she murmurs.

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

“Will a snapshot do instead?” she asks.

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I say.

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

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

*

“Guess who I saw?” I tell Nixon.

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

“I wanted her to go away.”

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

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

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

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

“So you’re reciting Alexander Pope?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So where are we going?”

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

The ship’s horn drones like a trumpet.

“We’re arriving,” Nixon says.

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

*

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

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

“Is that how you talk to heavenly hosts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this our destination?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


“Midnight Galaxy” Horror by Rituparna Mitra

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Uncomfortable.”

“Could you elaborate on that please?’’

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

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

“No.”

“Are you aware of The Bell?’’

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

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

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

 “Did your friend press the bell?’’

“Yes, he did.”

“And what made him do that?”

“Spiders. He finds them creepy.”

“And you?”

“I find babies creepy.”

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

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

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

“You wish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


                                                                              

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

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

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

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

“I told you we’d end up here, Don.”

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

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

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

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

“B-Buck Sexton,” I stammered.

“Hands behind your back,” the officer ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating,” Kitty smiled and winked at me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two.” Her eyes shot to the floor. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Pinstripe” by George Gill

"Pinstripe" Supernatural Horror by George Gill

I remember how it feels to sleep.

I remember how it feels to dream. 

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

Charming as ever,I thought

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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


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


“Nycotophobia” Horror by Jordon Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said

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

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

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

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

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

Hailey was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

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

“Used to what?”

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

“Noises?”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“H-hi,” I said.

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

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

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

“B-but what about the noises?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“M-master?”

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

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

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

“I shall.” My mother approached the altar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“His Assistant” Dark Fiction by Patrick Crossen

"His Assistant" Dark Fiction by Patrick Crossen
Section from the frontispiece for Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (Revised Edition, 1831). Steel Engraving by Theodor von Holst.

He never shouted, It’s alive! He didn’t say anything…he just stared.

But I got right to work.

I loosened the straps that bound the creature. Not all the way, of course, this was the first test of fine motor skills. I waved away smoke from one of the doctor’s humming machines with a bit of cloth. The doctor had still not moved but the creature was already undoing his straps, taking the first tentative steps of his life, and I could not witness it. There was no time. There was work to be done. Always work to be done.

As I carried a tray full of vials and beakers from the room, I heard the first timid groans of the creature, which were promptly silenced by my slamming of the door.

It wasn’t as though I wasn’t interested in the outcome of our months of work. Quite

the contrary actually. I had spent, if I may be so bold, even more time making sure that each facet and step of the procedure went smoothly and without error than the doctor himself. I had gone through processes of trial and failure, bringing the doctor body parts that he would either keep or reject. I spent rainy night after rainy night digging through muck and mud and grime just to find a pinky toe that met his satisfaction. All the while, the doctor pored over notes and, more often than that, drank to a successful night’s work, or drank to numb the pain of a night’s failure.

My quarters were tucked away just underneath and around the corner of the large, hulking stairwell that encircled the doctor’s castle. It was a modest home, only privatized by a shabby bit of tapestry that ruffled limply behind me as I sat on the creaking spring mattress, setting the tray of containers on my bedside table as a reminder to clean them in the morning.

I lit a few candles that threw the small room into an orange light that flickered as the flames performed their dances. A few pictures hung from the stone wall. Scraps of scientific sketches that I had taken from some of the doctor’s textbooks. He used them for information. I kept them for their beauty.

I was always struck by the careful hands that seemed to draw the pictures. The largest of the ones I had taken for myself, was the outline of a bateleur eagle (or terathopius ecaudatus, as the tiny scrawl in the corner always reminded me). The left half of it was shaded in charcoal-colored strokes, the giant wingspan flat against the page, while the right side was entirely skeletal, all jagged bones and skull. It was not only educational, but a beautiful reminder of the mortality of being. And doctors, like the one upstairs, glanced at it as though it were a bit of common text to be skimmed. There was such beauty and poetry in science, and the doctor’s ignorance of that fact had always been a source of irritation for me.

As I stared at the picture, my eyes grew heavy. I realized, with a subdued sort of shock, that I had not slept in nearly thirty-six hours, having spent most of the previous night in the graveyard, and the following morning cleaning the body parts I had retrieved. I tried to keep my mind awake, forcing myself to go over the parts of the eagle that I had committed to memory.

The digits that made up its strong talons. Tarsometatarsus. A fusion of the tarsal and metatarsal structures.

And I was asleep, dreaming of men with great wings and talons, laboratories with floating body parts, and the voices of my past whispering that they hated me.

***

A crack of thunder woke me so suddenly that I sent the glasses I’d brought from the lab clattering to the ground. In the shadows of my room, I reached out haphazardly, foolishly trying to grab broken glass in the dark. The candles had gone out, and the only light from the room came from occasional streaks of lightning that leapt through my curtain-door.

My hands groped around for the nearest box of matches and I struck one, which sparked brightly before settling on a more subtle amber glow.

“Mmmruh.”

A cold chill crept up through my heart and into my arms so that the match I held shook violently, casting the room in an unsteady light. With a gulp that I hoped would help me regain my sense of balance, I lit my candles and saw that I was not alone in my meager little room.

There sat the creature, on the edge of my bed. It was an astoundingly human practice, sitting politely on the edge to signify that he understood he had not gained passage underneath my covers.

In my haste to clean the Doctor’s lab, I realized that I had not had a moment to fully gaze at the creature’s visage.

Perhaps not conventionally, but by the sheer knowledge that I (and my employer) had worked and toiled to bring these features to life, I could not help admire the graceful way his long black hair framed his smooth and pale face. His nose was crooked, clearly the man we had taken it from had it broken, and his eyebrows were slightly lopsided. But these imperfections only served to make him seem even more human. More tangible and real.

“Mmmmruh,” he said again.

“Hello,” I said.

I am not entirely positive what compelled me to speak so plainly to him, but I felt an urge in my gut or heart or brain to speak with him.

“Hello,” he recited back to me, testing the syllables on his tongue with an expression that resembled curiosity and morphed into contentment.

I clapped my hands together.

“Oh wonderful!” I exclaimed, patting my hand further down the bed to indicate that he should join me. “Can you speak fully then? I had thought you might. The doctor said it would be impossible; that you would have to relearn. But I knew. I knew that the sheer essence of humanity and language was more powerful than death. That brain of yours can still remember a thing or two, yes?”

“I can..speak,” he said. “I do not remember much from my past. I know that I am made of many things. Many people. Many lives.”

“You remember nothing?” I asked quietly. My heart was beating with an anticipation that had been mounting ever since the doctor had asked me to don the cap of graverobber.

I lit a few more candles while he thought. The room was bright now, the creeping sunlight of morning filtered through the windows and my curtain, though the soft pattering of rain outside still echoed in the great stone halls of the castle.

“I do not,” he said in a soft voice. His milky yellow eyes, which the doctor assured me would fade in time, looked sadly back at me. “I feel conflicting memories. Pieces of a past life coursing through each of my body parts in turn.”

“I see,” I said, nodding quickly and trying not to let the sinking feeling in my stomach show on my face.

“This troubles you?” he said. “I can still sense emotions, even more so now that my brain is, for now, so clear of thoughts and memories.”

I looked hard into his face and he stared at me too.

“I remember, very clearly, when the doctor asked me to assist him in this particular endeavor. I have worked for him for a long time. As a butler, a chef, a maid, whatever he required of me, I listened to him. When he approached me I was…in a state of distress.”

The man on my bed said nothing. He did not fiddle with the loose strings of my sheets, or glance at the candles flickering lights. He sat still and stared at me, listening to my words.

“I had a lover,” I continued, my throat drying quickly so that I had to swallow several times before going on. “More than a lover. A companion. A friend. The doctor never knew. Not that he’d have minded at all, he simply never cared to ask. My lover, my Jonathan, he died. Scarlet fever, that’s what the doctor said at least. I brought Jonathan to the doctor, but I never let on that we knew each other. I simply posed that Jonathan was a sick man I had noticed while picking up supplies in town. But the doctor could not save him. It is, afterall, medicine and not magic that he practices.”

The man now ran a hand through his long black hair, and I was once more struck with how quickly he picked up human traits like that.

“And so when the doctor came to me to ask about animating a corpse, building another, my mind naturally went to Jonathan.”

I looked him in the eyes and I saw that, even as I spoke, their yellow tint was turning to a softer green.

“But the doctor wanted pieces. I do not know why. Perhaps because it gave him more of a challenge to build from the ground up. Perhaps because he wanted, in some strangely respectful way, to leave at least some of the people at rest that we were desecrating. But…” I swallowed again, agitated by my voice’s quiver. “For the head, I used my Jonathan. I thought the head would hold the memories and the…the love. The knowledge. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps it truly is the heart. The Greeks believed it was the stomach. Perhaps we’re all wrong.”

The creature knit his lopsided eyebrows together with an expression that was unmistakably scrutiny.

“My head…comes from your past lover?” he said, working out the equation in his newly born mind.

“You are nearly the spitting image. The doctor had to make some adjustments but, when I look at you, I can trick myself into seeing Jonathan,” I said.

“I am not Jonathan,” he said. And he stood up now, his barefoot crunching against the broken glass on the ground that were once beakers. “And I know little of love and companionship. Even still. You cut off the head of the one you love? Rather than leave him at peace?”

“Jonathan…” I began, but he cut me off.

“I am not…I was never Jonathan. You shouldn’t have done this. I feel disjointed. Strange and unstable.”

“That will pass,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. “In time you will settle-”

“In time,” he spat. His eyes were wild now, anger pulsed from him as his hands and legs shook, as though he did not know how to properly process the feeling. “I shouldn’t need the time, I should be at peace. I was given time and I do not regret what I did with it. We were given our time,” he said, and I felt a sadness in his words that surprised me.

A voice suddenly broke our conversation like glass on stone.

“ESCAPED!”

The word rang through the castle from high above. The doctor’s voice growling and howling from the lab.

I stood up so quickly that blood rushed to my head.

“You must go,” I said, surprised at my own words. “Quickly.”

“You would let me leave?” he asked, the face of my Jonathan looking quizzically back at me. My lip trembled at the sight.

“Yes,” I said. “He would have you paraded around. You would be at carnivals and exhibitions. You would never be more than an experiment.”

He bent down and kissed me. My eyes, in my surprise, remained open the whole time, and to this day I regret that. Had they been closed I would have savored the moment. With my eyes closed we could have been anywhere. Far away from this place, left to hold that kiss for as long as we wished. I felt the familiar curve of his mouth against my own, like a shoe that still fit, once lost under the bed.

And then he was pulling away, wrapped in nothing but a blanket that billowed as he walked toward the front door. I unlatched the bolts for him, hearing the creaking of another door above us that meant the doctor was coming.

We did not say goodbye. I don’t remember him stepping out of the castle at all. I simply remember him walking away, his back to me. Morning was here and the sun filtered through the rain, casting iridescent light all around the castle grounds. The winding road took him to the spot where the path curved, and the mountains swallowed him from my sight.

I still see him every now and then. We do not speak. But I see him at the markets. He works for a flower peddler, chopping up bunches and wrapping them in paper, careful not to prick himselfs on their thorns. People do not pay attention to him. They do not see what a miracle he is. What a work of art-come-to-life he is. But I know. And when I see him in the market, I feel sad, looking at the face of my Jonathan. I wonder, vaguely each time, what he calls himself. If he has a name at all. And even more I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to ask.


Patrick Crossen is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA trying to balance reading, birdwatching, writing, and breathing. When he’s not writing, he’s eagerly checking under bushes and stones for the pixies he knows are watching his every move. But he’s not paranoid. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Quetzalcoatl Comet” by Titus Green.


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

“The Great British Stag Night” Dark Fiction by James Burt

The four of us waited in the bar, in the capital of an ex-Communist country that didn’t exist when I was born. The walls were decorated with Coca-Cola mirrors and pictures of American icons; the other patrons wore denim jackets, like they were time-travellers from the eighties. The whole country seemed tacky, but flights were cheap and the exchange rate allowed you to act like an arsehole. Wikipedia listed the country’s legendary churches and traditional cuisine, but all we wanted was cheap beer, mostly the same brands as back home. And, of course, the other entertainments. Here, for the price of a big night in England, you could spend a whole weekend taking advantage of other people’s poverty.

In the bar were me, Ant, and a pair of Anthony’s geeky friends, Paul and Stan. Paul was excited, saying it was his first stag night. I was less excited because I’d met the other three who were coming, Barry, Charles and Garry. Or, as they preferred, Bazza, Chazza and Gazza.

Paul, Ant and Stan had been pissed when we reached the bar, but I paced myself as best I could, staying a couple of beers behind. I was only here because Olivia made me promise to look after Ant. Once Bazza arrived things would be out of control, and I’d have to hold on until it ended.

“Ey up, big man!” Bazza jeered as he came in with his mates, forcing everyone to notice him. The other patrons sneered from under their caps before hunching back over their tables. Most of them were playing cards and didn’t want to be disturbed. We shouldn’t have been there.

Barry grabbed Ant in a headlock, rubbing the groom-to-be’s head with his knuckles. “How’s the lucky boy?”

Ant punched Barry hard enough that he let go. “Planning to have a nice quiet night. Not too rowdy, you know?”

“Come on, it’s not like you get married often, is it?”

“Not like you, Bazza” yelled Chazza. “Whore!”

Paul and Stan tensed up and gulped their beer. “Nice of you boys to finally make it,” I said.

“We’ll catch up in no time,” said Bazza, “Don’t you worry, lad.”

It’s not like Ant had a choice about who came on his stag night. The three amigos were part of the package with Olivia. She thought her brother was the charming and professional salesman he mostly seemed to be. She’d never seen him paw under-age girls in bars or be dragged out of clubs by three bouncers. Olivia had never seen Barry pass out and piss himself in bus shelters or start fights for a laugh. I’d seen all these things and only tolerated his presence to protect Ant.

Gazza came over with a tray of drinks, beer slopping from the glasses. Standing among the pints were seven shots – tequila most likely. We were forced into a toast and I studied Paul and Stan. Ant’s colleagues weren’t suited to this sort of night. I was amazed they weren’t puking already.

“Hold your hand out!” Barry ordered Ant. The other patrons were watching. Some of them glared, loathing us and our money.

“What are you going to do?” asked Ant. His attempt at a grin failed.

“Come on, trust me. I wouldn’t hurt you, mate, you’re family. Or you will be – if you survive the night!” 

Ant held out his right hand, fist closed.

None of us had noticed the handcuffs, but then that was the idea. Barry tapped the back of a cuff on Ant’s wrist and it swung round, closing with a click. The other end was attached to Barry’s left arm. The rest of us were grabbed roughly and attached to one of Barry’s cronies, who then grabbed someone else, cuffing us into a line. I felt sorriest for Stan, who was handcuffed the wrong way round so he had to twist to see anything the rest of us looked at.

I was at the end with my left hand free, Gazza standing beside me. I lifted my beer to finish it and Gazza jerked the handcuff, pulling me off balance so that I spilled beer down my front. The ape bellowed a laugh to get the others’ attention, pointing at the damp patch on my shirt. Bazza and Chazza didn’t hear, since they were trying to order drinks. Some of the card players had left, probably looking for somewhere quieter. Only the bar staff wanted us here, because they were overcharging us for each round. I said nothing, figuring they deserved the bonus.

“You do have keys for these, yeah?” asked Stan.

“Yeah, there’s keys, mate,” said Barry. He guffawed: “Back at the bloody hotel, right!” 

His cronies were in hysterics, Chazza slapping his thighs and high-fiving Gazza, barely noticing how it dragged the rest of us about. “We’re together for the duration,” said Barry. “No-one sleeps till we’re all done for the night!”

And there I was, handcuffed to a bunch of rugger lads in a city I never wanted to be in. Every other time I’d been out with Barry I could get a taxi home if I wanted. Now I was stuck with them until they were finished. My only hope was that they were insensible before we all got into trouble.

As we staggered through the city streets, pulling each other this way and that, the residents watched, appalled. We drank in cheap dives, occasionally passing other English stag parties who ignored us. The bars didn’t turn us away, just raised their prices as we became more obnoxious. At one place Barry dragged us onto a dance-floor, making us jerk about to euro-techno. The other patrons retreated to the side and glared. Bazza, Chazza and Gazza didn’t even notice. I felt ashamed.

But, you ask, how did we relieve ourselves?  Seven at a time, against a wall. Me too. It’s not as if I could stop this once it was in progress. We’d stagger into an alley, get our cocks out and urinate. Barry or his mates teased Stan for being pee-shy, and all he could do was pretend to be amused. Drunk, I told myself this wouldn’t last forever. Tomorrow it would be a memory, a night I’d never have to live again.

After the dance-floor debacle we went looking for another place. Gazza was jabbering about a brothel he’d heard of on the city outskirts. Bazza needed to piss again, so we were dragged into another alley. Paul leant his head against the wall as he peed and passed out like that until Chazza kicked him. Standing there, piss pooling around our feet, I prayed for the police to turn up. A night in the cells would be better than this.

We were dragging each other out of the alley, Bazza and Chazza arguing about where to go next, when we saw the man. He had a thin moustache, and his head was topped with spiky blond hair. He was massive, larger even than Barry. If he’d taken us all on, even sober and hands free, the stranger might have won. And he had us drunk, handcuffed, and trapped in an alley.

“Who’s in charge here?” the man asked. His accent was thick, but his words were clear.

We all faced him, except for Stan. Back to front, he was left staring at a wall.

“My mate Ant’s getting married.” Paul swayed as he talked.

“No, not the groom. Who’s in charge here?”

“I am, mate.” Bazza seemed less drunk now. He moved to the front, offered the stranger his hand, pulling Paul’s along with it. “How can I help you?”

The stranger smiled. “Your honeymoon party, right?”

“Stag party, mate, stag party. You wouldn’t see me married to any of these losers.”

“Losers, ho-ho.”  The stranger laughed like he’d only read descriptions of laughing in a book. “So, you gentlemen would be interested in ladies, right?  Some fun?  Celebration?”

“Damn tooting,” said Gazza

“Too-ting?”

“He means we’re up for it,” said Bazza. “Well up for it, pal.”

“So, where is this place, mate?” said Gazza.

“Is on, how you say, city outskirts?”

“Oh, yes,” said Gazza. “We are well up for that.”

Drunk as I was, I realised two things. First, that I could do nothing to stop us from going with this man. Second, that the stranger spoke better English than he pretended. The whole thing was an act. If I was sober, I might have worked out how to warn Barry of this without the man noticing. Drunk, I said nothing.

“I call my cousin,” said the stranger. “We get in his vehicle, drive out to this place. Is an adventure. You have money?”

“This is going to be worth it, right?” Barry grinned.

“Damn too-ting.” said the man. “I go get truck.”

The stranger led us out the alley. He waved and a pair of headlights switched on. A vehicle drew up. The cab looked old and the back was open, fenced slats around the sides. The man let down the back and helped us to scramble in. Paul said he might be sick, and Chazza told him to get over it, and not to ruin things for the rest of us.

“Tap on the window if you need something,” said the stranger, chaining the tailgate shut. He joined his companion in the cab. The lorry’s engine coughed a couple of times then we set off.

We drove for ten minutes and the buildings became smaller and more spread out. “We’re not in the city,” I pointed out to no-one in particular.

“Probably just greenbelt,” said Gazza. When there was a chance of getting laid, Gazza was fearless. I’d seen him start dancing with flirtatious girls in sight of their boyfriends and all his mates, not caring about the risk.

Nobody spoke as the roads became bumpy. We’d definitely left the city and the sky seemed to be lightening. Ant, Paul and Stan were sleeping, and Bazza had finished puking over the side. Gazza was telling Chazza about a brothel he knew in Brighton, but I couldn’t tell if Chazza was listening or sleeping. I seemed to be the only one who was worried: what if Barry didn’t really have the keys?  What if we got stranded and didn’t make it to the airport for our flight home?  What if something bad happened?

“Hey, Barry,”

He wiped his mouth with his T-shirt and focussed on me with his third attempt. “Hey, all right. You’re OK, you know that?”

“Barry, we’ve left the city and we’re in the countryside.”

Bazza sighed. “Look, don’t worry, mate,” He was slurring his words. “It’s going to be OK. If they wanted to rob us, they’d do it in the city. They wanna have us a good time and go back tell our friends what a wonderful time.”

The journey probably wasn’t as long as I thought. We couldn’t see much from the back of the truck, just the road ahead lit by headlights. The pair in the cab didn’t speak to one another and never looked round. Barry puked some more, and Stan started to shiver, his teeth clattering. I was drunk and chained to some deeply unpleasant men in a foreign country, with nobody I could rely on. I was scared. I was used to my life being small and simple and I felt overwhelmed. I regretted not trying to put my foot down when it might have helped.

We pulled off the road onto a small track leading through a forest. Headlights shone between the trees. Is this where they rob us and slit our throats, I wondered. Please God, I prayed drunk, please let Barry tell us he has the key on him. Let this whole truck journey be some prank Barry cooked up. Don’t let us be driving through a forest with strangers, wearing handcuffs.

“Barry, listen to me.” He looked up from dripping puke onto the road. “Do you have the keys?”

“Yeah, course I do.”

“Can I have them?”

“Back at the hotel, aren’t they?”

“Great, Barry. That’s just great.”

I thought he was asleep, but Ant saw the lights first. “Over there!” Everyone turned to see a couple of cars stood outside a wooden palisade, headlights shining onto an open gate. Beyond were a cluster of buildings. The truck stopped at the gate, then moved slowly through. I looked at the cars as we passed but couldn’t spot any people in the glare. I’d not seen any signal to proceed, but someone had obviously checked us out. Whatever this place was, it was very well organised.

The truck parked outside a small barn and the engine was turned off. The driver leapt from the cab and lit a cigarette while the blond man we’d first met undid the chain on the tailgate. The links slid onto the floor.

A woman walked up and stood beside the man. She was beautiful, like a dead movie star.

“My name is Jones,” said the man. “This is my sister, Helen.”

Barry was leaning over the side of the lorry once more so couldn’t speak for us. Instead it was left to Ant: “Hi. Where are we?”

“It’s a resort,” said Helen. Her voice was clipped, no emotion to it. “It has been here since the old days. It is, how-you-say, a relic?”

She stood back while Jones helped each of us down. Everyone had to raise their arms to avoid dragging the next person off. Once we were all on the ground we huddled together, closer than before. Barry, Garry and Charles no longer fooled around.

“Who put you in handcuffs?” asked Helen. “Not Jones I am thinking.”

“No, not Jones,” said Ant. “It was a joke.”

“A joke?”  She considered it before shaking her head. “Come on Jones, we ought to get going. It’s late, and these men have had a long journey.”

We trudged across dirt to the lit-up square between three buildings. They were made of grey stone, and the window boxes and painted eaves failed to look particularly decorative.

I used to have a friend who claimed she was ‘sensitive’. She couldn’t visit somewhere without saying she felt ‘something bad’ there or detected ‘a presence’. Approaching the middle building I shivered and wondered if this was how she’d felt all those times. Something had happened here, something so loathsome that being here made me want to turn and run. But I couldn’t run, because I was chained to Garry.

Inside the building was a small waiting room. The walls were bare, painted cream, and a few plastic chairs sat opposite a metal desk. Behind that desk was a young man in a white shirt who couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen. Helen spoke to him in their language and I couldn’t tell anything from their tone of voice. The kid nodded, made some notes, then opened a drawer and passed Helen a key. It had the number 6 on its fob.

“How much is it?” asked Barry.

Helen looked at us and narrowed her eyes. “There’s plenty of time to discuss that. You’re all together, right?”

“Do we have a choice?” I asked.

Helen smiled. “There is always a choice. Jones?”

Jones stepped in front of us. He held a pair of bolt cutters. They’d make short work of our fingers, I thought.

I decided to take advantage of the chance to be free. “Cut this chain off me now and I’ll wait here.”

“Come on,” said Barry. “Don’t be a loser.”

I sighed. “I’m done, guys. I’ll wait here until you’re finished.”

“You’ve come all this way for nothing?” asked Garry.

“I never wanted to come here at all.” I raised my hand, tugging Garry’s with it. One snip and I was free, although I still wore the cuff. I watched, sure some of the others would ask to join me, but Ant, Stan and Paul were too drunk, too horny or too tired to protest. Olivia would be furious if she knew, but I was too exhuasted to care.

“Very well,” said Helen. “You wait here. The rest of you, follow me.”

She led the other six through the internal door. I caught a quick glimpse of thick red carpet and grey walls, then they were gone.

“Do you have any water, please?” I asked the young boy.

He smiled. “Certainly.”

He returned with a tray, carrying a jug of water, a glass and a box of aspirin. I examined the box. The writing on it was English. I figured they were safe to take, certainly less dangerous than the headache that was coming. I swallowed a couple.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“This used to be a village.”

“The war, right? Something happened?”

The teenager didn’t pretend his English was poor. “No. It was in the nineteen eighties. Nobody knows what happened. People arrived here one morning to find everyone dead. One hundred and twenty-nine people, beaten to death and burned.”

“Where are all the buildings? The roads? This can’t be all that’s left.”

“The buildings had vanished. Just a pile of bodies in the middle of the woods where there were once roads and homes. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out what happened.”

I’ve never been so scared in all my life, but I forced myself to refill my glass and take a long sip. “The others, they think this is a… do you know the word ‘brothel’?” The boy nodded. “There are no girls here, are there?”

“There’s Helen. But not how you mean, no.”

We sat in silence. I was too tired to run and, even if I wasn’t, where would I go? Even if I made it out of the room, I’d never make it to the airport.

“I promised Ant’s fiancé I’d look after him,” I said. “It’s his wedding next week.”  

“Oh.” The boy walked to the front of the desk and sat on it. He stared at me and I looked at the ground. I thought of my last time going out with Barry. Before he pissed himself at the bus stop, he’d been following a couple of girls, asking them to come back to his flat, daring their boyfriends to stand up for themselves. He deserved what came to him, so did Charles and Garry, but Paul, Stan and Ant were with them. It didn’t seem fair. I had to do something.

“Ever wonder why you’re here?” asked the boy.

“Huh?”

“Why you’re here, now, and not safe in bed at home?”

“Questionable decisions. Lack of moral courage,” I smiled. “I’d give anything to be at home right now.”

The boy took the water jug and drank two or three swallows direct from it. “We make a million choices in our life. The future seems open, but the past is inevitable. Yet imagine if you arrived here from your own future: would you see your choices as unlimited? Or would you do the same thing as before? Would go back home, or join your friends?”

I was too tired for philosophising. “I just want to take my friends and go.”

“Your friends: they’re the three smaller ones, aren’t they?”

“Yes. I want to make sure they’re safe and sound.”

“It’s done,” said the teenager. “Pass through that door and keep going, then you’ll find them.”

I stood. The teenager waited, patient. “Just get them?” I asked.

He waved towards the door. I thanked him and opened it, the broken chain of my handcuff clanking against the handle. Beyond was the carpeted hallway with its grey walls, a small room at the other end. On a table I saw six pairs of handcuffs. All were closed and undamaged, except for one, which I could see was missing the cuff I wore. I closed the door behind me and felt a little safer.

Eleven handcuffs, six chains. I approached the table. All of the cuffs and chains were undamaged. They’d been tight when Barry and his mates had slipped them on, no way you could ease them back over your hand – I knew that because I’d been trying long enough. I picked up the twin of the handcuff I was still wearing and slipped it in my pocket. At the other end of the room were stairs leading down. I could see the floor below, some way down, a clean patch of concrete. The only sound was the hum of a distant machine.

Halfway down the stairs I turned and looked back, but the light was bad, and I couldn’t see the room I’d passed through. I gripped the other handcuff, planning to use it as a knuckleduster if I had to.

At the bottom of the stairs was a small room with white plaster walls. The concrete floor was pristine. On the far side was a metal door with no handle. And, in the middle of the room were Ant, Paul and Stan, asleep and snoring.

It took little time to wake them. “Where are we?” asked Ant, rubbing his eyes.

“I don’t know,” I told them. “But it’s time to go.” I pointed towards the stairs behind me. “Go back the way you came and wait for me outside.” Deep breath. “If I’m not there in ten minutes, head back without me. Go to the airport, go home.”

“Where are you going?” asked Stan.

“I’ll be ten minutes. Go.”

The three went up the stairs, weaving a little in their still-pissed state. Once they’d left, I went up to the door. What had the teenager asked? Why are we here? What choices would we make if we knew better?

I banged on the door with the handcuff I’d picked up. The metallic boom was louder than I’d expected. I stepped back and waited. Had there ever been a village here, or was the teenager trying to scare me? Maybe it was all a joke. I still wanted it to be a prank, even though this was too strange for someone like Garry to think up.

Helen opened the door. She smiled when she saw me. “You came back for the others?”

“I need to know what’s happened.”

Behind her was a corridor. At its end was an arch, through which I could see starlight and the silhouettes of buildings. I could faintly smell smoke.

“The village that used to be here has been moved. The people who once lived there were left behind, dead. But this village hid itself, and we have found a way in, through this corridor. We’ve been trying for years to re-establish contact. Those other three, they’ve gone in. I don’t know if they’ll come back, but you’re welcome to wait for them as long as you need to.”

“But they were drunk. What use is it sending them in?”

She shrugged. I’d have been angry were the gesture not so weary. “Who else should we send? We’ve been trying for over forty years, and we have lost our best to this place. The ones who came back were useless afterwards.”

Any minute now, the other three would be leaving, just as instructed. Ant was safe, as I’d promised. Drunk as they were, they’d remember little of this place. I was not so lucky. I couldn’t imagine what I would say. How could I explain losing three companions on a stag night?

“Helen? Is that your real name?”

“No. But then yours isn’t James, is it?” She was right.

“I’m going to look for them. Will you be here when I get back?”

“We’ve been waiting decades already. If you return, I’m sure I’ll be here.”

So, I walked down the corridor. I could see the village, or whatever it had become, in the distance. Somewhere fire flickered and the smell of burning became stronger. I could hear something, not quite music, like metal striking metal. I wondered: if I came back from the future to this moment, would I still walk down that corridor? What choice would I have?


James Burt lives in a wooded valley beside a river where he writes odd stories. He keeps a weblog at www.orbific.com


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

“The Masks” Dark, Modernist Horror by Kimberley Luxton

"The Masks" Dark, Modernist Horror by Kimberley Luxton

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Onto the porcelain surface.

White knuckles gripped the sides.

I don’t want to wear it today.

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

The pain left.

It is done.

I am no longer my true self.

Forced to cover up blemishes and emotions.

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

Click. Click. Click.

Heels on the stairs.

It’s loud.

Piercing through the mask straight to my brain.

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

Taking the route to work my mind wandered.

To the tales my mother told me as a babe.

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

To my young brain that sounded like heaven.

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

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

I felt it before I saw it

Cracks

My mask was cracking

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

Glue will fix it

I need to pretend

Everything is okay

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

I fall apart

Knees trembling

I fall down

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

A debate

Shall I go

Shall I stay

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

“Who are you?” I said.

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

*          *          *

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

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

“Sounds like you got the Azure Flu.”

“What’s that?”

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

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

“No, this was extremely real.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

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

“George, but everyone calls me Geo.”

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

*          *          *

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

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

“We’ll pump it?”

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

“Yeah, good point.”

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s a good sign, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s that go?”

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

“Nice.”

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“I’m sorry…”

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

“That’s hard…”

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

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

This got a smile from Pryce.

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

“Did Janet play favorites?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who the fuck was that?”

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

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

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

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

“Just keep driving away from the cats.”

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

“Are you going to shoot me?”

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

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

“The cats would have found you, eventually.”

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


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


“The Well” Horror by Sadie Kraus

"The Well" Horror by Sadie Kraus

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

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

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

And Jane.

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

“I’ll be fine. Mom was sick.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow outside. White clouds.

Jane, there’s blood.

Snow angels. We made snow angels.

Whose blood is that?

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

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

With an ax. Daddy had an ax.

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

Like Mama.

Like the Mad-Hatter. From Alice in Wonderland.

Alice fell down the rabbit hole.

“Stop it.”

Down the rabbit hole. Down the well.

“Stop it,” I say again.

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

Stop it!”

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

Mitten colored

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

Like Christmas

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

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

“I’m alive.”

You’re next.

“I’m alive.”

It’s waiting. 

“I’m alive.”

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

“I’m never going back there.”

The well. It’s waiting.

“Go away.” 

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

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

With the ax

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

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

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

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

Blood in the snow

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

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

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

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

In the house

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

By the well

– in the woods. 

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

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

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

Over the well

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

Go to her

– get away.

Go to her, Kat. Go see your mother.

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

Come, Kat. Don’t cause a scene.

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

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

Drinkkkk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kat, come on! They want to show us!”

“Who Jane?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jane laughed.

“What?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you hear them?”

“Yes,” I said. “Can you?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“Jane?”

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

I shook my head, and stepped back. 

“Katherine. Give us your sister!”

“No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body.

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

To the well

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

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

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

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

Chopping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Jane! Whose blood is that?”

“And the thing that will make them ring,”

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

“Is the carol that you sing,”

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

“Right within…”

And there was Mama.

“Your”

And there was the ax. And the blood.

“Heart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s got to be a sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I almost couldn’t breathe for a minute.

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

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

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

                                                            ***

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

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

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

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

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

To Jamey from Tom.  Thanks for being a fan. 

I cleared my throat. “So, um, about Lukan.  He just doesn’t cut it for me.  I mean, how come he kills people without any remorse? At least Devlin has a conscience—he feels really bad even when he has to kill a small animal.”

Tom’s gaze cut like razor blades, like how dare I criticize his perfect writing?  But then his eyes moved from my face to my strawberry hair to my fitted sweater.   

“Lukan is complex, certainly,” Tom said to my breasts, “Some of the greatest protagonists are morally ambiguous, wouldn’t you agree? I think it makes them more compelling, when characters strive to overcome their indelible flaws.” 

“That’s so interesting,” I said, bending closer and lowering my voice to a whisper, “Because I’m writing a novel and I really appreciate your wisdom.” (OK, not exactly writing it; a lot of the story is still in my head and I’ve got maybe twenty pages so far.  But I’m serious about becoming a writer.  It’s really what I want more than anything). 

 Tom’s face softened; dark gold flecked his hazel eyes.  He raked long fingers through his messy hair.  He reached for his paper cup, found it empty.

 “Fancy a coffee?”

And just like that, we were huddled in a corner booth at the back of the café, beside an overflowing trash can, eating stale blueberry scones.  Tom touched my arm, my shoulder; Jamey, Jamey, what a pretty thing you are, I could stare at you forever.  He made my head feel funny – like drinking too much vodka. 

Every now and then I caught the gleam of Tom’s gold wedding band, so shiny I knew he polished it.  Often.  (How bold he was!)

He had such a complicated face, too: parts of it good-looking, parts of it not; like two halves that almost didn’t fit; it all depended on your angle of vision, and the lighting in the room, but mostly it all came together as handsome.  

He pretty much talked non-stop: how he taught writing at Plymouth, married a too-beautiful woman with boundless ambition, no kids, they drain the life from you, don’t they? They steal your focus; I have to always be writing, writing, never enough time to write.  Seems every day a whole week goes by. 

He did, eventually, come around to ask about my story.  (Deep down I knew he couldn’t be interested in me, Jamey—not really.  Not as a whole person, anyway. But the attention! It felt so good!)

Just then a young woman slunk past our booth for like the third time: mocha skin pulled tight across her cheekbones; black lines smudged under swollen eyelids.  A wounded beauty, her black tee read: Danger – High Crime Area.  She clutched a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich between torn fingernails.  She kept stealing glassy-eyed glances at Tom.  He wasn’t having any of it; he wouldn’t acknowledge her even in his side vision. 

He dismissed her with a slight flick of his wrist.  The sting of it felt sharp and inevitable, like watching a large crack spidering across your windshield.

I wanted to care about her.  I did care, for like four seconds, as I watched her disappear down the dark hallway.  I hoped she was going to be okay. 

And then I moved right back under the heat of Tom’s spotlight.

“Um, it’s called ‘The Man with a Ghost in his Eyes’ and it’s about this guy Robert Pritchard who sweeps a girl named Fern off her feet and then really breaks her.”

“Cool title,” he said, tapping his long fingers on the table as if it were a keyboard.  A tiny smirk lurked in the corner of his mouth.  A few lines etched his face; I pegged him at least thirty-five, maybe forty–but I’m not that great at judging age.

“Robert Prick’s Hard.  Hmm.  Has that sort-of British, old poet ring to it. Is he a loser or just a pretentious fuck?”

“Neither,” I said, startled.  I studied his strong chin, the dark stubble on his face—and wondered how scratchy it would feel between my thighs.  “He’s…morally ambiguous.”

“Touché.” He turned to me, smiling, still tapping.  “So. Who’s this Fern character?”

I felt out of breath, like I’d been running.  “A very…complex girl. Spent months in a locked ward in Jersey. But you’d never know it. She’s sweet and gullible, and really kind, too, except when someone crosses her.”

“A girl with unfulfilled dreams, then.”

I nodded. “She’s had kind of a tragic life—been through some tough things. But she’s young. She’s trying to do better. Recover. Take chances.”

Tom’s fingers danced wildly across the table, a vigorous piano solo.  “She’s arcing. Arcing is good. Now: as you build her character, make sure you know everything about her.  Her whole back story. Every detail, down to the kind of toilet paper she wipes with.  The last thing she tossed in the can. What birth control she’s on.”

“S’all right here,” I said, tapping the side of my head, and immediately felt stupid.

“Great.  I keep track of my own characters with old-fashioned yellow sticky notes taped on the wall.”  Tom paused, then, “God, your eyes are cerulean!”

He went on about how he created Lukan partially based on a “wicked slimehole” he knew as a child growing up in Freeport, Maine.  Guy used to torture stray cats for fun—no, I’m dead serious! But he took absolute tender care of his elderly mother for years! I witnessed him sobbing at her funeral; he was utterly broken by her death.  Such a paradox! Like how he digs deep into the minds of each character and sometimes even projects his own self into them in order to get to know them intimately. 

“Like channeling?”

“In a way, yes! So…Robert hurts Fern. She’s devastated.”

“Buried in grief.”

“She loved him, right?  She trusted him.”

“She thought he was committed—”

“—but he wasn’t, because when you get right down to it, all men cheat.  It’s really kind of cliché.”

“He wasn’t like other men she’d known.”

Tom fake yawned.                                                                                                                

“He was like forty-six and she was sixteen—”

“Whoa! Now you’ve piqued my interest.  A little.” He went back to his finger tapping. “But I’m still not invested.  I want to feel her pain.  What makes Fern a sympathetic protagonist? You said she’s sweet, gullible and yet maybe a bit dangerous.  Why?”

I didn’t want to tell him.  It didn’t feel right to give away so much of her so soon.  And the story just wasn’t ready yet; it felt too unfinished, even though most of the plot was already there, in my mind, like a scolded child lurking in a dark corner. 

My hands were sweating.  I pressed them into one large fist.

 “She—Fern.  Well, she never…sleeps.  I mean…never.”                                                    

“The girl who never sleeps!” Tom’s fingers froze mid-air. His mouth formed a perfect “O.”  Something flashed behind his ash-colored eyes; a searchlight in a forest. After a few moments, his wide eyes focused back onto my face and he whispered, your beauty moves me like night-blooming jasmine as he slipped a warm hand onto my knee.

Later, at the cabin, wedding portraits screamed at me from all directions and I tried to duck beneath their rage. The cabin was furnished with such care, with such a feminine touch.  Her strong presence pulsed like a heartbeat; it made me feel like a criminal.

 (I swear I didn’t know it was Saffron; that came later).  

I leaned against the bedpost, naked, seeking some neutral detail to make me feel welcome there, however small.  I spotted dust balls beneath the bed, soft as tiny pillows.  Suddenly exhausted, I sank into the mattress, realizing he hadn’t once asked about me.  My age.  My last name.  I’d shared parts of my story, but he hadn’t offered to read it.

But in that moment, it really didn’t matter.  I’d already crossed a threshold.  It was like walking out onto the lake, blindfolded, and feeling the ice cracking beneath my bare feet.

As Tom covered me with kisses, I wasn’t sure if I was the prize or he was.  Still, I didn’t resist, not one tiny bit, when he pulled me into thick downy quilts and reached to my soul with his tongue. 

After that first encounter, he wanted to see me more and more often; he’d text me little messages every day.  I was his dove-eyed girl who makes love like a goddess.  (As if I was the only girl who he’d ever said that to).

 Sometimes I even had to look up a word.  You’re my eternal inamorata.  But I played right into it, played by his rules, tossed out my better judgement right along with my morals, starved for as much of his attention as I could get.   

One rule was to keep our conversation mostly to writing—his writing.  (He never asked about my story again). His personal life was off-limits, and he was not interested in mine.  Let’s keep this light and fun.

Mostly, we went to motels. Now and then we’d meet at the cabin. And on a few occasions, he’d invite me to campus, where I’d wander dreamily, pretending to be just another student. In his office, I’d sit in front of stacks of his typed pages, touching them, wishing I could write like that. (I hadn’t written one single word since we met).  Often, he’d ask me to read some of his chapters aloud, especially dialogue, so he could hear if it sounded “organic” to the character.

But one day, several weeks into our relationship, things took a terrible turn.

                                                            ***

Morning dawned unusually hot and bright, more like July than mid-November. Tom texted he had the perfect afternoon planned and to be ready at noon; by three I was still waiting, pacing, biting my nails.  I took a second shower, scouring away any lingering dirt, scrubbing with a loofah until it felt like there was one less layer of skin. 

I leaned my face against the sweating mirror and hated what I saw.  How could anyone want that? A hard lump of a forehead, eyes knitted too close together, nose too narrow, an upper lip that almost doesn’t exist.  So ugly!

I just couldn’t wash myself clean enough.

I squeezed a tiny blemish on my chin until it bled.

When I finally began to accept that Tom wasn’t coming, I spied his black BMW convertible pulling up to the curb. I raced outside, my heart singing.  He still wants me! 

Tom was wearing baggy shorts and dark sunglasses, and a wrinkled gray polo shirt with a tiny blackbird insignia on the pocket.  His hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail.  So handsome! The ashtray spilled over with butts; he flicked his lighter again right after he pecked my cheek.  His favorite band, Aerosmith, was blaring from the radio.  I wanted to talk, but didn’t want to yell above the music.

I caught a strong whiff of body odor; odd that he hadn’t showered.

I dutifully handed him my phone and he locked it in the glove compartment.  No cell phones when we’re together, so we can fully focus on each other.  I beamed my good-natured and uncomplaining smile, just the way he liked it, and tucked my thin cotton dress beneath my bare legs.  In the back seat was an overstuffed backpack and a white wicker lunch basket with two bottles of wine sticking out.  He had gone to so much trouble!

I felt special.  Loved, even. 

“Found a new place,” Tom said, “think you’ll like it.” He checked his watch, then stepped on the accelerator; we sped away from the dusty city and headed west, up into the hills, along winding, country roads, Tom leaning into the curves like a race car driver. 

We eventually came to a high, narrow road, lined with the skeletons of golden trees.  After about a mile or so, he slowed the car to take a right turn into a hidden entrance that led to a forgotten cemetery.

It was as tranquil as any I’d ever seen, with overgrown fields, walking paths and rambling stone walls.  Clusters of ancient granite headstones, shaded by marble pillars.  Old stone benches rested upon colorful carpets of fallen leaves. 

“Wow,” I breathed.

As the car idled, he turned to me.  “Could really use your help, Jamey.  Something I’m working on.  A particular scene.”  His eyes held no expression; they matched the flat gray of the headstones.

“Sure.”  I didn’t know if we were going to read the scene together or what, but I was up for it.  Maybe he’d even be open to hearing some of my ideas this time.

We spotted an enormous, majestic tree, high on a knoll, still holding onto most of its bronze foliage. When I mistakenly called it an oak, Tom muttered between clenched teeth:  it’s an American Beech.  That sudden knife in his voice —it sounded like Bitch! — it felt like it could physically cut me.  

I couldn’t figure out why he was so angry.  I spread out a flannel blanket and we sat there, side by side but not touching, surveying our silent audience.  We opened the wine and Tom served chunks of something that looked like pink flesh. I fought a wave of nausea before he told me what it was – smoked salmon.  I’d never eaten that before and told him so. Tom grumbled under his breath, you’re so fucking provincial.

I blinked, hard, to keep from crying; I drank more wine. I rubbed my temples to try to soothe my shooting headache; birds were screaming in impossible octaves somewhere high in the trees, a silvery ring of noise.

A little later, when I tried to nuzzle into Tom’s arms, he wormed away.  He lit another cigarette and blew smoke rings.

“You ready?” His face was a gathering storm.  “So. Devlin’s fallen in love with a woman he met at a bookstore.”

“Catriona.”  (She’s one of my favorite characters.  Strong, resilient, ambitious.  And a great singer, to boot).

“Right. But Lukan is sick over it.  He wants Cat to want him.  But she won’t pay him any mind.  Lukan’s getting desperate; he’ll do anything to capture her love.”

“Lukan could never be in love.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because his soul is dirt.”

The low rumble of Tom’s anger. “He’s got some good qualities!”

“No – no, he doesn’t. And Catriona knows it. He just mimics other people so it appears that he’s got some good in him. Besides,” I added, “Cat would never betray Devlin.”

Tom stood up, fuming. I could see spreading armpit stains. His back muscles strained against the polo shirt. When he turned toward me, chest heaving, I saw the bird insignia stretch out like a raven taking flight. 

His voice bellowed with rage.  “Tell me! Now! What would Lukan do? What action would he take?”

I had to get the answer right.

The mosquitoes were in full attack mode. Tom’s cigarettes weren’t even keeping them away. I swatted my arm and shivered.

“Well, you said it yourself. Capture her love. So…he’d probably have to take her by force.  Because I sure don’t…see it unfolding any other way.”

I held my breath. I caught Tom’s expression – and cringed.  He looked so strange! His forehead appeared impossibly long, cheekbones high and sharp — his hair all straggly and matted; eyes narrow slits; they glittered greenish-yellow. Without warning, he snatched me up and threw me head-first into the thorn bushes behind the beech tree.

I yelped; pushed my hands forward to break my fall — and rolled sideways, banging my left shoulder on a tree root. My dress bunched up above my waist.  He was on me in a second, pounding into me, a crazed animal, viciously cruel.  I screamed for him to stop – I tried to scratch him but he held down my wrists.  He kept on slamming into me; a low growl sounded from his throat. 

Hot strings of saliva slipped down the back of my neck. 

I turned my head and vomited onto some red leaves, curled up like tiny withered hands.  I must have blacked out, for the next thing I knew I was sitting up, my back pressed hard against the tree bark.  Dizzy.  Hurting.  Head pounding.

Scared.

My vision slowly came back into focus.  Tom was wiping the cuts on my palms and knees with antiseptic wipes.  He looked like Tom again.  So gentle now.  A caregiver.  He offered me a bottle of water.  I took a tentative sip.  I turned my face away so he wouldn’t see my tears. 

I tried to gauge how far we were from town.  For a second, I thought about bolting to the car.  But I knew the keys were in his pocket.

Tom saw me trembling.  He pulled a sweatshirt from the backpack and handed it to me.  It had a heavy perfume odor, like lily of the valley.  He asked me to stand, and when I did, painfully, he sprayed me with bug spray, from my ankles to my wrists, and it stung all of my cuts.   

“Babe, I’m sorry, it’s the stress – look, I had a difficult call with my publisher today and they want to put the series on pause.  They think the market’s over saturated.  They want something new.”

I didn’t reply.  Nothing could ever justify what he had done to me.  I started pulling the sweatshirt over my head; saw it had something written on the front in bold letters.

I turned it over and read:

WBRQ Channel 8 – We Know Weather!

The truth detonated like napalm.  Ohmygod.  I’d caught glimpses of photos of a blond woman in the cabin, but I’d never looked too closely.  I wanted to keep his wife blurry; fuzzy around the edges.  Just another blonde with gauzy features and a bright smile.

It made it so much easier that way. 

“Your wife is…Saffron?”

A slight nod.  Indifferent.

“Oh, no.”  I clutched my stomach.  I thought I might vomit again.  How could it possibly be her? She was so…so nice! She had helped me!

My knees buckled.  I tried to pull in a breath.  It hurt so bad I wondered if a rib was cracked.  Tom moved towards me.  “You mean so much to me, Jamey, I hope you know that?”  He held me out at arm’s length.  “You do know that, right?”

I wouldn’t answer.

“Don’t be upset!  Look – we have this special, spiritual thing together and that never needs to change.”

Special and spiritual? Was he insane? I forced myself to search the wild map of his face. His eyes looked normal again.  He actually believed what he was saying.    

“Take me home,” I said. “I want to go home.  Now.” 

The misted light drifted below the tree line.  Tom sighed, fishing for something in the backpack.  He calmly extracted a thick roll of silver duct tape.    

I backed away.  No, no, no.  I squinted at the ground, looking for something.  A rock? A large branch, maybe.  Anything!

“There’s nowhere to go, Cat.”

From the looming shadows, he took a menacing step forward.  I kneed him in the groin, hard.  As he bent over, groaning, I bolted, but he caught my hair, wrenching my head backwards.  

And his savage growl left no doubt who I was really dealing with.

This time, I didn’t scream.  I didn’t struggle.  I knew it would make things worse.  And it was dark now, but for the sick-yellow glow of Lukan’s eyes.

In that moment of pure terror, with fangs sharp enough to crush bone pressed against my slender neck, I decided the only way to survive might be to figure out the answer to one simple question. 

What would Catriona do?

I went completely limp. 

“That’s right, Cat.  That’s better.”  Lukan dragged me back to the tree, and started ripping strands of duct tape with his canines.  He taped my legs and arms tight against the trunk.  His breath stank like rot. He started to rip off another long piece, and I prayed it wouldn’t cover my mouth.  No, no, please not my mouth!

The wind rustling in the trees sounded like sad music.  I starting humming a melody I’d learned as a child — my uncle used to sing it to me, to calm me down — about ants disappearing into the earth.  I tried to make it as melodious as I could. 

Sweet little ants crawl down the tree, down the tree, into the ground, into the ground, where no one can see, those sweet little ants, go down the tree, it’s just you and me, dear, it’s just you and me.

Lukan tilted his head and listened.  When I finished the song, I spoke in a much deeper, husky voice (thinking that Catriona being so brave and strong-willed would have a voice like that).

 “I do care about you Lukan.  More than you can ever know.  But…this! This is not the way to my heart.”

He let go of the duct tape.  His breathing slowed.  For an agonizing moment, I witnessed the yellow glimmer fade from his slitted eyes.  Then Lukan stuffed everything into the backpack, prowled down the hill and leapt into the BMW.  When I heard the car peel out onto the dirt road, only then did I let myself sob.

I writhed and twisted through spikes of white-hot pain to work myself out of the tape.  After staggering in the dark for what seemed like hours, through the constant slaps of angry branches, two fiery halos of fog suddenly danced in my direction.  Then the sound of a car approaching threw me into a panic, thinking Lukan had returned to finish me off.

I slid down into the roadside ditch, through a pile of crumpled beer cans, kicked off a thin lid of ice, and pressed myself down into a cold layer of dirt, the weight of it so safe and familiar, like an old, heavy blanket.

The car braked; I could feel it’s hot breath.  Doors opened, closed; two shadowy figures approached with flashlights.  I lifted my chin and read Robertsville Police on the quarter panel.    

The cops were very kind to me.  At the station, I told Officer Bartz I smelled something burning. He grinned, Now, don’t you worry, it’s just the coffee, I hope you like it stale and bitter, and brought me a steaming mug, and a crumbled peanut butter cookie.  He handed me some clean sweatpants he had in his locker.

 His partner typed my name into the computer.

 “Wait, no way — you’re her?” When I nodded, he gave a low whistle and shook his head.  Bartz leaned forward, squinting at the screen from his standing position.  His eyes widened a bit, before he turned to me.

“Jamey.  Help us sort out why you were staggering down a dark road in the middle of the night; barely dressed, covered in abrasions and bug bites?”

My head felt like it had been shoved through a log splitter.  But I couldn’t tell them the truth.  So, I made up a story about arguing with a girlfriend after we left a nightclub in Concord.  “She made me get out of the car.”   

Bartz seemed concerned.  “Can we call someone for you?”

The sad truth was the only person I could call was Tom, and that was out of the question.  Or, I could call Dr. Phillips, my psychiatrist, but she wouldn’t want to be disturbed so early.  After a quiet chat with his partner, Officer Bartz offered to drive me home. 

We drove in silence for the first several miles.  I could feel him itching to say something – and I knew what it was.  I cleared my throat.  “It’s okay – ask me whatever you want.”

Bartz searched my face.  “How are you coping after all you’ve…I mean, I know some time has passed, but no one should ever have to endure something like that.”

“I’m better.  I mean, as well as can be expected, I guess.”  (He had no idea; how could he? And how could I possibly explain how damaged I really felt inside: and that I’d just suffered yet another brutal trauma and was probably in shock?)

“I admire your resilience, Jamey, I really do.  I don’t know if I could…come back from something like that the way you have.” 

I studied him for a long moment, in profile.  Receding hairline; a broad, gentle face – generous nose, full lips, a slight double chin.  How sweet he was, how genuine.  And (sadly) so very unlike the men I am typically attracted to. 

“Heard that bastard got out on a technicality.  He ever try contacting you?”

“Um, no.  He didn’t.  He can’t.  He’s…a ghost.”

“He’s dead?”

I nodded. “House fire.  About four months ago.”

Bartz chewed on that information for a while, before he pushed out a long breath.                

“Yeah, well.  Karma’s a bitch.”

When we got to my apartment complex, Bartz drove around the buildings a couple of times, scanning the surroundings.  “You feel safe here, Jamey?”

“Think so.  Seems like a good neighborhood.” I was so touched that he had asked. 

“My neighbor, Nelly Walston, she’s real nosy and always clucking on about who’s coming and going. Anyway, she had a small fire in her kitchen the other day, but I smelled the smoke before she did and called the fire department.”

“That nose of yours again! It saved the day.” He laughed. “It’s good that you’re vigilant.”

You’re the one who’s good, Officer Bartz.  Thanks for going so far out of your way,” I said.  “Means a lot.”

“Name’s Denny.” He pressed his card into my palm, don’t hesitate to call if you need anything, or if you just want to talk, then helped me to my apartment door, asked me if he could go inside first to make sure everything was safe, then sounded the all-clear once he did a thorough check. 

Denny shook my hand like it really meant something to him.  Like I mattered as a person. I locked the door, and double bolted it.  I lit some cinnamon incense for protection, then slowly lowered myself into a lavender Epsom salt bath to help soak away the pain.

                                                              ***

I never heard from Tom Tanner again.  Not for three whole months.  No texts, no calls, nothing.  It was a huge relief, and I slowly started to feel almost normal.

Until a few days ago, that is.  I was nursing a raging head cold, lounging in my PJ’s, drinking some lemon ginger tea with honey.  Around 7AM, I turned on the TV, and there was Saffron, hosting a new show called Awake 603. 

(I was so excited!  I thought it must be a promotion; I was so proud of her!)

But then her first guest walked into the studio. 

And many of our viewers might not realize this, but our very special guest for this inaugural Valentine’s Day show also happens to be my own wonderful and charming husband.  Everyone, please welcome, novelist Tom Tanner. 

Thunderous applause. Tom strode on stage like a movie star, dressed in hip jeans, leather boots and a black dress shirt opened at the collar.  He even gave a little bow to the live audience of mostly overweight, middle-aged women, causing them to giggle and titter. 

He sauntered over to Saffron and she offered her cheek.  A glance passed between them that wasn’t exactly loving.  Something was off; her body language was tense. 

And she looked so tired! But — she was good at hiding it with makeup.  A real professional.  (I so admire that!)

“Before we get started, I need to explain to our audience and also to our many viewers at home — that my dear husband hasn’t even told me anything about this latest project of his! So — we’re all in for a special treat today!”

 More excited clapping.  “What’s it about, Tom? Do tell!”

“Yeah, this one’s radically different from The Last Victim series.  Something new and fresh for the fans,” he explained, “it’s called The Girl Who Never Sleeps.”

I dropped the remote.  My headache flared.

Murmurs of interest from the audience.  Saffron seemed pleased by their reaction.  “Intriguing title.  Tell us more!”

“So, the main character is this teen girl named Fergie.  She’s kind of a head case, but super sweet.  She’s young, vulnerable, but unfortunately gets swept up by this much older, depraved dude named Rob Pritchard.”

Saffron’s mouth dropped open.  She quickly recovered.  “Pritchard? Um, wait, this sounds like—” But Tom didn’t notice, he just kept droning on about Fergie, how she falls so deeply that she does dangerous things in the name of love.

“Yeah, this Pritchard fellow is a really bad apple.”

Saffron interrupted.  “Tom, wait, could this character of yours possibly be based on Robert Pritchard, the serial killer, by chance?”

It was Tom’s turn to falter.  He blinked a few times, then opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. 

“And Fergie! You must mean Fern, right? Fern Jameson? Wait — I think she calls herself Jamey now.  Yeah, she was his ‘Last Victim,’ so to speak.  She was also the only one to survive.”

Tom looked stunned.  “Uhh…” was all he could say.

Saffron’s face was a jumble of thoughts.  “You must remember the case, Tom.  Back when we first met!” She looked out at the audience, “In Trenton, where I got my start in television.” 

Aware of their rapt attention, she went on. “Y’all probably remember this one; it’s really horrific.  I was actually the first reporter on scene to break the story of her rescue – I even met the poor girl and gave her some water — it was all over the news, oh – what’s it been now, about seven years!”

Tom threw Saffron a look that made me shiver.  With just a few words, she had stolen his thunder and made him a fool.  But she continued, confidently, “Sixteen-year-old Fern Jameson was abducted by Pritchard.  He kept her caged like a dog for months before he decided to bury her, alive, in the cage.”

A loud intake of breath from the audience.  Saffron stood and moved toward them, taking time to let them fully digest what she’d just said, and to build the dread.  She leaned toward the front row and quieted her voice.

“He’d packed the earth pretty tight.  But– there was some kind of animal hole near her mouth, like a gopher would make, and she used it as her air source.  Somehow, she was able to keep breathing for four whole days until she was dug up.”

A collective gasp.  Saffron waited another beat.

“That’s why she never slept.  She was afraid the hole would fill with dirt.” 

The camera zoomed in on two women in the second row as they burst into tears. 

“Wow. Fern. Haven’t thought about her in quite a while.” Saffron walked back to her seat, sat down.  She saw the look of scorn on Tom’s face. “Wait – did she contact you?”

 His face flushed; he studied his fingernails.

 “She did? Why didn’t you tell me?”  She leaned in close and whispered almost into his ear (but the mic was on so everyone still heard her say it anyway): “Don’t you remember? The restraining order I had to take out on her?”

The camera went close on Tom’s face as he mouthed the words, “that was her?”

An uncomfortable silence expanded in the studio, like an overfilled balloon.

The show finally cut to a commercial break.

And that’s when I knew that the time had come.  Time to completely erase Tom Tanner from my life, once and for all, so that I could finally, and fully move on.

Yes.

It was time to make things clean.

                                                          ***

When I first pushed opened the cabin door, Saffron’s valentine card blared like warning lights at a train crossing.  It had to be a foot high, straddling half the kitchen table, heart-shaped and god-awful red, edged with white lace like pieces of gauze stuck to a bloody chin.

And giant neon block letters that read:  TO MY BEAUTIFUL WIFE.

Annoyed, I picked it up, then decided that wasn’t so good an idea.  (Now my fingerprints are on it.  But I’ll deal with that later).

Tom was snoring, so he never heard me creep to the edge of the bed.  I lifted his right wrist and used the cuffs I’d plucked from Denny’s belt to handcuff him to the bed post.  Then I shot some Ketamine powder right up his nose.  (Dr. Phillips is always pushing that nasty stuff on me; I’ve got plenty on hand, just had to crush up a few pills).  He snorted it mid-snore; it took him a few seconds to wake up and realize who was standing there.

He bolted upright, then fell over sideways, hanging off the bed by his wrist.

“Whah the–?” 

“You are going to pay for what you’ve done,” I announced, head high, feeling so powerful for standing up for myself for a change.  (Dr. Phillips would be so proud of me for taking charge!)

“Take these cuffs off me right now you crazy fucking bitch!”

From the corner of the bedroom, I dragged the full-length mirror across the floor and set it beside the bed.  “Tom, look! Who do you see? Look closely now! I think you’ll recognize him!”

Tom thrashed around, smashing his left fist into the mirror, spraying the room with tiny shards of glass.  I backed up a bit.  “Now, now, it’s not Lukan,” I said patiently, as if coaxing a difficult toddler. 

A string of obscenities exploded from his mouth, so real, so twisted with hate; I

could see them uncoil and slither around in the air.  I tried to grab psycho-fuck but it wiggled out of my grasp.

“Think now, my love.  If I’m The Girl Who Never Sleeps, then who might you be?”

He’s still enraged, but this time there’s no Lukan to protect him. 

Nope. It’s just pathetic old Tom. 

“If you tell me, I might let you go.”

The Ketamine was kicking in big time.  Tom’s eyes were clouding over; he blinked and shook his head to try to stay conscious.  Then he let out a long, pitiful wail, like a dying wolf coming to terms with his fate. 

“I’m the fucking…man,” he said quietly.

“Yes?”

The Man. With.  A…gohhhst.”

“What ghost?”

Tom tried to spit at me, but his lips were numb and it leaked all over his chin.

“The one…wite thayEen the fugging meewrr.  Een myeyes.

I gave him a good hard minute of applause.  He deserved it!

“Bravo! Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

                                                       ***

There is only one important detail I still have to work out.

What to do with poor Arnold.  I mean, here he is, rubbing between my calves like I’m his only friend on this whole planet.  If I toss him outside, he’ll go feral really quick, and that’s no kind of life for a house cat.  Besides, I’d hate to think of him getting lost in the freezing cold woods out here.  He’s such a big, sweet boy.

So, I’m thinking I’ll just take him with me.  Maybe, after things settle down, I can drop him at a shelter with a note.  (I’d love to keep him, but my landlord told me there’s a strict no-pet policy).

Other than that, I think I’ve got everything pretty much covered.  I even turned Tom’s favorite Aerosmith album up pretty loud for him.  (It’s playing Janey’s Got a Gun, which is kind of ironic because it sounds like they’re singing Jamey.  And I don’t own a gun, but I just saw Tom’s got a shotgun in the closet and there’s no way he can get to it).

Every so often there’s a thunka-thunka-thump coming from the bedroom, almost like he’s trying to keep a beat to the lyrics. 

Anyhow, it’s time for me to finish this and get back on home.  And after hunting around for some newspaper, it occurs to me that the damn valentine will work just fine.

I stride over to it and knock it down flat.  Then I pick it up and start ripping.  The lace comes off in one long strip, but the card is thick as leathery skin.  I try to tear it into pieces but only manage to pull off a couple of red chunks. 

And now it reads:                          

                                            TO   M      BEA   T        WIFE

I think on this a bit, and it really all makes sense.  That’s why Saffron looked so tense the other day.  Those dark circles under her eyes meant something far more sinister than lack of sleep. 

And this card is a sign that I’m doing the right thing. 

No time to waste, so I finish tearing it up into what looks like a pile of bloody meat.

I flick Tom’s gold lighter and the lace catches quickly.  Then I head over to the bedroom door and carefully light the gasoline-soaked paper logs. 

The thunking noise is slowing down, like a drum solo coming to its end. 

(I remembered to set his vintage record player on automatic repeat.  I figure Tom will get to hear his favorite songs at least one more time).

Soon everything will be clean.  (There’s just nothing cleaner or purer than fire!)

So, I guess it’s time for me and Arnold to go.  I slip Tom’s lighter into my jeans pocket as a memento, because I’m a sentimental girl.  Then I tuck Arnold under my arm like a football and we make a run for my Jeep.

And as the flames rise hotter and higher behind us, I can already feel the clean heat melting the frozen lake of my heart. 


Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire.  Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and Monadnock Magazine. She finds inspiration in the brisk wind along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


Don’t forget to visit The Chamber’s Bookshop or Gift Shop while you are here.

“Conjure the Moon” Dark Supernatural Fiction by E.N. Dunn

The Old Woman lived on the hill, near the cava tree, and rarely ventured from her home. Her quaint, gray house smelled of mulberry tea and cinnamon and had a simple roof made of wooden shingles. The windows of the house were framed in purple, and the glass was old and stretched with bubbles. The house was ancient, just like the Old Woman, and the two creaked and moaned together when the wind blew a little too strongly from the northern mountains.
           

The Old Woman knew that the villagers gossiped about her; she saw them whispering to each other as they walked along the trail at the base of the hill. Their whispers floated up the inclines of the clover-covered knoll her house sat on, creeping through its halls until they found her ears. “Evil Witch,” they whispered.  

Sometimes she peered through the bubbles in her glass windows down at them, making her own whispers. She whispered to the birds that would dive down at them, pecking at the crests of their heads. Other times she whispered to the trees, which then used their roots to trip the villagers, turning their whispers into silent curses as they hurried on their way to complain about the Old Woman to the Mayor.

#

Every day was filled with complaints about the Old Woman, and the Mayor had to listen to them. Come rain or shine, the Mayor heard about the Old Woman during town meetings, after dinner with council members, or when he was trying to get away from it all during walks in the village park. The villagers loved to gossip and complain about the Old Woman.

Of course, the Mayor did nothing about the Old Woman. He knew the villagers for what they were: small-minded and bitter busybodies. And he had more pressing matters to attend to, like the backed-up village sewer systems and the accompanying stench that now permeated everything. But the prattling and whining interfered with his work, and between the heat of summer and the stench, the Mayor often felt angry and anxious.

On the days the Mayor felt particularly anxious, he liked to look at the tall grandfather clock that stood proudly in the corner of his office. The clock had been his mother’s and was the only thing that still connected him to her. It was made of oak, and it stood illuminated when the afternoon light came through the office window. It comforted him, and, after long, endless days filled with complaints and exploding sewer lines, he would sit in his office, listen to the tick-tock of the clock, and remember better times.

#

The Old Woman had been able to do things since she was little. She could heal people, talk to birds, mix the correct herbs to help a woman have a child, and even leave her body for brief periods to travel the night skies of the village. To the Old Woman, it was as easy as breathing and she had used her powers to help the villagers until fairly recently.

As a young woman, she had been the village midwife and delivered most of the villagers who now wanted her to leave. She had mixed potions, healed the sick, and counseled the lost and troubled. She’d been respected at one time, valued and treated with reverence even. Folks would bring her offerings of spices, herbs, and dark plum wine or golden yam whiskey. Every day there had been baskets of fruit, nuts, and dried meat on her doorstep. Now, her porch steps were empty, and the villagers gave birth in sterile white rooms full of men dressed in light blue cloth. No one came to ask for potions or advice on love anymore.

It was strange not being needed. It was in the Old Woman’s nature to be useful, to help others. Not being able to use her abilities made her feel tired and useless. It made her feel wretched and stretched thin. So, she stayed hidden away in her ancient house; it was her only companion now. She missed the days of her youth when sweet potato bread was her favorite, and the street wasn’t quite as wide as it was now.

The Old Woman knew that there had been a time when there were many people like her. Healers, tree talkers, water conjurers, and night flyers. When she was a child, there were people in the village who visited during the darkness of night. They worked their powers to fix and mend folks, and, just as they later did for her, the villagers left them fruits, vegetables, anything they had as payment. The Old Woman’s mother was one of these special folks. But unlike the Old Woman, her mother had not been a healer. No, she had used her hands to make plants grow and barren earth yield fruit. She was one of the Owusu. 

The Owusu came to the village the morning after a fall moon and emerged one by one from the mist-filled woods to the east of the village. The Old Woman’s mother was amongst them. They were all tall, willowy figures with onyx-hued skin, smooth as opal, and rich as obsidian. Their hair floated above their shoulders as silvery gray poufs, voluminous and naturally shaped like cumulus clouds, always trailing behind them like halos of thunder. Their faces were small, and their elegant arms tapered off into exquisitely long fingers. They were mysterious, beautiful, magnificent, otherworldly, and her mother was no exception. 

The villagers were mesmerized by them, some even offering their homes to the travelers. Some Owusu accepted the offer and stayed in the village with these welcoming families. However, many returned to the woods to the east of the village, where they would remain, only venturing out from the shade of large wise trees to share their gifts, visit with the Owusu that lived amongst the villagers, or trade their skills or barter wild mushrooms and nuts for items like tea and spun cotton.

Mother had been one of the Owusu who stayed in the village. She lived with an elderly couple that sold teas at the market and used her talents to help grow jasmine, urkla, and poplue in their tea garden. She met the Old Woman’s father when she wandered into his turnip fields one day, and the two instantly fell in love. Soon after, her sister was born, with the Old Woman coming a year later. She was born during the Fall new moon, birthed by Mother’s own hands.

The Old Woman could hardly remember Mother now, her memories relying mostly on stories told by Father. She did remember she was beautiful and would wander through the turnip fields at night, under the light of the moon, slipping her dark hands into the orange-hued soils to work her magic on the turnips. She remembered her voice, how it was musical and calming and fluid, like the stream out back behind their farmhouse. But it was the other things that the Old Woman could not remember, like the sound of her laugh, or the angle of her jaw, or whether she even liked turnips. She didn’t remember how she smelled, her favorite color, or if she yearned for her homeland, wherever that was. It was also the questions the Old Woman had, the questions that plagued her at night while she smoked a pipe of sweet herb and drank mulberry tea with wild honey.

The question that rose above all others for the Old Woman was who was she? Was she more her mother or father? Was she the child of spirits because the Owusu were otherworldly?

In her heart, she knew she was more of Mother, that she was Other. It didn’t matter that the Old Woman did not look like the Owusu. Yes, she had dark skin, smooth and beautiful like Mother, and hair that floated above her shoulders in an ebony cloud. That was where her similarities with the Owusu ended. The Old Woman was short and her shoulders were wide like Father’s. Her face was broad and flat, with features that were soft, round, and kind. Her hands were broad like her feet, with thumbs that were strong and good at mashing up herbs and birthing children. No, she did not resemble the Owusu, but she knew she was Owusu, down to her very soul.

To be Owusu was to be Other. This, the Old Woman understood. Yet, she still felt lost. Even though the village was all she had ever known, she always felt homesick. She wanted to know the comfort of being amongst her own people. She wanted to know them and love them and had so many questions she wanted to ask them. She knew she would never find answers in this life, that she would never truly know herself, and she mourned this fact early on when her mother had died so many years ago.

Father wouldn’t let them take Mother away after she died. When the villagers arrived making demands, insisting Mother be buried with her own kind, the Old Woman remembered the look on Father’s face as he put down the sweet oils and herbs he had been using to prepare for her burial. She remembered how his big strong hands had grabbed the ax off the kitchen wall and how he had stood silently in the doorway of their home. He never spoke a word, just stared at the small crowd with black fire in his eyes. The villagers left silently that day, understanding the language Father had spoken.

You take my wife, you die.

Father buried Mother deep in the earth and covered her in white smooth stone and layers of burnt umber-hued soil. The Old Woman remembered placing a single yellow Lursa flower on Mother’s white dress. She remembered the hot tears burning along the edges of her eyes as Father pushed a warm layer of soil over Mother’s veiled face. The blue veil was Mother’s and had been one of the few possessions she’d bought with her to the village. The Old Woman remembered how the silent earth had enveloped Mother while Father sang softly into the breeze.

No box for you, my love. No wooden cage to confine your spirit. No fire to burn your flesh, to eat your bone as you sleep. Just earth and clay and tears, my love. Just earth and clay and tears.

Death. Death was darkness, deep, long, and forever. Death was a shroud of unknowing that cursed the living. It was also beautiful and infinite and something that the Old Woman had learned not to fear for herself. But it hurt, oh did it hurt. It hurt down to her bones, down to her spirit. It hurt to be left alone.

It happened one night right after supper. Mother’s breath was taken from her in an instant. Her spirit snuffed out like a candle. Gone. Just like that. Without fuss, without reason. She was just gone. With all the others. All of them.

When Mother died, so did the rest of the Owusu in the village. All at once as the sun set on a warm summer’s eve. Some left their bodies while in their gardens, sleeping in their beds, or eating their suppers. Others, while strolling in the village park or fishing near the North River, their bodies scattered like sad flower petals throughout the village.

The Owusu that lived in the woods to the east disappeared the same night. Whether they had died was a mystery, as their bodies were never found. The villagers spent weeks scouring the woods looking for them or their remains, finding absolutely nothing. It was as if they had never existed. There were no cabins, camps, or even fire pits to be found. There were no wild gardens or middens of shell or bone on the forest floor, nothing indicating that the woods had been their home.

The villagers decided that the Owusu from the woods were responsible for the deaths of those in the village. Some argued they had returned to their homeland, leaving a curse on those that refused to leave with them. Thus, in order to avoid lingering bad omens, the dead were quickly buried in a mass grave along the south side of the village. Off-limits to all, the burial ground remained barren and scarred for years, and on the day of the Old Woman’s twenty-first birthday, it bloomed Lursa flowers. Every year on the Old Woman’s birthday, they bloomed, a sea of yellow.

Sometimes the Old Woman wished she had died with Mother, that her soul had rushed out from her body and entered the atmosphere like a phoenix. Her soul would dance around the moon, happy to be free, to work roots on that celestial plane. Even now, she wanted to die, but her spirit, tired as it was, clung to her flesh, resisting the idea. So, she kept her memories to herself in her little old house on the hill. 

#

The mudfish were good this time of year. Their scaleless gray mottled skin slick as they writhed in the bottom of the canoe, the slapping of their bodies sounded like the dipping of the tide. An old man with impossibly white hair bent over them, a stern expression on his face as he flipped another mudfish into the boat.

“Will you stop with your singing?” he muttered as he prepared his line with bait to catch another fish. The fish seemed to stop writhing briefly, their large black eyes gazing up at him through liquid inky tears. This only made the old man more annoyed, and he paused for a moment, a thick bloody worm wriggling in between his fingers against the cold steel of the hook.

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your singing is. I have to eat. Just like you have to eat the crawdads at the bottom of the river, so stop it. I don’t feel the least bit guilty.”

The man returned to his bait, casting his line toward the riverbanks, near the bunches of yellow and gold tufts of fili grass. The fish in his boat began to writhe again, and the old man sighed.

“Elkar, it’s been too long. Too long with these things, this place… too long,” he muttered to himself. He abruptly looked to the left of him, to an empty spot in the canoe. “Don’t you think?” he asked as his eyes peered into the void of air. His head remained craned in the direction of the empty portion of the canoe, and after a time, he sighed and returned to his fishing. The canoe drifted slowly down the river as the sun dipped below the horizon, signaling the end of the day.

“Hey, Elkar, any fish today?”

A young woman walking along the banks waited for the old man to respond. He ignored her and paddled his canoe toward a berm that jutted out into the shallows of the river. Elkar grunted and leapt from his canoe to pull it onto the sandy bank leading up to the berm. He gathered up his catch and started the walk home.

Supper was simple: roasted mudfish and onion, yam whisky, and mustard greens. Content with his meal, Elkar sat on a stool in the herb garden behind his cottage. His cottage was made of stone and was round with a thatched roof. There had been no need to update it over the years to match the newer homes in the village with their metal roofs and glass pane windows. He had no time for such foolish things. The cottage served its purpose, and that was what mattered. Besides, this wasn’t really his home.

Home was, in truth, quite far away, and it had been so long since he had been there. Elkar wondered if he could find his way home if he wanted to. Deep down, he knew he could not. Thinking about it made him sad. At least he had them to show him the way when it was time to leave, and they promised him they remembered how to get there. At least he had that. If it weren’t for them, he would have to live alone forever in this strange village with its fickle inhabitants and its memory of death.

The death was why he had stayed so long. Its smell still lingered. It was deep and established, and he would find it even if it meant never going home.

#

The Old Woman’s sister had been beautiful, precocious, and self-righteous to the very definition of the word. She was tall, willowy, dark-haired, and smelled of fresh lilies and lilac and chamomile. So wholesome, she was called, and beautiful and so unlike the Old Woman who was short and robust in her youth. The Old Woman sadly remembered how Sister had hidden from her when she had healed a rabbit for the first time. Healing was such a beautiful thing, yet Sister viewed it as something unnatural and perverse. It was neither of these things. The Old Woman still remembered healing that rabbit as if it were yesterday. The feeling of restoring health was euphoric, the rush and flush to her cheeks and the warmth in her stomach – it was like dipping into the bright light of a distant star.

The Old Woman thought back on her joy and surprise when the sick rabbit suddenly perked up under the weight of her hands, thumped a back leg, and hopped away. She remembered how Sister had looked at her with distant eyes as she slowly backed out of the barn and ran to tell their father what transpired that dusty afternoon.

Father had been a tall man, an imposing figure with broad shoulders and skinny legs that jutted from beneath his pants like a swamp frog. He was a farmer of turnips and smelled of earth and clay. He liked to smoke a black pipe of tobacco and sipped whiskey once a month when the turnip crop looked especially promising. He didn’t talk much and typically had a book on hand when he wasn’t caring for the turnip fields. His eyes were blacker than a crow’s, and they devoured books like they were sustenance. 

The Old Woman loved Father, but she was not his favorite. No, that title belonged to Sister, and so when Sister informed him of the Old Woman’s unnatural powers, he spared no time in punishing her appropriately. Father made her kneel in her room for four days without supper, and Sister brought her water to drink twice a day and accompanied her when she needed to use the outhouse. Naturally, she hated Sister for making Father do such cruel things. 

When her punishment finally ended, Father had sat awkwardly in a small chair placed neatly near her bed. His knees curled up and almost poked him in his chin, and his broad shoulders threatened to snap the back of the chair. She lay on the bed, rubbing the ache of her knees, contemplating whether she should heal the swelling once he left. 

They had sat in silence for what seemed to be an eternity, their house creaking as it cooled from the day’s heat while a rooster crowed in the distance. Then, finally, Father spoke to her. His voice was thick as morning oatmeal and immediately filled the room with its bellow.

“You can’t heal again,” he said as he reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out his black pipe. His pouch of smoking tobacco was rolled neatly in a cloth bag tied around the stem of the pipe. He untied it, opened the bag, and packed the pipe contemplatively. The tobacco permeated the room, and the Old Woman inhaled its molasses-like sweetness. 

“Why not?” she asked.

Her father contemplated the question carefully before answering, “Because… because something could happen to you. Your mother used her gifts, and she and people like her died. They died, love. I don’t want the same to happen to you.” He then stood up slowly and left her to ponder this assertion by herself in the quiet of her room.

#

The Doctor had seen nothing like it before, which scared him. Twenty people had come into his office with the same symptoms, and no matter what he did, they kept getting sicker. Their sickness was no ordinary disease. They were starving, their bodies twisted and knobby because of fat loss, their stomachs distended, and their skin ashen and gray. They complained of deep, painful hunger and exclaimed that it could not be sated no matter what they ate. He tried everything, but they eventually died. 

The Doctor was a man of science; he believed that the unexplained had an explanation. It just took time to find it. He liked facts and did not believe in any of the Gods that some villagers worshiped. His wife was one of these God worshippers, and he often watched her curiously as she kneeled before the deity Eushryph, offering prayers, incense, and fruit. He knew better than to tell her that her prayers fell on deaf ears. There were no gods, as far as he was concerned. Yet, this new disease had him wondering; perhaps it was time to ask Eushryph to have mercy on their souls.

#

People always feared what they did not understand, and the villagers did not understand the Old Woman. It hadn’t always been this way between the Old Woman and the villagers. There was a time when they respected her. But those who had cherished her abilities, that understood the old ways, were now gone, their bodies buried deep within the earth, nestled within coffins beneath the gnarled roots of trees. Their children remained, and they did not understand the old ways, much like Sister, who had rejected the ways of root workers, conjurers, and healers. 

Sister. For a time, she and Sister had a truce between them. It was simple; the Old Woman made herself scarce when in Sister’s presence and didn’t use her powers in the open. After Father died, Sister even allowed her to stay on the turnip farm. They ate dinner in silence, with Sister’s husband seated squarely between the two. It wasn’t ideal, but the Old Woman was happy she wasn’t alone. In the evenings, she would walk out in the turnip fields like her mother used to. Sometimes she stared at the moon, losing herself in its light, only to return to her body to make the walk back to the farmhouse to fitfully fall asleep to the low moans of Sister and her husband making love.

Some years after Father’s death, Sister became pregnant. She was sick for the entirety of her pregnancy and could not keep food or water down. Once, the Old Woman made the mistake of offering to use her powers to help with Sister’s sickness, to which Sister hissed she wouldn’t have such filth near her or her unborn child. After that, Sister wouldn’t speak to the Old Woman, and as each month went by, her condition worsened.

The moon was high in the sky the night of the child’s birth. It was luminous and round and fertile, and the Old Woman felt drawn to its light. She walked out into the turnip field; the light filling her, bathing her, flowing within her like deliciously warm water. She stepped out of her sleeping gown and felt a pull at her soul, like sunlight over the skin. Her eyes glazed over, and suddenly she was blind.

At first, she was afraid, but then the fear passed right through her and was replaced with a sense of calm that she had never known before. Soon after this feeling, her sight returned, and to her surprise, she found herself hovering above the turnip fields, caught in the beams of the moon, free and fluid and swimming in the light like a fish in the North River. She saw her body standing still in the field, frozen and solid like a statue, yet she did not care. Instead, she turned to the moon, and it called to her, drawing her into its realm like a moth to a flame.

And just like that, she was in her body again, Sister’s husband shaking her and yelling her name to awaken her from her trance. The gasp of air she took was long and deep and startled him into removing his hands from her shoulders.

Sister had given birth, and it wasn’t good. She was unconscious, and the baby was weak. Sister’s husband, fearing for both her and the baby, begged the Old Woman to use her gift regardless of how his wife felt about it. They both ran back to the house, finding Sister still unconscious along with the baby boy. The room was completely silent except for the large oak grandfather clock that had been their father’s. The tick-tock was thunderous in the Old Woman’s ears as she rushed to lay hands on her sister and her nephew.

Her gift worked. The baby and Sister would recover. And while Sister’s husband was grateful to the Old Woman, Sister was horrified. When she regained her strength, she threw the Old Woman out of the house, forbidding her from ever returning.

The Old Woman never spoke to Sister again. When they saw each other during festivals in the village, Sister ignored her, as did her husband. It was during this time that the Old Woman healed villagers openly. She delivered babies, and she walked out into open fields and flew toward the light of the moon. She was a healer, and if Sister didn’t love her, she at least had the love of the villagers. At least for a time.

#

The Mayor hated catastrophes; he never worked terribly well under pressure. He learned this fact with his first wife on the night of their honeymoon. He sometimes wondered why he had taken the job as village Mayor and then reminded himself that it was because of his second wife.

His second wife was power-hungry, a characteristic that he admired at first. She was beautiful and lusty with large breasts, rouge-hued cheeks, and a sultry mouth, bright with red or scarlet-pink lipsticks. She loved everything in decadent amounts: food, sex, money, and clothing. Everything. She had approached him like a svelte cat, long and tactile when he first met her at a harvest festival. Her breath warm and sweet and sticky. Her whispers made him shiver, and they married within the week. 

Their life started out simple, and the Mayor was content. This was before he was Mayor. This was when he spent the early evenings tending to his store while his wife donned fuchsia dresses and wore floral perfumes upon her breasts like protective armor, awaiting his return home to their marital bed.

Their nights were filled with her voracious appetites of the uncommon and unknown. He thought himself lucky. But life as the storekeeper’s wife soon grew dull, and his wife suggested he do something more with himself. It wasn’t long before he ran for mayoral office, and she finally was given the opportunity to dazzle guests with extravagant dinner parties and pretentious teas. 

So here he was, the Mayor of the village, sitting behind a massive rosewood desk, thumbing through mountains of paperwork, drinking cups of coffee with many tablespoons of sugar, and wishing for the days when he could sweep the entrance of his store in the afternoon light. He missed reading books in his office or spending time gazing at the moon on his stroll home after closing up shop. He wished for the days of silence. He wished for days when he could think, and the villagers weren’t falling ill, weren’t boney and angry and yelling at him to solve their issues, this sickness, this plague.

But it was his problem, his crisis; he knew this now. This plague was in his house, and his wife had it. She ate food all day to stop the emaciation that had etched itself on her pretty face. She kept warning him they should leave, that perhaps they could run away from the disease or at least find someone better than the Doctor.

“You’re looking weak around the eyes. Are you sure you’re not feeling different? Do you feel the hunger?” she asked him daily.

#

The Wife sat in her favorite chair beneath the canopy of blue jade flowers that stretched over the wood trellis, like an indigo serpent. She was wearing a long white linen dress and in her hand was a bouquet of yellow flowers. She looked at the flowers and listened to her husband in the distance, arguing with one of the staff from his office who had come to their house. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she could hear the heavy footsteps of the Mayor’s shoes on the wood floor as he paced and shouted. Sometimes his shouting was followed by brief periods of silence. She knew that these brief silences were when the staff person was speaking.

It had to be about the sickness. It was spreading rapidly and was out of control. Quarantining had done nothing, with most of the village now exhibiting symptoms. Symptoms she was all too familiar with. The constant hunger burned like a fiery pit in her belly, and her mind wandered often. She couldn’t focus on daily tasks anymore, and the bones in her back had begun to show. And the worst part was the way her mouth was cursed with an insatiable thirst that could not be satisfied.

“What have we done to deserve such a fate?” she wondered as she looked down at the flowers in her hand. She wanted to smell the bouquet, to make every minute count for something. No, that was a lie. She wanted to eat the flowers; she needed something in her stomach to quiet this hunger, but she was too weak to even lift her hand.

Her husband had been kind to her since she had become ill. He made her tea and ordered the cooks to prepare her favorite meals. He read to her when the moon hung high in the sky. His sudden change in demeanor had been a shock. Before the sickness, he had been distant with her. She told herself it was because he was busy running the village. But she knew better. She knew he was tired of her, tired of her voice. He showed no interest in her life. Her gardening and her work with the elderly were inconsequential to him. He asked her no questions and listened with only half an ear. It made her sad. No, it made her regret having married him so quickly after meeting him that night at the Autumn Feast.

She had been drawn to him immediately. The bonfires were burning high into the night sky, and music floated on the cool evening breeze. The smell of baked bread, cinnamon, and roasted fowl permeated everything, and the golden yam whiskey was plentiful. It was a joyous night, and everyone was talking, laughing, feasting, dancing, and feeling content.

He was dancing by himself, rather poorly, his dark hair cut short and his green eyes reflecting the moonlight like two gems. He was beautiful. He was also a mystery to her. Every time she went to his shop to buy flour or butter or rouge, he would nod his hello, ring her up, and go back to reading his books. She knew he was a widower and that his first wife had died in the North River. She knew that the entire village mourned her death and that her husband grieved for years by himself. But that was all. And she wanted to know more, wanted him to open himself to her, to let her in.

He had been drinking when she danced up to him, and when he finally saw her, he had smiled a slow and confident smile. The smile had captured her, and that night was filled with passion and hushed breaths as their naked bodies drank in the moonlight. He knew things, how to touch her, how to make her skin feel like fire. She was intoxicated by him, by his words, his eyes, his voraciousness. Everything. They were married within the week.

For a while, they had been happy. He tended the store and read his books. She gardened, was involved with the village council, and spent her days perfecting the various lip tints and herbal lotions she sold to the villagers. She was happy, and she thought he was, too. But he wasn’t.

Her husband was unhappy that she was respected in the village. At first, she told herself that she imagined his jealousy. When he made snide remarks about the time she spent making her herbal lotions or how the lipsticks she created made women look tacky, she hid her hurt feelings and wrote off his behavior as the result of a bad day. But every day seemed to be a bad day.

When he returned home from the shop, he complained about the time she spent with her friends drinking tea, or he argued that the clothes she wore were too revealing or too tight. He complained that her perfume would attract other men, and so she stopped wearing it to appease him. She never argued or tried to defend herself. She just took it. Every marriage had its problems, she reasoned. And he did love her, after all.

When the old Mayor died, her husband told her he wanted the job, and like a good wife, she encouraged him to run. And he did, and he won. She thought that being mayor would make him happy. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so displeased with her role in the village. Unfortunately, his new position didn’t improve their relationship, and she was more alone than ever.

And then the sickness had come. It came abruptly and without warning. One by one, she watched as friends and fellow villagers became ill. She was afraid, but felt it was important to hide her fear and help where she could. She volunteered at The Doctor’s clinic and attempted to console patients as treatment after treatment failed. So many people became sick that the Doctor finally admitted there was nothing he could do, and as the hunger in patients progressed, they became more erratic, violent, and irrational. One day, a patient bit her on the arm while she was attempting to change their bedding. The young man looked older than his years from the emaciation, and as she yelped, pulling her arm from his mouth, revealing angry tooth marks, he looked at her with a combination of shame and hunger and something else, something she could not quite identify.

Some weeks later, she too became sick. It started as a slow burn in her stomach that built each day. She devoured food to try and satisfy her hunger to no avail. She had the sickness, and there was nothing anyone could do. The Mayor took care of her. He listened to her when she talked. He washed her body, fed her, and brought her out to sit in her garden, where she spent her days looking at flowers and wishing for death.

#

The Mayor met with his council at noon. The meeting room was hot, unbearably hot. His council babbled as usual as they ferociously looked through documents, but today a new hint of urgency had entered the room. It was because of the Doctor. The Doctor said that this new disease could not be cured, that it consumed its victims in a matter of weeks, that it was a painful death, a cruel death. It was impossible to determine the vector of the disease. The village was in chaos. Folks were terrified, and there was nothing more that he could do.

The silence after the Doctor’s admission of defeat was deafening. It was the first time the meetings had been silent and peaceful as if the idea of impending doom had finally placated the council. Then Elkar spoke.

“What of the Witch on the hill? Perhaps she can help?”

Elkar’s voice was deep, loud, and authoritative, a quality that did not match his unassuming appearance. Silence followed his question for what seemed to be an eternity until the Doctor finally spoke. “What can the Old Woman possibly do?”

The council members took this as a sign to get involved in the conversation and instantly argued about the Old Woman. Yes, what of the Old Woman? She was a witch, but she was not to be trusted. Perhaps it was her fault that this terrible plague had befallen their village. Others whined she was just a silly Old Woman, that her powers resulted from old-fashioned superstition. The Mayor listened to the chatter and felt a chill come over him as the discussion turned dark.

#

The Old Woman heard about the sickness from the birds. They told her one morning while she was gathering juniper roots. They chirped she should be careful, that darkness had befallen the village. She had seen terrible illness in her lifetime. She had seen babies die; she had cried in her sleep when she wasn’t allowed to help them because of those fearful of her skills. She learned during her youth that, just like her healing, death was an essential part of life. Some things were out of her control.

She first learned this one day, years ago, while she was crawfishing on the North River and came across a woman floating face down. The woman was dressed all in white, her black hair swirling around her like kelp beds. The Old Woman pulled her out of the water, and once she had wrestled her into her canoe, she found she had no breath. She quickly stripped the woman of her clothing, exposing her pale, cold naked body. It was the first time the Old Woman tried to heal someone so close to death. 

After several attempts to heal the woman, she realized that her typical laying of hands would not suffice. It wasn’t until the Old Woman stripped herself of clothing and used her entire body as a healing conduit that she was able to resuscitate the river’s victim. Once resuscitated, the woman cried for days and days and eventually drowned herself again. 

The first time the Old Woman saw the sickness was the day the villagers came for her. They came in the evening beneath the light of the moon. They came howling and shouting about evil and hunger. The Old Woman knew her time had come, and a gray sadness washed over her. She wrapped her hair in a silver cloth and washed her hands and feet with oil. She crushed the root of a gonder as they banged on her door and rubbed it on her forehead right before they grabbed her and dragged her into an angry snarl.

#

The Doctor saw the Old Woman in the village square. The sickened villagers were poking and jabbing at her, yelling curses and spitting in the dark. They begged her to heal them one moment, and then the next, they admonished her for being a witch. A huge voracious fire burned in a pit, and wood was tossed onto it, its flames flickering against the black of the sky as the scene played below.

The Old Woman did not cry out as they beat her. Instead, she looked serene, as if she was seeing and feeling something completely different. She looked up at the moon, a milky gaze filling her eyes and a serene smile suddenly coming over her face. She looked above, past their fists and their feet. She brought one hand to her face, pressing her index finger between the space between her eyes and then a whoosh of wind and silence.

While the villagers murmured amongst themselves, the Doctor looked to the sky, and up at the moon, a look of disbelief on his face as an opaque silhouette swam in the moonlight and disappeared amongst the stars.

#

The Old Woman swam. She swam in magnificent light. The moonbeams were warmer than she had ever felt, and they melted into her as she floated higher and higher into the atmosphere. She did not look back at her old life below. Instead, her heart was full with the light of a million stars, and she was sated. She was free. And then she saw them dancing in a mighty ring in the light, swathed in ivory, singing songs she had only dreamed of, the reflection of the stars in the onyx of their skin. She knew she was finally home.

#

It was time to leave. The sickness had run its course through the village, and it was finally silent after weeks of death, of suffering. It was time to move on, and the Mayor was packing his things. He packed his pipe, whiskey glasses, some of his most cherished tomes, and clothing. He paused by the window and watched the scene below. The streets were quiet. The trees were barren, and the wind was blowing. A full moon hung high in the sky.

The smell of death still lingered, and the aroma turned his stomach. He needed to leave this place. He looked at his thin wrists and grimaced to himself. They were boney, and his veins protruded through his skin like the roots of an alabaster tree. He paused and whispered the words that needed to be said. The words that no one knew were his. The words that he controlled but sometimes did not.

The words worked their way into his flesh, breaking the illusion of starvation, his hands and arms, and body regaining the appearance of health. He sighed in relief and swallowed the tar of the words, grateful that they had chosen to listen, to stop.

He put his sack near the door and got to the task of prying the floorboards up from their temporary resting place. The gentle pop of the boards as they loosened their hold on the floor comforted him. He carefully laid the wood panels to one side and reached into the darkness. Then his face filled with fear as he frantically felt around his hiding place.

“Looking for this?”

Elkar suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway. He was holding an ornately carved wood box calmly in his hands. The Mayor struggled to his feet, alarmed.

“Surprised, I see. The waste does nothing to me. Just as it does nothing to you and nothing to the Witch on the hill.” Elkar casually examined the exterior of the box almost nonchalantly.

The Mayor remained silent, his eyes trailing down to the box in Elkar’s hands. He could tell him, tell him how things had gotten out of control, how he hadn’t meant for any of this to happen. That his mother had warned him about saying the words that forced their way from his mouth, the words that did not always follow his commands and ran haywire like the wind. But he knew, he knew, somehow it wouldn’t matter. Nothing ever did, and so he eyed a large butcher knife out of the corner of his eye and contemplated whether he would need to use it against the old man if the words didn’t listen to him this time.

Elkar slowly opened the box. Inside was a tangle of braided roots, gnarled and ancient in design, twisted and wise beneath the pale moonlight offered by a nearby window.

The Mayor slowly edged his way to the counter where the knife lay and finally spoke as Elkar closed the box’s lid. The words that flowed from his mouth came out in a hiss. They stung the surrounding air. They were strong, twisted, vile, and without rhythm. These words were deadly, and the Mayor knew this. These were words that had been his mother’s, words that did not hesitate. They caused neither waste nor sickness, just death.

Elkar looked at him wearily and shook his head. “Be careful with those words. They aren’t meant for speaking.”

“You should be careful with that box. It was my mother’s,” the Mayor countered as he inched closer to the knife.

Elkar’s eyes flashed with understanding as if some great conundrum was solved. “Your mother… the turnip farm… the Witch’s sister?”

It was as much of a question as it was a statement. Elkar looked to the left of him, an empty space between himself and the frame of the door. He spoke as if someone were there, almost pleading. “So, this is how it ends? This is how I rest?”

He waited, his face relaxing, his body suddenly vibrating, his skin blurring and turning an onyx hue. His large ears shrank, and the wizen face became smooth, and a halo of cloud-like hair grew slowly from his scalp, unfolding like a great fan in the breeze. Elkar’s body stretched, and the old skin sloughed off and fell to the floor. Curiously, so did the bones of many, many mudfish. Elkar stood tall, all seven feet of him towering over the Mayor. He was naked and young and Owusu. His eyes were filled with thunder, and he turned them down at the Mayor.

No other words were spoken, and there was a last moment of confusion as the Mayor lunged for the knife. However, he did not make it, for there was a whirl of light that emanated from Elkar, and then there was nothing. No Elkar and no Mayor. All that was left was the smell of ozone and a remnant of root from the box that was charred and dead.

And there was moonlight.


E.N. Dunn has a background in cultural resources, public outreach, and community health. Raised on Hawaii Island, Dunn uses the natural environment to inspire her writing. She currently resides in the small town of Hilo and spends her spare time gardening, writing, and tending to her three pet goats. .


“The Worm” Dark Sci-Fi by Jesse Rowell

"The Worm" Dark Science-Fiction by Jesse Rowell

If the National Ministry of Peoples found out about me, they would drag me to the center of the town square and hang me. I’ve watched it on the state news. Political prisoners, men and women and children who dare to speak out against the regime, or those who have grown too weary to abide.

            They could be forgiven for not giving the Ministry’s soldiers their water, their bread. They could be forgiven for not burning their books that the Ministry demanded. They could be forgiven, but they are executed. So the rest of us fools, meek as mice, cower and whisper and nod submissively, but underneath it all our anger turns like a worm in our hearts.

            I am a Dev. I spend hours facing an old computer monitor working for the Ministry of Advanced Technology. Simple tasks, reading citizens’ emails and social networking messages, spying on the populace through a pixilated filter. When the General isn’t monitoring my activity, I send encrypted messages, try to warn the professors and political activists, but they are always captured and disappear. I’m left monitoring their empty email folders, walls that won’t update.

            “You’ve been summoned,” the General says resting his hand on my shoulder.

            “Summoned?” I ask. I have never heard of somebody from our group being summoned. I look around at the other Devs before staring up at the General. “Summoned for what?”

            “The Minister of Justice and Peace made the request. Official channels.”

            My heart freezes. The worm stops turning inside. “The Minister…” I trail off.

            “Yes, the Minister himself. I’m sure it is nothing you can’t help him with. He has a particular challenge that requires your specific talents.”

            “It is with great pride,” I say. “That I serve the National Party with humility. I hope that I can assist tomorrow as my wife and daughter have dysentery and I must get them their ration of water.” I know they’re waiting for me, huddled together on our bed, shivering with fever.

            “They can wait,” the General says. “I will personally attend to your family as you will be taken to the palace forthwith.”

            Who has sold me out? I try to comprehend this betrayal as the palace guards, two doltish and lumbering brutes, escort me through the town square. The interminable town square, wide enough to swallow oceans. The guards boots click against its cobblestones. I can’t feel my limbs, tingling and numb, as we pass Grecian columns. The same columns that sit on our paper currency. Our country’s worthless currency, devalued like my life.

            The Minister’s Attendant, a slender man with a slender mustache, meets me at the palace entrance. I hate the sight of this man, the caterpillar crawling above his absent upper lip. I hate the sight of the interior of the palace, its gilded vases and candles, it’s paintings of our National Minister. It looks like a goddamn church inside here.

            “Ah, good,” the Attendant says. “I’ll show you to the network closet.”

            “Network closet?” I ask, holding my relief cautiously in check.

            “Yes, network closet. You are familiar with what a network closet is, aren’t you?”

            Network closet better not be a euphemism for an execution chamber. I mumble something nonsensical wishing I could drive a screwdriver through the back of this man’s neck.

            He leads me through a narrow hallway to a door. A naked bulb illuminates a network closet. All of the cross-cables have been ripped out, multicolored copper wires littering the floor.

            “Evidence of vindictive sabotage,” he whispers, his voice a thread and needle weaving through my ear. “You must fix it. Posthaste.”

            “Shut up,” I tell the man. “Let me concentrate.” Inside I’m cheering the efforts of the previous workman who has damaged the palace’s telecommunications, but my shoulders sink upon the realization that I will now be the one fixing it. If I don’t I will be met with the same end as the saboteur.

            The Attendant’s face puckers as I waive him off. “Now, see here,” he sputters. “Nobody tells me to shut up.”

            “No, I will not waste a second of the Minister’s time.” I’m beginning to enjoy kicking this little bureaucrat. I have the power. He is dependent upon me completing this job. “I must attend to this disaster immediately. Who damaged these cables? Have you caught the perpetrator?”

            His face falls, and he cowers like a dog whose owner holds a rolled up newspaper over his nose. I almost feel sorry for him. What if he is a brother in arms like me, working from the shadows to bring down the Ministry? He could have been the one who trashed the network panel. And I have become the iron heal of the regime breaking his spirit.

            “Well, brother?” I ask to test him.

            “We are trying to locate the perpetrators,” he says,