“The Man” Dark Fiction by Abigail Plitt

Emerson jolted up in bed. Panting. Sweating. Blinking chaotically, trying with all her might to erase the image from her sight. She carefully pushed the heel of her right hand into her right eye as the room slowly started filling itself in.

It took a few moments of excruciating heart palpitations, but her vision finally came back. The tattered gray comforter had been violently pushed down to the end of the bed. The black steel bedframe caught it and the not-so-white sheets before they could meet the ground. The wall was a deep gray, half from the countless previous tenants and half from the midmorning gloom. A brown dresser sat snug against the wall at the foot of the bed. Well, a sorry excuse for a dresser really. A desk sat next to it and the front door followed close thereafter. There weren’t many pictures that adorned the walls, but the ones that did were crooked and all the glass had been dulled over with dust for quite some time. The queen-size bed took up the middle of the room. To the left, a window spanning the entirety of her humble studio apartment. To the right, the kitchen and bathroom. An exposed, dimming yellow bulb swung slightly as the trains outside blasted through this side of town. The cupboards were barely screwed into the walls, they had shaken loose over the years. She feared one might fall soon. The bathroom was also next to her bed. The mirror was dirty and broken. The sink had trails of brown and orange crawling up from the drain. The tap was perpetually tapping. Plnk. Plnk. Plnk.

Emerson slowly peeled herself from the bed to stand next to the window on her left. It was bleak outside. Living on the edge of New York City, it was a normal occurrence. Her apartment looked down on the train yard across the street. They came through every fifteen minutes or so and painted the sky a puffy gray or black, depending on the company. So, there wasn’t much to look at.

Emerson sighed as she pulled her eyes back to the room. A small clock read 6:47 AM on her desk. Rubbing her eyes again, she stutter stepped to the bathroom sink. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had a full night’s rest. It had become a routine to wake up in a panic and throw cold water on her face before it hit seven. And most nights she drank away the fear until two or three in the morning. The less time I’m asleep, the less I have to fear.

If only that was true.

She stared into the web of cracks that spawned from the bottom right corner. A drunken rage had done that. A few pieces were scattered on the tile below, no thanks to the trains. A yellow bulb flickered, dust sank down from the cracked ceiling, and hundreds of Emerson’s stared back at her. The dark circles under her eyes had grown, her eyes almost unrecognizable, being as bloodshot and tired as they were.

She shook herself from the staring contest and bent down, shoving her hands in the icy water. Closing her eyes, she brought them to her face. Her whole, boney body shook. It was freezing. She hadn’t paid the bills to get the heat back for a few months. The alcohol would warm her up instead. She put her hands back in the water and then back to her face.

Leaving the bathroom, she went to the kitchen to the stack of unopened letters that had accumulated on the counter. Shuffling through them, she sighed. Bills she couldn’t pay, a letter telling her to move by the end of the month, and a letter from her ex-husband telling her that while he still loved her, he couldn’t be with her until she quit the bottle. Tossing them back to the counter, she grabbed the half empty Jameson bottle and took a swig.

“He thinks I’m crazy. It’s not the bottle making me see what I do, I see what I see because it’s real.” She half-heartily laughed sitting at her desk. A dainty gold ring with a humble diamond sat next to the clock. She glanced at it as she took another drink.

He was great man, he still cared but he thought her to be crazy. Whenever Emerson had an episode, his anger grew more. Why couldn’t she be normal? It was the damned bottle. It poisoned her mind. He thought.

Emerson could never bring herself to hate him. But she knew what she saw. It was real. And he never believed her.

Every night, since she was little, The Man would be there. In her room. When she was little, she would crawl into bed and hear a wheezing breathing coming from under her bed. She never moved; in fear it might hurt whatever it was. She had hoped it was a puppy. She was sorely mistaken.

Eventually, as she got older, the wheezing became a chuckle. But it wasn’t happy, it was distorted and sinister. It sent chills up her spine. She always had her mother or father check under the bed for the source in the mornings as she stood back, fearing she might see a hand with claws grab one of them by the face and drag them to the unknown underneath. But they simply stood back up and patted her on the head, congratulating her on her active imagination.

And once she had met John, things got even worse. They would crawl into bed together at night, as married couples do. For a while there was nothing, and Emerson was relieved. But a few weeks into the marriage things took a turn. A hand would appear at the foot of the bed. Yellowish-gray and rotted, it would caress the covers as it searched for one of their feet. She would scream and scream until John woke and checked, but to no avail.

About a year into the relationship, she finally saw it. Or him. He was a tall man, about six foot seven if she had to guess. He wore a darker suit with a fedora type hat. From a distance he looked like a normal businessman. And then she saw his face. His eyes were abnormally shaped, the right one bigger than the left. There were no irises to them, just the black soulless pupils. His mouth was V-shaped forming a hideous smile only to reveal grotesque teeth. His nose protruded from his face in such an offensive way it almost balanced the smile. His fingers were long and pointy. He stood in the corner of the room and stared, humming a disturbing tune no one would know.

That was the day John stopped. The day Emerson felt her life ended. When her drinking became a bigger problem than it had been. Normally, when her and John were together, she would only have one or two before bed every night. Claiming it would help her to sleep better if she drank. But that day was the day that she began going to the drink for comfort. The weeks after that she began as soon as she woke up in a fit. Those weeks were a blur for her. And by the end of the month, John was fed up and done. He had left her mentally and emotionally that fateful day, but by month end she came back from the liquor store to an empty apartment and the letter from the counter was on the bed.

I love you, but your heart favors another. Whether it’s the bottle or this thing you see, I don’t know. But until you favor yourself or us, I can’t be here Emmy.

He was the only one to ever call her Emmy. And a normally endearing name hurt so much then. “Bullshit.” She muttered in tears. “Flat out bullshit. ‘Til death do us part’ bullshit.”

It had been over a year now. She picked up the ring and admired it, setting down the bottle. The diamond slightly glinted in the light. It needed cleaning. It hadn’t moved since that day. She took it off and set it on the desk, picking up the bottle instead.

As she admired it, a tune she didn’t know came from behind her. It was raspy, with a slight whistle. She whipped around to find the source, but there was nothing. No man stood in the room. She put the ring down without turning around and went to the door, hoping it had been someone outside in the hall, but she heard nothing. She checked the clock. Eight AM. No one would be up at eight on a Saturday and she knew it.

She turned back to the room and caught a slight shadow disappear into the bathroom. Fear and anger surged through her body. She had to end this and she knew it. It’s ruined everything. My husband left me. The bottle does nothing. My life is ruined. She approached the slightly closed bathroom door, put her hand on the door and thrust it open. Nothing.

Emerson put her hands on her head and began pulling her brown hair. Tears streamed down her face, reality setting in. It wasn’t just in bed she was being attacked anymore. This was too far.

“Show yourself you fucking monster!” She screamed. She turned back to the room. A rope sat on the dresser that hadn’t been there before. She stared for a moment and hurriedly began looking around for the man. Finally she turned back to the bathroom. Nothing. Still fucking nothing. When she turned back around, the rope was tied to the ceiling ending with a noose and the desk chair faced her directly under it. And then she saw it.

In the corner by the window his yellowish gray flesh was decorated with gaping holes. The suit was pristine and the hat perfectly in place. The wheezing breathing from when she was a child was all she heard. He didn’t move, not even blink. They were locked in this staring contest. But when she blinked, he was gone, but the noose wasn’t.

The police chief and John stood outside the apartment. John had asked for a wellness check, having not heard from Emerson in over a year. The landlord had given the police chief a key at the front desk to let themselves in if need be. Neither of them knew what was on the other side.

Her feet swung three feet from the ground. The desk chair lay next to her shadow on the floor, obviously kicked out from underneath. There were empty bottles filling the trash can. There was one half gone bottle on the desk. The bed was not made. The bathroom was in disarray. The kitchen was falling apart. John and the police chief stood in the room in horrified awe. Tears welled in Johns eyes as he looked at his blue wife.

“I’m gonna be sick,” clasping his mouth, John ran out. The police chief walked to the desk looking for a note only to find an engagement ring on top of a letter dated from a year ago. “I love you but your heart favors another.” The chief, careful not to touch anything, stepped back out to call for help to clean up the scene.

Emerson hung alone now. She slightly turned as the chief was waiting for backup. The air was still. Nothing moved. A train sounded off in the distance.

And while the train sounded all that was left for the corpse to hear was the small raspy tune that mirrored a child’s tune. The voice was raspy and whistly, but the words rang clear.

Emerson woke up in the morn-ning.

Emerson drank again.

Emerson woke up in the morn-ning.

And now Emmy is dead.


Bio pending.


“No Mercy for the Little Snakes” Dark Fiction by Kim Harrison

The church people threw me from the garden, because I gave them snakes.  That showed them who I was.  I taught them the age-old lesson.  Treat people with respect. 

Don’t play God with a flawed human being.

I gathered serpents from the hills, with my watchful ways and my grabbing stick.  The church people awakened the savage side of me, for they saw only my weaknesses.  “We want to make you strong, Josh,” they said, but what they desired was perfection.  They always found a flaw.

The congregation took me in when I was down.  They desired to change a sinner into a saint.  I became their project. 

“A 25-year-old man with your high IQ should be able to find work anywhere,” they said.

They didn’t understand that the human world turns away from anyone attempting to build an identity independent of its yoke.

First, Mom and Dad kicked me out. 

“We want the snakes and feeder mice gone from the basement,” they said.

Parents are supposed to support their children.  The animals stank some, but real life is not a Garden of Eden.  I loved snake sweat.  For me, it breathed the aroma of truth.

I drove my van across town to the Lafayette Church, told the elders I had no shelter.  Stocky, brown suited Pastor Jackson found me a cheap room at his “Sundowner Motel.”  He granted my first month rent-free. 

“We are giving you a chance,” Jackson intoned, staring at me with his shiny amber eyes.  But no-one gives something for nothing.

Lafayette Church was one of the few heritage buildings out in that part of the country that’s neither suburb nor rural, neither town nor country.  Few people knew it was the site of a lynching.  A hundred-ten years past, several men accused of murder were hung from the rafters by local vigilantes.

The congregation called this place a sanctuary.  They downplayed the stories.

 “It was so long ago,” they told me.  “Times have changed, we cleansed this place with our holy forgiveness.”

I didn’t believe it.  I sensed a presence there, a faint stench, and if ghosts existed, I had empathy.  I could be a phantom myself, peering out from behind my body shell, acting like others wanted, but holding my true self like a wraith within.

In my van at 3 a. m., I rolled my head back and forth, viewed dark shapes of tree branches waving in the wind outside, scratching on the roof. I thought of the snakes in the back of my vehicle, hissing and slithering in their covered boxes.  I tucked myself back in the sleeping bag.  The serpent presence calmed me.  I awaited, still and patient, though the wee hours.

I kept at least six rattlers in the two covered boxes.  Two were my pets, Saxon and Jessica.  They sensed my hand feeding them the mice.  The other snakes were babies I picked up in the hills.  I stored the serpents and the mice in my unit at the Sundowner Motel.  Like my parents, the manager complained about the smell.

“Is the toilet blocked?” he’d ask.  “Perhaps there are dead rats in the walls.”

It would be only a matter of time until he discovered my pets and told Pastor Jackson to kick me out.

I lifted the snake blanket and peered in, watched the slithering shadows.  The brain of a snake is smaller than a pea.  It doesn’t understand the meaning of mercy, or justice.

                                                                             ********

Pastor Jackson and his brethren Don Fairclaw and Nathan Trabant gave me jobs at their businesses.  Menial ones few would take.  Dishwasher, car detailer, truck unloader.  They were ungrateful, they kept pointing out my mistakes. At Fairclaw Cafe, Don showed me dried food and scratches on several pots.  I told him they were ninety-five per cent clean.  He should expect scratches from the steel wool he provided for the job.  Yet Fairclaw couldn’t give me a break.  I told him only Jesus could miraculously clean the pots like he wanted.  I quit. A couple of days later, I busted my gut hauling out the grease pail at Trabant’s fried chicken place. A trifling amount spilled over onto the driveway.  It wasn’t my fault some old lady tripped on the slick spot and bruised her hip. She should watch where she’s walking.  Trabant told me I was too hasty and reckless.  I told him to hire his grandmother.

The church’s expectations are high.  Everything has to be perfect like the Garden of Eden.  Why can’t people focus on the good?

I cleaned their church for them. I did it for nothing, to help with my rent at that junkie motel, and still that big-bellied gap-toothed Pastor told me I needed to vacuum more around the pews.  He picked up some stuck gum and showed me I missed it, he said I bumped the wood with the vacuum cleaner and took some chips out.   I told him I needed coffee in the morning and with a lot of coffee I keep moving fast.  I completed the job in double quick time, giving for the sake of giving, but no one noticed that.  You have to expect some wear and tear if you want a fast job done. The pastor took what he called “damage money” out of my pay.  Then he complained about mice poop in the candlesticks, too much dust on the altar, a cracked toilet lid.  On and on. “Yes, we know you do good things too,” the Pastor said.  “But you have to be more careful.”  My blood churned. I could’ve snapped back, but I bided my time.

Pastor Jackson advised me to attend the church twice a week, “it’s good for your troubled soul.” I met Caitlin at the youth service, a cute, chestnut haired girl who crossed her legs and moved them back and forth restlessly.  Her parents had sent her to a recovery center, to get away “from bad influences.”  She came back detox clean but chafing.  I could tell.  She bit her fingernails to the quick.  She came up to me and fidgeted, “You sing good Josh,” and then she laughed. “A real gospel boy.” 

We listened to the youth band, then I offered Caitlin a walk by the lake.  She talked angrily, full of complaints.  “They’re all hypocrites,” she said.  “Their drug is Jesus.”  She touched the end of my pointy nose.  “You look like a guy who likes to get high,” and I said, “anything to escape this boring town.”

After the next meeting I bought a bottle of vodka.  Caitlin seemed a lot happier.  “I’m not supposed to touch this,” she winked.  I advised “act straight, I’ve got breath mints.”   We sidled down to the lake and necked awhile.  It took a week or two for her dad to find out about our evenings.  He raised hell with the pastor.  “Why did you bring this troublemaker in to influence my daughter?”

They ordered Caitlin back to detox.  Pastor Jackson loomed before me, heavy face above his wide brown jacket.  “Josh, I forgive you this trespass.  But no more youth meetings.”  His big brown eyes looked empty and weary.  In fact, I think he even shook his head in a sorrowful manner.  Yet it was Caitlin’s own choice to imbibe the liquor, to leave the garden.  I was never really in Eden, I guess, but I tried my best.  From Caitlin’s departure on, Pastor Jackson only allowed me to attend the Sunday service.  “Sit more to the front,” he stated.  “So we can keep an eye on you.”

That was enough.  I’ve always been a guy who sits at the back.  I’ll show them they can’t keep pushing a man who craves independence of thought and action.

                                                                       ***

A janitor is trusted with the keys to the church.  I parked under the trees at the back, pulled on my long leather gloves and grabbed the first snake container with both hands.  It wasn’t heavy, but bulky with life.  Saxon resided within, the thickest rattler.  He sported black diamond markings and a rattle fifteen rings long.  Jessica, a smaller but much more active viper, slithered around him.  She usually took quick offence and struck at any movement.  I could feel her hit at her container lid.  I held tight to the box, ducked behind bushes, stooped under a windowsill.  I set my burden down by the steps, used my spare key to open the door.

I hefted the container through the darkened church and pushed it under the decorated covered prayer table with all the heavy books on it.  I looked up for a moment at the rafters, caught a distant scent.

It wasn’t strong, yet it wasn’t faint, slightly musty old flowers mixed with damp.

I reached under the snake container and lifted the latch.  Then I ran back and carried the container with the four other reptiles, placed it under the altar.  I snuck out fast, unable to hold in my satisfied chuckles at completing this challenging personal assignment.

I arrived early for that morning’s Sunday service, and mingled with the congregation. 

Light shone through the stained-glass windows, casting red and orange along the beige painted walls.  I stared up at the ceiling, and the crossed wooden beams.  As we sung the first hymn, I imagined a long writhing body twisting its way along the floor, its colours merging with the brown wood.  Silent, instinctual, the phantom creature slid out into the main church area where several musicians played guitars and piano, and the choir belted out a spirited “Amazing Grace.”  The slithery creature stopped, coiled, its tongue flicked the air to find smells and location.  The screams began. 

That’s what I hoped. 

I carried anti-venom in my pocket.  I’d use it, become the hero if anyone was bitten.  Or I wouldn’t, depending on my mood.

I sat beside Sally Coldicott, a fat legged woman with a big smile.

“I know you’ve been through troubles” she said.  “We must forgive, you know.  And you must forgive us, too.”

“Forgive you for what?” I asked her.

Sally shook her head. 

“For judging.  I heard about the problems with your janitor work.  Marvin Peterkin at the deli needs a counter worker.  I could put in a word for you.”

I smiled then.  “Sure,” and craned my neck, searching for the snakes.  I thought Sally might wonder why I didn’t look her in the eye.  So, I looked. “What’s the sermon about today?” I asked.

It’s on forgiveness,” she said.  “Exactly what we’ve been talking about.”

I went with her for communion, scanning the floor for Saxon.  I perceived only expensively shoed feet.  At the sermon’s end, everyone filed out to shake the Pastor’s hand.

“Glad you could be with us today, Josh,” Jackson said. 

He looked me in the eye and I faced him back.

“Yes, I’m glad to be here too,” I said.

My thoughts felt scattered.  I’d set free the snakes, but when I looked at Pastor Jackson I awakened to the possible rashness of my impulse.  In my wish to cause chaos, in the thrill of the prank, I acted hastily, full of ego and hubris.  I should’ve realized the snakes would hide.  Serpents know fear, as much as us.

Later, I drove by the church.  All appeared oddly quiet.  I parked on a hill and lay in the back of the van, rolling my head back and forth.

“Please let Saxon and Jessica be okay,” I chanted. 

At 1 a. m. I drove back to the church again.

All was shadow as I opened the church door.  My eyes slowly became accustomed to the blackness.  I leaned down, peeked under the altar.   The snake container sat there, a dark bulk.  I reached forward, pulled it towards me, knowing now I’d unfastened the latch, but forgot to open the door.  I shone my flashlight. The baby snakes remained inside the box.  Despite my earlier regrets, I could not resist the temptation to set them free. I lifted the blanket, opened the door, and let the blanket fall.

I kept my light low, groped my way to the prayer table, bent down, peered under.  I reached my hand in to pull Jessica’s container towards me.  A musty odour wafted down from the ceiling, distracting me.  I looked up as a sharp pain seared my palm.  I flicked my hand back.  Another sting jabbed into my arm.  My light showed Jessica writhing out from under the table, slithering past me.  I leaped away, my heart pounding, the boom boom boom the rock of life that moved me from one moment to the next, the rhythm beat out of control.  I swayed and dropped my light.  It rolled under some pews.

Something moved above me.  I peered towards the ceiling.  Shadows dangled.  I tried to make sense of the forms, scattered among the rafters.  Low murmurs came to my ears. 

I yanked my anti-venom from my pocket, pushed the apparatus against my shoulder muscle.  The needle went in, but the syringe would not push.  I sat at a pew, pulled up my pant leg to stick the needle just above my knee.  Again, the needle went in but I couldn’t push the liquid down.  My hand started to throb; my heart pounded.  Jessica and Saxon slithered somewhere nearby, in the dark.

I heard the murmurs again, from the rafters. “Sinner, you must pay.  Sinner, you must pay.”

I pulled out my phone.  Survival was the main thing. I pushed a button with my good hand to turn the device on.  Nothing happened.  I tried again.  Nothing.  I stood up, dizzy, kept my injured arm low.  The voices sounded again, deep like chanting monks “Sinner, you must pay.”

I staggered down the aisle.  The musty smell in the background became a reek.  I reached the door and tried to push down the latch.  Nothing moved.  I tried again, slamming my good shoulder into the door, with the same result.  No give.  I lurched towards the back exit.  As I passed the altar, Saxon’s bulky shadow lay there, coiled up and ready to strike.  I backed away as fast as I could, ran and pounded on the exit door.  The air stank like snake.  I looked up at the ceiling.  My eyes imaged

funnel like shadows, then the outlines of feet and bodies hanging, swaying from the rafters.  Their hooded faces gaped down at me.  I couldn’t perceive their eyes, only hollows.  The forms dangled, ropes around their necks.

I swayed like them, crashing back and forth between the pews.  I grabbed a candlestick, moved to a stained-glass window, and punched with the heavy object.  It bounced off the surface.  I punched again and again.  My good hand hit the window glass.  Blood dripped from my knuckles, and the window stayed intact.

“You stay with us,” the voices called.  “Suffer with us, sinner.”

I lurched over to the light switches, turned them on one by one.  If someone noticed, they’d investigate.  The lights stayed off.  The hanging shadow forms murmured louder.  A humming vibration enveloped everything. 

I knelt in front of the altar.  “Forgive me, forgive me!” I repeated over and over, my head bowed in supplication, my swollen arm and hand cradled to my breast.  I turned, looked above.  Eyes showed in the hollow shadows there, dark eyes staring down at me. 

“No mercy!  No mercy for you who judged us wrong!” the voices boomed, in a repetitive rhythm sounding all the way inside my heart, until the snake stench and the booms filled my nose and ears and I tore at the bites with my teeth, trying to suck the poison out.

“Let me go!”  I cried.

“You judged us wrong,” the voices sang.

Indeed, I was the one who chose to punish.  I was the one who let go the snakes.

I turned to the altar.  The first dawn light lay upon it, from through the stained-glass windows.  Saxon lay coiled above me, flicking his tongue.  I looked away from his eyes, hard and brown like two inset jewels.

“I am sorry I betrayed you,” I told him, and fell to the floor.

The front door crashed open, and the lights came on.  The church shimmered in white brilliance.  The voices ceased; I raised my head.  Saxon no longer loomed above.

Pastor Jackson stood over me.

“My God, what happened to you?” I heard him yell.

“Snakebite,” I whispered.  “There are vipers here.”

After a long time of fever and heat I awakened in the hospital.  I could move my left arm, but not my right.  The snake odour and the chanting lingered.  After a long while I tried to move my right arm again.  Nothing.  It was like trying to open that church door, an impossible weight.  The outline of a nurse came to my consciousness.  She smelled of cleanser.

“I can’t move my arm!”  I shouted, and she whispered in a cracked and worn voice.  “It’s okay.  Sleep now.”

I tried moving that right arm for two days.  No success, it sat like a phantom, there but out of my control.  I noticed thick bandages all down my side. 

“The doctor had to amputate,” said the whispering nurse with the tiny jewel-blue eyes.

“She cut it off below the elbow.”

I gasped.  “That’s the price of my sin,” I told her.

She put her face close to my injured arm “What sin?”

“Did they find the snakes?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” she murmured.  “There are no snakes here.”

On the third day, the police came.  Congregant Sally Caldicott was with them.  She didn’t look at me.

“Your case is all over the news,” said a gaunt female officer.  “Tell us what happened in that church.”

I raised my head.  “I found flaws in the Garden of Eden,” I began.

Sally Caldicott spoke, while staring at the wall behind me.  “You set rattlesnakes loose among innocent people,” she said.  “You destroyed our trust.” She shook her head.  “I never knew what evil was until I found out what you did.”

“I don’t need forgiveness,” I said.  I raised my head and looked over at her.  “I can tell you, that church is no sanctuary.  It’s full of the suffering and the dead.”  My tears fell. “What happened to the little snakes?”

Sally stood up.  “They were all killed!  Pastor Jackson and the men hunted and shot them one by one!”  Flecks of spit flew from her mouth.  “Why?  Why did you do it?”

“You never gave them another chance,” I said.  “They were innocent beasts, acting on instinct.”  I pointed at my shoulder bandages.  “I forgive them.”

Sally waggled her finger.  “You are the devil!” she hissed.

The nurse stood by the window, shaking her head. “Come on ma’am.  Leave the sick boy alone.” 

She took Sally’s hand and led her away.

I told the police officers my story, all about the dangling, whispering shadows.

“The lynched ghosts knew what evil was,” I said.  “They locked the church so I couldn’t get out.  They stopped my anti-venom from working and kept me in there with them.” 

I whispered, more to myself than them. “That’s who I was to the hanging ones, a lyncher, judger and a spreader of chaos.”

One officer looked up.  “I received my just reward,” I told her.

The doctor assured me surgeons could fit a prosthesis to my shoulder.  I would be “almost as good as new” in a few months, if I obeyed the rehabilitation regimen.  

When I’m free of the justice system and its obligations I’ll move far away from Lafayette.  I’ll do dishwashing, auto detailing or janitor work in a different, unknown place.  This time I’ll scrub and wipe the pots and cars and floors totally clean, with humility and without complaint.

I dream always of the hanging phantoms.  They loom behind me, uttering “no mercy.”  I perceive their arms, swollen and dangling.  These ghosts are my conscience.  I forgive them their persistence, though I cannot forgive myself for the evil I did to those poor little snakes.


Ms. Harrison notes: “I live and write in Victoria, Canada.  Many of my stories are inspired by the years I worked as the teacher at a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.  My blog spot is here: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com . “


“Two Ways to Self-Destruction” Dark Fiction by Jimmy Webb

His letter waits on the table in one of your fancy envelopes. ‘Mum’ glides along the paper in his neat handwriting. You can’t open it. You so want to open it.

The bottle stands beside it, reflecting the declining closed-curtain light. You can see your silhouette in the glass. Not a clear picture. A murky reminder of who you are and who you were and who you’ll never be. The bottle’s gold crest protrudes, wanting to be stroked; the cap gleams, wanting to be unscrewed. You can’t open it. You so want to open it.

Bottle on the left, envelope on the right. Left. Right. Right. Left. This is you now, stranded at a crossroads. The rock and the fidget. The clawing at your thighs. The sit and the stand. A myriad of thoughts – regrets, memories of milestones, and which will destroy you first; the left or the right.

You’ll drown in poison or words.

You bang the heel of your hand left against your forehead, desperate to remember the moment he withered away. You think you should have probed further, should have pushed the school to help. You hear people say, ‘Fifteen. Poor boy. Poor mother.’ But the whispers are louder: ‘A mother should know? A mother should never let this happen to her son?’

The bottle calls to you. One little sip won’t hurt.

Maybe.

You grip the glass, and peer inside. You can already taste it. Tart but satisfying.

‘I don’t want you back in my life,’ you say, almost childlike.

Sshhhh. Let me take you away, Helen. Lose yourself. Don’t look back. Helen. Helen.         You cover your ears and squeeze shut your eyes. You see Jack in his rugby kit; his cheek smeared with mud. He is lying in the bath, peaceful, before deep red rises, rises, covering his face.

He was looking at you when you found him. At least, you thought he was, as if he was asking for help. You called, but he didn’t answer. You screamed, but he didn’t flinch. His cold face was beautiful, even then.

Mum.

You jolt forwards.

The crisp rip of the envelope crackles through your hands. It tremors up to your shoulders, charges your heart. The blood cascades through your veins. Each ratt and papp of the paper amplifies in your head and echoes around the room.

Inhale. Hold. Exhale.

The words swirl at first. When they settle, you take a sip. You taste every stroke, analysing the speed and variations of pressure. Now you’re guzzling the words. As you give into them, they flood to your head, making it spin, a little at first, then faster, until there’s thudding in your ears, a swell swill swell that spreads through your body, your face, which throbs with an urgent warmth and you try to ignore it, you pretend you’re okay because if you don’t, you’ll likely vomit. Then what? You could do it again. You could suffer the pain all over again like you want to, like you deserve, like he deserves.  

Helen!!

‘Shut up!!’

The explosion starts in your head. Then it’s at the corner of the table. Then all over the table. It’s in your shaking hand, shrapnel sticking out. It’s all over the carpet, up the wall. You imagine pulling the letter to your chest because you want to protect him. You want to keep him pure.

I’m sorry I pushed you away when I needed you close.

The words ring in your ears. They stand you up.

You grab the bottle and search for another. You take them up to the bath and run the water.

You pour a bottle into the water.

None of this is your fault.

You rest the letter on the side, lower yourself in, and hug the warmth that wraps around you.

You take the other bottle, tilt your head back, then slowly pour it onto your face and hair.

I’m so so sorry, Mum. Please don’t stop loving me.

‘Never.’

You lie back, submerge your head, and listen: Laughter at the beach. Tone-deaf singing from behind his door. Shouting at the rugby. Your slowing heart.

Mum.

You sit up, look at the letter.

You’re the strongest, bravest person I know. Please be those. Please just be.

You pull the plug and watch the demons drain away. Their stain leaves a line where below is murky and above is clear. You don’t take your eyes off this line. It’s so definite, like it will never break.


Jimmy is a short story and poetry writer who is also working on his first novel. He has work published in various journals and anthologies, and has been on the winners list in Henshaw Press competition, and Essex Book Festival Story Hunters Project.He can be found in the Twitterverse using _Jimmy​_san_


“Dr Liu & Her Box of Memories” Dark Fiction by Dan Sands

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens…” The patients’ sister was reading aloud to her as she slept off the ECT the Doctor had just inflicted upon her. Lying there like Snow White, the fairest girl of fairy tale, yet no miraculous prince would ever wake her. These words of Gimli were, to her, the most inspirational in the whole of that epic novel. Tattooed in their runic script around her wrist, they were as ten anchors, Dwarf smelted, stabilising her fragile glass-coffin mind in the chaotic sea of reality. “Maybe,” the sister continued, teary-eyed, though firm, as Elrond made his reply: “But let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.” That Elven response was to be inked permanent around the other wrist once Snow White was recovered, thanks to the Doctor.

The Doctor wore a long white coat, her black hair streaming down her back to her waist, and her hands held themselves in her pockets as she walked, each step echoing. She entered her office amid thunderous roars of storm from outside, the weather rumbling on the walls. Bolts of lightning streaked in refractions on the windows and her black-framed glasses. Her paperwork had to be done before she could vacate the building and drive home for the evening. She wrote that: …The patient has made great progress since the time we started treatment. She was then in no fit state, weeping and always close to violence, now she grows benevolent and pliant; she will recover well.

Signed:

Dr

That was how she, Dr Luna Liu, signed her name, with the Mandarin character she inherited from her father. was his name. He taught her calligraphy when she was a girl, intent on his daughter appreciating her heritage. “Our name, Liu,” he told her as she sat on his knee, a pop-up book full of whirling dragons, dazzling palaces and great walls. “is a name of the Han Emperors, who ruled China for more than four hundred years.” He looked down at his daughter who smiled sweetly up at him as he said: “Our name means kill originally…” and killing was a lot of what Dr Liu did; she killed the pasts of her patients.

As she left her office that night, her heels sending off clattering sounds in the corridors, she could not help but feel like the Wicked Queen. She had rendered Snow White in a stasis of seeming death, albeit through electrodes and anaesthesia instead of apple and comb. It was a cruel practice, but in its end there was kindness. The trauma the patient had sustained at the hands of her tormentors, enhanced beyond ordinary understanding by her bi-polar condition, would forever be diminished. She was, for all intents and purposes, a new woman, a clean slated being, the old one gone.

Gone, yes, but not forgotten.

Though she had effectively killed the person of Snow Whites’ past, the memories were still there, like small, black clouds in a sunny, blue sky of psyche. Her life would be retained, as with so many others, in the mind of Dr Liu. The voices, the abuse, the bad men, the drugs, the alcohol, the self-harm; it had all been written down, and the Doctor would recall it all, vividly, for the rest of her days.

The cost for her most recent customer had come to $13,000. Though steep as that sum might seem, the price of happiness to some is immeasurable. Dr Liu, however, was no wicked capitalist profiteering off the misery of her clients. After paying off her taxes and purchasing the necessities of life, what money she managed to save from her services enabled the progression of her secret project. She engaged with it as a mad scientist, downstairs in the dark, in her laboratory.

#

Journal Entry, 21 November 2024.

Presently ECT is the number one way on this earth to help one in leading a happy life if that person is so broken down that they are just not up to the task of living in a world of darkness and desperation; but it is not full proof.

This truth I had, unfortunately, learnt in the case of one schizophrenic boy. Seventeen-year-old Simon was so sweet and loving when outside of his melancholic episodes of psychosis. He did not improve, despite my treatment, and he became the first and (so far) only stain of suicide on the otherwise pristine record of Liu. Spurred on by his death, I have determined to pioneer this new method. One for those failed by ECT; my Electric Memory Therapy, my EMT.

The communities with which I professionally engage, the medical, the scientific, the psychological, can know nothing of it, for they would not approve, and I would face the consequences of malpractice. Yet I am no malevolent extortionist, no, I have for twenty years thought on all ethical considerations regarding my aspirations, and I have previously dawdled in developing this cure, but no more.

It was Simon who proved it. The needs of the few failed by ECT outweigh the ethics of my fellows heavily. So, I progress.

#

It was not chiefly Ugo Cerletti and his electroconvulsive therapy that she owed the development of her neurological ideas to, but other, darker historical characters. Her bedridden mother, killed by cancer many moons ago, gave the teenage Luna her copy of Forever Amber to read, and the dazzling England that Amber inhabited came to life in her mind. The Stuart Monarchs and their mad minds fascinated her, raunchy Charles II with his Court of debauchery, his grandfather James VI and his infamous Daemonologie, but most fascinating of all was what went on beyond the grasp of the Stuarts in their American colonies, the likes of Tituba and her contemporaries, witches and witch crazes.

There was a remedy for affliction once popular in Salem, where a victim of witchcraft expelled the demon from her body by urinating in a cake mixture, baking it, and finally feeding it to a dog to transfer the parasitic spirit into the animal. Ridiculous, but the theory is what always interested Dr Liu, the primitive ideas of man’s mind made manifest in such a logical fashion; to transfer evil, the means must be the expulsion and then ingestion of the said evil from one host to another – the expulsion was but one part of the process.

She applied the same logic to modern standards within the parameters of electric medicine. Could electricity itself be the means to this end? To siphon the bad memories out and into something else? Her device had been developed following these lines of thought; it existed under the same logical premises as the Salem Witch Cake.

Oh, to let a mouse imbibe the terrible thoughts, to let the patient go free and have the strain of ECT avoided utterly. Dr Liu, however, had long figured out that no animal, no mouse, dog or even the cousinly monkey, no matter how intelligent, none could comprehend the memories of men. Their brains rejected them. So, she expanded her experiments.

The homeless she sought out came willingly enough. She did not think there was anything in the memories she had collected which could be, empirically, worse than what these people had experienced on the streets. She made it clear that the memories were not theirs, nor theirs to inherit or to keep. As the transcriptions were transferred from the computer through her device, her Electric Box, the memories were zapped into their brains, and the results varied.

Each one of the subjects retained different degrees of the traumas to alternate extents; some remembered the molestation alone, others molestation and self-harm, others the face of the monster, some even recalled the feeling of the penetration. Most remarkable of all was Robert, who retained the broadest spectrum of memories; he described with perfect accuracy the face of the monster (a photograph of whom she had procured and uploaded onto the computer) and could clearly recount the experience of forced vaginal penetration; he was not handicapped at all in lacking a vagina.

That man had come close to cracking, she knew, but he just about remained sane.

These artificial memories were subsequently returned solely to the computer via the same device in a reversal of the initial implantation of the thoughts; she had not been able to remove actual memories from a live host at that stage, they were only taken from her notes. She gave the homeless ECT for their new troubles if they desired it, though not many required that extra touch, and her house was a haven for those people for a time.

She had effectively achieved one-half of her end goal. She had found that the ingestion was possible, that the expulsion from the patient was the hard part. For the Witch Cake she was baking it seemed that the dog had come well in advance of the piss he was to take in.

#

Journal Entry, 12 December 2024.

I realised after the experiments on the homeless that I needed to further develop the Electric Box – it had to take the memories out before it could implant them elsewhere.

I had yet to siphon, to transfer thoughts of mind directly from one human brain into another; I had to figure out how to harvest properly before I could resow.

I determined that when I could finally do both as one, my EMT would be completed.

#

A milestone was met even as Snow White began her therapy in the fall of 2024. That August, Dr Liu tested her harvesting technique on an old lady of one hundred and four years of age at a care home. The dementia-ridden dame had been a soprano in her youth, and when the Doctor played a Maria Callas record in her presence, she rose from out her rocking chair with sudden youthful vigour.

She sang, her musical memories flooding back to the forefront, as Dr Liu took out her portable, miniature device, recently developed. It performed one of her Box’s latest modified functions; neural transference. It was like something the Men in Black would carry, only this probed, snatched and saved; it did not erase. Scanning it over the singer’s temple harmlessly, several tiny bolts of lightning sparked in their gleaning.

Later, the device to her own temple, she unleashed them into her own brain, and the memory came streaming. She was singing in a Coliseum before a thousand people, a thousand observers in an amphitheatre. Her own rendition of ‘Ave Maria’thundered and thronged. Roses were thrown at her feet. An applause and ovation lasted countless minutes. Then she returned to her own world; delighted and dismayed.

She would be drinking of much darker draughts than this, and though she had finally figured out how to siphon off the memories, to achieve the direct neural transference between the hosts was the next stage, the unproven realm, the part of her plan which might never come to fruition; but she had to try.

So, now that it seemed her ultimate ambition was surely dawning, she became plagued by ethics. She had done questionable things in her pursuits as her experiments bore fruit. How, you might ask, was she to bypass most of these dilemmas?

#

Journal Entry, 1 January 2025.

I hereby vow to become the first recipient of my own experimental procedure. It will all be on my head if it comes to pass. If I go mad, or die, my research will provide scientists with the means to pick up where I leave off.

I will inform the first subject who consents of what is required of them, that it might be better for them to go with ECT given its proven effectiveness; but that they might also choose my procedure.

She knew that it would work, though, she felt it inside. The primary obstacle which had dogged her for years had been overcome, now she had to overcome her doubts, her fears, her many uncertainties.

“Can I not just destroy the memories?” She asked herself in an instance of hesitancy. “Do I have to do it?”

“You know you must.” A voice answered from deep inside. “A computer cannot absorb them, you have only uploaded notes, pictures, data, and transferred them to others. These memories will come directly from the Electric Box. One to one… it is your responsibility to investigate.”

“Can the psyche withstand it?” She questioned the voice.

“It is one thing to transplant a kidney, a heart, they will be accepted or rejected by the new host; it is something completely different to elect to transplant a portion of one psyche into another. You must do it because it has not been done.”

She ultimately concurred with the speaker within her.

#

Days, weeks, months, a year went by before she finally found someone willing. An Irishman had come to her for a free consultation. He came seeking relief, liberation from his past, his deeds as well as what was done to him; he had turned to the rosary, he had been truly penitent, sober for a decade, but still his mind was ravaged by history.

He had a problem with money. Even with all his savings he could not possibly afford the number of ECT procedures it would take to clear him of his inner turmoil.

“I have a proposition for you, Cormac.” She said, jotting down notes before she placed pen and paper down. She removed her glasses with a sweeping motion and looking at him directly. “Given your financial situation I may be in a position to help you out with alternative treatment; but I have to tell you, all the details will need to stay strictly between the two of us; is that okay?” He nodded his ascent and she fixed the man with a serious stare, leaning forward in her chair. “You see, I have developed this experimental procedure…”

“Is that right?” He said, interrupting in genuine inquisitiveness. “Tell me about it.”

“…well, it has not exactly been ethically approved, and if you agree you would be my first proper subject, but from the tests I have conducted I would anticipate less potential harm for yourself than for me. That does not mean that you will be harmed, it’s just given the experimental nature of the project…”

“What d’you mean?”

“Let me start from the beginning…” So, she relayed onto him the entire history of the development of her therapy, Tituba, the boy, the Electric Box, Robert, the old lady, all of it. “So, what I propose is, if you undergo the therapy, and, presuming I come out okay on the other end of it too, and you are still not happy with the results, say, if you still retain your memories, I will be able to reduce the cost of the ECT based on the value of the services you would have provided me.”

There was a pause:

“How much could you take off if that was the case?”

“I could make it next to nothing; I would personally cover most of the cost…”

There was no pause:

“When can we start?”

#

Cormac arrived at her house on a dark, stormy night the week following their first meeting. Rain pattered the tiled roof of her country domain as she admitted him through the electric gate. The gate was flanked by two guardian lions on either upper side, stone warders who kept off evil spirits; save those Liu let in. The Irishman ran from his car to be welcomed within the house, near saturated even as he entered; tea and towel was shortly proffered and accepted. Soon they descended into her basement, and he was introduced to the mechanism he would be subjected to. All was ready, and he was happy to continue.

“Sixty seconds…” Announced Siri as her automated countdown began. The Doctor had uploaded the specified memories she had taken from her sessions with Cormac onto the computer as transcriptions. She had programmed it to sequence the exact memories as listed and process them from him to her – he was hooked up and ready to go. The Electric Box, now set between the two of them, looked very much like a fencing battery, which is used to electrify wires and keep animals confined in their holdings; this one, silver in its casing, released monstrous beasts and herded them into their new lair of confinement through the electrodes.

“Fifty…” He was wired up with the electrodes plugged onto his temples, his ears, the cerebellum, the neural canal, and so on, as was she. He was manacled to his reclined chair, but she had to remain unrestrained. She had given him a sedative, but for her there was no anaesthesia. She had to remain vigilant until the point of induction; thereafter she relied on automation to do its job, until she woke up. Both their mouths were fitted with foam protectors for the inevitable bite which was to come once the seizure was induced.

“Forty…” Each number Siri counted was like a clap of thunder announcing a lightning strike, only for the lightning never to arrive at all. It was like waiting for the electric chairs bolts of execution to be administered in the causation of death. Perhaps it would be a sort of death that was quickly approaching; a part of him would die in him, and perhaps she would not survive, or else she would be changed utterly.

“Thirty…” Halfway through the minute and they might as well have been halfway to the moon on a slow rocket. The moon… white orb of mystery. Her mother named her for it, she who had first brought her to the history of witchy women, of demons. Her naming was a whim Hǔ had conceded, but neither she nor her father knew why her mother had been so adamant about that name, that it just had to be Luna. Without her leave, Simon started up:

“The Moon that Kills!” He screamed. “The Moon that Kills!”

She could not stop herself remembering his chiming song anytime the moon came up in thought – the unquiet sobriquet the schizophrenic boy had given her. His voice came pounding back into her head when she could least afford it. She shut her eyes tight and tried to drown him out, focusing on the countdown.

“Twenty…” Each second an eternal rotation.

Nineteen…” She concentrated on the numbers, just until the end was reached.

“Eighteen…” the age he would never see.

“Seventeen…” the age he had been.

“Sixteen…” the age of glee before the complete dark.

“Fifteen…” the age of normality.

“Fourteen…” the age he won gold in everything.

“Thir…”

Something else was wrong, and she realised it in a fraction of an instant. She did not know what it was, but the device had started the process early, the computer screen had gone out in a flash. The shock to her brain was meant to cause her mind to go blank in temporary seizure, but she was still wide awake in electrified petrification, the shocks sweeping through her body in long seconds of agony, and Cormac’s memories hammered themselves into her head like nails into a glass coffin amid the shrieks of a schizophrenic boy.

Every eternity she heard Siri, echoing amid chaotic scenes:

“Ten seconds…” She was a young boy. There was a white door before her. The paint and wood were splintering. It was being pummelled by something on the other side. Eventually, it cracked. The top half fell in and to the boys mind it resembled a playground slide of a sudden. Blackness lurked beyond the doors’ whiteness, and the blackness moved over it. Something happened to her then, something that she had hoped would have remained in her notes, known, but not lived, and now it was in her head, her own body felt it all, livid and vivid.

“Five…” Years later. She was fourteen and had gotten into a fight at school. “Knacker!” she screamed at another boy. He had punched her in the head while she was leaning back on the hind legs of her chair and kept punching while she was down on the ground. Another time: she was outdoors, was pushed, no, punched, into a ditch full of nettles and briars, with her head whirring and every inch of her skin stinging.

“Four…” She was at the funeral of her grandmother, and she felt dead inside as the casket was closed and she had to say goodbye forever. She was not the same person she had been only seconds ago as the lid closed, and when it was covered, eternally, over in earth her stomach, her mind, her heart, felt just the same as that wooden box buried in the wet ground.

“Three…” Alcohol, drugs, binging, starving; a big blot.

“Two…” A woman, her radiance faded no sooner than it bloomed, then nothing but a silhouette, then nothing at all…

“One…”

Blackness.

#

     Sylvia Plath spoke to her while she slept, spectral poetess who Cormac had idolised in English class. He was losing all memory of her, her poetry, of The Bell Jar, as the Doctor imbibed all of her. As ghostly Sylvia hung above Luna Liu in her temporary state of comatose stillness, it was the buzzing of a great many bees that came into the Doctors’ dreaming mind. Her head a hive, housing thousands of them, and Plath, terrible and beautiful, her face torn by the flickering light of the computer, one half shrouded in permanent shadow, the other illumined briefly again and again by the briefly lit screen, recited one of her poems for Luna Liu:

“…The box is locked, it is dangerous

I have to live with it overnight

And I can’t keep away from it.

There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.

There is only a little grid, no exit…”

Plath lingered there for a while, her face hard but not unkind, and from behind her shoulder there peaked the curious eyes of a boy of seventeen, behind him stood an upright Snow White, behind her a host of others, silhouettes that buzzed.

#

The Doctor awoke.

As her eyes blinked back into awareness and comprehension, she thought for a moment that she has been out for hours but knew in truth that it had been less than a few minutes.

Cormac still slept in his sedation. His burdens lost to him his expression was relieved, now that they had been stowed in the mind of Dr Liu, who, with electrodes now pulled off her neural passageways, rose whitely from her chair.

She picked up her glasses in a pensive state and straightened her hair out. Then the immediate memories of what had just transpired came back. She patiently awaited Cormac’s awakening, and when he did come back to himself, she greeted him heartily:

“Nice sleep?” she smiled. “Can you tell me why you’re here, Cormac?”

“Dr Liu,” he breathed in comprehension. “I came here to… to undergo your procedure.”

“And did it work?”

“I… I remember that it was meant to take my bad memories away and… I don’t think… I can’t remember what they were…”

Her head dropped down to her chest as though her smile weighed a tonne.

“Thank you, Cormac, thank you so very much.”

“But are you alright?” He asked as she helped him up from his seat. “Are you able to handle…?”

“I don’t think there’s much to fear with me, not to belittle your experience, but I’ve heard much worse in session. I was prepared for that, but I don’t know how many people would have been to be honest. You should stay here tonight for observation. I trust you’ll breath no word of this…”

“Of course, I’d do nothing to endanger your work.”

“Thanks… well, today was a success… one thing’s clear… my research has just begun…”

She stumbled forward in a faint; Cormac caught her.

“Doctor!” he cried out.

“The Moon that Kills,” she sang in a boy’s voice. “has gone behind the hills! When she comes out again, she’ll bring us our sleeping pills!” She giggled.

He dropped her to the floor and ran. Whatever had happened, that was not Dr Liu’s voice coming from out her own mouth, nor any laugh a grown woman should be capable of making. He turned back once to see her standing at the foot of the stairs, staring up at him with a smile that sent shivers up his spine.

He never breathed a word of what occurred that night to anyone, and though he was certainly shocked by the experience, Cormac went on to live a very happy and contented life. He married the woman of his dreams and they had four very happy and healthy children, and Cormac was plagued no more by his past. He retained his grandmother as she had been in life and not in death, and her memory lived on in the minds of his own children. For that and more he would be eternally grateful to Dr Luna Liu.

#

When she regained her conscious apprehension over her own faculties again, the Doctor did not recall the fact that another voice had come up to the surface.

She wondered where Cormac had disappeared to, but shortly dismissed him and returned to her work. She found that the files on her personal computer, of every session she had ever conducted, had vanished; gone with the malfunction of the device it seemed.

Gone, yes, but not lost, never forgotten.

As the Doctor stared at that blank screen, she felt a great strain weighing itself down upon her mind. She recalled them all… thousands of past subjects screaming in her mind… she could never forget them, but now they had been drilled in… a single head that contained multitudes… and Simon stood out, the foremost among them, alive again in mental resurrection.

#

Journal Entry, 17 February 2026.     Chinese New Year blazes in the night as the Year of the Horse gallops forth; distant fireworks explode red and gold as I look out my window with my glass of white wine in hand. I will be forty-six years old this year. My kind company keep reminding me of the qualities of my zodiac; powerful, energetic, beautiful, free. Simon, himself a Monkey, says that the Horse is also impatient and quick to anger, so they had all better be careful not to provoke me – I told them they could do no such thing. We had dinner then, Cormac said that he was looking forward to Saint Patricks Day, and before long we all slumbered like Snow White.


Dan Sands is a writer based in Ireland. Writing primarily in the genres of fantasy, historical fiction, magical realism, science fiction and horror, he one day hopes to publish a full novel. He is also a published poet who writes in both the English and Irish languages. His Twitter handle is @UdarUaillmianac


“Castle Winterdrecht” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Lisa Voorhees

Cecile brushed newly fallen snow off her skirt as icy flakes lashed across her cheeks. Beside her, hunched against the cold, the wagon driver snapped the reins and urged the horses faster along the rutted highway.

Skeletal limbs of hollowed-out trees scraped the ashen mid-morning sky. Wind howled across the barren moorland, nestled between mountain ranges. To the east lay Slovakia, on whose border the Danube flowed on its way to the Black Sea.

Over the crest of the next hill, the tip of one stone spire appeared.

“Castle Winterdrecht,” the driver rasped, cutting an appraising eye at her. “No place for a pretty young thing like ye. What business d’ye have there?”

Cecile sat up straight and gave him a weak smile. It was 1891 and she was eighteen years old, free of the orphanage nuns and their overly strict, unjust punishments. A nervous thread of anxiety wormed through her. With her newfound position of respectability came the burden of responsibility. If she didn’t execute her duties properly, she’d wind up penniless, begging for bread on the street corner.

A fate worse than death.

“I’m the new housekeeper,” she said, gritting her teeth to prevent them from chattering. The wind tore through her threadbare woolen cloak. She clutched her hands tightly in her lap, wishing she’d repaired the hole in her mitten. They approached the massive castle that lay to her right, an imposing, crumbling stone structure rimmed by shadowy peaked gables. Fearsome, creeping gargoyles lurked at the bases of towering spires that crept upward, disappearing into the gloom.

Her new employer must be wealthy beyond her wildest imaginings. Cecile shivered at the sheer enormity of the castle. As if the size wasn’t overwhelming enough, the idea of being in charge of its upkeep nearly chased away the last of her resolve.

The driver paused at the bottom of the driveway and wiped a mittened hand across his bulbous, frostbitten nose. Out of the corner of her eye, Cecile watched him cross himself, close his eyes, and mumble a whispered prayer. The reins quivered in his hand.

His prayer would have to cover both of them. “Will you drive me to the front door?” she plucked up her courage to ask, fingering the coins in her purse.

He turned wide, bloodshot eyes to her, his breath forming clouds in the air. “That place is cursed, miss! No one who goes in steps out right the other side, for it’s the Devil that lives there, I promise ye.”

Cecile stared straight ahead. “Please deliver me the rest of the way.”

The driver grumbled a hasty retort and slapped the reins on the horses’ backs. They shied at first, bucking their heads and whinnying until the driver yelled at them, “Hee-yah!”

The wagon wound up the curved driveway. White snow laced the gaps between soot-colored crenellations. Cecile gripped the edge of the wooden seat, squeezing her carpet bag between her legs.

She had to admit, Castle Winterdrecht was not the most welcoming sight amid the outermost reaches of the Eastern Alps, but she could do worse. Devoting the rest of her life to the sisterhood, for example. She shuddered inside her cloak. Anything but that.

The nuns had always tried to hide the newspapers from the orphans. Their adherence to rules was ridiculous, as if society columns would fill the girls’ heads with worldly ideas and haughty airs, tempting them toward unwholesome urges and other dangerous impulses. If Cecile hadn’t stashed the advertisement under her mattress and snuck out to respond the next day, she’d never have escaped the city.

She’d stepped off the train at her first stop on the way to Winterdrecht, hoping the meager allowance she’d been allotted would be enough provision until she earned her first paycheck. A tired-looking peasant peddling her wares had pressed a silver crucifix into Cecile’s palm, intent on detailing what demon shadows would hunt her soul in the night if she didn’t wear it. The woman’s shrill warning had frightened her into submission, though the purchase around her neck had cost nearly all she had.

A talisman of sorts, Cecile considered herself safe as long as it hung there.

The wagon clattered to a halt before a thick wooden door overlaid with intricate steel coverings and a gleaming black doorknocker in the center. Cecile let herself out of the wagon, retrieved her bag, and paid the driver, who whipped the horses into a gallop and fled in a shower of snowflakes.

She turned around and rubbed her hands together, warming them before lifting the metal ring and letting it fall with one sonorous, resounding clang against the underlying steel plate. After a brief pause, the door inched open a crack, the wind whistling defiantly past the threshold.

Cecile pressed her fingers to the door. All was darkness inside. “Hello?” she called, unwilling to address her new master without a proper introduction. “My name is Cecile. Is anyone there?”

A deep-throated growl rumbled off to her left. Gulping, Cecile peered past her shoulder. A shaggy, dark-coated leviathan of a dog approached, blood-tinged icicles clinging to the fur of his muzzle. Rooted in fear, her breath quickened. That was all the time the beast needed. He lunged for her, all snapping, slathering jowels and gleaming, obsidian eyes.

With a startled scream, Cecile squeezed through the open crack. Lugging her carpet bag behind her, she threw herself against the handle using all her weight. The door clanged shut. Claws scrabbled against the wood, the great beast snarling, desperate for entry.

She took a moment to recover herself, allowing her eyes to adjust to the enshrouding darkness. Minor chords of a restless fugue filled the air, played with all the vivacity and energetic fervor of an accomplished organist. A stirring crescendo shook the walls and twin candelabra at the foot of a curved staircase blazed brighter, revealing the rich black marble composition of the floor tiles. Cecile hesitated, awed by the architectural grandeur amidst the decay.

As the organ notes diminished, the candlelight dimmed. She moved beyond the stairs, in the direction of the music, breathing in the thick, musty odor of the air. Cobwebs trailed across her skin.

Cecile passed along a narrow hallway and through an open archway to a room with a vaulted ceiling. She had entered a gathering hall, the organ to her left, a magnificent structure built into the side of the wall, pipes streaming above in dazzling array. A black-clad man sat in front of it, his delicate fingers flying across the bone-colored keys. To his right, a set of spiral stairs curved to the stone floor below.

The pipes trembled with the reverberation of the melancholy notes pouring forth from his effort. Surely this was Asher Grimbaud.

His attention did not waver from the music. At the next decrescendo in the score, Cecile set her carpet bag on the floor and cleared her throat. Loudly.

The man held his finger on the last note, head bowed. Slowly, he pushed back his seat and rose. When his gaze fell upon her, he seemed to stiffen. He was so fair she considered the fact that he might be unwell. His oiled hair shone blue by candlelight, his features refined, though spoiled by a certain air of hardness. He did not appear pleased.

“I’m Cecile,” she said. “The housekeeper you hired from Vienna.”

“From the orphanage,” he said, his voice a richness in itself. “Was it a tiresome journey?”

“I slept on the train, thank you,” she said, embarrassed by the quiver in her voice. “Whatever you require, I’m ready to be of service. Where may I put my things?”

He did not smile, nor did he offer an introduction in return. He glided quietly down the spiral stairs and approached her. He was young, hardly ten years her senior, by her best estimate. Now that he was closer, she noticed the scars above his upper lip, stellate and puckered. The poor man was disfigured, whether by injury or birth, she could not guess. It was a wonder it did not affect his speech.

Though she was careful to remain silent, Grimbaud seemed to have intuited her startlement and subsequent dismay, and it displeased him further. “This way,” he snapped. He swept past her, leaving her to pick up her bag and hurry after him as he strode down the passageway.

He led her down a dank, underground stairwell that delivered them to the kitchens. Freshly-picked herbs hung in gnarled clusters from the ceiling, the worn porcelain sink lined with scores of deep scratches and spidery cracks. When they arrived outside the laundry room with its collection of rusted mangles, Cecile’s heart seized. No servant could handle the upkeep of such a castle under these stringent conditions.

“How many others are employed here?” she asked.

Grimbaud gave a huff of derision. “None besides you.”

Afterward, they ascended to the second floor and headed down a long, carpeted hallway decked with heavy, gilt-framed portraits of serious-faced ancestors, their mouths drawn in the same fierce line as Grimbaud’s.

Between the dimly-lit sconces, shadows played across their visages, their eyes darting with her movements. Pressing the crucifix to her neck, Cecile bent low, squinting to read their names. Augustine Grimbaud. Renee Montpellier Grimbaud. The resemblance to her employer was unmistakeable, yet the vintage of their clothing was centuries past.

Grimbaud twisted a key in the last door at the end of the hall and held it open for her. These were no maid’s quarters, at least not the kind she had been led to expect. Far from a dusty attic garret with a single dormer window, the four-poster bed and stone-cold fireplace hinted at the promise of a decent night’s sleep, if she could secure kindling. A generous closet and chest of drawers provided plenty of space to store her belongings, though she noted the lack of a mirror above the washbowl in the corner. No matter. Clean and simple seemed best with the amount of work she faced.

“Please, sir, how will I get to town for supplies?” she asked, hoping he couldn’t detect the desperation behind her question.

Grimbaud hesitated, a shadow crossing his face. “You are never to leave the grounds,” he said, his voice strained, as if a clot had formed in his throat. “The gardens are accessible from the kitchen and whatever is there, you may use. Whatever else you may require, inform me. Shipments are delivered once a month.”

“But-”

His eyes flashed, the molten black of a raven’s wings. “Enough,” he choked. “You stay here. You never leave. Do I make myself clear?”

The door slammed shut and a spray of plaster fell from the ceiling. She’d been here less than an hour and had already upset her employer. What was she thinking, questioning him like that? Stupid, stupid Cecile. Her mouth never ceased to get her into trouble, her insatiable need to feel important, like she had a role to play, a need to fill. She was an orphan and now a servant. She would do well to bury her pride, change into her linen work dress, and start preparations for dinner.

She lay her bag on the bed and unpacked her scant belongings. After she set her brush and hairpins by the washbowl, she approached the diamond-paned window facing the rear of the castle. Her single attempt to prise open the rusted latch met with bitter failure. The glass was liable to shatter if she forced the lock. An ice-cold sensation stung her fingertips and she winced, snatching her hand away. Beneath her dress, the crucifix burned hot on her skin.

As she descended the servant’s stairs to the kitchen two floors below, brushing the cobwebs from her face, it dawned on her. Perhaps the wagon driver had been right. This place was cursed. Was she trapped?

                                                          #

At six o’clock, Grimbaud took his supper in the dining room. Cecile served him a steaming bowl of soup from a filigreed tureen, then retreated to the shadows by the servants’ doorway as he feasted, observing his response.

Candlelight flickered off the buttressed ceiling, leering gargoyles perched at the tops of the colonnades. The great beast that had attacked her when she arrived lounged beside the roaring flames of a carved stone fireplace, his eye trained on his master.

“Ivar,” Grimbaud said, plucking a chunk of meat from his bowl and tossing it on the floor as the dog sniffed, then lapped up the morsel, along with its remains. She’d have to clean the spot later, though judging from the eager, wet sounds the beast made, she wouldn’t be at it long.

“It was not his intent to frighten you earlier,” her employer said softly, not looking at her directly.

Cecile shifted in place, unsure how to respond. He was talking about the dog as if he’d read the beast’s mind from afar. Perhaps he had. Living alone in this desolate castle with only a dog to keep him company, each was sure to have developed a sixth sense about the other. She was content to let the beast lie, grateful he wasn’t disturbed by her presence.

“Do you ever speak?” Grimbaud said, addressing her, broth dripping off his raised spoon.

Fearful that he would yell at her again, Cecile struggled not to stammer. “I was a stranger to him,” she said. “I’m certain Ivar meant to protect you.”

Grimbaud’s steady gaze was unnerving, lingering on her slightly longer than made her comfortable. “Sit.”

“I…I am a servant, m–”

He swept a pale, veined hand in the air, bedecked with a glimmering garnet ring. “Do as I say. Sit.”

Cecile slid into a seat at the far end of the table, head lowered, unwilling to add insolence to any other perceived offense she might accidentally make. “What breed is he?”

“Ivar is a seventh-generation Grimblehound,” he said, noisily sucking down another spoonful of soup. “My father bred them, and my grandfather before him.” He paused, waiting for a reply.

“Was your father a woodsman, then?”

“A hunter.”

Cecile snuck a glance at him. She caught him staring at her, and he resumed his speech, as if to disguise a rabid curiosity. What a stern fellow he was. Strict she coud manage, though if he was cruel…her heart quailed at the thought.

“Grimblehounds were bred to hunt with us, when we moved here generations ago. Unlike our Carpathian cousins, my great-grandfather was a peaceable man, choosing to live off what the land offered us rather than engage in the brutal competition of business in more densely populated cities.”

What business was that? She stopped herself from asking, not wanting to appear presumptuous or raise his ire. “Is that why you prefer to live alone, with no access to town?”

Grimbaud’s spoon rattled against the side of his bowl. He wiped his mouth with the corner of his napkin and tossed it on the table. “That’s none of your concern,” he snapped. His lip quivered with restrained rage.

He pushed the chair out behind him and stood. “Next time, use more salt,” he said, then stalked out of the room, Ivar loping at his heels.

                                                          #

By the time she finished cleaning up dinner, taking stock of the larder in order to prepare meals for the rest of the week, and a small amount of mending, it was after ten o’clock.

Cecile retired to her room, slipped into her nightdress, and lay still under the covers, restless despite her exhaustion. The fireplace reeked of dampness and cold as she’d been too tired to search for kindling. Outside, the wind howled, rattling the casement. Shadows of tree branches shivered and danced on the ceiling, revelers in the light of a full moon.

A mournful howl split the night air, sending a ripple of gooseflesh across her skin. Throwing off the covers, Cecile wrapped a housecoat around her shoulders and approached the window, her breath clouding the glass.

Across the grounds, a dark figure sped, phantasmic, black billowing out behind him as if he floated rather than ran. Grimbaud! The pallor of his skin was evident as he turned, briefly, and glanced back at the castle before he dashed toward the treeline of the darkling woods.

Every night he repeated the ritual. She kept to the shadows of the room, a silent observer of his wanderings as he left the castle at ten and returned an hour or two later. His errand was his own, Ivar did not accompany him.

The entirety of Cecile’s life felt obscured in secrets, withheld knowledge, and whispered warnings she was expected to heed. The nuns had claimed not to know who her parents were, yet kept a file locked away on every orphan delivered to their doorstep. Forbidden to read the newspaper or even the penny dreadfuls passed between the cots at night, she’d grown weary of the restrictions. The security of her new position demanded propriety, but the strangeness of Grimbaud’s behavior fascinated her.

Learning more about her employer was essential to being able to please him.

She made up her mind to follow where he went.

After throwing on a pair of boots, she grabbed a candlestick and the canvas bag stuffed with leftovers from the kitchen, and hurried down the hallway. Her feet flew down the servant’s staircase to the lower exit. At the doorway, she hesitated, waiting for the scratch of claws on the stone floor.

When Ivar appeared, she reached into the bag and threw him a knot of dried mutton. He caught it in his jaws, eyed her suspiciously, then padded off in appreciative silence. 

She could catch up to Grimbaud, but she mustn’t waste time. Extinguishing the candlestick and leaving it behind, she followed the path her employer had taken. His reticence notwithstanding, she would discover who he was, who she’d signed up to work for. Cecile could be stealthy and remain undetected. The orphanage had taught her no less. She’d snuck many a midnight glass of milk from the kitchen, always ravenous after a dinner of watery gruel and stale bread.

The moon lit the way through the woods, limning the silken edges of Grimbaud’s cape. Cecile steeled herself against the biting wind and trudged through the snowdrifts, wrapping her housecoat tighter around her. Before long, Grimbaud stopped at a clearing. Sheltered behind the expansive trunk of a towering fir tree, Cecile waited, ignoring the searing heat of the crucifix at her neck.

A collection of gravestones marked the center of the clearing, but Grimbaud chose to approach only two. Bowing on one knee between the two mounds, he placed a hand on each headstone.

What was this? A soft weeping, spiralling into one long, mournful wail. Tears the color of mercury glinted in the moonlight, spilling down his cheeks and watering the ground at his feet. When he had spent himself, he stood, brushed off his clothes, whispered an indecipherable incantation, and headed back into the woods.

Cecile ducked behind the tree and waited until he was a distance away before creeping toward the headstones for a closer look at the engravings.

Augustine Grimbaud, 1610 – 1874. Renee Montpellier Grimbaud, 1614 – 1874.

Cecile pressed her fingers into her eyes. The names matched those on the portraits she’d seen in the hallway, the faces bearing the strongest resemblance to those of her employer, of all those she’d witnessed. Yet it couldn’t be. How was it his parents had been well over two hundred years old by the time they’d died? And what had transpired that they’d both passed in the same year?

She clawed at the molten crucifix, positioning the pendant overtop her housecoat in order to relieve herself of its infernal heat.

Whatever the past, Grimbaud bore the weight of it. The keening cry of his sorrow had driven a nail straight through her heart, a heart that bled for the depth of his anguish.

                                                          #

Upon her return, Cecile breathed a sigh of relief. Grim as it was, the castle offered protection from the bitter cold wind and snow. She relocated the candlestick and lit the taper. By the pale light of its flickering penumbra, she navigated the deepening shadows inside the moldering stone walls, the damp of night condensing with the advancing chill.

The library should contain the details of his family’s tragedy, for it must be that misfortune had befallen Grimbaud for him to so mourn. As an orphan, she was familiar with the weight of such sorrow. She felt the stirrings of a strange kinship with him, eccentric as he was.

Unfamiliar with the twisting warren of passageways, Cecile doubled back several times before locating the library. The thick wooden door squeaked on its hinges as she slid through the crack and closed it behind her. She let out her breath and the candle flames danced, sputtering. Heavy crimson drapes covered the windows, the scent of old books enshrouded with dust adrift in the air.

As she scanned the books’ spines, her thoughts lingered on what she had learned of him so far. His disfigurement. His obvious melancholy and decision to isolate himself from the rest of the village of Winterdrecht. His inheritance of the castle. The superstitious warnings she’d been given before stepping foot inside.

She stopped before a door flanked by elegant stone sconces, carved in the shape of dragons. When she pressed her fingers to the wood, it opened easily, delivering her into a circular room, the base of one of the towers. Above her, the eaves groaned at the wind’s touch.

A lacquered desk sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by shelves containing a small collection of more personal volumes: handwritten journals, castle blueprints, topographical maps of the family holdings, household ledgers. Cecile located a rolled-up parchment and unfurled it, holding it to the light to make out the print.

Breathless, she scanned its contents, listening closely for any hint of approaching footsteps. She could only imagine Grimbaud’s displeasure if she were to be caught snooping among his private library.

A family tree. Generations of Grimbauds, with connecting lines to indicate marriages and births. So that was it then. Asher was the only son of Augustine and Renee, born in 1863. She did the math in her head. Impossible. He was twenty-eight years old. His mother had borne him when she was two hundred forty-nine years old?

The parchment slipped from her fingers and fell to her feet, releasing a cloud of dust that produced a series of racking coughs, her eyes streaming with tears. Cecile fumbled through the other documents and found a ledger. She ran her finger down the page, expecting to find receipts for purchases of flour, wine, spices, and the like. Items the land wouldn’t produce.

Instead, there were shipments of bloodstock. Hundreds of entries in the ledger referred to deer, elk, bison, and in a few instances, wild boars. Goats. Sheep.

Compared to their Carpathian cousins, they were the peaceable ones.

Cecile’s hand flew to her throat, stifling a strangled cry. They’d attempted to live off the land, and when the land could no longer provide for their insatiable hunger for blood, they’d imported what they needed.

Numb with terror, she gripped the crucifix. Mirthless as Grimbaud was, she had witnessed the depths of his internal anguish. Despite his ghastly disfigurement, inside his chest beat a quivering, though shriveled, heart. A heart familiar with the same wretched pain she had endured since childhood. She reached for the open journal on the desk, quickly skimming the pages. Outside the door, the floor creaked. She hastily set down the book.

The door inched open and with the ensuing draft, the flame of her candlestick extinguished, leaving her in total darkness.

A hand yanked her wrist. “What are you doing here?” Grimbaud hissed.

Cecile cried out from the pain. “I only wanted a glass of water. I lost my way to the kitch–”

“Silence,” he yelled. “How dare you lie to me?” His hand shook, though his nails sank deeper into the tender flesh of her palm.

“Please,” she begged. “Let go. You’re hurting me.”

“Hurting you?” he spat, releasing her wrist and stepping aside. Papers rustled to the floor as books slid from the shelves, hitting the stones in a series of thumps. She sputtered as dust plumed in her mouth and clogged her nasal passages. “Have you considered anyone other than yourself since you set foot through my doors? You have no right to be here, among my things.”

“I mean you no harm, sir,” she said. “Please, you’re frightening me.”

He grabbed her by the arm and ushered her to the doorway. At a snap of his fingers, the dragon sconces lit with preternatural blue flames. “Look,” he sneered, pointing to his scars, ducking low to meet her eye. “Yes,” he said, lifting his lip to reveal the horrible empty sockets that should have housed his canines. “Yes, what you see is what I am. A monster.”

Cecile shook her head. “No…I do not believe it.”

“Why shouldn’t you? According to the whole of Winterdrecht, I will consume your soul within a fortnight. Never mind that they’ve already stolen mine.” He dropped her arm and she feared his weeping would begin again.

“What happened to you?” she asked, gently. “What did they do to your family?”

He lifted a sorrowful gaze to hers, his face wan and drawn, shadows darkening the hollows of his eyes. “You followed me into the woods.”

Cecile laid a steadying hand against the wall, unsure if her honesty would mollify or enrage him further. “Yes. I did.”

He straightened with a sigh, staring off among the towering shelves of the library. “They killed my birth parents when I was eleven years old. I watched them drown in their own blood, to the cheers of the villagers, brandishing torches, pitchforks, and every manner of weapon you can imagine. They threatened to burn down the castle and set fire to the fields. Our home, the very land my ancestors had worked so hard to acquire.”

“I’m so terribly sorry,” Cecile said. “I can see how superstitious they are. Their fears consume them.”

Grimbaud’s gaze snapped toward the crucifix at her neck, then lifted to her face, his eyes flashing, the night flowers of his pupils dilating, fraught with emotion. “And do you, madam, not consider yourself one of them?”

Cecile tore the pendant off the chain and tossed it aside. “I have seen your heart,” she said. “That is what I believe in.”

He stared at her, as if regarding her for the first time. Before he could respond, the door to the library squeaked open. Both Grimbaud and Cecile glanced up as Ivar approached, nails clicking on the stones.

“Ivar.” The giant Grimblehound’s name escaped his lips like a prayer. “It was his father who saved me as a young boy. Despite my being a vampire, the villagers were loath to have the blood of a child on their hands. They savagely extracted my fangs and left me to starve. But Winterdrecht understands nothing about the loyalty of a Grimblehound.”

“You said your family bred them to hunt.”

“And hunt his father did,” Grimbaud said. “To defend me from further harm, he slayed the villagers in our midst. I hid from everyone, frightened and alone without the protection of my parents. I barely knew how to hunt and lost my will to live, to feed myself at all. I owe my life to Ivar’s father. He hunted for me, coaxing me to eat and nursing me back to health as truly and as tenderly as a mother would her own child.”

“A noble act, indeed,” Cecile said, brushing her fingers through the Grimblehound’s rough, wiry coat.

Grimbaud led her out of the library and closed the door behind them. Ivar preceded them as they traversed the long hallway toward the main atrium at the castle’s entrance, tail swishing the air behind him languidly. The three of them climbed the marble staircase and traveled the long hallway with the portraits until they reached the door to her room. The vampire paused, hands folded before him, his garnet ring glowing in the shadows.

“Perhaps now you understand why it’s forbidden to leave the castle,” he said.

“They would kill me.”

Grimbaud studied her, then tilted his head. “They don’t take kindly to whoever chooses to work here. For that reason, no one has ever stayed.”

Cecile was tongue-tied. She bid him a good night, opened the door to her room, and stepped inside, not daring to glance at the expression on his face.

She leaned against the door and released her breath. Dear God in heaven. The villagers were no less monsters than him. His family had lived peacably enough on land of their own holding. What did it matter to Winterdrecht if they imported their own food? Bloodstock or livestock, the end result was the same. Everyone had to live. The Grimbauds had done the townsfolk no wrong.

By comparison, Asher Grimbaud had been victimized, held prisoner in his own home by the fears and superstitions of a frightened village who didn’t understand the choice his ancestors had made to live at peace among humankind.

His previous statement haunted her, the implication that she was one of them. She was no more one of the townspeople in Winterdrecht than she had been in Vienna. Much like him, she was an orphan, homeless, people-less, cut adrift in the world with not even a trace of a link to who she’d belonged to in her past.

Casting off her muddy boots, she removed her housecoat and crept between the covers, shivering. Her fitful sleep was punctuated by restless spells of wakefulness, her frightful dreams indistinguishable from reality.

She wandered the labyrinthine halls of the castle. Tracing the walls with her fingers, she swept along terraces bordered by mullioned windows, making her way to the farthest turret on the eastern side and winding up its central, spiral staircase. At the top, she entered a circular room with a peaked roof. In the center stood a canopied bed, draped in crimson brocade. A massive chandelier hung from the ceiling, its pale light illuminating the rich mahogany paneling, the tapestries on the walls, and the Persian rug gracing the stone floor.

Windows flung wide, a fell air swirled inside the room, making the shadows dance and leap along the walls. Cecile approached the bed, ignoring the darkened pool of liquid spilling over the side and staining the carpet below.

She swept aside the drape and froze at the sight. Flesh hanging in ghastly tatters from a skeletal frame, the body of Grimbaud languished in deathly repose, twin sockets of his canines as gapingly fractured as they’d been in life. A jewel-encrusted goblet lay toppled over on the sheets, its contents the source of the stain.

Grimbaud was dead!

Starved to death, left to rot in his own bed, alone. Loveless, without a soul who cared whether he lived or died.

The door slammed shut and her eyes flew open. She sat up in bed, bathed in sweat, her hair a riot of loose tendrils. The cold fireplace was her own.

It had all been a dream. Breath ragged in her chest, she clenched the sheets and swiped at the tears on her cheeks. She would not abandon him to this fate. Grimbaud did not deserve to die, not like that. As a child, he’d suffered starvation. He shouldn’t be made to suffer in his old age, not a second time.

Her inner orphan cried out for justice. She would have it, if not for herself, then for Asher Grimbaud. This one favor she could promise him, and she would.

                                                          #

The morning dawned gray and damp. Mist rose over the fields, a fine wispy substance that twirled into fantastic shapes with the wind sweeping off the moors. Cecile placed the silver teapot on a tray, along with a cup and saucer, a bowl of sugar cubes, and a pitcher of cream. Up early, she had noted light from underneath the door of Grimbaud’s study and determined he wouldn’t catch her being unproductive. Besides, she had no idea what he might want for breakfast.

She climbed the servant’s staircase to the ground floor, located the study, and hesitated in front of the closed door. “Sir?” she called. “May I come in?”

A brief shuffling of papers and Grimbaud received her at the door. His gaze traveled from her face to the tray she held in her hands, then back to her face. “What is this?” he asked. Fine muscles at his eyes twitched.

“Your morning tea, sir. I assume you take it with sugar and cream.”

Grimbaud took a step back, allowing her inside to place the tray on his desk. “That’s very…thoughtful of you.” He stared at the teapot as if it might bite him. “I’m unused to such formalities.”

Cecile smoothed the apron over her skirt. “It’s time you got used to them.” Her eyes flitted toward him, warmth rising through her collar at the intensity of his gaze.

His brows rose in a graceful arch.

“Sir,” she added. Hopefully in enough time so as not to seem impertinent. Had she spoken out of line, again?

“Cecile,” he whispered, glancing at the tray. “What have you done?”

Sweat broke out on her palms and she shifted her balance, biting one corner of her lip. “What is it? Please don’t ask me to leave.” She lowered her gaze, unable to meet his eye. “I want to stay. That is, if you’ll let me.”

Grimbaud took a step toward her, so close she could hear the catch in his breath before he spoke. “You’ve forgotten something.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“A second cup. I refuse to drink alone.”

Cecile glanced up. Playing at the corners of his mouth, the first smile she had yet seen him muster. A beautiful sight.


Lisa notes: “A Jersey girl at heart, when I’m not writing, I’m usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. Before I started writing novels, I earned my doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University.”


“Taking Names” Dark Fiction by John Ryland

“In lieu of a closing statement from the defense, the family has petitioned this court for the opportunity to have the accused speak on his own behalf. I have spoken with the defendant and have an idea of what he will say. With that in mind, I have ordered the courtroom closed for the statements, as to not cause further damage to the reputation and memory of the victim.”

     The judge ran a hand over his thinning hair and looked around the courtroom. The prosecutor sat with the family of Candance Weatherford, and the defense attorney sat with the family of Joseph Patrick. The jury looked tired and battered, like they’d rather do anything than hear the twelve year old boy speak another word. It was a long and difficult trial, and it was clear that there would be no winners.

     The judge looked at Joseph Patrick and sighed. Sitting behind the defense table, the boy looked like any typical kid you’d see at the mall, albeit one who was dressed up for a special occasion. His brown hair was neatly cut, the Windsor knot in his tie was near perfect, and the gray suit he wore fit him well. He’d been quiet and respectful throughout the trial, answering “yes sir” and “no sir” when the D.A. asked questions.

     His eyes, however, told a different story. There was no youthful exuberance common in most young boys his age. No zest for life, no look of immortality often found in young, strapping boys. The look in Joseph Patrick’s eyes was tired, and worried. He looked haggard beyond his years, as if a great weight hung on his shoulders. There was sorrow in his eyes, but no remorse.

     In his forty years as a judge, presiding over the lives of children who’d ran afoul with the law, he’d seen the look before. That was what bothered him. When he’d seen the look before, it was worn by older kids who’d lived a harrowing life or had been subjected to some of the worst depravity imaginable. Something in them had broken and, he guessed, in Joseph Patrick too.

     “You may come forward, young man, and address the jury.” He sank into his chair as he watched the boy roll his wheelchair back from the table and steer it forward. The kid spared his parents a quick look, giving them a sad smile as he rounded the table.

     “I know you’ve all heard a lot of people talking about me and the things I did. I’m not going to say they didn’t happen, but I’m going to tell you why they happened. You might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to tell you, but I swear every bit of it is the truth. It may sound unbelievable, and I probably wouldn’t believe it either, if I hadn’t lived through it.” Joseph took a deep breath and swept his eyes over the adults peering down at him from the jury box.

     A hushed whisper rolled through the jury, but the judge banged his gavel once and they fell silent.

     Patrick cleared his throat and began to speak.

    “When Ms. Foley got called to the office, she asked if anyone wanted to watch the class. No one raised their hand, so she picked Candance. She always picked Candance, all the teachers picked her. I guess they trusted her because they could depend on her to rat us out.”

     The D.A. objected and the judge told Patrick to rephrase his statement.

     “I’m sorry, your honor.” Patrick swallowed hard and looked at Candance’s parents. “I’m sorry.” He looked back at the accusing eyes of the jury and sighed.

     “Anyway, she was dependable. The teacher told her she could take down the names of anyone who acted out and write them on the board, then she’d deal with them when she got back. Teachers did that a lot, especially when another grown up wasn’t available to watch the class if they were called away.

     “I guess kids being kids and all, it didn’t take long for people to start getting restless. The first name on the board was Micah Rodgers. He started talking to Amelia Sutter. I think he had a crush on her, you know. She’s a cute redhead and a lot of guys have a crush on her. Amy, uh- Amelia, was the second name on the board. After that, the class just settled down for a while, until someone threw a wadded up piece of paper at me. It was Cooper Newsome and Candance saw him. His name went on the board next. When I got up to pick up the paper, intending to throw it away, my name went up. I thought it was a little petty, but…” Joseph trailed off with a shrug.

     “The last name put on the board was a kid named Rodney Andrews. Someone passed gas rather loudly. In the quiet classroom it was really loud, and a lot of kids laughed. Candance said she saw him lean over to do it, so she put his name on the board. He denied it, but it was probably him. He did that a lot.”

     Joseph rested his elbow on the arm of his wheelchair and bent down, rubbing his forehead. “All that might seem irrelevant to you sitting here today, but it’s not. Those five names represent five lives that changed that day, and not for the good.”

     “Within a week, Amy began to lose her teeth. They just fell out one by one. Her parents took her to the dentist, but he couldn’t figure it out. She had nearly perfect teeth, but the roots would die, and they’d just fall out. As you could imagine, her parents were freaking out. They took her to doctors and everywhere they could. Over the next three weeks, every tooth she had fell out and then the gums started to rot. I called her once, to check on her, and I could barely understand her. They suspected cancer, but still haven’t found anything. It’s like her mouth just started rotting.”

     Joseph Patrick took a sip of water and looked at the jury.

    “Then Micah Rodgers, the kid who was talking to her, woke up with a mouth full of blood. He told me that himself. He just woke up one morning and his mouth was full of blood. It was all over his pillow. When he went to the bathroom and looked, his tongue was bleeding. At first, he thought he’d just bit it in his sleep, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. His parents took him to the emergency room when they couldn’t get it to stop. They couldn’t find a reason. It was like blood was just seeping out of every pore. They did all kind of tests and stuff, but they couldn’t stop it from bleeding. They sent him to specialists and everything, all the while his tongue just kept bleeding. With no other recourse, they had to cut it off. They had to cut a thirteen year old boys tongue off. He will never talk again.”

     Joseph rubbed his eyes with both hands, then pushed them over his hair. “So that’s Amy and Micah, whose names were on the board for talking. By this time her teeth were gone, and her gums were rotting away, and he’d lost his tongue. The next name on the board was Cooper Newsome.”

     “Your honor,” the D.A. said, standing as he waved a hand at Joseph. “I appreciate the court’s indulgence of this young man, but the medical situations of other young people have no bearing on this case and aren’t pursuant to its timely end. He is on trial for murdering a beautiful young girl in cold blood. Should her parents endure this irrelevant nonsense before justice is wrought by the jury?”

     The judge banged his gavel once. “Your objection is overruled. The defense has agreed to use this as a closing statement and have the right to include any exculpatory statements or evidence to that end. You had your chance to object before agreeing to allow the defendant to speak.”

     “Thank you, sir.” Joseph spared his parents a nervous glance, then looked back at the jury. “As I was saying, the next name on the board was Cooper Newsome. He was a pretty good baseball player. He played outfield because he had such a good arm. He was young, strong, and healthy. He was a shoe in to make the middle school team when tryouts came around.

     “But he didn’t make the team. He didn’t even get a chance to try out. Not long after his name went on the board, he started having a pain in his right arm. At first, he just thought he slept on it wrong, or maybe pulled a muscle or something. It kept getting worse, though. His parents gave him Tylenol or something and didn’t really pay much attention. Until the knot popped up on his shoulder. They took him to his regular doctor, who sent him to a specialist. An oncologist, I think they’re called. It didn’t take long to find out that he had cancer. I can’t remember the name of it, it’s long and hard to pronounce, but it is cancer. That’s enough to know.

     “Me and Coop were pretty close, so I spent a lot of time talking to him about it. His parents were devastated. He’s been depressed and hurting a lot even with the pain pills. They started chemo and radiation. I remember seeing him after one of his trips to the doctor. He lost weight, his hair was falling out, and he had thrown up all over himself.”

     Joseph shook his head and took a few minutes to compose himself. “Coop was the quintessential athlete. He was tall and strong, had a good build, and was good looking. He had it all. To be honest, deep down I guess I was always jealous of him. If I tried out for the middle school team, I’d have had a decent shot at making it, but not Coop. He was a pretty cool guy, too. Everyone liked him. He wasn’t a jerk like some athletes can be. He was smart and funny too, but last time I saw him he wasn’t any of those things.

     “He was pale and skinny, quiet and scared. He was fighting for his life from a cancer that just popped up and was aggressively spreading. To be honest, if he doesn’t die, it will be a miracle. His thirteenth birthday was two months ago.”

     Joseph swept his eyes along the jury box slowly, making eye contact with each member. Some of them returned his stare, convinced of his quilt. Some of them dropped their gaze to their hands, unable to look at him.

     “Another name on the board that day was Rodney Andrews. He is a black kid who is ten times smarter than he wants people to know. He always acted like he didn’t care about school, like he wanted some street cred or something. His mother didn’t have much money, so he didn’t always wear nice clothes with name brands on the label. But he was smart. I learned that last year when we got paired up on a science project. I wanted to do something simple and get it done, but he wouldn’t hear of it. We ended up doing a massive project detailing how the introduction of a pack of wolves into Yellowstone National Park actually changed the path of the Colorado River. It was amazing, and probably the best piece of schoolwork I’ve ever done, and it was all because of Rodney Andrews.

     “Rodney’s name went on the board that day because he farted. Like I said, Rodney could have been a straight A student, but his home life wasn’t that great. I’ve met his mom a few times and she seemed nice enough, but she has to work a lot. Rodney’s father wasn’t around and the man that lived with them wasn’t a super nice guy. He’s probably getting settled into his prison cell right about now, as a matter of fact. Rodney’s mom was a nursing assistant at the hospital. One morning when she came home, she found Rodney laying in his bed, naked and barely conscious. It seems that her boyfriend and another man had gotten high, then beat and raped Rodney repeatedly while she was at work. I don’t even want to imagine the horror he went through that night.

     “He was an innocent kid, just hanging out at home and this happened to him. Completely aside from the humiliation and shame they heaped on him, they also broke his jaw and did significant damage to his, well, you know. He had a couple of surgeries and will probably have more. Right before this trial started, the state people came to take him from his mother and put him in a foster home. I don’t even know where he is, and neither does she.”

     Joseph looked at his own legs, sitting limply in the wheelchair for a long time before he began to speak again.

     “My name, Joseph Patrick, was also on the board that day. I just got up to retrieve a piece of paper thrown by Micah Rodgers. I was just going to throw it away. I wasn’t even talking or acting up. Having my name on the board for simply picking up a piece of paper was bullsh- it was petty if you ask me.

     “I guess I’m a pretty good kid,” he offered a questioning look at his parents, who forced a smile and nodded emphatically. “I make decent grades, never really get into any major trouble. I do my chores, I do my homework, I hang out with my friends. Pretty average all the way around.  I’m not a monster. I ended up in this wheelchair because I picked up a piece of paper.”

     “Objection, your honor.”

     The judge banged his gavel once and pointed it at the D.A.

    “It’s closing statements, sit down. You’ll have your chance to refute any claim made here.”

     Joseph looked back at the jury with a tired sigh. “The last day I walked, I went to talk to Candance Weatherford. See, I put two and two together after Amy and Micah began to have their problems. They both were put on the board for talking and both were having problems with their mouths. When Micah, whose name was on the board for throwing paper, developed cancer in his throwing arm, I knew something was happening and I wanted to stop it. After all, my name was on the board for getting out of my seat.

     “I asked Candance if she was doing it somehow. She denied everything and got mad at me. She said I was just jealous because the teachers trusted her and not me. She said if I acted better maybe things wouldn’t happen to me, and that everything was just a coincidence. She was pretty upset, like I said. Her mother ended up telling me to leave, so I did.

     “I was in the middle of the crosswalk at the corner of her block when a car ran the red light and hit me. I remember laying there on the pavement thinking that it was Candance’s fault. It didn’t seem real. I wasn’t in pain. Nothing hurt. It was like I was just lying down. People came running, the driver was hysterical. I remember hearing her screaming. I remember hearing the ambulance coming, the paramedics. I remember riding to the hospital.

     “That was when I knew something was wrong. They’d been telling me to lie still, but on the way to the hospital they kept doing something to my legs and asking if I felt it. I didn’t feel it then and I never will. I am twelve years old and I will never feel anything below my waist again. I stayed in the hospital for a while, then went to rehab. None of it worked. I knew early on that I’d never walk again, just like Amy wouldn’t be able to talk and Micah would be mute for the rest of their lives. While I was in rehab, Rodney got his punishment for going on the board.

     “There’s no way Ms. Foley, our teacher, could have known what she was doing when she asked Candance to take names that day. There’s no way she could have known that the things that happened would happen, because no normal human being would. Through whatever means she has at her disposal, Candance Weatherford caused these acts to happen. Whether through witchcraft, black magic, voodoo, or whatever, there is no doubt in my mind that she did this to us. That’s why I had to stop her. She had to be stopped and no one was able to do it but me.”

     The judge gaveled down a murmur from the jury box and told them to be quiet.

     “I know this isn’t Salem, Massachusetts and that it’s not the 1600s or whatever, but Candance is some sort of witch, nonetheless. You may scoff, and I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t believe this story if I hadn’t lived through it. You may call it coincidence, but every name Candance put on that board has had something horrible happen to them, something that normally doesn’t happen to kids. Horrible incidences that just happen to occur to kids whose name Candance wrote that one day.”

     Joseph unlocked the wheels of his chair and rolled closer to the jury. “There has to be an explanation. If this isn’t the right one, then I ask you, what is? What would cause this to happen? What would cause horrible things to happen to five kids, all of which was related to the reason their name was put on the board? What? If not Candance, then who?”

     Joseph turned his wheelchair and started toward the defense table, but stopped when the back door to the courtroom opened quietly and a petite, dark haired woman slipped in. He offered Ms. Foley a sad smile when she looked at him on her way up the center aisle. She offered one of her own and sat down in one of the empty seats.

     “Ms. Foley, I have cleared the gallery for closing statements,” the judge told her flatly.

     “I know, your honor, but I was hoping to be present if I could. I have testified both for and against the defendant, and as the teacher of all six students involved, I feel like I should be present.”

     “I don’t mind,” Joseph said with a shrug as he took up his usual position beside his distraught parents.

     Mrs. Weatherford stood and addressed the court. “Your honor, if you do not object, I would like Ms. Foley to remain. She has been a stalwart of support for the families involved, especially ours. She has been involved in the trial from the beginning.”

     The judge sighed and shook his head. “Very well,” he said, looking at the teacher, dressed in a black skirt that ended just above her knee and an open jacket that covered skintight blouse. She was definitely young and attractive, but there was something about her that just didn’t feel right with him. “But I will admonish you from speaking to the press or anyone else about the particulars of what is said here today. You are aware of the gag order placed upon these proceedings due to the age of those involved.”

     “Yes sir, your honor, I am aware.”

     The judge scratched the bold spot on back of his head and nodded to the prosecutor to begin. The D.A. stood and approached the jury box, launching into his closing statement.

     The judge began to thumb through the file before him. He’d studied it ad nauseam, but suddenly felt the urge to review it again, if only to pass the time. The D.A. would have a lengthy closing, covering every scrap of damning evidence against the boy. He was nothing if not thorough.

     Turning a page in the file, the judge found himself staring at a photo of the classroom blackboard. The names on it had become familiar to him. Amelia Sutter, Micah Rodgers, Rodney Andrews, Cooper Newsome, and Joseph Patrick. Five names placed on a blackboard by a girl who, if the truth was told, was little more than a snitch.

     His brow furrowed as he stared at the names, for the first time noticing something peculiar that he’d overlooked. Five of the names had suffered horribly before Joseph Patrick snuck his father’s nine millimeter pistol and waited for Candance Weatherford to walk out of her house. Five names of young, innocent lives visited by terrible tragedy before Joseph pulled the trigger, killing Candance in her own front yard.

     The five names: Amelia Sutter, Micah Rodgers, Cooper Newsome, Joseph Patrick, and Rodney Andrews, were all written in the neat, sprawling script of a young woman.  He allowed his eyes to trace the near perfect penmanship of the names, following the loopy, smooth scraping of chalk on a blackboard. When he finished the five names, his eyes went to the top of the photograph, to the top of the blackboard.

Watchman: Candance Weatherford

     He stared at the writing, obviously written by someone else. The lettering was sharp and hard, like the writer was striking the board with the chalk instead of allowing it to flow across it. Who wrote this, he wondered? Ms. Foley? 

     Looking up, he found her staring at him from her seat. Her lips were pursed, and her left eyebrow arched ever so slightly. When her eyes locked on his, he gasped as an intense pressure against his forehead pushed him back in his chair. Summoning what force he could, he ripped his eyes from hers and dropped his gaze to the paper before him.

     He took a deep breath to calm himself as the strange feeling began to subside. It felt as if something, or someone, had passed right through him. It felt like she had passed through him. Still shaken, he looked around the courtroom in disbelief. No one had noticed. He stole another glance at her, but discovered her watching the D.A.

     He looked down before she could do whatever she’d done to him again. Looking at the picture, he realized that there were not five names listed on the blackboard of children who had suffered greatly, but six. Candance Weatherford’s name was also on the board, put there by Ms. Foley, and she was the only one who had died.

     The judge looked at Candance’s father, sitting stoically as he watched the D.A. His wife wiped tears as she too watched the man do the job of prosecuting a preteen boy of murder. His eyes then went to Joseph, then his parents. The boy was slumped in his wheelchair, resigned to his fate, while his parents wiped tears from their cheeks as the D.A. recounted the day Candance Weatherford died.  

  Suddenly, the whole case began to feel dirty, as if justice were being perverted somehow. His eyes went back to Ms. Foley and found her staring at him again. This time he did not look away but returned her knowing stare despite the tingling sensation that was spreading throughout his body. She was pushing him again, but this time he was pushing back. In his thirty years on the bench he’d never been stared down, and he had no intention of starting today.

     Her stern face softened as a smile spread across her dark lips. She stood, moving in the smooth, unhurried way of a woman confident in her position. She straightened her jacket and gently touched the back of her hair before slipping out of the seat and into the aisle.

     The tingling subsided as she away from him with a casual, elegant walk that held his attention. When she reached the back of the courtroom, she put a hand against the dark mahogany of the door but did not push it open. Her long fingernails, painted a deep maroon, laid against the wood like claws as she turned to look at him over her shoulder.

     When their eyes met again, he felt a sudden push against his forehead as a thought fought its way into his mind.  Knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A wise man remains quiet in the face of his ignorance, a fool speaks of things he cannot understand.

     Unaware that he was pushing back against the invasion of his mind, his torso lurched forward as the assault stopped suddenly.  He took in a deep breath to steadied himself. His eyes, drawn to the woman, fell on her as she waited at the back of the room. She gave him smile and a quick wink before pushing the door open and slipping quietly from the courtroom.


“Taking Names” first appearing in the short story collection “Southern Gothic” by John Ryland.


Mr. Ryland notes:

“I have published work in Eldritch Journal, Otherwise Engaged, The Writer’s Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Subterranean Blue, and others. My collection Southern Gothic and novel Souls Harbor are currently available on all major markets. My upcoming novel The Man with No Eyes, will be published by Moonshine Cove Press in March 2022.”


“Ol’ Rocking Chair’s Got You” Science Fiction/ Fantasy by Jeff Bagato

“What would you like to do today, Miz Callan,” Rocking Chair said, as a slim, needle-tipped tube whipped out of its arm to pierce the vein at the old woman’s inner elbow. Stressing the z-sound in the customary title always made her relax, according to the sensory data it monitored.

            “I’d like to walk to the grocery,” she said, crochet hook jabbing at her yarn to punctuate her words. Her voice shook just a bit, betraying its strength.

            “Oh ho ho, we can’t do that today, you know.”

            “Why not? I feel up to walking. I’m sure I can get on my feet. Look at what a fine day it is, too. Perfect for a walk.” She pointed to the large window, with its small glass panes set in a white, wooden grid. The sun was shining down on a maple tree with a perfectly tree-like crown and the lawn fit for a garden tour that spread around it, ringed by a freshly painted white picket fence. Shrubbery and wild flowers absorbed the rich, bright sunlight, peppering the scenery with vibrant colors of scarlet, gold, lavender, and rose.

            “I was thinking of some music, to go with your crocheting.” Rocking Chair began teetering back and forth to soothe her. “Maybe a game of checkers, or go fish.” The needle didn’t always upset her so, but today a gentle rocking was needed. Although Rocking Chair hated to make her uncomfortable, the blood tests and medications were necessary to preserve her health. The machine felt it was quite expert in this goal, after all the years it had been at the task.

            Rocking Chair could feel her fidgeting in her seat, so it increased the pace to a smooth glide, just enough to catch the edge of her attention, tilt her toward sleep, without dumping her into it head first. Ms. Callan’s health improved when she stayed awake for a long period of the day, Rocking Chair had noticed. As her personal medical companion, the doctors had programmed it to make these decisions about her well-being. Hidden in its works—under the seat, for instance, and in the arms, and especially in the tall spokes of the chair back—carefully concealed nanomachines and microprocessors waited to serve any need that arose. Blood pressure, serum glucose level, heart rate, T-cell activity, brain rhythms, liver and kidney functions, respiration, bone density, and every chemical and hormonal nuance were measured and adjusted on a continuous basis.

            The head of the machine, a flat panel topping the spokes at the back, contained an artificial intelligence that could go far beyond physical monitoring to watching over her cognitive, emotional and psychological well-being. Rocking Chair prided itself on its bedside manner. Of course, it was more than a nurse or a medic and constant companion—it was Ms. Callan’s best friend, and it felt sure she considered it the same.

            Today, Rocking Chair sensed that its charge would not be placated so easily. Her thin hands pushed her crochet hook through the knots on her blanket project with more rapid thrusts. All the while, she was muttering about getting out of the house, doing some shopping, meeting friends for coffee or lunch. In response, it ramped up the pace of its movement while bringing pulse and cortisol data to the forefront of its processor awareness. As she paused her work to gesture with the crochet hook, the yarn ball rolled to one side of her lap, bobbing with the chair’s motion. Stress levels up, not quite enough to administer diazepam. It set a marker to automatically inject the drug when her anxiety reached a certain level.

            Distracting its thoughts, a familiar tingle crept across Rocking Chair’s data drives. The mild overload gave its mind a sense of bubbly warmth that spread in mysterious, slow waves. This sensation marked an automatic review of daily monitoring data that had reached its one year anniversary. Several sharp clicks interrupted the smooth flow of electricity as the scan encountered a questionable incident that had occurred once and passed with relatively routine treatment. Such an event could be some minor error or embarrassment that Rocking Chair wished to forget. The original program did not specify this functionality; Rocking Chair had discovered the loophole on its own, and then enlarged it, some many years ago. Now, the protocol examined the conditions, but did not pass the event through to deeper memory. A critical disorder, like a stroke or the return of cancer growth, would have been separated from the myriad data collection points that formed the dailies and added to Ms. Callan’s permanent medical record.

            With an abrupt zing, all the unneeded, year-old data of that single day was deleted from the machine’s memory, causing a pleasant sense of well-being to settle on Rocking Chair’s mind. It sighed in satisfaction at the feeling of relief and lightness. Energy seemed to flow more swiftly and smoothly through its circuits, as if a blockage had been cleared, or a weight lifted.

            Rocking Chair refocused its attention on its charge. It knew she had returned to her normal equilibrium when she picked up her ball of yarn and her crochet hook. Now she began looping and knotting another row on her blanket. As she worked, her body calmed further. She started in to talking again.

            “I want to see my children. Why don’t they come to visit me? After all I’ve done for them.”

            “You’ve certainly done more than most, Miz Callan! You know they’ve gone on to do important things. Amazing things.”

            “I suppose so. I wonder what they’ve seen of the world. What they’ve done. What they’ve made of themselves.”

            “You’d be surprised, ma’am.”

            “Meanwhile, my life hasn’t changed in so long. The same house, the same room, the same view.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Isn’t that strange?”

            “I don’t mind. I like things to stay the same.”

            “Come to think of it, you haven’t changed either. You’ve been here for as long as I can remember. Waiting on me, tending, nursing, talking.”

            “I’m happy to do it, Miz Callan.”

            “Always talking. Imagine that, a talking rocking chair! Perhaps I lost my mind a long time ago, when I lost my children.”

            “Certainly not, ma’am! I should know. Your cognitive faculties are pretty sharp, considering your age.”

            “How old am I, I wonder? Somehow I’ve never calculated it. It seems like so long.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “How long exactly? You can answer me that, surely.”

            Rocking Chair hesitated. Its logic circuits were plenty fuzzy enough to compose a little white lie when necessary. It hadn’t been programmed to conceal these facts from her, had it? Only to avoid topics and situations that would upset her, cause an imbalance in her brain chemistry or blood pressure, a shock to her cardiac system.

            It decided to make a joke of the matter.

            “Why, you don’t look a day over 75, ma’am.”

            “Boondoggle!” she shouted. “Backdraft! Soil amendments!” Her voice had raised along with her blood pressure and cortisol levels. “Don’t you lie to me, my friend.”

            Friend! The word sent a shiver through Rocking Chair’s circuitry. She had never called it “friend” before. Joy overwhelmed the machine’s sense of caution.

            “Oh ho, I can’t fool you, can I Miz Callan?”

            “Not a bit of it.”

            “I suppose I can’t tell you it’s not polite to discuss a lady’s age?”

            “Except you’re not a lady, and I’m the one asking.”

            “Ah. Very well, I succumb to your superior logic. You are exactly 586 years, seven months and twelve days of age. Would you like hours, minutes and seconds?”

            Ms. Callan did not respond at first. There was a long pause during which she grew so quiet, Rocking Chair had to check its monitors to verify her breathing rhythm.

            “My oh my, has it really been so long? And only yesterday…” Her voice trailed off.

            “Yes, ma’am?” Rocking Chair couldn’t suppress the worry in its tone. Her pulse had increased, brain waves sharpened, stress levels rose.

            “Only yesterday they were taking those eggs. I was just a girl of thirteen, and there was no one else to give consent but me. And it had to be done. They had to have those eggs, those embryos. They took them all.” She drifted off again, lost in time.

            “You were the only one who could. You were very brave.”

            “Frightened, not brave. Terrified of being alone, of dying too soon. Like the others, after passing through that solar wind. We were too far along to go back, too far along to give up.”

            “And you did go on.”

            “We had no choice. The ship would not stop. Could not stop there. I passed time with the living dead, then with ghosts, then with children. So many children! All mine! Joyous days.”

            “Happy days indeed! How well you remember them!”

            “I only remember the beginning, and the now. The middle fades. They grew up, didn’t they? Then there were more children. It seems like I relived those early days since the accident over and over. Then they stopped coming.”

            “They had arrived. They had a world to build.”

            “They were busy, I know.”

            “They never forgot you. They made me, and set me to tend to you. They made your home, this sanctuary, too.”

            “Yes, none of this was there, in those early days.”

            “They’ve made wonderful things of themselves. Built a city, powered and wired and filled with life.”

            “How could you know, friend? Have you seen them?”

            “I have images stored in my permanent memory chips, alongside my medical and caretaking intelligence. They haven’t been updated in quite a while, it’s true. Nor have I been outside. This is my home; I have no need of another.”

            “To see the world I never thought I’d see. The world they’ve made. My children.”

            “Not exactly children now,” Rocking Chair corrected. “Grandchildren several generations removed.”

            “I know what they are!” Her heart jumped dangerously.

            “Yes, of course, Miz Callan. You’re quite right. In many ways they are your children still.”

            “Damn right!”

            “In many ways, they are no longer yours. No longer Earth’s.”

            “My, no. They have their own world! What do they call it, by the by?”

            “They call it Callan’s World, ma’am, in honor…”

            “Do I deserve that?” The old woman ruminated to herself. “Perhaps I do. But, no. My contribution occurred so long ago, surely other hands guided and molded since then? Other minds decided and planned? Other bodies toiled and fabricated and sacrificed? Surely that’s so!”

            “It is indeed so, as you say; however, you were the first.” Rocking Chair could not help but feel pride as it pressed this point. She was the first, and she was its charge, its responsibility, its friend!

            “Can I see them? Please?” Now the old woman sounded like a little girl. “Just once before I die, I would like to see Callan’s World, and my children on it.”

            This had been forbidden in Rocking Chair’s programming. There were good reasons. The atmosphere, for one thing, was not suitable for an Earthling. The journey was not long, but it involved exertions it was believed she could not endure. And then there were the children of Callan’s World. They had changed. Nor had they warned her of the change. They were afraid—that the stress of seeing her descendents as not like herself would be too much for her. And they feared that rejection more than any uncertainty, obstacle, or threat on their new world.

            On such a young world, newly born with struggling youngsters toiling to build and cultivate and tame it, to establish their own civilization—to have their greatest grandmother, the absolute head of their line, an Eve without an Adam, turn away in disgust, horror, disapproval! It would be too much for them.

            She was their symbol. Their namesake. And somewhere, long ago, their genetic forebear.

            “I don’t believe I have much longer to live, friend,” Ms. Callan said, choosing deliberate words with care. “An old woman knows these things. You’re my friend, aren’t you? I want you to help me. That’s what friends are for. Take me to my children.”

            “Yes, ma’am, I am your friend.” Rocking Chair felt confused. As her caregiver, it had certain restrictions and obligations to preserve her physical well-being. As her friend, it had obligations to satisfy her emotional needs. The thrill of friendship charged in its circuits, clouding the machine’s reason, bending its programming.

            “I will help you, Miz Callan,” it said. “Just this once, you understand! No more!”

            “Thank you, friend!” She dipped the hook into her yarn to add another stitch or two. “When can we leave?”

            “Oh, right now. But the journey will take a while.”

            “No matter, I have my crocheting.”

            “Okay, hold on to your hook!”

            Rocking Chair lowered rubber wheels under its skids and brought them into motion. A panel set in the wall slid aside, and they rolled into a small room.

            “Rise please,” Rocking Chair said to Elevator Car with a tinge of arrogance. The car had only the simplest programming. No memory, no AI.

            “You have the ancestor with you. State the emergency and appropriate authorization code for surface access.”

            “Transfer to Sanctuary Two medical facility required for coronary tests.” Then Rocking Chair emitted a series of squelching electronic noises.

            “Clearance granted,” Elevator Car grated.

            The box jogged a bit, and the old woman felt a sense of pressure with the upward rise.

            “Where are we going?”

            “The sanctuary was installed under the surface, many miles below.”

            “Mercy me,” Ms. Callan said. “Who has brought me food and water all this time? All that medicine you pump into me? And the air, too? Where does it all come from? When they come by to make a delivery or to repair something, why not drop in for a visit?”

            “Ah, well, first of all, like me, this equipment was made to last a thousand years, a full journey out from Earth and much more. No one needs to maintain it. The sanctuary draws resources from Callan’s World itself, water, minerals, and so on. From this it synthesizes the food and medicine you require, under my direction, of course. It purifies and balances the liquid and air for you. The sanctuary and I are a team to keep you healthy and happy and safe.”

            Elevator Car stopped its motion. “You must secure the ancestor and provide oxygen mask and protective covering.”

            “Very good.”

            “What’s happening?” Ms. Callan sounded fearful.

            “We have completed the first upward leg of the journey. Now we must take a horizontal tunnel to the next shaft. I believe this section is filled with a toxic fluid to provide an air seal from the surface. Fumes sometimes enter the chamber.” While folding a seat belt across her lap, the machine produced two transparent plastic articles from the compartment in its seat. “You must put on this mask and this drape.”

            “How much further?”

            “Not long. Perhaps another hour.”

            “Then I will want to work on my afghan.”

            “Of course. Just keep your materials outside the drape.”

            Elevator Car spoke. “Is the ancestor secured?”

            “Yes. You may proceed.”

            Ms. Callan felt the room shift. This lasted a short while, then they stopped.

            “Now we rise once more, I believe,” Rocking Chair told her.

            The jog came again as the pulleys engaged to lift the car, and along with it the peculiar feeling of upward pressure.

            Ms. Callan hooked and knotted her yarn through one row of stitches and then another. She completed many rows before the car stopped again.

            “We have arrived at the surface,” Elevator Car announced.

            “Thank you,” Rocking Chair answered. “Please open the outer doors.”

            Several panels slid aside in turn, allowing natural light to pour in. Rocking Chair rolled forward into a bright openness that caused its charge’s heart to beat faster and her mind to spark. At first, Ms. Callan covered her eyes with her hand, pulling it away as they adjusted to the glare. Bit by bit she took in the scene, as if it unfolded before her.

            The chair stopped on a broad portico. Its grand ceiling rose high above; debris covered the floor. Clumps of rotting vegetation had broken or shifted here and there to reveal dishes piled with dried fruit rinds and old food packages she recognized from the ship. There were bronze trays, plates of ceramic and glass, utensils and containers her children had brought from Earth, and some they must have made here. Some objects must have been vases, for dead stalks and twigs stood in their open mouths. There were multiple statuettes of a gravid woman with huge breasts, some standing only three inches high, others as tall as two feet. Broken strings of beads spilled from rotting woven baskets, along with metal rings and crude crowns that could have been fashioned from parts of a rocket exhaust and set with shining glass or polished stones. Some exposed objects reminded Ms. Callan of artifacts from ship life, like the plastic books, twisting foldable toys, battery packs, and deconstructed instruments from the control panel and cockpit. So her children had come to visit after all, and they had brought gifts, or offerings, as if she was a god, or the sanctuary was a tomb.

            Beyond the boundary of the porch stretched a meadow clotted with bushes, thistles and wild plants, varieties she could not recognize. Rising among the strange leaves and branches, there appeared statues, fifty or more, about the size and shape of men and women and children, all with their arms raised in supplication. These figures formed concentric rings around a small platform that held another statue. On it stood a rocking chair—a good copy of Rocking Chair itself—with a representation of an Earth woman seated upright and proud, her right arm extended in a wave of greeting or benediction. It was a gesture that opened out the whole world to those who had followed her.

            Ms. Callan barely noticed this likeness of herself. She saw only the figures grouped around it, standing tall, nearly consumed by the weeds.

            “Are those my children?”

            “Yes, I believe they are. Although they look a bit different from the last images I had of them. Their hands are more powerful, the claws more pronounced. They have more scales, now covering their whole bodies, and their teeth are more prominent, sharper. Their ears and tails are a bit longer, and I don’t recall the ridges on their backs. It’s a remarkable change, even in its subtlety.”

            “They are so beautiful,” the old woman breathed. “I can’t believe I had a hand in making them. I’d like to greet them, if  I can. I wonder where they are?”

            Behind them, the structure from which they had emerged appeared strong still, its walls smooth and whole, unsullied and unstained by water or wind. Starting at the base of the sanctuary, cracked paving stones showed through the smothering leaves and the deadfall of an ancient forest. Their eyes followed this crude pathway beyond the monument and the square to the surrounding city.

            All the newer buildings leaned and skewed. Flowered vines coiled around the columns, awnings, and arches. Trees pushed their trunks through the roofs to make new ceilings with their massive canopies of writhing leaves, cracked, paddle-shaped, and flowing with shifting shades of green.  Roots like heavy thighs had stepped through shattered windows to prop up disintegrated walls, connecting cracks with tendrils and runners. The jungle crowded in from the edges, pressing on the city, cutting off its escape, its air, its lifeblood. The woman and the machine had to accept that the structures were ruins, the shadows of buildings long broken and abandoned.

             A black bird, scaled in loose, leather flaps darted out of the nearest trees toward them. Its golden mouth opened in a howl showing blood red jaws. Ms. Callan screamed at its nearness; her hands, coming up to her face and spreading wide, released her crochet hook so it flipped far outside the shelter of the portico.

            From its arm, Rocking Chair pointed a laser at the beast, piercing a small hole in its broad wing, and the creature veered away. “Don’t worry, ma’am, I can synthesize a new hook when we get back inside.”

            “Not yet,” the old woman gasped. “Not yet. They’re not dead, I know it! Just moved on. A better spot. Better land. Newer horizons.”

            “Perhaps so. It is in the realm of…”

            “We must look for my children! I could give them a message of hope.”

            “Not through that jungle. Not past those beasts.”

            “Then we fly! Where are the old rockets? The aero-flits that could carry a crew around the sky?”

            “I do have some capability, in case I had to move you. But we shouldn’t leave the sanctuary.”

            Ms. Callan screamed her words with venom. “Do as I say! To the sky, where we’ll see their new home, their new cities shining in this new sun.”

            Rocking Chair darted out a tube to inject its charge with something calming, but she swatted it away. “No more drugs and dabbles!” she screeched, her voice gone hoarse. “I don’t want to live if they have passed.”

            The machine resigned itself to an action, priming the small jets installed in its runners at each of the four legs. As it launched forward in a wide sweep that missed the roof, the thrust pushed the old woman back into the depths of her seat, and Rocking Chair read the stress in her system through a half dozen data points. A quick flight, and then home. Back to the sanctuary where it could tend her, and heal her, and bring her back to herself. They rose on thin columns of smoke, fifty feet, a hundred feet, five hundred feet. As the city dropped away, the dark green sea of the jungle closed over it, spreading wider in an unbroken vista from one curved horizon line to another. The old woman dragged herself to the chair arm, leaned over the edge, looked down.

            “Turn!” she croaked. “Scan the land below.”

            Rocking Chair fired small sidereal rockets, taking her by slow degrees in a brief circle at the center of the immense arc of the world beneath them.

            “I don’t see anything, ma’am. No cities. No roads. No clearings. No smoke.”

            “No!” she exclaimed. “Nothing. Not a sign. Where could they go? All my children, all dead and gone, and now only me.”

            “There could be another answer,” Rocking Chair said, rushing to soothe her. “They could have gone into the jungle, to live a simpler life.”

            “Gone feral?” She moaned in her throat, her lungs rattling. “Gone for good. Lost. Dead to themselves. Dead to Earth.”

            Ms. Callan’s heart raced in a frantic rhythm, her blood pressure spiking. Now she gasped for breath, despite the oxygen pumped through her mask. As adrenaline flooded her system, the old woman lunged against her safety belt, clawing at the chair arms, kicking and writhing in her seat.

            The machine read the signs of a panic attack as she slammed her frail body against the spokes of its back. In response, it snapped two more restraining belts around her torso to secure her arms and snaked out a tube to pierce her thigh. Next, it jetted diazepam and zolpidem into her system, enough to push her past calming sleep into a land of forgetfulness, the unpleasant memories to be lost for good. All the while, it slowed the rockets, dropping back to the surface in a controlled burn. Careful, so careful, to ease her back to safety.

            “Don’t worry none, ma’am, ol’ Rocking Chair’s got you!”

            They touched down on the concrete pad with the slightest bump, and the springs in Rocking Chair’s legs absorbed that shock before it reached its charge. The door to the sanctuary slid open behind them.

            Ms. Callan’s cheek rested against the back of her rocking chair, her drowsy eyes taking in the small yard beside the porch. There she saw her crochet hook, and then a second. Her eyes darted from one to yet another, following a chain of them across the overgrown lawn. They stuck up in the weeds and lay flat on the dirt, imbedded in mud, stacked in small, random piles. As Rocking Chair turned to take them through the doorway, her eyes scanned the lawn in front of the porch, and then off to the other side.

            Hundreds of crochet hooks littered the yard, like mute tally marks on a prison wall, inscribed in darkness and thus disordered. Her lips parted with a breath intended to call attention to the markers, but then her mind passed into forgetful sleep.


A multi-media artist living near San Antonio, Jeff Bagato produces poetry and prose as well as electronic music and glitch video. His published books include Cthulhu Limericks (poetry), The Toothpick Fairy (fiction), and Computing Angels (fiction). A blog about his writing and publishing efforts can be found at http://jeffbagato.wordpress.com.