“Ferry Ride” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

I am listening as the waves are slapping against the harbor, slapping against those dark pylons stretching into the swirling, forbidding depths of the water.  The garbage floats on the oil-stained wavelets as they lap against the man-made shore.  The ferry looms; a beast astride the water, tethered to the mooring, fuming as it waits.

I am staring into the dark pit of the ferry, seeing only the runway cage enshrouded by shadows through which a procession of slow-moving cars slides into night.  I hear the harsh, repetitive clamor of the heavy rubber wheels moving over a steel plated ramp.  Beyond the ferry, a lone, flashing, red buoy light in the harbor.

Jostled by the crowd, I embark. I’m eager to leave the city behind, eager to escape the glaring, stunning streetlights, the threatening shapes of towering structures, the constant fevered movements of faceless men and women brushing against each other on the sidewalks. I am unnerved by the dizzying shriek of car horns, mechanically roaring buses, rumbling of locals and the uptowns below, trembling the pavement, as I walk, seeing the river spanning bridges dominating the sky-scape, jutting out of my nights into my days, casting stark, terrible shadows on my life.

I consider the passengers’ compartment: the white painted wooden benches, Mae West jackets packed tightly in orange rows on the wall opposite the entranceway, the grit smeared picture window panes of the compartment through which nothing can be seen, passengers huddled on benches speaking in subdued tones.  I smell the wood rot and human decay, refuse bins overflowing with discarded food wrappers that black flies and yellow jackets swarm to.  Smell the burning hot cacaos and bitter coffees, steaming rubberized hot dogs behind the snack bar, competing in their vileness with deep fat frying foods, and putrid uncleaned griddle greases.

Inside the passengers’ compartment, the cigarette smoke haze hangs from the ceiling, clouding the already densely packed room obscuring the “Emergency Only” glass case containing fire hoses, hatchets and a cylinder of foam, marred by a black magic marker inscription: “For a good time call BJ 599-5224.”  I hear a terrible rumbling inside the bowels of the beast; the engines growling as the ferry lurches out into the harbor.

I am sitting on the edge of a bench toward the rear of the compartment, wishing I had procured a window seat near the front of the room.  In the rear, I must watch the people: the immense woman consuming various prepared foodstuffs concealed in the voluminous folds of her dress, a homeless alcoholic drinking wine by the pint from the neck of a bottle protruding from a soiled, wrinkled paper bag, the harried, young Latina mother of five, addressing her brood in wild street Spanish, her man aloof, drinking a half quart of Budweiser from an aluminum can, staring at the river moving beneath us, as we surge into the night.

“Hey Mistah, gotta light?”

“Excuse me?”

“I need a light.”

“Hold on, I’ll look.”

Searching through my pockets, feeling through loose change, rumpled tissues, ticket stubs, pocket lint, considering as I grope this gaunt, black man of no age at all.

“You live on the island?”

“Me? No, I just like to ride the ferry.”

“I been livin’ there a long time-a real long time.  Gotta nice little place overlookin’ the water. Just been in the City for the day.  Don’ like the City.”

“Ah, here we go.  You can keep them.”

“Thanks Mistah.  You like the City?

“It’s where I live.  I don’t know where else I could live.  Comfortably I mean.  It’s–I guess, it’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Don’ like the City.  She be evil.  But the Island’s different.  The Island’s okay.  It’s cool man. Want a hit?”

“No, thanks, really.”

“Yeah, the City.  She evil alright.  Know what I seen today?”

“No.”‘

“I seen the biggest, baddest, meanest mother of a rat.  And you know what she was doin’? She was pullin’ at this here paper, diggin’ around for all she was worth at somethin’ buried in the garbage. Man, she was hungry and this be dinner.  Want to know what she was gettin’ at?”

“No.”

“Was what was left of a human baby, man.  Know what else?…sure you don’ want no hit?”

“Sure.”

“There be rats down there everywhere-not like the Island.  Those mothers grow so big down there, they have to in order to survive, I swear you can’t hardly walk around with all them rats, some bigger than badassed tom cats, man, I saw two rats take on the biggest ole alley cat I ever seen and eat that sucker up alive.  Woo-wee was that somethin’ else again.”

“Excuse me.”

“Man, that sucker was squealin’.  Hey man, where you be goin’? Hey, boy, you alright, you don’ look so good?”

Rising, I stride as fast as possible across the passenger compartment, slide the exit door open and step out onto the ferry deck.  A sharp, damp wind assaults me, whips the canvas-shrouded lifeboats hanging from the upper ferry deck.  Staring into the darkness, inwardly embracing the cold, I adjust my army surplus jacket, tighten the knit scarf around my neck, the river mist touching me, welding me to the rail. I hear the compartment door opening, closing, hear footsteps on the deck.  I know that I am being sought out, know the terror each footstep brings.  I should hide somewhere, anywhere in the night bit I wait, paralyzed, shivering, as if forbidden to move by some unseen force.

“Hey, man, you alright?”

“I’m okay.”

“What ails you, man?  I guess I know when a body ain’t feelin’ alright.”

“I just want to be left alone.”

“I can dig that.  Look, I’ve got this smoke of many dreams here, man, you can have free of charge, if you think it’ll make you feel alright.”

“No thanks, I have enough dreams already without the smoke. I just went to be left alone.”

“You be in the City too long, you best get out.”

“What do you think I’m doing here.”

“Come on, man, take a hit.”

“I Don’t Want It!”

“Okay, man.  No need to get violent.  Shit, man, I was just tryin’ to help.”

Footsteps receding in the darkness.

Backing away, slowly.

The chill spray on my clothes.

Staring at the white capped confluence of river and sea in the night.

Lost.

The Island lights, gleaming, glowing in the distance.


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

A church bell tolls, a single strike, noise that pierces her ears

Rosy’s eyes dart, seconds-hand ticks to the thirtieth minute of ten, gems on her Rolex’s disc glow

Morning sunlight, sans warmth, casts shadows on her pale skin; buildings countless, occasional trees, as her Benz gains momentum

Thanks she, God’s mercy, clear sight even at sixty

No need to rush, Rosy hisses, sweat erupts on driver’s forehead, hints of glee on goose bumps on her skin  

Pleasure perverse, emits shameless, unleashed grudges quell AC’s chill

Horrible prison cells, memories etched forever; in body or soul, it doesn’t matter, the torment revisits

Small town, metropolis; systems corrupt, pain remains same, inflicted out of frustration

Guards bulky, potbelly sporting, pant walking

Batons and canes, sleek and slender, nestle in cavities

Fence eats the crop, convicts mumble

Peace necessitates violence, guards rumble

Rosy, a pawn, gets shuffled; wrong to right, right to wrong, like all those inmates; many guilty, some innocent, all condemned to the same fate

Wronged by birth, a family in poverty; wronged by fate, a victim of abuse

Right by affiliation, a noble cause; right by choice, an advocate of social change  

Wrong again, by being in the right place

Right again, by being in the wrong place

Joining a revolution against injustice, choice of the right place, system says, Anarchist

Lands up in jail, the wrong place, yet fights for the right cause, society says, insurgent

Wrong for being right

Again

Wrong for being right

She leans back, she can raise her voice now, send it farther than the bell’s toll, let it resonate; no one will so much as raise an eyebrow

Right choice, right move, judge himself a rebel, within his heart, evokes human rights, and sets her free

Jails him in nuptial bond, she scores a home run, touts the trophy

Scars of incarceration, remain a laceration unhealed, bleeds forever

The boy, sitting next to her closes his eyes, an only grandson

Remain awake, she coos like a dove, only fools choose to miss the experiences

Open your eyes and train your ears, know your world; feel the breeze on your skin when it blows, it doesn’t last forever

The boy smiles, she ruffles his hair, grooms it back to order with her fingers

The car enters the school’s gate, approaches the open ground

The assembly awaits, principal presiding, waiting for over thirty minutes for the Queen’s grandson to arrive, keeps invocations at bay

The prince exits

Put on the aura, that mask of superiority, she whispers, you’re the master of all

Heaving a sigh, the boy blows a kiss her way

Roll the window down, Rosy commands

She puts her hand out, beckons with her middle finger

The principal stoops by the door side, shame more than age weighing his shoulders down

Here, she says, offering him a check, you asked for a hundred thousand, it’s a million; a school for the blind is a necessity

Thank you, ma’am, says the principal

Rosy leans out, gestures him to bend further

You know what, Mr. Thomas? She whispers into his ear, You’re just a pile of garbage in human form

Aloud she says, You’re most welcome

Rosy leans back on her seat. Roll up the window, she tells her driver, spite vented

#

Rosy stood sweating.

A single drop of tear rolled down the corner of her eye. No more would flow, because she’d already mastered the art of containing emotions.

Her fifteenth birthday gift, on August 1, 1975, from the English teacher, would ever remain etched in her memory.

Thomas, a young graduate in English literature, had just joined the school a couple of months ago, and he had instantly earned the reputation as a master of the language. Also known for his unique ways of punishing the guilty, he’d become sort of a terror among students in no time.

One of his favorite methods of punishment was sneaking his hand up the half-trousers of boys; skirts of girls, and a pinch that would last longer for the latter.

For boys who wore full-length trousers and girls anything other than half-skirt, he went for an ear.

“Will you, ever again, forget your homework?” he’d ask, repeat the question more than a dozen times, his hand hidden all the while. For a girl, it’d be a couple of dozens, often more, if the girl happened to be plump enough.

Rosy had always watched the torment of her classmates, so she promptly did her homework; except for yesterday. 

Her father, in celebration of the impending birthday of an only daughter, had brought home a bottle of arrack, a dirty brew that stank like millipede’s shit. She’d never smelled it, but her mother had told that they put millipedes into the vat for speeding up fermentation. So, she presumed the millipedes would defecate before they rotted, and the liquor would carry the stench of their feces.

Father stayed busy throughout the night, arrack’s demons unleashed; Rosy grappling with those monsters, Mother, cursing her destiny.

Even the first time default didn’t go unpunished, not in the teaching regime of young Thomas.  

“Will you, ever, Rosy…

Closing her eyes, she kept counting. Was she so plump, that he continued even after twenty-four?

She wouldn’t have minded the pinch. But his fingers that fumbled between her legs, unseen by the class, left a torment from which she’d never escape.

“See, she stands there,” he said, “like a statue.” He held his hand up, shook it a couple of times. “I have to hurt my fingers, pinching, to tame you sloths.”

Teachers, in those days, were revered as godly figures, an authority parents looked up to, reformers of societies.

Rosy scraped her notions, casted reverence aside.

You, Thomas, you’re just a piece of millipede shit, Rosy thought, that God had unwittingly rendered in human shape.

The single drop of tear had, by now, dried on her cheek.

#

The church bell tolls seven

Rosy exits her Audi, checks her diamond-studded Patek Philippe; she hastens up the flights of steps leading to the church, defying age with her agility

Morning mass, a Sunday ritual she’ll never want to be late for, begins at seven

She pauses midway, waits for her maid, Cathy, ten years younger, yet struggling to keep pace

The one who takes care of Rosy, the only one Rosy cares for other than her family; only one that fulfills her needs, other than her husband

Faster, Rosy says

Cathy pauses, hands on knees, slightly bent, heaves-in a few deep breaths

The church throngs with people, swelling bodies and thirsting souls, seeking redemption from sins unending

Inside the church, approaching the altar, Rosy’s mind sheds worldly thoughts

The Red Sea parts, feet clamor, as the masses pave way for the queen to pass

They bow, a presence they revere, their palms folded in salutation

Rosy returns their gesture, a hint of a smile creasing the corners of her mouth

A most pious gesture, Rosy places her hands on Cathy’s shoulders, leads her to the altar, to a place reserved for the ‘family’, a servant honored

Rosy kneels, only after Cathy does so, making sure that her maid remains comfortable

She prays to her God, the one whose grace sees her through

Rosy partakes in the Holy Communion, remembers the suffering, recognizes the love of God, purifies her soul and thoughts, Cathy close by

In the eerie silence that follows the Holy Communion, it happens

Rosy farts, a failure of body system’s control

A child sees the king naked, laughs

Others follow suit, a wildfire roaring through a jungle, dry grass and twigs crackling

Rosy sweats, tremors shake her body; feels her dignity melt, ripple down her legs, wipe the masses’ feet clean

Rosy’s eyes drill into Cathy’s, Stupid cunt, her spiteful hiss reverberates on the walls

#

James Chacko, a retired judge, Rosy’s husband, sits silent as the inspector thrusts an envelope towards him.

“It’s an open and shut case,” the young officer says.

“I know, a poor woman’s regret, having desecrated the church’s sanctity.”

“This suicide note,” the inspector continues speaking “it’s conclusive enough. The ME found it hidden inside her bra during the autopsy.”

“What?” James asks, as if surprised, and then says, “I mean…” He feels relieved that the officer hasn’t noticed his confusion.

“I also gathered she made a public apology in the church the day before,” the inspector says.

A sudden pain gnaws at James’ guts. “Thank you, inspector … I think I’ll leave.”

If he stays longer, the gnawing may intensify; he might end up revealing that Cathy was illiterate.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” was originally published in Sincerely Magazine [print] and Queen Mob’s Tea House [online].


Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. He reads for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and is also a Staff Reviewer for Haunted MTL Magazine. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, The Chamber Magazine, and El Portal Journal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His works are forthcoming in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Untenured Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020. 


“Interrogation” Dark Horror by Damir Salkovic

The corridor was cold and dark and stank of fear. Dull electric light bathed the iron galleries and rows of grim doors, threw long shadows up the stark white walls. The silence was absolute, funereal. Solovkin watched his feet move across the concrete floor of the passage without making a sound. His mind reeled: it was a mistake, had to be. They would realize it any moment now. Beneath his confusion he could taste fear, bright and hard and metallic, cutting through the daze like a knife.

The guard in front opened a heavy steel door. Beyond it lay a wide, windowless chamber, its walls and floors covered in stained gray tile. A long wooden table stood halfway across the room, and behind it sat two uniformed men. Before the table was an empty chair. Further back was small desk with a secretary hunched over a typewriter, a metal cart covered by a dirty sheet. Dim, terrible realization dawned on Solovkin, something his bowels understood before his brain did. He felt his legs give way. The guards half-led, half-dragged him across the threshold, dumped him into the chair without ceremony. Behind him the door slammed shut.

Harsh white light streamed from a naked bulb, blinding him. The faces of the two men were shadows in the painful glare. Solovkin recognized one of them, a tall, slender officer of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs who’d been present at his arrest. The other one was stocky and brutish, with coarse dark hair and a cruel set to his mouth. His huge, scarred fists lay knotted on the table like mallets. His eyes, flat and black and lifeless, stared at Solovkin like the eyes of a shark.

They had come for him in the dead of night, hammering on the door of his apartment, the ill-lit landing echoing with their shouts. Solovkin, half-asleep and dazed, was given ten minutes to dress and pack his belongings. An arrest warrant had been thrust into his face. Before he knew what was happening, he was in the back of a huge black car, roaring through the sleeping Moscow streets. Then the prison, a vast, sprawling nightmare of brick and concrete, bristling with searchlights and machine gun towers. That had been days or months ago: time slowed to a trickle in the mute, shapeless darkness of the cell. No one had spoken to him until the two guards came and ordered him to get up and follow. He hadn’t dared ask where they were taking him, afraid of the cell door closing again, of the thick, viscous silence that descended like a shroud, shutting out the world.

“Smoke, Comrade?” The tall interrogator pushed a crumpled pack across the table. Solovkin thanked him and reached for it with a trembling hand. The wood of the chair dug into his back. He lit a cigarette with the proffered lighter, feeling the eyes of the men on him. “My name is Malenkov and this is Commissar Kazakov. We have been commissioned to question you about the events leading to your arrest.” The pack vanished into an inner coat pocket. Malenkov leaned back in his seat. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“There has been a mistake, Comrades.” It took Solovkin tremendous effort to keep his voice steady. His gaze betrayed him, crept to the covered metal cart. Terror rose in him like an icy tide: he knew what lay beneath the stained sheet, had used it himself more times than he cared to remember. “I assure you I had nothing to do with the matter. I’m the deputy head of the Special Tasks Section, not a-”

“Surely you don’t think we don’t know who you are, Vitaly Dmitrovich.” Malenkov chuckled, a low, unpleasant sound. He rummaged through the thick folder before him. “A decorated veteran of the Great War and a stalwart of the Revolution. Before joining the Special Tasks Section, you served as acting chief of the Seventh Directorate. Your exploits in the fight against the enemies of the people, at home and abroad, are legendary. You’re something of a hero in the Commissariat. One of the Old Guard.” He put the folder down and steepled his hands under his chin. “This makes your betrayal all the more baffling.”

Solovkin fumbled for words, but found none. Malenkov’s eyes bored into his, glinting with cold amusement. “You claim your arrest is a mistake. Very well. It might be so. Think carefully before you answer. Where were you in October last year?”

A knot of hope and anticipation tightened in Solovkin’s chest; his mind grasped at it like a drowning man at a straw. “I was in Paris, on assignment. I stayed at-”

 “-the Hotel Quai Voltaire.” Malenkov was skimming over a tightly typed page. The expression on his face was suddenly stern; Solovkin felt the glimmer of hope die out. “Attending a trade exposition. Your cover was that of a publishing house representative. What was the nature of this assignment?”

“It’s in my report.” The light hurt Solovkin’s eyes. From somewhere behind the table came the distant clatter of a typewriter. “We – the Section – received orders to find and eliminate Konrad Odinets, a former White officer and reactionary ringleader. I went to Paris to gather intelligence and coordinate the operation.”

“How did that go?”

“It was a failure,” Solovkin said. “An agent was assigned to visit the target in his quarters and kill him with a cyanide bullet. Somehow Odinets must have gotten wind of it. He fled the city, took the overnight train to Marseilles. I dispatched two men to find him there, but they were unsuccessful.”

“I see.” Malenkov pretended to study the file again. “According to this report, on the third day of the exposition you met with a Finn by the name of Vartiainen. An antiquarian from Helsinki.”

“As you said. It’s all in the report. I met with him to preserve my cover”

“He gave you a package. What was in it?”

“Yes.” Solovkin could hear the tremor in his voice. The other Commissar’s silence was beginning to unnerve him. “A rare copy of Philidor’s Analysis of the Game of Chess, published in Paris fifty years ago.”

“Come now.” The thin man gave him a reproachful look. He reached under the table and brought out an old, leather-bound volume, the covers lettered in gold. “We found the book while searching your apartment. It is of no interest to us. We want you to tell us what you did with the letters.”

“Letters?” The walls seemed to close in on Solovkin. “I don’t know anything about any letters.”

“This Vartiainen,” Malenkov said, as if the prisoner hadn’t spoken, “is an enemy agent, in league with reactionary immigrant groups. He used you to transport ciphered messages to subversives and criminal elements within our borders. We want to know the names of his contacts here, in Moscow.”

“There were no letters,” Solovkin said blankly. The words sounded like they came from the mouth of a stranger. A horrible uncertainty seized him for a moment. What if Malenkov was right? Nonsense, utter nonsense: he knew how the game was played. This was what they were taught to do — spread confusion, tried to get the suspect to contradict himself, to question his own sanity. How many times had he sat on the other side of the table, smoking cigarette after cigarette, staring at the condemned with cold, calculating eyes?

“He’s lying,” said the thick-shouldered Kazanov. His voice was very even, void of accent or inflection. He leaned back in his seat and laced his massive hands across his stomach. “The bastard is sitting in front of us, lying to our faces.”

Malenkov shot an annoyed look at his comrade, turned back to Solovkin. “Do you know a man named Bogatsky? Mikhail Bogatsky?”

“He was second-in-command of the foreign intelligence branch.”

“Was?”

“He was arrested and executed for treasonable conspiracy.”

“Indeed.” Malenkov nodded and shuffled papers. “In his confession, the accused Bogatsky stated that he maintained contact with counter-revolutionary terror groups in Berlin, Warsaw and Helsinki. That he used his influence and position to betray state secrets to foreign powers through a network of dissidents and exiles. Are you aware of this?”

“I am aware.” Solovkin rubbed his temple. His mouth was suddenly very dry. A sinking realization settled into the pit of his stomach with frigid certainty: he would never leave the prison alive. He was the one who had dictated the confession to Bogatsky. He recalled how the old man’s hands shook while signing the statement, the desperate terror in those watery blue eyes.

“There’s no use denying it. Two reactionaries arrested last week signed confessions naming you as the courier. They accuse you of delivering the letters to the leader of a secret counter-revolutionary group. Who is this man, Comrade Solovkin?”

“There is no man.” He stared at the drab floor tiles. A dark, rusty stain had seeped into the grout, into the tiny cracks. “I’m telling you, I never-”

The blow caught him unawares, knocking him off the chair. For a man of his bulk, Kazanov moved like a panther. Shadows gathered in the corners of Solovkin’s consciousness. Malenkov’s voice reached him from a vast distance: … restraint… handled delicately… well-known public figure. A great hand picked him up, deposited him back into his seat with a boneless thump. The pain came in a dull bolt, almost an afterthought. He was vaguely aware of the cut above his eye, the warm stickiness crawling down the side of his head.

“We’ll have none of that,” he heard Malenkov say. A noncommittal grunt came in response. The blur before Solovkin shifted, resolved into the faces of his interrogators. “Why do you so stubbornly maintain your innocence? We have read your file. You’re apolitical; you hold no extreme ideological views. It is the belief of the Commissariat that you have been manipulated by the criminal reactionary movement. We know you’re not a subversive at heart. You can be reformed.”

Solovkin shook his throbbing head. To his right, the troll-like form of the hulking Kazanov hovered on the fringe of his vision. Malenkov sighed and rubbed his eyes.

“Is it ready?”

Behind the interrogators, a metal chair scraped across the floor. Footsteps approached and receded. Solovkin kept his stare riveted to the scratched surface of the table. It was an awful dream; any moment he would wake up, away from the interrogation room, from the hideous silence of the prison.

A typewritten page was thrust in front of him. He tried to read it, but his mind refused to make sense of the words. References to clandestine meetings, unfamiliar places, names he didn’t recognize. A drop of blood fell from his cheek to the paper, a dark red stain spreading across the whiteness. What use could they have for a false confession?

“Sign the statement,” Malenkov said, pushing a pen across the table. The tall man’s countenance was weary and sallow; dark shadows ringed his eyes. “It’s an admission of guilt, concocted to minimize your culpability in the affair. Ten years at most, but you can get amnesty in one or two.” The Commissar’s tone was businesslike. He rapped his fingers on the tabletop. Solovkin sat with the pen poised over the page for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he looked up and placed the pen to the side.

“As you wish.” Malenkov shrugged his shoulders. Kazanov took a menacing step forward, but his companion waved him away. A bell rang in the depths of the endless corridor beyond the door, and within minutes two prison guards appeared in the room. Solovkin was escorted down the dark passageway, through the great circular galleries, back to his cell. Thoughts roiled in his head, each one more dismal than the next. He didn’t think he’d be able to fall asleep, but exhaustion overcame him as soon as he settled on the hard, uncomfortable cot, and his sleep was full of nightmares.

#

In his dream he sat behind a chessboard in a vast, shadowy hall, its walls melding with the darkness. Across the board sat a tall figure, pale-skinned and gaunt and swathed in black robes. Its long, bony fingers flickered over the black and white squares with uncanny speed. Solovkin couldn’t make out his opponent’s face amid the shifting shadows; its contours seemed to meld and change with each shift of the flickering light. The only thing that didn’t change was its grin, huge and frightful: a hungry grin, looming in the darkness like the crescent of a diseased moon. The teeth in the grin were like a shark’s, folding back from the gums in double rows, too many to count. Bone-deep cold sank into Solovkin’s flesh; he was thankful for the shadows that hid the rest of that hideous face. Dream or no dream, he suspected the sight might drive him mad.

Frozen as his mind was with fear, his fingers danced across the chessboard with unusual confidence and cunning, seemingly playing the game on their own. The dark man played with blacks, cackling and tittering after every move, regardless of the outcome. At times his actions appeared erratic and haphazard; yet no matter how well Solovkin plotted his tactics and developed his position, his opponent remained a step or two ahead of him, weaving a tangle of moves and countermoves, the mad, glassy smile never wavering. Slowly the realization that he was going to lose dawned on Solovkin with chilling certainty. His second thought, groundless but persistent, was that there was more to the game than met the eye, that he was playing for the highest stakes imaginable.

A black knight blundered into the right file, leaving the middle exposed. Solovkin saw through the gambit and riposted deftly. The cackling ceased; Solovkin thought he could see the dark man’s eyes now, dull red embers glowing in the shadowed face. The robed figure leaned forward, grin twisted into a grimace, skeletal fingers grasping the sides of the chessboard. Sick, baking heat came off it in waves. Silence held for a moment; then the creature threw its head back and hooted with laughter.

“Excellent.” The dark man’s voice was the whistle of wind across a corpse-strewn battlefield. He shook and clapped his hands with mirth. A black piece slid across the board without making contact with the long, pale fingers. “Truly remarkable, Vitaly Dmitrovich. But how many moves do you have left?”

Solovkin stared at the board, a furrow of concentration etched between his brows. He launched a counteroffensive, but his opponent evaded, the black king dancing maddeningly out of reach. Still the game was drawing to a close: the black was on the retreat, the white advancing, cutting off avenues of escape.

“Closer and closer,” the dark man said, unfazed. For a moment the room took on the shape of Solovkin’s dismal cell, wavered, dissolved once more into dimensionless shadow. “There’s no escape. All for a handful of letters.”

“I already told you,” said Solovkin through clenched teeth. “There were no letters.”

“That’s of no importance.” It was Malenkov’s voice issuing from the man’s black lips. The tiny figures on the chessboard came alive, writhing in mute agony. “Your guilt has already been decided. By refusing to sign your confession, you’re preventing justice from taking its course. You’re a bourgeois parasite, a scab and a traitor to the Motherland.” This was accompanied by another convulsion of laughter.

“Who are you?” The notion that the dark man might be the devil crossed Solovkin’s mind, but deep down he knew that the truth was far more complex than that. His eyes had adapted; he could now see into the crawling darkness, where blind, ravenous shapes lurked. The thin veneer of reality had cracked and he looked upon the truth beneath it, chaos and madness spinning in the absolute nothingness beyond the rim of the universe. “What do you want from me?”

“I dwell in the cracks, in the small, hidden spaces,” came the cryptic answer. “I need to do nothing but watch and wait. Speaking of which, I fear our time together has come to an end.”

Solovkin glanced down and his heart sank: the white king was checkmated. Bit by bit, the robed figure faded into the blur until all that was left was the voracious grin, triangular, razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the darkness.

“Wait,” Solovkin said. The darkness grew thicker; something moved inside it, vast and unformed and older than time. “What do you want from me? What do they want?”

“You have been forgetful, Comrade Solovkin.” The face of the First Secretary stared out of the dark man’s cowl, the broad, stern peasant features stamped with malignant glee. Solovkin screamed and sprang backward, the chair beneath him tumbling to the floor. The robed figure shrieked in awful hilarity. “Some doors close, others open. There were no letters, but there was a book. What was in it? Can you be certain?”

“I never agreed to it.” The words took Solovkin by surprise. “The Finn — Vartiainen — said it was a parlor trick. That it would open new horizons, awaken dormant senses.”

An image came to him in the dream: a musty study lined with bookshelves, a faded rug rolled back to the wall. Vartiainen holding up the Philidor tome, drawing lines across the dark floorboards: a crude many-pointed star. Black candles burning at the intersection of the lines. Some sort of mnemonic device, the antiquarian had said — but if that’s what it was, why couldn’t he remember?

“The faithful are eaten first,” the mouth said. There was torment in its voice, a crooning hunger that the mocking tone couldn’t quite conceal. “Open the doorway, Vitaly Dmitrovich. It wants to come in.”

The slavering shapes circled closer. Solovkin raised his arms to ward them off, flailed wildly. He blinked at the darkness surrounding him: the cell was empty and he lay on the cold concrete floor, a dull pain in his elbow and side. A gruff, disembodied voice from the other side of the door shouted at him to be silent. He climbed back under the thin blanket and tried to fall asleep, but the white, featureless face floated behind his closed eyelids, the pestilent grin like a raw, suppurating wound.

#

At some point he’d fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes the cell swam in pale light and a guard was shaking him awake.

He was taken back to the interrogation room and seated in front of the two sullen, unshaven Commissars. The covered metal cart had been wheeled closer. Laid out neatly on the table were the typed confession, a cigarette, a match and a pen. Solovkin pushed the paper away. Malenkov gave him a look of weary hatred, but Kazanov seemed almost cheerful, his dark, beady eyes shiny and malicious.

They made him stand in a corner of the room and kept him awake with a continuous stream of questions. Hours went by; at some point the two interrogators were replaced by others, and those by others again, shouting at him, waving the fabricated confession. Solovkin suffered in silence, his legs and back riven with cramps, the world around him a blur of angry faces and loud, echoing voices. Memory came to him in disparate fragments. In his delirium he saw a crack in the wall grow into a wide fissure, the pale sickle of the dark man’s grin rise up from its depths.

What is the name of your contact?

Where did you meet?

What did you carry from Helsinki?

The questions ran together, numbing his sleep-deprived mind. The answers had already been entered into the statement Solovkin refused to sign. The name of the man he was expected to denounce was vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t put a face to it. From what Solovkin could gather, the suspect had been accused of plotting to assassinate the First Secretary and a number of Party officials. Two men arrested as participants in this alleged conspiracy had already denounced Solovkin as a collaborator. All the Commissariat needed now was a confession from the chess master to close the circle. Several times he nearly broke down with exhaustion, but fear and desperation gave him strength: he knew that a signed deposition would spell certain death, both for the accused and for himself. A bullet to the back of the head, or, worse yet, whatever lay covered on the metal cart. He knew he was only delaying the inevitable, but for the moment that didn’t matter.

Hallucinations set in: there was a hole in the center of the concrete floor, a black pit that dilated like a great sightless eye. The room was collapsing into it: he could feel the irresistible pull, see the objects around him stretch and distort. The hole blotted out everything; an abyss opened under his feet and he was falling, into the bottomless, viscid dark, into the maw of the thing that slithered below.

An eternity passed. Rough hands lifted him to his feet, shook him awake. Kazanov’s broad, blank face hovered over him. Malenkov stood in the background, smoking a cigarette and leafing through the Philidor tome, flicking ash carelessly across the precious pages. Behind the table sat the dark man from Solovkin’s dream, grinning at the two Commissars who appeared to be oblivious to his presence.

“I trust you’ve come to your senses,” said Malenkov. He closed the book with a snap and sat down in the chair. Solovkin blinked once, twice. His eyes had played a trick on him: there was no robed, leering figure behind the table, only a shadow. “The sooner you sign, the sooner you’ll be released.”

“I can’t confess to a crime I haven’t committed,” Solovkin said. There was something about the book he couldn’t remember, something his exhausted brain couldn’t quite grasp. Vartiainen had spoken of unseen spheres and hidden realms, of forces beyond human comprehension. Philidor’s book, Vartiainen claimed, was a piece of a much greater puzzle, a story within a story. Solovkin remembered thinking the old man was mad, but the rest of the evening was a hole in his memory, filled with half-formed images: the window of the antiquarian’s garret opening on swirling galaxies; a vast cosmic cloud dimming the cold radiance of the stars.

“Don’t be a fool.” Malenkov’s face twisted in a sneer of disgust. “Whom are you trying to protect? Your accomplices have all been arrested. Your man in Helsinki was found dead two weeks ago.” The Commissar paused, mistaking Solovkin’s terror for grief. “You haven’t heard? The police could barely identify his remains. Poisoned, no doubt, by reactionary bandits trying to cover their tracks. But we’ll find them — there is nowhere for them to hide.”

Solovkin was silent. He was staring at a crack in the wall, from which a cancerous blackness seemed to emanate. “May I have the Philidor manual back?”

“Certainly.” Malenkov waved the leather-bound tome. “As soon as you sign the deposition, that is. We’re done playing games.”

“I can’t.” Solovkin shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand. I have to see — have to know.”

“Know what?” asked Malenkov, but the prisoner was already sagging against the wall, his eyes glazed over: he had fainted again.

#

“It all happened before Philidor’s time, of course.” Vartiainen poured cognac into snifters and raised his in toast. “Right after the terrible winter of 1709. In a few decades most of it was forgotten. What survived was a sort of morbid legend, whispered among the city’s libertine circles, growing more lurid with each retelling. Even those who had been there denied the evidence of their own eyes, or refused to speak of it at all. To speak of him.”

“Him?” Solovkin drank and watched the flames dance in the fireplace. From outside the tall double windows came the tolling of a bell, sonorous and measured in the dusk stillness.

“The dark man.” A strange gleam had settled into the old antiquarian’s eyes. He drained his glass and reached for the crystal decanter. “The Devil’s bishop, some called him — not always in jest. No one knew who he was. He appeared out of nowhere and caused quite a stir on the Parisian chess scene that bleak spring. Tested his skill against the best players of the time, Marquis de Saint-Brie and one of the Princes de Condé, and defeated them both, along with a slew of other challengers. Or that’s how legend had it, at least.”

“It sounds more like a tall tale to me.”

“There is more to it. The mysterious stranger was frequently mentioned in connection with rumors of scandalous goings-on in the insalubrious quarters of Rue Glatigny and the Filles-Dieu. Among his accomplices in debauchery was the wealthy Comte de Bavière, an infamous profligate and gambler who also happened to be a chess enthusiast. In the midst of their revelry, the story goes, the Comte proposed a bet to the stranger. A dozen or so merrymakers would travel to the Comte’s estate at Villecresnes and spend a fortnight drinking and carousing on the premises. Meanwhile, the two players would lock themselves up in the Comte’s study and play chess, undisturbed, until one of them gained a three-game advantage over the other.” A smile crossed the old man’s lips. “Or until he succumbed to the wine and opium, of which there was an abundance. It was all terribly decadent, quite in the spirit of the day.”

“What were the stakes?” The strong liquor made Solovkin’s head swim. The warm glow of Vartiainen’s study suddenly seemed sinister, shadows pooling under the stained wallpaper, the encroaching night outside vast and close. He should be on his way to the hotel, the Philidor manual tucked under his arm; he’d only accepted the old antiquarian’s offer of a drink because the price the man had set on the invaluable tome had been ludicrously low.

“That’s the odd part of it,” Vartiainen said. “No one knew but the stranger and the Comte, although there was no want of speculation. Either way, the bet was accepted and a band of the hardiest revelers set off for the Comte’s estate. After a fortnight had elapsed, the valets and footmen came to Villecresnes to collect their masters. They found them scattered about the gardens and halls of the mansion, drunk to near oblivion and half-mad with terror. When there was no response from the Comte’s study, the door was broken down.”

“Let me guess.” Solovkin attempted an ironic smile, but it felt too tight on his face. “The Comte was dead, his features twisted in absolute terror, and no trace could be found of his mysterious companion.”

“The study was empty.” Vartiainen pretended not to hear the mockery in the other’s tone. “The walls had been stripped bare, the carpets rolled back to expose the floor. Diagrams and symbols drawn in ink and chalk covered everything. Other things — a servant went insane from whatever he saw up there.” The antiquarian’s glass was nearly empty again. “Neither the Comte nor the dark man were ever seen again. Many discounted the story as superstitious babble and claimed that de Bavière had fled France to evade a jealous husband, or royal disfavor.”

“But Philidor thought otherwise.”

“He must have heard the tale through his mentor, the great chess master de Kermeur. Apparently he became obsessed with it to the point of compulsion. The abandoned de Bavière mansion burned in a fire some years before, but Philidor decided to track down the survivors of that ill-fated orgy using his connections at the Court.” Vartiainen paused to light a foul-smelling pipe. “Mind you, this was almost half a century after the event took place. Few of the revelers were still alive, and of those fewer still had their wits about them. But Philidor persisted; he delved into the seedy underbelly of Paris, met with occultists and charlatans, astrologers and chymists. Piece by piece, the puzzle was completed.”

“Yet no one knows what the puzzle looks like,” Solovkin said. “His private papers make no mention of his occult studies. The world remembers him as Philidor the subtle, opera composer and chess genius, admired by Rousseau and Voltaire.”

“He was afraid.” The old antiquarian blew a puff of blue smoke. His eyes wandered the dimly lit room as if following some flitting shadow. “De Bavière had thought the dark stranger the Devil, and sought to offer his soul in exchange for unfathomable pleasures and wonders never before seen by human eyes. An escape from the trivialities of this world. But the truth, Philidor found out, lay well outside such tired scriptural platitudes as God and the Devil, good and evil. The dark man was a gatekeeper of sorts, the servant of beings from unfathomable realms beyond our world, the true masters of destruction and creation. Oh, he would show you wondrous sights, and whisper forbidden knowledge in your ear — but at a terrible price.”

“You speak as if you believed this drivel.” Solovkin tried to rise from the velvet armchair, lost his balance and sat back down. His words came out slurred, heavy. He reached for the book, but the old man was quicker: gnarled fingers leafed through the age-stained pages with infinite care, trailing over the numbers and letters.

“He couldn’t bring himself to destroy it,” Vartiainen said. “Instead he hid it in the pages of his famous work. A special, rare edition, printed exclusively for private circulation. The differences from the original Analysis are not readily apparent, but they are there. Diagrams, incantations, rituals to open the dimensional rift, to ward against that which lies on the other side — all disguised as chess moves.”

“Nonsense.” Fear thrust through Solovkin, cold and sharp, cutting through the daze. The room was melting away, shapes fading into the darkness. He could not bear the stare of the old man’s searing eyes. “Utter nonsense.”

“Is it?” Vartiainen chuckled and nodded toward the garret stairs. “Only one way to be certain, wouldn’t you say?”

Solovkin opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. His surroundings came back into focus. The old man was gone, and so was the study: he knelt on the floor of a prison cell, the stub of a pencil in his right hand. For a moment he didn’t know where he was, his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest. Then it came back to him: the arrest, the interrogation, the cruel faces of the men of the Commissariat. They would be back for him any moment.

He stared at the broken pencil as if expecting it to move on its own. A recollection lit up the recesses of his mind, bringing a smile to his lips. They had taken the book away, but he would remember: he never forgot a single move he’d played. Even in a dream.

The lead heart of the pencil traced a line across the concrete floor, haltingly at first, then bolder. The secret sign, hidden in the tangle of moves and countermoves, burned in his mind’s eye. Solovkin hummed as the image took shape, lost to the world around him. When the pencil was used up he tore his skin open and dipped the shards in the dark ink welling from beneath.

#

The guards were caught unprepared.

Several times they had escorted the quiet, bookish prisoner from cell 336 to the interrogation room, and he’d never tried to resist in any way. When they came for him that morning, he seemed even more subdued and distracted than usual. He shuffled along between them, his eyes glassy and unfocused, until they reached the staircase that connected the iron galleries. Then he spun round and shoved the guard behind him with all his strength.

The unexpected attack nearly sent the guard over the railing; he flailed his arms as he fell back, clutching at the metal bars. The man in front was too slow. By the time he turned, the prisoner was already halfway up to the upper gallery, bounding up the steps with desperate speed.

Shouts exploded in the staircase, footsteps thundering from below, the noise immense in the dead silence of the prison. Other guards joined the pursuit, but the fleeing man evaded them with ease. Yet there was nowhere to run: he was almost at the top of the staircase, two guards waiting for him on the uppermost gallery, truncheons at the ready. The prisoner scrambled over the railing and perched above the drop for a moment, arms thrown out like a grotesque bird of prey. Before the nearest of the guards could reach him, he stepped off into the emptiness.

They found him in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, crumpled and twisted like a broken doll. He drew in a ragged breath, then another. His finger smeared a dark scarlet curve on the concrete, the start of a drawing or a strange symbol. His dying eyes gazed around the circle of faces; blood bubbled on his lips as if he were trying to speak. By the time the doctor arrived, the prisoner was long gone.

#

“Are you all right, comrade?”

“Yes,” Malenkov said through clenched teeth. “Leave me now. I have to go through the prisoner’s personal effects.”

The guard moved away, his steps noiseless on the carpeting of the corridor. Malenkov waited until the man was out of sight, exhaled a whistle of breath. The interior of the cell spun round him, mad designs and patterns inscribed into the floor and walls robbing him of all sense of dimension. He stepped in and closed the door behind him. The cell had to be cleaned up by someone reliable, someone who’d keep his mouth shut. There would be enough unpleasant questions to answer: not only had he failed to secure a confession, but the prisoner was dead. In the paranoid atmosphere of the Commissariat, even the smallest mistake could easily place one on the wrong side of the interrogator’s table. No one could know about this.

He crossed the room and peered at a shape that resembled an eight-armed star, surrounded by small, twisting symbols. Devil-worship of some sort, occultism. There had been nothing in the chess master’s file to suggest anything of the sort. Similar drawings covered every centimeter of the bare walls and floor like a hideous, tightly woven tapestry. Some had been drawn in pencil, others in the prisoner’s own blood, the strokes crude but precise, measured. A central piece above the cot featured a tall, slender form emerging from a crack in the wall: a huge, predatory grin cleft the face in two. In spite of himself, Malenkov shuddered. Something about this gruesome icon made his skin crawl, turned his mind to deep, sunless places in which screams could echo forever without being heard.

The silence was oppressive, the roar of blood in his ears deafening. Suddenly he no longer wanted to know what had happened, only to be as far from the call as possible; some long-dormant fragment of his consciousness screamed in alarm. The walls faltered, lost solidity. He turned round. The door had disappeared under the obscene scrawl. He clawed at the stone until his fingertips split and bled, distantly aware of the animal whimper coming from his throat. From behind him came a crumbling noise, the crevice in the wall widening, something pushing through. Fetid air rushed at him, the sickly sweetness of corruption. An irresistible force grasped his head, turned it against the resistance of his neck muscles and vertebrae. Malenkov heard the crack, saw the grinning maw yawn open, a razor-lined tunnel glowing with infernal light.


“Interrogation” was originally published in A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft by Ulthar Press (August 2015).


Damir is the author of the sci-fi thriller Kill Zone, the occult mystery Always Beside You, and short stories featured in multiple horror and speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, including the Lovecraft eZine, Martian Migraine Press, and Scare Street’s Night Terrors series. He lives in Virginia with his wife and his feline writing assistant. An auditor by trade and traveler by heart, he does his best writing on cruise ships, thirty-plus thousand feet in the air, and in the terminals of far-flung airports. He can be contacted at https://darkerrealities.wordpress.com.


“His Heart’s Desire” Horror by N.D. Coley

Hugo pressed his hands against his cheeks, now flushed and warm from the punches. He tasted blood in his mouth. It was salty and hot. His fingers pushed further and felt bones crunch. Tears dripped onto his lips and added to the savory flavors. It was all like broth made for vampires.

            Hugo slumped against the cemetery gate, a door of metal black rods and spikes that felt more like a prison enclosure than an entrance, and his small frame pushed it open with a creak. He looked around. In front of him a lone street light flickered. The menacing figure of Richard DiCastro was gone, and with him Hugo’s G.I. Joe backpack and history book and the die-cast Optimus Prime he’d received for his birthday. He sobbed and thought of how he would explain this to his father, who might very well hear the news, take another swig, and finish the job Richard started. Hugo, for his part, would have liked to have finished Richard. In his mind’s eye he saw himself holding a stone above Richard’s head, and he brought the stone up and down, and and down. There were crushing sounds and splashing sounds, and soon Richard’s face was not a face at all, but something more like an overturned cherry pie, but topped with detached eyes and teeth. Hugo shut the thought down, recoiling at his rogue imagination.

            It was dark and cold, and a breeze came through and crept over his shoulders and up his neck. He did not want to think about anything right now. Not Richard or Optimus Prime or when to go home. He wanted to walk and walk until everything that happened got left behind. He thought that a walk through the cemetery was just as good of a walk as any, and that nobody, not even Dick DiCastro, would follow him here. If Hugo had his own problems, the dead certainly had it worse. He wondered how many of them would trade their boxed prisons for one more chance to get up and walk the streets again, even to just get punched in the face, and for a moment he did not feel bad.

            A cluster of dark clouds moved above, revealing a moon so full and bright that he could see graves far in the distance. Mariam Memorial Park was a wondrous site. From where he stood it looked like a painting of rolling hills, each lapping over the other like waves, and on these hills he saw the tombstones, oval and square and in the shape of crosses. In the shadows of the moonlight, each grave had the same look — a deep, expressionless black. It seemed sad to him that the graves said so little. All of the names and dates printed on them. All of those lives, buried in the ground and next to hunks of stone. The whole lot was silent in the shadows.

            Hugo walked on, his shoes crunching over leaves. He stopped next to one grave. Up close he could see that it was pitted and discolored, with engravings from the late18th Century. Weeds grew around the sides.

             He placed a hand on it. The stone was hard and cold, and he thought that maybe he would learn or sense something. For a moment he imagined that it was a child’s grave, of someone taken by the flu or tuberculosis. His mind thought of a small boy in a small hat, with a small tweed jacket and brown shoes, coughing and crying and scared. The boy was in a bed in home, and then under a sheet in a morgue, and then in a coffin on display, surrounded by a weeping crowd of nameless adults. As the coffin shut, the boy opened his eyes and cried, but his noises were heard by nobody they and said nothing.

            Hugo realized that the sobs were not in his head, but in the air, carried by the chill that weaved in and out of the tombstones. The weeps were soft and gentle. They came and went, interrupted by a wet cough. Hugo stepped off the path and followed the sounds. He walked with care, as if on a hunt, around a row of granite crosses and up to a rectangular crypt with three cherubs atop the entrance. The cries were louder.

            He paused and, as if fearful of being caught, craned his neck around the side. There was the shape of a small boy, crouched on the ground, with his hands over his knees and his head slumped down. He wore a brown dress cap with a button on top, and as he wept his shoulders rose and fell.

            “Hello?” Hugo asked. “Are you alright?”

            The weeping stopped, and the hunched figure turned its head. Its face was grey and white, with eyes that looked like soft clumps of clay.

            “I am hungry,” the figure said. “I am so very, very hungry. Can you help me?”

            Hugo reached into his left pocket, his hand closing around a Snickers bar.

            “Yes,” he said, pulling the treat out. He held it forward, as someone might hold a biscuit out for a dog. The boy took it and fumbled with it. His hands were thin, with flesh that looked more like a stretched deerskin than that of a person. The hands were covered in sores and the sores oozed black. The boy struggled with the wrapper and winced.

            “Here,” Hugo said, taking the candy again and peeling it open. “Now, take it.”

            The boy shoved the chocolate into his mouth in two bites. It was so quiet in the graveyard that the sounds of his chewing seemed to echo off the monuments.

            “Thank you,” the boy said. “I have never had such a thing. It was nice. I have not had anything nice in a long time.”

            Hugo nodded and stepped back.

            “Could I ask for one more thing?” the boy asked.

            “Sure. What do you want?”

            “I am so cold. Cold all the time. I would like to be warm again.”

            “Where is your home?”

            The boy pointed to rectangular gravestone to his left.

            “There.”

            Hugo frowned.

            “Haven’t you got a real home? A house with a bed and all that?”

            “Not anymore. That’s ok. I just want a blanket. Could you get me a blanket?”

            Hugo thought on it. His father would not approve of him coming home and going back out again, though he was sure that his father would also be passed out. Hugo could do it.

            “Yes. Would you like a pillow too?”

            “Yes. That would be nice.”

            Hugo waved goodbye and set back the way he came, and as he left he couldn’t shake the idea that he was being followed and watched, not just by the boy, but by the residents of the graveyard who hadn’t taken shape and come out to say hello. He was sure that there were eyes in the scraggly trees and hands wrapped around the graves, growing in number by the moment, watching and breathing and waiting for Hugo to stumble.

            Hugo turned around. He was at the gate. Behind him a fog had gathered, setting the rolling hills of the graveyard behind thick clouds. For a moment he thought he had not gone inside at all, and that he had been slumped against the entrance the whole time.

             He shut the gate and made for home.

***

            Hugo had no trouble getting in and out. His father was, as he expected, passed out in his chair. The missing blanket and pillow would not be noticed.

            Hugo returned to the site where the boy had been, but there was nothing save for a small patch of flattened grass. It could have been from a fawn that had bedded down, or from a small boy. It was hard to tell.

            Hugo called out with a weak “Hello,” but his voice did not travel. He stood for several minutes and shivered, and decided to leave the blanket and pillow near the grave to which the child had pointed earlier.

            The temperature dropped and the air felt wet. Hugo made his way back through the fog and up the path. As he arrived back the gate, he stopped. A soft whisper entered his ear.

            “Thank you,” the voice said. “In return, I will give you what you truly want.”

            Hugo turned.  The fog had lifted, and the graveyard was empty. He was alone.

            He left the cemetery behind and marched on, making the first left. As walked he noticed a person slumped against the pole of a lone streetlight. The figure sat in a puddle of blood, and below one of his hands sat a backpack, discolored and soaked in red. Hugo approached and looked into the eyes of the figure, but there was no light in them. He was sure he knew the face, but his mind hesitated. It was not so easy to recognize the dead versus the living.  There was only a blank stare and a wide mouth. Hugo gasped, looked left to right, and thrust his hand inside the backpack, certain his fingers would close around his Optimus Prime.

            Hugo was afraid—he pulled the backpack out away from the body and looked around. The street was as before, deserted. A bird settled atop the streetlight, fluttered its wings, and took off into the darkness. Hugo stepped out of the light and followed, his footsteps moving soundlessly. He felt that he was not only trying to get away from the scene before him, but from himself. He crossed a small bridge, a narrow relic with wooden walls, built for a time for different little boys. He paused and reached into the backpack. Optimus Prime’s eyes glistened in reflected moonlight. They stared at Hugo and through Hugo. Optimus did not approve.

            Hugo dropped the robot into the backpack, walked under a handrail and onto a pathway, and sent the goods into the stream below. The waters were high and fast moving. There was a small splash. The steady flow of the water resumed.

            Hugo quickened his pace and walked on, taking random turns as if trying to throw something off his trail, and with each step he thought on what else sat within his own heart, about the monsters and secrets hiding down there, tucked away in dark corners. He imagined that his desires were dull-colored, malformed creatures without eyes, with bony hands, and sharp teeth that lined drooling mouths.

            What else do I want? he thought, and what will I see when I finally go home? Did he want to find his father, face down on the coffee table, his lifeless cheeks coated in a pool of vomit? He did not know, and he suddenly wanted nothing at all— except to keep walking.

            The hoot of an owl sounded in the distance. Hugo opened his mouth as if to reply, but closed it, feeling silly. He moved on, his soundless footsteps taking him down lonely and dimly lit streets, deeper into the night.


N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently a college English composition instructor. His work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Coffin Bell Journal, Close To theBone, Bewildering Stories, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, The Mystic Blue Review, Teleport Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Funny In Five-Hundred. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife.  You can irritate him at ndcoley1983@phil795


“Fathers & Sons” Dark Fiction by Andre P. Audette

Gruesome Gertie,” Louisiana electric chair, now on display within the Angola Prison Museum, Angola, Louisiana.

The Execution Chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways. He ran a bar and BBQ joint by the name a few blocks from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, filled with macabre decorations of serial killers and their untimely fates that made it a small, obscure tourist destination. If it was not the décor that brought one in, it was his fall-off-the-bone smoked ribs. Richard ran something of a one-man show, working the kitchen and the bar in the small, hot, and dark building, while the jukebox and a waitress or two attended to patrons on the busiest nights. He made a mean (and strong) Sazerac but could often be found on his down time sipping on ice tea or a can of Schaefer beer.

When the regulars got Richard talking, he would spin a yarn revealing a bit of the bar’s history. Richard’s father, Gilbert Clement, gave the bar its name when he was executed on Gruesome Gertie, the state’s electric chair, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary when Richard was 15. Gilbert was accused of rape and sentenced to die, despite maintaining his innocence. Richard was the sole family member in attendance as Gilbert was executed, his mom having left Gilbert shortly after Richard was born. He sat there with the required state witness and a prison chaplain as the switch was thrown once, twice, and a third time to finish the job. The final words of the condemned were “close yer eyes, boy.” Richard did not heed his father’s advice.

Richard and Gilbert were opposites in many ways. Gilbert was quiet and reserved, even awkward. He was a churchgoing man but did not have much else going for him that others would deem respectable. He was unemployed most of his life, becoming a father at age 16 and picking up odd construction jobs here and there to provide for Richard as he could. When he was sentenced to die the court officially declared him a “moron” based on his mental state. Despite his many flaws, Richard saw him as a decent man and believed him to be innocent of the crime he was supposed to have committed.

Richard, on the other hand, was quite sharp, despite making it through only two years of high school before heading out into the working world. His outgoing nature and business acumen led him to accumulate enough money bartending to start his own bar. Not much for religion, he preferred the nightlife of the French Quarter. “Ain’t got time for a woman though,” he’d say when people asked about his family. He lived alone in the small loft above the bar where he would hear the sounds of the close-down crowd with his windows open after a hard night’s work.

The Execution Chamber served all types, depending on the occasion. Sometimes groups of teenagers would wander over, other times tourists looking for an authentic hole-in-the-wall bar, or other out-of-towners who mistook it for a voodoo shop. The regulars, though, were working-class locals who would stop by for a lunch break or to unwind after a day’s work. Some would even bring their families by for a weekend lunch or a bite to eat when a kid skipped class for the day. These were the ones Richard got to know best.

Having not had much time with his own father, Richard looked longingly at sons with their fathers, hovering quietly as his guests talked about coming home from the army, going off to college, or even mundane life events over a cold beer. He would think back to the few beers he shared with his dad, though never fancy enough even for a bar like The Execution Chamber. “This one’s on the house” he would occasionally throw in for the guys he had seen growing up. Each time, it triggered something new in him: a sense that he needed to harness those emotions and keep building The Execution Chamber that got him this far.

And indeed, that is what he did. For The Execution Chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways.

“So, where you two visiting from?” Richard made small talk with two guys in late on a Tuesday night.

“Just up there in Greensburg,” the dad replied.

“Well what brings you ‘round these parts?” Richard inquired.

“We was thinkin’ there’d be some work right over on the new buildings on Poydras Street.”

Richard grew more interested as they talked about the two of them working construction projects together after the boy’s momma died. After a few more drinks on the house, he learned they came down to New Orleans looking for better pay, and they also were not shy that they “didn’t mind the peep shows ‘n’ dancers you got down here neither.”

The few other patrons shuffled out of the bar as the hours dragged on, but Richard kept serving the duo.

“Speakin-a shows,” said the dad, slurring his words, “I’m just gonna pop on over to the house back where we were ‘n’ see if my pretty kitty is off yet.” He slinked toward the door, with a “you finish up here, boy, and I might see you at the Sun” – a run-down boarding house Richard knew of down the road. Richard looked to the son’s expressionless face, unsure of whether he heard or not. He could not tell if it was the face of a son who was used to being left by his old man or a kid that had too much absinthe in him. Nonetheless, Richard whipped up two drinks and shared a commiserating sup with him. He brought out a plate of some smoked meat to take the bite off the booze.

As the kid got up to leave, Richard walked out with him for a smoke and a nightcap in the cool night air. It was a quiet evening, and the boy quickly stumped off to find the room they were staying in.

Just as Richard breathed in to start heading in for the evening, he heard a snort, the sound of a drunken fellow sleeping outside. Following the sound, he found the father he had spoken to earlier lying in the alley with a black eye and teeth marks on his neck, as well as a few colored feathers clinging to his clothes. He was nowhere near lucid, but amenable enough when Richard told him to come back to The Chamber with him to at least clean up the vomit down the front of his shirt.

As they walked back into the bar, Richard sat the man down on a stool. He stepped behind the bar and slowly moved aside the chest cooler that sat beneath the counter. Underneath was a crack in the floor, a door to the basement that was a remnant of the Prohibition days. He pulled open the door and casually walked back to the man. He invited him down and helped him down the rickety stairs.

In the basement, Richard helped clean the man up. James, his name was, as his billfold revealed. Richard grabbed some ice for the man’s eye and some cool water to drink. “What would you like to eat, James?” he asked, “anything you like.” At the man’s request, he brought down some BBQ and a plate of fries, and another drink to cap things off. James would have to sleep things off right there at The Execution Chamber.

The next morning, Richard woke up and casually walked downstairs, moved the cooler once more, and stepped into the basement as he did most mornings. James was also awake, trembling and screaming from the chain link and barbed wire cell he was shackled in. Around him, James could see what looked like a torture chamber with different stations, a chair and a gurney, a crude and bloodied guillotine, two gallows, and a pile of sandbags with blood splatters on them. There was also a large meat smoker with a long skinny pipe to the outside that could just as easily have been part of the hellish setup. The remnants of his meal were on the floor in front of him next to a small drain. The cold concrete and brick echoed his shaky voice back to him.

Ignoring the man’s screaming and demands for answers, Richard pulled out a paper and read, “James Landry: for your actions of last night and your failure as a father, you are sentenced to death by lethal injection at 10:00am today. You may specify an alternative method one quarter hour prior to the execution.” James continued cursing loudly at Richard, screaming and begging for answers, but Richard coldly walked up the stairs without turning back and closed the door once more, placing the cooler over it for the time being.

Richard made some eggs and sausages and slowly ate a breakfast at the bar while some jazz music played on a record. The air was hot and stuffy upstairs. He swept the floor and did his dishes, glancing out the window at the quiet city streets and then shifting the cooler to one side yet again.

Richard opened the hatch and descended the stairs again, as James perked up and began cursing at him again and asking, begging, for a chance to talk things out. Indifferent, Richard approached with a leather notebook and asked to record any final words he had.

“What kind of tataille hurt you, man? Wha’d your daddy do to you, you sick bastard?”

“I watched my daddy die in that there chair,” said Richard resolutely, but still a bit taken aback by the question. He finished writing the words and closed the journal, placing it back on the stack of bricks it had been sitting on before. As James started cursing out Richard’s dad, Richard started opening the straps on the table that James now understood to be the place that lethal chemicals would take his life.

“Give me the chair too, you dirty cochon; I dare you!” yelled James.

Richard reached down, took an old watch out of his pocket, and checked the time. 9:43am.

“Heh,” he said with a cagey smile, not looking at James directly, “my first time using the chair.”

James stopped yelling and started watching Richard, looking for a last-minute way out. Richard grabbed a razor and a large carving knife, as James grew afraid he was just going to chop him up then and there. As Richard approached the cage, he set the instruments down and grabbed a thick leather strap. James pressed against the shackles that bound him to the floor, his veins bulging out of his head. Richard opened the cage and placed the strap over James’s neck, clipping it to a bracket on the floor. James spit in his face and almost immediately Richard knocked James on the forehead with his palm, hitting the back of his head hard against the concrete floor. James faded in and out of consciousness as Richard shaved James’s head and leg, coming to it once as Richard looked him straight in the eyes and said, “try that again and I will carve you slowly before I cook you.” He put a rag over James’s face and James temporarily slipped back out of consciousness.

When he came to it again, James realized he was strapped into a wooden chair with a wet strap on his head, a sponge duct taped on his leg, and a cloth wire coming from an old fuse box on the wall. Richard had crafted a thicker fuse that would take longer to break, with two backup wires to administer subsequent doses of electric shock. Richard finished up the preparations and sat himself near a switch several feet away from James. James could not speak, knowing his time was likely through, but he burbled out any defense noises he could. A quick and sudden trial from a man he had met only the night before…

Richard administered the first shock. James involuntarily clenched the chair as electric volts shot through his body for several seconds. The first fuse broke. James groaned and his head sank down as Richard got up and hooked up the second wire. The spit in his mouth foamed. After a few minutes of fumbling with the wiring, Richard sat down again. He calmly pulled the switch and a second course of electricity flowed through James’s body. This time James was silent. Richard hooked up the third wire to finish the job. The third round of electrical work went quicker, as less electricity is used in the final rounds of the death sentence, Richard learned. He sat down and flipped the switch until the third fuse broke.

James was not moving, and there was a slight stench in the air of urine and burnt hair. A puddle had formed around James. Richard looked at him pathetically, then threw a few lumps of charcoal and wood in the smoker. He was going to let James’s body cool first, just as they had done with his father.

Richard stayed clear of the chair as he walked back up the stairs, placed the cooler over the trap door, and took a cold shower to get ready for work.

Wednesdays were slow days, especially at the end of the month when local folks were waiting for their paychecks to come through. Richard put on a record and drank some ice tea while snacking on some jerky. The front door was open, waiting for a possible lunchtime drop-in, but Richard did not expect anyone to join him.

In walked James’s son.

Richard raised his eyebrows, took another sip of his drink, and said “where’s your pappy today, son?” The kid flopped down at the bar.

“He nain’t come back last night. Probably still sleepin’ somewheres.”

“Getcha somethin’ to eat?” Richard asked. James’s son took out a wallet, but Richard told him not to worry about it.

The two ate small sandwiches and chips, making small talk about the weather, the lady who ran the boarding house, and how built up the city was getting. After a half hour or so had passed, with no other customers gracing the doorstep of The Execution Chamber, Richard walked up to the door, closed it, and switched his sign to “closed.”

“Boy, I’m gonna show you something,” said Richard calmly. There was a small glint in his eye like a kid excited to show his dad his what he had built. He motioned for the kid to come back behind the bar. He scooted the cooler and told him he had an old Prohibition-era room downstairs where he could wait for his dad. “They don’t use these places much anymore, but maybe they oughta.”

He opened the door, and the dry, woody, delicious smell of the smoker eased any anxiety James’s son had about going down. Richard went first, stepping carefully onto the stairs. He reached out a hand to help the son in. “Close yer eyes, boy,” Richard said. The kid did as he was told, expecting a surprise of sorts.

As Richard and the kid took the first few steps down the stairs, James moaned in a dull crescendo. His son, recognizing his dad’s phantasmal voice, opened his eyes and saw the chamber that lay before him. “Ah shit,” said Richard.

Within seconds, James’s son instinctively shoved Richard down the stairwell onto the concrete floor. Richard murmured as he hit his head on the railing, the wall, and floor, but he did not appear to be completely unconscious. James’s son just looked on at the scene, unsure of whether he should help his dad, finish off Richard, or run. As his dad rolled his head around, the boy jumped off the side of the stairwell and grabbed the carving knife that was still sitting near the cage. James strained and groaned the word “chain.” The son grabbed one of the chains used for the shackles that hours earlier held his father. He angrily whipped the chain at Richard, striking him across the arms and chest and nicking his face. Having immobilized him slightly further, then he took the carving knife and stabbed him in the right leg. By now, Richard was in shock and nearly out of it. Strong from his days working construction, the boy dragged his ragged and bloodied body over to the cage and locked him in, not taking the time to leash him up further.

The son ran to his father and unhooked the leather straps that bound his arms and legs, standing next to three wires and a pool of sweat and urine that gathered at his dad’s feet. His father’s skin was blistered and hot to the touch, and he was obviously in pain, but James nonetheless pulled him up the stairs and laid him on the floor next to the opening of the stairs, as the father winced with each bump. He left the trap door open and desperately ran out to the streets for help.

Two blocks down, James’s son found a group of men on their lunch break. He told them a crazy man who ran the bar had just tried to electrocute his dad, and he goaded them to reluctantly follow him. They entered The Execution Chamber, a familiar haunt, and followed him around the bar. They looked down and were horrified by James’s crispy body, as he strained out a “help.” They peered into the basement and saw Richard beaten and caged in the torture room of his own creation. One of the men took to the phone and clicked out the number to the city’s emergency services.

The police investigation turned up the recorded death warrants and last words of seven men, including James Landry. Three men belonged to a single family, a father and two sons who moved to New Orleans from Mississippi in search of work. All three were shot in the heart or the head in Richard Clement’s basement. A fourth man faced death at the guillotine while his son went off to serve in the war. Another father and son duo were executed in the chamber, the father by hanging, while the son opting for a lethal injection after witnessing the father give a second round of final words. None of the bodies or personal effects were recovered; all but the first three had previously been reported missing. Richard Clement freely admitted to the crimes, and said there were more, but declined to speak further to the investigators. At trial, the jury did not have to deliberate more than 20 minutes before sentencing him to die.

Richard Clement spent the next seven years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He refused to participate in any appeals of his case, instead saying “let’s get this over with” and “get me in the chair where I belong.” Richard had scheduled no family or religious counsel to be present at his execution in the same chair as his father. After being told that James and his son, Ricky, would watch his execution, Richard was reported as saying only that “the boy oughta keep his eyes closed this time.” Meanwhile, his bar was demolished and replaced by a chain restaurant, a fitting close for the impending end of the Clement family line.

Richard was executed using a sequence of four electric shocks, which the state had devised years after his father’s death to ensure that the vital organs would fail. He was buried in the common state penitentiary cemetery after no one claimed his body. Witnesses said they believed his soul went straight to hell where he would be reunited with his criminal father, and that he was finally put where he belonged. For, as the papers reported just hours after notice of his death by electrocution, the execution chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways.


Andre P. Audette is a political scientist by day but twists politics and social issues into poetry and short horror stories by night. 


“Little Bunny Foo Foo” Dark Fiction by Tre Luna

Doctor Cutter, your new patient is in room three,” the nurse said. “Torn meniscus, left knee.”

“Uh-huh. BMI?” The question was automatic as breathing. Dr. Richard Cutter didn’t believe in mincing words when it came to obesity.

“She has a large file folder which she refused to put down in order to be weighed, and she held onto it during the X-Ray, too. I don’t know if she had it during the MRI,” the nurse said, compressing her lips. “But yes, she’s a big girl.”

“Naturally.” A file folder, eh? Self advocates were the worst—these days anyone with a third-grade reading level and access to WebMD thought they were a medical expert. Cutter rolled his eyes as he knocked smartly, then entered without waiting for permission.

The patient sat upon the examination bed, fingers laced together, hygienic tissue paper crinkled beneath her. Cutter summed her up with a glance, noting how the one-size-fits-all paper exam shorts were stretched to their limits due to the rolls of abdominal fat. Of course she had a torn meniscus. Why wouldn’t she? Her knees had to carry so much bulk every day, it was just logical. Why couldn’t these people ever see that their own irrationality and compulsions caused all their problems? Terrible willpower.

“Doctor Cutter?” the woman said. Her ponderous voice was oddly scratchy, like an opera singer on three packs a day. What kind of accent was that? Not that he cared.

“That’s me.” He took to the rolling stool and zipped across the examination room in a single practiced push to reach the computer. Cutter tapped in his login and her information populated the screen. “Evangeline Fey, is it? I hear you’re having difficulty walking. Your left knee is bothering you, as I understand it.”

“It is.”

“Looks like the MRI and X-Ray results are back.” As he spoke, Cutter focused on the screen showing layers of the patient’s knee structure, scrolling up and down to reveal the problem. Which was obviously not the little disk of cartilage poking out of its matrix, but the morbidly dimpled knee within which it was situated.

He cleared his throat. “As you can see, the issue is the structure on the side of your patella, which is called the meniscus, and it’s displaced…” 

Throughout the preliminaries Cutter noticed Evangeline Fey was being very quiet for a woman with a thick manilla file folder placed atop her neatly folded clothing. He frowned, distracted from the test results. There was a pair of bright silver scissors placed on the file folder with the kind of precision he associated with surgeons. He stared, taken aback. 

Instead of watching the screen like most new patients, Fey was gazing at him. “They’re Ginghers,” she said, interrupting him in the middle of a sentence. 

“I’m sorry?”

“Capable of slicing completely through a human finger.”

“The scissors?” Cutter blinked several times. 

She nodded once, self assured. 

Cutter looked away from the shears with an effort, as it was time to begin The Lecture. He swiveled on his stool to face her and cleared his throat, feeling a satisfactory sense of purpose—this is why he got up in the morning. “Ms. Fey, I realize that for someone like you this may be hard to hear, but you need to lose weight before medical care will be effective. Would you treat a machine the way you’ve been treating your body? Like a machine, your body needs the proper nutrition in the right amounts and plenty of exercise, or it cannot function correctly. This torn meniscus is only one of many such ailments that will lead to a painful death unless you take steps now.”

Evangeline Fey’s calm demeanor didn’t change, and she continued to regard him with an intensity he found vaguely off putting. “Is that your recommendation, Doctor Cutter?”

“Yes,” he said with force. “Losing even fifteen pounds would help take the load off of your knee, though more would be better, of course.” 

God, he loved this. It was the best feeling on earth to explain to these fools what they needed to hear—no one else but a doctor could communicate the information so clearly when everyone else thought it was too rude or direct. It was important, almost a holy calling. Cutter sat straighter on the stool, feeling his glutes work. They were still sore from this morning’s workout, though his alignment was absolute. With an internal smile he readied himself for counterarguments, yelling, or even better, crying.

Sure enough, Evangeline Fey stood and waddled—with a limp from the torn cartilage in her knee—to retrieve the file folder from the chair. He glanced over and realized the scissors were nowhere to be seen. Cutter frowned, but patients could be strange about their possessions. Evangeline settled back on the crinkly tissue paper, making eye contact as she opened the file folder; her eyes were bright black, like a bird’s. Cutter sighed, almost wishing he could just leave. Ugh, why did these people insist on quoting statistics at him? 

She cleared her throat. “Doctor Richard Michael Cutter. Graduated with honors, summa cum laude, from Yale Medical School. Third in your class. Internship at John Hopkins in Boston, then you practiced for three years in Virginia Beach.” Her scratchy alto was utterly dry.

Shocked, Cutter looked at the paper and realized it was his CV. “Where did you get that?” 

Fey hummed as she scanned it. “Miami Jackson Memorial, then on to Charlotte. This stint in Providence is a bit of a step backward for you, but I can only assume it was a family move.” She nodded at his wedding ring. “Let us move on to your published works.” She licked a finger and turned the page. 

“I… look, is this some kind of, er, sting operation?” Cutter shifted uncomfortably on the stool. What he knew about the police came from pop culture; the dun dun sound from “Law and Order” echoed through his head. What Cutter really wanted was to snatch the thick file folder out of her hands—was his address on the CV? His cell number? The invasion of privacy was unacceptable.

“‘The Impact on Bone and Muscle Health in Cases of Severe Morbid Obesity: A study.’ Peer reviewed and everything, hmm hmm. I see you presented it at this time last year with one Doctor Elliot Ward at the Bariatric Medical Conference in Atlanta, despite the fact that you’re in orthopedics.”

Actually, his friend Elliot was the bariatric surgeon—which made them a great team—and the conference was a lot of fun, but Cutter didn’t feel the need to correct her. “How is this relevant to your knee?”

“I assume you’re going to Atlanta again this year—it must be nice to get out of New England, considering the January we’re having.”

Cutter stood abruptly. “Lady, I don’t know what your intentions are, but we’re done here. I can’t believe you have my personal information!”

Fey said with slow precision, “I assure you that this is a professional review. Though your personal life may be impacted, depending on the outcome.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I recommend that you lose some weight—best thing for you. That’s all I have to say.” He banged out of the room.

Behind him Fey called, “But we’re not done yet.”

“Oh, yes we are,” Cutter grumbled under his breath.

Crazy fat women took up too much room. They should do the world a favor and die, which would happen anyway. Cutter breathed a sigh of relief at his escape and glanced at his smart watch. He was nearly late for the team meeting in cardiology, and Doctor Gupta had been wanting a consultation all morning. He strode away from the exam room with a straight back, whistling.

***

The best part about working at Shriner’s Medical Hospital were the office hours, in Cutter’s opinion. He could knock off and go home to his wife and daughter at a decent time of day.

Of course, now that Delany was moving around on her own and could singloudly, home wasn’t the cozy warm bubble it had once been. Cutter had enjoyed Delany’s infancy because she couldn’t do much except roll over—the potato phase, as his wife put it. Now that she was a toddler… well. Cutter poured himself a glass of dry Pinot Grigio, swished to aerate, and attempted to settle on what had once been a pristine white couch while avoiding a minefield of Duplos, molded plastic food, and other sundry items.

“If you get home before me, why can’t you do a better job of picking up?” Cutter said to Kara, though he kept his tone light. He liked his marriage, and enjoyed being married.

Kara glanced up from grading papers. “You want a broken wrist, Mr. Summa Cum Laude?”

“Little Bunny Foo Foo hopping through the forest, picking up the field mice and bopping them on the head!” Delany sang, off pitch and with evident enthusiasm. She made a fist with one hand and slapped it with the other, pantomiming the act with uproarious laughter. 

“Ah, the latest day-care contribution to our conversations,” Cutter muttered as he sipped wine.

Kara said, “Don’t complain, it’s better than the Paw Patrol theme song. I swear that show is just a bunch of male strippers at its heart. I mean, you have the fireman, the policeman…”

“Cute. Listen, the strangest thing happened to me today. Wait until you hear about this.”

“Then the Good Fairy said, I’ll give you THREEEE chances. If you don’t do what I say, I’ll turn YOU into a FOO!”

“I think that’s ‘goon,’ sweetheart.” Kara smiled fondly at Delany. 

Cutter cleared his throat. “So, this crazy woman came in today…” The story, as he retold it, seemed even less funny than when it had happened.

Kara frowned. “Why would she have your CV?”

“Logically speaking she must have found my information on the internet. I mean, you’d have to do a little digging, but it’s not impossible,” Cutter said. Delany tapped his knee insistently, and—sighing—he set down his wine to pick her up. “Ooof. Del, you’re getting heavy. Kara sweetie, it’s time to cut her caloric intake.”

“Daddy, wha’s…” Delany started to ask.

“It’s ridiculous to put a toddler on a diet,” Kara said. “She’s within her developmental benchmark.”

“At the very edge of the benchmark, anyway. We should switch to non-fat dairy and cut her sugar and white-flour carbs. No more Cheerios for you, young lady.”

“Daddy, wha’s caloric?”

“Ah, the golden question. Caloric is the reason Daddy hasn’t eaten an apple, which has a whopping 19 grams of sugar, since his undergraduate years. ‘Keeps the doctor away’ indeed.”

Kara frowned at him. “Richard, she doesn’t understand things like that. Delany my love, caloric means what you eat, okay?”

“The last thing I want is an obese daughter.” Cutter frowned at his offspring, and he pinched a roll of baby fat between his index finger and thumb. “What a horrible fate that would be.”

“Her body is not about you, Richard. Besides, if you take that attitude, she’ll become fat when she’s an adolescent just to spite you.” Kara went back to her papers. “Teenagers do things like that.”

“God forbid.”

Kara glanced up with a smile, though her eyes were concerned, and she said nothing more.

***

The next morning Cutter awoke at 4:30a.m. for his usual workout regimen before the day began. He trotted down the stairs with a sweat towel tossed over his shoulder, then frowned. There was a light on in the dining room—several, in fact, based on the glare through the open doorway. Hadn’t Kara turn off the lights before going to bed? He strode into the room, then stopped cold, his blood turning to ice.

Evangeline Fey sat at the dining room table, the manilla file folder spread open before her.

“Good morning, doctor,” she said in her scratchy alto. “As I tried to tell you yesterday, we weren’t done.”

“Get out of my house or I’ll call the police!”

“Hush now. You don’t want to wake your family.” She turned a page in the file and said, “We must enact the ritual so you understand the depths of your danger. The reading of the names shall now commence.”

“What danger?” For that matter, what names? Cutter reached over and snagged the file folder, pulling it toward him. He leafed through it, hissing under his breath. “These are my patients!”

“Yes. That there was Sarah Hilary Craig. She committed suicide last year, like several others on this list.” Fey watched with cool eyes as the pages flew past. “It has been determined that you are directly or indirectly responsible for sixteen lives lost. Though your patient who is my client—and pardon me if I keep her name to myself—is alive and well, and decidedly in our good favor.”

“You are breaching doctor-patient confidentiality! This is the worst violation of HIPAA I’ve ever seen.” Cutter tried to keep his voice down, though it was a struggle. “Cyber-stalking me, breaking and entering, and now this? Whoever hired you is just as guilty of breaking the law as you are.”

Fey gave a little sigh. “I accept that you’re angry, but my client is a polite young lady. Leaves out milk with a dash of cream for us every evening in a little bowl, just like the old days, and lately she’s been sweetening the deal by adding her home-brewed, vanilla-and-noyaux mead.” Fey shot him a sharp look. “Perhaps you would like to make an offering as well? Milk is traditional, though you must be a regular contributor in order to make it stick.”

“Offering?” Cutter was lost in this conversation; it was like dog paddling against a riptide.

“Think of it as a counter-suit.”

“You’re a lawyer? Are these patients suing me?” Cutter threw back his head and laughed. “Please, lady. You can knock off the dramatics. It’s not like I’ve never been sued before.”

“I’m sure.” There was a hint of wry humor in her black eyes.

“Honey?” Kara’s voice floated down the stairs. “Who are you talking to?”

“Someone who thinks I cave in to intimidation!” Cutter yelled, then sneered at Fey. “Get out of my house.”

Fey calmly reached over and closed the file folder, though she didn’t rise. To his astonishment she raised three fingers in the air, and her subtle accent broadened. Irish, maybe. “You have three chances. Mark it well, Dick Cutter. Do not bully, belittle or browbeat others for their heft. You will do no more harm under the oath you took, or your three chances shall go by in a flash.”

“Richard, why are you yelling?” Kara was coming down the stairs. “Is something going on?”

“Keep Delany away, love. I’m handling… this?” Cutter looked back, but Fey was gone as if she’d never been there. So was her file folder.

Only a slight scent of vanilla and floral almonds wafted in her wake.

***

The rest of the day Cutter was so jumpy that the nurse asked if everything was all right. The next day he had calmed a bit, and the day after that he was convinced he’d dreamed the whole thing up.

Another Monday, another obese patient taking up space on the exam bed with a crappy meniscus. This one was male and about seventy pounds over. He looked contrite during The Lecture, and Cutter braced himself for arguments.

Sure enough, the guy opened with a classic. “Doc, 95% of diets don’t work. Within five years you gain the weight back with more pounds on top of what you originally shed. Does it make sense to recommend a course of action with a 5% success rate?”

Cutter raised an eyebrow, enjoying himself tremendously. “If you had any willpower, that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“This isn’t about willpower. Doc, I’ve been on every diet imaginable. Atkins, South Beach, Keto. All they’ve done is to make me feel bad about my body.”

“I believe the psychiatry department is down the hall. You do know this is orthopedics, right?”

The man frowned at him. Glared, actually. “I can’t believe you just said that. That was completely unprofessional, and I’d like a second opinion for my knee.”

“Best of luck with that. Look, if you don’t want my medical advice, why did you even come in?”

“I need help because I can’t walk.”

“Lose some weight. That will help.”

“Thanks to this bum knee, I can’t climb on a StairMaster right now even if I wanted to.”

“So go swimming instead. I suggest deep-end water aerobics on a daily basis.”

“That costs a lot of money. I pay over nine-hundred dollars a month for my health insurance, which means you, Doc. Don’t you think, say, a cortisone shot or surgery should be part of this conversation? I have a feeling you recommend those options for your skinny patients.”

“Look, I’ll put in a referral for a physical-therapy consultation, okay?” Cutter glanced at his watch. “That’s all the time I have. Come back when you’re thinner, and then we’ll talk solutions.”

Cutter made his escape and headed for radiology, but a familiar figure stood in his path. Evangeline Fey was absolutely still in the corridor, her black eyes enigmatic. Slowly, ponderously, she raised a hand and gave him… the peace sign? What the hell?

Cutter opened his mouth to yell at her, but Fey was gone. Just like last time. His cell phone buzzed and Cutter answered it, still staring down the hall. Why did he have such a strange feeling in his gut?

Maybe he should inform the police, but he’d better do some digging first. The computer ought to have everything he needed to know… except it didn’t. The Shriner’s network refused to cough up any information about Fey. Last week’s appointment was gone, wiped clean from his calendar, leaving an unexplained blank.

Cutter didn’t know what to think; each theory seemed as bizarre and unsatisfying as the next. Was he imagining things? He didn’t want to become a target of the hospital rumor mill, so he kept his lip buttoned and braced himself. Cutter would find out more information about Fey soon, one way or another.

***

Delany skipped ahead on their way to the park, dressed in her winter coat and a hat with a pompom on top. Cutter lengthened his stride to keep up, though he kept texting as he crunched through the newly-fallen snow on the sidewalk.

She sang to the tune of “Following the Leader,” “My daddy has a long shadow, long shadow, long shadow, my daddy has a long shadow, hear… him… shout!”

Cutter ignored her, chilled fingers tapping away. Hey Elliot. Is Sung-Min coming with you to Atlanta?

Three dots appeared as Elliot typed his reply, and Cutter took a moment to brush snow off a park bench by the playground. Delany was already halfway up a slide in the wrong direction, feet skidding on the frozen plastic surface. 

Elliot’s text popped up. Not this year. Is Kara coming?

Nope. Just us guys, I guess. Two wild doctors out on the town.

“Long shadow, long shadow, my daddy has a long shadow…”

Elliot’s reply was prompt. Haha, yeah right. Happily married here, and I swear Sung-Min is psychic. No strip clubs for me.

Cutter snorted. Want to share a room this year? The bookings are super tight, with both bariatrics and GYN taking up space. The desk clerk said there was another convention in town, too.

Ooooh, GYN. Better than a strip club any day, and its legit. Atlanta, here we come.

“My daddy has a long shadow…”

“Yes, he does, sweet. People listen to what he says. Sometimes they kill themselves because of his words and actions,” said a familiar, three-packs-a-day voice.

Cutter looked up, aghast. Evangeline Fey stood on the other side of the playground with Delany.

“What the fuck!” he yelled, earning dirty looks from several adults, not to mention the laughter of nearby teenagers with sleds.

“Look, Daddy! It’s the Good Fairy,” Delany said, gazing at Fey with open-mouthed rapture as if she was a celebrity.

“Get away from her, Delany! Now!”

“But Daddy…”

Cutter hustled through the snow and frozen playground mulch, grabbed his daughter, and pulled her behind him. He glared at Fey. “This is getting old, lady. Why the hell are you stalking me? And my family?”

She favored him with a cordial nod. “I beg your pardon. I am bound by certain laws that keep me from counting personal incidents among your warnings, but your daughter is so sweet—she drew me like a will-o’-the-wisp in a swamp. Delany tells the truth. She sees what is, rather than what she believes to be. Do you know what a precious gift that is, Dick Cutter? Rare and terribly valuable.”

“That’s it, I’m calling the cops.” Cutter punched the numbers into his cell phone, but Fey was already gone. He glared at the spot where she had been, then yelled into the empty air. “Nice trick, lady! Goddamn it.”

Delany had both mittens pressed to her mouth. “Daddy?”

“Yes, Del?”

“Be careful, okay?”

“Sweetheart, she’s just some pushy fat lady. I don’t know what her deal is, but she’s the one who should take care, not me.”

“But Daddy, she has scissors.”

“I—how did you know that?” Cutter stared at his daughter.

“Snip, snip,” Delany whispered. “She’ll cut off your shadow for bopping field mice on the head.”

“Yeah, okay, sure. Whatever. Just don’t speak to that lady again because it’s not good to talk to strangers. She didn’t give you candy, did she?”

“Nooo.”

“Glad to hear it. Besides, you don’t need more sugar in your diet,” he said with a sigh. “Now go get some more exercise.” 

***

Atlanta was the usual crush. 

The worst part about the Bariatrics Medical Conference was the lack of available workout machines at the hotel fitness center in the early morning hours, but at least some of the gynecologists were hot. He even managed to talk a few into coming to his and Elliot’s latest paper presentation. Cutter relished looking smart for beautiful women, no matter how married he might be.

This year he even decided to open his talk with a joke. “So, this woman goes to see the doctor, and he said, ‘Don’t eat anything fatty.’ The woman said, ‘What—no bacon or sausages or burgers or anything?’ The doctor replied, ‘No, fatty, just don’t eat anything.’”

Laughter. Cutter grinned at his audience and bounced on his toes. Then he froze, shocked. Evangeline Fey was sitting in the front row, staring up at him. She raised a single finger in the air.

“Er… Richard?” Elliot muttered. “Want me to speak next?”

“I—what?” Cutter looked around wildly, but Fey was gone. Of course she was.

Elliot cleared his throat and began his part of their presentation. It was out of order, but Cutter was too distracted to care. Fey had followed him from Rhode Island to Virginia. She was here. This was going too far.

Cutter managed to get through his performance, then hustled to the convention logistics desk. Fey wasn’t listed among the attendees, exactly the way she hadn’t existed in the Shriner’s computer system. No one had seen a woman matching her description, and she would have stood out in this toned, trim crowd.

It was time—past time, really—to follow up on his threat, no matter how inconvenient it might be. Cutter needed to go to the police at last.

***

The nearest police station had all the charm of a urinal in a bus terminal, but Cutter waited it out until he was called. The black woman behind the desk should have never been an officer—how did they even hire someone like that? At least a hundred pounds over, she was as short as she was broad. Good lord, she even had a pink donut box sitting on her desk. How stereotypical could you get? Cutter stared at it—and her—with disgust as he described Fey and her stalking behavior.

The policewoman followed his gaze with a dyspeptic expression. “Is there something interesting about that box?”

“What?”

“My lunch,” she clarified. “I don’t see what’s so fascinating about leftover dim sum, do you?”

“Oh, dim sum,” he said with a laugh. “No, nothing interesting.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, about your complaint. Did you file a police report back in Providence?”

“No.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Really? Because if this woman, Evangeline Fey, broke into your home, in Providence, and followed you around at your workplace, in Providence, and confronted you in a playground when you had your daughter, in Providence, then why didn’t you take it to your local police department?”

“I…” Cutter glared at her. “I was going to. I’ve been busy!”

“Well, sir, I don’t know about that.” The policewoman settled back in her chair, her chubby fingers tapping the desk in a way Cutter found aggravating. “All I know is that it isn’t illegal to attend a medical convention here in the state of Virginia, whether one is a registered attendee or not.”

There was no good reply to that.

***

Cutter wanted to strangle someone. He couldn’t believe this was happening, and to him! Graduated with honors, third in his class at Yale. Weight loss was a holy crusade, and everyone listened to him. It was unthinkable that Fey could affect his peace of mind this much. 

The hotel where he and Elliot always stayed had once been a historic Masonic temple, lovingly restored and expanded for its current use. The lobby was a huge, perfectly round hall with a high ceiling, marble columns and wooden beams. In the exact center of the space was a crowd—fifty or sixty people—laughing, talking, and drinking from pewter tankards. They were dressed in quirky clothing, and Cutter wondered if they were in town for a Renaissance Faire or comic-book convention. 

Then he sneered. Every single last one of them was morbidly obese. A few were so overweight that they were in wheelchairs, immobilized by rolls of fat. Arms jiggled and double chins wobbled. Everyone was eating. There were Tupperware containers with cookies and pastries making the rounds among them, crumbs sprinkling upon expansive bellies and breasts. 

The worst part was they just seemed so happy

Cutter gazed at them for a long time, shaking with rage. He had never before understood the idea of “seeing red”—he’d always thought it an imaginative turn of phrase, but as he breathed in and out his vision was occluded by blood-filled mist.

A young guy wearing a rainbow-colored Utilikilt and a puffy pirate shirt—about a 36 on the BMI chart, Cutter estimated—approached with a goofy grin and a container of chocolate eclairs. “Hail, stranger! Please, feel free to partake with us.”

Cutter opened his mouth wide and screamed, “YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.”

The lobby fell silent. Everyone stared at him.

“Don’t you care about your health? Can’t you see how you’re treating your bodies, how disgusting you are? What horrible examples you’re setting for your children, with your asthma and heart conditions? It’s completely unnecessary. You deserve the pain because you choose to live this way, and it’s your own damn fault. The worst of it is that I have to touch you, and I have to look at you, and when you open your big fat mouths and talk…”

One of the older men stepped forward and said in a calm tone, which carried to the ends of the lobby, “Fat saved my life.”

“What?” Cutter was panting, off balance.

“I love my fat. It saved my life in a major car accident. It cushioned me, while my cousin—skinny as a pole and sitting right beside me—died in the crash.” His eyes looked sad, but his spine was absolutely straight, and his feet were planted in a powerful stance.

A woman came forward and gently took the man’s arm, then addressed Cutter. “It saved my life, too. The doctors would have let me die when a polyp exploded in my large intestine, but I survived two whole weeks because my fat protected me. It buffered my heart and lungs until I could get better care.”

“I get more dates because I’m fat!” a voice called from the back of the crowd. 

“I have better stamina than my skinny friends, and I don’t get cold.”

“Anyway, what business is it of yours?” 

Cutter swelled and enunciated each word with immense dignity. “I. Am. A. Doctor.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor. Gee, what a surprise. Fucking bigot.” The hall filled with laughter. The guy in the Utilikilt threw an eclair at him, and others followed suit. Desserts pelted Cutter’s back as he turned and fled. 

He had no idea where he was going. Blinded by outrage and mortification, he made his way outside and around the corner. It was dark. Cutter paused by a dumpster, smelling strongly of garbage, and there was a barking dog just beyond the barbed-wire topped fence. He took a breath, sick to his stomach. Cutter’s patients had always come at him one at a time. The crowds he’d addressed had always been sympathetic and educated, nothing like that medieval torches-and-pitchforks tomfoolery. Well, they’d pay for their ignorance… pain and death were coming for them…

There was a slight sound behind him—a resonance of metal sliding against metal. The dog whined, then fell silent.

Cutter swiveled, adrenaline pumping. Evangeline Fey’s eyes were black as the void. The edges of her extensive body fuzzed into the darkness; there were stars surrounding her, endless night. An ocean of sky. Cutter jerked back, mouth open with shock.

“I did warn you. You had three chances,” she said, and her voice filled his entire world. Delany was right, she was the Good Fairy. There was no other name for her.

He wanted to run like a deer fleeing a master hunter. Cutter almost managed to turn, but the Good Fairy touched him softly on the shoulder, and he knew it was futile. The Gingher scissors were in her other hand.

“Your shadow first, I should think, and then a finger. I will let you choose which one.”

“What?” Cutter couldn’t breathe. “What?”

“Hmm. Perhaps summa cum laude isn’t everything.” She grinned, her teeth extending far beyond her physical mouth.

The scissors snipped, and pain washed over him in waves. He lolled, lost in agony. He’d never thought of pain as a house with rooms, but he stumbled from one space to another, discovering new depths of torment with each slice of her shears.

“That’s better,” the Good Fairy said.

Richard looked behind him, but didn’t see any blood. “What did you do?” he said. His voice sounded different… less certain, higher pitched. Whiny. When Richard had been a child he’d watched the Andy Griffith Show on late-night TV, and there had been a character, Gomer Pyle, who spoke that way. An indecisive warble.

“Now for the finger. Have you decided?”

“But you can’t! I’m a doctor.” Why did he sound so petulant?

“I know.” The Good Fairy gazed at him. “Show me your hand.”

He automatically held up his dominant right, then swiftly pulled away and replaced it with his left.

“Ah, you do have a preference after all.” The Good Fairy caressed his hand, drawing out each finger with loving attention. “Go on, then. Tuck the others and offer me the one.”

Richard squirmed. “I don’t… I can’t…”

“You must, or I choose.” She gripped his index finger hard, and he yelped.

“No, wait.” He offered his pinky, feeling every inch the coward.

“Close your eyes,” the Good Fairy said. He followed directions, scrunching them tight. She whispered in his ear, “Now think happy thoughts.”

***

The EMTs didn’t hide their bemusement, and the lady cop he’d seen earlier at the station had laughed outright. Cutting off his own damn finger! Who’d have guessed? The social worker at the hospital had been far less amused. Subsequently, during his six days in psychiatric inpatient care, Richard was given prescriptions of Ativan, Risperdal, and Zoloft, and left the hospital with a habitual tick of looking over his shoulder to see if someone was there. Anyone.

What had happened in that back alley? Richard remembered choosing the finger. He remembered the pain. No scissors were ever found, but no one cared about details like that. There had been sixty-two witnesses in the hotel who’d said that he was a raving lunatic, clearly unhinged, and the policewoman had believed them. Everyone did.

Back in Providence, Richard cradled his bandaged left hand as he wheeled the suitcase over the threshold, home at last. Yet he was incredibly nervous for no reason at all.

Delany was in her high chair in the kitchen, singing softly while munching Honey Nut Cheerios. Richard gasped, shocked at the sight, then snatched the bowl away from her. Delany’s face scrunched and she began to cry.

“Richard, what the hell?” Kara said. “You don’t say a word of welcome, and the first thing you do is take away her Cheerios?” She swept Delany up in her arms, cuddling her close.

“I said no sugar! No carbs! Lower her caloric intake! I told you that, Kara.” Richard’s voice warbled indecisively, and Kara wrinkled her nose.

Delany’s watery eyes grew wide. “Daddy! Your shadow is gone.”

“What?” He gazed at her, not comprehending.

“I told you to be careful. Now no one will listen to you,” Delany said with authority. She looked at Kara. “Mommy, I want my snack.”

“You’d better believe it, kiddo, only let’s get you something at Grandma’s house. I’ll need to pack a bag, first.” Kara glared at Richard, then strode away with Delany.

“What? Kara, no. You can’t leave me,” he wailed from the base of the stairs.

She called, “It’s inappropriate to put a two-year-old on a diet. I won’t let you mess up your daughter’s relationship to food, or her own body. You’ve screwed up enough as it is.”

“But…” He cradled his tender, throbbing hand. “Don’t you care about me? I lost a finger, Kara.”

“Which is your own fault, as far as I understand it. Frankly, I don’t know why I ever took you seriously. You’re a self-centered ass with a heart of stone, and I’m getting out of this house. You can lecture yourself from now on, Richard Cutter.” Kara thundered down the stairs, Delany in her arms, and she gripped her suitcase decisively.

Delany pulled a thumb out of her mouth and said, “The Good Fairy turned him into a foo, Mommy.”

“I think you mean ‘fool,’ darling. Goodbye, Richard.”

The door echoed as it slammed shut behind them. Richard could hear Delany’s singing growing progressively farther away. “Little Bunny Foo Foo, hopping through the forest…”


Tre Luna has had horror, poetry, and non-fiction pieces accepted by Dark Horses Magazine, Idle Ink, the non-profit NeuroClastic, and the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers Guild in partnership with Cloaked Press. His blog can be found at https://panfae.medium.com, and his Twitter handle is @TreLuna5


“Like Moths to a Flame” Dark Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

When a deluxe RV blocks our driveway, and the pocket parks in the neighborhood sprout graffiti and trash, we decide to move.

            “Our dream house is for sale,” Dillon tells me.

I know which one he’s talking about. It’s the one we built, two hours away, the one we sold for far less than what it was worth before we moved to this house, but now can afford to buy it back.

            “We won’t want it now. We’ll hate it.  You should never go back. You’ll only hate what the new owners have done to it.”

But Dillon’s convinced that whatever they’ve done, we can undo easily enough, and when some kids throw stones at our windows, I look for realtors.

#

            Brown grass and bare patches bleached by the sun, do nothing to offer “curb appeal” to the house we once owned. The scorched, concrete driveway is cracked with dandelions poking through. Dillon’s face drops. All of the plants and roses he’d grown—the trees he took care of—are gone.

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

He lowers his gaze, most likely thinking about all the work it’ll take to put the plants back in and to re-do the yard, which has been depleted of the mature trees that blocked the sun.

            Inside the house, I’m shocked to see our bamboo floors carpeted over and gaudy old- timey wallpaper covering every inch of the walls. The kitchen cabinets were painted over as well, and I hate it here.

            For months, we put everything back the way it was and plant gardens and open windows and cover the air with fresh lavender spray. We sleep tucked in between cotton sheets and thick duvet covers. Even the birds return. We see the flutter of cardinals’ wings.

#

            While folding the blankets on the couch, I hear the thud of a package hitting the front door. When I go outside to retrieve the package, I see a brown box wrapped tightly in layers of packing tape. I tear through the layers and brown paper wrapping to find a painting and a note from my mother. It’s a painting I remember—one she hung in my bedroom when I was child. In the painting, two dancers in pink tuille and tights and leotards lace up the pink satin ribbons of their pointe shoes. In the background, dark walnut lacquer contrasts with a halo of golden light above their heads.

            In the note, my mother reminds me that this painting was once hers, and she’d given it to me as a child, but I’d sold it in a garage sale. Later, it ended up in an antique store—and she bought it back. She had no use for it herself, so she gave it back to me.

            It doesn’t really go with the rest of the house; I still don’t want it, but I hang it in a spare bedroom, figuring it will only still come back to me. But I don’t have to look at it if I don’t want to. That’s the compromise.

            When Dillon and I tuck ourselves into bed that night, I picture everything in its place: the flowers outside, the bamboo floors, the freshly painted walls, the dancers in the spare bedroom—and I close my eyes to dream.

#

            A faint fluttering sound and a ray of light awaken me in the bedroom. Dillon’s sleeping in, so I go downstairs, the fluttering growing louder as I go down the staircase. The sound is nearly deafening when I enter the living room, and when I turn right to go into the kitchen, my breath catches in my chest. The entire floor is covered with brown, powdery moths. I look for the open window, to see how they got in, but it’s closed. Everything, including the windows, was in its place when I went to bed the night before, and now, these disgusting moths have taken up the floor and are crawling onto the cabinets. My stomach lurches when I see one squeeze itself into the pantry, while others follow.

            “Dillon!” I scream.

When he enters the kitchen, he rubs his eyes and stares.

            “Do something,” I say, knowing full well I could do something myself. Dillon swats them with a broom, but they scatter, and I’m hoping they’re not multiplying. Eventually, we use the vacuum and toss them outside. The kitchen reeks of them: A sharp, musty odor with a lingering gamey smell I thought only belonged to dead mice.

            “Do we get an exterminator?”

Dillon shakes his head no. This is just a fluke. I perfume the air with a stronger lavender smell and try to rest assured at night that everything is back in its place.

#

            In the morning, it’s still dark, and I don’t want to disturb Dillon, so I make my way down the staircase in the growing morning light, but I’ll need to steady myself, so I don’t fall. I touch the railing and something soft brushes the back of my hand, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I hear the fluttering, just like I did the day before.

            When I get to the bottom of the staircase, I switch on the light, only to discover that the wall and floors are moving. Every inch covered in moths. Screaming, I run back up the stairs, swiping at my legs. It’s as if they’re crawling all over me, and I can’t shake the squirmy feeling that’s wormed its way onto my skin.

            “The house is crawling with them!” I tell Dillon, but he thinks we can handle this ourselves, just like the bamboo and the flowers and the kitchen cabinets. But I’m exhausted and I smell them. I smell them everywhere.

            “We’ll look for the source,” he promises. “We’ll set some traps. I’ll research it on the internet.”

            In the evening, when only the scent of lavender lingers, just over the bitter moth smell, Dillon sets out cameras. I inspect the walls near the staircase and the floors of the living room and kitchen for any signs of damage. At first, I don’t see anything, but then, when I look closely, I find what appears to be tiny smudges. I look again, and I see empty spaces filled in by dirt and soil and pure air and night sky. Ever so faintly, the empty spaces take on the shape of moths’ wings. I rub my eyes and shake my head until everything looks whole again, and I tell myself the world is not disappearing.

            Dillon’s placed cameras in every room, and the next morning, when the moths have covered the entire first floor and walls along the staircase, and when we’ve stepped on them and heard them crunch beneath our bedroom slippers, we retrieve the footage from the kitchen camera first. There’s nothing extraordinary to note. The kitchen is empty all night, but then, the moths suddenly appear, all at once, and we can’t see how they get there. We see the same thing happening in the footage we retrieve from every room in the house—except for the footage from the spare bedroom. In the grainy light of the film, we see the painting of the dancers open up, right above the torso of the tallest dancer. It opens wide, layers of lacquer unfolding. Moths pour out, for a good 30 minutes. They spill out from inside the painting, and I can’t imagine what makes it open like that—until the moths disappear, and the painting is left wide open, and from inside, what looks like two eyes begin to glow. My skin crawls.

            “What did these people do to this house?” I ask.

            “Clearly, it’s the painting.”

            “But something’s making it happen—something that moved in here between the time we left and the time we returned.”

Dillon shakes his head. “No. It’s simple. We get rid of the painting.”

So we take the painting out back and bury it, and when I go back up the stairs, I notice a piece of the banister is missing, and floorboard as well.

            “How do you explain this?” I ask.

Dillon can’t, which is why he doesn’t offer an explanation, just a promise to fix the banister and the floorboard in the morning.

#

            Every morning, we clear out the moths, piles of them, pungent and powdery. They spread their dust everywhere, and little by little, the house disappears along the edges, rubbed out by the wings, until one day, we wake up on the foundation of our house—the walls and the floors gone—all of the furniture nearly transparent, as if the house and everything inside had never existed. The moths settle in our hair, on our arms— rub their wings and their powder all over, and when I look down, the spaces between my fingers and my toes span the length of the garden, wilting in the sun.


Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola