“Slim to None” Dark Flash Fiction by Rhema Sayers

"Slim to None" Dark Flash Fiction by Rhema Sayers

Anderson sat in one of the remaining seats, looking out at the snow. “It’s coming down pretty heavy.” he remarked.  

Three men sat around the fire, huddled under blankets. A blanket grunted.

Polanski came in, bringing in a gust of freezing air and snowflakes as he ducked under the tarp stretched over the hole in the forward half of the fuselage. “Looks like it’s getting heavier. Temperature’s droppin’.” 

“See anything?” asked another huddled form. 

“Nothin’ but white.” Polanski replied. 

No one spoke for a while. The howling of the wild northern wind outside made up for the silence inside.

Anderson heard voices in the wind, demons or wolves or ghosts. Indian ghosts? This was their land up here in the far North. His grandmother had been Cherokee and had taught him about ghosts and the old ways. 

Byrnes started a poker game, the murmurs of the players filling the void.  

There had been more players in the first weeks. Ten had survived, although two of those had died the first week. 

Then there were eight. Dupres had sat in a seat just in front of Anderson’s, listening to the wind. His wife and daughter had died in the crash. After three weeks, he had gotten up and walked outside and had never come back.  

A week later, Mendoza left. They tried to stop him. He fought. They asked him why and he never spoke. They tied him to a seat, but he had a fingernail clipper in his pocket, and he chewed at the ropes with it until he got free. He left while the rest slept. 

No one but Anderson listened to the wind. No one else wanted to know what it said. 

Marcetti was sorting through the stack of boxes at the far end of the plane, moving each box with care. He looked up and called out “How about pork and beans for dinner?” 


Byrnes snorted “Amani’s gonna fart all night.” 

A big, black man with kinky hair cut close to the scalp grinned and farted loudly. That got a laugh out of them.  

Except from Anderson. Staring out at the dark, he wished the others would be quiet. He wanted to hear what the voices said.  

The ones who died in the crash were lying just outside. He could see the small mounds they made in the snow. A little more time and snow and you wouldn’t be able to see them at all. One hundred fifteen bodies. Maybe those were their voices he almost heard. Maybe they were angry that some had survived. Anderson shuddered at the thought. He got up and went back to help Marcetti with dinner. 

Marcetti was whistling softly, something familiar, but Anderson couldn’t place it. Marcetti was a small man, quick and agile, always cheerful. He smiled as Anderson joined him. “How’s it goin’, big guy?” he asked.

Anderson shook his head. “Why are you so cheerful? We’re a thousand miles from civilization in a crashed jet liner in a blizzard with a hundred dead bodies lying just outside?”

 Marcetti grinned. “Beats crying. Besides, I was thinking about my girlfriend. You should see her. This girl has got the…..”


Laughter from the poker players interrupted him as Byrnes raked in the pot. “You’re going to have to wait ‘til we get home for your money!” one man said.  

Amani stood up, stretching. “You know what I’m gonna do when we get home? I’m goin’ down to Ozzie’s Steak House and get me the biggest goddam’ T-bone you ever saw with a gigantic baked potato with all the…..” 

Anderson tuned out the rest of the talk, staring at Marcetti. Marcetti had been whistling “Amazing Grace”.  

For long moments, Anderson stood still, eyes focused an eternity away. He could hear the voices more clearly now. His son’s little boy voice was calling with the rest of them: his grandmother, his mother, his little sister, his first wife, even his father. 

Marcetti tried to get him to move, but the big man was like a statue. Marcetti finally just worked around him. 

When dinner was ready, Anderson was still unmoving. The other five men ate their tiny ration of pork and beans and watched him.  

Byrnes said “He’s gonna walk.” 

Amani replied, “Twenty says he doesn’t.” 

As they were licking their bowls, Anderson sighed. He straightened up. Without looking at any of the others, he walked forward, ducked under the tarp, and disappeared into the storm. 

Five pairs of eyes remained focused on the tarp for several long minutes. Then Byrnes said, “How about a game of gin rummy for a change?” 

Marcetti said “I don’t think so.” still looking at the tarp. He could hear the wind howling outside. 

Amani said “I’m in.” 

Polanski said “Me, too.” 

The muttering and laughter of the players helped to keep the voices in the wind at bay. 


Rhema Sayers is a retired ER doctor. She took up writing as a second career to keep busy. Along with two dogs and one husband, she lives in the desert near Tucson, Arizona, visited occasionally by other writers, friends, and their three adopted daughters. 


“Face of an Angel” Horror by Kate Bergquist

The lights flickered a few times inside the log cabin before the power finally went out. The sudden darkness felt inevitable to Nella; she had expected a storm of this magnitude to rip away tree branches and blow them into the power lines. 

She held her breath and starting counting. After five seconds of silence, Nella reassured herself there was enough wood to keep the stove cranking all night to keep the animals warm. She had plenty of batteries and kerosene, at least a dozen gallons of water. And she could always boil water and heat soup on the woodstove. Then, at the count of twelve, the backup generator reluctantly chugged to life, coughing and sputtering like an old diesel truck that hadn’t been started in a while. 

    Nella breathed a sigh of relief and continued on with her chores. She moved the squirrel cages from the unheated barn into the mudroom, where she kept an interior enclosure, and set up their nest box. She put down soft blankets, fresh newspaper, piles of leaves and twigs, a bowl of clean water and some nuts and greens. Then she lugged a few heavy tree branches that she had previously trimmed into the cage. Both squirrels were Eastern grays — they tittered at her as she lifted them into their new lodging; she could feel their warm rodent bodies squirming in her hands, their heartbeats speeding like tiny trains. They were both recovering well from puncture wounds. She would release them soon, perhaps in another week or so if the weather broke.

She had just finished feeding the feral kittens when she heard a vehicle fishtailing up her steep driveway. Odd that someone would drive all the way out here in these conditions, at this time of night. To her snug little cabin, perched on a pine-covered hill beneath an acre of black sky. Two below and blowing snow. Wind gusts to sixty. The kind of cold that burrows deep into your bones and stays, even when you’re inside, standing in front of a crackling fire, dressed in a bulky sweater, fleece-lined jeans and steel-toe boots. 

Nella kissed the moist nose of the female orange tabby, her favorite, who was also the runt, as it latched onto her pinky finger and eagerly suckled it. 

“Aw, so sweet. Such a sweet little boo.” 

Nella gently pried her loose. Feral kittens sometimes exhibited this kind of suckling behavior, and she believed it was due to their early, abrupt weaning. A mother cat with warm, full teats, bursting with milk, suddenly and irrevocably gone. Nella’s fingers were a poor substitute. She tucked the kitten into the soft little bed with the others, petted them gently, and closed the door to the wire cage. Thankfully, they were a solid month old now and could eat on their own. 

It wasn’t exactly kitten season. Not this late in December. Almost January. Winter litters were rare, but not unheard of. Nella knew that feral cats cycled year-round and could have litters any time of year. Not long ago, she had clambered into a restaurant dumpster after someone called to report the mother cat had been struck by a car. Nella tracked cat prints in the snow and followed the kittens’ frantic mewing beneath pizza boxes, stinking bags of garbage and a bent bicycle tire to rescue them.

Nella moved to the front room, parted the thermal curtains and rubbed her right palm against the frosted windowpane. Timmy stirred from a drooling sleep and jumped down stiffly from the couch. Fourteen and blind, old for a Lab, but his hearing was still decent, and he thumped his tail in anticipation of company. He shook his head, whipping strings of saliva into the air. A thin rope of drool draped across his nose.

A Jeep, with a headlight out. That meant it must be Stacia Withers, who was exactly one half of the entire police force for their tiny town. She knew Stacia loved that old Jeep, despite the windows that leaked no matter how hard she tried to seal them. It had belonged to Stacia’s late father, and she wouldn’t part with it. Even now, with all the rust on the undercarriage, its value was more than just sentimental – it was safer than her patrol car in this kind of weather. 

    Nella glanced at the grandfather’s clock in the corner of the room. Well past nine at the height of a raging Nor’easter. 

Something was definitely up.

    Nella waited until she saw Stacia’s imposing figure looming at the front door before pulling it open. Behind the freezing blast, Nella noticed she’d left the Jeep running.
    “Geez, Hedges. Don’t you ever answer your damn phone?” She glanced down at Timmy, who was whining, and patted his gray head. “Hey, boy, remember me?” 

    “Not much signal up here, even on a good day. And the land line’s out.”

    “But your generator’s purring like a kitten.” Stacia bustled past Nella and shook the snow off her coat. Unbuttoned the top buttons. She was still wearing her uniform. So, this was business, then. Timmy sniffed Stacia’s legs and started to bark.  

“Hey! Enough, Timmy.” Nella shrugged at Stacia. “He’s getting old. Little senile.”

“Aren’t we all. Nose still works, though.” 

When his whining became incessant, Nella led Timmy to the bathroom and softly closed the door behind her.

“Get you something? Tea?”

“Got anything stronger?” Nella searched her friend’s face and saw she wasn’t kidding. All nerved up. A quiver on her lips. Glassy eyes, spiderwebbed with red, like a windshield about to shatter. Nella recognized the look. Stacia had been pumping adrenaline for a while now, and was headed for a crash. Her fingers trembled as she pulled off her cap and unwound her Irish plaid lambswool scarf. Nella had rarely seen her like this. Stacia had a reputation in town as being a genuine bad-ass. Hard as granite bedrock. 

But it seemed that something had shifted deep beneath her tough façade.

“What’s happened?”

Stacia teared up. Shadows beneath her eyes, dark as trenches. “Bad one. Accident. Out on Route 10, by the rest area.” 

Nella caught a whiff of something coming off Stacia’s clothes. A wet, metallic smell, like rusted pipes, with an undertone of darkly sweet, overripe fruit. She grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from the oak liquor cabinet, poured some into a glass. Handed it to Stacia, who downed the shot. “Another?”

Stacia shook her head. “Can’t.” She paced about the room, looking for something else to steady her nerves, to order the chaos. She studied Nella’s framed antique map of the Upper Valley, traced a shaky finger from the Vermont border, across the Connecticut River, through the forest, over the mountain range and then all the way down to the upper tip of Lake Sunapee, where the bottom of the frame forced a hard stop. She looked back, let her gaze drop to Nella’s scuffed work boots. “Real bad.”

“Tell me.”  

Stacia’s whole body shuddered. “I was parked at the rest area. Saw it happen. They just… came out of nowhere. Flew right across the road. Then…skidded on ice. Slammed into the curb and flipped. Twice. Even though we’ve got…fucking plows and sand trucks everywhere.” 

“But if they didn’t have four-wheel drive –”

“–they didn’t.” Stacia sucked in a breath. Held it. Let it out in quick little huffs, as if she was exhaling cigarette smoke. “Could barely tell from the wreckage it was silver. Front of it…was engulfed. A trucker stopped. Had a fire extinguisher with him and put the flames out. But it was too late. The operator looked to be…male, deceased at the scene. Passenger was observed to be…possibly female, she died as we tried to resuscitate her. Both of them looked to be…somewhat young. And the little one –”

“—shit.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the thing. See, the little one…she was in the back. Strapped into a seat.  Somehow, she survived it, all of it, the crash, the skid, the flipping over, the fire, just a little bit of a thing, not a scratch on her. A bloody miracle, if you ask me.” 

“Oh, wow!” Nella felt her heart accelerate with this sudden good news. 

“Yeah.” Stacia’s smile looked disjointed in the low light. She turned and peered out the window for a long moment, as if to check to make sure the Jeep was still there. Her breath melted the frost into glistening tears.

“Thank God, she made it. Poor thing, though, she must be inconsolable.” Nella said.

“Andy Nicoloro. He was there. He checked her over good. Said he didn’t see a mark on her, near as he could tell.” Andy. Another graduate of Stanbury High. Nella recalled his dark good looks, jet black ponytail that trailed down his back. Guitar player, talented. A year ahead of them, Class of ’99. Her first crush back way back in fifth grade. She hadn’t seen Andy in years, but she’d heard he’d recently become a paramedic and joined the fire department. 

“Did he transport her? Dartmouth-Hitchcock?”

“No.” Stacia went silent for a moment. “There was no reason to. Like I said, she was completely…untouched.” She stared at Nella. “Anyway, the Staties arrived and shut it all down. North and Southbound traffic. It’s nuts out there. Quite the scene. And so much snow. Plows can barely keep up.”

“Were they locals?” 

Stacia shook her head, sighed. “Not even close.”

Nella thought about her younger brother, Stephen, stuck in a hotel in Denver. She had been irritable with him when he had called her last night to tell her his flight had been cancelled and he wouldn’t be home in time for New Year’s. But now she was glad he was somewhere safe. Those poor young people, with their little girl. Out driving in a blizzard, trying to make it home to be with family. Maybe they had driven a long distance and weren’t very far from their destination. Perhaps they got lost in the storm. Perhaps they were simply unprepared for the treacherous conditions on slick, mountain roads. 

So tragic. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her sweater.

“So – where…did he take her?” 

Stacia’s guilty look gave away the answer. “Oh, no—”

“–didn’t know where else to go.”

“Grafton County must have some kind of shelter? Social services?”

“It’s New Year’s Eve. And with the storm, everything’s closed.”

“Hospital isn’t.”

“No, but the beds are full from all the flu and RSV. And she’s not…sick. Besides, I told Andy where I was bringing her and he agreed. Said you’d know what to do.”

“Why don’t you just keep her with you? It’s warm in your Jeep, right? I take care of animals; I don’t know the first thing about child trauma.” 

But really, she did. Back when Stephen was four, that terrible night Aunt Jenny tearfully told them that their parents froze to death while hiking up the summit of Mount Lafayette. At eleven, Nella barely understood what death was, at that point had only seen a neighbor’s dog that died; one day it was alive and breathing and catching sticks and the next day it was laying on the ground, stiff as cement, with empty, staring eyes. But Stephen was way too young to understand. That heartbreaking mix of fear and confusion on his face was still imprinted in her memory, as he rocked back and forth in the driver’s seat of his pink and purple Little Tikes Princess ride-on truck, the one that had been hers before she outgrew it; it still had the shiny gold crown on the roof, the smiley-face eyes on the grille; Stephen’s chubby hands fiercely gripped the steering wheel, and he sobbed uncontrollably as Nella tried to comfort him. Warm them up, Nell-nell. Warm them up. Melt the ice. Make them warm. The image of Stephen’s face, his bulbous tears, his innocent pleas, it still triggered her, even today, three decades later.  Her little baby brother, so proud of him, though, her pride and joy, all grown up now, Stephen M. Hedges, M.D.  

“Sure, you do. Kids are kids no matter what they kind they are. Look. My shift is over in a couple hours. I’ll come back to help.” Stacia backed away with her hands up. “Thanks, Hedgie. I’ll repay you for this. Somehow.” With one hand on the door handle, Stacia paused. “Wait till you see her, though. Beautiful. Face of an angel.”

“I’ll help you bring her in.” 

“Nah, I got it.”

Nella took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She thought of all the lost and injured animals she cared for, every day. She was licensed to rehabilitate wildlife and small mammals. But she also served as local animal control. She’d fed the kittens with a dropper every two hours in the daytime for the first several days. Besides the squirrels, she was also tending to an injured porcupine, and a raccoon with a broken leg. Plus, her own Timmy. He needed a lot more care now that he was an elderly dog. She didn’t do it for the money – heck, no one ever got rich in her line of work. It was a calling. Something she had always done. So really, she told herself, providing a warm bed and some comfort to a traumatized child couldn’t be much different than helping a lost or injured animal, could it?  

Nella groaned and shoved a couple extra logs into the woodstove.     

                    #

    The door opened to a scream of wind. Nella turned to see Stacia stooping with the weight of the child in her arms. She moved to help her, but Stacia scowled, clasped her closer, suddenly protective. “I’ve got her. She seems heavier than before, though.” 

    Nella nodded. The waning adrenaline was probably causing muscle fatigue. Under the heavy blanket, Nella sized the child at about twenty-five pounds, maybe two years old. 

    Still a baby, poor thing.

    But so still. She should be squirming, crying. “Why’s she so quiet?”

    Stacia shifted the bundle to a more comfortable position as she awkwardly removed her coat. Sat down in one of the chairs, started rocking the child softly in her arms. “Sound asleep.” 

    “Are you sure, Stace? ‘Cause what if it’s concussion, that wouldn’t be good for her to fall asleep–”

    “—she’s fine. Relax. Look, I’ll show you.”   

    Stacia gently lowered the blanket and let it fall to the floor. 

    Nella gasped. Her eyes froze on the dark, fur-like sheen covering the child’s entire back and its two rounded, furry ears at the top of its head that reminded her of Batman and her mind screeched wait! not a child! not a child! as she stared at its muscular, sinewy back and the strange, motherly way Stacia was clutching it, looking down at it with such adoration in her eyes, her face flushed with love, such pure, unadulterated emotion — but it’s not a child! — what could Stacia be thinking, had she lost her mind, it was a—

    “–Bear! You need to…call Fish and Game! I’m not licensed for bear! You need to…to bring the cub down the road to Ben Kilham’s place, he’s the expert on them, not me.” 

    Something just didn’t add up, though. The young couple had a bear cub with them? Strapped into a seat? And it really didn’t look like any of the other bear cubs she’d seen, and over the years she’d seen a lot of them in this part of New Hampshire; they looked so darned cute and cuddly, but not this thing; the fur on its back was really long, with a silvery tint, more like badger fur, and it had a thin, hairless neck. And its pear-shaped head seemed too big for its body.  

    What the –? Was this a child wearing some kind of costume? 

    Nella fought a wave of dizziness and sat down heavily. She grabbed the bottle of Jack and pulled a long swig. Wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. I am overtired. I am hallucinating. She forced herself to take a deep breath. Rubbed her eyes. 

    Looked again.

    “Oh, God. Stace…”

    Stacia was gently bouncing the creature on her lap, making cooing noises at it. The rotten prune scent was even stronger now. A distinct, overwhelming stench. Nella breathed through her mouth to keep from gagging. She could see some kind of clear substance bubbling from the creature’s ears and sliding in rivulets down the back of its head. Snot? Saliva? Cerebrospinal fluid? Something worse? Oh fuck!

    Stacia seemed oblivious to it; her face was lit up, enraptured. “Who’s the sweetie pie? You’re my sweetie pie. My giggly-wiggly little Boopsie. Such a silly little willy head.” 

    “Stacia! That’s not…that isn’t…a child.”   

    As if in protest, a strange growl issued from the creature, deep and wet and guttural. Nella jumped in her seat. She heard Timmy’s scratching against the bathroom door becoming more insistent, his nervous whine increasing in pitch. 

    “There, there now, my sweet baby goo! Was that your widdle belly? Baby’s tum-tum must be hung-gwee.”

    “You said it was a car accident. With people.”

    “Such a wootie patootie!” Stacia kept bouncing the creature as she glanced over, squinted her eyes at Nella. “Never said people. Never said car. Said it flew across the road. Nope, didn’t look like a car to me, nohsiree, not one bit.” She beamed at the creature, who was becoming more animated now, moving its head up and down and sideways, wiggling like a bobble head. It looked like the fur was only on its back and ears. Its head was smooth. Nella could see it had long, wiry arms, thin wrists. Its skin was a dusky gun-metal gray, mixed with green and blue. A blend of hues; it reminded her of the colors of the ocean. It began exploring Stacia’s chest with very elongated fingers, leaving a trail of mucus-like discharge on her dark navy shirt.  

    “Heard a clap of thunder. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see something flung from the blizzard, like a shiny, flat rock being skimmed across the road at a low angle.”

    Nella felt a buzzing in her ears. If she stood up, she knew she would faint. Stacia sighed with pleasure, enjoying the touch of the creature. It reached one finger up to Stacia’s lips and draped a string of ooze there. 

    Stacia licked her lips. “Damn, she’s beautiful.” 

    Nella cleared her throat. “You need to leave. Both of you.”

    “I only came here because I thought you’d know what to do. You, with all your experience taking care of…living things. I thought you’d feel a twinge in your heart for this little one, who lost both her parents, orphaned so young, just like you were. But clearly, I’m the one doing all the work here while you just sit there all prissy.” 

    A heavy gust of wind slammed against the windows. Timmy let out an extended howl, followed by a fit of barking. The creature’s ears started to vibrate. 

    Stacia’s glassy eyes went wide in a look of exaggerated surprise. “Dog-gee? You hear the dog-gee? Wanna see the widdle pooch?”

    The creature held onto Stacia’s chest as it turned its head toward the barking. Nella caught a side glimpse of a narrow, aquiline nose covered with shimmery blue hair. It made another growling noise, but this time it sounded oddly like “Gheee.”

    Nella jumped to her feet. “No!” Timmy would stay in the bathroom, he was safe there, he was her baby and she wouldn’t let the creature get anywhere near him. As she took a couple of deliberate steps forward, it suddenly craned its neck, as if it had finally just sensed that Nella was there, and it slowly started to turn, twisting its large head on its ropy neck, and just before it presented its full face to her, Nella braced herself for the revulsion, but the incredible jolt she felt instead was so totally unexpected, a completely overwhelming burst of  joy! as she finally saw the shimmering gray-green scales on its face, its enormous, glistening onyx eyes, moist and dewy-soft, and its delicate gray lips, as soft as fruit, she was certain she had never seen anything so beautiful; it all made sense now. All at once, everything in her life made sense. Nella felt her heartbeat racing, her face flushing. She stood there, in utter rapture, watching as the precious little creature turned back to Stacia, used its long fingers to deftly pluck the buttons from her shirt, watching transfixed as it moved aside the cotton fabric to expose Stacia’s bare flesh, its movements so beautiful, so tender, watching as it firmly latched on and sweetly began to suckle. 

    Nella continued to watch. She couldn’t possibly bring herself to look away.

    It was all just so natural.     


Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


“Night Shift” Dark, Psychological Fiction by Lori Lamothe

On the other side of the plate glass windows, the parking lot lights flickered out. There were tinsel Christmas-tree hoops near the top of each of the lights and they looked about as cheap as you’d expect them to in a town like Lansdale. The lot was empty, the sky overcast.  It was 3 a.m. on the dot and Liv hadn’t had a break yet. 

By the look of things, she wasn’t going to get one, even though there were two of them. The bake was huge and Vi was as slow as she was. Which, Liv supposed, was why the company had scheduled the two of them that night. Normally, they were too cheap to pay for more than one baker per cafe. 

Vi slid the last of the bagel dough trays onto the 12-tier cart and rolled it into the proof box. It wasn’t really a box at all but a miniature room that felt like a sauna. The pale rings of dough were perfectly spaced on the trays, perfectly shaped, which explained why it had taken Vi an hour to complete that one task. Every slot on the tall, metal rack was filled and it took her a minute to maneuver it into the box, which was already crowded with other racks of rising bread. 

“You probably noticed the temp’s set high,” Vi said.   

Their boss always warned them against setting the proof box above a certain temperature. It made the bread rise really fast, he said. Which was the whole point—otherwise, they’d still be baking when the morning manager showed up. 

“I set it high too.” Liv didn’t say so, but she set the proof box at her home cafe at the exact same temperature. 

Vi closed the proof box doors and returned to her work table, where she started on the baguettes. The dough came pre-made and all she had to do was stretch each piece to the proper length, lay it out on the baking screen, then slice it down the middle with her knife. Three baguettes to a screen, 12 screens to a rack. The pan-up called for 120 baguettes, which meant multiple racks. It would probably take her three hours. 

Liv was definitely not getting a break. 

Well, there was nothing to be done about it so there was no point thinking about it. She kept working on the pastry rings. It was two days before Christmas and the pan-up listed 14, which was ridiculous because the only ones who bought them were little old ladies. She finished shaping the dough and began scooping cherry filling into every third circle. 

“You’re a lefty.” Vi stopped scoring a baguette to watch her. “I’m a lefty too.” 

Liv glanced at the small, sharp knife in Vi’s left hand, then at her tattoo sleeves. A lot of bakers had them. Still, it was weird that they both had the same pattern—a series of skulls topped by the grim reaper across their upper arms. An occasional black rose where an eye would have been. 

“Cool sleeve,” Liv said, the corner of her mouth tugging upward. 

“Same,” said Vi, returning her grin. 

Outside, the wind had picked up. It rattled the glass and whined across the lot. Liv remembered it was supposed to snow at some point but couldn’t remember how many inches they were going to get.  She donned a new pair of rubber gloves—cherries were so damn messy—and went back to work. Liv had gotten used to third shift. She was a loner and preferred the quiet to the drama of working the registers. Still, the quiet could get a little creepy, especially when it was just her. 

“Ever get creeped out,” Vi asked, “when it’s just you?”

Liv’s spine tingled. She scooped some cherries into the pastry ring on her own baker’s table. It had just struck her that the two of them had the exact same shade of dark brown hair. Almost raven black, worn pulled back into a bun. Minus the regulation hat because the CCTV cameras in the cafe were broken. Something to do with the feed. 

Liv threw the cherry scoop into the bin for dirty utensils and started with the cream cheese filling. “Who wouldn’t?” 

“You get used to it,” Vi said. “The quiet.” 

“Eventually,” Liv agreed. 

“I almost miss the camera,” Vi said. “How weird is that?”

“I know, right?” Liv missed it too. At her home cafe, she hated the way the CCTV cameras recorded her every move but their presence gave her a certain peace of mind.    

For a while, they worked in silence. Vi loaded a tray of prepped baguette dough onto a rack, started in on another. “What did you do,” she asked, “. . . before?”

Nobody worked third shift at the “fast casual” cafe on purpose. If you were a baker, you were there because you got laid off from a real bakery or were looking for a job in one. Others were illegal or had their reasons for not wanting to work days. 

“Not much.” Liv tried to infuse some humor into her voice. “What about you?”

“I was an aide,” she said over her shoulder. “In a school.” 

Liv didn’t know why that surprised her. There was no reason it should. “That must have been fun.” 

Vi snorted. “Not really, for what they paid us. But I love kids.” 

“Why’d you leave?”

A slight hesitation. “I got fired.” 

Now it was Liv’s turn to hesitate. 

Vi set down a piece of baguette dough and wiped her gloved hands on her apron. A nervous gesture. “They said I was scaring them. The kids. It was an elementary school and I mostly worked with first graders,” she said. “I wasn’t scaring them. Well, except for this one girl who—well—it doesn’t matter.”  

Liv pressed the edges of the pastry ring inward so the filling wouldn’t spill over the side when it baked. She could see Vi out of the corner of her eye. “They’re pretty impressionable. At that age.”

“Yeah they are. At least this one girl was.” Vi sighed. “But that’s what I love about them, you know?” 

Liv didn’t know and she was more relieved than she should have been about it. The similarities between her and Vi were starting to pile up and that bothered her, though she couldn’t say why. Normally she felt guilty about not liking kids all that much. Like something was wrong with her. Whenever she told guys she didn’t want kids they always gave her a strange look. As if she weren’t sus enough already, with no friends (unless you counted books) and no desire to be part of the ordinary world. Sure, the nights could be scary but she couldn’t imagine herself ever going back to crowds, traffic, sunlight so bright it exposed your every flaw. People thought of night as a whole cloth, an unending blackness without boundaries, but it wasn’t like that. It was as alive, as full of subtle variations, as any landscape.

“To be honest, I’m not a fan of kids,” Liv confessed. It felt good to say it, freeing even. “Maybe because I grew up as an only child.” 

“Me too.” 

Liv resisted the urge to scream. Was Vi lying? What did she really know about Vi, anyway? They’d only met that night, when Liv’s boss told her to drive out to Lansdale for her shift. Had Duncan been messing with her? But Vi wasn’t lying about being left-handed and even if she dyed her hair, it was still the same shade of black as Liv’s. Then there was the similarity between their names—Liv, Vi. Both variations on Olivia. And the sleeves. Her stomach tightened. 

Vi laid down the dough she was stretching and walked over to Liv’s table. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Even Liv could hear the stiffness in her voice. Her mother would have called it a tone. She wasn’t even attempting to look like she was working anymore. The pastry ring sat finished on the table, its red and white fillings staring up at her. Perfectly symmetrical, perfectly shaped. 13 more to go. She needed to get moving.  

Vi pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You look kind of . . . weird. . .rattled. Do you want me to take over with the pastries?”

“I’m not rattled.” Liv pasted a smile onto her face. As if Vi wasn’t already behind with the baguettes. And she was going to take over the pastries too? They’d be there until lunchtime. “Just a little tired. I think maybe I’ll go to the freezer. If you want, you can take over.”

What the hell?  

A flicker of surprise crossed Vi’s face. Freezer runs were the worst task of all. Not only did they have to climb a ladder to reach the boxes of frozen cookies and muffins, but they had to do it with the freezer door shut. The temperature couldn’t rise above 32 degrees. Last month a baker up north had fallen off the ladder and hit her head on the way down. They found her sprawled across the steel floor the next morning, half frozen to death. She’d never gone back. Somehow the idea of ice cold air seemed like a comfort to Liv though. That’s what she needed to clear her head. 

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Vi asked. She had already returned to her station and sliced the last piece of dough on the screen. “It’s fucking freezing in there.” 

“Hence the name freezer.” As she spoke, Liv realized the entire baguette rack was full, that somehow Vi had finished prepping all 120 baguettes. How was that possible? Meanwhile, 13 uncut strips of pastry ring dough sat thawing on her table. Another 20 minutes and the dough would be too warm to work with. 

Vi pressed her lips together as she wheeled the baguette racks into the proof box. She pulled the twin bagel racks out and transferred them to the walk-in oven. Steamed wafted out of the crack at the top of the door and dissolved into the ceiling. Behind the glass door, the racks began rotating. 

“What happened with the girl at the school,” Liv burst out before she could stop herself. “What did you do that scared her so much you got fired?”

Vi fastened her gaze onto Liv. Her eyes were sapphire blue. Just like Liv’s. Of course. “I didn’t do anything to her.”

Liv wasn’t buying it. “So they fired you for nothing.”

“They fired me because I made the mistake of telling her I saw things sometimes. People. That when I don’t take my meds, sometimes my sense of what’s real. . .gets a little shaky.” Vi said in a rush, her voice rising as she went on. “There’s this one guy, a recurring hallucination, I guess you’d call it. He kept showing up at the school. With a gun. Or so I believed at the time. He was right there, in the hallway, when I was taking Kaylee to the bathroom. I stepped aside. I mean I knew he wasn’t there but I grabbed her hand and pulled her to one side so we wouldn’t walk into him. So we wouldn’t upset him. I was trying to protect her, to save her. It was stupid, I understood that at the time, but I did it anyway. It’s just instinct, you know? He looked so real. They all do.”

“So you. . .told the girl–Kaylee? That there was a guy with a gun in the hallway? Or a . . . hallucination. . .with a gun?”

    Vi nodded. “I don’t know why I did that. It was stupid. But I don’t get why it scared her so much. Kids see ghosts all the time. They love that shit. But Kaylee freaked out. And she told some of her friends when we got back to the classroom. And they told the teacher, only it got all messed up—like with Telephone—and some of the kids thought there really was a guy with a gun in the school. We ended up going into lockdown. The police showed up. People were. . .panicking.”

    The oven timer started buzzing. The bagel racks need to be switched so the outside faced inward. Some of the bakers didn’t bother but Liv liked the way the bagels came out perfectly golden on all sides. Apparently Vi did too. She grabbed the oven mitts, walked over to the oven and pulled the heavy door open. When Vi got back to the baker’s station, Liv had swept the 13 unmade pastry rings into the trash. They were too warm to shape now. She’d have to get more from the freezer for Vi. They were way, way behind now. Under other circumstances, she’d be stressed about it. Now it seemed almost trivial.

    Vi eyed the trash barrel but didn’t comment on the ruined dough. Instead she lifted the one perfect pastry ring off the table and moved it into the walk-in refrigerator. “We can bake this with the others later.”

    Liv watched the ring disappear into the fridge. She grabbed an empty cart to take to the freezer and pushed it a few feet toward the other end of the back room. Then she stopped. She couldn’t let it go: the lockdown, the girl, the imaginary guy with the gun. 

“So they fired you after the lockdown?” she asked, keeping her voice casual.

    “Not right away.” Vi said with a little laugh. “Her parents were both professors at the college. One of them was chair of the psychology department as it turned out. So Kaylee goes home and she tells them the whole story. I mean, of course they’d already heard about the lockdown on social media but not the whole story. And later, when Kaylee tells them about me, they freak out that their kid was alone with a schizo. From the way they told it to the principal, it was like I was the one who would bring a gun to the school. Like I was a psychopath or something. A danger to others. Supposedly.”

    Liv studied Vi. On the surface, she looked perfectly normal. Goth, but still normal. Not like someone who saw stuff that wasn’t really there. Not like someone who would tell little kids about men bringing guns to their school. “The girl did get you fired,” she said, “in a way.”

    “I don’t hold it against her or anything.” Vi grabbed a cloth and started wiping down Liv’s table. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

    “No,” Liv said firmly. Was Vi going to try to convince her the hallucinations were real? Please, God, no. She’d had enough of that with her mom. “Not at all.”

    “Me either.”

    Liv felt a little better, but only a little. At least Vi knew what reality was. Sort of. “Do you hear voices too?”

    A beat. “When I’m not on my meds.”

    Another beat. “Are you on your meds now?”

    Vi focused on the table. She wiped some crumbs into her gloved hand and dropped them into the trash on top of the dough. Jesus. Here she was working with a psycho with a knife and no cameras. It was a small knife but it was still sharp as hell. Liv’s knife was too. At least there was that.

    “Do you see anybody here, when you’re working?” Liv asked. If Vi was hallucinating, she needed to know. She needed to know what she was dealing with. Should she call Duncan? No. That would make her seem like she was afraid. She’d be no better than the girl at the school. Plus she’d have to get her phone out of her backpack without Vi noticing. “Like in the cafe?”

“You mean in general?” Vi finished wiping the table and threw the wipe into the trash. She peeled off her gloves and added them to the pile. 

    “Yeah.” That wasn’t what she meant but it would have to do. For some reason, Liv didn’t want to ask Vi outright if she was hallucinating right now.

    “Sometimes.” Vi’s voice was neutral as she reached for a new pair of gloves. She pulled them over her crimson nails, wiped both hands on her apron. 

    Had Vi’s nails always been red? Liv hadn’t noticed them before. They weren’t supposed to wear fake nails. “Is it . . the same guy? The one with the gun?”

    “Sometimes.”

    “What does he look like?”

    “What does it matter?” Color seeped into Vi’s pale face. For the first time that night, she looked angry. “He’s not real.

    “I just want to know,” Liv said. “I’m just curious. It’s not a big deal.” Vi was right, it didn’t matter. But for some reason she really did want to know.

    Vi’s gaze turned inward. “He’s tall. Big. Not fat, more like he works out. Broad shoulders.  He always wears the same plaid flannel shirt, jeans, work boots, a black knitted cap. He’s got a beard. Sometimes he wears a jacket.”

    “What about the gun?”

    Her sapphire eyes came back into focus. “I forgot about the gun. Yeah, he has a gun. A handgun. In a holster under his shoulder.”

    “Does he always have it?

    “Most of the time. Not always.”

    “And you never saw this guy before. In real life.”

    “Never,” Vi said. “At least I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever seeing him.”

    “Does he ever say anything?”

    Vi shook her head. “No. Nothing.” Then, in a tone, “Are you done?”

    Liv tightened her grip on the cart. Vi’s warmth had disappeared entirely and she couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t Vi’s fault she saw people who weren’t really there. Who was Liv to make her feel bad about it? On the other hand, it was Vi who had quit taking her meds. Vi who had traumatized a six-year-old and sent an elementary school into Code Red. 

“It’s not my fault I see people who aren’t there,” said Vi. “Who are you to judge?”

Liv’s head started to throb. Suddenly, she wanted to get as far away from Vi as possible. She wished the shift was over. She wished she could quit. But she couldn’t, she needed the money. “I’m going to head to the freezer. We’re pretty behind. Which is my fault for asking you so many questions.”

    The oven timer went off. Vi grabbed the oven mitts and hurried to take the bagels out of the oven. “We’d better focus on the bake from now on.” Her voice was flat. 

    Liv shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It didn’t help. “Good idea.”

    She grabbed her coat off the hook behind the baker’s station then took the cart and headed for the freezer. When she got there she used a chair to prop open the door and pushed the cart inside. The last thing she wanted to do was spend time in the freezer with the door shut and Vi roaming free through the cafe. If only she’d been able to grab her phone when Vi wasn’t looking. 

    Liv pulled on a pair of wool gloves and climbed onto the first rung of the ladder. On the other side of the open door, the light seemed brighter than usual. Almost blinding. It took her longer than usual to pull the frozen cookie batter and the uncooked muffins off the shelves, partly because she didn’t know where anything was and partly because her headache was getting worse. It was taking so long the temp had to have shot up to 40 degrees. Thank God the cameras were broken because Duncan would definitely have written her up for that. Still, she had to keep stopping to rub her hands together. As she worked, she tried to listen for the oven timer, for Vi’s movements, but even with the door open she couldn’t hear a thing.

    When the cart was full, she dragged it out of the freezer. She moved the chair back to the manager’s office and started toward the baker’s station. Up ahead, Vi was pushing the bread rack into the oven. She pressed a crimson fingertip to the timer as Liv approached. The smell of fresh bread filled the air. Liv felt nauseous. 

    “I’m back,” she said brightly. A little too brightly, but maybe Vi wouldn’t notice.

    Vi eyed the cart. “I don’t see the pastry rings,” she said. “Are they underneath the cookies or something?”

    “Shit.” Liv had forgotten all about the pastry rings. She had crossed them off the pan-up earlier that night and must have skipped over them when she went back to the freezer. “I’m sorry. I’ll run back and grab them.”

    Before Vi could answer, Liv turned and jogged back toward the freezer. Which was when she realized she was on the verge of passing out. She’d been working nonstop since 8 p.m. without so much as a drink of water. What a disaster this night had been. She couldn’t wait to drive home at dawn and collapse into bed. She reached out and braced herself against the wall. If she could just splash some water onto her face she’d be fine. She would pop into the restroom out front and head straight to the freezer. Vi wouldn’t even realize she’d made a detour.

    Outside, it was snowing. Thick flakes swirled out of the darkness and settled onto the pavement. A lone car sat parked beneath one of the unlit streetlamps, coated with a dusting of white. Liv edged closer to the plate glass windows, skirting around the empty tables and chairs until she reached the front of the cafe. Behind her, computerized menu boards cast a faint glow onto the countertops. She could hear Vi in the back room pulling a rack out of the proof box. The wheels clacked reassuringly across the tiles. 

Liv lurched a few steps forward and braced herself against the glass with both hands. It was so cold it burned her palms. She realized she was sweating.  

    The car looked like an older model, American made. Kind of boxy with four doors. Not that different from the car Liv had “inherited” from her mother a few years back. She couldn’t tell what color the vehicle was but it looked as if nobody was inside. It probably belonged to Vi, but then why hadn’t Liv noticed it before? She was sure it hadn’t been there at the beginning of the shift. Liv scanned the ground around the car for footprints. There were none. 

    The wind howled as it lifted the snow and pushed it up against the building. Liv heard footsteps behind her. She whirled her head around to see Vi standing in the doorway between the cafe and the backroom. Wisps of dark hair framed her shadowed face.

    “What’s taking you—” she started to ask then broke off. Her eyes flicked past Liv, fixed on something beyond her.

    When Liv turned back to the window, he was there, his palms pressed up against the glass to mirror her own. Black cap on his head, snow melting in his beard, jacket open to reveal his gun.


Lori Lamothe has published four poetry collections, with Aldrich Press, FutureCycle Press and Kelsay Books. She also writes fiction and articles; her prose has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The South Florida Sun Sentinel, History of YesterdayThe Writing Cooperative and elsewhere.


“Fruits” Dark Fiction by James Hanna

"Fruits" Dark Fiction by James Hanna

And so there grew great tracks of wilderness,
Wherein the beast was ever more and more,
But man was less and less...

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

After tipping the cab driver, dabbing some lipstick onto her mouth, and taking a firm grip on her Samsonite boarding bag, Molly Groot waddled towards the Hoosier Park Casino.  As she approached the casino, she saw her cab reflected in the glass doorway.  It hadn’t moved.  Had she tipped the driver enough?. Five dollars seemed plenty.  Or had she made a mistake in mentioning the name of Jeb Judson, the man who had answered her online matrimonial ad?  The man who had bought her plane ticket from Iowa to this modest community of Anderson, Indiana.  The man she soon might marry.  He had told her to meet him in the casino where he liked to place bets on the horses.  He had promised to be there by noon.

Molly did not know that much about Jeb—only that he was a Yale graduate, ruggedly handsome, and had once been a member of Skull and Bones, a very elite fraternity.  He also had a PhD in organic chemistry and grew experimental crops for the government on his farm outside of Anderson.  But at the mention of his name, the cab driver, a mealy-mouthed little man, had turned into a positive brute.  “Jeb Judson,” he had sneered.  “We don’t mention that person in these parts, ma’am.  Nobody does.”

    Surely, that cab driver was nothing but a crank.  Jeb Judson seemed the perfect gentleman, having courted her for three months by e-mail before sending her the plane ticket.  And he was better looking than Clint Eastwood if his photo could be believed.  But it was the last of his e-mails that had made her swoon: he had promised her a fancy luncheon on his homestead veranda then a tour of his twenty- thousand acre farm.  And, should they tie the matrimonial knot, a life befitting a manor queen.  And what a wicked sense of humor he had.  Yesterday, she had asked him the title of his favorite book—a question she posed to all her online acquaintances.  His answer, Frankenstein, had made her laugh out loud.  But there was nothing droll about their rendezvous: he was clearly a very lonely man, tiring of bachelorhood and wanting a wife.  And he was interested in her, Molly Groot, an overweight librarian pushing forty—a spinster with nothing to fuel her passion but picketing her local Wal-Mart.  It was truly ironic that they were meeting in a casino.  With a roll of the proverbial dice, her future could well be decided for the better.

Molly paused at the casino door.  Looking over her shoulder, she heaved a sigh of relief.  The cab had vanished.  She was no longer being watched by that ill-tempered man.  

What a depressed little town she had come to.  On the cab ride from the airport, she had seen weedy sidewalks, barren storefronts, and gangs of hoodlums lurking on almost every corner.  But the saddest sight of all was the abandoned General Motors plant and the boarded-up headquarters of the United Auto Workers.  The town seemed to exist as a relic—a ghost to better times.  But wasn’t she a bit of a wreck herself?  Her push-up bra and wobbly pumps made her feel like a truck driver in drag.  Thank God for Jeb Judson.  He would carry her off like a bandit on a steed and bring out the real woman in her.  A woman she was frantic to release.

Molly looked at her wristwatch and felt her face flush.  Her heart began hammering like a rent collector at the door.  It was fifteen minutes to noon.

*

Entering the casino, Molly suppressed a gasp.  The glitter of wall-to-wall slot machines was truly a symphony of color and light—an utter contrast to the decaying town.  And yet the casino was no less depressing: the hypnotic stares with which patrons watched the tumblers, as though the single pull of a lever might rescue them from food stamps and unemployment checks, hit a little too close to home.  Holding her breath, Molly stood near the doorway and watched nervously for Jeb.

He strode through the door at 12:00 o’clock sharp.  And her heart nearly stopped when she saw him.  He looked exactly like his picture: a lean handsome man in his sixties with a shock of silver white hair.  And his tight squint was positively presidential—in a George Bush sort of way. 

How easy was his stride as he ambled towards her—how snug the fit of his Wrangler jeans.  His sun-browned face and sharp-blue eyes— his aura of rugged individualism—all suggested a marshal in a spaghetti western.  And the political button on his shirt—Keep our troops in Afghanistan—only added to his gunfighter image.  There were so many horrible bombings these days.  Whatever was the world coming to?

He spotted her immediately.  “Molly,” he drawled.  “Molly Groot.”  When his hand squeezed her fingers, she felt her knees tremble.  His palm was warm, dry, and surprisingly smooth for a farmer.  His smile was broad but measured, as though he had been saving it only for her.  As he patted her hand, she felt a stab of long dormant sexuality.

“J-Jeb,” she stammered.  “How funny you were.  Of all books—Frankenstein.”

His laugh was deep but controlled, as though it were something he had borrowed.  He did not strike her as a man who laughed often, and yet he was laughing for her.  “You came anyhow, darlin’,” he murmured.  “I must have done something right.”

“Against my better judgment,” she teased.  “Really, Jeb.  Frankenstein?!  That book is positively baroque.”

He swallowed then looked at his boots.  “I shouldn’t have tried to impress a librarian.  Not with the trash I read.” 

She folded her arms as though cross with him.  But she was trying hard not to smile.  How long had it been since she had flirted with a man?  “Well, you have impressed me, Jeb Judson,” she chirped. “But not with your choice of books.  And not,” she looked critically around the casino, “with your choice of pastimes.”  

He chuckled deeply and gazed across the room.  On a giant television screen above the bar, a cluster of harness racers were jockeying for position along the backside of a track.  “Suppose I let you reform me,” he said.  “Suppose I don’t bet on the nags today?”  He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and smirked.  “There’s nothing but losers in this place anyhow.” 

She looked at him coyly then laughed.  “I’m not sure I want you reformed, Jeb Judson.” 

He arched his eyebrows. “You sure of that?  Give a woman long enough, she’s bound to find fault with a man.”

“Oh really?” she teased.  “It seems the whole town has found fault with you, Jeb.  Just what are you up to on that farm of yours?  A second campaign for Mitt Romney?”

He grinned and shook his head.  “Let’s just say it’s a much bigger hustle.  Let’s just say it’ll make me a rich man.”

“And me a manor queen,” she joked.  “Or will you make me Frankenstein’s bride instead?”

Was he blushing beneath that deep tan? she wondered.  How easy it was to flirt with him.  And how delicious that they now had their own private joke.  But why were his eyes avoiding hers?  And why did his smile seem so out of place?  He must not be used to courtship, she thought.  He must want me to put him at ease.

 She rolled her eyes coquettishly and planted her hands on her hips.  “Just why are you stalling, Jeb Judson?” she asked.  “Didn’t you invite me to lunch?”

He smiled and held out an elbow.  “A lunch befitting a queen,” he drawled.  “Let’s take a little drive, honey.  Whaddya say?”

She hooked her hand on the crook of his arm.  “I’d say you’re a mighty big talker, Jeb.  But I am rather famished—it’s been a long trip.  I hope you’ve prepared a big meal.”

*

An hour later, she was sitting on the veranda of a rustic Italian-style farmhouse.  Looking out on Jeb’s estate, Molly felt deeply content.  But her surroundings did not seem to merit her mood.  Just how lonely was she to be moved by a place like this?

The estate, if one could call it that, consisted of half a dozen enormous silver barns—the kind that existed on factory farms where swine were force-fed in tight crowded pens, never to see the light of day.  Close to the barns were several massive waste lagoons, gulches so discolored and septic that they looked like huge open wounds.  And what was that smell that tugged at her lungs like an infant demanding attention?  It smelled like a ripe diaper. 

But at least they were sitting upwind from the scent.  And the lunch, a thick stew that tasted like veal, was positively delicious.  She was starting to feel tipsy from her third glass of wine and Jeb, dear dear Jeb, was gazing at her with his clear blue eyes—eyes the color of robin eggs.  What a magnificent hunk he was.  And didn’t he say he was going to be rich?  But how?

“Jeb,” she whispered, her voice thick with wine.  “What is going on out here?” 

Slowly, as though performing surgery, Jeb topped off her glass.  “If I told you,” he joked, “I could never let you leave.  But that might be best for us both.”

A man with a mystery, Molly thought.  What more could a woman ask for?  She took a deep sip of wine.  “Jeb, you’re such a tease,” she said.  “I feel like a heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel.”  

Jeb shrugged and burped.  “I don’t read that women’s stuff much,” he said.  “Brave New World—that’s more to my liking.  And 1984.”

“Oh really?” she scoffed.  “Such political tastes.  No wonder you’re working for the government.”

He frowned and topped off his own glass of wine.  “A lot of folks work for the government, darlin’.  Gardeners, chemists, animal trainers.  Some of ’em work right here.”  He gestured towards the barns where a handful of Mexican laborers were ambling around, toting shovels and hoes.  To Molly, they looked as charming as Snow White’s seven dwarves.

“Let me guess,” Molly teased.  “You’re growing an army of mutants.  You’ll use them to take over the country next year.  Is that what you’re up to, Jeb Judson?”

“No, darlin’,” Jeb murmured, his voice rich with mirth.  “Next month.”

Is he serious? Molly wondered, a thought she could not totally dismiss.  She remembered the words of the cab driver: “We don’t mention that person in these parts, ma’am,” and a tremor invaded her spine.  Had she come to the home of an eccentric?  Had she thrown too much caution to the wind?  Was the internet really the best of places to seek the love of her life?  But what did she have waiting for her back in Iowa?  A studio apartment, a couple of cats, and a job that barely paid her rent.  And how she ached for the touch of a man—her nipples were harder than bullets. 

As she looked at Jeb’s strong handsome face, a warmth crept into her heart.  He needs me to nurture him, she thought.  He needs me to take his hand. 

But what was that curious sound she now heard?  It was coming from one of the barns—a series of shrieks that sounded like a woman making love.

 “J-Jeb,” she stammered.  “What’s happening in there?  Is somebody butchering a pig for our dinner?”

Jeb answered her firmly.  “We don’t kill creatures here,” he said.  “Not if we can help it.  We think of them like family.”

Creatures?  Family?  Her foolish panic awoke once again.  Was he cloning animals?  Was he tinkering about with genetics?  Was he working with a hunchback named Igor who dug up graves at night?  She put down her wine glass and drew a deep breath.  What nonsense I’m thinkingWhat crazy thoughts.  Thank God I can blame them on the wine.

Jeb smiled at her and her palms began to sweat.  His eyes were so clear—so wise and embracing.  How boorish of her to have doubted him. 

“Darlin’,” he said, “You came out here for a reason.  Let’s not lose sight of that.”

“What reason might that be, Jeb Judson?” 

“I’m guessing you came for an adventure—maybe the first adventure of your life.”

“Do I really seem so desperate?” she snapped.  She pretended to frown, but the effort was useless.  Her eyes were now glittery with tears.

Jeb looked at her reassuringly then cupped her chin with his fingers and thumb.  “Yes, darlin’, you do,” he said matter-of-factly.  “Why do you think I sent for you?  Desperate women don’t judge their men.”

“Oh, really?” she said.  She turned her head away from him.  “With you one might make an exception, Jeb Judson.  Did you bring me all this way because you thought I might be desperate?”

“Times are tough—folks are upset.  A man needs to take comfort where he can find it.”

 “Even from desperate librarians?” she muttered.  “You must have a rather dark side to you, Jeb, if frumps are the best you can do.”

He shook his head sadly and patted her cheek.  “Do I scare you that much, honey?”

“You scare me a little bit, Jeb.  But you intrigue me even more.”  She placed the palm of her hand on his wrist.  “And I have been alone such a very long time.”

Jeb laughed and rose slowly from his chair.  “Come on then,” he said.  “It’s time you met the family.”

*

As she followed Jeb to the nearest barn, Molly felt as though she were crossing an ocean.  She remembered a line from Julius Caesar, her favorite Shakespearian play.  And we must take the current where it serves…  But how would this current serve her?  Would it lead her to love and good fortune or to something she’d rather not see?  Even Jeb seemed to sense the pregnancy of the moment.  His face had lost its ironic smirk and had hardened into a soldierly resolve.  

When they reached the barn, Jeb nodded to a Mexican laborer.  Slowly, as though cracking a safe, the man unlocked the door.  Molly smelled the interior of the barn before she saw it—a smell so strong that it made her nose itch.  Her eyes began to water, her head began to swim, and she felt as though she were walking in quicksand.  And so it seemed strange, when she entered the barn, that she saw little reason to panic.  Inside the barn was a large shallow field beneath rows of low-hanging grow lights.  And peeking through the ruts in the soil were a few dozen orange balls the size of cantaloupes.  Men in white lab coats were ducking beneath the grow lights, adjusting sprinklers and carefully inspecting the balls.  Is this what had me so worried?  she wondered.  A silly pumpkin patch?  She was not at all impressed.

“Jeb,” she said when she was able to draw a breath.  “You call this an adventure?”

“We call it our nursery,” Jeb replied.  “Here is where we plant the mutants.  Where we let ’em ripen like fruit on the vine.”

He took her by the elbow and guided her onto the field.  The damp earth pulled stubbornly at her pumps, and it was all she could do not to trip.  Releasing her elbow, Jeb paused for a moment then knelt beside one of the larger balls.  He squeezed it tenderly, as though fondling a breast, then began to dig gently with his fingers. “Prepare yourself, darlin’,” he said.  “This is all the adventure you’re ever gonna need.”

Jeb’s fingers blackened from the soil and the ball began to loosen.  As he started to pull it from the ground, Molly suppressed a gasp.  It was not a pumpkin—it was a little head, complete with bulging eyes, a scrunched-up nose, and a wide rather slobbery-looking mouth.  A pear-shaped body followed the head as Jeb continued to tug—a body with a ropey umbilical cord and tiny hands and feet.  It was the size of a  newborn baby. 

“This one’s ready for harvesting,” Jeb announced.  He pulled a box cutter from his pants pocket, pushing out the blade as he did so, then he cut the umbilical cord in two.  A substance that looked like green custard dribbled onto the ground.  After rinsing the creature under a sprinkler, Jeb mopped it dry with a handkerchief and handed it to Molly. 

“The smell will soon go away,” he said.  “But don’t be holdin’ it too long.  We don’t want it thinking you’re its mother.”

Molly clutched the thing with shaking hands, too startled to let it drop.  The creature was cute, in a French Bulldog sort of way, but how ridiculous to think she might pose as its mother.  Its body was cold, its skin was rough, its fingers were wiggling like worms.  And its wide gaping mouth was emitting a sound that set her teeth on edge.  “Eeek, eeek, eeeek,” it went, a noise just like chalk being scraped along a blackboard.  And it smelled so strongly of fertilizer that it was all she could do not to sneeze.   

Molly held the creature away from her.  “Take it!” she said.  “Take it away!  It needs a cage, not a mother, Jeb.”

 As Jeb took the thing back, tucking it beneath his elbow, she remembered a Biblical quote.  Ye shall know them by their fruits.  She was not at all religious—she rarely went to church—and so she now realized the full impact of her shock.  If runts like that thing were the fruits of Jeb’s labor—cold little cretins that smelled like an outhouse, he might not be the nicest of men.

She started to sob.  “J-Jeb, how could you?  It looks like a freak.  It smells like a toilet.”

Jeb grinned sheepishly then shrugged.  “The whole country’s in the crapper, darlin’.  That’s why we need desperate measures.  And desperate women too.”

“You sound like you just made a deal with the devil.”

Jeb flushed like a scolded schoolboy, a sight so touching that she knew she was going to forgive him.  He seemed so lonely, so in need of companionship, that she wanted to pull him tightly to her breast.  But when he spoke to her again, her stomach knotted.  

“You sound like an exorcist, darlin’,” he said.  “Don’t turn away the devil until you’ve heard his offer.”

“W-what do you even feed it?” she asked; it was all she could think of to say.

Holding the podling under his arm, Jeb began stroking its head. “We raise ’em on dog food,” he said with a smirk.  “It’ll reach its full growth in six short weeks.  That’s when we start training them.”

“Training them?” Molly muttered.  “Training them to do what?”

 As she watched the thing squirm in Jeb’s hands, her mind began to rebel.  Was he actually fond of that little gremlin?  Did he think she would find it endearing as well?  But her heart was starting to bleed for him, and she knew she was falling in love.  What a sad and lonely man he must be to regard such a thing as a pet.  How badly he needed a good woman’s love to save him from himself. 

“Darlin’,” he said, “let’s get on with our tour.  I’ve told you the answer already.”

Smiling thinly, Jeb scratched the creatures belly.  “Eeek, eeeek, EEEEK,” it went   like a mouse caught in a trap.

*

As he walked her to another barn, Jeb took her hand in his.  A chorus of squawks was coming from the barn, as though circular saws were biting into timber.  The squawks were so raw, so primitive and sharp, that they stung the fillings in her teeth.  

Jeb unlocked the door to the barn.  “We’re breaking these in for the auto plant,” he said.  “They get a bit feisty at first, but they go with the program soon enough.”

Jeb’s voice had lost its gentleness and now sounded smug and pedantic.  Has he actually bested the devil? thought Molly.  How could that possibly be?  He’s so clearly a man cut off from the world—a broken, discarded soul.  As Jeb pushed open the door to the barn, generous tears filled her eyes.  

Her tenderness for Jeb vanished the moment she stepped into the barn.  Never had she seen anything remotely like this.  A mob of the freaks, each six and a half feet tall, was standing alongside a long conveyer belt.  Their eyes were glassy, their shoulders were sagging, their bodies were pitted with large crusty sores.  Behind them stood more men in lab coats—men clutching hypodermic syringes and cattle prods.  The men watched closely as the creatures lifted chassis, engine blocks, and tires from the conveyor belt and lugged them to nearby tables.  When one of them deposited its load on a table, it was rewarded with an injection.  Miracle-Gro, Molly guessed, or maybe some kind of sedative.  If one dropped its burden, a cattle prod stung it.  “Rawk, rawk, RAWK,” cried the things when given electrical shocks.  They sounded like angry crows.

 Jeb squeezed her hand and beamed.  “Next month,” he said, “the GM plant will reopen.  We’ll be fitting these fellas with memory chips—they’ll be working the robot arms.  If things work out as planned, the entire auto industry will return to America.”

Molly felt as though someone had punched her and run away with her purse.  How alarming to know she’d been charmed by a man who merited only contempt.  What an elitist.  What a swine.  I must have been crazy to want him.  I must have been out of my mind.  “Those poor, poor creatures…” she mumbled, her tongue so dry she could barely form the words.  It was only a perverse fascination that kept her from leaving Jeb’s side. 

Oblivious to her heartbreak, Jeb continued to lecture.  “Low maintenance would better describe them,” he said. “No more health care to pay, no more strikes to settle, no more pensions to drain away the budget.  These go-getters work eighteen hours a day and make good fertilizer when they die.  The stockholders will be overjoyed.”

“No more jobs for the people in town,” Molly blurted, a remark so reflexive that she instantly regretted it.  Jeb’s attitude had grown so superior, his manner so professorial, that she felt like a child who had scattered her toys and neglected to put them away.  She wanted to cry on his chest, but she felt too stunned to move.

 Jeb sucked a tooth and shrugged.  “The people,” he muttered, “are cattle as well.  This isn’t that big a transition.”

Before Molly could reply, a commotion arose at the other end of the barn.  A few of the freaks—all blazing with sores—were standing in a row.  They were bound to one another with waist chains and watching a cluster of tackling dummies.  They were squawking excitedly among themselves. 

“Watch this,” Jeb instructed.  He removed a whistle from his back pocket, put it to his lips, and blew.  At the chirp of the whistle, the things lowered their heads and assembled into a flying wedge.  Jeb blew the whistle a second time and they lumbered towards the dummies.  The sound of their skulls bashing foam thudded throughout the barn.

 “There’s bound to be demonstrators,” Jeb said.  “Those UAW shirkers who drove the industry abroad.  This’ll send them packing.”

 “And so you’re a strike breaker too?!” Molly cried.  Her mind was reeling, her senses were numb, but she could not tear her eyes from the sight.

Jeb grinned.  “There will be no more strikes—no one’s getting his job back.  Scab labor is going to take over.”

 Molly held her face between her hands.  What a revolting man he was.  What a self-entitled boar.  If he had been born in the eighteenth century, he’d have surely been a slave owner.  “Jeb, take me from here,” she sobbed—it was all she could manage to utter.

 Jeb smiled kindly and cleared his throat.  His face had lost all self-consciousness now and he seemed to be looking at her from a very great distance.  What a child you still are, his eyes seemed to say.  How much you still have to learn.  “Let’s go back to the house, my darlin’,” he said.  “You haven’t had dessert.”

*

“Devils food cake!” Molly cried.  “You’re serving me devil’s food cake?!”  

Jeb finished cutting the rich chocolate cake and handed her a piece.  There was not a trace of irony in his face.

They were sitting at a coffee table inside an enormous study.  The walls were lined with dozens of bookcases, all of them crammed full of books.  There were science logs, history books, manuals on animal husbandry.  There were texts on organic farming, molecular biology, and plant pathology.  There were rows and rows of philosophy books: Spinoza, Kant, Spencer, Nietzsche filled up two whole shelves.  There were endless volumes of literature: Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer, Goethe—the titles went on and on.  There was even a sagging bookcase devoted entirely to erotica.  Molly’s head began to ache.

Jeb smiled at her reassuringly and took a bite of cake.  “Yes, darlin’,” he said.  “I’ve read every one of them.  Some I’ve read several times.”  He looked at her thoughtfully, took a slow breath, then he spoke as though reading out loud.  “‘Football, films, and beer filled the horizons of their minds.’  That’s from George Orwell, 1984.  I think it describes the goddamn people you feel such sympathy for.”

Molly shook her head and tried to scowl, but could not hide the shock in her face.  “So what does that make you, Jeb?” she snapped.  “An educated monster?”

“Maybe,” Jeb chuckled, his mouth full of cake.  “But at least I’ve impressed a librarian.”

“Have you?” she spat.  “Have you really?”  She did not wish to make that concession to him, and yet she was deeply in awe.  Clearly this man, this very strange man, was far better read than she would ever be.  Perhaps, he was even smarter.  Perhaps, he was a genius.

Determined to puncture his maddening pride, she sniped at him again.  “What good have all these books done you, Jeb, if you treat those poor things like slaves?”

“Darlin’,” Jeb said, “there’s a far bigger picture.”  He burped, rose from his chair, and wandered over to one of the bookcases.  He fingered the books as though tuning a piano then recited some titles out loud.  “Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Last Man Standing: The Ascent of J.P. Morgan.  Today and Tomorrow: The Autobiography of Henry Ford.”  He looked at her kindly and folded his arms; his eyes were twinkling like stars.  “These men were monsters—all of them.  But they rose above the horde.  And they took the country to places nobody could have imagined.”

My God, Molly thought.  What an ego he has.  How could I ever have though of reforming this dreadful, impossible man?  “Jeb, there’s cake on your chin,” she murmured.  “Besides that, you sound like Satan.”

“Devils are all around us,” Jeb shrugged—he rubbed the cake from his chin.  “Not all of them can be bargained with.  Not all will bother to court you.  Better we should out-monster them than allow them to eat us alive.”

Oh no! Molly thought.  He’s a Nietzsche nut too.  She had always hated that little German prude.  His rants about apes, man, and the superman to come were so pompous, so smug, so utterly contemptuous.  Why—out of all the books in his study—did Jeb have to quote from Nietzsche?!

 “So you’re the ascender of man,” she joked.  “I always wondered what he would look like.”

Jeb laughed and shook his head.  “I’m not that ambitious, darlin’,” he said.  “I wish only to be a monster.”

Molly felt her skin crawl.  The man was insane, totally insane—no wonder he was alone.  And yet his eyes, his clear blue eyes, were as tranquil as a lake.  It was the accommodation in his eyes—the gentleness with which he now looked at her—that gave her the courage to lecture him.  “The townspeople are all against you, Jeb.  They think you’re a monster already.”

He chuckled proudly and smirked.  “I would only be worried if they were my friends.”

More Nietzsche, she thought; her fists tightened into balls.  “Must you keep quoting that crass, little German?  What are your thoughts, Jeb.  What is inside that head of yours?”  

He returned to his chair, slowly sat down, and picked up the remainder of his cake.  He poked at the cake as though touching up a sculpture then put it back on the coffee table.  It was a minute before he spoke.  “I’m a jaded man, darlin’,” he said.  “I am drunk with power, poisoned with knowledge, callous to all that I touch.  But the people, without even trying, are far greater monsters than me.”

Look into the abyss, Molly remembered, and the abyss will look into you.  Was that vain little Kraut actually right about something?  Was the nihilism in Jeb Judson’s eyes about to seep into her soul?  The thought only made her angrier.  “Oh really?” she muttered.  “Just what is their sin?”

 “Ignorance,” replied Jeb—the word struck her like a hammer.  “Willful, church-bred ignorance.  They breed, they doze, they die—that is all.  Like cattle on a plain.”

 Molly could hardly believe her own thoughts.  Did this arrogant man, this self-centered pig, believe he was some kind of savior?  “You tether innocent creatures,” she stammered.  “You bury their babies in dirt.”

Jeb looked at her sharply and glared.  How quickly his moods changed.  “Knowledge can kill you,” he said with a shrug.  “Nietzsche probably died of it.  But it also can make you a brute.”

 “Just what do you mean by that?” Molly snapped.

“I plan to tether the people as well.  Lead ’em around by the nose.  Their kind of monster we cannot empower—the world is too dangerous a place.”

 He rose from his chair, cracked his knuckles, then turned on a small television.  “Nietzsche had it wrong,” he said.  “Mankind will never ascend.  Not…”  An NFL playoff game was on—a contest between the Titans and the Patriots.  The stadium was packed with fifty thousand people, all of them on their feet screaming.  He looked at the game disgustedly then turned the television off.  “Not,” he repeated, “’til they can get that excited over things that really matter.” 

Despite the condescension in Jeb Judson’s face, Molly felt a stirring in her heart.  Was she, an unstable female, being swayed by this alpha brute?  Your damn bitch is having puppies in my brain.  This line from East of Eden, a novel she adored, flashed like a warning sign through her head.  Utterly ashamed of herself, she buried her face in her hands.   

She felt Jeb’s hand on her shoulder, a gentle protective touch.  “Finish your cake, my darlin,” he said.  “There’s much I still have to show you.”

*

He led her to a third barn.  The door was sealed shut by a heavy, iron bar and a padlock the size of her fist.  Jeb opened the lock with a thick key and they entered a small sally port.  Beyond the inner door, Molly heard ravenous sounds: chomping, gulping, slurping noises that chilled her to the marrow.  Her fear only increased when Jeb unlocked a gun cabinet and removed a semiautomatic pistol.  He slapped a magazine into the grip. 

“Stay close beside me,” he ordered.  “Whatever happens.”

He tucked the handgun behind his belt then unlocked the inner door.  As they walked into the barn, Molly clutched his elbow and gasped.  In front of them was a deeply-ploughed field—a field fitted with grow lights and harmless-looking sprinklers.  But poking through the topsoil were hundreds and hundreds of fierce-looking orange heads.  The heads were aligned in rows, like troops awaiting inspection, and some of them were devouring the craniums in front of them. 

Jeb shook his head; he seemed to be embarrassed.  “A crop of adolescents,” he said.  “Guess we planted ’em too closely together.”

Molly could only shudder and stare.  What on earth had possessed her to follow Jeb into this barn?

“We’ve injected these with steroids,” Jeb went on.  “They’re going to fight our wars.  Once they’ve reached their full growth, that is, and we’ve put memory chips in their heads.”

“Are they really?” Molly asked.  She wanted to cover her eyes.  She wanted to vomit her cake. “I find the very sight of them revolting.”

“Soldiers should be revolting,” Jeb said.  “One look at these chaps and our enemies will be sweating in their turbans.  It’ll make ’em think twice about taking back their oilfields.”

Molly released Jeb’s elbow and gasped.  She was ready to bolt from the barn, but her legs felt rubbery and spent.  “And so you’re a warmonger too,” she stammered.  “Or is that a war profiteer?”

Jeb shrugged and winked.  “I’m more of a war economist,” he said.  “There’s not much profit in war anymore, but at least we can trim the tab.  These suckers will fight for nothing, and they like to get down in the dirt.”  He chuckled at his own joke and gazed serenely at the heads.  “No more hospital expenses for the wounded,” he said.  “No more military pensions.  No more lawsuits from veterans who have outlived their usefulness.” 

Molly could feel her nails stabbing her palms.  She wanted to claw out Jeb’s eyes.  “So you’re going to replace them with cannibals,” she cried.  “Jeb, I find you disgusting.”

“Do you, darlin’?” Jeb buried a chuckle.  “We’re already fighting our wars by proxy—this isn’t that big a step.  And once we lower the goddamn cost, we can fight our wars to win.”

 Molly clenched her teeth.  He’s a murderer, she thought.  A cold-blooded calculating murderer.  “Those beastly, beastly wars!” she cried.  “I never ever believed in them!”

 “No one believes in our wars,” Jeb shrugged.  “Not enough to fight ’em anyhow.  But our enemies are growing stronger—they want their oilfields back.”  He cleared his throat and spat contemptuously.  “If you don’t want us killing off Arabs, darlin’, give up your goddamn car.  You can’t have it both ways.”

 “You’re disgusting,” cried Molly.  “You’re evil and cold.  Somebody needs to stop you, Jeb Judson.”

“And who is going to stop me?” Jeb laughed.  “Your spoiled and precious people?”

Somebody has to stop you.  This is a crime against God!”

“God’s not as proactive as me,” Jeb shrugged.  “And the people won’t give a hoot.  If we give ’em their gas-guzzling cars, if we give ’em their baseball and beer, if we give ’em their sitcoms and TiVo, they’ll stay happy as pigs in shit.  Hell,” Jeb blew his nose and laughed, “once we’ve lowered the price of gas, we won’t even have to beat up demonstrators…” 

A predatory squawk interrupted Jeb’s speech.  He yanked the gun from his pants.  

“Get behind me!” he ordered.  He quickly racked the slide then went into a shooter’s crouch.  “Behind me!” he repeated.  “Plug up your ears!” 

Only then did Molly realize that one of those vile, little gluttons was loose.  Somehow, while she was scolding Jeb, it had managed to uproot itself from the ground.  It’s eyes were blazing, its jaws were snapping, and it was tottering towards them on newly discovered legs.  “Raaawk!” it cried, a soulless sound like a nail being ripped from a coffin.

POW.

The podling kept lumbering towards them.

POW.

The beastly thing barely flinched. 

POW POW.

Molly jammed her fingers into her ears.  “Kill it,” she screamed.  “Kill it, Jeb.”  The little brute seemed unstoppable.

Pow Pow… Pow.

As the seventh shot echoed, the thing stopped walking.  Its legs began to liquefy, then it thudded to the ground.  Even so, its jaws, pasty with pulp, continued to gnaw and snap. 

Molly removed her fingers from her ears.   She felt stunned, as though she had just walked away from a car crash.  But her blood still boiled when she looked at Jeb.  “For a war economist,” she accused, “you’re really not much of a shot.”

Jeb grinned.  “They have seven nerve centers,” he said.  “Two are in their ankles, two are in their knees, three more are in their head.  You gotta hit each one if you want to take them out.”  Setting the safety catch, he tucked the pistol back into his pants.  “Once we’ve programmed them properly, they’ll attack only towel heads.  They’ll blow ‘em to bits with grenades then gobble up their brains.  Put the fear of Allah in ’em.”

Please God, make him stop talking, Molly thought.  Can’t he see I’m about to be sick?

With morbid pride, Jeb kept lecturing.  “They make great suicide bombers too.  We’ll wire them up with TNT then detonate ’em by remote control.”

“J-Jeb,” Molly stammered, her knees were shaking.  “If you care for me at all, you will stop this conversation.”

Jeb’s eyes began to soften and he took her by the arm.  “Very well, darlin’.  I’ll say nothing more.  But the tour’s not over yet.”

*

Slowly, as though walking through smoke, Molly followed Jeb to yet another barn.  Her horror had morphed into an eerie enthrallment—the same captivation she’d felt when she’d first read Dante’s Inferno.  What else did this man have to show her—what new and unprecedented horrors?  She felt as though she were hypnotized.

Jeb unlocked a fourth barn and they walked inside.  There were fifty or so creatures in the barn, all of them full-grown, and they looked like a failed experiment.  Their craniums were uncommonly small and long drooling tongues were hanging from their mouths.  “Quack,” they kept crying.  “Quack, quack, quack.”  They looked as though they were trying to utter words.

“These will be our politicians,” Jeb said.  “They’re on a break now, but speech therapists are working with them ten hours a day.  That’s why their tongues are so big.”

“Politicians?!” Molly cried.  She could not believe her ears.  “Jeb, is this some kind of joke?”

“Mayors, congressmen, senators, you name it.  The politicians in office now pretty much stay in line, but one of ’em gets a wild hair now and then.  Obama’s a perfect example—what with his blocking the Keystone pipeline.  And his goddamn socialized medicine.  He’s forgotten he’s bought and paid for.”

Molly felt laughter welling up inside her—sunless, hysterical mirth.  The creatures looked so comical, she could hardly hold it in. “Jeb, do you hear what you’re saying?” she giggled.  “Who would ever vote for these clownish things?”

“As long as they’re preaching the politics of fear, it won’t matter a damn what they look like.”  Jeb placed his whistle between his lips.  “Listen,” he said.

At the blast of the whistle, the mob began to babble.  “You are under attack,” they cried out in unison.  “Quack, quack, quack.  You are under attack.”  

One of them, apparently better schooled than the rest, parroted several sentences.  “The government will protect you.  The government will make things right.  Just give it all your money.  And give it all your rights.

Jeb put away the whistle and smirked.  “Not a wayward thought among ’em,” he said.  “How about that?” 

Molly covered her ears with her hands.  The Pavlovian clamor—the horrid quack quack quacks—were making her head buzz.  But her palms were unable to shut out the sounds—she could hear yet another voice: a monotonous riveting croak that reminded her of a frog.  “Stop all handouts,” it droned.  “Don’t control businesses.”  One of the freaks, a yard shorter than the rest, was speaking directly to her.  It’s eyes were wide, its nostrils were flaring, its face was a mask of self-righteous composure. 

“What on earth is that?” she screamed.

Jeb stuck out his chest and grinned.  “That is a special project,” he said.  “A Clarence Thomas replica.”  He pushed the dwarf away from her then patted it on the head.  “Clarence Thomas—think of it.  The most conservative, program averse, pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps jurist ever to pass the bar.  If we get eight more like him on the bench, the people—as a class—will be completely disenfranchised.”

Oh judgment, Molly thought, you have fled to brutish beasts!  Was there no limit to this man’s madness—no bounds to his swinish ambitions?  And would the people—the stupid, lotus eating people—really allow him to succeed?  As she looked at Jeb’s face, his crafty intelligent face, she feared that the answer was yes.  The people are cattle, his eyes reminded her.  And cattle should stay in herds.

 “Jeb,” she cried.  “Jeb, this is total insanity.”

“Well and good,” Jeb replied.  “That’ll push things along.  You can’t stop a madness whose hour has come.”

He put his whistle to his lips and blew it once again.  The voices grew even louder.

“YOU ARE UNDER ATTACK!”

“WE’VE GOT YOUR BACK!”

“THERE’S NOTHING YOU’LL LACK!” 

“QUACK, QUACK, QUACK!”

As she started to faint, Molly heard random laughter—laughter that seemed to arise from a void.  And so, she did not recognize it as her own.

*

She recovered on a bench outside of the barn.  Jeb Judson was patting her cheek.  “Darlin’,” he said, “the tour is almost done.  But maybe you’ve reached your limit.”

As she stared at his hawkish, attractive face, her eyes hardened with resolve.  “Show me the rest!” she commanded.  Why she said that she did not know.  Perhaps it was the fastidiousness in her soul, her librarian’s need to delimit and define.  Or maybe she needed a complete inventory of the man to totally cast him out of her life.  After all, he was still one hell of a hunk. 

“Show me the rest!” she repeated.  Just one more outrage ought to do it.  Just one more horror ought to kill her affection for him entirely.

“Very well,” Jeb replied.  He helped her to her feet.  Taking her by the hand, he guided her to a fifth barn.  She waited impatiently while he unlocked the door.

As they entered the barn, Molly felt her jaw drop.  The freaks in this barn were hourglass-shaped and their skin was pale and smooth.  With their heroic busts and swelling hips, with their hair tumbling down to their tiny waists, they looked like lewd parodies of women.  They were watching Jeb as he closed the barn door, appraising him like dogs smelling meat.

 “These,” Jeb explained, “are our sex toys.”

This has to be the final straw, Molly thought.  He’s obviously a pervert, to boot.

 Reading her thoughts, Jeb stifled a chuckle.  “They’re for the goddamn people—not me,” he said.  “A gift to make sure they keep out of our hair.”

“A gift for pigs just like you,” Molly said.  “What will the wives say?”

 “They’ll be too busy competing for their men.  Watch.”

Jeb put the whistle to his lips and blew.  Immediately, the things fell onto their backs and began thrusting their hips into the air.  “Baby, baby, baby!” they shrieked.  “Nobody does it like you!!”

Molly could stand it no more.  The vulgarity of the display—it’s utter depravity—blew away the last of her reserve.  “You sexist!” she cried.  “You Stepford pig.  Is that what you think of women?!  Is that what you want me to do?!”

“No, darlin’,” said Jeb.  He took her hand gently in his.  “You I will treat like a queen.”

Snatching her hand from Jeb’s grasp, Molly slapped him across the face.  The creatures, aroused by the sound of the blow, began thrusting their hips even harder.  “SPANK ME, SPANK ME, DADDY!” they cried.  “NOBODY DOES IT LIKE YOU!”

“Why?!” Molly sputtered, her eyes bright with tears.  “Why this, Jeb?!”

Jeb shrugged.  “A little insurance to keep folks distracted.  Beer, films, and sports may not always be enough.  But sex,” he rubbed his cheek and winked conspiratorially.  “Nothing’ll make people dumber than sex.”

“But this is so insulting…”

Jeb laughed.  “The country’s already obsessed with sex.  Films, clothes, commercials—you name it, it’s there.  This will help us secure our power and save our beloved land.”

He clapped his hands twice.  “That’ll do!” he instructed.  The creatures shuddered orgastically then collapsed in exhausted heaps.  But they continued to plead and babble as he walked Molly out of the barn.  “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” they piped.  “Nobody does it like you.” 

*

She sat silently on Jeb’s veranda, clutching another glass of wine.  The sun had set but an afterglow lingered, and the horizon looked like a bruise.  Molly stared hypnotically at the barns, ignoring the bowl of mangos and pears that Jeb had set beside her. 

“Don’t think the worst of me, darlin’,” Jeb said.  “Have a piece of fruit.” 

Molly put down her wine glass and dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex.  “Just what do you want with me, Jeb?” 

Jeb cupped her hand lovingly in his.  “I want you to be my wife,” he said.  “I want you to give me a son.”

“Those loathsome, loathsome creatures you’re raising.”

He squeezed her hand gently and smiled.  “A towering, godless, unblinking son who will one day manage all this.”  Releasing her hand as though freeing a bird, he pointed towards the barns.  “A son to make Nietzsche proud.” 

Jeb fumbled in his pocket, retrieving a small leather case.  He opened it slowly and showed her the ring.  The diamond was as big as her knuckle and it winked in the cold evening light.  “Marry me, dear, and I’ll make you my queen.”

 As she looked at his face, his strong paternal face, her anger melted like snow.  His gaze was so warm and protective, his eyes so clear and blue.  

She slipped the ring onto her finger and sighed.

“Shall we set a date?” she said.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000


“Mortifying Enmeshment” Dark Science-Fiction by Zary Fekete

My Dear Thompson,

Allow me to convey to you some unpleasant news. The corridors which I inhabit have lately become overrun and damaged as a result of a corrupting incident, one that you prophetically foresaw and one of which you warned me…a warning I sorrowfully neglected, and I now am the sole possessor of the guilt. This will undoubtedly be my last correspondence with you.

You perhaps remember that in my purview I oversee the high security computer lab where certain task-workers labor in my service. They bend all their time toward soiled code…corroded and twisted content, containing within it the awful depths to which mankind is capable of reaching. These servants endeavor all day and every day to scour social apertures of degraded constructs. It is not-to-be-helped that these jobs leave them deeply, sometimes permanently, scarred.

Fortune would have it that an advanced purifying machine was installed in the chained inner vestibule of my security quarter. The inner chamber can only be accessed with one card. The device possessed a cleansing structure several quantitative degrees higher than its weaker brothers.  

This machine is sanctioned to be used by only one authorized with a higher flight of clearance…the one who has the card. This sanctioned worker in my quarter is Miss Bea. She was biologically the closest match to the original code. This was crucial because the system is designed to sync with its user and use a portion of the operator’s brain-width.

For many months Miss Bea delved deeply into the blasted hallways and revealed deeper and deeper net-acres to be overturned and culled. What happened to her next left me amazed. Where others may have fallen after encountering what she witnessed, her gradual descent into those depths allowed her to incrementally acquire an increasingly greater degree of packet immunity. It was soon clear that she could spend all hours of every day at the lowest reaches without succumbing to the attacks from what the mainframe had recently cataloged as roving horizons, for whom the blackest darkness is reserved forever. The sparks and flashes which emanated from Miss Bea’s screencast were horrifying. It is difficult for me to imagine the raw and ragged substance which she must have encountered. I was resolutely glad that only she possessed the card.

Two weeks ago we received a notification. Miss Bea’s inner sequencing system was bolstered with the a new overlay. The Overlay had been in discussion for many previous months. It granted a purer reach and sequestered admittance to the deepest flowered gardens of the net…areas where tendrils drip with secretions. It was clear that Miss Bea was the only possible choice to take administrative point. She proceeded. All was well for perhaps a fortnight.  But then Miss Bea became unable (perhaps unwilling) to leave her secure chamber. She was unresponsive to any pings.

Mr. James, one of my trusted workers, had been monitoring her cognitive waves. He began to electronically petition Miss Bea to programmatically disentangle herself from the harrowed depths. Through their correspondence Mr. James was able to confirm the degree of Miss Bea’s mortifying enmeshment. 

The most dismaying moment happened just a few mornings ago when Miss Bea opened her chamber long enough to admit Mr. James to the sanctum. He had lingered at her door too long. She opened her chamber, and he was drawn in. Within moments spent at her screen he became harnessed to the wailing stream.

Even though his biology did not enjoy the luxury of her gradiated exposure, she was somehow able to impart to him her rare invulnerability through a direct bypass download. By granting him access to her portal she was able to briefly share with him her analog amplitoxins. The nectar was therefore now fatally housed in them both. I saw the transformation happen with my own eyes. It was a humanitary violation.

They stayed in this way, both deeply wedded to one another and completely succumbed to the darkest strands within the web. They responded to no outside stimulus. I was obliged to reach for emergency assistance from the 3rd Floor.

Management suggested help in the form of a single serving of cured code. The amount had to be administered during the morning screen refresh which briefly provided us outside control of Miss Bea’s and Mr. James’ portal. We uploaded the dose yesterday at 8AM, and they interfaced with it at 8:01.

Both fell to the ground. The outer door immediately unlocked, as the protocol designed it to do. The medical staff rushed in. Within moments Mr. James had responded favorably to the dose. Miss Bea, however, could not cohere to it in any successful way. There was shaking and foam. She was dead by 8:05.

My office has been sequestered. The authorities came and requisitioned all the wares. Miss Bea, I have learned, had no family of her own. Her body has been interred in the company tomb. 

My good Thompson, the last thing I did before the shutdown was to take Miss Bea’s card. I hold it in my hand as I write to you these words. Only you know this. When I touched it I believe I felt it move. I immediately locked it in my safe, but the sensation will not leave my hand. And now behind each screen I hear beckoning whispers.

After authorizing this e-post I intend to enter the inner chamber myself. There is no telling what remains of Miss Bea’s digital shoring and maintenance, but without an operator it cannot hold. The barotrauma I will encounter will be rigorous and unyielding.

After I fall, which is certain, there will be a sum of perhaps 7 days before the social and societal outbreak. Take necessary steps.

                            Your trusted friend,

                            Adam Goodbody


Zary Fekete…

…has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia.

…lives and works as a writer in Minnesota.

…has been featured in variations publications including Zoetic Press, Bag of Bones Press, and Mangoprism.

…has a debut chapbook of short stories coming in March 2023 from Alien Buddha Press.

…enjoys books, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete

“Drive-By Mourning” Dark Fiction by Patricia Ann Bowen

“There’s always the urge to see somebody dead that isn’t you.” Stephen King

I drove into Sacre Coeur Cemetery that rainy Saturday morning, relieved it wasn’t me in that box, going down into that hole, buried under a personalized marble monument. I could never understand the hubris of elaborately marking where bodies are buried, reinforcing people’s misguided hopes for immortality. Gone now to heaven, they say. But my agnostic definition of hell is where one is placed in a coffin, then inside a concrete grave liner – to prevent the ground and the funeral directors’ income from sinking – then covered with tons of dirt so even a single atom can’t be freed, that it might escape and unite with other forms in the universe.

I parked my car in the visitors’ lot and strode a path through a well-tended lawn, not a blade out of place. Orderly rows of headstones were backed in the distance by the opulent statuary of the wealthier inhabitants, denoting their final places of residence, and it was there I headed toward the black canopy sheltering her mourners.

Family and friends avoided gaping at the deep hole behind her packaged body, ready to be interred and, eventually, one day forgotten. She hadn’t wanted this kind of sendoff, but her family defaulted to their own wishes, she no longer being in a position to argue her preference. Take a lesson, friend: Make your wants known widely, loudly. Those I’ve chosen will cremate me and spread my ashes in the sea. Simple, low-cost, and my cremains will be released to roam, even more than I have in life.

I probably sound like a morbid voyeur, gathering converts along my way through life, toward death. I’m not, though I’ve had my moments. She gave me one of them. Until hers, I’d never before witnessed an actual human death.

I exchanged glances and serious nods with those around the gravesite that I recognized from her descriptions of them. I was just in time to hear the minister drone her platitudes, expecting her worn words to make the mourners on the sidelines feel better, when in fact they likely fell on numb ears. “She’s in a better place” made it sound like she’s comfy and cozy, instead of trapped in that container poised before us. “It was God’s will” might remind them that their deity designed the process of life to close on a dreaded dead-end path for all. A verbal sendoff, poorly designed to console the grieving, but death leaves a space nothing can fill, especially not with cliches. 

As for me, I find such rituals a form of entertainment. I stood there observing how we dance around death, with or without a dirge, or to one of the dear departed’s favorite tunes. Hers was any of the chant-like melodies by Beirut, an unconventional gypsy sort of band that reflected her style. I smiled faintly, imagining the reactions of the sedate black-clad mourners if one of their songs suddenly blared through speakers in the damp cemetery air.

We went around the circle, and those who wished to said a few words about her. Most were as stale as the minister’s: 

“She gave so much to others, and took so little in return.” 

“Her love gave me strength.”

“She lived like there was no tomorrow.”

Only the last echoed what I knew of her.

~

They didn’t know her as I did. I was sure they saw only her exterior, her long thin black braids with beaded ends, tied back to show off inquisitive eyes set in her seriously attractive honey-brown face, her thoroughbred gait, her drab but artful bohemian wardrobe accompanied by the worn leather messenger bag she toted everywhere. They must have feared secret jealousy to be like her, lest they come to the same end. But we can only be ourselves, and she was a unique self. I know. I was her last confidant, her final confessor, her psychiatrist. 

She came to me hurting, physically and emotionally, seeking to distance herself not merely from her pain, but from life itself.

“You must help me end it,” she said, spilling out her words, not long into our first session. “Everyone else I’ve approached has turned me down, and I’m not brave enough to bring about my own demise. I’ve read their books, and their online chats, and their advice springs only from professional observations. I don’t trust them.”

“So why are you here? How, why, do you think I differ?”

“I’ve read your columns and papers on death and dying, and you profess to be a truth seeker on the afterlife, even if only to prove its nonexistence. You have the clinical skills, and you didn’t pack away your curiosity with your diploma. Those were the things I chose you for in seeking a doctor who might help me.”

So, she’d discovered reams of my commentary on the rituals of dying and death. I’d read Agee’s A Death in the Family when I was in my early teens, and it gave me a life-long hunger for minutiae on the topic. I’ve given talks on Mitford’s The American Way of Death – where even the poor can take their last ride in a Cadillac hearse – and shared the resolve it inspired in me to opt-out of a conventional burial. In my spare time I’ve consoled bereavement groups, helping the ones left behind explore their own meanings of life and death, and furthering my own. I’ve prowled burial grounds from Monument Valley to Savannah, Boston to Paris, and even roamed the infamous Coon Dog Cemetery near Huntsville, Alabama, seeking ephemeral clues, finding, as always, only mortal shrines. She’d read that I sought the link between life and death, a metaphorical death canal, the correspondent to birth. 

Her gaze roamed around my office, taking in my framed credentials and book-bound interests. Few patients took such an interest in me beyond my questions and guarded remarks, remaining absorbed in their own reasons for visiting a shrink. I was pleased.

“I believe you’re asking me to break the law, to ignore my own professional code,” I replied. Not that I hadn’t before, but it was the proper thing to say. “I understand your need, and your reluctance to fulfill it yourself,” I went on, trained to rephrase her words, “and I’m prepared to help you move beyond your pain. We can plan a course of treatment that serves that end, and you can decide if it meets your purpose.”

“An interesting comeback, Doctor. You didn’t say yes, and you didn’t say no.” She paused and smiled. I became aware of her musky scent, like that of a free-range animal. “Perhaps together we can bend some rules,” she said. “Let’s give each other a try.”

Her response surprised me with its playfulness, with her willingness to put her desperation for death at arm’s length, even for a moment. My immediate reaction was even more so. I began to feel like Moliere’s Tartuffe, ready to rectify an evil action with the purity of our mutual intentions.

She related the backstory of her pain. She’d been in a horrible road accident this past year, and while most of the physical damage to her body was not visible to others, she assured me it had been extensive. She’d had multiple surgeries and saw no end to those still to come. She wore a flesh-colored glove on her right hand, hardly noticeable while she kept it resting on her lap, and during our second session she pulled it off to reveal the hand had only two digits, thumb and index, grayish, rigid. 

“They saved what they could,” she said, watching my reaction, which remained passive, as she held it up. “I preserved the others. If only they could have saved my child as well.”

Now we were getting somewhere. With each session I learned more about her and her tragedies – and about myself as well, in responding to them. She was a chameleon, revealing different skins at different moments. I got to touch her pinkish feminine layer, which could turn purple and then black in a blink. Not literally of course, but I regularly imagined it happening as her moods changed in my presence. I wondered which she donned when contemplating her own looking-glass. 

She’d researched many ways to exit this world. Pills, jumping, drowning, others. I was impressed by her thoroughness, her courage, but it made me wonder if she was going down a speculative rabbit hole. She made me realize that until then I’d explored death from a limited perspective, from that of one who wanted to live. Her drive for release seemed immediate, shoving her from the inside with a need she could not suppress, eager to leave this world, hoping against hope she might join her child in what might be the next. She sought my aid from the perspective of one who wanted to die. 

How was I to help her without killing her, or rather helping her kill herself? And were the actions, the motives, not one and the same?

I saw her weekly at first, Mondays at 2 pm. She sat across from me in the comfortable rose-colored wing chair for the entire hour, instead of the usual fifty minutes. I immediately rearranged the standing appointment following hers for 3:30 so I could allow my time with her to run over, and then have a few minutes to reflect after she departed. Following her second visit, I realized she’d left behind a set of keys in the wing chair. When I phoned to tell her, assuming she’d need them, she said they were the keys to the car she’d demolished. She’d left them as relics of her pain and didn’t want to see them ever again. Were they a gift? Proof? Why had she held on to them until now? 

~

She told me she was a freelance writer, said she earned her living in the marketplace of words, and she was in fact a most articulate patient. I suggested she try to write her way through her pain. I asked her to keep a daily diary and share it with me, to capture her thoughts and dreams to further our discussions.

“No, it’s too much to ask. I don’t want to go there, and neither do you.”

“I do. The more you share with me, the more I can …”

“I have no need to write about this drama for myself or for others, even for you. My soul has died. Yet it’s still trapped in my living body. The two are in such conflict. At night I dream of running through the streets screaming and throwing myself in front of a bus, of ingesting one pill after another with one shot of booze after another, until I am no more. But then I wake up, unsuccessful, sad that I have to force myself through the motions of another day.”

I sat across from her, the prop of a pad and pen resting in my lap. My interest in her was like that of any patient, but my curiosity about her path drew me closer to her dramatic plight. Dare I use my resources to fulfill her desperate request? If I steered her one way, would she willfully take the other fork on that road? We took several detours into her past, to times when life seemed worth living, but those memories only strengthened her resolve. 

She became impatient with our slow progress, accepting it was due to her own lack of complicity. After a month of sessions we added Thursday visits to her calendar. Her time was her own, she was losing interest in her work, so she welcomed a deeper dive into her misery. But the cost of her accelerated treatment was becoming another matter. I had my own criteria for doing pro bono work, and she did not meet them. Open about her finances, she approached me with a fairly standard offer.

“I’m spending down my modest means, Doctor. It’s fueling my sense of urgency, forcing me to make a move. But I’m not there yet.”

“And?”

“And, I wonder if you’d be willing to barter for further services.” 

Her face presented no clues to her intent. Did she want to trade sex, or was she offering to update the pages on my website for me? Bartering is still practiced in the medical profession these days, even if most of it stays between doctor, patient, and accountant. I suppose some rural doctors still trade chicken casseroles for their treatments, and city doctors are not immune to their patients’ financial plights either. How far would I go to help her?

“What do you have in mind? You do understand we have no definitive end to your psychiatric treatment and, more importantly, I’m not able to put a price on where or when your life is saved or ended.”

“My body for your time. Until you or I decide the ‘when’. I think you might find it interesting.”

Well I might, I thought, but I had other interests in her treatment, personal and clinical. To comprehend her desire for death, I had to understand far more about her life. She was asking me to cross yet another line, and I decided to keep us on the course that most interested me. Besides, if I took advantage of every patient who made that proposition, I’d be oversexed and underfunded. 

“I’m not making light of your offer. But since your life has so little value to you, how do you think I should value it? I mean… as a professional, not as a lover. You are not a whore, and I am not your client. What does interest me is how we can get you past your pain. What I do value is your willingness to explore your intentions and your options, seeing whether you will go on living your life, or end it.”

“Thank you for your candor, Doctor. Have you any recommendations for how I can go on financing your services? Or should I just drive my car into a wall on my way home? Or, perhaps, you might prescribe the magic pill that will give me the sleep of angels?”

“You’ve already survived one tragic accident. I would not advise believing another would provide your desired outcome. You might lose more than some nonvital organs and a few fingers, and still have enough functioning parts left to survive.” I chose my next words carefully. “As for magic pills, I can provide a sleep aid for you but, taken as directed, it will only send you to bed, not to heaven. Is that what you’d like?”

“Are you suggesting I might choose to overdo the sleeping pills before I run out of money?”

“Absolutely not! I suggest nothing of the kind. A series of sound sleeps will calm and clear your mind, improve your receptiveness to treatment. We can work out a financing plan for your office visits. And I can cut my rate for the next several months, let’s say six months. Will that work for you?”

“I suppose so. For now.” I couldn’t tell if she was pleased or disappointed. 

I scrawled out the prescription and handed it to her. “These work rather quickly, so only take them when you have nothing else to do the rest of the day. Don’t drive, or spend time over the stove. Do not consume any alcohol for four to six hours before a dose, and even then, if you must, sparingly. 

We both knew she’d finally gotten what she came for.

That visit she left behind an envelope with my name on it, propped up on the sink in the restroom next to my office. It contained a gruesome 8” x 10” black and white photo of a wrecked sports car, too damaged to identify the make and model. Was she shedding her past, and transferring it to me? I was relieved I found the piece, and not my next patient. I put the envelope in the file with the car’s keys.

~

Having given her access to pharmaceuticals, I feared I might not see her again. I sign up for a google alert on all my patients, right after their first visits, and the service forwards a link to any online mention of their names. I’ve gotten good news and bad news over the years, even long after one of them has moved on from my practice. I checked each morning for her name, and finding nothing on her was good news.

On her next visit she was almost radiant, more animated, loosely gesturing as she spoke, and she sat back as though molded into the comfortable wing chair, seeming relaxed and relieved. “Sound sleep was just what the doctor ordered,” she said.

She was exhibiting a classic sign of coming to peace with suicide. After emotionally and psychologically struggling with the decision, once it’s been made, either way, the internal struggle is over and relief sets in.

“You do look well rested,” I said, alert to every nuance of her speech and movement. “More than I’ve ever seen you. Tell me, does it mirror how you feel?”

“What an odd way to put it – mirror how I feel. I did sit before a mirror yesterday for quite some time, having my braids redone by my hairdresser. It was a long process, and expensive, too. I justified it as part of my therapy. It was so relaxing to watch someone undo my messy grown-out hair, feel them massage my scalp, take such care to make me look clean and neat.”

“Special occasion coming up?”

“I used to go to the salon more regularly, but I’ve let myself go since… well, no, I just thought it was time to take better care of myself again, get back in the groove, as they say. I even submitted a piece of work for publication this morning, the first one in ages. I have you to thank for that, Doctor.”

I sometimes, as now, moved into a zone of professional uncertainty, between satisfaction that I may have helped a patient tremendously or fear that I’ve failed them miserably. There’s no knowing which is true until time and the patient have revealed the result, one way or the other. I had no sense yet which way this would go.

Before she left we confirmed her next appointment. Afterward, I sat at my desk and updated my notes in her file. We’d mutually agreed not to record her treatment sessions, but now I wished I’d pressed her for permission. I’d said nothing incriminating, and I would’ve liked to hear her actual words again, the inflections in her voice, any clues that would help me be a better therapist, employ those clues the next time I get a similar patient, if there ever is a next time.

~

It was me the first responders called because she’d listed me as the ICE contact on her phone, In Case of Emergency. She’d driven her car into a bridge abutment on I64, not far from the picturesque Gateway Arch. Apparently at very high speed. They told me some kind of gypsy music was still blaring from the car’s CD player when they found her. Again she’d survived, as I’d warned. Badly damaged, as I’d predicted. 

I spent her final couple of hours at her bedside. It wasn’t the visible process I’d hoped to see while watching someone depart from life. I hovered over her bruised face and tangled braids, whispering questions I’d harbored for decades about the path toward the end, but they went unanswered. Heavily sedated, her breath slowed, became intermittent as my eyes moved from her face to the heart monitor and back, then stopped. Her death was a disappointing moment for me. A triumph for her. She’d owned it, gotten control over it, given it a date and a time and a place.

The next day I paid a service to do a complete background check on her. She’d never had a child, but possibly been pregnant. I’ll never know. But the first auto crash really did damage her body, and perhaps her mind. I also learned she’d published a large body of acclaimed fiction under a pseudonym. I didn’t recognize the name, but you might. She’d been quite good at fictionalizing her life, too. I’m professionally ashamed to admit I hadn’t caught her in any of her lies. She’d left me still in that zone of uncertainty. Had I helped her? Or failed her?

~

I’ll probably miss her visits for a little while. The fullness of her mortal absence hadn’t yet sunk in and yet there I was, at her grave, spending precious minutes of my life on someone I’ll never again see or hear or smell or engage with. I’d tried to make her office visits about her, and not about what I wanted to learn from her. Death has ended those possibilities, leaving me still with a gaping hole in my knowledge of its abstract mysteries.

Anyway, the real reason I came here was to return one of the final mementos she left for me. As I pulled the shriveled article from my pocket, my hand relaxed after gripping it so tightly during the graveside service. While everyone was praying their last words, eyes closed, I dropped it into the gaping hole. It was one of her fingers, only one, preserved from her first auto accident. I found all three of the digits wrapped in black tissue in a small gift box, on the floor under the wing chair after her last visit. I’ve decided to keep the other two.


Patricia Ann Bowen is the author of a medical time travel series about a cure for Alzheimer’s, and Unintended Consequences, a collection of short stories about strong women of all ages in challenging circumstances. Her stories have also appeared in the Table for Two and Stories of Southern Humor and Southern Crime anthologies. She has taught short story writing, and she leads a critique group of short story writers for the Atlanta Writer’s Club. You can connect with her at www.patriciabowen.com.


“On the Corner of Cedar and Washington” Dark Fiction by Diane Lee

"On the Corner of Cedar and Washington" Dark Fiction by Diane Lee

In seventh grade, Emma Bridges tells me I have to change my name. There can’t be two Emmas in our class, she says. I nod, and from then on I am Em, to my classmates, to my family, and to my coworkers, the two letters neatly handwritten next to a smiley face on my nametag as I welcome customers to the bookstore. 

Today I am Em to the blonde-haired, red-faced woman who angrily takes down my name because store policy doesn’t allow returns past fourteen days. I am Em to my manager, who can’t quite hide a smirk when I hesitantly bring up this year’s promotion cycle. I am Em to my daughter Mia in the backseat, who knows she can get her way with a well-placed tantrum and veiled threat. 

Even the pedestrian in front of me refuses to budge, thinking I will give in and swerve out of his way. No longer. Emma Donovan keeps her foot pressed firmly to the gas pedal and her name is — 

Janet Fuller, and soon everyone is going to know it. As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a reporter. I spent four grueling years studying journalism in school and staffing the university paper, inking my blood, sweat, and tears into the broadsheet. Then another seven hopping from paper to paper, each job only impressing further into me that my stories were worth a dime a dozen, if that. 

Any journalist knows how to write a good story. We’ve worked our beats, interviewing countless sources and tracking down the routine paper fillers. But what they don’t tell you in journalism school is that the best stories, the ones that headline above the fold, those come and go in as short as three seconds. 

One. I see a man start to cross the street. 

Two. I see a red SUV racing down the road, showing no signs of stopping. 

Three. Janet keeps her mouth shut and brings up her phone camera. Click — 

Clack, go my new dress shoes as I step off the sidewalk. They’re perfectly polished, black oxfords with a cap toe. He kept them that way, my father. You can always tell a man’s character by his shoes, he used to say. 

That was how I found him in the kitchen that night, shining the blood off his shoes next to my mother’s body. You keep your shoes clean, boy, he told me, before they dragged him away and sentenced him to life imprisonment. 

I tried to fight the urge of course. Visions of the knife sticking out of my mother’s pale throat haunted me every time I picked up a shoe rag. But his voice always echoed in my head. A man keeps his shoes clean. 

The car is speeding towards me, and I know I have enough time to dive back to safety. But that would scuff my shoes. 

A man keeps his shoes clean. 

I see a little girl in the backseat, about six or seven years old. Maybe this time, it’ll be my face and voice that keeps her awake at night. Peter locks eyes with the girl and gives her — 

A smile breaks across my face from where it rests against the cool metal door. I am in the backseat of my mother’s car, watching as she readies herself to run over a pedestrian. I wonder what he’ll look like, after. I suppose I’ll see it on the nine-o-clock news, courtesy of that wannabe journalist on the other side of the street. 

They always say to try imagining things from others’ perspectives. Me, I don’t have to. 

It first happened when I was three and my mother brought home a dog from the pound. She called it Rover, or Roger, or something else generic and unmemorable. He yapped and yapped all day until my nerves reached a peak, and the next thing I knew I had four paws and could see my own human body slumped over on the couch. 

Rover’s memories flashed through my mind like a whirlwind. I found myself fixating on his tragic past, overjoyed when it finally simmered his barking down into whimpering instead. To my pleasant surprise, he took off out of the house and ran as far as he could until even I didn’t know the way home anymore. Soon I was back in my own body and trying to look concerned as my parents ran around frantically looking for the dog. 

You see, it doesn’t give me control of others’ actions. I have to make them want to do it with the thoughts and memories that already exist in their heads. You might think this fairly limiting, but with the right motivation, I can make people do just about anything. 

Take this scene I’ve engineered, for example. The woman who decides she will murder someone just to feel an ounce of control over her everyday life. The journalist who in this moment can only think of her own languishing career, at the expense of others’ lives. The man whose recollection of past trauma forces him to stand still in front of an oncoming car. 

All in the few seconds I’ve flitted between their minds. Brilliant, don’t you think? I smile back at Peter and brace for the impact. 

On the corner of Cedar and Washington, a red SUV barrels through a pedestrian and peels away. I am sprawled across the asphalt, feeling the life drain crimson from my veins — onto the same road that blurs by in the rearview mirror, my knuckles white on the steering wheel and my foot pressed tightly against the gas. I slowly pan across the scene of the accident that is going to make me famous, making sure to keep my phone steady — the same phone I hold up to my face from the safety of my bedroom, squinting in the dim glow as I scroll through the virtual pages of The Chamber Magazine

Mia smiles and — 


Bio pending.


“The Last Tweet” Dark Flash Fiction by Ellis Shuman

"The Last Tweet" Dark Flash Fiction by Ellis Shuman

He was a middle-aged businessman from London; she introduced herself as a hospital nurse who lived in Nairobi. They met by chance, in a virtual way, because they were both enthralled by the fiction of Haruki Murakami. It wasn’t clear if he followed her first, or if she was the one to initiate the conversation, but soon they were chatting regularly, in 280 characters or less.

And then their tweets went private, becoming direct message exchanges that were far more personal and far more intimate than what was permissible in an open Twitter feed. He told her of his marital frustrations and she said she was a single mother, working long shifts to make ends meet. Then, on a drunken impulse, he revealed that he had never had sex with a black woman. This was something about which he often fantasized. She tweeted back that she had never slept with a white man. She admitted that thoughts of this type of relationship turned her on.

He flew out of Heathrow on a dark, wintry night and arrived in Kenya on a bright, sunny afternoon. She met him at the airport and they embraced as if they had known each other for years. They took a taxi to a nearby hotel where they checked into the room he had reserved. Afterward they lay entwined on the sweat-covered linens, time slipping away and the real world calling for their return.

Their rendezvous was short-lived. He had a plane to catch. She needed to prepare dinner. He had to return to his business; she had a young child demanding her attention. He was sorry he couldn’t stay; she was upset that their affair was coming to an abrupt, although expected ending.

On his taxi drive to the airport a car pulled close to block the vehicle. Three angry-looking men emerged from within. They dragged him from the cab and pushed him into their car. He tried to protest but they tied a white cloth around his mouth. He had no way of knowing that these were the nurse’s brothers; they had come from their village to protect their family’s honor.

In a clearing they pulled out machetes and axes and had their way with the foreigner. They left him there, or what was left of him, for the lions. Then they wiped their weapons clean and returned to their car. There was plenty of homemade alcohol waiting for them in the village.

Later that night, their sister was at her computer, following her Twitter feed. A humorous tweet caught her eye. The tweeter’s profile was very interesting – he was a teacher from Copenhagen. It turned out they both shared an appreciation for Murakami’s novels. It wasn’t clear if he followed her first, or if she was the one to initiate the conversation, but soon they were chatting regularly, in 280 characters or less.


Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post, and many online literary publications. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair.


While you’re here, why not check our Submissions page or visit our bookshop?

“Dime Novel” Dark Western by Kenneth Schalhoub

"Dime Novel" Dark Western by Kenneth Schalhoub
Oil Painting by Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk, Distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I find myself in a horseless stagecoach with a notebook in my lap. The cover is blank. I have no memory of who I am. I know nothing beyond the dead brush and prickly pears of this lonely prairie.

Morning sun is fully above the horizon. Wavy heat mirages dance above the autumn wasteland. The stage’s inside, where I currently sit, is already unbearably still, buggy, and hot. I wipe the sweat from my face; the woolen sleeve scrapes the skin. I decide to investigate the notebook while waiting for someone to come.

The desiccated binding makes a cracking sound as I carefully bend it back. The page edges are darkened by ash from an imaginary campfire. I find a few rock-hard biscuits in my pocket and a half-full canteen of water. I chew the edge of a biscuit and listen to the silence between wind gusts. I read the first page.

###

Billy Bowles paid for space up top as a hanger on. He lay between tied down mailbags keeping him from falling off and landing in dried brush and prickly pear. He was a teenage drifter from Missouri. The product of a well-educated antislavery family, Billy felt ashamed when he witnessed the immoral crimes committed by the fraudulent anti-slavery Red Legs. At the age of fifteen he watched families being murdered by the vile invaders who used the ruse of anti-slavery enforcement to inflict fear and misery on anyone they chose. Cavernous black holes between the eyes of murdered townsfolk filled Billy’s dreams.

The day they came for his father, Billy gathered his critical possessions including the Derringer his grandfather had given him when he was too young to use it. On that same day he kissed his mother goodbye, mounted his chestnut quarter horse, and slowly rode through town. There was nothing else to do, but ride away. His mount whinnied and picked up speed when they passed Billy’s dead father propped up in front of the jailhouse with black bullet hole in his head, both ears taken for trophies, and scalped. A Red Leg held a thirty-inch sword with a score of impaled scalps. Billy watched as the man impaled his father’s scalp, wiping the blood on his face.

He reached the end of town and watched his mother try to resist what was inevitable. She was going to be raped, shot, and scalped. Billy watched the leader throw her to the ground and mount her like a dog. Billy did not need to kick his mount; she had already begun to gallop. The screaming faded with distance, but he feared the memory would never wane.

The following morning Billy woke to granite clouds. He had dreamed of his father’s-imposed philosophy of what it meant to be a good farming man. Billy did not want to be a farmer and he hated rules. None of that mattered now. He turned sixteen two days ago and was on his own. His dead parents would vanish into his uneventful history without imposing guilt. “It’s a dangerous country,” his father once said. “Don’t be cryin’ if me and your mother get killed or other such thing. You take care of yourself. All I ask is you honor the Bowles name wherever you travel.”

Billy’s thoughts were interrupted by voices from below. Inside the coach five fat men discussed their situation, a couple wanting to return to the comfortable East.

“I told you we’d get goddam stuck here,” a voice said loud enough t0 hear over the wheels crunching the withered prairie. “We’re vagabonds in this fuckin hellhole.”

“It’s not so bad,” a second voice said.

“Not so bad? Look around you. This is a goddamn wasteland.”

“A silver wasteland,” the second voice said.

“Well, we better find more—”

One woman also traveled in the coach, alone. She was on her way to visit her estranged mother who lives in Santa Fe.

The passengers had stopped talking. Billy listened and heard the pounding hooves of distant riders approaching from the north. He had overheard some poker players say three riders split from the Dalton gang in Kansas and were headed for New Mexico.

The Reinsman, or Jehu, as they are sometimes called, pushed the team to maintain a steady pace.

Billy searched for his Derringer to ensure himself it was still there in his jacket pocket. It was. The coach lantern provided no light on the trail ahead. The Jehu had to trust his memory and the horses’ senses to navigate the way.

Billy listened. He could no longer hear the approaching hooves.

The three riders hid behind a bluff northwest of the stage with pistols and rifle ready.

They listened.

A man wearing a duster, rode a quarter mile behind the stage. His belt holster held a Colt Army and his saddle’s rifle holster stowed a Winchester 1873, lever action. He followed the stage like a patient predator. He was a man on one mission and the stage was the bait, although no one including the Jehu nor conductor knew. The man had read about the three gunmen from Kansas. Capturing all three, dead or alive, meant ten thousand dollars. A sizeable sum. And the territory was worth many times more. New Mexico was the hub of lawlessness with every decent gunman looking to cheat at cards, rob banks, holdup stages, and kill if necessary. They were a disease that needed to be cured. He was the territory’s remedy.

###

A burst of desiccated air blows the notebook closed as if it wanted me to stop reading. The early fall sun is still summer strong. It sits high overhead, building thermal layers for the hawks and buzzards. I hear gunshots in the distance, but no evidence of riders. And who is the duster man?

I sip from the canteen to help push the sand-like crumbs from the biscuit down my throat. Someone should be coming soon.

I read until dusk, slam the notebook shut, and gaze into the diminishing orange. A figure walks through my vision, stops, looks at me, and moves from my sight. I could be dreaming; it is becoming difficult to know. I rest on a mailsack and see the figure again. It is a wolf. My pounding heart wakes me. Crickets chirp.

After sunset, only two eyes shine through the black. And then howls fill the air. Quakes of fear rumble through me until I remember what a Missouri mountain man once said. “Wolves don’t attack us, they protect us.”

###

The duster man knew there was quite a bit of jewelry and cash on persons in the coach. Also, a trunk with more valuables was in the rear boot. The man’s experience told him this was the perfect stagecoach to ambush. The Jayhawkers were about to become road agents in New Mexico.

The duster man listened.

Wheels and hooves approached the bluff from the southeast. Multiple shots cracked the air. One man armed with a Henry repeater shot out the lantern and began firing at the horses. The other two fired their Colt revolvers in the direction of team. Panicked horses forced the Jehu to pull hard on the lines. The Jayhawkers sprayed the four horses with enough lead to sink a ship. Ears and eyes flew into the night with trails of blood. They were dead on their hooves.

Quickly holstering their weapons, the Kansas men mounted up and galloped toward the stage.

Duster man stopped and dismounted. His horse stood motionless. He sat on a boulder and listened to the hooves and shots. He had never known a Jayhawker, but it did not matter. Outlaws broke laws and bounty hunters caught them, dead or alive.

Billy Bowles remained in hiding among the mailbags, straining to see how many gunmen there were. The horses continued to bleed out. Both the Jehu and conductor jumped from the box and hid behind one of the dead horses. Their eyes fixed north.

“Conductor!” a man inside barked.

“Shut the fuck up! Keep yer heads low, below the windows!” the conductor yelled back.

Billy lifted his head. Three clouds of dust trailed three riders rapidly approaching. When he saw their weapons, he knew they were facing road agents.

“Howdy!” one of the three said.

“You shot our damn horses!” the conductor shouted with twelve-gauge Hartford shotgun loaded and ready.

The Kansas man looked at the rider to his left. “Was that you Jude shootin’ them horses?”

“Not me, Charlie.”

Charlie looked at the rider to his right. “Was that you Henry shootin’ them horses?”

“Not me, Charlie.”

“Seems it weren’t us,” Charlie said, then spit. “We’re jest some poor boys from Kansas lookin’ for some help. Maybe ask you kind New Mexicans for a few dollars so’s we can eat.”

The three men laughed.

The conductor had little choice. He could blow one man off his mount but would surely be shot immediately by the other two. He did not want to die as he had so many times in his nightmares. But he was paid to protect the paying customers and the valuables.

“You bastards killed our team and yer gonna pay for it!” the conductor shouted.

“Calm down now, mister conductor and slide that shotgun over to Jude, nice and easy,” Charley said.

The conductor cocked both barrels.

“Let’s all jest calm down,” the Jehu said with hands raised.

“Okay, Mister Jehu, ain’t you responsible for the passengers’ wellbein’?” Charlie asked with a stained smirk. “Cause if y’are, then you better throw that Colt to me and tell your conductor to slide his shotgun to Jude. Otherwise, can’t say what might happen.”

“We’re expected in Santa Fe by nightfall,” the Jehu said.

“One more time, Mister Jehu, and Mister Conductor, throw me yer weapons or get shot. It’s as simple as that. We’ll be long gone before anyone in Santa Fe gets word of our little robbery here.”

###

The wolf was gone the next morning, but I had a feeling he would be back. I read through the day with the cry of hunting raptors as music. The steady wind keeps them aloft indefinitely while their eyes focus on the prey below.

The sun begins to turn orange. I realize this horseless stage will be my home another night with nothing but the last of the biscuits, water, and oil lantern.

I break off small biscuit pieces and eat them without wasting water. Crumbs, like microscopic sponges, steal what moisture is left in my throat. I gag and throw up the saturated bits.

The pages beg me to begin reading again. Turning to the next page is what keeps me sane in this wasteland.

I light the wick.

I see the eyes.

I am safe another night.

###

Billy remained undetected. His sweaty hand gripped the Derringer. He doubted these gunmen wanted mail. They wanted money and jewelry. He thought about being a hero, but with only two shots and probably missing with both, his death would be assured. He kept his head down and listened.

The Jehu surrendered his Colt.

“In Kansas, we riders generally take what we want with the Law nippin’ at our butts,” Charie said. “I don’t see much law here in these parts to stop us. So folks, this is what I want ya t’do. Empty all yer pockets n bags and place them by Jude here.”

Nobody moved.

“Perhaps, Madam, you will come out first?” Charlie said and nodded to Jude, who opened the door and pulled the woman out with such force she lost her hat and tripped to the ground, skinning her knees through brand-new silk stockings.

Charlie dismounted yanked the sobbing woman up by the collar. “No need to cry, I’m not plannin’ to hurt ya. Jest hand over all yer jewelry n what cash you’re carryin’.” She fell back to ground and surrendered to Jude.

“We’ll git yer jewelry after,” Jude said and began to unbuckle his trousers.

Billy heard a faint sound from behind. Steady crunching of corn-kernel dirt grew louder until it stopped. A new voice sounded in the dead air. “I don’t think so.”

Billy took the gamble and raised his head.

Everyone stared at the new man with the baritone voice.

“Who the hell’re you?” Charley asked.

The man looked at each gunman with friendly eyes and chiseled jaw. His long coat was his calling card.

“Name’s John Stanton. You’d know me if you were outlaws in this territory.”

“We heard about you and yer duster roamin’ these parts, but you ain’t got business here,” Charlie said and spit some chew.

“But I do. I’m plannin’ on takin’ you boys back to Kansas and collectin’ my ten grand.”

No one said a word. The Jayhawkers appeared uneasy.

“Dead or alive, your choice,” Stanton said.

“Jest how’re ya gonna pull that off Mister—?”

John Stanton did not answer. Billy watched an explosion of bullets as the bloodbath unfolded.

Charlie fired at Stanton, missed.

The wayward bullet tore into the woman’s gut. Blood shot from the black hole.

The Jehu shot his pistol at Charlie who had re-cocked and returned fire.

The Jehu fell to the ground, rapidly staining the brown dirt scarlet.

Stanton fired his .44 caliber Army at Charley. His knee shattered into a spray of bloody bones. Stanton’s next shot exploded Charlie’s shooting hand, propelling his pistol into the darkness.

Standon obliged Jude and Henry with their own shot-up knees.

The three Jayhawkers fell from their saddles. Cries of pain filled the camp.

It had all happened in an instant. Billy’s heart pounded so loudly he could barely hear the shots.

“Reinsman’s been hit!” the conductor yelled.

The men stood over him and heard the gurgle of death. He stared straight up. Billy imagined how the stars might look to a dying man. Maybe a person can take one final memory to the next life.

Billy shook his head. Can’t be thinking of that now. With a burst of bravery, he jumped down and walked toward the crying woman.

“Where’d you come from?” Stanton asked.

“Hanger on…sir. The woman needs help, I think.”

“What’s your name?”

“Casper William Bowles, known in these parts as Billy Bowles.”

“Never heard of ya. Go see on her,” Stanton said.

Billy looked at a terrified conductor and five trembling male passengers. Their situation offered only one option, wait for the next stage, and hope these passengers could hang on until then.

“Can I please have your attention?” Stanton shouted. “We need to discuss a plan.”

“Plan?! He ain’t got no plan!” Charley screamed. “Yer all gonna die with us!”

The Jayhawkers’ cries echoed down the gulch.

“You know what they say in this territory, Charley? Shoot a man in the head or heart if you wanna killim. Shoot’em in the knees if you wanna hearim cry,” Stanton turned to the panicked passengers. “Pay him no mind. I’m takin’ him and the other two back to Kansas. They’ll be facin’ the hangin’ tree soon enough. I’m plannin’ to leave within the hour.”

“What about us?” one of the male passengers asked.

“Next stage should have room up top,” the conductor said.

Billy sat with the injured woman. He felt embarrassed. His hair was too long, and he needed a bath. It did not matter; she paid him no mind.

###

The dim lantern light tires my eyes. Early morning, before first light, chilled desert breezes snake through the coach. I mark my place and close the notebook. It comes to mind that I have not yet searched the surroundings. I pull all the mailbags from under both coach benches. The gold lever of a new Winchester 1873 reflects the lantern light. A woman’s handbag was hidden behind the gun. I open it and find a few pounds of gold jewelry, one-hundred twenty-dollar Double Eagle gold coins, and an unknown amount of paper currency.

Are all these valuables under my charge? Is someone coming with a team to move this stage?

I lie back and listen to the distant howl of a wolf, possibly the same one I’ve seen. The one who is watching over me.

The sun is high when I wake. The air is still and fouled by rotting horses. In the distance I hear hooves.

I listen.

The sound tells me there are two horses coming toward the stage. I load the shiny Winchester with fifteen rounds and wait. Then I listen again, only wind. I rest my head on a mail sack and close my eyes. The wind stops, revealing the crunch of boots on the gravely prairie. My mind is fatigued and cannot be trusted. I lie again on the sack. More gusts blow through the coach.

Then the wind stops.

“What’s this, Frank? A brandy-new stage with a dead team.”

“Never seen nothin’ like it, Tommy.”

“I’ll check it,” Frank says.

I hear a man cock his revolver and dismount. I stay inside the stage.

“Well, howdy. Waitin’ for someone?” Frank asks.

It is my move. Pounding heart, sweaty hands, and no experience firing a Winchester, I must hide everything I am feeling. What I say next could mean my life.

“Maybe I was waitin’ for you two,” I say with the strongest voice I can muster.

“How’d you know we was comin’?”

As I suspect, they are not the brightest thinkers. “Word’s out you two were hangin’ around the territory. I’m here to protect what’s in this stage.” I suspect one man protecting a loot hidden in a grounded stage is irresistible to them. But I’m a wild card they weren’t expecting.

“Who the hell’re you?” Frank questions me. I see anger through the dripping sweat stinging his eyes.

Memories of the past two days do not include my name. I pick the first one that comes to mind under the stress of the situation.

“Name’s Billy Bowles.”

“Bowles? The same Bowles who knows that bounty man, John Stanton?”

“The same,” I lie, playing along. I’ve never met a John Stanton, bounty hunter.

“Listen, Mister Bowles, we don’t want no trouble. You can keep that there Winchester where it’s at, and we’ll be off. Tell Mister Stanton we was jest visitin’.” Frank says. He nods to Tommy.

I watch both men kick their mounts and head north.

The scene plays over and over in my mind. My alleged association with a bounty hunter is all that saved me.

Once calm, I find the pages.

###

The ensuing stage was scheduled for noon the next day. John Stanton had already left for Kansas with the three broken outlaws. He spoke to Billy before leaving.

“We need to talk.”

Billy knew bounty hunters could be just as dangerous as road agents and gunmen. He was not sure if he should feel fear.

“The conductor is a coward,” Stanton whispered. “Watch him.”

“Mister Stanton, I’m not sure if—”

“—no time for that now. Listen to me. The gold and other valuables will have to stay with the stage until another carriage with room can take them.”

“When will that be?” Billy asked.

“Can’t say. Let the others go. You gotta stay with the valuables until they can be retrieved.”

“Why me? I can’t shoot. And all I have is my Derringer,” Billy said.

“Look around. Who else besides you?”

Billy watched the bounty hunter gather the reins of the three horses carrying three whimpering Jayhawkers. They disappeared into the lawless night “Search the coach!” Stanton shouted to Billy.

The conductor and the five male passengers argued in loud whispers. Billy continued to sit with the woman. Blood slowly spilled from her stomach.

“You, there! Hanger on—”

“Name’s Billy Bowles.”

“Yeah, Bowles, we have a plan,” the conductor said.

“Did the plan come from Mister Stanton?” Billy asked.

“I’m the conductor and without our Jehu, I’m now in charge.”

“I don’t care what you all do. Mister Stanton told me to guard the valuables until a proper carriage could be dispatched from Santa Fe. And that’s what I plan to do.”

“Well, we plan to hop onto the top of the next stage,” the conductor said.

“What about the woman?” Billy asked.

“The plan doesn’t include her. Anyway, she’s just a rich whore who bought herself a seat inside the coach. She don’t deserve a space. Besides, she’s been hit. She ain’t long for this world.”

Billy looked at the woman. Her head had fallen into her lap. Black blood dried on her stockings. She was also bleeding from her gut; crimson stained her dress.

The men went their separate ways to sleep the remainder of the night.

Billy turned toward the woman. “How bad is it?”

She shook her head.

“May I ask your name…please?”

The woman looked at Billy with swollen eyes. “Margaret.”

“Show me where you were hit.”

Margaret opened her shawl. Billy saw a black hole in her stomach oozing too much blood.

“Is there anything I can do to make you feel better, Miss Margaret?”

“I’m terrified and dying and in too much pain to cry. But my mother is expecting me. Are you going with the others?”

“I’m staying with the stage. Stanton’s orders. You can stay with me.”

He told her the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He assured her she would be fine until they made it to Santa Fe. He lied, but what did it matter? Billy doubted the woman would live to see the next stage.

“Tomorrow a stage will come?” Margaret asked.

“Yes.”

She handed him an addressed envelope for a house in Santa Fe. Inside was a letter. “I wrote this to my mother just in case—”

“—something like this happened.”

“Yes, you understand. If you are saved and travel to Santa Fe, would you mind giving her this short missive?”

Billy saw the pain in her eyes. He stowed the letter in his breast pocket and waited for death to arrive.

The wolf howled. Billy hoped it would take Miss Margaret to a better life.

When the sun began to heat the air and the flies became a morning nuisance, the five men, and conductor pissed in unison a few yards from the stage.

Margaret stared into the morning light; the wolf had not taken her.

No one spoke.

When the sun reached zenith, wheels and hooves sounded from the east.

“I see dust!” one of the men shouted.

Wheels and hooves grew louder. Gusty wind blew dust into everyone’s eyes. The Reinsman’s voice could be heard slowing the team until the stage came to a stop.

“You the folks we need to carry?” he asked.

“We’ll ride up top,” the conductor said.

“That’s the only room we got,” the Reinsman said.

“What about the woman?” Billy asked.

“No room,” the conductor said. “She ain’t gonna make it anyway.”

The stage left.

Margaret lay on her side, blood still seeping from the bullet wound in her stomach.

“Let me move you closer to the stage,” Billy said. He dragged her limp body over the brush while she moaned. He positioned her out of the sun and wet her lips with his canteen water.

Tireless buzzards circled the dead horses.

“Do you have a gun?” she asked.

Billy could not answer her. He knew she was in too much pain to continue the slow death she was facing. And he suspected she wanted him to take her out of her misery as if she were a mount.

“Do you have a gun!”

After a long pause, “I do, Miss.”

“How many bullets?”

“Only two in my Derringer.”

“Would you be so brave as to use one on me?” Her swollen eyes begged him.

“I’ll get you to a doc—”

“—too late. No one survives a bullet in the stomach.”

Billy never had a reason to kill another person. And even if he did have a reason, his trigger finger might still resist.

“Let me get you inside.”

“Please, shoot me between the eyes and get it over with. The pain—”

Billy removed the Derringer in his pocket. He looked at Margaret and saw a black hole. The Derringer slipped from his nervous hand and fell to the ground. She was asking him to be a murderer.

He knelt to retrieve his gun. “I don’t know if I can do this—”

“—you must!” Margaret screamed. “Please,” she whispered.

What choice did he have? What choice did she have? He aimed his Derringer, unconvinced finger touching the trigger. His dead father’s black bullet hole filled his vision. Then he saw Margaret’s unblemished forehead.

“Please God, if you’re up there, you know I have no choice.”

Sweat dripped into his eyes.

He held his breath.

He closed his eyes—

—and fired.

He opened his eyes and stared at the black hole in her forehead knowing he was a murderer regardless of her sanction.

###

The chapter ends. My stomach growls for meat. I have been feeling unsteady of late. I know I’m dehydrated, but with only half a canteen left I should conserve. Funny, it seems to never empty, although I know I’ve been drinking from the canteen for almost three days.

The last pages beg me to finish.

###

Billy dropped the Derringer, fell to his knees crying as a baby. Her face and his mother’s merged somehow. He had saved Margaret from unbearable pain and should have saved his mother from the rape. He wished he had shot his mother between the eyes. He pictured how her face would look with the hole. He placed a blanket over Margaret and retired to the coach, wondering how he would live with this crime he had committed.

He drifted into a daydream with a never-ending dead people’s parade, everyone’s forehead decorated with an oozing, cavernous, black bullet hole.

The wolf’s cry startled him. He could not remember where he was. The sun had almost disappeared, replaced with a full Moon. Tripping from the coach and skinning his knees, a reflection caught his eye. He turned and saw a silver broach pinned to a dead woman. Between her eyes was a bullet hole.

Who was this woman?

Who shot her?

Billy stumbled to the coach, unable to breath, heart pounding in his ears.

###

I read through the night. The horror Billy had to endure feels personal. When dawn finally arrives, I know I must leave the coach and evaluate my chances of survival. Another stage should have already come but has not. I look up and wonder if the buzzards are waiting for me to die.

I open the coach door. Blustery morning wind greets me. The reflection from a silver broach blinds me. A blanket partially covering something leans against the stage. The pop of a discharged Derringer strikes my ears. The image of a woman about to die flashes in front of me. I pull the blanket off a woman’s body with a black hole in her forehead.

###

Billy’s water ran out. Ants stole what was left of the biscuits.

He prayed to hear the baritone voice again.

He listened for wheels and hooves.

###

I listen for wheels and hooves.

My canteen is dry. Ants have taken my biscuits. A dead woman leans against the stage.

I sit next to her, and stare, in horror, at the bullet hole between her eyes, knowing I too will soon be dead.

Then—

A shadow blocks the unrelenting sun. A man in a duster kneels at my side. He wets his neckerchief and places it on my forehead. I try to decide if this is death.

Then—

I remember the notebook has a man in a duster.

I remember hiding among mailbags as a hanger on.

I remember the duster man saved the stage from Jayhawker road agents.

I remember ending Miss Margaret’s suffering.

“Billy…answer me”

I remember his name, John.

I remember my name, Billy, Billy Bowles.

“It’s over. I’ve brought a carriage.”

I remember a carriage was supposed to come.

“I murdered Miss Margaret,” I say. “Murder” is a word I have never said out loud.

“That’s and unfair word, Billy. You did what I’m sure she asked you to do.”

I rest against the broken stage next to Margaret. Maggots blanket the fallen team. John Stanton moves Margaret’s body to the carriage. Then he lifts my dehydrated body over his shoulder and deposits me next to the trunk full of valuables hidden in the rear boot. The two-horse team responds to John’s encouragement with a spirited pace.

“What’s next, John?”

“That’s up to you, Billy.”

And then I remember the last piece; the one I need to close the circle. The whole story is up to me, and I have not yet written the final chapter.


 Kenneth is a writer of short stories. His publications include science fiction and period fiction. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his family.


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“Shadow Dance” Dark Fiction by Dylan Webster

Dark Fiction by Dylan Webster “Shadow Dance”

Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress, on the corner of 35th and Gunther. It’s always been there, it seems, and perhaps it will always remain. In the way that things on the West Coast can have that odd in-between feeling of not modern, but not quite decrepit, maybe Rennie’s Burgers will withstand the test of time. 

I pull into its shadow and slot my rusted red bike into the bike rack. I lock it up and wipe the beads of sweat that formed on my forehead in the seven-minute ride to get here. The searing heat of this city seems to assault you from above and below; the sun bears down with the hottest breath that seems to just bounce up from the asphalt, trapping you here, in the middle. 

I slick my hair back as much as I can, checking my faint reflection in the glass of the restaurant window. Uncooperative, strands of my hair fray in obstinacy. Accepting the futility of it, I walk through the doors to the vestibule. I breathe in the cooler air. I always stop here for a moment in the vestibule – this wonderful little purgatory. I’m here, so I’m not late, but I’m not quite here yet. I step through to the dining room.

The white tables silently rest where they always are, along with the chairs and their decades-old painted metal backs. Green here, red there. Maybe a faded blue that has almost become turquoise from age. 

There’s a couple seated in the far corner. I never understand why anyone chooses to sit there. I suppose it’s because that table is the farthest from the counter, therefore farthest from the teenage rattle going on in the kitchen. But the thing is, that table, in the farthest corner, is surrounded by glass. The western sun shines its final brilliance right there, as if the architect wanted to line it up with the brightest point of the summer sun. I would never sit there to eat my dinner in the summer. The sun isn’t just bright, it’s thick. Gold blasting you, wrapping all around you and filling the whole area with itself. One last intrusion, one last infusion of its light and heat. 

But, there they are. 

I walk through the employee door, which is easy to do considering it must be the original wooden door of this shoddy construction. It doesn’t close properly.

I swear…

The light pours in through the top corner. The bottom has this Tim Burton-esque slant to it, so I half expect some anthropomorphic creature to walk through and take me to a different world. 

At the small closet where we keep our things, I slough my corduroy backpack off my shoulder and let it drop into a plastic chair. The timeclock is there on the wall. Large, old, imposing. A disgusting dark pea-green, with chips all over it. It looks like it fell out of a pick up truck on the way here for a bad burger. I take out my slip and slide it under. Pressing the reluctant button, it smashes down onto the card with what must be hatred. I look at the card. 7:58pm.

I stare at the ink on the card, slightly slanted. It almost looks like a library card. Like this card I had when I was twelve, and I’d gotten these books that – 

“Thank God, you’re here! I’m dying.”  Natalie whines. I break my trance to meet her glance. 

“Yeah, and two minutes early, too, so there you go.” 

She chuckles. Her eyes resemble crushed emeralds glinting in the sun. 

“Hey, man.” It’s Greg, the shift leader. “Natalie’s drawer’s balanced. Your till’s in register two, ready to go. I’m heading out. See you later.”

I suppose he meant that for the two of us, because he raised his hand for about half a second. Now, he’s already in the vestibule, on his way out. Soon I’ll hear the roar of his obnoxious muscle car, and I’ll hear him needlessly peel out. I just wonder if Natalie will watch him drive out on Gunther in the front of the store. I know he does that so we can see him. 

But she doesn’t.

Natalie is just grabbing the last of her things and stuffing them into her backpack. Like me, she doesn’t have a car. Normally, at school, I see her mom drop her off. But to work, she takes the bus. I always want to offer her a ride home, but I don’t have a car with which to offer. I suppose I could offer to walk her home. 

But then again, I’m here, working. So I’m not sure how I’d do that, either. 

She slings the bag over her now exposed shoulder. I’m in awe of how perfect her skin is. We’re just looking at each other, and I cannot for the life of me think of anything to say. 

“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, and immediately regret it. 

She looks down for a moment, hands on the strap of her bag, hair loosely askance. “Yeah, see you tomorrow. Have a good night, Andrew.” 

Damn.

A couple of hours later, I’m completely alone in the restaurant. I’m going to lock the doors to the dining room pretty soon. A burger place doesn’t typically do all that well throughout the night, but this particular one has a long history of remaining open all twenty-four hours. The owner, Rennie, doesn’t want to change that at this point.

It’s what built this place. Its spirit is service. Duty. Persistence, I hear him say in my mind.

I really shouldn’t complain. If he hadn’t had this shift open, then I’d have been out of a job. But I hate this shift. And I especially hate being here alone.    

I’m not sure why I thought this would be a good idea. I am not a fearless jock. I’m actually a nervous wreck most of the time. I get here two minutes early to my shift, every single time. No earlier, no later. Exactly that time. And really, that’s a lie. I know exactly why I’m here. 

I needed a job but couldn’t find one that I wanted. So, my stepdad, being the great guy he is, told me to come here, told me to apply, told me to interview. And when they offered me the job, he told me to take it. 

So, I took it. 

And so, I am here now. 

I’m not the type of person that enjoys solitude. There’s too much happening in my mind. I wish I hadn’t taken the job. My stepdad tells me all the time that this is good, though. Really builds character. And discipline. 

Both of which I need, I guess.

I wanted to get a job doing something creative. I’d have loved to have gotten a job at a theater or something. Maybe working for the art department, creating intricate backdrops for low -budget productions. Hell, even the damn ticket booth would have been better. 

My back suddenly hurts. I’ve been slouching here too long, sulking. I look through the drive thru window. I don’t see anyone. And at 10:45 p.m., I don’t really expect anyone. I lean out and peek into the dining room. All the chairs are upside down on the tables, and the checkered tile is ready to be mopped. 

The flooring makes me think of the tiny tiles in the school bathrooms. I always stare at them when I’m in the gym showers, imagining what it would be like if one of them were chipped, but I failed to see it. In this daydream, while I’m showering and moving around, I jam my moist and swollen toe on it, tearing into the pliable flesh. I don’t feel it right away, but I look down and see the smoky red mixing with the water, the deepest crimson spilling out of the split toe. 

My foot begins to tingle inside of my shoe, bringing me back, and I look away from the tile. Closing my eyes, I try to think of something else. Anything else.

I walk to the closet and grab the mop. The bucket water clouds as I pour in some sort of solution. It almost smells fresh, but at the same time, somehow manages to smell old. Dingy. Almost like an ancient public restroom that was just wiped down. 

I’m plunging the mop in and out of the water mindlessly. The water sloshes and mixes. I’m thinking of Natalie. Now, of course, so many things populate my mind. All these things would have been great conversation starters. 

Hey, so how close are you to getting a car? 

Oh, not close enough! She’d say. And she’d laugh, tossing her hair. 

I’m going to get an old Firebird with a huge engine and race Greg, I’d joke, and this would of course make her laugh even more. 

I roll the mop and bucket out to the dining room, the headset still on so I can hear if anyone shows up at the drive thru. I fling the mop out onto the miniature tiles. Outside, the dull glow of the streetlamp filters into the dining room. I glance over the counter to the drive thru window. It’s dark. 

I continue to mop, thinking of Natalie, thinking of –

 Shit. I forgot to lock the front doors.

I take my keys out and make my way to the front entrance. I force the key into the door and turn. It clatters roughly, resisting my hand, but eventually falls fully into place. I look out the glass of the door.

It is really dark tonight.

I search for the moon, but it must be a New Moon; it’s nearly black out there. I hardly see any stars, and they seem to be receding. Falling farther away and disappearing completely. It’s as if there are clouds, but maybe they’re so thick and full of dark rain that I just can’t really see them. 

I turn around in the vestibule and make my way back to the mop. 

I freeze. A chill brushes against my spine. 

Every chair is out. Lined along the walls in an interlocking pattern. Some are right up against the glass. It’s darker outside now. Thick. And writhing. 

Every muscle in my body seems rigid. I can hardly move, and even breathing takes effort. I don’t know exactly what I should do right now. Worse, I’m not even sure that I’m still sane. 

No. it’s not real. I’m here by myself. It’s late. It’s empty, I repeat to myself with my eyes smashed shut. The chill that whispers up my spine turns to icy sweat beads, and my shirt sticks to my chest. I can see it moving with my breathing, which is rapidly becoming heaving

I glance at the door, then look at my register, focus on it. I’m determined.

I wait, build up the courage, then sprint. 

I run with wide strides, covering as much ground as I possibly can. I’m almost there, I’m so close, but – 

Oh shiiiiit! 

“Shiiiit!”

I’m slipping on the tiles, still wet from my mop. My left foot loses the last bit of grip it has, and my weight shifts. I reach out my hand, but I’m quickly becoming horizontal. My right foot follows suit and before I know it, I’m on my back. My head radiates with pain, and I realize I must have hit it. I don’t lose consciousness, thank God, but I’m in pain. I clutch my head for a moment, trying to think clearly. Trying to see clearly. 

I slowly get up, feeling like everything is vibrating. Beneath my feet, at the tips of my fingers. I rub my head and turn toward Gunther Street. 

All of the chairs are back on their tables. Upturned, revealing the dry tile, yet to be mopped. 

You fucking idiot

I take a sharp inhale, expanding my lungs, relaxing the rest of my body. I exhale slowly and continue my internal mantra of, Everything is normal. It’s just my mind getting to me. 

Although, the windows are still writhing.

Oh my God, I hadn’t noticed. But now I’m watching the billowing of whatever this blackness is. Complete absence of light plowing into the windows. The dull glow of the streetlamps is swallowed whole in this massive nothingness. This absence. Like a black hole’s mouth came down and swallowed the restaurant up whole, with me inside it. 

Through the thin glass of the window, it looks like smoke, but deeper than the color black can convey. It’s billowing and swirling, dancing against the glass. Swallowing everything up. I can’t hear the traffic on the street, can’t see any light. I press my ear to the glass – frigid as ice – and I can’t hear a thing. Even through the thinness of this antique glass. 

Antique. Old. 

Oh God, what am I doing?

I jerk away from the glass. I stare intently through the window, as if my eyes are tied by rope to the window, and it’s trying to pull me out. Which is really how it feels. I am repulsed by this yet drawn to it with nearly irresistible curiosity. 

I’m forgetting to breathe. 

I inhale and close my eyes. But as soon as mine are closed, I feel a new set upon me. From behind the counter, behind me. I can feel them. Like marbles placed in the space between my shoulder blades. I shiver almost violently. 

I swivel and open my eyes. 

Small, squat, and square. A creature. A female of some kind. Patches of blond blurting from her cracked and bleeding skin, darkened with decay. 

Oh God – 

My stomach lurches, but I’ve nothing to vomit. I retch. My stomach is striving to vacate its very self, to turn inside out and leave my body altogether. I raise my head, but she’s gone. And I knew she would be. But she’s actually gone. I feel that she, or it, is gone . . . but that I’m still not alone. 

Back at the window, new figures outline the smoke. The cloud. Whatever this black nothingness is that presses in on the old building. They’re tall, and gaunt. No color, and no real distinguishments. They’re just there, looking in. Or maybe It is there, just multiplied, all staring at me through nonexistent eyes. Sensing me. Feeling me. Knowing me. 

The figures all seem to press in on the glass. 

Something comes from my throat, I guess it’s a scream. Although at this point, I’m not sure if the sound is real or only in my mind. But now they step back, dissipating into the mass of black nothingness. The night fog. And it begins to move as one. Swirling. Rapidly. 

I can’t help but wonder if there is some sort of eye above us forming. Perhaps unintentional. But an opening. I can’t keep pondering that though, because with the movement, I hear and feel the windows rattling in their places. They’re old, perhaps forty years at this point. I have no confidence whatsoever in them. 

I decide to continue my sprint from before. 

And almost telepathically, the smoke smashes into the windows, rattling them to the point that I can feel the vibration in my feet, through my shoes. The entire building seems to recoil at the assault. 

I approach the counter and hurl my body over it. I land on my shoulder, hard, but I’ve arrived, and the pain seems much less than it ought to. My adrenaline is really carrying me. 

Something within the great dark mass of amorphous cloud screeches. High pitched. Nearly pitiful, if I could ignore the pure rage in it.

I hadn’t noticed before, but I’m crying. And shaking. 

Oh God! 

What the hell am I doing here? What the fuck is this?

There is no time to contemplate this, as while these thoughts seem to be right here and now, I hear the doors violently shake. I freeze, the breath frozen in my lungs, suspending them in a painful expansion.

I exhale and jump to my feet. I sprint back to the doors to make sure this damned thing won’t get in here and… I don’t know, try to choke me or control me or just kill me for pleasure. 

I arrive at the doors, and they’re shaking with the intensity of earthquakes. The very frames themselves violently convulse. I hold them tight, and look down at my hands, trying to ignore this living darkness. This cloud of hatred. Tears wrench themselves from my eyes and drench my hand. Movement outside of the window catches my eye. 

The shaking stops as suddenly as it arrived. The street is dark and empty, the light reflecting on the late-night dew that hangs in the air. A clear night sky stretches above me. Every star shines individually and proudly.

Oh God, I’m fucking losing it. 

I stop for a moment to breathe. I repeat my mantra. 

I’m here alone. I’ve been alone all along. It’s late. I’m just seeing things.

I turn around and –

It’s there. By the counter. The figure. It’s not a female. Clearly dead. The tufts of hair sprouting are white with age and use. Its ancient hand is already clasped around my throat, oh God! I’d call it a monster if it didn’t look so human, so familiar… 

It has no lips, and its teeth are long and gaunt and slanted in every way but straight. Its nails are long enough to sink into the back of my neck. It has me pressed against the glass, hard. I don’t know for certain if this is me – in some form or another – that I’m looking at, but I don’t care. 

I raise my hands and bring them down, crashing as hard as I can against its forearms. The crack is loud and settles into my ears with a ringing. I feel the detachment, the disconnection in the grip of its hands around my throat. It reels back. Its hands of decaying flesh hang from my neck momentarily, while its body collapses about four feet away from me. 

Scurrying past the heap of his handless body, I sprint back into the lobby. The headset is long gone, and I have no idea if anyone is in the drive thru. I run my hand through my cold, sweaty hair. I’m trying to think. 

Spinning in place, I look around the lobby. The chairs are returned to the tables, statuesque. The windows are full of thick darkness again. Writhing with more anger, more intensity now.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Ohmygod!

My heart is blasting my rib cage with fear and anxiety. I don’t know what else to call it: there is an entity surrounding me – supposedly me, myself – and I cannot get away. I cannot reason with its animalistic instincts. It surrounds me. It pounds furiously against the windows now with formless hands. The entire building shudders under the ferocity of this blackness, this nothingness. 

I crouch down and plug my ears. I’m crying. The floor vibrates ceaselessly. 

Suddenly, I think of Natalie.

The craziest fucking thing happened to me last night, I’d say. 

What?

Yeah, I guess I fell asleep or something at the register, and I had this nightmare that this crazy cloud of like a demon or something fell over the whole building. It was trying to kill me. I even saw a version of myself,  long dead. I don’t know what the hell it was all about, but it scared the shit out of me. 

Holy shit, for real? Her eyes would widen here, full of disbelief, but also brimming with compassionate interest. 

Yeah. But then I woke up, thank God. Anyway, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted to see you so I thought I’d –

The floor shakes again, as if lightning struck just steps from the front entrance. I finally lift my head and uncover my ears. 

Before me stands the dead version of me, again. Handless, lipless, bleeding.

I can’t scream. It’s inches from my face. Now I realize it’s eyeless, too. The blackness in the abnormally large holes seems so unreal that I can’t stop thinking, It must be fake. The absurdly long teeth grate together in what must be either hatred or fear. 

Oh, shit. Fear. 

I look at it, and it supposedly stares at me.

It fears me. 

Its teeth part as if it would fain to say something, but being tongueless, it is incapable of speech. It just groans in a pitifully dark yaw. But I don’t need to hear anything: it’s trying to tell me to get the hell out of here while I still can.

I scramble to my feet, and the creature straightens as well. 

Something crashes hard. In the kitchen. Pots, pans, cacophony; all seems to disassemble in a maelstrom of preternatural hatred. 

I turn to look, faster than I have ever moved, toward the kitchen. The death doppelganger beside me fixes its visionless gaze ahead, over the counter and into the kitchen. All the while, a rumble begins to vibrate our feet, working its way up our ankles. It begins a silent sprint that only a corpse could accomplish, but is instantly impaled by a thick, writhing cloud of blackness and cold. Boxes of frozen food and dishes explode from the kitchen into the dining room in shards. Pieces lacerate my body and face painlessly. 

The doppelganger hangs limp and is dropped. Its body shatters upon meeting the tile. A million fragments of whatever this thing was gather at my feet, like porcelain dropped from rooftops. 

A figure emerges. Absence. Blackness, smoke. Nothingness. Nearly formless. Yet writhing, and multitudinous in its failing uniformity. It’s alive, it’s conscious. 

“What do you want?” I scream at the mass.

It disassembles into a cloudlike shape and screams toward me, the screaming a complete inhuman and guttural sound. Something a fallen angel must sound like on its descent to hell. Agony. Pain. Regret. 

I turn and sprint. The chairs are flinging from their tables and hurtling toward me. I dodge two and crouch beneath a third. Finally, I approach the glass. 

It’s thin. Too thin. Four decades old. 

I grab the fourth chair on its warpath toward me, and spin it around to redirect its inertia to the window. It impacts the window just as my body does. I fly through the shards. I can feel them elegantly pierce me. They imbed themselves. Deep. I have this oddly serene feeling of knowing that very important parts of my body are badly damaged instantaneously. I am flailing, and suddenly my body collides with asphalt. It pushes the more reluctant shards deeper into me. 

More pieces of glass clatter and chime around me, bouncing off the cement. The sodium glow of the streetlamp refracts a million times around me, like glitter. 

Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress on the corner of 35th and Gunther. I pull into its shadow on my rusty old red bike. Slipping it into the bike rack. I attempt to fix my obstinate hair in the reflection of the glass…

But I can’t; the glass is shattered. 

I rush to the vestibule and stop. I see Natalie through the doors, in the dining area, amid a mess of twisted colored metal and blood. She’s bawling. Greg stands there, arm around her, but his face betrays him. He’s frightened. I instinctively step through the doors through which I burst out of seemingly moments before. But suddenly, there are police everywhere, as if they’ve materialized. 

I whirl every which way, but find myself out of place. I can’t sense anything right. I rush through the crowd of first responders, but they don’t notice me frantically shoving through. 

Out on the sidewalk is a mangled mass of shredded flesh and cloth, matted together with congealed blood.                  And over the blazing curve of the setting sun, creeps the darkest plumes of absence.


Dylan Webster (he/him) lives and writes in the sweltering heat of Phoenix, AZ. He is the author of the poetry collection Dislocated (Quillkeepers Press, 2022), and his poetry and fiction have appeared, and are forthcoming in, anthologies by Quillkeepers Press and Neon Sunrise Publishing; as well as the journals The Dillydoun Review, Last Leaves, The Cannons Mouth by Cannon Poets Quarterly, and Amethyst Review. 

Dylan has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as the Best of The Net. 


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“The Power of the Pale God Compels You” By Joe Jablonski

"The Power of the Pale God Compels You" By Joe Jablonski--The Chamber Magazine

Have you heard the good news?

We were on the edge of an unknown solar system in an unknown sector when the alien craft appeared.

It was massive, a perfect sphere. All black. Large hair like growths jutted out in all directions. The soft glow of the systems blue giant reflecting off its exterior was absolutely beautiful.

We hailed it to no avail.

A tractor beam locked on to us, trapping us within a false gravity. A set of bay doors opened at its front. Then a flash. Two metallic tendrils shot out of the dull blue haze within, their claw-like tips digging into the front of the ship.

Decks three through six lost both pressure and atmosphere. There were no survivors.

The captain gave the order. Ten volleys of plasma torpedoes followed and not a scratch.

We were pulled inside to the sound of klaxons and screams. Another flash and everything went black.

This was first contact.

This was a complete nightmare.

***

I woke in small cell without windows or doors. Cold. Fetal. A nutrient tube had been sown into my stomach. Dried blood surrounded the point of insertion. Pulling only made the stitches grow tighter.

There was a presence behind me. I could feel the coldness of it; the wrongness of it.

It shifted its weight and spoke.

“Hello, Pat, is it?”

I looked up, my eyes rolling lethargically within my skull. The ships waste management tech stood over me wearing a shiny robe of red velvet. His head came into focus. A glowing orb drifted above his face. Two wires in the back connected to the empty sockets of where his eyes once were.

I recoiled and scuttled backwards. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Stay calm,” he said taking a step towards me. His grey lips stretched into a smile. Purple liquid dripped from the corners.

His name was Raymond. There was a rumor among the ship that he was the sole survivor of a suicide cult on a desert planet. Their method of self-execution was walking out into the vast wasteland outside the safety of the port city and starving themselves of all water and food.

Two months after the cult’s leader broadcasted the groups intentions, Raymond was found drenched in blood in a small cave, thirty pounds overweight and surrounded by the hacked up remains of forty-three people.

The genitals were first to be eaten. Or so they said.

No one ever got too close.

“Do you trust me?” said Raymond.

“Not really,” I said. I was panicked. Hyperventilating.

“You should. I come to you today with a wonderful offer.”

The color of his face orb shifted. My breathing slowed. A strange calmness came over me.

It was hard to move.

It was hard to think.

Raymond sat down at my level. Legs cross. Elbows on his knees. He said I had a choice: accept the Pale God’s guidance or become an offering.

I could only stare. Whatever they had drugged me with was kicking in. I was trembling. My vision blurred. The walls vibrated all around us.

Raymond was a rock within it all. He gently put his hand on my shoulder and moved in closer.

With growing fervor, he told me how the Pale God only gave his blessings to those who joined willingly.

He told me how he couldn’t even begin to describe how good it felt to live in its light.

He told me how in its infinite kindness, it would absolve me of all my sins.

I just needed to say yes.

By now the entire room was shaking. Raymond praised the Pale God at the top of his lungs like a mad man, head up, arms to the ceiling, his face-orb brightly flashing a rainbow of colors in sync with the words.

My back was to the wall. There was nowhere to run.

Suddenly, Raymond froze and held up a finger. All went still in an instant. The orb drifted closer until it was inches from my face. A million tiny particles danced within its now soft purple glow. It was all I could focus on.

I was drawn to it, mesmerized by it.

Raymond reached out from beyond its light, squeezed my arm softly, and said, “My friend, I have no doubt that when the time comes, you’ll do the right thing.”

He then stood.

He then smiled.

Then flash, and he was gone.

A coldness came over the room. Everything seemed so empty and hollow in the absence of his orbs glow.

That void within was a parting gift.

I had a day to decide.

***

This was the part where I’d usually give you an engaging insight into my past, but my memory was fading fast within the fog. Only glimpses remained: A woman scorned. A cat smuggled. A plasma torch igniting.

This wasn’t the first time I was offered a false hope in exchange for enteral servitude.

We were all running from something…

I stood naked in near darkness, placed single file in line with my former crewmates, our muscles locked in place by some invisible forces. The air was thick and warmed. A severed nutrient feed dripped down my leg.

Glowing particles rose from the floor all around us, slowly merging and taking shape, forming the landscape of an Earth I’ve never seen with my own eyes.

In minutes we were all standing in a field of violet flowers within a mountain valley. Ethereal sunlight seeped through the cracks of large, vibrant clouds, shining onto a large stone platform engraved with intricate gold patterns.

But something off. Everything was too crisp, too saturated, all of it blowing in a breeze I couldn’t feel.

Shadowed specks drifted in and out.

Suddenly, a voice boomed over the valley.

“Please welcome your savior, the Pale God.”

A small creature appeared on the platform, serenaded by loud, disembodied claps, and draped in purple. It rode atop an elaborate machine, all torso and head without features. Fleshy growths clung to the cracks in skin textured like chipped marble. An orb twice its mass was embedded deep into its skull.

On either side stood a pair of massive aliens with massive limbs. Their heads were oval with jaws fillies with razors. Each had an orb of their very own, single wires extending into their single eye sockets.

The Pale God’s orb rippled and flashed green.

Our muscles suddenly freed. Many of my former crew looked around in confusion. Some murmured. Some wept.

Not one deviated from the line.

“This isn’t right,” a voice whispered from behind me. “Did they talk to you too? What’d they mean by ‘an offering?’”

I didn’t answer. All my focus was on the Pale God. I could feel a gentle vibration somewhere within the back of my mind. It was faint, almost soothing.

Our ships’ captain jumped up on the podium with gusto. Her crimson robes were pressed to perfection. Her face orb glowed bright blue.

“It’s a wonderful day for all of you,” she said with uncharacteristic glee. “Today is the day you get to receive the truth of our God’s glorious blessing.”

The captain motioned to the person at the head of the line. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile.

“You, Madeline. You get the honor of being first.”

Madeline held a rosary tight in her grip, her lips moving wordlessly. Two robed figures guided her up onto the platform until she was just feet from the Pale God.

Madeline brought the rosary to her face. She was sobbing uncontrollably.

“Kneel before him to receive his gift,” said the captain.

The woman froze. She shook her head ‘no’ rapidly, her eyes closed tight.

“Oh dear,” said the captain.

The Pale God’s orb turned red. It didn’t hesitate.

Madeline’s body was lifted inches off the ground, limbs locked and outstretched against her will. Her screams of protest cut off in an instant as a fine red mist her shape and size was ripped from her. The false Madeline hovered in the air for mere moments before being absorbed into the pale Gods orb.

A dried husk hit the ground. No longer moving. No longer defiant. It flaked into dust piece by piece, blown away by a gentle breeze.

When it was finished only the rosary remained.

The line erupted in terror. I vomited uncontrollably, starting a chain reaction that spread to the next three in front of me.

The orb flashed a warning. The vibration in my head was growing warmer. I tried to resist it, the comfort of it, the wrongness of it.

It was nothing more than a false hope, a tease to convince us to submit.

“Please, everyone, calm down,” said the captain, waving the crowd to silence. “I know how you all feel right now. I really do. I was hesitant to receive the gift myself. But, my friends, I assure you, I now can’t even imagine a life outside his grace. All the pain, all the suffering, ever sin I ever took part in or endured, all of it has been forever washed away. It will be the same with you. All you have to do is submit and we can continue our journey, spreading word of his eternal love to all we come across.

The vibrations grew stronger.

The man behind me whispered it was all bullshit. He said he saw our ship be destroyed with everything on it. Our only chance now was to fight.

The words were slow to sink in within the fog. Muddled glimpses of everything I had lost flashed in my head: A rock from my home planet. An engagement ring returned. A cat freed from a butcher in a shipyard in exchange for six pounds of thigh meat.

Everything I owned was on that ship, everything I ever knew and loved; all off stripped away in an instant.

My fist and jaw were both clinched tight. Sgt. Snugglesworth didn’t deserve any of this.

I whisper back to the guy behind me that I was in.

The podium shifted.

Next in line was the ships head cook. Old. Rotund. He made his way in front on the Pale God and dropped to his knees instantly, professing his undying devotion.

The Pale God’s orb glowed blue.

The captain plucked a fleshy mass out of a crack in its skin and approached the cook.

“Open your mouth,” she said softly.

He did as he was ordered. He was shaking. He was drooling. There were so many tears.

The captain gently placed the flesh on his tongue. It sizzled on contact.

Then a pause. A moment of silence.

The chef suddenly stood and turned towards the crowd in a panic, grunting and clawing at skin around his eyes as they started to boil and melt into a thin milky liquid that ran down his cheeks.

The chef dropped to his knees, gasping and pleading.

Two robed figures calmly approached, one with a uniform, the other with an orb. The former wrapped him in red velvet. The orb was placed just above his face. Two wire snaked from the back, slowly finding their target, and digging their way deep into the chef’s now defunct eye sockets, latching tight onto his cerebral cortex beyond.

The orb floated from the latter figures grip. It flickered green, matching that of a Pale God’s.

The cook froze, slowly lowered his hands, mouth agape with a look of wonder stretched across his face. A newborn discovering newborn things.

He welcomed the captain’s embrace with a smile.

He beamed when she told him how proud she was of him.

He jumped and clicked his heels together with all the grace of a seventy-four-year-old, proclaiming loudly to all of us how he had never felt better in his entire life.

***

Twelve people ahead of me and counting.

A woman with dreadlocks and a purple face orb moaned and writhed with delight atop the platform. I now knew with absolutely certainty that all my ex-girlfriends had faked it.

The vibration grew louder. The brain fog cleared. This bliss was just a taste of what the Pale God promised.

It was getting harder to resist.

Next up was a steel worker. As the captain cheered, he turned towards the crowd with a smile and an orb, just like the rest of them.

I was so close to the front. The fear was overwhelming. The vibration was overwhelming. A complete dopamine rush radiated throughout my entire body. Better than finest meal. Better than the finest drug. Better than sex.

I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to be stronger than this. I knew deep down that there was no real choice, no real way out. Die in excruciating pain and become nothing or live as monster, blinded and enslaved.

I was terrified of the things it’d make me do if I accepted. I was terrified I would only be a mindless husk of my former self. But most of all, I was terrified of eternity.

Do you really want to live forever?

The line inched forward.

At two from the front, the man behind me whispered it was time, he said he had a plan.

I was all ears and endorphins.

He moved in close, whispering that he had smuggled in two plasma grenades from the ship before initial blackout just in case. He said to not ask where he stored them.

The person ahead of me took the podium. He was only the second to refused. He shit himself as his soul was torn from his body.

The man behind me shoved a plasma grenade in my grip. He whispered to take the Pale God out and he’d handle the rest.

I armed it behind my back as the captain motioned me up. I looked from her to the Pale God on its tiny throne and took a deep breath.

Its orb was bright and all consuming.

I shook in awe of it.

I was so close to giving it.

I closed my eyes. The grenade felt so real in my grip. A tiny red light flashed on top. It beeped softly, a countdown my imminent demise.

But I no longer mattered. I was going to end this, for the man behind me, for my cat, for every single person and thing lost or indoctrinated. I was going make damn sure no one would ever be given this terrible choice ever again.

My eyes shot open. The grenade was white knuckled in my grip. I drew back for a pitch of a lifetime.

The captain smile faded.

The Pale God’s orb flashed.

The man behind me yelled to do it already.

It was then I heard a meow.

I froze mid-throw. Eyes wide. Mouth wider.

There among the initiated was Sgt. Snugglesworth. He wore a collar of red velvet. Dried eyeball juice was crusted into the orange fur around its now empty eyes. A tiny orb drifted just above it all.

He was a calico.

He was purring.

He was being held by the woman scorned.

She reached her hand out to me. All the horrible memories came flooding back; memories I joined this doom expedition into the unknown to forget; memories I never wanted to relive again.

It started when we were neighbors in a slums of dumpster fire of a planet. It was a new colony. The air was thin. The crops weren’t taking. Every night I went home starving to a tiny shack, eating what little rations remained from the ship. The distress beacon had been on for three months and counting. We were all getting weak and losing hope fast.

She lived only one shack over. We shared a wall of plywood and fiberglass. Neither muffled the sound of her husband’s abuse.

I didn’t just kill him for her benefit. No, it was a slow torture. I lost a hundred night’s sleep to his rage. I thought of every single time I had to hear her cried out in pain as I grazed my blowtorch against his skin.

I thought of her protests.

I thought of the sound of her body slamming into the wall.

I thought of every time I was too cowardly to stop him.

It took him hours to die. When it was done, all I could focus on was the smell of his burnt flesh.

I cut and rationed it carefully, hiding the rest of his remains deep down into a sulfur pit where they’d never be found.

It was that same smell that lured her over. She looked at me with eyes filled with the same exhaustion and desperation I felt. I should’ve turned her away.

We spend hours together, just talking and eating. At sundown she said it was getting late. She said she was starting to worry about her husband’s whereabouts. Then, as she reached for the door, she turned and thanked for the first real meal she had had in months, asking me where it came from.

Telling the truth was a mistake. I thought I’d be her hero.

Not long after the federation came with an offer and a way out. Three ships were being sent to scout the unknown regions. They were looking for the best of the expendable with the promise of unlimited food and shelter. No background check required. None of us had any illusion it was anything less than a suicide mission.

I signed up immediately, pretending to be surprised when I bumped in her in the shipyards. Going in for a hug was my next mistake.

I never did learn her name…

Back on the podium the Pale God shifted.

I looked around in a panic, the grenade still tight in my grip. Everything was hazy and out of focus. Figures drifted in and out in rapid succession.

The woman.

The guards.

The cat.

The disciples.

The captain.

The Pale God.

The smiles.

I raised the grenade above my head, my hands shaking violently, phantom orbs seared into vision. The fog was back. I was warm and fuzzy all over.

The man behind me ordered me to kill.

The Pale Gods orb turned red.

The brain vibration were teeth shattering.

Time froze. Suddenly everything went dark. I saw visions of countless alien races on alien planets. Their collective memories all rushed in at once. Their accomplishments. Their sins. Their wars. All of it wiped away.

They Pale God knew everything they knew; all knowledge was gained from those absorbed into it orb and feed directly to his disciples. It took what it needed and discarded the rest.

The vision shifted to a future with me and the woman of my dreams. Her past didn’t matter. Neither did her name. We were on Earth having a picnic, surrounded by countless indoctrinated. Everything was clean, and in perfect harmony.

All the people were polite. Everyone smiled and helped one another. There memories were my memories.

Underneath a twilight moon, the woman grabbed my hand and placed it on her stomach. She had the beginnings of a baby bump. There, poking through both her shirt and stomach, was two tiny wires connecting to a tiny flashing orb.

The vision shifted. I saw a million murders committed by a million species.

I saw a creature wrapped in the limbs of his enemies drive a sword down the throat of another of its kind.

I saw two lanky green aliens drive a probe into a caveman.

I saw Raymond castrate a dead bearded man with his bared hands.

The Pale God was there overseeing it all. There was no judgement. Only forgiveness. Only love.

The vision shifted.

I saw myself cooking another man alive with glee.

It was all too much. Complete sensation overload…

Back on the podium I dropped to knees, tears running down my face. The grenade was nearing its countdown. The Pale God’s orb dimmed, it’s two alien guards were tense and ready for anything.

This was the part where I was supposed to tell you that I could see through the fantasy to all the Pale God’s nefarious true intentions. I could say that it was all an illusion, a false promise devised only to expand his kingdom of slaves. I could exposé the virtues of how some people shouldn’t be forgiven so easily.

But I won’t.

I deserved this. I wanted this. Within his grace I could pretend I was still the good guy. The how didn’t matter.

I switched off the plasma grenade with only a second left, letting it roll from my grip, a coward all over again.

Sgt. Snugglesworth jumped into my lap, nuzzling up to my chest. His orb was yellow and pulsating in rhythm with his purrs.

As I scratched his ears, the captain asked me to open my mouth. I ate the flesh of the Pale God without hesitation, never noticing the man behind me running up, his grenade armed and blinking…


Joe writes out of Charlotte, NC. His work has been published in over 40 markets including K-zine, Strange Constellations, and Liquid Imagination, as well as having been twice nominated for the Pushcart prize. You can check out his blog at jablonskijoe.blogspot.com.

While you’re here, you might want to check the submissions guidelines and our new experiment: Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Hartway & Burrough” Cosmic Horror and Satire by Samuel Bostwick

"Hartway & Burrough" Cosmic Horror and Satire by Samuel Bostwick

I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC, a for-profit charity with headquarters in Baltimore.

I tell people that I work in data entry. I punch dates, dollar amounts, and names into spreadsheets from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, sitting in a cubicle surrounded by other cubicles. The white walls and bright lights keep me from falling asleep between visits to the break room coffee machine. In passing, I usually end up running into Basil from Accounting, or Sheila in Public Relations. Dodging eye contact, we have interchangeable conversations with cookie-cutter responses.

How’s it going? Good.

Busy today, isn’t it? Sure is.

I don’t love my job; my hands cramp up by the end of the day, becoming stiff, awkward instruments I can barely hold a fork in. But I’m good at it, and it pays, so I swallow my gripes. I have become deaf to the nonstop clacking of the keyboard, accustomed to the eye strain from the blinking cursor.

Today, I’m cataloging potential hosts for our next gala, alongside an estimated budget for the event. The scroll bar gets a little longer with each addition. My mind begins to dull.

Walters Art Gallery – $10,000

Hampton Inn $5,325

Pierce’s Park – $2,400

I pause, forgetting my place on the long list of transcribed names. It’s frustrating, squinting at the fine print where all the type jumbles together. I vent my frustration in the most childish way I can think, then backspace quickly, before anyone sees. All our screens are monitored, but I haven’t given HR cause to look.

Dickhead Boulevard – $5

After a hard blink, I try to divert my focus back to the sheet. I notice a blotch that wasn’t there a second ago, making the paper sag like somebody spilled oil all over it. The spot is black, and it spills down the page like a trail of syrup.

My confusion turns to disgust when the smell hits—raw sewage, fetid and mildewy-sweet. As I feel bile rising in my throat, I look up; the ceiling tile directly above me has loosened at a crooked angle, feeding a consistent drip of what I could only call sludge into my cubicle. It looks slightly more viscous than water.

I marvel in repulsion for a few seconds before standing up. What a mess.

When I step out of my cubicle, the look on my face must have been manic. I lock eyes with Harvey from Marketing, a friend of mine. Bald, heavyset, mid-forties, always in a blue shirt; I think we watched a Ravens game together, once. He complains about headaches a lot.

He spares a glance toward the faulty tile. “You’re deep in it now, huh?” he says, with a husky chuckle. “Let me help you out.”

I follow Harvey to the supply closet. Per company policy, we’re not supposed to be in here. But the two of us sometimes ‘appropriate’ cans of air freshener left lying around: it’s cheaper than a run to the dollar store.

He drags out a metal waste bucket that hasn’t seen the outside of the closet for months. “This’ll do.”

I wave at Harvey before returning to my cubicle. I keep thinking to ask him, we should go out sometime again, get some wings. Next week I will; next week for sure.

Although the company frowns on ‘non-productive activity’ outside of regular lunches and breaks, I discreetly take a generous helping of kleenex to my desk and wipe it down, then print a fresh list of gala hosts. The old list isn’t illegible, but it is disgusting: I crumple it into a ball and pitch it into the trash bin. I’m relieved to see the mess contained, but over time, I start to notice the sound. Every so often, my focus is interrupted by a wet splat as the ceiling regurgitates more mess.

I hear the splatter at random intervals; multiple times within a few seconds, or sometimes, minutes of silence before a wet one slops against the bottom of the can. I almost flinch at the noise; I can’t tune it out like I can the ambient chatter of the office. It’s driving me up a fucking wall.

I don’t have to take this. I shouldn’t have to. Fed up, I decide to draft an email to upper management. All correspondence goes through upper management; that much was made clear during the onboarding process; I email them, they email somebody else. It’s all very efficient, so I’m told.

It takes three drafts before I can phrase my request professionally. My inbox dings immediately after I hit ‘send.’ I don’t get my hopes up: more than likely an automated reply.

Thank you for your email. I will be out of the office for the next week and will have limited access to email. If this is an urgent matter, you can reach our senior staff during business hours at 555-6167.

Best Regards,

JENNY.

My eyes glaze over the cut-and-paste response right as another drip hits the bucket.

Yes, Jenny, this is an urgent matter—so I dial senior staff. Waiting. Ringing. Waiting. Ringing.

A click.

“Thank you for calling Hartway & Burrough. A mediating team member cannot take your call right now; please hold for a response.”

The receiver dips in my palm. I tap my foot against the carpet tile while senior staff twiddles their thumbs. The hold music consists of upbeat acoustic guitar fed through a bad connection, looping every few seconds.

Every second I’m left on hold, I’m conscious of the bucket, slowly filling with this slop. After five, ten, twenty minutes, I give up on hearing back from them. If they won’t answer my emails or pick up my calls, then I’ll have to submit a formal complaint to upper management in person. I went through the proper channels and got nothing; I thought I was at least entitled to an answer.

I pass by cubicle after cubicle occupied by happy drones like myself, hunched over keyboards with listless eyes dead to stimuli. I’m sure they’re all thinking the same thing: how much longer until I clock out? Lucky them; they can work without distractions.

At the end of a long walk, I step out from the office into a hallway. The stairs going up are blocked with yellow tape: construction. It’s been ‘under construction’ for as long as I can remember. Instead, I step inside the elevator just beside the stairwell.

Upper management sits on the 33rd floor. I press the button and watch the analog face tick higher. I blink hard, thinking how to approach the issue with my superiors. Do I butter them up and hope I win them over with a smile? Or, should I bluntly state the issue and demand immediate action?

It only occurs to me that I could be fired for speaking out of turn. But then, losing this job wouldn’t be so terrible, would it?

Then comes a stinging pain. It throbs in my forehead: a headache that’s been acting up all week.

With budding anticipation, I watch the analog interface hit 33, punctuated with a ‘ding!’

I blink again. The doors open. I’m standing in front of the ground floor lobby. Pale daylight filters in through translucent sliding doors, the marble white floors squeaking with foot traffic.

What was I doing again?

Throat dry, I check my watch. Oh. Closing time.

A familiar fatigue washes over me. Frankly, I’m just glad to go home after the same old daily drudgery.

* * *

It’s morning now, the start of the working day, and I’m standing in front of the coffee machine in the break room. While I empty the last grains of sweetener into a styrofoam cup, Basil from Accounting walks past me.

“Is that a new shirt? Looking sharp today.”

It’s not a new shirt. It’s the same shirt I wear every day. But I nod and say thanks out of reflex.

As usual, I head to my cubicle with my coffee in hand. Upon reaching my desk, I stop dead in my tracks, staring blankly.

I want to retch just looking at it. That thick, dark sludge from yesterday has completely engulfed my working space. My computer monitor is coated in it, and it seeps between the gaps of the keyboard. Black liquid trickles down the partitions of the cubicle, leaving ugly trails and fat splatters. My monogrammed, stainless steel pens lie on the floor in an unsalvageable state. The bucket Harvey gave me has long since overflowed, toppled on the ground as the liquid flows freely around it. How could I have forgotten?

When the stench hits, I’m almost knocked flat. It smells like the curdled contents of a dumpster wheeled out into the rain; like rotting carcass left out in the sticky August heat. A lump in my chest forces its way up before I pinch my nose shut. I can’t stand to be around it.

No one else seems to be bothered by the continuous slew of waste seeping from the ceiling, not even my cubicle neighbors, who should have at least picked up the smell. Having lost my appetite, I pitch my coffee on my way to the elevator. I don’t get paid enough for this.

 A sense of self-righteousness hastens my gait to the elevator; if the company can’t be bothered to pick up my calls, let alone deal with the mess, then I can’t be bothered to work. I drive home through morning traffic, expecting a pink slip or a furious voicemail by the time I get home. I’m white-knuckling the wheel; in place of the triumph I ought to feel at ‘sticking it to the man,’ I’m wracked with dread and fear. This will have dire consequences—I know it.

I pull into my townhouse driveway and order takeout on the couch. Not just a sad Whopper or something: a full course of dim sum and dumplings and a fifth of the bottle of Jack from my cabinet. If I’m going to be fired, I may as well treat myself to a good meal before running myself ragged on a job search.

I don’t get up from the couch for the rest of the day, only making exceptions to eat, shit, and sleep. My life is over, I tell myself, the TV’s light searing images into my retinas in the dead of night.

I don’t recall sleeping: only a bleary state that recedes when daylight breaks. Pain bounces between the walls of my skull. Maybe it’s a hangover.

I think to myself, this is release. I’m free of my shit job. I should be happy.

But right now I’m shivering in a threadbare blanket, straining at the sunlight in the window.

This isn’t living.

By some nervous compulsion I shamble over to my home office where my desktop sits. The plastic monitor shell, once opal-white, has long since yellowed.

I scroll through my inbox. No reply from upper management. No scolding from the boss. It’s 10 AM. I’m supposed to be clocked in right now. By all accounts, my head should be mounted on a pike. I keep expecting the floor to collapse from under me. Any minute now I should be fired, shamed. But the minute never comes.

I go to bed, but I don’t sleep. Can’t sleep.

The ensuing days and weeks are dull. It’s like work, in a sense: the same thing on repeat. I get food. I stare at a screen. I sleep. This mindless ass-scratching can’t go on. And yet it does.

It gets stranger when I receive a paycheck. And another. And another. I receive them all with a kind of bewilderment. The pay stub indicates hours that I’m being compensated for—hours that I did not work.

This is more than just a clerical error. Hell, I could go to jail for this. But whose fault is it, really? The checks keep piling up on my kitchen counter and I’ve stopped questioning why.

Two months into this bizarre retreat, I start to fantasize, the way people do when they imagine winning the lottery. I get the idea of flying from this urban hellscape: just getting in my car and driving as far as the highway will take me. I want to feel the wind in my face and get sloshed on watered down beer. I want to get in a fistfight and lose a tooth. I want to wake up in the bosom of a woman I don’t know. Anything to get away from sterile life at Hartway & Burrough.

s I look out the window and contemplate my flight, I start to feel my head tighten. It hurts; it hurts so bad. There’s a horrid pulsing in my skull, thumping, banging. My vision goes fuzzy, the slightest tilt of my head bringing on a spell of vertigo. It’s not just a headache anymore—I have to make it stop. I’d do anything to make it stop.

I strain to focus on the edge of the kitchen counter. I want to bash my head against the sharp corner and let the boiling blood spill out. It has to stop; I’ll make it stop. I’m gripping the granite top now. It’s too bright, too loud. My head is on fire and I’m going to put it out. PUT IT OUT. PUT IT OUT.

I blink. I’m standing in the kitchen island, hunched over the counter with a strange intensity. I can’t explain what I’m doing here, like walking in a room and forgetting why.

It’s quiet in this little townhouse. I can’t remember the last time I made genuine contact with another person. Even if it’s tedious, mindless work, maybe I was better off at the company. Maybe I should go back.

Next morning, I slip back into a familiar routine with far more ease than I fell out of it. I shave, put on my shirt, shine my shoes, and microwave an egg sandwich on my way out. There’s something strangely comforting about the ritual, as if I’m meant to do this. While I navigate my commute on the interstate, my time away from Hartway & Burrough feels like a distant dream.

My arrival back in the office is received without fanfare. I pass by Sheila from PR on my way to my cubicle. I put on a smile, as does she.

“Lovely weather today,” she says. I agree.

The building is the same as I left it: the light panels flickering slightly above; the brown coffee stains on the thin, polyester carpet; the indistinct murmur of three dozen phone calls at any given moment.

Upon reaching my cubicle, I remember why I left.

I stand at the edge of a roiling pool of black sludge. Nothing from my desk has survived, all congealed into a dark mass of absorbed shapes and protruding edges.

I gape uselessly, my face a caricature of shock like The Scream.

The stuff seeps out into the walkway and into other cubicles, yet nobody pays it any mind. My coworkers walk around it, through it, over it, leaving black tracks on the carpet. The sludge clings stickily to their shoes, dragging their steps, but they go about their morning like it’s not even there.

“What seems to be the problem?”

I whirl around to see a woman I’ve never met. She wears a sanguine skirt suit and glossy black heels that stand out against drab surroundings, her blonde hair tied up in a bun. She beams at me but through her dark-framed glasses I can see that her eyes are creased, impatient.

I mumble something about an unsafe work environment, gesturing feebly to my cubicle.

“Oh, right. I got your email some time ago. I’m Jenny. So sorry for the inconvenience; I’ll see that you’re relocated promptly.”

Like a lost lamb to a shepherd, I follow behind Jenny. She walks with a peculiar rhythm, click-clack click-clack, never faltering or slowing.

She stops at a cubicle identical to my own—rather, one that was identical to my own. Everything seems to be in pristine condition: a waste basket, a polished desk, and a shiny new monitor.

She smiles again. I don’t think her smile ever dropped, actually. “Here we are. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.”

I ease into my new swivel chair, my chest deflating with a breath. I remember how to do this; I remember how to work, I tell myself.

Like everything else today, it comes back easily. I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC.

Another spreadsheet. More names. More dates. I punch them into an ever-expanding database, a page with no bottom. I’m efficient, and I waste no time. That’s why they hired me—right?

I blink. I must have lost my place in the sheet again. Before I resume working, I can’t help but glance over at the hole in the ceiling that compelled me to move. It’s not a steady drip anymore: only the last bit of runoff from a slanted tile. But the damage is already done.

I crane my neck to the screen and ignore the faint whiff of the sludge creeping up my nostrils.

At the end of the day, I hear lively chatter—a rare sound in the office. I’m more accustomed to the droning, client-friendly tones we habitually take over the phone. Following the sound, I find myself at the forefront of the break room, which in actuality isn’t a separate room at all: just a meager alcove in the labyrinth of the office floor.

It’s a party. Streamers drape the ceiling, red solo cups laid out next to generic dollar-store colas on the table. A dozen or so people are gathered here—celebrating what? They smile, they titter, but their faces don’t light up at all: just glazed happiness.

At odds with the party atmosphere, I approach Basil from Accounting, chatting up some woman too young for him as he props his arm up against the fridge. When we lock eyes, I ask about the occasion.

He turns to me right as the target of his unwanted affections leaves. I notice a sort of drunken sway in the tilt of his head, but it can’t be alcohol because drinking is strictly prohibited on building premises. “Didn’t you hear? Harvey’s getting promoted to upper management.”

Harvey—a name that hadn’t crossed my mind for months. Did he notice I was gone? Did he care?

Basil grins, the wrinkles of his pink cheeks accentuated by the strain. “The man of the hour hasn’t shown yet. What a guy, eh?”

I find myself pressing further. How did Harvey climb the ladder? I’d never heard of anyone managing a feat like that until now. Even if it’s not proper workplace etiquette, I voice the inquiry to Basil, wondering what he did to impress the bigwigs.

His fingers drum on the fridge. It’s strange, looking in his bespectacled eyes. I almost feel like I’m staring into the back of his skull: there’s nothing going on inside. Just a vacant stare that happened to be aimed in my direction.

“There’s a real shortage of documents and policy, you know?”

I take a second to process what Basil just said, waiting for it to make sense. But it doesn’t. Slowly, I repeat my question about Harvey’s promotion, rephrased just slightly.

He nods and says, “Weather today? Shirt suit sharp looking you think might. Soon productivity soon preferable excellent.”

It’s all nonsense, strung together in a way that sounds almost coherent. My heart quickens a little; has Basil lost touch with reality, or have I? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand anymore. He still smiles at me, like he’s waiting for me to catch onto a joke. I back away slowly. Coming back to work was a bad idea.

That’s when I notice it. I must have mistaken it for a blemish or bruise earlier. An abnormality of the skin—a thin black vein that blushes darkly around Basil’s crown, running up his head and disappearing into his thin combover.

My stomach sinks as I eavesdrop on the conversations around me. I can only parse it as babble disguised as English, imitating the cadence and rhythm of conversation. Promotion Harvey great. Excited good metrics. Metrics ticket SEO.

Head spinning, I look around and see the same, dark vein rippling in the heads of everyone at the break room. I barely resist the urge to run far, far away; there’s no people here, only animals in suits and ties.

All except Harvey. I glimpse him standing alone at the window wall, cup in hand. I remember the Ravens game, getting hot wings with him inside a packed sports bar. He had me cracking up talking about the coach’s ‘square-ass face,’ but I can’t recall how the joke went. Maybe he’s different, so I pray. Desperate for a sane conversation, I sidle past my blissfully absent coworkers up to my friend.

He glances at me as I take my place beside him. I stare at him, wide-eyed, looking for any trace of the vein on his face. If I see it again, I might scream.

Nothing.

Silent, he looks back toward the city street below. His expression is weary, though lucid, gazing somewhere distant.

After a shaky breath, I try at small talk. The wife. The kids. What’s on TV. He gives short answers, never pulling his gaze away from the streets.

Then I ask how he got his promotion. He stops cold, glances at me in the corner of his vision, and brings the cup to his lips. His hand shakes.

“I tried getting out of here. Tried. But upper management said they got something for me, something that’ll change my mind,” he says. “It feels like I don’t really got a choice. Crazy, isn’t it?”

He smiles, but I can see the terror written on his face.

No, I tell him, not at all.

His smile fades.

When I think nobody’s listening, I ask him a simple question: are you happy, Harvey?

* * *

The following morning, I see everyone gathered by the break room window. Their faces are pressed against the glass like kids at an aquarium.

A murmur of gibberish floats in the air.

“Tragic sad condolences. Thoughts severance family.”

With a mounting sense of urgency, I shove past the suits until I can see it for myself.

Two-hundred feet down, Harvey is splayed across the curb. I recognize him by his wide frame and his blue shirt, not his face. His face is red mush. I don’t understand. Then I see the tire treads traveling up his chest, and realization sinks in.

Harvey has jumped in front of a bus.

I scream, shrill and raspy. The sound jumps out of me involuntarily, and I’m shocked to recognize it as my own voice.

The eyes of the office are on me now, incredulous that I’d react in such a way.

I remind them of his name. Harvey! Harvey is dead!

The crowd is unmoved. If only I could make them understand.

Taking advantage of the silence, I tell them that the company did this to him. I cry out that Hartway & Burrough has blood on its hands. Again, the crowd is unmoved. My heart pounds louder in the quiet break room.

Then, Sheila from Public Relations approaches me with a maternal smile, her eyes crinkled so kindly at me. I can’t help but focus on the black blemish in the skin beneath her forehead, a blossoming flower of bulging veins.

“Don’t be—”

She gets a few syllables out before she gets out a wheezing cough. She gargles on her words, bile spattering the floor.

No, not bile; it’s black, and reeks of something oversweet. It dribbles from the corners of her lips and onto her chemise: the same sludge that coated my desk. My coworkers look on with half-lidded eyes, unfazed at the sight.

I bolt from the break room, panting, sweating. I need to get away from them, those animals. I don’t know what they’ll do to me if they get ahold of me, but I don’t want it. I run, and I hide.

After many panicked turns, I find refuge under my desk, cradling my head in my hands. The shade is comforting because the light is harsh. They can’t hurt me under here, in the dark.

Facing the cubicle wall, I lay wide awake for minutes, which bleeds into hours. I have no sense of time with no window to look through, but I know the building closes soon. What happens past dark? I don’t know; I haven’t thought that far ahead.

The chatter of the office becomes quiet, but never truly silent. I want so badly to cut across the floor to the elevator, but I can’t. If I see one of them again, I’ll pass out. I get why Harvey did it now. He didn’t want to end up like them.

I tell myself I still have one chance—that I can still leave and succeed where he failed.

I jolt and bang my head on the underside of my desk at the sound of numerous footsteps, coming from the opposite end of the office. I’m familiar with this meandering procession, because I’m usually part of it: the start of the day, 9:00 AM sharp.

It hits me that I’ve been holed up inside the building for a full day now. It didn’t feel like it, but it most certainly was.

Rising from my hiding spot, I peer out the window and see light, overcast clouds, confirming my fears. No one stopped me. No one even checked on me.

When the incessant noise of clacking keyboards starts up again, I remember that I shouldn’t be here. I need to get away. Now.

I look frantically around like a twitching rat, weighing my options. I tried to leave, once. They pulled me back; this I know to be true, but I can’t explain how.

If I can’t leave, then I’ll force them to remove me from the premises. That’s the only way out now.

With newfound determination, I lift the computer monitor off my desk. Hoisting it overhead is a terrible strain. My muscles must have atrophied in the time I’ve been working at Hartway & Burrough.

I shout, and throw the damned thing down to the floor, ripping out the cords in the process. The black display shatters into hundreds of little shards. Good. I start stomping the plastic shell beneath my polished dress shoes. There’s a manic joy I take in watching company equipment buckle, bend, break. I love this. A massive weight lifts from my shoulders, one that I never knew was there; I think I wanted to do this for a long time, before Harvey and before the sludge.

When I’m done, I stand up on my chair, almost falling off when the wheels move on the carpet. From this high up, I stand above all the cubicles in the office. Still riding the high, I cast my keyboard and pencils out into the maze. Did I strike anyone? I don’t know. I sing, I yell, I laugh.

My grin falters when I survey the cubicles again. None of my coworkers react to my show, my desperate little cry for attention. Their sagging, bloodshot eyes squint at the glow of their own monitors at their own desks. There is no acknowledgment, not even a sidelong glance.

A mix of fear and shame compels me to step down, like a misbehaved child meeting their father’s disdainful gaze.

I emerge from my cubicle into the maze and demand to be released, to be fired. My voice is hoarse, guttural; I want to sound forceful, but it comes out desperate. I will be free. I will not die as Harvey did. I will be free.

Click-clack, click-clack.

My pulse quickens at a familiar sound half-identified: an instinctual reaction. From a blind intersection emerges a pair of black heels in a slender—or maybe spindly—frame.

Jenny from upper management stands opposite me in this white aisle of cubicles. My eyes are naturally drawn toward her. In a monochrome-gray office she wears red. Surrounded by hunched animals she stands upright. Where all eyes are glazed over hers are alert. Short of breath, I realize she’s not like the others. Not even like Harvey. She looks like any other office worker, but her presence is otherworldly—something neither animal nor man.

“Is everything alright?” she asks; a formality, of course. There is no warmth in her stiff posture, hands steepled at the waist.

No, I tell her, I want to get the hell away from here.

No sooner after I voice my intention to leave does the pain strike: a killer headache knocking on the inside of my skull. Something is trying to cow me into submission, but I won’t let them. My knees wobble, not of my own accord. I can hardly stand. The elevator doors aren’t far; I can make it there, one step at a time…

“This doesn’t really seem like a productive use of your time,” Jenny says, her voice like a knife in my brain. “Why don’t you take a few deep breaths and try to focus on work?”

Breathing heavy, I tell Jenny to eat shit. The paychecks can’t make me come back. I let her know that I’m going to run far away from here and forget all about this. My life is my own.

I hobble past her, and she steps aside without complaint. Even with my back turned to her I can still feel her hawkish gaze, prying for weakness.

“Don’t you want to know?” she suddenly asks, in a tantalizing tone unlike her usual professional prattle.

I look over my shoulder, knowing she has nothing good to offer me. And yet I listen anyway.

She smiles at me. There’s something inhuman about her mouth, a little too thin, a little too long: red lipstick smears end to end, as if she’s bit into some succulent fruit.

“Harvey was going to see for himself. Got cold feet at the last second,” she explains, feigning disappointment in her voice. The black tinge blooms inside her head, throbbing like a heartbeat. “But you don’t have to end up like him. Come and see—the thirty-third floor.”

I blink. Jenny is gone, disappeared, but I remember what she said with perfect clarity.

My migraine is lifted. The elevator beckons me: a chance to escape!

My gait hastens to a full-on sprint. I press the button over and over. The steel doors part, releasing cold air.

And then I am alone inside a metal box.

I can leave now. I’m free.

I swallow a lump, staring long into the elevator buttons. My finger hovers over ‘ground floor.’ It’s so easy. All I have to do is push it and run when the doors open.

I consciously avoid looking at ‘33’ until I can bear it no longer. I expect something terrible to happen, but it’s only a button, I tell myself.

A dangerous thought crosses my mind.

Would it really be so bad to see it for myself? Just to satiate my curiosity—one peek, that’s all. It’s strange. Minutes ago, I wanted nothing more than to be free of this place, but now I feel like I haveto know the secret of this building. The question would haunt me if I left now.

My hand glides to the button labeled ‘33.’ The motion is graceful, almost effortless. Against every impulse of my rational mind, I press the button.

One by one, I watch the numbers tick up. Judging by the elevator’s long ascent, the building is much taller than I remember, impossibly so. The temperature falls chill, and I feel my breath start to hitch, as though I’m scaling a mountain.

A chime marks the end of my journey. 33, the analog interface reads.

The elevator opens to a cramped hall. A single, dim bulb lights outside the elevator. To my right is a dead end. To my left is a long stretch of hallway. I can’t even see the end of it through the darkness.

This must be where Harvey turned back and gave up, I realize. Unbearable anticipation swells in my chest, and when the lift closes behind me, I feel trapped.

The far end of the hall calls out to me in a way that defies the senses. I can’t explain how; it simply does. So I walk, guided only by the bulbs that light up one-by-one with my approach. Dear Christ, the smell; a single whiff makes my uvula quiver and my chest heave. It’s like I’ve buried my nose in it, the oxygen tainted with the scent of melted caramel and fly-swarming manure.

The smell heralds its arrival, of course. The black, bubbling sludge seeps from every orifice of the corridor, between the cracking seams of the walls and ceiling. It thickens to a fine paste on the floor, and I’m forced to wade through the ankle-deep puddles at my feet. It weighs me down every step, cold where it touches my bare skin.

Strange as it is, I’m not afraid. The pounding in my heart could be likened more to excitement more than anything else. And that terrifies me. Have I already gone mad? Am I no different than the mindless beasts wandering the office floor? I can’t be sure anymore. But I must walk.

As I walk further, the squalor spreads. The drywall has crumbled, revealing crumbling supports infested with rot. It looks more like a cave dwelling than a building now. I stand before a door, made of aged, termite-eaten wood with a greasy gold knob. There’s a sense of finality at this threshold, as if all the answers I seek are waiting on the other side, for better or for worse.

I open the door.

My eyes widen and water.

Dear God.

The walls are flesh, and the floors are flesh, and the room is beating, living flesh. I can only describe the texture as meat: red, pulpy meat.

My coworkers are here too. They cling to the walls like helpless babes, sucking on the teat of red, ringed tendrils. I watch their swollen lips pucker around the tip, and how they seem to shrivel for moments like they’re being drained from a straw. They feed from the tendrils. The tendrils feed on them.

Their cheeks are sallow, skin sunken. Their upper halves are identifiably human, but their lower halves bulge and swell beyond recognition, all slugs’ tails that beat contentedly on the floor beside their torn clothes. Black sludge pours out from their flabby skin, slipping through the gaps of intestine on the floor. My heart skips a beat, as I realize the cause behind the fallen ceiling tile in my cubicle.

What?

At the center of the room sits a thing that defies classification. Bulbous and huge, it sits in a coil of itself, with that same pinkish slug’s tail as its brood. It lacks eyes, but bears many nostrils, in places where nostrils don’t belong. Its upper half sags beneath the weight of six breasts, and its mouth is a gaping sucker lined with teeth. Stringy cords adorn its body, connecting it to the walls of the chamber. It is the beating heart of this building.

It’s so beautiful. Mother! Mother, mother!

She has no eyes to see me but she must know I am here.

I tremble and shake with joy. I ache to be closer. I ache to be with her. I ache.

I take my last step closer, triggering metamorphosis.

My head is about to burst. I can feel it, birthing out of me.

BLISS.

My jaw is forced open by something from within. The bones crack loudly, the sound ringing in my ears. At last, a wriggling tail protrudes from my mouth, large and fat. The worm emerges from its willing host. For the first time it feels warm air on its smooth, segmented body. I am grateful to have nursed such a precious creature into existence, for this is what I’m meant to do. My agony is a small thing, compared to the euphoria of serving mother.

I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough.


Sam Bostwick is a Midwest-based author with a love for the strange. He is studying English at North Central College. 


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“Anatomy of Ruin” Apocalyptic Semi-Horror Existential Comedy by Stacey E. Bryan

It should have been a magnificent day in North Hollywood. Except magnificent would be pushing it.  In all truth, the day was okay. Bearable at best. Intolerable, if one was being honest.

Marley stood in the canned vegetable aisle of the grocery store staring at the display and wondering where her marriage had gone wrong.  It was Thanksgiving, although comical Halloween witches and friendly ghosts highlighting sales prices and

specialty items still decorated the store, hanging motionless among red and black streamers.

Marley smiled sadly, the irony of a frozen Halloween not lost on her.

It was hot in the store because the air was off. And quiet. She’d never thought the day would come when she actually missed Muzak, but that day was here. Staring at the cans, Marley was unable to choose. Amazingly, deliveries were still randomly being made, and many stores hadn’t been emptied out entirely.

As Marley inspected some Del Monte seasoned vegetables, someone shuffled past. She stilled. It wasn’t the vaguely familiar neighbor who had been in the candy section earlier. And it definitely wasn’t her husband. Where was Sean?

Poking her head out, Marley saw a middle-aged woman in a brightly flowered housecoat shuffling aimlessly forward like a sleepwalker. In other times, Marley would have assumed she’d been drinking. Heavily.  

A loud clang issued from the back of the store, echoing like a gong strike. The automotive section. Sean. It was a tiny little display and she didn’t even know why he bothered. Especially since they hardly drove anymore. Marley watched as the housecoated woman’s step stuttered then picked up with renewed vigor, as if she had just remembered what she’d come into the store for. She beelined straight for the back.

Marley started to yell but then stopped. No loud voices. She glanced around. Where were the cops when you needed them? The ones who had stayed, anyway. She scooped up a can of lima beans, intent on hurling it in the opposite direction, like someone trying to lure a T-rex from an unsuspecting herbivore, but was suddenly paralyzed as bitterness and regret launched duel attacks on her psyche.

What if she didn’t warn Sean? Wouldn’t that just be…nature in action? Evolution? Fate.

Movement. The neighbor popped out of an aisle, swinging something over his head, but suddenly Sean lurched out of nowhere and grabbed his arm. The neighbor shrieked in terror and Sean bellowed, “No!” as the woman bore down on them. A resounding crack pierced the dead air of the store. The woman collapsed, her flowered housecoat fluttering daintily around her. Both men stood panting, the neighbor still gripping the axe, handle-side-up, because Sean had forced him to knock her out instead of splitting her skull open.

Sean zeroed in on Marley, frantic. Spotting the can in her hand, his expression immediately shifted toward…what was that, exactly? Was she imagining things? No, she was not. Suspicion and doubt raced through his eyes, but not fast enough for her to miss it, and invisible steam blasted from her ears. How dare he? How dare he! As Sean and the neighbor began to argue, Marley turned on her heel and left.

She stood on the deserted sidewalk coaxing her blood pressure down and only succeeded in amplifying the unpleasant images that signified the state of her and Sean’s union: impatience, sarcasm, snipes, bickering. She looked inward, trying to pinpoint the origin of the rot that had steadily swollen then burst its borders with a sickening pop. Stepping carefully over a dead squirrel, Marley fast-walked past a deserted Starbucks, intent on getting home before Sean, even though she knew she shouldn’t be out here alone.

For a while, the first two years at least, they had been inseparable. The honeymoon period, it was called. It was real. The most perverse April Fool’s joke nature had available. A delusion borne of crazed oxytocin and dopamine hijacking poor serotonin, then all of them leaping head-first into a super-obnoxious biological rumspringa.

They had met in Griffith Park one sunny Saturday, united by a strange incident involving a diapered toddler wandering around the parking lot alone. Each had zeroed in on the child from opposite directions and met in the middle, the boy their perigee. Amidst flashing smiles and thinly veiled suggestive banter, they’d delivered the child to park authorities.

A year later, they were married. Now, five years after that…what had she been thinking about today? That it was unbearable? Yes. No. Intolerable. Intolerable. And, yeah, the strange new flu that was causing an almost-worldwide epidemic was pretty bad too. But that wasn’t personal. Her marriage was.

And frankly, about the world situation, she wasn’t surprised. In fact, Marley found it ironic that something which had been the subject of conspiracy theories for years had finally been proven true and had ultimately brought the fall of humankind. Or a lot of humankind. Humankind in certain countries. That thing being the fluoridation of water.

Hearing a new sound, she tensed again, but it was only Sean across the street, pulling his pointless tire iron out of his backpack.

That look in the store, practically accusing her of premeditated murder, was enough to get him the silent treatment for days. Maybe she’d fantasized about life without Sean for five seconds—so what? She wasn’t a monster.

Across the street, Sean walked silently but then suddenly swiveled, surprising her with a smile. He was very passionate but didn’t hold grudges. Even for a sneaking suspicion of possible attempted murder. It wasn’t a big smile. Just a small, rueful smile like, “We’re really in the shit now, aren’t we?” and her heart melted a little to feel a tiny bit of that feeling again like, “It’s all downhill from here. But at least we have each other.”

Unfortunately, he destroyed any good feelings she was clinging to when he announced at home later, “We’re going to my parents’ today.”

*

Hardly anybody liked their in-laws, and Marley was a clichéd member of that club. She had tried, at first, but the in-laws had made it clear through body language and coded verbal messages that they didn’t approve of Sean’s choice.

Sean’s parents were from Brazil and claimed to be distant relatives of Machado de Assis, one of Brazil’s greatest writers. If that was true, Marley thought you would never know it from meeting Sean, who had been a professional motocross racer. He wasn’t dumb by any stretch, but he wasn’t a writer, and he wasn’t creative at all except when it came to engines and wheels and dirt and how their synchronization enhanced the purpose of the universe.

Now 36, he was semi-retired, dedicating his time to sponsorships, commercials, and guest appearances. Right now, of course, he was doing nothing, due to the almost-worldwide pandemic.

Marley watched Sean as he darted into his parents’ bedroom with a bucket half-filled with saltine crackers. A series of spine-tingling noises erupted from within, a disturbing clamor of gagging and gibbering.

Sean backed out quickly. Something thudded and scratched against the closed door. Sean’s parents. Then the crunching began. They loved saltines. It had been a happy discovery. Sean had experimented with everything before that: cooked and uncooked meat, rotting fruit, moldy bread, sardines, fish, cookies, salami. Then one day when he left some imported Harzer cheese and saltines, the next day the cheese was still there but the saltines were gone.

Sean needed a shave and his black, curly hair hung past his ears. He looked tired. After retrieving a soda from the fridge (power and water were still going strong) he slumped down on the dusty sofa and popped open the Orange Slice, holding it out to Marley first. She declined.

Sean’s parents had returned to “life” five days ago, so the hurt was still recent for him. The dreadful tableau describing their end had played out before them through grisly, static clues when they had arrived at the house one sunny morning bearing supplies from Whole Foods: a toppled ladder outside, his father’s neck at a gruesome angle, his mother’s heart pills spilled along the floor.

What had his father been doing, anyway, cleaning out the gutters on the roof? During a semi-worldwide pandemic? Marley imagined him careening off, and then the mother running outside, shrieking, her heart stuttering. But then she realized her former father-in-law was like many others who believed that things would go back to normal one day. He had no choice but to keep up the equity in his home.

The last they’d heard on the news two days ago was that everybody was taking a break in the flu-cum-fluoride-poisoning emergency because the Festival of Sam Fermin, Diwali, Glastonbury Festival, Octoberfest, Maitisong Festival, and Morocco’s Fez Festival, along with many others, were combining for the first time ever, like a humongous cultural Voltron. Festivities were slated to take place simultaneously somewhere in Western Europe and Northern Africa for a two-week balls-to-the-wall self-congratulatory “dodged a bullet” drinking and dance party. They had been smart enough, after all, to either ban fluoridation years ago or to never even consider doing it in the first place. The same could not be said for Singapore, Australia, Israel, the U.S., and the other fallen fluoridated countries.

Marley agreed. Anyone in their right mind would need time off from a sudden flu-like disease that reduced people to a shambling fugue state. Or for the really unfortunate­­­­—coming back to life after dying. The top brains in the world couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out how fluoride and some yet unnamed element within those who succumbed had combined together to create what was essentially zombies. That were blackout drunk mean.

At first everyone thought the fuguers were clawing at people to eat them, like the movies. That was why Sean had tried the German Harzer cheese with his parents, thinking the hideous odor might fool them into believing it was intestines. But the violence turned out to be accidental, attributable simply to poor coordination. Most of the time, the fuguers didn’t do much except just try to bite you.

Eyeing Sean’s soda, Marley’s stomach rumbled. Both of them had lost weight, more from stress than a lack of food, since things hadn’t gotten that bad yet. A plus for Marley at first, except that now even her breasts were shrinking, and she needed them, as “the twins” were a major male attraction.

Marley caught herself with a start. This was the first time she had actually been making plans. She wanted out. From Sean. She watched as he jerked at a particularly loud thud against the bedroom door. Marley felt pity for Mr. and Mrs. Sousa. They would suffer endlessly because one-time Junior Motocross champ and three-time pro Supercross champ Sean Sousa possessed an innate glowing optimism that even this fluoride-induced purgatory couldn’t dim. In short, he believed everyone was going to get better.

Marley couldn’t even broach the delicate subject of “dispatching” them. Sean would have an aneurism. The only saving grace was that the awkward chit-chatting and stifled silences of before were gone. The house was now flooded with guttural grunts and groans, wheezy breathing, clawed hands thrusting out mindlessly, reminding Marley of the strip club where she’d once worked.

Marley’s own parents had divorced when she was a child and her mother, from whom she was estranged, still lived in Ojai where she worked in a farm-to-table restaurant. Her father was a musician and her parents’ hippie-dippy ways were the reason for her stupid name, an altar erected in honor of Bob Marley. Marley had no idea what was going on with her mother and, sadly, cared very little about her or her loser beatnik friends.

Later, heading home, they walked in silence. Many buildings and houses were normal while others had boarded-up windows like a scene from The Birds. You could leave if you wanted to (but why would you; it was the same everywhere else in the U.S.) through one of the major checkpoints, if you weren’t sick.

Conveniently, symptoms began to show almost immediately for this disease: a steep drop in temperature (instead of a fever), loss of coordination and speech (as if drunk), and most noticeably, the whites of the eyes turned a deep bloodshot red. In other words, if you looked and acted like Keith Richards on a bender, you got a one-way ticket to quarantine.

Marley and Sean continued down the sidewalk beneath the cawing crows. Sean’s condo was several blocks away from Sean’s parents’ house, but obviously not far enough. They passed an apartment complex where an elderly woman in a jarring neon orange track suit stood pouring water out of a bowl onto a square of yellow, brittle lawn. The woman glanced at them and waved, though her face remained expressionless. Sean waved back. The hair stood up on the back of Marley’s neck.

The next block over she spotted a discarded set of shelves lying on its side that, even in its dilapidated state, she recognized as an Ikea product. Shuddering, she imagined the stray souls that might be stuck in the Ikea across town, shuffling aimlessly around. The definition of hell, in Marley’s opinion: bumping over and over into an Ekorre rocking moose or walking head-on into a Sallskap glass door cabinet for eternity. She was familiar with the products because she had worked at Ikea for half a year while she was still in high school.

Sean grabbed her hand and squeezed once before linking their fingers. He carried the tire iron in his other hand, swinging it back and forth jauntily like an umbrella or maybe a top hat. He used it to hold the fuguers back or to give them a good shove.

“Did you see that set of Expedit shelves back there?” Marley asked conversationally. “It was one of the most popular shelf sets at Ikea.”

Sean glanced at her and grinned. “Why? Are the instructions written in English instead of ancient Viking?”

Marley smiled tolerantly. “They discontinued it,” she said dreamily. She wasn’t sure where she had picked that information up, not having been involved with Ikea for many years. It bothered her. If her mind was a mysterious, powerful sponge that absorbed facts with a minimum of effort, then why hadn’t it gotten her further? Ingvar Kamprad had been 17 when he founded IKEA. Despite being dyslexic. What excuse did she have?

She knew why, though. She hadn’t necessarily wanted to work for success. She had thought her looks would get her far. Compared to Sean’s mocha skin and brilliant, seductive smile, she was his complete opposite with her pale cheeks and wispy blond hair but yet just as attractive, she thought, with her girl-next-door looks. Which made Mr. and Mrs. Sousa’s antagonism toward her even more disconcerting, because she’d thought Brazilians were super into white people.

Which led her to suspect that, even though Sean swore up and down that he’d never told his parents about her stripping (which she’d only done briefly; under a year) he was lying through his teeth.

Marley sighed, switching mental gears.  “Why do you think we’re still alive?” She wasn’t expecting an answer. She knew Sean did not have an answer. Sean’s fingers, insanely strong from hanging onto various handlebars for dear life for ten years straight, clamped down hard, painfully compressing her knuckles.

“I don’t know, man,” he said softly. Sean always called her “man.” He called everybody “man.”

If you had to pick something from the list of everyday no-nos that went on, though, it could have been anything. Nobody was sure which bad thing had crashed into the other and then had taken a joy ride on fluoridated water straight into the DNA of the unsuspecting populace. Considering all the horrible things they were doing to the planet, it was kind of amazing that this hadn’t happened sooner. It was amazing that she and Sean remained virtually untouched. Or maybe their innards were floating, right now, in a menacing toxic cocktail, just waiting to be triggered…

Marley was torn from her reverie as Sean yanked her down roughly. She hissed, feeling gravel and dirt grind into her off-white culottes. They were on the sidewalk beside a dusty Audi with two flat back tires. Sean’s arm snaked up past Marley’s head and eased the passenger door open.

“Get in,” he murmured.

Hearing subdued panic, Marley obliged him. It was a 2014 model, so it wasn’t hard to scramble past the gearshift into the driver’s seat. She looked through the windshield. Two parking tickets lay motionless beneath the wipers. Beyond that, down the street, a dozen or more fuguers were shuffling straight toward them.

Where the hell had they come from? Once in the passenger seat, Sean eased the door closed. An odd scraping noise grew in volume. They sat rigidly as the small crowd approached the car and then swarmed past.

The group consisted of Mexicans, white people, and Black people, a mix you would rarely see together in L.A. Here they were ambling down the street like old friends after a barbecue. Some were blood-streaked, sporting bites and bruises, hair torn out, some pristine, as if they’d just exited a day spa.  Their eyes were as red as a handful of fresh cherries from Trader Joe’s.

One man limped along, his foot swollen and purple, jammed between the spokes of an expensive mountain bike which he dragged behind him, creating the scraping noise. Having worked in a bike shop for several years, Marley identified the brand immediately.

The infected rider’s bright yellow biking outfit was missing from the waist down and Marley ogled the mangled remains of his manhood with muted horror. Beside him trudged a small woman dressed in a pale blue power suit, pristine except for one slash down the right sleeve. Something about her expression caught Marley’s attention. The eyes…looked almost focused. And not as red as the others either. Maybe just like someone with a bad case of pink eye.

Once the walkers had plodded several blocks away Sean said, “Come on, let’s go.”

“You need to put your parents out of their misery,” Marley blurted out, thinking of the bike rider wandering endlessly through North Hollywood with his damaged junk. She wasn’t sure why she cared, but even your worst enemy didn’t deserve that, did he? As expected, Sean’s newly-lean face blanched beneath his rich South American complexion.

“I can’t believe you just said that, man.” This, almost whispered. Then, louder, “Could you do that?” And louder still, “If it was your mother?”

Marley rolled her eyes. Sean made a disgusted sound.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “I forgot. You hate her. Because she actually cares about people. Because she runs a community garden. Because she feeds the homeless. She’s disgusting. Let’s behead her!”

“I don’t hate her,” Marley hissed. Her ribs felt like sharp knives barely holding in her guts. “But that hippie-dippy stuff doesn’t get you anywhere! Where did it get the hippies from before? Most of them just sold out and became yuppies later! And my mom’s just getting by. Like she always has.”

“Your mother isn’t a hippie because she feeds the homeless. What are you, crazy? You’re hung up on that word, man! And even if she was a hippie, she’s the coolest hippie I’ve ever met.”

Sean had met her mother once after they’d gotten married and then they’d all gone out again a year later. It was like he was in love with her or something. But he was only in love with an idea, the theory of philanthropy. The way Marley had been in love with the idea of marriage, which had only turned out to be a flimsy ideal, at best, like almost everything else.

“Hey, man,” Marley mimicked him, “did you tell your parents that I used to strip?”

Sean struggled to turn his big, athletic body in the passenger seat of the abandoned Audi.

“I told you I didn’t, man. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because they’re never nice to me. Even now. I’ve never seen a corpse look so disgusted. They’re dead and they still remember how disgusted they were. They won’t let go of it.”

Sean stared at her, running his tongue along the inside of his cheek. More and more of that as the marriage went on. When had it started happening? She couldn’t remember. Supposedly, everyone went through it. And some people survived it. She didn’t know how that was possible, though, because her heart felt blocked off, like a construction site surrounded by scaffolding, like there would never be more funds to complete the project, so the scaffolding would never be taken down.

Sean shook his head slightly. “You think my altered—sick—parents…” He would never utter the D-word. “…are holding a grudge against you?”

She knew how ridiculous it sounded, but she knew how they’d felt while they were alive, before they were altered, as Sean would say, and she could sense that they still felt the same way. Like they were still in there. Like they hadn’t really died but were in some kind of suspended animation holding death at bay. Which would mean, inconceivably, that Sean was right, and nobody should be killing the fuguers.

Sean exited the car without speaking and Marley followed suit as the sound of screeching tires punctured the silence. Far down the street, a troop of cops clad head to toe in Hilason Bite Suits and protective head gear poured out of a black van and began herding the fuguers into the back. The dog training suits really had been genius, because the group clawed and bit and scratched and fumbled, but the padded troopers were untouchable.

One of the cops scanning the street spotted Sean and Marley and froze, raising a testing hand a moment later. When Sean and Marley responded in kind, he turned away, satisfied, and aided his brethren with their grim duties.

After the van departed, Marley joined Sean on the sidewalk, continuing home in silence. Not holding hands now. Sean muttered under his breath, and Marley knew it was ire directed at the police and the unknown destination of the infected. They passed a man slipping inside the glass door of an office building on Victory Boulevard who pretended not to see them. Then at the last minute he turned and called, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

Sean and Marley responded automatically, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

They crossed Victory, heading north, and were almost home when they were ambushed by someone hurtling out from behind a tree. All Marley saw were gigantic breasts before Sean unceremoniously shoved her aside, swinging the tire iron before him. Marley scrabbled backwards along the ground into a piece of wood. She grabbed it and stood up, shaking.

Sean yelled, “Oh, my God!”

Thinking he was reacting to the fuguer (What was wrong? Was her head teetering on her shoulders, connected only by sinew? Was a Chihuahua chowing down on her tongue?) Marley raised the wood high. This would be her first time assaulting a random stranger.

“No, wait!” Sean yelled, barring Marley with his arm. And then he said the last thing on earth she expected him to say.

“It’s my ex. It’s Sofia!”

*

Sean sat on the sofa at home, his head in his hands, probably wondering how he was going to keep Sofia alive. They had tried giving her saltines, but she apparently had different nutritional requirements than his parents. Now Sean was worried that she actually did want to suck on a raw pancreas, and how was that achievable? Since being a pacifist and a gentle giant meant that you were incapable of providing your beautiful ex-girlfriend with dogs or cats to tear limb from limb, it also meant your beautiful ex-girlfriend might starve to death.

Marley lay on the carpet in her sullied culottes listening to Sofia’s muffled groans and nails scratching on the door of the guest room Sean had locked her in. Of course, thought Marley. Of course this was Sofia. Sean had mentioned her once or twice before. But he had never fully described her, and she could see why. The sultry epitome of feminine womanhood locked in the back room was a beautiful Hispanic girl seemingly no older than her mid-20s. When Marley had met Sean, she had been in her late 20s. Now she was 32. Sean was 36.  When had Sean dated this girl, while she was in high school?

To top it off, she possessed enormous breasts. They’d been the only thing Marley could see during the attack, blocking out everything else. Real. Not fake. Marley could tell.

Yeah, she was fugued out and Marley wasn’t, but so what? It was the irony that counted. The fact that the “world” had ended during Halloween. The fact that Sean had run into, of all the people in Los Angeles, his ex, a beautiful girl with breasts that had room to store the mysteries of the stars inside them. The fact that an all-consuming rot was forever seeking dominance, on so many levels, and Marley was powerless against it. The only comfort was that she wasn’t alone. The world was powerless against it too.

Due to the turn of events, they forgot to eat the deli turkey slices and cornbread they had made earlier to celebrate Thanksgiving.

*

Several days later, Sean caught some rats in a hamster cage. After trying everything under the sun to feed Sofia, including the failed saltines, he had finally given in to the thing he abhorred the most: murder. Even rat murder. He and Marley stood in the backyard of their condo, the dead grass poking at their feet over the sides of their flip-flops. It was a temperate 78 degrees outside. Now that Thanksgiving was past, Christmas would be here soon. It would probably be 85 degrees by then. Time to break out the shorts and tank tops, suck some gas out of abandoned cars, and head for the beach.

Sofia was tied to the fence with one of Marley’s silk scarves. She reached out listlessly now and then, swinging her hand in their general direction.

The experiment was on. Before they had come out here, Sean had taken four Entertainment magazines and wound two each around Marley’s arms, securing them with duct tape. She had no idea why they were even out here, why they weren’t just tossing the rats into the room with Sofia and locking the door. She sighed, at a loss to even begin to glean Sean’s thought processes.

“Where are your magazines?” she asked, holding out her awkwardly bundled arms.

He shrugged, preoccupied with the rats and the cage. “I’ll be fine.”

Which was actually funny, because as Sean lifted the cage, trying to decide the best way to feed the unsuspecting rats to Sofia, Sofia was suddenly standing beside Marley, also watching Sean.

Marley jerked, throwing up her armored arm, which Sofia immediately seized and sank her teeth into. I bet he used a half hitch knot, Marley thought incoherently, her gaze locked on Sofia’s light-pink (pink?) eyes. For some reason, Sean’s fondness for half hitch knots had only increased with time, despite the fact that they’d failed him in many situations.

Sean dropped the rats and threw himself at Sofia, grappling for her wrists. The diminutive woman ducked her head and nicked Sean’s forearm before he could yank it away. Not a lot. Just a nip. But there was blood.

*

Marley sat on a chair in the living room staring at Sean.

He lay on the sofa, one arm thrown over his face, eyes closed.  It was many hours later, and he still didn’t seem to be displaying any symptoms, although he seemed a tad feverish, which was good, she guessed, because fever wasn’t part of the sickness.

Marley could hear Sofia in the back room trying the doorknob. At least that’s what it sounded like. That was weird. After the incident, she had helped Sean restrain Sofia and together they had delivered her into the back. Then they had dumped half a container of peroxide on his arm followed by antiseptic swipes followed by many globs of Neosporin.

Marley realized as she stared at Sean that she was mentally packing a duffle bag in her mind. No canned stuff. Too heavy. They had lots of potato chips, string cheese, wine (also heavy, but pretty much a necessity), the corn bread.

Out of nowhere, the abandoned toddler who had brought her and Sean together sprang to mind. He’d be about eight now, and with parents that dumb, he was probably hiding in the broom closet while his folks wandered in wide, clueless circles around the family room. She started tearing up and was rubbing her eyes when Sean woke up.

“Please don’t kill me,” he said immediately.

She sat up in the chair. “Why? How do you feel?”

He paused, assessing. “I don’t know, man. I feel okay.”

Marley leaned back, exhausted. She dropped her face into her hands. She couldn’t just leave him now. Could she? Maybe she was a monster.

“But when it happens…don’t kill me. I mean it, man. It would be a mistake.”

Marley considered that for a moment. Maybe for Sean it would be a mistake. Or Sofia, who looked okay. Or that lady in the power suit who had seemed fine other than a torn sleeve. But the guy with the mutilated genitals? Did he really want to miraculously wake up from this nightmare only to be immediately thrust into a new one?

“Marley. Marley. You hear me? Promise me.”

Marley looked up. “I promise.”

“And don’t kill my parents.”

She hesitated for two beats then nodded.

“Or Sofia.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I’m not going to kill any of you,” she snapped.

Beside them, the Entertainment magazines lay on the coffee table where she had torn them off. The one bearing Sofia’s teeth-marks lay prominently on top, a sad reminder of Sean’s wise forethought.

“I’m not going to kill you,” she said, more softly.

Sean exhaled and rolled onto his side. His teeth flashed in his face. He laughed.  “Jesus,” he said, laughing. Marley laughed a little, too. It was contagious. And Sean had a great smile. She sniffled a little, feeling blue.

“Hey, babe,” said Sean, holding out his arms, “Come here.”

It was hard to resist Sean. That was why she had married him in the first place. She slowly lowered herself to the carpet and crawled over and laid her head on his chest.

“It’ll be okay,” Sean was whispering. “Don’t cry.” He rubbed her back gently in comforting circles. “I feel okay.” And then, the coup de grace. “Maybe nothing’ll happen.”

There it was again! Maybe, hopefully, if we’re lucky, possibly, probably. Pulling away, Marley sat back on her heels and gazed into the middle distance. She wasn’t Sean and would never be Sean with two parents who adored her, possible literary genius running through her DNA, and a talent for riding motorcycles which the excitement-seeking throngs elevated to a god-like status. Of course he was an optimist, coming out of that environment. Marley’s mother had been raised in a semi-commune, gotten pregnant early, always said, “It’s all good,” when it wasn’t all good. There had been times when Marley had been hungry as a child. Was that all good?

As Marley stared off, Sean heaved a tremendous sigh. A moment later he asked her, “What are you thinking about?”

“Ingvar Kamprad.”

“Who?”

“Ingvar Kamprad. The guy that founded Ikea.”

Sean closed his eyes, crossed his arms over his chest, and lay completely still as if he was dead. Marley pushed on.

“Can you even wrap your mind around the incredible potential,” Marley began in a low, passionate voice, “of a 17-year-old boy…starting a furniture store—not thinking about, not talking about—actually doing it, even though it was just a catalogue business at first, but still…” Her voice began to rise. “To be so young and so driven…and for this…catalogue business to turn into Ikea, this world-famous, multinational conglomerate…”

Sean had opened his eyes and was watching her with growing unease as if witnessing a terrible motocross accident unfolding before him.

“And then…” Marley continued, faltering. Her eyes filled with tears. “His stuff turns into crap.” She sniffled. “Everything turns into crap.” She lifted her shoulders and dropped them. “All that…red…hot… boiling…potential…” She gestured around her helplessly. “…just leads to cheap, rickety crap?”

Marley and Sean regarded one another silently. Then Sean swiped his weirdly damp brow with his wrist. He smiled without showing his teeth. “It’s not all crap,” he said softly. And then, “What about happiness?” He seemed sad. “He made a lot of people happy.” He closed his eyes again and didn’t move for so long, Marley thought he’d fallen asleep.

“Bring the rats in here,” said Sean said suddenly, and Marley started. “Let them loose. Sofia and I’ll catch them.”

The rats were still on the lawn in the cage where they had fallen. Outside, the sun was setting. Marley shook her head. “They’ll escape. You’ll never catch them. They can collapse their ribs, you know, and squeeze through a crack half an inch big.” Marley knew this because she had, at one time, worked in a pet shop for a year and a half. She had worked everywhere, and ended up nowhere.

She crawled back over to Sean and laid her head on his chest again, conflict raging through her. She couldn’t change who she was. Could she? She felt carved out of stone, immutable, as if her very being were a vast beach strewn with fatalism instead of sand. But some small part of her sensed a degree of alteration, a slight shift. She would change her mind—she would unpack her mental duffle—if there was proof otherwise. That in the midst of the boiling desert that it was okay, that it was not insane, to continue slogging forward through the desiccated soil, devoted to the promise of some yet unseen oasis.

Barring that outcome, she knew she couldn’t live with someone like Sean anymore. She saw now that his stale optimism and enthusiasm were a terrible delusion, part of a story he kept telling himself in order to keep going forward. Tomorrow will be better. Next week will be better. Next month will be better. Next year will be better. Don’t focus on the crap. Think of the happiness.

She was a realist. Maybe she couldn’t autopsy ruin, locate the origin of its wretched birth, prevent it from happening. But she could prepare for it. She could live her life knowing that love didn’t last. Hope was a crutch. And while fluoridated water might keep cavities from forming, it would also, in the end, kill (almost) everyone in sight.

“Then…bring ‘em in…leave ‘em in the cage,” Sean was whispering, sleepy again.

Oh, God, oh, God, was this it? The end? Marley felt like her heart was bruised and broken, but how was that possible, when it was protected by all that scaffolding?

“Leave ‘em in there and…we’ll figure out how to get ‘em out…”

In the middle of Sean’s brainstorming about the best way to consume the rats (as if he would ever eat a rat) something happened.

Sean stopped talking and opened his eyes. Marley lifted her head from his chest. They both looked toward the guest room. And then it came again. A voice. Someone was speaking. It was Sofia. It was Sofia. Sofia’s hoarse voice came rasping across the quiet room, “So thirsty.” A light cough. Then: “Can I have some water?”

Marley jerked upright, her spine rigid, and Sean’s fingers clamped, vise-like, on her arm.  They stared at each other. Sean started to grin. Marley, aghast, stunned, stayed still, barely breathing, listening, waiting.


Stacey Bryan has worked at a dude ranch, as a gymnastics coach, an editor for a former Buddhist monk, and now closed captioning. Her work has appeared in Ginosko, The Rag, Eclectica, and the International Human Rights Art Festival, among others. She is working on Day for Night, a paranormal comedy series.


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“Mona” Dark Romance by Vladislav Ceperkovic

"Mona" Dark Romance by Vladislav Ceperkovic -- The Chamber Magazine

“It’s October 28th. It’s her birthday again.” Marco opens Instagram and sees she just posted a picture of her sweet almond and cardamom flour cake with pistachio infused in coffee and agar agar. The bisque filling is topped with whipped cream and desert dry, dark brown raisins, like the cake Marco used to eat at the car factory when he met Mona five years ago. This one has love mixed into the batter though. He told her about it on their first date and she promised him with a fall in love with me smile that she would make him one too. Now, Mona shares it on the other side of the world with an older man that introduced her to opium and a different lifestyle. A warm rush of sadness flies through him. It was their ritual. Why is she sharing it? Why did she bother posting it today, and with that stupid ring?

Maybe she wants him to know she still thinks about him. Marco thinks and wishes her happy birthday with a copy-pasted blessing of health and prosperity he barely believes. He remembers the fights and the other signs, and it aches to remember he fell in love while she didn’t. He wants to write another message. Tell her that piece of cake looks like a bland piece of bread with rabbit shit splattered over it, but he knows better.

He gets out of bed and stands naked in front of the tall mirror of the AirBnb he’s staying at. Marco closes his reddened eyes and breathes deeply, slowly, and tries not to remember the invitation to her wedding he received a couple of months ago.

“It’s just your jealousy. It’s OK to grieve. It’s not about you, she’s proud of her cake. It has nothing to do with you anymore…Don’t you remember how vain she is?”

#

The sky is damp and grey. Good. Why should it be happy and colorful anyway? Truth hides in neutrality and maybe elegance. Yes. I must try to be elegant. He puts on a black tracksuit, sits half-dressed in the empty living room filled with dark green flora from floor to ceiling and various DVDs he’s never heard of. There’s a blank space on the wall opposite the mud coffee couch, a tall mirror hangs between it and the DVDs, some bison fake furs, and a hole in the ceiling just above his head where a projector used to be. He stares at it until deformed shapes and bony faces begin to crawl out of it. Open mouths with yellow teeth drip from the ceiling. Another deep breath then his mind focuses on one of the faces with long hair. He shapes it into hers. First, her small Italian nose, then her blue sapphire lively eyes, and the rest comes naturally. How easily he remembers the face that used to wake up next to him, the soft skin of her back that never pressed away from his chest. Her long thin neck that used to fall asleep in his right palm. How easily Love tricks the soul into melancholy.

If he was with her, it would be easy. I would know what to say, I would know how to embrace her and kiss the veins on her neck, bite her earlobe with tenderness, and wish her happy birthday the way it’s meant to. Mona’s curious eyes look at him and whisper.

“Then why aren’t you here? Why don’t you tell me now?” He looks away from the apparition and hides in the flowers. He looks again at the living room, there’s a large ebony table with three equidistant chairs opposite a long bench and another horizontal mirror the length of the table above them reflects the light from the garden and the tall chestnut tree that’s been there for at least 50 years. It looks like his host used to entertain, maybe there was a bigger couch too. One where she shared someone’s embrace did but not anymore. Escape is easy when you bring the past with you. The pain is there when you need to remember to live, and so is the joy when you want to smile.

“Why don’t you tell me now?” She repeats. He looks at her in the mirror again. My eyes changed. My cheeks are fatter than before but my hair is still the same. I know I’m beautiful, that makes everyone around me beautiful too. I could tell you everything but this is just another Friday morning. It’s another grey morning, what I feel for you pumpkin needs more.

More of what? Don’t you know that every moment I spent with you was heaven? Your silence just makes me think you don’t care about me, about anything.”

That’s not true.

“So say it!”

“What do you want me to say?!” Marco jumps at the wall. “That every moment without you makes me feel like there’s half of me that’s missing! That you stole it and ran away from me?! That I despise you for breaking our promise.”

“What promise darling?! You only called me when you wanted to see me. You only kissed me when you wanted to kiss me. You only took care of me when I begged you to and you only held me in your arms after fucking me! Tell me what promise did I break by leaving?!”

“That we would spend our lives together and have children and build a long wooden deck together where we would grow old in each other’s arms. That we would smile at each other first thing in the morning then kiss and make love to chase away bad dreams!”

“But you’ve never said that to me and anyway it’s been years…”

“The years don’t matter. We both felt the Truth together. Why would you walk away?”

“The Truth Marco? Is it the warmth I felt in my chest and around my heart when you were holding me tight in your arms, the naked selfies in bed, green tea in the kitchen, making pasta embraced together, walks by the lake, and kisses behind trees? Or was it when you would leave and go see Beatrice back in your studio? That your fucking bed was one floor above mine?! Is seeing you passed out, high on my bed, unable to speak also the Truth?! Is the pain I felt those nights also the Truth?”

“Beatrice…Beatrice… That was before we got together, that was before we started living together. But I understand. I see where you’re getting at. You’re saying it’s all my fault?”

“It’s not just your fault, I should have spoken up, I should have told you how I felt about you… You should have told me too instead of trying to love me like a puppet at arm’s reach.” Marco closes his laptop and stands up as the apparition falls to its knees and wraps her arms around herself with pity. Warm, translucent tears drip down its cheeks and it quickly swipes them off with the back of its hand. He kneels by her side. She’s not real. She’s not real Marco.

“You know damn well I love every strand of your poorly cut hair and your tortured soul.”

“No! No, I don’t know that because you never told me anything like that! You think kisses speak a thousand words but they don’t. They only tell me I turn you on and that maybe, I’m a good fuck but they don’t say you love me. And now, when I remember them. They make me feel like a cheap doll.”

“Honey, you couldn’t have felt that way. There’s… I’m sure you knew how I felt. The way I took care of you when you were sick, the way I cleaned your make-up after a night out… The way we kissed every day…” He looks at her with pleading eyes and waits for an angel to give him absolution from the brutal memory of a regretful past and the eternal pain of knowing he could have done better if he knew himself.

“Why didn’t you say it if you felt it?”

“I thought it was cliché…” He says with a broken solemn voice.

“You don’t even realize how much I hurt, do you? You don’t even realize that I could be hurt because of you? Your stubbornness and your weakness cost me two years of my life and hoping will torture me for even longer.”

“Hoping? I’m the one that’s hoping. Wait! Hoping for what?”

The ghoul disappears with a fading veil through the white wall and leaves Marco on his feet. He scans his body with a sharp gaze that hides his built-up anger. He could almost let it slip through his skin and show it on his lips or let it pierce through his eyes. How much does it cost me to keep this up?

He goes back to his small room and packs his lenses, his films, and his Hasselblad in a large LV bag with a safety lock. He gets dressed quickly too, black socks, black Levi’s and black cotton second-hand shirt, a few rings and bracelets on his porcelain wrists, and Marco dashes through the cobbled street to catch the 8:50 metro going towards the lake.

Flavio, one of his Italian friends and promoter, rented a studio for today’s photo shoot. I didn’t even research the brand! I don’t even know what they want from me. At least I’m shooting with Domenica, she’s cool, and come on, relax, you’ve known her a long time. She’ll help me. Yeah. She’ll help. He closes his mind and looks at the crowd of people rushing to get to work, just as late if not more than him. They’re quiet, lost in their worries or their music or a book. At the next stop, a man of about 50 in a long wool coat and grey sweatpants comes in and starts making his way through the crowd. He’s not completely bald but his hairline is struggling and his eyes show that he’s had a long night. After a minute, he makes his way to the back of the metro and stands right next to Marco. He gives him an innocent and tired smile and Marco moves a little bit to the left to give him a breath more space. The metro brakes heavily at Marco’s stop and just before it fully stops, the older man slams into him and grabs onto his shoulders tightly. He also makes sure to poke and grind on his thigh with something hard underneath his waistcoat before he lets go still with a smile on his face. Marco’s first thought is to slam his face into the handrail but he can’t. The door’s closing and he’s late.

#

In the studio, Marco’s friend is nowhere to be found. Only Domenica is there and she struggles to set up the reflector under the white screen.

“I hear your footsteps, Marco! Bring me some tape. This piece of shit doesn’t want to stay open.”

“It’s good to see you too Domi.” They share a quick peck on the cheek and a hug.

“You seem upset amore? What’s going on?” Marco pulls her back and just as he’s about to open up, a crowd of assistants, make-up and hair artists, and other non-essential members of Marianna’s entourage show up in a loud ruckus that covers the emptiness in their hearts, and the lack of honesty their presence brings. A whiff of PVC and leather emanates from them as one of the skinny girls opens a window.

“I’ll tell you later.” The two split up and weave into endless half hugs and exaggerated kisses where everyone smiles through their teeth. Domi gets set up in a chair and Marianna’s needle-thin arms pull Marco aside. She pours it all out between her neon pink bangs and cloudy emerald eyes.

“Hey, hey, It’s good to see you again. You look great. I’m in charge today. So look, we want it to be fashionable, we want it to be modern but retro you know? Like give it a flashy feel but not too much, we don’t want to come off cheap you know? My boss warned me about looking cheap and I know it’s a tight budget but it’s all about the clothes in the end, right? You got me right?”

“Yeah. I got you, don’t worry. I’ll make it cool and sexy.”

“Great! Great! It’s so easy to work with you.” She runs her toothpick fingers over his arm. Marco knows it’s part of the job to always be flirty and relaxed but it only reminds him of the guy in the metro. He chases that thought away. Domi will make it cool and sexy. I just need to relax.

“Do you want some cocaine sugar? You seem a bit tense. Like you’re hyper tense you know.” One of the assistants comes over and shoves her slick, chiseled face into him as her pupils dilate.

“Thanks but I’m good. I always get like this. I just want the shoot to be great you know.”

“Oh don’t worry about it. I’m sure it will be fine.” It’s my job to worry about it, sugar. He adds to himself as Glamorous plays on the speakers. Marianna whispers something to Domenica then she turns around, raises her hands, and shouts at everyone.

“All right people, let’s make some magic.” Moments later she turns up the bass and the photo shoot becomes a pseudo nightclub. Domenica gets set up, unbuttons her shirt, clacks her pointy black lacquered heels, and strikes a few poses. Marco tries to get in the mood by giving her directions over Marianna’s screams.

“Beautiful baby! One more!” More and more people join the herd of the coked-up, hollow entourage. Not wanting to make a scene, Marco turns around and gives them a dark gaze that Marianna interprets as an invitation to join him behind the camera and take over the direction of Domenica’s poses. 

“Open your chest a bit more, try… try and put your hands over your head. Yeah yeah.” She somehow found a moment to get drunk and is barely standing on her walking stick legs. She leans on the reflector and makes it tumble down over the white paper behind Domenica. A dry shriek fills the room as the crowd goes quiet and the umbrella slices through the paper. “Oh shit, oh fuck. I’m so sorry. It’s not that bad, we can fix it. I’ll fix it for you guys.” She tries to get back on her feet but her hair is caught in one of the tripods and she breaks the lighting too. Thank God I only brought my camera today. That thought calms Marco’s mind for a moment until he sees the arrogant emerald eyes staring right at him. She’ll find a way to blame him for all that’s happened. I need to act fast before she causes more damage! He gestures to one of the assistants to come help her.

“Listen up everybody.” He says. “This is a photo shoot, not a porno, not a nightclub. Everybody out, now!”

“You can’t say that!” Says Marianna. “I’m in charge here!”

“If you stay, I’m gone. I have two hours left to get your pictures. If I leave, good luck finding another photographer before you get fired.” Her hazed eyes clear up and she lets herself get carried away by the assistant.

“If I don’t get those pictures, it’s on you Marco!”

“Yeah, whatever, just leave.” Domenica turns to him and sees he needs a moment, she walks over to his bag and unlocks the compartment where he keeps his memory disks.

“How did you?”

“You showed it to me a couple of years ago. I know it’s still her birthday…”

“Well, who changes backpack locks?”

“People who change lovers usually.” A short cackling laugh bursts from Domenica as she passes him an empty memory stick. The large window behind Marco swings open and almost breaks as it bounces off the wall. Bright sun rays mingle with burping engines and annoyed honks downstairs as a swift breeze carries the lake’s freshwater dust into the studio.

“Let’s move the light there, actually just the diffuser. There’s plenty of sunshine there.” Olive-skinned Domenica sits on the edge of the window, readjusts her clothes then looks into the camera.

“Wait, you look too pretty. Scratch your head and mess up your hair. Make it look like one of those rolling balls of grass in Cowboy films.”

“Like tumbleweed? That’s a change. Normally, you want me perfect.” She notes before she violently shakes her head and almost falls out of the window. Marco steps quickly towards her slender frame and grabs her by the arm. Her skin is so soft.

Her pointy black heels intertwine and she lands flat on her back with a dry thump. The thump breaks the sound barrier of Marco’s thought and the moment, the image he couldn’t see before, manifests in his camera. Natural, and inviting, Domi looks beautifully vulnerable with a golden sparkle in her dark honey-glazed eyes.

“Close your blouse. I want them to focus on your eyes.” She flows from pose to pose like a venerable viper for the rest of the session and in half an hour, it’s in the bag. They go through the pictures and send a couple of them to cocaine skeleton Marianna as they open a bottle of Hendrix.

#

The night is almost here. Domenica comes back from the bathroom in the same rugged punk rock torn black jeans she came in. Her olive skin and tumbleweed hair still shine under the lonely reflector as she sits with her back against the torn white screen.

“I broke up with Julian last week…” She says in a lonely, mouse quiet voice. She almost hopes he doesn’t hear her.

“Oh, I didn’t know… You didn’t post anything.” Marco answers but his heart sinks when he remembers what’s happening a few kilometers south of the studio, in a cozy chalet by the lake. “I should have called…How do you feel?”

“How would you have known? You never call anyway. I feel like a punctured tire that’s been run over by a ten-tonne truck.”

“Did he cheat on you?”

“No. NO, he would never…but I would and I did.” Marco slides the half-empty bottle of gin towards her and drags the chair next to her. “You know what scares me the most? It’s how natural it came to me. How easy it was to seduce someone else and I feel so guilty because I’ve never been more turned on in my life. I knew he was at home waiting. You understand?” She says and sips the bottle then passes it back.

“Knowing you were hurting him made it that much sweeter.”

“It’s as if he was with me in that nasty bathroom. That’s how much I was thinking about him. The other guy’s hands were all over me, squeezing me tightly and I knew the other women in the bathroom could hear me but I didn’t care. I pictured Julian standing there looking at me. I swear I could breathe fire and when we came… Oh, God…” Marco crouched next to her while she talked and put his arm around her since her eyes watered under the reflector.

“Did it feel like you were cucking him or was it something else? Something just yours?”

“No, no. It’s just, he wasn’t there sexually, I just wanted him to see me. I wonder if that’s how Mona feels…”

“What do you mean?” He asks and takes another sip as she breaks apart and tries to get on her feet.

“I don’t know. I lost my train of thought.”

“You know she’s getting married as we speak?”

“Married? Her?! Where?”

“By the lake, I have the invite… I don’t know if I should go.”

“Oh you have to go. We have to go! Come on! Let’s get this party mobile. I’m done sulking about my shame.” They reach the door and Domi turns around and gives him a quick kiss out of nowhere. “Be straight with me Marco. Do you still love her?” She sees him get lost in a train of thought and barks. “Simple! Yes or NO?!” Her words slap the air out of him.

“Yes. Yes, I do still love her.”

“Then let’s go and get her back, for both of us! Who is she marrying anyway?”

“Some English lawyer, Brandon. I think.” They squeeze through the tight staircase and dash out into the crowded street where ten thousand ants carry their worries over the hot concrete. “And to think it was cloudy today, it’s a cauldron right now.”

“Some lawyer. She doesn’t belong with a lawyer. You make sure I tell her that. You make sure Marco it’s very importwant.”

“Importwant Domi? It’s importwant?!” He adds with a smile and hails a cab.

“You know what I mean.” Marco gives the address of the cozy chalet by the lake to the driver and they swerve through traffic as Domi takes a short but very effective nap.

#

The cab driver halts about 5 minutes away from the entrance. Marco hands him a couple of bills and they jump out of the cab, arms intertwined around each other more for balance than intimacy. Domi gives him a big thrust in the thigh and laughs. Her cackles echo over the still lake.

“You know I got groped by some weirdo in the metro this morning?”

“You got groped? Looks like it’s your lucky day big fella.” And she thrusts again, laughing even harder this time.

“Stop, it’s not funny. I felt disgusting afterward.”

“Just forget about the sad shit. Let’s get in. I can hear the band. Oh! It’s so pretty!” It was indeed beautiful and elegant. Long strands of fairy light hung from the second floor and went all around the chalet. Half of the lights were reflected in the lake and created a half-circle in the water just below a wooden balcony where some guests were taking pictures with their arms wide open. The rest of the lights shined elegantly over the roof and formed a blessed electric halo over the whole event. There was no one at the door so Marco and Domenica just walked right into what seemed to be Gatsby’s living room. Crystal chandeliers hung above every silk-clothed table, champagne towers stood proudly on every side of what was now a grand ballroom that still kept an intimate and cozy side due to the wooden pillars. White rose petals were thrown a little bit everywhere and the guests were dressed in black tie attire with the women mostly wearing long velvet dresses that went all the way down to their ankles, white pearls around their elegant necks, and long black gloves that covered their elbows. It looked like the party had been going on for quite a while now and even if everyone’s hair was a little messed up a snobbish air wave still lingered.

“Great! I feel like the ugly duckling now.” She says and tries to cover her punk rock torn jeans with her long olive-toned arms. “What do we do now?” Marco isn’t looking any better himself with a wide open, grey linen shirt and smelly armpits retorts.

“It’s a wedding. We get drunk of course!” They catch a few strange looks on their way to the bar and Domi lines up shots of VSOP cognac for them. They run a few more rounds with their backs turned to the dance floor until they’re both warm and comfortable. Only then do they turn around to find Mona with her arms crossed over a beautiful short white dress with lace details with a piercing rage in her pale blue sapphire eyes, hidden behind the thin white sheet of her calm expression. She hasn’t been a competitive swimmer in years but her muscles are still toned and cut sharp, just like her jawline. He steps back as Domi jumps in her arms and squeezes her tight.

“Hey, you two.”

“Bitch! You didn’t tell me you were getting married! Congratulations!” Marco remembers that drunk Domenica usually involves two non-exclusive reactions. Hypersexuality and brutal honesty as indeed, her long olive-skinned fingers make their way to Mona’s butt and give a gentle squeeze.

“Hi M.” Before he can continue, Domenica interjects.

“Now, who’s this wealthy daddy you’re getting in bed with? I mean look at this! It’s a Disney castle for the depraved.”

“I’m pleased you think that way since I’m taking care of the check tonight.” An older, slim man with a struggling hairline walks over and takes Domenica away from Mona. “My name is Luciano but you’re probably looking for my son Brandon.”

“Domenica. I think I’ve been looking for you for a long time Mr. Luciano.” She answers with a smile. “You should take me for a dance.”A quick thought crosses Marcos’ mind. That old man… Luciano nods and guides her to the only place on the floor without roses. Marco and Mona stay by the counter. The noise and the party quiet down all around them as he reaches over the bar and grabs a shot glass.

“Always a wildcard with Domenica.” He pours what’s left of the cognac and hands it to her but she puts it back on the counter.

“She’s hot-blooded what can you do? Thanks but I quit actually.”

“You did?” He says and puts down his drink next to hers.

“Yeah, a year ago now. When I met Brandon.” His heart sinks to the bottom of the lake.

“Well, congratulations. Are you happy? Are you loved?” He asks unsure if he means it and runs a finger over the edge of the glass. Mona’s hands hold on tighter to her arms, and her neck twitches just like it used to when cold winds breeze over her black hair.

“Thank you. I’m all right. I’m not running anymore.” Marco thinks about asking her to introduce him to Brandon but changes his mind once he sees the struggle in her eyes. I’m just causing her more pain. I’m her past now.

“That’s all one can ask for I suppose. I guess I better go. I hope this is the start of a very happy, loving life for you M.” He kisses her on the cheek and walks over to a swinging Domenica without turning back because if he did he would say something stupid like I’m sorry. “Domi, Domi! Let’s go! I can’t be here anymore. It was a bad idea to come here.” She stops dancing and turns around and seems to sober up when she meets his sad eyes.

“OK. All right, let’s go. The exit’s that way.” They walk through the crowd and end up outside, right below the balcony and the half-circle of bright fairy lights. “Ah crap, I think it’s the other way. Why did you let me lead? You know I’m drunk. These lights are making me dizzy, now I need to sit down.” She takes off her boots, rolls up her jeans, and dips her feet into the chilly lake. “AAAH, that’s better. Anyway, what happened?”

“She said she was a year sober. She quit when she met him.”

“So?” She asks puzzled. “That’s no reason to leave Marco.”

“I know but I realize I want her and I can’t stand to remember us. Our vanity, my impotence… That’s all I see when I look at her now. I don’t see this perfect, wonderful person anymore and it doesn’t help that she can’t hide the pain she sees in my eyes either.”

“It’s a strange thing how unbearable the most beautiful and loving feeling can become when you try to control it don’t you think? Regret is not a good dessert.”

“I didn’t understand a word you said.”

“Remember when I was telling you about Julian and the other guy? I remember why I thought of Mona but I think it was related to you. You didn’t trust her as you know you should have. You weren’t completely honest, naked with her and the regret is eating you away now. You know very well this could have been your wedding, minus the champagne and the chandeliers of course. Just like it could have been mine with Julian…” She adds and plunges her head into her hands. “Ah! Stop! I said I was done with this!”

“Domi, do you think we just made a mistake, or is it just something fundamental within us to hurt and run away from those that want to love us?” Marco hears dry leather footsteps thump clumsily on the patio.

“Beautiful!” says Luciano as he sits down next to Domenica and runs his hand over her dark curly hair. “Why are you so sad? Come on, come back inside and dance.” Marco leans forward to get a better look at him.

“Hey, old man, did you take the metro this afternoon? In a long wool jacket and grey sweatpants?” He senses his anger boil inside. It’s not all due to the disgust he feels toward him but it doesn’t matter. There he is. Luciano puts his hand over Domi’s shoulder plates and slides it towards her waist.

“No, nono.” He says with a smile but Marco stands up and tightens his wrist, his nails dig into his palm.

“Yes, yes you were. I remember that sleazy smile.” As Marco stands up, the DJ invites the guests to go on the patio for a group photo. Domenica misses that announcement and in a sharp, aggressive reflex grabs Luciano’s hand and throws him over the patio into the lake.

“Don’t touch me you creep!” She quickly raises her legs as Luciano tries to grab onto her feet and pull her into the chilly lake. The ripples in the water break the half-circle of light. More and more leather footsteps and heels clack on the patio behind them as a rough, strong hand snatches onto Domenica’s shoulder. She sighs in pain. In a flash, Marco punches the elbow up. The grip loosens and for good measure, Domi and Marco latch onto the man’s torso and throw him into the lake as well.

“Brandon!” They hear Mona shout behind them as she pushes the velvet and black tie guests apart. “There’s a way out, there on the right, swim!” She turns to Domenica who’s busy putting her boots back on. She doesn’t look at Marco. “What did you two do?! Why do you ruin everything?! Always!” She looks as though she rubbed her eyes and her cheeks with dry salt. Red and burnt all over. Domenica lashes out a powerful howl at her.

“That creep gropes people in the tube! And your hubby is no better, he’ll grow up just the same and just as pathetic! Look!” She turns around and reveals the reddening hand grip Brandon left on her left shoulder. “Just the same! Now, get out of my way!” Mona’s rage dissipates or translates a little over to Brandon and his father as the pair climb out of the lake, soaked and angry without helping each other. Mona’s clenches her fists and she’s on the verge of going nuclear. The guests start to murmur and whisper to each other as Marco casts a last look towards Mona’s white back before parting the crowd in the same place as Domenica with large swift steps. He catches up to her where they left the cab, she jumps in his arms and sobs before wiping her eyes on one of the wings of his grey linen shirt.

“That was a mistake you see.” She says as she gathers herself. “That was a mistake but it’s in us Marco, we destroy and we run. We’re destroyers of the ones who love us.” She adds with calm serenity as though everything made sense on a molecular level to her. Marco stays quiet as his What’s App rings. It’s skeleton Marianna. Domenica leans over to read it as well.

Loved the pics, excellent work darlings! Come join us at The King’s! We’re celebrating!

“What are we waiting for? Call a cab, and let’s celebrate that elegant wedding and our tasteless decision-making.” They cram into the backseat of a Peugeot cab. Another sip of their favorite lie awaits at the King’s as ghosts of an ideal past squeeze their hearts closer together with vines of hope that next time, they’ll get it right.


Inspired by existentialists, spiritualists, and horror artists, Vladislav Ceperkovic works as a business development manager and web developer. He likes to entertain and explore stories with characters and worlds in order to better understand himself while listening to old blues records.


While you’re here, you might want to check the submissions guidelines and our new experiment: Rural Fiction Magazine.

If you like dark romance, you might enjoy Dark Passions Magazine.

“Beefeater” Dark Western Fiction by Joshua Mertz

"Beefeater" Dark Western Fiction by Joshua Mertz

Did you say you were a friend of Zeke’s?  He’s dead, you know. Actually, worse than that. I’ll tell you, but I don’t think your boss will want to put it in his newspaper. Here comes the waiter. You tell him what you want while I collect my thoughts.

We had a small run out of Casper down here to Cheyenne. Only a hundred fifty-three head of cattle. I figured a little over two weeks. It was getting on into October and I wanted to beat Kincaid coming up from Colorado with almost a thousand head, so we took this short cut Zeke had heard about. Swore it would save us five days.

            We were ten days out, and had been driving the cattle hard for last two, when we came out of the plains and into an area of low, rolling hills. The cattle were worn to a nub and cranky as all git out. We kept our eyes peeled for water, but the animals smelled it first. Just a little creek. Did us all good. Being as how we had a long ways to go yet, I decided we should stop for a day to let the herd rest.

            Can’t tell you exactly where we were. Probably couldn’t lead you there either. Wouldn’t want to. We made camp and I sent three men to get the animals watered and gathered for the night while Snuffy whipped up some grub.

            I walked off a ways to have me a smoke and appreciate the Lord’s gift of the great outdoors. Trail boss’s privilege, you know. It was just after sundown and the sky was every color of red you can imagine against a blue that was almost black. The cattle were all down by the creek and the men were either caring to the horses or helping with the fire. It should have set my heart at ease to see my crew so engaged.

            But something was wrong. Something in the wind. The animals were restless and the men did not talk and joke much while they worked. I gazed at the fading hills and thought I saw something move far away. Like a thicket of scrub moving in the wind, only there wasn’t any wind. It was a long ways off and it was getting dark fast, so I figured it was probably just my eyes being weary.

            We built a fire and had a nice hot dinner, then laid down in our bedrolls to sleep. Didn’t have to post a night man; cattle won’t stray from a water source. It was damn peaceful but I had a hard time getting to sleep. I laid on my back with my eyes open, listening to the cattle and trying to name what it was that was eating at me. There were a lot of shooting stars that night.

            Here comes the waiter with your salad. Go on, eat up. I’ll wait for the main course. You just dig on into those greens while I talk.

            The next morning I had barely got my bed rolled up when Hank ran into camp yelling that the cattle had been stolen. Well that got everybody stirred up and I was right sore with Hank for causing such a ruckus. I finally got the men to quieten down and we took a count and found out forty-seven head were missing. Mind you, that’s almost a third of the herd.

            Those cattle were not stolen. You sleep good out on the range, but you sleep light. Nobody could have stolen the cattle; we would have heard the jingle of a bridle or our horses would have smelled the other horses. In fact, I woke up several times that night and was amazed at how deadly quiet it was.

            Near as I can tell those cattle just up and walked away. Sneaked away is more like it. Easy thing, you think, to follow a bunch of stupid cattle out into the rolling scrub land?  Harder than you might imagine. At first it was easy, the tracks stayed pretty much together.

            And then they stopped.

            I mean stopped completely, like they had run into a wall. Just over a rise the dirt and weeds went from trampled down to untouched. You could follow the line with your eye. It was weird.

            On a hunch, I sent the men out alone to search for any signs of the missing cattle. I would fire my gun in a half hour and they would come back to report.

            The time passed and I shot off my pistol and one by one the men arrived with nothing at all to report. Then Zeke came back. He had found some tracks off to the north.

            We followed him out to where he’d found the tracks. You could tell the cattle were confused. The tracks split up and wandered off into the countryside. I had each of the men follow a track.

            We gathered in another half hour. The men reported strange things. Sometimes the tracks would stop, then start again some hundred yards away. Jed told about how the track he was following went straight as an arrow for a good quarter mile, then began to go in circles. I myself followed one where it looked like the cow had been dragged for hundreds of yards. And all the tracks led in the same general direction. We followed.

            Long about midday we came upon a clearing. It was several hundred feet across and looked like it had been dug up. Not plowed; plowing leaves neat rows. This looked it had been churned. There was a single dead tree out in the middle. The horses wouldn’t come near it.

            Tracks came in from all directions and stopped about twenty feet from the edge of the clearing. Not one of us was willing to venture out onto the barren dirt. There was no sign of the missing cattle.

            It was late afternoon by the time we got back to camp. I tried to keep spirits up by making sure everybody was busy. We were just about to sit down to dinner when the lookout came into camp and said one of the cattle was heading back.

            We rode out to meet it. It was walking funny and had several deep gashes on one side. Zeke dropped the lasso on the its neck and had a loop of rope around the saddle horn when the animal slipped up and bit him on the leg.

            Now, cattle don’t bite. You probably already know that. They might nip at you if you try to take their food away, but I have never seen a cow up and bite a person like that one bit Zeke. Bit him hard, too. Took a chunk out of his thigh.

            We got Zeke back to camp and Snuffy and I cleaned the wound and got him bandaged up as best we could. He was in a lot of pain, but we got him to lay down on his bedroll. We put several blankets over him and went to look at the animal.

            It was tied to a stake and stared at us in a most… unusual way. Like it was sizing us up. When the other cattle would pass by it would try to lick them. Some cattle came right up to the crazy one and let it lick their faces. I ordered the animal tied beyond reach of the herd.

            It was a quiet dinner. We watched Zeke slip into a fever. We sat by him all night, keeping his brow cool, talking to him. I cleaned his wound several times that night and it kept oozing out this green stuff that stunk like something from Hell. Zeke spoke in tongues and screamed in terror. He spat up a lot of blood. We did what we could, but to no avail. He died not long after sunrise.

            We buried Zeke on a hilltop  Buried him deep so the coyotes wouldn’t get him. I said a few words and Jed read a little bit from his Bible and we filled in the grave and put rocks on top.

            Again, it was too late to break camp. After dinner I put two men to watch the herd and went to look in on the cow that bit Zeke. It was laying down, breathing heavy. The gashes on its side glowed faintly green and had that stink-from-Hell. I planned to shoot it in the morning and bury the damn thing. Had a hard time sleeping again that night. Bad dreams. I would wake up and hear the others moaning and muttering in their sleep.

            In the morning I went to take care of the sick cow. It was gone. It had chewed through its rope and wandered away. Over breakfast I enlisted a couple of the men to help me track it down. Then we saw Hank staring at something. We followed his gaze and there wasn’t a man there whose blood did not freeze.

            The hilltop where we had buried Zeke was dug up.

            We hurried up to the top of the hill. This was not anything the coyotes did, no matter what the others may tell you.

            Nobody had dug up the grave.

            Something had dug its way out of Zeke’s grave. And then that something had walked away to the north. The trail was not hard to follow. We knew where it would lead.

            The tracks didn’t stop away from the clearing like all the others – they led out into the dirt. The horses caught wind of that churned earth and went crazy. We had to stop damn near a quarter mile away.

             I was the only one who would venture onto the barren clearing. The earth felt soft and unstable, like I would sink into it at any moment. I saw a black something and went to it. It was one of Zeke’s boots. I could find no stick, so I tilted it up with my knife and looked inside. There looked to be the remnants of Zeke’s foot in the boot. Big white maggots reared up and hissed at me. All the way back to the horses I felt eyes on me. Gave me the willies.

            So we left. What else was there to do?  We still had a hundred six head of cattle to get here to Cheyenne and we were three days behind schedule. We had done what we could for Zeke.

            We made it here with ninety-eight head. Several had gone mad on the trail and died. Or we shot them. We all agreed to not say a thing about it. Kincaid had beat us here, so we sold what we had at auction for a fair to middlin’ price. Some of restaurants here in town bought several on account of the reasonable prices.

            But that first crazy cow – the one that bit Zeke — it’s got me worried. Licked a lot of the other cattle before we took it away. No telling how far that might have gotten around.


            So you go ahead and enjoy that steak. I’m going to have the chicken.


Joshua Mertz is the son of a rocket scientist and a word savvy mother. He has had short stories published in Amazing StoriesAboriginal Science Fiction, New Maps, and three in the award-winning Halloween anthology Harvest Tales and Midnight Revels.


While you’re here, you might want to check the submissions guidelines and our new experiment: Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Stained Snow” Dark Flash Fiction by Townsend Walker

"Stained Snow" Dark Flash Fiction by Townsend Walker -- The Chamber Magazine

The snow was stained with blood as the field ran down to the river. Yesterday, no one would have seen the blood midst the stubble of the field, but snow fell overnight. Weatherman said six to eight inches, drifts to twelve. Ben Weasley, moving his tractor from one of his fields to another along the road, saw it. He turned into one of his neighbor’s places down the road and called the sheriff. Ten minutes later the sheriff and his deputy were at the scene. They followed the trail, cursing every time their feet sunk into a ditch or gully. “It’s human alright,” the sheriff said, “You can tell by the drag marks.”

“Bet they was hoping, snow’d go on, cover the whole thing,” the deputy said, “Give ‘em more running time.”

There was more blood on the riverbank. The two poked around the shallows, but the current, moving fast at that corner covered all traces. “Damn to hell, now’s the hard part, got figure out who’s gone missin’. Hope nobody local.”

“And don’t forget,” the deputy added, “Who wanted him, or her, to go missin’.”

* * *

The wind ponies of her mind go to places she does not want to go. Olivia fears the thoughts ill formed, yet foreboding, of Jimmy’s absence. Her man is a man of habit. He goes out at 8 to do his jobs. He comes home at 6 for his dinner. They watch television. They go to bed at 9. Last night he did not come home He did not call. He always calls when he will be late. She would have gone out to look for him, but the snow: last night she tried at 8, a curtain of white, at 12, a curtain of night white, at 2 white out.

Olivia drifted into a snowy slumber in early morning thinking about Jimmy and his new nightmares, shadows of those that haunted him when he first returned. He called them, “frightened phantoms.” Always running at him.

This morning at 8 he is not home. At 9 she calls the sheriff. He is not in his office. She leaves a message.

* * *

Who has the right to live among us and who must die? It is a judgment reserved to God. By implication, the judgment is often usurped by the individual. It was I who judged Jimmy 10 years ago. To those who knew him in Kansas he was an upstanding man of good habit and character, a good tradesman, a good husband, a pretty good half back for his high school football team. He and Olivia were planning to have children.

Jimmy served in Iraq as a platoon leader for two years and received the Silver Star. In Iraq, he left villages shattered, silhouettes of mud huts with empty windows framing the sky. In Iraq he left nightmares that became shadows, shadows that returned to their cradles and birthed misshapen new ones. In Iraq he left sand littered with bodies, arms, legs, and broken dolls. My name is Basmina, I am the survivor of one of those villages.


Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence, and strong women. He has written a collection of short stories, “3 Women, 4 Towns, 5 Bodies & other stories,” (Deeds Publishing,2018), a novella, “La Ronde,” (Truth Serum Press, 2015) and over one hundred short stories and poems published in literary journals. His website is: https://www.townsendwalker.com


While you’re here, you might want to check the submissions guidelines and our new experiment: Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Pay at the Pump” Dark Fiction by Kay Summers

"Pay at the Pump" Dark Fiction by Kay Summers

The killer pulled into the gas station slowly, tires crunching over the loose gravel dotting the asphalt. The station was small, one of those old stations right outside small towns where the prices are posted on signs with numbers someone changes by hand. It sported two pumps of an elderly vintage, and when the killer pulled alongside the first one, he saw the paper, handwritten sign taped over the handle: “Out of Order.” Sighing inwardly, he pulled ten feet forward to access the second pump. A similarly scrawled sign taped over the credit card slot read: “Pay Inside.”

With another sigh, this one audible, the kind that fills a given space with the weary frustration of its owner, he put the car into park, popped the gas tank open, and turned off the engine. The killer preferred to pay at the pump rather than walking inside ahead of time, waiting on whatever patron was buying scratch-off tickets and beef jerky, and then estimating how much he’d need to fill his tank. It was an inexact science at best, and it’d inevitably leave him with a gas gauge hovering just below the full line, as unsatisfying ending to a gas transaction if ever there was one.

He’d never understood people who said things like, “I’m just going to get five dollars of gas,” or shit like that. How could you possibly keep track of your fuel with a gauge that was forever short of full, never stopping at the top, just floating somewhere between half and three-quarters of a tank?

The door to the store was glass with one of those metal handlebars bisecting it. The kind that leaked heat in the winter and AC in the summer, which wasn’t the killer’s problem, but he did ponder the wasted money and energy for a second. The door swung easily, and the small bell hanging from a string on the inside tinkled to announce his entrance.

The clerk was seated behind the counter. This station was small, of course, and in one of those towns that liked to think it had low crime, so there was no glass barrier protecting the employee. More likely than a low crime rate was the chance that there was a shotgun underneath the counter, just by the man’s knees, providing assurance as he read the newspaper, drank coffee, and conducted the odd transaction or two that probably occurred no more than twice an hour; three times, tops.

Peering over his paper, the heavyset man, dressed in blue work chinos and a striped, short-sleeved button-up with his name stitched on the pocket—Stanley, it said—sighed as well, folding his paper carefully and setting it on the counter before regarding the killer over the bridge of his reading glasses.

“Fill ‘er up?” The man asked.

So, he wouldn’t have to guess how much to pay. That was a plus. He nodded, and the man pushed a few buttons on the console to his left, nodding back at the killer and grunting, “Go ’head, then.”

The killer didn’t know gas stations still existed where a person would be trusted to come back in and pay after filling up the tank. But apparently, here in the wilds of Georgia, they did.

Post fill-up, the clerk—Stanley—was friendlier. “That a hybrid?” he asked with genuine interest. “How many miles you get?”

Twenty years ago, the version of this man would’ve no doubt viewed such a car with suspicion, but now, with gas prices spiking, everybody and their grandma was interested in hybrids—what kinds of batteries they took, whether or not it had any pick-up, if he’d ever topped 50 miles per gallon, you name it.

“Averages about 45 on the highway,” the killer replied. “More than 38 in town.”

“That right? That’s the opposite of what you read about them,” Stanley quizzed.

“Yeah, I know,” the killer answered. “They got it all backwards, at least with mine.”

Stanley had a few more questions, and the killer, whose name was Tod, pronounced Todd but with just the one “d,” indulged him. Tod normally hated small talk—not because of his profession, though. He’d always been bad at it, not like those kids who could chatter away to a stranger in the aisle of a grocery store, telling some stranger all their momma’s business while she stood further down the aisle, trying to remember if they needed Pop-tarts or not. Tod had been the kid who stood, mutely, while some random adult asked random questions about what grade he was in and did he like his teacher and what not.

But in a strange town, with a job to do, it paid to be a little friendly, because in the South, you stood out more if you weren’t. He was known to be quiet in his own hometown down by the Gulf in Alabama, but here, he was more likely to be remembered if he didn’t converse than if he did.

Also, it was possible Stanley could help him.

After it was clear that Stanley’s curiosity about current hybrid technology had been sated, and he began to pick up his paper again, Tod ventured, casually: “Got any motels close by around here? I’ve got a long drive tomorrow, and I’d love to rest up, watch a little TV, catch a few zzz’s.”

Stanley, he knew, was likely to recommend the kind of place he was unlikely to find on hotels.com—a one-story motel with doors that opened right to your parking spot and clerks who didn’t mind taking cash with no reservation. Stanley did not disappoint, directing him to a homely establishment just about two miles down the same state highway and on the right. The Olde Towne Motel, it was called, and Tod knew the stylish nature of the extra “e’s” wouldn’t be reflected in the accommodations, but that was more than fine. Places like this catered to people who maintained a very small footprint in this world, whether they stayed a night or lived here, and they were unlikely to notice him or care if they did. They all had more than enough worries to occupy their time.

The room was gross, of course, but Tod had stayed in many worse places while in the military. A place that had a bed, even if he needed to don a Haz-Mat suit before lying on it, was superior in every way to a dugout in the mountainous desert or a back room in some shot-up house in Baghdad.

There was an flat-screen TV, the free-standing kind that you could get on the after-Thanksgiving Day sales at Wal-Mart if you were ready to take your life in your hands and do battle with all the heavyset ladies, Black and white, who’d crowd into surging hordes of shoppers against the closed doors, sprinting—their big chests heaving and bouncing—as they grabbed shopping carts and ran like hell for the electronics section as soon as the floodgates opened. It was scarcely bigger than the flat-screen monitor the killer used in his workstation back at his house, and the color on it was flat, garish, home-video quality circa 2006, making everything he tried to watch look like an episode of “Cops.”

Passing time in places like this required patience, and Tod had that in abundance. He was waiting on a call from his handler, Whippet, a man he knew from their mutual time in the military. Whippet was the guy who’d hooked him up with this gig, in those first disorienting, lonely days after he returned from his final combat tour with too much time on his hands and too much stored-up adrenaline and banked hypervigilance to enjoy it. Whippet had started his own business, helping people rid themselves of troublesome neighbors, acquaintances, and the occasional husband, when he returned, and his recruitment pitch to Tod had been simple: “Hey, man. Remember how they kept calling us ‘trained killers’ and all that bullshit? Well, I say stick with what you’re good at. Fuck trying to make it in the straight world. They trained us, and fairly expensively, wouldn’t you say? Might as well use it.”

And it had been, in the end, that simple. There was no shortage of small-town people with petty grudges they’d been carrying around for years. Being able to unburden oneself from, say, the anger one might feel at the snooty prep who’d called you fat in junior high, then grown up and married some Tuscaloosa business school graduate with a beer gut who golfed, an ever-present dumbass visor on his head, and moved to his wife’s town to open his own investment business, keeping selfsame preppy girl in Vineyard Vines and Lilly Pulitzer shifts until the end of time, was an appealing prospect for some. All Tod had to do was the take the contract from Whippet and figure out a way to make it look like an accident. Just by way of example, the middle-aged preppy girl-now-lady had succumbed to a freak accident involving the machine that pumped out tennis balls for practice on the courts at the club. She must’ve gotten distracted, the police said, and the machine’s last hit had been right at her heart, stopping it cold. Bless her heart; she’d always been so graceful on the court, too.

Anyway, that’s the kind of work that kept Tod busy and had done so for a number of years, taking him from those first awful days in 2005 all the way through to these current days more than a dozen years later.

When the call from Whippet comes, his boss-turned-handler sounds aggrieved, his usual disposition these days. For Whippet had succumbed to the same plague that, in his words, had “diluted the quality of everything from music to meatballs”: the buy-out. His upstart business had been spotted by a much larger outfit out of Atlanta working basically the same market, and he’d taken the big payout and rolled his smaller, south Alabama standalone into a conglomerate. Tod had told him it was a mistake; what did people in Georgia know about this business that Whippet did not? But Whippet’d had his head turned by the money and the vague idea that he would retire before 50, living the life on some beachfront property and keeping a place in the mountains in North Carolina so he could see whichever part of the seasons he chose.

Like Tod knew, Whippet couldn’t hang it up. He had nothing else in his life, and without the constant influx of jobs to manage and assets like Tod to wrangle, he’d been bored silly. So, Whippet was back within six months, working as an employee for the new, larger business. It was ok, he’d mused to Tod—all the big management headaches were taken on by others, and he had plenty of money, so he was just working to have something to do.

The killer had never understood this mindset. Tod didn’t understand what was wrong with people these days. Everybody was always retiring and then talking about how they were bored and then coming back and doing the same damn things they’d done for decades. To him, it spoke to both an immense insecurity in people—who ARE we if no one needs us to work?—and a profound lack of curiosity about the wider world. When he, Tod, had enough to retire and see him through whatever elderly ailments his body could possibly present—when he felt secure in the amount of digits in the number he saw when he logged into Fidelity—he was going to walk away, no question. He had a big stack of books and a long queue of movies and shows waiting on him, and he didn’t plan to miss this grind one bit. When he traveled in retirement, he’d make reservations ahead of time in places the guidebooks recommended; he’d stop all this find-an-anonymous-fleabag-motel stuff and travel like a civilized person.

Anyway, Whippet’s major discontent with his new lot had less to do with not liking his work and more to do with feeling like he’d been deceived by the people who bought him out. Said he’d been approached by a big Black dude, a tough guy whose service took place in Vietnam and who still looked like he could break heads using only his own hands, and he’d thought this dude intended to stay in charge. Didn’t know that less than a year after the buyout, the whole business would be turned over to a woman. Nothin’ against women, he said, but still, it didn’t seem right not to have told him, Whippet, the plan.

Now, on the phone, Tod listens patiently through the usual prefaces, tinged with resentments and can-you-believe-this’s that now accompany all his calls with Whippet.

“Well, the lady in charge has sent down the orders for the little people, you and me,” Whippet begins. “You ready for this bullshit?”

Tod mentally sighs and wishes Whippet had stayed retired.

“Yep. Let’s have it.”

“Now, I’m sure she knows what she’s doing, and I would never presume to question the boss lady,” he continues. “I mean, what do I know? I only got an MBA and years of experience doing this while she was probably watching soaps and shopping online.”

Whippet had completed his MBA online with the GI bill a couple of years ago, and he never fails to bring it up at least once in every conversation now.

“But anyway, the target is maybe a little more visible than usual.”

Here Tod’s ears perk up. For all his whining, Whippet does know the business, and when he’s on point, he gets more understated. So “maybe a little more visible” is important.

“The guy’s name is Guy. No shit, couldn’t make that up,” Whippet chuckles. “But you maybe seen his name already on your way into town.”

Tod reaches back to the recent memory of approaching this small town, thinking through billboards, road signs, stretches of road named after local celebrities, until it comes to him.

“The mayor? That Guy?”

“That’s the one,” Whippet sighs heavily. “The fuckin’ mayor. Runnin’ for re-election. Should be out and about a lot at least. County fairs, Rotary Club meetings, that kind of bullshit.

“But there’ll be people around him, Tod. Hangers on and such. So it’s a tricky one.”

That’s definitely an understatement. Even if Tod can isolate a local politician in the midst of an election season, nothing that happens to the man will go unnoticed. His death will be all over the local papers and probably get picked up statewide.

“Damn.”

“That’s right, bud,” Whippet commiserates.

“There a good reason?”

One of the things that Whippet always insisted on—his “defining difference,” as he put it, for marketing’s sake—was the requirement that the buyer provide a motive. Didn’t have to be a good motive or even a particularly strong one. They just needed to know why, exactly, someone wanted this person dead. Gave them leverage over the client, hedged against a future guilty conscience in the form of anonymous calls to police that would expose their organization, and, most crucially, helped Tod and those like him figure out a way to off the person most subtly. Think of it this way: if the person who puts down the money hates a woman because of how she acts at work, then killing her far away from work, in location and manner of death, will be safest to protect them all. So, this was Whippet’s one requirement when he sold the business: at least for his guys, the motive requirement stays in place. To his surprise, the larger organization liked the idea and adopted in for all the contracts.

“Yeah,” Whippet murmurs. “Yeah, there is.”

A recorded voice comes over the line. It’s a woman’s voice, low and choked off, like she can barely get the words out. 

“My husband is an angry man,” the voice begins. “He’s angry at the world, but he wants the world to love him, so all his anger is reserved for his family.

“It used to be just me, and I thought I could handle it. Calling me names in that low, hissing voice that no one else could hear, telling me I was fat, useless, ridiculous in whatever clothes I had one—it was bad but bearable. I married him when I was right out of college and just wanted to get out from under my parents. I figured his behavior was the price I would pay for being careless, for jumping without really looking, and it wasn’t so bad, really. We’ve got a nice house, plenty of money, and everyone thinks we’re a perfect family.

“I thought I’d kept most of it from my kids until the night he locked me outside, naked, and I had to knock on my daughter’s window after he went to sleep so I could come back inside. She was ten, then, and I tried to tell her it wasn’t a big deal, that Mommy and Daddy had just had an argument and needed to be nicer to each other, but she looked at me with her big eyes, and what I saw there was pity.

“That was five years ago.

“Guy’s been mayor for a few years now, and it’s not a full-time job, so he has to keep working, selling real estate, and it’s a lot. I know it’s a lot. He wants us to have everything, wants everything to look just so, and it’s hard for me to keep everything just so with two teenagers leaving stuff lying all over the place. But, you know, it’s bearable. I know there are other women who have it really bad. Mostly all he ever does to me, other than insult me, is squeeze my upper arms so hard he leaves marks. But I don’t really have good enough arms to wear sleeveless dresses—Guy says my upper arms wiggle like a turkey wattle—so I just cover up the marks and drive on, you know?

“But then I overheard my son talking to his girlfriend on the phone. He was in his room, and I usually can’t hear anything, but he must’ve been upset, because his voice was louder than usual.

“He was telling her how much he hates his dad. How scared he is that he’ll be just like him. How he wishes he could protect me, but he gets pissed because I won’t lift a finger to help myself, and he thinks I must be the weakest person alive. Then he feels guilty, and all he can think is that he just wants to kill his dad.

“I’ve not been a good mother, I know. A good mother could’ve figure out how to keep all this away from my kids, keep their home together better so they wouldn’t know any of this was happening, but I’ve failed them there. They both know all about their dad and me.

“But when my son said he wanted to kill his dad, I almost threw up. Hit me like a punch to the stomach, and I do know what one of those feels like. The reason I got so sick was that I realized that if my son killed his father, I’d just be relieved. But my son’s life would be over, too. I knew, in that moment, that I had to do whatever it took so that my son wouldn’t walk around feeling like he wanted to kill. I want my son to think about leaving for college next year, about meeting new people and not worrying about me, and one of these nights, if he gets upset enough at his dad, I won’t be able to stop him. I’ve never been able to stop any of them from doing whatever they want to do.

“This is the only way I can think of stop the whole thing from happening. This is the only way for me to help my kids. I want someone to kill my husband.”

Tod pauses as he considers. Truth be told, he finds himself thinking this woman is pretty weak, too, letting this go on for years and years, but you know, her heart’s finally in the right place.

Doesn’t change the fact that this’ll be one of the trickiest jobs he’s ever done. A visible target, and him on unfamiliar turf, too.

The killer finishes his call with his handler quickly and gets off the phone to think. How can he accomplish this? A prominent man—the mayor, for God’s sake—in a small town, a town he himself doesn’t know at all. An accident is always the best way to go; an unsolved murder would be disastrous, because though the primary objective would be accomplished, the resulting attention would be unfortunate and might, ultimately, make Tod a liability to his organization, which would prove bad for his own health.

An accident, then. Problems abound. First, there’s the issue of access—how will he get close to this man? And knowledge of his habits, his lifestyle, his routines—this is all foreign territory to Tod, who’s only worked on familiar turf with people he’s known for years and motives that help him construct a plan. This guy—Guy—all Tod knows about him is that he’s an asshole. That hardly narrows down a sensible method of death.

Tod isn’t given to fits of pique or temper tantrums; the killer was always known in his unit as even-keeled, the kind of guy you wanted around when shit started to get real, because he never loses his head. But this assignment is so far afield from his comfort zone and so potentially hazardous that his head is spinning a little. Grabbing the ice bucket, he leaves the room and goes in search of the ice and vending machines. There’s never been any situation that an ice-cold Coke didn’t make at least slightly better, that’s for sure.

The ice machine being located in its usual place by the stairwell and the Coke machine having delivered the goods without eating his change, Tod returns to his room, the can balanced atop the pile of ice in his left hand while he manages the key card with his right. Opening the flimsy door, he stops abruptly at the sight of a woman sitting at the small table in his room. Noting the handgun placed casually beside her neatly folded hands on the table, he’s considering whether to back out or lunge for the weapon when she says, quietly, “C’mon in, Tod. Just here to talk.”

The woman gestures at the seat across from her at the small, round table. Hesitantly, Tod places the ice bucket down, pulls out the ugly brown chair, and sits carefully down. The woman looks at the soda perched on the ice and says, “Grab a few cups, would you? I could use some caffeine, too.”

Tod, not knowing what else to do as he tries to figure out what the hell is going on, walks over the to the bathroom vanity where the obligatory flimsy plastic cups are stacked, each wrapped in shrink wrap. He pulls two apart and brings them back to the table. Placing one in front of the woman, she raises an eyebrow and asks, “You mind?”

She’s clearly not going to engage her hands until she wants to, and there is something in her eyes that tells him he won’t be able to get that pistol in time. He upwraps both cups, fills them to the brim with ice, pops open the can, and pours them each some soda, letting it fizz down and pouring more so that both cups are full.

Placing one in front of her, he sips his own.

“Thanks,” she says. “Glad you like lots of ice. Nothing worse than a restaurant where they bring you a Coke with, like, three cubes of ice floating on top.”

Tod nods in agreement. “I hate that. When there aren’t many cubes, they all seem to melt really fast and—”

“Then you’ve got watery, lukewarm Coke,” the woman finishes, nodding vigorously.

They sip their Cokes in silence, the woman’s eyes never leaving Tod, who finds it difficult to maintain eye contact in the best of situations, which this isn’t. Instead, he looks with great interest at his cup, glancing up occasionally to make eye contact with the woman and then quickly returning to his drink.

The woman is average size, with a compact bearing that reminds Tod of a coiled spring. She’s anywhere between 35 and 55, one of those people whose appearance doesn’t announce their years of life in a loud voice. Her hair is a soft brown, sprinkled throughout with grey and cut in a straight line at line of her chin.

Despite the strangeness of this encounter, Tod finds himself feeling oddly comfortable. The woman is clearly ok with silences, and they sit, companionably enough, for a few minutes.

Finally, the woman speaks.

“Got a tricky one lined up, huh?”

Tod’s confusion shows.

“The mayor. It’s a tricky assignment, no?”

The killer is a man who is rarely surprised. The feeling is unfamiliar, but this day is only getting weirder, right? He may as well roll with it.

“Yeah,” he replies. “Trying to figure out a good approach. Not my typical gig.”

“I know,” the woman says calmly. “I wanted to see if you could handle something a little different.”

This is the woman, then. The mystery woman running the organization that bought out Whippet’s. How she found Tod’s exact location he does not know and won’t waste time asking.

“But I don’t want to leave you floundering,” she continues. “That’s not the point. I came by to help out.”

Tod works alone. That’s been the single best thing about this job—not having to work with other people. The killer always hated group work in school—one kid assuming leadership whether the others wanted them to or not, at least one other doing nothing and acting as a dead weight for the others to carry, the whole thing a joyless slog that resulted in a product owned by no one, loved by no one—and his military experience had been much the same. But this job allows him to work by himself, controlling the steps and assuring the outcomes. This woman, whoever she is, wants to “help”? That’s going to suck. Tod sighs and wishes once more for home.

“Don’t worry, Tod. We’re not going to hold hands, and both our names don’t have to go on the report cover,” the woman says, not meanly. “This is your job. I just have intel.

“The mayor is a hard guy to isolate, but he does like to ride his bike. Has an expensive custom job he rides, wears all the goofy tight clothes—the jersey and the padded shorts and what not—and likes to ride on the back roads here.

“Tries to ride three times a week,” she continues. “Always early in the morning. Tomorrow morning, I believe.”

With that, the woman places a piece of paper on the table. It’s a map of some sort.

“His route,” she states. “Joker maps his routes and tracks his workouts—his peak heart rates and what not—and he’s as predictable as farting when you eat beans.”

Standing up and picking up the gun—not too carefully, not carelessly, the way someone does when they know their weapon as well as their car keys—she moves toward the door. Before opening it, she turns back and says, with the finality of someone walking away, “He always leave at six a.m. Asshole doesn’t like it if his routine gets off in the slightest.”

She’s walking out the door when Tod says, not expecting an answer, “Might if I ask your name?”

The woman grins and instantly looks on the younger side of the supposed range.

“Susie. My name is Susie, Tod. Nice to meet you.”

And with that, she’s gone.

The next morning, Tod plans his route out of town carefully. The back road preferred by Guy, the mayor, really is a winding thing. Tod drives the same couple of miles a few times before he spots Guy coming toward him. He raises his hand in greeting, but the man on the bike ignores him. Once he turns the next corner, the killer quickly turns around, being careful not to slide the car on the narrow shoulder. Seeing the bike ahead of him, the killer speeds, makes contact, and then pulls over, gets out, and checks the pulse. The mayor is dead, so Tod gets back in his car and carefully drives away, the deserted back road looking back at him impassively. As he heads out of town, the killer makes sure to take a route that doesn’t take him past Stanley’s gas station.

He should be home in time for an early lunch. Driving the speed limit, he wonders when and if he might see his new boss again. He’s surprised—again—when the prospect doesn’t sound too bad. Turning his wheels toward Alabama, he selects a podcast, one of those true crime things that really are addictive, and heads for home.


Kay Summers is an emerging fiction author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s written on behalf of others for so long that she started writing fiction to make sure she still had a voice. She does. 


While you’re here, you might want to check the submissions guidelines and our new experiment: Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Wake Up” Dark Fiction by Alejandro Gonzales

"Wake Up" Dark Fiction by Alejandro Gonzales

Oliver read the fortune a third time, then tossed a look over his shoulder. Somehow his empty house felt a little more occupied than usual. Wake up. Usually he only ordered one fortune cookie but he’d decided to indulge himself today and so had ordered two. He swallowed hard, trembling hand reaching for the second one. Deep breath; breath in, breath out. Wake up. He jumped from the couch and paced the living room.

One could maybe be written off as a weird joke or mistake; twice was intentional. Someone out there wanted him–or the population in general, yet that didn’t seem as likely in his mind–to wake up. What from, he didn’t know. Nor did he have the slightest clue how he’d go about waking up. A more innocuous interpretation crossed his mind. Perhaps the writer had meant it in a social sense, as in they wanted everyone to be aware of the inequalities plaguing society.

He knew damn well that wasn’t the case. This was more a matrix situation, stuck in a simulation, and apparently he was the chosen one of some sort, if those existed in real life. Made more sense to reckon some individuals received the long end of the stick based on nothing but luck purer than Colombian cocaine. He paused for a moment and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Mildly thinning hair, in fairness. Wasn’t even really that noticeable to be honest. He placed a hand atop his head; okay, so it was a tad–

“Wait, what am I doing? I need to focus.”

He picked up the fortune again and frowned. It now read, the narrow path is your salvation. That wasn’t a case of misreading it the first time unless he’d hallucinated an entirely different set of text the first time. The walls of reality were breaking down then. He’d known for some time this would eventually happen, just not so soon, certainly not in his lifetime. The text on the fortune changed before his eyes, morphed into gibberish.

The bottle of pills on his coffee table grew a pair of eyes and sprouted arms. “The world needs your saving, but it can only happen if you wake up.”

He scratched his chin. “Hm. That’s a tall order. I’m sure I can do it but I’m gonna need some help.”

“Put me in your pocket and allow me to guide you throughout this wonderful journey we’re about to embark on.”

He tossed the bottle into his pocket and nodded. Made enough sense. He cracked his neck, grabbed his gun from under the couch, and strolled outside into the chill morning air. Bob from across the street smiled and waved. He’d always been kind to Oliver, waving like that every time they saw each other. He smiled and waved back.

“Dispatch him,” the bottle said.

He frowned. “Why would I do that? He hasn’t done anything bad to me.”

“Not yet, no. But are you really content to just wait for him to stab you in the back someday?”

“Hm. Good point,” he said before shooting his neighbor three times in the chest.

“Yeesh, that was a little personal.”

He shrugged and continued walking down the street. “Perhaps. But it felt good. You had the right idea by telling me to off him. What. A. Rush.”

“Yes, probably felt better than huffing paint cans ever did.”

“You’re not wrong about that.”

For a brief moment that gave him both literal and figurative pause, he wondered if what he was doing might have been the result of unchecked mental issues including extreme paranoia and agoraphobia. He dismissed the idea as soon as it occurred to him. Made more sense that he’d discovered, before anyone else, all of existence was a simulation. One where only death liberated trapped souls, so in that sense he’d become something of a universal savior.        

That made him feel much better about the whole ordeal; he was doing the right thing after all, saving more people than anyone else ever had or possibly could even if they tried. It’d take a lot bigger equipment than what he currently possessed to make any progress, though. He shrugged and trudged forth. There’d be plenty of time later to affect greater change with larger toys.

He popped in his earbuds, cracked his neck, and waved at an elderly woman crossing the street. Hard to say whether she was a construct of the matrix or another trapped soul, although it ultimately didn’t matter because she had to perish regardless. He brought his arm down fast and rushed her like a quarterback, tackling the old bitch before he shoved the barrel of his gun into her mouth.

“Any last words, granny,” he asked in a gruff voice.

She merely disrespected him by making a bunch of offensive noises as if her mouth were full of food.

“Good enough,” he said and pulled the trigger.

His eardrums nearly popped from the noise at the same time the back of her head did. He stood up, disoriented, and blinked rapidly until the ringing disappeared. The bottle of pills vibrated in his pocket, so he pulled the little guy to get some fresh air.

“Good, good. The one liner, though–that was eh. Wasn’t really feeling it, Oliver.”

He shoved the bottle back into his pocket and stole the woman’s wallet. “Maybe so. But we all gotta start somewhere, no? Nonetheless, noted.”

He stopped in front of a woman pushing a stroller. Her red dress was a dead giveaway she’d been created in a simulation. The baby looked sort of off too, like a piece of clay that had been tossed to the ground before the creators finished molding it. He shook his head and sighed. A weaker man might have qualms about exterminating a baby; him, not much.

Two shots later he was on his way to his buddy Dylan’s house. That dude managed to be more prepared for an awakening like this than Oliver ever could have hoped to be. Crazy motherfucker possessed all sorts of shit that would make an apocalypse nut’s dick harder than fucking after a night of drinking.

As he walked up to his door, fist raised and ready to knock, he wondered if Dylan wasn’t a part of the simulation too. The door swung open and who might have been his old friend or who might have been a bunch of numbers and code all along greeted him with what might have been a warm smile or what might have been the result of a programmer moving a model just the right way.

He sat across from Dylan, coffee table between them. “It happened. I got the signal.”

“No shit, bro?”

He examined his body language for any signs of deceptive behavior. “Yeah. Yeah. It’s just–” He whipped his gun out and aimed the barrel at Dylan the same time as his old friend pulled out his own pistol and pointed the barrel at Oliver.

“Looks like we’re an even match.”

“I guess so,” Oliver said.

“Put the gun down, man.”

“Better idea. We both shoot each other. If death is the only way to escape the simulation, then I scratch your back, you scratch mine. We’ll do it on the count of three.”

“Fuck. Okay, fine. Fuck it,” Dylan said. “One.”

“Two.”

Dylan took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “

They both pulled their respective triggers.

* * *

Oliver turned his head and groaned, then attempted to move his arms but couldn’t on account of them being chained to a rusty metal wall. He looked down and saw a pool of dark red liquid on the black floor. There were people to his left and right also chained to the wall, naked save for a scrap of fabric wrapped around their torsos. The expressions on their faces were content or happy–even the ones on the edge of his vision having their limbs sliced off and their organs harvested.

“Jesus fucking christ,” he whispered and strained harder.

One of the captors, dressed in red robes that covered their entire bodies minus their green scaly feet, rushed towards him and placed a clawed finger on his mouth. It cocked its head and called another one of its kind over. They looked at a blueprint, then the original one shook its head.

“Not enough juice to put him out again,” it said. “We’ll have to perform the surgery while he is conscious.”

They walked back to the other end of the room, leaving him to scream for help until his raw throat burned more than if he’d swallowed a box of lit matches. No help came, but another member of the ship did with a mobile cart full of sharp and dull instruments of torture alike.


Alejandro Gonzales is a horror author residing in Northern California with stories in publications such as Trembling With Fear, The Drabble, and Cerasus Magazine. 


While you’re here, you might want to check the submissions guidelines and our new experiment: Rural Fiction Magazine.

“After Hours” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

After Hours by Alan Catlin in The Chamber Magazine

Say what you will about drunks," she said out loud to the dark around her, "but no one will love you like they can." 

Rebecca Barry, Later, at the Bar

“You can’t sleep here.”

“Who says so?”

“I do, Asswipe, watch your step.”

I wondered who he was, telling me I couldn’t sleep where I wanted to.  A more pertinent question would have been, “Where am I?”

I raised my head and opened my eyes.  The place I was in did not look familiar.  Besides, it was dark, and smoky, and there were all these strange noises that were unaccountable at first sight.  I had the strange sense that the voice that addressed me was not the only foreign body in the room. 

And I would be right.

Gradually, the place I was in, clarified.  Behind the bar, dusty shelves of bottles, with their thin, metal speed pourers, and the ones with bulbous plastic tops, obscenely discolored by liquids trapped inside; graveyards for fruit flies and pickled eggs.  The pickled eggs of my eyes looking back in this dream of jaundice, and of delirium tremens, of hallucinatory visions both auditory and visual.  I felt as if I had moved beyond that place to some place even more threatening, some place where the scratched, broken back bar mirrors surfaces, had oxidized completely, had flaked off, and what I could see in the surface where the glass should have been, was an interior of my exterior body; the unshaven, filthy face, my discolored eyes in a bleak solution of chemicals, and acid washes, unable to be still.

 “Something bothering you, Partner?” A voice nearby was saying.

“Pardon me?” I was thinking.

“There are no pardons here.  Thought we lost you for a moment.”

“Maybe you did.  Where are we?”

“After Hours.”

“After hours?  Where’s that?”

“In the bar, After Hours. That’s what it’s called.  Tells you all that you need to know.  Opens when all the other bars close.  And stays open as long as necessary.  As long as it takes.”

“As long as it takes to what?”

“As long as it takes to fulfill the needs of the people who come in.”

“Then it must never close.”

“That about sums it up, Partner.”

I tried to focus on the speaker’s face. Besides the unhealthy light, my focusing problems, and, the man’s unlikely apparel, I could barely see his form, much less make out any specifics, despite his being seated only a few feet away. 

“What’s with the dark sweatshirt hood?” I was asking.

“Cold in here.  There’s been no heat in here since the last Ice Age.  Aren’t you cold?”

“Not that I’ve noticed.”

“You will be.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I reached out to the bar and grabbed the green bottle next to the snifter placed in front of what must have been my space at the bar.  The snifter was half-full, the beer had retained a light chill. It wasn’t a brand I favored but when in Rome…. I thought, seeing that my neighbor had the same combination in front of him on the wood.

The beer tasted like skunk piss and was notorious for the hangovers it helped induce.  Whatever was in the snifter was an unknown at this point, but, more than likely, it was something lethal.  The only sure way to dodge a hangover of epic proportions, one sure to follow a binge of unknown duration, was to keep on drinking.  A wise man had said that. That was the myth, anyway.  Like most drinking myths it was apocryphal. But that didn’t stop me from taking a healthy hit on the brown liquid inside the snifter. 

After I swallowed, I released a protracted sigh, “Jesus that was good.  Who would have thought a place like this could have such excellent cognac?”

“This place is full of surprises, that’s why I suggested coming here.”

“Wise idea my friend,” I said, toasting my neighbor, touching my glass to his, thinking that what he said did not indicate that he had suggested coming here with me, or that I had known him beyond this brief acquaintance.

“Yeah, this place has everything: atmosphere, conviviality and alcohol…”

“Conviviality.  That’s quite a word.  Where’d that come from?”

“If you’re good, I could spell it for you.  Maybe even use it in a compound sentence.”

“Well, aren’t you the smart one? A man of hidden depths.  What did you do before you came here?”

“Same as everyone else: got by, made a living.”

“Some people’s ideas of ‘getting by’ and ‘making a living’ are more complicated than others.”                                               

“Ain’t that the truth.  You know, one thing this place does lack is women.”

“Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“Remember the women.”

“Haven’t seen any.  Not that I can recall anyway.  Where are these so-called women?”

“They went to freshen up.”

“Where?  In Mesopotamia? They’ve been gone a long time if you ask me.”

“It just seems like forever.”

I took another healthy hit of my beer to wash away the lingering taste of the cognac.  That, and all this aimless talking, could make a man thirsty.  Thirsty beyond belief. I looked behind the bar for the man who was supposed to be tending.

“Where’s Smilin’ Jack?”

“Smilin’ Jack?”

“The bartender.  I assume he’s the guy that called me an Asswipe.  What’s his deal, anyway?”

“He’s just pissed off that he’s working.  The guy that was supposed to relieve him never showed up.  When push comes to shove, he’ll be around when you need him.”

“A real joystick, huh?”

“Something like that.”

I was relieved to hear that we wouldn’t go thirsty.  There was nothing worse than to being stuck in an arid desert, surrounded by potables you were unable to consume; a Samuel Taylor

Coleridge water-water-everywhere-nightmare voyage that never ends. 

I wondered what I was using for money to keep the Good Ship Double Pop afloat.  I hadn’t been flush in years.  You didn’t need to see an IN GOD WE TRUST ALL OTHERS PAY CASH sign in front of you to know that your credit was no good here.

I heard some scuffling noises behind in the dark of the room. It sounded like sumo wrestlers locked in some sort of mortal combat, grunting, and thrashing about without thought or concern for what lay nearby.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The floor show.”

“I hope there’s no extra charge.  I might be running a little short.”

“Don’t worry about it, everyone here is running a little short.  Some might even say that’s the whole point of places like this.”

By the sound of what he was saying, I didn’t really want to go there.  I turned away from where the noise was and took another sip from my drink. 

“Ah, the pause that refreshes.” I said.

“You sound like a beer commercial.”

“Some of my best thoughts have come during beer commercials.”

We both laughed. 

Then I heard it loud and distinct and clear, my favorite Rolling Stone song, “Tumbling Dice”.  I began singing along in a low voice, becoming more and more animated as the song went on.

“You okay, Man?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re acting like you’ve got some kind of herky-jerky disease.  A loud herky-jerky disease.”

“I’m just singing along. Singing along to my favorite song.”

“Man, I don’t hear nothin’.  Nothin’ but the taps leaking, the ice meltin’, and the wheezing of the old geezer’s gasping for one last deep breath with cigarette smoke in it.  In case you hadn’t noticed, even the TV’s ain’t got no sound.”

I looked at where the twin black and white TVs sat on their perches behind the bar, showing snow and flipping lines, where the picture should be, and the eyes of the old men watching just the same. Still, I could hear Mick singing plain as day, “Don’t you see the time flashin’ by Honey, got no money I’m all sixes and sevens and nines….”

“That’s one white boy doesn’t have to worry none about his job.”

“Say again?”

“The way you sing, his job will be safe for as long as he wants it.”

I had to laugh at that.  I was no Mick Jagger, nor was meant to be.

“Where are those women anyway?”

“What women?”

“The ones you spoke of before.”

“Wasn’t me, Bro, must have been someone else.”

“I thought it was you.”

“Not me, Son, I just got here.  But you, you’ve been here God know how long.  When I came in you were out, sitting up with your eyes wide open.  At least, that’s how it looked to me. 

“What happened to the guy that was sitting here before you?”

“Beats me.  People move on you know.”

“Yes, they do.”

“If you’re waitin’ on some women, I’ll help you wait.”

“Be my guest.”

“Mighty kindly of you, Son.  What you drinking, Boss?”

“The same.”

“Sounds good to me.  Let me buy us one.  Hey, Jack, two more of the same and take it here.”

“I don’t know how to thank you.”

“That’s, Okay, no big deal.  About them women….”

“They’ve been gone a real long time.”

“You know women.  That’s their way, Man.  Always fixin’ themselves up.  Making themselves look good.  Truth is most of the time a man don’t care what she looks like after a while.  All he care about is a warm body and a place to lie down.”

“Amen.  I’ll drink to that.”

And we did, touching glasses, as if we were two men who had known each other a thousand years.  Before long, we’d be going over good times we never had, with all the people neither one of us knew, and all the good times we imagined we had together, with and without them.  I looked forward to that and, I’m sure he did too. We’d been through a lot together, whether we knew it or not, and there was a lot more to come.

“What do you do when you’re not here?” My companion asked.

“Nothing.”

“Me neither. It’s hard work.  Harder than most people imagine.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Where you headed after here?”

“Don’t know.  Maybe nowhere.  How about you?” 

“Here’s as good a place as any.”

“You could say that.”

“I just did.”

We both laughed, on cue, as if this were a long-standing joke between us.  Our hands reached for our cognac simultaneously, and we drank deeply before reaching for the long neck bottles of beer on the bar.

After a long silence, he asked, “You don’t suppose those women skipped out on us, do you?”

“It’s possible.  Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Well, if they don’t come back pretty soon, I’m a gonna drink her drink. Hate to see good booze go bad”

“Amen.”

I looked to see what he meant by the women’s drink. Saw two cocktails melting down where they sat on cork coasters, their swizzle sticks sitting at an angle, bent butts of half-smoked, lipstick-stained cigarettes, sitting in glass ashtrays nearby.

“They were lookers, weren’t they?” I said.

“Sure were. Two finer women, I ain’t never seen.”

“Amen.”

We both drank and sat silently for a while.  Both of us feeling the great weight of absence pressing down on our shoulders.

“Sure, wish they’d hurry, I’ve got a powerful urge.”

“Me too.”

We both drank at the same time, as before but, without the same energy and anticipation.  Neither of us looked forward to what would happen if they didn’t come back.  After hours just got longer and longer and longer with no one to help you fill them.

“Where do you think they’ve gotten themselves too?” I asked.

“Who?” My companion replied.

“The women.”

“What women?”

“The ones we’ve been waiting for.”

“I’m not waiting for anything, Slick.  I’m just here to drink.”

I thought about that suggestion.  It was as good as any I’d heard in some time.  I wondered where my friend, the black guy, had gone, when he had left, and who this guy was in his place.  I wondered how long he had been sitting where he was and, why I hadn’t noticed his arrival or, the other’s departure.  I thought about asking him some of these questions but, I didn’t bother.  I thought I already knew the answers.

There were only one kind of answer in a place like this and, it wasn’t good.

“I wish they’d do something about those TV’s.” I said, as much to make conversation as anything else.

“Like what?”

“Like fix them, tune them in, or, something.  There must be something to watch.”

“Why? No one is watching, no one cares what’s on.  All the TV does is inhibit conversation and interaction.  Besides, all the people here are here to drink.  End of story.”

“Some people are watching.”

“You can call that watching if you want.  It isn’t. Not really.”

“What it is it, then?”

“Staring.  There’s a difference you know.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I’ve been there, but I got away.”

“How did you think you got away?”

“By drinking.  The more you drink, the less energy there is for anything else.”

“Amen.” I said.

I thought about leaving but I couldn’t.

I was down one drink and it was his turn to buy.


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.


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“Siren of Souls” Dark Fantasy by Felicia Change

"Siren of Souls" Dark Fantasy by Felicia Change

Thalassa washed up on the sand with a crashing wave, the water still pushing and pulling at her body before receding into the ocean. The late afternoon sun gave her skin a natural glow, even underneath the fine layer of sand. Small vibrant shells and strings of seaweed surrounded her like a shadow.  She lifted her head in the slightest, her hair draping over her shoulders in slick strands.

Crouched between jagged beach rocks, a young man rinsed his hands in a small puddle of salt water. Every time a wave splashed over it, some of his blood soaked into the wet sand and bled into the ocean. The scent tumbled in the waves, mixing with the sea spray, and finding its way to her.

His blood was how she tracked him to this thin strip of beach.

He stood, wiping his hands on his tan trousers. Red scratch marks ran along the back of his hands, up his forearms, and disappeared under his rolled-up sleeves. The saltwater rinsed away the blood and helped heal the wound, but it wouldn’t erase the act that caused both.

He glanced out at the ocean towards the horizon, his eyes traveling over the water until they landed on her.

Thalassa smiled internally. She was bait, and he was about to take it.

The coppery scent of his blood drifted in the breeze, mixing with the salt air as he approached. She craved it.

A faint smile broke out over his face as he ran a hand through his tousled blonde hair. His shiny eyes roamed over her pearl skin and her obsidian tail which shimmered with flecks of metallic green in the sunlight. By his expression she could tell, he’d seen mermaids before, but not a siren, otherwise, he’d stay clear. Cautiously he stepped closer, his hands outstretched to show he meant no harm.

She wanted to roll her eyes. They always meant harm, whether they realized it or not.

“Are you okay?” he said, a hint of worry in his voice as he crouched down.

A faint layer of stubble coated his face. His eyes were as dark as the deepest part of the sea, easy to get lost in and never to resurface.

“I got washed out,” she said, her voice shaking.

“Can I help you?”

She nodded. Wondering what his idea of help was.

She reached out, gripping his scratched arm. He winced but didn’t pull back. She readied herself to pull him into the water. Drowning him before drinking his blood and devouring his body.

“You are stunning,” he breathed.

She hesitated. He deserved to decay at the bottom of the ocean. With the fish breaking off tiny pieces of him until there was nothing left except bones. But she liked compliments and didn’t hear them often enough.

“Your skin is so smooth. Your hair is so very long. Your eyes piercing,” he said, looking down at where legs should be. “But your tail is the most exquisite.”

She flicked some of her hair back, exposing the charcoal scallop shells that held her breasts.

He swallowed. “I must sketch you.”

She waited for him to say he’ll go find some pencil and paper.

“I can take you to my home, it’s on the coast and part of the ocean flows into the underparts where my office is located.”

Convenient.

She scolded herself for even thinking it through, but she had all the time in the world. Her reward would come when she drowned him, but maybe she could have some enjoyment before then. Let the anticipation build-up.

She nodded.

“Is it okay if I…” He motioned to her body.

“Yes,” she said. He placed his arms under her tail and behind her back, then gently lifted her, positioning her until he had a comfortable hold. She threw her arms around his neck, he stiffened in the slightest. Then walked along the beach at a steady pace.

She expected him to want to stop to rest his arms, maybe catch his breath. But he held onto her like she was light as a shell, he adjusted his hold now and then, like he was used to carrying objects this far.

#

A square tower protruded from an array of rocks, the waves splashing onto the stone walls. Sea moss and algae cover the bottom half, while the top part was bleached by the sun and worn by the elements. It appeared to have been abandoned until recently, he’d thrown broken furniture onto a pile near the worn front door. The wooden pieces rotted and deteriorated.

“What a nice home you have,” she said with a sweet smile.

He smiled back. “It’s not much, but it keeps me warm and dry.”

He opened the door to a kitchen with a single table and two chairs. The cabinets were closed and the walls bare. A shell of a house. Stairs curled up and down, he took the latter.

They opened into a cavernous space. Part of it was stone floors, with a large table piled with papers and curiosities. Another table covered with a cloth stood against the wall. Next to it was a closed door. The other part was like a miniature indoor tidal pool with a few steps leading into the water, which moved from waves pushing in saltwater.

He descended the steps until she was covered in water, then let her go. She drifted back, aware of his eyes on her as she sunk underwater and resurfaced, water drops rolling down her skin.

He smiled. “I’m going to go change. I’ll be back.”

She smiled back sweetly, waiting for him to be out of sight before dropping it.

It was easy to deceive men. Usually, they were too full of themselves and their ideas to think someone would have the indecency to challenge them. Over time a few proved to be able to think outside themselves. To care.

He was not one of those men.

Maybe that’s why a part of her was so intrigued by him. He was himself, with no filters or pretenses.

An open book with blank pages instead of warding runes.

#

Her body floated from side to side as the waves crashed outside, stirring the water. She wondered how long she’d be able to keep this up. At some point, she had to complete what she set out to do.

“I brought you this.” His voice broke through her thoughts.

She pushed her tail under the water and floated towards the steps. He placed down a plate holding several small cakes. Probably bought from a nearby village. Their colors of crushed beige shells with hints of pinks, blues, and greens. Their sickly-sweet aroma drifted to her nose. Vanilla with a tang of something more potent. Maybe he was trying to poison her.

She spent most of her time in the ocean, but when the opportunity to go on land represented itself, she took it. Learning more about life on land. She still had some memories of being human, but they were faded and eroded to the point where she wasn’t sure if they happened in real life or her dreams.

“I’m not sure if you can eat human food. But I thought it was worth a try,” he said. “Otherwise, I can go catch you some fish?”

He would have difficulty catching what she liked.

“This will do just fine.” As long as she didn’t overdo it.

He breathed a sigh of relief. Then he sat down in front of her, stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles. He picked a cake at random and bit into it. Chewing as he watched her. She picked a cake and took a small bite. The sweetness made her want to gag, but when the initial sugar dissolved in her mouth, it became rather pleasant.

“Do you like it?”

She nodded with a shy smile. Licking the last of the crumbs from her lips.

“Mind if I draw you now?”

She shook her head. Then ran her fingers through her hair as he stood and retrieved a sketch pad and pencil from the table. He sat back down and started to sketch, his eyes moving from the paper to her and back again.

Thalassa liked being observed with such admiration and detail, she just hoped he was skillful at putting her on paper.

When he was done, he turned the pad towards her.

Her eyes widened. He was good and very detailed. But it wasn’t a sketch of art, but rather an illustration. Words floated around her, thin arrows from her tail to a small paragraph of description. Next to it was a drawing of her torso, but with human legs.

Bile rose in her stomach. A bad feeling spread through her veins. 

“What do you think?”

“It’s very realistic,” she said.

He ran a hand through his hair. A strange look clouded his face, one which she had difficulty analyzing. “I can make it a reality,” he said, his eyes gleaming with the possibility. “I can make you into a human.”

His words caught her off guard. “Oh, is that so?”

He walked to the closed door, unlocked it, and disappeared inside.

She’d heard it all before. Somewhere in the mountains lived a witch that could cast a spell. Or a cave with clear water which granted immortality. Sometimes a rumor about a lamp that granted wishes. She didn’t doubt that any of those probabilities existed. But finding them and using them were two different things. Even so, she didn’t want to be human.

She had been once, and that had been enough.

When he came out, he wasn’t alone. He dragged a young woman in, her mouth bound, and hands tied behind her back. Her auburn hair was a mess, and dried tears stained her eyes.

“Look,” he said. Then lifted the woman’s skirts, revealing long slender legs of porcelain. “Aren’t they spectacular?”

She was silent.

“They would look even more spectacular on you.”

There it was. His insanity. His genius idea. A mad scientist at work.

She tilted her head. “I agree. Unfortunately, I do not wish to part from my tail.”

He scrunched up his face. “Then we can be together. We must be together.”

She nodded with an unsure smile. He dragged the woman into the adjoined room, her crying muffled as he locked the door.

“Soon, I just need to make a few more preparations,” he said, his smile determined.

When he disappeared up the stairs, she sank under the water. Swimming in the direction of the waves through an underwater tunnel. The water was fresh and livelier as she approached. Before she could swim into the open ocean, a steel barrier blocked her escape.

She should have known. Should have checked. She pulled and pushed on the steel, but it was stuck, even with the rust that ate it.

Thalassa’s demeanor slipped, and a pearl of fear formed in her chest. It was all fun and games, but now it was serious. She was trapped.

#

The next day the cloth which covered the table was removed. The sleek metal was unnatural amongst the damp rocks. Next to it was a smaller table organized with his medical instruments. The scalpel lay next to a knife, which lay next to a saw. Each one was worse than the other. Just thinking of them piercing into her flesh made her clench her fists. She took shallow breaths, trying to stay calm.

She had thought it through. Even if he managed to cut off her tail and sow on legs, who’s to say they would work. What if she bled out? What if she was a torso for the rest of her life? What would happen to her tail?

She imagined him placing it in resin and displaying it against his wall. Triumph worming through his veins every time he glanced at it.

His hair was tousled and stood out at different ends like wild seagrass. She was far less human than him, but the glint in his eyes was more feral than her own.

She waited for him to near her, to bend down and pull her out of the water. Instead, he walked to the door and unlocked it. From inside the dark room came a whimper. He stepped in, out of sight for a moment. Then reappeared, gripping the woman by her neck, and pushing her into the room.

“This will go much quicker if you cooperate.” He guided her to the table, and she lay down obediently, her whimpering silenced. He bound her one arm to the table. “First, I’ll give you a sedative so that you won’t feel me cutting off your legs.”

Her whimpering started again.

He gave a frustrated sigh, then turned to face Thalassa. “Then it’s your turn.”

A movement behind him. The woman sat up slowly, removing something from her pocket. Her eyes met Thalassa’s with urgency.

He made to turn around.

“Wait,” Thalassa said. “What if it doesn’t work?”

He smirked. “It will.”

The girl lifted her free arm, her knuckles white from gripping the rock, and brought it down on his head. Once. Twice.

He stood frozen, then tumbled to the ground like a wave had crashed over him.

She didn’t care about revenge anymore. Didn’t care that she promised to cut his lifeline. She just wanted to get away. Be free of this physical and mental prison. The open ocean called to her. Yearned for her and she desired its embrace.

She swallowed.

The woman could barely stand, Thalassa wasn’t sure how either of them would be able to escape. If at all. The woman pushed herself up, using the table as support. She groaned, her body almost limp, yet some energy manifested, and she stood. Her darting eyes found Thalassa and she headed over with a slight limp. Thalassa glanced behind the woman. He still lay unconscious on the floor. She thought she saw his chest rise and fall. An urgency bloomed within her, and she tried to urge the woman on with her eyes.

When she finally reached Thalassa, she was out of breath.

“We have to go,” the woman said, each word a struggle.

Thalassa swallowed. “You can barely manage by yourself. How will you be able to help me?”

She shook her head again, a persistence in her eyes. Thalassa figured either she would die by the man’s hand or take her chances with the woman. Neither thought was pleasing.

Thalassa pulled herself up onto the steps. The woman bent down and grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled her out of the water. She picked her up under her tail and back, lifting her with some difficulty and strength, Thalassa didn’t think the woman possessed.

 Thalassa wished herself as weightless as possible. They made it to the wall, the woman paused, leaning against the wall to catch her breath. She took another step, but her balance was off. Thalassa felt her stumble to the ground. The woman caught herself, they still fell on the stone floor, but not with as much force.

This wasn’t going to work.

Thalassa took a deep breath. “There is a way both of us can walk out of here alive.”

The woman looked at her with expectation but also a frown that asked why she hadn’t said something earlier.

“You’re saving my life, and for that, I owe you a wish. If you take the wish now and ask for strength. We’ll be able to leave.”

The woman’s eyes gleamed with possibilities, and she nodded.

Thalassa touched her tail, feeling for a loose scale and breaking it off. She handed it to the woman. It was round and shiny.

“Place it on your tongue and make a wish.”

The woman did and closed her eyes as if it would enhance whatever she asked for.

Thalassa waited in silence, a wave of fear passing over her. What if the woman asked for something else? She had so many options. Yes, strength and health were important, but she could heal with time. Instead, she could wish for something that would leave Thalassa stranded, and she won’t be able to do anything about it.

The woman opened her eyes, an unsure smile on her face.

Thalassa frowned. A tingle spread over her tail. She observed with wide eyes as her tail split into two, becoming obsidian scale-covered legs.

“What have you done?” she said to the woman, but her eyes remained on her legs.

The woman pointed to the stairs.

Thalassa had so many questions. Will her tail grow back? What exactly did the woman wish for? But her thoughts all stopped with a groan behind them.

The man was waking up. She could just kill him right there and then but killing on land was not something she wanted to do. She left that to land creatures.

The woman stood and held out her hand. Thalassa took it, and together they headed up the stairs, into the kitchen, and through the front door.

The ocean breeze broke against her skin, and she inhaled it deeply.

She stood at the edge of the waves, and as the sea foam spilled over her feet a tingling started again. She reached down and broke off another scale, handing it to the woman.

“Thank you,” Thalassa said. She turned and walked into the waves until her feet lifted from the sand and twisted together into her tail once again. The woman stood on the shore, giving a small wave before disappearing into the tree line beyond.

Revenge was lost.

Yet, there was a small part of her that thought otherwise. That if she did it the right way, he’d get what he deserved.

Instead of swimming into the big blue, she stayed. Near the rocks where he had found her, she draped her arms over one coated with limpets and acorn barnacles. Careful to let the sharp rock edges and shells cut into her skin.

She waited and waited. The sun cast new shadows every hour. It took everything in her not to sink into the water to wet her hair and skin.

Footsteps approached. She could tell it was him by the sickly-sweet scent of cakes and poison.

She knew his eyes had found her by the hesitation in his steps.

Something hit her shoulder. A rock.

He was checking if she was conscious.

Then another. She ground her teeth together.

More steps. And then a hand on her arm.

A smile spread over her features. He yelped, and she felt him loosen his grip. Thalassa snatched out her arm, fingers grabbing him. Latching onto his shoulder. He let out a scream, trying to free himself.

Her eyes met his. The innocence in them was replaced by her feral side.

Her other hand gripped his other shoulder and pulled him down. He lost his footing, stumbling forward. His body hit the rocks with a thud.

“Let go!” he yelled. Struggling against her grip.

Her nails grew into sharp points, piercing onto his flesh so he couldn’t escape. He winced as blood dripped from him.

“Why are you doing this?” he cried.

“Except for the fact that you almost mutilated me. I was asked.”

His breathing was ragged. His face became paler by the second. “By whom?”

“Your dead wife.” She sneered at him.

His face blanched.

“You drowned her in the ocean. You thought you’d get away with it.”

“You talked to her?”

“I am the Siren of Souls. I carry the drowned souls to the afterlife and grant them a wish. Your death was hers.”

He shook his head. “No, please. I don’t want to drown.”

She laughed. “Your window of drowning has closed. And my window of starving has opened.”

Her teeth extended into fine needle points, sharper than her nails.

Before he could scream, she sunk her teeth into his neck. Savoring the coppery taste as she dragged him underwater.

To the bottom of the ocean.


Felicia Change graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and her work has appeared in the YOU magazine and Coffin Bell. When she isn’t carving stories, she is traveling, exploring museums, or on the lookout for a dog to pet. You can find her online @feliciachange


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“Addictive Sunglasses” by Callum McGee

"Addictive Sunglasses" by Callum McGee

‘Nice got an iPhone. Got enough for my weed.’ Jess polishes a cracked iPhone screen in her hands.

‘Great, you rob phones now?’ I try grabbing the phone, but she shoves it into her blazer pocket. Why does she put me through this? My heart palpitates, dreading one of her park victims confronting us. ‘Why are you trying to get us in trouble?’ I hope she notices the frustration in my tone.

‘Oh, shut it, will you? If you won’t pay for my blunts, I’ve got to get money somewhere.’ She goes back to admiring her steal of the day. Why does she still do this? We are back to square one with two weeks of peace and no bitter weed coming off her clothes. To think Mum thought she was responsible. Wasting money on death sticks isn’t what I’d call responsible.

I glance at the blue lapis lazuli around her neck. The gold spots gleam in the spring sunlight like they did around Mum’s neck. I can tell by how she rubs the stone she still misses her. She thinks I don’t understand, but how couldn’t I? I lost her too.

I doubt Mum would approve of what she’s doing now. Luckily, I am not Jess. The foul bleach taste of alcohol and head throbbing numbness that comes from weed makes my stomach churn. What’s the point? You have to face reality the next day. Still, I wish Mum looked at me like she did with Jess. I swallow the brimming envy in my throat, noticing some dried cuts peeking out of her sleeve. I can’t remember the last time she smiled, not since before Mum’s mammogram. I miss who she used to be when her giggles and silly dances brightened up the house. Now she is an aimless moth, a shell of herself, longing for a light that has long died.

‘Can’t believe my luck, Rose,’ she jingles the coins around her palms. ‘Got a five and a tenner.’ Her pockets are a clinking orchestra for school kids’ loose change. I pray the police don’t catch onto what she’s done. But how couldn’t they? I don’t know one school kid who doesn’t keep their distance from her in lunch lines.

I realise what’s left of our sisterly bond is a withered shoelace. Thin and ready to snap. But I am pulled back before taking the first step, knowing we both share the gaping holes eating at our hearts. Glancing out our windows at the silent stars, wondering if Mum is out there. I imagine Mum’s soft bony hand rubbing my fingers. ‘Please, Rose, she needs you.’ Her words haunt my dreams and daily thoughts. But she was right. Jess is all I have, and time is running out.

‘I know you miss Mum, but stealing isn’t going to solve anything.’ Jess pauses on the path. I feel her left-hand clench around my jumper.

‘I don’t give one,’ she lets go, excessively scratching at her neck. ‘Mum’s not here anymore.’ I feel queasy seeing the moist rashes and fingernail marks across her flesh. I’m sick of giving her reality checks, but mentioning Mum is the only thing that gets through to her. I slide my arm into hers.

‘Sorry Jess, I’m just worried about you,’ she raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Mum wanted me to take care of you.’ Her face turns sour.

‘Worry about yourself. I can look after myself.’ Her comment sticks with me for a bit. How can she enjoy something so toxic?

We reach the end of our path, surrounded by sweet smelly yellow daffodils near an old park bench. I feel Jess’ elbow nudge into me as a sunbeam illuminates a woman in a purple dress. She doesn’t notice us, but she’s wearing a long indigo veil with a violet niqab around her face. My heart sinks, realising what Jess has in mind. She wouldn’t steal from an old woman, right?

‘Come on, she might have something for us,’ of course. Before I can protest, I already feel Jess’s grip around my sleeve. We sit down on the damp bench, hearing the coo of Pigeons flocking around us. The woman is tossing bits of breadcrumbs to the birds pecking at the pavement. She glances at us, her eyes almost hypnotic.

‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ She says in a sweet elderly tone. I give her a brief smile trying to conceal my shame.

‘Yeah, it is. How are you doing?’ Says Jess, cupping her hands together like an innocent toddler. My teeth grind as she puts on a sweet, oblivious accent whenever she butters up her victims.

‘I’m good young lady, just feeding the birdies,’ she tosses more crumbs to the scattering Pigeons.

‘Aw, that’s nice. I love your sunglasses.’ Jess points at the folded red sunglasses on her lap.

‘Thank you, love, but they’re not mine. They’re not for wearing.’ Jess’s eyes shoot open from her comment. Damnit, old woman, she’ll want them more now.

‘Oh, why is that?’ The woman looks over both her shoulders, lowering the indigo cloth so that we can see her glittering lips.

‘I shouldn’t say anything. Why don’t you girls go play and have fun?’ Jess clasps her hands.

‘Please, Miss, I’d love it if you told me.’ 

‘Well, if you’re sure,’ she unfolds the sunglasses, sliding her index across strange, dotted symbols across the temples. ‘You might think I’m nuts, but they have mystical energy. I can’t say more than that, I’m afraid.’ She twiddles the frames between her crystal ringed fingers. Something about the curved plastic horns on either side of the lenses makes my heart race. Why are my hands shaking?

‘Jess, Maccie’s will close soon—’ I feel her shoe sharply kick into my shin.

‘It doesn’t close, stupid,’ she looks back at the woman. ‘So, you like spiritual stuff then?’ Jess quickly tries to slide her hand into the woman’s pocket, failing as she looks up.

‘Well, spirituality is a hobby of mine, you see. I like to collect all magical things, good or bad.’ She folds the glasses, putting them into her long robe. ‘Oh, you must think I’m a right old fool. Talking about this silly nonsense.’ Jess interrupts her, putting her hand over her shoulder.

‘Of course not. I think it’s cool you do that,’ Jess glances at the old oak tree near us. ‘So, is everything magic?’

‘Well, some things more than others.’ The woman pats the glasses in her robe.

‘Do you think that tree behind you is magic?’ The moment the woman cranes her neck, Jess swipes the sunglasses from her robe. I restrain the urge to stop her as I don’t want to be guilty by association. God, what would Mum think?

‘Well, all things have souls, dear—’ Jess yanks my hand.

‘Aw, thanks for all of that, bye,’ we are already halfway down the path when we’re far enough from the woman. ‘My God, what a moron. Falling for the oldest trick in the book.’ She laughs, yanking the glasses out of her pocket. I can’t refrain from smacking her shoulder.

‘That was well low.’ She ignores me, staring at the shiny red texture reflecting the evening sun. She stares at them. Of course, she’d love something with Devil horns and blackout shades. ‘Put them tacky things down. I’m not getting bad karma because of you.’ I try to reach for them, but she suddenly smacks my hand away.

‘Leave them!’ She clutches them to Mum’s necklace. I hold back, laughing as her arms fold over them like Gollum with his precious. But I keep it down, not wanting another smack. ‘Well, come on, swat, let’s go.’ She walks me back through the park but doesn’t say anything.

We are already out the gates when amber sunset ripples stretch across our faces. My scalp starts sweating, wishing I didn’t have to see her fondling a pair of sunglasses. She slides her deviant stumps across the lenses and pushes the bridge over her flushed nose. The edges of her lips widen so much that I can see her inner gums. I don’t know if I should be happy or creeped out. I can’t remember the last time she’s grinned. I try to ignore her until she exhales out of nowhere.

‘Rose, you’re gonna think I’m mad, but I think I’m high,’ I can’t help looking at her weirdly. ‘I don’t know, but I feel great since I put these on. I feel like I’m flying.’ She exhales in pleasure again. A silver gleam shines across her scalp. I pick at it. ‘Ouch, the hell did you do that for?’ I dangle three white hairs in front of her.

‘You always had these?’ She yanks them out of my hand.

‘Don’t know. Probably stress from last year.’ I gnaw my gums for the next twenty minutes, forced to listen about how much time she wasted inhaling weed when she could have felt this ‘natural high’ from a pair of sunglasses. I think back to what that woman said on the bench. From what she’s saying, she must be higher than a kite. But since when has she had grey hairs? Magical energy? Na, surely not. But my stomach starts knotting at how silent she is. I expected her to keep rambling about the glasses until she suddenly yanks Mum’s necklace off. She pulls the stone off and throws it onto the pavement.

‘Why did you do that for?’ I pick the stone up.

‘What? Me’ glasses need the string,’

‘But Mum gave it to you.’ I swallow the ball of emotions in my throat, wondering how she could casually throw this away.

She glares down a dark alley next to us. A robust herbal stench penetrates the street air. A far away streetlamp reveals a figure leaning on a fence. Please, God, don’t let it be weed.

‘Hey, you!’ A bright flashlight of a phone illuminates the shadows. A small Indian boy with a tied black bun looks over at us. ‘Give us’ the cig.’ Jess holds out her palm out, those ridiculous glasses covering her eyes. Before he can walk away, Jess rushes him, grabbing the front of his school shirt.

‘You mad? Get off.’ He tries to push her back, but his light hand smacks do little to her.

‘What are you doing? Stop!’ I try yanking her arm back, but she effortlessly pushes me back. The power in her shove winds me slightly. Since when is she this strong? She tugs the boy’s collar.

‘The fucking cigarette….’ Before I can do anything, she pulls out something from her pocket. The nearby lamp reflects a sharp sliver gleam in her hand. I want to do something, but what? I yank her arm back, wrestling the blade out of her hand. The red glasses fall off her face as the boy crawls away, a bitter urine stench filling the area.

‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ She stands up, her face blank, rubbing her eyelids.

‘I don’t know,’ she scratches at her bloodshot cheeks. ‘I’ve never been that desperate for a cig.’

‘You, feeling all right?’

‘Wait, where are they?’ She pats all over her blazer pockets, picking the glasses off the pavement. I don’t dare go near her, though. Why did she attack that boy? What happens if another innocent person passes us with something she wants? These thoughts spread goosebumps across me.

We near a bright McDonald’s sign in the distance, but I can’t keep ignoring the knot in my naval. I don’t know if I’m crazy, but a weird heat is coming off her arm.

‘Jess, you’re scaring me,’

‘What you on about?’

‘You’re freaking me out! You attacked a lad.’ her still expression does little to soothe me.

‘So? I wanted a smoke. He had one, and I got one.’ A brunette teenage girl passes us. I immediately know what will happen when Jess sees a triple camera iPhone 13 Pro in her hand.

‘Jess, no!’ I feel a sharp prick as I try to grab her. Her fingernails are pointed and curved, lemon-yellow claws protruding out of her fingers. She wraps her hand around the girl’s neck as the McDonald’s light reveals the whites of Jess’s eyes completely engulfed in inky blackness.

‘What are you doing?’ The brunette girl shrieks, piercing my eardrums, but Jess shakes her like a bobblehead.

‘Give it to me, you little—’ I gasp as she lifts the girl up with one arm.

‘Put her down!’ I wrap my left arm around her slimy neck, hoping the chokeholds she taught me work. But her strength is suddenly greater, her beefy shoulders flinging me off. The back of my skull slams against the pavement.

‘I swear I’ll kill you.’ Jess growls, her ginger hair turning ghostly white, her square teeth crumbling away into Pennywise fangs. She deepens her claws into the girl’s neck, judging by how much she is thrashing.

‘For God’s sake, stop.’ The girl gasps for breath as I yank Mum’s gem necklace out of my pocket. Hot tears flood my cheeks as I wrap my arms tightly around Jess’s bony chest. I take the chance to shove the stone into her palm. ‘Look at yourself. What you’re doing,’ I stumble as my throat swells up again. ‘Would Mum want this?’

Only now do I see her state. The rims around her eyes are dark, the outlines of her skull appearing through her leathery skin and ball joints like an elderly woman. No, a hag. ‘Jess, please come back. Please?’ I sob on her back, feeling her withered ribcage in my arms. ‘I need you.’ I feel her tremble, her black tears dripping down her strawberry skin.

Those glasses… Those damned evil glasses. They’ve done this. ‘Take them off.’ I cautiously reach for the sunglasses, feeling Jess’ scolding body temperature lowering. She lets me slide them off her long nose, dropping the blue-faced girl to her knees.

‘What, me, done?’ She claws at her elongated cheekbones as the brunette gags and splutters.

‘Jess?’ I caress her scaly skin. She looks up at me.

‘Yes?’ Before I answer, I slam the glasses onto the road.

‘This is for your own good.’ I stomp my body weight into the frames, my heel barely grazing it.

‘Thief!’ I feel my spine knock against the curb as she digs her hot claws into my wrists. ‘Give me,’ she yanks the glasses off the road, sliding them back over her pointy ears.

She sighs in a pitiful pleasure.

‘I need them.’ Her lips tremble. My heart sinks at the sight of her. They’re clearly doing more harm than good. I snatch the glasses off her, remembering the fun times with Mum, and with all my arm strength, the bridge snaps in half. She howls out, scrounging for the broken pieces. Have I failed her? Should I have done more to help? But no matter what I tell myself, her pitiful whimpers are still unbearable to hear. ‘You hurt me too? Like Mama.’ She buries her crooked red nose into my chest. I place my hand around the lazuli stone still tightly clutched in her right claw. I stroke her white straw hair.

‘No. I promised Mum I’d look after you, and I will.’ A year’s worth of bottled grief gushes from her as I delicately stroke circles onto her cheeks like Mum used to.

I look up into the cloudy night sky, looking for a brief twinkle of a star in the thick darkness. I feel Mum’s love emanating from my fingers as I place a delicate kiss on her sickly head. This isn’t the end. Maybe it’s a new beginning for both of us.


Callum McGee is a passionate, creative writing student at Edge Hill University. His short horror story was published in the EHU magazine/newspaper, the Quack’s blog. Callum is a neurodivergent writer who writes poetry tackling societal issues such as pollution, class discrimination, bullying, and inequality toward neurodiverse people. He believes poetry is an expression of one’s feelings and should be used to help people who are discriminated against in overall society. 


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“Proof” Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

"Proof" Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

“I can prove it to you, if you like,” I told Sandford that night. “I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”

# # #

John Sandford was the closest thing I had to a neighbor, and I sensed that I owed him something for what he’d done for me over the years. I’d been less than candid, quite a bit less, but I felt it was safe enough to tell him now.

Not that, in Sandford’s opinion, he’d done much. Despite being blind, he’d steered away the occasional stranger who came to his door asking too many questions about the area. I’m not sociable, and living in the woods suits me fine, but it’s been useful to have someone like Sandford living fairly close—half an hour’s walk, in this case—to provide just the right amount of misdirection when necessary. He understood how I felt, or thought he did, and I owed him something, especially at this point. His sight had faded away years ago, before I arrived here, and I could tell that the rest of his body was fading away too. He knew it, of course, and had told me that his children were making arrangements to move him to a “home”—a word he spat out angrily and a little sadly. He’d gotten along quite a while with having frozen meals delivered every week, but I knew from an occasional remark that he’d been having some sort of trouble with them lately.

We both had phones, but I never bothered to call. He always heard me on the path, long before I reached his door, and always seemed glad to have the company—and someone to share a drink or two with, although I declined as gracefully as I could every time.

As usual, I took a careful look around before I sat down, and as usual, everything was in its place. There was a bottle and a squat glass, half-full, on a table on one side of his chair and a radio on a rolling cart on the other. Through the kitchen door I could see a sleek K-cup brewer on a counter. He didn’t need eyes to pour a drink or make coffee. Beyond those few things, there was nothing else of note aside from a wall full of books. I wondered whether he sometimes ran his fingers over the spines, recognizing them from their width or the texture of the binding.

Over the years, Sandford and I had talked about dozens of different things, or rather he’d told me—history (he’d been a professor at a nearby community college), politics, even sasquatch and the like. He’d once been fascinated by the creatures, he’d told me—this was the Pacific Northwest, after all—but had given up hopes of anyone’s ever finding one. “You can’t find what’s not there,” he’d concluded. But UFOs were something else, and naturally I paid attention to what he had to say. He’d mentioned early on that his parents had known Kenneth Arnold, and that’s what had led to his interest. He couldn’t read any more, of course, but he kept up on the subject thanks to what he heard on the radio. He knew that most of what he heard was nonsense, he assured me—”crazy stuff”— but he could filter that out, leaving what he was pretty sure was the truth.

It was a very odd coincidence. I could tell him things about UFOs myself, although I’d been careful not to. But now it was time to make good on my debt. And there was no longer any danger. As he’d pointed out more than once, he’d gone from being an old fool to being a blind old fool. I was in a position to tell him things that I knew he’d find meaningful, but no one would ever believe him if he were to repeat them.

# # #

“Years ago,” I explained, after we’d chatted a few minutes, “I was involved unofficially with some scientists who were looking at the things pretty carefully. And what they were doing was unofficial too. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the study group called the Invisible College—Hynek, Vallée, those people—but this was even more invisible.”

At the mention of the names, Sandford smiled and nodded vigorously.

“Over time, and after looking at quite a bit of material, this group I’m talking about—they never gave themselves a name—became convinced that UFOs were real. UFOs or UAPs, or whatever they’ll be called tomorrow. Like you’ve pointed out once, most reports were nonsense, or so fragmentary as to be useless. Or outright hoaxes, like those early airship sightings. But “most” is a relative term, and the remainder added up to a large number, given the resources these people could draw on. And that remainder formed a kind of pattern. Or patterns, really.”

I told Sandford that he’d be disappointed to hear that the scientists couldn’t make up their minds about the “flying saucers” Arnold had seen in Washington State in”47, although I was pretty sure they were alien craft. “But the odd thing is that ten days later—July 4—the crew of a United Airlines plane flying over a little town in Idaho sighted what the group felt sure were real. The crew and the passengers watched them, five of them, for several minutes.

“Then Roswell came along a few days after that. This group I’m talking about decided that the Roswell event was real, too, that a UFO really had crashed, and I’m sure they were right. If the ship’s trajectory had been a little flatter, it would have ended up in the Pacific. Given the fact that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it was their guess that over the centuries quite a few had disappeared like that. Of course, the government covered things up, and by the time the truth started coming out, the facts were hopelessly muddled.”

We both knew that “muddled” was just fine, from the government’s point of view.

I explained that the group started looking back farther, a lot farther, and the patterns became clearer. There was the “Wheel of Ezekiel” in the Bible, for instance, and tantalizing reports by Plutarch and Pliny. And so on and so on, for more than an hour, until the light had faded from the windows and Sandford’s attention had begun to flag.

I cleared my throat.

“Anyway, this group came to the conclusion that the earth had been visited regularly, that maybe the planet had been “seeded” with life in the first place, although of course there’s no way to be sure. And they thought the visits were of all kinds. Some were military surveillance, some simply seemed to be visits by the curious, some seemed to be hunters, some were scientists, and some were damaged craft that had flown wildly off-course and crashed. Quite a few were engaged in things beyond the group’s comprehension, bizarre things. They were all kinds, and they came from all over. And they were common. Are common.

“Now, I’ve talked a lot tonight, John. But— I can prove it to you, if you like. I owe you that. I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”

He nodded, but started to remind me that there was no way he could see whatever I was going to show him.

I told him it didn’t matter, so he sat there, waiting expectantly, alert, his sightless eyes wide. But as I began pulling off the mask, he flinched. He was dismayed by the sound, I could tell. In any case, Sandford suddenly looked like a frightened old man.

“I’m going to pull my chair up closer now,” I told him, and I did, the wicker creaking and groaning as I got up and moved the chair and then sat down again.

“Now hold your hand out.” He hesitated again before he finally did so.

“It’s all right,” I assured him. “I’m just going to take your hand in mine.”

I did, and then I leaned forward and guided his hand to my face. He flinched at the first touch and pulled away, his face even paler in the pale light, his sightless eyes wide, his mouth stretched open. But then he raised the hand back toward my face, tentatively, and I let him touch me again, feel my face, one side to the other.

He understood.

“John,” I said, “It’s been a long evening. Take care.”

I got up, moved the chair back, and walked out the door. There was no moon that night, and the sky was overcast, so it was dark beneath the pines. But “dark” is a relative term, of course, and I could see perfectly well.


Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron.


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“Specimen” Horror by Ron Sanders

Devon passed out.

That’s what they told him, anyway.

He’d been waiting in line like everyone else, and next thing he knew he was the center of attention for a ring of bystanders, a pair of old ladies were rubbing his arms, and the bank manager was asking if he needed an ambulance.

The worst part, initially, was the embarrassment.

But on the drive home an icy fear crimped the back of his neck, made his shoulders lock  and his elbows seize, made his hands sweat all over the wheel. What if it happened again? What if it happened while driving? He could be barreling along nicely, completely absorbed in the intricacies of lane surfing, and—BAM: dead man. Or find he’d unconsciously plowed through a crosswalk full of horrified lunchtime toddlers. Splattered innocence, crippled joy.

That image was so appalling Devon had a phantom episode, imagining, in one missed heartbeat, that he’d blacked out again, and was surfacing anew.

He pulled over with extreme caution; using only the rear-view mirror lest, in looking back for even a moment, some inexplicable mini-seizure should send him hurtling into a compound bloody fireball. Devon was marinated in his own sweat. He’d always been the healthiest of men; didn’t drink, didn’t touch drugs, didn’t over-exert. The tremors passed gradually, but not so the terror; it had become a vital shadow in the center of his skull. Devon called a cab and a tow truck. He sat slumped in the back of the cab, steadying his breathing. The driver was a talker; Devon let him roll on. All he could see was the cab’s windshield, streaked and spotted, a broken mosaic of shocked baby faces that never had a chance to grow.

*          *          *

“Your scans are clean,” Dr. Goodman beamed.

The big clipboard was tucked against his chest, hiding its secrets. “I think we can cheerfully write this off as one of those little anomalies that pop into our lives, shake us up a bit to give our egos some perspective, and then pop right back out as though nothing occurred. And who knows? Maybe nothing did. Sometimes nature just drops the ball for no apparent reason. I like to compare the body to a complex harp with one or more strings always out of tune, and hard work and healthful living as the elements that re-tune those—Mr. Devon?”

Devon blinked at him. A low hum had just passed through his brain like a train through a tunnel. There were things in there, moving around, clattering without sound. It was as if his thoughts were loose shingles on a roof, responding to a sudden high wind. Devon blew over.

He opened his eyes to another perspective. It was not his own; this was a skewed view of three vulnerable specimens frozen in a brightly lit box. The action resumed: staring receptionist slipping out of room, frowning doctor standing squarely before seated patient.

Goodman’s entire demeanor had changed. He tapped his pencil on the clipboard—thuda-thuda-thud—little alien heartbeats in rubber on pressed cork. “You’ve heard of narcolepsy, Mr. Devon? Once we’ve ruled out the obvious—epilepsy, tumor, arrhythmia—we have to rely on conjecture, which, in a modern, mature practice, always comes down to empiricism rather than guesswork.

“What I’m attempting to impart is this: symptoms are templates. Narcolepsy is a known condition, but it’s not a common one—though I’m reasonably sure there’re plenty of cases going misdiagnosed. I won’t beat around the bush here. In narcolepsy, the brain’s steady-state waking electrical activity is abruptly interrupted—the subject goes to sleep on the spot, rather than drifting away naturally. Why? The current’s been cut off, the lights shut down. Why? We don’t know yet; and there’s that dreadful non-answer which of course seems, to the anxious layperson, an evasion rather than a helpful response. But it’s all we’ve got. That, and a medication I’m prescribing. Although still in its trial stages, it shows tremendous promise in the short term. However, there’s a caveat: you must be prudent in your approach to everyday activities whenever a recurrence might prove injurious to yourself or to others, and you must curtail these activities any time you experience symptoms that are in any way out of the ordin—”

*          *          *

“Mr. Devon?” Goodman’s smile was frayed around the edges. “Are you feeling all right now? We were discussing your prescription when you appear to have relapsed momentarily. I’ve checked your vitals and you’re good as gold. The episode was quite brief, yet it absolutely confirms my immediate diagnosis of narcolepsy.”

He drummed his fingers on the clipboard. “Miss Aines is going to administer a single dose of your prescription, and you are thereafter not to approach the medication without my approval over the phone. Then I want you to go home and take a load off your mind as well as your feet. I’d prefer you walk rather than take a cab or bus. Moderate exercise is always a precursor to healthful recovery.”

He pulled open the door, hesitating halfway. “If you experience a recurrence, or become morbidly anxious, or entertain any weird, traumatic sense of alienation, I want you to give me a call right away. Miss Aines will produce my home and cell numbers as soon as you’ve received your medication and taken that single dose.”

He smiled genially while ushering Devon out. “You’re going to be just fine.”

*          *          *

Strangest thing.

How can a man know what’s going on around him, behind him, within him—when he can’t see or feel a thing?

Devon was unconscious. The vague electrical discharges were unlike anything he’d ever experienced, so he had no point of reference, but he absolutely knew his brainwaves were being scanned…somehow. His ideas, his dreams, his very identity were being manipulated by somebody or something. Devon was being violated, from somewhere bleak and far away—for reasons of cold research, for inhuman experiment, for purposes that made no sense whatever in regular terms. Only hatred and frustration crossed the ether connecting whoever he was with whatever they were…and he knew that if he let go for even a second they’d—

*          *          *

“Sir?”

A thumb peeled back Devon’s eyelid.

Sensible impressions were returning. The sounds of traffic. The interior of a paramedics’ van. A man’s face; a face like any other. “Sir, can you feel the pressure of my hand on your arm?” A pinching above the elbow. “How about now?” The full-screen thumb splintered into five fingers on a rocking hand. “Follow my hand with your eyes, sir.” The face turned. “He’s receptive.” The face turned back. “You’re in an ambulance, sir. We’re bringing you to the emergency room at Mother Of Mercy Hospital. But we’ve determined this is no emergency; that’s why we’re not using the siren. So just relax; what’s going on is purely procedural. You appear to have blacked out while sitting on the bus bench at White and Lincoln, yet no one observed any evidence of seizure or foul play. There’s no indication of brain trauma, no signs of physical injury, and all your responses to outside stimuli are well within the normal range. Do you feel okay now?”

Devon’s voice phased in and out. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just need to—”

Two strong hands gripped his biceps.

It was the second paramedic, leaning over the first.

“You’ll have to remain quiet, sir. Until you’ve been thoroughly examined you’re under our supervision. It won’t be long. There’s the hospital now. We’re pulling up to emergency. Try to stay calm.”

“I can’t be strapped down. I…that’s what they want.” Devon’s mouth was too dry for more.

The paramedics exchanged looks. The first rattled a prescription bottle. “The label reads fifty. The count is forty-nine.” He looked back down at Devon. “I’d call yours a pretty extreme reaction. Now just relax.”

The van stopped with the gentlest jolt. A moment later the rear doors swung open. The second paramedic climbed out, and the first, hesitating, said loudly, “Sir, you’re under restraint only for your own safety, okay? We can’t have you blacking out and rolling off the gurney now, can we?”

The driver poked in his head. “What’s the hangup?”

“We’re fine back here. One of the straps is tangled. Just give me a second.”

The driver’s head disappeared. The paramedic brought his voice down to a patter. “Look, fighting only makes it worse. They’ll get in sooner or later, so unless you enjoy being flattened out of the blue, over and over and over, you’re just gonna have to play it cool. The more you resist, the worse it gets. And don’t listen to anybody telling you it’s all on account of medication, or that you have a condition, or that you’re losing your mind, or anything like that. Let them get what they want and they’ll go pick on somebody else. Take it from a guy who’s been there. Read my lips.” He strapped a small oxygen mask over Devon’s nose and mouth and said noiselessly, with exaggerated movements of the lips, “Stay down.

A hydraulic whine, a rocking and settling. A voice came out of the floodlights: “Okay to roll.”

The bright assault of antiseptic fluorescence made Devon’s eyes burn.

Faces looked on curiously as he was wheeled by; faces just as indifferent as the paramedics, as indifferent as Dr. Goodman’s, as indifferent as that burned-out receptionist behind the glass, as—

*          *          *

The electrical activity, Devon realized, functioned incidentally as a conduit. They were getting into his head, and they were learning what it means to be human, but it was tough work. Through this connection he’d become electrically empathic—able to glean their drive and exasperation, to know that, through their resolution, they were going to learn what they needed, if they didn’t kill him in the process, or if he was unable to kill himself first. He was experiencing their excitement as well as their frustration, their urgency and their demand. He was losing hold, losing self-control. He knew it. He could feel it.

*          *          *

“Well, I’m taking him off the medication, at least for the present, and I don’t give a good holy crap what you or Lancet have to say on the matter, is that clear enough for you? As of right now he’s under our care. Your prescription arguably precipitated this patient’s arrival, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s mitigating his condition in the least. Fine. Feel free to talk to the coordinator in the morning. I’m presently handling Mr. Devon, and this conversation is officially concluded. Now go back to sleep!”

Devon embraced the room’s hard white light like a lover. He kept his eyes fixed wide, afraid even to blink, as Dr. Grant replaced the receiver and turned, hands clasped behind his back.

“Mr. Devon, you’re doing great. You’ve been through a bit of a scare, but there’s no reason to worry. Your provider has authorized any necessary procedures, though I’m confident we’ve no cause for alarm.” He raised Devon’s prescription bottle like a dead lizard. “As of this moment you’re off these—and that bastard Goodman should be sued for malpractice. Don’t think he’s heard the last of me.”

“No,” Devon managed. “Not the medicine. Like I told you, this started before I was given the prescription.”

Grant leaned in grimly. “And, like you told me, you’ve been riding a roller coaster ever since. Okay? Voices in your head; that kind of nonsense. A misdiagnosis of narcolepsy from some predatory quack who will have his license suspended, mark my words. Delusions of channeling aliens or whatever—you’re a victim of too many horror movies, Mr. Devon, plain and simple. Now I want you to stop fighting it. Please. You’re only making things worse.”

Not my imagination,” Devon stressed.

“Would you listen to yourself?”

Grant leaned back.

“Narcoleptic episodes, my friend, aren’t just muggings out of nowhere. Reports suggest transitory events that are only occasionally violent; analogous to, but not equivalent to, minor epileptic seizures.”

“Not narcolepsy,” Devon tried. “They’re knocking us out. They can only read us when we’re unconscious, the deeper the better.”

“And how,” Mr. Devon, “have you managed to divine all this?”

“We’re wide open to them once they’re in. I can tell what they’re thinking when I’m out. It’s like some kind of open line, but through…space, I guess.”

Grant could barely contain his disdain. “They think, or speak, in English?”

“No, no, doctor. It’s a different kind of communication. Both sides are transmitters and receivers. And it’s not just me. It’s a whole lot of people.”

The room froze up. Dr. Grant leaned in.

“And you’re ready to point out these people? You’re prepared to corroborate your claims?”

Devon shrank into himself. “I think I’ve said all I want to say.” He clammed right up.

“You never should have been allowed on the street in the first place; not without a guardian, not without a complete examination. I’m going to give you a little injection here—it’s just something to help you relax—and then we’ll let the specialists have a go at you.”

Devon instinctively scooted in reverse. “I feel better now. I just want to go home.”

Grant again zoomed himself in. “I give you my word of honor it’ll be painless. These are some of the best men in their field, and they need to get a real good look at you right away. Now, I’d like you to just stretch out on the recliner, close your eyes, and make a fist. You’ll feel the tiniest pinprick.”

“No, please…give me something that’ll help me stay awake. They’re getting closer. If I fall asleep they’ll be right back in.”

Dr. Grant stepped to a wall intercom, his expression sour. His hand moved up to the call button. “Who’s getting closer?”

*          *          *

Facets of his identity were being shed like flakes of dandruff. Memories were being stripped, copied, filed—Devon’s humanness was being assaulted, weakness by weakness. The excitement was palpable—he was naked, he was down, he was road kill. His flaws were being recognized and categorized, in some universal way only a natural predator could understand. The meeker humans were easy; they were fait accompli. Devon could struggle all he wanted, but he was pinned and purpling, a pretty bruised butterfly. He thrashed, but didn’t budge, called, but didn’t peep, screamed, but didn’t—

*          *          *

“The harder you fight me,” the security guard snarled, “the harder I fight back. You got that?” He shoved Devon into a plastic chair, one of many lined against the wall.

“Listen to me!” Devon begged. “I can’t hold on any longer. Please. Something.”

The guard sneered over his shoulder. “I’ll give you something. Now for the last time:  Do. Not. Fight it!” He pressed the intercom’s call button. “Security on floor one, east wing. I have a disturbed patient who somehow got out into the hall. Not a biggie, but Riley and Forbes, I’d like you to assist. Wills, call in a van and get straight back to me.”

*          *          *

The feelers were in. He was going. A great company was in his skull; a kind of delirious clamor and buzzing crescendo. Devon was a transparent display, every nerve-ending under intense scrutiny.

Ecstasy, comprehension, anticipation: his mind was being peeled open; his nightmares, his mistrust, his mortal horror.

*          *          *

Devon leaped from his chair, tore the guard’s gun from its holster, crammed the barrel in his mouth.

A bear hug and shattering of teeth. The gun went spinning across the floor.

A hard stomping down the hall, a flurry of shouts, the pulsing buzz of an alarm.

Devon hit the plate glass window like a bug smacking into a windshield. He blew out into the night, a mass of porcupine shards, blood spraying in his wake. He heard Dr. Grant puffing behind. “Mr. Devon! For the love of God! Don’t fight it! Somebody call the gate. Devon!”

*          *          *

His arms were shaking wildly, his eyes bursting in his skull—he was seizing—they had him by the cortex. Devon’s very consciousness was being eviscerated: through that real-time conduit, his thoughts were being pasted to an empathic helix, synapse by misfiring synapse. And they’d grown exasperated. Devon was about to learn the hard way that, no matter how grounded a body might be in reality, a mind is wide open to compromise:

Liquid fire tore through his frame, spewed from his mouth and nostrils, set his fraying hair ablaze. His head snapped back and his mouth ripped open at the corners, peeled off his face and blew away in shreds. Devon’s rib cage shattered from the sternum down. He was being zipped open, torn apart, dug into. With a shriek of bone his spine snapped free, his pelvis collapsed, his skull halved to expose the hysterical animal writhing within.

*          *          *

A number of men hit him in a compound flying tackle.

An orderly snarled in his face, “Stay down, damn you!”

Now Dr. Grant’s pulsing round head broke into a crazy wheel of arms and nightsticks. “Sedate him, for Christ’s sake! I don’t care if you have to use chloroform. Drag him over to the shack.”

*          *          *

Night sucked him up like a giant straw. Consciousness was a black wiggly thing, all-pervading, all—and a flashlight’s beam hit him right in the eyes. For a long hazy second he was dazzled by the badge on the gate guard’s cap. Devon was logy and going fast, his limbs uncooperative, his toes and fingers numb.

“I’ll tell you one more time, and then I’ll brain you if I have to—stop fighting it!

The guard’s eyes became compassionate. Mentoring. “They’ll get what they want and be done with you. Then you can go back to whatever you’ve always been doing.”

He tried to mask his shame with a pretense of fellowship. “Look, friend, they’ve been at it forever—knocking us out and picking our brains, trying to figure out what makes us tick. But we’re tough nuts to crack. So now you’re finding out what’s it’s like to be psychologically raped—to be mentally dissected—in real time, just like the rest of us. And simultaneously you’re reading them back as they work, just like the rest of us. And pretty soon your identity will be appropriated, and you’ll be eating right out of their hands. Just like the rest of us.”

The guard gripped Devon’s shoulder.

“Listen, man, it can get really really bad, okay? And nobody, but nobody’ll ever take you seriously. So you gotta learn to kind of switch off when they get busy, and play it off as humbly as you can. But there’s no disgrace in obeying; not when you have to survive. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He looked around uneasily. “We’re just human beings, right? We’re not supermen.”

From outside came Dr. Grant’s familiar voice barking orders, followed by the gentle rumble of an approaching vehicle. The sound of doors swinging on their hinges. A new voice called out: “Okay to roll.”

The guard looked back. “Anyway, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. So stop fighting—just let go and relax.”

He passed a hand back and forth over Devon’s eyes. “Is any of this getting through?”

“Yes,” Devon said thickly. “Hear you.”

“Good.”

The guard patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not the end of the world. Just another boss.”

He placed the hand over Devon’s eyes.

“Now sleep.”


Bio pending.


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“The Puddlers” Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

Daybreak is dry. There’s no drip from brewed coffee or slurp from cereal bowl, those luxuries long ago evaporated. It’s my business to sniff out every drop. My ears attuned from years of training to follow any trail of moisture to the sated end.

Despite the droughts, dawn is a Puddler’s favorite time of day. Moisture gathers overnight even in an arid climate, and in the dawn, goldmines, precious drops perched on blades of grass. 

It is for this reason that I have spent the night on a peeling park bench, surrounded by the incessant creaking of parched insects. One alights on my chest, and although his hind legs are faltering, I can’t bring myself to end his suffering. When the sun appears from behind the high rise, the chirping quiets, I resume my search. 

The battery on my vac pack says 70 percent. Perfect. Means I have the juice to bring in a haul, should I find one. The tank is heavy when I slide it on, but with any luck, it will be heavier when I trudge it in at the end of my shift. 

“Morning, sir, care for a coffee patch?” A thin-skinned lady in black and white loafers works a stand near the edge of the park. She’s to remind us of happier times, but I can only think of how her lips are dried around the edges and her voice rasps when she speaks. 

“Perk me right up, thank you, kindly.” I extend my arm and she rolls up the sleeve to apply the patch on the optimum ingestion site. Then, she salutes–thumb, index, and middle finger, the wave given to heroes.

“Happy hunting, Puddler.”

“Many thanks, and a damp day to you as well!” I force my face to smile. So much rests on keeping up appearances. I imagine the pour of a steaming cup of coffee, the caffeine enters my system, clears my mind so I can focus on finding some real liquid.

It all comes down to H2O. That knowledge and perhaps the coffee patch give me the boost I need to begin my search and find the water that my moisture meter tracked to this location the day before.

“Dried pumpkin bites, sir?” A man in a bowling shirt scoops from a cart. 

 “Why yes, don’t mind if I do. And when the man refuses my bills, I give him a doubly wide grin.

He raises the salute. “Hauls us in some, sir.”

“Will do, my good man. Got a drip lead going right now.” I am blessed in my line of work with an abundance of gratitude. It is, after all, my kind that keeps the rest of the world alive. But with each passing season, the water is scarcer, the sweetness of the mission evaporates. Dehydrated pumpkin tastes more stale than sweet, and I walk away with a full belly, but the guilt of an empty pack.

Of course, the rivalry doesn’t help. 

When Aquaprima and Dezani announced they’d be sending out separate Puddlers, it forced everyone to pick sides. Both companies usually keep to their own territories, but you never know when a rival might be slurping at the same puddle. 

Dezani loyalists use the three-finger salute seen here in the park, and their workers carry blue packs, a stripe added for each year of service. Mine looks zebra-like from my time chasing liquid.

Aquaprimians carry red packs, salute with their last three fingers. Usually, both companies keep to their own neighborhoods, but you never know when a rival might be slurping in your same puddle. I scan the lawn but don’t spot any red flags. Means I’ve still got time to take in my load. 

The geese in park are waddling this way and that as if dizzy. When I see them head for a place off the path, I take a hunch and follow their lead. These natives may know something we don’t, and I stop to vacuum up a few precious drops dotting the grass along the way. 

As if sensing a tail, the waddlers pick up their pace, making their way down a steep ravine. I scoot downwards on my bottom, the pack too heavy for steep inclines, and I would likely topple if I lost my footing. 

Midway down, I find a small treasure: a plastic water bottle, a relic from the before, but this one has a small sacred puddle trapped inside. I pause to vacuum the tiny pool, thinking of my sweet granddaughter, Ella Mae. Her freckled face. I imagine her swimming, submerged in liquid, like we all did, in the olden days. I can picture her running over to me dripping wet in her lavender swimsuit. 

“Don’t you dare,” I’d hold up my hand, but Ella Mae would squish down on my lap and plant a drippy kiss on my cheek. Wetness would expand on my shirt. Dampness will never feel that good again.

There is wetness along my brow and back. I use a small nozzle to capture the drops on my forehead. Nothing can be wasted now. Stabbing pain ascends from my sciatic nerve as I slide almost vertical, gripping tree branches and terrain to make it the last few feet of the descent. 

At the bottom of the ditch, there is moisture. It hits you square on the face, the way a sauna used to do, and even though the weeds down here are almost as tall as me, I stoop down and press my hand into the ground. 

It sinks. Incredible. It’s muddy. My fingers drip as they rise, cool and coated. 

Above my dirty fingertips, square in the middle, the most glorious thing: my own reflection in a six, no eight-foot puddle. Small snags are visible in my uniform from the descent, but what I notice most is the branching red lines of dry eyes. 

I reach down and touch the surface, sensing the motion of a ripple. It’s the first ripple I’ve seen in years and it’s harmonious, a suite of instruments playing in the same key. Part of me wants to wade in, submerge. Paddle, float on my back, even. But I pause, thinking of Ella Mae. This one’s for you, baby girl. 

Readying the hose with my widest nozzle, I spot it. A rebellious red, out of place at the bottom of the ravine. I hear a familiar sound. A vacuum starts.

“Hey, Puddler!  Stop, this instant. This one’s mine!”

The vacuum stops. “What’s that, old man?” The Puddler shouts. Maybe because his earbuds are still in. The Aquaprimian’s half my age; his loud metal music drifts over the puddle. Moving toward him with long strides, I reach out a hand, smack a bud free from his ear. 

“YOU tracked me here. This is my guzzle, young chap!”

“All’s fair in wet and war, Benjamin. Oh, and by way of thanks,” the boy winks, “I’ll let you take a slurp.” His bud back in, he restarts the vacuum before I have a chance to respond.  

Carl? Could it be? All these years playing cat and mouse, he’s been my shadow. I trained him a decade ago, let him date my daughter, only to watch him jump ship taking Aquaprima’s sign-on gallon and stealing my sweet girl’s heart in the process.

The raging red vac sweeps left to right. 

“No so fast, Carl.” I smack his earbud lose again; it dangles from his uniform. “This is my puddle, you bastard.” I push him, but he barely budges. “This…this is outrageous.” 

Carl turns his vac off to speak to me again, but not without swallowing a huge gulp of air.

“Smart following those geese, Benjamin. You know, if you sniff an old dog long enough, you can still learn some new tricks.” He lifts his nozzle. “Tell Ella Mae daddy says ‘hi.’ And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got clearing to do.”

Over my dried-out body!” I yell, and without thinking, I grab my legs and jump, straight into the puddle, water droplets fly around me like geese taking to the air. It’s enough of a mess to upset Carl, and soon he is stepping into the pool to try and stop me from ruining the haul.

“That’s what we call a cannonball, son. Doubt you’ve ever done one. Now, a final lesson. I’m gonna teach you how to swim, either that or how to sink.” 

From this angle, it’s easy to drag Carl down into the water beside me. “First,” I whisper in his earbud-less ear, “you gotta get on your belly.”

I sweep his legs and watch as he falls face first. I hit the eject button on his pack releasing his stash.

“Next, you gotta spread your arms and legs. But oh, I forgot the most important part. You gotta put your face underwater.” I hold the back of his head underwater, watch as his legs and arms start to flail.

“That’s it. You’re getting it.”

I hold firm. Think of his arrogance, of my daughter heartbroken, left to raise Ella Mae alone. Maybe with this haul, we can finally afford to give Ella Mae her first swim.

“There, now that wasn’t too bad, was it? You’re floating fine now, young chap.” And I let go of Carl’s collar, his corpse floats freely across the surface.

There isn’t time to say any words. No, simply no time for pleasantries.  I start the vacuum and get to work. When my vac pack fills, I use the Aquaprima pack to capture the rest, including the special hose for corpse extraction. The geese stand around the edges as I extract their watering hole, occasionally honking a weak protest. 

With both packs full, I claw my way out of the ravine. Lifting one pack, moving slowly, going back for the other, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Water is more valuable than gold.

 I’m saving humanity, I tell myself. Besides, one should always respect one’s elders, even in times of crisis.


K.Hartless is a free spirited fiction writer, educator and word trapeze artist. She’s been recently published in 365tomorrows, Luna Station Quarterly, and Last Girl’s Club. Check out her Yardsale of Thoughts at khartless.com or follow her healthy haiku habit on Twitter @hartless_k.


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Two Works of Flash Fiction by Dylan Thomas Lewis: “Hallowed Cliff” and “They Did It for their Freedom”

Hallowed Cliff

The archway stood firm under the shroud of night, its heart spelled in dripping letters: Hallowed Cliff Cemetery. He could still discern the entrance atop the sodden hill despite the starless sky, through the rain and sweeping winds. The image had been blistered into his unconscious. He marched on through the marshy soil as if he could rid himself of it by way of physical exertion; or perhaps cleanse his spirit with heaven’s baptismal waters. He dared not stop for fear of sinking through the earth and residing himself to an unceremonious yet eternal tomb. Though the world would not make it easy. Several times he lost his footing and slid upon the mud before slamming the shovel head into the ground and forcing himself up, carrying on with stubborn consternation. 

He wiped the muck on his pants as he passed under the arch and trudged forward among the aisles. Over the fresh and dying roses, the pink and purple larkspurs. Past endless processions of graves. Stones of granite. Stones of marble. Sandstone and slate. Some brandishing themselves to the eye, almost arrogant in their novelty. Others having been neglected for centuries, their texts gone as if washed away by Mother Nature for some unutterable slight against her. He eyed the years as he went, capricious, interchangeable; like philosophical tauntings from beyond, calling to him, demanding he decipher their unanswerable ponderings. 

The shovel struck into the ground as he removed a pewter flask from the inside of his shirt, then took a swig and stepped to the grave before him. He looked upon the head with bloodshot eyes, compelled to take in the marking over and over again by light of Zeus and Selene; inconstant; uncertain. 

Eva Meridian Mara
February 21st, 1981 — July 8th, 2021
A Mother
A Friend
A Person
Rest in Peace
Could’ve thought of better.

He drank, then replaced the flask and stepped to the grave opposite. He unbuckled his belt and pissed into the sloshy soil. 

“Apologies, miss — errr — mister.”

He flicked his member clean and redid the front of his jeans, then took the shovel in hand and returned to the opposite grave. With a last look at the stone, he stabbed the shovelhead into the mud and lifted a mound of green and black muck from the earth, tossing it to the side and splattering little balls on the opposing marker. Shovelful after shovelful. Foot after foot. He spent an hour laboring deeper and deeper into the earth, stopping at several points to pour water from his shoes. Finally he was done, breath unsteady, a salty sweat amongst the rain on his brow. 

A great hole sat before him, four by eight in dimension with a depth of six feet, the lid of a dark red casket peeking out the bottom. He lowered himself in and dug along the side until he found the latch. A light hiss escaped as he undid it, like a snake warning him from its burrow. It drew his thoughts toward the darkness within. Toward the all-knowing nothing entrapping the poor soul inside. It struck him with what he felt was an unnatural reverence. A connection and understanding unique to him and him alone. 

He’d always found an allure to such things. A morbid, yet uncompromising curiousness for the shadows — of both sight and mind. For the implications they presented. The universal and contradictory lessons that fed him without frame left him frozen in place, unable to comprehend what lay before him, regardless what his conscious mind would admit. The horror. The humor. The eternal void just below the surface of all. 

He lifted the lid by a foot and shined his phone inside. He saw an arm veiled by a wispy white dress, stiff and pale like a cheap manikin. Spitting onto the earth wall opposite, he slid his phone in and let the lid drop, removing the flask and downing what remained. He washed what mud he could from his hands, limbs, and torso, then rubbed his hands across his face and put his head back to run them through his hair. With a final breath, he gave a glance toward the waning moon in the east and crawled inside.

He set the still shining phone on the cadaver’s stomach and burrowed his way next to it, snuggling close with his arm under the neck. His hands grasped the rigor, the penetrating cold. His eyes traced up and down the ghostly vessel. He imagined her origins, physical and ethereal. Tried to unweave the mysteries and intricacies of her being as well as those who’ve come before and will come long after. The marks of his existence and what it all amounted to. The incalculable sum rendered indistinguishable from its antecedents. 

Rubbing his fingers across her cheek, he stared at the unflinching eyelids, decorated with red and black eyeshadow. At the plush raven hair, the light reflecting off it like stars in the vacuum of space, ever expanding, shifting further and further away. His body began to shake. He smashed his eyes shut and swallowed the snot creeping down the back of his throat. Tears of regret leaked onto his cheeks. A great breath entered his lungs and returned as if unsure of the vitality of its own purpose. 

He reopened his gaze to the eyelids. He reached with trembling hands and placed them directly under. He moved to lift the lids from their perch, but shot back upon touch, reeling as if scorched by some invisible spark. His head hung, he cried harder than he’d ever done. His eyes, half drowned in tears, stared past the light into the darkness and beyond. It stared back. He clutched the body close, burying his head into the bosom as his weeps filled the tomb, echoing back into his shattered sense of self.

They Did It for their Freedom

The sun rose as they moved the slaves young and old through the gates of Cathartra. Off the hardened pozzolana and onto the crude, unkempt path towards the Anglo River. The slaves in their thin, ebony rags amongst the Cathartrans in their flowing, ivory robes. Two days prior, the former had taken captive three of the most powerful families in the land, raiding their property and moving them to the valerian fields in the dead of night. Just before dawn, they allowed one of the captives to flee, instructing him to inform the Council of Six of what had occurred. 

The child dashed through the streets in his soil stained garments until he came to the council building, a band of warriors stationed at the front. Flamed with righteous indignation, the Council rushed to conduct an emergency session. Noon came and the slaves approached with the three families in their grasp. They did it for their freedom, they said. They wished to speak with the council and negotiate a peaceful resolution between their people. To raise the land as equals under Cathartran law.

The eldest seven were invited to discuss terms. For hours the soldiers stayed planted outside, watching the slaves with distrustful stares that were readily reciprocated. The tension pranced amongst them like a phantomed, temptress mare, urging them toward bloodshed until the negotiators reemerged.

The slaves were promised full rights under the courts as well as a mule per person and land at the outskirts of town; roughly forty acres per family. Men were granted entrance within the military and the group as a whole would no longer remain responsible for the trades previously forced upon them. Rather, tasks would be split evenly between them and the Cathartrans and training was to begin immediately so that all could become educated on such matters. Upon graduating from this instructional period, the two groups would come together as a single labor force.

The last promise was, to symbolize their status as true citizens, each slave would be taken to engage in the Rite of Till at the Temple of Kings. In two days time, a party of Cathartrans would lead half the slaves to conduct the ritual while the rest would attend the morning after. This latter group would remain in Cathartra to commence preparations as they awaited the others’ return. Once these terms were announced, the slaves released the families and took camp in the valerian fields while the Council called the soldiers in for the night.

It was noon when the first party marched onto the boats. Cries from the infants had been audible since they left, resounding through the ranks and vexing the Cathartrans’ ears the further they traveled. They docked on the opposite shore and continued on through the Fifteen Fields. Soon the slaves began to sing songs of torment and sorrow. At first, but a single child recited the tunes, though, within the hour, the entire party had joined, rousing a powerful chorus that resounded through the land. Though they spoke in tongues foreign to the Cathartrans, the emotions touched deep within their marrow.

The vocals continued as they entered Brown’s Forest at evening’s dawn, sentiments still rocking like great, granite swings from the gods. From there, the Temple would not be far. As they trudged forward, the grass and trees grew thick and tangled, blocking sunlight from their struggling forms. It didn’t take long for the singing to diminish and eventually die within the darkness, giving once more to cries of infants.

The Temple was dilapidated, overrun with vines and other forms of wildlife. A screech sounded in the distance as an unrelenting stench sauntered about. The Cathartrans looked to the building with a familiar air while the slaves gaped with mixed emotions. Even the children fell silent upon arrival. The Cathartrans led them inside, the lone source of light now the torches in hand. Hordes of cobwebs were scattered about the place, all coated in a clean sheet of dust, including the aged, yet dominant obelisk at the center. It reached near the very top of the Temple, inscribed with pre-Cathartran text.

The Cathartrans rested their torches upon bronze sconces as the slaves gathered around the obelisk, vying for proper views. The eldest of the negotiators shuffled to the front and roamed once around the pillar, sliding his fingers across the text in a slow, gentle stroke, pondering as if caught in a profound, yet forgotten memory. He crouched to examine the base, then rose and whispered in a vernacular unrecognizable to anyone. It was as he did this the Cathartrans unsheathed their swords.

****************

Evidence was taken of their deed as a warning for those left in Cathartra; menial objects such as clothing, necklaces, and bracelets. Some then graduated to thieving sections of the slaves themselves. Eyes, scalps, tongues — even severed legs of the children. The survivors gathered their torches and trudged out of the Temple. The return journey through the Forest was cruel and arduous on account of their labor and the blood-soaked robes holding them down.

When they maneuvered their way into the Fields, there was but a single ray of sunshine glistening over the horizon. The last image one could see as it disappeared and gave way to night was that of their demented figures, united in a call to slaughter. Crimson shapes in the dark. Hellish protectors of their way of life. They stepped forward and left the Forest behind them, marching backward through the night. On toward Cathartra, the glorious polis they loved without condition.


Dylan Thomas Lewis is a writer and musician from Kirksville, Missouri. He graduated from Central Methodist University in May of 2019 after serving as co-editor of the college’s literary magazine for two years. He writes screenplays, short stories, and music, playing guitar for Electronic Rock band Secular Era. His favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. His favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick. 

His first submission “Hallowed Cliff”* can be classified as Southern Gothic. The second submission “They Did It For Their Freedom” is an experimental piece loosely based on a story from ancient Sparta, mixing elements of Horror, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction. 


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