“Robert, Howard, and the Devil” Fiction by Thomas White

About three months ago, Robert Shivers, the life-long friend of Howard Foker, had unexpectedly gone into the hospital for a few nights for minor surgery. Shivers had given Howard the key to his apartment so that Howard could feed and care for Robert’s hamster, Blinky.  Howard was oblivious, however, to the surveillance cameras, embedded in the apartment’s walls, originally installed by Robert to identify any burglar intent on kidnapping his beloved pet.

Howard had no sooner settled comfortably into Robert’s easy chair to watch the new autumn lineup of reality TV shows, than there was a scratching   noise from Blinky’s cage:  clawing the bars, the little pest was furiously demanding its feed.  Just like its master: always annoying Howard with irritating demands. In fact, the more Howard watched Blinky, the more he wondered if Robert actually had not been turned into this hamster by a wizard’s spell. The random shuffling, followed by sudden bursts of frenetic activity, then the way it greedily slopped its food and water – all very Robert Shivers.

   While poking through the kitchen closets looking for the little monster’s vitamin-enriched meal, Howard discovered a thick envelope. On it, in Shivers’ childish scrawl, were the words: “My Stimulus Package.” Stuffed inside the envelope was a smaller   packet on which Shivers had written: “Boy, this is hot.”  Gently opening it, Howard’s attitude toward Robert was about to change forever.

 Stapled together were advertising glossies featuring images of kitchen appliances, a generic, stock photo of the Statue of Liberty, set against the skyline of New York City, and assorted printouts of objects, such as jugs, for sale online. A sticky note was attached to the documents on which Robert Shivers had scribbled, “Wow, what a turn-on!”

Included with this stash was also a notarized statement which read:

“I, Robert Shivers say, under penalty of perjury, that I have an intense erotic desire for nonhuman objects. I find myself completely unable to lust after any human being no matter their gender…”

In addition, among the papers was a copy of a letter from Robert addressed to the executive producer, Jay James, of the new reality TV cable program, “It’s a Wild, Weird World,” which specializes in presenting to its audience – in its own words – “the unbelievable – uncensored.” The letter read in part:

“Dear Mr. James,

I have watched your show with great interest. I understand you are seeking guests with shocking and completely unique life-stories. I believe I can fulfill your program’s needs as I am just such a potential guest (my appearance being offered at your normal rate). Please see my attached affidavit with attachments. I think that the story of people who have sexual desires for only nonhuman objects would be of considerable interest to your audiences who tune in every week in search of ‘the unbelievable – uncensored…’”

   Stunned, Howard blinked his eyes: one can think he knows a person but actually never really know him. Huge difference between hanging out with this dude at the Big Hit sports bar watching Monday Night Football and getting a peek into his creepy, private world.

Who but a twisted weirdo could get an orgasm from a toaster? And even though the Statue of Liberty was a woman and was made by the French, it seemed really bizarre if not downright unpatriotic to be sexually aroused by America’s iconic symbol –  I mean the Statue of Liberty for god’s sake!

But Howard, his stomach grumbling its complaint against his skimpy breakfast, headed   for the kitchen again but this time more to satisfy his hunger for food than his curiosity about Shivers’ twisted inner life.                                                     

    Rummaging around for a can opener, Howard immediately found yet another clump of documents crammed into a dusty hole in the back of the kitchen’s cupboards’ walls; delicately opening the scruffy plastic-wrapped bundle stinking of mildew, he lightly pawed the shiny but stained upmarket  furniture catalogue advertising the usual items: blonde floor lamps with pale white shades, rainbow-colored, starkly-crafted chairs, smoothly-contoured black coffee tables, slab-like soft floor beds piled with cheery little patterned cushions.

   Then shocked, he looked closer and gasped – or, more to the point, gurgled an explosion of saliva: a glossy image of the pudgy body and face of Robert Shivers, naked except for black socks, was shown on one of the catalogue’s pages, hunched over a blonde floor lamp with a virginal white shade, a lusty, demonic grin on his face.  Had Robert somehow Photoshopped a selfie of his face and body into this catalogue to live out his twisted fantasies among this porno-utopia of upmarket sexually attractive nonhuman objects?

Howard’s conclusion was inescapable: Robert Shivers was not a normal pervert.

                                                    ***

Sideling into his favorite Starbucks a few weeks later, Howard, still unsettled after his discoveries, almost spilled his latte as he absent-mindedly found a table, and fretted over this new information about Robert. Howard knew that he had to calm down, get beyond the shock of it all, and get focused on the business implications. It was a sick, cynical world, but one could find financial health, not to say happiness, in the problems of others. Now he had to just figure the angles.

How would he approach Robert about selling Robert’s bizarre personality to tabloid shows?  With his vast marketing experience in the mass media Howard was sure he could help Robert – for a lucrative commission – to make high-level reality TV executive contacts, who would pay Robert handsomely for his completely unique story of a life spent sexually attracted to upscale furniture, kitchen appliances, and the national icon of America.

 It was a delicate matter though as he did not want Robert to know that he had been rummaging through his personal papers. He needed his flunky friend’s good will, yet at the same time Howard had to figure out how to approach Robert about his weird desires without revealing how Howard discovered them – otherwise Robert could be open to a potential lawsuit for the violation of Robert’s privacy. (Howard, despite these sober concerns, smiled briefly when he thought of Robert being interviewed on TV about how he ‘dates’ a toaster.)

A taunt, sinewy arm with blurred tattoos flipped over Howard’s shoulder like a large stiletto knife. Howard’ s eyes followed the arm up to a face stuffed full of jutting, stained teeth that had not seen a dental cleaning in years – nor a cosmetic surgical makeover: thin wrinkled lips carved into a stony face, wandering unfocused, washed-out bluish eyes, and a small patch of dry grey hair on an otherwise bald, skull-tight head. His ruddy facial skin was littered with large warts. Howard thought vaguely of a diseased tropical plant –  or the face of the 1950s Yul Brynner but with a completely unknown, creeping skin condition.

The odd man suddenly yawned widely, sending waves of swampy bad breath into Howard’s face.  Tearful, and almost gagging, Howard half whispered, half-choked, “Who are you?”

Despite the grotesque appearance, the man’s voice was gentle. “If you know this song then you know who I am.” He began to sing slowly, hypnotically, as if he were crooning a seductive lullaby:

“Pleased to meet you

Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah

But what’s confusing you

Is just the nature of my game…?”

The man’s arm twisted slightly; a business card dropped into Howard’s lap as if it were a magic trick; glossy-lipstick-pink, spotted with little devil masks, the card was inscribed with black, very dramatic script:

“Edmund Lappe’

Therapeutic Wizard

By Appointment Only”

Edmund Lappe’ winked, then began softly crooning again:

“So if you meet me

“Have some courtesy

Have some sympathy, and some taste

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I’ll lay your soul to waste…”

Lappe’ then pointed his middle finger at Howard’s nose, as if the wizard were making an obscene gesture, and waved it. Howard felt his face drip heavily as if he were sweating a river; it was his flesh sliding off like chunks of melting snow, drenching his shirt cuffs.

“Hell’s bells, I am melting like a goddam wax dummy in an oven!” Howard whined. His Starbucks coffee mug, his laptop, and his too-tight undies then vanished, too. Howard and everything in his world had been vaporized. Edmund Lappe’, his Satanic Majesty, a man of many faces and names, who enjoyed serenading the Damned with the Rolling Stones’ 1968 smash hit, then called Robert Shivers to report the good news: that as per his agreement with Robert for a lucrative commission on Robert’s tabloid TV story profits, Lappe’ had eliminated the slimy Howard – who had inexcusably violated Robert’s privacy and failed to properly feed Blinky as instructed – from the face of the earth.    


Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.


“The Power of You” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Rayfox East

I saw him as soon as I entered the ticket hall. In the pre-show crowd he sat alone, staring into a plastic cup of water at a table near the gents. He poured a sachet of sugar into the cup and swirled it with a dirty finger and stared at it again. Here was a for-sure oddball – perfect fodder for Anorak UK.

Eccentrics (the juicy ones) are easily spooked, so I joined a larger group of attendees first. Beer and excitement had loosened tongues. A woman with a husky voice declared a lack of confidence had scuppered her romantically; a short man in a tall hat confessed he had been passed over for promotion five times; a well-to-do couple jostled their son to admit he was unpopular at college. Most reasons for coming were like that.

Mine was no better. A feature on vegetable sculptors had been cited on breakfast TV, now my blog Anorak UK (tagline: Tales from the Eccentric Frontline) brought three times the ad revenue. Thus I could afford the £300 ticket for tonight’s event – my next feature. And I had spotted my first source already.

Five minutes before showtime I approached the man’s table. In his cup floated a dead fly, drawn by the sugar, which he picked out and devoured in tiny bites.

He coughed when he saw me and wiped his fingers on his beard. The beard was ersatz, hooked around his ears; and his eyebrows, I saw, were a different colour at the roots. He stank of tobacco. His skin was loose from fasting – a strong breeze would treat it like a sail. No ring on his hand – but then, his fingers were too slender to have kept one on.

“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.

He shrugged guiltily.

“Me too.” I said, pleased I had switched on my recorder. “Although I don’t have much appetite for crowds.” I was pretty sure he’d agree, but he stared at me like an animal in a trap. He stood up quickly, pushed away the cup and, as he fled, delivered me a look of such frantic loathing I was briefly stunned.

The call came to take our seats in the auditorium. By ill luck my seat was one row in front of his. For the next hour he would be literally breathing down my neck. His manic glare was all I could picture as the lights dimmed.

‘The Power of You’ proclaimed six screens, the words pulsing to a Wu Tang track. With a hail of sparks the great Mindy Coleman strode onstage. The applause brought dust from the rafters and shook the seats. She was a magnesium flare in a room full of moths, every stitch the international self-help guru and network TV host (Doing You on CBS). Buoyed by the crowd I tried hard to catch her eye.

Not one clap from behind me. Dour sod – £300 he paid!

“Oh, thank you all for coming! You know, it’s not everyone who has the courage to come out to one of my seminars. You’ve already overcome limitations to be here tonight. Give yourselves a hand!”

Palm-stinging applause from everyone but the fly-fisher.

“If I know one thing, it’s that every one of us has power. We can use that power against ourselves or to launch us forward. Tonight I’ll share a taste of how to find your power and unlock your dreams. Oh, so many faces!”

When the self-activation period came, it was for the sake of our hands and throats. Mindy Coleman supercharged us, no one could stop talking. Her glow was impossible to dim. It was only the well of silence behind me that polluted my uptake of her doctrine.

Offended by the man’s resistance, since it showed me up as an easy convert, I loitered by the gents in ambush. But he slipped past, armpits projecting wide stains, and scuttled to the exit. For no definite reason I followed. Whatever secret had made him come would be humiliating, and right then I wanted it to be.

He turned away from the bright car park and skirted the walls of the centre, keeping in shadow. I turned the next corner and lost him. The cold air and abundant shadows brought me to a halt. What was I doing here, the stink of the bar bins eroding my cologne?

Then I saw him. A shadow leapt over the wooden screen around the bins. My god, was he so desperate? But no, the ticket cost a fortune…

What I heard next was the squeal of a bat or rodent, stamping, then a wet crack. Some plastic items clattered on the tarmac. I kept still, expecting the man to climb out, having retrieved, possibly, a cache of drugs.

Then I heard chewing. Wet and grisly, like a bear chewing fish.

I hurried back inside as an electronic bell signalled the end of the self-activation period.

The second half was billed ‘Living Your Truth in the Digital Age.’ I had seen a spare seat behind him. Now I claimed it. But he did not reappear in the audience.

Mindy Coleman came on to raptures, brushing the fingers of the front row. My eyes were fixed on the empty seat. His sugar-water sat on his armrest, attracting flies.

Feeling spiteful, I knocked the cup onto his seat cushion mid-cheer, so that if he came back I would watch him squirm.

Carpe Diem. What does it mean?” Mindy yelled as the music faded. “Let me hear you!”

Seize the day! came the cry rehearsed in the first half.

“And what day is that?”

Today!

The smell of bins made me twitch. There he was, shuffling along the row in front! He sat, felt the wetness and froze, staring dead ahead. Mrs Coleman took a backseat to his reaction, the dye trickling down his neck. What did he need motivation for? He was already so unrestrainedly vulgar.

With no clear trigger, the whole thing started to revolt me. Mindy was more predator than prophet, a lack-of-confidence trickster. And these misfits were easy prey. The gist for my feature would be: cynic milks the vulnerable for money.

When the curtain fell I raced to the foyer, but I lost him in the loud, happy exodus. I could hear horns bleat as the crowd drained from the car park, bound for promotions, marriages, start-ups and affairs.

I looked until my Prius was alone in the car park, weighing up whether to search local bars. But my heart slumped at the thought. My trophy had escaped, dour sod. His smell was all that was left – I had to replace the air freshener. That’s what I get for £300 worth of journalistic inquiry!

On the M40 I thought of Cheryl. Pretending she was with me made the journey faster. I turned on the radio, seeking Mindy Coleman’s broadcast frequency but it was off-air.

Towards midnight it began to rain, fat drops like marbles, then the rain began to flash blue and red. A siren scared me, waving me over. I checked the speedometer – well within the limit – as the police car parked in front. After a while an officer approached, strafing a flashlight over my windows and roof.

Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..

“Where’s your luggage?” he asked once I’d lowered it.

“I don’t have any luggage.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Is there a problem?”

The policeman’s torch crossed the backseat. He patted the roof. “Alright. It’s been a long night, I guess. Drive safe.”

I let the policeman drive off first, shaking my head. He looked younger than me, too. When did that happen? It was my birthday next month. I knew Cheryl had some plans for it, but I wished it wouldn’t come all the same.

I stopped for a coffee at Knutsford services. The reek of the toilets was not unwelcome after hours of driving – sharp enough to keep me awake. I bought a sausage roll and ate it in the Prius.

The sky was fuzzy lilac when I arrived home. Cheryl had left the light on by the front door, but the rest of the flat was dark. Rain had softened in the last hour and I listened to the peaceful sound for a minute or two before locking the car and letting myself in.

Inside there was a note from Cheryl saying there was take-out in the fridge. Since the microwave beeped loudly I ate it cold, thinking about how to bulk out my feature. I could reach out to Coleman herself, overstate my influence and weedle for a one-on-one. As she herself put it: Give yourself permission to chase your dreams.

I heard Smudge rattle the catflap as I washed the plate and headed upstairs. It was dark under the bedroom door, Cheryl asleep. I ran a bath and undressed in the hall, spotting Smudge asleep in her basket – she must have raced upstairs ahead of me – and settled in the bubbles for a calm half-hour. I scratched a few notes on my mental pad, towelled and crept into the bedroom.

Cheryl was warm, her breathing excited by a dream. I tossed and sweated for two hours, unable to fully rid from memory his BO and tobacco stench. At last I tried to lie still and make sleep come to me. The clock read 02:54.

Something probed my lower back – a dislodged spring, sliding between vertebrae. It lanced up with a pain too intense to accept as real. My disbelieving hand found a thin blade sticking through my navel. My scream was a wet hiss – my hand dropped – a numbness like early death spread until I couldn’t speak. The bed churned like a sick stomach. Two slender hands clawed through the mattress, tipping Cheryl’s numbed body so at last I saw her terrified eyes.

From the gutted mattress he emerged, dripping sweat on our faces, eyes gemmed by the moon. His stench engulfed the room; he seemed bigger than the room could possibly allow. From a crusty pocket he withdrew a long serrated knife and giant fork, spilling condiment sachets and lint. His hands were shaking.

“I am brave enough.” he rasped. “I am strong enough. I give myself permission to chase my dreams.”

 He undressed in the moonlight, put on a child’s bib, and fulfilled the most courageous act of his life.


Rayfox East was born in Bangor, Wales, and lives in London, trading a sea breeze for city smog. He is not as well-travelled as his stories, which have been published in four continents, but plans to catch up before the next pandemic hits. He works as a website manager for a UK charity.


“The Devil Prefers Darjeeling” Gothic Fiction by T.L. Beeding

It was difficult to see the house numbers through the fog. The grey, musty effluvium had boiled in off the Thames just as Claire Dennings had encouraged herself to set out, before evening began to fall. Though light at first, it quickly became an impediment, reflecting the street lamps’ light in massive halos of diffuse, sickly yellow. If it was a warning, Claire tried her best to ignore it. There was nothing – if anything – that could stop her, now that her heart and mind were in full agreement about her illicit endeavour. 

Her errand took her in the direction of London’s seedy underbelly. Painted ladies of the evening, tucked away in dark alleys and standing on corners more frequently the further she walked, eyed her suspiciously. Hoarse shouts of an undefinable nature became commonplace, both from pubs and establishments that had no markings as to the natures of their business – though Claire could make an educated guess as to what that business was. Yet she kept her head down and walked on with purposeful stride. If she had to place herself in disreputable clutches for a while whilst seeking the answers she was desperate for, then so be it. 

Eventually, a turn down a dimly-lit avenue brought her in the vicinity of the address she was searching for. Claire slowed her pace, peering up at each ramshackle. Now, coming upon the end of the road, her hope slowly began to deflate. That is, until she finally caught a glimpse of the abode she needed: 36 Stepney Way.

Claire checked the curled number written on the sheet of foolscap tightly clutched between gloved fingers, before glancing back up to the dilapidated stoop. A single street lamp with a weak flame was the only source of light, yet the brass numbers tacked to the face of the facade’s chipped wood gleamed brightly. Claire blinked, squinting further. Everything else about the residence was either crumbling or decayed, but the numbers were freshly polished – a testament to catching the attention of passersby. It was most certainly the right place. With a heavy sigh, Claire folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her reticule, then stepped through the rusted iron gate and onto the rickety wooden steps. She knocked three times, swallowing down a sudden sensation of being watched. 

After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, shuffling footsteps drew Claire’s rapt attention. The door unbolted, slowly creaked open – revealing a handsome woman of middle age with grey eyes. She was dressed modestly, in sharp contrast with the housing and area she called home. A closed-mouth smile stretched across her face, wrinkling only at the corners of her eyes. 

“You must be Claire Dennings.” 

Claire’s heart dropped into her stomach. “How do you—”

“I know of all who seek my assistance, my dear,” the woman crooned softly, opening the door wider. It led into a rather pleasant-looking entry hall. “Please, come in.” 

Claire nervously followed the woman through the house, which was just as deceptive on the inside as its owner. The innards boasted of well-bred aristocracy, entry hall leading into a sizable parlor. An overstuffed damask sofa sat in the far corner, beside a window draped with curtains of black velvet. A circular table sat in the very centre of the room, flanked by two wooden chairs and dressed with sheer fabric that hung nearly to the honeysuckle carpeting. Atop the table, a large, unlit black pillar candle stood beside a black-painted spirit board. Aside from these items of furniture, the room was bare. 

Chills immediately overcame Claire, freezing her to the floor. The woman swept to the table’s opposite side, seemingly as though she were about to take tea with a guest – nothing more. 

“I…” Claire began, losing her words faster than they had come. 

The woman only smiled wider. “Uncertainty is natural, my dear. The unfortunate thing of today’s strict Christian values is that it limits our knowledge of what lies beyond the man-made concept of devotion to one almighty power. The ideology that only one exists is ridiculous.” She tilted her head. “Tell me; when your darling Albert passed, was it not the supposition that God intended for his time to be up?” 

Claire swallowed, pressing her lips together. Asking how the woman knew of Albert would be moot. “Y-Yes….”

“But you do not believe that to be the case?”

“I…do not know what to believe.” 

“Albert was murdered, was he not?” The woman’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Taken not by an act of God, but by an act of Man?” 

Tears stung the backs of Claire’s eyes. “Y-Yes.” 

The woman smiled softly. “Then the Good Lord should not be to whom your prayers are directed.” 

Claire took the lace handkerchief from inside her reticule, wrangling it. Dabbing at her suddenly tear-blurred eyes. It had been an answer she was terrified to hear, yet desperation gave her no alternative. Albert had been her everything. The rock she had laid her foundation upon, the strength that supported her fragility. Without him, life held no meaning. She had prayed countless nights since the news of his death first reached her; since she had been forced to identify his mutilated body drug up from the banks of the river. Prayed for either an end to her own life, or the return of his in some way. Claire had passed it off as hysterics until she had heard of the woman in Whitechapel who could purportedly summon the deceased. Could give those who had lost a loved one a brief time to say their goodbyes. It came with a cost – of what type, the eavesdropped gossip never said – but she no longer cared. One more night with Albert was worth any price to be named.

The woman gestured to the chair before Claire. “Pray, take a seat. I believe I can help you in obtaining what you most desire.” 

Clair slowly dropped into the chair. She set her reticule in her lap, sniffling as the woman struck a lucifer from a pearl matchbox to the side of the black candle. “What must I do?” 

The candle’s wick caught, sputtering somewhat before taking on a steady flame. The woman shook out the lucifer, discarding it into a hidden receptacle on her side of the table. “We shall find out soon enough,” she replied, taking a seat in her own chair. Her hands, slender and manicured, reached across the table. “Take my hands, love.”

Claire laid her trembling hands across the woman’s palms. Her grip was firm – almost reassuring. She closed her eyes, tilting her head toward the vaulted ceiling and taking a deep breath. “Close your eyes. Focus deeply on dear Albert. Focus on what it is that you want most out of an encounter with him.” 

Claire did as instructed, allowing her eyes to fall closed. She drew a deep, shaky breath, filling her lungs with the stale air of the parlor. She brought to focus Albert’s face, youthful and bubbly. The face that had charmed her, even as a young girl. It appeared in the darkness of her mind, smiling brightly – bristling the thin mustache he had proudly grown before his untimely death. She could almost hear his baritone laughter, at some wily joke or another he liked to recant with her from his visitations to the gentlemen’s club. What she wouldn’t give for one more blissful night with him, the chance to speak her goodbyes…and tell him how much she loved him, just one last time. 

The woman across from her chuckled. “I see.” 

Startled out of her reverie, Claire snapped her eyes open. The woman looked forward again, slowly opening her eyes. They sharpened, focusing upon Claire with an almost amused twinkle. She squeezed her hands once. 

“You wish for the chance to spend one last night with your dearly departed husband.” 

Claire licked her lips, nodding. “Yes. Desperately.” 

The woman smiled again. “It is indeed possible, though it may come at a hefty price.” 

“What price?”

The chuckle returned; low, knowing. The woman sat back in her seat, releasing Claire’s hands and stroking her chin. 

“I am unsure; his prices vary, depending on the service requested of him.” 

A chill fingered Claire’s spine, forcing her to sit upright. “Who is ‘he’?” 

“An old friend.” The woman reached once more to her side, coming back up with a piece of paper and an inkwell. She dipped the tip of her pen into the jar, scribbling something across the sheet. When she was finished, she slid the paper across the spirit board. Claire took it, turning it rightside-up; on it appeared to be a list of instructions. At the very bottom, the words ‘loose-leaf Darjeeling’ was underlined twice. She looked back up, trying to swallow down the sinking feeling in her stomach. 

“What is all this?” 

“Instructions, dear Claire. Instructions on how to summon him.” The woman stood, licking the tips of her fingers. “He is able to provide you with what you seek, but just remember the most important instruction of all – the one which I underlined.” Her smile turned crooked, just as she doused the candle flame with her fingertips. It hissed ominously into the dark silence. 

“He prefers Darjeeling.” 

***

Claire read the sheet of instructions over and over when she left the woman’s house. Mouthing them to herself to commit them to memory. Upon returning home, any second thoughts Claire had quickly vanished as she bolted the front door and made her way to the kitchen. Carefully setting the set of instructions on the breakfast table, she lit three tallow candles in a candelabra and set to work digging through cupboards for the ingredients required. Thankfully, she was a lover of Darjeeling herself, and had several sachets of loose-leaf to choose from. She set to work boiling a kettle of water, and setting the breakfast table with a full service tray of milk, sugar, honey, fresh blueberry scones and two cups of the finest china she owned. Once the water was boiled and spilled into the china pot for pouring, she brought it and the candelabra to the table and sat without a word. 

Claire glanced the instructions over yet again, careful to read every word. Biting back the uneasiness that clutched her heart. The last instruction had yet to be completed Once the tea was steeped and she had worked up the confidence, she grasped the handle of the teapot and stood. Beginning to pour – first into the cup set at the empty seat across from hers.

“Lord of the Underworld…I invite thee to tea.”

She repeated this phrase thrice, as the china cup filled nearly to the brim. She was sure to leave enough room for milk and sugar – as the instructions made clear. Then she began to pour herself a cup. 

“Ah – Darjeeling. And a fine quality, at that.” 

The deep voice startled Claire into a scream. She nearly dropped the teapot, whirling on her heel; catching herself before the ceremony – and her fine china – would be ruined. The empty chair was now occupied by a man, angular face cast in attractive shadow from the flickering candles. Golden hair spilled across his shoulders, matching golden eyes as he watched Claire with an amused smile.  

“Dear lady, whyever are you frightened? Did you not mean to summon me on purpose?”

Claire stared at her visitor, quaking with shock. “I-I…I did mean…”

The man rose, gently removing the teapot from her iron-like grasp. Once setting it on the table, he touched her elbow. His skin was pleasantly warm. “Please, do sit down. You look upon the verge of fainting. There we are.”

Claire allowed him to assist her to her seat, into which she sank heavily. Disbelievingly. She couldn’t help but continue to stare in silence as the man reseated himself, pouring milk and honey into the steaming cup before him. Once he had finished, setting his silver spoon to the side of his saucer, he put the cup to his lips. The smile then turned satisfactory. 

“Perfectly brewed.” He sat back in the chair. “Thank you. Darjeeling has always been a favorite of mine.” 

Claire cleared her throat, too nervous to move. To speak. So many thoughts rushed through her head all at once that it caused her world to spin. She squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again; the man still sat across from her, watching her with the same amused twinkle that the woman in Whitechapel had. 

“Does your mind still denounce my existence?” He chuckled humorously. Taking another slow sip of his tea. “A funny thing, the human brain. A finely-tuned machine capable of quite amazing feats, yet malfunctions often due to strong emotion of any kind. I fear I shall never understand it.”

Claire did her best to regain control of her composure. She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. Bit her lower lip to stop it from trembling. 

“Who…who are you?” She finally found the courage to ask. 

The man set his teacup upon its saucer, brushing a hand through his glossy hair. “I have gone by many names, some of which are rather unsavoury. Some of which are completely false, fabricated by men who cannot tell the difference between fallen angels and true elements of evil.” He flashed her a polite smile. “But you may call me Lucifer.” 

Claire’s heart pounded. “L-Lucifer. The Morning Star. God’s favorite son.” 

Lucifer held up one finger. “Former favorite son – but yes, I am the very same.”

“The…the devil himself.”

Her guest frowned, golden eyes glimmering in the candle flame. “That is one of the unsavoury names I mentioned. Also a falsehood. Though I may be devilish at times I am not, in fact, of that species.” After yet another sip of tea, the perturbed expression left his face. “But enough about myself. Let us focus on the present.” He inclined his chin toward her. “Pray, what is your name, dear lady?” 

“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly. 

Lucifer nodded once. “Claire. And you have summoned me because you wish for a sizable favor; one only which I can assist with. Yes?” 

Claire nodded. 

“And what might that favor be?” 

“M-My husband…Albert Crestworth Dennings. He was slain a fortnight ago.” Tears threatened to well in her eyes once again. “During a dispute that he was not involved in, but merely tried to pacify. Slain in cold blood for being a Good Samaritan.” A small whimper escaped her throat; she pressed her fingers to her lips. “Pl-Please, forgive me….”

Lucifer shook his head, voice sympathetic. “You needn’t ask forgiveness for a rational reaction, dear lady. Yet, I find myself asking; since it is apparent that Albert Crestworth Dennings was a soul of purity, whyever seek the services of the Lord of the Underworld?” He shrugged helplessly. “A soul as purebred in nature as his goes directly back to its Creator.” 

Claire frowned. “B-But…the woman in Whitechapel…she told me that only you could offer any sort of hope for me. That only you could give me one more night with Albert, for a price.” 

A knowing look smoothed Lucifer’s expression. “Ah,” he said slowly, deliberately. He stuck a finger through the handle of his teacup. “I should have suspected.” 

“Suspected what?” Claire demanded, voice growing stringent. 

Lucifer shook his head. “Lilith. She always does like to play sinister little games with humans.”

“What does that mean?”

Lucifer’s golden eyes returned to hers, brows folding into a look of genuine guilt. “My sister. It is of her opinion that humans are the dregs of creation – to which, she does have most of a point. But to this end, she cares not of anything else but to bring mankind harm.” Lucifer flipped his wrist. “Humanity is the Lord’s most precious possession, for which his most loyal of children were cast to the wayside. It is, I fear, quite a long story.” Lucifer sipped his tea once again. “Suffice it to say, Lady Dennings, that you were led into a trap. A lamb to the slaughter, as it were.” 

Claire’s heart clenched so hard that it squeezed a gasp from her lungs. “Wh-What do you mean by that? Speak, demon!” 

Lucifer’s eyes glowed, a frown knitting his brows. “I ask that you please watch your language. I am mostly a well-mannered gentleman, but my fury hath no bounds.”

Claire sat back in her chair, appendages abruptly going numb. Her chest and stomach followed suit, effectively drowning her body in pins and needles that kept her bound to her seat by no means of her own. She could only stare helplessly until the glow slowly subsided from Lucifer’s eyes, returning once more to a dull, golden sheen only lit by candle light. 

“Now. What I mean is that Lilith has so cleverly entangled you into a spider’s web, from which there is, unfortunately, no escape.” Lucifer drained the remainder of his tea, then began to refill his cup. He stirred in more milk and sugar. “However, I am far more merciful than what is written of me.” His expression once again turned guilty. “I am unable to provide what Lilith has promised, nor am I able to revoke the price you must pay now that I have been summoned.” He held up one finger, forestalling the torrent of terrified words that began to tumble from Claire’s numbed lips. “Yet, it is within the realm of possibility that noble Albert Crestworth Dennings may be able to visit, provided that you present me with the necessary tools.” 

The numbness paralyzing Claire began to recede, setting her skin to fiery pins and needles. Once she was able to move once more, she rubbed a hand across her forearm. It stung badly. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand.” 

“It is quite simple, really. A conjuring spell, as old as time itself, is the answer to your conundrum. The required components are easy enough to obtain, through sheer will and some manipulation. Done through my power, summoning the spirit of Mr. Dennings will not be difficult.” Lucifer contemplated her over the rim of his teacup. “And to that end, darling Claire, I would like to present a proposition.”

Claire sniffed, failing against holding back her tears. “You act as though I have a choice in the matter.” 

Lucifer granted her an empathetic dip of the head. “Point taken. However, that does not mean I cannot try to make the deal on even ground. The price is set – and it is quite high. A life of servitude to me, in exchange for the chance to live one more night with Mr. Dennings.” Lucifer took a slow sip. “But as I said, I am merciful. Seeing as you were duped into this contract, I am willing to grant your wish many-fold. As many nights as you require with Mr. Dennings, at any time. So long as you continue to serve me, and obtain fresh ingredients for the spell each and every time.” 

Tears poured down Claire’s cheeks. She had known her venture to be doomed from the start – either by deception or unwillingness to follow through. She had never imagined herself to be in total agreement with all of its aspects, even after being tricked to accept it. Her willingness to persevere into so wretched a life frightened her. But in the end, she would receive what she sought. Many times over. She could only hope now that Albert, once he returned, would not be disappointed in her. 

“I accept.” 

Lucifer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket, standing and moving to her side. Gently dabbing her tears. He grasped her abandoned teacup and pressed it into her trembling, pale hands; steam began to rise from it in curled tendrils once more. 

“Drink, my dear. Darjeeling is quite good for the constitution.”

***

At first, the conjuring spell was far from simple, as Lucifer had claimed. While most items could be found within the man-made wilderness of London – herbs, animal blood, tallow candles, and of course loose-leaf Darjeeling tea – the most vital ingredient was the hardest of all to obtain. Claire found it easiest with the weakest of society; drunkards splayed unconscious in alleyways, those just stumbling out of opium dens in a brain fog. Foolish and desperate men, easy to enthrall with feminine charm – which always ended on the point of a freshly-sharpened knife. It took all the strength Claire could muster to drag the bodies to secluded areas, quick enough to perform the dark sacrament and gather the blood in a vile before life took its final bow. 

But despite misgivings and guilt, Lucifer upheld his end of the bargain. Each time she finished her ritual slaughters, scampering home to prepare tea with the vile of blood, Albert came with him. Filling her with warmth and light. And each time tea was over, the hunger to host again grew ever stronger. Visceral. It began to consume her, devour her thoughts. She wanted more. Claire soon began to stalk the fog at night, through the slums that first led her to the life she now lived. The more robust and lively the offering, the stronger the conjuring spell worked, keeping Albert with her longer. She became so incensed to her nightly vigilance that she unknowingly gained many reputations and many names – just as Lucifer had before her. Eventually, Lucifer stopped attending tea, leaving Claire to drink the entire pot herself  It was no wonder, then, that she had always preferred Darjeeling tea.


T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.


“Robot Shell” Cyberpunk Horror by Jeff Bagato

When she was a girl, before her first menses, she began to read the great dissident’s articles and pamphlets, and his forbidden book, Truth Statements; and so Gina Galaktoboureko became a woman as she became a rebel, and both sides of herself were drawn to the mesmerism of Roberto Dolmas’ powerful eyes and his beautiful words. More poetry than polemic, the epigrams, aphorisms and analysis of his major work dissected the lies of the State and brought new light to a dark world. One statement, his most famous, earned him a prison sentence: “The State is a man with a gun pointed at his own temple; to defend the law, he dies; to defend himself, he dies. To survive, he must put down the gun and pick up the shepherd’s hook to lead his people from the wilderness.” She vowed to meet him one day, no matter that he had been one of five million prisoners in the Concentration for twenty years.

            Today, Giga ran down the slippery slope of her favela, surefooting across divots and obstacles in the road. She gave thanks for such things, because they slowed the bangers. One of the robot guards chased her now, its metal legs stamping along, goggle eyes glowing as its helmet-like head scanned for the quarry. She had spent the morning with her crew throwing rocks at the robopoli that were breaking up a strike against a textile factory. Finally, one had broken free of its fellows to round up the miscreants.

            “Undaloo!” she shouted, pumping her fist in the air. “Skill the drop down and I pass!”

            As the robot closed, she ducked and rolled off the path, under a makeshift culvert of broken cement block and brick. Her mates released their ropes, sending a missile down on the machine. At its center crouched a mass of the heaviest junk they could find, stuck through with rebar that protruded well outside the thick-wound layers of rags locking it all together. A perfect strike between the base of the neck and the left shoulder, the weight pushed an iron spike through the metal shell. And now the death blow.

            “Killa! Killa!” three voices shouted at once, only one of them Giga’s, but hers was loudest. “Kabiz! Shoot the juice!”

            Somewhere out of sight, the smartest one of them all flipped a switch on a remote control of his own manufacture. This triggered the electric charge in the missile to shoot down the spike, into the banger, stopping it short. A single hot spark smoked at the back of its head, and its limbs shuddered. The robopoli fell with the dull sound of thick metal plate hitting packed mud and weed.

            The slums of her city spread out for a hundred miles around a gated central core of high rise offices and residences. Shacks built of refuse blended with piles of garbage and scrap, and one might feed just as well on waste pulled from the dumps as from the local markets. When you caught a rat or a pigeon, you were a millionaire for a day. This afternoon, Giga’s plan had caught them a major pigeon, but it was not to be fortunate.

            Five of them huddled around the banger’s body, enjoying the thrill of adrenaline in the wake of their success. Soon enough, they expected other bangers to come, drawn like wasps to the fallen body of a nest-mate. Right now, they studied the joints of its limbs and waist, the vents and protrusions around its torso which suggested hidden functions that could be exploited in the future. And they watched the blood seeping from its shoulder, red blood like any man’s. Everyone’s stomachs tightened at that, for they had never seen it before.

            “I’ve heard the captains of industry fill the metal body with human blood,” Alejan said. He was the oldest and boldest and most handsome, a young man of twenty with long dark hair and bright dark eyes, long limbs and slim torso, all exposed to show skin the color of aged copper; he wore only ragged blue shorts. “It scares the fealty into submission.”

            “It a scarin’ me now,” Undaloo said. He looked ready to run, to fade into the cardboard and tin maze that surrounded them.

            Kabiz had been studying the robot closest; he wanted to build one himself. Now he spoke, which was so rare they all fell silent. “It’s gettin’ hot, my kin. Look’t the metal glow!”

            So it was, glowing like cast iron in a forge between a pumping bellows and a washtub mound of bright red coals. That glow radiated out, so hot they had to step back to avoid getting burned. The blood dried on the shoulder and turned to ash. The damp cardboard lining the path under the machine steamed until it could steam no more, then it sparked and caught flame. As a cloud of ash emerged from a vent on the robot’s back, the fire leaped across a banquet of ready tinder: oiled rags, sun baked wood, yellowed paper, empty food packages, dried out dung, and a thousand shapes of scrap.

            Undaloo vanished; Somon gaped at his leaders; Kabiz shrugged, covered his mouth against the smoke, and waited.

            “Get you gone, fellows, but yell the word of fire,” Giga said. Alejan had already gone for the nearest pan of rainwater. He emptied the beige plastic basin, creating a steam bath at the center of the spreading flames.

            “Fire! Fire!” Giga and Alejan yelled together. “Bring water!”

            Then they saw the banger squad tramping up the hill; three robots loading palm guns with stun capsules. The robots could handle the fire while the crew ran away.

            Side by side, the lovers sprinted over the crest of the hill. They had to go around a shack, a table, a market stall, or a crowd of fealty who could only stand and talk where others planned and fought—like Giga and Alejan, using their heads and their words and their fists against the captains of industry. They had little respect for these helpless, silent ghosts, but they warned them of the fire all the same.

            Down the hill they ran, legs and hearts pumping; it brought a smile to Giga’s face, for the exertion reminded the young woman of her nights with Alejan, bodies joining in joyous energy under the open stars. They separated where the alley between tin sheds narrowed, each taking a fork in the path. Lights flashed and the wall at her left exploded outward, wrapping her in cardboard, plastic and tinfoil. One banger grabbed her upper arm, lifting her as she tried to leap away, twisting her sideways with a crack of her humerus until it could grab her leg with its other metal glove.

            Constricted flesh bursting under a tightening grip, Giga screamed; her bright brown eyes, clouding in pain and her first taste of real fear, caught sight of Alejan as he moved forward with a length of lead pipe.

            “Alejan!” she shouted, “No fight here! Run from this place! I am dead! I am dead!”

            Her lover would not heed these words; he kept coming, until a Defender fired a capsule in the young man’s direction. Alejan dodged, losing his footing on some paper wet with fresh dung or fetid water; he slipped and fell, rolling down the hill, out of view, bangers in pursuit.

            As her captor carried her, it lifted Giga over its pyramidal helmet of a head, a soft and suffering trophy of war. From on high, she could see tall flames rising above the shanties, smoke billowing into wind that blew up the hill from the river. The favela had caught fire, and now her people and not bangers would die. Shame flooded her mind, washing in with the pain of her broken arm and torn flesh, and she began to cry hot tears that would not replace these homes, these people, her pride or her love.

            Forced into a red van, Giga huddled in the corner nearest the doors, holding her arm, ignoring the others, who returned the favor. They would see more than enough of each other as they counted out the remainder of their years in the Concentration.

#

            Three years passed before Giga met Roberto Dolmas. This hero of the coming revolution did not see anyone, not even beautiful young women, without references and reports of their conduct, their connections, their commitment to the cause. She formed discussion groups to raise the consciousness of those prisoners who remained fealty; she served on revolutionary committees in her cell block, and represented her blocks up the chain in the organization. Her mind was sharp, her face lovely, and her figure coveted throughout. She possessed an inner fire for justice that ignited the plentiful fuel of repression across the prison complex, and she showed no fear, no matter what manner of opponent faced her, be it Defender, tribunal, the warden, or traitorous peers.

            Dolmas had grown old in prison. In his thirties when he first began to write his analysis of the state mechanisms, he avoided Correction for another decade before an associate turned him in. Something of a monk in his civilian life, he became a messiah within the Concentration’s walls, teaching, organizing, learning and listening, and he affected everyone who heard him speak.

            “I’ve read all your papers,” Giga told him, using her most formal mode of speech. “From then on I had to fight. ‘Once one can see truth,’” she was quoting him, now, or very nearly, “‘the walls crumble, and the world opens before you.’ It was that way with me, and my friends, too. We caused a lot of trouble for the bangers, just to open little windows of freedom wherever we could.”

            “I’ve heard some tales about your victories in the favela,” Dolmas told her, bringing a light to her eyes and darkening the polished copper of her cheeks. “Direct action can be such a joy. It’s hard to be young inside a box such as this; mostly we sit and talk. That can be more difficult than an open fight.”

            “We can plan,” Giga said. “We can ready our minds and bodies, preparing for the time we will stand together with our backs against the wall, and our faces against the war.”

            Dolmas laughed. “I may have to start quoting you from now on. I can see you will be a great inspiration to our comrades at the next gathering.”

            These words also fired the young woman’s heart and soul, as well as her body. She eroticized her zeal, and the philosophical founder of it. He had grown old, but his eyes, his words, his mind, and his body remained vigorous. They became lovers, and his thoughts penetrated her with their brilliant, sparkling fire.

#

            For five years, Giga’s old friends avoided the Defenders of the State. Without her influence, their activity had slimmed to boasting of past exploits with their beautiful leader. By accident, they became embroiled in a street battle when, from their favorite café, they saw a platoon of robopoli wade into a mass of old men and women protesting another reduction in their pensions. As the crowd scattered under the force of swinging batons, Alejan saw his own mother in the crowd, the guard looming over her, truncheon raised. He had never covered such distance so fast, as if he had willed himself there by mental force; chair upraised to receive the blow, he pushed his mother along with the others. He struggled against the machine until it reduced the chair to scrap; by then his friends stood at his side: Kabiz, Undaloo, and Somon. They each took their turn under the baton, until they succumbed, senseless and exhausted, to arrest. They entered Concentration together, forming a small block of the long stream of men entering the south gate against their wills.

            Knowing Giga would be somewhere at the forefront of the prison’s political life, they attended every rally, meeting, and lecture that came to their attention. When she took the podium at one heavily congested gathering, they rose from the floor, cheering like wild children on a playground. Secret political meetings in a prison are serious affairs, and as they were being pulled down to be taught a lesson, Giga intervened, introducing them to the assembly, and improvising an oration about their youthful exploits. The legend of The Five was born that day, and they became inseparable again.

            Giga had grown weary of her role in the political college centered around Roberto Dolmas. She chilled to his caresses as she became aware of his cynical attitude toward their teachings and his contempt for the fealty. Some months ago, she had asked for a break from their intimacies. Now, in the presence of Alejan, her passions bloomed again. Her friends energized her, gave her new hope. Every day they sat at the feet of the great political philosopher and absorbed his wisdom. But the old man glared at his rival with hate.

            Early one morning, after spending a whole night debating the finer points of a lecture on the economics of power, Giga learned that her lover, her muse, her heart had been taken from his cell by a squad of Defenders, accused of inciting rebellion in the prison. It could have been said of any of them, and it would have been true. It was a charge no one could defend or defeat, certain to earn death in this prison, although one never saw the dying or the dead. When Alejan went before the tribunal, no one was allowed to attend his trial, and neither Giga nor anyone else of The Five ever saw him again.

            The night of Alejan’s sentencing, Giga had planned to attend a clandestine meeting to organize a protest, but she had an unexpected visitor. The robot guard loomed before her, blocking her path. On its chest, embossed in fresh gold paint, stood a number Giga did not recognize: 756609. Surely, this defender had been reassigned from another section of the prison. It pressed her back, leaning into her body, the surface of its upper carapace making contact with her breasts. The machine forced the young woman into her cell until she felt her shoulders touch the rear wall. Wiping its baton up her inner thigh, the guard drove the weapon against her sex, causing her to rise to her toes, then pushed it forward, pulled it back. A gentle motion, perhaps, but it filled her belly with fear and her mind with rage.

            “Some new intimidation tactic,” Giga thought. “But I will not be moved. These guards shall fall with the glass, concrete and steel containing us all, and one day I shall be free of this confinement.”

            With Alejan gone, Giga pursued her mission with less enthusiasm. A light had gone out for her, not easily rekindled. Dolmas tried to reignite the young woman’s lantern himself. He invited her to his cell for a solitary meeting, and there was chilled white wine, a soft cheese, a fresh loaf of white bread, all impossible luxuries for foot soldiers and slum dwellers such as herself. They had shared these intimacies during the earlier years of their relationship, and she had not questioned the inequity of his privilege in the haze of intellectual and physical passion. Now, it seemed a terrible violation of the principles he defined so beautifully in Truth Statements and his prison orations.

            From his bed, Dolmas stretched out his arm toward her. “Join me, Giga! Like the old days, let us speak of the spirit of life. I want your opinion on a new essay I’m writing. It begins, ‘Enclosed by walls, I see truth in the smallest things; they have a greater light than when we find them outside.’”

            His greatest disciple’s beautiful lips formed a wan smile; her eyes held a kindness, her words a gentleness, but it was the kindness and gentleness a young woman reserves for an old man when respect has become pity, when friendship has become obligation, when love has become a fear of death.

            “Roberto, I am lost.”

            “Let me help you find yourself.”

            “I need solitude to find Giga again.”

            “Solitude can be poison when one is depressed.” He held both hands in the air, palms out and fingers spread in a gesture of utmost honesty. “I don’t wish to touch you. I want us to be friends again. Let us talk about your truth, your grief.”

            These words stung Giga’s mind, like the subtle mockery of a trickster god. How could he know of her truth when he had never listened? How could he know of her grief, when he had never sympathized with her love? But she said, “My friend, I am poor company these days. I reserve all my passion for the work. I do not miss luxuries I have never had. I’m sorry, but I must leave you now and return to my cell to prepare for our next meeting with the fealty.”

            She turned and left him in his chamber to watch her strong back and coveted curves move further out of reach.

            Dolmas felt her rebuke penetrate his ego like a serrated knife dividing his ribs in a slow, twisting motion; one crest at a time jarred his bones until the tip touched his consciousness. A protective urge kicked in, and one word escaped his lips: “Bitch!” He raised his arm to swipe the food and drink to the concrete floor. Then he made a calming decision, and his mind let go of one more beautiful girl. There would always be another.

            Observing for a moment the fragrant, creamy smear on a thin slice of bread, he picked up a glass of wine already wet with dew. “Luxury is truth,” he said aloud. And then he laughed.

#

            “When I see truth,” Dolmas said one evening, surrounded by his inner circle, after a few rounds of homemade vodka, “I ask for its identification card. I ask to see its proof of purchase. I ask to see its age statement.”

            The other men laughed, but Giga, sitting at his right side with his rough hand on her thigh, felt uncomfortable. These were not beautiful words of inspiration, but the shaded, ugly words of a cynic. Perhaps he could be excused, for he was a drunk old man who had spent half his life in jail.

            “I see no truth in this prison, but a concentration of complacency.” Giga spoke as if she had carefully revised and rehearsed her words; it was the fire of her mentor, when he was younger and still a fighter, that had grown within her. “We should either bring the struggle of the streets inside these walls, or the words and plans of our long, quiet days to the people outside. Truth eludes us; here, we only see its shadow.”

            “You are angry, my dear,” Dolmas said in a sleepy, indifferent way. “I envy your youthful passions. It’s true these walls fell on me years ago, burying my ambition in rubble. I can see that I have held you back; I should have long ago provided you the means to spread your wings, carry our torch to the streets, where the favela can burn.”

            A frantic image of the last fire she had seen filled the young woman’s vision; flames—that kind of real fire—were a terrible thing that caused suffering, injury and loss to people who just wanted to pass unnoticed in order to survive. In her cell, she had learned empathy for the fealty, for those who could not hear or see truth. Sometimes, she imagined that truth was an illusion, as dangerous an opiate as religion or materialism; freedom, perhaps, was just a day at the beach with a belly full of fresh fish and rice, and a heart full of a lover’s presence at your side. She thought then of the lost Alejan, and understood, at last, that freedom was no longer possible for her.

            “You are quiet tonight, my dear.”

            “If you know a way out of this prison, I need to hear it now. I do not seek freedom for myself, but for others. Caged like this, I can help no one. I can teach no one, lift no one. I would start a community center to provide job training, literacy, shelter and food for those who need it.”

            Dolmas interrupted her. “The convent exists for that purpose.”

            “Then I will join the convent. I will do their work and learn their truth.”

            At that moment, the revolutionary prophet realized he had lost his disciple forever. Gina Galaktoboureko would move on to another book, another god, another organization, and that betrayal Roberto Dolmas could not tolerate.

            “I believe there is a way to escape. You see these guards around us everywhere? Each one is nothing more than a hollow metal shell. Disable it, short out its circuits, and you can open it up. There’s a control system you can remove easily. In such a costume, a man could walk at will. I see no reason he could not even leave the prison walls and emerge on the streets.”

            “Become a guard to escape a prison?” Giga laughed. “That is easier said than done.”

            “You have your resources, I feel sure. Your crew, the workshop. You are a clever girl. If anyone could succeed, you would be the one. I know you would do great things on the streets.”

            The other old men wore big grins under their moustaches, as if they were listening to a joke with a long set up, the punchline yet to come. For the first time, Giga did not fully trust the words of her former hero. She had begun to realize her own truth during her years in confinement, and this piece of it hurt her more than any other punishment or hardship.

            “If that’s the only way, I will have to consider it. But I have never heard of this before.”

            “I have been here a long time, and I have many informants,” Dolmas said with a shrug. “Sometimes, they come from very high up, indeed.”

            Giga nodded, retreating into her own mind; as the men poured another round, she excused herself for the evening to be alone with her thoughts.

#

            Like the old days in the slums, Giga gathered Kabiz, Undaloo and Somon in the prison metalworking shop, where the State, in cynical appeasement of liberal sentiment, provided tools, machines and supplies to train men and women who would never again see the streets. The smartest one, as usual, drew up a plan. The others gathered the materials: four defibrillators, six metal trays from the cafeteria, wires and bedsprings, and rubber sandals for insulation. Once rewired and spread in an array that linked to the panels, the medical devices created a powerful magnetic field that sucked up springs and metal pipe.

            “Damma banger get heart cracker!” Somon exclaimed.

            “That my idea, money” Kabiz said. “First, we gonna want one tee walk a-tween ese panels.”

            Giga had watched them work their magic with pride. Her friends could achieve anything they set their minds to. Why not build a rocket and join the rich men on the moon? Why not build a machine to make all bangers build homes, hospitals and schools for the poor? On the outside, they would try for the stars. While they made the weapon, she had not been idle.

            “I have a plan,” she told them in the street dialect. “Simple simple. I strike a banger and bring him down to fall. This as the time, no time to wait.”

            “Nega!” Somon exclaimed. “Nah yo, kin a me. Me do dese thing-thing an’ yo stay in safe.”

            “Nega back on dese! Me choose me banger, a-right? Banger no see’n threat from dis girl, see dese wisdom?”

            Somon looked at his bare feet and nodded his head.

            “Thanks on yo, me kin. We shock down dese banger as kin, one an’ one.”

            “When we go?” Undaloo asked.

            “Dese night of nights. Canna store dese makings in all cells.”

            “Aye, an’ dese words say wise.”

            Giga did not need to search far to find a guard, did not need to work hard to attract its attention. She rapped it on the shoulder with a stick the machine broke away with a swipe of one powerful metal arm. It gave pursuit as she sprinted down the hall, laughing with joy, like those long ago days running the maze of the favela.

            Her friends had hidden behind table saws and drill presses; she ran into the workroom, between the sheet metal plates of their weapon. The narrow path, blocked by bins and tools, left no other way through, so the guard followed her. When it reached the center of the little alley, Kabiz jammed the switch on his machine.

            One cannot see magnetism; the force of its waves acts invisibly on an electronic machine, rerouting the normal pulses of whatever heart or brain it may possess. This one froze, burbling static and broken words, limbs jerking in a terrible way, and then the light died in the goggles that served as its eyes. Once it became still, Giga noticed its identification number, embossed in gold above its left breast: 756609. As information, it meant nothing to her; still, she could not shake a feeling of familiarity, like déjà vu, that she had encountered this defender before.

            “Killa killa banger!” All at once they shouted, then hushed themselves for fear of bringing down other guards.

            “How do we get it open? Kabiz tell us,” Undaloo said.

            “Open up, money!” Kabiz ordered as the others laughed. Their muscles had eased and they could smell each other’s sweat now; the laughter helped them control their breaths, their heartbeats.

            The heat started then, radiating from the robot’s body in intensifying waves until the metal carapace glowed cherry red. They had seen this once before, and it had not lost the power to terrify. The temperature rose as if on an oven gauge, fifty and a hundred degrees at a time, beyond the power to cook meat or bread, reaching sufficient energy to incinerate flesh and blood and bone. The floor beneath its feet began to scorch; the metal panels at its sides softened and warped. The heat grew, forcing them back as even the heavy iron frames of the nearby tools began to grow hot. A rush of air vented from the machine’s torso, spreading out with a mild hiss in the still, silent workshop. Gray particles dusted the floor, static holding some of the ash on the trays and the tool walls.

            As rapidly as the temperature had climbed, now it cooled. The metal carapace of the robot’s back split down the middle, allowing two panels to open, fixed to the shoulder blades like a beetle’s wings. The streets had not hardened the crew enough for this experience; they approached now like small children come upon a jellyfish melting on the beach, fearing its sting, fearing that its dead body was a trap that could snare them, too.

            All along, the guard had been a hollow shell. If there had been a control mechanism, perhaps the heat had burned it away, so it could not fall into the hands of the State’s enemies. There remained space for a human, as if tailored for such a purpose: the arms like metal sleeves, the legs like metal trousers, the vast torso like a coat to wear against the wind and weather of the outside world.

            For a moment, Giga almost stepped back from her ideals and her dreams, abandoning the defiant words of truth and rebellion for the humble, durable life of the fealty. She had to catch herself, lift herself up, stilling her heart and mind to take up the task she had set herself. As she stepped forward, Undaloo put out his arm, blocking her access to the carapace.

            “Not on you! Me smell trouble. On ese streets, we sayin’, ‘Climb in an oven to get burned, climb in a grave to die.’ An’ this wise?”

            “We not out the streets. Trouble an’ sure! Here the only wings we gone get. Come fire or grave, this chance I take, all in all.”

            In his quiet voice, Kabiz said, “I can no agree, kin. An’ these wings be those of the devil, they carry you only to hell.”

            “I will take you out this Concentration if I can, me kin. Wit’ love an’ sorrow, I go now.”

            “Luck an’ strength,” they all said together, “an’ sunshine in time.”

            Giga stepped behind the machine. First her left foot fit into the metal boot. She grasped the armpits of the sleeves and pulled herself inside, pushing the right foot down to its sole. Small platforms in the boots rose to adjust her height, so her body aligned with the other parts of the robot shell. Each arm reached down to metal gloves, flexing the fingers, and for the first time Giga smiled, feeling the possibility before her. She pushed her face into the mask, to test the view through the goggles on the face, seeing her friends clearly, their bodies stiff with concern, their faces grim and afraid.

            At that moment, the wings of the back carapace folded down, locking into place. Giga took a step forward, and another, raising her right arm in both greeting and farewell. She had intended to turn, to walk out of the workshop, to stride down the halls in the full power of a Defender of the State, not stopping until she reached the prison gates and the streets beyond. The machine had another plan. Living wires grew from the interior walls, probing down toward the soft flesh constrained within. They penetrated the skin at every part of the young woman’s body, and then they pushed along, reinforcing each nerve with hot wire. By the time the thin copper strands reached her spinal cord, Giga’s body burned with terrible fire, living conflagration that seared her flesh but did not burn. No devil ever tortured souls in hell with such pain. It could not be borne, and she lost her mind for a while as the wires reached her brain and joined every neuron, every synapse to the renewed network. The electrical system of the shell merged with her nervous system, and then it rebooted, binding every muscle, every thought to State control.

            As the goggles lit up with new light, Kabiz’s quick mind grasped what had happened. “They’re everyone a human in all ese shells,” he said, moaning. “All in all guard once a man like us!”

            “An’ now Giga?” Undaloo asked. Kabiz nodded once, his eyes wide, staring at what had become of their beautiful friend. “Better to kill her now!” Undaloo shouted. He had raised a metal bar in his hand, picked up from the workroom supplies. Now he charged the robot, the weapon flailing over his head.

            In a smooth motion, Defender 756609 swept its metal arm to intercept the blow, twisting the man around and down to his knees. Then the guard raised its own truncheon and drove the end of it six inches into the attacker’s brain. Stepping forward, the robot grabbed a second prisoner. This was Somon, frozen in place with his mouth hanging open.

            “You will submit to the law!” the guard told them. Kabiz pressed the button on the control unit, but the defibrillators had burned out with the first shock. He threw the remote at the guard, then reached for another weapon of his own devising, an electrified chain; the charge was not strong on this device, as he intended it only for defense in a prison brawl. It would have to do.

            “Giga!” Kabiz said, struggling to keep his voice calm. “You’re hurting Somon’s arm! Letta him go, an’ we all return to ese cells. I will help you get out the machine, if you let me.”

            “You must be brought to the tribunal for sentence,” the robot voice insisted. “You will come with me.”

            “I don’t think so.” Energizing the chain, Kabiz slashed the weapon through the air, and it made contact, actually wrapped around the guard’s thick neck. The mild jolt caused its eyes to glow more brightly for a moment and fueled a new violence in the machine’s manner. Defender 756609’s next movements came with an unexpected quickness and grace. With its right fist, it tore Somon’s arm from its socket; with its left, it pulled the chain from Kabiz’s grip. The baton flashed twice, first slicing into Somon’s skull, then chopping at Kabiz. The small man raised an arm, only to have it smashed in half; he was watching his hand and lower forceps fold down toward the elbow and did not see the truncheon blow that split his own skull.

            Blood, much blood—the blood of brothers, compatriots, friends—washed over the prison tiles with a color like the end of the world.

            Giga watched this scene unfold through goggles that had sucked in her own eyes. A mania of nerve pain had overtaken her body. Her muscles made motions out of her control; she had never moved like that before, had never imagined doing such things to another human being. Like watching oneself in a dream, she experienced the event at a twilight distance apart from reality. Trapped in the robot carapace, one part of her remained frozen in nightmare while the other fully engaged in the duties of hell. The deaths of her friends—at her own hands—broke her spirit.

            Gina Galaktoboureko could feel her self-consciousness fading, and as all her will and ambition, all her love and hope, and the rest of her personality dropped away, one thought dominated what remained of the mind called “I, Giga.”

            The new cyborg rushed straight to the cell of Roberto Dolmas and smashed the armored lock, practically tore the steel door from its hinges. Then Defender 756609 raised its truncheon and clubbed the old man’s back and his thighs and his arms and especially his head with a savage fire of fury the authorities could not justify. Later it was said the prisoner had subversive, revolutionary thoughts detected by the guard. For those crimes, the body of the great political philosopher had been crushed, his mind shattered. His closest followers found him laying in a pool of his own blood and vomit, urine and stool. He never recovered the fullness of his physical or mental faculties. From then on, he spent his life confined to a hospital pallet, with tubes and wires projecting from his skeletal limbs, his cadaverous head. A heart machine pumped his blood, and a lung machine pumped his air, and his beautiful thoughts flowed no more.

            His powerful eyes, however, had clouded with fear, and now, finally, he saw the truth everywhere.


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


“Do Not Resuscitate” Dark Fiction by Hayden Sidun

Hospitals are always cold and often bustling outside the confines of each whitewashed room. The rooms are barely soundproof, and one can hear nurses rushing around in the hallways and maybe some conversations next door. It gets quiet at night, the silence occasionally broken by footsteps in the hallway or a spouse’s hysteria if a patient dies in the night. Glee ends at the doorways and laughter is few and far between, even among the staff. Good news is as rare as a comfortable chair for spouses to sleep in.

Charlie hadn’t had the luxury of sleeping in his own bed in three weeks, and the hospital’s distinct smell and gloominess was beginning to feel like home to him. He would sometimes enjoy a walk to the snack cart in the lobby or to the parking lot for a smoke break or a phone call, although the latter became rarer as Ethel’s hospital stay became longer (after all, he didn’t want to end up like her one day). He mostly sat in a chair next to his wife and stroked her hand, watching her slowly wither away with each passing second. He sometimes had to hold his nose or step out into the hallway, for the reek of death was beginning to invade the hospital room’s familiar smell of sterility.

On a Tuesday morning when the air conditioning had become a little bit crisper, Charlie sat beside his sleeping wife and laid a blanket over himself. A rerun of The Price is Right was on television, the volume low enough for him to barely hear it, and he sat in silence, stroking Ethel’s hand as he guessed the prices in his head. It was the first time in three weeks that he stayed seated when the doctor entered the room; the blanket covered his legs, and a weak smile formed across his face.

“Good morning, Mr. Bing,” greeted Dr. Roopa Patel. Charlie and Ethel had only known Dr. Patel for the few days since Ethel had been put on palliative care, and the sorrow in her voice was sharper than before. She looked at him with sad eyes and spoke a tad softer, though not at par with the television, but smiling nonetheless. “How are you doing today?”

“I’m alright,” said Charlie, “but I’m getting too used to sleeping in this damn recliner.”

Charlie watched as Dr. Patel walked across the room and carried a chair to where he was sitting. She stared into his eyes, and he could feel her grazing his soul as a tear formed in the corner of his eye. He leaned forward, a faint breath escaping his nose, ready to listen to the doctor.

“Charlie,” Ethel said, her weak whisper barely competing with the television. He snapped his head toward his wife and squeezed her hand a little tighter. “Charlie, turn down your show. Too loud.”

Charlie grabbed the remote and turned the television off, his faint reflection in the blank screen replacing Drew Carey and the colorful and happening set of The Price is Right. He looked again at Ethel, her eyes barely open and adjusting to the light, and his lips curled into a gentle smile.

“Wake up,” he said. “The doctor’s here.”

“Dr. Richmond?”

“No, Ethel, it’s Dr. Patel today.”

“Good morning, Ethel,” Dr. Patel greeted, glancing at Ethel. Slowly rising from her slumber and her eyes still barely open, Ethel slightly lifted her hand and waved at the doctor. “Dr. Richmond is out for the morning, but if you’d like, I can send him here when he arrives.”

“Please do.” Ethel closed her eyes again and returned to her slumber, her mouth slightly ajar as she let out a faint snore.

Dr. Patel folded her hands in her lap and let out a breath, fixing her gaze at Charlie once again. “She’s going on three weeks in the hospital, Mr. Bing.”

Charlie nodded. “You all said she’d get better.”

“I know.” Dr. Patel grabbed his hands and watched a tear run down his cheek.

“She was going to get better, right?”

Dr. Patel nodded. “Do you have any children, Mr. Bing?”

“None that are still alive. Our only surviving family is a brother of hers who lives in Florida. The plan was to get him here this weekend to say goodbye.”

“Can you get him here tomorrow?”

Charlie shook his head. “Don’t say that,” he said, his voice quavering as he spoke.

“It could be a matter of hours, Mr. Bing. The best-case scenario is two or three days.”

“You said she has three months left.”

“Her condition has worsened at a much faster rate than we anticipated.”

Charlie looked over at his sleeping wife. “Is it too late to revoke the do-not-resuscitate order?”

“No, but it won’t do her any good.”

Charlie nodded and pushed himself up from the chair, his legs shaking as he rose as though an earthquake was striking the building. The blanket fell to the floor as he stood up and bent over to plant a light kiss on Ethel’s forehead, and he stepped on it as he walked past Dr. Patel. Charlie looked back at Ethel and the doctor with red and watery eyes.

“I need to go for a walk,” he declared, and he turned around and stepped into the hallway, stopping only to close the door behind him.

———

When Charlie returned a few hours later, Ethel was alone in the hospital room. She stared at the ceiling and broke her gaze to look at her husband, who smiled when she looked into his eyes. Charlie sat on the edge of her bed and held both of her hands in his. Her eyes, once blue as the water and clear as the sky, were cloudy and unrecognizable, her former self unable to break through the shadow of death. Yet she flashed a faint smile when her husband of six decades sat beside her and held her hands, her conscience rejoicing.

“Where did you go, dear?” she whispered, her voice breaking as she spoke.

“I went to a park nearby and sat on a bench for a little bit.” His voice slightly trembled as he spoke, and tears fogged his vision. “It’s a beautiful day out, Ethel. I wish you could experience it.”

Ethel tilted her head downward, her eyes still locked on her husband. “Do you remember the night we got married?”

Charlie chuckled as he pictured the quaint wedding chapel in Reno they stumbled into all those years ago. “I do.”

“We were drunk and oh so stupid.”

“We were.”

Ethel’s smile grew only slightly, her eyes glimmering like the sun glimmers on water. “I’m a very lucky woman, Charlie. I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

Charlie leaned in and kissed Ethel. Her lips were chapped, and his nose cringed as he leaned in and smelled the reek of death. As he leaned away and looked at her face again, he felt the room emptying and the air becoming a little warmer. Her hands became colder, and he let go of them and rested them in her lap. Tears ran down his cheeks when he closed her eyes with his fingers and stood up. He whispered goodbye and walked out of the room; when he got to the hallway, he pulled aside the first nurse he saw and told her in a trembling voice that the patient in Room 307 had passed away and that she was not to be resuscitated.

———

The porch light was off when Charlie pulled into his driveway that night. His lawn was more grown out than he usually kept it, and the trash bins were still full and on the side of the house. He walked up to his front door and found the key underneath the welcome mat, and when he stepped foot into his home and kicked off his shoes for the first time in three weeks, he began to cry. The air still smelled like her, and all of her photos and decorations still hung on the walls and sat on the tables. He closed the front door and laid his keys on the table next to where his neighbor—who had been watching over his house—piled all the mail they had received since they left for the hospital. On top was a letter addressed to Ethel from her brother in Florida, and he picked it up, staining the envelope with a tear.

Charlie put the letter down, separating it from the rest of the mail, and walked into his bedroom. He laid down on his bed and threw the blankets on top of himself, still wearing the same clothes he wore when Ethel passed away. It was colder than usual in the bedroom, and the blankets were almost as cold as the air around them. Not even his bubble of body heat could protect him from the cool air. A strange and overwhelming sadness came over him—or perhaps it was the thought of him being a widower that he had always found inconceivable—and not before long was his pillow was soaked with tears. And there Charlie laid, staring up toward his ceiling in the night’s near-total darkness, thinking of a reason to get out of bed the following morning. Sweat soon began to dampen the blankets covering him, and his heart was pounding, and in the corner of his eye, the tiniest bead of a teardrop freed itself. The other side of the bed, for the first time in 62 years, was cold and empty, and even in his bubble of body heat, he could feel hell freezing over beneath the surface.


Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, Button Eye Review, The Chamber Magazine, and Potato Soup Journal. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.


“Who Are You Talking To?” Psychological Horror by Harold Hoss

Casey-Linn cleans her home, starting in one corner and working her way to the next. She wants to have the place clean when the love of her life, Doctor John-Michael Fern, gets there. She wants to see the look on his face when he walks in, looks around and sees just how clean the place can be. She knows how proud it will make him. How impressed he will be.

“One who maintains cleanliness keeps away diseases,” Doctor Fern likes to say.

He has lots of little sayings like that. His favorite saying is: “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Doctor Fern talks to Casey-Linn about health a lot, but he’s usually just saying the same thing in different ways. A sound mind in a sound body, he might say. Or mens sana in corpore sano. As if saying it again in a different language will make the message stick.

            Casey-Linn finishes one corner of her home and moves towards the next, only to pause at the nightstand, where a picture of her and Doctor Fern, standing side by side, sits. Doctor Fern’s wearing his white coat and scrubs, of course, but if she squints, she can imagine him in a tuxedo and her in a ballgown, standing on some red carpet or coming out of some fancy charity dinner. She can imagine Doctor Fern complaining – not really complaining, but half complaining and half joking – about having to attend so many fancy events while she listens with an indulgent smile.

            Casey-Linn holds the picture, tenderly, like a baby. She caresses Doctor Fern’s forehead with her thumb and smiles. She puts the picture back in its place on the nightstand when she hears something. The voice of a young boy. Her son. Only he isn’t calling out to her. Instead, he’s whispering, careful to keep his voice low and hushed. As if he’s trying not to be heard.

            Casey-Linn puts the picture back, careful not to make a sound, and takes a deep breath. She listens intently. Her son’s whispers have the ebb and flow of pauses that come with a normal conversation, but she only hears one voice.

            Turning, she wonders who he’s talking to and moves towards the sound of the voice.

            Casey-Linn’s footsteps are light and barely audible but, clinging to some childhood superstition, she holds her breath and closes her eyes, although she knows the latter won’t make her any less visible. Eyes closed, she inches closer and closer to the sound of her son’s voice, until she knows she’s standing close enough that she can reach out and touch him, then she balls her fists and rubs them in her eyes, hard enough that the darkness behind her eyelids flickers and the shadows twist.

            Casey-Linn opens her eyes and there’s her son, crouched on the ground and facing away from her. The blue blazer and red trousers of his schoolboy uniform are wrinkled and the curly brown hair he refuses to comb sticks out at all angles.

            Casey-Linn’s body goes rigid, her jaw clenches, her shoulders tense, and her hands slowly close into fists. She works so hard to keep the home clean. Doctor Fern works so hard to put a roof over their heads. Everyone works so hard because everything is so hard.

            Except for her son. Her son, who has everything. Her son, who can do anything. Who can be anyone. And who instead sits here. Alone.

            “We can’t go outside. It’s against the rules,” he whispers. He waits for an answer only he can hear, then he shakes his head. “I did ask. She said no. I can’t ask again. She’ll get angry.”

            Her nails dig into her palms. She can’t have him acting like this, talking to shadows under the bed or cracks in the floor or whatever it is this week. Doctor Fern will be here soon. She can’t have him embarrassing her. She won’t let him embarrass her. Not again. Not in front of Doctor Fern.

            Before she knows it, Casey-Linn marches across the room, clearing it in a few seconds, barely giving the boy time to turn and look, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes. He squirms at first, then goes limp, like a mouse in a bird’s talons, resigned to its fate.

            “Who are you talking to?” she says. When he won’t answer, she screams, “Who are you talking to?”

            She shakes him like a child would shake a piggy bank, lightly, then, excited by the sound of something rattling inside, harder. When nothing comes out, she shakes harder.

“There’s no one there! So whoare you talking to?”

            She keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, but nothing changes. She knows what Doctor Fern would say. He would say you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, but she doesn’t know what else to do, and she has to do something. So, she keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, and nothing happens.

<><><> 

            “Casey-Linn,” the sound of Doctor Fern’s voice cuts through the air with such force that the lights in the tiny hospital room almost flicker. “Who are you talking to?”

            Doctor Fern stands in the doorway. Knowing his eyes are hidden behind opaque glasses, he lets them scan the small room. It’s mostly barren save for a generic bed and nightstand with a book and an empty picture frame. Nothing, and certainly no one,for Casey-Linn to be speaking to.

            He takes a breath and slowly stretches out one hand towards Casey-Linn. He has his palm out, the same way someone would approach a wild animal.

            “Casey-Linn,” he says again, his voice softer. “Who are you talking to?”

<><><> 


Harold Hoss is a former entertainment attorney who enjoys reading horror, watching horror, and writing horror – always with a cup of coffee in his hands. When he isn’t reading, watching, or writing he can be found running with his dog Margot. 


“New England Gothic” Dark Fiction by Elizabeth Gauffreau

Do you remember reading “A Rose for Emily,” in high school English class? You know the story: William Faulkner’s tale of a prideful vestige of a bygone era who kills her lover and lives with his corpse in her house until she dies, the townspeople’s discovery of the lover’s skeletal remains at the end of the story all Southern Gothic and delightfully chilling? Well, our town too has its story of a woman who killed a loved one and kept the corpse in her house as she went about her business–although in our case, there was nothing Southern, Gothic, or delightfully chilling about it. You must have heard about the case. It made the national news.

On a chilly morning in April, we were all in our respective homes in our quaint New England town eating breakfast, reading the morning paper, watching the morning news, when police cruisers came to Sycamore Street. The reason for their arrival could not be determined by looking out the window, and we poured ourselves another cup of coffee. Then a coroner’s van pulled into the driveway of Marjorie Broe’s small, gray ranch house, and, in due course, someone was wheeled out of the house in a bag. Marjorie must have passed away. Sad, we’d seen her working in her yard just the day before, and she’d looked in perfect health. Still, she was in her seventies, so not a complete shock. Then Marjorie herself emerged from her front door with a uniformed female officer, who led her to one of the cruisers and drove her away. Who, then, was in the bag? The yellow crime scene tape went up. The state police crime lab van arrived, followed by the local news vans.

It didn’t take long for the news media to inform us that the person who had died in Marjorie’s house was her eighty-five-year-old sister Anna. We had no idea Anna had been living there. She’d stayed with Marjorie the previous year, but no one had seen her in months, and we assumed she’d gone into a nursing home. Marjorie, the media informed us, was staying with friends while her sister’s death was being investigated.

Something wasn’t right here. The contents of Marjorie’s small, gray house on Sycamore Street were being methodically removed in sealed bags. The circumstances of Anna’s death slowly began to come out. She hadn’t died where she’d been found. She had died well before Marjorie called the authorities. Her injuries were inconsistent with a fall. Marjorie was arrested.

As we waited for the final autopsy results to be reported, we remembered an incident that had happened about six months before Anna’s death, the last time she kept her weekly appointment at the beauty parlor to get her hair done. She was quite infirm by this time, barely able to walk unaided. Her one pleasure left in life was her weekly shampoo and set, done in the old-fashioned way with brush rollers and the big bubble dryer. Marjorie drove her to the beauty parlor as usual, but instead of helping her sister out of the car, Marjorie leaned across her to open the door, pushed her out, and threw her cane out after her. Then Marjorie just drove off. And she never went back to get her. The shop owner drove Anna back to Marjorie’s house herself. Marjorie was none too happy to see either one of the, muttering about never being a allowed a moment’s peace as she slammed the door. After that no one could recall seeing Anna until she was wheeled out of Marjorie’s house in a bag.

In her youth, Marjorie was a beautiful girl, with fair skin, fine features, and dark curly hair that had no need of the beautician’s ministrations. She had a smile I was about to describe as radiant, but, no, I don’t think it was. Marjorie had an impish smile, the smile you see on the face of someone who has never experienced a moment of boredom in her life. Back in those days, she appeared taller than she actually was, with a figure that the older generation described in the old-fashioned way as willowy. She had a real gift for playing the piano. She’d learned to read music before she started school, and she could play any song by ear after hearing it only once. As you can imagine, she never missed an invitation to a party. When she was crowned Miss New Hampshire of 1952, none of us was surprised.

After her reign as Miss New Hampshire ended, Marjorie married Billy Broe and settled into married life. She was active in her church, singing in the choir, serving on the altar guild, visiting shut-ins, contributing her best coconut cake to the bake sales. She volunteered at the school when the teachers needed extra help, and she started a book group at the public library. She babysat our kids when the young mothers among us needed to run errands unencumbered. The kids would come home all sticky from eating graham crackers and molasses because Marjorie was fearful of hurting their little hands and faces if she scrubbed them clean.

Billy bought her the house on Sycamore Street, and she made it into a nice little home for the two of them, picking out the furniture, painting the walls, sewing all of the curtains and slipcovers herself, at last finding a place for all of their treasured wedding gifts. She even painted the exterior of the house herself, faithfully, every five years, standing on a step ladder with her hair done up in a red bandana as she waved her paintbrush at passersby. Marjorie and Billy never had children, and of course there was speculation as to the reason why, but I don’t think we were mean-spirited about it. I hope we weren’t mean-spirited about it.

As for Anna, she was ten years older than Marjorie, so she wasn’t in the picture much. As far as any of us could recall, there had been no animosity between the two sisters growing up. They’d just never been close. As adults, Anna had her life as a single woman earning her living in a neighboring town, and Marjorie had her life with Billy.

In 1984, Billy died of a massive heart attack shoveling their front walk. A neighbor found him face down in the snow with the shovel still in his hand. When the paramedics got there, they didn’t even attempt to resuscitate him. They just loaded him into the ambulance and took him away. Something happened to Marjorie after Billy died. She dropped out of her community activities and stopped attending church. She gained weight. Her features coarsened and sagged. Her hair thinned and lost its curl. Obviously, we tend to let ourselves go when we’re grieving, but this was different. We all lose our looks as we get older, too, but this was different. Something happened to Marjorie.

Years went by. The people on Sycamore Street reported that an elderly woman was now living with Marjorie. This woman could be seen passing in front of the picture window pushing the vacuum cleaner, out sweeping the front walk on warm days, working side by side with Marjorie in the flower beds. We weren’t surprised. Even with the changes in Marjorie following Billy’s death, we’d expect her to take in a relative in need. We’d expect her to be kind.

The news reports were muddled. Marjorie denied to the police that she’d hit her sister. Marjorie admitted backhanding her sister but not killing her. Marjorie admitted killing her sister but not on purpose. Marjorie confessed to killing her sister out of malice to put an end to her constant demands. Marjorie recanted her confession. Marjorie was arraigned to stand trial. Marjorie was found fit to stand trial. Marjorie was found unfit to stand trial.

In the end, none of that mattered. In the end, blood told the story. There was blood in every room of the small, gray house on Sycamore Street: in the kitchen, in the living room, in the hallway, in the bathroom, in the dining room, in both bedrooms, and on the enclosed porch. There was blood on Marjorie’s clothes in the hamper, blood on more of her clothes in the trash in the garage, and blood on paper towels in the trash. Marjorie had followed Anna through the house for the better part of a day, beating her until she went down and then beating her again when she managed to get up, the blows delivered with such force that the diamond ring Marjorie wore punched patterns into her sister’s flesh. When Marjorie finally tired of it, she delivered a series of kicks that left Anna with twenty-two broken ribs, in addition to the two black eyes and carpet-bombing of bruises on her face and chest, finally leaving her on the floor to bleed softly, gently into her brain until she died. Then Marjorie dragged her sister’s dead body across the living room floor and shoved it down the steps to the enclosed porch, where she left it for three days while she puttered about the small, gray house on Sycamore Street, stepping over the body and back when she went out to the porch to water the plants.


Elizabeth Gauffreau writes fiction and poetry with a strong connection to family and place. Recent fiction publications include Woven Tale Press, Dash, Pinyon, Aji, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and Evening Street Review. Her debut novel, Telling Sonny, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.