“The Man Who Was a Boy Made of Memories” Science-Fiction/Horror by Samuel Feldstein

The world has ended. That is the common expression. Except the world is still here. It is humanity that has flown, cremated by fire and pounded to loam by water, returned to dust and hurled from existence by the furious Mother who housed it and was requited with brutality.

A boy begins as the world ends. A blooming consciousness on the precipice of maturity, he comes of age in the age of ash. He wanders through the shell-cities and roams the wasted wilderness, searching for a new beginning but finding only old ends. He believes that he can escape if he walks far enough and for long enough. He forgets that nightmares are not bound in fringes.

Days go by, then months, then years. The old world grows more distant while the new offers no possibilities. The farther the boy walks, the further he sinks into the past, finding refuge in that Palace of Lost Things, growing into a man who is a boy made of memories.

We are living until we are dying,

We are dying until we are dead,

And live again.

I

He’d been walking a long time. He could not remember from which way he’d come. It might well be the way he was going. He had forgotten much.

In forgetting, he knew little. He knew the gray road and the gray sky; he knew the brown and the barren; he knew his feet and his footsteps, and the rhythm of his thoughts. He knew what was in front of him.

The sooty air depressed the sun and cast an earth-wide shadow over the highway and the fallow fields on either side. He used to try not to think about that maybe the ash particulates floating by were bits of people or small animals, but no longer trifled with such unknowable possibilities. He swept dog off his shoulder, brushed secretary out of his hair. He kicked a pebble and wondered what his name was.

The wind was cold on his hand. The little heart in his wrist jumped. He rubbed the spot. There was a lump growing there, on the inside, near the veins. It had appeared some weeks ago, distinct and firm to the touch. He thought it might be a cyst, or an abscess. He pressed his thumb into it and didn’t stop for some time.

He came to a stream. He knelt and drank and let the water roll against his fingertips as a two-headed frog tried to swim away from itself. He thought about catching it and roasting its legs over a fire, pretend he was dining fine in Baton Rouge. But the two-headed frog was alive. It should not have been, but it was. He brushed his wet fingertips against his neck and shouldered his pack.

He came to a farmhouse. In the hallway were embroidered proverbs and pictures of grandchildren. In the living room was a skeleton in a chair hunched over with its face impaled on a shotgun barrel.

In the backyard he found a deer carcass bored half-hollow by maggots wriggling in their little red houses. The head came away easily but for a few persistent tendons that stretched like rubber bands. The man split them with his hunting knife and held the head by one ear and looked into the glazed eyes. They had holes in the corners where it looked like tiny flesh-miners had tunneled straight through to the brain. The tongue lolled sickly and blue. Black blood caked the corners of the mouth; some still red and wet dripped from the dangling throat-ribbons.

The man asked himself if deer had names, and if this doe had had one, and what it was, and if anyone grieved for the loss of her. He asked himself because there was no one else. He asked himself questions and gave himself answers.

He passed the night in dreams. A hand held his and another ran through his hair. A soft voice whispered in his ear, warming his whole insides. Flowers blossomed at its intonation and imperfect chimeras were woven into being, and always there was room in reality to accommodate them.

In his dreams he smiled, in his dreams he cried, in his dreams he loved, and when he awoke, he remembered none of it.

It was still dark. He sat up. His wrist was aching. The cyst had grown to the size of a golf ball. It was misshapen and oblong like a peanut. The tips of his fingers were numb. He rubbed the cyst and scratched at it. He pressed on it and felt the pulse within. 

Pain shot through his arm from his wrist to his shoulder. He clenched his jaw and killed a yell in his throat. He grit his teeth and closed his hand around his wrist and squeezed. He imagined he could feel the thing wriggling, that it knew its time had come, that only now in the crushing throes of death did it regret tormenting him.

The man rammed his knuckles into the cyst. Tears spilled from his eyes and dried to frigid streaks on his cheeks. He braced his arm across his thigh like a head on a chopping block. He punched the cyst again, then twice more; each time it rebutted with agony. He sunk his thumb into the bulge. Spots danced in his vision. He imagined the satisfaction when the cyst burst inside him and flooded his veins with pus.

Someone was screaming. The man stopped, pain forgotten.

He could not make out the words, but knew the screamer begged for mercy. It seemed to come from outside, or perhaps inside; the man could not tell. It rose to its peak, wavered, and died in the twilight stillness. He closed his eyes and listened.

He stood and went downstairs and searched the house, but he was alone. He went back to the bedroom and packed his things.

II

It came from everywhere. It came from nowhere. It came from above, it came from below. It came from yesterday, and it came from tomorrow.

The man followed the voice wherever it led him. For weeks he traversed the empty highways and trudged through the fields, always looking for a sign. Eventually he stopped searching with his eyes and learned only to listen. The more he listened, the more he came to believe that he recognized the voice, as though he’d heard it before, long ago. When or where, or to whom it belonged, he could not say.

Sometimes the voice screamed, the way it had when he’d first heard it. But other times it laughed. More than once he’d heard it arguing with itself. The words were indistinct and muffled as though they came through a wall, but he could distinguish in them the rage and the misery as it attacked itself and berated itself and tried to defend itself from itself. And he knew the voice was alone, and he knew what it was. He knew that when you were alone there was no one else to hurt you.

Sometimes the voice simply spoke. The man liked to think it was speaking to him. On these nights, the man made himself comfortable and closed his eyes and listened and let the voice usher him into his dreams.

It led him to a small town in the country. It echoed along the ragged suburban thoroughfares and up the main street lined with the shells of dilapidated restaurants and general stores and accounting firms. The man walked with his hands in his pockets; wandered more than walked, no longer in any hurry. He knew by now that the voice would not abandon him, because he knew by now that it was not there, not really, and that wherever he went, it would be. He had given himself to insanity.

He felt that there was something familiar about the town, and wondered if he had been here before, and at last it came to him: this was home. This was where he had grown up.

His feet carried him, finding their way one stride at a time. When they stopped, he was home. He stood on the stoop of the old house and looked at it for a while.

Inside he wandered from room to room, feeling the house and its objects, pulling recollections from threadbare curtains, wiping them off the dusty kitchen tabletop, settling into them on the living room couch, eking them out of the creaky wooden stairs. He was here, and yet the house felt far away, like he was watching himself pass through it in a dream.

It was strange to know where he was after so long and discomfiting to realize he was not lost. The feeling frightened him, and he met it with anger. He clenched his fist and hated the round face of this little broken planet for bringing him back to this place. It had taken years and thousands of steps to lose his way, but now the spell was broken, and there were not enough years, nor steps left in him to recast it.

He sat on his old bed, in his old room, looking at the lump in his wrist. The numbness had spread up his forearm. He tried to move his fingers and could not.

In the back of his head, the voice whispered. Listening to it in the quiet, the man finally remembered to whom it belonged. He had been wrong. The voice was real. More than real, it was his own, come from inside. He had invented his own direction and brought himself home. Home to die.

III

It came in the night.

The man blinked the sleep from his eyes and looked at the cyst on his arm. The skin was stretched nearly translucent, outlining the oblong, ununiform growth. It was gigantic and grotesque, and it was moving, writhing inside his wrist.

He put his thumb to the bulge and pressed and had the horrible feeling like some small creature was swimming up the channels of his blood vessels. An old song came to him which he sang through clenched teeth as he set the point of his knife to the center of the cyst. Blood welled as the blade slid through the skin with hardly a mote of resistance and collided with something harder than knotted muscle or calcified tissue. He braced his arm and leaned his weight on the knife. There was a muffled crack, and something screamed.

It came from everywhere. It came from nowhere. It came from above; it came from below. It came from yesterday it came from tomorrow. High, hoarse, and muted through the dermis veil. The cyst tented as though something inside were beating at the flesh-walls, trying to get out.

The man fell away from himself, his fear-clouded mind forgetting that the thing which repulsed him was of his own body, and that there was nowhere he could run or hide that it would not be.

His vision began to vignette. From far away he noted that he could smell toast, and also freshly mown grass, and gasoline. His eardrums throbbed with the sibilant night-chorus of cicadas. Someone was sobbing. Someone was calling him to breakfast. He could see the full harvest moon on a cloudless night, and then the moon was the eye of an alley cat, rumpled and regal and casing him with its glinting orbs. It spat and he flinched and when he opened his eyes it had gone, slunk away to its dark reprieve, leaving him a morsel of fear. He realized that the cat was a memory, that these were all memories, pouring out of some long-locked vault in his mind, unleashed upon his oblivion. He shut his eyes and tried to keep them out.

Then came the faces.

Too many to count, rolling before him like a kinescope, a gallery of visages. Faces with names he should have remembered. Faces making faces. Bared teeth laughed, bemused eyebrows rose, cocked heads questioned, furious mouths crimped, disappointed eyes glistened, sad smiles conciliated. Their unmoving lips asked questions he could not answer. They asked after unkept promises, the sunken dregs of his regret. He wanted to be with them, more than anything in the world.

Someone was sobbing, and the man realized that it was him. He forced his mouth shut and looked at his churning wrist and wanted it gone. He stretched his arm as far from him as it would go and swept clear the nightstand and laid his squirming arm across it. He clamped his teeth on the knife sheath, lined the knife blade up on his forearm just above the cyst and shoved it forward. He saw the flesh rend and felt a distant pain. He dragged the knife backward and heard the tick of serrated metal on bone, felt the teeth shore through the numbness. A spasm in his spine wrenched his head back as though enthralled in a silent exorcism. The sheath trapped the scream in his throat as the world exploded in white.

IV

He awoke on the floor with a belt lashed around his stump. He did not remember putting it there. He sat up and saw stars. He twisted and vomited. He spat and dragged his sleeve across his lips. The blood on his remaining hand had not yet dried. He licked his fingers and wiped them on his shirt. He stood and swooned and steadied himself on the nightstand. He realized it was raining. He did not know when it had started.

In the mirror above the nightstand was him, all scruff and sunken eyes. Behind him was his severed arm, lying still on his bedroom floor. For a moment he wondered if he was dreaming.

Then his severed arm began to rock. It was a gentle motion, a slight teetering back and forth, almost imperceptible in the gloom. He was fascinated and repulsed. There was something in his arm other than he, and it was trying to get out.

He could see it making its slow way away from his wrist toward the bloody opening where the knife had bitten. It inched through the skin-tube like a parasitic caterpillar, squelching in the vacuum-silence of the room. The flesh of his forearm split into ribbons as it regurgitated a bulldozed heap of shredded capillaries and splintered bone. Inch by bloody inch, the creature emerged.

First the fingers, gray and groping. Next the head, overlarge and lumpy like a potato, and bleeding where the blade of the man’s knife had punctured it. Then came the chest, concave, delicate, and heaving. Followed the waist, crooked and sexless. Last came the legs, corkscrewed around one another and useless, trailing the body like a twisted tail, and the thing wriggled free.

It had the shape of an infant, only gray and smaller than a soda can. The malformed head was twisted backwards on the rigid neck so that the creature was forced to perpetually look behind itself. Its right arm, for want of proper room in the cramped birth canal, had failed to develop independent of its body. Instead, it had fused to the creature’s side so that the elbow appeared a nubbin just below the ribcage, and the forearm cleaved upward along the chest and neck. The hand came to rest on the creature’s face with the fingers pointed outward like stubby, twitching growth-tentacles. And there, in the center of its palm, was a single, bulging, lidless eye.

The man wanted to laugh. He wanted to stomp it to death. He did neither. But when the eye rolled over and met his own, he screamed in his heart.

The gray infant’s lips moved. It coughed a gargled sound and the fingers around its eye opened and closed and opened again. With some revulsion, the man realized it was beckoning.

Warily he knelt and leaned down until his ear was almost close enough to be grasped by the groping fingers. He felt one of them brush the contours of his concha. A shiver rippled through his spine. The finger was cold as a dead kitten he had once held to his chest. Colder than a thing should have been, as though the heat had not merely drained from the flesh but been driven into permanent exile by ruthless brumal forces. The man bit his tongue and kept from recoiling, some part of him wanting to preserve the dignity of this gray, twisted infant that was surely aghast by its own being.

The word came encased in a cough, “Cold.”

With the word came a feeling, looming from an abyss so profound the man could not say with any certainty that it was within him at all. The feeling at once enveloped him and sunk him to the depths beyond all reason, where light persisted but shone only on things that made him weep. He thought the feeling must have a name but could not remember it. It was relentless, oppressive, and remorseless, and he welcomed it, if not gladly.

The man shuffled his fingers beneath the tiny gray body and suppressed another shiver. Cradling it against him with his remaining hand, the man lifted the infant and placed it in his old bed and tucked it beneath the covers. The gray infant’s brow furrowed, and it whimpered so pitifully it made the man angry. His teeth clenched, and his unconscious again sought respite in violent outcomes. He saw the bulbous gray head crumpling against the corner of the nightstand, the lolling eye rupturing on the point of his knife, a horror story with a bloody beginning coming to a bloody end, out snuffed the light that should never have been lit.

Then the infant spoke again. “Please,” it said. Its voice was soft but harsh and forced as though every syllable were a measure of suffering. “I have…no warmth…for myself.”

Then something in him burst, and the man wept.

V

He sat in the bed with his back against the headboard, the gray infant tucked into the crook of his arm, pressed against his chest.

“Are you there?” the gray infant asked.

The man looked down, surprised. “Yes,” he said.

“I thought you must be, but I cannot feel. It’s like I am suspended in dark numbness.”

“But you can hear me,” he said.

“Yes. That is one thing God has seen fit to grant me.”

“You know of God?”

“I know all that you know, Logan Willis.”

“Logan Willis,” the man said. “That’s my name, isn’t it.” For a moment he was lost in remembering himself.

Then the gray infant asked, “What do you know of God?”

“I thought you knew all that I know.”

“What you know, yes. But what do you believe?”

Logan thought. “I believe God is a child, and we are his forgotten toys.” He looked down at the gray figure cradled in his arms. “Do you have a name?”

“A name?” said the gray infant. “No. I do not think it would be necessary. I am not long for this world. However, while I do live, there is something you could do for me.”

“What is it?” said Logan.

“I am in much pain. My vision narrows as my lidless eye desiccates and shrivels. I believe that I am dying. I was a part of you for a very long time. I have seen all that you have seen. But much of what I have seen I do not understand. I know that the world is not the way now that it was when you loved it. Tell me, in the little time that I have, what it was like when you loved the world.”

Logan began to speak.

Epilogue

The gray infant is an avid listener. It wants to know about cities and traffic lights and Ferris wheels and porcelain horses skewered on golden poles. Through its former host it has heard bars of Beethoven and Bach, and a little of Scriabin alongside licks of rockabilly and high warbling voices singing of hard days and lonely nights. It wants to know of them all.

So Logan tells it. He tells it also of pain and pleasure, and painful pleasure, and pleasurable pain, and of lovers who built their relationships on unkeepable promises and destroyed each other piecemeal. The stories evoke in Logan still more memories he had thought long lost. For an instant he sees the face of a girl with a green streak in her brown hair. As quickly it is gone, and he understands he has seen her for the last time.

The gray infant wretches on food, and gags on water. Logan thinks to himself that it is twisted inside as out, its gastrointestinal tract too tight and winding for sustenance to follow. Only its mind has emerged intact, leaving it fit to digest ideas, notions, and stories, which it consumes ravenously. For a moment, Logan wonders if that would be enough to sustain it, then tells himself that he is stupid to hope. He knows that by morning the gray infant will be dead. He understands that he is loving for the last time.

He speaks all night, and in the morning the gray infant is still listening.

It looks stronger. Its breathing is not so heavy. Its eye, though crimped and sightless, swivels spritely, seeing knights and gleaming armaments, locked tower doors and terrible serpents, great pillars of ire and yellow hair that blossoms into tulips at the tips. It sees the world as a boundless geological plain composed of infinite horizons. It sees the world as a pale blue dot of cosmic insignificance. It sees all that what is beyond sight.

Together, Logan and the gray infant set out into the wasted world. It is hard to leave home, but they know that the earth is round, and should they wish to return, all they must do is keep walking.

If Logan’s stories cease, the gray infant becomes depressed and effete. Logan wonders when he will get the chance to sleep, but comes to realize there is no need, for he too is vitalized by the stories. While he speaks, fatigue does not attempt to broach his consciousness, nor hunger his satiation.

Eventually, with the threads it has imbibed, the gray infant begins to tell stories of its own. These stories have never been told before. Like everything that exists, their yarns are not created, but reconstituted from assimilated filaments, spun anew and sent shuddering forth by frail vocal cords housed in the throat of a miscreated miracle.

Logan, the boy who is a man made of memories, carries the gray infant on his shoulders. Together they walk and tell stories.


Samuel is a horror fiction writer hailing from the distant land of Iowa. (Or was it Idaho?) He now lives in Marfa, Texas with his partner and their cat, Joni. You can find him on Instagram or Twitter.


“To Die Another Day” Dark Legendary Flash Fiction by John O’Donovan

The last thing I could remember was taking the I – 5 North to the Mount Shasta exit. I parked and hiked up the mountain until I could hike no more. On a rock ledge, I sat down and did my thing with a liter of vodka, a bottle of pills, and a sharp knife. I had read it in a novel once and thought, if I ever have to do it, I want to do it this way, not dying in hospital bed with tubes sticking out of me. With stage 4 pancreatic cancer, I was actually looking forward to it.

     As I began to fade out I could feel the snow falling and caressing my face. Winter was coming, I lay back and embraced it. “They won’t find me now ’till springtime.”

     Waking up in some dark hole of a place, not the place I lay down to die. My head was pounding like someone beat me with a rock. Blood was caked dry to my skin and clothes and I had a large open wound on the inside of my left forearm. I was weak as a bled pig.

      As in life, so in death…I made a mess, but where am I? What the hell is that smell? That’s not me, couldn’t be! A crack of light came from above to light the space around with ghostlike shadows in some chamber of the dead. I was in a cave with rocks, dead leaves, evergreen branches, something shiny…bright white: Bones? “Oh, dear God,” and skulls; animals, no human bones that I could tell. Then it hit me, I’m dead and waking up in hell. My head was spinning, I faint, and wake up again, still in hell.

      I heard a noise…Something comes. I try to hide beneath the bones and branches. Footsteps…heavy, but quiet too. Peeking out, yes! There be a monster there. It’s huge, at least seven foot tall…upright, apelike creature. It’s Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti…all of them in one. It’s carrying something big and hairy under one arm. It scoops away the bones and branches and stares down at me, deep set eyes, golden brown, alive and sparkling. It drops it’s load beside me; the whole back end of a deer, looked like it had been torn in half, poor thing. The creature sat down beside me like we were old friends sitting on the veranda, ready for a barbecue. All we needed was the beer.

     W sat there not moving. After some minutes, maybe hours, it poked me with a long, fat finger, looked like a bratwurst sausage with hair on it and pointed to the venison.

      “Do you know how to make fire,” I ask timidly. “That’s alright, I learned it in summer camp. I like my meat rare, but not raw. I have a knife, we can skin it.” No reply; the quiet, silent type. I was liking it.

     The creature reached out a giant hand and took my wounded arm to it’s mouth. “Oh no, it’s going to eat me!” But it only began to lick the wound; to clean it, to heal it. It was then I noticed the mammary glands beneath the long hair, swinging back and fro…It’s a female. That makes sense; caring and loving for a child in distress. Slowly, I began to realize, in my weakness and my stupor, this is not hell…this is my salvation. I reached over to take her hand with my good hand and she bent down her face to mine and smelled my breath. She pulled away to stare at me. “Bad breath! I know, but you ain’t smelling like a rose either baby.” She stared at me for a full minute until it came to me, she could smell it..the cancer…she knew, even as I myself, had temporarily forgotten.

     She got up then and left. I thought she left me for good, but she returned some hours later with a hollowed out horn of a big-horn sheep. She also had juniper branches and some other leaves and grasses I did not recognize, and a piece of blue streaked crystallized rock. With a bigger rock, she pulverized the whole mess into little bits and stuffed it in the horn. Then she pissed in it, filled it up with her own urine. It sat there for three days and started to stink, that’s when she held my head back and made me drink it. I gagged at first, but she persisted. She did that every three days. By the seventh time, I had begun to like it, and that’s when she stopped.

     “Long winter coming,” she said with those beautiful eyes. “ I will care for you, I will bring you food. I will protect you from predators.” I do believe I was falling in love.

     And so it went for one long winter and into spring, until one day she went out to hunt and never came back. I waited days and nights and weeks until I could wait no more. The loneliness and starvation brought me down the mountain. They found me there, wrapped in raw deer hide, smelling ripe as rotten meat.

     At the hospital, I told them about my cancer, asked them how long do I have left? “What cancer? We can’t find any cancer.” I was cancer free.

     It was good to be back with my own kind, but no one would believe my story, until I found the club: The Sasquatch Club, my people now, we all share our stories and our lives, because our stories are our lives.


John O’Donovan is retired and lives in Southern California with his wife and two dogs. His short stories have appeared in The Chamber Magazine, Bear Creek Gazette and  Brief Wilderness Press.


“Dangerous Rendezvous” Dark Mystery by Grove Koger

Mayan temple Chichen Itza

No doubt about it, Eric Francis was my father’s meal ticket. Oh, Dad corresponded now and then with Talbot Mundy and knew Sax Rohmer well enough to have a drink with him when they happened to be in Manhattan at the same time, but the big markets had them sewn up tight. Wonder Tales and its sister mags, on the other hand, featured writers a couple of rungs down the ladder: struggling newcomers and struggling has-beens, tomorrow’s big names (Dad liked to boast) and yesterday’s.

But Eric Francis was the magazines’ bread and butter.

Francis broke into print with “Dangerous Rendezvous,” in which a little party of Francisco de Montejo’s men happen upon a warrior queen and her retinue of slaves in the lowlands of Mexico. “Web of Fate” followed, and featured a sizeable arachnid guarding the entrance to a Mayan ruin. (You may have seen reproductions of the famously sinister illustration.) “Vanished Empire” was about a long-lost colony of Mayans in Florida. The plots were cheesy, but the details—those grotesquely anthropomorphic reliefs, the temples and causeways, the oppressive jungle, the stifling humidity—well, Francis made them real. And was prolific to boot.

The response from readers was more than gratifying, and Dad was able to increase Wonder Tales’ circulation almost every issue for two years and hold it there for nearly a decade. Francis could easily have found a book publisher but instead asked Dad to act as agent and allowed him to collect fees for a series of contracts with Bobbs–Merrill. No problem!

We moved frequently in those years, and we weren’t just moving. We were moving up. Dad owned a succession of Lincolns, each a little grander than the preceding model. We summered on the Cape and even skied in Sun Valley its second season.

When archaeologists discovered the Mayan ruins of San Lorenzo Tucha in ‘38, Dad even ran a rare factual piece with photos—it was more detailed than the coverage in the New York Times—playing up what he called the “astonishing” resemblance to the descriptions in Francis’s stories. But in light of what happened next, I wonder about its impact, because it was shortly afterward that Francis retired.

That’s when Dad initiated what I think of as his “letter campaign.” He spent a full page of Wonder Tales describing how he’d collect dismayed readers’ letters and forward them to Francis in Florida. As it turned out, he filled three mail bags in no time.

# # #

I don’t dwell much on my father’s life—or my own early life, for that matter. I knew that things had changed, but I was caught up in my own affairs by then—school, baseball, then girls—and I didn’t have much time for anything or anybody else. Maybe my father’s disappearance didn’t have the impact it should have. Everyone thought that I was a heartless young man, and maybe I was.

But it’s in going through Dad’s old papers, his and those of Wonder Tales and the Edwards Literary Agency, Clive Edwards, prop., that I’ve come to realize how much I miss him. I knew my mother, for she had survived my father’s disappearance by two decades. But I had never really known my father, and I regret it.

He had set out one day on a road trip. We had just returned from the Cape—the rental had been a modest one that last summer, and I had just begun the sixth grade the week before. It was normal for my father to arrive home a little before 5:00, at which time my mother would mix martinis and sit down with him for a round of small talk. But that day he appeared unexpectedly early and was pretty excited. It seems that in going through the office mail he had found a letter from Francis’s daughter! It had been sitting in his basket for three days, and since it had no sender’s name or address, his secretary hadn’t bothered to forward it.

My father talked over the details with Mom that evening, so I picked up the gist. It seemed that Francis had died of a stroke the preceding winter, soon after giving up writing, but the daughter had found a trunk full of old manuscripts that my father might be interested in. Might be! Such a trove might revive the fortunes of Wonder Tales and the Edwards Literary Agency at one fell swoop.

If Dad could check into the Such-and-Such Tourist Court in Pensacola that Friday—“Thank God we returned when we did!” I overheard the poor man exclaim—the daughter would send a car around to pick him up. She apologized for such cumbersome arrangements, but pleaded the difficulties of dealing with probate.

No problem! Afterward Dad thought he would continue on down to St. Petersburg to see Talbot, who was getting up in years by then, before swinging back up into the Midwest to visit a few clients. He had asked his secretary to reserve rooms for him in a couple of courts down the coast—we didn’t call them motels until after the war—as well as the one in Pensacola.

Here in the file are the carbons of her notes, yellowed and curling.

# # #

Dad left early the next morning in his two-year-old Zephyr after drinking his coffee and giving my mother a hug and me a pat on the shoulder. He would call the next night—which he did—and then again from Florida—which he didn’t. We never heard from him again.

After a week my mother phoned the court in Pensacola to learn that Dad had arrived but had never checked out. His bags were in his room, as the concerned manager had determined after missing him for several days. Would my mother please pay the bill and make arrangements for the car and the bags?

# # #

I need to explain that even now only a handful of people know that Eric Francis was a woman.

It seems that his/her first manuscript—what would become “Dangerous Rendezvous”—had come in “over the transom,” as they used to say. Return address P.O. Box such-and-such, Pensacola, Florida. Dad made it a practice to read, or at least skim, every submission. You never knew when the next Talbot Mundy might come along.

Well, the story had possibilities. That’s the word I heard my father use when he told and retold the story of his greatest discovery—“possibilities.” Too much of it read like an encyclopedia article, he said. “Interesting, but flat.” There was a story there, but it was buried. This Francis was clearly no pro, but the story had possibilities.

So he returned the manuscript—this amateur had been professional enough to supply a self-addressed stamped envelope—with a kindly worded note explaining what needed to be done. Then I suspect that he forgot about it.

After a couple of weeks, however, the manuscript came back, and it was—“perfect!” I remember my father’s excitement the evening after he received it and read it over. “I need to take out some commas,” he told my mother over the martinis, “and clear away a jungle of español. Otherwise it’s perfect!” Just as he would that afternoon years later, he fetched a cigar from his humidor and went through his fussy little routine with cutter and cedar spill. To this day I associate Francis with the pungent smell of Bolivar Habanos.

Dad must have sent an acceptance out the very next day, and must have offered pretty good terms by the standards of Wonder Tales. Avarice was forever at war with generosity in my father’s heart, but Francis was a fish he wanted to hook.

Francis wrote right back accepting his terms, and dropped the bombshell in the same letter. And here was the part of the story that Dad never told in public. She—she!—was, she explained, the sole survivor of an old Florida family and had simply been working up some of the notes that her long-dead father, an amateur archaeologist, had left her. She knew that a woman’s name on the story would interfere with its acceptance by the magazine’s male readership. She had chosen Eric C. Francis, she went on to explain, for its resemblance to a family name, and if my father felt it was acceptable, she would ask her lawyer to set up an account in that name at a Florida bank.

Dad was a little puzzled, but he agreed. After all, she was absolutely right. “Eric” would sound the right masculine tone, he said, but added that he’d like to drop the initial. So Eric Francis it was!

The carbon copy of his letter lies in front of me, yellowed and curling.

Mother, I remember now, seemed preoccupied that evening. As I learned later, she had good reason to worry whenever another woman was mentioned.

# # #

The private detective Mother hired might as well have been the Invisible Man so perfectly ordinary was he. I remember a brownish hat perched above a brownish suit, but nothing in between, even after he removed the hat. He must have had a very ordinary voice, for I don’t remember the sound of it. He didn’t wear Aqua Velva, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear. He was as unlike the private eye of popular fiction as you can imagine.

What I do retain is a sense of the man’s thoroughness. He asked to see my father’s study, and spent an hour or so there carefully picking up and setting back down one pile of papers after another, one book after another. I saw him at one point sitting in my father’s leather chair, mouth slightly open, simply staring into space. He seemed neither surprised nor disappointed in anything.

His performance at the office must have been quite similar, although it took an entire morning. There, I gathered from what she told us afterward, he asked the secretary to type out copies of her notes for the courts along my father’s route, as well the last few letters from Francis. Father had apparently taken the daughter’s letter with him.

The detective—Paul Smith was his perfectly ordinary name—found more than the police did, and I think he must have felt that he was within striking distance of the truth.

# # #

For the firm’s few remaining months, my father’s grief-stricken secretary kept up the files, one of which she devoted to his disappearance. It contained a few newspaper clippings, Smith’s final report, and his bill. The last was as ordinary as the man, neither large nor small.

The report was a dry affair, describing the detective’s questioning of each tourist court manager along the way and his perfunctory call on the St. Augustine police. The chief allowed that the department had never been called to the Ponce de Leon—that was the court in Pensacola—“for any reason.” The crucial part comes in Smith’s description of his stay at the Ponce:

Manager Lou DiSpazio repeated his story as reported to Pensacola Police Dept. September 21.

Subject’s former cabin no. 17 being occupied the first 2 days of my visit, I rented cabin no. 19. During this time, I acquainted myself with the neighborhood and visited the bank to which subject’s firm mailed checks. The Francis account has been closed, but information re its ownership is held confidential by the bank, and as there is no link to a crime the police cannot be of assistance.

I also consulted library files of the Pensacola Journal for the week preceding and week following disappearance of subject. This yielded 1 item of potential interest in light of subject’s diary (below). Story involved an incident at the Pensacola docks 2 days after subject’s arrival. I have purchased a copy of the paper in question and enclose clipped portion, but the reporter, whom I have questioned, is unable to provide any further details.

Upon departure of occupant I rented cabin no. 17, at which time I was able to examine it thoroughly. I recovered from the interior of an air conditioning unit what appears to be a diary (enclosed) kept by subject over the preceding weeks. I draw your attention to the last entry.

The diary does not provide location of the house to which subject was apparently driven. Despite a lengthy search I have been unable to identify the house or trace the identity of the driver mentioned in the diary. The 2 policemen called to the docks failed to secure the name of the female individual involved.

The freighter Aurora is registered in Vera Cruz, but as a tramp it follows no set itinerary and was not required to file a destination or provide information re passengers. I am legally prohibited from operating outside the US but am able to recommend an agency in Mexico City should you wish to proceed.

Sincerely,

Paul Smith

Enclosed: 1 photo subject, 7 copies letters etc, 1 diary, 1 newspaper clipping, 14 receipts

Smith’s “subject” was, of course, my father. And here is the photo that Smith returned, a studio portrait of a man whose round face was not quite rendered debonair by his pencil-thin mustache. (It’s my face, too, although I’ve never grown a mustache.) And no, Mother did not want to proceed, did not wish to follow the trail to Mexico. There was, after all, another woman involved.

After seven years Mother managed to get Father declared legally dead and collected on a modest insurance policy. In the meantime, Hitler and Il Duce sent the world to hell and me with it. Mother shriveled into a little old woman and died, I married and divorced and married and divorced. And here I am today.

# # #

The last entry in my father’s otherwise mundane little diary ran this way:

No time to think

Taciturn driver, long drive. Why? Why not book me closer? Old Spanish place, I would write the number down but there wasn’t one. No street sign

A remarkably beautiful woman, Mayan features. Was her mother?

And those monkeys. Stinking. All male. Filthy. One stared at us while it

Her mother’s monkeys, she said

Old manuscripts a jumble of trash. Old all right. Notes, nothing more. No stories. No nothing. She watched me, the slightest smile. Oh yes I said these need some work but I think there are possibilities here and she smiled. She said come back tomorrow morning, when we’ve both rested. The car

How can she know so much? As if I were talking to the writer herself. Am I a character out of Wonder Tales?

Very tired, but I think I’ll find a safe place for this

Tomorrow things will be clearer

And perhaps they were. But that’s it—the entirety of Dad’s last entry.

# # #

Smith was right about the newspaper story, which reads:

September 18. Authorities were called to Slip 2B this morning to retrieve an ape that had escaped from its cage while being loaded aboard the “Aurora.”

Happening to be on the scene, your reporter was glad to assist in the recapture of the recalcitrant animal, which endeavored unsuccessfully to bite its captors and its lovely owner. Only when stunned with a handy timber could it be returned to the cage it shared with its gibbering fellows.

We at the “Journal” bid the charming señorita farewell with the greatest reluctance, but wish her noisome menagerie the swiftest of passages.

# # #

In reading over what I’ve written, I realize that this has been a tale of many tales—Dad’s, Francis’s, the private eye’s, the reporter’s. And it’s thanks to yet another reporter’s tale—a recent article in our local newspaper—that a pattern has finally become clear. An intern digging through the paper’s morgue read the stories about Dad’s disappearance and tracked me down in hopes of filling out a series about unsolved crimes. So Dad—photo and all, the same one that PI Smith had taken with him—ended up being featured as a “long-lost literary figure” in a moderately accurate account of his disappearance. I dated the intern a few times and added her article to file.

But within a month, another story by Eric C. Francis showed up. Or rather, a familiar story in an unfamiliar guise. This one arrived at my apartment in the mail, without a return address but with a Vera Cruz postmark. A large manila envelope. It contained a Spanish-language magazine printed on the cheapest of paper, pulpier than the pulps of my father’s day. Paradoja it called itself—Paradox. The cover was garish beyond description. There were three stories—I know enough Spanish to get a sense of what they were, had the illustrations left any doubt—and a reprint—una reimpresión—of something quite a bit older. It was Cita peligrosa—“Dangerous Rendezvous”—by one Francesca Montejo y Coatzacoalcos.

It’s not surprising that Francis’s works would be reprinted from time to time—there had been a bit of “rediscovery” over the past few years. What was surprising was the illustration. Here was the beautiful warrior queen surrounded by a horde of monkey-like creatures, several in an obvious state of arousal.

A card marking the page bore the inscription “Elogios del Autor”—“Compliments of the Author”—in an elegant feminine hand.

It was easy to find the right issue of Wonder Tales, since I’d retrieved it a few weeks before to show the reporter. Now I reread the story all the way through, I admit for the first time in decades. Page 18, paragraph 3: “Standing before them was a bronzed, scantily clothed woman flanked by a retinue of grotesque, simian-faced attendants.” The explanation had been hidden there in plain view all this time. And as I stared at the words, I smelled, I swear, a Bolivar Habano.

# # #

I’ve had time to consider any number of questions. Why did Francis start writing in the first place? Was the material really her father’s? How did she manage to get so many of the archaeological details right, details that were still awaiting discovery? Was it really her daughter my father met in Pensacola? And why did she—whoever or whatever she was—lure him there? Did she feel threatened? Challenged? And did she issue a challenge in return?

I’ve been bored for as long as I can remember. I’ve come down in the world and gone up again, and I’m still bored. I know that Dad was bored, and after all, I am my father’s son. I’m even—talk about coincidences!—the age he had reached when he disappeared. Was Francis bored too? Bored with too many years and too many memories? Did she roll the dice when she submitted “Dangerous Rendezvous”? And were Dad’s article about San Lorenzo Tucha and his letter campaign more than she bargained for? But now that I read over what I’ve written, I know the answers. She gambled. Only a gambler would have let Dad go that first night in Pensacola, betting that she could reel him back in.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get my affairs in order, and the clock has just struck midnight. It’s the second day of November. I’m dropping these notes in the file, the same file that our long-dead secretary opened so many years ago. Will I be adding another installment? I don’t know, but this afternoon I fly to Vera Cruz, where I’m going to track down the editor of Paradoja and, one way or another, finish the tale of Dad’s dangerous rendezvous.


Originally published in Phantasmacore Oct. 24, 2012. The site has since ceased publication.


Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron.


“A Place to Settle Down” Dark Horror by Michael Subjack

Willie limped along the cracked and weathered sidewalk, the pain in his left leg singing like Pavarotti. The good news was that the pain was only temporary. It was simply a case of walking too long in bad shoes. The problem was that it was just about the only good news. Willie was making his way to the West Coast, albeit very slowly. He had done it mostly on foot and considered giving up several times. But something always managed to keep him going. It wasn’t exactly hope, per se. He had lost sight of that years ago. No, what kept Willie going was the idea of the warm sun on his face, the cool kiss of the ocean, and the gritty but somehow soft feel of sand beneath his battered feet.

While that might sound like hope to some, Willie saw it as the last vestiges of comfort before his trying and complicated life finally came to a merciful end. At fifty-two, he had been on the streets longer than he had ever known shelter and as such, he guessed he maybe had only a few years left. Spending them on a beach certainly beat freezing to death in some piss and garbage-filled alley. Exhausted, he checked his pockets to see what he had left from panhandling. To his surprise, he had about twenty dollars. Enough for some fast food and even a little liquid refreshment. Once he had those in hand, it was just a matter of finding a place to settle down for the night.

With no real idea of where he was going, Willie opted to follow the pleasant hum of the highway. While hitchhiking was out of the question (who in their right picked up anyone hitchhiking these days?), Willie liked the highway. It was always awake and moving forward. It’s what gave him comfort on his long and sometimes hopeless feeling odyssey. The highway represented potential. Not that Willie that he had much of it, but it was still something. And as he got closer to the highway, he saw something he didn’t expect to see at all: A rundown duplex. He guessed it had been abandoned for ten years or better. It would be the perfect place to settle down for an evening or two. He had passed both a McDonald’s and a liquor store about a mile back. And as much as his leg hurt, the knowledge that he’d have a place to stay would at least make the hike bearable. But first thing was first – he had to make sure that place was actually abandoned. It was possible bordering on likely that another person of his ilk had set up shop there and wouldn’t be willing to share. There was also the possibility of wildlife, but that didn’t concern Willie too much. He had slept near enough rats to know that most of the time, they didn’t pay you any mind.

He crept toward the house and saw that the windows on the one side had been completely blacked out. That made it unlikely that someone was occupying it. The other side was much more open and inviting. After jimmying open the swollen front door with the worn blade of his utility knife, Willie gave the place a quick once over and saw that it was indeed empty. That meant in less than an hour, he’d have a roof over his head and belly full of food and drink.

Not bad.

Willie did his best to savor the McDonald’s, but the fact was, he hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. As such, he pretty much inhaled it all in less than five minutes, apple pie included. The booze went down a little more leisurely. He allowed it to slowly wash over him, numbing not just the pain in his leg, but the anxiety that had been buzzing around his head like an angry bee. There was always the sensation of low-key dread and panic, but when you factored in travel to an unknown destination, it could be near-crippling at times. He finished roughly half the bottle before unrolling his sleeping bag to call it a night.

In addition to the lights coming from the highway, the moon was also full that night, lending the space a decent amount of illumination. Willie had spent countless nights staring up at the stars and while they were beautiful, he was much more captivated by the ceiling looming above him. Relative to the rest of the place, it was in decent shape. The paint had cracked and faded, but there was also a curiously clean quality to it. Most of the duplex’s interior was discolored and twisted from time and the elements, but the ceiling looked almost pristine. It was as if being above everything else had spared it any significant damage. That was good. It was exactly how Willie now saw himself and the remainder of his trip. While so many people in his situation had just given up and died, Willie had risen up for one final adventure. With renewed hope, he prepared himself for a night of deep and undisturbed sleep. And he was almost there when something unexpected interrupted him:  

The ringing of a phone.

The sound was disorienting at first. In his intoxicated and slightly sleepy state, Willie forgot where he was for a few seconds. A phone ringing was not necessarily an unusual sound. When he set up camp in alleys behind restaurants and apartment buildings, you often heard a phone ringing, particularly in the summer when people had their windows open. But then Willie remembered that he was in a seemingly abandoned duplex next to a highway. There were no other homes or buildings. The duplex was a remnant of a time that existed before the highway or at least the placement of this specific one. The other buildings had been moved or torn down, but somehow this had managed to stay around. A testament to its fortitude, he supposed, but how and why was a phone ringing? Based on the slight trill, he knew it to be an older phone, probably not unlike the one that had been at his grandmother’s house. She was dead forty years now and with her and the rest of her generation, so went those style phones. To Willie’s relief (and slight discomfort), the ringing wasn’t coming from his side of the duplex. It was coming from the side with the blackened windows. Willie quickly gathered up his things and headed for the front door. Just as he was about to step outside, the ringing stopped. Willie crept over to the wall and listened. Silence. No ringing, no footsteps, no voices. Save for the steady noise of the highway, it was all quiet on the western front. A part of Willie knew it was best to leave, but his leg still throbbed and the alcohol had yet to wear off. Setting off into the night wasn’t just difficult in this state, but dangerous. Willie needed to rest, even if it was just until the morning. Although still leery of what possibly lurked on the other side of the duplex, Willie set his things down and did his best to fall asleep.

It proved difficult for the first hour, as he took every innocuous creak and groan to mean he wasn’t alone, but after a few more swallows of alcohol, Willie was drifting off again. He enjoyed the distant, fleeting thoughts of the ocean and the promise of beachside living when he heard something even more unexpected and frightening than the phone ringing: Footsteps. And unlike the phone, these were definitely on his side of the duplex. They weren’t heavy and especially fast, but it was definitely footsteps and they were coming from upstairs. Willie had of course noticed the stairs when he initially checked the place out, but they were covered with so much dust and detritus that it was clear they hadn’t been used in some time. They also looked unstable, which was another reason why he hadn’t bothered to climb them. His leg hurt as it was and falling through them and breaking something was the last thing he needed.

The footsteps continued and Willie realized that they were making their way toward the stairs. Once again, he grabbed his belongings and was about to make a break for the door when he saw someone descending the steps. They appeared to be wearing threadbare slippers and as more of the mystery guest appeared, Willie could see tattered pants, not unlike the ones he was wearing, as well as an untucked button-up speckled with small holes. Typical wino attire that put him strangely at ease. But then Willie saw the face.

Although he couldn’t fully make it out, the light from the moon and highway let him see enough. It was a face that was withered and ancient and topped with silver strands of thinning hair that made Willie think of spider webs. His entire body suddenly felt itchy, but he was too petrified to move. It dawned on Willie that this thing bore a strong resemblance to the Crypt Keeper, complete with a hollow cavity where the nose should have been. But while there was a mischievous and even jovial quality to the Crypt Keeper, there was a vacantness to this being. It continued down the stairs at an agonizingly slow pace. Willie wondered if it could see him. As was habit at this point, he did his best to occupy darkened, out of the way spaces when he slept. In the case of the duplex, he was huddled in a far corner of the room near some overturned and forgotten furniture. It allowed him a perfect view of the stairs, but he held out hope that who or whatever this was would either mistake him for a shadow or just more garbage. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

To his great relief, the strange being seemed completely oblivious to him, continuing down the stairs before taking a hard left, which led him down the short hallway and into the kitchen. Willie heard the opening of a refrigerator and within seconds, the being was making its way back up the stairs. Halfway up, it stopped and turned around. Willie had to ward off every instinct that begged him to scream as the thing seemed to be staring directly at him. In its hands was something small and furry. It took Willie a minute to realize it was some kind of dead animal, likely a raccoon or opossum. Before he could speculate any further, he saw the being raise the animal to its mouth and bite into it with a loud and sickening crunch. Willie clasped his hand to his mouth as saw thick chunks of gore and blood spill out of the dead animal and strike the stairs with a nauseating plop. The sight was gruesome enough, but the hungry, satisfied grunting of the being put Willie on the verge of vomiting. It was a sound he’d knew he’d never forget, assuming he made it out of here alive.

With the animal now mostly a rack of bloody bones, the being turned around and finished climbing the stairs, picking off the remaining bits of meat with the studious care of someone removing lint from an expensive item of clothing. Unable to hold it in any longer, Willie turned and vomited a thick stream of liquor and partially-digested McDonald’s. He knew it would be a long time before he ate the latter again, if ever. And while alcohol was something he’d probably never be able to fully give up, he also knew whiskey was going to be removed from his diet for the foreseeable future.

With his mouth now dry and sour, Willie ran for the front door as fast as his injured leg would allow. He swung the door open and stepped out. As his left foot hit solid ground, he found himself on uncomfortably familiar terrain. He looked around and saw that he was back in the duplex. And if that wasn’t cruel enough, he had landed in his own vomit, its sickly hotness touching his barefoot through the hole in his dumper found shoe.

Willie yanked his leg back, causing it to explode with fresh pain. As much as it hurt, that was the least of his problems. He went out the front door again and without fail stepped in the puddle of his own vomit. How did the saying go? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Fuck that. Willie was going to get fooled until he was as far from this place as possible. He made three more attempts before he tried the back door, which was seemingly welded shut. That left the windows. For good measure, he picked up a discarded brick and launched it through the one closest to him. The shattering of the brittle glass brought Willie more joy and pleasure than anything that had come before it, booze and women included. He limped over to the window and started to guide his bad leg through the opening it when the jagged glass began to reshape itself with a labored cracking. What was an uneven hole before was now a maw with long and impossibly sharp teeth. It began to close around Willie’s leg. He knew it wouldn’t take much for it to severe his femoral artery, causing him to bleed out in what was likely the entrance to hell. He began drawing his leg back as fast as he could. He was almost out when it closed around his emaciated ankle. The pain was unbearable as hot blood began to pour from the ripped and violated flesh. The scent and taste of Willie’s blood seemed to excite the thing gripping his ankle as the pressure increased tenfold, making Willie dizzy as he struggled to stay conscious.

It would reach the bone soon, but that would hardly slow it down. Once his foot was gone, he’d pass out and bleed to death, no way around it. Willie reached into his pockets and pulled out his handy utility knife. Yes, the blade was dull, but the handle was steel, sturdy and dependable. He smashed it into the gnashing glass, finally freeing his bleeding leg. The bloody shards let out a hoarse and ethereal roar as they tinkled harmlessly to the ground.

Willie collapsed sobbing but knew he had to act fast to stop the bleeding. He dragged himself over to his bag and pulled out an old t-shirt. Working quickly, he wrapped the shirt around his leg and tightened it with his belt. That would do for now, but he’d need to find a hospital soon. He wondered if they’d believe his story and decided not. To them, he’d just be a bum who injured himself wandering in a place where he didn’t belong. But as long as they got Willie patched up and on his way, he’d consider it a fair trade. Of course, that was only if he made it out of here in the first place. That was feeling more and more unlikely, but Willie wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. He was destined for somewhere better than this. He took another swallow from his bottle in the interest of pain management and slowly got to his feet. He looked at the various windows and saw nothing more than grimy glass. But appearances in this placing were deceiving. He had survived the first encounter largely by luck. It was best to assume that wouldn’t happen a second time, which begged the question of how he would make his escape. The doors and windows were covered and the less said about the thing upstairs, the better.

Willie was still mulling it over in his head when the next nasty little surprise presented itself. And it came in the form of singing.

Sweet, melodic singing.

Willie stumbled back when he initially heard it. The pain in his poor leg had only been numbed slightly by the alcohol. The unexpected pressure brought fresh agony that shot through his entire body like an electrical current. The singing continued and while it bordered on beautiful, it also lacked a distinct melody and lyrics.

“La la la la la laaaaaa….”

Willie held his utility knife out.

“This may not look like much, but I’ve used it before and that stupid son of a bitch never bothered anyone again. So whoever or whatever you are, you may just want to let me go!”

“La la laaaa la la…”

Willie knew threats were futile, but dammit if he wasn’t going to keep making them.

“I ain’t lookin’ for no fuckin’ duet!” he continued. “So open the goddamn door and I’ll be on my way.”

“Laaaaaaaa la la laaaaaaa….”

“Goddammit,” he whispered. “Where the fuck are you?”

“Over here….”

Its speaking cadence was somehow more mesmerizing than its singing. And this time it was accompanied by the scent of an intoxicating floral perfume. To his great bafflement and embarrassment, Willie found himself getting an erection. Over here? Where? The voice managed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

“La la la laaaaa…”

Now the singing was coming from a very specific direction and when Willie turned his gaze toward it, he wasn’t at all surprised to see another figure seated in the same spot where he had hoped for nothing more than a decent night’s sleep. The figure this time appeared to be a woman in a white dress with flowing blonde hair that seemed to glow in the darkened space.

“Hello?”

Willie didn’t know what else to say. At this point, did it really matter? He may as well recite the alphabet. To his surprise, the figure responded. It slowly turned around and Willie braced himself for another monstrosity, but she was every bit as beautiful as her voice. She gave him a seductive smile as she stood up, even going as far as to sweep the dirt that had collected on her otherwise spotless gown. As the woman got closer, he got another whiff of her perfume and became weak-kneed. He didn’t just want her – he needed her.

Despite everything that had happened, his lust for this woman was almost uncontrollable. Somewhere deep inside him, he knew it was more tricks and manipulation, but how long had it been since he had been with a woman? Five years? Ten? It was a number too embarrassing to properly recollect. And now that she was nose to nose with him, he was even more drawn to her, largely due to her hypnotic blue eyes. She placed a gentle hand on the back of his head and drew him in for a kiss. Their lips seemed to melt together as Willie fell into a near and seemingly endless orgasmic trance.

When she finally relented, Willie took a moment to savor what had just occurred. He slowly opened his eyes and suddenly understood why it had seemed like her lips were melting – they were. Her formerly heart-shaped mouth was now an extended and misshapen oval that had a torrent of thick yellow sludge pouring from it. Some of it splashed on Willie’s legs and the slight acidic quality burned through his worn pants and sizzled against his skin.

He cried out as the thing uttered a strange sound from deep inside its throat that reminded him of a clogged garbage disposal. Based on his experiences so far, he had only one option left: The upstairs. And if he had to jump out of a window to get out of his hellish place, so help him God, he’d fucking do it. He ran up the stairs, doing his best to ignore the increasingly insistent pain in his leg, and was greeted with the unfortunate sight of the terrifying thing he had seen earlier. With a more direct view, he could see just how hideous it was and its leering grin was still coated with the gore of the animal it had eaten. Willie stepped back and heard the guttural groaning of the woman and realized she was directly behind him.

As the two closed in, there was another groaning sound and Willie wondered if another walking nightmare had joined the fray. It would be all-too fitting at this point. It wasn’t until he felt the wood of the stairs sagging underneath his feet that he realized what was happening. Unfortunately, it was too late for him to react. He went through the stairs and while the landing should have only been a few feet down, he found himself falling into a cold and endless void, only it was less of a fall and more of a float.

Is this death? he thought as he slowly gained momentum.

Soon, he was falling at breakneck speed, struggling to breathe before landing in a pool that was filled with a thick and foul-smelling liquid. Desperate for air, Willie tried pulling himself up, but the mucus-like filth seemed to have a life and mind of its own as it formed waves to keep him down whenever he came close to the surface. By now, Willie was almost insane with fear, but he was also a creature of sheer determination and willpower. If he did nothing else right in this life, he’d at least die on his terms. With that truth established, Willie fought with everything he had and finally surfaced. He managed to find the edge of the pool and used the remaining vestiges of his strength to fully free himself. Now on solid ground, he breathed in the icy air and gathered the energy needed to bring himself to his feet. Once there, he wasn’t surprised at all to see that he was back in the house with the two horrific beings waiting for him. In something that mirrored the bad B-horror movies he had loved watching as a child, the two held their arms out and began shuffling toward him, their bony fingers ready to seize and maul him. Having tried every other possible method of escape, Willie could only think of one other thing. He began tearing at the wall, hoping that the other side would give him some form of salvation. Only it wasn’t plaster and drywall he was tearing away, it was greasy bits of flesh that throbbed, pulsed, and made hideous squelching sounds as they were ripped free.

The two ghastly beings drew closer and just as they were prepared to wrap their fingers around his throat, Willie made an opening big enough to crawl through. Now on the other side, he was shocked to see that it wasn’t rundown at all. It was modern and homey-looking. The air was warm and fragrant with freshly-cooked cherry pie. He turned to his right and saw that the hole he crawled through was no more. It was filled in and painted a cheery and inviting blue. The furniture looked soft enough to sink in and would surely give Willie the good night’s sleep he so badly craved. But whatever forces were at work here had made a huge mistake. The windows, which had been blacked out, were now clear and open, giving Willie a perfect view of a long field with tall grass that was rocked by a gentle breeze. As picturesque as it was, he didn’t buy it.

Weary and well aware of the house’s tricks by this point, Willie trudged toward the front door. Assuming the worst, he gently wrapped his hand around the knob, but to his surprise, it didn’t burn or bite him. He opened the door and was greeted by the wonderful and liberating smell of exhaust. He had yet to step outside, but in his mind, he had done it. He had survived an encounter that defied all logic and should have killed him several times over. He hadn’t come out unscathed, of course. His leg was in dire need of proper medical attention and he was still soaked with the putrid-smelling slime he had fallen into. But both of those things could be dealt with. The bottom line remained: He was alive. As he took in another whiff of air that was far from clean, but still a vast improvement over what he had been dealing with, Willie prepared to step outside.

“Willie.”

The voice was a whisper, but it had said his name. There was no doubt about that.

“Fuck you,” he replied, keeping his eyes trained on the highway. “I beat you. It’s over.”

“Look at me.”

The voice was louder, but not especially firm. It was less a command and more a plea. That made Willie smile. He hadn’t just overcome this thing, he had wounded its pride.

“Beaten by a wino,” he said. “That’s gotta sting.”

“But you’ll want to see this.”

The voice had taken on a more seductive quality. In Willie’s mind, it hardly mattered. In his mind, he was free. So fuck it.

“You know what…” he began as he turned around.

But the house had transformed again. This time it was in its true form. Willie had no earthly clue how he knew that, but everything about what he saw was so overwhelming that he ceased breathing for a few seconds. What was standing before him had effectively destroyed his entire consciousness. It was as if he had been given a factory reset. His memories, his feelings, his few remaining hopes had all been evaporated into the void. Willie was now face to face with a manifestation of evil that was not intended for this world or any other, yet somehow, here it was. It remained stock still. No more tricks, no more taunts. None of that was needed. Its mere existence was more than enough. Willie no longer even remembered his own name. Its face, such as it was, was all he could see, even when he closed his eyes. Eventually, the gaze between them was broken and Willie had no idea how long it had been. Minutes. Hours. Possibly days. When he looked down at his hands, he saw he was still somehow clutching his utility knife. And while nothing else made sense, he knew what the knife was and exactly what he needed to use it for. As a barely sentient life form that now only had one purpose, Willie was surprised at just how easy it was.

And while there was screaming, the house made sure nobody heard it.

Willie was found the next day wandering on the shoulder of the highway by a CHP officer, who simply assumed it was a confused drunk who had taken a wrong turn. In a way, he was right, but when he stopped Willie and got a look at his face, he also knew it was much more complicated than that. Willie’s face had been mutilated past the point of recognition, but that wasn’t even the worst part. Two bloody cavities occupied the space where his eyes had once been. The officer was speechless. He had seen some bad things in his time, but this was beyond his experience and comprehension. As he went to radio for help, Willie, who had seemed catatonic, lifted his head slightly as if he could hear something in the distance that was meant only for him. After changing direction slightly, he resumed walking and it wasn’t until the officer heard the honking of horns and squealing of tires did he realize what had happened.

And as tragic as it was, he couldn’t help but think that the poor bastard was better off.

Several Weeks Later…

Three teenage boys in need of a place to hide out and safely drink the vodka swiped from a stepdad’s liquor cabinet had seemingly hit pay dirt. The place they found was nowhere near any of their homes and best of all, it was abandoned. Although not the cleanest space, they brought chairs and several battery-powered lanterns that made the place comfortable and even a little inviting. They were there an hour and getting a good buzz on when they heard something unusual coming from the other side of the wall. They all looked at each other in bewilderment before one of them finally spoke.  “Is that a phone ringing?”


Michael Subjack was born in a small town in Western New York. He enjoys good cigars and going on hikes with his dog Rosie.

He lives in Los Angeles, but you can also find him on Twitter as @msubjack.


“Julie’s Package” Dark Horror by M.P. Domingos

The brown package had come at the wrong time of day. Loeb stood on the porch half awake and barely dressed in his blue bathrobe. There was a breeze, and the morning’s sunlight was falling in through the old oak that left dappled patterns of white and yellow on their small front yard.

For such a small package it sat heavy in his hands, and Loeb had never seen a piece of mail quite like it; perfectly square, clean and, with smooth edges. He saw no mail delivery stamps and he thought how someone must have dropped it off on their stoop overnight. The only markings he could find were his wife’s name written on one side in careful, elegant, handwriting.  Below that, almost to the edge, were the letters “S & B”.

Loeb smiled to himself at how it had an air of pretension.

S&B.  Stan & Boyd. Sonny & Bono. Satan & Beelzebub.

He stood there for another moment and stretched before going back inside to where the kitchen met the den.

“Julie?” He paused and waited for a response he knew wouldn’t come. “Package came.” Still nothing—but the silence of the house allowed his mind to wander, and he thought back to the time when the house wasn’t as quiet.

Julie would be in the kitchen again, dancing, and dressed in her pajamas. She would grab his free hand to try to make him dance. But he didn’t like to dance, and she knew this. And instead, he would stand, and smile and he would try to make her laugh but would fail.  And she would smile back, and he would grab her by the waist to pull her in and smell her hair and it would smell like almonds.  And then she would see the package in his hands and her eyes would widen, and she would jump into his arms and she would be so light that he would give in finally and dance with her right there in the kitchen, still hanging off of him as if she weighed nothing.   

But now a shadow had passed over her, and there was the silence.  At times he thought he could see the shadows as they came on.  But even if he missed the shadow, he could see the change come to her eyes. How it would come and go and would remind him of how sunlight changes in a field as the clouds shift overhead.  Yes, it was just like that.  She called them “her shadow friends,” and as time went on these friends had begun to visit more often and she had begun to hate him more and to blame him for all the things she thought had been done to her. Loeb kept his hand on the package briefly and then went to go change for a run.

When he got back, he entered through the side door. He was older now. He knew this. He also knew that his body took a lot longer to bounce back from things than it had in the past.  

I’m as old now as my father was when I was a teenager.

Strange concept. The idea of it. That it would always be just him and Julie. That the doctors had confirmed the reality that he now accepted, but that Julie never would. That even after years of trying, even after years of methods and procedures, each more extreme than the last, there was no way out of it. This reality in his mind was simply another example of the universe just being the universe—to dole out servings of cold hard irony, and to bring together two people who were both equally hoping to have many, many children, and who were both equally unable to have any.

As he walked back into the kitchen, the sweat was still running off of him, and he heard the television moaning from the backroom.  The kitchen table where he had placed the package earlier was now empty.

I see you’ve taken what you wanted.

He assumed she had taken it while he was out, and this fact didn’t bother him. Neither did her likely retreat with it back into the downstairs office, the same office which had lately become her place of refuge. What did bother him was the laughter he could now hear coming from that same place of refuge. Laughter that was not his wife’s, and which had came on so soft and distant, that he thought it had come from somewhere outside or up the street. 

Relax. She’s fine. You’ve both been so spooled up lately. All that weight on your backs for no reason.  

More laughter came from the office. This time it was louder, more metallic sounding. It seemed to linger in the air, like so many voices from an old radio. Loeb stared toward the office and imagined Julie talking to no one in particular behind its closed door and then he heard her.

“Loeb, are you here?”

Her voice was muffled from behind the door, and he didn’t answer at first, partly from his lack of desire to deal with her right then, and partly from the fear of the state of mind she may be in. But when she called out again, he finally walked over and put his ear to the door, grabbing its brass handle as if he were going to open it. But he didn’t open it.

“Julie, is that you?”

His question went unanswered with a silence that he had become accustomed to. It was a silence which seemed to grow louder each day, even if their lives had become emptier. She said it was the silence that she couldn’t stand. It was the silence that had caused her to retreat into that office each day—and it was him.

“We can fill it with kids,” she said. “Adopt enough to fill a whole house.”

We can fill it.

And they had tried to. They had filled out the paperwork. They had done the interviews. But the interviews didn’t go well, and the whole complicated process began to stall out. And when Julie fired their adoption consultant, things quickly went downhill. On the final day of what would become their last interview with the last agency on their list, she told the interview panel, if they didn’t approve them right then and there, she would kill herself. They didn’t even get a rejection email after that one. Instead, one week later Julie went back down to their lobby and threatened to kill the interview lead along with her family.

But time moves on, as it tends to do. The silence of the house remained, and Julie began to fill it in other ways.  Her favorite and most regular method was to keep the television on constantly, and loud enough for her to hear it wherever she was in the house, which was more often than not, the office.  Loeb found this annoying at first, but he eventually grew accustomed to the constant noise.  

He had finally told her there would be no kids. No kids, Julie. None of it. At least not until they figured things out. Until she got some help. But she would have none of it. He was to blame. And now, here he was, standing by this closed door, listening for his wife, and hoping she was all there. She had not answered him yet.

“Julie?” He said.

The door opened with a part of Julie’s face showing through the cracks. She looked him up and down with her eyes, as if he had just knocked on the front door to sell her rain gutters. It had been so long since he had seen her eyes–really looked at her eyes, and he had forgotten about the green in them. He thought of that green, and he thought of Italy all those years ago when he had first noticed that about her.

You remember don’t you, Julie?  At the fountain, in the Piazza Navona? But now your face looks so tired. We’re both so tired.

“Christ, Julie. You scared me.”

“What are you doing there?”

Loeb tried to look past her, to see what she had been doing, but she noticed and closed the door to block his view, leaving only a small crescent of her face still visible.

“I heard laughing. I thought maybe you had a friend over,” he said.

She scrunched up her nose. It was in the way that she used to. Then she smiled, and this surprised him, and he smiled also.

“It was probably the t.v. You left it on all morning again,” she said.

Loeb paused for a moment to reach out to her but touched the door instead.  

“Yes. You’re right,” he said, “I shouldn’t have that thing going constantly like I do.  It can get expensive.”

“Mmmm,” Julie responded. Her face changed, and she looked at him like she had remembered something she had forgotten. “We don’t have many expenses like other couples our age. I think we can afford to leave the t.v. on.”

Before he could speak again, she closed the door, and in the background of the house he heard a talk show go to commercial and the sound of laughter again.

The day moved on and Julie hadn’t come out from the office. The house began to retreat into dusk with the waning blue-grey light entering in through the kitchen windows. Loeb stood at their kitchen counter, eating, staring toward the coarse electric yellow light coming in from under the door to the office. 

Up the street a dog barked. He finished eating and walked to the office door once again and put his hand on the cold doorknob and waited.

Nothing, still.  It can’t keep going this way. 

He heard Julie’s voice begin to come through the door in steady rhythms, as if she were having an earnest conversation with someone on the other side. It was a rhythm that she had often used with him in the past, but as she spoke, he could hear another voice intermixed with hers. This one was fainter and more muffled, but it was there, and in a rhythm that seemed to answer Julie’s voice, as if it were responding to her questions.

“Julie?” He heard both voices stop.

“Loeb?  Come in. Come here.”

“Hi. What is it babe?” Loeb said.

“Come here,” she repeated.

Loeb pushed at the door and it relented and opened up, and his eyes bristled as they adjusted from the darkness of the rest of the house to the brightly lit room.

“Julie?” 

“I’m right here,” she said. 

She was sitting cross legged on the floor in a pair of her floral p.j.s behind their dark wooden desk. The package sat open and empty on her lap, and her stomach moved to the rhythm of her breath. She was staring at the wall as he walked over and there was a shadow falling on her face that magnified her pretty looks but made her look tired at the same time. 

“You okay? You feeling ok?” He said.

She looked up at him with an annoyed look that was quickly replaced by a smile. Her face brightened and she scrunched her nose again.

“Come closer, silly. Let me show you something.”

Loeb walked over and kneeled beside her and put his hand on her cheek.  

I still love you. Sometimes we are born at the wrong time though.  Sometimes all the feelings in the world can’t change bad timing. This can’t last, you know? It can’t go on like this much longer. 

“Look,” she said. She was excited and her hands were shaking as she reached down and picked up a small black vial the size of a jelly jar.

“Look,” she said again. Julie placed it in his hands.

It was light, very light and very small, and he didn’t understand how that was possible. 

“That’s it? That’s all that came?” he said.

“That’s it. It’s all I need; that and the instructions. Look. Just—look.” She was almost on the verge of tears from happiness.

 “I don’t understand. That package was so heavy. There had to have been more.” Loeb said.

Julie, giddy, started to laugh. “Loeb. Stop talking and look at the label.”

He looked at the label that was off-white and had the same elegant writing he had seen earlier.

No.6 Pregnancy Balm

“The Morning Star”

The blood rushed to his head and Loeb could feel his ears begin to burn and his face turn red.

Julie reached out and gently touched his hand with hers.

“Here. Read this,” she said as she handed him a piece of paper. “This explains how it works.”

But Loeb pushed the paper away.

“Goddamn it, Julie. Goddamn.”

Loeb could see a shadow come over her face again. It was like a shade closing behind her eyes. The pink of her ears turned white and with a burst of energy that surprised even him she bounced to her feet, propelling herself toward him and began pushing and punching him in the chest.

“Jesus, Julie, relax. Stop. I don’t get it, that’s all.”

“What don’t you get, Loeb?  I’m stupid?”

“I didn’t say you were stupid. But this…” he held up the vial, “this, is stupid.”

He grabbed one of her arms with his free hand, and this seemed to stop her, at least for the moment.

“Come on. Jules. Listen to me.”

Her face darkened even more at the sound of his pet name for her.

“No!” She said, and she pulled her hands free and slapped him in the face.

“Julie. Please. Just relax. Let’s talk about this.”

Loeb leaned forward past her and put the vial down on their desk.  She was crying now, silently crying in quiet fits and convulsions, and he could hear the moaning of the television in the background. He went to hug her since he wasn’t sure what else to do.

“No, you don’t. No, you don’t. You don’t get to move past this like you usually do. Not now. You know exactly what this is all about.”

She turned back and picked up the vial from the desk. Loeb grabbed her hand, trying to take it back from her.

“No. But that’s the thing. I don’t, Jules. I don’t know what this is all about. Except that this looks like scam to me. I’m more pissed that some company could take advantage of you like this.” 

“Doesn’t matter.”  She said, shaking her head. “It’s going to work. They said the Program would work. They showed me how. They showed me everything. I saw how it all worked and it was beautiful.”

“Ok. And who’s ‘they’ anyways?”

“What’s the point? You don’t care.”

“I do care. S & B. That’s on the label. Who are they?”

“The Company. The ones that run the Program. There’s an online questionnaire to start, and later they email your initial profile back to you and you go on from there to the next steps. They work with you through the whole thing.” 

Her face looked tired, although there was a strength to her voice that seemed to propel her forward. He knew that this strength was derived from anger based on that same emptiness and silence that she blamed him for. She had never received what she had wanted and had been promised. It was the thing that she considered taken from her.

“Julie. Listen to me. What could they possibly offer that could solve our issue with a single product? What kind of questions could they possibly ask that could give them any insight into our situation?” 

“They ask the things you would expect, Loeb—family history, life goals, medical history, how long you’ve been trying, what the particular issue is, things like that.  Later, they go into more personal things. In the end, I talked to them for hours, for days, but afterwards it was like a giant rock had been lifted off of me. It felt so good, Loeb. It felt so good. I felt so unburdened by it all.  And then they analyze the specific chemistry of your body and all your genetic predispositions based on the blood and saliva samples you send in—”

“Blood samples. Julie, seriously do you hear yourself now? Do you?” 

“Whatever, Loeb. Then they customize the first phase of the treatment plan—”

“I know it was disappointing for you. I know you wanted this bad. Maybe we talk adoption again. There’s always another way.”

“We’ve already tried all of that. If you had really wanted that it would have worked out, but you really never did, did you? I know you always thought it wouldn’t be the same, and anyways, it’s too late for that now.”

“What do you mean it’s too late? What does that even mean? Listen to me. You’re an educated woman. But you should know better. You’re just having a rough time of it lately. Just take a breath.”

“I hate you.”

With that Julie turned away and began to read to herself from the pamphlet, looking occasionally at her watch, before looking back to the instructions again, and then back to the watch. He stood there, watching as she took a bit of cream from the vial and spread it on her stomach, then placed the vial down and went back to silently reading from the pamphlet. The conversation was over, so he walked back to the kitchen and the door slammed behind him.

It was well past midnight when Loeb woke up in the living room where he had fallen asleep earlier in the evening. As he went to the kitchen he saw the same flow of light coming again from under the office door, but also the occasional quick shadow of busy movement from inside.

Still at it. 

From outside came the sound of aluminum cans hitting the ground. It was close, and Loeb walked into their bedroom to the window that had a full view of the front street. But before he could get to it he found his wife, fast asleep and naked, laying on the comforter of their bed.  Loeb’s mind quickly went back to the movement he had just seen coming from under the door of the office. He had seen light, he was sure of it, maybe not the movement, maybe he wasn’t remembering that part right, but the light, yes, he was sure he had seen light coming from under the door. But when he ran back to the office, this time with baseball bat in hand, no light came from under the door. And of course, when he opened it, all he found was darkness, and no one there.

I’m remembering wrong, that’s all. I’m just tired.

He heard the sound of a car starting now. It was loud and sounded like an older model accompanied by the whirring noise of a worn or loose fan belt. Loeb ran back to the bedroom where Julie still lay sleeping, unmoved by the noise, and he looked out the window.

The car had its headlights off and was idling out front of their house. The front end had a deep red rust color with the back half an ugly pea green.  Heavy exhaust billowed from the muffler, and its cab was completely dark, save for the red glow from the cigarette of the driver.   The car revved its engine again and began to slowly accelerate, rolling down the block and away from their house, before coming to a full stop. Loeb looked down at his sleeping wife and walked to the porch.  As he got there, he paused to look at the still idling car, which began to slowly accelerate again, as if it were reacting to his presence. He could still see the red cherry of a lit cigarette. Loeb took a step down the stairs but as he did, the car gunned the gas, and took off in an explosion of noise and fumes, and sped off, disappearing past the darkness of the intersection by the corner of their house. Silence returned to the night.

“Dick,” Loeb said out loud to himself and he walked back inside. He found his wife, awake and naked standing in the hallway just outside their bedroom, staring past him toward the front door.

“Jesus. What are you doing?” He said.

Her eyes shifted back to his face and she spoke slowly.

“Living with my choices Loeb. That’s what I’m doing.”

Loeb shook his head. He was too tired.

“Julie, I can’t do this now. It’s late.”

Julie looked at the door again and this time kept staring at it as she spoke.  

“You can’t wait for them, Loeb. Even if you’re excited and you really, really, want them to come.  That’s the very first rule they tell you.”

“What rule? What are you talking about, Jules?”

“You. I’m talking about you,” she said. “They just saw you outside hovering like an idiot and they probably didn’t deliver the next treatment. So now I have to wait until who goddamn knows when. And I’ve waited long enough. You’ve already made me wait long enough.”

Loeb looked at the front door and then back at Julie.

“Who. Tell me who that was out there, Julie.”

“Maybe if I call them they’ll come back, I don’t know.”

“Is this still about the cream? Was that them just now? Do you have any idea how shady that is?  They weren’t delivering anything. They were casing our house. That’s probably their endgame here—that would make more sense anyway,” Loeb said.

“Well, they weren’t Loeb.  No one was casing our house. They were here for me. To help me.”

“Julie, it’s a scam. You know the only thing that will help our situation? Science. Modern science. And we’ve already tried all of that. So internet cream won’t fix it. Nothing will fix it. Nothing will either of us. Ever.” Loeb stopped speaking.  He had gone too far and softened his voice. “Listen, don’t you think it’s just a little weird that a company would swing by late at night in a crappy car to deliver the goods? You don’t think that’s strange?” he said. 

His voice trailed off.  He heard the television again.

“No.” Julie said. “What I want isn’t weird at all. You may think so, but I’m trying to fix something that’s been broken for a long time now. Something you broke. I want a baby, Loeb.  They said it’ll work, and I can feel it working. I can feel it filling in something that wasn’t there before.”

“But Julie, do you hear yourself?”  Loeb continued speaking softly and placed one hand on her face. “You’re an educated, intelligent, modern woman, but you’re also talking crazy.”

She began to cry again.

“I’m crazy? I’m trying to do something here and all you can do is sit there and judge me and sit in this goddamn house waiting for something. Well there’s nothing to wait for Loeb, because this house is dying, and I will not sit in its silence another day with all that weight falling on me. I won’t do it anymore! A baby. I wanted a baby!”

All of her anger, all that buried anger, came spilling out now, and everything else seemed to drop away from around them. There was nothing left. Nothing else to say; nothing left for them to do really. And so she walked back to the office, and she closed the door behind her.

The next day Julie didn’t leave the office. Loeb left the television on for her. He went for a run. He ran errands. The day went on as it should, and at its end he was tired even though he had no reason to be, and so he walked into the bedroom and found Julie, who had finally left her sanctuary, already there, fast asleep on top of the covers.  She was naked, except for a thin wrap of gauze wound tightly around her belly.  Deep pockets of shadow sat below her eyes. He looked at her face and then back down to gauze that had cream around its edges. 

We’ll work through it.  We always do.

“But it only works if I’m involved in some way, Julie,” he said out loud.  He watched her blonde hair rising and falling with each breath as she slept; the rising and falling of it.  

It all keeps going around us, doesn’t it? Going and going. None of it ends, until the breathing stops. It’s all a miracle no one understands, really.

  Loeb lay next to his wife, and he felt his tired body start to let go to sleep and separate from itself like he could float above it—like he could look down at the chaos below him before floating back off into nothingness he had come from.  He thought about this feeling for a while, and then he fell asleep.

He woke up sometime later in complete darkness. His head hurt. He could see nothing but could smell cigarettes. For a moment he wasn’t sure where he was. It was like a light switch had been turned off inside him. He had been blindfolded, and he realized his arms hurt as well, and they were spread apart above his head in the shape of a “v”. His head began throbbing more with pain and he could feel the slow movement of liquid, likely blood, down his face. His mouth was unbound, and he felt it was the only free thing of his that was without pain, and he let out a slow strange noise that grew in the air. He seemed to hear that sound outside himself, and he was surprised that he could make a sound like that. Then he felt hands and he smelled cigarettes, and he could no longer feel the pressure of the blindfold on his eyes and could see again. Around him on the walls were mirrors, all partially covered by white cloth. A large mirror sat on the floor in front of the bed, uncovered and facing him. There was a slash of blood on the wall next to him, and in the corner an old man sat watching. The Old Man’s skin was yellowed and tight and sat like a mask on his face. He looked over at Loeb and smiled, showing teeth that were orange and black, either from long term neglect or decay, or both. Loeb watched him take a drag from a cigarette. 

Julie walked out from the bathroom.  She had a knife in her hand, and she looked at Loeb and began to walk towards the side of the bed.   

“Julie, who is that? What are you doing?” Loeb said.

She reached the bed and smiled, lifting the knife above Loeb’s feet before pausing and then jamming the knife into the bedpost where it remained. She pulled the bedspread down from the rest of his body, and he realized he was naked. She made tight folds with it around his ankles.

“Honey, what are you doing? Who is that? Why is he here?”

Julie said nothing. She began to walk along the wall staring into the mirrors as she went.  The Old Man took a folded piece of white cloth from the nightstand and covered the mirror on the floor.  He took out a small vial of liquid from his pocket and poured it onto Loeb’s stomach.  Loeb tried to break free, convulsing as the Old Man began to rub the liquid into his stomach, and thighs, then down to his legs.

Again, Loeb tried to free himself, but the ties wouldn’t give, and he collapsed onto the bed.

“Julie, let’s talk about this.  If you’re caught up in something, it’s ok. We can get through that.  But don’t do anything you can’t take back.” 

Julie took the knife again from the bedpost and slowly traced the outline of his chest cavity with its tip.

“I told you already, Loeb, they’re here to help. They made a promise. I made a promise. They’ve given me what I wanted. It’s all very clear and specific. The debt has to be paid with the blood of the father.” The Old Man smiled as she said this.

Julie, her eyes glass-like, dead, looked at the knife in her hand before bringing it to the center of his chest.

“You don’t need to do this. I love you. I can help you; I can show you.”

She moved the blade to Loeb’s lips to quiet him, then down his chin and back to the center of his stomach.

“You’ve already helped by just being here, Loeb,” she said. “We’ll all be fine soon.”

“Look. Look. Look. Please…we can fix this.”

The Old Man was still watching, still smiling, as he reached over to take a pillow from the bed.

“Shush now,” he said as he placed the pillow down over Loeb’s face.

“Don’t worry Loeb. Don’t worry, I love you too.”

Later that morning a strong wind will pick up and the blue light of dawn will come through the green leaves again. In all the front yards, tired parents will watch their wide-eyed children play, and the older couples, whose children have moved on and had children of their own, will drink coffee on their porches.  The sound of the morning will visit the air again. Then we will watch the cold, low sun burst through the trees and turn all the shadows into color. That light will dance on the grass in the yards around us and it will dance in the empty streets. All the lovely people will think to themselves how the day will be warm, quiet, and bright.


M.P. Domingos is a writer living in Northern Virginia in a house full of people and animals. He writes when he can, often on an old computer, and edits at night after the kids have gone to bed. He has previously published poetry in the Dillydoun Review and Rue Scribe. You can find him on Twitter at @mdomingoswriter.


“The Rut and the Dial” Dark Fantasy by Jake Sheff

My name is Winthrop Doubleday, and I just became the Chief Prophet of the Osiris Order by killing my father and mother. Father was out hunting bear and turkey, and I pushed him into a snake pit. I watched his limbs go limp, and his eyes go blank. Then I returned to my mother tending the vegetable garden, and told her the news. “Very well,” she said, with a suspicious look. I handed her the poison mushroom, and like a true Osirian wife, she joined her man in the ultersphere. I ran into the cabin. I didn’t bother to light the lunar candle or smoke the moth wings; silly superstitions. I dashed off a vision to be read for the expectant crowd at tomorrow’s mass…

St. Mercury’s Day, 1894

Read at the Gathering for the Morning’s Reckoning Prayer to the congregation

And lo, an angel appeared over the lake in the form of a holy haboob. Her skin was a quicksilver absorbing the moon-glow so that all I saw was her likeness. She spoke like a starburst. It rattled my ears so that all I heard was her missive. And ba-la, I was transported – dumb, deaf and mute – to the scene of my father’s death and my mother’s honorable suicide. My heart was overcome with grief, but soon after my body was filled with warmth. A fiery ear appeared, and I whispered to it the forgotten prayers in an alien tongue

My name is Eliza Bolton, fiancée to the new Chief Prophet of the Osiris Order, or the Algonquin Prince Real, as he’s formally known until Devotion Day. I am also the head of a rebel group whose sole aim is to replace our current religion with a better one. We believe the Osiris Order is offensive to God, it oppresses creation. Under Osirian Law the air is too thick to breathe, the birds cannot fly and the earth buckles beneath its weight. After the Gathering for the Morning’s Reckoning Prayer, I spoke to the rebels.

“For too long we’ve forged ahead on the tracks of tradition, a trajectory unkind to change and to growth and incongruent with the nature of time. But we are the children of dark matter and dark energy, we are the gravity and glue that prevents the dissolution of here and now, and never and nothing. So brothers and sisters, take up arms! Tonight is the night we march to the edge of the world and over! [The crowd cheers.] Tonight is the night we…”

“Eliza!” 

– – Winthrop Doubleday stood on a boulder behind the rebel party, across from where Eliza stood. His Royal Garments were tattered and bloody. It appeared his right ear had been cut off. He spoke to Eliza, and the rebels all turned to listen. – –

“Eliza. The Imposters have broken through the gates, they’ve sacked Iowa City. And I’ve heard that Des Moines has also fell.”

– – The Imposters were a neighboring tribe that had settled two or three generations ago in Ames. A formerly nomadic band, they eventually grew and again became restless, a war-loving people obsessed with the ancient idea of Empire. – –

– – Anonymous cries from the crowd rang out: “Those heathens!” “Those dirty pagans!” Hatred and nationalism veiled their fear. – –

“So you are the rebels,” Winthrop continued. “The rumors are true?”

“I’m sorry, honey,” Eliza replied.

“Where are the children?” a woman called out from the crowd.

“They’ve been armed, and sent to defend the treasury” – – an old Civil War fort – – “the guards were sent to the front, which right now is at Butler Creek, but fast encroaching.” Winthrop looked at Eliza. “I need your help if we’re to survive this onslaught.”

Eliza nodded at Winthrop. “Our God is mightier than theirs.”

– – The crowd plowed through the forests with rifles and bayonets at the ready. They screamed their jingoistic slogans that rallied and mobilized the mob of untrained citizen-soldiers. They’d honed their skills with a gun by shooting passenger pigeons and non-violent white-tailed deer. Eliza and Winthrop lead from behind, allowed themselves to fall back, nearly out of earshot. – –

“So this is it, Eliza.”

“It looks like it, Your Luminance.”

“Don’t call me that. When we were kids – in high school – you loved me.”

– – Eliza didn’t answer. – –

“But that was before the 8th Revelation, the 3rd and 4th coming,” he went on. “Before the light dimmed and your father’s exile, when all we had were The Strangers’ Stories and The Imposters were on the coasts, or so we believed.”

Eliza started, “Winthrop, I know you’ve tried. But I can’t forgive…” – – Suddenly her ears filled with the hissing of snakes. – –

“It doesn’t matter,” Winthrop interrupted. – – And he removed his Royal Garments, revealing the fresh tattoo that shone on his chest in the crepuscular haze: the forbidden glyph of The Imposters.  – –

– – From her shocked state, Eliza perceived herself falling. She was relieved to feel herself land on the solid chest of a bulky man in leather and cotton attire. She turned to see the face of her benevolent former Chief Prophet, frozen as if time had finally stopped. Her fear was veiled by the sensation of being pierced all over and filled with the warmth and light of a love she had never even fathomed.  – –


Jake Sheff is a pediatrician and veteran of the US Air Force. He’s married with a daughter and six pets. Poems and short stories of Jake’s have been published widely. Some have even been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. His chapbook is “Looting Versailles” (Alabaster Leaves Publishing). A full-length collection of formal poetry, “A Kiss to Betray the Universe,” is available from White Violet Press.


“Twisted Sisters and Neighbouring Nasties” Dark Fiction by Sandra Arnold

Despite the blue sky, the sunlight on the leaves of the plum tree, the birdsong, the music, the photographs of Tessa mounted on a board showing all the decades of her ninety years of life, Liz was all too aware of the vibes emanating from Jeff’s family who looked as if they’d been dragged kicking and screaming to the memorial. Her daughter Serena and Jeff had not only worked hard in the two weeks since Tessa’s death to create this tribute, Liz reflected, they’d also worked hard for the whole of the previous year to help her remain independent. When Jeff’s mother Rachel died eighteen months ago the shock of losing her caused a rapid decline in Tessa’s health. Jeff and Serena took over responsibility for her. They drove her to medical appointments, organised a new hearing aid, glasses, cell phone, a cleaner, Meals on Wheels and a Driving Miss Daisy taxi service after she lost her license over a car crash. They visited her and made daily phone calls, trying to fill the gap that Rachel had left.

 “At least the stroke took her quickly,” Jeff said, his voice cracking. “At least she didn’t suffer.” He described the kind of person his Aunt Tessa had been, sharp-tongued, yes, but kind and generous; the adventures her life had taken her on ‒  cook for a gang of shearers in the Australian outback, conductress on a tram in Wellington, training as a milliner and creating beautiful hats. “Dad wanted me to work in his garage with him fixing engines, working with tools and oil cans, but I was happier with Aunt Tessa in her workroom playing with all the gorgeous fabrics,” he said.

Nigel, Jeff’s father, glared at the grass. When Jeff choked up Serena moved to his side and read from his speech until his breathing steadied. Nigel’s scowl sank deeper into his forehead.

Jeff read out tributes from friends and neighbours of Tessa who couldn’t attend the memorial. One of Jeff’s sisters, Bev, who’d flown down from Wellington, spoke about her memories of Aunt Tessa and ended with saying how much she had adored her. The other sister, Val,  rolled her eyes.

When the tributes were finished Liz  dragged her eyes away from  Jeff’s family and spoke to the assembled mourners. “Jeff and Serena wanted the memorial here in our garden because Tessa loved to come here. She joined us for our New Year celebration, just two weeks before she died. We sat here under the plum tree. She told me it made her happy to see  Serena and Jeff together. She said the reason she had never married was because she’d never found anyone she wanted to spend her whole life with, although she’d had plenty of offers. So she’d decided at the age of forty to work at two jobs to make enough money to buy a house and become independent. She talked about how much she missed Rachel and how Jeff and Serena made her feel that she still had  a family. The last thing she said to me out here in the garden was, ‘Liz, I can hear the birds singing.’ She had a big smile on her face. That is how I’ll remember her.”

Jeff then played Tessa’s favourite song I did it my way. While the song played there was surreptitious mopping of eyes, though not of Val’s eyes, Liz noted, remembering that  Tessa had told her Val hadn’t spoken to her since an angry phone call six months ago about an issue on which Val felt Tessa had no right to express an opinion. Something flashed at the side of Liz’s eye. She turned her head to see a glistening spider’s web strung between the branches of the plum tree. She noted the intricate patterns the spider had woven and thought how deceptively delicate the web looked in the sunlight. A fly flew straight into the centre and stuck fast, struggling uselessly. Liz watched until the buzzing grew fainter and stopped. When the song ended there was a collective sigh and everyone stood and moved over to the tables to get some food.

One of Tessa’s neighbours said to Liz, “I lived next door to Tessa for fifty years. I knew her very well. I was dreading this day, but it’s been  beautiful, funny and kind, just like Tessa.”  

Jeff’s  cousin, Tristan, piling food on his plate, told Liz how lucky she and Alan were to live in this place. “Life must be so tranquil here,” he said. “The city’s full of nutters.”

Liz said that rural villages had their share of odd individuals too. She told him about the man who’d threatened to shoot their dog if he chased his cats one more time, and the man who had videoed his young wife with hitchhikers he’d picked up and brought home for the purpose. “We offered her sanctuary at our house for the year we went overseas and we slapped a trespass notice on her husband,” she said. “However, she invalidated the notice after she phoned him to invite him over because she was lonely. She nursed him during his last illness when his family abandoned him and she slept with his corpse for three days until his funeral. She spent a whole night sleeping on his grave in the cemetery. She told us she had hoped to freeze to death there.”

Tristan’s mouth dropped open. “Nooo! You’re making this up!” 

“Oh, truth can be stranger than fiction,” Liz said.

Later in the afternoon Tristan went with Liz and Alan to the garden gate to wave goodbye to the departing guests. He was the last one to leave. As he got into his car a cyclist on the opposite side of the road suddenly veered across. He leapt off his bike and hurled it down in front of Tristan’s car and banged on the window yelling at Tristan to wind it down. Tristan asked why he should and the man screamed “You know why!” Tristan reversed and drove off at speed. The man chased him down the street on his bike before throwing himself on the grass verge and beating it with his fists.

“Who on earth …?” Liz said, horrified.

“A tranquil inhabitant,” said Alan.

“Not funny,” said Liz.

As they walked back into the garden they saw Jeff bailed up in a corner by Bev, Val and Nigel demanding to know what was in Tessa’s will. “She made you her executor,” Bev was saying, “so you must know.”

“I knew they’d pull something like this as soon as they got him on his own,” Liz said, moving towards the group, “Where’s Serena?”

Alan put a restraining hand on her arm. “It’s Jeff’s family,” he said. “Let him deal with them.”

Bev’s voice, shrill with annoyance, drowned out the birdsong. “Aunt Tessa said she was going to leave her house to you, but no matter what the will states you need to share everything with us. Val and I are leaving our partners so we need the money.”

Nigel added, “We all knew she had stashes of cash hidden around the house. That needs to go into the pot.”

Jeff told them this was not the time or place to discuss these things as Aunt Tessa had been dead only two weeks and they all needed time to grieve.

“She was a spiteful old bitch,” Val shot back. “I’ll bet she’s left all her money to the Cats Protection League.”

The following week the sisters got their copies of the will from Tessa’s lawyer. The contents of the house and the money in Tessa’s bank account had been left to them and the house had been left to Jeff. The fact they’d inherited a large sum of money should have kept them happy, Jeff told Serena. But it didn’t. Their fury was incendiary. Jeff repeated that they needed to abide by the terms of the will as these were Tessa’s wishes. A stream of angry emails from Bev followed and several visits from Nigel. Each time Serena spotted him coming up their drive she was glad they’d taken the precaution of keeping the blinds closed and that their front door had mirror glass in the panels.

Jeff emailed his sisters to ask them to let him know when they wanted to look through the house to claim any of the contents, after which he would donate the remaining items to the Salvation Army. Bev emailed that Jeff was not to be allowed in the house while she and Val  checked the contents. She supposed, she added, that he’d taken the stashes of cash for himself. Jeff’s response was to put a padlock on the garden gate of Aunt Tessa’s house and he changed the locks on the front and back doors. He and Serena sorted through all the drawers and cupboards and threw out shelves of mouldy and expired food and donated hundred of tins of food to the Salvation Army. Tessa had been a hoarder, but then often forgot what she’d hoarded. They donated her clothes to the Cats Protection League and weeded and watered the garden.

Tessa’s neighbour phoned Jeff one afternoon to say that Nigel and Val were at the gate of the house and were trying to break the padlock. The neighbours had warned them off, but Nigel told them to mind their own business. He left a message on Jeff’s phone to say if Jeff didn’t appear at the house with the key that afternoon he would break the padlock.

That night Serena dreamed of an old house where each of the rooms she entered burst into flames. The cause, in her dream, was the ancient heater Tessa had used to warm up her cold rooms. Jeff wrote to the lawyer asking him to remind his father and sisters that breaking in was illegal.

On Sunday Tessa’s neighbour rang Jeff to say Nigel and Val were back at Tessa’s house again and had taken the gate off its hinges. They were trying out keys at the front door. The neighbours called the police. When they arrived on the scene Val lied that it was her property and that she’d forgotten her key. The neighbour took the police inside her own house and informed them of the truth. They said it was a civil matter, not a police matter and advised her to tell Jeff and Serena to take out a trespass notice.

Liz and Alan told their neighbours about the man on the bike who’d threatened Tristan after the memorial. One of them said it was probably Marty who lived at the edge of the village and whose neighbours had placed a restraining order on him. “Nice guy when he’s on his meds,” he said. A week later their water tanks ran dry. Alan found the water valve at the top of their drive had been turned off. A call to the Council assured him they hadn’t done it. Alan told Liz there was no proof it was Marty, so they’d better let the matter drop for now. That night Liz dreamt that their house was on fire with no water available to extinguish the flames.

Val and Bev sent a letter to Jeff via their lawyer demanding entry to the house, but prohibiting Jeff from being present.

The man next door to Serena and Jeff’s house threw a bag of human faeces over the fence into their garden with a note: Have a happy life.They rang the police who went to see Mr Poo and warned him to behave. Serena did some sums and calculated that with the sale of their house and Tessa’s they could afford to move out of this neighbourhood. She filled out a trespass notice against Jeff’s sisters.

Next morning the lawyer told Serena and Jeff that Probate had been granted. He advised caution, given the sisters’ hostility, until it was determined whether or not they wanted to challenge the will.

On their way home Jeff said. “I don’t have a family anymore, do I?”

Serena thought of all the birthday and Christmas celebrations in Jeff’s family home when his mother had been alive.

That night she dreamed of a clock with its mechanism exposed. When all the cogs were revolving in the same direction it was easy to predict how the circle would keep turning, but when  one cog shifted from its axis it was no longer possible to determine the new trajectory. Next day she rang Liz to tell her about the dream. After the phone call with Serena, Liz took her cup of tea out onto the verandah. She sipped it slowly, watching the sun sink behind the mountains. The sky turned pink, the clouds tinged with gold, and the birds returned to their nests. A hawk began its slow circuit over the fields, gliding and dipping. Liz watched its sudden dive to the ground. It disappeared from view for a second and then made its swift upward trajectory. It held fast to whatever was in its claws.


Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury, New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books including three novels, a non-fiction work and a collection of flash fiction.  Her work has been widely published internationally, placed and short-listed in various competitions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfictions and The Best Small Fictions. www.sandraarnold.co.nz