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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<><><> 

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

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

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

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

<><><> 


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


“The Fog” Fiction by Lauren Jane Barnett

She chose green for the baby’s room to feel natural and soothing, but by night it looked sickly. The entire room – and the entire house – was chosen with the child in mind. She moved away from the city, her work, her friendships, the restaurants she knew; all in order to give her child a life in the country.  When she first saw the house, nestled in a blanket of vibrant green, it was exactly what she wanted for her child. Days running in the lawn, picking flowers, walking down to the river. It was the best any parent could offer.

The first morning after she moved in, she looked out as the fog retreated from the valley and imagined telling her son or daughter how it had kissed the grass with dew. Now that the child was here, the fog seemed to creep in on them at night, cutting them off from the green surroundings, and the open air.  Cast in the shadow of night, it seemed impossible this catacomb could be the same house. The fog pressed in on her, making it hard to breathe. The barren walls became an echo chamber for the shrill screams of the creature in her arms. And the sour green of the nursery walls made Katherine nauseous every night.

Tonight, with the cries of her child bouncing off the walls, the entire room seemed to collapse in on her with rot. The putrid green, the fog pressing in the glass, it turned the open modern space into the cavers of a tomb. The gaping windows conspired to mock by mimicking another wall of thick, tumbling grey. Everything in the house pushed in on her. Just like her wailing child. And the cried never seemed to stop. They bored into her brain as they ricocheted off the walls, forced inward on her by the pressing grey of the fog that pressed against the window panes.  In the first week she felt she was an animal in a cage. That was normal for nursing mothers, wasn’t it? But after a month, she dared to wonder if there was something inhuman about her child. 

It didn’t have cholic. The doctor had told her so on every visit she made. Each time he said the same thing: the baby was healthy; the baby was happy. The doctor had the gall to tell her “it’s normal for babies to cry” as though she was a scared teenager who found herself accidentally caring for something completely alien. She was nearly forty. She knew babies cried. She’d read every parenting book they published – in the two languages she spoke. She read the blogs and did mommy-baby yoga. She was an intelligent, capable, responsible adult. And she knew this behaviour wasn’t normal. Children didn’t cry every time you tried to feed them. Maybe it wasn’t cholic – that was only her best guess – but something was wrong. Of course, the medical profession didn’t agree. Instead, they sent her home with pamphlets on postnatal depression, websites on insomnia and no option but to endure hours of whimpering screams and refusal to feed. Alone.

How long had it been, she mused, since she brought home the pink mass with its fragile egg-shaped head and its tiny pink mouth? How long had it been since the baby seemed so quiet or so peaceful? On the island of maternity, there was no way to mark the weeks and months. Even the last feeding was something of a mystery. The “ideal baby schedule” torn from a book was lost somewhere in the house, long since memorized by Katherine and rejected by the baby. The child had melted time into a single unified blob. It was never, and it was always, feeding time. It was perpetually just after naptime, or maybe just before. The crying would last for hours. Longer than was natural. Or healthy. Or humanly possible.

Her mind seemed to be filled with fog. Or maybe it was the room? Could the night air be seeping in at the window seems? She reached for the light and the room came into sharp focus. Shadows sprung up on the walls around her to form prison bars. She nearly laughed in agreement with the image. Until she noticed the state of the floor.

Paralysed by the sight, her eyes took in the scattered debris of toys, books, and diapers. A ring of baby powder puffed onto the rug where the bottle had fallen, nearly five feet from the changing table. A cold sick clutched her chest. It had happened again. Her mouth went sour. The jagged angles of books spiked up from the carpet reminded her of the glass shattered before. This was not haphazard or chaotic. Every object felt like a boobytrap laid out for her.

A week ago – or maybe a few nights ago – she had come into the room to feed the baby. By some miracle, the room was quiet and still. She crept over to the crib and tripped over a stuffed horse that was usually up on a shelf. She staggered forward and knocked her ribs into the changing table. Had she not caught herself she could have cracked her head. When she blinked though the pain, her eyes were foggy and blurred.  She struggled to see around her until finally, in a moment that still froze her spine, she noticed the bedlam. A warzone of bears and blankets made the floor impassable. Amid the debris only the lamp’s bulb was broken. Picking the glass out of the rug had taken twenty minutes, and she still managed to lodge a piece in her knee. There was a scar to remind her it was real.

This time she refused to clean up the mess. She had done enough, cleaned enough. If her house was being invaded she didn’t have the energy or the will to fight it. And the child was screaming. And her eyes ached with the pain of exhaustion. As she felt tears and snot of her baby against her breast she looked up to heaven, not really praying. What was there to pray for? Every person she had gone to for advice or help had told her nothing was wrong. That it was all in her head. And maybe some of it was.

Maybe she was too tired to remember the last feeding.  And maybe she was always tripping over things because she was half-asleep and disoriented. Maybe she had thrown the child’s toys around the room and forgot why. Twice.  No, three times. Although that could have been a dream.  She thought she saw in the hall mirror a tendril of fog slip over the walls and shake the changing table as it passed behind, casting the diapers and towels and powder to the floor.

It must have been a dream. She lived in the constant company of nightmares ever since she came home from the hospital. One nightmare: the fog pressing in at the windows until her lungs, and the house, exploded.  She remembered waking up screaming.

The nightmares made Katherine more open to the idea that she was depressed. It made sense. She was on her own all day. The only one to care for the baby, mummified by maternity leave that left her stranded from the real world except the occasional call. Exhausted and aching, she barely slept anymore. Anyone would be upset, even lost. But if she took that for granted, she still couldn’t ignore that something else was going on too. Even in her muddled mind, she was certain.

If you explained away everything else, you couldn’t explain the baby. It only cried when she held it. This wasn’t a matter of opinion; no matter what her friends said. The child never cried until she touched it. She tried once to leave the baby completely alone, ignoring feeding schedules and playtime until it cried. Her plan was to pretend the baby wasn’t even there. She had dinner, watched something for a while, and took herself to bed. She turned off each feeding alarm on her phone (even the act of sliding that glowing circle felt liberating), although it didn’t stop her from waking up at three in the morning.

In the pitch black of the night, she started to think. She last fed the baby before dinner, at seven. Usually, she would try another feed before bed, although it never seemed interested. Now would normally be her next attempt. How long could a child go without food? In her exhaustion, she had to count the hours out loud. Eight. No baby could go eight hours without food.  An adult would be fussy after eight hours without food – unless they were asleep. A sudden sick swell of anxiety shot her bolt upright on the bed.  It wasn’t possible. She must have tuned out the cries.

She tried to steady her mind. She took a breath in, but it made her dizzy. She needed to check on the baby. It must be crying. But as she got closer, she heard no noise from the nursery. She crossed the threshold and the room smelt sickly sweet. Any minute the baby would cry, she told herself. But, still, there was no noise. Her stomach started to turn sour. She thought she could smell burning (was that the sign of a stroke? Or was that anxiety?). She looked at the crib from the door, frozen. Terror hit her in the spine and rose into a cold heat that snapped like a rubber-band. What if the baby was dead? What would they say if she starved her child? How could you explain that to your boss? To your friends? To the police?

She stood there for too long. The green walls turned hallucinogenic in the sunrise. Her head spun – had she hit it? – and she stumbled to the crib. Her vision clouded with tears she stared at the silent bundle of sheets, completely still in the middle of the crib. She couldn’t see even the tiniest movement of breath. She fell to her knees. She’d done it. She’d killed her child. She reached out to touch the small corpse. Tears ran down her face as her fingers gently for that tiny little hand. She felt the warmth of its skin at the moment the scream pitched into the air. It was alive. But how could it be alive?

There was no question after that horrible night that something was wrong. For hours the child was silent. Until she touched it. When she told the doctor he dismissed it as a dream. Elisabeth, her best friend, called it pregnancy brain. They both used that saccharine phrase: “I’m sure it seems that way.” The way you talk to a child or an invalid. Yes, it had been a nightmare, but she had been awake for it. It isn’t my fault she mentally screamed at them. The child was possessed. It had to be. How could you explain the long hours without feeding? The hatred of her touch? How could you explain…

But that may have been a dream too. It couldn’t have really happened. She had been burping the baby, nestled in the crook of her shoulder, head lulling on the handmade burp cloth as it screamed into her ear. The pats and jostling finally seemed to produce some kind of results as she felt the warmth trickle on her shoulder. But she pulled the baby away and there was no sign of spit around its mouth, face still scrunched in discomfort. And a lock of long, brown hair in its clutched fist, clotted and red at the ends. The burping cloth stained with a blossom of blood.

She’d thrown the cloth away, so there was no way now to check if it had been real. She didn’t want it to be, even at the time. The baby could barely close a fist around her finger, it couldn’t have pulled out her hair. And it hadn’t even hurt. She should have felt the pain of it. Still, she had no other explanation for the scab buried in the hairline just behind her ear. She never told the doctor about that. Every time she thought about it heat of anger and shame flooded her body. She wasn’t sure who she blamed: herself or the baby.

Suddenly, something caught at the edge of her mind. A sound. A muffling. She looked down to see her hands red with pressure, forcing the child against her chest, screams muffled breathlessly into her. In a flash she pulled her hands away, nearly losing her grip on the infant. Its screams at least showed it was breathing. She nearly suffocated it. Just as quickly as it came, the sharp stab of fear in her chest rotted into anger.

“Why won’t you feed?” She screamed at the child. The immediate silence cut through the air. Large watery green eyes looked up at her, mouth open in a miniature gasp. At the sight of the fragile little face, guilt crept in. Katherine had waited for ages for the child to be silent in her arms, and now it was silent because it was afraid. 

Suddenly she couldn’t get enough air. She was pulling gulps of it through her mouth, but it didn’t make it to her lungs. Tears burnt in her eyes and the image of her child blurred. She needed to put it down before she did something else. Something awful. She lay the baby in the crib (had it fed?) and she ran out to the bathroom. Without the light, she stumbled toward the sink. The tiles were so cold it was painful. It did something to slow the tears, but not enough to clearly see the taps when she turned them on. She could tell by the sound the rush of water was in front of her and she dove her hands in and splashed the water against her hot face. The second she felt it against her skin she regained her breath.

She wasn’t sure how long she smoothed water over her face, but each splash helped. She remembered talking to the doctor.

“Most mothers have no idea what they are doing… You may feel like you are failing but you are just learning… As a single mother you may feel more pressure, but you are just as capable.” She willed herself to believe it, and to repeat her overused chant: Everything is fine. Being a mother may be frustrating, but it will all turn out fine.

As the heat in her face cooled and the air returned to her lungs, she turned the taps off. She let the water drip down her face onto the cotton shirt of her pyjamas. She would try again. And this time it the baby would suckle. She patted off the water on her face with the towel and glanced at the mirror to see how badly her eyes were swollen. She was relieved to find it was barely noticeable.

But something caught her eye. A fleck on her chin. She leaned forward to look closer in the shadows of the night. There was barely any light in the bathroom save the slivers that leaked in from the nursery, but she could just see a little something hanging off her chin. Like a crumb. She brushed at it with her hand, but it didn’t budge.

A flick of the switch revealed the flake of dried skin at the point of her chin. She gently took it between her nails and pulled. As she did the fleck expanded out, unraveling a smooth, transparent sheet taking on the shape of her jaw. She stared at the shred of her own skin, like a fine sliver of mica or a delicate lace.  Her fingers parted and she watched it float to the white surface of the counter, where it crumpled.

Her eyes went back to the mirror She leaned in closer to find the next edge, just below the pout of her lip. The thin layer of skin drew away, following the curve of her lip in an ethereal smile. Where it broke another flap lifted and her fingers followed instinctively. This time tracing her nostrils along the bridge of her nose and flaring in a triangle at the arch of her eyebrow. Strip by strip, her skin piled on the counter, building its ghostly layers. Each one a large section, marked with fingered veins showing the lines and plates of her skin. Before long Katherine peeled back the surface of her face. Staring back at her was a mottled web of blue, purple, and red veins.

She didn’t scream.

She ran out into the night. Into the fog. Her eyes clouded with mist as she stumbled into the ground. She registered the cold dew against her hands and the grass spiking into her knees, melting her body into the dirt. She begged the fog to wash over her, to rinse her away; for every inch of her skin to fade into moonlight. To dissolve completely. She was nothing anyway.

She had been too long a shell, a husk. A dead thing walking and living; forced to be alive. Forced to breathe. Forced to feed. Forced to care for something else. And how could she when there was nothing to her? She needed it: the fog. Breathing it into her nostrils, she urged it to sweep over every inch of the skin lining her lungs and pull it out from her. She willed it to seep into her blood, dissolving every cell until she could evaporate into complete and blissful nothingness. Her breath stopped taking control as the fog poured into her, flitting under her fingernails beneath the skin; peacefully spreading her out into a million tiny fragments until she could completely fall into air.

As she waited for it to come – for that bliss of becoming air – she realized she could still feel the cold dew on her skin. Her all too solid surface had not cracked. Goosebumps appeared in response to the chilled air. Nothing could save her now.

And she dragged herself back into the house.

*

Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear.

The child’s rhyme kept appearing in her head as she made her rings of paper. The baby was in a rocker beside her, gently swaying with the tap of her foot. The kitchen table was covered in papers. Newspaper sheets, pastel pages from picture books, glossy strips from magazines; all were torn into strips strewn over the kitchen table. It reminded her of childhood. Her mother taught her to take each strip and bring the ends together to form a little circle. Each circle was connected inside the one before to make a paper chain. You could make them as long as you wanted, as long as you had the paper.

Her mother had never told her so, but you could do the same with dish towels by tying the ends together. They sat in the sink soaking in the acrid liquid, which made Katherine dizzy. But it was only a pint or two. And she got used to the scent.

Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step, two step, tickle you everywhere.

It was too simple a song to leave her head, and too repetitive to keep there. But it got her through the daylight. She was nearly ready as the sun began to slip from the sky. An energy made Katherine’s entire body seem light.

The kitchen ran with strings of these chains in every color. It could have been a birthday party. They hung from the ceiling, draped over the counter, and snaked their way to the pine chairs, each with its own paper chain coiled around it like a snake. The rags made their sodden chain from the kitchen to the stairs. A less buoyant but equally impressive sight.

Katherine filled a pan with oil and placed it on the cold hob. She went upstairs to dress, adding a layer of long-johns under her clothing, and a second onesie over the crying child. She settled it down on her bed in the hopes it would get a small amount of sleep. Looking through the window she could see the last yellow rays of sunlight. The day had passed so quickly.

Light on her feet she shoved her phone, laptop, and a few small pieces in her purse. She didn’t want it to be too suspicious. She double-checked the diaper bag and added a quilted blanket. Shadows spread into the house making it harder to see, but she only wanted to turn on the kitchen light. She put the bags by the door. Looking around the house, it seemed to be covered in slithering creatures as the shadows poured in. But she wouldn’t be there long.

The hob ignited with its usual click and she carefully steered a chain of paper just below the pan. It caught in a brilliant glow of orange, but she waited until the next chain caught. The rags finally ignited. Then it began to spread. The oil sputtered out of the pan and caught. She didn’t have much time. She ran upstairs and grabbed the small bundle from the crib, nestling it in the nook of her arm. For once the child didn’t scream. It was the sign of hope Katherine didn’t realize she was looking for. They were finally connected. Her baby knew she was being saved by a loving mother. She jumped down the stairs to a surprising billow of smoke. She ducked below the surface and ran to the bags. She hooked both on her arm and pushed through the door into the open air. The fresh cold smell mixed with the growing scent of smoke.

She needed to get clear of the house. Wrapping the blankets to hold her daughter against her Katherine ran, the other bags banging into her legs as she fled into the fog. The glow behind her grew large but faint as she tore away into the fog. At last, she dropped them to look back and the glowing house. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Her breath stabbed in her lungs. The cold hit her neck and she stared. The house she loved. The house in the countryside she chose for her family. The green lawns and rainy days she dreamed about. It all slowly burnt. She saw part of the roof fall in and a shutter of orange parks cascade into the air like fireworks. Within the clouds of grey, a single column of black smoke swirled upward. It stood out even from this distance like a snake leaving its hovel, Draining bile from the house, and escaping into the sky. The sight of it unlocked her heart. She broke into a laugh edged with tears. They were free. The tears on her cheek felt pleasant. In a flood of love and warmth she looked to the fragile body in her arms, and into the moon-tinted brown eyes of her daughter’s teddy bear.


Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. Her first non-fiction book, Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror, is coming out with Strange Attractor Press in October 2021.  


“Big Game Hunter” Fiction by Travis Lee

It’s dusk and no one’s coming.

The damn beast wasn’t supposed to charge me. I paid $45,000 to come hunt it, an albino rhinoceros with a nice horn. They made me sign a waiver. This land is owned by a diamond mining conglomerate, and when Pavel looked at my signature he told me I was going in alone. Once I kill the rhino, contact him by satellite phone.

The phone. In the tall grass, maybe still working, or maybe in pieces along with the rest of me because when the rhino charged I was not prepared. Animals have never acted hostile before. You should see the lions. They tear apart wildebeests and buffalo calves, but when they see me they just lay there as I squeeze the trigger.

My arm is aching. I’m trying not to move but my arm. I shift a little. My gut explodes in pain. Blood attracts predators and there’s a difference between a healthy man aiming a gun and a bleeding man under a tree. One’s an anomaly.

The other’s prey.

I went on my first hunt was when I was twelve. My uncle took me to Yellowstone Park and before we set off he pulled me close and said, Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.

I haven’t thought of that in years.

Funny what your mind coughs up.

#

I have some pills but I dare not take any. Night has fallen and I’m alert. I have a .357 Magnum with six shots, well, five. Five for the hyenas.

One for myself.

They sound close. I raise the gun, ignoring the pain. It’s stupid, of course, as hyenas hunt in packs. The best I could do is scare them and if that doesn’t work?

One bullet will.

Hyenas can bite through anything. They’ll start at my legs, ripping me apart beneath the clear savannah sky.

At which point do you die? In the middle or does it happen last, after you’ve been mostly eaten?

#

Night passes. No hyenas.

I’m getting weaker. I sip the canteen. There’s enough water for a day, maybe two if I space it out but it’s hot. The sun breaks through the leaves and a fly crawls around my mouth.

#

The satellite phone is ringing.

Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. The sound of salvation I spot it in the tall grass, green light flashing.

Beep-beep.

Beep-beep.

#

I’ve spent the day making arguments against going for the phone. My uncle’s words keep coming back, circling me like the flies. I’m already part of the food chain, and it didn’t happen when the rhino charged and I stood there like a doofus, too shocked to do anything. It happened the moment I stepped out of the jeep.

A caw. I look up.

A vulture cruises overhead.

I close my eyes. Vultures can smell the dying from miles away.

I open my eyes and reach for my gun. The vulture. I stare at it, my eyes burning in the unfiltered daylight. The vulture spreads its wings and perches on a high branch.

It’s staring down at me.

I tilt my gun skyward, , aligning the barrel with the bird. I do a silent Mississippi-count to five.

I fire.

The bird drops down beside me. Its wings spread open, covering my legs and I look down and scream, brushing it away and igniting a new series of pain.

I shove the dead bird as far as my arm will allow and close my eyes. The smell. A messy infection below and I can smell myself rotting and I can’t hold it in. I turn my head.

I puke.

#

Laughter cuts through the night. My eyes flip open and I grab the Magnum.

Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain. I had slipped away to somewhere just beneath the pain. My uncle was leading me through the jungle to where the rhino stood waiting in a long field. I lined up to take my shot while the rhino charged and I took it down, one shot. Dead.

Their laughter makes me want to laugh too and I let go of the gun. I cover my mouth with both hands. I laugh, pressing my hands tighter as they approach.

The hyenas move with purpose through the tall grass. Their eyes shine like migratory starlight as they rush their prey. I know they can see me and smell me but do they understand and I know I should grab the gun because this is it, but I don’t.

I just laugh.

And I’m still laughing when the hyenas ignore me. An elephant herd is on the move. I’m laughing when the hyenas slip between the great beasts’ legs, separating a baby elephant from the herd. I’m laughing when they start with the trunk, one hyena tearing it in half and the rest ripping it off. The baby elephant is screaming as the pack swarms and I have my answer: you die at the very end. The hyenas eat the baby elephant to the bone.

I’m laughing so hard I have a coughing fit.

#

The pain is bad and the smell is worse.

The pills are part of the standard first aid kit they issue all hunters. They give you a vacuum-sealed pack of six. One a day.

Or six.

I tell myself it won’t come to that. I look up. The sun hasn’t crossed the midway point yet and the predators hunt at night. I look out across the savannah. The baby elephant’s bones. I feel a laughing fit coming on and I jab my tongue against my cheek. The laughter rises, falls back. I hold my tongue there until I no longer feel like laughing.

I peel one of the pills free.

It dissolves on my tongue in seconds. I lean back, close my eyes and listen for the phone.

#

Beep-beep.

I open my eyes.

Beep-beep.

I close them.

#

I’m awake. For a second I think there is a bear in the tall grass, guarding the satellite phone. I have to concentrate for several minutes, readjusting my mind to the time and the shapes around me.

It’s night. I slept all day.

I wasn’t supposed to sleep all day. God damn pills are only supposed to knock you out for five hours. But you’re also supposed to eat with them and I have no food. The three emergency MREs they give you are out in the tall grass somewhere, assuming the hyenas haven’t gotten to them.

Flies crawl on my forehead.

#

I turn my head to puke but only dryheave. I have nothing to throw up.

#

I’m awake all night, thinking of my rifle.

My uncle taught me how to shoot. We hit targets on his property. And in Yellowstone, he taught me the importance of stealth.

Since we’re part of the food chain we gotta act like it, he said, outfitting a silencer to his rifle.

We tracked the bear and her cubs for days. We weren’t dumb enough to carry our rifles out in the open and once we were in position for a good shot, my uncle handed me his rifle. He showed me how to steady the aim. The cold cylinder in my hands. The weight that decides death.

I can still see the bear. She looks right at me when I line up my sight. My uncle would have laughed so I never told him but I know what I know, and what I know is that bear saw me. She knew I was there to kill her.

Her cubs squealed afterwards. They crowded around their mother, sniffing her, trying to lick her back to life. My uncle told me not to feel sorry for them: turn the tables, and the bears would have me for lunch.

Let’s go, my uncle said.

We’re not taking it?

Where? To who? He gave me a light smack on the back of my head. Yellowstone’s got too much stick up their asses for that.

We left the bear to rot, her cubs to mourn and on the way back home we bought ice cream.

#

A fly lands on my cheek buzzing I brush it away more on my forehead

#

I drift off and wake up hearing the bear cubs sobbing for their mother. What ever happened to those cubs? Male bears will kill cubs that aren’t their own but the bear would eat me if the tables were turned and besides we’re now part of the food chain so we have to act like it.

I cough. Flies. I can’t wave them away. Something is stalking me through the tall grass. I can’t make it out. Hyena? Lion?

Bear?

Where the hell is Pavel? They should have come for me by now. The satellite phone is working, I heard it beep (yesterday? day before?) so they know I’m here.

Where are they?

I don’t have the strength to move but I do have the strength to think and see and combined I think I see what’s out there in the tall grass.

I grab the Magnum. The movement startles the flies but doesn’t scare them away.

Five shots left.

#

Laughter and it’s not coming from the hyenas.

It’s coming from the bear.

Mama bear is laying in front of the satellite phone. She keeps her paws to the side of the phone so I can hear it ring.

Beep-beep.

Laughter.

Beep-beep.

Laughter. Sounds like hyenas but it’s that fucking bear. Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.

#

Fucking bear. You haven’t moved all day. The sun sets and I need another pill for the pain and the flies the itching is driving me crazy the smell makes me gag. I dryheave.

The bear laughs.

And this is it. I won’t survive another day out here. Pavel isn’t coming. I need to get to the phone. That’s him calling. Their equipment is broken. They can’t find me unless I answer.

The bear laughs.

Your cubs are dead, I whisper. My voice sounds like it belongs to someone else.

My uncle is beside me. He swats me on the back of my head and hands me his rifle. The rapport might knock me down, but at least mama bear will die and this time she will stay dead.

Beep-beep.

I stand up. Something’s coming closer. A small stampede. The laughter grows. The bear doesn’t raise her head. I aim the rifle as something tears at my legs. The flies have scattered. I try to squeeze the trigger but my finger is too weak and I no longer feel it.

I feel teeth.

I hear laughter.

And somewhere, the satellite phone is ringing. Beep-beep.


Bio:

Travis Lee lived in China for two and a half years, where his short story ’The Seven Year Laowai’ went viral among the expat community. He currently lives in Japan, working as a weather forecaster. Find out more at https://www.travis-lee.org


“the veins” Short Story by Bogdan Dragos

Something wasn’t quite right in this small, barren room. The man sitting across the square table, dressed in a white coat, seemed a little to calm for someone in reaching distance.

‘I could just reach for that bald head and snap the neck real nice,’ he thought as he watched the man. ‘What does he want from me? More questions?’

It was indeed more questions.

“So,” said the man in the white coat, “if you are ready to speak, I am ready to listen. I am here for you.”

“How come you’re still alive?” he asked the man.

And the man answered, “What do you mean?”

“Are you one of the few who adapted?”

“Adapted? That’s interesting. Please, explain. What do you understand through this adaptation you speak of?”

He shrugged. “I just… thought I’m the only one who adapted. To the new life.”

“I see. And what about your family?”

“What family?”

“Your wife and child. Did they not adapt to this new life?”

“Stop trying to manipulate me, Mister White Coat. I know you know they’re dead.”

“Yeah, but I’d like to know why are they dead.”

“They didn’t adapt. They were too trusting. And have been touched by the veins. I had to dispose of them. So they wouldn’t infect others.”

“Or yourself.”

“Or myself, sure. Sounds selfish but adapting means you come to understand that once touched by the veins, a human being is no longer who they were. They become one of the infected and from there they only live to spread the infection even further. Make more veins. The world is at its end. Everything will be taken over by the veins. If you don’t adapt, you die.”

“I see. So tell me then, where do the veins come from? And why do you call them so?”

“I’ve no other name for them. I’m not some scientist. I just describe what I see. And heck if I know where they come from. I’m starting to think they were created. Artificially. In some lab, you know?”

“Well–”

“Actually, you look like someone who works in a lab, to be honest. You motherfu — ah!”

He could not leap across the table to reach the man in the white coat. The chair held him back with cables apparently.

“What the fuck? What’s going on here? Who in the fuck are you?”

“Relax, I’m only trying to help. I want to help you. Please.”

But there was no reasoning with him. He kept screaming that the veins had gotten to everybody but him.

Some days later after many sedatives and solitary confinement he was given a piece of paper in his cell and a pen and was asked to draw what the veins look like.

It took him the whole day and finally he drew the picture of a woman.

***

Bogdan Dragos works as a dispatcher for a Romanian gambling company (supervising casinos) and that implies spending twelve hours alone in the office (where he daydreams and writes poetry that he emails to himself). He is the author of Pour the Whiskey Over My Heart and Set it On Fire.

A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror is Available in Print and on Amazon Kindle

My e-book collection of horror shorts A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror” is available on Amazon Kindle.  For your copy, go to my Amazon author’s page (amazon.com/author/philslattery) where you can find links to my other works as well.

In this collection of published and previously unpublished stories of horror, I offer a look into the minds of people who perpetrate horrors, from acts of stupidity with unintended results to cold-hearted revenge to pure enjoyment to complete indifference. Settings range from 17th-century France in the heart of the werewolf trials to the resurrection of the Aztec black arts to a medicine man’s revenge in the Old West to the depths of Hell to mob vengeance and modern day necromancy to sociopathic serial killers and on to alien worlds in the distant future.

Don’t forget to show your appreciation for these tales by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other social media.

P.S. Winn gave the collection four stars on Amazon, calling it “Great variety”, and commented: “The author has given readers a fantastic collection of varied horror stories. Short stories, flash fiction and even shorter micro fiction tales are included in a collection that might have readers keeping their lights on. I have read other books by this author and love the writing style and the way his words draw one into the tales.”

Comments on previously published stories (which are only a part of those in this collection) include:

Jay Manning, editor of Midnight Times commented in its Spring, 2006 issue: “Wolfsheim” is basically a traditional horror story that tells the tale of a small European village confronted by the threat of werewolves. If you like stories about lycans, you definitely need to check this one out. Great stuff.”

Publisher Charlie Fish of Fiction on the Web summarizes A “Tale of Hell” as a “… chilling vision of hell”. Other comments on “A Tale of Hell” from readers of Fiction on the Web:

“An intense and well paced story, cleverly leading the reader up a number of garden paths before Jack’s reality finally clarifies and appears in all its horror. The writing is focused and spare as Jack’s malevolent characteristics and idiosyncrasies manifest themselves…Overall a strong tale that lingers in the imagination…”

“brilliantly descriptive piece on man´s apparently unstoppable descent, literally into hell,…”

” Enjoyed this story. I thought it was nicely written. Started with a familiar vision of hell, but added several unique treatments; kept me interested in how it all would end. Thanks”

Publisher Charlie Fish of Fiction on the Web summarizes “Dream Warrior” as a “…powerful revenge epic about a man who visits his Mexican grandfather for spiritual guidance after a violent crime results in the death if his fiancée”. Fiction on the Web readers commented:

“quite literally a rite of passage, mystical and with an interesting payoff, one which Miguel may have to reckon with in time. some very good writing and characterisation. well done”

“…this is a rite of passage, complex and rich with significance. The cultural invocations are vivid and intense, the work of a writer in his/her full stride. The future for Miguel, who knows? The readers interest is fully engaged with what is to come…”

“Really enjoyed the story-kept me up past my bedtime reading it!”

“I loved the concept, was fascinated by the almost hallucinatory detail of legend with its fatal shadowlands.”

Reader comments on “Murder by Plastic” include:

“Chilling and brilliantly economical”

“Very well-paced and intriguing”

“Fabulous story! Five stars!”

Follow me using the link on the homepage or check back frequently for updates.

Don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or on other social media.

Diabolical: Three Tales of Vengeance and the Sorcerer Jack Thurston is Available on Kindle and in Print

Please go to amazon.com/author/philslattery or Goodreads or any other social media to leave a review.

Jack Thurston is a retired professor of medieval literature and history. He is also a widower and father and a retired sorcerer who has returned to the black arts to exact revenge for the death of his wife, daughter, and brother. He has an intriguing position in the universe at a focal point of life, the afterlife, logic and reason, anger and hatred, the ancient and the modern worlds, grief and his attempts to escape grief through self-destruction. Though he wants to have the peace he once found with his wife, Agatha, he is pulled in many directions by circumstance and by his powerful negative emotions.

I am a fan of the old school horror practiced by such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Edward Lucas White, and Arthur Machen.  I endeavor to make a story as terrifying and suspenseful for the reader as possible without resorting to gratuitous blood and gore for a simple shock or quick feeling of disgust.

This collection of three short tales is perfect for those who have only a few short breaks to escape into the hidden world of horror, black magic, sorcery, and anger-fueled revenge.

You can find this and other works at my Amazon author’s page:  www.amazon.com/author/philslattery.

Currently, Jack has a Twitter account (@jthurston666), where he has attracted a small following and where it has only recently been revealed that he is fictional. Jack has his own blog at jackthurstonblog.wordpress.com (a work in progress) and his own e-mail at jackthurston666@gmail.com.

Information on more social media accounts and other characters (as they are developed) can be found at: philslattery.wordpress.com. Please interact with him at any of his social media accounts as you would with a real person.

Show your appreciation for these stories by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other social media.

If you enjoy horror, check out my collection of horror short stories A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror: Stories of wizards, werewolves, serial killers, alien worlds, and the damned, which includes these stories.

A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror is Available in Print and on Amazon Kindle

My e-book collection of horror shorts A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror” is available on Amazon Kindle.  For your copy, go to my Amazon author’s page (amazon.com/author/philslattery) where you can find links to my other works as well.

In this collection of published and previously unpublished stories of horror, I offer a look into the minds of people who perpetrate horrors, from acts of stupidity with unintended results to cold-hearted revenge to pure enjoyment to complete indifference. Settings range from 17th-century France in the heart of the werewolf trials to the resurrection of the Aztec black arts to a medicine man’s revenge in the Old West to the depths of Hell to mob vengeance and modern day necromancy to sociopathic serial killers and on to alien worlds in the distant future.

Don’t forget to show your appreciation for these tales by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other social media.

P.S. Winn gave the collection four stars on Amazon, calling it “Great variety”, and commented: “The author has given readers a fantastic collection of varied horror stories. Short stories, flash fiction and even shorter micro fiction tales are included in a collection that might have readers keeping their lights on. I have read other books by this author and love the writing style and the way his words draw one into the tales.”

Comments on previously published stories (which are only a part of those in this collection) include:

Jay Manning, editor of Midnight Times commented in its Spring, 2006 issue: “Wolfsheim” is basically a traditional horror story that tells the tale of a small European village confronted by the threat of werewolves. If you like stories about lycans, you definitely need to check this one out. Great stuff.”

Publisher Charlie Fish of Fiction on the Web summarizes A “Tale of Hell” as a “… chilling vision of hell”. Other comments on “A Tale of Hell” from readers of Fiction on the Web:

“An intense and well paced story, cleverly leading the reader up a number of garden paths before Jack’s reality finally clarifies and appears in all its horror. The writing is focused and spare as Jack’s malevolent characteristics and idiosyncrasies manifest themselves…Overall a strong tale that lingers in the imagination…”

“brilliantly descriptive piece on man´s apparently unstoppable descent, literally into hell,…”

” Enjoyed this story. I thought it was nicely written. Started with a familiar vision of hell, but added several unique treatments; kept me interested in how it all would end. Thanks”

Publisher Charlie Fish of Fiction on the Web summarizes “Dream Warrior” as a “…powerful revenge epic about a man who visits his Mexican grandfather for spiritual guidance after a violent crime results in the death if his fiancée”. Fiction on the Web readers commented:

“quite literally a rite of passage, mystical and with an interesting payoff, one which Miguel may have to reckon with in time. some very good writing and characterisation. well done”

“…this is a rite of passage, complex and rich with significance. The cultural invocations are vivid and intense, the work of a writer in his/her full stride. The future for Miguel, who knows? The readers interest is fully engaged with what is to come…”

“Really enjoyed the story-kept me up past my bedtime reading it!”

“I loved the concept, was fascinated by the almost hallucinatory detail of legend with its fatal shadowlands.”

Reader comments on “Murder by Plastic” include:

“Chilling and brilliantly economical”

“Very well-paced and intriguing”

“Fabulous story! Five stars!”

Follow me using the link on the homepage or check back frequently for updates.

Don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or on other social media.