“The Thwarted Kingdom” Fiction by Titus Green

Major General Thomas Harrison, 1616-13 October 1660

He stirs, opening his crusty-lidded eyes, leaving reluctantly the dream of a parliament of saints which left him contented. He hears the distant church bells wistfully, knowing he will hear them chime just one last time. Their dense resonance deepens his sorrow, as they signify the church and the sermons he’ll never attend again. He groans and picks up the empty drinking vessel off a slimy, dank floor. Hadn’t he implored Christ to fill it with water as he whispered scripture with hands clasped and throat parched?

There is no furniture in this dark, fetid cell at Newgate Gaol. A narrow shaft of morning light, from the pitiful concession for a window, illuminates the jacket of his tattered Bible propped up against the wall. Seeing the amber radiance light up the face of God’s great volume cheers him with its hint of revelation. Could God be showing this as a sign not to give up his belief?  Did it support the stunning prophecy that Daniel saw in the Persian tyrant’s dream all those centuries ago? Fulfilment of this prophecy is his main concern now, as he prepares to be publicly eviscerated by order of the king.

His eyes widen as the sun’s ray settles on the gold thread of the intricate brocade pattern covering this 1640 edition of the Bible he has never, on principle, called the Bible of King James. His excitement grows as the book seems to glow brighter and brighter. There can be no doubt: “It is a sign! The coming of the days of our Lord is nigh and the Kingdom of Heaven is imminent at last! Oh, thank you Lord for not forsaking me in my darkest hour.” The euphoria numbs his senses, and he pays no attention to the faecal stench of the overflowing privy which is just yards away.  “Although I shall die, by shining your light you show me the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. A path that I will soon take without fear.”

He clasps his hands and mutters intense supplications to the mute god of the Testaments, praying more than anything to lose the sensation of pain when the hangmen take the red-hot blade to his belly.

“Lord, I beseech you to ready for me this last journey. Walk with me and guide me up your sublime steps to the door of Heaven I implore you.”

“That’s right. Say your prayers, Harrison. The Almighty’s the only one listening to you now.” He hears the hideous cackle of Ives, one of his gaolers, at the door and the rusty friction of the lock mechanism being operated. This is followed by the screech of the bolt that will reinforce his captivity for just one more bleak night. The oak door, reinforced by iron panels, creaks open, surprising a squat spider nestling in its hinges which scrambles for refuge in a wall nook.

Ives, a course, ugly man whose buck-toothed face is covered in sores, enters carrying a bowl of gruel and a cup of water.    

“Here’s yer breakfast. Eat it up heartily for it’s to be your last on this ere’ earth!”

He places the items on the freezing cold floor and grins at his shivering prisoner.

“What’s the matter Major General?” He says using the captive’s title sarcastically. “Are you shaking with eagerness to meet your master at Charing Cross tomorrow? I hear they’ve got a special hurdle to take you there in style!”

Harrison does not answer, considering conversation with the man to be sinful. He has treated Ives’ colleagues with the same reticence during the months of imprisonment, speaking only for the necessary transactions to gain him minimal comforts, such as not having to wear shackles and obtaining a couple of blankets. He refused their offers of ale for a couple of groats. For this snub, one of them spat on his Bible, and he suspects they have spat in his food, poisoning it with their loathing. He peers into the gruel and sees the maggots who remind him of the turncoats and traitors of the Levellers who dumped all their principles for pardons and personal enrichment. Where were these Judases now? How would they be able to look their children in the eyes, clasping their pieces of silver? Godless, avaricious sinners they were who would be scorched by hellfire in due time. His beliefs tell him to welcome his brutal death that is coming soon, as he is dying for the most glorious cause: the ending of carnal man’s world and the ushering in of God’s.

“I wonder where they’ll stick your head Harrison. I’d say it’ll be on the gates of Parliament.” Ives sneers, and Harrison recalls the day he and Cromwell stormed into the chamber and scattered the dithering rump parliament. Now a very different parliament was dismissing him, with a jury full of turncoats, opportunists and knaves sending him to death.

“Get away! Leave me to pray with what time I have left,” he tells Ives curtly.

“Ha! Don’t trouble yourself. No amount of prayers can save you from hell, Harrison, because that’s where God sends killers of kings.” Ives spits on the floor and then reaches for a bucket outside the cell. He throws the bucket of water diluted with pig offal and urine into the condemned man’s face. Harrison grimaces and retches several times, cursing Ives and wishing the Lord would hand him one of his favourite cavalry rapiers so that he could run the insolent dog through with one decisive thrust. He reckons Ives is abusing him for refusing to gift his gold ring to him on the morning he will be sent for. He is not going to gratify this sinner’s avarice.

“I’ll be back at dinner. We’ve got a little surprise meal prepared for you. You can call it your last supper.”

“Get out you blasphemous wretch!” cries the major general, and moments later he is alone, forlorn and reeking of piss. However, despite his wretchedness he resolves to do one last thing, ask one final question and find one critical answer: when will the Messiah rule in the Kingdom of Heaven?

***

Hours later, after the rotting pig’s head has been thrown into his cell­­––the last hideous insult of his captors––he doubles the concentration in his prayer as the light filtering through the narrow slit in the wall gradually fades. With the closure of the day comes his sombre understanding that his last day of life has passed. He has just one more morning to live and one central role to play in a horrific ritual of English justice. He will be killed on a scaffold and his death will be as gruesome as that suffered by the doomed, drugged victims of Aztec sacrifice pageants. The golden lion of royal vengeance was going to be set on him; he was  going to be the first of the regicides to feel its iron claws tear into him at Charing Cross. He was going to be their main example of maximum punishment after all. An example that spoke not in words but in disembowelment while conscious and said: shed royal blood and see what happens.  He’d been a ringleader and advocate for trying the king, strutting through corridors in his breeches, giving sanctimonious speeches and preaching the Fifth Monarchy’s coming to reluctant ears. He had grabbed the doubtful by the scruffs of their necks and drilled the Book of Daniel into their minds, leaving spittle on their cheeks. Then, in that January like no other, he’d picked up the tatty quill, dipped it in the ink and scribbled his signature in the third column of the grainy parchment that authorized the beheading of the king. Now eleven years later, that same document that condemned the king to die condemned him also; the smudged wax seals next to the regicide’s signatures sealed his doom in this grim parallel. He pictures the damning scroll, no longer mere material but the living agent of the Stuart bloodline’s revenge which refused to decay. It hovers in front of him, and its surface starts rippling and within seconds it has become a three-dimensional resemblance of the executed king’s face. King Charles’ eyes glow and his lips twitch into a grin and Harrison cries out. The vision vanishes.

More time escapes in the darkness and he groans in pain at the wounds from civil wars one, two and three that never properly healed. The cracked ribs on his left side caused during the Battle of Powick Bridge ache still. That day he saw Prince Rupert leading a cavalry charge in the distance with his sabre brandished like the Macedonian Alexander. He had been a formidable enemy, a foreign mercenary both virile and terrifying riding against the soldiers of England’s new constitution with his weapons brandished. 

He grips his Bible, his eyes straining in the meagre light of a solitary candle, reading for the thousandth time the passage in the Book of Daniel where the Hebrew soothsayer satisfies Nebuchadnezzar with his description and interpretation of the King of Babylon’s baffling dream:

In the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race: it will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms and itself last for ever.

As his eyes scan this Old Testament paragraph, he searches desperately for a deeper understanding of its import because he is now troubled by very serious doubts. Had they misinterpreted these ancient, obscure scribes? Was there contrary meaning buried in this cryptic prophecy? God forbid, had they been deceived? Did its future verbs describe the republic’s destiny, or the House of Stuart’s restored fortune? He steps into the text, becoming an invisible witness to the scene in the scripture, standing between Daniel with his boyish looks and flowing locks, and the stern, bearded king dressed in his shawl and covered in gold. “Tell me what I dreamt,” Nebuchadnezzar commands, and Daniel, speaking in a sonorous voice, obliges his master. He explains the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream with its golden head, silver arms, bronze belly, iron legs and brittle clay feet about to be smashed into smithereens. Harrison is absorbed by this spectacle, this epic biblical dialogue taking place in his mind. His concentration increases when Daniel explains that the disintegration of the statue’s feet symbolized the end of the Babylonian King’s kingdom and its absorption into the greater and more glorious Kingdom of Heaven. The tyrant Charles was long dead, but instead of the Fifth Monarchy, the glorious republic of mankind that he and Hugh Peters had promised to the soldiers of parliament, there was this wicked, licentious hound with continental manners and a crown on his head; the whoreson of the tyrant returned to the throne!  

With shaking hands, he puts his Bible down. His furrowed face is cadaverous in the candlelight. Scurvy fills his body and yet he barely notices the physical pain with the greater spiritual trouble that preoccupies him. The crumbling feet were supposed to presage the end of Charles Stuart’s reign and the demise of all royal tyrants for eternity, but yet here was the perfidious noble bloodline restored!

“Was it not prophesied by Daniel that we were destined to be the Fifth Monarchy that ushers in the Kingdom of Christ? Oh God, have we gravely mistaken this message?”

The graffiti scoured onto the wall opposite, some of it centuries old and written in unreadable Middle English, refuses to answer. He has stared at it for hours during breaks in his prayer and reverie, only making out meaning in isolated Latin phrases. They are curses: vulgar, defiant messages from the doomed of the past to nameless captors now long since buried by the years. Now, here he was treading in these pitiful strangers’ condemned shoes. Was he destined to be just another obscure victim in history’s vast catalogue of tyrants, and how would Major General Thomas Harrison’s deeds be depicted in the pamphlets and conversations of posterity?

He starts at the sight of Oliver Cromwell, or more precisely his exhumed corpse, watching him from across the cell within the confinement of a gibbet with heavy corrosion on its bars. What remains of the former Lord Protector’s face looks like that of a melting wax dummy. The distended features are covered in muddy slime and the eyes have liquified. His decaying doublet is teeming with maggots which pour out of his collar and sleeves.

“Oliver!” he stammers.  “It is frightful to to see you in such a wretched condition, but I know this is merely your temporal body and that you are now surrounded by angels in Paradise.” Cromwell’s corpse is silent.  

“Has the Lord God given you a sign when the Kingdom of Heaven shall reign? Will it start in 1666 as the auguries say? Will the Fifth Monarchy rule for eternity as the scripture tells? I am desirous of an answer, for the Stuart bloodline now sits upon the throne of England again and I am beginning to dread that our time will never come to pass.”

The phantom fades gradually, blurring into translucence. Desperate for assurance he summons his past, delving into memory to seek signs of the destiny of the Fifth Monarchy, which he is certain will bring a thousand years of peace to Earth. He recalls various battles, with the deafening blasts of cannon, the fluttering standards engulfed in smoke and the cacophonies of cavalry charges still as vivid as the day he experienced them. He thinks of the Putney Debates of 1647 at which, jostling with powerbrokers and agitators of the New Model Army, he had to shout to make himself heard in the raucous din of the assembly rooms. That was when he called for the king, that ‘man of blood’, to be tried for treason and faced a barrage of haughty resistance from ruddy-cheeked, affluent landowners with agendas and mistresses across England. Carnal men who wished to maintain the sinful conditions of the world.

Then he recalls the time he was assigned to escort the captive King from Hurst Castle to face the extraordinary court in London. At one time the trial had seemed no more than a fantastic, idealistic dream. And then, God brought his fist of retribution down upon the table of England and demanded justice be done and it was. Praise be to the Lord, the most ancient and venerable judge!

He supervised the cavalry escort, making sure to select the most disciplined and vigilant horsemen to ensure the sly rogue would not escape on his watch. God had given him this vital mission, and he would not fail. He remembers his amazement at the diminutive, gently spoken man he had accompanied in the carriage; his fragile appearance and manner were so incongruous with the rampaging tyrant of his imagination that had cavorted across the country so destructively and flattened it with his hubris. He had bowed but refused to address him as your majesty when he introduced himself and led the prisoner to the carriage. Harrison was pleased by the look of pique on the face of the deposed monarch so accustomed to deference.

On the way to London, the rattling sound of the coach substituted for conversation as it made its way through the rutted roads and for most of the journey there was a wary silence between them. This was broken as they were approaching the capital city, when the king leaned forward and spoke:

“Colonel Harrison. They say you are plotting to do me harm. What say you? Is there substance in these rumours I hear?”

He looked at the haughty tyrant, determined not to show any fear. He responded with silence at first, but the king would not be denied.

“Well? Speak! What do you have to fear from me now that I am your prisoner?” Charles Stuart spoke the words with aristocratic scorn and Harrison recoiled at them. The snake! The treacherous serpent of sedition that sued for peace while mustering foreign armies! He was not about to disclose anything to him. As for nothing to fear, he was aware of the abstract threat of this traitor’s extant children, should their despicable throne ever be restored. However, he saw no harm in giving this criminal a hint of the justice coming to him. Harrison answered:

“You may put your mind at rest on this point, for the Lord has reserved you for a public example of justice. What is done will be open to the eyes of the world.”

The king expelled a mocking laugh. “And what, pray, will happen when this ‘divine justice’ you speak of has been served? Who is to rule England’s subjects? Who is to keep order? Or maintain the peace?

Keep order. Maintain peace. If only royalty was as rich with its appreciation of irony as its vaults of gold! Harrison hesitated, thinking it unwise to share his innermost convictions with the enemy. Then he answered:

“The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race,” he said quoting the scripture, before adding: “And this will be Christ’s kingdom, not the Stuart’s, the Tudor’s or any other mortal despot’s. This kingdom will last for eternity, unspoiled by the arrogance and lust of men like you!”

“Is that so?” asked the king with an ironic smirk.

“It was Daniel’s prophecy in Babylon,” Harrison replied defiantly.

The king clasped his hands together, with his dainty fingers full of jewels encased in gold rings.

I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. We are the divinely ordained, Harrison. Don’t you understand? God requires us to exist and carry out his work. We will never be usurped!”

***

The autumn wind howls, like a final lamentation of his life as seconds dissolve, minutes escape and hours desert him. Soon the sun will make its final appearance on the horizon of his existence. The clock of the heavens will say time’s up with its bloody orange smile. He shivers and pulls the blanket closer, considering the futility of sleep on this night. There will, by god, be no reason to be wide awake on the morrow.

He relives the show-trial, seeing Pompous Pilate Judge Orlando Bridgeman stymie his attends to defend himself and shout him down at every turn while the calculating Solicitor General Heneage Finch destroys his reputation with sanctimonious rhetoric in the Old Bailey dock. Worst of all, he catches the smug faces of fellow regicides and signatories of Charles’ 1649 death warrant grinning at him from the safety of the public gallery.

Soon he hears the chiming of distant bells announcing the day of his slaughter. The sunlight peeks through the aperture, this time not illuminating anything profound except his filthy smock. He has spent the last hour praying desperately to God for an answer to the troubling question of the Fifth Monarchy’s future. Neither words nor cryptic epiphanies came. At seven o’clock there is the sound of a convoy of boots in the corridor. The rusty locks are worked, and instead of Ives a cluster of dragoons in lobster-tail helmets enters the cell.

“Thomas Harrison!”

Harrison needs effort to rise and the guards with a strict death schedule to keep are in no mood for delay. A soldier steps forward and pulls him to his feet. The former commander and favourite of Cromwell is so gaunt and weak that his execution seems unnecessary. Summoning his last traces of strength, Harrison composes himself for his escorts.

“So, I am to be crucified like the Son of God? Quartered like a pig?  But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me.

As he leaves the cell, a sense of being watched forces him to turn around. Where he lay, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statue stands. To his dismay, all parts of its anatomy from its bulging biceps, chunky pectorals and chiselled abdominals glitter brilliantly in gold. Suddenly, rays of sun shine through the narrow aperture in the wall and strike its torso, causing a dazzling starburst. As the light passes across Nebuchadnezzar’s face, it morphs  into the features of Charles I and then into the nearly identical visage of his son who was restored to the throne.

“Lord help me! Royalty is immortal,” cries Harrison as he is led out.


Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published writing can be found at http://www.titusgreenfiction.com.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mr. James,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleased to meet you

Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah

But what’s confusing you

Is just the nature of my game…?”

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

“Edmund Lappe’

Therapeutic Wizard

By Appointment Only”

Edmund Lappe’ winked, then began softly crooning again:

“So if you meet me

“Have some courtesy

Have some sympathy, and some taste

Use all your well-learned politesse

Or I’ll lay your soul to waste…”

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“You must be Claire Dennings.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…do not know what to believe.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What price?”

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

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

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

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

“What is all this?” 

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

“He prefers Darjeeling.” 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The…the devil himself.”

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

“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly. 

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

Claire nodded. 

“And what might that favor be?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I accept.” 

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

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

***

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.

He shrugged guiltily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what day is that?”

Today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..

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

“I don’t have any luggage.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Is there a problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Telemarketing is Evil” Horror by Thomas White

Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles that could be seen in a wide angle from his corner office. The late afternoon shift would begin in about an hour.  Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.

 Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bobbing about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations ensuring that they were sticking to business not chatting with their lovers – or drug dealers.

Rory was supposed to be updating profit-loss spread sheets but today he was feeling like a low-performing slacker himself, preferring to just stare at his computer, too morose to even waste his time fiddling around on social media. Frustrated, he considered the absurdity of his current workplace situation. John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead the company was barely breaking even. Moreover, the quality of the available telemarketer had hit rock bottom: ex-whores, drunks, crack addicts. It was a sad day when management had to listen into routine sales calls, not for quality, but for criminal activity. 

Not that it mattered: as any blind fool could see this so-called “business” was in steady decline. When he had come into the telemarketing profession ten years ago there were actually a few hiring standards. His first company had even had an HR rep that screened applicants for bad references – or an unsavory past. Now it fell upon him, the irritated, unwilling Rory J. Ribert, to go through the motions of “vetting” the dregs of society and other barbarians who flooded Dial-N-Smile with their resumes. Nevertheless, Rory never screened any applicant for a criminal record. Results were all that counted. It was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – even if they were ax murderers, he did not want to know.

 Indeed, he often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer – something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of a criminal made such a person especially effective   in the telemarketing business.

The office intercom buzzed. Jane Chowders, the foyer receptionist – who doubled as the accountant –  spoke in her usual whiny, quasi- nasty voice. “Rory your 2pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”

 Last night he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas so today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience. Good thing too, as the earlier 1:45 appointment had been a disaster. Rory had shown the applicant – completely unsuitable as a salesman –  the door after a two-minute interview.

The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2pm appointment – a spectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque pink tumor. Lost in this cheap baggy   polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive – the very qualities an aggressive sales firm was not looking for. He also reeked powerfully of mothballs and stale smoke as if he had been living in a closet or cheap room. This odor alone would drive away other reps before Dial -N-Smile’s drooling, sadistic floor monitors did. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: Do not hire this loser.

 Immediately the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a smug smile and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking. What rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”

“Good question John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory, “Who – what –  is he – and why is he here?”

 “His name is Simon Sorter and he is going to be our new top biller – believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.

  “I rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. (Hell’s bell’s was the old fool losing his marbles?).

“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon and the guy has some amazing talents.”

 “From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills”, noted Rory.

 Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something but Simon Sorter reappeared wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.

 “I was just telling Rory here about our glory days when we did Fortune 500 account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.

 Simon Sorter cocked his head sidewise as if he were a puppet on a broken string.   Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.

Then without a word, Simon marched to an empty work station, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine product list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script – nor did he smile.

 Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our bottom line.”

Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically – depending on which magazine he was hustling. During the next hour a flabbergasted Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.

When selling the magazine Retirement World, he became “Pappy Smith”, his voice aged and frail. Marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel-type – code-named “Rod Piston” –  his sales spiel threatening and gruff. These performances were followed by others just as remarkable: Gun News made Simon into “Tommy Guns” who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms; Computer Time transformed this normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality – “Simon Server” – tossing off techno-babble with the greatest of ease. In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes Simon Sorter must have assumed –  and shed –  at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names.

His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the firm’s top rep’s billings by 50%.

“Now pal. you know why we used to call him Morphing Man”, happily purred Mr. Jeffy.

 “Yeah, I must admit that it is damn incredible. How did he get like that?”

 Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone. “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment but later got into sales with me. Sometimes, it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”

“Yeah, maybe being a bit nuts is ok –  but not a psycho……”

 From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the computer-generated customer list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his nose. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like the corpse on display. Or considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more the dead inspecting the living….

 A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat. “You Rory Ribert are no longer required as sales manager of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: so this was it, he was being fired – dead meat. Jeffy, the sorry bastard, had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who smelled like he slept in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army.

 “Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants like his earlier appointment: a little mumbling man, with a weak, shifting gaze, referred   by the unemployment office jobs bank for a telemarketing position requiring at least fair communication skills.

“That is something we need to talk about,” coldly replied Jeffy, peeping out of the shadows.

“Better not try to screw me you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”

 He then bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy singsong cheerfulness. “Looks like we’ll have to part ways partner…”

From the same pocket that had contained the magazine product list, Simon whipped out a knife-cum-paper opener: the “Mr. Jeffy voice” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court and paying a lawyer. The bad news is that you won’t be ‘seeing’ – or calling – anybody any more. You are useless phone time now Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air…” As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light.  Simon Sorter’s features morphed into every twisted, ghastly facial appearance and expression known to humanity: gnashing feral teeth, wild, yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black, rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a museum of interactive, evil masks:   his face melted into Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Saddam Hussein’s, Ted Bundy’s, Pol Pot’s. Still powerfully griping Rory’s arm, Simon Sorter raised the knife-cum-paper opener to the ex- sales manager’s quivering throat. 


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


“New England Gothic” Dark Fiction by Elizabeth Gauffreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“The Monsters Under My Bed” Dark Fiction by Mikayla Randolph

Beneath my bed, three distinct monsters have resided. Three monsters I now call mine. Near constant companions, their presence outlasts kindergarten friendships, first loves, false families, and any other menace I’ve encountered. A special connection formed long ago barred them from being discovered by anyone but me. No, they are my monsters. My burden to bear. Mine alone. No sight, no sound, no stench, nor pain could give them away to anyone but me. Throughout life, they’ve followed me from small town to big city, from house to home, and journeys abroad. No matter where I find myself, I find them there too.

My first monster was a hideous sight to behold. Eyes – large and black with red hollows and a heavy stare, tracked me in utter darkness. They followed my every move, every inch, every breath. Even as I cowered beneath the covers, I felt those eyes watching me. Always watching. Stiff, reptilian hands oozing with slime, long and bony – Nosferatu-like in shape – but covered in scales, snuck up the side of my bed. Its claws glinted in the moonlight. At the foot of the bed, its tail slithered up and crept beneath my blanket, set to strike, to circle my feet, and drag me underneath. Its split tongue slid between rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth, waiting to consume me.

I screamed for my parents, for my siblings, for anyone who dared come to my rescue. They flashed on the light, checked beneath the bed, and declared it nothing more than an act of my imagination. As they left, keeping on a lone nightlight on at my insistence, its throttle kept ringing in my ears. The deep pant of a creature craving blood and flesh, ready to leap upon its prey and devour it at any second. With white knuckles, I clung to my blanket and learned it would stay in its place if I refused to move, not an inch, not a breath. I feared sleep but discovered that the monster preferred me awake and afraid. Little children must taste better that way.

My second monster was far more ordinary. Far less terrifying to behold, barely even worth a heartbeat’s skip if we’d passed on the street. I cannot recall when this new monster replaced the former; I’d wondered how and why but assumed it’d simply scared the creature away. This monster was just a man. Or at least a shadow of one. Maybe not even male at all. My memory of him is most hazy. At times, I recall him having deep-set eyes and a scar, of being large and imposing. At other times, those depictions seem wrong. Whatever it was, it was clever. It was crafty. And it was angry.

He whispered venomous words with delicious glee. Not just threats, though they were plentiful too, but worse: my innermost fears spoken aloud, given form, and perfectly executed when it would pain me most to hear. His dirty fingers clutched a long dagger, always dripping with blood, as a disturbing grin marked his excitement. He laughed. A deep callous laugh that crawled into my ears right as I finally began to drift asleep, foreshadowing the atrocities he intended to commit.

Yet, for all the dread he caused, he never did raise that knife to me. Never plunged it in deep, over and over until the blood spouted freely from my body, and never left only a drained corpse behind. No. Instead, he just kept cackling and taunting, whispering words only I could hear, knowing they cut deeper than any blade.

The third monster tricked me. One night, before climbing into bed, I checked beneath to see how the man looked that day, only to discover that he’d apparently vanished. Nothing. No trace, no creature, no man, just dust and air. At first, I froze, startled by the sight, until relief crept in. With a smile, for the first time in a long time, I lay in bed happy, reveling in the warmth and safety. Not this time, not this night – no – now I was going to finally rest in peace. And sleep wrapped around me like a soft song sung just for me. I slept. For a while. 

In the dead of night, a jolt of electricity burst through me, and my eyes darted open; my body dripped in sweat. It was here. It was back. Something came for me. Something far worse. I peeked below the bed with trembling hands but saw nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t here for me this time. Perhaps, this time, it was here for someone else.

In a panic, I bent over my partner’s lips so my ear hovered a mere inch away. I listened for their breathing. Strong and steady, it flowed, and their hot breath warmed my cheek. In an instant, I was up, out, and moving to the nursery. On my tiptoes, I snuck in, trying not to wake my child or alert the monster. I watched their little belly moving in and out, each breath accompanied by the tiny whisps of snores, the angelic picture of a child sleeping peacefully. Relief returned; my loved ones were safe. I crept back to my room, back to my bed, back to rest. I hoped.

Once more, I checked beneath the bed. Once more. I saw, heard, smelt nothing. I lay in darkness with my eyes wide, my mind alert, and my pulse racing; I waited for the monster. I sensed it; the hairs on arms rose despite the warmth of my comforter. All I could see were varying shades of black and night and nothing. Still, I felt it. It was near. I waited; it was waiting too. We remained at a stalemate, each waiting for the other to strike, attack, and defend. For years, we waged this motionless war.

These are my monsters. They are mine, just as much as my hands, my voice, or my mind. I keep them in thought, in memory, and in my company. I need them. When they are near, I cannot sleep. Without them, all I can manage or want is sleep. See, you may have forgotten – I mentioned it so long ago: they haven’t always been my monsters. They have not always been there. They’re not constant companions, just near enough.

There have been times, the darkest of times, when I did not sense my monsters. Or at least I did not care. On those nights, rare but bleak, I’d step into bed without checking what manner of monster lay in wait below. If it clawed at me in the darkness, or slashed me to bits, or suffocated me with nothingness, then so be it. I had no strength to fight. And sleep was calling. Those times when I most needed a companion, it seemed it was just me. Alone. I’d sleep soundly those nights – mostly – long and deep from the exhaustion.

The next day, I’d awake wishing my monsters would return. That’s what made them my monsters. That – despite their horrific appearances, hideous voices, and the dread they inspired – I wanted them to come back to me. I’d rather the sleepless nights with one of my monsters lurking below than the hollow alternative. After all our years together, at odds, I’d finally claimed them as my own. Tamed them, as much as any monster can be tamed. Each night, I want nothing more than to reach a hand down my monster, to let it clutch my fingers, and to feel something in the darkness.


Mikayla Randolph resides in California, where she is a customer relations liaison in the tourism industry. She is currently editing her debut novel, a modern gothic horror. When not writing, she enjoys reading, traveling, and taking too many photos of her dogs. Twitter: @Mikraken