“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.


“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.


“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.


“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


“Aphorisms for a New Viscosity” Dark, Offbeat Humor by Robert Garnham

Franz Kafka, 1906

Another bright morning, just me and the jungle, the fierce sun penetrating the thick luscious canopy, the call of monkeys and birds of paradise. I’m alone here at the research centre, yet again. Someone was meant to come and relieve me, but there’s been no word of a replacement. I eat cereal on the porch of the old wooden building,  feeling the intense heat and humidity rising from the forest floor. Sometimes the humidity is so high that my glasses steam up the moment I step outside. Often, I don’t even bother wearing clothes, though they put a stop to this because they reminded me about the live-feed web-cam.

          Occasionally, schools tune in to see what I’m up to. They’ve instigated a dress code.

          As you may have guessed, I’ve been out here quite some time, extracting certain mucus elements from a species of frog which only lives in this exact geographical area, for the construction and understanding of the technologies which go into the production of masking tape. There’s nothing I don’t know about masking tape. I’ve got so much masking tape lying around that I’ve started to use it for other things. Last week I made a hat out of masking tape, but when I put it down, thousands of ants somehow got stuck to it. I’ve still got the hat somewhere, decorated with all these ants. It’s really quite disgusting.

          I spend most of the days out and about, telling myself how lucky and privileged I am to live here, while looking for frog mucus. The only way to get the frog mucus, – once you’ve found the frog – (and it can only be the male of the species) – is to show it photographs of female frog, and within seconds, you’ll get a healthy supply of the stuff coming out of their mouths. I’ve mastered the art of wiping frog gobs. I’ve got a whole fridge filled with the stuff.

          The phone rings. It’s my boss.

          ‘Just checking in’.

          ‘Anything to report?’

          ‘Nothing, really’.

          ‘How’s the company doing?’

          ‘Let me be frank with you, Bob. Masking tape isn’t selling like it used to. There are so many alternatives these days. There’s talk of restructuring at the higher levels of the company. Now I don’t want you to worry, but they’re talking about budgets and there’s been murmurings – just murmurings, mind you – about research and development. Why should we be developing a product which isn’t selling as well as it should? Anyway, keep this under your hat, for the time being’.

          ‘My dead ant hat?’

          ‘Your what?’

          ‘Nothing’.

          ‘Anyway. All the best, and keep up the good work.’

          It was good to hear from Jeff.  But I could tell that there were things going on which worried him. Ominous, looming, like the daily afternoon thunderstorms. The times I’d spent in the city, beavering away at the technological forefront of the masking tape industry, were some of the best of my life, and it pained me to think of those poor masking tape technicians in their white lab coats, demoralised and filled with existential dread.

          Mid-afternoon, I pause amid the test tubes. I’ve got a swab of frog gob in one hand, a test tube in the other, and the thought suddenly occurs that what I’m doing is completely meaningless. The whole time I’ve been out here in the jungle, the viscosity of masking tape has only ever improved by 0.06 Chatwins, (a Chatwin being the unit of measurement of masking tape viscosity named after my predecessor’s pet tortoise). With a lot of hard work and effort I could improve the viscosity to perhaps as much as 0.08 Chatwins, which equates to masking tape sticking for an average of six minutes longer under certain climatic conditions. Nobody, I tell myself, will ever win the Nobel prize for that.

          I put down the test tube and I put down the frog gob swab. I take a deep sigh and I run my fingers through my hair. I then open the door and go out onto the wooden porch.

          The jungle seems alive. Through the canopies I can see the dark clouds looming for the daily afternoon storm. There are rumbles in the distance, booming, reverberating through the heightened air almost fizzing with expectation. Behind me, of the ten test samples of masking tape I’d stuck to the wooden wall of the hut, seven had already given in to the humid air and fallen from their place, an eighth was hanging limp. Hopeless, I tell myself. Absolutely hopeless. How aptly they seemed to symbolise the fortunes of the MccLintock Masking Tape Company.

          The clouds darken further. There’s a flash of lightning, accompanied by the furious hooting of monkeys who, all things considered, should be used to it by now. But it always takes them by surprise. Then a boom, a ferocious boom which shakes the peaty earth, rattles the boards of the wooden porch. And that’s when the rain starts, intense, pelting arrows of sheer rain clattering against the corrugated iron of the shack roof, the fleshy jungle vegetation, rivulets of water cascading from the gutters and sides of the shack. The last lingering strip of masking tape falls from the test wall, gets carried away by a sudden stream of water which snakes across the wooden floor of the porch. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me. The thunder booms and crashes.

          Hang on, what was that?

          I blink as the water runs down my face. But it’s not a mirage. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me.

          ‘Give me your masking tape’, he shouts, above the wildness of the storm.

          ‘I . .I . .’.

          ‘I admit it is hopeless. The only meaning in our lives is that we eventually die. But before that happens, give me your masking tape’.

          ‘I’ve got loads of the stuff. How many rolls do you need?’

          ‘Depends on their viscosity. Are we talking anything approaching 11 Chatwins?’

          ‘How do you know about Chatwins?’

          ‘Often, during my many years as a clerk working for an insurance company, I would require masking tape of the highest viscosity that Prague could offer. Now, are you going to give me those masking tapes, or am I going to have to shoot you?’

          ‘You’d better come inside’.

          The air is heavy, humid, oppressive. Franz Kafka, in his business suit and tie and a very formal looking long over-jacket, approaches me warily, the machine gun still trained in my direction.

          ‘I had plenty of masking tape. But I gave them all to Max Brod, and he destroyed them. Do you know for how many days I’ve trekked through the jungle, just to find this place?’

          He clambers up onto the porch. It’s just me and him, surrounded by the forest. If he shot me now, I tell myself, nobody would ever find out. Well, not until the next person logs in to the live feed webcam. Sees my body on the porch. Sees the door open, the jungle beyond.

          ‘I’ve got loads of it. Help yourself . . Take two rolls, three. It doesn’t matter. Just . . Just don’t shoot’.

          ‘The joy of masking tape is not the ownership of masking tape, it is the fear of existing in a world without masking tape, and from this emerges all self-torment on account of that fear’.

          ‘Just don’t shoot’.

          ‘The notion of an endless cosmos is at once nullified by the dread which comes from contemplating eternity without masking tape’.

          ‘I’ve told you, take as much as you need!’

          ‘One of masking tape’s most efficient means of seduction is the challenge to contemplate a world in which nothing sticks’.

          ‘True . .’.

          He looks at me with that famous deep stare. It bores right into the very depths of my soul.

          ‘Why are you pointing that weapon at me?’

          ‘Do you know what it’s like to live a life of complete hopelessness? I, more than any other person who ever lived, can truly claim to be Kafkaesque, in every action I undertake, every word I utter’.

          By now we are inside the cabin and I have backed myself as far into the corner as I can. The work surface is littered with test tubes, frog gob swabs and spare bits of masking tape.

          ‘I’m going to turn around’, I tell Kafka, ‘And reach into this cupboard, OK? For inside, I have masking tape aplenty’.

          Franz raises the machine gun, ready to fire at any second.

          ‘Do it’, he says.  ‘It is only our conception of masking tape which lets us call it by that name’.

          I turn, reach into the cupboard, grab several rolls of masking tape, then turn back and offer them to him. He smiles, puts down the gun, and, with his delicate, long fingers, takes them from my hands.

          ‘Cheers’, he says, and he turns, and leaves.

          The storm rages as I watch him depart, his black jacket merging with the gloom at the heart of the jungle, the wet branches and fleshy leaves bending, dripping as he makes his way deep, deep into the foliage.

‘To be honest, we disabled the webcam as soon as you started walking round in the nude’, Jeff says, the next day. ‘The last thing this company needs is a big scandal’.

          ‘So there’s no way of checking the footage?’

          ‘Afraid not, Bob’.

          ‘You know what the silly thing is?’

          ‘Go on’.

          ‘If he’d have asked nicely, I’d have given him as many rolls as he wanted. Why did he need a machine gun?’

          ‘You know, those rolls are property of the McCLintock Masking Tape Company. That’s going to have to come out of your wages’.

          ‘I know’.

          ‘Say, Bob’.

          ‘Yeah?’

          ‘Are you OK out there? We could find a replacement, you know. Sharon down at the South Pole research centre says she’s getting fed up with the cold. You could always swap, you know?’

          I look around the cabin. The test tubes, the scientific equipment, my bed in the corner with its mosquito net.

          ‘I think I’ll stay. I feel fine here, Jeff. You know that? I feel pretty fine out here’.

          I put the phone down and go out onto the porch. It’s another bright, warm, humid morning. My glasses steam up. I put on my dead ant hat, gather my swabs, and go wandering off into the jungle.


Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.    


“Last Chance Cabin” Horror by John Ryland

David stood in the doorway of the empty cabin. His breaths came in rapid pants, fogging into the empty room. The wind gusted behind him, swirling snow onto the floor at his feet.  His tired eyes swept the room through another frozen breath. There was a small stove near the center of the room, a cot along the far wall, a desk and chair, but not much else.  After trekking for days through knee deep snow, the cabin looked like the Ritz.

     He stomped the snow from his boots and stepped inside, shoving the door closed against another gust of wind. With no windows, the room went pitch black, so he opened the door again with a reluctant sigh.

     Moving into the room, he went to the stove. His hand touched the metal, searching for warmth he knew wouldn’t be there. He pushed the hood of his parka from his head and scanned for fire wood. There was none.

     There were also no traps, no snowshoes, and no other sign this was a trapper’s cabin. No pictures hung on the walls, laying claim to it. The room was bare. It was a last chance cabin, built and left open by the state to aid unfortunate souls trapped in the weather, like him.

     Him. The man who considered himself a survivalist, an outdoorsman. He’d allowed himself to get lost in the middle of winter. The embarrassment and shame he felt had long since faded, giving way at an adamant desire to survive, and the possibility that he might not.

     He knew that most of his toes were lost to frostbite, and probably some of his fingers. He hadn’t eaten in days, sustained only by snowmelt to drink. The weather had come down on his third day out here. That was four days ago. He was lucky to be alive.

     David ran his gloved hands over his beard, knocking the frozen spittle from his face. He needed to start a fire. Even though he’d found shelter, he would still freeze to death if he didn’t. The cabin would be better than the snowbank he’d slept in last night, but it was still freezing.

     With no hope of finding wood outside, he looked around the room. Whatever he burned would have to come from the cabin. His eyes went to the wooden, ladder back chair. That would do. Now, all he needed was something to start a fire. If he still has his pack, he could use the flint, but that was long gone. 

     He went to the desk and snatched one of the drawers, expecting it to be frozen shut. It released easily and flew out of the desk, dropping to the floor. A stack of old, crumpled papers fell out, along with a few stray matches. He smiled, thankful for his fortune. 

     David stuck his hands into the iron stove. He could see the tiny flames lapping at his bare flesh, but he couldn’t feel it yet. That would take a while.

     He smashed the drawer and fed the fire carefully, smiling though his body was shivering. He’d be okay now. The cabin would shelter him, and the fire would warm him. With any luck he’d find something to eat, and in a few days, he would be strong enough to travel.

     “It’s going to be alright.” His voice echoed back to him sounding hollow and unsure.

     David fed the last of the drawer into the fire and leaned back in the chair. The cast iron stove popped as it expanded with the heat. It was still very cold in the cabin, but the mere sight of a flames felt like heaven. The fire lifted his spirits, lending him the energy to explore his sanctuary.

     He spun in the chair and lifted some of the loose papers from the drawer. He expected notes from previous occupants. What he found was several pages of chicken scratch that were barely legible.

     He dropped the papers back on the desk and picked up a sheet of paper from the floor. It had fallen from the drawer and somehow avoided becoming a fire starter. The handwriting was rough and uneven. Like a man who was freezing to death, he thought. He shook his head and tossed the paper onto the desk. He had his own problems, reading someone’s else’s didn’t appeal to him. Yet. Maybe, if he got bored later. Boredom was a luxury of those well footed in the land of the living. He wasn’t quite there yet.

     He got up and stumbled to corner, searching both cabinets. Nothing was left but frozen dust. He went to a wooden box built into the floor and opened the lid. His eyes bulged when he saw the stacks of canned goods.

     Dropping to his knees, he groped one of the cans and pulled it out. Holding it in the dim light of the open stove door, he read the label. Beans. A smile slid across his cold face. It wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it would do nicely. His hand washed over the cans, counting eleven of them. If he were prudent and rationed them, he could make them last two weeks easy. By then the weather would break and he could walk out of here.

     David peeled back the top of the can and dug his knife into the frozen beans. The few slivers of ice danced on his tongue, reminding him how to taste. A hot meal would warm him, and the full belly would let him sleep well. “It’s going to be alright.”

     He picked up the can by the lid, peeled halfway back from the top of the can. Eating with two fingers, he savored the first lukewarm bite like it was a seasoned steak. He moaned and shoveled more into his mouth.

     When he forced himself to stop at two cans, his stomach clamored for more, but he refused. He wanted to eat everything right now, but it wouldn’t help him much. At best he’d be able to stay a few days then would have to search for food again.

     Instead of gorging on the food, he broke up another drawer and stoked the flame. He closed the door to preserve the fire and pulled the bed close to the stove. He sank into the simple cot with a sigh. His body ached, and now that his feet were thawing, his toes were starting to hurt.

     He wrapped himself in the wool blanket and stared at the stove. He watched the flame dance through the thin crack around the door and drifted off to sleep with a smile.

      David sat up on the cot, his eyes going to the door. The heavy timber still laid across it though it trembled at the mercy of the elements. He’d heard something. He told himself it was the wind and laid back down. The sound was just the wind. Nothing else. He pulled the cover tight around his shoulders and settled back into the cot.

     His eyes had barely closed when the sound came again. Now that he was awake, he knew what it was. It was a howl. He opened his eyes but didn’t move. It couldn’t have been a wolf. They’d be in their den this late at night, especially when the weather was up.

     When the howl came again, closer, he sat up on the cot. The cabin was pitch black except for the faint glow of embers escaping the stove. His eyes darted around the room, making sure it was secure. The only way in or out was the door, and it was barred. Whatever was out there wasn’t going to be getting in.

     Now wide awake, he broke up the fourth of the five drawers and fed the coal bed. The dry wood ignited instantly, and a fire sprang forth. He smiled, watching it dance on the new fuel as it consumed the splintered drawer.

     He clutched the blanket to his shoulders and slid closer to the stove. The cabin was much warmer than it had been, but it was still cold. There was a chill in his bones that might never go away.

     His eyes followed the stove pipe to the ceiling. It was the smoke that brought them, he thought. They would smell the smoke and know a human was nearby. Wolves were smart. They knew a human couldn’t survive in these conditions long. To them a human was just another meal, especially in the dead of winter.

     He got up and checked the door. It was thick and sturdy and the bar across it was solid. With most of the cabin buried in a snowbank, the door was the only way in. He’d be okay.  

     The echo of a long, screeching howl filled the cabin and he jerked around, looking behind him. His heart hung in his throat. That one was close. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf. Maybe some kind of big cat? 

     It might be something else.

     David shook his head, pushing the thought from his mind. It was a wolf, or a big cat. That’s all it could be.

     He went to the desk and rifled through the pages, eager for something to occupy his mind. Pulling the chair closer to the stove, he opened the door and examined them. The writing was hard to read. In the dim light, his eyes narrowed, as he slowly began to decipher the first line.

I don’t know what it was, but it was something big.

     His brow furrowed as he sifted through the pages, finding the beginning of the letter. The writer introduced himself as Addle Fleming and explained that he’d gotten lost in the woods. He stumbled onto the cabin by a stroke of luck. A fur trapper by trade, he’d gotten caught in an unexpected storm on his way home from running his lines. He spent two paragraphs explaining his surprise at not being able to find his way, since he’d lived here all his life.

     David nodded and scratched his cheek. “It happens, my friend.” He shifted back to the second page and began reading again.

      I don’t know what it was, but it was something big. At first, I thought it a wolf, or a mountain lion, but I don’t know   now. As it got closer, it began to not sound like either.

David cast a wary eye at the door and sighed, then went back to the letter.

      It is close now. The door is solid and I’m sure it can’t get in, but it’s still unnerving to hear. I’ve got plenty of wood and several cans of beans and a few packs of dried fish. I should be fine for a few weeks. Surely the weather will break then.

     He looked into the fire, rubbing his face. Addle Fleming had gotten himself into the same predicament as him. It’s not an unusual situation, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. This was, after all, a last chance cabin. It was built and stocked for this very situation. Of course they both shared similar fates. This was rough country, especially in winter.

      I was woke from sleep by a scratching at the door. It wasn’t hard, but more of a testing. Something was curious. I thought it might be another traveler, so I went to the door and yelled. No one answered. I pounded on the door and whatever it was ran away. I opened the door. There were big tracks in the snow, to big for a wolf, or even a cat. All I had was a lantern, and I couldn’t see none too good. I don’t know if they were my tracks or not, so I closed the door and barred it. I don’t know what it was.

     A howl pulled David’s head up from the letter. He swallowed hard as his eyes swept the room. The letter was right. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf or a big cat. It sounded like-

     “No.” David stood, tossing the pages back to the desk. He couldn’t allow his mind to begin to wander. There were plenty of legends and ghost stories about these mountains, but that’s all they were. Sure, people went missing, but they probably froze to death and were buried in the snow. In the spring, before the weather allowed much travel up the mountain, their bodies were found by the animals and eaten. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it explained all the disappearances.

     That, he thought adamantly, was what happened. That and nothing else. He paced the room then came back to the stove. His eyes went to the papers and he shook his head.

     He wadded the first two pages and tossed them into the fire, smiling as the flames consumed the writing. Good riddance.

     Sitting back in the chair, he pulled the middle drawer from the desk. Two stubby pencils and a few pages of loose paper fell out. He tossed the two pencils into the fire and laid the papers on the desk before breaking up the drawer.

     After feeding the fire, he looked back at the new pages. The paper had yellowed, and the writing was different. Another occupant of the cabin had left his account. His hand had a slight tremble as he picked them up. Leaning closer to the fire, he began to read.

I ain’t even got no idear what the hell made the noise.  wernt no wolf like I thought it was. It’s got to be a lot bigger. I could hear it walking on the roof last nite. I thought it could be a bar, but it cut lose a howl and I knew it wernt no bar. Sount like a woman hollerin. A woman in some kinda pain.

     David sighed. The letter wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong either. The howl didn’t sound like a woman screaming, or a wolf, or even a big cat. It sounded like all three in one. He swallowed hard and slid closer to the stove, holding the letter to the light.

       I dun herd the damed thing screeming for 3 nights in a row now. It keeps me up so I sleep some when its day     time. Last nite it come real clost agin. It was scrachin at tha door. Not hard. Like it was testin it, in case it did want to come in.

     David picked up the first set of pages, examining the passages that spoke of the scratching at the door. Both stated the same thing. Had the same thing happened to both men or had Addle read the first letter and thought he’d heard scratching? It could have been the wind and the power of suggestion. Being cooped in such a small place had a way of working on a man’s mind sometimes.

     The door rattled against a gust of wind then went still. The sound of David’s thundering heart filled his ears as he stared at the brace on the door, waiting. His eyes widened when a soft scratching came against the wood. Something hard moved against the door, pushing it against the bar holding it closed. The tension on the door released, then another long scratch from top to bottom.

     David bolted from the chair and went to the door, slamming his fists against it. “Get out of her!” he screamed. The wind gusted again then went silent. 

     He turned and leaned his back on the door. The soft light of the fire cast long shadows in front of the stove. Inside, a knot popped in the flames, and he jumped, yelping like a kid.

     An unsteady hand wiped across his lips as he scanned the room. He needed to know what happened to the others. That would tell him what to expect. He hobbled across the room and fell into the chair. His toes were hurting, but they would have to wait. He had to know.

     I herd it again. It was on the roof when I shot at it. I spent up all my shot but one. When I was dun shootin it just left. It wernt skeered of the shot. It wanted me to shoot at it to spend all my shot up. It new I could not kill it. I don’t know what it is. God help me.

     David sifted through the papers and found a similar passage in the newer letter. Addle had a pistol and shot every bullet but one at the sound, having the same effect.

     He shook his head. “Don’t you see,” he said, his voice faltering. “That’s what it wants. It wants to torture us. Drive us crazy. That’s what it wants.”

     The screeching howl ripped through the cabin. He jumped and spun around quickly. He stared at the ceiling, his eyes wide with freight, ignoring the bead of sweat running down his temple.

     “I hear you, you bastard.” His eyes swept back and forth across the ceiling, then came back to the papers in his hand. He nodded. Yes. The secret was in the letters. They would tell him what to do.

     This is my third day. The screeching has been relentless. I can not sleep. I don’t know what it is, but I know it is big. I know that it knows I am here. Why doesn’t it just bust the door in and come get me. I only have one shot left. One shot, and I am saving it.

     David’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the paper. Saving it for what? he wondered. For yourself? He shuffled the page to the back and bent closer to the fire.

       I do not know what is happening to me. I hear things from everywhere. The door, the roof. I hear scratching and howling, and today there is a new sound. Like the wings of a giant bird. But how can I hear it through the  snow? Something is outside waiting for me. I cannot stay here forever and it knows it. Soon I will have to try to make a break. I think that’s what it is waiting for.

     David leaned back in the chair with a heavy sigh. That was his plan too, but now he was second guessing it. But what was he to do? He could last two weeks, if he rationed the food and melted snow to drink. After that it would only be a matter of time. If he waited, he’d be weaker. That was what they wanted, wasn’t it? Whatever was outside could wait him out and it knew it.

     He looked at the box in the corner. Why wait at all? he asked himself. Eat all the food now, get some energy back, and go. Don’t wait. Don’t play the game. Maybe the element of surprise would be in his favor.  No, he thought. Maybe that’s their plan. They want me to think I’m surprising them, but they’d really be surprising me. He nodded his head, stroking his beard. No, you bastards, not this time. I’ll outthink you.

     He stumbled to the cot and fell into it. He was still tired. He just needed rest. He laid down and pulled the covers over his head. Rest. That’s all I need. Just some rest. I’ll be fine. Beneath his eyelids, his eyes darted back and forth. A smile pushed his beard back. Just some…. He didn’t finish the thought before he fell into a restless sleep.

     David awoke suddenly. He sat up in the bed, disoriented. Where was he? He looked around the room and found the faint orange glow in the shape of a square. Other than that, the room was pitch black. He tilted his head, still breathing heavy. What was that shape? What was the light?

     He wiped sweat from his brow and stood. The cold washed over him instantly, setting off the shivers. He was freezing. He grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders as he staggered forward. He extended a hand toward the source of light. There was also heat. Good.

     He bent forward, bringing his nose to within inches of the stove. He could smell the coals, the hot metal. His mind lurched forward, telling him it was the stove in his cabin.   

     He smiled and took another step toward the light, and the heat. His left foot struck the iron leg of the stove and shockwaves of pain tore through his damaged toes. His feet. Yes. He remembered now. His feet were hurt. Frozen. The pain helped him strip away the fog as he slowly put things together in his mind.

     Despite building up the fire, he couldn’t stop shaking. Shivering. He pulled the sock from his foot in uneven tugs. The fabric rolled slowly back as he unfurled it from his skin. His toes were black, the skin hung on them loosely. The last three were solid black. They were done for. The big toe and the one next to it were discolored near the tips but might be saved.

     Using the tip of his hunting knife, he peeled the dead skin from his pinky toe. It fell away, revealing a wet lump of black tissue. He grimaced and peeled the skin from the next two toes.

     They were gone. There would be no saving them. If he were in the hospital, they could amputate and save his foot. But he wasn’t in the hospital. He was miles from civilization and his chances of getting back were growing slimmer with each black toe he found.

     He ran a hand over his hair and sighed. The longer the dead tissue stayed on his foot, the more he would lose. Shivering wildly, he crowded closer to the stove, straddling it. The dead toes had to come off.

     Outside, another howl pieced the night. They’re celebrating, he thought, shaking his head. They knew that in this condition, he wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

     The blade of the knife was hot. David grimaced as the metal seared his foot. That was a good sign. If he could feel it, he was in live tissue. Moving quickly, before he could change his mind, he brought the heel of his boot down on the back of the knife. The metal slid through the flesh, lopping off his last three toes.

     He fell back onto the cot with an agonizing scream. In the distance, another howl answered his. He pounded his fist into the cot, gritting his teeth until the pain subsided enough to sit up.

      The hope of cauterizing the wound as he amputated the toes vanished when he saw the bloody stumps. He shook his head, then looked at the stove. A knot tightened in his stomach. He had to stop the bleeding.

     David awoke with a start. He sat up on the cot and looked around. The smell of cooked meat hung in the air. His mouth almost watered with delight, but then he remembered what had been seared. The pain in his left foot screamed when he hauled it up, inspecting the wound. The flesh was red and swollen, but the bleeding had stopped.

     David paused, his hand holding the coiled wire of the stove handle. His eyes went to the cabin door as it pushed in against the thick timber. A long, scraping sound filled the cabin. He picked up a boot and hurled it at the door. When the sound stopped, he opened the stove and stuck the blade of his knife into the bed of red coals.

     The knife hadn’t been hot enough before. He couldn’t make that mistake again. If he passed out before cauterizing the wounds, he could bleed out. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d die alone and in pain and that son of a bitch outside would howl all night.

     He was halfway through his third can of beans when the sound of crunching snow filled the cabin. His eyes went to the ceiling, tracking the sound of the footfalls. It was walking on the roof. Whatever it was, it was right there. If he had a gun, he could kill it. He could shoot it through the ceiling.

     A scream filled the cabin, but it took a moment for David to realize it was his own. He screamed and the creature answered with a hollow, piercing howl of its own. He screamed again, and the creature answered again.

     David laughed loudly. “You son of a bitch! Not me. You’ll not get me.” He dropped the can and opened the door of the stove. He wrapped a gloved hand around the handle of his knife and removed it. The blade was glowing red.

     He bent and shoved the blade into the flesh at the base of his toes. His scream tore through clenched teeth as the hot steel sank into his skin. Outside, the creature answered his cry.

     David awoke, slumped on the cot. He opened his eyes, watching his breath fog before him. Each ragged breath turned to smoke as it left his body then dissipated in the air before him. He straightened himself and looked at the stove. The warm glow was gone. He’d been asleep long enough for the fire to burn down to hot ash.

     Groaning as he bent forward, he opened the door and looked inside. The stray embers awoke as he blew on them. The fire hadn’t gone completely. That was good. He reached down for some firewood but stopped.

     His hunting knife lay on the floor next to his foot. Next to the knife two lumps of black tissue lay on the floorboards like rotten grapes. Brushing the toes aside with a grunt, he picked up the wood and tossed it into the stove. 

     He wrapped the blanket close and slid closer to the stove. Gripping the papers with a trembling hand, he tilted them to read by the light of the fire.

      I went outside. The snow has stopped, but it is waist deep. Walking out will be nearly impossible, but I can’t stay here. The scratching at the door was worse last night. I slept in the corner with my pistol, but it never broke through. I think it might be easier to just give up. It’s going to get me either way. I’m just prolonging things. I still have one bullet left.

     David shook his head. “Don’t give up, man. You gotta make it. If you made It so can I.” His eyes went to the next entry.

     I cain’t take it no more. the howling and screaming is driving me crazy. It’s like a pack of dogs outside. It comes from everywhere at once. I know it ain’t wolves, or no mountain lion. I wish I knew what it was, that way I might have a chance of beating it. I been here a week and it’s getting hard to stay. I wish it would knock the door in and come after me.

He swallowed hard and flipped the page to the back. Wiping sweat from his lip with the back of his hand, he continued reading:

     I may get my wish. Whatever it is was at the door. The screaming made my blood run cold. This might be my last entry. I done ate all the food I had. I didn’t wanna die  cold and hungry. If it comes through the door I’m going to turn the gun on myself. That way I won’t be alive when it gets me. Either way I’m almost done for. I’m either going to           freeze, starve to death, shoot myself, or make a break for it. Or whatever the hell that thingis will get me. I just wish I knew what it was. I ain’t never heard nothing like this.

     David tossed the paper onto the fire and rubbed his face with both hands. His options were pretty much in line with old Addle, except he didn’t have a gun.

     He pulled the blanket tight over his shoulders and slid up to the stove, nearly touching it. He extended his hands to the stove, watching them shake. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on making them be still. When he looked again, they were shaking worse.

     “Dammit.” He moved his hands closer but misjudged in the dim light and brushed against the hot steel. He jerked his hand away and looked at the tips of his fingers. Small circles of gray, ashy skin stared back at him like so many dead eyes.

     Outside the door, a screech rang out in the night.

     “You liked that, didn’t you? You bastard.” Anger rose in his chest as he stared wide-eyed at the door. “You’re not going to get me.” David shook his head and armed sweat from his brow. “You hear me!” he screamed. “You’re not going to get me.”

     He huddled back beneath his blanket and shook his head. “You’ll never get me,” he mumbled. “Maybe you got the others, but not me.” He shoved more wood on the fire and wiped sweat from his face. No, he wasn’t going out like that. Not him. “You’ll never get me.” His eyes went to the door. “Never!” he screamed. His laughter filled the cabin as another howl rang out in the night. “Never!”

     Outside, the howling grew louder. Closer.

     A young man wearing an Alaska Wildlife Management uniform exited the cabin. He shook his head as he stepped into the bright sunshine. Putting the empty gas can down, he wiped his hands. 

     The mountain side around the cabin was awash with lush green grass and wildflowers. Jagged rocks, gleaned from the mountainside by ice, littered the landscape. The scene was typical for this time of year, rugged and beautiful.

     “I don’t get it, boss. It seems like a good cabin. Got some years on it, but it’s still sturdy.”

     “It’s not my call, Tom. The big boss wants it gone.”

     Tom Rutherford looked at his boss and shrugged. “I know all that stuff is weird and all, but it’s still a good cabin.”

     “They did find a dead man in here. He’d slit his own throat. And all those notes about things attacking them. It’s nuts.”

     “Do you think it’s true. The stuff in the notes, I mean.”

     The older man laughed. “You ever been snowed in way out here?”

     “No.”

     “It’s not fun. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. If you’re injured, maybe got a touch of fever it’s worse. The isolation on top of the cold and hunger alone gets to some folks. I’m surprised they didn’t find the older notes when they restocked last year.”

     “Probably not much reason to inspect much. There wasn’t a body before.”

     “Guess you’re right there.”

     Tom scanned the mountainside and shook his head. “But both sets of notes claimed to hear noises. You’d think with all the snow it’d be silent out here.”

     The older man nodded. “You’d think so, but it’s not. Listen.”

     Both men stood in silence as the wind picked up. A low whistle resonated along the mountain side.

     “What’s that from?” Ton asked.

     “It’s just the wind on the mountain, the rock formations and the terrain. It’s a geographical anomaly. I’ll bet with some snowfall it sounds pretty creepy at night. If the weather really gets up, like it usually does around here, it can sound pretty wicked.”

     “Surely you don’t think it was all the wind.”

     “Look, Tommy boy. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff that happens in these mountains. Take some wind, some weird rock formations, and a fella who’s tired, hungry, and scared to begin with. There’s no telling what he might hear. There’s also no way to tell what he’ll think he hears.”

     Tom shook his head. “It still sounds like a stretch to me.”

     “My guess is that the first guy that heard it thought he heard something. He got scared and left a note in the drawer. The next guy probably heard it and might not have thought anything about it. Until he reads the note. Then he starts thinking too much. It’s cold and dark, miles from anything and you’re on your own. Days and days, holed up in a tiny cabin with nothing to do but think. Like I said, your mind can do weird stuff.”

     “But what happened to the other guys? They never found any bodies.”

     “I suppose they panicked and make a break for it. Got lost in the snow and froze to death. Early in the spring the animals found them. It happens. You should read the ‘Bone Report’. Some crazy stuff.”

     “But this?” Tom jerked his thumb at the cabin. “The report said he sliced his own throat after cutting off five of his own toes. That’s a lot for the power of suggestion. Do you know how desperate a man would have to be to do that? It doesn’t make sense.”

     “And some kind of monsters stalking them makes more sense?”

     Tom shrugged, conceding the point. “Still seems like a heck of a reason to burn down a last chance cabin. A lot of people have been saved by these things.”

     “They’re building another one back up the ways a bit. They’re also leaving a pamphlet explaining the nature of things for outsiders. Hopefully, we’ll avoid this mess again.” He looked at Tom and shrugged. 

     “I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

     “If you’d ever been snowed under you would understand it better.”     

“I hope I don’t find out this way.” Tom looked up the mountain. He sighed and shook his head, wondering if it was really the wind, or if there was something out there. Above him, the wind gusted. Moving through the rugged terrain, the slightest of whistles drifted down into the valley.


Mr. Ryland notes:

“I have published work in Eldritch Journal, Otherwise Engaged, The Writer’s Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Subterranean Blue, and others. My collection Southern Gothic and novel Souls Harbor are currently available on all major markets. My upcoming novel The Man with No Eyes, will be published by Moonshine Cove Press in March 2022.”


“The Flea” Horror by Antaeus

Yannick Cassady was fussy about his hair. It had to be brushed ‘just so’ at all times. The obsession was a carryover from his childhood. His mother always brushed his hair the same way before he went off to school. But, unfortunately, she had died when he was ten, and his father followed soon after.

Until he joined the Army at seventeen, Yannick was raised by his abusive, short-tempered uncle and his kindly, fastidious aunt. The only thing that kept him grounded was combing his hair like his mother used to. His quick temper was his uncle’s legacy and his forgiving nature, when he evoked it, a gift from his aunt.

Some people would go so far as to call him finicky but not to his face. You see, Yannick was constantly being pulled in two directions. Sometimes he could be a quick-tempered brute of a man and at other times a sympathetic and caring friend.

Besides being overly concerned about his hair, Yannick was regimented in his routine. It was a holdover from his Army days. Out of bed by 6 a.m. sharp, he was in and out of the shower by 6:20. Breakfast was usually finished by 6:45. Finally, Yannick would be dressed and groomed by 7:29. The routine never varied, not in thirty years.

By 7:33 a.m. on workdays, the sour-faced ‘Loan Aficionado’ was always out of the house and on the road. In fact, the cell phone on the bathroom counter read exactly 7:30 a.m. when the big man looked into the bathroom mirror before heading out the door.

That’s when Yannick noticed the flea.

The fastidious, middle-aged loan officer couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the flea jump from the shoulder of his immaculate white shirt onto his hair. The voice of Mrs. Fisher, his high school biology teacher, echoed in Yannick’s head. Fleas are parasites that feed on blood. They use that blood to fertilize the fifty eggs per day that they lay.

Yannick bent over the sink with trepidation and ruffled his perfectly groomed hair. He saw two fleas fall into the white marble sink. He crushed one with his thumb and missed the other. The second flea leaped from the sink with a jump that would make Javier Sotomayor’s world record high jump look minuscule. It jumped again and disappeared into a small crevice at the edge of the vanity.

The digital readout on the cellphone blinked and read 7:32. Yannick began to panic. My hair, my hair. It’s a mess, and I’m going to be late for work!

Luckily, when Yannick ran the brush through his hair, every strand fell into place like the obedient little fiber soldiers they were. By 7:35, he was in his SUV and, tires squealing, headed downtown to the Littlefinger Bank.

* * *

The security guard unlocked the door and greeted a red-faced Yannick. “Good morning Mr. Cassady,” he said. The angry senior loan officer just brushed past the guard without answering. As he rushed by, Yannick’s shoulder connected with the guard’s chest. Off-balance, the guard started to fall but grabbed the door handle and righted himself before he toppled over. Yannick hurried to his office without apologizing.

The other bank employees gave each other the “Stay away from him today” look. Most of them had suffered through one of his verbal beatings and didn’t want to experience it again. Even the bank manager returned to his office and shut his door.

Yannick hurled his briefcase into a corner and sat behind his desk as he recalled Mrs. Fisher’s warning. A female flea can consume fifteen times its body weight in human blood daily.

The former high school wrestler’s muscles bulged when his head began to itch again. He’d been fighting the urge to scratch his head all the way into work. Yannick reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a hand mirror. He had to see where the itching was coming from. Flea bites cause painful, itchy red bumps and their eggs hatch in only one day. More of Mrs. Fisher’s trivia he didn’t need or want to know.

Was that a little red bump at the very edge of his hairline? Yes, there was a small red bump there. That was the exact spot causing all the itching. Yannick swore a string of cuss words that would have made a bowlegged, old salt of a sailor proud.

Just then, there was a knock at the office door. “What!” Yannick cried.

“Mr. Cassady, Mr. Brennen, your nine o’clock is here,” his secretary said.

“Can’t you see I’m busy? Tell that loser to come back tomorrow, or I’ll foreclose on that shithole he calls a house.”

“Yes, Mr. Cassady, I tell him to come back tomorrow.”

“No. Wait a second, Brenda.”

Yannick took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Quick to boil and quick to cool, that’s my boy,” his mother used to say. He recited these words as though repeating a mantra, and he felt himself growing calm.

“Tell Mr. Brennen I’m giving him a ninety-day extension to pay his mortgage and tell him I’m sorry to hear about his wife’s passing. By the end of ninety days, thanks to the late payment interest fees, what he owns will double, then I’ll foreclose on the jerk.

And, Brenda, ask Reno the guard to come into my office, please.”

Brenda’s voice had a friendly tone when she answered this time. “Yes, certainly, Mr. Cassady.” She seemed impressed that Yannick, usually an unforgiving loan officer, was acting with compassion, which was entirely out of character.

When Reno came into his office, Yannick apologized for knocking him down and gave him two tickets for dinner at the new steakhouse in town.

Dumb guard. Now he’ll go out of his way to be nice to me. Better owed than to be owed. That’s my motto. Those tickets didn’t cost me a cent. I told the restaurant owner that he’d have to give me two dozen free meals if he wanted me to okay his business loan.

The rest of the day found Yannick canceling appointments and watching the little red bumps multiply. By closing time, he was pounding fleas on his desk, but he never scratched his itchy head, not even once. Finally, when quitting time came, the frustrated loan officer broke his routine, and for the first time in thirty years, he was the first one out the door.

* * *

Yannick was in such a hurry to get home and into the shower that he was doing eighty miles an hour on a two-lane forty MPH road. The road started to curve, and that’s when he felt the flea bite his ankle. Yannick tried to ignore the bite at first, but the flea bit him again and again. He was beside himself with anger as his ankle began to itch like a bad sunburn.

Reaching down with a hand the size of a small ham, Yannick scratched his ankle. When he brought his hand back to the steering wheel, he could feel something crawling among the hairs on the back of his hand.

His rage reaching new heights, Yannick smacked the back of his right hand with his left. The blow was so powerful that it caused the steering wheel to jerk downward. The car swerved to the right side of the road and headed for the guard rail. Yannick quickly shoved the steering wheel to the left, overcompensated, and had to jerk it to the right again. The flea jumped down to the floor and began biting his ankle again.

When he glanced into the rearview mirror, Yannick saw that his face was the color of a beet, and his eyes were bulging like they were trying to leave their sockets. When the flea bit him again, Yannick looked down, smacked his ankle, and watched the flea jump away. That’s when the thin veneer of a civilized man shattered, and he reverted to an apelike mentality.

Shouting a string of profanities, the near-insane man began to pound the floor with his fist, trying to crush the flea. Time and time again, he tried, and time and time again, he missed.

A flea can jump thirty-thousand times without stopping. Mrs. Fisher’s piece of useless trivia only served to fuel Yannick’s anger. Now every fiber of the crazed man’s being was focused on only one thing, crushing the flea.

Thump went the big man’s fist hitting the floor. Smack went his fist when it hit the passenger seat. Thud went his fist on the center console.

“I’ll kill you, you little bastard. I’ll crush you, just like I crushed your partner,” he shouted.

When Yannick heard the sound of an airhorn, he looked up just in time to see the bumper of an approaching semi fill his windshield.

* * *

When he regained consciousness, the groggy loan officer found himself pinned to his seat by the SUV’s dashboard. Evidently, he had reflexively steered the vehicle away from the semi and into the dense woods. The windshield was gone, and the giant oak before him had made the front of the SUV’s hood look like an accordion.

Yannick flexed his fingers and toes and was surprised to find that everything worked. He thanked God that he wasn’t paralyzed, just pinned immobile by the dash and steering wheel. He gave a tentative push with his arms; the dashboard didn’t move. He pushed harder and felt something wet slide down from his forehead. It tasted like blood.

Angry now, the barrel-chested man leaned forward and pushed with all the strength he had. The dashboard creaked but didn’t budge.

It was growing late, and the sounds of cars on the road had diminished significantly. The wood grew quiet as Yannick looked into the rearview mirror, which had somehow survived the windshield’s destruction.

His bloodshot eyes took in the path of destruction the SUV had made when it barreled into the woods. Yannick could see the guard rail beyond the swath of devastation. The railing had been peeled back like a ripe banana. It lay, like a limp penis, on the slope leading down to the woods.

Damn semi driver never even stopped. Who doesn’t stop to help a person who’s in trouble? Someone who’s doing something illegal, that’s who. Oh, well, someone will see the wrecked guard rail in the morning and call 9-1-1—nothing to do now but wait for daylight.

As the setting sun’s dappled rays illuminated the SUV’s crumpled hood, Yannick noticed the fleas hopping toward the shattered windshield. There were thousands of the little critters—no, more like millions of the tiny bloodsuckers—and they were all headed toward him.

Once again, Mrs. Fisher spoke to the panicking man. A female flea can consume fifteen times its body weight in human blood daily.

Yannick’s skin paled when he saw what was following them—thousands upon thousands of ticks.

Ticks are tiny bloodsucking parasites. So Mrs. Fisher said in her schoolteacher’s voice, inside Yannick’s head. They can grow to hold six hundred times their body weight when they have not fed.

When the powerless man heard the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes, he looked up, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Their numbers blackened the fading sky.

Now you’re in big trouble, Yannick, Mrs. Fisher’s voice seemed to say. Mosquitoes can drink three times their weight in blood, and there’s an awful lot of them. As the Army of bloodsuckers converged on the helpless victim, Yannick screamed.


Antaeus writes from a lakefront home in Southwest Florida (USA).


“Then the Lady Sang” A Macabre Story of Two Brothers by Fariel Shafee

Mrs. O Brien shut the window with a bang and put the large puffy white pillow on her face.  Everything in this room was white or light blue.  Even the medicinal mixture she took at 11 pm was light blue.  That was not by choice, though.  She would have gotten up an hour early to oversee breakfast and to tend to the newly planted saplings by the fence, to make her presence known to the workers.  But instead, she had decided to sleep. Perhaps she wanted to be in another reality where that piece of paper did not sit on the little gray table by the fireplace.  She also wanted to forget the call from the other world that had pervaded her air after dinner, when she had visited her room for her regular medication.

She had heard it before she lit the candles.  It was a bizarre sound that was harsh and it made her feel squeamish at once.  When she made it to the dresser, found the matches and lit the candles, the room looked unfamiliar, as though a misty veil had covered her furniture. 

After she had gone to bed, the sound came once again, penetrating the wooden window and the dawn pillow.  The sound was shrill and coarse, artless, as though a large dodo had been released from a hellish farmhouse to wander about in confusion and squeak, to eat up the new lemony leaves and the wood shavings scattered by the workroom, before the awkward bird would bang onto the verandah and collide with the rocking chair.

She knew there was no bird.  The face she had seen.  It was a momentary perception.  The eyes were large and dark, and the hair was long and disheveled, as though the uninvited visitor had left her house while she was busy tidying herself up.  Her skin was wrinkled and pale.  The person was short, around four feet tall.  She could have been Mary, had she been thirty years younger and a foot and a half taller.  But Mary was a gentle soul.  Also, Mary was dead.

Mrs. O Brien had squarely placed the blame of the unearthly visitation on that spoonful of sleeping medicine, though that tag would perhaps disobey causality.  It was the face first, and then she opened the drawer, took out the bottle. No, it was the syrupy bitter fluid.  She did not wish to think.  The liquid in the bottle was good.  It helped her not to think.

Now, in the dining room, the two brothers, Adam and Jones sat at the opposite sides.  The two hardly ate together.  Adam would leave for work: gunning down rabbits in the marsh or foraging.  His main objective was to discover signs of black gold seeping out through a crack.  The boy from Pike’s Hill had gotten rich.  He now owned a farm and a mansion. Land sold for cheap in the locale, and others did not have to be told what they did not have to hear.  Finders keepers.  One day he could be king.  But Jones — he might not exist.  Perhaps Adam felt sympathy for his brother now.  He felt a hollow sac floating erratically inside his soul.  Mrs. O’Brien’s older son, though, saw no reason for extended, cheap sentiments.  He, however, was hungry.

The piece of paper was off white.  It sat still in the living room.  They all pretended not to have seen it when they walked past.  It looked mundane, like those useless pieces of trash you never read.  They wished they had not read it!  The demands made were heavy.

Jones would leave for the war.  He, like the rest, knew that there was no escape but to a certain bloody death.  A boy who ran days back was shot in the head.  They had left the corpse in the street.

Adam did not say much to his brother while they munched, and then sipped the tea together.  A little bell jungled from the verandah.  Perhaps there would be no other Christmas together.  Perhaps this was the end of time for one.

“I will be back in the evening,” was all that Adam said, as he got up, picked his thick waterproof bag and his large boots. 

Jones nodded.  He did not wait for his mother.  He would walk into the study and write some important letters.

“Dear Ruth,” he started to scribble. “My darling, I do not know if we will meet again.”

He had started the letter at night, once her mother had left for the room.  Inside his strong, undaunting cage, he felt lost still.  Within the frame of bravery there was sorrow creeping in in the same manner the songs of life and love were dispersing out.

In candle light, the room had looked mysterious just like life that night.  What did it all mean in the end?

He had sat on the red cherry chair that was built years back and had remembered himself and Ruth chasing a small dear within the woods in summertime.  The shriek was sudden.  It shook him as though he was already hit by a bullet.   It sounded like a bird.  The creature, he thought, was in pain, as though it was being dragged to be sacrificed, and saw the sharp blade hanging. 

Jones tried to shrug off the fears of the night gone away, now that the sun was bright.  Tomorrow he would be elsewhere, marching to glory or damnation.

Jones collected himself and closed his eyes for a moment.  When he looked out through the window.  It was a bright Monday.  Far away, the workers had started to till the land.  Most of them were women.  Jones was one of the last men to be called in for the war.  Their influences were all exhausted.  “Was it unmanly?” he thinks.  Mostly it was his mother.  He had duties towards the family too.  Who would look after the old lady, the property?  It was she who had reached out, spoken personally, pushing back the inevitable.

Now even under the lusty vivid sun, dust had dispersed all about the scorched earth.  At times, the thirsty trees looked blurry or washed out.  The saplings were near the fence.  Mother had planted some herself.  Those were a mix of fruits and flowers. 

Jones scanned the yard for a bird – a big bird.  It could be an unseemly flightless creature, perhaps flaunting red beaks, large yellow eyes, and a tuft on top of its crown.  What could indeed have squeaked in that manner while he sat alone at night?

He, however, remembered the ensuing image.  After the squeak, there was a pause.  He was scanning the room for more candles, and for the rifle.   Finally, what he had seen could not be expressed properly.  It was a human body, a female.  The picture persisted only for a few moments before it disappeared, as though the atoms had dispersed all about with a bang.  The apparent human was small, about four feet tall.  She had long disheveled hair and large red eyes.  Jones did not know if it was blood, but the crimson within which the eyeballs floated looked vengeful, as though the world should be torn down into pieces.  She wore a gray robe that fell down to the ground.  But he felt that she was floating, that her legs were not on the earth.  She had looked at him for a moment, only.  But how loathsome was that look – as though he ought to rot, lie wounded and alone in the battlefield!  A very cold shiver had then traversed through his spine.  Jones did not wish to write any more.  He needed to grab a drink.

Now that life was in full rhythm of the day he was writing once again.  He was thinking about Ruth and what life could have been in a year.  But that wrinkled hag kept popping up from elsewhere, from right inside his head where the night’s moments had settled with some permanence.

Mrs. O Brien sat up on the bed and poured some water into her glass.  The jug was on the table, and she had filled It herself at night.  No, she had not forgotten the routines even in her distressed moments up until the morning.   She was a little dizzy still, and the room looked hazier than usual, as though the edges of the desk and the nightstand were blurry.  She saw those large eyes in the midst of the room again.  This was just a figment of her mind.  Then she opened the drawer of her bedside table and took out an album.  It was an old item and the off-white cover had stained into yellow here and there.  Inside, pictures from another decade popped out.  Here she was with that other girl, and there, again in the beach, baking in a summer of desires and hidden contempt — both smiling profusely though.  The black and white still images ushered a variegated reel of events from the past.

Mary was younger than herself.  She was also thinner and taller.  Her hair was the red of burning bushes, unlike Mrs. O Brien’s solid black.   Mary was also less worldly wise, too open, and too loud.   She was direct about her desires, about her unhappiness with Mrs. O Brien’s rendezvous.  He had betrayed Mary first.  But she was direct with Jill.  Yes, Jill – that is what she called her.  Jill didn’t have the right.

As the Mrs. O’ Brien of today shuffled the pages of the album, the funeral was dragged back from the past.  There she was in all back.  Mary was nailed in for good.  The only living sister stood right next to Jim, Mr. O Brien of the future that is.  She could have opted for some space, out of respect for Mary.  But the emotions then were strong.  Mary had slapped her the night before.

The death was not Jim or Jill’s fault.  The death was nobody’s fault.  Mary had gone to the forbidden corner of the enclave.  She had fallen.  She had fallen a hundred feet to her demise.  Almost all her bones were broken.  Jill could have warned her about the spot her sister had chosen for her art project.  But did she really owe that?  It was common sense, wasn’t it?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a warm little tear drop on her cheek.  She was unsure who she was crying for – the dead or the one who might soon become the fallen.  She then saw that face in a flash – the hag.  It was her memory.  The face was ugly and old.  Mary would shout and then forget.  Her anger never persisted.  Not through decades.  Would she be so mean as to seek revenge – come for an innocent boy?  Was it her own guilt that had made that face up?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a shiver.  Then she got up, put on her silk robe, headed down to the kitchen. 

Life and time would persist.  She would face both boldly.

Adam felt a little numb as he made his way through the swampy patch.  He wore a dark short coat and black plastic boots.  His thin lips were colorless and his short hair stuck closely to his scalp.  A solid brass stick helped him keep the balance.  His right leg was weak – a fall from many years back.  The doctor had feared that he would not walk again.  But he did get up, cross the room on his own and then walked up to the school bus.  He had felt angry then about his own stupidity, about the hare he wanted to trap.  But now that leg had saved him. 

Adam felt sorry for Jones.  He wanted to hug him at the breakfast table.  But his brother had put up his usual shield of defense – impermeable pride that drew a line.  Adam, so, had simply smiled.  It was a nervous, curt smile.  Jones had nodded.  They had both quickly stared at the rifle that hung upon the wall next to the head of a large dead brown bear.

As the day progressed, Adam passed through the thin thorny shrubs and moved into the rocky part of the landscape.  The stones were dry and reddish with some speckles of blue and gray.  The earth was scorched and rough.  He would find no black gold here.  He wanted something flat in the roughness – peace. 

In half an hour Adam reached the edge where steep rocks have made up the boundary between earth and untouched paradise.   He had found that edge where a single tree stood tall.  The leaves were few and long, slightly faded.  There was a nest at the top.  He could not see the birds.

It is now 11 am.

Adam sits and takes out his water bottle from the bag.  The heat will recede in an hour.  He wants to watch the birds circle above-head and then gaze at the lush below.  The plateau beneath has a river.  In it, fish swim in schools of abundant colors.  Wild beasts guard their very own kingdom.  In the evening, Adam wants to watch that elusive green flash and then walk back home.  Tomorrow, there will be gun shots.  Jones will be in a barrack.

Soon the afternoon melts into evening.  Light begins to flicker away.   A mysterious thickened veil obscures much of reality.  The moon is up in the sky as though it is half transparent within the daylight not yet removed.  Perhaps it is time to leave.  One more moment – he decides.

As Adam sits and watches a single white bird circle the sky, he hears a strange chant.  It is faint, as though the source is far away.  But the softness soothes him immediately.   He had heard of singing mermaids.  Those fishy maidens were unreal.

The air now is cooler, and Adam closes his eyes.  The sound gets louder, yet remains soft.  The tune is from a far away land and carries with it the allure of a beautiful life as it mixes with the breeze, wraps him from all around.

When he opens his eyes, he sees a maiden standing by the tree.  She is tall and slender with a head full of crimson hair.  Her lips are full and red.  Her silver robe extends to the rocks below as though she could flow away on a smooth and silky wave. 

She looks at him for a moment, but that look pierces into his soul.  He knows her, he thinks.  She is part of his very own flesh.  Then she disappears.  Adam tries to find her behind the tree, but she is nowhere. 

Only a feather floats in the air.

“My love, life is sweet,” he whispers.  “Why is it that we fight?”

Adam thinks of getting up to return home.  Maybe he will hug his brother this night.  He will hold him tightly and wish him well.  In the morning Jones will ride alone to the West.

As Adam gathers his belongings – the empty water bottle, a pair of binoculars and a small blanket, he feels a sharp pain on his palm.  The pain soon propagates up to his shoulder and the unearthly tune returns only to fade away.  It is only then he hears the rattling sound of the snake.  He bites his lips. 

Home is far away.  Nobody knows his location.

Wednesday morning that same week is sunny unlike Tuesday, when the sky cried out its agonies.  The earth looks fresh now.  But the O’Briens are somber, quiet.  One of them had departed. 

They are clad in black, standing in front of the coffin.

At night on Monday, when the sky was still clear, and when the announcement had come that the war had ended, Adam was happy and sad.

He did not look for Jones.  Instead, he had gone back to the study, and had torn down the note written to Ruth.

A boy had found the body in the forest the next afternoon.  Adam did not look anguished or unhappy, though his arm was blue.

Mrs. O Brien now looks at his son and his peaceful face and wonders if life to him had been kind in the very last moments.

She looks again for the face, the unhappy sister she had lost.  The maiden though is nowhere.  Nothing squeaks. 

“We are ready,” someone announces.


The author has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art.  She has published prose and petry in decomP, Blaze Vox, Illumen etc.


“They Flew Over the Mountains” Fiction by Fariel Shafee

The figure lies at the corner, twisted and spread out, as though a matchstick figure has been trashed out with the junk.  The inside of the garage is smoggy and dark.  A musty smell floats in the air.  Cobwebs hang from edges of the gray wall.  It is, after all the second garage, the one that sits waiting for the special day.  Beside the car are stacks of discarded and unneeded broken pieces of a dynamic life – three legged chairs, smashed mirrors in decent frames that could be salvaged someday, the rag dolls with missing teeth or eyes that did not find a place in the almost full attic upstairs. 

Jane looks back at that figure.  She or her younger sister Sarah never possessed a doll the size of the object sprawling in the distant left by the wall.  It is the size of a real human, perhaps taller than herself.  She cannot see the clothes or the hair even as darkness settles as the norm and the rods begin to get busy in the eyes.  What lies is more a shadow than a man or stacked old clothing.   She squeezes her eyes as she reaches out for the light switch.  The white small board is hard to locate within the shelves and the haphazardly placed canisters.  The wall is rough.  Little bugs scurry as she feels the cracks on the wall.  Jane shivers.  She was not afraid of a spider or a lizard.  But did that large doll suddenly move?  Did it twitch?  Did she hear it moan?  A handful of dusty air swirls up, making it hard to conclude.

“Don’t,” somebody shouts.  The word is clear and the voice is deep.  There is authority in that tone.  Jane stops.  Something potent holds her back.  That something is pinned inside her mind and tells her to listen, obey. 

“Please don’t turn on the light,” the person now is pleading.  From the depth of the voice, she can place him between manhood and boyhood.  But he is confident.  He is certain even when he begs.

“Come here.  Help me.” 

Jane knows the boy is not a local.  He is not even from the country.  The accent is pointed, clear – from another era or from a story book.  Did a little green frog that had made that corner its abode suddenly become a prince?  Jane laughs.  She and her three mates were partying the night before.  Jane had put on a tiara and a large cape.  It was a fake tiara, cheap.  They had broken into this garage.  Diane had taken the car out.  They were playing hard rock from another age: “We built this city in rock and roll,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” The drums were loud.  Mother and father were not expected before midnight.  But the police came.  The doleful, decrepit neighbor was not happy.

That’s why she is in the garage again.  It is her punishment.

She would have to take the car out, wash it.  Then she would have to stack the books.  After all those chores are done, she would have to read her own books, write a report and read it aloud.  On top of it all, she was grounded for three days.

“I need you,” the voice states again.  She is unsure if it is a command or a pleading this time.  If it indeed is a command, she does not mind becoming a temporary order bearer.  She feels compelled, attracted.  The crumpled figure is surely helpless, alone.  He would not grab her from the back, assault.  She knows that much even in the darkness.  Pity though does not drive her.  That charm that compelled is stronger.  It forces rather than empowers.  She is the one that’s weak here.

Jane now moves away from the wall, pushes back on the car, making herself believe that she can get in and dash out if she wishes.  Her legs though feel heavy.

“How did you get here?” she was the one who sounded guilty inside her own house.

“The door was open.”  There was indeed definitive reason for that guilt.  She had allowed him in – the sham princess in her drunken moments was the perpetrator.

“I am wounded.”

Jane feels a little numb, slightly squeamish.  Was there a shootout, or a fist fight?  Was he hiding from the police?

“Don’t worry.  I am not a criminal.”  He seems to read her mind.  Jane feels unprepared, embarrassed.

“Water,” he whispers.

“Of course,” she obliges.

As Jane puts the glass of cold water on the floor closer to the boy, she glimpses a partial view of the face.  It is pale, as though he has bled profusely.  His hair is dark and tidy.  His lips are thin and his nose is sharp.  She cannot see his eyes but she knows that they sparkle.  His body is lean and solidly built.  He is wearing a long coat.  The cut is different from what is sold in shopping malls.  Jane almost wants to touch him.

As though he can sense that feeling, the boy moves away.  Does she disgust him?  She almost wants to take away that glass and call the police, but then she does not.

The boy now looks at her.  His eyes are the blues of the ocean and they indeed shine.  He can see right into her soul.  She slides back close to the car and he drinks quickly, relishes, and then falls back on the floor, lies flat.

She picks up the glass and stumbles.  Would he know that the act was intentional?  As her hand touches his finger, she feels scared though.  She looks at him and asks almost immediately: “Should I call a doctor?”

He is as cold as a corpse.

“I am fine.”  He sounds strong, in command again.  “If you can, come back tomorrow.”

Jane goes back into the house, reads her books, writes a report as though she is an android.  All the words are there, but the lines make little sense.  Luckily, her parents are busy.  They don’t have time for inspection.  The report is five pages long.  Punishment has been served.

In the morning, before she leaves for school, Jane walks back into the garage.  She does not look for the light switch but walks up to that boy.

“I have a blanket for you,” she states.

“Thank you,” he is curt.

When Jane opens the door, a slice of the sun peeps in.  She scans the garage and then fixes on the figure that is partly lit.  The boy is almost a man.  He is pale still, but he looks gorgeous in his silky dark coat and with his immaculate look.  Everything about him is expensive.  But now he has shut his eyes, and he has brought his arms to the front to shield him from the world perhaps.  He looks strong yet scared.

“Shut it, please,” he blurts, as though he almost would have grabbed her, thrown her out if she misbehaved.  Jane does not feel threatened.  He looks strong, manly.  Jane wants to feel secure within that strength.

 She leaves, but she thinks of him all throughout the day.  When she goes back in the evening, she carries with her two boxes: takeout from the diner across the street.  She has brought soup for him, made of fresh thyme and mussels and she has gotten a large pork chop.

“For me?” he whispers.

Jane nods.

She knows that he is smiling, but he does not touch the food.

“Were you afraid that I would die?” he asks, as though Jane should have been concerned, as if she knew him so intimately that she ought to have cared.

Jane nods.  She does not why.

“Would you like to live forever?” he questions.  The voice is raspy, tired.  Living forever must be boring.

Jane wants to laugh but does not.  She feels that same shiver again as she leaves the garage.  She now locks the door and puts the key inside her bag.  Mother should not be let in.  The stranger was not yet ready to walk out on his own.  His legs were spread like lifeless logs and his head was leaning against the wall.  Perhaps he is like the little bird that had fallen from the nest years back.  It was pale and weak as well, and could not stand up on its own.  Mother wanted her to throw it out.

“You will get a disease.  Plague!  Rabies!”  Mother was paranoid.  Birds did not transmit the plague.  Mice did.  This boy too would not kill.  He was sweet and strange.  It was unclear how he was wounded though.  Jane would have to get that story out by herself when she would come back in the evening.

When Jane returns in the evening, she brings in a piece of apple pie and a chicken roast leg, some mashed potatoes and a bottle of whiskey. 

“I feel better today,” the visitor announces.  “I will perhaps leave in a day or two.  You will not be bothered again.”

Jane does not want him to leave somehow.  She wants to know more, learn more.  Most of all, she wants to touch him – that expensive fabric and that pale chiseled face – the lean arms and the straight silky hair.

“I got you some food,” she declares, hoping to be appreciated.  That’s when she notices that the soup bowl is still full.

“If you want to live, forever or not, you’ve got to eat, you know.”

The faint smile could have been a smirk, a ridicule.  Jane feels sorry and annoyed.

“Do you like mashed potatoes?  I got you chicken.”

The figure nods and waits.  Jane does not leave.  She wants to hear the story.

“Have you ever seen how beautiful the world looks when you are flying above the alps?  It is all white, snowy.  No man.  Sometimes you see a small house here and there.”

The Alps are far away.  Jane does not see the connection.  Yet she feels transported to a zone of tranquil beauty, like the space contained within the creature in front of her.  She wants to ask if he was a pilot, if he owned a small plane.  But then the man speaks on his own:

“The disease.  Oh that was horrible.  How they all died like flies.  The blood. Oh.”

Jane is unsure what disease he was speaking of.  If something happened near the Alps, she would not have known.  News was never her penchant.

“They let them all die,” he whispers, and she feels the shiver again.  However, she quickly gains her footing, and finally musters her courage:

“Your injury.  How did you get hurt?”

The silhouette of the boy gets quiet.  He looks stiff, as though Jane had pulled him out from his reverie.

“I fell.”  The answer is curt and definitive.  He would not be saying more. 

“I feel better now,” he then adds in a softer tone.  “I shall be leaving by Thursday.  You will not be bothered further”

Jane feels insulted and annoyed at once.  She wants to know more.  She wants him to get closer.  She wants to touch that silky coat that has been cut and sewn by a master craftsman.  But she does not speak either.  She picks up the discarded food container and reaches out for the soup bowl.  She wants to touch his cheek, his forehead.  But just as she reaches for the bowl, the shadow retreats, crawls right into the darkness, further away from his host.

At night mother father, Jane and Sarah are at the dinner table together.  This is the first time in the week that they have made time to cherish the existence of each other.  Mother had several board meetings to attend.  Father had to see clients out of town.  Sarah had been busy with celeb gossip with her friends.  The friends and she had been to a club, Jane knows.  The parents had not been told.

A large bowl of pasta soaked in white sauce sits in the middle of the table.  Mother has baked the garlic bread sticks herself.  Then there is the apple pie.  That though has come from the supermarket.

Mother pours some cocktail into her tumbler and looks straight at Jane, as though time had shrunk to three days back.

“So, the garage is clean?” she sounds eloquent, chatty.

“yes, almost done.”

“Almost?”

”Well, I had to write the report.  You saw it.  I will finish it up tomorrow.”

Mother did not read that report, but pretends that she indeed did.  Stating otherwise would be bringing down her own self together with the daughter.

“I tried to get in today, but it is locked!” mother sounds surprised.

“Yes, I left the key somewhere.  Was extra careful after we kept it open that other night.”

Mother nods.

They all finish their pasta.  Sarah declares she would retire to her room to attend to important calls.  Jane knows she will listen to music, play video games.

Father gets up for coffee.

Jane makes it to her bed and thinks of snowy white mountains and of circling the sky in a small plane with a handsome millionaire.

In the morning, father drives both to school.  Mother does not use her car any more.  The office sends off her own sedan with a chauffeur.

On her way to class, Jane thinks briefly about her dreamy romantic escapade.  She is consumed by her new hero until the chatter of the students and the loud unkind voice of the teacher bring her back to reality.  She will HAVE to clean up the garage in the evening.  If that boy is still wounded, she should call up his family or take him to a clinic.  She thinks of discussing the issues with Lara, her best friend gawking perpetually from within her large black spectacles, but she does not.  Her secret bird was too pretty for the time being.  The girls were mean, even if some were best friends.

In the afternoon, when class is over, Jane googles the list of local hospitals and jots down some numbers.  She also gets a torchlight and a pair of new batteries.  If the visitor were to be shifted to the medical center, she could not use their family car.  So, she checks numbers for the local taxi.  She would also need an excuse.  So, she sends a text to Lara, asks her to meet at the mall at eight pm sharp.

When she opens the garage door, she feels a cheerful vibe.  Nothing has changed, but perhaps someone did shift, evolve.

“I feel much better,” he says.  “I will leave tomorrow.”

In the shadows, Jane sees the empty boxes lying around.  “Good you ate,” she says. 

“So tomorrow, I won’t be here.  Thank you.”  The man is authoritative.  He has taken his decision.  Jane just did her job.

She feels a deluge of rage all of a sudden.  Maybe she does not know what this unseemly feeling is about.  Did she want him to hug her, kiss her, take her to the alps?  Perhaps, he could have offered a number, an address, or an invitation?

“I will have to see your wound,” Jane is equally commanding now.  “I cannot just let you leave my house, injured and in this manner.  I will have to see.  I will have to take you to a doctor.”

“No,” the man demands.  “I say stop there.  Go back.  I am thankful for all you did.”

Jane’s anger does not recede.  Somehow, she feels used. 

“Come on, let me see that,” she commands as she turns on the torch, aims it at the vulnerable stranger as though she’s pointing a gun, the door still half open behind her.

The light bounces off of that figure and hits her eyes, and almost automatically, Jane shrieks.  The boy at the doorstep of manhood is standing now.  He is very tall, about six feet six, and he is paler than she had assumed.  He almost looks like a corpse dressed up for the final journey.  But the nose is sharp, ambitious still, and the eyes are lucid.  The bloodless lips are thin, proud, as though a simple smile could lash her.  Every piece of his attire from the shoe to the bow tie and the white shirt, stained here and there, is exquisite.  But the man, now standing in a defensive pose, trying to fend her off, casts no shadow.  The light helps her see the figure but does not create a pool of darkness behind, as though the man is opaque and transparent at once.

Jane freezes wants to fly away, but cannot.  Her shock throttles her urges.  But the man now moves forward, grabs her from behind, puts his hands atop her mouth to ensure she would not shriek, perhaps ever again.

She feels cold – very cold.  He feels like a corpse that occupies the moving speaking body.  Her charming prince is not earthly.  Perhaps, he is from another world.  Jane does not desire that world, but wants to live in her own.  He pushes her next to his body and it gets colder.  There is no heartbeat beneath that ribcage.

“I am sorry my love,” he whispers.  His breath too is cold as though he has brought the Alps into the small garage.

Jane feels frozen.  Her own heart races.  She wants to move, but her legs feel stuck.  She just stands and waits as he brings his face closer to hers.  His hair brushes her cheek.  He is not kissing.  His eyes sparkle in lust – the lust for life.  She feels a sharp pain in her neck.  Her skin burns.  Then her blood burns.  Something has bitten her, or a pair of needles have pushed into her vein.  The pain soon propagates into her shoulder and then to her arms.  She wants to scream but she cannot.  As she feels suffocated, she also feels she is flying. 

The man from the mountains holds her tight, and the duo glide up to the sky.  From the top, she watches the lights flicker and then she hears a humming sound.  Something strange is inside her body.  It is painful and it is all-devouring.  It might be a potion that would transform her into an immortal being like her mate.  Alternately, the bugs are marching in, in packs of thousands, through her open would, to claim what is left of the body.


The author has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art.  She has published prose and petry in decomP, Blaze Vox, Illumen etc.


“Hitogui” Fiction by Shane Huey

Rob loved what he got paid to do but it was now noon—lunchtime—and he would stop what he was doing for his well-earned, hourlong break. He had the time marked on his calendar as a standing appointment and rarely did he permit intrusions upon this sacred hour. Especially on Fridays and today, it was Friday.

Rob was always invited but seldom entertained the invitation to join his colleagues from the IT department for lunch on such Fridays, though he would on occasion. But, today was a special occasion and he wanted to celebrate it at best alone or, at worst, maybe with a few special friends.

He hit Windows+L on his computer and locked his screen, made his way out of the Philips Pavilion and into the employee parking deck, hopped into and started his car. It was Florida in summertime so it was hot. He fired the AC up, cracked the window, exited the deck, and was soon headed west on Glades. In just a few minutes, he was parked outside of Hitogui, a very traditional, Japanese-style Hibachi restaurant. His favorite restaurant.

Hitogui was an established but still relatively unknown restaurant catering to an exclusive clientele. Though in the heavily-trafficked strip mall for three years now, few knew that it existed. The management neither advertised, at least not via traditional means, nor placed signage indicating the presence of the restaurant. The plexiglass windows and door were darkly tinted and the only designation being the small lettering on the door, “Hitogui” beneath which followed the same in Japanese (人食い).

Rob opened a darkened door and stepped inside simultaneous with the ringing of a bell. The bell notified Chef Koroshi that he had a customer. Rob was the first customer for the time being and so he took his usual seat near the back of the restaurant at table number four, one of the only four table and chair sets in the place, all amply spaced out for an exclusive and private dining experience.

Unusual for the typical hibachi restaurant, each table had only one chair before it and a small grill immediately opposite the patron. This was no restaurant for groups and parties but one in which the patron could sample, directly at the hands of one of Japan’s most skilled artisans, a meal cooked personally for him. Nor was a menu on the table as the selections were few and especially personalized for the clientele that such lists of food were not required, save for the drink menu listing a number of Japanese beers and whiskies. Rob liked the Yamazaki 18 chased with an Asahi Super Dry or two but he had to be back to work shortly so he would have a water and a pot of hot matcha.

Chef Koroshi approached the table where Rob sat, placing silverware wrapped in a black linen napkin upon the table, turned over an empty glass and poured some water. “Good afternoon Mr. Rob,” he said in English but with a thick and heavy Japanese accent.

“Konnichiwa Koroshi-san,” responded Rob with a smile. “O genki desu ka?” Good afternoon Mr. Koroshi. How are you?

“Genki! Arigatou Rob-san. Just genki!” Great, just great, thank you.

Rob didn’t speak much Japanese, not for lack of trying as he had studied for years, but because Japanese is a very hard language to acquire for the typical westerner and, though Rob was smarter than average, he still spoke at a basic level but did try to speak a little when at Hitogui. It delighted Chef Koroshi just to see an American try.

“Nanika nomimasu ka, Rob-san?” Something to drink?

“Ee, ocha o kudasai. Arigatou gozaimasu” Rob replied, politely requesting the matcha and thanking the chef.

“Hai!” Certainly.

When Chef Koroshi returned with the small porcelain tea pot and cup, after having poured Rob a bit of tea, returned to English, “How you like your steak today Mr. Rob?”

“What Japanese, culinary magic did you work on this lot?”

“This week, we rub our meat with koji, a special (paused a moment searching for the word) fungus, yes fungus, and this tenderize steak in two day make look like forty-five day of dry age. Oishii desu—delicious!”

“Sounds great. Medium rare with the vegetables and fried rice. No mushrooms please.”

“Hai…right away, Rob-san,” bowing his head only slightly in the way the Japanese do to show respect while still demonstrating a certain superiority, he turned and walked back to the kitchen.

Rob sat sipping the green, powdery matcha as Chef Koroshi returned pulling his cart and donning his hibachi chef’s belt. Rob noted the well-worn handle of the santoku chef’s knife. He had always admired the implement, a harmony of hinoki wood and Damascus steel, as well as the skill with which it was wielded by Koroshi-san.

Koroshi sprayed and wiped down the grill, turned on the gas burner, streamed some oil upon the surface and within moments had it ready. He retrieved a silverish, covered platter from his cart, carefully removed the lid and tilted the bottommost plate toward Rob. Rob looked at the slab of pinkish brownish meat and nodded in approval.

Koroshi carefully placed the slab of meat upon the grill to which it replied with a burst of smoke and sizzle. He then poured out a bowl of vegetables to one side and a bowl of rice to the other. He tossed two eggs into the air simultaneously catching them on the edge of his spatula and with nothing more than a slight bob of the wrist the eggs slid out of their shells and onto the grill and the yellows did not break.

Koroshi flipped the carnivore’s dream and again, smoke and sizzle, revealing one side already browned and medium rare. He scooped the eggs up and placed them atop the pile of rice with a pour of soy sauce and then ran his knife through his hibachi fork across the mountain of grain, flipping with his spatula to thoroughly mix, finally scooping the rice up and placing it upon the ceramic plate on the table before Rob. Next came the vegetables.

Koroshi returned to the meat once again and, likewise, with hibachi fork and knife, sliced the former muscle turned lunch fare with a surgical precision that seemed less scientific than art. Rob watched with delight as the knife passed through the meat with ease. There was no resistance, no fight in this once vigorous and living thing. Life for life, thought Rob. All creatures feed up on other creatures for life, even vegetarians take life to sustain their own. They just like to pretend that they don’t, he continued to muse, silently and to himself.

Finally, the steak was done and Chef Koroshi laid it to rest alongside its accompaniments upon the plate. He turned off the grill, sprayed once more, and gave it a quick scraping, placing his implements and dishes back upon the cart, turned to Rob, “Enjoy your lunch, Rob-san.”

“Arigatou, Chef.” Thank you.

Chef Koroshi, cart in tow, returned to the kitchen leaving Rob now alone in the dining room, ready to enjoy the meal for which he had worked so hard.

Plate in front of him properly seated upon a large doily, he retrieved and unfurled the linen roll from the table, removed the fork and knife, and placed the cloth triangle upon his lap. There were none of the typical sauces before him and Rob would not desire those anyway, preferring to taste the essence of the meat itself. He spun the plate such that the steak was front and center, stabbed a piece with his fork, sliced his knife down the center of the morsel still steaming from the grill. The knife cut through the meat as if heated and rendering pats of butter. He carefully drew the entree to his mouth and placed it within, chewing slowly, carefully attentive to the oral sensations…the heat, the moisture, the flavor, the texture… It was delicious and he caught himself thinking so in Japanese, oishii desu. Then, for the briefest flash of a moment, be believed that he had felt a certain quickening within himself. And his heart raced, pumping a few extra ounces of warm blood. 

Finishing his meal, Rob looked at his watch and it nearing time to return to the office. He cleaned his plate, sopping up the last bit of red juice from the steak with a fork full of vegetables. Chef Koroshi came out, inquired regarding his patron’s satisfaction with the meal to which Rob replied, “Oishii Koroshi-san…oishii. As always.” Delicious Mr. Koroshi, delicious…

“I am glad you enjoy Mr. Rob,” placing the check on the table. “Take your time.”

Rob turned the check over. “$325,” smiling to himself. “And worth every penny. Can’t get a meal like this just anywhere.” He removed four bills from his wallet, placed them underneath the clip of the plastic tray with the check and stood, hands upon his stomach and grand, Cheshire cat grin. He was in heaven right now and wanted to savor the last crumb of the moment before returning to the world outside.

Walking toward the door he was met by Chef Koroshi, “Thank you Mr. Rob, have a nice weekend.”

“You too Koroshi-san. Say, how much more meat do we have?”

“Hmmm… about maybe two meal, maybe three still.”

“I guess I’ll have to get to work again real soon,” said Rob, not referring to his day job but, rather, his one true passion.

“Hai, yes…I think so Rob-san.”

The two men smiled at each other and Rob turned to walk out of the restaurant.

Before Rob could exit, Chef Koroshi reminded, “Oh, and Mr. Rob, when you make your delivery, please remember use back door.”

“Of course,” Rob replied.

“Oh, and I almost forgot. Silly me! I have a little something for you Mr. Rob,” said the chef with a prideful grin.

The chef reached into a pocket and retrieved a small envelope which he then handed to Rob in formal, Japanese fashion (much as one would share a business card with a new client—envelope resting upon cusped hands and humbly presented to the recipient with a respectful bow). “Dozo.” Please take it.

Rob carefully took the envelope from Koroshi-san’s hands doing his level best to emulate the gesticulations in return. The envelope was constructed of rice paper with, what appeared to be, real blades of grass embedded in its fibers. What it contained was not a document, this much Rob could immediately tell, but something small, oddly shaped, and rather tensible upon depressing with the fingers.  

“Thank you Koroshi-san,” Rob said while offering a bow before turning, finally, to return to his car and then to work. “Good bye Chef.”

“Mata ne.” See you next time.

As Rob walked to his car, the pleasure elicited by the recent meal was quickly supplanted by a rising excitement for his next hunt. Yes, he would begin preparations this very weekend. The planning almost as exhilarating as the hunt itself. It would be a successful hunt as are most for Rob was a very skilled hunter—methodical and careful.

At hunt’s end, as always, he would bring his prize to Chef Koroshi at the little hibachi restaurant, Hitogui. And Chef Koroshi would process, store, and prepare it for a very fair price. But Rob would pay any price for this special service for he loved to hunt so and to consume the game which had fallen by his own hands and prowess.

So excited was Rob that, by the time he had reached his car, he had completely forgotten about the envelope given him by Chef Koroshi. He started the car, hearing first the hum and then feeling the cool air, and he opened the envelope. He was initially puzzled as he removed an origami swan from its delicate sleeve, wings and neck fully extending as if spring loaded. He smiled to himself admiring it for a moment. Then he noticed that the swan was not made with traditional folding paper, or paper at all for that matter. No, it was fashioned out of what appeared to be a very fine mesh. Had Rob not known better, he might have suspected it to be constructed from the type of material used in screening off a patio. But he soon recognized the material for what it was. It was a special mesh, the kind utilized by surgeons to repair abdominal wall defects and injuries—hernias and the like. In that moment, his last kill replayed as if a movie in his mind and he recalled the slight but unnatural resistance that his cold steel blade had met as he finished off his quarry with the final thrust. Ahh…

He smiled again, carefully placing the swan back into the envelope and then into the glove box. I never kept a trophy before, Rob thought. Maybe I should start. And he returned to work having had a good lunch.


Shane Huey is the author of a number of short stories and the occasional haiku. He often writes about dark things from his home in sunny South Florida. Learn more at www.shanehuey.net.


“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.  


Bonus Feature: “Reflections on a Wasted Life” Video by Phil Slattery

As a bonus today, I am posting a video I posted on YouTube on Tuesday. Let me know what you think of it.

I am experimenting with YouTube as a means to attract more readers, but I am not a filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore I am experimenting with public domain videos, music, and inexpensive video editing software to develop short but poignant, moving films to feature on The Chamber’s YouTube channel to draw more readers. I have posted on YouTube only a few so far, most of which are experiments. The one above is the best I had made as of Tuesday. These are becoming easier the more I make of them. Soon, I hope to be able to create a a short story using public domain material. I made the one above as an experiment in emotional impact. It doesn’t have a plot per se, just a poignant je ne sait quois.

Let me know what you think of the video above and visit The Chamber’s YouTube channel and let me know what you think of those videos and how I might be able to improve.

Phil Slattery, Founder and Publisher