“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.


“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


“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.


“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.”