The Outrider

by Michael Hart

The wagon party rolled up to the Federation toll depot, where helmets and shields glinted in the midday sun. The driver, Bannon Sledge pulled up on leather reins as dry and cracked as the expanse surrounding them. A pair of soldiers with sheathed swords summoned them closer, and Bannon steered his two horses to oblige. He kept his hands clearly visible to show he wasn’t gripping anything that could crunch through a helmet.

Bannon turned to his passengers. “Just give them the answers they ask for. No more, no less.” His tone betrayed more irritation than alarm. His three passengers left their goods in their trunks as they climbed out. The first eastbound stop on the Golden Highway, the depot was a fort for soldiers, an oasis for travellers, and just another purse to pilfer for the King. Its single dusty lane accommodated only a barracks, a supply store, and a keg-and-bench ale stand.
A soldier in royal blue standard scampered aboard Bannon’s wagon like a dog let into a kitchen pantry. His comrade on the ground opened a ledger and said, “Name, business, and destination,” to none of the three in particular.

“Walton,” said the oldest as he stretched his back. “Tablewares, antique-Western style. Going all the way to Anchorton.”

“These don’t look antique any-style to me,” said the scavenger soldier, already picking through Walton’s trunk. He held up a dusty silver cup. “They look just plain old.”

“More than anyone will ever know,” said Walton. “But a little polish and they’ll be serving wine to the finest families in the capital.”

“Speaking of wine,” the younger male passenger interjected, “let me offer you men a bottle from the best winery in the West.”

Bannon winced. The half-grown beard on his jaw jutted out a little further as he braced for whatever trouble the wine man’s mouth might get him into, whatever wreckage he might dump on Bannon’s road to a finished job.

“I am Salvio, wine trader. I am also travelling to Anchorton.”

The scavenger took a bottle from Salvio’s trunk and rotated it in his hand. “How do we know which one’s the best?”

“As a matter of fact, you have it in your hands already.” Salvio plucked the tip of his moustache between two fingers. “That’s a 12-year-old Lotus Red. You have an eye for quality.”

The scavenger looked to his comrade, who shrugged his approval and turned to the third passenger. “And you, Madam?”

“I’m a taxpayer, that’s who I am. And I already purchased a pass for this trip. We all did.” She shook her paper pass at the soldier, scolding him with it. “I don’t understand why we have to stop.”

Bannon stepped between the woman and the soldier. “Her name’s Calla. She’s had a rough start to her trip is all. She’s going to Anchorton, too. She sells…women’s undergarments?”

“Those are shawls.” Calla rolled her head away from Bannon with disappointment.

The soldiers were satisfied and amused, and ready for the bottom line. “Fifty pieces fare,” said the one with the ledger.

Bannon tried to sound friendly, a skill he utterly lacked despite decades of occasional practice. “Obviously, my passengers aren’t high-end merchants. Forty pieces would be more reasonable.”

The soldiers’ bored captain, lingering just within earshot, at last took an interest in the group, particularly in Bannon’s old army sword, still sheathed. “What outfit were you with, soldier?” he asked.

“12th Regiment, under Howe,” said Bannon.

The recognition sunk in with the captain, though he looked like he would have still been in the academy when Howe’s 12th met its end. The soldier with the ledger scrunched his brow in bewilderment. “But how could he have been–”

“Because he was an outrider,” the captain cut him off. “He didn’t camp with the regulars. See? The sword’s a bit shorter than standard issue; easier to carry while scouting.” The captain pointed to the scabbard. “But the real giveaway is the fox head engraving.” He steered his tone along a fine line between adulation and amusement. “Outriders had to be crafty. You must’ve clashed with a few raiders in your day, wagon master.”

“A few, Sir.”

“I wish I could help you with the toll, but it’s month’s-end and the royal collectors will be making their rounds. I’m sure you understand.”

“Fifty it is.”

While his horses drank, Bannon spotted a pair of riders newly arriving at the depot. In his experience, Golden Highway traders preferred to join a regular Big Ride east with the army, if they could afford it. It was the safest way, although with the raiders now put in their place you had more to worry about from another member of your party than an ambush. Traders who couldn’t afford army rates might ride with the likes of Bannon or a larger security crew. The rest just had to watch out for themselves.

These two men were watching out for themselves, and in Bannon’s eyes, they didn’t appear too anxious about it. They rode with no obvious cargo, and they didn’t look like rich men travelling through the old raider-held country for adventure either. They eyeballed Bannon’s wagon a tad longer than the nicked and scarred old thing warranted. They eyeballed Bannon’s passengers a helluva lot longer than they warranted — except maybe Calla, he thought, with her shiny black hair that was long enough to grace the beginnings of her backside. If minding one’s own business was an art, then Bannon fancied himself a master painter, like the guy who did the towers at the library in Protanis all those years ago. But the thing about running highway security was — your passengers’ business tended to become your business, like it or not.

When all three of the people who had entrusted Bannon to get them to Anchorton alive were back in the wagon, he closed the rear gate, got back in the driver’s seat, and grabbed his reins.

An outrider who gets himself followed is already dead. That was the first thing they had taught Bannon.

The western stretch of the Golden Highway that connected civilizations ran through country that had little patience for mistakes or delay. The shrivelled prunes of rock formation scattered throughout the distance warned of the fate that befell parties who failed to bring sufficient water. Pockets of grass and weed managed to survive by fortifying in rigid clumps that could slice a man’s hand open if he reached at them wrong.

The sun was getting low and turning a blazing orange at their backs. The old man, Walton emerged from the wagon cover, where Calla and Salvio dozed with their backs against their trunks. He sat and pointed to Bannon’s sword. “Is it true,” he said quietly, “they only give ones like that to the best?”

The men of Colonel Howe’s 12th Regiment would most definitely say that’s false, thought Bannon, had any of them survived the Knee-Deep Massacre…had I found the hordes of raiders before the raiders found them.

“Just the ones desperate enough for the hazard pay,” was what Bannon said instead.

A trio of vultures circled above them. Thinking back on that first thing they had taught him, Bannon pulled a dried pork leg out of his supply sack and chucked it into the road behind them. The vultures made a couple more slow circuits and then descended toward the meal.

Walton peeked back under the wagon cover to make sure no one was listening.

“Something on your mind?” said Bannon.

“I asked Salvio if he preferred Dallion White over Marigold wine. He said, ‘Marigold of course!’”

Bannon shrugged.

“Dallion is a type of Marigold wine. Any wine drinker would know that. He’s clueless about wine.” His voice rose, so he caught himself. “There might be some wine in that trunk for good measure, but I’ll be damned if that’s what he’s looking to sell in Anchorton.”

“You think he’s a smuggler?” Bannon suspected the answer already, like opening a can of meat that’s rotted and knowing the smell that’s about to hit you. But he wanted to hear Walton out first.

“A smuggler, or more specifically a harvester; Pallidyne herb, eclipse, it’s got lots of names. And a lot of demand in Anchorton. Too much demand.”

Anything you carry that can make noise can get you killed. That was the second thing they taught Bannon when he became an outrider. “Do you know what this Pallidyne herb looks like?” he asked.

“I’ve seen it. The old ruins I do my collecting in, there’s harvester grounds all around there. It so happens the crafts I collect are ancient Pallidyne in origin, you know.”

“Because their stuff lasts for centuries,” said Bannon. He stood and turned to look back west, watching the vultures scratching for meat with their hideous beaks.

“Millennia is more like it,” said Walton. “Quality that can’t be matched even today. But you know what else the Pallidyne people were into?”

“I’ve heard the stories. Sorcerers. Exiles with magic mirrors.”

“Mirrors and more. Some of their ceremonial fields have stayed defiled. That’s where the harvesters find the vines. The herbs pop out of them, like crowns on snakes. That’s how they spot them.”

In the distance behind them, Bannon saw the vultures flare into the air, silhouetted against the sun. They didn’t fly high and were clearly sore about having their meal interrupted. He knew the only creature on this stretch of the highway they’d let interrupt a meal was a horse. Or a pair of horses.

Take only what your opponent gives you. That was the third thing Bannon learned when he became an outrider.

Bannon steered the wagon off the side of the road. The rock formation they parked behind threw long, east-facing shadows as if the rocks wanted to reach Anchorton as desperately as the travellers. He dropped the rear gate of the wagon where Calla and Salvio stirred. Walton stood behind him with arms folded.

“Why are we stopping?” asked Calla. “And why are we off the road? Don’t tell me it’s another toll.”

“I got real thirsty for some wine,” said Bannon. He reached in and grabbed the handle of Salvio’s trunk. A firm grip suddenly latched onto his wrist.

“Surely! Surely you didn’t intend to snatch at my trunk like a highway raider?” said Salvio, a fake smile forced through gritted teeth.

Bannon shoved him to the back of the wagon and pulled out his trunk. He was none-the-less gentle with the goods, still hoping to prove they were nothing but wine. Salvio pounced out of the wagon, but Bannon pinned him to the ground in a puff of dusty dirt. Walton began pulling out bottle after bottle.

“You’ll both hang for this!” shouted Salvio. Bannon covered his mouth with a hand, looking back at the Highway warily as Salvio’s shouts echoed.

Walton held a bottle above his head, like a piece of evidence. “This one’s a little light.” He pulled the cork and reached a finger inside. Salvio’s eyes bulged and his cries became harder to muffle. Walton pulled a pouch out of the bottle by its drawstrings and opened it wide. He grimaced.

“He’s a harvester?” said Calla, peering into the bag as well.

“Doubt he harvested anything himself,” said Bannon. “But I can see him snatching that herb from the guys who did. Like the two who followed us to the depot maybe?” He gripped Walton’s shoulder. “Keep an eye on the road. It won’t take them long to find us.”

Salvio locked eyes with Bannon and carefully enunciated his every word. “The contents of that pouch will sell for 100,000 pieces in Anchorton. I just need protection,” he summoned the wine merchant charm with a twirl of his moustache, “which is worth half that, in addition to what I’ve already paid you.” He looked up to Walton and Calla. ”And of course, I can offer you both compensation as well, for…accompanying me with discretion on such a long journey.”

“I’m not gonna’ end up vulture food for this,” said Walton, squinting to see the road from their meagre rock sanctuary as the last traces of daylight vanished.

Bannon peered into the pouch. The herbs looked like purple-green scorpions that had all stung each other to death. “Thought they’d be bigger,” was all he could muster, then he looked to Salvio. “100,000? Why?”

Calla cut in. “Because Pallidyne herb splits your life energy in two,” she said with a chill. “Temporarily, of course.”

Bannon snorted. “Sounds like something for rich people bored with booze. Why should we stop them?”

“The Pallidyne civilization destroyed itself lusting for power,” said Calla. “This is its legacy.”

“Then what should we do, burn it?” said Bannon.

No sooner had the word ‘burn’ escaped his lips than Walton said, “Riders. Two of them.”

“Get behind me, all of you,” said Bannon. “And if you’ve got anything you can hurt somebody with, now’s the time.” He spotted a glow from behind the rocks nearest them. He drew his sword. After a few forced breaths, a lone torch holder stepped into view. “Shout when you spot the other one,” he hissed. As the torch holder approached, Bannon recognized him as one of the two riders from the depot. He had the loose garb, deep tan, and well-worn features of a field worker — a harvester.

Rustling kicked up behind him; Walton and Salvio struggled over the pouch, like insolent children, with Salvio trying to pry it from Walton’s hand while Walton tried to pry a small blade from Salvio’s. Walton forced out words between spited breaths.

“We’re…giving…this…poison…back.” He grunted. The red tip of a sword protruded through the old man’s chest. It was then pulled back just as quickly. Walton dropped to his knees, revealing the second harvester lurking behind him.
Bannon swivelled his attention between the two threats. The one with the torch tossed it atop his wagon and drew his own sword.

“The horses!” Bannon shouted to Calla. “Untie the horses.”

Walton’s killer grabbed Salvio. The faux-wine merchant struggled in a way Bannon had never before seen. It was as though he were writhing out of his own skin, or his skin was trying to shed itself from him. A black fog shaped identically to Salvio leaped out from his body and onto the harvester. The harvester seemed only mildly affected as if the move was no surprise and little more than an annoyance; a fly he had swatted at before. But it did free Salvio enough to use his blade. He stabbed the man in the gut, leaving the little weapon buried. The harvester redoubled his attack despite his wound. He knocked Salvio to the ground with a ferocious burst before running him through. Salvio slumped, lifeless. His fog-double slumped as well, then scattered into the breeze.

Bannon and the torch holder faced each other. Bannon assessed his opponent. His stance and grip indicated at least rudimentary sword training. The man’s first move, however, indicated an assumption that Bannon had no training at all; he swung for Bannon’s neck, fast and accurate, but with no thought to surprise. Through many painful lessons, Bannon knew where the blade would travel and side-stepped it without breaking stance. He then took what his opponent gave him: a meager piece of flesh above the hip, left exposed after the heavy swing. Bannon’s thrust drew enough blood to spill down the man’s trousers. It seemed to pain him enough to hobble his balance. Bannon knew it was all he’d need. He let the man take another swing. It was awkward but still dangerous, and it convinced Bannon to allow him no more. He attacked the harvester’s wounded side. The man’s upward parry was too slow and too weak, and Bannon’s sword sliced across his collar, then his throat. The harvester briefly attempted to staunch the wound, but his fingers were like twigs on a branch dangling into a busy river.

Bannon’s old wagon had never ridden evenly, and now it couldn’t even burn evenly. He kicked the lone holdout wheel into the rest of the fire. Calla and his horses had no complaints, what with the dropping temperature. The light from the bloated fire revealed the bloody crawl tracks of Walton and Salvio’s killer, who had made it halfway back to the Highway before planting face-down for good. They found enough rocks to cover Walton, to honor his last wish of not ending up vulture food. Bannon refused to give the same courtesy to the others, and Calla gave up trying to convince him otherwise

He did take a curiosity in Salvio though, giving his body a nudge with his boot.

“Is he dead, or did he just blow away?”

“The herb isn’t about cheating death,” said Calla, “though maybe that was the Pallidyne people’s original idea.”

Bannon crouched closer to Salvio and tugged on his necklace. He pulled out an attached amulet that had been hiding under his shirt.

Calla opened it and sniffed. “Looks like he kept some of his product close to heart,” she said. “Ground up and ready to take at a moment’s notice. That must be how he…”

“Split?” Bannon finished her thought. He tucked the necklace back into Salvio’s shirt.

“I’ll take you as far as you want, Anchorton even,” he said as he pulled the pouch of herbs out of his pocket for Calla to see. “But then I’ve got some losses to cover.”

“Are you always this dense?” She gestured all around, at the bodies and the flames. “This is how these dealings always end, sooner or later.”

“It’s how things ended for a lot who’ve ridden with me. Never made a difference what their dealings were.”

Calla stepped closer, pouring sympathy from her eyes. “You can’t save everyone.” Her black hair mirrored the flames as it danced in the dry night breeze. She squeezed his hand for a brief moment. “But you did save me.”

His grip on the pouch softened.

“And I might need you to do it again,” she said as she took the pouch and tossed it into the fire.

“We have two horses to ride and two to sell,” Calla said, “and half a trunk of cheap wine.”

Bannon and Calla sat by the fire. They passed a bottle of wine back and forth, watching black shadows leap in the flames like vultures on the Golden Highway

Michael Hart’s short stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Tales magazine and The Ethereal Gazette. He holds a day job as a copywriter in Chicago and is a father of one (soon to be two)!

Collective Magic

Tiffany Michelle Brown

Rachel believes in the dark power spun between teenage girls at sleepovers. It’s a special magic that crackles in the air when they gather, a product of their collective energy. It’s the type of magic that allows girls to levitate during rounds of Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. It renders no truth is too personal, no dare too dangerous. It allows girls to defy the rules of the universe and stay up all night without experiencing so much as a flash of fatigue.

This magic, Rachel feels it deep in her belly. She knows it’s real. 

Ghosts, however? They’re just the stuff of stories.

The stench of musty straw makes Rachel dizzy as she steps into the dim of the Ryans’ barn. According to Kirsten, the hulking structure dates back to the 1700s. It’s dark and deserted and spooky and just might be the perfect place for late-night shenanigans.

When Kirsten invited the girls to her grandparents’ home in the country—an old farmstead complete with a tractor, no neighbors in sight, and a surplus of space—Rachel’s brain whirled with possibility. She and her girls could get into quality trouble there.

However, the farm has proven to be less romantic than expected. While the girls have plenty of room to gallivant and shout, it also smells like a petting zoo, and Kirsten’s grandparents are, like, a thousand years old and kind of curmudgeonly. Rachel feels strangely out of place amid the green expanse.   

But it’s just for the night, and the girls are pros at this sleepover thing. They’ll make their fun, come hell or high water or horses that are bent on biting little-girl fingers. The horses are in the stable, so Rachel’s safe in the barn. 

“Take it off,” Ashley shouts. She’s huddled next to Kirsten and Malia right outside the barn door. The threesome is nothing but dark silhouettes in the night holding blinding flashlights. Malia wolf whistles, and then the group swing their flashlights and they catch Rachel in their beams.

This is an epically stupid dare, Rachel decides. But they’re just getting started, so what did she expect? It’s only eleven, a respectable hour, and nothing good will happen until around two when they’re sugar-addled and bored and that teenage girl-magic has its claws in them.

Rachel tosses her flashlight into the straw and pulls her nightshirt over her head, revealing the lime-green bra she bought specifically for this get-together. She knew she’d get the chance to show it off during the course of the night. 

Cool air bites her skin, and she holds a shudder hostage between her shoulder blades. She can’t show an ounce of discomfort or insecurity. If she does, she loses, and she can’t possibly lose at such a lame dare. 

“Rach, that colour on you, yes,” Malia shouts.

Rachel does a little shimmy (more catcalls) and then clears her throat, signaling the start of her performance. She has a shit singing voice and the song is out of her range and it’s kind of cold, so Rachel’s voice snags and breaks as she belts out the first few lines of her favourite witchy pop song. She struts around the barn while the girls giggle and shout approvingly.

Once she’s found her groove, Rachel goes on autopilot, singing and sauntering like she’s in a music video. Beneath the spectacle, she’s low-key bored and lets her mind wander. 

She glances up at the roof of the barn, which is high and feels like a million miles away. There’s a lofted area that cuts the space in half horizontally, but she doesn’t see a ladder, so Rachel wonders how anyone gets up there. Perhaps the ladder is elsewhere, but Rachel doesn’t remember seeing one anywhere on the property. Odd.

“My grandma won’t set foot in there,” Kirsten had said earlier that day, smiling conspiratorially, twisting blades of grass between her fingers. “She thinks it’s haunted.”

“Bullshit,” Rachel said.

“No, it is. Back in the 1800s, there was…an incident. A bunch of girls our age died in there.” She inclined her head toward the barn. 

“What kind of incident?” Ashley asked, making excellent use of air quotes.

“A fire, a murder, a flood, I don’t know,” Kirsten said, waving off the question.

“So something happened, but no one can say what, and now there are ghosts?” Rachel rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure that’s the story for every rickety barn out here.”

“God, you’re killing our fear buzz,” Ashley said, elbowing Rachel.  

Kirsten replaced her smile with a serious, melodramatic expression. “Grandma says she hears giggling.”

“Giggling?” Malia asked.

“Laughter is so terrifying,” Rachel said, sarcasm pouring from her lips.

Kirsten shrugged. “Your funeral, Rach.”

The only giggling Rachel hears as she traipses about the barn, singing about witches and warnings and seduction, is from her friends, who are eating up her one-woman concert. She moves her body and grinds her hips and at one point even sinks to the ground and rolls around in the straw, because why the hell not?

It happens when Rachel pushes herself to her feet and brushes the straw from her pyjama pants. She’s suddenly enveloped in darkness. Complete pitch, thick as smoke. She hears a deafening thwack and realizes the barn door has slammed shut. 

She remembers where the door is supposed to be and sprints through the gloom, her palms outstretched, hoping her memory is right. But she runs too hard and her arms buckle when they grasp for purchase. Her forehead cracks against wood, and Rachel tumbles backward. Straw scrapes her skin, and pain throttles through her. She feels liquid trickle down her brow. She wonders if that’s a splinter she feels embedded in her skin and if she might have a concussion.

Rachel hears screams and shuffling on the other side of the door. She leaps to her feet, ignoring the pain, and bangs her fists against wood. At first, her cries are angry—“This isn’t funny, assholes! Let me out!”—but they quickly turn tearful and desperate­—“What’s going on? Kirsten? Somebody help me”—when she realizes her friends are just as confused and frantic.

Rachel hears Ashley telling a 9-1-1 operator about their emergency, and Kirsten says she’s going to wake up her grandparents. Rachel doesn’t get the opportunity to thank them for trying to save her. Something cold as stone covers her mouth. An alliance of freezing hands grabs her arms, legs, torso, and pulls.

Rachel is flying backward, she knows that, but it’s so dark, she’s lost her orientation and it feels like a dream. No, a nightmare. She closes her eyes, the only control she has left.

Her flight ends, and Rachel’s body is lowered to the ground. The majority of the icy hands flee her body, but the strongest remain clamped around her ankles and wrists, holding her down, gagging her mouth. Rachel struggles and flails and twists and tries to scream. 

They let her, the things in the dark, knowing she’s human and she’ll tire quickly.

When she finally stills, Rachel hears scraping noises and then her skin is stabbed and tickled by fine pieces of…something. As more and more of it falls against her, Rachel sniffs. It’s straw. She’s being buried.

The hand clamped over her mouth is so cold, her lips grow numb. The tears that streak down her cheeks are hot as boiling water in contrast. The burial continues until the weight of the straw is thick and oppressive. Even if they leave, let her go, Rachel will never be able to dig herself out.

The burying noises cease. Finally, the hands are gone. Rachel opens her mouth to scream, but dirty straw tumbles in. She sputters and spits and gasps, but quickly discovers there isn’t a lot of air under here. It’s dense and hot and scarce, and Rachel knows what will happen next.

She closes her eyes and prays for magic.

Rachel is sitting in the loft of the barn. Luminescence hangs in the air around her, providing just enough light for her to see in front of her. As she adjusts to this new landscape, a thought, hard and sure, sparks through her head. She doesn’t feel right. She feels…insubstantial. Like a dollar store plastic bag. The paper casing for a straw. The skeleton of a leaf.

Also, they’re staring at her.

Teenage girls sit in a circle in the middle of the loft. Their figures are pearly and fluid, like opalescent smoke. They sit and drift and disappear and reappear and stare all at the same time. Rachel makes out glimpses of clothing: a bonnet and a long dress – the kind girls wear in period films, a Scrunchie around a wrist and lace-adorned socks, a choker and midriff top featuring a band Rachel’s never heard of, a pleated plaid skirt – short and creased just so.

She knows whose hands drew her into the darkness, held her down, and covered her with straw. This time, it isn’t the smell of hay that makes her dizzy.  

Rachel wants to scream, wants to run, wants to rewind time. But as she stares at these eager beings, as she senses their energy, she knows none of that is possible. She’s one of them now. And you can’t escape yourself.

Suddenly, she wants to laugh, because she was right. Teenage girls are brimming with collective magic. They know how to get in trouble, how to get their kicks, whether in life or in death. The ghost with the choker speaks, and her voice is an echo through an empty well. “Hey, new girl, truth or dare?”

Tiffany Michelle Brown ran away from the scorching deserts of Arizona to live near breezy California beaches. Despite a sunny disposition, she’s inspired by the macabre and once had a heart-to-heart with a ghost over a pumpkin beer. Tiffany’s work has been featured by the NoSleep Podcast, Cemetery Gates Media, Sliced Up Press, and Fright Girl Winter. You can find her online at her website or on Twitter @tiffebrown.

A New Dynasty

by JF Garrard

“Don’t be such a wuss, Sam, just open the door,” Rebecca blinked her long false lashes and gazed at him through her blue-tinted contacts. She flipped her long, bleached blonde hair over her shoulder and pressed her body against his arm. Dressed in a short-sleeve white blouse with a bow and mini skirt, she resembled an anime character out of every male otaku’s dream.

Sam’s face turned red at the contact of her body against his arm. A heavyset Chinese boy with dark, short-cropped hair, beads of sweat ran down his back, making his white collared shirt cling to him.

They were standing in front of the large ornate metal doors of the History Museum, Sam’s place of employment as a security guard. A giant banner hung on top of the entrance, featuring Han Dynasty Chinese antiques photo-edited onto a blue background with the words “Visit our Search for Immortality Exhibit! Opening Soon!”

After taking several shallow breaths, Sam shook his arm gently to loosen her grip. “Rebecca, I don’t think this is a good idea. I can get fired. I actually like this job and I need to pay Dad rent money.” It pained him to be reminded of the argument with his father a few months before, who pointed out that Sam had graduated high school years ago, was unemployed, and spent most of his time in the basement watching anime and playing video games. Meanwhile, there were bills to pay, such as medical school tuition fees for his brilliant younger brother, Danny.

She let go of him and rummaged through her purse. “When I went into the archive room this afternoon, the jade suits were still in pieces. The guy at the store said he wanted a few jade tiles from the male and female suits. He’s going to give us two thousand dollars for them. I brought along some scissors, gloves, and Ziploc bags. Do we need anything else?”

Sam didn’t answer and looked up at the sky instead. In another week he was going on a trip of a lifetime to Tokyo, the city of his dreams, filled with vivid neon bright lights, and futuristic technology – the birthplace of manga. If there was a God, they were on his side. Well, they were on his side until Rebecca saw some ad about an international J-pop competition and became obsessed with entering. Their hotel and airfare were being paid by the anime con they volunteered for, but at least three thousand dollars was needed to cover the J-pop competition entry fee, makeup artist, accessories, and wardrobe to make her a worthy competitor. Both had sensible Asian parents who thought entering a J-pop competition was idiotic and a waste of money.

A few days ago, Candy, the visiting Chinese curator of the touring Search for Immortality exhibit happened to have a conversation with Sam about people attempting to steal tiles from the stars of the show, jade burial suits of Prince Liu Sheng and his wife Princess Dou Wan. She even showed him a few websites of local antique dealers who she thought were scoundrels and would probably buy stolen goods. Sam had mentioned this to Rebecca and before he knew it, she had visited these stores to ask about the pricing of tiles and offered to steal some.

Silence did not bode well with Rebecca and she spoke in a stern tone. “I was talking to Candy and she told me that the entire museum has cameras in all of the rooms except for the archive room because the ceilings have asbestos so they were never installed there. This means I can pop in, grab the stuff, and pop out with no evidence of taking anything. We’ll be okay.”

Sam looked unconvinced.

“Look, the jade suit covers the entire body. Right now Candy is repairing the backside. If any pieces are missing, no one will notice, the suits are displayed with them lying on their backs anyway.”

“You know the tiles are all numbered, right? I mean, the people that made the suits carved Chinese numbers into the tiles?”

She rolled her eyes. “Candy mentioned that there are already tiles missing anyways. Stop being so glum! Next week we’ll be in Tokyo and we can have lunch in the Gundam café in Akihabara!”

Sam’s face couldn’t help but light up at the thought of beautiful café maids bringing him tasty burgers with robot faces embossed in the buns and cold milky tea drinks. His shoulders slumped down when he thought about the robbery task that was in the way of his trip.

Standing on her tippy toes, Rebecca gave him a tiny kiss on the cheek. “I promise this will totally be worth it after I become a mega J-pop star!”

His heart burst with joy with the contact of her soft lips and he gave her a crazy grin as he used his key card to open the doors to the museum. Raising a fist into the sky, he chortled, “Tokyo, here we come!”

He stopped smiling when they entered the main lobby, a round floor space with a compass design on the floor. The area featured a small counter for the security staff on the left, a larger counter for visitors to purchase tickets in the center, and three potential paths leading to different gallery halls within the museum. The paths led to Asian, European, and African artifacts.

“Who’s she?” Jack, an older man in a security uniform gestured at Rebecca.

“Oh, she’s a student writing a story for the university. She left her camera lens in the archive room when she was visiting this afternoon and wants to get it back.” Sam signed his name and time of arrival in the employee log without looking up, not wanting his supervisor to see his quivering lips.

“Well, she should come back tomorrow. We can’t allow strangers to come into the museum when it’s closed!” Jack crossed his arms and looked stern.

“Um, well, she’s my brother’s girlfriend,” Sam mumbled, his face flushing and his chest feeling heavy. Although they were a perfect match, their parents had decided long ago that she would be more suitable as the bride of his brother, the future doctor.

“Hi, I’m Rebecca,” Rebecca extended a hand to Jack and gave him a sweet smile. “I’m just going to pop in and out, it’ll be fast, I promise!”

“Well…” Jack studied her innocent-looking face as he took a sip of purple bubble tea. “Fine. Sam, you go with her and walk her out afterward!”

“Yes, Sir! Hey, are you drinking bubble tea? I thought you didn’t like that stuff?” Sam raised an eyebrow.

“Candy gave it to me. She said I had to try it. It’s not bad, but the bubble stuff is chewy though,” Jack shrugged and grinned.

“Alright, see you later!” Sam ushered Rebecca to follow him and waved goodbye to his supervisor. His heart was racing as they walked quickly down the path for the Asian galleries.

“Are there any other people around here?” she whispered as they went past historical Chinese, Japanese, and Korean objects and design elements that represented various themes of tradition, symbolism, and myths.

“Nah, just us two for the night shift. Nothing ever happens,” Sam shrugged.

The Search for Immortality exhibit was at the end of the largest gallery room and was segregated by temporary plywood walls covered with posters advertising its upcoming opening date. Sam rummaged through the keys on his belt and opened the door in the temporary wall leading to the exhibit and archive room.

The objects in the special exhibit were arranged to illustrate how things had been arranged in the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng, who had managed to take his wealth with him to his death. Facing visitors first were terracotta soldiers on horses, the guardians meant to protect and ward off unwanted visitors. Next was a display of everyday items required for life and the afterlife, ranging from cooking pots, wine vessels, and glasses to earthenware statues of dancing ladies in chiffon gowns. Missing were the remains of the servants sacrificed to help in the afterlife. The last section featured funeral objects which surrounded two jade-covered lacquer coffins. Once the jade suits belonging to Prince Liu Sheng and his wife, Princess Dou Wan were repaired, they would be in glass cases set above the coffins. Each suit took almost a decade to make and consisted of over two thousand jade tiles sewed together by hand with silk threads. Jade was believed to possess magical properties that would protect the body from decay and ward off evil spirits.

Other jade objects in the room included delicate cicadas representing reincarnation, figurines of musicians and dancers, hair ornaments, and masks. The jade varied in colour, from light green to purple, was translucent or opaque and some was cut with such skill that it glittered like diamonds under the museum’s fluorescent lights. Two small ragged looking steel daggers stood out as odd objects in the room and the description tags explained that they were ceremonial daggers used during funerals. Rebecca marvelled at some delicate jade hair pieces in the shape of lotus flowers. “I should get a few of these for my J-pop audition. What do you think?”

Sam shrugged. “They look pointy and sharp. Why don’t you buy fancy swords and do martial art moves? You did take Wing Chun for a while. You could sing and fight!”

“Yeah, but that’s not kawaii enough!” she pouted.

Along one of the walls was a large banner advertising China as a tourist destination. Sam shoved it aside to reveal the door to the archive room. The large, musty-smelling room was filled with cabinets, bookshelves, and artifacts from all over the world, ranging from a giant stuffed sabre-toothed tiger to delicate tiny gold snuff boxes. In the centre was a large table cleared off to facilitate the repair of the jade suits. Similar to a knight’s armour, each suit was made up of several pieces consisting of gloves for the hands, coverings for arms and legs, a large torso portion as well as a face mask.

Rebecca set her bag down on the floor and took out rubber gloves, Ziploc bags, and fine blade scissors.

“Whoa, wait until I close the door first!” Sam scowled and shut the door behind him. He glanced nervously around and gulped when he noticed the eyes of a stuffed bear staring at him from across the room.

“I’ll be fast!” She put on her gloves and gave a larger pair to Sam. Studying the suits situated on their backs with gaping holes of missing tiles and loose threads, she came up with a quick plan. “Look, I don’t even have to use my scissors on the male suit, just grab me two or three tiles where the thread is already broken. Easy job! I do need to make some cuts on the female suit though.”

Hands shaking, Sam wrapped a firm hand around one of the tiles and yanked it off. It slid off the ancient thread easily. The second one came off quickly as well. As he wrapped his hands around the third tile, he felt pain and realized something sharp had pierced his fingers. He watched in horror as blood dripped onto the jade tiles and the table. Strangely enough, the blood didn’t stain the tiles. Instead, the blood disappeared as if absorbed into the jade. Frowning, he absently took off his gloves and stuffed them into his pocket. With his bare hands, he turned the jade tiles around in his bleeding fingers, but the tiles remained a translucent green with no sign of red stains.

“Ow!” Rebecca gave a yelp. “Something poked me and I’m bleeding!” She clutched the tiles with dripping red gloved fingers.

Sam wanted to move closer to see if her blood was being absorbed into the tiles as well, but a rattling noise made him freeze. He shoved the small tiles into his pocket and made gestures for Rebecca to be quiet and to hide under a tarp that was under the table.

“Sam, is that you?”

A soft female voice speaking English with a faint trace of Mandarin accent made him turn towards the door. His face flushed when he saw Candy, the exhibit curator come through the door, wearing a tiny leather cross-body purse, and holding an orange bubble tea drink. Although she appeared to be in her twenties, her seemingly unlimited knowledge of history, preference for keeping her hair in a tight bun, and formal dress suits made her seem older.

“Um, hi, Candy, I was just doing the rounds and checking on stuff. I should go now.” Sam tried to walk by, but she reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Something’s wrong,” she said, pointing to the table where the jade suits were.

“Wh-wh-what?” Sam stopped and flinched. He felt a bit dizzy as the room became very stuffy and sweat dripped down his temple.

“There’s blood on the floor and table. Did something happen? Was it here when you arrived?” She raised an eyebrow, looking at him expectedly as she sucked on her bubble tea noisily.

“I didn’t…didn’t…notice…” He stumbled and fell onto the ground when he tried to walk backwards away from her. A jade tile popped out of his back pocket upon his impact with the floor.

Candy put down her bubble tea on the edge of the table and put her hands on her hips. “You’re not a very good thief, are you? Leaving behind DNA evidence and dropping stuff all over the place.”

“I…please…I…” Sam pulled out the other two tiles from his pocket, moving towards her while on his knees. “The tiles were loose and I was picking at them for fun. I wasn’t going to take them, really! Please don’t tell Jack!”

“Let me look at those tiles…” Candy held them up and squinted. “Your hands are all bloody, but the tiles are not. Why?”

“I don’t know,” Sam shrugged. “The blood just got soaked up by the tiles. Is this normal?”

“Hmm…” Candy looked at him thoughtfully while rubbing the tiles with her fingers. Setting them down on the table, she reached into her collared shirt and pulled out something that was on a thin rope around her neck. Sam immediately recognized she was holding an omamori or Japanese amulet. The black satin pouch with its ornate rope design and calligraphy indicated it was of the katsumori type. The owner of the amulet would channel their energy into a single goal and the katsumori will guarantee that it happens. Opening the tiny pouch, she took out a semi-translucent piece of paper that had many tiny Chinese characters written on it in black ink. She muttered something to herself and used her fingers to calculate something.

Abruptly, Candy spoke in a sharp tone. “Can you tell me your birthdate again?”

Blinking rapidly, he blurted out, “January 19, 1994.”

“You are sure?”

“Yes. Why? I should…should…go…” Sam mumbled as he tried to stand up.

“You are not going anywhere!” Her livid look caused Sam to collapse back onto the floor. “I need you to repeat after me…” Candy said some words which sounded vaguely like Mandarin but with tones that Sam had never heard before.

Speaking in an abnormally high-pitched nervous voice, Sam repeated the words as best as he could. After he finished speaking, a sudden wind blew through the room, ruffling his hair, and the jade suits rattled on the table. Then the wind left as abruptly as it first appeared.

“Damn, I guess you are the wrong person,” she sighed and put the piece of paper carefully into the amulet pouch and back in her shirt. “Every century I get my hopes up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember how I told you that Prince Liu Sheng almost became emperor? Out of his father’s fourteen sons, he was the most brilliant, but his younger brother Liu Che became emperor instead.”

“What?” Sam scratched his head. “But Liu Che or Emperor Wu is considered the greatest emperor ever. He expanded China, created the first national college and the Silk Road flourished. During his reign, China was bigger than the Roman Empire!”

“He was a harsh, demanding, and merciless man. He made his followers, wives, and sons commit suicide because he believed in rumours evil advisors fed into his ears. Also, Emperor Wu’s best ideas came from my husband, Liu Sheng.”

“Your husband.” Sam’s eyes widened and he swallowed hard. “Wow, that’s…um…you know the Han Dynasty happened a long time ago, right?”

“Over two thousand years ago…” Candy rubbed her eyes and yawned. “At that time, my name was Zhuo Wenjin and I was Liu Sheng’s second wife. Before Liu Che was selected to become Emperor, I had a plan to dispose of him. He was only a teenager then and did not have any power. But Dou Wan, my older sister was worried that my plan would get the whole family killed, including her, so she poisoned me. My husband hired many doctors to cure me and I presume one of them gave me an immortality medicine.”

“But your husband was a drunk! He had over one hundred concubines and many were buried with him when he died. How come you weren’t buried alive?”

“Dou Wan locked me up in a cage far from home. After she died it was instructed that I be murdered, but I was lucky that my captors felt sorry for me and let me live. My husband only acted like a drunk so that he would appear to be more stupid than his emperor brother. If he acted smart, his brother might think there was going to be a coup and kill him.”

“Hmm…Why did you make me repeat those strange words after you?” Sam stretched his arms up in the air, yawning as he observed Candy, wondering if she was on any type of medication.

“After I learned of Liu Sheng’s death, I consulted many Taoist priests before I found one that could give me instructions on how to bring him back to life. The jade suit keeps his soul on earth, but his body is organic and still decays. The secret is to find someone with the same lunar birthdate as Liu Sheng, make them say the spell on days of a full moon, and ensure their blood is spilled onto the tiles. Inside the suit, I put needles to catch blood from any thieves or potential candidates for body switching.”

“Body switching!” Sam sat up straight, his mouth agape. “Why do you want me to switch bodies with him?”

“I’ve watched China fall too many times. The worst was our loss during the Opium Wars. I can’t tell you how many times I saw men selling their wives and children for a hit of opium. If Liu Sheng comes back, we can revive the monarch again and rule with a strong fist! All battles can be fought virtually now by hacking into every country’s digital economy to control the leaders; we don’t have to shed blood and can win wars much quicker than ever before. We will create a new Chinese dynasty named after us!”

“Okey dokey,” Sam stood up quickly, brushing off the creases in his pants. “Well, it sucks that your plan didn’t work, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Candy shrugged. “I sound crazy, but I’m not. You’re a nice kid, Sam but you will live an average life compared to my genius Liu Sheng. He would be able to do so much more if given a second chance to rule.” She picked up her bubble tea and started sipping on it again.

“Oh…” Sam’s voice came out barely as a squeak when he saw the loose jade tiles float up into the air from the table and the broken red thread magically stitch the tiles back into place. The arm pieces joined the torso, the legs snapped into place and finally, the head which had features made out of larger pieces of jade turned to look at him.

“Liu Sheng! Finally, my love, we can be together again!” Candy’s face became wet as tears streamed down her cheeks and she jumped up and down while covering her heart with her hands. “You don’t know how lonely it’s been, wandering the earth, trying to find a body for you! Oh wait, I’m speaking in English…”

The head of the suit bent down as if to inspect its arms and legs before looking down at Candy. She spoke in a language Sam couldn’t understand, but from the tone, it sounded like she was having a loving conversation with whoever was in the suit.

“I’m going now!” Sam’s heart pounded loudly in his ears as he ran towards the door. Grabbing the doorknob, he turned it, but the door refused to budge. An instinct to stay alive kicked in and Sam realized that he was terrified of death. He pulled at the doorknob again, pushing a leg against a wall as he did so. The doorknob fell off, but before he could open the door, a jade glove appeared in the air and punched him hard in the face. Stumbling backward, he saw stars as pain spread across his face. The jade glove flew back to its owner and the entire jade suit jumped off the table, landing on the floor with a thud.

Sam thought about all the weapons he had ever used in video games when defeating virtual bosses and bolted about the room, looking for things to throw at the jade prince that was slowly following him with clattering noises as the tiles moved over the floor. Grabbing random objects such as boomerangs, Sam threw them but they only bounced off the stone armour. Knocking the stuffed bear down didn’t trip the prince and Sam could barely lift the heavy metal swords from their displays. Not watching his step, Sam didn’t notice Candy putting out a foot to trip him, making him fall hard onto the floor.

The jade suit ambled over to Sam, leaned over, and put its face close to his. The jade mask’s mouth turned into a swirling black hole which sucked out Sam’s air and body energy. Making a fist, Sam tried to punch the jade suit, but the prince wouldn’t budge. As it became harder to breathe, Sam frantically ripped at his own shirt. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and the jade suit flew backward into the wall, collapsing, and scattering pieces of tiles onto the floor.

Looking down, Sam saw a bright light on his chest coming from a jade Buddha pendant given to him by his mother.

“Help!” A loud female voice made Sam and Candy look around the room. Rebecca was being lifted up from under the table by a smaller jade glove belonging to the suit of Princess Dou Wan.

“Why is she coming back to life?” Candy seethed.

Walking quickly to Sam, Candy snatched the Buddha pendant off his chest, breaking its chain. Running over to the smaller jade suit, she thrust it into the princess’ jade mask, causing the suit to let go of Rebecca and fly backward into the wall, collapsing next to the larger suit.

A large male jade glove flew over to Candy and smacked her hard in the chest, making her and the jade pendant drop to the floor. The glove made a fist before hammering the pendant into many pieces, causing light and smoke to fill the air. Job done, the slightly burnt glove returned to its owner.

The three humans watched in shock as the suits hugged and held hands with their hard faces looking longingly at one another.

The male suit turned to Candy and spoke some words in a deep hollow voice, causing her face to become wet with tears as she clutched her bruised chest.

“This isn’t supposed to happen!” Candy screeched and let out a series of loud wails before crying hysterically. “You were supposed to spend eternity with me, not with her! She’s the traitor, not me!”

The scattered pieces of tiles on the floor flew up slowly into the air to be rethreaded onto the suits. Jumping to her feet, Candy wiped her eyes before running out the door, while calling out to Sam and Rebecca in English. “You two, follow me!”

“What are we going to do?” Rebecca sobbed as she followed the curator closely, entering the area with jade artifacts and funeral items.

Candy pointed to metal daggers in the glass case. “You need to use these to cut the threads holding the tiles together. It’s the only way to break the spell.”

“But it’s in a glass–” Before Sam could finish his sentence, Candy grabbed a stool meant for visitors and smashed the case into a million pieces.

Rebecca reached around the broken glass, grabbed a dagger, and handed it to Sam. Using the stool again, Candy broke the display, with a feiyi or burial banners inside, that was supposed to be a map to guide the souls of the prince and princess to the next life. Reaching into her cross-body purse, she took out a cigarette lighter.

“I’m going to burn these outside. The jade suits will follow you, they’ve tasted your blood. Just stab them and you should be ok!”

Before Sam could protest, Candy ran out of the exhibit towards the lobby. The sound of jade tiles clicking on the floor made Sam shake and clutch the dagger harder. Rebecca grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the exit.

Seeing the lobby made Sam think of his supervisor. “Jack! Jack! We need help!”

Rebecca put a finger to her lips and pointed towards the security desk. Purple liquid was on the floor and his supervisor was unconscious on the ground. Sam groaned, it was obvious that Candy had been adamant that no one interrupt her body-switching plan.

Sam put his hand on the metal door and pushed, catching a glimpse of the night sky with its full moon and Candy a few feet away, trying to burn the antique banners with her lighter. Before he could step outside, jade gloves grabbed onto his calves and pulled him to the floor with a thud. The dagger fell from his hands and the door closed with a bang.

“Sam!” Rebecca shrieked as smaller jade gloves grabbed her legs. She fell down but managed to keep her dagger and thrashed at the gloves, breaking the threads holding the tiles together. The jade pieces fell to the floor and remained shaking on the ground, unable to reform into a glove.

Kicking to loosen the grip of the gloves around his legs, Sam crawled to the dagger he had dropped and used it to break apart the tiles of the gloves holding him prisoner.

The female jade suit’s head flew through the air and crashed into Rebecca’s head. The cracking sound made Sam wince and he watched in horror as Rebecca fell to the ground with blood trickling down her temple.

Before he could scramble to his feet to help her, the male jade head appeared in front of him. Sam swiped at it with the dagger, missing it as the head backed away. Standing up, he tried to bury the dagger into the head, but strong gloveless arms wrapped themselves around his chest from behind, preventing him from moving. The head hovered in the air briefly as if studying his face before coming closer and colliding with Sam’s head.

“Sam? Sam? Are you awake?”

Sam opened his eyes groggily, staring into darkness, searching for where Rebecca’s muffled sounding voice was coming from. He felt odd as if he was floating.

“Did we win? Did we stab those jade suits to death?” His voice echoed into the gloom.

Her soft cries gave him the answer. “We lost badly, Sam. But at least I’m with you. I love you. I always have.”

Sam didn’t answer and tried to close his eyes, hoping to sleep away his new reality.

JF Garrard is an award-winning speculative fiction writer, editor, and publisher. She is the President of Dark Helix Press, serves as the Co-President for the Canadian Authors Association’s Toronto Branch, Festival Coordinator for LiterASIAN Toronto, Deputy Editor for Ricepaper Magazine, and Assistant Editor for Amazing Stories. Her portfolio of books and short fiction is listed on her website, and you can find her on Twitter @jfgarrard.

Poetry by Avra Margariti

The Ship Named Orpheus

Theirs was the last starship to leave Earth.
They surveyed their desolate planet one last time
And in a way it felt like saying goodbye
To an empty apartment just before a move.
She kissed her fingers then waved them at the cracked ground.
He held his eyes open despite the sting of virulent air.
When they stepped into the ship, they did so in sync,
An old first-foot tradition that felt right in its nostalgia.
As the ship named Orpheus took off in a cloud of smoke,
They couldn’t help but look back at all the havoc they had wreaked.

City of Wolves

Time has tamed us.
We wear our gowns and suits to glittery ballrooms,
carry our briefcases and purses as we commute to work—
express trains and clean-swept streets.
But when the moon's belly is full
and each crater resembles milk spills,
our skin itches tight as a snare drum,
our finely-tailored clothes rough against our bristling
electrified fur.
We gather at night then,
husbands and wives, youngsters and elders.
We tread on dewy grass and neat patches of
city green
paw by trembling paw,
shedding satin nightgowns and flannel pajamas,
silver-lit sheepskins that no longer fit.
We never know who starts it—this constellary séance—
but we all know how to join in once it does.
A bone-command to bay at the moon,
our throats working overtime
not to recite the multiplication table,
run lines for the community theater play,
or give PowerPoint presentations,
but to split in a
primal canine cry.
Lupus, we bark,
O, Lupus.
And he, our semi-forgotten deity, lowers himself
from the sky.
His stars dislocate from one another
to weave between us,
drifting down like glinting poplar fluff.
We howl ourselves raw,
gaze into each other’s eyes full of star streaks and
moon mania.
Our ancestors are by our side,
untamed, unapologetic beasts.
Lupus is here,
Lupus is everywhere.
And he will be with us till morning.

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vastarien, Asimov’s, Liminality, Arsenika, and other venues. You can find her on Twitter @avramargariti.

Carne Dolce

Alex Ebenstein

Aunt Bea placed the six platters in a line across the kitchen table, fussing with each until she had the angle and presentation just right. For this game, a Murphy Clan favourite, appearance truly was everything. Once satisfied, Aunt Bea straightened and wiped her hands down the front of her wrinkled and stained apron. She was particularly pleased with this batch.

The brothers stood waiting against the wall. From her left to right, oldest to youngest: George, James, and Edwin Murphy.

“My boys,” she said, looking to each with her customary gnarled grin, one that would be mistaken for a sign of hostility by anyone outside the family. Bea wasn’t their mother, but she sure as hell raised them like her own and would consider them her boys until the day she died. “Are you ready?”

Edwin hooted, James hollered, and George grunted—a ‘yes’ from all. Aunt Bea knew if they were already at the table, at least two of them would have pounded their fists into the solid oak in excitement. “George, start us off,” she said.

“He always gets to go first,” James whined.

“You know the rules, James. Oldest goes first. If you want to go first, you’ll have to kill your brother.”

James made a noise but was smirking. Bea had given him just the response he was looking for.

George punched his brother in the shoulder and said, “Touch me and die.”

Aunt Bea knew she had a half-second to insert her voice or a brawl would break out.

“BOYS.”

The brothers instantly settled, heeding the tone, respecting their Aunt Bea.

“George, please. Take a seat.”

He did, plopping his butt onto the wooden stool by the table. He licked his lips and sniffed like a dog. He raised his eyes to Bea. “No tricks?”

“No tricks. Three and three, like always. Point to your pick, I’ll get it, you eat it. Got it?”

George grunted again.

“Come on, Georgy, don’t screw it up!” Edwin jeered. George absently waved a hand behind him, his concentration already completely sunk into the six platters before him. He looked this way and that, scanning the six objects presented on Aunt Bea’s finest, albeit scuffed and worn, silver. In accordance with the rules, both of George’s hands gripped the seat of the stool under his bottom as he leaned forward as far as he could, nearly to the stool’s tipping point.

“George,” Aunt Bea said, warning him of his potential overreach.

George settled back minutely, a scowl flickering across his lips, but then he raised a pointing finger at the object on the second platter from his right.

“Very well,” Aunt Bea said. She grabbed the long-bladed, serrated knife from the counter behind her, then stepped to the platter George had chosen. “James, Edwin—thumbs up or down?”

The two brothers standing by the wall were whispering and snickering and overall jittery with anticipation. Being still and silent was not a forte of any of the Murphy boys, but they did what they were told when the direction came from Aunt Bea. Each showed a thumb: down for James and up for Edwin.

Aunt Bea nodded, then held the knife above the object, the freshly sharpened silver blade hovering a hair’s breadth away. She always paused for dramatic effect, and because she knew it drove the boys crazy. A moment before she sensed the boys would start chanting for her to slice it, Aunt Bea did just that.

She depressed the blade into the top of the severed hand lying palm down on the silver platter, slicing through the top layer of pale pink, flesh-coloured fondant—touched up with slight brushstrokes of dark, fake hair—and into the thin layers of white cake and lemon-yellow custard inside. Her knife was long enough to cut through the entirety of the hand cake, chopping it clean in two. She swung the knife to the side, revealing the cake’s innards to the three brothers.

George groaned and said, “Lemon? Gross.”

Edwin cursed, then snickered.

James cheered, pumping his fist, then immediately set to taunting his older brother.

Aunt Bea quickly chopped the digits from the hand, then pushed the platter forward toward George. “Three fingers. I don’t care which.”

“No…Three? That’s too much,” George complained.

Aunt Bea shrugged. “Choose better next time. I’m letting you off the hook, besides. I could make you eat the whole hand.”

George mumbled, “Why did it have to be lemon?” then scooped the three smallest cake fingers off the plate and shoved them into his mouth. He made dramatically disgusted contortions with his face, swallowed as if he’d eaten sand, then gagged for good measure.

“You’re a cruel B, Bea,” he said—not without respect—relinquishing his spot on the stool to return to the wall with his brothers.

Aunt Bea bowed, twirling the knife and flashing her full, tooth-sparse grin. In another life, she would have chased her dream of owning a bakery, making treats and sweets she didn’t even like for fancy folks because she was good at it. But in the life that mattered, she had a homestead and a farm to run. Playing games with her boys was the best she could do.

“No points for George or Edwin. One point for James, who is up next.”

She removed the platter containing the twice severed cake hand as James sat upon the stool. Bea didn’t have to give the middle boy any warning or prodding. He made quick decisions and stuck with them, so unless George had swiped his pick first, James would already have a platter chosen. And no more than a second after his butt touched the stool seat did James point to the platter just inside of where George’s platter had been.

Aunt Bea wiped the knife on her apron and stepped to James’s pick. “Thumbs,” she said.

George and Edwin hesitated, needing more time than James had provided. Eventually, Edwin gave another thumbs-up, while George went thumbs down.

Bea acknowledged the decisions and poised her blade against the body part on James’s platter. This one was a foot with a bloody stump just above the ankle, two nubs of sawed-off bones protruding above. The skin was a tanned, leathery brown. The toes, all crooked and gnarled, wore crowns of curled, yellow toenails. She debated where to make her cut for another moment, then opted to slice lengthwise, splitting the foot down the middle so that the two halves fell to either side of her knife.

At the sight of the moist, dark chocolate cake and glistening raspberry jam filling, James let his head drop, greasy locks of hair covering his face as he moaned his disapproval. In contrast, George whistled his delight. Edwin swore again.

Aunt Bea cut off the stump end with the molded fondant bone protrusion, as well as the big toe, and proffered them to James. “Your pieces,” she said.

James tossed back the two pieces in one bite, chewing a couple of times before swallowing. To his credit, he didn’t make a face like George. But he did say, “I can’t believe people actually like this crap,” before sliding off the stool to rejoin his brothers.

“One point for George, now tied with James. Edwin still at zero. And you’re up.”

Edwin, grinning and giddy, was not dismayed by the score, because he knew, with a touch of luck, that the game could still be his. He took a seat before the table and the remaining four platters. He scanned once, twice, squinting and sniffing, then made his pick: the second from his far left.

Aunt Bea looked to George and James, who both already had their thumbs down. She acknowledged them, cleaned her knife again, then approached the chosen platter. On it sat most of an arm, starting halfway up the forearm, going past the elbow, and ending in the middle of the bicep. Bones stuck out of both ends. When she made her incision in this one, she didn’t have to go far, and certainly not all the way through. As soon as she pulled the knife through, the remnants of blood in the veins poured forth from the wound, oozing onto the silver platter, forming a shallow pool under the arm.

“Correct!” Aunt Bea cheered, clapping her hands together. “Two points and the win for Eddy!”

Edwin leaped to his feet, howling and raising both arms in a V. The other boys voiced their displeasure but joined in the brief applause as the youngest Murphy snatched the arm from the platter and chomped into the flesh like it was a cupcake. His jagged and stained teeth worked at the gristle, tearing through skin and into the good meat below. He chewed noisily, swallowed, then treated the room to a loud, satisfying smack of his lips.

“That’s his third win in a row. You boys better step up your game,” Aunt Bea said, pointing at George and James. “Now back to work, you two. Split Edwin’s work any way you’d like. You know I don’t care how as long as it gets done.”

The older two Murphy boys grumbled and socked Edwin in the arm on their way out. Edwin couldn’t care less about the brotherly abuse. He’d won the game and earned his prize.

Aunt Bea removed the platter on her far right, the last remaining cake—this one mimicking a hunk of human shoulder. That left a section of leg, thigh to knee, and another pale foot chopped off at the ankle to go with the piece of arm Edwin correctly identified as a human body part.

She said, “Enjoy your spoils before they spoil, my boy.”

Alex Ebenstein is a maker of maps by day, writer of horror fiction by night. He lives with his family in Michigan. He has stories published in Novel Noctule, Tales to Terrify Podcast, The Other Stories Podcast, and Campfire Macabre from Cemetery Gates Media, among others. Find him on Twitter @AlexEbenstein.

EPITAPH

by LeRoy Gorman

HERE LIES NICKLEDUMB
THE COPYCAT CLOWN
THE ROBOT RIDDLER
THE HAIR-RAISING HARE
THE CREEPY COYOTE
THE BEGUILING BRICOLEUR
THE WICKED WHISKEYJACK
THE ODD PUCK
THE PENNYWISE CLONE
GONE FOR GOOD
not really

LeRoy Gorman’s poetry, much of it visual and minimalist, has appeared in various publications and exhibitions worldwide and has garnered numerous awards including, most recently, the 2017 Dwarf Stars Award. His newest book goodwill galaxy hunting was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2019.

Bandits

by William Falo

A sense of danger overwhelmed the raccoon. He headed up the hill that overlooked the area. His legs ached after every step. Before he reached the summit, a roar made him stop, then a big orange machine came over the top of the hill. It knocked trees over and made a path toward the farm field.

The other raccoons were scattered all over the place: one went toward the empty farmhouse hunting for anything left behind when the humans abandoned it, one headed toward a trash dump hidden in the woods, his daughter went to the creek to hunt for small frogs and she always washed her hands in the fresh water.

When he reached the bottom he looked up. The tractor knocked down trees as it moved sideways, clearing a path for more vehicles behind it. He watched in horror. They kept coming like a line of ants going to a picnic.

The border between humans and the wilderness became closer and it meant more danger to all the animals in the woods. He shivered and ran toward the creek to warn his daughter, she should have left months ago, but she stayed to watch out for him after his mate was killed by a car on the road. Now his time was nearing an end and he needed to warn the others. They needed to move away.

Her smell guided him to the creek where she washed some berries she found.
He made sounds humans wouldn’t understand, but she knew and her eyes grew larger. She dropped the berries into the water and they floated away. He thought of his mate and her lifeless body on the side of a road.

This place was like heaven for them; abundant food and freedom were rare for raccoons. He led her to the edge of the field. His legs ached, and he pointed for her to find the others and what direction to go. She pulled at his legs, but he refused to go. If he went with her, they both might find more farm fields and life would go on, but the humans would come fast and the others would be killed. If he climbed the hill and stopped the humans all the others would have time to escape, but it would leave him so weak they would leave him behind. A weak or injured raccoon was a dead one. Even family leaves behind those that can’t walk or make it on their own.

Smoked poured out of one machine on top of the hill. She refused to leave him until he headed up the hill. She made a long mournful sound then turned and ran to find the others. He chugged up the hill toward the huge machines. Crows cawed out warnings from overhead, but he kept going.

The machine stopped, and the men gathered around it lighting up some sticks that sent smoke into the air. The pain in his legs seared, but he kept going. At the top, he crawled into the door of the truck that knocked down the trees. The men removed masks and continued to send puffs of smoke into the air, unaware of his presence.

He walked under the machines and bit into any soft hoses he could reach, causing the foul-smelling liquid to spill out, then he climbed into the seat and saw shiny, metal objects hanging in front of him. As a young raccoon, he collected metal objects. It was a habit he stopped because of his old age. He knew humans valued shiny objects, and he grabbed them. They tumbled to the floor, and he jumped down and bit them. He headed down the hill, stopping to stuff the metal objects under a fallen log. The men heard him.

“Hey, there’s that raccoon again. He must have rabies. I hate those bandits.”

“He might spread some kind of disease like the COVID.”

“No, that was probably bats.”

“Well, maybe something worse.”

A loud bang vibrated through the woods at the same time he was knocked backward and a searing pain spread through him. Blood poured out of his side. He heard their footsteps coming as darkness overcame him.

“I think he’s dead, but there are no keys.”

“I want to cut the tail off and hang it on my mirror.” Through the darkness, he saw a long blade sparkle as it got closer.

“No, leave it.”

A human with long hair leaned toward him. She wore a mask with animals that looked familiar on it except they looked less wild.

“It’s not the raccoon’s fault we’re taking his home away. I should quit this job.”
She rubbed the raccoon’s side.

Another one spoke. “You idiot, that shot will bring the rangers. There was one close by. They’ll shut us down for months or longer.”

“What do we do?”

“Call the office.”

“Don’t tell them about the raccoon, they’ll think we’re idiots.”

“You mean, they’ll think you’re an idiot.”

The human with long hair petted him. “You’ll be okay. I’ll make sure they don’t come back.”

He opened his eyes and looked up. The machines remained silent. He raised a paw in defense when another animal came closer. His daughter. Raccoons don’t cry, but her eyes were wet. With all her strength she dragged his body down the hill. He tried to stop her and made sounds to leave him there. She refused.
She stopped when they heard a voice from the top of the hill.

“We’re moving everything north. We can’t stay here.”

One voice moved closer. “All because of a raccoon.”

“Yep, one brave raccoon and the fact that some people around here tested positive for COVID.” He recognized the voice as the kind human.

She continued to drag her father until she reached the new field. He opened his eyes. The other raccoons ran through a field filled with old corn and other vegetables the humans abandoned. It was a feast. She licked his face and rubbed her stomach. He knew she would have kits soon.

He got up and his daughter licked his face then ran to the other raccoons. The sound of the tractors grew fainter, but he knew they would be back. He thought of the one kind human and it gave him a sliver of hope. He wanted to warn the others but waited to let them have some happiness before the humans came again.

William Falo studied Environmental Science at Stockton University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Raconteur Review, The UK journal Superlative, Fragmented Voices, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals.

Isobel Dreams of Childhood Things

by Megan M. Davies-Ostrom

Like moths against a window, that’s how the dream began. A touch, a dusty whisper, the fluttery feeling of something brushing at the back of her mind. 

Dark eyes in a cold, pale face. A sweet, hollow voice calling her name. 

When she woke, it was with a feeling there was something important she’d forgotten. Moths, she thought, as she returned Paul’s sleepy smile and kissed Michelle’s sweaty, toddler curls. Touch their wings, and they’ll leave a bit of themselves behind.

Isobel didn’t have time for strange dreams. Younger than she felt but older than she cared to admit, she was at an age women’s magazines called ‘hard’. Every day was a marathon starting at five and ending whenever she and Paul fell into their oft-invaded bed. Every day there was some new pre-teen catastrophe. Jada couldn’t find her hockey uniform, Sam had a project due, like, yesterday, and Michelle would only eat blueberry muffins. Yesterday’s favourite carrot ones were ‘gross’. And that was just the mornings. Then there was work, laundry, groceries, and bills. Life was a bright, warm, sticky whirlwind that never ended. 

Odd dreams could wait. Like the broken, powdery bodies of the moths she found on the window sills in the summer, she brushed it aside.

“Isobel.” The voice caressed her mind like the edge of a papery wing. The lips from which it fell were a colourless cupid’s bow marred only by the teeth that flashed when he smiled. So very many teeth. So very sharp.

“Isobel, do you remember?” The voice was strange and familiar, just like the smooth, pale face. “Do you remember what we talked about, all those years ago?”

Isobel woke with a gasp and lay still, her heart pounding. The room was cold, dark, and silent. There was something beside her–a shadow in the shadows–leaning close, brushing her face with fluttery fingers.

“No!” She shot upright, arms flailing. Her blows struck empty air. Beside her, Paul snored on undisturbed. Sweat traced an icy path down her back, and something pattered at the window like wings against glass. 

“Isobel.”

She stood at the window, held in dreamy paralysis. Please be a dream, she thought. That pale face, an oval of white suspended in the darkness, looked up at her from the toy-strewn yard below. Ice-chip eyes, sharp and glittering. Sharp teeth between full lips.

“I’m so cold, Izzy, and you’re so warm. I’ve come like I promised. I need you.”

I know you, she thought, heart pounding. I know I do.

Tim, Isobel realized, as she brushed her teeth the next morning. The face in her dreams was Tim. Her childhood friend, who’d acted out, been kicked out, moved to Toronto, and disappeared in their last year of high school. 

Oh, she’d missed him. Tim, who’d called her Izzy. And who’d loved vampire novels even more than she did. 

Vampires; the thought left a cold, unsettled feeling in her stomach. Because the real Tim had never been so cold or hungry.

When they were awkward, unpopular teens, she and Tim had yearned for ageless immortality. To drink life, but not live. To be beautiful, their bodies starved to lean, blemish-free perfection by that bloody transformation. To be sensual but sexless. Desirable, dangerous, untouchable. Un-teasable. Vampirism was the perfect escape from adolescent pain. They’d fantasized about being turned and promised if either of them ever was, they’d return to share the gift.

But that was before. Before acne faded, hormones mellowed, and she grew up. Before university, and Paul, and her beloved, sticky, chaos-and-kisses children. Before she came to accept the curves and imperfections that made her a woman, mother, and wife. Sure, life was hard, sometimes. She was tired, and so was Paul, and the only couple-time they got was falling asleep on the couch together while watching television. But it was also bright and warm, and it fit around her like a blanket. Nothing like the empty depths of Tim’s new eyes.

Vampires aren’t real, she told herself, as she tucked garlic under the bed and on the window sill behind the curtains. It was fiction, just an allegory for sex, for god’s sake. But when they went to bed that night, she snuck a knife into the room while Paul was in the bathroom, and hid it beneath her pillow, because the gap between real and not real was as thin as a moth’s wing, and just as fragile. 

Moth wings at the window and a pale, beautiful face in the billowing darkness.  

“It’s time,” the voice whispered.

This isn’t real. That’s what she wanted to say. 

“You can’t come in,” is what she said instead. Her voice shook. “I haven’t invited you.”

“I don’t need an invitation. What we shared is enough. You were my best friend, Izzy. The only one I trusted, the only one who loved me for who I was. When your heart touches someone like that, you leave a little bit of yourself behind. I’m sorry I took so long to come back for you.” 

“But I don’t want it anymore, Tim!”

He was next to her, and his eyes were filled with cold and endless hunger. The room was dark and silent. No snores from Paul, no sleepy murmurs from the children’s rooms down the hall. A moment frozen. 

She swung the hidden blade, Tim grabbed her wrist, and the knife fell from fingers gone numb. He bent toward her, and she pulled away. His grip was iron and ice.

“No, no, no! I was only fourteen. Please, I didn’t understand what I was asking! It got better.”

“I know, Izzy. But a promise is a promise. And I’m so lonely. It will hurt, but only for a moment.”

“No!”

There were teeth, and pain, and then nothing but cold. It stole the warmth from the world, and left her on the outside looking in, fluttering against the windows, searching for the light.  

Megan M. Davies-Ostrom is a Canadian author with a penchant for literary horror and apocalyptic fiction. Her work includes both Adult and Young Adult fiction. She is a member of the Canadian Author’s Association. Megan lives in Ontario with her husband, daughter, and two (strange) cats. When not writing or working, she can usually be found running, reading, watching horror movies, or playing board games. 
Website: https://mdaviesostrom.com/

Aww Nuts

by Diane Arrelle

“I hate squirrels,” my dad yelled.
Well, I think they’re cute. I didn’t say it, because I didn’t want to argue with my parents. So what if the sweet little fuzzy-tailed rats dug holes in the grass and bit the heads off of the flowers? So what if they chewed the vegetable garden and emptied the bird feeders? I loved to watch them jump and scamper around the yard.

I clenched my teeth and stomped into the house. I couldn’t watch Dad set the live traps again. So far my parents had caught thirty-five squirrels and let them go in the park ten miles away.

I put in my earbuds to shut out my father and mother screaming at the poor, helpless little furballs and started my freshman Earth Science assignment. I was doing a project on squirrels since they are my favourite animal. We had dozens of oak trees on our property so my project had to involve acorns.

As I learned about squirrels I became more and more horrified. My mother and father were heartlessly tearing apart families. The nests were full of baby squirrels at this time of year. They’d starve to death without their parents, and the displaced adults were being dumped where other squirrels were not going to welcome them. In fact, thanks to my parents, a turf war was going to break out. Worst of all, the displaced squirrels had left behind hundreds of caches of food they’d carefully hidden for winter. Now the acorns and seeds sat underground forsaken.

I knew what I had to do for my project. Over the next three days, I raked up all the acorns as they fell in our yard. Dad was so pleased with me he even gave me ten bucks for doing extra yard work. I took the money and smirked because I knew that by the weekend he’d be spitting mad.

Dad thought I bagged and dumped the acorns but he was only half right. I bagged them and created my own caches. I stuffed bags in hollow trees and rotten stumps. When I ran out of trees I hid the rest in the rafters of the garage.

Finally, I was ready. The day Mom and Dad took more cages to the park I was already there waiting for them. When I saw them drive in, I followed them to where they dumped the squirrels. They never saw me, a good thing too, because they would have had a shit-fit if they’d known I rode my bike ten miles alone on deserted back roads.

They left the poor little abandoned animals and drove home. Me, well I had my huge backpack filled with hundreds of acorns which I started doling out, like bread crumbs to mark the way. It took a while for the little guys to calm down, but soon they noticed the trail of acorns I was leaving as I slowly rode my bike toward home.

I’m pretty sure the forty-five squirrels, including the ten my parents had just transferred, were behind me picking up the oak seeds. I was so proud and pleased to be bringing them back to their families that I didn’t even notice how many more squirrels joined them, and followed me as well. I just enjoyed riding at the head of the squirrel parade, being the heroine to mistreated wildlife.

Dinnertime got cut short by deafening chittering. Mom and Dad stood at the windows their mouths open in shock and I went up to my bedroom to prepare phase two. As I sat in my room, I smiled when I heard Dad screaming, “What the hell! Where did all these squirrels come from?”

Well, I thought, I was sure going to teach Mom and Dad a lesson about being cruel to animals.

Later that night, after my parents went to bed. I snuck into their room and gently spilled acorns all over their bed. I piled them up on the sides and the end. Then I opened their bedroom windows and went back into my room.

I didn’t wait long. First Mom screamed, it was bloodcurdling, I could tell she was absolutely terrified. Then Dad cursed. Then they both screamed and screamed and screamed. I finally stopped laughing and put on my sound-cancelling headphones and went to sleep. I was going to be in big trouble in the morning, but saving the squirrels was worth it.

The sun streaming in my room woke me and I was surprised that Mom hadn’t called me down for breakfast. “Wow,” I muttered. “They must be so pissed!”

I sat on the edge of the bed and wondered just how long I was going to be punished for this. I took the headphones off and heard it — chittering. Loud, noisy eeps and screeches coming from the next room.

I didn’t understand why the squirrels were still in the house so I walked to my parents’ room and shoved the door. It barely moved. I shoved harder and got it open enough to squeeze inside.

I stared for a moment until everything registered then I screamed. Terror made me feel sick. I bent over and threw up on the floor covered in a sea of grey, furry bodies pushing at each other. The bed was covered with them as well, most of them feasting on what little was left of Mom and Dad. A rib cage showed through the mess that had been my family.

The door behind me was pushed closed and all sound stopped as every vicious, grey, rodent-like creature turned to stare at me. Hundreds of shiny, beady, black eyes focused on me.

First one, “Eep?”

Then dozens. “Eep-eep-eep-eep,” until the sound filled the room.
Sobbing and shaking, I backed to the door and grabbed the knob. “All r-r-right,” I stammered. “I’ll get you more acorns.”

I just wondered if all the oak nuts in my caches would be enough to keep them happy.

Diane Arrelle, (Dina Leacock) has had more than 250 short stories published and three books including two short story collections: Just A Drop In The Cup and Seasons On The Dark Side. She is co-owner of a small publishing company, Jersey Pines Ink LLC, and resides with her sane husband and her insane cat on the edge of the Southern New Jersey Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).

The Vessel

By Chrissie Rohrman

“Cassie’s gramma says Mr. Carlisle didn’t have no heart attack.”

The man in front of us turns to glare. Mama winces an apology, shushes me.

I press my lips together, but the words bubble out anyway. “Cassie’s gramma says Old Mrs. Abbott stuffed a demon in him and he burned all up inside.”

“Bethany!” Mama squeezes my fingers until they hurt. “Don’t say such things in a church. Especially at the man’s funeral.”

It’s hot, and the air smells funny. I sulk as the line shuffles toward the altar, where I know Mr. Carlisle’s body is laid out in a casket like he’s sleeping. Everybody says it’s an odd flu that’s rolling through town, hitting the old folks hard. Everybody but Cassie’s gramma, who says creepy Old Mrs. Abbott made a deal with a demon in Hell and is trying to find it a body to live in. Her own husband was the first to die, two weeks ago. Mr. Carlisle was fifth.

I swing Mama’s hand in mine. “Why’d we hafta come? We didn’t even know him.”

“It’s a small town, Bethany. We knew him well enough. Now behave.”

She’s right; everyone in Maycomb is crammed inside the chapel. I even see Cassie and her gramma ahead in line, covered head to toe despite the stifling heat, they wear dark silk scarves over their mouths and noses.

I tug on Mama’s hand. “That’s so’s demons can’t get in.”

She looks to the rafters, making the sign of the cross. “You won’t be seeing Cassie anymore. That grandmother of hers fills your heads with nonsense.”

“Mama!”

The man in front of us glares again, and others are eyeing me now. I chew the inside of my cheek and stare down at a stubborn scuff in the patent leather of my shoes. I’m bored of standing in line at funerals.

A hand reaches from a nearby pew and bony fingers close around my shoulder. I raise my gaze, right into the pale, wrinkled face of Old Mrs. Abbott, and gasp.

“Good afternoon, Lorraine,” Mama greets over-politely, probably because of the gasp. “Say hello, Bethany.”

I can’t. I’m frozen in place as the old woman’s hand drifts from my shoulder to my bare forearm. I feel a chill through her lacy black gloves where she touches me.

“Nice to see you, Clare,” Old Mrs. Abbott rasps to Mama. “Even under such awful circumstances.” Her beady eyes search my face, seeming to bore right through me. She nods, and when her thin mouth widens in a garish grin, I get a whiff of sour breath.

She shifts one hand to the quilted bag in her lap and pulls out a pair of sewing scissors. I press close to Mama as Old Mrs. Abbott snips near my shoulder, by my braid.

“Loose thread,” she explains, dropping her hand back into her bag before I can see for myself.

Mama smiles and herds me along as the line continues forward. I stumble, looking over my shoulder at the old woman. My arm still feels cold where she touched it, and there’s a tingle under my skin. I hardly even notice when we finally reach the casket, my gaze skipping over Mr. Carlisle’s waxy face to look back to where Old Mrs. Abbott is watching me.

We take our seats for the service, and I wriggle anxiously on the hard pew until Mama swats my leg. I stare at the back of Old Mrs. Abbott’s wide-brimmed black hat, my hand ghosting over the spots she touched, my arm, my shoulder, my braid.

“Sit still, Bethany.”

I try. I try to focus on the preacher talking about the gift of life, but I’m distracted by a persistent, uncomfortable tickle that’s growing all over, like a hundred bugs burrowing under my skin. I tug at Mama’s skirt to tell her, but she ignores me. A shadow falls over the pew like someone has sat down next to me, but when I look, no one is there.

After the sermon and songs, everyone files out under a boiling summer sun to the cemetery behind the church. I don’t feel right, chilled, my stomach flipping like I might be sick. I spot Cassie and her gramma hanging back by the road, not stepping foot on the dry grass between the headstones. I try to walk toward Cassie, away from the hole where Mr. Carlisle will go.

“Be respectful,” Mama says, tugging me along.

I don’t wanna be respectful. I want to turn and run. I want to stay on the road next to Cassie, where it’s safe, and wrap one of her gramma’s special scarves around my head. But Mama drags me into the crowd of sweating bodies pressed together near the hole in the ground. She releases me then, with a huff of annoyance.

Across the way, Old Mrs. Abbott raises her head and pins her beady stare on me. Her gloved hands are clutched in front of her, and her lips are moving. My fingers reflexively go to the braid over my shoulder.

The drone of cicadas from the tree branches overhead grows louder, drowning out the mumblings of the preacher until all I hear is buzzing. No, not buzzing; rasping, like dried leaves scraping across pavement. Like a scratchy voice, saying come forth.

My vision tunnels down to Old Mrs. Abbott, and I hear nothing but her whisper of come forth come forth come forth.

“Mama,” I murmur through numb lips. If she hears me, she ignores me.

Come forth.

The whisper drops away, and cold drops over me like a bucket of ice water. Disoriented, I reach blindly for Mama’s hand, gripping tightly when I find it. But the hand in mine is frigid. Not Mama’s. I try to pull away, but they hold tight.

A long shadow appears in the brown grass next to mine, and there are slender coal-black fingers twined between my chubby ones, belonging to the red-eyed figure suddenly standing at my side.

It smiles.

Chrissie Rohrman is a training supervisor who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband and five fur babies. She enjoys white wine and writing competitions, and is probably calling her dogs to come inside right now. She is currently in the process of drafting the first installment of a YA fantasy trilogy. On Twitter @ChrissieRawrman