The December Incident

Neil Whitfield

December 1976, England

A heavy snow was falling. The wind crept through the gutters and cried through the eaves, wrapping the old buildings in a shroud of grit and ice. The millstone walls looked gaunt in the listless winter light. The windows, heavy-lidded with lintels of immutable rock, looked down on the snowbound lawn with a resigned sadness. High in the main house, above the gothic lacerations of the grand architrave, a sallow face stared out into the swirling white.

“Sixty years,” the deputy headmaster took a sip of instant coffee and a drag from a cigarette. “Sixty years, man and boy, I’ve been at this school and I’ve never seen the likes of this. It’s like the end of days.”

“You’re cheerful this morning,” said Mrs. Crabtree brightly, turning the page of her newspaper.

“It’s grand Yorkshire weather, Dave,” said Mr. Vine, the head of English, “and it has its benefits. The busses from Rochdale, Skipton, and Ilkley have already telephoned the office: there’s no way they’re getting over the moors. If I were a betting man, which I am, I’d say half the boys in town will blob as well. They only need half an excuse not to walk up the hill.”

“Fine by me,” said Mrs. Crabtree.

“It sounds like there’ll be more teachers than pupils today,” said the deputy headmaster wearily, extinguishing his cigarette and turning away from the cold glass, “but that doesn’t negate our responsibility as educators. It may be the last day of term but term-time it undoubtedly still is. So that includes those of you,” his eyes to Mrs. Crabtree “who intend to allow the boys to play games or listen to the wireless,” he straightened his tie, “and I’ll thank you to address me as Mr. Sewell when we’re on school premises.” He left the room.

“Aye-aye, Captain,” said Mr. Vine as the staffroom door clicked home.

“What’s his problem?” asked Mrs. Crabtree.

“The headmaster is snowed-in at Harrogate which means Sewell is in charge. So he’s got a broomstick up his arse.”

“Clearly,” she agreed.

“And… y’know…” he added slowly, “it’s the 21st.”

The pupils began to arrive in small groups. A few walked from the nearby villages, cocooned in duffle coats and thick-knitted scarves. Some of the local farmers brought the boys up from Oerdale in batches, ten at a time, huddled on the flatbeds of Landrovers, their cargo arriving at the school gates dusted white and inches from fever.

“Nowt like a bit of Dunkirk spirit!” the drivers shouted as the half-dead teenagers shuffled miserably into the building.

Inside, the school was no more welcoming. Gone was the usual cacophony of gathering children, replaced by the echoes of too few feet in too big a hall. The boiler fought against the relentless cold, offering barely enough warmth to melt the spirals of frost from the window panes. The pipes boomed rhythmically as the pressure spiked and fell, shaking through the building like the last beats of a dying heart. The boys made their way quietly to their lessons as the school bell rang, their spirits subdued by the chill of the meltwater in their woollen blazers.

An excruciating quiet. The school felt purgatorial; uptight like an exam room with no questions. A hospital at night. The scrape of chairs; the syncopated tick of several wrong clocks. There was no chatter or excitement, no talk of Christmas just three days away. When the break bell rang at ten o’clock, a few boys ran to the snow, thrilled by the novelty and extremity of it. But most did not, deterred by the blizzard that scratched at the high windows like a ravenous animal, desperate to get in. As the last of his physics class left his room, Mr. Sewell lit a cigarette and began to prepare for his next lesson.

“Sir! Sir!” it was Perry, a fifth-year, running in from the hall, his coat and shoes crusted with thick snow, “Sir, the football pitch – you need to come now, Sir!”

The cat was dead, hanging from the goal by its neck. A group of boys stood around it, fascinated. One prodded it with a ruler.

“Is that really necessary, Harris?”

“I was seeing if it was dead, Sir.”

“Of course it’s dead, boy. The only living things stupid enough to stay out in this weather are you idiots. Please, all of you, clear off.” A moment of hesitation. “Now!” he shouted, and the boys dispersed. Mrs. Crabtree was there, a bobble-hat pulled down over her ears.

“Do you suppose it got itself trapped and froze?” she asked as Mr. Sewell pulled at the netting, working the animal loose.

“There is no such thing as an accident,” he grumbled.

“Maybe someone found it dead and hung it there to be helpful… you know… so Mr. Cruikshank would find it?”

“I don’t care to theorize, Cathrine,” he said, holding the corpse by its frozen pelt, “it makes little difference to the outcome.”

“Should I call the vet? To dispose of it?”

“That won’t be necessary,” he turned towards the school house.

“Shame,” said Mrs. Crabtree, shuffling behind him, “we should send a notice. Someone will be missing the poor thing.”

“I’ll deal with it,” he replied, “it’s my cat.”

The boiler room was in the chapel crypt at the far end of the grounds. It had been converted for the most unspiritual reasons: proximity to the water main. Even so, it remained a solemn and brooding chamber; a grim oubliette into which no one, if they could help it, ever set foot.

Fitting, he thought, carrying the cat towards the furnace. It should have been the warmest place in the school but his body shuddered with a deep, pervasive cold. The furnace door was already open, a neat rectangle of raging fire, framed by the blackness. A vision of hell. He wrapped the corpse in a hessian coal sack, then pushed it unceremoniously into the flames.

He saw something as the flesh burned. A face staring back at him, a photograph curling slowly in uncanny defiance of the fire. A face he knew: Max Breare. Mr. Sewell looked down, away. By his feet was a brown cardboard box, one flap open at the top, the other marked in pen with the words:

December Incident, 1962. Do not remove.

The ‘December Incident’. A euphemism. The box should have been locked in the office with the ledgers; what was it doing here? A hand touched his shoulder. He recoiled, turned and screamed.

“Forgive me!” said a familiar voice.

“Jesus Christ, Cruikshank!” Sewell exclaimed, “you frightened the bloody life out of me!”

“Forgive me, Sir, I’ve come down here for my flask,” the caretaker held up a battered Thermos and gestured over his shoulder into the dark at a filthy deck chair, a newspaper, and a miner’s lamp, hidden in the corner. “It’s the only place the little bastards can’t find me,” he explained.

Mr. Sewell took a deep breath and composed himself with a shake of the head. He pointed at the cardboard box.

“What’s going on here?” he asked, “Where did you get this?”

“I’m sorry, Sir?”

“This box. The furnace door was open. Why were you burning these… this… who told you to…”

“Sorry, Sir, I don’t know. I was just at the office. We’ve had a call from town: we’re to send the boys home immediately. I was just collecting my flask and…’’

“Excuse me?”

“The storm is getting worse, Sir. They worry some of the lads will be stuck here overnight.”

“We can’t have that,” said Mr. Sewell absently, his mind elsewhere.

“Johnny Bowden is going to plow the lane so I can get the old bus down, if she starts, but it means someone needs to stay here and close down. You know, for the holidays.”

It took a moment for the deputy headmaster to decode the request.

“Oh! Quite!” he said at last, “Yes. That’s fine, I can do that. No one knows the school better than me.”

“I dare say so, Sir,” said Mr. Cruikshank. The old man nodded his thanks and left with his orders, his flask tucked into the fold of his elbow. Mr. Sewell paused for a moment before closing the furnace door and picking up the box.

It was noon before the last of the teachers left. Mr. Vine drove the final car in the convoy, the vehicle swerving back and forth across the compacted snow like a sloppy drunk. Mr. Sewell watched from the staff room window. Another cigarette, another instant coffee. He tipped the last of the milk down the small sink and rinsed the bottle.

He began the final close-down in the classrooms, straightening the chairs, locking the windows, and emptying the wastebaskets. He turned off the lights and locked the doors as he worked his way systematically from room to room. He topped up the antifreeze in the heating system, cut the gas supply to the kitchens, and watered the plants in the biology lab. By three o’clock, it was already night. The storm still raged, but now instead of swirling white, the outside world was flecks of charcoal grey, tumbling into blackness like a sulphurous spew of volcanic ash. The wind howled down the chimneys and wheezed beneath the classroom doors. The snow drifted deep and buried the driveway completely. The walk home, which would already have been dangerous, would soon be impossible. The idea of being trapped here alone terrified him.

Where is your spine, boy? What are you made of? Stop crying and get on with it!

There was one last job to do, one more place to check: The old dormitory. The school hadn’t had boarders since 1965; they were an expense and a constant labour, and after ‘the December incident’ the school’s reputation had been irreparably diminished. The stairs to the dormitory spiralled upwards through the oldest part of the building like the spire of an old church, driven like a stake through the school’s medieval heart. The ascent was disorientating, unlit.

You’re thinking about it again, aren’t you? You can hear them, can’t you?

You can hear me.

His leather soles scraped on the raw stone. The steps were steep and awkwardly spaced, too short for a full stride, too high to take in pairs. He huffed with the effort, his aging lungs inflamed by the dust and the stale, cold air.

“For God’s sake!” he muttered.

You may have forgiven yourself, Sewell, but we have not.

“God is my judge, not you.”

A tragic accident – isn’t that what you told them?

The staircase ended abruptly at a red door. The old paint flaked along the grain of the wood in vertical lines; a fine dust covered the doorknob.

“I did nothing wrong,” he said indignantly, and threw open the door.

The boys stood by their beds. No mattresses, just rusted springs on old military frames. The oil lamps were lit, flickering with an unnatural blue light as plumes of ice blew in through the broken windows. The boys looked as they had the last time he saw them: young, frightened, drawn, and pale, their skin glistening with a delicate crystalline frost. They had once been such a raucous bunch; the Wormald brothers, Danny Caldwell, Andrew Collier, and the troublemaker, Max Breare.

“You brought it on yourselves!” he told them, just as he had on the morning of December 22, 1962, when he had discovered their bodies.

“You turned off the heating,” said Breare, his lips cracked and frozen, his skin hanging loose from his rotting bones.

“You refused to behave!”

“You made us run in the snow, Sir,” said Caldwell meekly, “with bare feet, in our pyjamas. We were already half-frozen when you locked us in.”

“Boys must learn discipline; all actions have consequences!”

“But what about your actions?” asked Johnny Wormald, the youngest, “what consequence awaits you, Sir?”

“What actions are those, boy? The heating malfunctioned.”

“Not in your quarters it didn’t, Sir,” said Collier.

The boy reached into him. Sewell was beset by visions of death and regret: a heart bristling with arrows, a mother dead on her birthing bed, a black sun sinking into a red sea; the flesh burning away from the face of an old friend. Black bile filled his throat and poured from his mouth, running down to his chest and soaking into his shirt. He knew the truth. He had repeated the lie so often he almost believed it. They had been the cruel ones. The name-calling, the insolence, the marijuana, and the girls, smuggled in at all hours of the night. They had been the abusers.

“It was an accident!” he insisted, “I only meant for you to be uncomfortable. A little chill, that’s all, a bad night’s sleep before a long day… to teach you a lesson… It was an accident!”

“If it was an accident, there would be nobody to blame.” Breare stepped forward into a pool of moonlight, a straight razor unfolded in his hand, “we were children.”

“Okay,” said Sewell, his hands raised.

This is all in your mind, you old fool, an imaginary blade can’t hurt you! This is a madness brought on by the cold and the dark. A paranoid delusion; guilt made real.

Breare slashed forward with the blade. It seared across the soft flesh on Sewell’s hands, splitting the skin and spilling his blood onto the dormitory floor. The pain was real.

“Wait!” he begged, “tell me what you want! I beg you, please! It was my fault, but I swear I meant no harm!” he closed his eyes in prayer, “Father forgive me for I have sinned!”

“It is not his forgiveness you need!” said Breare, “for your cruelty, for what you did, you beg to us.”

“Please!” he said, “Not one day has passed that I would not have exchanged your lives for mine!”

“And not one day will pass that you will find peace. Nor forgiveness. You will spend your eternity unresolved, in this place, just as we have.”

The razor slid across the old man’s throat. His gullet filled with blood, filled his mouth with the taste of rancid iron. He grabbed his neck to stem the bleeding but the blood flowed between his fingers. He fell forward, gasping for air, convulsing to the rhythm of the open artery.

Then suddenly it was black. He lay on the wet floorboards in the falling snow in the silence of a winter’s night. The spectres were gone, his throat was healed, the vision was over. His hands were numb and purple with the cold and he could feel the ice in his nostrils and heavy on his eyelashes. Shivering, he pulled himself to his feet and staggered to the door.

He turned the handle. It was locked, his keys were gone. Come now, syncopated tick of several wrong clocks. Come now, cold fingers of death.

Originally from the UK, Neil Whitfield is a professional writer living and working in New York City. This is his fiction debut.

Past Due

Laura J. Campbell

Sidney DeGreen had promised to be home by 8:00 p.m. It was now 11:42 pm.
Chelsea cleared the table, placing the special second-anniversary dinner she had prepared for them into plastic containers. Celebration transformed into leftovers with the sealing of plastic lids. She blew out the candles she had lit for the romantic occasion that didn’t happen.

She sat on the sofa, looking at her pet, a Chilean rose tarantula, named Other. The spider sat in her habitat, looking at her benefactress as if trying to ease Chelsea’s sadness.

“I thought he was the one,” Chelsea said. “I guess I was wrong.”

She looked out of the window, the rain appropriately beginning to fall, its heavy drops splattering against the glass. “Way to break up, Sid.” She slugged back warm champagne.

She looked at Other.  “He just walked away and left his things here. Even his toothbrush. It means something when a man keeps his toothbrush in your bathroom. But maybe I read too much into that. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

The arachnid looked like she was understanding Chelsea’s words.

“At least I kept my photograph of the planet Pluto up, even when he told me it was geeky and he wanted me to take it down,” Chelsea said, nodding to the beautiful colourized image of the demoted planet that decorated her living room wall. “He put that picture of Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ up in the hallway for our first anniversary. He said the lovers in the picture looked like me and him. I guess so. All gild and no gold.”

 “I didn’t even warrant a text to break up; just the ultimate no-show. I’m a fool. I even got a bank account with him.” She filled her champagne flute again, opening her laptop computer.

She opened the banking website, to check their mutual balance.

“And it just got worse,” she told Other. “Can you believe it? He took $2200 out of the account. He transferred it to his personal card. That leaves about $2200 in the account. I guess he was dividing it 50/50. A divorce settlement and we weren’t even married.”

The spider moved up towards the edge of the glass of its enclosure as if to comfort her.

Chelsea slept restlessly. Her cell phone’s blue light suddenly illuminated, rousing her out of her fitful sleep.

It was 4:44 a.m.

There was a text from Sid: “I’m sorry” followed by a broken heart emoji. “I’ll always love you. Good-bye.”

She had no words. Her emotions were raw.    

She put the phone face down on her nightstand.

It was 8:00 a.m. and Chelsea’s champagne headache did not appreciate the sharp rapping at her front door.

“It’s too early for a Saturday,” she complained, throwing on her robe and tying it around her waist. As she got out of bed her foot knocked over the empty champagne bottle.

She spied through the peephole in the door: if it was Sid attempting to reconcile, she was in no mood to deal with him.

It wasn’t Sid. It was a policewoman, dressed in a crisp uniform standing at Chelsea’s door.

Chelsea opened the door and let the policewoman into the house. Chelsea was confused why the police were visiting her. Half the money was Sid’s to begin with; he had every right to it. She hadn’t reported it stolen.

“It took a while to locate you,” the policewoman stated.

Chelsea started the coffee machine.

 “Why are you here?” Chelsea asked. Her head throbbed. Could you get arrested for being intoxicated in your own home? She wondered.

“We didn’t find Mr. DeGreen’s wallet until very late last night. It had been thrown quite a distance into some bushes by the impact. Your name was written on the back of photograph he carried with him of the two of you together. But it was just your first name. There are more than a few women named Chelsea in the city. We needed to make sure we were knocking on the correct door. The ATM receipt helped – we got your name and address off the account when the bank opened this morning.”

 “His wallet was where? What impact?” Chelsea poured herself a cup of coffee, offering a cup to the policewoman, who declined with professional grace.

“He was hit by a car.” The policewoman squared her shoulders. “I’m sorry. Mr. DeGreen is dead. He passed away from his injuries this morning in the hospital, at 4:30 a.m.”

“What?” Chelsea was tasting an unpleasant cocktail of emotions: confusion, anger, grief, shock. Violently shaken together. “That’s not possible.”

“He was walking through a shopping centre parking lot, last night, at around 7:00 p.m.,” the policewoman said. “From the parking lot security video feed, he was heading towards a jewellery store in the centre, checking his wallet. His head was down. Regardless, it was a hit-and-run. The car should have stopped; Mr. DeGreen had the right-of-way. He was just at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Terrible odds. He was initially admitted to emergency surgery as a John Doe. I got here as soon as I could. I would hate for you to figure it out from watching the morning news.”

“It looks like you’re the closest thing to next-of-kin he had,” the policewoman continued, handing Chelsea the wallet. Chelsea recognized it; she had given it to him as a birthday present the year before. The corner of a receipt had been partially pulled out. A jewellery store receipt: a diamond engagement ring, $2200 balance due upon pick-up.

Still nestled neatly in the billfold were twenty-two one-hundred-dollar bills.

 The policewoman handed a business card to Chelsea.  “Please call me if you need anything. I’ll let you know if we get any leads. But know that these cases are difficult. Hit-and-runs are hard to solve.” She let herself out.

 Chelsea melted into the sofa. Other scurried up, concerned about her human.

Chelsea pulled up the text Sid had somehow sent her at 4:44 a.m.

 She buried her face in her hands. “I thought he’d left me – but, no. He’d been taken from me.”

 The spider settled attentively next to the glass.

 Chelsea picked up her phone and returned to Sid’s last text; she opened the reply box to the message. “I’m sorry, too,” she typed. “I’ll always love you, as well. Good-bye.”

 She followed it with a broken heart emoji.

 As she hit ‘send,’ the sorrow in her heart erupted.

It would be hours before she could open the refrigerator and look at the remnants of the dinner they never shared.

The opportunity that now would never be.

Laura J. Campbell lives and writes in Houston, Texas. She is encouraged in her writing by her children, Alexander & Samantha. Mrs. Campbell won the 2007 James B. Baker Award for short story for her science fiction tale, 416175. She has sold over 45 short stories and two novels. Her short fiction has appeared in Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3, Under the Full Moon’s Light, Gods & Services, Haunted MTL, Luna Station Quarterly, The Weird and Whatnot, A Celebration of Storytelling, and many other publications. Many of Mrs. Campbell’s more recent works are available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Laura-J.-Campbell/e/B07K6SZJJ9

The Great Owl

H.T. Grossen

Aspen trunks flitted by like white wisps of campfire smoke. Spruce log and pipe tobacco still hung gently on the couple’s flannel jackets. Michael rested his hand on her thigh and slowly took the wide, winding turns of the old mountain highway. Daphne glanced up from the pictures on her phone to smile at him. They were driving downhill in the moonlight now after spending this October afternoon watching the sun lend its brightness to the blazing Rocky Mountain aspen trees. The coin-shaped leaves had rattled and whispered secrets in the cool thin air, changing from emerald green to deep orange and golden yellow on the mountain slope opposite their fire circle.

Daphne explored the mountains with him every chance they had to get away from their jobs and the city, and Michael loved to be her guide. He had an unsurpassed knowledge of the forest which came from growing up within it. His family had owned land here seemingly since the dawn of time. He knew where there were dark caves where bears slumbered, verdant meadows where roaming elk fed, sheer cliffs where eagles made their nests, crystal waters where the rainbow trout spawned. Yet, through all the time they spent trekking through shining scrub oak and over silky streams, Michael always kept his eyes on the sky. Any time she asked him about it, he simply smiled a sad smile and said, “The Curse of the Great Owl.” At this, she would laugh and keep hiking, but always, even as she trekked on ahead of him, his gaze remained upturned.

As darkness had begun to sneak across their campsite earlier that evening, Michael took on the serious demeanour and appearance of his angular-faced tribal ancestors– and Daphne’s smile shone white through the grainy light the fire cast. He began telling stories. It was what he had been doing the first time they met years ago at a party in these very woods, and what had made her fall in love with him. Daphne loved the life he lent the folktales of his people; he wove warm colourful tapestries of emotion and wrapped you in them, you were made to feel as the people in his stories felt. He told thrilling childhood tales of first hunts and tales of long-passed relatives. But everyone’s absolute favourite story was “The Curse of The Great Owl”.

His voice took on a slow, sombre cadence as the firelight reflected in his black eyes — and he told the tale. Immediately Daphne was hypnotized, transported in her mind to the ancient woods when the land was young. The story began long ago, with a mountain shrew who came cold, tired, and hungry to a young tribesman who was hunting deep in the forest. She said if he would share his strength with her, the old woman could give him gifts of knowledge: how to build a fire, how to build a house, how to build a family. He agreed, and she began to teach him the ways.

The young man built a fire with his new knowledge to keep them warm that night. The next day, she educated him further — he built her a house with that knowledge, and cooked her food he had caught as further payment. On the final day, she directed him in the ways of love, and made him promise two things: to return in a week to check on her and bring her some food, and to find her a husband with his new training. If he could not find her a willing man from his tribe when he returned the next week, then she would become his bride as payment for the knowledge she gave him. He agreed quickly and enthusiastically — but when he left the forest and used her knowledge to woo and marry a beautiful woman, he quickly forgot about the old shrew and started his new life.

He returned to that ancient part of the woods with his family one day much later in life, venturing out to hunt and see whatever had happened to the old woman. But when they arrived they found the house was empty and the fire recently put out, coals still warm and smouldering. The man and his family wandered around the clearing, calling out for her, when a shadow blocked out the sun. They all raised their hands to their faces and looked up as a great owl descended from on high into the clearing. This awful beast screeched as it landed and hopped towards the nearest child. The bird was twice as big as the largest warrior, and three times as strong—and had the hungry soul of the vengeful shrew within it. The man dashed to put himself between the monster and his young one, but it battered him aside with a sweep of its mighty wing and gobbled up the child.

The owl sped about the clearing, devouring his children and wife; all but himself and his oldest son. The owl levelled her gaze at the two terrified men backed against the side of her house.

“You broke your word to me. Now you and your descendants will never know love.” The old shrew’s voice seemed to echo deafeningly from deep within their minds, “You will grow a family, but when you have found happiness, I will come and I will take it from you. Always.”

“More time! I just need more time!” The father yelled back.

The owl’s beak snapped shut around his screaming head and his powerful body flopped limply forward onto the pine needles soaked with his family’s blood. The eldest son escaped this grizzly fate by running away through the dense woods while his father was eaten. He hid for three days in a cave before he returned to his village– belly empty, but head full of fear and tales of this great owl. It was to be his household’s curse from that day on: the eldest son should not build a family, should not marry their soulmate; else The Great Owl would come and swallow their love in vengeance for her loneliness. As the curse had been for many generations it will be for many more unless the proud family could either slay the bird or stop falling in love. But the men of this family were just as drawn to love as the bloodthirsty owl was to its revenge.

The telling finished as the last yellow flame flickered and fell into glowing orange coals. The twilight dwindled, mirroring the level of wine left in the bottle they had shared. They clicked on flashlights and shook off the weight of the story and the alcohol as they threw their tent, chairs, and camping supplies into the back of the car. The hatch slammed shut and the engine started, signalling the end of their autumnal vacation.

Now on the wide forest road, Daphne craned her head towards the sunroof to see the bright moon glimmering down on them through the treetops and silver clouds. They were still deep in the mountains but would emerge on the eastern slope and be home in just a few short hours. Michael stole a glance at her slender neck and let the Subaru’s wheels take him around the next corner. Rounding the bend he went rigid and gasped, slamming on his brakes and putting the car into park. Daphne braced herself with both hands against the heavy dashboard, shaken, staring ahead to see what had stopped their romantic descent.

In front of them, an enormous figure crouched over the still carcass of an antlered buck in the centre of the highway. A vast and monstrous head snapped around; round eyes the size of dinner plates glinted in the headlights. It was a great owl: taller than a man and twice as wide. A cold and unnatural intelligence examined them through eyes that focused and refocused, the metallic silver-white feathers about its face expanding instinctually outwards in a gesture of intimidation.

Eyes narrowing, it released a long blood-chilling screech into the forest night; bits of deer intestine and cords of spittle sprayed from its beak and long, wavering, snake-like tongue. The couple in the car gaped in disbelief, eyes wide, Daphne unwittingly and violently shaking. The long black tongue slithered back into the beak which it clacked once, then the bird bent low to the asphalt. Brake smoke and warm exhaust swirled across the black pavement as the huge wings opened, the wingspan dwarfing the highway. With a single beat, the muscled breast propelled the bird the distance between the carrion and the station wagon. It landed with a bone-jarring thump on the hood, the tips of its claws puncturing the metal of the side panels where it clung. 

Hot reality came rushing back to both of them as Michael yelled, “Back! Get in back!” and quickly helped her between the driver and passenger seats. 

The tip of the huge beak smashed three, four, five times through different places on the windshield, sending small slivers of tempered glass flying about the front seats. Once Daphne’s tangled legs were clear of the centre console, Michael leaned across the car, opened the glovebox, and pulled out an antler-handled hunting knife. There was a loud, popping scrunch as one of the metre-wide feet of the creature plunged its claws into the windshield. With a gust of cold air, it tore the sheet of protective glass away from the car’s frame and sent it whirling into the darkness. The wild-eyed bird bobbed its head down, looked into the car, and let loose another ear-splitting shriek; moldy, coppery, breath filled the space.

Daphne was terrified to look away from the horror unfolding in front of her, but her racing mind remembered the shotgun Michael kept in the long bag in the back. She crawled halfway over the seat, throwing clothing and gear to the side, scrabbling to reach it.

“You’re not supposed to be here! Not yet! More time! I just need more time!” he yelled, echoing his own father’s words, and his grandfather’s words before him– when they were said aloud there was the dread feeling of insuppressible fate coalescing as the vicious cycle neared completion. The bird’s foot reached in repeatedly to pull him out of the car seat, and each time it was withdrawn with a fresh wound. Compared to the great bird’s slick black talons the hunting knife he held seemed hopelessly small, but he shouted and slashed at each attempt of the gargantuan bird’s scaled feet to take him away. With every lunge, there was the sound of shirt fabric and flesh tearing, and big drops of both Michael and the owl’s blood spattered each time the claws came away. 

Daphne knelt in the back seat and unzipped the gun bag as fast as her shaking fingers would allow. She turned for a moment to watch Michael lunge forward and sink his blade deep into one of the forward-facing toes that rested on the dashboard– the giant owl hopped backward with the knife stuck in its foot. Earsplitting screeches rent the night air, and turbulent flapping rocked the car. 

Daphne turned to focus, pulling out the long gun and fumbling around inside the case, spilling shotgun shells that clustered around her knees on the car seat. She focused on feeding two shells into the gun and then pumping once with a solid “CHIK-CHOK” before adding the third to the underbarrel chamber, just like Michael had taught her months before. 

Michael reached past the steering wheel to try and retrieve the blade where it protruded from the bleeding digit. But the predator’s wide skull angled down when it sensed the movement, eyes wild with fury, and in an instant, the razor-sharp beak of the raptor was upon him. 

SNOCK!” the hellish mouth closed, and the stump of where Michael’s right hand used to be fountained blood onto the hood of the car. The pain was immense, and his vision blurred as the huge, yellow, feral orbs of the owl’s eyes lowered to look at him through the wide front opening of the car. 

“Please, I need more time!” yelled Michael again, unconsciously fulfilling the prophecy. He howled in pain and rage as the mouth opened and the slithering black tongue reached for him, but the noise was drowned out by an ear-ringing roar as a warm, wet sensation washed over him. He saw one of the owl’s great eyes explode into the night air with an iridescent splash.

Ears ringing, a piece of hot paper wadding skimmed the side of his face as the shotgun belched flame and buckshot past his head a second time. Another puff of disintegrated feathers and hot blood misted over the hood and onto his face and body. Daphne crouched in the back seat chambering the third round when the great bird launched off into the night, flapping unsteadily, whirl-winding yellow leaves, and trumpeting its screeching pain across the Rocky Mountains. Daphne clambered out of the car and aimed wildly after the fading grey shape in the black sky. The final shell kicked her shoulder backwards as she fired it and shrieked after the huge bird, adrenaline making her voice break.

Breathing heavily, Daphne tossed the shotgun into the back seat where it bounced on top of unspent shells. She pulled open the driver’s side door and helped lower Michael gently onto the ground, leaning him against the front tire. He leaned his moaning head back against the car and she could see long ugly gashes across his entire chest. A puncture in the side panel from one of the great talons mixed its steam into the cloud of his warm breath that floated upwards. Daphne wound her flannel tightly around the stump of his hand, a dark crimson slowly spreading over the fabric.

“It’s my fault,” Michael croaked.

“How! What– What was that thing?! Michael, what the hell!” Daphne stared at him through her tears as the shaking returned to her hands and body.

“The story of The Great Owl… It’s true. It’s all true. It is the curse of my family.” He reached with his good hand into his front jeans pocket, where he pulled out a black satin box. “I love you, Daphne. I didn’t want to, because I knew… I knew she’d come. But I couldn’t fight it. I wanted you too badly.”

He grimaced as they both strained to help him stand.

“It doesn’t make sense…” Michael coughed, and a small stream of blood bubbled down his chin as he put his arm around her. “I don’t… I don’t even have an eldest son.”

Michael saw Daphne’s hand drift unconsciously to her stomach, and a sob escaped him. “Oh, no…” He hung his head. “No, no, no, no…”

“Michael!” Daphne interrupted as she wiped her tears and opened the door. “We’re going to get you down this mountain. That’s what we have to do now. That’s all.”

Once he lay, pale and breathing shallowly, in the back seat, a gust of wind blew through the trees. She spun and looked into the air, picking up and loading the shotgun a second time. She kept her eyes upturned, the way Michael always had when they had explored the mountains together. Their crushed car coughed and sputtered but continued to run, so she tossed the gun into the passenger seat, climbed behind the wheel, and put the car in drive. She squinted through the icy mountain air that whipped against her face through the missing windshield and sped down the mountain. 

There was a cough, and his warm familiar voice cut into her anxiety and focus. “Daphne… It’s my fault.” He coughed again. “I loved you. I just wish… I wish I had more time.”

“Stop saying that! Please, just hang on, Michael!” She didn’t take her eyes off the road as she accelerated faster. “We’re going to get down this mountain! Together!”

She glanced up for a moment to see his pale face smiling weakly at her in the rear-view mirror– when the interior of the car suddenly darkened. The shadow of enormous wings high above was blocking out the light of the moon, keeping pace steadily over the quickly moving station wagon.

H.T. Grossen lives in Pueblo Colorado beneath the long evening shadow of the Rocky Mountains with his magical wife, his beautiful children, and several animals of varying levels of intelligence. His work has been previously published in Red Planet Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and other places.

Faces

DJ Tyrer

The town is full. There are faces looking out of every window, if you know how to catch them right. They call Maxwell a ghost town, but although devoid of life, it is crowded nonetheless.

I come here every month to look in the windows, to try to catch a glimpse of their faces.

There are no rules about coming here, no laws banning visitors to Maxwell, not like those towns in the coalfields where perpetual fires burn below the earth like an upwelling of flames from Hell. The streets are public roads that anyone can travel, though few have cause. Technically, entering a building would be trespassing, but I doubt anybody cares. Nobody has lived in them, worked in them in years.

No great disaster carried off Maxwell, no tragedy, unless you count the closure of the mills as a tragedy. Business died and the town died with it, the people moving west in search of hope, leaving their dead behind in a dead town, empty save for memories.

The sound of my car engine startles the birds that roost here every time I drive into town, a roaring beast chasing them from their perches. But, it doesn’t expel the ghosts from their stations, gazing out silently upon the town they knew in life.

I never park in the same place – there is an infinite number, it seems – but, begin my search anew each time from a different starting point, adopting a different perspective. Each time, the town appears different in subtle ways, beyond the shifting of the seasons, but never in a manner that provides answers or offers closure. I might see the faces of the ghosts looking down, impassively, at me, but never do I see theirs.

I first came to Maxwell ten years ago. In some ways, I never left. Pamela and Martin never did. They’re still here, somewhere, I know it, no matter what anyone else might say.

It was my idea, my fault: I suggested it. We were taking a trip across the state, visiting places of historical interest, antiquing. Maxwell was one of the places I found online. Not the oldest, nor the most interesting, but intriguing. I regret ever adding it to our itinerary.

The visit really should have been nothing much – it isn’t as if Maxwell is replete with sites of any interest, just the detritus of over half a century ago – just a stroll through the echoing streets.

Martin was fascinated by the town, as if it were a gigantic playground. Ignoring our calls, he ran off, eager to explore, not hearing us when we tried to call him back.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get him,” his mother said, hurrying after him, an exasperated smile playing about her lips.

I laughed. Yes, I laughed. In that moment, I, too, was caught up in his enthusiasm, in the game. My son was happy and that delighted me.

No parent can fail to find pleasure in the exuberance and energy of a young child.

It was a perfect moment – one I wish had never ended – Martin’s squeals echoing back to me along empty streets.

Then, abruptly, they ceased.

It was strange. Echoes should slowly die, decline away to nothing. But, not his happy cries, nor the sound of my wife’s hurrying footsteps.

It was a sudden silence, oppressive and deep.

“Martin? Pamela?” I shouted their names and heard them echo back to me, unanswered.

They were gone.

Not that I realised it then, accepted it.

I still don’t accept it. That is why I return every month, seeking, just as I did that day.

It was impossible for them to just be gone, to have vanished. They had to be there, somewhere, within Maxwell, trapped somehow, lost.

Not that I had heard a thing, a shriek, a shout, a crash. Nothing, save silence.

I looked everywhere I could in the immediate streets, initially on the ground floors of the shops, then upstairs as high as their attics and down into their basements, checking every room, opening every cupboard, kicking down doors if I had to. But, nothing.

That evening, I called the State Troopers.

We searched late into the night and all the next day, and the next, looked in every conceivable place they could be. Searched the entire town.

They had been taken. That is what the State Troopers eventually decided, casting their net wider.

Logical, I guess, given the lack of any evidence they were still in the town, dead or alive, and the fact I hadn’t heard anything to actually signify an accident.

Of course, I hadn’t heard any cries for help or the sound of an engine, either.

I think they even came to suspect me. Even more logical a train of thought. They questioned me several times, examined the car minutely. But, of course, they found nothing.

As their thoughts moved away from Maxwell and the energy of their search declined, I returned to the town, certain my wife and son were still there, despite the absence of any evidence.

I couldn’t give up.

It was about a month after their disappearance that I caught my first glimpse of a face at a window.

They were the first person I’d seen who wasn’t part of the search party. I’m not sure what I expected them to reveal, but I rushed inside the house to confront them. But, there was nobody there.

I thought they’d run away, but then, I spotted another face, and another, each one visible in the glass only if you got the angle exactly right.

They perplexed me. They still do, only I’ve grown used to their silent presence, watching as I explore the town. They are the dead, the memories of Maxwell, I’m certain.

In the secret inner sanctum of my heart, I know I never shall find my wife and son among the living – they’ve been gone too long. But, I hold out hope they haven’t abandoned Maxwell entirely and that, one day, I shall see them again, if only fleetingly, upon a pane of glass.

I don’t know how or why, but Pamela and Martin are trapped in Maxwell, or its shadow, unable to get back to me. It is that thought, that promise vouchsafed deep within my soul that keeps calling me back to these silent streets and empty shops.

If I cannot rescue them, perhaps, one day, I may see them, if only for one last time.

Or, maybe, I will join them, leave behind the land of the living to become a ghost caught in glass like a fly trapped in amber.

But, not today. Not today.

Today, I return to my car, watched by unseen, silent faces and startle the birds, once again, with the thrum of my engine as I leave Maxwell behind for another month, silent and empty.

A ghost town rich with ghosts.

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines, including Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), and The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories (Hellbound Books), and issues of Sirens Call, and has a novella available, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).

Who’s There?

Harris Coverley

Miss Devlin, the landlady of the rooming house, was awakened by the booming knocks on the front door. She got up unsteadily and put on her dressing-gown, before leaving her room at the top of the stairs and descending. The night was still warm from the summer day, but she felt an internal chill that made her wrap her arms about her trunk, pulling the gown tight.


At the foot of the stairs, she stopped and looked to the end of the hallway: there was someone through the frosted glass.

“Hello?” she called. “Who’s there?”

She checked her grandfather clock, which told her it was almost two in the morning. She looked to its left at the calendar in the hallway: Tuesday the 21st July 1914 had passed and they were now in the morning of Wednesday the 22nd.

It was then that Captain Cropper, a veteran of both Afghanistan and the Sudan, and dressed in white silk pyjamas and nightcap, came out of his room, No. 1, next to the clock.

“Miss Devlin,” he said, yawning and just barely covering it with his hand. “What’s the meaning of this racket?”

“I’m sorry, Captain,” said Miss Devlin, “but there’s someone at the door.”

“At this ungodly hour?” exclaimed the captain, pulling on his moustache.

“It would seem so.”

“Miss Devlin?” said a voice from above.

The landlady glanced up and saw that it was Miss Sharpe, the young secretary out of No. 6. “It’s okay, Dear,” she replied. “It’s just someone at the door.”

Miss Sharpe came down the stairs and joined the two, soon followed silently by Mr. Thomas, the accountant from No. 10.

The group of four at the bottom of the stairs did not move towards the front door as it was rapped on again.

Captain Cropper squinted. The dark shape beyond the glass was vaguely human, but he could not tell if it was male or female, wore a hat, or instead had a large coiffure. It was of average height, and not stirring.

“Do you know who it could be?” the captain asked Miss Devlin.

“Not a clue, Captain,” she replied.

“Could it be a relative of yours?”

“Certainly not; none of them lack the sense to call at such an hour. What about one of yours?”

“Heavens above, no!”

The group stood quietly again for a moment, staring. The figure knocked yet again, at which they all quivered.

“What about a friend of yours, Miss Sharpe?” asked Miss Devlin.

“Oh no, Miss Devlin,” said Miss Shape, going red enough to match her nightgown. “Not possible…at least I don’t believe so.”

“None of my people either could be so uncouth,” added Mr. Thomas unprompted, breaking his silence.

They returned to staring at the door, and the figure knocked for the fourth time.

“Who is there?” called Miss Devlin loudly, but the knocker made no sound, standing still.

“Should we not see who’s there?” asked Miss Sharpe.

“At this hour?” said the captain, irritably. “Don’t be so foolish, girl.”

At that Miss Sharpe grew redder still.

“It could be a policeman,” interjected Mr. Thomas. “We could all be committing an offence right now just by not opening the door.”

“Then why does he not respond when we call him?” asked Miss Devlin. “Surely he would have made his profession clear by now? The same if he were a fireman, or a soldier, or a chef, or a salesman…”

They all looked back at the door. The figure remained static.

“Let us assess the situation,” said the captain, having pulled his pipe out and lit it. “At two in the morning, in the middle of the week, someone has come to the door and knocked on, right?”

The other three nodded.

“This individual,” continued the captain, “does not respond to our calls for identification, and only seems to stand there waiting for the door to open. He is clearly not in distress or he would be knocking more often, as well as shouting and banging and so on…”

“Captain, where are you going with this?” asked Miss Devlin.

“There are two possibilities: the character behind that door means us either harm or some trivial nonsense which we all could do without. The other possibility is…”

The other three leaned in with anticipation.

“The other possibility…” struggled the captain, “is that that somebody does not really exist.”

“What?” asked Mr. Thomas. “Are you saying he’s some kind of apparition?”

“Of a kind, yes,” said the captain. “Consider it: all of us are insistent that we know no one who could perpetrate such a rude nocturnal intrusion. We also know that a person of authority who wanted our attention would identify himself as such. Ergo, either the individual knocking is a madman, or he is a complete phantasm, a mirage we have jointly dreamed up in the night.”

“I find the latter very hard to believe, man,” said Mr. Thomas. “I mean, we can all see that someone is there!” He pointed.

“You’re very welcome to open the door with your own key and take a look, Mr. Thomas,” replied the captain, puffing away.

Mr. Thomas began to walk down the hall, thought better of it, and returned to the others.

“I thought so,” grinned the captain.

“What do you suggest, Captain?” asked Miss Devlin.

“Well, my dear,” he replied, “I suggest that there is nothing we can do other than go back to bed and get a good night’s rest.”

“We should just leave everything and go back to sleep?” asked Miss Sharpe.

“Doubtlessly my girl,” said the captain. “What else could we do?”

They all did as Captain Cropper suggested, although Mr. Thomas did so with some reluctance, and bid their goodnights to each other.

Unbeknownst to the residents of the house, the figure at the door remained there until the break of day and then vanished forever. Less than a week later, the War began.

Along with previously in Frost Zone Zine, Harris Coverley has had short fiction most recently published in Hypnos, The Centropic Oracle, Once Upon A Crocodile, and Frontier Tales, amongst many others. He is also a member of the Weird Poets Society, with verse in Spectral Realms, Artifact Nouveau, Corvus Review, View From Atlantis, Horror Sleaze Trash, and elsewhere. He lives in Manchester, England.

Pareidolia

Elana Gomel

I threw away the delivery. This is how it started.

My parents were late. Dad was at his real estate firm, Mom at a church meeting, and I was hungry. Mom texted me to order something online and not to wait up for them. I was used to solitary dinners eaten in front of the TV as I shovelled burgers or Chinese food or pizza into my mouth. I was not picky. Ally is such a good girl, the refrain of my mother’s churchgoing friends, their wrinkled cheeks shedding powder like moths’ wings as they stroked my hair. And so pretty!

The bag waited for me on the porch. I brought it in and inhaled the greasy smell of fries and the meaty aroma of the burger. Saliva collected in my mouth. I was hungry. But still – Ally is such a good girl! – I refused to eat from the paper bag and dumped its contents onto a plate.

Red liquid spread onto the white porcelain, forming a puddle that smelled of iron and salt. Did they send me an uncooked burger? I lifted the bun.

A bitter taste in my mouth remained even after my stomach was purged of its meager contents. I threw the burger and the fries into the trash bin and piled up old newspapers on top. And then I sat in front of the TV, staring dumbly at the pictures I had taken on my phone.

There had been a face on the burger.

I wasn’t stupid. I knew about pareidolia: the human propensity to see faces in random objects. But the photos did not lie. What I had seen was real: a scrunched-up face shaped in fried meat, coarse and fissured, tiny eyes, and a mouth opened in the “O” of shock or surprise. The mouth moved, whispering inaudible words. The pics on my phone captured its mute effort to communicate.

Was it a divine sign for me to go vegan like my friend Sophie? It’d be easier to accept if I still believed in God. But I did not. Not anymore. Not after Jason’s disappearance.

I went back to my room. The discoloured patches on the walls where pictures used to hang looked like blank faces. My parents had insisted we take down all family photos with the four of us. “No need to live in the past,” they had said. “We have to move on.” I still had one picture of Jason I had hidden in my makeup drawer, and now I pulled it out. My brother’s dark eyes and wry smile looked back at me. I stroked the picture, as if I could feel the stubble on his cheeks but there was only the cold smoothness under my fingers.

My parents came home separately; I heard first my father’s and then my mother’s steps on the creaking stairs. I did not hear them speak to each other. The distance between them seemed to be growing every day like an earthquake rift, stranding them on the opposite sides. Sometimes I felt like I had been dumped into the rift, buried at its rocky bottom.

I was still hungry, so when they finally settled in the master bedroom, I crept down to the kitchen. Our house was surrounded by dense trees, the backyard merging with Wisconsin woods. I was used to their shadows invading our home, and I was not spooked by the spiky black silhouette on the floor. Until it moved, mutating into a clawed hand that stretched to the ceiling.

I peeked out. The shed where my father kept his tools crept close to the kitchen window and lifted itself up on two scrawny chicken legs, swaying hypnotically and casting moon shadows onto the walls of the kitchen.

I went out through the backdoor and stood in front of the shed. It was made of sheet metal and had two small windows and a door in the front. Now those windows glowed with pale yellow light. The murky panes were splotched with black round stains that irised like pupils.  The door formed a slack mouth.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“What do you want?” the shed retorted. Jagged metallic sounds were coming from its interior, and the door flapped as it spoke.

“I want my brother back.”

“I can help you. For a price.”

I was not even shocked to find myself talking to the chicken-legged shed with a human face. Suddenly, I realized I had been ready for this for a long time. Ever since my mother became so engrossed in her church activities that she came back home only to sleep. Ever since my father threw himself wholeheartedly into his real-estate firm with a growing inventory and a pretty secretary, surfacing from his business whirlwind only to comment how I had suddenly grown. Ever since Jason disappeared.

Yes, my older brother had been mixing with a wrong crowd. Yes, he had dabbled in drugs. Yes, he had been a blot on our suburban middle-class family. Yes, my parents had threatened him with detention, even though at eighteen he was legally an adult.

But he was my brother. He used to carry me in his arms when I was younger and twirl me around. He sneaked candy and comics to my room when our mother outlawed both on the grounds of them being bad for my waistline and my brain. When I screamed, awakening from a nightmare, it would be Jason who sat on the floor by my bed until I fell asleep again. Our parents did not believe in monsters, or fairy tales, or love.

And then one day when I came back home from a Girl Scout camp, he was gone. There were blanks spots on the walls where his pictures used to be. And my father told me, his eyes sliding off me as if seeing my face was as hard as staring at the sun, that Jason had left us and was not coming back. He is an adult, my father said. He made his choice.

And ever since that day, I had been ready for atrocious miracles.

“What do you want?” I asked the chicken-legged shed.

“A pretty face. A pretty face like yours,” the mouth-door screeched. The rusty metal bent and bulged around it.

“All right. But only if you tell me where my brother is.”

“I’ll give you three gifts. If you use them right, you’ll find your brother.”

“OK,” I said, and one of the chicken legs rose into the air. It held three objects: a can of oil, a scouring pad, and a ribbon. I took them, and the shed turned around and sauntered away to its place in the corner of the backyard where it settled down, the chicken legs folding and disappearing under its cuboid body.

The “gifts” were scruffy and underwhelming: the ribbon discoloured, the scouring pad damp, the oilcan leaking. I put them in the pocket of my hoodie and started walking back to the house. And then I hesitated, went back toward the shed, and poked my head through the open door. Moonlight flooded the interior, and I saw my father’s old shotgun in the corner. My parents were NRA people and took care of their firepower. I was surprised to see the shotgun here, abandoned and tarnished.

The barrel of the shotgun swivelled toward me, the hole of the muzzle flapping like the mouth of a beached fish. The single eye of the ejection port regarded me dully.

“Do you know where my brother is?” I asked.

“I need oil,” it rasped. “They left me here to rust away, though I did what was asked of me. Give me what I want, and I may tell you.”

I pulled out the oilcan. I knew how to lubricate a weapon, having seen my father polish his collection of semi-automatic guns and pistols each Sunday afternoon.

The shotgun lay across my knees like a dosing snake as I unscrewed the barrel, cleaned, and oiled it. The stubby nose of the trigger twitched as if smelling something rotten.

“I did what you wanted,” I said. “So, tell me where to find Jason.”

“I do not know,” the shotgun responded, its voice now oily and sanctimonious like the voice of the preacher in my mother’s church. “But she may.”

And it pointed with its muzzle at the old spade leaning against the wall. I got up, the rust from the shotgun having left red marks on my fingers. I remembered Jason putting Calamine lotion on my hand after I had inadvertently touched poison oak.

The spade was stained with dry mud. The last time I had seen anybody use it was when Jason had tried to dig out a pond for my goldfish and ruined our mother’s flowerbed. She had refused to talk to him for a week.

I lifted the spade. The mud stains on its blade formed a cartoonish face with a wide mouth and two small peevish eyes, one much higher than the other.

“Do you know where my brother is?” I asked.

“I need cleaning,” the spade clanked. “They left me here to fall apart, even though I did what was asked of me. Give me what I want, and I may tell you.”

I took out the scouring pad and cleaned the blade until it shone in the moonlight and I could see my own reflection in it. No, it was not my reflection. The face was the same as had been crudely sketched in dry mud but now it seemed to have sunk into the metal, coarse, and wide, and hungry.

“I did what you wanted. Can you tell me where to look for Jason?”

“I’d rather not revisit this unpleasantness!” the spade jangled. “I do not know where he is now. But since you polished me, I suppose I could lead you to somebody who may.”

The spade hopped on its single leg-handle out of the shed through the black grass and toward the margin of the woods. I followed.

A white aspen tree grew there, pale against the dappled night. Jason had rigged up a makeshift swing for me, but the tree was too thin to bear my weight, and the swing had fallen off. I was surprised not to see it in the unkempt grass. How long had it been missing?

The tree’s white bark was crisscrossed by black cracks that came together in a long lugubrious face with slanted squinting eyes and a thin-lipped mouth. But the eyes were obscured by the drooping branches that fell over them. The tree shuddered and waved them aside, but they keep falling back, as annoying as unkempt hair.

“Do you know where my brother is?” I asked.

“They never come by me anymore,” the tree rustled. “Tidy up my branches, and I will tell you.”  

I took out the ribbon and standing on tiptoes, gathered the whipping branches and tied them together, away from the tree’s face, as Jason used to do when I was a small child and my curls got into my eyes. The aspen rustled its thanks.

“I did what you wanted,” I said. “Show me where Jason is!”

“I would rather not,” the aspen whispered. “He sleeps soundly in my cradle of roots. But you helped me, and I owe you. Ask your friend spade to dig.”

The spade tumbled head over heels and bit into the mulch. Lumps of dirt flew into the air, and soon a deep hole was revealed.  At first, it was too dark to see what was at the bottom of the hole, but then moonlight poured in.

It was not a hole. It was a grave. Under the thin layer of earth bulged the pale dome of a skull. Around it lay remnants of a tarp and discoloured rags; one of them still bearing the logo of Jason’s favourite brewery.

I jumped into the grave and lifted the skull. Faceless and anonymous, it stared through me with its empty eyeholes. There was an additional hole on the forehead where a bullet from my father’s gun went through. They had used the rope from my swing to tie their son’s body into a tarp, but it had unraveled.

Carrying the skull, I went back into the house and made my way upstairs. The door to the master bedroom stood ajar, and soft snores were coming from inside.

I crept into the bedroom. My mother was lying on her stomach, her meticulously styled grey hair fanning out on the pillow. She went to the hairdresser every two weeks but refused to colour her hair, telling everybody that God made it that way and who was she to argue with His decree? Humble bragging, I overheard one of her friends hiss behind her back.

My father curled up on his side, his bald head gleaming in the light dribbling in from the hallway. His phone set on mute flashed with messages, painting his face in glimmers of green. Or rather, painting where his face should have been. The pallid oily skin flowed smoothly from the top of his skull to the front, forming a lardy featureless oval. There were no eyes, nose, or mouth.

My mother turned over and I stared at the same lardy expanse of blankness under her steely fringe.

Still carrying my brother’s skull, I went down and back into the shed. I knew my father kept gas canisters there. It took me several trips to bring them back into the house and splash gasoline around the kitchen.

“Don’t do it!” the ice maker on the fridge rattled at me with its toothy grill.

“Don’t do it!” whispered the soft shapeless folds of the kitchen curtain.

“Don’t do it!” clattered the plates on the countertop.

But Jason’s skull was silent.

I lit a match and ran out, carrying my brother’s faceless head.

I stood by the shed, watching the flames shoot up into the darkness. The fire painted the woods orange and crimson. The shed unfolded its fleshless clawed legs and scampered away from the heat. I followed, sticking close to it.

I could still phone 911, I supposed, but then I remembered my phone had been left in my bedroom.

“Just tell them you woke up in the middle of the night, smelled smoke, and rushed out,” the shed said. I looked at it. My own reflection looked back at me, backlit by the fire, and yet somehow clearer and bigger than life.

Ally is such a good girl! And so pretty!

I was pretty, I knew it. I had been pretty since I was a child: sweet obedient Ally, her curls blond, her eyes bright blue, her cheeks round and pink. Not like her unruly big brother, with his dark eyes and olive skin, his face betraying his alienness, his non-belonging, his dubious origin.

I had always known Jason was adopted. When our parents had despaired of ever conceiving, they adopted that little stranger, with his mixed-up genes and his junkie birthmother. And then a miracle. Their own little girl, her face so bright, so cute, and so innocent. Perfect little Ally, to complete their perfect little family. Too bad the adopted son could not be returned to where he came from! Well, they had found a way around it, hadn’t they?

The heat from the fire was too much. I moved away from the shed. But my face remained glued to its metal wall. It ballooned like a reflection in a soap bubble, spreading across the front — my pink mouth stretching across the dinky door, my blue eyes appearing, superimposed upon the dirty windows, as my vision faded.

The chicken-legged shed swivelled three times on one leg and sauntered into the woods, as the faceless creature standing next to the burning house was rubbing her hands across the blankness of her missing face.

Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer. She is the author of six academic books and numerous articles on subjects such as narrative theory, posthumanism, science fiction, Dickens, and serial killers. As a fiction writer, she has published more than eighty fantasy and science fiction stories and three novels.
Her website:  https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/

The Swirling Shavings

David Watson

Paul loved wood carving, and it was even better that, after many years of having it provide a secondary income to the hard grind of building houses, it was now his sole source of financial well-being.

Online orders were coming thick and fast for his unique handcrafted works; and with good contacts in the building industry, he was able to source wood from sources other carvers couldn’t.

Timbers such as rimu and kauri, which were subject to considerable restraints in harvesting, often turned up when old houses were demolished.

One day a friend in the building trade called and said an old villa that he and his crew had just demolished had some nice rimu joinery and floorboards – and he could have them if he wanted.

He closed up the workshop right away and set off in his four-wheel-drive utility vehicle to the outskirts of the city, where the pretty but decrepit villa, which his friend had emailed him a photo of, had been pulled down to make way for a new housing development.

It was a mess of old timber and pilings, most of it worthless, but Paul soon spotted the distinctive red-tinted grains of rimu timber amongst the dross of other varieties in the pile.

“It’s all yours, my friend,” his contact said. It would have fetched a fair sum on the timber market but several years ago, Paul had saved this guy from what could have been a serious accident during a build, and he wanted to repay Paul for this.

Paul loaded the planks and smaller pieces onto the back of the 4WD, secured the load, and headed back across town, the traffic quiet as it was post-Christmas and many people were still on holiday. He unloaded the planks and joinery and carried them through to the workshop. Resinous and gluey smells permeated the air, creating the right atmosphere for an afternoon’s carving.

Paul settled on the design for the works of wood he was going to make. They were going to be striking pieces that would showcase the timber’s unique properties – a small table that would feature the grains in all their glory and a bigger outdoor table and stool combo.

He set to work on the rough timber, smoothing off the rough edges and creating a nice pile of wood shavings in the process. Paul loved wood shavings; the way they coiled entranced him and he always left a small pile on the floor of the workshop. He regarded them as a good-luck charm that helped him produce the best work he could.

He was chipping away at the wood when he felt a chill and noticed movement out of the corner of his eye.

He turned around and noticed the wood shavings from the rimu were whirling around and floating up into the air – but some shavings from a job a few days ago, of a different variety of timber, were lying still on the floor.

He checked the windows of the workshop, and except for the skylight that he kept permanently open for ventilation, all the others were closed.

The rimu shavings swirled some more, rose about a foot into the air as one mass, then tumbled to the floor.

As Paul checked the windows, he noted the position of the sun and guessed that the time was about 3:30 pm. A glance at his phone confirmed the exact hour — 3:38 pm.

It was so strange – the rimu shavings took on a life of their own and did a little dance that had a slightly sinister twist, then fell to the floor once more. Paul checked the workshop walls for any gaps that may have allowed a blast of air through, that could have caused the shavings to swirl as they did, but he couldn’t find any. He knew a blast of air wasn’t the cause, because the other shavings hadn’t risen from their good-luck spot on the floor.

The mystery faded in his mind as the afternoon turned into evening, and the preliminary work of preparing the wood yielded to the task of making the furniture. Just as the sun was going down, Paul quit for the night.

He slept in the next morning; this was one of the joys of self-employment and a far cry from his house-building days, when dawn starts in the depths of winter were part of the package.

A long walk followed before he returned home and opened up the workshop. A quick check of emails turned up a buyer for his immediate past job before the one he was now working on.

A retiree wanted the three-legged stool Paul had fashioned out of recycled pilings from an old wooden pier on a remote inlet that had been condemned as unsafe.

It was things like this that made his trade so satisfying. Sure, it had been pleasing seeing houses slowly rise from the foundations and rooms take shape from the initial skeleton-like crossbeams, but nothing could beat matching some handcrafted recycled materials with a happy buyer.

With the deal sealed, Paul returned to his current project. The top of the small table was starting to take shape.

He was immersed in his work — he found afternoons a productive time — when he felt the temperature drop. Startled by this, he looked around the workshop and saw the rimu shavings rise once more, exactly as they had done yesterday.

They did an extra swirl or two then settled back again, as if nothing had happened. Paul remembered the time this had happened the day before and glanced at his phone — sure enough, it was 3:38 pm on the dot.

Something weird was going on, and being a practical man and a tactile learner, Paul was going to get to the bottom of it. But he knew this would mean becoming a word-nerd for a while and spending some time online, poring through records and reports.

First call was a title search on the property where the rimu had come from. Luckily, he’d memorized the address. From there he worked outwards, doing multiple searches under the street name and those of the former owners. After some frustrating blind ends, he hit gold: a report from the 1920s scanned and posted online by an amateur historian of the region, about a murder committed in the same street. There was a picture of the house where the deadly deed had taken place.

Paul opened his email and went to the message that his friend in the building industry had first sent him alerting him to the recycled rimu. He opened the attachment and sure enough, it was the same house — the only difference was that at the time of the photo in the clipping posted online, the house looked habitable.

“Man convicted on evidence that included timepiece,” the sub-heading read. It turned out that part of the prosecution case was that Mr Albert Stanton, owner of the villa, had hit his wife Audrey over the head with a blunt object as they had bickered one afternoon, fracturing her skull and causing an aneurism that led to her death. Stanton denied he was anywhere near the villa that afternoon, but among the prosecution evidence was a bloody clock that had clearly been handled by Mrs. Stanton at the time of her death. It was damaged – police speculated Mrs. Stanton had hurled it at her husband as he advanced on her with the blunt object. It had stopped ticking at precisely 3:38 pm the day she was determined by medical examiners to have died.

“Mrs. Stanton was found lying on the elegant rimu floorboards,” the report stated.

Of course, the stopped clock alone wasn’t enough to convict Albert Stanton but it was part of a chain of evidence that linked him to the scene – if he hadn’t been there, why would a bloodied and battered Mrs. Stanton have had cause to hurl the clock?

Stanton was convicted of murdering his wife and was hanged at the end of the 1920s, the amateur historian noted.

Shivers went up Paul’s spine; the rimu floorboards he was working on were the very same ones Mrs. Stanton had lain on as she died from the blow inflicted by her husband.

Her spirit had stayed with those floorboards and had somehow been released when Paul had shaved and shaped them.

Paul knew what he had to do. As much as it pained him, he knew he couldn’t continue with this project.

He called a friend of his who was a lay preacher at the local church and told him the whole story.

That evening, the friend came to Paul’s place and they took the rimu boards and shavings, and set them alight in Paul’s back yard.

As the rimu burned and was reduced to charred rubble, his lay preacher friend said a prayer and a blessing for Mrs. Audrey Stanton.

Paul never had another spooky experience with recycled timber, but he never forgot those swirling rimu shavings.

David Watson is a former journalist in New Zealand who first tried his hand at fiction writing as a pastime during that country’s COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. He found he liked it and has continued to write since.

The Solution

Susan Cornford

Alice’s eyes snapped open and nothing but darkness surrounded her. The nightlight must have gone out for some reason. It wasn’t exactly that she was afraid of the dark, just that she was more comfortable being able to see where everything was when she woke up and the main switch was out of her reach. And she was cold; she sighed at having thrown off the blankets again. But there was a breeze and her bedroom was hermetically sealed against drafts. Come to think of it, she was standing up, definitely putting weight on her feet, and that was not right.

Slowly and carefully, like a tightrope walker, Alice extended both hands to find out what she could feel. Her right hand touched smooth wood that she gratefully took hold of in a firm grasp. Then she turned to grab this lifeline with her left hand as well. Her mind edged back from the border of panic, her heart rate gradually slowed and her panting lungs slowly decided they didn’t need to work so hard. A cackling laugh burst out of her mouth. It’s a good thing there’s no one else around to hear me sound like a madwoman, she thought.

Of course. She was holding the banister at the top of the stairs. This thought sent her heart rate and breath soaring again. She’d woken up just on the edge of falling down the whole flight of stairs! Still keeping her two-handed grip, she lifted her left foot and felt for the next step down. Her foot landed far too soon and she found she could shuffle sideways in a circle. She was at the bottom of the stairs. Well, if she was going to sleepwalk, at least her body knew its way around well enough to keep her safe.

She felt almost ordinary again now that she knew she was safe, so she reached out her left hand and flicked on the switch. Light flooded the entry hall as if nothing had happened. As she was already downstairs, Alice decided that a cup of tea was definitely needed, so she headed for the kitchen.

As she waited for the kettle to boil, Alice reflected wryly that there was no need to wonder what had driven her subconscious mind literally to “take drastic steps”. She was in a terrible situation and completely helpless to make things better. It hadn’t been so bad to watch her powers wane as she got older, not until Ursula returned from whatever hell she had inhabited for the past thousand years. They had been enemies since the beginning of time. Well, since that incident with the wizard, beloved by both of them, who was torn into two pieces during their tug-of-war and then disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Anyway, for some reason best known to herself, Ursula was back. All Alice wanted at this stage of life was a nice, quiet decline into peaceful non-existence. But Ursula wouldn’t let her rest and Alice could only match her spell for spell, which resulted in a stalemate that had a very slippery feel. She found she’d brewed and poured her cup of tea, so she took a blissful sip and tried to think of some way to solve her problems, which now included sleepwalking.

Alice had to admit that alligators and snakes were not her favourite things even though they couldn’t do her any harm. So, trudging through the swamp with them lurking all around was not her idea of a vacation, even on the outskirts of the famed New Orleans. But it was the only way she could get to see the Voodoo Queen who was the sole person she thought could possibly help her. Marie (they always seemed to be called Marie) had agreed to an appointment in the old graveyard at midnight. So, brushing aside yet another creepy piece of Spanish moss, Alice pushed open the creaking wrought iron gate and made her way to the tallest monument she could see.

“Good evening, Alice.”

Alice turned around to see a tall, dark-skinned woman with a large snake coiled around her neck, like a boa.

“Good evening, Marie…and friend.”

Marie let go a full-bodied laugh. “Maurice gets lonely if I go out without him. I promise he is well-behaved.”

The two ladies seated themselves on tombstones and Alice explained her problems with aging, and Ursula, and unhappiness at being rousted out of her pleasant retirement. Marie listened carefully and finally said, “I think I can help you. If you will get me some of Ursula’s hair, I know how to make an effigy that can be burned, causing the original to be consumed in the fires of Hell.”

“We are in luck. It just so happens that I brought with me some of the hair I pulled out of her head in the fight we had over the wizard. I always knew that it would come in handy someday.”

Marie took the hair and put it carefully into her skirt pocket. They spoke some more about price and Alice handed her the last of the golden apples that were left over from her Grecian glory days. The effigy would be ready to collect at midnight the next night. Alice happily waved goodbye to Marie and Maurice.

Alice’s eyes snapped open and she saw the nightlight shining softly all around her bedroom. She felt sure that she would never be plagued by sleepwalking again. Snuggling down into her bedclothes, she recalled with pleasure the visit she had made to Ursula’s house, carrying the wax-soaked effigy in her pocket. Knowing Ursula would have a fire burning to heat her cauldron, Alice had boldly walked over and thrown it in. The effigy and Ursula had both burned brightly; quickly they were gone.

Alice shuffled around in bed and Maurice popped his head out of the blankets. She hadn’t realized that he was the reincarnation of the wizard they had fought over so long ago. When he crawled out of the fire at Ursula’s house and up around her neck to whisper in her ear, Alice knew she would need to grow fonder of snakes.

Susan Cornford is a retired public servant, living in Perth, Western Australia. She has had pieces published or forthcoming in Across the Margin, AHF Magazine, Altered Reality Magazine, Antipodean Science Fiction, Fudoki Magazine, Mystery Tribune, The Were-Traveler, Thriller Magazine, and others.
https://www.facebook.com/susan.cornford.731
https://twitter.com/susankaye123

More Things in Heaven and Earth

J.W. Wood

Robert Vargese looked out his window at the dead body hanging in a tree. At least, it looked like a dead body, the head crocked at an angle, arms akimbo. It hung, a twisted black shape, amid the tree’s branches.

It was late at night and raining, so he lowered his head and went back to his job: reviewing submissions for Aeon of Horus, the quarterly journal of the occult he’d set up two years ago. The magazine published poetry, fiction, and articles about the usual suspects: Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, Giordano Bruno. As Editor, Robert had started to notice similarities between the work he received from contributors and events in the real world.

When he received a spate of poems about disasters, natural or man-made, there’d soon be an earthquake, terrorist attack, or other unfortunate event. That much he was aware of: but he couldn’t remember receiving any poems or stories about dead bodies hanging from trees on suburban London streets.

He looked out the window again. The rain sheeted down, making it hard to see into the branches of that tree opposite his first-floor flat. Yawning, he wrote a brief yet polite email to someone in Saskatchewan turning down their story about vampirism and madness, then switched off his desk lamp and went to bed.

Being a literary editor was a lonely life. Yes, Robert met people through the annual competition to raise funds for the magazine, and conversed with writers, subscribers and advertisers daily via email. But for the most part, he found himself confined to his flat, alone in the company of the hundreds of manuscripts that flew into his inbox each day.

Human contact consisted of the people passing by on the street outside. He liked to watch them as they hurried along, ferrying children to and from school, rushing to offices, shopping, appointments. A particular highlight was the daily passage of a young woman who would walk up the street at seven forty-eight on her way to the bus stop on the high street.

For reasons Robert couldn’t understand, she fascinated him. Perhaps it was her quirky taste in clothes. He once saw her wearing a gabardine raincoat and a pith helmet. On another occasion, she dressed in silk pyjamas and clutched an umbrella. She had long black hair which she sometimes wore in a loose bun, offsetting her pale skin. He had only ever seen her from the side and above, and had never met or spoken to her. Yet he found her mesmerizing.

Benedicta Kitson is a writer. At least, that’s her vocation. By profession, she’s a makeup artist, hiding the blemishes nature gave young people who thought they wanted to be models or actors until they found out how unforgiving these are as professions. She has no interest in her subjects as human beings, simply as canvases on which she can work with foundation, mascara, false lashes, and hues.

She doesn’t understand why she writes. Indeed, she remains unsure of her subject, her talent. But those who have read her work, and the few notes she’s had from editors, describe it as “dark”, “unyielding”, “macabre”, and “threatening.” She can’t think why: it’s just what she does. Most recently, she’s written a piece about the justifiable nature of suicide under certain circumstances.

She likes to have her fortune read once a year using the Tarot. Her card spread last year – a “Celtic Cross” reading – featured The Magician in the “outcome” position. Abundance and creativity. Thus inspired, she’s been writing like a demon any time she can find time between gigs as a make-up artist to the non-stars.  So when she reads the entry for a magazine called Aeon of Horus in an online index of places to publish, she decides to submit a story. She chooses a pseudonym. Safer that way – though safer from what, and why, she can’t say.

Robert grew more lonely hourly. He hadn’t been out of his flat yet this morning. Not since he’d seen that body hanging in the tree across the street last night. He looked up from his computer at the tree. The branches were dark and spindly, just as they’d been yesterday. And he swore he could still see that shape in them – black, contused, at odd angles. It was a dead body, plain and simple. He looked down at his desk, at the unread submissions stacked in his inbox. The hopeful letters of query. Then he looked out the window again.

He needed to get away from work: the constant stream of not-quite-there stories he read depressed him. So many lacked something, that quiddity, that spark. And the reams of rejections he wrote with care, most of which elicited zero comment from the authors …

Robert resolved to take a closer look at the tree later that morning, once the commuters had thinned out. Try to identify that body.

Benedicta has a gig up in West London. A billionaire’s teenage daughter is paying for a full modelling shoot before she goes to Cambridge to read for a degree in Anglo-Saxon. Benedicta hasn’t looked at the rough shots she’s been sent, but she packs a standard case of makeup anyway. She’ll make it work. She always does.

This morning she submitted her story to Aeon of Horus. The way they described what they wanted in their stories – they’d used the same words others did when trying to encourage her. Maybe they’d take her piece: she wasn’t that bothered. She found the idea of getting paid for her passion a bit absurd.

Robert watched the girl walking up the street. She carried that big brown leather case she so often dragged with her to the bus stop. No pith helmet or silk pyjamas today – she must be doing something important. She wore a smart black skirt and a check-patterned jacket. He thought he saw a white blouse under the jacket as she walked past on the other side of the street.

She went by his house and was almost underneath that tree. The one he thought held a dead body in its branches. He wondered if she could see the body too.

He clicked on the next submission in his inbox, sighing inwardly. The Hanged Man – no doubt yet another poem or story about the Tarot. By someone calling themselves B.J.K. Ostregoth. He forced himself to open the attached file and began reading. As he did so, his pupils widened. He continued reading, and didn’t stop until he’d finished the story ten minutes later. Then he read it again.

Benedicta finishes the make-up for the billionaire’s daughter around twelve and politely declines the photographer’s invitation to lunch. She’s got an important date this afternoon back in her neighbourhood, and can’t be late: her annual Tarot reading. She catches the bus from the West End to Kings Cross, then makes the last train before the commuters start pouring out of their offices around three. Plenty of time to get back before 4:30.

While she’s on the train surrounded by litter and the first wave of commuters, her email tells her the editors of Aeon of Horus want to publish her story. And they couldn’t be more enthusiastic – they also want to meet her to discuss its contents. As they’re not too far from where she lives, she agrees to meet them and suggests the same venue as her Tarot reading – a café near her flat.

She meets her Tarot reader in that café. It’s an old-fashioned greasy spoon, nothing really: stewed tea and burnt coffee, the smell of dead animal fat, old newspapers strewn on the windowsills. Her Tarot reader is a man in late middle age called Dan: short, with a bald head and gleaming dark eyes, a white shirt, and tan chinos. She’s seen him once a year for the past nine years. Dan tells her there will be sudden change in her life, and great success – the presence of Death (reversed), The Hanged Man (reversed), and the Ace of Swords guarantees it.

She tells Dan about her upcoming publication, and he goes on for another ten minutes about how he’d sensed that was coming. Then he warns her that, so often, good news brings sorrow in its wake.

Robert eventually found the guts to go outside. He walked down the steps outside his house to the street and heard the ping of his email as his foot left the lowest step and before it hit the pavement. Normally he ignored his email when he was away from his desk but this time he didn’t. It was from the author of “The Hanged Man” B.J.K. Ostregoth, accepting his invitation to coffee and proposing that, since they were not too far apart, they should meet at The Daily Grind, a café on Magnet Street. Ostregoth said they were free tomorrow, late afternoon if by chance he were, too.

Robert sent a brief email confirming he’d be there, then walked across the road when the traffic cleared. He examined the branches of that tree where he thought he’d find a dead body: nothing. So he went back to his flat and continued reading submissions, curious as to what tomorrow’s meeting with B.J.K. Ostregoth, his remarkable new author will bring. He thinks he’s going mad now. Driven mad by loneliness, by living with other people’s fantasies. It was making his own fantasies, the ones he buried in his heart, darker and darker.

The next afternoon, Robert left his flat long ahead of the planned meeting with the author of “The Hanged Man”. What would Ostregoth be like? What would they discuss? Robert wanted to know whether Ostregoth knew the street where he lived. Maybe they’d walked down his street recently. Perhaps they’d seen the dead body in the tree and that had inspired their reinterpretation of the Tarot in “The Hanged Man”.

In case Ostragoth should prove to be an attractive woman, Robert put on a clean shirt and combed his hair and beard, and cleaned his glasses. He even ironed his trousers and brushed his teeth. When he left his flat and hit the pavement outside his house, his eyes turned involuntarily to check the tree across the street since it was broad daylight and not raining.

There was definitely no body in that tree. But he was sure he’d seen one. Twice.

Benedicta fiddles with the handle of her cup of chamomile tea, its scent steaming up from the bland Formica table. She wants to be published, sort of. It’s a fun little thing to do, her hobby. But whether she should be meeting the editor of Aeon of Horus is a different matter. He (or she) might turn out to be a creep. She puts down her teacup and tries to look out the fogged-up window of The Daily Grind, but she can’t see through the condensation.

A man opens the door to the café and shuffles in, taking off his glasses against the warmer air inside the café that’s already causing them to mist up.

He looks like a druid, Benedicta thinks.

The man wears black polyester trousers and cheap black boots, a dark blue shirt. His long, straggly greying hair and semi-kempt beard promise little, as does the way he peers nervously about the tables like a frightened puppy.

The man walks into the centre of the small café. Benedicta looks up, her brown eyes asking a question before he answers that question in her eyes with one of his own:

“B.J.K. Ostregoth?”

“Yes – that’s me. But you can call me B.J., if you like.”

“I’m Robert.” He nods as he says the words, a curt bow like a Japanese courtier from a bygone age.

They talk for perhaps twenty minutes. During this time it becomes clear to Benedicta that Robert is interested in more than arcs of character development and the relationship between dialogue and exposition. Predictably, and in the most nervous way, Robert asks if she wants to have tea with him again the next day.

She declines, citing pressure of work. He nods and looks to one side, then mutters something about some other time. She agrees and they stand up and wave at each other, agreeing it’s been nice to meet.

Benedicta hates this part of the brush-off: there’s always the danger the guy won’t get the message. But Robert appears to have understood she is not interested, and seems unfazed. After all, he must be twenty years older than her. Before he turns to go, he says:

“You know, I really liked your story about the physical and metaphorical significance of The Hanged Man in Tarot. It really spoke to my circumstances. To me. Please send us some more.”

She promises she will and he turns to go. She sits down again and watches him leave. He reaches the door and turns back to look at her. He thinks better of whatever he was going to say, opening the door to let a blast of cold February air into the tiny café. He looks like he is about to weep. Then he walks out and closes the door behind him. She waits a few minutes until she’s sure he has gone, then leaves herself. She’s going home to cook herself some mung beans with Edam cheese for supper.

The next morning, Benedicta is on her usual route up to the bus stop. Halfway up Robert’s street, she stops still. She thinks she sees a dead body hanging from the branch of a tree on the other side of the road. When she gets closer, she sees she is right. Her hand reaches for her phone to call the emergency services. She may be asked to identify the body.

J.W.Wood’s poems, articles, stories, and reviews have appeared all over, from America to Europe and Asia. He would like to dedicate this story to Genevieve Wynand, an editor who has been most helpful to his development as a writer.
For more, www.jwwoodwriter.net

Cheap Day Return

Malcolm Timperley

Benson had to get back; the last train was due. Where was the station? He squelched through the sleety rain. It spattered his glasses, but he had learned decades ago that cleaning them was pointless. Within five minutes, soaked again, the haloes around the lights and the filmy distortions would return. Leaning forward, he trudged into the wind, which veered spitefully to ensure that the stinging rain was always blown into his face. As he stumbled from one puddle of sickly light to the next, his coat afforded no protection. Below it, his trousers no longer flapped but clung sodden to his legs. His hair was plastered to his head, and icy water dribbled down his neck. He felt wretched as wetness seeped into his shoes, his feet pushing cold sponginess back and forth with each step. The wind forced raindrops down his throat. They tasted of tin.

Finally, through his smeary spectacles, he made out the wooden station building crouching at the end of the street. A dying fluorescent tube in the waiting room spat flashes of antiseptic light. He swallowed down rising despair that he’d missed the last train. He had to get back. As he approached the building the flashes petered out. The station was locked up for the night, a hurriedly scribbled note clumsily taped to the inside of the waiting room window. He squinted at the scrawl – When station closed access platform via gaite. Below the writing, an arrow pointed to where the station building ended and a decrepit wooden fence lurched off into the blackness beyond. One section of the fence clutched the posts on either side for support, and he guessed it to be the gate. On the far side, a solitary platform lamp hung from a pole, creaking back and forth in the wind, gibbet-like.

Benson was reluctant to leave the shelter of the station doorway. Shivering, he stared through the grimy glass into the waiting room. A final flash of light from within left him blinking and gasping – who was that inside, looking out? He cupped his hands to the glass and peered through. The face rushed towards him in frantic foreshortening. His reflection, surely – wasn’t it? He backed away from the other Benson, panting, then staggered off, following the arrow, refusing to look back.

The gate was wedged. He shoved at it, but the sodden wood squealed and refused to move until suddenly it juddered forwards. The spongy, rotten timbers crumbled under his grip as he tumbled onto the platform. Under the squeaking, shifting lamp he noticed his fingers now had small damp fragments sticking to them. Benson thought it was the swaying light and the rain on his spectacles that made them appear to move, until, aghast, he realized that they were actually woodlice. He shook his hand wildly, jerking the creatures away into the night, then frantically wiped his hands on his coat. Wheezing and dripping, he tottered away from the gate and onto the dark platform. He had to get back.

A red light blinked green, followed by a mournful blast from the gloom and an advancing rumble. The diesel trundled closer, then squealed to a stand, the headlights revealing swirling curtains of rain. The engine stood throbbing alongside Benson, who shielded his eyes from the glare and peered into the cab. In the anaemic glow of dashboard lights, a lifeless figure stared unblinking into the night, clutching the dead man’s handle.

Benson ran alongside the first carriage. Blurred silhouettes within observed him, heads turning in unison. Alarmed, he backed away, then checked himself; he had to get back. He stumbled forward to the apparently empty second carriage, pressed a button and the door sighed open. Benson stepped inside. Once certain that he was completely within, the door hissed shut peevishly – SiiiiiiiiiiT! With a triumphant hoot, the train lurched forward, and Benson half tumbled, half collapsed into a seat. It was threadbare and slightly sticky. As the train gathered speed the carriage lights dimmed to an unhealthy glow. The warm, syrupy air misted Benson’s glasses. Removing them, he fumbled for a handkerchief or something, anything, dry. Finally, he found a small section of shirt the rain had missed. He replaced his newly wiped glasses, looked up, and jolted.

Opposite sat a frock-coated man, cachectic, long-armed, and unnaturally tall, holding a large, square, leather-bound book. Emaciated and embalmed-looking, he stared down at Benson as though examining a specimen in a killing jar. His thin-lipped face slowly moulded into a cadaverous rictus as he resumed peering down at the book. For some reason, Benson assumed it was a bible. The priest, if that’s what he was, or perhaps had once been, alternately stabbed a spindly finger at the pages, or raised them to his face. With each jerky movement, dandruff fluttered down from his greasy hair.

Queasy, Benson turned away and stared out of the carriage into the night. Beads of dirty rainwater hurried down the window like woodlice scuttling away from the light. His reflection was superimposed on the blackness, but, twisted by condensation and rain on the glass, the other, colder Benson appeared warped and deformed. The other Benson avoided eye contact, and instead studied the window frame intently from the dark outside, as if looking for something, such as a way in.

“Tickets, please!”

Benson spun round. The jaundiced light was obscured by a waxy-faced figure leaning too close, and clicking a shiny metal device with one hand. With the other, he slowly smoothed an oily comb-over, as though he was considering whether he should help the Vice Squad with their inquiries. Benson groped nervously in his sodden coat. The pockets felt full of soft, damp things. He extracted a soggy ticket and it was snatched away with distaste. The guard turned it over, noticed a woodlouse on the underside, and flicked it off with a sneer. It landed on the priest’s book. He slammed it shut with a triumphant sniff, then slowly reopened it and raised the stained pages to his face. Benson looked away uneasily. The other Benson outside grinned, then resumed its search for weaknesses in the glass.

The guard clipped the ticket with the shiny metal device and Benson watched a small paper fragment flutter to the floor. Trembling, he retook the ticket, noticing that where the destination had been printed was now a small, heart-shaped hole. “What’s going on?” he blurted, the loudness of his voice startling him.

“Slyness. Bleed,” snarled the priest.

“What?”

“Silence. Please,” he repeated from behind the book.

The carriage lurched downwards and the train accelerated. Increasingly sweaty, Benson removed his coat, tossing it anxiously onto the seat next to the priest. “Can you help me?” he mumbled. “Please, I have to get back.”

“Jet black,” snorted the priest, scratching the stained bible with a dirty fingernail. Benson looked pleadingly at the guard who clicked the shiny metal device and began to speak. A sudden hollow rushing sound muffled his words. “Eternal,” grinned the priest with a phlegmy chuckle.

“What?”

“A tunnel,” repeated the priest. Panicking, Benson turned to the window. The other Benson clawed at the rubber seal around the glass, prising it free. Cold and rain screeched in from the tunnel and Benson recoiled into the seat. The priest dropped the bible and rifled through Benson’s abandoned overcoat, pulling handfuls of woodlice from the pockets and tossing them in the air like wriggling grey confetti. The train raced as the carriage tilted more steeply. Rearing over him, the guard clicked the shiny metal device ominously. The priest tottered towards him, hands churning with wriggling woodlice. The other Benson finally freed the glass from the frame. Shrieking echoed from the tunnel walls. The Tannoy crackled “All change. End of the line. This is where we terminate…”

Malcolm Timperley studied medicine at Liverpool University, spent more years than he likes to remember as a psychiatrist, and is now a writer and heritage steam railway signalman, living in the Highlands of Scotland. He has published non-fiction (railway history), comedy (he was short-listed at the 2020 Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards), and horror (most recently in Horla).