Part B continues the archival blog post of issue 1 content. See part A for all poetry and the first five stories of the Autumn 2020 issue.
by Jeremiah Kleckner
Jack stepped into the space that would be his locker room for the night. The yellow bucket and mop in the corner told him that it doubled as a janitor’s closet. He wanted to grab the mop’s stained handle, just to feel it in his hands. Maybe if he cleaned this room he could ask to be a temp when one of the regulars got sick in the next wave or were rounded up for questioning. He could bring home regular money as someone with a job. Someone who worked.
He allowed himself to live in this fantasy before he closed the door and set his bag down on the fixed wooden bench. The rusted blue locker was tall enough for him to hang his shirt but so narrow that he had to stack his shoes one on top of the other and pack his pants into a tight roll to make them fit.
He opened his bag and slipped into his state-assigned black trunks. The number 0815 was printed in white on the back to display his Workfare ID.
Jack was taping his wrists when the door swung open. A man wearing a striped shirt stood in the doorway. He was shorter than Jack, had a wide jaw and round shoulders. Thin wire glasses hooked around swollen knobs of flesh that were once ears and rested on the bridge of a crooked nose that had to have been broken many times over. The man slid inside and closed the door behind him.
“Jack Hammer, right?”
Jack’s last name was Hammery, but he nodded and said nothing. He’d read articles of Workfare recipients being disqualified for upsetting state employees like referees or EMTs and being sent home without food vouchers. He didn’t want to risk starving over something so small as a name.
“Mitch Chambers,” the man said. He tugged on his shirt collar and added, “I’m officiating your bout tonight.” He pulled one thin plastic glove out of his pocket and stretched it over his hand. “May I?”
Referee Chambers felt behind Jack’s ears and checked his nails.
“Open,” Chambers said.
Jack opened his mouth and Chambers probed his gums with gloved fingers.
“I saw your fight last week,” Chambers said as he took his hand out of Jack’s mouth and checked his pupils. “Hell of a combination. You trained.”
“Yes, Sir. Nothing major. I wrestled in high school and boxed a little after that.”
“No,” Jack laughed. “But I was the sparring partner for a guy who took silver gloves one year.”
“Anybody I’d of heard of?”
“Ian… something,” Jack said. “I didn’t really know him.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Chambers motioned for Jack to move over, then sat down next to him. “Your bout is on last. You should be grateful.”
“I-I am,” Jack mumbled. He didn’t know much about the broadcasts, but he remembered that going on last was a big deal back when public gatherings for sports and concerts were legal. What he knew for sure was that he was awarded the same voucher no matter what time his fight went live. It was a state-regulated payout. Full-vouchers for winners. Half-vouchers for losers. “Winning is winning.”
Referee Chambers laughed in a way that shook him like a hiccup. “Do you know anything about the guy you’re facing?”
“Not really,” Jack said. “I’ve only seen clips, but I think I can take him.”
“We do, too,” Chambers said. “Which is why you’re going down in the second round.”
The words hit Jack like a slap. “You think I’m underestimating him?”
Chambers chuckled and shook his head. “Not at all.” He leaned in. “Jack, you’re popular, but this guy has a mouth on him and, frankly, his ratings are better than yours.”
“But I can beat him.”
“That means nothing if nobody’s watching,” Chambers said. “There are a lot of hands in events like this. You have the cable companies, internet providers, trademarks on logos, merchandise, vendors, subscription services, and that’s just the list of people who report the money they make.”
Jack stood and asked, “What do I tell my wife when I come home with a half-voucher for the week?”
“Tell her you lost,” Chambers said, rising to meet him. “Tell her he caught you by surprise and you’ll get him the next time. Hell, tell everyone that.” Chambers handed Jack a small envelope. “Take this in the meantime, just for doing the favour.”
Jack opened the envelope and thumbed through the thin stack of bills.
“As long as your ratings stay good,” Chambers continued, “you’ll be figured in on these broadcasts. We’ll set up the rematch in a month or two, then a rubber match after that.”
Chambers reached for the doorknob.
“W-wait,” Jack said. “Who knows about this?”
“Almost nobody, and you’ll keep it that way or you’ll find yourself back on the wait-list.” Chambers sighed and patted Jack’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine, Kid. It’s just a job.”
Chambers closed the door behind him with a solid metal click.
Jack felt the weight of the envelope in his hand, then slipped it into his bag and stuffed the whole thing into the narrow locker. Regular money meant new clothes from the thrift store and vaccines for him and his wife. Maybe even a renter’s permit one day.
The door swung open and Referee Chambers poked his head inside. “It’s time, Kid. You ready?”
Jack nodded. There was no doubt about it. He was ready to work.
Jeremiah Kleckner has taught English/Language Arts in Perth Amboy since 2005. During that time, he earned the Samuel E. Shull Middle School’s 2014/2015 Teacher of the Year award, wrote dozens of short stories, and self-published several books. Jeremiah lives in Jersey City with his wife, daughter, and an ever-increasing number of dogs and cats.
by Matthew Tansek
My name is Ingrid Chalmers and I owned a piece of haunted jewellery. I wish I could tell you the circumstances that caused the beautiful silver pendant to be haunted, but there is no point in guessing. What I can tell you for certain is that I bought it from a vintage shop in town and that it was the most dazzling bit of silver that I had ever seen.
You see, I never believed much in ghosts or anything supernatural before I owned the terrible bit of wrought metal. But when I started seeing the faces in the darkness behind me whenever I would look into mirrors at night, well that was enough for me. I knew that I had to get rid of the thing and just think of the money spent as a lesson learned.
How I got rid of it, well that is the story I’m going to tell you now.
I had come home from work that Tuesday night, like normal, to my little house on Voleur Street. It was a quiet night, and honestly, the last thing on my mind at the time was that damned necklace. After I turned the TV on for company and started cooking myself some dinner I heard the floor creak upstairs, and I knew that the necklace was at it again. Creaking floors were how things usually began, and I could feel my blood pressure start to rise. My day had been a stressful one and I was in no mood. The long, drawn-out creak of the floor was like thunder to my ears. I toyed with the idea of just turning up the TV and trying to ignore it, but I knew that I would never be able to relax. Despite how beautiful I thought it was, despite having thought that I would be able to cope with some creepy spectre, or maybe recoup some of the cost if I tried to resell it, I knew then that I had to get rid of it. Be it haunted by a demon, a malevolent leprechaun, or my own imagination, the necklace had to go.
I turned off the stove and marched upstairs to the hall closet, where I had stashed the necklace, and pulled it from the drawer. The light above me blinked when I held it up, and the silver glistened as it always did, with incredible luster.
“To hell with you, this is the last night you terrorize me. Because do you know what night this is?” I said gripping the piece tightly in my fist, “It’s goddamn garbage night.”
In a flash, I had wheeled my garbage bin to the front yard and hurled that spooky thing into its filthy depths with a victorious flourish. By eight a.m. the following morning I would be listening to the screeching brakes of the waste management truck, and I would be rid of the mysterious thumps in the night, the figures in the corners of my eyes, and half-dreamed whispers that would bring me out of a sound sleep. I wondered why I hadn’t done it long ago.
As I stood in my front yard with a look of wild relief on my face my neighbour caught my attention. Old Mrs. Galloway waved to me from her adjacent driveway.
“Would you mind helping me with this, Sweetie?” she said, gesturing with an arthritic hand to a cinder block that sat on the grass near the end of her driveway. “You always have to make sure you weigh down the lids or who knows what’ll get in there. I have some blocks in the backyard if you want to do that same to yours.”
I smiled at her and helped her with the heavy concrete, all the while assuring her that such things were unnecessary. It surprised me that she honestly thought that here, in the quiet suburbs, something was going to get at her trash. I wondered where she had lived in her life that she learned to be so paranoid.
“You have a good night, Mrs. Galloway,” I said to her, watching her bent form make its way slowly up her steps and into her house.
I looked at my own trash bin then, and could not wait for the following morning, and the knowledge that the necklace would be gone from my life.
Three hours later I was in my pyamas in front of the TV, winding down for the night when I heard the distinct sound of my trash bin falling over. I muted the TV and froze in place listening. I wondered if somehow the necklace was responsible, and was wishing my previous anger had driven me to more extreme methods of disposal.
I grabbed a flashlight, poked my head out of the side door, and looked down my driveway. A small, furry body rummaged through the contents of my overturned bin.
Well, holy shit, Mrs. Galloway had been right. A damned raccoon was going through the trash! I shuddered to think that I was going to have to touch the necklace again if it had been tipped out of the bin. I gritted my teeth and went out to scare off the critter and find something suitably heavy to make sure it stayed out.
It was only when I had gone halfway down the driveway that the animal realized I was there, and turned in my direction. The beam from my flashlight catching it square in the face. Glinting in the electric glow were three points of light – two reflective retinas, and the distinctive glint of silver that dangled haphazardly from around the raccoon’s head.
I shouted something incoherent and advanced on the animal. I hoped to scare it off and get it to drop the object that I had, just a few hours before, been so happy to get rid of. But the animal did not move. As I approached it crouched menacingly and an audible hiss escaped its tiny sharp-toothed mouth.
“Jesus, get out of here, you little shit!” I said batting the beam of light back and forth in front of myself and trying again to seem intimidating. But the creature did not run off, it hissed again in defiance and moved several paces toward me.
How was it that I had never realized how large raccoons were, or how menacing their little snarling mouths were, or how unsettlingly handlike their front paws seemed?
Fight or flight responses screamed in my head, and knowing that this animal probably had some sort of disease to act the way it did, I turned to run back into the safety of my house. Animal control could deal with this.
About when I had reached for the door handle is when I felt the sharp pain of razor-sharp little teeth dig into the back of my leg, and I screamed as I threw open the door. I whirled around, sending the flashlight smashing to the floor before I, with both hands, slammed the door shut so hard an explosion of glass rained down upon me as the upper window to the door burst apart. I could feel the little shards of glass sticking to my skin as I backed up, trying desperately – and far too late – to shield my eyes.
I cussed like a sailor, trying to get my mind around what had just happened, and glancing as well as I could through the broken aperture in the door at where the animal might have gone. I wished then I had just made a run for it because, shrieking like a banshee, the animal came hurtling through the broken window.
Agitated, hot panting breaths hit me. A flash of white teeth is all that I saw before I managed to get my arm up in time to stop it from clamping down on my throat. The weight of it sent me stumbling backward where I promptly tripped on the landing stairs and fell backward onto my ass in my kitchen.
Groping clawed hands tore at my arms as I heaved the thing from my body and scrambled to my feet. Sounds of hysteric rage and panic escaped my throat as I staggered to the countertop and pulled a knife from the block. I wheeled upon it just as it screamed again in its high pitched voice, and then everything went black.
The lights in my house had gone out, and my ears were filled with the rattling and tinkling of what sounded like everything in my cupboards vibrating. Before I could think of what to do I felt the pain of its bite sinking deep into my right arm, and the weight of its body pulling down.
The knife fell from my hand as I frantically tore at its fur with my other, desperate to get it loose from my body. I could feel the flesh deep in my arm tearing as I finally managed to wrench it free, and then I was off. I had lived in thiat house for five years and my feet knew where all of the turns and furniture lay. A desperate black dash sent me vaulting upstairs to my bedroom and I slammed the door, pressing all of my weight against it.
My eyes searched for where my mobile phone would have laid charging next to the bed when I remembered I had left it next to the couch downstairs. Then my eyes turned to the bed, beneath which I knew I had stashed my grandfather’s service revolver.
I hadn’t fired a gun since I was a teenager, and even then it was a rifle and not a handgun. But I didn’t care, I was going to go down swinging. Before I knew it, I had dumped a baggie of bullets onto the floor and loaded the gun, feeling its considerable weight in my hand. My right arm had been pretty badly hurt, but I felt like if I was going to shoot anything it was going to have to be using my right hand.
I listened at the door, half-expecting to hear manic snarling on the other side, but instead heard nothing. I knew it must be waiting for me somewhere down there in my darkened house.
Hefting the window open, I stepped outside, onto the steep, shingled roof. I didn’t have any idea exactly how I was going to climb down to the ground and resolved to jump if need be and nurse my broken ankles when the time came.
Heights had never been something I particularly liked, but at the moment, with the thought of escape and safety coursing through my brain, I can tell you that I never once even thought of the height. Gripping hold of the attic vents I climbed up to the peak of the roof, keeping my body fully pressed against the rough grit as I went along.
It was when I had reached the peak of the gable on the other side of the house that I realized jumping was not going to be an option. The concrete driveway below threatened to crush me if I were to drop even from the lowest point. I screamed out for help to the darkened street, looking desperately for anyone else who might be out, for any merciful lights to be on in the surrounding houses.
I looked back toward the way I had come, for any route of escape, when I caught sight of the animal again. Its baleful eyes glinting from that banded face in the darkness, its hunched frame stalking toward me along the apex of the roof.
Without warning it surged forward, its back undulating in great bounding movements straight toward me. I screamed again, nearly toppling backward off of the roof, but doing my damndest to not lose my grip on the gun.
Itsmuscular body leaped toward me as I let loose with every bullet that the old revolver had in it, firing half-blind and off-balance.
Not a single bullet hit the animal.
But a single bullet did strike the dangling bit of silver just below its chin. And in a sparkling, thunderstruck burst, a hot wad of lead was driven through it.
A wavering cry came from the raccoon as it landed upon the roof before me. There was an odd, deafened moment where we seemed to just look at each other before it scampered in fright away from me.
I watched it go and wanted to roar at its retreat, but my voice made no sound. I clutched the roof, desperate not to fall, and looked back over the street that was now filled with lights and people timidly peeping from their windows and doors.
What people have made of the events of that night I can only guess, but I came away with a lesson worth remembering. If you’re going to throw out haunted jewellery, always make sure your trash can has a secure lid.
Matthew Tansek is a Detroit-based writer and librarian who loves to bring the excitement of speculative fiction to new audiences. After a decade of working with books, Matt knows what makes a good story- and it’s not five-dollar words or trendy subject matter. It’s compelling characters in evocative situations. Information about Matthew and his works can be found here.
We Take Shelter from the Storm
by Aaron Miller
Bill Walker was alone in his room watching the hockey game. The recliner he sat on had seen better days and Bill had to put his feet on a box because the chair’s footrest had stopped working a long time ago. Bill didn’t like putting his feet up on the box because it had his late wife’s clothes packed in it but after his search for something better had failed, he settled on the box.
Sorry Honey. Don’t mean no disrespect.
His team was losing and Bill took a sip of the ice-cold bourbon that was sitting on the piano stool. The stool had given him a nasty splinter while moving it beside the chair, but it was the best table he had at the moment. The piano was long gone and he didn’t know why he still had the stool. He didn’t know a lot of things anymore. Not since the funeral. Bill pulled up the blanket that was covering him. Covering everything but his thermal-socked feet.
Come on, what are we payin’ ya for?
Wind rattled the old farmhouse and Bill turned to the window. He saw his reflection first and didn’t care for it, so he looked out, past the glass. The night’s darkness was interrupted by whirling snow. It looked violent. It was picking up just like the television weatherman had said it would. He sighed and put his focus back on the game. The screen was starting to flicker as if the snow was trying to come through the feed. Bill took another drink. Bourbon was supposed to make you feel warmer but Bill pulled the blanket tighter around himself.
I need a win tonight. Something to cheer about. Lots of time left. We got lots of time.
The flicker on the television stopped for a while and Bill got lost in the game. He didn’t notice the wind and the snow turning into a storm during those minutes of uninterrupted hockey. Just as the second period was ending the entire house shook as a gust of wind slammed into it. It was enough to make Bill sit up in his chair and look around. Creaks and croaks groaned from the old walls and floorboards. Bill had never liked the storms way out here in lonely farm country, even when he was with someone else, the house always seemed to be in pain as the winds abraded it.
Bill got up from his chair, keeping the blanket wrapped around him and made his way to the window on the other side of the nearly empty bedroom. He cupped his hands on the cold glass to block the glare from the television and peered out. The snow was obstructing most of the landscape. He could see the field in front of his house — a long blanket of white, and the start of the encroaching woods but after that everything blended into the alabaster storm.
Gonna have to shovel to get da car out. I should clear da door now. Got time before da third. Lots of time. Lots of time left.
Bill left the blanket and walked down the staircase to the first floor of the farmhouse. The kitchen was to the right of the front entry and there was a living area to the left. It was more unorganized down here. There were more boxes of items he didn’t want to look at anymore. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with them yet.
Maybe bury ‘em. Maybe sell ‘em. Dat feels wrong.
Bill walked into the kitchen and grabbed his coat, gloves, and boots. Dirty dishes lined the counter and filled the sink. The table was clean though. Bill mainly ate upstairs now, watching the television.
She’d be rolling over if she could see the state of da place. Wash ‘em tomorrow, Bill. For her.
It was colder on the first floor. Bill took a deep breath and with some effort, opened the front door. The snow was already starting to block it in. Cold bit him instantly. He could barely see the forest from down here. He grabbed the shovel that was leaning against the porch railing and started to clear the build-up. There was suddenly a flash high in the sky. It lit up the falling snow and the entire landscape for an entire three seconds. Bill walked to the front of the porch for a better view of the night.
Lightning? In a blizzard?
An immense ripping crash came next. As if the sky was a paper bag and someone had torn it open with their hands. The noise was immediately followed by a bright, streaking object far off in the sky. It looked like a meteor or what Bill had known meteors to look like from the movies. It was getting closer and closer, plummeting down towards Earth. Bill started to back up, fearing that the object would land near him. He lost sight of it then and there as the flame trailing the object had gone out. A loud impact came from far in the forest, across the field. The ground trembled making Bill almost slip on the snow, but he grabbed the doorknob for support. Then, only the sound of the violent wind followed. Bill took a minute to gather himself before letting go of the doorknob and making his way to the front of the porch. It seemed to be getting even colder now, as he looked out towards the forest which was starting to fade even more in the storm. An urge from deep down in Bill told him to go into the forest and see what had fallen from the sky but he figured he’d never make it there and back in the storm. He went inside the house and shut the door.
Do I call someone? The news? The sheriff? … anyone?
Bill made his way to the kitchen and took off his winter clothes. He sat at the table in the dark, wondering what to do. It was getting colder in here, too.
No way it was a plane. No way there’re people out there who need help. No way. But what else would it be? A rock from space. A satellite even. No way there’re people out there. Look in da morning, Bill, look in da morning.
Before long, Bill was back upstairs in his chair with his feet up and the blanket around him. The television was cutting out more than before. It would go minutes with buzzing grey and black patterns and then briefly return to the game to show a few plays. Bill had poured a fresh bourbon and was getting increasingly annoyed at the television.
Maybe next time it cuts in and out my team will score. That would be a good surprise for once. There’s not a lot of time left anymore.
The television suddenly cut back to the game and to Bill’s shock the game was tied.
No way in hell! Come on. Please. Let the signal—
Bill was met with a static feed again. He sipped his drink. His frustration had made him forget about the cold but the house shook furiously and reminded him of the relentless storm and the thing that had crashed into the woods. Bill looked towards the window but then quickly back as the sound from the game started to leak through the static. The picture quality wasn’t there yet but he could hear it. He could hear the commentator announcing a goal. His team was up. Bill leaped to his feet, practically spilling the bourbon and letting the blanket fall onto the dusty wood floor.
How much time was left? Didn’t catch it. Come on, come on, just hold on. Hold on for me, please.
The static became worse and the sound swirled away. Bill paced back and forth waiting for the game to come back on. After a few minutes with no luck, he stopped at the window and looked out into the storm that mimicked the pattern on his television set. There was something moving far off in the white, moving across the field. He couldn’t make out what it was. He put his hands to the window and peered out, squinting to see through the blusters of snow. Yes, something was moving through the storm, towards the farmhouse.
Oh no. It was a plane. You really messed up this one, Bill. People may be dead ’cause you’re afraid of a little storm. More people dead ‘causa you.
The person got closer and Bill’s brow furrowed. He thought the white might be playing tricks on his eyes. The thing in the blizzard seemed to be wearing a silver jumpsuit with bright chords hanging from it that looked like wires. The snow was heavy. He couldn’t make out much but he could see that something wasn’t right. The thing fell to its knees and crawled toward the house. As it was getting closer it looked up at the light radiating from Bill’s window. Bill stepped back and ducked away after catching a glimpse of the thing’s face. Its eyes were like animal eyes – glowing. Glowing in the night. Other than that, there were no features Bill could relate to any face he knew. He remembered seeing pictures of the fish that lived deep in the abyss of the ocean. It was the closest comparison he could make. The house shook from the wind and the television shut off. Bill sat crouched on the floor. The wind and creaking wood were the only noises. It seemed colder than ever.
Maybe it ain’t what it seems. Maybe shadows and snow made me see somethin’….somethin’ horrible. What if it needs your help? What if it doesn’t? Shoulda got dat hunting licence like she told ya. For protection. You old fool, Bill Walker. Didn’t even remember to lock da door.
The front door opened. Bill knew the click and the creak from hearing it a thousand times. It had never made him feel more fear than he felt at that moment. The door promptly shut and then there was silence.
Maybe it didn’t see me in the window. Maybe it just saw the light.
Bill stood up as the house was hit by another gust of wind. He quietly moved his chair in front of the door. There didn’t seem to be movement from downstairs. He put his ear to the cold wood of the door and listened. A creak from the stairs. Bill moved away and put his hand over his mouth.
It’s coming up da stairs. Oh, lord. It’s coming up.
A pungent smell started to leak through the doorway and Bill put the blanket over his nose and mouth. As the thing crawled up the stairs the smell got worse and worse. It reminded Bill of old library books and a mixture of chemicals with a hint of the inside of a meat rendering factory. Bill tried not to make noise. He was as far away from the door as he could be. He could see a shadow from under the lip of the doorway as the thing had made it to the upstairs hallway. Bill couldn’t hold it in any longer and started to cough from the smell. He expected to hear banging on the door but it never came. Hours passed and Bill sat in the corner with the blanket over him. There was no sound or movement in the hallway and in the wee hours of the morning, the storm finally stopped.
Can’t sleep, Bill. Not until dat thing leaves. Not until…maybe you really have gone crazy without her.
When Bill woke up the smell still permeated the chill air. He sat up as sun rays entered through the window. The chair was still propped up against the door and the television had come back on. It was playing some old movie and Bill turned it off. After some hesitation, Bill took the chair away from the door and gripped the doorknob. He had the blanket wrapped around him still.
Okay, Bill. Take a quick look. Maybe it left. Maybe there was nothin’ to begin with. Cabin fever. Too much bourbon and bein’ alone.
Bill took one last deep breath and pulled the door open, sticking his head out into the hallway. He looked right first and nothing was there. It smelt worse out here. Before turning left he knew he hadn’t imagined it, he knew what he’d seen, and when he looked toward the stairs the thing that fell from the sky was lying in the hallway on its side. Bill wanted to go back to the bedroom and barricade the door but he stopped and stared. The thing was just as he saw last night except it wasn’t moving, it didn’t look like it was breathing, and a grey liquid was pooled around it on the floor. Bill didn’t need to examine it closely to know the horrid thing was dead. He sat down on the other side of the doorway and stared at it.
I don’t think it was comin’ to hurt me. Maybe it needed help. It was hurt and cold. First person to see a space creature and you let it bleed to death in da hallway. Good on ya, Bill. It was probably smarter than you are. Lord. Good on ya, Bill.
Bill tossed the blanket on the body and stood over it. He thought about burying it to stop the smell but figured people were going to want to see this thing.
Maybe it’s best not to tell anybody quite yet.. poor thing just wanted to be warm.
Bill packed the body in the blanket and picked it up finding it surprisingly light. He took it downstairs and rested it on the living room floor, surrounded by the boxes. Bill laughed.
More things I don’t know what to do with. Bury ’em, sell ’em…feels wrong.
Bill looked down at his hands. They were covered with the grey liquid. He dashed to the kitchen and washed it off, watching it slide down the drain. He noticed his splinter was lined with the grey and he looked around nervously and then back down at the drain.
Bill. You moron. Who knows what you just put in you and in da pipes.
Bill started to walk back toward the body but his knees felt weak and when he turned, his vision followed two steps behind. He tried to make it to a chair in the living room, knocking over boxes on the way, but fell short and landed beside the thing wrapped in the blanket.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
I’m here, Sweetheart. I’m right here.
She was hooked up to all sorts of equipment. The chemo had made her a shell of who she once was. The sterile room, the sounds, the suffering. Bill couldn’t fight the tears.
I’m right here. There’s lots of time. Lots of time left.
Take care of yourself Bill Walker.
No, no, there’s lots of time. Sweetheart. Hold on for me, hold on, please.
There’s not lot’s of…time my…
Bill woke up and the room was slowly spinning. He vomited out clear liquid with moving, swirling greys in it. He tried to get to his feet and when he fell he was outside. His house a speck in the distance. A single gravestone near him. He used to come here every day. Bill pulled himself up on the stone but fell right back down into the deep snow. He couldn’t feel the cold even though his hands were purple.
How did I? How long?
Everything still moved slowly and Bill noticed hair in the snow, his hair, and he started to cry as he saw smoke billowing from far away in the forest. The thing wrapped in the blanket was suddenly next to him moving in distorted ways. Everything was moving as the skin on Bill’s hands started to flake and turn grey. He propped himself up into a sitting position, leaning on the gravestone. He didn’t feel any pain but his mind felt as if it were leaving his skull and going to a different plane.
Lots of time left. My…
Aaron Miller is a writer and filmmaker from Ontario, Canada who enjoys horror and the macabre. He lives with his cat, Guppy, in a small home in a large forest.
by Michael W. Clark
From where he stood he couldn’t see her. It wasn’t the distance or his eyes, but the mist. It was too hot for fog. It wasn’t spray. The ocean was calm. At least, it sounded so. He couldn’t see it either. It wasn’t even like a mist but a distortion, as if his head were in a jar. But if that were true he wouldn’t be able to breathe. He wasn’t breathing well, though. It was the mist, the distortion. He could hear her singing so she was there. She was always there singing and washing. What she was washing, he didn’t know.
His father told him not to notice her.
“How do you do that?” was a reasonable question.
His father gave an unreasonable answer. “Just don’t.”
His father said that about hunger and thirst, too. “Just don’t feel it.” If it wasn’t an unreasonable answer, it was an undoable one, for him at least. The island had little food and water. Everything came from the mainland. Even the wind seemed to come from there. Maybe the mist did, too.
“Why shouldn’t I notice her?” was another reasonable question.
“It is dangerous.” His father only said that about one other thing, swimming in the ocean alone.
He did do it, but only when the ocean was very calm. The ocean was unforgiving of mistakes. Maybe it was the mistakes that were dangerous. The ocean was just the ocean.
Whatever she was, it couldn’t be clarified if he wasn’t supposed to notice her, as if she wasn’t there. She was there. He heard her singing. It was muffled as if she were in the distances, singing. Maybe on the mainland, but no. If she were, he wouldn’t have to not notice. The cliff was dangerous because it was here. It had to be noticed. He was young but understood what to do with present danger. Danger had to be noticed.
She seemed closer now. Closer than usual. Less distance, maybe no distance. If it weren’t for the mist, the distortion, he would notice, clearly. He would disobey his father and notice her. He had gone to swim in the ocean, disobeying yet again. He was in the water. The water was calm, mirror-like. He swam easily. He had been swimming before the mist came. With the mist came the cold. He was very cold but something held him. Held him tightly. He wasn’t sinking but he wasn’t swimming. How could that be?
He had to notice her. Disobey and notice. He was pulled upward into the song. It was a beautiful song. He wanted to sleep but he had to notice her. She was suddenly clearly there. The mist was gone. He coughed water out of his mouth and nose. There was no distortion now. Her face was right above him. Her smile was sharp. Her hair was, too. It looked of eels, toothed eels. He wanted to cry out to his father. To apologize for disobeying, but he couldn’t. Her long, pale fingers were around his throat. The cold came from those fingers and so did his silence. The distortion came back as she pushed him downward. The ocean remained itself but he had made too many mistakes. “Sorry, Father.” He whispered into the growing dark. The cold overwhelmed the distant song. There was no distortion in the black. The dark cold was solid and final.
Michael W. Clark is a former research biologist, a college professor turned writer. He has thirty-nine short stories published. January through March of 2019, his sci-fi adventure Novella, The Last Dung Beetle appeared in Serial Magazine.
by Brandon Applegate
There is a man on the elevator when we get on. Mickey recoils immediately, but this is not a surprise. He is seven and very shy. He scrambles behind my leg. I place the palm of my hand on the top of his head and tousle his hair, then slide my palm down to the back of his neck as both a comforting gesture and as a means of guiding him as I step back so the man can get off.
The man doesn’t move. He is middle-aged. His face is craggy like a split rock and stubble grows on it unevenly like moss. His eyes are grey. He is wearing too many clothes and he looks too big because of it. The smell of dirt and motor oil bubbles out of the elevator. The man looks at my face, then at Mickey’s. He gives my son a small smile like he doesn’t do it often and has nearly forgotten how. I gesture as politely as I can for him to come out. He looks at my face again and still does not move, just stands.
I try not to let my face betray my nerves. I put pressure with my hand on the back of Mickey’s neck, guiding him forward with me. We step onto the elevator. I place both hands on Mickey’s shoulders and turn him, facing us both toward the doors and placing my own body between my son and the man.
I look at the button panel. No floor is selected. “What floor?” I ask, packing my tone with as much goodwill as I can muster. The man does not speak, but I can hear him breathing. I look back at him over my shoulder. “What floor?” I repeat. He says nothing, only stares at me with those storm-cloud-grey eyes. The elevator doors slide closed. I pick twelve, my floor. I grip Mickey’s shoulders tighter. I feel him tense under my palms and I wonder if I am squeezing too hard or if he is nervous. Maybe it is both.
The man never moves. He does nothing but stare. The red numbers above the button panel count up so slowly. It feels like the elevator is deliberately taking longer than normal, but I know it is because of nerves. I look back over my shoulder and the man is smiling at Mickey again. It is a sad smile like he knows something we don’t. The man takes no notice of me. Floor seven. I stare stubbornly at the doors. I don’t want to look back anymore. Floor nine. My knuckles are turning white as I grip Mickey’s shoulders. If it hurts him, he doesn’t say anything. Floor eleven. The man’s breathing has gone quiet like he is holding it.
The elevator’s digital ding rings out in the air like the pealing of a gigantic bell and I nearly scream. I feel cold tingles all over my body as the panic dissipates like heat. When the doors slide open I shove Mickey through them and he stumbles out onto the elaborate hallway carpet. I step off quickly, not running, but only because I have made a point not to. I turn around to look at the man, suddenly terrified beyond measure that he will step off with us. Now I do scream, and I stumble backward a few steps. There is nobody in the elevator. There is nobody in the hall. The doors begin to slide closed and I dart forward, stopping them with my hand and they retreat back into their pockets. I look up. The roof panels of the elevator do not appear to be disturbed. Can people even get on top of elevators that way? I’ve only seen it in movies. I step back away from the elevator and this time when the doors begin to close they do so more slowly and with a long, loud, annoyed buzz. This time I let them shut all the way. I look left and right. The hallway is deserted, quiet, except for Mickey and me.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Mickey asks.
“Sure, Honey,” I say. I am breathing hard as though I’ve just been running. I try to slow down, take deep breaths, slow my heart. When I feel more under control, more myself, I place a hand on Mickey’s back in between his shoulder blades and turn him in the direction of our apartment. “Mickey,” I say, then hesitate. He doesn’t look up at me. I am deciding whether I should ask. I do. “Mickey, did you see that man in the elevator?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Mickey says like it’s no big deal.
Our footsteps are muffled by the thick pile carpet. We walk the rest of the way to our apartment door in silence. While I dig in my purse for my keyring, a question occurs to me. I think about the way the man smiled at Mickey. I stop digging in my purse and pause, looking at my son. He is staring forward at the door. “Mickey,” I say, “have you ever seen that man before?”
“Yeah,” he says, not looking up.
I feel cold. “Where, Baby?” I ask.
“In my room,” Mickey says. “He likes to watch me sleep.”
Brandon Applegate lives outside of Austin, Texas with his wife and two girls. He works at a technology company by day, and by night (and by weekend) he writes about what scares him.
by Stephen McQuiggan
Blake felt the contents of his stomach surge up his gullet in an elevator rush. He covered his mouth with a napkin as he swallowed them back down, wincing at the brackish aftermath. He looked around the table with a furtive, guilty glance but no one seemed to notice.
Sebastian was intent on his plate; his wife Magenta chopping her food into tiny little slivers (her knife clicking against the china like a death clock); their daughter, Cressida, delicately chewing, her eyes closed and her hands clasped as if what she had in her mouth was a divine delicacy and not an abomination.
Blake swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and then forced another forkful into his mouth. His eyes never left Cressida; her red hair and green eyes, her alabaster skin; a Basque flag made flesh. She was the reminder of the prize awaiting him if he could survive this ordeal. He had been pursuing her for months, attending every function and every ball where she could be expected to be found, and his dedication had paid off. He had already a few dates with her under his belt and now, the culmination of his perseverance, an invite to her parents’ house for one of their gourmet nights.
Cressida had banged on about how much of a “foodie” she was from the first time he’d plucked up the courage to speak to her, how her parents were adventurers on a par with Shackleton, and Columbus in the gastro world. So, she liked to eat weird things, Blake had thought, no big deal – one girl’s lunch was another girl’s face pack.”Daddy is something of a wine connoisseur, too,” she boasted. He took that as posh shorthand for boozehound.
Blake, whose palette could barely distinguish the difference between sweet and sour, naturally played himself up as a bon viveur. Now he was regretting his charade and he’d only had the starter. And what a starter it was – his stomach roiled at the thought of what this culinary atrocity might precede.
The evening had started so well; Cressida was wearing the red dress he had told her was his favourite, and the introduction to her parents had been easy and informal. Blake had anticipated the menu might be a test of sorts, but he hadn’t envisioned it as being one for his gag reflex. He had expected caviar, foie gras, some veal perhaps or the shelled ejaculate of oysters, but the opening salvo of the repast had been eggs.
Yet when the servant put the plate down before him the foul-smelling black sewage heaped in its centre bore no resemblance to any egg he had ever encountered before. Whatever laid that, Blake thought, must have curled up and died in a latrine.
“These are Century Eggs,” Sebastian informed him, in the manner of a doctor discussing a procedure he was about to perform, “buried for a hundred days in maggot-infested loam before being dug up and boiled in a virgin’s urine.”
Blake looked to Cressida to verify that her father was joking but she was already tucking in, an altogether more orgasmic expression on her face than he had witnessed on any of the three occasions he had gotten her into bed.
“You’ll find it the perfect precursor to the next entrée,” Magenta cooed, her skeletal neck vibrating with each syllable; for a woman so fond of pontificating on food, she looked as if she dined solely on air. “It has that unique rasp that brings your taste buds up to their optimal level.”
They certainly brought Blake’s gorge up to its optimal level. He swallowed the eggs as quickly as he could and with the minimum of chewing, knowing that to vomit would lose him any chance he had of snaring Cressida for good. As the vile eggs bubbled in his gut he wondered how many other suitors had met their Waterloo at this very table. He took another gulp of water, determined to stay the course.
“A very interesting texture,” he said, rubbing the perspiration from his upper lip, “but utterly delicious nonetheless.”
He was met by a phalanx of patronizing smiles. Cressida, her eyes sparkling like the Moet she sipped, rubbed her bare foot against his ankle underneath the table. Normally Blake would have found this unbearably erotic, but the smear of black yolk on her teeth and the stench of piss on her breath proved to be something of a passion killer.
“I knew you were a force to be reckoned with the moment I saw you,” Sebastian grinned. “I said to Magenta, ‘He’s not one of these lily-livered dilettantes, he’s a man’s man’.” He clapped his hands and the servants appeared to set the table for the next course.
Blake’s fears were in no way eased by the replacing of the cutlery with a wooden mallet, a small silver trident, and a particularly wicked-looking scalpel. Lobster, he reasoned, or crabs; something he could deal with at any rate. His relief was quickly shattered as soon as the dish was laid out before him.
Curled up on a bed of green leaves was what appeared to be, at first glance, some kind of alien phallus. Only on closer inspection could Blake begin to discern facial features.”What … What is this?” he managed to ask, his voice dissolving as rapidly as his backbone.
“A newborn piglet,” Magenta smiled. “Shaved and drugged and served in my own special sauce, the recipe of which I shall take to my grave.”
And mine too, Blake thought. “Drugged?”
“Yes,” Sebastian said, pressing the trident down lightly into the skin of the creature before him. “It’s merely sedated. You’re about to eat the freshest meat you’ve ever tasted – straight from the womb to the plate. The trick is to try and get to the heart before it stops beating. We call this heavenly repast L’Oink – it’s what Cressida named it as a child when what she meant to say was Little Oink.”
“Daddy!” Cressida pouted in mock anger.
“I’m not trying to embarrass you, my dear. Besides, it’s so cute.” In Sebastian’s voice, Blake heard the baying of hounds that perfectly complimented the tercelet tones of his wife.
“You mean it’s … still alive?” Blake didn’t really need confirmation; the piglet’s shallow breath was rippling the surface of the special sauce pooling around its wrinkled snout.”You eat it whilst it’s still alive?”
“Of course,” Sebastian said. “Everything mortal is edible, my boy. Hold back until the wine is poured – a Chateau ’56 is the perfect accompaniment, as I’m sure you’ll find.”
A syringe full of morphine would work just as well, Blake thought, wondering how the hell he was going to get through the next five minutes. Could he secrete the majority of it in his napkin and dispose of it later?
He regarded Cressida, glowing in her home surroundings, so beautiful, the very epitome of desire. Men had done far braver things than this to win a lover’s hand. He would wolf it down, excuse himself after a tolerable interlude, and then vomit the entire atrocity down their gold-handled toilet. Tomorrow he would laugh about the whole affair. The wine was poured and Blake took a swig to steady himself as the servants departed.
“Well, don’t stand on ceremony, people,” Sebastian crowed, proud as Lucifer, “dig in.”
Blake averted his eyes as his prospective father-in-law sliced into the piglet and a gush of blood seeped out over the greens.
“Careful of the spurt,” Magenta chided her husband.
Blake sampled the sauce first – an acrid puddle of harsh-smelling gloop that tasted like vinegary bird shit and brought tears to his eyes. He surreptitiously rubbed some under his nose, hoping to mask the flavour, as he sank his scalpel into the little pig and cut off a large chunk. He thought he heard a faint cry, but he couldn’t be sure if it emanated from his plate or from himself.
As he chewed he watched Cressida, never taking his eyes from her. The fouler the medicine, his mum used to say, the better it is for you. What are a few mouthfuls of offal, he reminded himself, compared to a lifetime with her? Blake was sure his future with her would be rosy. He was equally sure it would also be vegan.
Yet as he stared at Cressida her beauty faded. Perhaps it was how the veiny meat in his mouth seemed to complement her allure, or perhaps it was just the way she sucked up an errant intestine like it was wayward spaghetti, but her mien took on a sinister aspect. How could anyone revel in such cruelty, Blake wondered as he kept on mechanically moving his jaws, and not be tainted by it?
And if her tastes stretched to such wanton wickedness in dining, what depths would they descend to in other matters? He suddenly realized he had no idea of her politics, her ethics, her worldview – his entire concept of her was formulated around the swell of her breasts and the flow of her hair.
He watched as she lifted the mallet and cracked open the piglet’s skull, diving in for its brain like a magpie after a nut. Blake pushed his dish aside, pleased to see that the blood hid whatever remained – was he supposed to drink that, too? Nothing was beyond these people. He gave a sigh of relief when a servant swooped in and removed it, leaving some wet wipes and a warm towel in its place.
“So, my boy,” Sebastian said, as if in the throes of a post-coital stupor, “what did you make of L’Oink, eh?”
“Capital, Sir, just capital.”
Blake wiped the blood from his mouth and stifled a foul burp that threatened to turn him inside out. The worst was over and he had survived. Only dessert remained, and no matter what that turned out to be – vomit fruit or rancid milk pudding – it was still only fruit and dairy. He would eat whatever concoction they threw at him with a smile on his face.
Magenta let out a nervous little laugh and gave a girlish shiver of the shoulders as the table was cleared once more. “I’m sorry, Dear,” she said, as her husband patted her hand, “it’s just that I’m so excited.”
“Mummy has been looking forward to this for so long,” Cressida beamed at Blake, as the servants laid out fresh mallets and saws. Please tell me they’re for coconuts, Blake wanted to protest, but the words were trampled down by his triphammer heart.
“Aren’t we having pudding?” he managed.
“Cressida warned us you had a sweet tooth,” Sebastian said, “but we have one more course before we wheel out the caramelized testicles. A very special course indeed.”
Magenta let out that shrill little laugh once more, and the lights began to dim. In a few seconds, all Blake could discern were vague shadows seated around him, illuminated slightly by a candelabra burning on the great marble fireplace at the far side of the room.
“Forgive us our silly rituals,” Sebastian explained, his voice seeming to hover disembodied in the murk over the table. Blake suddenly felt he was at a séance rather than a dinner party. “We find that tradition adds to the flavour.”
“And there’s no harm in being superstitious,” Cressida added, “just in case.”
Laughter broke out around him, fading in and out like someone testing the stereo levels on their speakers.
“What we are about to partake of is one of the great delicacies of the world,” Sebastian began. “A meal so rich, so hedonistic and decadent that the puritans of our species deemed it taboo; a veritable sin no less. So we are compelled to consume it in darkness so that God may not see our transgression and be filled with wrath.”
He clapped his hands and the servants entered, bearing a large silver salver that caught the candlelight and winked knowingly.
“Though if you ask me,” Sebastian smiled, “I truly believe we eat it in the dark so that the good Lord will not be envious. It’s such a rare delight it would be a shame to share it with any mere deity, no matter how all-powerful He claims to be.”
“You are incorrigible, Daddy,” Cressida exclaimed, as the salver took pride of place in the centre of the table. To Blake’s ears, she sounded like a six-year-old.
“Technically, what you are about to eat is illegal,” Magenta confided. “We had to go through a lot of channels to have this brought here tonight … We can trust in your silence, can’t we, Blake?” She regarded him with a clinical eye, filing his reaction; to her people came in types, just like diabetes.
Blake nodded unseen in the gloom. He squinted at the hooded salver, hypnotized by its intricate gleam, transfixed by the thought of what horror it might contain. Around him, the shadows, gargoyle silhouettes on the edge of his vision, lifted their mallets in anticipation. A servant removed the sparkling lid with a flourish that sent a soft breeze of wax-scented air to ruffle his napkin.
Blake leaned forward, his fingers digging into the polished wood. He could make out a small figure on a bed of garnish – a small round head, two thin arms with delicate hands and fingers, two bowed legs.
It couldn’t be, they wouldn’t dare…
His mind sped down a luge of denials but could find no purchase. As his vision grew accustomed to the murk he could discern two eyes, the imperceptible rise and fall of the chest, and a tiny mouth frozen in a rictus grin. No one would be that wicked, he thought, but then snippets of the evening’s small talk, replayed with mocking clarity, came back to him.
All things mortal are edible, he heard Sebastian smugly state; from the womb to the plate. And Magenta’s wheedling, What you are about to eat is illegal…we can trust in your silence, can’t we Blake?
No wonder the lights were dimmed – the lights in their very souls (if they possessed any) must be fused beyond the fixing. They were about to culminate their Satanic supper with the greatest abomination of all. They were preparing to feast on a child, on a live baby.
The disgust that ran through him manifested itself as a sudden desire to puke. He threw back his chair loud enough to wake the small, drugged figure from its stupor. His dinner companions still had their hammers raised; the candlelight flickering across expensive bridgework gave them the appearance of slavering wolves.
Fear flooded Blake – if they were capable of this there was no telling what those gourmet ghouls might stoop to. He fled, the last remnants of his bravery urging him to fire a parting shot, “You’re sick, you’re fucking sick the lot of you,” but it bottlenecked in his pinhole throat with only the words “Sick, sick’”escaping.
“Hurry man, hurry,” Sebastian said, his voice full of concern, “the bathroom is three doors on the left.”
Blake shot out of the dining room, barrelling past the servant who guarded the hallway and knocking him to the parquet floor, and out into the looping gravel drive and the cleansing chill night air. He ran so fast he thought he might never be able to stop.
The servant entered the dining room after dusting himself down and straightening his uniform. “I regret to inform you, Lord Cranshaw, that your guest has left in something of a hurry. He ran down the avenue in some distress, not even waiting for Simpson to bring his car around.”
Sebastian nodded gravely and dismissed the lackey with a flick of his fingers. “Another delicate flower, Cressida,” he said. “I’m sorry, my dear, I know you harboured such high hopes for him.”
Cressida gave her father a brave little smile as her mother reached out to massage her shoulder.
“Chin up, my girl,” Sebastian said, hefting his mallet once more.”There’ll always be suitors for one as pretty as you.”
“You’re forgetting something else,” Magenta piped in, licking her lips as her husband brought the mallet down hard to crack the monkey’s skull in two and let its brains seep out onto a bed of rocket. “It leaves all the more for us.”
Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser-known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven and Trip A Dwarf.