The Vessel

By Chrissie Rohrman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sit still, Bethany.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come forth.

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

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

It smiles.

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

Poetry by John Grey

RICHARD, ONCE THE BACKSTREET DEVIL

So Richard it is.
Not the King. Not the Lionheart.
No longer the devil.

Just plain Richard,
an old head given to reminiscence,
of bloodlust, of black masses,
body parts in basement and the freezer.
More memory than I replicate
with these withered hands, bent bones.

Now moonlight scavenges my eyes at night
like crows at squirrel roadkill.
I rock in this yawn of a chair,
whittling long ago human sacrifices
into infrequent sighs.

What year is it? What century?
I abandoned the calendar long ago.
I’m nothing more than
a solitary inspector of spiderwebs,
of scars down my arms and cockroach droppings.

I’ve surrendered my claim
of being what men fear.
I can’t even threaten myself in the mirror.
I’m nothing more than this address,
on a dead-end street
by a stream of slow-rolling sludge.
I no longer roam the neighborhood.

This is the anteroom to my tomb.
Any day now, the clothes I struggle
to put on in the morning
will be my moth-eaten shroud.

When my body is finally discovered,
no one will know the difference
between my rotting putrid flesh
and the cadavers in the closet and the cellar.

The law will look elsewhere for the perpetrator.
I’ll die the death of hardly being mentioned.

THE COMPANY I’M FORCED TO KEEP

She is an echo made visible.
Not corporeal, she’s too wispy for that,
but a happening long ago
that still resonates in shape, in shadow,
sometimes in fluttering images,
or blood-curdling shrieks and howls,
throughout the many rooms of this house.

And a violent occurrence no doubt,
for her mouth is always this half-formed scream,
while her throat is red
and her eyes spin like coins in their sockets.

There’s nothing I can do for an echo.
Its source is over with
but repercussions, like the ripple
from a stone dropped in the water,
can go on interminably.

Go get a priest, someone suggests.
Or find that hidden alcove behind the fireplace
where her bones collect dust.
Or sell up and leave.
Just don’t tell the buyer about the place’s permanent resident.

But, by this, I am used to the echo’s company.
She’s a reassurance that, no matter how bad I have it,
someone or something has it so much worse,
that the pain doesn’t even call a halt on itself at death.
So when I come down with something,
or I go through a breakup, or I hate my job,
I have the guy that slit her pretty neck to thank.
Sure, I moan. I complain.
But my whining has an expiration date.

Check back in a hundred years or so.
There’ll still be ghostly visitations.
But none will be my doing.
The house will resound with cries of endless pain.
But you will not hear it from me.

John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident, recently published in Soundings East, Dalhousie Review, and Connecticut River Review. His latest book, Leaves On Pages, is available through Amazon.

The Charming of the Worm

by Patrick Moody

“It’s time, boy.”
I watched as Grandpa hitched his waders over his patched overalls. I did the same, slipping on my wellies and fitting my checkered hunting cap snugly over my ears. It was long past suppertime and we’d been sitting out on the porch, watching the moon rise pale and listening to frog and cricket song.

“Grab me that there stob. You carry the rooping iron.”

 I snapped to attention, excited to be out on my first charming. Grandpa called it ‘grunting’, as most older folks did. He’d been a worm grunter for the past fifty years, even into his retirement, hiking out into the woods with his wooden stake and funny looking rooper, calling up worms from the earth like, to me, some kind of druid or sorcerer. On a good day he could get four or five hundred of the little suckers to come up out of the ground, the grunting sound of his stob and rooper imitating the vibration of preying moles. After a few charmings, he’d come home with bucket after bucket filled for the bait shops.

I handed him the stob and rooper, hefting the large kerosene lantern with both hands.

“Why did we have to wait until nighttime?”

Grandpa let out a gentle chuckle. “Well, most grunters won’t tell you this, but the best time to charm is just after sunset. Something about the temperature. Soil cools down. They like the cool, same as they don’t much like the rain.”

I followed Grandpa through the backyard and into the woods, our shadows long and leering in the lantern light.

Grandpa talked as we walked. Talked about his father, and his father’s father, and even their fathers, and how each of them had taken to grunting.

“Mind you,” he said, “Your great-great Grandpa Obie didn’t take to grunting. No, Sir. Old coot was a water dowser. I heard plenty of stories about him, wandering down the main road in town, waving that rod of his with his eyes closed like a blind man with a cane.”

“Did it work?” I asked, trying to picture it. “Did he really lead himself to water?”

“Jenkin’s Lake,” Grandpa said. “Our namesake. Yes, boy, he did indeed. You’ve swum in it plenty enough.”

“Can you make me a dowsing rod?”

Grandpa shot me a strange, almost conspiratorial glance. “I’m sure we can figure it out. Can make you a wizard’s staff, too, if that’s more to your liking. Know you love them books about the magic school.”

I did, and the thought of my great-great-grandpa finding water through, what…magic? It all seemed so mysterious. Like a family secret, but the good kind, ’cause I knew most family secrets were usually bad.

 A half-hour of hiking led us to the clearing. Grandpa stood for a moment, taking in that serene oasis in the dark New England forest. The grass seemed to shimmer light blue in the moonlight, and the stones shone black, almost obsidian, their surfaces slick and reflective. The frogs’ and crickets’ joyful singing hushed to whispers.

“Alright,” Grandpa said. “Come take a knee, boy.”

I set down the lantern as he handed me the stob and rooper.

“Like I showed you at the house, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I answered, suddenly nervous, like I was about to try a free throw in a stadium full of onlookers. But it was just Grandpa. Him and the stones and night soil, and everything that lived beneath. I plunged the stob into the ground, using the rooper as a hammer to set it firm.

“Excellent,” Grandpa said from behind me. “Nice form, boy. I can already hear them.”

 Once the stob was set, I took the iron rooper, set it on the top of the stob, and with both hands began to move it back and forth in a sawing motion. The noise of the iron rubbing against the wood was like the croaking of a massive toad, and before long, that strange song lifted something from the dirt.

It came up slowly, pushing its way through, set off by the vibrations, which must have been very distressing to the poor things. It started to feel less like magic and more of a cruel prank. Yet, it worked. The soil heaved, and the first of them broke through into the night air.

“Told you we’d get ‘em,” Grandpa said, sitting down on one of the stones. “Good night for it.”

I focused, running the rooper over the stob until my shoulders ached. Sweat ran down my forehead and into my eyes, but still, I played the song. I was a charmer!

“My father made me that stob, you know.” Grandpa’s voice was low. Serious. “Very special, that one. Has a particularly strong charm.”

I grunted on, thinking of all of them lying just under the surface.

“Good, boy,” I heard Grandpa say. “They’re up.”

 I stopped. The sounds of the forest came back, and when I opened my eyes, the clearing was full.

“Yes,” Grandpa said. “Good night for it. A regular family reunion!”

 A hand fell on my shoulder. The skin was fish-belly white and ice-cold.

It smiled.

Its breath smelled of earth. Of worms and coffin dirt, and sweet things rotted in root cellars.

“Well,” Grandpa said, throwing an arm around old Grandpa Obie, “Isn’t this just fine.”

Patrick Moody is the author of The Gravedigger’s Son (Sky Pony Press, 2017). His short fiction has appeared in Kentucky Fried Horror, Halloween Horrors 2, A Monster Told Me Bedtime Stories, Lovecraft in a Time of Madness, Dark Moon Digest, and America’s Emerging Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. His work has also been adapted into audio dramas on The Wicked Library and Campfire Radio. He and his wife live outside New Haven, Connecticut.

White Hares and Fairy Funerals

by Lucy Stone

I’m not afraid of the dead, because we do things properly in our parish. Dr. Bixby does his checks, Parson says the last rites over the body, and I ring the passing bell.

The others have had more education, but I think it’s the passing bell that really makes the difference. It bespeaks the prayers of all good folk for the soul just departing, and scares away any spirits or goblins waiting at the foot of the bed to take up residence in the newly vacated body. Demons of all kinds hate the sound of church bells — or so I’d always been led to believe.

The passing bell is a special rhythm. I’m the only one who knows all its twists and turns. But it ends with a sort of code — a number of distinct knells to tell the age and sex of the deceased. With newborn babes, I pull the cord lightly, enough to tilt the bell but not to strike it, and let it fall back with a rush of air almost like a sigh, to signify that they had life but not quite enough of it for one strike of the bell. I doubt any of the parishioners appreciate my subtlety. But then, it’s not something I’m known for, in other walks of life. 
 
We do have ghosts, of course, but they’re sort of teaching ghosts — death omens, like the banshee in Ireland., the Gabriel Hounds (though Parson says they’re just migrating geese), the Skriker, the Padfoot, and the headless boggart — they’re all walkers, but they don’t walk on their own account, just to warn us of impending disasters. 

There’s only one exception – the pilgrim. Nobody knows why he walks, only that he does it very fast and purposefully.
 
He’s not at all spectral. He walks through the cliff paths and the fishing hamlets that border our town, his jaw set, and his straggly black hair clinging to his forehead as if he’s interminably late. And just ahead of him, sometimes scampering back and jumping into his pocket if it’s startled, is a bright white hare. 

I was terrified when he came to me first; when I felt a hot, prickly presence at my back, as though the wall of the bell tower had caught fire. I didn’t turn round because I was facing the only door; I knew nobody could have got in unless they could walk through walls. And then I saw the little white creature skitter across the floor, like a dead leaf. I could hear its claws clicking on the tiles. And I didn’t know which to be more afraid of, the white dobbie or the man who was always with him, who must have been standing right behind my back.

He spoke in my ear, but it was a while before I could decode the words, not just because I was idiotic with terror, but because he slurred them into a kind of impatient hiss, as if his speech had to be as hurried as his walking. 
“Who isss it tonight?” 

Suddenly, the hare scampered around behind me, and I couldn’t help following its motion with my eyes. I turned helplessly, like a door creaking open, and saw him standing there. He was even smiling a bit as if all the round eyes and petrified expressions amused him. I suppose he had seen thousands of them. 

“Who isss it tonight?” he repeated, slower but just as sibilant. 

I didn’t know how to tell him. I didn’t know how to force sound through my constricted windpipe. Eventually, I think he stepped back, tutting but pleased to have startled me. The motion coincided with a bolt-rattling bang on the tower door. 

“I counted only twelve bells, Mistress Alice,” called the parson. “The dear departed was forty-two.” 

When I looked back to the pilgrim, he was gone. The parson rattled the hinges again, meaningfully, and I took a deep breath and got back to my bell ringing. 
I didn’t tell anyone. That’s the good thing about working nights — no one thinks anything of it if you’re pale, if your face gets haggard and wan. Night-faces are haggard. It’s something to do with the way shadows collect in them. 

He accosted me again, the next time I was ringing the passing bell in the middle of the night, and that time I was able to give him an answer, though it was delivered in a strangled squeak.  “Jenny Hackett. Seamstress. Twenty-six.” 

He listened and then shook his head slightly as if I’d exasperated him twice as much by giving him an answer. But he went away without harming me — as he did the next time, and the next. I began to get comfortable, and once I get comfortable, there’s no help for it. I prod you, coax you and tease you like a friend, no matter how many short answers I receive. 

“Is there someone particular whose death you’re waiting for?” I said, on the fifth or sixth time he visited my crumbling bell tower. “Are you cursed to walk the earth until the nine hundredth generation of your family is dead and buried?” 

He stiffened and gave me a strange look, as if he was torn between contempt and wonder at my audacity.  “No,” he said at last.

“Why do you want to know who I’m ringing the bell for, then?”

 He gave a stiff-shouldered shrug. “It’s just a way of marking time. Out here.” 

I gasped, as an irresistible idea struck me. “Are you one of the good folk?” 

He didn’t like that. His jaw tightened as if he’d clenched his teeth behind his lips. “I suppose so. In the same way that a slave is technically one of his master’s household.” 

I had a thousand questions after that, but he turned and left without another word, walking through the door rather than the wall this time. I had to wait another three months for someone in the parish to die before I had a chance of questioning him again. 

“When you’re hurrying through the countryside,” I said, as soon as I felt his blazing presence at my back, “are you hurrying to get here? To my bell tower? Or is this just a stop-over?” 

“I’d feel sorry for anyone for whom this was their final destination,” he said dryly. 

I didn’t turn to look at him, although the dobbie loped into my eye-line, as if it was anxious to be seen. I wondered if the dobbie was part of him, and he could send it questing after the attention he craved while he hung back and pretended to be aloof. 

“There’s tea brewing,” I said, nodding towards the closed door of the vestry, where the parson and Dr. Bixby were sharing a box of cigars. I could see the smoke oozing around the door in its ill-fitting frame. “Parkin too, if you’d care for some?” 

“No, thank you.” 

“What about him?” I said, pointing at the dobbie. “Will he have anything to eat?” 

“You wouldn’t like it if he did.”

I did turn to look at him then, my hand halfway to my gaping mouth. “Does he eat people?” 
    
The pilgrim raised an eyebrow. It was the closest thing I’d ever seen to a smile on his face. “Keep turning your back on him like that and you’ll find out.” 
     
I whipped round again, but the hare was still a hare, still sniffing out the cigar smoke under the door. I heard a sort of snort behind me, which I suppose was the pilgrim laughing, but I didn’t begrudge him that. I had too many questions.  
   
“Why do you come here, then, if it’s not your ‘final destination’?” 
   
“Perhaps I’m curious to see how many dull-witted questions you can ask before you get tired of it.”
   
“Oh, hundreds,” I said breezily.
   
“You’ve already asked hundreds.”
   
“Thousands, then. Millions.”
   
“Well, fortunately, you won’t live that long.”
    
I looked at him, round-eyed. “Do you know when people are going to die? Did the good folk teach you?”
    
He put his fingertips to his forehead and shut his eyes. “Oh, god.”
    
He was silent for another moment, watching his dobbie snuffle at the smoke under the vestry door. 
   
“They do know when people are going to die,” he said, half to himself. “They’re fascinated by death, because it doesn’t apply to them. They act out death-bed scenes, and try to counterfeit the tears and wails of the mourners. It’s stomach-churning.”  
    
I tried not to say anything. He seemed to have decided on principle to never give me answers when I asked them of him. The way to draw out information was to hold my tongue and let him take his time to unburden himself. Which was unfortunate, because that was the one thing I couldn’t do.
    
The dobbie put its forepaws on his leg, like a cat anxious to be petted, and he stooped to pick it up. As he did so, I caught the briefest, silvery glimmer of chains beneath his shirt.
    
He didn’t realize I’d seen, and I didn’t know how to ask about them. I think I asked him something else instead, some half-baked theory about the dobbie being the outward manifestation of his soul. My cheeks were glowing red, not just because I’d seen his chains, but because I’d seen his chest. Still, he didn’t notice. He put the dobbie carefully into his pocket and walked out as if he thought my theory too half-baked to merit a response. I suppose it was. For all the care he took with the white hare, for all that his eyes were always on it, I’d never seen him treat it with anything approaching tenderness. 
    
I saw him twice in the next month, because of the scarlet fever. I told him my theory that he must have been from Pendle or Bolton, or a neighbouring county, where they don’t take so much care of their dead, and he confirmed it, in his riddling, sarcastic way. “I’m certainly fortunate not to count myself a native of your dreary backwater.”
   
“There,” I said, nodding proudly, in spite of the ‘dreary backwater’. “There was no Alice Hawker to ring the passing bell for you.” 
   
“It would have been very strange if she had, since I didn’t actually die.”
    
I gawped at him. And then, irrepressibly, I started to laugh. “All this passing back and forth without ever actually passing?” 
    
He stayed stiff-backed and motionless for a while, but it was the funniest thing I’d heard in years, and it took me a while to laugh it out of my system. By the time my giggles had subsided, he had folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. He was tapping one bone-white finger repeatedly against his sleeve.
   
“Has anyone ever told you, you have a very distinctive laugh?”
   
“Parson says my laugh brightens up the dark hours,” I said, with a touch of defiance. In truth, I hadn’t believed the parson when he’d told me that. I laugh like a shrieking banshee, only merrier — which I think is part of the reason I’ve never married. It’d be a brave man who’d risk provoking a laugh like that on his wedding night.
    
The pilgrim gave me a thin-lipped smile. “What a diplomatic man he is, your parson.” 

It was the most painstaking friendship I’d ever built up and, in the end, I didn’t know if I was building anything. He kept coming back, perhaps because he had to. I didn’t know if I liked him. He was just there, the way the doctor and the parson were just there: nice enough to talk to, but nowhere near as reliable as my old, stolid self.
    
Sometimes, when I was leaving my cottage late to ring the passing bell, I’d see him on the road, marching fast with his eyes fixed on the horizon, pacing the floor of the valley as if it was his cage. Sometimes, I even felt brave enough to give him a wave. And on the nights when he didn’t fry me alive with his glare, he unbent enough to return this courtesy with a little, tight-lipped nod. 
    
Once, when I was feeling really brave, I prodded him in the ribs to see if he was lying about not being dead. The heat of him singed my finger, but he was solid enough. “I thought I’d pass right through you,” I said, laughing at my own daring as much as his indignant expression. “Aren’t you insubstantial?”
   
“Only when it matters,” he growled. 
    
I stopped, uncomfortably aware that I knew nothing of the sort of situations where it might matter to be able to touch someone. I didn’t ask about that again. 
    
It was a night in early November, after the combined chaos of Mischief Night and Bonfire Night when I saw him again. He didn’t slow — he never slowed — to walk with me. I had to skip along beside him, which I’m sure diminished the dignity of his pilgrimage, but he didn’t say anything about it.
    
The night was clear and bright, and the branches cast snake-shadows onto the ground at our feet. The pilgrim had discarded his necktie, and I could see the chains more clearly now, dozens of them, criss-crossing his torso like tinsel on a Christmas tree. They were fine, but they cut deep. I could see the red marks they left in his skin whenever they shifted. 
    
But I tried not to stare. Whether I was feeling horror or hunger, it was rude to stare at him. 
    
He wouldn’t speak, not on the road. When we passed cottages, I could hear dogs whining in the white dobbie’s wake, straining at their chains in an effort to get away. But out on the open road, the only thing I could hear besides my own breathing was the muted roar of the sea. 
    
Somewhere down in the valley, a bell began to toll. The pilgrim stopped in his tracks, his back stiff, his hands suddenly clenched at his sides. I couldn’t understand it at first. I’d never seen him stop before, in all his restless, nighttime wanderings. But then it dawned on me that the bell was my bell, from my tower, tolling the passing rhythm. 
    
I felt a shiver as if something very cold and clingy had clambered onto my back. It was me down there, ringing the passing bell. I knew my rhythms and my inflections, my timing. 
    
He turned to look at me, slowly. Even the dobbie had turned its quivering nose in my direction, as if in expectation. But I didn’t stop to look at either of them. I hurried down the road into the valley, until I came to the familiar lych-gate at the entrance to the churchyard. I didn’t have to climb over it. The gate swung open of its own accord, without a sound, and I staggered backwards, catching myself on the dry-stone wall before I fell. 
    
Someone was walking down the path from the church — not quite a man, but not a child either. He looked like a being of a different scale, built along smaller, lighter, daintier lines, and of completely different materials. He was muttering to himself in a low, musical voice. There was a crooning quality to it, a warbling treble, which made me suspect he was singing a requiem. He stopped at the gate and turned around, his eyes sweeping over me as though I were invisible.
    
And there was the funeral procession, drifting sedately down the path from the church: a crowd of feeorin, all bright-skinned and beautiful, just like the first. Some of them were sniffling into lace-bordered handkerchiefs. Some had fine, silvery tear tracks running down their cheeks. But there was none of the mess and snot and swollen faces you’d get from real, flesh and blood grief. 
    
They were also singing, and after a while I realized that the fairy who’d paused next to me at the gate had stopped singing the verse of the song, and sang only the refrain. It was as though he was directing everything, pulling the mourners along, binding them together. 
    
The song was beautiful, but I understood, without quite knowing how, that it was garbled nonsense even in the fairy tongue. There was something too perfect about it, too suited to the atmosphere, as if they had picked out the most dolorous sounds without a thought for their meaning.
    
It was the same with all of this — the whole procession, the whole process. They were trying to capture the feel of an earthly funeral, but not the substance. They hadn’t stirred a foot to understand us. They were just playing dress-up. 

The coffin was being carried on the shoulders of six fairy boys, all marching in doleful unison. The rhythm of it slowed my heartbeat. I half-closed my eyes, caught between wonder and thick-headed calm. Or maybe the two went hand-in-hand. 
    
I was captivated. I’d never seen the feeorin before. They all had flawlessly symmetrical, sharp-featured faces, and the moonlight did wonderful things to their skin. I just wanted to look at them. I don’t think I even wanted to breathe as much as I wanted to look at them. I hadn’t seen prettiness — particularly not in my looking-glass – for a very long time. 
    
I don’t know how long I stood there, watching their lovely performance of grief. Time only came back to me when the fairy boys carrying the coffin passed through the church gate, and I was able to look inside it. 
    
I gasped, but the pilgrim hissed at me to be quiet. He must have crept up behind me while I’d been transfixed by the feeorin. I was past marvelling at his quietness, or even caring for his opinion. The horror of it was rising up in my throat — the sheer, screaming wrongness of seeing myself dead, seeing myself from the outside. I had always known, in an abstract way, that my death would come someday, but that it might be now, that I might be looking on from a distance without the ability to do anything about it, that was a thought I had never entertained.
   
“It’s me,” I choked out, as the funeral procession drifted away. 
   
“And is it also you ringing the passing bell?” said the pilgrim. “And you standing here speaking to me? Don’t talk nonsense.” 
   
“It’s got to be a warning,” I whispered, thinking of the Padfoot and the Skriker and the Gabriel hounds. “I have to ask how long I’ve got.” 
    
I desperately wanted it to seem less terrible, and I thought maybe if they told me it was a year away, five, twenty, it wouldn’t feel so awfully, claustrophobically close. Time worked differently for the fairies, didn’t it? It might seem very soon to them, and a whole lifetime to me. 
    
I started forwards, barely even registering that the pilgrim had reached out a hand to stop me. I launched into a desperate curtsy, and pitched my voice too loud, too high. “If you please, Sir? Madam? How long until I-? Until this-?” I gestured miserably at the coffin, but it was gone. All the mourners had evaporated. Only the first man — the one I had thought of as the director — was still standing there, looking at me. His eyes were bright brown, almost amber, and they were glazed with the same affected tears I’d seen slipping down the cheeks of the other mourners. They weren’t real. I wondered madly if they would taste sweet. 
   
“Too soon, mortal maiden,” he crooned. I could tell he was enjoying the sound of the words. “But then mortal lives are all so short. I could show you more, if you would but look with my eyes.” 
    
He held out a hand to me, and for one horrible moment, I thought he was offering up a pair of fairy eyes, expecting me to screw them into my own sockets. But he only wanted to lead me somewhere, I suppose. I was fascinated by the shape of his silver palm in the moonlight, so perfectly formed, so much smaller and daintier than my own. I half-wanted to reach out just so I could compare them. 
    
But I didn’t like those sticky brown eyes, with their glaze of tears like iced buns on market day. And he had called me a ‘maiden’, which was technically true, but not the sort of word an honest creature would use to describe me. It was as though he understood the word, but none of its nuances. 
    
I looked back at the pilgrim and found him staring at me, his jaw set, his hands balled up into fists. The leaves were drifting through him as if he were made of clouds. And I thought, he caught my arm, didn’t he, before I stepped forwards? His hand passed straight through me. He had said he was only insubstantial when it mattered. 
    
Then I noticed something else — the last nail in the coffin lid, in more ways than one. The white dobbie wasn’t with him, wasn’t crouched in his shadow, or sheltering in his pocket, or peering out from behind the dry-stone wall. 
    
I hadn’t seen the dobbie and the moon-white fairy together in the same place at the same time, and suddenly I knew that that was because they were one and the same.
    
So I straightened myself up and blinked my eyes clear, even though it felt like they were full of splinters. “No, thank you. I’ll ‘wait when it comes, same as everybody else.” I curtsied again, though it’s difficult to bend your knees when they’re trembling. “I’m sorry to have troubled you.” 
    
I couldn’t tell whether he was angry or amused. His nostrils flared a bit — the first I’d seen of anything approaching ugliness on his moon-bright face — but he might have just been trying to suppress a laugh. 
    
He turned as if to walk away, and then vanished, just as the mourners had. And the breeze came back, soft but staggering, icy on my sweat-soaked skin. 
    
I walked back to the pilgrim, feeling curiously light, as if I was halfway to being a ghost already. He hadn’t moved or even unclenched his fists, and he was lividly pale. 
    
We walked on together, dreamily, up the path to the church, and around to my bell tower. The door was standing open, but there was no one inside. No doppelgänger resting against the wall, or rubbing her back after ringing the passing bell. 
   
“Am I going to die?” I said, in a voice that was squeakier than I would have liked.
  
“Everyone is going to die,” said the pilgrim, “except me.”
    
He clenched and unclenched his fists several times, and then looked around, as if searching for his absent dobbie. “You wanted to know why I hurry when I’m walking the roads at night. It isn’t to get anywhere. It’s because I can almost taste it — the sea breeze, the fresh air — just ahead of me. It seems as though, if I could run, I might reach it. But I won’t run for anybody, so I strain my steps into the fastest walk my muscles will permit, and it gets away.” 
   
“The air?” I said, bewildered.
   
“I’m not really here,” he muttered. His lips seemed to be trying to clamp down on the words. “I’m allowed to walk the roads where I should have been living, and taste the air I should have been breathing. Sometimes, I’m even permitted to touch, but only when it’s of no consequence.”
   
I looked at him and realized that, on all the stormy nights I’d seen him out wandering, the wind had never once stirred his hair. I had always assumed it was just plastered in place with sweat, but now I saw that he was in his own invisible bubble, close as a second skin, and that not a breath of air could get through to him. 
   
He was a captive still, walking around, apparently at liberty, but wearing fairyland like a stifling suit of clothes, like a sack he’d just been shoved in. 
    
I pitied him. And he could see it. And he hated it. 
   
“How did the good–?” I stopped. I couldn’t bring myself to call them the ‘good folk’. “How did the feeorin capture you?” 
   
“I gave myself to them,” he said. “Like you almost did. They don’t understand,” he went on. “They think they’re saving us. He said it would be criminal to lose a mind like mine through mortal death, and I–” he tightened his lips, “I agreed with him. No doubt he would have said something similar to you if you’d let him – ‘Oh, Mistress Alice, you’ve too much wit, too much merriment, to die a mortal death. The moon wouldn’t seem half so bright without you‘.” He stopped as if annoyed with himself for saying so much.
    
I breathed out, watching my breath steam on the air, and noticing, again, that his didn’t.

Dying had always seemed so claustrophobic to me — oh, not the grave, the coffin, the fact of being buried under the earth. I’d seen too many funerals to be bothered much by that. It was just the simple fact that you didn’t breathe anymore; that you came to a point where you either couldn’t or wouldn’t take another breath. Did it feel like drowning, that moment? I had shuddered to think of it, although I hadn’t thought of it much, not even when I was watching Dr. Bixby check his patients for a non-existent pulse, or listening to the parson say the last rites.
    
But now I thought that even death couldn’t be as claustrophobic as what the pilgrim was describing: to walk around in a bubble, tasting the air you couldn’t breathe, to feel the sweat prickling on your forehead and know that nothing, not even your own motion, could cool you. To wear your prison as close as a second skin. 

I put out my hand, and he did the same, lining up his palm with mine, as if he understood the impulse. There was no pressure there; only heat. I knew that my fingers would slide right through his if I pushed forward. He was only insubstantial when it mattered, and suddenly I could see how much it mattered to him. I could see that he would have given all the sea breezes in the world for a touch of my hand right then.

“You’ll get out,” I said, trying to smile. “Nothing lasts forever, not even the feeorin. Parson says they’re dwindling every year as more and more folk move to the cities and cease to think of them.”

He sighed and I could almost persuade myself that I felt the touch of his breath against my cheek.

“What a diplomatic man he is, your parson.” 

Lucy Stone is a freelance writer, lexicographer, and mother of one. Her stories have appeared in many speculative journals, including Dreamforge Magazine, Electric Spec, House of Zolo, and Bards and Sages Quarterly. Most recently, she was published in an anthology of feminist fantasy called Predators in Petticoats. She can be found online on her website.
Her major preoccupations are folklore, romance, and mental illness. Her stories contain many villains, but the ultimate one is usually despair, and she will fight it with every word she writes – even prepositions.

Corpse Bridge

by Georgia Cook

The bridge marked eight miles to Arkengarthedale; down winding paths and up lonely dales, feet scrabbling, boots caked in mud, kept at all times hidden from the main road. Not for fear of being seen, but for the dignity of those who might see him.

Albert paused on the lane to catch his breath, listening to the invisible rush of water. 
The road here sloped steeply, becoming first dirt, then rocks, then mud, all the way down to the riverbank. The bridge itself arched low over a stream that was rushing black in winter, demure and trickling in summer. 

No livestock here, no cart tracks. There was only one purpose to this path, home to nothing but mourners and undertakers. Only one reason to be here at all. 

Albert had carried the coffin twelve miles already, guiding his tiny wooden cart carefully across the fields. He would carry it twelve more miles tomorrow, all the way to St Mary’s Church in Arkengarthedale. 

Albert was accustomed to corpses — he’d been apprenticed to his master for six months, and in that time had seen more of death than the Vicar himself — but he’d avoided looking at the coffin all the way from Swaledale. Although he knew the road well, this was the first time he’d been entrusted to walk it alone. The silence here was an entity unto itself; the path felt longer, the night darker, the air colder. 

There was a shallow groove in the rock next to the bridge, worn smooth by generations of undertakers and coffins. Albert dropped the cart handles and set it carefully against the dip. Then he stepped back to examine his handiwork. 

The coffin sat still in the moonlight, a block silhouette against the rustling trees. It would spend the night there, and then he would move on. 

Carefully, Albert walked to the opposite side of the path and laid down with his back to the coffin, trying not to picture his travelling companion, trying not to picture the lonely road with its wall of trees. Eventually, he slept. 

Albert awoke some time later to the sound of gentle shuffling. He opened his eyes. There was a girl perched on the low wall of the bridge, gazing down into the water. She was dressed in a long winding sheet, her hair trailing around her shoulders. The coffin next to Albert lay empty. 

Mary Warner had been dead all of five days. In the darkness, the blasted ruin of her face glimmered grey and ragged. 

“It’s a funny thing,” she murmured, in a voice as soft as sheep’s wool. “I was always frightened of the Corpse Bridge. My mother would threaten to walk me down here if I misbehaved. Isn’t that silly?”

Albert stared up at her, his heart pounding. 

In life, Mary Warner had captivated him with her laughter and her wit. Now, in the darkness, cold and grey and pale-eyed, she seemed to glow with something more than life.

“I-I was always frightened of it, too,” he heard his mouth say. “E-even now, I think.”

Mary leaned down over the bridge to touch the water with a desiccated hand, her hair glinting in the moonlight.

“I don’t think I’m frightened now,” she said. 

Albert swallowed.  Excuse me, you’re dead, didn’t seem the right thing to say. Neither did, Can you get back inside your coffin, please? 

Instead, he managed, “We’re burying you tomorrow,” then, because it felt appropriate, “Sorry.”

Mary was silent for a long moment, staring into the rushing stream. Finally, she sighed, lifting her head as if to catch a drop of rain. “It’s so lonely in there. I never liked to be alone. And now I shall be alone forever. That doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

Albert swallowed. “I-I suppose…nobody’s ever complained before…”

“And I suppose you would know.”

Mary smiled at him. She wasn’t frightening, Albert realized, just sad. Profoundly sad. 

“What…what would you prefer?” he asked. 

Mary leaned forward. This close she smelt of dampness and cold, of grave dirt and mud, but not of decay.

“I wish to choose where I rest,” she said. “No graveyard, no tomb. No clammy earth. Do you understand?” her hand slid gently into his. Colder than cold. “Carry me,” she whispered. “Carry me over the bridge. To whatever comes next. That’s your job, isn’t it?”

It was, Albert realized. It really was. 

She was as light as a baby bird, her hands wound tightly around Albert’s neck as he walked with her over the Corpse Bridge, away from the coffin, up into the hills: the boy and the dead girl, heading to whatever came next. 

Just round the next bend. Just over the hill. 

All the way there. 

Georgia Cook is an illustrator and writer from London, specializing in folklore and ghost stories. She is the winner of the LISP 2020 Flash Fiction Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, Staunch Book Prize and Reflex Fiction Award, among others. She can be found on twitter at @georgiacooked and on her website.

Split Up Spell

Melanie Smith

When you’re desperate, it’s a short hop from a harmless manifestation ritual to a full-blooded, black magic Split them Up spell. As I told you: I was desperate.

My boyfriend had left me three months back. I’d known it was coming, and rather than walking away with my dignity intact, I’d chosen to cling on until the bitter end, watching the whole thing unfold around me like a car crash in slow motion — from which only one of us walked away. And that was with someone else.

I took to my bed and stayed there for a long time. It wasn’t just my heart that hurt; my whole chest cavity, my spine, the small bones in my feet and wrists ached so much that the pain sometimes took my breath away. I was tormented, through drifting days and sleepless nights, by visions of my ex and his new ‘person.’ These images were so clear that I felt my adrenaline spike in response, that fresh tears spilled, that heat and rage built inside me until I wanted to throw a match onto the wide world and watch it burn. And when a mutual friend ‘couldn’t help’ but message me the news that my ex and this individual were in North Wales for a week for his birthday, and that this individual had booked a helicopter flight over Snowdonia to celebrate, I nearly threw up.

As I said — desperate. You live long enough in a state like that, a bottle of vodka and a few handfuls of pills start seeming like a rational combination.

But instead, I came across manifestation. You might have heard of it. I had, but didn’t really understand it; I’d never been interested in that sort of thing enough to find out, to be honest. But lying there in my fetid bed, surrounded by empty crisp packets and scrunched up tissues, when a pop-up appeared on the screen suggesting I read an article entitled, ‘Manifest Your Person Back in Two Weeks,’ I became very interested indeed. The idea is that we’re all energy. In a nutshell, match your vibration to the thing you desire, it can’t help but come to you. Sweet, right? So I practiced it for a day or two. Managed to haul myself out of bed.

I was still crying a lot, and apparently, that can mess with your vibe. And when nothing happened, when there was no call to tell me he’d broken up with this new ‘person,’ and to confess his undying love for me, I looked online again, at more sites offering manifestation techniques, at more meditations to ensure the return of one’s ‘specific person.’ And on one of these sites, I found a link. A little one, innocuous as links go; a pop-up advertising ‘Powerful Split Up Spells – Success Guaranteed or Your Money Back.’ There was some part of me that knew I shouldn’t touch that link with a bargepole; that was the same part of me that had told me to ditch the relationship a long time ago, and to get my stinking self out of bed and grow a little self-respect.

I ignored it. I’d become a pro at that.

So I clicked that link, and got carried to a site specializing in spells that would cause relationships to flounder, marriages to fail, friendships to fragment. For just £55, I would be sent the spell to cast, and if my ex-person and his new bit hadn’t split within thirty days I would get a full refund. Of course, I bought the spell. Of course, I felt like a prat. But I also felt excited. I felt, for the first time, in control of the situation.

I only had a couple of days to wait until the thing dropped through my door. During that time, I got showered, tidied the flat, and generally sorted my shit out. If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have seen that this was actually textbook manifesting practice — I started acting like the person I wanted to be, and so I started becoming the person I wanted to be. Except that what I was thinking was along the lines of how I wanted to look as together as possible once I’d separated that bitch from my man and he’d come back home to me. I don’t think that’s really aligned with the ‘bliss’ vibe.

I sat on my sofa, a brew sending up wisps of steam on the table in front of me, and tore open the small padded envelope carefully. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what fell onto my lap. Which were two tiny clay figurines and a single sheet of paper.

I carefully picked up the little blank-faced figures; they had rudimentary lumps for heads, arms, and legs, and one of them had the merest suggestion of breasts. I put them down softly next to my cup and then unfolded the paper. Written on it in a looping hand in red ink were four lines of script. I’m not going to write out those words here, for reasons that will become obvious. At the bottom of the sheet, typed, was the simple instruction: ‘Place the figures together as you chant these words, and, when the incantation is done, bury them on opposite sides of your garden.’ That was it.

I’m going to admit to you, my faith in the thing took a hit then. But I’d come this far and was fifty-five quid lighter, so there was nothing to do but carry on, I decided. The instructions said nothing about time of day or phase of the moon or whatever, so I thought I’d just wait until it got dark and give it a bash.

Lighting a candle seemed like a good idea, so I did that. I turned off the lights and put on some music, very quietly. I took a few deep breaths, and began by placing the two little figurines in front of me on the floor where I knelt. In the dim room, a shaft of mid-winter moonlight fell through the window to splash, spangled, on the parquet floor.

Suddenly, the atmosphere shifted. I can’t describe it to you any better than that, but I felt a sense of solemnity as I took the folded sheet from my pocket and smoothed it flat on the floor beside the clay poppets. I took another breath and began reading the words aloud; as I spoke each line I allowed images of my ex to unspool in my mind, I let the pain bubble up in a bitter blister of jealousy and rage, and as the final word left my lips, I felt two hot tears slide down my face.

When the pain had dwindled to embers, I caught up the figures and went into the garden, sliding my feet into wellies but not bothering with a coat; I welcomed the frigid air on my cheeks and forehead. I had prepared for this next part earlier in the day, and just had to drop a poppet into each of the two small holes I’d already dug at opposite ends of the garden, and then trowel soil over them. As the last handful of earth fell in a dry shower over the blank face of the ‘female’ figure, a cloud scuttled across the moon, darkening the grass and undergrowth and, the thing being done, I went back into the house then, lay down on the sofa and fell instantly into obliterating sleep.

When I woke it was dawn. Or at least, I judged it to be from the thin light making the sky visible through the windows. The candles, unattended, had pooled to puddles of wax that I knew would be all hell to get off the parquet later.
The paper with the spell lay there, too, like a piece of evidence for a crime I’d committed in a dream. I felt sick, and my head hurt as if I’d drunk a bottle or more of wine, though I hadn’t touched a drop.

Groaning, I reached for the telly remote, and flicked on the box. The news came on in a burst of skull-splitting light and noise. I sat up. The news anchor was reporting on a helicopter crash in North Wales. Snowdonia. My hand drifted to my mouth.

The anchor cut to a reporter at the scene. She was interviewing an eyewitness, who’d arrived just moments after the crash. The woman was ashen, her eyes wide and glassy.

“I understand that on board were a couple who had booked the flight as part of a birthday celebration. What did you see, when you arrived?’ asked the reporter.

‘First I saw the helicopter, all tangled up. Part of it was on fire. And the bodies. A pilot, a man, and a woman.”

I felt my gorge rise.

“It must have been a harrowing scene…” prompted the reporter.

“The bodies,” the woman repeated. “The couple… they weren’t whole. Their heads, their arms…”

The reporter tried to cut in, but before she shifted the boom mike, it picked up the woman’s final words in a fading whisper, “the bodies of the man and the woman…they were in pieces. Totally split up.”

Melanie Smith is a writer from Gloucestershire, UK; her fiction appears regularly in magazines and podcasts, and her short story, ‘The Unfolding,’ has been selected to feature in the forthcoming special issue, Women Destroy Retro Science Fiction to be published by The Were Traveler later this year.

Alone, Or…

C.M. Saunders

As you get older, you look back on things that happened to you during your life in a whole new light. Often, these things went virtually unnoticed at the time. They seemed trivial, insignificant, and quickly faded into the background, overtaken and obscured by more pressing concerns. Then, memories of these events resurface at some later date, waving a little flag saying, “Hey! What about this?”

After that pivotal moment of realization, they stick in your mind, eating away at you. If you don’t know what I mean, one day you will. Let me give you an example.

When I was a student, I worked part-time in a little country pub called the Railway Tavern. It was on the outskirts of town and, as the name implies, situated next to an old train station. It rarely got busy but benefited from the patronage of a fair few regulars. Having worked there two or three nights a week for a couple of years, I built up a rapport with some of them. I got to know what job they had — or once had, given the way the city had fallen into the economic abyss, where they went on holiday, what football team they supported, that kind of thing. It helped pass the time.

One of the regulars was a middle-aged guy who told me his name was Gary. He came in most Tuesday evenings and always sat at the same table in the corner, perfectly positioned so he could see the TV mounted on the wall. He was probably in his fifties, but Gary was the type who dressed slightly beyond his years, usually in a blue blazer and straight-cut trousers. He was always well-turned-out, and friendly enough. He even gave me the occasional tip, which is a sure-fire way to guarantee preferential treatment at your local.

At least you always remembered what they drank. Gary always had a double Southern Comfort with a splash of tap water and ice. One cube. Not two. Not three. One. I mistakenly gave him two cubes one night and the way he reacted you’d think I’d just dropped a couple of fresh turds in his drink or something. Whisky drinkers are a pedantic bunch.

As much as we played regular roles in each other’s lives, I never really thought about Gary, or any of the other regulars, when I wasn’t working. Why would I? I doubt they thought about me much, either.

The thing with people in your outer orbit is, when they drop out of your circle, you barely notice. They just blink out like lights. There one day, gone the next. I didn’t even realize I hadn’t seen Gary for a couple of weeks until he came in one quiet, rainy evening, and ambled up to the bar. He looked terrible. Haggard, and drawn, eyes red, skin blotchy, and face pulled into a sad, hangdog expression.

“Hey, Gary,” I said by way of greeting, struggling to keep the concern from showing in my voice. “How have you been?”

“Terrible,” he said, casting his eyes down. “I had some bad news today.”

As a barman, I heard that kind of response a lot. Some drinkers liked to have a sympathetic ear or just someone to moan at while they sipped their beer. In Gary’s case, though, I believed him. This put me in a slightly awkward position. Do I follow up and ask what the problem was, and at the same time risk sounding nosy? Do I change the topic? Something more cheerful, perhaps? Or do I maintain a dignified silence?

I settled on a non-committal, “Sorry to hear that,” then ducked to retrieve a whisky glass from the shelf and turned to face the optics behind me. I figured Gary would follow up if he wanted to. Turns out he did.

“You remember John, don’t you?”

I paused in my work.

Did I remember John?

I quickly flicked through my mental address book. I knew plenty of Johns, but none I associated with Gary or the Railway Tavern.

Gary must have realized I was struggling and made a quick bid to jog my memory. “You know John. The other Southern Comfort drinker? We always sat together over in that same corner every Tuesday night. Like clockwork. Sometimes we played cards. Mostly we just chatted. He was a good guy.”

“Yeah, yeah. He was,” I said. I don’t know why I said that. Maybe I was just trying to offer some condolences, or avoid the topic. The truth was, the conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn and I wanted out. I used some tongs to pluck a cube out of the ice bucket. Just the one, not two, and dropped it into the glass on the bar.

“I’m gonna miss that old fart,” Gary said, picking up his drink and heading off to his usual spot.

I watched him go, pushing to one side the fact that in all the dozens of times I’d served him at the bar and seen him in the pub, he’d always been alone. He came in alone, sat alone, and left alone. I never even saw him talk to anybody, let alone nurture this apparently long-standing, meaningful friendship with some bloke called John.

So was Gary crazy? Or winding me up for some reason? Flat out lying? Why would he do that? What could he possibly have to gain from making something like that up? Besides, he never struck me as a joker.

On the other hand, maybe the fault lay with me. Was I being woefully unobservant the whole time? Deluded, even? Or was something else going on entirely, something even stranger and more uncanny?

I never found out, and probably never will. And now, all these years later, this is one of the things that keeps me awake at night.

Christian Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from South Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines, and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, The Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction, and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being Tethered on Terror Tract Publishing.
Twitter @CMSaunders01, facebook, website.

Companions

K.J. Watson

Frida never forgot her first memory from childhood: a snarling face.

The face fascinated her. She stood in the garden looking up at it, ignoring pleas to come into the house. One or the other parent had to lead her inside. She didn’t resist but expressed resentment by baring her teeth.

Her father wondered whether to remove the cause of the problem, a stone gargoyle he had bought at auction around the time his wife gave birth to Frida. The auctioneer’s vagueness about provenance irritated him. Even so, he thought a gargoyle placed on a plinth would make an imposing garden ornament. It certainly became a talking point among visitors. The creature’s protruding tongue, arched eyebrows, and sinewy wings amused some and discomposed others. For Frida, the gargoyle became an obsession.

Preoccupied with business matters, her father never decided what to do about the grotesque sculpture. His death from a heart attack, shortly before Frida started school, settled the issue. Thereafter, his wife sank into depression and lost interest in anything related to her only child.

In the absence of siblings and motherly love, Frida occupied her days with the gargoyle. When school became necessary, she avoided friendships. She kept her distance from the other pupils and returned to the garden the moment the bell signalled the end of the school day.

Once her education finished, Frida resumed a life at home. No one troubled her about a career, socializing, or marriage.

A rare announcement from her mother came as a surprise, “We’re going to move away.”

“I’ll stay here,” Frida replied.

“You can’t. I’m selling the house.”

Without arguing or asking for an explanation, Frida went into the garden and stood face-to-face with the gargoyle.

That night, her mother disappeared. Frida conscientiously informed the authorities. A police officer who came to take a statement found her wiping the gargoyle with a damp, crimson-stained cloth.

“Berries fell and stained it,” Frida said.

The officer shrugged and asked his questions. Frida declared she knew nothing about what might have happened to her mother.

The police didn’t visit again. Frida continued to live in the house, using the residue of her late father’s life insurance that she discovered in a savings account. She eked out this sum over the following decades by selling furniture and other items from the house to a local antique dealer.

On his first visit, the dealer noticed the gargoyle and made an offer for it. Frida refused and rebuffed his offers in subsequent years. Then, in need of money for household repairs, she accepted the amount the dealer proposed.

The dealer promptly paid cash. With the help of his assistant, he removed the gargoyle from the plinth and placed it in the back of a van. Frida watched with equanimity.

The next morning, she woke early and strolled into the garden. The gargoyle, in its characteristic pose, squatted on the plinth. A piece of broken mahogany jutted from underneath a talon. Frida pulled the wood out and threw it away.

At lunchtime, a news report on the local radio station mentioned the overnight vandalism of an antique store in the town. The dealer had also perished. The reporter hypothesized that the dealer had hurried from his apartment above the store to investigate the destruction and fallen down the stairs.

A further forty years passed. Low on funds, Frida nonetheless refused to sell her home and existed on welfare payments. She reached her ninetieth year and persisted in spending most of her time outside with the gargoyle, regardless of the season.

“We’re weather-eroded, you and I,” Frida said one day as she stared at the beast’s pitted features. “Your snarl is softening into a sneer.”

When night fell, Frida began to trudge indoors. Something rustled behind her. Talons gently gripped her shoulders. She tilted her head back and felt the warmth of the gargoyle’s chest against her skull.

“Are we going somewhere?” she asked.

The gargoyle spread its wings.

Of course we are, Frida thought and closed her eyes.

Together, the companions rose into the darkness.

K. J. Watson’s fiction has appeared on the radio, in comics, magazines, anthologies, and online. His latest work is in the anthology Retro Horror, the magazine Horror, and the online publication Horla.

One For Sorrow

by Hannah O’Doom

The sun was still high in the sky, and Robert was thankful for that. He had lost track of the time long ago but didn’t want to be lost in the dark. He took stock: a dead cell phone, an unreliable car, and a mute long-lost sister sitting in the front seat. He pulled to the side of the road to try to figure out his next move. The two-lane road snaked ahead, and he could see a split. In one direction the road vanished into a thick gathering of trees. In the other, it crested and then disappeared over a hill.

Robert clenched his jaw and stared at his options, the old El Camino idling. He glanced into the rearview mirror at his sister. She had been silently staring out the window since the start of the trip. The clock on the dashboard was long-dead. Sometime in the night he had got off the interstate, following a shortcut on his GPS. But then his phone died, the road led further into the middle of nowhere, and now, with the sunup, he had to admit he was totally lost.

Robert had made the journey from his comfortable dorm room in Maine to a speck-on-the-map town outside of San Antonio, Texas to find his sister. She had called out to him like a beacon in the dead of the night. He had found her, in an abandoned hotel room, a charred body on the bed behind her, smoke still rising from its carcass. He had asked no questions, but simply loaded her into his car and headed back north.

Robert put the car in park and glanced at his sister again. She was still staring out the window. He was beginning to wonder if she was in shock. When they were small, she had been quiet, and in times of stress had only communicated through dreams or touch, but even then would occasionally use her voice.

“We’re lost,” he said, hoping it would force some sort of reaction out of her. She didn’t speak or move, so he got out of the car, stretching his legs.

A crow, nearly as big as a dog, landed at Robert’s feet. The bird was so black that it looked almost like it wasn’t a bird at all, but a crow-shaped hole of nothingness against the background of the flat green and brown landscape. It opened its wings, cawed, and then took off, flying in the direction of the hills.

Robert closed his eyes and thought of the first time he dreamed of his baby sister. He was only five years old and she was still a baby. He had dreamed that she had not been born, but delivered by a crow, in a nest of twigs and branches, all on fire. He had tried to tell his mother about the dream, and she had slapped him hard enough in the mouth that it had split his lower lip. The sight of the crow made him remember the sharp metallic taste of blood in his mouth and the shock of the first time his mother struck him.

“One for sorrow.”

Robert heard the voice from behind him. He turned and saw his sister standing next to the car. She pointed toward the crow.

“What did you say?” Robert asked. She didn’t respond but continued to point. Robert turned and watched. The crow was going roughly in the direction of the road that forked into the hills. He thought about his choices and looked back at his sister.

“To the hills, then,” Robert said. She nodded and slid back into the car as silently as she had gotten out.

Robert’s head felt like it was stuffed with cotton balls. He remembered having that feeling as a child when he would spend time with his sister, like all her extra mental energy was invading his headspace in thick waves.

When they were younger, he had felt the pull of his sister, and he orbited around her. After the fire and their parents’ deaths, they had been separated. He had been convinced that Waverly was getting special care, and he was placed into the foster system. He spent many years wondering about his sister, hoping she was safe.

Then he started dreaming about her again. This first new dream had been just a series of flashes, mostly flames, and glimpses of his long-lost sister. He had woken from the first dream in a cold sweat. He wrote it off as his subconscious just drudging up old memories, maybe some residual guilt. As he had grown older, he bought into what the therapists and social workers told him, that their separation had been for the best. But there had always been a nagging in the back of his mind.

The dreams had come fast after that first one. Each night brought a new detail of his sister’s sad life into focus. He saw the fire that killed their parents, he saw the facility she had been taken to afterward, the so-called treatments she received, the man that claimed her as a foster child, even though there was nothing legal about what was happening to her.

Robert shook his head clear of his thoughts to focus on his driving. Another three crows flew over the car as it winded its way around the curvy road of the hills. Robert looked over at Waverly, who was reciting a nursery rhyme under her breath.

“Two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy.”

He almost reached out to her but instead gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned white. He craned his head. The crows were flying just ahead of the car, leading it through the hills.

As Robert followed the crows, he thought about the last time he had seen his sister. He was twelve, and she was seven. He had known for days that something was building inside of her, something that had to be released. When he had found her, inside their burning home, he knew in an instant what she had done.

She had looked so tiny and frail, curled in a corner of their parents’ bedroom with flames climbing up the curtains and spreading along the walls behind her. Robert could hear his mother screaming for help but couldn’t see beyond the flames. He had picked up Waverly and run out of the house.

He slowed the car as they approached another fork in the road. Without looking at him, Waverly pointed to the right and he guided the car in that direction. He had only gone a little way down the road when they came to a tree that had fallen, blocking their way. Robert stopped to think about what to do, and Waverly slipped out of the car.

Robert grunted and put the car in park. He got out, following his sister, who was climbing over the tree. She slipped down around the other side of it.

“Five for silver, six for gold.”

Robert could hear her singing softly as she went. He almost called out to her but knew it would do him no good. He could feel her resolution rolling off of her, like waves of heat coming off a hot sidewalk.

As he hoisted himself over the fallen tree, he saw the crows. It wasn’t just the ones that he had followed; there were crows as far as he could see. The trees were heavy with them, limbs bowing down under the weight. Crows flitted and hopped on the ground. The sound of their wings filled the air.

Robert put his hand on Waverly trying to pull her back toward him. She shrugged it off and pointed. Just ahead, in the centre of the birds, lay a dead crow.

“A funeral,” Waverly said. She put her hand in his and looked straight ahead. Her fingers tightened around his, and just like when they were kids, he could feel the electric tingle of their connection.

He stood still and concentrated. Everything around them became eerily quiet. The crows crowded in, bringing what felt like an unnatural nightfall around them. Waverly’s fingers wiggled in Robert’s hand, and then she also went still.
Waverly whispered. “Seven for a secret never to be told.”

A crow, somewhere in the distance, cawed. That broke the silence and a cacophony of caws and cries filled the air. As the sound grew to a crescendo, Waverly’s grip tightened on Robert’s hand and her memories flooded his mind.

Another fire. Another death. There was a man, with startling blonde-white hair and pale-blue eyes. For a moment Robert felt like he was looking at this person under a microscope. He could see every pore in his face, his row of perfectly straight, white teeth. He could smell the aftershave, sharp with a tinge of alcohol, wafting off his skin. Robert could see the man’s hands, with perfectly manicured nails, and his arms, the downy white hair just barely visible. And for a moment, he could see the man as Waverly had seen him, standing over her, and he felt her pain and fear and shame.

And then there was smoke, slowly rising from the man’s hair. Flames engulfed his head and the eyeballs popped, sending gelatinous goo down his cheeks. The flesh on his face started melting and the smell of cooking skin and muscle filled Robert’s nose. He started to pull his hand away, but Waverly gripped even harder, still staring at the crows.

Screams filled Robert’s ears; the deafening cries of a man being cooked alive. Somewhere in the back of his mind, playing like a silent movie reel behind this horror in front of him were flashes of his sister’s life.

As Robert saw the scenes behind the fire, he could feel what his sister had felt. He could feel the man’s hands on his own body, the way they had been on Waverly’s. Anger and fear pulsed inside his head.

The urgency to make it stop washed over him. He felt a thin sheen of sweat break out across his forehead. A low moan escaped his lips as her torment filled him. Finally, Robert jerked his hand free. Waverly stood motionless, watching the crows.

Robert leaned over, putting his hands on his knees. His stomach roiled and nausea swept over him. His heart was pounding in his ears. The crows fell silent.

Robert straightened and slowed his breathing. For a minute, it seemed like nothing in the world was moving. The crows had completely settled and even the thin breeze from the day had stagnated. Then a single crow flew down from a nearby tree and placed a twig at the fallen bird’s feet. Another bird did the same, and then another. Each bird dropped a memento, a twig or blade of grass, or leaf, and then flew away. Within moments the dead bird was covered, and Robert and Waverly were left standing next to a pile covering the dead crow.

Robert stood still, stunned. Then he heard his sister whispering.

“One for sorrow.”

He looked down at his sister. Her head was tilted toward the mound in front of them. Her wide eyes were completely black. Tendrils of smoke rose from the twigs and leaves, and then a small flame appeared. The pile began to burn in earnest, the smell of cooking flesh, and ash filling the air.

As the silence settled over them, his heartbeat slowed to normal. He could feel his breath slowing, and he felt tired, with adrenaline rushing out of his bloodstream. Waverly bent over, picked up a shiny stone next to her shoe, and placed it on top of the burning pile.

Robert had planned to bring Waverly back to the dorm with him, call social services, and start the process of officially adopting his sister. For years, while she was in what he had been told was therapy, and heavily medicated, he couldn’t find her. She could not reach out to him. Once she finally figured out how to fake taking her medications, he had heard her call, just as he had years before.

He watched his sister as she picked up a crow feather from the ground and tucked it into her hair, behind her ear.

“We need a plan,” he said to his sister. Waverly tilted her head to the sky and smiled. It was the first smile he had seen from her.

“Follow the crows,” she said.

Robert was eventually able to move the tree, tugging it away from the road and into a ditch. Sweaty, with scratched hands, he got his sister back into the car and they followed the twisted road through the hills. Occasionally, when a fork in the road would be approaching, Robert would look to the sky and there would be a crow flying overhead. He always took the choice that let him follow it.

After a couple of hours of this sort of wandering, the car cleared the hills and Robert could see a town up ahead. As he pulled into a dusty-looking gas station to fill up, he noticed a little mom-and-pop diner next door and realized his stomach was growling. He went back to the car and asked Waverly if she would like something to eat. He took her silent shrug for consent, paid for the gas, and parked next to the diner.

The siblings slid into a booth, and Robert plugged his dead cell phone into a nearby outlet. The phone powered on and buzzed with notifications. Someone had been trying to reach him. He listened to the first voicemail, frowning. After it had finished, he clicked off the phone. He looked at his sister, who was staring out of the window, her hands folded in her lap.

“The police are looking for us,” he said.

Waverly didn’t move, but Robert could see the panic rising in her. Even without touching her, he could feel it rolling off of her in waves. He felt so stupid. His plan had been so naïve. He had to protect her. There were people who knew what she was, what she could do, and they would be looking for her.

She turned her eyes to him and reached her hand across the table, laying it against the smooth Formica. Robert took her small hand in his and she again wrapped her thin fingers around his, and he was immediately thrown back in time.


They were standing, hand in hand, in front of a pond behind their childhood home. Robert could smell the dewy grass and feel the heavy heat on his face and neck.

“I have a secret,” Waverly told him. She was tiny, small even for a five-year-old, and he had humoured her, following her out to this spot. She had told him to look, and he watched as a patch of grass began to smolder and smoke under her gaze. Finally, the grass burst into a small flame and Waverly had looked up at her brother, so proud of herself. Robert’s cheeks flushed, not with the heat from the tiny blaze, but with the knowledge of his sister’s secret.

He could feel her giddiness and her excitement at having shown him this trick. Robert smiled at his sister. He had known she was special from the time she was born and was impressed with her abilities.

Their dad found them there, standing next to the tiny fire, and he ripped Waverly away from him. His father’s yells and his sister’s cries rang in Robert’s ears as he stood helplessly, watching her being carried away.

Something in him snapped and he ran after his father. Robert rushed him, trying to knock him off his feet. His father kicked him, hard, in the stomach, and when he fell, his father stomped down, cracking bones in Robert’s ankle.

His mother noticed the commotion and ran to Robert. He reached out to her, assuming she would be an ally against his father, but his hopes were quickly dashed. She pinned him to the ground as his father carried away his sister.
He remembered laying on the ground, his mother spitting insults at him as he struggled to get free. A crow had flown overhead, throwing a shadow across her angry face. It had landed on Robert’s father, pulling hair and scratching at his eyes. Pinned to the ground, Robert watched with fascination as the bird attacked.

His mother bolted, leaving to aide her husband, who was sprinting toward the house for cover against the bird attack. Robert, unable to put weight on his ankle, crawled after them. He wasn’t even halfway across the yard when he saw the smoke coming from the windows.



The sound of the waitress’s voice telling Robert he could pay up front brought him back. He thanked the waitress and then nodded to his sister. A large black crow landed outside the window and was sitting on the sidewalk, looking at Robert.

A bus filled with older people travelling together had pulled in and they were unloading. A large group of people spilled into the lobby. As Robert tried to maneuver his sister and himself through the group, a skinny, taught-looking woman, with a tight white bun and eyes nearly as black as Waverly’s, reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

“Why, look at you. You are the spitting image of my granddaughter,” the woman said. Waverly stood stock-still, staring into the woman’s eyes.

Robert reached out, pulling his sister free from the woman’s grip. He was ready to admonish her for grabbing a child but froze when he looked into her completely black eyes.

“Our group, we are heading west, as the crow flies,” the woman smiled and said. “I suggest you do the same.”

Waverly nodded gravely at the woman but said nothing. Robert didn’t move and the lady placed a hand on his shoulder. He saw a flash of a home, safe and clean, and he and his sister sitting on the porch, looking out over the ocean. The woman removed her hand and smiled.

“May I?” the woman asked, pointing to Robert’s phone, hanging limply in his hand. He handed it to her. She fiddled with it for a moment and then gave it back. The GPS was running with directions she had programmed in. Robert looked up from the phone to ask who she was, but the lady had already turned and was leaving with the crowd. He noticed in her white hair was a sole black feather, tucked behind her ear.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Camino. As they approached the car, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood. The crow squawked and then took off into the blue sky, heading west. Robert and Waverly watched the crow fly away, and then looked at each other.

“Head west?” Robert asked.

“As the crow flies,” Waverly answered.

Hannah O’Doom is currently working toward her Masters of Library Science at the University of Kentucky at night while working as a project manager by day. When not writing stories about robots, cats, or magical coffees, she can be found playing roller derby with her team Roller Derby of Central Kentucky, drinking gin and tonics, and reading odd books. Her work can be found at her website, hannahodoom.com