Each and Every Part

White gloves peeled away soft bandage. The wound sat fresh across my stomach—a black gash surrounded by wet shades of red and dry purples. It had been sewn, but not with much care. I drank breath in short sips and scanned the green tile walls, the steel-framed hospital bed, the leather straps which bound my limbs.

I struggled to free myself, but escape was not to be accomplished. A deep breath desired inhale, but my lungs would not accept.

“Just keep clam.” I heard the words but they made no sense. Their speaker wore a sack over his head; a stained, white coat hung from his back.

I tried to scream for help, attempted to communicate with anything but frantic eyes, yet my voice fell silent within my throat.

“No, no, you won’t be able to talk,” the voice said, caressing my neck with hard fingers. “Just lie there, nothing else you can do.”

My jaw made attempt to bite his fingers but only managed to gum their latex covers. My teeth had been removed.

I mouthed questions; the sacked head only stared back with its blank, stitched expression.

My captor turned and went to the other side of the room. Metal scraped metal—a search for the right tool. The figure turned back to face me, head tilted. “Take comfort in the fact that none of this is in vain.” The sack lowered close to my ear and whispered, “I’m not going to eat you if that’s what you’re thinking.”

He shrugged and began to draw a line for the next incision. As he bent over I saw a chart of the human body and its organs taped on the wall, much like you’d see in any doctor’s office. But this one had clearly marked prices labeled for each and every part.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

 

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Apocalypse Smiling

Our tiny corner of the world ended not with a bang, but with a whisper of words. Ugly words that spread like a plague. It ended with men coming in the night for the innocent, with protests and anger, martial law and border walls. 

It ended with fear.

The strange thing, we saw it coming and let it happen, as if we couldn’t believe the chaos. Sure there were protests, and people speaking out, but most sat back and waited. Until it was too late. Until they were herded and segregated and culled.

I was fourteen.

It was my mother and me back then. We tried to run, like so many. 

And like so many we failed to escape.

They caught us fleeing the city, dozens of groups with the same idea. I remember people running and screaming and the sounds of shots. Of my mother being yanked away by the force of the panicking crowd and her hand slipping from mine. I remember the look of horror on her face as we separated.  

They rounded up the survivors and took them back. I can still see the bodies of the dead lying in the streets as the guards dragged us away. One woman had her head bashed in with rivers of blood flowing from her skull.

I never saw my mother again.

It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s too late.

Our hope died that day.

Some still tried for a while after that, appealed to other places for aid, salvation, anything.

But the rest of the world had enough of us.

No one came to help.

We stand alone now, in a cesspool of hate, other countries turning their backs on us with sanctions and restrictions and closed borders. The government runs everything, food and clothing distribution, medical aid, housing, and it’s all rationed. Except the authorized religion, there’s plenty of that. And no music, books, or art that isn’t approved by them.

Nobody protests anymore, they’re too busy trying to survive. Every citizen belongs to an affiliation, little more than gangs, holed up in apartment blocks or old city sections surviving day to day on their government allotments and defending their territories. Their strength lies in numbers as they manage a meager existence. Sometimes there are wars between factions, but they don’t last long. There is order in their lives, brutal, visceral, but order.

Outside the affiliations, life is different. 

Anarchy reigns out here. It’s home to criminals, crazies, and other nut jobs. We’re always on the move, living in abandoned homes and other buildings, looting for what scraps remain and willing to knife anyone in the back for a morsel of bread or the wrong word. The patrol guards keep the status quo, keep us out of the affiliation zones and from making a mess in their order.

But people still leave their safe, ordered pens. Trying to run from their own existence, escape to a better life, or live dangerously, there are many motivations. I had one. I made a home out here.

Most don’t. Most are only fools. They think they’ll be free, yet there’s nothing here but killers and streets lined with closed shops and empty houses. 

And death.

That’s why I came.

That’s why I love all the fools.

If they’re lucky, the guards will arrest them. If they’re not lucky… 

They’ll meet me.

I’m the shark in the cesspool, the butcher in the chaos.

You see, my old world ended but I’ve grown to like the new one. No one cares if I kill, or if I paint the streets a scarlet red. No one hears the futile screams that echo from the helpless and the foolish.

No one cares what I do anymore.

And I can stand in the rivers of blood with a smile.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2019 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Flycatcher

Jolene can’t stop staring at Sissy’s scars.

At least, she assumes they’re scars: four pink half-circle indents in the middle of Sissy’s forehead, like the marks left by dug-in fingernails. And Jolene knows she’s being rude, that it’s horrible of her, but she can’t stop, no matter how bad she feels or how much she tells herself to look away.

When she’d come back to town yesterday, ten years after high school, Jolene had expected something different for her one-time friend. A little house with a neat yard and a white picket fence, maybe. A job as a teacher, or editor of the town paper; Sissy had always been smart that way. A husband somewhere at the very least, since Sissy had easily been the most reserved girl in school, the one who blushed brick-red at the dirty jokes told in the lunch line. But not this. Not a seat in a beat-up rocking chair in a saggy rusting trailer on the outskirts of town, with grimy windows and pressboard walls, sweltering under a lazy ceiling fan. Not Sissy herself, now thin and wan and blushless as if she’s been bled. And certainly not Sissy’s one-year-old son Jimmy, crab-creeping strangely across the dirty floor on all fours, who’s been the subject of Jolene’s gaze almost as much as his mother’s marred forehead.

And if Sissy notices the stare, she doesn’t let on. Just drones on about her ex Tyler, Jimmy’s daddy, whom Jolene barely remembers except as a skinny wispy-bearded boy who’d sucked at playing baseball. About Tyler’s meth habit and how she thinks it’s the cause of Jimmy’s condition, and how the doctors at Vanderbilt think so too, though Sissy’s granny always claims it’s from that brown recluse that bit Sissy in her second trimester, and really, Tyler could’ve been a good daddy if he hadn’t blown himself to hell shake-and-baking crank in his mama’s toolshed, and—

Jolene’s broken out of her daze by little limbs clamping around her neck; Jimmy is so light she hadn’t even noticed him clambering into her lap. But his laugh is gurgling and bright, and it makes Sissy stop talking and smile, the first real emotion that’s touched her bloodless face in an hour.

“How ‘bout that,” she says, pulling up out of her worn recliner and clapping her hands. “He’s awful shy of strangers, but I shoulda known he’d take to you, Jo. You just hold him an’ let me find my phone.”

Jimmy crows as Sissy leaves the room, and nuzzles wetly into Jolene’s neck. His little body is stiff and Jolene embraces him awkwardly, dragging her fingers over his thick blond hair. He smells of sour milk and rot, and Jolene finds herself wondering if this trailer had been Tyler’s meth lab. If he’d worn some kind of rings that would account for Sissy’s scars.

Then Jimmy sinks his teeth into her neck.

Jolene’s shout is strangled. The baby’s grip is strong, and she can feel her skin parting for his teeth, for the deep burn of the bite. Then the pain passes, and she realizes something’s leaking into her from his mouth, something that stings and leaves numbness behind. Spots waver in her vision, but she can’t blink them away. She can’t blink at all.

“That’s enough, now.” Sissy lifts Jimmy from Jolene’s lap and sets him back on the floor. Jolene tries to look up at her, tries to speak, but her eyes won’t move and words won’t come, not even when Sissy puts too many hands under her chin and jerks her head up hard enough to make her neck crack.

“I’m sorry it’s you, Jo.” The curved lines on Sissy’s forehead flare more deeply red and then blink open, staring back, one after the other. “But I am glad you came by. We ain’t had a visitor in a while, an’ Jimmy was gettin’ awful hungry.”

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Waiver

Matt parked the car near the front entrance.

“Well, we’re here.”

Chelsea nodded.

“The famous haunted hotel.”

“Yup, the fake haunted hotel. A fraud about to be exposed.”

“Are you sure about this? You could be destroying peoples’ livelihoods.”

“Won’t be the first time.”

He spoke with a sense of pride.

They headed into the reception and were greeted by a young woman. She confirmed their booking. After she’d taken Matt’s credit card details, she reached below the desk and placed a piece of paper in front of them. This was the famous waiver. It wasn’t terribly impressive. Aside from the gothic header, which added a certain flair, Matt saw it was nothing more than just standard liability boiler-plate. Guests could not hold the hotel responsible for any harm that befell them. Guests had to verify they weren’t suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure or a shopping list of other ailments. Blah, blah, blah.

The receptionist was making a show of getting them to read and sign it. This was the first part of the ‘experience’ promised by the hotel’s owners.

“So, is it true then?” asked Chelsea.

“Oh yes. The Charlotte Springs Hotel is the most haunted hotel in the U.S. That’s been verified. We introduced the waiver five years ago when an elderly gentleman suffered a heart attack after seeing a supernatural vision. He tried to sue us.”

“That’s why we’ve come to stay.”

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Australia.”

“Do you think we’ll see some ghosts?”

“I hope you won’t be disappointed. The dearly departed don’t come every night, but you might be lucky.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a guarantee, but it would be nice if they appeared.”

Matt signed the waiver, then passed it to Chelsea who signed. They weren’t a couple, but they pretended to be. It made things easier.

“Your room is number five. The Blue Room. It’s one of the hotspots; lots of guests have had sleepless nights in that room. Lots of sightings.”

Matt picked up the key. It was an old-fashioned iron key; there were no swipe cards in this century-old house, it wouldn’t have suited the ambience. They climbed the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor. The décor was faded, with some of the wallpaper peeling away. The whole place felt worn and unloved. Perhaps this was deliberate, the public didn’t expect to see ghosts in well-maintained, modern establishments.

The Blue Room was actually blue. Pale blue wallpaper, royal blue bedding and a baby blue carpet. It was hideous.

“A bit overdone on the theme,” said Chelsea.

“I think everything is overdone here.”

“I guess they have to make money somehow.”

“Not for much longer.”

The room overlooked the front of the hotel. Matt glanced out the window. It wasn’t as if the town was horrible or rundown. It was just an ordinary small town in an area not renowned for tourist attractions. The hotel was the only place worth visiting. Although Matt considered it a scam, it was clear that a lot of people didn’t. They came to speak to the dead, to find proof of the afterlife or simply for the thrill. They came, spent their money and left.

He fired up his laptop.

“At least they have free Wi-Fi.”

He loaded some bookmarked pages. He read some of the reviews out loud.

“The Charlotte Springs Hotel. So haunted they make you sign a waiver before you can stay. So terrifying you must be crazy to sleep over. A night of creepy noises and supernatural visions. A must-see attraction for anyone interested in the afterlife. Nonsense, all of it.”

“Well, we are here to debunk it.”

“And we will.”

He loaded the hotel’s website.

“Okay, so according to this, there are six rooms. Each room has its own ghost. Very neat, who would have thought the dead were so organized. For example, the White Room has the woman in white. The Red Room has the headless soldier. The Green Room doesn’t have a ghost as such, but apparently guests can look forward to a night of supernatural sobbing and wailing. I won’t recite the whole dreary list, you get the idea.”

“And the Blue Room?”

“The ghost of a child. Reports speak of a small figure, toys moving across the floor. All super-easy to fake.”

“What do you want to do first?”

“Nothing yet. The phenomena only ever appear after dark.”

He checked his watch.

“Three hours to kill. Might as well get some food.”

The hotel restaurant was busy. It was late August, the height of the tourist season. Labor Day would see the number of guests decline. Matt and Chelsea had timed their visit carefully. Matt’s theory was the ‘ghosts’ were more likely to appear when the hotel was full.

Matt glanced around the dining room. Some were normal tourists, but the majority clearly had a spiritual leaning. After ten years of debunking the paranormal he could easily recognize them. These were the people who believed without question in the afterlife, spending their lives crouched over Ouija boards, attending séances and attempting automatic writing.

“I feel sorry for them.”

“Who?”

“The ones who believe. The ones who claim to have found the truth about the afterlife.”

“They seem happy enough.”

“They’re deluded. In all my years of investigating supernatural occurrences, I’m yet to find a single genuine example.”

“What about this hotel? You’re convinced it’s fake. What if it’s not?”

“There’s no life after death.”

“You seem so sure.”

“After ten years investigating, I am.”

“How you do think they do it?”

“Smoke and mirrors. Hidden microphones. Nothing unique.”

“Why do you think they’ve got such a reputation, with such cheap tricks?”

“A proprietor who is a good showman. Look at the waiver, that builds expectations before the guests even get to the room.”

“We’re being manipulated?”

“I’d say so. Guests arrive expecting to see a ghost. They’re told there are ghosts in every room and are made to sign a waiver, implying the visions are so terrifying they might die. That sets up a high probability the guests will see what they want to see. A dummy dressed in a white dress and wig suddenly becomes the ghost of woman abandoned on her wedding night. It’s clever what they’ve done here; I’m guessing it’s twenty percent props and eighty percent the power of suggestion.”

He checked his watch.

“Time to retire. It’ll be dark soon.”

They lay in bed listening to the sounds of the hotel as the guests settled for the night. No doubt some would be having all-night vigils with incense and sage burning. Others, no doubt, had gone to bed, full of trepidation and excitement. Matt, tired after a long drive, fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke when Chelsea grabbed his arm under the blankets. He checked his watch. Two a.m. She was staring at the corner of the room. He looked into the darkness, unable to see anything but shadows. He switched on the bedside light. The figure standing in the corner was so obviously fake Matt had to stifle a laugh. It was the classic kid’s version of a ghost; a figure covered by a sheet with cut-out eyeholes. Matt rolled out of bed.

“I was right, look at that. If we were believers, we would see a terrifying vision of a dead child and not just someone with a sheet over their head.”

A toy car trundled across the wooden floor.

“Radio-controlled.”

He walked over to the figure. It didn’t move. There was a sudden tension in the room.

“Don’t, Matt. It feels wrong.”

Matt ignored her and instead spoke to the figure.

“You’re joking, aren’t you? Is this what I signed the waiver for? Is this what we drove six hours for? Wait until I publish my article. The first sentence will include your name.”

The figure didn’t move. Matt bent forward and stared into the eye holes.

“Well, who do we have here?”

He whipped the sheet away. Underneath there was nothing except a deep, fluid inky blackness. A darkness that almost had the shape of a person. Matt felt coldness emanating from the figure. He stared into the face of the ghost. It giggled, the high sweet laugh of a child. Reality hit Matt, it was real; it had always been real. He felt a crushing pain in his chest and fell to the carpet. The dark shape moved towards Chelsea. Matt’s last coherent thought was that he wished he hadn’t signed the waiver.

 

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.