The Long Walk

Her shoes walked about at night. She could hear them pace through the house all night, yet by morning they always returned to their place by the door, waiting for her.

One morning she came down to find the shoes dirty. More than dirty—ruined. The once-white sneakers were caked with mud, scratched as if from underbrush. She went through the house and found the back door standing open.

That night she brought the shoes to her bedroom and set them down beside her bed. Closing the bedroom door, she settled in to sleep. 

It wasn’t long before her shoes began to shuffle about, then pace the room. She rose and opened the door. The shoes hurried out; she followed close behind. Down the hall, the stairs, to the front door. The shoes shuffled about eagerly as she turned the latch, opened the door. They hurried out, but she hesitated at the threshold, her feet bare.

The shoes returned, organized themselves at her feet, waited. She slipped her feet inside. Before she could close the door behind her, the shoes had already carried her into the night.

The door stood open through the night, the morning, into the afternoon. It was only then that a neighbour came by. He poked his head inside, concerned. He pulled his head back, frightened. 

There by the door were her shoes. They were ragged from their long walk. Torn, scratched by stones and underbrush, they sat there. Stained through and through with blood, they waited.

∼ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

By Proxy

“Remember how we act when we see a cross?” She was glancing at him, or at the reflection of him in her mirror as she applied her makeup. 

He nodded nervously. He looked so tiny and frail and she hoped he never got big. If he appeared strong, it would defeat her purpose.

“And if they sprinkle the water on you?”

He nodded again and mimicked convulsions.

“Good. Now come over here so I can look you over.”

She was lucky that he was so clumsy and bruised easily. He definitely appeared to be on the receiving end of something bad.  She had lavished in the attention from doctors and medical staff, but she was now after bigger game. 

She shooed the boy away and returned to her makeup. “I am having a hard time seeing…eyes all blurry.” She had been feeling strangely lately but was not going to let anything come between her and her big opportunity.

Even though the boy would be the star of the episode, she had to get her look just right. She felt that single-mother faced with a parent’s worse-case-scenario would endear her to Brent Carson. She had stalked his social media for nearly two years; he was very supportive of women’s causes and children’s charities. He was crazy about his dog, too, and she wished she had thought to adopt one to appear sympatico. Applying to be on the show had taken most of her energy and fabricating the back story with the garage sale music box had drained her of any creative impulses.

She wore a dress that was casual enough for an “everyday mom” but that showed off her assets. The boy was in his bed, thermostat turned down in his room, water strategically applied to his hairline and clothing to create the appearance of sweat. She was fighting her jitters when the doorbell rang.

Brent Carson blew past her, instructing the camera operators of how they should set up once they were in the boy’s room. She began to interrupt when Carson told her to wait where she was and that he would be back to debrief her.

She waited, as told, and listened to the sound of equipment being set up in her son’s room. She wondered if she appeared less attentive waiting downstairs while her son, her “whole world” as she had told producers, was upstairs with strange television people in his room. Then again, Carson had told her to wait in place and she wanted to convey to him that she was ready to do anything he asked.

Her uncertainty was put to rest by the sight of Carson descending the stairs. He was tall and broad shouldered with spiky hair that gave the appearance of tousled bed-head, but that she knew took time and consideration to craft. 

“You have traveled such a long way…can I offer you something?” She gestured to the table she had set up with fruit, crackers, tartare, and sushi.

Carson appeared baffled. “Do you normally eat…a lot of raw foods?”

She giggled in a way that she felt was charming. “Animal urges, you know.” She shrugged and batted her eyes, not to clear their blurriness, but in a flirtatious manner. “I was once told I was too pretty to cook.”

“Maybe later,” he mumbled and made his way back to the stairs. “You can stay here, or you can come to the bedroom, but you will have to promise not to intervene, no matter how bad it gets.”

“I will do anything you say,” she replied in what she thought was a seductive, throaty voice.

He stopped mid-climb. “Say that again…” 

“What?”

He paused. “Nothing. Might just be my imagination but you sounded…” He climbed the rest of the steps in silence without finishing his thought. She followed into the bedroom where her son was lying perfectly still on top of the sheets. A priest, or an actor dressed like a priest, was talking to the boy. She felt herself becoming irrationally angry at the sight of this exchange. A low growl escaped her throat.

Carson approached her. “You will have to be silent when we are filming.”

She mimed zipping her lips and slid back into the shadows of the room. The priest read some scripture and the boy laughed demonically, or maybe theatrically. She wished they had practiced that a bit more. The priest then took a small bottle from his vest and began sprinkling the boy. On cue, the boy cringed and convulsed; he writhed and hissed. Carson rolled his eyes at the camera man. 

“Good boy,” she whispered and gave her child the thumbs up. He was so good at following directions, it was his most endearing quality. That, and his willingness to please her. When he had been a baby, he had been quiet and compliant—the perfect wingman for a single-mom on the prowl for some male sympathy. When he had first begun school, he had followed her scripts to a “T.” He perfectly mimicked the excuses she had given him for the bumps and bruises that sometimes appeared on him. She couldn’t always control her temper, or that of the men she brought home, but her son was continuously willing to do whatever it took to defend her. 

Carson took the bottle from the priest and showed it to her. “It is fake…tap water…has he been to a therapist or received any other type of help?”

She tilted her head coyly. “I have moved heaven and earth to help him. I have left absolutely no stone unturned. There is not a moment that goes by that I am not researching how to help him, or making calls, or taking him to appointments.” She stepped closer to Carson, invading his personal space. “Please, you are our last hope.”

Carson recoiled and pointed at her. “You…your nose is bleeding and there is…it looks like blood coming from your eyes.”

The priest, or actor/priest, heard what Carson said and he turned toward her with a crucifix in his hand. The boy was watching intently, forgetting that he should react to the relic. His mother had a large enough reaction for them both. 

Words came from her mouth that she could not recognize. Then clearly, in English, she said, “I know how and when you will die, but you are better off not knowing.”

Carson looked to the camera man and said excitedly, “I think we have a real one…after all this time, we finally have a real possession.”

They pushed the boy aside and strapped his mom to the bed.  As the “holy water” was useless, they used prayers and other relics on her. The actor/priest had been able to obtain communion wafers, and those paper-thin discs provided photogenic evidence as they seared on her skin. 

Brent Carson was salivating at the thought of the ratings for this episode.

The boy knew he should try to help his mother but watching her struggle beneath the ties that lashed her to the bed was pleasing to him. Welts and bruises appeared on her flesh, and he knew how that felt. He also knew that his mother wanted the attention of Brent Carson. He had been ordered to not interrupt the two if they were interacting, and he had been trained to follow orders.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Bauble

Alice looked at the exhibit in front of her. She tried activating it. She ran her hand over the smooth panels that were presented to her, but none seemed to work. She guessed that the power banks on them had expired, but could not reach the other panels as they were set too high. She was angry that this unit was obviously set for taller people. At just eight years old she was frustrated that the exhibits at the World Fair were always aimed at adults, especially as this one was held over the Christmas holidays.

She wandered off, leaving her mum to check out the other attractions; but those queues were so long, and Alice didn’t like waiting in line. This one was set way back, right on the edge of the perimeter, and no queue at all. It was such a tall tent, she just had to investigate.

“Hey, careful with that,” came a gruff voice from behind her.

She jumped sideways in a startled fright, not knowing he was there, and removed her grip from the latest panel that she had tried to get some sort of response from.

“I’m sorry mister,” she muttered. “But I think it’s broken already.”

“It’s not broken. It’s working just fine,” he snapped back.

“But what does it do?”

“Do? Do? It does everything, and at the same time, nothing. It’s a perpetual machine. It’s far more superior than the other exhibits here. It’s self powering. Ever heard of a self powering machine?” he asked.

“Alice, Alice?” a panicked voice came from somewhere outside.

Alice turned to leave; but not forgetting her manners, stopped and thanked the man for his time, adding, “It’s different, but kind of dumb.”

The man just smiled and gave her a wink.

She exited and ran towards her mother, smiling as she was lifted off her feet and given a huge hug.

“How many times have I told you not to leave my side?” her mum scolded her.

The old man gave them both a wave and, reluctantly, Alice’s mother smiled and waved back. He was not the sort of person that she wanted her daughter talking to. He looked strange. His clothes appeared tattered and he had an unnerving look about him.

Alice and her mother walked away over the metal platelets that covered the ground, each one lighting against the darkening night as they trod on them.

“Have you had your packed lunch?” her mother asked.

Alice took out a rehydration pill and then her favourite ‘rhubarb and custard’ one. To Alice, and anyone her age that had taken them, rhubarb and custard was just a taste and nothing more.

Bill decided to close down for the day. It didn’t seem worth staying open when no one apart from that one little girl had bothered to visit his ‘Last tree on earth’ exhibit. ‘Last tree?’ that was an understatement. He hadn’t seen another piece of organic flora in twenty years; not since his best friend, Gerry, had thrown his ailing rosebush into the incinerator.

He looked back solemnly. The elm’s leaves, although large, we’re starting to turn a greyish brown. He hadn’t managed to find any fresh soil for longer than he could remember. And as for liquid H2O, or water as it used to be called, that was getting scarcer by the day.

He ran his hands up against the bark and smiled to himself. “Well, my old friend, looks like you’re as about as outdated and unwanted as me.”

He poured an acid compound around the roots. After climbing its trunk and walking the length of its longest and highest branch, he smiled, and at the same time wept. He remembered the historic practice of hanging decorations from real trees this time of year. As he let himself drop with a noose around his neck, there was a quick snapping sound that reverberated around his head for a split second. Within that brief moment he couldn’t help but see the irony of his actions. For, although it wasn’t a fir or pine, he truly would be the last Christmas Bauble that hung from a real tree.

~ Ian Sputnik

© Copyright 2021 Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 47

In the Light
Miriam H. Harrison

The light lasts longer here. A trick of angles, squeezing every last drop of daylight from the sun. When I followed the path, found this place sitting in the light, I took it for a sign. I wanted to be here—in this place blessed by the sun.

And so I entered.

If you find my path, don’t follow. Stay out there in the light. The light outside lingers. But the darkness inside—that lasts longer than you’ll ever know.


The Weight of Stone
Charles Gramlich

The gold stone sweats light in the dawn. But I am not lit. I lie within. All in black, all in shadow. I pray to the night, to the ancient and puissant god of the dead—to he who is swollen with rot and bile. And I smile as I pray to myself in the mirror of your dreaming eyes.

Can you not hear me prance close? A devil to man! A lord to devils! I love the teeth in your mouth, the bite in your words. But I will not come to you. To summon me, you must light the candle in the whiskey dark—while I sing from a throat blistered by scorpions. To summon me, you must offer pearls of honeyed blood from your unshriven lips.

No, I will not come to you. Not yet. But I will wait. For your nightmare to end.

And the next to begin.


The Citadel de Sangre
Marge Simon

Bumming around Spain the summer after college, me and my buddy Garth stopped in the village of Tabernas. Both of us were keen to check out this one place in particular – the Citadel, at the edge of the desert.  Lots of folklore about it. 

When we got to Alamira, I asked an old woman about it. “La Ciudadela? Si. It’s an ancient fortress, a sanctuary built by an ancient civilization to keep out demons.  But beware, a hijo mio, it’s no sanctuary now!” When I asked what she meant, she shook her head, muttering “Los que beben sangre!” 

Garth checked his Spanish pocket dictionary “Way cool! She means “those who drink blood.”  He looked up, grinning. “Like I’m scared, dude,” he whispered to me. The guy running the tourist office talked us into taking along his daughter as a guide. Carmillita was a weird little gal with stringy dark curls, but she spoke good English. Something about her made me uncomfortable, but Garth thought she was hot. 

Our shirts were soaked with sweat when we finally arrived at the Citadel.  It was a sturdy structure, made from yellow native stone. We relaxed in the cool interior. I found a wine stash and we downed a couple bottles. Garth and the gal were enjoying some primo Spanish grass and talking. Last I noticed, she was licking his neck. Threesomes weren’t my style. I nodded off after dusk.

“Wake up, buddy. Carmillita wants you with us.” it was Garth’s voice next to me in the dark. That gal was crouching beside him, eyes glowing red in the dark.

“Huh?” I asked sleepily.


“It ain’t for sex, dude.”  A sudden flash of white fangs in the moonlight, his mouth on my neck. He stopped sucking to grin at me, blood streaming down his chin. 

Guess I wasn’t going to need that fucking degree in Economics after all.


All Day Sucker
Elaine Pascale

I have eyes but cannot see.

The darkness is everywhere.

I have ears but cannot hear.

The dead are polite in their silence.

My mouth is shut, clamping down on the screams that rest on my tongue like a demented all day sucker.

I should have known to turn down the contract, but the money was too good.

I should have known that I would never see the money. It was just that good.

Always be suspicious of a request to build a “secret room.” Especially if that room is beneath a centuries-old mausoleum.

The dead do not need a place for their secrets.

I know that teenagers come to smoke on the steps, but they are too far away to be aware of me. I can smell their pungent exhalations. I imagine they tell scary stories while getting high in the cemetery. They may even fabricate nightmares about being locked in with the bodies that rot.  If they knew of me, I would become just another ghost story.

I am a ghost story.


Marla
Lee Andrew Forman

Respite from day, an escape from all that ails, is what Harold desired most. So to this monument of silence he traveled each night, and beneath each moon and all its phases, he spent his better hours with the speechless and unmoving. Never a word had been spoken to his kin about these endeavors. A secret dream—of joy, of a stillness which calmed a distressed heart.

No lock barred entry, no watchmen to guard against invasion; he was free to rest his weary bones with Marla, the occupant within the marble box. He painted her in his mind as he saw fit, imaginings of a fine woman, far beyond what he deemed himself worthy of.

But when he approached the old doors this night, one stood ajar. He scurried to peek within the dark mausoleum. Three young men sat inside with booze, drinking in a stupor, regarding precious Marla with uncouth disrespect.

Harold made himself known as a silhouette in the doorway. The young heathens stood, violence rising within their stance. Harold shook. His poor frame would never overcome them.

Then the massive lid opened on its own. From within rose the dried remains of Marla. Bone fingers stabbed at bewildered eyes. Her other arm thrust like a spear into another’s abdomen. The young man gaped at the near-black fluid poured from his wound. The third boy tried to run, but Marla caught him by the neck. She pulled him into her embrace and crushed his ribcage, watching red spurt from his mouth.

When the bloodshed ended, Marla’s eyeless sockets stared at Harold. Although she had no lips with which to smile, he felt affection ebb from her marrow. He approached this miracle with blind joy. Marla’s skeletal hands wrapped themselves around Harold, pulled him into her coffin, and closed the lid.


Resting Place
RJ Meldrum

The mausoleum was a triumph of architecture and style. It dominated the landscape for miles, and had been built to be deliberately in the direct line of sight of the manor house were the Duke resided. It was to be his final resting place and he took huge pride in that fact, not that he intended to change residence anytime soon. The townsfolk, the people who worked in the mines belonging to the Duke, had a different perspective. The Duke was greedy and stupid, focused only on profit. He ordered his engineers to dig too close to the surface and to skimp on tunnel supports. Shafts routinely collapsed, burying miners. The fatality rate was five times the of nearby mines. The Duke paid the families handsomely to cover it up, but now the final straw had been reached. Due to shallow excavations, parts of the town had subsided, killing a number of women and children. The men congregated in the mausoleum. A solution had been found. Muffled cries and entreaties could he heard from inside the crypt. A voice pleaded with them to let him out, save his life, but the miners did not respond or move a finger to help. The Duke, a soft-handed aristocrat, would learn what it was like to be buried alive, suffocated while the air ran out. It was a fitting memorial.


Mausoleum
A.F. Stewart

The stone tomb hadn’t been there yesterday.

But yesterday the world had been normal.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear the song.

It began on my morning run. The vision of the stone structure standing in the park haloed against the warm sun. So majestic, so serene.

So inviting.

Music floated from the entrance, a deep entrancing voice singing of peace, of darkness, of stars and fire. Calling my name. Promising me the serenity of his everlasting love. I was on the steps before someone bumped into me. I heard “Sorry,” and looked away. When I looked back, the tomb vanished.

But the echo of the song remained.

That’s why I returned to the park after moonrise. Somehow, I knew he would return before the next sunrise. I knew he was waiting for me.

In the silence of my mind I heard his voice, his sweet, sultry tune of peace and destruction, filling the darkest hours until my prayers were answered. I raced up the stone steps of the tomb, dashing into its dark maw. I laughed as his tentacles encircled me and drew me into death’s embrace, his sweet voice my lullaby into eternal rest and his undying love.


Hope
Nina D’Arcangela

By day, they climb the stairs, stare through the locked grate to catch a glimmer of what lay inside. At dusk, I open the gates, hope one will stray, and step beyond the threshold. This eve is no exception. As the moon trades its place with the sun, the gleam from inside is irresistible. Stunned by the glittering interior, it pauses. I see the greed in its eyes. Just one step further and I will have you. The exterior of the tomb is stunning, but once beyond the iron that was wrought to keep the rabble out, the walls are inlayed with gems that glisten opalescent shades. I am as old as the stone, I hunger as it does, but am not allowed a portion until they have had theirs. If I have done my job adequately, some may feast; if done well, all will sup – myself included.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2021

Only

It took seven men to exhume the body of the second Mrs. Chapman, while from a distance, he watched. From his high study window, Mr. Chapman saw as they arrived at the cemetery, raised a wall of fabric against the eyes of the town. From above, he could see their busy digging and knew that it would not be long before the coffin was raised from its slumber, his beloved with it.

His heart broke, but it was a beautiful breaking. He thought of how she had looked, laid out at the funeral. She had wished to be buried in her wedding dress, with her golden hair fastened back as it had been on that precious day. They had even arranged for a bouquet: carnations, in a range of blushing colours. She held them to her silent bosom when he saw her last, her face calmly waiting. He had wanted nothing more than to give his I do, lean forward, kiss her. But he knew he must be patient.

That had been only two days ago, but already it had been too long. The house was much too empty, his bed much too cold. He had turned to the police—a perfect facsimile of the grieving widower turned paranoid. He had said that he could not rest, could not believe that the body beneath the earth belonged to his young wife. Thankfully, he was also a wealthy widower. In time, he had been able to arrange that the body be exhumed, and then identified by him alone. It would not be long now before he would drive to the cemetery, bring his smallest buggy into the curtained space, and look upon his beloved.

Alone, he would arrange for her return.

He counted on the morbid stench to dampen the curiosity of the others. He was certain that once he left, there would be no need for them to reopen the coffin or for them to think the deathly weight was in fact the carefully prepared sandbags, ready to be returned to their earthly mother. And he would be free to return to his home, no longer alone.

Oh, he was eager to hold her, to bring her body back over their threshold. Already he missed the touch of her hand, the caress of her body. There would need to be changes, of course. Just enough to escape the gossip of the townspeople. Perhaps a wider face, a rounded nose, a sprinkling of freckles. Brown hair: he was sure she would like that. He could already imagine her prancing before a mirror, enjoying the newness of her body, the newness of her life. But her eyes, those would stay—as they always had, as they always would. Those were the eyes that had first drawn him in, captured his attention, his heart. Those were the eyes that inspired his work.

In time, there would be yet another opulent wedding. To the world, she would be a newcomer: the third Mrs. Chapman. But to her—to him—she was his only.

∼ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Drop Ceiling

“Someone took my ceiling.”

He said this sincerely despite how ludicrous it sounded.

“Someone…took…your…ceiling?” My cautious approach was attributed to his prior periods of paranoia and psychosis. My brother is schizophrenic and, at times, has a tenuous relationship with reality.

“Yes.”

“There is a hole in the top of your house?” I suggested.

He rolled his eyes. “They didn’t steal my roof, only my ceiling. In my living room.”

I had been hinting around for a visit lately, but our Facetime calls always ended before I could get him to agree. Seeing the state of his house helped to clue me into the state of his mind and I always felt better after I had stocked his freezer with casseroles and stews. “Could I see it?”

He nodded. “It’s not bad, actually. I think I like it. Opens the room up a bit.”

***

He had been describing the truth; his ceiling appeared to be gone.

Standing in his living room, I had a view into the attic above, but it was a distorted one, as if I were looking through a window streaked with rain drops.

“How long has it been like this, Leon?”

He scratched his head, a nervous tick he had developed in childhood. “Since yesterday. I saw it right before I told you about it. I saw it, and then I told you.”

“I am glad you did,” I said. My heart was pounding, but I put on a brave face for him. I went to retrieve a step ladder from his garage. Back in the living room, I climbed it and reached up. My hand sunk into a gelatinous plasma. It was warm, like the inside of a mouth or other orifice. When I withdrew my hand, my fingers appeared webbed with a translucent substance. It pulsed and I was repulsed. I ran to the bathroom to disinfect my hands.

“You need to leave.” I insisted when my fingers finally felt like my own again.

He shook his head. “But they are watching me.”

“Who?”

“The ones who caused the accident.”

Two decades prior, we had been involved in a car accident with our family. A light, maybe oncoming headlights, had temporarily blinded our dad. Next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. My parents were fine, but my brother’s head had been shaved and he had a long scar above his left ear that ran from the end of his eyebrow to the back of his head.

The accident had gifted me with a matching scar on my pelvic region. We called ourselves “the twins of the lesions of power” and we made up fantastical stories about the origin of the scars and their supernatural gifts. Leon mostly told the same story, about a spaceship that had been in the area where we were driving. At times, he claimed having seen it right before the crash, and of seeing beings who took his brain to better understand earth. He used to tell me that the beings had left him with the brain of someone else.

Because of this story, he had shown no surprise when he had been diagnosed with mental health issues years later.

He insisted that because he had witnessed the exchange of his brain, he was able to remember it. He complained that the new brain was problematic. He would also tell me that my scar was related to a reproductive study. He would tease me and tell me that when the beings returned, they might insert a tenant into my vacant womb.

I was having a difficult time gathering my thoughts and I was concerned that I had just touched some contaminant. “You need to come home with me.”

“I am fine,” he assured me.

“Leon, there is something…very wrong here. I am scared and I want you with me.” I rolled down the top of my sweatpants to where my scar had faded to a faint pale line. “I need the twin powers to help me deal with this.”

This had no effect on him. He tapped his skull and said, “I have been dealing with this alone for a long time.”

***

The next day, I called my lawyer friend to see if I could legally force my brother to live with me. I could not leave him in that house with whatever was throbbing on the ceiling.

“It may be possible with a mental health power of attorney. Has he been incapacitated?”

I was not sure how to answer that. I would sound as if my mental health were in jeopardy if I reported what I had seen or felt.

After gathering some sage advice and doing a little research, I went to Leon’s. I was thinking I could maybe convince him to come for a night and then we would move forward from there.

He seemed unsure about letting me in.

“Can I see your ceiling again?” I asked, trying to keep my tone natural.

“I don’t think you need to.” He looked over his shoulder, as if there were someone else in the house.

I also peered over his shoulder and saw that the ceiling was now covered with short, red, swaying stalks that looked like seaweed being swept about by waves.

“Leon—”

“Let’s go to the park.” He shut the door behind him and took my elbow, directing me away from his door.

In the park, I tried to reason with him. “There is something really wrong with your house, Leon.”

“There is always something wrong.” He scratched his head, his fingers lingering in the mass of hair covering his scar.

“Not with you, Leon, there is nothing wrong with you, but I am worried about what I am seeing.” I took his chin in my hand and forced him to make eye contact. “I see it too, Leon. It is very real, and I am very scared. If you come to my house, maybe we can have someone come look at it. Maybe it is some kind of mold or something—”

He leaned away from me. “You know exactly what it is, and it isn’t mold. If you just tried, you would remember, too. You would remember what they did to us…they’re back.”

I went along with this reasoning, hoping to get him to see that I was on his side. “Why would they be back?”

“To collect more data. I was only a child then, so my brain told them childish things. I have an adult brain now…and you…you have adult…”

I rubbed my temples. My fear was turning into frustration. I felt a loss over how to help him and I was the only one left who could help him. “Can you just come to my house for one night? Tonight?”

He considered this. “I will come tomorrow night. There is a show on Encounter Plus I want to watch but I forgot your login information. I will watch it at your place.”

I was relieved. I would go home and see what paperwork I could draw up. I told him I would pick him up the next morning.

***

After I had spent some minutes knocking, he answered the door and looked at me blankly. His head had been shaved. The scar from childhood boasted a fresh crimson line.

“Leon?”


He shook his head. “I think you have the wrong house.” He scratched his scar and winced.

“No. Leon. It’s me. I want to come in.”

He looked at me sadly. “I don’t know you, lady. I am sorry.”

I peeked over his shoulder to see that his living room now had a ceiling. It was as if it had never been gone.

“Leon. I am your sister. You had promised you would come home with me today.”

His face grew cold. “My sister died twenty years ago in a car accident.” He slammed the door shut.

I rubbed my lower abdomen absentmindedly. I was blinking back tears and forcing myself to remain calm. I wanted to beat down his door; I also wanted to run away and never look at this door again. I was sure that I was about to lose my mind. This was his most extreme episode yet. Even at the most extreme, he always recognized me.

I decided to take some space and determine a plan. I went home and flung myself on my bed. Before I could entertain any rational thought, I dissolved into tears, crying until I fell asleep from exhaustion.

***

When I woke, I felt something was different about my room. I expected to see my ceiling fan in motion when I opened my eyes. Instead, I was able to see directly into the crawlspace that used to inhabit the other side of my now absent bedroom ceiling.

While stifling a scream, I realized that it did open up the room a bit.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Heaven Didn’t Wait

What is on the other side? Throughout my investigations, I had been told many things. From utopia to dystopia. From everlasting peace to damnation. I had to see for myself and could not wait for the natural timeline of my life to play out before I discovered the true answer. I had to know now.

So, I stepped across the sacred bridge between life and death by my own hand. A brief moment of pain; no drama, just a feeling of panic as the life ebbed from my veins.

I awoke in darkness with the sound of trudging feet beside me. As I looked up I saw an immense line of the departed walking onwards along a barren path through dust and ash. I joined that line and followed the ranks of that march.

After an excruciatingly long trek, I saw a huge structure ahead of us. It appeared to be an archway with walls that stretched as far as the eye could see. We all quickened our pace, our final goal just another day or so away. Eventually, the line paused as we took in the sight that befell us.

Heavy gates lay impudent on the ground. If these were the pearly gates, they had lost their protective purpose as well as their sheen a long, long time ago. They were rusted and sat decaying in the dry dirt. The walls were scorched and crumbling. The towers were smashed and their stones lay in piles around their foundations.

All around me the shadows of the dead walked with no direction, desire or hope. They were now beaten and defeated souls. As I looked beyond the queue of the devastated dead, I saw hordes of millions, no, billions huddled and howling in the distance.

It was at that moment my predicament finally hit home, like a knife through the heart. The words in the holy book were only based on truth up until a certain point in time, and everything thereafter was a lie. The war in heaven had not been won. Neither side had been victorious. No heaven above, not even a hell below. The two sides had fought to the bitter end. If any had survived, they had long since fled. Either way, they had not been here for many an aeon. All the almighty could offer us was far from redemption, only the burnt remains of an epic battle – his last stand. And beyond our mortality, no last refuge, no final hope. There was, in fact, nothing but an eternity of existing amongst the ruins of Armageddon.

Ian Sputnik

© Copyright Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Lifetime Achievement Award Winner – Marge Simon!

HUGE CONGRATULATIONS to Marge Simon for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association at this year’s 2021 StokerCon!

Marge Simon, Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Marge Simon lives in Ocala, Florida with her husband, poet/writer Bruce Boston and the ghosts of two cats. She edits a column for the HWA Newsletter, “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side.” Marge’s poems and stories have appeared in Pedestal Magazine, Asimov’s, Crannog, Silver Blade, Bete Noire, New Myths, Daily Science Fiction. She attends the ICFA annually as a guest poet/writer and is on the board of the Speculative Literary Foundation. She has won the Rhysling, several Stoker’s and the Strange Horizons Reader’s Award. She is the second woman to be acknowledged by the SF &F Poetry Association with a Grand Master Award.

Marge has been a member of Pen of the Damned since June 2019. If you’d like to reach out to Marge, you can find her using the Facebook link below, and by all means, feel free to visit her Amazon author page so you too can experience why this distinguished poet and author is so incredible!

Facebook: Marge Simon
Amazon Author Page: Marge Simon


The Feast

There would be bodies. Her mother had already warned her about the smell, about the morbid pull of curiosity. You’ll want to look, she had said. But don’t. You’ll only spoil your appetite.

In her unease, Isa had no appetite left to spoil. She paddled through the darkness, having only old habits to guide her. There was nothing to see but blackness, nothing to hear but the whispering waters against her paddle. She tried to remember her mother’s words, the pieces of advice scattered like bread crumbs to lead her home.

They want you to believe you don’t belong here. They think your humanity will make you weak, but you can prove them wrong. You will show them you belong.

Belong. It was a strange word—one that never seemed to fit. Did she ever truly belong here among the shapeshifters and specters? Here where the river was dark with spirits and the sun was an unconvincing myth? Those whispers from the water echoed her doubts, but there among the murmurs was another voice, clearer in its familiarity.

They want you to doubt. They want your questions to shake you. They want you to believe you belong to a world you have never seen. But this is your home to claimif you want it.

Wanting was a luxury Isa had never known, though it had built her world. Wanting had driven her mother to the underrealm, driven her to eat their dark feast and trade sunlight for shadows. Isa had been born into these shadows, born of flesh fed by the underrealm. For a time, that had been enough to claim her place. But that time had passed with her mother. Her mother’s wanting had brought them here; her heart and passion had made it home. But Isa did not have her heart. Without its steady rhythm, could any place be home?

Faint torch light flickered far across the water. Isa paddled closer, drawn to the light like the many crawling, scuttling things of the deep. She could sense their movements in the cavern around her. As the light grew stronger, she could see the dark shapes moving along the walls and ceiling, their bodies long as her canoe, their legs, eyes, carapaces gleaming.

At last Isa drew up close to the rocky shore. She pulled her vessel safely up from the whispering waters, away from the paths of hurrying insects. They had cleared trails through the dirt, the torchlight drawing them to earthen tunnels that glowed with a still deeper light.

This was as far as Isa had ever come. Every other year she had sat with the canoe as her mother changed for the feast, disappearing among the swarm. She only knew the feast as a time of boredom and waiting. But not this year.

Isa followed the eager procession of insects, jostled by their long bodies through too-narrow tunnels, until at last they emerged into a wide cavern. Here, the polished stone walls gleamed in the glow of countless torches, illuminating a seething heap at the centre of the chamber that rose high above her. The insects hurried into this heap, hungry for the feast, the air above them filled with warm light and the stench of decay.

You came.

Isa looked up high to the top of the writhing heap. There, atop a tower of bones stripped bare by the frenzy, sat two great beetles. One, purple-black, was feeding on the maggots born of the heap. Beside him, his queen gleamed in emerald tones. She watched Isa, her gaze steady over twitching antennae.

“Yes, your Highness,” Isa said, quickly dropping into a low bow. “I have come to join the feast.”

Why?

Isa looked up into those emerald eyes. Under their gaze, her answers suddenly felt fragile, empty.

“This is my home,” she said at last. “I wish to stay.”

Why?

Isa’s tongue sat empty. She thought only of the whispering river, the voice that carried above all others, speaking in death with more heart and strength than Isa had ever felt in life.

“This is my home,” she said again. “This is the world my mother chose. I choose it, too.”

The emerald queen considered her in silence. Then as Isa watched, those insect features melted, twisted, shaped themselves into a new form. Isa looked up into a human face, beautiful and tragic.

“I know of the choice between worlds,” the queen said. “I know of the strength of mothers, too—how they can tie you to a world of their choosing. But what of your strength?”

Looking into the queen’s face, Isa thought of her mother’s features, her strength. Isa had inherited her eyes, her nose, when what she needed most was her heart.

“My strength is my choice,” Isa said. “I choose to stay.”

“Then eat.”

At the queen’s words, a path cleared through the heap’s frenzy. The bodies of countless dead creatures were exposed—raw and rotten—and despite her mother’s warning, Isa looked. There in the heap was a familiar form with eyes and nose much like her own, though bloated with death and decay.

You’ll only spoil your appetite.

Despite the grief and revulsion churning her stomach, Isa stepped forward. She climbed into the heap, the way wet and slippery with death, but she continued until she reached her mother’s body. Much of her torso had already been eaten away, but her ribcage was intact, its strength guarding her great treasure.

You will show them you belong.

Isa reached into her mother’s chest and pulled from it her heart. It filled her hand, heavy and still. Could this thing be the same heart that had brought her mother to this place, that had brought Isa to this moment?

She bit into it.

Isa’s mouth filled with a warm wetness, with the taste and smell of rot. But as she ate, her senses changed. Each bite became sweeter, more satisfying, tasting of pomegranates. That taste fed a deep hunger that had gone unnamed. It was an awakening—the answer to questions she had never thought to ask.

Fed by her mother’s flesh, a new strength flowed through her. It sprang  from her own heart, reaching out into the many limbs that stretched from her new-formed body. That strength surrounded her, joining her to the frenzy all around. Her senses fill with life, with connection, with the thrill of the feast.

She ate, savouring the sweetness of home.

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Heart of Stone – Guest Author Elaine Pascale

“She ruined you,” the voices hissed.

The voices were always there; their reptilian cadence was unavoidable. They were not made-up voices. They were not imaginary friends. Sthenno and Euryale could not escape the voices because they were connected to their heads.

There is something to be said for multiple slithering ids, writhing with the weight of a dozen demi-demons, tempting a Gorgon by cooing her darkest thoughts. The snakes were like Sirens, and they made the sisters want to bash their brains out with sharp rocks.

The snakes’ red eyes lit the night, making sleep elusive. Their warm bodies added a cumbersome burden to the days, forcing the former maidens into abject inertia. The captive Gorgons were defenseless to the heft of their slinky bodies and the gravitas of their suggestions.

She needs to be punished,” the snakes commanded, and Sthenno could not help but agree.

It had not always been this way. The girls had been beautiful, famous, and desirable. Their faces had appeared on vases and plates and parchment. Everyone had wanted to gaze at them and they had adored being the object of gazes.

Too soon they would find that infatuated regards were a thing of the past. “She cut you off from the world, from all that you love,” the snakes reminded them. “She is the betrayer.”

“The curse?” Euryale mouthed. Sthenno nodded, “If something were to happen to her, would the curse be lifted?”

The snakes sighed happily, as if tasting ambrosia in the air. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

#

Many moons before, the gods had blessed the girls with love and adoration. The sisters had fans and those fans craved viewing the three of them together. The people desired glimpses of the beautiful faces, and the special attributes that made the Gorgons seem better than everyone else. Euryale had a speaking voice that would shame any Siren. Sthenno had a magical left eye that could show her the past and predict the future. And Medusa had an extremely enviable, voluptuous figure.

The girls had been promised to Athena. Their public personas were of purity, and the sisters worked very hard to maintain that reputation. Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa spent as much time at the temple as they did sleeping, bathing, and eating combined. At the temple, they performed their duties; they practiced to become priestesses. According to law, they cleaned at night, draped in cloth that was no more beguiling than the rags that wiped the stone and bronze clean. They sacrificed their time and many days of their youth, and they sacrificed the very purist as tributes to the Goddess. No one sacrificed more than Medusa, the mortal one.

No one sought to fill her limited days with delight more than the sole ephemeral Gorgon. At night, Medusa would sneak out, her long rows of braids trailing behind her in the moonlight. Sthenno would pretend not to notice. “Because we are immortal, we have all of eternity to salvage what she might do to our reputation,” Euryale would whisper, her voice like soft notes plucked on a lyre, “because she is mortal, we can outrun the damage she does.”

Euryale had been right, up to a point. She had not foreseen Medusa becoming involved with the Minotaur. She had not forecast that Medusa would bring the muscled and musty bull-man back to their home and flaunt him in their faces. Euryale had not predicted that Sthenno’s knack for sibling rivalry would lead her directly into the arms of Nessus, the Centaur. Even Sthenno’s oracular eye had not predicted that her game would backfire and that she would fall in love.

Love in the time of Athena meant secrecy and fear, yet it was worth the risk. Sthenno had the warmth of her centaur which was more than the equivalent of thousands of adoring fans. She had the lingering nibbled kisses from his bearded face to see her through her chores. She had him to confide in when she wanted to complain about Medusa; his very existence lessened her need for competition with her siblings. A complex maze, rivaling the one in Crete, metaphorically stood between Sthenno and Medusa; yet, she held no ill will for her mortal sister. Sthenno would love Medusa, as long as love loomed large in her heart.

Then, Medusa had to go and cross the line with Poseidon.

“He forced himself on me!” Medusa had cried and Sthenno had felt the need to protect her sister. Sthenno had believed Medusa, had wanted to believe in her fidelity to the extent of nearly ignoring her illuminating eye. But the eye won out. It showed a seductive Medusa, clinging to the sea rocks, weathering waves and ocean spray, for the opportunity to be with a god.

Crying rape, lying about rape was a sin. Medusa, cursed with a short life, had always been the most concerned with damage control. The gods did not look very kindly upon lying; Athena was even less sympathetic toward broken vows.

The temple witnessed an act of violence far worse than any swift sacrifice. Athena grabbed Medusa by her enviable braids and threw her to the ground. The sisters were forced to share the wrath of the goddess. Euryale’s voice was transformed into an ear-splitting shriek, and Sthenno’s prophetic eye was darkened. The following day, the Gorgons’ bruised and sore bodies told tales of assault. The wounds would heal; an extra violation had taken place that would impair them for all time. Euryale and Sthenno awoke with serpent crowns, sealed to their scalps. Medusa, also plagued with snakes, remained in a permanent sleep.

Euryale moaned and her voice was nearly deafening. Sthenno shushed her, keeping her raised finger out of reach of the snakes. All the while, Medusa slept on, blissfully unaware of their state.

Sthenno’s scalp was crawling, slithering, coiling and recoiling. Inside her head, she was screaming. Outside, the snakes had begun talking. “She ruined you,” they repeated: a mantra meant to incite hatred.

Sthenno would not hate until she knew the true condition of her love. She needed to find him. She needed to see if Nessus would still have her.

She found herself running, but she could not outrun the snakes. Their unreasonable weight was much less of a burden than their words. “He will reject you,” they warned. “And it is all her fault.”

Rejection would have been easier to bear than what transpired when Nessus laid eyes on his lover.

Being newly cursed, the Gorgons had not been warned about the result of their gazes. Nessus dropped to his knees, quivering in pain. Being part equine, he did not turn immediately to stone.

She stood over him. “Do you love me?” she gasped, praying to any god available for confirmation. His body twitched and his eyes rolled back in his head, but he did not answer. He also did not die.

Being a merciful Gorgon, Sthenno snatched the satchel that her lover had dropped. She pierced his heart with a poison arrow; breaking his heart so it now matched her own.

#

“The weight,” Euryale mouthed to Sthenno and rolled her eyes in the direction of the toiling scales that wound and entangled on top of her head. She mouthed her words, not to keep secrets from the snakes—they were reptilian mind-readers—but because her voice was so destructive.

For Sthenno, the weight was nothing in comparison to her murderous rage.

“There is a way,” the snakes whispered to Sthenno, “A king is seeking a challenge for a young man. He wants it to be deadly and dangerous. We will convince him that Medusa is awake. We will convince him to force this Perseus to return with her head.”

While she knew that Euryale would be devastated at the death of their sister, Sthenno felt no emotion at all.

The snakes were as smart as they were silky. They helped Sthenno to convince Euryale that she would have no blood on her hands. “She deserves it,” they hissed, “So focused on her fame, her figure, her lovers. And she sleeps through the worst days of your life! You can get rid of her, end it all, simply by doing nothing—

Euryale cut them off and addressed Sthenno, as if they were the only two within hearing distance. “We always knew we would have to live without her…at some point.”

Sthenno, made of stone, readily agreed, “It’s just sooner than we expected. That is all.”

#

The days crept as they always did when your days have no end, until the snakes began excitedly announcing that Perseus was near.

Sthenno crept to Euryale’s side and stroked her cheek. “Here,” she handed her a drink she had made. They would both sleep soundly. They would both be unable to hear Perseus’ approach; they would both be unable to help their mortal sister. Their consciences, if not their scalps, would be free of snakes.

They would rebuild their status: they had forever to salvage their reputations.

Sthenno drank her concoction and slept as if dead. When she and Euryale awoke, Medusa was gone. Precisely, Medusa’s head was gone.

And the snakes fell silent.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.