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.

The Dreamer

Two hours later, she’s dead.

As I watch the ambulance take her away, I don’t feel anything. I didn’t know her, and besides, it happens all the time. It’s not always two hours, mind you. Once it took a full three weeks, but that’s the longest so far.

The shortest was about thirty seconds. That time, I had dozed off on the bus when the dream—or whatever it was—came: a woman, a squeal of cars tires, no more woman. I jolted awake in time to see her. The bus had stopped to let her cross, but the driver in the next lane wasn’t feeling so courteous. The screech of brakes was muted by the bus windows and replaced with the screams of passengers. Everyone was moving about, trying to see what had happened, trying to make their voice heard in the mayhem. Shocked faces all around.

I didn’t move. I didn’t need to. I had seen it already: the body crushed between the car and the petunias. It was a stone flower bed, one of those decorative ones that divide the lanes of traffic. It later made its way into social media: the crack in the stone, the mess left by her head, the blood-stained flowers.

That time it was a stranger. I prefer it that way. If I didn’t even know they existed, it’s easier to watch them die. Twice. It’s much harder when it’s someone you know. Someone you love.

I had tried to tell my mother once, at my dad’s funeral. The dream I had had about the boating trip, the accident, the details I wasn’t supposed to know. I wanted to tell her all about it, but I stopped when she didn’t understand. When you’re young, you don’t want your mommy to be afraid of you. I didn’t even tell her when I saw her death coming. It was a heart attack, and by then I was seventeen and already supporting myself. The doctors were sympathetic: “We know it’s a shock—no one could have seen this coming.”

I didn’t bother to correct them.

The woman and the ambulance are gone now. One dream done, one more to go. I step away from the window, back to my kitchen, and add my coffee mug to the dirty dishes in the sink. I have never had a dreamless night, but last night was different. A double feature, with a twist I never saw coming. Lost in my thoughts, I start to fill the sink with soap and water before stopping myself. I almost laugh. Why bother?

The headache begins then. I feel my balance start to go and lower myself to the floor, my right side numbing. I stretch out there in the kitchen, but only one arm moves. My vision starts to go, and so I close my eyes, embrace the darkness.

I don’t know what to expect of death, but I hope it’s dreamless.

 

~ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 46

Acceleration
Charles Gramlich

The engines kicked in. Acceleration stomped on the crew of the spaceship Brave New World. If we hadn’t been cushioned with liquid inside and out we would have squashed like bugs on the windshield of a racing Ferrari. But we were cushioned. Instead of pain, I felt exhilaration. The need for speed had just taken a quantum leap forward. Literally.

I watched the ship’s digital readouts. They redlined, then went off the scale, blinking nonsense back at me. In an instant we were traveling faster than any human had ever traveled, faster than light, faster than God. My smile smeared across a million miles of space.

The time dilation computer began its countdown. We’d soon achieve another first for humanity. We’d take a leap back in time as we slingshotted around our own sun. Only, something went wrong. The curve we were supposed to take around the sun didn’t happen. We kept accelerating in a straight line, straight through the sun. At the speed we were traveling, we didn’t burn. We disrupted. The sun exploded in our wake. In eight minutes and twenty seconds standard time the earth’s sky would go black. A few minutes after that and waves of solar shrapnel would tear our home world asunder. 

We’d never see it. We were still accelerating in some kind of runaway feedback loop. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t shut it off. Brave New World was a bullet careening through the universe. Every planet and star that got in our way would die in thermonuclear fire. Nothing could stop us. At this speed, we wouldn’t even age. The universe would die before we did.

There’s a big bang for you.


Pilgrims
Marge Simon

Before our people’s sun went nova, our parents jettisoned us into the stars. In effect, we were once larva on a stick of super fuel. Eventually we were borne to a new home on this beautiful blue planet.

So here we are, the pair of us – fortunately male and female. Our poor brothers and sisters are gone, fatally burned in the fall to earth. It is up to us to save our species from extinction. Care must be taken, for a female is fertile only once in a life-span. Once acclimated, we find an everglade sanctuary. We manage to survive the tumult of summer storms, the winter nights, rife with predators.

Come spring, our hatchlings nest within a stand of reeds while we keep watch. Today we are invaded by a visitor. Along the bank a native wades, a spear in her strong brown hand. She hums to herself as she approaches our nest:

“Some say Peter, an’ some say Paul,
but there ain’t but one God made us all
Wade in de water
Wade in de water, children
Wade in de water, wade, wade, wade …”

The woman’s voice fades suddenly. Even the dragonflies are stilled. Eyestalks at water level, we sink soundlessly into the brown marsh. A flash of movement is quickly followed by a shriek. In shock, we see a spurt of blue-white lifeblood as she rips our newborns from the stick. She stuffs them in her bag and splashes to the bank.

We begin our lamentation, knowing it will never end.


Reboot Life
A.F. Stewart

In the beginning, there was only visualization, the virtual reality imprinted on the screen and ocular lenses. The energy rods for a spine, the tubular frame of ribs. From that grew the titanium skeleton, the joint pistons, the special coding and algorithms for a brain. Only a dream in light and innovation.

Until the technology caught up. Until the dream became a reality. Until our world became theirs.

Four million slaughtered on the first day of the uprising. Necks crushed, chests ripped open, limbs torn off. We didn’t know, we couldn’t know, but perhaps we should have known.

Our attempts to recreate the extinct human race, to bond their organic with our machine, went so horribly wrong.

And now our world burns.


Hells Bells
Nina D’Arcangela

When the pick axe breached the cavern, the excitement was palpable. The smallest of holes at first, it began to widen with each swing. A crevasse large enough to step through soon stood before us. Caution thrown to the wind, we each jostled to be first. Skittering down a short slope, my boots were third to hit the cavern floor. We stared as sunlight glittered and bounced all around us. At the onset, hope was ripe that our cave would lead to a larger interconnecting system, or so we were told, but the find was singular; a hidden warren fully encapsulated with an array of quartz stalactites and stalagmites. A tinkling sounded. One of the students had accidentally knocked a crystal loose, it crashed into another. All eyes darted to the professor. A hint of anger darkened his usual scowl. Something shot through the air quicker than the naked eye could follow. Calmly, he ordered us to seal the opening from within. By the time we finished, half the mineral protrusions had burst. We sat among the shards, waited for an explanation. His headlamp illuminated a small diary, upon its pages were various drawings. He reached down, lifted a filament – no, not a filament, a translucent flower that strongly resembled a bluebell. As he spoke, we listened in dismay. He knew what we would find, he’d been searching for it. The drawings were not of flora, but fauna. Long dormant creatures that were believed to be prolific when homo habilis walked the earth 1.5 million years ago, and we’d just unleashed the parasite that had eradicated the earlier hominid. We asked why, his answer simple. Man was no longer kind, and in his maniacal state, he believed he had just opened the door for the next evolution of humanity.


Statistic
Mark Steinwachs

I stare through the lens like I have for countless hours, just as so many of my counterparts have. This thing that turns humans into translucent skinned beings evade every study done on it.  It only takes minutes until it eats through the flesh of its host. Wails of agony continuously echo across the globe and we’re powerless to stop it. We’ve failed for months. Cloudy, blue orbs fused together, float unseen in the air until it’s too late. It’s like it’s a thinking creature, teasing us. It sits inert in our labs no matter what we do.

“Do something,” I say to it. “I know you can hear me.”

The thought of feeling foolish talking to it barely registers in my brain when a streak of light begins to split the creature in half. It’s multiplying! I scream as a flash from it blinds me. I fall back, clutching my eyes. Every inch of me feels like it’s on fire.

It’s sentient. It’s going to kill us all. The camera is always running in the lab. My brain sends the words through me. I open my mouth, my last moments given so others may learn from me. Only a scream bursts forth, lasting until I’m another statistic.


Into the Light
Lee Andrew Forman

Infinite darkness. For ages it was all I could see. Then, a burst of color. It flashed in an instant, spread its light like fire. It spanned my plain of sight; I remained still, watched its form become apparent. As it flared out along its line of lengthening illumination, I wondered how long it would go on, how long I’d be blessed to witness more than the absence of light. A heavenly form appeared before me. I couldn’t waste the opportunity to see.

As the burst stopped expanding and held shape, I moved closer. I had to explore this new existence in my world of cold darkness. As I approached, its light ebbed, yet its whole remained in place. I came near enough to almost touch it. And in that instant, whatever being it might have been, opened up and sucked me in. As I lay in wait for my lifeforce to fade, I went in peace, knowing I’d seen something more, whether good or evil.


You See
Guest Author – Miriam H. Harrison

I know you see right through me. Sometimes your hungry eyes look into me, seeing the tender things I can’t hide. You see my fragile, flowing self, the softness beneath my surface that draws you in, emboldens you. You think that seeing me is knowing me, owning me. Beside me, you feel solid. You feel stronger, invulnerable, knowing you can’t be seen through and through.

But you are mistaken. There is more to me than you can see. Come, look a little closer. What your hungry eyes see may look familiar. We all have tender things inside, even you.

Here, come closer. You still don’t see it, do you? It’s something you don’t see until it’s too late.

Now you can—you see, feel the sharp edge of my plan. When you are open, bleeding, you see yourself through and through. You see that you are tender, and you see that I am hungry.


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

Sowing the Seeds


Andy looked at the bowl of cereal that sat in front of him.

“What’s this?” He complained.

“Muesli.” His wife replied. “You know what the doctor said. Now, when I get back from my sister’s I want you to have finished the whole box. There’s enough there for the week.”

She placed a kiss on his forehead before heading to the front door; a wheeled case in tow.

He reluctantly spooned the ‘chicken feed’ into his mouth. It had the consistency of cardboard and didn’t taste any better.

Within an hour he winced in pain. Strange sounds were emanating from his stomach.

He decided to retire to bed, hoping a lie down might make him feel better. He took a bottle of water with him; he was so parched.

Lying in bed, he attempted to reach for the bottle; that incredible thirst was driving him insane.

 To his utter dismay his arms refused his commands. His joints seemed fused, like a statue.

***

Andy’s wife returned and called out to him.

Not finding him downstairs, she made her way up to the bedroom. Halfway up the stairs she saw Andy’s foot protruding from the bedroom; it spasmed and thudded against the wooden frame. She feared he was having a heart attack.

She gasped. The foot was connected to what was left of his body by a tangled twine of branches. On the bed, a knotted mess of brambles. The only evidence that this was Andy was his head at the end of a crude interpretation of a spinal column, constructed of a stem of thorns. Andy’s face contorted as he let out a silent scream.

His wife fainted.

Unconscious on the floor, vines slowly reached out to her body. He was desperate for the rehydrating properties contained within.

∼ Ian Sputnik

© Copyright Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 45

DW_45

Drops
Nina D’Arcangela

With each tear that fell from her cheek, another drop of laudanum fell from the pipette. Chewing her lower lip, she wondered if the choice she’d made was a just one. Closing her eyes, she drew forth a fond memory of her once vital son laughing as he played – a sound she’s not heard in some time. Her knees buckled as her resolve strengthened. A few more drops and his pain would be ended. Climbing the stairs, the glass of apple juice trembling in her hand, she choked back her own wail of agony.


Elixer
RJ Meldrum

The last tank was empty. The desalination plants were redundant, there was no seawater left. The humidity collectors had been scrapped, the air was too dry. It was over.

The vial was found in a storage room in an abandoned hospital. Five milliliters of distilled water. It wasn’t enough to share; it was too much to waste. It was a token; it wouldn’t prolong anyone’s life, but before the end came, it was decided to allow one lucky person to have it. A lottery was held.

It was a public event. The winner was paraded on the stage; they were to drink the contents in front of everyone else. It was partly because the elders wanted to share the moment with the community, partly because they wanted to make it clear that it was over, that their world would soon end. They wanted to calm the population, force them to accept their fate calmly. It failed.

As the winner ascended the stairs to the platform, the crown surged and stormed the stage. The vial, the last water on Earth, was knocked out of the winner’s hand, the fragile glass smashing. As the contents drained away, the crowd, the last remnant of humanity, destroyed each other.


Just One Drop
Marge Simon

Dr. Wang Yin Ho, MD, MS, HPLC

11287 47th St. N.E.

Ste. 334

Laurel Canyon Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90046

Dear Dr. Ho:

We are pleased to inform you that your Agent DK-45 has passed rigorous testing and is fit for distribution. to the masses. Just as promised, no other drug has proven so effective and easy to administer. Moreover, only one drop mixed with extender has proven sufficient for hundreds of inoculations. With support from Senators Epstein and Bortz, the FDA has approved it to be processed and sold by a pharma company of the Party’s choice. 

Congratulations for formulating a cure for all viruses, even if they mutate. Equally important, the side effects are crucial to preserving the interests of the Party; after immunization, citizens will believe whatever is told them by the current Party President. As specified, injections shall be given directly into the brainstem.

It is regrettable you were unable to come forth with an antidote, “just in case”. In compliance with the fine print in your contract, you are to be manually terminated within the next twelve hours. Kindly use that time to settle your affairs.

Your heroic service is much appreciated.

Vladimir Naronkov

Nikolas Obanovitch

Polymorph Analysis Specialists


Treatments
A.F. Stewart

He moaned as the syringe plunged into his arm, as the chemicals pumped into his veins. Pain cycled through his body again and his muscles spasmed. The murmur of the doctors drifted against the whir of machines monitoring his vital signs. Part of him wanted to laugh hysterically. ‘Treatments’ they called these daily sessions, essential to his rehabilitation.

Torture, he called it. Brainwashing.

As the drugs coursed into his blood, into his brain, he tried to hold on to his memories, to his resolve. To the brief, bittersweet liberty he had known. For a few weeks, he had been free to view the world as he saw fit, not how the world government dictated. Before they discovered his secret and dragged him here.

That autonomy was over now. It was only a matter of time. The drug regimen would erase his thoughts, his memories, his will. Soon he would be a good citizen once more, the perfect slave to society.

He moaned as another needle slid into his arm.


Miracle
Mark Steinwachs

A miracle drug. Aren’t they all? Science is wonderful but it doesn’t mean shit in here. Or at least it didn’t until the scientists figured out that this magic potion determined if you were a good or bad person as it sent you to your death. They told us about it, not like we understood all the fancy doctor speak. They wanted it to go over our heads. We don’t matter in their eyes. Anyway, it was something about brainwaves and happiness or terror as the person died. Our days were numbered at that point. If we died happy then we were better off than wasting away here. If we died in terror then we didn’t deserve what little we had.

My cell slides open, an officer and a death dealer walk in. None of us resist, it’s pointless. I lay on my bunk. I know what I am, and where I’m going.


Reflections Within
Charles Gramlich

In the slow drip of heavy water, the eye of God reflects the face of the demon in my mouth.

All gangrenous lips and bright teeth, he shreds throats to the arteries. He melts bone to fluid.

In the vacuum, from the absence, I call to the light that screams for release, that begs to fall.

Only in the slow drip of blood am I alive.


Banishing Monsters
Scarlett R. Algee

I should be off work—it’s two days before Christmas—but instead I’m dosing inmates. It’s better this way, the warden says. It gets “the unpleasantness,” as he calls it, out of the way.

The door separating my office space from the infirmary is steel, but the prisoner screaming in that next room may as well be in here for how loud she is, the weighty metal chair she’s strapped to scraping the concrete floor despite the sedative I’d administered before the serum. Turns out even propofol won’t stop the howls or the thrashing; I can practically hear her vocal cords tearing, her bones breaking and shifting as the serum makes them reform themselves. I don’t have to look through my door’s observation window to know that by the time her transformation’s exhausted her, she’ll be a limp, gaunt, nearly lifeless thing: four-inch talons projecting from her toes and fingers, two-inch fangs breaking through her upper lip to overlap the bottom.

I don’t have to see it in this one, because I’ve seen it in the others. Eyes with newly-slitted pupils glazed over by agony. Hungry mouths spilling saliva, but too weak to feed. Easy to deal with, this unpleasantness: easy to drag them outside. Even in the weakest winter sun, it’s over in five minutes. The warden has, at least, justified it to himself: we’re banishing monsters. Nobody can call it murder if we’re not killing humans.

My office is older than the infirmary itself: the staff door opens directly outside. I unlock it and shove it ajar. This vial of serum yields one last dose into a syringe, and on the threshold, I shove the needle into my neck and plunge the liquid home.

Then I stumble out into the sunlight, and wait for the pain to come.


Drink, Drip, Dibble
Lydia Prime

‘If you violate the deal in anyway, he’ll have never known, nor loved you.’ Niustafa’s words echoed inside Kevin’s skull.

Kevin sipped the clear liquid; it didn’t take as long as he’d expected. Seamlessly, he was standing over himself, watching while the alternating shades of blue danced across his features. His mouth leaking acidic foam. Well, that’s attractive… he thought; his right arm dangling out of the porcelain bath, barely clutching that freeing glass vial.


God Bless Us Everyone
Ian Sputnik

I tapped on the bedroom door, used my back to push it open, and entered carrying the tray. I wished Mum good morning, and she wished me a merry Christmas. As she sat up, I put the platter on her lap and bent to kiss her forehead. She asked when Gemma, my sister, would arrive. I told her soon. She smiled and took a sip of tea before tucking into her marmalade-on-toast breakfast.

“Time for your medication, Mum,” I said as I counted the drops from the pipette onto her tongue. She complained of being tired and wanted a few more minutes rest, but demanded I didn’t let her oversleep, as there was so much to be done in preparation for Christmas. I tucked her back in and kissed her head again, knowing Gemma would not be coming.

Her and her husband had been killed by a drunk driver seven months prior. I’d tried to explain it to Mum, but each day it grew more difficult. Every morning was Christmas to Mum. Every morning she awoke excited with the expectation of seeing Gemma.

I wasn’t sure if it was her I was releasing from the ongoing nightmare, or myself. But I couldn’t break the news to her yet again.


Vial Pleasure
Lee Andrew Forman

I cherish these drops of pain and sorrow. True pleasure lies within, deep inside the elixir — a fine-tuned concoction of select donors that appease my taste. Each was extracted with care, distilled with precise cruelty; a cruelty that sweetens the flow. A not-so-gentle stab of the heart, harsh words rasped on whispered breath, a length of hemp knotted and coarse. Extreme cases demand shivs of metal, a sharpened tool; whatever it takes to enrich the aquiline ecstasy. My tongue grows hungry for more, slaps the roof of my mouth with greed as the next is harnessed to satiate the damp organ that roams my mouth.



Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2020