As he stared out the window, he still found it difficult to understand how he hadn’t noticed. It’d lain in the long grass for weeks, decaying in its own putrescence, and all he had done was complain to the custodian about the smell from what he assumed was the drains. But it hadn’t been the drains. It had been an old man, lying dead no more than ten feet below his office window for approximately four weeks.
The police assumed he’d wandered behind the office block looking for a place to relieve himself after an afternoon in the pub. The autopsy indicated a heart attack.
The body had been found on a Saturday morning by a loose dog following the scent, so none of them had known about it until the following Monday. Andrew read about the man in the local paper the next day. He’d been married, with five grown-up kids and an army of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He’d lived in a small terraced house close to the office. His family had reported him missing after he failed to come home and the local police had carried out some extensive searches, but who would have thought to look in the long grass behind an office block? Andrew learnt the man’s name. Bernard Jones. He had been seventy-eight years old.
Andrew went to the old man’s house about three weeks after the discovery of the body. He had no real plan, just some vague notion of wanting to see where the old man lived. He had an unresolved sense of guilt. There were a few cars outside, with people in dark clothes milling around. It was only after a few moments he realized he was watching the man’s wake. A young man, smoking outside the house, noticed him and walked over.
“Can I help?”
“I’m just paying my respects to Bernard.”
“Oh, you knew him. I thought you might have been the press again. They’ve been hanging around for weeks now. It was the way he was found, you see. Come on in and say hello to Nan.”
“No, I must get back to work.”
“Please. Grandad had so few friends. It would be nice for her to see you. We’re just back from the crematorium.”
Andrew found himself being guided into a small house where the entire Jones family was gathered. It was a forlorn place, showing all too clearly that Bernard Jones had not been a rich man. He was gently steered into the front room, full of what his mum would have called knick-knacks. Plates with various pictures hung from the walls. Brass figures of dogs and horses stood on the mantelpiece above the gas fire. Photographs of the family were everywhere. Bernard might not have been rich in the financial sense, but he did have wealth of another kind. He was rich with family.
An elderly woman sat on a sofa. Middle aged men and women, teenage girls and boys and children were arrayed around the matriarch of the Jones family.
Andrew stood there awkwardly. He shouldn’t have been there. He felt like a fool. He should have just stood up to the young man outside. The conversation stopped and interested faces turned towards him. Mrs. Jones smiled at him. The young man spoke.
“Nan, this is one of Grandpa’s friends. What’s your name, mate?”
“Nice to meet you Mr. Johnson. Bernard never mentioned you, but that’s no never mind. Come and sit beside me Mr. Johnson. It’s nice to hear stories about him. Makes me feel as if he’s still with us. We were married for fifty-six years you know. Never had a row, not ever. We didn’t have much money but we was happy.”
Andrew sat, trying desperately to think his way out of the situation he had stumbled into.
“So, how did you know my Bernard?”
“It wasn’t through the bingo was it? He loved the bingo, not that he ever won anything.”
The others around her laughed.
“No, it wasn’t bingo.”
“The pub then. He loved his ale.”
A ragged cheer went up in the room and several of the men raised their plastic glasses.
“No, it wasn’t the pub either.”
A plastic cup containing warm white wine was thrust into his hand. He took an involuntary sip just to avoid speaking for a moment.
“So where did you know him from then?”
There was no other answer than the truth and it spilled out of his mouth in an unchecked flow. The faces of the family changed to amazement and then to anger. Mrs. Jones sat on the sofa beside him with an expression of stunned bemusement on her face. Tears welled out of her eyes and coursed down the canyons of her wrinkled face.
Andrew was pushed off the sofa and landed on his knees on the faded carpet. The wine spilled out onto the shoes and stockings of Mrs. Jones and, as if in a dream, Andrew watched as the liquid trickled from the nylon down into her lumpy shoes. She sat as if not feeling the sensation.
The family jostled him, not quite drunk enough to strike him in front of the widow. He was forced from the front room and into the hallway. In a matter of seconds his jacket was torn and his tie pulled off. A few punches were thrown and Graham felt blood on his face. He was thrown out the house. He started to run. The crowd did not pursue him, perhaps in deference to their deceased relative. Shouted insults echoed in his ears.
He didn’t stop running until he reached the office building. He was deeply ashamed. The Jones family had reacted naturally to him. He had spoilt an important family moment. He walked round the side of the building until he stood directly below his office. He saw the indentation in the grass where Bernard Jones had lain. It was still visible. He laid down and started to cry.
The mating time was brief this year. Our women sang notes like floss on the wild-wind plains. A human came who forced his seed on sweet Ala of the Yellow Eyes. We went on, saying not a word, bent to harvesting our Caddo root.
Afterward, Ala wasn’t the same. She cut her marvelous hair which had been dark and long, grown down below her knees. She wandered off to the Darklands, heavy with child and none to celebrate. We mourn her fate. If she survives, she’ll not return. She’ll raise his spawn alone. She was the envy of us all. When the child is born, she’ll burn his father’s image in the sands of our dead oceans. The human sits on our sacred stones. He preens his beard and leers at females, with no more thoughts to waste on Ala; he never even knew her name.
Come burrow season, we prepare, sharpen our talons on the Caddo root. When the freezing gales begin, the human will demand sanctuary, as his kind always does. We bring him the rich sap of our Caddo root, watch his flabby face turn pale as the winter moons. We will confirm his welcome with the strewing of his bones.
Petrified Wishes A.F. Stewart
“Round and round the tree, who will it be? One wish for you, none for me.” But don’t get too close. “Forever you may find, is far too unkind.” Forever… don’t think about that. “In a circle we dance, now only two. One wish for me, none for you.”
“Footsteps, footsteps, roundabout. Sure with the pacing, never in doubt.” One little slip… Nancy slipped. Oh god, poor Nancy. And Deidre. Can’t think, have to keep moving. Finish the song. It’s the only way. “Complete the circle, one by one. Pay the piper, single survivor. The wish is yours when the song is done.”
Why did we come here? Wishes? Fortunes? Happiness? It was only supposed to be silly fun. Grandma warned me. I didn’t believe her. Foolish tales. I never thought it could be… Not this… Cara, did she? Yes, Cara stumbled. I’m going to survive!
Just to be certain, I helped my friend to her death with a push, watching the tree consume her flesh, until nothing remained but a petrified corpse. Then on trembling legs, I made my wish and whispered the last line of the song.
“To the one left standing, a wish granted you see. The others have fallen, now part of the tree…”
Passing Time Lee Andrew Forman
Time uncounted passed since the radiance of our love ended. We adored that barken pillar and its canopy, the shade it provided from the fury of a summer sun. Blankets lain and baskets aplenty carried by lovers’ hands, words of angels and moments of bliss born into existence—each an expanding universe of our contentment.
But these years, so soft and kind, turned bitter and dealt spite upon our miracle. An affliction came upon her, and through its vile nature, her lips ceased to smile. All they had to offer was a cold, passionless touch. I wept over her body until my nostrils could no longer stand the scent. Only then did I begin the work of finding and putting to use a shovel.
What more fitting place than at the foot of our favorite tree to bury her emptied vessel. I sat with her daily. I spoke the words I would have, had she lived. I picnicked with fine cheese and her favorite wine. With each passing year, the roots grew; they twisted as slowly as grief.
With each new moon, the hair upon my scalp grayed, and I smiled knowing we’d soon be together again.
Survival Charles Gramlich
Only dirt, a patch of grass, and one tree survive. Besides black and white, the only colors left here are gray and green and shades of brown. Everyone worried about nuclear war, or the coming of AI. They worried about pollution and overpopulation, about new plagues and old, about the revenge of plants, or insects, or birds, or the frogs, or mutated beasts. They worried about climate change and super storms. No one worried about the thing that actually killed us, that left earth a corpse world. It happened when useless, meaningless words began to proliferate from the mouths of idiots. When bloviating fools talked and talked and talked and talked. And words lost their meaning and strangled all thought, and then all life. Until only this one patch of grass and a tree are left. For now.
Transformation RJ Meldrum
She went to the forest. It was the place she always visited when her heart was broken. Another failed romance; perhaps her standards were too high, perhaps the boys she chose were just assholes. She drifted along trails, leaves speckled with sunlight. She was heading to the tree. It was her place of peace, her thinking tree. She often visited it, when she was happy but also when she was sad. There was just something about the oak, as it towered a hundred feet into the air above her. She sat and rubbed the bark.
“Just you and me again. I wish I had a heart like yours. A wooden heart can’t be broken.”
She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, lulled by the warm, scented summer breeze. She woke to coolness. The sun had shifted. Her hand was stiff and dead. Must have slept on it funny and cut off the circulation. She tried to lift it but found herself unable to. Looking down she screamed. Her hand had all but disappeared into the wood of the tree. The skin on her forearm was no longer skin, instead it was scaly and brown. Like bark. She realized with increasing horror she was unable to escape. A whispering came from above her. The wind in the leaves serenaded her.
Sleep, it will soon be over. Soon be better. You will have a wooden heart and that can never be broken.
She understood. Her tree was trying to protect her. She laid back, her head against the wood. She listened as the tree absorbed her, turning her into wood. Her consciousness joined the others. After her transformation, she simply resembled a long, knobby, albeit strangely shaped root.
Escape Miriam H. Harrison
I could not escape. Not when you lured me with gentle words, not when you wooed me with practiced charm, not even when I first saw your anger flash red. No, your wrongs were terrible, but you always knew how to make them right. You knew how to be sorry—oh so sorry. You knew how to bare your vulnerable heart, cry your misunderstood tears, until I would forget who had hurt whom.
I remember now. I remember now that it’s too late.
I could not escape you then. Now, you will not escape me. I will be all you see. Look to the clouds, and I will be there, bleeding red sunsets. Look to the stones and you will see my broken bones. Look to the trees and I will look back, reaching to you with roots and branches, reminding you of what you will never escape.
Cradle Nina D’Arcangela
Barely able to see, I clamored on, climbing as quickly as I could. Passing the first bisected limb, I struggled further—not to the second, but the third. It was rumored the higher the elevation, the greater the enlightenment that would be achieved. I lay down and began to pant, my body slick and exhausted. The cradle of the tree welcoming. I chose this as my birthing place.
I began the arduous task at hand. Gaining my feet once more, I leaned my back against the main trunk and began to slough the mucus like cocoon that encased my body and hers. More than once, I had to readjust my stance for stability. With most of the shedding complete, I reached down to embrace the babe now laying at my naked feet. She was beautiful – as raw skinned as I, but still the most exquisite thing I had ever seen. A slight error in judgment as I leaned forward to bite through the umbilical, and I was airborne, until I wasn’t. Lying on the ground, I watched as my brothers made the same climb I had, but for a different purpose.
Broken and shattered, I could do nothing but watch as my siblings cleaned the ancient tree of the ichor I’d left behind. In their haste, they didn’t notice the small bundle among the discarded tissue. My broken body unable to speak, I lie at the base of the tree and watched as she plummeted to the ground, landing in the cook of my arm.
Nameless Louise Worthington
Only when she is dead will it stop coming for her. Only under the earth, when air is no longer a tormenter, will she be free to rest her weary head. There is no place that she can hide. No place where she can be who and what she is – was – is without it eating neurons. No matter the distance. No matter the country. She has no memory: no family or home. No roots. Earthbound: trapped and homeless inside a shrinking head.
‘There is no one to say goodbye to, is there?…’
She thinks it’s the ancient tree moaning in the autumn breeze and to soothe it, she places a frail hand on the bark grown thick and strong with every passing year. Her skin is as thin as paper.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
What fantasy can a splintering woman have, except to lie beside the stolid tree as though nature is her friend, too?
The Squid Man Harrison Kim
I float above old root veins holding a petrified body, legs decayed to squid like bits. The roots suck onto the body from beneath the ground. The condemned youth’s blood flowed thick, sustaining this mighty tree, with its bark foot inching forward, finding ways to grasp. Months ago, in the reflection of the water, and above it, from this mighty fir, this young man was hung from a rope, then his body cut down, left in these woods to rot and decay, as is the custom here. Around his corpse, leaves fall like the years, and the summer grass turns a weak green colour, with the autumn rains. The young man became a squid creature fallen, the tree feasting on his blood, a tree with a foot like an elephant’s, thick and strong. The young man, decapitated, the fall from the rope so powerful his head released and fell yards away, where it became a petrified ball.
I have this dream night after night, viewing the young man’s arm pulled off and his head and body decaying beneath the tree, and every night I want to cut his squid arm free, but it’s too late, it is fused to the roots. Headless corpse here, dry and drained, the living tree under which the young man was condemned possessing the body with its roots. A tree mighty and powerful, thrusting skyward strong where this man was hung for his crimes. My dreaming soul floats above the desiccated corpse in a forever dream. Beneath the earth, where I cannot see, the condemned man’s blood now absorbed by the fir roots. The nutrients still circulate here, bringing strength and life.
Waiting to Fall Elaine Pascale
You never loved me more than when you were dying,
nestled in your noose, waiting to fall.
I watched. I watched you die.
At your last breath, I fainted into the cold earth beneath your feet.
It was good there. It was good in the cold and dark.
I returned every night after your body had been taken down;
after your body had been disposed of
without any indication that you had ever lived.
The tree became a memorial.
I offered myself to it.
Offered my love to it, to you.
And you took it,
so that each night I grew weaker.
Your restless spirit sought sustenance from mine.
Your mouth, your lips, your teeth, they took
as I lay beneath the tree craving more darkness as you craved more light.
Before my eyes failed, I saw you shimmering,
draining me so that you could become more substantial.
I hunkered down near to the rail track. I was just outside town; I’d spent the day there, panhandling without much success, but I didn’t want to spend the night in an alleyway or doorway. Small town folk, especially cops, didn’t like hobos, so I’d walked a mile or so out of town and found myself near a small rail shed, obviously used for storing equipment. I planned to move on the next day. There wasn’t much shelter, but the weather was warm and the sky was cloudless. It wasn’t the worse place I’d slept. I’d lost my job as a meat packer in Chicago in January 1933; I’d drifted west hoping for salvation. Six months and no luck later, I found myself in Colorado, still hungry, still poor.
I was about to drift off to sleep when I saw a figure standing over me. I tensed, it was normal for railroad cops to hassle us drifters, moving us on if we were lucky, beating the crap out of us if we weren’t, but I hadn’t expected to encounter any so far from town. My eyes focused and I realized it was an old guy, maybe seventy.
“Please, I mean you no harm. I live in the house on the other side of the gorge. I know what it’s like to be poor, to be homeless in these hard times. I’d like to offer you a hot meal and a warm bed for the night.”
The rail line ran alongside a steep gorge before turning south into town. I looked across the gorge to the warm yellow lights of a mansion. This guy was obviously loaded, probably ran a charity or something. I didn’t normally accept such generosity, but I was starving. The offer of food was too tempting.
“Excellent, now just follow me.”
The old guy headed across a bridge that extended across the gorge. He reached about halfway, stopped, turned and motioned me to follow. I stepped onto the bridge.
“Come on, young man. Keep up!” called my new friend.
I took another step and found myself falling. I felt a crunch, then nothing.
I woke in a hospital bed. A nurse stared down at me.
“You’re awake. Good.”
“You fell, luckily for you a tree broke your fall. It also broke your ankle, your femur, your arm and four ribs, but if it hadn’t been for those branches, you’d probably be dead. The others are.”
“You aren’t the first to fall. Didn’t you notice the bridge is out?”
“I guess I didn’t.”
“You guys never do, just straight across the bridge without looking, then boom, you walk right over the edge.”
“Isn’t there a barrier, to stop people falling?”
“There was, but the town can’t afford maintenance men anymore, so when it fell into the gorge last winter, it was never replaced. There have been five deaths since then, all drifters.”
“What about the old guy? I saw him reach the middle of the bridge.”
“He’s Henry Lansing. The millionaire owner of the Lansing House, the big mansion you can see on the other side of the gorge. He built the house in 1860, built the bridge over the gorge in 1863. He died in 1892.”
“By all accounts he was a very decent person. He got upset after the war by the sight of dozens of ex-soldiers wandering through town, moving from railyard to railyard. But instead of getting the police to move them on or arrest them, he’d come over the bridge into town and invite them back to his place for food and a place to sleep for a couple of nights. Converted one of his stables in a barracks.”
“I don’t understand.”
“His ghost still walks, comes over the bridge and invites people back to his place. He’s still trying to do good, all these years after his death. You guys hunker down at the rail shed, he appears, invites you over. The mansion is still lived in and looks welcoming, but there’s one problem. He can walk across the bridge. You can’t.”
“Exactly, he doesn’t know the bridge is out. You follow him, watch as he walks over the bridge. It’s dark, you can’t see the planks, but you can see him, so you follow. When he steps off onto the missing part of the bridge he stays where he is. When you do it, you fall.”
“So, it isn’t malicious? Evil?”
“No, but the outcome is the same. After all, they do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I guess he still sees the bridge as it was, doesn’t realise he’s killing you.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her.
“One thing always makes me wonder though.”
“What he thinks when he arrives on the other side with no one following him. I wonder if he gets upset?”
The wind blew the dry snow across the road, reducing the visibility to about five feet. Don was forced to slow the car to a crawl.
“We’ll never get home at this rate.”
“Better late than never.”
It wasn’t a good night to be traveling, but they had no choice. They were on their way back from the crematorium. Grandma had died on Christmas Eve, her heart finally giving out as she took the garbage to the roadside at minus twenty.
“I’ll miss her. I loved her so much,” said Linda.
“You were her favorite. She always went the extra mile for you. Remember when she punched that kid who was bullying you?”
She smiled at the memory, looking out the car window at the snow-covered fields.
“She always loved this weather. I thought she was crazy, but it was her favorite time of year. She was such a tough old lady.”
“She had to be, living by herself on the farm.”
“She was so stubborn. Didn’t want to sell up after Grandpa died. She might have lived a bit longer if she hadn’t had to drag those bags to the end of the driveway every week.”
“Well, she’s at peace now.”
Linda glanced out into the darkness. The wind blew across the open landscape, lifting the snow into huge whirling clouds. She saw something moving in the drifting snow, a figure.
“What was that?”
“I saw a shape in the snow.”
“It looked like a person.”
“In this weather? No way. It’s minus thirty out there.”
“We should stop.”
“I guess, it could be a stranded driver.”
He pulled over and Linda got out.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
There was no response. The snow was blowing into her face, the flakes sharp against her skin. Her face started to freeze. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stay outside for much longer.
A figure appeared, standing about ten feet away. It was human.
She spoke without thinking. The figure danced and twisted in the wind. It whispered to her.
“Go no further…”
The wind stole the rest of the sentence.
Linda’s nerve failed and she bolted for the safety of the car. Don looked up as she climbed back in.
She thought back to the words she’d heard.
“Just be careful. Drive real slow.”
“Slower than I have been?”
“Yes, I have a feeling.”
Don crawled along at a snail’s pace. A pick-up truck roared past them, horn blaring. Its taillights disappeared into the snow. Suddenly Don braked. Hard. Even at such a slow speed, the car skidded for a few feet before crunching to a halt on the icy road.
He pointed in front of them. The road crossed a narrow bridge. It had collapsed. The taillights of the pick-up truck were visible in the water below. If they hadn’t been going so slowly, they would’ve had no chance of stopping in time. Linda, suddenly aware of what had happened, looked out at the drifting snow and silently thanked Grandma for looking out for her, one last time.
Sarah sat at the reception desk. She was on night duty and was alone. The night was hot, stuffy and the air conditioning was barely functioning. The breeze from the open window was very welcome.
The area was called ‘the one-way ward’ by some of the staff. It was the wing of the oncology department where the hopeless cases received palliative care to ease their last days. The name wasn’t meant to be cruel; it was an attempt to inject some gallows humor, to lift the somber atmosphere.
There were eight private and semi-private rooms in the area, all within easy access of the main desk. It was an easy job. The patients were drugged to the eyeballs, heavily sedated. They slept away their last few hours.
Sarah’s eyes closed without her even being aware she was falling asleep. The book she was reading slipped from her fingers and landed with a soft bump on the desk.
She woke with a start. Glancing at the computer on the desk, she realized fifteen minutes had passed. She checked the monitor. No alerts.
A man walked out of one of the semi-private rooms. Sarah knew there were two teenage girls in that room. Her hand flashed to the security call button.
“Don’t,” he said.
Her hand froze. All she could do was stare at the man.
“Come with me.”
She rose and walked towards him. Her mind was screaming; this was insanity, he was going to kill her and do terrible, unspeakable things to the helpless patients. She couldn’t stop herself, some external force was driving her legs. She stood beside him, unwillingly compliant.
“Walk with me.”
He headed into the next room. She followed, still trying to force her legs to move towards the reception desk and safety.
The two patients were both men in their forties. Yellow skin was stretched over cadaverous faces. They lay, eyes closed, on their death beds, surrounded by technology that was unable to save them. The drugs kept them pain free, that was all. The chemotherapy, the radiotherapy hadn’t worked for them. Modern medicine was making huge inroads into treating cancer, but there were still people for whom no treatment had worked.
The man walked up to the nearest bed. He stroked the forehead of the patient.
“Dream, my brother.”
The man in the bed, still unconscious, suddenly smiled. His eyelids flickered and his mouth twitched.
The man moved to the next patient and did the same. The patient responded in the same way.
Her companion moved from room to room, touching each patient on the forehead speaking the same words. Each time the patient responded in the same way.
They returned to the reception area. Sarah felt herself released from whatever hold he’d had over her. She felt weak, her muscles ached.
“You are now free to call security.”
“Who are you? What did you do to those patients?”
“Gave them life.”
“Life? They’re dying.”
“The life they would have lived, had they not been here. In their minds, they are living, falling in love, having children…working, travelling, laughing, crying. Everything they are going to miss.”
Sarah believed him. She had seen the patients’ faces.
“Who are you?”
“I’m cursed. I’m blessed. This is my life, my part to play.”
Sarah, a believer, whispered.
“Are you an angel?”
The man smiled.
“Angel or demon, it does not matter. I am here. That is all that matters.”
He walked out the doors of the ward.
“See to your patients.”
Sarah did as she was told, moving between the rooms, checking each patient carefully. They were still now, but it wasn’t the stillness of sedation. It was the stillness of death. Each one, every single one had died. Sarah supposed in their dream state they had lived full, rich lives and died, surrounded by family and friends. Her unknown visitor had given them quite a gift, but he’d also given her quite the problem. How was she going to explain how the entire ward of patients had died all at exactly the same time?
You probably don’t know this, but Hell isn’t all burning pits and brimstone. Hell is cleverer than that. Hell is personal. It picks apart your psyche like the layers of an onion, exposing the torments that are perfect for you. Then, those torments are inflicted on you…forever.
Damn clever, wish I’d thought of it. I really wish I wasn’t part of it.
Every morning I wake in the same small back room. I open the door and head into my store. It isn’t really my store, I woke up here, presumably just after I died. The layout is reminiscent of those old-fashioned general stores you used to find in every small town. Wooden counters and shelves. Tin cans, dry goods. Brands you’d never heard of before. Newspapers for the men, magazines for the ladies, candy and ice cream for the kids. Cigarettes, some booze. Lightbulbs, rubber bands, tin openers; items secreted in dark cupboards, stuff you may only ever need once in your life. Cocktail umbrellas, apple corers.
This is my hell.
It’s not as if I was a storekeeper when I was alive. I was a firefighter. A pretty damn exciting, cool job. The ladies loved me; all I had to do was tell them I was a fireman and…well, I’m sure you can guess. Good times. All I remember of my death was smoke, flames and a collapsing roof. Then, I woke up here.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering where the torment comes in. Running a wee store in hell doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Well, let me enlighten you. You see, I’m not just playing the role of storekeeper. I am the storekeeper, that’s my whole world. I spend my days dusting and rearranging, fussing over what prices to lower, where to stack my tins. Making sure my newspapers line up with ninety-degree angles. I dream about stock-taking. I am the ultimate, totally consumed, archetypal storekeeper. And who is the natural enemy of all storekeepers? You don’t know? Guess. Correct; shoplifters. Little, shitty thieves, stealing from good, honest, honorable people. To steal, to shoplift, is a crime, it’s a sin, it’s an outrage.
Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I’ll get back to my point. You see, I only have one customer. It’s Old Hob himself. Every day at four o’clock he comes into my store. I’m where I usually am, standing behind my counter. I watch the old bugger wander in, casual as anything. Every day I ask the same question.
“Can I help you with anything, sir?”
The answer is always the same.
I watch him as he wanders around, between the shelves. I watch him as he takes items, examines them and then carefully drops them into the pockets of his long, black coat. I stand, unable to move, unable to speak, while I watch him defile my beautiful store. My blood boils, I feel my blood pressure skyrocket. It feels as if I’m having a stroke. I want to scream, I want to stop him, hurt him, kill him, but I can’t do anything. My soul, my storekeeper’s soul, is rent asunder watching this travesty.
And then, his pockets full of my wonderful goods, he smiles and heads to the door.
“See you tomorrow, storekeeper!”
The door closes behind him and I can finally move. I spend the rest of the day, every day, restocking my shelves, mourning for the lost items. Grieving for the money lost, despairing that I allow this to happen, dreading the next day. My head hurts, my heart aches.
The voice startled DeMontfort-Jones out of his reverie. He had been engrossed in the latest share index prices. He looked up to see two men standing at the entrance to his office. One was tall, the other small, bent and twisted.
“How can I help you, gentlemen?”
“It is we who have come to help you. We are here to offer you an unusual and highly unique service.”
Salesmen. DeMontfort-Jones waved his hand dismissively.
“Just leave your brochure with my assistant down the corridor.”
“Our service is not one that has any accompanying literature. It can only be offered to those who have been specially selected. It requires an ability to provide adequate recompense.”
“You mean, whatever you’re selling is expensive.”
“Quite. You see, very few people are ever allowed to join our club. The service we offer has certain expenses. Therefore, the membership fee must reflect that.”
“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s hear what you’ve got to offer.”
“Reflect on the words I am about to say. Reflect carefully. These words describe our unique service. The words are ‘unpunished crimes’.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Think about it. Think about all those times when a driver has hogged the road, refusing to pull over. Remember when somebody’s dog defecated on your lawn and they refused to pick it up. Think of all those rude shop assistants and bank-tellers, the sloppy waiters who can’t be bothered to be polite. These are all unpunished crimes. Not recognized in law, but enough to drive any normal man to desperation. Remember the annoyance you felt, the unrequited fury. But there was nothing you could do about it.”
“Until now,” said the other man, then continued.
“You have been selected to join our club. For a very reasonable fee you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing these crimes punished. We will eliminate five of these unpunished criminals for you. You choose which ones. All you do is make one phone call and then leave the rest to us. Imagine the satisfaction, knowing that the moron behind the counter will never bother a decent citizen like yourself again. Or the driver who lifts his middle finger to you will never sit behind the wheel again. Imagine the pleasure you will get from knowing that.”
DeMontfort-Jones understood exactly what they were saying. He had spent years getting to the top, crushing careers and swinging massive deals. He was the most respected and feared financial broker in the city, but he was still affected by such annoyances. He felt the pleasure of revenge already. It was a wonderful feeling.
“I’ll buy it, gentlemen. I’ll buy your service.”
“Excellent, welcome to our club. Now, all you have to do is provide us with one million pounds. A banker’s draft, if you please. And please consider, the quicker we get the money the quicker you can start choosing.”
DeMontfort-Jones practically ran out the office. It only took him thirty minutes to get the money. His private bank asked no questions. The two men were waiting patiently in his office when he got back. Both were still standing. After the money had been exchanged, the small man handed him a piece of paper.
“That is the number you call. You only have five. Use them wisely. You will never see us again. Good hunting.”
The two men left. DeMontfort-Jones slumped into his seat. He began to convince himself that he had been ripped-off, that it was a con. Had he just pissed away a million pounds? He was tempted to call the number to see what happened, but a voice in the back of his mind reminded him ‘only five calls’. He didn’t call. Instead he smiled. Imagine if it wasn’t a con. That doorman would be first. The one at his apartment building. The stuck-up little sod. Then it would be the guy next door. That prick insisted on playing movies at three a.m. with the volume turned up. He could easily think of at least a dozen people who deserved to be ‘punished’. His paranoia vanished and he decided he might have to renew his subscription to this club.
He sat for half an hour, debating who, out of his list of candidates, to choose. There was a knock at his door.
The tall man and the small man walked in again.
“What the hell? I thought you said I would never see you again.”
The two men looked at each other. The small one spoke.
“Ah. I see you are one of our members. It’s always a pity to have to make a visit to one of our own, but business is business.”
DeMontfort-Jones stared at the pair, noticing slight variations between them and his first visitors. These two weren’t the same pair. Close, but not the same. They were probably chosen that way. The tall man spoke.
“I’m afraid you have been selected by one of your fellow members for punishment.”
“What did I do?” he squeaked, realizing the implications of the tall man’s words.
“I’m afraid to say you carried out an unspeakable crime. Not more than one hour ago you cut in front of our member and stole his parking space. Our member was most annoyed, but luckily not so distracted that he omitted to note your car registration.”
“But I was in a rush. I was rushing to get my membership fee. I was rushing to get your damn money!”
“I’m sorry. No excuse is accepted. We do have our rules you know.”
DeMontfort-Jones saw the gun in the same instant the small man fired. He died with the small consolation it definitely hadn’t been a con.
Just keep him plugged in—that’s your job. It may not sound like much, but you better hope this thing keeps him alive. We’re not ready for what he might do—not yet. But as long as he’s in his body, we stand a chance. So keep him secure, keep him plugged in. The drugs should quiet him. You might hear him in your head, but ignore him. You understand? No matter what he says, don’t listen. Don’t press that button, don’t pull that cord. And try to stay safe. We really don’t want to hire for this position again.
Feasting Nina D’Arcangela
Feasting, that’s what it’s doing. Still as it may look, its savoring, consuming, devouring; making a meal of us all with that unrelenting gaze. Wait for the flinch if you will, but it won’t happen.
They say we, as a species, eat with our eyes first. I guess we’re not the only ones.
Expectations Charles Gramlich
Textures: ripples, curves, lines. Fossilized in verdigris. Mouth and eyes above a silver collar of anodized aluminum. Diseased pustules filled with the rust of oxidation. A copper tongue wishes to speak and cannot.
You are frozen without, terrified within.
A crown of hollows rests upon this brow. Bullet holes torn in the fabric of form. You await. We await. Some in awe, some in glory, all in fear.
Down here in the depths the creatures lived in the endless darkness. In this dark realm, evolution favored specie who ate little and moved less. She lay in the sediment, an ancient creature, huge and bulbous. She was the top predator in the food chain and if she could conceive of an emotion like fear, she would have felt none. Lesser creatures avoided her, except for the occasional unwary or unwise fish, who would quickly become prey.
A change in pressure told her there was something above her. She opened one glistening eye. She saw a shape. Whatever this was, it was bigger than her. That made it an enemy. She stayed still, waiting. In her primitive brain, she decided not to fight unless she was attacked. It came closer. It emitted something she did not recognize, but it was painful and it blinded her. She used her tentacles to push herself from the sediment, pain coursing through her body. She had to defend herself.
The men in the bathysphere had left the lights off until the very last second. Light was alien down here, at this depth, and would scare away the creatures. The switch was flicked on and light flooded the scene. The cameras recorded everything around them, but they still wanted to see for themselves; like children, they crowded the small observation window. They were briefly aware of a huge shape, surrounded by disturbed sediment, hurtling towards them before oblivion took them.
Aficionados Lee Andrew Forman
In the hours of day, when families would roam the gallery, it had to be covered; the minds of those unwilling could not be privy to its nature. It had to be presented during selected hours beneath the shroud of night. Only those most dedicated would be allowed to witness its glory, experience its wonder. They never debated its origin or creator, the unknown hand who brushed its oil features remained nameless in history. This canvas held power far beyond any known artist of the time, or before. It revealed great tragedy; its shapes and colors warped and morphed into visions held long ago. Its audience reveled in these savage memories of time. Their sadist hearts fluttered at the gore-soaked images the piece invoked. It spoke of pain and suffering the modern world had never witnessed, but as its kindred aficionados grew in number, it soon would.
Identity Theft Elaine Pascale
I hid the bracelet in that statue in the old library. No one went there anymore. There was no need for reading in a world covered with a curtain of darkness.
We were kept blindfolded most of the time. They believe their faces would frighten us to death. Our blood is tastier when we are alive: alive and scared.
The predators recycle our identities. It is a way of dehumanizing us, which is ironic as they aren’t human. They use adjectives for our names: delicious, scrumptious, succulent. My real name had been engraved on the bracelet. I tucked a paper in with it on which I had written the names of those I loved. I wrote them with a sharpened stick that I had burned at the tip. The predators no longer feared stakes as they don’t have hearts to pierce. They are empty, just like the meaningless names they call us.
“Tasty,” they called me over. They didn’t realize I could still see some things despite the blindfold. They underestimate how smart we are.
“Be a good snack and tell us about your creepiest encounter in the before times.”
“Creepiest?” I pretended to think. I was really estimating how long it would take for me to reach the window. “I guess that would be the guy who followed me home from the bar.”
“Mmm,” I could hear the saliva dripping from their mouths. They were anticipating my fear.
I was afraid, afraid I wouldn’t make it to the window.
“He was a stalker, a nightmare.”
I knew their eyes would be glazing over with blood lust. I bolted to the window and ripped down the curtain.
Their skin scorched, quickly producing flames.
Knowing my name was secure, I lifted the blindfold to watch it all burn.
Smile A.F. Stewart
The crystal in the middle of the carved stone shone with a smudged pink glow, reflecting our lights.
“Looks like a smile, doesn’t it?” Darren leered and nudged me. “That sweet, after sex kind of smirk, am I right?”
I shuddered. Darren was a pig, always making lewd remarks, trying to hit on me, badly. If someone grinned at me like that, I’d scream. The stone resembled a weird blob monster from an old TV show and gave me the creeps. Part of me wanted to walk away from it, the rest of the relics, and the temple.
Still, the thing was pre-Columbian, and we came to loot the place. I shoved it in a crate and we loaded it on the truck with the other artifacts before heading to the dinky airport at the edge of town. Soon I’d be on a plane smuggling our score out of this forsaken jungle.
I shot a glance at Darren. He hadn’t stopped smirking since we left the crumbling temple, but was uncharacteristically quiet. He gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I kept my mouth shut. Our plan depended on that.
I glanced at him again and saw the pink glow at the edges of his mouth. I relaxed. Part of me didn’t believe my bosses, but the curse was working. Soon Darren would be dead, and the antiquities would be in the hands of my real employers. People who knew how to use their power for more than a quick buck. The world would be ours soon, and creepy Darren…
Well, he’d die painfully, but with a smile on his face until the end.
Chernobyl Blues Marge Simon
The door swings open. A slender woman stands framed against the sun. The bartender knows her. He fixes her a shot of his best Scotch on the rocks. She walks over to the piano and plays a few chords. Her face is as velvety smooth as the white of her hair. She’s old enough to be your mother, but that doesn’t matter. When she starts playing, everyone shuts up to listen, even the guy in the booth coughing blood in his beer.
She plays the blues and more. Like more than words and deep and it goes straight inside all the places where you’ve tried to hide your fear, digs them out and tries to make you feel all right about it. It seems like she plays as long as she feels like and then she stops. There is another drink waiting for her but she just leaves it there on the piano. She glances at you on the way out and you grab her hand, pull her to sit down.
“Is that mutant thing still out there?” you ask.
She nods. “I told him I had to play the blues for you, but never again, after this one.”
“But you can’t just leave. We’re in this together, lady,” you plead. “Everything’s polluted now, even the beer. Stay inside, keep playing – you know it makes dying easier for us.”
She shakes her head sadly. A thin band of late sunlight falls on her empty seat. Just before she leaves, she tells you that thing outside the door is her son. “I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to let him in, now.”
The delivery man dropped off the new freezer. Part of the store’s deal was to take the old one away. As he loaded it onto the truck, he asked. “How did it die?”
“Pardon?” asked Melissa.
“The freezer. How did it die? It isn’t very old.”
Weird, she thought. Might be something to do with store’s return policy. “The storm last week. The power went off. When it came back on, the freezer was bust.”
“Good to know.”
He loaded it onto his hand-truck.
“R.I.P. tiny freezer.”
He stroked its white surface, as he gently placed it into the delivery truck.
That was really creepy, Melissa thought, but decided not to say anything. He was a big guy and she was on her own. She quietly closed the front door and watched as he drove away.
A couple of days later she decided it was time to fill the new freezer with food. She went shopping and returned with a car full of groceries destined for the freezer. As she climbed the stairs from the basement, after filling it with her purchases, she noticed the front door of the house was open. She closed it, disquieted.
She entered the lounge and saw the delivery driver sitting on the sofa.
“I checked it. The condenser had blown. The manual clearly says to unplug it in case of a surge after a power cut. You didn’t.”
“You could have had the condenser replaced you know, you could have fixed it, but no, you went ahead and had it destroyed. Euthanized. You killed it. You murdered that tiny freezer. It was only a baby. There can be only one punishment for that.”
He rose from the sofa.
Brian came home from work at six, to find the house dark and empty. Shrugging, he guessed Melissa must be out for a walk. There was no note and she didn’t answer her phone. He decided to get a head start on dinner. In the basement the floor was covered in thawing packs of food. Melissa had obviously forgotten to load the new freezer. He opened the lid and recoiled. His wife lay, curled in a foetal position, in the frozen compartment.