Parting Shot

He’d brought her to visit his home town. Since this was her first time visiting, he decided to show her his childhood haunts. First was the ruined cottage, sitting by itself on a rural road.

“This place used to scare the crap out of me.”

“Why?”

“It was haunted.”

“You really believed that?”

“I did. It had a creepy vibe. Maybe I should see if it still does.”

He walked through the front door.

“I can’t feel anything. Whatever haunted this place has gone.”

He walked further into the ruin.

“There’s an entrance to a cellar in the floor here. Never noticed that before.”

The wood was rotten and it splintered. He fell through into the darkness, stopping only when his belly jammed in the entrance.

“Give me a hand to get back out.”

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

“I’ll push. You pull.”

His face changed.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“Something’s touching me.”

“What?”

“Something’s stroking my legs.”

“You mean a rat?”

“No, I can feel fingers.”

She knew he wasn’t joking.

“GET ME OUT!”

She grabbed his arm and pulled as hard as she could. Nothing.

“PULL!”

She gave a heave. He popped out of the hole like a cork from a bottle. He lay in the dirt, panting.

“What was it?”

“I don’t know, but it felt like a human hand.”

“It couldn’t be. Nobody’s down there.”

“I know, but let’s get the hell out of here.”

Before they could move, a voice spoke from the darkness of the cellar.

You kids come back real soon…

They ran away from the thing that still haunted the cottage.

.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

A Rash of Karens

“You should have your nametag in clear view where we can see it. “

Captain Rick untucked his nametag knowingly. He understood that this type of passenger liked to collect names for complaints. The fan on the airboat was not quite loud enough to cover the women’s conversation, which was an obnoxious combination of denigration of the local culture and denigration of him.

To drown them out—and the idea of drowning them was appealing—Captain Rick began his speech. As he discussed his native Florida, the women continued to speak to each other, acting as if his words did not matter. As if he did not matter.

These two were absolutely perfect.

As he knew his speech by rote, he was able to observe the invasive species in front of him. Both women were wearing dresses and shoes that were impractical and incompatible with an airboat ride. Their arms were laden with bracelets, their hands heavy with rings. But he was not interested in robbing them; he was interested in them for another purpose.

Captain Rick knew how to get their attention. He was confident he would be able to get them to say the things that would confirm his choice with the warden. The women did not know about the cameras that recorded each trip. They did not know that certain passengers were selected for a higher purpose.

They would never know.

Captain Rick began to cover the topic of the negative impact that humans have on the Everglades, especially relating to the introduction of invasive species.

Some invasive species are better than others, he thought. He knew that the foreign reptiles still had something to offer in the way of tourism and trading. Soon, these women would also have something to offer.

He continued, “Some of the alien species include Burmese pythons, several types of boas, and Nile crocodiles.”

“Aliens?” The woman on the left, who he heard the other call “Brenda,” asked.

“No, ma’am, alien species.”

Brenda’s friend leaned toward her but spoke loudly enough that the leaning was unnecessary. “Like that man we saw fishing at the marina. You know right away if someone is alien.”

“He definitely did not belong,” Brenda agreed.

“And boat slips are for boats, not fishing.” The friend turned to Captain Rick, suddenly wanting to include him. “How do we report that? Can you reach the sheriff or constable or whatever you call them down here? You have one of those.” She pointed to his belt. “Walkies.”

“These are for official communication and emergencies only, ma’am.” And for other types of communication that these women did not need to be privy to.

“You don’t think this should be escalated up the ranks to ‘official’?” She turned to Brenda. “He is disregarding my right as a concerned citizen.”

Brenda pulled herself up, looking like a hen stretching. “Citizenship confers power, sir.” The word “sir” was venom-soaked. “We are citizens.” She wiggled her hand back and forth between her friend and herself. “Those…men…the ones we saw fishing on the boat slip, obviously are not. If they were to ask for the walkies, then it would only make sense that those types are denied.”

He nodded. Not because he agreed with the sentiment, but because these two were so perfect. The last few tourist groups had not taken the bait. Thus, they had not been treated as bait. He peered over his shoulder to make sure that the camouflaged camera was capturing this exchange.

“You know, my husband—” the friend began, but Captain Rick cut her off by pointing toward the water.

“If we are quiet, we might be able to get up close to those crocs,” he instructed.

“Why would we want to do that?” Brenda asked, wrinkling her nose as if confronting a bad scent.

“So, you can tell your friends back home,” Captain Rick suggested.

The ladies laughed. “This was more of a…lark,” the friend explained, “we would never tell anyone that we climbed onto this…old boat to skim along some smelly water. We didn’t even tell our husbands.”

Brenda laughed louder. “Our friends think we are in Turks and Caicos. I mean, Florida? Who vacations here?”

“Rednecks.” her friend told her. “It’s the redneck Riviera or something.” She turned her attention back to Captain Rick. “We only came because our husbands had business.”

“I understand. But since you are on the boat anyway, you might want to see some of these species up close.”

“Not really.” Brenda sniffed. “We can go back. We had our fun…I guess.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. Captain Rick was thrilled; she was looking directly toward the camera. The warden would love this.

“I shouldn’t mention this…” If only the women had known that Captain Rick had been trained in the theater long before he retired and dedicated his time and energy to protecting wildlife and helping the state of Florida. “I guess…no…it wouldn’t be right…”

The women were only half-interested. He continued regardless.

“I had a group of ladies on this same boat earlier this morning. When we got to this same spot, this very spot…”

Brenda scratched her shoulder where a mosquito had been snacking earlier. The thought of her being snacked on made Captain Rick smile. He lowered his smile when she asked, “What is it?”

“The one lady leaned right there.” He pointed to a sand bank a few feet to the left of where they were currently idling. “She wanted to see the wildlife.”
Brenda rolled her eyes again. “So?”

“Well, she…it really is the funniest thing, but she didn’t find it funny, of course…”

“Listen, either you tell us what happened, or you turn this boat around right now—” He was no longer sure which one was speaking as they both whined at the same frequency and his mind was already a few steps ahead.

“She had been wearing a bracelet. A real pretty one, and fancy too…it had all these diamonds on it. Her friend said it was a…Carter?”

The women gasped in unison. “Cartier?”

“That’s it. That’s the one. By gum if it didn’t come loose right when she was leaning and plop into the water below us. We tried to find it with no luck.” He winked at the ladies. “I was hoping to come back and find it without her. You know, a secret.” He winked again.

“That’s disgusting,” the friend chastised him. “You are basically robbing the woman.” She looked around the boat while Brenda’s eyes tried to bore beneath the surface of the murky water. “I will be using that net.” She pointed to the implements behind him. He had nets and hooks and many other useful items.

He feigned surprise. He was delighted that all was going according to plan. “You want to find it?”

“Of course. You wouldn’t even know what to do with something like that. But I—” She glanced at Brenda. “I mean, we…we know what to do with that sort of thing.”

Brenda nodded. “Of course, we will look at your passenger log and see if we can track her down.”

“Of course,” the friend agreed, and Captain Rick did not have to know them well to know they were both lying. But their lies only solidified how the rest of this cruise would go.

He handed the friend the net and watched as they both leaned over the side, scooping the water uselessly. As the women teetered precariously, Captain Rick could see the water parting on both sides of the boat. The crocs were used to this by now. They knew what to do, which absolved Captain Rick of having to lift a finger.

He remembered the camera and raised his hands behind the ladies’ backs, gesturing wordlessly, as if he were warning them away from the end of the boat. The women did not notice the snouts breaking the surface, but he did.

The first few times, he had needed to chum the water to get the crocs in a frenzy. They were now conditioned, and they knew exactly how to grab the women and pull them into the water. As if they had been trained.

The women screamed for help but there was nothing Captain Rick could do, not once they were being subjected to the death rolls. And the camera captured it all in case anyone came with questions.

But no one would.

Captain Rick had been right, the warden happily watched the film and agreed with the decision that had been made on the water. The warden slapped Captain Rick on the back and said, “That’s what tourists are good for, making our reptilian visitors feel at home.”

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 50

The House of Heaven’s Doors
Marge Simon

He remembered lying in a hospital bed. An elderly physician was sadly shaking his head. Clutching his hand tightly, his wife wept. All went blank, so he knew he must be dead, but suddenly, awareness returned with the vision of an old house. He willed entry, passing effortlessly through a set of double doors and climbing up a rickety stairway. At the top were three closed doors of different colors. “These must be Heaven’s Doors,” he mused aloud. “How extraordinary! I thought there was but one.”

It was very hot on the Heavenly level. The tiled floor was spotless, the air reeked of disinfectant. He approached the bright red door on his left and tried the knob. As it swung open, he was half blinded by a brilliant light. Agonized shrieks and moans issued from an unknown source. Horrified, he slammed it shut, looking to his right. This door was painted sky blue. Someone had tried to break into it, the wood had been dented as if by the pounding of fists. The knob wouldn’t turn and came away in his hand. Finally, he addressed the remaining middle door, which was a dingy white. It opened slowly to reveal a blackness thick with portent. The music of a cello lured, a daunting challenge he couldn’t ignore. He found himself plunging forward into the core of that Unholy Dark, which was when the voices begin chanting. In a matter of seconds, his identity was shredded as he was sucked into the infinite wailing vortex known as The Hereafter.

Outside, dark clouds gathered above the old house. Quietly it began to rain.

The Old Man Tolls
Lee Andrew Forman

The music of hardship sounded from broken windows—repeated clangs of iron, a monotonous rhythm, mesmerizing in tune. Despite harsh notes, it drew me in. Was this old lot to be restored to its once meaningful design? Was it to be loved and cared for?

Inside, an ancient, gray-skinned man hammered away upon hot metal. He didn’t dare interrupt his focus to acknowledge my entry. I watched him work. His thin frame impressed with its tireless effort. Despite frail and stringy muscles wielding heavy tools, he never lost pace.

He appeared to be crafting shackles. Maybe the old fool intended to raise a farm. Upon my inquiry, he stopped his perfect tolling and looked up. His eyes first went to me, then directed to my back. His yellowed teeth showed themselves. “I have to keep it here.”

I turned around to a wall of flesh, a living tapestry of pulsating skin. It spread from floor to ceiling, reached to corners with grotesque humanoid limbs. It was already tethered to the floor by an arrangement of cuffs and chains. It looked upon me with its many eyes. Arms grew from its surface at will, reached for me as they lengthened. I stepped back and thanked God they could only grasp so far.

Hands pressed upon my back. My breath stopped. In that moment, I realized their intent. Before I could protest, my face was already pushed into the malleable conglomeration of animate skin. It enveloped me in a taut grasp and held firm. Slime covered every inch of me. I soon felt naked, clothes dissolved. My every nerve burned like fire. The world became pain. But the old man’s toll kept me company as by body was slowly digested.

School Days
Charles Gramlich

Grade school in a small town. I remember it fondly. Two rooms for six grades—three in each room with a dining area and big bathrooms in the rear for boys and girls. I lived close enough to walk to classes every weekday morning before 8:00 o’clock. It was always nice to see the bright yellow paint of the building shining as I came through Thompson’s meadow right up to the twin doors.

Of course, I remember that one day. How could I forget. Stepping into school, hanging my coat on the hook in the hallway, turning into Sister Ethlereda’s classroom on the right. That’s where grades 4 through 6 were taught. I remember taking my seat, eager to start a lesson about Ancient Rome and its legions

I remember the sound of backfiring cars in the parking lot out front. But when I looked out the window, it wasn’t a car at all. The two young men coming up the walkway were not in any grade in our school. I didn’t know them. Then.

But I know them now. They’re very sad and we hang out every day together, those two and the thirteen other kids they shot that day before the police shot them. Yes, we hang out every day. And every night.

I don’t go home anymore.

None of us do.

Beneath the Boards
Elaine Pascale

It’s a gold mine!”

It’s a money pit.”

It was both and neither. It was abandoned but not uninhabited. The couple did not live long enough to sink money into it nor to have a return on investment.

It’s so quaint.”

Something lurked beneath the floorboards, eradicating any charm the building may have had. The dwelling stored more than knick-knacks. The woman’s tchotchkes were donated following her death.

This could be my sanctuary.”

It is hard to find peace when the beast beneath the boards growls so loudly. And smells so strongly. And eats so ravenously.

It’s big enough for all of us.”

Not big enough to completely fill the appetite of the beast who appreciated the smorgasbord it was served.

It just needs some TLC.”

The renovations disturbed the beast’s slumber. No one wants to encounter the beast beneath the boards when it is overly tired.

It’s so rustic.”

Far enough away from everyone that cries won’t be heard, and help will not arrive.

It has good bones.”

The beast beneath the boards has gnawed on its share of good bones.

I have heard about this place. Is it cursed?”

And the beast beneath the boards waits.

Unwanted House Guests
A.F. Stewart

The doorknob rattled, a sure sign someone was coming.

“Is it time?” came a whisper.

“Yes.”

“It’s been so long.”

“It has. Years since the last one.”

“Don’t talk about him. He wasn’t a good fit. Not what we needed at all.”

“No, not the right sort. Very… short-lived.”

“He was so promising at first, so carefree… but he didn’t last.”

“No. He had too many… issues. A shame really.”

“Maybe a family will come this time. They always—wait, is that a car?”

“Oh, I believe it is.”

The voices stilled, and they heard an engine shutting off outside. Two shadows shifted and the curtains of a front window parted slightly.

“Oh, look, a couple. They seem very happy, don’t they? In love.”

“Oh yes. Very happy. They’ll feed us for a long time, won’t they?”

“Indeed, I think they will. Whispers here, murmurs there, and we’ll slowly turn their happiness to misery. They’ll hate each other by the end and we’ll gorge on every dismal day. Years if we do it right.”

“Oh, excellent. How do you think we’ll end, though? When they’re all used up?”

“Maybe arrange a murder-suicide. Or hanging from the staircase. Do you remember that teacher? Her body hung in the hall for days before they found her.”
“Yes, I remember. It was glorious.”

Two chuckles echoed in the hall, muffled by the sound of the front door opening.

Birthright
Nina D’Arcangela

Cowering, I crouch in the shadows of the barn. I should not be here, I was asked to stay away yet could not. The unnatural sound of bone snapping, sinew tearing, and skin stretching is a thing so foreign that it rends my soul to shreds. Yet for all the breath left in me, I cannot turn away.

He suffers and my heart weeps. I reach to touch him; he begs me stay away with tortured gaze. Struck by a rising terror I’ve not felt before, my soul screams that he is no longer mine but belongs solely to the night. If only I had not broken my word.

Fully morphed, he turns one final time – feral eyes saying all his misshapen mouth is no longer capable of speaking. A blink; and he’s gone. Rushing forward I listen to his baleful cry carried upon the night’s savage wind as he leaves my world to enter his other.

Returning
Miriam H. Harrison

She was slowly returning to the wild. She could feel civilization’s grasp weaken with every flake of paint that fell away, with every window that shattered and scattered, with every vine that climbed her façade to whisper in her ear about greenery and adventure. Slow and steady, the wild came for her—but not fast enough. She longed to rise from her own dust and debris, chase the sunset shadows into the night. She wondered whether her legs could still run after all these years of roosting. There had been a time to stay, but now her nest was empty—now she was empty. What better way to fill herself than with the shadows of wilderness, the fresh air of midnight, the glow of a new day far from here? She was made for magic and mystery. She would take her magic with her, leave behind the mystery of the missing house, the vacant lot, the trail of chicken tracks returning to the wild.

I’m Talking to You
Guest Author: Harrison Kim

I’m talking to you, giant mutant Daddy Long-Legs eight-legged walking drone. Revolve your bulbous head to scope out the house of delusion. Observe its yellow planks burned by the psychiatric meltdown, seeping out from inside and staining the wood to yellow-brown hallucination level 5006 warped synapses per second. Humans can’t go in without a suit lined with risperidone. For you, my drone, no suit needed, you are fortunate to have all your vertebrae on the outside. The work will be machine precise. Your mission: clean this place of insanity and bring the delusions back to me. Inside, the patient’s bones lie white. Their hallucinations seeped into the cracks, while their bodies died and moldered. How interesting it was, all these past days, via my powerful binoculars, to observe the gradual dispersal of these delusions within the changing colour of the planks.

Daddy LL Drone, stand facing the door and spread all your limby tentacles into the openings. Poke them thru the windows. Can you feel who the patients were, as you tickle your way round the rooms? They couldn’t escape before the meltdown. All locked in. The staff ran, left their psychiatric charges shimmering, glowing in collective insanity. Delusions burst forth, burned into the walls, seeped through the wood in black and grey. This house stands now only because of delusion. You will explore this psychoactive creature with your tentacles, and when the tiny windows are securely gripped and entered, hold fast. Then, split the building in twain, with your longest tentacle lobotomize its manic essence, and suck all the delusions into your maw. After you skitter back to the studio, I’ll unload everything into my computer, and have enough material for another three books of stories.


dw_50Johnny Joo is an internationally accredited artist, most notably recognized for his photography of abandoned architecture. Growing up sandwiched between the urban cityscape of Cleveland and boundless fields of rural Northeast Ohio provided Johnny with a front row ticket to a specialized cycle of abandonment, destruction, and nature’s reclamation of countless structures. His projects have ranged from malls to asylums to simple country homes, all left behind at various points in time. Always a lover of all art mediums, the seeds of a career were planted in Johnny’s mind at the age of 16 when a high school art project landed him in an abandoned farmhouse. Since that time, his art has expanded, including the publication of eight books, music, spoken word poetry, art installations and other digital and photographic works.

Photography © Copyright Johnny Joo. All Rights Reserved.

Visit him on his website – Odd World Photography or find him on Instagram at @scrap_brain


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2022

Wish You Were Here


Attempting to put his key into the door of his apartment block, he had to give it some force. It went in with effort due to the wear and tear of both key and lock. He gave the door a final nudge with his shoulder to prise it open, the old wooden frame was swollen by the damp weather and constant steam emanating from the drain off the sidewalk right outside of the flea pit where he lived. Before he slumped into bed he looked out the window to take in the view. Dark streets lined with decrepit buildings. At the far end of the road two men were beating the hell out of a guy. In the distance a police siren wailed. But they were not coming to the aid of this man. Looking back down, the two thugs had gone but the victim’s body remained, lifeless and bloody on the crud-covered pavement.


He awoke next day, his head thumping. After making a couple of pieces of toast out of the stale bread that he had left in his cupboard he made his way to work.


On his way back home that night, he was confronted by three leather-clad delinquents. He waited for the normal demands, wallet, watch, etc. In way of a reply he just laughed. Even as the ensuing kicks and punches rained down upon him, he never cried out for help nor begged for mercy.


Hobbling back to his apartment, he turned the light on and stumbled into the bathroom. He stared at his reflection in the mirror.  His eyes were swollen, his lips the same, but bloodied. He chuckled again. A giggle at first, then a real belly laugh. He wiped the blood from his face and then punched the mirror with all his might. Shards of glass sprayed out across the room and into his face, piercing the skin and cutting through to the bone. He put his hands up to his cheeks and began pulling the flesh away. His apartment melted into darkness and then ignited into fire.


He turned and walked along a molten corridor. At the end of it was a large solid metal door. It swung open upon his approach.


In front of him sat a deformed, crippled, grotesque, monstrosity of a being. It looked at him enquiringly and asked, “So?”

The fleshless being that once bore the face of a dishwashing, downtrodden, worthless man looked back at his master and, with a smile replied, “It’s all going to shit up there.”


Lucifer smiled through bloodied teeth and replied, “Well, we’ll just leave them to their own devices then. It doesn’t appear we need influence them at all these days. Let human nature take its course, so to speak.”

Ian Sputnik

© Copyright Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Pathway to Glory

It is delicious experience to be guests at this exclusive retreat. Within its walls, a haven is provided for the wealthy and ostensibly pious. The staff in pristine white uniforms is ever present. Their services are available for every possible request, from a bible or a copy of the Torah, to a prayer rug. Even needs of a sexual nature are provided, assuredly discrete.  Afternoon tea with delectable scones and clotted cream is served at four. After tea, there are a number of gorgeous walkways lined with arching redbuds off the deck where patrons may stretch their legs. The foothill setting is always a refreshing change for them. Each and all feel assured that the myriad paths would always take them back to the resort.         

But now, their vacation is ending. A few guests will take a last stroll through the bowers before time to return to their hectic lives in the real world , some in pairs, some alone. The budding branches form an archway suffused in heavenly light. It is just the sort of place one couple intends to kneel and give thanks to their lord by having a bit of illicit hot sex. Like an archway to heaven, it draws them on. Crouched behind one of the trees, the beautiful angel known as Glory awaits their arrival. Wings folded, she flexes her claws and licks her lips.

~ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Sweet Youth

From within my gut it was born, its birthing chamber no more than a stew of endless glutton and rot. I felt life within, a tumor suckling my innards with indifference to a father’s suffering. This child would feel no mother’s loving embrace, for none existed. I alone would be its burden, and it, mine. Pain thumped in tune with its gestation. Bile coated my throat. As it thrust its way up my gullet, a worm-like head peeked out from between my lips. It heaved its way further into the world, inch by inch, until it hit the floor with a wet slap of carnage. I took in a long-awaited breath and gazed upon my newborn. It wiggled its tail and screeched, calling out against the agony of existence, the horror of birth. I lifted it with both hands and cradled it against my chest. Its black eyes stared into mine. I knew then it would grow up fast, and that I’d be wise to cherish the sweet youth while it lasted.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.03

The Store at the Center of Hell

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.

“Just browsing.”

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.

I told you, Hell is clever.

~ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Supernova

“I am a ticking time bomb,” Penny announced earnestly at dinner.

“That is what the doctor said?” her husband asked, “He literally told you that you were like a bomb, ready to explode at any time?” He stirred his mashed potatoes. She had made them the way she liked: clumpy and with skin. He hated them that way.

She ignored his question. She was not going to answer if it destroyed her narrative. “I am ripe, is what I mean. I could conceive at any moment. We need to be prepared.” She fashioned a few mountains of potatoes onto her plate, adding rivulets of gravy. She topped the potatoes with several large pieces of fried chicken. “I just wish my health were important to you.”

He eyed her plate but said nothing.

She loved to eat. Always had. She ate until it hurt, and she craved that painfully full feeling more than she craved food. If she weren’t in pain from overeating, she felt empty.

“Empty” might be extreme. She was often accused of being dramatic, of exaggerating. It was just that she believed in telling her story, her truth. Once she had a narrative, she stuck to it. The current narrative was that, at nearly 320 pounds, every ounce of her ached with love. And she wanted to give that love to something that was hers. Something that belonged to her.

Her own marriage did not belong to her. It had been constructed by her mother. Penny and her boyfriend had been at a flea market with her mother who had spied a jewelry stand. “This one is perfect, don’t you agree?” Her mother had pointed to a small diamond ring.  “And you won’t find another like it for that price,” she continued, putting him on the spot. There had been no proposal, no celebration, only a pre-worn ring thrust onto her finger, witnessed by tables of tchotchkes, unwanted dolls, and fabrics.

But a baby would be hers by choice and by design. She would lavish affection; she would nurture. She would give this baby the attention she had never received. Her mother could not celebrate others because she was the star of her own movie. While Penny craved food, her mother craved notice. Her mother had been a child actress, scoring a national commercial with a tagline that had been reproduced on t-shirts. She had been the picky eater whose parents found magical pancakes fortified with vitamins and minerals. The girl had eaten so many pancakes she exclaimed (with a syrup-lined mouth), “Imma ‘bout to explode!”

Sometimes people still recognized Penny’s mother. She went to conventions and sat at a table, waiting to autograph old shirts and pancake boxes for $5.00 a pop. She had always told Penny that her career had been about to hit a resurgence when she had become pregnant. She never failed to remind Penny that she was the reason she was seated at folded tables instead of being paraded across red carpets.

Penny knew this was not true and it certainly was not part of her narrative. What was true was she wanted a baby. That had been the impetus for the appointments with teams of doctors. And while she was not conceiving, her waist expanded. Her narrative told her that she was in the second trimester based on the last time her husband had managed to remain sober enough to finish.

“You are not pregnant,” her husband said.

“You are not pregnant,” the doctor confirmed. But her body told a different story. Something was definitely growing inside her. This was proven by an internal ultrasound that showed tiny, glowing specks orbiting her uterus.

“He said they look like stars,” she told her mom proudly.

“What did you expect” her mom asked, bored. “You were on the pill forever and that causes all kinds of problems.” She knew her mother was jealous because Penny had taken some control over her reproductive life.

“Stars are bad?”

“Anything that was not there originally is bad,” her mother sneered, “even a baby. Will the doctor be removing these ‘stars’ and how much will that cost? You know I was planning a cruise.”

Penny’s face burned with anger, a burn slightly less intense than the one she had begun feeling in her lower abdomen. “We have money.”

Her mother scoffed and Penny attributed this to more jealousy.

Tests could not determine the nature of the stars, nor could they ascertain where the distressing abdominal cramps were coming from. “Imma ‘bout to explode,” Penny murmured. She found it difficult to take more than a few steps without having to sit and wait, in agony, for the pain to pass.

When she could no longer pull her elastic-waist pants over her growing abdomen, Penny returned to the doctor.

“Are there more stars?” she asked as he scanned her latest ultrasounds.

“Penny, there is something…a tumor. I am going to take a biopsy and have it sent to pathology.”

“A tumor? Not a baby?” She couldn’t understand what the doctor was saying as it did not support her narrative.

“Penny, we discussed that your difficulty conceiving may be attributed to your weight, which increases each time we see you. At your size it would be dangerous and irresponsible…” she didn’t listen to the rest of his words and instead reminded herself that she would be finishing her third trimester and ready to give birth at any time, like a ticking time bomb.

The pain inside of her made Penny truly feel like a ticking time bomb. She felt full all the time even though her appetite was nonexistent. Despite eating limited bites of food here and there, the scale continued to herald higher and higher numbers. This feeling of fullness was less pleasurable than the one derived from a surplus of food. She reminded herself that there was a growing person inside of her and that the pain was worth it.

She spent most of her time in bed until she was called back to the doctor to discuss the results from pathology. She was to report to the hospital instead of the medical offices and when she arrived there were two doctors in the room. She knew this was unusual but assumed the new doctor would oversee delivery.

Her regular doctor sat on a stool that allowed for sustained eye contact. He spoke slowly and asked her to verify that she understood that the tumor was not made from her tissue or cells, that it was completely foreign.

She repeated the words obediently but had no concept of what they meant, and they were not what she wanted to hear.

The doctors nodded at each other as if working up the courage to continue. “We will be keeping you here. We want to remove the tumor surgically.”

“A c-section?” she gasped.

“No, Penny.” The other doctor approached her and laid a gentle hand on her arm. “There is no baby, only a tumor. I am afraid it is dangerous to your health to not remove it immediately.”

“You’re saying the baby is in danger, or I am in danger, or both?” she asked incredulously.

The doctors exchanged equally incredulous glances. “No baby, Penny. It is only you and you are in danger.”

She allowed them to admit her to the hospital and had them call her mother and husband to see if someone could keep her company. They found a gown large enough to cover her and left her lying on a very narrow bed, waiting for the baby that she knew to be there.

Her pain escalated. “This must be contractions,” she whispered, “the baby may come before the c-section can be performed.” The pain moved down into her bowels, and she hoisted herself out of the bed to enter the very tiny bathroom. She crouched over the toilet, feeling the worst cramps of her life. She simultaneously wanted to push and wanted to avoid the pain of pushing. She groaned and pushed as that aligned with her narrative.

Something wet slid from inside her and she looked down to see a great blob, the size of a pancake, stuck to her thigh. It was bloody and pulsating and it looked to be riddled with stars.

“Oh my…” Penny lifted the blob to her chest and cradled it. She wept and rocked the shimmering sphere in her arms. She carried it with her back to the bed, snuggling it and murmuring to it until it cracked open.

“This isn’t…what is this?” she asked the empty room, as the shell of the sphere crumbled away, exposing tiny, moving spider-like creatures.

Penny reached for her purse and retrieved the magnifying glass she had purchased at the flea market when her husband had been strong-armed into proposing. The creatures crawled over her lap and appeared to be trying to burrow into her flesh.

She heard a gasp and looked up to see her mother. “I am nursing,” Penny said proudly, while the creatures’ miniscule jaws tore into a roll of abdominal flesh.

Her mother screamed and once Penny’s condition was noted, her room became packed with medical personnel. They talked to Penny and took notes and photographs of the strange phenomenon. Penny saw her mother, backed into the corner, red with anger that Penny was now the center of attention.

And this was Penny’s new, happy narrative.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 49

As Butterfies
Miriam H. Harrison

They had promised unspeakable beauty. The procedure would unlock new colours, open wide a world of wonder. We would see as butterflies see, unwrap the hues and patterns and glories hidden in our plain sight.

But first, the darkness.

I was proud to be among the first. The first to shed my bandages. The first to step out into the light. The first to see.

The first to realize our mistake.

We were not meant to see what would break us: those things beyond our understanding, hidden in ultraviolet.

Seeing the unseeable, I realized butterflies would scream if they could.

The Drift
Nina D’Arcangela

Petals sway softly upon the breeze; they twirl, they dance, they float, they soar. Glorious in pale pink, flushed deeper on the edges, how you outshone any other. You began to drift away, I reached for you, but there were so many. You sang as you lifted high upon the current, free from my arms at last. Then the air stilled, you spiraled downward and I, stiff with age, could do nothing.

You settled in a soft plume of vibrant green, a lush cushion to rest your head upon. I watched, I smiled, then a moistened pellet struck, followed by another. The torrent began, you were trampled by the onslaught and I wept for your pain.

A week all that is granted, yet too weak was I to give you even that. Whispers among the branches comfort for next Spring’s thaw, but bent and broken, these limbs heavy, I see the point no longer.

The Dream Beyond
Lee Andrew Forman

Upon the tip of the other side, balancing between a heartbeat and silence, I see only beauty. For what has been, what is now, what will be. It exists between every line, in every place, no matter how obscure and ill-lit. Its brilliance rests even in the face of evil itself—in its purity, its honesty. That visage I know well. I’ve gazed beyond and witnessed its truth. The brute I hunted bested me. The intelligence in its eyes told all.

Rows of razor-bone upon my throat is what brought me here, to this realm between the fragile panes of reality. Its color, its shifting form, a wonder unimaginable. What lies at the end? Where does this journey lead?

Perhaps it is no more than a last shedding of chemicals, a dream to end all dreams, and when it ends, all is swallowed by the void. I’d like to believe it’s a transition, that I wait in a heavenly cocoon, soon to open. I’ll spread wings and soar among clouds.

As the images flicker, something lurks behind them, creeping in the brief glimpses of black. Between each moment of bliss, it shifts toward me, twists its contorted form. As the dark spaces take dominance, I wait for what comes.

Pink
Elaine Pascale

The dogs had been trained to find me.

Their tongues are as pink as the blossoms above me.

I cannot smell the blossoms; I cannot smell me though I am rotten.

Pink was my favorite color.

The ID that they will find of me in my pocket shows me wearing my best pink dress and pink lipstick.

The leaves and dirt that cover me are not pink, but the worms that feast on me are. The leaves and dirt are messy but not as messy as what I left behind. I was considered a hoarder. When they trace my ID back, they will find this out. They will see my pink furniture and sheets and bed coverings, once they brush aside the pink papers and postcards and paper plates.

My insides weren’t pink when they spilled out on the ground. I wish they had been—clean and fresh. Like my apartment had been when I moved in, before I doused it in pink paraphernalia.

The dogs sit in a circle around me. It is only a matter of time before the people discover me.

And only a matter of time before they go to my apartment and move the pink candles, empty bottles, socks, scarves, books, candy wrappers, umbrellas, bags, soap, erasers, and stuffed animals to see the real pink beneath.

My insides weren’t pink when they spilled from me.

But the insides of others were.

The Forlorn
Charles Gramlich

On an unmarked trail of dirt left by animals, under spring trees which provide a roof of lavender petals, I pause my meander. The perfume of blossoms overhead is so overwhelming I can barely think. I do not remember where I come from or how long I’ve been traveling. I do not remember why I began my walk, or even my name. But I know why I’ve stopped.

The mistresses of God are visiting here!

A whisper stirs the petals overhead. A sinuous shape swirls among them, invisible except for the movement of the tree limbs and their burden of blooms. A mauve rain begins, dropping around me, catching in my hair, brushing my face with the exquisite softness of satin.

Aroused, I shed my clothes like a snake molting. The petals keep falling, and now begin to cling to my sweat-wetted skin. Some things from the trees touch me. Their hands feel like bones softened by oceans of time. Their caresses turn me around, and around, and around. Faster and faster.

I begin to spin like a whirlwind, like a dust devil. Painted in all the perfect shades of purple, I spin until my feet drill deep into the soil. I spin until my toes sprout roots and my arms sprout twigs, until I grow up and up toward the sky. Until I join my new lovers in the sacred grove where beauty screens death.

And now we wait. Amidst the forlorn and the sacrificed. For the next visitor to travel this path.

Blue Sky Somewhere
Marge Simon

Thea parts the curtains on the day ahead, then quickly ducks away. Sunlight unfurls from the window panes sparkling on an unused coffee cup and a basket of imaginary rolls. She knows it’s make-believe, a tableau laid out by habit. Useless to pretend she’s one of them beyond her home, but it is all she’s had for centuries.

On the floor, shadows of cherry trees in bloom remind her spring has arrived. How she longed for a glimpse of cobalt sky above the blooming branches,, a sight she treasured on the shores of Attica. Those sweet days, a memory from centuries ago when she was young, unaware her mortality was soon to change. But now the blood of cities bleeds into a wounded sky; the atmosphere so thick with toxic fumes, few mortals dare to walk the streets without a mask.

It seems unfair that she must bear the situation, knowing it was never her intention. But worse, the shrinking population bodes her ultimate demise. She wanders darkened rooms, touching surfaces, feeling the measure of textures, the contrast of cloth and stone, glass and polished wood. Things in her small world she knows so well. Inside things, held dearly but dearer still the feel of sun on skin. A patch of blue sky, there must be a glimpse of it somewhere.

Why wait any longer?

A twist of latch, an open door. She steps into the light.

Pink and White
A.F. Stewart

The sickly sweet smell of cherry blossoms filled the orchard, frosted petals descending into the unexpected spring snow; a layer of soft pink atop the white. Prevalent as the scent was, it did not blot out the undertone whiff of copper nor the smell of decay. And pretty pastel colours couldn’t hide all the stains underneath the layers of warring nature.

Changing seasons swirled against the scars and the silence, and hollow time eager to swallow what once existed here. Not claimed yet, the fallen dead, flesh and bones still marking the place of carnage, their blood feeding the soil beneath the snow. Echoes of the war drifted between the trees, chased by the cruel laughter of the mad gods.

Defiance met with death, and rebellion with ruin, a bloody example to all souls that might rise to grasp at the beckoning wisp of freedom. Hope expired within this orchard, and only soft petals fell like tears on their graves, wrapping the remains in velvet spoils, mounds of pink and white. 

Pretty in Pink
Ian Sputnik

“Let’s play a game,” the two boys had suggested to her. Minutes later, Ed and Rob began to wrap the chains around Katrin, despite her protests. They left her bound to the witching tree as they scampered away across the white blossom that blanketed the orchard floor. Glancing back they could see her struggling to get free, her pink dress already stained by the rusty metal.

Rumour had it that those found guilty of practicing the dark arts would be tethered to the tree and left there to die.
As they hid in a ditch at the other end of the field, they could hear her screams of panic turn into sobs of despair. Then all went silent.

Returning some time later, they found her gone. The chains hung from the tree, blood dripping from the links.
They ran, screaming from the scene.

At school assembly after the weekend the headmaster announced that Katrin had gone missing and said that anyone who had information regarding her whereabouts should come forward. The two boys remained silent. They had made a pact never to tell anyone about what had happened.

It wasn’t until the following year that they returned to the orchard. They stood mouths open as they took in the scene before them. This year the blossom was bright pink in colour not its usual white.

They were startled by a voice from behind them. It was Ed’s annoying sister, who must have followed them from his house.

Rob’s mouth turned into a menacing smile as he looked at Emma standing there in her blue dress.
“You ever seen blue blossom?” he asked  Ed.

Ed smiled back and then said to Emma “let’s play a game.”

Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2022

No Gods Here

Pale water rose and fell against the hull of my boat. The lonely ocean longed for color; all was gray, from the sky to the cold sea. Though my destination was said to be only two miles from the coast, fog wrapped around my solitary vessel—I had the sensation of getting nowhere but lost. If not for my compass, and faith that this land mass existed against the advice of all maps, I would have been.

I was glad to have left the company of the native tribe. The way their eyes stared, the knowing in them—too harsh for my subconscious to ignore. Though I knew they only followed lore and superstition, second guessing the risk of going where no one else would clouded my enthusiasm.

A dark mass appeared in the haze. It seemed my money and troubles had been worthwhile. This tiny rock in the sea was before me. I was there.

Jagged volcanic rock populated the landscape. No signs of life, plant or otherwise. The great chapel didn’t take long to find. Its oversized entrance was built tall enough for the gods to walk through unhindered. Inside, its vaulted ceiling reached into darkness above. Faint illumination entered the structure, no glass saints adorned its design. Only a stone block altar featured any symbolism of worship. A great triangle hung in thin air. No chains suspended it, nothing rested beneath to hold its weight. Magic, I’d heard. But I knew better.

Dust clouded around my boots as I approached. Each footfall shortened my journey, brought me closer to the mystifying object. My palms moistened. After all the knowledge I’d gained throughout my hunt, I still had no revelation as to its purpose. I reached out and put my hand against it. Unlike its cold stone surroundings, it radiated heat. My lips curled in anticipation of discovering its function.

Then a strange feeling arrested my entire body. Both feet lifted from the floor and I rose, weightless, hovered in the air alongside the object. Elation inspired endless possibilities, countless prospects. What power I would have.

White light brighter than the sun beamed from above. Even with both eyes closed, it relentlessly entered my retinas. The air around me boiled. I barely heard my own screams over the hiss of burning flesh.

Before life escaped my meaty shell, darkness returned to the chamber. My wrecked frame dropped to the floor. No longer alone, I looked up to the beings who emerged from the dark. As my limbs twitched with pain beyond pain, I understood the legends and rumors, the fears of the island natives. It all made sense. But these were not gods.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.