Pallor Mortis

“Hearts beat to Death’s rhythm,” that’s what Callie always said. “Life supplied the instruments, content to watch while Death conducted tremendous symphonies of decay. Life, you see,” she’d tell me, “is far more insidious than we’re led to believe.”

I never understood what she was trying to say. It felt like almost completing a puzzle, but the box was missing a piece. Still, I loved to listen to her, no matter what she said—it always sounded smart.

We used to sneak out at night, riding our bikes as far as our legs and lungs would let us. She was my best friend, and when we were alone in the moonlight, I saw her face, the uncensored version. Callie was a sad girl who’d unlocked the secrets of the universe. She had tear stained cheeks and torn up lips that never had a chance to heal.

“Mila, it’s coming soon.” She whispered, “they think I’m almost ready.” A weak smile cracked her sullen face as she held my hand. “But don’t worry, it won’t happen to you.”

Her grip tightened and I tried to speak, but fell short. Although I didn’t know what she meant, and wanted with my whole heart to understand this time, a sudden mourning wrapped us both, and we sat in the tall grass till the sun rose.

I never saw her again. I missed my friend for ages and never stopped thinking about the finality of her last words to me. Each morning I questioned what she was protecting me from, and each night, I’d hope she was happier now. Tonight, was no different. I settled into bed with our childhood memories swimming through my mind.

“Mila.” A hushed voice called through the winds, “Mila.” Flurries of dried leaves blew through my window. It was Callie, I knew it was.

“The grass,” more whispering.

I raced to the window, breath caught in my throat, hoping I wasn’t imagining things. A woman stood on the sidewalk, her back to me. “The grass,” the woman pointed toward the thicket before her. She never turned to look at me, but I’d recognize those jet-black locks anywhere. Her voice carried gently in the chilly autumn air, “Milaaaa.” She headed for the wood, not waiting for a reply.

Goosebumps tingled as they formed over my body—something was wrong. I didn’t know what exactly, but something rotten was coming from the young girl I used to know.

I took a chance, throwing on whatever shoes were nearest and sprinted after her. She called my name again as she disappeared between the trees. She was guiding me to the place we’d last seen each other. While I knew where she was going, the path seemed darker than it used to. I held my arms close to my chest and stepped carefully, doing my best to avoid the littering of twigs and dried leaves. Making noise now felt wrong.

When I reached the meadow, I saw her standing impossibly far off. Her complexion lacked any pigment, as if she’d become translucent. Her frosted blue eyes glistened in the moonlight. They pierced through me, penetrating my mind. Callie didn’t speak, she didn’t move. My head felt fuzzy while she added the missing puzzle pieces.

Her talks became clear: all the warnings and sorrows.

I saw her nervously return home, greeted by her family who immediately whisked her to their self-made basement. They left her there, without food or drink for several days. My heart wretched; her panic consumed me. I listened while she sobbed, begging and bargaining for reprieve.

As the final morning arrived, they granted it. Her parents and siblings stood around her. Limbs tied and over extended with strange symbols drawn above them. They chanted in guttural tones, calling to sacred unseen forces. When Callie pleaded for them to stop, they chanted louder. Her face was beet red and drenched in sweat, she struggled against the binds to no avail. Hopeless, she simply wished for Life to let go. And let go, it did.

No more struggling, just quiet. The family’s erratic behavior stilled; they watched with baited breath while Callie’s chest ceased expanding. The youngest untied her wrists as he’d been told, while her sister released her ankles. Quickly they returned to their places among the others, continuing to await their master.

Callie’s fingers twitched; her light eyes flicked open.

I gasped, overwhelmed by the unfolding nightmare.

Her body rose, head hanging limply against her chest. “You called?” Different octaves of her voice sounded in unison.
Her father started to speak, he intended to be the first to address their Lord, but before he could utter a single syllable, he was cut off.

Callie spoke again, answering herself, “Ah, yes. I see. Consider yourself relieved.” Her neck snapped, jerking her head upright. Crystal eyes aglow and streams of blood leaked from the corners of her mouth.

The circle that surrounded her realized their mistake—they had been forsaken. Her mother was the first to attempt an escape, she was also the first to scream. One by one, they each cried out in pain—in fear, it didn’t matter anymore. Callie reveled in her shrieking chorus. Life had excused her from the torment she was undergoing, but Death, well, Death was ready for a new song.

Flayed alive; layers removed in coils, stripping the meat from their bones. They watched. They begged. They created new sounds that Death had never fathomed, and Death had heard them all. When there were no other ghastly chords to extract from the participants, Callie vanished. Her family left to decompose in their dank cellar; spoiled cadavers trapped with eternal screaming.

The smell of wet grass thrust me back to the wood. Callie was closer now; I could see her flesh cracking, and smell the odorous sludge as it dripped from her festering maw. She grimaced; her jerky movements frightened me. “Callie?” I murmured.

She gripped my shoulder tight, her slender fingers dug deep into my bones. My eyes watered from the sting.

“Callie, please.” I whimpered.

My friend had been gone a long time; it seemed Life and Death were craving another melody.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 45

DW_45

Drops
Nina D’Arcangela

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


Elixer
RJ Meldrum

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

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

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

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


Just One Drop
Marge Simon

Dr. Wang Yin Ho, MD, MS, HPLC

11287 47th St. N.E.

Ste. 334

Laurel Canyon Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90046

Dear Dr. Ho:

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

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

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

Your heroic service is much appreciated.

Vladimir Naronkov

Nikolas Obanovitch

Polymorph Analysis Specialists


Treatments
A.F. Stewart

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

Torture, he called it. Brainwashing.

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

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

He moaned as another needle slid into his arm.


Miracle
Mark Steinwachs

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

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


Reflections Within
Charles Gramlich

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

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

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

Only in the slow drip of blood am I alive.


Banishing Monsters
Scarlett R. Algee

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

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

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

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

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


Drink, Drip, Dibble
Lydia Prime

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

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


God Bless Us Everyone
Ian Sputnik

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

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

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

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


Vial Pleasure
Lee Andrew Forman

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



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

Skittering

It crawls along my ivory frame, skitters from limb to limb. The clicking is maddening. I’ve seen the lump as it moves; it has even come to meet my hand. Where it hides from prying doctors, I doubt I’d like to know. So on it goes, on it travels. It has explored all of me. I’ve looked upon the kitchen block and considered removing it myself. Every day, every hour, that option is increasingly appealing. But so far as I know, no harm has come to me, no illness or ailment have I suffered except for the horrible click-clack of its tiny feet upon my bones. For a moment, I consider that it and I might live in relative peace. Then a second clicking begins.

~ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

This Thing Holds Love

Human hearts are so depressingly empty.

Take this one: it fits neatly in my two palms, the dark red-grey of aging beef, smooth and glistening under its layer of epicardial fat. No arterial stenosis. No calcification. No visible defects at all. Perfect, healthy, normal.

And empty.

He looked so surprised when I thrust the chef’s knife into his chest. A soft huff of exhaled breath but no cry, no words, not even resistance; the carbon steel had just crunched right through his sternum, and slid through membrane and muscle like they were softened butter. 

Just a widening of his eyes, a flare of pupils, a second’s trickle of red starting at the corner of his mouth. Then I pulled the knife out, a wrench I had to put my whole arm into, and he dropped straight to the kitchen floor.

He moved a little then, tried to get up, lips working around the crimson bubble slipping out between them. So I pushed him down, straddled him, shoved the blade down into his abdomen and dragged it up.

It was cruel. He screamed beneath the noise of skin and fat ripping like a torn bedsheet. But I had to do it. I had to get him open. I had to know.

Because he said he loved me, and I needed to find it.

I think it got out, though. I think the love got out somewhere. Maybe in that last long exhale, or in his heart’s final dying-butterfly twitches, or in the blood rolling out of him onto the smooth ochre tiles he helped me pick out. It must have escaped, because I put my finger into the wound the knife had made and felt the layers part around the intrusion, felt the sweet clean division in the septum, and then I pulled my fingertip loose and cupped his heart in one hand to cut the wound deeper; but I sliced the arteries and veins loose and splayed the heart open and there was nothing in there: atria and ventricles and the last of his blood and so, so much empty space.

But no spark, no passion, no love. Nothing of what he said he felt in there.

I have to find it. I have to study it. I have to capture it.

I have to make someone else love me, so I can try again.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

When the Skies Turn Black

When the skies turn black,
I won’t look back
to see the stampeding hordes.
I’ll raise up my arms
and sound the alarms,
while the blood of humanity pours.
I won’t just give in
to mortal sin,
as the world crumbles to ash.
I’ll keep out of sight,
from celestial light—
paranoia spills out with a splash.
The smell of decay,
as they stumble away,
will do nothing to calm my nerves…
Alive, but just barely—
I will try to carry
the enchanted tome of lost words.
Hands to the sky,
I’ll look out and cry;
a witness to all it consumes.
It feasts and it lurks,
yet my magical quirks,
won’t slow the creeping doom.
So, when the sky’s torn,
the planet will mourn;
my hands will weave through the air—
I’ll mumble goodbyes,
while everything dies,
trying to vainly escape my despair.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Dead Air

The doorbell rang. Here we go again, I thought.

My sister answered. An elderly woman was welcomed in and led to the living room. We took our places around the table that stood in the centre of the room. The Clairvoyant sat with her back to the door; my sister, Clare took her place opposite her. I sat opposite my wife, Helen as the circus began.

“Before we start, if we can just get the payment of $100 out of the way,” the old crone said.

“Of course,” my wife replied.

She passed an envelope over. The woman swiftly took it and inspected the contents before stuffing it into her pocket.

“Let us begin. We are here to attempt to reach those loved ones that no longer dwell amongst us.”

So the pathetic ritual started. This crook went through the whole act; moaning, wailing, speaking in tongues. It was all I could do to contain myself and not burst out laughing. I kept silent though. My wife seemed to live off these pathetic pantomimes. What sort of husband would I be if I took this away from her?

I switched off as the hag asked the usual questions. My wife answered each in hushed tones.

After about half an hour of screeching and groaning, all fell silent.

“I’m sorry,” the old woman apologised. “The spirits don’t wish to let themselves be known to us on this occasion.”

What a bloody surprise. What a rip-off merchant; fleecing money off people left, right and centre.

She rose, packed away her trinkets and made her way to the hallway, closely followed by my wife and Clare. I remained seated at the table, biting my lip, trying to hold my anger in.

“So, Helen,” the lady enquired, “how long has it been since your husband passed?”

They continued talking as they entered the hallway and made their way towards the front door, leaving me sitting alone in the dark.

∼ Ian Sputnik

© Copyright Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

© Copyright Ian Sputnik. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 44

Five-fingered Footprints
Lee Andrew Forman

Blood draws my story on the agate floor. Fresh ink covers dried layers with the repetition of time. My five-fingered footprints scatter across my canvas, for within the cold box there is no room to stand. My freedom, nothing more than an arm’s length in any direction. Slight rumbles shiver the enclosure; new paint will be added soon. I’ve never seen the thing that keeps me here. Only felt its scathing, intimate touch on my naked flesh. The floor tells me it will soon be time. My body trembles as I await the inevitable approach of the stippler.


Witness
Nina D’Arcangela

As he adjusted the range, the minute clicks were barely distinguishable from the constant drone. I could see the look of shock and something akin to terror on his face as he stepped back and stared at me as if to question his own understanding. He picked up another tool; resumed his examination. A rush of air whirled through the cavity and sent them into a maddened frenzy. The pounding became relentless, nearly unbearable as the thrum increased to a deafening level. Overwhelmed by what he’d witnessed, he nearly fell to the floor missing the stool that stood just inches away.

He began to speak, paused to clear his throat and opened his mouth again; no words issued from his dry, swollen tongue. I understood. They’d been there for as long as I could remember. I rose from my seat, asked if what he saw were faces. He blanched even further and replied that no, they were not faces, they were hands–hands that pushed against the tympanic membrane. I nodded, gathered my belongings to leave. A gentle pressure on my arm caused a momentary pause. His face reflected the pain he knew would accompany the tear when the tissue gave way. He looked into my eyes as if he couldn’t comprehend my calm acceptance. My reply to his unasked question was a bare mumble.

“I’ve lived with voices in my head my entire life, Doc. I just didn’t realize that one day, they would demand to be let out.”


A Handy Tale
Marge Simon

“Dammit, Martha! We just got our new cement wall up and smoothed. Now look at the mess some neighbors’ kids have made of it! Hand-prints all over everywhere –up and down and sideways. Disreputable, malicious destruction!”

“Something is going to have to be done,” Martha said. “Every time we move, sooner or later, some malicious little devils show up to make our lives miserable. I’m tired of moving, Herbert. We checked out the area really well before buying this house. There’s just one little brat in the neighborhood this time.”

“Yes, I know. Name’s Billy Harlow” said Herbert. He pinned her with a frown. “You know the cure, Martha.

“I do,” said Martha reluctantly.  Off she went to her kitchen to dig out Mamancita’s commodious book of Haitian spells & recipes. The punishment must fit the deed.

Lunchtime the next day, Billy Harlow sat at their kitchen table. Before him was a plate of Mamancita’s special Bon Bon Amidon cookies, still warm from the oven, and a foaming glass of fresh milk. He made annoying sounds when he drank, and chewed with his mouth open.

“Disgusting wastrel!”

“Shhh, he’ll hear you, Herbert. it’s almost over,” Martha reminded him.

The next morning, Billy Harlow’s screams alarmed the neighborhood. His mother rushed to his bedroom to find him crouched on the floor sobbing, arms around his chest in an odd way. “Mama! In my bed!!” She reached over to shake out a loose sheet. There was no blood, but two fat little hands with dirty fingernails fell out of the covers.


Storm Surge
Charles Gramlich

In pitch black, I awoke—on the couch with a hurricane pummeling my house. The TV was off. It had been on when I fell asleep, but the electricity must have failed. Feeling around for my phone, I activated the flashlight app. The room brightened around me but everywhere else the shadows congealed and clung.

I loved my little shack in the woods but at night it could be scary. Needing more light, I went into the kitchen for candles. The rain had stopped. I couldn’t hear it on the roof. But the wind hadn’t faded. It pressed and rubbed at the house like an unwanted caress.

After firing up my biggest candle, I turned off my cell to preserve the battery and walked over to the glass doors opening onto my deck. No wind moved the trees in the backyard. The hurricane had passed. Then what made the sounds I heard?

Sliding the back door open, I stepped outside. I lived near the Gulf of Mexico, with my house elevated against storm surge. That’s the water pushed inland by hurricane winds. Wooden steps led up to the deck from the ground below. On that ground, in the mud, stood hundreds of dead children. All were rotted, with seaweed in their hair as if carried onto my lawn by the surge. Their hands scratched and scritched at the wooden stilts supporting my home.

Screaming, I leapt back inside, slamming and locking the door. But the children heard. They came single file up onto my deck to press their faces and little hands against the glass. They pressed harder, harder, harder. The glass spiderwebbed with cracks.

I blew out the candle. Better not to see. Better to let them find me in the dark.


Burned Out
Lydia Prime

Flesh sizzles upon touching the hematic shale. Dainty hands ignite dancing flames across the arms of the conditionally pre-deceased. Prophesied terms embossed in stone detail the arrival of a beast who won’t feel heat. General consensus is unanimous: they await its birth. No one ever thinks it might have always lived among them. Its existence couldn’t be copacetic—couldn’t manage to stay undetected… Could it?

Shared ignorance protects the man who discovered the slab and lead the charge to find the predicted creature. Blanket delusions curtail questions as he watches over every trial, every tearful family parting. He glows while their skin chars to nothing but ashy outlines. His head bobbing minutely to the screams as they warble to unintelligible echoes. He bites his cheeks—an act required to conceal delight—then calls to the town’s unwittingly damned participants to bring about the next.


Handprints
RJ Meldrum

He’d hated her for years, had carefully planned the perfect murder so many times, but never had the courage to go through with it. In the end, he simply lost his temper. He slashed out at her with a kitchen knife; the first cuts landed on her hands and arms. She escaped and staggered down the hallway, leaving bloody handprints on the pristine white walls. She collapsed by the door where he finished her off.

He spent a whole day carefully cleaning and repainting the wall, removing the last traces of her. Once the walls were restored to their original white, he was content. She was gone and no-one would ever suspect she was dead.

But of course, he was wrong. Her family and friends suspected foul play; they knew the history between the two. The police were called. An officer interviewed him in the front hallway. He was smug, confident; he brushed off the questions.

Just over the detective shoulder, a bloody handprint appeared on the white wall. Then a second and a third. He suddenly stuttered, his cockiness gone. A fourth and fifth handprint appeared; they followed the stumbling route his wife had taken.

The cop noticed he wasn’t making eye contact and instead stared past him. The officer turned. A row of bloody handprints ended at the front door mat, where a pool of blood had formed.


The Wall
A.F. Stewart

The imprints remain on the wall; years of rain and sun could not remove them. The red chalk outlines burned into stone, reflecting the colours of bone and blood. The echo of a human civilization gone mad.

I watch them, the new citizens, as they pass the wall. Some ignore it; others touch it for luck. No one understands. No one knows the truth. They will soon. They will know the fate of those razed into the wall.

We are back. Ready to purge the filth from our city, to take back what they stole. We come to cleanse, to sweep clean with our machines. We will rain fire from the skies and burn away the contamination.

We will add more outlines to the wall.

Until every brick is burned with the death of those who oppose us.


Choiceless
Mark Steinwachs

Colored sunlight from stained glass windows bathes the room around me. I stand in the grand foyer, designed to hold the multitude of people that make their weekly pilgrimage to this house of worship. Its on display, lit perfectly from the lights above. Almost as if it was hiding from and trying to stand above the natural world all at once. Even if it wasn’t here, this place would still make my skin crawl. But it sits on its custom frame, stretched taught, a giant piece at six feet by four feet. I can feel the hands that made it pressing against the thin canvas, as if it were skin. A modern masterpiece of horror held up in honor.

Choiceless. Pastor Jonathan Neils.

I scoff. They have the ability to choose. They were given that. And yet they constantly try to take it away from one another.

“Beautiful isn’t it,” a man says as he steps alongside me. “While I’m honored you’re enjoying my work, this building is closed to visitors right now.”

Closed to visitors? I cringe. “I will always champion those who bring honor to my name. This,” I motion to the painting, “do you truly believe you trying to force your choices on others is what I want?”

“You want? I don’t know what you want, or who you are,” he replies. “It’s what God wants, protect his unborn flock.”

“I want people to praise my name not weaponize it. You’ve made your choices and they were wrong. Nahum 1:2, The Lord is vengeful against his foes; he rages against his enemies.”

I snap my fingers and the pastor’s eyes go wide as in his death he sees me for who I am and realizes where he is going.


Prints
Scarlett R. Algee

I can’t help but think you’re fascinated by that wall, the way you keep staring. No, no need to struggle; you won’t be spitting that gag out. Scream? There’s no one out here to hear you if you did.

I do admit it’s a little bit strange, all those hand-shaped negative spaces outlined in red and black and brown, but I think it looks good against the plaster. I tell the kinfolks it’s a mural, ‘cause I was always a little creative. Amazing what you can do with just some paint and a sponge stick.

Hands are unique, you know. Hands are intimate. Recognizable. So this is what I do with ‘em before they have to go. A little press against the wall, a little dab of color around, and then it’s bonemeal for the roses and flesh for the tomatoes. My roses are the envy of the county garden club, and my tomatoes have won blue ribbons at the fair for five straight years.

It’s the only part I take, too. The part that’s special, that identifies you. The rest I leave here and there; the local wildlife has to eat, after all. But think of it this way—at least I’ll remember you.

Twenty-nine pairs on this wall. I like how they’re starting to overlap. How the colors blend into each other. But my mural needs to grow, and thirty’s a good round number.

Now. Let me see those hands.


Held to Account
Ian Sputnik – Guest Author

The moaning and giggling from the next room made him laugh. It amused Carl that his landlady seemed to entertain ‘guests’ on a regular basis; especially as she appeared to be such a prim and proper lady of a certain age.

He waited for her to leave for her weekly game of bridge before breaking into her apartment. The lock on the old safe clicked and its hinges creaked as the door opened. He routed around inside and removed anything of value. He stuffed jewellery and cash into his pockets. Suddenly, he was pulled backwards with incredible force. He spun around, fists clenched, but no one was there. His legs were then grabbed in a vice-like grip and his arms stretched out so that he resembled a church painting of the crucifixion. Out of the darkness, ghostly hands appeared. They tore at his clothes pulling them from his body as they clawed at his skin, ripped through it and tore the flesh from his bones. Cold fingers forced themselves into his mouth and down the back of his throat muffling his screams. When the ghostly apparitions had finished their work, all that was left of Carl was a pile of gore.

The landlady returned. She gasped at the scene which lay before her; then the phantoms returned. They swarmed around her like bats in a cave before they gently caressed her face and worked down the rest of her body as they stripped her bare. She giggled and groaned in delight as they gently massaged blood into her skin. As they did so the slight traces of wrinkles on her face began to fade away. “My, you have been busy tonight,” she cooed as they lifted her over to the bed and continued their work.


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

Eel Soup

So, the time has come. He can’t stand watching her suffer any longer.

He prepares their last meal from scratch. He has procured the vegetables from the neighbor’s garden. The onions are still good, as well, the carrots and potatoes. A can of stewed tomatoes, peppercorns and salt, these are in the cabinet. The most important ingredient of all — the eels, he has obtained at the docks early this morning. He is careful to add them with their blood as the soup cools. They are finely chopped and raw, camouflaged with cabbage leaves. A modified and deadly vichyssoise served in her shining silver tureen.

He wheels her chair to the table. She’s so frail now, her skin almost transparent. The plague that sweeps the world hasn’t touched him as yet. Perhaps he is one of the few that are resistant. He frowns at the irony. His own life isn’t worth bothering with – but hers is another story. Such talents she has, so much to look forward to! Her paintings were selling well. She had begun composing music to accompany the presentations in galleries. She called it “bonding kinetic transitions.” But no more — this strain of the virus knows no prejudice.

He picks up a photograph of them when they were young, remembers the smell of her wool coat, the way her mouth chokes back a laugh in the photo. She’d loved his jokes – even the lame ones. Then came a time when laughter stopped. Like the sound of her voice, a bare whisper now.

Once she’d said his dreams were all smashed up inside. “Gray on gray. Form without substance,” she said. She was the artist. She had dreams for both of them. They are silent during dinner. He offers her another helping. To his surprise, she nods with a lopsided smile. She knows. He turns away to wipe his eyes. After dinner, he helps her out of the wheelchair, lays her gently on the bed. The muscle cramping will begin soon, ending the beating of her heart.

But instead of closing her eyes and lying back, she pushes herself up. “Hand me that novel you were reading to me last night, sweetheart. I am feeling so much better, I should like to find out how it ends myself.” He is stunned. This is the first time she’s said entire sentences in many days. And wanting to read?  How can this be — the eels have cured the virus? Her eyes are bright and her pulse steady. There’s a healthy flush to her cheeks that wasn’t there before dinner.

As he hands her the book, he feels a sharp pain in his stomach as the cramps begin. With a terrible chill, he remembers it was to be their last meal.

~ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

I Love Every Part of You

It begins, on a rainy Sunday two days after Olivia’s  funeral, with her left ring finger.

Melanie wakes to a weird little pressure under her ribs and sits up and there it is: nestled into a fold of the sheet, its magenta acrylic nail lying discarded to one side. Melanie picks it up with bile hiking acidly up the back of her throat, sees the smoothness at the base, and can’t help noticing that the rings are still snug. The gap between her fingers is silky and flawless, the skin above the barren knuckle dimples and is only slightly paler than the rest.

She should worry. A part of her knows it. But Melanie is still too numb from Olivia’s sudden passing—you should be grateful, her aunt had said at the graveside, that the cancer worked so fast and she wasn’t in too much pain—to regard it as anything more than a bodily quirk, a curiosity, so she gets dressed and wraps the finger in black crepe and drives to the cemetery, and buries that part of herself in the shallow hole she’s able to dig in the loose earth with two hands.

On Monday it’s half her blonde hair, loose on the pillow; on Tuesday she brushes the rest and it all just tugs loose with a painless not-quite-pop. No obvious flaws, no stubble, no bloody roots; she sits on the bed and vacantly runs her fingers through the strands, the way Olivia had done. I love every part of you, Olivia had said so many times, even at the end; so the hair gets bundled into a neat rubber-banded braid and buried beside the finger.

On Wednesday Melanie wakes minus three bloodless teeth, and her lower lip—the one Olivia had liked to bite when they were in a certain mood—feels oddly loose, so this time she wraps the teeth in a square of paper towel and goes to her doctor.

She gets stared at. Prodded—with the end of a pen, not with fingers. There are scribblings and murmurs: are you eating? do you feel well? are you sure you haven’t hurt yourself?—to which Melanie just bows her bare head and holds out her gapped hand and says, “Do you see wounds? do you see scars?”

Stress, is the uncertain verdict, and a prescription changes hands. Melanie’s staring at it in the car when the rest of her teeth shed in a rattling cascade that bounces off her knees, scattering into the floorboard below.

It takes her half an hour to collect them all, to account for every one. By then, she almost thinks she knows what’s going on.

I love every part of you.

The soil mounded over Olivia’s grave is rain-damp and fragrant. Melanie scoops out a hollow and deposits the teeth and says, “You know, you didn’t have to be so literal.”

Then her lower lip drops, jelly-like, into the hole.

It’s okay; Melanie hasn’t felt like eating in days. She just shrugs and smoothes it over, and goes home to see what will happen next.

What happens is Thursday.

Her left arm and hand below the elbow. Four toes across both feet. Her left eye too, the one Olivia had sworn held so much more sparkle than the other. She just gropes a plastic bag from the container in the kitchen, never before so grateful to be right-handed, and clumsily scoops everything inside except her eyelashes, which are fine enough to get lost in the high pile of the carpet.

Melanie waits until after dark. She has to, for this. The eye had been just a little much.

You always were a drama queen, Liv.

This time digging a proper hole is out of the question, so Melanie attacks the side of the heaped, drying soil with hand and feet, unsteadily carving out a place for herself. By the time she’s made a space to burrow into, by the time she’s clawing her earthen blanket down, the sky is growing light again, and she’s left two more fingers and an ear in the dirt.

The loosened earth crumbles over her, but Melanie just huddles in the hollow she’s made, curled into the fetal position and breathing hard. She coughs out a sudden blockage in her mouth and realizes it’s her tongue.

Her skin parts and opens. One by one, her drawn limbs begin to loosen and disarticulate. Something detaches inside her chest. Melanie sighs with what’s left of her breath, sagging wearily into the damp and dark. 

If she focuses, if she concentrates, she can almost feel Olivia reaching up for her, reaching for every beloved part.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

World Without End

The wind blew fallen leaves along the street. Grey, leaden clouds lay low in the sky. Phil walked along the row of terraced houses in the same direction as the leaves, travelling just as aimlessly. It was two p.m., the dead time of the afternoon when people had finished lunch but before the kids arrived home from school. The street he walked on was completely empty.

He reached a junction with the main road and saw there was a park on the opposite side. He might as well waste time in there rather than wandering the empty, depressing roads. Phil could see the local Council had recently tried to make improvements in the park; the railings were all freshly painted, the small tea-shop was actually open, the grass was freshly cut, and the beds and pond well-kept. He felt cheered at the sight. It would have been easy to let the park fall into disrepair and ruin.

Because it was mid-week and off season, there were only a few people in the park; a couple walked a dog, an old lady listlessly threw bread at a bored looking duck, and a barista in the tea-shop leaned on the counter with no customers to serve. A man in overalls worked on a flower-bed, clearing out dead flowers. None of them paid him any mind. He noticed a greenhouse on the other side of the small lake, and headed round to have a look.

He peered through the cloudy glass on the door and saw a magical world of green inside. A notice on the glass said it was closed on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday.

He walked round the building, looking for something else to do. He ended up in a part of the park which hadn’t been as well restored as the other areas. Overhung trees and bushes sprawled untidily over cracked and broken paths. The railings, such as they were, were rusty and damaged. The whole area had an atmosphere of dereliction and decay. He saw an old sign attached to one of the trees. It read ‘Maze’ in antique script. Underneath the words, an arrow pointed him further away from the main park. Phil decided to go for a look.

The path led him through oppressive bushes and trees for a few hundred yards, then ended in a wide grassy area with the maze set in the middle. It wasn’t a particularly big maze, no more than a hundred feet square, but it was tall; about eight feet high. It didn’t look as if it was well maintained; the hedge itself was ragged and unkempt, as was the grass surrounding it.

Phil walked up to the maze, and looked around. There was a small booth at the entrance but it was in a poor state of repair suffering from dry rot and peeling paint. Phil checked his watch, then decided to have a go at the maze. There was no particular reason, it just felt the right thing to do. He walked past the booth and was about to enter when he heard a small voice.

“A penny please, sir.”

Phil gave a visible start, he thought he was on his own. It took him a moment to source the voice and finally realized it had come from the booth. He looked toward it and saw there was a tiny old man sitting in the darkness of the wooden hut.

“A penny please, sir,” repeated the old man.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” stammered Phil.

“That’s alright, sir. Don’t get many visitors down here. I was just taking a nap when I heard you passing me by.”

Phil smiled at what he thought was a joke.

“Don’t like people passing me by, sir. Ain’t right,” the old man said in a dour tone.

“Sorry.” Phil mumbled again. To ease the tension, Phil changed the subject, “I like the renovation they’ve done to the rest of the park.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing been done to this whole park nigh on twenty years, not since the Thirties. Alderman Smith did it, well leastways he organized it.”

The Thirties? Twenty years ago? More like eighty. But Phil didn’t bother to argue. The old guy had obviously lost his marbles. He reached inside his pocket and dug out a coin. A twenty pence piece, it was all he had. Phil handed it over.

“Keep the change.”

The old guy smiled. “Thank you, sir. Go right in.” he said motioning to the entrance of the maze.

Initially Phil enjoyed the sensation of getting lost. He tried to make the most of the experience, and intentionally wandered aimlessly. He twisted left and right without thinking, following the paths of the maze as he saw fit. After what he felt was about fifteen minutes he decided he was lost enough and would try to find his way out.

No matter which way he turned he was faced with the same scene; green hedges. The green was vibrant and almost dazzling; it struck a harsh contrast to the grey of the sky. He stopped and sighed, it had looked like a fairly mediocre effort from the outside, but he had to admit the maze had stumped him. Faced with no other choice, he started to walk once again.

The hedges were impenetrable; no light shone through them. He could see nothing but grey when he looked to the sky. To make matters worse it was beginning to get dark. Dark? It was only about three o’clock. He looked at his watch and realized with a jump it was half past five. How the hell did that happen? Time didn’t race when you were unemployed; it dragged. 

With no other choice, he kept up his pace, twisting and turning through the green walls that trapped him. Trapped? His subconscious had thrown the word into his mind; a word he would never have normally used. He didn’t feel trapped; it was only a bloody maze! Don’t you? a sly voice inside his head asked. He checked his watch. Seven o’clock. What? He shook his wrist, not believing his eyes. He looked up at the sky, saw only grey and the darkening of approaching night. He could still make out the hedges in front and beside him, and the ground was still visible, but he wondered how long that would last.

Something twitched at a locked door in his mind, something he tried to get rid of. Panic. He suddenly realized he was really lost, not like earlier when it had seemed merely a game. Why hadn’t the old man tried to find him before the park closed, had he forgotten or had he not cared?

Phil reached a junction – left or right? He went left. After what felt like only a few moments, he checked his watch again. It was nine-thirty. He was cold, hungry and tired. Surely there was a way out of the maze? He took a tissue from his pocket and shredded it into long, thin strips. He put all but one back in his pocket. He twisted the remaining piece round a small twig so its whiteness was visible in the night. He started to walk again, careful to count each step. When he reached fifty he tied another small twist of tissue into the hedge. Fifty steps; a twist. Fifty; twist. His plan was to eventually get back to the first twist so he would know he had covered that portion of the maze. Then, he would be able to find his way out. It was simply a matter of elimination.

He gave up on that idea when his watch read one a.m. and he still hadn’t come across any bits of tissue. He had run out of twists around eleven o’clock but had carried on in vain as he tried to find any sign of the twists he had lain. He couldn’t find one. Crumpling to the ground, he put his head in his hands and began to sob.

***

In a deserted and scruffy part of a forgotten park, in a small hut at the entrance of a neglected maze, an old man waits patiently for the next customer. While he does, he smiles because he is the only one who knows that sometimes, just sometimes, those who enter the maze never find their way back out.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.