Only

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

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

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

Alone, he would arrange for her return.

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

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

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

∼ Miriam H. Harrison

© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

The Last Door

I know I’m lying in a hospital bed. I know I have been here for a long time and I am unlikely to recover. I have heard the nurses whisper about me. I lie on the uncomfortable mattress, my flesh penetrated by needles and tubes. I am surrounded by machines that click and beep. I am unconscious and yet, somehow aware. I dream, or at least I think it’s a dream. I find myself walking in a dark corridor. I come to a door. It is painted yellow, decorated with rainbow stickers and smiley faces. I enter and find myself in a green park, the sun shining and the sky blue. Small children are running around, playing. Adults stand close by, monitoring. I recognize my mother first, then myself, deep in a scrum of children. I look to be about five or six. My mother looks so young. Her clothes are incredibly dated; her youth, my age and the fashion dates this time to the early 70s. I have somehow travelled back in time. I try to speak to my mother, reach out to her, but it’s clear that this is a vision, a memory. I cannot interact with the people around me. My heart aches to see her so young, so healthy. If my calculation of the date is correct, she has another thirty years to live before the cancer takes her. I see the cigarette in her hand and hate it. If only I could tell her to stop, to save her own life. My heart breaks when I realize I cannot change the future.

A force compels me to move, I walk through this idyllic scene, headed to an unknown destination.

The next door is black, skull & crossbones stickers plastered across it. Yellow police line tape crisscrosses the wooden panels. I recognize this door, I decorated it this way when I was fifteen. A snotty little goth, trying to be cool. I open the door and smile with embarrassment at the scene in front of me. The teenage me, dyed black hair, black skull t-shirt and a poor attempt at mascara sitting on the bed with my friends, all dressed exactly the same. Some dreary music plays in the background. There’s a girl on the bed too, the girlfriend of my best friend. It takes me a mere second to realize she’s looking at the younger version of me, not him. My teenage version is too interested in showing off his new leather trousers to notice. Her eyes tell the story, she likes me, she wants me to like her. To notice her. I fail to do so, I’m too focused on showing off. I curse my younger self. What a fool I was, she could have been the love of my life.

A push from behind impels me to move again. I come to another door.

This door is pastel blue, a soothing color. Inside the room is a nursery, decorated in gentle colors, with toys scattered around. The room is clean, bright and sunny. A tiny baby lies in a crib. I’m standing over it with a woman I don’t recognize. I look to be about thirty. This is an interesting scene. Not only is the woman a stranger, but I also never had any children. I had a wife, but she isn’t here. I never lived in this house. I wonder why I’m being shown this scene. I never regretted not having children, never really thought about it. Is this an untravelled road, a path my life could have taken, or is it just a dream? Wish fulfillment, from some unspoken subconscious desire? I wish I had the answer.

I’m pushed again, there is no time to ponder.

The third door is a rich burgundy, a solid color that speaks to me of success, money and complacency. I recognize this one, it is achingly familiar. I know what to expect. Inside I see myself. I am sitting in a wood-lined study, surrounded by leather bound books. This is my home, the place I worked my whole life to afford. The books are the ones I spent a lifetime collecting. I am old, with a wrinkle-lined face and grey hair. I’m reading a book, an anthology of Victorian ghost stories. My dog sits at my feet, warming herself in front of the log fire. I pause, this is last month, the day before I tripped and fell down the stairs, ending up in this hospital bed. This was the last day I spent in my beloved house, the last time I saw my dog.

The force insists I continue on. I have no choice but to obey. I reach another door.

This door is grey, almost hazy. I have the sense that this is it, the end of the line. It wasn’t a dream after all. I have really seen my life, my lives, the real and the possible. The branches I could have taken; the ones I chose to take. My life in high definition. I reach out to touch the handle, to pass through this door. I know it’s the last one, that whatever follows will be infinite. Was my life good? I ask myself. Did it fulfil me? Did I leave a good legacy? Did I ever act foolishly, selfishly? Do I have regrets? I answer yes to all those questions, but that is life. It must be painted in blacks, as well as whites. I feel a huge sense of sorrow, but I’m grateful I had the chance to reflect on my life, to see some reminder of my bygone days. I don’t want to leave yet, but I know I cannot stay. The sorrow diminishes to be replaced with hope. Perhaps there really is something on the other side of this door. I draw a breath, realizing that, in the real world of my hospital bed, this may well be my last. I exhale, then turn the doorknob and pull the grey door open. I enter.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

The Drop Ceiling

“Someone took my ceiling.”

He said this sincerely despite how ludicrous it sounded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“The ones who caused the accident.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am fine,” he assured me.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

He seemed unsure about letting me in.

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

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

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

“Leon—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Leon?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 39

 

Inner Matters
Lee Andrew Forman

The sounds of the world bring peace: crunching gravel, leaves dancing with nature, songs sung by the creations of life. Reality has other sides, some which only a vagabond can see along their journey. The pleasant are never left unappreciated. The darkest sit atop your shoulders, ever apparent in your sight.

A band of three delinquents emerge from the brush to intercept my path, smoke-filled ugliness trailing from their mouths. Their eyes immediately find me: the derelict, the tattered wanderer, the lonely victim. But their eyes only see what their minds can imagine. I sigh in response to their vile introductions.

Before they can hassle me further my front-side expands and splits down the middle. My innards expel themselves and splatter the deviants in carnage. Fluids dissolve their flesh; they scream a futile cry of agony no one will ever hear. Only when my would-be predators are mere remnants of ooze do my organs crawl back and nestle themselves where they belong, happy and well-fed.


Tracks
Charles Gramlich

“Shhhh, I’m here.”

The man shuddered, not quite sure yet what had happened to him. I rested his head in my lap, then pushed sweat-matted hair back from his face to see his terrified eyes.

“Help…me,” he begged.

I shook my head. “Sorry. This could have been avoided, but…” I gestured for him to look at himself.

He turned his head to gaze down his body. I let him scream at what the passing train had done. He tried to struggle, to thrash his arms and legs. He had no arms or legs. Shredded remnants of his severed limbs looked like piles of cooked raspberries strewn along the tracks. And, as I’d read would happen, the train’s weight had cinched the torn veins shut. He wasn’t bleeding out; he’d live a while yet. No one would find him here, though, where I’d tied him to the tracks.

“Please,” he begged again.

I shrugged and rose. “I warned you about those spam calls from your site.” Taking out my cell, I punched a number. The phone in the man’s pocket buzzed obnoxiously. “Press 2 to be placed on my do not call list,” I told him.


Family Honor
Mark Steinwachs

When I pulled the trigger years ago, I knew my turn would come. There is only one of us in the family at any time. My death is their first hit.

Blindfolded and with hands tied behind my back I shuffle along rocky ground. Whoever is behind me helps guide me. He nudges the back of my knee with his foot and I awkwardly let myself fall to my knees. He lays me flat, my face touching cold metal, then pulls the blindfold back enough for me to look down the long track. Not the same track I used of course, but the scene floods my memory. There is only one person who knows the story of my first hit. I never thought he would be the one.

“Thank you,” a male voice says, one I’ve known since he was born. “Your place of honor awaits.”

Those words, the exact ones I spoke when it was my turn, linger in my brain as I hear the click of the safety releasing.


Now You Stand and Wait
Scarlett R. Algee

They’d picked up her clothes along the track, almost too shredded to bother, and the whole time Shep had been grumbling you’re a damn fool, it ain’t the same no more; so when Shep squats by the rail and picks up a tuft of fluffy black fur, Ben hates him a little.

He clutches the ruined clothes, swats away Shep’s offered rifle, stares down the slope to the ground beneath the trestle bridge. Squints. Wonders. “She’s still my girl.”

Shep toes the claw marks along a rusted edge of rail. “You think that now.”

“She’s still Ellie. You just wait here.”

Alone, Ben treks down to the darkness under the bridge, stands at the bottom to a warning growl. He glimpses eyeshine in the black yards away. “Ellie, it’s Daddy.”

He steps closer. Another growl, deeper, but Ben can see the shape of her now, huge and magnificent, tail held out stiff. He clears his throat. “It’s gettin’ late. Your mama’s got supper waitin’.”

Ellie’s snarl is softer this time. Ben decides to take the chance. Sure, maybe he’s a fool, but she is still his girl.

Step by step, he walks into the darkness, toward the waiting wolf.


The Flattened Penny
A.F. Stewart

I can still smell the copper stench.

And hear the way the train’s wheels screeched as it rolled over the penny on the track, squashing it razor thin. I watched Denny pick up the flat coin, after it cooled down, and wave it around laughing.

I didn’t laugh.

Denny never heard the whistle of the other train, the death train. The one I had seen before, that should have been my ride. One penny to the conductor as payment, but that foul creature didn’t care much about who held the coin. Easy enough to cheat him.

Poor Denny.

That’s the smell of copper I remember. His blood.

But better him than me.


Taking the Ride
Nina D’Arcangela

The rumble loosens my gut; thrums through my body. My eyes quake in their jelly as teeth shiver saliva from plump, rouged lips. Searing heat washes over me as the screech assaults my core. I feel the shatter of my sinus cavities as the revolution of iron pressed upon iron crushes my head. Body thrashing in the wash, I Pollock the scree, feed the weeds; slick the rail for the next eager rider.


Definitely Not a God
Lydia Prime

Beneath the rocks and rails there lies a secret that our tiny town holds. We keep quiet and everything stays peaceful, that’s how it’s always been. Mama says it’s God under those tracks, says he protects us even in his sleep. I don’t think Mama knows what God is.

Late at night I sneak down to the tracks and kick the rocks as I walk past the iron ties. I can hear it, sometimes it sounds like snoring, but other times… If Mama could hear the noises I know she’d change her mind.

Just a ways ahead, the rocks shift and I sprint to see who’s there. The air smells of earth and death, my eyes settle on a gnarled looking creature hunching over in the moonlight. All six of its eyes blink then lock on me. I’ve never seen anything more gruesome, it grins and licks its crooked lips.

I turn to run but my foot snags the rusted rail. As I scramble to my feet, four more creatures step into sight. I was right Mama, definitely not a God.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019

Damned Words 38

Below Stairs
A.F. Stewart

Upstairs the music plays, a tragic operatic aria of lament and loss. It drowns out the hiss and creak of the steam and wheels, and the crunch of bones. Oblivious laughter—from the latest guests—mingles with the song, their merry voices drifting into a preceding silence of parties long forgotten.

For the dead no longer scream.

Beneath the gaiety, the servants’ footfalls tread along the stair, from back rooms and the kitchens, down to the deepest level. There, they feed the machines stockpiled flesh. Watching the meat grind, the blood and bone pulverize into dripping globs of raw spat out into vats, waiting for dinners to come. In another corner, maids tuck away silks and jewels to sell.

Nothing to be wasted. No remains to be found.

Above it all the people circulate, eating canopies and drinking wine. The host, he smiles and makes the rounds, greeting and exchanging pleasantries. He gives them all the best of times, a fitting end before they become his next feast.


Bones
Lee Andrew Forman

Firm structure to fine dust—machines turn in unending drudge. Bleach powder, chalky, light, stirs endless with their rusted labor. Ill fated are the powers which motivate the process; knowing soon they’d become its product. Weakness feeds the goods produced, monsters purchase its favor. With delicate pouf, makeup, attire; they parade around with gratuitous chortles. Their faces worn in layers of death, they grin ever wide with flavor. For a bit of coin, their color reborn, pale as frosted glass. Those suffered the gift of an end, worth only a minute of reception, would be stripped of flesh and ground to pleasure each patron.


Every Last Damnèd Soul
Scarlett R. Algee

It’s a tricky business, distilling souls. Always have to boil the bitterness off first; it gunks up the works if you don’t, and it’s a bitch to clean out, pardon my saying. Take this lot—they’ve been stewing for three days just to get the residual resentment out. Drowners, all of them. We leave the salt water in, though; customers say it adds a little something to the finished product.

Some of the souls scream while they’re rendered. Some of them sing. I’m told it’s quite enticing. I’ve mostly learned to ignore it, myself.

Madam. Madam. What are you doing out here on the floor? No, you may not touch the machines. The experience would be damnably unpleasant for both of us, pardon my saying.

Madam, please—what’s that? Your son? You think you hear your son? You have my condolences, but that’s quite unlikely. They aren’t really identifiable now, so for your safety I must insist—madam! Madam!

Oh…not again.

Patterson? Yes, idiot, of course we stop the process! We need an extraction here! She’s the third one this month!

But save the blood. Every drop. The customers say it gives a certain ambiance. Besides, she sings prettily already, doesn’t she?


Rust
Charles Gramlich

He fled. And the wicked followed. Their boots banged like gunshots as they chased him through the abandoned factory where he’d sought refuge. Down empty corridors, they went, through shattered doors. He knew this world and lost them in a room of silent turbines. The search moved on.

The hunters hooted through the vast spaces, first in glee, then frustration. The sounds faded, but the hunters were cunning. He stepped from his hiding place only to meet a brutal blow to the back. Tricked, he went down in terror, and rolled over to find himself encircled by humans. Snarling, they hefted steel bars torn from the factory’s rusted machines.

He threw up an arm; they hammered through that defense, smashing his limbs, crushing his abdomen, sending pieces of him clanging across the floor. Within moments his body lay in a heap of torn alloy. One eye sparked and sputtered. But with his other eye and the last of his consciousness he watched as they set him afire. His vision bloomed, then blackened. A human curse was the last thing he heard.

“Robot slag! Now let’s get the rest of ‘em.”


The Machine
Mark Steinwachs

I cough as my gnarled hands run over the tarnished machine. “It’s amazing how many people don’t believe it happened. Proof that humans are fools. Wirths, Mengele, Clauberg; they would have been nothing without me. Mere footnotes.” I lead him amongst the tanks, my fingers gently caressing them. I shuffle along as best I can, years of dust getting caught in the sun coming through the windows. The tiny particles remind of …“I killed millions. Let that sink in. Millions. And here I am. I live my life hidden in plain sight, just like her.” I kiss the tank gently. “Now it’s your turn. Go back and make your country great again, and then the world. Go, my lieb enkel, my dear grandson. Finish what I started.”

“I promise,” he whispers and kisses my forehead then walks away from me.

I lay down on the cold floor. The screams of decades ago flood back. Smiling, I close my eyes for the last time. I only wish I would get to hear that sweet anguish again.


Once
Mercedes M. Yardley

He was hungry. He was always hungry, always starving, always ravenous. His face was far too sharp and his cheekbones cut against his skin in the most visceral of ways. Once he had a name and even people who called him by it, and food was a bit easier to come by. Never quite enough, surely, but not too little.

He slept in the abandoned factory, catching rats and spiders when he could. It didn’t matter if they were malformed by radiation, because so was he. He stuffed them in his mouth, piece by piece, bit by bit. If he just held on, if he just stayed alive, all of this would make sense one day. He had to believe it.


Yes, Father
Lydia Prime

After closing the door, the towheaded child turned, “Father, I’ve returned the chalice. Is there anything else you need?”

“No son. Thank you for your service today.”

As the boy turned to go, he hesitated, turned back, “Father, one of the other boys mentioned a puddle in the basement, I thought I should tell you.”

Glancing at the boy, the Father headed toward the door leading down the stairs. “Where is this puddle?” he asked, hands clasped.

“Just to the left, Father, down the hall.” The boy looked shamed, almost embarrassed as though he’d heard the rumors. Could this one be asking? It seemed unlikely, but he couldn’t help himself, he ran his tongue ever so slightly across his lips.

“The generator room?”

“Yes, Father. The generator room,” the flaccid faced boy stood still and expectant.

“After you, my child.” The youth led him into the room, the light dim as always. Confusion took hold of the robed man, there were others there…waiting. The row of young boys tensed with anticipation. “What’s going on here? Did you all find the puddle?” A nervous chuckle.

“No father, we’ve found redemption. The shame isn’t ours.” As each youth smiled, the glint of their sharpened teeth told of a different indiscretion.


Feed the Machine
Nina D’Arcangela

Bones crush; the mechanism churns, always turns. Spinning, crunching, consuming. The snap of a skull; shrapnel slices the air nicking tympanic membrane. Those that man the machine have no hearing, they are born without; the ear a remnant from long ago. Chattle of the cause, a war not ours, we breed only to feed the machine.


 

Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019

Damned Words 37

 

Fey
Charles Gramlich

Beneath an icicle sky on a wormwood day of wither, I glimpse her winged form nested in the branches of a tree. A nimbus plays around her hollowed cheeks while the wind spiders in her hair. A saber would be jealous of those desolation eyes. I am smitten.

Day after day I return to her barren temple, to confess my holy secrets, to reveal all my sacred mysteries. No one has ever listened to me the way she does—even to the words I don’t speak. No one else understands. I am besotted.

Late one evening, in a seizure of longing, I beg her to marry me. She unfolds from the tree’s branches like animated origami. Down the trunk she slithers, until she stands before me, sky-clad, shadow-feathered. I swear to be hers forever. She smiles at me with a mouth like a scream. I don’t think she’s an angel.

But neither am I.


Blood Oak
Scarlett R. Algee

There were two humans, once.

There were more, of course. Beneath my canopy I sheltered lovers, threw shadows over children at play, spread my branches for curious climbers. But one night when there was no moon, there were these two beneath me. Male, female, I could never tell. They argued, shouted, shoved. There was a noise and one fell, not rising, and leaked.

The soil around my roots caught the liquid. In it I tasted the richness of the earth: iron, copper, salt. My branches heaved and shivered, breaking out in buds and small, new red leaves. My bark cracked around sudden growth. My creeping, ponderous thoughts grew quick, and in the darkness I felt a warmth like the sun.

I crave that liquid, but no humans have approached me since. They turn away as if my soil has been cursed, as if my leaves bear some blight.

But tonight, there are two again.

They laugh, sway, stare at each other. Anticipation stirs my sap as they sit in the spread of my roots, and my rootlets twitch, reaching up for the surface.

It has been so long, and I am so hungry.


Dead
A.F. Stewart

They buried me here, under the tree. Dug a hole and shoved my body between the roots, stuffed me down like garbage and covered me with soil. I was dead, but I watched every clump of dirt they threw on my corpse. I heard their grunts, panicked whispers and jokes. I watched three boys I had known all my life bury me and prayed it was a nightmare. It wasn’t. I knew then I would make them pay.

I started with Johnny, the ringleader. His smirk was the last thing I saw before I died. The last thing he saw was the rotary blade before it sliced into his face. All it took was a good ghostly shove.

Blake and Ronnie came next, with Blake taking a tumble down some stairs thanks to me. Broke his neck. And one night Ronnie missed Dead Man’s Curve when I yanked the steering wheel nice and hard. They found his corpse in the twisted wreckage of his car two days later.

And the best thing? Those three boys are here with me by the tree for eternity. I can hear their souls screaming from my grave.


The Hunt
Roger Ley

She tried to move quickly through the winter wood but brambles tore at her clothes and legs, her bare feet sank into the wet, black mud, branches clawed down to entangle her. The excited yelping of the hounds spurred her on but the softening ground sucked at every footstep. She fought for breath and tried to muffle the sound of her gasps. Crossing a clearing, she sank calf deep, and could run no further. Looking back, she could see the dim light from the swinging lanterns of the huntsmen, soon they would release the dogs.

She raised her arms above her head in supplication and called to the sky. There was no answer, but her arms and splayed fingers began to stretch and lengthen. Her toes grew, reached into the dark wetness, and gripped the roots and rocks they found down there. She felt her limbs and body stiffen, skin ridged and cracked, thorns sprouted. Sight fading, she heard the dogs as they panted past, their masters slogging after them. Slowly sleep enfolded her, a deep sleep that would last until the spring, and bud burst on the blackthorn she had become.


Rebirth
Mark Steinwachs

The gray sky feels oddly fitting. I try to move again, any part of my body, but I fail, not even a twitch. I’m not sure what drug he injected into my veins but I’m thankful for it now. I think I yelled and begged for release. It’s hard to get a handle on reality.

“You must die to be reborn. Like this tree is born anew each year, you will flourish again,” he says from behind me.

I sense movement and feel a slight pressure against my neck. Warm water? It’s soothing and I start to get tired. My eyes close and I drift off.


When You Are Dead
Mercedes M. Yardley

When you are dead, everything is different.

You don’t cry so much, or perhaps not at all. When you speak, your words are swallowed into the ether without making a sound. When you are dead, the wind lifts you and you billow. Your feet are always at least three feet above the earth.

When you are dead, you are equal with everyone else. All spirits are stripped to their nakedness and their skins shine like stars. You are dead, simply dead, and no death is grander than any other. It does not matter if you were murdered, or slipped in the shower, or took too many pills, or there was a power surge and the machine keeping you alive malfunctioned. Your hands are empty. You don’t keep a hold of the knife or the baby blanket or the noose that hung around your neck. You let these things go.


Stifled
Lee A. Forman

All warned against it, but I could stall curiosity no longer. When I put my palm against its dry flesh the hum of life coursed through me. The air thickened. Not a bird sang in the sky, nor would one land upon the outstretched embrace of its bony fingers. Mystery took its dark form and raced my heart. Regret soaked my clothes.

I briefed understanding—something vile thrived there.

A cream-white vine rose from the soil. The slender, pulsating serpent wrapped itself around me. It squeezed with each sickening pulse of its veiny body. A warm sensation covered my groin. It tightened its hold. Others sprouted around the first and held my limbs. They brought me to the ground, pressing my back against the dirt; the soft earth gave easily. My eyes strained to witness the overcast sky one last time before darkness stifled my existence.


Vena Cava
Nina D’Arcangela

The suck and pull from below is brutal, yet he stands majestic while enduring imminent demise. The alveoli fail to deliver, the lesser bronchioles shed into the spongy gray that surrounds. A greedy bitch, she demands more; a humble supplicant, he offers all. The pulse dwindles: slower this minute than the last, more sluggish than the beat before. She grants no quarter regardless of age or stature. She will exsanguinate until pulmonary collapse, at which point the superior will no longer sustain, taking the inferior with it as a single fused husk.


Judgement
Lydia Prime

“Don’t judge me,” I scream in my drunken stupor. “You don’t know what I’ve been through!” I reach for my bottle of bourbon and start to dig again. Each place I plunge the spade, the ground resists.

“He hurt me in ways you can never know.” I slur my words as I nearly fall, stumbling from the booze and pain. Another swig and I hurl the bottle at the tree. “I left a mark on your trunk, like the marks he left on me!”

The earth below starts to shift, the dirt softening. “Now you understand.”

I finish the plot in no time, dragging his body into the hole. I look around knowing I have to retrieve the bottle before I go – it has my fingerprints on it. I find it near the base of the tree, bending to pick it up. As I do, I notice the ground is softer here, unsteady. I’ve drunk too much and am imagining the dirt moving. Shaking my head, I turn to leave and trip over a tangle of roots. I don’t remember seeing those before… then more sprout.

As I’m dragged under, I swear the tree stands satisfied and smug.

Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2019

 

Bone Deep

For the first time in weeks, I’m alone in the house. Gran’s out talking over the garden wall with one of the neighbors; Mam’s hanging out the wash. Me, I’m sitting on my bed with our best kitchen knife, running the edge over the hard points sticking out beneath my fingernails. It should hurt, but it doesn’t; the skin parts just a bit, bloodlessly, and there’s the grating sound of metal scraping bone.

I press harder.

***

It started six weeks ago last Sunday, the day after I turned fifteen. When I went to bed that night, it was insidious, a little niggling almost-itch behind my kneecaps and in my wrists. But my knees swelled under my skirt when I trudged dutifully to school the next morning, and writing notes in my lectures just made fire blaze down my right hand in waves. The next day, it was both hands. Within a week, I was sneaking aspirin from the kitchen cabinet in handfuls, stuffing them in my skirt pockets, biting down on the bitter discs so I wouldn’t sob from the searing ache twisting me inside out. I did that at home, at night, into my pillow.

It took Mam a full ten days to notice: “Ellie, you’ve shot up like a poplar.”

She didn’t smile. She grimaced instead, and backed me up against the edge of the half-wall between the kitchen and dining room, plopping the family Bible against the top of my head and marking the paint with a pencil before fetching the measuring tape. “Five feet and eight,” she pronounced, wide-eyed, when she pulled the tape away. “Are you taller than me?” Mam demanded, and crowded so close my nose touched between her eyes. “Jesus, you’re taller than me. And since the first of the month, too.” She turned to look over her shoulder at Gran. “Is this normal?”

Gran shrugged, mouth tight around her cigarette. “Some girls get their height early, all at once. I did.” She stood five foot four in bare feet.

It was Gran who sat at my bedside that night, patting my aching hands and balancing ice packs on my oversized knees. “Growing pains,” she said, though her gaze narrowed as she eyed the length of my legs. “Best to get it out of the way now. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.”

But in the night I woke screaming, my nightgown spotted with blood. My ribs had expanded and grown sharp-edged, tearing my skin from the inside. Mam yanked the fabric up and stared at me while Gran sponged me off with stinging alcohol, and this time there wasn’t puzzlement in my mother’s eyes. There was fear.

The doctor they took me to the next morning glanced at my knees and hands and ribs, took some measurements and jotted notes, muttered to himself and gave Mam a prescription for something with codeine in it. He never said a word directly to me. Growth spurt, he called it, and mumbled something about long bones and inflammation of the growth plates. It would pass, he said. That was the end of it.

That afternoon the pain in my knees came back, jabbing and twisting so bad I could almost see my shins bowing inward. So I begged Mam for one of the pills, but she only said, “Not yet. Let’s see how you are after school tomorrow.”

I woke up next morning with my mouth throbbing. My cheekbones strained the contours of my face; I could see fissures forming in the skin. My teeth had become longer; my lips stretched when I formed a bite. Mam measured me again. I was another three inches taller. Gran looked up at me and whispered, “Swear to God, her bones are growing out of her.”

I could barely get out of bed that day, despite hanging over it. There was no school. There was no school ever again.

The next week kept me changing, growing. My neck stretched with crackling noises. My jaw and elbows locked and loosened at odd times. Going through the doorways in the house meant bending nearly double, sleeping on my bed took folding myself in half, and the biggest shoes Mam could buy only fit on my feet a few hours. Gran crossed herself and swore and fed me aspirin, codeine, whiskey. None of it touched the pain. I lay on the floor and howled till the neighbors’ dogs barked.

This morning, Mam needed a stepladder to measure me, and her tape wouldn’t reach in one stretch. Six feet. Seven inches. I watched tears roll down her face as I tried to steady my too-long, agonized legs, and felt the ceiling against the top of my head.

***

Now I sit on the end of my bed, legs mostly on the floor, and I draw the knife over my fingertips again. They split entirely, and it’s relief enough to make my eyes water. Tentatively I press the knife point into my thigh, where the outline of my femur is broad and plain, and push in. My skin rips with a noise like tearing tape, and there’s no pain, no blood, only a release of pressure that makes me stuff my bulging knuckles into my too-wide mouth. Only a great glistening white expanse beneath the stretched crepe of my skin.

Gran was right. My bones are growing out of me. I take a few breaths and stick the knife in again.

If they want to escape, I’m setting them free.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

 

Spiritual Malady

Desperate for the pinch that would bring her escape, she sought refuge in a dilapidated house slightly hidden by an overgrown yard. Squeezing through a paint-chipped opening, she entered a once loved home; now a desolate shell. She tiptoed through the crumbling building; fitting, however ironic it may have been, to have found a location almost as decayed as her. A few rodents scurried past and a disillusioned smirk crossed her chapped lips. A wave of cold sweat coated her from head to toe and the cramps in her muscles became too strong to ignore. Illness coursed through her brittle body; the remedy within her grasp.

Empty glassines scatter amongst the debris; almost instantly her vacant eyes glazed over. Collapsing into her surroundings, her back slid against exposed drywall. She stared through the broken window before her. The skewed view of an unkempt backyard swirled with gray matter. A memory washed through sullen eyes as salty tears trickled down battle-scarred cheeks. The enormous oak tree cast shade upon the little ones as they giggled in the grass; a time almost entirely forgotten. In that second she could feel the sun’s gentle warming on her skin. Pigtails and lemonade seemed so far away, droplets of melted mascara and misery spilled onto her tattered shirt faster than they could be caught. A swift jolt of pain deep beneath the flesh followed by a surge of pure bliss wrenched her into the present.

Despondent and motionless, she slumped over, barely propped up against the wall. Truths that could never have been told, let alone forgiven, silenced without warning. If she called out, would anyone even care? The gruesome truth beneath the surface of burned bridges and voluntary exile were all around her. The only company to be expected now were the rats to clean up her mess.

That haunting memory grew stronger; a skinned knee and the scent of antibiotic ointment permeated the air. Her pain was gone, then and now. Ghosts of her past pranced through her brain and banged against her skull. The sun beamed upon her face a final time as she welcomed its familiar burn. Her deep inhales grew shorter and more shallow until a stillness resonated through not just the decrepit shelter, but her ever wasting body. The withered land she’d hidden in would swallow her whole before she could be found. Iced coffee and nicotine lingered in her mouth — the last flavor of a life willingly let go. An accepting smile rested on the corpse who had no other home. Her once beautiful pale face now a brilliant blue.

Tranquility filled the darkness as hours passed, followed by weeks, until the months began to pile on. A skeleton picked clean by vermin, intertwined for eternity with an abandoned home. The idea of redemption dissolved; though her tomb was secret more would surely come. They’d follow in her footsteps and dwell on their misguided past; lives just as lonely and hearts concealed by frost.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

A Walk with Grace

The moon stares down at my brittle frame with judgement. A curse suckles upon my flesh, a reflection of the mirrored world I was cast into by no choice of my own. I only follow the deeds of my other half—a witness, a bystander. The exhibitionist shows me her will while forcing my eyes to see. I am no more than myself, and that which binds my flesh together. It isn’t a madness. Else I’d writhe in bed, the horrors in my mind to torture me at their discretion. I’m but a shell, the exosuit of the power which earns the rewards of my actions.

She speaks my name, which is her own. The condescending nature of her tone forbids argument. I’m but a slave with no outer master—the plaything of my own wicked mind.

Grace… Walk dutifully into the night and the blood will flow…

My legs carry an unwilling frame. Decision has never been an option—free will, only a dream which never comes true.

“Why, Grace? Why?” I ask.

Just do as I say. You know there isn’t any other way.

My lips curl into a frown of disdain.

Don’t be so spiteful. If it weren’t for me, you’d be nothing.

“I’d be me.”

You’re already you. But you’re also me.

That’s the problem, always has been. Ever since Mother and Father took their place in eternity, I’ve been nothing more than the hand of another entity. I’ve imagined ways to purge its vile existence, but none that wouldn’t take me with it.

You shouldn’t think such thoughts, Grace. Remember what happened last time?

“How could I forget?” I look down at the scars on my wrists.

I’m glad we have an understanding.

“I wouldn’t call it an understanding. More of a forced arrangement.”

Just keep walking.

She says it as if I have a choice.

“You’re going to hurt him, aren’t you?”

What do you think?

“I don’t know why I bother asking.”

I stare forward, eyes blank and disconnected from reality. The man I plan to meet, so nice, so innocent, undeserving of what awaits him. I don’t want to take his life—nothing disgusts me more. But it’s out of my control. His blood will be spilled and consumed, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

I see him on the corner down the street, both hands in his pockets, foot tapping the sidewalk. His stance gives away his anxiety, his shy nature. I pity his innocence while simultaneously adoring it.

“Always praying on the weak, Grace.”

Their blood tastes better.

“Can’t we just leave him be? Can’t we just find someone else?”

No. I’m starving.

I sigh as his eyes light up and an awkward smile brightens his face. Such a handsome man…

“Hi Grace,” he says. “Nice to meet you again. I know it’s only our second date but I got you these.” He reaches behind his jacket and brings out a bouquet of carnations.

If I could cry, tears would fall from my eyes. But the Grace inside me dried up any show of emotion long ago. “Thank you. They’re wonderful.”

“So what would you like to do?” he asks. “Dinner? A movie?”

“I thought we’d take a walk in the park.”

“After dark? Isn’t that a bit risky?”

“No, it’ll be okay. I do it all the time.”

His face reddens and he scratches the back of his neck. “Okay, let’s go.”

As we walk down a lonely path he reaches out to hold my hand. I allow him. Might as well enjoy the brief moments my dreams speak of each night, if only to experience a few seconds of intimate joy I’ll never fully know.

I look into his eyes, see a warm glow. There’s a connection, a communication without words, a palpable tether which might have bound us as one… But I am not whole.

My head splits down the middle with a crack of bone and tearing of flesh. Tentacles of bloody carnage stretch and reach out from the opening, forming bone-like blades at their ends. A multitude of eyes open on each tendril of the beast within my head; they stare at the man’s petrified expression with nihilistic calm. The sharp ends slice through his flesh and I watch, unable to control them, forced to witness the terrible feeding of my other half. Once his head falls to the ground, they drive into the stump of his neck and gorge on his blood.

Once Grace has her fill, she returns to her inner-sanctum, the place where my mind once rested in solitude. But ever since she took Mother and Father, and burrowed deep inside me, I’ve never been alone…

∼Lee A. Forman

© Copyright 2017 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.

The Within

It starts with your first cry,” the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me says. “Moments after you are born your demon is as well, a microscopic creature that grows as you do.” He takes a sip from the tumbler of whiskey he got moments ago and sucks in a breath from the burn.

“Melvin, honey, stop scaring the nice young man,” Barb—I think the bartender said her name was Barb—says from the other end of the bar while cleaning glasses.

I look up from my rum and Coke, realizing the two of them are talking about me. “I’m sorry,” I say, looking around the cramped room again. There are two tables with people who look lost in their own worlds. I’m out of place here, a new person trespassing on the regulars’ sanctuary. “Were you talking to me?”

“Sometimes the truth is scary, Barbara, you know that.” Melvin points a crooked finger at her while still holding his drink. He winces after taking another sip. “He knows it, too. Look at him. You know what his world is.” He’s still facing straight ahead, watching me through the mirror that is the wall behind the bar. “The doctors haven’t helped you, have they, son?”

I shift in my seat, glancing sideways at him. For a moment I let the question sit. Demon, I hear Melvin’s voice in my head. I decide to play along. “No they can’t. They say there’s nothing wrong with me. Not physically, at least.”

Melvin lets out a sharp laugh that turns into a cough. “Physically wrong? Oh, no, I can tell that just by looking at you. You’re what, twenty-five, maybe six? I bet you haven’t been physically sick in years. We both know I’m not talking about that kind of doctor.”

“Melvin!” Barb says. “You stop that right now. Leave that poor boy alone. You’ll run off my new customer.”

He doesn’t move his body but tilts his eyes up to Barb and then returns his gaze to me, waiting. No one reacts to the scene playing out between us.

“You mean psychiatrists? Yeah, I’ve seen my fair share,” I say. “They send me back to a regular doctor, who then sends me to a different psychiatrist. But I gave up on that a while ago.”

He takes a long swig of his drink, finishes it, and swivels his stool to face me. Barb comes over and refills the glass. Melvin brings up his right hand between our chests, palm facing me with his fingers spread. He’s looking at me with his head cocked, like he’s searching for something. “You feel him, son. I know you do. You’ve felt him for years, inside you. He’s become more of you than you are yourself.”

My stomach churns and I put my hand on the edge of the bar to steady myself. Pain isn’t the right word. It’s not painful. It’s anguish. Emptiness. Working from my stomach out in all directions. Pushing through my veins, invading me.

“You’ve seen him,” Melvin says. “Behind your eyes when you look in the mirror. You aren’t crazy, son. You just weren’t meant for this world.”

I grip the edge of the bar. It’s there. I saw it the other night, behind my eyes, a creature made of black ink. A drip fell from it and a burning ache seeped through my body. I had felt that thousands of times and now I finally knew what it was.

Melvin leans in and points his finger at my heart, almost touching my chest. “He’s never been there. You’ve fought him off. No one knows what you’ve gone through. The internal battles you fight every day.”

He’s right. Every word. The old man saw me for who I am. My eyes fill with tears. My body feels heavy. I’m tired, so tired, from fighting, holding the thing at bay as it inches closer.

“There’s much more to this physical world than we know. They are waiting to be learned if you truly open yourself to them. Just because society says something is weak and cowardly doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe they just don’t understand.”

“I… I… It doesn’t hurt but it never goes away. Everything I do.”

“I know, son,” Melvin says in a quiet voice. “It’s okay. I promise.” His finger touches my chest and the sensation plunges into my heart.

In one moment, years of defenses topple down. My body. My mind. My soul. Exquisite peace.

“Thank you.” I stand up and walk out of the bar.

***

A minute later the sound of a single gunshot from the alley fills the bar. Barb says to Melvin while washing a glass, “Don’t you dare tell me he’s in a better place.”

“He isn’t,” Melvin says. “But he’s in a place where he can fight. Where he can win, if he is strong enough.”

“Is he?”

“I hope so.” Melvin winces as another sip of whiskey sears his throat.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright 2017 Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.