Damned Words 51

When the Dust Settled
Angela Yuriko Smith

We saw it drifting… just a dust cloud at sunset and we looked away. We were busy playing games… dodgeball and tag, racing with nightfall and impending parental calls for dinner, baths and bedtime. We had no time for dust clouds. But when night time fell and our parents never called we paid attention. The cloud was already on us—a twisting fog tainted green, illuminated and glowing from somewhere within. We stopped our games to listen and heard our parents screaming. A writhing tempest obscuring twilight breezes with hot, acrid stench filled our familiar suburban streets. There was no running. We were already home with nowhere to go on a school night. Helpless, stunned and overwhelmed, we joined our parents without protest.

Vile Nights
Lee Andrew Forman

As the light of day begins to hide below the horizon, its final glow casts fleeting hope on those who dwell beneath its last rays. They know how short their joy is, so on long summer days they rejoice the seemingly languid time. Once darkness reaches over the clouds, and halogen bulbs flash to life over the not-so-sleepy town, prayers go unheard, muffled by thick atmosphere. The overbearing weight makes even a subtle breath too dense.

The flooding of artificial luminescence over every inch of land does little to slow the nightly feeding. One by one they crawl from the trees and search for sustenance. The food supply has dwindled over time, but they won’t be sated until not a morsel is left.

No one knows what afflicted the children, what made them change. Not a mother, father, or sibling understands why their own blood has turned vile and ravenous. They only wish it would end.

Tangerine Sky
Nina D’Arcangela

They said the dome would cleanse the air; that if we waited, it would be safe again. And for a while, it was. Greens were more verdant than they’d ever been, almost surreal in their crisp contrast to other hues. The valley was a lush haven in a dying world. We were lucky, as lucky as anyone could hope given the cataclysmic shift the planet had undergone. The science worked, we were proof of it. Plans were put in place to build more domes; to terraform our own Earth, rebuild the civilization that once existed.

Then the air machines stopped one day. No rhyme, no reason, they just stopped mid-rotation. Scientists and engineers did their best to repair them, but nothing had failed; they’d simply gone dormant. We tried to ignore the latency, to carry on as if it would bear no consequence on our future. We breathed, we ate, we lived a simile of the life we once knew. Then someone noticed it, a wisp of fog to the west. It seemed harmless, just an inexplicable anomaly. But as time progressed, so did the wisp – it grew into a fog that hugged the ground like false snow. When it encircled the mills, it seemed to split into fingers as though a hand were reaching into our bubble from the corrupt exosphere. Another wisp formed where the first petered out.

Every day, as I walk the commune, I feel its, no, her gaze upon me. She whispers to me each night, and her lullabies hold no hope for a future. She is sentient, of that I’ve no doubt, I only ask that she take us before the new are born.

Before the Mist
Miriam H. Harrison

Before the mist, there had been life. There had been birdsong and beauty. There had been the tender bloom of possibility, the lush green of promise. There had been laughter and languid days, moments that stretched long and sweet like taffy, without fear of what would come. We had no reason for fear, then. No reason to run, to flee, to scream—before the mist.

The Detour
Marge Simon

There are streets in the little city that are always under construction. The disposal crews arrive to move the Detour signs. No one questions them, it’s approved as standard maintenance. None inquire after the families who once lived on those streets. A neat row of older homes lines the block where the old man lives. He saw them cordon off the street a week ago. The yellow tape is up, the flashing pyramids installed to warn away incoming traffic.

This day he joins the neighbor’s dog to nap on his front lawn. Dozing off, he finds the edge of the afternoon. He lets his mind explore until he discovers a crack. He curls his fingers into it and it feels delicious. For a moment, he stops to indulge the pleasant sensation. He’s had this feeling before. Like the time he reeled in that five-pound bass on Lake Richard, summer of ’53. Or maybe his first night with his beloved Mandy, that had to be around then, too. A year’s worth of pleasurable surprises. He wills his mind further into the opening. How strange, how wonderful to own a crack in the afternoon! He dreams deeper into the fissure. There is something unknown and twisted. It moves along the rim of a black void. All that was familiar fades as he is sucked inexorably toward the dark. He hears the clink of chains, the tread of many feet. An open mouth, a scream with no sound. Then the fear begins. It rises to a flood that leaves him moaning in his sleep.

“You can go now.” The voice is soft and very clear. He can see the silhouette of her head as she bends close, feel her breath stirring the hairs over his temple.

“Mandy, I –”, he starts to say, but she puts her cool fingers on his lips.

“It’s all right, William. We’ll be just fine.”

The dog beside him whimpers as it licks his face. He blinks back the dream, noticing the house up the street is gone. He puts his tongue into the crack of his hands, tastes the salt of his flesh. Then he lies back, closing his eyes. Very soon now, it will be time to take the Detour.

Fog of War
Charles Gramlich

Stirred by dawn, a fog rises. It creeps the forest until a narrow defile between hills beckons it downward. It flows quicker now, like water, like a flood. And like a flood, it picks up debris.

But this debris is not leaves and twigs and fallen tree limbs. This debris is souls. A thousand dead souls. A hundred thousand. Animal. Insect. Spider. Leached from buried bones, or from the remnants of broken carapaces and exoskeletons.

And all these souls are screaming. As they screamed when they died. Out of pain. Out of a last desire to strike back at their killers.

At the foot of the hills lies a small rural community. Houses and streets still sleep soundly so early in the new day. The fog rolls over these houses, seeps within through cracks or open windows.

In the ears of the sleeping people, the screams of the myriad dead echo. Men and women and children stir as the agony and hate of numerous tiny souls seeks to burrow within. For a few…bad dreams. Most people never notice anything.

But the dogs notice. In their dank kennels. In yards and barns. Or sleeping at the feet of their masters.

The dogs notice. And they rise. Their eyes turn black with despair. Before their teeth turn red with slaughter.

Once in a Millenia
A.F. Stewart

The land remembered, even if the town had forgotten. Distant ancestors raised monuments, told their stories, but over time people laughed at the continued warnings, dismissed it as superstitious folklore, letting the markers and wards fade into the foliage and earth. The land welcomed back the magic and reclaimed their rejected gifts, leaving the town unprotected and oblivious to their peril.

The birds gave the first sign, flying away in flocks. The animals followed, deserting homes, farms, and forests. Tension prickled and tempers flared, but still the people remained, never dreaming of the fate awaiting them.

Until the day the fog rolled in…

A bitter, frigid cold heralded its arrival, forcing the people inside behind closed doors. Then the mist flowed soft and silky, winding down from the hills to caress the land in an icy kiss. It slithered and stalked, creeping in through the cracks, surrounding and smothering. It chilled the skin and choked the breath as smokey tendrils forced their way down every throat.

As they died, coarse whispers pounded in everyone’s ears.

Come join us in Hell…

The Curtain
Elaine Pascale

Don’t drink the water…”

When we were children, and the curtain came down, we thought they tried to protect us. But the curtain made us ugly, freakish.

The pretty ones were pulled away prior to the curtain, even though the government swore there had been no advance warning.

Don’t eat local produce…”

There is not much for us in terms of opportunities or industry. Those of us that remain are simply not allowed to leave.

You are not to reproduce. That has been taken care of.”

The curtain was a wave of toxins. It ate away at many of our organs, leaving us feeble. Our bodies rotted. Not one of us has symmetry in our features or our appendages.

You will wait until we find a cure.”

Our faces and bodies were corroded, but our brains remained intact. Some would say heightened as we had no other motivation but to study the curtain.

And to wait.

It wasn’t long until we realized that there was no cure. We understood that those who had been deemed special had been saved. We knew that they were not coming back for us.

We used our isolation to our advantage.

The animals must be slaughtered. It is the humane thing to do.”

‘Humane’ is defined by who says it. We did not want to go the way of the animals. We studied the curtain; we explored its substance. We investigated and found that the toxin lived within us.

But it could be extracted.

And it could be weaponized.

And it could make the pretty ones not so pretty anymore.

We no longer wait. Waiting means a ‘humane’ termination. We have other plans, and we will be the ones to define what is ‘humane.’

Incel Dreams
Harrison Kim


I let a woman into my world. She had wiles, and wild looks, her smile took me for a ride.  I opened my mind, and she permeated my whole existence with her smile, then sank into it, and stayed grinning within.  Now I fly above my dream world, my night mind, also called my ego, in the shape of an eagle, searching for the whiteness of her teeth, a glint shining behind the canopy of trees, or the cream stripe where her hair separates in the middle of her head, as she runs among the moonflowers.  If I see that white stripe moving, I will drop fast as a stone, grasp her scalp with my predator claws and pull her out.

She will return everything she took, my dignity, my pride and identity, my sense of reality and self.  She’s a parasite within my head, taking all my energy, laughing at how easily she took over.
 
I cannot find her.  I only hear that laughter.
 
When I rise from this dream, into the shared world outside, I shall buy a gun.  I can’t be an eagle in the shared world, but I can still be a human hunter.  I may not possess her body in my mind, but I will find it living on the waking city streets.  Tomorrow, I will make sure she will only exist within me, and not for anyone else, ever again.  
 
I whirl above the canopy that covers the surface.
“Why did you make me love you?” I call again and again.
I fly in faster circles.
Her voice responds from my ego below, louder and louder, and I hear it clearly now.
“Because I could.”
 
Little does this taunting invader know the way I will clear her from my mind.

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

A Rash of Karens

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

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

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

These two were absolutely perfect.

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

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

They would never know.

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

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

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

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

“No, ma’am, alien species.”

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

“He definitely did not belong,” Brenda agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The women gasped in unison. “Cartier?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no one would.

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

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 50

The House of Heaven’s Doors
Marge Simon

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

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

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

The Old Man Tolls
Lee Andrew Forman

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

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

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

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

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

School Days
Charles Gramlich

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

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

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

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

I don’t go home anymore.

None of us do.

Beneath the Boards
Elaine Pascale

It’s a gold mine!”

It’s a money pit.”

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

It’s so quaint.”

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

This could be my sanctuary.”

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

It’s big enough for all of us.”

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

It just needs some TLC.”

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

It’s so rustic.”

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

It has good bones.”

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

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

And the beast beneath the boards waits.

Unwanted House Guests
A.F. Stewart

The doorknob rattled, a sure sign someone was coming.

“Is it time?” came a whisper.

“Yes.”

“It’s been so long.”

“It has. Years since the last one.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I believe it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthright
Nina D’Arcangela

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

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

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

Returning
Miriam H. Harrison

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

I’m Talking to You
Guest Author: Harrison Kim

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

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


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

Photography © Copyright Johnny Joo. All Rights Reserved.

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


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

Supernova

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

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

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

He eyed her plate but said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are not pregnant,” her husband said.

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

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

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

“Stars are bad?”

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

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

Her mother scoffed and Penny attributed this to more jealousy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A c-section?” she gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this was Penny’s new, happy narrative.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 49

As Butterfies
Miriam H. Harrison

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

But first, the darkness.

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

The first to realize our mistake.

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

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

The Drift
Nina D’Arcangela

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

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

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

The Dream Beyond
Lee Andrew Forman

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

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

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

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

Pink
Elaine Pascale

The dogs had been trained to find me.

Their tongues are as pink as the blossoms above me.

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

Pink was my favorite color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the insides of others were.

The Forlorn
Charles Gramlich

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

The mistresses of God are visiting here!

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

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

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

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

Blue Sky Somewhere
Marge Simon

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

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

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

Why wait any longer?

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

Pink and White
A.F. Stewart

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

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

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

Pretty in Pink
Ian Sputnik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damned Words 48

Better Hope
Miriam H. Harrison

Just keep him plugged in—that’s your job. It may not sound like much, but you better hope this thing keeps him alive. We’re not ready for what he might do—not yet. But as long as he’s in his body, we stand a chance. So keep him secure, keep him plugged in. The drugs should quiet him. You might hear him in your head, but ignore him. You understand? No matter what he says, don’t listen. Don’t press that button, don’t pull that cord. And try to stay safe. We really don’t want to hire for this position again.

Feasting
Nina D’Arcangela

Feasting, that’s what it’s doing. Still as it may look, its savoring, consuming, devouring; making a meal of us all with that unrelenting gaze. Wait for the flinch if you will, but it won’t happen.

They say we, as a species, eat with our eyes first. I guess we’re not the only ones.

Expectations
Charles Gramlich

Textures: ripples, curves, lines. Fossilized in verdigris. Mouth and eyes above a silver collar of anodized aluminum. Diseased pustules filled with the rust of oxidation. A copper tongue wishes to speak and cannot.

You are frozen without, terrified within.

A crown of hollows rests upon this brow. Bullet holes torn in the fabric of form. You await. We await. Some in awe, some in glory, all in fear.

Transformation. Transmogrification. Transubstantiation.

Metamorphosis within a chrysalis of glass.

What will you be when you shed this skin?

The Deep
RJ Meldrum

Down here in the depths the creatures lived in the endless darkness. In this dark realm, evolution favored specie who ate little and moved less. She lay in the sediment, an ancient creature, huge and bulbous. She was the top predator in the food chain and if she could conceive of an emotion like fear, she would have felt none. Lesser creatures avoided her, except for the occasional unwary or unwise fish, who would quickly become prey.

A change in pressure told her there was something above her. She opened one glistening eye. She saw a shape. Whatever this was, it was bigger than her. That made it an enemy. She stayed still, waiting. In her primitive brain, she decided not to fight unless she was attacked. It came closer. It emitted something she did not recognize, but it was painful and it blinded her. She used her tentacles to push herself from the sediment, pain coursing through her body. She had to defend herself.

The men in the bathysphere had left the lights off until the very last second. Light was alien down here, at this depth, and would scare away the creatures. The switch was flicked on and light flooded the scene. The cameras recorded everything around them, but they still wanted to see for themselves; like children, they crowded the small observation window. They were briefly aware of a huge shape, surrounded by disturbed sediment, hurtling towards them before oblivion took them.

Aficionados
Lee Andrew Forman

In the hours of day, when families would roam the gallery, it had to be covered; the minds of those unwilling could not be privy to its nature. It had to be presented during selected hours beneath the shroud of night. Only those most dedicated would be allowed to witness its glory, experience its wonder. They never debated its origin or creator, the unknown hand who brushed its oil features remained nameless in history. This canvas held power far beyond any known artist of the time, or before. It revealed great tragedy; its shapes and colors warped and morphed into visions held long ago. Its audience reveled in these savage memories of time. Their sadist hearts fluttered at the gore-soaked images the piece invoked. It spoke of pain and suffering the modern world had never witnessed, but as its kindred aficionados grew in number, it soon would.

Identity Theft
Elaine Pascale

I hid the bracelet in that statue in the old library.  No one went there anymore. There was no need for reading in a world covered with a curtain of darkness.

We were kept blindfolded most of the time. They believe their faces would frighten us to death. Our blood is tastier when we are alive: alive and scared.

The predators recycle our identities. It is a way of dehumanizing us, which is ironic as they aren’t human. They use adjectives for our names: delicious, scrumptious, succulent. My real name had been engraved on the bracelet. I tucked a paper in with it on which I had written the names of those I loved. I wrote them with a sharpened stick that I had burned at the tip. The predators no longer feared stakes as they don’t have hearts to pierce. They are empty, just like the meaningless names they call us.

“Tasty,” they called me over. They didn’t realize I could still see some things despite the blindfold. They underestimate how smart we are.

“Be a good snack and tell us about your creepiest encounter in the before times.”

“Creepiest?” I pretended to think. I was really estimating how long it would take for me to reach the window. “I guess that would be the guy who followed me home from the bar.”

“Mmm,” I could hear the saliva dripping from their mouths. They were anticipating my fear.

I was afraid, afraid I wouldn’t make it to the window.

“He was a stalker, a nightmare.”

I knew their eyes would be glazing over with blood lust. I bolted to the window and ripped down the curtain.

Their skin scorched, quickly producing flames.

Knowing my name was secure, I lifted the blindfold to watch it all burn.

Smile
A.F. Stewart

The crystal in the middle of the carved stone shone with a smudged pink glow, reflecting our lights. 

“Looks like a smile, doesn’t it?” Darren leered and nudged me. “That sweet, after sex kind of smirk, am I right?”

I shuddered. Darren was a pig, always making lewd remarks, trying to hit on me, badly. If someone grinned at me like that, I’d scream. The stone resembled a weird blob monster from an old TV show and gave me the creeps. Part of me wanted to walk away from it, the rest of the relics, and the temple. 

Still, the thing was pre-Columbian, and we came to loot the place. I shoved it in a crate and we loaded it on the truck with the other artifacts before heading to the dinky airport at the edge of town. Soon I’d be on a plane smuggling our score out of this forsaken jungle.

I shot a glance at Darren. He hadn’t stopped smirking since we left the crumbling temple, but was uncharacteristically quiet. He gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I kept my mouth shut. Our plan depended on that.

I glanced at him again and saw the pink glow at the edges of his mouth. I relaxed. Part of me didn’t believe my bosses, but the curse was working. Soon Darren would be dead, and the antiquities would be in the hands of my real employers. People who knew how to use their power for more than a quick buck. The world would be ours soon, and creepy Darren…

Well, he’d die painfully, but with a smile on his face until the end.

Chernobyl Blues
Marge Simon

The door swings open. A slender woman stands framed against the sun. The bartender knows her. He fixes her a shot of his best Scotch on the rocks. She walks over to the piano and plays a few chords. Her face is as velvety smooth as the white of her hair. She’s old enough to be your mother, but that doesn’t matter. When she starts playing, everyone shuts up to listen, even the guy in the booth coughing blood in his beer.

She plays the blues and more. Like more than words and deep and it goes straight inside all the places where you’ve tried to hide your fear, digs them out and tries to make you feel all right about it. It seems like she plays as long as she feels like and then she stops. There is another drink waiting for her but she just leaves it there on the piano. She glances at you on the way out and you grab her hand, pull her to sit down.

“Is that mutant thing still out there?” you ask.  

She nods. “I told him I had to play the blues for you, but never again, after this one.”

“But you can’t just leave. We’re in this together, lady,” you plead. “Everything’s polluted now, even the beer. Stay inside, keep playing – you know it makes dying easier for us.”

She shakes her head sadly.  A thin band of late sunlight falls on her empty seat. Just before she leaves, she tells you that thing outside the door is her son. “I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to let him in, now.”

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

By Proxy

“Remember how we act when we see a cross?” She was glancing at him, or at the reflection of him in her mirror as she applied her makeup. 

He nodded nervously. He looked so tiny and frail and she hoped he never got big. If he appeared strong, it would defeat her purpose.

“And if they sprinkle the water on you?”

He nodded again and mimicked convulsions.

“Good. Now come over here so I can look you over.”

She was lucky that he was so clumsy and bruised easily. He definitely appeared to be on the receiving end of something bad.  She had lavished in the attention from doctors and medical staff, but she was now after bigger game. 

She shooed the boy away and returned to her makeup. “I am having a hard time seeing…eyes all blurry.” She had been feeling strangely lately but was not going to let anything come between her and her big opportunity.

Even though the boy would be the star of the episode, she had to get her look just right. She felt that single-mother faced with a parent’s worse-case-scenario would endear her to Brent Carson. She had stalked his social media for nearly two years; he was very supportive of women’s causes and children’s charities. He was crazy about his dog, too, and she wished she had thought to adopt one to appear sympatico. Applying to be on the show had taken most of her energy and fabricating the back story with the garage sale music box had drained her of any creative impulses.

She wore a dress that was casual enough for an “everyday mom” but that showed off her assets. The boy was in his bed, thermostat turned down in his room, water strategically applied to his hairline and clothing to create the appearance of sweat. She was fighting her jitters when the doorbell rang.

Brent Carson blew past her, instructing the camera operators of how they should set up once they were in the boy’s room. She began to interrupt when Carson told her to wait where she was and that he would be back to debrief her.

She waited, as told, and listened to the sound of equipment being set up in her son’s room. She wondered if she appeared less attentive waiting downstairs while her son, her “whole world” as she had told producers, was upstairs with strange television people in his room. Then again, Carson had told her to wait in place and she wanted to convey to him that she was ready to do anything he asked.

Her uncertainty was put to rest by the sight of Carson descending the stairs. He was tall and broad shouldered with spiky hair that gave the appearance of tousled bed-head, but that she knew took time and consideration to craft. 

“You have traveled such a long way…can I offer you something?” She gestured to the table she had set up with fruit, crackers, tartare, and sushi.

Carson appeared baffled. “Do you normally eat…a lot of raw foods?”

She giggled in a way that she felt was charming. “Animal urges, you know.” She shrugged and batted her eyes, not to clear their blurriness, but in a flirtatious manner. “I was once told I was too pretty to cook.”

“Maybe later,” he mumbled and made his way back to the stairs. “You can stay here, or you can come to the bedroom, but you will have to promise not to intervene, no matter how bad it gets.”

“I will do anything you say,” she replied in what she thought was a seductive, throaty voice.

He stopped mid-climb. “Say that again…” 

“What?”

He paused. “Nothing. Might just be my imagination but you sounded…” He climbed the rest of the steps in silence without finishing his thought. She followed into the bedroom where her son was lying perfectly still on top of the sheets. A priest, or an actor dressed like a priest, was talking to the boy. She felt herself becoming irrationally angry at the sight of this exchange. A low growl escaped her throat.

Carson approached her. “You will have to be silent when we are filming.”

She mimed zipping her lips and slid back into the shadows of the room. The priest read some scripture and the boy laughed demonically, or maybe theatrically. She wished they had practiced that a bit more. The priest then took a small bottle from his vest and began sprinkling the boy. On cue, the boy cringed and convulsed; he writhed and hissed. Carson rolled his eyes at the camera man. 

“Good boy,” she whispered and gave her child the thumbs up. He was so good at following directions, it was his most endearing quality. That, and his willingness to please her. When he had been a baby, he had been quiet and compliant—the perfect wingman for a single-mom on the prowl for some male sympathy. When he had first begun school, he had followed her scripts to a “T.” He perfectly mimicked the excuses she had given him for the bumps and bruises that sometimes appeared on him. She couldn’t always control her temper, or that of the men she brought home, but her son was continuously willing to do whatever it took to defend her. 

Carson took the bottle from the priest and showed it to her. “It is fake…tap water…has he been to a therapist or received any other type of help?”

She tilted her head coyly. “I have moved heaven and earth to help him. I have left absolutely no stone unturned. There is not a moment that goes by that I am not researching how to help him, or making calls, or taking him to appointments.” She stepped closer to Carson, invading his personal space. “Please, you are our last hope.”

Carson recoiled and pointed at her. “You…your nose is bleeding and there is…it looks like blood coming from your eyes.”

The priest, or actor/priest, heard what Carson said and he turned toward her with a crucifix in his hand. The boy was watching intently, forgetting that he should react to the relic. His mother had a large enough reaction for them both. 

Words came from her mouth that she could not recognize. Then clearly, in English, she said, “I know how and when you will die, but you are better off not knowing.”

Carson looked to the camera man and said excitedly, “I think we have a real one…after all this time, we finally have a real possession.”

They pushed the boy aside and strapped his mom to the bed.  As the “holy water” was useless, they used prayers and other relics on her. The actor/priest had been able to obtain communion wafers, and those paper-thin discs provided photogenic evidence as they seared on her skin. 

Brent Carson was salivating at the thought of the ratings for this episode.

The boy knew he should try to help his mother but watching her struggle beneath the ties that lashed her to the bed was pleasing to him. Welts and bruises appeared on her flesh, and he knew how that felt. He also knew that his mother wanted the attention of Brent Carson. He had been ordered to not interrupt the two if they were interacting, and he had been trained to follow orders.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 47

In the Light
Miriam H. Harrison

The light lasts longer here. A trick of angles, squeezing every last drop of daylight from the sun. When I followed the path, found this place sitting in the light, I took it for a sign. I wanted to be here—in this place blessed by the sun.

And so I entered.

If you find my path, don’t follow. Stay out there in the light. The light outside lingers. But the darkness inside—that lasts longer than you’ll ever know.


The Weight of Stone
Charles Gramlich

The gold stone sweats light in the dawn. But I am not lit. I lie within. All in black, all in shadow. I pray to the night, to the ancient and puissant god of the dead—to he who is swollen with rot and bile. And I smile as I pray to myself in the mirror of your dreaming eyes.

Can you not hear me prance close? A devil to man! A lord to devils! I love the teeth in your mouth, the bite in your words. But I will not come to you. To summon me, you must light the candle in the whiskey dark—while I sing from a throat blistered by scorpions. To summon me, you must offer pearls of honeyed blood from your unshriven lips.

No, I will not come to you. Not yet. But I will wait. For your nightmare to end.

And the next to begin.


The Citadel de Sangre
Marge Simon

Bumming around Spain the summer after college, me and my buddy Garth stopped in the village of Tabernas. Both of us were keen to check out this one place in particular – the Citadel, at the edge of the desert.  Lots of folklore about it. 

When we got to Alamira, I asked an old woman about it. “La Ciudadela? Si. It’s an ancient fortress, a sanctuary built by an ancient civilization to keep out demons.  But beware, a hijo mio, it’s no sanctuary now!” When I asked what she meant, she shook her head, muttering “Los que beben sangre!” 

Garth checked his Spanish pocket dictionary “Way cool! She means “those who drink blood.”  He looked up, grinning. “Like I’m scared, dude,” he whispered to me. The guy running the tourist office talked us into taking along his daughter as a guide. Carmillita was a weird little gal with stringy dark curls, but she spoke good English. Something about her made me uncomfortable, but Garth thought she was hot. 

Our shirts were soaked with sweat when we finally arrived at the Citadel.  It was a sturdy structure, made from yellow native stone. We relaxed in the cool interior. I found a wine stash and we downed a couple bottles. Garth and the gal were enjoying some primo Spanish grass and talking. Last I noticed, she was licking his neck. Threesomes weren’t my style. I nodded off after dusk.

“Wake up, buddy. Carmillita wants you with us.” it was Garth’s voice next to me in the dark. That gal was crouching beside him, eyes glowing red in the dark.

“Huh?” I asked sleepily.


“It ain’t for sex, dude.”  A sudden flash of white fangs in the moonlight, his mouth on my neck. He stopped sucking to grin at me, blood streaming down his chin. 

Guess I wasn’t going to need that fucking degree in Economics after all.


All Day Sucker
Elaine Pascale

I have eyes but cannot see.

The darkness is everywhere.

I have ears but cannot hear.

The dead are polite in their silence.

My mouth is shut, clamping down on the screams that rest on my tongue like a demented all day sucker.

I should have known to turn down the contract, but the money was too good.

I should have known that I would never see the money. It was just that good.

Always be suspicious of a request to build a “secret room.” Especially if that room is beneath a centuries-old mausoleum.

The dead do not need a place for their secrets.

I know that teenagers come to smoke on the steps, but they are too far away to be aware of me. I can smell their pungent exhalations. I imagine they tell scary stories while getting high in the cemetery. They may even fabricate nightmares about being locked in with the bodies that rot.  If they knew of me, I would become just another ghost story.

I am a ghost story.


Marla
Lee Andrew Forman

Respite from day, an escape from all that ails, is what Harold desired most. So to this monument of silence he traveled each night, and beneath each moon and all its phases, he spent his better hours with the speechless and unmoving. Never a word had been spoken to his kin about these endeavors. A secret dream—of joy, of a stillness which calmed a distressed heart.

No lock barred entry, no watchmen to guard against invasion; he was free to rest his weary bones with Marla, the occupant within the marble box. He painted her in his mind as he saw fit, imaginings of a fine woman, far beyond what he deemed himself worthy of.

But when he approached the old doors this night, one stood ajar. He scurried to peek within the dark mausoleum. Three young men sat inside with booze, drinking in a stupor, regarding precious Marla with uncouth disrespect.

Harold made himself known as a silhouette in the doorway. The young heathens stood, violence rising within their stance. Harold shook. His poor frame would never overcome them.

Then the massive lid opened on its own. From within rose the dried remains of Marla. Bone fingers stabbed at bewildered eyes. Her other arm thrust like a spear into another’s abdomen. The young man gaped at the near-black fluid poured from his wound. The third boy tried to run, but Marla caught him by the neck. She pulled him into her embrace and crushed his ribcage, watching red spurt from his mouth.

When the bloodshed ended, Marla’s eyeless sockets stared at Harold. Although she had no lips with which to smile, he felt affection ebb from her marrow. He approached this miracle with blind joy. Marla’s skeletal hands wrapped themselves around Harold, pulled him into her coffin, and closed the lid.


Resting Place
RJ Meldrum

The mausoleum was a triumph of architecture and style. It dominated the landscape for miles, and had been built to be deliberately in the direct line of sight of the manor house were the Duke resided. It was to be his final resting place and he took huge pride in that fact, not that he intended to change residence anytime soon. The townsfolk, the people who worked in the mines belonging to the Duke, had a different perspective. The Duke was greedy and stupid, focused only on profit. He ordered his engineers to dig too close to the surface and to skimp on tunnel supports. Shafts routinely collapsed, burying miners. The fatality rate was five times the of nearby mines. The Duke paid the families handsomely to cover it up, but now the final straw had been reached. Due to shallow excavations, parts of the town had subsided, killing a number of women and children. The men congregated in the mausoleum. A solution had been found. Muffled cries and entreaties could he heard from inside the crypt. A voice pleaded with them to let him out, save his life, but the miners did not respond or move a finger to help. The Duke, a soft-handed aristocrat, would learn what it was like to be buried alive, suffocated while the air ran out. It was a fitting memorial.


Mausoleum
A.F. Stewart

The stone tomb hadn’t been there yesterday.

But yesterday the world had been normal.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear the song.

It began on my morning run. The vision of the stone structure standing in the park haloed against the warm sun. So majestic, so serene.

So inviting.

Music floated from the entrance, a deep entrancing voice singing of peace, of darkness, of stars and fire. Calling my name. Promising me the serenity of his everlasting love. I was on the steps before someone bumped into me. I heard “Sorry,” and looked away. When I looked back, the tomb vanished.

But the echo of the song remained.

That’s why I returned to the park after moonrise. Somehow, I knew he would return before the next sunrise. I knew he was waiting for me.

In the silence of my mind I heard his voice, his sweet, sultry tune of peace and destruction, filling the darkest hours until my prayers were answered. I raced up the stone steps of the tomb, dashing into its dark maw. I laughed as his tentacles encircled me and drew me into death’s embrace, his sweet voice my lullaby into eternal rest and his undying love.


Hope
Nina D’Arcangela

By day, they climb the stairs, stare through the locked grate to catch a glimmer of what lay inside. At dusk, I open the gates, hope one will stray, and step beyond the threshold. This eve is no exception. As the moon trades its place with the sun, the gleam from inside is irresistible. Stunned by the glittering interior, it pauses. I see the greed in its eyes. Just one step further and I will have you. The exterior of the tomb is stunning, but once beyond the iron that was wrought to keep the rabble out, the walls are inlayed with gems that glisten opalescent shades. I am as old as the stone, I hunger as it does, but am not allowed a portion until they have had theirs. If I have done my job adequately, some may feast; if done well, all will sup – myself included.


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

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.

Heart of Stone

“She ruined you,” the voices hissed.

The voices were always there; their reptilian cadence was unavoidable. They were not made-up voices. They were not imaginary friends. Sthenno and Euryale could not escape the voices because they were connected to their heads.

There is something to be said for multiple slithering ids, writhing with the weight of a dozen demi-demons, tempting a Gorgon by cooing her darkest thoughts. The snakes were like Sirens, and they made the sisters want to bash their brains out with sharp rocks.

The snakes’ red eyes lit the night, making sleep elusive. Their warm bodies added a cumbersome burden to the days, forcing the former maidens into abject inertia. The captive Gorgons were defenseless to the heft of their slinky bodies and the gravitas of their suggestions.

She needs to be punished,” the snakes commanded, and Sthenno could not help but agree.

It had not always been this way. The girls had been beautiful, famous, and desirable. Their faces had appeared on vases and plates and parchment. Everyone had wanted to gaze at them and they had adored being the object of gazes.

Too soon they would find that infatuated regards were a thing of the past. “She cut you off from the world, from all that you love,” the snakes reminded them. “She is the betrayer.”

“The curse?” Euryale mouthed. Sthenno nodded, “If something were to happen to her, would the curse be lifted?”

The snakes sighed happily, as if tasting ambrosia in the air. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

#

Many moons before, the gods had blessed the girls with love and adoration. The sisters had fans and those fans craved viewing the three of them together. The people desired glimpses of the beautiful faces, and the special attributes that made the Gorgons seem better than everyone else. Euryale had a speaking voice that would shame any Siren. Sthenno had a magical left eye that could show her the past and predict the future. And Medusa had an extremely enviable, voluptuous figure.

The girls had been promised to Athena. Their public personas were of purity, and the sisters worked very hard to maintain that reputation. Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa spent as much time at the temple as they did sleeping, bathing, and eating combined. At the temple, they performed their duties; they practiced to become priestesses. According to law, they cleaned at night, draped in cloth that was no more beguiling than the rags that wiped the stone and bronze clean. They sacrificed their time and many days of their youth, and they sacrificed the very purist as tributes to the Goddess. No one sacrificed more than Medusa, the mortal one.

No one sought to fill her limited days with delight more than the sole ephemeral Gorgon. At night, Medusa would sneak out, her long rows of braids trailing behind her in the moonlight. Sthenno would pretend not to notice. “Because we are immortal, we have all of eternity to salvage what she might do to our reputation,” Euryale would whisper, her voice like soft notes plucked on a lyre, “because she is mortal, we can outrun the damage she does.”

Euryale had been right, up to a point. She had not foreseen Medusa becoming involved with the Minotaur. She had not forecast that Medusa would bring the muscled and musty bull-man back to their home and flaunt him in their faces. Euryale had not predicted that Sthenno’s knack for sibling rivalry would lead her directly into the arms of Nessus, the Centaur. Even Sthenno’s oracular eye had not predicted that her game would backfire and that she would fall in love.

Love in the time of Athena meant secrecy and fear, yet it was worth the risk. Sthenno had the warmth of her centaur which was more than the equivalent of thousands of adoring fans. She had the lingering nibbled kisses from his bearded face to see her through her chores. She had him to confide in when she wanted to complain about Medusa; his very existence lessened her need for competition with her siblings. A complex maze, rivaling the one in Crete, metaphorically stood between Sthenno and Medusa; yet, she held no ill will for her mortal sister. Sthenno would love Medusa, as long as love loomed large in her heart.

Then, Medusa had to go and cross the line with Poseidon.

“He forced himself on me!” Medusa had cried and Sthenno had felt the need to protect her sister. Sthenno had believed Medusa, had wanted to believe in her fidelity to the extent of nearly ignoring her illuminating eye. But the eye won out. It showed a seductive Medusa, clinging to the sea rocks, weathering waves and ocean spray, for the opportunity to be with a god.

Crying rape, lying about rape was a sin. Medusa, cursed with a short life, had always been the most concerned with damage control. The gods did not look very kindly upon lying; Athena was even less sympathetic toward broken vows.

The temple witnessed an act of violence far worse than any swift sacrifice. Athena grabbed Medusa by her enviable braids and threw her to the ground. The sisters were forced to share the wrath of the goddess. Euryale’s voice was transformed into an ear-splitting shriek, and Sthenno’s prophetic eye was darkened. The following day, the Gorgons’ bruised and sore bodies told tales of assault. The wounds would heal; an extra violation had taken place that would impair them for all time. Euryale and Sthenno awoke with serpent crowns, sealed to their scalps. Medusa, also plagued with snakes, remained in a permanent sleep.

Euryale moaned and her voice was nearly deafening. Sthenno shushed her, keeping her raised finger out of reach of the snakes. All the while, Medusa slept on, blissfully unaware of their state.

Sthenno’s scalp was crawling, slithering, coiling and recoiling. Inside her head, she was screaming. Outside, the snakes had begun talking. “She ruined you,” they repeated: a mantra meant to incite hatred.

Sthenno would not hate until she knew the true condition of her love. She needed to find him. She needed to see if Nessus would still have her.

She found herself running, but she could not outrun the snakes. Their unreasonable weight was much less of a burden than their words. “He will reject you,” they warned. “And it is all her fault.”

Rejection would have been easier to bear than what transpired when Nessus laid eyes on his lover.

Being newly cursed, the Gorgons had not been warned about the result of their gazes. Nessus dropped to his knees, quivering in pain. Being part equine, he did not turn immediately to stone.

She stood over him. “Do you love me?” she gasped, praying to any god available for confirmation. His body twitched and his eyes rolled back in his head, but he did not answer. He also did not die.

Being a merciful Gorgon, Sthenno snatched the satchel that her lover had dropped. She pierced his heart with a poison arrow; breaking his heart so it now matched her own.

#

“The weight,” Euryale mouthed to Sthenno and rolled her eyes in the direction of the toiling scales that wound and entangled on top of her head. She mouthed her words, not to keep secrets from the snakes—they were reptilian mind-readers—but because her voice was so destructive.

For Sthenno, the weight was nothing in comparison to her murderous rage.

“There is a way,” the snakes whispered to Sthenno, “A king is seeking a challenge for a young man. He wants it to be deadly and dangerous. We will convince him that Medusa is awake. We will convince him to force this Perseus to return with her head.”

While she knew that Euryale would be devastated at the death of their sister, Sthenno felt no emotion at all.

The snakes were as smart as they were silky. They helped Sthenno to convince Euryale that she would have no blood on her hands. “She deserves it,” they hissed, “So focused on her fame, her figure, her lovers. And she sleeps through the worst days of your life! You can get rid of her, end it all, simply by doing nothing—

Euryale cut them off and addressed Sthenno, as if they were the only two within hearing distance. “We always knew we would have to live without her…at some point.”

Sthenno, made of stone, readily agreed, “It’s just sooner than we expected. That is all.”

#

The days crept as they always did when your days have no end, until the snakes began excitedly announcing that Perseus was near.

Sthenno crept to Euryale’s side and stroked her cheek. “Here,” she handed her a drink she had made. They would both sleep soundly. They would both be unable to hear Perseus’ approach; they would both be unable to help their mortal sister. Their consciences, if not their scalps, would be free of snakes.

They would rebuild their status: they had forever to salvage their reputations.

Sthenno drank her concoction and slept as if dead. When she and Euryale awoke, Medusa was gone. Precisely, Medusa’s head was gone.

And the snakes fell silent.

∼ Elaine Pascale

© Copyright Elaine Pascale. All Rights Reserved.