I know it sounds corny, but I believe life has a purpose. Really, I do. I believe that I—all of us—have a reason for being here, a reason for living. I don’t need to know what mine is. All I know is that one day it will come and it will go, and with it will go my need to live.
I test this every now and then, to see if I’ve outlived my use. The first time was with a pill bottle, but I’ve gotten more creative since. Five times I’ve tested this and five times I’ve survived.
Guess that means I’m still useful.
Hard to believe it as I make my way through the busy streets, just one of many ants in this hill. It’s times like this my philosophy carries me through. Every moment could be my moment—the one that completes me, opens the door, sets me free. All around me is potential. It gives life dimension for as long as it lasts.
As I ride the bus back from yet another eight hours spent by the burger fryer, I can’t help but wonder if today was my day. Maybe I did my part by holding the door for that girl, or by smiling at the gentleman on the corner, or by offering my seat to the grandmotherly woman on my morning bus. Every part counts, and maybe I’ve paid my dues.
I hear the moan of braking bus tires and get up at the all-too-familiar sight of my stop. I wave to the driver, but my mind is elsewhere, thinking of what the test should be. I try to change it up each time. After a while, it becomes an art of sorts, but that’s the kind of detail I pride myself on.
Lost in these thoughts, I barely even notice her until I’m almost past the alley. It’s the click that gets me. I stop in my tracks, expecting someone to come out asking for my wallet or my watch or something, but nothing happens. I glance down the alleyway and see her. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not my money she’s after.
I relax a bit, and see her look at me for the first time. She’s young enough—early twenties, no doubt—and not bad-looking. Mind you, she would probably look even better if she wasn’t holding a gun to her head.
“Guess you’re gonna tell me to back off,” she says after a long moment. I can see her grip tighten, and I almost laugh at the idea.
“Nah, go ahead.” I step back, cross my arms. “I’m kind of curious, actually.”
She snorts. “Morbid son of a bitch, aren’t ya?”
“Guess you could say that. Not every day you get a street-side show. Seems like a strange place for it.”
“Not for me. Thought I’d leave him with something to remember.” She gestures up to a window in the decrepit apartment building beside us. “Maybe I can get his attention while he’s still inside that bitch of his. Give her something to really scream about.”
I wait. I watch her. She watches me.
“You’re really not going to stop me?” she asks at last.
“No point,” I say with a shrug. “I’ve got a theory, of sorts. Call it fate if you like, but it all comes down to a fifty-fifty chance. Either it’ll work or it won’t. Either you’ve got a reason to live or you don’t. Not my call.”
“You really are sick, aren’t you?”
“Maybe, but it keeps me going. Here, how many bullets do you have in there?”
She pauses. “One.”
I stretch out a hand, slowly. “May I?”
I can see she wants to say no, but her curiosity is stronger. She gives me the gun. I unset it and spin the cylinder. Before she can say anything I cock it again, raise it to my head and pull the trigger.
I shrug. “See? Guess that means I keep going.”
The girl is visibly shaken as I hand the gun back to her. She’s lost some of her initial verve, but still cocks the gun and lifts it to her head. She bites her lip as she pulls the trigger.
I give a small smile. “Guess you keep going, too.”
The effort seems to have drained the last of her resolve. She almost drops the gun as she pushes it into my hands. “Thank you,” she says. She’s crying now.
I’m about to reply, but she’s already gone. Running from the alley, the building, the gun. Running to something more. As I watch her go, I wonder what her purpose is. Why she keeps on living. Why any of us keep on living.
The weight of the gun returns me to the present. I look down at it with some surprise. I think of the girl, of all that was and wasn’t.
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.
“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.
Johnny 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.
“Gather only the ones that are near to bursting. They grow on the south side of the cliff, their hue that of the melon’s meat. Bring me only what I ask, boy, the ripest. An extra shilling in it should you be back before the sun crests the sky.” Off the child went as the old crone began collecting the necessary herbs to hide the sweet taste.
Several hours later, the boy burst through the doorway, his speed so quick, the weathered skins that served as a barrier flapped in his wake. The gwrach turned from her steeping brew. The child’s face was rouged the hue of dark jostaberry; not a healthy shade to say the least. He panted and gasped, berries coddled in his filthy tunic. He held the thread-bare garment gently in yellow stained fingers. She stared for a moment, then pointed to the oaken table. The boy stumbled to it and unburdened himself of his precious load. As his pallor shifted from crimson to deep purple, she asked if he’d eaten any of the fruit. As he began to deny it, his knees crippled collapsing him to the dirt floor. She hobbled over with walking stick in hand, poked his distended gut, and watched as juice flowed from the cracks between his teeth. “Foolish,” she muttered. The witch leaned heavily on the staff as she knelt to collect the liquid that flowed from the corner of his mouth as she pressed upon his stomach. The boy twitched, lost to the nightmare world the engorged pods brought on. Finished, she tossed two shillings on his hitching chest, not as payment for the errand, but to pay the man that would dispose of his remains.
Sour milk and mould soaked into the kitchen floorboards. Mice droppings and chewed wiring were scattered inside the walls. Ezra liked the mice, but they didn’t come out to play anymore. Cracked window panes let in the drafts and sunlight shone through rips in tattered curtains. Ezra didn’t like the sunbeams; they hurt his skin. He had stayed housebound for all his twelve years, never seeing other children. Mama said they wouldn’t understand him.
He scuttled up the stairs and curled on his side outside their room. He knew Mama and Daddy hadn’t meant to leave him, but he was still alone. It had something to do with him, he knew; just before it happened Daddy yelled his name, screaming words like curse and abomination. Then the two loud bangs and they wouldn’t wake up.
They were still there, inside their room, but it smelled now, so Ezra preferred the hall, sleeping outside their door. His stomach rumbled; he had found little in the kitchen to eat, only some fruit. He’d enjoyed eating the mice better; their bones had been crunchy. He scraped his fingertip claws across the wooden floor, spelling his name, as his mother taught him.
E Z R A.
Mama said it meant ‘helper’. He liked that, and he tried to live up to the meaning, but it always went wrong. He helped when the bad man came for his money and made Mama cry and Daddy mad. The red stain was still on the carpet, but Daddy hid the body in the old well. Ezra offered to eat it, but said nothing else after Mama threw up in the sink. Daddy never spoke to him after that. He came in and took Mama upstairs. They never came down.
Ezra knew he’d have to leave soon; he needed to eat. He could hunt during the night. He knew more bad people lived down the road. He thought he could find their house. They’d feed him for a very long time.
The stones were restless that night. She could hear them clattering and chattering against rock faces and echoing up from the dormant mineshafts. The town had long ago been built into those rocks, blasting and chipping and burrowing its way into ancient granite and quartzite, slate and chert, greywacke and basalt.
Yet time moves differently there, in the deep. There, veins of silver were newly bled dry for the wealth of people long since passed. There, the shock of trauma had only just begun to fade. In its place rose an ancient fury, a rage she had long awaited.
When the town shook and crumbled, she did not think of its history, of its centennial celebrations, of its museums and plaques celebrating unwelcome conquest. She smiled, thinking like the stones, feeling the relief of swatting a mosquito who had only just landed.
You probably don’t know this, but Hell isn’t all burning pits and brimstone. Hell is cleverer than that. Hell is personal. It picks apart your psyche like the layers of an onion, exposing the torments that are perfect for you. Then, those torments are inflicted on you…forever.
Damn clever, wish I’d thought of it. I really wish I wasn’t part of it.
Every morning I wake in the same small back room. I open the door and head into my store. It isn’t really my store, I woke up here, presumably just after I died. The layout is reminiscent of those old-fashioned general stores you used to find in every small town. Wooden counters and shelves. Tin cans, dry goods. Brands you’d never heard of before. Newspapers for the men, magazines for the ladies, candy and ice cream for the kids. Cigarettes, some booze. Lightbulbs, rubber bands, tin openers; items secreted in dark cupboards, stuff you may only ever need once in your life. Cocktail umbrellas, apple corers.
This is my hell.
It’s not as if I was a storekeeper when I was alive. I was a firefighter. A pretty damn exciting, cool job. The ladies loved me; all I had to do was tell them I was a fireman and…well, I’m sure you can guess. Good times. All I remember of my death was smoke, flames and a collapsing roof. Then, I woke up here.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering where the torment comes in. Running a wee store in hell doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Well, let me enlighten you. You see, I’m not just playing the role of storekeeper. I am the storekeeper, that’s my whole world. I spend my days dusting and rearranging, fussing over what prices to lower, where to stack my tins. Making sure my newspapers line up with ninety-degree angles. I dream about stock-taking. I am the ultimate, totally consumed, archetypal storekeeper. And who is the natural enemy of all storekeepers? You don’t know? Guess. Correct; shoplifters. Little, shitty thieves, stealing from good, honest, honorable people. To steal, to shoplift, is a crime, it’s a sin, it’s an outrage.
Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I’ll get back to my point. You see, I only have one customer. It’s Old Hob himself. Every day at four o’clock he comes into my store. I’m where I usually am, standing behind my counter. I watch the old bugger wander in, casual as anything. Every day I ask the same question.
“Can I help you with anything, sir?”
The answer is always the same.
I watch him as he wanders around, between the shelves. I watch him as he takes items, examines them and then carefully drops them into the pockets of his long, black coat. I stand, unable to move, unable to speak, while I watch him defile my beautiful store. My blood boils, I feel my blood pressure skyrocket. It feels as if I’m having a stroke. I want to scream, I want to stop him, hurt him, kill him, but I can’t do anything. My soul, my storekeeper’s soul, is rent asunder watching this travesty.
And then, his pockets full of my wonderful goods, he smiles and heads to the door.
“See you tomorrow, storekeeper!”
The door closes behind him and I can finally move. I spend the rest of the day, every day, restocking my shelves, mourning for the lost items. Grieving for the money lost, despairing that I allow this to happen, dreading the next day. My head hurts, my heart aches.
Creeping slowly from the deep, the creature within obeys without question – as do the others. The line marches forward; the shelf shallows by inches. All the while, whispers gurgle malicious intent. Too long have they resided below, an army dormant while another presumes apex stature. Alone, they are helpless, hapless, unwitting; far too fragile to cause effect. But together, united by His call, they will once again lay claim for they are legion. Shallow cuts in the sand mark their passage as the echo within grows. It resounds not the hark of angelic horns, but a violent thrumming of reclamation. Lining the shores, they wait as the flaming sky sizzles into crueler darkness.
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.”
It was an enticing phrase. Ellen saw it in the Chronicle in a small, unassuming advertisement. There were no images, no flourishes, no embellishments. Just that phrase, and beneath it, more words:
For those who dedicate their lives to beauty. Serious inquiries only. Please write with preferred appointment time and place to The Beauty Within at the address below.
Ellen considered the advertisement for a while. Even after she had put the newspaper aside, those words still followed her throughout her day.
For those who dedicate their lives to beauty.
Surely that was her. She was known throughout London as the most desirable young lady. It was a point of highest pride with her father, who went to great lengths to have her seen in only the finest fabrics, the best jewels. There was no one who would deny her beauty.
Serious inquiries only.
That line seemed almost to beckon her, to challenge her. Did she take her beauty seriously? Oh, yes indeed. Then why had she not already written? What was holding her back? What was there to explain this cold, twisted fear in her stomach?
Silliness, she thought.
She sat at her writing desk and pulled out her quill and paper.
“Who are you?”
I am the one you invited—the one to make you beautiful.
Ellen considered him doubtfully. He had no hair to style, no lips to redden, not even skin to powder. He was bones and nothing more.
“What can you know of beauty?”
More than you can even see.
She did not understand.
Look at yourself. What do you see?
She turned to the mirror, paused. “Dark hair, fair skin, powder, jewels.”
Illusions—all of them. Not one is true beauty.
She frowned, not certain of his meaning. He had no facial features to decipher. She could not know if he meant to offend.
“Who are you?”
I am Beauty.
She almost laughed. “You are bones.”
“Then what am I?”
You are flesh. But you could be so much more.
Yes. You are flesh, yet you are bones. The beauty within.
Yes, your beautiful bones. You hide them beneath fat, skin, hair. You must be less to be more.
You must rid yourself of your wretched flesh. Be slender. Be thin. Let the sharp, beautiful angles of your bones be seen.
“But I do. I try. I eat like a lady; I lace my stays.”
But less. Tighter.
“I try, I try.”
I can help you.
Yes. Let me lace you. You will be smaller. You will be beautiful.
“But they are so tight already.”
But they can be tighter still, if you only know how.