Insemination

Nicolette rubbed her hands along her naked belly and knew her barren insides held no place for new souls. Her eyes peered into the mirror. Not to view her meager shell, but to converse with the only soul her body would hold: her own. There existed a question she must both ask and answer. Something dubious and unknown. Possibly dangerous. The doctor who gave her the news explained there was a way, though she may not like it.

As time fell short she realized the debate was only an illusion. Only one choice existed. She’d do what her doctor suggested. Nicolette never believed in alternative medicine, but her want for motherhood not only sent her heart to dark places, but her body as well.

The crumpled address in her pocket led her to an old brick structure, what might have been a factory back when they were a thriving industry. Doubt sunk into heavy feet as she approached a steel door. Her body wanted to hesitate as she reached for the handle, but she knew she’d go through with it anyway.

Beyond sat a makeshift operating table in an otherwise dark open space. A few stand-up curtains lined the back side of it. A construction lamp lit the area. One man stood in the light, both hands at his sides, unmoving, waiting. Nicolette held her breath as she approached. The man motioned his hands toward the workspace without a word.

Her body supine on the metal table, she focused on the dark above. She projected herself into it, a void where there was no pain, no fear, no sorrow.

The procedure felt like nothing more than a moment; a strange dream shrouded in fogged sounds and colors. When she sat upright she watched the doctor remove his gloves. They were covered in inky, black fluid. He tossed them into a waste bin and took leave into the darkness of the old factory.

Nicolette did the only thing she could. She went home.

When she looked into the mirror by the light of the morning sun, her once empty place grew and writhed with life. Nicolette rubbed her hands along her naked belly and knew by the three fingered hand pressed against hers, that what lived there wasn’t human.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

The Red Witch

Dalia Habershon sat in her favourite high back chair and surveyed the room. The lights were dimmed, with a few candles to lend the right ambiance. The fireplace roared and the butler had set out tea for the guest. The peeling wallpaper was barely visible, and the cracks in the plaster melded into the gloom.

We haven’t had a visitor in ages. This could be a good day.

She shifted position to ease the twinge in her back. The chair creaked, and the faded upholstery rippled, threatening to tear again. Dalia smoothed the skirt of her best dress, ignoring the old stains and the tattered edges of the fabric. She had done her best to look presentable, fixing her hair, even adding a touch of lipstick.

She cocked her head, listening to the whispers from the shadows. “Shush, he’ll be here soon. Be patient,” she replied. More whispers, Dalia strained to make out the words. “Yes, I’m certain. He’s not the type to miss an opportunity. He’s nothing but a muckraker trying to jumpstart a career, make a name for himself. He jumped at the chance to interview the infamous Red Witch.”

The double doors flung open, and two figures strode into the room. Dalia’s butler announced, “A Mr. Phillip Cobb to see you, ma’am,” before bowing and backing out of the room. He shut the doors behind him with a bang that made Phillip Cobb jump.

He laughed nervously. “This place sure plays up the spooky atmosphere.”

“It’s the way we like it. Come, have a seat on the sofa.” Dalia waved her hand at the ragged piece of furniture, hoping the springs were still holding.

Phillip sat down as instructed and took out his phone. “Do you mind if I record this?”

“Whatever you need.” Dalia beamed, playing the perfect host. “Would you like some tea?”

Phillip shook his head. “Maybe later. I’d Like to start the interview. How did you get this local reputation as the ‘Red Witch’? Rumours have it you make people disappear with your magic.” He smiled, a slight edge of mocking to his grin.

“Did they tell you how I cast spells and feed my hapless victims to my demonic pets? Or perhaps the one about how I collect souls.” Dalia snickered. “Truth is, I’m just an eccentric lady and people like to talk.” She shrugged. “It’s not my fault if people disappear. Probably should have minded their own business.”

“So you’re saying that you’re just a victim of gossip and harassment, that—” Phillip suddenly yelped, pointing at the shadows, “What the hell is that?”

Dalia sighed. Damn the ghosts. They’re so impatient. “Just can’t stay hidden, can you? Well, come out then, since he’s seen you.”

From behind the chair, several ethereal figures floated forward, crowding around the sofa. Eager moans issued from their throats as Phillip shrank away from their outstretched hands. He yelped again as something else slithered across the floor, adding a trail of slime to the layers of dust.

Still shrieking, Phillip leapt to his feet. With her foot, Dalia shoved the coffee table into his shins, upsetting his balance and rattling the tea set. As Phillip tumbled back onto the sofa, Dalia reached between the chair cushions, then vaulted over the table, brandishing a knife.

“You wanted to know if I had anything to do with the disappearances? The answer is yes,” she snarled. “The Red Witch is a killer.” She slit his throat with a laugh.

His blood sprayed against her dress, adding a touch of bright red to the faded crimson cloth. Dalia licked drops of Phillip’s blood from her lips as she watched his moaning spirit rise from his body.

“Come my pets, you have someone new to torture.”

The other ghosts rushed in, moaning eagerly, and hauled Phillip’s spirit away to the darkest shadows. Dalia listened to his phantom screams as her pets played with their newest toy. She chuckled.

It will only hurt for a little while, Phillip. Then you’ll become one of us.

More shadows shifted, and a reddish tentacle reached out towards the sofa. It wrapped around the corpse’s neck and squeezed. Bones snapped and flesh dissolved until the head popped off. The slimy appendage dragged the head into the shadows and they both disappeared into the dim murk of the room. Blood oozed and pooled on the sofa cushions.

Dalia nodded. “That’s it, feast, my pet, but save some meat for me. Winter’s coming and the freezer needs stocking.”

She scooped some blood from the stump of the neck into a cup and poured in some tea. Dalia settled back in her chair, sipping her drink and licking blood from her fingers. She gazed at the body on the sofa and listened to the sweet sounds of screams and crunching bones.

Dalia smiled. “Well, it was a very good day indeed.”

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

World Without End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A penny please, sir.”

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

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

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

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

Phil smiled at what he thought was a joke.

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

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

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

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

“Keep the change.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Pop, Pop, Pop!

Pop, pop, pop!
I love to get inside your head
And spin my silver spider webs
Until your brain cells cease to fire
And your mind goes –
Pop, pop, pop!

All those bright red painful hives
Clawing through your skin with knives
Leading to your itchy eyes
As blood trickles from the skies
So you can: pop, pop, pop!

Tumble down and fall away
You won’t see another day
Wasted time almost up
Garish bitter cover-up 
It’s now or never –
Pop, pop, pop!

All the bones crack like aged rolling stones
Innards sizzle from dying fires of your own
The ones you tried to snuff out long ago
Those embers that you barely know
Slowly going: pop, pop, pop!

Say goodbye
Don’t even try
Raspberry gashes overflow
With crawler insects that glow
Scratching you from deep within
Because you are wrought with sin –
Pop, pop, pop!

Monstrous face in deep decay
As the wormies wriggle away
And the gases expanding your eyes
Release you from your mortal ties
That is when they: pop, pop, pop!

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

This Broken Love Story

She loves him in pieces, in separate parts.  A sliver of this, a morsel of that.  He is tasty and delicious and she savors him bit by bit by bit.  There could always be enough to go around, maybe.  If she is careful.  If she only sups a little at a time, just enough to whet her taste.  If she keeps her hunger sharp enough to appreciate, but never to devour whole.  She keeps a spare collarbone in her back pocket.  She warms her hands on it, nibbles it delicately with sharp teeth.  When the desire becomes too strong, she puts it away again.  Anything else would be untoward.  Anything else would be far too terrifying.

He doesn’t nibble, or take dainty sips, or deny himself.  Anything.  He takes mouthfuls of bone, of meat, of soul.  When you’re starving, it’s difficult to hold back. When the gas tank or stomach or heart is empty, nipping away at a brandy snifter is ineffectual.  Better to gulp great big lungfuls before it’s gone.  Take the loss. Take the teasing.  Take it before it’s rescinded, or before he grows tired of the game, or before they both wake up and realize that this isn’t reality.

“It isn’t ideal,” she murmurs, mouthing the underside of his jaw. Just enough for a taste. Just enough to keep the bloodlust at bay.

“It isn’t ideal,” he agrees, and when he pulls away, she’s missing her right shoulder, most of her ribs.

This story is broken, and they both know it. But it is their story.  It is still a story of love.

∼ Mercedes M. Yardley

© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.

 

Damned Words 43

Skeleton_Grin_resized

Fate
Nina D’Arcangela

Jabba-jaw, raking claw, with haste to the frenzy you did make.
The fray engaged, you are quick to slay any beast brought to slaughter.
Fierce clashing, teeth snapping, bones split beneath hammering rage.
Yet fleet of feet, it has you beat, as it fells your carcass to ground.
The battle fought, fury spent naught; your grin the jester’s call.
With placid lips and eager sips, it sups where you did fall.


The Bones of Her Earth
Charles Gramlich

Her name at ten was Melody. She lived amid the avocado green woods on Millstone Mountain in Arkansas, near a town called Liberty. Melody had hair like a thicket of weeds and eyes no one ever looked into. She had thoughts no one offered a copper penny for, and all her words she kept in her mouth so they couldn’t be slapped away by Mama.

Her name at twelve was Holly, after the necklace and wristlets of red berries she always wore. Most days, she spent in the woods, eating hickory nuts and wild cherries in season, eating other things no one ever thought to name. She caught tadpoles and carried them in her pockets until they dried hard and dark as rabbit turds. Then she buried them and made wishes over their graves. The wishes never came true.

At fourteen, her name was Harmony. She’d learned to sing the pain of her bruises through the heat of the summer like the cicadas. She would lie in the creek and place flat stones on her belly. The smooth weight comforted her scars. Sometimes she slept out under a roof of cedars and stars and dreamt of flying through the trees like dragonflies. She always awoke before she grew wings.

At sixteen, she threw away her names. That was the year she found the jawbones, white on the ground amid frost-killed leaves. She prayed to them as Gods. They answered. Carrying them in her fists, she returned to the house she’d never called home. The bones were no longer white when she was finished with Mama.


Wednesday
Marge Simon

Today is Wednesday, the day the Beast people come for the dying. The grown-up’s call them ghouls. Once, the Beast people lived deep in the earth and ate dead bodies. But now they came up to stay here. They wear long, hooded cloaks and their breaths rattle as they move. It’s like the sound his father made when he was so sick. Papa coughed all night, even in his sleep. On a Wednesday, the Beast people came and took his father away. Now Mama is very sick too.

When the sun passes to afternoon, he is worried about her. If he stays in the house, they’ll come in. They’ll hide in the shadows and wait for Mama to die. That’s what they did when his father got so sick. He’s sure they want her too. Two miles up the road is the cemetery. He decides he will lure them away from Mama.

When he sees them coming, he goes outside and runs as fast as he can all the way to the cemetery. He is out of breath, but first he walks around, searching the gravestones. One of them has to be his Papa’s, but he can’t remember where it is. He’d come with Mama to put flowers on it last week, but there are no graves with flowers and he can’t read. Exhausted, he sinks to the ground, bumping into a peculiar shape. The headstone creaks, the ground gives way and he falls in. When his eyes adjust to the dim light, he sees the cavern is filled with long skulls and old bones. The skulls have the Beast people’s faces.

Above, he hears the rattle of their breathing coming closer. This must be their secret burial place. There’s nowhere to hide. He starts to cry.


In the Forest
A.F. Stewart

Shall I tell you a story, little one?

No, no, wait, don’t back away. Stay here, with me, and listen. I’m sure you will find it fascinating. My tale is about this forest, you see.

They say this woodland is haunted, don’t they? Well, they’re correct. Spirits move past the trees, within the wind, and worse, the ravenous dead walk here, among the bones.

Can’t you hear their murmuring voices growing closer?

They’re hungry. Always hungry.

I think you understand now, why the villagers told you not to come, not to hunt here. This forest kills everything that enters, and nothing ever leaves.

They’re here now. Can you see them, those pitiful skeletons, gnashing their jaws? You can run if you like, but you’ll be dead soon whatever you do. The forest takes us all.

We all remain.

Until we are nothing but bones.

And cursed souls.


New Friend
Lydia Prime

As little Melanie burst through the back door, curtains flew and the screen-door slammed shut. Mommy yelled for her to stop, but she was going so fast in her slippery shoes that she skidded halfway across the room. She could see her mother eyeing the mud on her new lace dress. With hands on hips, and a scowl on her face, Mommy’s pinched lips said everything her mouth didn’t need to.

Melanie started to protest before Mommy could speak, but one quick snap of the towel she always wore over her shoulder was enough to silence the child. As mother’s hand reached out for what Melanie was hiding behind her back, a pot lid rattled on the stove. Mommy turned thinking it was boiling over, but it wasn’t. Melanie took a step backwards.

Focused on her daughter once again, mother reached out and gestured, but Melanie didn’t want to hand over her prize, it had told her not to.

As Mommy took a step forward, she heard something rattle in the ‘fridge. Melanie was slowly sliding backwards into the hallway as she watched her mother open the icebox. The eggs were tipped and fell to the floor with a smash! Mommy bent down to clean the mess, and when she did, the large, glass milk bottle began to jiggle.

Melanie quickly turned and brought her new friend up to her face, panic flashed in her eyes. The chuckle that ran through her sent a shiver down her spine.

Watch, the voice slithered through her mind.

Melanie turned as the heavy jug crashed into Mommy’s skull and split it in two. Now put me in the puddle to feed, the bones intoned. With little choice, Melanie did as she was told. She was, after all, a good girl.


Mask
RJ Meldrum

Cody heard the truck. Pop was back from hunting. He parked in front of the house. Pop had been successful. A buck. Pop climbed down.

“I want this dressed. Skull needs to be bleached, I want it in my trophy room.”

That was where he kept his skulls and stuffed heads.

“I was gonna go swimming.”

His father’s face went dark. He grabbed the scruff of Cody’s shirt.

“I didn’t raise no pansy, I raised a man, one who can see to his own meat.”

“Yes, pa.”

“Now, get working, while I grab a beer.”

Cody went to the back of the truck to see a bloodstained deer on the truck bed. He got to work.

It took hours. His hatred for his father grew. Every day he was forced to ‘man up’. Forced to play sports he hated, crushed by boys twice his size. Forced to shoot helpless animals. Forced to cut them open, cleave their flesh, rip out their bones for display. He hated it all and he hated his father.

He stared down at the skull, boiling in the huge pot on the outside gas burner. After a couple of hours, he removed it from the water and scraped all the meat off. Cody stared down at the eye sockets. What had this creature felt, just before it died?

He knew what he had to do. He had to avenge the deaths of all the slaughtered creatures. He had to avenge himself.

Later, after sunset, he stood on the threshold of his father’s bedroom. Cody had split the skull in half and reattached the two parts with leather straps. He was wearing it, his face obscured. He was no longer Cody, he was nature. He held Pop’s favorite hunting knife.

The moon emerged. It was time.


What Remains
Mercedes M. Yardley

“Hey. Hey. Marissa.”

She ignored it, ignored the way that it chattered and teased and always called her by the wrong name. She walked past it resolutely, a discarded piece of bone nipping at her heels as she strode by.

“Hey. Melanie. Just pick me up. Take me home. Let’s play together. There are so many different ways to play together.” The animal skull grinned at her. Funny how skulls are always forced to grin. She didn’t believe being dead was as much fun as the living were led to believe.

She pulled her laundry from the line and spun around quickly, avoiding the snapping of the skull’s jaws as it lurched at her feet. She hopped over it and headed home.

“Wait. Wait,” it called after her, and she closed her eyes as she heard it whimper and snarl. It buried itself under the leaves and debris, crafting a safe little home for itself until she passed by again in the morning.


Offering
Mark Steinwachs

The streak of sunlight across the bone makes the situation seem worse. The gods illuminating what I could plainly see. Not a scrap left. I crouch down and take the lower jaw, turning it over, hoping there would be some bit of flesh. Clean. My fingers trace the scratches left in the bone. I shudder and set it down. I lift the upper jaw, not wanting to turn it over. Like the piece before, its clean. The teeth marks in this one etched deeper in bone, its hunger not satiated. I stop myself before throwing the bone across the forest. What good would that do? I did the best I could, and my offering wasn’t good enough. I stand up, remove my shirt, and draw my knife. I slowly run the sharpened blade across my chest, blood oozing.

No animal makes a sound. The wind rustling dried leaves stills. I join nature in stillness, my last moments. Silence. A sharp, hissing breath from behind me followed by searing pain. My last vision is its unholy darkness and razor, white teeth.


Apotheosis
Scarlett R. Algee

Find me, the bones had whispered. Find me. Feed me. Let me protect you.

I’d discovered them by accident last night as I’d crunched through the snow blanketing my backyard: the two damaged halves of a jaw, lying in a cocoon of dead leaves atop the powder. What they were, I didn’t know, except that they were too white and too gleaming: scraped clean.

And that they were exactly what I needed.

Now I lay them, still reverently cradled in my gloves, on my laboratory table, apart from all the other pieces I’ve gathered in the past year. Ribs. Vertebrae. Limbs. Teeth. All of them had whispered to me, little indistinct murmurs, little urges of wanting to be again. None had spoken clear words until I’d found the jaws last night.

Find me. Feed me.

Some sort of intelligence resting in the bones. I shake out the rest of my tools: hammer and chisel and screws, lengths of wire and leather thongs. Enough to bind these shards into something whole, because the urge to be is strong.

Listen, the bleached jaws whisper, and I bend my ear to their words and begin to work. First the bones, then skin, then blood.

Listen, I hear again, and I know that whatever I’m creating this night, it will be enough.


Unburied
Lee Andrew Forman

Soaked in crimson, its feasts had been legendary. Limb from body, head from torso, sinew and organs consumed; yet its appetite never fully sated. Memories that live deep within the remains of a banished soul. Unwritten from scripture, cast from history, forgotten by time; these bare, arid bones wait for the caress of the unsuspecting. A taste of copper-tang that will bring about its awakening.


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

Red Book

Only moonlight lit the old barn. But I could see. My eyes were sharp as a wolf’s. Every crack in the walls bled electric blue. The night had texture; it had intensity. It smelled sour. It smelled like rust.

Why was I here?

The bottom floor of the barn was empty: no hay covering the dirt, no troughs for pigs or stalls for horses. It was quiet ground, waiting, gestating. A ladder to the loft stood to one side. I climbed, stepped off onto a board floor that creaked under my boots.

What had drawn me here?

The smell changed, grew wet, like paint. The light held a black shine. Two wooden sawhorses rested near the wall with a plank lying across them. A row of small clay vessels stood upon the plank; a set of artist’s paintbrushes waited in one.

Waited for what?

I stuck a finger in one of the clay pots, as if into the smooth, rounded interior of a skull. The bottom was coated with a residue, both sticky and gritty at the same time. I lifted my hand, sniffed the finger. I couldn’t quite identify the scent or the feel.

The light dimmed as a cloud swallowed the moon. I’d come prepared. Taking a votive candle from my pocket, I lit it and held it up. The glow was too bright, like tacks stabbing into my eyes. I pushed the candle out to arm’s length—and saw writing on the wall.

Wild words, sentence fragments, snatches of poetry. Some phrases scrawled; some ran as straight as razors. They extended to my left and right, reached from the top of the wall to the floor. The individual letters were baroque, almost runic, written in crimson-black and adorned with loops and swirls.

Had I been led here to read this message?

Was it meant for me?

With the candle as guide, I edged my way to the beginning. The message began at the top of the wall on the far left. It read:

“I dream in heat, on cracked roads whose fissures you would have smoothed before me. I dream the river where dirty flesh is laundered, where saints wallow in the bile of love, where the flow is dark with the froth from wounds. I am the mire into which the froth flows; I am bittersoul turned amber in the trees. Why hast thou forsaken me? How may I turn your ear once more my way?”

There was more, densely more. It sang, writhed, shrieked, tore, bruised, begged, licked. I followed it line by line by line. The ink with which it was written grew thinner, as if the scribe were running out and striving to make it last to the finish. But when I came to the end, there was no finish. The words just stopped.

“Enslaved to aff…”

Enslaved to what? Affection? Affirmation? Affliction?

Snarling, I kicked the wall. Dust tumbled into the air, danced in the candlelight with Brownian motion. There was meaning here. Such meaning. But who was it for? Why wasn’t it finished?

Whispering!

I turned to look. Dots of black whirled curlicues in the air. Flies.Their wings buzzed. There weren’t many of them. Then I saw the bodies—three—six—nine. They were pale as wax in the candlelight, except for the ruby necklaces that each wore. I understood. Their pallor was partly a coating of lye to keep away the flies and the smell. The necklaces were not made of gems.

I looked back at the wall, knew suddenly what ink this unfinished manuscript had been written in. Three—six—nine….

Three more bodies would provide enough blood to finish this red book.

I knew why I was here.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

The Horseman

The horseman’s shadowed eyes stared forward beneath the rim of a tattered Stetson. His steed blazed through the night. Isolated by the vast prairie, things which hide in the dark watched his every move. But his guns held firm to his belt, fully loaded. His quick hands, both ready and able.

Although he could not see the path, he knew it well. Not by a painted memory or a tale told over a hard drink, but by a map of dreams scrawled within his heart. He was drawn to that place by a pounding desire to hunt, but his prey remained a blur behind inner vision. He knew not its form or purpose, only its dangers.

One too many folk had been ravaged, and as a traveler, he knew his presence in the nearby town would be more than suspect. His grim expression could not go unnoticed among a people quiet with fear and mourning. He was to make haste in dispatching whatever hungry thing lay sly in the wilderness.

A sudden moment, both quick as lightning and long as eternity, threw him off his horse with the cries of his mount in terror. By the time he hit the ground and drew his guns, nothing more than dust in the air remained where his companion had fallen. But its screams of agony, the pain of being eaten alive—a foul thing for any man, woman, or child to hear—trained his sights through the dark with precision. When vision failed, he shot by ear.

A low grunt confirmed a hit. The sound of tearing flesh stopped. Raspy breath of something not human, the only thing which kept silence at bay.

The horseman held both guns steady, fingers ready to squeeze.

Hard pounding against the earth readied his shot, two bullets fired straight, no hit.

A thump landed behind him; foul breath huffed against his neck. He cocked both arms back and fired two more shots. A guttural howl sounded, something wet and hot splattered his backside. The horseman rolled forward and turned toward his enemy.

Despite its grotesque appearance, its extremity of difference from man or animal, the horseman didn’t flinch. To him the bleeding thing was just another beast to be slain. It huffed heavy breath, visible in the cold air. The waving motion of a multitude of spiked tentacles quickened and slowed. Its maw opened and shut, black liquid dripped from its teeth. Its bottom, nothing more than a blob of raw flesh, pulsated as it stretched and wrinkled.

The horseman stared at its face with no eyes, waited for it to move. If it fled, he’d chase; if it attacked, he’d retaliate. He could navigate a fight with evil like a swindler at a game of cards.

It came toward him. He waited until its spiked tentacles raised in a poise to kill from above with their sharp ends. The horseman rolled to the side and fired two more shots. One into the side of its head, one into the pulsating flesh of its lower end. Both injuries spit blood, the one and only thing he and the creature had in common.

The horseman reloaded his guns while the creature sung agony into the night. It twitched and swung its loose appendages in the air before falling on its side. It breathed still, but slow, labored. The horseman approached without guilt and fired another shot into its head.

The horseman then removed his duster and threw his hat onto the grass. The rest of his clothes ripped and fell away from the expansion of his flesh. His entire body enlarged until it became nothing like man or animal. Somewhere along his middle, a gaping circle of teeth opened and gorged on its prey.

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Crows

“The crows can see you. They are waiting.”

I didn’t look at my sister—still in disbelief she returned to the city—but I felt her shift beside me on the bench. I replied, “There are no crows in the city, Isabella. There haven’t been for years.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw her shake her head. “They’re still here.”

“No. You’re wrong. They left us.” I stood and walked away, leaving her alone on the bench. 

Her voice followed me, “They see you, Anna.”

I walked home through the empty streets. The city wasn’t crowded since the plagues. Many left, followed the crows, but a stubborn few remained. As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, I wondered why I stayed. Fear maybe, of what was beyond the city, or perhaps habit. Lately, none of my reasons mattered. I entered my apartment with Isabella’s words ringing in my ears.

“The crows can see you.” 

I hadn’t thought of them for a long time. Memories shifted in my mind, and I recalled the last days of the final plague. When the world understood. When we finally saw the crows: black-winged angels, guiding the souls of the dead away. In those end days, the sky was black with them and the air strident with the sound of their wings and caws. Yet, they vanished after the plagues. Abandoned those that remained.

“No. They never abandoned you.” 

I glanced towards the door. Isabella stood there.

Damn, she followed me home. Why? Why did she come back?

Isabella looked at me and said, “It’s time to go. Time to stop pretending. This isn’t life, Anna. You need to remember you’re dead.”

I snorted and looked at my sister with contempt. “Do you think I’m that stupid? I’m not one of the delusional ones. I know I died. I know you’re dead too.”

Isabella sighed. “Then why do you stay?”

I hesitated, then replied, “I don’t know. Fear, perhaps. The city is familiar, comforting, even if it is a city of ghosts. It was home.” I turned away, staring at a dusty picture of my deceased husband. “Maybe we’re only echoes, afraid to move on, but it’s something to cling to.” 

“Is it enough?” Isabella held out a hand.

I turned away. “Why have you come back? Why now? You crossed over years ago. You didn’t stay. Not like me.”

Isabella moved to my side, putting a hand on my shoulder. I glanced at her and she smiled.

“I’m a harbinger. The crows sent me, and others, to guide the last souls to their final rest.”

I shook my head. “The crows abandoned us.”

“No. They only waited. No soul can move on until they’re ready. Now they sent me to bring you home.”

“After all this time?” I trembled and jerked away. I walked to the window and stared at the city.

What’s beyond this? Is it good? Am I ready?

If I could have cried, I would have. I blurted, “What if I don’t want to go?”

“We both know you want this, Anna.” Isabella came over to stand at the window with me. “Leave this place. Your family is waiting for you.”

I gasped, staring at her. “They are? Mother and Father will be there? Josh?”

She nodded. “They’re eager to see you again.” 

I looked back out at the city and I knew I wanted to see my family again. “How long before…?”

Isabella took my hand and led me out of the building. As we stood on the street she whispered, “The crows are coming.”

I glanced around and saw the sky full of black wings and heard the echo of the empty metropolis. I felt a whoosh of air and the sound of beating wings.

Then I embraced the crows and let them take me away from the city of the dead.

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

 

Telling Stories

I’ve started dreading bedtime.

It’s Emily. Oh, it’s not her fault, for God’s sake, she’s only three, but lately every time I come to tuck her in she’s dragged out that book, and always with the same demand.

Story time.

I don’t know where she found it. I certainly didn’t buy it, and it wasn’t in the house when we moved in. Trying to ask the neighbors about it has only gotten me evil looks and muttered curses and a lot of disinvitations, and I can’t say I blame them—the damned thing just looks so odd, bound in patchwork leather with some kind of crude embroidery that I guess is meant to look like stitches. And the pictures are awful: all fangs and teeth and multiplicities of limbs, sometimes blurry and seeming to slide off the page, sometimes so detailed I wake up screaming.

But Emily always sleeps soundly, and I can never find the same picture twice.

The words, though. The words are worst. Some of the text is black and some is red, like an old Bible, but none of it is in English. I’m not even sure the words are actually words. They’re crooked, wriggling shapes, shifting and writhing on the page; the first time Emily asked me to read something, I decided to play along, make something up as I went, but the shapes turned to words as I struggled over them. Not in front of my eyes, but out of my mouth. English words. Suddenly I was telling my daughter monstrous stories, stories of slaughter and gore, of dead gods rising from the sea, rising to blot out the sun.

And Emily laughed and laughed.

I said the words were worst. No. That’s not true. The changes are worst. Tuesday morning when I mowed the yard, the grass twisted and bled. That night I walked out onto the porch for a smoke and the moon looked down at me, huge and red, pockmarked with yellow eyes. Last night while I was reading, something slammed into the bedroom window, something far too large to be any kind of bird, and Emily clapped and laughed while I shrieked.

This morning there was nothing on the window but a scorch mark that stretched down the wall.

I’ve tried throwing the book away. Tried giving it to the library. Every time, it was back on Emily’s bedroom shelf that night, and now the disapproving note I got from the librarian is a soot-edged bookmark.

And Emily knows something’s happening. She knows, and she’s changing too. Sometimes I catch her watching me like she’s sizing me up, waiting; sometimes her eyes seem a little yellow, and her mouth full of too many teeth.

I should burn the book. Tear out the pages. But it makes her so happy, I can never quite bring myself to tell her no when she says, Story time.

Still, just once, I wish she’d ask for Where the Wild Things Are.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
Where the Wild Things Are © copyright Maurice Sendak, 1963