Dare

It was simple, if they wanted to join the sorority they had to complete a dare. The most popular girls got the easy ones; kiss a nerd, steal a chalk duster from a lecture theater. The girls on the bottom of the pledge list got the hard ones. Sarah, dead last in popularity with her potential sorority sisters, got the hardest. But she was determined to start her college life as a member of the most popular sorority, so she willingly accepted the challenge.

She had to take a selfie in the Murder House.

The Adams House was its official name, but to the students and faculty, it’d always been the Murder House. After all, it was where Professor Adams killed his family before turning the gun on himself. It happened in 1972. Afterwards, anyone who moved in didn’t stay long and every one of them told the same story. It was haunted by the ghosts of the dead family. In 1989 the university sealed up the house and left it to rot.

Sarah decided to go in the daytime. Logic supposed the ghosts would only be active after dark. The house was surrounded by a metal fence, topped with vicious looking spikes. Sarah opened the gate and walked up the path to the house. The windows and doors were covered with wood panels, but the wood used to block the front door was rotted and loose. She pushed through and was surprised to find the front door ajar.

She stood in the hall, looking around. Through open doorways she could see empty rooms to her left and right. In front was a curved, open staircase. She’d been told she had to take the photograph in the upstairs bedroom, where the murders had taken place.

She stepped forward and placed her foot on the first stair. With an explosion of noise, the front door slammed shut. She screamed. The two open doorways on the first floor banged shut as well. She ran up the stairs, with the sound of slamming doors echoing through the house. As she reached the top, all doors were closed except one. She had no choice, she had to escape.

The room she entered was as empty as the others. French doors led out onto a balcony. The door slammed behind her. There was only one way out. She opened the french doors and stepped onto the balcony. The doors closed behind her. She glanced over the low railing of the balcony to the garden. The railing that surrounded the house was directly below. She could see spikes pointing upwards. She’d have to be careful, but it was just possible she could drop from the balcony without hitting the railing. It was the only option, she wasn’t going to go back into that house; the legends were true, the place was haunted.

She stepped over the railing, grabbed hold of the metal and started to lower herself. She maneuvered into position, her feet dangling in midair, her grip on the metal railing holding her entire weight. She quickly realized her plan wouldn’t work; if she dropped, she’d hit the spikes. She’d have to climb back onto the balcony, but she found she couldn’t do it. Her feet could find no purchase and she wasn’t strong enough to pull herself back up using her arms alone. She was stuck.

She screamed, her throat raw and burning. She could see figures running along the road. A huge sense of relief swept over her; she was saved. She no longer minded the pain in her shoulder and arm muscles. She could grip the balcony railing for as long as it took for someone to prop a ladder under her. It was then she felt it, a soft fluttering sensation on her hands, as if a butterfly had landed on her skin. Slowly, one-by-one, she felt her fingers being lifted from the rail. Below her the spikes glinted in the sunlight. Just before she fell, she heard the sweet laughter of a child.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright 2019 R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Sweet Ophelia

Daddy, Daddy! Look! It’s snowing. Can we go out and play?”

Ophelia giggled and pressed her face close to the windowpane, staring at the flakes descending from the sky. She traced her chubby finger along the frost touched glass, waiting for an answer.

It never came.

Her silent father only sat in his high-backed chair and gulped another mouthful of Scotch. He stared into the flames crackling in the fireplace, ignoring anything else. When he drained the glass, he poured himself another drink.

Impatient, Ophelia sighed and climbed down from her window ledge perch. She glided out of the room in search of her mother. She found her in the kitchen washing dishes.

“It’s snowing, Mummy. Can we go play in the snow?”

Her mother never looked at her, simply kept at her task, and Ophelia sighed again. “No one pays attention to me anymore.” She tried stamping her foot. It did no good. She pouted and yelled at the top of her lungs, “I want to play in the snow!”

Still no response. Her mother stood at the sink, washing a teacup, oblivious to her daughter’s tantrum. Dejected, Ophelia gave up and wandered upstairs to her room. She didn’t like going there anymore, but it had the best view of the back yard.

Entering, she gave a little sighing whisper. “It’s so empty now. I wish Mummy hadn’t taken all my things away.”

Then she smiled. At least her own small chair still stood by the window. Ophelia walked past the crisply made bed and curled up in its seat. She laid her hand on the frosty glass and watched the snow fall. She loved the soft quiet of it, its gentle flutter as it blanketed the ground; remembered the crisp, cold touch of it on her tongue.

She gazed at the snow until the edges of night crept past the sun.

Voices from downstairs finally pulled her attention away. Her parents were arguing. Again. She slipped from the chair and ventured to the top of the stairs. Below her, in the hallway, the pair were screaming at each other.

“God, you’re drunk again! That’s all you ever do now! Sit in that damn room and drink! You smell like a goddamn distillery! What happened to you?”

“You know what happened! I’m sorry I didn’t handle it as well as you! Prancing about, like our fucking life didn’t fall apart! I’m not as cold-hearted as you I guess!”

“At least I’m not running away and jumping head first into a bottle!”

“Stop it!” An anguished cry rose from Ophelia’s throat. “Why are you always fighting? Why can’t it be like before?” She practically flew down the stairs and sped past her parents into her father’s sanctuary. She curled into a ball in the corner and waited until the angry voices stopped.

She looked up as her father entered and flopped in his chair. He poured himself a drink, as her mother trailed him to the doorway, hesitating to come all the way in.

“Another drink? Predictable.” The mother’s face scrunched into a look of contempt. “I don’t understand, when did you turn into such a coward? What do you get out of it? Why do you sit here, night after night, drinking yourself into oblivion? It isn’t healthy.” She took a step closer, her voice softening. “She’s gone. Ophelia’s gone. You need to face it.”

From across the room, Ophelia gasped, her little form shaking. “Shush, Mummy, shush! Don’t say such things!”

The man in the chair looked up, and stared. His grip on the glass of Scotch tightened.

Ophelia’s mother continued, “Wake up! Our daughter’s been dead a year, and brooding here won’t bring her back.”

Ophelia whined, her face suddenly pale, and translucent. She whispered. “No. No! I’m not, Mummy, I’m not! I’m right here.”

Her father turned his head slightly, looking away from Ophelia’s mother.

That enraged the woman and she screamed, “Did you hear me? I said wake up! Our daughter’s dead! Time to face it!”

For a moment the air in the room seemed to slow, and every breath sounded large and lingering. Then Ophelia screeched, “I won’t listen anymore! I’m not dead!” The child rushed to her father’s side. “You’re upsetting Daddy!”

Her father’s face seemed to pale at her words, and Ophelia rested her head against his chair, so close she could smell the whiskey. “Don’t listen to her, Daddy. I’m here. I’ll always be here. I promised.”

Her father took a gulp of liquor and stared at Ophelia’s mother. She stared back, words tumbling from her mouth, “Why? Why are you torturing yourself? I don’t think I can take this much longer.”

“I don’t know why.” His voice barely sounded above a murmur. “I understand she’s dead. I was there in the hospital same as you. It’s just… sometimes I can feel her. Feel her in this room with me, like she’s talking to me.”

Ophelia laid her little hand on his arm. Her father shivered. “It’s all right, Daddy. I’m still here. I didn’t go. Don’t listen to Mummy. I promised I’d stay. You remember, that night in the hospital. I promised not to go. And I didn’t. I’ll stay with you forever and ever. Right here with you. For always.”

Her father took another drink, and closed his eyes. “I think I’m losing my mind. I swear sometimes I can hear her voice calling to me. Calling to her Daddy.”

Ophelia smiled, and kissed him on the cheek.

“Forever and always, Daddy.”

 

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2017 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Crying

The house was silent.

James’ wife Kate was in bed, no longer nagging him while his son slept quietly in his room. His cries had a way of penetrating deep into James’ head.

Sitting on the shitty brown couch his in-laws had given them as a wedding present, James enjoyed the silence.

Then his father spoke.

“Is that kid of yours going to cry tonight?”

James talked to his father every night, whether he wanted to or not; he always told James how to live his life.

The old man was more overbearing now than when he was alive.

“No, he’s not,” James replied.

“Yes, he will.”

Ignoring his father, he tried to find something decent to watch until Kate called from their bedroom.

“Honey, the air conditioner cut out again! Can you come take a look at it?”

“Tell her to suck it up,” the old man spat. His lifeless eyes blinked at his son as his crooked lips spread into a grin. “Or are you going to give in to her again?”

“Butt out,” James muttered. “She knows better now.”

He pushed off the couch, and made his way down the hallway. As James passed his son’s bedroom, he made sure to tread lightly so he wouldn’t wake the baby.

James did not want to go into that room again.

His own bedroom was dark when he stuck his head in. The air conditioner had indeed shut off and James could see his wife lying in their bed. To him, the temperature wasn’t too bad.

“You’ll just have to make do,” James whispered. “And keep your damn voice down so Garrett won’t wake up.”

James shut the door as he turned back to the living room. He veered off to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Squinting in the fridge’s light, he took a bottle of beer from the top shelf.

“He’s going to cry.”

James twisted the cap off of his beer, took a gulp and then said, “Don’t go there.” He bumped the fridge door closed with his hip.

“Don’t go where? I never tolerated you or your sister crying for no damn reason so you shouldn’t either.”

“How many times do I have to tell you to butt the fuck out?” James spun around to face him but the living room was empty.

He sighed, letting his shoulders slump, and took another drink.

That was always the problem. His father would show up every night, spit out his nonsense and then scram before James could argue back.

James walked back into the living room.  Just as he sat down on the couch, a high-pitched wail erupted from Garrett’s room.

“See? I told you he would.”

“Kate!” James yelled down the hallway. “See to the baby, will you?”

He grabbed the remote and thumbed through the channels.

Garrett continued to cry.

James found a football game on and took another drink.

“Did you not listen to me last night?” his father asked, sitting at the other end of the couch.

“Shut up,” James replied.

“I told you how to deal with it.”

“And I did as you said.”

“Doesn’t sound like it.”

The quarterback dropped back into the pocket and threw a completion to his receiver in double coverage. It was an amazing play that warranted replays in slow motion.

Garrett’s crying intensified, sounding raspy.

“You have much to learn.”

“Fuck off you dead prick,” James said, grimacing. He leaned over the armrest of the couch and yelled, “Kate, for fuck sakes, the game is on! Go check on Garrett!”

James tried to enjoy the replays but the announcers were overpowered by Garrett’s seemingly endless wails.

“I may be dead but at least I knew how to run my family.”

“Goddamn it!” James threw the bottle toward his father but the old man was no longer there. The bottle bounced off of the cushion, spilling beer as it fell onto the carpeted floor.

He jumped off the couch and stormed down the hallway. Slamming his bedroom door open, he could see Kate still lying where she was earlier.

“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re still in bed?”

His father laughed from the hallway and added, “Great wife you got there.”

“Get the fuck up!” James screamed, grabbing Kate by her arm. “Now!”

He hauled her out of their bed and into the hallway. James kicked his son’s door open and dragged Kate inside.

Releasing his grip on her arm, James grabbed a handful of her wet and sticky hair, holding her face toward the crib.

“I’m at my wit’s end, Kate!” James cried. “I tried feeding him, rocking him and even singing to him. Despite all of that, he cries! Hell, I even shook him!” He let go of her hair and she dropped to the floor. “When none of that worked, I did what my old man told me to do. I caved his head in with my hammer!”

The one good eye Kate had left that hadn’t been mangled by James’ hammer stared lifeless at the crib.

There wasn’t much left of Garrett’s pulverized head. Blood, skull fragments and brain matter were splattered on the wall and ceiling. His blue Superman jumpsuit was now purple, having soaked up the blood.

James backed against the wall and slowly slid down.

Resting his face in his blood caked hands, he sobbed.

James felt his father’s hand rest on his shoulder.

“He wouldn’t stop crying…”

“You did alright, Son. How do you think I got your sister to stop?”

~ Jon Olson

© Copyright 2017 Jon Olson. All Rights Reserved.

Jerusalem

Lambing season arrives with fine rain and the moan of distressed ewes. John has just sat down to dinner when he hears them, the sheep’s cries mingling with the whistle of the kettle. He hasn’t been through the door for an hour and his feet ache. Evening sun catches the dust and makes silhouettes of the shattered window pane. He eats alone with his thoughts and his chipped mug and the scratching of mice in the walls.

When his plate is cleared, he takes it to the sink and runs it under the tap. Brown water catches the worst of the stains. Outside, a crow laughs. Looking up from the sink, he stares out across the back garden to the bird and the plot where his father is buried. It isn’t much, but it means something to him, and it is ritual; the first day of every March he books time off from work, packs an overnight bag, and makes the long drive into the hills to visit his dad.

A wooden cross marks the spot, and another, and another; generations of Shepherds, laid to rest in the earth. Retrieving a dishcloth and an old knife, he wanders outside, crouches by the crosses, and scrapes the worst of the moss from the wood. Cobwebs cling to the crossbars; he brushes them away. He smokes while he works, lips sucking and twitching around his cigarettes when his hands are busy. Across the hills, the ewes continue to bleat.

When the worst of the nettles are stripped back and he runs out of cigarettes, he retires indoors. Lying on the single bed in the room where he grew up as a child, he listens to the house, the groan of the floorboards, the tapping of the rain on the windows, and he waits.

At some point the sun sags, wavers, dips below the rolling mounds. The rain hammers down, then peters out. Eventually he hears the bleating of lambs. The sound draws him from the bedroom, across the dark hills. One a.m. nips at his fingers and the tip of his nose, turning his breath white on the air, and as he leaves the yard he almost slips on the dark stone of the step.

“Jesus!”

He does not have to walk far before he sees them. Moonlight illuminates the parade as it winds its way through the trees. Where the branches allow it, the light makes silver outlines of pale limbs, bare footprints pressed into the mulch and, held by thin hands, clutched close to sunken breasts, severed heads; the old dead nurturing the new with ageless love and sour milk.

The stiff-legged procession stretches both ways into the trees. They might always have walked here; an endless wake marching solemnly beneath their cowls. He moves silently closer, his approach masked beneath the clicking of bone and wet sucking sounds, which he hopes is feet sunk into mud and not cold mouths hungry at stiff teats. He does not speak, but in his head repeats an old hymn, hoping it might help him, ground him, keep him sane and safe from demons and the dark.

It is many years since any sheep have grazed here. Not since his father passed have livestock of any sort dotted these hills. Idly, he wonders what he is doing here. Not just tonight, but last year, and the year before that, and the one before that. He thinks about his guilt at having abandoned the farm, and his love for his father, and his shame at the generations of slaughter committed in the family name. He can never shrug that shame, but he can pay his respects to the dead. For one night a year, he can manage that.

He is still standing, watching the march, when a piece of deadwood snaps underfoot. The branch is small, the sound weak, but it still cracks like a gunshot in the dark. For the most part, the procession continues heedless, all except one of their number. Closest, it stops in its tracks. The mud at its feet is a mess of cloven tracks. With the inexorable slowness of the ages, it turns its face towards him. A scream fills his mouth.

Night has sapped the colour from the world but he can still make out spring: ghostly lilac blossom, branches heavy with shoots, fat roots, and the bleating of lambs, long since taken to market but revived on this night when life courses renewed through the wet, blood-soaked loam.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.

The Faceless Brides

Aislinn crawls under her covers, which feel cold against her skin, like her mother’s lips on wintry mornings when she kisses her goodbye for school. Goosebumps prickle her arms but she is not uncomfortable; she is in bed, the place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, and there is no discomfort in these things. Besides, the bed will grow warm quickly. It does so every night. At least, it has done every night beforehand.

Small fingers in the darkness find her bedcovers. Dragging the cotton sheets up her body to beneath her chin, she glances one last time across her room. This is her bedroom. Her private place, where she can host tea parties, entertain her dolls and read eagerly from glossy teen magazines, secreted beneath her mattress, without fear of being judged or, worse, disarmed.

The curtains flutter. Her rocking-horse creaks. From across the room, her Gameboy console flickers briefly into life. For one moment its blue light illuminates her shelf of smiling dolls – she sees Molly, Blossom, Lady Honeypaw, clutching tight the jar of her namesake – then it cuts out again. The room falls still.

She is half-asleep now. Her eyes are closing and she is drifting off. Her legs slip either side of her bedcovers, relishing the feel of them, the coolness against her skin, and in this half-sleep state she wishes for a bedtime story. Her thumb finds her mouth, as it always does when she is in bed and it is dark. Her thumb precludes dreams and sleep and a snug familiarity.

She wishes for a bedtime story. She wishes so very hard.

Her mother hasn’t read to her this evening. She can hear her some nights, through the floor, laughing with her father; the sounds of glasses clinking, of shrieks and the murmur of the television. Her mother reads less and less of late. Aislinn isn’t sure why. She sucks harder on her thumb, coats the digit in a glistening layer of saliva, and wishes her mother would read to her again, like she used to, like before.

The flutter of the curtains. The creak of the rocking horse. And another sound, like a crying dog, from somewhere nearby. She leans forward, peers over her crumpled covers, searching for its source. Her eyes scan her bedroom: the wardrobe, the night stand, the shelf where her dolls sit, glassy eyed, their lips stitched into beatific smiles. She knows those smiles. They are ‘supposed-to’ smiles. She wears them often enough.

And then she sees them. Three figures, no taller than Aislinn herself, standing quite still next to her mirror, beside the chest of drawers. She isn’t sure how long they have been standing there, hidden in plain sight by the dark. She doesn’t suppose it matters. Clutching her covers, her heart begins to race inside her chest.

Stepping through the darkness, they approach her silently. Perhaps they have come from the mirror, she thinks, or birthed from the shadows, or the fluffy insides of the dolls. The shadows cling to them like veils. Shrouded in blackness, they seem inscrutable, except for their whimpers, like Toby when he would trap his tail in the kitchen door. They smell like Toby too; wet fur, hot breath, rotten scents ill-fitting with their spirited movements.

They all three sweep towards her, limping across the bedroom floor, and she shrinks hurriedly into her covers, warmer now, infused with that sleepy smell. She takes a deep breath and, for one moment, the figures are forgotten for that smell.

Then they are around her bed.

They lean over the sheets, their chipped nails dragging delicately across the covers. Swathes of lace – or it might be lank hair – hang from their pencil-thin arms, and it is only when the first leans down, into Aislinn’s face, that she notices they wear veils, like those princesses from the animated films she loves to watch on Saturday mornings. Except they are like no princesses she has ever seen, and certainly no prince would ever march to save them, or slay a writhing serpent in their honour. She is a tight ball of trembling limbs beneath the covers.

Something thick and bulbous presses against the veil of the first; a tongue, long and swollen like a pale leech, and she wonders if these three are not the serpents themselves, in wicked disguise, come to claim her with their scaly claws. Her mouth opens, to shout, to cry, except no sound escapes her lips –

The curtains flutter, the rocking horse creaks and the three crones shudder to a stop. For a moment they seem to stare at each other through the murkiness of their veils. Then they spin slowly on their heels.

Something is happening to the rocking horse. It sways forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, steadily at first but with increasing pace, just like it does when she mounts it. The dolls are twitching too, their legs swinging, button eyes blinking. Then, with deliberate slowness, the horse’s broad, white neck curves round. It whinnies, snorts a steamy breath, and its pearly black eyes fix themselves onto the Harridans.

They all three whine in unison. A long, twisting horn winds its way from out of the rocking-horse’s forehead, and then it is no longer a rocking-horse but a proud stallion, thickly-muscled and fierce. His solitary horn shines silvery and hard in the moonlight and even from across the room she can count the age-rings, smooth and marbled, on its surface.

He paws her bedroom carpet, strikes the fabric with his hooves, and snorts steamily again until he has the crones’ attention. He is her defender, she realises, wiping away the tears from her eyes. Even though she has not ridden him for a long time now, he remembers her hands on his neck. He remembers her weight on his back, her legs pressed tight to his sides, and he will fight for her.

The crones stagger with horrid purpose towards him. Shadows bleed from beneath their arms and the long strips of lace that hang there, and with every step closer to the horse their lamenting wails intensify.

Aislinn shrinks further beneath her covers as, with a dreadful lurch, the first crone reaches the stallion. He whinnies and rears up as she draws near, shining hooves pedalling beside the toy-box. The crone cowers on the floor before him and for a moment it looks as though the stallion might triumph, his eyes two glistening marbles in the dark.

Then the other two reach his sides. Their lamenting cries made all the more horrible for what they are about to do, they claw him, their fingers shearing long, thin rashers from his flanks. Cackling and weeping they bury their fingers deeper into his pale coat, drawing blackness from within, only this blackness is wet and drips from their hands to stain the carpet below. He throws back his head, his eyes rolling. Giddy sounds erupt from his throat.

One by one her dolls drop from the shelf. The room fills with soft sounds as they hit the carpet, then the patter of their boots as they rush across the floor. Reaching up they tug at the crones, grasping the strands of lace and hair, pulling them back from the horse with Lilliputian might. She sees Molly and Blossom, their stitched lips pursed tight, and feels hope again.

With a voiceless heave, they bring one crone to the ground. She screams as she topples into the sea of smiling faces, her grey dress floating around her. They grab the dress and pin her down, Lady Honeypaw climbing triumphant onto her chest. She upends her pot of honey over the veiled face.

The last crone scatters her assailants. She snatches them up, tears them in two and tosses them away. Stuffing spills from their broken bodies, buttons plink across the room, then she returns her hands to the steed.

He stumbles. Aislinn feels him fall and she trembles. Screams judder from his throat and he sinks down to his knees, the toy-box shattering beneath his bulk. Its contents scatter across the carpet. Sheared flesh covers the broken dolls, blood splashes their button eyes and then the stallion’s mane darkens, until it might have been one of the scouring pads her mother uses to scratch out dirt from the sink. The stallion lies still amid her toys.

The crones regroup and turn, together, to her bed. She trembles harder beneath her sheets. Her eyes brim with tears again, although she is otherwise motionless, frozen by a mixture of fear and something else, something strange, a feeling of familiarity. Downstairs, all is silent. Her mother and father must have gone to bed. She has no brothers or sisters. Toby is long gone now, ‘to be with the angels in the sky,’ though she knows he really occupies a shallow hole in the back garden, behind the roses. She remembers dank soil, his short fur and cold flesh.

As she drags her covers over her, so that only her eyes are visible, she realises she knows these crones. They are her long-dead dog, her slain steed, every bedtime without stories; fears made half-physical in the dark and the night. She sees something of herself in the crones’ withered forms; and her mother and her grandmother, and realises they are not just crones but brides, manifestations of age and motherhood, come to claim her at last, as they must claim all growing girls –

The three rise up once more around her bed. They lean in close, and even through her covers, their salty breaths catching in her throat. It seems like everything warm, everything nice, everything she knows is good and right, is swallowed up by the black void of their veils. Their fingers rise to their veils, clasping them even as their other hands brush Aislinn’s covers. For a moment their hands hover there. Then, with one quick motion, they tear the delicate net cloth from their faces.

A scream fills Aislinn’s mouth. It fills her bedroom too, piercing even the blackest shadows as she looks upon the faces of the brides. Then the brides are gone and she is sitting up in the darkness, her mother rushing to her side, concern and sleep in equal measures in her eyes.

Slowly Aislinn calms down. Her mother switches on lights and reads to her. After a while, her breathing steadies. Her eyes regain a languid glaze. Guided by her mother’s words, she sinks back into her bed; that place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, except not so familiar any more.

Unable to place what has changed, in a room that has not, she drifts uncertainly back to sleep and dreams of riding down the aisle atop a snorting stallion, delicate lace trailing after her, a thin net veil before her face.

~ Thomas Brown

© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved