Countdown

Harry wakes to heat, and to silence.

He opens his eyes to a leak-stained ceiling, but everything feels too bright and he closes them again, trying to push past the cotton-wool thickness in his head to sort out exactly why the quiet is wrong. There’s a small stinging ache at the back of his neck and a sour iron taste in his throat, like he’s held a mouthful of old coins.

There’s no background noise.

That’s it. Harry opens his eyes another fraction. He’s lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room—in the Bonneheure Hotel, if the fleurs-du-lys stamped on the center ceiling tiles are any indication—but there’s no hotel ambiance, no voices or footsteps or air-conditioning hum. No air’s circulating at all: the room has a stifling musty smell that makes his nostrils burn. There’s just the rasp of his own breathing, and the corner of his smartphone digging into his hip inside his pocket.

And the weight of another body on the bed.

Harry turns his head, dizzy, frowning. The woman lying beside him, covered by a sheet pulled above her breasts, is bottle blonde, immaculately made up, her mouth a candyfloss shade of red and her eyelashes crisp with mascara.

Is she a hooker? He’s never seen her before.

Harry doesn’t remember coming here. Or bringing a woman, or anything that can tell him why he’s lying in his clothes on a bed in a silent hotel room with someone he doesn’t recognize; his last memory is of standing in front of his boss’ office door and feeling a sudden cold sting in his neck.

So that’s the pain above his collar; it’s starting to itch. He’s been…drugged? Kidnapped? But why—

This place closed last year, he thinks, and belated understanding brings him fully awake. Harry sits up and his right shoulder is jerked painfully: there’s a cable tie snugged around his wrist, attached to another, and another, a chain of cable ties that leads somewhere under the bed. He shifts on the mattress, heart picking up, sweat breaking out hot on his face; something shifts with him and rolls against his thigh.

The woman hasn’t stirred. Harry glances at her, then at the object, and pulls it into his lap with his left hand. It’s a roll of leather, and he fumbles it open to find a set of steak knives, gleaming blades of various widths, their serrated edges like broken sharks’ smiles.

“I don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. Harry looks back to the woman—his sitting up should have woken her, but she still hasn’t moved. Has she been drugged too? He reaches out with his free hand to shake her, clumsily.

She’s cold.

She’s not breathing.

His phone rings.

Harry shrieks, almost voiceless, and starts to his feet. His cable-tie tether jerks him down, and his knees bang painfully on the worn gray carpet, his head just missing the edge of the bedside table. He shuts his eyes again and exhales a ragged breath, heart stumbling against his ribs, sweat pouring beneath his shirt. The smartphone trills again, breaking a tiny sob from his parched lips, and with effort he wrests enough slack in his plastic restraint to pull the phone loose and thumb the screen. “H-hello.”

“Harry.” He knows the voice. It’s Conrad from work; Conrad, right hand of their boss, Kurtz, though Harry can never remember what the man actually does for the company. “I take it you found our present.”

“Conrad, God, Conrad, you have to help me—” Harry has almost no saliva, and when the words register, even that dries up. “…Present?”

“Do you like her, Harry?” Conrad is smiling, Harry can hear it in his voice. Can picture it, in fact: the perfect teeth, perfect tan, perfectly parted hair. “Lola. You wouldn’t have known her, she was down in HR,” Conrad purrs. “Shame, really, she’s a hell of a looker, but she was convenient.”

He sounds like a cat licking cream from its whiskers. Harry swallows, looking back over his shoulder at…Lola. “Conrad. What’s going on? Why’s this happening?”

“Oh, Harry, honey. You know.”

There’s a hint of laughter in Conrad’s voice, one that becomes more than a hint when Harry whimpers. “Look. Okay, look. If this is about the money, I—”

“Of course it’s about the money.” Conrad’s friendliness gives abrupt way to a hard edge. “You don’t skim off the top, Harry, not with Kurtz. You knew better. You may be swimming in the accounting pool, but you’re not one of the sharks yet.” The laugh comes out, a short sharp bark. “It’s the assumption that hurts, you know? Mr. Kurtz doesn’t appreciate people thinking he’s stupid.”

“I—” Harry’s heart is tapping painful double-time against his sternum. He’d assumed just that thing, had assumed his wide-bodied, pig-eyed boss was the idiot he resembled; it had been a correct assumption before, with some of the others. He works his jaws, trying to think fast as whatever he’d been doped with burns off. “So what happens now? The cops show up, they find me, they find…Lola”—he chokes on her name—”and they assume the worst?”

“That’s a neat convenient package,” Conrad muses. “And Mr. Kurtz wants to make an example of you. Only…not like that.” He sucks his teeth audibly. “Nobody’s going to look for you there, Harry. That hotel’s been closed fifteen months. It’s scheduled for demolition tomorrow.”

Harry’s chest constricts.

“And there’s Lola.” Conrad must be grinning. “Isn’t she a beauty? Kurtz got a clever idea. There’s a bomb in her.”

The blood drains from Harry’s face with a palpable loss of heat. “…What.”

“A bomb, Harry. Goes boom? One of the IT guys rigged it.” Conrad’s friendliness is back. “That’s why you have the knives, Harry. Nice knives. Japanese carbon steel. Got ’em at Sears. You cut her open and find it, you might have a chance. Kurtz believes in fairness, Harry, even if you don’t.”

The façade drops again. “You have five minutes. Goodbye, Harry.”

The call disconnects. Harry stares at his phone, aghast, but slowly gets to his feet, sits on the bed.

Stiffly, he pulls the sheet from Lola’s cold body.

She’s naked, flawless. Aside from a tiny blue pinprick wound on her throat, there’s not a mark on her. How many times had he passed this woman in the hallway and never picked her out from the others?

It’s a joke, right? It’s a sick joke, it has to be, he can’t—

Within the dead woman’s abdomen, something begins to beep.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Skin Trade

It was rush hour. As they weaved through the throng of commuters Peter noticed a group of people standing near an intersection. He was reminded of a recent headline.

“I wonder where they all come from.”

“Who?” asked John.

Peter pointed. There were about ten of them, all clearly vagrants.

“Those guys. I saw an article that said the number of homeless people in the city had increased three-fold in the last two years. I was just wondering where they all come from.”

“No idea. I don’t think about them.”

“I’m going to contact Sarah at Channel 6, she might be interested in commissioning a piece.”

“What’s your angle?”

“What the city is doing to help. The article didn’t say.”

They carried on walking.

A week later Peter emerged after dinner wearing a coat. John glanced up from his laptop.

“Off out?”

“I’m going to a homeless shelter tonight. Channel 6 commissioned the story. I’ve done some background research and now I’m off to talk to the people who run the shelters.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but don’t forget your phone.”

Peter started with the largest of the city’s shelters, Harmony Hill. He asked the man at the reception if he could speak to a manager. After ten minutes a young woman arrived. She introduced herself as Susan, night supervisor. Peter explained his mission.

“Sounds like good exposure for us. Numbers are increasing to the point where we’re turning people away. If you could publicise this issue, it might drum up some interest. City hall doesn’t seem to care. Come back tomorrow night, I’ll have more time to talk.”

The next night, as Peter headed to Harmony Hill again, he noticed a truck parked on the street. It caught his attention because the tailgate was open and a man was addressing the homeless who had gathered around. The man pointed at various people, who climbed into the back of the truck. The man jumped down, closed the tailgate and drove off. Peter asked Susan if she knew anything about it.

“No, but I can guess. It’ll be some farmer or factory owner picking up cheap labour. We’ve heard reports of that happening.”

“That’s a dimension to being homeless I didn’t realise existed. I think I’ll investigate.”

Peter asked Susan if she could let him know when the truck appeared again. It was three weeks before she phoned.

“It arrived ten minutes ago. You better be quick; it’s half full already.”

Peter jumped into his car and sped to Harmony Hill. The truck was still there, but it was clearly about to leave. He decided to see where it was going.

The truck drove through the city, stopping at a scruffy industrial unit. Peter parked on the far side of the lot and walked over. The driver had backed the truck up to the loading dock. A tall, broad man and a smaller, younger man stepped out from the factory and opened the tailgate of the truck.

“You’ve got a long drive ahead of you, so we’ve prepared some food. Fill up before we head out again. Line up, we want to get your names before you eat.”

The driver joined the two men on the dock. The homeless men left the truck and stepped onto the loading dock. They were lined up before being beckoned inside. The dock was closed.

Peter pushed a nearby dumpster underneath a high window and climbed up. He could see into the factory. It was divided into three parts. The first area, where the homeless men were standing, was empty of furniture and equipment. There was a partition dividing this section from the next, a smaller room that contained a desk. The third area, much bigger than the other two, was a processing area. There were conveyors, chains hanging from the ceiling, long stainless steel benches and large plastic bins.

The driver addressed the line of men.

“We’re limited in space here, so I’ll ask you to go through this door one at a time. We’ll take your details, then you’ll be fed. It won’t take long.”

The broad man opened the door and gestured for the first man to enter. The door was closed. The homeless man was instructed to sign a form on the desk. As he bent to sign, the broad man reached into his pocket and brought out what looked like a gun. He placed it against the head of the vagrant. There was a soft pop and the man dropped like a stone. There was no blood. The broad man lifted the corpse and pulled it through to the processing area. He then returned to the office and instructed the second man to enter. The same process happened again and again, until there was no-one left.

The next stage of the operation started. The young man stripped each body. The broad man tied the feet together and hung them upside down on a hook. He sprayed them with a hose, then drew a knife across each throat, stepping back to avoid the gush of blood. Each abdomen was slit open and the intestines and organs pulled out. These were dumped into a nearby bin. The heads were then removed and thrown into a bucket. The slaughterman carefully removed the skin to leave a red, glistening slab of meat. He neatly folded each skin and placed it onto a trolley. The cadavers were then pushed towards a white door at the side of the room.

Peter tumbled off the dumpster and phoned the police.

“There’s murder taking place! Homeless people are being slaughtered. Send as many cars as possible.”

He gave his name and the address and hung up.

It took fifteen minutes for one solitary patrol car to turn up. A bored looking officer stepped out. Peter, standing next to the dumpster, beckoned him over.

“Where’s your backup? There’s at least three of them in there!”

“Sir, we aren’t going to dispatch multiple units without evidence. Now, can you please explain to me what you told the dispatcher?”

Peter gave an account of what he had witnessed. The officer couldn’t disguise a look of disbelief.

“All you have to do is kick down that door and you’ll see, officer!”

“Let’s start by talking to them.”

The officer knocked on the door, while Peter stood behind. The door was opened. It was man from the truck.

“Constable McCready. Good to see you.”

He glanced behind the police officer.

“And who do we have here? Ah yes. Mr. Peter Jones, freelance investigative reporter, currently working for Channel 6. I wondered when you’d turn up.”

The officer spoke.

“Mr. Jones must have followed you, Inspector. Thought you might want to deal with him yourself.”

“That’s very kind of you, Constable McCready. There’ll be something extra in your pay packet this month.”

“Thank you, much appreciated.”

Peter stared at the two policemen as the truth of the situation hit home, then passed out.

He wasn’t out for long. He woke to find the Inspector squatting and staring at him. They were in the processing area, the floor sticky with blood.

“So, now you know, Mr. Jones. It’s the city’s way of reducing the homeless population. They just kept coming and coming. Fighting, drinking and making the city look like shit. City hall doesn’t want to waste money on shelters and soup kitchens. The mayor asked us to come up with a solution and we have. The homeless have finally become of use.”

He glanced around the room.

“It’s all too easy. To them I’m Father Murdoch of the Souls Full of Hope Mission. They can come and work on our farm. We promise we’ll feed them and pray for them. They fall for it every time.”

He stood and stretched.

“I’m going to leave you now. Mac is a good slaughterman; he gets paid in the meat he produces. What he does with it is his business, not ours. The less we know the better.”

He nodded to the slaughterman and left. Peter felt the Mac’s legs straddle him. Mac pulled Peter’s hair, lifting his head.

“Just so you know. Meat goes to piggies. Piggies eat the meat. Piggies get fat and go to slaughter. But we don’t send the skin we collect, we keep the skin for something special. We make leather. Sell it to fancy stores in the city for shoes and handbags. Get more money that way.”

“Please, let me go.”

“You ain’t the first to come snooping. Inspector says to kill ‘em all, can’t risk it. Nothing personal, but no choice.”

The slaughterman glanced down, with an expression that was almost sympathy. He lifted his knife. Peter closed his eyes.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Revealed

Tears run in rivulets between the ashen layers – they carve their own landscape in the hardening cushion of falling powder. Fathers, mothers, small children, they reach for one another; some huddle close with barely a moment to spare, others remain a hands-width apart – all held fast in anguish as death sets upon them. This thriving valley swiftly transforms into a diorama of human terror and suffering.

Many years go by, a window into the past is unearthed; horrors the likes of which mankind has never seen before are revealed. A visage of haunting forms preserved in their final moments of agony – life pocketed in a cocoon of time; tragedy locked in the layers of its vice-like grip. Coincidence that this stroke of Mother Nature’s brush was encapsulated with such precision, or warning that another is coming?

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

The Veil

“As the moon rose high over the world, creatures scattered to find shadows for shelter. This was the night, and everything in existence could feel what was coming. The night ‘The Veil’ would be raised between the living, and the dead.” Phil said while sprinkling some sparkly dust over the fire. The other four children sat around in a semi-circle, hanging on his every word. “Tradition dictates that we must go into the cemetery and sit until morning lest we be known as cowards!” He enforced. “Now comes the time to end the ‘Trick-or Treating’ and start figuring out what’s real, and what’s make-believe!”

“Dude, you’re ridiculous.” Ethan said while lifting his monster mask.

“Shut up man! Are we men, or are we meese?!” Phil quipped.

“Meese!” Came a chime from the quartet surrounding him.

“Fine! I’ll do it alone then, and I’ll tell everyone you guys punked out.” Phil retorted with his nose high in the air – not that it could get much higher with that plague doctor mask on. He spun on his heel and took off toward the cemetery.

“Aw c’mon bro, you know we’re kidding.” Liam called after him, but he’d already covered too much ground to hear him. The four boys shrugged and let him go off on his own, figuring he would probably chicken out and come find them with an incredibly bogus story to tell.

“More candy for us!” Alex yelled, and three of the boys took off on their bikes in the opposite direction.

***

Phil was panting by the time he reached the cemetery, forget them. If I’m the only one man enough to do this, then so be it. He leaned his bike against the gate and began his trek into the place of rest. Once he reached a particularly damaged looking tree, he sat and waited. For years he’d heard the older boys talk of the ghosts and ghouls that crept out of the crypt on Halloween night, now it was his turn to see the dead rise again! He’d always had a sort of strange fascination with the dead, undead, sorta-almost-kind-of-dead; anything dark and creepy to be honest – he firmly believed all he’d heard.

A rustling came from the far left of the cemetery. “W-h-ho’s there?” He stuttered. The silence was deafening; there were no giggling trick or treaters, no crickets singing their sad song, and no more rustling. “Alex? Alex is that you? I bet it is, you jerk, I’m not scared!” At that moment a figure came into focus, emerging from the bushes near the entrance gates. “Say something, you asshole!” Whatever it was, it moved with such grace that Phil’s heart felt as if it was going to explode at any moment. He looked around and grabbed a rock, the nearest weapon he could find.

The fourth child from the fire appeared before him, dressed as a ghost he was covered in a plain white bed sheet with eye holes cut through. Phil gulped and got a tighter grip on his trusty rock. “Jay?” He asked. He looked the ghost up and down and noticed its feet, or well, lack thereof. “W-w-who – what are you?” He managed to get out, now shaking.

“I’m who you’ve been waiting for, no?” It replied curtly.

“I-I-I- uhh…” Phil trailed off, unsure of how to respond.

“RISE!” It called and the ground began to rumble. Phil tried to stand, but his legs betrayed him and turned to jelly. He looked around and saw hands reaching from beneath the earth toward the dark sky. The moon illuminated his fear-struck face. “Hahahaha, mortals. Were you not ready for this? Are you a man, or are you a ‘meese’?” It mused.

“P-p-please, d-don’t…” Phil tried to beg for mercy.

“Watch.” It told him and turned towards its armada of corpses. “Enjoy your night my ghouls!” He called to them and off they went. Some ran, some walked, others seemed to simply disappear. “It is our night. The veil has lifted, as you so arrogantly proclaimed earlier!”

Phil began to regain feeling in his legs, I have to know. He reached up and grabbed the sheet from the creature before him. His eyes wide with disbelief, he opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out.

“Some things should never be seen, Phillip.” It said before it sliced through his neck with razor-sharp teeth. Phil’s blood trickled down the monster’s cheeks and onto the ground before the dead tree. “You were fun, meese.”

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

To Owe the Devil

Uncle Henry looked at me from his deathbed. Not much in his face was alive. Maybe the tip of his tongue behind his teeth when he told me a story of his youth.

“Growing up in Montana in the 1930s,” he said, “I had a friend named Jacob Hart. The winter we were eighteen, we were hunting in the mountains when the snows came. Couldn’t get out. Built ourselves a snug little cabin. We had food but barely enough. Figured we’d eat our burros if we had to. We never got the chance. Jacob, he got sick. Down with fever. Wanting to get him some fresh meat, I set a few traps. Caught a rabbit. Something got it first. Tore it to shreds. Tore up all the traps. There were no tracks in the snow. None except the rabbit’s. You understand?”

“An owl, maybe,” I said.

Henry nodded. “What I thought. At first. Then something came sniffing around the cabin that night. Something big. I figured it was a bear. Jacob was sound asleep in his fever. Next morning, I found tracks. But they were…wrong. I’d seen bear sign. This wasn’t it. And there was a dead rabbit with a broken neck lying right on our doorstep. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I dressed the rabbit, cooked it in a stew, fed Jacob on it. He ate heartily. Ate almost the whole thing. Started feeling better immediately.

“Two days later Jacob was up and around. I told him about the traps I’d set, about the bear that didn’t leave bear tracks, about finding the rabbit like a gift. Jacob turned ashen. He began to shake. I thought his fever was returning but he told me I’d accepted a gift from the Devil and would have to give something back or the Devil would come take whatever he wanted. And since he’d eaten most of the gift, even without realizing it, his payment would have to be the larger. I laughed at him.”

I shivered. Maybe the bleak January sky outside the hospital had chilled me. Or maybe it was the strangeness of Henry’s story, a kind of tale I’d never heard him recite before. “So?” I asked finally. “Most people would laugh at something like that.”

“Could be,” Henry agreed, then continued. “Jacob told me I needed to leave out a gift for the Devil. Some salt or coffee. My timepiece. He did; I didn’t. One morning when it was still dark, we heard a monstrous racket. We’d built a shed for our burros, backed up against the cabin. The noise came from there. I ran outside with my gun. Jacob too. The shed was smashed in, the burros torn open, their innards spread around like jelly. Their heads were gone. There were the same odd tracks again. I followed ‘em. Jacob refused to. I trailed ‘em for miles. Came to a cave.…”

“And?” I prompted.

“Nothing. The tracks led to the cave’s mouth. But inside, it was empty. No bones of anything that might have been eaten there. No sticks dragged in for a nest. It looked like nothing living had ever touched that place.”

“And no Devil?” I said.

“No,” Henry said. “No Devil.”

“You must have felt pretty foolish.”

“A little. At the time,” Henry said. “Then I went home.”

“What did Jacob say?”

“Nothing. The cabin door hung open. There was a horrible stench. I ran inside to find one of the burros’ heads in the fireplace. The singed hair smelled like…nothing I can describe.”

“What about Jacob?”

“Hanging upside down from the ceiling. So naked that even his skin had been taken off.”

I winced, though by now I doubted the whole story. I figured it was made up, though why Henry would do such a thing on his deathbed, I couldn’t imagine. Maybe he was just losing his mind. “A horrible way to die,” I managed.

“Oh, he wasn’t dead. He lived several more days. Screaming most of the time.”

I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Humor the dying man, I guessed. I squeezed his wrist gently. The skin was paper thin and felt cold and unreal. “I’m sorry.”

“No reason to be. I put Jacob’s body in the snow. Left him until spring thaw. Then I burned him in the cabin until nothing was left.”

“What about the…whatever it was that had attacked your burros and killed Jacob?”

“It left me alone the rest of the winter.”

“Any idea why?”

A humorless smile twisted Henry’s lips. “I left it an offering. Like Jacob told me too.”

A chill goosebumped my arms despite my disbelief. “What offering?”

“Blood for one,” Henry said. “I cut my arm deep.”

I remembered the scar on my uncle’s forearm. From a motorcycle accident, I’d heard.

“For one?” I asked. “What else?”

“My soul, of course. What does one use to buy off the Devil?”

I shook my head. “Heckuva story, Uncle Henry. But you know I don’t believe a bit of it.”

Henry smiled and patted my arm with long pale fingers. “Didn’t figure you would, Charlie. Never figured you would.”

I checked my phone. “I gotta go, Uncle Henry. Anything I can get you?”

“No,” he said, “but I have something for you.”

“What?”

“Open the drawer on the bedside table there.”

I did so, drew out a small present in pretty wrapping paper.

“What’s this?” I asked.

Henry smiled again, and a little sliver of pink tongue protruded from behind his teeth. “Just a gift, Charlie boy. Just a little gift for you.”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

Pathway to Glory

It is delicious here, watching the guests at this exclusive retreat. Within its walls, a haven is provided for the wealthy and ostensibly pious. The staff in pristine white uniforms is ever present. Their services are available for every possible request, from a bible or a copy of the Torah, to a prayer rug. Even needs of a sexual nature are provided, assuredly discrete.  Afternoon tea with delectable scones and clotted cream is served at four. After tea, there is a thick pine forest off the deck where patrons may stroll about the woods and enjoy the brisk air before dark. The mountain setting is always a refreshing change for them. Each and all feel assured that the myriad paths would always take them back to the resort.

But now, their vacation is ending. A few decide to take a last walk into the forest before time to return to their hectic lives in the real world, some in pairs, some alone. In a clearing, a brilliant light shines. It is just the sort of place one couple intends to kneel and give thanks to their Lord for this wonderful holiday. Naturally, they plan to engage in a bit of last minute adultery as well. Like a doorway to heaven, it draws them on.

Crouched in the thick undergrowth, the beautiful angel known as Glory awaits their arrival. Wings folded, she flexes her claws and licks her lips.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

 

Suckle

Foul, tar-like mucus covered my slick, naked body. Both feet slid against the coal-black floor, legs kicked in panic. Lungs gasped for air with a quick inhale, eyes strained to open, mind clawed for clarity. I wiped at the epidermal muck. It smeared like grease, managed only to move around in globs. Not only was every inch of my flesh covered in it, but the entire floor, and from what my blurry vision could see, so were the walls.

The small, ebon, square of a room I found myself in wasn’t completely dark, but I couldn’t find a source of the dim light. There were no doors, windows, or openings. It was nothing more than a smooth, black cube, every inch covered in the undefined substance.

My gut heaved agonized spasms, brown sludge sprayed from my throat. I expelled viscous fluid until my throat went raw, stomach wrenched to ruin.

As I caught my breath a tapping came from the walls. I held silent and listened. The clicking skittered, then stopped. Again, it moved around—a rapid, insectile scuttle. Then more crawled just beyond the walls, ceiling, just beneath me. From every direction thousands of tiny legs tap-tapped their way around my appalling enclosure.

My neck strained to keep pace with my eyes, which looked in every direction; fear jaunted my vision from random place to random place.

Something landed on my shoulder with a wet plop. I strained my neck to see a pale, wormlike creature with legs and a gnashing mouth full of pointed teeth. Even though it had no eyes it seemed to peer into mine for a moment before it burrowed through my flesh, gnawed into muscle, and attached itself to bone. My dry throat struggled to howl. My shoulder throbbed as it suckled me. I tried to reach and pull it out but its slippery body evaded capture.

I stopped struggling as more fell from the ceiling, came through the walls, up though the floor. More than I could count. I closed my eyes and waited for the feeding to begin.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

The Shadow Blight

The Shadow Blight lived between the bewitched wind and the waning moon, beneath the cold whispers of autumn and the first kiss of winter. He moved as a gossamer ghost, shifting along the seasons when the old year turned new, when the voices of the forest told their stories. He smiled. His tale was foremost, a warning to all and veneration to appease. 

Weave my story with your words and summon me.”

Among the trees the Shadow Blight slithered, listened and lingered, melting into the flickering silhouettes cast by the flames of campfires. The air turned chill and the light dimmed as once more a story unfolded, one told for a thousand years. 

“Beware the Shadow Blight. A cursed spirit of the land, a soul reaper.” An old man stirred the fire, nodding at his compatriots. “Born from the primal night and the eternal fear, the creature comes to us for our light and hope, feeds on our warmth and joy. We must be vigilant and reverent, guard our homes and words, to never invoke its wrath or presence, lest we fall to its power.”

Then another voice scoffed, “A child’s tale, lies meant to scare, nothing more.” The man who spoke snorted, as the others made warding signs. “I’ll not believe in a fool’s story.”

The wind blew suddenly, and the fire snapped with sparking embers.

Do not mock me, unbeliever.” 

The Shadow Blight laid a hand on the man’s shoulder fusing cold despair into his bones that would never vanish. The man shivered and fell silent, staring into the flames. By morning, he would be a hollow shell: afraid, hopeless and slave to a forever misery. 

Remember me, always.”

The Shadow Blight moved on. 

He drifted as an imperceptible phantasm, shifting along the edges of vision and well-worn roads, drawn by the voices of the crackling hearth and their whispered warnings. The settlement lights delighted him, and he slid from village to village. His dark fingers brushed window sills and shutters as he wandered past each house. He rattled door handles and knocked softly on the wood.

Let me in.” 

The people inside shivered with his words, terror bled from hidden depths and spilled against the night. Not a door opened until he came to one neglected, one entrance unlocked to his presence.

I am here.”

The door creaked open, flapped in the wind, and the doomed inhabitants gasped. The candle flames and hearth fires flickered, then died, and frost filled the windows. A happy family of four felt the ice form in their veins as the Shadow Blight’s arms encircled them, as he murmured in their ears. 

“Come to me. You are mine.

Their eyes closed and their breath slowed. One by one they died, their bodies still and frozen, their lives over. But their souls… 

Their souls followed the Shadow Blight home.

~ A. F. Stewart

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

Too Close to the Ground

Cassie finds the remnants of the angel strewn across the sidewalk.

She’s too late. For a second she hugs her kit for gathering specimens to her chest; then  lets the strap sag through her fingers, the leather bag coming to rest gently on the spiderwebbed concrete. Someday, someday, she’ll get to one of these things fast enough.

There isn’t much left: a string of glassy vertebrae, and an elongated skull with no lower jaw and too many eye sockets, already translucent. No flesh—there’s never any flesh. No meat, no decay, not even the signs of scavenging insects. Just this fading, delicate wreckage that’ll be gone by noon. Cassie glances skyward briefly; the otherworldly corpses dissipate quickly under a high sun, and her stomach knots in protest at missing out once again.

Only one portion seems to have retained more substance than the rest: a single outstretched feathered wing, accordioned into the pavement. Jagged shards of glistening, porous bone protrude from amongst the plumage, and Cassie squats to pluck out a fragment with an attached pinion. But the feather flares up in her grasp like white phosphorus, and when she opens her hand, there’s nothing on her palm but an oily white smear.

“Third one this month, an’ it ain’t the fifteenth yet.”

Cassie whirls, kicking over her kit bag, internally swearing at the sound of vials jostling inside. The speaker’s an elderly man wearing a red baseball cap and overalls; he’s chewing a toothpick tucked in the corner of his mouth. He’s vaguely familiar, and she realizes she’s seen him in her apartment building: Stan, or Steve. Steve sounds right.

“You’ve seen the others?”

“Yep.” The toothpick hitches; Steve picks at the front of his plaid shirt, and there’s a certain preoccupied vacancy in his gaze. “People ate part o’ the first ‘un.”

Cassie pushes her glasses up and stares at him. “You just said people ate an angel.”

“Yep.” His boots scuff on the sidewalk. “People got curious, see, when they realized it wasn’t lastin’.” Before she can get in another question, he adds quickly, “It ain’t really meat. Nothin’ like that. Breaks off dry, like chalk.” The words are wet and soft. “It’s like nothin’. Flossy. Sweet. Like cotton candy, just melts in your mouth an’ don’t get to your gut, an’ you don’t remember how it tasted.”

“Unbelievable.” She rakes both hands through her hair and notices he’s drooling a little around the toothpick. A glance back tells her the angel is a film of greasy powder. “What happened?”

“I ain’t growed wings yet, if that’s what you’re askin’.” For a moment Steve’s gaze is hard and crystalline; then his whole face grows slack again. “Better question is, what’s happenin’ up there that they’re throwin’ themselves down?”

But when he looks up toward the sun, there’s a light shining from between his teeth. He squints, and the lines across his face suggest a multitude of eyes.

Cassie carefully reaches down and feels for her bag.

Maybe she won’t have to wait for another specimen after all.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

The Night Before

They were parked on Main Street.  Williams seemed nervous, unusual for such a seasoned officer.

“What’s up?” asked Thompson.

The older man glanced at him.

“I hate this night.”

“Christmas Eve?”

“Yup.  I do my best to avoid this shift.  Every cop in town does.”

“I guess you want to be home with the kids.”

“No, it’s not that.  Tell me, have you noticed how quiet the town is?”

“Yes, it’s weird.  I expected it to be buzzing.”

“It’s been like this every year for twenty years.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you.  You have a right to know.”

Williams took a sip of coffee.

“It happened on Christmas Eve, 1996.  I’d been here for about six months.  The bars in town were full and the streets were busy.  I was on patrol with John Williams.  We got the call.  Crash on the main road heading into town.  It was a mess.  A car had t-boned a pick-up, forcing the truck into the ditch.  The driver of the car was a young man; he was sitting on the verge when we arrived.  The driver of the pick-up was trapped in his vehicle.  We saw straight away that it was Peter Ellis.  Every cop in town knew Ellis; he wasn’t a bad man, just a bit rough.  Eccentric.  Angry.  He lived by himself in a shack up in the hills, came down into town once in a while for supplies.  Drove a ratty old pick-up, rusty as hell.  The muffler was shot and you could hear him coming a mile away.  I could smell smoke.  Before we could do anything, the pick-up erupted in flames.  The heat was too intense, we couldn’t get close.  Our extinguishers made no impact and the fire department was still five minutes out.  By the time they arrived, the fire was raging.  Ellis was dead.  I can still see him, sitting in the driver’s seat as the flames consumed him.”

“Horrible.”

“We charged the kid with DUI.  His name was James Peterson.  Local guy, son of a teacher.  He went to jail for six months.  Lost his license.”

“Is that why you hate this shift?  Because of that crash?”

Williams ignored the question.

“I was assigned the same shift the year after.  I was sitting in this very spot.  There was a knock on my window.  It was Peterson, the kid that’d caused the crash.  He was sober and wanted to apologize.  We shook hands and he walked down main street.  It was then I heard it.  The noise was so unique.  It was Ellis’s truck.”

“But…”

“I know, but I heard it.  Everyone else on Main Street did too.  I stepped out the car and stood in the snow, waiting.  Ellis’s truck turned the corner of Fifth and Main and headed slowly down the street.  As it passed me I made eye contact with the driver.  Is was Peter Ellis himself.  He looked the same as the night he died; burnt up, with his skin mostly gone.  For a second I thought I’d lost my mind.”

“Very funny.”

“No joke.  Peterson glanced back and saw it.  I think he knew what was about to happen, he started to run.  Ellis must have spotted him because he gunned the engine and sped up.  The truck mounted the sidewalk.  James didn’t have a chance, he was hit and went under.   Ellis’s truck turned the corner on Seventh Street and disappeared.  No trace was ever found.”

“But Ellis was dead.”

“Yup.  I told you, he was an angry man.  Maybe he couldn’t rest, knowing the kid who’d killed him was free to live the rest of his life, so he came back to set things straight.  But Peterson’s death wasn’t enough for him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every year on this night, Ellis comes back, seeking vengeance.  His truck drives up and down Main Street, looking for his next victim.  The first year after Peterson was killed, Ellis killed four.  Since then the town has been deserted every Christmas Eve.  No-one dare leave their houses, no-one except us.”

“Great tale, you should be a writer.  I need a cigarette.”

“I wouldn’t leave the car.  Can’t you hear it?”

Thompson heard a faint noise in the distance.

“Just a car back-firing.”

Thompson shook his head.

“It’s Ellis.”

“Crap!”

Thompson opened the door, feeling the rush of cold air.  He stepped out, reaching for his cigarettes.  He was the newest addition to the town’s police force and expected a certain amount of leg-pulling, but he didn’t see why he should listen to such bullshit.  The vehicle noise got louder, the engine farting and blowing.  A vehicle turned the corner onto Main Street, heading towards him.  Thompson couldn’t see what it was, the headlights were on full beam.  It wasn’t until it drew next to him that he saw it was an ancient pick-up.  He glanced at the driver and saw a vision of hell.  The driver was hideously burnt, the skin and hair almost totally gone.  It grinned insanely at him.  Dropping his cigarettes, all reason gone, Thompson started to run, ignoring the shout of alarm from within the patrol car.  The last sound he heard was an engine roaring behind him.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

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