This Thing Holds Love

Human hearts are so depressingly empty.

Take this one: it fits neatly in my two palms, the dark red-grey of aging beef, smooth and glistening under its layer of epicardial fat. No arterial stenosis. No calcification. No visible defects at all. Perfect, healthy, normal.

And empty.

He looked so surprised when I thrust the chef’s knife into his chest. A soft huff of exhaled breath but no cry, no words, not even resistance; the carbon steel had just crunched right through his sternum, and slid through membrane and muscle like they were softened butter. 

Just a widening of his eyes, a flare of pupils, a second’s trickle of red starting at the corner of his mouth. Then I pulled the knife out, a wrench I had to put my whole arm into, and he dropped straight to the kitchen floor.

He moved a little then, tried to get up, lips working around the crimson bubble slipping out between them. So I pushed him down, straddled him, shoved the blade down into his abdomen and dragged it up.

It was cruel. He screamed beneath the noise of skin and fat ripping like a torn bedsheet. But I had to do it. I had to get him open. I had to know.

Because he said he loved me, and I needed to find it.

I think it got out, though. I think the love got out somewhere. Maybe in that last long exhale, or in his heart’s final dying-butterfly twitches, or in the blood rolling out of him onto the smooth ochre tiles he helped me pick out. It must have escaped, because I put my finger into the wound the knife had made and felt the layers part around the intrusion, felt the sweet clean division in the septum, and then I pulled my fingertip loose and cupped his heart in one hand to cut the wound deeper; but I sliced the arteries and veins loose and splayed the heart open and there was nothing in there: atria and ventricles and the last of his blood and so, so much empty space.

But no spark, no passion, no love. Nothing of what he said he felt in there.

I have to find it. I have to study it. I have to capture it.

I have to make someone else love me, so I can try again.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 44

Five-fingered Footprints
Lee Andrew Forman

Blood draws my story on the agate floor. Fresh ink covers dried layers with the repetition of time. My five-fingered footprints scatter across my canvas, for within the cold box there is no room to stand. My freedom, nothing more than an arm’s length in any direction. Slight rumbles shiver the enclosure; new paint will be added soon. I’ve never seen the thing that keeps me here. Only felt its scathing, intimate touch on my naked flesh. The floor tells me it will soon be time. My body trembles as I await the inevitable approach of the stippler.


Witness
Nina D’Arcangela

As he adjusted the range, the minute clicks were barely distinguishable from the constant drone. I could see the look of shock and something akin to terror on his face as he stepped back and stared at me as if to question his own understanding. He picked up another tool; resumed his examination. A rush of air whirled through the cavity and sent them into a maddened frenzy. The pounding became relentless, nearly unbearable as the thrum increased to a deafening level. Overwhelmed by what he’d witnessed, he nearly fell to the floor missing the stool that stood just inches away.

He began to speak, paused to clear his throat and opened his mouth again; no words issued from his dry, swollen tongue. I understood. They’d been there for as long as I could remember. I rose from my seat, asked if what he saw were faces. He blanched even further and replied that no, they were not faces, they were hands–hands that pushed against the tympanic membrane. I nodded, gathered my belongings to leave. A gentle pressure on my arm caused a momentary pause. His face reflected the pain he knew would accompany the tear when the tissue gave way. He looked into my eyes as if he couldn’t comprehend my calm acceptance. My reply to his unasked question was a bare mumble.

“I’ve lived with voices in my head my entire life, Doc. I just didn’t realize that one day, they would demand to be let out.”


A Handy Tale
Marge Simon

“Dammit, Martha! We just got our new cement wall up and smoothed. Now look at the mess some neighbors’ kids have made of it! Hand-prints all over everywhere –up and down and sideways. Disreputable, malicious destruction!”

“Something is going to have to be done,” Martha said. “Every time we move, sooner or later, some malicious little devils show up to make our lives miserable. I’m tired of moving, Herbert. We checked out the area really well before buying this house. There’s just one little brat in the neighborhood this time.”

“Yes, I know. Name’s Billy Harlow” said Herbert. He pinned her with a frown. “You know the cure, Martha.

“I do,” said Martha reluctantly.  Off she went to her kitchen to dig out Mamancita’s commodious book of Haitian spells & recipes. The punishment must fit the deed.

Lunchtime the next day, Billy Harlow sat at their kitchen table. Before him was a plate of Mamancita’s special Bon Bon Amidon cookies, still warm from the oven, and a foaming glass of fresh milk. He made annoying sounds when he drank, and chewed with his mouth open.

“Disgusting wastrel!”

“Shhh, he’ll hear you, Herbert. it’s almost over,” Martha reminded him.

The next morning, Billy Harlow’s screams alarmed the neighborhood. His mother rushed to his bedroom to find him crouched on the floor sobbing, arms around his chest in an odd way. “Mama! In my bed!!” She reached over to shake out a loose sheet. There was no blood, but two fat little hands with dirty fingernails fell out of the covers.


Storm Surge
Charles Gramlich

In pitch black, I awoke—on the couch with a hurricane pummeling my house. The TV was off. It had been on when I fell asleep, but the electricity must have failed. Feeling around for my phone, I activated the flashlight app. The room brightened around me but everywhere else the shadows congealed and clung.

I loved my little shack in the woods but at night it could be scary. Needing more light, I went into the kitchen for candles. The rain had stopped. I couldn’t hear it on the roof. But the wind hadn’t faded. It pressed and rubbed at the house like an unwanted caress.

After firing up my biggest candle, I turned off my cell to preserve the battery and walked over to the glass doors opening onto my deck. No wind moved the trees in the backyard. The hurricane had passed. Then what made the sounds I heard?

Sliding the back door open, I stepped outside. I lived near the Gulf of Mexico, with my house elevated against storm surge. That’s the water pushed inland by hurricane winds. Wooden steps led up to the deck from the ground below. On that ground, in the mud, stood hundreds of dead children. All were rotted, with seaweed in their hair as if carried onto my lawn by the surge. Their hands scratched and scritched at the wooden stilts supporting my home.

Screaming, I leapt back inside, slamming and locking the door. But the children heard. They came single file up onto my deck to press their faces and little hands against the glass. They pressed harder, harder, harder. The glass spiderwebbed with cracks.

I blew out the candle. Better not to see. Better to let them find me in the dark.


Burned Out
Lydia Prime

Flesh sizzles upon touching the hematic shale. Dainty hands ignite dancing flames across the arms of the conditionally pre-deceased. Prophesied terms embossed in stone detail the arrival of a beast who won’t feel heat. General consensus is unanimous: they await its birth. No one ever thinks it might have always lived among them. Its existence couldn’t be copacetic—couldn’t manage to stay undetected… Could it?

Shared ignorance protects the man who discovered the slab and lead the charge to find the predicted creature. Blanket delusions curtail questions as he watches over every trial, every tearful family parting. He glows while their skin chars to nothing but ashy outlines. His head bobbing minutely to the screams as they warble to unintelligible echoes. He bites his cheeks—an act required to conceal delight—then calls to the town’s unwittingly damned participants to bring about the next.


Handprints
RJ Meldrum

He’d hated her for years, had carefully planned the perfect murder so many times, but never had the courage to go through with it. In the end, he simply lost his temper. He slashed out at her with a kitchen knife; the first cuts landed on her hands and arms. She escaped and staggered down the hallway, leaving bloody handprints on the pristine white walls. She collapsed by the door where he finished her off.

He spent a whole day carefully cleaning and repainting the wall, removing the last traces of her. Once the walls were restored to their original white, he was content. She was gone and no-one would ever suspect she was dead.

But of course, he was wrong. Her family and friends suspected foul play; they knew the history between the two. The police were called. An officer interviewed him in the front hallway. He was smug, confident; he brushed off the questions.

Just over the detective shoulder, a bloody handprint appeared on the white wall. Then a second and a third. He suddenly stuttered, his cockiness gone. A fourth and fifth handprint appeared; they followed the stumbling route his wife had taken.

The cop noticed he wasn’t making eye contact and instead stared past him. The officer turned. A row of bloody handprints ended at the front door mat, where a pool of blood had formed.


The Wall
A.F. Stewart

The imprints remain on the wall; years of rain and sun could not remove them. The red chalk outlines burned into stone, reflecting the colours of bone and blood. The echo of a human civilization gone mad.

I watch them, the new citizens, as they pass the wall. Some ignore it; others touch it for luck. No one understands. No one knows the truth. They will soon. They will know the fate of those razed into the wall.

We are back. Ready to purge the filth from our city, to take back what they stole. We come to cleanse, to sweep clean with our machines. We will rain fire from the skies and burn away the contamination.

We will add more outlines to the wall.

Until every brick is burned with the death of those who oppose us.


Choiceless
Mark Steinwachs

Colored sunlight from stained glass windows bathes the room around me. I stand in the grand foyer, designed to hold the multitude of people that make their weekly pilgrimage to this house of worship. Its on display, lit perfectly from the lights above. Almost as if it was hiding from and trying to stand above the natural world all at once. Even if it wasn’t here, this place would still make my skin crawl. But it sits on its custom frame, stretched taught, a giant piece at six feet by four feet. I can feel the hands that made it pressing against the thin canvas, as if it were skin. A modern masterpiece of horror held up in honor.

Choiceless. Pastor Jonathan Neils.

I scoff. They have the ability to choose. They were given that. And yet they constantly try to take it away from one another.

“Beautiful isn’t it,” a man says as he steps alongside me. “While I’m honored you’re enjoying my work, this building is closed to visitors right now.”

Closed to visitors? I cringe. “I will always champion those who bring honor to my name. This,” I motion to the painting, “do you truly believe you trying to force your choices on others is what I want?”

“You want? I don’t know what you want, or who you are,” he replies. “It’s what God wants, protect his unborn flock.”

“I want people to praise my name not weaponize it. You’ve made your choices and they were wrong. Nahum 1:2, The Lord is vengeful against his foes; he rages against his enemies.”

I snap my fingers and the pastor’s eyes go wide as in his death he sees me for who I am and realizes where he is going.


Prints
Scarlett R. Algee

I can’t help but think you’re fascinated by that wall, the way you keep staring. No, no need to struggle; you won’t be spitting that gag out. Scream? There’s no one out here to hear you if you did.

I do admit it’s a little bit strange, all those hand-shaped negative spaces outlined in red and black and brown, but I think it looks good against the plaster. I tell the kinfolks it’s a mural, ‘cause I was always a little creative. Amazing what you can do with just some paint and a sponge stick.

Hands are unique, you know. Hands are intimate. Recognizable. So this is what I do with ‘em before they have to go. A little press against the wall, a little dab of color around, and then it’s bonemeal for the roses and flesh for the tomatoes. My roses are the envy of the county garden club, and my tomatoes have won blue ribbons at the fair for five straight years.

It’s the only part I take, too. The part that’s special, that identifies you. The rest I leave here and there; the local wildlife has to eat, after all. But think of it this way—at least I’ll remember you.

Twenty-nine pairs on this wall. I like how they’re starting to overlap. How the colors blend into each other. But my mural needs to grow, and thirty’s a good round number.

Now. Let me see those hands.


Held to Account
Ian Sputnik – Guest Author

The moaning and giggling from the next room made him laugh. It amused Carl that his landlady seemed to entertain ‘guests’ on a regular basis; especially as she appeared to be such a prim and proper lady of a certain age.

He waited for her to leave for her weekly game of bridge before breaking into her apartment. The lock on the old safe clicked and its hinges creaked as the door opened. He routed around inside and removed anything of value. He stuffed jewellery and cash into his pockets. Suddenly, he was pulled backwards with incredible force. He spun around, fists clenched, but no one was there. His legs were then grabbed in a vice-like grip and his arms stretched out so that he resembled a church painting of the crucifixion. Out of the darkness, ghostly hands appeared. They tore at his clothes pulling them from his body as they clawed at his skin, ripped through it and tore the flesh from his bones. Cold fingers forced themselves into his mouth and down the back of his throat muffling his screams. When the ghostly apparitions had finished their work, all that was left of Carl was a pile of gore.

The landlady returned. She gasped at the scene which lay before her; then the phantoms returned. They swarmed around her like bats in a cave before they gently caressed her face and worked down the rest of her body as they stripped her bare. She giggled and groaned in delight as they gently massaged blood into her skin. As they did so the slight traces of wrinkles on her face began to fade away. “My, you have been busy tonight,” she cooed as they lifted her over to the bed and continued their work.


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

I Love Every Part of You

It begins, on a rainy Sunday two days after Olivia’s  funeral, with her left ring finger.

Melanie wakes to a weird little pressure under her ribs and sits up and there it is: nestled into a fold of the sheet, its magenta acrylic nail lying discarded to one side. Melanie picks it up with bile hiking acidly up the back of her throat, sees the smoothness at the base, and can’t help noticing that the rings are still snug. The gap between her fingers is silky and flawless, the skin above the barren knuckle dimples and is only slightly paler than the rest.

She should worry. A part of her knows it. But Melanie is still too numb from Olivia’s sudden passing—you should be grateful, her aunt had said at the graveside, that the cancer worked so fast and she wasn’t in too much pain—to regard it as anything more than a bodily quirk, a curiosity, so she gets dressed and wraps the finger in black crepe and drives to the cemetery, and buries that part of herself in the shallow hole she’s able to dig in the loose earth with two hands.

On Monday it’s half her blonde hair, loose on the pillow; on Tuesday she brushes the rest and it all just tugs loose with a painless not-quite-pop. No obvious flaws, no stubble, no bloody roots; she sits on the bed and vacantly runs her fingers through the strands, the way Olivia had done. I love every part of you, Olivia had said so many times, even at the end; so the hair gets bundled into a neat rubber-banded braid and buried beside the finger.

On Wednesday Melanie wakes minus three bloodless teeth, and her lower lip—the one Olivia had liked to bite when they were in a certain mood—feels oddly loose, so this time she wraps the teeth in a square of paper towel and goes to her doctor.

She gets stared at. Prodded—with the end of a pen, not with fingers. There are scribblings and murmurs: are you eating? do you feel well? are you sure you haven’t hurt yourself?—to which Melanie just bows her bare head and holds out her gapped hand and says, “Do you see wounds? do you see scars?”

Stress, is the uncertain verdict, and a prescription changes hands. Melanie’s staring at it in the car when the rest of her teeth shed in a rattling cascade that bounces off her knees, scattering into the floorboard below.

It takes her half an hour to collect them all, to account for every one. By then, she almost thinks she knows what’s going on.

I love every part of you.

The soil mounded over Olivia’s grave is rain-damp and fragrant. Melanie scoops out a hollow and deposits the teeth and says, “You know, you didn’t have to be so literal.”

Then her lower lip drops, jelly-like, into the hole.

It’s okay; Melanie hasn’t felt like eating in days. She just shrugs and smoothes it over, and goes home to see what will happen next.

What happens is Thursday.

Her left arm and hand below the elbow. Four toes across both feet. Her left eye too, the one Olivia had sworn held so much more sparkle than the other. She just gropes a plastic bag from the container in the kitchen, never before so grateful to be right-handed, and clumsily scoops everything inside except her eyelashes, which are fine enough to get lost in the high pile of the carpet.

Melanie waits until after dark. She has to, for this. The eye had been just a little much.

You always were a drama queen, Liv.

This time digging a proper hole is out of the question, so Melanie attacks the side of the heaped, drying soil with hand and feet, unsteadily carving out a place for herself. By the time she’s made a space to burrow into, by the time she’s clawing her earthen blanket down, the sky is growing light again, and she’s left two more fingers and an ear in the dirt.

The loosened earth crumbles over her, but Melanie just huddles in the hollow she’s made, curled into the fetal position and breathing hard. She coughs out a sudden blockage in her mouth and realizes it’s her tongue.

Her skin parts and opens. One by one, her drawn limbs begin to loosen and disarticulate. Something detaches inside her chest. Melanie sighs with what’s left of her breath, sagging wearily into the damp and dark. 

If she focuses, if she concentrates, she can almost feel Olivia reaching up for her, reaching for every beloved part.

~Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. 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

 

 

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.

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.

Patient Zero

The first thing you do when you wake up is peel your eyelids open with your fingers.

Your lashes are gummy, and almost stick together again when you squint against the too-bright light. Your tongue feels parched and furry, clinging to the roof of your mouth. When you work your jaws there’s the distinct sting of flesh parting. You taste something metallic, like blood, but thick and rancid. Sweat slicks your forehead, oily and cold.

Cold. You fumble the back of your hand across your forehead and yes, your skin is cool. Your fever must have broken.

Annalise had been sick at the office party last night, or at least she’d complained of feeling unwell. So had Brian and Tamsin, separately; Brian had said his kids had come home from school aching. Some sort of crud, you’d all agreed, something going around. They’d decided to go home early. You’d felt fine at the time, but talking to them had left a psychosomatic scratchiness in your throat.

Or at least you’d thought it was psychosomatic. By the time you’d pulled into your own driveway, you could feel the swell of your tonsils every time you swallowed, and your skin had felt like parchment paper left in an oven too long; brittle and scorched around the edges. You’d choked down water and ibuprofen in the kitchen, then stumbled out of your stilettos and staggered to the bedroom where, vision blurring and hands beginning to shake, you’d read your temperature on the digital thermometer as a hundred and four.

I’ll go to the ER, you’d told yourself dizzily. Right after I just lie here a few minutes.

But that had been last night, or so you think. You’re still in the cocktail dress you’d worn to the party, and as you struggle upright, limbs heavy and joints crackling in protest, you catch sight of the bruises in the creases of both your elbows, large and slate-blue. The skin around them is grey, and panic twists heavily in your chest as you scrabble the thermometer from the bedside table and shove it beneath your stiff tongue. In a few seconds the thermometer’s alarm shrills, and you pull it free, squinting harder; the skin of your forehead creases and splits with the effort.

Eighty-five degrees.

You can’t feel your heartbeat.

Something is very, very wrong.

Standing is difficult; your knees have locked almost completely, nearly pitching you straight forward onto the floor. But you catch yourself against the nightstand and totter into the bathroom, holding onto the fixtures, the furniture, the walls. You grip the edges of the sink and haul yourself in front of the mirror and scream, except you don’t. The noise that comes out as you stare at yourself is airless and soft.

The skin of your face is ash grey. Your eyes are sunken and semi-opaque, surrounded by deep purple lids. You pull back your lips and see blackened gums shriveling away from your teeth. Shuddering, you hug yourself and rub your icy forearms, and a flap of skin drops away from one limb like a discarded glove.

Whatever this is, you don’t think the ER can help you now.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright 2019 Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Flycatcher

Jolene can’t stop staring at Sissy’s scars.

At least, she assumes they’re scars: four pink half-circle indents in the middle of Sissy’s forehead, like the marks left by dug-in fingernails. And Jolene knows she’s being rude, that it’s horrible of her, but she can’t stop, no matter how bad she feels or how much she tells herself to look away.

When she’d come back to town yesterday, ten years after high school, Jolene had expected something different for her one-time friend. A little house with a neat yard and a white picket fence, maybe. A job as a teacher, or editor of the town paper; Sissy had always been smart that way. A husband somewhere at the very least, since Sissy had easily been the most reserved girl in school, the one who blushed brick-red at the dirty jokes told in the lunch line. But not this. Not a seat in a beat-up rocking chair in a saggy rusting trailer on the outskirts of town, with grimy windows and pressboard walls, sweltering under a lazy ceiling fan. Not Sissy herself, now thin and wan and blushless as if she’s been bled. And certainly not Sissy’s one-year-old son Jimmy, crab-creeping strangely across the dirty floor on all fours, who’s been the subject of Jolene’s gaze almost as much as his mother’s marred forehead.

And if Sissy notices the stare, she doesn’t let on. Just drones on about her ex Tyler, Jimmy’s daddy, whom Jolene barely remembers except as a skinny wispy-bearded boy who’d sucked at playing baseball. About Tyler’s meth habit and how she thinks it’s the cause of Jimmy’s condition, and how the doctors at Vanderbilt think so too, though Sissy’s granny always claims it’s from that brown recluse that bit Sissy in her second trimester, and really, Tyler could’ve been a good daddy if he hadn’t blown himself to hell shake-and-baking crank in his mama’s toolshed, and—

Jolene’s broken out of her daze by little limbs clamping around her neck; Jimmy is so light she hadn’t even noticed him clambering into her lap. But his laugh is gurgling and bright, and it makes Sissy stop talking and smile, the first real emotion that’s touched her bloodless face in an hour.

“How ‘bout that,” she says, pulling up out of her worn recliner and clapping her hands. “He’s awful shy of strangers, but I shoulda known he’d take to you, Jo. You just hold him an’ let me find my phone.”

Jimmy crows as Sissy leaves the room, and nuzzles wetly into Jolene’s neck. His little body is stiff and Jolene embraces him awkwardly, dragging her fingers over his thick blond hair. He smells of sour milk and rot, and Jolene finds herself wondering if this trailer had been Tyler’s meth lab. If he’d worn some kind of rings that would account for Sissy’s scars.

Then Jimmy sinks his teeth into her neck.

Jolene’s shout is strangled. The baby’s grip is strong, and she can feel her skin parting for his teeth, for the deep burn of the bite. Then the pain passes, and she realizes something’s leaking into her from his mouth, something that stings and leaves numbness behind. Spots waver in her vision, but she can’t blink them away. She can’t blink at all.

“That’s enough, now.” Sissy lifts Jimmy from Jolene’s lap and sets him back on the floor. Jolene tries to look up at her, tries to speak, but her eyes won’t move and words won’t come, not even when Sissy puts too many hands under her chin and jerks her head up hard enough to make her neck crack.

“I’m sorry it’s you, Jo.” The curved lines on Sissy’s forehead flare more deeply red and then blink open, staring back, one after the other. “But I am glad you came by. We ain’t had a visitor in a while, an’ Jimmy was gettin’ awful hungry.”

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Say

Say something.

Say I’m dreaming. Say I’m hallucinating. Say this isn’t really happening.

Say it’s not really you splayed here on the kitchen floor, limbs curled loose like a broken spider’s, your hair powdered white from its pillow of flour spilling from the bag tipped half off the counter. You always make a mess in here, always such a goddamn mess. What were you thinking? Say it. Say what you were thinking.

Say the drop of blood on the linoleum didn’t leak from the crook of your elbow. Say the tourniquet’s not still on your arm, the needle’s not still in the vein. Say your skin isn’t ashen and your lips aren’t gaping blue beneath the foam. Say your eyes aren’t open, aren’t fixed, aren’t glazed.

Say you’ll wake up if I jostle your shoulder or tug my fingers through your hair just so, like always. Say you’ll wake up, or I will. Say it’s just another of my nightmares and you’re fine. We’re both fine. Warm. Pink. Breathing.

Say you’re breathing. Please say you’re breathing. Say the pulse I feel when I press my fingertips to your carotid isn’t just my own. Say, as I kiss your cheek and stroke your hair back and snag a few strands on your earring, that it’s me who’s feverish and not you who’s cold.

Say I don’t have to do what I know comes next. 911. Ambulance. Sirens. You, carried away. Me, left behind. Say my last sight of you won’t be with a shroud over your face.

Say it was a mistake. Say it was an accident. Say you didn’t choose this.

Say it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Say it’s nothing I did. Say it’s not my fault. Say that loudest of all.

But say something, damn you.

Say something.

Anything.

Please.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 39

 

Inner Matters
Lee Andrew Forman

The sounds of the world bring peace: crunching gravel, leaves dancing with nature, songs sung by the creations of life. Reality has other sides, some which only a vagabond can see along their journey. The pleasant are never left unappreciated. The darkest sit atop your shoulders, ever apparent in your sight.

A band of three delinquents emerge from the brush to intercept my path, smoke-filled ugliness trailing from their mouths. Their eyes immediately find me: the derelict, the tattered wanderer, the lonely victim. But their eyes only see what their minds can imagine. I sigh in response to their vile introductions.

Before they can hassle me further my front-side expands and splits down the middle. My innards expel themselves and splatter the deviants in carnage. Fluids dissolve their flesh; they scream a futile cry of agony no one will ever hear. Only when my would-be predators are mere remnants of ooze do my organs crawl back and nestle themselves where they belong, happy and well-fed.


Tracks
Charles Gramlich

“Shhhh, I’m here.”

The man shuddered, not quite sure yet what had happened to him. I rested his head in my lap, then pushed sweat-matted hair back from his face to see his terrified eyes.

“Help…me,” he begged.

I shook my head. “Sorry. This could have been avoided, but…” I gestured for him to look at himself.

He turned his head to gaze down his body. I let him scream at what the passing train had done. He tried to struggle, to thrash his arms and legs. He had no arms or legs. Shredded remnants of his severed limbs looked like piles of cooked raspberries strewn along the tracks. And, as I’d read would happen, the train’s weight had cinched the torn veins shut. He wasn’t bleeding out; he’d live a while yet. No one would find him here, though, where I’d tied him to the tracks.

“Please,” he begged again.

I shrugged and rose. “I warned you about those spam calls from your site.” Taking out my cell, I punched a number. The phone in the man’s pocket buzzed obnoxiously. “Press 2 to be placed on my do not call list,” I told him.


Family Honor
Mark Steinwachs

When I pulled the trigger years ago, I knew my turn would come. There is only one of us in the family at any time. My death is their first hit.

Blindfolded and with hands tied behind my back I shuffle along rocky ground. Whoever is behind me helps guide me. He nudges the back of my knee with his foot and I awkwardly let myself fall to my knees. He lays me flat, my face touching cold metal, then pulls the blindfold back enough for me to look down the long track. Not the same track I used of course, but the scene floods my memory. There is only one person who knows the story of my first hit. I never thought he would be the one.

“Thank you,” a male voice says, one I’ve known since he was born. “Your place of honor awaits.”

Those words, the exact ones I spoke when it was my turn, linger in my brain as I hear the click of the safety releasing.


Now You Stand and Wait
Scarlett R. Algee

They’d picked up her clothes along the track, almost too shredded to bother, and the whole time Shep had been grumbling you’re a damn fool, it ain’t the same no more; so when Shep squats by the rail and picks up a tuft of fluffy black fur, Ben hates him a little.

He clutches the ruined clothes, swats away Shep’s offered rifle, stares down the slope to the ground beneath the trestle bridge. Squints. Wonders. “She’s still my girl.”

Shep toes the claw marks along a rusted edge of rail. “You think that now.”

“She’s still Ellie. You just wait here.”

Alone, Ben treks down to the darkness under the bridge, stands at the bottom to a warning growl. He glimpses eyeshine in the black yards away. “Ellie, it’s Daddy.”

He steps closer. Another growl, deeper, but Ben can see the shape of her now, huge and magnificent, tail held out stiff. He clears his throat. “It’s gettin’ late. Your mama’s got supper waitin’.”

Ellie’s snarl is softer this time. Ben decides to take the chance. Sure, maybe he’s a fool, but she is still his girl.

Step by step, he walks into the darkness, toward the waiting wolf.


The Flattened Penny
A.F. Stewart

I can still smell the copper stench.

And hear the way the train’s wheels screeched as it rolled over the penny on the track, squashing it razor thin. I watched Denny pick up the flat coin, after it cooled down, and wave it around laughing.

I didn’t laugh.

Denny never heard the whistle of the other train, the death train. The one I had seen before, that should have been my ride. One penny to the conductor as payment, but that foul creature didn’t care much about who held the coin. Easy enough to cheat him.

Poor Denny.

That’s the smell of copper I remember. His blood.

But better him than me.


Taking the Ride
Nina D’Arcangela

The rumble loosens my gut; thrums through my body. My eyes quake in their jelly as teeth shiver saliva from plump, rouged lips. Searing heat washes over me as the screech assaults my core. I feel the shatter of my sinus cavities as the revolution of iron pressed upon iron crushes my head. Body thrashing in the wash, I Pollock the scree, feed the weeds; slick the rail for the next eager rider.


Definitely Not a God
Lydia Prime

Beneath the rocks and rails there lies a secret that our tiny town holds. We keep quiet and everything stays peaceful, that’s how it’s always been. Mama says it’s God under those tracks, says he protects us even in his sleep. I don’t think Mama knows what God is.

Late at night I sneak down to the tracks and kick the rocks as I walk past the iron ties. I can hear it, sometimes it sounds like snoring, but other times… If Mama could hear the noises I know she’d change her mind.

Just a ways ahead, the rocks shift and I sprint to see who’s there. The air smells of earth and death, my eyes settle on a gnarled looking creature hunching over in the moonlight. All six of its eyes blink then lock on me. I’ve never seen anything more gruesome, it grins and licks its crooked lips.

I turn to run but my foot snags the rusted rail. As I scramble to my feet, four more creatures step into sight. I was right Mama, definitely not a God.


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