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.

World Without End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A penny please, sir.”

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

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

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

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

Phil smiled at what he thought was a joke.

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

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

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

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

“Keep the change.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Drop Off

Janice turned the wheel hard. Tires squealed over Freddy Mercury’s soaring vocals from the car stereo as the vehicle shuddered down a two-lane road leading into suburbia.

“I’m on Crescent. There’s a small horde behind me, but I should be safely back to you guys before they catch up,” Janice said.

Her voice, mixed with Queen, sounded in Tim’s earbuds. Tim stood on the balcony of their apartment with their fifteen-year-old son, Steven. Both of them scanned the area for zombies as the summer sun beat down, intensifying the stench of rotted flesh. “You’re clear all the way to the drop-off. Then we’ll cover you the rest of the way to us. Can you turn off that music? It’s not—”

“It’s the only time I get to listen to anything,” Janice interrupted her husband. “Do you really think it’s any more likely to draw out our friends than a car engine?” Janice pushed on the gas pedal and cranked up the volume, drowning out her husband.

The rev of the engine echoed in the air. Tim spared a glance at his son as he surveyed their surroundings. “Your mother can be dangerous sometimes. It’s unnecessary. That’s the sort of stuff that will get you killed.”

“Dad, give her a break. We’ve been doing this a while now and it’s fine. I’m heading down.” Steven set his rifle on the table and grabbed the pistol lying there.

“Be careful, Son.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

The door clicked shut after he slipped out.

“Steven’s standing by. You’re both clear.” They’d been doing this for over a year. The school parking lot a block away was littered with vehicles they had discarded. Survival of the fittest, that was what Tim had been telling his wife and son since the outbreak occurred.

Tim went on the first couple of supply runs but as a strong, able-bodied male, he was given a wide berth. Janice was petite and cute with eyes that sucked you in. People were drawn to help her. But the minute they got close, she would shoot them and put their bodies in the backseat of whatever car she had grabbed that day. Then take any supplies and head back. The fresh corpses left in the cars kept the zombies from sniffing the family out in their apartment. The fetid scent of death was like a drop of blood in water to a shark.

Janice had cried after her first time. Tim kept reminding her—and Steven—it was  survival of the fittest. It became his mantra. Kill or be killed. That was what their life would be from now on.

The white Azera Janice had acquired for this run crested the little hill on Crescent. It caught a split second of air before slamming back to the road. Janice gave a delighted whoop.

A commotion in the trees lining the road to the right of Crescent drew Tim’s gaze. Five zombies rushed from the wooded area and stopped in the middle of the lane. A couple looked left toward the noise of the engine. The other three looked straight at Tim and Steven. The smell. Damn it.

“Janice!”

“Shiiitttttt.”

Tires screeched. The Azera slammed into the first zombie, sending it into the windshield then up over the car. Janice gunned it and plowed through another one. This time the zombie managed to latch onto the vehicle; it snarled at Janice through the cracked windshield.

Janice pumped the brakes and turned the wheel left, trying to throw the zombie free. She started to lose control and turned back to the right, flooring the gas pedal. Another slurping thud resonated and rotted zombie organs sprayed up the passenger side of the car.

Thump thump thump thump. The front passenger tire exploded, jolting the zombie from the vehicle. Janice’s vision cleared just in time to see the drop-off at the side of the road past her turn to the apartment. Once more she slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel to the left, but she stood no chance. The car swung sideways and slid down a couple of feet before wedging itself against a tree. The impact rattled Janice’s insides and sent a shock of pain from her right ankle up her leg.

“Janice!” Tim said, bringing his rifle up.

Two of the five zombies remained standing. One bolted toward the apartment, but Steven was already on his way back up, or at least he was supposed to be. The second zombie started toward the car.

“I’m here, Tim,” Janice said over a Brian May guitar riff. “I think I’m okay.”

Tim lined up the shot and pulled the trigger. A single retort scattered the few birds perched on the roof. The zombie’s chest opened wide as the bullet hit home, knocking the creature to the ground.

“Go, Janice. You’re clear.”

Janice grabbed the pistol that had managed to stay in the seat next to her and opened the door, swinging out. She stood up and promptly crumpled to the ground, pain exploding in her right ankle. She pushed herself up and limp-ran two more steps before faceplanting in the middle of the road.

Tim watched his wife fall to the ground. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He looked down for the zombie that had made for the apartment but couldn’t find it. And where the hell was Steven? A pistol shot sounded below. Followed by another. And another.

Tim took aim at the zombie he’d shot in the chest. It was struggling to right itself. He fired one more round and got a clean head shot, dropping it.

The apartment door opened. “Dad, where’s Mom?” Steven kicked the door closed behind him then beelined for the balcony. “Oh, shit,” he said when he saw the chaos below.

Janice stood and got another few steps before she hit the pavement again. Gritting her teeth, she got to her hands and knees and started crawling in the direction of the apartment.

A half dozen zombies burst through the same trees as the others had, then came to a stop as their brains processed the information around them.

Tim fired and missed his target. “Run, Janice! Go!”

The shot snapped the zombies to attention. They ran toward both Janice and the two men on the balcony. Tim couldn’t tell which was heading where and he pulled the trigger again and again. One shot spun a zombie down but not out. Steven joined in and took three quick shots, two of them taking down one more of the six.

Blood dripped from various scrapes and cuts on Janice’s body and her ankle throbbed, but she ignored the pain and got herself up, running as fast as she could, crying out each time her right foot hit the ground.

Two more zombies emerged from across the street, followed by another three from the trees. A couple lunged at the car with the corpse in the backseat, but most were heading for Janice.

Tim fired as fast as he could, barely aiming now. “Janice, you can do it, honey. Keep going. You’re almost there.”

Steven took aim and pulled the trigger.

“Janice!” Tim screamed.

Her head snapped back. Her body dropped for the final time.

Tim dropped his rifle and wailed, “What did you do?” He wheeled on his son, grabbing him. “What did you do? Fuck, fuck. She was going to make it. What…”

More zombies crashed through the trees, a horde forming. “Dad, we have to g—” Steven didn’t finish the last word as Tim punched him in the jaw. The boy staggered to his knees. More punches rained down. “Dad! Stop! Please, we need to go.”

Tim missed a punch and instead hit the table on the balcony, knocking the pistol to the floor. Steven grabbed it and pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped through his dad’s thigh.

Tim yelped in pain and grabbed the balcony railing. The pain reset the synapses firing in his body. Sobbing, he said, “I’m so sorry. Fucking hell. We need to get out of here.”

Zombies littered the ground, most of them distracted by Janice’s body. The two men didn’t have long. The blood dripping from Tim’s leg would slip through the slots in the balcony floor and draw their attention.

“We need to go, Son. Right now. You’ll need to drive.”

Steven looked at his dad and the scene behind him. We’ll never make it, Steven thought. For a moment the world stopped except for Freddy singing about that “crazy little thing.” Steven swung his fist out as hard as he could and caught his dad in the temple. The butt of the pistol struck his dad first. Tim groaned and flopped over the railing. Out cold.

They were never going to make it, but Steven could. His dad taught him well. Survival of the fittest. He put the gun to the back of his father’s head and pulled the trigger, then shoved the corpse over the balcony.

That should give him enough time to get to the car and get away.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Red Book

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

Why was I here?

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

What had drawn me here?

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

Waited for what?

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

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

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

Had I been led here to read this message?

Was it meant for me?

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

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

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

“Enslaved to aff…”

Enslaved to what? Affection? Affirmation? Affliction?

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

Whispering!

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

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

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

I knew why I was here.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

Sleep Tight

You wake beneath the glow of a urine-yellow nightlight shaped like a crescent moon. From the hall outside your bedroom comes a susurration of sound, a crippled shuffle, like rotted feet dragging themselves to bone on a sandpaper carpet.

Your heartbeat speeds. Sticky mouth dries. You sit up in vomit-clotted sheets. You’ve been sick, but you’re better now. Much, much better. Thanks to Momma.

But that sound. It’s almost midnight, the dregs of the day. Who is coming? Who is coming to your room in the hollow of the dark?

Something wet slaps against the old porcelain doorknob. It turns, scritches open on hinges that are more rust than iron. A bulk leans its head within, dressed in a pale wrapper of cloth under which odd shapes pulse and squirm. You’re reminded of a grubworm you once dug up in the garden—when there was still a garden. It’s just Momma.

A sigh possesses you as, from the doorway, your mother says, “Sorry I’m late tonight, Sweety. I fell asleep. Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

You’d begun to think she wasn’t coming this night. That maybe…. But you don’t complete that thought. It’s not a kind one and Momma does not like unkind thoughts. You only say, as mother’s clothes twitch and rustle, “I’m fine, Momma. Just fine. Thank you.”

She smiles. Her mouth is black because she’s forgotten her teeth again. But that’s all right. Her teeth are big and broad and so white they sometimes make you uncomfortable. She whispers that she loves you and turns to go.

You wait. She’ll turn back again. As she always does. She has one last piece of sweet advice to offer her only son. She gives it with a catch of emotion in her throat: “Good night. Sleep tight. Let the bed bugs bite.”

“I will, Momma,” you hear yourself say.

The door snicks shut. Momma’s feet move away. She sounds light as a thistle now. As if she’s able to dance on limbs shed of heavy flesh.

Quickly, you lie back on your bed again and let the wet pillow fold up around your face. You press it down tight over your eyes and mouth. From the door where Momma was standing, a swift flow of movement passes like a ripple over the floor. It climbs the bed posts, the trailing sheets. Like a wave of goosebumps it flows onto the bed to nestle all around you. They, nestle all around you.

You bite your teeth together and pull the pillow more tightly across your face. It’s not the right thing to do to deny them a part of your body. But you hate the way they slip beneath your lids and scrape at your eyes. And if they crawl up your nose and down your throat, you know the vomit will come again. It’s so unpleasant to lie in when it’s still liquid and hot.

The bedbugs—that’s what Momma calls them anyway—have tiny mandibles that catch at flesh and hold. It feels like ten thousand staples being tucked into your skin as they begin to suckle. But it’s a good thing. Momma has told you: they draw the illness out of you with your fluids. That’s why you’re feeling so much better, why you’ll soon be able to leave your room again. She has promised.

In the morning, of course, the bugs will return to Momma and clothe her anew. They’ll give her all the sickness they’ve drawn out of you. It’s a powerful display of the mother-child bond. How she takes your disease unto herself. You know she loves you very, very much.

“I love you, too,” you whimper into the pillow. As the bugs burrow in and the pain becomes like fireworks exploding through your body. “I love you, Momma. Love you, Momma! MOMMA!”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

Snuff Film Relic

“Sweetie, I’ve been into film production since I was a boy,” he said. Julian was his name and I was crazy about him. I couldn’t believe such a man of his looks and caliber would ever speak to me, much less invite me into his spacious home. But here I was, sitting in his living room.

He lit my cigarette and kissed my fingers. While I was taking it all in, he placed a snifter of brandy in my hand, his silky baritone like a lullaby. He showed me his father’s Kodak. “This model was made in 1965. Just look at this my dear!” Unrolling some film, he held it up to the light so I could see how each frame had clearly captured a part of the action. Then he loaded the projector and started it.

By that time, I was getting a weird buzz from the brandy. I say ‘weird’ because I was feeling very odd. It was like everything was slowing down. When I looked at the filmstrip, it seemed a great distance away. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

A lovely woman was sitting in the same chair as mine in the film. Julian held her in his arms. He began kissing her from her breasts down to her toes. A close-up of her eyelids fluttering. A line of drool escaped her lips. In the next set of frames, he was stabbing her with a screwdriver. He’d even added sound somehow — McCartney’s “Let It Be” full volume in the background.

Then he started in on me with a warm embrace, his lips on mine, sweet as that tainted brandy. Oh, yes, I was very much there, eyes wide open, unable to move, watching him remove the used film. He reloaded the Kodak, mounted it on a tripod, and aimed the lens straight at me.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

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.

With Eyes Like Fangs

In the holy forest, they hunt their prey by the scent of weakness that bleeds from its pores. With icicle eyes, prism eyes, eyes like cicatrixes, they find the cavern where the weakness lies. Scaled hands and furred ones work spasmodically on weapons. Claws click on steel while in the wet mouths fangs ache with hatred. In a darkling mist, they gather for the kill.

***

In the cavern, the prey stirs awake and lifts her head. A sudden light burns inside her. Through her skin, she sees, and weakness she sheds like a husk. Her mind centers on the forces arrayed against her outside. Her mouth begins a smile; the smile widens until the lips split at the corners and black blood runs.

“Let it begin,” she murmurs.

***

The hunters in the woods see the light flare within the cavern. They stir, restless in rage. And when the prey strides free of its hiding place into the rain, they fall upon her with taloned feet and leathery wings, their throats filled with howls and shrieks.

But the prey is not what they thought. They have been tricked.  Instead of weakness, strength meets their strengths.  Their bodies shatter upon it.  In moments, the clearing before the cave writhes with the dead and the dying.

“Mother!” the bloody ones cry. “Mother!  Do not forsake us!”

***

The ‘she’ looks upon her dying children, and starts to feed while they are fresh. Out in the distant forest, the males begin to call. She hears them even over the crunch of bones. In a moment she will release her own mating cry, will invite the males to join with her at this feast.

Perhaps her next brood will be stronger.

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.

Naughty Or Nice

Lydi’s heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s wings as she crept down the stairs from her room. She wasn’t supposed to be up this late, but just before bedtime she’d seen Mawmaw come out of Pawpaw’s study and forget to lock the door. Pawpaw’s snow globes were in there, collected from all over the world on his frequent trips. She wasn’t supposed to mess with them but they were the most beautiful things she’d ever seen. And Pawpaw was gone, as he often was during Christmas week.

Lydi had feared—but almost hoped—that Mawmaw would have remembered and come back to lock the study door. She hadn’t. Lydi’s hand trembled as she pushed down on the latch and slipped secretively into the big room.

The study’s lights were off but Pawpaw’s personal Christmas tree was up. Its gold and silver sheen lit the room enough for her to see. Snow globes rested everywhere, hundreds of them, with tiny colorful scenes and tiny people inside. They turned the whole room into a treasure chest. She hardly knew where to look first.

One particular globe over the mantle caught her attention and held it rapt. She dragged over a stool and clambered up for a closer look. Resting her elbows on the mantle, she dropped her head into her small hands and stared. This globe was larger than any of the others, with three miniature, old-timey, cottages built inside. In front of one home stood a horse-drawn carriage with a laughing family aboard. A gang of young carolers held up hymn books in front of another home. Lydi sighed. She’d always wanted to go caroling but she’d lived with her grandparents since she was very small and their place was a long way away from other people.

Lydi hadn’t intended to touch any of the globes but the snow inside this one was so delicate and fluffy, and it glistened so beautifully. It was nothing like the cold, wet, heavy stuff she saw so often in real life.

Would it hurt to watch it snow inside the globe? Just once!

She reached out. The globe was heavier than she’d expected. It slipped from her grip, tumbled free, spinning and winking like a gemstone with reflected light. Lydi’s stomach threatened to come out of her mouth as the globe hit the floor. But the glittering object bounced on the carpet, then careened wildly around the room.

Lydi leaped from her stool, raced to the globe, dropped to her knees.

“Please, please, please! Don’t be broken!”

Her plea was answered. Sort of. The glass sphere of the globe was intact. But inside? Inside, the carriage and horses were smashed, the laughing family and the singing carolers scattered and broken like matchstick toys. Inside, the snow was no longer white; blood had smeared everywhere.

A sound rose from around the room. It commanded Lydi’s attention. She looked up, her whole body quivering. Inside every other snow globe, tiny faces pressed against glass. She saw eyes that were blackly evil, and mouths formed into “O’s” as they hissed her.

A scream started to build in Lydi. Before it could erupt, a soft whoosh from behind froze it in her throat. She spun. Pawpaw stood in front of the fireplace in his black boots and red traveling suit. He could see what she’d done. His bearded face was angry, disappointed, full of immense sadness.

“Lydi, Lydi, Lydi,” he whispered. “I never thought I’d have to put my own granddaughter on the naughty list.”

Reluctantly, he opened the big bag over his shoulder and took out a new snow globe. It was empty.

So far.

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.