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.

Pain

I follow the men over the trench wall, shells explode around us as the Germans return fire. I see their men—boys really—charging at me. Bullets take out the soldiers around me as I return fire.

A German is repeatedly kicking one of my men, but everyone rushes past the two, absorbed in their own fight to survive. I get to him as his boot strikes the man on the ground again. I fire my rifle at close range, knowing my shot will end his life. My foot slips in the blood-soaked ground and my shot isn’t true. The bullet explodes in his knee, shattering it. He falls to the ground and over the cacophony of battle I hear him scream. Regaining my balance I take the last few strides and swing the butt of my rifle up, catching him in the jaw. He topples over backwards and I stand over him.

I raise my rifle and his gurgled moans fill my ears. He opens his mouth once more. No sound comes out, but instead a smoky black cloud. The world stands still as the cloud takes shape, a dark mass begins to form as I watch, a featureless being that reaches for me. I’m unable to move, waiting for the end to take me, my final day in the trenches. Its hand touches my chest and I feel a jolt surge through me. I look down expecting to see blood, instead I watch as his hand disappears and I feel him begin to fill me.

The world roars back to life and the German looks up at me, his eyes wide. I slam the butt of my rifle into his ribs, hearing them crack. He wails in pain as formless black tendrils of smoke escape his body and enter into mine. A rush unlike anything I have ever felt courses through me. I rear back and hit him again. He cries out louder, more smoke fills me, feeds me.

This time I smash it down into his face. The two of us are engulfed in a black cloud. His last moments are my first.

Pain.

The smoke clears as I stand in front of a Japanese soldier tied to a chair. Sweat is pouring off him from the oppressive heat of Guadalcanal.

“Sir, the Nip won’t speak,” my sergeant says.

“Leave us. He’ll talk.”

The young Marine leaves and I walk behind the soldier tied to the chair. “You will tell me everything I want to know,” I say in perfect Japanese. Before he can move, I slam my fist down into his shoulder, dislocating it.

He grits his teeth, stifling his anguish. His body betrays him as the wisps of smoke snake from his dislocated shoulder and into me. Closing my eyes, I savor the taste of his pain.

“Your kind are so much more fun than the Germans,” I say as I pull his injured arm straight, then snap it at the elbow. “Now start talking.”

Words tumble from him as black smoke envelopes me.

Pain.

Opening my eyes, I see my wife splayed on the floor in a broken heap. I slowly lift my head. My son stands in front of me.

“I knew this day would come,” I say. “I’m no longer strong enough to control the being inside me.” I close my eyes, waiting for the end.

My eyes open, my world shifted.  Now I’m looking at my father tied to the chair. “I’m no longer strong enough to control the being inside me,” he says and closes his eyes.

Slipping the brass knuckles on my hand, I know it is time to take my rightful place. My fist arcs forward connecting with his jaw and I watch teeth fly from his mouth. His head jerks sideways and his body goes slack.

A dark cloudy hand emerges from his mouth as it pushes free of its vessel of over twenty years. I stand rooted in my spot. I feel it watch me even though it has no eyes. Its hand extends to my chest. I feel a spike of electricity fill me.

My father’s eyes open, whiter than I have ever seen them. I begin to pummel him, smoke erupts and covering us.

Pain.

I’m in front of a V.C. soldier, just like my dad stood before his enemies over two decades ago. This is my life, one I learned from him.

He is strapped into what we have dubbed the Electric Chair for its resemblance to its namesake. Turning from him I walk over to the table and pick up a large needle. His eyes are on mine as I step close to him. His body is broken in too many places to count, but I had left his face untouched.

“Now start talking,” I say in perfect Vietnamese.

I slowly push the needle into his eye. He wails, spittle hitting my face. I keep pushing. My heart is pounding. I’ve never tasted anything this visceral before. Thick black smoke covers my body and enters me. In the back of my mind I hear a jumble of words. I step back, the needle still in his eye.

Pain.

I open the door to my dad’s bedroom. The medals from his time in the Marines are displayed proudly on the wall. His stories about our family play in my mind. The framed picture of his men standing around the Electric Chair, the one thing he never spoke of. But now I know the story. A pain so perfect. I look down at him sleeping and raise my baseball bat.

My eyes pop open and I sit up in bed, covered in a cold sweat. I look at my calendar tacked to the wall. Today’s date circled in red—leave for Boot Camp.

I get out of bed and grab my bat. Ready for my legacy to begin.

Pain.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Story of You

How would you live the rest of your life, she had wondered, if you knew you only had a finite number of days left? How would that change things? Would it make the sad, lackluster time sweeter? Would something shine?

Jesus Christ knew the number of days left before his death. So did killers on death row. Did it change things? Make the quality of your final days differ? She wanted to find out.

She gave herself ten days. Ten final days, and what would she make of the rest of her life?

Ten. She quit her job. Not only did she quit, but she quit with joy, with verve. She said, “I quit,” and did a little dance on her boss’ desk. She threw her head back and laughed as she was escorted out by security. She flipped the building off and stopped for a midday ice cream on the way home.

Nine. She slept in. She got out of bed to answer the door and eat the Chinese she ordered. She ordered everything on the menu that she had ever wanted to try. All of the shrimps and the sauces and everything delicious. She laid in bed with her food around her, watching lame reruns on the TV because she could. She ate trash, watched trash, and let the trash of the day pile up around her.

Eight. She spent the day throwing up trash, trash, trash. She wanted to simply forget day eight.

Seven. She showered and shaved and plucked. She powdered and perfumed. She put on that darling dress in the back of her closet that she’d purchased for a special occasion. There had never been a special occasion. Today wasn’t that special occasion, either, but she looked at herself in the mirror with clear eyes and a small smile.

Six. She called her mother. She called her best friend. She called the guy who had given her his number a few months ago. He was surprised to hear from her, but still remembered her.

“I’ve had your number in my wallet ever since the party, just in case I decided to call,” she admitted shyly.

He laughed and it was a beautiful sound. “I’m so glad you did,” he said. “What changed?”

She didn’t answer but asked him if he wanted to go to a play with her later that week. He agreed. She bought tickets and also wondered what she should wear to her funeral. Most likely the special occasion dress.

Five. She bought the grand piano she had always wanted. It was glossy and gorgeous, and they brought it right to her home. The piano tuner tuned it, and then played the most intricate music she had ever heard.

“I think I’m going to cry,” she told him, and when he played the old song her father used to sing to her, she did.

Four. She played the piano.

Three. She played the piano. She slept beneath it that night. There was plenty of room and her dreams were ethereal.

Two. She pulled on her favorite scarf and went to the park. The trees were bare and the wind bit at her, but it tasted fresh. She had always wanted to go to Iceland, or to Finland. She wanted to drink the purest water in the world and watch the aurora borealis. She felt a tight pang in her chest when she realized that would never happen. Was this sorrow? Yes, it was definitely sorrow, but then she saw a fluffy white dog and there was no room in her heart for any type of sadness. It was full of oversized paws and soft fur and a warm puppy tongue and everything inside of her heart fit perfectly.

One. She wore her special occasion dress and met her date at the theater. He was charming and his eyes squinted when he laughed. The actors were talented and she caught her breath during the play several times, but it caught most when this kind man gently took her hand and held it. He held it for the rest of the show and as they walked outside into the moonlight.

“I wish it didn’t have to end,” she said, and the beauty of the world was nearly too much. There were grand pianos and fluffy dogs and delicious food. There was art and plays and friends she didn’t even know existed yet. She wanted to see the Northern Lights. She hadn’t wanted anything in years.

“Who says it has to end?” he asked her, quizzically. “This could just be the beginning to everything.”

The beginning or the end. She would stay up tonight and decide. She blinked at him and her eyes reflected the moon.

∼ Mercedes M. Yardley

© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Sinner

May the gods forgive me, for I must have sinned.

It began six months ago when I broke out in great welts all over my body. Every pore of my skin was on fire. This wretched condition finally subsided, but then the skin started peeling off my hands and the soles of my feet.

When I go to work in the fields it is like walking on shards of broken glass. I must not think of that. I have my duties. I am expected to finish all before I may rest. Last night, I stole a pair gloves to keep from shredding my own flesh.

The peeling continues all over my body where the rash was. The new layers on my hands and feet are bright and tender. But it is not a normal color – not the color of our people, and that bothers me. I wear the gloves all the time now.

Today a larger strip loosens from my right arm. I pick at it until it lets go. It’s most of the diameter of my arm. I fold it up and put it under my mattress. But first, I notice that the new skin is also dark and mottled like that on my palms and feet. It is as if I’m marked, like a child of an Evil God. Perhaps I am paying for the sins of some relative.

I have been over and over it in my head. What did I do? I just do what I’m told. Taking the prisoners out of their barracks at gunpoint and walking them to the fields where each is made to dig his own grave. When one is finished to my satisfaction, I put a bullet in his temple. I am not even in charge of the women and children, so it’s not that troublesome.

This day, the last of my old skin peeled off. I have stored it under my mattress as well. The only part that hasn’t yet peeled is my face. Still, it is obvious that I am soon to be wholly marked with the same color skin as our sinful enemy. The shame is too great to bear. Come night, I shall gather my old skin into a bundle, for it is indeed the one thing that I truly own and therefore I may dispose of it as I see fit. I shall take the shovel to dig my grave in the fields. I have the pistol. One bullet will suffice.

May the gods forgive me.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Murder House

Everybody in town called it the Murder House, but Mia simply called it home. Here is the front porch where (he stood and hacked open the door with a hatchet) she used to play with her dolls. This is the parlor where (Mother was slain) she learned to sit up properly and greet guests nicely. Here’s the kitchen where (the knife was taken) Mother cooked breakfast and here is the master bedroom where (the rest of it happened) her parents kept a small chair, a lamp, and a basket of books. It was her favorite spot in the house, keeping her (hidden while her father’s blood splashed the walls) safe and happy.

Before, she had just been Mia, a quiet girl with big eyes and dark hair pulled back by a bow. After, she became The Only Survivor, the little girl who witnessed her family’s slaughter. People didn’t ask her to play ball or Freeze Tag anymore. They asked her what it was like to hear her father scream, or how did she feel knowing that the scary man could turn around and find her at any second?

“You were in the chair, right?” they’d ask. “Quiet as a mouse, but he still could have seen you, couldn’t he, if he had just turned and looked? If he had stopped chopping at your dad’s face for long enough? If he had taken a breather from stomping through your house, his feet echoing on the hardwood floors, as he called for your mother in that creepy voice? What if he had seen you?”

Mia didn’t answer. She didn’t have to answer anything, her aunt told her, not even to the police, unless she wanted to. Being a survivor gives you certain privileges, her aunt said, and keeping your own council is one of them. They lived together now, and probably always would, unless Mia wandered off on her own and simply disappeared one day. Or fell down a hole in the ground or staggered into barbed wire or ran into the pointed end of somebody’s ice pick several times. You know, however accidents occur.

Or maybe she’d live forever and become an angel like her mother. She hadn’t believed in angels before, but suddenly she needed to, desperately. She needed to think of her parents floating around in unearthly white with thick, beautiful wings, instead of how she saw them last. Parts of her father. The crumpled sack of her mother, still wearing her prettiest shoes. She always joked that she wanted to be buried in those shoes, but the police had kept custody of them. She was buried in a new, stiff pair instead.

Her aunt never let her come home, saying that the house had been irrevocably changed by what had happened. “It isn’t your home anymore, Mia,” she said, her fingers fluttering to fix Mia’s perfectly straight hairbow. “It’s become something else. It’s become…” Mia could tell she was going to say the “Murder House, but she took in Mia’s dark eyes and changed her wording.

“…more like a memorial,” she said, but Mia knew what her aunt was thinking. Yes, the Murder House. Something ghoulish and sensational and carnivorous.

But today, Mia had slipped away and let herself into her home. She still wore her house key on a chain around her neck. The carpets had been cleaned, the couch was removed, and the walls had been scrubbed and coated with fresh paint.

She walked past the bathroom where (the man had washed his red, red hands) she had carefully brushed her hair before bed. Past her room, decorated with (bloody handprints and DNA) carousel horses and stuffed animals. She hovered briefly in the doorway of her parent’s bedroom, and then padded gently to the reading chair in the corner. She sat on it gingerly and pulled her legs up beneath her.

She had been reading a book that night. The Secret Garden. Her parents had both assured her that she would love it. She had been deep in a world of English roses and creeping vines when everything had happened. Then suddenly the room was noise and heat and that strange, warm smell, red roses and red satins and red everything that streaked across the curtains and wall.

The man was a stranger, someone she didn’t know, but as she stared at the eerily mechanical movements of his chop-chop-chopping arm, he turned and looked at her directly. His face was expressionless, blank, but his eyes burned black and began to smoke.

He pointed at her, pointed to his own temple, and put his finger to his lips. Black oil leaked from his eyes and ran down his face and neck. He put his finger to his lips again, insistently, and Mia nodded. The man looked satisfied and turned back to what was left of her father.

She hadn’t spoken a word since that night. Not a single sound. When her classmates asked her what she would have done if the man had turned to see her, she couldn’t tell them a thing. He had seen her. She had seen him back. They had both looked.

∼ Mercedes M. Yardley

© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. 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.

A Room of Frozen Dust

I meet you in Scarborough. The station is packed with passengers waiting for the next train south. Day by day, the ice is creeping over the earth, unimpeded by the swollen sea. It has obliterated whole cities. Across the channel, it encroaches on the highest peaks. Soon it will join glaciers.

I’ve booked the last room in the hotel still open to visitors. In the hallway two maids are finishing their work. One ducks her head as we pass. The other stares. “She’s rude,” I whisper, putting my arm around your shoulders.

Your eyes walk straight though me, avoiding the part that hurts. My hands tremble and the key is difficult. Someone has stripped the room. The telephone has been disconnected. At least the sheets are  clean. We cover the window with my leather coat. We do not talk about the advancing wall of ice.

There is a candle on the dresser. You light the long wick so the flame burns high. It’s hottest at the top you say and hold my  hand over it, laughing when I pull away.

You tell me how your dreams are mashed up inside. Fix me, say your fingers when they come to free my belt. Your hair is pale moonlight. I touch it with a whisper, “Nothing is irrevocable.”

When you feel my fingers on your thigh, you close your eyes.

I wake to a room of frozen dust, a blurred note by the telephone. It is a long way back to the station. I walk past the docks, where all is a shifting curtain of mist. The boats are ghosts on an anthracite sea. Ice spiders come with the fog. They spin pale webs over the street lamps, lambent rainbows on frosted glass.

I wonder if you fear the cold. If you feel it.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Waiver

Matt parked the car near the front entrance.

“Well, we’re here.”

Chelsea nodded.

“The famous haunted hotel.”

“Yup, the fake haunted hotel. A fraud about to be exposed.”

“Are you sure about this? You could be destroying peoples’ livelihoods.”

“Won’t be the first time.”

He spoke with a sense of pride.

They headed into the reception and were greeted by a young woman. She confirmed their booking. After she’d taken Matt’s credit card details, she reached below the desk and placed a piece of paper in front of them. This was the famous waiver. It wasn’t terribly impressive. Aside from the gothic header, which added a certain flair, Matt saw it was nothing more than just standard liability boiler-plate. Guests could not hold the hotel responsible for any harm that befell them. Guests had to verify they weren’t suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure or a shopping list of other ailments. Blah, blah, blah.

The receptionist was making a show of getting them to read and sign it. This was the first part of the ‘experience’ promised by the hotel’s owners.

“So, is it true then?” asked Chelsea.

“Oh yes. The Charlotte Springs Hotel is the most haunted hotel in the U.S. That’s been verified. We introduced the waiver five years ago when an elderly gentleman suffered a heart attack after seeing a supernatural vision. He tried to sue us.”

“That’s why we’ve come to stay.”

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Australia.”

“Do you think we’ll see some ghosts?”

“I hope you won’t be disappointed. The dearly departed don’t come every night, but you might be lucky.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a guarantee, but it would be nice if they appeared.”

Matt signed the waiver, then passed it to Chelsea who signed. They weren’t a couple, but they pretended to be. It made things easier.

“Your room is number five. The Blue Room. It’s one of the hotspots; lots of guests have had sleepless nights in that room. Lots of sightings.”

Matt picked up the key. It was an old-fashioned iron key; there were no swipe cards in this century-old house, it wouldn’t have suited the ambience. They climbed the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor. The décor was faded, with some of the wallpaper peeling away. The whole place felt worn and unloved. Perhaps this was deliberate, the public didn’t expect to see ghosts in well-maintained, modern establishments.

The Blue Room was actually blue. Pale blue wallpaper, royal blue bedding and a baby blue carpet. It was hideous.

“A bit overdone on the theme,” said Chelsea.

“I think everything is overdone here.”

“I guess they have to make money somehow.”

“Not for much longer.”

The room overlooked the front of the hotel. Matt glanced out the window. It wasn’t as if the town was horrible or rundown. It was just an ordinary small town in an area not renowned for tourist attractions. The hotel was the only place worth visiting. Although Matt considered it a scam, it was clear that a lot of people didn’t. They came to speak to the dead, to find proof of the afterlife or simply for the thrill. They came, spent their money and left.

He fired up his laptop.

“At least they have free Wi-Fi.”

He loaded some bookmarked pages. He read some of the reviews out loud.

“The Charlotte Springs Hotel. So haunted they make you sign a waiver before you can stay. So terrifying you must be crazy to sleep over. A night of creepy noises and supernatural visions. A must-see attraction for anyone interested in the afterlife. Nonsense, all of it.”

“Well, we are here to debunk it.”

“And we will.”

He loaded the hotel’s website.

“Okay, so according to this, there are six rooms. Each room has its own ghost. Very neat, who would have thought the dead were so organized. For example, the White Room has the woman in white. The Red Room has the headless soldier. The Green Room doesn’t have a ghost as such, but apparently guests can look forward to a night of supernatural sobbing and wailing. I won’t recite the whole dreary list, you get the idea.”

“And the Blue Room?”

“The ghost of a child. Reports speak of a small figure, toys moving across the floor. All super-easy to fake.”

“What do you want to do first?”

“Nothing yet. The phenomena only ever appear after dark.”

He checked his watch.

“Three hours to kill. Might as well get some food.”

The hotel restaurant was busy. It was late August, the height of the tourist season. Labor Day would see the number of guests decline. Matt and Chelsea had timed their visit carefully. Matt’s theory was the ‘ghosts’ were more likely to appear when the hotel was full.

Matt glanced around the dining room. Some were normal tourists, but the majority clearly had a spiritual leaning. After ten years of debunking the paranormal he could easily recognize them. These were the people who believed without question in the afterlife, spending their lives crouched over Ouija boards, attending séances and attempting automatic writing.

“I feel sorry for them.”

“Who?”

“The ones who believe. The ones who claim to have found the truth about the afterlife.”

“They seem happy enough.”

“They’re deluded. In all my years of investigating supernatural occurrences, I’m yet to find a single genuine example.”

“What about this hotel? You’re convinced it’s fake. What if it’s not?”

“There’s no life after death.”

“You seem so sure.”

“After ten years investigating, I am.”

“How you do think they do it?”

“Smoke and mirrors. Hidden microphones. Nothing unique.”

“Why do you think they’ve got such a reputation, with such cheap tricks?”

“A proprietor who is a good showman. Look at the waiver, that builds expectations before the guests even get to the room.”

“We’re being manipulated?”

“I’d say so. Guests arrive expecting to see a ghost. They’re told there are ghosts in every room and are made to sign a waiver, implying the visions are so terrifying they might die. That sets up a high probability the guests will see what they want to see. A dummy dressed in a white dress and wig suddenly becomes the ghost of woman abandoned on her wedding night. It’s clever what they’ve done here; I’m guessing it’s twenty percent props and eighty percent the power of suggestion.”

He checked his watch.

“Time to retire. It’ll be dark soon.”

They lay in bed listening to the sounds of the hotel as the guests settled for the night. No doubt some would be having all-night vigils with incense and sage burning. Others, no doubt, had gone to bed, full of trepidation and excitement. Matt, tired after a long drive, fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke when Chelsea grabbed his arm under the blankets. He checked his watch. Two a.m. She was staring at the corner of the room. He looked into the darkness, unable to see anything but shadows. He switched on the bedside light. The figure standing in the corner was so obviously fake Matt had to stifle a laugh. It was the classic kid’s version of a ghost; a figure covered by a sheet with cut-out eyeholes. Matt rolled out of bed.

“I was right, look at that. If we were believers, we would see a terrifying vision of a dead child and not just someone with a sheet over their head.”

A toy car trundled across the wooden floor.

“Radio-controlled.”

He walked over to the figure. It didn’t move. There was a sudden tension in the room.

“Don’t, Matt. It feels wrong.”

Matt ignored her and instead spoke to the figure.

“You’re joking, aren’t you? Is this what I signed the waiver for? Is this what we drove six hours for? Wait until I publish my article. The first sentence will include your name.”

The figure didn’t move. Matt bent forward and stared into the eye holes.

“Well, who do we have here?”

He whipped the sheet away. Underneath there was nothing except a deep, fluid inky blackness. A darkness that almost had the shape of a person. Matt felt coldness emanating from the figure. He stared into the face of the ghost. It giggled, the high sweet laugh of a child. Reality hit Matt, it was real; it had always been real. He felt a crushing pain in his chest and fell to the carpet. The dark shape moved towards Chelsea. Matt’s last coherent thought was that he wished he hadn’t signed the waiver.

 

∼ R.J. Meldrum

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

 

Terror

Ephialte materializes.

Standing at the foot of the bed, the elongated, alabaster-skinned creature with dilated black eyes licks his lips. The young man sleeps soundly, a rosary laced between his fingers. A timeworn Bible rests on the nightstand, highlighters and pens arranged next to it. If anyone else stood here they would see a man surrounded by peace granted by the faith in his god. Ephialte savors the misperceived sight, one he has seen thousands of times over the centuries.

He slowly walks to the side of the bed and opens the book to Psalm 91:5. The highlighted, circled passage written because of him, “You will not fear the terror of the night…” Ephialte silently laughs. Words are just pretty things unless you truly believe…

Years, which feel like a single day to Ephialte, culminate in this moment. His hand traces a quilt square, lingers on a loose thread, closes, and pulls. Slow. Deliberate. The comforter slides to the floor. The man, dressed only in boxers, shivers but remains on his back. Ephialte crawls onto the bed. His weight is no more than that of an insect. His fingers trail along the human flesh as he positions his knees astride the man’s waist. His hands move from the stomach to the hollows below his ribs, deft fingers finding the invisible holes created over time.

The man groans.

Ephialte presses hard, pierces skin. The man’s eyes pop open and he shrieks. Ephialte sneers, long sharp teeth sprout from his gums. He burrows for the last bit of his victim. The man’s body locks up. Ephialte probes deeper until… There it is.

A microscopic battle rages inside the man. One he can’t win. Behind his heart resides the last vestige of his soul. His screams melt into wracked sobs. Ephialte’s tendrils encase the frantically beating muscle. The hammering against his hands sloughs off the final shreds of humanity. The man is now nothing more than flesh and bone.

Ephialte makes no sound as he withdraws, his work finished. He keeps at least one digit touching the man as he slips to the floor and Ephialte tucks the man back in. The man makes no sound beyond a sob. The Terror removes his finger. The man sits up. A hoarse scream fills the room. Ephialte slips into the shadows, disappearing from human eyes. The man climbs out of bed, looking directly at Ephialte but not seeing him. He urgently searches the room for a minute, then sits on the edge of the bed, head low. He grabs the Bible and hurls it across the room then opens the nightstand drawer. The safety clicks off as he removes the pistol. Putting it to his mouth, he pulls the trigger.

Ephialte vanishes.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.