Clean Room, Dirty Room by Gustavo Bondoni

Nov 19 2017

It was a magnificent beast of a machine.

Ernest Hillis couldn’t stop looking at it.  He wished he could remove the plugs in his nose so he could smell the air, but the team of engineers who’d built it would have a fit if he did.  They insisted that the testing and validation of the robot had to take place in clean-room conditions.  Even when he pointed out that the factory floors in which it would operate were anything but clean, they simply shrugged and told him to build his own.

He ran a gloved hand on the side of one of the four support legs.  The columns were thick enough to take the weight, but jointed in ten places, which would allow the machine to move, bend and dance – just as soon as Ernest’s team was finished teaching it how.

He knew that those were his last few minutes of relaxation before the tests started on Monday.  They had to upload the packets of pre-created programming, and get all the bugs out of the system before June… or Arkham Techno’s multi-billion-dollar processing plant would get even further behind schedule.  And any more delays could very easily lead to bankruptcy – every employee knew that the investors were stretched to the breaking point and the creditors’ patience was well past it.

It had to work.  And he and his crew had to make it work.  It was as simple as that.  A whole town depended on them to come out of its depression.  The continued survival of the “Miracle in New England” – the revival of this once barren stretch of coast, with its under-educated population and its ludicrous superstitions was on his shoulders, and he knew he could bear the load.

He would make the magnificent beast roar.

***

“For an alleged technology firm, you people sure didn’t have much of a firewall,” Scott chuckled to himself.  “My baby brother could have hacked through it in no time at all.”

But that wasn’t fair.  He’d been preparing for this moment for three weeks, hitting Arkham Techno’s adserver business unit with one malware Trojan after another, partly to keep his hand in, but mostly because he knew that the company’s IT people would flock to the attack and personally try to make certain that the hackers didn’t come in on their watch.

All of this, of course, meant that there was no one watching when Scott popped in, quietly, this time, through a very unfortunate security breach in the manufacturing computers.

He had a look around.  Anything he did would be kosher, since Arkham Techno was on Anonymous’ list of companies they didn’t like, for quite a few reasons having to do with intellectual property rights and with the fact that they had a unit running advertising, which slowed down response times, cluttered otherwise well-designed homepages and moved things one step away from a truly free and socialist internet.

He sighed.  The interesting bits of the control system were hidden behind a password, so he started running his cracker.  It was one he’d programmed himself, and it wouldn’t – or so he hoped – alert AT that there was someone snooping around their system.  With such crude security, he was almost certain of it.

While the program ran, he looked around.  It really was time to do something about the state of his room.  A coffee cup from a month before sat in the geometrical center of the rug, small green-and-white circles floating in the remaining liquid.  Assorted clothes covered most of the rest of the room.  The blinds were closed tight, jammed the last time he’d tried to open them.  It was a dump, but he was much too excited to clean now.  His weeks of planning had paid off.  He was in.

Or at least he would be when the program broke the password.  In the meantime, he could sleep.

The opening bars of The Imperial March woke him.  For one fleeting second, he wasn’t certain what was going on, but when it did hit him, Scott got out of bed as quickly as his gross weight permitted.

As he groped for his glasses on the desk, he promised he would begin exercising that very same day, just like every other.  He shut the music off and read the message on the screen: “Success – but then you knew that already, didn’t you, you gorgeous hacker you”.

Scott smiled and began to poke around the largest of the control systems.  A lot of it seemed empty, just huge amounts of processing power and disk space lying fallow, just waiting to be filled with something… awesome.  The system was way overbuilt to be another factory line.  He’d seen plenty of those, and they generally held nothing more exciting than a few feedback loops and redundant alarms with a big, usually red, shutoff command if any of a dozen parameters went out of a specified range.

This wasn’t a factory floor.

“Let’s see what you guys are going to build, my darlings,” Scott said.  A few keystrokes took him to a less well-protected folder.  And there, in a series of files labeled schematics – not very creative of them, hmm – he found it.

“That is awesome.  And it’s also something very naughty to have lying around a factory.  Imagine all the trouble it could cause if it fell into the wrong hands.  A machine like that could very easily hurt someone.”  Scott chuckled at his huge wit and went back into the control system.

A couple of hidden takeovers here and there, and this thing will be a lot of fun, he thought, running his hand along his whiskers.

He began to fill some of the empty spaces, writing the code he needed to take control away from the engineering team once they had the machine up and running, and chortling at how confused and irritated they’d be before the panic set in.

Then, without preamble or warning, his entire system shut down.

It took him four hours to get back in, but most of that time was spent trying to figure out what had happened.  It would take a very simple system to simply punt him out of AT’s network, but it would take a very, very complex one to shut him down that way – and anyone who could do that could do one hell of a lot more.

So Scott painstakingly went over the logs of his last few minutes in the company’s system and tried to spot anything creeping past his defenses.  There was nothing, not a single line, that stood out as hostile action.  Things were going perfectly…  and then nothing.

In the end, he’d simply shrugged and reconnected his servers to the internet.  If he couldn’t find anything wrong, it was likely that there really was nothing wrong.  It would just have to go down in history as one of those things.

Scott looked around the machine’s schematics and whistled.  It looked like an autonomous robot that could solve quite a few of the industrialized world’s factory floor space issues.  As long as you had a tall roof, this thing could build an entire car from the raw materials and components – even pressing the metal – in a tenth of the space of a conventional assembly line, and do it quicker.  And when it finished, it could be programmed to do something else.  The arms and appendages were infinitely flexible, and the processing capacity… well, it was clear that Arkham Techno  wanted to test-run their new semi-autonomous AI capabilities.

Naughty, naughty.

AT’s artificial intelligence protocols had been recalled and removed from household use because the erratic behavior of myriad lawnmowers and vacuums had made people nervous, and investigation had deemed them potentially unsafe.

The thing they were building at their French Hill site in Arkham had a lot more capacity to think for itself than a foot long vacuum cleaner.

Scott’s palms became moist, and his breathing quickened.  He had to make a conscious effort not to drool from the sheer desire…

He wanted it.  He wanted it a lot.

His password crack was still good, so he went back in.  This time he wouldn’t wait for the programming team.  He’d block them out and see what he could make the robot do before someone managed to kick him out or incapacitate it would be fun.

There.  He was in.

And then he was out.  But for five seconds before his system shut down and every light in his house blew out, a large green-on-black font filled his screen, and scrolled:

 

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

***

The developer cringed as he delivered the news, stepping back as if he hoped he could make it out of his supervisor’s sight.

“What do you mean, unwelcome?” This wasn’t the way Ernest was expecting to begin his morning.  After assigning the night team the task of getting the brain that lived inside his glorious robot up and running – or at least up and running for the most part – he wasn’t going to stand for any delays.

“Somebody got in, and we can’t get them out.  We’ve taken the entire network offline to work on it, but we just can’t seem to get back inside.  Every time we try, it flashes the message and shuts us down.”

“Shuts us down?  What do you mean by that?”

“It turns off the laptop we’re using to access the mainframe and anything else connected to it.  We’ve had to restart the entire company’s systems three times this morning.”

Ernest swore.  Anything he wanted done correctly, as always, he had to do himself.  “Let me see.”

Ten minutes later, his swearing had turned to profane shouts that had most of his team studiously attempting to avoid his gaze.  The green letters had made their appearance, but instead of immediately shutting the computers off, the message was replaced by a kaleidoscope of eye-bending colors.  A crawling chaos of bile yellows and excremental browns that, to Ernest, seemed the product of a diseased mind.

“That son of a bitch,” he whispered.

“What, sir?”

“It’s the hacker, the one who’s been putting malware into our ad system.  He’s responsible for this.  The bastard.”

“This really doesn’t look like…”

“Are you trying to get fired?”  The developer didn’t answer.  “Good.  Cate told me that they had the guy located to nearly 95% accuracy, and that the FBI would act under the new piracy laws if we could give them a name and enough proof to satisfy their e-crimes team.  She said they’d narrowed it down to the University of Arizona, and that her friends in net security said that there are only a couple of people down there that could break through our security as easily and often as this guy did.  She said that they stopped the search because it looked like they had finally managed to block him out.” Ernest sighed.  “Obviously she was wrong.  The malware was just a feint, designed to get us looking the other way while he tore into the important stuff.  God damn him.”

The laptop in front of him shut off, and took the lights with it.  In a way, even this display of absolute domination by the hacker was better than watching the colors swirl.  Ernest had felt that the chaos on the screen was evil, that it was slowly eating away his mind.

“Just call Cate and try to nail the guy, will you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Even in the darkened room, illuminated only by the battery-powered emergency lights, the relief of having escaped with his job was obvious in the man’s voice.

***

Scott ignored the knocking.  He didn’t hear the shouts.  His own shouts were more than loud enough to fill the room.  He’d gone three days without sleep and without bathing, stopping to eat only when his stomach growled that it wouldn’t take it any more.  Discarded Twinkies wrappers now lay two deep in places on the detritus that had already covered the floor.

“If you were really this good, you wouldn’t be working in IT at a goofy outfit like Arkham,” he said for the millionth time.  “You puny pieces of corporate crap will not beat me!”  He rebooted one laptop while another, freshly hardened against the newest crackers’ toys he could dig up on the least reputable fora attacked Arkham’s mainframes once again.

He was in…  And then, in a puff of smoke and capacitor fuzz, the machine expired in what sounded like a terminal way.

He screamed, and didn’t even notice the crash of his door coming down, or the heavy footfalls behind him.  The guys in dark jackets who subdued him and tied his hands with plastic wire-ties were surprised at how limp he went.

Scott fell asleep in the FBI van on his way into custody.

***

“Don’t give me that,” the big man said.  Scott had already decided that this was the guy playing the bad cop in this particular scenario.  The senior partner, a woman who would have looked great under any other circumstances, was pretending to look out for him.

“We already know you were responsible for the malware that ruined their ad revenue for the past few weeks.  You’re going down for that, but maybe if you play ball with us and tell us what you did to the machine, you might get out of this OK.  Arkham Techno says they’ve never seen anything like it, and that if you tell them how you managed to make it so they can’t reboot, can’t even format the brain, they’ll go easy on you.”

Scott was tired.   They’d been going on like this for hours.  He had been treated perfectly well, but the constant grilling was taking a toll.  “I already told you.  I had nothing to do with it.  I would have bet anything that it was the security guys playing with me.  After all, even if the IT guys are just a bunch of morons, the people who designed the brain inside that machine are probably smart enough to put up some serious security – which, come to think of it, should have occurred to me earlier.  I still think you’re trying to make me confess to something I didn’t do.”

The cops looked each other in the eye.  “What do you think?” the woman asked.

“I think we should let him stew a little,” the big guy replied.  “We’ll send someone from the DA’s office to tell him what things look like.  He might remember differently afterwards.”

They left, not even bothering to lock the small room behind them.

***

“No,” Scott said.  “I don’t trust you.”

“Are you kidding?  You can get off completely clean.  All you have to do is play ball with Arkham Techno.”

“Do you really think I’ll fall for that?  This is just another trick to get me to confess to something I didn’t do.  If I sign that,” Scott gestured at the large sheaf of printed sheets on the table in front of him, “I’ll probably wind up in Leavenworth or something.  Anyhow it will be much worse than what I’m looking at now.”

“What you’re looking at now is five years in a medium security prison.  Don’t you think it’s at least worth looking at what Arkham is offering?” the lady cop asked him.

The big guy looked like he was about to explode.  “Yeah.  And besides, this is America, buddy.  We don’t go around giving people false confessions to sign like some banana republic dictator.”

It occurred to Scott that maybe he really was the bad cop.  The expression on his face would have been hard to fake; the redness of his complexion impossible.  The combination reminded him that if they’d wanted to beat the living crap out of him, it would have been the work of a moment, and no one who wasn’t on their side would have heard anything.

“Let me have a look,” he said.

Scott read over the terms of the agreement.  He read them over again.  And once more just to be certain.  Unless he was missing something important, they really said what the FBI cops had said they said.  If he could help them neutralize the hacker who’d blocked the access to the prototype robot’s brain, they would drop the charges against him for the malware.  Of course, it was stipulated that he had to give them enough info to convict the other hacker, but it seemed a better bet than five years in the slammer.

The cops seemed surprised when he finally addressed them.  “How come they’re suddenly convinced that I didn’t do it?”

The woman shrugged.  “One of their people tore apart the machines at your house.  Said you hadn’t done it.  And they need enough help that they’re willing to overlook the little stuff if you can help.  So are we – our experts say that the blockage on AT’s system at the moment is better than anything else they’ve seen.  They actually looked worried, so we really want to catch this guy.”

Scott sighed and signed the papers.

The big cop grinned at his partner.  “Told you he was a rat,” he said.  He walked off.

***

“No,” Ernest said.  “Absolutely not.”

“Why not?” Scott retorted.

“I don’t trust you.”

The hacker chuckled.  He seemed to be enjoying the novel pleasure of making AT’s people squirm in person instead of at a distance.  Yeah, he’d be just the kind of guy who’d enjoy that – especially in a place where no one could kick his ass.  Ernest promised himself to kick his ass anyway after this was over, even if he had to follow him all the way back to his rat’s nest in Arizona to do it.

“Whether you trust me or not is immaterial.  You need me to do a job, and to do it, I need you to give me the tools necessary to do the job.  Simple.”

“No, not simple.  I don’t know how you know about the interface helmet–”

“You’re security sucks, that’s how.”

Ernest had to keep himself from hitting the guy, it took all his control to ignore him.  “But it’s still experimental technology.  If you break it, we can’t replace it.  And if it breaks you, we’d have to pay for you.  And we’d have to pay for you as if you were a real human being, not… well, not you, that’s for certain.”

The hacker didn’t even seem to notice the insult.  “It doesn’t really matter.  From what I’ve heard, your interface makes it possible to control a whole bunch of variables at once, and that’s exactly what we need to do right now.  The way this guy is blocking us off is by having parallel processes shut down some systems while blocking others and bypassing your security with still more.  I can use the interface helmet to keep all of that under control – and you know I can’t do that from a keyboard.”

Ernest sighed.  He knew that the hacker had a point, but he also knew that the guy wasn’t telling the truth.  He just wanted a chance to get his hands on the ultimate geek toy – even if he could only play for a while.  “All right.  But you’re going to sign a release, and I hope you get some strange kind of brain cancer from using it.”

Scott smiled.

***

The preparations took a lot less time than the hacker seemed to think they would and, if he hadn’t been so nervous, Ernest would have smirked at him.  The poor guy had actually hinted that he wanted a tour of the clean room and a glimpse of the machine while Ernest’s team set up the equipment.  He’d been pretty surprised when Cate had walked back in holding what looked like a cross between a bike helmet and a porcupine.

“That’s it?”

Ernest nodded.  “The scanners are actually pretty light.  Mainly magnets and wires which we use to read and modify the natural electrical currents in the brain.  The spines are antennae which send the readings in real time to the mainframe over there, which processes it and responds quickly enough that you won’t ever consciously notice any lag unless you are really, really far away – think the surface of the moon.”

“And will it hurt?  Don’t you have to plug it in or something?”

Ernest laughed.  “I thought you’d seen the schematics.  There’s nothing as barbaric as a plug needed.  We couldn’t sell many of these if you needed brain surgery to use them now would we?  Just put it on, and we’ll get it calibrated to your particular brain.”  He stopped himself short of saying just what kind of mind he thought might reside in a slovenly hacker.  The process was risky enough as it was – feedback from the system was, for the brain in the helmet, a very real experience – without risking a miscalibration because the subject was angry.

Five minutes later, they were ready.  The development team started to guide him in the use of the helmet, and how to get it to interface with the specially designed operating and control system which allowed it to access all of AT’s computers.  Pretty soon, the hacker was intuitively jumping ahead of his training team to access new functionalities.  After about a half-hour, he said: “I’m going to see if I can make it into the brain on the machine.  Cover me.”

Ernest was impressed in spite of himself – and in spite of the lame attempt at humor.  Not many people had enough control of their mind to be able to achieve motor control of their physical bodies while their brains were under the influence of the helmet.  Both he and Cate had come out from their first experiences embarrassingly soiled… And this guy was talking – talking! – in half an hour.

For the first time, Ernest began to believe that maybe, just maybe, it hadn’t been a mistake.

They watched his process through the helmet’s GUI.  They could see where the hacker put his attention, and what he ignored, as each sector was shaded: red for high attention areas, blue for those he was ignoring.  The schematic itself showed a general map of the system, created specifically in order to experiment with the helmet.

The hacker went logically.  First, he studied the peripheral systems around the machine’s brain.  Each one in turn came under the red-tinged scrutiny, and, as Scott got more proficient, sometimes he would take two at once, and then three.  When he began to go after four at a time, the entire crew was watching.  Some of the team members, formerly sullen at having someone come in to do their work for them, were actually cheering him on.

Finally, the interface between the brain and the system warmed a bit, almost imperceptibly, as though the hacker had just noticed it, seen nothing that warranted any attention and moved on about his business.  It was a masterful display of control.

Slowly, imperceptibly, the hacker devoted attention to the interface, without letting his attention slip from the four other places he’d been attending to previously.

Ernest held his breath.  Would he make it in?  The interface moved from purple to dark red, and slowly to a brighter color.

All at once, the four peripheral systems went completely blue as the entire field of attention focused on the brain.  Not the interface, but the AI within the machine itself.  It went from blue-black to blood red in a second.  There could be no doubt that the hackers entire consciousness was focused there.

The scream came from an unexpected quarter.  Intent on the screen, the team had completely ignored the chair where Scott was strapped down.    The man was writhing, pain written on the fat features of his face.

“No!” he cried.  “No, no, no.”  He screamed again, and again, and again.

Cate rushed forward to try to remove the helmet, but all she got for her troubles was a kick in the solar plexus.

“No! The stars, they burn!”

Before anyone else could react, the hacker pulled his arms free of the restraints and, with utter conviction, pressed two fingers under each eye until they were deep enough that he could push the eyeballs themselves out of their sockets.  Then, as everyone watched, appalled, he simply tore them from.

The scream that went with this seemed to come out of the bowels of hell, but when the nerves finally gave way with a sickening pop, it stopped.  The silence seemed glorious.

It was broken by a whisper.  “But no.  I can still see them.  No, please.  No.”  The final word was stretched out, rising in pitch and volume until it was the scream of a woman in excruciating pain.

Then, with a final spasm, blood flowed out of the hacker’s mouth and he was still.

“Oh, my God,” Cate said.  “Ernest, what are we going to do?”

But Ernest wasn’t listening to her.  He was listening to the whine of gears, the motion of a huge machine coming from the clean room next door, from the place where a machine with nothing, supposedly in its brain, and no connection to the outside world was coming awake.

He heard the crash of its first tentative step. The boom of the second, more confident one.  The screech as some piece of inconveniently located equipment was tossed aside, and another footfall.  As a giant manipulator arm began to pummel the wall between the rooms, he knew the answer to Cate’s question.

“Run!” he shouted, and gave the example.

And he wondered whether the dead hacker might not be the lucky one.

 

Bio: I am an Argentine novelist and short story writer who writes primarily in English. My debut Novel, Siege was published in 2016 and I have nearly two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries. They have been translated into seven languages. My writing has appeared in Pearson’s Texas STAAR English Test cycle, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Perihelion SF, The Best of Every Day Fiction and many others.

Other recent work includes an ebook novella entitled Branch, published in 2014. I have also published two reprint collections, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a short fantasy novel. My website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

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THE NAMELESS CHILD by Spinster Eskie

Nov 12 2017

When Ellen found her cat, Rusty, had died in his sleep, she buried him in the woods beside a tree, and carved his name into the trunk. Then she sat by his grave site and cried softly, already missing her beloved friend of seventeen years. Rusty was like her – old, fat, tired, rusty. She knew his time would be soon. She didn’t expect it to be that very day.

Ellen walked home to her now empty apartment and made herself a cup of tea. She turned on the news to see famine and corruption, and when it only depressed her more, she turned it off and briefly thought about maybe giving her sister a call, but that would absurd. She and Megan hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years, not since their mother’s funeral. There wasn’t any one solid reason why they stopped talking. They just didn’t like each other. Never did. And their forced relationship only lasted as long as their mother did.

But the death of Rusty suddenly made Ellen lonesome for family. Rusty was all she had and now he was gone. Megan had children. Ellen didn’t know how many at this point, but she had met one of them while he was still a baby. Ellen held him and noticed that he had red hair just like her. He was just darling and he’d be a young man by now. Ellen wondered if he had a wife or children of his own. Did he know about her? Did he ever ask Megan, where is Aunt Ellen? Probably not. Why would her existence matter to him? She hadn’t been a part of his life for twenty-five years. She lacked any significance to him, his mother, and the siblings Ellen could only imagine he had.

Ellen stared vacantly at her photos of Rusty on the piano. She thought maybe playing the piano would make her feel better, but she couldn’t remember the last time she played. Maybe she wouldn’t even remember how to play. Anyway, her hip was hurting quite a bit. She then recalled all the times Rusty would purr on her lap whenever she was in pain. Or he would sit beside her at the piano, and listen as she banged out Chopin and Mozart. He was such a sweet animal. She missed him terribly.

Ellen slept for the rest of the day and all of the next day, until she realized she hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and that her fridge was bare. Ellen counted what was left of her Social Security money and decided she had maybe enough for a week’s worth of food, if she budgeted well. She wandered over to the old grocery store down the street and was greeted by Mr. Chong, who was always very kind to her. Often, if Ellen didn’t have enough money for a few items, he would buy it for her and then he would help her carry the bags home. “No cat food today?” Mr. Chong questioned with his ever so friendly tone.

“Rusty passed away this week.” Ellen informed him.

“Ms. Bryer, I am so sorry,” Mr. Chong said to her with the up most compassion.

“Thank you. He was a good cat.”

“Please, let me carry your bag home for you.”

“No thank you, Mr. Chong. I think I can manage this one bag today.” She smiled and Mr. Chong smiled, and Ellen put the groceries into her cart, and left the store. As she exited, she heard a clinking noise coming from behind her. She turned to see a little girl, no older than the age of seven, shaking a coin within a tin can.

“Spare some change, ma’am?” The little girl choked. Ellen was aghast at the girl’s appearance. She wore only a ragged white dress and no shoes. She was skinny. Too skinny. And gaunt. Her fingers and toes were long and her hair was gone. In some ways, she didn’t look human.

“Where’s your mother, child?” Ellen asked the girl.

“I don’t have a mother.”

“Your father?”

“I don’t have a father.” The little girl shook the can again. “Spare some change, ma’am?”

“A child your age should not be on the streets alone. I’m going to call someone to help.” Ellen removed her phone from her purse to dial the police, but her it was completely dead. “I must have forgotten to charge my phone. Oh dear.” She knelt down to the little girl and put her hands on the child’s shoulders. “What is your name, little one?”

“I don’t have a name.”

“Everybody has a name.”

“Maybe you could give me a name?” What a strange request. Ellen had never named a child before. She always believed that if she had a daughter she would name her after her mother.

“Okay, how about Sylvia?” The little girl grinned, bearing her unusually sharp, yellow teeth. “Do you like that name?” Ellen asked. Sylvia nodded. “Well, Sylvia, I can’t just leave you here. It wouldn’t be right. Would you like to come to my house for dinner and there I can charge my phone and give Children’s Services a call.” Sylvia’s grin was wide and joyous and she reached out her hand and Ellen took it in hers and they strolled on home together.

Ellen made roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas for dinner and Sylvia gobbled it all down as if she hadn’t tasted food in years. With what little Ellen was able to afford, she knew how to make a worthy meal, and Sylvia’s appreciation of her cooking was gratifying. After dinner, Ellen took her medication and Sylvia questioned what they were for. “It’s for my pancreatisis,” Ellen told her. “I have to take them with food or I get sick.” Ellen then checked her phone again and saw that it still would not turn on. “This darn thing!” She muttered, “I have never been a fan of anything high tech.” Ellen sighed. “Well, it’s late anyway. I can make up the couch for you to sleep on and we can go over to the police station tomorrow.”

Ellen ran a bath for the girl and scrubbed her delicate skin clean of all the crusted dirt she had been covered in. She gave Sylvia a large t-shirt to sleep in and pulled out plenty of blankets and pillows from the closet for the girl to cozy up in. “Tell me a story,” Sylvia asked Ellen.

“Oh I don’t know any stories,” Ellen said.

“Tell me about the ugly duckling who grows up to be a beautiful swan.”

“Oh yes, that is a good one.”

“Ellen, do you think I’ll be a beautiful swan one day?”

“Yes, I think you’re beautiful now!”

“People are afraid of me. They’re afraid of the way I look.”

“Well, I’m not afraid of you. Everyone is unique and special in their own way.” Ellen kissed the child on the forehead and made sure her blankets were snug. “Goodnight Sylvia,”

“Goodnight Ellen.” But thirty minutes later Sylvia was at Ellen’s bedside. “I couldn’t sleep.” She whimpered in a high pitch voice, and Ellen opened her arms and held the child lovingly.

“You poor dear. You must be so frightened.”

“May I sleep in here with you, Ellen?”

“Of course!” The girl climbed into bed and rested her head on Ellen’s plump breast.

“I want you to be my mother,” She said and this startled the woman.

“Hush child. Go to sleep.” Sylvia pulled the blankets over both of them and slept peacefully throughout the night.

When Ellen could not conceive a child, her husband, Grant left her for a much younger woman. They were quickly married and had twins the following year. She began to drink a lot around this time and her chronic health issues cost her her job at the bank. Ellen became a recluse and shut out the world. She couldn’t bear to run into Grant and his family or sit through another knitting group, while the women discussed their children and looked at her with pity when she’d mention she didn’t have any. “You’ll want to hurry up and have them soon,” one woman had said to her. “The clock’s ticking!” Ellen thought to embarrass the woman by explaining that she was infertile, but what was the point? These women didn’t understand loss and hardship. They had husbands who provided for them, and children who gave them all the meaning and purpose they longed for. Ellen was better off in hiding, far from a world that reminded her only of her regrets and disappointments.

It was hard to find clothes that fit Sylvia. She was tiny and disproportionate, but she enjoyed picking out various baseball caps to cover her bald head. Pinks and purples were her preferred colors, as well as images of Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck. Shoes were uncomfortable for her though. She didn’t like wearing anything on her feet and even after she and Ellen had left the free clothing shop with bags of clothing, Sylvia took off her shoes on the bus to walk barefoot. “Where are we going now?” Asked Sylvia excitedly.

“I thought we might stop at the police station to see if they can help you find a new home.”

“But you’re my new home!” Sylvia protested.

“Sylvia, I’m sixty-two years old and poor. I can’t give you the things you need.”

“You’re all I need!” Sylvia cried, folding her arms defensively. Ellen’s heart ached.

“You may stay with me another day,” she told the girl. “We’ll contact Children’s Services tomorrow.”

“Play me a song!” Sylvia requested, motioning toward the old upright piano back at the house.

“Oh, I haven’t played in years. I don’t think I’d be very good.”

“Please?”

“Well, what would you like to hear?”

“I don’t know. Anything.” Ellen sat at the piano and pondered, then slowly she placed her fingers to the keys and began a piece by Chopin, Nocturne opus 9, number 2. But the melody was choppy and she couldn’t remember the notes.

“Like I said, it’s been a long time,” Ellen apologized, pausing with shame. Sylvia sat down next to her on the piano bench and began to play the piece perfectly. Ellen was astonished and she joined in, playing beside the child in perfect melodic symmetry.

A knock at the door interrupted the two’s playing. Ellen glanced at Sylvia, perplexed, as she did not get many visitors. She opened the door to find Mr. Chong standing with a basket. “Oh dear me, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had company.” The man from the grocery store stated as he noticed the strange looking girl sitting at the piano, her eyes intensely focused on him. “Oh, why yes. Sylvia this is Mr. Chong from the grocery store.”

“Hello Sylvia!” The girl said nothing. Ellen noticed that Mr. Chong had a basket with him. She looked at him with curiosity and Mr. Chong seemed nervous. “My – uh – my neighbor’s cat had kittens a few weeks ago. I thought you might like to welcome a new friend to your home.” He pulled a small brown and orange critter from the basket. It mewed and squeaked and Ellen gasped with surprise and adoration.

“Mr. Chong!” She managed to say, but as she took the tiny kitten into her arms Sylvia flung herself from her seat at the piano and started to scream. “Sylvia? What’s wrong?” The kitten puffed up, growled, scratching Ellen to get free.

“Dear me!” Mr. Chong said, scooping the animal up and placing it inside the basket. Sylvia was in a rage, pushing over the piano bench and knocking books off the shelves. “Sylvia!” Ellen shouted and she grabbed the child by the wrists and pulled her to the floor to keep her from hurting herself.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Just go!” Ellen demanded, holding the girl whose breathing was heavy and coarse. Mr. Chong looked sadly at the basket and carried it away turned away. Ellen barely noticed his exit, as she rocked and soothed the child.

“Please don’t ever leave me, Mommy!” Sylvia begged and she hugged Ellen, her tiny fingers clinging with desperation.

“I won’t child,” The woman whispered, rocking her back and forth. “I won’t ever leave you.”

“Let’s watch a movie!” Sylvia then suggested cheerfully and she skipped into the living room and turned on the television. “Do we have any popcorn?”

“Yes, I think I have some microwavable popcorn in the cupboards.”

“Goody!” Sylvia said. “I love popcorn!”

Sylvia slept next to Ellen every night now. Even with her smooth scalp and odd features, there was still something so angelic about her when her eyes were closed. “Mommy,” she would say to Ellen, “Do you love me with all your heart?”

“Yes, Baby,” Ellen would reply. “With all my heart.” And Sylvia would cuddle in close to Ellen’s bulging breasts and curl her skinny frame with a gentle smile upon her face.

Dear Ms. Bryer, I am so sorry for causing a disturbance at your home last week. I thought that maybe you would enjoy having another feline, but I did not know about your current guest. Please accept my deepest apologies. Sincerely, Bo.

            It was a letter from Mr. Chong slipped into her mailbox. Ellen thought of the kindness he had always shown her and felt guilty that she had not accepted his kindness the day he came over with the adorable animal as a gift. Any other day, she would have gladly taken the critter in, but her attention was on Sylvia at this point. And why shouldn’t it be? Sylvia was a child. An orphan. Her well-being and happiness was presently far more important. But Mr. Chong. He was a good friend.

The letter went up in flames in Ellen’s hands and she gasped to find Sylvia staring at her with a displeasure. “Mommy, I want to go to the playground.” Ellen could not speak. She was too in shock over the burnt ashes that had been Mr. Chong’s letter. “I want you to push me on the swing.”

“Sure Sweetheart. That sounds fine.” Her words stumbled out, but Sylvia smiled and grabbed her coat. As the two headed down the street toward the bus stop, they spotted Mr. Chong carrying boxes into the grocery store. He tilted his hat toward Ellen.

“Mr. Chong, I saw your letter. Thank you so much for the kitten. Now is just not the time.”

“It’s not a problem. I should have asked first.” Mr. Chong bent down toward Sylvia. “And who is this lovely young lady?”

“This is Sylvia. She’s my-” And then Ellen didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “Sylvia, say hello to my friend, Mr. Chong.”

“Please to make your acquaintance, Sylvia.” He extended his hand and Sylvia coldly took a moment before taking his hand in hers. As she squeezed his palm Mr. Chong looked deep into the little girl’s black, demonic eyes. His smile faded and dread came over him. He pulled away and glanced back at the woman who did not seem to know or care that this child seemed inhuman.

“Well, we must be on our way,” Ellen told the man and he nodded without a word, letting the two pass by him.

“Mommy,” Sylvia said to Ellen as they ate sandwiches at the picnic table. “Do you love me more than Mr. Chong loves you?”

“Oh child, don’t be silly. Mr. Chong is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for years.”

“Do you love me more than he loves you?” Ellen thought about it.

“Yes, Dear. I do.” But honestly, Ellen had never considered Bo Chong’s supposed “love” before. He was the grocery store clerk. He was a friend. A part of her life, yes, but not in any romantic way. At least that’s what she had assumed all these years. Ellen had lost her looks after her first marriage fell through, and romance was not something she saw ever happening again. Did Mr. Chong harbor feelings for her that she was unaware of? The idea made Ellen feel fairly light and and warmed. Perhaps it was her turn to have it all. Perhaps she would finally get her chance to have the family she always wanted.

Ellen dug through her closet. All her dresses were matronly and unflattering. There was one somewhat stylish afternoon dress she had hanging, but she hadn’t worn it since her sister’s baby shower in the 90s. She doubted it would still fit. However, once she put it on, she realized it didn’t look so bad. The zipper did not go all the way up, but she had a nice cardigan to disguise this fact. She also had one shade of lipstick. It was a dull peach, but it would have to do.

“You never wear lipstick.” Sylvia stated, as she watched from the doorway.

“I thought I would try something different today,” Ellen told her.

“I like how you looked before.” Ellen’s feelings were hurt, but she did not respond. “Where are you going?”

“Just down the road. We’re low on groceries. I don’t have any money left, but Mr. Chong will probably help us out.”

“He’s going to take you away from me, isn’t he?”

“Child, don’t be silly.” But Sylvia was not being silly. She was frightfully serious and she turned away from Ellen and ran into the TV room to watch her cartoons and squeeze the stuffed elephant Ellen had made of wool for her.

When Ellen arrived at the grocery store, it was mostly empty as it often was. She peered over the counter, but did not see Mr. Chong at his register. “Mr. Chong?” She crept around the corner of the shelves, and saw nothing but aisles filled with cans and produce. “Mr. Chong?” Ellen wandered to the back of the store where the storage was and her voice echoed as she called the clerk’s name again. And as she tripped over boxes in the dark, she was horrified to see Mr. Chong’s body dangling from a rope tied above. His tongue stuck out from the corner of his mouth and his eyeballs were grossly prominent. Ellen screamed and tripped over more boxes and junk strewn across the floor. “Help! Somebody help!” She cried, but the paramedics confirmed his death upon arrival. Mr. Chong had hung himself and Ellen’s dear friend was no more.

What had happened within the few short hours between his demise and when Ellen had last seen and greeted Mr. Chong on the sidewalk? Surely he could not have had a total breakdown in what was such a small chunk of time! And while Ellen admitted she did not know Mr. Chong too intimately, he was a friendly, decent, and joyful man. He had no reason to kill himself. He would never! What for?  Did she not consider his feelings soon enough? Did a long-term unrequited love get the best of him? Ellen would never know! And she would never get the chance to know what might have been.

“Don’t cry, Mommy,” Sylvia said. “You still have me.”

“I know, Darling, but I’m still very sad.”

“Let’s play a game! Let’s play Hide and Seek!”

“I don’t feel like playing Hide and Seek right now, Baby. I’m too sad to do anything right now.”

“But you still have me!” Sylvia said firmly,.

“I know Baby, and I’m so very fortunate.” With that, Ellen removed herself to cry in her bedroom in solitude.

At breakfast, Ellen was still grief stricken, but she did not know how to explain her emotions to the young girl. Sylvia seemingly did not understand why Ellen would care about anything that didn’t have something to do with being her mommy. “Mommy, let’s play ‘I Spy’! I’ll go first!” Sylvia announced. “I spy something blue!”

“Is it the sky?” Asked Ellen.

“No.”

“Is it my apron?” Asked Ellen. Sylvia giggled.

“No.”

“Is it my tea cup?”

“Yes!” Said Sylvia with cheerful enthusiasm, “your turn!”

“No, Sylvia, we need to talk about you staying here.” Ellen sat down at the table next to the child. “It’s been lovely having you here, but I’m afraid with Mr. Chong gone, I will not have much help affording food. I think it’s time we tell Children’s Services about your situation.”

“But I’m yours!”

“No child, not really.”

“Yes, I am! You said you loved me with all your heart!”

“I do!”

“Then why do you want to get rid of me?”

“I don’t, Sylvia! I want what’s best for you! You need to go to school. You need children your own age to play with.”

“I don’t want to go to school! I want to play always!”

“Children need to be in school.”

“No!” Sylvia threw her dish and it broke into several pieces. She slammed her chair backwards and tore at the window curtains.

“Sylvia, stop this!”

“No! No! No!”

“Sylvia, I can’t do this! I can’t be the one to take care of you like this! I’m not well enough!”

“No! No! No! No!” Ellen looked into the child’s black eyes and for the first time, realized that Sylvia was not an ordinary little girl. It was possible she wasn’t a little girl at all. At this very thought, Ellen felt a twisting pain in her stomach. She rushed to the bathroom and puked up repulsive green bile. Ellen remained puking for what seemed like hours and when she finally seemed to have gotten everything up and out, she managed to crawl into her bed and rest, her body weak and aching from the sickness.

“Poor Mommy,” Sylvia said, throwing a blanket over the old woman’s shivering form. Ellen cried out as if her stomach was being cut up with glass. She was dying. She knew she was dying. This is what dying felt like. And if she didn’t get help, she would most certainly perish in that tiny, isolated apartment. “Here you go, Mommy,” Sylvia said sweetly, offering Ellen a glass of water, which the woman took, but spilled on to the floor.

“Silly Mommy,” Sylvia grinned.

“Please child, I need to go to the hospital.”

“Let’s play a game, Mommy!”

“No Sylvia, no games. I’m very sick!”

“The game is called ‘guess where your medication went’.” Ellen was now convinced. Sylvia was trying to kill her.

“Sylvia, that is not a game. I need those pills to survive! Please bring them to me.”

“No, you promised you would love me forever. But you lied, Mommy!”

“I’m not your fucking mother!” Sylvia frowned and glared at the distraught woman before her. Then she stomped into the living room and turned on her cartoons. Sylvia could hear her giggling at the goofy voice of Sponge Bob and when she pulled herself up to get her phone, she noticed that it was still dead. In fact, she hadn’t used it since before Sylvia came to her. Somehow, Sylvia was preventing her from contacting the outside world. Or maybe it was the outside world that Sylvia didn’t want contacting Ellen. After all, it was her sister who finally had the police bust into Ellen’s residence, only to find her corpse weeks into decay. Megan had been trying to reach Ellen for a while. She wanted to make amends and introduce the woman to her three sons who were curious to know her. Sadly, neither sister would ever get that chance. According to the police, Ellen had died alone in her apartment, from pancreatitis related complications.

“Spare some change, Ma’am?” A little voice spoke quietly as a young woman passed along the street.

“Of course,” the woman replied with immediate concern. She dug into her purse and then stared at the child momentarily. What a lovely, yet strange looking child she was.“What’s your name, little one?” The woman asked.

“I don’t have a name,” the child replied. “Maybe you could give me a name?”

***

Bio: Deb (Spinster) Eskie is a resident of California and has an M.Ed in creative arts education. With a background in women’s studies, her focus as a writer is to expose the woman’s experience through unsettling tales that highlight the dilemma of sexual repression and oppression. By combining the genres of feminist and horror/science-fiction she aims to not only disturb readers, but deliver a message that is informative and thought provoking.

In 2005 Eskie’s play, Tell Me About Love, was featured in the Provincetown Playwright Festival. She has been featured in various online magazines such as Deadman’s Tome, Bad Moon Rising, and 69 Flavors of Paranoia. Eskie has a number of short stories published by Pill Hill Press, Post-Mortem Press, Scary Tales Publications, Cruentus Libri Press, and many others.

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The Black Dog of Morton by Rachel Moffat

Nov 05 2017

On Wednesday morning, just before school, Ashley Dean posted a short clip of a large black dog running down from the wood at the top of Greyleas. By lunchtime the film had made its way round all the schools in the Morton area. Ashley claimed that it was footage of Morton’s Black Dog. It certainly looked the part: unkempt, feral and undeniably a very big black dog. Over the next few days, the children rehashed all the traditional Black Dog stories, posting and re-posting everything they had ever heard, enjoying a frenzy of terror. The adults shrugged their way through the familiar fright-fest; there was no point telling the children that May was too early. It was sometimes difficult to listen to them working themselves up into a state of mock fear, but it would blow over soon.

All records of encounters with the Black Dog, since the first in 1765, gave dates in autumn or winter. Most described a terrible chase by a hell hound through the back lanes of Morton or outlying areas. Very occasionally bodies had been discovered instead, bearing the signs of having been attacked by something vicious. In the 1970s a PhD student researching the tradition of Black Dogs within Britain observed that, although Morton’s Black Dog had not been specifically identified before the 1760s, the area had a long history of brutal attacks. Records of mysterious winter killings dated back to the late 11th century and had been much more frequent before the mid-18th century.

Since 1765 these records showed thirty-two fatal incidents officially attributed to wild animals but traditionally regarded as Black Dog attacks. The most recent of these had been in 1927, when a missing farm labourer had eventually been found dead in a remote corner of the valley, his body half-hidden among bracken and brambles. There had been substantially more reports from people who claimed to have been chased by a massive and vicious black dog, the last dating from 1973. And there were still two women alive who had heard the 1895 Stories from survivors. These Stories were the various memories of one famously bloody attack. In the January of that year some children had gone missing and men had searched through the freezing night. It was after midnight when the children were discovered in a hayloft. But shortly before this news arrived in the town, bells of alarm rang out. Men had begun returning to Morton, supporting those who were badly injured and carrying the covered remains of the dead. Many were too shocked to recall anything with clarity. Those who were still coherent reported hearing terrible screams across the fields. As men had hurried from all directions to give aid, the Black Dog had come at them in the darkness again and again.

In 2016 many people found their local folklore more entertaining than threatening but they were unwilling to ignore the legend’s influence entirely. The Dog stories were regarded as an integral part of Morton’s character and remained well-known and popular. Moreover, alleged sightings were not always dismissed out of hand. If the time of year was right, there was always plenty of talk about what might have been seen. And, while most of these discussions carried the thrill of campfire ghost stories, some contained a genuine sense of dread. Some residents still regarded the Dog as Morton’s curse and took precautions to ward off its evil influence. Their homes had rowan trees in the garden as well as blackberry bushes and plenty of ivy, although the Dog had never been seen in the town. Charm jewellery was also popular, especially as tokens for the children. Certain areas around Morton’s valley were regarded as sensitive occult spots and, while not all of them were considered unlucky, they were avoided by those who did not want an encounter with the Dog.

These habits mostly belonged to families who had lived in Morton for two generations or more. Reports of the Black Dog peppered each successive childhood and the most recent accounts always held the greatest currency as reminders that the Dog was not an old ghost story. These residents knew every 20th-century story by heart, many having heard the accounts first-hand. Peter Grey’s story from November 1973 was one of the most popular and he repeated his narrative whenever asked, especially to the children. A 22-year-old at the time, Peter had been walking home from a friend’s house late at night through the back lanes. He recounted how unearthly snarls and growls had ripped the still night apart with a shocking violence. Turning, he had seen the Black Dog not twenty metres away hurtling towards him murderously with fangs bared. Peter still turned pale to remember how near he had felt to death. He described running in a blind panic with the sound of the Dog all around him, never expecting to hear anything else. It seemed incredible to Peter that he outran the Dog and, like others, he put it down to the magical influence of ley lines and the boundaries of the lucky or unlucky ‘pockets’ which had been identified over the years.

In the aftermath of Ashley’s film the young people soon built up their own mythology. Within a week they had all seen the Black Dog up on Greyleas at least once and most had been chased by gigantic black dogs through Morton’s lanes. The rustle of rabbits and fidgeting sparrows in hedgerows were continuously provoking headlong dashes through brambles and nettles. In the local pubs some residents shook their heads at the young people’s restless excitement, uneasy with such ghoulish celebration. Ultimately, of course, this thrilling tension was unsustainable. Other distractions filled long summer days and Greyleas was forgotten. By October, no one wanted to camp out to catch the Dog on film. Now that autumn had arrived, however, a number of adults became quietly watchful, often turning their eyes to the thickets on the hill. Some were only influenced by the thrill of the stories and the recent excitement. They couldn’t resist checking at first but soon forgot to look. But there were others who continued to scan the tree line and were heard to talk about avoiding certain areas after dark.
*

The woodland at the crown of Greyleas Hill had once been part of the defunct Morton Estate. The black dog walked at the tree line, half-hidden but with a good view of the small town which had developed from villages and tenancies of the old estate. The dog had watched over these changes with steadfast vigilance. The creature he waited for often disappeared for many years but, so far, it had always returned and so the dog was always ready. Centuries ago, when the black dog had been called Bauderon, the creature had come to his home as the year was ending. For three days and nights Bauderon had caught the scent of something vile hidden in the woodlands of his master’s estate. He often barked and strained at his chain, sensing a hideous threat. As the sun went down on the fourth day the stench grew stronger, so that Bauderon knew something was approaching. Alarmingly, he could see nothing at all. The dog writhed in a madness of terror, unnerved by the presence of some invisible creature which was now racing past him, frantic in his attempts to warn his family of the danger. His desperate wrenching broke the weakened chain and he followed the scent, barking viciously through the grounds of the estate.

In the gardens behind the house he saw his family and raced towards them with barking shouts, defiant and protective. He was relieved to see Mistress and Nurse hurrying towards the house with the children. Master was rushing over from the other side of the lawn, but the evil stink still pervaded and Bauderon followed it, racing after the women and children, desperately wondering how to defend against an invisible attack. Suddenly, he felt a sharp and shuddering pain in his side and realised that the monster was attacking him and not his family. Before he could turn to engage the creature his eyes clouded over and the pain made him stumble. But in a moment his eyes were clear again and now he could see a squat, dark brown figure unlike any sort of animal he knew. Somehow it was ahead of him and not at his back. It seemed to shamble in an ungainly way, long arms dragging through the lawn, but it was moving with an awful speed.

It was gaining on Mistress, who was carrying the eldest child and had fallen behind Nurse some distance. Master ran shouting past Bauderon, who was shocked to see the women slow down and look behind them. No one reacted to the wood beast but it was now crouching to spring at Mistress. Bauderon instinctively leapt also, although he felt he
was still too far away. But he must have been nearer than he thought, or perhaps was better at leaping, because he landed square on the beast’s back and brought it to the ground. In a moment Bauderon would have been at the creature’s throat but it was quick too. With its powerful legs it pushed Bauderon away, turned and bounded off. The dog watched it out of sight and when its scent was only faint he turned round to the house. It was then that he saw his own dark shape huddled on the other side of the green lawn and remembered the dangerous pain at his side.

The beast left that night and Bauderon began his long watch. Year on year, the dog waited for the return of the wood creature, soon recognising the seasonal pattern. Even after years of the beast’s absence the dog remained watchful until the spring buds broke open. At first, Bauderon stayed in the shadowy groves beyond the Hall’s formal gardens. Unseen he watched his family live and grow older. The children left and the parents grew frail, dying during a winter of dangerous sickness. Aware that he was a shade, Bauderon had hoped to see their echoes but they had left him. He realised this had been foreshadowed by the fact that he had remained visible to humans, but not the ones he had known. The Morton Estate was broken up and sold by the young master and Bauderon went to make his home in the woods, commanding a better view from Greyleas. As the nights drew in and grew colder, Bauderon would move out from the dark thickets of the woodland and stalk the tree line at the top of the hill. Stags, foxes and other dogs were frequently mistaken for the Black Dog, but Bauderon walked there too and some sightings were genuine. He rarely reflected on his reputation beyond the knowledge that it was useful. He did not know he was the only guardian the valley had known in all the long centuries of the beast’s ritual of slaughter.

*

In October 2016 Bauderon was alert, sniffing the air intently. Last year the wood beast had returned after an absence of five years and the dog did not expect a quiet winter. The beast’s vicious appetite had been largely frustrated over 250 years, but it had not yet learned to relinquish its claim on Morton. Confined within the valley’s limits, Bauderon could do nothing to forestall the beast’s arrival and every sunset found him pacing the outer limits of his woodland lookout, unquiet until dawn. In the early hours of the first morning of December, Bauderon picked up the creature’s scent as it crossed an ancient boundary line into the valley. It was travelling through a wooded area south of Greyleas and Bauderon swiftly made his way down the hill to find it. Familiar scents faded into the background against the wood beast’s distinctive, eerie odour which was so easy to follow.

As often as the wood beast returned the dog had contained the creature’s aggression by stalking it through the night, forcing the invisible marauder towards the more remote areas of the valley and away from its human prey. This constant surveillance had soon shown Bauderon that the beast sought cover when the sun rose. Not that the creature needed sleep as such, but it lost its thirst to hunt and liked to hide itself away from daylight. Needing to exploit any vulnerability Bauderon had hounded the beast relentlessly, preventing it from entering dens and chivvying it from leaf piles and tree holes. He forced it back under the eye of daylight and, while a winter’s sun was just bearable for the wood beast, its strength diminished. Enraged and frustrated the beast would hold out as long as it could, but each successive sunrise found it weaker. Usually it was spent by the third morning and a cold and wintry dawn would see it running for the nearest boundary and the promise of shade.

For a long time this was the only weapon Bauderon had against a beast as seemingly indestructible as himself. He had dramatically curtailed the wood beast’s attacks with his relentless shadowing but the beast had enjoyed freedom for too many centuries to relinquish its territory. It did not return every year, following a pattern hidden to Bauderon, but the dog never regarded even a lengthy absence as permanent. And he had never been mistaken. In fact, the beast’s season in Morton was tied to the erratic traditions of an ancient festival, a week-long event connected to the shifting auspices of full moons through autumn or winter. The festival had been abandoned more than 700 years ago and was long obliterated from knowledge but the beast still returned, enabled by forgotten invocations. Denied its ritual offerings, the beast had forged a hunting ground to satisfy its gnawing maliciousness.

It had been a profound shock to the wood beast to be faced with such a formidable challenger after centuries of freedom. Bauderon had passed through death and emerged gifted with the same speed and strength as Morton’s ancient predator. The dog’s advantage was the subtlety of his intelligence, a keen weapon against the beast’s limited instincts. Bauderon quickly exposed his enemy’s weaknesses and, crucially, almost entirely neutralised the deadly advantage given by its invisibility. Chance provided the beast with occasional kills in the unwatched moments after its arrival but it was usually discovered by the dog first or, worse, thwarted with its prey in sight. Bauderon would appear, racing at an unnatural speed, filling the air with growls and snarls. He was always carefully positioned so that no one ever ran unsuspecting towards the wood beast. Bauderon never failed to be as horrible as possible; he remembered how his family had fled from him. As the victims took to their heels the dog would wrestle the beast to prevent any pursuit, forcing it towards more remote areas.

The beast was beside itself with rage and frustration but clung furiously to its claim on the valley. Indeed, the humiliation of many defeats fed the creature’s resolve nearly as robustly as the glory of a rare triumph. Opportunities for its crude strategies were rare but they did occur.
Prior to the beast’s most notorious victory in 1895 its best chances had occurred on the handful of occasions when it had arrived in early autumn, before livestock were under cover of barns or byres. The beast had been elated to realise that it could baffle Bauderon’s tracking skills by slaughtering the large animals and confusing its own scent with a myriad of blood scents. The beast could then make its way towards Morton undetected. While its magical nature held thresholds as taboo, keeping it from built-up areas, it could still count on finding victims in the lanes or fields before the dog discovered the right trail.

To be outwitted by the wood beast, and with such bloody results, left Bauderon distraught and humiliated. The only minor victory against such dreadful defeats was that the following day’s chase was much more taxing for the wood beast. It was shattered by the warmth of autumn, so unlike the watery gaze of a winter sun. Even cloudy days stifled it. As the day wore on it would make its escape, desperate for shadow and dank, woody holes. But this early retreat was small consolation for the dog. It was not enough to make the wood beast pay for its slaughter if it was never to be deterred from returning. The beast needed to fear the valley and Bauderon as its protector.

In 1895 the beast had arrived at the start of a cold January and the first thing it saw as it emerged from a copse was the blink and flicker of lanterns, as the townspeople searched for the missing children. It was like walking among the sheep and cattle again. Even now three men were making their way towards the copse and the wood beast roared triumphantly towards them. Frenzied with excitement it cut, slashed and bit. Then, aware that time was short, the beast dashed headlong away looking for more lights. As it bounded over a stone wall into the lane beyond, two more men came rushing towards the cries they had heard. Their own screams soon sounded across the fields, baiting the beast’s next trap. It stood by its kill and waited.

Men now came running from several directions, horrified by what they had heard. Their terror and despair only increased when they saw the bloodied bodies in the lane. Their first thoughts were for the children before they realised that they were under attack. At first no assailant could be seen; there were claws and teeth but no one could glimpse what creature came at them in the dark. But then vicious growls cut through the night and the light of a remaining lantern showed the shaggy form of a large dog, leaping and snapping through the mêlée. In the confusion of bodies and stumbling men, the beast slipped out of Bauderon’s grasp, but the dog was determined not to lose the trail and followed as swiftly as he could. The beast had forgotten about stealth, in any case, and Bauderon heard it crashing through trees away from the main path.

The beast ran swiftly through the woods, following the road and watching for more tell-tale lanterns. Bauderon followed, shaking with rage at the beast’s easy success and its brutal delight in slaughter. Shouts sounded from behind as more men hurried along the lanes. The beast whipped round, hoping to catch the dog off guard and dodge past him. It ran into Bauderon’s snarling face and sprang back rapidly. Slightly disorientated by this, the beast bounded off into the depths of the woods, away from the road. Bauderon followed and the hubbub of distress dwindled behind them.

Rushing haphazardly through the trees the beast suddenly scrambled down a ferny bank. It landed on a broad path and ran on, hoping to shake the dog by being erratic. But they were now in the woods near Morton Hall and there was no way to dodge the dog or confuse him on such well-known paths. The beast ran on, unable to shake Bauderon but still hopeful of surprising victims in the dark. In time it was scattering the gravel under an avenue which opened onto the formal lawns of the Hall. And now the beast’s pace faltered slightly as it recognised the gardens and recalled its first encounter with the black dog. Immediately Bauderon was upon it. He cannoned into the beast and they tumbled down a shallow flight of stone steps into hedges lining the walkway below.

Bauderon sprang up rapidly but was startled to see the beast scramble away from the neatly clipped trees with screams of anguish. It huddled on the gravel of the walk gibbering and sobbing, apparently in pain and shock but with no apparent wound. Bauderon looked at the hedging more carefully, which seemed ordinary enough. The dark trees carried berries which, rather than glossy, had a sort of dusty matt appearance. He remembered that they had been planted elsewhere on the estate too, in a shady clearing where a small mausoleum housed master’s ancient family.

The beast was shivering through its sobs. Bauderon grasped the scruff of its neck and dragged it towards his former woody haunts, sweeping it through the gravel. It remained unresponsive and Bauderon imagined it might be grateful to be taken from the hedges. It didn’t mistake the scent of yew, however, as they approached the mausoleum. Distressed, it tried to twist free of the dog’s grip, but it was too weak. Against the back wall of the mausoleum leaned an ancient yew, bent and gnarled, its split trunk revealing a hollow. Bauderon flung the beast into this space, provoking renewed cries of agony, and settled himself to guard the opening.

The dog watched the night pass and did not stir. The beast’s noisy keening finally quietened to shuddering sobs and moans with an occasional howl. Bauderon listened with angry satisfaction. The creature’s agony was some sort of penance for the awful victory it had achieved. Never, in Bauderon’s experience, had the beast enjoyed such blood-ridden human butchery and what a lucky chance had revealed this punishment. When the late winter dawn finally broke, Bauderon could see a grey shape huddled and exhausted in the centre of the hollow. The greyness was not a trick of the dawn’s light, the beast’s brown, barkish hide was now silvery grey and startling in its contrast. Bauderon looked at the tortured creature grovelling and whimpering and decided he could afford to allow it to leave its prison. He stepped back but watched the beast closely in case this appearance of weakness was exaggerated. It shuffled out slowly, refusing to look at the dog, and limped through the dappled light towards the darker recesses of the woodland. Bauderon followed as it crawled towards the nearest boundary line it could remember. He wondered if the beast could be leaving to find a hole to die in but then rejected the idea, convinced instead that its resilience would gradually be rebuilt in some dark corner. He watched the creature over the boundary and saw it shuffle off, wondering if it would keep away and for how long.

*

Now, in the small hours of a new December, Bauderon followed the beast’s scent along a moonlit lane heading towards Morton. Of course, the beast had returned to make its sorties again since 1895. The glory of that success had not been entirely overshadowed by the severity of the punishment, but imprisonment had hurt the beast and broken its aggressive belligerence. After avoiding the valley for twenty years it had crept back in again, both hopeful and cowering. Bauderon had caught the offensive scent instantly and soon appeared in a wild fury. At the sight of him, the beast had turned tail and made for the boundary. Its coat was still pale, suggesting that it had lost some strength. Certainly the nature of the wood beast’s visits took on a very different character; instead of bold hunting forays, the creature acted warily as a trespasser. Once it managed a lucky kill, meeting a farmhand moments after crossing the boundary, but even then it ran off before Bauderon appeared, fearing retribution. Throughout the 20th century its visits to Morton were fleeting and less frequent.

Bauderon was nearing his quarry in the lane, anticipating the beast’s panicked reaction when he appeared. Suddenly a new scent triggered a current of alarm and he increased his speed with urgency. Some distance ahead a man was walking along the lane; the beast had not had such a chance for more than forty years. Bauderon followed the twist of the lane round and there was the beast at full pelt, desperate for its first human kill in nearly a century. Bauderon was no less desperate and he unleashed his most ferocious snarls and a bark of mad fury. In the next moment he realised, with mortification, that he had made a rare mistake. The man was now rooted to the spot in terror, unable to run, and the beast was closing down the gap all too easily. As it sprang so did Bauderon, catching at the beast’s outstretched legs. And as he saw the Black Dog leaping towards him the man finally tried to move, but only stumbled backwards and fell down.

Feeling helpless in the dirty lane, watching the Black Dog’s teeth and claws as it leapt towards him, the man was astonished to see the Dog tumble forwards, apparently entangled in the air. Hot breath and rough coat brushed past the man and then the Dog was wrestling on the ground, snapping and slashing, trying to pin down nothing at all. The man realised, with a mixture of relief and anti-climax, that the dog was fighting itself. He almost laughed at how surely he had believed in the Black Dog for a few petrified minutes. But he felt panic stir again as he registered the mad, vicious growling and ran wildly back down the lane, away from the carrying sounds of the dog’s deranged battle.

In its first rush of fury the wood beast fought Bauderon with all its madness, clawing, tearing and biting. But then panic came and when it twisted from the dog’s reach it had already given up its prey. Instead, it dashed wildly through a gap in the hedgerows to open countryside beyond and fled from Bauderon’s anger. In its panic it had chosen a direction at random; the nearest routes out of the valley were at its back. But the beast could do nothing except run and stay clear of the dog’s grasp. Eventually, cresting a high field, the beast sighted a stretch of woodland, one of the largest acreages of trees in the valley and still some miles away. There was a boundary on the far side. The distance would be taxing for the beast but it sped on, desperate not to flag. Bauderon followed, confident that he could still run the beast down and imprison it among the yew trees again.

In time they approached the woods, which were bordered with scrubland thickly overgrown with some unruly plant. The wood beast continued its dash towards the trees, becoming enmeshed in the shrub. Suddenly it began to scream and keen, heaving and tearing at the thin green stems which were not strong but plentiful. Hastily it ploughed its way through the plant to reach the tree line, shaking and gibbering with fear. The scent of sap from ripped leaves and stems hung heavily in the air, spreading an unfamiliar fragrance. Bauderon watched his enemy falter through the green snares, knowing that with a leap he could force the beast back into this new prison. Even in his anger Bauderon wondered if he was really going to watch the beast struggle in this undergrowth until it died. Its coat was whitening and it sobbed as it tore itself free. Bauderon hesitated but then sprang. Hearing the shifting rustle of leaves, the creature screamed but sprinted away through the trees. Bauderon raced after it realising, with some surprise, that he needed to run at full pelt to keep the creature in sight. He had expected it to be much weaker and felt a keen disappointment. The beast continued on, following the route of a stream, tearing up the banks in the desperation of its flight. The stream soon joined the river, leading out of the valley. Keeping to the shade of the trees all the way the beast followed the water, never letting up its pace. Bauderon kept up the chase, hoping he would not regret his hesitation.

They ran for several miles along the river at breakneck speed. Slowly the darkness lost its depth and gave way to a dim sort of dawn. The light gave the beast a translucent, pearly look but its speed did not slacken. After another mile Bauderon could see the woods thinning as the river made its way out of the forest and through moorland into the next valley. He would not be able to chase the beast beyond the trees and it could smell its escape. But, as they approached the newly sunlit grass, the creature slowed. On the moor, some distance away, thickets of gorse promised a tantalising haven of shade, but the wood beast hesitated at the very edge of the light. It was now transparent and fog-like. Grey wisps of the beast streamed around it, feathering its form. Its manic flight had been its death throes and its powers were exhausted. It was now turning rapidly in an agitated manner, aware of Bauderon gaining but unable to steel itself to cross the stretch of open day.

Bauderon stopped a few paces from the beast and allowed the time to pass, watching the creature accept its situation. It saw Bauderon’s appraisal and read his triumph. Hatred snarled within it; it was unbearable to see the dog observe the moment it chose its death. Baring its teeth and growling with all its murderous energy it turned and sprang over the boundary, racing the daylight to reach the dark thickets. Bauderon watched as the sun seemed to draw wisps of substance from the wood beast. Over the grass it pelted, still swift, and Bauderon wondered if some fragile outline of the creature might reach shelter after all. A hazy form strained towards the gorse and then there was no form. Like mist and like water the shape of the beast broke apart, streaming in all directions. At the very last it was a shimmer hanging in the winter air and in a breath it was gone.

***

Bio:

Rachel Moffat lives in the west of Scotland. She has developed her love of literature through research as well as creative writing. She loves collecting ordinary and random details for inspiration and taking them off in entirely new directions.

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Waters of the Abysm by S. Alessandro Martinez

Oct 29 2017

Behind our house was a large, deep lake, stretching out about three miles shore-to-shore at any given point. It was ringed by beautiful, multi-storied, wood houses built close to its quiet shores. And I hated it. I had hated it ever since we first moved into a house next to it. My parents had never seemed to notice anything strange about Mishipeshu Lake, but I felt a chill in my bones the very first time I laid my eyes upon it. I had never seen a real corpse before, but I imagined it would evoke the same feelings of revulsion and icy dread.

My parents, older brother, and I moved into the lakeside house when I was thirteen. I was distressed and anxiety-ridden the whole drive up there from our old home two states away. I would be in a new neighborhood, an unfamiliar house, a new school, and I would have to make new friends. It was all very daunting. I hadn’t been very popular at my old school, so how was I supposed to make friends here? Maybe I could reinvent myself, be someone new? But all nervous thoughts about my social life vanished when my dad pulled up the long dirt driveway and parked the car, and I got out to look at our new home. Instead of the gorgeous, two-story log house, with its multiple gables, large windows that would let in plenty of light, and charming stone chimney, my eyes were immediately drawn to the lake that the house overlooked, its green water softly lapping onto the sandy shore about fifty feet from the back porch. That was the first time I felt the dread.

I had an unobstructed view of the water from my bedroom window up on the second story. I would watch it at night as the pale moon reflected off its pristine surface, a surface frequently so smooth you would think it was made of glass. But then, every so often, something would briefly breach the water and then return beneath its darkness, sending small ripples outward, becoming smaller and smaller, until everything was still once more. Fish? Perhaps it was. But the dark shapes I could make out rising and falling in that water some nights were far bigger than any fish I ever saw caught there.

All things considered, the first year of my new life by Mishipeshu Lake was relatively uneventful. I was in school, in eighth grade, preparing to transfer to high school. My brother, Sam, was two years older than I, and already a sophomore. We didn’t hang out much during that year. He was also trying to make friends in this new place and said he didn’t have time for his little sister. Unlike Sam, who slowly became friendly with most everyone, I hadn’t really made any friends. I was the perpetual outsider, the “weird girl.”

A few months into the school year, my brother introduced me to one of his new friends, a tall, brown-haired boy named Ben. He seemed nice enough. He had lived in this community his whole life, was in the same grade as Sam, and was, I came to learn, obsessed with the paranormal, conspiracies, local legends, and the like. I had never been into that stuff, but I had been interested in learning more about the area my family now called home.

One cloudy Friday evening, Sam had brought Ben over to have dinner with us. After we had eaten, and while our mom and dad did the dishes, Sam put in some old 70’s horror movie.

“Could I ask you something, Ben?” I asked him, kneeling down beside the couch as he and Sam watched the flick.

“Sure thing, Blaire,” he said, his eyes still glued to the television. “What’s up?”

“You know a lot about this town. Are there any…stories surrounding Mishipeshu Lake? Like…weird stories?”

“Haven’t learned anything about it in school, huh?” Ben chuckled, turning to look at me with a grin.

“Well, sure we have,” I replied. “But just things about the first settlers here, how they raised livestock and grew crops, braved harsh winters, blah, blah, blah. Then they up and left, and the land wasn’t resettled until about a hundred years later. You know, standard, boring history stuff.”

Ben chuckled again, stretching out his legs and putting his arms behind his head. I could tell he was excited to share some of his weird knowledge with me. “Of course the teachers wouldn’t get into the neat stuff.” He glanced over at Sam who seemed uninterested in our conversation.

“Like what?” I asked eagerly, my heart beginning to race a little.

“About all the mysterious deaths and stuff,” Ben whispered. He paused dramatically, then raised his hands and wiggled his fingers at me. “Ooooo!”

Both he and Sam laughed at the disappointment that must have been written all over my face.

“Fine, whatever,” I replied grumpily, turning away and waving my hand dismissively at Ben.

“Okay, okay,” he said, settling down and placing his hand on my shoulder. “Sorry. But there really were creepy things that went on back when the town was first settled around the lake.”

I turned back around with an eyebrow raised. “Are you going to tell me? Or are you going to be dumb?”

“Feisty one, your sister is.” He elbowed Sam in the ribs and chuckled, but then continued on in a more serious tone. “Anyway, when the town was first being settled, in 1856, one of the local tribes came down from the hills and told the townsfolk to move on. They said that this was a cursed place belonging to the Mishipeshu and nobody should be near those waters, let alone live next to them.”

“And what exactly is a Mishipeshu?” I asked.

“An ancient spirit that lived in the water, I think,” Ben answered, scratching his chin in thought. “It was supposed to resemble a panther or something.” He shrugged. “But who really knows?”

“So, this spirit was dangerous, I assume?”

“Well, this is where it gets interesting,” Ben said, rubbing his palms together eagerly. “The settlers chose to ignore these warnings, of course, and make a home here anyway. They believed that either the natives were spewing some local superstition, or that the land here was valuable and the natives wanted to scare them away from it.”

“Seems logical, I guess,” I said slowly.

“Yes, seems so, doesn’t it?” Ben continued, leaning closer to me as Sam went back to watching the movie. “The settlers lived well and built a thriving town. That is, until fifteen years later.” His eyes glittered with excitement.

“What do you mean?” I could feel goosebumps rising on my arms and legs.

“Everyone simply vanished. One day, traveling traders and merchants discovered the town empty. In some of the houses there were signs of a struggle, some blood here and there, but the weirdest thing was that all around the lakeshore were clothes-as if people stripped down naked and swam into the water. No bodies were ever found though. Not on land, anyway, and no one’s ever searched the lake itself properly. They didn’t really have the proper gear back then. And there’s not much interest these days for the town to hire all the equipment to go down to the very bottom of the lake. It’s quite deep in the center.”

“Weird,” was all I could say, trying to keep my voice nonchalant. The story had creeped me out, though. Was there any truth to any of this? Could it explain why I disliked the lake so much? I couldn’t be sure. Who knew where Ben had gotten this information? Books? The internet? I didn’t know, but I liked the lake even less after hearing it. I wished I hadn’t asked at all. Being near the water made me feel even more uneasy now.

I didn’t bring up the subject again with Ben or Sam after that night. I tried to stop letting my mind dwell on the lake; the dark unexplored depths, the softly lapping waves upon the shore, the occasional mysteriously loud splash at night, or the way the moon reflected off the sleek water, making it appear as if the twin orbs were two monstrous silver eyes staring at me.

The lake frightened me, but somehow also enthralled me. In a way I couldn’t even explain myself, it called to me and enticed me, even though I had never once stood closer than twenty feet from it. I would sometimes catch myself staring out the window at the dark waters as I sat in my room trying to complete my homework, imagining a strange lizard-panther hybrid prowling about. I was doing exactly that as darkness started to descend one evening, when I noticed my brother standing outside by the lakeshore. How long he had been standing out there, I had no idea, but the sun had slipped about halfway below the horizon.

Dropping my homework, I went downstairs and hurried out the back door. Sam was just standing there, a foot from the water’s edge, arms crossed, staring out across the lake. The sun had sunk even lower now, turning the sky and water the color of dying embers. I hesitated, seeing as he was so close to the water, but eventually mustered up the courage to walk over to where he stood, my feet dragging reluctantly as I moved closer toward the water. I had never been so close to the lake’s edge before.

“What’s up, Sam?” I asked, looking around to see what had caught his attention. Turning away from the water to look at his face in the gloaming light, I noticed that his eyes appeared red and puffy. “Everything okay?”

He remained silent for a moment before answering. “It’s Ben,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

“What about Ben?” The flat expression on my brother’s face and the tone of his voice began to worry me. “Did something happen?” My eyes searched his face, trying to glean the cause of his obvious distress.

“Ben’s gone,” he said in the monotone voice he always acquired when he was upset.

“Gone?” I repeated. “Gone where?” Dread began to creep down my spine, sending shivers throughout my body.

“I don’t know,” Sam replied in the same dead tone, shaking his head slowly. “I hadn’t seen him at school for a few days. He hadn’t been answering my texts. I thought maybe he was really sick, so I went to his house. His parents told me that he’s been missing since Sunday evening.” He turned to look at me. “They’re frantic.”

Sunday? Today was Wednesday! That did sound strange and very worrying. Of course I didn’t know Ben as well as Sam did, but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy to cut class or just run away.

“His parents told me,” Sam started up again, fear now pervading his voice, “that before he went missing, Ben said something about going for a swim in the lake. That he wanted to ‘check something out’. His exact words. People go swimming in the lake all the time. His parents thought nothing of it.”

“That’s…weird,” I whispered, a cold feeling permeating my stomach. The story Ben had told of the Mishipeshu gripped my mind and I instinctively took a step back from the water. “Have they searched the lake yet? For his—for him?” I couldn’t look away from the incoming waves.

“Not yet,” Sam said, as he cleared his throat loudly. “There is only one qualified police diver in the county and he is on vacation.”

“How convenient,” I said sarcastically, kicking at some sand on the ground, trying in vain to think of something to reassure my brother. “I’m sorry, Sam. I know you two were becoming good friends.”

“Don’t say that,” Sam said softly, a tinge of anger in his voice. “Don’t talk about him as if he’s dead!” He glared at me briefly before his expression softened and he turned back to the lake. “We don’t know what’s happened. He could be perfectly…fine.” His voice trailed off with uncertainty.

“Yeah, of course,” I said, meekly. I looked upward at the shadowy sky. The sun was gone by now, and I could see the moon trying to peek out from behind the dark clouds that had been slowly rolling in since this morning. I thought I heard a faint rumble far off.

Where could Ben be? Had he really gone swimming in the lake? Or was he somewhere else?

I had trouble getting to sleep that night, so I ended up sitting up in bed, propped up on pillows; the unnatural glow of my laptop the only source of light in my room. I had been looking up anything I could find about Mishipeshu Lake; it was a search I had avoided undertaking until now. According to Native American lore, a Mishipeshu was a lynx or a panther covered in scales. Some stories said it had spines covering its back, while others said it had large horns on its head. It supposedly lived deep underwater and could either be malevolent or benign, and had the ability to conjure storms. The information I found wasn’t clear if there was supposed to be just one or more than one Mishipeshu, but either way, it sounded about as plausible as Bigfoot or Nessie. I couldn’t find anything specifically relating to the story Ben had recounted. Where had he gotten his information? I tried to convince myself that he had just made everything up to spook me.

It was then that I heard a soft tapping on my bedroom window, and looked up. It had finally begun to rain. I closed my laptop and rubbed my eyes, sending stars and colors swimming through my vision. With a sleepy groan, I got out of bed, stretched, and walked over to the window. Pulling aside the half-closed curtain, I looked out into the darkness, barely able to see anything, since the moon was again covered in clouds. I stood there listening to the taps on the glass. I loved the rain, it made me feel at peace, even the sound of the rain on the lake was soothing.

But then I noticed the soft orange glow of the back porch light below my window flicker on. I thought it must have been the wind messing with the motion detector. But as I looked down, I saw a figure standing by the water’s edge. By the faint light of the full moon that had just made an appearance through the clouds and the illumination from the porch, I could see that Sam was out there, staring across the water. He had come inside for dinner earlier; what was he doing standing back out there in the rain? He must have been really worried about Ben. Poor guy.

I slipped on my coat and rain boots, then quietly made my way out of my room, down the stairs, and out the back door as I had earlier. Sam was standing there, arms crossed, staring at the lake, the same as before.

“Sam,” I said, just loudly enough so he could hear me over the rain and rising wind. “Come back inside, you’re getting soaked out here.” I pulled my coat tighter around me, trying to keep Sam between the water and me.

He said nothing, and didn’t even seem to have heard me, so I stepped closer and tugged on the wet sleeve of his shirt.

“Sam, come on,” I begged, feeling cold, wet, and more than a little uneasy at our proximity to the choppy water. The little whitecaps the wind formed on each waved seemed to be reaching for me.

“He’s out there,” he suddenly said, not turning to look at me.

“I’m sure he is, Sam, but not in the lake. And I’m sure he’s fine. Now let’s go inside.” I pulled his arm, trying to ignore the dread building up inside of me.

But Sam wouldn’t budge. “He’s out there, Blaire. He wants me to join him. I heard him calling.” His expression was blank, and he almost looked hypnotized.

“He…he called you?” I asked, perplexed. The rain was coming down even harder now and the wind was blowing my wet hair into my face. I turned to glance quickly, yet longingly, at the house. I desperately wanted to go back inside, snuggle under my blankets, and forget all this weirdness. But what was Sam going on about? Had he actually heard from Ben?

When I turned back to look at Sam, he had his eyes closed, the heavy rain spraying his face. His arms were stretched out, as if he were going to catch a giant beach ball.

“Can’t you hear him, Blaire?” he said loudly above the sound of the rain, startling me.

I strained my ears, desperate to hear whatever he was talking about. But all I could hear was the rain splattering down and the wind. The wind. Was that a voice? No, it was just the wind messing with me. Sam was mistaken.

“Sam, let’s go inside now!” I demanded.

But he either didn’t hear me or didn’t care, because at that moment he tore off his clothes and launched himself into the black, choppy water. I was momentarily stunned as I saw him splash determinedly through the water, being knocked around by the churning waves, and finally begin to swim furiously out into the depths of the lake.

“Sam! What are you doing?” I screamed after him upon overcoming my initial shock. But I quickly lost sight of him as the wind and rain tossed the lake waters violently about. A deep, rumbling boom sounded somewhere behind me. That thunder didn’t sound too far away. “Oh god, oh god!” I shouted. “Mom! Dad!”

Before I could turn and run into the house to get my parents, a beam of moonlight penetrated a small opening in the blanket of black clouds and shone down upon the churning water like a spotlight. Out in the distance, about halfway to the center of the lake, I could see something…someone. Someone was floating there; a body being thrown about by the waves. The figure looked as if it was floating face down!

“Sam!” I screeched, terrified as I had never been before. I hesitated for only a moment. If Sam was unconscious in the water, I couldn’t let my stupid, irrational fear of the lake keep me from helping him. He was my brother!

I frantically ripped off my coat and kicked off my boots, and ran into the raging water, slipping and stumbling on the smooth stones that littered the bottom. I was instantly chilled to the bone as the icy lake sucked every bit of warmth out of me. Feeling the lake floor drop off into the depths, I launched myself farther out into the water, moving my arms and legs as best I could, trying to focus on reaching Sam, and silently thanking my dad for all those swimming lessons he made me take.

I paused after what I thought was several minutes to tread water and catch my breath, the wind howling in my ears. I could see the dark shape floating there, rising falling in the waves just ahead of me. I put all of my energy into reaching him. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get back with Sam if he was unconscious, but I couldn’t give up. I coughed and spluttered as I swallowed icy water in my struggle. My arms and legs were turning to jelly, and it was a struggle to keep my head above water, but I finally reached my brother.

I made to grab him, but it didn’t feel like Sam. Something was wrong. And in that moment there was a blinding flash overhead and a deafening boom, and I could clearly see what I had swum out to rescue.

“No,” I panted. “No!” It wasn’t Sam, it was a log! A damn log! Is this what I had seen? It couldn’t be. “Sam!” I yelled into the air as I frantically treaded water, my limbs almost completely numb. He was in the water somewhere! But I couldn’t see any other object floating nearby. In fact, I now couldn’t even see the shore. The heavy rain and darkness obscured everything around me. I couldn’t have swum that far out, could I?

I told myself that it didn’t matter. I knew I would reach shore no matter what direction I decided to swim in. I just hoped whichever way I chose was the shortest distance. I surveyed the area as best I could for Sam, but still couldn’t see anyone. What else could I do? Without further delay, but with a sinking heart and sick feeling in my stomach, I randomly chose a direction and began kicking.

But I wasn’t moving. By the time I realized that something had hooked my frozen and numb left ankle, I had been violently pulled completely underwater. I hadn’t had time to get a proper breath. That, along with my instinctive scream, and I had no air in my lungs as I was dragged deeper into the lake’s black depths. It was utterly dark and I couldn’t see what was gripping my ankle. I thrashed and flailed, trying to free myself, my lungs burning for fresh air, but I couldn’t escape. I suddenly understood that I was probably going to die here.

As I was pulled farther down into the crushing abyss, I saw a light beneath me, a growing red luminescence. I realized with fresh horror that I had been dragged all the way down to the bottom of the lake, and my bare feet were now touching the cold, slimy sludge of the lakebed.

By the light of the steadily increasing glow around me, I could just make out a hole in the mud at the bottom of the lake. But it was much more than just a hole. A tunnel? A passageway? A portal? It was big enough for several people to fit inside at once. And there was that light. That was where the reddish illumination was coming from. But it wasn’t a bright light, it was a dark light. It looked dark, felt dark. I couldn’t quite understand it.

It was then that it occurred to me that my lungs were no longer burning, and that my leg was free from whatever had gripped it. But my mind didn’t care. I was transfixed by this light. It was if I could sense it, hear it, taste it even. I could feel myself sinking toward the hole. Or was I being sucked into it? I was terrified, yet at the same time a part of my brain wanted, no, needed to know more. I floated right over the aperture, looking down into it.

That’s when…it…appeared from out of the darkness within that mystifying tunnel. At first it was no more than a dark shape, but the strange dark light soon made every detail as clear to me as if I were standing under a bright streetlight. I saw the thing and it was large, menacing, and horrendous. It had the general form of a beastly man with ferociously clawed limbs. The gray flesh covering its enormous body, tinted red by the surrounding illumination, looked scaly and armored like a crocodile’s. In places the skin was torn and ripped, hanging off in chunks, rotten and decayed. What I thought was another limb at first turned out to be a long and powerful-looking tail, similar to that of a lizard. And its head, if it could be called a head, was grotesque. Elongated and unnaturally stretched out, the head looked like the body of a grub with a ragged gash near the neck where a long, black tongue slid hungrily across brown, jagged teeth. All over its body, seemingly at random, were what I could only describe as rusted pieces of metal. They looked like they had been grafted and embedded in the thing’s flesh. Metal plates and blades adorned its torso, while what looked like steel wire was wrapped around its limbs. And on the top of its squirming head were two metal rods that were securely lodged where eyes could have been.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell. But I was held there like a deer watching two bright lamps flying ever closer. The thing reached out of the hole and grabbed me by my throat, its claws digging painfully into the sides of my neck. It was then that the spell broke. I suddenly felt the crushing, icy water all around me, the desperate burning of my lungs for air, and heart-stopping dread at what I saw before me.

The creature pulled me closer and licked its hideous teeth with its black tongue. From the thing’s clawed hand, I felt a surge that made my skin burn as if it were being torn away from muscle.  There was an excruciating pounding in my ears and chest along with the sickening feeling that my stomach had been filled with poison. My mind began to rupture as if it was trying to destroy itself to escape this terror.

A single bubble escaped my mouth and I was pulled into the endless darkness of that watery pit to witness and experience horrors beyond comprehension.

 

Bio: S. Alessandro Martinez has had several stories published in various horror magazines such as Sanitarium and Deadman’s Tome, and three of his stories have been selected to appear in anthologies. He has self-published a book of twisted poems, and is working on several short stories and a fantasy novel. Some of his inspirations include H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Joseph Delaney, and Brian Lumley. Alessandro lives in Southern California. Find out more at: salessandromartinez.com

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The Corner Booth by Brandon Schneider

Oct 22 2017

They’re out there, somewhere. I don’t even know what “they” are exactly. Good, bad. Male, female. Self aware or just as lost as the rest of us. But they wander, and I’ve seen them.

Ten years ago, a few years after college and a few years before I met someone fool enough to take my name, I took a job while doing some wandering myself. Like most people unsure what to do with their lives, I had a knack for selling myself short. Bar back. Dishwasher. Busboy. I didn’t know what I was good at and sure as hell didn’t care to find out.

After my first twenty odd years on the east coast I ended up out a ways in New Mexico. The plan had been to hightail it all the way to California but somewhere along the way someone offered me a job. Dealing with car troubles and not the heftiest of savings, a couple months making easy cash didn’t seem such a bad idea. It was a diner gig, fifty miles from the nearest town and only a couple from the nearest string of motels. I stayed at the cheapest one which didn’t matter because I spent most of my time working.

I started off bussing and washing, but the owner found me tolerable enough to be put out front after my first week. I hadn’t waited before but it was slow enough that even on my own I could cover all the tables without breaking a sweat. More tips, too.

My routine set in pretty quickly. Work one ‘til close and head out by nine, nine thirty at the latest. Then I’d get drunk by the pool. Sometimes with another wanderer, usually by myself. I’d pass out until noon the next day and barely make it in time for my next shift. I would get one day off a week, maybe two, but those were the worst. The t.v. in my room had four channels, none of them dirty. And the closest town was not worth a fifty mile drive.

Well, it was a routine. The money piled up pretty quick, as it does when there’s nothing and no one to blow it on, and I rather enjoyed the ritual of it all. I’d chat up the guests who popped in, where they came from and where they were headed. All fine and dandy. But what intrigued me most was how quickly they’d tell me what they were running from. Whether they realized it or not, it usually came pouring out all too quick.

Maybe people love talking to strangers. Or maybe out in the desert, where so many things big and small have come to meet their maker, that need for confession presents itself. Either way I’d listen, and usually get a pretty decent tip for doing so.

Two months in these strangers started losing my attention. The nights of drinking had lost their luster as well but I soldiered on, and I caught myself looking out to the road more and more. What I was running from was close to catching up.

Ten months prior I’d lost my brother and sister in a car wreck. My brother, the eldest by four years, was taking her back to college for spring semester. When they didn’t make it my parents sold the house and headed for Europe. I didn’t blame them for leaving, not even for leaving me. It was like we were all sickened by the sight of each other afterwards. The fact that it was no one’s fault didn’t seem possible.

Ten months crept towards eleven. I didn’t know where I wanted to be a year after their deaths, but I knew it wasn’t at some hole in the wall diner fifty miles from anywhere.

I was mulling this over one slow evening, an hour ‘til close with one guest working on a slice of apple pie. I would have offered him more coffee but I’d just cleaned the pots and wasn’t looking to dirty another. So I let him be and he let me. Whether he gave a tip or not didn’t amount to much of a fuck at this point in the day. It had been a slow one and I wanted to get drunk.

Then a small man appeared at the window. I couldn’t see his car, it’s possible he’d wandered over from one of the motels. Guests had done it before, underestimating the distance between the two. He was just short of five and a half feet, with round little glasses that suggested intellectual. He peered in, looking at the menu on the wall, looking at the guest, then looking over at my sorry ass slumped behind the counter. I stared right back, hoping this guy would just fuck off, but knowing he’d come in and keep me late.

So I turned back to the paper I’d already read half a dozen times that day, waiting to hear that door jingle as he shuffled in. “How late are you open?” he’d ask. And I’d tell him he had an hour, and fuck me I’d have to dirty one of those coffee pots again.

Except he didn’t enter. And when I looked back I could barely see his silhouette shuffling into the night.

Peculiar? Sure, maybe. To an over active mind. I myself didn’t give it a second thought. He probably saw we were closing and figured he’d try elsewhere. Makes perfect sense. Except there was no other elsewhere. I let it go because closing time was coming with drinking time right after.

About a week later I had a rather full night. Luckily one of the other servers, Mary Lou, bothered to show up. A couple businessmen laughed their asses off in one booth, a family of four minded their own at another, and three truckers sat huddled at the counter. For us that meant a full house.

And in the midst of handing out dessert menus I glanced to see what had gotten caught in the corner of my eye. A young woman, no older than twenty five I’d say. She had a nice dress on, a little dusty sure, but cute. A pang hit me as I thought of my sister.

The woman stood for a moment, eyeing the menu, when her attention turned to me. I returned her gaze, and a strange sensation struck that she was waiting to be invited in. It was like that feeling while out on a date and you realize it’s the moment to make a move. Except this had none of that giddy excitement behind it, only a cold dread.

A drunk businessman tugged my shoulder wanting to know if I could refill the toothpick holder and I finally started breathing again. Peculiar. Yeah. Maybe even strange, to the over active mind.

I glanced back, but the girl was already walking off. Perhaps to her car. Perhaps to nowhere.

Towards the end of the night I asked Mary Lou if she’d seen the girl but she seemed more focused on splitting tips than my idle chatter. So I went home and got drunk. A sour drunk, the kind you head into knowing it’s the wrong direction, already seeing the debris in the lanes ahead. And I dreamt of the girl at the window.

The next few days provided no new excitement, although more than once the owner asked me what in the hell I was hoping to spot outside. She wanted to have her camera ready. Then after a week of nothing I decided to let it go. The fact was I’d spotted two people who considered visiting a diner and changed their minds.

Then I saw my third wanderer. A middle aged woman, a tad overweight with graying blonde hair and a limp in her left leg. She wore blue jeans and a red country shirt. Had a wedding ring on. I remember these things because I served her.

Dusk set in as the last guest shoved off. Bob Seger cut in an out from the radio when the woman came shuffling down the road. No car, it was bright enough to see that. Maybe she came from a hotel, or her car sat just beyond the horizon.

Plausible, sure. But why did she come all this way just to stare through the window? Not like there was a steak house down the street, or a pizza joint that might be cheaper. We were it, sister.

But stared she did, and I stared back. And just as she turned to push on I waved her in. She paused, eyeing me, so I waved again. With the second wave she headed towards the entrance and I felt my bowels contract in a way that I would have sworn was fatal.

I didn’t shit my pants, but I’ll tell you it was a fifty fifty chance for a moment. “Evening, ma’am,” I croaked. Cleared my throat. “Sit anywhere you like.” That part came out only a little bit more clear.

She chose a corner booth, furthest from the door, and kept her eyes on me the entire time. I gave her a menu and ran through it friendly enough, but what she understood or didn’t I can’t tell you.

In the end she ordered a ham sandwich, no mustard, no cheese, and a coffee with one sugar. She paid cash with a two dollar tip, thanked me for my kindness, and headed out into the night. Oh and she had a little scar, just above her right eye. As if she’d slipped on some black ice as a child and was left with a life long reminder to take it slow come winter.

By the time she did leave it was about close, and I drank so hard that night that I actually did miss my shift the next day. I got yelled at sure, but this being my first fuck up it was forgotten pretty quick.

I ignored the next couple window gazers, the best term I could think to use for them. And off they would go, no problem no sir. But after spotting a little old Asian man wandering away curiosity got the better of me again.

I spotted a young hispanic man with short hair and a tattoo on his arm that I couldn’t make out. He wandered up, eyed the menu, glanced at the guests, then landed on me. I waved and in he came.

He took the corner booth, ordering a ham sandwich with no cheese and no mustard. One coffee with one sugar. I asked him if he wanted to see a dessert menu, to which he either didn’t hear or didn’t know how to respond. He left a two dollar tip, thanked me for my kindness, and headed off into the night.

And he had a scar above his right eye.

After that I started welcoming the window gazers in rather regularly. I’d even finish their order for them, casually, as if we’d known each other for years. And hell, maybe we had in some nightmare world.

Even when I’d cut them off though, “no mustard, I know,” I’d say, they’d continue right on script.

“No mustard, no cheese, please. And a coffee if you have it. Black.”

“One sugar?”

“One sugar, if you have it.”

Sometimes I’d tell them I didn’t have coffee, or that the ham had gone bad. They would thank me for my kindness and leave, just like that. Hell of a diet.

And just as I settled into my new spot in the outer limits, they stopped appearing. Or he, or she. One person or a thousand, I still don’t know. But they stopped.  And for some fucked up reason I was disappointed. Maybe I had expected to find an answer, that it was all a coincidence or prank. Or maybe I just wanted a clear glimpse at the other side.

After a month more of nothing I decided it time to move on. I gave my two weeks which the owner took worse than I would have guessed, and started puzzling over where to head next.

Then my sister visited, a year after her death. I was in the middle of serving this couple, the woman sending her burger back for the third time. Part of me wanted to tell her there’s no way she’s getting a burger safe to eat at this point, but most of me did not give a shit. So I took it back a fourth time and watched as the cook slapped a new patty on the ground and rubbed his boot on it for good measure.

As I came back out with this fouled piece of beef, there my sister stood at the window. She wore a tattered hoodie, none that I recognized, blue jeans and sneakers. Beat up ones that looked familiar but I could not be sure. I slammed the burger down in front of the woman so hard I nearly broke the plate, but she didn’t say anything and if she did I didn’t hear it.

I waved my sister in. There might have been a slight smile, or smirk rather, but my heart was going so fast my vision had blurred.

She went to the booth, the furthest one from the door, and took a seat. Part of me wanted to hug her. Another part wanted to retrieve a meat cleaver from the back and open her skull. I decided on neither and took a seat opposite her.

“Evelyn,” I said as I sat, my body shaking so badly that even my teeth felt numb.

“I’d like to order one ham sandwich. No mustard, no cheese, please.”

“Evelyn is that you?” It looked like her alright, except for the scar above the eye. It sounded like her too, I thought as the tears formed. They felt odd running down my still numb face.

“And a coffee if you have it. Black.”

It couldn’t be her. Could it? The real Evelyn had died in a car crash. Bad one. The one you don’t identify a body from. But here she sat, and I saw details my memory had already begun to lose… the bump in her nose, slight gap in her teeth. It had to be her. Except for the scar.

“Evelyn, how did you get here? You’re dead. You died, Evie.”

“One sugar, if you have it.”

And I grabbed her. I grabbed her so hard I saw her wince. So it felt pain.

“She didn’t have a scar, you fuck,” I spat as I started shaking her, so hard I hoped to break her neck. The guests all stopped to watch but I didn’t care.

At some point we were pulled apart, me landing on the ground and crying so hard that my ribs hurt.

Evelyn pushed through the crowd, I could smell her breath as she crouched down. Foul, dark. Like something that had subsisted off of ham sandwiches and black coffee for a couple hundred years.

“Good luck in California,” she said in a voice not my sisters, something not at all human. Then she kissed my cheek, a kiss so cold I could have sworn frostbite would form.

She rose to her feet, thanked me for my kindness and headed for the door. I don’t remember her leaving but I do remember Mary Lou pushing away the gawking customers.

“You never invite them in,” she scolded as she brought me to the back. Before I could respond Mary Lou produced a photo from her wallet. The girl in the dusty dress.

“My daughter,” she said as I took the photo. “Gone sixteen years this August.”

“You ignored her.”

“I ignored it. Your sister’s the first one you recognized?”

“What does it want?”

“Coffee and a sandwich. Beyond that I don’t much care to find out.”

Mary Lou gave me the money I was owed and sent me off. I drove far that night, but not towards California. A cheap parlor trick that lived off caffeine, deli meat and human misery had seen to that.

Before leaving I asked Mary Lou why she hadn’t stopped me… all those times I’d let it in. Her answer didn’t mean much at the time. My drinking’s gotten worse since then, bad enough that the woman fool enough to take my name wasn’t fool enough to stick around. And I think about all those wanderers that I’d waved in, and all the other beasts that followed over the years.

“It only feeds if you leave something out for it.”

 

Bio: Growing up in Northeast Ohio I recently moved to Southern California after graduating college in 2012.

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Hints by Mark Bilsborough

Oct 15 2017

It rained. I remember that much, even though most of my memories from that time have been mercifully removed. I take my eyes from the television and ease myself out of my chair.

“Stop muttering, you old fart,” Jimmy shouts out from across the room. He’s not really called Jimmy, of course, just as I’m not really Frankie. Code names. I’m a sleeper agent, probably. Jimmy’s mostly asleep, except when he’s yelling at me to switch over to EastEnders.

Jimmy’s been at Dreamlands for nearly as long as I have: five years and counting. Jimmy’s eighty three and looks closer to death than any man has a right to and still be alive. He’s a survivor, is our Jimmy. Held together with gristle, meanness and sheer bloody mindedness. He used to be a train driver, and part of him still thinks he is. He probably thinks he’s on some sort of endless strike and he’s picketing a run-down nursing home in Margate. All the others turn down their hearing aids when he rambles on about decades old incidences of minor rudeness from his long suffering passengers, but I listen. I’m listening now, because the wheezing sound coming from poor old Jimmy doesn’t sound entirely natural, and I’m beginning to develop a theory about that.

Plenty have come and gone since I got here and I can tell by the slightly worried look on the faces of the staff that it’s less of a miracle and more of a bloody inconvenience that I haven’t followed them out of the door.

But I’m one step ahead. I’d been in a month when it occurred to me that people in here were sick. Not the normal sick of people who’d lived too long and were ready to go but the kind of sick you get when someone’s messing with your medication. So I stopped taking mine and started watching.

Five years, twenty four deaths, two survivors. Jimmy never sees me swap his pills for smarties every morning at breakfast, and I reckon that’s why he’s still here. I make sure the staff never clock the swap, though I doubt if all of them are in on the conspiracy.

But Jimmy’s wheezing is a concern. That’s how the others started, one by one. I didn’t mind at first. A steady stream of funerals gets you up and about and the cakes at the crematorium are certainly worth the trip. And every time someone in a better room than mine died I got to move up. After a while, though, there’s nowhere to move up to; only out.

Young Chrissy. She’s the ringleader. I’ve seen the look in her eye as she scopes out her next victim. Jimmy’s the latest, then it’ll be me. They must know about the medication by now.

I surprise her in the kitchen as she prepares a cup of tea for Jimmy. I bet that’s how she’s doing it now. Tea so strong he’ll never notice it’s laced with rat poison.

“I’m on to you, you know.”

She turns and smiles. She might be pretty if she didn’t have an evil glint in her eye. That, or too much mascara. “Hello, Freddie. Want a cuppa?”

No one human has ever said ‘cuppa’. And that’s how I know for sure.

“You’re not from round here, are you?”

She pours another cupful of the tea. I don’t see her slip the poison in but my eyesight’s not what it was. “No, love. I’m from Middlesbrough.”

Further than that, if I’m not mistaken. Much further than that.

“And what are your plans, Chrissy from Middlesbrough?”

“Me? Always wanted to be by the seaside. And I met this bloke…”

I cut her off. “Your real plans. Don’t forget I’m on to you.”

Her mask slips and I see the shrewd interior. “Ah you mean the plans for world domination? Clever. You found me out.”

My collar starts to feel tight. I’ve overplayed. She’d only be this honest if she was about to kill me. Let the victim know the full horror of his defeat.

“Where are you actually from?”

“Midd… oh hell. Why not. I’m from a planet circling a star you call 61 Cygni, about ten light years from here.”

“I knew it!”

“And we thought the best place to start our quest for world domination would be a retirement home in South East England. Sugar?”

I’m not in the mood to be distracted. “I bet by now you’ve infiltrated the government; got your hands on those nuclear codes.”

She gives me a long appraising look, as if marvelling at my perception. “Well, you know the new leader of Thanet District Council…” She leaves the implication hanging.

He’d come from nowhere. Could he…?

“Nah, just joshing. I really am from Teeside. Digestive?”

I shuffle back over to Jimmy, who’s fast asleep even though the television’s on at full volume. I turn it off and suck on my biscuit.

Rain. Something to do with the rain.

Jimmy’s funeral takes place two weeks later. For some reason the old fart had left a will, and it specified a proper burial. That means standing outside while a bunch of old railwaymen lower his slowly rotting carcass into the ground. And, being England in June the skies are grey and even with my umbrella I’m soaked. I realise it’s the first time since I entered Dreamlands that I’ve felt the rain.

Memories. Rain washed them away, rain sweeps them back, like a trigger. I’d read that sleeper agents usually come awake with a code word or a flashing image, but I can testify that a drop of water in the right place works just as well.

I’m not really supposed to be in the nursing home, I know that now. And I’m not really a sleeper agent; just an agent who because of the vagaries of the British weather found himself inexplicably asleep for five years.

Why did I think the staff were killing the residents? The hints were there. My aversion to their dreadful food and ridiculous TV isn’t anything to do with old age; it’s because I don’t belong here. And I have no access to smarties: I was swapping Jimmy’s pills with my own.

I’m the alien. I need to get on a train to London as soon as I can.

Chrissie intercepts me as I fumble for change at the ticket counter. She leans a hand on mine, and that’s when I realise we’re the same, her and me.

“Frankie. Time we went home.” I start to object but she cuts me off. “And none of that nonsense about taking over the world. You’re retired from all that, remember?”

Now that Jimmy’s gone we can watch the sci-fi channel. And I truly believe that Chrissie really does come from Middlesbrough, just like I do.

Because that’s where we landed, all those years ago.

 

End.

 

Bio:

Mark always wanted to be an astronaut but left it a bit late, so he writes fiction instead. His work can be found dotted around the internet. He has work upcoming in On The Premises, The Colored Lens, Digital Science Fiction and Storyteller.

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Boots by Rory Angus

Oct 08 2017

He took another step.

The mountains of Benren faded out in their slow descent into the emerald plains of Kalanan, which were fertile and green and glowed like a field of jewels. They were crisscrossed by the scars of the tracks of the armies and war machines from Dakria, most of which were long gone on their journey to Kassia City. A web of rivers wound across the plains, and he unknowingly stepped into the waters of one of those rivers, but the river at that place was very shallow, and it did not rise over the tops of his heavy, ornate boots. The sky overhead was blue and clear, though dark clouds were gathered to the east, where the Dakrian armies feasted and made cheer in the capital.

He took another step.

The farmlands closer to the capital had been rich and brimming with a surplus of food which was sent to other lands as trade or gift or tribute. This generosity, among other virtues, had once endeared the land of Kassia to its neighbours. However, like many virtues, it was, to some, a sign of weakness. Now the farmlands were in many places smoldering – the fires still swirled together and flocked up like ugly incorporeal birds to the sky. He did not like to linger there. The contrast between what that part of the land had once been and what it was now was too painful, and he was a sensitive man.

He took another step.

Around the outskirts of Kassia city, many buildings rose. The architects of Kassia were renowned far throughout the land, and the Dakrians had not seen it necessary to slaughter all of them, nor to destroy the fruits of their labours utterly. So many of the buildings were still standing. Patrols of Dakrian soldiers ranged through the streets, and in places there were only blackened piles of char where there once had been buildings, and other buildings were only the burnt-out shells of their former selves. The man stood in the middle of a mostly-deserted street, and looked down into the ruin of the city, along a line of hastily-erected tents where the Kassian slave-girls were kept, out to a barricade set up down the street. A few people turned to look at him. He did not even know if they were Kassian or Dakrian.

He took another step.

The stairs up to the great palace of Kassia City were heavily guarded, and protected by soldiers and magic spells. The streets before the grand stairs were utterly deserted, by order of the Dakrian Empress. He looked down at the streets behind him, for a moment, even as he heard shouts from the guards who had spotted him standing on the stairs where no one was meant to be. He had only seconds to look before his death was certain. The city, being so empty, was eerily foreboding. He had been here when the streets were bustling with throngs of happy Kassians going this way and that about their lives. He had learned, of late, to make the most of moments and seconds. So, for a moment, he imagined the streets the way they had once been. It was pleasant to indulge in that fantasy, but a second later his time was up. He turned around. He saw guards with their spears and bows levelled; saw the crackle of an unknown, killing magic in the air.

He took another step.

The throne room of the palace had been greatly changed by the occupation. He had never truly been in the throne room, for even though Kassia had been, and perhaps would be again, a free and happy kingdom, there had to be limits upon everything. No one of such common background as himself had been allowed into the throne room. Nevertheless he could only be certain that before the invasion the room had not been designed in the fashion of the great sunken temples of Dakria. He stood just behind a dark, ornate, towering throne. It was nothing that the rulers of Kassia would have chosen, but their line was now extinguished and their throne was gone. A crowd of well-dressed people gathered in the expansive floor below the steps that led down from the throne. Some of them were arrayed in armor, and others in religious robes, and others in fine civil clothes. The man carefully crept forward, hiding behind the great throne, edging closer to the statuesque woman who stood on the steps above the crowd. Her back was to him; he could not see her face. Her robes flowed out from her and spread down the stairs, blanketing them in sheets of gold and black. Her form was enclosed in intricate wiry armor, but the back of her neck was exposed, and the man carried a dagger in his left hand. As he crept forward, the noise of conversation swept over him.

“No one has died in the attacks, highness. Whoever this bandit is, he seems content to cut ropes and spill oil and set fire to supplies. Inconveniences of note, certainly, but nothing that the army cannot bear.”

“It is impossible to catch the man, great lady,” another, pleading voice said. “Whatever the power behind the artifacts, their wearer appears and is gone in an instant. We have summoned all the magic we can muster. Without the means to track the bandit’s disappearances, we are forced to keep the mages ready at all times for an attack – which, may your greatness forgive me, is beyond them.”

“Excuses, excuses, excuses,” came the cold, cultured voice from the figure whose face the creeping assassin could not see. “All I understand is that a single man, and a Kassian, at that, has caused such chaos in our armies. And what great power does he possess, one wonders? Nothing but a pair of magic boots!”

“My lady! Forgive me, but he is right behind you!”

Swords and spears and arrows sprang forth from a dozen places; mages around the throne room summoned their terrible powers; figures darted up the steps, heading right for the young man who stood behind the empress and the throne. The woman herself turned around, and for a moment he was face to face with the leading power behind the ruin of his land, and perhaps he had hoped to see fear or shock on her face.

To his dismay, he saw only scorn.

He took another step.

The marshes to the east of Kassia City were wide and treacherous, but he was fortunate enough to step onto solid, if squishy, ground. Here, the land had been spared from war, for few armies could pass through the swamps. Gone was the noise and confusion of the uproar in the throne room. There was only the soft wind, and a bird crying far away, and the rustling of the foxtails in the water. He took a moment to collect himself, wondering. He had had his chance. It had taken days to learn that the Dakrian empress would be in the throne room of the palace in Kassia City at that particular time, on that particular day. From now on she would be far more heavily guarded, if she ever came to the throne room at all. He could have taken his chance to strike down the scourge of Kassia, but he had not. Perhaps he had wanted to wait for the perfect moment to end her life. Perhaps he had been too absorbed in the conversation occurring. Perhaps he had simply been unwilling, for he had not yet done so in the weeks of his lonely campaign of insurrection, to kill.

It did not matter. The moment was gone. As fast as he was, time was faster. Surely, he would have another chance, and when that chance came again, he would take it.

Perhaps it was time, the man reasoned, to cease fighting the war alone. Word of his exploits would have spread among the Kassian people by now. All was not lost. There was much work to do.

He took another step.

 

Bio: My name is Rory Angus. I am an aspiring fantasy writer from Victoria, B.C. Canada. I have studied creative writing and philosophy at Camosun College. I prefer to write high fantasy and science fantasy stories. I also write formal poetry and have been published in the 2014 “Island Magic” anthology by The Poetry Institute of Canada and Young Writers, for the short fantasy poem “Giants”.

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The Returning Avalanche By Charles G. Chettiar

Oct 01 2017

Inspector Sathi didn’t like night shifts. Many of the crimes were committed in the night and he didn’t like frequent calls on his time. It was raining outside when he saw the albino coming near the police station. Inspector Sathi was at the end of his fag—a one of many—till the night ended.

Complainants normally didn’t reach him. They were unusually disposed off by the head constable or the sub-inspector. He raised his eyebrows when his door opened and the albino came in.

He pressed the buzzer for the sub-inspector. When the head constable entered he looked at him.

“He wants to only meet you, sir,” said Dhondu.

“And you let him?”

Dhondu scratched his head looked at a spot behind the inspector.

Sathi turned to the albino and said, “So what is your problem?”

“My name is Vishnu Sahatrakar. I have been robbed.”

“Did you see the robber?”

“Of course, I also know where they live.”

Another dead-end case like so many. He would file an FIR and then get to it after loads of other cases were cleared.

“Tell the address,” said Sathi.

“Pinkaria mall, 1st level,” said the albino.

Blood rushed to Sathi’s head. He had felt lethargic but hearing the Mall’s name he came wide awake.

“Dhondu? Come here,” he shouted through the door. “Do you think we are fools?”

“No, sir,” said the albino.

“Then what’s this.” He tapped the file with his baton. “Your robbers live in a mall?”

“But yes it is sir. They stole all my ATM pins, netbanking passwords and credit card info.”

“How?”

“They just took it.”

Sathi twirled the pen in his fingers. He looked at his watch. More than six hours till his shift ended.

“I can show you my bank account. Not even a single rupee is left,” said the albino.

Sathi called Subedar his sub-inspector, and told him to verify. After about a quarter of an hour Subedar reported that the complainant appeared genuine.

“Has the man left?” he asked Subedar.

“No sir. He says that he could take us there.”

Sathi sighed. He’d anyway would get bored in the next six hours. He’d just stretch his legs. The night was cool after a very hot day. He could use the fresh air.

“Ready the jeep,” said Sathi.

“Sir?”

“You heard me. We are going to Pinkaria mall,” said Sathi.

The mall seemed deserted when they reached it. Sathi entered it brandishing his baton.

“Where are they?” he asked.

“First floor,” said Vishnu.

Sathi used the escalator. It stood still but started as he took a first step.

The place was deserted except for some people leaving after the midnight show.

“It is at the corner,” said Vishnu.

The board of Pikari toys glimmered as they rounded the corner.

“A toy shop?”

Sathi looked around but couldn’t see Vishnu. The door of the toy shop opened and he ascertained the faint shape of Vishnu going inside.

“Subedar? Dhondu? Where have these people gone?”

Sathi’s feet told him not to go but still he felt himself gravitating towards the toy shop.

Sathi couldn’t help himself. He slid towards the door. he willed his legs to not move. The red carpet on which he stood slid under him. it pulled him forward. He got through the door. the shop’s counter twinkled with lights. He put his baton on the glass counter.

A girl materialised in front of him. he didn’t see her enter. He looked back. Where were Subedar and Dhondu? And where was the complainant?

“Sir?”

“I am here on a case. Robbery,” said Sathi.

“We don’t rob. They get robbed themselves.”

“So you agree,” said Sathi, “that you rob.”

Did he detect a faint hint of blackness in her teeth? He wasn’t sure.

“We can give you a deal to drop the case. It will be a deal of a lifetime,” said the girl.

“First I got to find my people.”

“Your people are being taken care of magnificiently.”

Sathi’s stomach rumbled. Somehow the girl’s violet hair and green lipstick was making him nauseous. The twinkling lights added to his exacerbation.

“Are you ill, inspector?”

“Uh.”

“We have a pill which could cure all your illnesses in one go.”

“No.”

“Then a gift. We need to be generous to the police. The ever grabbing criminalised police. Criminals in uniform.”

“Watch your tongue girl!”

“That’s why a gift is so necessary,” she said twirling her hair.

“I want my men,” said Sathi. He couldn’t believe the pleading tone which had crept up in his voice.

“All in time inspector. All in time.”

He looked away from her. she looked large, as if her head had swollen.

The bell beside her head jingled twice.

“Good inspector, we are ready to go. Your men are done with.”

“I want to go away.”

Sathi turned his face towards the door. It beckoned but he couldn’t move his feet towards it. He moved his hand and it moved. He reached out for the revolver in his holster.

“Uh oh. It’s time is not yet,” said the girl. “But if you insist, you can keep it. But don’t play with it.”

The girl pushed the door.

“Welcome inspector, to the hall of illusions,” she said. “I didn’t tell you my name. I am Mistress Illusia. The hall has a lot of my inputs. But sorry to say that it isn’t my sole brainchild.”

Like a blade cutting into skin, Sathi was through the door.

“Good, that you accepted my invitation.”

Then he was inside like a knife searing through butter.

“Don’t you feel warm?” asked Illusia.

“No,” said Sathi.

His hands could move. His feet could move.

He had felt a certain amount of freezing of his hands and feet, but the freezing had gone off. He lifted the gun and levelled it at Illusia.

“Oh my goddamn. You are free. I didn’t expect this to happen,” she said.

“Where are my men?”

“Don’t shoot me,” she said. “I’ll do whatever you ask.” She winked.

Sathi’s hand went limp and fell to his side. His fingers unclenched and the revolver clanged to the floor.

“Don’t shoot me,” she said. She winked.

Sathi’s knees gave way. He knelt.

Something elemental came to him. Something in the start of fear.

When he came to, Dhondu stood over him.

“I killed her,” said Dhondu.

In Dhondu’s hand was a dagger dripping blood. Illusia lay on the ground her left eye a bloody smear.

“Witch!” said Sathi.

“Get Subedar,” said Sathi. “Fast.”

Dhondu scampered away.

Sathi kicked Illusia.

“Bitch! Bad that you died too soon. Otherwise I would have shown you the repercussions for messing with the law.”

Involuntarily his hand went to the holster.

A bullet should teach that bitch, he thought.

A bullet should.

But his revolver was no longer in his holster. He had dropped it. He looked around the girl but couldn’t find it. he searched but he couldn’t find it.

What could be more certain than grieving with your eyes open. The grief which comes in waves could only come in small measures. Only if he could find the door. A door which would lead him away and beyond.

Away and beyond.

He would have stopped stark without a hint of further prodding. But he didn’t.

“You killed her,” the old man said.

“Who are you?” said Sathi.

“I am Illluson, her father. Wait what I will do to you now.”

He raised his hand. But Sathi was quicker. Sathi launched himself at Illuson and began throttling him.

“Nooo!” cried the old man.

Sathi increased the pressure. Sathi paid no heed to the nails of Illuson digging in his wrists. He kept applying pressure till he old man’s hands grew limp. Sathi withdrew his hands and Illluson crumpled to the floor.

Sathi’s hands shook from the exertion. He could kill not just by weapons but with his bare hands too. He puffed up his chest motioning his hands here and there. He was invincible.

His legs gave a tick. It became a very bad tick. With all the various things in his head, he could make anything suck.

“Sir?”

Sathi had squatted beside the old man with his hand on his heart. Sathi stood up.

“You killed the old man too?”

“Yes,” said Sathi.

“But he was the doorway,” said Subedar.

“The doorway?”

Subedar morphed into a dagger and then into the girl. Dhondu morphed into a doorway and then into Illuson. The bodies on the floor morphed into Dhondu and Subedar—their khaki uniforms splattered with blood.

“No.No.No…,” said Sathi.

Sathi’s knees gave way and he covered his face with his hands.

“It won’t go away inspector,” said Illusia. “Why are you so afraid of your gift? It takes some time to prepare the gift. Do you need gift wrapping?”

“No.”

“You wanted your men inspector. So there they are,” said Illusia.

“I want to get out,” said Sathi.

Illusia’s green lips turned blood red. Her dazzling smile grew crooked with mottled teeth filling them. The teeths grew into fangs. Her hands turned to feathery wings and topped with green claws.

The old man grew different in ways like Illusia. His clothes got ripped as he burst through them. His mouth became a snout and his legs spindly thin their edges razor sharp.

Sathi’s hand grew heavy. His palm had the gun. He levelled it at them.

“No, no,” said Illusia, “you are being hasty.” Spittle dripped from her mouth.

Sathi squeezed the trigger. He kept squeezing till his gun emptied out. With every bullet they grew larger.

He flung the gun at them and shouted,

“I want to get out!”

“First bring your superintendent of police,” said Illusia. An array of light disturbed the darkness.

Behind Sathi a door opened.

THE END

Bio: I am an Engineer by circumstance and writer by choice. I work in Engineering in Mumbai. I started writing short stories when in college, and have just now completed my first novel. My fiction genres include, horror, fantasy, political thrillers & historical. I am looking out for a publisher at present and working on my second book.

 

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THE MAN FROM THE SEA By Ross

Sep 30 2017

Hurricane winds mixed sea with sky and slammed the earth. Lightning ripped the night, burst brightness through every crack in the besieged houses. Thunder slapped the ears of tiny, shivering shore creatures. Dogs cowered with masters no more sentient than they, huddling beneath fragile roofs, awake to each flurry and blast, human and animal praying wordlessly that they might hold on until the sun returned. Ten thousand pounds of airborne sea burst shutters, slashed rattling panes to splinters, inundated kitchens and bedrooms, washed away in an instant the careful accumulations of years of rough toil, sweeping from sight whole fishing fleets, deep sunk piles, heavy dock-works, great metal chunks of cannery in a confusion of wind and sea and land.

A lone survivor clung to a broken pallet tossed in the surf, limbs locked to the life-giving boards until he heard, at last, the storm’s titan steps pound slowly off into the distance, saw it trail its dark clouds behind, receding until at last the milky sun could seep through morning fog.

The ocean’s rage temporarily assuaged, the swells beneath the makeshift raft softened to unnatural gentleness. Lying spent across the drifting pallet, the numbed survivor gazed at the wreckage around him.

Distant shapes shifted along the shore. Blinking water from stunned eyes, the survivor saw fishermen peep cautiously from their hiding places, slowly regaining their ability to think, to take stock of what it would cost them to build anew from whatever flotsam Nature had left in their grasp. All who had not been swept away came down to salvage what they could of broken boats and floating gear.

A rowboat sculled near the pallet and the floating man found himself gazing into the wizened face of a boatman. The boatman looked back at him, eyes narrowing till they disappeared in lines carved deep by time and weather and too much work. Beside the old man, a younger, scruff-bearded oarsman said something in a language the survivor could not understand.

Scruff-beard and the older man looked out at the fragments of shattered town bobbing about the harbor. Bloated fish with shapes never before seen floated on their sides amid window frames and doors. Great tentacled hulks distorted by the lighter pressure of the surface realm drifted among writhing masses of strange-smelling water-plants — all wrenched up from the dark unknown depths beyond the reach of a normal storm. The bodies of townsfolk the sea had released again from its hold, twisted slowly, laved by the gentle waves.

The two boatmen turned their eyes from the broad wrack to the man drifting on the bit of wood. Disbelief showed vivid on their faces. What man could have lived through such a cataclysm?

The man on the raft shivered. He managed to move his head enough to see his own naked body gleaming fish-belly white, piled across the broken pallet like the night’s catch. His last strength gone, he drifted helpless on the gentle swell, arms and legs dangling over the rough wooden frame.

The scruff-bearded man muttered unhappily, lowering his oar to scull away, but the old sailor snapped at him in a voice cracked from decades of breathing sea-salt. The younger fisherman grumbled, but shipped his oar.

The survivor understood well enough. Fisher-folk are not a trusting or altruistic lot. But a seaman always pulls in survivors, as he hopes to be pulled in himself when his time comes.

The wizened man reached out a boat-hook, securing the battered pallet to the rowboat’s side. The survivor’s cold flesh felt the grip of hard, calloused hands, then the world lurched crazily and the two fishermen lifted his limp body over their gunwales, plopping him into the green bilge at their feet. Scruff-beard looked down into the survivor’s eyes, then away again, shivering slightly and pulling angrily at his oar.

The dock being nothing now but a tangle of twisted lumber, the two men beached the small craft and carried the survivor into a house. There the two boatmen did the rough things that sailors do to force water from saturated lungs and thump life back into a half abandoned body.

Wrapped in blankets, hard liquor burning his throat and belly, the man from the sea shook dripping black hair again and again at their questions until the fishermen understood that their language meant nothing to him. Then they offered him clothing left behind by men lost at sea. The stranger clothed himself solely in black.

#

When he could walk, the man from the sea moved into an empty house. Some of the fisher folk gave him fish and bread and crude wine to keep him going while he repaired the place with salvaged storm wreckage. The fishers did not care to live among ruins and it was only right that someone cast up by the sea should repair what the sea had half dragged down.

When the stranger was too tired to patch the roof or nail new shutters over paneless windows, he walked by the restless breakers, trying to remember from whence he had come. The sea gave up no answers. Yet strangely, it gave him what the townsfolk could not — a sense of kinship.

Night fell and still he walked by the sea. Not far from the shore he saw a squid-boat shining shockingly bright lights deep into shifting emerald waves to draw up unwary denizens of the depths. Strange things moved in the stranger’s own deeps, yet no light he cast on them could lure them up to his nets. Finding a sheltered place in the dunes, he curled in soft sand, hoping to find in dream the identity he had lost awake.

#

A gray day dawned, and the stranger rose stiffly, shook sand from the folds of his heavy coat and walked the lonely beach, refreshed by having slept so far from the toiling fishers.

This day the wind thrilled him. This day the smell of fresh kelp and the salt in the air roused him, and the rumble of the loose, rounded rocks rolling each against the others in the retreating surf was a voice that beckoned.

Deep within himself he felt something respond. He felt some living thing rise in him like a prehistoric monster asleep for millennia and waking at last, felt it crane its long, coiling neck from his blackest depths to touch the sky. It cried out through his throat.

A sound — no human sound, but something primordial — welled up in him and he opened all his floodgates, let it forth, and sang to the sea. Strange keening cries echoed up from the wellspring of his being, sounds like whale-song, utterance as passionate, urgent and wordless as an opera sung by a tongue-less man.

And the sea responded. It mourned when he keened. It rejoiced when he hummed joy. Waves leapt or calmed in accordance with his tune. He spread his arms and turned slowly, his mouth full of song, rejoicing for the first time since he had come to the shore. Joy poured through him with a shockingly palpable power — and impossibly, unthinkably, a great, glassy column of green water rose from the surface of the sea, whirling up into the pale sky in a gleaming waterspout, until the note he was singing faded, and the column dissolved back into the waves.

It could not be, thought the stranger. But he knew, even as he thought it, knew with the deepest kind of knowing, that he had touched some elemental part of his cloudy soul — proving to himself that he had a soul, that he was as real as the solid fisher folk among whom he drifted like a ghost.

When the song had found its close, the stranger walked back to the half-empty town. The able men were all at sea, the women toiling in the small houses. Only a few crippled men wandered the narrow, stinking streets, scavenging their way through one more day. The stranger spun in circles in the street, face upraised, for the first time fascinated by the shapes of the houses, the flapping of the clothes on the lines, the cries of the cats quarreling over fish heads in the alleys — all of it now beautiful in its very squalor.

The stranger saw a young woman watching him from just outside a shop; saw her take in the smile on his usually expressionless face and the foggy breath puffing warm and moist from his parted lips. He pictured the unaccustomed glow within him expanding to engulf her, too.

The young woman glanced from him to a nearby scavenger, old before his time, rummaging through a slop barrel. The man from the sea followed her gaze. To him the crippled man seemed thick and heavy, like all the men here, beaten into compact, dense shapes by the relentless pounding of the sea. The glow seemed to pour from the stranger and sweep around the bent sailor with no effect upon him, like an incoming tide flashing to either side of an aged oak, the tree’s gnarled shape bent and twisted by past storms, yet its broad trunk unmoved by present waves.

The young woman turned from the ruined sailor, her wide eyes drinking in the stranger’s glow and the man from the sea saw a spark flash behind those green eyes. He thought perhaps she had glimpsed something in him, had recognized something from Outside. Suddenly the staring woman looked thin and hungry – yearning – wracked with impossible yearnings…

#

The stranger sat with the young woman on a blanket, leaning against the shattered hulk of a rowboat, far from the rebuilt wharf. He liked this quiet place where they could smell sea and not dead fish. A stump of candle fluttered between them. They looked at the full moon just rising from the distant curve of the sea.

Savoring the candlelight that rounded her smooth cheeks and glinted from random strands of her hair, he poured more of the stale, sharp wine. She clacked her tin cup against his and sipped. Gazing into her pale green eyes he felt a pang like a plucked harp string. Not sure what note had sounded within him, he said, “Thank you.”

“For what?” she laughed. “This wine? It’s not very good.”

“For teaching me your language.”

“Well,” she said, “we might have a few lessons yet to go, but at least you can talk like a person. You know,” she dug her bare toes into the sand, brushing aside bits of sharp shell and broken wood, “that’s important to me.”

“Free time isn’t cheap, here,” he replied. “Why spend yours teaching me?”

She turned her head a little to the side, peeking up at him through dangling lengths of candlelit hair. “Because I’ve been dying to ask you…”

“What can I tell you?” he asked, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Well…why do you always wear black?”

She fingered the cuff of his simple, sturdy seaman’s coat. He shrugged, saying,

“Anything but black is a burning – a glare – a lie. Sometimes…” He shook his head.

“Please,” she enticed softly, the tips of her fingers barely touching his sleeve, “tell me.”

No one had ever cast a net into his waters before — had ever acknowledged there might be more of value to him than another pair of arms that should be tugging at the oars. He found himself struggling to express to her what he had thought inexpressible.

“Sometimes,” he said, “these clothes almost — almost — convince me that I am who people see. Yet when I look into a pool of water, I never see this pale face reflected, I see only the storm.”

“When I look at you,” she said softly, “I see raven-black hair and clothing, skin pale as the moon, eyes dark as a hundred fathom depth. I see…”

She gazed up at him, candlelight in her eyes. A sudden current pulled him, drawing him toward her like the riptide that drew him to the seashore each day.

“You have to find a way to live,” she sighed. “You could do anything. Tell me, why won’t you work on the squid-boat? That’s a good job for someone starting out — at least, as long as you’re single.”

“Fish till I die?”

She shrugged. “It’s what men do.”

He stared out across the water at the full moon half-risen from its wavering reflection.

He said simply, “I could not die a traitor.”

She nodded.

Surprised that she seemed to understand, he gazed wide-eyed at her profile in the soft light.

She sipped her wine, then whispered, “You felt a call, didn’t you?”

“A call?”

“That’s why you can’t fish, why you…. I know what it’s like,” she confided, sinking onto one arm and tilting her head back in the wild waves of guttering candlelight. “I feel the call, too — the drive to find something better than this miserable little town. Something real. Something lasting. Something…”She shivered a little. She leaned in close, eyes wide and sparkling in the wavering light. She urged gently, “Tell me something.”

He found himself saying, “Anything.”

“Where do you go, alone on the beach?”

He shook his head, able to say only, “To the sea.”

She tossed her hair from her face and tried another tack. “Don’t you want to go inland? To a city? A real job? A real future with people who aren’t all broken down from storms and endless work? See beautiful things? Be more than all this?”

He stood and flung a stone into the surf. It vanished with a barely heard and invisible splash. He said, “I can’t exist away from the sea – storms and all. The ocean holds me like iron chains.”

“Like a lover,” she breathed.

“Like a distrusted lover one can’t imagine leaving,” he replied. “Like the other half of a sundered soul. There is no inland for me — there’s only here at the edge of the sea. Yet I don’t know how to wring a living from it and still live with myself.”

“That’s why the fishermen are so disgusted with you. They don’t understand that you have some connection.”

Her face was close to his, her eyes glowing. He felt a surge of strange, sudden kinship with her as he recognized the struggle behind those eyes, realized that something deep within her could wait no longer, was feeling its moment and forcing its way to the surface. A crease of determination appeared at the corners of her lips. The rising tide bore her beyond safe harborage and she asked him what she really wanted to ask — what she had not meant to ask so soon: “Take me with you — when you go to the seashore tomorrow.”

The candle died. The stranger felt the full moon pressing against his back, gazing over his shoulder into her pale green eyes. He felt the swift current pull, swirl, rush him toward her shining stare. Yet, much as he longed to return to the deeps, some part of him distrusted the foreign waters of those eyes. He turned away, looked again at the reflected moon rippling on the dark, restless waters. The moon in the black sky just above it seemed too huge and too perfectly round to be real.

The man from the sea felt the young woman’s breath against his cheek.

She whispered, “Take me with you. Let me see what you do.”

The stranger let the undertow take him, let his hands cup her face as they longed to do, let the force that moved him bend his lips down to take hers, let the incredible softness, the unimaginable moist tenderness of her kiss astonish him. He floated in the sweet yet sharp sensations, the shivering delight of her smooth texture against his, the impossible warmth of her volcanic energy pressing back against his cool sea current. His hands and hers smoothed and stroked, marveled and trembled at the power of what they touched. The wine spun inside him, the world whirled up and away beyond them, as he was swept down the whirlpool toward her loveliness.

He knew something irrevocable was happening, something foreign, fraught with unseen shoals. But a man on a life raft must land where he can.

He lapped at her sweet shores, swam in her caresses. He had at last touched warmth and could not let go. He clutched her softness like a drowning man, afraid he would pull her down with him, but unable to unlock his limbs from hers, wrapped for dear life around her, their forms interlocked in one swirling, mutual descent. Desperately, he let himself drown, hoping against hope his own coldness would not chill her magnificent fire.

Whispering and sighing, the sea beat gently against the shore.

#

The man from the sea lay on his back in soft moonlight, nerves tingling, the flush of warmth suffusing them both, her light fingertips brushing across his chest.

She whispered, “Where are you from?”

Drifting between past and present, between consciousness and that ineffably sweet sleep that comes to a man only at such a time, he half heard, half felt her, his senses as confused and intermixed as their limbs were intertwined. Having no solid answers, he let what words wished spill forth.

“The storm was terrible,” he said softly. “Yet I remember little. High walls of water crashing down. A vast rage pounding the shore with shapeless fists. The storm took me from the world that was, to this. My memories are all aftermath.”

The lightest caress and the soothing voice asked as one, “Who are you?”

Shivering slightly at the sheer shock of her smoothness under his dreamily exploring hand, he said, “The man they pulled from the sea was me. And yet not me. I feel I am still floating with the debris in the ruined harbor. I float, and watch myself float, experiencing what comes and knowing nothing, but feeling that somehow, deeply, fundamentally, I am someone and something entirely different…”

Consciousness dimmed sweetly. Her fingers were a gentle insistence, waking him just enough to hear, “What happened to your memory?”

“My memories,” he murmured, hardly knowing what he said, “are with the town ruins at the bottom of the sea.”

“What are you, really – deeply – truly?”

“When I walk the shoreline,” he whispered, “I feel and speak — I don’t know how — the language of the deep. I am kin to the sea and can call forth its powers.”

Betraying his secret shocked him awake. He stilled further questions with his lips, pulled her halfway into his world with whispers and gentle insistence of his own. The ceaseless sea smoothed and rounded the soft dunes. Seals came close to shore and called to him. Luxuriant seaweed strands waved in the waters, and on the moonlit sands a thick-shelled crustacean dragged itself from the surf to stretch its primitive claws at the great unreachable moon.

The stranger sensed the moment of acceptance and knew the young woman felt and believed.

#

Within a week, the woman had become the stranger’s bridge to the fisher folk. She sold them his skill, his song. The woman told him when to speak to the sea and where to coax from it fair winds and good fishing, and the fishers who paid for his song profited.

As is sometimes the way with women and with men, the stranger and the woman came to be living in the same house and eating the same meals and sharing a communion of bodies with few words said. But he would not let her go with him to the ocean’s edge, for the songs came forth only when he was alone. She would smile in acceptance, yet he sensed the undertow that pulled the sand, grain by grain, from beneath her feet. He saw the forbidden fascinate her, and disturb her still waters. He felt her terrible hunger for his connection with the sea and watched her jealousy of it grow, and the wind began to rise.

#

A day came when the wind from the sea blew cold and the stranger’s worn black pea jacket could not keep out its bite. He stood at dawn on gray sands, raising his arms to thick clouds, singing to the sea. Strange cries importuned from his throat, and a storm began to brew on the seaward horizon. He told himself he could calm the sea — should use his gift to protect the town — would safeguard his comfortable home — must protect his love and his life and his cold flesh with a song of peace and gold light shafting into green waters, a song of smooth sailing and azure skies on bright days. But he found there was no such song in him.

He tried to stop his unearthly singing, his inhuman tones. He tried to ask himself, “Why should I seek the storm again? I value what I’ve built. I have a home, a wife, a place in this world.”

Yet he could not betray the song that sang through him. It was a living thing. As the fishermen could not leave a man in the sea, the stranger could not leave the song adrift, unfulfilled — for all that the tune remained a song of desolation, of the stunned survivor hanging on, floating on a makeshift raft, moved by currents he could not outguess, awaiting the return of the only thing that could still feel real to him — the storm.

Again the stranger tried to stop the flow, to dam the river of sound, to build dykes against the turn of the tide, but his attempt was a lie and a treason and he could no more change the song and remain himself than he could haul in a net and pretend he was a fisherman. Afraid of the current that moved him, afraid of the rising storm, still he gave himself up to the song as the truest part of him, let the impossible tones vibrate through him, his flesh a plucked harp string. He felt his throat expand, opening a conduit to the other world. Each exhilarating wave of sound crashed louder, soaring higher into the sky and the sea grew dark and rough.

When the last cry burst through him and up into the roiling clouds and out into the thundering sea, the stranger turned back. Half spent from the power that had coursed through him, fearful of what he had summoned from the deep, he struggled to keep his worn black shoes on the rocky path, leaning against the buffeting wind, ears ringing and stinging with the wind-chill.

The house loomed before him and he hurried to the door. His hand on the latch, he glimpsed another man waiting nearby, huddled in his dark blue pea jacket, his collar raised against the wind, hiding his features but for a scruff of beard. Fishers avoided the house of the man from the sea, calling him a being from another realm, yet the scruff-bearded man stood his ground, and on glimpsing the stranger, turned his back and continued to wait. The wind worsened and the man from the sea turned away from the muffled sailor, pulled open the plank door and ducked in, shutting it quickly behind him.

The light from the hearth was still rich and leaping, the oil-lamps glowed a steady, homey yellow, yet a fatal chill lay on the room. The stranger shivered in the warmth as he had never shivered in the cold. He cast his eyes about the room seeking the source of his dread.

There she sat, small and quiet, waiting.

Before she spoke a word, before she even raised her eyes, he felt his heart sink, knowing he had lost her.

She looked up at him and spoke in a small voice about little practical problems, circumnavigating the devastating choice she had made while he was out. But he knew. Her salvage attempt had failed. She had neither rebuilt his hulk into a fit domestic partner, nor made her way to the powers of the deep by sharing her flesh with the man from the sea.

“I’m leaving,” she said and took the wind from his sails. His mouth moved soundlessly as he drowned like a fish in air.

“I found a man,” she said. “A man who can give me something of what I want. A real man. A man of the shore, with red blood in his veins, who has no voice like a sea-beast but makes a good living. I’m going inland.”

The stranger could not answer. The language she had taught him lay dead at his feet. He could only stand, dumb as a cod, as if she had told him the sun had sunk into the sea never to rise again.

Outside, he heard the surf boom as the storm broke against the shore. Wind whipped the little house’s eaves. Its timbers groaned. Hail lashed walls and windows. Surf pounded in the man’s ears. Around him he sensed the town battening down to wait and see who would survive this time. A howling gale yanked at the corners of the stranger’s dwelling.
Rudderless, derelict, he stood staring at the woman.

“You see?” she said, to convince them both. “There’s no expression on your face. You’re not human.”

Cut adrift, he clutched at a waking dream — saw himself surrender utterly to passion, every floodgate in his soul bursting open, letting her see the full power rage through him, pure and elemental, unalloyed with human pity, flinging down a vast tidal wave to crush his rival, deluge the town and drag its shattered timbers far out to sea. He saw her as the survivor, naked, helpless, exhausted, clinging to debris floating in the wrack-filled harbor — saw himself rise waist-high from the waves beside her raft, smiling calmly down on her, lovingly guiding her back to the shore. No word would ever be spoken about the destruction he had wrought because she would know that she must accept him as she must accept any force of nature. He saw their little house, always warm, and the blond girl-child that would be born to them, and upon whom so much love and devotion would be lavished that one day he would turn his back on the sea and try to live as other men lived… Then he saw the woman stand again at the door, holding her child’s hand, saying, “I’m leaving. I found a man.”

The sharp images shattered. The stranger was flung back into the present by the hollow crash of moored boats thrown one against the other in the harbor below. The chimney moaned with shocking loudness, fluttering the fire to embers and whirling ash around the room. He tasted it in every breath.

The woman pulled her knit cap tightly about her ears, wrapped her cloak about herself, and unlatched the door. Wind slammed in and snuffed the lamps, sparks flew up the chimney and the fire died. She made her last statement simple and true. “You can destroy this town, but I’m leaving anyway. There’s nothing for me here.”

She walked out into the storm and shut the door behind her. The catch clicked, loud and firm. The door planks were solid and irrevocable in the dim light.

The gale roared over the huddled houses, pounding shutters, slamming gates, wailing through every hole in every wall, a cataclysm great enough to sweep away the stranger’s house, the town, the life he had accepted and that had never really been his — great enough, perhaps, to sweep him back into his native element.

The man from the sea stood in the empty house staring at his hands, still pale as a dead fish’s belly above sleeves black as the dark side of the moon. The hail pattered to silence. The chimney ceased to moan and the curtains to toss. The crashes stilled in the harbor below. The panes stopped rattling. The wind soughed back to silence. The night grew quiet but for the pounding surf, regular as a heartbeat.

The man from the sea stood expressionless in the empty house, once again cast on an alien shore. He stared at the pool of rainwater just inside the shut door, but could not see his own reflection. His shocked senses groped through the dark waters within himself, struggling for a finger-hold on his own reaction. His hands came up empty. What he felt was simply too big. He could never grasp the sea.

Yet he felt the weight of the emotion that would come in its own time, sensed it hanging unseen over his head, as a sailor senses a great wave rolling up behind his fragile bark though he is too busy with his lines to turn his head and look upon his doom.

At the same time, the stranger felt he had suddenly lost all the heaviness that had come upon him when first he was plucked from the sea and set upon the barren earth. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank into a chair. Motionless, he stared blankly at the walls.

From every plank, from every windowpane, from every separate seam of the walls and roof around him, drops of water began, one by one, to weep. To wash him clean.

End

 

Bio:

“The Black Crow Calls” appeared on-line in The Druids Egg (Vol. 8 #1 Samhain-Yule 2009).

“When The Road Calls Your Name,” came out in The Druids Egg (Vol. 10 #1 Samhain-Yule 2010).

“Dead City,” “Severance,” “Tiwrnach’s Cave,” “Gladoens Knight of the Rock,” and “Souterrain” appeared in Cover of Darkness (Sams Dot Publishing) under my usual pseudonym Ross.

I have had scripts produced at the GroveMont Theatre (Monterey), Pacific Repertory Theater (Carmel), The Western Stage (Salinas), Actors Collective Media Entertainment (Monterey County) and elsewhere.

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Golem Queen by Cleo Holmes

Sep 24 2017

Ever since that night I’ve had a million people ask me exactly what happened. I’m not sure why they do, no one ever seems to believe me. I’ve finally given up on telling anyone, but maybe if I write it down someone will find it and understand. So here it is- the first ever written account of the Halloween I lost Malka and possibly my mind.

I always thought she was beautiful, but that night? She was… indescribable. Malka was always more than a little bit of a “Goth princess”. Halloween was her favorite time to really let loose and pull out all of the stops. This Halloween she had gone for less of a punk princess look and decided to be more of a punk queen.

Normally her hair was done up in a cliché scene pouf that changed colors almost weekly. For this occasion though she had died it back to her natural color, a brown so dark most people mistook it for black, just like her amazingly large eyes. Sleek and dark and luscious she had curled it into a ridiculous amount of ringlets and then piled it artfully on top of her head with curls dropping around her face to frame it. The smoky eyed mess of makeup that we were all used to had been replaced with simple eyeliner to make her large dark eyes look even larger. Her lips were painted to match her hair and eyes and she had drawn stitches that curved up her cheeks to create a creepy and whimsical smile no matter if she was smiling or not.

With her plaid skirts and unknown band t-shirts Malka always looked younger than she was, but just like the rest of her “usual” look she discarded these. Combat boots were replaced with platformed purple heels. Continuing up her legs she had tights designed to look like they were stitched together from different pieces of black hosiery. On top of these were ragged black petticoats. She had bought multiple sets and layered them to create an almost cartoon like version of hips. To emphasize the effect even further a skirted purple brocade corset was laced tightly around her waist. Her enhanced hips and even tinier than usual waist both served to make her normally modest bosom look less prepubescent, and more nymph like. Tied around her delicate pale neck with a strip of soft purple velvet was an old and tarnished silver locket. When I asked her about it she laughed and trailed her dark nails across my cheek, “It’s just an old trinket I found in my jewelry box. It completes the look don’t you think?”

It definitely did. I was her current favorite out of our group of friends, but she basked in the adoration of all equally. She had been with each of us at one point or another. She had gone back and forth and repeated favorites sometimes, but mostly she just supplemented herself with fringe followers. I was part of the group from the beginning, all the way since she had moved to town in middle school. She had never chosen me before this school year, but my time had finally come.

Tonight was the first time I was happy she had waited. I was the favorite on her night of queendom. Something no one could take from me. Malka had of course prepared my outfit, nothing near as nice as hers… but I still felt special. My ragged hair was slicked back, and my eyes were lined. My clothes were simple, but complemented hers nicely. A pair of plain dark dress pants and a vintage deep purple button up shirt she had found somewhere. Proving the power Malka had over our group she had forbidden anyone else from wearing anything purple, so it was clear that I was her escort for the evening.

As with most of our group events we were starting the evening at her house and then heading out from there. The group wasn’t entirely sure what all was planned for the night, but we knew we would be with her so no one minded. Looking back? I don’t see why our parents were so OK with it… We got in trouble with her all the time. I guess I should say we got in trouble for her all the time. She always seemed to make it through every scrape with no blame, even though all of our mishaps were always entirely instigated by her. That night wasn’t any different. It actually turned out much worse than usual…

Her parents were out for some sort of charity event, so we were able to do some pre-party work while we waited to find out what else we would be doing. The whole procedure felt a bit like an odd mockery of a Catholic mass. All of the devotees lined up, just waiting. Malka would go to each in turn and make minor adjustments in their costumes and then give her nod of approval. As her current second in command it was my duty to hand out the “body and blood”- this week’s brand of hallucinogens in small wafer form followed by a swig of absinthe. Now I know what you’re thinking, how can my account be worth anything if I was under the influence of who knows what? The truth is that I didn’t partake. I was really hoping that that night would be the night that I would finally get lucky with our lovely queen and I didn’t want to mess it up or not remember it because I wasn’t all there. Not the noblest of motives, but it probably saved my life.

It turned out that our queen didn’t have a firm plan yet, or at least not one she was willing to share with the rest of us yet. There were a few of our regular haunts within walking distance and it was decided that we would be starting with a quick stop in to show off our costumes to our friends and acquaintances. Knowing her the way I thought I did, I assumed that we would end up trying to tag along with some of our older friends to some more exciting college parties. Or possibly even make some new friends and tag along with them if they seemed worthy of Her Majesties presence.

We made it through all of our usual spots with no excitement. Everyone that had something to do had pretty much already filtered away to their own activities. The few people that had been left in the various bars and clubs, the skate park, and the “teen center” were the ones who would be staying in those areas all night.

Our Lady of Fun and Games was getting very clearly frustrated. At that point of the evening I was starting to get pretty nervous. I was positive that if we didn’t find a suitably fun way to spend the evening pretty quick my hopes and dreams of losing my virginity to the girl of my dreams was going to be ruined.

Now remember how I told you I hadn’t taken anything or even had a drink? Keep that in mind while I tell you this next part. I know it sounds crazy, if it didn’t it wouldn’t have taken the last three years to convince all of the doctors as the institute that I wasn’t a danger to myself or others and could be trusted with the crayon I’m using to write this. I was completely sober, and I’m not exaggerating any of it. I wish I was.

When they first showed up I thought that the night was saved, and so did everyone else. They seemed like they would be fun with an edge of danger. There was part of me that wondered if they might be too dangerous, but I didn’t listen to that part. One of the reasons I had never been Chosen was because I was always the one to suggest we look before we leap. I was the wet blanket that usually ruined the fun. Thinking more with my libido than my brain I made up my mind that we had to hang out with these people, if only so we could once again have our benevolent smiling queen back and I could try to get it in with her.

It’s hard to describe them without sounding a little crazy, so bear with me. At first glance they looked completely normal. Just regular people out dressed up for Halloween… but then you realized there was just something a little bit off about them. If I had drank anything I would have chalked what I saw up to imagination and confusion, but like I said before. I was completely sober.

The one that seemed to be in charge was the smallest; he couldn’t have been more than 5’2″ at the most. His head seemed not screwed on right. I don’t mean in metaphorical sense although he was more than a couple of fries short of a happy meal. It was more literal. It seemed like his whole head was screwed on a little bit too much. He didn’t seem able to turn his head at all. To look from left to right he had to move his whole body. His entire face seemed slightly lop sided. The features on the left side were oddly smaller than those on the right side. He was the most normal looking out of the group though. Among the others there were those who seemed to only be able to move at the joints with very little flexibility even there, and then some who were almost too flexible. They seemed to flop more than they actually walked- like rag dolls. The thing that I wished I had noticed then was their eyes. Their eyes were all the same deep dark pools of black of the girl they were so interested in.

I was too caught up in my own plans to realize exactly how interested in Malka they were. Our own little group revolved around her so much it seemed natural for others to do the same. We almost literally ran into them as they came out of an alley in front of us. Thinking back now, their interest was odd. Groups that knew us knew that we were all just extensions of her, but strangers always had to adjust to that way of thinking. They saw her and laughed. Bowing they called her their queen. We all assumed that it was a joke because of her costume, but we came to find that these people didn’t quite understand normal humor.

Their leader didn’t offer a name, but he did offer a “fun time with some different folk”. I could tell that the others in the group were slightly anxious and our Queen was wavering, potentially thinking of refusing their offer. For my own selfish needs I couldn’t afford for her to not have a good time though, so I loudly voiced my opinion that we should go. I wish to God I had actually been drunk instead of just drunk off of the idea of finally getting what I wanted. The night might have ended much differently…

As we walked their leader talked to our Queen casually as if they had known each other for years.

“Well little bubbala, you are certainly farpitzs on this All Hallows Eve.” The rest of us stared wondering what on earth this man was talking about but the lady of the hour just smiled, “It’s been a long time since anyone has called me bubbala… I think my zeyde was the last one who did before he passed away.” We were even more confused now. Still in the frame of mind that I might be considered special I risked a question. “Um… Malka? What are you guys talking about? Those words don’t make any sense.” I knew that there was a good chance that questioning anything she said or did would not just ruin my chances for the night, but could also easily push me out of the favored position. I had a little bit of luck on my side apparently. She was distracted by the strange man and didn’t have the time or energy to be upset at me at all. “It’s Yiddish, silly. My parents don’t practice but my zeyda, my grandfather, taught me some things before he passed away.” None of us really ever remembered that she was Jewish, but this was certainly a reminder and surprise.

They continued talking quietly about various things with the occasional Yiddish phrase thrown in. Our group trailed after Malka like a group of ducklings. We were surrounded by the rest of the odd group who didn’t respond to any of our overtures. Finally we arrived at our destination. It appeared to be an old abandoned warehouse. Looking around I was surprised to see that we had wandered into a part of town that didn’t have a great reputation without noticing. It was this moment where my doubts and hesitations about what I had done solidified into a cold lump of fear in the bottom of my stomach. All I could think was that I had officially messed up big time and now we were all going to have our organs removed and sold on the black market.

The tiny lopsided man led us in through the doors though and we were surprised once again. In this shady section of town, masked by an exterior of commonplace shabbiness, was an incredibly chic and modern club. The clientele seemed to be mostly college age or a little bit older, but scattered throughout were those who could have been in middle school and a few who could have been over 50. A few came and greeted our party, all similar to our escort- dark sparkling eyes and something slightly off about their bodies- but the rest of the club was incredibly varied.

The patrons ranged from tiny little devious looking men in dirty ragged clothes to tall disdainful women with sharp unreal features and clothes that could be only described as “ethereal”. There were also those that seemed very hairy and feral, some incredibly gaunt people with piercing red eyes, and here and there a few people who looked at least slightly normal. It was intimidating and intoxicating all at the same time.

Following Malka’s lead we plunged into the fray, dancing like maniacs to some kind of EDM that you could feel in your rib cage. A couple in our group also followed Malka’s lead in trying various glasses and tubes of different kinds of drinks. I was the only one who didn’t have any. Our Queen’s mood had improved with the new source of excitement and my fear was overcome by new hope that I might still get lucky.

The other patrons ignored us for the most part, but a few came and introduced themselves to Malka, complimenting her costume. Knowing how much Malka disliked jealousy in her favorites I had to contain myself every time it felt like they were attempting to compete with me. The hardest moment was when one of the tall ethereal women came over and kissed my Queen full on the mouth. Malka, of course, laughed delightedly and had no problems. As you might imagine I had problems. Quite a few of them, in fact. Luck was once again with me in this. She saw my face before I could wipe the jealousy off of it. I expected her to be upset at me, but she just laughed.

“It’s just a little Halloween fun! Don’t be upset about something so silly. Here you come kiss me just to prove to everyone that we’re actually together, not just matching clothes.” As always, her kisses were incredibly intoxicating and drove all thoughts of jealousy out of my head. She was right, everyone in here could kiss her, but she would still be mine for at least that moment. Or so I thought then.

I don’t know if it was minutes or hours later, but the fellow who had brought us in came over and had a whispered conversation with Malka. She gestured imperiously to us, her subjects, and we followed. The music was loud and she was walking away but we caught the phrase “…VIP room…”. My fear was back with a vengeance at this point. They had let us have an evening of fun, but now they really were going to take our organs. I knew I couldn’t let Malka go alone, and they’d have more trouble getting all of us at once. Hanging on to this thought I trailed along uncertainly.

As we stepped through the doors into the much quieter room I realized that I was the only one who could be called anything close to sober. The others had all had their “pregame” as well as various drinks throughout the night before the club, but the odd drinks here had done them in entirely. This worried me, I knew you couldn’t exactly trust drunk people in a fight or flight situation.

The group of strange people was the only ones in there, which seemed odd to me. The leader came up to Malka and asked “Well bubbala, do you recognize us?” A faint frown crossed her face as she looked at him. “What do you mean? Of course I do, you brought us here this evening, don’t be silly.” He shook his head sadly, “No sweet girl, I mean from before. Please tell me you have at least some memory of your mishpocha. It would break our hearts if you had no clue at all.”

I moved up silently to stand at her side, hoping that nothing serious was about to happen. Malka had her head tilted and her frown was more than faint now. Her hand reached up to grasp the locket around her neck and she seemed to be thinking very hard. “Mishpocha… family?” Her tone was puzzled, but also seemed as if she might be halfway remembering something she had forgotten a long time ago.

“There’s no way! You can’t be!?” She exclaimed in a slightly panicky voice, “That was all make believe, we had to move because of all of that. Mom and Dad thought I was going crazy. You’re lying!” This last part was said in an angry and unbelieving tone.

“What is going on? Malka, I think we should take everyone and leave.” What I thought was a great idea was completely ignored by both the girl I thought of as my queen and the man who was upsetting her. It was as if I wasn’t even there.

“Why is it so hard to believe bubbala? It was your belief so long ago that made us real. Long ago it took so much time and effort to make any sort of golem, and they had no life or true personalities such as we do. Every once in a long while someone like you would come along, though, someone who could give us true life. It took us so long to find you, please don’t leave now. We may have life, but it has no meaning without our Queen.” The way he said Queen left no doubts that he meant it in a much more literal sense than any of our friends ever did. “Even your name means Queen, Malka. You know that you are meant for this, as did your zeyda. He taught you the old ways for a reason. Don’t turn your back on him, and us, again.” The man’s eyes were almost hypnotic, his tone low and calm. I found his argument so compelling that I almost wanted to agree with him myself, but I also found that I couldn’t intrude on this moment.

Maybe I was drunk on Malka, or maybe my lust was more powerful than whatever was going on. I found that my desire to look at Malka and tell her what I, her current favorite, thought about the situation overcame the drowsy pull of the lop-sided man’s words. As soon as I was looking at her face the spell was broken for me. Her face seemed calm and she was very still, but her hand was clasped tightly enough around her locket to turn white. I didn’t know what to do or even if I should do anything until I saw a tear slowly ran down her face.

I had never seen Malka cry, or even seen any evidence that she had the ability to cry. My love as her longtime friend and loyal subject spurred me into anger that anyone would hurt her in any way. I grabbed Malka by the arm and spun her towards me. Shaking her slightly I looked deep into her eyes and called her name. I had to get us out of there. I slid my hand down to hers and started pulling her towards the door, trying to herd our group of friends as well.

I felt her stop and pull against my arm and spun around, worried that I was going to have to fight the people for her. They hadn’t moved- she had stopped all on her own.

“I can’t leave them,” she told me in the gentlest voice I had ever heard come out of her mouth. My jaw dropped “WHAT? What are you talking about Malka? They are crazy we have to leave.”

“No. They’re mishpocha. I MADE them. They love me. I love them.” Her voice now had the same quality as the lopsided man- Low and hypnotic. I pulled at my hand in hers futilely and started to panic. I wasn’t trying to bring her anymore, I was just trying to make her let go of my hand but her grip just kept tightening. Now I swear I was still completely sober still- possibly even more sober thanks to the adrenaline rush- but this is where things get weirder.

Malka’s eyes got even darker and assumed all of the qualities I imagine black holes to have. Inexplicably dark and impossible to escape I couldn’t move my eyes from hers. Her drawn on smile started looking more real. Her face actually split along the seams she had drawn. I screamed louder than I had ever known I could and with all of my strength ripped my hand away from hers. The force was enough to break a few of my fingers. Turning around I found that while I had been transfixed by her eyes the group of odd people had circled around and taken hold of my friends.

I won’t lie, I screamed. At first I didn’t realize it was me; it sounded so high pitched and not at all like any noise I had ever made. More like some kind of computer generated scream than a real one. The people were… absorbing our friends. It was as if all of the life and realness of the people I had known for years was being sucked into the terrifying doll-folks.

I turned away from Malka but her hand shot out and grabbed mine again, crunching the already broken fingers painfully. Her grip was inhumanly tight. Her face was also becoming more inhuman by the second. I struggled, but I got weaker and weaker the longer I started into her eyes. “Don’t you want to stay with me? You know I am loyal in my own way. I wouldn’t forsake any of you. You might not be true mishpocha, but I could make you part of my family. You have always been happy to serve before, so now shouldn’t be any different.” There was something wrong with her logic, but my befuddled brain didn’t know what. Her fingernails had turned claw like and were digging into my skin hard enough that in a deep dark corner of my mind I knew I was bleeding but I couldn’t make myself care anymore. The world turned slowly gray as I gazed into her eyes. That same part of my mind that knew I was bleeding also noted with a clinical detachment that My Malka was no longer the slightly cruel but completely lovable young woman who had run my life for so many years now. She was something out of a video game or nightmare. Everything was getting darker and darker. I was slowly losing consciousness.

The doors suddenly burst open. The woman who had kissed Malka earlier swept in as if she owned the room. Then she saw Malka as she was now. Malka’s life sucking gaze shifted to her and I was able to also turn and see the slight surprise on the sylvan woman’s face. She bowed slightly. “I just thought all of you would like to know the mortal police are on their way here. It might not be advisable to burden yourself with unnecessary baggage.” This last was said with a hand gesture at me and my friends. As the woman bowed herself out Malka’s gaze turned to the lop-sided man. Apparently their relationship was already much deeper than anything I could imagine because she just nodded at him and he bowed and began to organize the other odd people. The black holes that had taken residence where her eyes used to be sucked my gaze back to her face. She tilted her head. “I had really hoped you might come with me. I had planned to keep you as my toy for quite a bit longer. Oh well. There will be others.” She kissed my forehead and I could feel my skin burning. Her hand released mine and I slowly sank to the ground, blackness again descending.

“Don’t forget about me, k?” Her voice was distant and unreal. I tried to tell her I wouldn’t-I couldn’t ever forget her, but I was already gone.

I came to myself weeks later. I had been restrained in a hospital for the entire time apparently raving like a madman. It was another week and a half before I was brought to this place for “the safety of myself and others”. The cops wouldn’t believe me that I hadn’t taken anything. They thought that my friends and I had been experimenting with some new kind of drug. It turns out I was the only one who survived and I had only barely survived.

The worst part about the week and a half before my transfer was when Malka’s parents came. She still hadn’t been found. I told them the same story I had told everyone. Their reaction was different than the cops, doctors, or the parents of the other kids, or my own parents. Malka’s mother had turned white as the sheets I was laying on and her father’s face seemed like it had turned to stone. I had never noticed how much Malka’s eyes were like his but I saw it now. All he said when I was done was “I see.” I never saw them again, and neither did anyone else. Apparently they packed all of their things and left the next day.

Lately I’ve been dreaming of Malka and the lopsided man. I haven’t told anyone yet because I know it will just put me back under 24 hour surveillance. I’m writing this in the hopes that when I’m found dead or missing someone might finally believe me.

Don’t trust the doll people. Don’t trust the doll people. Don’t trust the doll people. Don’t trust the doll people. Don’t trust the doll people. Don’t trust

Bio: Cleo Holmes lives in the southeast desert of New Mexico with her husband and an already out of womb child as well as one still baking. When she isn’t battling scorpions, or chasing down her toddler and his dog, she is attempting to fit in a writing career.

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