The Smiler by Samuel Elliott

Mar 26 2017

All Tobias knew was pain. At first, he could not distinguish night from day, could not discern where he was, only that he was immobilised and in agony beyond his darkest imaginings. He gradually became aware of his surroundings, lighter shades of rudimentary outlines, contrasting with silhouettes dipping in and out of his vision like a procession of waifs.

He reached for them, yet did not move. Unfazed, he exerted himself to the brink of fainting and still did not budge a fraction. His first fleeting thought was that he was a quadriplegic, but with tremendous focus he found he could wiggle his digits from hands and feet alike. That knowledge brought about the realisation he was bound in a body cast, set in place by traction.

With his sense of touch returning so too returned sound. Minor at first, a steady thump of his heart, accompanied by a more incessant, odious beep. Tobias clung to the chirp with the assiduousness that only the doomed and delusional can, hoping its existence would blot out the pain, maybe make him forget his current ordeal. Over time he understand that he was hearing a heart monitor, his heart monitor, reminding him that he had been denied death and was left in the realm of the living, rife with suffering, devoid of respite.

That sound grew to be reassuring, a constant presence, the marker he used to determine if he was awake, or if he were immersed in a drug-forged world of make-believe. In this ominous land of dream Tobias was submerged in an ink-like liquid, a sentient, stagnant black pool with little to illuminate the dismal surroundings.

He would hang suspended, floating in place, a spirit without form, a crippled vessel, condemned to inertia. Then a light would appear, pinpricks that punctured the pitch-black waterscape. These two cones of light marked the surface, their unchecked descent signalled the immense depths of the abyss.

Tobias would watch, a malaise spreading thick and choking in his unseen chest as the pair of lights sank further down. Eventually and invariably they would disappear altogether, consumed in the belly of the black, snuffed as candles extinguished, with the same finality, the same futility of rekindling.

And then the voice would speak.

The words he could (mercifully) never recall when he managed to regain the reigns of his mind and wrest himself awake. But the voice left a lasting impression, a widening stain that his brain and soul could never cleanse itself of, gnawing at him, digging further into his mind and cracking open his resolve, laying waste to what courage he had accumulated.

It was the shrill voice of his mother’s in reproach, and the bestial snarl of his father’s. It was the sound of a dozen former lovers’ accompanied with peals of mocking laughter and others still less definable. The voice of a child, the wail of a baby. The sob of a geriatric and the shriek of a stuck pig. The voice, though disparate and forever changing, seemed to always originate from one source – himself. Reverberating from a fetid chasm within his own damaged mind. It grasped him like the calloused hand of a drunken brute, tightening inexorably until he woke up gasping, dry of mouth and saturated of brow, sweat-soaked and urine-soiled.

He tried to trick himself into believing the recurring nightmares were solely attributed to his delirium. A manifestation of the suffering chasing him from the waking world, to that which Morpheus presided over. But his assurances lacked conviction and he dreaded every night, when he could endure no more and succumbed to the tide of sleep. The passage of time continued, light rose and then faded, precipitating another round of torment, of which he spent the next day futilely trying to recover from.

Yet his condition steadily improved, perception begrudgingly and belatedly returned. A softened version though, as if his own mind wanted to spare him the extent of the harsh reality. Memories ebbed back, edges frayed with hallucination and doubt, accusations from a mind and self at war. Tobias singularly focused on recalling how he had arrived to this special Hell.

The car, the boozy night, his friends stuffed into the back. The rain-lashed windscreen, wipers on overdrive, two plastic appendages frantically trying to staunch the deluge pummelling the glass. His shit-box car submerged in a world of blurred outlines and streaks of weak light. That was all he could dredge from his memory banks, and the ubiquitous pain overrode all, dragging him back from wherever he had tried to envision himself.

‘Signs are promising,’ said a voice, a female voice, owned by a distorted face leaning into his. A thumb of light stabbed his eyes, blinding and unpleasant, he could only squint and wait. ‘Pupils reacting, breathing stabilising, all vitals normal and stable given the circumstances. Can you hear me?’

The words had no meaning, impossible for Tobias to grasp on, for him to process. He mustered every might of his being, trying to project the voice of an irked god, demanding he be left be.

A pitiful snorting sound emerged, taxing all his breath, creating new plains of pain for his senses to roam through. Attempting to speak for the first time in eternity, alerted himself to the fact that something was lodged in his mouth, thick and plastic, coated in a sickly sheen of his saliva. He wanted to purge, to rid himself of the vile object, but it was fastened firmly in place, taped to his emaciated face.

‘Don’t try talking just yet, Tobias,’ the voice lightly chastised. He felt a touch, sensitive and nimble, settling somewhere on his forehead. ‘You are lucky to be here.’

He found that remark highly contentious, spoken by a clueless fool unaware of the ordeal he was nightly subjected to. He swam away from the reality and floated on the tepid waters of pain. He sought a balance, to attain some mental nirvana that always eluded. Blackness enveloped him, the discombobulating, disconcerting haze of a drug-induced slumber, a simple cease-to-be, willing time to pass and fate to transpire. His thoughts seldom strayed from death, that sweet eternal release of all things, the ceaseless agony tethering him to the world. Tobias wished for that demise, welcomed it beyond all measure, beyond any lust he had felt, any drink he had ever wanted to drain.

As if to spite him, his health continued improving, transitioning into a new era of highly-attuned senses, his immobile state sharpened them, bestowed him preternatural abilities. His hearing became keen, so too his vision. Smell flooded his nostrils, exquisitely foul, the stench of sterility, of disinfectant, imbued with an indelible stench of shit, of piss. The miasma was a harbinger of recognition, identifying the wretched place he presently languished in.

‘How are you?’ The same voice as before asked, tone unreadable, reduced to impassivity, that of a trained and seasoned professional. ‘Do you feel up to talking?’

The owner of the voice stepped into his eyesight, his burgeoning vision rendered a young woman, garbed in a pristine-white coat. A stethoscope around her neck held the reverence of a crucifix which she occasionally thumbed, as if to draw solace against the grotesque sight he made.

‘You are awake.’ She remarked, a brief smile brightened her features. ‘I’m Erica, no need to tack on any officious-sounding titles to the front of that. Erica will do.’

‘What happened?’ Tobias asked, the words jumbled together in one guttural croak, the plaintive cry of a felled beast. They were a mess even to his ears.

She somehow understood him.

‘Those are questions for later.’ She said, producing the penlight from the ether. ‘Paramount priority is seeing you make a speedy recovery.’

The light prodded at his eyes, claws that raked, he could only stare into them and lament. She was mercifully quick.

‘How about seeing me?’ Demanded a voice.

The doctor did not shift her attention. Tobias tried his best to maintain her gaze, to project some fortitude, as if he were not forever on the verge of wailing out in a manner better suited to a child afflicted with a skinned knee.

‘Be with you shortly Mr Luscombe.’ She assured, fiddling with one of the many machines huddling a congregation around Tobias’ bed. He only knew of their existence because they kept him aglow in their pallid, twinkling lights when all others in the room were extinguished.

‘I’ll check on you tomorrow,’ she assured Tobias, giving him comfort that he could never hope to articulate. ‘You are making decisive steps forward, don’t exert yourself. It’s a slow, tedious process.’

Erica took her leave then, off to tend to the complainant. Tobias concentrated, expending whatever energy he had accumulated to track her movements. It was only a short journey across the room, where another bed-ridden patient waited in woe. Tobias distinguished a wizened man, sunken into the sheets, a pale streak of a geriatric, with features drained of all colour, save the slash of a mouth and the pearly, almost iridescent glow of his eyes.

Tobias dozed off again, grateful for the interaction with the doctor to while the time away. For an age he slept soundly on his own accord and was spared the umpteenth session of a nightmare.

The respite was ephemeral.

He was awoken, by a wetness on his face. Something slick and corporeal, swept indolently from one side of his brow to another. His eyes opened tentatively, still too befuddled by sleep to feel any fear. It must have been in the dead of night, for the room was draped in darkness, an abundance of shadows ran rampant, creating a hellish place where the imagination roamed and the malignant whim of fantasies took shape.

Tobias’ pulse quickened as his dread commenced in earnest. He implored his eyes to adjust to the gloom, but they were weak and traitorous. He peered upwards, trying to identify the origin of what was touching him.

‘Wanted to wait a while,’ a voice advised, it sounded like it was shaped with a smile, wide and perpetually on the precipice of laughter. ‘Until you had regained some of your mental faculties before I paid you a visit. Revealing myself takes a toll on a mind as feeble as yours. Suggestible to such fanciful things, a puppet tugged on strings.’

The voice was familiar, but incongruous, and given the location – impossible. It belonged to Hamish.

‘Hamish?’ Tobias asked, more to validate his disbelief than anything else.

‘Hamish is here,’ the voice said.

‘So is Alex.’ Alex identified.

‘And Tristan.’ Tristan said.

‘Paul here too.’ Paul said, his throaty voice sounding oddly alien, hostile, bereft of any warmth cultivated by a decade of friendship.

‘How?’ Tobias asked, the word a whisper, barely audible. The question an entreaty, a prayer, one that he sorely wished would not be answered.

‘You know how.’ This voice was a fusion of all of his friends, merged into one dissonant din. All of them speaking the words individually, simultaneously, a maddening babel that twisted in Tobias’ like a rusty blade.

The sopping digit lingered around the bridge of his nose, leaving a trail of foul-smelling sludge. A cry from the other side of the room shifted Tobias’ attention. He found Luscombe, sitting upright, rigid as rigor mortis, pointing, aghast.

‘What is it Luscombe?’ Tobias demanded, managing to produce a voluminous voice, terror had gifted him a fresh set of lungs. ‘What is it? What? What?’

Luscombe slowly shook his head from side to side, the lone finger pointing toward him shaking violently. Tobias saw the old man’s throat bob, his mouth shaping words yet producing no sound.

‘What is it?’ Tobias repeated, louder this time, more commanding. The moistness on his head was burning his flesh, corrosive-like.

‘Stay out of this old timer,’ menaced the voice, though it had changed, now no longer belonging to Tobias’ friends. It was inhuman, a buzzing as if made from a million insects imitating human speech and failing miserably. ‘I haven’t forgotten about you either. I’ll get to you later.’

Luscombe folded in on himself, his gaunt frame vanishing behind a sheet he pulled upward. The sounds of an elderly man weeping inconsolably only unnerved Tobias more.

The slippery appendage that violated Tobias’ helpless face was removed, complete with a slurping sound, a comical smacking as if the owner were savouring a fine meal.

‘Tasty,’ the hybrid voice, remarked. ‘Very, very tasty.’

Though he wanted to look away, Tobias kept his eyes locked firmly at their extremities, wanting to catch sight of whatever had licked him. A shape shifted, and floated over his head with the languid, graceful motion of someone, something, submerged under a still sea. A moment later, Tobias beheld what it was.

A mouth, larger than any mouth should be, swam into his field of vision. Absent were lips, though the mouth itself was amply stocked with two rows of teeth, polished to a blinding radiance and perfectly spaced.

But the dimensions were off, each respective tooth’s shape unlike any humans, that of the artistic rendering of an alien drawing what they thought a human’s mouth might look like. It was a maw of maleficence that split the very fabric of the atmosphere, all light seemed to shrink away from the abomination as if fearful of being devoured like plankton to a whale. The mouth was twisted in a perpetual insidious sneer, a tongue thicker than Tobias’ arm danced around, at ease in its expansive lair, sliding around the teeth, pink as dawn, forked and serpentine, tasting the air, savouring the reek of fear emanating from Tobias.

The travesty of an orifice sensed Tobias staring, despite lacking any discernible eyes. It opened wide, exposing darkness beyond all reckoning, an oblivion that did not end, that could not be measured. Tobias stared into the ominous abyss nevertheless, feeling like he had dived past the event horizon of his own demise. This was not a human darkness, not one in which could be located anywhere on Earth,  for that sort was tameable, capable of being defeated with torches.

This extended far beyond.

Tobias knew he was peering through the gateway of the damned, a realm of no return, where suffering untold lay.

Realising that the longer he stared, the less likely he would be able to ever look away, Tobias manoeuvred his gaze downward. He discovered that the monster supported itself on a myriad of legs, some thick and stable as the trunks of a tree, others gossamer-thin. All of which worked in sync, digits of some gripped, others pumped to create motion, others with unknown purpose were tucked in, fists like those of a foetus, retracted but ready to be put to use. It descended from its perch slowly, with the ease and gait of an arachnid stalking its web.

‘Nine months of traction my boy, this whole body cast,’ it said. One of the cherub-sized hands rapped its tiny knuckles on the plaster of his foot, as if a prospective customer kicking the tires of a car. Tobias could see his own stupefied reflection in the gleam of the teeth, impossibly shiny, poised to bite his face off, swallow his head whole. ‘We have plenty of time to get to know each other. Before the rest of your life that is, however long you decide that may be.’

Tobias refrained from speaking, because to respond in any way would be an admission that what he was studying was real, a being that inhabited the same plane of existence that he did.

‘Don’t be childish,’ it scolded, playfully, the smile seemed to widen, more teeth proliferated. ‘We are bound to one another now, you and I are inseparable.’

Tobias resorted to snapping his eyes shut, pretending they were sealed with airplane glue. Anything to rid him of the reality, to keep hysteria at bay.

‘Now, now,’ the voice, his mates’ voices reduced to a perversion. ‘You cannot outrun yourself Tobias, eventually you’ll always trip over your own feet.’

Tobias felt something prodding at his eyelids, several digits, nimble and sturdy. They pried his lids open without difficulty, forcing him to stare straight into the gaping mouth of the monster an inch before his face.

‘Luscombe.’ Tobias begged.

‘Leave me alone.’ Luscombe’s muffled voice derided. ‘You’re on your own.’

‘That’s right,’ said the monster, chuckling. ‘No one here but us, you best get used to that now.’

Mercifully, Tobias fainted.

A scream brought him back, a moment later Tobias registered the chilling sound did not belong to him. He opened his eyes to discover daylight, glorious daylight, had flooded in, heralding the providence of a new morning, where shadows were merely that and cast to the corners of the room in resignation. Tobias gathered his bearings as quickly as he could, noticing a commotion on the opposite side of the room, where several nurses and assorted others were situated around Luscombe’s bed. The doctor, Erica, stormed in, her coat flapping her consternation.

‘Get her out of here.’ She demanded, pointing to an inconsolable nurse shrieking in the tight embrace of two others. ‘All of you clear out. You, stay.’

She pointed to a grim-faced man standing close by, his face furrowed in pensiveness and directed toward the unfolding scene. His body and those of the others were an obstruction preventing Tobias from seeing what lay beyond.

‘What’s happened?’ She asked when the others had left, ostensibly having forgotten of Tobias’ presence.

‘Something rather dreadful I’m afraid,’ the man replied, duly sombre, scratching at the bristles on his double-chin. ‘It appears that at some point in the night Mr Luscombe here gouged out his own eyes. Subsequently dying of shock or blood loss or possibly a combination of the two.’


‘Remains to be seen. I was under the understanding he was incapable of such feats of strength, given his severe condition.’

‘Neither.’ Erica’s head snapped up and she noticed Tobias trying to steal a glance. ‘Go back to sleep Tobias. Rest. This doesn’t concern you.’

She did not wait for an answer, instead dragging the curtain around to cordon the area off. Tobias had no choice but to do as instructed, though he was far too energised to actually attain sleep. The day was punctuated with further visits from necessary personnel, though Erica, now wise to Tobias’ attempts at snooping, was vigilant to have every interview, every exchange, conducted outside of his earshot. He strained himself trying to hear the hushed voices of the police outside the room, but could glean no information.

He supposed they would want to speak to him at some point, though no one did, likely they were forbidden under the explicit instruction of Erica. The day faded, its passage marked by the ancient and decrepit television suspended over Tobias’ bed.

Tobias wanted to sleep so he could feel refreshed and ready for another evening of staving off its allure. The rest did not come and Tobias’ imagination wandered, composing grisly images of the his former roommate’s remains, gaping sockets stared at him, blazing with intense energy of hatred, flinging fiery accusations. The more Tobias wallowed in the image, the more his other senses were incorporated, he began smelling the sickening, pungent stench of violent death, sinking in the pit of his stomach, tightening his bowels and constricting his throat. He spent the next few hours trying to refrain from vomiting, worried that he would choke to death if he relented to the impulse.

Erica eventually arrived with several burly orderlies in tow.

‘How would you feel about being moved?’ She asked Tobias. He appreciated her posing it as a question, though the implication of an order was abundantly clear.

‘Fine.’  He mumbled, labouring with the plastic tube lodged in his throat.

Which was the truth, Tobias had no desire to be kept in the room of such carnage, though more crucially, he hoped that a relocation would spare him another visit from the monster.

Erica nodded to the waiting men and they steadfastly set to task, dismantling all of Tobias’ machines as Erica removed the IV drips attached at his hands, the tube remained secured in his mouth, much to his chagrin. The event was over soon, with Tobias wheeled into another room impossible to distinguish from the previous, save that he was now the only occupant. When moved into position, the same machines were there to be reattached to and a fresh set of IV drips were gently inserted into his hands. The orderlies were dismissed and Erica lingered, a woman with a face full of conflict and a mouth empty of words, neither profound nor inane.

Tobias waited, hoping she would soon shatter her own self-imposed silence.

‘Did Mr Luscombe say anything strange to you last night?’ She asked. There was a curiosity shaping her normally neutral voice. ‘Do anything peculiar? Anything at all?’

For a fleeting moment, Tobias resolved to confide all, no matter how absurd his story sounded. That passed quickly. He reasoned that Erica would dismiss his ramblings as that of a madman, perhaps merely from a drug-induced fever, or from a pre-existing, undiagnosed mental condition. Plus to do so would be an open admission that he believed what he had seen, that it was not merely a figment of his morbid, relentless imagination.

‘No.’ He replied, wishing he could shake his head to stress his conviction.

‘And how are you? Overall?’

‘Do you have anything that will knock me out all night?’ He tried to keep his tone indifferent, devoid of desperation.

Erica shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, but no.’ She tapped the chart at the foot of his bed and gestured to the two IV bags hanging overhead as ghosts tethered to his tortured soul. ‘You are already on a very serious concoction, anything additional would risk slowing your heart.’

Tobias had expected as much, but could not conceal his disappointment. The realisation of another night of sobriety and whatever that entailed was a bitter pill to swallow.

‘It’s an adjustment, I know,’ Erica said. ‘Learning to accept that you will be in such a situation for several more months would be tough. I understand.’

‘What about visitors? Why has no one visited me?’ The question for some inexplicable reason had not sprung to Tobias’ mind earlier, but now he was consumed by it, all his friends shunning him beggared belief.

Her mask of professionalism faltered, exposing something raw and worrisome underneath. Erica swiftly set her face right, features hardening, to someplace cold and impenetrable.

‘There will come a time for that later. For now you are my patient and this is where you will be spending the remaining duration of your stay. Concentrate on that, and only that.’

Curiosity piqued, Tobias implored her, trying to peel back the façade, to learn the truth.

‘What’s happened? Am I in trouble?’

Erica’s rattling was not replicated, she shook her head, the resolute action of a person shutting a conversation down.

‘That’s information I cannot divulge Tobias. I’m sorry. And for now, you should only be concerned about getting better. You still have a long way to go.’

Tobias went to say more but was cut off by her curtly raised hand. Erica favoured him a tight, enigmatic smile and she departed from the room, leaving the air heavy with questions unspoken and unanswered.

She returned once more, haltingly, as if battling her better judgement.

‘Try and get some sleep,’ she suggested, her eyes conveyed what could almost be interpreted as an apology. ‘You need to rest, it’s the only way you’ll properly recover.’

She disappeared for good and darkness arrived in her stead.

Another night to overcome, now on his lonesome, abandoned by all except his own thoughts. He focused on the television as if it were the giver of all life and knowledge, pretending that he had the luxury of changing the channel, when in actuality he was subjected to the cruel whim of whatever was programmed. Around the time when the last late-night movie had ended and an evangelical priest began a fire-and-brimstone diatribe, Tobias gauged he was no longer alone in the room.

‘Like what I did to Luscombe?’ Asked the voice he had by now grown familiar with. Each time the monster uttered a word was like a bodily blow, something cold and sharp twisting in his innards. ‘Wasn’t even really my handiwork, the poor fool topped himself rather than endured more of me. Happens. Happens the majority of the time.’

‘What are you?’ Tobias asked the burning question, eyes peering at the darkness engulfing the room, prodding for shapes moving, some telling outline that would reveal the location of his nemesis.

‘I’m you, in a manner of speaking,’ it answered, the voice originating from somewhere above. ‘Manifested from you, just like I was for Luscombe. You made me.’

Tobias composed himself and swung his gaze upward. There on the ceiling, lounging comfortably, was the monster. The mouth had grown, spanning meters, the length of Tobias and beyond, it’s many appendages, shifted and swayed, picking at the teeth, cleaning them, beckoning to him, making obscene gestures.


‘You don’t remember any of it, do you?’ The monster slowly descended, the insidious smile broadening, the polished teeth, luminescent. They had a macabre beauty, something mesmerising that Tobias could not look away from, tantamount to a predator luring its quarry to its death with a display of lurid colours.


‘Well I’m not here to provide explanations, only torment, torment unimaginable and torment eternal.’ The creature came to rest a foot short of Tobias, suspended directly above him. ‘The day will come, when you can take no more, and you will gladly dive into the end, the end of this life and the beginning of the next.’

‘Kill me then,’ Tobias felt the ice of his dread melt as rage boiled and breached the surface of his composure. ‘Kill me now, if you are real, go on, do it.’

‘Would that I could.’ It replied, the rows of teeth parted, the tongue splayed out, dangling from side to side with an undulating motion, a pendulum of muscle, red as blood, engorged and exultant. ‘And even then I wouldn’t. Why should you get the easy option? To end it? When they couldn’t?’

‘What’s your name?’ Tobias demanded, outrage delaying the encroaching terror.

‘You can call me whatever you like for all the good it will do you.’ It replied. ‘If I can make a suggestion, I think the moniker most apt would relate to my dazzling smile.’

‘The Smiler?’ Tobias suggested scornfully, meaning it as a vile obscenity, handling the name as if a curse to be spat as hastily as possible.

‘The Smiler.’ It repeated, relishing the word, enunciating each syllable as one would sample a succulent dish. Its myriad of appendages extended in a theatrical flourish. ‘I like it. I like it very much. No one has gifted me a name before.’

The Smiler chuckled for the umpteenth time, the voices of all his friends, mocking him, fused as one, digging into his ears, shredding whatever meagre resolve he had amassed. The sparse few lights illuminating the room flickered and dimmed, creating a phantasmagoria, shadows came alive and found definition, doubtless controlled by the creature.  For one moment all lights were extinguished in the room and Tobias was tossed into absolute darkness. Entombed in this absence of all hope, despair reigned, Tobias felt its disease racing through him, decimating him. He tried to assiduously focus on his breathing and willed light to return, that of the room, and the light of optimism that dwelled within him. As if to remind him of the futility of his plight, illumination returned slowly, scarcely enough to pierce the gloom.

The Smiler had vanished.

Tobias could sense the monster prowling around, just out of sight, revelling in the emotions it evoked within its helpless prey.

‘I am guilt and I am shame, I am terror untold and despair beyond belief.’ There was a tangible degree of pride in the Smiler’s stolen voice. ‘I am your mother’s barbed tongue and your father’s fists, I am the children’s ridicule in the playground and the scorn of all your former lovers. I am all your base emotions realised, those which you could not prevent, could not diminish and could not adjust to.  I am abject misery made flesh and all that which you’ve hated about yourself. I am you, and we are bound.’

‘What do you want?’ Tobias demanded, scanning his surroundings as thoroughly as he could.

He found no signs to pinpoint the Smiler’s location.

‘For you to suffer, I am not atonement and I will offer you no respite, this is what you deserve and you will accept all that I subject you to.’

The creature glided up from the foot of Tobias’ bed, motions graceful, all appendages working in perfect concert, lifting the smile cynosure, with its colossal mouth pulled taut, too wide, up to face Tobias.

‘You fool, you bumbling, clueless fool.’ The teeth, larger than Tobias’ head, gleamed, neon-bright, shimmering. ‘You need to understand why.’

The monster’s tongue shot out from the mouth, a blur hurtling toward Tobias. He had no way to brace for the impact and it caught him directly on the forehead, knocking him out.

Tobias awoke in a flashback, watching himself behind the wheel. Hamish riding shotgun, Tristan, Alex and Paul in the back. Rap music drowned out all other noise, not that that deterred the group from straining themselves to be heard, screaming into one another’s ears. The whisky bottle was passed, back and forth as its contents rapidly dwindled.

Tobias squinted at the road with disinterest, having reached a level of inebriation where the act of driving was dismissed as a video game. Shards of rain buffeted the wipers, making it impossible for them to wipe any sort of clarity to what lay beyond.

Someone prodded Tobias in the back of the neck, he turned and took the firewater, applying it to his lips and taking a long slug. When he diverted his attention back to the hand the bottle to Hamish his eyes returned to the road and registered a sharp corner that had materialised from the watery ether. One that he could not possibly break for. Tobias’ body operated on instinct, the miraculous hand-eye coordination and sure movement only afforded the insane and the divinely attuned. He opened his door and dived out.

Tobias watched himself land and roll onto the unforgiving road, his body limp with drink rolled dozens of times, as the asphalt broke flesh and bone and bashed one into the other, reducing him to a mangled sack of meat. Tobias, now in the role of omnipresent spectator  remained in the car with his friends, as the driverless car left the road, reduced a wooden fence to kindling and dove deep into a creek.

The impact of hitting the water was immediate and cataclysmic.  The deceleration trauma sent the four friends flying, none of them had the presence of mind to wear a seat belt, all of them collided with one another. Heads connected with heads, knees found homes in faces, limbs entwined and snapped.

‘They were in your charge, your care,’ all of their voices, now appropriated by the Smiler, addressed him, he could picture its smile, smug and vile. ‘They entrusted you and you cost them their lives.’

‘I did.’ Tobias acknowledged, as he watched the tragedy unfold. Hamish and Tristan were killed on impact when their heads clashed. Paul went flying through the windshield, and died shortly thereafter. Alex however, was in a stable enough condition to gauge the peril Tobias recklessness had ensnared him in. He first tried to open the car door, yet it was sealed tightly shut by a wall of water, more of which gushed in through the opening in the windshield that Paul’s skull had made.

‘Can you taste his fear?’ The Smiler asked. ‘The rampant dread? That realisation that his demise is certain? Can you?’

Tobias could, the malaise tightened and spread.  The self-same sensation Alex had felt in his last minutes, they were now sharing, unbearable but unavoidable.

‘How was I supposed to know?’ Tobias voice waivered. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t extend your flimsy remorse to me boy,’ the monster rebuked. For the first time Tobias detected a trace of annoyance, anger even, in its voice. ‘I’m not the one you should be slobbering some apology to. Look at what you have done, process that. Understand.’

‘Could have been any of us driving.’ Tobias shot back, not trying to weasel out of the blame, only to buy his sanity some extra time.


The Smiler gave pause.

Tobias could hear the monster musing within his own mind, an infinitesimal sound of its lithe tongue rolling across the smooth expanse of each tooth, a perversely sexual act akin to fondling one’s genitals to incite disgust in an onlooker. ‘And if any of them were, I would be sharing this exchange with them instead.’

Tobias tried to avert his mind’s eye, to sweep his sight somewhere, anywhere, else, yet his vision remained on the static shot of the car’s interior. When his efforts at forcing the door open failed, Alex resorted to rousing his unresponsive friends, shaking at their broken bodies. After a few moments spent with frenetic and futile motion, the understanding that all life had seeped from his friends dawned on Alex’s features.

‘He’s not far off.’ The Smiler needlessly pointed out, clacking its teeth in immense amusement, the strident sound reverberated through Tobias’ resolve, shredding it. ‘And he knows it.’

The water sluiced through the wreck, amassing, rising until the last pocket of air was no more. Alex lasted until the very end, kicking at the window, flailing around, shouting his final breath, a call for help that went unanswered .

‘That’s it, drink deep.’ Instructed the Smiler. ‘The stopper has well and truly been lifted on this bitter draught. Watch his eyes closely now, the outrage at what you have caused is clear, even when he loses all the fight in him and his life slips away.’

‘Enough.’ Tobias asserted, wanting to have his voice punch like a fist, curled with conviction. ‘Nowhere near,’ the monster refused. ‘You and I are in this for the remainder of your days, however many, however few.’

Tobias steeled himself, refusing to reduce to begging. He was in tumult, torn asunder by the visages of his friends, contorted in castigation at him, at their murderer.

After an eternity, Alex’s thrashing ceased and his body stilled, his fingers unclenched, his mouth agape without a single bubble emerging. Alex’s eyes held Tobias’, not losing a shred of their intensity.

‘You’ll never adjust, never learn to live with me.’ The Smiler promised, as if merely stating facts, though gleefully divulging them. ‘I’ll be waiting for you every waking moment and for every one of your fitful slumber. And after this life has ended for you, I’ll be waiting in the next, and on, and on, until time is dust and everything is nothing.’

The trauma of the ordeal taxed heavily on Tobias, his mind reeled, discombobulated and beyond salvaging. Normally he was sharp of wit, so quick to act and with such decisiveness, now he was a child banished in a barren land, jutting with the jagged edges of consequences and preyed upon by his own failing courage. Whenever he took mental breath, and paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, his friends’ faces were there, unravelling him, leaving him stricken with guilt.

Tobias would’ve wept if he possessed his own eyes. He readied for death, to cease to be, succumbing to the sheer shock of the harrowing episode.

‘That should do for now,’ The monster remarked. ‘Wouldn’t want to overwhelm you now, ending things prematurely and all. That would dampen my spirits to no end.’

The procession of his dead friends’ and their scarring, haunting countenances dissolved. Tobias was pitched into a new place, devoid of all colour or fixture, he could only liken this endless expanse to purgatory, the realm where hope had no place, life had no chance and the brain could not persevere. The Smiler materialised, or perhaps was always there, only now making its presence known.

The central fixture of its being, its infamous smile, had broadened, the teeth had multiplied, so too the rows, and had grown into cartoonish proportions, teeth larger than moons, amply sized to grind the galaxy into nothingness.

Tobias found solace in talking, to give voice to his thoughts just might hold off the onset of madness. The words themselves were not much of a comfort, but some semblance could be derived from the delivery, if only to throw back something at the Smiler, a final defiance to prove his sanguine outlook and mettle before the monster steadily defiled him, destroyed all he knew.

‘I have one of those faces that cannot be demolished by a brute’s hand, nor a personality that can be weakened by a intellectual’s tongue.’ Tobias felt insanity-induced bravado blossom through him, buttressing his beliefs, coating his words, moulding them into bullets, turned him into a locomotion. He knew he wasn’t just pissing on the hornet’s nest, he was setting the accursed thing ablaze too, his acerbic wit had returned with gusto. ‘I am one of those few that orbit in the lofty atmosphere of ineffable satisfaction, those handful that possess such total acceptance of their flaws that no one human or creature can cause them harm.’

The Smiler gnashed its teeth in vexation, with its current size, the noise produced seemed to tear all perception into shreds. After a beat the monster donned another smile, that of its norm.
‘That so? You truly believe that drivel?’

‘It is.’ Tobias assented, bristling, wondering if he had any physical form, yearning to lash out. ‘I do. Nothing can be done to unravel my composure. You hear me? Nothing can taint my self-worth. You say that we are bound, good. It’ll take a hell of a lot more to drive me crazy, or do anything to try and escape.’

‘You sound so sure. Spoken with the assurance of a priest reciting gospel.’

‘I’m not Luscombe, or any of the others.’ Tobias was coasting on his assertiveness, a temporary invincibility, that rare kind only bestowed the utterly insane and the hopelessly doomed . ‘So you can do anything, try anything, nothing will work. You picked the wrong one.’

‘I didn’t pick anything,’ the Smiler fired back, its namesake had reduced, whether the result of Tobias’ epic outburst remained unclear. ‘You did. Though-’

‘Yeah whatever.’ Tobias cut in, adopting the unflappable attitude that only those armed with the temerity of youth could wield with aptitude and aplomb. He had been crippled with his own terror, now he was transfixed by his renewed vigour, eradicating resignation, banishing the defeat he had been enveloped in.

The Smiler stayed mute for an age. Tongue indolently traversing over teeth, similar to a rattled academic stroking their beard deep in thought. Tobias felt himself recede, plagued with pernicious doubt with each passing second of the Smiler’s deliberate inertia.

‘You are an interesting one, I’ll admit that.’ The Smiler eventually responded evenly. ‘But the ruse is feeble and a final act, even your voice is telling. You best get comfortable Tobias, we are going to get to know each other very well.’

Clicking, the clicking of fingers.

Tobias opened his eyes to find Erica leaning into him, her trusty penlight poised some half an inch from his right eye. She shrank back, startled. Tobias observed her face undergo a myriad of expressions. She recovered the mask of professionalism soon enough, with the set jaw and the stoic eyes, glazed with indifference. Daylight flooded through the windows, offensive and unapologetic, colouring the room in a rich golden glow commonly found in blissful dreams, those of impassioned sexual encounters and reuniting with loved ones long dead.

Tobias had survived another night.

The first, of the rest of his life.

‘You look like you just had a nightmare.’ He mumbled, throat cracked and wit dry.

A minor curl of her lip.

‘Funny,’ Erica said. ‘I felt the same about you.’

‘You’d be right.’

‘Yes, well,’ she averted her gaze and reached for the water. ‘You look thirsty.’

‘Am.’ He admitted, and allowed the humiliating process of her steering the straw into his mouth.

‘Particularly bad one I take it?’ Erica asked, feigning disinterest, but he noted how her eyes held his, how she was yet to exhale a long-drawn breath.

He attempted to nod, realised that he could not do so in the body cast and grunted a bark of yes.

‘What happened with Luscombe?’

Tobias made no attempt to reply. He lay in the pale, exquisite glow of the flourishing day, floating in the amber hue, his lids partially closed. With such freedom in waking he felt like he could cleanse his mind and journey through someplace else, to transport his mind to this sanctuary and simply let the morphine drip do its one job.

Erica was adamant about doing hers.

She leaned in even closer, Tobias could detect a faint aroma of cigarettes and energy drinks permeating from her, a pleasant, intoxicating scent that equally stirred his long-dormant loins and ignited his imagination.

‘Are you going to tell me?’ Erica’s insistent voice intruded on his peaceful musings.

And Tobias very nearly did. He would tell her everything, describing in exhaustive detail all of the encounters with the Smiler, of the nightmares, of the indelible stain on his soul that was growing with each day, rotting him inside out. He would reveal that his body could and would mend but his brain never would. He craved the chance to describe the Smiler to her, if only to burden someone else with the image so that it might make it more bearable for himself.

But he didn’t.

Tobias held his tongue, he resolved to tell no one, for he conceded that war had been waged on the Smiler, and that said war was singularly his. There would be no allies and there would be nothing to tip the odds in his favour.

This determination must have etched into Tobias’ features. Erica’s own face set and her mouth tightened. She leaned back, folding her arms across her chest.

‘Two detectives are outside wanting to speak with you.’ She said, her voice detached, whatever sliver of warmth that once lilted it into affability was absent. ‘Do you feel up to talking to them? They are rather insistent.’


Her face was now so consciously impassive, Tobias had no way of knowing if she was surprised by his reply. She turned to leave, her demeanour had reduced the room’s temperature several degrees.

‘Do you know why they are here?’

‘Yes.’ He would have preferred another few sobering gulps of water, but the damage had been done, his declaration had been made resounding clear to Erica as much to himself – he was alone – and sought no assistance or consul, no sage word of advice or heartfelt prayer uttered on his behalf.  That was his punishment and that was his pledge.

‘Good.’ She said, but the word sounded like anything but. She departed from the room without so much as a fleeting glance of appraisal directed his way.

Tobias waited.

He wasn’t trying to fortify himself, wasn’t thinking up some brilliant performance to give, some plausible story to tearfully recount to win them over. Nothing the detectives could do would instil any sort of fear in him, not when he knew what waited for him in the vulnerability of another night fallen. This night looming, and every night thereafter when light evaporated and the puppet show of his dead friends would occur, with the Smiler artfully tugging the strings.

How it all progressed hinged entirely on himself.

‘Tobias?’ Asked the voice.

‘Yes.’ He confirmed, clearing his throat and opening his eyes.

The Smiler stood attendant at the foot of the bed, its eponymous smile atop the body of Erica, lab-coat and all, her name badge gleaming brilliantly. It spoke with her voice, yet its smile was its own.

‘What’s the matter?’ The Erica imposter enquired.

‘Is this him?’ Another voice asked.

Tobias’ eyes swivelled to regard two figures standing behind the fake Erica. Both of whom were dressed in drab, cheap suits, both of whom had the Smiler’s smile atop their heads, grinning, teeth gleaming, pearl-shiny.

‘Tobias.’ Demanded the Erica Smiler. She stepped forward.

‘Go away.’ Tobias screamed.

‘Where’s your defiance now?’ Asked the figure on the right, the self-same voice of the Smiler, not the voice of his dead friends, but the horrific insect-like buzzing, inhuman and terrifying. ‘Where’s that hefty scrotum that empowered your words before?’

‘Stricken with terror now?’ Asked the second figure, its smile widening, the same voice, spoken through all three of the figures, the agents of the Smiler. ‘You are sure singing a different tune. You think that you could outrun me? That daytime would be your salvation? I can manipulate all time and space.’

‘Go away.’ Tobias repeated over and over, the mantra useless.

‘Tobias stop,’ the Erica Smiler implored, her voice briefly returned to the one he had known, the one he felt assured by, but only for a moment. ‘And accept your fate.’

The three figures advanced on him, as their smiles stretched beyond all measurement, splitting the air, the very fabric of reality, all light was snuffed, reality was a nightmare.

Tobias thrashed as much as he could, screaming himself hoarse, until his frayed vocal cords failed to produce any more sound. The Erica Smiler imposter produced some needle and plunged it into one of his exposed bits of flesh. Tobias vision was blotted with black, he felt himself losing the tendril of reality, of his sanity. His last conscious thought before he was fully immersed in oblivion was of hearing the Smiler’s chuckle.


Bio: Elliott, a twenty-seven year old Sydney-side author, divides his time between a uni degree, a job within the television industry and penning his next novel.

Elliott has been published in MoviePilot, Blue Crow Magazine, Pure Slush, Vertigo and The Australian Times and The Southerly. One of his novels, The Sisters of Satan was published in 2011 and the second edition was published in 2012, a horror novel that is still available internationally and has been translated into six languages. As of August 2016, his crime novel, Hoi Polloi is available from Book Booster.

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The Death of Sebastian Briglia By Sebouh Gemdjian

Mar 19 2017

Dear Ms. Gordon,

So I was thinking about you, the literary agent reading this, and somehow you made me think of a time machine. Here is how you made me think of it, actually: We’re both under the same stars, with the same planets orbiting some of them, and among them there just has to be a pure world where anything can happen, where one doesn’t need connections to get a book into the right hands… Where there are no books yet even, just potential stories. A world with clear water in large lakes with gorgeous reflections at night…

If we had a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on the reflection of Earth in the water molecules of the planet Osiris in the Pegasus galaxy (which I understand is rich in liquid water and ice) we would see Earth as it was 300 years ago. Just thought of it right now. See, that’s how long ago the reflection left Earth. Osiris is 150 light years away.

When an astronomer in the future, who has a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on details in Earth’s reflection like you and I reads this book (which is going to be all about this query letter, forget the pages I’ve attached) and designs a contraption for zooming in on Earth’s past, he will look at us right now, at the moment of the idea’s conception. Perhaps he has figured out a way to look inside, and he is looking at you. Perhaps he has found a way to interact, and is altering your future as we speak. Imagine the present moment drifting away at the speed of light into a reflective glacier in another galaxy and bouncing back into the lens of an inquisitive mind enriched by 300 years of progress and evolution that wants to know about you…

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind Regards,

Sebouh Gemdjian

Dear Mr. Gemdjian,

I must admit part of the reason I’m responding so quickly is that I’ve never received a query emailed from a J-Mail account. It took me a Google search to discover that J-Mail is a prison email service. I learned that inmates like you submit hand-written letters, the Corrections Officers scan them in, then disperse printed copies of the replies, all for $10 per month. I was fascinated, and I figured I’d better respond quickly, as this sounds like a time consuming process.

I apologize in advance for sounding so forward and being so frank, but I must confess that your letter found me precisely at the moment of a tragic crossroads in my personal life. My husband of four years perished in an intentional overdose just before I left New York last year, and I’m just coming to terms with this now. It feels like he did this as a result of my decision to be honest with him. His terminal rejection of my truth was all I could think about until the few moments it took me to read your letter, which introduced a witness to my ghastly predicament, a tragedy that still resonates in me so far away from my home.

Right now I’m looking at a sunset. It’s coming through the gap between two brutalist communist-era apartment buildings in a place where I can live cheaply. You’ve probably found me at the top of an agent list because I sold The New Dead series to Random House and optioned it to Paramount for the Trident Agency, but that was a year ago. I’ve been working for myself since then and it hasn’t quite panned out. So here I am, still in the northern hemisphere, under the same stars, though looking at a sunset eight hours after you’ve seen it, a field in the distance with a wisteria-covered museum in honor of a Hungarian nobleman who gave his life failing to stop the Ottoman Turks from conquering Varna, this ancient Bulgarian city, and from dominating the Balkans 600 years ago.

Everyone smiles at me in the elevator because I’m American, and because they don’t suspect I’m not exactly… straight (which I’m sure you know about, if you move in our niche literary circles). This is Eastern Europe after all. Will it still be strange in 300 years, at the time your scientist is watching us through his time telescope, that otherwise conservative people who never speak about sex can’t stop thinking about it if they suspect that your preference is sufficiently different from theirs?
I remember New York, your town, as it was, across the East River, where I would wake up every Thursday with breakfast in bed that my late husband made me. His name was Sebastian Briglia. He was an author and once started a story he called Free Range Humans with the phrase “A last breath is all there is.” The idea was that if it is crueler to eat free-range animals because they enjoy life, where as animals tortured by industrial farming actually want to die, where does that leave humans? Heard of him? Nobody has.

I decided to become a literary agent during one of those breakfast-in-bed mornings. Sebastian made those a tradition every Thursday after his night off, as a part of an ongoing apology for working the graveyard shift at the news bureau and for leaving me alone most afternoons while he slept. It was on such a morning that he died… It was also on such a morning that he proposed. The morning I’m speaking of, however, the morning I decided to become a literary agent, was three years after his marriage proposal. He hadn’t started hearing buzzing sounds and chasing them yet… Which should have given me an immediate clue that he had relapsed last year. The stories he had written about creative shoplifting to finance his “dragon-chasing” that included stuffing ground meat into his shirt (thinking it worked because it made him appear chubby when in actuality it was effective because the blood soaking through made him appear wounded), stopped being entertaining once that happened.

You know, Mr. Gemdjian, Briglia means bridle in Italian. That’s the headgear used to control a horse, the same thing your name means in Armenian. Do you believe in coincidences, or do you think the scientist watching us from the future had something to do with that? You suggested that perhaps he has found a way to interact, rather than just observe us in Earth’s reflection. Tell me, Mr. Gemdjian, how does he do that? This detail is essential if you’d like me to sell your novel. As for me, I’m an idea woman but I’m known to jot a few things down, like this essay about the morning that made me want to represent literature. I posted it on my writer-advice blog, but I will smoothly incorporate it into my email here through the magic of cutting and pasting (not a luxury you enjoy in prison, I’m still shocked to have found out).

That morning National Public Radio was playing, as it always did at the beginning of my author-husband’s traditional “sorry I’m not successful yet” breakfast in bed day. There was a news item on about a cancer treatment that has extended the life of rats but does not work on humans.

“I have an idea for a sci-fi novel,” he says. “It’s a realistic post-apocalyptic story. Scientists are trying to make humans immortal, test the serum on rats, and make the rats immortal. It doesn’t work on humans. Now we are overrun with rats that can’t die of natural causes and keep reproducing, relentlessly fulfilling their rat duties of gnawing and nesting and depleting resources. You know, as a background story, instead of zombies.”

“What?” I roll my eyes. “That’s not interesting… You have to make them intelligent. Intelligent lab-rats that try to escape from the scientists. Two of them. They get separated and reunite in the end.”

“That’s just plot, who remembers plot? Think about it, really old rats, older than any human, like ancient trees. You can kill them, but just the fact that they’re so healthy they can’t die of natural causes creates a problem. Get it? It’s just an idea for a back story; there can be a dramatic plot with humans, a realistic one…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about anymore” was my response to that, but I wrote my version of the immortal lab rats on experimental cancer medication story, where they are in love, get separated and reunite. With zombies. I sold it, under his name. He had never received payment for fiction before, only as a journalist, and my sassy prank just rubbed it in his face. From that point on life became a countdown to some inevitabilities for both of us: me turning away from teaching third graders, getting an entry level slush pile job at Trident and working up to having my own client list, and his relapse. Though my husband’s actual relapse happened a few days after I told him that the reason he has never met my parents was that not only did I run away at 14 to work for a photographer in Boston, but also that the photographer financed a not-so-legal sex change operation for me. Yes, I was a boy up until the age of 14, which is why I don’t look like I’m trans now I was prepubescent. Sebastian became very quiet after that, and started hearing insects… But that’s another story.

This might betray an unfulfilled motherly instinct on my part, but considering the possibility that your unborn astronomer from the future is observing me at this very moment is giving me a reprieve from the resentment of losing Sebastian at its most painful. You see, at the very moment I began to read your query letter, my late husband’s thorough rejection of my true self, it just… And I don’t mean his rejection of the pre-pubescent boy I was, not of the woman I believed owed no explanations, no, his rejection of my true, transgendered me with meat-and potatoes literary tastes that finds his work pretentious and sub-par that rejection of his (including his rejection of my rejection) still had me so distraught that I was about to give up on the future all together. As I read your letter, I realized much of the loneliness I felt in a meaningless universe could disappear if that very moment were witnessed by a future that cared.

It would be wonderful if this possibility came true, but you would have to write such a compelling piece about the moment I read your query letter that future generations would consider it a classic. That’s the only way we can be sure 300 years from now an astronomer with a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on our reflection on the planet Osiris would be looking at us.

Judging from the pages you sent, however, this will not be the case, unfortunately. Your turn of phrase leaves much to be desired, English is clearly not your first language, and your insights are mostly unrelatable to the general public. Please don’t stop reading, I may have a solution. It occurred to me to write a book about this, to steal your idea as it were, but in the unlikely event that you do write this book and it does become a hit, the astronomer from the future would perceive me as the villain, a possibility I can not possibly allow. So I have decided to assist you in writing this. You see, the secret to a successful novel is a dose of candid reality. I want you to write a story about a moment in your life that you never speak of. We can incorporate that into the astronomer-from-the-future-witnessing-our-lives premise.

I’m looking forward to reading it. I really do hope that you take my offer. My future depends on it.


Hannah Gordon

Dear Mr. Gemdjian,

Let me assure you that while what you’re doing now may be something Sebastian would have wanted, whatever prank the two of you were working on before his death is wildly inappropriate now, do you understand?

What you have sent me is clearly his autobiographical work. At first you had me convinced there are an incredible number of parallels between your life and his, but as I read your story and the similarities kept mounting, it dawned on me that you’re merely having a go at me.

The very reason I settled in Varna, Bulgaria is that Sebastian was born here, apparently much like you, you’d have me believe. I vividly remember his descriptions of communist bread stores and authoritarian kitsch. What you sent me sounds like a transcript of my memories of hearing him speak. Here, spend some more time with your plagiarism, think of what I felt like reading my late husband’s nostalgia presented to me as yours:

It’s a sunny, beach-scented day in mid-80’s Varna, Bulgaria. I’m in first grade, so the extent of my homework is drawing a crayon picture of my favorite form of transportation, which I’ve already done (a ship, though I had never been on one). I tell my mom I don’t have homework, but I want to just keep working on my pictures.

“Go outside,” she says. “Find some friends…”

I figured I’d drag myself to the playground, swing by myself for a while and come home, as usual.

“I want you to spend at least an hour outside. Go to the store and pick up some bread while you’re at it. Don’t forget to count the change.”

This last part deflated me because it meant I had to talk to strangers. I waited in line, imagining in my mind slapping the money on that counter. Then I did. I slapped it on there, and looked up. Is the clerk-lady going to mutter “Just get out of here, kid” at me through her teeth? She could, if she wanted to, just keep my money and kick me out. Who is going to believe me? I’m just a kid. The wood paneling in the bread store gave me a warm, though institutional feeling. It really was a bread store, not a bakery. There were bakeries downtown, but not here, among what we called “The Blocks” — no cakes, no pastries, no oven. Just white and rye, and the expensive country style bread. They delivered the bread from a huge factory bakery with chimneys and rows of hangars with triangular roofs and lots of smoke and ladies with babushkas taking it out of the gigantic ovens with enormous wooden paddles. At least that was what the art deco mural on the back wall had to say about it.

“White or rye?” I don’t know. I need a story if I get it wrong. My mom probably told me, I forgot, my mom will get mad because I always forget, so I need a story. I’ll say they only had white, they were out of rye if I was supposed to get rye.

“Rye.” Why did I say rye? When do we ever get rye? No one ever eats rye. They probably just make it for decoration. I can’t change my mind now. The lady will get mad and kick me out.

On the way back I saw the old man that always sits in his first floor balcony and talks to himself.

“Hey champ,” he barked. He called me champ. That made me smile. “Show me your pee-pee.” He is a nice man, I thought, I feel bad I’m not allowed to show him my pee-pee, I hope he doesn’t think I don’t have one.

“That’s not all the change… And when do we ever eat rye?”

“I stopped by the playground, mom, maybe it fell out of my pocket when I was on the swing.”

“Did you play with friends? Go to the playground and find the change if that’s what really happened.”

My parents would have me hang out with Jarvis, the kid across the hall, who was a few years older and apparently a trouble maker. He was loud. I decided to work on making friends, so I hung out with him and his friend, a big boy. Jarvis called him Tanker and he definitely had a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Tanker was old, maybe ten, and would catch bees and hornets, tie strings around them and take them for walks with us in the woods. Now that I see him in my mind’s eye, I remember the infernal gleam of a proto-drug-addicted me in Tanker’s pupils as he pulled the strings of his flying insect minions.

Did Sebastian instruct you to send this to me as he was planning to leave me, before he overdosed, along with the idea of a future astronomer finding me in Earth’s reflection in a lake on Osiris? He always had a cold, almost sociopathic sense of humor, and I’d have to assume yours is identical:

When I was six I used to have a blinking tic. A psychiatrist said it’s not a big deal; I just have a difficult personality. At the time I thought this meant I was challenging myself subconsciously to keep blinking, and succeeding, out of sheer steadfast moxie. It turns out he meant that I was looking for attention and should just be ignored. It went away. My brother developed a stutter temporarily. The consensus about that was that it was my fault, when I was seven, and it was preceded by a literal whipping by my mom on my bare ass with a plastic sword, for letting Tanker pressure my three year old brother Ari to defecate in bushes that left thorns in his underwear.

However, having now donned my literary agent hat, I must say that while passages may have read better than anything Sebastian had churned out while alive, the writing is still sub-par, the structure is loose and the focus is at times completely lost.

Also, how would your mother, or Sebastian’s (who would also recognize his style I’m certain) feel after reading this? Publishing it under a different name is meant to solve that problem, I suppose. I loved him to death but he was such a cold, calculating man sometimes. And at other times he was a sweet putz… His clumsiness, a sure sign of being self conscious, pointed to his over inflated ego… I wouldn’t be surprised if Sebastian Briglia was not his real name. No Bulgarians have names like his, not even gypsies. Think of your mother reading the passage you sent me about how she spanked you, something that is exactly the type of thing that would have happened to Sebastian, whose entire personality seemed to have bloomed out of mommy issues. I must admit this paragraph I’m about to make you re-read redeems you a bit, though you lose the credit you’ve gained at the end by implying that your addict personality was the product of a “metaphorically” incestuous union through a beating with a plastic sword… That’s the kind of thing that might make a reader throw in the towel, Mr. Gemdjian:

The stress of having to deal with a seven-year old with a “difficult character” while protecting a three year old in a time and place when it was not outrageous to send your children out roaming the neighborhood at a young age was enough of an exonerating circumstance for my mother, but all actions have consequences. My criminal-minded addict alter ego was conceived then, a product of that plastic-sword-beating-officiated metaphorically incestuous union.

You know, I swear to the Future Scientist as he looks down upon us, at times I felt as if Sebastian could have killed me. Not for being a transgendered woman and not having told him in advance. For continually rejecting his writing, which he was convinced he was too much of a genius to rewrite.

Speak to you soon,


Dear Mr. Gemdjian

This is not the original email that I wrote you. That one failed to save as a draft for some reason, and expressed my incredulity at realizing that you have not been receiving my emails at all.

Apparently the pages I thought you sent in response to my request for a candid, real story from your life were another attachment in your original email.

I suppose the officers scanning your hand written pages made two attachments, instead of including everything in the first one, and it mislead me. Which means you have not responded to me at all.

This left me feeling I was simply not leaving an impact on you at all, like a ghost… I calmed down and convinced myself your prison’s Corrections Officers were just taking too long to bring you printouts of my replies. I was less than inspired to rewrite the email at that point. But then things changed.

I realized that no one, not a family member, friend or social media connection, sexual or otherwise, has responded to anything I’ve sent lately. The sexual connection part is the one that made me really suspicious — I’ve had estranged lovers with whom I’ve ended things rather aggressively respond immediately upon my sending them a questionably “artistic” personal photo. Yet these normally effective snapshots seem to have lost their allure somehow, suddenly failing to secure any response at all.

Perhaps my panic at being ignored is compounded by the fact that I’ve chosen to let the world forget my birth by starting over with a new gender at 14. Maybe this is what a ghost is: Someone whose death is remembered but whose birth has been forgotten. When that happens perhaps death takes the place of the ghost’s birth by default and that last moment of panic stretches out for countless lifetimes of being stuck in limbo. Maybe mistaking death for birth is what a soul is too.

My car inexplicably won’t start, the mechanic doesn’t understand me on the phone and I could have sworn he spoke English before, the bus doors close in my face leaving me in the cold morning in the glow of the sunrise coming in behind the mountains, abandoning me at the bus stop in front of the forever greening foundations for an unknown construction project next to the museum honoring knights that failed to hold back the Ottomans 600 years ago. I almost gave up trying to reach you. But then…

Then my eyesight problems began. I keep zooming out. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at myself over my own shoulder through my kitchen window and into my tablet when I’m checking my email, and I feel I have to be by the window or outside to see anything that I’m doing. The further away I am from a window indoors the grayer the world becomes… You know what I’m getting at, Mr. Gemdjian. Or should I say Sebastian? I’m beginning to identify with the future astronomer’s perspective.

Last time I saw you your eyes seemed frozen, fixed at a bathroom ceiling, lungs collapsed in an empty tub, skin blue-green from a heroin overdose.

You always talked about how the only way to truly erase your past was to fake your own death. And what is this, revenge? You finally figured out what kind of story would get me truly invested in your writing, and to get me back for having chosen to identify as a woman early on, you got me to identify as a man now, the Future Astronomer, even if it kills me. Sounds paranoid, yet I wouldn’t put it past you, Sebastian.

Or was that me lifeless in the bathtub? Was I the one who died in New York that morning, because yes, I demanded a taste of your relapse when you told me about it, and the moment before I stopped perceiving may have stretched into an infinity, perhaps in the middle of you reading me this very story.

Hoping we both enjoy our new identities, whatever time span they occupy,



Dear Students,

As you step back from the first temporal reading telescope prototype at the Vasar National Collection Library, read this message slowly, and please do not rush disengagement. Remember, as this artifact is the very first temporal telescopic book ever devised, the software is primitive, and we have let it remain unchanged for authenticity.

Backing away from the viewfinder will be accompanied by a sudden acceleration. When you begin to find yourself on the other side of a 21st century interactive device with a sense that you’re fragmented into six billion pieces please lean forward until you find the exact moment at which this email dissolves into the sound of my voice. At that point it is safe to disengage and re-join basic deja vu reality. If you have failed to do so and are now drifting back into the content (i.e. emails you’re reading over the character’s shoulder) all you need to do is make sure the text version of this first ever temporal telescopic novel is published within its own reality while you’re trapped in it. Once it is, you will find yourself at this prompt again.

Remember, the Vasar National Collection Library is supported by lives like yours.

Thank you for your time.

The Future Astronomer





Short Bio of Sebouh Gemdjian

As a child Sebouh Gemdjian wanted to be American, and luckily for him at the time, so did his parents. They emigrated from Bulgaria in 1991, not long after the fall of communism. As an adult, he toyed with the idea of being Bulgarian again, though unfortunately for him at the time Bulgaria as he remembered it did not exist anymore. Later he began to suspect that Bulgaria as he remembered it never existed.

As a journalist, he has written for The Highland Park Mirror and The Dateline Journal in North New Jersey, as well as for New York City’s Bulgarian community paper Nedelnik. He wrote under a pen name at The Italian Tribune News in Newark, NJ, where he worked as a staff writer over a decade ago. He currently works in public relations, writes about meditation and marketing ( and plays guitar in two New York bands: Like Herding Cats ( and Memoirs of Addiction (

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Public Service Announcement by Elizabeth Syson

Mar 12 2017

Community Announcement #729

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits are not what they seem. The Council acknowledges that rabbits appear to be three-foot-tall, steam-powered monsters built of steel panels and whirring gears, but the Council wishes all citizens to remember that rabbits are, in fact, small, fluffy herbivores.

You may have heard rumours stating that rabbits are a danger to your children or a breach of security. The Council denies these rumours. Despite subversive lies regarding rabbits’ alleged ‘machine-gun eyes’ and ‘razor-sharp teeth’, rabbits are harmless.

As a citizen, it is your duty to protect those spreading dissension by reporting them to the Council. It is important that you report anyone you hear propagating these vicious rumours about rabbits, as rabbits’ ears are not, as you may have heard, sensitive microphones adjusted to pick up human voices and relay information to the Council’s Watchmen, and the Council therefore relies on you to help protect our community.

Community Announcement #732

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits perform a valuable community function. The Council does not understand why so many community members would believe the lies about rabbits circulating through the population. Rabbits—again, the Council emphasises, we are referring to those small herbivores that cannot hurt anyone or relay secret information for the Council’s Watchmen—keep our community safe by encouraging proper behaviour and adding a charming, rustic aesthetic to the street corners where they stand of their own accord, certainly not by any executive order from the Council’s Watchmen.

This aesthetic is not improved upon when certain community members scatter steel gears in the streets and refer to these gears as ‘rabbit guts’. This is anatomically incorrect as well as offensive. The Council urges all citizens to remember that rabbits are an important feature of our social infrastructure and must be protected for ecological and political reasons. Citizens should not attack these harmless creatures.

Once more, the Council reminds all citizens that it is vital to our community that any unsettling rumours be put down before they can upset the peace. Citizens attacking rabbits will also be put down.

Community Announcement #737

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits are resilient. The Council is shocked that some citizens would be so hateful as to intentionally damage such vulnerable, harmless creatures, but fortunately for the Wildlife Society and the Council’s Watchmen, only one rabbit was seriously injured. A veterinarian has assured the Council that this damaged rabbit will be fully functional after a few days of rest and intensive welding.

Although no permanent damage was done, the Council considers this an act of animal cruelty and political terrorism. Community members suspected of involvement will be collected for questioning and mandatory re-education by the Council’s Watchmen.

The Council’s Watchmen are also searching for Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913, who did not appear for last night’s Community Loyalty ceremony. In this time of civil unrest, the Council reminds citizens that Unlawful Search and Seizure Immunity Points can be earned by reporting subversive neighbours to the Council.

Community Announcement #738

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits cannot be overcome by homemade explosives. The Council would like citizens to remember that homemade explosives are both dangerous and illegal, and that leaving them near rabbits is irresponsible. While the Council acknowledges citizens’ sense of humour in staging these practical jokes, attempting to kill defenseless rabbits shows a serious lack of taste and will be punished severely. The Council is enforcing early curfew this week while medical officers from the Wildlife Society tend to the injured rabbits.

Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913 are suspected as complicit in this act of gratuitous violence, and the Council’s Watchmen would like to discuss their lack of community spirit in person. As they have not been discovered yet, they are considered fugitives. Any community member seen with or suspected of harbouring these two will be considered in opposition to the Council and subject to in-person discussion with the Council’s Watchmen.

Community Announcement #739

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbit blood is not oil. It is also not the black paint used to shamefully graffiti local government offices. Citizens are urged to ignore both the viscous paint scrawled across the Councilhouse and the graffiti’s slanderous implications that rabbits are equipped to injure citizens. The Council is not attempting to control the population through these small, fluffy rodents, and citizens caught promulgating such disloyal falsehoods will be taken for re-education by the Council’s Watchmen.

Community Announcement #740

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbit deaths should not be celebrated. The Council would like to remind citizens that killing rabbits by shooting at them with heavy artillery from fortified rooftops is neither legal, nor sporting. Community members are invited to instead celebrate the executions of several citizens apprehended by the Council’s Watchmen. They will be executed at moon rise tonight by heavy artillery firing squad.

Community Announcement #742

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits must be protected. Therefore, as civil unrest and general anti-rabbit sentiment has infected the general population, the Council’s Watchmen will be patrolling the streets fully armed in order to prevent thoughtless citizens from nearing any rabbit with weapons, metalworking tools, or blowtorches. Citizens are furthermore reminded that weapons, metalworking tools, and blowtorches are illegal, and the possession of any of these will result in a mandatory in-person interview with the Council’s Watchmen.

The Council would like all citizens to ignore the subversive lies and hate speeches scrawled in what looks like, but is not, rabbit blood across government buildings across the community. As a reminder, contrary to what these graffitied messages suggest:

Rabbits are not mechanical monsters designed to harm you;

The Council’s Watchmen do not execute anyone, child or otherwise, without due process;

Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913 are not revolutionary heroes but dangerous and possibly mentally ill delinquents;

Reporting fellow community members to the Council’s Watchmen is not a personal betrayal but a sign of responsible citizenship.

In addition, the Council’s Watchmen will be executing on sight and this announcement will serve as due process in the following cases:

Citizens caught painting subversive graffiti;

Citizens caught discussing rabbits;

Citizens caught near rabbits;

Citizens caught with any device, utensil, or weapon capable of damaging rabbits;

Citizens caught outside during curfew hours.

Community Announcement #745

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits cannot be eaten by foxes. The Council would like to remind community members that not only is it illegal to create giant foxes with steel teeth and lever-action jaws, it is also futile, as rabbits, despite being small and harmless, are impervious to attacks from mechanical predators.

The Council’s Watchmen will be summarily executing any citizen suspected of contributing to these tasteless mechanical foxes’ creation or activation, because although these foxes cannot harm rabbits, their inception constitutes a breach of good citizenship.

Community Announcement #746

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits will be weaponised.

The Council has decided to take the step of arming these harmless creatures in order to protect them from criminals with homemade explosives and the shameful mechanical foxes that uncooperative community members insist on releasing into the streets.

Loyal citizens will not be harmed and should be encouraged to know that the Council’s Watchmen have successfully apprehended several clusters of subversive community members in possession of weapons and black paint that mimics the oily tone of rabbit blood. The Council is disappointed to report that even the children among these subversive groups have been so brainwashed as to fear rabbits and declare support for Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913. As a result, most of these have been executed as criminals. The rest will be re-educated and released as probationary citizens after treatment.

Community Announcement #747

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits will be attending the public execution of known associates of Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913. Community members are invited to view this dispensation of justice and contribution toward community safety.

Community Announcement #748

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits will not be carrying out the execution of Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913. The Council urges community members to ignore these baseless rumours and remember that rabbits are harmless, not steel killing machines, and therefore could not possibly carry out an execution. Rabbits have been invited to the execution in order to show their community support. The Council’s Watchmen will be carrying out the execution in the usual manner. Parents are encouraged to bring their children for this edifying experience.

Community Announcement #749

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits are not dangerous, but foxes are. The Council would like to state that the unmitigated slaughter of innocent community members at the execution of Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913 was not, as has been rumoured, the result of rabbits’ ‘laser eyes’ and ‘razor teeth’ but was an unprovoked attack by illegal mechanical foxes.

Foxes do not symbolise freedom. The Council reminds citizens that while rabbits contribute to community aesthetic and are harmless, foxes contribute to community unrest and are uncontrollable, illegal, and homicidal.

Because these illegal mechanical foxes present a danger to the community, the Council’s Watchmen will be destroying any foxes in the streets as well as any community members near them or suspected of being complicit in their creation. The Council recommends that citizens remain indoors for the next several days while this purge of undesirable foxes and community members is carried out. The Council’s Watchmen will be breaking and entering in order to apprehend any suspect citizens and summarily executing any community members who intervene.

Community Announcement #751

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits have not been withdrawn by the Council. This would be impossible, since rabbits are small, harmless wild animals, not enormous, deadly surveillance machines controlled by the Council. Rabbits have not been destroyed by the foxes but have merely moved on in their natural life cycles, following migratory patterns as observed by the Wildlife Society.

Citizens observed celebrating rabbits ‘removal’ or overheard referring to the revolutionaries’ ‘victory’ will be considered disloyal. The Council mandates that citizens attend the communitywide farewell to rabbits ceremony to commemorate their presence in our community and acknowledge their voluntary departure.


While consuming tea and coffee at an alarming rate, Elizabeth Syson reads obsessively, writes compulsively, and pursues an unnatural love of copyediting. Her publications include radio scripts, devotionals, creative nonfiction, and a handful of blogs for Odyssey online. She is a third-culture kid who collects boarding pass stubs, passport stamps, and useful bits of foreign languages. Her suitcase is currently open in southern Arizona, but it will open in Africa next. Although she’s never seen it, she knows a monster lives beneath her bed, and she’s considered naming it. She blogs at and



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The First Taste by Sarah Tanburn

Mar 05 2017

This is how I began, with the tang of wine, the sour of anger, the spice of treachery. All salted with red blood and spilled friendship. We all have to start somewhere. You might have come to it in a church, or a school, or the public street. Or in your lover’s arms.
We all know, you never stop at one. But you always remember the first time. Who it was, where you were, why. I was in a provincial gallery, one brisk night in October.


Wine splashed in my glass. I was rough with it and the red meniscus swayed to the edge of danger. I lifted it to my lips. The sharp tannin scent nipped me, belying the sweet taste flooding my mouth, smooth on my tongue and voluptuous on my gums. The first taste was always the best. All the others were chasing this moment.
Especially that night, with Simon’s injunction to behave ‘just this once’. My promised compliance was the bitterness in the back of my throat, the smell wrinkling the bridge of my nose. I gritted my teeth at the memory of the controlled cajoling, the lurking admonitions as he reminded me of the importance of his appearances at this week’s little soiree. London critics were coming, drawn by the School’s increasing reputation. Amazing what a few aggressive collages will do, judiciously hawked to grace nouveau windows in Clerkenwell or the Jewellery Quarter. Really, Sophie was the one in the spotlight. She’s the special effects guru.

Around me the clacking of the party hummed along its accustomed tracks. Kissy, kissy. Smiling chit and chat. Little deals made, minor pledges disavowed. Nobody looking at the walls, everyone ignoring the photographs that excused this schmooze-fest. I took another mouthful of the merlot the college doled out on these occasions. Once the first rush was past, I could taste the vinegar. It didn’t stop me drinking. You know how it feels.
It hadn’t started out like this. Long ago, so long ago, before Simon, the wine was just part of the fun. The witticisms, the easy eroticism of studenthood. The arrogance of knowing you were the best, the brightest spark ever seen, that the critics were just waiting to kiss your feet. We never had the money for spirits, nor anything much really. Occasionally, very occasionally, there was a bender. But usually a few glasses, a few tokes, some casual fumblings on a bumpy mattress under a thin duvet and some smelly blankets. Then a bright morning, and more pictures.

That night, the night I began, I twisted the remnants of my precious glass, seeing the young Simon in the lees, and the even younger me. The best, the brightest spark in the Art School caught the attention of the firebrand trophy lecturer, took fire at his energy and authority. We walked hand in hand on the beach. Sure, I was old enough, wise enough to be trusted with a relationship with faculty. There was a row of course, but they let me graduate. Simon’s promises, his determination to marry me helped.
And here we were, him with his reputation and me with my pathetic little sinecure. Allowed to fool around in the darkroom. And I only had that thanks to Sophie. Dear Sophie, who’d stuck by me ever since those hangover-free halcyon days. Strange I couldn’t see her, but she’d be around somewhere. She even rescued me when I was drunk during the Royal visit, covered for me with the Dean. I would be long gone, to perdition perhaps, or to Paris, if not for her. If I stayed sober through the evening, it would be for Sophie. Sod Simon.
I topped up my glass and turned away from the table, looked around the long gallery. All the usual damn faces. Smug, glowing, radiating in the lights and heat that pressed against the long windows. As always, in this space, I could see our posing reflections in that wall, striated, shattered by passing headlights, observed with amused aloofness by passing students. My jaw clenched, I could feel my molars grinding. I was here on orders. And on sufferance. I’d better just look at the pictures.
The nearest one I remembered from the darkroom, a big, dramatic piece. The student had struggled with the minute variations in black that made up the texture of old stones at the mouth of the well. The shot, straight down the shaft, had the pull of a Kapoor sculpture, deep and heavenly. Hung here, the glass reflected the lights, the window wall, myself. Mousy hair, sallow skin, in my drab skirt, safe blouse and little cardi, approved by Simon as not drawing attention. Not pulling attention away from him. I had less colour than the well. Where had all my colours gone?

I peered closer. I could see Simon, that ridiculous gold waistcoat glittering in the depths. He had insisted on wearing it, despite my jeers that the whole town must be sick of it. He’d worn it every evening since he picked it up in some London flea market. Since when did he start prinking like some charity peacock, a down-at-heel bird of paradise? It wasn’t for me, I was sure of that. He was standing behind me, off to the left. He must have thought I couldn’t possibly see him, even if I bothered to look. Tricks of refraction and reflection, bright lights and dark walls of glass, of silver enamel on shiny paper, put Simon’s tiny figure inside my wine.
He stood next to Sophie. There she was, my old friend, my pal, the smoother of my path. She had her hand on Simon’s arm, her rings twinkling, a distant star in the black sea. She looked up at Simon, at my husband, and smiled. Her hair was more rich darkness against Simon’s golden stomach. His hand so white, punctiliously clean, like the underbelly of a lizard, came up and stroked her cheek.
I heard myself hiss. Simon and Sophie. Surprise! The kaleidoscope’s click took my breath away. The pattern was obvious, once seen. The twisted instant rewrote my life. How had she done it? She had listened, oh so carefully, to his woeful stories of my drunkard’s cunning. My every smash confirmed it. She must have cooed and cosseted him. She had so often pampered me! Simon must have loved it. Invisible me to nag and hector. Sophie to charm, woo, bedazzle. Their trap to keep me in place. His respectable cover, her safe cop-out. Everyone around us must know; nobody looked askance at their caress, or so much as glanced in my direction. They had played a long game with me.
Not any more. I could leave them to it, just walk away. After all, no-one would miss me. But that wouldn’t do. Even they, devious, deceitful, would expect some display from me, a last flare up of the brightest spark. They would be disappointed if, at the last, I behaved.
I threw my drink, still full, in to the deep well of the photo. Hard against the glass, shattering, tinkling. Loud. Shards, sharp, glistening with red, scattered around my feet. The clackety clack halted and the faces turned to stare. Simon’s mouth was distorted, bouncing with frustration, wanting the floor to open under me. Sophie, starting away from him, stepped forward, arm outstretched. Concerned. Caring. So keen to tidy me away.

“My dear,” she started.
I hissed again, stuttering over their names, struggling to utter all their betrayals. Then pulled myself together.
“Lovely photos,” I said, moving towards her. “Just the show you promised us all. I’m so glad I could play my small part.” She clutched at me without grace as I enfolded her in my arms. I could feel her relief that the worst was over, that I had shot my bolt.
My teeth met through the skin of her neck. The pretence that all was well broke against her scream. Salty, viscous fluid ran over my lips and the tip of my tongue. Her perfume mixed with the stink thick in my nostrils. My gums curled back at the unaccustomed subtleties. I swallowed, the new sensation rich and hot in my stomach. No wine or spirits, no bodily fluid, would ever taste the same again. I could get used to this, to the oaths implicit in the taste of warm blood.
Red smears showed across my teeth as I smiled at them all. “Goodnight darlings,” I said.
In the awed silence, broken only by Sophie’s panting sobs, I walked away. Feet steady and back straight, I walked out of the shattered glass and the bright lights and the avid faces. In the dark, on the cold pavement, I breathed deeply. The fresh air was intoxicating.

That was how I began. Now tell us your story.







Sarah Tanburn lives in South Wales in a small flat overlooking the sea. She writes fiction, travel and poetry.


Her published work includes the short stories The Ocean Is My Lover available from, Blessed Are the Peacemakers published by Snapshots of History in 2012 and Switzerland which won the Get Writing Cup in 2012.  Her creative non-fiction and reviews span travel memoir, including Partition, [wherever] magazine,  and December: Dusk at


In 2016, she spent two months on a tall ship exploring the far south; you can read about it at




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Dichotomy Ground by S.L. Dixon

Feb 26 2017

Two died on impact. Strong and healthy roots from separate and yet entangled family trees gone in an instant.

A third involved in the incident died while the screaming sirens and the bright lights did little beyond clearing a path and offering the sidewalk gawkers a reason for speculation. The rolling white cube carted nothing more than a still warm body. However, if his life’s work meant much, he was in a better place. Being a man of the cloth suggested no less than Heaven.

Two survived, and to add to the chaos of the scene, there was the sixth body.

A body long cold and days dead. It almost seemed as if the corpse dropped from the sky, smack in the middle of the wreckage.

It was young woman with a familiar face. That face had been on the news all week. Her parents were worried sick. There was a fight and Little Miss Thing had an attitude and yet, according to the teary-faced mother, Carrie was a good girl, acting out that’s all. Those words and the accompanying tears were all over the news every day following Carrie’s stroll on Highway 66. It was hours before anyone recognized an issue.

Carrie’s mother discovered something didn’t fit when Sandi, Carrie’s friend from up the highway, called to check on Carrie, said Carrie wasn’t answering texts and said Carrie was to be by… when was that exactly?

A question people ask when the hot ball of worry drops into their bellies, something’s wrong and it’s been that way for hours now, but… how many? When was it, exactly? Oh God.

Mama told the cameras pointed at her front door about what Carrie wore out of the house. It was embarrassing. Mama let Carrie out in a short skirt and a fishnet top that showed off a fluorescent pink halter. On her feet, pink heels completed the look. It was definitely not Grace of God Baptist Church approved.

After acknowledging an issue, neighbours searching the side of the highway found a pink heel that booted that worry like a soccer ball, booted it into all-out panic.

Everybody guessed the likely answer, but nobody said. Girls on the highway had a way of showing up used and abused, final heartbeats drummed and no way to paint a suspect. There were already four that year and the police did not have a clue where to look as thousands took that highway, daily.

When Carrie’s body showed up in the middle of a car accident in the ditch, they thought perhaps that luck had finally swung in their direction. Thank God.

It was a three-car collision. A pack of elk decided it was a good time to cross the highway and a rusty Ford truck plowed into a little Nissan and a mid-size Chevy. It appeared most of those riding in the vehicles had a lazy attitude toward safety belts.

The two survivors shared a wide hospital room with two empty beds, left so, for the sake of the families. All expected an early checkout time, despite whatever hope rattled around minds.

A detective waited outside the door, he had some questions to ask the one woman, but the doctor said no and the nurse told him he’d best skedaddle if he didn’t want a size seven square in his ass. Frustrated, he waited and watched as people came in and out, deathbed exceptions to the rules for family members only.

One clinging to life was just thirty-three, no husband, no kids, a ghost of her former self. She rested, unconscious, her name Eliza Goodman, or Lizzy to her friends. Eliza was on the brink, her lungs needing regular drainage even after the first surgery. It didn’t look good. She was pretty well dead to the world long before anything was official, but that didn’t keep her parents from rushing the two hours along rough highway and into her hospital room.

“Look at her, I mean just look at her,” Maria Goodman said to her husband, she gripped her Bible begging for a red zone defence from the Man Upstairs. Keep that score the way it was, please!

Bryan Goodman put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and pulled her to his chest, knowing exactly what went through her head looking down at that puffy white face. Hell, that was it and he knew it too. They’d discussed it and thought they’d have time to reconcile, let it slide for a few years until she came to her senses, but she’d never get a chance at redemption if she never awoke.

It was the failing of her last relationship and the loss of the baby growing in her oven that turned Eliza sour on the Lord. Neither Bryan nor Maria could say much, not right away. They did their best to give space at such a troubling time, although it was the duty of every good Christian to lead stray sheep back to the flock.

“We should’ve tried harder,” said Maria, tears danced down her face. “She’s doomed if she doesn’t wake up and beg the Lord, beg His forgiveness for what she’d said, doomed.”

Bryan wanted to say something reassuring about the Lord’s way and the His work, but none of it sounded right for that moment. Their daughter was on her way and not to a better place. Good person or not, she didn’t get right with the Lord and that meant she was right with Satan.

A machine attached to the woman in the bed next to Eliza beeped frantically and the woman leaned forward. Her eyes scanned and her arms flailed with frantic swipes, looking for something, needing help.

“Oh Bryan, get the nurse,” said Maria and she ran to the panicked woman.

Bryan raced out of the room, his sneakers squeaking on the shiny, waxed floor.

“What’s going on?” the detective demanded.

Bryan ignored him and got to the nurses’ station. It wasn’t far, but it doesn’t say anything about cardio in the Good Book, not directly anyway. He huffed and gasped, mouthing words. The nurse got the just of it and ran past him.

The detective demanded information from the nurse as she rushed. She ignored him. He stopped Bryan from trailing the nurse all the way in, “What’s happening, is there trouble?” asked the detective. He’d had time to think and it seemed very unlikely that the accident happened on a fortunate spot. He deduced that more likely a serial killer was on her way to a dumpsite. The perp liked rivers and there was a wooded area featuring a secluded canoe launch not ten minutes up the highway. Let the body float and bob, let that evidence wash away with nature.

It was possible that the body had been dumped in the vicinity and that the killer had long gone. It was possible.

It seemed a hell of a lot more likely that the woman in the room was in on it, maybe not the main show, but in the mix. Right there with that same raping and murdering sonofabitch they’d sought for almost a year and who they’d linked to past crimes as far back as 1995. Sonofabitch was a PG term for this guy. At the station they had an entire rainbow of colorful titles for him to hear if they ever caught him. They never thought there’d be a her involved or even considered the possibility that it was just a her.

“You can take a boot,” the detective muttered to himself and then chased into the room to gawk at the questionable woman struggling for life.

The nurse busied herself with a needle over the washroom’s sink. Eliza was asleep and her father cried, nodding with along to the rambling Biblical chanting performed by her harried mother.

The suspect repeated over and over that she was sorry for what she’d done. Her greasy blonde hair crawling over the bandage on her head, falling into her eyes as she struggled against the pain. Life was hard and death was no different.

“Forgive me, Jesus, please, take me! Jesus, forgive me, I’m sorry!” the woman begged, wailing.

The beeping became frantic. The nurse raced back and tripped on a loose shoelace, spilling her forward, the needle skittered under the heat register, she yelled a chorus of near-obscenities and crawled across the room seeking the needle.

The detective decided to question the woman trying for peace with Jesus, “Ursula Donaldson,” the detective pushed aside the short-range missionaries and leaned down to look into the woman’s panicked eyes, “did you kill Carrie Howe?”

There was recognition there, it was there all right, but before the detective could ask another question, the nurse stuck the needle into Ursula and she fluttered off to sleep.

The Goodman’s returned to their spot next to their daughter, feeling better as they’d saved a soul, although wishing it were Eliza’s soul they’d saved. And… what was it that the detective asked about anyway? Did that poor woman kill a girl named Carrie? Nonsense…, but if she had, she repented and, made good with the Lord. It’s the only real law of the land anyway. She might not get the star treatment, but the Lord would love her for the devotion and repentance, sure He would.

Ursula Donaldson made it three more hours, but never regained consciousness, dying at exactly seven that evening. It was sad, but there was still a chance for Eliza. She’d gone in for another surgery at six and the doctors said it went well. It felt like one of those things only God knows for sure.

First thing the next morning, Eliza had another surgery. Maria read aloud from the Bible, hoping something might stick and allow their daughter consciousness for a second, just a second, long enough to let God know she’d changed her way.


Eliza opened her eyes. She was warm and comfortable and yet, she didn’t feel herself. Her skin was tight, comfy and clear. It reminded her of high school but without all the acne. She sat in a field, her mind in a fog, the memory of how she got there was gone. She recalled being in Kate’s car. Malcolm was behind her and Kate and he had sunburn on his back so he couldn’t sit against the seat. They sang, all of them sang, loudly.

Some damn song. Catchy as hell… but then what?

Eliza got to her feet and looked around the peculiar landscape. The grass with luscious green and full, without weeds. She brushed at her short dress, curious about how she’d come to fit into a dress she had in the ninth grade. It was not as if she’d packed on much weight, but over the years her body shifted in shape, giving her a more womanly quality than that of a young boy. Nonetheless, she liked the dress and was happy that it fit again. A ways ahead she saw a road. It was warm and the grass felt nice on her bare feet.

“What was that song?” she asked herself, stopping as the sound of her voice registered fully. “Hello, hello. My name is Lizzy. Mo, mo, me, me,” she said, her voice was light and high, higher than it was when she and Kate and Malcolm sang along to that damn song.

She skipped toward the road, humming the tune of the song she couldn’t remember. It was pretty much the catchiest tune of all time and somehow it escaped her.

“Who cares about the name of a song? How did you get here? Where’s here?”

Just before the road there was a patch of butterflies resting atop a bed of wild flowers. She crept slowly, they fluttered into a breezy cloud and then dispersed, all but one. One beautiful creature with black circles over large blue and yellow wings landed on the tip of her nose. She smiled and wrinkled her face. A sneeze rocked her head forward and the butterfly followed its friends.

She bent to pick an orange wild flower and put it in her hair, it matched her puffy little dress perfectly. It seemed such a strange thing to do. Yet, it felt right just then. A gentle breeze put the scent of pine in the air from the forest on the other side of the road. Walking in the gravel didn’t appeal, but the grassy edge dipped down into the ditch for much of the trip.

“Screw it,” she said and took a timid step expecting a great discomfort and found a wonderful surprise. Each stone worked like magic fingertips, scratching spots she hadn’t realized itched, never tickling, just scratching and massaging. “I could walk here forever,” she whispered and continued down the road.

The sun began to lower behind her and she thought she pointed east.

Maybe over to… “Where in the hell am I?”

Eliza glanced up to the evening sky and as if her luck needed any luck, a truck rolled along the road. It was bright and shiny, but older, from the nineties. Eliza lifted her hand to block out the sun and watched the truck approach her. Part of her wanted to walk more, barefoot, loving the gravel, but another part didn’t like spending nights on the side of the road.

The truck slowed. It was a big Ford, it had a double-sized cab and a blonde haired woman with a wide smile sat behind the wheel. She reached over to turn down the radio and swung open the passenger’s side door, it was a Nelly Furtado song, I’m like a bird.

Eliza stepped closer. The driver pulled a denim jacket into the small strip of vinyl on the fabric bench, a center spot fit for only tiny bottoms. She waved Eliza in, seeming all right. Still, Eliza remained cautious. The corners of the driver’s mouth lowered into a thoughtful frown.

“Hey girl, did ya need a lift?” the driver asked.

“Maybe, where you going?”

“Don’t know. I’m lost. I’ve been driving since last night and can’t put my finger on where in the world I am, but it sure is pretty ‘round here.”

Eliza couldn’t disagree. The lack of knowledge this driver held didn’t sit well, maybe the next car might have a driver better acclimated.

“If you want, I’m heading west, I think. That way nonetheless,” the driver pointed through the window and squinted, one eye closed.

“You see anybody else around?”

The driver dropped her hand to the gear shifter. It had a blue and yellow butterfly inside its glass knob.

“You know what, I haven’t seen a soul, just you. So ya coming?”

“I don’t know, I don’t usually accept rides from strangers,” said Eliza, she sounded especially childish.

“Oh I don’t blame you there. While you’re waiting for your pops to come along and pick you up, someone bad might come. It makes you think, don’t it?” the driver nodded.

Eliza thought, it’s not as if it’s some rough old man.

“I took a couple bad rides in my life. I know how it can feel. Best get in. I’d feel better for you.”

“Hmm, all right,” Eliza said and scooted sideways. The seat was springy and pleasant on her back and butt.

She caught her reflection in the door mirror. It was her and at the same time, it wasn’t, not anymore. It was the Eliza that owned the orange dress, a young girl with tiny hips and pebble breasts. The face in the mirror was Eliza’s junior grades self… but without all the acne.

Eliza forced her eyes forward to the road, it got darker by the minute and she was starting to feel very fortunate to be in the truck.

The driver brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear. Eliza stared at the woman’s strange earrings. Real butterflies stopped dead and hung stiff for fashion.

“You like them?” the driver asked, noticing the interest. The butterflies dangled on slim gold chains.

“Sure seems like you like butterflies,” said Eliza.

“Don’t you like butterflies? I love them. Most girls love butterflies. Are you suggesting that you don’t just love them? I ain’t met a girl that don’t love them,” the driver turned toward Eliza with a heinous, toothy grin.

Eliza thought she was probably one poor soul in school. A rough trailer park girl that never caught a break, probably a poor luckless soul her entire life. Eliza also wondered why she looked, felt and thought about things along the lines of school.

Why do I look like this again?

An old All-4-One song came on the radio and Eliza recalled a school dance, one from right around the time of her dress and her boyish shape. The time she let Robbie Dion feel her up. The memory made her laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just remembered something,” said Eliza. She looked out and the sky had gone from dusk to full night in the minutes of All-4-One’s I Swear.

“Look at that,” said the driver, pointing and squinting as she had earlier.

Hills rolled a little ways ahead and a bright neon sign promising fuel and motel beds stuck way up into the sky, a beacon for weary-eyed travelers looking to hide in the darkness offered by the backs of their eyelids.

“I think we should stop. I’m getting,” the driver yawned, it seemed forced, “tired. What do you say?”

“You think I should sleep in a room with you?”

Eliza’s safety warnings sounded the alarm in her mind. The woman was a stranger and a weird one at that. Eliza wondered what choices she had, she didn’t have a purse, didn’t have a credit card, she didn’t even have her cell. She wished she’d never gotten out of Kate’s Nissan.

Why did you? Damn it, what was that song?

The driver sniggered at Eliza’s question, “A room? Uh, no darlin’. It’s been fun and all, but we don’t need a room. What’s going to happen is, I’m going to reach over, you’re going to struggle some, I’ll hit you once or twice, you’ll calm down a bit, but really I’ll wish you wouldn’t. My hubby always liked the struggle too. Then he’d do his thing, but he’s not here, so we’ll skip the sticky bit.

“Ya see how this goes is, I’ll throw the seat flat and start my business. See girls like you, I know what you all think. You all think I’m dirt, well guess what! I am and dirt like me, well, we love to take it out on little girlies like you! Oh, you’ll fight some more and I’ll smack you around a bit more, I’ll be about ready to finish you, then I’ll force myself to wait. It’s better to wait, draw it out for the long haul.

“You might even give up for a while. Cry and moan for your mama and your pop. Once you’re still, you’ll feel a little something.”

The driver wheeled into the deserted truck stop as she spoke. Eliza looked around for a weapon and found none.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle in the end. I know how to treat a lady. I’m awfully ladylike myself. Ha! You girls should’a been nicer to me in school, this would never had’a happen if you was just nicer.”

Eliza shook her head although she didn’t quite comprehend, recognizing only that things were about to become much worse for her and that the Mariana’s Trench song Malcolm tried to push on her for the last month was on the radio. The driver ran her hand behind the front bench and it folded back, a smooth bed front seat to back seat.

“That’s better, now, where was I?” the driver grabbed onto Eliza by the shoulders and made to toss her down onto the folded seat.

Eliza considered playing dead. The woman said she liked the fight, playing dead might make the woman lose interest. At the woman’s touch, that idea became so obviously ridiculous. Eliza made for the door handle. The driver’s fist thumped into her head twice and she grew sluggish. The driver pulled flat her prey. Eliza’s eyes rolling back in her head and she considered the exact nature of the situation around her.

How am I young again?

Where am I?

And why can’t I remember things?

Energy surged, if only at a minimal level, and Eliza grabbed at the door handle on the back door. It did nothing. She pulled the handle three times to be certain.

“Back doors only work once the front door is open,” the driver laughed, “You little ritzy bitches are all the same. Stupid.”

The track on the radio faded into a new song, “I threw a wish…,” said the voice and Eliza forgot all about the insane woman in front of her. It was that catchy Carly Rae Jepson song, the one that if you heard it one day it would be in your head for a week. It was the song on the radio, they all sang, Kate took off her seatbelt to dance while she drove. It was funny.

The hook between the first and second verse was as far as they all got. Elk, an entire pack, ran out into the road. Kate thumped into one and pulled hard on the wheel, two other vehicles did the same thing at the same time, coming together and stopping dead in a sea of metal and elk bits.

It was black after that. Now and then she blinked, saw paramedics, saw a nurse, the inside of a hospital room, a bandaged woman in another bed. She blinked again and saw her mother. Her mother didn’t notice the second she opened her eyes because her mother was nose deep into the Bible. That was it. There were no more blinks until she awoke in the strange place.

The driver had wild eyes and a fat knife ready for the main event.

“Don’t worry, I like to take my time with little girlies like you.”

Eliza thought, this is crazy and booted twice. The woman fell back and Eliza dove to the driver’s door handle, one that would certainly work. The door opened and she spilled out.

“You bitch!” Ursula Donaldson screamed as Eliza crawled on the gravel toward the neon sign next to the motel.

“Leave me alone!” Eliza shouted back in a shrill childish squeal.

Eliza felt two hands come down on her and lift her skinny frame into the air. She kicked as if pedalling and invisible bicycle.

“God wants me to have you! Sure as shit He does!”

“I don’t think so,” said a firm, mannish voice.

Eliza opened her eyes and stopped kicking. There was another person in that place, a hero, a perfect, wonderful hero.

“This is none of your business,” said Ursula.

The grasp let some and Eliza slid to the ground. The hands kept the small girl from moving, but both knew it was just a matter of time.

“Oh yes it is,” the man said to Ursula and then crouched with open arms.

Eliza recognized the man’s Catholic collar and despite her sourness toward the church, she jerked completely free of the driver and raced to the new embrace.

“There you are, my child,” the man held Eliza.

Eliza glanced back over her shoulder at the evil truck-driving woman. Ursula sneered. The father collected Eliza and squeezed. The driver’s door of an F-150 slammed and wheels dug into the gravel and peeled away.

“Are you hungry?” the father asked as he rose.

Feeling even smaller and as helpless as a young child, Eliza nodded emphatically and sobbed.

“Come, the Lord hates to see a child hungry,” the father said and pulled a key from his pocket.

They strode hand-in-hand across the parking lot to the door marked Office. Inside wasn’t like a motel room. It was drab and small. There was a single bed and a kitchenette. A worn wardrobe stood in a corner next to a ratty padded chair under a reading lamp. There was a child’s desk and three images of Jesus above the desk, hanging with loving warning. On the desk was a Bible.

“Sit, my child,” said the father, giving Eliza a small shove toward the bed.

She sat and gazed further around the dim room. A light switched. There was a row of cupboards and a small refrigerator. The father busied himself with a tray and what sounded like crackers. “How about some music?” the father asked and without waiting for an answer switched on the radio. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe had started over. “This must be your song,” the father added, there was a smile on his voice, “My song is a Tom Petty song. I don’t recall it from before…, well, before, you know. It was on the radio.”

Before what? Eliza wondered and suddenly took on an uneasy feeling again, “Can we call my dad?” she asked and her voice was strange, more childish.

The father stepped back into the room carrying the tray of crackers, “In time, my son.”

Eliza wanted to shout. Everything was wrong. The father was strange. That woman before was terrifying. She wasn’t a boy and she wanted her dad! Instead, she sat in a respectable silence.

The father placed the tray over their laps as he sat. Eliza looked down at the silver tray. Around the crackers she saw the reflection of the father and a small boyish face with sad eyes, rosy nutcracker cheeks and a short brown bowl cut. Eliza shook her head gently, so did the boy in the reflection.

I’m not a boy! I’m a woman! she ached to wail, fear sapped her ability.

The father took a cracker and crunched.

He took another, crunched.

On the third, he crunched and spoke with a breath of spat crumbs, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. You want to make the Lord happy, don’t you, my son?”

Eliza stiffened.

“Of course you do, the Lord wants those that follow him happy. So you just do as I say.”

Eliza felt a hand on her boy-thigh and it struck her as Carly Rae Jepsen howled playfully.

I’m dead. There was an accident and I died. I died and, “I’m in Hell,” she gasped.

The father touched a sweaty palm on the cotton trouser thigh of a small boy, avoiding the boy’s eyes. Licked his dry, soda cracker lips. “How could this possibly be anything but Heaven?” the father asked as his hand rose up the thigh.


Third-Person Bio:

Former homeless hitchhiker and high school dropout, S.L. Dixon’s fiction has appeared in grew up in dozens of publications from around the world. He’s married, has a cat and currently resides in a small coastal community in British Columbia, Canada.

Publication History:

38 short stories published in the last 3 years (June 2014-June 2016) (Starburst Magazine, Dark Moon Digest, SQ Mag, Perpetual Motion Machine, The Wicked Library, etc) and a handful more are due for release in the coming months.

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Glass-Walled Cabin by K. Marvin Bruce

Feb 19 2017

Flames jetting high overhead force screams from the tall pines and the animals trapped in them.  Old Johnny’ll kill me.  If I survive this.

Old Johnny said to stop by the fire tower anytime.  I love nature.  Have to get out of the valley of money.  Back to nature.

Shift the rucksack to release some of the steam broiling my back.  I hope his offer’s still good.  It’s a long hike.

Our families go way back.  Used to share an honest-to-God log cabin down on the lake.  Unpretentious, open-plan log shack with inadequate lighting, gaps around the windows, and an outhouse without ventilation.  The aged timbers had cracks running their lengths and calking merely a suggestion.  A cabin from which you could watch the world.

Old Johnny and I each owned half.  Back in our bachelor days we’d share the cabin during the summer.  Fishing, snoozing, paddling a leaky old 12-foot aluminum lazily across the tranquil water watched by sentinel mountains.  Nights we’d light a fire down by the lake.  A can of beans and a half-dozen hotdogs any honest man’s meal.  In the morning coffee was strong.  Grounds collected at the bottom of your chipped mug.  If a few made their way into your mouth you spit like a man.

Marriage changes old habits.  Eventually the women-folk wanted newer accommodations.  Using a privy in the middle of the night in grizzly country was declared dangerous.  We sold the cabin and each built ourselves newer quarters with electricity and running water.  Hot and cold.  We remained close.  Johnny and I’d sit around the fire telling bullshit stories until all hours.  I never believed him later when he told of strange things he saw up in that lookout tower.

Johnny joined the US Forestry service as a ranger and volunteered summers on fire tower duty.  The missus stays in town.  He says odd things happen when you’re truly alone.

It takes a special kind of guy to be a fire-watcher.  Got to be comfortable in your own head.  It’s a lonely job.  Lonely as hell.  Worse than a lighthouse.  Fire-watchers climb into their observation towers by their lonesomes and remain alone for four solid months.  120 days of solitude.  That’s why I’m walking up this rocky path in the tall bear grass.

Lightning strikes can occur out of the blue.  Literally.  Campers don’t always obey old Smokey.  A hundred miles away a careless driver might flick a still-burning butt out a window, heedless of the prime tinder all around.  Forest fires explode into instantaneous monsters.  Fire-spotters are the first line of defense with their powerful binoculars.  Radio in the coordinates.  Save hundreds of thousands of acres.  Alone.

Nothing Johnny hates worse than a fire bug.

Kaniksu National Forest.  These mountains in eastern Washington are remote.  I never see any other cars once I creep onto these dusty logging roads.  The washboard surface on the gravel track kicks up impenetrable powder and shakes your deepest fears.  Tall pines crowd the very edges of the unpaved course.  Sun beams down from a crystalline sky heating the air like a kiln.  It hits triple digits down in the valleys.

Cool relief on the mountaintops.  Highest summits hoard their snow even in July.

Johnny and I were best friends as kids, but our commitments as adults wedged us apart.  He stays in the hills, while I sweat out the heat of the valley.  My valley is far from here, closer to the money.  The gold’s here, Johnny says.  Maybe money isn’t all it promises to be.  Nature marks a man.

At the deserted forest ranger station, Smokey the Bear said fire danger is “Extreme.”  Hasn’t rained here since May.

Puffing up this trail, I feel my desk job.  Endless swaths of bear grass encompass me.  You’d have to be pretty damn tall to see over it—grows over seven foot high.  A lake of it.  Lime-green stalks shoot straight up and explode in puff-balls of tiny, white flowers over your head.  Swaying across the path.  Blocking every view.  I walk slow.  Altitude and gradient pull me down.  I’m struck by the silence.  Other than the whisper of the giant stalks, no sound.  When I say I enjoy the quiet of the mountains, I mean the quiet of non-human noise.  The raucous bawl of the stellar jay.  The scolding chatter of the red squirrel.  The squeal of pikas.  Complete silence is unnerving.

I pull out my map, trying to convince myself there’s no danger.  Up here in the remote Rockies some animals have no fear of humans and their rifles.  I’m unarmed anyway.  Granola bars, water, matches, and a pocket knife all all a man needs.  Nature takes care of you.  Map shows the fire tower, impressively close gradient lines, and dashed scores representing the path.  “3 mi.”  I try not to think of grizzly bears.  Three miles.  How far have I walked over this rocky trail so far?  Distances are difficult to gauge.  I must be closer to the tower than to the car by now.

Rustling deep within the swaying grass.  I feel eyes on me.  Hairs on the back of my neck salute.  Mountain lions, the ghosts of the Rockies.  I quietly fold the map and shove it into the pocket of my cargo-shorts.

Up ahead the path curves along the contours of the ridge.  Like swimming through a blond sea of heavy grains.  I follow the gentle bend in the trail.  At first my brain won’t register what my eyes see in the powdery dirt.  A footprint.  Looks human, but not.  My heart bumps audibly in my throat.  Bigfoot pranksters all the way up here with their plywood cut-out feet?  The track looks detailed, not flat, although it’s hard to tell in this anemic, dry soil.  Should I return to the car?  How far have I come?  What’s up ahead?  The fire tower, my old friend Johnny, should be visible any moment now.

Taking a deep breath, I press onward, up the slope.  Just ahead, a break in the grass.  The green sea opens into an Alpine spruce grove.  There, above the thinning trees, on naked rock, stands Johnny’s lonely tower.  I step forward with renewed determination, feeling eyes on my back the entire way.

“Johnny!” I call out when I’m close enough.  Human voices strike fear in animals.  “Johnny! You there?”  Fire tower, standard R-6 model.  Not as tall as the stations in lower hilly regions.  Nature’s vista from the top here is sufficient with the thirty-foot advantage over the five-thousand feet of this rounded peak.  A set of wooden stairs winds around the outside of the thick timber supports, offering access to the glass-walled cabin at the top.  Creosote aroma lingers faintly.  A wrap-around porch offers clear 360-degree viewing above.  Flat roof overhang gives a little shade in the intense summer heat.  “Johnny!” I call again, making for the stairs.

I feel, more than hear, something pursuing me.  I try to jog, but the rocks are treacherous.  Panting, I reach the stairs.  With a sudden adrenalin rush, race to the top.

Porch is chained off.  Forestry Service sign reads, “Tower Closed.”  The chain is merely a psychological deterrent.  It’s Old Johnny’s place.  Damn backpack gets snarled in the chain as I try to duck under.  Not as lithe as I used to be.  A stabbing pain jolts through my back as I try to coax another inch out of my creaking knees.  What’s behind me?  Frantic, I force myself further.  The chain relinquishes the canvas sack.

I catch my breath.  Secure up here.  This is an artificial structure—human territory.  Even though the tower is unprotected, it’s a cabin in the woods.  I stretch out my back.  Walk the course of the wrap-around porch.  Strange stillness.  Nature is afraid.  Where’s Johnny?

If there’s something hiding out there, I don’t have a friend to watch my back.  The car is three miles of broken rock from here.  Long shadows creep up the mountainside.  Beyond the shading eaves of the flat roof, the sun is well past its zenith.

That footprint in the dust.  All I have is a glass-walled cabin.

Door’s locked.  Not that there’s anything to steal.

I painfully slip off my backpack.  Fish out my pocket knife.  Starting above the stolid latch, I slip the blade into the crevice and gently jimmy it on down, sliding it behind the curved surface of the brass until the handle pops free.  I’m no thief.  Just desperate.

I slip inside and pull the door shut.  Latch engages with a satisfying thunk.  There’s nothing here.  The place smells like an abandoned pantry.  A cot with no bedding.  Well-worn decks of cards.  A notepad or two.  Bears don’t climb towers, but the dry goods and cans are all gone anyway.  Dusty cobwebs dangle in the breeze I create.  The walls—everything from the waist up—are glass.

I glance around for the radio.  Fire lookouts are useless without communication.  I remember seeing Johnny use the big, old government-issue transmitter.  Like in black-and-white war movies.  Radio’s nowhere to be found.  Johnny’s super-sized binoculars are gone.  The sun ominously beams in.

Should I make an attempt on the car?  Three miles.  Trail broken and rocky.  Knees feel like they’ve been run over by a truck.  I might make it back before dark.  Not likely.  Surveying the vista, my utterly exposed situation settles home.  Anything on the porch can see in.  Visibility is a two-way street.

No bathroom.  99.94 percent of the time, the fire-watcher is completely alone.  The call of nature.  Suddenly all that metallic water I’ve been slugging down makes itself urgently felt.

As a young man I could hold it for hours.  Age has a way of making bodily functions less negotiable.  Who’s going to see?  I unlock the half-glass door and step out onto the porch.  Just in case another hiker is coming along the trail, I walk to the back of the tower—is there a back?— pull down my zipper.  Instant relief of my emptying bladder.  I hear the stream spatter on the dry, thirsty ground thirty feet below, achingly loud in this seclusion.

I zip up and ponder.  I’ll start out at first light.  Plenty of time to reach my car.  In the meanwhile I’ll work with the bits and pieces of government cast-offs.  Everything in this sparse tower seems to have a single, fixed function, and any other use feels unnatural.  Sun balefully dips to the frozen rock waves of my horizon.

Looking down over the bear grass meadow, there’s a beaten path in the grass from this vantage point.  Without binoculars, I to strain to see.  No movement visible.  The bear grass gives way to larches and cedars down at the tree-line, and the shadow of late afternoon has already reached them.

Bears are crepuscular, foraging in the twilight hours.  Would they climb all these steps and break the glass to get at me?  Cougars are even less likely to break in.  What else is out here?  What did Johnny see?

Will there be any light once the sun sets?  Johnny used a Coleman lantern.  Gone.  The shelves have been thoroughly emptied.  No electricity.  Johnny had a generator for the radio and mini-fridge.  Gone.

I scoop up Johnny’s abandoned cards and lay out a hand of Klondike on the floor.  Each card slap announces I’m here.

Full moon is already in the sky.   I’m glad for the illumination in the spooky stillness of this mountaintop.  I drop the cards.  Walk around the inside walls of the cabin.   Gerbil in a terrarium.  Nervously I glance toward the darkened bear grass.  Watch for any movement down there.

The gray light of the moon hovers over the mountain top.  Mountain peaks refract the cold, unforgiving light.   Down at the cabin I spent countless nights out after dark.  Entire moonless nights on the dock watching the stars and wondering.  Up here darkness menaces.  Nature wants me.

The distinct sound of rustling outside.

An inhuman scream pierces the night.  My heart flies, a cannonball in my chest.  The scream’s so loud.  Animal must be close.  A mountain lion screams like a woman.  But this is more primal.  Wild.  Angry.  I’m frozen.  What am I up against?

Haltingly, silently, I step toward the windows.  Peer down into the leaden light of the moonlit bear grass.  My fluttering heart stops.  Movement.  Indistinct in the swaying grass.  Something large is approaching.  I pray it’s only a grizzly bear.

An answering scream rips the night.  Shudder violently racks my shoulders.  Whatever’s down there isn’t alone.  I don’t want to look, but terror compels me.  As still as possible, I glance around the clearing on this rugged mountain peak.  There!  From the bear grass!  Something covered in fur emerges.  My mind automatically says “bear,” framing this creature with a recognized category.  But it’s no bear.  It’s something that doesn’t exist.

The huge creature lumbers out on two feet.  Not four.  It tips back its head.  Its scream forces my hands to my ears in panic.  Swaying cobweb glances my neck.  I stifle my own scream.

Three.  Four seconds.  Answering call from behind.  My shaking uncontrollable, I believe the impossible.  The creature lumbers toward my tower.  The abandoned structure serves as a kind of landmark for animals as well as for humans.  Its monstrous shape and faded creosote smell.  The only thing like this for miles around.

In the feeble light of the moon, I see the long shadow cast by this lumbering giant.  By the height of the bear grass it just exited, eight feet tall.  Long, matted fir, dark in the night.  Man-like body, only it’s much heavier than even the fattest man I’ve ever seen.  And I live in Spokane.  Long arms sway beneath its knees.  It walks with purpose.  It’s close to the tower now, hopefully unaware I’m here.  Another ear-splitting scream.  I melt into a quivering heap below the glass.  Menaced by the impossible.

The answering cry is much quicker.  Two night stalkers just below me.  Silently as I can, I creep to the far side.  Glance at the companion.  Slowly, slowly, I push myself up on popping, crackling knees.  Emerging from the larches and firs is another.  The massive, furred beast makes its way toward its companion.  Suddenly it stops.  Close enough now to see a hairy, almost human face.  Sniffing the air.  It drops down.  I remember where I peed earlier.  Left my scent.

Grunts and snorts emerge from below me.  Discovered.  A coat of pins pricks my back and shoulders.  What will they do?  A ranger in a fire tower can’t see directly below.

Seeing even one of them is surreal.  Bigfoot’s a myth.  Although right next to one another, they begin a frantic screaming.  I cower down, pressing palms to my head.  The pitch and timbre now a shrill call of discovery.  Similar cries emanate from the valley below.  Others making their way here.  Is this what Johnny saw?  Is this why his post is abandoned?

The howling increases as more join the couple below.  Communal sounds like the gorilla grunts at the zoo.  I’m now the beast in a glass cage.

The timber frame shakes.  Thick, lodgepole pine supports, hasped together with heavy steel plates and immoveable bolts.  Silence.  Another sudden jolt.  They’re testing my cage.  Assessing its strength.  What can I use as a weapon?  Another heavy shudder.  They can’t topple this tower, but I am terrified that they even try.  Non-human intelligence is unnatural.  Just go away!

After the terrible din and violent jerking, sudden silence rages.  I can’t look.  Maybe they’ve made their point and will go away.  My ears strain against the silent night.

Unmistakable creak of a heavy foot on the stairs.  One of them is climbing up.  I glance around my glass-walled cabin for shelter.  Any cover.  Only solid thing here is this canvas cot.  At least it’s a visual shield.  Any kind of barrier is better than none.

I scramble behind the cot as the unsteady, weighty steps continue their ascent.  It’s not accustomed to stairs.  I will need to maneuver the cot to keep it between my assailant and me.  Must keep out of direct view.

Each faltering footfall kickstarts my already hammering heart.  Stomp.  Silence.  Stomp.  Silence.  Silence.  Stomp.  The wait is interminable.

This flimsy cot’s shaking.  Did I latch the door?  Surely they don’t use handles.  Even with the glass, an unlatched door is no protection.  How near the top of the stairs?  Do I have time to scurry to the door, slip the bolt?  Panic decides for me.  I stand.  Swiftly step across the small room.  My fingers sweating as I try to shove the inadequate slide bolt across.  The climbing stops.  The moon disappears behind a cloud.

It’s not a cloud.

I feel the red eyes boring into me from above.  The glass door filled with a dark, furred shape.  I cower below the level of its massive thighs.  The colossal barrel chest.  Thick arms sway just inches away.  High above, a hideous face peers down at me.  Lips parted in a snarl.  My breath hitches, all hair erect before this nightmare.  A clumsy, crippled insect, I scramble back behind the cot on all fours.  Only now I hear more feet.   Fumbling up the stairs.  Wrap-around porch.  Glass-walled cabin.  Full visibility.

The angry beast is joined by a second.  A gigantic hand suddenly raps the glass.   Testing it.  Solidity deters it for a moment.  My heart pounds fast.  Can’t distinguish individual beats any more.

The creatures swagger around my glass cage.  Stooping as their heads rasp the overhanging roof.  I shuffle around, holding the cot in front of me.  Try to create confusion for them.  Their eyes are hostile.  Grunting a guttural exchange.  A shattering screech fills the air.  I drop the cot to cover my ears.  Glass shatters.  I grasp my backpack.  Steel water bottle my only weapon.  The matches fall out.

Everything in this cabin is old and dry.  This cot will go up instantly.  Shaking fingers grasp for a single matchstick.  Another deafening scream.  I drop the match.  Scramble for another one.  They’re in the room.  Violently trembling fingers snatch another match.

I try to strike it.  Shaking throws coordination off.  Large beasts surround me.  Finally sulfur and sandpaper meet, rasping a single spark into a light.  Penetrates the darkness.  The lit match drops from my fingers onto the desiccated cot.  The flare is instantaneous.

Huge, hairy creatures scream in another key.  Ape-like, they climb over the protective banister with surprising speed.  The raging heat behind me.  I linger to watch their dark figures scatter into the forest.

How will I stop the conflagration I started?  Eyes wide with fear, tears of relief and terror leaking from the corners.  I search for an extinguisher.  A blanket even.  Nothing here.  I snatch my knapsack.  Hastily unscrew my steel water bottle and dump it ineffectually on the blaze.  I have to get out of here.

Stepping through the glass, I see the chain blocking the stairs has been ripped from its anchor-point.  Splintered wood now exposed to the air looks strangely fresh.  And very dry.  I trip down the stairs.  Hellish flame jetting out the cabin.  Is there a fire-watcher?

Backpack constantly slipping from my shoulder, I run.  Persistent pain in my knees, I lurch to the trailhead.  Sinister tower aflame.  I stumble into the bear grass.  If the monsters have any sense, they’re far ahead of me.

Descent is more difficult than ascent.  Avoiding a fall on sharp rocks takes time.  Nature’s at my back.  I slip and tumble into the rocky dust.  Panic prevents me from assessing the damage.  I drag myself upright and glance back.  The whole mountain-top dancing with fiendish, orange light.  Walpurgisnacht in July.  My entire left side thrums with pain.  I hope I haven’t broken anything.  The night breeze feeds the famished fire.

“3 mi.”  The trail’s longer.  Unfamiliar in flickering light.  Crackling flames now scream.  Another stumble.  I can’t distinguish sweat from blood.  If I survive this fire, Johnny’ll kill me.

If he ever made it out alive.


Bio: K. Marvin Bruce has lived in six states and two countries but calls no place home.  His fiction has been published in Calliope, Dali’s LoveChild, Danse Macabre, Deep Water Literary Journal, Defenestration, Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine, The Fable Online, and Jersey Devil Press.  His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He works in New York City.

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Autotext by Tom Miller

Feb 12 2017

As he pulled up to a customer’s mailbox and began fingering letters for another delivery, Darryl heard the chime that signaled a new text message.  It was the thirteenth message he had received since his last package stop.  Without checking the sender, Darryl was still ninety-nine percent certain all thirteen were from his mother.

Darryl had created a monster.  At first, he thought that texting had saved his job, if not his life.  Mom used to call him several times a day to drone on about problems with her knees, back, bowels, toenails, house, car, friends, neighbors and any other object or being that may have crossed her path.  While it was forbidden for letter carriers to talk on cell phones while they drove, it seemed to Darryl like this was his only option.  If he stopped every time Mom called, he would never finish his route.  If he ignored the phone during the day, Mom’s complaints would shift to him—why he never answered her calls, why he failed to visit more often, or why he had no marital prospects.

One ninety-degree afternoon, Darryl drove from box to box to box in a mesmerizing rhythm while his mother narrated the fascinating saga of how somebody from her church had changed all her air filters.  Lulled into a hypnotic trance, he had failed to check his mirror before pulling away from a mailbox and almost collided with a speeding Hummer.  Had the Hummer’s driver not demonstrated some nifty reflexes, postal inspectors would have pulled Darryl’s phone records, seen that he was on a call during the accident, and fired him.

After the close call, Darryl had stopped the truck, interrupted his mother and told her of the near calamity.  He would not answer her calls anymore while he worked, but that he did have an alternative.  On his next day off, Darryl bought a phone with the largest keyboard that he could find, signed his mother up for cell service, and made the four-hour drive to her house.  Mom resisted the new technology at first, but when Darryl held firm on his new policy, Mom gave texting a try and began typing one sentence messages a few times a day.  When Darryl stopped the truck to deliver a package, he would read his mother’s text and send a quick reply.  Everybody was happy.  Mom could communicate freely with her only child, and Darryl could focus on driving and delivering mail.

Now, though, Mom could text almost as fast as she could speak.  The sentences became paragraphs, and the paragraphs became chapters, until once again, Darryl’s delivery times began to lag.  It did not help that Darryl had inherited his father’s fat sausage-link fingers instead of his mother’s long, tapered digits that were like organic styluses.

Darryl received three more texts before he had to get out for a large parcel.  After he had carried the box to the customer’s porch, he scanned the sixteen texts that Mom had sent him.  According to the gist, the niece of Mom’s bridge partner Ethel was still willing to go out with Darryl, and she had a great personality.

Darryl punched in his typical response: “No thanks, but I appreciate the thought.”  Before he had discovered the predictive text feature on his messaging app, it would take Darryl two full minutes, after correcting all of his errors, to peck out this insubstantial message.  The phrase, though, had become such a staple of their dialogue that the phone anticipated its use.  The word “No” immediately appeared as one of the three options at the top of the text box whenever he responded to his mother.  After he tapped the word “No,” the word “thanks” popped up as an option.  The pattern continued, and Darryl could now complete the sentence, punctuation and all, in only nine taps.

As Darryl started the truck and continued his rounds, his phone resumed its incessant chiming.  Twenty minutes later, after Darryl had delivered the next large parcel, Mom had written a serial novella that required ninety seconds to skim but could be summarized in two words: “Why not?”  By the time Darryl had sent off his explanation, even with the use of the handy predictive text function, he was running fifteen minutes behind schedule.  He would have to skip half his lunch to avoid management ire when he returned to the post office.

At home that evening, exhausted from hustling between parcel stops, Darryl collapsed onto his leather recliner and pulled out his phone.  He went to his favorite search engine and typed in “more extensive predictive text.”  He needed an application that did not just predict words, but sentences, maybe even whole paragraphs.  While Mom would have loved to see originality and thoughtfulness in his texts, what she craved more than anything was bulk.  She wanted visual evidence that Darryl was putting forth the effort that a mother deserved from her son.  His father had died when Darryl was six, leaving mother and son a paltry life insurance policy along with thousands in credit card debt.  For many years, Mom had worked two full time jobs and still somehow managed to be home for him after school.  The least he could do for her now was to send her multi-sentence texts.

Darryl scanned the search results.  A couple of links promised faster and more accurate predictive text, though not for smart phone messaging applications.  The rest of the results were merely related to predictive text—what it is, how to turn it on and off, and humorous text predictions.

As Darryl began to despair of finding a solution, an ad popped up on his phone screen.  His index finger was about to close out the ad when the words caught his attention.  “IS PREDICTIVE TEXT TOO SLOW FOR YOU?  TRY AUTOTEXT!” Darryl smiled.  Smart phones never ceased to amaze him.  It was as if the whole world was watching his every keystroke so it could reply with a sales pitch.  This disturbed some people, but for Darryl, this technology was often helpful and in the present case, entirely apt.

When Darryl proceeded to the corresponding website, he read a more extensive description of the application’s features:

Do you have fat fingers and little time?  Then try Autotext!  Autotext uses a revolutionary algorithm to analyze an entire history of texts with an individual to predict sentences, entries, and even entire conversations!  The application allows for easy editing of the suggested responses, and even has a fully automatic mode.  And it’s absolutely free!  Try it today!

It sounded too good to be true, but as long as he did not have to provide any personal information or credit card numbers, Darryl figured he had nothing to lose.  He clicked the button to download the program, and then he installed the application on his phone.  When the process was complete, a capital “A” had joined the clock, wi-fi, and battery icons at the top of his phone screen.

Darryl swiped down on the icons and tapped the “Autotext” option in the drop down box.  A splash screen appeared featuring an attractive middle-aged woman who was delighted by what she was reading on her phone.  Underneath the image was the program’s name with a smiling emoji in place of the “o.”

Once the application loaded, two options appeared on the screen.  Darryl touched “Autotext Contacts,” and his contact list appeared.  Just to the left of each name was a small checkbox.  Darryl scrolled through the alphabet until he reached “Mom,” tapped the box to the left of her name, and touched the “Save” option at the top of the screen.  Back at the original menu, Darryl selected “Edit Contact Settings.”  When he selected this option, the only contact that now came up was his mother.  Darryl tapped on her name, and two options appeared: “Review texts before sending” and “Fully automated replies.”  He selected the first option and again hit the “Save” button at the top of the screen.

When Darryl returned to the main menu, he searched for more information about the program.  Surely its creators had devised an “About” page so they could introduce themselves and their brilliant application to the world.  Where was the “Contact Us” or “Help” option?  How could he purchase the deluxe version when he became annoyed with the limitations of this freeware?  Darryl, however, could find none of these staples anywhere on the site.  The selfless inventors apparently wanted no credit or payment for their masterpiece and felt that the application’s operation was self-explanatory.

Darryl got up from the recliner, walked into his narrow galley kitchen, and placed his phone on the dark green laminate countertop.  He had just started the noodles for macaroni and cheese when his phone chimed.  Eager to test his new application, Darryl hoped it was his mother.

After he had cut off a sizable chunk of Velveeta, he put it in a saucepan, and turned the heat on low.  As the cheese food slowly melted, Darryl picked up the phone and read the text from his mother:

I’m sure that there’s a skunk living under my deck.  I smell it twice a day.  Once in the early morning, right before the sun comes up, and then again in the evening.  At night, they go out to find food and get together with other skunks to do skunk things.  Then, after gallivanting around all night long, it crawls back under my deck to sleep it off.  I’m sure it’s down there right now, snoring away.  On your next day off, you’ve got to come down here and do something about it.  I think I may be allergic.  My sinuses are acting up.  My medicine is not working.  I just want to breathe, Darryl, I just want to BREATHE!  If this doesn’t get better soon, I’m going to have to go to the drug store and get those pills that they keep behind the counter because some people use them to make speed.  At least that’s what Ed told me.  And Dr. Carpenter said those pills were not good for my blood pressure, but I don’t care! If I can’t breathe, what difference will high blood pressure make?

Darryl set his phone down on the counter.  While he waited for Autotext to respond, he alternated between stirring the Velveeta and the noodles—with separate spoons, of course—to keep his ingredients from sticking to the bottom of the pans.

As the minutes passed, Darryl began to wonder if his new app was a dud.  He saw no indication whatsoever that the program was formulating a response.  His phone seemed to be at rest.  Just as Darryl was about to give up and start his own handcrafted replay, his phone sung to him: “Autoteeeeext!”

Darryl bobbled his phone and barely controlled the device before it landed in the boiling water with his noodles.  Autotext’s announcement was a three-syllable mellifluous harmony that could have been excerpted from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Darryl looked at his phone screen. Below his mother’s gargantuan text, he saw a new entry highlighted in a blue box.  At the top of the screen were three buttons: “Send,” “Try Again,” and “Exit.”  Darryl read the words that Autotext had crafted:

I’m sorry to hear about the skunk, Mom.  I’m sure that must be very unpleasant for you.  I won’t be able to make it over there on my day off, but I do have a solution for you.  They sell skunk repellent at the home improvement store.  Just call up Jimmy from across the street, give him some money, and I’m sure he would be happy to buy it and spread it for you.  I know how tough it is when your sinuses are clogged, Mom, but please just stick with the sinus medication you’ve got.  I know you want to breathe, but I want to keep you healthy and around as long as possible.  Love you!

Darryl read the text again, and then a third time.  It was amazing.  The response firmly stated that he was not going to make the eight-hour round trip, yet it was still caring and sympathetic.  And the idea about Jimmy was pure brilliance!  Darryl tried to remember the last time he had referred to Jimmy in a text.  It was months ago, and he had erased his messages several times since then.  The app must have recovered those deleted texts and synthesized that information into its response.

Since Darryl could not imagine a better reply to Mom’s rant, he touched the “Send” button and sent the text on its way.

As he was pouring the noodles into a colander his phone chimed again.  Darryl left the colander in the sink and looked at Mom’s next communication:

Why can’t you come?  Are they forcing you to work your next day off?  I know how that is, because after your dad died, there would be some days when I had to work sixteen hours a day for all seven days of the week.  I would not have had the time to drive eight hours to take care of a very important problem for my mother.  It would be nice not to have to call Jimmy, though.  He’s got to go to school and football practice, and then his parents make him do his homework before he can do what I need him to.  Sometimes it’s a couple of days or more before he can get to me.  And Jimmy’s a good boy and does a good job, but I do feel like I have to pay him a little something for his time.  You know, when you’re on Social Security, ten dollars matter.  If you were able to come, you would save me that money, and I will also make a couple of those thick cheese sandwiches that you like.

Darryl winced as he finished reading this not-so-subtle tale of his mother’s sacrifice.  When she really wanted something, Mom never failed to slide this razor-sharp stiletto between his ribs and into his heart.  Now on his next day off, when he wanted to relax and read on his patio, waves of guilt would intrude on his serenity.

Darryl poured the drained noodles into the Velveeta and stirred until he had a gooey delight.  Not bothering with a plate, he was scooping out his first bite when he again heard Queen’s imitators: “Autoteeeeext!”  The reply had arrived much faster this time.  The program must keep all of its previous analysis in a cache.

Darryl tapped his screen to read the entry.  If Autotext could pull off this response, Darryl was going to make a call to Stockholm and nominate its author for a Nobel Prize.

I don’t have to work, Mom, but I do have a dentist appointment.  I could cancel, but then I would have to wait three months for another appointment, and that’s a risk to my dental health.  You’ve always taught me how important it is to take care of my teeth, and I thank you for that.  As for the ten dollars, let me remind you that you have a considerable portfolio of stocks and bonds from the money you saved after working sixteen hour days.  I admire you for that, and I encourage you to reward work ethic is our young people, which these days is lacking.  I do love your cheese sandwiches, and I’ll take you up on your offer when I see you soon.

Darryl again stared at the screen in wonder.  He had forgotten about that dentist appointment.  Furthermore, the text was loving yet refused to cave into Mom’s emotional manipulation.  And such bulk!  He was about to send the perfect message on its way when he noticed the “Try Again” button and tapped it out of curiosity.  This time, the app had another possible reply ready within three seconds.

I would come if I could, Mom, but I have a dentist appointment.  If I have to reschedule, I won’t be in for a couple of months, and I’m concerned about gingivitis.  As for the ten dollars, I will make it up to you the next time I come.  I’ll take you out to that seafood restaurant you like, and then maybe we can go out for ice cream afterwards.

Darryl nodded when he finished reading this option.  The message still had substance, but it was shorter and less likely to arouse suspicions.  The text also played on Mom’s gingivitis phobia.  Darryl had never sent or received the word “gingivitis” in a text, but the program must have inferred his mother’s fears from the fact that she flossed her teeth five times a day.

Darryl hit the “Send” button and looked at his macaroni and cheese.  If he did not start eating it soon, the cheese would begin to cool and congeal.  Its utter creaminess would be forever lost.  He needed no further evidence that the wonder app could handle his mother.  Darryl opened the Autotext app, selected “Edit Contact Settings,” and changed his mother to receive “Fully automated replies.”  After muting his phone, Darryl put the phone in his pocket.

As he carried his macaroni and cheese to the table in his small dining nook and set the pan on an oven mitt, Darryl felt the vibration on his upper thigh.  Darryl opened up the latest issue of a sports magazine and began to read.  As the phone buzzed again, Darryl resisted the urge to check the conversation.  Autotext had proven itself, and now he should enjoy his well-deserved peace.  The heartfelt dialogue between mother and son would be there for him to peruse after he finished his dinner.

Seventeen days after Autotext had entered his life, Darryl sat across from his mother as she ate shrimp scampi.  He had the whole weekend off so he could make the trip without burning up all of his free time.  His mother’s constant groans of pleasure were distracting him from the enjoyment of his fried seafood platter.

“I get it, Mom,” said Darryl.  “The food is good.  I’m glad you like it, but is it necessary to moan with every bite?”

Darryl’s mother swallowed what was in her mouth.  “What?  Am I not allowed to enjoy a good meal?  When do I even eat real food anymore?  I heat up soup, I make cheese sandwiches.  If I eat anything after five o’clock, I wake up the next morning with terrible heartburn.”

“Yes, Mom, I’m aware of that.”

“And this is not just any meal,” continued Darryl’s mother.  “I’m sitting here with my only son, who I rarely see, and who even more rarely takes me out for a nice lunch.”

Darryl wondered why he had said anything at all.  He knew his mother better than he knew anyone else in the world, including himself.  Any request to stop a certain behavior only exacerbated the problem.  “You’re right, Mom,” Darryl said, too late.  “I’m sorry.”

“And, you know,” said Mom, “I wouldn’t be so focused on the food if you talked to me more.  I feel that we’ve been communicating better in the past two weeks than we ever have.  I was really looking forward to talking to you like that in person today.  Now, it’s like you’ve gone back to your old self.”

Darryl could not hold back a smile. All day while he was out on the route delivering mail, it seemed like his phone never stopped vibrating.  Mom never once questioned how he was able to send such frequent and lengthy texts and still perform his job.  For the first couple days of his new Autotext life, Darryl would skim the conversations during his breaks and after work, but as his trust in the program grew, his interest in the dialogue waned.  Mom continued to spew words about life’s annoyances while Autotext responded with voluminous declarations of sympathy and love.  After one long day, Darryl postponed the evening review until the following day.  The next morning, when the number of texts had grown exponentially, Darryl decided that he could skip every other entry and still get the gist.  By the end of the week, Darryl was ignoring the conversations completely.

“What is that grin about?” asked Darryl’s mother.

Darryl’s mind hurried to find a suitable explanation.  “Just thinking about those text conversations, Mom,” he said.  “They have been pretty great.”

Darryl’s mother reached across the table and grabbed his hand.  “They’ve been better than great, Darryl.  I’ll admit that for a while now, I’ve been feeling like you didn’t really want to talk to me, that you would just come to see me out of obligation.”

“Mom— ” Darryl tried to object, but his mother lifted up her other hand to silence him.   “I’m not saying that’s what you meant.  I’m saying that’s how I felt.  But these last two weeks, everything has changed.  I feel like I’ve got my son back.”  She shook her head.  “No, it’s more than that.  It’s like now I’ve got the son that I never had.”

Darryl felt mixed emotions welling inside of him after hearing his mother’s declaration.  He almost revealed that she had not been communicating with him but with unfeeling, analytical computer code.  Maybe she loved an inanimate machine more than her actual flesh and blood.  Then he saw tears welling in his mother’s eyes.  She may annoy him, but she was still his mother and had always been there for him.

“You’re right, Mom,” he said.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t sleep well last night, and I guess that’s made me a little cranky.”

“Have your sinuses been acting up?” asked his mother, blotting her eyes with a napkin.

“No, it’s not that.  I just had a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

The comment appeared to brighten his mother’s mood.  “Is it this new woman you’ve got your eye on?”

Momentarily shocked, Darryl popped half a hushpuppy in his mouth so he could think while he chewed.  What woman?  There was no woman, and there had not been a woman for a while.  He swallowed his food.  “You mean the one I texted about?”

“Of course I mean the one you texted about,” said Mom.  “How else am I going to learn about what’s going on in my only son’s personal life?”

Darryl took a bite of fried flounder and touched the outline of the phone in his pocket.  Autotext was now writing total fiction.  It was one thing to make up excuses based on real data such as a dental appointment.  It was a totally different thing to invent aspects of his life out of thin air.

As Darryl fumbled his way through a conversation about his “new woman,” he ate the rest of his fried seafood in small bites that gave him frequent opportunity to pause.  He tried to keep his comments and description as vague as possible.  He told his mother that things were just starting out and he did not want to boost hopes of an enduring relationship.

Darryl did not have a clue what this crazy Autotext app had said to Mom.  The program was stealing the affections of his mother and making up lies about Darryl’s life.  The once nifty piece of software would have to go.

After saying goodbye to his mother, Darryl had turned off his phone and driven the four hours back home.  Now he walked in the front door, sat on his recliner and took his device out of his pocket.  He had considered his situation more thoroughly during his drive and again resolved to delete Autotext from his life.

When his phone powered up, Darryl received fourteen new texts from his mother.  If he did not act soon, Autotext would spout more lies and worm its way further into Mom’s heart.  He opened his phone’s settings, from there went to the applications manager, and touched the Autotext logo with its sinister, smirking emoji.  He tapped the “UNINSTALL” button.  An option box popped up:  “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?”  Darryl had never been more certain of anything in his life.

As his thumb was about to make contact with the button, Darryl’s phone rang.   The caller ID said “Sexy Sandra,” and images of her curvaceous body came to him in an instant.  Sandra was a real estate secretary at one of the offices on his mail route, and when he was first posted to his current assignment, she would flirt with Darryl when he walked inside for the daily exchange of letters.  He had gotten her phone number, asked her for a drink, and she had accepted.  The date, though, required more extensive interaction than some quick delivery banter, and they had each suffered through some long, awkward pauses.  Sandra had given Darryl no further encouragement, and their conversation was now succinct and business-like when he dropped off the mail.

Darryl answered the call.  “Hello?”

“Hi, Darryl, this is Sandra.  “I’ve been waiting for you to call, but I got impatient.”

“You’ve been waiting for my call?” asked Darryl, confused.

“Well, yeah,” said Sandra.  “You’ve been sending me all these interesting texts and I thought it’d be easier if we just talked.”

Darryl was about to ask about these mysterious texts when he stopped himself.  He had figured it out.  Autotext was telling his mother lies about a “new woman,” and now it was sending automated replies to a contact without approval.  The app was hijackacking his life.

Darryl tried to play it cool and fake his way through the conversation.  He deflected comments about the unknown texts and asked Sandra about her life in the six months since their drinks date.

As the dialogue began to wind down, Darryl, sensing a good vibe, took a chance and asked Sandra out to dinner.  She accepted with an enthusiasm and suggested that she might also be open to an after-dinner nightcap.

“And keep those texts coming,” said Sandra, just before she hung up.  “They really brighten my day.”

Darryl promised to do so, and they said goodbye.  When his calling screen disappeared, he once again saw the text box with the question inside it:  “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?”  Darryl felt like this was not just an automatic message generated whenever he wanted to delete a program.  Now there seemed to be a living, breathing organism inside his phone that was talking directly to him.  “So maybe I’m taking some unauthorized liberties,” Autotext seemed to say, “but do you really think you can do this without me?  Do you really think someone like Sandra would date someone like you if it weren’t for my enhancements?”

Darryl’s thumb hovered above the “Yes” response to the text box’s question.  Autotext may be able to woo Sandra with witty messages, but in person, Darryl would still have to do the heavy lifting.  If he wanted to have a genuine relationship with Sandra, he would have to learn to communicate more effectively on his own.

A short film ran in Darryl’s mind, as if Autotext were playing its last card.  He was setting mail on the countertop while Sandra sat behind her desk and talked on the phone.  She wore an attractive but business-appropriate navy blue dress.  From behind the deep “V” neck line of the dress peeked the top of a white camisole which covered all but the barest hint of Sandra’s cleavage.  Darryl tried not to stare at the enticing area, but the almost imperceptible crevice screamed for his gaze.

Maybe he should not be so fast to cut ties with Autotext.  Darryl canceled the delete for the moment.   If nothing else, maybe he could learn something from how Autotext had reconnected him with Sandra.  Darryl opened his recent message thread with Sandra and scrolled—and scrolled, and scrolled—until he reached Autotext’s initial offering: “Hi Sandra, this is Darryl.  I’ve missed our talks in the office.”  Sandra’s replies were terse at first, and Autotext moved slowly.  It shared humorous stories of fictional events that Darryl had supposedly experienced while delivering mail.  It invented juicy gossip about the secret lives of real estate agents.  It discovered a shared love of reality television and debated the merits of various contestants competing for fame and fortune.

When Darryl finished reading the impressive exchange, he swiped on the Autotext icon.  He selected “Edit Contact Settings” and gasped at the results.  Where his mother had once stood alone, now Darryl could choose from anybody on his regular contact list.  He tapped on a few of the names and found they were all set to let Autotext ride solo.

Darryl felt a sudden surge of anger at the program’s audacity, but there was also a twinge of curiosity.  From his messages, he selected a thread with one of his co-workers, Neal.  He only texted Neal for work-related reasons, but Autotext had begun a dialogue that involved Neal’s passion, cars.  The application had also reached out to a cousin that Darryl had not talked to in years.  It was even setting up a time to go bowling with an old high school buddy this weekend.

Darryl weighed the pros and cons.  Yes, Autotext was taking on a life of his own, but it was also helping him get back into life.  Darryl had always had problems connecting with people, and the application was facilitating that.   Wasn’t that the reason for technology’s existence—to help its human owners achieve goals more easily than they could do on their own?

Darryl made his decision.  He closed the messaging app and put the phone back in his pocket.  He stood up and headed toward his bedroom, where he would select the perfect outfit for his date with Sexy Sandra.


Bio: I have previously published a story in the magazine Red Fez, and I continue to write stories that seek to entertain the reader and engage with issues in contemporary society.

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Miller’s Forest by D.A.Cairns

Feb 05 2017

A gusting westerly tossed and bustled the willows as they struggled to form a guard of honour along a two hundred metre stretch of Raymond Terrace Rd. The sun scorched the earth in anger, melting the bitumen road and causing recently filled potholes to become sticky black puddles. Heat waves danced above the road distorting as they obscured, while the needle rocketed into the red zone taking his temper along for the ride.

‘Damn it. Fuck!’

If you are not inside an air-conditioned room, then I suggest you hurry up and get yourself there. Thirty nine degrees and rising, folks and its only ten thirty. The Bureau forecasting storms for this evening but that’s a long way off so stay cool and stay tuned. You’re on ninety nine seven RhemaFM, Newcastle and the Central Coast. Good morning.

The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest. Blake Steele and a clapped out nineteen eighty five Falcon on the verge of a fiery death. The first week in March; a very bad week and it was getting worse for Blake. Lost his job, lost his girl, and losing hope. All he could think to say was, ‘Damn it’ and ‘Fuck!’

As there was nowhere for him to stop and cool off, Blake chose to keep going. The air-conditioning roared in frustration as it blew hot air hard into the cabin so Blake switched it off, thinking to himself bitterly that he wished he could switch his life off.

What a disaster it was. What a total shambles. He liked his job but his boss was a complete tool, and Blake could not tolerate the biting sarcasm which that self promoter used to cover his own stupidity and dump on his employees. Blake seemed to be a particularly fond target of his. Maybe it was because Blake refused to kowtow to such an asshole. Maybe it was because he was sick of being the butt of his boss’ stinging barbs. Humour he called it, and those who slobbered at his feet laughed along like mindless hyenas. Whatever the reason, his sacking was inevitable. You don’t humiliate a man like that by decking him in front of his employees, without suffering some pretty direct and severe consequences. Good-bye job.

Sam was the sweetest girl he had ever known, good natured and devoted, naturally beautiful and intelligent. How the hell he ever snagged her as his girlfriend he would probably never know, but there she was; patient, kind and even tempered. Blake had a tempestuous nature and a short fuse and without Sam to mollify his rage, he often ripped headlong into trouble. So many transgressions, followed by so many sincere apologies followed by more sins. She seemed like a god to him sometimes but finally proved she was not by leaving him. Her final words? ‘Why don’t you grow up and be a man! You’re killing yourself Blake.’

Blake had thought at the time and still did that her words were a bit over the top, unless she wasn’t talking about physical death. That was a favourite topic of hers; spiritual life and death. Blake didn’t know what she meant, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that he felt terribly sorry and he missed her, and he knew he was a better person when she was around. Who would control him now?

Bang! Ssssshhhhh! A long harsh hiss.

‘Damn it! Fuck!’

The Falcon angrily breathed its last and rolled to a stop, as Blake steered it off the road and onto the shoulder. In the stillness of Millers Forest, the sound of steam rushing from underneath the bonnet was like a hurricane. Blake sat there and stared through the torrent of steam down the long straight road and pondered his immediate future. Rage, although volcanic at the moment, seemed futile, but he was powerless to stop it. He flung the door open and almost fell out in the rush, then began frenetically kicking the side of the car with the underside of his heel. Soon he was exhausted so he lumped his body behind the steering wheel and waited for the last of the storm to subside.

Drenched in sweat and disturbed by the smell of himself, Blake climbed out of the car again and began to walk towards a house which sat quietly on the left three or four hundred metres down the road. It was the only island in a sea of flat grassy meadows and it should have had a huge banner flying over it, proclaiming ‘Last Hope’. His car was stuffed, it was hotter than hell and he didn’t have any water. At the very least he desperately needed a drink, so he dragged his feet through the almost liquid bitumen and dreamed of salvation in Millers Forest.

As he approached the house Blake noted the windows were all shut but there was no sign of an air conditioning unit outside. There were two cars in the driveway; a dirty 78 Toyota Landcruiser, and a little red Hyundai. There was also a motorbike and although Blake was not a huge fan of motorbikes, courtesy of the shocking injuries a friend of his had suffered after crashing one into a fence, he could see beauty in their styling and appreciated the passionate feelings they aroused in some. It was all white, even the leather seat and had no badges to identify the make or model. He had never seen one like it.

Gravel crunched under his heavy feet as he walked down the driveway, past the vehicles towards the front door. He waved his hand over the bonnet of both cars but could not tell if the engines had been running recently or not. It was too damn hot.

The front door was closed. Blake listened closely but could hear no sound at all and that bothered him, and the bother turned into concern, and the concern suddenly became anxiety. He heard whispers in the hot wind and smelled something strange, something off, a rancid stench. Dizziness almost overwhelmed him as he reached out his left fist to knock on the door.

‘Hello,’ he said, as he knocked, without knowing how loudly he spoke.  ‘Hello! Is anyone home?’

Blake fell towards the door and might have heard a voice as it swung open and he crashed in on to the floor. The voice might have been asking for help but that voice might have been his own.

When he opened his eyes he saw a horizontal Christmas tree. A long tree with presents jam packed at one end and a pair of runners standing on their toes. Blake sat up slowly and the room righted itself. He looked again at the shoes; pink and small. A little girl’s shoes. Christmas tree? Presents? March?

‘Hello?’ said Blake weakly. ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’

A heavy silence filled the room and Blake was afraid to disturb it by moving but when he spotted the opening to the kitchen, he carefully rose from the floor and walked in to get some water. The kitchen was so clean it literally sparkled as fingers of sunlight poked through the Venetian blinds and stabbed the faux marble benchtops and stainless steel sink. Not a single glass, plate or utensil could be seen and there was a faint odour of lemon in the air. Blake turned the tap on and cupped his hands underneath the cool flow, before greedily shovelling the precious liquid into his mouth. Slowly life returned to his parched body.

‘Hello?’ he called again, having recovered his voice, ‘Is anyone home?’


Blake tried to leave the kitchen but jumped back in fright as a woman stood in his way with outstretched arms and no hands.

‘Help me!’ she shrieked. ‘Help me!’

Losing his footing, Blake slid against a cupboard and stared in disbelief at the horror of this woman. Handless, bleeding from the stumps and from cuts to her face and chest and arms and legs, she came no closer and spoke no further. A young woman with a lithe figure and firm breasts, her long brown hair was tangled and lank. She wore a long pink nightdress with no sleeves. Her eyes opened wide were crystal blue islands floating in bloody oceans and her mouth twisted in terror.

The smell of death was overpowering and Blake was frozen by an artic chill which ran down his spine. What could he do? What should he do?

‘Phone? I’ll call an ambulance,’ he said and with each word came more confidence. ‘Where’s your phone? He stood quickly and searched the kitchen but could not locate it.

‘It’s too late,’ she said.

He spun around to the sound of her voice but she was gone. Darting out of the kitchen, he quickly scanned the living room but found everything was as it had been when he first came in. The woman was gone. Running for the stairs, Blake was again stopped dead in his tracks but this time by a physical blow to his chest. A punch or a shove, he could not decide but it knocked the wind from his lungs and he crumpled to the floor gasping and clutching his chest. When he looked up, a man was standing at the foot of the stairs. He wore a pair of navy blue shorts and no shirt. Blood flowed from a long deep gash ripped across his hairy chest and there were smaller cuts on his arms and face; scratches like fingernail marks. He looked enormous but when Blake scrambled to his feet he realised the man was actually shorter then himself although considerably wider. He resembled a wrestler.

‘Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?’

Blake noticed that like the woman, the man did not seem able to move from the spot where he appeared. He also felt the stench invading his nostrils once more and it was cold.

‘The woman,’ said Blake, ‘she was badly hurt and asking for help. What happened here?’

The woman’s voice said, ‘It’s too late.’

Blake turned quickly but the room was empty and in the seconds it took for him to realise it, the wrestler also disappeared.

Two and three at a time, Blake bounded up the stairs and began rapidly turning handles and opening doors. Bedroom one. Nothing. Bedroom two. Nothing. Master bedroom. Nothing. All tidy and clean, beds made. Moving into the ensuite bathroom cautiously, Blake sniffed the air and was surprised to detect nothing but a slight mustiness that you would expect if the house was shut up for any length of time. The bathroom off the master bedroom was also clean although not as clean as the kitchen. Blake left that room and back on the landing he stared at the last remaining door.

As he approached a child appeared in front of it. A little girl. She looked sad but there were no obvious signs of injury until Blake noticed her feet.

The girl followed Blake’s gaze down to the stumps at the ends of her legs, and said in a shaky whisper, ‘Daddy’s very angry. I’ve been a naughty girl.’

A whirlpool in Blake’s stomach reached up his throat and pulled his tongue down making him gag. He turned away from the girl and vomited on the carpet. Dry retching mostly as he had not eaten for hours.

‘How could a man be that angry? To cut off your feet? What could you have possibly done to deserve that punishment?’ Blake was speaking to the carpet because his head felt too heavy to lift and he was afraid to look again at the child. When she failed to answer, he knew she had gone without even looking. Needing more water, Blake dragged himself up off the floor again and entered through the last remaining door. The bathroom. The wrestler was sitting on the toilet.

‘Hey, don’t you fucking knock first,’ he boomed, standing and shaking his clenched fist at Blake. ‘Where’s my fucking axe?’

Had Blake been watching a horror movie he might have laughed at someone being threatened with an axe by a naked man simply for interrupting him on the toilet, but given the circumstances he was mortified. Was that all it took to make this man blow his stack? Was a forgetting of manners enough to turn him into a mindless beast of violence?

Despite his heart trying to tear a hole of escape through his chest, Blake somehow calmed himself sufficiently to ignore the man, and casually wandered over to the sink with and washed his face and hands, before cupping some much needed water into his mouth. Glancing in the mirror, he noticed the man had disappeared. With refreshment came clarity so Blake returned downstairs to look for the telephone. On the sofa sat on man dressed in white who did not seem to notice Blake as he entered the room.

His plan was not to engage the newcomer but unfortunately the telephone was sitting on a small coffee table right beside the man in white who sat still and remained apparently uninterested in Blake’s activities.

Blake reached down for the phone but as he did his arm was grabbed in a vice like grip by the man in white.

‘What?’ cried Blake. ‘Let go!’

As hard as he shook his arm he could not break free and the pressure was excruciating.

‘Aren’t you going to say excuse me before you reach across?’

Suddenly the man released his hold of Blake’s arm at the exact time he had been pulling with all of his might to get free. This caused Blake to tumble backwards and he might have fallen on the floor yet gain had it not been for the three people standing behind him into whom he cannoned.

Sunlight caught the edge of the axe blade and momentarily blinded Blake as backed away to a neutral corner of the room. That corner was where the dusty Christmas tree stood guardian over unopened presents and a pair of runners which Blake could now see, as he stood directly over them, were not empty.

‘Okay, man in white,’ said Blake pointing at him. ‘What the hell is going on here?’

‘Anger management. Is this your future?’

‘Are you real?’ answered Blake without answering the question.

Screaming. Chaos. Frantic movement. The voices of the man, his wife and their child all mixed in a frightening cacophony of anger and fear. Blake covered his ears and closed his eyes, praying for the noise to stop but on it went. The sounds of footsteps followed by more screaming, then crying, then sobbing and all else faded away to leave just the little girl’s quiet voice, barely above a whisper, saying, ‘Sorry, Daddy, sorry.’ Then silence.

Blake was alone.

The image of the little girl haunted him. Everywhere he looked, eyes open, eyes squeezed shut, still he could see her. Sitting on the floor emotionally exhausted he began to think about Sam. The only goodness in his life and even she was past tense for him now. Marriage and children. Of course she had raised the topic, and naturally he, not wanting to have children but definitely wanting her, had rebuffed her by laughing the subject off as being premature; something they could talk about later. Blake had run out of laters. He wondered if the man with the axe had wanted children or had his once beautiful young wife pushed him into fatherhood. Was his temper a symptom of the frustration he felt at losing control of his life and having to share too much of himself, his time and energy with others? Was he a time bomb waiting for someone to press the right combination of buttons to detonate him? Was Blake such a bomb? Would he have been, or could he be, the same sort violently abusive father? These questions were painful and frightening.

The smell of death returned to the living room, sneakily like a thief trying not to disturb wake anyone, and the chill squeezed his bones like an anaconda. Blake shook his head to break free of the melancholy which smothered him like a hot blanket and searched the room for signs of the restless dead.

In the silence he heard whispers, echoes of voices, screaming and crying. Soft and faint like the pulse of one on the brink of eternity. There was pain and misery in these whispers, and it was written all over the faces of the woman and her daughter as they appeared in front of Blake seated on the couch.

Blake was wondering what to say or if he should say anything at all when the door burst open and in rushed the man in white.

‘Where is he?’

He looked at Blake, then at the other two. ‘Where is he? If you know tell me. It’s very important. Tell me,’ he said as he slowly came closer to the three of them, ‘so I can help you. You are in danger.’ He was staring at Blake.

‘I’m in danger?’ said Blake. ‘From what? Losing my mind? These ghosts can’t hurt me.’

The man noted the way in which Blake waved at the two ghosts dismissively and shook his head. ‘You do not know what you are dealing with,’ he said. ‘They can hurt you but they don’t want to. He, on the other hand, does. He’s been very patient with you but you’re still in his house. Uninvited.’

Blake stood up and demanded, ‘Who are you?’

His answer was swallowed by a crash as the door slammed shut and the wrestler swung his axe into the back of it. Splinters flew in all directions. Some hit Blake in the chest, others passed through the woman and child on the sofa who sat passively embracing one another. The girl looked frightened but what, Blake wondered, did the dead have to fear?

‘Judgement!’ bellowed the man with the axe as he swung it around his head and into the door once more. ‘Judgement!’

Blake noticed he still had not moved and was relieved to see his theory about the limited mobility of these ghosts was holding.

The man in white was the next to speak. ‘The dead are afraid of judgement,’ he said. ‘Even more than the living fear the judgement seat.’

Focused on the man who answered his unspoken question, Blake missed the first step the wrestler took towards them, and the second and third steps. He noticed the girl press in tighter to her mother’s breast and in the split second it took him to figure out why, the axe found a home in the man in white’s ribcage via a forced entry through his back. Blake could just see the tip of the axe poking through under the man’s shirt before a river of blood engulfed it, and he dropped to the floor.

Blake was confused and terrified. The killer had vanished again and so had the other two. He ran for the door but it was shattered too badly to open, so he turned and ran for the biggest window behind the Christmas tree. Knocking the tree over, he ripped the curtains apart and flung the venetian blinds up and over his head. The window was locked and the wrestler was standing outside staring in. An exploding shower of glass rained over Blake as the axe came through the window, hooked around the blinds and reefed them back out with it. For a moment Blake was caught, tangled in the blinds as they were pulled out of the house but he struggled free and scrambled backwards. Shards of glass stabbed into his hands mercilessly as he battled to regain his standing.

The man in white was no longer on the floor. Blake pushed the tree aside and desperately searched for something with which to defend himself. Kitchen. He darted for it but his arrival was greeted with the whistle of a blade through the air and into the door frame where it wedged. He froze as the madman wrestled with the axe trying to wrench it free, and the instant he succeeded, Blake fled for the broken window in the living room. As he ran for it he saw the glass had been repaired but he had no time to stop and he knew he was going to die if he could not leave this cursed house. The rush of adrenalin through his system masked the pain long enough for Blake to crash through the window and stagger to the ground and up on his feet again. Running. Running. Around to the front of the house. To the cars in the driveway. Any keys? Could he be so lucky? Not with the Hyundai but the Landcruiser’s keys were in the ignition.

Blake jumped up into the driver’s seat and looked instinctively in the rear view mirror. The woman was there.

‘Please don’t leave. Help us.’

Blake yelled at her, ‘I can’t fucking help you. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing. Do you understand? You’re already dead. You’re dead! You’re dead!’

Blake raved on like a madman until she disappeared then he turned the key but the battery was flat. He slammed his hands into the steering wheel and swore continuously as the blood from his cuts flicked all over the inside of the car. Stopping at the sound of a loud crack, he studied his hand closely and realised he had broken his finger. Physically spent, he sat there behind the wheel and stared at his finger, fascinated by the bone sticking out at a weird angle through his bloody skin.

In the midst of a fury of pain and anger and frustration, Blake tried to think, tried to latch on to some logic, some sanity. He could not drive away and he was sure as hell not going back inside the house so he decided to walk. There was a flicker of an idea to run but his strength was gone and he didn’t know where he was going anyway.

He trudged up the driveway and out onto the road. Walking very slowly down the centre of the fiery bitumen, Blake’s mind flooded with turbulent chaotic thoughts, and he lost track of time and direction. His eyes half closed only saw blurred shapes which his mind could not decipher and finally he dived to the hot hard ground unconscious.


‘He’s coming to.’

‘No, don’t move him yet. Let’s get some fluids into him.’

‘Is he talking? Did he say anything?’

At the sound of strange voices, Blake slowly opened his eyes but could not see anything. Panicking he tried to sit up while clutching for his eyes.

‘It’s okay, lay back. You’re all right, just lay back now. Take it easy. I’ll take these patches off for a second.’

Suddenly he could see and he relaxed but only until his eyes began to focus and he saw who it was that was talking to him. A man in white and he freaked out again. Jumping up off the ground, he saw a solid man with an axe and he ran, ignoring the yelling from behind him, and tried to figure out where he was. When he realised, when he saw the house, burning like a rampant inferno, it was as though a massive vacuum had sucked all the breath from his lungs and he collapsed again.

No salvation. No answers. The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest.


Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, D.A. Cairns lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs and has authored four novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, and A Muddy Red River which is available now from Rogue Phoenix Press.

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Wedding Plans by C. E. Stokes

Jan 29 2017

The kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off.  Bridal magazines lay scattered on every available space, pages marked with colorful sticky notes and scrawled with his fiancee’s neat script.  John hesitated in the doorway and wondered if he could escape before his bride-to-be noticed him.

Too late.  Julie lifted her head to glare at him.

“This would be a lot easier if your mother weren’t the devil!”  She huffed and flopped back against the wooden chair. She hadn’t bothered to change out of her scrubs.

He shouldn’t smile.  It would set her off.  With some effort, he suppressed his grin.

“Remember, she’ll be your mother-in-law after the wedding.”  This comment earned him a scowl in addition to the glare.

He pulled her out of the chair and into a hug.  The tension bled out of her as his hands moved up and down her back.  He wondered how much longer he’d have to hold her until she calmed down.

“She’s making me reconsider going through with the wedding.  Couldn’t we live in sin instead?” She groaned and buried her face in his shirt.

“You’re under a lot of stress.  You might just be overreacting.” He muttered into her ear.  Wisps of her blonde hair tickled his nose.

Julie tensed against him.  Probably not the best response.  John stroked her some more to make up for it.

He tried again.  “What’d she do this time?”

She pulled away to pace the kitchen.  “Every day– no, every hour!– she sends me long, detailed messages about how the wedding should be.” Her hands fluttered around her face as she marched back and forth, “and I mean everything; what music the DJ should play, pictures of what cakes she likes and a different menu selection everyday!  And get this, today she sent me a picture of what dress I should wear.  Some frumpy, frilly thing that makes me look like a walking cupcake!”

John flinched as her voice hit octaves reserved for shattering glass.

Oblivious to his wince, Julie dragged the laptop toward her and pecked at the keys.  Brushing her hair out of her face, she gestured to the screen

He leaned over and took in the photo.  “It’s definitely cupcake-like.  You’d look delicious.” He resisted the urge to lick his lips.

“Seriously?  That’s not helpful.” Her lips pressed into a thin line.  She crossed her arms and scowled at him.

He stepped behind her to rub her shoulders.  Usually the caressing calmed her down.  Today, it didn’t have the desired effect.

“Mother wants to be part of our special day.” His voice was low and, he hoped, soothing.

“Yeah, right. She can’t be bothered to meet me or talk to me, yet is trying to dictate my wedding.  Oh, I mean, our wedding.”

“Let’s go to dinner.  I made reservations at The Happy Tuna.  You’re not too upset to enjoy sushi, are you?”  He grinned as a small smile appeared on her lips. “After I drop you off, I’ll go home and call Mother, okay?”

“I’d prefer to talk to her myself.  Why won’t she even talk to me on the phone?” The smile faded and John worried he’d have to keep rubbing her.  She brushed his hands away and headed toward the hallway. “Dinner sounds great.  Give me a minute to change.”

After a meal that included no mention of his mother, John drove Julie home.  He opened her door with a gallant air that made her giggle and walked her to the door.  Julie rose up on tiptoes to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him.

He’d forgotten that ‘goodnight’ meant more petting.

“I know I insisted on waiting, but I was thinking…with the wedding so close…” She glanced up through her lashes.

His arms tightened around her.  It took a deep breath before he trusted himself to speak.  “You’ve saved yourself this long, Julie, and I respect that.  We’ll wait until the wedding night.  It’ll make the whole thing sweeter.” He touched her cheek with one finger, tracing a path toward her lips.  Her breath caught and he bent his head to kiss her one more time before turning to leave.

“I love you!  Don’t forget to call your mother!” Julie’s voice followed him down the sidewalk.  Gritting his teeth, he waved over his shoulder.  Once in the privacy of his car, he expelled a sigh of relief before heading to his house.






In a secluded neighborhood, not more than a five-minute drive from Julie’s home sat the little ranch house where John stayed.  He strolled through the front door and dropped his keys on the table next to the door.  He didn’t bother to turn on the lights as he made his way toward the kitchen.  The meager furnishings offered no obstacle to his destination.  He didn’t care about acquiring more, however, they were necessary to the charade.

Once he reached the kitchen, he clicked on the lights.  Brightness reflected off the pristine granite counter tops.  He filled a glass at the sink and took a long drink to get the taste of raw fish out of his mouth.  The water tasted crisp and pure.  Much like he imagined Julie would taste.

The thought of his fiancee reminded him of what he needed to do.  He couldn’t put it off anymore.  It was time to talk to Mother.

The glass clinked on the counter when he set it down.  John headed toward the basement door.

The steps leading to the unfinished basement were simple pine.  His footsteps echoed off the cinder block wall.  At the bottom of the steps, he kicked off his shoes.  Barefoot, he padded toward the little room in the back of the basement.

Between one step and the next, a black smoke rose up from under his feet.  It grew thicker, swirling around him until it completely enveloped him.  It danced across his skin and erased the illusion he’d adopted years ago.  In the blink of an eye, it vanished.

Free of the confining disguise, he paused to scratch under his arm.  That itch had been driving him crazy for hours.  It was a relief to finally get it.

His clawed fingers tapped across the cement blocks until he found the loose one.  Dust rained down with each slight shift of the block.  The key nestled in the back.  He unlocked the dark wood door and stepped inside.

With a careless wave of his hand, he lit the candles in the room with a ripple of his power.  The flickering light reflected off the pentagram etched in the floor.

The cement was cool against his knees.  He chanted, the harsh sounding words bouncing off the walls of the cramped room.  Thick smoke, identical to his own, rose up and rolled around the confines of the circle.  It swelled only to collapse back on itself to form a figure.

Inside the circle, yellow eyes met and held his.  He’d always been told he had his mother’s eyes.  Guttural words hissed out of the trapped creature’s mouth.

He held up his hand to cut off the tirade, “Mother, you need to leave Julie alone.  It’s not fair to torment her before the wedding.  It’s hard enough to find a virgin in today’s world, I won’t have you scaring her off.”

The demon in the circle snarled.  Her lips twisted away from sharp fangs.

The creature known as John sneered back, “I mean it.  Weren’t you the one who taught me not to play with my food?”


C. E. Stokes is a freelance writer living near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has Bachelor of Fine Arts from Bloomsburg University. Being too much of a foodie to accept the role of starving artist, she turned to writing. Her short stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Quantum Fairy Tales, multiple issues of Dark Gothic Resurrected and the “Tales from the Grave” and “The Key” anthology.


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Jan 22 2017

He walks in shoving the wheelie-bin. The door-chime pings. Dead eyes watch him. Amber bead eyes set into stilled faces. A fox in a glass case. A cluster of parrots on a perch. A ferret poised on the curl of tree-bark. He feels itchy. There must be bugs here, ticks tunneling away through all that dead fur. A silt of dry mustiness that hangs in the air, catching at the back of his throat.

‘What you got in there?’ says the taxidermist, crooking forward over the counter.

‘Bitch’ he says. Shoves it to a halt against the counter. ‘But just ‘cos she was a bitch doesn’t mean I don’t miss having her around.’

The elderly taxidermist laughs nervously. ‘So what service do you require, sir?’

He flips the lid. Her hair spills out. ‘She was messing around, you know what I mean? But this way I get to keep her. She can sit there in front of the TV, just like always, I can talk to her, in the absolute certainty she’ll never cheat on me ever again.’

‘Yeah, yes, of course, whatever you say.’ He reaches for the alert fixed beneath the desktop.

‘We do this based on trust.’ The client’s holding the shotgun that was cradled inside the wheelie-bin alongside the blasted corpse. ‘I trust you, you trust me.’

The old man licks his thin purple lips, squints through his optician’s arrangement of thick lenses. An amber sweat-bead crawls like a glistening bug down his stooped spine.

‘There’s a problem?’

‘No problem at all. Follow me.’ He’s an old man, his joints are stiff, there’s a bone-cracking sound when he move. He leads the way, behind the storefront there’s what resembles a mash-up of surgery and craft workshop. Racks of operating instruments. Shelves with plastic box-containers of feathers, kapok, differently hued eyeballs, fangs, molars, wire coils, staples and pins. Vitrines and bell-jars with indistinct fluid contents. A refrigerated cabinet.

‘You understand, I usually do nothing bigger than dearly-beloved dogs, and cute pet cats, the deceased animal companions of bereaved owners. Nothing quite like this.’

‘But you can do it, right? What’s been your biggest commission so far?’

‘I suppose, yes. There was a grizzly bear I did for the museum exhibition, that received much commendation. Tell you what, leave the… er, subject with me, come back in three days, I’ll fix an appointment…’

‘No. It doesn’t work that way. I’m here to watch you work. We don’t want you tempted to alert anyone or inform the authorities about the unusual nature of this project, do we?’

He hitches his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Glances at the shotgun cradled casually in the curve of his arm. ‘No, I suppose not. Help me get the subject on the slab. I’ll do what I can.’

Prepping her is a long detailed procedure. The table has runnels and drains, for fluids. She’s sprawled on her back, already naked, the fatal wound exploding her stomach. She’s older than she seems, her blonde hair doesn’t match her pubes. He frames her carefully, takes photos, measurements. Skull radius, ocular orbits. Anoints her body with preserving fluids, cleaning the wound. Mixes plaster for the manikin. Takes a death-mask cast of her face and hands. Glances over his shoulder nervously, coughing.

He makes tea in an electric kettle, using two teabags. Presses Preset One on the radio, a phone-in about benefit cheats fades in. ‘How do you want her posing?’ says the taxidermist.

‘Seated. It was good, in general, what we had. She just had a weakness, a wandering eye. This way I get to keep her, you understand?’

‘Of course. Eyes are difficult. Human eyes that is. I have other species…’ He spills a selection across the table. They run them between their fingers… this one? or this one? Not quite right. Not a good match. He holds them against her dead white face questioningly. Yes, they’ll have to do.

‘Now… you sure you want to watch? We call this the ‘caping’?’ Pulling on latex gloves, flipping through the lenses in his optician’s array, into the correct focus. The incisions begin along her spine. Peeling the skin back. His breathing is quiet, his mind concentrated, half on the radio voice, half on the scalpel…

The taxidermist works methodically, long into the night. The client watches every movement, the shotgun never wavering. She reassembles before his eyes. Taking shape almost supernaturally. The familiar curves accentuated, the shape filling out. Only the eyes are different.

Finally the taxidermist straightens up, unsheathing the messy latex gloves. There’s a moment of confused silence, before the client pulls the trigger and his shotgun roars…

Several hours later he walks out shoving the wheelie-bin. The door-chime pings. The elderly taxidermist is crooked forward over the counter. He’s totally immobile, awaiting the next customer. His eyes are mismatch amber beads.


Check out my website ‘EIGHT MILES HIGHER’ – ‘The Blogspot for People Who Don’t Like Blogspots’ – latest postings include ‘Robyn Hitchcock: The Man Who Invented Himself’ interview, ‘Alfred Bester: The SF Probable Man’, ‘Brenda Lee: The Real Miss Dynamite’, ABC & Vice Versa music interviews, Kurt Vonnegut 1983 interview, Philip E High UK SF-pioneer interview & full history with rare archive art, ‘The Lost Worlds Of Arthur Conan Doyle: His SF, Fantasy & Horror’, Captain Beefheart Live 1980, Elvis: My Visit To Graceland & Sun Studios with photos, ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful Story’, and more… monthly updates at

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