Unholy Spirits By Mario Piumetti

Jan 25 2015

Warren heard the opening notes of Hole’s Reasons to Be Beautiful. He opened his eyes and saw he was in a bar. The bartender looked emaciated. His hair was spiky to the point where it resembled a patch of needles. He had a black vest, unbuttoned, and a grey t-shirt that read, “Pretty done.” He poured Fireball over the ice in Warren’s glass.

The bartender grinned and said, “Welcome to Hell. I’m Lucifer, your new best friend.”

“Pfft. Yeah, right,” said Warren. He took a sip.

“You don’t believe me? Well, I suppose I should know better than argue with a customer, huh?” Lucifer leaned in. Now he grinned like a little boy with a dirty joke in mind. “Where are you?”

“What do you mean? I’m in a bar.”

“Yeah, but how did you get in here? You don’t remember?”

Warren felt his pockets. His keys were there, but the memory of getting behind the wheel was absent.

“Maybe I’ve had too much to drink?”

“Keep telling yourself that. You had too much to drink, and that’s how you ended up in a dark bar with no doors.”

Warren spun around on his stool. There were other patrons at the bar, and more in booths behind him. An all-girl punk band performed on stage in the next room. They were all dressed like Catholic schoolgirls. An upside-down neon crucifix glowed on the wall behind them. By all appearances, it was the sort of place Warren found appealing except for the lack of doors or windows.

“Shit,” he said. “How did I get here?”

Lucifer did a little dance as he chugged from the Fireball. He spilled some onto the counter laughing at Warren.

“Allow me to subtly and cryptically explain: you were on the fifth floor of your office building. You felt the wind on your face, the sun on your skin. Birds were chirping, and then you went splat!”

Warren’s face fell. “I didn’t jump.”

Lucifer stood tall and faced the band. “Ladies, how did Warren here come on by?”

They practically sang it. “Warren jumped! Warren jumped! Warren fuckin’ jumped!”

“And over three hundred dollars!” Lucifer slapped his hand on the countertop. “Seriously, I’ve had guys do themselves in because they knocked up their secretaries. Someone did it because he ran over a guy while high. There was even a kid from Tokyo who did it because he got an A-. And yes, there have been folks who suicide over money. Happens all the time during economic downturns. But you snort the proverbial coke off a stripper’s ass. Don’t believe me?”

Lucifer stood aside so Warren could look at the mirror behind him. Warren didn’t see his reflection, but he saw himself. Splat was the right adjective. His body was on the pavement behind the building near the entrance to the subterranean parking structure. He’d jumped down to a concrete walkway by a little garden. One of his legs was curled up in an unnatural way so the ankle was beside his belt, and his radius poked out through the skin. His shirt and side were popped open like a balloon full of blood and something yellow. The top half of his head was gone. A halo of brain surrounded it. Police cordoned off the area and examined the body. Simultaneously, Warren saw his coworkers Christy and Madeline in their offices giving statements. Christy’s mouth hung open with tears down her cheeks. Madeline held her head in her hands barely able to keep herself together.

He couldn’t hear them, but he knew what they were saying.

“He was all right this morning,” said Madeline.

“I said hello when I got in,” said Christy. “He started to panic five or ten minutes later.”

Lucifer shrugged, and the mirror returned to normal. Warren saw a dumbfounded look on his face. He knocked back the rest of the Fireball and wiped the excess from the corners of his lips, but it was clear from the welling tears in his eyes that he was close to breaking down.

“And that, friend, is the end of one Warren Whitford.” Lucifer drew a fresh glass. He poured vodka, prinkled some powder, and added a splash of something from an unmarked bottle. “Here. My own special concoction. It’s made with red chili flakes and the tears of unborn children. Thanks to your people’s hard-on for abortions, I never run out of it. Go on. Give it a try. It’ll make you feel better. I promise.”

Warren wasn’t sure how much trust he should put in Lucifer’s promise. The thought of doing so brought to mind images of southern evangelists screaming about the empty words of Beelzebub and “them liberals.” But when he sipped the drink, he found its effects were as advertised. He felt a sense of calm. His hands and arms usually went numb when he was very stressed. They felt that way when he went up onto the balcony. Now he had full feeling in both of them.

“So now what?” he asked. “Am I going to burn for all eternity? Are demons going to carve me up?”

Lucifer pretended to think deeply. “Uhhhhhh, no. Now you get to kick your feet up and relax, dude. Have some drinks. Listen to some music. Maybe later I’ll introduce you to this succubus I know. She’ll rock your underworld.”

“No torment?”

“One sec.” Lucifer went to speak with one of his employees. He came back and started a round of drinks for a booth. “No torment. You’ve lived a pretty decent life. You didn’t kill anybody. You told a white lie or two, but who hasn’t? You committed suicide, so the rulebook says you’ve gotta be here, but there are different levels of Hell. Punishing you because of a terrible job market is like punishing gingers for having red hair. It’s beyond your control. Now the guy who cheated you, oh, I’m going to grab him by the hips and fuck him hard. I mean, hard!”

Warren said, “Sitting around doing nothing sounds pretty hellish to me.”

“You’ll get used to it. Just relax and free your mind, man.” Lucifer laughed. “I’m sorry. I sound like God right now. Fuckin’ hippie, that guy. But no, just do your thing. Make some friends. Check out the band. You don’t even have to be confined to the counter. Make yourself at home, because that’s exactly what this place is now. You and I are gonna hang out for a long, long time, palomino.”

Warren took another look at the place. It seemed so much larger than a few minutes before, so full of possibility. The dim light seemed to brighten. It felt less like a place and more like a thing, like a giant creature in which everyone was a cell, every conversation a fiber of the nervous system, and every beat of music a breath. He saw people walking in and out of the restroom, because even in Hell people have to pee. A flight of stairs by the restrooms went up to a door.

Warren pointed them out to Lucifer. “Hey, I thought you said there were no doors here.”

“Oh, that’s the balcony. You have to check that out. We got barrels of jungle juice up there with a layer of foam a foot thick. Ski shots. Everyone loves everyone, and you might find your one and only too. You can even smoke up there.”

“There are smoking and nonsmoking sections in Hell?”

“Of course.” Lucifer frowned. “That shit’s bad for you, dude.”

Warren finished his drink and made for the stairs. Away from the band below, it got quieter, but he could hear people on the other side of the door. The party sounded like a scene from The Great Gatsby with Motley Crue doing the soundtrack. Warren thought he could hear She Goes Down as he put his hand on the door. He pushed it open. A red light poured out over him.


Mario Piumetti was born and raised in Los Angeles. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in English from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. His writing has been featured at Arts Collide and The Horror Zine. An avid music lover, his work is heavily influenced by rock, punk, and metal. Mario is also a staff writer for the dark culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. You can find out more at his blog: My Corner of the Catacombs.

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Dust to Dust

Jan 18 2015

Kristina R. Mosley 4,765 words
P. O. Box 434
Kensett, AR 72082
(501) 593-8646
Dust to Dust
4,765 words

Dry Springs is a good name for this place, Constable Casey Robbins thought as he walked down the town’s deserted main street. The town had never been a big one, but when the bank closed, the rest of Dry Springs did, too. The fact that it hadn’t rained in months didn’t help matters. Everyone who was smart had already left.

The town never had a proper mayor, and it was too small and isolated to have any kind of police force. Twenty-four-year-old Casey had been the only real authority in Dry Springs since he was elected constable three years earlier. It wasn’t a tough job: the most he had to do was send a drunk home. He didn’t even need to carry a gun.

His footsteps echoed as he passed Bell’s General Store, one of the few places still in business. Just as Casey stepped in front of the doctor’s office on the other side of the store, someone bumped hard into his shoulder, so hard that the straw hat popped off his brown head. He staggered but managed to grab the person’s collar.

“You should be more careful,” he growled. He realized that he had Woodrow, the thirteen-year-old son of Hubbard Jones, in his grasp. He let go of the boy “Where are you going in such a hurry?” he asked. Casey knew something was wrong from the fear in the boy’s green eyes.

“Paw’s real sick.” Woodrow huffed, trying to catch his breath. “I gotta go get the doctor.” Sweaty red hair stuck to the boy’s forehead.

“Did you run here?”


“Dear Lord.”

The boy ran off, and the constable followed. By the time he caught up, Woodrow ran out of Dr. Lindsey’s office with the short, white-haired doctor in tow. Dr. Lindsey carried a large black bag.

“Casey,” he said with a nod.

“Doctor, can I have a word?”

The doctor stopped next to the constable. Woodrow glared at them from inside Dr. Lindsey’s green Chevrolet.

“I didn’t think Hubbard Jones was that sick,” Casey whispered.

“He’s not.”

Something’s not right here, Casey thought. “Mind if I tag along?”

The doctor gestured to his automobile. “Be my guest.”

Dr. Lindsey and Casey got in the car and headed to the Jones place.


After three bumpy, dusty miles, they arrived at the tiny wooden shack in the field of dirt. Hubbard’s older son, Floyd, and daughter, Mae, stood outside. Mae hid her face in her apron while her brother tried to comfort her.

The three got out of the automobile, and Dr. Lindsey ran ahead into the shack. Woodrow rushed to his siblings. He spoke to Floyd, but Casey couldn’t hear what he said. The older Jones boy shook his head, and Woodrow looked to the parched earth.

The constable nodded at Floyd Jones as he took off his straw hat and entered the home. It was dark, a sheet covering the only window. A thin layer of dust coated the furniture. Hubbard’s wife, Leona, sat at the small dining table, her gray-streaked red hair in a messy bun. She looked up at Casey, tears running down her heavily freckled cheeks.

“How are you, Mrs. Jones?” Casey asked quietly.

“He’s gone,” she sobbed. She put her face in her hands.

“I-I’m sorry.”

Leona wailed.

Casey felt like he should comfort the woman, but he didn’t know her well. He didn’t want to impose. After a few moments, Dr. Lindsey called from the other room. “Casey, could you come in here, please?”

The constable sighed and walked into the room. A thick layer of black dust covered the meager furnishings except for what was probably Leona’s side of the bed. Grime obscured Hubbard’s features, creeping into the man’s nose and mouth. Gray skin stretched over the bones of his desiccated body.

“I haven’t seen Hubbard in a while, but he wasn’t that skinny last I did,” Casey said.

“I saw him three days ago. He had lost weight, but not this much.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“Lung problems.” Dr. Lindsey reached up to brush the dirt away from Hubbard’s face. The dead man’s nose snapped off and fell onto the bed.

Casey yelped.

“That’s never happened before,” Dr. Lindsey said, wide-eyed.

“I wouldn’t imagine so,” Casey whispered. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know. It’s as if he’s been dried out.”

“What would cause that?”

The doctor shrugged. “I think I’ll take the body back to my office. Maybe I’ll discover something.”

Casey nodded. “Good luck.”

“Would you care to help me get him back to the office?”

The constable’s jaw dropped. “W-Why do you need me?”

“I’m an old man, Casey. I can’t lift him by myself.”

Casey sighed. “All right.”

“Thank you. I’ll drop you off at home after we’re done.”

“Well, let’s get to it,” the younger man replied.


Casey waved as the doctor drove away. Upon entering his small gray house, he took off his hat and placed it on the table. His wife, Clara, stood at the black stove, her back to the door. She didn’t turn around, so Casey snuck up behind her and planted a kiss on her ivory cheek.

Clara jumped. “Casey, you’re going to be the death of me,” she said after turning around.

“Oh, you love me,” he said, smiling. He reached a hand into her short blonde hair and pulled her close. He kissed her hard.

After a few moments, she pulled away. “What’s gotten into you?” she whispered.


She turned back to the stove. “Supper’s almost ready.”

“All right,” he said and sat down at the table. He couldn’t help but think about Hubbard. What illness made him dry out like that?

Clara placed a small bowl of brown beans in front of Casey and sat down.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to get the awful thoughts out of his head. He cut himself a piece of cornbread from the cast iron skillet on the table. He took a bite of the cornbread. It was gritty. There was dirt in the food, but he didn’t say anything to his wife. It wasn’t her fault that dirt was half of what he ate nowadays.

Clara chewed on a piece of cornbread. She grimaced and glared at the skillet. “How was your day, Casey?” she asked, straightening her face.

“Strange,” he said through a mouth of beans.

Clara raised an eyebrow. “Did you hear about Hubbard Jones?”

“That’s what I was talking about. Hubbard’s youngest boy bumped into me in town when he came to fetch the doctor. Dr. Lindsey thought things peculiar, so I tagged along.”

“What happened?”

“Hubbard was dead by the time we got there.”

“Oh no. How were Leona and the kids?”

“They were taking it best they could, I guess.”

She put down her spoon. “He died from his lung problem, right?”

Casey shook his head. “Dr. Lindsey doesn’t think so. I tend to agree with him.”


“First off, the doctor said Hubbard wasn’t that sick. Second, the body didn’t look right. It was gray and all thin and dry, like something left out in the sun too long.” He shuddered, remembering Hubbard’s nose falling off.

“How did he die?” Clara asked, her eyes wide.

Casey shrugged. “Dr. Lindsey doesn’t know. He had me help him get Hubbard back to his office so he could figure things out.”

Clara was quiet for a few moments, the only sound being metal spoons scraping against ceramic bowls. “I was talking to my cousin Dora today,” she said finally. “Her cow, Lula, died. Dora said she was awfully skinny.”

“Did the cow starve?”

“Doubt it. Dora fed Lula better than her own children.”


“I think whatever got her cow got Hubbard, too.”

Makes sense, Casey thought. “Sounds likely. I just wonder what it is.”

Clara shook her head slowly, and the two finished their meal in silence. She stood up. “Are you finished, Casey?”

He looked at his empty bowl. “I guess I am.”

She took his bowl and walked away from the table.

He sat there thinking. If Hubbard Jones were the only one to die, Casey would’ve assumed that the sick man’s death was natural. Strange, but natural. That didn’t explain Lula’s death. It could just be a coincidence, he thought. Then again, Casey Robbins didn’t believe in coincidences.

Clara began placing the dishes in a white enamel pan. Casey went to help her. As he filled the pan, his stomach twisted in knots. He couldn’t help but feel that Hubbard’s death was the start of something bad.


He tried to shake the thought from his head. “What?”

“I asked if it was all right if I make something to take over to Leona and the kids. I know we don’t have much, but they have even less.”

“Yeah, that sounds nice,” he replied absentmindedly.

“Are you all right?” Clara asked.

“Something’s bothering me about Hubbard’s death and the death of your cousin’s cow. I know it’s probably just some disease, but it’s suspicious.”

She put a hand on his arm. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

He sighed. “I hope you’re right, Clara.”


Two days passed. There were a few more animal deaths, and two more people had died. Casey knew that neither Lois Smith nor Lymond Cartwright were sick before they met their ends. The constable was sure something bad was happening in Dry Springs. He just didn’t know what.

Casey knocked on Dr. Lindsey’s door, the sound echoing off the vacant buildings.

“Come in,” the doctor called.

He entered the office. Dr. Lindsey sat at an oak desk, worry apparent on his lined face. “How have you been?” the constable asked.

The doctor gestured to a chair in front of his desk. “Confused, Casey, mighty confused. I take it you’ve heard about Lois Smith and Lymond Cartwright?”

Casey shifted in the hard wooden chair. “Yes, sir. They weren’t sick, were they?”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head. “No, they were not.”

“Did they look like Hubbard?”

The doctor nodded.

“You do know what it is, though, right?”

Dr. Lindsey threw his hands in the air. “I’ve combed over every medical book and journal I have. There’s no disease described in any of the texts that matches what’s going on here.”

Casey’s brow furrowed. “Bugs?”


“All the crops are dead, so the bugs are trying to find food in folks’ homes. Lord knows how many locusts Clara sweeps out of the house each day. Spiders, too.”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head again. “There aren’t any bites. That wouldn’t explain the dust in people’s noses and mouths, either.”“Poison?”

The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know. Who’d poison them? The victims have nothing in common: they’re all different ages, different sexes. Never mind the animals.”

Casey looked off to the side, staring at the wooden floor while he thought. Dr. Lindsey was right. The three dead people didn’t really have any connection other than living in Dry Springs. “I don’t know what it could be,” he said quietly.

The doctor didn’t reply.

The younger man stood. “Well, I best be going. Good luck, Doctor.” He held out his hand.

Dr. Lindsey shook Casey’s hand and accompanied him to the door. “Thank you for the well wishes, Casey. I know I need all the help I can get.”

“Bye, Dr. Lindsey.”


Casey had one foot out the door when he heard a woman scream for help. He gasped and ran down the street. He guessed from the footsteps behind him that Dr. Lindsey followed. Before the men stood Clara’s cousin, Dora. A dark dust devil swirled around her, whipping at her dress and tangling her long blonde hair. She swatted at the air, but the funnel didn’t relent.

“Help!” she screamed.

Casey began to charge toward Dora, but Dr. Lindsey held him back. The doctor pointed at the woman. Her skin shrank back and cracked loudly, clinging to her bones. Her screams hurt Casey’s ears.

Then, the screaming stopped. The cloud drifted into the air. Casey picked up a rock and threw it at the haze.

“That’s a cloud of dust,” Dr. Lindsey said flatly.

Casey turned his gaze away from the sky and saw Dora’s body on the ground. He and the doctor ran over to her. She was gray and dried out. Black dirt covered her nose and mouth. She looked like Hubbard Jones.

Dr. Lindsey knelt beside the body and lifted her left arm. He felt for a pulse, shaking his head gravely. “She’s dead,” the doctor proclaimed.

“Of course she is!” Casey yelled. “Why the hell didn’t you let me help her?”

“Did you see what happened to her?”

“Yeah, I did. She shriveled up and died.”

“Did you want that to happen to you?”

“Well, no,” Casey said, anger draining from his voice. “So, how’d she get that way?”

Dr. Lindsey shook his head, then his eyes widened. “The dust cloud.”


“Think about it, Casey. There was dust all over Hubbard Jones’s house, all over Hubbard himself. There was dust in Lois and Lymond’s houses as well.”

“But the stuff’s everywhere, Doctor.”

“Not like that. Have you ever seen it that thick?”

“Only after a dust storm.” The constable thought for a moment. “When was the last time we had a dust storm, anyway?”

“I believe it was the day before Hubbard Jones died.”

Casey gasped. “But what does it mean? Why didn’t Leona Jones die? She was in bed next to her husband.”

The doctor sighed. “I think there’s something…wrong with the dust. It’s killing people selectively.”

Casey squinted. “That means it would have to think or something, right?”


“How’s that possible?”

“I don’t know, but the people of Dry Springs need to know.” Dr. Lindsey walked back up the street.

Casey put out a hand to stop him. “Whoa there. Are we supposed to tell everybody that the dust is killing them? They already know that.”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re going to tell them, Casey, but I need to get a stretcher and get Dora’s body out of the street.”

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re the only law this town has. It’s your responsibility.” The doctor turned around and entered his office, leaving Casey staring at the corpse.


Dora’s family didn’t take her death well. The citizens of Dry Springs didn’t take the news of what killed her well, either. Every day, Casey saw more trucks and wagons headed out of town. He couldn’t blame them.

On the Sunday after Dora’s funeral, Casey and Clara walked to the small white church on the edge of town. They noticed a familiar Model T driving toward them on the road out of Dry Springs. A few trunks and pieces of furniture were tied to it. Casey flagged down the vehicle.
When the car stopped, Dora’s widower, Martin Ruckman, looked back at them. Their daughters, Martha, Mary, and Mabel sat in the car. Looking into the girls’ gaunt, dirty faces, Casey noticed how much they looked like their mother. He then remembered how Dora would drag her family into church each week and sit on the front pew.

“Where are y’all going?” Casey said, trying to sound casual.

“We’re leaving,” Martin muttered.

Clara gasped. “Oh goodness! Why?”

Martin’s dark brown eyes bore into her. “Why do you think? We were about to lose the farm. Then, after what happened to Dora…” He looked down.

“You still have family and friends here,” Casey offered.

“There’s nothing here but bad memories now,” Martin replied coldly. “It’s not safe. I suggest you and Clara leave, too.”

Martin’s tone took Casey aback. He merely said, “Best of luck.”

Clara looked to each of her cousins. “You girls take care of each other.”

The girls nodded and muttered that they would.

“We need to get a move on,” Martin grumbled. The car pulled away, leaving Clara and Casey in a cloud of dust.

Casey coughed and shook the dirt from his clothes.

“I think he’s right,” Clara whispered.


“We should leave. Lord knows when the dust’ll get us.”

“It won’t get us, Clara,” he said. He placed a hand on her shoulder to reassure her.

She shrugged it away. “You don’t know that, Casey. Dust is killing people. Nothing here makes sense.”


“You know what? I already have some folks out west.” She looked at the trail of dust that still hung in the air. “Well, I guess I’ll have a few more. We could move out there, too.”

Casey sighed. “People are having trouble finding jobs out there.”

“It’s better that we starve to death there than be killed here,” Clara whispered harshly.

After a few moments of silence, Casey noticed the church doors closing. “I’ll think about it. Now, we need to go.” He linked arms with his wife and walked to the church.

The old doors screeched when he opened them, and the parishioners inside snapped their heads back to leer. Casey sheepishly led Clara to a pew at the back of the dark church and sat down. Stuffy air filled the constable’s lungs. Even though it was late spring, the church’s windows were shut. I’d rather have dusty air than no air, Casey thought.

After a few songs and the passing of the collection plate, Brother Winthrop Jefferson walked to the pulpit. He opened his Bible and tapped his notes against the podium. As he spoke, Casey’s mind wandered. He’d never seen the church so empty. One way or another, the dust would make everyone leave town.

He wondered if he and Clara should be the next ones to go. She was right: the dust could get them at any time. He needed to protect his wife. What about the rest of the town, though? He was the only constable. Besides, he thought, Dry Springs was all he and Clara knew. How could they just move somewhere else? Before Casey could make a decision, the preacher’s booming voice shook him from his thoughts.

“These are wicked times,” Brother Jefferson said. “The Lord is punishing sinners. Just as He punished the wicked of Noah’s time with the flood, He’s now punishing the wicked of our world with drought. As it says in Deuteronomy, ‘The Lord shall make the rains of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed.’”

A woman in the church cried out as Brother Jefferson pushed his silvery white hair out of his face.

“The drought wasn’t enough punishment, oh no. The Lord is acting more directly now. The dust is everywhere: in our businesses and in our homes. ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ There is no escaping the scourge of God!”

A man yelled out, “What do we do?”

“I’ll tell you what you can do, brother,” the preacher replied, looking to the congregation. “The Bible tells us, ‘the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The only thing you can do is repent. Get on your knees and beg God for forgiveness.”

The church fell silent, and Brother Jefferson pulled a silver pocket watch out of the pocket of his trousers. He flicked the watch open and checked the time. “Well, that will be all for today. I hope to see all of you next week. God bless you all.” He stepped down from the pulpit and walked to the front doors of the church.

The parishioners slowly stood up, wide-eyed, and made their way toward the doors. Brother Jefferson shook their hands as they left. Casey and Clara remained seated, in no hurry to wait in line.

“Doctor, I’m surprised to see you,” Brother Jefferson said.

“Well,” Dr. Lindsey replied, “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to come.”

“I hope you come back next week.”

Casey looked toward the door. What was the doctor doing here? he wondered. The physician had never been to church in the whole time Casey had been alive. Did he know something about the dust?

The constable stood. “C’mon, Clara, we have to go.”

“Why are you in a hurry?” she asked standing.

“Dr. Lindsey’s here. I need to talk to him.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Well, let’s go.”

Casey grabbed Clara’s hand and pushed past the few remaining people in line.

“Why are y’all rushing off?” Brother Jefferson asked.

“Sorry, we’re in a hurry.” Casey called back.

They stepped into the blinding sunshine. Casey’s eyes adjusted, and he found Dr. Lindsey walking away from the church.

“Dr. Lindsey!” he yelled, running toward the man. He still held his wife’s hand. She struggled to keep up, keeping a hand on her light blue hat so it wouldn’t fly away.

The doctor stopped. “Good afternoon, Casey.” He turned to Clara and nodded. “Afternoon, Clara.”

“I never took you for a churchgoer,” Casey said between breaths.

Dr. Lindsey smiled sadly. “These are trying times.”

Casey leaned in close to the doctor and whispered, “Do you know something else about the dust?”

The older man looked to Clara. “Are you sure we should discuss this in front of your wife?”

“She knows what’s going on.”

Dr. Lindsey sighed. “I spoke with a colleague over in Colton. He said a similar thing is happening there.”

Clara’s jaw dropped. “But Colton’s on the other side of the state.”

The doctor nodded gravely.

“Well, what do we do?” Casey asked.

“Have you two thought about leaving?” Dr. Lindsey wondered. “You’re young. You could make a fresh start.”

Casey shrugged. “We talked about it. Clara already has some folks out west. Maybe with all those people moving out there, they could use a lawman. If not that, I can do something else. I’m not too good to get my hands dirty. I just don’t know, though.”

“What do you mean?” Dr. Lindsey asked.

“This town’s all Clara and I know. I for one am not too keen on leaving.”

Clara sighed but didn’t say anything.

“What about you, Doctor?” the constable asked.

“I’m too old to pick up stakes.”

“Nonsense,” Clara offered.

“You’re just being nice. I have a duty to this town. I can’t leave everyone without a doctor simply because I’m afraid.”

The three stood in silence for a few moments.

“Well, Doctor,” Clara said finally, “I think it’s time for us to go. My husband and I have some discussing to do.”

“I’m sure you do. Good luck, Casey. Good luck, Clara.”

“You, too,” Casey muttered.

Dr. Lindsey walked toward his office while the Robbinses headed toward their house.

“Why do you want to stay?” Clara snarled.

“Someone has to be the law here,” Casey replied. “And you heard what Dr. Lindsey said. If this stuff’s happening in Colton, what’s to stop it from heading out west, or even back east? There might not be a place on God’s green Earth that’s safe.”

They were just a few feet from their front door now, and Clara stopped in the yard. “I’m just so scared, Casey,” she whispered.

Casey lifted her chin so that he could look in her eyes. “I know you are, dear. When we got married, I promised to protect you, and I don’t break my promises. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” He kissed her forehead. “Now, I think it’s time to find something to eat,” he said and opened the door.


The next morning, Casey walked into the kitchen. The air was heavier than usual, humid.

Clara looked out the window. “Come look at this,” she said.

He walked over and peered out the window. A big, gunmetal gray storm cloud was moving in from the west. “It looks like rain, doesn’t it?” he said, amazed.

“Dear Lord, I hope so.”

He sat down at the table, and Clara handed him a bowl of oatmeal. She sat at the other end and slowly ate her breakfast.

“I’m thinking we might leave,” Casey said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah. After what the doctor said, the dust might get us anywhere, but we should at least have a fighting chance.”

Clara smiled slightly. “So, when are we leaving?”

“As soon as we can. I just want what’s left of the town to try to find someone new. I mean, big shoes to fill…”

Clara chuckled.

They finished their meals, and Casey stood up. “Well, time to make my rounds.”

Clara took his bowl. “Oh, I’ll go with you. I need to pick up a few things at the store.” She put down the bowl and took off her apron.

“All right.” He grabbed his hat off the rack by the door. Clara picked up her purse, and the couple left the house arm-in-arm. They were in the center of town within a few minutes.

The streets were busier than normal. Casey supposed people were trying to complete their errands before the rain came. Or maybe, he thought, they wanted to be out when the rain started so other people could tell them they weren’t crazy. Brother Winthrop Jefferson and his wife Louise greeted the Robbinses as they walked down the street.

“Why hello, Casey.”

The younger man nodded, and then tipped his hat at Mrs. Jefferson.

“Looks like it’s about to rain.”

“It certainly does, Brother Jefferson.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“It surely must be a gift from God.” Mrs. Winthrop offered.

“Must be,” Casey muttered.

“Well, we’ll leave you to your work.”

“Have a good day, Brother Jefferson.” He turned back to Mrs. Jefferson. “Ma’am.”

The two couples separated. A steady wind began to blow.

“What’s that?” Clara asked, pointing.

Casey saw an enormous black cloud, darker than a moonless sky, barreling down on Dry Springs. “It looks like a dust cloud,” he whispered.

“I-It could be a regular cloud,” his wife stammered.

The constable looked to the nearby storm, then back to the cloud of dust. “No. It’s moving against the wind.”

“What do we do?”

“Run!” he screamed. “Everyone run! There’s a dust storm!”

Lightning flashed ominously. People screamed and scurried in all directions.

“Get inside!” Casey yelled over the thunder.

A smaller dust cloud flew past Casey and caught Mrs. Jefferson. She screamed as the dust dried her out and left her a lifeless husk on the ground. The preacher stayed near his wife’s body. “Lord, take me, too!” he cried.

“If you don’t get inside, He will!” Clara snapped.

Brother Jefferson gasped and ran into Bell’s General Store.

More of the dust devils attacked people, killing them almost instantly. Casey and Clara looked at the wall of dust, which was almost at the town.

“What happens when it hits?” she asked.

“I don’t want to know.”

Thunder grew louder as more small dust clouds flew past the husband and wife. One traveled under the closed door of Mackey’s Funeral Parlor. Several people ran out the door, only to be struck by more dust.

“Maybe the buildings aren’t so safe after all,” Casey muttered.

A door screeched open. “Casey, Clara, get in here!” Dr. Lindsey said.

“Okay,” Casey said. He and Clara ran toward the doctor’s office. A small dust cloud swooped in and attacked the older man.

“Dr. Lindsey, no!” Casey screamed.

After a few moments, the doctor’s body fell in the doorway.

“Oh God,” the constable whispered and fell to his knees.

Clara tugged on his shirt. “Casey, we have a bigger problem right now.” She pointed to the east of town. The wall of dust was no more than twenty feet away. “We need to get inside.”

“I’m tired of running, Clara. I want you to go in, though.”

She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you out here to die.” She knelt beside him.

He put an arm around her. “I love you, Clara.”

“I love you, too, Casey.”

Thunder boomed loudly above them. Casey looked up. The gray storm clouds collided with the black mass. Something dark fell from the sky. He covered Clara’s head and tried to hide his own.

Rain fell on the couple, soaking their clothes. Casey cautiously looked up. Black mud covered him and his wife. Clara looked up a few moments later.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. What happened?”

“I-I don’t really know.”

He stood up, then helped his wife stand. The couple stood in the middle of the street, watching the mud fall from above. Townspeople slowly milled out of the buildings.

“I-Is it over?” Brother Jefferson asked.

“I have no idea,” Casey said, looking to the sky.

Kristina R. Mosley lives in Kensett, Arkansas, a tiny place no one has heard of. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Micro Horror, Fiction on the Web, Dangerous Dreams, We are Dust and Shadow, and Silent Scream. She recently published her novelette Strange Days on Amazon. She tweets too often at twitter.com/elstupacabra.

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Chainman by Dominique Collier

Jan 11 2015

The wind roared and howled and beat against the windows like an angry demon intent on entering. It nearly drowned out the crunch of tires on gravel as the beat up old Chevy approached the house, but Abigail had tuned her ears to hear it. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 2:39 am. Her whole body tensed. Downstairs the front door slammed and heavy boots clomped across the kitchen floor.

Next she heard the refrigerator door open and close. Coming home never meant an end to the drinking. She had learned this over thirteen years of marriage. She needed something to calm the anger that raged inside her like a savage beast.

Who was it this time? What woman did he give his night to, when he should have been home with his wife?

Under the mattress she found a bottle of vodka. Her hands shook as she unscrewed the cap and took a swig. Just one. And another. Just two, that’s it. The bottle was stashed in its original hiding spot.

Abigail glanced in the mirror across the room; saw the blue and purple blob that surrounded her swollen eye. Her split lip had puffed like the botched result of a bad Botox injection. She rolled over and pulled the covers over her head. She shut her eyes tight. Just let me die.

The bedroom door slammed open. Abigail’s anger turned to fear.

“Why didn’t you finish the dishes?” Tom hissed. “This place looks like a shit hole.” His words were slurred. He’d clearly downed more than a few drinks. Abigail remained quiet. “Answer me!” he screamed.

Tom grabbed Abigail by the wrist and twisted her arm violently. She howled as pain shot through her. He didn’t let go, but flung her off the bed. Her head slammed into the wall. Pinpoints of light dotted her vision.

“This place better be clean tomorrow,” Tom said. Then he left the room. Abigail crawled back into bed and cried herself to sleep.

In the morning Abigail found Tom passed out on the couch, a half empty beer bottle in hand. He hadn’t even taken his shoes off. Without waking him she tiptoed out of the house to start the never ending, grueling chores that the ranch demanded to survive.

The sun barely peaked its head over the brown hills on the horizon. Abigail turned and stared at the signpost at the foot of the drive. “Walking M Ranch,” it said. She frowned. A year ago Tom had inherited the ranch when his uncle died, and the couple had been obligated to leave their home in the city to take over its care. In the beginning Abigail had thought it could be a fresh start for their relationship. They tended the animals together and spent hours discussing the finances, the auctions they would take part in, and the livestock they would buy or sell. But Tom was bitter about having to leave the city. He was bitter that Abigail could not give him children. He hated the ranch and he hated her, and in a short time it became apparent.

Now, as on every other morning, Abigail was forced to do the chores alone while Tom slept. And as on many other mornings, she cried as she went about her tasks. While her practiced hands drew milk from Guri, her favorite goat, the trickle of tears became a torrent. She leaned her head into Guri’s flank and sobbed.

When the tears had dried, Abigail did not move for several minutes. Finally she stood, knocking over the half-filled bucket. She walked, almost floated, in a daze, toward the barn, her face as blank and unreadable as a rock wall. Inside the barn she collected all the chains she could find and hauled them to the loft.

For several days and nights she worked. She rarely stepped foot in the house. She hardly ate. She talked to herself and hummed and cackled.

“You’ll pay,” she said over and over. “You’ll pay for what you’ve done, what you’ve turned me into. You want a child? I’ll give you a child. One that comes from hell to haunt and terrorize you.”

By lamplight Abigail toiled. She put her sweat, tears, and blood into her work. By the fourth night she was ready. On a table in the loft lay a heap of chains, welded into the shape of a man. She pulled a knife from her belt and drew the blade determinedly across her palm, slicing deep into the skin. The wound wept scarlet tears. She let the seeping blood drip over the pile of chains. They began to rattle. She smeared her blood over the arms and hands, then the feet and the head. The chains convulsed violently. Abigail tore out her hair and tossed it over them. The man-shaped form began to rise. She gathered it in her arms and drew it against her own body. She willed her life force into the creature that she called Chainman.

“Take my life,” she said. “And then take his.”

Abigail laid the chain man on the table. It sat up and watched her lift the rope she had secured to the rafters above. At the other end of the rope, a noose had been tied. Abigail slipped it over her neck, pulled it tight, and stepped to the edge of the loft.

“Goodbye,” she said. Then she jumped.

Chainman leapt off the table and reached out, but he was too late. The woman who had given him life dangled below, her neck bent at an impossible angle.


Tom hurled an empty beer bottle across the kitchen. It smashed against the wall with a satisfying crash. If he drank a lot before Abigail’s death, now his drinking was out of control. He picked up his eighteenth bottle of the night and peeked out the window at the barn.

I oughta burn it down.

He hadn’t slept much since the night he’d found her body swinging from the rafters: blue, cold, frowning. Eerie noises kept him awake. A scratch at the window, the rattle of chains, something dragging across the floor. He kept his shotgun by the bed.

The sun had set long ago. Tom made his way wearily up the stairs to the bedroom where his wife had so recently slept. Images flooded his mind of her body at the other end of that rope. Judgment and wrath poured from her otherwise lifeless eyes. Tom shivered. He crawled into bed, drunk enough to pass out into a coma, yet he couldn’t sleep. He knew the noises would start soon.

Rata-tat-tat. Rata-tat-tat. He looked out the window but saw only darkness. He pulled the covers to his chin, his eyes wide.

Creeeaaakkk. It was the front door opening. Tom knew he had locked it.

Scratch, scratch. The sounds of chains dragging across the floor. They came from the hallway. Tom grabbed his shotgun and aimed it at the bedroom door.

The door slowly opened halfway. Tom fired the gun. Stillness. Then the door began to ease open the rest of the way. In the void stood a man made of chains. Tom squeezed the trigger again. A spark flashed as the bullet glanced off the chain man. It dragged itself toward the bed.

“Help!” Tom yelled. “Stay away from me!”

He swung the gun like a club at the figure. A chain wrapped around the shotgun and ripped it from Tom’s hands, then flung it across the room. Tom tried to back away, but a chain arm shot out and wrapped around his neck. It squeezed. Tom’s eyes bulged. He tried to shout but could make no sound. More chains encircled his body, pinning his arms to his sides and his legs together. The circles of chains tightened and constricted. Tom’s bones snapped. His tongue protruded from his mouth, engorged. Blood vessels popped in his eyes. Finally the chains loosened. Tom fell to the ground, dead.

Chainman left the house and went back into the fields, where he mourned the death of his creator and swore vengeance against humankind.


Seven-year-old Roman’s eyes opened wide. His jaw dropped.

“You’re lying, Nicky,” he said to his thirteen year old cousin, not believing his own words.

“No I’m not. The story’s true. We’ve seen evidence. Haven’t we Ella?”

Roman’s eleven-year-old cousin looked solemn. “He lives out in the fields. We see chain marks all over the ground out there. And we find dead chickens and cows. He eats them, or sucks their blood, or something.”

“He’s not a vampire Ella,” Nicky said.

“But he’s a monster,” she responded vehemently. “Everybody who’s lived on this ranch has either left because of him, or been killed.”

“D-d-d-does he kill kids too?” Roman asked, shaking.

“He kills kids,” Nicky answered. “Especially ones from the city. He hates city folk. And today is the anniversary of the day he was created. If he’s gonna come, it’ll be today.”

“I’m getting out of here.” Roman hurried down the dilapidated ladder from the barn loft to the ground. He sensed Nicky and Ella following him, seeming to enjoy his fear.

“Roman’s a scaredy cat,” Nicky whispered to his sister, just loud enough for Roman to hear.

Inside the house Roman peeked into various rooms.

“Where’s my mom?” he asked.

“She’s gone,” Nicky replied matter of factly. “She left with my parents to go into town. They’ll be gone all day.”

“Then who’s making those noises?” Roman asked with trepidation.

From outside came a din of clanking and rattling chains.

“It’s Chainman,” Ella whispered. “He’s coming. We need to hide!”

The three children tripped over each other running into the nearest bedroom. Nicky slammed the door and twisted the lock. They stared at it as they backed toward the far wall in a huddle.

Rata-tat-tat. The sound came from the window that looked on the fields behind the house. On the other side of a mere inch of glass hovered a mass of chains. It raised an arm and scraped it against the window. Roman squeezed his eyes shut and counted to three. When he opened them, Chainman was gone. A few seconds later he distinctly heard the front door creak open. Maybe it’s my mom. He knew it wasn’t.

The chains rattled and clinked as they advanced down the hall, toward the bedroom where the children cowered. Roman’s chin quivered.

“I-i-i-is it ok if I cry?” he asked his cousins shakily, tears already in his eyes.

Nicky’s confident grin was long gone. “It was true,” he whispered, eyes wide.

Bam! The door rattled as the creature slammed into the other side of it. Bam! Bam! Again and again. Each time the door shook. Then it began to splinter around the knob.

“Out the window,” Nicky shouted.

Ella scrambled to unlatch and lift the scratched pane of glass. As soon as she had raised it enough for them to fit through, she hefted her leg over and crawled out. Nicky followed. Roman remained in the corner of the room, frozen with fear. Nicky stuck his head back through the window.

“Come on!”

At last Roman bolted after his cousins. He tumbled through the opening and rolled onto the ground outside. As he pushed to a standing position the bedroom door crashed open.

“Hide in the barn,” Nicky said. The three children dashed toward the bulky structure. Nicky reached it first. He hauled open the barn door and rushed the other two inside before he pulled it shut behind him. Enormous bales of hay filled the ground level. Roman slunk behind a stack of them near the back of the barn.

With his nose pressed against the hay, its earthy smell nearly gagged him. His tears had dried but his body shook with terror. Roman didn’t know where his cousins had gone. He guessed they’d followed suit and hidden behind other bales of hay. He glanced around for an escape route. About ten feet from his position, the rickety ladder rose to the barn’s loft. His eyes traveled to the second story high above, dizzying him.

At that moment the barn door swung open. Daylight poured in. Roman was momentarily blinded. When his eyes adjusted he peeked around his hay bales. He hoped to find Nicky at the door. Instead he encountered the man of chains. It loomed in the doorway, giant, evil. Hot liquid streamed down Roman’s leg. The smell of urine filled his nostrils. Its pungency jolted his senses and startled him into motion.

The ladder sagged under Roman’s weight. Splinters jabbed his fingers and palms as he grasped the rungs. He ignored them and continued to climb as fast as he could. In his periphery Nicky and Ella climbed over bales of hay and slid between tall stacks of them. They were headed toward the barn door. Roman twisted his torso to see behind him. Chainman stood at the foot of the ladder.

He forced himself to keep moving. Chainman sped up the ladder behind him. Halfway up, one of the rungs shattered beneath Roman’s feet. He lost his grip as his feet crashed through the broken rung and he began to topple downward. His arms grasped empty air as he flailed for another grip on the ladder. Below him chain arms snaked upward toward his falling body. Finally his hand made contact with a rung and he wrapped his fingers around it. His arm nearly ripped from its socket as it caught the weight of his frame. His shoulder throbbed. He had fallen too far. One of the chains reached him and wrapped around his ankle. It clenched so tightly that Roman thought it would crush his bones. He kicked wildly, but the chains held on. Fear swallowed him and he shrieked. The ear-splitting sound seemed to be more than Chainman could bear. His arm released its grip on Roman’s ankle as he writhed in agony.

As soon as he was free, Roman scrambled the rest of the way up the ladder and hauled his scrawny body onto the floor of the loft. Without pausing to think he wrapped his arms around one of the bales of hay that littered the loft floor. It was too heavy for him to lift. He put his back against the far side of the bale and pushed with his legs. It inched toward the ladder, then gave way and tumbled over the side of the loft.

Crash. Roman heard it collide with the mass of chains, though the sound was muffled by the hammering of his own heart. There was no time to look and see if Chainman had been knocked to the ground. Besides, Roman didn’t dare peak over the loft’s edge. His head could be grabbed by chains and ripped from his body.

His eyes were drawn to the hole in the wall through which the late afternoon sunlight poured; sunlight that seemed to steel his nerves and banish the overwhelming fear that had possessed him.

Roman scurried to the hole and leaned out. He looked on the fields behind the barn. Far below, Nicky and Ella shielded their eyes from the harsh sun as they peered at him. Next to the barn under the hole sat yet another gigantic pile of hay. Behind him the ominous rattle of chains moved up the ladder once more. Roman hoisted his legs through the hole and stepped gingerly onto the ledge outside. The drop appeared impossibly long. When he looked down the barn seemed to sway beneath him and the ground swam. He took aim, squeezed his eyes shut, and leapt.

Pain shot through Roman’s back and legs as he landed hard on the solid bales of hay. He turned to look at the hole through which he’d just escaped. Chainman leaned through it, his chain arm grasping the air as if he’d been inches away from grabbing Roman mid-leap.

Ella squealed. Roman jumped to the ground and the children sprinted together through the fields. About a mile in a barbed wire fence threatened to impede their way. Nicky and Ella hurdled it like they’d done it a thousand times. Roman tried to do the same. As he clumsily leapt over the fence, one of the barbs caught his leg and sliced into his shin. Unable to right himself, he rolled on the ground. Blood smeared the dirt. Ella halted and returned to his side. She helped him up and they ran again. Roman’s lungs felt ready to burst by the time they finally came to a rest. All three leaned forward, hands on their knees, and fought for breath. A statuesque elm tree stood over them like a sentry. Though they peered hard in every direction, there was no sign of Chainman.

“Eeee!” Ella screamed. She stared at the ground behind the elm. The boys came to see what had frightened her. A wooden X made of sticks tied together by twine jutted from the dirt.

“This is where he’s buried,” she said. “Tom Avery!” Roman stared at her, agape. “This is where Chainman put his body after he’d killed him,” she continued.

“That’s it.” Nicky said with excitement. “They say the only way to kill Chainman is to prove to Abigail’s ghost that her husband is really dead. She wanders the fields of the ranch, looking for his body. If she sees it, supposedly she’ll call off Chainman.”

“Then we have to dig him up,” Roman said with a new authority. He’d never felt this brave before. “I’ll get the shovels. Wait here.”

As Roman crept back toward the barn where the shovels were stowed, he kept his eyes peeled and his ears tuned for any sign of Chainman. The place loomed as still and silent as a graveyard. He collected the tools they needed, then dashed into the house and back again before he hurried to the elm where his cousins waited.

For several hours the children dug, until the sun had snuggled into its berth and stars dotted the dark sky. They didn’t speak as they plunged their shovels into the hard earth and flung dirt to the side. Then Roman’s shovel hit something more solid than the packed dirt. The children doubled their efforts until they had unearthed a full skeletal body. Tattered clothes hung in rags from the bones. The skeleton face was forever set in an expression of utter horror. Worms crawled through its eye sockets and open mouth.

The children lifted the body carefully out of the hole and set it on the level ground.

“Now how do we call Abigail’s ghost?” Ella asked.

“I thought we might need some candles, for like, a séance or something,” Roman said. He produced the candles and the lighter he’d taken from the house. With the candles lit, an eerie glow pervaded the scene. The flames flickered and licked at the open sky as if they called out to any ethereal beings to come forward. They waited.

Before long the children heard sounds approach, but they weren’t the sounds they hoped for. The clatter and clink of chains reached their ears like news of the devil. From what direction it came, they could not tell. In an instant a chain arm reached out of the tall grass that surrounded the elm’s clearing. It grabbed Nicky around his chest and began to pull him backward.

Roman dove across the distance that separated him from Nicky to clasp his cousin’s ankles. Another chain arm wrapped around Nicky’s neck and began to squeeze. Nicky clawed at it but the grip did not loosen. He gasped for air. Then a female voice that was not Ella’s pierced the air.

“Is that Tom? Is he really dead?” the voice asked.

Nicky’s eyes bulged and he could no longer even gasp for air.

“Prove it. Cut his head off,” the ghostly voice demanded.

Roman released Nicky’s ankles and jumped to his feet. He wasn’t strong enough to pull Chainman off of Nicky, so he had only one other option to save his cousin’s life. He picked up a shovel and placed the blade against the neck of Tom’s skeleton. With one swift motion he threw all his weight onto the shovel. The skeleton’s head snapped off and rolled back into its grave.

“It is finished!” the voice shouted gleefully. “I am free.”

The chains that held Nicky it their vicelike grip fell to the ground, lifeless.


Back in his plush city bed, Roman had the indulgence of time to think about his experience with his cousins at Walking M Ranch. Nicky and Ella’s parents, Albine and Rory, had never learned the truth. The children had invented a story about a bully on one of the neighboring ranches, whose name they didn’t know, who had attacked the boys and caused the scrapes and bruises on their bodies. Nicky wore a turtleneck to hide the gruesome marks around his neck, and said he’d lost his voice from shouting at the bully to leave them alone.

The trio vowed never to tell anyone what had really happened. Nobody would believe them.

“They’d stick us in a loony bin,” Nicky stated.

Roman felt that he’d grown up in way. He had been brave in a situation like none his friends had ever faced. He had saved his cousin’s life. And he was no longer afraid of the boogey man.


Biography: Dominique Collier’s work has appeared in Roar and Thunder Magazine and The Lorelei Signal. Dominique has a degree in psychology and apart from writing, she works in the behavioral health field in Phoenix, Arizona

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Of Soil and Pine by Tyler Bourassa

Jan 04 2015

A cool breeze caressed Aedilas’ cheek and made him think longingly of the pitcher of water he had waiting for him in his cabin. He’d been cutting wood for what seemed like hours now and was covered in a sheen of sweat. Every three days he’d go out and chop up enough wood to last him for three days and nights. Then he’d pile the wood up on the side of his cabin, so that it would be easy to get if he needed it. He’d always done it this way, since back when his wife was still alive.

Whenever Aedilas thought of his wife, it awoke the pain inside. It had been ten years since she’d died, but the terrible ache was just as strong whenever he thought of her. She had been his best friend and constant companion for much of his life. Not counting the Dark Times, when war had ravaged the land, and men spent their days either fighting or fearing for their life. She hadn’t known him then.

It was getting harder to hold his axe steady and split the wood. Aedilas had a pain in his hands that seemed to be coming more often and his arms didn’t have the strength they once did. Aedilas was getting old, but didn’t consider himself an old man yet. His hair was more silver than it was black, but he still held his head up high when he walked and could fend for himself.

“Aedilas! How’s the stew today?” Varius yelled and waved, as his two dogs barked their own form of greeting.

“It’s good enough, but always tastes better when I’ve got some good conversation to go with it. How’s the real world doing?” Aedilas asked fondly. Varius was a hunter that would visit Aedilas whenever he was in the area. He’d bring Aedilas fresh meat and stories and Aedilas would offer up a spicy stew and brandy he distilled in his cellar. Both men thought they were getting the better end of the deal.

“Men fight, men die, and women keep birthing more. It’s the same as it’s always been. You’d know that yourself if you ever left this cabin of yours.” Varius gave each dog a pat on the head, then tossed them two bones. They curled up on the ground and started gnawing on them contently, and Varius helped stack the firewood against Aedilas’ cabin.

“What use do I have for other people? I have no family and the only woman I’ve ever loved is already in the next world. I’ll stay here with my trees and my brandy and live out the rest of my days,” Aedilas said.

Varius nodded. He spent most of his days alone with his hounds in the woods, so he couldn’t fault Aedilas for choosing a life of solitude. People would smile to your face and stab you in the back, but nature never did. If you respected nature and knew your place, then you’d get along just fine with each other.

“Well, let’s get inside. Night will be coming soon and the stew should be almost ready. I’ve got a fresh batch of brandy too. It’s a bit stronger then the last batch,” Aedilas said and grinned.

“Dear gods, I couldn’t see for two days after drinking the last stuff you made.”

Aedilas chuckled and opened his door. He stepped inside and Varius followed. “I guess you’re staying the night then?”

“I have no desire to try and wander these woods drunk and blind,” Varius replied and shooed one of his dogs outside when it tried to follow him into the cabin.

The cabin was warm from the fire and filled with the spicy aroma of stew. Varius was never able to figure out what it was that Aedilas put in his stew that made it taste so good and the old man wouldn’t tell him. It must be herbs that grew locally though, since Aedilas never went to town to buy anything.

Varius sat down at a table in the kitchen and Aedilas walked over to the pot of stew that was simmering over a fire. Aedilas picked up a long wooden spoon and dipped it into the stew, then brought it to his mouth. He tasted it and nodded in satisfaction.

“Stew’s ready,” Aedilas said and grabbed two large bowls to fill up with food.

Varius stood and opened up a cupboard, where he spotted a jar of brandy and two mugs. He grabbed the brandy and the mugs and set them down on the table. Aedilas had a bowl of stew for each of them and two spoons already sitting on the table.

Aedilas filled up the two mugs with brandy and raised his in a toast. “Here’s to you, Varius. Keep bringing me meat, to keep my belly full and I’ll keep giving you brandy, to keep your wits dull.”

Varius laughed and both men took a long pull from their mugs.

“You weren’t joking, this is potent.” Varius said and wiped a tear from his eye.

“When a man gets up in years like me, he needs strong drink to keep his bones warm at night. Where’s my meat anyway? I’m starting to get low.”

Varius smiled. “Give me a couple weeks of hunting and when I’m done I’ll stop by here and give you a share.”

Aedilas nodded. “Fair enough. Just don’t take too long, or you might find me starved to death.”

“If that’s the case, I’ll pour us each a mug of brandy and drink them both in your honour!” Varius declared.

Both men laughed and began to eat their stew. It was good and the brandy was strong and they stayed up long into the night retelling old stories that seemed to grow more outrageous with each telling. When Aedilas awoke in the morning, with a headache and a tender stomach, Varius was gone.


Three days later, Aedilas frowned at the dull ache in his hands. It was so bad he could barely keep a hold on his axe. He looked with dismay at the wood he had to cut and briefly thought about doing it another day.

“No,” Aedilas muttered. “I do this every three days, Liliana always said it was important to have lots of firewood.”

Aedilas swung the axe and struck the wood in front of him. He cried out in pain and dropped his axe as the force of the blow reverberated through his aching hands. “Gods, above!” Aedilas swore and gently rubbed his hands together.

His hands throbbed painfully, keeping time with his heart. Aedilas closed his eyes and breathed deep, trying to slow his pulse and accept the pain in his hands. If you could accept pain, then you could overcome it. He slowed his breathing and focused on the pain.

His hands became warm and the pain receded so quickly, that he almost lost his concentration. The warmth spread out from his hands, through his arms, shoulders and the rest of his body. Aches and pains that he’d lived with for so long, that he forgot they were there disappeared and he stood in surprise, feeling like a man half his age.

Aedilas grabbed his axe, and noted that he held it steady. He took aim at the wood and raised the axe up and brought it down. The wood split and Aedilas let out a gleeful chuckle. He didn’t think his old trick of accepting pain would work so well. He cut through the rest of the wood, and piled it neatly against his house.

“You’re much stronger than you were,” a feminine voice exclaimed.

Aedilas let out a scream and jumped into the air. He turned around and held his axe out in front of him, ready to attack the intruder on his land, woman or no. The strangest woman Aedilas had ever seen was standing in front of him. She was tall, about the same height as him, and had long green hair that was the same colour as the leaves on the trees. She was only wearing a white diaphanous dress, that barely concealed her dark brown skin.

“Who are you?” Aedilas finally asked, when his voice returned to him.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said and giggled. “I forgot you’ve never seen me! My name is Maelin.” Maelin twirled around in a circle, making her hair and dress fan out around her, before facing back to Aedilas.

Aedilas forgot his fear as he regarded Maelin. The old curiosity that burned inside him when he was young and didn’t know better flared up again. “I take it you’ve seen me before?”

Maelin nodded and smiled. “Do you like your gift?”

“What gift is that?”

Maelin slowly walked towards Aedilas, “You were broken. Someone had put out your Flame,” Maelin said and placed her hand on Aedilas’ chest. “I lit it again, I made you whole! Does that make you happy?”

Aedilas’ heart skipped a beat and he broke out in a cold sweat. “Dear gods, no. You broke the High King’s decree?”

“Do not worry, Aedilas,” Maelin said. “Your King has no power here.”

“His power is everywhere,” Aedilas whispered. He sat down roughly on the grass as his mind raced. “Why did you do this?”

Maelin sat down beside Aedilas and rested her head on his shoulder. “I promised Liliana I would look after you. She said that I must make sure you remember to put your shoes on the right feet when she is gone.”

Aedilas’ eyes widened in surprise. “You knew my wife? For how long?”

“We were friends for many years. I wanted to be your friend too, but Liliana thought that I’d make you think of a time better left forgotten. When she grew sick I wanted to fix her, but she would not let me.” Maelin frowned.

Tears fell from Aedilas’ eyes and wet the wispy beard he’d forgotten to shave. “I don’t suppose she would. My Liliana was a great believer in destiny.”

“Do not cry,” Maelin said and wiped the tears from Aedilas’ face with her finger tip. “I have seen Liliana. She is happy where she is and patiently waits for her love.”

“Can I see her?” Aedilas asked.

Maelin raised her chin haughtily and struck Aedilas on the nose with her finger. “Do not ask such things, Aedilas. You must wait until your turn to go there. That place is not for mortals, who still breathe and sleep.”

“My apologies,” Aedilas muttered.

Maelin’s smile returned and she stood up. “I must go. Enjoy your gift and be happy again!”

“Wait!” Aedilas exclaimed and jumped to his feet. “Will I see you again?”

“Of course,” Maelin replied and raised her hands to the sky.

An aura of light surrounded her and Aedilas could smell soil and pine. He closed his eyes and breathed the smell in deep. When he opened them again, Maelin was gone.


Over the next week Aedilas explored his ‘gift’ and revelled in the power it gave. Half forgotten words of magic returned to him and he made mundane tasks, like tending a garden, become exercises in Spellweaving. His spirit soared, as he recalled how to shape reality to his will, and life felt new again.

Maelin was as good as her word and returned everyday to watch him Spellweave. She would laugh and clap as Aedilas summoned hazy phantasms to dance for them. He even gave a mouth and eyes to an old tree, who spent the whole hour of the spell complaining about a family of squirrels that had made him their home.

One day, when the first week was over, Aedilas lay down on the grass surrounding Tonderan Lake. He had just spent the morning exploring the bottom of the lake in a bubble of air and was now relaxing in the sun and enjoying some of his brandy. A breeze smelling of wildflowers brushed his shoulder and he turned to see Maelin sitting beside him.

“Hello, Aedilas,” Maelin said and grinned mischievously.

“Hello, Maelin,” Aedilas replied and offered her his jug of brandy. “Would you like to try some?”

Maelin’s nose wrinkled up in disgust and she shook her head. “That smells terrible. How can you drink it?”

Aedilas smiled. “The smell and taste grow on you after a while. Truth be told, most men drink brandy for the way it makes you feel, not the flavour.”

“Nothing that foul could make you feel good, Aedilas. The sun above, and grass underfoot. A sheltering tree and a cool breeze. These are the things that should be cherished. Not smelly bog water,” Maelin declared.

“Those are all wonderful things. Yet, sometimes a man needs more in his life,” Aedilas said and took a drink from his jug. “May I ask you a question, Maelin?”

“Of course, Aedilas!” Maelin exclaimed and rested her head on Aedilas’ shoulder. “We are good friends now. You can ask me anything.”

Aedilas cleared his throat nervously, “What, uh? What exactly are you?”

Maelin’s head popped off Aedilas’ shoulder and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Aedilas! What kind of question is that?”

“Forgive me. It’s just, I know you aren’t human. Are you some type of forest creature that I never learned about?”

Maelin jumped up and turned away from Aedilas before crossing her arms. She turned her head back to him and said, “I am not a creature, Aedilas. I am a woman. Can you not see?”

Aedilas eyes widened, as Maelin’s dress became even more translucent. Suddenly her womanly curves were much more pronounced. She turned around and he could see her nipples standing upright and the hair of her sex, dark and inviting. Aedilas quickly turned away and flushed in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. Of course, you’re a woman. A beautiful woman.” Aedilas paused, and tried to calm his racing pulse. His eyes were drawn back to Maelin and he slowly ran them up the length of her body. Maelin preened under the attention, enjoying the touch of his gaze.

“Now do you see, Aedilas?” Maelin purred. “Do you wish to see more?” She shrugged her shoulders and her dress fell to the ground at her feet.

“Dear gods, I’m an old man. Why would you want to be with me?” Aedilas asked. He was trying unsuccessfully to keep his eyes on Maelin’s face.

“You make me happy and I make you happy,” Maelin said and pressed her lips to his.

Aedilas kissed her back and decided that there was no point in trying to argue with that.


Hours later, they lay in each other’s arms, dozing idly in the sun. Aedilas was still reeling from Maelin’s touch and silently debating if it was worth waking her up to reach for the jug of brandy laying just out of reach. After careful consideration, he decided that he could have brandy anytime, but doubted that he would have many more sun filled afternoons in the arms of a beautiful woman. Aedilas lay there feeling proud of his decision, when the familiar bark of two dogs jolted him upright, and woke Maelin.

“Gods, it’s Varius. Should you hide?” Aedilas asked in worry.

Maelin calmly stood up and stretched, arching her back and causing Aedilas to curse the luck that made Varius come by on this day. “Do not fear,” Maelin said and put on her dress. “I will go now. Men always get sleepy after lovemaking, anyway.”

Aedilas raised an eyebrow and briefly wondered how many men Maelin had been with. As he was pondering this, Maelin raised her arms and disappeared in a beam of light, leaving Aedilas with his thoughts and the scent of rain showers.

Varius’ two dogs started barking and ran towards Aedilas, as they spotted him near the lake. “Hello, Aedilas!” Varius called out.

Aedilas looked towards Varius and waved, remembering belatedly, that he was naked. Aedilas quickly dressed and said, “Hello.”

“A fine day for sunbathing,” Varius said and stifled a grin.

“Indeed it is,” Aedilas growled. “Now, let’s get all the jokes out right now. I don’t want to hear any comments from you about finding an old hermit, naked by the lake.”

Varius scratched one of his dogs behind its ear, and gave Aedilas a solemn look. “The way I see it, this is your land. If you want to walk around naked on it, then do it, by all means.” Varius paused and his face split into a grin, “I just ask that you keep your clothes on when we’re together. I wouldn’t want my poor hounds to confuse you for a piece of old jerky.”

Aedilas smiled and the two of them laughed as they made their way to Aedilas’ cabin. “Did you bring me any meat this time? Aedilas asked as they walked.

“I did. Some delicious venison and a bit of rabbit. It should last you sometime,” Varius replied. “I left it back at your cabin.”

Aedilas nodded. “That’s good. Thanks, Varius. I suppose you’re going to be wanting some of my famous brandy then?”

“I’d love some,” Varius said and gave Aedilas an appraising look. “I must admit. You look much better you did than the last time I saw you. You look years younger, truth be told. What’s your secret?”

Aedilas flushed and looked away. “I started exercising. I swim in the lake every day. It’s gotten my blood flowing again, and I feel like a young man again.”

“You look it,” Varius replied.

Aedilas smiled and they spent the rest of the walk speaking of trees, birds and things that men who spend most of their life in a forest like to talk about. When they arrived at the cabin, Varius took the meat he had brought and placed it in the shed to be salted and dried. They both went in the cabin and Varius grabbed a jug of brandy and sat at the table expectantly.

“I don’t smell anything cooking and your fire is out. Do you want some help preparing things?” Varius asked.

“Nonsense. Everything’s ready, just give me a moment. I need a bit of leyleaf to spice the stew, go outside and get some.” Aedilas knew that would keep Varius busy a while.

Varius grinned and stood up. “Now I know your secret ingredient! Aren’t you worried I won’t come back?”

“Bah. We both know you’re too lazy to cook for yourself. Now get out there and gather the herbs,” Aedilas growled and made shooing gestures at Varius.

Varius laughed and left the cabin, calling his two dogs to follow him as left.

“Gods above,” Aedilas muttered. He peaked outside to make sure Varius was gone, then shut the door. He stood over his stew pot and called on his magic, or ‘Flame’, as Maelin would say. It answered his call and he muttered words of power. The wood under his pot burst into flames and the ingredients he needed flew from their homes and into the pot. Within minutes, the stew was boiling.

The door swung open and Varius strode in, shaking his head. “You sly old devil. You sent me on a fool’s hunt for those herbs, so you could prepare the food without me watching. I should have known better.”

“Yes, you should have.” Aedilas tasted his stew and frowned. “It’ll be a while before the stew’s ready.”

“Well, the brandy’s fine,” Varius replied.

Aedilas grunted in response and sat down at the table. Varius passed him a mug and each man raised theirs to the other in salute.

“You’re staying here the night?” Aedilas asked.

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“As long as you’re gone in the morning. If you stay any longer, I’ll run out of brandy and I don’t think I’d like to spend too much time with you sober,” Aedilas said with a grin.

“I promise, you won’t see me when you wake!” Varius said and the two men started some serious drinking.


Aedilas woke with a pounding headache. He reached over to the table that sat near his bed and cursed as he knocked over the cup he left there, filled with water. He tried to call on his Flame, but his Spellweaving failed. Aedilas cursed again as he realized he’d have to get up and get some water the normal way. He was too sick to Spellweave.

Aedilas filled his cup and took a long drink of water before getting dressed and going through his morning ritual of washing his face and mouth. When he was finished, he stepped outside and squinted at the bright sun. He looked around and saw that Varius and his hounds were nowhere to be found. Aedilas could never understand how that man could drink so much and be awake and on the road so early.

The day promised to be a hot one, so Aedilas decided he’d head down to the lake for a swim. He walked slowly, enjoying the smell of the forest and the heat of the sun. Maelin would come and find him soon, she always did before too long. Aedilas made it all the way to the lake and still Maelin hadn’t appeared.

Aedilas decided to wade into the water a bit, and rolled up his pants over his knees so they wouldn’t get wet. He took his first step into the water and felt a breeze brush his cheek, smelling of honeysuckle. Aedilas turned and saw Maelin smiling at him.

“Hello, Aedilas,” Maelin said as she walked into the water and took Aedilas’ hands in hers.

Aedilas smiled and kissed Maelin’s hands in reply. She shivered with delight, then broke away from Aedilas and ran along the shore. Aedilas laughed and followed after her.

Maelin sat down on some grass and waited for Aedilas to catch up. When he did, she pouted and said, “I don’t like your friend. He smells like death, don’t let him come around anymore.”

“Of course he smells like death, he’s a hunter. It’s his job to get meat for myself and others back at town. He’s a good man, Maelin.” Aedilas said.

“I don’t think so.” Maelin opened her mouth to say more, but Aedilas silenced her with a kiss. It lasted long and Aedilas wanted it to last longer, but he felt Maelin stiffen in fear. Aedilas pulled back and turned his head to follow Maelin’s gaze.

Varius was standing a short distance away with an arrow knocked. His two hounds were growling and eyeing Maelin up like potential prey.

“Step away from it,” Varius commanded.

Aedilas placed himself between Varius and Maelin. Even though Varius had his bow, Aedilas was more concerned that Maelin would hurt him. She was obviously powerful and Varius was out of his depth.

Aedilas put his hands out towards Varius and said, “Put down your bow, old friend. This is Maelin, she’s a friend of mine and the reason why I look so much better. She’s reminded me that life is a gift and not a serious of chores. Sit with us and I’ll tell you about how we met.”

Maelin gripped Aedilas’ arm tightly and whispered in his ear, “He is not what you think. He means us both harm, Aedilas.”

Aedilas looked towards Maelin, taken aback by the fear in her voice. “He’s my friend.”

“That I am, Aedilas. Now step away from it and let me strike it down with my bow,” Varius yelled and his hounds started to circle Aedilas and Maelin, growling and snapping at the air.

Aedilas’ eyes grew dark, when he saw Maelin flinch away from the snarling dogs. He looked towards Varius and spoke in an old voice, the voice of a man he’d thought dead long ago. “Call off your hounds, Varius. Maelin is dear to me and I will suffer no harm to befall her. It is within my power to stop you, though I’d prefer it if you put down your bow willingly.”

Varius smiled. “I know of your power, Aedilas Shadowbane. You were the greatest of the High King’s Spellweavers. You were at his side in the Dark Times, fighting against the Shadowlings from the Sunless Realms. When the High King was hurt, you used the Staff of Daegelon to shut the portal and banish the Shadowlings forever.”

Unwelcome memories of that terrible day flooded Aedilas’ mind. His face turned ashen, as he remembered the sound of Shadowlings tearing a man apart. Many of his friends died that day, so the world could be free. The High King murdered the remaining Spellweavers and took away Aedilas power as a reward for their sacrifice.

“How can you know these things?” Aedilas asked quietly.

“The High King told me, of course,” Varius replied. “He bid me long ago, to keep watch over you and make sure you never regained your powers. Spellweavers are too dangerous to let live or roam free. It looks like that creature beside you returned your power somehow.”

“I am not a creature!” Maelin yelled and pointed a long finger at Varius. Maelin’s eyes were hard and her mouth was set in a grim line. “I am part of this forest, and your King has no power here!”

“His power is everywhere,” Varius said, echoing Aedilas’ words from days ago. Varius whistled and his hounds jumped on top of Aedilas, knocking him down.

Aedilas called on his Flame and a powerful wind came and knocked the two dogs off of him, and into a tree. He stood and turned towards Maelin when heard her scream. An arrow was sticking out of her chest and her eyes were shut. Light was streaming out of her wound with a growing intensity.

“What have you done, Varius?” Aedilas screamed. He ran towards Maelin, but before he could get to her, she exploded in a flash of light. The blast knocked Aedilas onto his back and left him blind for a few moments. As he rubbed at his eyes, struggling to see, he smelled the faint scent of fallen leaves.

Aedilas heard growling and stood, shaking his head as his vision returned. He looked to where Maelin had fallen and saw only dead grass in the shape of her body. Harsh growls from each side of him, alerted Aedilas to the threat of the dogs.

“Calm yourself, Aedilas,” Varius said. “The creature is gone and I am willing to let you back into the High King’s good graces. He spared you, all those years ago, for the service you did the realm. If you give up your power willingly, he’ll let you live out the rest of your days in your cabin.”

“The High King is generous,” Aedilas whispered. He felt the power of his Flame coursing through him in a raging torrent and let a little of it escape him and flow into the sky. The cloud’s darkened and the wind began to howl. “Yet, why should I need his permission to live in my own land?”

“He is the High King,” Varius replied and pulled an arrow from his quiver. The arrow glimmered with a crimson light, that spoke of power stored within. “This land and all others are his domain.”

“Not anymore,” Aedilas said and closed his hand into a fist. The two hounds yelped, then burst into flame. Within seconds they’d burned to ash and were blown away by the wind.

Varius loosed an arrow, and Aedilas shouted a word of command. The wind obeyed and blew the arrow into a tree, which began to burn from the arrow’s enchantment. Aedilas opened his hand, palm down, and lowered it. Varius felt his legs stop working and he fell onto his stomach and dropped his bow.

Aedilas slowly walked towards Varius, with a thoughtful look on his face. “When I first met the High King, I was a boy. Did he ever tell you that?” Aedilas asked.

“He didn’t,” Varius gasped. There was a force pressing him down, and making it hard to breath.

“He taught me all I know and would often look at me with pride as I eclipsed all the other students. Yet, sometimes I would see a strange look in his eyes. Something akin to fear, or maybe jealously.” Aedilas spoke a word of magic and Varius was raised into the air, with arms and legs stretched out to his sides.

“You must stop this,” Varius pleaded. “The High King checks in with me regularly. If I’m dead, he’ll know you have your power back and he’ll come for you!”

“I look forward to seeing him,” Aedilas said and pointed at Varius. Varius’ feet burst into flame and the fire slowly burned up his legs and body, scorching his flesh, even as his screams assaulted Aedilas’ ears. In moments it was over, and Varius was a charred husk laying in the grass.

“The High King has no power here,” Aedilas whispered and fell to his hands and knees. He bowed his head as his anger left him, and the old familiar ache returned to his heart. It was worse than ever, as memories of two dead women danced through his mind. Even the thought of facing the High King, and killing him for what he’d done, gave Aedilas no respite from his sorrow.

Despair threatened to overwhelm him. He shook his head angrily, picturing what Liliana would say if she saw him feeling sorry for himself. Aedilas stood up and turned towards the lake. When he did, he felt a breeze touch his cheek, smelling of soil and pine.


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Eden in the Sunken Hill by Emilio Minichiello

Dec 28 2014

The man stood on the steppe, his hand holding the rope that he used to lead his mule, and he stared out at a sunken hill. It looked as if a giant had come along and stepped on this bulge. It was nothing like the man had ever seen before. He considered continuing straight past, not bearing the odd sight any mind. He looked around himself, but was underwhelmed by the plain’s emptiness. There were no rules out here, no laws or regulations. Time was as worthless to the man as the coins that rattled in his pocket. He decided to investigate.

It took him many hours to approach this hill, and night fell during that time so he had to make camp out on the grass. He took some supplies down from the bags that were tied to his mule, and hammered into the ground a large wooden stake that was attached to the rope that kept his ass from running off. Along with the stake he gathered together some flint, steel and wood to start up a meager flame. Upon this flame he roasted the remains of a rabbit. He ate of the small animal, washing its burned entrails down with bitter ale, and stripped off his thin clothing. He laid it all aside and slept bare upon the grass and under the stars. It was a ritual of sorts for the man, as it made him feel pure and clean under the eye of God. Not that he was a pure or clean man—he was quite the opposite—but even so, he still enjoyed the endeavor.

In the morning the man wiped the dew from his body with a towel cloth, redressed, and led his mule towards the hill. It took him several more hours to reach it. When he did, he came to the realization that it was not actually a hill, but a manmade structure. Steel beams held together with small plates of mortared shiny metal stood at tilted, curved angles so to appear as if they were rounded edges, rising convexly upwards as a hill does. There was no roof attached to these beams, and so it appeared sunken, or stepped on. On top of these enormous beams were crenellations as one might see at the top of a medieval castle. From these parapets the man could feel foreign eyes tracing his slow movements. Occasionally he also noticed some form of movement between the crenellations and he became certain that some force was glaring down upon him, waiting for his arrival.

That arrival came quickly, as he approached the beams of the artificial structure. He came close enough to the peculiar steel to touch it, and looked up. He could see no person atop the connected beams, and yet he knew that they were there. He ran his hand against the cold metal, and then knocked on it, as one might do to a neighbor’s door. Of course there was no answer, and the man became determined now to find some sort of entrance. He had not come all this way off of his path—whatever that could be—to find an impenetrable, mysterious mass of metal jutting out of the flat, grassy landscape like a manmade tumor.

He circled the metal hill, tracing his fingertips along its smooth exterior. As he walked, his mule kept stalling, smashing its hooves against the metal, and braying incessantly. The man tugged against the rope. He had been having troubles with this mule as of late. He was a spiteful creature, and enjoyed seeing his master angered.

“C’mon!” Shouted the man, pulling at the rope with both hands. “C’mon now! Let’s go!”

The mule was having none of it. It shook and kicked at the dirt and at the metal walls. Every time it did so, a dreadful ringing noise emanated outwards and could probably heard for miles. The man did not want this to happen. The last thing he needed was a roving band of bandits running after that sound, and taking his things. He had passed many small camps of these types on his travels, and he was very much afraid of their presence.

“Stop it. Hey, what’s gotten into you?”

The mule’s eyes grew huge and ungainly. They rolled in their sockets. The mule could not stop shaking and screeching. As if it was being bothered by some unseen spirit. The man turned around, wondering what the mule was looking at, and came face to face with a lowly, bowed creature. He yelped in shock, and let go of the rope. The mule kicked and ran off. The man watched it go, a sinking feeling of dread coming upon him. Everything he owned lay on the back of that animal.

“Oh my,” said the creature in front of the man. “I didn’t mean to scare off your mule. I’m terribly sorry.”

“Yes,” replied the man, examining the mild burns upon his hands as a result of the rope being pulled out of his grip. “Well, nothing to be done about it now. He is a wild, spiteful animal. He may return, he may not. He is not the first ass I have owned.”

The creature clicked his tongue. The man looked at it. It was not actually a creature, but a very folded, elderly man. His back protruded upwards, giving him a hunched look. Little grey tufts of hair sprouted from his pate. He looked almost like a baby bird, first growing its down in puffs and flourishes. He wore a simple, grey cassock and sandals. The man wondered if he was a priest of some kind.

“I am Berkhoff,” said the old man, holding out a thin hand.

“Nice to meet you,” replied the other.

“What is your name?”

“It is of no consequence.”

“No consequence? Now that’s odd.”

The man shrugged. He did not wish to have this man call him by the same words as his dead wife and children had called him by. Nobody should have that privilege.

Berkhoff shrugged, “What has brought you this way? We haven’t had a visitor in ages. In fact, the last visitor was…Samuel. He is entering his fiftieth year soon, why he was our last new comer, back in the days before we had such high walls.”

“Why is it you have them? These high walls?”

“Bandits,” said Berkhoff, his expression grim. “A great many raids have taught us to be more wary in this open plain.”

“Where in the world did you find the materials?” said the man. “I mean, there must be thousands of tons of metalwork here. I have seen no quarries, no places to smelt so much metal.”

“We had purchased the beams individually from a faraway kingdom, long since destroyed. They thought us mad to settle out here, to build up our defenses like we have. Ah, but we were the ones who have outlasted them, and so we are the greater ones. However, it came at a great cost of supplies, and though many years have passed, we are still sending scouts out constantly. Some don’t return, and we heavily mourn their loss.”

The man nodded. He was in some ways suspicious of this Berkhoff. Where had he come from? He could see no perforation in the walls of the structure, and what was the purpose of something like this? Out in the middle of nowhere, without any natural resources or barriers.

“Would you like to come in?” asked Berkhoff, as if he was inviting him into his own home. “I see that you don’t have much supplies now to go out on your own.”

Yes, after you startled my mule I am very much without supplies, thought the man. Besides himself he smiled at the old crow. He was a bit hesitant to enter the domain of a stranger, especially with the way his animal had reacted, but he didn’t have much of a choice. If he stayed out in the open and his mule never returned to him he would simply dehydrate and die. There were no rivers or lakes for miles. Either that or he would be taken by bandits, and all he had on his person was his one knife. His two pistols and rifle were in bags on the mule. In retrospect this was probably not a good place to keep them. The man cursed his own stupidity.

“I would like that very much. But, where could we enter? There is only brazen metal here, without end.”

“There is always an entrance,” said Berkhoff. “Though they are sometimes hidden.”

He led the man around the wall a little while. The man could see his mule off in the distance, it had stopped, and was probably grazing. Suddenly the two of them stopped, and Burkhoff bent down to brush aside some grass and dirt. Under this revealed a wooden hatch. The man was astounded. How could he not have noticed something like this? Berkhoff lowered himself and lifted the hatch, revealing a ladder. He then shuffled into the hole, and stepped down the rungs with some swiftness. The man was surprised with the other’s agility. For such a crumpled and wrinkled creature, he could sure move quickly.

The man descended the ladder as well, and closed the hatch behind him as Berkhoff told him to do. With the hatch-door shut, the man felt horribly enclosed. His hands were sweaty and he felt somewhat dizzy. This anxiety lasted his whole journey down the ladder—which seemed to last many minutes—until his leather shoes touched solid ground. An oil lamp hung on the wall, illuminating a narrow corridor. Berkhoff took this lamp off of the wall and held it.

“Won’t you need that for the way back?” asked the man, breathing harshly. “I mean, what if somebody returning from their journey comes down here?”

“Ah,” said Berkhoff with a smile. “I only hold this lamp for you. The rest of us have navigated these passages so many times that we can do so without the aid of our eyes. Any scout returning would not need this lamp, even though it will be returned to this spot again later on. You must understand that we are a community of habits. We have traversed every inch of our camp thousands of times over our many years.”
The man nodded. The both of their bodies spread long shadows behind them as they walked down the corridor, which was plain and seemed to be dug through the dirt and held up by wooden support beams on either side. They arrived at a small door, which both men had to duck through to enter. Upon going through this door they arrived in another underground area where they had to walk up some stairs, where they came to another door. Entering this they finally came to ground level. They were standing in between two walls that encompassed the exterior of the structure. The outer one was the wall that the man had run his hands against. This inner wall was similar to the outer but with gaps in between, so that the two men could see the sun through them.

“This is our community,” said Berkhoff. “We will walk a little ways around, and come up and over the top of our enclosure. That is what we call our walls, the enclosure, and that is where we, the Keepers of Stories, live.”

The man was silent, and simply regarded the elder with a nod. They walked around, coming upon more stairs that took them to the top of the enclosure. High up here, the man could feel a fierce wind that was nonexistent down on the grassy steppe. He put a hand above his brow and could see his mule, still grazing in the distance.

The top of the enclosure had a thick walkway, upon which many men of different ages and sizes were mounted. They gazed out at the everlasting green or talked amongst themselves. Berkhoff nodded at a fellow dark-skinned man who was chewing on a piece of meat.

“Shall I give you the full tour sir? Do you think you would consider staying here?”

“There isn’t much else to consider, to be perfectly honest.”

“I know what you mean,” said Berkhoff, leading the man down the walkway. The others up there did not pay him any mind. “With the collapse of civilization comes few options to the man who stays by his own self.”

“Collapse of civilization? I wouldn’t go that far.”

“What else would you call it then? A coincidence? All the kingdoms of the known world have fallen in the span of fifty years and you think it too far gone to say it is a collapse? What would you label it then?”

“I don’t know,” said the man. They walked on in silence for a while. Berkhoff spoke briefly to another old man, dressed similarly.

“I will take you down, into our commune. You must relinquish your weapons though. There are women, children, sickly peoples. We cannot risk it.”

The man understood and handed over his knife. If he was in any real danger he probably would have been dead by now. He had seen so many horrors in his travels that to die now seemed unlikely. Berkhoff took his knife and handed it to the other man.

“If you choose not to stay with us your weapon shall be returned.”

The two men walked on, and Berkhoff lead him down a flight of swirled stairs until they reached the sunken part of the hill. Upon reaching the base of the stairs, they came upon what appeared to the man to be a village. There were huts and large buildings set up.

“This is where we live…most of us. The Keepers of the Stories at least. We live here and have a good community. There live the elders, such as I. We live in the Library. There are about a hundred of us. We keep the Stories in check, make sure they are kept in good status, and organize the knowledge of the past. Where are you from?”

The man did not answer, that was not a question he wished to acknowledge. What did it matter where he came from? He was here now, that was all that mattered. Maybe he would be here forever. He wasn’t sure yet. They walked on.

“Here we grow crops, and over there we store the animals. We have pigs, goats, cows, etc. The younger Keepers tend to these trivialities. The women are in charge of cooking, cleaning, and organizing. If they do well at these tasks they have the opportunity to become a Keeper of the Stories. That is rare however, and hasn’t happened in a long, long time.”

“Why are you all so obsessed with these stories?” asked the man as they passed by a small farm, where two young men were hoeing a field, sweat trickling down their unclothed backs. Berkhoff chuckled.

“What else do we have anymore?”

“Life,” said the man. “A community. Things to do. What do stories matter?”

“Stories are the only things that matter anymore. Come, I shall show you what I mean.”

The man and Berkhoff walked on, past the farms, deeper into the circle of the community. They ended up by a large fence and a gate.

“Before we tread further,” said Berkhoff. “I must ask you. Do you believe in God?”



Berkhoff took a key from the pocket of his cassock and unlocked the gate. They walked through and he locked it behind them. The sound of laughing and cheerful, childish shouting rang outwards, and the man became interested. What was going on that these people should be so happy? As they walked on, they began to decline down a slope, and came to another gate. There a boy was smoking a cigarette, and offered one to the man, who gently declined.

“You takin’ him in there?” asked the boy.

“Yes,” said Berkhoff. “Let us through.”

The boy shrugged and opened the gate. Ahead of them lay a garden, surrounded by thick trees and lush bushes. Flowers of all hues and design sprawled about the ground. Insects buzzed about, and the man recognized a fallen apple. The sound of laughing grew louder.

“What is this?” asked the man.

“Eden,” said Berkhoff. “At least, that is what these people believe it to be.”

As he said this, four beings came into view. They were enormously obese, pale, with limbs the size of boulders and faces squished and indistinguishable. They spoke no language and instead grunted or laughed. They crawled rather than walked along the flowery ground. Other Keepers were in sight, watering plants or trimming bushes.

The man watched in horror as two of these corpulent beings enmeshed themselves in each other. He could not tell what genders they were. They clung to each other and smiled. A few more of them joined this small group, and they all hooted at each other like monkeys.

“W-what is this? What in the w-world?” said the man.

“This is utopia.”

“What are they?”

“The happiest human beings who ever lived.”

Indeed they seemed to be. They were all naked, enormous, and quite clean beside their exposure to nature. The man watched as one of the beings extended a neck, and using only his mouth, grabbed at a flower. It chewed at this flower and ingested it. A smile of purest pleasure spread across its face.

The man turned and approached the gate. He felt sick to his stomach.

“Explain this!” shouted the man. “What horror is this?”

“No horror at all,” said Berkhoff. “Don’t you understand? These creatures are humans, and they are happy. We have engineered these plants that they eat to be the tastiest most delectable of foods possible. They are washed constantly and kept free of medical problems. They eat as much as they like, and are free to sin in any way. Violence occurs, and is encouraged, as our medicine heals them as though the violence had never occurred. Sex is free, and unlimited. They reproduce freely. They raise themselves and have been for many years. These are the freest of all beings who ever graced this land.”

“Free?” said the man. “These animals are not free! They cannot even stand on two legs. How can they be free when you are keeping them here, like pets?”

“They do as they please, that is the definition of freedom. They have no desire to stand on two legs. They are fully mobile on four and are more comfortable for it.”

“How many of them are there?”

“1,038 at the moment. Many of the mothers are pregnant now, and will deliver soon enough. We hope to reach 1,500 by next year.”

“Why? What is the point of this?”

Berkhoff drew closer to the man, and held him by the arms, “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see it? For centuries man has fought each other to the death for freedom, for eternal joy and ignorance! They have clung to religion, to politics, to drugs and alcohol. They fear the truth that they are brought into. I asked you before if you believed in God, and you answered negatively. So to you the truth is revealed, and you are worse for it. You may feel better about it, but in reality you are hindered. You can never truly enjoy this world. You can never be happy knowing that you will come to an end and will exist no more! This will haunt you forever.

“Now consider these creatures. The Adams and Eves of the future. They believe that they will never die. They have no names, no identities, no futures. They live only in the present. When one of them dies—which happens only in the case of natural causes or unpreventable genetic diseases—it is not noticed by the others. They think the creature asleep. They have no concept of death, despair, horror, anything of the sort. To them, this is it, beauty eternal.

“Now do you understand why we keep the stories? For us, the Keepers, we understand the truth. That on this earth everything is liquid, fluid, un-static. Everything is always in flow, always changing and dying and disappearing. But in the stories, the lore created by these people, there is never change. Everything stays the same. Dante always loves Beatrice and Odysseus always defeats Penelope’s suitors. In this world there is only the moment, the present moment where one can rejoice. So we have provided that moment for the lifetime of these people. These people who know nothing of human culture or destiny or life, and yet they are happier than us.”

The man shook his head, “No! It is inhuman! It is evil.”

“It is evil to be happy? Truly, eternally happy?”

“They are not even human. They are pigs. Happy pigs!”

“I’m sorry we can’t see eye to eye on this matter. Let me take you through the operation, so that you can better understand.”

Berkhoff led the man through the forest into a large building. Keepers were filling plates with foods of all kinds.

“We grow our food for New Adams and Eves, not for ourselves. We eat only the leftovers. We clean them every day, morning and night. We inject them with a special medicine that keeps away many diseases. Of course we can’t always keep them safe. Some disease always passes through somehow and lightens the herd. That is why the numbers are still so small.”

“You don’t teach them?”

“No, now what would be the point? Knowledge only leads to curiosity, and that leads only to unhappiness. We teach them nothing. They have everything cared for, everything that they need. In this way they need nothing more. They are void of all desires and curiosities.”

“I cannot stand for this!” said the man, “Surely one or two of them have some intellect. Some ability to speak or imagine?”

“No,” said Berkhoff with a smile. “You’d be surprised how complacent we humans become in the face of all earthly pleasures. Nothing soothes us more than knowing that we are truly free.”

The man beamed with rage. He plucked up a smaller, easy to hide, knife. He had not handed over this weapon, concealing it in his shoe. He took this weapon and held it in the air.

“This is horrible and inhumane!”

“They are happy sir!” shouted Berkhoff. “Are you happy? You with your mysterious past and surely destroyed home. Do you have a family? Do you have friends? Your life is nothing but ruin and the whole world is following your lead.”

“I refuse to believe it. Mankind is better than this!”

He held the knife out, as if he were to stab Berkhoff. The Keeper of Stories held his hands up, and the other Keepers in the building were now staring at them. Some of them spoke quietly to each other, and kept glancing over nervously. The man wondered if they might be calling some kind of guards or police. He lowered his weapon and ran out of the building.

In the forest he ran into one of the creatures. It barked at him and rolled around. He jumped at it and slit its throat. Blood slicked onto the ground and onto his hands. It made choking, gargling noises as it died. The other creatures made alarmed noises, and moved in uncertain ways. The man shouted, stabbed as many of them as he could, and ran. He could now see Keepers chasing after him. He flew through this forest, stamping on flowers and bountiful nature. He came finally to a small pond, where dozens of the New Adams and Eves were laying on top of each other and drinking from its waters. A gunshot rang out, and another. Behind him, the man was being chased by Berkhoff and the other Keepers.

He dodged to the left and saw one of the creature’s heads blown off by a stray bullet. Immediately the lazy pack of creatures screeched and rolled around. They had never seen such an act. They roared and cackled and screamed. They made such noises that the man had never heard before.

He arrived at the edge of the forest, where the fence lay. He hurriedly climbed it, losing his knife in the process. Two women were drying clothes nearby, and they screamed as they watched the man go. He ignored them and flew through the village. Several men tried to tackle him, but he was too quick for them. He dodged their attempts and reached the beginnings of the enclosure. He looked everywhere for an entry point, but found none. The sounds of running steps echoed behind him. He clamored and clawed, looking for someplace to hide.

Blood squirted from his shoulder, and a mountain of pain slammed against his body. A bullet pierced his chest, and then another. He fell crumpled onto the ground. He turned to look at his murderers, and sure enough it was Berkhoff holding the gun.

“Why do you want to end their happiness,” the old Keeper said. “Are you jealous of them?”

And in some ways he was. In some ways he wished he were one of those stinking beings, rolling and frolicking without a care. But he was not. He was a lowly man in a world that had crumbled to the ground. He was not happy, and he had not been in a long, long time. Here lay the key to everything that he had not had since childhood. Innocence and pure joy.

“In the world to come, there will only be two things: happiness, and death.”

A final shot rang out, and the man was dead. Berkhoff lowered his pistol, and held it at his side. He motioned to another Keeper, “Feed him to the creatures. They won’t know the difference.”

Emilio Minichiello is an emerging literary writer and novelist. His work has been published in Bewildering Stories, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and was an honorable mention in the Dupont Essay Competition. A native New Yorker, he is attending Macaulay Honors College at Queens College as an English major.

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A Lifelong Dream by Dylan Larson-Harsch

Dec 21 2014

A thin pinprick of light pierced the darkness. Hesitantly, it widened, forming a small circle of white. A voice came rushing into Grace’s hearing, but it was muffled, muted, as if passing through a layer of water.

The circle enlarged another inch, and the voice gained clarity, becoming a drumbeat, a pulsing repetition of some unknown word.

Grace opened her mouth to call out to the figure beyond her vision, but the moment she did, a cold liquid rushed down her throat, invading her lungs, stifling her breath. Grace fought desperately for air, arms clawing madly at the emptiness around her, but the invisible torrent continued.

Grace felt herself falling, descending into the sea of blackness, and with her last vestiges of strength, glanced up at the circle of white, steadily receding in her vision.

The circle shrank smaller and smaller, but before it could disappear completely, Grace was finally able to make out what the phantom voice was saying.

“Grace,” it called. “Grace!”


Suddenly, she awoke, tangled in her sheets, a familiar din invading her ears. She reached out to silence her alarm clock, but when doing so, found that the little black screen read 9:23, solid, unwavering, and unsympathetic.

Startled, Grace threw off her covers and dashed into the kitchen, where the stove clock confirmed her fears. Grace ran back into the bedroom, scanning around for clothes that would make her decently presentable. Something strange had happened, she concluded, and this something strange had caused her to be late for work.

Grace staggered out of her apartment, frantically fumbling with her keys to find the correct one to lock her door, dream forgotten.


When she arrived at her office building, Grace’s wristwatch read 9:48. She snuck a hurried glance at the sign stationed on the manicured lawn near the building’s entrance that read “GreenGro: Your source for Trusty Fertilizers”, hoping desperately that this small tribute would earn her remorse in the eyes of her workplace.

Grace rushed into the lobby and punched furiously at the call button of the elevator, which refused to light.

The man at the reception desk studied her quizzically, and then spoke up.

“Sorry ma’am, the elevator’s out on the weekends.”

Grace turned, confused and distraught. “Weekend? But today’s Monday.”

“No, I’m sorry,” the receptionist replied, “but today is in fact Saturday.”

Startled, Grace looked around her for some kind for confirmation of this absurdity, but found none. She opened her mouth to speak, but embarrassment forced the words back down her throat.

To dissipate the awkward stillness, Grace unnecessarily brushed a lock of hair from her face. Finding that this improved nothing, she stalked briskly out of the room, wishing never to see the receptionist again.


“Five days?” Stella’s squeal punctured through the coffee shop’s tranquility. “You slept for five days?”

“Yes, in fact I did, and somehow didn’t wake up even though my alarm was blaring away,” Grace said, and then added as an afterthought, “And quiet down. You’re ruining this place’s atmosphere.”

Stella heeded her friend’s advice. “Sorry,” she said in a subdued tone, “but I still can’t believe that. When I didn’t hear from you, I thought it was odd but…” her voice trailed off, but the flash of an idea brought her back again. “It has to be some kind of record!”

“I don’t really want people recording this,” Grace said. “I might not even have a job anymore.”

Stella swatted at her blonde curls in dismissal. “I’m sure they’ll understand. It was a freak accident! And besides,” she leaned forward and lowered her voice to an ominous timbre, “if not, you can always blame it on the chemical research and sue them for a million bucks.”

Grace matched her friend’s melodramatic posture. “And lose three million in legal fees!”

Both women retreated, laughing, and Grace sipped pensively at her drink.

“I guess I’ll have to see come Monday.”


Again taking a quick glance at the company sign, Grace strode to the GreenGro corporate offices with the confidence that it was a Monday morning and she was on time for work.

She waved hello to the receptionist, noticing thankfully that it was not the same man whom she accosted two days earlier. Grace hoped half-heartedly that this common gesture of kindness would serve as an appropriate apology for her previous behavior.

Instead of going to her desk on the seventh floor, Grace pushed the button for fourteen, the top tier of the building, where her boss presided. She waited impatiently for the elevator doors to close, wishing for solitude, but a man’s hand slipped through just before her safety was secured.

The doors reopened reluctantly, and Grace came to face Robert, one of her colleagues in Fertilizer Development.

“Grace,” he said, letting no emotion slip, “you’re back.”

Grace responded with a similarly ambiguous tone. “That I am.”

The elevator fell into silence. Grace fidgeted with her collar. Robert checked his watch.

Finally, Grace could bear the tension no longer. “Do I still have a job here?” she blurted.

Robert looked down at his feet, scanning his shoelaces for an appropriate answer. “I’m not sure,” he said. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Braxton. He was agitated by your absence, but never outright said he would fire you.”

The elevator announced its arrival at floor seven with a pleasant ding and Robert moved to exit.

“Thanks,” Grace said as Robert stepped out.

“Good luck!” he called back.


Fortunately, Mr. Braxton had no appointments scheduled for the morning, so Grace was admitted into his office with ease.

As Mr. Braxton’s secretary closed the door behind her, Grace surveyed the room of the Director of Research. There were photos on the wall of Braxton shaking hands with other, presumably important, men in front of sprawling plots of farmland. Also prominently displayed were photos of his wife and two children, which Grace suspected were Braxton’s consolations for his frequent absence from his family.

Braxton himself sat in a large leather chair that he had bought with the pessimistic knowledge that one day he would be very fat. Now, Braxton filled only a portion of the chair, which helped hide the slight protrusion of his gut and emerging jowls.

“Grace,” Braxton said, mimicking Robert’s emotionless tone. “You’re back.”

“That I am,” Grace replied feeling a slight sense of déjà vu, “but I have a very good reason for being gone.”

“I would like to hear this reason.” Braxton leaned back, exposing to Grace his thinning hairline.

“Somehow,” Grace took a deep breath. “Somehow, and I know this sounds like some far-fetched excuse, but hear me out. Somehow, I was asleep for five days.”

Braxton looked dubious.

“I know, it sounds false, but you have to believe me. Something happened when I fell asleep Sunday night, something that caused me not to wake up until Saturday morning.”

“That sounds very convenient, missing only the workweek,” Braxton said with suspicion.

Grace felt her chance at immunity sliding away. “Mr. Braxton I’m telling the truth!” she pleaded.

Braxton sighed. “You sound quite sincere, but I’m not convinced.” Grace opened her mouth to protest, but Braxton cut her off. “However, you are one of our most promising chemists, and personally you don’t seem like the kind of person to skip work. I don’t know whether you’re lying, but I don’t really care. You have your job, but this leave of absence has used up all your sick time and vacation days for this year.”

“Thank you so much!” Grace said in a burst of elation.

“Just know,” said Braxton as Grace turned to leave, “if you ever have even one minute not accounted for at this company, you’re gone.”

“I won’t let you down,” Grace said, leaving the office with a skip of joy.


Again, there was blackness. Grace turned and twisted, searching her amorphous surroundings for any traces of light, but found none.

“Grace!” a voice clear and powerful pierced through the dark and Grace noticed now that it was decidedly feminine, and vaguely familiar.

Grace began to open her mouth to respond to the call, but fear of the deluge stopped her.

“Grace!” the voice shouted again, and Grace yearned to reply, to indicate her presence and ask for answers, but memories of the past deluge held her back.

“Grace!” the voice called for a third time, and, unable to stand her silence any longer, Grace pried her lips apart, fighting resisting impulses. An icy finger slid down her throat, and Grace could only let out a small squeal before her mouth was completely filled.

Although she realized her initial plan was a mistake, Grace was still determined to find answers, and she used her arms to propel herself upwards, hoping that just by resisting she could fight this dream.

Suddenly, she saw it–a small white circle nestled in the corner of her vision. Grace changed her course, hoping, believing, that the light would give her salvation from the watery onslaught.

Grace felt her arms grow heavy and sluggish, as if she was swimming through a gelatinous slime. Her chest felt weighed down with some extra burden, and she speculated that the water had filled a significant portion of her lungs.

Again, the voice called to Grace and Grace knew she had heard it somewhere before, but the burning of her lungs snapped her attention back to her goal. Grace increased her efforts, calling on any strength she had left, feeling herself dip towards unconsciousness.

Grace refocused on her relentless swim, and the white spot was now within full view. It appeared to be a circle whose diameter was larger than Grace’s body, and as she drew closer, it illuminated her watery environs with dazzling light.

Grace felt that she was within reach of the circle, but as she lifted a leaden arm out to touch it, the circle began to recede from her reach. Panicked, Grace brought her arm in a wide arc, making a mad swipe at the glimmering light, putting the last vestiges of her strength into this final motion.

Grace’s arm stretched to an almost inhuman length, but the circle evaded her grasp, and she knew her chance was gone.

Defeated, Grace could only watch as her salvation disappeared from view, hearing her name called one final time before darkness covered her.


“The dream happened again?” Stella’s worried eyes searched Grace’s face for signs of sorrow. “Do you still have your job?”

Grace was caught off guard by this odd question, but then realized her friend’s implication. “No, luckily it was only a one-night deal this time. But it really shook me up. It was so … intense.”

Stella leaned in closer. “How so?”

“I don’t really want to go into the details,” Grace replied, looking away from her friend. “Sorry.”

“That’s perfectly alright,” Stella acquiesced, though it was clear she wanted to hear more.

“Thanks,” Grace said, staring down into her drink, still trying to avoid Stella’s gaze. Suddenly, Grace noticed with alarm that something was wrong with her fingers holding the coffee mug. They seemed to have taken on a translucency; through the fingers Grace could make out the blue swirls on the mug behind them. Puzzled, with a little worry creeping into the back of her mind, Grace held her fingers up to the light streaming from the coffee shop’s front windows, and found that the scenery behind passed right through them.

“Grace?” Stella inquired. “What are you doing?”

“My fingers,” Grace breathed. “They’re disappearing.”

Stella looked at Grace sharply. “What are you talking about? I see them just fine.”

“Oh.” Grace gave her friend a preoccupied look. “I guess it’s just me then.”


Rat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat. The keys of Grace’s computer clicked furiously to keep up with her hurried pace of typing. The rough draft of her report on a new polymer she had concocted was due at the end of the day, and Grace found this a suitable distraction to take her mind off her disappearing fingers.

Pausing her frenzied working, Grace looked down with concern at her hands resting on the keyboard. Below them she could see clearly all the letters and symbols her fingers were dancing over just moments ago. The translucency, verging on transparency, had made its way up to her wrists, and tendrils of clarity had begun to snake up her lower arms.

In the side of her vision, movement drew Grace’s eye. She turned from her computer, and then started back in fear. Translucency had invaded a corner of her office, and was eating its way outward into the room, creating a void that opened into the floor below.

Grace scrambled for her purse and collected her things in a cold efficiency, struggling to contain her panic. She strode briskly out of the office, paying no attention to onlookers who asked why she was leaving so early. Grace kept her lips set in a tight line, afraid that if she moved them she would scream. Something was wrong, Grace knew, and this something had invaded her dreams, and now her life. It was coming for her.


Throughout her commute home, clear spots plagued Grace’s vision. Sidewalks, buildings, lampposts, they all succumbed to the encroaching translucency. Streets revealed the dirt they had been built on; dirt vanished to show layers of rock deep in the earth.

Grace kept her hands clenched tight on the steering wheel, for now she could no longer see then at all. Her arms too, had disappeared.

Glancing furtively at her surroundings, Grace noticed that although they were disappearing as well no one else seemed to be conscious of their plight, oblivious to their impeding erasure. Grace set her eyes back on the road.

After arriving at her apartment and removing her footwear, Grace discovered that her feet had vanished as well. Stifling a scream that instead dribbled out in a small whimper, Grace decided that a drink would do her some good. When she reached her hand up to open the liquor cabinet, however, she felt nothing connect with the knob. Grace looked at the place her hand had been blankly, feeling her heart increase its pulse. Now, Grace realized, she was not just turning invisible, she was turning into nothingness, along with the rest of the world.

Grace sat down hard on the tiles of her kitchen floor, for she felt that her feet were no longer stable enough to support her. She leaned her head back against the base of a counter and finally allowed tears to stream down her cheeks. For the first time, Grace understood fully that she was going to die, and that she would have no idea why. She felt dim regrets and misgivings, but they were dwarfed by the numbness overtaking her being.

Grace closed her eyes, suddenly feeling very fatigued, and tried to muster some peace and relaxation in her last moments alive.


She was surrounded again by darkness.

“Grace!” the voice shouted again, and Grace came to the sudden realization that it belonged to Stella.

“Grace you need to focus!” Stella instructed, and Grace nodded in affirmation to her friend, feeling the rush of water around her, bringing back painful memories of her last dream.

A flash of brilliance caught the corner of Grace’s eye, and she turned to find that the white circle had appeared once more. It widened slowly, stretching out against its murky surroundings, heaving with intense effort to dissipate the blackness. Finally, it could expand no more and was forced to be content with the surrounding darkness.

“It’s up to you now!” Stella called. “You have to get out of this dream!”

Grace nodded in affirmation, wondering fleetingly if her friend could even see her gesture. She swam for the circle of white with strong decisive strokes, being careful to keep her lips tightly sealed against the threatening deluge.

After making sizeable progress, Grace noticed that her throat was beginning to burn. First it was an itch, then an irritation, now a fiery pain that scraped up and down her trachea.

As Grace drew closer, the circle grew larger and ever more brilliant in her view, and she quickened her pace, muscles crying out in protest of their oxygen-deprived states. The burning had now become a raging inferno that licked at the corners of Grace’s lips, trying to pry them open and search for air. Grace kept her eyes set on the circle, her salvation, trying to ignore the agony of her body. A pulse of red haze began to invade her vision, accompanied by a throbbing pain in her temple.

Grace maintained her course, fighting every urge in her body to open her mouth and inhale a massive lungful of water. Finally, after what seemed to Grace like hours of struggle, she reached the white circle.

Again, Grace reached out to touch the brilliant light shining before her.

Her fingers connected with the light, a cool, refreshing sensation washing over them. Grace felt herself being pulled closer and closer in, until finally she was enveloped in a brilliant embrace of white.


Grace awoke in a hospital bed to see people clustered above her clamoring to get a closer view, as if she were an exhibit in a zoo. Almost all of the strangers were wearing lab coats, and many carried clipboards. Among them, Grace spotted Stella’s face, which she latched onto it as a beacon of sanity amidst the confusion surrounding her.

“Where am I?” Grace asked meekly. “And who are these people?”

Stella responded to Grace’s inquiries by barking orders at the onlookers. “All right break it up! You can poke and prod her later, just give the girl some space.”

The throng retreated from the room and Grace smiled thankfully.

Stella turned her attention to Grace. “Sorry about them,” she said, then sighed like a parent having to explain a complex issue to a child. “Grace, you are … in the real world now.”


“Where you have been living for the past thirty-odd years, well only about six months in the real world, was in fact a dream, manufactured by this apparatus,” Stella motioned to the tangle of wires hanging over the bed where Grace now sat. “The operation was very complex; this was the longest time anyone had spent in the Dreamspace. The difficulty of the whole thing was getting you out of the dream before it expired. There’s a rule that the dream will only last until you reach your current age, then there’s nothing left to imagine and it just ends. There were complications, like our first attempt that lasted for five days instead of just one night, and the botched second attempt where we couldn’t keep the Gateway open long enough for you to cross it. You’re lucky you made it when you did, or your consciousness would have been trapped in dream purgatory.”

Grace furrowed her brow in worried consternation, mulling over the implications of what Stella had said. “So we’re not really friends? We don’t meet and have coffee?”

“We’re still friends,” Stella replied. “In fact, we designed this system together. It was our lifelong dream. I guess we get coffee sometimes. The Dreamspace is made up of your mind, so some things will hold true.”

Grace shook her head. “This just still doesn’t feel real,” she said with worry. “I still feel like I’m dreaming now. I just can’t believe that my entire life, everything I remember, was all a fabrication of my brain.”

The door of the small room opened, and a man stepped tentatively in.

“I was told I could see her now?” he asked Stella.

Grace was now even more confused. “Robert?”

“Grace!” he replied with elation and moved to embrace her, but Grace shied back.

“Her memory,” Stella began, but trailed off and let the phrase speak for itself.

“Grace,” Robert repeated with dejection. “Don’t you remember me? Your own husband?”

“Husband?” Grace echoed with abhorrence, for the possibility seemed so foreign to her, that she and Robert could ever have a relationship outside of their work life.

Another man entered the room, older and with the beginnings of obesity lining his body. “Is Grace ready for the doctors?” he asked impatiently. “They’re getting really antsy out there. Not to mention the news crews. Let’s move it along.”

Grace looked at him with wide eyes. “Mr. Braxton? You’re part of this too?”

Mr. Braxton glared at Stella and said with annoyance, “Is she not acclimated yet?”

“I’m sorry sir, but it’s been harder than we anticipated. Even the sight of Robert couldn’t bring her back.”

Robert let out a frustrated huff as he tried again to connect with his wife and was again rebuffed. Stella and Braxton paused in their conversation and looked over to Grace’s bed.

Grace had shrunk back in her hospital bed, head brushing against the cool metal wires. Her mind was slowly filling with panic at the thought of these people invading her life, her life that had been so perfect but now was ripped away. “No, no,” she mumbled frantically, shaking her head from side to side. “No, no, no, this can’t be happening!” She addressed her surroundings, “This has to be a dream! You’re all a dream! None of this is real!”

She jumped from the bed and darted past her three stunned onlookers, hospital gown swishing against her legs. “Take me back, take me back!” she screamed, fleeing into the next room, where all manner of medical professional jumped up to receive her. Grace pushed through their outstretched hands, desperate to get out of the horrid building and back to her life.

She had made it through the clot of doctors when Braxton stepped out of her room. “Stop her!” he commanded. “Don’t let her get any further!”

“Take me back, take me back,” Grace moaned as she sprinted down a hallway in a blind frenzy. At the end of the corridor, she saw a large, important-looking door that, in her head overloaded with new information, she reasoned could only lead to her old life. Grace increased her pace.

Grace had her hands wrapped around the metal handle when the bullet struck her. It ripped through her skull, carving a grizzly path straight into her brain.

Grace sank to the floor, hands limply falling from the handle of the door marked “Press Room.”

Behind her, Braxton clicked the handgun’s safety back into place and handed it back to the guard he had taken it from. “You never know when these things might come in handy,” he said.

Braxton turned to Robert and Stella, who were standing at his side, mouths hung open in mortification. “Not a word of this to anyone, right?” he said. Then, extending his voice for all the doctors to hear, “Not a word! The official story is she died before we could properly get her out of the dream. Got that? Not a word of any of this … business. Nothing.”


I am currently a student who loves to write. In my free time, I am an avid runner and enjoy tinkering on the keys of a piano. My favorite authors include John Steinbeck and Aldous Huxley.

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Through the eyes of another by C.J. Carter-Stephenson

Dec 14 2014

Sarah Timpson was a pretty girl of fifteen. Her friends called her Raven on account of her luxuriant black hair and melancholy dress sense. Heavy eyeliner, dark lipstick and gothic clothes were Raven’s weapons of choice in a war against fickle fashion. Yet, her appearance wasn’t the only thing that marked Raven out from other girls her age. Her parents had died in a car accident two years earlier, and as a result, she had an unhealthy fixation with death. Living now with her paternal grandparents in the Highgate area of London, she regularly sneaked into the restricted part of the famous local cemetery to sketch the majestic monuments or write poetry.

So it was that she came to be reclining against one of the cemetery’s many crumbling Celtic crosses one balmy evening in June, watching the sun set and chewing the end of her pen as she pondered the contents of her latest poem. Surrounded by trees, far from any of the main paths, she could almost have believed she was alone in the world. This would have unsettled some people, but not her. In Highgate Cemetery she could forget the harsh realities of life.

Removing her pen from her mouth, she scribbled down a few lines of verse, and then paused, allowing her eyes to wander over the nearby gravestones. It didn’t matter how often she came to the cemetery; its grandeur struck her every time. Her eyes widened in interest as they alighted on a dancing cherub fixed to the peaked roof of a nearby mausoleum. The statue, which appeared to be looking directly at her, was so realistic she could hardly believe it wasn’t a living child.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s rude to stare?” she asked with a wry smile. The statue looked back at her impassively, locked forever in its carved imitation of enjoyment. “Fine, ignore me,” Raven said softly. “Everybody else does.”

She shifted around, trying to get comfortable and went back to her poem, only to tut in irritation. For some reason, the words she was looking for seemed to elude her. They would come eventually, though. Writer’s block never lasted long for Raven, and was usually superseded by a period of extreme creativity.

As she continued to rack her brains for inspiration, a strange light-headed feeling began to creep over her. She shook her head to try and rid herself of the feeling, but to no avail.

Slumping over to the side, her gaze happened to fall once more on the stone cherub above the mausoleum. It seemed to leer at her with a new malevolence. She tried to tell herself it was just her imagination, but whatever was happening to her was making it increasingly difficult to concentrate. She could feel her head growing heavier and heavier, even as her sense of the world around her began to slip away. A moment later, her eyes slid shut and she lost consciousness.

* * *

At least, she presumed she had lost consciousness, though the dream she fell into seemed uncannily real. She was still in the confines of Highgate Cemetery, but in a completely different part – the sunken catacombs of the Circle of Lebanon. Night had fallen and the crypt doors were shrouded in darkness.

Feeling uneasy, Raven wanted suddenly to leave the cemetery. It came as something of a shock, therefore, when she found herself heading away from the nearest exit. She was given no time to ponder her body’s failure to respond to her commands, though, as at that moment, a stone came flying at her from out of nowhere, striking her squarely on the forehead. Her legs buckled under her and she collapsed to the floor. She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, and was just struggling to her feet when she saw three male figures in dark clothing step out of the shadows a little way ahead. She forced her eyes to focus on the three as they stood looking at her. Although their faces were barely visible, she could somehow see the malice in their eyes.

Laughing and whispering to each other in a way that chilled Raven to the bone, the men walked slowly forwards. Raven let out an involuntary yelp and backed away from them. Then, she turned and fled, aware from the pounding of footsteps on the gravel behind her that they were in hot pursuit. Her breathing grew heavier and she felt her heart thumping in her chest like a drum.

Hearing them gaining on her, Raven shot a glance over her shoulder. She was still well out of their reach, but for how long? Frantically seeking some means of escape, she headed off down a narrow turning to her left. She considered whether her best chance might be to hide in one of the crypts, but quickly dismissed this idea. Her pursuers were so close they would easily spot any such ploy.

Raven didn’t want to think about what would happen to her if she was caught, but was unable to shut out the terrible possibilities. Judging by the look on the men’s faces, she would be lucky if she made it through the night alive. She was interrupted in these grim thoughts by a boot slamming into her back. Her feet slid out from under her and she found herself tumbling forwards with her arms and legs flailing madly. Hitting the ground with a thud, she felt the air rushing out of her lungs. She tried to ignore the sensation and scramble to her feet, but was prevented from doing so by a booted foot pressing down on the middle of her back, pinning her to the floor. She struggled desperately, but couldn’t wiggle free.

The men stood over her, chuckling to themselves. There were a thousand obscenities she wanted to say to them, but she found that words were beyond her and all she could manage were inarticulate howls.

The man with the foot on her back pushed down painfully. She thrashed about, trying to shake him off, but it was no use. A second man crouched down beside her. “Aren’t you just the cutest little thing,” he whispered coldly, speaking the words directly into her ear, so she could feel his hot breath. The others sniggered.

Raven craned her neck round, to get a look at the one who had spoken. With his scruffy blond hair and smooth face, he looked about her own age. She was on the verge of appealing to whatever passed for his conscience, when he curled his lips into a cruel sneer and spat in her face. The hatred in his eyes was tangible. Raven wondered what she could possibly have done to warrant such animosity. Did these men hate the entire female sex or was it something personal? Either way, there was no point pleading for mercy, as it was plain she wouldn’t get it.

She lay on the ground in abject terror, waiting to see what her attackers would do next. Her breath came in short sharp bursts and she was trembling uncontrollably. Suddenly, she felt a searing pain in her left leg. The third man, who until that moment had been watching his companions from a distance, had stepped forward and was burning her with a lit cigarette. He held it against her thigh, seeming to take great delight in the smell of singed flesh. She felt the tears streaming down her cheeks.

At last, the cigarette was removed. Raven was about to utter a sigh of relief, when she found herself being lifted bodily into the air. She flung herself desperately from side to side, but the hands that held her were like iron and she couldn’t escape. Never in her life had she felt so powerless.

She was just asking herself what her attackers planned to do next, when they sent her flying through the air towards a nearby wall. She raised her arms in an attempt to shield her head, bracing herself for the impending impact. When it came, it was infinitely harder than expected. She slid to the floor in a paroxysm of agony and awareness slipped away.

* * *

Coming around covered in sweat, Raven sat bolt upright and shook her head groggily. The things she had just witnessed had been so vivid it was hard to believe they hadn’t really happened; so hard, in fact, that she began to wonder if it was possible she had been having some kind of psychic vision. Could it be there was a terrible crime taking place elsewhere in the cemetery at that very moment? The idea made her blood run cold and her immediate instinct was to run home as fast as she could. Then, she remembered the fear she had felt at the hands of her three attackers. There was no way she was going to abandon somebody in that kind of distress.

Before Raven knew what she was doing, she had pulled out her phone and was ringing her friend Liam. Liam’s house overlooked the cemetery, so she knew it wouldn’t take him long to reach her. It might have made more sense for her to call the police, but she knew how unlikely it was that her vision would be believed and she didn’t have time to stand around trying to convince people. She bit her lip as the phone rang. Finally, she heard Liam’s voice on the other end. “Hello,” he said.

Raven could have cried out in relief. “Liam, thank God,” she said with heartfelt sincerity. “Get over to Highgate Cemetery as fast as you can. I’ll meet you at the North Gate.”

“But…” Liam began.

“There’s no time for questions,” Raven told him. “Just do it.”

“Okay,” Liam said simply, hanging up the phone.

Raven made her way quickly through the tangled undergrowth towards the North Gate, steering clear of the Circle of Lebanon. Reaching the grassy clearing in front of the gate, she concealed herself in a nearby bush to wait for her friend.

Before long, she saw him climbing awkwardly over the wrought iron railings, being careful to avoid the barbed wire at the top. As he dropped to the ground, he looked to either side of him, whispering her name. Darting out of her hiding place, she ran to meet him.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked in a worried voice.

“Thanks for coming so quickly,” said Raven, her voice trembling. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time to explain why I called you – a life may depend on us acting quickly. I was sitting writing a poem…

“It’s kind of late for you to be up here on your own,” Liam interrupted.

“Are you going to listen to me?” Raven demanded.

Liam apologized and she continued, “As I was saying, I was sitting here minding my own business, when I started to feel faint. Next thing I knew I had passing out and seemed to see myself being attacked somewhere else in the cemetery.”

“And you were so freaked out by what you’d dreamt that when you woke up, you phoned me, so I could come and get you,” said Liam.

“No, that’s not it, and it wasn’t a dream,” Raven insisted. “It was something else.”

“What?” Liam asked.

“A vision, a premonition – I don’t know,” Raven floundered.

“So you think you were seeing through someone else’s eyes,” Liam said, “and this attack may still be going on?”

Raven nodded. “Hence the need to hurry,” she said. “Come on!”

She started across the plaza in the direction of the Circle of Lebanon. To her surprise, Liam did not follow her. “I don’t know, Raven,” he objected. “It sounds kind of far-fetched.”

“That’s because you didn’t see it!” Raven exclaimed, seizing him by the arm. “It was as real as this conversation. Anyway, we’re talking about somebody’s life. If there’s even a chance I’m right, I think it’s worth investigating.”

Liam didn’t look convinced, but allowed her to lead him up the path. They moved quickly and made as much noise as possible in the hope that the sound of their approach would scare the felons into flight.

The Egyptian Avenue, which leads to the Circle of Lebanon, loomed into view ahead of them and they raced through into the sunken catacombs. “It’s this way,” Raven said in a definite tone, leading her friend off to the right. They hurried past the silent crypts, scanning the shadows for any sign of the three men or their victim.

An owl hooted somewhere and Raven convulsively clutched Liam’s arm. They passed the place where her vision had begun and spotted a dark shape sprawled against one of the walls a little way ahead. At this distance, they couldn’t tell what it was, but it looked about the right size to be a handbag. Drawing nearer, they saw something that made them stop in their tracks. On the wall above it there was a long smear of fresh blood. Raven turned her head away in disgust. “I think we should get out of here,” Liam said. Raven shook her head. She wasn’t about to turn back now. Pulling him along behind her, she edged forwards.

When they were finally close enough to investigate, Raven couldn’t decide whether to breathe a sigh of relief or burst into tears. The thing on the ground was a dead cat. Apparently the vision she’d had was a projection of the things this poor animal had gone through and not the experiences of a person as she had assumed. She should have been thankful for this, but she wasn’t. Having shared in its fear and pain, she couldn’t help pitying it just as much as she would a fellow human being. She looked down at it with tears in her eyes. Its tabby fur was streaked with blood and the look on its face was one of sheer terror. She couldn’t understand how anyone could bring themselves to harm such a defenceless creature. Turning her back on it, she was about to start retracing her steps, when she heard a faint meow somewhere in the distance.

“What was that?” Liam asked, looking nervously around.

“It sounded like a cat,” Raven replied. “I’ll bet our three killers have found another victim and are torturing it to death even as we speak. Maybe this time we can stop them in their tracks. Come on.” Beckoning for Liam to follow her, she headed off along the path in the direction the meow had come from.

Liam laid a hand on her arm and twisted her around to face him. “Would you stop and think for a minute,” he pleaded. “Even if you’re right, confronting three guys whose idea of a good time is hanging around cemeteries killing cats sounds like a seriously bad idea.”

Pulling away from him, Raven pointed at the dead cat. “Look at it, Liam!” she exclaimed. “Look at what they did to it. If you think I’m going to skulk off home while it happens again, you’ve got another thing coming.” As if on cue, a second plaintive meow sounded in the distance.

Narrowing her eyes at Liam in a look of reproach, Raven swung sharply around and continued along the footpath. Liam followed, but it was obvious from his muttered complaints that he was less than happy about it.

After a while, they reached a junction. Raven was just asking herself whether she should take the right fork out of the Circle of Lebanon or continue ahead, when a meow to the right provided the answer. With a satisfied nod, she headed towards it.

The path deteriorated rapidly as they left the circle behind, but Raven refused to slow down. If reaching her destination in time meant stubbing her toe or being stung by a nettle, then so be it.

Several further meows guided the pair onwards past an assortment of broken statues and ivy-covered headstones, until they came to a mausoleum in the style of an ancient Greek temple. Here, a particularly loud repetition of the sound told them to leave the path. Without hesitation, Raven plunged through the long grass. It was then that she spotted a light. “It’s them,” she whispered.

As they drew nearer, it became apparent the light was coming from inside a dense copse. Hardly daring to breath, they crept to the edge of the tree line and peered through. The men they had come to find were sitting around a fire, sharing a can of beer and ogling the pages of a smutty magazine. A number of neglected gravestones rose out of the ground around them, together with a statue of the Archangel Michael, standing proudly on a squat pedestal in an intricately carved suit of armour. The statue appeared to be missing a sword, but was otherwise in a reasonable state of repair.

Raven stared at the three men in front of her, seeing again their earlier cruelty in the theatre of her mind. Then, she clenched her fists and strode towards them. She was vaguely aware of Liam asking her what she was doing in a hissing undertone, but she didn’t reply. She couldn’t tell him what she was doing, because she didn’t know. This time, he didn’t follow her.

Momentarily startled by Raven’s sudden emergence from the tangle of branches, the three men leapt to their feet to confront her. “Where the hell did you come from?” demanded one of them – a gaunt individual with close-cropped hair.

“I came from over there,” replied Raven, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb.

The man scratched his chin, apparently not entirely sure what to make of her. “Is that supposed to be funny?” he asked.

Raven eyed him coldly. “Of course it’s supposed to be funny,” she told him, “though I’m guessing from your lack of laughter that you and I have a different sense of humour. It’s the way of the world, I guess. Some of us like wordplay, others are more partial to tormenting small animals.”

The man gave a nod of understanding. “So that’s what this is about,” he said. “You saw us goofing around with that cat.” Raven glared at him, unable to believe the callousness of his tone.

“What’s the matter little girl? Is the nasty man upsetting you,” said one of the others, taking a sip of beer. This one was tall with ginger hair and freckles. “Serves you right for spying on us. The world hates a snoop.”

“The world hates murderers more,” Raven retorted.

The ginger-haired man took another swig of beer. “If I were you, I’d be more concerned about myself than some dead cat,” he remarked.

“Damn right,” said the first one. “You’re all alone in the middle of a deserted cemetery. Who knows what we might do to you?”

“She’s not alone,” said Liam, finally plucking up the courage to join his friend. He folded his arms and made a valiant attempt to look threatening.

“Uh-oh guys, it’s the big bad boyfriend,” said the ginger-haired man sarcastically. “I guess we should make a run for it.” He pretended to tremble in fear, and then laughed maliciously. “On second thoughts, let’s make him watch while we screw seven shades of shit out of his bitch.” Finishing the last of the beer, he tossed the empty can at Liam, who dodged awkwardly to the side, narrowly avoiding being hit.

Liam opened his mouth to speak, his face contorted with anger, but Raven beat him to it. “We don’t want any trouble,” she said, holding up her hands. “We just want the cat.”

“Don’t want any trouble?” repeated the third man – the fresh-faced youth who she’d considered appealing to for mercy in her vision. “You should have thought of that before.”

“Besides,” the gaunt man cut in, “as we’ve already established, the cat’s dead.”

“Cat number one’s dead,” Raven agreed. “I’m talking about cat number two.”

The men looked confused. “I hate to break this to you,” said the gaunt one, “but there is no cat number two.”

Raven gulped. Something in the man’s voice told her he was speaking the truth, which meant this whole confrontation was pointless. “But we heard it meowing…” she protested weakly.

“I don’t care what you heard,” the gaunt man grunted. “There is no cat number two.”

Raven licked her lips nervously, wondering what it was she and Liam had actually heard. She’d assumed it was a living cat, but was it possible it was the ghost of the dead one? Either way, it had led them into a proverbial hornet’s nest. Suddenly appreciating the danger of her situation, she took hold of Liam’s hand and backed away.

“Leaving so soon?” asked the ginger-haired man.

“I’m afraid so,” replied Raven, amazed at how calm she sounded. “I’ve just realized it’s past my bedtime.” Continuing to edge away from the three men, she felt her back press up against something cold and hard. She turned around and found herself looking at the statue of the Archangel Michael.

Suddenly, an icy wind began to blast towards her. It was no ordinary wind, though. In its blustering she seemed to hear a cacophony of whispered voices, like the restless souls of the cemetery speaking to her from beyond the grave. Much of what was said was muffled and indistinct, but one word came across time and again – “Revenge!”

“What’s going on?” asked Liam as the three cat killers were swept off their feet and came sliding across the ground towards them.

“Damned if I know,” said Raven, “but I suggest we move.” She darted to the side, pulling Liam along with her, just in time to avoid the whirling men.

The wind died away and the fallen men clambered to their feet in front of the statue of the Archangel Michael, looking confused. Raven watched them for a moment and then glanced at the sky. It seemed to be getting darker.

As she turned her attention back to the scene in front of her, something unbelievable happened. Flexing its stone muscles, the statue of the Archangel Michael stepped down from its pedestal. A fiery sword had appeared in its upraised hand and its eyes were pulsating with preternatural energy.

Raven supposed she should have been afraid, but she wasn’t, somehow sensing that the statue meant her no harm. Liam didn’t appear to be scared either, though his jaw was hanging open in disbelief. The cat killers, on the other hand, were cowering before the statue like terrified animals caught in the headlights of an approaching car. Even when it became apparent the statue was preparing to attack them, they didn’t move. It was as if they had fallen into some kind of trance.

Raven watched in horror as the statue’s blazing sword came arcing downwards. Whilst she despised the men for what they’d done, killing them was wrong. It wouldn’t bring their feline victim back to life. It would simply cause pain and anguish to their families.

The ginger-haired man was the first to feel the blade’s sting. As it touched him, his body burst into flames. The heat was so intense that Raven found herself being driven back from it, even as the sword continued on its downward trajectory, tearing through the man’s head and torso like a knife through butter and splitting him in two.

Jerking convulsively, the two halves of his body fell away from each other and thudded to the floor in a sea of flames. His skin had already burnt away entirely and the gristle beneath was bubbling ferociously, sending clouds of acrid smoke billowing up into the air. Soon, all that remained were two burnt-out slabs of putridness, which had lost so much of their shape and consistency they were barely recognizable as human remains. Then, there was only ash.

The flames died away and the statue turned its attention to the man with the youthful face. Raven could see the terror in his eyes, but he still didn’t move; not even when the statue’s terrible sword pierced his heart and he erupted into flames. Raven shuddered. The fire was insatiable, devouring flesh and bone with breathtaking speed, leaving nothing behind but a pile of cinders.

As soon as the fire went out, the statue lifted its sword to strike out at the remaining man, but this time Raven was ready. Placing herself directly in front of it, she grabbed hold of its arm with both hands. For a moment, it seemed uncertain what to do, then it slapped her across the face with the back of its free hand, sending her flying through the air into a nearby headstone.

By the time she’d picked herself up, the man she’d been trying to save had shared the fate of his companions. She cried out in frustration, but the statue seemed not to hear. Rising to its feet, it resumed its former position in the centre of the pedestal, its flaming sword vanishing.

Looking at it then, it would have been easy to dismiss its violent attack as a product of her own imagination, had it not been for the residual ash. Those pathetic remains confirmed that this was no mere statue. It was a bona fide angel of vengeance. Not to mention a vicious killer, and she was its unwitting accomplice, having brought its victims within its reach. No doubt the emotive vision and the sound of the second cat had been a deliberate tactic to lead her to do this. Such things must surely be in an angel’s power, or if not an angel’s, then the master it served. And what of that master? What of God Almighty? She had never really believed in Him before, but she believed in Him now; believed in Him and hated Him. This travesty of justice was His doing, just as the death of her parents had been His doing.

Banging her fists against the statue’s chest, she turned her eyes to heaven and cried out at the top of her voice, “If you’re listening, God, know this – I despise you. You’re supposed to be loving and forgiving, when really you’re cruel and unkind. I only wish you were here right now, so I could spit in your face.”

Feeling Liam touch her on the shoulder, Raven turned to face him, so she didn’t see the statue’s flaming sword reappear. Nor did she see it come sweeping down towards her.

Whatever its true origins might have been, the statue believed it was a genuine angel, and it would not tolerate blasphemy.

About the Author
C.J. Carter-Stephenson was born in 1977 in the county of Essex in the United Kingdom. He is currently flirting with careers in both acting and writing, while engaging in more mundane jobs to stay afloat on the turbulent sea of life. He has recently had a children’s science fiction novel and a collection of vampire stories published by Bonito Books. Full details of the former (a Children’s Literary Classics award winning title) can be found at the following dedicated website:
Details of the latter are available on his personal website, http://www.carter-stephenson.co.uk/.
Other publication credits include stories in the following magazines: AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Dark Horizons (the former journal of the British Fantasy Society), Murky Depths, The Willows, Hadrosaur Tales and Legend: Worlds of Possibility.

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Reload By J.M. Scott

Dec 07 2014

Reload wasn’t a typical superhero, but then again, what really defines typical in a world of satin capes and masks of infinite ruse. All he knew, or cared about, was that he was born Guthrie Goodheart and was raised by his parents in the great city of San Francisco. He and his two older sisters were foster children who lived in the Pacific Heights district. The Goodhearts were kind enough to adopt all three of them at a very young age, which meant his sisters were the only blood relatives he’d ever known.

He still thought about the foggy afternoon in Golden Gate Park when the three of them went for a stroll as they had done many times before. A disgusting man, whose morality was shaped by the stench of crystal meth, was known to terrorize the locals in the area. He caught Guthrie and his sisters off guard and held them in the shadows at gunpoint. Guthrie never knew what the man’s intentions were. He may have wanted money. He may have wanted unsolicited passion, but in the end, two bodies fell; their faces frozen with fear. Guthrie wanted to help them. He wanted to save them, but he was as powerless as a statue standing in an abandoned courtyard; its lifeless eyes seeing everything, the death, the gray, but its arms refusing to move.

Then, it was as if fate had favored the impossible. Guthrie saw the bullet that was meant for him turn inside the barrel of the gun before it launched within a shower of yellow sparks. The hot lead pierced his chest and rode alongside the apex of his beating heart. He should have been dead, but he wasn’t. As it turned out, the gun was a stolen artifact from a local collection. Its components were forged from a piece of raw metal that was struck by a thunderbolt wielded by the king of Mount Olympus, Zeus. The bullet lodged in Guthrie’s chest gave him agility, strength, and above all, the power to transform any available material into ammunition. Water, concrete, air; they all had different properties to serve his needs. Later, when Guthrie was an adult, he tracked down the firearm that had fired the life changing round. The gun did his bidding, reshaping itself into whatever Guthrie desired. If he needed a shotgun, the metal would transform upon command. If he needed a rifle, it would do the same. He had become someone different. He’d become the superhero Reload.

In short, he was a bad ass, and his powers were what led him to his fortune as a three gun tough guy on the professional circuit. There was only one problem. He lived in San Francisco. The city where he was raised would forever make him an outcast, never taking him into her loving arms. The concrete and steel gave birth to a liberal town that feared and hated firearms like a heard of sheep that couldn’t rest because the wolf just outside the gate salivated with ravenous intent. It didn’t matter how much good Reload did. It didn’t matter how many lives he saved. He was just a savage with a gun, and even though it was unlikely he would ever press palms with the mayor, he knew what he was doing was right.

Reload stood within his usual perch atop Coit Tower and watched the tourists funnel into Pier 39 with a pair of binoculars. The small windows didn’t give him the best view of the city, but he’d learned how to work around what he couldn’t see. He wasn’t wearing his trademark glasses and made sure to pay the five dollar fee to visit to the observation area as usual. He’d always felt there was no need reveal his alter ego if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Yes…it was best if he didn’t ruffle too many feathers especially since he was about to pull out a half smoked cigar and enjoy the rest of its flavor. He looked around carefully as if to minimize the guilt he felt over possibly disturbing any other city watchers. There was no one about, so he lit the damn thing and puffed away. If he had his druthers, he’d also be enjoying a fine red wine, possibly something local, or from the Napa Valley. He thought about how silly he’d look as a superhero if he sat cross legged at a quiet table sampling cheese while swirling a glass of the fine purple liquid. One of the reasons he’d taken up cigar smoking was to assert his masculinity to the general public. To give Reload the look of being a real man. In truth, Guthrie was far milder than he led on, but he didn’t mind playing up the part on occasion. It gave him a thrill.

Small wisps of smoke from the lit cigar glided past the eyes of curved glass. The apparition temporarily blocked his vigil, but he didn’t mind. He needed a break from the monotony anyway. Spying on the balletic menagerie of city new comers on a slow night was almost as interesting as watching the Weather Channel during a report of mild to low tepidity. Their activity was mostly sedate; it was the actual denizens of the city that caused most of the trouble.

He sighed and then looked down. A loose section of newspaper shifted around the base of his foot like a child tugging at a parent’s leg in a supermarket. Reload hadn’t read a printed copy of The San Francisco Chronicle in some time. If he wanted news, he generally got it online, but tonight he entertained himself by scanning the tender pages of offset colors and skillful text.

On the front page, there was a picture of The Golden Gate Bridge. The article seemed to be about a retrofit project, or at least, that’s what he gleaned from perusing the first line of each paragraph. As he read on, this time with more intent, it seemed that back in the mid 2000’s some of the rivets had been replaced with a new metal that was an experimental hybrid made from two other solids. Apparently, the local physicist who designed the element hid the samples in the bridge touting that the metal would lead to the downfall of mankind. The material was strong, light weight and easy to manufacture. It also had an unknown biological element.

Biological, Reload thought. That’s all we need is smart metal. This doesn’t bode well for the next country we plan to invade.

But as for the downfall of mankind, “We’re already there,” Reload murmured. “We’re already there.”

He finished the article noting the way in which physicist’s hard drive had been decrypted by a family member eager to capitalize on the fortune that might come from the excavation of the new material.

It wasn’t long before Reload grew bored and sent the folds of sheen soaring into the night like a misguided bird seeking an undecided respite of hardened stone. He raised his binoculars and gave the bridge a quick scan. The fog was rolling in which always gave him a slight sense of anxiety. He had to be able to see his target if his skills were to be effective.

“San Francisco just loves me,” he jibed sardonically as he scanned the street below.

He noticed a passing police car. The block numbers on the top read B-37. It was officer Jillian Granger. She was a formidable shooter, winning multiple competitions within the USPSA circuit. He’d watched her technique from afar during Nationals. She was impressive, but what he liked most was the way her blonde ponytail bounced like a schoolgirl jumping rope. He liked the pink lenses of her eye protection; hell, when he really thought about it, he just liked her. She walked by him a few times during a competition and he remembered the soft caress of her perfume. It was a distant sensation, not something he usually took note of amongst the usual scent of gun powder and sweat.

Then, Jillian’s radio sparked with intermittent bursts of static. Reload tried to make sense of the conversation, but the wind kept the conversation distant. He thought he heard the words Emergency and Golden Gate Bridge. Jillian jumped in her cruiser and sped away. It was all the incentive he needed to make an inquiry. If Jillian was going to be there then so would he.

Reload bounded down several sets of stairs and spit out of the building’s exit like a man running from a fire. He straddled his black motorcycle and sped down Lombard street to Mason and then onto Chestnut. Soon, he’d reach Highway 1 before he was on to the bridge. He’d have to don his shooting glasses before he reached his destination. They were large with a shiny black face which kept his identity obscured as well as helping him to see in the dark. The glasses had been designed for him, when he masqueraded the competitive shooter Guthrie Goodheart, by Titan Technologies. Reload could make the shadows visible and be fed ballistic information through a micro-computer screen embedded within the thin layers of the optical device. A sensor tracked the movement of his retina, and when he gave the voice command “distance” an amber box adjusted to the object of of which he was focused. Then, a series of red numbers scrolled down the side of the display helping him to consider the overall effectiveness of the shot he was going to take. Calculations including gyroscopic drift, ambient air density and even the Coriolis effect helped him decide if he was able to make an effective hit.

The technology was great, but he was more concerned with utilizing its magnification properties to keep an eye on Jillian. He’d find her once he was closer to the bridge and make sure she stayed safe.

“Normal,” Reload snapped. The led technology within his view faded just in time for him to see the semi-truck in front of him begin to swerve. In a heartbeat, the 75,000 pound behemoth veered right and clipped the rear of a Prius one lane over. The battery operated piece of junk spun out of control. The driver’s screams, dulled by his confinement, were visible but mute.

Reload listed to his right and gently touched the asphalt with his fingertips. There was a golden shower of sparks and a vibrant light that took the shape of bullets. He reoriented the motorcycle, drew his gun from a leather shoulder holster and slapped the glowing projectiles onto the shimmering metal of the slide. The bullets disappeared indicating that Reload could take his shot. He aimed at the truck’s left rear tire and fired one round. The energy beam landed spang on target. Torn sections of rubber cascaded into the air like they had been ripped from the wheel by a grizzly bear. The truck limped to a stop; the cars behind it reduced speed until the vein of asphalt and its life giving platelets of metal and rubber came to a halt. A man in a minivan jumped from the driver side and ran to aid the truck driver. Reload noticed a series of white stick figures adorning the rear window of the man’s vehicle representing the number and unity of his family.

“People are so stupid,” he muttered. “I don’t need to know how many mistakes you’ve made.”

He reactivated his glasses. He’d lost precious time stopping the truck, and hoped he hadn’t missed any action on the bridge.

The man from the minivan opened the door to the truck’s cab and after a few moments of close examination he yelled his findings to the crowd.

“Does anybody have medical training? I thing the driver had a heart attack.”

A bystander raised his hand and made his way through the multitude.

“Good,” Reload said. “Now that that’s taken care of…”

His thoughts were interrupted by a man standing near the rear of the pack. He was wearing an expensive suit, obviously a denizen of the city who most likely worked in the financial district.

He pointed at Reload.

“It’s that gun guy. It’s that gun guy,” he yelled. “This is your fault. Guns kill people. It’s idiots like you…”

Before he could finish, Reload returned the favor of interruption. He clutched a handful of air, and just like before, glowing bullets appeared. He loaded his gun with the soft elemental rounds, aimed at the man and fired. The sudden burst knocked the loudmouth off his feet. It wasn’t the push as much as it was the report from Reload’s gun that caused him to pee his pants.

“Screw you,” Reload said and with a two finger salute, he started his motorcycle and headed toward the bridge.

Before long, he was upon his destination, notwithstanding his little detour. It was then that he heard the first shots fired. He saw a giant barge under the bridge with several flexible ropes and ladders connecting the two. Armed men were ascending into the thick fog that had rolled onto the bridge like rush hour traffic.

“Damn,” Reload said. He put his glasses in magnification mode and searched for Jillian, but the folds of billowy grey and white had consumed her. “This will help me get in, but I might only have about 25 yards of effective target indexing.”

He rode his motorcycle as close to the bridge as he could without being detected and then slipped past the police blockade using the fog as cover. He heard a few more shots fired but noticed there was no indication of an impact.

SWAT is using blanks as a warning again, he thought. They must be trying to keep the assailants on the bridge.

Reload drew his gun and searched from side to side. He ran his hand along the hard steel of the bridge and drew several steel bullets from the structure.

“Reload,” he whispered.

Then, he heard voices ahead of him. Someone was whimpering. Reload drew closer, actively hunting for a target. Two men with assault rifles breached the fog and closed the distance. Reload’s head led the way and as it snapped from side to side he pulled the trigger. One… Two…, he counted. Each man’s head jerked back as if their foreheads had met a wall of stone. They folded. They were dead.

Reload scanned the area for the next bad guy. He moved closer to the distant whimper. Then, as if a wave of water receded over her body, the fog revealed someone familiar. It was Jillian and she was being held at gunpoint, the hardened steel tip of a handgun was pressed against her temple.

“Jillian?” Reload asked as if he had to verify the nightmare.

Her cheeks were blush. She’d been crying and from the looks of her right eye, someone had struck her.

How the hell did she get out here without backup?

In his distraction, Reload didn’t notice a man in a swanky business suit enter the scene on his right.

“Guthrie,” the man called out, his greeting out of place given the circumstances. “Nice to finally meet you.”

Reload was slightly taken aback. He’d never been addressed by his real name while he was in masquerade.

The man could tell Reload was understandably vexed. He offered his understanding.

“Come on Guthrie or Reload…” He said rolling his eyes. “With today’s technology and information acquisition, do you really think a superhero can hide their identity from a man like me with the means to get what he wants?” He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together as an indication of his stature.

“Marcus Tibbs. Now I recognize you. You’re all over the city’s park benches…”

“And billboards,” Marcus inserted. He smiled the same way he did in his advertisements. “We’re a company that’s here for the environment. We’re a company that’s here for you.” He pointed to Reload. “Sound familiar?”
“It must be an interesting existence having your face so close to that many asses.”

“Nice,” Tibbs countered. “But your observation is not invasive enough to save your friend here.” He waved his hand and the man holding a gun to Jillian’s head backed away.

Reload thought his chance had come. He considered putting one round right through forehead of Marcus Tibbs. But then he said something. Something extremely disenchanting.

“Your glasses can do a lot of things, but they can’t go thermal… not yet anyway.”

Reload thought about the advantage of having thermal imaging, especially when he was shooting into the fog. The benefit would be without measure in San Francisco.

“I contacted Titan Technologies during the inception of this little event, and they were able to quell some of my concerns with a new product.”

Reload followed the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge into the recesses of the fog.

“That’s right. I have shooters up there that can take out you and officer Granger here quite easily. They can see your thermal signatures.”

“Screw him Reload. Shoot him. Shoot him,” Jillian demanded. She started to cry.

Reload hesitated. He knew there was a deal to be made. If not, he and Jillian wouldn’t still be alive.

“What do you want, Tibbs?” Reload asked.

“What do I want? What do I want?” Tibbs said pacing. “Why you of course.”

Reload didn’t understand what part he could possibly play in a terrorist attack on the bridge.

“I’ll elaborate,” Tibbs added. “I’m into oil.”

“No kidding,” Reload said.

“Do you want me to finish, or have your girlfriend shot?”

Reload bowed his head and bit his lower lip. He could take a shot at Tibbs and kill him without much effort, but he had to think about Jillian. If she got hurt, he didn’t know how he’d survive the pain.

“There is a new metal stored within the rivets of this bridge. Specifically, it’s a hybrid of sorts. At an elemental level, we still don’t know the entirety of its properties.”

“You’re an oil guy,” Reload said. “What the hell does this have to do with you?”

Tibbs pointed his index finger at his own temple. “You’re thinking. I like that.” He paced for a moment and stared up at the canopy of fog.

“Each of my rigs weighs about 40,000 tons. They are modern marvels but are bulky and damn near impossible to move. If they can be made lighter and stronger, I can put more into production faster. We’re talking about billions of dollars a year, and it’s all at my fingertips.” Tibbs ran his hand across one of the off color metal rivets.

“And that’s why I need you.”

Reload crossed his arms.

“Hands away from your gun,” Tibbs ordered.

Frustrated, Reload huffed and then raised his hands over his head.

Tibbs grinned with half his face. “You are going to extract the metal for me.”

“What? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

A shot rang out from above, the bullet’s trajectory placed it just over Jillian’s head. She winced, but didn’t run.

Tibbs waved his hand, and two of his henchmen pushed a large storage container from behind the wall of fog. The box had four clear sides.

“You have a gift, Reload. I’ve seen what you can do. We’d extract the element without you, but our initial results have been less that successful. I’ll need you to pull the metal from the bridge and put it in the container.”

“You’re stealing metal,” Reload said as if he didn’t believe he was involved in such a ludicrous activity.

“Yes, I’m stealing metal, so let’s begin.”

Reload looked at Jillian. She appeared to be defeated. Her countenance said that she didn’t want to die.

“And, I’ll need you to remove your firearm and place it on the ground,” Tibbs said.

Reload complied. It wasn’t as if he didn’t expect the demand. He removed his weapon and placed it on the ground in front of him. Begrudgingly, he made his way to the first rivet. He placed his palm over the metal. There was a bright glow, and then Reload had his first handful of the new element. He kept it soft, the temperature allowed it to be poured from his palm into the container.

Tibbs kept watch until Reload had extracted all the metal. The container was almost full, the yellow liquid swayed from side to side as the bridge flexed and bowed.

“What the hell is that smell?” Tibbs asked under his breath.

Reload remembered what he’d read in the newspaper about a biological element being a part of the new metal. It was probably producing waste of some kind.

“Tibbs has no idea what this stuff is or what can do,” Reload mumbled as he continued to work.

Before long the job was done. There wasn’t enough metal extracted from the superstructure to cause much damage, so Reload was confident the landmark would remain intact. He watched as Tibbs and his men prepared to seal the container when he noticed something odd about Jillian. She was being held against her will, yet her demeanor had ceased to take on any concern. She leaned against the frame of dark orange steel and stared out at the bay. Her hair danced with the rhythm of the breeze and when she cradled her torso due to the cold, Tibbs offered her his jacket.
“Son of a…,” reload said under his breath. “She got me. She’s in on it.”

He couldn’t believe how naive he’d been. He realized it was the reason she was the only cop on the bridge. The reason she’d been captured and the reason a SWAT team hadn’t tried to rescue her from the terrorist attack. She must be splitting whatever she’s getting with other members of the department, he thought. Even if Tibbs wasn’t going to shoot Jillian he could still put a bullet through my brain.

Reload stared at the holes where he’d extracted the rivets. There was one left. He made his way to the fastener and laid his palm on top of the metal. He knew the newly formed bullets wouldn’t penetrate the container, but that wasn’t his plan. The rounds formed, glowing vibrantly. Reload pressed both palms together forming one large projectile.

“What are you doing?” Tibbs yelled. He looked into the fog. “Shoot him.”

Reload leapt for his gun. He rolled as hot lead bounced off the ground next to him. Finally, he reached his weapon. He pressed the giant bullet onto the frame.

“Reload,” he said.

Tibbs was standing next to the container full of molten metal. Reload fired his weapon. The large projectile hit the side of the container, the force from the round toppled the clear box and spilled its contents. The glowing element opened like a parachute after the cord had been pulled. Jillian reached for Tibbs, but he was covered in liquid metal before she could do anything to help. He screamed and ran to the edge of bridge.

“No,” Jillian called out. She was careful not to touch his burning body.

Tibbs turned, and whether he meant to or not, grabbed the side of Jillian’s shirt. He tried to let go but couldn’t. The weight from the hot element pulled him over the side of the bridge with Jillian in tow. They hit the safety net but burned through the nylon barrier with ease.

Reload was able to make it to the side of the bridge before their bodies hit the water. He saw a huge splash and a lot of steam rising from the myriad of white caps.
Whether it was from the lack of leadership or they had been caught by honest cops, the men with Tibbs seemed to digress. There were no more shots fired.

“I’d better get the hell out of here while I have the chance,” Reload said. He slipped into the fog and away from the scene. While on his ride home, he thought about Jillian. It was too bad that she’d turned out to be a bad guy. Maybe his next crush would be a little more balanced. Reload lost himself within the streets of the city, too far away to see something stirring on the dark sand of the peninsula. It was in the shape of a man but resembled monster, melted to the point of freakish measure. There was also a smell. Tibbs couldn’t believe he was alive. He couldn’t believe the metal was moving. As he ambled across the sand, his thoughts turned to Reload. He would find the masked shooter and make him suffer for what he’d done to him and Jillian. The pungent smell of the cold metal permeated his olfactory system. He took it in.

“I’ll see you again Reload, but next time, you won’t be facing Tibbs. You’ll be facing Brimstone.” And with that, he took to the city and planned his revenge.

J.M. Scott a full time high school English teacher from Fremont, California and has recently published short stories with Horrified Press, Penumbra Magazine, Miskatonic Press, Third Flatiron Publishing LLC, and Grinning Skull Press. His short story The Spirit is featured on Tangent Online as a recommended read for 2013. He Has a bachelor’s degree in film from San Francisco State University and a master’s in Education.

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David Forever By Matthew Denvir

Nov 30 2014

—He says he’s very busy, Mr. Stilbur.

—Yes, well, of course, we all are.  Tell him this is an urgent matter.


— …

— …

—Mr. Stilbur?

—Yes Nancy.

—Mr. Greggs is here.

—Send him in please.

—Hello Mr. Stilbur, I…

—Yes, Greggs, yes yes, come in.

—I’m sorry, it’s just that we are so busy out there with this…

—Yes, yes, tragic stuff.  Really, really… yes, well, please have a seat.  This is nothing official, no Nancy in here to…

—Yes, Mr. Stilbur?


—I heard my name, sir.

—Oh this damned.  Not now, Nancy.  This damned… how do you turn this box off?

—I believe that button on the bottom right.

—I see…. There we go.  Now.  Where were we?  Yes.  As you can see, my secretary is not present here with us in this room, which means this meeting is a level 2a.  I am now, and this is all protocol, David, a formality type thing, you know, I’m now on record, via OfficeInsure™, that I have informed you, David Greggs, of this meeting’s, eh, the uh, type of meeting we are having, and therefore I will turn off OfficeInsure™’s audio recording devi… how… how does one even do that anyhow?

—I believe it’s that red button, sir.  Second row, yep, that one.

—There we are.  Christ.  This thing.  All protocol, you know.  Still not used to it.  Point is, David, we are no longer being recorded.  This is a level 2a meeting, okay?  Nothing too serious.

—Okay good, I am busy and…

—Yes, yes, of course.  This won’t be long. I just wanted to… well, hey, how is your wife doing, by the way?  Margaret?

—She’s doing fine.

—Hey, that’s great to hear!  Some good news, ay?

—Well, the treatments are still…

—Are they working?

—Well we hope so, her spirits I mean…

—Knew a guy, Robert Salder, didn’t feel any improvement until the last day or so of the treatments.  It’s a real miracle, these things.

—Yes, well we hope they are working.  She’s being a real trooper through it all and I can only, well, I’m just being supportive and she gives me strength and we all hope it just works, uh, works out for the best.

—Yes, David, of course.  I just got off the phone with Bagley and he…

—Jeff Bagley?

—Yes.  The big guy.  And I was telling him about your dedication through all of this, you know.

—You said that?  To the CEO?

—Yes and he was very impressed with your dedication, I told him you didn’t even miss a single day of work he was very impressed.  He said something along the lines of, “Well that is the spirit of this company.  Everyone at InfiniBook™ should aspire to his level of respect for our calling and for the depth of his humanity.”  You know, something like that.

—I’m, I mean…

—My boy, you don’t need to say anything.  It’s a high compliment, yes, to be spoken of so highly by the national CEO of InfiniBook™.  Very big deal, as they say.  I’ll mention it in our branch’s weekly memo text.

—I’m very flattered…. I…

—Maybe just a quick, I don’t know, “go DG” or something at the end.  It’s hard to keep those memos under 80 characters as it is.

—Mr. Stilbur?

—Yes David.

—Is this what you called me here to talk about?  The, uh “depth of my humanity?”

—Partly, yes, but.  Oh Dave.  You are quick.  You see, this is why we hired you, your ability to see, I suppose, past people in a way.  See past their outward shell and into their true selves.  A, um, an exemplary InfiniBook™ employee indeed.

—So what is it you wanted to talk to me about?

—Yes, of course, sorry, well.  I’m afraid that, oh.  This is my least favorite part.  It involves a small transgression, David, I’m afraid, a bit of impropriety on your part as Facilitator.  Oh I dislike this, especially with such a, as you know, dedicated and talented employee as yourself.

—What?  What did I do?

—“Depth of humanity” and all that.

—Mr. Stilbur.

—Yes, David, I’m getting to that.  Just girding myself, as they say.  Really my least favorite part of this job.  But these orders come from above.  Protocol, as you know, and I have to follow these things to the letter.

—I understand.  But isn’t this a level 2a meeting?

—All by the books, it’s very… what?

—A level 2a meeting.  Therefore, can’t we just cut to the chase?  You don’t have to…

—I’m afraid I do, David.  When you leave here, Nancy will have you fill out and sign a Form-1281B in which you detail the discussion we had here in my office.  Meanwhile, a 1281A pops right into my Computact™’s inbox waiting to filled out with my E.I.D. code, which form’s completion will upload the thing right to H.Q. automatically.  You following?

—Yes but I…

—And they have this thing down to a science, really.  Our psych profiles for cross reference, a discretion expert on hand, a full-time job actually, I met him and his wife once in D.C., very nice lady, cat trainer or some damned thing.  Point is, they’d catch us if we lied and, well, neither of us wants to be in that position.  This meeting is level 2a remember, not 3a.

—I see.  I’m sorry I didn’t mean to.

—It’s quite alright, David.  It’s quite alright.  Now.  Where were we.  Ah, yes.  The impropriety.  I have the files right here in my Computact™, so don’t be weirded out if I look like I’m just staring into space.  It’s just how I look when I read files.  The deceased in question is #846, a man who went by the name Jacob Fischer.  He died in 2043 at the age of 24.  Too young, too young…… Anyway, the complaintee is his sister, in our system as 846-008a.  Her complaint, filed on May 20th, 2046 involves an interaction with us on the day previous, the 19th.  The complaint number is 846-001c and the interaction number is 846-012b.  Low numbers, as you can see.  I mean, three years and this last communication was only his twelfth.  Not that well liked, I guess.

—And I take it I was the facilitator for that interaction.  Number, uh….

—846-012b, yes David, you facilitated that communication between 846 and 846-008a.

—Between Jacob and his sister.

—Precisely, Jacob and his sister.  There’s your humanity again.  Very good.  Very good.

—So the interaction was…

—Not yet, David, I’m sorry.  This is the protocol part.  We’ll get into specifics later.  Right at this moment, all you need to know is that you facilitated a communication on May 19th, 2046 that resulted in a complaint from an Indirect Subscriber.  Not a direct Costumer, mind you, which is why this meeting’s not being recorded.


—Now, protocol requires I engage in a short discussion about InfiniBook’s mission statement and your role in it, you know, etc. etc.  The classic type stuff, stick with me on this.


—So you may know a good deal of this information, David, but bear with me.


—Good.  Good.  All moving along swimmingly.  Very good.  Now David.  In your own words, can you please reiterate to me what InfiniBook™’s mission statement is?

—Okay.  Well.  It is to provide loved ones some kind of, I don’t know, nostalgia, some sense of, uh, a family member’s essence still being tangible, or able to be engaged.

—Okay.  Okay.  I think you fuddled a bit there, but I’m sure you get the gist.  Here is the mission statement as written in our Computact™ ad: “InfiniBook™ strives to maintain a tangible connection to the past without compromising the closure that is so important for the grieving process.”


—So you had the word “tangible” there.  Good job.  And it’s a very good ad, I think.  The marketing guys didn’t want that last part, especially the word “grieving,” but Jeff Bagley believed, rightly, that our customers would appreciate honesty during such a sensitive time.

—No one wants to feel sold to at their lowest point.

—Exactly.  That’s why Bagley is such a genius.  Anyway, our mission statement is about giving our customers, and of course our Indirect Subscribers as well, a connection with loved ones by allowing them continual contact with avatars of the deceased.  Now, David, what sets us, would you say, apart from our competitors?

—Well, I would imagine it’s the InfiniSelf System™, designed by Mr….

—No no, well yes, but no.  Don’t get me wrong, the InfiniSelf System™ is terrific, but it’s great in that Bagley understood its limitations and was able, therefore, to focus more on what the program could do than…well… I’m close to giving it away.  I’ll rephrase my question.  Why do you think our customers, 72 % of the market-share remember, are willing to pay more for InfiniBook™’s services than, say, those of Cloud Status™?

—Uhh.  Are you talking about the human element?

—Precisely.  Like I said before, the InfiniSelf System™ is a marvel of mathematics and programming, but Bagley’s genius was in his understanding of its limitations.  Our competitors may have understood this too, but alleviating said flaws costs money.  Our solution?  Allow InfiniSelf™ to work with the data and compile a believable online avatar for the deceased, but hire actual people, rather than some unfeeling A.I. with no gift for langauge, to facilitate communication with next of kin.

—I understand.

—You see?  Real people behind the keyboard; the InfiniSelf System™ behind the wheel.  That’s the brilliance of this whole thing.  And there’s something inspiring about it, too.  Computers can never replace people.  They can perform incredible functions with miraculous speed and precision, but Jeff Bagley understood that in this business, the human element is just as important, if not more so, than the smartest chips in the room.  Do you see where I am headed with all this?

—You’re saying this company runs most smoothly when all parties know their respective roles.

—Well bravo, David.  Really.  I couldn’t have said it better.  That’s perfect.  You see, this is why we hired you, “when all parties know their roles.”

—Computers do the valuable data work, facilitators make sure it comes across as real.

—Excellent.  When InfiniBook™ receives a request for avatar creation, we compile the total available online life-data of the deceased.  Social media, publications, blogs, texts, etc.  We’re even now working on a way to utilize Computact™ video recording, for those who can afford Computact™s of course, but don’t tell anybody, Top Secret, kinda thing.  Anyway, we take all this info, we put it into the InfiniSelf System™, which then creates an online identity for the deceased.

—And facilitators communicate, via social media, with Customers and Indirect Subscribers as the deceased loved one.

—Yes, but you’ve skipped an important step.  As you know, every communication must be run through the InfiniSelf System™.  You get a query, say some weepy girlfriend who just watched some romantic type BlipTube™ video, she writes to a deceased ex lover.  Before responding, we always, always, run the query through the InfiniSelf System™ before responding.  That way, we can be sure we are responding in a mode apropos to the deceased.  I know you know this, it’s all just protocol that I remind you.

—I understand.

—After all, we don’t want to sound like other people.  I.e. you don’t want to sound like David Greggs; you want to sound like Jacob Fischer, or whatever poor bastard.


—The InfiniSelf System™ ensures we accurately ape the language, tone, and content of the deceased on their social media profiles.

—I understand.

—Thus is it wholly important, crucial one could say, to never stray from the script provided by the InfiniSelf System™’s diagnostics.

—Yes, I understand completely.

—Good.  Good.  All moving along here.  All swimmingly.  You’re doing swell, David.  Now that brings us to complaint 846-001c.  I have the report here in my Computact™.  Again, excuse the blank staring.  On May 19th of this year, IS-846-008a opened a communication with D-846 in which she wrote, and I quote with grammatical errors found in the communication, “Jake, I miss listening to you play guitar on our porch during those sweltering summer nights.”  Now this was…

—Where were the grammatical errors?

—Huh?  What?

—Where were there errors?  That sounded like a perfectly correct sentence.

—Well, yes, I guess it is.  They just have us say that every time, you know.  Most of ‘em, well you know how it is; you’re in the trenches as they say.  Anyway, that was the query from IS-846-008a.  Our records show you did run this through the system, and you were recommended, by the system, to facilitate a communication that included a cultural reference.  Does this case ring a bell, David?

—Yes, I remember it.  The girl had contacted him a few times before and…

—Yes, well, let’s not get into that.  Anyway, the InfiniSelf System™ recommended a cultural reference with a personal touch, and if you went back to 846’s profile, you would see the number of acceptable cultural reference points from which to choose.  Rock bands, mostly as I’m looking at it now, but some BlipTube™ channels in there as well.

—Yes I looked through all of those but nothing seemed…

—And our records show you even received specific suggestions from the system, like which lyrics to cite and whatnot, but these were all apparently ignored.

—Yes, they, well, yes, they all just seemed inadequate is all.

—Well the InfiniSelf System™ isn’t perfect.  But it safeguards us, in a way.

—So anyway I looked into Margaret’s…

—So you ignored 846’s profile and the InfiniSelf System™ and the system’s recommendations and went off the beaten path, as they say.  Is that accurate?

—Well, yes, I…

—For the record, since we have now established that you went off script, so to speak, and did not follow protocol, can you tell me what you did write in response to interaction 846-012b?

—I, um, what?

—When Jacob’s sister contacted him on his profile, what did you write in response, David?  These words in response being, of course, not protocol.

—I uh, well, I, I wrote some lines from a poem.

—A poem.

—Yes a, um, a Walt Whitman poem.

—I have the records here.  Again, excuse the blank staring.  This is what you wrote: “Still with you, Sis!  Remember Walt W.’s jam, ‘After the dazzle of day is gone / Only the dark night shows to my eyes the stars; / After the clangor of organ majestic or chorus or perfect band / Silent athwart my soul moves the symphony true.’”  Now, David, why would you go and write something like that?

—Well Walt Whitman wrote it, I just…

—David, please.

—Sorry, I, um, well I couldn’t find anything in the recommendations from the system that I thought worked, and nothing from his profile seemed to…

—But that doesn’t mean you should just pull shit out of your ass, David.

—No, no, no not at all.  I looked into her profile, you see.  The sister’s.  She was an English major in college, specialized in American Poetry, you see.  She definitely would have…

—David.  David, David.  You can’t do that, she…

—I would have thought she’d have gotten the reference, I mean, it’s about…

—David that’s not the point!  It was you whom she felt she was talking to is the point.  It was David Greggs, pretentious poet; not Jacob Fischer, wannabe rock star and her beloved but sadly departed brother!  She wanted a communication with the latter, not you.

—I wasn’t trying to subvert… I mean, I think I wrote it like he would have.

—Oh goodness, David.  That whole “Walt W.’s jam” business?  It came off… I mean, Jesus I’m sorry about this because, you know, “depth of humanity” and your wife and your kid in that accident two years ago and all that, but I mean, Christ, David, it came off as totally pathetic and weird.


—The strings behind it… so obvious.  It’s sickening, really.  It’s gross.  You could see why, oh the fuck’s her name, 846-00…whatever is so upset over this.  And Liz is in trouble for this too.  Apparently off God-knows-where with that new young intern kid when she should have been in your sector approving these communications!

—I see.  It wasn’t her…

—I mean do you see how this makes me look?  It’s like I have no control over this whole branch.  Such a breakdown like that.

—I’m sorry, sir.  I really am.  Is there anything I can…

—No no, Christ.  I’m getting too worked up over this as it is.  It’s still pretty minor, just don’t pull this kind of shit again, okay?  A simple switcheroo is all.  Reggie is going to handle the Fischer case from here on out, and you’ll take over one of his, a #254, some wacko who offed himself by pretending to skydive.  Who does that?  Backpack had no parachute at all, just bricks and a note.

—That’s fine, Mr. Stilbur, a totally reasonable fix.

—Well it’s not my decision, it’s protocol.  Everything’s protocol, Greggs.  Sometimes I don’t know why a computer doesn’t just do my job.

—Not at all.  You’re very needed, sir.  The human touch and all.

—Well thank you, David.  I’m all worked up, here you are trying to end things on a positive note.  Like I said, why we hired you.  Anyway, I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, I’m sure Nancy is just itching to get that 1281B into your hands.

—Okay, sir, I’ll get out of your…

—Just heed this last bit of advice:  You’re a facilitator, got it?  You’re not a writer.  Your job is not to make the customer feel better; it is to accurately create the illusion that their loved one, or some part, some ripple of their loved one, still lives.  Do you understand?

—Sir, I understand completely.  And let me just say before I leave that this company’s compromise on that health plan thing is really helping us out, I mean my wife…

—Yes, well, it’s fine, all by the books but that reminds me.


—Your wife.  I know this is delicate, but with your wife ill I figured.  Well.  I noticed that she does not have Pre-Mortem Contract of Intent with InfiniBook™.


—Are you aware it’s free for employees?  I mean, you could be her Direct Subscriber at no cost and….. oh dear, I am being improper I’m afraid, not the right time, just look at your face.

—No it’s just that…

—I merely hoped that someone in this office has kept you informed of our policy, you deserve that much.

—It’s just, um, well.  We talked and…. It’s her choice, sir.  You know how it is.

—Yes, yes.  Of course of course.  I understand.

—Thank you sir.


—Oh blasted.  Yes Nancy?

—Your daughter is on line one?

—Well fine, just a minute.  Afraid I have to take this one, Greggs my boy.  Send love to the family and keep up the good work, “depth of humanity” and all that.

—Yes sir.  And her name’s Margaret, by the way.

—Well of course it is, I know Margaret.  I’ve met your wife many times, lovely woman.

—Yes, but I meant the sister.  Her name is also Margaret. Maggie Fischer.

—The si…. oh, yes well, very good.

—Mr. Stilbur?  Your daughter.

—Yes Nancy, Christ.  Au revoir, David, don’t forget the form.  Hello?  Penny?  What do you mean the cat……. The neighbors?  Stop yelling….. I just want…..  no stop yelling I can’t….. I can’t…… I can’t……




Matthew Denvir hails from Kingston, New York.  His fiction has been published in journals such as The Conium Review, Paper Nautilus, and Thunderclap!  He received a NY Press Association “Better Newspaper” award for his Le Moyne College column “Cheers and Jeers,” a satirical treatise on college life.  He graduated with an M.A. from Bard College in 2011.

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A Mother’s Love and Other Intoxicants by Russell J. Banzett

Nov 23 2014

Marta knew she was a junkie, had known it long before her veins had collapsed into black ruins. Her friends in college could have a few drinks, but she would always keep going until she woke up in the ER with a plastic tube snaking down her throat, pumping out the toxic contents of her stomach. She sat on a cracked curb as she waited for Desmond to finish with a client, her head resting on bony knees as she curled and uncurled a strand of her dull black hair around her finger, the humid night air thick with the smells of sweat and her own anticipation. She stared into the scratched face of her phone at a picture, and couldn’t help but think about when everything had started to fall apart.

Marta remembered that the library had been deserted except for her and an ancient librarian with rheumy eyes like saucers of spoilt milk, everyone else that had been there earlier in the day had long since gone. She remembered she’d just needed a B to keep her loans and her head had been buried in a dusty textbook. She’d tried studying on her tablet, but she found herself getting too distracted by friends messaging her. She’d hoped the physical book would get fewer messages, and maybe the odd papercut would keep her awake. She’d yelped when a hand like dry autumn leaves brushed her shoulder.

“Shhhhh,” whispered the librarian reflexively. “Closing time.”

Marta looked down at her textbook that was still on chapter 3, and had to swallow hard to keep from crying. “Please, just a bit more time. I could lock up if you want to go.”

The librarian’s face cracked into a thin smile. “If you don’t know it yet, you’re not going to sweetie,” she’d said, and shuffled away to turn out the lights.

Fat tears tumbled down Marta’s face and she ran out, almost smashing into Sam in the hallway. Sam grabbed her shoulder as she tried to go past, his hand like a vice. “I saw you in the library,” he said simply, not seeming to notice her struggling. He held up a baggie with two small white pills and added, “Study aid?”

It was stupid, and Marta had known it was stupid, known she couldn’t trust herself to take anything harder than Aspirin. Even so, she’d taken the pills, only asking what they were after she’d downed both. Sam had given her a Cheshire Cat grin, and told her they were called Cynosure, just an all-natural brain booster that contained a few herbs that the Chinese or Japanese (Sam didn’t seem clear on the distinction) had known about forever. Oh and maybe just a touch of engineered proteins that could, temporarily, cause her brain to sprout new dendritic spines like dessert flowers after a rain storm. Sam had assured Marta that this would mean she’d remember everything she learned in the last few days perfectly, and anything related to that. Whatever junk the Cynosure really had in it, it worked, her IQ was bumped up, right along with her concentration and memory and she ended up with an A on the test.

She remembered her professor pulling her aside to congratulate her on her grade after the test marks were posted, remembered how everyone started to look at her for the first time, how they wanted her to be in their study groups when before they wouldn’t even talk to her. The praise and respect filled her up for a little while, made her feel like the successful person everyone wants to be. Marta built a whole life on Cynosure– how could she go back to the sluggish dullard she’d been? Richard, her boyfriend at the time she’d met Sam, became her husband and she took a job at a securities dealer as an analyst. The job and the marriage were both hard, and she didn’t dare stopping taking the Cynosure for fear of not being able to meet the harsh expectations of one or the other.

Richard had known about the Cynosure but didn’t care as long as she was keeping it together. Marta remembered being so careful at first, but after her daughter Elsie was born she’d started taking more exotic things, and Richard eventually left with their daughter after he’d found Marta pricing out a pharma-printer online. Things spiraled out of control for Marta then as they always did, and she’d ended up busted for trying to buy Cognizance, a relaxant and temporary amnesia inducer, from a greasy street dealer covered in open sores that turned out to be a snitch.

I could use some forgetting now Marta thought to herself as she sat on the street corner and watched the sun dip below the boarded up buildings of the city’s core. Marta saw that Desmond was finally done, and she walked over to the bent and broken streetlight where he did his business. He took the crumpled bills from her hand and pocketed them with a flick of his wrist. Desmond’s speed, especially considering his bulk, always surprised Marta. She waited, but Desmond just stared and stared at her over gold-rimmed glasses and his narrow black eyes seemed to peel back her skin like they were scalpels cutting into a dissection rat. Marta’s bloodshot eyes danced nervously, the seconds piling on top of each other like a slow motion car accident.

“Please, Desmond,” Marta whined when she couldn’t take the waiting anymore, broken glass crunching underfoot as she shifted. “Just give me the stuff I paid for.”

“It doesn’t even cover what I gave you last time,” he said slowly, as if to a child. “Unless you got more, piss the fuck off,” he added, and began to turn away.

Marta grabbed at his shoulder. Before she could blink, her head was smashed into the pavement, blood already pouring from her lip where Desmond’s meaty hand had struck.

“You don’t ever fucking touch me,” he spat, disgust and pity warring across his face. He reached a hand inside his suit and Marta cringed like a kicked dog. He drew out a filthy baggie with two patches of Founder inside, tossed it at her, and walked away.

Her hands trembled so bad she could barely get the first patch out. She slapped it hard against her neck. Liquid electricity surged through her, lighting up black veins like a rising sun inside her chest. Wasted muscle turned from rags to steel cords under her skin and she balled up her hands, and flung a fist at the brick wall at the end of the alley, hard as she could. The bricks exploded as if they’d been hit with a mortar.

The strength didn’t last. The stuff was just a taster — she’d be in freefall soon. Her hand was beginning to throb, splintered brick imbedded in it like broken bones bursting through papery skin. It was stupid, but Marta’s veins even seemed to ache with a gnawing hunger. Marta fingered the baggy in her pocket with its one remaining hit, but left it where it was – she’d need to make it last and then she’d need more, something stronger. She almost turned around and went back to Desmond, but stopped herself. If she went back without any money, he’d kill her for sure. She needed cash, and that meant Mr. Papadopulos.

It was late, but when she got there the antique electric sign was blinking “Papadopulos Pawn”, and emitted a buzz like an angry beehive was trapped in its neon tubes. She went in and the fat Greek behind the counter gave her a wide grin.

“Marietta, my little flower,” he exclaimed.

Marta smiled, and drew her battered phone from her pocket. “I need to sell this Pappy.”

He took the phone from her gingerly and turned it over, his hands making it look like a child’s toy, and inspected it from every angle. “It real antique,” he said.  “Most kids today get their brains wired direct. Some olds like us looking for retro models though. This beat up, but I sold worse.”  He tapped the screen to activate it. A lock-screen with a little girl with sad eyes and curly black hair sprang to life. He squinted at the phone and then at Marta, seeming to notice for the first time her sickly condition and the patch stuck to her neck. “You’re sure you want to sell?”

She stared at her feet, trying to decide. The phone was the last thing she had from when she and Richard were still together, and had the only photos of her daughter Elsie that remained to her. “I’m not…I need…” she began when the phone chirruped with a text message. She quickly grabbed it back and read the screen, “im scard mom wen com home?” It was from Richard’s phone, but must be from Elsie.

Mr. Papadopulos saw it too and clasped both of his massive hands around Marta’s skeletal fingers and the phone. “Marietta, please,” he said, his voice quavering. “You stay here, we call police. I help you.”

Marta stared at him, shocked. Mr. Papadopulos had always been kind to her, but had never once offered any help her before. Was she really that bad looking?  Marta shook herself, refocused on her daughter’s message. He just thinks I’m too week to protect her, she thought, and tore her hand out of his grasp. Maybe he’s right, but I know how to be strong. Marta turned from him and headed for the door, stopping just long enough in the entrance to slap the second patch on her neck.

She burst out of the pawn shop, the door flying off its hinges into the night, her heart beating hard, pushing adrenaline and Founder into legs that became a blur of motion. She’d let her daughter down once, but wouldn’t waste this chance to make it right, to show them that she was strong, that she didn’t need anyone’s pity. Streetlights strobed past as she ran, and the potholes and slums of the rotten city core melted into the greenery of the suburbs. She stopped only when she was standing in the shadows across from her Richard’s bungalow, its dark windows covered with insulating plastic, and its yard full of bright plastic toys. She gaped at the rows of delicate tulips in the flowerbeds—they weren’t there the last time she was outside looking in. Richard was colour blind and had never cared about flowers before, had actively disliked them in fact and considered them to be jokes played on him specifically by a cruel universe. It had been only six months since the last time she’d crept outside his house – could so much have changed?

Marta wrenched her attention away from the strange flowers and began to stalk from the shadows to the house, ready to tear it apart if she needed to. She’d barely taken a step toward the house when a car with headlights like magnesium flares cut through the gloom, came down the street towards her then pulled into Richard’s driveway. Marta crouched back into the shadows and watched as a tall blonde woman in a rumpled nurse’s outfit with a fresh flower pinned to the jacket stepped out of the car, stretched, and walked into the house, stopping only to pick up a plastic unicorn from the lawn. The house burst into life almost as soon as the flower lady entered, warm lights came on inside that made Marta squint.

With Founder-heightened senses, Marta heard the patter of tiny feet on creaky hardwoods inside the house, and then heard Elsie squeal, “Mom!”

Marta collapsed to her knees, all the strength gone from her as she sobbed into the cold pavement. She hadn’t known how badly she craved that one word from her daughter, that one glorious word that would mean everything was all right. But the text hadn’t been for her, it had been from Elsie to her real mother, the flower lady. She let the phone drop from her hand, suddenly too weak to hold it, heard its screen shatter on the pavement a long way away, and turned her back on the lights and the girl that had once been her daughter. Elsie needed someone strong, and Marta realized that was someone else, realized that she’d never been strong, not even on Founder. Desmond and Mr. Papadopulos had known, had seen right through her and been right to pity her.

She limped down the street toward the city’s core as shards of light from the rising sun stabbed through breaks in the houses. It felt like knives were twisting in her knees and ankles with each step. She hoped that Mr. Papadopulos would still have his shop open, would still be willing to help her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to be strong. And maybe if she could be strong she could become mom to her daughter again.


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