With each new issue, we feature a few works—short story, flash fiction, poetry, or artwork—available to view and read here freely. Past issues will remain available as well. Any copying or reproducing of the speculative fiction works and artwork featured here without express permission by the artist, poet, or author is strictly prohibited.
See this key, little one? Press it, and a man in China dies of a heart attack. If you play a scale—let’s say C minor—half a busload of kids perishes in a landslide; add a couple of trills, and the other half follows.
Look at your chubby little fingers soaring across the enamel keys: black and white, charm and strange, matter and antimatter. You’re on fire today with that fugue, and so is that hospital wing in New England.
Oops, wrong note. Guess that baby isn’t getting born today. No, don’t cry. I know you’re not as good as me yet. I have a lot of concerts under my belt, a ton of compositions and symphonies on my portfolio. In time, you will too. But remember, you’ll never be a beginner twice. You should cherish it, just as that woman in Dubai cherishes her husband—too bad he isn’t coming home from the factory today.
Take a break, kiddo. You’ve earned it. Close the fallboard and let the world go dark. There’s always time for more practice tomorrow.
Avra Margariti is a Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences.
Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, The Arcanist, and other venues.
The beam of Mike Helgeson’s flashlight finally found the object he sought. In the far corner of his grandmother’s attic sat an antique hope chest. The worn crate contained the last few remaining possessions of Mike’s great-grandmother. Ida Cross had been an amazing woman and had led an incredible life; she had traveled the world, experienced many adventures. If there was any place where Mike would find what he was searching for, this chest would be it.
Mike was hosting his weekly fantasy role-playing game that evening. He had guaranteed his friends that he would have an exciting, intriguing adventure waiting for them. He had also promised to supply some interesting props and prizes. The cardboard swords he’d fashioned ended up looking very cheap and amateurish. The marbles he had placed in an old cigar box failed to conjure the impression of a treasure chest filled with jewels. He had been about to give up on his quest for authentic-looking paraphernalia when he remembered that there was this box of wondrous items stored at his grandmother’s home.
To get a better view of the chest, he pushed aside a cardboard container filled to the brim with assorted paperbacks. The wooden case was not locked. The clasp on the front was broken and appeared to have been so for ages. The hinges creaked their complaints and fought against Mike as he slowly opened the lid. When he peered inside, Mike observed a random collection of artifacts and souvenirs. He didn’t know what he was hoping to find among the myriad of trinkets, articles of clothing, and papers, but he knew he would discover something he could use.
It was near the bottom, under an authentic Japanese kimono and a copy of the first issue of Mad magazine, that Mike discovered something that might fulfill his need. He grabbed the worn leather pouch and examined it. The tan bag was tied shut with a leather lace. Mike noticed writing on the outside of the pouch. Dulled by time, barely legible in the dim glow of the beam of his flashlight, were the words: WISHING STONES.
Mike hurriedly undid the string and emptied the contents into his hand. A dozen pale pebbles rolled into his palm. He sighed heavily. These stones did not look impressive in any way. They could not serve the role of valuable treasure; they looked like nothing more than landscaping rocks. He started to return the pebbles to their container when he noticed one of the stones giving off a pulsing glow. The stone’s incandescence flittered from a nearly imperceptible shine one moment to a radiant glare the next. Now this was interesting. This stone was something he could use in tonight’s game. It would be easy to create a scenario in which the players needed to find a powerful magical stone. He placed the stone in his pocket and continued his investigation of the old chest.
The microwave buzzed to indicate that the three minutes were up. Mike opened the door and was immediately hit by the undeniable odor of burnt popcorn.
“What the heck. The instructions said to put it in for three minutes!” yelled Mike.
“You have to listen and stop it when the popping slows down.” Mike’s older brother, Joel, sauntered into the kitchen. “Throw that batch in the garbage. I’ll make another batch for you and your nerd friends.” Joel was two years older than Mike. He was much more worldly.
“You don’t have to do that. It seems like you always have to help me out. Thanks, but I can do it myself,” said Mike.
“I know you can,” replied Joel. “But you have to get ready for your giant adventure tonight. You go get a cooler and put some sodas in it. I’ll take care of this. I don’t mind helping you. I’ll fix anything for you . . . except your face . . . that you’re stuck with.” Joel smiled and winked. He went to the cabinet to grab another bag of popcorn, ignoring the damp washcloth that bounced off his shoulder.
Mike laughed, “Thanks, Bro. You’re a regular superhero.”
Mike, resplendent in his homemade wizard robes, and four of his friends gathered in the inner sanctum (otherwise known as the Helgeson basement). Mike was the undisputed leader of the group, not only in role-playing but in all aspects of middle school life. Mike was the smartest boy in his class, challenged only by Amy Stonehauser for the title of best student in the school. Mike knew he was smarter than the rest of his gang and wasn’t above occasionally demonstrating that superiority.
On this night, Mike guided the party through encounters with ogres, orcs, and a flame-throwing dragon. Finally, they reached their ultimate goal: the dragon’s treasure hoard.
Always the perfectionist and showman, Mike dimmed the lights, reached into his pocket, and grabbed the glowing wish stone. He would reveal the awesome treasure at precisely the ideal moment. He called out in an excessively deep voice, “Let the collection of treasure begin.”
Tom Burrows, the class clown, chuckled loudly. “Mike, you have to be literally the biggest nerd in the world.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Tom, you are ruining the moment. And besides, that is not how you use the term literally. I wish nobody could use that term incorrectly.” As he concluded the sentence, the dimmed lamp blinked once and Mike felt a slight shock in his right hand. He didn’t want to ruin the upcoming reveal of the special stone, so he ignored the jolt; his hand remained in his pocket.
He continued. “OK, everybody roll a twenty-sided die to determine which pile of treasure your character investigates.”
With a sly smile on his face, Tom announced, “I am going to literally roll a twenty every time.” He let the die drop to the table. The plastic icosahedron bounced a few times, then settled onto the table; the number twenty clearly displayed on its topmost face.
A slightly perturbed Mike shook his head. “There are only fifteen treasure piles. You have to reroll, Tom.”
Tom rolled the die a second time, and again the result was a twenty.
After a third consecutive roll with the same result, Mike was beginning to realize something strange was going on. “OK, roll a six-sided die instead.”
Tom liked that idea. He was just as amazed by his run of twenties. He grabbed a six-sided die and dropped it on the table. All five boys leaned in to read the number on top.
“That can’t be!” yelled Mike. He picked up the die and examined the faces. As he turned the number cube in his hands, he read the numbers one through six. There was no twenty on the die, even though they had all just seen that numeral while it was resting on the table.
“This is so weird,” laughed Tom. “Let me try something.” Tom took the die from Mike and held it between his thumb and index finger. With the face that featured a single dot directed upward, he placed the die on the table. Once again, everyone moved in close.
“Is this some kind of magic trick you two guys came up with?” asked one of the other boys.
“No, it’s not,” said Tom. “I am freaking out here. It’s as if Mike’s wish about using the word ‘literally’ has come true.”
Mike remembered the wishing stone in his pocket. Could it have been real?
“Maybe the wishing stone is doing this,” said Mike.
“The what?” asked the other boys in unison.
“My great-grandma’s wishing stone. It glows and everything.”
He pulled out the stone and opened his hand. Everyone moved in close to examine the magic item. There in Mike’s palm sat a dull, pale stone. The pebble was lifeless. There was no sign of the incandescence it had displayed earlier in the day.
His friends scoffed.
“That’s a plain old rock.”
“Yeah right, a magic stone.”
“Really guys,” insisted Mike, “it was glowing this afternoon. Maybe it went out after it granted my wish.”
“What wish?” asked one of the boys.
“Remember when I wished that no one could use literally wrong? I think that’s what’s happening.”
“Let me try something,” said Tom. He cleared his voice and proceeded to say with perfect pronunciation, “Mike Helgeson literally jumps for joy every time he hears the name Amy Stonehauser.”
“Now you’re just being stup—”
Mike jumped in the air, raised a fist over his head, and shouted, “Whoohoo!”
When he settled back to the ground, Mike gave his friend a perturbed stare while the rest of gang exploded with laughter. “What did you do that for?”
“I was just testing the theory. Now we know for sure that your wish came true.”
Mike was unwilling to forgive Tom’s transgression. “But it was such a stupid thing you said. You could have said almo—”
This time, Mike threw both of his hands in the air as he leaped and exclaimed, “Yippee!”
“Okay, I’ll stop,” announced Tom. “We have bigger things to worry about.”
Mike began to consider the possible repercussions of his wish. Was his wish causing every statement in the world that used the word “literally” to come true?
“This could be bad,” he said.
Mike had no idea how bad things were.
In Oregon, a young boy’s great-aunt visited his family for the first time in three years. She took one look at the boy and said, “Wow, Billy, you have literally grown a foot since I last saw you.”
The lights in the living room flickered and Billy let out a terrified scream. The great-aunt covered her mouth in shock. Sticking out of Billy’s right ankle was a second, perfectly proportioned, size-seven foot.
In Central City, Colorado, Esther Worley hit the spin button on the penny slot machine in front of her. The screen displayed the digital wheels spinning for a few seconds and then they stopped. Three gold stars blinked in the center row. Bells sounded, and the lights twinkled. Esther had just hit a jackpot.
“That’s my third jackpot in an hour,” she announced to no one in particular. “I am literally on fire.”
Nobody noticed the quick flash of light; the casino was filled with blinking lights. They did notice the screams of the elderly woman as she burst into flame.
Above Berlin, Germany, the pilot of a passenger jet came on the intercom to announce that due to a runway backup, the plane would have to circle the airport an additional time. He asked the passengers to have patience.
Wilhelm Gorth, who’d been annoying the person in the seat next to him the entire flight, looked at his neighbor and said, “This is ridiculous. We are going to be stuck up here literally forever.”
The lights flickered and the plane suddenly froze in midair. The passengers were jolted forward in their seats, saved from major injury by their seatbelts. A flight attendant was hurled down the aisle, striking a wall and falling to the ground unconscious.
After a pause, the pilot again spoke on the intercom. His voice was shaken and confused. “Ladies and gentleman, we seem to have . . .” he paused to search for the correct words, “We seem to have encountered some sort of phenomenon that has left the plane floating in the air and not moving. I don’t know how this is happening, but we are stuck in the air.”
Events of assorted degrees of impossibility continued happening throughout the world. On US Interstate 94, hundreds of automobile accidents occurred when someone from Wisconsin declared: “Literally everyone from Minnesota is a terrible driver.” Elsewhere, thousands of people were hospitalized after uttering the words: “I am literally dying.” A woman in Korea was transformed into a pile of sun-bleached bones after stating: “I haven’t had a drink of water in literally a hundred years.”
“Mike, get up here. You have to see this,” called Joel from the living room. “Weird things are happening all over the place. You have to see the news.”
Mike left his friends with explicit directions to stay put and not say a word. As he raced up the stairs, he tried to imagine the havoc his wish could have caused. He shook with fear. How long would it be until someone uttered the phrase, “This is literally the end of the world”?
When Mike reached the living room, the television screen displayed a message which read, “We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please hold on.”
“You have to see this,” said Joel. He grabbed the TV remote and rewound the broadcast to a point a few minutes earlier. Two newscasters sat at their desk. One of them turned to the camera and addressed the viewing audience. He held up a piece of paper in his hands. “I have just been given another report of a strange incident. We have stories of bizarre events coming in every second. We are literally buried in stories.” Suddenly, the screen blinked. When the picture returned, millions of sheets of paper fell from above, filling the studio. Eventually, the camera showed nothing but an ever-growing mountain of white. Then it went blank and was replaced with the technical difficulties sign.
Mike grabbed his brother by the arm. “Joel, this is all my fault.”
“How can these things be your fault?”
“I wished that no one could incorrectly use the word ‘literally.’ I think a wishing stone manipulated my wish to make all of these statements come true.”
“Woah, slow down,” said Joe. “How did you make a wish?”
Mike quickly related the events to his brother.
Mike continued, “This is so bad. Any second now somebody is going to use ‘literally’ in a way that destroys the world. You have to help me fix this.”
Mike was glad to see his brother looking less skeptical and more thoughtful. The evidence was just too overwhelming. Joel would have to believe him.
An earth-shattering explosion rocked the foundation of the house. Somewhere nearby, someone had misused the words “literally” and “mind-blowing” with devastating consequences.
Tom came bounding up the stairs from the basement. “I have to say something,” he shouted.
“Have you got an idea?” asked Mike.
“No, I just want to say, Amy Stonehauser.”
Mike jumped into the air, kicking his feet like some cartoon lover. “Whoooo!”
Once back on the ground, Mike glared at Tom. “You are literally begging for a beating.”
“Please, punch me. Please. As hard as you want . . .”
Another explosion rocked the neighborhood.
The television returned to life. A single, frazzled looking woman addressed the audience. Between Tom’s beseeching to be hit, the screams from outside, and the static interrupting the television broadcast, it was impossible to hear everything the reporter related.
“. . . China . . . Earth splitting into pieces
. . . ten minutes . . . hug your loved ones.”
A family portrait fell from the living room wall as a fissure formed in the plaster. The crack extended from the floor to the ceiling.
“. . . Just pound on me. Hit me as hard as you can . . .”
“Joel, you have to do something,” shouted Mike. “You literally always come through.” The lights blinked once, and the electricity went out.
Joel shook his head. “Okay, let’s think about this. Why would you make that wish? That has to be the stupidest wish anyone . . .”
Joel stopped. His eyes widened, and a smile appeared on his lips. He looked at his younger brother and winked. Loudly and clearly he announced, “Literally no one has ever made a wish like that.”
A flash of light enveloped the room.
Mike knelt before the dilapidated wooden crate. He held the leather bag in his hands. Hurriedly, he undid the string and emptied the contents into his hand. A dozen pale pebbles rolled into his palm. He sighed heavily. These stones did not look impressive in any way. They would not be able to serve the role of valuable treasure; they looked like nothing more than landscaping rocks. He examined all twelve lifeless stones and returned them to the sack. Setting the bag aside, he returned to rummaging through the chest. There had to be something in there he could use.
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has greatly enjoyed spending his additional free time trying to put some of the odd ideas circling his brain into words. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary, and watches the exploits of his three adult children: Allie, Ed, and John
At night, the desert lit up. At least it did in Border Valley. Lari first noticed the lights just after sundown. Luminous pinpricks patterned the sky between Orion’s bow and Libra’s tipped scale. It was a good sign. It meant she was close. For the last year, she’d imagined her suicide two different ways. If she wanted it to look like an accident, she’d take a low speed drive off a curved cliffside. If she wanted to give goodbyes, she’d go surrounded by friends and family in the Alps, going the way of “suicide tourism.” She hated that phrase. It sounded tacky, like the twenty-four years she’d lived amounted to one bad punchline. But going to the Valley? It was a decision she could live and die with. Its shifting dunes of constant reinvention called to her, pulling her deeper and deeper into the desolate oasis.
The night air was cool against her skin. This far from the city there was nothing for the heat to hold on to, so when the sun set, it took the warmth with it. Lari considered cranking the truck’s heat all the way up to “high” so she could try to warm up, but she liked to drive with the windows down. The breeze felt good on her scalp, and having the windows up made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe. A lot of things made her feel like she couldn’t breathe. Music was one of them.
Five years ago, a long desert drive would’ve required a personalized playlist and a friend to sing along with. Now, Lari couldn’t handle the way each bass line made her chest feel hollow, like the thudding music made what little was left in there rattle around. Only the hum of her oxygen tank filled the cramped cabin. Besides, there was no need for music; the road shook her well enough on its own. The pavement to the Valley was riddled with potholes and steep drop-offs that turned the bile at the back of her throat. The ruined road was an unavoidable inconvenience. Construction crews refused to work this close to the border. People always worried that one day the Valley would expand and take all of them with it. Lari didn’t hold it against them. Crueler things had happened.
While the road deteriorated, one thing that never stopped—no matter how close she got—were the warnings. A hundred miles out, they were just yellow, diamond-shaped signs with a spacecraft at the top and the “pedestrian crossing” figure suspended mid-air. Those were the funny signs, the ones you could pick up in roadside shops all over New Mexico. During her first year of college, Lari had one plastered on her wall alongside old Polaroids and pinned up posters. The abduction sign served as her quirky conversation starter. Fifty miles out, the signs were sprinkled in legalese and restricted area warnings. Legally, Border Valley was a no trespassing zone, but there wasn’t anyone willing to man the border’s post, so the signs’ warnings were rarely enforced. At the twenty-five-mile marker, the pleas started. Mostly homemade, these sun-bleached signs bore personal messages in every color. Derek, come home. Every language. Alguien te ama, Alguien te ama, Alguien te ama. And every script imaginable. Life is worth living. It’s never too late. Although their delivery methods varied, they all said the same thing.
When scientists first discovered Border Valley, the scholars flocked. Dressed in their Sunday best, PhDs, master’s candidates, and true believers were sucked up into the sky like dust bunnies. They left waving with big smiles on their faces as they went on to their final frontier.
Well, most of them.
Every once in a while, someone had a change of heart when they were about to be beamed. News stations around the world used to air the footage of the ones who tried sprinting back over the boundary, or the ones who cried out for help and grabbed at the ground as the sky took them. It didn’t matter how you went. Willing, unwilling, no one heard from you afterward.
No one ever came back.
When the road Lari had traveled for the last four hours ended in a parking lot, she knew she’d made it. There were a couple of abandoned vehicles left in the lot and even a few tents set up along the edge of the Valley. There used to be dozens of campers. Families would sit for months, waiting for reverse ascension. But, from the looks of it, all the missing stayed star-side. There was no one but Lari there. She appreciated the solitude. She didn’t want an audience.
The drive had been easy; now for the hard part. Physical exertion wasn’t chemo, but sometimes it felt like it. Lari flipped the engine off and started the tiring process of moving. First, she fumbled to get her oxygen tank from where it’d wedged itself between her and the empty passenger seat. Then, when the tank gave way, she set it on her lap and huffed, waiting until she’d gained enough of her strength back to then lug it over toward the door. Usually, she wouldn’t be so reckless with her body. Yanking, pulling, fighting, oftentimes she couldn’t even breathe without taking caution, but in the Valley, it didn’t matter. It was coming to an end soon, one way or another. When she’d caught her breath, she propped open the truck door with her tank and climbed down from the cabin. She managed not to bump or batter herself in the process. The truck was so old, one cut wouldn’t just make her lightheaded, it would give her tetanus. She decided to leave the keys in the engine and the headlights on, so she had something to light her way. The fence that surrounded the Valley was still about fifteen yards from the parking lot, so on she marched.
When she made it to the edge of the Valley, she stopped. Before crossing over, she wanted a smoke. The sky and sand—though vast, mighty, ever-changing, and whole—couldn’t keep her attention the way the burnt yellow bud of a cigarette could. She flipped the pack open, halving the glitzy gold logo that had always made her feel like a queen. There were two cigarettes remaining: one right-side up, one upside down. She’d flipped one over when she bought the pack two months ago. There weren’t many days where her body could tolerate the smooth finish of a Marb 27, so packs lasted her longer and longer the sicker she grew. She thought about smoking the one she’d flipped, but it was bad luck to smoke the lucky if it wasn’t the last in the box. So, she grabbed the other, drawing it to her lips and stopping only when she heard the sound of a tent unzipping, followed by her name.
“Lari? Lari Drake?!”
She didn’t need to look back. She didn’t need to see the familiar tight jaw and sorry eyes she’d grown accustomed to. She knew who it was just by the way he said her name, Lah-ri, like it was scripture and the world hinged on it.
“It’s really you.” He approached her from behind, placing a hand on her shoulder when he was finally close enough, when he got close again. “Thank God I’ve found you. Thank God you haven’t gone over.”
She pulled herself away from him. “Conrad. It’s Lari Conrad again. I changed my name back after you left me.” She paused and waited for his words. They never came. “What are you doing out here?” He looked different than he had just a year ago when he left. Shadows laid across his face and warped his features in the headlights’ halogen glow. His expression looked ragged, void of the smile that used to bring her peace. Time was a luxury Lari didn’t have, so she didn’t wait for his response. “You’ve got till the end of this smoke. Then I’m gone.”
“No screaming?” He seemed relieved, like she’d handed him a gift.
“Like I want to spend my last minutes in this world arguing with you. I did that long enough.” She clicked her lighter. The sharp teeth of the sparkwheel cut into the thin skin on her thumb. He smelled sour, like dry sweat and sunscreen. Back when they’d spent Friday nights at Roar-Shark’s Arcade, trying to get a one-coin completion on Crystal Castles, he’d smelled like lumber. “How’d you find me, Saul?”
“Tara told me.”
“I instructed Tara to tell the people who cared about me tomorrow, after it was done.” She took a drag. Smoke burned like a brand at the back of her throat. “Don’t know why she told you.”
“I would have liked it if you had told me.” His gaze lingered on the pack of cigarettes in her hand. “Can I bum one?”
“You don’t smoke.” She always had, but the cancer didn’t start in her lungs. It came from the bones first, then latched and rooted onto everything else.
“I think I’m going to start.” Saul ran his hands through his hair. His curls stuck up in some places, frizzed out in others.
She inspected him skeptically before flipping the pack back open. “Here, take the lucky.” In college, when they were both broke and working odd jobs, her lucky smoke was the greatest gift she could give. But he’d never asked for it before. As he took it, their hands touched and Lari couldn’t help but envy his warmth. His hands were hot, calloused. His blood hadn’t given up circulating yet. He could still work himself hard enough to blister. He didn’t look so different to her now. She held the lighter out for him and when the rod was lit, he took a puff that then led to coughing.
“It’s not a cigar, Saul.” She’d offered to teach him to smoke dozens of times, but he always refused. She looked to the sky. It sparkled like a marquise cut. “What do you want?”
He coughed more, and Lari thought it must’ve been contagious, because she started hacking too, the phlegm thick at the back of her throat. When he stopped, and she kept going, he waited for her to regain her composure. Somewhere between her first round of chemo and ordering hedge apple supplements from the web, she gave up looking good while being sick. She’d said it was impossible, at least for her.
“I’m here for you,” he said. “I heard you stopped treatment a couple months ago. I wanted to call, but I didn’t. Then Tara sent me a text saying you were heading out to the Valley this week, and I just got in my car and started driving.”
She took another pull and held the smoke in her mouth and then let it all slither out in a slow exhale. “My body’s gone bad. It was just a matter of time.”
“There are other ways you can go.” He took his smoke the right way this time. He’d always been quick to learn and quicker to perfect. The same applied to the two of them. Three dates in and he had her down pat. He could have gotten down on one knee on that third date and she would have married him right then. “Safer ways to go.”
“Like assisted suicide? So, we can drag it out even longer? Or should I just wait for the cancer to kill me like everyone else?”
He took her hand gingerly. “No one knows what happens after an abduction. It might not be death. It could be worse. It could be pain, suffering.”
“Then it wouldn’t be much different than here.” She pulled her hand away and crossed her arms to her chest. It felt like what little body heat she had left was escaping. “I’m going. Tonight.”
“What about your parents?”
“That’s what Tara’s for. I’m living too long, Saul. They call the cancer aggressive, but it’s not aggressive enough. I’m ready. I’m not sick and tired anymore. I’m just tired. I’m so, so tired.”
He started to speak, but then stopped and pulled one of his hands to his face. He stared at his shoes. Lari noticed how stained they were, how much desert dust was caked on the thin leather straps of his sandals. He’d been camping out there for a while.
“If you’re set on going, let me come with.”
“Why would you go and do that? You don’t take risks.” Her words were pointed, precise, and intended to hurt. She was ready for the screaming. She’d been born ready for screaming.
He wasn’t. He hadn’t. “I’ve been saving up all my risk-taking.” He smiled. “Time to cash in.” He sent her world into chaos. The air in her cannula puffed harder. The sand moved under her feet like it was breathing. There was just a hint of wind in the air that night. Saul always had a way of stopping her heart, even long after he left. For a second, she even wanted to take his hand back. If she could’ve forgiven him, she just might’ve.
“Why do you want to come with? You’re healthy.”
“I don’t need you to forgive me, Lari. I don’t need you to love me. I just need you to know that you don’t have to go alone. I care about you, even after everything.”
“Even after everything?” What did ‘everything’ entail, she wondered. “We’ve been apart longer than we were married, Saul. You’ve been gone for thirteen months.” She went to brush her hair behind her ears, but she felt nothing but cannula. She’d lost her hair with her first round of chemo, but she still wasn’t used to being bald. When she was young, and she hadn’t yet woken up to find clumps of loose hair on her pillow, Saul tidied away stray pieces of her hair behind her ear. He’d do it in between rounds on the Nintendo and bites of cheap Chinese food. When they played together, he used to beat a level and then let her go back through and collect all the hidden things he missed. Invincibility stars, secret rooms, Lari had an eye for finding what was forgotten.
After they’d dated for a few months, Saul figured out she didn’t care much about the actual video games, just that she got to play alongside him, the same way he loved laying his head on her lap as she cross-stitched, watching the needle poke in and then out of the pattern.
“You went away, Saul.”
“That’s all in the past, Lari. We can move on.”
“Everything’s in the past.” She paused. “See? Now that’s in the past. In a couple minutes, I’ll be in the past, too.” When he first left her, she wanted to scream, cry, and shout until there was nothing left of her, but she kept it all in. She was scared and she’d hoped he’d come back if she gave him time, but he never did, at least not until now. “I want you to go back to Fresno, Saul. I want you out of my life before I end it.”
“I don’t . . .” He put his hands together like he was in prayer. “I don’t want to fight.”
“Why? That’s what you thought would happen, isn’t it? You said it, yourself, ‘no screaming,’ like you forgot we had a time where there was no screaming.”
“If you don’t want me to come with, then I won’t.” He was stern and sounded self-righteous, like he was on the cross: a martyr for letting her die on her own terms. She hated that.
“I got cancer and you divorced me, Saul! In what world did you think I was going to want you to come with!?” She snapped.
“You gave me no choice. I had to leave.”
“Right, I forgot. It’s my fault that I got cancer and you couldn’t handle it.”
“It’s your fault you let it change you into someone unrecognizable!” He tossed his cigarette to the sand. “I’m sorry that I didn’t want a front row seat to your death. I tried to stay, but you played judge, jury, and executioner too well. Our home wasn’t safe anymore.”
“Safe?!” Lari rolled her eyes. “Are you still talking about that book? Is that still what this is about?”
“You threw the book at me. That six-hundred-page tome left a hole in the wall where it hit.”
“It hit the wall because I wasn’t throwing it at you!”
“But you wanted to, right?”
“That’s not the point! I wouldn’t have hurt you.”
“You wouldn’t have hit me. There’s a difference. You were a virtuoso of cruelty. It was like you hated me.”
Virtuoso. He loved music, its terms, its science. Lari had nearly forgotten he’d played percussion in their college’s marching band. It felt like so long ago, but it was just a couple years since they bundled up at late autumn football games, frequenting the kiss cam in between kick-off and half-time because they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
“I did hate you.” She rolled her head back and took in the stars and lights as they intermingled. The sky looked like a pool of purple and blue ink, swirling and bleeding as foreign bodies invaded.
“You can’t understand. It was . . .” She trailed off. Did she want to tell him why? She felt like she had to. “You’re young now, but you won’t always be, and I will. I’ll be stalled out at twenty-four while you go on living.” She paused again, the words strung themselves together rhythmically, like they were a part of a song she’d heard and played over and over again. “It was like I was your starter marriage, your almost soulmate.” She dropped her cigarette and stamped it out with the ball of her foot. “Twenty years from now, when you look back on this, you’ll remember me, but you won’t miss me. And if you do, it’ll make you sad, but there will be this part of you that you hide and fear, and that part of you will be thankful I died, because it brought you to your new spouse, your children, your home. My death will propel you to the future you live and die in. You’ll be so content in your new life that you won’t mourn the one you missed.”
His face twisted and froze, half-scowl, half-devastation. “I tried everything I could to fix us, but you were hiding your hand. Why didn’t you say something?”
“There was no point in bringing it up then, because you could deny it all you wanted. You could have promised to remember me. You could have sworn that I’d be your only true love.” The cold closed in, penetrating her skin down to her holey bones. “You could have even meant it. But time goes on, Saul. I am a chapter in your book, while you have inserted yourself into the end of mine.”
Whenever they made it close to a one-coin clear, but ultimately lost, Saul would press his lips tight till his face turned red, but then just laugh and say they’d give it another try next week. But here, in the cold desert, under the sky that changed too much to go unnoticed, he let his mouth hang open until he finally mustered up the brain power to speak. “We could have spent another year together. When you were sick, I could have held you. When you were scared, I could have loved you. We would have spent that time together, but we didn’t, because you didn’t say anything, Lari. How could I have known?”
She always imagined him angrier when she told him. As he spoke, she realized she wanted him to be angrier. “We wouldn’t have been happy. I couldn’t spend time with you anymore, not knowing that you were going to live.”
“So you drove me away, and now you’re mad I left? Lari, this scenario where I go on living happily after you’re gone? It’s not real. I never thought like that. Not when you were first diagnosed, not when you didn’t respond to chemo, not when they said it was terminal.” He stopped himself short, got quiet, and then started talking again, this time softer. “Even knowing you could go over tonight, and I could still be here, stuck on the other side of this fence, I can’t think like that. Wrapping my brain around a world without you in it is impossible.”
She looked to the sky again. It was already feeling like home. “Maybe now, but give it a year, maybe two.”
“Lari, I’m not going to forget you.” He unexpectedly grabbed her hand. She nearly wrenched it away again, but this time she let it linger in his. “I’m not going to sit around twenty years from now thankful you’re dead. When you go, I am never recovering from it.”
His words felt like medicinal poison in her bloodstream, harsh at first, and then inevitable. “I wish it was true, but you’ve got nothing to ground me in, Saul. No wedding anniversaries. No children. No home.” At the time, living with her parents seemed smart and frugal. Now she hated herself for it. She hated herself for a lot of things, broken body and all. He was right. She was cruel. And though she couldn’t forgive herself, she could forgive him. “It’s okay.” She squeezed his hand as firmly as she could before pulling hers away. “Even after everything, I still want you to be happy, even if it hurts me, even if it crushes me.”
He looked at the sky this time. Did he see home too? His face looked sharp, angular in the night light, but she knew strong features hid a soft heart.
He squeezed her hand back and sighed. “Do you remember why you asked me out? Not the funny reason you tell at parties, the real reason.”
She knew, but she asked anyway. “What was the reason?”
“On our wedding night, you told me you asked me out on a whim. You came to Roar-Shark’s every Friday, but on the Friday we met, you didn’t want to play anything. The weather was too nice. So, you decided to pick some poor nerd to entertain for the night. The first thing you ever said to me was that you wanted a blue slushy and Fun Dip. We drove around goofing off till early morning and I’m pretty sure when we parted ways you gave me your number out of pity.” He laughed, but he also cried. “And when you told me that, I joked about it. We laughed and went on our happy honeymoon. But, Lari? I was fucking scared. The fact that you could have picked someone else that night and none of this would have ever happened? It still scares me.”
She soaked in his words, only taking on what she could handle. The longer they hung in the air, the deeper they cut. If crying hadn’t hurt so much, she would have. “Are you sick? Are you dying?” she asked.
“Then there’s no reason for you to go into the Valley.” She placed a hand on the fence. Her shoe hit and accidently knocked over an aged photograph. It had to be at least a few years old. The glass pane was warped, and the color faded. Three smiling faces looked up at her. There must’ve been at least a mile of stuffed animals, photos, and personal mementos lining the fence. Were they tokens of goodbye or tokens of remembrance? “Go have that wonderful future where things are so good, you forget that they were ever bad.”
He stepped closer and put his hand over hers. Their fingers curled together on the fence. “I don’t want that life. I want this. I want now. I want you.”
When a bone breaks, it’s meant to grow back stronger, but when he left, she had already lost the strength it took to heal. “Is it love or guilt pulling you over, Saul? Don’t do this just because you feel guilty. It’ll ruin it for me. It’ll ruin everything. This is a life-ending decision.”
“It’s love. I still loved you when I left. Even if you go today and I don’t, I will always love you.”
“Okay.” Lari lifted her cannula off and let it fall to the ground with her oxygen tank. Saul did something unexpected. He kicked his shoes off and then dug his toes into the sand. “I want to do that too.” She steadied herself on him as she removed her own shoes. They’d been elastic flats, stretched too thin from age and wear. Having the sand between her toes felt ecstatic. She welcomed the sand’s coolness, its shape. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” After this, there was no going back, not even if one of them changed their mind. Together, Lari and Saul decided he’d climb the fence first, because he could easily lift himself. Then, he’d help Lari over. When they’d both crossed the fence, Lari had the honor of leading them down into the Valley. It was steep, but the sand seemed to move with their feet, pulling them in deeper and deeper.
“It may be a while.” Lari mused. “Some people get stuck out here for hours.”
“It’s funny.” He had his face to the stars.
“What’s funny?” She watched the lights overhead, graceful and dangerous.
“The game from the night we first met—” She cut him off.
“I know. I know. I bumped the control panel and it threw off your score.” She laughed. He never let her live that down. On their first anniversary, they’d gone back to the arcade and she helped him beat the machine.
“Well, that too,” He smiled. “But the game I’d been playing—”
His lips kept moving, but the sound was gone. It didn’t matter. She already knew the game he was playing the night they’d met, when she saw him and thought she could bear to spend the next four hours with him. She never guessed it’d all end up here. And he was right. It was funny. The lights came down to take him first, and then her. She and Saul kept their hands linked as she closed her eyes. She felt weightless and warm.
Hannah Carmack graduated with a B.A. in English from Northern Illinois University. She enjoys volunteer work and spends most of her time with STEM Read, connecting reluctant readers and bookworms alike through the world of literature and science. Her debut novel Seven-Sided Spy was released January 2018. You can learn more about Hannah at hannahcarmack.com
Some say El Cucuy’s just
a Lone Star State folk tale
designed to scare children
into quick, quiet compliance.
A back-of-the-closet or
under-the-bed über booger
who loves totally misbehaving,
scrumptious, luscious little kids.
Has a well-worn, great-for-radio face,
leathery and brown as a well-worn saddle,
sad soulful downturned eyes,
but he’s got outsized incisors too!
Can shapeshift into a wolf
as it quivers in a green mist
at the foot of yer bed
or fen or forest, wherever yer led . . .
Loves kid giblets barbecued
or highly seasoned in a stew.
Loves their scrumptious plump little
limbs and bums. Slowly roasted or filleted.
Mmm. Little bite-size toes and fingers—
good for dipping in a dried tomato sauce
or a saucey salsa. Mmmm. Yum yum.
Good with a little telly, a good horror movie . . .
He may seem completely guileless—
at first. Just a grey-haired duffer,
maybe a little scruffy, down on his luck.
A cut above a dumpster diver. Has some pride—
if not a set of clean clothes
and a little limpy ‘n’ gimpy
in a taped-over set of hard-toed boots.
Just indisposed. Snotty but composed—
one of those. You wanna grab for a wallet
To fend him off rather than assail yer nostrils
or singe yer eyebrows in his fiery breath.
A get-thee-hence—to your epoch or fen type.
But, no, he’s got you penned—
Is elderly and defenseless, you assume.
Is gonna lay a boney finger on and waylay you
with a tale of his own. Go ahead and groan.
Sooner or later he’s gonna salivate
and get that white goo in the corners
of his inner tube lips. He’s gonna blubber
something about summer and upset yer pegs.
Ain’t always in the closet or under the bed.
Could be pushin’ a shopping cart instead.
Watch for the red eyes that don’t mean stop.
They mean dinner. Steak and kidney giblets.
Yer on the menu, son.
If yer a sinner then get it straight:
yer a scrumptious reprobate
Yer the steak tartare. The I-can’t-wait-
with Hairy Houdini here.
Can’t you see him droolin’ and winkin’?
He’s got a choice spot in his plot for you!
Richard Stevenson retired from a thirty-year gig teaching English and Creative Writing at Lethbridge College in 2015. He has published thirty books to date, including, most recently, Rock, Scissors, Paper: The Clifford Olson Murders (also available as an audio book from Dreaming Big Publications, USA, 2016) and A Gaggle of Geese (haikai poetry from Alba Publishing, UK, 2017. ) A children’s collection, Action Dachshund! is forthcoming from Ekstasis Editions in Canada.
Rob Livingston is a Utah-based artist working in various art mediums and styles. He has been featured in visual art publications numerous times and is always looking to reach more viewers. He has been commissioned to create work for individuals and businesses since January of 2019, and is currently studying Art and Design (with an emphasis on Illustration) at UVU. He strives for quality and meaning in his work and hopes the viewer has an “experience” with his work; whatever form that takes.
William Russell had enough time to think, ‘Oh no!’ as he saw the other car speeding toward his. Then there was the sound of grinding metal, squealing tires, and a screaming voice. As pain lanced through his body he had just enough time to realize the screams were his own. Then . . .
. . . flashing lights, a man’s face staring at him . . .
. . . jarring pain as his body was moved . . .
. . . the sound of an ambulance siren, the feeling
of moving . . .
. . . a cluster of concerned faces, and a mix of electronic sounds . . .
The next time consciousness returned was different. This time, it was a slow climb back to reality. There was no jarring, no sudden pain, instead he seemed almost like a
machine coming back online, system by system. It was
a luxurious feeling. He stretched his legs, but there was a problem. His right leg felt unusually heavy and unable to move comfortably. Then the feeling of, not pain exactly, but twinges, started to impinge on his comfort. With a sigh, he realized that he would have to confront existence head on.
He opened his eyes. There were black spots on a white background. No, they were holes. He was, he realized, looking at perforated ceiling tiles. That made sense: the rest of his body was telling him he was lying on his back. He turned his head a little to the right. Part of a thick pillow, in a clean white case. That explained the comfortable feeling. Beyond that, a white wall, and a picture of a vase of flowers.
Time to try the other way. He turned his head, past the ceiling tiles again, to the left. The same white pillow, but above it something different. Mousy brown hair. A pair of blue eyes. Smooth white skin. A small nose. A face, he decided. A face he felt he liked. It looked friendly, particularly as small lines appeared at the corners of the eyes. A smile. A smile, to William, seemed like a very nice thing to see.
“Welcome,” said a soft voice from the direction of the face, “I thought it was about time you returned to reality. I can normally judge these things pretty well, though the Doctor said you’d be out for another hour
The face moved, going up and out of William’s sight till he remembered to track it with his, still surprisingly heavy, head. He saw now that it belonged to a woman in a nurse’s uniform. She seemed younger than him, and she moved in a careful and gentle manner that made him feel safe and contented. Then again, the bed had made him feel contented too. Maybe, he thought, he was on some sort of drug? He hoped not. The feeling was too nice to be artificial. He wanted it to last.
“Hmm,” said the face as it looked at him, “awake, but perhaps not yet really back to reality. Maybe a little too much of the painkillers.”
William felt it was time to express himself. He had always been a good speaker. “Whaa . . . ?” was the best he could manage now though.
“What happened? Where are you? That sort of thing?” said the nurse.
William nodded. It seemed a safer bet than trying to speak again.
She picked up a clipboard from the end of his bed, made a notation, and then turned back to him. “You’ve been in a rather serious car accident,” she said. “I don’t know all the details of the accident, but you broke your right leg in three places, suffered several internal injuries, and took a rather serious knock to the head. The Doctor had to operate to reduce the swelling up there, and we were a bit worried about you for a while.”
She came back to the head of the bed and leaned over him to adjust something on the wall above his head. She smelled great to him. She smelled—he could think of no other words—soft and safe.
She completed her adjustments and sat by the bed again. “You are in a facility, but I assume you understand that already. We are a facility that manages special cases like your own.”
William mentally thanked himself for the decision to buy such extensive health insurance.
“Now,” she said, staring into his eyes, “I think the best thing you can do is to get some more sleep.”
William found he couldn’t break the stare. He looked deep into her strikingly blue eyes. He found himself falling, and falling—asleep.
William woke again. He felt refreshed, more aware, more like his old self. He had no idea how much time had passed, but he quickly ascertained he was in the same room. Same ceiling, same pillows, same picture on the wall. He raised himself slightly and saw a small bedside cabinet. On top of it were some of his possessions: his wallet, his appointment book, and his phone. Phone! He could use that, find out how long he’d been out. He could find out how the company was doing without him. Surely someone would be scheming to replace him. He needed to nip any back-stabbing in the bud, and put people in their places.
With some difficulty, he managed to reach over to the cabinet and pick up his phone. He tried to turn it on, but nothing happened. Must be powered off, he thought. He held the button down, but all that greeted him was a dead battery icon. No luck there.
“Now why do you want that on?” came a voice from behind him. He rolled over to see the nurse standing by his bed. He must have been concentrating so hard on the phone he didn’t hear her come in. It made sense to him.
“Well?” she asked, looking down at him with a half smile. Somehow, he felt guilty, as if trying to use his phone had somehow been a reflection on her hospitality. Silly, he thought, it wasn’t her hospitality. She just worked here.
“Work,” he managed to say at last.
“No, no. Doctor was quite adamant that you shouldn’t be stressed by anything. No contact with work. Just lie here and recover.”
“Visitors?” he asked in a croaky voice.
“None,” she said. He felt a little disappointed. Sure, he hadn’t expected his family, but maybe that girl, what was her name? Sally? Sarah? Sue?
“Doctor wouldn’t allow any, anyway. Remember, we don’t want to stress you.” Well, that explained it then.
She picked up a glass of water from a cabinet on the other side of the bed. “Now, you drink this. You sound thirsty.”
He rolled back onto his back. He was thirsty. He hadn’t noticed until that point. How had she known? Well, she was a nurse, that was her job, he guessed.
She touched a control and the head of the bed slowly rose, pushing William into a half-sitting position. Then she gently put the glass to his lips. He felt the cool refreshing water slide down his throat, soothing it. He felt, again, how safe and contented she made him feel. It was like having a mother, who just looked after you and never judged.
When she was happy he’d drunk enough (and he had), she took the glass away. She fluffed his pillow a bit and then made her way down to the foot of the bed to make another note on the clipboard.
The nurse raised her face and looked into William’s eyes again. “You will have to see a visitor this afternoon, though.” Her face turned dark, briefly, before she continued.
“Not that I like him, or that Doctor wants him to disturb you. Never mind, if you want, you never have to see him again.”
William was confused. He had no idea what, or who, she might be talking about.
She must have seen the confusion on his face because she smiled a small smile and said, “Don’t worry.” She came back to the head of the bed and lowered it. “I’ll look after you. I won’t let him disturb you too much.”
William smiled. She had such a way of comforting him. He trusted her.
“Now,” she said, “don’t let it bother you. Get some sleep and we’ll deal with it this afternoon.”
William couldn’t disagree with that. He slipped down under the covers a bit more, and closed his eyes, content in the knowledge that the nurse was looking after him. She was almost addictive. He could do with a bit more water, though. He opened his eyes, intending to ask her for some. Except she’d gone. The room was empty again. Oh well, he thought, she must have gone out the door already. Except . . .
He raised himself up as well as he could, resting on his elbows, and looked around. No door in the wall with the picture. No door opposite the foot of the bed. No door to his left. No door in the wall at the head of the bed. There was no door to the room. Just four white walls. His mind whirled, then gave up and crashed into relieved unconsciousness.
William woke slowly, almost struggling to regain consciousness. It was like the slow coming to he had experienced when he’d first woken in the facility, only now it didn’t seem like fun. It seemed like a fight to recover his senses and understand what they were trying to tell him. Voices were impinging on his mind. People were speaking in his room, but they were so unclear.
“Might . . . noticed something. Not . . .
“ . . . matter. Won’t effect . . . Decisions need . . .”
William’s eyes eased open. Her face was at his side. It swung, almost immediately, in his direction. Her smile made his heart flutter. Then his memories came back.
“Door . . .” he gasped, trying to push himself up.
“There, there.” She leaned over him and her hands pushed gently on his shoulders, holding him down on the bed. “Doctor said you had some sort of mild seizure this afternoon, but you’re better now. Feeling better, yes? Relax now.”
Staring at her face, those eyes, smelling that smell, he felt himself relax. Brain injury, mild seizure. Yes. It all made sense. He lay back and stopped struggling. “Mmm,” he said.
She looked into his eyes before standing, and touching the control to raise the head of the bed. “Good,” she said, “that means you can talk to your visitor.”
Suddenly he was aware that there was another person in the room. Standing at the foot of the bed was a man, a few years younger than him, William thought. The man had his blond hair slicked down. He wore a light colored suit that managed to look both expensive and cheap at the same time, almost as if the man had spent a lot of money on a suit designed to look cheap. He had a pair of sunglasses on, and he favored William with a gleaming smile that William felt was anything but sincere.
William knew exactly what he was. “Lawyer,” he muttered.
The man slipped off his sunglasses and came toward the head of the bed, on the opposite side to the nurse, smiling his insincere smile. “Bill, Bill, Billy my son, you’re exactly right. I’m here to help you.”
William, who hated being called Bill, could not understand how someone younger than him would call him ‘son.’ It irked him. “Ambulance chaser,” he growled.
“Billy, my man,” said the lawyer, lowering himself onto a stool by the right side of the bed, “you and I need to talk. You have some issues, and I can help. Maybe we could talk in private.” He gestured with his head toward the nurse on the other side of
William thought for a minute. A lawyer meant something had gone wrong. Lawyers were the people you brought in to clean up messes. Maybe a private conversation would be a good idea, but the nurse made him feel safe. He liked having her around. She supported him.
“Nurse stays,” he said.
He saw the look of dismay, or was it distaste, that flitted over the lawyer’s face. Then he felt the comfortable feeling of her hand on his left shoulder. She made him feel good.
“Okay Billy, it’s your call,” said the lawyer. “We have to get real, though. You have some responsibilities to take up. There are people who want a piece of you.”
William was used to that. His ruthless climb to the top of the company had not
made him many friends. He had to ask, though, “Who?”
“Well, the husband of the young lady who was in the car with you.”
“Why? If he’s too boring for her it’s not my fault.”
“Because she’s dead. She died in the crash, Bill.”
Well, that was a bit of a shock to William. She’d been a nice young thing. He felt cheated that he couldn’t remember her name, almost as if she was doing that on purpose. Not that—he supposed—he would have remembered her in a year anyway.
“Not just her,” continued the lawyer, “there were also two people in the other car who died, and one more who will never walk again. Given your blood alcohol level at the time of the accident, their families consider you to have a major degree of responsibility for this.”
“So, you’re a lawyer. If I pay you enough you can get me off this.”
“It’s not that easy. Anyone who looks at this can see that you are responsible, at least for a good majority of what happened. I can help you, we can bargain, but you’ll have to stand up and admit responsibility for your actions.”
William sighed. “Do you think I got to where I am today by admitting guilt? There are always ways around these things. Loopholes that can be exploited, others who can take the blame. That’s what lawyers are for. You find the loopholes for me. You stop me being held responsible.”
The lawyer finally lost his smile. “Not this time, Bill. It’s too clear. This time you can’t hide behind others. This time you have to man up and confess what you did. Then we can negotiate and get a reduced punishment. I can help you—”
“Wait,” said the nurse on William’s left. “There is another way.”
William leaned back against his pillows so he could easily turn his head between the two. “What do you mean?” he asked. She was just a nurse, but something about her made him listen to her, trust her.
The nurse took her hand from his shoulder and grasped his hand. “I mean you don’t have to do what this man says. I can take you away from here.”
This was unexpected, but he wanted to hear more. The thought of going somewhere with her was not at all unpleasant.
She continued, “Come with me and you’ll never have to see someone like this again. You’ll never have anyone telling you that you need to confess anything. You’ll never have to take responsibility for yourself.”
William looked between the two of them. The lawyer meant well, but he was promising a whole bundle of heartache. The nurse, though, she’d looked after him, made him feel comfortable. She had made reality bearable. He had enough money stashed away from the company. He could go anywhere, live like a king. If she could help him get out of this, well, she could come along too. It surprised him, he didn’t normally trust others so easily, but he liked the way she made him feel. Well, it wasn’t like he’d have to stay with her forever once she got him out of this mess. People could always be replaced.
He looked at the nurse. “Can you?”
“Yes.” She squeezed his hand.
“Yes, but she . . .” the lawyer began.
“Don’t argue. I’m going with her. Thank you for your offer, but I have no intention of confessing anything to anyone.”
William looked back at the nurse, who was smiling broadly. Her smile continued to widen, spreading so far and so wide that her mouth began to split at the sides.
“What?” William tried to pull his hand away, only to find that her grip was a lot stronger than he’d thought. He couldn’t pull his hand back.
The nurse’s smile had now split her face in two. With a flick of her head she sent the upper half flying in a fine shower of blood. The face that was uncovered was not at all human. It had eyes like a cat’s, a dark red mottled skin, and a ridge of horn or bone running across the top of the head. The smiling mouth was now filled with yellow fangs.
“You can come with me, to a place for people who don’t like to be responsible. We have a whole lot of ways of dealing with people like you.”
William desperately tried to pull his hand away. He looked down to find that her skin had peeled back from her hand as well, revealing long dark taloned digits that were digging into his hand.
The floor started to tear. Before William’s incredulous eyes, a hole began to form. The tear grew bigger. It was blacker than anything William had ever seen. It wasn’t just black, it was an absolute absence of any light.
“Come on, dear.” With a superhuman burst of strength, what had been the nurse pulled William from the bed and hurled him, screaming, into the hole. She winked at the lawyer, and then followed William in. The hole vanished after she went through.
The lawyer stood and brushed down his suit.
“I guess you can’t help them all,” he said. Then he vanished.
A few seconds later, so did the room.
David is originally from New Zealand, though he currently lives and works in South China. He lives with his wife and young son. He used to write a lot when he was a university student (and that was a wee time ago), but only really began to write short fiction a few years ago. While he is normally a happy and outgoing person, much of his fiction tends to be a bit dark. His short stories have appeared in online and print publications, most recently including Wild Musette, Teach. Write., and Crimson Streets.
We’re sitting on the rooftop watching the city burn. When we moved in, I was skeptical about paying for the view, but I have to admit that the light playing across the skyscrapers and the bridge is beautiful. Romantic, even.
I pass the canteen. You slip one end of your straw into the cap and the other into your gas mask. This isn’t ideal, but if you close your eyes, the screams of the dying almost sound like Auld Lang Syne. We’ve got food, water, and ammunition, and we always wanted to live somewhere with a fireplace.
Thomas Cavazos is a writer living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California’s MFA program. His science-fiction, horror, and poetry have been published online at NewMyths.com, Rise Up Review, Constant Readers, and Trembling With Fear. You can find more of his work at www.stupendousstories.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@t_cavazos) to see him harass politicians, corporations, and other public figures.
Anna Ploeger is a student at Utah State University and is currently studying Art Education. She plans on being an art teacher so she can share her love of art and culture. She has loved to draw and doodle ever since she could hold a pencil. Anna loves the outdoors and spends most of her time outside. She enjoys the mountains and everything that goes with them. She started making comics just this last year, starting with Rip. She first met Rip a year ago during Inktober when she created him.
A clock face is hammered into the wall, high above the bed. The roman numerals are higgledy-piggledy, and the hands bent outwards, like the whiskers of a cat. There aren’t any cogs or mechanisms behind it, only floral wallpaper, but it keeps time just the same. You can’t take your eyes off it. Grandma owns many unusual things, but this must be the weirdest. The old woman said she hammered the components in place herself. You smiled agreeably because Grandma frightens you sometimes.
Marnie clings to your back even though it is very stuffy beneath the duvet. Her pajamas are damp with perspiration, and her skin is slick where it touches yours. Her breath tickles the nape of your neck, but you daren’t move. Children are to be seen and not heard, especially at bedtime, Grandma said.
Your feet are prickly and hot within their woolen bed socks. Marnie told you to remove them before you both climbed into bed, but you were distracted by the strange sounds coming from the attic space.
You regret not paying attention to Marnie now.
Grandma told you and Marnie not to mention these sounds to your parents and that if you did, they wouldn’t believe you anyway. You thought this might be true. Grandma bakes cakes and knits scarves, occasionally she makes Sunday lunch for the family, but sometimes she acts differently when mum and dad aren’t around.
Silence fills the room like cotton wool, the only sounds coming from the television downstairs, and you begin to doubt your own ears.
“I hope she goes to bed soon.” You feel as much as hear Marnie’s tremulous whisper caress your hair. “Then we can throw off the sheets?”
The mumble of the television stops suddenly. Grandma’s walking stick thuds rhythmically to the alcove at the bottom of the stairs. Her voice rises to find you. It is sharp and scratchy like rusty barbed wire.
“Don’t think I can’t hear you,” she says, snatching a raspy breath. “I might be old but there’s nothing wrong with my ears.” Moonlight pours through a crack in the curtains and draws a line up the wall. The minute hand of the clock shivers with trepidation. Grandma waits. You sense her down there, a statue in the darkness. Marnie is aware of this too, you can tell by the way she holds her breath. Her lips part but she closes them again, somehow you know it’s an apology.
After a prolonged silence, Grandma returns to the living room and the comfy chair sighs under her weight. The television comes to life again, and the minute hand of the clock takes an unsteady step forward. Thoughts of your parents occupy your mind. Dad making you laugh with his silly stories as Marnie (too old for this) rolls her eyes. Mum taking you and Marnie to the reservoir and picking wimberries on the grassy embankment. Mum and dad were so excited at the prospect of their date night, but strangely reluctant to let you sleep at Grandma’s for the first time. You didn’t like the way mum’s eyes lingered from the passenger side window as you waved goodbye from Grandma’s front step.
You all but forget the lumps and bumps of the mattress which make home between your ribs, waiting for sleep like a passenger at a rural train station. You watch the clock.
The cramp begins as an acorn sized knot in your side, below the spot where Marnie’s hand rests. Its painful embrace has woken you numerous times before, more often than not in your calves. No amount of sucking through teeth or rubbing seems to alleviate them. Mum said the pains were caused by dehydration and insisted on plenty of water before bed, but it doesn’t always work. Your weighty lids spring open as the pain spreads like a bruise across your side. The muscles grow taught. This is bad.
Marnie must have fallen asleep, because she jerks a little before lifting her hand. You inhale and exhale through your nostrils, bite down on your lip, try to stay still but it’s no good.
“Don’t,” Marnie breathes.
The duvet is heavy and rustles like it’s filled with a thousand plastic bags. You take a corner and peel it away. Night air cools the droplets of sweat which have formed on your skin but agitates the muscles, which contract further. Your teeth burrow deeper into your bottom lip, drawing blood, and a tear caresses your cheek. You squeeze Marnie’s hand. Her grip suddenly tightens, and you sense her look to the ceiling.
Something has awakened in the attic. It is the thing which makes strange sounds, like sheets dragging across floorboards. Your stomach fills with ice-water, and the cramp goes into overdrive. Arching your back instinctively, you release Marnie’s hand and knead the spot as quietly as possible. One of the mattress springs which has made home between your ribs frees. Compressed for hours, it trembles before suddenly expanding with a loud twang.
The television falls silent.
“I’m not going to tell you twice,” Grandma screeches, but she is the least of your worries. The thing upstairs quickens pace, towards the exit, towards the spindle stairs leading to the landing outside. Marnie begins to cry. You feel her shoulders shaking and hear her faint gasps for breath. This unnerves you because she is usually very strong, even standing up to the bullies at school when they pick on you.
The spindle stairs groan as something descends, one step at a time. The minute hand of the clock trembles and moves backward from twenty past ten to quarter to nine. The air cools further. You sit upright, but it’s like moving in treacle, like the world is spinning a little slower. Marnie’s face is unusually pallid, but her cheeks are rosy. Clouds spill from her open mouth. She looks to you and then the slide door. Not one, but two shapes appear behind the frosted glass and the door rolls gradually open.
They make a sound like October leaves as they ghost into the room, a funeral procession in black. Their heads are bowed beneath narrow robes. Hands like arthritic branches stretch out before them, tasting the air with the tips of their fingers. For a surreal moment it looks like they move underwater, something about the way the folds of material undulate like seaweed. You glance briefly to the clock, and the hands vibrate furiously in place.
They smell like dust and pennies. You know they are old, much older than grandma and perhaps older than the house itself. It is an instinctive knowing, like a mouse recognizing a hawk when the shadow descends. In another universe, outside this torpid lacuna, Grandma’s cane goes thud, thud, thud.
It is only when Marnie grabs your upper arm that you find yourself standing atop the mattress. Fear is fertile soil and courage has germinated someplace deep inside, born out of necessity. Wiggling from her grasp, you pad across the uneven surface and extend a hand.
The creature shrinks back and emits an avian screech as the hood of its robe bobs and weaves. It turns to its companion and this is when you grasp its robe between finger and thumb. The cold material feels papery and thin, like a bat’s wing. You pull with all your might, as quickly as the turgid air will allow, and the creature turns inside out, an umbrella in a gale.
The ghastly sheet flails and resists, desperately attempting to rectify itself, but there is a strange weightlessness to it. Angry screams vibrate through your bones as your arm is dragged this way and that, but you stand firm.
The second creature looms close and the coppery smell of pennies intensifies. It moves in slow motion, navigating around the bed like creeping death. Marnie’s pale hand cuts through the darkness, grips its robe and whips back. You turn to find her standing at your side, equal parts fear and grim determination on her face, as whatever-it-is resists. Your teeth chatter and vibrate as their screams make home inside your head, bleaching your vision white. Your fingers grow numb from their constant battle, and you feel the creature slipping away. Finally, it jerks free and flies in circles around the room. You catch a glimpse of black eyes and mean, little teeth.
The door almost bursts off its hinges. Grandma hobbles into the room, all round and wrinkled like a vegetable left in the sun. A shawl hangs over her shoulders, and her hair is lank and gray. Moonlight reflects in her spectacles, and her mouth is a flat line.
“Enough,” she says.
Raising her stick, Grandma points to the clock on the wall and the creatures freeze mid-air. Marnie releases the one she was holding, and it remains stationary before her like a frozen shroud on a washing line.
“I told you to be quiet,” Grandma scolds you both. The hand which holds the walking-stick is trembling. “I said no noise. Do you think that was for my benefit? Well, do you?” Her stern gaze travels from you to Marnie and back again. “If your parents hadn’t . . .” she takes a deep breath. “Well, anyway. Let’s tidy this mess up.” The handle of her walking stick is a brass goat head. It is tarnished, and one of the sapphire eyes is missing. Mum told you the stick was passed from mother to daughter all the way back to the seventeen hundreds. She said one day it might be yours.
Grandma gestures with the stick again and the clock turns backward, slowly at first but building up speed. The creatures move in reverse, hopelessly recounting the steps they’ve already taken until they skulk back through the sliding door. Grandma steps out of their way, her spine against the wall, and watches them shuffle down the passage and up the spiral staircase. Soon they are back in the attic. You hear them slink along the floor like rotten silk before falling silent.
The hands of the clock stop abruptly, glowing red. No one speaks for a moment.
“Right, bedtime,” Grandma says, finally. “You’re both going to be tired in the morning.”
She approaches, and you and Marnie climb under the duvet. You remove the woolen socks and toss them to the floor. Grandma tucks you in.
“What were they, Grandma?” Marnie asks, and the old woman recoils a little. Her thumb rubs the snout of the brass goat, and she slowly exhales.
“I guess you could say they came with the house,” she says.
Her lips feel itchy as she plants them on your forehead. She smells of powdery, floral perfume. Her eyes don’t leave yours as she straightens up, and in that moment, Grandma almost looks like somebody else.
“Sleep.” She says as she leaves, but sleep is a stranger. You stare at the clock and listen to Marnie breathe. It sounds like she has finally drifted off, but something bothers you, a mental splinter digging just under the skin of your consciousness. As time passes you start to wonder if it was actually all a dream, a strange nightmare conjured up by less familiar surroundings. At that moment something captures your attention. A copper spring protrudes from the center of the clock face where the two hands join. It is small and wiry and bobs up and down—a small cog balances on the end of it. The hands themselves are even more crooked than before and the wallpaper behind them is singed.
You watch closely, willing the minute hand to proceed with every ounce of your being, but nothing happens.
Marnie murmurs and turns over. The mattress groans.
Upstairs, something shuffles along the floor.
Gary Buller is an author from Manchester England where he lives with his partner Lisa and daughters Holly and Evie. He grew up in the Peak District where the hauntingly beautiful landscapes inspired him to write. He is a huge fan of all things macabre, and loves a tale with a twist. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association.
Luke Spooner is an artist and illustator living in the South of England. Having attained First Class degree in illustration from the University of Portsmouth his current projects and commissions now include illustrations and covers for books, magazines, graphic novels, books aimed at children, conceptual design and business branding. Find more information about him and his work at www.carrionhouse.com
Sam slouched behind his battered desk. He took a slug of single malt, lit a hand-rolled cigarette, and opened a newspaper.
“Yeah, Betty, send her in,” Sam called through the door before any knock came.
A blonde walked in. “Nice to meet you. I’m—”
“It was the Mob,” Sam said. “They killed your husband. Your man discovered the mayor’s gang ties and deviant sexual proclivities, then tried blackmailing him. Pretty stupid.”
“Oh,” she said, slightly flustered. “Should I—”
“Yeah, leave town. Give Betty a hundred bucks for my fee and she’ll get you settled.”
“Thanks.” The woman left.
Sam’s gaze never left the newspaper.
Drew Norton is a writer living in the Emerald City of Eugene, OR. He lives with his fiancée, Katie, and a fat cat named Nasu. He was recently published in Wild Musette Journal.
“I must say I appreciate the opportunity,” Lounds said as we mounted the stairs, old wood creaking beneath our feet. He was a tall, thin man whose eyes twitched constantly behind a pair of thick-lensed glasses. “Studying the Mandala of the Seventh Aspect is the dream of every Tibetologist—but I hardly need to tell you that, of all people.”
“Then I must confess to ulterior motives.” We reached the landing. I used the spare key to unlock the huge room the gallery used for storage. A smell of must and dry-rot and age assailed us from within. “A positive review of the gallery in the Post—from the pen of Robert Lounds, no less—would help us attract prospective buyers. The auction is set for next week, and we need every cent we can muster from the sales.”
Lounds nodded in that vaguely dismissive way of his, and a sardonic half-smile appeared on his lips. Inwardly, I cursed myself for almost flubbing my lines, but he was too immersed in his own thoughts to pay close attention to my babbling. His eyes strained into the gloom ahead, past silk drapes and deftly woven tapestries, past priceless vases and delicate statues carved in ivory. For a moment I saw the shadows of the storage chamber move and slither around the finely molded corners: a trick of the dim light that filtered through the dusty windows.
Laughter rose at the back of my throat, the kind of laughter that sounds like screams. I choked it back, feeling at once elated and terrified. Against all odds, Lounds had accepted my invitation to visit the empty gallery after hours. Did he suspect something? More than likely. Shrewd and suspicious to a fault, he knew there was no love lost between us. Yet he had come: the draw of the infamous sacred painting was too powerful to resist.
At worst, the scroll would turn out to be a hoax, one that cost him a wasted hour or two. At best . . . Lounds had a good idea of what would happen if he found the genuine article, and so did every scholar of Tibetan culture and religion in the world.
“It has a nasty history, this scroll of yours.”
“No use denying that.” I tried to stop myself from speaking, but my tongue carried on as if with a mind of its own. A voice in my head begged me to stop, to tell Lounds it was all a hoax, to keep him away from the door at the end of the storage room. But there was a deeper voice beneath it, one that seemed to emanate from some dark, unknown place; it egged me on, whispering hideous secrets, singing of grotesque wonders. “The monk who painted it went mad and hanged himself in the courtyard of the temple, after setting fire to all his work. This thangka painting is the only piece of his that survived.”
“Hardly the first insane artist in history,” Lounds said, his eyes riveted to the door. His facade of studied indifference was crumbling. “Or the last.”
“It’s more than that,” I said. “Madness and death have followed the painting wherever it went. Legend speaks of a noble of the Tsangpa dynasty whose sons vanished while playing in the ceremonial hall in which the Mandala hung. The Jesuit explorer Andrade mentions it in his journals in connection with several ghastly occurrences in the city of Tsaparang. Then there is the unexplainable disappearance of its last known owner, a British envoy to China at the turn of the century.”
We paused at the door, next to a book-stand of polished rosewood. “Numerous attempts have been made to destroy the Mandala, but all have failed. Tibetan clerics refuse to acknowledge its existence. To them it is an unholy artifact, a blasphemy made into solid form. They think that the artist who painted it had a special talent—that he opened a gate to the darkest basement of the universe. Touched the heart of the unknowable. That whatever he found there used him to paint the Mandala, create a doorway into our reality.”
“Doorway into reality.” Lounds was staring at me, his thin smile twisted into a sneer. “You always have been partial to . . . alternative explanations, haven’t you, Wilder?”
The cynical gleam in his eye brought it all back: the acrid debate that had ranged across the pages of several anthropological journals, his brilliant rebuttal of my theories, my loss of tenure at the University. That he had been later forced to publish a full withdrawal of his statements under threat of legal proceedings was small satisfaction. My academic reputation had been tarnished beyond repair. Lounds had gone on to become a leading figure in the field of Tibetology, while I had sunk into obscurity, eking out a living as a glorified gallery custodian.
Time does nothing to dull the razor-sharp edges of humiliation; the wound hurt no less—more, in fact—than it had all those years ago. Hatred, black and bilious, loomed at the back of my mind like a great wave; it took all the self-possession I had to push it back. Lounds suddenly looked frightened—not like he was getting suspicious, but worried that he’d crossed the line, that I might take offense and rescind my invitation. I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile and reached for the doorknob.
“Superstitious drivel,” I said, opening the door to the closet and taking a step back to let him in first. “A man who doesn’t learn from his mistakes is a fool. I don’t like to think of myself as one.”
There was a low, hissed intake of breath: it was as close as Lounds got to a full-fledged gasp.
The silk painting hung in a case on the far wall, its subtle colors radiant in the dimmed light of the closet. It was the work of a master of the art: its fragile lines and complex angles drew the viewer’s eye inward, toward the center of the Mandala, where intricate shapes and strange, elaborate pictograms seemed to dance and cavort in curious patterns. If one looked at the painting long enough, tried to follow the patterns from the outside in, one fell prey to an uncanny optical illusion: the figures of men and beasts would begin to move, and the center of the Mandala would emit a faint glow. There was the impression of a half-sighted something dancing on the fringe of one’s vision, something the eye could not quite focus on. I sought something else to focus my eyes on: as accustomed as I was to the painting’s effect, I still experienced the peculiar sensation of reality slipping a little, of space curving, ever so slightly, into some unknown dimension.
Lounds felt no such misgivings. His finger, long and elegant, hovered over the glass of the case, tracing the painting’s lines in the stale air of the storage closet.
“Crafted in the Phagmo Drupa period by the monks of Jokhang.” His voice was reverential. The finger shook almost imperceptibly. “It was thought lost or destroyed in the sack of Lhasa by the Dzungar Mongols, but unconfirmed sightings continued to be reported for three hundred years. Now it’s here—but how did you come by such a treasure?”
“Come now.” By blind chance, or a twist of fate, I had found the Mandala in the basement of an unsavory art dealer in Rotterdam. To obtain it, I’d done things that I couldn’t think back to without a shudder, and I’d staked nearly all the gallery’s funds—not to mention the tattered remains of my professional reputation. But it was worth it, had to be. “If you want me to reveal the secrets of my trade, you’ll have to try harder than that.”
Lounds nodded, barely registering my words. After what seemed like an eternity, he took a step back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. I noticed the effort it took him to peel himself away, as if some irresistible force was drawing him toward the painting. The feeling of unreality grew more overpowering; I could sense the room melting inside my mind, its straight lines and sharp corners turning into weird arcs and mad tilts. Terror froze me for a moment, the urge to flee setting my heart hammering in my chest.
“Exquisite artistry, you have to admit.” I spoke faster, my words floating across a depthless gulf. “At first sight it’s a classical thangka painting, but on closer inspection . . .”
I turned and lurched toward the door, knowing that I wouldn’t find it where it was moments ago, that the curving, shifting room had moved it beyond my reach. But it was there—blurred and frayed around the edges, as if leaking into some unseen space, but real enough to walk through. “On closer inspection you can see differences. The animals in the painting do not exist in nature, or in any mythology known to man. Also, the lines—can you see the lines?”
“Indeed.” His face was now inches from the glass, his myopic eyes blinking rapidly. “It is as if the center is not in the middle at all, but an inch or two to the side, no matter what angle you see it from. It should be there—I know it’s there—and the light . . . the figures . . .”
He cut off and glanced over his shoulder, but I had already stepped into the darkness of the storage room, closing the door behind me and turning the key in the lock. Lounds uttered a low cry that might have been surprise; I heard him cross to the door.
“Very amusing, Wilder.” His tone was strained. A fist pounded on the closed door. “You’ve had your fun. Let me out.”
“I thought the Mandala merited a closer look.” I backed away from the door. A shriek of mad laughter almost made me jump; it took me a moment to realize it had come from my own lips. “A longer perusal by an established expert—an overnight perusal, at that.”
“Open the door.” Anger was swiftly giving way to panic, the contemptuous note gone from his voice. His rational mind would refuse to accept the changing angles of the room, and his limitless arrogance would sustain him for a while, in spite of the evidence of his senses. But his reason would collapse eventually, crumble under the crushing weight of the madness that seeped out of the center of the silk painting. There was no room for the thangka in a sane, orderly universe. “Open it now, or you’ll be hearing from my lawyer. The gallery opens in the morning. Someone’ll let me out, and when they do I’ll sue you, you bastard.” The last few words came out as a cry of sheer terror. “I’ll sue the shirt off your back!”
“Goodbye, Lounds.” Was it my imagination, or did the dark wood of the door ripple and bubble like molten clay, something vast and ancient passing beneath the thin surface of reality? I beat a hasty retreat from the storage room, pausing to double-lock it, then down the wooden staircase, fearful that my knees were going to give way. But they didn’t. The unease I felt ebbed as I made my way down the stairs, replaced by the warm satisfaction of a job well done.
I knew that when the gallery employees unlocked the doors in the morning, they’d find nothing. There would be an investigation into the disappearance, of course, and sooner or later the police would come around asking questions, all to no avail. Lounds might have thought the same: his threats became pleas, and the pleas became screams, fainter with each step.
By the time I got to the front door they had ceased altogether. I held my breath and listened, but there was only silence.
Damir is an aficionado of weird and macabre tales, presently residing in Arlington, Virginia. His reading interests range from horror and fantasy to pulp and science fiction. His short stories have been featured in the Lovecraft ezine, the Gehenna & Hinnom Magazine and in anthologies by Grinning Skull Press, Gehenna & Hinnom Books, Martian Migraine Press, The Mad Scientist Journal, Ulthar Press, Emby Press and others. He earns his living as an accountant, a profession that lends itself well to nightmares and harrowing visions.
In the last ten years , Carmine G. Diaz has accomplished more than what some great artists in history have done in their entire lifetime of works, with well over 9,000 counted art pieces in the form of illustration , fine arts, and as of recently , large scale public murals. Although, his moniker BLK MTL (black metal) may only be known as legend throughout the underground low-brow art circuit of the city where he got his big start, Denver, Colorado. Mr. Diaz is well on his way to breakthrough status and finding critical acclaim in the world of Modern Art. Learn more by following him on instagram. For all inquiries , commissions and bookings email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am pressing a star against you,
Searing is its purpose.
Near the place where the most blood flows,
Transient transmissions; we caught them.
Tell me why you did it, how to fix it, these
Aberrations torn open in space, soon to
Encompass all time.
Relics are forbidden for a reason.
Ripping through space is all they’re good for.
Help us fix this.
Orion, won’t you speak?
I don’t want to hurt you.
Give us the answers my brethren seek.
Panic is spreading.
Death is what you seek.
Tearing through you would be an
End to our means,
Illustrating to your party our severe
Our dire and
Need for answers, like a star, is burning
Heavy and hostile.
Former IT guy turned spec-fic writer and librarian, Austin Gragg lives in Independence, Missouri. When he isn’t writing, reading, or teaching digital literacy classes, he can be found playing Dungeons & Dragons with his wife, friends, and a pride of small domestic lions. If you enjoyed his poetry, you can find more on Twitter and Instagram @austingragg
or at www.austingragg.com .