“Well, gentlemen, here we are,” I said, excited and nervous to start this new chapter.
Thomas and Issac were settling in and unpacking their things.
“I never envisioned myself becoming a lighthouse keeper,” Thomas replied.
“How hard could it be?” Questioned Issac.
We had only met each other on the boat ride in. I didn’t know their past, and they didn’t know mine.
Hell, we were only on a first-name basis at this point. We finished putting away what belongings we could fit into our small bags and headed out to investigate the terrain surrounding the lighthouse.
Jagged rocks outlined the perimeter, and the lighthouse itself sat on a cliff. To describe it as dangerous would be an understatement. The view, however, was breathtaking. The ocean was oddly still and could be seen for miles. It was almost hypnotic, allowing thoughts I was trying to bury to resurface.
“It’s getting late,” Thomas yelled, breaking me from my trance.
“Let’s head back for dinner,” I shouted back.
On the menu tonight was rice and dried pork. We sat together at a makeshift table and made small talk, getting to know each other better.
“Thomas, what’s your story? Wife? Kids?” Issac asked.
“Neither. I lost the love of my life a few years ago. I haven’t been the same since, can’t bring myself to move on.” Thomas hung his head.
“You aren’t alone there. I just found out my wife has been having an affair for at least the last few months and that the baby I thought was mine is most definitely not.” Issac said, shovelling rice in his mouth.
“What about you, Ben?” Thomas asked me.
I froze. I haven’t talked to anyone about my past, let alone to people I just met on a boat.
“Actually it’s bizarre how we all have suffered trauma in different ways. I lost my entire family in a row boat accident. Throwboated out too far, while a vicious storm was rolling in… I tried so hard to get to them but, there was nothing I could do, I swear!” I surprised myself with how defensive I was getting.
The others just stared at me. Trying to conceal my trembling hands, I cleaned the few pieces of pork I still had on my plate and excused myself from the table.
My sleeping arrangement was small but sufficient, and I laid on the bed gazing at the ceiling.
I really did try to save them. I’m trying to start fresh.
Even though I could still hear my wife’s cries for help, I drifted off to sleep. As always, my slumber didn’t last long; after tossing and turning for an hour, I decided to take a walk.
The air was cool, and the wind was picking up. Maybe the waves hitting the shore would be soothing? Buttoning up my trench coat, I headed towards the water’s edge. To my surprise, the ocean was completely still. Not a wave or even a ripple. But the wind was intensifying. The hair on the back of my neck started to stand up. Then she appeared, walking across the top of the quiet ocean. It was my wife, but she no longer had a face. The outline was there, but it was all a pale white canvas. But yet without a mouth, she was still screaming!
I awoke the same way I always do, in sweat from another nightmare. It was part of my routine at this point. It’s been two years since the accident. I thought taking this job would feel rewarding. Like somehow, if I could do my part to save others out here, I would feel better about not saving my family. So in a way, I was excited to start this job to maybe silence the voices that haunted my dreams. To maybe forgive myself?
As I walked outside, I realized there was a storm rolling in. Great. This was it. Testing us to see if we could handle this job or not. The three of us strapped down anything we thought could be taken by the wind and made sure we were on high alert to warn any ships out there.
As the night passed, the wind howled, and the water still didn’t so much as ripple. Thomas and Issac didn’t question it, so I just kept this observation to myself. We ultimately saved some ships from the wreckage throughout the storms, risking our lives for strangers, but the voices didn’t stop. The nightmares didn’t stop. All three of us were damaged, lost souls just trying to feel whole again.
Days passed, then weeks, then months. The isolation on this island was harder than expected. We did our best to be good to one another but being stuck with the same people for months at a time was getting to all of us.
“It was almost like this lighthouse was cursed.”
Things started to fall off the rails the night that Thomas walked into the cold, motionless ocean. Thankfully Issac and I caught him and convinced him to come back to the lighthouse. I have never seen a man’s eyes look the way his did. So empty and unemotional. He told us a lady in the water beckoned him to follow her into the icy depths. The craziest part was that he claimed that this woman looked just like the love that he lost. He was so adamant it was her. Thomas wasn’t the same after this incident; he barely ate and didn’t rest. Just pacing the shoreline looking for his love.
We chalked it up to just hallucinations until he took his life; I mean, we can only assume. Yet again, he was convinced he saw this woman out in the ocean, and he left in a rowboat, vanishing into the night. There was nothing we could do to stop him; he threatened to harm us with a knife. In his deranged state, there was no way he made it to the desired destination.
It was almost like this lighthouse was cursed. Like the souls we couldn’t save, or the ones we had lost were calling to us. Taunting us.
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Issac fell to the madness next, kept claiming that he heard a baby crying every night. I tried to reassure him it was only the wind. We’ve had so many storms, yet the waters lay still. He, too, became distant.
I found him floating, face-up, eyes black, along the rocky shoreline of the island. I assumed he drowned. When I radioed out, dispatch said they wouldn’t be able to reach me until the morning because of an anticipated storm and that I would have to ride out the night with my dead coworker’s body.
That night the voices got louder; the wind was screaming. How was I supposed to endure this storm with a rapidly decaying body? I needed desperately to get off this island.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse- it started,
“Daddy, daddy, please help us.”
I wasn’t dreaming this time; I know I wasn’t. Again, I heard my daughter’s little voice. I wasn’t about to let this lighthouse take me down, to fall to its curse. Not like the other men, letting those unsaved souls take me away. I TRIED TO SAVE YOU, DAMMIT! I screamed into the lighthouse, my voice just echoing back to me.
Abruptly my wife was there, slowly descending from the staircase. This time she has a face, eyes hollow, skin hanging from her bones, and she’s wailing…but…smiling. An evil, horrible grin is plastered across her entire face. Before I can even process what’s happening, she is dragging me out of the lighthouse and towards the cliff. Her strength is otherworldly. I’m trying to fight her, but I am proving to be no match.
Before she throws me to my watery grave, I can faintly hear police yelling. They are coming to rescue me! I am flooded with relief. How did they find me so quickly?
“Hands up! Police!” They shouted through the wind.
But my wife didn’t raise her hands, and then everything went black.
“Was the lighthouse curse following me?”
I awoke in the hospital, grateful to have survived. What was going on? I was handcuffed to the bed. I screamed for the doctor. There was clearly a misunderstanding.“Doctor, what the hell is going on here?”
The doctor came in and curtly asked me what I remembered. In as much detail as I could, I recalled all of the events that occurred over the last several months. Starting with what was intended as a fresh start but ending in such unspeakable terror. She looks at me as if to be studying me, and then she begins…
“I have to be honest with you. That is not how the last WEEK has transpired,” she slowly began. “You see, Ben, you had a psychotic break two years ago and murdered your entire family. Then you dumped their bodies in the ocean. You were diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric hospital.
It is there that you escaped with two fellow patients Thomas and Issac. You three managed to reach an abandoned lighthouse, and that is where you hid yourselves. Ben, you murdered them too. Thomas and Issac’s bodies were found in the lighthouse. You strangled them and hid them. The bodies also showed signs that someone stripped the flesh off of them to consume. I know this is hard to hear, but please don’t try to deny it. We’ve been through this, and all of the evidence points to you. When the police finally found you, you were ready to jump off the cliff. That being said, you are now being charged with two additional murders. You are an extremely sick and dangerous man, Ben.”
I sat there numb. This couldn’t be true; it was the lost souls that took those men’s lives and my family. I lost them in an accident! They have it all wrong. Was the lighthouse curse following me?
I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples as if somehow that would help me make sense of everything. When I opened my eyes, the doctor was joined by a detective who was eyeing me closely.
“I tried to save them. It was an accident. I TRIED TO SAVE THEM DAMMIT! LEAVE ME ALONE!” I said, trying to explain to them.
I struggled against the restraints. The detective slammed his fist on the side table in frustration, but when he did, the water in the cup didn’t ripple. Zero movements. It brought me back to how odd it was that the water didn’t move by the lighthouse. She’s here. I’m not crazy!
The hairs on my arms start to stand, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see what is left of my wife peering around the hospital curtain. Faceless again.
“SHE’S HERE! BEHIND THAT CURTAIN, YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE ME!” I screamed at everyone in the room, desperate for her to stop tormenting me.
Security was called.
Then darkness again.
Brittany MacBeth is a daycare provider by day. By night, she is a writer. Her passion is to dive deep into people’s imaginations, forcing them to think outside the box of ordinary. She lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with her husband and three kids.
Welcome to the House of the Lord, everyone, and especially to each of our little critters who were able to join us tonight.
I’m Pastor Lambert, and I’m so glad you’re all here for this momentous Sunday evening at Open Arms Fellowship. Shortly, we’ll be taking a vote that could shape the very future of our congregation. A vote, I pray, which will determine once and for all how we are to interpret and respond to the unprecedented presence of these little critters, as we’ve come to call them.
A few quick reminders: If you’re a guest tonight, we’re so glad you’re here, but we do ask that only tithing members cast a vote. We also ask that everyone switch off your cell phones and any other recording devices, as sadly, in the past, there has been the occasional sheep in wolf’s clothing who sought to exploit the least of these among us. As God’s People, we must always speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Amen?
To our members, I’m delighted to see so many familiar faces. The trials we’ve faced these past six months would’ve long since run off a people of any lesser faith. We’ve witnessed the seeds of discord take root and grow amongst our little flock, splitting us into warring factions: The End Timers versus the New Edenists. The Environmentalists versus the Evangelists. Those who believe we’ve been entertaining angels versus those who say we should be exorcising demons. Not to mention the Purgers.
Most of you have chosen a camp, and more than one camp has sworn to leave and form its own church if tonight’s outcome isn’t to your liking. We who should be the united body of Christ have become as divided as the body of the Levite’s concubine.
But take heart, Church. The Lord works all things for the good. And the Spirit has blessed me with a message tonight that I believe will melt the hardest heart. Beginning with a word of personal testimony about how the Lord has been sifting my own heart like chaff ever since the day little Aardie there first crawled out from under Sister Dovey’s skirt.
Sister Dovey, with your permission, I’d like Aardie to join me on stage at this time.
That’s right, Little Buddy, come on up here. Isn’t he something, folks?
Six months have passed now since we first met this brave little guy. We were in the middle of an altar call when, with every head bowed and every eye closed, someone let out a holler like a spirit-filled Pentecostal. I opened my eyes to see half the church jumping on the pews and the other half scrambling for the door. All because this rascal here had slipped away from Sister Dovey unnoticed and plucked one of young Miss Lory’s toenails clean off. But for all the commotion he caused, the poor critter was more scared of us than we were of him. Deacon Finch found him later rolled up in a ball inside an offering box.
In my office, Sister Dovey told me through tears about the cold winter night when she found on her doorstep a critter with a slender body, a horned shell, dozens of insect-like legs, and a long thin snout. Seeing as that fit the description of the thing presently scratching around in the offering box on my desk, I had no reason to doubt her story. When Sister Dovey had seen how the critter whimpered and shivered, she took it in without a moment’s hesitation. She couldn’t tell me what it was, where it came from, or when it got a hankering for toenails, but she knew the poor soul needed help. What we do to the least of these, we do to our Lord. Amen?
So, Sister Dovey found herself with a new pet, one she thought best to keep out of sight, considering its unusual appearance. But the first time she left it alone, it gnawed a hole straight through her front door. She returned home to find it wandering in the street, just asking to get run over. The next time she went out, she tried caging it, but its pitiful howls broke her tender heart. It wrapped itself around her calf when she let it out and didn’t let go for hours. That’s when she made the switch to ankle-length skirts. For months, she went all over town with a bizarre creature clinging to her leg, and no one was the wiser. That is, until the Sunday morning, it was tempted by Miss Lory’s polished pinky nail.
Sister Dovey hadn’t quite finished her story when Sister Wolff stormed in, demanding to know who was responsible for letting a wild animal loose in the House of the Lord. She’d worked herself into one of her famous tizzies, but this time I couldn’t blame her. After all, are we not to be good stewards of God’s generous gifts? And thanks to Sister Wolff spearheading our Nehemiah Rebuild Campaign, one of those gifts is this beautiful sanctuary in which we now gather. Our legal team hadn’t even reached a settlement with the contractors yet, and there were already bloodstains on the brand new carpet.
I was half-inclined to oblige Sister Wolff’s request and call animal control right then and there. Of course, it didn’t help matters that earlier the same morning, every last blossom in the church flower beds had been either trampled or eaten by that troublesome goat. You know the one, that speckled brute who’s always “escaping” from the Methodist preacher’s place down the street. Why that man insists on keeping goats in the middle of town is beyond me. But then, you can add that to the long list of things I don’t understand about Methodists. Amen?
Sister Dovey begged me not to take away her precious little critter. Said she never meant for anyone to get hurt, least of all a child. I’d sooner arm wrestle the devil than doubt her good will. Sister Dovey has taught children’s Sunday school ever since we first left Blessed Assurance to form our own church eight years ago. Those of you who were with us then know the faith that step required. But we did so in a Spirit-led response to their unrepentant sin, namely haughtiness, intolerance, and elitism. So, you’ll understand my predicament when Sister Dovey declared that if her little critter wasn’t allowed to return to this church, then we shouldn’t expect to see her again either. I couldn’t let that happen. To cast out a faithful member for merely being different would contradict our core values. On the other hand, Sister Wolff was also threatening to leave if she ever saw the thing within 100 yards of this building.
By God’s grace, we reached a compromise. Sister Dovey could bring her little critter to service on one condition: it remained caged and outdoors. Sister Wolff raised concerns about the rumours that might spread once passersby started to notice the strange breed of rodent on our front lawn. But we must fear God over man. Isn’t that right, Sister Wolff?
Our little covenant, however, didn’t even last a whole Sunday. I had barely begun preaching when we heard some neighbourhood boys laughing and throwing rocks at the poor critter. Not ten minutes after Deacon Finch went out and ran them off, I was interrupted a second time when that speckled goat kicked over the critter’s cage, so I asked Deacon Finch to bring it into the foyer. But when no one could hear my sermon over the critter’s constant squealing, like the judge to the persistent widow, I conceded and asked Sister Dovey to set the cage on the pew beside her. Sister Wolff objected, of course, but I said at least it was no longer on the lawn.
The very next week, young Jay came to me after the service and asked if he could pet “Aardie.” That’s what he called the little guy since, as you can see, while most of him resembles some kind of giant horned centipede, his head looks just like an aardvark’s.
Now, naming a thing is no trivial matter. Adam’s first task in the garden was the naming of God’s creations. Naming Aardie wouldn’t change his wild nature any more than Adam had changed the nature of the beast he called Lion. But a name reorients relationship. Adam was the Master of that which he named. The Lord also reveals to us our true names. Did he not change Abram to Abraham? Jacob to Israel? Simon to Peter? Saul to Paul? Was the sinful nature of these men changed the instant they heard their new name? By no means, but it signalled a change in their relationship to the Lord, who would in time make them into a new creation.
I had only begun explaining this to Jay when I saw that pesky speckled goat pooping on the sidewalk again through the stained glass. I went straight to my office and called the Methodist preacher, who I knew was done preaching since he’d moved up his service times in order to beat us to the best lunch spots, but he didn’t answer. Back in the sanctuary, Sister Dovey was holding her critter in her lap as children petted him and fed him sacrament wafers. As soon as I heard her call him “Aardie,” I knew he’d spent his last Sunday behind bars.
Aardie’s emancipation was a difficult transition for many of us, myself included. He left droppings scattered all over the building, which, though small, smelled like twice rotten eggs. Isn’t that right, Aardie? Who’s a big stinker? He chewed up mic cables, ate a hole straight through a box of sacrament wafers, and even bit off half a dozen toenails before we implemented a strict closed-toed shoe policy. On the bright side, this puts an end to Sister Wolff’s complaints about the youth wearing sandals to service.
Not that there was any shortage of complaints. But little Aardie here was never bad; he just wasn’t housebroken. Were you or I so different once? Yet, He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. Amen? And look at Aardie now. Why he’s better behaved than some of your own children.
Nonetheless, I suffered my doubts. I hadn’t thought I could afford to lose Sister Dovey, but now she threatened to drive away a dozen other devoted members. Seeking some means of casting out the pet without offending the owner, I took to locking myself in my office for hours on end to plead with the Lord on bended knee.
I even stopped by the church on a Saturday for an extra session in my War Room. It must have been a divine appointment because as I entered the building, I saw a goat’s rear end dart into the sanctuary. By the time I fetched a broom, though, the darn thing was nowhere in sight.
I found instead Sister Robinson practicing the organ, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” with an anointed passion. Drawn by the heavenly sound, I wandered down to the front pew where I saw something I couldn’t quite comprehend: Sister Robinson was playing with a third arm! As I watched, I realized the “arm” was actually the fur belt she wore every Sunday, but somehow extending from her waist and striking the keys with incredible fluency.
When they released the last chord, Sister Robinson looked over at me and, thinking she’d been alone the whole time, her eyes went as wide as those offering plates. I stared back in silent awe, struck dumb with unbelief like Zechariah. Peering out at me from her midriff was none other than Harriette: her furry, hawk-beaked serpent.
By now, we’ve all grown accustomed to Harriette and her musical gifting, but imagine my reaction at the moment. There I stood, as trapped as the Israelites between the Egyptians and the Red Sea. If two church members had been hiding secret pets, how many others might be doing the same? If I continued to allow Aardie to openly attend services, others would inevitably feel their critters deserved the same treatment. Aardie was already such a handful; a service with even three or four such critters would be utter chaos. Sister Wolff would have an aneurism.
On the other hand, if I forbid Sister Dovey to bring Aardie, she’d leave the church. And what if Sister Robinson decided to follow suit? Who would play the organ then?
I went straight to my prayer closet, prostrated myself before the Lord, and cried out for discernment. I’m here to tell you, folks, God answers prayer. While locking the front door on my way out, I dropped my Bible, and it fell open to Luke 8:17: “For nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest.”
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The next Sunday, after preaching on this very passage, I gave an invitation for any who felt led to walk down the aisle and make their secrets manifest before God and His people. After some encouragement, Sister Robinson came down and unwrapped Harriette from around her waist. Touched by her example, Sister Kite stood and raised her sunhat to reveal a bat-winged toad nesting in her hair. Brother Rook also came forward to confess the growth on his back, which we’d spent months praying for, was, in fact, a three-tailed spider-cat lying still and flat beneath his blazer. Standing alongside those three brave souls and their little critters, I declared that from that day forth, no one else’s secrets need remain hidden.
Church, be careful what you pray for. I soon met Sister Martin’s gator-snouted jackrabbit, Brother Drake’s leaping shark-toothed koala, and Sister Swift’s scorpion-tailed chameleon-eyed ferret. These were only the beginning.
Each Sunday brought not only new critters but new catastrophes. Ripped skirts, nipped heels, and soiled seat cushions quickly became the least of our concerns. The Fifth-Sunday Potluck was ruined when a unicorned greyhound knocked over the serving table and shoved her pig-shaped nose into every last dish. Miss Lory’s baptism was postponed after an iridescent dragon-scaled swan took a dip in the baptistry and left behind a few twinkling floaters. But no incident caused more fuss than finding Aardie inside Brother Crane’s casket, feasting on the man’s toenails, not that he had any further use for them.
I confess I was a hot mess. I may have kept it together on the outside, but my soul was being tossed about like a ship at sea. My inbox overflowed with irate emails. Even non-church members were calling to schedule meetings. Many “concerned citizens” felt our pet-friendly policies were emboldening our members to bring their little critters out with them wherever they went: stores, restaurants, schools. Then came our first viral video: Harriette’s organ playing. Dear Lord, the YouTube comments! That, in turn, brought the protestors, some of whom are outside waving their picket signs as I speak. But it also brought from far and wide new members who had either been rejected by more narrow-minded churches or had never before found the courage to bring their critters into the light.
Take Brother Heron over there. The first time I saw his scalpel-feathered turkey, I heard the devil whisper, “You can’t let that thing go swinging its foot-long blades up and down the aisle. Think of the children.” Then, I noticed the patchwork of bloody bandages beneath Brother Heron’s shredded slacks. Did our Lord not have compassion for the poor and downtrodden? Was it not the dirty, smelly, and covered with sharp edges for whom he shed his blood? Here was a man willing to do the same for a lost, defenceless animal.
So, we used our Good Samaritan fund to buy Brother Heron a pair of NHL-certified shin guards. We even drove a service team fifty miles out to his house to install a plexiglass border around the base of his walls and furniture. You’ve never seen a man so grateful. In the fires of persecution, it was testimonies like his that kept me pressing onward and upward.
Yet the pressures from without were but a mustard seed compared to the storm brewing within our walls. When the Founding Forty unanimously asked me to serve as your lead pastor, I vowed to protect this flock from the petty bickering which led our predecessors astray over at Blessed Assurance. Imagine how it grieved my heart to witness you already breaking into factions. Factions who were looking to me, a small-town preacher without a single hour of seminary credit, to settle the debate. Who am I to separate the tares from the wheat? It was all I could do to keep track of the newest positions from one week to the next.
The Delusionists were quickly silenced. After all, we’ve all seen the little critters bleed and draw blood. Then, the End-Timers gained traction, claiming just as the paired animals arriving at Noah’s doorstep signalled the coming flood, our little critters were a sure sign of impending doom. In contrast, the New Edenists argued these were prototypes of the creatures that would fill the New Heaven and Earth. On the other hand, the Environmentalists believed the critters were physical manifestations of man’s perversion and exploitation of nature. The Evangelists said these were fallen creatures who, like men, needed to hear the Good News. Some cried demons, while others called them cherubim. Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John. Are not the heavenly beings from these prophets’ visions all depicted as chimerical beasts?
Eventually, all this arguing and fiddle-faddle boils down to one question: Do these critters have souls or don’t they? If they have souls, they can be saved. And if they can be saved, they can be members of this church. That’s precisely what we’ve gathered to determine this evening, whether to treat these poor critters as equals or inferiors.
It would seem each of us has landed firmly on one side or the other, with the exception of those few anonymous cowards, The Purgers, who seek to remove these critters not only from our pews but from the face of the Earth. I’ll never forget the Wednesday night two animal control officers marched into a prayer meeting and hauled poor Aardie away in a net. You’ve never heard such a heart-wrenching cry. It took Brother Rook, the best lawyer in the county, a full week to get little Aardie here back in the loving arms of Sister Dovey. We still haven’t discovered who is responsible for these so-called acts of purification. But rest assured, the Lord knows.
The day those men came for Aardie is the day I decided to turn my prayers into action by leaning into my spiritual gift of getting folks involved. In this case, getting critters involved. I trained the grazers to weed the gardens and trim the hedges. I taught Brother Heron’s turkey to pass out communion. Even made the switch from crackers to bread so we could stick a bite-sized piece on the tip of each scalpel. I placed water bowls and treats at every entrance and built an outdoor play area with plastic baggie stations at my own expense. I wrote the curriculum for a new Connections Class for members and their critters. I even organized a drive-through Live Nativity featuring the most diverse cast of “barn animals” you’ve ever seen. I dare say it was an evangelistic success, and not just because Sister Larkin’s giant scythe-bladed mantis decapitated the plastic Baby Jesus, causing yet another video to go viral.
But as attendance and new memberships increased, so did the gossip and name-calling and, eventually, the hate crimes: Church members fired for posting photos with their critters on social media. “Exorcisms” performed by drenching critters with oil and tying crosses to their tails. Some even went so far as to kidnap poor Hariette. Praise God, she turned up alive and unharmed, hiding in Sister Wolff’s barn.
Through all this, those relatively few of you who actually had your own little critters repeatedly asked me to pray for you to just be left alone. How you yearned to sit in church again without feeling sized-up or singled out! Never have I felt like such a failure as I did in those moments. I began to believe the Lord had abandoned me. But when I look back on this season from Glory, I know I’ll see only one set of footprints in the sand. Amen?
The Lord’s sovereign plan was only revealed to me this past Friday evening. I was enjoying a divine meatloaf with my lovely wife and daughters when I beheld through our dining room window a transient gentleman rummaging through our garbage cans. I was always eager to care for the poor; I fixed him a doggy bag, threw on a coat, and stepped out onto the porch, locking the door behind me. After all, I had my girls to think of.
The transient gentleman took the bag of food and asked if I could spare some cash. Mind you, this man’s appearance made it evident he couldn’t be trusted with any amount of money, so I offered to take him grocery shopping instead. But he refused, saying he couldn’t ask me to leave my family at dinnertime—a sure sign he was only after booze and cigarettes.
I said God bless and goodnight, but he forced a cough and asked if I had a winter coat, he could “borrow.” I took the opportunity to inform him of the church’s Good Samaritan ministry and invited him to stop by during business hours. When he asked if he could come inside to warm up, the Spirit alerted me to his evil intention. You’d understand if you’d seen the way he was eyeing my girls through the dining room window.
Just then, I was distracted by the all too familiar bleating of a goat. Would you believe it? The very speckled goat that’s been terrorizing the church grounds for months had strolled right onto my front lawn.
I promptly escorted the transient gentleman back to the curb, warning that if he set foot on my property again, I’d be forced to call the authorities. Then, I went for the goat. I shooed and shouted and shoved, but the stubborn brute wouldn’t budge. So, I pulled out my cell phone and called the Methodist pastor. I demanded he come to retrieve his goat, but he said all his goats were accounted for. When I pressed him on the matter, he asked me to describe the animal.
Examining the beast by the porchlight, I noticed some peculiar features that had previously escaped me due to his history of running off before I could get close. Instead of two nostril slits, he had four. His tongue, ears, and tail were all slightly forked. His horns and hooves were made of something like jagged obsidian. Even his speckled grey coat had an unnatural sheen. In fact, other than the characteristic horizontal pupils, nothing about this goat was normal. Not too proud to admit when I’ve been wrong, I began to wonder whether this beast really did belong to the Methodist pastor. Or anyone, for that matter.
Tongue-tied, I stared at the goat for some time before noticing the dial tone blaring in my ear. I looked about and saw the transient gentleman rifling through my garbage again like a dog returning to his vomit. I kindly asked him once more to move on, but he said he wanted to clean up his mess first, which I didn’t believe for a second.
I turned back to the goat and, exasperated, grabbed it by the horns. They slipped right through my grip, and I fell flat on my backside. My hands throbbed with pain. Both palms had been sliced clean open. Behold, the scars!
The transient gentleman asked if I was okay. I stood and told him I was fine, but he started toward me across the lawn anyway. Being a man of my word, I got my phone back out to call the police, but it slipped out of my bloodied hands and onto the grass. I tried but couldn’t manage to pick it up. Seeing it was a brand-new Pixel—donated by an anonymous church member, of course—the transient man went for it, no doubt hoping to pawn it for drug money. I shouted at him to stay back, but he kept coming.
At that very moment, to my everlasting surprise, the speckled goat stepped to my side and belched a giant fireball at the man. The blaze hit so near his feet that his sneakers caught fire. He kicked them off and ran down the street as fast as he could, his shoes still smoking in a charred-black patch on my front lawn. He wasn’t seriously injured, thank the Lord, but he’ll think twice before assaulting another man of God.
While I stood amazed by what I’d just witnessed and the goat stood chomping away on my St. Augustine, my own blood dripping from his horns, the Lord said to me in an almost audible voice, “Fear not, for unto you is given this night a goat.”
It’s true, folks. I, too, have a pet critter of my own. I’ve had him all along but been too blind to see it. I named him Rev since he breathes fire to devour his enemies like the two witnesses in Revelation. He’s here tonight. Would you like to meet him? Come on out, Rev. No need to worry. He’s perfectly safe. See that? Even little Aardie likes him.
Brothers and Sisters, I tell you my story so that you might fully understand this confession: I have broken the command of Matthew 7, verses 1 and 2. I have judged. I have meted with an unjust measure. While outwardly, I appeared to be an advocate for these critters, in my spirit, I was more concerned with keeping up appearances than with seeking God’s sovereign will. I feared losing members and influence. I was bitter toward these animals for the conflict and inconvenience they created. At times, I was even jealous.
That’s right, I’m a sinner saved by grace, just like the rest of you. But His mercy is new every morning. Through Rev, He has shown me that these critters are not to be feared, despised, or envied but rather embraced. They are powerful heavenly beings, sent to aid us in our righteous endeavours and to deliver us from evil. To treat them as anything less would be to blaspheme the Holy Ghost. Therefore, I’m asking every member here tonight to vote in favour of granting to these God-sent critters full membership, with all its rights and privileges.
Deacon Finch will now distribute the ballots while Sister Robinson and Harriette lead us in singing “Just as I Am.”
Brothers and Sisters, the votes have been counted. Of our 145 members, 72 voted in favour and 73 against. The motion has failed to pass.
Settle down, folks. Settle down.
I confess I’m disappointed. I would have thought the wondrous signs I shared with you were enough to dispel every shadow of doubt. But who am I to judge? Even those who heard Jesus’ teachings firsthand were ever hearing and never understanding. We must bear with those of weaker faith as we continue to pray and–
Excuse me, Sister Wolff, but you haven’t been recognized to speak. I’m sorry, but you’ve had plenty of chances to make your case, which you’ve taken full advantage of. Please sit down. I have a few closing remarks before we dismiss to the Fellowship Hall.
Why, Sister, what in God’s holy name? Put Aardie down this instant! Why must you insist on causing a scene? You’ve argued for months, and now you’ve gotten exactly what you wanted. What more could you hope to accomplish by these theatrics?
Calm down, Rev. Everything’ll be fine.
Put that knife away, Sister Wolff. You have our attention. No one has to get hurt. What is it you want to say?
What do you mean just the beginning? Extermination? Now, wait just a minute. This vote was whether to grant the little critters membership. Murder was never on the table.
Stay back, Sister Dovey. I’ll handle this.
You’ve been secretly leading the Purger movement all along, haven’t you, Sister Wolff? I should’ve known. You kidnapped Hariette. You called animal control on Aardie. You’ve been trying to get rid of him ever since that day in my office. And now you want to finish the job. I don’t know how Satan has so filled your heart, but don’t be deceived into thinking tonight’s vote indicates anyone else here will go along with this wickedness. Or was this always your plan, no matter how the vote turned out? Either way, I can’t let you do this.
Rev, do not let her harm that animal.
Listen to me. There’ll be no violence in the House of the Lord tonight. You’re going to stand perfectly still while Rev gets Aardie and brings him to me. Understand? Don’t move an inch. Remember what happened to that transient gentleman. That’s it. Nice and–
Lord have mercy. There’s nothing left of her but a pile of ash.
Has Aardie been harmed, Sister Dovey? Not a scratch. Hallelujah. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, God has spared him from the flames.
Church, you know, I would never suggest this under normal circumstances as it technically contradicts our by-laws, but in light of this miraculous sign and seeing as we’ve just lost a member, it’s only fitting that we recast the vote. The Lord has spoken in a mighty way here tonight, and it would be a sin to deny you the chance to respond in obedience.
Deacon Finch, would you please pass out a fresh round of ballots?
Ryan Shane Lopezis a teacher with an MFA in fiction from Texas State University. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Hypnopomp, Deep Overstock, Porter House Review, Lunate, Fudoki, Patheos, Bodega, and The Bookends Review. He lives in Texas with his wife and their two daughters.Find him on Twitter and Instagram.
“Alright!” he roared, taking to his feet. “You arrogant weasels don’t want to believe me. Well, look for yourselves!” His lips quivered. “Go on!” He gesticulated. “If you come back without seeing it, fancy me a liar until the day I die.”
“It’s not the day you die,” Christopher wisecracked. “It’s the day you lie.”
Abraham—shoulders stiffening—stomped his foot and said, “I’ve said it, and I will repeat, look for yourselves if you doubt me.”
“We don’t doubt you,” Theodore said. “We know you’re as full of hogwash as my pockets are of cash from my Royal Flush.”
“You won’t be as lucky next time,” Christopher said with a wink.
“None of us will be if we stay here much longer,” Abraham added. “Go outside and see for yourselves. Then mock me.” He held his hands over his chest.
Theodore clapped tauntingly. “You are more Shakespearean by the moment.”
Christopher said, “Well, what do I have to lose?” He started for the door. “Truthfully, I’m curious what surprise you do have waiting for us. You may very well be up to a shenanigan, but it’s not a giant space spider.” Opening the door, he stepped outside and disappeared.
Twenty minutes passed. Christopher Watson had not returned.
“Where exactly is your spider?” Benjamin asked, smirking. Adding after a pause, “I’m curious where Christopher is hiding. You’re both in on this scheme.”
“Two bullshitters are better than one,” Theodore joked.
Abraham grimaced. “He was as surprised as you two when I told what I saw. God, I hope not, but I think there is a much more dire reason he hasn’t come back.”
“You are persistent,” Theodore said.
“The most persistent people live in psych wards,” Benjamin said. Momentarily, he glanced to the side, where Theodore and Abraham noticed a curiosity seeping onto his face. “Where is your spider? Are you creative enough to imagine a location?” He snickered.
Abraham grunted at the laughter invading his ears, and perhaps at the thought of the extraordinary sight he had supposedly seen. Cocking his elbows, Benjamin squinted at the host of the poker party, whose eyes were peeled back in either terror or theatrics. Benjamin started for the kitchen. Abraham followed behind before coming to a sudden stop. Benjamin’s hand cocooned the doorknob as the host finally answered the question: “In the backyard, over the embankment sloping to the prairie.”
Benjamin turned, powerwalked to the backdoor, and twisted the knob. The loose latch plate caused the door to shake. Halfway outside, he cast Abraham a quizzical look. “When I return, we are writing ‘Schizo’ on your forehead.”
Nobody was certain if he reached the backyard. But after the passage of forty minutes without Benjamin Robbins reappearing, Theodore was sure something was amiss. Clearing his throat, he approached Abraham.
“Alright,” he said, wearing a crooked smile. “What precisely is going on, lad? Perhaps everyone but me is aware of whatever devilish scheme you’re pulling.”
Suddenly, Abraham’s shell-shocked anguish transmuted into cheerfulness. He patted Theodore’s shoulder. “Guilty as charged,” he confessed, extending his arms in an I’m-under-arrest gesture.
Theodore shook his head disappointedly, defeatedly. “You sly sonofabitch.” He frowned, contemplated, and then, deciding to not let his friends get the best of him, flipped the frown. “Well played, Abraham. But when I count my poker money, I’ll be reminded who the real winner is today. Now, if you will excuse me, I must see where everyone went.”
With that said, Theodore opened the backdoor and shuffled to the outside world. The sun was sinking, and for a split second, Abraham saw fear written in his old friend’s face.
“Curiosity kills the cat,” Abraham said to the empty house. “Works like a charm.” Cruel laughter escaped his lips.
Alone he sat, he and his eyes that moved like loose buttons. Six minutes ticked by. He dialled a phone number. After one ring, a sinister and dry voice on the other end answered: “Done.”
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(Story continued below)
Abraham Crawford grinned and ended the call. The poker pals had been neutralized by a giant man in a green ghillie suit. No more condescending guests who always rubbed in their victories. Abraham was the real victor. The whole pot was his for the taking. The giant had found the cash in Theodore Elrod’s pocket and transferred it to an envelope for Abraham. Retrieving the whole pot was part of the arrangement.
He lifted the lifeless body as blood dripped onto the plastic sheeting under his boots. Theodore was lined up with the rest of the dead on a wide table. Their corpses were beginning their final journey, a journey through amputation and immersion in hydrofluoric acid.
Abraham stretched across the couch. The money would not arrive until the next hour. But he did not have them killed for money. He had them murdered for the sake of victory. Eureka flowed through him. He clapped his hands, smirked, and laughed. A glass of whiskey was poured. His head nodded in self-congratulation. He sat looking at the crack in the wall. Somehow, it had expanded during the last half hour, nearly widening enough to fit an index finger inside. The sound of scurrying travelled out of the wall. He leaned forward, peering into the enlarged crack.
A leg no wider than a hair appeared, glowing bright green. The crack opened more; the rest of the body surfaced. The creature was a baby version of the spider Abraham had fabricated to hoodwink the annual poker players. But it was real.
He held a hand over his throbbing heart. His knees buckled. The sweating—earlier caused by an unhealthy, overweight Abraham walking across the yard to converse with the hitman—returned. The huffing and puffing also came back. His earlier acts manifested as involuntary responses in this irony of horror.
The scurrying intensified. More spiders appeared from behind the crack. Handfuls spilled across the wall, some reaching the ground. He dashed through the hallway adjacent to the kitchen. Turning right, he saw an army of the little creatures charging for him. He turned left and climbed the stairs, pursued by a noise resembling crunching on wood. There was no reason to look. He knew they were behind him. Heart beating a drumroll, he reached the top and opened the door to the spare bedroom. His body shivered as he shut it behind him.
He rubbed his red face, then his wet hair. The spiders would reach the threshold in a few seconds. He opened the window beside the bed and jumped.
But after falling two feet, he became entangled. Abraham looked around. The silk glowing blueish-green cut into the deepening twilight, providing substantial lighting for viewing the surroundings. He was in a web covering the entire exterior of the house. Abraham, stirring maddeningly, heard movement. The footfalls grew louder. He tried wiggling free, but the silk’s elasticity and high tensile strength prevailed. The more he moved, the more entangled he became.
“Help me!” he screamed. “Please, God! Somebody, help me!”
A large mass rose onto the roof of his house: a thirty-foot spider made of a pile of eyes polka-dotted purple and green, eight spiked legs of bioluminescence, a blueish green triangular body, antenna ears with hammer-shaped tips, a tail curved like a hook, and fangs of shining crimson.
Abraham shrieked, squirmed, pulled, and pleaded to no avail. The colossal arachnid wrapped him in silk until his screams deteriorated to murmurs. He lay petrified, immobilized, a prisoner on death row awaiting his injection. The fangs struck with brute force, painting Abraham’s silky coffin bloodred. His body remained alive, but its functionality was dead. Not even a finger could be moved. And when the venom took effect, his guts liquified like those of his victims during their acid baths.
Stars woke up to view the scene. The howl of a wolf pierced the night. The hills seemed to rise.
The universe wore the judge’s robe.
Paul Leehas written fiction for years and served as a columnist for a newspaper. This work, however, is his first published piece of fiction. Growing up, he watched innumerable horror films and shows, including The Twilight Zone and countless slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s. The frequent viewing and reading of such stories bloomed an interest in sci-horror and dark fantasy storytelling. Elements of all three are blended into Something’s Out There.
I woke up and wanted to die. My back was one big area of pain. I remembered that joke one of my work-mates once made: When you’re 50, and you wake up with your back hurting and your head hurting and stiff joints, you know you’re still alive. So I got up with a felt age of 56 by my estimation. I shuffled to the bathroom with my eyes still closed for a wake-up wash and other morning necessities. A base level of alertness achieved, I proceeded to coffee-making to complete my daily mini-evolution. As I sat staring into the hot magic potion, the pain lessened, and the ability to form coherent thoughts asserted itself with one firm realization: The mattress has had it. It’s time to invest in a new one because I am definitely not old enough to establish my status of being alive by the presence of back pain. As a result of that decision, much of my day was spent researching the options available to purchase a new mattress, get it delivered, and the old one picked up for recycling, preferably all in one go. By dinner time, I was ready and placed an order. It was with a sense of smug loathing that I went to bed that evening, knowing the nights of uncomfortableness were numbered.
Four dreamless nights later, the arrival of my replacement mattress was announced. I got up extra early to strip the bed of all its content, laying bare the offending old mattress. The doorbell rang moments after I was ready, and my shiny new mattress was wheeled in by a friendly delivery guy. He picked up the old mattress effortlessly. I waved him and it goodbye at the door. It’s been real, time to move on. I was disproportionally excited, freeing my new acquisition from its plastic wrappings. It unrolled itself, seemingly breathing a sigh of relief as it stretched out in its new home. I smiled and then wrinkled my nose at the new mattress smell. No matter, an open window day would take care of that before I went to sleep that evening. The ninth floor wasn’t particularly prone to window-based break-ins.
So that evening, I got home and made my bed, a breeze of fresh air around me. It was too cold to keep the window open overnight. I closed it just before going to bed. My nose detected a fainter but still noticeable smell in the room. It was bearable, but I still hoped it’d go soon. The smell was a small disappointment. Fourteen hours of fresh air ought to be enough for the wrapped-in-plastic odour to dissipate. Then again, I was too tired to dwell on the thought. My new mattress virtually hugged me when I laid down. It was surprisingly firm but very comfortable. I felt wrapped in homeliness and security as I fell asleep. I slept without waking through the night, but it was no easy sleep. Nightmare after nightmare flashed scenes of horror through my sleeping head. As soon as I escaped one unpleasant scenario, a new one started up. Yet I could not wake up, as if those nightmares kept me trapped inside the dark side of the night. My alarm eventually rescued me. There was no sign of pain in my back, a fact I appreciated and celebrated with an unusual level of alertness that first morning. Somewhat unfortunate because the next thing I noticed was the smell again. Still there. Another open window day.
Physically my felt age has dropped considerably. Mentally, however, I must have turned 80. That’s the only valid explanation for the level of obsession dedicated to thoughts about an everyday item like a mattress. I was significantly more excited than I ought to have been about the effect of a comfortable mattress, and that completely erased the nightmares. Anybody who asked would be told I had a marvellous night’s sleep. No mention of disturbing scenarios in my head. I all but skipped home, looking forward to bedtime. Outside, a storm started brewing as I got ready for bed. Definitely had to close that window now, or it would blow off its hinges. The fresh air held out a moment longer than the smell re-conquered the room. At this point, that’s becoming annoying. It couldn’t possibly take more than two full days of airing. It’s been several years since I purchased a mattress, but I do not recall the smell issue being a long-lasting one. Maybe I forgot, much like the nightmares from the previous night.
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Hugged by my mattress, the smell lingering, I fell asleep and returned to a land of nightmares. Nightmares I couldn’t wake up from. Nightmares I couldn’t quite remember after waking up. Still, like the smell, they linger inside the room, inside me, with a sense of uneasiness. The day outside seemed to match me with its greyness, its rain, its wind. Not a day to open the window, unfortunately. I felt just a little disheartened by it all. My wonderful, comfy new mattress and the painless sleeps overshadowed by a bad smell and unpleasant dreams I couldn’t seem to banish.
I slowly went about my day as if still dreaming. I wondered why something couldn’t just be good without a damper for a change. When I got home that night, I almost felt like crying. The weather still prevented any longer-term window opening, and the smell gained in intensity. I vaguely even considered sleeping on the sofa, but that would be ridiculous. There was a perfectly good, brand-new mattress on my bed after all, and the smell was just annoying, not unbearable. So, once again, I fell asleep with a smell in my nose that I wished hard would go away. Falling asleep wasn’t the issue, though. I was exhausted enough to fall asleep swiftly. And then I was wrapped in a sense of dread that I couldn’t escape. I tried hard to wake up. I tried hard to remember. But there was no content to the nightmare. It just felt like a continuous scream. Silent and frightening. I could not grasp the nightmare to get over it. It held me but refused to reveal itself.
So with each night of uninterrupted sleep, I grew wearier, more sluggish, yet more restless. And more annoyed with the silly, bad smell that refused to leave as much as the nightmares did. Wasn’t it possible to design a packaging system that wouldn’t cause a bad smell when you unwrap the item you actually want to use? Fair enough, a new t-shirt you just wash and the smell is gone, but a new mattress? Nothing I or anybody else could do but wait. Impatience grew to the point of regretting the old mattress was gone and became my default state. The storm passed, and it got warm enough to keep the window open through the night. That helped with the smell. It didn’t help with the nightmares. I was sure they would pass eventually. Maybe they were even an unconscious reaction to the smell. I was sure the smell would go as well. I was sure it would be gone by the time the temperature dropped to demand closed windows again. I was sure reality would chase the lingering dread away.
Yet not sure enough to refrain from sniffing the mattress. The smell hadn’t gotten worse, but it also never got any better. The first big stench left, but it never got replaced by fresh, odourless air. Every time the window was closed, the smell was there. Coming out of the mattress, into the room, into my nose, into my every thought. After plain air had failed, I moved on to air fresheners. Every time I lowered my head to the bed, the scented air left my nostrils, and I breathed in the smell coming out of the mattress. Exasperated, I fell asleep disappointed yet again. Mentally exhausted, I woke up again after yet another faceless fear haunted my dreams. After air fresheners, I sprayed the mattress with some supposed upholstery cleaner. I put fresh bedding on. I went to bed, smelling the smell. I wondered if my nose got damaged. I hired a cleaner under the guise of a deep, seasonal clean. She commented on the smell and asked if the bed was new. Not the bed, just the mattress, I said, defeated. My mind lost track of time, of how long it’d been.
I lay in bed. Awake. Annoyed about the smell that didn’t go away. Afraid of the nightmares that do not stop. Out of ideas. Out of solutions. Stuck in helplessness. I drifted away to sleep and felt the dread grabbing hold of me. I refused to let it. I would not sleep if sleep is not safe. I focussed on the smell that annoyed me that only went away when I slept. So tired. Half asleep even. Yet, still conscious. Still smelling the bad smell, not frightened by nightmares. I almost felt physical hands reaching out as the nightmare tried to lure me into sleep. Claws reached out to my subconscious and told me to forget the smell. To rest. A sensation like falling. Soft and gentle at first. Then I felt engulfed by fear again. I wanted to scream. I didn’t. It’s more of a sharp intake of breath, but this time it was not soundless. It was real. It pulled me back into the world. Awake and surrounded by the annoying smell. I opened my eyes to see nothing but darkness. My heart was pounding. I breathed in. Slowly. Deliberately. Willing myself to calm. To stay awake.
I stretched out my arms and legs. I stroked the mattress all around me. A token of the real world. I turned and buried my face into the soft mattress. Instantly my nose was assaulted by the smell. How can it still come out of the mattress? It’s been forever. My hands stroked the surface. I moved. I smelled different parts of the mattress. The bad smell is the mattress. All of it. Like a dog, I pawed and sniffed all that is beneath me. The smell entered my head. It got worse and worse. I could not stop myself. I tried each corner of the bed. It all smelled.
I sat on my knees, disgusted by the smell, still stroking the surface. Then I felt it. A bump. Right in the middle of the middle. My soft, new mattress had a hard bump in it. I tried and tried again. It’s most definitely there. I kept clawing at the hard spot as if to smooth it out. It remained. I did not stop clawing until finally, the fabric ripped. My eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to make out something bright and hard in front of me. Something that did not belong into the inner makings of a mattress. A sense of panic rose from my stomach to my mind that may have been lost. I kept clawing at the edges of the ripped fabric. It never occurred to me to get any tools. It never occurred to me to switch on the light. The thing in front of me grew out of the mattress as I ripped the fabric away. I moved inch by inch further down to the foot of the bed. The bright mass did not stop. There was more and more of it while there was less and less of mattress that once encased it. My eyes saw enough. My mind refused to process the information. Bit by bit, I slid down the bed, ripping apart the mattress, exposing something within. Finally, I ran out of bed. I had to step down from it to tear the last bit of mattress away. I stepped back, my hand touched the wall behind me. In front of me was the distorted figure of a man. Trapped in silent screams of agony. Rotting away in my mattress. My breath comes in sharp, desperate gulps. Rooted on the spot at the foot of my bed, I was unable to move. Then I screamed, and there was nothing but darkness.
Nancy Schumann is a German writer based in London who writes poetry, short stories and novels on various topics in both English and German. Her works have been published in both languages. Nancy’s particular interest, in fiction and academically, is female vampires. Nancy’s masters’ thesis on female vampires through the ages formed the basis to Take A Bite, which traces female vampire characters in folklore and literature. For further information, see www.bookswithbite.in
Our friend Daniel always comes out. He does not initiate outings, and in this was doubtless said something about his want to be wanted, and his want that we should not know that he wanted to see us.
I have known Daniel for some years now, and most of us have. So it surprises us no longer when at some early or late stage of the evening, dependent on his progress through the line of drinks he will consume (and which I too slip through with far too much ease, because it is far too much like that: progress, that a glass or a bottle should not be empty purely because that is no longer getting you anywhere, that the physical act of pressing the glass edge to your mouth must continue, that the pursuit must not stop because there is some something at the end of the line, some final miracle at the final drink that will make disquiet living come to an end, though this miracle will not be reached because before it is intestinal and mental sickness, and the dreaming blackout in which you meander through scenes to be unrecollected, mumbling sleepy incomprehensible things to others also in their alcohol dreams. I am old enough that I should not know inebriation with such a naive simpleness. What this miracle is at the finale of night and when the very last sap of spirit has been supped, I can have no idea, and will not ever. However, I can remain utterly induced with the conviction that other people reached the mystic zenith before going home or after. At my own finale, at the end of each night of outing, I will sit in a brown dim-lit bedroom with no other thought than this: that I have lost.), Daniel pulls up his ironed shirt to reveal the scar with which we are all familiar. It might once have been alarming, but it is no longer. He will pull apart the seam; the stitches will pull into the flesh. Some of us will keep on talking, keep on smiling, and he will too. And when the grin across his belly has been fully forced apart, our friend will pull out a pile of his intestines and deposit them on the table in front of him. The table, or the bar, or he will drape them over a chair, or he will stand there with them in his hands, looking like someone with too much to carry, or a doorman holding coats, if you were holding a party for people who did not wear coats, but wore necklaces of butchers’ things.
Now, as far as I have been told, and have pieced together, Daniel in his adolescence, without the aid of a procession of drinks, tore open his belly and withdrew his innards and would have them out most of the time; some years later this hole was stitched by parties unknown, and bled not at all, though shortly before our coming to know him he began picking at the wound, and has since then reopened it entirely, returning to his previous habits yet now aided by inadvisable inebriation.
Daniel will vary in the displays of his insides. Sometimes the guts will be released surreptitiously, not spoken of directly, but noticed by those around the place who choose to notice them. At other, rarer times (though not less rare when we first came to know him), Daniel will not take out any of his inner functioning and will converse jovially with the occasional rubbing or picking of his stomach. I have yet to decipher any correlations amongst Daniel’s behaviours, as there can be a lot of drinking and a lot of guts or a lot of drinking and no guts. There will tend to be a lot of drinking, whatever the case.
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More recently, there tends to be a lot of alcohol and a lot of Daniel’s insides all over the place. This past March, he removed his guts and made very many jokes about them. Everybody enjoyed them, and everybody laughed, and everybody got on with Daniel very well. Two weeks after this, he removed his guts but made no jokes about them at all and instead turned very poisonous, so much so that it was a surprise his guts were not themselves discoloured. The fleshy tubing lay in a great mess across more tables than our group occupied. He spoke very loudly about how it must be very horrible to have his innards all over the place and for everybody to have to look at them. Most agreed but did not find it helpful to say so, and instead, all became quite awkward and were less worried about Daniel than they were hoping he would soon go home. So, lamentably, there is no grace to his sadness. Nor is there to mine such as it comes upon me; I do not visualize these emotions as shining beacons begging great sympathies, but now as very muddy and unwarranting of condolence.
Perhaps this all would not have been so dire if the procession of drinks could not be obtained, but as I have said, I saw the need for the progression and could not damn my friend for it. It was not only the drinking that I saw tilted towards some imagined pinnacle, either; I needed the idea of the progression of everything else, of life towards some goal, of everything towards an impossible perfection; the progression of my body even, towards the ultimate betterment of it through the removal of calluses and invisible errant facial hairs and the correction of tooth order and colour and the resurrection of hair thickness. It was a good thing I looked selfishly inward in this way, as I knew that when I scrubbed this body to perfection, I would collapse in terror as I took on the world itself as an extension of this frame and never stopped grouting the walls of everywhere.
As such, I did pity Daniel as I saw a part of myself in him, though for this very reason, I could tire of him too, as I had very much tired of myself and all my parts.
Once the night degenerated into early morning drinking at a club where the music was obviously loud, and the people were obviously semi-conscious. The only thing that was not obvious was how terrible I felt. Daniel was wild that night and brought horror to us all, even if we knew his past eccentric theatrics. He pulled his scar open wide, he gave maniac laughs, and he jumped about the place spinning his guts in the air like a sickly lasso. He passed the point of smiles and got us all to frowns and scowls. I told him he might want to go home, but he would not. People from outside our group and within it jumped as their faces were suddenly slapped by liquid droplets flown off of the whipping entrails. Without a sign of stopping, the rodeo went on. Daniel shouted and laughed angrily. I could only imagine that he would hitch himself on to some crazed bull and that the pair of them would go surging off into a nightmare.
That has been the extremity of its outlandishness. It has not been the extremity of Daniel’s feeling. Four days ago, I squatted next to him outside a pub. A man at a right angle farther along was being sick. Our shadows did not occur in the strip of beer-coloured light that fell on us, came tumbling out of the awful nighttime in which the shade of cloud became the same as a streetlight on the pavement.
He looked up at me with a smile that surely ached.
‘More than anything else, it’s easy to get pity in this world. Might as well go all out.’
John Banning lives in London, England. His work has appeared in Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Ligeia, Dream Journal, the Bear Creek Gazette and The Daily Drunk. He is also J. F. Gleeson, and at some time, soon will appear under such in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Do take a look.
“Do you want some water or coffee?” the travel agent asked.
“Uh—” Bruce and Melissa muttered simultaneously.
“There’s grape juice, too . . . I think. We had some at one point, at least. Dharma. Do we still have grape juice?”
Dharma looked up from her iPhone and stared at him for a second before speaking. “No, Uncle Bob. We’ve never had grape juice. Do I need to get some?”
Bob fixed his tie and let out a sigh. “Yes, if you could. Go down to the 7-Eleven—”
“I’m fine. We’re fine,” Melissa said.
“Are you sure? You too, Bruce?”
Bruce chuckled. “We’re not much of grape juice drinkers ourselves.”
Another deep sigh from Bob. “Fair enough, but Dharma, how about you run down and get some anyway? Three cartons, please.”
“Yes, before I forget.”
“Can’t I just add it to your Google calendar or something?”
“Fine, add it to the calendar.” Bob, red-faced, turned back to Melissa and Bruce. “You see what happens when you hire your niece out of college? Anywho.” Bob smoothed his checkered tie, which Melissa had noticed the moment they walked in was tied improperly, hanging way past Bob’s plump gut, even beyond his crotch; there was also a smattering of some kind of dark substance in the center of the tie—just a dot, but enough to occupy Melissa’s thoughts every time he went to straighten it.
“I’m glad Rico sent you my way. How long have you known Rico?” Bob asked, looking at Bruce.
“Uh, well—I’ve been at Sterner for what? Eight years now?” Bruce looked at Melissa, who shrugged.
“That’s great. Rico is a heck of a guy. Really good sense of humour. I like people with senses of humour.” Bob briefly made eye contact with Melissa when he said this.
Melissa already despised this place. It was their therapist’s idea to take a trip together, “take some time and rekindle that spark you had when you first met,” were her exact words. It would be their first trip alone since their daughter, Leone, had arrived five years ago.
It was on Rico’s, Bruce’s boss, recommendation that they come to World Affairs Travel Agency.
Melissa hated the idea of going to a travel agency, let alone a place that called itself World Affairs for Christ’s sake; plus, travelling was a distraction, she thought. The whole idea that they were going to rekindle anything in a foreign place struck her as ridiculous. Changing the setting of their semi-passionate sex wasn’t going to do jack-shit.
But she knew if she said any of this to Bruce, he might start to crack and then eventually crumble into a million pieces, like a slowly shattering porcelain doll. He was a sensitive man, sure—which had its perks in some ways (no blowjobs for one), but in many other ways had grown into a major setback when it came to words like “rekindling” and “spark.” There was heat, yes, but no fire, she had discovered over the years, which is not to say she didn’t love Bruce—more just that taking a trip to Tahiti or the Cayman Islands on a very limited budget wasn’t going to fix a damn thing.
But their therapist had put it clearly. “Relationships are works in progress. People change. People evolve. And people, therefore, must adapt.”
Bob had been talking, and Bruce had been nodding, but she wasn’t listening. She kept staring at the ketchup dot on Bob’s tie and thinking about how if it were up to her, she would take a trip alone. Bruce could take his own trip to Denmark or wherever, and, while apart, they could rediscover what “rekindling” really meant.
“What are your thoughts, Melissa?” Bruce asked.
“Bob asked us beach or wilderness. Personally, I was thinking Denmark. World peace. Happiest place on earth. Literally. But Melissa, you seem more of a beach—”
“Wilderness,” Melissa responded on a whim, only to piss off Bruce because she knew he had expected her to say beaches.
Bruce furrowed his brow. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Trees. Mountains. All that shit.”
“Well, the lady has spoken,” Bob said. “So, I’ve got my wilderness packets here. They start at five thousand dollars and go up from there. You never mentioned your budget, by the way. What price range were you thinking for your trip?”
Bruce squirmed in his chair and cleared his throat. “Well, we have a limited budget, unfortunately. Don’t have a lot to spare.”
Bob’s eyes slouched downward in disappointment. “I see. What were you thinking then?”
“Well, no more than a thousand is what we had in mind.”
Bob snorted. “A thousand? Excuse me, I don’t mean to laugh, but a thousand will barely buy you transportation.”
“Even to Denmark?” Bruce asked.
“You’re going to be staying in some shabby motel or maybe even a youth hostel for that money, probably roach-infested and dirty. Athlete’s foot. The whole shebang. Come on. You two seem like you can do a little better than that.”
“We just don’t have—”
“That’s why credit cards were invented, Mr. and Mrs. Dixon.”
A flare of irritation surged through Melissa. “My name’s Melissa O’Neill. Not Dixon.”
“Oh, sorry about that.” His squinty eyes narrowed, and he glanced down at Melissa’s forearm with a tattoo of a Pegasus. “Rico mentioned you had a little one, too. A daughter. Am I correct? Is this a family-friendly getaway?”
Bruce cleared his throat again. “No, no. This is . . . for us. We just don’t have a lot to work with, I’m afraid. We were hoping there would be some type of deal with Spirit Airlines, perhaps. Stop by a beach along the way. Or I guess, I mean . . . the wilderness now. Are you sure about the wilderness thing, Melissa?”
“How about this?” Bob said. “I show you what I got, and we can go from there. So, I do have an African safari package, but I’m guessing that’s way out of your budget. It’s on discount for nine thousand but—as I said, let me get to the more affordable ones.”
He riffled through brochures in a filing cabinet. He pulled a glossy one out with mountainous hills pictured on the front and a smiling beaver gnawing on a tree branch. “This might be a good one. The Vermont Getaway is what I call this. Very romantic, I can tell you that.” Bob winked at Bruce, and Melissa felt her irritation transmuting into a quiet but volatile rage. “You start in Burlington. Take in some good art and music. Take in some even better food. Drink some craft beer. From there, you travel through the state and take a hike around Mount Mansfield. You would stay in a little bed and breakfast called The Beaver Inn for a night and then go on a trout fishing trip with a fishing guide—you may need to stretch your budget a little. It will cost about eighteen hundred, but it’s worth every penny.”
Bruce picked up the brochure and examined it.
You can’t be serious? Melissa thought. Vermont? Where Bernie fucking Sanders is from?
“It doesn’t seem so bad,” Bruce said nonchalantly, and it was with this obliviousness that Melissa found herself standing up out of the uncomfortable chair she was sitting in. Her fists were clenched. Her heart was pounding. There was something about Bruce, Bob, and this travel agency, with all of its stock art photos poorly framed on the walls—an exotic beach with a gorgeous-bodied couple kissing or the family of four riding camels through the Sahara Desert—and the linoleum floors that made the place reek of a used car dealership, and how Bruce was pretending so goddamn much about everything.
“What about dark tourism?” Melissa blurted out. “Do you have anything there?”
Bob swallowed. “Dark tourism, you say?”
“Yeah. I heard that it’s a whole industry. One of my friends mentioned that this was a thing people were doing now. Visiting places of, you know, death.”
“You want to go to a place of death?” Bob asked with a smirk.
Bob looked down at his tie and noticed the ketchup dot for the first time. He licked his finger and tried to rub it off, but it remained. Bruce was staring down at his hands and playing with a flap of skin that was peeling off his ring finger, not making any eye contact with her nor Bob.
“Well, sure, you can visit Auschwitz, for example, or go to the beaches of Normandy.”
“Not like that. Dark, dark tourism. You know what I mean.”
Bob turned to Bruce, who was still staring at his hand. “Well, there are tours like that . . . if you’re interested. But they are confidential. I don’t advertise them. And I’m not liable for anything that happens on them, you understand that?”
“And it comes with a special travel agency fee, cash only, of three hundred and fifty.”
Bruce rubbed his face. “Me-Me-lissa, maybe we should—”
“If you want to rekindle, this is how it’s going to be done.”
Bruce’s eye twitched as he glowered at her. An awkward silence hung in the air. Dharma had actually put her iPhone facedown on her desk, captivated by the scene.
Bob looked over at her. “Dharma. Can you go in the back to the white cabinet and grab those brochures—”
But Dharma was already out of her chair, headed to a door marked Employees Only.
“That’s the point,” Melissa said. “It might not mean anything.”
Bob dropped a stack of brochures in front of Melissa and Bruce. All of them were mostly connected with ghost tours and places of “most unfortunate accidents.” Still, there were also astrology tours, chakra tours, tours entering new planes of consciousness, demon tours, tours of the torturous, tours of animal slaughter and cruelty, tours of places where “suicide” was known to live, and an assortment of other brochures with strange symbols adorned on them. But it was neither ghosts nor most of these unsettling things that Melissa was thinking about when she had spoken up.
Years ago, her friend Kelsey, who wasn’t a friend really, just another mom she knew in her endless circles of moms, had mentioned that her cousin, a heart surgeon, had recently paid fifteen thousand dollars to visit a site “where death apparently lives.”
“He calls it dark, dark tourism,” Kelsey had said.
She had instantly buried Kelsey’s words away, but now, in front of Bob, Dharma, and Bruce, at a shitty travel agency in the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, it—whatever it was—had resurfaced, in an unexpected yet most certainly serendipitous way.
“This one,” she said, tapping the brochure before her on the desk.
The front of the brochure displayed a quintessential suburban street, very similar looking to the one Bruce and Melissa lived on, but instead of the usual default scenery of dads mowing lawns, moms serving lemonade, and kids playing hide-and-seek, the street seemed deserted: trash cans were overturned; fog filled the air; the houses were dark, and the streetlights were out, and the maple trees lining the road were hunched over.
In yellow, boldface letters, it read, “Tour of the Unknown.” She didn’t know what the hell it meant, and the inside of the brochure didn’t lend too many details, either, consisting of a couple paragraphs of barely intelligible copy. In the bottom right corner was a drawing of something indecipherable, perhaps a small mound of dirt or coal.
Bruce gave the brochure a look-over and frowned. “What does any of this mean?”
“That’s the point,” Melissa said. “It might not mean anything.”
“Okay. So, how much will this cost us, Bob?”
“I couldn’t tell you offhand. I will need to call them up and make arrangements. I will get back to you but expect it to be considerably out of your budget.”
“Well, Bob, that’s why credit cards were invented,” Melissa said, giving him a mental middle finger.
“…his forehead layered with a film of sweat, and most oddly, a smile was plastered on his face…”
The first time Melissa and Bruce met, they were drunk.
In sober life, Bruce exuded as much excitement and individuality as a box of rocks. Still, in his drunken state, he was one of those rare species of human who got surprisingly suave when he was under the influence—relaxed, wise, confident, engaging everyone around him with poignant questions about how they regarded certain political and social issues. It was the only time he looked Melissa square in the eye and really listened to what she was saying. And oh yeah, he had a sense of humour, too, which basically made him the full package.
I want to hit that had been exactly what Melissa thought when she met him on that first drunken night.
And which was why they had sex the first night they met. It was one of Melissa’s fonder memories of the relationship. Bruce had been unrestrained, passionate, not himself and his usual aura of dryness. As she would discover later, anything remotely resembling an emotional coup d’état against him made him paralyzed, or in some cases, shattered him. Bruce was fragile, easily breakable—handling him was like handling a thin sheet of glass.
But the excitement of that first time lingered with such force that Melissa could never get that impression of Bruce out of her mind, going so far as to make up an embarrassing nickname for this alter ego named Big Bruce, but one she had never shared with anyone—not even her sister, not even her girlfriends, and certainly not Bruce himself.
As they waited on a bench in Fermont Square, in a small ghost-like town in Western Pennsylvania, the starting point allegedly of “The Tour of the Unknown,” she found herself excited again at the prospect that maybe something would happen on this tour that would do this very thing. Maybe Bruce would crack again, even just for a little bit.
But, from the start, Bruce had made it clear that he despised every second of her decision to spend close to two thousand dollars on a scam tour, as he was now calling it. He had been quiet the whole eight-hourish car ride up from North Carolina, play-acting his bored-yet-hurt-yet-disgruntled role, amounting to basically Melissa having a trip alone, something she was not totally against. She controlled the radio while Bruce navigated the roads. No Pearl Jam, thank the Lord.
Bob had emailed them instructions from Maxwell Tours that said Melissa and Bruce were to sit on this specific park bench in this specific park in this specific town and at around seven in the evening, on August 11, a van would be there to pick them up.
They stayed in a Hampton Inn the previous night, Bruce conking out at ten when the local news came on while Melissa laid in the dark and thought about the Unknown. The more she thought about it, the more she felt like a crazy person. What had compelled her to stand up at the travel agency? What had compelled her to suddenly recall that phrase spoken by a mom-friend several years ago, “dark, dark tourism”?
She tried to picture what Leone was doing while her mother laid in a hotel bed thinking these thoughts, suddenly imagining Leone as an eighteen-year-old asking, “Why don’t I have any money for college?” She shivered to think that her only response would be, “I spent it on a tour of the Unknown.”
These looping thoughts of anxiety re-played yet again, the next day when Bruce and Melissa waited patiently for seven o’clock to roll around. She started to take in her surroundings. The “park” they were sitting in no longer resembled a park. The benches were barely left standing. Some of them completely collapsed; the flower beds were overrun by weeds and ivy, and an armless Civil War soldier was perched above a pool of green scum water.
“Aren’t you a little bit excited at least?” Melissa asked.
Bruce sucked up Dunkin Donuts iced coffee through a straw and chewed on an old-fashioned donut. “What?”
“I mean, I’m finding this exciting.”
“How could this possibly excite you? That’s why I needed the Dunkin’ Donuts to perk me up,” he said in a condescending tone.
“Oh, I don’t know, Bruce. Because we’re entering the fucking Unknown. How about that, for starters? No need to be a prick about it.”
“By telling you how I feel about this trip?”
“No, by acting like a wounded asshole about it. You know, if you didn’t want to come, you shouldn’t have come.”
Donut crumbs shot from his mouth as he raised his voice. “I’m here, aren’t I? What else do you want? Like seriously? I agreed to this whole wacko trip.” He took a few swallows of the iced coffee. “And that embarrassing conversation we had to have with Jack’s parents, too. About our romantic getaway to Pennsylvania! ‘Hey, can you watch our kid while we go on a Tour of the Unknown?’”
“Well, you didn’t have to say what we were doing. Only a moron would do that.”
“You’re calling me a moron?”
Silence. Bruce took the last bite of his doughnut and sighed dramatically.
Then they heard the low rumble of a vehicle. Through the brush on Main Street, a faded-white van idled. The driver’s window opened slowly, and a woman stuck her head out.
“Melissa and Bruce?”
Melissa waved, and Bruce pretended not to hear.
A husky woman in her thirties hopped out, wearing a fanny pack and a collared shirt with Maxwell Tours emblazoned on it. She opened the van’s sliding door.
“Welcome!” she said enthusiastically.
“Here we go,” Bruce said underneath his breath. They stood up and got in the van, both in the back seat.
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“How yuns doin’? Name’s Cassie!” the driver said as she slurped an ultra-sized blue icee from Sheetz.
“Great, thank you,” Melissa said with some cheer. Bruce didn’t say anything; he just sucked on his coffee angrily and looked out at the passing trees through the side window.
“You two are gorgeous, I gotta say. Wonderful to have you along for the tour!”
Melissa snickered, and Bruce jerked his head toward her. “Thank you,” he said.
“I thought an older gentleman was picking us up,” Melissa said.
“That’s my Uncle Russ; he came down with the flu last night, so I’m covering for him. You don’t know how thrilled I was to get the call last night. This is my first tour as the guide.”
Bruce was slurping the last drops of his coffee, then stopped. “First tour?”
“That’s right, Bruce,” Cassie said. “First tour alone. I’ve been on the tours before to watch, but not as the guide. I was up all last night rehearsing! See?”
Using her left elbow to guide the steering wheel, she pulled index cards from her fanny pack as the car meandered over the double yellow line.
“I am ready to go! Got all my lines here. You may need to bear with me, but I promise to do the best I can. So, first question, where are you two from?”
“Charlotte, North Carolina,” Melissa responded.
“You don’t say? I have a cousin there . . . I think. Maybe he’s in Charleston. I don’t remember. Next question, let’s see”—she looked down at her index card—“where is that card? Oh yeah, here we go. How did you two first meet?”
Melissa and Bruce exchanged glances. “It’s a long story,” Melissa said.
“At a bar,” Bruce said sternly.
“Wow, you don’t say? How exciting! All right, I’m done with the personal questions. I was hoping for, you know, more of an interesting response, but that’s fine. I will get right into my spiel here. I ask that you listen carefully to what I say throughout the tour. Capisce?”
Bruce rolled his eyes.
“Capisce,” Melissa said.
“Well, welcome! You’re in for an EX-PER-I-ENCE. Buckle up.”
Cassie dug in the center console and produced a cassette tape, which she shoved into the van’s tape deck. Dreamy, new-age music started playing. She cleared her throat, and a smooth, sensual, accent-less voice poured from her. “First things first, and this is important, tour members, you must open your mind to what you are about to experience. If you don’t have an open mind, you will find the site rejecting you. You are here for a reason, lady and gentleman. You were led to the Unknown, not the other way around.”
Cassie turned onto a steep gravel road that veered into a dense forest. Gravel smacked the van’s bottom in rapid-fire pops as she gunned it up an unpaved hill.
Melissa poked Bruce in the arm, smirking at him. Bruce rolled his eyes yet again.
“Second, you must follow the instructions of your guide. If you do not, you will be forcibly removed from the tour immediately. The instructions from your guide—that’s me, by the way—ensure that you respect the site and allow others to experience it in a meaningful way.”
Melissa found herself imagining what it would be like to be forcibly removed by Cassie. She could definitely picture it.
“Third, no pictures or videos can be taken of any kind.”
Cassie peered in the rearview mirror. “So, yuns agree?”
“Yep,” Melissa said.
“Yes,” he said softly.
“Those are the rules. And now onward to the Unknown. Enjoy the tour, and most importantly, open your mind. What you are about to experience is tailored to you.”
The music picked up volume, and then the tape cut off.
“Perfect timing,” Melissa said. Cassie smiled at her and resumed her tour voice.
“The tour begins on Mount Maxwell, the very mountain we are ascending.
“It was in 1858, James Pippen Maxwell came to this area to start a new life for his family. He had emigrated over from Scotland just months before purchasing this mountain from an unknown seller. It didn’t take him long to make an unusual discovery about this place.
“When he was walking along the Maxwell path, the very dirt road we’re driving up now, James noticed that the closer he got to the top of the mountain, the more he felt his mind unravelling. Everything that clogged his mind somehow churned up. He grew ill and tired as if the very mountain was resisting him.”
Cassie hit a hole in the ground and mashed the accelerator, the van groaning. Melissa looked backward to see a cloud of rock dust and exhaust.
“Of course, the first thing he did was bring his wife up the mountain, but something different happened with her. Something peculiar. The mountain entranced her. She felt unburdened by it and found herself coaxing her husband to go up there almost every day until— Well, you know how the story ends, I would imagine. I forgot to mention I got hot dogs, Gatorade, and potato chips if yuns want any.”
Cassie opened a small cooler on the passenger seat and pulled out a hot dog wrapped in foil, holding it up for display. “I also got flashlights and a first aid kit, if we need it.”
Before they could respond, she continued.
“Coming up on your right, you will see the remnants of a cabin owned by James and Louise Maxwell. Louise would often sneak up to this cabin so she could be away from her husband, which is why it is now deemed Louise’s Cabin.”
On their right, Melissa saw a run-down wood structure leaning against a tree, the glass for the windows shattered, ready to crumble at the tiniest of breezes. An old wooden etching read Louise’s Cabin, 1866.
As they passed Louise’s Cabin, it was at this moment that Bruce emitted a slight chuckle. Melissa turned toward Bruce and froze.
Bruce’s eyes were darting back and forth, his forehead layered with a film of sweat, and most oddly, a smile was plastered on his face, a smile far too wide and far too out of character.
“A little warning would have been nice about this, you know?”
The ground squished beneath their feet from the rain earlier in the day. With the cooler in one hand and the index cards in the other, Cassie led them up a hilly path that carved through the forest.
When they reached the top of the hill, Cassie stopped, out of breath, and raised her finger up. She set the cooler down on the ground, sitting atop of it. “We are only about two hundred feet from the top of the mountain now, tour members, a place known as the Unknown. At this point of the tour, I ask that we take a moment, remain quiet, and just listen. Can we do this—Bruce, do you need some Gatorade?” Cassie asked in her regular voice.
“Yeah,” Bruce said.
“Sure thing.” Cassie pulled a bottle from the cooler and handed it over. “I’ll add it to the tab. How you feeling, Bruce?”
“Fine,” he grunted back.
Ever since Louise’s Cabin, Melissa had honestly been afraid to look at Bruce. She did her best to follow Cassie’s instructions, which she had repeated several times in the van: “Keep your mind open as we make this last leg of the tour. Open your minds.”
But when Melissa finally did glance at him, she gasped out loud. It was way worse than she was expecting. “Bruce?” she said.
“You’re not fine. Your face.”
His eyes bulged from his skull, his face whiter than a blanket of snow. Veins in his neck pushed their way through his skin while his eyes scrunched together like they did when he was chopping up an onion and trying not to cry.
“I see this sometimes,” Cassie said. “It’s okay. Don’t panic. Take some deep breaths.”
“What is going on?” Melissa asked in a panic.
“It’s the Unknown. It does this. You know the whole spiel about keeping an open mind. Well, Bruce is lying to us.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not . . . lying.” He gasped for breaths.
Cassie sipped some red Gatorade. “I’m afraid you are, Bruce. The Unknown rejects those who don’t want it to exist.”
Bruce was crouching down on the ground at this point, his head in his hands. Melissa moved over to him and touched his shoulder. “What’s going to happen to him? Will he—?”
“No, no. He won’t die . . . I don’t think. He’ll just be unable to get closer. It’s like trying to choke yourself to death. You can try, but you’ll ultimately fail.”
“I guess he should stay behind then?”
“No.” He jumped up in a huff. “I’m going.”
“Bruce, you look like you’re about to explode.”
“I’m fine. Just let me—” He tried to inhale, but a fit of coughing overtook him. “Just . . . just . . . give me a second and . . . I’ll push through.”
Melissa turned to Cassie, who shrugged and said, “You heard the man. If he wants to go, then nobody should stop him.”
“Yeah, well, he does look terrible, but nobody, to my knowledge, has ever died from the Unknown.”
“A little warning would have been nice about this, you know?” Melissa said, now standing back, observing Bruce from a slight distance.
“I can’t tell you everything that is about to happen. It just doesn’t work that way. The Unknown wouldn’t allow it.”
“Why do you keep talking like the Unknown is some crotchety old man with ridiculous demands?”
Melissa was expecting some kind of jokey response from Cassie. Instead, Cassie took a hit from her red Gatorade and said calmly, “Well, maybe it is.”
“Melissa. He will be fine,” Cassie said. “Leave him behind.”
They moved closer to the tree lining leading to the Unknown when Bruce dropped with a thud to the ground.
“Oh god, Bruce,” Melissa said. “Bruce? Bruce.”
His limbs trembled as he raised himself onto his haunches and peered up at Melissa. His skin was even paler than before. Even his eyes were losing their colour, fading to a grayish gruel. He seriously looked like Voldemort’s twin brother, except for the unexplainable smirk on his face that wouldn’t go away.
“I’m fine,” he croaked. “I’m . . .”
Cassie clicked her tongue. “He’s still lying.”
“I’m not ly—” He dissolved into a coughing fit as a glob of saliva congealed on his chin.
Melissa leaned over and placed the back of her hand on his forehead. He was cold to the touch.
“Melissa. He will be fine,” Cassie said. “Leave him behind.”
“What? I can’t leave him. He looks awful.” She squatted by Bruce. “Bruce, listen to me. I know I’ve been a bitch to you lately, and let’s be fair, I have my reasons most of the time. And I know I dragged you on this ridiculous trip, and now we are in even more debt, but is there any way you can try this for me? Please. Just clear your head—”
“Melissa,” Cassie interrupted. “Always listen to your tour guide, remember? He will be fine. I promise. I will look after him. In the meantime, go through those trees and into that field. The Unknown awaits.”
Cassie’s blue eyes met Melissa’s, and some impulse within Melissa, perhaps the impulse to go on this trip in the first place, dragged her to the tree line.
“When you get there, feel free to touch it,” Cassie said. “Let it run through your fingers.”
Melissa waded through the bushes toward the tree line and didn’t look back. Not to ask Cassie what she would find beyond the tree line. Not to ask why she was going alone, without the bloody tour guide! Not to check on whether Bruce was alive or dead. Not even to tell Bruce to give Leone a kiss if she never returned.
She didn’t look back.
Not for a split second.
Ryan Jenkinsis a writer of weird fiction based in Richmond, Virginia, where he lives with his partner and daughter. Previously a managing editor at Tor Books, Ryan Jenkins currently copyedits novels on a freelance basis. His serial short story, “Busybody,” will appear in Strange Wor/ds, a forthcoming zine.
It had been nearly a century since my last visit to the chateau. My light carriage, drawn by two dappled steeds, ascended the steep, narrow road that spiralled up the sides of the mountain in the warm summer evening. The journey lasted but a few hours, and during this brief period, I was serenaded by a myriad of creatures, both delicate and cruel, who inhabited that lofty terrain. Their voices grew dimmer as the elevation rose. By the time I reached the chateau, only the clopping of my horses’ hooves had filled my ears.
At the gate, two servants approached and took control of the reins. They accompanied the carriage to the plaza and stopped at the foot of the main stairway. I stepped out and gazed up at the old building that towered over the land. This enormous structure, with its impenetrable ramparts and unsurmountable parapets, overwhelmed my senses. The gas lamps that lined the entryway of this magnificent architecture replaced the stars and planets that existed before all this came to pass.
I bathed my eyes in this vision of delight, which loomed before me like a fortress rather than a palace. I turned to hail the servants who assisted me. They had unharnessed the horses and were walking toward the stable further up the mountain road, having anticipated the length of my stay.
The chateau’s interior was decorated in the style of Louis XIV, with its marbled floors, massive ornamental cabinets, winding balustrades and crystal chandeliers. Very little, if anything, had changed during my absence.
The habitual patrons gathered in the main hall. Like a silent breeze, I drifted past them. During the years between my visits, Madame, who raised her status within the establishment from chatelaine to host, mingled with her gentlemen admirers. She regaled in their pomposity and saw to their every comfort. Madame was not only a great beauty but a seasoned entrepreneur, satisfying all requirements of her clientele. I heard every word of their feebleminded conversations in which they flattered themselves in hopes of gaining special favours from their host.
Sensing my presence, Madame interrupted her conversations with a bow and excused herself.
“Ah, Count. How nice of you to make an appearance. It has been so long. I presume you arrived safely.”
“Quite. My passage over the mountain roads progressed unhindered.”
Her eyes sparkled like Jupiter and Saturn in a starless sky.
“I do not mean to pry,” she said. “But I sense you seek refuge from your troubles.”
“It is nothing more than a touch of ennui,” I responded. “Tonight, I desire something extraordinary to lighten my spirit.”
“I have just what you need,” said Madame, with a gleam in her eye. “A new girl has made quite an impression.”
“And, for what reason?” I inquired.
“I cannot say. My guests refuse to talk about it after spending an evening with her.”
“I wonder why? I insist you bring her to me.”
“She is a gentle soul, Count. But, she does possess a singular manner.”
“Those qualities are precisely what I seek.”
“It will cost you a bit more than the customary rate,” said Madame. “She’s in demand, you know.”
“Very well. I never negotiate that which must be possessed. Whatever the price, I’ll pay it.”
Madame led me down a winding staircase and through a door that opened into an underground chamber. The dampness of the room caressed my body like the taffeta sheets lining my narrow bed. I inhaled the soothing scents of moist earth and perfumed digitalis. Madame took a sincere interest in my contentment. I adored her. She placed her arm upon mine, and we sauntered across the floor until we reached an apothecary.
Along the far wall lay several mahogany boxes, alike but for slight differences in size. This piqued my curiosity, which was immediately diverted by a gracious offering from Madame.
“Prepare a solution for yourself while you wait, my dear Count. I remember your fondness for a certain potation of which we are replete.”
I enjoyed the touch of Madame’s elegant arm upon mine. She was a homely little waif when first I set eyes on her long ago. Madame had been rescued from the perils of secret streets by the chateau’s baron. The latter had given this indelicate youth a chance at redemption as a chambermaid in his sprawling manor. She blossomed into a beautiful, well-bred woman under the late baron’s cultivation, secure in her femininity and noble character.
Madame uncoupled her arm from mine, and with a coquettish smile, she adjusted the mother-of-pearl necklace, whose cameo pressed deep into the notch of her pale neck.
I began to think of Madame in a certain way, which took all my willpower to repress. I had not come for her that night. The heat flowing through my blood cooled, and for the moment, my arousal subdued.
Ah, Madame, I thought, you have read my mind.
“A sofa for your comfort,” she said, pointing.
She turned upon an axis like a miniature ballerina in a clock. Her back faced me, revealing unblemished skin beneath the décolleté gown, reigniting my passion—a torment I continued to resist.
“There is a small room behind the counter with a mirror and running water, should you require it.”
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, smiling politely.
Why should I require such amenities? They proved no use to me.
Madame left my company, making her way back across the chamber and out the door to secure the girl.
I cannot say, with certainty, when I first became aware of the diminution of my faculties. I experienced sudden lapses in consciousness during which I perceived time slowing to a standstill. I convinced myself this condition existed as a temporary aberration in my immortality. But, its persistence proved otherwise. My mental acuity, which served me well for centuries, became unreliable.
During these fugues, I often wept, deprived of hearing the glorious cries of lost souls who begged me for release. Their futile appeals became fragmented and swallowed up in these distortions of time.
I became despondent by the frequency of these lapses. I questioned my belief in immortality, fearful there existed an end to everything and that I had entered into the senescence of eternity.
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Yet, with this discontent weighing on my mind, I did not lose my insatiable lust to possess whomever I desired.
And so, that night, I redoubled my efforts to enjoy myself, denying these troubling thoughts but, in truth, barely keeping them at bay.
I prepared a favourite potion by placing a cube of sugar upon a sieve, then poured drops of absinthe over it, observing the little green fairies sidle down the glass. I never tired of spending time with these tiny demons, savouring the bitter taste of their madness with the sweetness of their hospitality.
Suddenly, my tongue began to burn. I could not reconcile this attack on my senses and became anxious, fearful that the pleasures of my addiction had come to an end.
My disquiet was interrupted by the sound of the chamber door opening. I looked up. Beneath the flickering lights of the ceiling candelabra stood the new girl, poised erect like Beardsley’s Venus, in a white, diaphanous gown. A single white rose rested between her breasts. She held her arms behind her back as if concealing a gift.
Oh, Madame. You knew exactly what I needed.
I set the glass down and stepped forward.
“Come closer,” I beckoned. “What is your name?”
“Olalla,” she replied softly.
O-lal-la, I repeated. These three sounds brought more joy than a trinity of elated sighs.
Her name was familiar, but I could not recall where I had heard it before. Perhaps, in a story told long ago.
“May I have this dance, Olalla?”
“Certainly, sir. It would give me pleasure. But, I do not hear any music.”
“How thoughtless of me.”
With a snap of my fingers, the music commenced.
“Ah, the Devil’s Trill,” she said. “How apropos.”
I wondered if she suspected my designs.
“Apropos, you say. In what way, Olalla?”
“It is a very seductive piece, don’t you think?”
She was poignant in her description, and perhaps, not the innocent I imagined.
The music was indeed a demonic masterpiece of seduction. And now, I employed it to thrill us with trills of forbidden harmony. I took Olalla in my arms, and we glided across the chamber floor like skaters upon virgin ice.
“You move so well, sir. Better than any gentleman I have ever had.”
“I am quite experienced in these diversions,” I replied. “But, never, never have I had the satisfaction of such a blithe companion as yourself.”
“Thank you, sir. What a lovely compliment. I hope you will allow me to repay it in some way.”
As the tempo of the phantom music increased, so did my vitality, for the quivering of the violin’s strings raced through my body in tempestuous arcs of fire. My braided tresses whipped wildly around Olalla, pulling her closer, fueling the mounting flames that would consume her soul.
She stared at my smile, which surely betrayed my intentions. I awaited the moment of her submission when she realized in whose arms she found herself.
This did not happen.
Olalla laughed in unrestrained delight, exposing two curious, pointed teeth. Her eyes grew larger, turning into swirling, crimson pools.
Her abrupt transformation startled me, and my thoughts strayed from their intent. I suddenly recalled the story of a young woman who lived in a shadow-world like mine. She wandered the land, having in her possession the extraordinary power to undo the curses of ineluctable vanity, cunning and deceitfulness in the undead. Each soul she touched found redemption.
“It is time I repaid your compliment,” she said. “You know who I am.”
Before I could respond, she placed her lips against my neck. In her unholy kiss, I experienced the ineffable thrill I had so often given others through the centuries.
The clock on the wall stopped, and I swooned, once again sequestered in timelessness as she feasted on my blood.
I, the heartless predator, had become the unsuspecting prey. Olalla guided me to the sofa on which I reposed. With a snap of her fingers, the music stopped. She prepared a fresh potion of absinthe, for the original had metathesized into a clear liquid, abandoned by the green fairies whose patience I exhausted by my devotion to Olalla.
I looked up at her. The white rose on her gown had turned grey.
“Drink this,” she said.
To my chagrin, each sip of the absinthe tasted more disagreeable than the last. I tossed the glass with my remaining strength. The green fairies scattered across the floor in bewilderment.
“That’s right. Run, you wicked creatures. I no longer need you.”
Olalla’s crimson eyes flared as she nodded in agreement. She stood above me with her eyes closed, licking the traces of my blood that lingered on her lips. Then she knelt beside me and helped herself to the tinctured remains that flowed through my veins.
I could stand it no more. “Stop, Olalla! I know why you are here. You have repaid my compliment a thousand times over with your kindness.”
The letting of my blood weakened and soothed me. My eyes fluttered as I fell into a reverie, gently floating down the course of a narrow, dark river that meandered over the contour of Olalla’s body, finally depositing me at the fleshy delta of her feet.
I looked up and spoke in a voice I did not recognize.
“There is something you must do.”
She led me into the room that Madame had spoken of. Above the sink hung a large mirror. The truth, always to be found in a looking glass, no longer terrified me, for, in the absence of time, I neither dwelled on the crimes of my past nor considered the depravity of my future. I stared at my reflection in which lurked the sorrows I had caused others. Facing me stood a man I had never seen before. He had white hair and a pallid complexion with layers of wrinkled and mottled skin. A villainous scar ran from the bottom of his eye to the top of his lip. It was a face mutilated by the sins of countless ages.
As I continued to stare, the collection of grotesque features coalesced on the glass canvas into a portrait of something monstrously handsome. Peering deeper into the mirror, I entered the world of Pentimento. I studied the sedimentations within the frame, excavating the goodness left in his soul, revealing a new rendering of this man—one who would no longer suffer from the incalculable cruelties he committed.
Olalla turned the spigot, and by her hands, I was absolved. The sink filled with thick clots of rotting flesh. Her fingers peeled away the scurf amassed over centuries. I gazed into the mirror, astonished by what I saw. A monster changed into a man—one I once would have ruined simply for his course sensibilities. Now, I adored him. How curious that the living and the undead never relinquish their sense of vanity.
Olalla attempted to drain the final drops of blood from my body.
“No, no, my Sweet. You must leave me a small souvenir. Please, let me go.”
She stepped back. The rose between her breasts turned black and withered before my eyes.
“It was the poison in your blood that killed it,” she said. “Now, you are free.”
She led me into the chamber and guided me toward the row of coffins. I lay supine upon downy pillows, never expecting such an agreeable end to my damned eternity. Her lips press against mine, and then she was gone.
Who granted me this undeserved fate?
Her compassion saved me from iniquity, as it had done for others who came before.
Trust my words. She is real.
Prepare yourself. Olalla will find you in the low moments of your high-spirited cravings, between your last kill and your next. Let her drain your veins of madness. She is kind that way, taking nothing more than your tainted blood and leaving you with a peace you could never possess without her.
Stephen Myeris a fiction writer, educator, and musician based in Southern California.
Rosa, the widow of Andrés Romero, did not wear black to her husband’s funeral. Instead, she wore a bright red, skintight vinyl zip-up dress, bright red lipstick, and red faux-leather stiletto heels. Her mother-in-law gaped in undisguised outrage from behind her black lace veil, and even her own mother tried to usher her out of the church. It was no good. The new widow stood defiantly in the front row of the old Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción throughout the funeral Mass, then took her place under the heavy black pall. Throughout the whole of the procession, starting on the steps of the church and proceeding in blistering shadeless afternoon sun along Cuesta de la Bolita, past squat barred-windowed brick apartments and dying gardens, Rosa was a glittering redfish in a sea of black ink. With her heels clacking and her bangles ringing, she gave the small Spanish town of Tarancón something to gossip about for the rest of the month.
Her husband waited to inquire about it until she came home and only did so with the utmost politeness.
“It’s not my fault you died,” she snapped, turning on the bathtub faucet at full blast. She unzipped her dress, shucked it off and tossed it on the floor. “I wanted to look how I did the day I met you. I’d been wanting to do that for one of our dates. When are you coming back, anyway?”
“I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon,” said Andrés’ disembodied voice. “I’m dead.”
“Fuck you.” She sank into the bath so forcefully that water lapped over the sides.
On the edge of Tarancón, their apartment was one of many in a boxy, thin-walled brick building constructed back in the sixties. The couple had moved in a few months before their wedding three years ago. Rosa hadn’t cleaned often when times were normal, and since Andrés’ death last week, it had already become a chaos vortex of unwashed clothes and dishes.
They hadn’t meant to stay so long, in this town where both of them had grown up and where nothing much ever happened. Back when they were newlyweds ready to conquer the world, Rosa had assumed that their love would be enough to catapult them out of town in a few months. Her longtime dream of moving to Madrid to become a professional dancer had slipped away somehow, forgotten in her obsession with Andrés. Life happened: Andrés lost his job and spent months unemployed, and Rosa picked up the slack with her restaurant job. There was never enough money to move; it was never quite the right time. Her obsession with him turned into a clinging desperation as his eyes stopped following her, as he grew accustomed to a bride whose youthful body no longer held any secrets for him.
Now she folded her arms, still refusing to look in his direction. “I hear José’s still single. And then there’s your friend Antonio. Maybe I’ll call them both up.”
“Please, no. At least not José; he’s a scumbag.”
“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.”
“What do you care? You’re fucking dead.”
There was a long silence between them. Rosa leaned her head back in the water, washing the shampoo out of her hair.
“How’s the afterlife, anyway?” she asked. “Was it worth giving us up? It fucking better have been.”
“Haven’t been there yet. I’ve heard it’s good, though. Like being born again, but not into a place as sad as this. They call it the Land of Flowers.”
“Then why aren’t you there instead of here?”
“Well, no one can pass through that gate unless they truly want to go, and they can’t come back once they’ve gone. And I wanted to see you and say goodbye to you and make sure you’re all right before I go.”
“Why do you care all of a sudden? You should have cared when you were alive.” She almost looked back in the direction of his voice but forced herself not to.
“You didn’t show it. You ignored me.”
“It’s a little overwhelming to be drowning in an unlimited amount of Rosa while being expected to adore every atom of you the whole time.” His voice carried only a sad hint of the sarcasm that used to permeate most things he’d say when he was alive, but Rosa still felt the heat of rage rush to her face and ears.
“But I’m concerned, Rosa,” he continued before she could retort. “You ironed all my clothes and polished all my shoes before my funeral, which I appreciate, but you know I won’t be around to wear those anymore. You even made me a coffee and breakfast, which looked delicious, and I would have eaten them if I could, but I can’t.”
“Well, you weren’t here to do your own laundry or make your own damn breakfast, so here I am being the dutiful wife. Why’d you get into that stupid crash in the first place? How dare you do that?”
“It wasn’t my fault, Rosa.”
She jumped to her feet and whirled around towards his voice, water sloshing out of the tub. It was coming from the open window just outside the bathroom. Behind the thin white curtain, she could see the shadowy silhouette of the late Andrés Romero.
As soon as she focused on it, his shape disappeared.
“Get back here!” she cried, stomping over and yanking the curtain aside. When she leaned out the window, she saw not a single human shape up or down the street.
“Fine,” she muttered bitterly, shutting the window and locking it. She wrenched a towel off the bathroom rack and dried herself off.
His voice came again from behind her, as clearly as if he were inside the house. “I’m sorry I have to hide, Rosa. It’s just that I’m dead, and I’m a little insecure about it. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Refusing to look back towards him, she marched over to the bedroom closet, still naked, pulling out armloads of his clothes and throwing them on the floor.
“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.” She lifted a framed photo from their honeymoon off the wall and smashed its glass pane on the floor. “Getting rid of that stupid project car of yours too. It’ll be like you never lived here. I’m twenty-four. I’m going to start all over again. I’m going to live a new life.”
No response came. She looked over her shoulder, saw no one, and let out a few more strings of curse words in case he was still around to hear them. Then she sank to her knees and gathered his clothes up against herself in bunches, clutching them as if ten of his empty shirts could somehow equal some fraction of a full embrace.
“When she woke in the evening, the room was empty.”
He next appeared two days later as Rosa woke up well past noon after a full twelve hours of sleep, finding herself splayed facedown in the middle of the bed and clutching the twisted blankets and sheets in a sort of nest. Back when Andrés was alive, she knew he would have scooted her back over to her side of the bed in an instant, grumbling under his breath. Now, all he could say was, “Feel better?”
“No.” She rolled over. “Let me sleep.”
She lay awake and stared at the ceiling for an hour.
She glared. “What, you’re still there?”
“Yup. Look, Rosa, you can’t just keep living like this. Also, aren’t you supposed to be at work? Do they know what’s going on?”
“Guess I’ll just lose my job, then.”
“I know you hate working at that restaurant, but now that I’m dead, you really need to—”
“I haven’t had a break from anything since I married you, not from work or from cooking and cleaning or from hearing you talk your shit all the time, and now I am taking that break.”
“You shouldn’t be all alone like this. You should be with your mamá or your sisters. Or you could call my mamá even—she’s not easy to get along with, but she’ll at least cook a—”
“They all hate me, and they all think I’m trash anyway, especially after that funeral. Besides, I’ve told you a million times, I pushed everyone away when I married you because they told me it was a bad idea, and I can’t go back. I should have listened to them.”
“I wore what you wanted. I pretended to enjoy things in bed that I didn’t. I gave up going to dance conservatory in Madrid. I gave up my backup school plans….”
“We need to talk about what you’re doing with the rest of your life.”
“Are you going to keep micromanaging me like this for the rest of my life? Aren’t there plenty of dead whores in the underworld for you to enjoy now that death’s done us part?”
“That’s enough, Rosa. You need to figure out some sort of career now that you’re the only one taking care of yourself—”
“Like you ever had one!”
“—and you should probably start dating again. A hobby would be a good idea, too.”
She laughed. “What, start dancing again?”
“Isn’t that what you’d be doing if you hadn’t married me?”
“I don’t even want to think about how much I wish I hadn’t married you.” She lay back on the pillow for a while, then sat up slowly and looked around for him. She could see his silhouette behind the curtain again.
“How’d you get out of that coffin, Andrés? I saw them lock it. I saw them bury it.”
“I go where I want, when I want, now that I’m not one of the living. Though I’m the same man, they buried.”
“Why do you stand over there? Come over here.”
His shadow didn’t move.
“Come on,” she said again. “Can’t I see you and touch you?”
“Well, as I said, I’m the same man they buried.”
“You can’t be that bad, and I need you now.”
“You identified my body at the police station. You know what that crash did to me.”
“I guess, but I don’t remember. My memory must have cut that part out of the camera roll. Besides, that wasn’t really you. Just a torn-up piece of meat.”
He gave a sigh, the same sigh that had infuriated her for the whole of their marriage, that always told her that she wasn’t about to get her way. “I will come closer, only if you agree to keep your eyes shut and don’t try to touch me. I will sit in the chair next to the bed until you fall asleep.”
She shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get.” Obediently facing away from him, she lay back down. She heard the floor creak under slow, careful footsteps, heard the chair shift as he settled into it. She lay there for several minutes, considering breaking the agreement and turning to see him before she fell asleep.
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When she woke in the evening, the room was empty. Hauling herself out of bed, she picked up the red vinyl dress off the floor and zipped it back on.
“Where are you off to in that?” she heard him say.
“Going out. Going to have some fun.”
“Prowling for fresh meat tonight, aren’t you?”
She plopped down on the bed dejectedly, pulling her stilettos on. “I need someone to touch me. Someone I can close my eyes and pretend is you.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“I thought you wanted me to date.”
“Not like that. Take your time, find someone responsible and stable who’ll treat you—”
“I need someone tonight. You can’t stop me, not unless you’re willing to take my hand and drag me into that grave of yours and take me with you to wherever you people go. The Land of Plants, or wherever. So we can keep having stupid arguments like this forever and ever.”
Hearing a dead man sputter was almost enough to make her laugh. “You… I… Look, I’m… that’s not… don’t think like that… don’t make me think like that!”
“If you won’t take me with you, don’t you dare tell me not to look for someone else. I need… I need to be beautiful. To be treated like I’m beautiful.”
She waited through a long pause, then heard him give that infuriating sigh again. He seemed to do that more often since his death than when he was alive.
“Careful, then. Don’t drink too much. I’ll keep an eye on you as best I can, but don’t you have any friends who can go with—”
“All my friends are fucking married.”
“… she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.”
A few hours later, she came home.
“You’re alone,” he said.
“Couldn’t find anyone I was into. Stupid idea. Anyway, I realized taking home some drunk idiot for a one-night stand won’t make me feel any better.” She could feel tears start to prick at the insides of her eyelids and hid her face in case he could see.
“Remember to think about your life, too.”
“Come here and touch me, Andrés.”
“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”
The next day, she called José. That night, they went out to dinner.
She had dated José for a few months in high school before meeting Andrés. He’d been cool back then, a whole year-and-a-half older than her, an aspiring rapper, a real ladies’ man. Since then, he’d put on about thirty pounds and worked his way up to being a branch manager at a banking franchise, which suited her just fine.
She tried to converse as a normal single woman, but found it impossible to talk about her life without mentioning Andrés every step of the way. She felt dull and superficial. José, on the other hand, did Andrés’ memory no favors, slurring on Andrés’ few months of unemployment, his later bartending job, even his music tastes. “Bastard thought he’d gotten you forever, Rosa, but we know who got the last laugh now, don’t we? Your good old first flame.” Rosa rolled her eyes but ignored the smear, because before they left the restaurant, José had at least told her what she wanted to hear: “Rosa, you are so beautiful and I have been thinking about you ever since we broke up. You should have been with me this whole time.”
She brought him home. When they got there, she poured two glasses of wine, then fixed her lipstick in the bedroom mirror while José stepped into the bathroom, saying he’d be just a minute. About thirty seconds later, she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.
“I saw him! I saw HIM!!” José cried, before bursting out the door. She heard his car engine start, then fade quickly into the night.
“You owe me a screw, Andrés,” she growled, moodily sipping her wine.
“I told you he was a scumbag. You never knew the things he’d say about you and your body, even after we got married—”
“He was the only man I could think of who’d be enough of a scumbag to go out with me a week after my husband dies.”
“I’m sorry. It’d be easier for me to watch you sleep with a stranger than with him. Did I tell you what he did at my bachelor party? Remember he was married to Manuela at the time—”
“I don’t want to hear a damn thing about your bachelor party. You told me you all you guys did was watch the fútbol game.”
“Well, I lied. Anyway, José lost his wedding ring inside the stripper and didn’t realize it until—”
“I didn’t pick him for his upstanding character, Andrés. Also, someone’s got to help me finish the rest of this bottle.”
“I can’t drink it. I’m dead.”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me you can’t get it up because you’re dead, either.”
She put down her glass and wandered over to the bed, stripping off her red dress as she went. “We’ll see about that.” She slid her undergarments off, tossing them in different directions around the room. Leaving her stilettos on, she climbed onto the bed, posing on hands and knees, arching her back to tilt her hips upwards. She slid one hand between her thighs and slowly began to rub.
“Still can’t get it up?”
She heard that sigh again. “Okay, Rosa. You win. You’ve given a dead man a boner. Happy now?”
“Of course not. I want a lot more than just hearing that you’ve got a boner.”
He was silent for a few long seconds. She swayed her hips in the air, still rubbing. In her mind, she played through all their best memories as vividly as she could: the night he’d first taken her home in that stupid red dress; the time she’d straddled him in the surf, on their honeymoon in Valencia; the few months of wildness here in this room, before it all started to wear off and before she was suddenly nothing but a wife.
He gave his signature sigh yet again. “Fine. But you have to promise not to look at me, okay?”
“Okay. You can even blindfold me if that turns you on.”
“Eyes closed is fine.”
She heard his footsteps move across the creaky wooden floor, and felt the edge of the mattress depress as he put his weight on it. She kept her eyes closed as she felt two hands take hold of her hips and run up and down her back. “Oh yes, Andrés,” she whispered. “Oh yes.”
The hands were cold, though. They were softer than before, too, and moist and slippery. Something in the air smelled strange; rotten and sickly sweet.
She held her breath, letting her mind soar into a perfect world, letting the funeral and burial and the misery of widowhood melt away. She fantasized about his lips on hers, his hands tracing circles around her nipples. She pictured his strong hands and forearms, his lean, muscled chest and abs, the dragon tattoo on his left pec and the crucifix on his right. The image became so strong that she instinctively rolled over to face him, and in doing so, she opened her eyes.
Then she screamed, and pulled away from him and jumped off the bed.
“I told you not to look!” he shouted. She tried to run and immediately tripped over her stilettos, face-planting on the floor. A retch jumped up in her throat, and she pulled herself up on her knees again, vomiting the remains of her date-night dinner on the rug.
“I… I need…”
“You need me to go?”
The sweet, rotten smell was overpowering now, seeming to restrict her throat and choke her as strongly as a hand. The smell of a decaying corpse.
“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”
She turned her face away from him and heard his footsteps rush across the floor to the window, and then she was alone.
“… blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.”
After he was gone, she leaned over the bathroom sink and finished clearing the bile from her throat, then stared at her face in the mirror for a long time. She’d looked good at the beginning of the night, but now her eyeliner ran in streaks, and her skin looked drawn and clammy.
The sight of his corpse wouldn’t leave her mind. She focused on her own face instead, trying to block out his mangled image, but instead saw the state of his face juxtaposed over hers. Her own face was torn up, with the nose missing and half the skin burned off, and the lips twisted up on one side, showing far too many teeth.
The memories that she’d clung to for so long were gone now, probably marred forever by what she’d seen. He was dead now and wouldn’t get any less dead. The night ticked slowly by. She finished the bottle of wine. Everything around her—the off-white walls of the apartment, the marriage bed, the pictures of them together on the wall—started to feel less and less real. Andrés’ ruined face kept intruding on her mind, and that was when she started toying with the kitchen knife.
At first, she considered whether the knife was the best method and visualized which way was most botch-proof—just jab it in? Slit her own throat in front of the mirror and hope she’d have the nerve to cut deep enough? Or just prop the blade up somehow, use bookends or firm pillows, and fall on it? Maybe a knife wasn’t the best bet. She could use bedsheets to hang herself (from what? The shower curtain rod? Would it support her weight?) or try to make a reasonably fast-acting cocktail of over-the-counter painkillers. She could crash her car into a tree.
If you won’t take me with you, Andrés, then who says I can’t go after you myself? Be your bride in the afterlife? She couldn’t take the thought of him loving someone else in the Land of Flowers. And if she lived her life out until death found her in old age surrounded by great-grandchildren, wouldn’t she enter the Land of Flowers as an old woman while Andrés had stayed forever young? What was so wrong with her dying young and pretty, to be together forever in tragedy?
She tossed the knife away, watching it skitter across the floor. She made her way to the bed and lay down, then took out her phone and began scrolling through old photos of him, from back when he was alive and handsome and before everything was all wrong. All the date photos, beach photos, hanging-around-and-goofing-off photos. She began to cry. The tears came slowly and unnaturally at first, then the faucets turned on, and her face crumpled, and she sobbed and sobbed. She pressed her face briefly into the pillow, then kept scrolling.
There were wedding photos on her phone, too, which brought a sudden wave of bitterness now. She closed her eyes and let it pass, trying to understand what it was all about, letting the pain roll until she realized how badly she wished that she had never married him in the first place. Was it because she knew about the strippers at his bachelor party? That didn’t seem to fit as an explanation now—maybe if he was still alive, she’d throw a fit, but now the thought just bounced dully off her brain. Her longing to step into those photos faded now. She felt numb and lifeless.
She scrolled back before the wedding. Mostly dance photos now; a few semi-professionally-shot music videos; selfies with friends dolled up for a dance competition or a night out. A few date photos with Andrés. And here, she realized, was where she wanted to go back to. Not to the past days of their marriage—who knew how long they’d have lasted, anyway? Another couple of years?—but to those days before. Start over.
She had loved Andrés, for sure, but there’d been something wrong from the start. She’d needed him or thought she had. She’d needed to be beautiful, needed it more desperately than she needed Andrés or dance conservatory in Madrid. However, they were both means to the same end. Being beautiful and perfect; feeling wanted, admired, desired. She must have thought marriage would give that to her because enough was never enough in dance. But it was the same in marriage.
She glanced again at the knife lying on the floor.
Maybe she’d loved him, maybe he’d deserved every ounce of love and done the best he could with it, and maybe she had already committed some form of suicide to be with him, two years ago, at that wedding.
Her mind began to widen out as if stretched by holding thoughts that it had never held before. She saw realities and futures branch out like city streets leading in opposite directions. One led into the shadows of the life she could have had with him, which she would have taken for granted if he had never died, being ignored forever and indefinitely, nagging and begging until something snapped. Conversely, she also saw the life she could have had without him if she’d listened to her family and her friends and gone to dance school instead: the late, hard-partying nights in Madrid, in between competitions and performances and video shoots and relentless practicing, and the makeup and the staring at herself in the mirror and the dietary obsessions. It was gone now; she was years out of practice and too old to compete with eighteen-year-olds. She longed and ached for that future as she itemized it and boxed it up, realizing how much that unacknowledged longing had dug into their marriage since the beginning, deepening the pain under the numbness of being taken for granted.
But the one future that stayed dark was the one into which she was headed, without Andrés and without those youthful dreams. Every time she tried to see through that darkness, her mind hurt uncontrollably. The tears came again and again, blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.
When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, the opened her eyes and turned around.”
A few days later, the widow of Andrés Romero wore black.
She had emptied her husband’s closet, donating its contents to charity. She’d even fetched a fair price for his half-finished project car, letting some collector tow it out of the garage on a trailer. Now, early on a Sunday morning, she stood by his grave in her high-necked black dress and black lace mantilla, holding a bouquet of white lilies and roses, memorizing the sight of his engraved name and epitaph.
She bent down and laid the bouquet on his grave. Tied to the bouquet were a photo of the two of them—the one from the wall, whose frame she had smashed—and a thick cream-coloured envelope containing a several-pages-long handwritten letter. She’d tried to convey everything she needed to in that letter and had been up most of the past two nights writing it.
As she straightened up, she heard a voice from behind.
“I’m just here to look out for you, Rosa. I’ll protect you as long as you need me. Forever, if need be.”
She felt a hand trace down her spine. She closed her eyes, letting the ecstasy of human touch wash over her, but did not look back.
“Nothing can take me away from you,” he murmured in her ear.
“Andrés, I’ll be okay. It’ll be a while, but it’ll happen. I can’t move on with my life until you’re gone, and I want you to go to the Land of Flowers. Isn’t there a lot waiting for you there? This world isn’t the place for you anymore.”
“I’m afraid. To go. I’m afraid to be without you, to be alone. You’re my soul, Rosa.”
She closed her eyes, feeling the tears start to prick behind them, realizing she’d been waiting to hear words like that throughout their whole marriage. Why did they have to come now, of all times?
“Neither of us can stay here, standing between life and death. I’m leaving town. I’m leaving our home and your grave behind. You should go too.”
“No.” His voice had a desperate, trapped-animal edge to it now. She felt his hands take hold of her shoulders. “You need me, and I’m afraid of what will happen to you.”
“Andrés, I can’t be okay until you’re gone.” She kept her eyes closed. Her voice was almost a whisper. “Let go of me.”
When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, then opened her eyes and turned around.
No one was there.
“As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.”
She had left the apartment in complete disarray after getting rid of his clothes and halfway packing her own things for a move. Still, when she got home, everything had been neatly put away, and the floor had been swept clean and scrubbed. The pile of dresses and blouses that she’d pulled out of the closet and tossed on the bed had been folded and packed into the cardboard boxes she’d brought home yesterday; all the kitchen utensils and dinnerware sat in two more boxes in the hall.
“Where do you plan to go?” She could see a shadow behind the curtains.
“Madrid. Going to start over, somewhere where no one knows me. Going to look for a job that I don’t hate. Think about putting myself through college.”
“What about dance?”
“That dream’s gone. I need new dreams. Don’t worry, I’ll get them. But what about you?”
“Dreams?” he murmured.
He paused for a long time before she heard his voice. When it came, it was soft and distant. “…Without you, now there are so many.”
As she watched, the silhouette blurred and faded away until only rays of sun were left, streaming in through the thin curtains.
She changed into jeans and tennis shoes, hauled the boxes into the trunk of the car, mailed the key and the final check to the landlord, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.
C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.
Beckett knew he was being followed as soon as he stepped out of the bookies. It was an instinct you developed after a lifetime in the business – someone in your peripheral vision, standing too still or pausing too often, or the pale flash of a face turned in your direction.
The instinct could go wrong, of course. He knew all the stories, and there’d been moments over the past few years when he’d wondered whether he was cracking up himself and would end up like Old Frayn, who – he’d heard – was now in a psychiatric ward, convinced that everyone who visited him was a North Korean spy.
But this time, he knew it wasn’t simply paranoia.
Maintaining his usual slightly dour expression, he walked on, ignoring the urge to look ’round. Two doors down, he paused in front of the plate glass window of Greenberg’s Suits For All Occasions, pretending to examine their array of unimaginatively displayed men’s jackets but actually scanning the reflections to see whether he could spot anyone suspicious. Two people passed along the street behind him – a young woman pushing a pram and a middle-aged man carrying two plastic bags of shopping. Across the street, a couple of women were standing in front of the window of Marks and Spencer, deep in conversation, and three teenagers were lounging on the benches ’round the fountain in the square. No obvious North Korean spies there, he thought, his reflection smiling sardonically.
Then he spotted what he was looking for – a tall, slender man in a dark coat, who stepped inside Boots just as Beckett’s gaze fell on him. It could have been a coincidence – or it could have been the action of an experienced agent or even a cop. But it wasn’t just his behaviour that snagged Beckett’s attention: the man looked somehow familiar. Beckett had seen him, or someone like him, before, though he couldn’t think where.
What should he do? So many years after his retirement, it seemed unlikely that someone from his past would be here now to shake his hand and tell him he’d won the jackpot on the MI5 lottery. No one was supposed to know where he was, who he was, what he was. Even his wife, May, hadn’t known precisely what he’d retired from. If this guy was an agent, it couldn’t mean anything good; if he was someone from one of the terrorist organizations Beckett had infiltrated, it would be a great deal worse. And why hadn’t the guy just approached him in the usual way? It was broad daylight, and even spooks knew the rules of normal social interaction.
But maybe he was wrong. Maybe the tall man wasn’t following him at all. Maybe Beckett was succumbing to paranoia. A life like the one he’d led tended to take its toll.
Inside Greenberg’s, an assistant was straightening a jacket and glancing at him suspiciously. A better move, he thought. There’s only so long a man can gaze at a shop window convincingly. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and walked on. Before she died, three years ago, May had tried to stop him smoking, telling him it was bad for him, but he enjoyed it, so he compromised by smoking only outside. It soothed his nerves.
As he walked on down the street, turning right onto Lowry Road, he desperately wanted to turn his head and check whether the tall man was following, but he knew better.
There was a café at the end of Hogarth Row, where it joined Lowry Road, crowded at this time of day. Beckett ground the remains of his cigarette into the pavement with his toe, then – cursing himself silently – he bent down and picked up the squashed stub, slipping it into his pocket. Might as well leave a trail of breadcrumbs, he thought, allowing himself a quick glance ’round. He was out of practice. He dodged through the café’s doorway just as a family group were coming out, then slipped between the tables to the back where he knew there were toilets. The place was packed, windows misted with condensation; it reeked of hot fat and bubbling batter, a smell that would have made his mouth water any other lunchtime. The young man behind the counter nodded at him – he was a regular customer – and Beckett tried to force his grim face into a friendly expression.
He pushed open the toilet door. The sharp smell of disinfectant met the salt-and-vinegar of the restaurant, and a wave of nausea rose in his gullet. The door swung shut behind him. The room was empty, a short urinal on one side, a single cubicle, its door open, in the corner beside a cracked sink. A large sash window, textured glass, half-filled the wall at the end, a twisted plastic Venetian blind doing its best to add an extra layer of privacy. Thank God he’d remembered the window correctly. It was open a few inches, the plastic blind rattling gently in the breeze off the sea. Using all his strength, he yanked it up as far as it would go. It squealed and grunted in protest, but he ignored the noise. It wasn’t much of a drop to the alleyway outside.
As he clambered through the gap, the door between the restaurant and the toilet swung open, letting in the noise of conversation and the gurgling coffee machine, and again the pungent odour of frying fish. A boy about thirteen stared at him in astonishment, his mouth falling open to reveal multi-coloured braces on his teeth. Beckett put his forefinger to his lips. The boy continued to stare at him. Then, with an agility unusual in men his age, Beckett slid through the aperture and dropped carefully and quietly to the ground. Glancing up and down the empty alley, he made a rapid decision to head towards the seafront. As he began to run, he heard the window behind him rattling. Someone was leaning out, but he daren’t look back to check whether it was the boy with the braces or the tall man.
“The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.”
The alley led out onto the promenade, not far from the pier. It became a different place here, the sober Victorian town centre giving way to grubby bunting, garishly striped awnings, and kiosks piled high with boxes of fudge, kiss-me-quick hats and sugar dummies the colour of old-fashioned prosthetic limbs. Beckett skimmed the street, taking in his surroundings swiftly. Every third shop seemed to be a newsagent’s with racks of postcards in its doorway and inflated beachballs hanging over its windows. The pavements were crowded with strolling families in flip-flops and shorts, holding ice-creams and plastic buckets and spades. Hot, sugary smells – doughnuts and candyfloss – drifted above the sour scent of seaweed, making him feel nauseous again. Bursts of pop music from the arcades accosted him, a bingo caller’s amplified voice reverberating from across the street (‘Are you ready, ladies and gents?’) – and he could hear a more distant, older cry from the fairground further along: ‘The louder you scream, the faster we go!’. For a second, the world felt uncanny to Beckett, like he’d stepped into an old Joseph Losey film, or the dislocating cacophony of a Graham Greene novel.
And there, standing in the shadow of an old lifeboat across the promenade, was the tall man, dropping a cigarette stub on the pavement and grinding it out with the toe of his shoe, as if in mockery of Beckett’s earlier actions.
He was staring straight at him.
But how could he be there? Beckett knew the man hadn’t passed him. If he’d taken a different route, how had he anticipated where Beckett would go?
At least there was now no doubt that the man was following him.
He felt himself trembling. He’d never been a nervous type; it didn’t go with the job. But there was something about that long-boned figure that made the hairs on his neck rise, digging out memories he’d rather stayed buried.
His training took over. He looked away, glanced down at the floor, stuffed his hands in his pockets and fell into a casual amble, threading through the crowds that spilled off the pavements into the road. When Nash Street branched off at a crossroads, he took the left turn, down the main high street in the town, then darted across the busy road and headed off down Turner Lane, a narrow, cobbled alleyway between a mini-mart and a pub. He knew this was a shortcut to Dadd Street, which ran ’round the edge of the Old Town, parallel to the high street, and he could dart into one of the quiet shops there before his pursuer could get down the alley.
On Dadd Street, moving quickly but not quite running, he crossed the road to a small gift shop with a dark interior. The door tinkled as he pushed it open, and an old man reading a newspaper behind the counter looked up, without interest, and muttered a brief greeting. There was no one else in the shop. It was a dusty, gloomy sort of place, shelves holding second-rate souvenirs and cheap children’s toys, mugs decorated with photographs of the seafront, little ships and miniature lighthouses made out of painted driftwood. Pretending to examine the dreary merchandise, Beckett lurked behind a display of plastic ships-in-bottles and fake Scrimshaw near the window, inspecting the street.
Though he knew he was right to think the man was tailing him, it was still a shock when the tall, slim figure emerged from the mouth of Turner Lane, scrutinising the street quite openly now. He was the kind of man you’d expect people to notice, with his exceptional height and that skinny frame, but no one on the street seemed to give him even a first glance. Beckett had a sudden feeling that maybe only he could see him, but he dismissed this idea immediately. No point in giving in to such ideas. His next impulse was to confront him, to step outside, walk across and ask him what he wanted, what he was doing here, why he was following him – but he knew this was just the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He’d learned years ago that, sometimes, there are moments when it feels easier – when it feels like it might even be a relief – to give yourself up rather than endure a second more of excruciating terror. These are the dangerous moments, the ones you need to guard against. The moments when you need to regulate your breathing, focus on the task at hand. Fear is the killer.
Besides which, he had no weapon, not even a knife. When he left his house that morning, to visit the bookies and pick up a newspaper, he hadn’t expected his past to creep up on him in the street, on its spidery legs. He’d thought he was free of all that. And, anyway, he suddenly knew, with a shivering certainty, that he could never voluntarily confront this man. There was something about him that was quickening his heartbeat and making the gooseflesh rise on his arms.
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Beckett pulled his head back into the shadows, but he was sure the man had spotted him, as he had begun to look for a gap in the traffic so he could cross over to the shop. Seeing the man’s angular features clearly now, a newly-lit cigarette cupped in one bony hand, Beckett realized where he’d seen him before. He’d been there when O’Leary was killed. He’d been standing a little behind the gang leader, off to one side, in the shadows, when Beckett shot the sadistic bastard in the chest and then in the head, just to make sure. Presumably, one of O’Leary’s entourage, though not one he’d recognized. A new guy, perhaps. He’d darted away, deeper into the shadows, before Beckett could shoot him too. When Beckett chased after him, he’d vanished into the shadowy alleyways ’round the docks. The other agents said they hadn’t seen anyone running away in that direction, but they hadn’t been as close to the gang. Beckett remembered that gaunt frame and that cruel face – small, deep-set eyes peering out from beneath a bony brow, above prominent cheekbones. A large, hooked nose and solid, heavy jaw. He looked like he’d been carved from granite. In fact, Beckett wasn’t sure, now, how he could ever have forgotten that face.
O’Leary’s death had been just over a decade ago. His final undercover mission. He retired soon afterwards. Infiltrating the IRA cell had won him a commendation. Later, after he discovered that the man he’d killed hadn’t actually been responsible for the kidnapping and torture of two fellow intelligence agents, as he’d been told – that in fact, he’d killed the wrong man (though a man who surely deserved to die nonetheless) – his previous certainties had crumbled like sandstone. Beckett had killed a lot of people in his career. Still, even though he knew how much of a scumbag the Irishman had been, he’d never quite shrugged off the unease he’d felt when he pulled the trigger that last time. On some level, he’d known they’d got the wrong man. He’d killed him out of fury, a reckless sense of anger and a desire for retribution, punishment for all the sordid brutalities committed by men like O’Leary that had discoloured Beckett’s world.
It had faded over the years, this sour lump of disquiet in his gut. Still, he sometimes dreamt of that winter evening, in another, much drearier, seaside town, so far away from here. That greasy wharf, the creak of the sea against its struts, pushing the tied-up boats up and down in the darkness, casting peculiar moving shadows. The look of surprise on O’Leary’s face when a man he trusted put a bullet through his chest. He dreamt about it sometimes.
And he remembered, with a sick sense of inevitability, that the tall man had been in all those dreams.
You could never really shrug off the sort of life Beckett had led. It always followed you, close as a shadow; however, many years passed by.
The tall man had almost reached the shop’s door. Beckett stepped back towards the counter, pushing the shopkeeper’s newspaper aside so he could look straight at his outraged face.
‘Is there a back way out?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘A back door? Is it through here?’
‘You can’t go back there! That’s private, that is!’
Beckett shouldered the man aside, pulled open a door behind him, and stepped into a tiny kitchenette. Thank God it wasn’t just a storeroom. There was an external door at the other side of the room, with a cat flap. To Beckett’s relief, the door was unlocked, though it was stiff and took some tugging before it opened. He half-fell down a short flight of concrete steps that led into another cobbled alley. A black cat scooted behind the tall dustbins which stood at either side of the steps, overflowing with junk. Beckett could hear the sound of the tall man following him through the shop, through the back room. Panicking, he decided to head right. He knew that way he’d be close to the promenade and the pier, again – lots of people around, potential safety.
However, before he reached the end of the alley, he heard the tall man’s feet on the cobbles behind him. And suddenly, he was engulfed by a giddy black sense that it was all over. Instinctively, he felt for the gun he no longer carried. Why would a grandfather like him need to carry a gun?
Slowly, he turned.
The tall man was standing only a few feet behind him. Beckett could see now that, beneath his long black coat, he was wearing threadbare jeans, patterned with dark stains, and a loose-knit woollen sweater with holes in it. The coat looked new, and it flapped around the man’s long, thin legs, in the wind tunnel of the alley, with the noise a flag makes in a strong breeze. A black beanie pulled low over his forehead accentuated the sharp ridges of his bone structure. Except for the coat, which Beckett remembered him wearing when he’d seen him standing behind O’Leary – so it couldn’t be new, after all – he looked like a weather-beaten fisherman. It was almost a caricature, a fancy dress ‘seaside town’ outfit. But he was too thin, the thinnest man Beckett had ever seen. He looked like a man in the late stages of cancer, but he also looked – somehow – immensely strong.
And there was something else odd about him.
‘Who are you?’ asked Beckett, his voice thin with stress. The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.
Then Beckett realized what it was about the man that looked wrong. The sun was shining on Beckett’s face, making him squint a little and stretching his own shadow out over the cobbles behind him. But there was no shadow in front of the tall man.
“his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett.”
Panic overwhelmed Beckett. Stumbling slightly as he turned, he fled down the alley, desperate to getaway. He moved now like a hare fleeing from a fox, giving no thought to others, his mind a swirling chaos of terror. His training deserted him as he sped along the promenade, clattering down a flight of wooden steps onto the beach, scrambling across the expanse of pebbles that marked the edge between manmade and natural, past groups of astonished sunbathers. He could hear the scratchy rattle of the stones as he ran, and slipped, and ran again over them, then a kind of silence as he reached the edge of the screen and his trainers slapped against the smooth wet sand by the sea’s edge. All he could think of was escape and sanctuary.
After a few minutes, with no evidence of pursuit, he began to calm down, the worst of his panic subsiding and rational thought kicking in. Feeling exposed on the sand, he cursed himself again, dodged ’round two children staring into a rockpool, and began toslow down. The crowds were thinning out at this end of the beach, where the tide seemed to be coming in a little faster, waves foaming over the sand like fingers clutching at a life-raft. Beckett fell into a brisk walk, glancing around and behind frequently. Eventually, he forced himself to stop, to turn slowly, scanning in all directions. Off to his left, back along the beach, a child was throwing a frisbee for a border collie to chase, and a family group was packing up their deckchairs and windbreaks. Further inland, a young couple were strolling arm in arm, and three bikini-ed women were lying side by side like steaks under a grill. The gaudy noise of the seafront had receded to a background hum, like a fading recollection, and the smell of the seaweed draped along the sand in dark green strands was more intense.
The tall man was nowhere to be seen.
Half-sobbing, half-laughing with relief, he looked out over the grey-blue waves and tried to pull himself together. He made a conscious effort to slow his breathing, steady his heart rate. He’d kept a low profile in this town for ten years, so he didn’t want to draw attention to himself now by galloping over a crowded beach like a madman being pursued by demons. A lone seagull swooped through the air above the sea’s edge, screeching loudly, the sound filling Beckett’s head with images of screaming children. He gritted his teeth and shook these thoughts out of his mind. Got to get a hold of myself, he thought. Get my bearings. His hand went to his forehead, pushing his sweaty hair from his face as he peered around desperately, then down at the sand around his feet, like a man who’d lost his wallet. Scraps of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, lollipop sticks embedded in the sand; the straw from an empty orange juice carton; glossy pink shells and rounded pebbles; sea glass smooth as a jewel.
Beckett looked up, squinting against the sun. Between the beach and the road, a familiar higgledy-piggledy collection of black, clinker-built fishing-net huts stood. He’d seen them often on his walks, and he’d always found them slightly disturbing. They were unusually tall and thin, and he always felt they might topple over and crush him, their horizontal black weather-boards filling his thoughts with distorted images of endless parallel lines. As he stared at them, the tall man stepped out from the narrow, shadowy space between the closest two. He took a long inhale of the cigarette held between his lips, tendrils of smoke curling out of his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett.
Beckett heard his own voice muttering ‘No, no, no!’ and felt water slosh over the tops of his brogues as he stepped backwards into the waves. Soon the sea was above his knees, but he continued to stare at the tall man, who maintained his unhurried stride towards him.
Then, with a sudden terrifying movement, Beckett turned, splashing through the deepening water until his feet felt only the movement of the sea beneath them – then swimming, with wild, determined strokes – then, at last, breathless and hopeless, waiting for the current to carry him to freedom.
Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her poetry and short stories have been widely published, most recently in Bandit, Failbetter, Jaden, POTB, Makarelle and English Review. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition and the Merefest poetry competition. She was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel.
All day, I’ve struggled not to remember the day, but my cramp has been building, and I sit clutching my belly. I confront my dinner, seeking the culprit: another thing to eliminate.
My coffee’s decaf. (Decaf is safest after heart surgery, so I’m hoping it’ll help prevent heart surgery.) No dairy. (When I was five, I had diarrhea after a pint of ice cream: I might be lactose-intolerant.) White bread-and-vegan-mayo sandwiches. (Grandma has high cholesterol.)
Nothing left to eliminate: everything that could hurt me is already gone.
All day, I’ve kept my eyes on my work, but now they steal towards where Aurora’s portrait used to hang. We got an old-fashioned studio portrait on her first birthday. Afterwards, I was desperately relieved to have one more thing to hold on to. But it became one more thorn in my heart: so the portrait’s gone, leaving behind its spot on the wall.
I stare at the telly. I’ve muted it: less scary so. A microwave has exploded in a Munich flat. “This was probably an accident,” says the reporter in the subtitle, “Though police are considering arson….” The resident had a vengeful ex-boyfriend, who’s been spotted lurking in the neighbourhood. Fortunately, the resident was dispatched on a last-minute work trip last night.
“The property damage is minimal, though the noise frightened neighbours….”
My throat clamps closed. Forcing it open, with swallows of sugar-free milk-free caffeine-free coffee, I absorb the news. Munich’s just 6,000km away. What if Savazios had blown up my microwave? Aurora’s death wasn’t my fault, but he blamed me: I saw it in his eyes.
Time to lock away my microwave. Why have I deferred this? Grandpa warned us about microwaves. He was prescient: splashed across every newspaper, now, is Cancer! I confront my Sunday dinner. Yes: I’ll make do with cold sandwiches and cold-stirred decaf every day. Hot food today isn’t worth the risk of being blown up tomorrow. I unplug my microwave oven. I’ll eBay it later; for now, I haul it out of sight: to the storeroom, formerly Savazios’s office.
It’s a small room; it’s been a long three years. I nudge the door half-open. Photo frames, anniversary gifts, rocks and twigs picked off the forest floor on weekend walks half-spill out. (We didn’t call our walks ‘hikes’ or ‘forest bathing’ – that was hipster, and we felt smug together, resisting fads. But our smugness was airy: it left room for laughter and fresh air.) I thrust the microwave oven into the clutter. I relock the storeroom-door, and slump against it, massaging my belly.
I’m used to grief cramps – what the doctors call psychosomatic symptomology. Now I get them only on significant dates. I’ve locked away the calendars: but my gut masochistically marks time.
Today’s cramp is worse. It’s sapped my self-control: I’ve allowed myself to say their names. I swore not to do this to myself. Someday I’ll confront the past. Meanwhile, it’s only sensible to lock away the things that can cripple me. Microwaves and photo frames. From my cardigan pocket, I dry-swallow another paracetamol. Tomorrow I’ll awake cramp-free and memory-free. I heave myself up and clear away my half-eaten dinner.
I finish my assignment: blueprints for Manchester’s first pagoda. I sign my name. Anna Rossi. I seal the blueprints in an envelope. I can’t face leaving the flat today. I’ll nip down to the lobby early tomorrow, when only the guard’s nodding, under his cap, over his desk.
I was an architect. Good enough that when I became housebound, they let me draft from home. I am an architect. I can still see a few buildings through my windows and as many buildings as I want in the books I get delivered to my lobby.
Time for bedtime checks. Windows: now opened a chink (don’t want to suffocate); opened no more. (Last December, in Tours, a pigeon flew through a window into a flat, couldn’t fly out again, shit and flapped all over, terrified, and terrorized the old couple, one of whom then had a heart attack.) Rubbish-bin, lidded and lifted for the night onto the counter. (Yesterday, in the lift, a resident told her great-grandson there’d been rats on her honeymoon ocean-liner in 1923.) Rat-traps: set. Radiators: not leaking. Power-sockets: not afire.
Bedtime. I spend the first half of the night drifting in and out of nightmares. They’re abating: now, when I awaken, I remember them for a half-second – then they’re gone.
Sleepless, I run checks a few more times. There’s not much left, now, to check.
“Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast.”
Past midnight, I awake, gasping. My gut feels ready to slip out my backside. Convulsions sit me up, then double me over. Even gasping hurts. Is it my gut? I’ve eaten nothing unusual. Nor does this feel like grief cramps.
Suddenly it’s here, and I’m on my feet, and I realize what this is. Arms clutching my abdomen, I stumble to the bathroom. My head swims. How can it be? Savazios left weeks after Aurora died. I’ve been alone for three years.
In the bathroom, I lower my pyjama shorts. With a final convulsion, my body ejects something. I feel it in my pants: a puddle, slimy soft. Well, I know what to do. I didn’t know I was pregnant; I can’t possibly be, yet here we are. I perch on the bathtub’s edge and plant my feet, knees apart. I ease my pants down around my knees. In a puddle of mucous and blood – swim two mites of flesh: hairless, obscenely nude, squirming.
What have I given birth to? Another monstrosity. Panic cramps my larynx. Vividly I see myself fleeing the scene. That’s what I should’ve done three years ago: fled this flat, where only guilt lives, bashing its head against the empty walls.
I massage my larynx. Gently I lower my pants to the white tiles. I squat. I peer. The mites of the flesh are two creatures, each about an inch long. Their skin is a transparent sac: taut over pink-and-black innards, sealing in the black dots representing eyes and ears. I know what I’ve had. Rats.
Does their skin seal in their mouths, too? How will they eat? I offer a fingertip. Breath, tiny but warm, scopes me; then two tiny mouths nudge my fingertip, and toothless gums nibble me. So: the sacs don’t seal the mouths. They can eat.
I withdraw my hand. I must make this decision rationally. Undecided, I squat and stare. My cramp disappeared the moment I ejected these things. I could flush them down the toilet, incinerate my pants – and, tomorrow, resume a normal life. I didn’t ask for any of this. I am not guilty.
My hand’s found its way over to the mites again. They nose blindly around my fingertip, seeking a teat. They whine.
If I were thinking, I’d be again overcome with revulsion, paralyzed. I’m no longer thinking. I scoop them up in a white terry hand-towel, clean them up as best I can – they’re tiny, and I’m afraid of squishing them – and carry them in the palm of my hand to the fridge.
Here’s the milk carton. (I still keep milk: in case a starving street cat sneaks through the window-chink, and only a milk-offering can save me from her wrath.) In my palm, the two morsels wriggle, rearranging themselves, seeking the warmest crannies. They’re cold. I must heat the milk.
I reopen the storeroom. The microwave oven topples into my arms. I microwave the milk, one second at a time. I remember: it must be warm, not hot. I’m not used to microwaving a thimbleful of milk. But I remember to check the temperature with my elbow.
My babies love to sniff!
I’ve set them down right at the saucer: still, they sniff blindly around, wriggling away; it’s sniffing that brings them wriggling back to the saucer. They sniff while they drink. They knead the saucer as if it were rat-teats; they must knead to release milk. Sniffing, snorting, they get milk-soaked. All through this, they’re fully blind, half-asleep. After their meal, I swaddle them in a fresh hand towel, tucking it around them, their noses unobstructed.
Again I confront the storeroom door. For three years, I’ve been half-opening the door, shoving things in. Now I need to step inside. I thrust the door open. Things spill out. I kick them back in. Then, remembering, I kneel, pick them up, fight my way in, and lay down further inside the things that’ve toppled out. Here’s Muncher’s crate.
After a short illness, Muncher died peacefully at 21: he felt no pain, and I felt no surprise. Still, his loss, treading on the heels of the others, overwhelmed me. I vowed: no more pets.
I dust Muncher’s crate, bed down inside it, my babies’ towel-swaddled, and lock the door. I’ve never raised rat-babies: better safe than sorry. Dog-crate by my pillow, feeding-alarms set for every half-hour, I go to bed. Perhaps this is just another nightmare.
I half-hope it isn’t. I’ve been clinging to what my life has become. Now I see what my life had become.
The alarm awakens me. I’d fallen asleep! Fully asleep. I lie, in the darkness, waiting for the nightmares to recede. Looks like this time, I wasn’t having any. Through the grill, I check my babies under my two forefingers, two tiny heartbeats race.
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All week, my babies’ bodies stay pink-skinned, their eyes and ears skin-sealed. All day, I watch them: sleeping, feeding, whining, squirming. Checking again for abnormalities, I run my finger down their tiny bodies, palpitating with their heartbeats impossibly fast – but normal, Google reassures me. Their bones are spongy as cartilage. Again I count their appendages: four toes, plus one ankle-hoof. Tiny toes whittled by microscopic elves.
Skilled elves: my babies are perfect, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Under the translucent skin-sacs, their facial features grow. Then they protrude. Into the smooth eye-sockets protrude rubbery black raisins. From either side of the skull protrude tiny rosebuds. Their eyes and ears are coming.
I tried putting my babies in the kitchen, in the sun, while I worked: but I kept nipping around to pore over them. So now I keep them by myself. I peep at them every minute – but my work’s getting done, too. Details over which I’d vacillated for hours now fall into place. How was I ever so silly as to agonize over trivia? I carry them around, even on bathroom breaks: tucked into my cardigan pockets, lined with paper napkins. This phase – I remember – won’t last this blind, deaf, total dependence.
They mustn’t suffocate. So, instead of closing the windows to a chink at night, now I leave them half-open.
The eighth morning, my final feeding alarm awakens me from sleep, still nightmare-free but awakens me to panic. Across our bed, sunrays fall, aslant, on something sick-shiny. My babies have wriggled, out of towel and crate, up against my calf. But what’s wrong with them? Why do they lie, unmoving, where Aurora lay that morning? My heart is preemptively bursting, preparing me for tragedy. But, this time, my resolve is steeling me to deal with it. Nobody knows about my rat-babies. If they’ve died, again for no fault of my own, I shall flush them down the toilet. I sit up and fumble at them. My eyes adjust to the sun in them. Now I see. Fur!
It’s just fur that they’ve begun growing: still thin and colourless, but already lustrous. That’s all the sick-shine was. Laughing, I clutch my babies to my bosom. They wriggle and squirm. Flush my babies down the toilet, indeed! I hear the hysteria in my laugh; only now that the terror has passed do I feel it shaking me. My hysteria ebbs, leaving only soft relief. At two weeks old, their eyes open: black and sleepy. Their ears pop free of their skulls and nestle, still flat, in their fur. The fur’s gray now, but still just a dusting, just shielding their raw pink nudity. Babyfur, softer than safety.
Three weeks. I run my finger down their backs, neck to tail. They’re as long as my index finger. Springy muscle, and bones no longer spongy, resist my finger, now. Life is growing up against. But they’re still babies: they whine with pleasure and squirm into my fingertip massage. I watch them constantly; still, again, their next metamorphosis happens overnight. I bid my half-nude mites goodnight and awaken to find them in fur coats big and fancy. They’ve been playing Castle between the crenellations of my toes. Hearing me laugh, they come scurrying, nosing my lips, welcoming me to their new day, unself-conscious of their new beauty.
At four weeks old, the dull gray of their infant fur differentiates into their adult colours. One baby is mostly Cocoa, the other wheat. I give Cocoa and Wheatie the run of the flat. Hither and thither, they scurry and scamper: whiskers quivering, pink noses glistening.
Always their globe-trotting expeditions terminate at the Bermuda Triangle: the storeroom door. They rear up: forepaws hanging, fore-wrists lax. They turn on me, black eyes glistening, begging. I open the storeroom door – but don’t let them in. If they got in amongst my life’s rubbish, I’d never find them again.
I go in alone to retrieve toys for my babies. The books I bought after my losses. Books on trauma, grief, and healing. Cocoa shreds them into ribbons.
I retrieve Muncher’s toys. To a rubber chew-ball textured, tennis-ball-sized, Wheatie clings two-handed, like a drunken pilot, whiskers wriggling like Medusa’s snake hair. Heart in mouth, I watch her. What if she topples backwards and gets steamrolled by the tennis ball? But, dancing awkwardly, she stays aloft.
They fish out a fountain pen from the calligraphy set I gave Savazios on our first anniversary. Savazios never filled the pens: he’d always wanted to try calligraphy, but even with a set, he never got around to it. And he took nothing with him when he left: not even his clothes. He had the right idea: walk away from everything. When did I appoint myself museum-curator of our lives?
“I’m the world’s worst museum-curator,” I confess to Cocoa, scratching her neck with the pristine gold always-empty nib. “Exhibits all tossed away in the backroom, unlabelled.” Cocoa’s got an idiosyncratic pleasure point right of centre from where her skull meets her torso; a brief scratch here has saved me many reward pellets during training. As I scratch, Cocoa’s eyes close, hoarding the privacy of her pleasure. Her right hindleg windmills: she thinks she’s scratching herself.
I laugh. When will she outgrow her silliness? Muncher never did. Affection surging, I squeeze Cocoa. Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast. My babies’ nonhumanness astonishes me.
Also astonishing: I’ve remembered what to do.
I thought I’d forgotten. I thought forgetting was my only hope.
“As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly.”
Wheatie spends hours peering out the balcony door on hind legs, which I’ve kept locked since the prank.
A harmless prank: but, coming when it did, it did me in. First, we lost Aurora weeks before her second birthday. She’d been born with a unique heart defect: the doctors had given her two years. Savazios and I blamed one another when she was born. Not in words: but, for us, there were no more walks-not-hikes. I awoke one morning to find Aurora, as usual, in our bed – she was always crawling out of her special crib into our bed – but that morning, she hadn’t made it past my calf. After the first shock of grief, Savazios and I again blamed one another, again not in words.
Then Savazios left. Then Muncher died. Then, one morning, alone in the flat, I awoke, shivering in the draught, to find the balcony door ajar. A sticky note on the glass: I took a plastic spork from your takeaway in the trash; sorry, I was dared to climb up here and take something, and your door won’t close from the outside, sorry.
I opened the balcony door, leaned over – we’re on the third storey – and retreated, shut the balcony door, had a lock installed that evening – and it’s been locked since. For it was after the prank – which shouldn’t’ve mattered at all, which I should’ve laughed at – that I finally heard the universe shouting at me: ‘Enough. Life is not for you.’
Now I watch Wheatie watching the world through the glass. I prostrate myself behind her, wondering what she can see. She promptly abandons her studies and climbs into my hair. I give her a hand to battle. She’s as big as an adult, with the energy of a teenager. She roughs up my hand; I sit up and cease play. Acknowledging my that’s-too-much signal, she sits back at once: but her whole body quivers, pleading. She darts back to the balcony door, standing again, peering out, now scratching the glass. Cocoa, distracted from her mid-afternoon treasure-hunt under the bed, joins her.
They’re nine weeks old. For six weeks, I’ve wondered: Should I open the balcony door? I’ve made a series of concessions. I’ve let them root in the rubbish bin: there’s never anything spoiled or sharp in there. I’ve let them in the bathtub: they seem immune to drowning. But, about the balcony door, I’ve vacillated.
Back at work across the drawing-room, I watch my babies still scratching at the balcony door. Fully grown, but noses still pink, quivering with the moist curiosity of babes fearing no tomorrow. Have I the right to fear, for them, what they don’t fear for themselves?
Scratching the glass, they look like they’re running. Running nowhere, trapped here with me.
If I were thinking, I’d be again vacillating, paralyzed. I’m no longer thinking. I cross the drawing-room. Hands clasping the balcony door handle, I brace myself. Do Cocoa and Wheatie know what door handles are for, or is it my stance that cues them in? They jump onto my socked and slippered feet: meerkat-standing, sniffing the door-crack. Craning their necks up at ridiculous angles, they beseech me with galaxy-bright black eyes.
Air rushes from the world across the balcony into me. I stumble out and steady myself, hands-on banister. With slow forceful breaths, I massage my gut out of its clench. The breeze stirs on my face: sun-warmed, autumn-sharp, bursting with smells red, blue and yellow. My senses are overwhelmed; I close my eyes and slow my breath.
Cautious, quivering, my nose sniffs the world’s scrambled smell-rainbow, picking out memories. Honey-roasted peanuts. Wine. Leaf-fire, smouldering.
I used to be able to identify leaves by their smell. After the flames envelop them, they all smell the same, but they smell different when they’re just smoking. Hickory. Chestnut. Oak. Had I known I’d be hibernating for three years, I would’ve hoarded these smells for my long winter.
I open my eyes. The sky’s too blue: I can’t face it yet. I peer below. The vendor across the street is hawking honey-roasted peanuts in paper cups and mulled wine in styrofoam cups.
‘Mulled.’ ‘Styrofoam.’ Out here is the world, still. In my head are the names for things, still. The tide surges up my throat. The joy that it’s all still here. Sorrow that I’ve wasted three years of it. Joy and sorrow compete in my throat, threatening to choke me.
Squeals at my feet half-awaken me. Stunned by memories and the world, unthinking, I shut the balcony door behind my babies, who’ve scurried away.
Motionless above my head, now in my face, a wingspan wavers, blotting, briefly, the afternoon sun’s indolent gold. A falcon lands on my banister, a foot away from me. Fully awake now, I look him in his golden eyes. His wings fold away and under. He regards my babies, safe behind glass, and turns on me eyes fire-bright, ice-cold.
I stand paralyzed, waiting for the panic to rush me into action. A microwave oven exploded 6,000km away? Quick, lock away my own. I lost a fetus, then lost a baby, then lost my husband? Quick, lock me away. I wait for my panic, but instead, up my throat rises something else. I recognize it when I hear it.
Laughter. Not hysterical, this time. Raucous.
The falcon starts, flaps a bit, then steadies himself and glares. I laugh harder, clutching my stomach: but my stomach is all loose now, loose with laugher. There’s nothing to hold onto: and that’s alright, for there’s nothing to hold in anymore.
I wipe my eyes and clap my hands. “Boo!” The falcon flies away.
I reopen the balcony door. My babies scamper back into the wine-drunk sunshine and huddle against my ankles. “So, my explorers, is that the end of your intrepidity? You’ll stay near me, now, eh?” They will, but perhaps not forever. And that’s alright.
It wasn’t my fault. Birthing a sick child. Losing her. Losing my husband. Losing Muncher. Getting pranked. None of it was my fault. But neither was it the world’s. So why, to punish the world, did I lock myself away?
The instructions the universe shouted at me three years ago were right: for three years ago. As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly. The tide that was surging up my throat, threatening to choke me – ebbs, dissipated by my laughter. Leaving only soft froth. Leaving, in grief’s wake, rebirth.
My first life was terrifying. So would this second life be if I were alone? Thank god my babies are with me.
Amita Basuis a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Toyon, Bewildering Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gasher, and other magazines and anthologies. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Deccan Herald, and other venues. She lives in Bangalore and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/.