Mother’s Nature

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lynn Bauman-Milner


Tombs
Photo Credit: Coralie Mercier

The warning crawled across her neck as the sun dropped below the horizon: the boundaries had been breached. Anger at the disobedience flared through her, but she breathed deep, pursed her lips, and allowed the lesson to teach itself.

*

Aliot slumped over, resting her head on her forearms while her lungs laboured to find the breath she had outrun. The cemetery was quiet in the moonlight, the only sound her gasps. Lank chestnut hair fell in sheets on either side of her face, cutting off her peripheral vision. As her breathing slowed, she relaxed her grip on the gunstock, her knuckles popping. How am I going to get out of this? What was that? She yanked her head up and glanced around, eyes darting but never settling. Her own footsteps showed as black hollows in the glowing snow, marking her as an idiot. Aliot winced at the rookie mistake. She was worried now that they had lingered too long in this soulless place of myth and death. The regimented rows of squared marble blocks stretched far off in every direction, the creeping darkness hiding the gates and the way home. The rumours of the evil that abided here drifted into her mind. Her heart pounded twice—hard—before she hauled back her memories from the stories that they told about this place. Why did I listen to him? Mother will be furious if she finds out where we’ve been.

Aliot forced her breath to a stop while she listened for sounds of search and pursuit: a crunch through the icy crust of the snow, a snorted breath to clear out for a clean scent trail. No sound reached her, except her increasing heartbeat thumping in her ears. She checked her equipment: pulling loose belts tight, readjusting her boots, rebalancing her grip on the hand cannon. Now you’re just stalling, you coward. Get out there!

She puffed staccato breaths, trying to goad her courage into life, and scrambled to the top of the marble memorial. From here, she could see the entire park and any movement between the rows. Aliot leapt from headstone to headstone, angling towards the greater cover of the central mausoleum over to her right. She staggered after the third leap, pinwheeling her arms and poised on one foot.

Aliot had almost regained her balance when a sharp jab vibrated through the pack on her back, and her chest guard lit up with an array of LEDs. The cartoon sounds of explosions echoed throughout the cemetery, and the surprise toppled Aliot. She landed on her back, a woof of breath shoved out by the impact. As she lay in a snowdrift, legs angled up with her heels hooked on the edge of the plinth, she stared at the black sky, tattooed with stars and clouds, and gasped for air.

Laughter floated on the night air, and Aliot heard a voice say, “Gotcha! You’re dead.” A tousled mop of hair crested the headstone, revealing a pair of dark eyes filled with stars and humour. “You really suck at laser tag, Aliot.”

“Shut up,” she said, her face burning with humiliation and her back freezing from the press of snow beneath her. Aliot struggled to her feet, dusting off the snow that clung to her as her hands turned red from the cold. Jorge stepped around the grave, sniggering at her defeat and the subsequent glare she gave him. Her brother was taller than she thought he had a right to be: even at fifteen years old, he was nearly six feet tall, and his messy midnight hair made him look much older. Most of her friends pronounced him “gorgeous” and she was jealously certain that several of the girls were only nice to her so they could have an excuse to talk to him—which meant mainly giggling so much that Aliot wanted to slap them for being so obviously vapid.

“C’mon,” he said. “We should get back before Mother sees it’s late.”

Aliot, caught up in these resentments, had to rush to catch up to him as he strode through the rows towards the gate. She had turned thirteen this past autumn, growing just enough to reach her brother’s shoulder, and finally stopping him from using her as a ‘resting post’, thumping his elbow onto her head and leaning with all his weight until her knees gave way. Aliot barrelled into Jorge with a full-body shove, just for being him.

He stumbled to one side and recovered, looking back at her over his shoulder, a half-grin on his face with a twinkle of jovial malice in his eyes. “Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be, eh?” he asked, his voice rising and falling with playful tones of threats. “Sore loser, you’ll be a snowman when I’m done with you.” He scooped up a double-handful of snow, his eyes gleaming from under the fringe of his midnight hair.

Aliot took a half-step back, her hands facing out for protection, her protests broken up by giggles. “We’ve got to go, you know. Mother will be angry, like you said. All those stories…” Her voice trailed away as Jorge loomed towards her. A huge mound of snow was piled in his hands, and he began to laugh: a cartoon evil “Moo-ha-ha!” rolled across the field of the dead. Aliot’s giggles followed in a merry chase, as brother and sister ran in varying pursuit after each other, playing in the snow, Mother forgotten again.

While the stars and moon looked down dispassionately, another set of eyes smouldered. How dare they? How very dare they cavort in my demesne?

Jorge crowed victorious, head thrown back and mouth wide, while Aliot shrieked and danced about, trying to shake out the snow that had succeeded in slithering under the collar of her coat and down her back. Clouds scudded across the sky, covering the moon in fitful starts, making odd patterns of light on the snow.

She did not—she could not—see that she had danced her way around to the lee side of the mausoleum, close to the edge of an open grave cut into the ground before the winter snows had fallen and frozen the earth. The last clump of snow slipped out from under the hem of her coat, landing with a wet flump just behind her. Aliot sighed with relief, her face red from the exertions. She grimaced at her brother, who was perched on the corner of a gravestone just a few feet away, grinning in return.

Whites of eyes revealed, mouth curved into an O, and Aliot was gone, leaving Jorge staring at the space where she had been. Stunned, Jorge blinked. “Aly?” Only silence answered him. “Aly?” His voice rose with the rising fear in his heart. “C’mon, kiddo, you can’t be messing around like this. Mother will want us home, like, now.” He slid off the cold marble, and took a tentative step forward, craning his head to see where she went.

The clouds scuttled away from the moon then, leaving behind gleaming light to surround the yawning maw, the bottom hidden by shadow. Jorge edged closer, one eye on the snow, making sure he didn’t fall as Aliot had. He could see where her foot slipped: a dark gash down through to the grass below. It was painful to look at, almost like a wound. “Aly?” He shuffled closer, and the snow shuffled forward and over the edge, falling into the darkness. His voice quavered as he spoke. “Are you okay?”

The grave was not speaking, and he could not see Aliot in the shadow below. Jorge peered closer at the snow lipping the edges of the hole. He spotted claw marks that started in the snow, disturbing the virgin crust of ice, and cut back towards the grave, disappearing over the edge. His breath tripped in his throat as it became clear that Aliot did not fall, but was pulled. He dropped to his knees at the edge and leaned forward, searching. The nape of his neck crawled as he found more scratches in the frozen mud on the inside of the grave. A low groan from the blackness made him scramble back to safety.

He whispered his sister’s name to the grave, a question asked in hope. But he did not—he could not—approach the grave again, as fear began to uncurl in his belly, sending tendrils of chills along his limbs and spine. Jorge began to shiver, despite the sweat freezing on his forehead. Ignoring the bite of snow, he crawled forward to the edge again.

The blackness of the empty hole was rich and unending. How did we miss seeing this? It’s huge. Jorge stopped three feet from the edge. He swallowed hard, forcing his stomach not to upend its contents into the hole in front of him. She’ll never forgive me if I barf all over her. He tried to crawl forward, but felt as though he was pushing against a tangible obstacle. He paused and reached out with his hand to feel for the thing that was stopping him. He reached past the point—the obstacle suddenly gone—and over-balanced, landing in a shallow belly-flop, facing the open grave, his hand touching nothing in the air above it.

Ice cold crept along his finger tips, and even in the moonlight, he could see the flesh turning blue, tracing the movement of the cold as it drew spirals around each finger. Jorge gasped, feeling his own blood draw the cold through his arm.

The shadows in the grave shifted, moving with feline grace, revealing the broken body of his kid sister, twisted on the frozen soil below.

“Aly!” She can’t be dead, she can’t be, it’s just a short fall, she must be playing a joke, she—

“She isn’t playing.”

Jorge twisted abruptly, nearly sending himself into the hole, as he hunted for the source of the voice. He could feel needles of cold enter his ears, piercing his mind. He worked to quell the new surge of fear. “She’s fine,” he said to the empty night. “She’s only joking about with me. Aly’s like that.” The words sounded hollow in the darkness. With the generous arrogance of a boy on the brink of manhood, he had dismissed all the folklore of this place as mere stories to frighten naughty children into goodness.

The darkness responded with a chill that ate through his body, trying to reach his soul. “She is mine now, and here she shall stay.”

“No!” His shout was amplified by the grave. “Give her back; she is not yours.” Jorge could see Mother’s reaction if he came home with the news of Aly’s death. The image of her disappointment—and of the blame that she would direct at him—etched itself in his mind.

The shadow swarmed up the side of the grave. Jorge kicked away from it, scuttling backwards, and stopped short as he slammed into the edge of a headstone. The sudden pain brought him back to rationality. He stared at the shadow before him, and tried to recall those stories for any hint of how to escape the Blue Lady.

Whirling like a tornado, the shadow shaped into a human form from the ground up. The figure pulsed once and settled. The blackness tore near the top of the figure, pulling back on itself to reveal its face. Its skin was tinged death-blue, and every feature was sharp, defined by angles and cutting edges. Its prominent cheekbones made hollows of its cheeks, and its predator’s smile revealed needle-sharp teeth. But the eyes were just holes, revealing the darkness within. The Blue Lady regarded Jorge, its face tilted in a caricature of human curiosity.

“You think you can defy me?” No emotion, no intonation, no inflection in the voice, just the force of its power as it extended it toward Jorge.

He felt his grip on reality slip, and clenched his jaws together, grinding teeth to stop the hysterical laughter from escaping. He pushed himself up, keeping the solid stone behind him. The hand cannon from his laser gear dangled from its coil, knocking between the stone and his thigh. Jorge gripped it like a drowning man, his mind churning. “We can’t be here. We have to get home. Mother…”

“Those who enter these doorways do not leave again. She has paid the blood price and must stay.”

The Blue Lady gestured towards the still form in the grave. Jorge’s eyes widened as black tendrils extended from the Blue Lady, reaching down into the grave to caress Aliot’s cheek, the flesh stiffening into rigor even before the cold could touch it. The Blue Lady flowed down into the hole, clasping Aliot’s body to itself, in a parody of a maternal embrace.

“She shall be our first for this winter’s season, as the open graves dictate.”

“Wait. What? Those were just rumours, gallows humour of the spring…” Jorge was torn by confusion and rage. But rage won out at the sight of Aliot in that thing’s arms. “She is not dead,” Jorge cried out, his voice rent into shards of glass. He stepped forward, still gripping the toy gun. “She is coming home with me.”

“If she can leave the grave herself, move under her own power, then I will release her.”

Jorge raked at his face, trying to think of a way to save his sister. If she is—truly is—dead, then I cannot leave her. If only I had listened to Mother’s warnings… If only I hadn’t lied… If I could only get Aliot to move. The toy gun knocked gently on his head with every pass of his hands. He stared at it, his eyes unfocused as he tried to think. His eyes grew large and Jorge grinned with desperation and relief.

“I have here,” he said, “the latest technology of reanimation.” Jorge held up the toy gun and, with showy deliberation, levelled the muzzle of the gun at the still form of his sister. He breathed a silent prayer to whatever guardian angel was listening, and pulled the trigger.

Cartoon noises clashed against the solemn silence in the pit, and the chest pack lit up in a blast pattern of red and orange. But it was the vibration of the pack that set Aliot’s body to dancing within the Blue Lady’s embrace. Her torso jerked side to side, and the momentum carried through her limbs, but the motion fooled no one. Jorge let the gun fall and hung his head. His rage had become fear, transformed by desperation and failure and the mocking voice of the Blue Lady.

It swept its head back and forth, a judgemental shake. “You are an idiot to try to fool me.” Its voice hissed and slithered its way into Jorge’s mind, twisting in frozen whorls through his bones to join the cold that still lingered in his blood. “But your attempt has amused me. I will let her go. For a trade.”

Jorge could hardly believe what he was hearing. He thought of Mother again, hoping that this was the way out of his lies and he could start fresh. He dared to smile when a crack of noise jolted him from his inward stare. His leg gave way beneath him; a searing pain blinded his vision with red. Jorge collapsed, his left leg broken and jutting out above the knee. Another crack, and his left arm was wrenched behind his back, flopping at the elbow and the forearm kinked in the opposite direction. He doubled over, leaning into the open space above the grave, screams tearing from him with steel barbs. He felt, rather than heard, a hollow pop coming from within himself, and the dull, spreading numbness told him something inside had ruptured.

Even as he suffered, Jorge kept his eyes on his sister, and wondered what would happen next. He searched for some indication that her injuries were healing, that each one was being transferred from her to him, and that he would take her place in the grave. But the moonlight had clouded over, giving only glimpses of the body below.

There was no change.

Jorge lifted his gaze, reluctant to look at the Blue Lady. His body was wracked with agony, his heart filled with hate and longing.

“I cannot bring the dead back to life. Nor can I transfer life from one to another. The balance of order must be maintained.”

Jorge could only ask the question with his eyes, for his throat and mouth were filling with blood and he could barely choke the next breath past the bolus.

“I said I would let her go. I meant that her body would be found.”

Jorge dropped his head, coughing out blood, and felt his body go weak from the pain. He lay down on the ground and rested his head on his one good arm. He could not stop the blood bubbling from his mouth.

The clouds flitted across the moon’s face, wiping it clean and illuminating the grave, allowing Jorge one last look at his sister. Aliot was twisted, her limbs at painful, broken angles, and blood had smeared down across her chin. Her eyes were open but sightless, pointing up to the open sky above. He could see a faint expression of fear imprinted on her frozen face, but Jorge thought that at least she looked mostly peaceful.

The Blue Lady rose to stand by Jorge’s feet. Its face loomed above him, the mouth shaped into a rictus as it leered down. Moonlight pierced through the shadow, making the empty holes glow white, eerie against the eternal dark of the creature.

“You are mine now, and will nourish me.” The mask was swallowed back into the darkness and the amorphous form of the Blue Lady moved in lapping waves up Jorge’s legs, spreading and covering him, swallowing his fear and his love. Cold replaced pain.

Jorge could almost see the golden aura of his own life seep from his every breath, hovering in the air before him. Mother, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you or Aliot. Forgive me. He watched as the shadow enveloped his legs, creeping along the length of his body, and he let his tears fall freely.

With a wrenching yelp, the shadow disappeared, and Jorge sucked in a deep breath, life returning to him in a rush. He coughed out a last mouthful of blood, and wiped his lips, then realized that he was no longer broken. He sat up, bewildered and frightened, looking for the Blue Lady…

…who was currently dangling from the tight grip of his mother’s hand. “This lesson has gone on long enough,” she said, voice tense with suppressed rage. “Jorge, get your sister out of the grave. I’ll take care of this pretender to my throne, and then we will have words about your disobedience.” Mother did not look away from the shadow in her grasp as she spoke. Her eyes burned with sun-bright flames, and she transformed into her elemental form, tall and queenly, crowned with hawthorn berries and mistletoe. She wrenched the shadow’s head—sharp, tight shakes of hate and venom—and when she spoke again, her voice echoed with centuries of power. “It’s not nice to try to fool me, but mess with my children, and you will pay the price.”

Jorge slipped into the grave, escaping the sight of the punishment he knew Mother would exact. He slid his arm under Aliot’s shoulders and raised her to a sitting position, resting her back against the wall of the grave. He chafed her hands and arms and face as her life force returned and her body healed. She tried to ask a question, but he shook his head and gestured up towards the world above. He mouthed Mother, his face gone pale in the moonlight. Aliot’s eyes widened and she shivered, lips drawn down as she considered how Mother would punish them for lying to her.

They waited for Mother—shuddering with the fear of naughty children caught—as the howls of torment rolled across the cemetery grounds before ending with a squelch.

pencil

Lynn Bauman-Milner is a forty-three-year-old displaced Canadian, currently living and writing in West Yorkshire, UK. She is a former English teacher, having left the profession after seven years to pursue new challenges, with a focus on writing. Her first novel, Firesoul, for which she is seeking representation, was completed in September 2013. Currently, she is working with Brad MacMillan, of August Media, to develop his idea of a fantasy quest into a novel, which will be the foundation for a film script within the next year. Her blog showcases her writing skills, from fiction to travel writing. Email: lynn[at]wayf.co.uk

Mother

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
J. Chad Kebrdle


Abandoned House
Photo Credit: Jodi Grove

Across a blowing, windy, empty cornfield covered with a thick blanket of snow sat a small house. The colorless cube had been weathered with time and lack of concern. Two randomly-placed windows glared out untrustingly at the lonely vast surroundings. The fragile and tea-stained dressings behind the eyes of the home had not been pulled back in years, leaving the interior sheltered from any light the outside happened to have available to share. A scattering of dim, bare bulbs now served to illuminate the inside of the house. She was a miser with her resources now, but he didn’t mind waiting to inherit everything after she was gone.

He walked through the house along one of the few pale trails that had been worn into the dark stain of the hardwood floors. One path led from the kitchen to the living room. Though the furnishings showed evidence of nobility and intentional placement, the color had since been drained from all fibers in the furniture and the worn carpet and the thin curtains that covered one of the two windows in the house. A fine layer of dust was the proof that the intentional placement of all furnishings had not been disturbed, down to the copy of TV Guide that sat in the same spot on the once-regal coffee table from years prior.

Another path led from the living room to his tiny back bedroom. Long ago, it was a nursery, filled with love and light, but now the baby blue paint was peeling off the walls and the picture frames holding past remembrances of joy were cracking at the corners. A large stuffed bear, given with affection, had lost his smile along with an eye and sat on an old chair much too small for an adult. A sweat-stained mattress broke the room’s pastel palette and a tattered blanket with baseball players barely visible lay crumpled in the middle of it.

In a small area between his bedroom door, the bathroom door, and the back entrance of the kitchen was a nest of a bare spot scarcely noticeable due to the lack of a bulb in this insignificant square. It had served as a garage for toy cars when he was a child. It was also a guard shack, prison cell, hospital room, ice cream stand and, later in his life, the creaking tattle-tale that announced his early morning entrances to his sleeping mother. The floor still creaked every time he took the step or two through it, though he was no longer sneaking.

The bathroom had been paid the least attention to over the years, but definitely had the largest contribution to the smell of the tiny abode. It had been ages since his mother had been out of her bed, and so the amount of scum that had accumulated across all of the porcelain made the fixtures look a filmy grey rather than the sparkling white that she used to insist upon. The odors wafting from this room only slightly covered the stale, burnt offerings of the tiny kitchen.

When his mother was mobile, the meals that were crafted gave the whole house a mouthwatering aspect that was often different but always comforting. Some nights it was onion and cilantro; other nights, rosemary and oregano, or perhaps cumin and turmeric. She made everything taste wonderful. Now, a small stove held uncleansed remnants from meals of yore as well as a warm pot of stew that offered insight into its flavor via bland visual presentation. The smell was more sour than sweet and more bitter than spicy. Tan droplets slopped out of the pot onto a table that served as a division between the kitchen and the living room. A plastic tub of a powdered, concentrated cleaning product sat near where a bowl of soup had just been stirred.

He was taking the bowl of lukewarm sludge along the final path in the house. A path so worn the splinters would often pierce through the bottom of his foot whether or not he was wearing slippers. The road to his mother’s room was one he could have walked through a hurricane blindfolded and reached without incident. He had walked this path in all of his emotions: love, hate, sorrow, sympathy, joy, pain. No matter what emotion he was expressing, this stretch of the small house always seemed impossibly long. It was an extension of the house so removed that at times it seemed like she was more of an omniscient being of faith rather than flesh and blood.

When he reached the closed door to the entrance of her room he paused and the whole world around him seemed to pause in unison. The sound of the harsh wind had momentarily subsided and he could imagine himself the only mobile object in a world paused in time. The house seemed unnaturally still as he balanced the warm bowl in his left hand and rested his right against the cool finished wood of the door. His mind raced through a library of vivid scenes from his past that all happened where he was now standing. He felt his breath becoming more shallow and fast. He was beginning to change his mind.

It took an unusual amount of pressure to push the door and as he did, a gush of air swelled around the door from inside the bedroom. His unkempt hair blew back and the sound of the wind picked up singing in cacophony with the chug of the oil furnace kicking on and the blower starting its low roar. As he stepped into the room it smelled sweet like the fermenting of rotten fruit. The floor creaked as he walked toward the bed and he could see her quiet face in the dim light of the lone bulb in the room that was lit on a table beside her bed.

He set the dish on the table and as it hit the wood top, her right eye exploded open and the white around the cold blue iris flashed against the dull shadowy bedroom. He sat in the only other piece of furniture in the room—an old, feeble rocker. It was the same one his mother rocked him in when he was an infant. It creaked methodically against his weight as he sat down and looked into her unwelcome glare.

They locked gazes for a moment and he could hear her long wheezing breaths over the sound of the wind and the furnace blower. The sound of her voice broke the rhythm of her breathing. It started out as nothing more than a cracking sound. Her purplish lips parted, smacking with sticky muck webbing in the corners of her downturned mouth. With another wheeze she motioned as if she were speaking but the air leaking out from her windpipe did not have the force to cause a noise. Instead, her once-soft lips writhed like earthworms across the grey wrinkles of her face. With another effortful breath, she finally managed audible speech.

“Good morning…” She wheezed. “…boy.”

She always said good morning when she woke from a nap, no matter what time it was. And she always called him boy. She was his mother; it only made sense that in her eyes he would always be a child. In fact, he was shamefully reliant on her even as she sat barely alive in her bed. Sixty years after birth he was still sucking nourishment from her as if the cord had never been cut. He knew that would all change the moment she passed away and all of her resources became his. He grinned slightly as his focus shifted from his mother’s stare to the steam rising up from the bowl on the table between them.

“Good morning, Mother. Hungry?” His voice was not much clearer than his mother’s from an equally insufficient lack of use.

She closed her eyes slightly and smiled.

Her smile used to comfort him. She would delight in watching him play and discover and grow. But when his excursions began to take a darker turn—when he began coming home with cigarette smoke on his breath and whisky spilled down his shirt, when he would not come home for days until he had run out of money or just needed a place to sleep—her smile began to change. It became a smile of distrust and acceptance at once. They both knew he was up to no good and she was going to love him forever anyway.

He stood as she smiled at him and walked over to the far side of the bed to help adjust her pillows and sit her up. He could have thrown her across the room if he had wanted to, she was so light. But instead, he slid her gingerly up as if she were a child and tucked her thick soft quilt around her. The colors in it had faded a great deal but he still recognized the patterns from childhood clothes: the corduroy pants he tore while ice fishing, the jacket that got stained from picking and eating too many wild raspberries, the shirts he outgrew from kindergarten to graduation day. He walked back around the bed to his chair and their eyes locked cheerfully for a moment.

She truly loved him and had since the day he was born. She blamed herself sometimes for the way he had turned out. She only wanted the best for him—like any mother would want for her child. She gave him everything she could and when he wanted more, she found a way to provide. And when he still wanted more, she found ways to sacrifice herself in body and soul to make sure he had everything he wanted and thought he needed. She loved him, but was ashamed of what he had become. Where she had thought her provisions were being distributed in order for her son to provide for a future generation or generations, they instead turned out to be providing for his own selfish whims. When she was younger, she would trick herself into thinking that her son’s solitary existence was due to lack of good company, but she had grown to understand he had no intention of sharing any of his life with anyone, and yet was still thinking he did not have enough. The bitterness inside her would swell up at times and, though she would try and contain it, begin to spill out.

“Is that smell you or my lunch?” she said.

This took the smile off of his face and reminded him of his current agenda. He sat down in the chair and sighed. A fly that had somehow become warm enough to take flight buzzed lazily around his head. He swatted at it and responded to his mother with an unoriginal “I’m sorry I could never be as good of a cook as you, Mother,” and waved the fly away with his hand and a scowl. He grabbed the bowl and scooted his chair closer to the bed in order to administer her last meal.

“I doubt that the smell is my soup, really,” said she. “I don’t think we have enough vinegar in the place for the soup to smell like that.”

Normally, this would have set him off. Sent him running to his room for fear of what he might do to her. Because this was no concern at this time, he was able to respond with a steady tone. “Mother, why do you worry so much about my hygiene? You’re the only one I’ve seen for months and you’ve been asleep over half of that. Is it so bad that I don’t want to completely emulsify myself in water in the dead of winter for an audience of one-half every day?”

“It’s not about impressing anyone. It has to do with you and your self-respect.” She was beginning to get excited but calmed herself. She closed her eyes and let an unintentional low whistle through her nose. Her eyes crept open and a weak but genuine smile split across her face. “I love you, boy. I only wanted you to love yourself as much.”

“God, Mother!” he spat, and slapped the bowl onto the table causing small, thick drops to splash out onto the table. This was her way. About the time he was fed up with her, she would show her kind, loving side. “I do love myself! I just wish—” The fly interrupted by tickling the end of his nose. He snapped his hand at the bug in such anger that if he would have been off-target even a fraction of an inch, he would have broken his own nose. However, his target was skillfully hit and both people in the room looked at his fist in impressed surprise.

He moved his gaze to his mother who was still staring at his buzzing hand with raised eyebrows. Her eyes lifted to his. He grinned and lifted his fist to his ear and shook it, causing the trapped fly to buzz louder. Without blinking, he closed his fist tightly and the buzzing sound was replaced by a soft crunch. He opened his hand palm down and a small crooked dot fell to the floor leaving a miniscule stalactite of goo hanging from his hand. He wiped his hands on his shabby pants and leaned forward in the rocker, moving closer to his mother.

“I like myself just fine, Mother.” He reached back and scooped up the bowl. He offered her a dripping spoon of the cooling muck. “Now open wide.”

“You used to be more kind.”

“You used to be more giving.”

“You used to need less.”

“You used to give more.”

“I used to have more.”

“Open wide now…” He opened his mouth at her as he would an infant and she responded by mirroring him almost as sarcastically. He tipped the spoon in her mouth and her wrinkled grey lips closed around the silver stem and held firm as he gently pulled it back out, empty.

“Mmm,” she said, with a hint of sarcasm scarcely noticeable. “That tastes even better than yesterday’s.”

“It is yesterday’s.” He scooped another puddle and she received it just as happily.

“No. I don’t believe you. It tastes so different.” She took the next spoonful. “This tastes much more… more…” Another bite. “More chemical-y.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“I know that isn’t a word but I don’t know how else to describe it.” She smiled and opened her mouth.

It was that smile. She knew.

He stirred the bowl a round or two before feeding her another scoop. He was unable to take the same amount of joy as he had before. He was a criminal caught in the act, but still allowed to continue. He became unsure of the outcome, questioning her and questioning himself. He fed her more and she began to hum as she ate and smiled. He was led away from his reckless thoughts by the soft sound of her voice. It didn’t take long for him to recognize the tune, though he couldn’t name it or its composer.

“What song is that?” He tried to remain cold as he asked this and fed her another spoonful.

She paused momentarily and her smile changed from one of knowing distrust to one of genuine love. “Ah, boy, that is Mozart. LA-da-DEE-dee-Da La-da-da-da… You used to love this as a child. I would hum to you and you would calm down immediately no matter how sour you were.” She gathered up her arms as if she were holding a bundle close to her. “Serenade No. 13 in G major. It was no wonder you took to it. The song is just like you—full of pomp and circumstance, yet swaying into lighter moments of sorrow.” She started humming again and hugging herself.

He stopped serving her for a moment and looked upon her as she drifted off in song. He saw how beautiful she was. Her silver locks had the same curl they always had. The light of the small bulb in the room reflected off her hair and made it glow as it circled around her head like a large halo. Her skin, in this light, began to lose its shadows and appear smoother and younger. “DEE-dee DEE-dee dee-dee dee-dee-dee, lee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee.” He looked at her lips as she hummed and the color had faded to a soft pink in the strange lighting. He was mesmerized by her and came to the realization that he was killing the thing he loved the most—that he needed the most.

The humming stopped and quickly took the glow from the room with it as she opened her eyes and coldly looked at her assailant with welcoming open arms. “More please.” She opened her mouth like a baby bird.

There was no turning back now. The damage was done and he felt at this moment as if he owed it to her to finish the job. And so he did. Spoonful by spoonful, he slid the toxic sludge down her throat as she hummed and smiled and swallowed. It only took a minute or two for the bowl to be empty and she closed her eyes and sank satiated into her pillows, humming Mozart with a wide grin across her face.

He stood up with the empty bowl in one hand and smeared spoon in the other looking down at his mother as the chair behind him rocked, tapping the back of his calves. He walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. In shame, he never looked back. Instead, he walked straight to the kitchen and threw the bowl in the sink with a crash. He stared down into the sink at the three large sections of bowl littered with similarly colored slivers and chunks. The bright blue bottle sitting on the counter next to the sink caught his eye. Before he could even feel one speck of remorse, he grabbed the bottle up and buried it deep into the already mounded trash can. He pulled his empty hand out and used it as a compacter, leaving enough room for at least another day or two’s worth of garbage. Just as instinctively, he moved into the living room and sat on the couch.

He felt sick to his stomach. He nested his face in his hands and massaged his cheeks, his eyes and his forehead. He had expected to feel like celebrating and instead he felt like he was grieving. Though nothing even had the chance to be different, he was lost with no idea what step to take next. Everything in his whole life had been dictated by his mother and now she was gone.

Boy!

He heard her from the bedroom as if she were screaming in his ear.

“Boy, help me! I need help!”

Instinctively, he leapt off of the couch and rocketed through his mother’s door. He pushed his way past the rocker to her bedside. “I’m here, Mother. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” He began to weep as he took her hand up in his. “I’m here. I’m sorry.”

“Boy.”

“Yes, momma.”

“Boy, come close.”

He leaned in close to his mother and took her soft hand up with his trembling one. As he leaned into her, a tear dropped from his eye and splashed upon their entwined fingers.

“Boy.” Her voice was so soft he could barely hear it and closed in to the point that their foreheads were touching.

Suddenly, her eyes opened wide and she began to let out an inhuman scream. Her mouth opened like a chasm and through the squeal, a projectile spray of flies flooded out of her body and swarmed around him like a cyclone. He covered his ears to protect himself from his mother’s alarming wail but it could not protect him from the cloud of insects that spun around him creating a visual cocoon. The screaming became his own as tiny bits of his flesh were torn off here and there before quickly unraveling tissue and shredding it into invisible-sized morsels. The house shook as if ravaged by a hurricane. The gray haze of the twister turned an odd shade of pink for a moment and through the veil, the boy’s skeleton could be seen with bony hands still clasped to the side of his skull. As quickly as the skeleton had appeared it collapsed into a pile of dust as the swarm dissipated and everything began to go beyond normal into an unusual state of calm.

She let out a sigh and closed her eyes. Her lips came together and started humming Mozart again. A tiny belch slipped out and she pushed herself comfortably back into her pillows. Humming and smiling, she drifted off into a peaceful slumber.

When she opened her eyes, the sun had finally broken through the clouds and sent a bright shaft of light through the bedroom window that illuminated the whole room into the hallway outside. An instinctive smile spread across her face and she easily sat herself up. She wiped hair from across her face and noticed as she did that it had returned to its more natural golden color. Staring out the window, she brushed her hand against her cheek and could feel how smooth and tight her skin was.

The draw from the beauty of light outside was too much to ignore and she flung the covers off with a zest she had not known for years—decades even. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat looking down at them before she put her feet to the floor. The taut pale skin reflected the incoming sunlight and made her legs look even more youthful than they had become. She slid herself down, placing weight on her delicate feet that wobbled from lack of exercise. Her rubbery legs shook as she lifted her body weight onto them. She took her steps toward the window like a newborn foal, arms outstretched toward her target.

Her fingers clasped at the curtain when she had reached her destination. She stood clinging to the deep red velvet fabric and stared out the window. The sun was casting its light over the rippled waves of snow that spread across the surrounding fields. Her eyes squinted as if seeing light this bright for the first time. Icicles that hung down from the edges of her home’s roof were glistening and dripping in the heat of the new day. She placed her hand across her torso and felt the warmth inside her of a new beginning. She closed her eyes and smiled and hummed.

Soon it would be spring.
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J. Chad Kebrdle resides in a little windy farm town in Indiana. Though he has only recently worked on submitting, he has been writing most of his life and recently acquired my Masters in Liberal Studies that focused on the teaching of writing. He has had a poem published in the journal From the Well House, and concert reviews on jambands.com. He has had a strong part in helping the local music scene by holding songwriting workshops and teaching music at a local store. He also teaches writing at the local university. Email: jckebrdl[at]iuk.edu

The Dangers of Living Vicariously

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


Abandoned Distillery
Photo Credit: Christopher/BlackBirdCD

Kentucky hadn’t seen an ice storm this bad in over a decade. The governor had activated the entire National Guard twelve years ago to do door-to-door checks, clear debris, and transport supplies. Cell towers had gone down, old folks froze to death in their homes, and school was out for two weeks in some places. This was worse though. Sheets of freezing rain had fallen every other night for three weeks, melting to a slush during the day and freezing again into a thick layer of solid ice. Even in Louisville, the metro police had issued a notice that anyone caught driving on its icy streets until they were safer would get a ticket.

It was the perfect time, Katie thought, for urban exploring. No one was at work, the streets were ghost-town empty, and the continual fall of freezing rain meant their footprints would be erased just minutes after they passed.

Katie and Roger had talked about exploring the abandoned Fiddler’s Green Bourbon distillery since they were in middle school. It had that haunted look at night, with its wrought iron gates and the way the pointed roof of the water tower made the skyline seem just a bit more like a castle when the moon was out. Roger’s friend Tyler from the track team had come too, since he and Roger were playing video games when Katie called.

“I can’t even see the top of the water tower from all the ice coming down,” Roger said as they came to the wall.

“That means we’re harder to see too,” Katie said. “Give me a boost?”

The owners of Fiddler’s Green had apparently thought an inviting, aesthetic appeal was more important than security. As a result, the distillery grounds were surrounded not by a chain-link fence with barbed wire, but by an eight-foot brick wall. Roger leaned his back against the wall and cupped his hands on his knee. Katie stepped into his hands, lost her balance for a moment, and stuffed her crotch in Roger’s face.

“Sorry,” she said, glancing down.

“Don’t apologize,” Tyler said. “You just made his night.”

They were all over the wall in a few moments and in the urban explorers’ paradise—an abandoned complex of buildings that hadn’t been touched in over a decade.

“There’ll be an aging warehouse somewhere here where they would’ve kept the oak barrels to age the bourbon,” Roger said. “My vote is we try to find that first.”

“I second that motion,” Tyler said with a smile.

“Let’s see if they locked the doors first,” Katie said, trying a doorknob. Then, after rattling it to make sure it wasn’t just frozen, Katie pulled a double-ended lock pick and tension wrench from her coat pocket.

“Where did you get those?” Tyler asked.

“I made them, stupid,” Katie answered. “I do have Internet access, and better things to do with my time than play video games.”

“She’s been doing this since we were in seventh grade,” Roger whispered.

Katie raked the pins in the lock with one end of the pick, applying slight pressure to the lock core with the tension wrench. After several moments she used the diamond-shaped end of the pick on the back pin, and the lock slowly turned.

“Holy crap,” Tyler said, “I need to hang out with you guys more often. I’ve been missing out.”

“Real knowledge is never spoon-fed,” Katie replied. “That’s what Mr. Gyerson says, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Tyler said. “I sleep in his class.”

A skittering sound echoed in the shadows.

“Do you hear that?” Roger asked. “It sounds like they have rats.”

“I’m not surprised,” Katie said. “I just figured they’d be somewhere warmer right now.”

“Well, there’s nothing in here but empty rows of shelves anyway,” Roger said. “Let’s look for something more interesting, like the warehouse.”

“You know it’s probably empty, right?” Katie said. “Nobody in their right mind would leave gallons of high-end bourbon in a warehouse when they left.”

“Then what are those barrels in the window of that building?” Tyler asked, pointing.

“It’s worth a look,” Roger said, smiling.

Katie started to pull out her picks when she came to the warehouse door. Then, on a whim, she tried the knob.

“It’s open,” she said, pushing the door open. “Of all the buildings to leave unlocked…”

Tyler walked inside and tapped on a barrel. “There’s something in them. Now we just need to find a way to get them open,” he said.

Tiny feet skittered behind the shelves.

“There are rats in here too,” Roger said. “Watch your feet.”

“Something bit me!” Katie said, looking down.

A stabbing pain shot through Roger’s neck, and he instantly started to feel numb.

“Tyler, look—” Roger began, but his tongue stopped working before he could say “out.”

Over Tyler’s shoulder he’d seen something. He was sure it wasn’t a rat. Instead, it looked like a tiny man about the size of his hand, with what looked like a tiny spear.

As Roger crumbled to the floor, he did his best not to land on Katie, but he felt more like a sack of potatoes than someone who could control his own body.

 

Roger felt a terrible ache behind his right shoulder blade that ran all the way up to his right ear. It was the kind of ache he’d only gotten from sleeping on the couch for too long. “What the hell?” he said, looking around him. Katie and he lay in a cage about four feet high with what looked like steel bars. Someone had chained their hands to the bars on opposite sides of the cage. Katie remained motionless. Roger nudged her with his foot.

“Katie,” he whispered. “Katie, wake up.”

Her leg moved, and then she jerked as she tried to bring her chained hands to her face.

Roger looked outside the cage and saw a man working at a table, over what appeared to be Tyler’s restrained body. The man turned to look at Roger.

“Mr. Gyerson?”

“Hello, Roger,” the man said. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

“Can you get us out of here? What’s going on?”

“I’ll let you out in a moment, Roger,” he said, “after I’m done with your friend Tyler. I have to make sure my equipment is still calibrated. I haven’t made a transfer in months.”

“What?” Roger asked. “What are you talking about?”

“The homunculi that captured the three of you were my first experiments with this process. I filled them with the souls of homeless vagrants many months ago to do menial tasks for me. I haven’t made one recently so I’m going to animate one with your friend Tyler before I put you and Katie in the device.”

“What’s a homunculi?” Tyler asked. “I don’t think I want to be one of those.”

“A homunculus, Tyler,” Mr. Gyerson said, “is a small artificial person, and one of the many pet projects of alchemists. Many of them tried silly methods like using hippomene under the full moon, but I find the easiest method is to make a miniature human frame with mostly artificial organs, insert a mouse’s heart, and then transfer a living soul. That is what I’m going to do with you.”

“Why me?” Tyler asked.

“Because you sleep in my class,” Mr. Gyerson answered. “You’re rude. You should respect your elders, and you don’t. So I’m giving you a fitting station in the world, with the homeless men that wandered into my bourbon barrel trap before you.”

“Whatever dude,” Tyler said.

“Exactly my point,” Gyerson said. “‘Dude’ isn’t the way you should address your elders. If you tried ‘sir’ once in a while, you might not be spending the rest of your life in a seven-inch body.”

Roger caught the sound of snickering from another table, where he saw the tiny men gathered around a homunculus-sized table. Their black eyes gazed at Tyler, knowing he was about to join their ranks. A single beer can with a tiny tap in its side sat at the edge of the table.

“Miniature men are so much easier to satisfy,” Gyerson said. “All they wanted in life was free-flowing sedation and no responsibility. I give them all the beer they can drink and they ambush interlopers for me. I don’t even need food for them, since their new bodies run on nothing but beer. I think all of them are happier for the change.”

Katie pulled herself upright against the bars.

“What about Roger and me?” she asked. “Are we going to be homunculi as well?”

“Yes, of course, precious Katie. I wouldn’t leave your souls without a place to go once we vacate your bodies. That would be murder, and I’m just not that sort of man.”

“Vacate our bodies?” Katie said. “What do you mean?”

“Youth is wasted on the young, darling Katie,” Gyerson said, “and you more than deserve this. The three of you are common criminals with, I must say, bodies and youth you don’t deserve.”

“So… wait,” Roger interrupted. “You’re planning to take over my body and put my soul in a homunculus?”

“That’s pretty much the idea, yes,” Gyerson said. “You’ve maintained that physique quite well with all that running you do. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. I’m old, as you can see, and my wife no longer finds me attractive. I can’t blame her, of course, since she’s wrinkled and sagging as well and I’m repulsed by the thought of making love to her. Katie’s filled out so nicely in the last couple of years that my wife and I will be quite happy with her. I’ll be able to turn an old man’s lust into a healthy love for my wife again. I’d never even thought of taking a younger mistress, you know. I’m just not that sort of man.”

Katie made a sound that was a mix between choking and throwing up.

“Anyway, we’ve dithered long enough, haven’t we, Tyler?” Gyerson asked.

Roger could just make out the tiny, stitched-together man lying motionless on the table adjacent to Tyler. Gyerson pressed a few buttons on a keypad and opened the valve on an intravenous drip that ran to Tyler’s forearm. Tyler twisted against the restraints.

“No!” he yelled. “Wait! I—”

Then his body went still. A few moments passed, and the homunculus body on the table began to twist in the same fashion. A high-pitched scream escaped its tiny lips. Gyerson poked Tyler’s tiny new body with a dissecting probe to test its reflexes. Homunculus-Tyler squirmed.

“Ha!” Gyerson said. “Another successful transfer! Another tiny minion for my tiny army! Looks like we’re good to go for you two. Margaret will be so happy.”

“What are you going to do as two high school kids anyway?” Katie asked, trying to think of a way to stall Gyerson’s plan. “People will wonder why you’re not in school. Our parents will come looking for us.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, dear Katie. We won’t even be in the United States much longer. My first bit of alchemical experimentation was transmuting metals. I’ve made more than enough gold to buy the island we’ll be flying to tomorrow morning. The two of you are just the last step in our retirement plan. Most folks retire when they’re too old to enjoy it. Margaret and I shall have a second life. I’ve even fashioned Philosopher’s Stones for us so we’ll never have to do this again.”

“You can’t… that’s horrible,” Katie said. “You’re a teacher. You should be helping people.”

“I’m a chemistry teacher teaching a lie,” Gyerson said. “Real knowledge is never spoon-fed but I’ve been forced to teach the state-sanctioned ‘curriculum’ for the last thirty years and I’m tired of it.”

“What do you mean ‘state-sanctioned’?” Roger asked.

“The drivel we feed kids in schools these days,” Gyerson said. “If the masses knew it was possible to turn lead into gold, would gold have any value? Of course not. Everyone would try to do it. Only by teaching impossibility in schools do the select few retain power. Have you ever picked up a chemistry textbook from the late 1800s? No, of course you wouldn’t. You’re too busy playing video games to care about lost knowledge and censorship. Our great-grandfathers’ chemistry textbooks had recipes for nitroglycerine, poisons, and the like. Those are things the state deems too dangerous for the masses now, and so they are no longer published. That knowledge is hoarded by those who ‘need’ it to serve the state and make its arsenal of death. If you go back further, you’ll notice a radical shift in thought and print when the secret masters of the world realized what alchemy would do to the Gold Standard. Did you know that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year those secret masters formed a new hegemonic dynasty with their alchemical secrets? That was when they started teaching this heavily-censored version of science.”

“Sounds like a great conspiracy theory,” Roger said. “It’s heavy on motive and light on facts.”

“Suit yourself,” Gyerson said. “You won’t believe the truth despite the evidence I’ve given you. I guess the homunculus really is a fitting station for you.”

Gyerson snatched up Tyler in one hand and dropped him in a small wire cage, which he placed on the table with the other homunculi.

“We’ll just let Tyler introduce himself to the others while I introduce you to your new body, Roger,” he said, and grabbed a pole with a cable loop at one end.

Roger had been twisting against his restraints throughout this conversation, but they were far too secure. Gyerson unlocked the cage with a small key and tightened the cable at the end of the pole around Roger’s throat.

“This is a bit like an animal control collar,” Gyerson explained, “with the addition of this button that will let me shock you if you try to fight me.”

Gyerson pressed the button and Roger’s jaw tensed with the current as fire shot through his brain.

“See,” Gyerson said, smiling. “Evidence.”

After some struggling and several more jolts, Gyerson managed to strap Roger to the table where Tyler’s lifeless former body had been.

“Now, I haven’t exactly done a transfusion before,” Gyerson said, as he tapped several keys on the keypad. “I’ll just set your apparatus to transfer to the homunculus and set mine to a split-second delay so our souls don’t cause a traffic jam of sorts. We wouldn’t want that. I should be able to jump into your body between beats and the heart will never know the difference. If you separate a heart from a soul for more than just a few minutes death is irreversible, you know. I found that out the hard way.”

Roger spit at Gyerson, but the old man ducked to one side.

“Very rude. Horrible manners,” he muttered as he started Roger’s intravenous drip. Then, still muttering to himself, Gyerson tapped several buttons on a separate keypad and inserted a needle into his own left arm.

“Now then…” he said, and lay down on the table. He waited a moment, and felt a strange pull at the core of his being. He smiled.

Gyerson opened his eyes and found that he was strapped to the other table.

Except…

It was the wrong other table. He moved his hands and found that they were much smaller than he’d expected. The mouse’s heart thumped faster than his human one had.

“There are three bits of real knowledge I was never spoon-fed,” Katie said, as she untied Roger. “Three things I’ve very much enjoyed learning on my own. The first, obviously, is picking locks. Even if you’d been smart enough to search me and take my picks, I could’ve had that lock open in five seconds with one of my hairpins. Seriously, if you have all this gold, why didn’t you invest in a decent lock for your prisoners?”

Gyerson looked around. Surely the other homunculi would help him. He kept them stocked in beer and facilitated their miniature lives of ease. What he saw on the table was one homunculus out of the wire cage and six homunculi inside it.

“The second thing,” Katie said, “was how to move silently, quickly. Don’t you think an urban explorer might have developed that skill set by now? Your little homeless-munculus army never saw me coming, and neither did you. You really could’ve invested in some better help too.”

“Put me back,” Gyerson said. “I’ll share my gold with you. I’m sorry. I do apologize for any misunderstanding. Just put me back in my original body before it dies and you’ll be filthy rich, I promise.”

“I know I’ll be rich,” Katie said with a smile, “but you’re interrupting me. That’s very rude. You should learn some manners, and I intend to teach them to you. The third thing I learned, through much study, was effective torture. I can’t be sure, of course, what methods would work on your makeshift homunculus body, but I’m pretty sure waterboarding and moderate voltage will get it done. You’re going to tell me where the gold is, where the island is, and most importantly, where your notebooks are. You don’t have to spoon-feed me, teacher. I’ll rip it out of you.”

“Such cruelty…” Gyerson said.

“You’ve taken advantage of virtue for too long,” she said. “Old folks like you demand respect of a younger generation while you rip our dreams apart for your pleasure. These homeless you enslaved exploited the compassion of better people to further their vices, and you’re no better for playing on my virtue to say I should respect you. You say we’re cruel, but you’ve abused our virtue to the point that we cannot practice it and survive at the same time.”

“Monster,” Gyerson whispered.

“Well, Dr. Frankenstein,” Katie said, “you made me.”

pencil

Stephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. Email: slawson80[at]gmail.com

Inversion

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Steven Till


2008-05-25 Pittsburgh 094 PPG
Photo Credit: Allie_Caulfield

The snow came down in large, billowy flakes blanketing the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. Cars began clogging Liberty Avenue as rush hour quickly drew near. Jillian briskly walked along the street as people began pouring out of offices. Her thoughts were racing through the events of the past week as she pushed through the crowds of commuters. She couldn’t explain what was happening to her; the erratic behavior that she had exhibited was getting worse. Friends and family berated her to seek professional help and finally, she had given in to their pleas.

Her cell kept ringing. No doubt people were eager to hear how her appointment with the psychiatrist had gone. The calls continued to go unanswered as she walked on, consumed by her thoughts. The doctor that she spoke with didn’t offer a diagnosis, but was quick to list myriad possibilities of things it could be. Dissociative identity disorder, psychotic disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and a few others she couldn’t even remember. Thank God she didn’t divulge everything that was going on, otherwise she might be involuntarily committed to a psych ward.

The doctor wanted her to meet with him again in a week. She agreed and set up a time with the receptionist, although she had no intention of keeping the appointment. Whatever was wrong with her was escalating quickly, becoming more severe with every passing day. The missing time had got longer and longer, the worst being a period of six hours that she couldn’t account for.

That was the scariest for Jillian. Waking up in strange places, not knowing why she was there or what had happened. Looking around to see strangers staring back at her as if she were insane. But I am insane, aren’t I? she thought. What was even worse than waking up in weird places was the face. The first time she’d seen it was two weeks ago while she was getting ready for work. She had got out of the shower and stood in front of the mirror. Her reflection had stared back at her as it had done every time before, but this time, something was different. Her visage looked darker, more menacing. And then it did something unexpected. It winked at her.

Jillian paused as commuters shuffled in front of her towards their waiting bus. She glanced at the shop window to her left and stared at her reflection. The cute, blond, bright-eyed girl stared back. Other pedestrians walked past, blocking her view. Her visage reappeared, causing her to gasp. The dark persona with jet black hair and dark eyes replaced the innocent version of herself. Just as quickly as she appeared, her “negative,” as she had come to call her, pulled her black lips into a cruel sneer.

Trying to shake the creepy feeling from her spine, Jillian continued towards her loft in the Strip District. Twenty minutes later, she was standing in the vestibule of her building, fumbling for her keys. The fluorescent light above her flickered as she focused on the lock and not at her reflection in the door window. The key slid into the lock and just as she turned the tumblers, her eyes met the gaze staring back at her from the window glass. Her negative glared at her with malice. In an instant, its arm raised and pounded against the window. Glass shattered all around her as the window gave way to the invisible force behind it.

She pushed open the door and ran up the four flights of stairs in front of her. She rushed over to the kitchen sink and vomited. Panic was setting in. Wiping her mouth, she quickly packed a bowl and lit it, inhaling the THC-laden smoke. Not the best solution by far, but one that allowed her to calm down somewhat. Her cell phone rang from within her purse. Recognizing the ringtone, she pulled her phone out and answered the call.

“Cooper?” she asked, already knowing that it was her boyfriend.

“Hey, sweets, how ya doing? You having a better day today?” he asked, genuine concern in his voice.

“Yeah, it’s been okay,” she replied, hoping that the shaking in her voice wasn’t too obvious.

“Hmm… that doesn’t sound very convincing. I’m coming over, are you at home?”

“Yes, I’m home,” she said softly. Perhaps being in his arms was just what she needed.

“Great, I’m just getting off work now. I’ll be there in just a few, baby,” Cooper replied, the cheer in his voice doing a better job at masking his concern than hers did.

And with that, the conversation ended. Cooper worked as a dockhand at Wholey’s Fish Market, the only seafood wholesaler in town. Located in the Strip District a mere four blocks away from her apartment, he’d be there in a matter of minutes.

Jillian walked through the dark loft and sat on the windowsill. Cracking the oversized window, she lit a cigarette and stared out into the city as the cold December air whisked away the smoke as it passed over her lips. The long tube of ash hung precariously from her cigarette as minutes passed. A knock at her door startled Jillian out of her thoughts, causing the ash to fall. Cursing, she stood up and brushed herself off as she made her way to the front door. Normally, Cooper would have just let himself in, but tonight she wasn’t taking any chances. She quickly unlocked the two dead bolts and chain that secured the heavy steel door.

Cooper’s glowing smile filled the doorway as she pulled the door open. “‘ello love” he said, in his best British cockney. His horrible foreign accents always made her laugh. His cheeky grin slowly faded as he observed none of the usual reactions to his attempts at humor.

“Right, ok, what happened?” he asked as he entered the loft, throwing his snow-covered jacket on the nearby coat hook. The smell of fish hung heavily on his body, one of the unpleasant side-effects of working at the fish market.

“I don’t know. Nothing. Well, something, but…” she started, but then managed to redirect Cooper. “Say, how about you hit the shower and get that funk off yourself and I’ll tell you all about it when you’re done, okay?” she managed to say with a brief, halfhearted smile.

“All right, deal,” he said, as he walked towards the bathroom. “Hey, what happened to the door downstairs? The window was all smashed out.”

“Go get clean,” she responded as she turned towards the coffeemaker.

Cooper stood there a moment longer, watching Jillian make an unnecessary fuss over the coffeemaker. Whatever happened today and whatever happened to the door downstairs had her pretty spooked, that much he knew. Knowing better than to push the issue, he turned and made his way to the bathroom.

She stood there staring at the coffeemaker, wondering what she should say to him. He deserved to know, but he would never believe her. How could he? How could anyone, for that matter? Yes honey, I think that my reflection is trying to kill me. She almost laughed at how ridiculous that sounded in her head and could only imagine how it would seem if she actually said it aloud. The shower turned off. Jillian turned and slowly walked towards the bathroom.

The air was hot and thick, fogging up the mirror. Cooper was at the sink brushing his teeth. Jillian moved up behind him, reaching out, touching his back. She slid her hand over his ribcage and let it stop once it reached his toned abs. Her other hand caressed up over his shoulder and across his muscular chest, until she had successfully enveloped him in her embrace. Feeling him stand a little straighter, she began to kiss the nape of his neck, slowly making her way to the side and up to his ear, which she gently, playfully, tugged on with her teeth.

Cooper tilted his head, basking in the affection that she showered upon him. He thought it was strange that Jillian was being so affectionate towards him, especially now. With all the difficulties that she’d been having recently, intimacy had been the last thing on her mind. He wasn’t going to complain though. If this was what she needed, then he would gladly oblige.

“I’m sorry that I’ve been so crazy lately,” Jillian whispered, pressing against his back.

“Aw baby, it’s ok. I just want to make sure you’re all right. I’m here for you for whatever you need,” he said with a smile.

Cooper reached in front of him and wiped his hand across the steam-fogged mirror. He smiled at her in their reflection. Jillian felt her heart leap into her throat, as her negative stood behind her boyfriend, one arm wrapped around him. A maniacal grin slowly spread across her pale face.

“You’re too good to me sweetheart,” the negative whispered, leaning into Cooper’s ear.

Jillian couldn’t move. She couldn’t talk. She thought she had heard her own voice whisper something, but all she could focus on were those black, empty eyes of her negative taunting her as it caressed her boyfriend’s naked chest. Suddenly, in a blink of an eye, the negative raised a large knife to Cooper’s throat.

Before Jillian could react, the negative pulled the blade across his neck. The flesh parted as blood showered the bathroom. She stared into Cooper’s eyes, which were wide with disbelief. She could see life quickly escaping as his eyes lost focus. The negative released him from its macabre embrace and he crumpled to the floor with one last gurgle of breath.

Jillian stared at her now-dead boyfriend as the blood beneath him creeped further out across the tile. Slowly, she allowed her eyes to move to the mirror. Gazing back at her, the negative raised the large knife to its mouth and ran its tongue along the edge, licking Cooper’s blood off the cold blade.

A chill ran down Jillian’s spine as she spun away from the mirror and darted out of the bathroom, slipping her way through the large pool of Cooper’s blood. She stopped when she got to her kitchen. Looking down, she saw the large knife clutched in her hand. Immediately, her stomach clenched and she doubled over and vomited. She had no recollection of picking up the knife. Tears streamed down her face, leaving clean paths across her blood-covered skin. Dropping the knife, Jillian ran out of her apartment as fast as her trembling legs could go.

She exploded from the building and out into the night, the icy air blasting her face. Pivoting on the snow-covered pavement, she began to sprint towards the heart of the city, the image of Cooper lying dead on her floor burned into her mind. The mirror-daemon licking the knife blade assaulted her psyche. She was that daemon, wasn’t she?

Jillian ran as fast as the snow would allow. Snow pelted her relentlessly as she continued to run away from the nightmare at her apartment. Safety and sanity were an illusion; there was no running from what had happened. Every window that she passed, glimpses of the negative could be seen blurring by.

Her thoughts were racing about as fast as she was running. She kept asking herself the same questions: What is it? What does it want? Am I going insane? Did I kill Cooper or was it the reflection?

We killed him.”

The voice startled Jillian. She realized that she had stopped running and was now standing along Liberty Avenue, in the heart of the city. Turning her head to the right, her eyes saw the familiar visage of the mirror-daemon in the store window before her. It dawned on her that this thing had actually answered the question that she was thinking. It was trying to communicate.

Swallowing her fear, she took a step closer to the reflection and forced herself to look at it. It seemed like the entire reflection was different from its real counterpart. Before it was just the daemon-thing that was all twisted and unnatural, but now, the entire cityscape in the window looked like a twisted, dark, and sinister place.

“My God…” Jillian whispered as she continued to study the surreal images before her.

“God has nothing to do with us,” the daemon replied.

What are you?” Jillian cried.

Bystanders slowly filtered by, giving the crazy woman who was yelling at the empty jewelry store a wide berth.

What do you want from me?” she screamed again.

Suddenly, the window glass liquified as the daemon’s arm lurched forward towards Jillian. The surface of the window warped and morphed into the arm and hand of the daemonic reflection. Before she could move, the glassy hand palmed the top of her head like a basketball. Its grip was like a vise. If the thing squeezed any harder, her skull would surely pop like a grape.

“I am you and you are me… now it’s my turn to travel free…” hissed the thing. “A soul that’s split is what we’ll be… you’re the love and hate is me. Destined to suffer eternally…”

“Why are you here?” Jillian asked, squirming to free herself.

The daemon grinned the same maniacal smile that it did as it ingested her boyfriend’s blood in the bathroom. It leaned closer towards Jillian, bulging the glass out as if it were cloth.

“You had your chance to feel alive. Now it’s time for you to die.”

With a piercing scream the daemon lunged, distorting the strange liquid-glass. Jillian twisted her body and somehow managed to escape the creature’s grip. The shrill scream grew in intensity as the daemon’s rage flared. The storefront window exploded in a shower of tiny shards; black smoke puffed around the window frame as the dark image of the city shattered. Immediately, Jillian spun and continued sprinting down Liberty Avenue.

As she ran, window after window burst: storefronts, car windows, everything. Trying to think logically, she darted across the street, nearly getting hit by several cars. Ducking into several alleyways, her heart sank as every alley she entered had windows in the adjacent buildings. Frantically, Jillian continued on, struggling to find refuge from the malevolent force that was in hot pursuit.

There was no escape. She cursed herself for living in a city. Rounding a corner, she stopped dead in her tracks, sliding on the packed snow below her feet. Somehow she had made her way into PPG Plaza, a series of office buildings which connected to the main skyscraper that served as headquarters to Pittsburgh Plate Glass—which, of course, consisted entirely of mirrored glass.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jillian gasped.

She was literally surrounded by mirrors. Buildings made of mirrors. As she scanned her surroundings, she could see it staring back at her—in every single pane of glass.

“I know what you want, you bitch!” she yelled. “You’re trying to switch places with me, aren’t you? You don’t want to kill me. You want to be me!”

Jillian headed towards the doors to the main tower. The guard at the security desk stood up and began to stop her from breaching the security check. In one fluid movement, she reached up with both hands and twisted. A loud crack echoed throughout the empty lobby as the dead guard hit the floor, his head facing the wrong way.

Realizing what had just happened, she looked around and saw the daemon glaring at her through a glass sculpture which hung on the wall behind the security desk. Not knowing what to do next, Jillian did the only thing she could think of. She ran to the elevators.

*

The elevator chimed and opened to the fortieth floor. The reflective doors slid open. She slowly stepped off into the hallway and headed for the stairwell. As she walked, she could hear muffled screams and frantic pounding as she passed by dark office windows. Entering the stairwell, she began to make her way up to the roof. The wind howled as it blew through the four glass spires that marked the corners of the building.

She walked towards the closest ledge. A grotesque, maniacal smile slowly twisted across her pale face. She stepped up on the ledge. Dark, jet-black eyes gazed out at the shimmering night skyline as she stopped. More pounding could be heard from the glass spire that stood just eight feet to her left.

Jillian watched in horror from inside the glass as the mirror-daemon stood precariously, yet unflinchingly, on the ledge. She pounded the glass in front of her, trying to break it, but to no avail.

As if on cue, it turned its head and glared at her through black, empty eyes. The terrifying grin was still plastered on its face.

“I am you and you are me…” it said, as it leaned forward, gracefully falling into the abyss.

Jillian desperately tried to break free from the reflection that she was now trapped in. Deep down, she knew what was going to happen. She released one last scream. The daemon slammed into the pavement below. At the precise moment of impact, every window in PPG Place erupted into a monstrous shower of glass. When the chaos had settled, the once majestic building was nothing more than a skeleton, which collapsed soon after.

*

First-responder Jamie Anderson closed the door to her emergency response vehicle, exhausted from the forty-eight-hour shift she just pulled at the disaster site. She adjusted her rearview mirror to see if she looked as bad as she felt, and gasped. Gazing back at her in the mirror were two jet-black eyes.

pencil

Steven has published two textbooks on 3D computer modeling and animation and is now attempting to break into fiction writing. “Inversion” is his first short story attempt. Currently, he is working on his first novel, titled Shuffle: Brains, Flesh, and Automatic Weapons, which is a zombie apocalypse story set in Pittsburgh, PA. Email: till.beast[at]gmail.com

The Perfect Gift

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Greg Osadec


Mini Heart Box
Photo Credit: Arturo Fonseca

Tyler Landon rushed into the shop to protect his tan suede jacket from the sudden freezing rain. It was coming down hard at a sharp angle, not falling so much as being hurled from the dark sky, smacking against the pavement hard enough to bounce. He tried to shake his jacket dry, not caring where the globs of semi-frozen slush landed. The shop was narrow but long; the tone of the electronic door chime just reached him from somewhere deep in the back of the shop. More importantly, it was warm and dry. While he waited out the weather, Tyler decided to look for a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife.

The door sighed shut behind him and silence settled into the shop like a dog beside a fire. There was no sign of anyone else in the shop. No music played through the sound system, assuming the store had one. Not even the hum of passing traffic made it inside. As Tyler glanced out through the large display window beside the door, he noticed the glass shaking slightly in its frame. He knew this was because it was being beaten by the icy wind and rain—he could see it slapping against the window—but he couldn’t hear it at all. He expected to see the name of the shop stenciled on the glass—some kind of emporium, maybe—but the only things obscuring his view of the street were the cluttered shelves of carefully arranged knickknacks and kitschy junk crammed into the narrow alcove that framed the window. He remembered seeing a sign flapping in the wind over the door, but he’d been hunched too far forward against the rain to read it.

Rubbing at some especially dark water spots with the inside of his jacket sleeve, he browsed the shelves with growing amusement. At first glance the shop seemed to lack any kind of organization, but after scanning a few of the shelves around the alcove near the window he thought he’d figured it out: he was in the gnome section. Scores of them smiled up at him from the shelves, their image plastered on everything from keychains and travel mugs to coasters and pillows. A full-size garden gnome at the base of one display case stared cheerily at Tyler’s knees. It was somehow different from others he’d seen. After a moment, Tyler realized its eyes gleamed in the light as if they were made of glass that had been set in to its ceramic head. They gave it an eerie lifelike quality. But even more disturbing were the personalized business cards perched on the brim of its pointy red hat. If anyone ever gave Tyler a business card featuring a gnome—even if their company manufactured and sold the damn things—he’d put them out of business and consider it a mercy killing.

Coming around the corner, Tyler noticed a shift in the motif. He was now in the fairy department. A swarm of the dainty, winged figures—in the form of statuettes, dolls, ornaments and paintings—covered a series of shelves. Scanning the length of the store, Tyler began to suspect that there were more than a few things in here that Stacey might actually enjoy—not, unfortunately, as a gag gift. After almost six years of marriage he still hadn’t managed to snuff out her love of baubles. The challenge would be finding something that he could give to her without laughing… and then bear to see mixed in with the tasteful décor of their condo. He might be able to find something for Anne—at least then he wouldn’t have to see it in his home every day—but so far nothing seemed to fit her style, a fact for which he was grateful.

Passing clusters of elves and leprechauns, Tyler moved deeper into the store. At the very least he wanted something he wouldn’t have to hide whenever they had company, and the odds of finding anything here that fit the bill were starting to look pretty slim. Ready to leave, Tyler turned to check the weather, hoping it had cleared up. He was surprised to see that the door was about twenty feet away. He hadn’t thought he’d come so far into the store, but with so much merchandise stacked to the ceiling in each aisle, it was easy to get disoriented. Tyler could make out a cluster of people lined up on the sidewalk outside. Those with umbrellas held them at an angle to keep the frozen rain from lashing at their faces. The rest had turned their backs to the wind or pulled their coat collars up to try to shield their cheeks. But except for a few who shifted from one foot to the other to keep warm, none of them moved. They seemed to be waiting for something—a bus, maybe. Tyler wondered why they didn’t wait inside the shop.

Probably they know they’d feel guilty and end up buying something they don’t need, he thought as he smiled. That was good. Consumer guilt had helped him get his start. Guilt made people easy to manipulate. Eliminating guilt gave you an edge. Case in point: here he was, warm and dry, while those suckers played by the rules and froze. Still, you’d think a few of them would at least stand in the recessed entrance to get out of the rain…

He tugged at the suede jacket. He’d only worn it because the day’s forecast had promised clear skies. It had been more trouble than it was worth since day one. An extravagant Christmas gift from Anne, he’d been forced to lie about it to Stacey, saying he’d bought it for himself on a whim at a Boxing Week sale. Now it had trapped him here, because he’d catch hell from both of them if he ruined it. He should have known better than to accept it in the first place. A gift like that was never a good sign. It meant that expectations were starting to build up, and they could cause some serious damage when they came crashing down. Still, as long as he kept them from getting too high, he’d be all right.

Sidestepping between two display cases, he found the cashier’s counter nestled between two round columns. A small stack of multicoloured paper, about three inches by three inches, sat neatly beside the cash register. There was no sign of any employees. They were probably so used to people coming in to browse and leaving without buying anything that they didn’t think it was worth interrupting their game of Dungeons and Dragons to check on him.

Past the counter stood a jumble of bookshelves and display cases. Rather than aisles, they formed a sort of hedge maze overgrown with merchandise. He entered it, moving deeper into the store, and realized that he wouldn’t find any of the enchanted creatures favoured by annoying but harmless people on this side of the store. Instead, Tyler found himself surrounded by things so disturbing that he’d want a restraining order imposed on anyone who bought one. He tried to imagine what kind of business proposal the owners had presented to the bank. Our strategy is to specialize in products that will appeal to a niche market with a high level of disposable income resulting from one or more of the following factors:

  • No dependants because nobody wants to share their sad, lonely little lives
  • Minimal housing expenses due to living in their parents’ basements
  • No long-term savings goals because their cult believes the Earth will be incinerated by a flock of intergalactic dragons next year

Still, if they were making enough to cover the payments on this kind of square-footage, he might have to look into this. Though the zigzag arrangement of bookshelves and display cases limited his line of sight, he still couldn’t see the back wall of the store. Not even when he looked over them. The store hadn’t seemed this big when he first walked in. Was there really so much of a market for this stuff? Ghouls with torn flesh hanging from their mouths—a molded plastic body with shreds of some kind of canvas material standing in for the bits of flesh so it would actually dangle. Admittedly, a nice touch. Pewter reapers cloaked in a coarse woven fibre—haircloth, maybe—beckoning with one hand, scythes poised in the other. Skeletons with toothy grins perched atop gravestones. The gravestones were some kind of cheap mineral, but Tyler wasn’t sure about the skeletons. For a second he thought they might actually be ivory, but the price tag stuck under the base of the statuette eliminated that possibility. It was heavy, though. Even considering the mineral gravestone, the bones couldn’t just be plastic. It sounded solid when he tapped his fingernail against it, and it was smooth to the touch. Like it had been polished. It almost felt like bone.

Rounding the corner, he found a single book with a shelf to itself. It was propped up on a thin metal book stand, its plain tan cover dully reflecting the overhead lights. Tyler’s first thought was leather, but that wasn’t right. Not quite. It didn’t have the same shine. Running his hand along the spine, it felt… different. Tyler felt the skin on his arm tighten then break out in sudden goose bumps.

Leave it to the freaks, he thought, as he rounded one corner, then another.

“Can I help you?”

Tyler turned. He’d somehow circled back to the cashier’s counter. A man in jeans and a grey shirt was leaning on the counter. Tyler guessed he was in his early seventies, and from his thick white moustache and the tuft of white hair protruding from the collar of his shirt, it seemed that he’d only gone bald on top.

“Oh, uh, I’m just looking around, thanks,” Tyler said. “It’s easy to get lost in this place.”

The old man smiled. “Many have, in my little shop.”

“I wouldn’t call it little,” Tyler said. “Where do you get this stuff? China?”

The man’s warm laugh relaxed Tyler. “Not as much as you’d think, actually. Much of it I make myself.” The shopkeeper barely looked up from the counter where he was working on something.

“Well, sorry to interrupt,” said Tyler, turning to leave.

“Not at all. Come, look.”

The old man’s hands were large and strong. Tyler didn’t doubt the man could build things with hands like that, but he was surprised to see them making the final delicate folds in a piece of red origami paper. It formed a three-dimensional rectangle. One end was rounded, the other open and hollow.

“What is it?”

The shopkeeper picked it up and slid it over the opening of a second, larger piece that sat beside it. Together, they formed a heart. “It’s a box,” said the shopkeeper.

It tapped against Tyler’s wedding ring when the shopkeeper placed it in his open hand. At its widest point it reached the edges of Tyler’s palm, with a depth of about an inch. Its weight, though not substantial, surprised him.

Tyler gripped the lid carefully. “May I?” he asked.

“Of course! It won’t hold anything big. Or heavy. But precious things rarely are.”

Tyler smiled. Peering in, he felt that it already held Stacey’s delighted laugh. He looked back at the old man. “A pair of earrings, for example?”

“That’s a good example,” the old man chuckled.

“Do you think I could…”

“By all means, take it!”

“I’d be happy to pay…”

The shopkeeper waved away the offer. “Please, just take it. Always happy to work in love’s employ.” He grinned knowingly. “She can be a demanding boss on us fellas, and sometimes it helps to have a union to back you up.”

Tyler played along. “Well, you’re a hell of a good rep!” he laughed.

“Now, will you be needing a pair of earrings to go in that box?”

Tyler held his grin steady. “Sure. What’ve you got?” He’d rather work out a price for the origami than be pushed into buying a piece of junk jewelry, but what the hell. The old man was friendly enough and Tyler had an image to maintain. He chose a pair of gold-coloured earrings the old man suggested. On the way home he’d get a good pair. From Swarovski, maybe. This pair would go to Stacey’s niece. Let ’em turn her ears green. The earrings clattered on the countertop as the shopkeeper set them down.

“Anything else I can help you with?”

“Maybe.” Tyler hesitated.

“Am I supposed to guess?” the old man laughed.

“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could make one more of those boxes?”

“Well, no, it’s no trouble, really,” said the old man. “But giving a woman two of these things sort of makes it half as special, don’t you think?”

“That’s true,” said Tyler, smiling. “But, giving them to two women makes it twice as special.”

“Oh,” said the old man. “Oh ho!” he said, catching on. “Well… I, yes, I suppose I could do that. Maybe you’d like to see how it’s done?”

“Sure, why not?”

The shopkeeper took two sheets of paper from the stack beside the cash register. Red on one side and white on the other, he took one sheet and started making careful, precise folds.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” asked Tyler.

“Oh, I spent some time in Japan when I was young.” He answered using the same deft care with which he made each crease. “Well, younger, at least. I’ve made all kinds of things over the years. At some point—I can’t remember when, really; maybe some rainy day like this, except not even one single soul walked in—I started to think about how much it’s like a strong marriage. I mean, you build it up from nothing.”

He folded the paper, now lined with a patchwork of creases, almost in half, then shaped it into a rectangular tunnel.

“Each part needs to fit together to make the whole thing strong.”

The long edges of the paper locked together.

“Whatever shape it takes is a result of your actions.”

A few folds sealed off one end of the tunnel, and another quick series rounded out the ridge. With the lid complete, he set it aside and started on the second sheet. He folded down one edge of the paper so it aligned with a crease he’d already made.

“And there are certain lines that you mustn’t cross.”

He firmly slid his thumb along the fold, making a solid crease.

“Uh huh,” said Tyler. “That’s interesting, really.”

Looking up from his work, the old man saw Tyler trying to get a signal on his cell phone. The old man sighed. He tried to make a narrow fold along the bottom of the paper but it slipped from his hand, once, twice. “Could you give me a hand here?” he asked. “Son?”

“Hmm?” Tyler slipped his phone into his jacket pocket.

“I need your help for a second.”

“Oh. All right.”

The shopkeeper spun the paper around to Tyler. “See this first crease along the bottom here?” he said, pointing. “I need you to fold up the bottom edge so it’s in line with that crease, then press down. It’s a narrow strip, and my hands get a little stiff when it rains.”

“Sure. I think I can handle that.”

Just as Tyler finished smoothing the crease, the old man snatched the paper out of his hands. Tyler hissed and put his thumb to his mouth. A hint of blood tinged the bottom corner of the paper.

“Oh!” said the old man. “Did you get nicked?”

He turned the paper back to him as Tyler examined the cut. The paper absorbed the blood into its ancient fibres, erasing any trace of a stain.

“It’s fine,” said Tyler. “It’s fine. Are you almost finished?”

“Almost,” said the shopkeeper, making the final folds. “Almost.”

“What kind of paper is that, anyway? It feels thick.”

“Oh, it’s stronger than it looks, certainly.” He hunched over the counter, mumbling something as he fit the lid onto the box.

“Sorry?” said Tyler. “I didn’t catch that.”

“Hmm?” said the old man, looking up. “Oh, nothing, nothing. Just talking to myself. It’s a bad habit, drives my wife crazy, but I think it’s okay as long as I don’t start answering.” Chuckling, he slid off the lid and held both pieces of the box. “That little fold you made? This is it here, right around the rim.” The old man leaned towards Tyler, tilting the open box towards him. “Take a look at your handiwork.”

Tyler leaned in. For an instant, a rapidly flowing stream of blue-white light illuminated the shopkeeper’s lined face. The old man was sliding the lid back on when the phone rang, riling the silence of the shop.

“Hello?” said the old man. The light touch of an old passion caressed his voice. “Hi hun! How was work?”

He lifted the phone’s extension cord as he walked out from behind the counter, careful not to let it catch on any of the displays, then let the coils slip from his hand as he walked to the door.

“Uh huh.”

He bolted the lock.

“Uh huh.”

Took down the Open sign.

“He did what?”

Closed the curtains.

“Hun, listen, I’ve got to put away a bunch of supplies that just came in, then I’m coming home.”

Stepped over the body.

“How about you tell me the rest then? Oh, and hun?”

Picked up the heart-shaped box.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Smiled.

“It’s your favourite.”

Watched its erratic beat.

pencil

Greg Osadec was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He received a B.A. in Cultural Studies from McGill University in Montreal, and it only took nine years! He also backpacked around Europe and the surrounding area (one year), and received his TESL certification from the University of Toronto (eight months). He’s currently living in Toronto, Ontario and working on an M.A. in Applied Linguistics at York University (hopefully for only a year). If only he were 15 years old, he’d be a genius! Email: gosadec[at]hotmail.com

A Bone to Pick

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover


Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. ~James Arthur Baldwin
Photo Credit: Chinmoy Mukerji

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

For years—before the world ended—I was his go-to girl. He’d split with someone, track me down (consistently on the heels of my broken heart’s mending), swear he’d changed, beg forgiveness and promise picket fences. I’d been deeply in love with him since we met in a Robert Frost poetry seminar, so I’d always fall for it. As soon as I dreamt of a wedding, he’d run off with another woman, citing he wasn’t sure I was the one—he needed space.

Shortly after the last incident, I was thumbing through my Chic Chick and stumbled across the article “10 Signs He’s Using You”—and Warren exhibited every one. Simultaneously incensed and embarrassed, I texted him to never again find me, punctuating it with the “last man” cliché.

Then came what CNN (while it was still on the air) unoriginally dubbed Skullpocalypse—like the invented zombie disaster that’d spawned movies, anthologies, Walks for Hunger and The Walking Dead—only minus the virus-rotting-flesh-eating-of-brains tropes.

Deep in Haiti, a scorned voodoo practitioner cursed her cheating husband and his lover. Flesh melted off their bones, organs withered and turned to dust, and all that was left were skeletons. But it had an unforeseen effect: The skeletons were alive, and they possessed an obscene strength and harbored an evil so vile their vacant, tar-black sockets coaled with hatred. They set to biting every living thing they could find. And whoever or whatever got bitten followed suit.

They overtook and escaped the island, and there was no stopping them. You couldn’t bash them apart—they simply reassembled, stronger and more aggressive (I saw the bones of a squirrel re-connect and break his attacker’s legs before biting her). You couldn’t shoot them—bullets whizzed through. There was only one recourse: The skeletons fled from dead things. If you died before you were bitten, you’d never be condemned; if you had a dead body near you, they’d leave you alone.

I don’t know how people brought themselves to do it, but many shot themselves. Or others.

That was Halloween, when the New England air was rife with the smell of carved pumpkins, wet leaves, Sweet Tarts, and snappled in anticipation. By Thanksgiving, the air was redolent with the skeletons’ rancid milk and overcooked mushroom smell, and the gray skies weren’t just somber, but oppressive. By Christmas, I was, as far as I knew, the only living person in a debris-strewn Mystic, Connecticut. I spent the day below decks on the famous Charles W. Morgan drinking bottles of exquisitely-aged Amontillado and reading the only book I’d taken from my apartment—The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (a gift from Warren). The inscription inside read, Mel… something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend.

I was sure he was out there, and he was one of them. Which meant any human skeleton I came across could have been him. Which meant that my fatal bite could possibly come from his mouth.

I’d be damned if he was going to get me. I had to cut town, go someplace remote—and since I knew that I’d meet death eventually, I considered where I’d want to be when it happened.

Armed with the dead body of a Mystic Seaport Security Guard and the gun he’d used to kill himself, I secured an abandoned pick-up truck and hit the road. By the January snows I’d arrived at Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Although it was now a museum and gift shop, his life there had inspired the poem, “The Mending Wall.”

In light of the circumstances, it was the most apropos location I could think of.

At first, there weren’t any skeletons around—the sparse population had likely succumbed, leaving none to bite, so they’d boned elsewhere. By Valentine’s Day, they knew I was here—my oil lamps’ glow through the sheer curtains and the smoke channeling from the chimney had probably given me away. By George Washington’s Birthday, the security guard’s body had decomposed enough so the skeletons weren’t afraid of it anymore. That was when I discovered, by defending myself with a flaming piece of firewood, that not only did they recede from fire, it was the only way to kill them: they couldn’t rise from their ashes.

With the help of equipment from the maintenance shed, I managed to penetrate the frozen ground and dig a trench around the house and barn. I only built a low flame—I needed to conserve wood—but I found that was enough. I keep fires going twenty-four-seven.

Day and night, in the woods beyond the smoking gash, they rattle around the hibernating oaks and maples, snapping branches beneath their metatarsals. When they walk, it sounds like banging drumsticks and shaking maracas—the thickets bristle with a snap-shhh, snap-shhh, and you can tell how close they are by its volume. Unless, of course, there’s an ice storm, because the clicking of the crystal-coated birches is louder.

During the day it’s easy to spot them, but at night, it’s dark as cloak, and they’re so white they blend with the field’s snow cover—if I squint, I can distinguish their gaping eye sockets, hovering like phantom holes.

Tonight, mist shrouds the field—the mud and vanilla smell tells me it’s warming up, for which I’m glad; but it’ll be March soon, for which I’m not, because the ensuing spring rains will most likely extinguish my line of defense.

I sip fresh coffee—it’s so hot it warms me instantly. I adjust my flannel blanket; then I hear something. I lean forward, cock my ear toward the woods—there’s a different sound, as though something is running. It could be a fast-moving non-human skeleton, like a rabbit or deer—but they’d sound similar to the others.

This could be a living creature.

Like a bear.

I reach for a gun and rise from the rocking chair, simultaneously shedding my blanket. I move to the newel post and focus at the edge of the forest.

A shadow bursts from the evergreens and books toward my fire.

It’s a person.

I race to the edge of the flames.

The intruder stops just short of the trench, pushes back his hood.

The heat prickles my cheeks. “Warren?”

“Mel.” He doesn’t look surprised. “Boy I’m glad to see you.” Hyperventilating, he slides a nervous glance behind him; then he looks back at me, nods at the flames below. “What’s with the fire?”

The back of my throat burns with anger. “They won’t go near it. It’s the only thing that destroys them.” Then I remember the gun. I train it on him. “I wasn’t kidding, what I said about the last man on Earth.”

“Now that I really am?”

I visualize our last break-up: he calls, can’t see me anymore because he’s just met Rose, doesn’t want to blow it with her, if she’s not the one he knows that I am, he needs space, thanks for putting him back together again, he’ll always be grateful, he has a bond with me he’ll never have with any other woman no matter what.

I taste rage—metallic, sour.

His dead body would ensure the skeletons don’t come near the trench for awhile. The spring rains issue would be solved.

I cock the gun.

“Mel. Put the gun down. Come on.” He peers over his shoulder. “I’ve got no one else and neither do you.”

In the woods, I hear the snap-shhh, snap-shhh.

“What happened to Rose?”

His eyes flash desperate. “Please. Let me across.”

I don’t move.

He turns completely to look at the skeletons—as if assessing whether or not he can make another run for it—then pivots to face me again. “She got bitten. Okay?”

“I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m not.”

Snap-shhh.

“You ever seen it, Mel? Gnashing teeth, running flesh, vomiting, withering organs, shrieking. Watch someone you love die like that is that what you want?”

Snap-shhh.

Love. So he did love her. I thrill to his anxious expression—he’s always been so brash, arrogant, cocksure I’d always be there when he needed me. Not today.

He clenches his hands into fists. “Mel, we’re it, here, for God’s sake, don’t wall me out!”

Snap-shhh.

The smell of rancid milk and overcooked mushrooms is suffocating. They’ll reach him soon.

As many times as I’d delightfully imagined him tortured, it’d been fantasy. In two minutes, it’s not going to be fantasy anymore. And I’m angry at him, but he’s right—I can’t watch him suffer what he’s just described.

I ram the gun into my pocket. “Follow me on your side of the trench.” I rush to the house and seize the ancient metal toboggan I’ve been using as a bridge. I slam it down across the ditch with a creak-ploof as it hits the opposite snow bank. “Hurry up.”

He reaches me and I retract the bridge just as one of the boners leaps, misses, and plummets into the flames. It erupts into an ember-spewing fireball; Warren crushes me against him, and I’m immersed in his familiar smell, something like almonds and bourbon. It stirs things in me.

When the flash dies down, we both look. An indigo plume of smoke rises from where the thing had met its end. The rest of them retreat to the woods.

“Imagine how many lives would’ve been saved if we’d figured that out months ago,” Warren says. “Rose would still be here.”

I pull away from him, start up the porch steps.

He’s quiet, then says, “Thanks, Mel.”

I poise and grab the railing. “Let’s get this straight. You can stay here tonight, I’ll feed you, we’ll heat water for a bath and wash your clothes, but in the morning, you take some supplies and go.”

Before I head inside, I retrieve my coffee.

It’s ice cold.

*

The fire in the hearth casts the framed photographs of Frost in flickering shadows; heating water for Warren’s bath, cooking his food has softened me, and I try to quell cozy fantasies as I clip his flannel shirt to a clothesline I’ve strung across the living room.

“Wow. You never do let that thing go out.” Warren, in my bathrobe, appears in the doorway.

My pulse quickens. I move to poker the coals. “The key is to stay focused, constantly watch. Of course, there’s not too much around to distract me.”

He steps closer; I smell the gift shop’s lavender soap. “It’s lonely here, isn’t it?”

I shut out the tactile memory of having been crushed against him outside. “It’s not bad.”

He rubs his hands before the flames. “What smells good?”

“Corned beef hash.” I slip into a rooster-patterned oven mitt and palm the iron skillet I’d had warming on the bricks, bring it to the table.

“I haven’t had that since I was a kid.” He settles into one of the rustic pine chairs.

“The stores are full of canned goods.” I shovel the food on his plate. “It’s scary to get ’em—I gotta go into town armed with a torch in my hand or a dead squirrel tied around my neck—but it’s doable.”

He eyes the red taper in a burnished gold candlestick. “Can we light this?”

I take my seat. “I’m out of matches and lighters.”

“Isn’t that risky? Being matchless?”

“As long as the fires don’t go out, I’m fine for now. I’ll get more on my next trip to town.”

He considers me for a moment. Then he says, “You’re not going to town alone—I’ll get ’em.”

I’m about to respond you’re gone tomorrow, but his sad St. Bernard-esque eyes disarm me; in this moment I see what I’ve always wanted: just us, a meal, a fire, a home. Desire, excitement, cliffhanging fear course through me. “How’d you find me here?”

He sets down his fork, shifts, and reaches into the robe’s pocket, extracting a piece of wood the size and shape of a large cookie. He sets it on the table as though it were Spode.

I immediately recognize it.

It’s from the maple that stood on this property—outside Frost’s bedroom, the subject of his poem “Tree at my Window.” Years ago, the tree had become feeble—a threat to the house—so it’d been cut down. The farm had sold these wooden mementos for fifteen dollars each. There are still, in fact, some in the gift shop.

I’d mail-ordered the one he has, given it to him the first Christmas we’d been together. I’d admitted my one dream was to marry him, here, on this farm, where that maple had stood.

His gaze intent on mine, he quotes the poem: “My sash is lowered when the night comes on, but let there never be a curtain drawn between you and me.”

There’s a knot in my throat.

“Do you still want to marry me, Mel?”

I blink. “But… you loved her. Rose.”

“I did.” He leans toward me. “It doesn’t matter now.”

The air is still, the only sound is the fire’s hisspop-crackle.

“10 Signs He’s Using You” seems farcical, stuff penned by bitter women, and right now I’m not one of them—joy burbles through my limbs, belly, chest, face. “Yes.”

He cups my hand. “Then we’ll do it. Tomorrow. We’ll just marry ourselves. Out by where the maple used to stand.”

I flush.

He’s on me; we land on my makeshift bed in the corner.

Suddenly, something jabs my hip. The gun. It’s still in my pocket.

I laugh. “Wait.”

He stops. “What?”

I pull the gun out, set it on the small table that serves as my nightstand.

“Just take everything off,” he says.

And I delight in his almond-bourbon-lavender taste and think something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe one day we’ll mend and now that day is here.

*

I open my eyes. The drear of late-winter day leaks through the sheers; there’s a chill in my bones and a bouldering roar.

The fire in the hearth has gone out. And it’s raining. In torrents.

I jar the dead-to-the-world Warren. “Oh my God get up! Get up!”

He mumbles, stirs as I struggle into my jeans and flannel. I rush to the window. The fires in the ditch are dead; there isn’t even any smoke. Out in the gloom, the skeletons merrily funnel into and out of the trench like a river of white flesh-eating ants. They’re advancing on the house.

“What’s going on?”

“The fires went out, they’re coming!”

“Shit.” He whips his clothes off the line. “Just re-light the fire in here, we can wave burning logs at them!”

A claw seizes my heart. “We have no matches!”

He just stops and looks at me, his eyes wide. “We can run.”

But I peer out the back window and know better: the skeletons have encircled the house. “We can’t.”

He comes up behind me, brushes the sheers aside. For a few moments, we simply watch them approach.

Then he whispers, “At least I’m not alone.”

The words are hot pokers through my heart, cement in my lungs. My face burns; I can’t breathe; I can barely speak. Then I collect myself and face him. “Is that why you really came to find me? You didn’t want to be alone?”

He looks surprised, and I know immediately he hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud.

He sets his hand on my cheek. “I knew if anyone was gonna still be breathing, it’d be you. You don’t give up.”

I sadly recognize this is true about more things than it should be.

“I had no choice,” he says.

The skeletons hurtle over the porch railing; the house shakes. A black object plummets from the small table that serves as a nightstand.

The gun.

All those people who shot themselves or others, I’d marveled at how hard a choice that must’ve been. But now, facing the only man I’ve ever loved, knowing that he truly had deeply loved Rose and the only reason he’s here with me is because the world ended, what kind of heartbreaking existence is knowing all of that, every day, loving him, knowing that?—now the choice isn’t difficult at all.

I fling myself on the mattress, reach for the weapon, aim it. “Step back, Warren.”

What?

“You heard me. Step back.”

I swear I see sweat break out on his forehead. “Wha—what are you doing?”

“I’m not you, Warren. I’m not afraid of being alone. Or anything else.”

A skeleton, its bony fingers reaching for us, crashes through the wall. I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

When I said I wouldn’t get back together with Warren if he were the last man on Earth, I meant it.

pencil

Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies such as Dark Opus Press’ In Poe’s Shadow. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, and is editor for Read Short Fiction. Her most recent work, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole, is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, is forthcoming from Vagabondage Books. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. Her website is kristipetersenschoonover.com. Email: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Skin and Bones

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jake Gogats


ghost forest
Photo Credit: Chris Wenger

I woke to the sound of chanting. It wasn’t English; that was clear. It almost sounded like—

No.

I saw the sun rising outside of my cabin, so I shrugged off my fatigue and began to prepare for the day. My wife moaned as I opened the door and let the sun in. I chuckled and shut it behind me.

It was a sight, the village in the morning. The sun would rise from the East, our home. The frosted dew covered the cabins and the grass, giving the whole town a white glow. I said a habitual prayer to God, asking that the sun would carry the wealth of Britain along with warmth. Then I proceeded to knock on the doors of the men I would hunt with, their groaning audible through the thin wooden walls.

As I sat in the town center, I stared into the distant forest. We’d cleared far past the edge of town, past where it was already cleared, to make sure we would see them if they ever came. Not that we expected it.

That day, the forest seemed darker, as if the trees cast denser shadows. I could barely see past the first row of trees. I felt as if the forest didn’t want me to see into it, like it wanted its privacy today.

Suddenly, I realized that my men were around me, rubbing the tired out of their eyes and muttering words of hunger and cold.

“Everyone ate all the food last night; we’ll have to catch breakfast or ask the farmers.” This brought more groans; the farmers had a certain distaste for us hunters; we got all the glory and they got the complaints, and the modest rationing of food during the winter did not sit well with townspeople.

So we set off into the forest, but it felt different than the hundred times we’d done it before. This was a new a forest, a new spirit. The others didn’t seem fazed by the added darkness, so I ignored it and opened my eyes a bit wider.

The day started all right; we caught some beasts we knew were safe. It was a sufficient lunch for our section of the town, and there was some left over for dinner.

The second trip out was different.

We crept into the forest just as in the morning, this time with fuller stomachs. I knew that meant the men would be less motivated to catch dinner, but they’d soon feel hunger seeping back into their bones, an indelible part of our life.

I spotted a deer. The rule was to not stop walking unless you spotted something, both a way of keeping the hunt moving and alerting when something had been found.

They all froze, swerving their heads to the deer. I raised my gun, asserting this as my own. It was a huge buck; it could keep us eating for quite a while if shot and stored properly. My gun was already loaded, and I was the best shot.

It was clean, and everyone gave cheers as the deer fell with a mangled face.

The hunter was the one to claim the kill, so everyone stood back as I approached the deer. It felt as if the deer corpse was tugging me forward while my instincts told me to stay with my men. It wouldn’t help the respect I’d earned if I cowered from a dead buck.

The walk dragged on in my head, and I noticed the darkness of the forest again. This time it was real, though; night was approaching. We had to bring back the meat in time for dinner, and so I sped up in fear of a sudden winter nightfall. The trees blurred along with my senses, making me see bright colors of fall despite it being midwinter.

Loud chanting blasted through the forest without warning, causing me to lose my footing. I fell into a bush, and the chanting ceased. Only a low giggle was audible, but I couldn’t focus enough to find its source.

Through the leaves of the bushes, I saw a figure.

It was tall and dark, and the bright colors I had seen before weren’t there. I squinted and finally made out the figure of a woman.

Slowly, I stood to face an Indian with only long, dark hair to cover her body. There was a tree obstructing my view of the others, but they obeyed the rules and waited for my call.

I spotted my gun on the ground next to the woman, and at that moment she bent down to pick it up.

“Don’t touch that!” I whispered, as if my voice wasn’t allowed to alert the others. Her fingers stopped and she stood back up.

She took a step toward me, now so close I couldn’t see anything but her face, simple and hardened. Leaning into me, my world drifted into a trance of attraction and intrigue. I held the kiss, letting the feeling spread through my body; I put my hands on her waist and brought her closer. Through my heavy clothing, I felt her body. It wasn’t warm; rather, it pierced my furs with cold.

Only then as I became truly entranced by the forest and this woman, her mouth started to taste differently. I tried to ignore it, but then it became the taste of rotten meat and her tongue felt weak and dry. I opened my eyes and drew my head from the kiss, seeing the true figure I had osculated.

She was unemotional as her body rotted away from her. Her hair shriveled and turned a dirty greenish brown; her skin grew fungus; maggots seeped out from unseen wounds; her fingernails grew to freakish length. Worst of all was her face. Her slight smile grew as her lips fell away along with her receding eyes. Small bugs crawled through openings and chewed away at her skin until her body could not support itself.

All that was left of her was a skull and bones when I left. The woman I loved for just a moment.

I grabbed my gun, covered with insects, and turned away from the scene. The bugs flew off my gun as I ran to the buck, almost expecting it to be rotted away by the time I got there.

*

Supper was joyful, everyone shrugging off the cold with fire and good meat, although my wife was irritated because of my distracted gaze. I wasn’t guilty; I was curious. What happened in the forest? Why did even now the forest seem darker than I’d ever seen?

“James, how was the forest today?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, was there something funny?” I tried not to look too concerned, staring into my glass.

“Hell, I don’t know. What’s got you?”

“Nothing… nothing.” I took the hard apple cider and walked listlessly to my cabin. At the threshold, I heard my wife’s footsteps behind me.

“I feel it too,” she murmured.

I stopped with my hand in the door, taking a sip from my drink. Before I turned, she spoke again. “What happened in the forest?”

At this, I poured out the rest of my drink and walked to my wife. “What are you talking about?”

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“What do you mean? I shot a buck.”

“Oh my Lord, do I believe you?” There was a strange combination of anger and curiosity in her eyes, fused in a way I’d never seen in her before. “Something’s been disturbed.”

“Will you get to the point?”

Letting out a long sigh, she managed to bring her eyes to my level. She was afraid of something. Was it me? Was I the one who frightened my wife so?

“You were tested today, Howard. I don’t know how; I don’t know where, but I do know that you failed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She took another breath. “And now we all have to pay the price.”

“Jesus, Marie, nothing’s going to happen. God has given us this land; don’t you remember the ready crops and brimming forest? Have you forgotten God’s preference?”

“Do you honestly think those crops were from God?”

“The Plague cleared the land for us.”

“And who grew the crops?”

I knew the answer, but before I could speak she continued. “The Indians, Howard. I know they were dead and gone when we came, but this is not God’s work.”

“Then whose? Who cleared the forest and gave us this all?”

“I can’t say… but I know God has no part in this New World.”

“Then who? What has done this to me?”

Marie walked past me to our cabin and went inside. I ran to her through the pitch dark. She sat on the side of the bed opposite to me, looking at the wall. She was shaking. “What’s going to happen?”

I know now that she is right; there is reason for me to fear. “I don’t know.”

*

Knocking, banging, rumbling.

These sounds surrounded the cabin, and for a moment I expected the hunters to come through the door, laughing at my fright. But no one came, and the sounds did not stop. The cabin, the New World, was consumed with this terrifying noise.

It was still dark, but I turned on the gas lamp, judging it appropriate.

The light shone on where my wife should have been in my bed, but instead I saw the rotting Indian woman I had loved. Abruptly, the light went out, and I saw nothing.

For a minute I sat, listening the banging getting louder and louder, almost expecting my house to cave in and kill us…

And then finally it stopped, leaving me paralyzed.

I was frozen for what felt like hours and hours, but finally I made my way back into bed. I turned to my left, to where my wife should have been.

“Marie?”

“Yes?”

“I love you,” I lied.

She chuckled and went to sleep.

*

The next morning, I woke up with the soggy feeling of blood in my clothes.

Panic. The blanket, my clothes, my skin, all soaked in blood; was it my own? I suddenly felt trapped in my bed, as if the sodden blanket had fused with my skin and the blood would never dry. I thrashed, the body of my wife convulsing along with mine until I finally detached myself. I stood and panted, still covered in hardening blood that felt like an unseen force grabbing me from behind.

My wife’s arms lay strewn awkwardly across her chest, covering her stomach where the blood was concentrated. I walked to my wife and bent down to her face, peaceful and clean.

I leaned down farther to kiss her forehead for the last time. When I was finally ready to leave the cabin, I turned away from her.

Her cold, wet hand jumped and grabbed my hand, turning me around. I twisted quickly, her hand pulling me with a force she did not have in life. I faced her to see her eyes wide open, glaring. Sputtering, she forced out her last words.

You will taste this blood.”

Panic rushed back to me as her head lifted to my arm, her mouth wide and soaked red. Smacking her arm with my gun, I got away and ran out of the cabin, knowing she would not follow.

I ventured into the town. The sun was rising from the East, but this time it was mocking. Britannia’s fortune had not extended to me, and now she was laughing at my misfortune. Our failure.

I knocked on James’s cabin first; his was the closest. No answer. Before intruding on him, I knocked on Frederick’s, then Tom’s. No answer no answer no answer.

Back at James’s cabin, I decided to knock again. Nothing. I did not take a deep breath; I did not prepare myself; I did not take one last glance around me. Nothing was wrong, and I did not need these last things.

I went inside.

When I shook James, nothing was wrong. When I told his wife to wake up, nothing was wrong. When I took off their thin blanket, nothing was wrong.

Until I opened my eyes.

The gunshots in their abdomens were wrong, very wrong. My friends were dead, and everything was wrong. Everyone else was dead, too—I checked—even the people I hardly ever spoke with. None of them came back to life, though, and my wife did not reappear.

All because of my confusing failure.

I vomited in the town center, not knowing what was left for me. Picking at frozen deer meat, I sobbed to myself for not knowing what I did wrong. Did I finally understand? I thought so.

In the midst of crying, they approached me. I froze and did not turn to them.

“It’s time you come with us.”

I quickly glanced at my nearest surroundings, trying to find a weapon.

“Why?” I asked them.

“Because you’re the last one.”

And at that moment, I decided I did not want to die. I did not want to end up with a gunshot in my abdomen or worse, because I had a feeling I’d been saved for a reason. My senses came alive, and the smell of old furs rushed into my nose along with the sight of seven Indians surrounding the stump I sat on.

They all wore a different beast, but the one speaking wore the fur of a buck, the antlers on his head larger than those we found on the buck the day before. This was a fearful man, but I could see his body rotting. Much slower than the woman, but a few maggots were chewing away through his stomach, causing me to vomit again.

I saw that between two of the seven chiefs there was a large gap, and without hesitation I ran into the forest. I didn’t look back, and I ran until I my legs gave out. My eyes had given up long before that, so I didn’t know where I was. I lay gasping, suddenly scared that the rest of my life would be like this. When I finally caught my breath, I tried to stand, but instead I felt my world fall around me. I hit the bottom of the pit with a crack. I felt something stab me, and my cries tore through the quiet atmosphere.

Then I saw what I was lying in: a grave. Seven skeletons lay in the pit, and I knew they were the seven chiefs. The rotting furs adorned each skull, and I tried to look away from the maggots that had thrived on their meat, now trying to find scraps on the bones.

My eyes peered upward, looking for hope that I would not die with insects crawling through me. Instead of hope, I found the seven, somehow below and above me.

Were they spirits of God or the Devil? Was there no connection?

The leader, the buck, glared at me more closely than the others, and he spoke words that I felt he had been waiting to say.

“We now have your pale skin. It’s time we gave you something of ours.”

Another, one with a raccoon on his head, threw down a single spear into my stomach, forcing me farther down through the skeletons. I didn’t flinch; I was too absorbed with the seven.

“What did I do wrong?”

The seven laughed at me like I was a mistaken child.

“You fell in love with one of us. How could you rejoice in the death of something you love?”

“I… I don’t understand.”

The man became very angry in my dazed confusion.

“You all owe us a debt. We will not extinguish a people like you have, but this is how you all will pay. It just so happens you’re the one who was tested. There needs to be as much terror in you as there was in all the native children that’ve died as a result of your people.”

Then he chuckled for a moment, reverting from the tense scene.

“Kissing a dead woman? I wonder where that falls on the spectrum of Christian sin.”

The pain of the spear shot through me suddenly, and through my screams I managed to pull it out. I did not answer the seven, but I willed my way up the pit. Dying in this pit would be my hell, and no punishment would be needed in the afterlife. I hadn’t done anything wrong, though; I didn’t deserve this.

Somehow, after hours of clawing and climbing, I breathed the air of the grass and Indians. My blood dyed the white grass red, but I did not look down as I stood, victorious. I was a blotch of crimson in a sea of dead, pale grass.

To my right the naked woman stood, as rotten as possible before collapse. I took a lurching step toward her, and in the distance I think I could see the people of the colony rushing toward me, their gunshot wounds seemingly ignored. They weren’t real, for at this point I was trying to distinguish reality, hallucination, spirit, evil… My wife stood behind the woman. Her lips were a dark blue, darker than they ever got in the cold.

“You failed me, Howard,” she whispered ignorantly as she threw the only woman I ever loved into the pit with the dead seven.

“Marie, I—”

“Howard, I don’t have to explain anything to you. Let’s just go to bed.”

I obeyed her, and I lay down next to her in the grass. The seven stood around us again, but they made no noise. I looked at my wound, and I could have sworn I saw a single maggot beginning to tear away at my flesh.

Tearing away at my soul.

Before I fell asleep, I whispered to the dead.

“Sorry for everything.”

pencil

Jake Gogats is currently a high school student in New York. He enjoys theater, reading, and learning history to inspire pieces such as this. He’d like to thank the Toasted Cheese staff for providing writers with a great place to read, write, discuss, and get published! Email: fishy4242[at]gmail.com

The Red Scarf

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Anitha Murthy


wave
Photo Credit: Jamelah E.

The woman appeared in front of his car just as the traffic light turned green. Shailesh swore as he honked impatiently. As usual, the endless line of vehicles ahead showed no inclination of moving. He would be late for his 10 a.m. meeting—there was no doubt about it now.

Through the open window, the woman thrust what appeared to be a knitted scarf at him.

“Only fifty rupees, Sir,” she said in a rustic dialect of Hindi.

Shailesh recoiled in disgust. He couldn’t stand these traffic-signal hawkers; they were like oozing, pus-filled scabs in the city.

The woman seemed ancient, her weather-beaten face lined like parched earth. Her pink blouse was faded with tattered embroidery, her patchwork skirt was muddy, and she held the edge of a threadbare red veil in her mouth. Dull coppery hair peeped out from below the veil. She was the perfect picture of dereliction. But it was her eyes that snagged Shailesh; they were a murky green-brown, like mud stirred in a mossy puddle, and he had the feeling of being trapped in quicksand.

She waved the scarf at him. Her fingers dangled over the window inside the car like gnarled, grasping roots, their nails encrusted with thick black dirt. A tarnished ring with a grinning skull-and-bones hung loosely on her index finger. Her tinny silver bangle, adorned with the same grinning skull-and-bones, banged against the window and Shailesh felt a wave of nausea gather in his stomach.

He hated these traffic light nuisances. Sometimes, men sauntered by with piles of sunglasses, or cheap plastic airplanes, or animal-shaped balloons. Little boys hawked magazines, struggling to keep on display the chosen few from the big pile they were carrying. Smartly-dressed eunuchs slapped their hands together and uttered choice abuses if they didn’t get a handout. Shailesh had no sympathy for these folks. Why couldn’t they go out and earn a decent living? If they expected him to part with his hard-earned money, they could think again!

Today, it appeared to be the turn of these gypsies. He could spot two other similarly dressed women trying to sell the knitted garments out in front. One of them even had a baby strapped to her back, for extra sympathy, he supposed.

“Sir!”

The woman shook the garment in front of him. Shailesh gritted his teeth and shook his head to indicate his disinterest. He studiously avoided her gaze, but the woman was persistent.

“Sir. Only fifty.”

This time she shook the scarf so vigorously that it tickled him in the nose, triggering off a powerful sneeze. Irritation quickly gave way to an overwhelming fury. Just who the hell did she think she was, thrusting stuff through his window and demanding that he buy it?

“Told you, I don’t want it!” Shailesh barked at her. Hadn’t he already indicated that he didn’t want it? Didn’t she get the message, dammit?

A bus that was several cars ahead began to move. About time, Shailesh thought, itching to jam down on the accelerator. Traffic in Bangalore—bah! The worst ever.

Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” Her voice was flat, ominous. You will never feel the cold.

As the car ahead began to move, Shailesh glanced at the woman. Her muddy gaze made him shudder involuntarily and he made up his mind. In one swift move, he pushed the window button of his car and the window rolled up. The woman snatched her hand away just in time as he accelerated and zoomed ahead, a wicked grin on his face. As he drove on, he realized something was fluttering by his window. It was that damned scarf! She had been quick enough to save her hand, but she had been too late to rescue the scarf. It was fluttering by his window, jammed at the edge. He could see her stunned face in his rearview mirror. Serves you right, you bitch, he thought, a savage thrill coursing through his body. He watched as she raised her right hand and pointed a terrible index finger at him. The skull ring glinted in the sun and Shailesh swallowed. He thought he could hear her cursing him.

At the next traffic light, Shailesh carefully pulled the scarf inside the car. It wasn’t a great scarf; the knitting was all thick and nubbly. It seemed to have some pattern on it, and it smelled of camels and tents and travel. Ugh! Why couldn’t it have been a soft, nice scarf, something he could wear around his neck to combat the nip of the cold December air? He would probably just give it away to the security guard at work. He shoved it into his backpack that lay on the passenger seat.

By the time Shailesh returned home that night, he had forgotten all about the woman at the traffic light and the musty scarf.

*

The next day, it was a little past midnight when Shailesh returned to his apartment after the office Christmas party. He wasn’t sure how many drinks he had had, but it had made him lose all his inhibitions. He rued his crazy dance moves; he must have put off pretty Piyali completely with his display. Not that he had much of a chance with her anyway, but still. He was still perspiring heavily from his rambunctious exertions and the AC in the car was just not enough. He rolled down the window to let the cool winter air in. He liked the Bangalore weather—neither too cold nor too hot, unlike Delhi where he came from. Pity he was off to Delhi for the holidays. He winced as he thought of it.

Shailesh didn’t look forward to the annual ritual of the family gathering in Delhi. Members of their extended family flew down from USA, Canada, and the UK. There were endless parties and get-togethers, mostly with the same crowd and after the initial catching up, it became rather monotonous. Being an only son, Shailesh was duty-bound to be present and to be shown off to his relatives as a prize catch in the matrimonial market, much like a stud bull at a cattle fair. There was no way Shailesh could get out of it; after all, who did he have here in Bangalore anyway?

By the time Shailesh reached his apartment, the damp patches of perspiration on his shirt had grown as large as dinner plates. He mopped his brow as he got out of his car. Bangalore seemed to be getting hotter every year, he thought, and grinned. He was already beginning to sound like a typical Bangalorean! In a city that barely managed three seasons, each season slipped into the next like finely woven yarn, so that it could be quite confusing at times. It was the normal thing to complain about the inconsistent weather, and look accusingly at people like him—the outsiders who had come and settled down in Bangalore, upsetting the weather gods in the process.

Shailesh swung his backpack over his shoulder and made his way to the elevator. God, he was sweating like a pig! He may as well forget about Piyali completely, he thought wryly. Fat chance she would go for a guy who was as wet as a dripping towel.

He groaned when he reached his apartment. It was a complete mess. He would have to clear up everything before he left, else the place would be teeming with cockroaches when he returned. He would have to catch his beauty sleep at home in Delhi. There was no way he could clean up and sleep in the few hours that were available.

By the time Shailesh cleared up his apartment, it was almost three in the morning. The dishes were all done, the fridge was cleared out, three plump garbage bags stood like sentinels next to the front door, and his suitcase was stuffed with two weeks’ worth of laundry, which his mom would do for him when he got to Delhi. His bags were all packed, along with his laptop in his backpack that he needed to take in case there was an emergency at work. Now, he had an hour to kill before his ride to the airport showed up.

He sank on the couch and switched on the TV. It was on a news channel, and the news immediately caught Shailesh’s attention.

“Delhi is in the grip of an unprecedented cold wave. The temperature has been hovering around the zero degrees centigrade mark. All schools, colleges, and other educational institutions have been declared closed for the next two days by the Government. The sudden dip in temperatures is forcing people to stay indoors. According to the Met department officials, this is due to chilly, dry winds from the Northwest, which are sweeping through the city. They have forecast that this cold spell will remain for the next couple of days. However, the absence of fog has ensured that all flights operated normally.”

Visuals of the empty Delhi streets and the homeless huddled around bonfires came on. There was a ticker running at the bottom of the screen, advising travelers to contact their airlines and confirm their flights.

Shailesh cursed as he took out his ticket and punched the phone number of the airlines on his mobile. He was almost immediately connected to a representative.

“My flight for Delhi is at 6 a.m. today. Is there any delay or cancellation?”

“No, sir,” the lady politely answered. “The flight is on time. There is no delay for any of our flights. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No thanks,” Shailesh answered, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. Damn! It was getting really hot in here. He was actually looking forward to experiencing that familiar Delhi chill that froze one’s bones.

*

As Shailesh pushed the luggage trolley ahead of him, he scanned the thin crowd that stood outside the terminal, waiting for the arriving passengers. His parents always came to pick him up, and soon enough, he spotted them. They looked like overstuffed laundry bags with several layers of clothing bulging oddly, every inch of their bodies covered with thick woolens. In utter contrast, Shailesh had unbuttoned his shirt because of the heat, his fair face red like a boiled lobster, and his hair slicked down because of perspiration.

“I was worried about the flight,” said Shailesh, after the usual greetings. “Luckily, it was all ok. I saw the news, they were saying it is quite bad here?”

“Yes,” his father nodded. “It’s been pretty bad.”

“How could you come dressed like this?” His mother burst out. “Are you crazy? Knowing the weather in Delhi, you should have at least worn a jacket.” She sighed and shook her head. “Never mind, I’ll give you one of my shawls.”

Shailesh was in fact feeling like he was being cooked on a slow flame. The flight had been very uncomfortable, and he was sure that the temperature control had not been working properly in the plane. He had even asked the stewardess, but she had given him a strange look, and assured him that everything was normal. Everyone else had seemed quite comfortable. Some had even requested for blankets and were fast asleep. But Shailesh had felt so hot that he had to overcome the urge to reach over and rip open the damn windows!

“It’s ok, I’m fine,” he protested, and pushed the shawl back to his mother. She grumbled under her breath as they both waited for his father to bring the car. Shailesh longed to peel off his shirt and let the chill dig its teeth into his skin. What was happening to him? Had he caught some bug?

Their car pulled up, and Shailesh heaved his suitcases into the boot. Once in the car, he had to ask his mother.

“Ma, can you check if I have fever or something? I’m feeling so hot.”

His mother pulled off her glove with some difficulty. She placed her hand on his forehead, and withdrew it sharply. She then placed her hand on his neck, where it was coated with his perspiration. She withdrew it again immediately.

“You’re feeling hot?” She asked him, her eyes narrowing in disbelief.

“Yes, I’m feeling very hot.”

She turned to his father, squeezing her hand back into the glove.

“We might have to take him to the doctor,” she said, in a worried tone. “He says he is feeling hot, but he is cold, ice-cold!”

“What?” Shailesh couldn’t believe it. He put his hand against his forehead, and dropped it in shock. It was true. He was as cold as a block of ice. Then why was he perspiring, why was he feeling like he was on a slow boil inside? Why did he have this longing to strip off all his clothes right now and plunge into an ice-cold bath?

“Let’s get home. Then I’ll call the doctor.” Shailesh’s father replied. His priority was to get home first. He didn’t want them stranded anywhere on this cold, wintry night.

Shailesh’s mind was in a whirl, trying to pinpoint a reason for this maddening situation. Was it because he drank too much? He couldn’t recollect correctly, but he was sure he hadn’t gone overboard. He had felt just a nice pleasant buzz. He thought he had worked it all off with the dancing. Had he danced too much? Was it the food? He couldn’t think of a single reason why he had picked up this strange bug. What was happening? He felt prickles of fear light up his spine.

“Dad, can I roll the windows down?” He asked.

“Are you crazy?” His dad shot a glance at him. “Do you want us to freeze to death?”

“But I’m not able to breathe. I’m feeling so hot!”

“Don’t worry, we’ve almost reached home.” His mother caressed his arm, her eyes dark with worry. She should never have let her only son stay so far away from her.

Shailesh burst out of the car when it drew up in front of his house. If he had stayed inside a moment longer, he was sure he would suffocate and die. He felt like he was sizzling within, his insides being turned into a simmering stew.

“Shailesh! Are you alright?” His mother jumped out and ran behind him. Her teeth had already begun chattering and her lips looked blue.

“I’m fine. You… you get into the house, you’re cold,” stuttered Shailesh, mopping the sweat from his face with his drenched hanky. He didn’t know what he himself was going to do. A raging inferno had engulfed him, and he was beginning to feel scorched.

Inside, the house was as warm as toast, and comfortable enough for his parents to shed most of their layers. But for Shailesh, it was like he was in a sauna. Nonsense, he told himself. This was all his imagination. He clenched his teeth and refused to let himself succumb to this strange ailment. Instead, he began opening his suitcases.

“Mom, I got this Mysore silk sari for you. And dad, I got this really nice wooden prayer stand. You can put your Bhagvad Gita on it and read it during your prayer time.”

“You bought this also?”

Shailesh turned and was dumbstruck. His mom was holding up a red scarf, which she had spotted peeking out of his backpack. A bolt of pure fear shot through him. The scarf! That goddamn scarf!

In a flash, he remembered everything vividly. The woman at the traffic light. Her dress, her hair, her fingers, the ring… and the way he had ambushed her. He remembered her cursing, and the memory of it was evil. The same skull-and-bones pattern that had been on her ring was on the scarf, but with one difference. The skull had muddy eyes, just like the woman. And right now, it appeared to be staring intently at Shailesh, boring into him like a giant drill. He felt his throat close with panic.

Her words echoed in his head with ominous clarity. “Kabhi tand nahin hoyega, Saheb.” You will never feel cold.

A tsunami of cold dread swamped Shailesh. Was that what was happening to him? Oh Lord! What had he done?

He grabbed the scarf to his mother’s astonishment, threw open the door and raced out to the middle of the road.

“Take this, bitch. Take this away and leave me alone!” He screamed as he flung the scarf away.

His parents rushed to the door after him, horrified.

He kicked and stamped the scarf, boiling hot tears cascading down his cheeks. The scarf lay limply in the middle of the road and then, all of a sudden, it rose towards Shailesh. He tried desperately to beat it off, but like a python stalking its prey, it slithered around his neck. Around and around it wound, even as Shailesh screamed and tore at it. He fell to the ground, thrashing and flailing. Tighter and tighter, till he gave one last shudder and then lay still, a shadow on the ground in the frosty silver moonlight.

As if shaken from a trance, his shocked mother uttered a cry and ran towards the inert body.

“My son!” She cried as she knelt next to him and touched him. Instinctively, she jerked her hand away and looked back at her husband in frightened disbelief.

A distinct smell of burning flesh filled the bleak night air.

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Anitha Murthy is a lazy dreamer, pretty content with life. A software consultant by profession, she likes to write whenever inspiration strikes her. She has been published both online and in print, has even won a few contests, and likes to try her hand at different genres. She lives in Bangalore and her home on the web is Thought Raker. Email: anitha.murthy.007[at]gmail.com

Delicate

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Jill Quinn


CIRCUS
Photo Credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini

Sasha shivered. It had been a long winter, but he hoped that everything would be over soon. That’s what all the grown-ups on the streets said anyways. What did he know? He was just a little thief. They shooed him away at every opportunity.

It hadn’t always been that way. Once he had been a child with mother and a father, but then they had attacked the Winter Palace and the world had turned upside down. Earlier revolutions had failed, but not this one. This had ripped his family apart and tore at the very fabric of Mother Russia.

No time to think about that now. If this worked, he would have a little of his family back.

He approached the edge of the circus with a feeling of dread hanging over him. He checked his pocket one more time. A flashy bit of pink winked out at him in the darkness. It was still there. He had to stop checking, he would drive himself mad. He held it very carefully in the palm of his hand.

The tents and carts loomed over him. The smell of overcooked cabbage hung in the air. A woman scuttled by with a nervous gait.

“Excuse me, could you take me to the ringmaster?”

She eyed him up and down. From her garish painted face and hurried but graceful gestures he guessed she was a ballerina, but not the star of the show. The star would have just pushed him in the mud.

“Is it wise that a little one like you would meet up with him?”

“I need to do it. I have something for him.”

“Is it something he wants or something he needs?” She asked this question like it was very important.

“Something he wants.” Sasha tried to say it with confidence, even though he wasn’t sure. All he knew is he had to get it to the ringmaster and fast if he wanted to see Irina again.

“Let me see it.” The ballerina held out her hand. She had only one. He had thought the other hand was drawn up into her sleeve to protect from the cold, but now he saw it was just a stump protruding out of her coat sleeve. It wasn’t bandaged, but the flesh had a raw look.

“Give it to me.” She waved her hand again.

She might be graceful, but she had the authoritarian voice of a schoolteacher. Should he trust her? How did he know she wouldn’t run away with it?

The only reason he had survived on the street this long was because he didn’t trust easily. That and his lightning-quick fingers. He would have starved many times over without his newfound talent.

Sasha fished around in his pocket and displayed the trinket. The ballerina snatched it from his hand and dashed it to the ground.

“There, now go and don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”

She ran away, crying into the night. Sasha didn’t have a moment to spare for her. He bent down and started anxiously scraping away at the dirt and muck.

Finally he saw the shine of pink diamonds. He sat back on his heels and sighed with relief. The tiny elephant was safe. Now he just had to make sure it worked. He jammed the little key in and cranked it. It took a moment, but the elephant raised its head in a creaking movement.

He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he saw the puff of white in the air. Now he just had to find the ringmaster. He had to reach him before midnight.

A drunk was sprawled out over some old netting. Sasha poked him with a long stick. The man grumbled.

“Excuse me, can you take me to the ringmaster?”

The drunk grunted and pointed.

Sasha decided that was the best he was going to get, so he hurried off in that direction. Noises started to grow louder, lights started to grow brighter. The smell of cabbage started to fade and he smelled something else. Something that smelled a lot like rotting meat.

He finally reached his destination. A train car that stood open to the elements on one side. Herds of animals gathered around. He saw them as eerie half shapes that would come from nightmares. There were claws, fur, and lots of teeth.

He shuddered and it wasn’t from the cold.

“Step back. Step back. He’ll see you later.” A ferocious man swaggered forward. He didn’t have a stick or anything to beat back the animals. They made no motion.

“Step back.” He said again, gulping at a bottle. Then he roared out a wall of blue flame. There were neighs, roars, and squawks as the animals skittered away.

Sasha wanted to skitter away too, but the fire-breathing man saw him. He waved a hand.

“Come here. You’re expected.”

Sasha took a tentative step.

The fire-breathing man squatted down close so they could be eye to eye. He had no mustaches or beard, probably because they might catch on fire. He did have bushy eyebrows that seemed to dance about his face. All the sudden he seemed easy and friendly, like Uncle Artemi after some plum brandy.

“You have what the ringmaster needs?”

“What he wants.” Sasha corrected the man, but felt himself atremble with nerves. What if the man questioned him? What if he stole the elephant? What could the big man do to it? It wouldn’t survive another blow.

Sasha clutched onto the pink elephant in his hand, still protected in his little wool jacket. Too tight and he might break the delicate machinery inside. Too lightly and the man would might seize it right out of his pocket.

The man wrapped his arm around Sasha. “Little one, the two are often one and the same. You must be very brave to have come this far and done this much.”

“He has my sister.” Sasha said.

The man nodded. “You must not react to his appearance.” He tapped Sasha twice on the nose. “Remember that and you will be fine.”

The man stepped back and made an elaborate bow. “Continue on, my good man.” Sasha heard him say under his breath. “And may God bless you.”

Every step up the plank seemed to be an eternity. The fire-breathing man shut the door.

Sasha knew he should feel frightened, but his first sense was of a delicious warmth, something he hadn’t felt in months.

Then he began to take in the cozy interior of the room. Jewelry and shiny trinkets were strewn about as if a child had been playing. Everything was covered in green velvet and purple silks, elegance that would put the tsar to shame. That is if they still had a tsar.

There was a samovar glowing golden in the lamplight. His hands ached to hold a cup of tea, to feel the heat sliding down. There was no smell of rotting meat here, just tea and something like flowers.

His eyes scanned the room. He had to find Irina. Towards the back of the rail car there was a large Oriental screen, painted with flying cranes and dragons.

An orangutan stepped out behind the screen, wiping his hands on a cloth. He had the stiff-legged gait of someone who was trying to walk after a long time in bed. He was dressed in the style of a country gentleman.

“Oh good. You’ve come. Let’s see it then.” The ape adjusted his spectacles. His arms were far too long to make this dignified, but somehow he managed.

Sasha hesitated. “I need to see Irina first.”

The orangutan let out a rich liquid chuckle. “I need to see Irina, sir,” he said, unfazed by Sasha’s boldness.

“Yes, sir.” Sasha said.

The ringmaster rubbed his chin in a gesture that looked disturbingly human. “All right then. Irina, come out my dear.”

Irina walked out from behind the screen. She wasn’t Irina as Sasha knew her. She was just sixteen, still beautiful, but now tired and worn. What was worse, her face was a blank slate.

“Sit down, my pet.”

Irina walked over to a couch, sat and folded her hands primly over her lap. She moved with the grace of the acrobat she had once been, but there was no joy to her movements.

“Irina, do you know me?” Sasha longed with every fiber in his being to run to her and throw himself into her skirts and cry like he had not done in years.

She looked at him and smiled, but her face revealed no trace of recognition.

“You’re upset. Perhaps you’re too young to understand what’s going on,” the orangutan said.

“I understand, sir. You’re creating a better world.” Sasha swiped at his nose with his hand, resisting all impulses to cry. It wasn’t what he believed, but he knew what was expected.

“Not a better world. A fairer one. A just one.” The ringmaster gestured at a chair. “Please sit, my boy.”

Sasha sat down by a table that was scattered with implements. He tried not to stare at the saws and other cutting devices. Surely those were only used on the animals.

The chairs and tables were all low to the ground, all perfectly sized for Sasha. Or an animal that was about a foot or so shorter than a grown man.

The orangutan settled into his own chair as if he was about to tell a long fairy tale.

“You see, when the human ringmaster figured out how to make me talk and think that was a great moment, but when I could give the gift to the other animals…” the ringmaster tapped his long orange finger to his head, “…that was the miracle.”

Sasha decided not to mention that the orangutan had also killed the human ringmaster and many others besides. He and this circus had started a movement that had overthrown a whole government. Everyone knew that by now. It was all anyone could talk about, the great Animal Uprising. More and more animals were being given the special clockworks and special parts to make the world “fair.”

There was a roar close by.

“You see, my children are hungry for more miracles. There’s only so much I can do.” The orangutan held up his huge hands in dismay. “That’s where Irina comes in.”

“How, sir?” Sasha said. It took every inch of his courage not to run out into the night, but he had a feeling there was more than one animal waiting for a miracle. And most of them would be ready to gobble him up if a miracle wasn’t handy. Only the fire-breathing man could hold them back and he wouldn’t be so nice to someone who crossed the ringmaster.

“Look at her radiance.” The ringmaster gestured at Irina. He spoke in a low croon. “You humans are usually vile-looking creatures, but she has such an innocent, pure way about her. We animals don’t want to be like humans, we want to be better, the best. And the only way to be the best is to study what is most beautiful and right and true in all of you.”

Irina glanced up and gave another stupid smile. Sasha wanted to run over and slap her, just to get her to cry or laugh. To do something.

“You’ve studied her. Now you can set her free.” Sasha didn’t know how he would manage with Irina acting like a dress mannequin. Somehow he would do it. He’d care for them both this time and not lose her like Mama and Papa.

“Give me the elephant first.” The ringmaster curled his lips in a most inhuman way. Tongue licked teeth.

Sasha reached into his pocket and pulled out the pink elephant. In the golden lamplight, it seemed little and soiled.

The orangutan snatched it up and polished it with his cloth. He held it up and the pink diamonds shone again.

“Those nasty Romanovs could never appreciate something of such beauty. Only someone who works with his hands can understand the art that goes into even something simple. How nice of you to liberate it.”

“Thank you, sir.” He didn’t steal it from the Romanovs, not exactly. A freelance rascal had taken it during the confusion of the animals storming Saint Petersburg. Then Sasha had liberated it. Let the ringmaster think what he wanted.

“You’re very talented with your hands aren’t you, little man? There’s not many that could handle this situation properly.” The orangutan poured a cup of steaming hot tea from the samovar and handed it to Sasha.

“You have your elephant. We’d like to go, sir.” Sasha raised his voice a little. He curled his fingertips around the dainty china cup. It wouldn’t hurt to steal a moment’s warmth.

“You see, Sasha. We don’t just want to study you. We’re not trying to become you. We want you to become us. Don’t you see that’s the only way to fair world? No rulers, no chains. No king of the jungle. ” The ringmaster smiled at his little joke and caressed Sasha’s hand.

Sasha had to do his best not to show even a hint of repulsion. He knew if he did it would be the end of him and Irina.

“I was told you stick to a bargain, sir.”

The orangutan released Sasha’s hand. He sighed. “With your fast little fingers I could do so much. Someday I will create the perfect human being, much like your sort used to breed thoroughbreds. Or perhaps how your mama would sew up a little doll for your sister to play with.”

Sasha remembered for a horrible moment the ballerina with one hand.

“A doll?” Irina asked. Her voice was eager, but cracked and strange.

“Yes, my poppet. A doll for you later.” The ringmaster sounded amused, but bored, as if talking to a small child.

The orangutan’s eyes cut back to Sasha. It was clear he had no further use for Irina. “Very well. Give me the key.”

Sasha laid the key to the toy on the table. He did not want to touch that paw again.

The ape grabbed the key between two fingertips and wound up the elephant. This time it did not raise its trunk. It just sat there in that large brown palm.

“Oh dear,” said the ringmaster, but he didn’t sound very sad at all. He sounded almost gleeful.

“It worked just a moment ago.” Sasha felt as if he might have been better off with the lions and bears.

The orangutan smiled. “These things happen. It was only something I wanted, not something I needed.” Then in a fast move he shattered the elephant all over the table and flung the pieces at the samovar. The diamonds and clockworks fell to the floor, making a slight tinkling sound as they collided on the Oriental rug.

“Very well. Your sister can go. Irina, leave now,” the ringmaster said with a voice filled with a strange, terrible authority.

Irina got up and walked to the door. She pushed it open and walked out without a glance to Sasha.

Sasha laid down the tea.

“Sir, I’ll just be going. I have to look after her, you see.” He wasn’t sure if she could be trusted even a moment on her own.

The orangutan gripped Sasha’s wrists with a brute force, stronger than the grip of any man. “I don’t think so, my dear,” he said, his tone full of regret. “Your sister is free, but you must stay. You see, you’ve brought me something I want, but now you have something I need.”

pencil

Jill Quinn is a writer. She lives with her family in Washington D.C. and their lives are enriched by one very neurotic cat. Email: jill.kathleen.quinn[at]gmail.com

Shattered

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Bethany Nuckolls


ice-crack
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. —I Corinthians 13:12

The lake turned to glass during the night.

Next morning, he can see straight down to the bottom when he lays his forehead on its cool surface. He can see the minnows, brown and motionless like pebbles, hovering mere inches beneath his open palms. The surface is smooth, but not mirror-smooth. There are small dimples and flutters of frozen motion, a scattering of tiny proofs of life. And yet, overnight, it has all fallen still.

He crawls across the lake on hands and knees, exploring what he knows to be impossible. The touch of glass feels like water fondling his palms, or a breeze flowing through his fingers. Ripples are frozen, leaving giant undulations of pooling glass where, perhaps, a mallard has taken flight or a turtle ducked its head. The perfect roundness of every ring and dimple reflects the sun and glimmers, as unique as thumbprints. It seems as if time itself has stopped and he is the only creature still breathing in the world.

He wonders if he is still drunk from the night before. It occurs to him suddenly that the lake may not be frozen at all. Last he had looked at the calendar, it was the middle of June. Perhaps if he stops believing what his senses are telling him, he will wake up and discover that it has all been a dream.

He peers again at the lake bottom. The glass looks fluid, ready to melt, to shatter, and to swallow him. He can feel it giving way. So he holds his breath, and waits for the plunge.

*

A pair of running shoes on the bottom stair, visible in the half-light of the kitchen bulb.

“What the hell are those?” I demand, bare feet slamming into each wooden step.

Shane switches on the basement light, blinding me suddenly with the glare of harsh metal edges—pipes from the furnace and water heater. Dammit! My brother grins at me. There’s a mischief in his eyes that I rarely see.

“They’re yours, Dez,” he says, and I stop muttering curses under my breath. He hasn’t even mentioned the bottle of Corona Light in my hand, or how I’m not supposed to be combining alcohol with medication. He just flashes that stupid grin, like I’m supposed to throw my hands up and start dancing ecstatically on the stairs. Great, I’ve got a new pair of shoes.

I’m not a runner; Shane is. He runs every day to some end of the earth that I’ve never seen nor care about. I tell him I think he’s found a girl that he can’t quite catch. He thinks if he keeps running, one day I’ll follow him. He never says it, but I always know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking right now that this time I will go out, that I will put on those running shoes.

Not a chance.

“You’re out of your mind,” I say and walk back up the steps, Corona in my hand, towards the table shadowed in the kitchen corner. My corner. The wallpaper is peeling and the floor slopes down in the corner, but I like it that way. I like to see the old house peeling away, erasing the place where my wife and I once lived. Soon, I think, or maybe hope, all the echoes will be gone.

I hear my fool brother call after me, “Last one to the end of the road is a pig’s ass!”

Mere boyhood threats. But things haven’t changed much.

I thunder down the steps to grab those running shoes.

 

We used to race barefoot in the woods behind our home in Virginia. We’d follow a creek into the crowd of dark cedars that would suddenly burst apart into dew-soft clearings. There, we would see rabbits sit up straight on their hind paws, surprised at our coming.

I would always be behind, following Shane’s footprints in the muddy clay. I’d notice how they were larger than mine, the strides longer, although he was younger than me. I’d stop as if to catch my breath and say, “I’m going home now!” And that would turn Shane right around, because whoever reached the kitchen first would get to choose his favorite color of ice pop first.

When I was much older, I broke three of my toes, and I stopped running. My wife said it was my fault because I was kicking in the garage door with my bare feet. I don’t really remember anything about it. Shane says nothing on the subject.

 

Today, the sky smells autumn dry. The dirt drive is packed hard beneath my running feet. It is late afternoon and the shadows from the cornfield on my left are weaving a gold and dark mesh across the ground. To the east, trees grimace against the deepening light, turning as red as my face. My breath comes in quick gulps because I know I can’t do this. I can’t run this far. Ahead, I see a small blob of white—the T-shirt of my brother who is at least an eighth of a mile in the lead, shrinking into a human-shaped blur.

I stop to gasp for air, heart throbbing in my chest, phlegm filling my throat. I can’t do this. I will never be able to catch up to my brother.

I’ve only been first once, and that was by birth. I should have gotten the best as the oldest child, but I didn’t. On my ninth birthday, my parents bought me a new, black-and-yellow ten-speed bike. They gave Shane a plastic model airplane so he would not feel left out. Shane enjoyed his one little toy so much that he never even asked to ride my bike.

That night, I buried that toy plane in the woods. I told Shane that he must have lost it. Shane cried, of course, but he believed his older brother.

“I’m turning back!” I yell. “I’m going back and I’m never doing this again! You listening, Shane? I don’t run! I never wanted to run!”

I see Shane turn around, but I don’t wait for him to come to me. I walk back up the drive, gazing out at the lake behind the house.

In the basement, I toss the new pair of running shoes into the empty metal water trough beneath the stairs. Then I stride across the basement and push Dad’s old worktable aside. My head clunks against the hanging light bulb. Dammit! I try to steady it, and my hands scatter shadows over the floor. Bed frames and moldy books crouch against the walls and watch me in the half-light. My fingers do the searching. At last, I find the paint can right where my wife set it before she left, the kitchen only half-painted the yellow of lemons.

I pry open the lid, carry it to the trough, and dump the paint over the laces, the soles, the tread, drowning the shoes in yellow. Behind me, I hear my brother come through the door. He doesn’t say anything, and I know he’s watching.

*

A crow caws. He gasps from sleep, his breath ragged. His knees are sore, his muscles tense. The hardness of the glass sends shocks of pain up his arms where they have been pressing against the surface. All around him, little whirligigs fall from the maples, landing on the lake’s phantom surface with the sound of rain. No longer June, but November. The world around him is dying quickly. But he is unable to die, turned back by the lake’s unending flatness.

He thinks about calling for help. Then he remembers:

Shane is gone. Shane has left him behind. He put on his running shoes one day and just kept running…

*

“Put down the phone!”

Shane looks startled as he glances up at me. He’s probably not expecting me up at five in the morning, but as the doctor tells him, “Always expect the unexpected.”

“Goddammit, Shane! I said, put down the phone!”

I reach for the receiver while my right fist pulls back in readiness. Shane gives me one frightened look before trying to slam the phone back in its cradle. I grab it first. “Listen!” I yell into the receiver, “I don’t need any help! Got it? You leave me alone! You and all your goddamn medications! I don’t need you!Crack! Call terminated.

Shane looks at me, stares at me as if I am a rabid animal. I’m not crazy, I want to shout. I want to ram my words into his face. But as I look at him, I can’t help but see the little boy who used to run into my room at night and bury himself beneath the covers. Our parents had given us separate bedrooms, but we had slept in the same room almost every night. “I’m scared,” he had whispered so the shadows wouldn’t hear. It had been our secret so Dad wouldn’t find out. “Promise?” he would beg, the sheets crumpled in his fists.

I should have kept it. I shouldn’t have let one little throb of jealousy get in the way of my promise. For days after I told on him, I would hear Shane crying through my bedroom wall until late in the night, his door blocked from the outside by Dad’s armchair.

“You’re crazy!”

I don’t mean to yell, but I have a strong voice. “You are out of your mind! Don’t you ever, ever call Dr. Mellin without my permission! I decide who to call around here!”

Shane shakes his head. “You need to get better, Dez,” he says. “Why can’t you just accept my help? When are we going to stop playing this childish game of pretending that everything is okay?”

“When hell freezes over,” I snarl. It sounds petty. I’m not even sure what the petulant turn of phrase is supposed to mean—a figurative place undergoing a figurative change. The rest of the world is so set apart from reality that “normal people” can understand every last one of these damned, moralizing concepts. I, however, can only hurl them like blunt objects at the people who know me the best.

Shane has no comeback. He just stands there wordlessly, arms hanging limp at his sides as I turn to walk away. I give him a last warning look, but I feel shame creeping up into my face. So, like a striking snake, my hand snatches and yanks the phone cord from the wall.

*

The smoothness of the lake when he glides his hand over the polished ripples reminds him of ice skating at the university. Erika had taught him how to ice skate. Before then, he hadn’t even dared to try. He knew he would just keep falling on his ass and hear the jeers of the upperclassmen. But she had given him the courage to try, to take a risk, to have fun while he skittered about on his blades, feeling a pull at the bottom of his stomach every time he moved. She had been the one who had pulled him out of himself, who had allowed him to shrug off the mask he had worn throughout his freshman year. He had felt lucky to have won her as a friend.

He remembers.

He remembers laughing.

As he reaches out to touch a tuft of cattail poking out of the surface, his hand freezes in motion. He recognizes the image frozen beneath the surface of the lake… the crossed shape of a model airplane. It should not be here, but it is—dirt-covered, broken, and only an arm’s length away, yet as unrecoverable beneath the glass as a thoughtless deed.

Trapped.

*

“Erika sent this.”

Shane stands at the bottom of the stair, his white shirt stained yellow with sweat. He’s been running. I’ve been staring at my computer, so my vision is cloudy with after-images as I roll my chair back to look at him. I see that Shane is holding out an envelope.

“Come up,” I say at last.

No return address, but that’s to be expected. I rip open the paper and suddenly feel a hot sting. Damn! The paper cut bleeds across my finger and I smash it down against the fabric of the placemat.

A storm had rattled the windows hard the day Erika bought the lemon yellow placemats from the department store. “I just wanted to go out by myself,” she had said in a rusty voice, one longing to not speak at all. “Besides, I can’t return them now. The receipt got wet in the rain.”

She had crumpled the soggy paper in her hand, and the ink had bled between her tightly-clenched fingers.

And so the placemats had stayed, though now they are speckled brown and gray from food and dirt, and now red from blood.

“Damn envelope,” I mutter. “Doesn’t she know how to use email?”

Of course she does. She doesn’t have a computer at her apartment. Her residence is just temporary anyway, but I don’t think she has any intention of coming back, even if she does get the house and everything else through the divorce. For now, the house is my home—home until Dr. Mellin decides to lock me up if I don’t “improve.” It’s a nifty experiment, imprisoning me in my own house. I suppose he and Shane think that this regimen will cure me. Cure me of what, I’d like to know? Divorcing my wife? Marriage used to be a private matter. So had reading the mail.

“What does it say—if you don’t mind my asking?” Shane says, and I know he’s trying to lighten the gloom that curtains the off-yellow kitchen.

“She says, ‘Dear Desmond. Hope you aren’t lonely and you and your brother are getting along, neh deh-neh deh-neh…'” I fall silent, reading the handwriting that looks so familiar, curved in the smooth lines that are being crushed under my thumbs and stained by my bleeding finger. Her flowing hand reminds me of the softness of her dark hair. It was the most beautiful on summer days, when we went hiking in the Appalachians and its dark tangles looked like the patterns of the forest shadows.

We had gone hiking the day after Erika found out she was pregnant. “I might not be able to do this for awhile,” she had laughed. We had talked about names. If it was a boy, I would name it. If it was a girl, Erika would, and I could choose the second name. I had decided on Liam for a boy.

“It follows family tradition,” I had explained to her. “And it means ‘strong-willed.'”

“Like you,” she had said. Erika had a fondness for Hebrew names, so the girl would be named Abby, which she claimed meant ‘joy of the father.’ I had told her it was the perfect name.

It was born on a stormy March night that was much less intense than the confusion at the hospital. Although invited to stay, I left the delivery room and waited in the hospital lobby. Erika’s first contraction had struck me, like lighting, with a sudden doubt.

It turned out to be a girl, a crying, pathetic thing. But Erika loved it; she loved the lumpy red creature that could easily have been mistaken for a large and gnarly potato pulled up out of the earth. The strength of that love frightened me.

I tried to be gentle with it at first, praying that it would not open its eyes and see me, holding it in my arms. Then I tried ignoring it. But every day, I’d see Erika sitting in the rocker beside the crib, crooning to it, singing to it. She’d ask me to make her dinner, and I’d stiffly comply, clenching my teeth against a jealousy I knew shouldn’t be there. I knew it was wrong.

Her face is still vividly there. Her luscious, black hair melts into the creases of the paper. Her eyes gaze at me from between the folds. I can smell her scent on the letter. Her face smiles, then saddens, as a mist in my eyes fades the image out.

Shane puts a hand on my shoulder. I feel it like a blow. Our dad’s voice rings in my head. “You only see the surface, Desmond. You never really get the heart of the matter.” He is standing there in his crisp white shirt and khaki trousers. His frame is tall and thin. His clothes look like paper. I always felt that if I blew gently, the wind might carry him away. But his heart was too heavy. “Goddamn, you’re the most short-sighted son I’ve ever had to raise.”

“Dez.”

Shane whispers in my ear, and I start and look over my shoulder. I see his serious, brown eyes taking hold of mine, trying to draw me out of the darkness. But I can’t keep my gaze steady. I can’t hold it in. The next moment I’m on my feet and I’m swearing like I never have before. My lungs can’t hold it all, the pain, the swelling that fills my chest. My ears roar with static noise.

“I don’t care!” come the echoes of my own words, as if from a great distance. “I don’t care what you say, or anybody says! I don’t need her! I don’t want her!”

The letter tears in my hand, again, and again. The pieces flutter to the floor along with the tears that fall from my face.

I turn on my brother who is looking stunned. “Her… them… You’ll never leave me alone!” I accuse. “Nobody does! Listen to me, there is nothing wrong with me! I’m me… this is me! I am perfectly normal!”

Shane gets ahold of my left wrist and gives it a painful twist and I stop yelling so I can curse.

“Dez, listen,” he says. “Listen to me. You’ll be fine. You just don’t understand… you don’t understand.” He lets go of my wrist and takes several deep breaths, as if winded, despite all of his running practice.

At last, it’s my turn to win.

“I do understand,” I say, coolly. “I know why you’re here, Shane, why you came here. You’re the watchdog. Erika was worried about me, so you thought you’d do her a favor by keeping an eye on me. But that’s the older brother’s job, Shane. That’s my job. I’m supposed to look after you! It’s my right!”

I choke on my own words as I speak. The creature inside of me throws itself against the bars.

Shane grips both of my shoulders now, but he can’t look at me. He’s crying, and shame fuels my desire to run. I try to wrench away, but Shane does not let go. I glare into his tightened face. My fingers begin to reach for his throat. “God, how I hate you…”

“Desmond,” he says.

Something in the softness of his voice causes me to listen this time.

“I—I have always… always looked up to you. I just want you to know that. You were my only big brother and I wanted to be like you. Just like you.”

I jerk away from Shane’s grip. Liar, I think. I already know that he’s going to call Dr. Mellin. He’s going to have me taken away and locked up. They both think I’m crazy. But they don’t know crazy.

Crazy is crawling on a frozen lake without feeling the cold. Crazy is risking death by lying at its center, the weakest spot on the ice. Most of all, it’s being able to look down beneath the surface and see it all clearly, second by second, every regret, down to the deepest level of hell.

But I suppose none of us ever realize we’re standing on thin ice until it begins to crack.

I stalk away from my brother to find something that will stop the pain that is pressing against my ribs and pounding in my head. I search for something I can kick or hurl against the wall. Through a blur of vision, I see the curling ends of the lemony wallpaper border that wraps around the walls of the kitchen, cracked in places where my fist smashed the drywall. It used to frighten Erika when I lost my temper. Sometimes, I frightened myself.

On the cabinet beside the kitchen table, I see the hand-blown glass plate that Erika bought last summer at the Appalachian art festival. Erika had said she could see our own lake in its rippled bands of painted blue. The glass dims and wavers in my mind—a volatile thought coming into focus. Then it breaks beneath the sledgehammer of my fist. I watch the lake shatter into a hundred pieces.

*

He awakens once more. It is winter now. The glass has become ice. The cattails are gone and he wants to leave. He reaches for her hand, but it is not there anymore.

“You can do it, silly,” her voice says. “Keep your knees bent this time.”

Her voice is still there, but she is long gone.

He tries to stand, but his feet slide suddenly on the surface, and his fingers claw the ice for purchase. The lake groans, then cracks. The sun fades fast behind dark trees as he struggles again to stand, the way she taught him, with knees bent.

pencil

Bethany Nuckolls knew she wanted to be a writer since she was five, and thus seventeen years later she earned a degree in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her writing has been featured in the university’s publications and also in various online publications. Her main hobby, aside from writing, is traveling around the country and the world, and many of the places she has visited have also inspired her stories. Lately, she has spent two years living in rural Japan. Email: writebackatcha[at]yahoo.com