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.

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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.

pencil

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

Whitcher Cemetery

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Erica L. Ruedas


Old Family Cemetery
Photo Credit: Richard Freeman

There was a graveyard at Fort Ord.

Madge found out about it on her second night while patrolling with Ronnie, the cocky sergeant. He took her out beyond the barriers on Inter-Garrison, where only bikers, hikers, and cops and military personnel were allowed.

“See the kennels over there? The military used to keeps dogs on the base, and they’d have guys sleeping in those buildings nearby. Some of the fellas here, they say they can hear them howling at night when they drive by. I’ve never heard it, though.”

Madge sipped her coffee and stared out the window. The moon was out, and Monterey’s famous fog had left off for the evening so the kennels stood out clearly. They looked like everything else did on this base—old and abandoned.

Ronnie tossed her a grin and put the car in gear and they travelled a little farther down the torn-up road. There were more abandoned buildings, which Madge knew she should get used to on this campus, but Ronnie drove past them without comment and pulled up next to a small clearing surrounded by a chain link fence on two sides.

“Now, take a look here,” he said, glancing at her to make sure she was looking. “Now, not too many of the students know this, but there’s a graveyard here. Belonged to some family a long time ago, like 1800s or something. But anyway, when the government came ’round looking for land, the family sold it to them under one condition: that they could come visit this graveyard to pay their respects to their ancestors whenever they’d like. Military agreed, and they were the only ones allowed on this base during times of war, when the whole place was locked down.”

Madge nodded, but she was staring at the headstones outlined in the moonlight. The graveyard was small, with one large cross and one or two small headstones. If they had been closer, she would probably make out more, but Ronnie drove off again.

“You know,” he said, after a moment, “they say sometimes a little girl goes down to the kennels at night, wearing a blue silk dress. Those headstones all belong to kids, but they’re all really little kids, like two years old. Some of the fellas think it’s a girl killed by the soldiers, to hide evidence or something. And she hears the dogs howling, and goes down to the kennels to play with them, cuz it makes her forget the horrors she experienced here.”

Madge rolled her eyes. Ronnie was taking her silence to be fear, when really she was just wondering about the family buried in the graveyard. She loved history and visiting cemeteries.

They finally drove back to the station and spent a few hours filling out some paperwork and watching training videos from the eighties before everyone on the night shift packed up their gear and went home. Madge had taken a townhouse in the staff housing two miles away from the station, and, as she had sold her old car before moving, she hitched a ride with the campus shuttle on its second lap around the campus.

There was no one getting on the shuttle from campus to housing, so Madge struck up a conversation with the student driver. She was a business major, named Emily, and was in her second year. She shared Madge’s love of the history of Monterey, and on the short drive the two of them traded facts until Madge’s stop.

When she got back to work again that night, the office staff of the student transportation and parking services were leaving from their office next door. Emily was among them. “Have you been here all day?” asked Madge, shifting her gear to get at her swipe card to unlock the police entrance.

Emily separated from the group. “No, I just take a second shift on Tuesdays. Hey, have you been around the area yet?”

“No, not yet, I’ve barely had time to go grocery shopping.”

“Well, leave a message in the office—my boyfriend and I can show you around this weekend.”

“Cool, thanks.” Madge finally found her keycard and let herself into the station, waving goodbye to Emily.

An hour later she was in briefing, where she learned she was to be partnered with Sam, a tall, good-looking detective who was popular with the students. She also learned that she was in the driver’s seat.

“So, have you been learning the streets?” Sam asked her in the car as he made adjustments to his seat.

“Yeah, east/west streets are given the designation ‘Street’ and the North/South ones are ‘Avenue.’ I’m still figuring out the housing blocks—which one is Civil War again?”

“That’d be Frederick Park 1. The first left when you get past Inter-Garrison. Frederick Park 2 is Revolutionary War, and Schoonover is all on its own—that’s where you live right? Want to drive around there for a while?”

“Sure.” Madge called it in to dispatch and they drove the two miles back to the campus housing. They’d been driving around for a few hours when Madge asked about the graveyard. Sam laughed.

“Yeah, Ronnie likes to scare all the new guys with that. New girls. People. Sorry.”

“S’all right.”

“Anyways, there is a graveyard back there, but I’ve never heard of any ghost girls or ghost dogs or anything like that. Nothing much happens out there, anyway. It’s just a place to go when you get bored at night.”

Within a few weeks Madge was driving a car on her own, and as the students settled into the fall semester the station got busy at night with party bust-ups, disturbance calls, and one particularly interesting marijuana bust in the dorms where an R.A. discovered a student growing pot in her dorm room. She hadn’t had a chance to drive past the barriers on Inter-Garrison to see the graveyard yet, but it was hanging at the back of her mind. Thanks to Emily’s tours she’d found the cemetery in Monterey, but it was small and uninteresting compared to the mystery of the graveyard on the military land.

Just before the school’s fall break, Madge found herself driving around one night with nothing to do. She had already done a few sweeps of the abandoned buildings down by Second Ave, where students liked to steal souvenirs or smoke pot, so she drove down Inter-Garrison and through the barriers, trying to remember how to get to the graveyard.

She found it quickly, despite not having any landmarks back there, and as she approached the kennels her hands slipped on the steering wheel. She was more afraid of being found there by the MPs, as she didn’t know how to explain why a campus cop would be out here alone, but there wasn’t anyone else around. From the road near the kennels she realized she could see the headlights going up and down Imjin to Marina, something she hadn’t seen the last time she had been here, but as it was nearly three a.m., there were few headlights.

She don’t know why she did it but she got out of the car. She wished she had a camera so she could photograph the kennels by the half-covered moon, and she left the car running with the headlights off just in case. She could always tell the MPs she thought she saw someone moving out there.

The kennels were falling apart, some missing their gates, but Madge stood there awhile, imagining she could hear the dogs sleeping inside. The moon went behind a cloud, and it took a minute for her night vision to kick in. She had a flashlight on her belt, but she didn’t want to take the chance of it being seen.

When the moon came out from the clouds again, she suddenly heard a howl, and then another. She froze, staring at the kennels, but nothing was moving. The howls stopped, and Madge suddenly remembered it being mentioned in her orientation that there were still animals on the base, like deer and coyotes—and mountain lions. She realized that this was a stupid idea, to be in such a strange place by herself with nothing but some pepper spray and her gun, and she was heading back to the car when she saw the girl.

She had materialized behind a dilapidated building about a hundred feet from the kennels and was walking towards Madge, wearing an old-fashioned blue dress that shimmered in the moonlight. She was about seven or eight, and she was looking right through Madge at the kennels.

Madge stood staring at the little girl until her radio crackled to life and she jumped and ran to the car. In the car she chanced a glance back at the kennels and the little girl had disappeared. The radio crackled out something again, and Madge turned it up and heard dispatch calling her to suicidal student out in FP1. She acknowledged the call and drove back to campus, where she spent the rest of her shift counseling the distraught student and seeing her safely onto an ambulance to the hospital.

Two days later, Madge was walking around campus when she ran into Emily near the library.

“Hey, Officer Stevens, taking a class?”

“Oh, no, just looking around.”

“Well, be sure to check out our library. I think it’s the smallest university library ever.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s in the Guinness Book or something. Anyways, I gotta get to class. See you at work!”

It occurred to Madge that she might find some history about the cemetery in the campus library, and as she was technically staff of the school, she had a library account. From the outside the library looked small, but inside it was even smaller. A nearby librarian spotted her and greeted her: “Can I help you find anything?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for some books on the history of Fort Ord.”

“Is it for a class?”

“Oh, no, I’m not a student, I’m actually a police officer that just started. I wanted to learn a little bit more about when this all used to be a military base.”

“Sure, we’ve got some books, but it might be best to try the city library.”

“Yeah, you guys are kind of small for a university.”

The librarian smiled apologetically. “Well, the school itself is only ten years old, and we don’t have much of a collection yet. But we do have a great interlibrary loan system, and there’s plans to build a much bigger library in the next five years or so.”

“Cool.”

The librarian spent a few minutes showing Madge some books on the history of Fort Ord then she left to help another student for a class. Madge picked up some of the books and took them to a study table so she could look through them. She flipped through several of the books, but none of them had any information about the land before it had been sold to the military by David Jacks. The librarian came by again and peered over her shoulder.

“Any luck?” she asked.

Madge sighed. “No, not really. None of these have the information I want.”

“You might want to try the city library—it’s behind downtown on Pacific Street. I think they’ve got a historical exhibit right now.”

Madge followed the librarian to the desk and took the slip of paper with the city library’s address. “Thanks.”

Rather than waiting to find someone to take her out there, Madge took the bus from the stop outside the library. She hadn’t been able to shake the image of that girl from her mind. She came home later with a stack of books about the history of Monterey, and she grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down to read. There was still very little history mentioned prior to what she had begun to dub “The David Jacks Era,” but she eventually fond a footnote somewhere that said that a family called Whitcher had once lived on the land. There was no more about them in any of the books.

Just before fall break, the university started advertising a Secrets of Fort Ord tour for all the potential students coming to view the campus. It was a two-hour bus tour that went around the military land. Madge found that she was off that day, so she signed up. When she ran into Emily at work she found that Emily had signed up as well, and they agreed to go in the same bus.

“I hear there’s a graveyard out there,” Emily said, lowering her voice.

“There is, I’ve seen it.”

“Cool!”

On the day of the tour they met up outside the main university building with a large group of teens who were looking around nervously. “Ever been on the tour before?” asked Madge, craning her neck to see down the street.

“Nope, but my friends went on it last year and said it was cool. That’s how I found out about the graveyard. There’s really one out there?”

“Yeah, it’s really small, though.”

The guide they had was an old colonel who had been stationed on Fort Ord in the seventies. His commentary was dry but informative, and he was able to pepper it with some of his memories. At certain spots they were able to get out and walk around, except where there was a live training being done, and people crowded the windows to watch soldiers in full gear storming a building with their M-17s drawn.

They finally drove to the area by the graveyard, and everyone got out to look around. The fog had started to settle, so the colonel warned them to watch their step, as there was still a lot of hazardous material around, and Madge got a chance to go over to the small graveyard. There were only five headstones, and Ronnie had told the truth about them all being toddlers, except one, who had been an adult buried in the thirties. She couldn’t see where the little girl might have come from.

Emily came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Not much to look at, is it?”

“No, not really. Wish someone knew more about them, though.”

The fog grew heavier as the party walked down the road to the kennels, and Madge was enjoying seeing them in daylight when they all heard the howling. A few people laughed nervously, but the colonel explained that it was probably just coyotes.

“Those aren’t coyotes,” someone said.

“Well what else could they be?” asked Emily.

“That’s some kind of dog. There’s a dog out here.”

Everyone looked around, but no dogs appeared. Then Emily suddenly screamed, and the colonel ran over.

“What is? Did you step on something?”

Emily shook her head, pale under her make-up. “No, I thought I saw a little girl over there by that building,” she said, pointing to the corner where Madge had also seen the little girl.

“There’s no children on this tour,” the colonel pointed out, sounding irritated.

Emily shook her head again. “It was definitely a little girl.” She turned to her Madge. “One of the cops told me there’s this ghost of a little girl out here. I bet it was her.”

“Was it Ronnie?” asked Madge, as the colonel started herding them towards the bus.

“Yeah, him, I had to do a ride-along with him my first month and he took me back here and tried to scare me. I didn’t believe him, but…”

“Yeah, he told me the same thing too.” They got back on the bus and Madge followed Emily to the back, where Emily leaned her head towards Madge’s.

“You know, I bet it’s someone from the graveyard over there on the other side of the road.”

“All the people buried there are under five or over thirty,” said Madge.

Emily looked disappointed. “The girl I saw was around eight, and I know I saw her.”

Madge peered over the seats and lowered her voice. “I’ve seen her too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, a few weeks ago. Was she wearing a blue dress?”

“Yeah!”

“Same girl.”

Back at work the next day, Madge went to Ronnie immediately. “Did you try to play a joke on us this weekend?”

“No, I was up in the Bay Area with my girl. Why?”

Madge had known that, but she soldiered on. “Someone tried to scare one of the tour groups, out at the cemetery.”

“Oh, that Secrets of Fort Ord tour? I been on that a few times. Probably one of the theater students doing his own Blair Witch thing.”

“They saw a little girl in a blue dress.”

Ronnie laughed. “Oh, come on, you don’t believe that, do you? Hey, Sam,” he said, as the tall detective came into the room, “our newbie here believes that old ghost story.”

Sam laughed at the irritated look on Madge’s face.

“You want one of us to ride with you, huh? You too scared to go alone?” taunted Ronnie, getting too close to Madge. She punched his arm and walked away, slightly satisfied when she saw him rubbing his arm.

Emily met her for dinner the next day.

“It definitely wasn’t Ronnie,” said Madge, as they sat down.

“Well, what else do you think it was?”

“I don’t know. I looked it up and the family those graves belong to is called Whitcher, but none of those graves belong to an eight-year-old girl. And I can’t find anything else.”

Emily chewed her pizza thoughtfully.

Madge spoke up again. “Look, it’s not the best source of information, but Ronnie said maybe a girl was molested and killed out there, and they buried her to hide the evidence.”

“You think there’s someone else actually buried out there?”

“Maybe. It doesn’t have to be from when this still belonged to the military. It could be someone more recent, and no one’s ever around out there, so it wouldn’t be too hard not to get caught. Either way that makes it a crime and I have to investigate it. What if someone’s really buried out there?”

“Well, get the other cops in on it.”

Madge knew she didn’t have enough evidence to even mention it to Sam, and she was more interested in getting to the bottom of a possible ghost story. “They won’t believe me, not after I got after Ronnie for trying to scare us,” she said.

They finished their lunch and Emily got up to head back to class when Madge caught her arm. “Hey, go on a ride along with me next week. We’ll head out there again, look around.”

“Sure. When do you work next?”

“Thursday.”

“Cool, I’ll meet you at the station, then.”

Up until Madge grabbed the shuttle to work, she tried to find information about any missing girls in the area, but nothing came up. She finally printed out some pages that she knew were going to be irrelevant and ran out the door. To her surprise, Emily was driving the shuttle.

“Someone called in sick, so I’m driving till 7:30. I’ll come by then, though?”

Madge got to work and filled out the paperwork for a ride-along, then grabbed her car and drove around the housing for awhile. The night was quiet for a Thursday, and she was able to drive back to the station to pick up Emily.

“Here’s some stuff I printed out earlier, but I don’t think it’ll help,” she said, tossing the print-outs in Emily’s lap.

Emily went through them quickly on the way to the road blocks and shook her head. “There’s nothing here.”

When they got to the kennels, Madge shut off the car and the headlights. They sat staring at one another for a minute, and then Madge took a deep breath and got out of the car. Emily followed her.

The night was foggy, and Madge felt safe enough pulling out her flashlight. “Stay close to me,” she said. Emily hugged herself and followed Madge to the kennels.

They spent a few minutes looking around, but Madge never found anything suspicious. She was about to tell Emily she was going to call it quits when Emily gasped and pointed to the shed. Madge shone her flashlight in that direction and saw nothing, but Emily grabbed her hand and pulled it away, and Madge saw the little girl coming towards them.

Once again, she was looking right through them towards the kennels, but this time there was no howling. The fog rolled across the field, and Madge’s blood froze as she watched the little girl pick her way to them. She was within twenty feet when Emily’s hand seized Madge’s and tugged her away.

Madge nearly dropped the flashlight as they ran to the car, and was adjusting her grip on it when Emily tripped just ahead of her. Madge stopped to help her up and turned around, but the girl was gone, or at least had gone far enough towards the kennels that she couldn’t be seen. Panting, Madge pulled Emily up and turned on the flashlight to make sure she was okay, and Emily gasped again.

At her feet was a greying bone.

This time, Madge grabbed Emily and pulled her to the car, where she started it and kicked up clouds of dirt taking off.

They drove around for an hour or two to calm down and decided that they would report it to Sam. When they got back to the station, Sam listened to them quietly, then radioed for a back up team to go out there, where Madge and Emily led them to the bone. It was bagged up and taken as evidence.

A few days later, Madge joined a team of MPs, Ronnie, Sam, and a few other cops as they went over the ground near the kennels. A dog had been brought in, but he found nothing until they got to the place where Madge and Emily had been standing the other night when they last saw the little girl. It was there that he started whining and growling at nothing, and tugging on his leash.

“What’s wrong with him?” Sam asked the handler, but the handler just jerked the dog away.

“Get away from the area, folks,” he said. “Hey, Parkins, you want to get an air quality tester over here?”

A couple of hours later, more MPs, in masks this time, were going over the area. Carbon monoxide, in concentrated amounts, had been detected near the kennels. Sam wanted to go back to the station, but since Madge wasn’t actually on duty, she elected to stay.

She was there when one of the MPs fell through the dirt, and his teammate barely caught him before he dropped fifty feet into a well behind the kennels, and she watched as they uncovered the rest of it, and blasted the carbon monoxide out of it.

By the time the city historians got there, it had been worked out that the well had belonged to the Whitchers, and vandals looking for metal had disturbed a lot of the surrounding soil, allowing the carbon monoxide to reach the surface. The gas, along with the story Ronnie had planted in Madge and Emily’s heads, and a nearby family of coyotes, had been the source of the bone, the howling, and the apparition. The little girl was never seen again.

pencil

In her day job, Erica fixes software and databases, but at night she is a dancer, writer, and photographer. Email: eruedas[at]gmail.com

The Red Blanket

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Tamara Eaton


Warm Furry Blanket
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson

The Pueblo—1682

In the time of the great disease she watches as one after another the people of her pueblo sicken and die of the fever from the pale-skinned ones. Her husband falls ill. The pueblo shaman performs the healing ritual, but when the chants and prayers are complete, she stares at her beloved’s lifeless body. She wrenches away from the bed pallet. On the other side of the room the baby cries. With a last look at her husband, the young mother clasps the infant in her arms, and runs across the village.

She enters the church at a rush. “Padré, help us! Tell me how to save my daughter. You know this sickness. You are well. Tell me what to do,” she pleads, her tongue tripping over the foreign words.

“You must remove the child from the village,” he instructs her.

She acquiesces. “Gracías, Padré.” Turning, she walks back down the center of the small church.

“Wait,” he says. “Let me pray with you.”

She stops and kneels facing the altar. His voice drones an echo in the dim chapel. The aroma of burning candles normally consoles the Indian woman. Nevertheless, at this moment, the fragrance oppresses her and a slight nauseated sensation reels her stomach. Breathing deeply, she regains her equilibrium. The woman parrots memorized lines, finding no comfort in the foreign language. The baby squirms, uttering a short whine.

“Shh.” The mother strokes the young infant’s cheek. The prayer ends. The woman nods to the elder Franciscan priest, rises from her knees and retraces her steps.

Vaya con Dios, my child,” he calls to her retreating back.

Walking through the village, she hears the moans of sick friends and family hanging on the crisp air. Saving her daughter’s life is her only concern. The mother ignores the misery of the others and returns to her plain adobe room.

Her preparations are simple, and she tells no one her plans. To protect the small one from the bitter cold she bundles her in the red blanket, a gift from her grandmother. Trembling hands place corn into a pack for the journey along with a skin of water. A small leather bag contains corn pollen. She concentrates on the effortless tasks, shunting her own fear to the back of her mind. The mother lifts the baby into her arms and exits the warmth of the shelter into the high desert winter.

She wanders for hours before coming to a path leading up the mesa. The trail is long and treacherous. Many times she stumbles. The precious weight in her arms does not cry. Shivers no longer rack her or the baby. At long last she reaches the end of the trail. She sets her valuable burden down on a rock outcropping.

Sprinkling the white corn pollen in the wind, the woman prays, “Please Great One! Hear my prayer! We can go no further. Protect us here from all sickness and death.” She bows her head and snowflakes alight on tangled black hair. Tears run down her cheeks.

It is her grandmother’s voice she hears on the wind. “Keep the baby wrapped in the red blanket, and she will remain safe.”

A great sigh escapes her and she brushes the wetness from her face. Confident in the protection of her ancestor, the woman returns to her infant. Holding the baby to her breast, she feeds the child. She reverently touches the blanket, stroking it and cherishes the warmth of the precious little one inside. Wind whips violently around mother and child. She ducks her face away from the icy currents lifting her hand to protect her eyes. In the brief unguarded moment, a gust rips the red blanket away from her daughter. It flies away, swirling in the breeze.

Recalling the promise of her grandmother, she rushes after it, the infant in her arms. She must not lose the red blanket. Placing the babe on the rock once more, she runs over the mesa chasing the treasured fabric. It dances, calling her to play, teasing her mercilessly. The wool cloth flies up and skirts the rocks before being lifted again on another blast of air. A cry from the baby jerks the mother’s gaze back to her daughter. The baby appears small in the distance. The woman is surprised how far she’s run in such a short time, but she’s nearly to the edge of the mesa. Lying on the rock, the child will freeze without the warmth of the blanket and her mother.

“Be strong little one. I’ll be back in a moment,” she calls. Again, the woman turns to watch the blanket. She scrambles over the sandstone rocks and sees the cloth caught on the branch of a mesquite tree at the cliff rim. This will be the last chance to reach it. Balancing precariously at the edge of the slippery rocks, she strains toward the bright wool. Her hands grasp a handful of air. Another sharp gust rips at the white elk hide she wears and the shifting weight causes her foot to slip. Grabbing a tip of the red wool unbalances the woman and she topples to the sandstone shelf above the canyon. Her neck snaps on impact and her wail echoes on the wind.

The child lying on the rock whimpers, falls asleep, and wakes no more.

On his herb-gathering walk after the weather clears, the priest finds the child lying on the mesa in death’s sleep. He says a prayer for the little one and builds a small cairn of rocks over her. A short while later, he spots the woman’s broken body whose hand clutches a red blanket. He shakes his head and expels a soft moan. His advice to her had not saved her or the baby. He prays over the woman and spends an hour gathering rocks to gently place over her body. Before setting the final stone atop the makeshift tomb, he uses it to scratch a name into the cliff.

In passing years sagebrush and scrub oak grow around the lone grave hidden below the mesa rim. The marker: a cairn of red stones. Visitors to the concealed burial place are an occasional deer or elk wandering down the slightly worn animal path along the edge of the mesa. The harsh desert climate reclaims the land.

 

Nuevo Mexico—1785

The vaquero sits tall in the silver-trimmed saddle and rides his horse up the steep path cresting the last rise to level out onto the mesa. Far from being lonely, he takes pleasure in his solitary travels over the ranchero’s vast terrain. Today he’s looking for stray cattle possibly left behind in the summer pastures after the fall round-up. Gathering gray white clouds foreshadow an impending storm. He gathers his jacket closer to ward off the dropping temperature, and pulls his sombrero down so it won’t fly off in the rising wind. Hoarfrost covers the brush, creating a bleak, peculiar landscape. Creeping over the mesa, the fog flows through the crags and crevasses of the canyon below. Within a few moments he can see only a few feet in front of his mount. The familiar site becomes a strange foreign land surrounding him. The horse spooks, bucking him in his saddle.

“Whoa! Easy El Diablo. What’s wrong?” He pats the horse’s neck to calm the animal.

Hearing a noise, he turns in his saddle toward it. He reaches his gloved hands for la riata, taking it off the saddle’s horn to prepare a lasso before dismounting. Usually he’d remain on the horse, but with limited visibility, he prefers to have his feet on the ground. His leather boots scuff the loose sand on the mesa. He leads El Diablo by the reins, peering into the freezing fog surrounding him. The sound reaches him once more. He is convinced the whimper is a calf so he continues toward it, rope in hand.

Through the mist an Indian woman materializes. He drops El Diablo’s reins and darts back to hunt for a hiding place. A sandstone indentation provides cover. There hasn’t been any Indian fighting in the area, but he warily watches the woman. Though he thinks she must hear both his footsteps and those of the horse on the sandstone, he sees no indication that she sees him yet. He is ready to run if she shows any signs of hostility. He lets out a breath he is surprised to find locked in his chest.

She strides back and forth, not more than twenty feet in front of him. Her gaze searches, without seeing him. He stands. The woman’s focus lands on something beyond him. She runs toward him. He sidesteps to avoid her, but she brushes past him and a flash of colder air enshrouds him. He gasps drawing his knife, spins around, he makes the sign of the cross and watches her whirl to stand opposite him. Her eyes widen, eyebrows arched.

Mí niña? Have you seen my baby?” Her voice is desperate.

“No.”

“Please find her. She will freeze without the blanket.” The woman raises a red blanket, supplicating the stranger for help.

He backs away crossing himself once more. “Bruja? Please don’t hurt me.”

“Help me.” She pleads. “I must find my baby.”

The vaquero shakes his head. “No. There is no baby here.” His voice quivers and he trembles. “Madre de Díos.”

“Ask her to help me find my baby. She is a mother. She understands.”

Is she asking him to pray for her? He shakes his head again.

“Please. Ask the Virgen de Guadalupe to pray for me. She will hear your prayers.”

He kneels in the dusting of snow covering the mesa now. He closes his eyes and folds his hands in prayer. “Madre de Dios, protect me from this spirit.”

“No!”

He repeats the prayer and lifts one eyelid. Is the specter crying now? Yes. Her tears slip down her pale red-brown cheeks. He hangs his head; sadness replaces the fear his heart. “I cannot help you, Spirit.”

“You must.”

Her simple request is hopeless. How can he make her understand? “Señora, it is not possible. You do not live in my world.”

The fog lifts expanding the visibility. He gazes around seeing the mesa once more. “Where are you from?”

“The pueblo.”

“Why did you leave your village?”

“The sickness. To save my baby.” She shrugs her shoulders.

“Where is she?”

“I left her on the mesa so I could catch the red blanket.” She raises the wool cloth in her hand. A sigh of exasperation escapes the woman’s throat.

“Where did you find the blanket?”

She points to the edge of the mesa. The man follows the direction of her gesture and glances over the cliff. There is a cairn of stones. He nods in understanding. Circling back toward the spirit he finds no one.

Emotions conflict in his mind. He understands the spirit is in pain and wanders the mesa looking for her lost child. As much as he enjoys the solitude of the setting, he cannot imagine eternally drifting over the mesa. How can he help her rest peacefully in her grave? The solution is obvious—if he buries her body and hides her grave, the spirit cannot roam perpetually restless. This he can do. In the frigid wind and snow flurries, he clambers down the side of the cliff using the animal trail. Upon reaching the cairn, he dismantles it with trembling hands. Clean stark white bones, the result of a century of heat and dehydration, are unveiled. With a shovel-shaped stone he digs a small hole in the sand and places the dry bones inside. He covers the grave with sand. Perhaps the spirit can now sleep, but he doubts he will sleep this night. The vast uninhabited mesa loses its allure for the young vaquero. He climbs the path to find El Diablo waiting. Lost cattle will wait. The young man mounts his horse and heads down the trail.

 

Flat Top Mesa—1888

She paces the floor of the cabin. Ten feet one way, turn, ten steps the other direction. Four walls built for comfort and shelter trap her inside. Her life is framed in waiting moments. It will be at least two hours before he returns. If she stays here, her imagination will take over. Her husband often pokes fun at what he terms her “tetched thoughts”. Unable to bear the silent aloneness of howling winds any longer, Maggie wraps her shawl tight around her auburn hair and rounded belly, opens the door to escape the cabin’s clutches. Animals need tending: an excuse and a necessity force her outside. The door wrenches out of her grasp. Pulling her full weight on the doorknob she latches it closed.

Head down, she presses through blowing snow flurries of the dim afternoon toward the barn. Frigid temperatures threaten blizzard conditions on the top of the mesa. She’s lived here a mere two years, but experience makes her aware of nature’s deadly dangers.

I hope Arthur makes it back before it hits, she thinks. If not, I could be stuck alone here for days. Thrusting the thought from her head, she plods on to the barn; watering eyes blur her vision. Each step exerts energy from her already exhausted body. Her extra load weighs her down in this eighth month. The short trip takes her an extra ten minutes this late afternoon fighting the gale. At last she arrives finding the barn door open. Maggie gaze searches the murky shadows to find no cow or calf inside. She must find them. They depend on the milk for the winter. Bracing herself for a moment on the doorframe she turns to renew her struggle against the winter.

Slow measured steps. To fall now would be a deadly misstep. She peers through half-closed eyes to make her way toward the pasture. Her best guess is the animals went to find water at the well. Buffeted by the wind she continues the search. Clouds darken the afternoon further to early twilight and the wind pushes her long skirt against her legs. Ignoring the cold, she continues. The first pain doubled her over with its force. She grips her belly and a wetness slides down her legs. Maggie slumps to her knees. Snow falls now in heavy freezing wet sheets blinding her to everything except the red sandstone disappearing beneath the snow.

“Uhhhh,” she gasps. “Not now, baby. I need to find the cow.” Maggie lifts her heaving body. One step before another contraction rips through her abdomen. She pants puffs of frozen air. Knifing pain brings her back to her knees. Teeth chattering and legs weak she lifts one leaden leg and then the other to stand up.

“Oh God please!” the wind whisks her scream away.

Scarlet drips onto the snow. She watches in disbelief. “No!

Strength she didn’t realize she possessed allows her to leverage her body against a frost-covered rock. Trance-like, she places one foot deliberately in front of the other.

A low fog now obscures the visibility. Blowing snow masks the landscape into an unfamiliar mysterious ice-shrouded world. She hears a cry. It sounds like an infant bawling. Confused, Maggie berates herself for what must be a ploy of her active imagination. The sound comes again on the wind, more definite this time. A babe’s whimper. She was sure it was more than the wind. It must be the calf bleating. Gritting her teeth to block the pain she heads the direction of the sound. She creeps forward toward the mewling noise.

Maggie catches herself in a stumble: a girl-child of no more than two months old lies naked brown against the snow. The baby whimpers now, hiccoughing, gasping for air. Impossible. The agony must be playing tricks with her mind. Shutting her eyes, she takes a deep breath expecting the vision to disappear. Delusions occur in dire situations. Barely raising her eyelids, she squints, disbelieving her own senses.

“Save me and you save your own babe,” the child says in a woman’s voice. “Leave me, and your infant is lost.”

Maggie staggers back from the naked girl, but maternal instinct urges her forward. She reaches a tentative hand out to touch the child. The baby’s skin is frigid underneath the woman’s fingers. At the edge of her vision the small whiteness her world has become at the moment, she sees a patch of red blow toward them. Reaching for it, she recognizes the scrap as the wool of a small blanket. She wraps the babe within it and cuddles her close to her own tender body, sharing her heat. The animals will have to fend for themselves. She turns, finding her bearings, retracing her steps. Snow obliterates the trail she’s left before she can follow it. She turns, but cannot see the house or the barn. Dim pale clouds surround her in the darkness now complete.

An elk emerges white and ghostlike out of the fog, staring intently at the woman with the child. It walks toward her and then away. Maggie’s never seen one so tame. She watches it watch her and the baby. They stare at one another for long moments. The elk seems to beckon her. On this evening filled with strangeness, she doesn’t question this vision and walks toward the animal. In the presence of the elk, a strange lethargy quiets Maggie’s anguished body. Trusting the magic of the moment, she chooses to follow. The animal leads her watching, leading, turning, watching, and leading once more. With the assistance of the elk, the return journey is shorter.

The cabin comes into view through the blizzard. She rushes toward it, opening the door to enter. Before she closes the door, she turns to look for her animal guide, but sees nothing except blowing whiteness and fog.

Laying the baby on the bed, she stokes the fire and begins to heat some water. Maggie lights a lantern. Pain returns to her distended belly, tightening snake-like around her middle. Catching her breath, she leans against the rough-hewn table. The wetness she felt out on the mesa returns. Her time has come; she has no doubts now. There is nothing to be done but to prepare to have this baby. She lurches to the bed and another pain seizes her. Closing her eyes, she catches her breath and lies on the straw mattress.

A soothing warm hand strokes her cheek, “Shhhh. My sister, shhhh.” Maggie’s eyes flutter open. An Indian woman stands next to her wiping her forehead with a cloth.

“Who are you?” Maggie asks. Her eyes are unfocused. She shakes her head, trying to clear the wooziness.

“White Elk Woman.”

“I don’t know you.” She pulls away from the woman and a contraction takes hold of her belly.

“It’s all right, I’ve come to help.” White Elk Woman’s soft voice gentles the skittish woman.

“But who? What?” The baby. “Where is the babe?”

The labor pains rack her body. White Elk Woman eases Maggie into a sitting position, stuffing pillows behind her.

“The child comes.”

During the next protracted minutes, time speeds by. Maggie follows the terse directions of the black-haired woman, confident that someone capable is assisting her.

“I need to turn the baby. It will hurt. I will try to do it fast.”

Unbearable pain is tolerated. The child Maggie carries slips into the stranger’s hands. White Elk Woman bathes the child, wraps it in a red blanket, and places it in Maggie’s arms.

“Keep her safe,” the Indian woman says. “Close your eyes. Your work is done for now, my sister.”

Maggie looks at her baby. The girl-child sleeps, worn out by her recent ordeal. The mother, too, is exhausted and her eyelids droop before opening wide, “But wait, where is the baby from the mesa?”

White Elk Woman smiles. “The baby from the mesa is safe now.”

Maggie’s heavy eyelids close.

“Thank you Maggie” is the whisper she hears before fatigue overtakes her and she drifts into a dreamless sleep.

The new mother wakes to a clear, calm morning, the storm having blown itself out overnight. Her babe snuggles close in her arms. She gazes in wonder at her miracle.

Arthur bursts through the doorway. “Maggie, I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it home last night. The blizzard came up so fast.” He stops short at seeing the bundle in his wife’s bed. He looks from the baby to his wife. “Oh Maggie. How? What?”

“It’s all right, Arthur. White Elk Woman helped us.”

“Who? What?”

Maggie explains the arrival of the Indian woman of the night before.

“But where is she?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I fell asleep.”

“Honey, it must have been horrible for you. I’m sorry you had to go through this all alone.”

“But I wasn’t alone,” she counters.

He shakes his head. Arthur loves his wife, but he knows she is liable to imagine stories. His gaze explores the small cabin. There is no evidence of anyone’s presence other than his wife. “There is no one else here.”

“She was. Maybe she took the baby and went home.”

“The baby is here.” He holds his wife close. He can’t imagine the strength of this woman, to have endured the pain and birth of a child all by herself.

“No, the other child,” Maggie says.

“Other? Sweetheart, rest. I’m here now.” He strokes her tangled auburn hair.

Arthur backs away as he sees she sleeps.

He goes to tend the animals. Finding the barn door open he searches the pasture for the cow. A mooing comes from the edge of the mesa. Walking over, he sees an animal path he’s not noticed before. He cautiously makes his way down the cliffside. He finds his cow with her calf lying on a ledge. He ties a rope around her neck and leads her and the calf up the path. On an outcropping he reads and mentally translates the faint Spanish scratches in the sandstone: White Elk Woman.
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Tamara Eaton is a former high school English teacher who is taking time off to rediscover her muse. She is a “snowbird” who splits her time between Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota where she is helping to renovate a ninety-year-old brick high school. Email: tamarae9[at]hotmail.com

Inside Voice

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Lana Thiel


Free Scared Child Alone in the Dark Creative Commons
Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

She wasn’t opposed to the bitter cold; at times she welcomed it. The icicles clinking outside of her window summoned noise to drown out the voices. The wind ricocheted against the glass begging her to allow it inside. Violet remained focused on her work, ignoring the temperamental outbursts. She was never satisfied with her accomplishments; a small mistake could cost her. Everything. She sewed quietly, weaving the needle in and out, as she rocked in the creaky wooden chair. It had been her grandma’s. Grandma Ninny, with the slanted eyebrows and crooked mouth, who said children were to be seen and not heard. Ninny, who wore pleated wool skirts that smelled like mothballs and worn shoes. Ninny, who scrubbed Violet’s hands with bleach and antiseptic when she wrote with her left.

Violet’s hand shook as she stitched the pieces together, back and forth, one red button, then another. Her right hand steadied the material. But something wasn’t right. Something was always missing. Violet held her project up to the light. She could feel it pulsing in her fingers as she lost her grip and it fell to the cold floor.

The rushing wind screeched against the house. Violet peered through the curtains hoping to see the wind as it raced by. But the street was quiet, blanketed with the dark shroud of night, and everything was still for the moment. A few burnt orange leaves clung to the very tops of the trees, arrested in fall, as winter advanced. She scrunched her face into a tight fist as she complained of the noise outside. She spoke in a low, unpleasant tone. “Should be seen, not heard… seen, not heard.”

Violet continued gluing gray yarn to her project, making sure it was short and even. If only she had musky perfume, she thought, to make it come alive. To make her come alive. There were times she could see through the yarn for what it was, a mess of split ends from constant hair rollers that left puzzling shadows on the wall, the beady red eyes that warned her, “Practice makes perfect.”

Violet repeated the phrase as she sewed the object together. She spanned the room to marvel at her creations. This one would make the collection complete. The blinds rattled, as if someone had opened a window inside.

“You ruin everything you touch,” a low voice sprouted from Violet’s stomach.

Violet began to cry softly as a hand reached up and slapped her cheek, sending her backward. She slid to the floor and crept around the room, crawling under the table. One by one the feet appeared beneath the chair.

“Come out, come out,” the low voice said, snickering.

Violet clutched her project in her hands as the feet glided right, then left, and the small round objects appeared on the tablecloth looking like twisted hair. Rollers. A scream resonated in the old house.

“Use your inside voice!” the deep voice scolded.

The shape disappeared from the tablecloth. The feet went missing. Violet climbed out from her hiding place. She kissed the half-finished doll, brushed her hands through its gray hair, which caused some of it to fall to the floor.

“Look what you did,” the voice snarled again.

The glue stuck to her left hand, drying to her fingers. Bits of hair decorated them.

Thump. Thump. Thump. The doll moved in her hands. It was almost time for it to join the others. Only a little while until she’d be here. Violet clutched the gold cross around her neck, pressed her fingers into the points. A door leading to the attic rattled and she knew what she had to do. It was like he said, “Upon this night you shall be healed.” Everything seemed clearer now.

She lifted the doll to her face and swung it between her fingers as the wind rushed outside, laughing with unwarranted cruelty. She lost her hold on the doll and it spun to the floor and slid toward the closet. She had spent a great deal of her childhood in there, playing hide-and-seek, hanging by scratchy rope which rubbed against her soft skin. She remembered the sound of the wire hangers clanking together, a sound that induced pain in her stomach.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” the low voice growled.

“Too tight, too tight,” she whined.

Violet picked up the doll and brushed its hair. She wondered how the closet felt: too warm, too tight, too cramped. She picked up another doll from her collection, one she had spent hours on. It had black button eyes and a rosary draped over its head. She fondled the beaded rosary and held it against her body.

“Look what you did,” the voice said.

Violet knew she was ruining everything but she couldn’t stop. The house rattled from inside. Violet gathered all of her dolls, dolls she’d made in the past few days to prepare for this night, and walked to the window. The trees were bent in half, right outside the glass. She thought about stepping away before the wind shattered it, but she held out her hand instead, yearning to touch the wind, to feel it slip between her fingers. Violet dropped the dolls and watched as the glass shattered and embedded itself into the skin on her left hand.

“I caught you—red handed!” the old woman said, and grabbed her tightly by the wrist. She dragged her to the kitchen table. She saw them, adorned with red fingernail polish.

“It’s the devil’s influence before my very eyes,” Ninny said. She scraped each nail until the beds were bloody and scarred.

“That’ll teach you. That’ll teach you good,” Violet bellowed. She gathered all of her dolls again to rush to the attic where they would be safe. She needed to escape from the wind.

“Not so fast, young lady,” the low voice said.

“Gotta get out… gotta get out,” Violet repeated and turned the old key in the door to the dusty attic.

For a moment the house was still again. A calming smell drifted through Violet’s nose as she climbed the stairs. She placed the dolls by the others, covering the slowly expanding shadow on the interior wall of the attic, the storage space that now bowed out. The dolls sat, making a silhouette on the wall that looked like the outline of a frail body, a dark set of eyes, an angry grin.

Violet turned away from the shadow, afraid that if she looked any longer, it might emerge and become real. She faced the stairs and thought about the way Ninny’s legs had lifted, how her body had danced down the stairs like a clumsy bird in flight. Foot, shoulder, knee, head. When she danced Violet had sung a sweet melody in her head, “Upon this night… upon this night… upon this night.” She remembered how her body had opened up, how all of the meanness had spilled out of her and stained the stairs. Each movement had been so effortless, so elegant.

Violet heard the wind push its way through the house until it knocked on the attic door. She scrunched her eyes, focusing on the doorknob, turning right, left. She’s arrived, she thought, she’s finally come for me. She scooted her body closer to the crowd of dolls lined up against the wall next to the looming shadow. The shadow that would not go away, that refused to be buried, even in the dark. The intense smell breezed past her, filling her body with calm and nausea.

That’s when Violet heard a light rap-tap-tap on the attic window. Rap-tap-tap! She gathered her dolls in her arms and leaned against the wood, against the shadow. Warmth spread over her back as she petted the dolls’ hair and stared at their button eyes. Then she noticed the blood trickling down her left hand, smearing the faces of the dolls. She smiled as she rapped lightly on the wall behind her. And the wind came to a sudden halt.

pencil

Lana Thiel is from Appleton, Wisconsin where she works as a high school English teacher. She enjoys writing poetry and fiction in her spare time and has self-published one novel. Email: fionashakespeare[at]aol.com