The Snake

Amelia Diamond
Dead of Winter ~ Third Place


Rubik Snake 2

Photo Credit: Kim Keegan/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

She’d found the snake in the mostly-finished attic that had briefly been her older brother’s room. She always thought of it as his lair, even now that he’d been gone a whole year. It just felt like his place, had felt like it the moment their parents agreed he could have it for his bedroom. The room was narrow, with walls that rose up three feet before sloping in toward the low ceiling. At one end each knee wall had a small square door held closed with a piece of wood on a nail. Behind those doors were unfinished storage areas. It was in those that Sarah found the bulging cardboard boxes full of old toys that she and her brother had outgrown.

She’d been spending a lot of time up there lately. At first, she’d avoided even looking at the door that opened onto the staircase. But as the leaves began their slow burning and the northern wind sucked like a vampire at the tomatoes in the back yard she found herself sitting in her brother’s comfy burgundy reading chair next to the disproportionately large round window. Sometimes she would read. She had for many years loved Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and Stephen King, but everything that had happened with her brother had soured her taste for horror. So she would sit with a YA novel or one of the dozens of manga her friend Clarisse was always lending her. Other times she would watch leaves or rain or snow fall. She’d imagine the low clouds were an ocean she could swim in and daydream herself as a whale with a song that could say all the things words couldn’t. She’d dive so deep that no therapist or teacher or friend could reach to interrupt her grieving with their furrowed brows and uninvited hands on her shoulders.

It had been one of those days, a sea day, that it had occurred to Sarah to wonder what was behind those little doors now. She’d been trained so well by her volatile older brother to never be curious about his things that she’d unconsciously restricted herself to those parts of his room, of the room, that were out in the open.

In the window she’d noticed the reflection of a little door standing open, or she’d thought she had, for when she went to the door it was closed. But she’d become curious enough to open it and pull the delicate hanging chain that turned on the light inside. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, certainly nothing as innocuous as a bunch of dusty cardboard boxes. The nearest bulged like a spider’s egg sac, so she pulled it out, half expecting Kyle’s scary-calm voice to ask her what she was doing. She shuddered, remembering what he’d kept in these storage spaces when it was still his room.

The box held a nest of shiny bright shapes. She stared in wonder, at first unable to place these objects in any frame of reference. Was it some kind of treasure? Suddenly the objects clicked into context and she recognized the toys. There were the kind of action figures whose legs are held on by hidden black rubber bands, now brittle and stiff. There were Sarah’s old dolls staring up at her with empty eyes that had sometimes featured in her childhood nightmares. There were little green plastic soldiers and an amazing toy spaceship that Kyle had once caught Sarah playing with when she thought he wasn’t home. She could still vividly remember the surprise of being suddenly flung backward by her hair, the sharp blinding pain each time he kicked her, and his bored expression. He won’t stop me playing with it now, she thought. But it no longer interested her, so she tossed it into the shadows at the back of the storage space.

She found her favorite My Little Pony from when she’d been little. The purple mane and tail were tangled and the moon-and-stars cutie mark was rubbed completely away. Sarah had slept with this pony, who she’d named Marabel, every night for years. She felt a pang of guilt for forgetting Marabel, so she placed her on the window sill, further claiming the little space.

Digging deeper through the box, she found mostly small plastic things until she reached the very bottom. Her questing fingers closed around a strange shape. She took it, shaking bright-colored tiny dinosaurs and bits of ribbon from its slick surface.

It was a long bunch of connected plastic triangular prisms that could be twisted to make different shapes. The triangles alternated in color between dull purple and aquamarine. There was a place at one end where the label had worn off, but she looked it up on the internet and found out it was called a Rubik’s Snake.

It was hard to say what she found so fascinating about the plastic puzzle. Maybe it was the clicking sound the pieces made with each turn. Or how she could lose herself in it, because it wasn’t meant to be completed or beaten. It was just meant to be played with. So she played in the chair by the window, watching the snow drifting from the low grey sky, mind mirroring the still grey clouds and hands busy. Click, click, click.

Visits with social workers, days at school, tense silent dinners, all blurred together. Her grades were still good, especially in math, but no one could fail to notice Sarah’s increasingly detached, vacant manner. School ended for winter break. Then there were days and days when no one expected anything from her. So she started sleeping upstairs. Her first night sleeping there she woke in the dark when a stair creaked. She froze, wide awake, holding back a scream. It was Kyle. Even death couldn’t stop him from hurting her. Screaming would only make it worse. What was she thinking hanging around in his room and sleeping in his bed?

But no, of course it wasn’t Kyle, just her parents, coming upstairs to check on her. She heard her father whisper something to her mother on the stairs, then their careful quiet treading down to their room. She released the breath she’d been holding and closed her eyes but couldn’t stop her thoughts enough to sleep. She brought Marabel and the snake to bed with her. Lying in the dark with Marabel tucked against her neck and the click, click, click, of the snake drowning out her worries, she fell sound asleep.

New Year’s Day dawned stark white like the whole world was a hospital room. Eighteen inches of snow had fallen overnight and the day was clear and sunny. Sarah sat in her chair by the window, hood pulled down to shield her eyes from the glare. A cup of tea sat steaming on the windowsill, next to Marabel and her purple phone. Click, click, click. Sarah had researched Rubik’s Snakes on the internet and found step-by-step instructions for making dozens of shapes. A Wikipedia article claimed that a Rubik’s Snake could be folded into around three-trillion unique combinations. The endless possibility thrilled her. She could do something no one had ever done every single day and no one would even know. It felt right to her to spend her days manufacturing secrets in this room.

She spent the first part of the day learning and practicing the more interesting shapes, glancing at her phone occasionally to check the next step. She made a snowman, ostrich, pinwheel, cross, and frog. After lunch she just played. The calluses on her thumbs and index fingers made soft rasping sounds that punctuated the click, click, click. The spaceship sat next to Marabel and her phone on the windowsill. It didn’t occur to her to wonder how it got there.

That night she dreamt she slept curled around her brother’s warm body, just like she had as a toddler, before everything went wrong. In the morning she stumbled out of bed and stepped on something painful. It was the top half of an action figure, one of the ones from the cardboard box. Shaken from her morning stupor, she saw that all the action figures were on the floor, laid out in a circle around the bed, in an alternating pattern of torso, legs, torso, legs, torso, legs. The snake lay on the pillow in the straight configuration she always started with. Some part of Sarah wanted so much to be afraid, but there was a weight inside her like a cold wave that caught that part and pushed it down to the silent depths. She picked up the Snake, needing the click, click, click to hold onto.

On January 7th Richard Reece, Sarah’s father, decided he should go upstairs and check on Sarah. He and Mindy, Sarah’s mom, had only been upstairs three times since Kyle’s death. The first time he preferred not to remember. The police detective and forensic psychologist had been there. But now it wasn’t Kyle’s room, it was Sarah’s. And Sarah had barely left it all week.

Richard was not the sort of man who had a hard time admitting when he was afraid. He knew very well how much it scared him to go up there, even to see the door hanging open in the hall, revealing the stairs that lurked behind it. He knew his fear was irrational, but he also knew it was legitimate. For the better part of a year there really had been a monster living at the top of the stairs.

Sarah had always been a quiet child who mostly kept to herself, easily ignored, especially as Kyle had gotten worse. But now she had a familiar vacant look that scared Richard even more than those attic stairs. So he opened the door, noting the trembling of his hand with uneasy amusement, and climbed the hollow steps. Sarah sat in Kyle’s old reading chair, profiled in the big round window, holding Kyle’s old Rubik’s Snake and folding it at an impressive and constant rate. Click, click, click. Her hands seemed to move of their own accord while she turned to look at her father. He shuddered and immediately hoped she hadn’t noticed, for when she looked at him with those vacant eyes for a moment she looked to him like a huge beetle sitting in the chair, her busy hands like an insect’s forelimbs. Click, click, click. “Hi Sarahbel,” he said in a weak attempt at comfortable familiarity. “Whatcha up to?”

Sarah blinked at him a few times and shook her head. Then her eyes focused on Richard for the first time in several days. “Hi, Dad,” she replied in a voice that was creaky with disuse. Her focus moved past her father to a place on the wall just behind him and went suddenly wide, so he turned with a start, body overreacting with the expectation of danger. It was Kyle, he was sure of it, his son wasn’t dead, at least not anymore, and there was no escape. His vision pulsed with the force of his heartbeat, but he saw what had frightened Sarah—it was just a shadow on the wall. Windblown branches and clouds had made a shadow that looked remarkably like a person, remarkably like Kyle. But it was just a shadow. Richard felt a sickening surge of guilt. Am I really this afraid of my dead son? he wondered. A touch on his arm re-ignited his panic, but it was only Sarah. She pressed close to him and he put his grateful arms around her. Can she really be fourteen? The top of her head barely reached to Richard’s chest. It was one more way she took after her mother.

Sarah inhaled her father’s scent, dusty and resinous with a trace of diesel fuel. It was a little bit the smell of the garage where he worked and a lot just an essential quality of his. It comforted her then as it had long ago when her father had whispered little stories and held her to help her fall asleep on nights when she was scared. It was for Sarah the essential smell of safety, and she breathed it deeply. She looked past her father at the shadow on the wall that looked so much like a person, watched it raise its finger to its mouth as the wind outside whispered, “Shhhhhhhh.” This time the part of her that feared was free to be afraid, but something held her body and her voice and made her look all through that hug that would have comforted her so much. She looked, while the shadow person stood impassive on the wall, while the little doors into the storage spaces both swung silently open, while the piled blankets on the bed slid and shifted the way they do when sleep is hard to find.

When her father let her go she wanted to ask him to stay, but she couldn’t. His eyes searched the room in the way of someone who knows they won’t see a place again for a long time but he made no mention of the open doors or the slow-squirming bed sheets. The door closed and she heard the sound of his footsteps descending the stairs. She picked up the snake from the windowsill and twisted it absently while she watched old toys slither out of the two closets to the bed where they tangled with the sheets. She focused on the click, click, click of the snake. She was certain if she stopped, if she let the sound cease, the fear would overtake her and she’d break. The sheet-and-toy tangle took the shape and size of a teenage boy. I should run away, she thought. I should scream for help. She had always thought those things and had never done them. Her brother was dead now because someone else had screamed for help. She knew she never would.

The Kyle-shaped thing approached her, standing too close the way Kyle always had. She remembered that his eyes had been grey like a winter sky, a trivial thing but she couldn’t look at the face before her, made of toy cars and bright plastic dinosaurs and Barbie dolls. Looking would make it real. She remembered Kyle’s eyes and she listened to the click, click, click while she chuckled at how stupid she’d been to think she could ever be safe from him.

The thing slapped Sarah hard enough to knock her down. She watched the snake skitter across the floor and stop next to the burgundy chair, where it continued shifting and twisting until it settled on a shape like a frowning face. Kyle kicked her over and over, but all she could hear was click, click, click.

pencilWriter, gardener, mother, wife, noisemaker, forest creature, queer, trans, mentally ill, and an excellent liar—Amelia Diamond copes with the misfortune of being unable to stop noticing the devastating beauty all around her by writing stories and making abstract noise music. She frequently publishes her short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com

The Others

John Howe
Dead of Winter ~ Second Place


Shadowy figures

Photo Credit: Anna/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

From inside the drafty wall cavity the shadowy figure watched the two boys as they played. He enjoyed spying on the boys though he would never admit it. The others would not understand such a guilty pleasure, such a colossal waste of time, but the figure still watched as something deep inside him, something fleeting, something resembling familiarity, danced on the edges of his mind. The cold December wind whistled through the siding boards and rattled the shutters of the uninsulated Victorian house but the figure didn’t mind the cold and he continued to watch the boys at play.

“Hey Jake, check this out,” said Jordan.

Jordan and his brother Jake were playing with the amateur forensic kit they had received as a gift on Christmas morning. It was two days after Christmas and their parents had agreed to leave them alone for the entire day now that Jordan had just turned thirteen. Actually, their mother had agreed and their father had reluctantly gone with the flow.

“These are the same fingerprints we found on Dad’s desk,” said Jordan. He carefully brushed away the carbon dust and lifted the print with the special tape that came with the kit.

Jake opened the notebook and labeled a page where the new fingerprints would be recorded.

“These prints don’t look anything like ours,” said Jake. The boys had recorded elimination prints from themselves and their parents as the kit instructions had indicated. “These are weird.” Indeed, the prints were unusual; they were abnormally wavy and exaggerated, like they had been drawn by a cartoonist, and they were all over every hard surface in the old vintage house.

Jordan sprinkled more carbon dust on the shelves of a bookcase. “We’ll show these to Dad when he gets home. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”

Jake fidgeted on his heels, starting to grow weary of the game. “Let’s go outside and smoke,” he said.

“Maybe after lunch,” Jordan said. The boys did not really smoke. They enjoyed playing in the snow and holding twigs in their mouths and puffing their breath in the cold air. “C’mon, a few more prints and we’ll heat up the soup Mom left us.”

As the shadowy figure watched, his emotional state varied between unexplained nostalgia, melancholy, and concern. The boys were dusting for fingerprints and they were finding them, lots of them. The figure knew who had left the prints and he knew he had to tell the others, though he did not relish the task as the others would not be pleased. He receded deeper into the wall cavity and started to make his way to the dusty crawl space beneath the parlor where the others slept, where they waited for the darkness when they could emerge and explore. The figure moved slowly through the maze of wall spaces as jagged plaster fragments and nail points ripped at the pale casing of his form but it did not bother him. How he managed to travel in the wall cavities was a mystery to him, but they all could do it, though it was a slow process. He battled internally with the problem at hand and wished it could be ignored. The figure did not know for sure but he felt there would be no place else he or the others could go if they were to be found out. He was unsure if they could survive if he did not come forward with what he knew.

As he progressed silently and carefully, the figure thought of the boys and the fleeting notions that had gone through his mind. He again considered his circumstances with growing anxiety. He was not a ghost, he thought, as he moved slowly towards the others, he was not a spook or a ghoul but he had been called these things and more by the cruel inhabitants of the walls in which they all existed. In truth, he did not know what he was or how he came to be here with the others. The feeling he had when he watched the boys at play nagged at him but he could not place it, could not make sense of it. The figure attempted to push the thoughts from his mind but they lingered restlessly.

As the shadowy figure feared, the others were not pleased to be awakened. The leader motioned for calmness after the information was conveyed but silent panic spread below the floor boards of the old house as the others twitched and moved about anxiously. The leader silently called for the prodigy to come forward. When she did, the others became motionless and looked on in awe as she soundlessly communicated the plan of action. Even the leader seemed taken aback by her ruthlessness but he knew from past experiences that she was always right when it came to their continued existence.

The shadowy figure led the others through the archaic wall cavities and emerged into the attic space adjacent to the second floor hallway. The leader beckoned for stillness with an impatient wave of his hand. None of them were accustomed to daytime activity and dissension was in the dusty air. The leader motioned for the prodigy to come forward and gestured to the wall. Through cracks in the plaster the others could see the boys working on the doorknobs of the bedrooms with their forensic paraphernalia continuing to play their detective game. The figure once again felt the wistful pull and fought to remain vigilant to the task. Some of the others looked at him oddly and he wondered what it was they saw.

The prodigy surveyed the activity of the boys on the other side of the wall and motioned that she needed space and the others backed away. With a balloon-like hand she traced a rectangular shape on the lath boards. The shadowy figure was baffled by this but remained unmoving amongst his equally perplexed counterparts. The prodigy traced over and over until a faded image appeared. She continued to work on the details by repeatedly tracing until an exaggerated duplication of a door emerged on the interior surface of attic wall. She rested a short while and then twisted her bulbous fist into the side of the image at the spot where a doorknob should be and kept twisting until finally a brass knob appeared. She backed away and joined the others as they waited. The figure knew the door would be visible to the boys on the other side and he hoped they would tire of their game and go downstairs to partake in other activities. But he knew of the power the prodigy possessed and he knew his hopes were unfounded.

From the darkness of the attic space the others watched as the doorknob turned and the face of a boy peered in through the partially-opened door. The shadowy figure recognized the boy as Jordan, the older of the brothers, and he used every ounce of will he had to remain still. It was obvious the boy was confused about the location of the door that shouldn’t have been there. The boy opened the door wide and peered into the space with the light from the hallway behind him. Jordan’s shadow quaked slightly as he attempted to make sense of this strange room he had never seen.

‘Don’t come in,’ the figure said to himself in vain. ‘Please just go away.’

The roughened floor boards creaked as the boy took a few steps into the attic.

The shadowy figure cringed as the room darkened and the boy turned to see the now closed door fading away. Jordan ran to it and the brass knob crumbled into his hand and then the door was gone. Jordan tried to scream but only a muffled squeak wheezed from his mouth. Upon urging from the leader the others converged and silently subdued the terrified boy with globular hands. The prodigy performed tracings over the body of the struggling boy until he succumbed and ceased to resist. The figure looked on with sadness and felt a sweeping responsibility for everything that had happened and he silently wept.

The others could hear the younger boy calling for his brother from the hallway. The prodigy once again went to work on the door and the brass knob. The others waited with eager anticipation after the exhilarating hostility they inflicted on the older boy. The shadowy figure and Jordan watched in silent horror as the knob once again began to turn.

The leader motioned for the shadowy figure to remain behind as the others departed, entering the wall cavities once again. The leader looked back before entering the wall and gave the figure a knowing look, not nearly as menacing as usual. The figure could not help but wonder what would happen when the parents returned home later in the day. Would the prodigy be called upon once again? As if on cue a phone rang from somewhere in the house. A distant voice from the answering machine could be heard.

The figure also wondered about the look the leader had just given him. It was a look of expectancy, as if it was now his responsibility to care for these boys and to teach them the ways of the others, the ways he did not understand but was somehow expected to convey. It was a duty he feared and relished.

The figure approached the trembling boys who were now faded images of their former selves. Their features were raw and exaggerated as if a young child had created two heads from clay. They looked, the shadowy figure realized, like the others and clarity began to slowly seep into his mind. His fingers caressed his own face and he wondered if he too had a similar appearance. The figure also noted that he was approximately the same size as the boys, unlike the others who were much larger. He motioned to the frightened boys in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. The younger boy, Jake, opened his mouth but no sound emerged so he held out his small distressed hand in a form of a hesitant greeting. For the first time he could recall the shadowy figure clung to a small bit of hope as the thoughts that had been dancing on the edges of his mind began to grow clearer.

pencilJohn Howe is a project manager at a design/build firm in West Michigan. Although this is his first serious attempt at fiction, he enjoys writing short stories and hopes someday to pursue it more frequently. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

Heirlooms

Erin McDougall
Dead of Winter ~ First Place


Snowglobe

Photo Credit: Michael Berke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

“This is where all the unwanted stuff goes to die.”

The door of the room on the top floor of the antique shop gave a perfect, high-pitched creak on its rusty hinges as Ruth, our manager, opened it slowly.

The room was a dark, crowded mess of boxes, old dusty furniture and tables and piles full of old, rusted, broken junk. In the faint light from the small circular windows, I could see piles of stuff covered by old sheets and something hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Ruth navigated her way confidently around the heaped piles, reached up and pulled on a chain next to the lone dangling light bulb in the center of the ceiling.

“The full effect is better with the lights on,” she said as the chain made a loud clunk as the light snapped on. I jumped involuntarily and my eyes stung from the sudden flash of light.

“Obey the sign on the door; the things in this room are not for sale,” she continued “The idea is they’re kept here to eventually be repaired and then put back on display downstairs, but as you can see,” she swept her arms around the room, “that hasn’t ever happened.”

It was grimy and smelled of mildewed fabric and rusty metal. Our other co-worker, Burke, was fascinated by what appeared to be a broken puppet swaying pathetically from the ceiling. It was an old-woman puppet with a missing eye. Ruth cleared her throat obnoxiously and we snapped back to attention. She adjusted her thick glasses and fixed us with a sharp, no-nonsense glare.

Ruth’s imitation of our old boss was pitch-perfect—the way she glared at us and cleared her throat. We all broke down and started laughing.

We were like that for a good five minutes. It didn’t help when I breathed in a particularly large dust bunny and my laughter turned to violent sneezing that continued on for another five minutes.

“Jesus, Greta, you allergic to this place?” Ruth asked as she passed me a dusty handkerchief she got from who knows where. I cringed slightly as I pressed the moldy fabric to my nose and blew.

“This room is crazy! There’s a whole other store up here!” I exclaimed.

“As ‘Manager,’” Ruth said again in her ‘boss’ voice, “Only I have permission to drop things off. She made me swear not to let any of the other employees come in here.”

“She must think we’ll mess it up or something,” Burke retorted. He was examining a contingent of little robot toys whose eyes lit up and blinked. “Can you imagine actually playing with these as a kid? I love them!” He watched gleefully as the robots marched around his feet after he’d wound them up.

“It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about this place before. We wouldn’t have gotten any work done!” I pointed out as I surveyed the rest of the room. In addition to Burke’s strange robot toys and the disabled puppet hanging in the corner, there were more toys piled everywhere. Most were broken, like the twisted heap of model train tracks and the herd of headless rocking horses. I sat down on one of the rocking horses and chuckled as it creaked loudly beneath my weight.

“Enough browsing,” Ruth said sternly. She was dragging a big, peeling chest from out of the corner and motioned for me to help her. Burke heaved a few heavy boxes off an old ripped chaise lounge and a tarnished rocking chair. Ruth opened the chest and pulled out a case of room-temperature beer and an ancient bottle opener. She popped off three caps, handed them around and raised hers in a toast:

“To surviving a very dead Boxing Day rush!”

We clinked our beers together and drank deeply. The ‘Not for Sale’ room, with its graveyard of broken playthings and odd drafts of winter wind, was then christened as our club house and suddenly felt cozy. I sipped my beer slowly, and half-listened to my friends and their tipsy stories and toasts. From what I could see out the windows, it was snowing.

Ruth stood up slowly and cleared her throat again. “On my many jaunts up here to drop off surplus stock, I’ve discovered, among the junk, quite a few little treasures. Like this,” she indicated, pulling from somewhere a heavy gold watch that dangled from a long chain. She swung it in front of our curious faces like a hypnotist. “And this,” she tossed a gleaming silver cigarette lighter to Burke. He grinned with surprise at his gift and flicked open several times.

“Not everything up here is worthless. I just think the old bat doesn’t remember where anything is anymore,” Ruth continued and pointed to an old wooden dresser draped with an old white sheet. She whisked it off to reveal it was intricately carved. An impressive collection of music boxes and snow globes sat on top. They looked polished and well-cared for and completely out of place in this room.

“This is a dying business and everyone knows it. I say we take what we can from the good stuff up here, the things that aren’t ‘dead’, and call it a reward for a job well done,” she pronounced and began to pilfer through the dresser drawers. Burke’s eyes lit up and he scampered back to the robot toys. I was drawn to the beautiful, glistening snow globes.

I picked up one of them carefully, surprised at how light it was. Tiny white snowflakes glittered and twirled around a small brick building under its crystal dome. There was a small key sticking out the back. I turned it around once and I heard a faint chime of bells. I shook it and watched the little flurry swirl around while the chimes wound down.

“Go on! You like them, don’t you? They need a good home,” Ruth goaded me.

I couldn’t help wondering how much it might be worth…

The light bulb flickered suddenly, off and on. We paused in our pillaging and in that a brief moment before the light flickered back on, I thought I saw a movement from the corner with the hanging puppet. I blinked and let out a gasp.

“What’s the matter, Greta?” asked Burke.

“Nothing… I thought I saw…” I squinted through the dim light at the puppet. It was still. I shook my head and turned back to the snow globe.

At the exact moment I looked at it, the churning little snowflakes suddenly turned black. I shook it again and watched, disturbed, as black snow delicately blanketed the familiar-looking red brick building inside. Then a small sound broke through: chimes. They were soft at first and then grew louder. But I hadn’t re-wound the snow globe, it was playing on its own.

I suddenly felt it grow hot in my hand. I yelped in surprise and tried to release it but it remained planted in my hand. The heat grew as the black snow within it swirled faster and faster.

“I— I can’t let it go!” I shouted, shocked at the hot glass and metal that was stuck to me.

Ruth darted across the room and reached toward me. She touched the snow globe for a split second before reflex withdrew her hand sharply, as though she’d touched something hot. “What’s doing it?” she exclaimed, horrified.

My hand was pulsing with the pain of the heat and my heart raced. Burke thundered towards us but a sudden gust of cold wind blasted through the room and knocked us all apart. The room was a blur as we thrashed around, caught up in some unknown force. I heard the crash of furniture and glass tumbling and shattering against the floor. The force gradually subsided and we were sprawled around the room. Burke’s forehead was bleeding from flying shards of glass and the one-eyed puppet had somehow become tangled around Ruth. The heat of the snow globe vanished instantly but I still couldn’t let it go. My hand throbbed with pain as I crawled towards my friends.

“Ruth! Come on, Ruth! Wake up!” shouted Burke, gently slapping her cheeks. Her eyes flickered open and she stared at us with an expression of sheer terror on her face.

“My fault… it’s all my fault…” she whispered.

Burke and I locked eyes, relieved she was awake but confused by what she was saying.

“Don’t try to talk,” I whispered as I helped Burke hoist her to her feet. He tugged gently at the puppet’s strings but they were too tangled. We started towards the door gingerly, afraid of provoking whatever force we’d just witnessed.

Then the light in the room went out completely.

It was unnaturally dark. The room had windows. We should have been able to see the streetlights below. But no light seeped in. We paused, terrified and trapped, unable to see our way to the door in the debris of the sudden indoor flurry.

And in that instant, I knew why it was so dark and why the little building inside the snow globe looked so familiar:

Outside, it was snowing black snow and we were inside a red brick building, just like the snow globe welded to my hand.

“It’s my fault! They wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t for me!” pleaded Ruth suddenly.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

Ruth shook herself away from Burke and me. “It heard me say we should just take whatever we want and it’s angry… it protects the stuff in here—” something cut her off suddenly and she gasped.

We heard her start to flail in the darkness. I fumbled in Burke’s pocket for the lighter she’d given him and flicked it open. The tiny flame illuminated for a split second the sickening sight of the puppet strings snaking themselves around her neck.

“No! Stop!” I screamed, powerless as the strings tightened. Burke was frozen, horrified. The snow globed burned hot in my hand again, the wind swept through the room, and once more, we were turned inside out.

The chimes tinkled three times and everything stopped. Then, I heard another sound emerge from somewhere in the darkness: the slow, mechanical grind of a key being turned in a wind-up toy.

Little blinking lights rapidly pierced through the darkness and the sound grew and grew. The lights were coming from the eyes of the little robot toys Burke had been playing with earlier. They flashed furiously as their numbers swelled and marched around us, surrounding us.

“…punishment…” rasped Ruth as she lost consciousness and crumpled to the floor.

“You aren’t leaving this store,” commanded a strange unknown voice. All the lights in the store suddenly snapped on and the wind-up noise stopped immediately. The one eye in the face of the puppet around Ruth’s neck swivelled and fixed its soulless gaze upon us.

“I have a duty to the heirlooms in this building,” the puppet croaked. “You never cared about these things, the broken and the tarnished. They may be stored out of sight but they are never forgotten. And even those that aren’t broken, they aren’t to be stolen out of greed!”

The puppet wound itself even more tightly and Ruth’s face was a deep shade of purple. Burke made a step towards her but the robots all raised these tiny arms in the air. We saw they were hand-less and the joints where they should have had hands were filed into razor-sharp spears.

I looked around helplessly and felt the snow globe grow hot in my hand once more. In the millisecond before the wind began again, my other hand reacted by flicking Burke’s lighter open. I felt a spark ignite and I shut my eyes as the wind blasted and shook the room. The flame was fed by the rush of air and fire spread everywhere.

“Noooooooo!” bellowed the puppet and the room stopped shaking. But the damage was done.

The fire leapt from one pile of junk to another, spreading furiously through the dry and dusty room. The robot toys broke ranks and scurried every which way but many were swept away by the growing flames.

In one motion, Burke snapped the one-eyed puppet’s head from its cords and scooped Ruth up in his arms. We thundered down the stairs and through the main floor, the fire pursuing our every step. The wind-up sound grew, as did the shrieks and moans of the burning toys, as we ran past the displays and their glass cases exploded, sending more fragments sailing through the air and slicing our hands and faces. But we didn’t stop, not even when the smoke was so thick and it became as dark as the sky and its black falling snow.

At last we were outside and almost to the safety of the street. I looked back and saw the antique store completely ablaze.

The flames snaked down the walls, devouring them with a ravenous pace. The roof became a skeleton of charred beams and the smoke reached its black, curling tentacles high in the air.

I felt the sudden chill of the wind on my face and through my hair, a brutal reminder that winter lingered just on the edge of the inferno that was once Heirloom Antiques. I abruptly felt an intense, over-powering pull that forced me forward onto my knees. I realized with dread that I was being dragged back towards the fire by my hand.

I thrashed and fought against it. The flames reached out to me like a giant hand, ready to curl and crush me into its fist. I heard the chimes and the invisible pull intensified. The chimes grew louder now and the fire crackled and purred in sick anticipation, about to be reunited with its last heirloom.

Using all the strength I had left, I flung my hand clutching the snow globe directly on the concrete steps of the store. As the glass shattered against the pavement, I felt blood run down my hand and I was released. I sprawled for the briefest of moments on the ground before scampering backwards towards the street. Burke was next to me and Ruth was slowly coming to. My chest heaved as I gulped in the fresh, frozen air, my heart pounded hard in my ears and I felt the sweat and tears on my face begin to cool.

As we sat shivering in the frigid wind, watching the store burn steadily, the black smoke billowed higher and higher. A gust of wind unfurled it across the night sky, where it hung like a cloud for a split second and then vanished.

At the same moment the smoke turned from blackness into nothing, the thick snowflakes turned white and fell silently from the sky.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. Before her recent move to France, she taught dance, drama and English in Edmonton Public Schools, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips on the food blog Sandwiches are Beautiful, and documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture, both in Canada and beyond, with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Flea

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea
Photo Credit: Simone Tagliaferri

In sixth grade my best friend was Jerry Harrison. He wouldn’t let anybody call him Jerry, though. His mom, his dad, his sister, and I had to call him “Flea” to get a response out of him. He’d simply ignore you if you called him Jerry, even if you were standing next to him yelling it in his ear.

“Jerry.” I tried it once. “Jerry. Jerry!” He seemed as deaf as Helen Keller, about whom we often cracked jokes. I started to wonder if he’d actually gone deaf overnight.

“Flea?” I whispered finally.

“Oh, hey, Sam,” he’d said, turning. I’d suddenly materialized into his world. “I didn’t see you there.”

He’d explained the first time we met that he’d fallen asleep on his dog’s bed when he was eight, and that one of Wilbur’s fleas had crawled inside his ear and nested in his brain. The flea’s name was simply “Flea,” and Jerry started blaming all the idiotic things he did on the flea riding inside his head.

“It whispers to me when I first wake up,” he said. “It tells me to do things.”

“So you have like a list for the day?” I asked.

“I never remember until I’m actually doing them,” he said. “He tells me when I first wake up so they’ll stay in my subconscious and I’ll do them without thinking. He told me to take five bucks out of my dad’s wallet yesterday. I’d never do that, so I know it must have been Flea.”

“Did you?”

“There were only a couple of ones in there but he started jumping around until I took them. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t but he moves so much it’s hard to think straight.”

“You know you’re probably schizophrenic, right?” I said. I didn’t see any point in dancing around the subject.

“That’s what my mom thought, too,” he said. “They took me to see this guy and he did some tests on me after Flea told me to bite the neighbors’ cat so he could drink its blood. It scratched my face up. The tests said I wasn’t schizophrenic, though.”

“What did they say you really were?”

“It was something about hyperactivity. Flea was quiet the whole time I was in there so they wouldn’t see any proof he was hiding in my brain. He’s no dummy. He knows when to lay low.”

It was like that all the time with Jerry. He’d do some stupid, impulsive thing and blame it on the flea living in his head. I personally thought it was bad parenting since his dad was gone all the time for work and his mom just tried to be understanding with her poor little boy.

My mom was a social worker, so I heard lots of things about schizophrenics. Jerry definitely fit the bill. He was entertaining to be around, though, so I hung out with him. Mom said he’d probably end up being a criminal someday.

*

Snow days are something no child forgets. A kid who hates getting up in the morning, hates sitting in boring classes, and hates dealing with the sociological nightmare of the early adolescent jungle will dream until he is old and gray of the sort of one-day vacation he remembered having as a boy. There is no guilt in a snow day—none of the latent regret associated with pretending one is sick while one’s comrades are suffering at the schoolhouse. One has simply been given a reprieve by Mother Nature, for a single day, to enjoy debt- and guilt-free. I felt sorry for any kid who lived too far south to experience such miracles, but always did my best to fall back asleep after I’d seen the school-cancellation notice on the television.

I’d nestled back under a warm, just-washed-the-day-before comforter that still smelled of fabric softener on one such morning. I’d nearly drifted back into dreams of breathing underwater or suddenly discovering I could fly if I held my arms the right way when I jumped, a dull thunk having snapped me back into the waking world. I tried to ignore it.

A second thunk brought me into awareness.

I peeked over the comforter and pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window. Jerry stood in the front yard, knee-deep in wet, sticky snow that threatened to pour into his galoshes. His parka-clad arm came up with another piece of gravel, poised to throw again. I opened my window to the biting winter air.

“What’s up, Flea?” I asked. I rubbed a bit of crust from my eye.

“You’ve got to see this,” he said.

“See what?”

“Just put on a coat and come down. It’s just down the street.”

I realized I wouldn’t be getting to sleep in on this particular snow day. Adventures ranked only slightly below eating breakfast at eleven o’clock on the snow-day list of fun things to do, and were the precursor to taking a hot bath after such wintry adventures had taken place. In anticipation of said hot bath, I put on my coat and boots and opened the front door.

“This better be worth it,” I said.

“Oh, it will be,” he said.

I crunched along behind Jerry for several minutes in silence until we came to a fence at the back of a house.

“This is it,” Jerry said, and began counting fence posts. “One, two, three…”

I listened for some sound of exciting things occurring but heard nothing apart from his counting.

“…twelve, thirteen.”

He tugged at the thirteenth fence post and the bottom nail came loose.

“Look through there,” he said, holding the gap open with both hands.

Crouching down, I expected to see naked girls having a snowball fight, a dancing bear, or some other thing worthy of such an expedition. Instead, I saw fruit trees.

I stood.

“Peaches? You brought me here on a snow day to see peaches? Is this your flea’s latest idea of a stupid joke?”

“It’s the middle of winter, Sam,” he said. “Peaches grow in the summer. They shouldn’t be on those trees at all.”

“Maybe it’s a special hybrid that grows in the winter.”

“No such thing,” he said. “Maybe what you’re missing is that Old Lady Greenleaf is a witch.”

My first reaction was, of course, to chuckle at the ridiculousness of what Jerry had said.

He only stood patiently, arms crossed, as my mockery subsided.

There were ripe peaches in her backyard in the middle of winter. I couldn’t deny what I had seen.

“It’s a full moon tonight, too,” Jerry said.

“So?”

“So the first full moon of January is Mithrastide,” he said. “It’s a pagan holiday, sort of like Halloween.”

“I’ve never heard of Mithrastide,” I said.

“It’s old. I don’t think anybody really practices it here, except witches,” Jerry said. “I… um… read about it in a book. Anyway, you’re supposed to give children sweet things on Mithrastide, and I really want one of those magic peaches.”

“All right,” I said. “So we’re going to knock on her door and ask for some of her magic fruit?”

“Actually, you’re going to knock on her door and ask for some magic fruit.”

“Why me?”

“I… I’m shy. You just have to knock and ask her if we can come in is all. I’ll ask about the peaches.”

With mild trepidation, I took the acorn knocker in hand and rapped it twice.

*

Old Lady Greenleaf, it turned out, wasn’t so old after all. I caught myself staring up into a firm, ample bosom before pulling my eyes away to meet hers.

“Hello,” she said. Creamy skin sculpted over high cheekbones framed full lips that commanded my full adolescent attention. “Are you selling something?” She batted her eyelashes down at me.

“We’re… um…” I stammered.

“Happy Mithrastide, Miss Greenleaf,” Jerry said, nudging me aside.

The full lips curled into a smile. The creamy skin around her eyes did not, however, crinkle with them.

“What do two handsome young men know about Mithrastide?” she asked, sweetly.

“It’s a midwinter fertility holiday,” Jerry said. “You’re supposed to give out treats to children our age.”

“So right you are,” she said, studying him. Then she turned briefly and walked back into the house. “It’s been such a long time since children came searching out treats on Mithrastide. I can’t imagine you’d want any of my peaches. Let’s see what we have.”

Jerry’s eyes had grown strangely beady, devoid of life, and black like a shark’s eyes. His lower jaw sat open and I watched Lady Greenleaf out of the corner of my eye, praying she wouldn’t turn to see him rubbing his tongue in little circles across his top row of teeth. He’d been transfixed from the moment she mentioned the peaches he sought.

“Flea!” I hissed.

Jerry snapped back to reality the moment it escaped my lips, and he shook his head. He placed a finger to his lips. “I’m Jerry,” he whispered. “Just Jerry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Greenleaf stop and turn. She squinted down at him. “Whose boys are you, exactly?” she asked.

We told her. Jerry introduced himself as Jerry for the first time since I’d met him. He made no mention of the flea in his brain. He did, however, assure her we liked peaches as much as anyone.

“Since you haven’t brought any baskets, I guess we’ll have to get you some out of the closet,” she said. “It’s this way.”

I would have followed her anywhere. I watched the rhythmic swing of maternal hips that said everything I needed to know about fertility holidays and nothing about old ladies. In gym class we’d discussed whether we were tit-men or ass-men and I’d said I was a tit-man then. Now, I grew surer with every rhythmic gyration of her womanly buttocks that I was an ass-man. I prayed now that she wouldn’t turn and see the throbbing erection she’d caused. My palms started to sweat, so I crossed my arms to hide them in my armpits.

Jerry seemed strangely unaffected by her, but kept stealing glances out the window toward the garden.

Lady Greenleaf bent over to pick up two wicker baskets from the closet and I coughed in response to the growing ache in the region of my groin.

“Here we go,” she said, handing us the baskets. I quickly positioned a basket at crotch-level, feeling my palm-sweat soaking into the wicker handle. She looked me up and down, a grin never leaving her face.

“Before you gentlemen pick my fruit-tree clean, though, I wonder if you’d give me an opinion on something.”

“Er… okay,” I managed.

Jerry stood on his tiptoes, looking over my head at the peach trees in the back yard.

“Jerry,” I whispered, nudging him with an elbow while carefully maintaining the crotch-concealing basket’s position.

Again, he returned to the façade of sane, reasonably polite Jerry.

“Of course,” Jerry said. “What is it?”

“It’s a painting I bought,” she said.

She led the way into her living room, where a cozy fire burned in the fireplace beyond two overstuffed leather armchairs. On the wall directly across from us hung a painting that seemed strangely familiar. Reds and browns writhed together against a black backdrop to portray the muscled, hideous, humanoid form of something that was not quite a man. Its vertebrae bulged from the skin of its back, ready to burst through. Its eyes—beady, like a shark’s—stared into a bowl. Its tongue stood rigid at the edge of its top row of teeth.

“That’s William Blake, isn’t it?” I asked, looking at Jerry for confirmation. We’d learned about Blake in school. The erection had thankfully subsided now, but hairs on the back of my neck had begun to stand on end.

“You actually pay attention in school,” Lady Greenleaf said. “I’m impressed.”

I would have burned my own house down to impress her further, or sailed a ship into a cliff just to prove I liked her singing.

“So what do you think of it?” she asked.

I thought it was monstrous, but I voiced this as “interesting.”

Jerry cracked his neck, then his knuckles. Something was irritating him. “He’s… beautiful,” Jerry said.

“Would you like to know what was in that bowl he’s holding?” she asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

Jerry just stared at the painting. He fidgeted.

“Peaches,” she said. “My peaches.”

I stepped closer to the painting, trying to ignore the irritated rasping that had replaced Jerry’s breathing. I found, at the bottom of the frame, a small brass placard. It read: William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea,” Tempera with Gold on Mahogany, 1819. I remembered this painting, now.

“I thought this was smaller,” I said. “I thought it was a miniature painting.”

“This one’s the original,” she said. “I lied. I didn’t really buy it. This is the one young Will painted for me.”

I almost asked aloud how he could have painted something for her in 1819, but the hair on my neck and the peaches in her garden held my tongue.

Jerry’s face had twisted into a tormented grimace. “I brought a virgin,” Jerry hissed. “He came freely. I brought a sacrifice to your altar. I claim the right of blood atonement.”

Lady Greenleaf looked me over again. “All right,” she said, and opened a drawer. From it she drew a sliver of what looked like glass. She held it to the light. “Do you know what it takes to carve a solid piece of diamond, the hardest naturally-occurring substance on Earth, into a razor-edged knife?” she asked. She pulled her eyes from it and looked at me. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

“No,” I said. My feet wanted to back away from her, but my legs felt as though they had been filled with concrete.

“I don’t either,” she said. “One of the Oppenheimers gave this to me.”

“Why did he do that?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t you, if it were yours to give?” she asked.

“Probably,” I said. I don’t know if I could have lied, even if I thought it would help me.

She rose then, and walked toward me, diamond knife in hand.

“Men never can resist my fruit,” she said, and paused to stroke Jerry’s hair with her delicate fingers. “Neither can fleas.”

His grimace had subsided slightly, but his left eyelid twitched and his lips curled into a greedy sneer.

“You give your virginal friend as a sacrifice, do you?” she asked. “I want to be sure.”

“Yes,” he said, but it came out, “Yesssssss.

Lady Greenleaf’s lips curled into a sneer, then. The diamond blade refracted the light from the fire for a split second as she whipped it through the skin of Jerry’s pudgy adolescent neck.

“That wasn’t the deal,” she said, as Jerry’s hands shot to the crimson geyser that had erupted from his throat. “I said if you ever tasted another of my peaches, it would restore your form. I said nothing of sacrificing the blood of a virgin. I do not work by those rules.”

Jerry crumpled into a heap, the stream of his arterial exsanguination having formed a pool that continued to spread. His blood painted an arc up the wall and across the ceiling. Some had splattered on my jeans and over the basket that hung loosely in my left hand. Eyes wide, I watched Jerry rattle and twitch. Somehow, not a drop of his blood touched Lady Greenleaf.

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she said. “Not that you could, Flea.”

Then, as the blood stopped flowing, I watched in horror as Jerry’s neck wriggled and twitched with a life of its own. A tiny black speck crawled out of the wound and sprang onto the floor. Even faster than her previous slash, Lady Greenleaf’s hand darted out at the black speck. She held her index and thumbnail to her face to inspect the creature trapped between them.

“Look what you made me do,” she said. “Now your little friend will never look at Mithrastide the same way. You’ve scarred him forever.”

“Jerry,” I said. “You killed him.”

“He would’ve been a tax collector,” she said, “even if I pulled this little vampire out some other way. Once a worm gets into your fruit, there’s not much else you can do for it.”

A tiny voice squealed between her fingertips.

“You knew what you were doing, coming here,” she said. “You should have been content with the mercy I’d shown you.”

With that, she closed her fingernails to a point and a tiny red spray shot up between them. The black speck disappeared entirely. She looked again to me. “Bury your friend,” she said.

“What?”

She stepped closer. The fingernails of the hand that had just annihilated Jerry’s brain-flea now traced the curve of my jaw. “Do it for me,” she said. “Mothers know best.”

Nothing about the fecundity she exuded with every breath seemed seductive any longer. She was Nature—living, growing, and entirely indifferent to human suffering. Yet some part of my brain still worked logically and realized that she had spared me. The Flea had offered my blood and she had destroyed him instead. Perhaps she simply had no good reason to use me as fertilizer, but I was alive.

Numbly, I grabbed my best friend’s ankles and dragged his bloody, half-decapitated corpse out the door leaving a red stream in its wake. Jerry’s tongue still pressed rigidly against his top teeth as his head flopped along the floorboards.

*

My back ached from swinging the mattock and shovel as I scooped the last load of dirt from Jerry’s grave. Lady Greenleaf tread softly on her moss carpet, appearing above me as I climbed out of the pit. She drew a small object from a pocket, stooped, and placed the object in Jerry’s mouth.

“I’ll help you,” she said, and grabbed Jerry’s wrists as I grabbed his ankles.

*

Jerry’s parents never called the police. No missing child posters ever showed up on telephone poles. No one at school asked me if I had seen Jerry. He simply vanished, and I seemed to be the only one that knew it had even happened.

I walked by Old Lady Greenleaf’s house a year later and noticed that she had mended the thirteenth fencepost. Above the fence line, though, I noticed a new tree amidst the peach trees.

Lady Greenleaf said I could talk to Jerry as long as I wanted.

He seemed more at peace than he ever had in his tormented flea-ridden flesh. The wind that swept through his leaves and shook his limbs seemed to soothe the spirit that Flea had twisted into a knot.

His trunk groaned, softly, as the wood shifted, and I had to laugh at what he said.

I looked through the window to make sure her back was turned. For him, for both of us, I picked a peach from one of her trees.

I took a bite.

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

Mother’s Nature

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lynn Bauman-Milner


Tombs
Photo Credit: Coralie Mercier

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She isn’t playing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
J. Chad Kebrdle


Abandoned House
Photo Credit: Jodi Grove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning…” She wheezed. “…boy.”

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

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

She closed her eyes slightly and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You used to be more kind.”

“You used to be more giving.”

“You used to need less.”

“You used to give more.”

“I used to have more.”

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

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

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

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

He looked at her questioningly.

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

It was that smile. She knew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy!

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

“Boy, help me! I need help!”

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

“Boy.”

“Yes, momma.”

“Boy, come close.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dangers of Living Vicariously

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


Abandoned Distillery
Photo Credit: Christopher/BlackBirdCD

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” she said, glancing down.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you get those?” Tyler asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A skittering sound echoed in the shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny feet skittered behind the shelves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Gyerson?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why me?” Tyler asked.

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

“Whatever dude,” Tyler said.

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

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

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

Katie pulled herself upright against the bars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” he yelled. “Wait! I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such cruelty…” Gyerson said.

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

“Monster,” Gyerson whispered.

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

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

Inversion

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Steven Till


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We killed him.”

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

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

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

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

What are you?” Jillian cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jillian gasped.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

The Perfect Gift

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Greg Osadec


Mini Heart Box
Photo Credit: Arturo Fonseca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not at all. Come, look.”

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you think I could…”

“By all means, take it!”

“I’d be happy to pay…”

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

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

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

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

“Anything else I can help you with?”

“Maybe.” Tyler hesitated.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

The long edges of the paper locked together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need your help for a second.”

“Oh. All right.”

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

“Sure. I think I can handle that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh huh.”

He bolted the lock.

“Uh huh.”

Took down the Open sign.

“He did what?”

Closed the curtains.

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

Stepped over the body.

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

Picked up the heart-shaped box.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Smiled.

“It’s your favourite.”

Watched its erratic beat.

pencil

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

A Bone to Pick

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could be a living creature.

Like a bear.

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

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

It’s a person.

I race to the edge of the flames.

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

The heat prickles my cheeks. “Warren?”

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

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

“Now that I really am?”

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

I taste rage—metallic, sour.

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

I cock the gun.

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

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

“What happened to Rose?”

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

I don’t move.

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

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

Snap-shhh.

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

Snap-shhh.

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

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

Snap-shhh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s quiet, then says, “Thanks, Mel.”

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

Before I head inside, I retrieve my coffee.

It’s ice cold.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that risky? Being matchless?”

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

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

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

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

I immediately recognize it.

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

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

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

There’s a knot in my throat.

“Do you still want to marry me, Mel?”

I blink. “But… you loved her. Rose.”

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

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

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

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

I flush.

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

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

I laugh. “Wait.”

He stops. “What?”

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

“Just take everything off,” he says.

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

*

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?”

“The fires went out, they’re coming!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had no choice,” he says.

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

The gun.

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

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

What?

“You heard me. Step back.”

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

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

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

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

pencil

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