Ω Editor Jodi Christensen

Jodi Christensen

Small town Utah is where Jodi calls home. She spends her days in a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, reading, writing, editing, and mentoring other writers. Her daily companions consist of her rambunctious and adorable six-year-old grandson and two rowdy dogs, all of whom bring her great joy.

Jodi has had a love of books for as long as she can remember. As a child, she filled her backpack weekly at the library, devouring story after story and returning the books early to trade for a new stack. She wrote her first adventure at the age of nine, a fanfic Boxcar Children story, and since then, has let her imagination be her guide.

As an author, Jodi writes time travel romance and dark speculative fiction. As an editor, she works on anything and everything that finds its way across her desk. Some of her favorite stories to read, write, and edit include; post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopian stories, and end-of-the-world adventures. She also enjoys dark romance, time travel romance, historicals, and horror stories, particularly the psychological kind. Above all else, she’s a sucker for a great character.

Ω Editor Kara Hawkers

Kara Hawkers

Kara Hawkers is a poet and author of short, dark fiction.

As Editor-in-Chief, Kara devotes most of her time to operating The Ravens Quoth Press, along with her partner.

If left unsupervised, you’ll find her dabbling in other arts.

Just three ravens in a trench coat.

Ω Editor Dean Shawker

Dean Shawker

Dean Shawker hails from Bracknell, UK, and now lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Dean is co-founder and editor of Black Hare Press.

Having found that his BSc in Bioengineering and BA in Digital Media were as useful in real life as calculus and geometric proofs, Dean now works in commercial non-fiction during the day and moonlights as a minion of the hell hare, Captain Woundwort, in the dark hours.

He writes speculative fiction and dark poetry under the pseudonym Avery Hunter, and edits under the name D. Kershaw.

You’ll usually find him hanging out with the rest of the BHP family in the BHP Facebook group, or here as a servant to the Stygian Lepus.

The Gypsies of Arbor by Sandy DeLuca

They soar beneath

the gibbous moon,

at midnight,

wild and unafraid,

and when dawn comes

and dreams wane,

they tuck away

ancient spells…

mystic potions

symbols written

on ancient parchment…

sigils that seal

their spells

below tall oaks

where ravens perch

on limbs…

sentinels of dark magic…

watchers of the mystic veil.

Picture of Sandy DeLuca

Sandy DeLuca

Sandy DeLuca has written novels, several poetry and fiction collections and a few novellas. She was a finalist for the BRAM STOKER for poetry award in 2001, with BURIAL PLOT IN SAGITTARIUS; accompanied by her cover art and interior illustrations. A copy is maintained in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays Poetry at Brown University, 1976-2000. She was also nominated once more in 2014, with Marge Simon, for DANGEROUS DREAMS. She lives in Rhode Island with several feline companions, including a black cat named Gypsy, and her two sons, Gemini and Leo.

SEALAB IV by Stephen A. Roddewig

“All right, Davis. We’ve got a fix on your position and vitals. Everything looks nominal. Confirm comms.”

“Solid copy, Base. Moving to the northeast to investigate the sensor outage.”

“Keep an eye on your internal readings. Base out.”

It was an unnecessary reminder. All our personnel knew the story of Berry Cannon, the diver who had asphyxiated on his own carbon dioxide because someone had forgotten to refill his baralyme cannister aboard SEALAB III. A grim reminder that we could count human error—or even sabotage—among the many natural threats in this alien world.

I turned my gaze from the instruments panel, watching as the light rig illuminating the aquanaut faded into the murky black. All that remained after another moment were a few solitary bubbles from his propulsion pack starting their seven-hundred-meter ascent to the surface. Up to where day and night still had meaning beyond the clocks and arbitrary schedules that dictated our lives aboard SEALAB IV.

Speaking of clocks, two minutes had elapsed. All Davis’s readings had stayed in the “green zone,” but one could never be too careful in this environment where it was too easy to lose all sense of orientation.

It’s easy to take the orienting effect of gravity for granted. Instead, imagine you’re now free floating and surrounded by darkness on all sides: no light from the surface, no ocean floor, no landmarks of any kind.

Of course, experienced divers know the bubbles from your respirator will never lie. But it’s all too easy to lose yourself and panic with the constant awareness of the thousands of pounds of frigid water pressing down.

Fortunately, the suits provided to SEALAB IVs aquanauts had all sorts of redundancies and equipment to hold the relentless pressure at bay and ensure the operator always knew where they were. In these Antarctic waters, they even included heating coils.

Still, even specialized deep-water equipment had a proclivity for malfunctioning at these depths.

Case in point: Davis was on his way to investigate why one of the sensors we had placed at the edge of the Pacific-Antarctic Trench had gone out.

I keyed the microphone in my instrument panel. “Base to Davis. Sitrep.”

After a moment, a voice emerged from the static. “All systems green. Propulsion is good. According to my coordinates, I should have visual on the sensor site in the next forty-five seconds.”

“Good copy. Report when you make visual contact and hold position.”

A just perceptible pause followed. “Roger, Base.”

It was an odd request, I knew. But so were Sensor 5J’s readouts in the seconds before it had gone dark. It hadn’t simply gone offline. It had been recording data. Significant data.

Though humanity had spread across the globe, the ocean remained mostly uncharted. We knew the important pieces, like where rocks lay beneath the surface so our commerce could move across the waves. But what happened beneath the surface, especially below two hundred meters where only the bravest ventured, was a relative blank spot. In some ways, we knew more about deep space than our own seas.

SEALAB IV was one endeavor to expand that limited understanding. Specifically, to monitor the Pacific-Antarctic Trench. We had motion sensors and cameras pointed over the lip of the trench, plumbing its black, unyielding chasm.

The motion sensor data traveled back in real time where it was cataloged in the massively powerful central terminal. But the videos, shot in multiple light spectrums beyond visible, were too large of files to transmit back to the command center.

This was part of Davis’s dive mission: to collect the video hard drives. He would also survey the extent of the damage. If it was salvageable, a two-man dive team would be sent to undertake repairs.

Before it flatlined and failed to respond to reboot signals, 5J had showed no signs of malfunction. Its readings remained consistent. Something had ascended from the trench and closed to within meters of the sensor. Its final report showed the anomaly only inches from the sensor. Then it had stopped responding.

If that was all, then I would have written it off as a fish or whale that had run into the sensor by accident. But the anomaly had circled the sensor. Twice. Then it had stopped before moving toward it at great speed. There was an intent to those actions. If it had been a human diver, I would have concluded they were reconning the sensor.

But none of our team had been diving that day, and SEALAB IV was a closely guarded secret in remote seas. Of course, another nation with deep sea capabilities—Russia, China—could be responsible. But why knock out only one sensor? Why not just fire a salvo of torpedoes at the base and kill us in one fell swoop?

This left very few explanations.

“Base, this is Davis.” The crackling voice dragged me back to the present.

“Go ahead, Davis.”

“I’ve got visual on 5J. Not seeing much physical damage. It looks like the entire sensor pod is just gone.”

“Say again, Davis. It’s gone?”

“Affirmative. Looks like it was pulled off the pedestal.”

Maybe it was a Russian or Chinese op? They stole the sensor so they could reproduce their own? But our sensors weren’t anything special.

“Solid copy. Proceed with collecting the video drives and return to base.”

Fortunately, the data drives were stored at the base of the pedestal, so they were not lost when the saboteurs made off with the array.

Still, why would anyone go to all that trouble to steal it?

A new voice tumbled out of the speaker. Not new, I realized. It’s Davis’s voice an octave higher.

“Base, Base. Come in Base!”

“Davis, what’s up?”

“I’m not alone. There’s something moving out here.”

“What is it, Davis? A fish? A whale?”

“I’m not sure, but it’s circling the sensor base. Oh Christ, I think it sees me. Going dark.”

Going dark meant disabling all external lights. It would certainly hide him, but I could only imagine the icy terror of waiting in pitch darkness.

I keyed a new button. “Commander to bridge.”

A moment later, Grayson scrambled through the hatchway, rubbing his eyes. “Kelly, what’s up?”

“Davis is out at 5J. Says something is circling him.”

Something?” I knew the skeptical look that crossed his face all too well.

“Something that has a seasoned deep-sea diver spooked enough to go dark.”

That got Grayson’s attention. He reached over me and keyed the internal communication system again. “Auxiliary operator to bridge.”

Grayson knew as well as I did that something that seemed remarkably organic and intelligent had circled 5J before it went offline. I could already tell where his mind was going.

“Watch the sensors,” Grayson ordered Tyrone when he appeared a moment later. “We’ve got activity out at 5J, and I want to see if any of the other sensors pick it up.”

I switched back to the dive frequency. “Davis, any updates?”

“Nothing. I think it moved on.” The relief in the diver’s voice made my shoulders relax as well. “Switching on lights.”

Then something strange came over the net. Like a gasp that caught in his throat.

A second later, there was a whoosh, like a great volume of water moving outside Davis’s helmet. Then he screamed.

“It’s got my arm. Oh Christ, it’s got me.”

“Davis, what’s happening? What’s got you?”

“Something massive,” his panicked voice spilled over the microphone. “It’s pulling me away. Away and down. Oh god, I think it’s taking me into the trench.”

A moment later, the dive net squelched and faded. The communication line linking Davis’s helmet mic to the base had severed.

In dive training, we learned that panic was our worst enemy. It provides nothing of value and causes us to freeze up at the most vital moments. Moments where action could make all the difference. Still, it was hard to imagine what exactly I—or any of us—could do in that moment.

“Commander,” I turned slowly in my chair, “what are your orders?”

Grayson and Tyrone looked back at me with pale faces. It wasn’t every day you heard a man screaming his last words over the bridge speakers.

Then Grayson shook his head. “We need to report that Davis had a hostile encounter and is presumed dead. Then we need to figure out what the hell that was and if it’s going to keep this up.”

I nodded, turning to toggle communication with USS Jedediah, the support ship on station to serve as our link to the rest of the world.

But Tyrone’s tapping on his desk drew me away. “Commander,” he gestured to his indicators, “we’ve got activity.”

One by one, the dials for the other sensors fluctuated as the motion sensors tracked disturbances in the water around them.

Then we watched as each flatlined. Red bulbs flickered on to show the connection had been lost.

Grayson would not be left speechless by shock a second time. “Kelly, get on the horn to the Jedediah. Now. Tell them what’s happening and alert them we may need to perform an emergency evacuation.”

I spun back around, breathing deeply, trying to still any shake in my voice. It only partially worked. “Topside, this is Base. Do you read?”

It took a couple of seconds for the ship’s crew to respond. It was outside our daily report window. The operator sounded groggy. “Go ahead, Base.”

“One of our divers was lost investigating a sensor outage. He claimed something massive grabbed him before we lost communication. Now all sensors have been knocked out. We may need to perform an emergency evacuation.”

The operator sounded much more alert now. “Base, stand by while I relay to the commanding officer.”

My terminal had a partial view of the porthole in the bridge compartment. As I waited with Grayson peering over my shoulder, I thought I saw something flash past the viewport. A momentary disturbance of the suspended sediment.

Then the speaker crackled and whined.

“We just lost communication with Topside,” I said in a voice far too loud.

“What the hell?” Grayson spat in disbelief. “Are we under attack?”

From the next compartment, there was a crash. We all looked up. Geno, the fourth crew member, was in the mess hall preparing the evening meal.

Grayson turned to Tyrone. “Check it out.” He spun back. “Kelly, see what you can do about reestablishing comms.”

I nodded, toggling through the standard diagnostics checklist. All signs indicated the comms line running between SEALAB IV and Jedediah had been cut.

Tyrone cried out, and then something hit the floor.

Grayson and I both looked at each other for a moment before springing into action. On the white deck of the mess hall, Tyrone lay on his back, pointing a quivering finger at the wall. Toward the starboard-side viewport.

When I moved to get a better angle, I found Geno practically pressing his face to the glass.

“Move it, Geno.” I shouldered him aside before looking out. “Oh, god…”

A pair of golden eyes peered back from the darkness. In the ambient light from the viewport, I could see a round black head with a dark navy stripe trailing along its back. Pectoral fins jutted from either side, and its snake-like body continued into the murk.

It was like an eel, but larger than any eel on record.

Its head bobbed as it floated beside SEALAB IV, revealing the tips of needle-like teeth as the light reflected off them. I had no doubt this thing could breach the station at any moment. Once the seal broke, water would burst through at the speed of a freight train, crushing us long before we had a chance to drown.

I tensed my shoulders, but the thing kept its distance. Watching.

In all this time, Geno hadn’t moved from the spot I had nudged him to. Then he crumpled against the bulkhead and wept.

Grayson grabbed his shoulders. “Hey, snap out of it. This is no time to lose our heads.”

Geno spoke through his hands. “You don’t understand, Commander. It spoke to me.”

Grayson took a step back. “What? There’s a goddamn bulkhead between us and it. How would you hear it even if it could speak?”

“No…” Geno looked up. “With its eyes.”

I looked from Geno to Tyrone to Grayson, then turned to our watcher. Its golden eyes seemed to brighten the longer I looked directly at them. There was something beautiful about this pure light surviving so deep in the dark.

The hum of the air recyclers around me faded away, and my vision narrowed—or had it expanded? Either way, only the gold remained.

At once I saw it, not as an aggressor, but as a life form. Its species’ constant struggle for survival in this cold, crushing world became my own. They had not survived without learning, and they made sure a predator could never pull the same trick twice. It had been generations since they had encountered a new life form, and it had come to see us. To know us.

We are not a threat, I tried to explain through my own thoughts.

Its own thoughts revealed a certain level of skepticism at that notion. In this world, you were either the eater or the eaten.

We don’t belong down here. We do not hunt here. We only seek knowledge.

The giant eel wriggled its head. More skepticism, and now a hint of anger at my treachery.

Then let us leave, and we shall not return.

The longer we had connected, the more its thoughts seemed to morph into words. Our words. As if it was learning. You wish to study. You will study us. And we will study you.

But we are not meant to stay here. We will run out of food.

You need not worry about that.

Then the eel broke eye contact and swirled away into the murk.

Only after the gold tinges had receded from my eyes did I notice the hand jostling my shoulder. “Kelly? Kelly!”

I turned to Grayson, but when I tried to speak, only visions that could not be converted to our words filled my throat. As if the watcher and I had traded languages.

Then Geno grabbed my ankle from where he crouched on the floor. “It told you, didn’t it?” he hissed, his eyes still mottled with tears.

Grayson looked between us. “Does somebody want to tell me what the hell is going on here?”

“They…” I muttered, finally remembering how to speak. “They don’t want to hurt—”

A thump came from the dive room before I could finish my sentence.

“You two stay here and get your wits back.” Grayson yanked Tyrone up from the floor. “Come on, we’re going to see what that was.”

Grayson undogged the hatch, and Tyrone moved through the opening after a moment’s hesitation.

Disobeying orders, I followed them. With each footfall, I felt more certain of what I would find. The watcher had shown me what it intended. It would start with a gift.

The first sign was the stench. Even before I knelt to move through the hatch, a copper scent tinted the air. In the dive room, I looked from the pool where the blue-black ocean began to the dive lockers, where Grayson and Tyrone staggered with pale faces.

Between them and the dive pool, a crimson mass lay on the corrugated metal. Rib bones protruded from the top. Only one thing had that anatomy. Only one thing could be that fresh.

Still, I moved closer.

“Kelly, don’t.” I heard Grayson wretch behind me. “Don’t look at it,” he spluttered.

But my pulse was calm as I moved past the sternum and protruding rib cage. At the top of the mass, a scrap of cloth remained. I picked it up.

It was a name patch. Davis, Greg.

“They don’t want to hurt us.” I repeated.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Grayson regained some of his old color. “Do you see whose body that is?”

“It’s not a threat.” I let go of the blood-soaked cloth. “It’s food.”

Grayson’s face drained again, and Tyrone let loose a glob of yellow vomit.

“They want to keep us.”




After Action Report: USS Savannah

After contact with USS Jedediah, immediately sortied to investigate communications outage. Came within sonar range of SEALAB IV after a three-day voyage. Initial scans showed the base was intact, but also returned several anomalies surrounding the station. Contacts appeared to be biological.

Closed to within visual range of the station. Station appeared undamaged. Previous contacts could no longer be picked up on sonar.

Dispatched deep-sea divers for closer inspection. Divers reported that one crewmember could be observed aboard. When individual failed to respond to hand signals, divers made entry.

Divers found the remains of five other crewmen aboard. All appear to have been killed in the previous week. One body showed signs of consumption. When surviving crewmember was located on the bridge, divers reported she would only repeat, “They told me to.”

After survivor was restrained, inserted into pressure suit, and escorted to Savannah, identification was made: Rivers, Kelly, Lieutenant, United States Navy. She is currently detained aboard.

Initial interviews lead me to conclude Rivers suffered a psychotic break from the constant strain and pressure imbalance which led to her murdering her fellow crewmen. A full psychological evaluation by qualified personnel is recommended.

We are proceeding to San Diego Naval Hospital. Jedediah remains on station to oversee salvage operations and recover the crew’s remains.


Benjamin J. Nolte,

Lieutenant Commander, USS Savannah

Picture of Stephen A. Roddewig

Stephen A. Roddewig

Stephen A. Roddewig is an award-winning storyteller and playwright from Virginia (USA). His story “The Rocks” was awarded second place in the 2023 Vocal Painted Prose challenge. His stories are featured in Abyss & Apex, Diet Milk Magazine, Struggle Magazine, and Wintermute Lit. He has also been published in multiple horror and action/adventure anthologies, including The Nameless Songs of Zadok Allen, Beautiful Darkness 2, and The Back Forty. When not writing, he enjoys collecting records and running races.

Homesick by Penny Durham

Alissa sat in her parked car, glaring at the faded For Sale sign.

“Stupid house,” she hissed.

It was inexplicable in this market. It would be inexplicable in any market.

15 Eden Road was the first sale the agency had assigned her after her promotion from rentals, and it was a gift: a wide-frontage three-bedroom Victorian terrace tastefully renovated to preserve period detail. It boasted high ceilings and working fireplaces and polished timber flooring throughout, with flowing indoor-outdoor entertainment areas and two beautifully appointed bathrooms and kitchen with Smeg appliances in premier village position near parks and schools in sought-after city fringe neighborhood, for Christ’s sake.

Around the corner last week, an uninhabitable death trap bursting with asbestos and missing half its flooring had sold for half a million over reserve, three days after listing.

The vendor was threatening to take his business elsewhere, and “When Alissa sells Eden Road” had become office code for never.

She got out of the car and paused to admire the street. All the houses were painted the correct heritage colors, gardens immaculate. It was a bright winter’s day and the gold and claret ash trees blazed against a crystal sky.

She unlocked the house, holding her breath, hoping…but there it was. Beneath the bleach and air freshener lurked the faint odor that had taunted her since her first viewing. She’d scoured the house from top to bottom, had it expensively cleaned twice, sent pest people into crawlspaces, but no source could be found.

It reminded her of something. It was like an unseen hand grabbing her collar and yanking her backwards. She wanted to scream, stamp her heels into the polished timber bloody flooring—but viewers were arriving. So Alissa tightened her ponytail again and hitched a professional smile into place. She handed out brochures, took details, ignored grubby shoes on the floorboards and kept smiling as, one by one, the prospective buyers’ faces went from covetous to uneasy. She pushed contracts at them, but no one took a copy.

One woman in white slacks and large earrings barely reached the hall before turning tail, dragging her shrugging husband with her.

As Alissa was closing up, trying not to cry, there was a burst of sound like canned laughter from an old sitcom. She ran out, slamming the door.


Alissa showed two more houses—dumps, yet the contracts flew out of her hands—and spent a few hours at the office. Then she drove back to Eden Road in the dying light.

She wanted to check she’d locked up properly. It was a gentrified neighborhood that still had a lot of social housing, and the last thing she needed was for some houso kids to break in for a laugh.

She might also have another scout for the dead animal that was ruining everything.

But when she arrived, what she saw made no sense. 17 and 13 were as they should be. 15 was not.

It can’t be.

The For Sale sign was gone. The fence sagged under discarded shopping trolleys, gas bottles, and rampant creepers. Weeds grew where neat rosebushes had been. The fresh cream paint was mold-green and peeling, and instead of the neat Victorian tiling there was cracked concrete. Panels of iron lace dangled from the rotting balcony, while the front porch was madly piled with prams, scooters, bicycle wheels, car seats, as if the house confiscated all means of escape.

But I did escape. Didn’t I?

The cracked fanlight glowed a dim yellow and light seeped down the side of the door. It was open, and someone was home.

She pushed through the rusted gate and stepped carefully inside. The door opened halfway before hitting something soft. Newspapers. Alissa slid her hips through the opening, breathed in—and froze. The same smell that had haunted her for months came now as a fist to her face, foul and familiar: rolling tobacco, lamb chop grease, cask wine, and rancid neglect.


There on the wall was the cheap print of Paris she used to gaze at, imagining.

Her foot clinked against empty bottles, which tumbled like dominoes.

“Who’s there?” A rasping voice from the front room. “Is that ye, Liss?”

Alissa took a shallow breath.

“Just me, mum.”

There was a clatter of canned laughter from the 90s sitcom on the staticky cathode-ray TV. By its light she saw a shape sprawled on the once-floral-print couch, draped in blankets.

“Where’ve ye been? Pour yer mum a wine.” Alissa’s mother held out a grimy tumbler and waved at the cask on the coffee table, near the fruit bowl she used as an ashtray. “Join me.”

“I’m not staying, Mum.”

“Where’ve ye gotta be?” The wheedling voice turned sour.

“I—I have an apartment. A job. I don’t live here anymore.”

Rotten lungs and studio audience laughed together.

“Rubbish! This is yer home. Ye’ll never leave. Who’ll look after yer old mum? Roll me a ciggie, Liss, ye roll ’em best.”

Alissa took the tobacco pouch, her fingers working automatically with paper and filter. With a dry tongue, she licked the glue then handed the sealed cylinder over. A greasy pink lighter sat on the table. Scrape, whoosh. The flame flickered in mean blue eyes, while the smell she’d spent eighteen years trying to forget threatened to engulf her.

This time I’ll do it right.

Alissa lit the cigarette, then a blanket, then the cheap synthetic curtains, which caught after a crackle of dust. Ignoring the sounds from the couch, she returned to the hallway, ripped newspaper pages, lit them too. Then she squeezed out the door and drove away from Eden Road.


Alissa liked her new place. It was only nine square meters and very basic, but modern and clean with a liberating simplicity: single bed, compact amenities, plenty of natural light from a north-facing window onto the exercise yard.

For perhaps the first time, she felt at home.

Picture of Penny Durham

Penny Durham

Penny Durham is a journalist living in Sydney with a tall man and a round cat. She is the editor of doctors’ magazine The Medical Republic and began writing short fiction in 2022. Her horror stories have won two awards and appeared in two anthologies, two magazines, and a podcast.

Ignis Aeternus by Namreal Drawde

I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”

Ovid, ‘Medea and Jason’ Book VII, Metamorphoses

Something was wrong. 

He jerked back in his seat. The screaming stopped abruptly, like when someone collapses at a dinner party, and was followed by an awkward pause. He looked at the woman beside him in the backseat and then at his hands hovering above her head, which, a moment ago, had been crushing her throat and hammering her face.

The woman regained consciousness and stared wide-eyed, coughing, as she tried to sit up. Blinking, she watched her attacker, and rubbed her throat and bloody nose.

He yelped and his lips quivered. His eyes screwed shut and he let out a guttural wail, throwing his head back then bending over to cry on his knees.

The man’s trousers were around his ankles and his penis was erect—she could see the veins beneath its pale skin. She tried to open the door, she had to get out, but it was locked.

The man continued to cry, his chest heaving and shaking as he tried to suck in more air. He groaned and started to whimper. “Please, stop. Please don’t hurt me.” The woman ignored him and examined herself. Her clothes were torn and her bare legs were spattered with blood. The man looked at her again, his eyes red and blinking, breathing hard. He whispered, “What’s happening?”

“Get out,” she replied, then screaming, “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” She began hitting and shoving him against the door. He lurched back, trying to protect himself. The woman reached across him, pulling the door handle, and shoving him out. He fell to the muddy ground as she moved away from the car, panicking and looking into the woods. She paced back and forth, then turned back to the man who was sobbing. He looked up and pleaded. She stared at him, her mouth agape, her face a picture of horror. “Please help me, please,” he choked.


Three days after the incident, notes for an initial police report were written by Detective Inspector Hyland which detailed the events that had occurred on the night in question:

Lucas Barrow, 43, a senior manager at Winsgate-Gray, a luxury car dealership, visited a police station in the town of Mauditt near Chelmsford in the early hours of Sunday morning. Mr Barrow appeared inebriated and hysterical and after several hours Mr Barrow was able to describe to officers an assault and abduction at a pub carpark in the town. Mr Barrow appeared incoherent and had struggled to remember what happened, or even his own name.

The constables visited Mr Barrow’s flat in Chelmsford where they met with the alleged victim of the assault, a Ms Rachel Sims. Ms Sims, 29, a paralegal working for a corporate finance firm, met the officers at the premises and agreed to let them inside to inspect the property. Ms Sims appeared taciturn and evasive, claiming she had no knowledge of the alleged assault, and denied that she had ever met Mr Barrow. When questioned as to why she was at the property, Ms Sims declined to answer and appeared uncertain as to how she arrived there or where she was the previous evening.


Lucas lay face down on the mattress in Rachel’s bedroom. The cuts and bruises on his face hurt and he was exhausted after a sleepless night and repeated questioning from the police and Rachel’s friends and family. If this was a dream, he wished he would wake up, but each time he fell asleep someone he didn’t know would call, or there’d be a knock at the door.

They kept calling him “Rachel” and wanted to know what had happened to him, which he couldn’t answer because he actually didn’t know who Rachel Sims was. She was just a woman he’d spent a few days following after seeing her at the pub a couple of weeks ago. That was the way he always worked. He’d see a woman somewhere, follow her, make a mental note of where she liked to go, and then after a few weeks, snatch her and take her somewhere quiet. Afterwards, he’d drive her someplace and let her go. But last night, something went wrong. He’d woken up in the car wearing her clothes and there was a guy with his dick out who looked exactly like him. This was fucked. He’d tried to convince the police that he didn’t know anything, but they didn’t believe him, as he couldn’t explain the cuts on his face, or where he was last night.

The police took him first to an elderly couple’s home where the girl’s fucking family were. They asked him more questions while everyone was crying and trying to hug him. Who the fuck were they? He wanted to be alone, so they took him away, and now he was inside her fucking house. Perhaps he had a concussion, or she had some disease? Every time he looked in a mirror, he kept seeing her fucking face staring back at him.

Lucas needed to pee, but it hurt to move. He rolled off the bed and headed to the bathroom. He stripped, taking off his skirt and removing his torn knickers. He looked for his penis, which was missing. He was afraid to touch his new vagina. It was unnatural to him. He didn’t want to sit on the toilet, so he stepped into the shower instead.

His body was not his; he had breasts and hips, which didn’t feel right. His skin was too soft. His whole frame felt light and frail. The skin had a brownish tan, and the painted toenails looked attractive, as did the toned calves and thighs. He pushed a finger into his vagina, but it hurt, probably from where he’d grabbed it last night. He sniffed his finger and then licked it, but it tasted like piss. He turned the shower on, and a warm spray soaked him as he urinated, washing it away with the bloodstains. After a few minutes, he stepped out and stared at himself in the mirror. Rachel stared back at him.

He took his breasts in his hands and squeezed the nipples until they hardened, but then stopped after a minute, thinking about his penis and his inability to masturbate the way he normally would. He looked at Rachel’s face, his new face. He was pretty, despite the dark bruises and finger marks on his neck. His upper lip was swollen with a gash along the soft flesh. His right eye had a red ring around it where his knuckles had crushed against Rachel’s cheekbone and eyebrow.

Lucas felt a twinge of something he hadn’t felt before, as it seemed a shame that her looks had been spoiled. He’d hurt her because she would never give him what he wanted freely. He didn’t know if he wanted love or sex, but it was the only way he could prove to himself that he could take one without the other. He felt strangely pitiful for the first time in his life, and these feelings were unfamiliar because they didn’t belong to him.

A knock at the door broke the silence. He tried to ignore it, but after a minute, he realised the person wasn’t going away. It could be the police again, and it was important to play along, just in case they suspected anything. He put on some jeans and a jumper he found in a laundry basket. He walked downstairs and opened the front door. A young blonde woman stood staring at him, looking cross and impatient.

“Ohmygod, Ray, where have you been? Are you okay?” she stammered, shocked by what she saw. Lucas didn’t say anything, caught off guard by the woman’s good looks. She looked perfectly blonde and tanned. Then she stepped forward and hugged him. Before he could speak, she pushed him backwards towards the kitchen.

“Your face, Ray. I can’t look at it. You’ve got to tell me what happened. Do you want a coffee or tea, or something stronger? Are you hungry? I can make you some lunch. Is there anything I can get you? Anything you need? I can’t believe what that bastard did. Your parents called me this morning and said you’d been attacked but you weren’t answering the phone. I screamed when they told me. How are you feeling now?”

“Uhh—better.” And then after pausing, “Who are you?”

Who am I? Jesus, what did he do to you? Sit down, let me get you a drink.” Lucas sat down at the kitchen table as she opened the fridge and removed an open bottle of white wine. She picked two glasses off a shelf and waved them at Lucas.

“Pino?” she asked, pursing her lips.

“No, thanks,” he mumbled, staring at the holiday snaps stuck to the wall beside him. Pictures of Rachel in cutoff jeans, clinging to other slim tanned young women in cutoffs, smiling, some with their tongues hanging out, howling; in a jungle; on a waterfall; Ayers Rock; bikinis on a beach; waving glow sticks at a Full Moon Party; looking bored drinking prosecco, wearing backless dresses. More photos with stubbly young men wearing sunglasses, their mouths open, giving the pitchfork sign, or pursing their lips like the blonde did when she offered him the wine. He felt sick.

“Any rum? Or vodka? Cider?” he grunted.

“Umm…I don’t know, I don’t live here,” she said, frowning. “You drink rum and vodka?”

“Just make me a coffee,” he said.

“Coffee? Okay, yeah. No problem. Coffee.” She put the wine back in the fridge and switched the kettle on, then started opening cupboards looking for mugs, which took her longer than expected and seemed to embarrass her.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The blonde stared at him, her mouth open, wondering if this was a joke. “I’m Saffie,” she replied, impatiently. “Saffie Moyle. Your best friend. You’ve known me since college. We go on holiday together. We went to Dubai. We went to Lisa’s wedding. I introduced you to Rufus. You went out with Leon. Don’t you remember? What happened, Ray?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Lucas slid off the stool and walked to the living room where he sat on the sofa and stared at Rachel’s reflection in the TV’s blank screen. Saffie followed and sat down next to him. She reached across and held his hand.

“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?” she asked softly.

“Don’t fucking touch me,” he replied, pulling his hand away and scowling. “I don’t know you.”

“Ray, I’m sorry. You must’ve been terrified. I wish I could help you. I’m so worried about you.” Saffie’s voice cracked and her eyes brimmed with tears.

Lucas noticed that she’d taken her shoes off and was sitting cross-legged, her feet poking out from either side of her knees. He reached across and placed a hand on Saffie’s foot, gently squeezing it. Saffie stared back at him, confused. “R-Ray … what are you doing?” she asked.

“Shh…it’s okay,” he said in a low voice.

“Ray, I don’t know—” She pulled her foot away and backed up on the sofa. “You’re being strange, Ray.”


“Ray—” Saffie said in a whiny voice.

“Shut the fuck up,” he said, slowly.

“Ray—” she said again, but louder.

Lucas lunged toward Saffie, punching her in the mouth and causing her to fall sideways onto the floor. She gasped and held her mouth while he stayed on the sofa. Rachel stared back at him, reflected in the TV screen. Saffie rubbed her face.

“Why?” she asked, almost to herself.

“Fucking get out, bitch,” he said. Biting her lower lip to hold back the tears, Saffie stood up, and then left, shutting the front door quietly behind her. Lucas wished he had his penis so he could fuck her the way he wanted to. He felt that odd sadness again. He was alone, and in the wrong place.


Rachel lay on the plastic mattress, her face to the wall, eyes closed, focusing on her breathing. This was a meditation technique she’d learned to help her deal with stress. In the past she’d struggled with confined spaces, such as lifts and small rooms, but had to overcome this when she’d moved to London for her first job. The crammed Tube carriages, lifts packed with employees, and bodies stuck to each other, like salmon leaping upstream. No oxygen, no available exits, just bodies crushing you against the wall. Her face hot, her heart pumping, a sudden impulse to reach up towards a window that wasn’t there. HELP ME. I CAN’T BREATHE. I DON’T WANT TO DIE. PLEASE HELP ME! she’d think, frozen in a panic, but then the doors would open, and everyone would calmly walk out like nothing was wrong.

Now she was wearing a prison uniform: standard issue blue jeans, jumper, and shirt, and sleeping in a cell for a single person, the walls of which were painted a sickly yellow with brown stains. There was nothing in the room except for the metal toilet and basin, a roll of toilet paper, and a small window the size of a shoe box where the light spilled in, high up on the back wall. There were two small vents on the ceiling and floor, presumably to allow air in, or perhaps to wash away blood and faeces in the event of a difficult occupant.

Strangely, she felt safe and secure inside this locked box. The guards outside were protecting her safety, just as they were protecting the general public. The sleep and solitude allowed her to calm down and put things in order. Maybe she’d lost her mind, or perhaps this was a dream, but if so, when would she wake up? Was she in a coma? This isolation and silence were also the true torment of prison, she thought. She missed her friends and family and wondered if she would ever see them again.

There was a clicking sound as the metal shutter on the door slid open. A pair of eyes appeared, and a voice called in a hard tone. “Barrow. Inspector Hyland here to see you,” the guard barked. As the keys knocked against the door, she wondered what the point of the little window was, and why they didn’t just open the door since she obviously wasn’t going to be too busy to see anyone.

The door opened and Inspector Hyland stepped inside while the guard—Mr Happyface, as she called him—waited in the doorway since there wasn’t enough room for all of them. She sat obediently on the bed, staring sheepishly up at the two men, feeling small and helpless.

“How are you, Mr Barrow?” the policeman asked, politely.

“Ah, I’m fine, thank you, sir,” Rachel said, glancing at Happyface, who stood with his eyes trained on her.

“Good to hear.” He spoke quickly, looking around at the walls as if couldn’t stand the sight of her. “Well…”—he cleared his throat—”the witness has asked to have a meeting with you in exchange for her statement. We have strongly advised against it, but we are, under supervision, willing to accommodate this. You’re free to decline if you don’t wish to see Ms Sims, but if you did agree, it would be your right to have legal representation there with you. Is this making any sense?”

“Ms Sims?” she asked. “I—that would—I don’t know, why would? Who is she?”

Hyland rolled his eyes and made a clucking sound. “If you need more time to think about it, I can give you until this afternoon.”

“I want to see her,” Rachel said firmly. “I don’t need legal representation. I want to see her.”

“Fine, then,” Hyland said, deflated. “We’ll speak to Ms Sims and see what we can organise.” The policeman turned and left Happyface to lock the door behind him.

She looked at herself in the broken mirror above the sink. Lucas stared back at her and looked unhappy, like a headmaster catching her cheating on an exam. He was handsome and silver haired. As a younger man, she could imagine her mother poking her and calling him “dishy” to make her cringe. He had bright blue eyes staring out from his striking, chiselled features, which reminded her of a young Robert Redford or Michael Caine. He was well-groomed, his hair a bit long and swept back, his nails were short and immaculate. Who was this beautiful man, and how was he capable of such violence?

She looked at her huge hands and arms. She expected them to feel heavy, but her muscles, like the rest of her body, made her feel light and energetic. She felt like a gorilla, her arms were hammers capable of breaking bones and pulverising meat. She felt vulnerable whenever she left her cell, a world of violence, surrounded by men, but she was the alpha male among them, and they were fearful of her.

Adjusting to Lucas’s body had its own challenges. One morning she’d awoken to find her penis erect, pointing like a tentpole under the bedsheet. She’d touched it and wondered how to deactivate it. She didn’t remember having any erotic dreams in the night. She squeezed it just to see what would happen, but it disturbed her. Lucas was a rapist and a deviant; somehow this penis symbolised his perversity. She wished she didn’t have to look at it. Worse still, she found her ability to walk normally had been impaired. There was always a lump stuck between her legs, a flap of meat that felt unnatural. She was always looking down to make sure it hadn’t slipped out and was worried it might get caught in a door hinge.


The next day, she waited in a room without windows, handcuffed on a chair with an empty desk in front of her. Happyface stood off to one side, waiting and checking his watch. There was a knock at the door and Hyland opened it like a gentleman as a young woman with bruises and cuts on her face stepped inside. She heard Happyface inhale as he stepped forward to offer the lady a chair.

She was shocked when the woman entered the room, staring at herself, the dark bruises and swollen eye sockets, recognising herself. She felt violated, and wanted to shout “You’re not me, you stole my body! That’s not me, she’s not me!” When this Rachel entered the room, her walk had a stride, her shoulders slightly hunched, her eyes down, seeming to examine the space of the room and the objects inside it. She, the real Rachel, knew this was Lucas, checking his surroundings, looking for possible exits, walking like someone ready to move fast and with force.

Lucas took a seat opposite the prisoner without being told he was allowed to, nor did he notice the men’s hospitality towards him. Hyland took a seat next to him, cleared his throat, but appeared uncertain as to how to begin, pausing, presumably wondering whether he should make formal introductions. “I’ll start by saying that this meeting is being recorded as part of our investigation. Thank you both for attending,” he said, with a slight smile of reassurance to the young lady, before turning to the prisoner. “You’ve both consulted your legal advisers and are happy to continue without them here. I thought, perhaps, if we all agreed, I could start by asking a few questions about the incident on Friday 5th August, and we could clarify a timeline. How does that sound? Ms Sims, how are you feeling?”

Rachel opened her mouth to speak but realised he was addressing the young woman, not herself. Hyland looked at her this time. “So, we’re all happy to conduct this interview, do you agree to this, Mr Barrow?”

“I think we know what happened on the night of the incident. You already have the evidence and my statement that I abducted and assaulted Ms Sims. What I’d like to know is exactly why Ms Sims wants to hold this meeting.” she asked.

“Okay,” Hyland said, flustered. “Yes, that’s what we’re going to find out, but first I’d like to clarify and establish the facts, and then if Ms Sims feels comfortable and ready to comment, we can—”

“He’s lying,” Lucas said in Rachel’s voice. “He didn’t attack me or try to rape me. I met him at the pub, and he offered me a lift home. I was a bit drunk, I kissed him and said I wanted to have sex. He refused, so I started hitting him. He hit me back. I hit my head when I fell. It was dark and wet. I was upset, I tripped over, he tried to help me, and I hit him again, so he stopped. I scratched my face on some glass and stones. I drove off in his car back to the flat to wait for him. That’s what happened. I guess I had a concussion from the fall, or I was just really drunk, and I blacked out, and that’s why I couldn’t remember anything.’

Hyland stared at Lucas incredulously, as did the others. “He’s fucking lying!” Rachel shouted, indignant, in Lucas’s tough, baritone. “I attacked her. I fucking waited outside the pub, then I came up behind her and hit her in the head. While she was unconscious, I picked her up and drove her to the woods. She, or he, is lying!” Happyface stepped towards her, feeling the conversation was getting out of hand. Hyland raised his hand to tell the strongman to remain calm, and then he spoke loudly but without shouting.

“Mr Barrow, calm down, please, or we’ll have to end this meeting and escort you back to your cell,” he said. He turned to Ms Sims and tried to speak calmly. “Ms Sims, it’s just it doesn’t quite fit the evidence we have, not just from Mr Barrow, but from witnesses who were there on the night in question.”

The woman sighed, shuffled in her seat, and leaned forward impatiently. “I don’t really care. I was intoxicated. I met him in the carpark. We had a fight, I acted stupidly and then I left. I guess he was angry with me about the way I’d behaved, so he made up this story, probably to get back at me for acting like a bitch.”

“This is unbelievable. Inspector Hyland, you don’t honestly believe this? This woman, who I’ve never met before, suddenly decided to go home with me. I’d never met her before. I don’t know why she’s lying. I’m guessing because he wants to drop the charges against himself.”

“I think Mr Barrow is more shaken by what happened than he thinks,” Lucas said, wincing. “I’m still recovering after what happened. I’m sure Mr Barrow just wants to go home.” He looked at himself, the prisoner across the table. “I think if we just started over and picked up where we left off…”

Rachel stared at herself saying these words. She was appalled by his arrogance. Not only was he denying what happened, he seemed completely unfazed by it. “You’re joking. You’re a rapist. You should be locked up,” she said.

Hyland stood up and gestured to Happyface that the meeting was finished. “I don’t think there’s anything more to say. Ms Sims, let me take you back to reception.” Lucas glared at Rachel. “I’ll see you at the trial,” he said, as Hyland took him by the elbow and led him outside. Happyface unlocked her restraints, and she left the room without saying anything more.


The trial drew the media and made newspaper front page headlines: SEX PREDATOR CONFESSES, VICTIM DENIES IT. Details from Lucas’s past were exposed: a female colleague who’d resigned from her job at the dealership after allegations of harassment, but dropped due to lack of evidence. More witnesses would follow.

Pleading guilty to all charges, Rachel spoke openly and derogatively about Lucas’s past, of which she actually knew very little. For the jury, she painted herself in the worst possible light whereas the legal team hired by Lucas’s employer tried to salvage her defence. They used Lucas’s military service as leverage, presenting him as a loyal and heroic ex-army officer who’d suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. They’d pointed to incidents where Lucas fought without regard for his own safety to protect his men, and for which he’d been awarded for his bravery. The prosecution struggled to make a consistent case for themselves as Lucas tried to undermine the allegations by denying key pieces of evidence and contradicting the witness statements, much to the dismay of both the jury and opposing legal teams.

When the verdict was read out, the jury found the accused guilty of assault and battery, but acquitted him of the rape and kidnapping charges. The judge passed a sentence of one year in prison to be served under observation by the mental health unit inside HMP Chelmsford. This had been a disappointment for Rachel’s parents, something of a victory for Lucas, and a relief for Rachel who was apprehensive about actually going to prison, despite her efforts to incriminate Lucas.


Prison life wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d expected. Most of the inmates were sad, gaunt men serving light sentences and who wanted to be left alone in the hope of reducing these with good behaviour. There were small gangs, pockets of young men who’d grouped together for safety, and who’d sometimes intimidate the other inmates with loud talk, but generally it was sanguine and monotonous. Her size and notoriety as a soldier and violent offender, plus the label of being “mentally unstable,” appeared to deter unwanted attention, and in some way, she’d never felt so in control. But then she’d also never felt so alone.

In her free time, she engaged with the prison’s volunteer schemes and education courses which helped inmates improve their literacy and maths skills as illiteracy was common among the inmates, which shocked her. With her financial and legal training, she offered guidance for court hearings, and practical advice on employment and training opportunities. The men she helped were surprised by her generosity, and before long, she’d made friends with people she never would’ve spoken to before, and they gave her their respect and trust.

A few months later, Rachel was released from prison. She felt both aged and strengthened by the months of isolation. She’d gone to Lucas’s flat in Chelmsford, a property and life that wasn’t hers, and found his domain to be filled with objects that projected success and status. This was Lucas’s shrine to himself. She didn’t know where else to go since she couldn’t return to her home, or her parents. She’d thought about finding Lucas and wondered if it was possible to reverse this “change,” although how to do it, and even if she should, played on her mind.


Lucas had sold her house and took a severance package from her employer following a year of sick leave. With this money, he used his old contacts at Wingsgate–Gray to start investing in luxury cars again. At first nobody took him seriously, they’d talked down to him, didn’t call him back, and were often rude if he was outspoken but it hadn’t taken long to make a small profit, although it turned out to be a short-lived honeymoon since old friends and contacts didn’t give him the breaks he’d had before.  It was humiliating, and it was because he was a woman.

He didn’t know how to behave around other people and had struggled for months with his femininity; how to dress, how to speak, how to walk, how to apply make-up. He hated it. He didn’t shave his legs and only wore jeans and baggy jumpers, but had eventually hired two older women, a personal assistant and a beautician, to help fix his clothes and wardrobe, explaining to them that he’d been in a coma and needed advice on how to present himself as a professional. They’d admired him for starting his own business and wanted to be his friend, but were stony-faced when he asked them to stop the banter and dirty jokes. He had to grit his teeth after they laughed when he said he didn’t want to look pretty just normal.

In retaliation, Lucas did what he’d always done, which was to victimise anyone weaker than himself. The easiest targets were the young staff who worked for him. They were skinny, giggling, fresh young girls looking for their first job after graduation. As their boss and someone they admired, he felt he could say anything and they’d just smile at him passively, internalising this humiliation, especially whenever he talked about sex.

A saleswoman called Claire caught his attention, a dippy blonde who laughed too loudly and talked endlessly about her nights out. At an after party, he’d made sure his staff got drunk, ordering more prosecco and shots of sambuca, goading them. Claire, along with everyone else, was slurring and could barely stand. He’d ordered them a taxi but said he’d drive Claire home without asking her. No one cared, they didn’t suspect anything—why would they?

In the driver’s seat, he told her how glad he was that she came tonight. Claire, eyes drooping, head against the door, looking as if about to vomit, had mumbled her thanks. He leaned across and squeezed her knee and Claire opened her eyes, smiling absently. He asked her if she wanted to spend the night at his place and she slurred “sure, whatever,” before closing her eyes.

He drove his Porsche at speed along the dual carriageway. He reached across to caress her knee again and she moaned. He moved his hands up the inside of her thigh and she flinched, shoving his hand away. “Don’t keep touching me,” she slurred. He reached for her breasts, but Claire pushed his hand away. “Get off me!” she shouted. As he tried to grab her neck, she swung her arms wildly, slapping his face, and then pulling the door handle. With one hand on the steering wheel, he tried to stop her, but she fought back, kicking and scratching. He didn’t see the concrete barrier separating the road from the turn-off as the car careened into it. The windscreen exploded, glass and debris flying as the front end of the car collapsed. Claire and Lucas remained in their seats, unconscious and bleeding, until the ambulance arrived.

After a two-month hospital stay to allow Lucas to recover, separate criminal charges of driving under the influence, abduction, and assault were brought against him. Colleagues and ex-employees gave statements in court that Rachel Sims, founder and owner of Parnassus, had routinely harassed and intimidated staff at the dealership. Lucas pled innocent, but the jury found her guilty on all counts, and the judge passed minimum sentence of four years.

Prison was less kind to Lucas than it had been to Rachel. Lucas had not expected the female inmates to be as violent and erratic as they were. There were gangs and bulldykes, as he’d expected, but unlike in men’s prison, the hierarchy wasn’t motivated by sex and money. They didn’t want to rape you or take what you had, they wanted to own you. Addicts, prostitutes, and babykillers. Loud, angry women who’d take pleasure in burning you with a cigarette, just for the reaction.

Lucas thought he had an advantage with his money and military experience, and he’d tried to bribe the bulldykes in exchange for their protection, but this just made him a target. After several months he was knocked unconscious in the shower room and sent to the infirmary where he remained in a coma. Rachel’s parents, estranged from their daughter, came to see him to say goodbye, and then Lucas died a short time after.


Rachel had read about Lucas’s trial and had written to him in prison, suggesting they meet and discuss a reconciliation, but his written response was simply: Rachel, if you want your body back, we have to fuck. That’s the only way to end this curse.

She let some time pass before responding to him. I don’t see why that would work. I think you’ve hurt a lot of people, and hope that prison might change you. I hope we can find another way.

His response troubled her, for she knew that any contrition was meaningless. I’m sorry for what I’ve done, he wrote. I know I am an evil man and I deserve to die. I’d do anything you want if you can get me out of here. Please help me, I can’t take much more.’ Then sometime later she heard he’d died.

After her release from prison, she felt inspired by her experience giving her support to inmates. She used her professional contacts in the legal industry and set about contacting organisations which supported ex-soldiers, whilst attending women’s rights workshops and talks. She volunteered, provided legal and financial advice to campaigners, promoted diversity, prison reform, domestic abuse and women’s rights, organised fundraisers, and this was all the more intriguing since she’d served time in prison.

She wrote articles and held TEDtalks, and soon she was invited as a guest on Good Morning Britain and Question Time, and so, perhaps inevitably, Lucas Barrow became a celebrity; the sex predator turned speaker and human rights campaigner. Then an editor for a book publisher asked if she’d be interested in collaborating on a biography. Rachel was hesitant at first, since she barely knew the real Lucas, but she had agreed on the condition that a cut of the profits be donated to women’s rights charities.

The book was published a few weeks after Lucas’s death. It was titled Lucas Barrow: The Man Inside the Monster, which the editor had said was not a great title but they could find another. Rachel said it was fine. The introduction contained two quotes that were equally ironic, one by Simone De Beauvoir: “The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” The second was from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind.”

Rachel sent a request to the publisher asking for her parents’ permission if the book could be dedicated to them and their late daughter, and with a quote which partly paraphrased Lucas’s last words. “I can never be forgiven for what I’ve done, but if you show me how to change, I can learn to do anything.” Her parents had agreed and said nothing more.

One day Rachel would tell people the truth and she didn’t care if anyone believed her.

Picture of Namreal Drawde

Namreal Drawde

Namreal Drawarde is an aspiring writer and filmmaker living in a small village in Southwest England called the Witterings, West Sussex, with their partner, and graduating from the University of Southampton with a degree in Film and Literature.

Between Canvas Walls by Michelle Brett

The sweat became even itchier as it pooled in the center of Annie’s lower back. She clenched her teeth and breathed in deeply, willing the horrid sensation away. Instead, it only seemed to amplify it, making her fingers clench into claws. 

Trying to distract herself, she pulled the sleeping bag in tighter around her, even though she knew it would only make everything worse. Its down filling pressed heavily upon her, threatening to crush her beneath its weight, while the waterproof outer seemed to rustle with every movement of her chest. She had loved that sleeping bag once. She remembered how ecstatic she had been when she bought it and found out that it came in the same deep purple hue that matched her hiking pack. Now it just felt like a prison.  

Annie stilled herself, then tried to listen to the world outside. But no matter what she did, there was still the thumping of her heart that pounded against the insides of her head. It blocked out everything beyond her yellow canvas walls, almost as though it was her subconscious desperately trying to get her to stop, afraid of what she might find.

But she had to listen. She had to know.

Maybe it’s all over now?

The fire still crackled a few meters away, letting out the occasional pop, while crickets chirped in the surrounding grasses, unaware of the birds that would surely be watching overhead. Earlier in the day, they would have been such comforting sounds, being in the center of nature like that. Even now, the existence of such normality out there should have offered her some form of relief. But instead, it just highlighted what was missing. The conversations. The laughter. Even the terrible singing that had broken out while her friends danced around the flames.  

I can’t hear anything happening out there anymore. 

Annie felt a wave of hope flow through her, hitting her stomach and making it churn.

If she couldn’t hear anything, then maybe it meant that whatever had happened out there was done. Maybe she could leave her tent and run for it. She could get help. She could…what could she really do? Did she even actually know where she was?

The thoughts of doubt threatened to drown her and smothered all sense of possibility away.


It was distant, yet still the high pitch tone broke through the air.

The insect’s chirping ceased.

Around Annie, the world seemed to close in on her, the walls of her tent getting tight. She forced herself to repress a shriek, then bit down on the edge of her sleeping back to help her hold back the tears. 

Shuffling. Dragging. A whimpering cry.

Annie begged to stop hearing. She wanted to be sucked down deeper into that sleeping bag that so recently had been so smothering, but that might now somehow protect her inside its oppressive cocoon.

But it didn’t and her ears, having caught the sound, refused to let it go. They traced it around her recollection of the campsite while her brain created vivid narratives inside her head.

An almighty thwack rang out. Two hard surfaces collided. It rippled into the night, reverberating through the thick evergreen trees.

Then the whimpering stopped.

It could have been anything. Maybe it’s all just in my mind. It could be a trick of the night.

But the images kept replaying, a horror movie with infinite ends.

There had been six of them. Maybe the others had escaped. Someone could be out there getting help right now.

They were all lies. She knew that. And even as she told herself them, they brought her no sense of relief. She just had to stay quiet. That was the only real way out. If she did, then maybe her tent would go unnoticed, maybe its garish yellow exterior would somehow be absorbed into the darkness of the trees. There was no real reason that anything out there would even suspect she was hiding silently inside. 

Time passed and outside, the natural world took over again. The crickets returned to their courtships, and the fire let out a loud snap.

Annie listened for a few moments, then pulled her mind away. With harmony returning beyond her walls, that sense of hope welled up inside her again. It made her feel sick. Quiet outside might mean her salvation, but what did it mean for her friends? Was she really lying in there, hoping they might fall victim to whatever was out there faster, if it meant she never had to hear the sounds of those guttural screams again, if it meant it could all be over and she could get free?

Annie pulled the bag even tighter until the cord almost cut into her throat. She tried to steady her heartbeat, certain that if she didn’t, its thumping would vibrate through the entire earth. Then she stared out into the darkness, only seeing through the canvas, the faint flickering of the fire’s light.

What had even happened out there? How did it all go so wrong?

When she had left them, they had all been sitting around that fire, laughing and flirting, condemning Annie to the role of third wheel. She had felt so angry at them then, but they hadn’t even noticed. So she retreated to her tent to just lie inside and stew in her rage. At some point, she must have drifted off to sleep because all she remembered was being awoken by the shouts, the struggle, then the screams.

So many screams…

Footsteps sounded. Heavy against the disturbed dirt of the clearing.

Annie forced her eyes closed and her body still.

No. Please, no. It was meant to be over. Please just go away.

Her ears listened, even though her mind didn’t want to hear. She only hoped that whoever they were, they were going the other way.

I’m not here. I’m not here. How could this be happening?

Sudden pangs of fury shot through her. None of this was fair. She hadn’t even wanted to go camping in the first place. She hated nature. She hated trees. She wanted her own bed. Her house. Her room. Real walls.

The crickets went silent again. Even the sounds of the fire seemed to dim. 

Annie opened her eyes and stared into the darkness, wishing, even though she knew it would be stupid, for some form of light. Just something that would be able to illuminate the shadows and scare the monsters away.

But the thoughts all disappeared as the clicking of a zipper reverberated into her tent.

Picture of Michelle Brett

Michelle Brett

Michelle Brett is a science fiction author, who occasionally delves into the world of horror.

The Muse by Kelly Moyer

would have thought you’d know better than to tell them about us. After all, it was you who called me into your world through lines and curves sketched with precision. Gradations of color thoughtfully added to the canvas. You were proud to create an image of me that was, as I believe you phrased it, true to life.

Well, here I am. Yet, my presence seems to threaten you. I’m beginning to think it was the power you felt over me that enthralled you, because, in your mind, you created me. I’m sorry to tell you, that was simply paint on primed muslin. I’ve traversed these realms many times over, long before you were born.

Oh, how you tremble! Yet your erection belies your fear. In fact, I’m rather certain it grows firmer in the face of your self-perpetuated terror.

Let me check. Oh, yes. The root of your need burrows deeper than your will to power. It’s not I who terrifies you. It’s the depth of your need. Your longing to surrender is precisely that which has brought you here.

The fantasy was safe, wasn’t it?

Yet, the way I possess you has never, for a moment, stripped you of your freedom. I may feed on your semen and take a good bit of your vitality as my own, but you have always had the opportunity to be free—in your mind. Your suffering is simply another thing you have created for yourself. It’s a choice you’ve made.

Yet, here you are, locked in a little room with bare walls and no shoelaces. You call this freedom? Why you’d prefer electroconvulsive therapy to the ecstasy of engaging in the regenerative act is beyond me. Did you think you could escape the torment of a creative life? If so, your professors at the Institute did you a disservice.

You may have come here for safety, yet no security door can keep me from entering your mind. It appears the tension between your desire and your fear is that which is most apt to shatter you, even under the constraints of a suicide watch.

You tell the doctors that I come night after night to steal your seed. But, it was your need to surrender that inspired that image of me. Whether you’re able to acknowledge it or not, it’s the freedom to be found in your little death that you crave more than anything else within this world.

Shhh, keep your voice down. What will they think if they hear your cries? That’s it. You’re almost there. I’ll just keep rocking, just like this. Grinding above you on the psych ward of a community hospital in a small southern town that doesn’t quite understand what makes an artist tick. The way I do.

Picture of Kelly Moyer

Kelly Moyer

Kelly Moyer is an award-winning poet and fiber artist, who pursues her muse through the cobbled streets of New Orleans’s French Quarter. When not writing, stitching, or weaving, she is likely to be found wandering the mountains of North Carolina, where she resides with her partner and two philosopher kittens, Simone and Jean-Paul. Hushpuppy, her collection of short-form poetry, was recently released by Nun Prophet Press.

Awaken From Your Granite Slumber by K.J. Watson

I rapped a tumbler on the mantel above the fireplace. The crowd in the hotel bar fell quiet.

“We’ve had three months of rain,” I said. “The foundations of our homes and businesses are sinking into the saturated earth. We need to lighten the load our properties bear. We must remove the granite gargoyles from them without delay.”

The barkeeper scowled. “Listen, Bridie, I don’t intend to disfigure our Gothic architecture on a winter’s night.”

People murmured their agreement. I shrugged and said, “Would you rather wake up tomorrow to a town that’s collapsed into the mud?”

I didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, I returned to my shop of curios and antiques on the other side of the square. Fifteen minutes later, through the noise of the rain, I heard the chink chink chink of steel chisels driven into stone.

They’ve taken my advice. It seems my status as the town’s oldest person commands respect after all.

I donned my rubberized cloak and left the shop. On every side, the residents of Glenbeck perched on ladders and hacked the gargoyles from the roofs and sandstone facades of the buildings.

“They’re heavy, Bridie,” a man said to me as he lowered a gargoyle from where it had jutted. “You could be right. If we jettison them, we might save our buildings.”

Another man waved to attract my attention. “Where should we put these things once we’ve taken them down?”

“In the square,” I said.

Within an hour, a heap of gargoyles had accumulated. The townsfolk congratulated each other and returned to the hotel bar to dry off by the log fire.

I didn’t join them. I wanted to study the gargoyles. Their features didn’t vary. They possessed identical taloned paws and part-opened wings. Each snarling face had its lips drawn back to reveal pointed teeth.

The crack of rupturing masonry interrupted my contemplation. I looked across at my shop and the apartment above it. The subsiding foundations had opened a vertical fissure down the front.

An abandoned ladder lay alongside an adjacent building. I dragged it along the sidewalk and heaved it up against my broken wall. Taking care not to slip on the wet rungs, I climbed to the edge of the roof. Here, a gargoyle protruded from beneath the gutter. Larger than those piled in the square, the beast flaunted swollen muscles across its body. Moreover, rather than snarl as the others did, it wore a malicious smile.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

The gargoyle didn’t move or speak.

I realized I’d forgotten how to proceed. I cursed my inefficient memory and hurried down the ladder. With one rung to go, I slipped and fell.

Bruised and bewildered, I staggered across the square to the hotel bar and thrust open the door. My distraught appearance, and the influx of cold into the snug atmosphere, disconcerted the drinkers.

The barkeeper stared at me. “Need something to warm you, Bridie? A port and brandy?”

I shook my head and peered behind the flushed faces of the townsfolk at the room’s paneled walls. The wood’s color and sheen reminded me of the coffin in which I’d buried my grandmother.

Of course—I must consult her book.

 “Have a drink, Bridie,” a woman said. “Help celebrate our salvation from subsidence.”

“No, I’ve something to do.”

I strode back to my shop and tried to switch on the light. Nothing happened. The collapse that had damaged the wall had cut off the electricity. I groped my way in the dark to a bureau and fumbled for a candle and matches. Lighting the candle, I went to a safe at the back of the shop. From inside, I produced a slim book.

I balanced the candle on a table and sat in a nearby armchair. With the book on my lap, I read aloud the embossed lettering on the cover: “The Glenbeck Gargoyles: Justified Retribution by Edith Wreak.”

Inside the book, on the first page, I read the words “Private Edition.” To my certain knowledge, they meant I held the only copy ever printed.

The second page had the following paragraph: “This book is an execration for your eyes only, Bridie Wreak. Its sentences are your guide. Through them, you can repay the town of Glenbeck for the way its residents reviled my thaumaturgic skills.”

I turned the pages that followed and scanned the predictions of the ceaseless rain, the descent into the ground of Glenbeck’s buildings, and the proposal for the removal of the gargoyles. I nodded and stared beyond the candlelight into the darkness of the shop.

“We’ve waited a long while for all this to happen, grandmother,” I said. “And because I don’t have your memory and resilience, I’ve failed to recollect what I must do next. But your words will instruct me.”

I continued reading. Once I’d finished, I parted my cloak and slipped the book into a pocket. By the light of the candle, I wended my way through the shop’s furniture and display cabinets. Easing behind a desk, I pushed aside a faded tapestry that hung on the wall and opened the door behind it.

Ice-cold air enveloped me. Gripping a rickety handrail, I went down a flight of wooden stairs to a cellar. At the bottom, I bent over and examined the floor. The concrete that formed part of the building’s foundations had split. Jagged openings zigzagged across it.

Setting the candle down, I picked up a crowbar from a shelf and hit the concrete. I struck blow after blow. Eventually, the floor succumbed and broke into pieces. Lifting these to one side, I exposed a trench in which a coffin lay. I raised the crowbar and hit the lid. It disintegrated.

I dropped the crowbar and knelt. Wincing from my exertion, I reached into the gloom of the coffin’s interior. My hands found what I sought. With a wrench, I freed the object and held it up. In the glimmering light, I saw my grandmother’s head.

She’s almost the same as the day she passed sixty years ago.

Gripping the head and the candle, I ascended the stairs to the shop and went outside. The rain extinguished the candle. I dropped it and, with one hand clamped on my grandmother’s head, scaled the ladder. Leaning against the rungs to steady myself, I placed the head in the concave space between the gargoyle’s talons and chin.

“You are Torva,” I whispered, “companion of my grandmother and leader of the town’s gargoyles. Awaken from your granite slumber.”

Torva’s eyes closed. When they opened a moment later, they shone like garnets lit from within. Torva then tossed my grandmother’s head into the square below. It fell just short of the heap of discarded gargoyles.

I turned toward the hotel bar. The patrons had stumbled into the wet night. Some held umbrellas; others had torches. The barkeeper emerged behind them.

“Time to go home,” she said and squinted in my direction. “Is a person on that ladder?”

I remained still. The barkeeper shielded her eyes against the rain and moved clumsily forward.

“You up there, Bridie?”

Torva placed a restraining paw on my shoulder.

“What’s going on?” the barkeeper said. “Did I see that gargoyle move?”

The townsfolk in the square looked in my direction.

“Yes,” I said.

The barkeeper took another step and hit her foot against a sphere the size of a child’s football. She directed a torch at it and gasped.

Even the most inebriated among the crowd stood still and gawked at the object caught in the torch’s light: my grandmother’s battered head.

“Place it on the pile of gargoyles,” I said.

Taken aback by my harsh tone, the barkeeper scooped up the head and threw it onto the mound of inanimate beasts. Immediately, each pair of gray eyes blinked and revealed red orbs of startling brightness.

“We’re in trouble,” someone said in a drunken slur.

Such were the last words I heard any Glenbeck resident speak. Torva ripped herself from the mortar that had kept her in place and jumped down onto the barkeeper. This violence prompted the other gargoyles to leap up and hurl themselves at the other townsfolk.

From the ladder, I witnessed a murderous scene that my grandmother had wished for in her book. At the same time, the rain grew in ferocity. The rate at which the town’s buildings sank into the ground increased. My ladder jolted and slipped. I lost my hold. As I tumbled off, I felt talons seize my arms before I lost consciousness.

I came to the next morning. Struggling to my feet, I became aware of the silence. For the first time in three months, the rain had ceased. I gazed at the scene around me. The town had gone, apart from a weathervane that rose from the mud at an oblique angle.

Patting the book beneath my cloak, I said, “So be it.”

A dove landed on the weathervane and shook itself. While I watched the bird, Torva approached and led me away from the site of the town into the countryside. The Glenbeck gargoyles followed. I didn’t know where Torva would lead us—my grandmother had written nothing about the aftermath of the town’s disappearance—but I noticed that the features of every gargoyle had softened into a shared expression of glee.

Picture of K.J. Watson

K.J. Watson

K. J. Watson’s fiction and poetry has appeared on the radio, in comics, magazines, anthologies, and online.