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.”

 

***

TOP SECRET

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.

Home.

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.”

“No.”

“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.

Crack.

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.

The Maze by Julie Dron

The narrow grassy path was soft beneath his feet as he meandered with a sense of vague amusement. He wondered how many hours were spent keeping the tall privet hedges on either side neatly trimmed. The small, firm leaves rustled in the occasional breeze, and he could hear the sound of distant chatter and laughter. Perhaps others, too, were lost. It was a hot, sultry afternoon and he was annoyed with himself for not bringing water as he began to tire from heat and thirst. Pausing to wipe his forehead with his sleeve, he realized, having patted his pockets, that he had left his phone in the car and was unable to call for help. Then he remembered the advice he had been given in the scouts, to keep to the left. He began to take longer strides, feeling positive now that he had a plan, keeping his hand lightly touching the sharp privet branches on his left.

As he turned a corner, he noticed a plaster that lay on the ground between the daisies; he had walked this route before. The plaster, with the small red stain, had disgusted him when he first spotted it. He felt annoyance at another’s carelessness and focused on his irritation in an attempt to avoid the feelings of distress that were beginning to churn within his stomach. He quickened his pace, panicking now that the sun was lower in the sky. Aware that he could no longer hear the voices of others, he stopped to listen, but it was silent, apart from the murmuring of the leaves. He tried to burrow through the hedge, perhaps he could create a straight path, anxiety overcoming concern for any potential damage he may cause, but the hedge was too thick and the scratches on his hand were deep and painful. He attempted scaling the green wall but found it impossible to get a firm foothold, falling inwards, the needle-like twigs poking his eyes. Now it was approaching the time of day some described as ‘gloaming’. He always felt uncomfortable at this time for reasons he could never quite fathom. When he was young, he had been terrified by the long, sinister shadow that followed him everywhere, like a monster ready to pounce and swallow him up. He shivered despite the warmth of the evening.

With a feeling of relief, he found the path widening. He was certain he had not been here before, finding himself in a large square space he assumed was the center; a small lawn with only a table.Perhaps he would discover instructions, a guide to the exit. As he neared the table, his body became awash with an icy cold dread; he could see now that it was in fact a hospital bed, a white sheet covering the form of a body. Overcome with a brief flash of horror, he suddenly recalled the accident, the ambulance, the sirens, the antiseptic smell of hospital corridors. He did not pull back the sheet, as he knew who lay beneath, and within a timelessness that was merely seconds, the sun sank below the horizon and a complete and eternal darkness fell.

Picture of Julie Dron

Julie Dron

Julie Dron began writing in her sixties and has since been published in a number of online journals and anthologies including The Wild Word, Wordrunner eChapbooks, Syncopation Literary Journal, Synkroniciti, Shorts Magazine, Scottish Arts Trust, Flash Fiction Magazine, Blink Ink, Amaranth and Danse Macabre.

The House on Linden Street by J. Paré

My older brother David and I were walking home from baseball practice Friday night. It was getting dark, and the streetlights had just turned on. Dad had told us to be home before the lights had a chance of thinking about going on, but baseball practice ran late. David said we’d better take the old shortcut down through to Linden Street, even though I was too young to be going through the woods.

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take. You don’t want Dad to get mad, do you?” David walked ahead of me.

Agreeing with him, I ran to grab his hand, and we went through the narrow path that led through the woods. I was only seven at the time, and to a seven-year-old, the woods got awfully scary after dark. We didn’t talk much through most of our walk. The wind blew between the branches and the twigs and leaves crunched under our feet. The darkness was getting worse by the minute, making it harder for us to see the path. Also, the brush that surrounded us grew thicker and thicker until we could barely walk.

We almost gave up, but the trail gave way to a field that had a house sitting right in the middle of it. The place looked awkward being in the woods. It kind of looked ancient, creepy, and weather-worn. Many of the shingles had fallen off or were in serious need of repair, and quite a few of the windows appeared broken. Many of them were so dirty that light would not shine through them.

“I wonder who lives there. Do you think anyone’s home?” David asked in a whisper.

I looked up at my brother, and he had that look on his face again, the one that said, “Come on, Joey, be a sport and do as I tell you, or I’ll break your face!” Reluctantly, I followed him to the front door, which was all boarded up. David turned around to me and asked if I was afraid of ghosts.

“Why do you want to know that?” I asked suspiciously.

“Oh, I don’t know. I just heard some stories.”

“What stories?” I asked, my voice rising steadily above a whisper.

“Shhh…do you want to wake up, old man Fitch?”

“Who?” I asked.

“Old man Fitch. He went crazy and killed his whole family, and then no one ever saw him again.”

Just then, a light went on in the basement. We could see it through the tiny window near the foundation of the house. “Oh, jeez David, let’s get out of here.”

“No, wait. Come on, let’s look in the window and see who it is,” David pleaded, but I just stood there shaking my head no.

He ran towards the window, and I followed him partly out of fear and partly because I was almost as curious as he was. Who would be hanging around in an old boarded-up house, anyway?

David got to the window before I did, and he just sat there with his mouth wide open. When I reached him, he flew to his feet and ran past me, nearly knocking me over.

“Wait for me, you fool!” I screamed as I started running after him.

We had reached the end of the path that led to Linden Street, and David and I stopped to catch our breath.

“What was in there?” I asked.

“It was nothing. Just some old guy, that’s all.”

“What old guy?”

“Shut up and let’s get going. I’ll tell you on the way home.”

As we walked towards our house, David told me about the old guy.

“He was huge and looked mean as hell.”

You could tell when my brother was making things seem scarier than they were because he tried to emphasize all the details by using arm and facial gestures. “He was holding a shovel and digging a hole in the basement floor. All I could see was a pair of legs sticking out of the hole, and before I took off, he looked right at me.”

“Holy crap! What are we going to do if he comes looking for us?”

David shrugged and gave me a weird look, then nudged me with his fist, sending me into a tree. “Shut up. I’m trying to think.”

We walked a little further down the street, then David stopped. “I got it!”

“Got what?”

“We’ll go back down there tomorrow after practice to check that guy out again.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “If you want to go back, then you can go yourself. Leave me out of it.”

“What are you…a wimp?”

I told David I would tell Mom if he brought me down there again.

“If you do tell, I’ll kick your ass.”

That was enough for me. I was going whether or not I liked it. I knew my brother was serious when he had that wild look in his eyes.

***

That Saturday, we went back. The creepy old house seemed even scarier in the daylight, if that was possible. It was a big house with those two windows in the attic, the kind that seem to stare at you. There was an empty dirt driveway leading around back.

David said something like, “Not home,” under his breath, and as he walked toward the back door, I could tell he was planning on breaking in.

I whispered as loud as possible, “What are you doing? You’re going to get us both caught.”

“Nah, the old man will be gone for hours.”

I wondered how he knew that, but fear kept me from staying outside alone. I followed him through the unlocked door and into the house. David tried the lights, but they didn’t turn on. It looked like the old man used gas lamps to get around; there were several of them placed strategically around the house. Any light that shone through the windows was a blessing. I almost squealed when I ran into David, who had stopped short in front of me.

“We should get out of here,” he said in a tone that made me scared.

I peeked into the room in front of him. The space was empty except for five candles melted to the floor around the points of a pentagram drawn in white chalk in the room’s center. In the middle of the pentagram was a bloody outline of a body. It might have been the same body David had seen being buried the night before in the basement, and as the thought entered my mind, a truck pulled into the driveway.

“Crap!” exclaimed David. “Hide.”

There wasn’t anywhere to hide. The rooms were barren, and as I frantically scoured the rooms, I saw David climbing into one of the kitchen cupboards. Without a second thought, I ran toward my brother and climbed into the cupboard next to him right before the kitchen door opened. As I peered through the crack in the cupboard door, I prayed that my heavy breathing wouldn’t give me away. The back door shut, and David cupped his hands over my mouth to stifle my panting. I almost screamed when he grabbed me, but the man who walked into the house put cold shivers down my spine, and I froze.

The man was very old and at least six-and-a-half feet tall, with wild eyes and an unkempt beard. His denim jacket was torn at the sleeves, and he had what looked like mud and red paint on his sneakers, though I kind of knew it was blood. The old man started humming as he lit the gas lamp on the floor next to the back door, then walked into the room where the pentagram was. He was chanting in some language I didn’t recognize. Bending over, he collected the five candles and threw them into the middle of the pentagram.

I strained to see what he did next, but he was out of eyeshot. When his cell phone rang, I was startled and almost whimpered, but I looked at David, who was looking back at me with his index finger pressed up against his lips.

The old man started talking about the “hidden package,” then his voice raised to a scream as he started shouting in that strange language. As he hung up the phone, he screamed obscenities and ran outside.

I was about to get out of the cupboard when David grabbed my arm hard. I whimpered, and he put his index finger to his mouth again, whispering, “He hasn’t driven out of here yet.”

Just then, the truck door slammed shut, and I went to get out again, but David only held my arm tighter.

The man came back in, this time carrying a shovel. As he stalked through the house, three other cars pulled into the driveway. The old man made his way to the stairs going down to the basement, bringing the shovel with him as quite a few other people entered the house. There were three men and two women who looked equally as old as the man in the basement. Everyone was talking in that strange language. The last person who walked into the house was carrying a leather bag with two handles. She had long hair, and her face was all wrinkly, but that wasn’t what made me scared. It was the wild look in her colorless eyes that did it. It was the same wild look that the old man in the basement had.

Two of the men went down the creaky stairs, and I heard them talking as the other man who’d stayed with the women went outside saying, “I’ll go get the offering. Hopefully, it will work this time.”

My mind raced. What offering?

The two women chanted and pulled things I couldn’t see from a black pouch. They were placing the stuff inside the circle drawn on the floor when the man came back in with a large burlap bag that I knew was another body.

I almost threw up.

The man replaced the candles and lit them. The sack was wriggling all around, and I thought I could hear muffled cries beneath the cloth. Just then, the old man came up the stairs panting. His partners followed him with the other body, and as the men brushed the dirt from their pants, the women took the dead body and placed it back in the middle of the pentagram, right over the bloodstains.

When they opened the burlap bag, I could see the person inside struggling to be set free. The woman, not much older than David, was pleading with the people to let her go. Everyone laughed in unison, and then one of the women spoke to the others in that strange language. Everyone laughed again. Two of the men pulled the girl to her feet, holding her head over the pentagram. One of the women took what looked to be a pewter goblet with symbols scribbled over it and placed it under the girl’s neck as the other woman slit the girl’s throat.

Everyone started chanting feverously, then the candle lights dimmed and flickered out on their own, even though there wasn’t any wind blowing in the house. One of the men relit the lantern. No one spoke a word. They just cleaned the room and left.

The old man who’d carried the dead body up the basement stairs had followed one of the other men back downstairs. Each of them was carrying a dead body on their shoulders.

When everyone was gone, David and I got out of there as quickly as possible. I didn’t know if we should have told the police or not. David said it was better to shut up about it.

I pleaded, “Shouldn’t we at least tell the cops that there are two bodies buried in the basement?”

“No, we shouldn’t. That was black magic. Do you want to be the next victim?”

I shut my mouth and walked down Linden Street with my hands shoved deep into my pockets. I did what David told me, but I didn’t sleep well that night.

***

The next day I went grocery shopping with my mom, and she let me drive the grocery cart. As I sped around the corner into the meat aisle, I ran right into one of the creepy old guys from the abandoned house.

He stared down at me, and I screamed.

Mom looked at me as if I had three heads.

The man grabbed my wrist, chanting. He had closed his eyes as he spoke that crazy language. Then he raised his head and shook it, put his finger out, and waved it back and forth as if to tell me I’d done something terrible.

I swallowed hard and blinked up at him fearfully.

I didn’t know how much trouble I was in until two days later when funny things started to happen. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but David was having funny things happen to him as well.

There was a dead black cat stuck to our front door with a dagger. At school, books flew off their shelves in the library at David as he walked past them, and the spokes on my bicycle wheels crushed in on me as I rode home. Other stuff happened, like lights turning on and off on their own. Even the television turned on in the living room while everyone was asleep. I didn’t know what to do, so I talked to David about it. He just passed it off as a fluke, but I knew we were cursed. I knew we shouldn’t have gone into that creepy old house, and I knew I shouldn’t have reacted that way at the supermarket.

The next night, I had a dream about the old man from the supermarket. In the dream, he had opened a portal to hell. He laughed as he turned his head to stare at me. The dream was so vivid that I thought it was really happening, and when the man reached out to grab my arm, I screamed.

When I woke, I noticed my arm was hurting. It was the same arm the man had grabbed hold of in my dream. I pulled up my pajama sleeve to take a look and found a bruise in the shape of a handprint. It took me quite a while to fall back to sleep again, and when I did, I dreamed David got dragged into the blackness of that malevolent pentagram. His body had burned up as he scrambled helplessly, trying to keep from falling into the void. I woke screaming again and ran to see if David was okay, but all I found as I lifted his bedsheets was a burned outline where his body had been.

Mom and Dad questioned me, but I said nothing. I hoped that if I didn’t talk about it, things would go back to normal. They didn’t. Three weeks went by, and I was still having nightmares. Mom would come into the room to check on me, but I wouldn’t tell her what had happened.

The police were baffled. They couldn’t figure out what happened to David, and since I was sleeping in the same room when David disappeared, I was asked a lot of questions.

Eventually, the police had given up, but the nightmares weren’t going away. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to tell Mom and Dad everything.

Mom and Dad wanted me to take them to the house, but as our car pulled into the dirt driveway, there was no house to be found, just an empty field. I got punished for telling them what they thought was a lie, but I suspected black magic was involved.

The next night, I took Mom’s camera to the house. I was hoping it would be there when I went alone. Sure enough, the house seemed to be staring at me with evil coursing through every pane of glass and piece of wood that held the place together. I took picture after picture of the house. I even got the nerve up to go back inside, seeing as there wasn’t any light showing through the windows and the driveway was empty. The inside seemed even creepier this time. I assumed it was because I was alone. The pentagram was still there, and I took a ton of pictures of that too.

Hurrying, I closed the door behind me and scrambled home, hoping the evidence from my pictures would be good enough. When Mom pulled the pictures up on her computer, though, there were only pictures of that creepy field. The images that I took from inside the house showed a graveyard where the pentagram had been. There were only two gravestones, and they had the names of two people that supposedly died a hundred years ago. Mom and Dad got mad at me again, and this time I got beat with Dad’s belt. I decided that there wasn’t any way out of the nightmares, and finding the place with anyone but myself was hopeless. I figured the only way out of this horrible situation was to let the old man do with me what he wanted.

That night I had another dream, but instead of running, I allowed him to pull me into the abyss in the center of the evil-looking pentagram. It was over, and as I took my last breath, I looked up to see the old man laughing with wild, colorless eyes.

Picture of J. Paré

J. Paré

J. Paré has lived most of his life in Coventry, Rhode Island with his wife, Patricia and his two children. He is a self-published author who has been writing since he was sixteen years old. His short fiction has appeared in All Roads Magazine, Collective Tales Publishing, and The Stygian Lepus Magazine.

The Great Edwardo by Chris Tattersall

Edward was proud of himself, blowing out his six candles with ease. As if a magic trick, that precise moment also saw ‘The Great Raymondo’ enter the house behind Edward via the kitchen. A coordinated appearance his mom had planned for weeks.

Edward watched in awe as the magician focused on him and him alone, with his friends relegated to mere audience members.

The Great Raymondo encouraged the audience to shout “Abracadabra!” whilst Edward wielded the all-powerful black and white magic wand, tapping rhythmically on the kitchen table: tap…tap…tap, tap, tap…….tap, tap.

The Great Raymondo then pulled a bouquet from his sleeve and a string of handkerchiefs from his mouth, all thanks to Edward’s proficiency with the wand.

The performance continued with astounding, impossible magic, climaxing in the unexplainable disappearance of a soft foam ball from under a cup.

It had been the best day ever. Edward had met his hero, his mom’s long-held plan had come to fruition, the guests were full of sugar and e-numbers, primed for a taxing evening for their parents, and ‘The Great Raymondo’ had been paid his usual rate, plus ten percent.

Edward was exhausted with contentment.

***

With Edward not running into her bedroom with the excitement of a new day, his mom enjoyed a rare rest, safe in the knowledge that yesterday he had enjoyed the best birthday ever.

With a fresh second coffee by her side, she let Edward sleep.

Edward lay on his bedroom floor, unseeing eyes wide open, staring blankly at the ceiling. In his mottled hand he held the end of a long string of handkerchiefs hanging from the corner of his mouth.

Picture of Chris Tattersall

Chris Tattersall

Chris Tattersall is a Health Service Research Manager and lives with his wife Hayley and Border Collie in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK. He is a self-confessed flash fiction addict with some publication and competition success. A recent obsession of his being writing Novella-In-Flash. He also hosts his own flash fiction website.

Children Shouldn’t Play with Anything by Steven Holding

The meal, of course, was delicious. Wine was flowing. Expensive, obviously, but he’d come to expect nothing less. As he took another sip from his glass, taking a moment to savor the bitter-sweet taste before allowing the glowing liquid to slide down his throat, Thomas reflected upon how much he loathed Atkinson’s dinner parties. Or rather, just how much it was that he loathed Atkinson himself.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized just how many aspects of the man’s character he despised. Sitting there, half-listening to the inane chatter being exchanged between his other half, Liz, and Wendy, Atkinson’s wife (his third to date; the other two, unsurprisingly, had both been traded in for newer, younger models), the list of grievances he held against the bastard scrolled through his mind like a never-ending credit sequence found at the conclusion of some mindless, trashy Hollywood epic.

Everything about the man made his blood boil.

He hated him for his wealth, his success, his impeccable taste.

He hated him for having a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a beautiful life.

He hated him for having an absurd Surname as a Christian name.

But, most of all, if he were being brutally honest, he hated him just for being so fucking perfect.

And yet, despite all these resentments, he once again found himself sitting in the man’s house, eating his food and swilling his booze, listening to more of his anecdotes, which, annoyingly, never seemed to be dull and always left Thomas feeling green with envy, all the while sporting a huge artificial grin that was beginning to make his cheeks ache.

Just because the two of them were, supposedly, friends.

How, when, and why their relationship had been formed was lost to Thomas somewhere in the dim, distant past. Of much greater importance was the reoccurring question that plagued him every time he endured another one of Atkinson’s social soirees. Why, after all these years of silent seething, allowing one resentment after another to gradually pile up, resulting in a staggering, swaying tower of complete, unadulterated repugnance, had he never, ever once summoned the courage to terminate their comradeship?

For this, he had no answer.

“What do you think about that then, Thomas?”

The question pulled Thomas out of his daydream, forcing him to focus upon the small talk floating across the dinner table. He turned his attention towards his inquisitor, acutely aware that he had absolutely no idea what the subject was that he was being asked to express an opinion upon.

“Err…that’s a tricky one, I suppose. Many ins and outs and all that.”

Atkinson smiled at him, revealing a bright white set of unnaturally even teeth. Thomas felt his contempt bubbling up inside him once again. That, or possibly the beginnings of an attack of indigestion. As the tip of his tongue rolled across his own incisors, bothering the tiny flecks of food that were trapped against his gums, he faced another round of questions. How was it, he thought, that a slim, slip of a man such as the one opposite him could devour such copious amounts of food, wolfing it down like a starving mongrel, yet never appear to gain an ounce of weight? And why on earth did he never seem to end up with any rogue pieces of gristle stuck in his teeth, ruining his permanently amused expression? Once again, he seemed at a loss to provide an explanation. Atkinson continued to beam at him, his piercing blue eyes unblinking.

“Thomas, are you zoning out on me again, buddy?”

Thomas shrugged his shoulders, offering a sheepish smile. “No mate, no. Just a little tired, that’s all.”

The door to the kitchen was flung open, cutting Thomas short and allowing him a welcomed escape route out of the awkwardness of the conversation. All four adults looked up from the dinner table over towards the doorway. Standing there was Helena, Atkinson’s little girl. Behind her, peering over her shoulder, was Becki, Thomas’s daughter and his only child. The two girls were breathless, red-cheeked and sweaty from playing in the garden whilst the grown-ups had been finishing their meal.

“We’re bored of being outside,” panted Helena, “And anyway, it looks like it’s going to rain.”

“We’re going upstairs to play,” chipped in Becki, screwing up her freckled face into a tight grimace. Thomas sighed, acutely aware of how plain his daughter appeared compared to the blossoming beauty of Atkinson’s offspring.

Atkinson smiled, raising his wine glass in a mock toast towards the two girls. “Okay girls, God bless you. Oh, just one more thing, though…”

The two girls hung round the edge of the door frame, grappling with each other like chimps.

“What’s that, Daddy?”

Atkinson raised his empty hand to his lips, pressed his fingers against his mouth, then blew an invisible kiss at them.

“Just make sure you have lots of fun now. Or else you’re in big trouble!”

The two girls burst into a dual fit of giggles, then vanished just as quickly as they had appeared. The only indication of their movement was the clump-clump of little feet as they dashed up the stairs. Thomas turned towards Atkinson, grateful for the shift in attention.

“Wow, man, isn’t seven such a cracking age. Don’t you wish they could stay that way forever?”

“Well…” said Wendy from across the table. She fixed Thomas with the usual withering stare she seemed to reserve solely for his benefit. He was still unaccustomed to her gaze, despite having been on the receiving end of it more times than he cared to remember. “They have to grow up sometime, and Atkinson and I feel it would be highly irresponsible to stifle a child’s development.”

Thomas felt himself squirming in his chair. Wendy, a teacher by profession, always seemed to address him as if she were talking to one of her naughty pupils. He detested her for it, but not as much as he detested himself for the uncontrollable feelings of lust her strict headmistress routine seemed to awaken within him. Atkinson, ever the peacekeeper, intervened.

“What I think Wendy is trying to say, is that it’s important not to cling onto your kids too much. You can smother them with your expectations, apply too much pressure. Sometimes it’s just best to let them do their own thing. You know what I mean?”

Liz, much to Thomas’s annoyance, flapped her head in agreement. “Oh, yes, of course, yes, we agree wholeheartedly. Thomas and I try very hard to allow Becki the space to breathe, to explore, to be herself. Don’t we, Thomas?”

Thomas nearly choked on the partially chewed king-sized prawn he had surreptitiously slipped into his mouth whilst Atkinson had been talking. He stared at Liz, raising an eyebrow quizzically. His wife did not seem to see Atkinson and his brood in the same light as he did. Her almost childlike adoration of their family had caused him to wince in embarrassment on more than one occasion. He found it grating the way she seemed to hang on every word that came out of Atkinson’s constantly cheerful mouth. The way she acted, fawning over him like a star struck teenage groupie sitting cross-legged at the feet of their pop idol guru, made his stomach flip and his skin crawl. Her behavior, as unbearable as it was, wasn’t the worst aspect of their little dinner parties. That honor was reserved especially for the excruciating moments when Atkinson and Wendy joined forces and began spouting what Thomas could only think of as their liberal, new age, hippy-dippy bullshit. They seemed to regard their parenting skills as faultless, and their ridiculous lecturing would often make him physically cringe. Liz’s response was the complete opposite. She resembled an over-excited puppy dog that was expecting a treat, sitting up to attention and wagging their tail. As he briefly shut his tired eyes, Thomas swore he could almost hear her panting.

A sudden loud bang from upstairs diffused the situation. All four of them looked upwards as the chandelier above their heads began to rock backwards and forwards.

“Sounds like they’re having fun,” said Atkinson as he reached across the table for some bread. Liz leaned forward in her chair, grabbing the hand-woven wicker breadbasket off the tabletop and passing it over to him. Thomas stifled a yawn as his wife flashed her broadest, doe-eyed smile towards Atkinson.

“And where is Gregory today?” she asked as Atkinson took a small wholemeal baguette out of the basket and set about tearing it into smaller pieces.

“You know what lads of his age are like, embarrassed to spend any time with their family. He went out to see a movie last night with a bunch of mates, ended up staying over at his friend’s house.”

Thomas forced another couple of prawns into his mouth and chewed upon them laboriously. He pictured Gregory, Atkinson’s sixteen-year-old son. The boy took after his father in almost every aspect. Good looking, athletic, academically gifted. Thomas considered the teenager as equally repulsive in his apparent faultlessness as he did his old man. He would often wish that the boy would go off the rails like one of the teenagers he would see in the dreadful soap operas his wife seemed addicted to. A severe problem with drugs, perhaps, or just an admission of being a compulsive shoplifter. Even a lethal drunk-driving car crash wouldn’t go amiss. One, or indeed all of these, would have brought immense joy to him. Any fly in the ointment of his friends’ otherwise perfect existence would have been warmly received.

“Still thinking Oxbridge?” continued Liz. She toyed with the remains of her salad, pushing the leaves ’round and ’round her plate with her fork, each tiny revolution cutting a clean path through the streaks of her leftover coleslaw. The motion reminded Thomas of the homeless guy that always seemed to stumble out in front him at the traffic lights on his route to work. The poor bugger always drooled more mess onto the windscreen than he ever seemed capable of cleaning off.

“Cambridge, we think,” replied Atkinson.

“Thought as much,” mumbled Thomas.

“What was that, mate?”

“Nothing mate, nothing.”

Thomas jerked, the impact of Liz’s size six stiletto as it connected with his shin sending a bright bolt of pain up through his leg. His knee crashed into the underside of the dining table, causing the condiments to jolt as if they were suddenly possessed of their own free will. Liz stared at Thomas, attempting to convey her annoyance with him through a series of abstract facial contortions. Even though she resembled a convulsing patient undergoing extreme electroshock therapy, both Atkinson and Wendy seemed oblivious to the situation. Thomas was used to this. When the pair of them pontificated, he was confident that he could have stripped down to his underwear and stood on his head whilst reciting lewd limericks and remain completely unnoticed.

The sound of footsteps cascading down the staircase, chaotic and wild like those of a drunk stumbling home at closing time, announced the return of the two girls. They ran back into the kitchen, stockinged feet slipping and sliding upon the tiled floor, Helena leading the way with Becki a close second behind her. Helena was carrying an empty wooden toy crate clutched tightly to her chest.

“Need some stuff from the kitchen!” she barked as the two girls marched to the far side of the room and flung open every available cupboard door, rummaging through them all manically.

“What are you up to, Becki?” asked Thomas, “Not making too much mischief I hope?”

Liz glared at Thomas for a second time. He jerked his leg back as the toe of her shoe narrowly missed his already bruised ankle. Thomas shook his head at her, sticking out his tongue in defiance.

“You’re such a child!” she hissed at him under her breath. On the other side of the kitchen, the two girls had their empty crate perched precariously upon the edge of the draining board. They filled the vessel with items pilfered from under the sink. Thomas watched with curious fascination as Helena and Becki tossed in a chaotic mixture of junk. Bin liners, dishcloths, a bottle of bleach. All went into the box, all seemingly selected at random. Thomas turned to Liz.

“Should the kids really be playing with all that stuff?”

For a split second, a fleeting look of concern flickered across her face as she watched Helena slip a large kitchen knife into the box.

“Err…maybe, you’re right,” she replied, and then added, “For once in your life.” The comment, hastily tacked onto her sentence as she pushed back her chair and stood, made Thomas clench his teeth.

Wendy suddenly slapped her hand down onto the tabletop, making Thomas flinch and stopping Liz in her tracks.

“Don’t be silly Liz,” she spluttered. Atkinson leaned in, bottle in hand, and poured some more wine into Liz’s glass as she sank back down into her seat.

“Yeah, be cool Liz. Can’t you see what the kids are up to?”

Thomas squinted, his brain grappling with the slow realization that there was something different about the two girls. It took him a second or two before everything clicked into place. The pair of them were both dressed in matching outfits. Each of them appeared to be wearing a large, slightly off-white men’s shirt. Presumably old work attire that Atkinson no longer required. Both girls had their shirt on back to front, the buttons done up to the collar, the sealed seam of the shirt running down the length of each girl’s back. Of course, he thought to himself. The universal uniform of a child about to make a mess.

Wendy leaned in, her mouth so close to Liz’s ear her tongue was almost grazing her lobe. One of her arms, loose and thin with a bunched-up collection of bands and bracelets gathering around the wrist, dangled around Liz’s shoulder as if palsied.

“Can’t you tell darling? The girls are going to create some art! How marvelous!”

Helena paused and stared at her mother, her hand upon her hips, a look of frustrated impatience souring her near perfect features.

“Like, whatever mother.”

Thomas felt an overwhelming sense of empathy with the girl’s response. Liz continued to almost drool onto Wendy as Atkinson sat back in his chair, sipping at his wine, his mouth almost reaching breaking point as his smug grin continued to stretch further and further across his face.

“You must understand,” continued Wendy, “Helena shows such a creative spark. But so many parents try to push in the wrong direction and they snuff out that creative flame. They think they are encouraging, directing, nurturing, but in fact, all they do is censor.”

Liz continued to nod, an appropriate “um” or “ah” escaping from behind her pursed lips, each noise reinforcing her obvious agreement. Atkinson deposited his glass onto the table and placed his fingertips together. He closed them tightly, forming a close approximation of a church steeple with his hands, then tapped his chin.

“You really just have to let them be free. Free to experiment, free to try things out. Role playing, dressing up, developing themselves, expressing themselves, whatever they want to do. You just can’t smother a blossoming flower, Thomas! It’s cruel to force your own expectations on to somebody else, especially a kid.”

Wendy turned and stared at Thomas, her eyes narrowing, neglecting to make any attempt towards concealing her contempt.

“God, Thomas, really! Your attitude stinks. It’s tantamount to child abuse!”

Thomas placed both his hands beneath the table and curled them into two tight fists. As the girls blundered past him, their arms overflowing with their collection of knick-knacks, he struggled to control his breathing. He silently counted to ten, barely preventing his lips from moving, the biting sensation of his fingernails as they pushed into the flesh of his palms providing a comforting focal point for the rage that was simmering deep within him.

“Thomas,” mumbled Liz, “Really, please, stop it! You’re embarrassing me now.”

He sucked in a lungful of air, tasting again the tang of spice and seasoning that had accompanied the meal. He could feel himself teetering dangerously upon the edge of an explosive meltdown. Strangely, this see-sawing, as he swung between the possibilities of whether or not to unleash his furious wrath, lurching first one way then the other like a dysfunctional pendulum, seemed to have the peculiar effect of slowing down his perception of the events that surrounded him. He felt as if he were an actor in a film, unknowingly viewed by an unseen armchair audience, totally unaware as his pivotal scene was played out and broken-down frame by frame.

He blinked, this singular action itself seeming to take an eternity, then lazily rolled his gaze towards Atkinson.

Atkinson was frozen, statue like, iconic; trapped and captured in a pose that was representative of all his maddening flaws. His perfectly manicured hand was curled around the stem of his wine glass, clutching at the crystal receptacle and holding it aloft as if it were every prize trophy that had slipped out of Thomas’s grip during his grim, lonely school days. Atkinson’s top lip was curled in a sneer that was almost worthy of Elvis, his facial gymnastics seeming to radiate a self-conscious awareness of his own self-appointed status as king of all he surveyed. As he looked at him, Thomas could see with perfect clarity that Atkinson was unashamedly staring at Liz’s breasts.

From upstairs, as if from a million miles away, came a muffled crashing, followed by a banging on the floorboards. The noise, for Thomas, felt warped and distorted, as if an infant were chewing on the sound vibrations and slowly blowing them out into an ever-expanding bubble. Ignoring the racket, he studied Wendy, his heightened state of awareness allowing him ample time to examine her face in detail. Once again, the mixed sensations of attraction and revulsion, strangely equal in their measure, left him feeling hollow and confused. She was caught in the middle of a sentence, a vague sneer causing her face to curl, her moist tongue teasing him as it lay trapped in between the tips of her front teeth. Thomas was again sent hurtling back to his schooldays, as, simultaneously, a blinding revelation exploded in the forefront of his mind. He recognized Wendy now. She was nothing more than another in a lengthy line of unobtainable fantasy figures. A continuation of a never-ending chain started long ago in the painful formative years of his adolescence. She was a twenty-year-old student French teacher on exchange from Calais smoking Gauloises; she was the head of the girl’s hockey team, smiling while mopping sweat from her brow; she was the blonde Lolita that was the top dog of the posh girl’s clique chewing bubble-gum. She was all of these, and she was none of these, and she was no one.

His ruminations were interrupted by further noises from up above. They seemed to emanate from somewhere directly over his head. A strange piercing noise, shrill and high. An alarm, perhaps? He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he was sure he recognized it from somewhere. In a second it had ceased, a quiet calm returning. Now that it had stopped, the source of the distraction was no longer a concern to him. Not in his current state of mind.

And so, his attention shifted to Liz. His partner. His wife. His better half. She, too, appeared to be playing musical statues, a motionless mannequin now that the tunes had stopped. He could clearly see every tiny detail of her, every pore upon her face, every hair upon her head. It occurred to him, then, that he could not recall the last time he had stopped and considered her face. The elegant beauty of her features. The perfection of her eyes, of her skin. This realization sent shivers through his body, ripple after ripple, wave after wave, spreading through him like rings across a pool of water after a heavy stone has been dropped; the boulder breaking the perfection of the smooth surface, then being left to plummet, sinking down into its depths. But what Thomas found even more shocking, was the strange sensation of seeing further, deeper, cutting right back through the years, peeling away time as easily as lifting thin layers of skin, revealing the features, the face, of the person who he had fallen in love with so many years ago.

He sighed.

That person was no longer there. That person was no longer there. Everything suddenly became clear to him. He was, he found the strength to acknowledge, married to nothing more than a phantom.

He was in love with the shadow of a ghost.

With no recollection of how he got there, Thomas found himself standing up. Liz, Atkinson and Wendy were all still seated around the edge of the table, each one of them silent, each one of them staring up at him.

Again, from above, came the sound of muffled noises. Were they voices? Thomas no longer cared. Not now. He was finally ready to vent. His voice, as it escaped from his mouth, was alien and unrecognizable, both to him and to everyone else. It had become a stranger’s hiss. He, he realized, had become that stranger. The dark bogeyman he had always warned his daughter to stay away from. Still, like an avalanche, the words came.

“You pathetic bunch of…” He looked at them all. Looked at them all looking right back at him. “Cunts!”

The last word seemed to explode from him. A ferocious ejaculation, volcano-like in its intensity, the discharge a jet of foul, stinking pus squirting forth from a red, infected boil.

Thomas smiled.

And then, after relenting and releasing the pressure, came a sweet, liberating sense of relief. An incredible lightness flowed through Thomas’ body. The poison seeped out of him, leaving him cleansed, leaving him purified.

“What…what did you say?” said Atkinson, his voice a tiny whisper, finally breaking through the stunned silence.

Thomas turned and stared directly at him, meeting his gaze with his own imperfect, food-stained grin. “You heard me!”

For a few seconds, there was still no response from anyone. Then slowly, life crept back into the three of them. Atkinson turned and looked at Wendy, who, in turn, was staring at Liz, who, in turn, was gawping at Thomas.

Thomas sniggered. “You wanker!” he added, between his snorts of laughter.

“I beg your pardon,” said Wendy, her face becoming a mask of complete and utter bewilderment.

“Bitch!” snapped back Thomas, the word barely recognizable as an insult, hidden deep within his spluttering fit of hiccups and giggles.

A heartbeat later, the room erupted into chaos.

Atkinson leapt to his feet, his chair toppling to the floor behind him with a clunk. He leaned over the tabletop, one hand flat upon the surface supporting himself, the other pointing an outstretched finger at Thomas, the digit waggling in the air wildly. Wendy, her dark eyes wide and dilated, slapped both of her hands over the lower half of her face, hiding the shocked ‘O’ shape her mouth was making. Liz, too, was standing, edging her way towards Thomas around the circumference of the table. All three of them were yelling at the same time, their voices mixing into a frenzied blend of outrage.

“My god, Thomas, what the devil do you think you’re playing at?”

“Please…”

“How dare you come into my house and use such dreadful language!”

“Please…”

“I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it!”

“Please, everyone…”

“I think you owe Wendy and Atkinson an apology, right now!”

“Please…please everyone…”

“I should slap some sense into you, you foul-mouthed lout!”

“Please everyone, stop shouting…”

“I just can’t believe he said such shocking, awful things!”

“Stop shouting!”

All four of them turned towards the voice. It was coming from the doorway of the kitchen. Standing there was Becki. In one quivering hand, she held the carving knife. Beads of blood, their color almost black in the sterile electric white light of the kitchen, dripped slowly down the length of the blade, falling to the tiled floor, collecting and forming into a tiny puddle. The shirt she was wearing was smeared with even more of the stuff, bright crimson streaks up and down her chest, her whole body now a crazed, abstract work of art.

“Oh, my god!” said Liz. “Becki, sweetheart, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?”

Becki sniffed, her eyes filling with tears. She raised her free arm up to her face, using the sleeve of her shirt to wipe at her nose. The movement left another smudge of blood smeared across her cheeks.

“We…we were playing a game…” she whispered.

“What?” Atkinson said, his voice trembling, “What’s going on?”

“Where’s Helena?” Wendy asked.

Becki choked back a sob, releasing her grip upon the handle of the knife. It fell to the floor. “It was Helena’s idea to play doctors and nurses. I’m the doctor and she’s the patient.”

Thomas raised his hands and clutched at his hair.

“Only now,” continued Becki, “we’ve finished the operation. But she won’t wake up!”

Her tears flowed more freely, the saltwater mixing with the blood on her face, diluting it and turning the fluid a much lighter shade of pink.

It didn’t take much longer for Thomas’s giggles to turn into screams.

Picture of Steven Holding

Steven Holding

Steven Holding lives in the United Kingdom. Most recently, his stories have appeared in the collections Annihilation from Black Ink Fiction and Year Four from Black Hare Press.

Peace/Pieces of Mind by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

I

Come to take the waters. Partake of them. Our town is not renowned for them, but they are there. And they are not far from where you can be staying. Will be staying? Impossible to know now for how long. Yes, there will be guided excursions to the waters. See: our windows open onto the mountains. No, they are not barred. Well, some of them are. But only those that need to be. Look at how easily these ones here open. That’s right, just a flick of the handle. Step out onto the limestone balconies. There are many to choose from. Isn’t the carving exquisite? No, you certainly can’t find that kind of artistry anymore. The skill sets aren’t there. As you can see, we have worked to preserve the grandeur. But our standards within have been updated since the founding. The attendants will guide you onto the balconies if you’re feeling unsure. If you need a nudge or a bit of coaxing. Yes, we call them attendants. We prefer that over other titles. That is what they do—attend to your needs. We look for a certain circumspection in our attendants. A strength of character. And of body…in case that’s needed. In case things get “out of hand.” Which we hope they won’t…and don’t expect them to. Glorious, isn’t it all? Quietly so. Our “physical plant,” I mean. For the purposes at hand, that is. Hopefully, not “over the top.” You know, we don’t usually resort to speaking in quotes so much, but sometimes it’s just what’s needed. Not an accidental word choice, eh? This is a kind of resort, isn’t it? Sometimes, these expressions are just useful. The words of the people. But yes, discretion is really what we’ve aimed for. And notions of discretion have shifted over time. That can’t be helped. But you can trust us.

II

Never you mind the cannon fire in the distance. It’ll simmer down. Or it won’t. Either way, it won’t affect us. The general will stay away from us. What’s he called—the Commander?—has seen to that. And if he doesn’t, well, we’re figure something out. We don’t have an inflated sense of our influence, but we’ve always been resourceful. We think you’ll enjoy your stay. However long it may be. However long it needs to be. You’ll know when it’s time to come. And when it’s time to leave. You’ll get help with both of those decisions. We’ll see to that. Our experts will. Don’t be fooled by their white coats. They’re all very approachable. Relaxed even. The way you would be if you were here. Pioneering, they are, open to all the latest methodologies, but also steeped in tradition. And our rooms are comfortable. Let’s have a look. We might as well. We’re here, aren’t we? They’re equipped to be unequipped. Safety in simplicity. Minimalism equals restoration. These are just a few of our mottoes. Our food, too, is plain. But nurturing. Tasty but without agitation-inducing spices. This is not a place where agitation is encouraged or in any way nurtured. In nature will you be at one with, and indeed, nurtured by, nature, we like to say.

III

Come to take the waters. Partake of them. As I’ve said, our town is not renowned for them, but they are here. That’s right, step away from the balcony edge now. And down this path we go. Feel the closeness of the pines. You do have to keep your sandals on here, but you can still enjoy the pine needle carpet. They’re there for you. Feel the water’s freshness, the cool of its clean. Immerse yourself. Cleanse all that came before. It will still be there. Only cleaner. Yes, here’s a towel now. Easy does it. You’ve got this. We’re so glad you decided to come. Or it was decided. Yes, the decision has been documented. We still keep a register. Old-fashioned but “does the trick.” One of our traditions. Our quirks. There’s no need to dwell on that moment of transition. What a wonderful bath you’ve had! Great! The stars and waters were aligned today. Your first day. You’re here now. Be proud. I’d like to see some pride. No need to think about what brought you here, however cleansed it may currently be. There’ll be time for that later. For now, this bed. This chair. Yes, a desk for journaling. But again, that later. For now, easy does it. There you go. Shhh. No tears. I don’t want to have to call the attendants. Please don’t make me have to do that. Off you go. Yes, lights out. I’m going now. We’ll see you in the morning. You’re fine. You’re safe now. Just call if you need anything. We’re always here for you. Yes, I’m going now. I’m going to XXXX the door behind you. Behind me. We won’t use the “l” word here. You won’t even hear the bolt moving into place.

Picture of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is a poet, writer, and translator of Yiddish literature. He is the author of two books of fiction and six volumes of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). His recent translations from the Yiddish include Dineh: An Autobiographical Novel (2022) by Ida Maze and Blessed Hands: Stories (2023) by Frume Halpern. Please visit his website. Taub lives in Washington, D.C.