What... that? That's my crystal ball.
Like it? Nice looking thing, isn't it. Got it three years ago, off Amazon. I keep it on the window sill there so it catches the light in the afternoons. As you're not from round here, I can let you in on a little secret. Promise not to tell?
Crystal, my arse! It's plastic resin, that. Convincing, eh? You'd never know—well, unless you touched it with your fingers of course—and I make sure the punters never do, so that's the illusion intact.
I do the fortune telling tent, you see. Church fête, every summer. Been at it for four years now. Took over from Mrs Horniman when she passed. Not that I was particularly gasping for the job, but that's the thing with village life: you get volunteered for stuff. Everyone's expected to muck in; get involved; do their bit—and it's always for a good cause, so... let's just say refusal isn't really an option.
I put my foot down on one thing, though. Mrs H—lovely old dear, bless 'er—she did it as "Gypsy Rose". Dressed the part, y'know: all bells and charms. Really hammed it up. Cod Mittel-european accent, the works. It's pretty dingy in that little tent, but y'know, I swear she even darkened her skin with something too. God, when I think about it now...
Anyway, I was having none of that. I'll be as mysterious as you like, I said—wear a black veil and all sorts—but you're not calling me "Gypsy" anything. I don’t have a drop of Roma blood in me, and I don’t feel comfortable trading in racial stereotypes, no matter how good
They didn't like it, of course. "Not a proper fête without the Gypsy" they said. "What would Mrs Horniman say? No Gypsy, indeed! It's not traditional." Cardinal sin round here, that is: not sticking to tradition. You could slaughter babies in the street here and nobody would bat an eyelid so long as there was a tradition of baby-slaughtering. I know... that's daft. But you get my gist.
I stood my ground, though. I'm an incomer, see—only been here 20 years—and I've got a bit of a reputation. The village snowflake. Too metropolitan for this lot, anyway. Mind you, it's not hard to get a reputation round here. Pop into the shop, ask Maureen if she could order you in some Fair Trade Tea, and that's you: marked for life. Dangerously woke!
So anyway... I took on the fortune telling. Mrs H used to read palms, so that's what I did to begin with, just that first year. Just the once. I switched things up after that: got the fake crystal and haven't looked back since. Well... tried not to.
You can't see my face at all behind the veil, but it's not like anybody's fooled. It's only locals come to the fête, anyway. They all know it's me and they all know it's bollocks—just a bit of nonsense. "Cross my palm with silver" (actually we've got a card reader now—there's progress!) and I give 'em the flim-flam. You know the kind of thing: big on mystery, low on detail, preferably with a whiff of a positive outcome. Keep it coming and keep it vague, that's my style. Even my tall dark strangers are conveniently gender non-specific nowadays.
That's the reason I changed to the crystal ball. To make all of that easier. That first year, after Mrs H went, when I was doing the palms... well, it was difficult. Saying the right things. Keeping it vague, like I said. It was a struggle. I struggled. I hadn't been expecting it, you see. That's why I had the seizure. I told everyone it was the heat in the tent—hadn't drunk enough water, silly me!—but it wasn't.
I thought changing over to the crystal ball would solve it, but it didn't. Nothing could. By then it was too late. I'd handled them, you see—their hands. Everybody's hands. The whole bloody parish. That's why I'm selling up. I can't take it any more. I just can't. Can you imagine, even for one minute, what it's like, being me? To have to live here, knowing what I know? Having to smile at your neighbours, make small-talk with them in the shop, the street, the pub, all the time knowing exactly when every single one of them is going to die?
...and how that death will happen. In detail. The whole thing, running like a projector inside your skull. 3D. Hi-definition. Maureen behind the counter, so looking forward to grand-children: she'll never see fifty. That new young couple who've renovated Lower Farm Cottage: he doesn't know half as much about electrics as he makes out. And little Gemma.
Oh sweet Jesus Christ, little Gemma...
Sorry. Sorry! Dear me—what am I doing? You'll have to forgive me. I have these moments now and then. Where were we? Oh yes: been viewing the house, haven't you? What do you think, then? Ooh, I'm not supposed to ask that, am I? Bad form. Not supposed to put potential buyers on the spot. Make you feel awkward.
Seen everything you want to, though, have you? Right you are. Thank you so much for coming. You'll leave some feedback through the agent, won't you? Good.
Yes, it's been lovely to meet you, too. Erm... sorry—I'm not being rude, but... would you mind awfully if we didn't shake hands?
Retired actor Ken Cumberlidge was born in Birkenhead, UK and cut his performance teeth on the Liverpool pub poetry scene of the 1970s. These days Ken is based in Norwich, but can be lured out of cover by the promise of good company and an open mic. This has led him to become an habitué of the slam/spoken word scene. He has twice won a place as finalist at the Hammer+Tongue Cambridge regional slam championships, 2018 and 2019.
Ken writes about love, sex, nature, loss, personal identity and queerness, with an occasional foray into the eerie and macabre. Poke him with a sharp enough stick and he may even wake up long enough to get shouty about politics.
Ken's work can be found variously in print and online (Algebra of Owls / Allegro / As Above So Below / The Fiction Pool / Fragmented Voices / Impspired / Ink Sweat & Tears / Message In A Bottle / The Open Mouse / Picaroon / Pulsar / Rat's Ass Review / Runcible Spoon / Songs of Eretz / Spilling Cocoa over Martin Amis / Strange Poetry / Snakeskin / Talking Soup ...and now Timber Ghost Press) and performances of his material can be found on YouTube and Soundcloud, via his linktree: https://linktr.ee/kencumberlidge
Our next guest post comes from John Ryland. What's scarier, a monster that defies imagination? Or is it the next door neighbor who only comes out at night and stares at your window for hours? John Ryland delves into this topic and more... sometimes, real life is scarier.
Horror in Real Life by John Ryland
People aren't afraid of being alone in the dark. They're afraid of NOT being alone in the dark. Some of the scariest moments of my life have been in my own home, alone, late at night. There's a noise outside. It could be the wind, or it could be a masked murderer. There's really only one way to find out.
I love horror movies. I love the monster movies too. They're scary, but not horrifying.
For me, the possibility that my monster could really exist is what makes it scary. A psychopathic wanderer, a neighbor with an obsession. Things that probably won't happen, but could, terrify us. Let's face it, there's probably not going to be an alien invasion or a zombie hoard attacking your house, the notion is scary, but it won't keep you up at night. The fact that someone might be outside in the dark, watching you, definitely will.
When I write, I always try to create normal people. People with flaws that we can identify with. A tick. A mannerism. That makes them real. Then I like to take those ordinary people and put them in extraordinary situations and have them react. I think people find themselves rooting for the normal people and that invests them emotionally in the work. It's been said that if you can get people to invest in your characters, then make them uncomfortable, then stir their emotions, then bring them to a reasonable conclusion, you'll have a fan for life. That's what I hope to do.
I also like to make people wonder if I'm okay.
I love to write big, dramatic scenes with angst and turmoil that make people make faces while reading. If a reader's face never changes during a book, I'd consider it boring. I want to make your facial expression run the gamut of emotions, even if you end up wondering if something might be wrong with me, upstairs. There's not, clinically speaking anyway.
I love the "Aha!" moment, when the characters piece things together and realize that not only is it possible for this strange thing to be happening, but that it is indeed happening to them. There are so many strange things in this world, ramping them up just a bit for literary purposes doesn't make them less real.
But above all else, I want to entertain. Rollercoasters are fun, whether literally or in a book. They get your heart beating faster, surprise you, scare you. They take you away, if only temporarily. I hope I am able to do that because ultimately, without readers, we're all just a bunch of nuts banging away at a keyboard for no reason.
This article originally appeared on John's blog. You can find it here: https://www.gspressbooks.com/post/horror-in-real-life
John Ryland lives in Northport Alabama with his wife and two sons. He has had ten short stories published in journals over the last two years. John has also self published two novels and a collection of short stories, as well as a poetry chapbook. He is currently under contract to have two books traditionally published in 2022. Find more of John's work at gspressbooks.com or follow him on social media.
The clock chimes down the hall at the first stroke of midnight, and my eyes bolt open. The sound of footsteps echoing begins.
I barely have time to register that thought as the door bursts open. I cover my face, attempting to pull the covers over to protect myself, but I know it’s no use. They pull the blankets off the bed, leaving me exposed in my nightgown only. Their icy hands grip my wrists and ankles, pulling my limbs to the four posts to tie to as I wriggle and writhe.
“No, please. Not tonight. Please. I’m so tired. Please…” I beg and whimper, but they do not stop.
The room is mostly dark except for the flicker of their shadows on the white walls. Cold, leather straps tighten around my wrists and ankles, spreading my body open. Snickering filling the room. The belts squeak against the posts as they’re stretched. My blood flow, restricted by the taut leather, is causing my heartbeat to thump loudly through my hands and feet.
“You know the drill. Strip her and cover her mouth,” one of them shouts.
Stiff fingers rip at the seams of fabric in the nightgown. I’ve lost count now that they have destroyed how many. I always wake up with a fresh one each day, ready to go. The laughter and rip echo loudly as the tears water as their hard fingers pull at my skin. The smell of sterile alcohol hits my nose, and I unsuccessfully fight and wriggle away. Cold, hard fabric is rubbing my body down. There’s no care given as they scrub my skin against the marks from previous restraints, scratches, and bruises I’ve received from trying to fight them off.
“Why do you keep fighting us?” the lead one says, “You know it’s hopeless. We always come for you. You can’t escape us. No matter what you try… it’s been how many days, months, years of this? How long can you last?”
I grit my teeth, seething. This one’s voice is always the one that sets me off. Always knowing precisely what to say to push the buttons that get my rage up. I stare unflinchingly as the rest of them finish wiping me down.
“Just shut up,” I reply, spitting in his direction, “Leave me alone.”
“Now, now, that’s not very nice. Whatever happened to the nice little girl we used to know? The one who was always so obedient? Following directions and trying to please everyone?”
“She’s tired of playing that game. That got her nowhere. That got her nothing and NO ONE. She was just a stupid child who thought she could prove that people should love her,” I scream, pulling at my restraints, “She had to learn that you can’t make people love you!”
“Tsk, Tsk.” he replies, “Shut her up... let’s remind her of her place.”
A slimy, cold cloth drapes over my face as the sound of running water starts. I’m flailing my head back and forth to get it off, but it’s no use. The first splash of liquid hits, and my skin prickles in shock and goosebumps. The water is freezing, and it hits my lungs like a hot poker.
“You’re worthless. No one will ever come and rescue you. You aren’t worth saving,” their voices say as the water rushes over my face again.
“How could anyone ever love anything like you? It’s why they always leave. They get close enough, and they see what we see. You’re disgusting. Dirty. Deranged.”
My heart is pounding in my ears, and my chest heaves for air. The tightness constricts around my throat, causing my mouth to produce garbled wheezing. My vision is blurring as stars twinkle under the cloth.
“You were born wrong. It’s why they couldn’t love you. They could see you were evil, different, from the moment they placed you with them. No matter what you do, no matter what you try, you will always be that unlovable thing.”
Gasping and coughing are the last things I remember as I pass out. Blackness envelops me but offers no reprieve. I don’t know how much time passes, but I know a sharp, hot blade glides along my ribs, creating small tears into my skin as one of them pounces on my stomach. The force pushes the water from my belly, contracting acidic, putrid water to burn up my esophagus out onto the bed. A still silence waits as I catch my breath, hoping somehow we’re done until the cloth goes back on my face, and it starts again.
“Worthless. Useless. Better off dead. Alone. Forever alone. Unloved. Unlovable. Evil.”
The chorus goes on as the cycle continues: icy water dumping on my face until I pass out and am woken again. It’s non-stop for hours, it seems, until suddenly a bright fluorescent light flashes in front of my eyes.
“Miss! Miss!” A voice calls to me, waving a hand slowly in front of my face.
I look around as the bedsheets are wrapped and tangled around me like a python squeezing its meal. My arms and legs are untied, and I follow the vision of the hand waving to a nurse in blue scrubs, hand on her hip, tapping her foot.
“Miss West,” she says, “we’ve talked about this. You need to breathe. In. Out. C’mon, do it with me.”
Slowly, I follow her words, inhale and exhale, inhale, exhale.
“You know, you’re here for a reason. Few get a chance to face their demons with medical help. Many people get embarrassed about depression and anxiety, Miss West, but that is no reason for you to keep suffering at night from panic attacks alone. I told you if you feel them coming on, you need to just press the button, and we can give you the medication the doctor prescribed.”
I know she’s right.
I lost last night’s battle. But that doesn’t matter. I’m here to learn how to win the war.
Victory Witherkeigh is a female Filipino author originally from Los Angeles, CA, and currently living in the Las Vegas area. Victory was a finalist for Killer Nashville’s 2020 Claymore Award, an Honoree for Cinnamon Press’s 2020 Literature Award, and Wingless Dreamer’s 2020 Overcoming Fear Short Story award. Her work has appeared in both online and print literary magazines and genre fiction publications of horror and dark fantasy. She has her print publications in a horror anthology, Supernatural Drabbles of Dread, and a literary short story in Overcoming Fear, through Macabre Ladies Publishing and Wingless Dreamers.