when i suspect that i am rotting
i decide i ought to check,
nails slipping into sponge that molds
to softness ‘tween my ribs, and— slow--
peel back what fetid flesh
conceals the compost heaped up just-below
old organs, here; emotions older
tissues used and damp and torn;
my soiled hands dig until i find
what writhes, worming within the warm
of layers, strata, deadened selves
there’s lichen scabs that texturize
my time-worn, fear-bleached bone,
while fairy rings of feedback loop
in endless, nerve-branched loam
since nectarous secretions
reek of corpses more than flowers,
i realize i indeed must say: i am mottled with decay
but that will soon enrich the way; as fertilizer feeds the weeds,
growth is growth in my small plot
and there is beauty in the rot
LB Waltz (@balmroomdance) has been publishing creative works for over 20 years under various pseudonyms. They enjoy taking walks, biblically accurate depictions of angels, and reading about botanical folklore.
He claws awake in close, utter darkness, the scream tightening in his throat. He has no idea how he’s gotten here, no thought for whatever he was before, only knows that whatever he was is now trapped in a little narrow box of a space. With a shove and a gasp he flies up, the coffin lid breaking apart in his flight.
The man shakes his head, stares about gasping with those panicked breaths that he’s gradually realizing do not draw air. His coffin floats in a pool of oil-black liquid under a dull grey sky; other coffins bump against his, floating alongside, just as dark as the substance that bears them.
In fact, with a yawning indefinably huge fear churning within him, he looks about and sees that there are nothing but coffins, coffins and shadow-black ocean stretching beyond even the concept of a horizon. He is dimly aware of something far off in the distance, set an eternity beyond any number of bobbing coffins, a light that is somehow dark, shining weak through the gloom.
Framed against this ambiguous light he sees her. A woman, clothed in what might be black or what might be white; her aspect shifts before his unblinking eyes. She’s beautiful in a way that he can’t describe, not beautiful in any way that he desires, but beautiful in the way that a storm cloud or a tumultuous ocean is beautiful.
Tousled black hair blows in a breeze he cannot feel, drawn totally horizontal as if some gale blew at her back. Her eyes glitter in his direction and he detects an alien version of what seems to be surprise. Gliding over what could be water, she comes his way, drawing fingers that dangle at the ends of arms that seem far too long for her body along the surface, the ripples gently tousling the coffins about them.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says, her voice far more casual than he’d expected.
“Where?” he says, trailing off, instinctively realizing the question’s useless.
She touches his face with a finger, and it does not feel like a finger. It feels like a tendril, like an insectoid proboscis, like some pseudopod made of something that could only fit the basic description of matter.
“Between life and death,” she mutters. “This happens sometimes. I do not know where you were destined for, traveler, but when one comes awake as you have, they have a choice. Your path may be set upon eternal glory or eternal suffering; I know not the deeper nature of either. What do you think? How did you live your life?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t remember.”
“They usually don’t, but I figure it’s worth asking in case one ever does,” she muses. “Would you like to go back? Back to your life, to what you know as reality?”
He wonders, wonders at what that’s even like. But something fundamental in him reaches for it in a desperation he could never put into words.
“Please,” he gasps.
“Fair enough,” she says, and the black waves wash over him, dragging him down. He looks up through the murk, sees her a moment more as one last lingering pinprick of something not unlike light before the darkness washes over him and he awakes.
Clawing awake in close, utter darkness.
This time, when he slams his hands against the coffin lid, it does not budge; dribbles of earth rain in between the cracks in the wood. He feels the bursting pain in lungs denied air, feels the sting in his throat as he tries to scream. He claws until his nails rip from his hands, screams that dry scream until he can feel his throat tear, and still he does not die.
Distant he hears what sounds like the woman’s otherworldly laughter, and his mind breaks beneath the looming weight of eternity.
When he is not writing weird fiction, Dennis Conrad is a high school language arts teacher, giving him the perfect captive audience for his bad amateur stand-up. His works have been published in Third Flatiron's Brain Games: Stories to Astonish anthology and the short story collection Gather Round: The Internet's Scariest Campfire Stories.
You think I’m useless, don’t you? There’s no need to lie; we’re all adults here. You think I’m a piece of junk. I’ll give you that. Look at me. I’m covered in rust and dirt, literally rotting away in your backyard. Oh, woe is me! You should’ve seen me in my prime. I shone so brightly you could’ve used me as a mirror. That’s no hyperbole, mind you. I swear by the memory of my dear master. Yes, he’s dead. Long dead, actually. How did he die, you ask? Well, I’m the one responsible. I… killed him. No, don’t look at me like I’m a monster. I’m far from it. An unfortunate accident. I must admit that his death was my downfall.
One fateful night, we stood on a wooden stage downtown. The crowd cheered and clapped, and we bowed before we even began. His secondhand tuxedo looked newer than it actually was. My master waved a gloved hand, and the crowd went dead silent. “Don’t try this at home,” he said with a smile. He lifted me, holding me up in the air like a triumphant warrior, and for a few wonderful moments, I gleamed under the stage lights. Another round of applause exploded. It was perfect.
He looked heavenward at the rafters, mumbled his prayers, straightened his spine, and slowly inserted me inside him through his mouth. He didn’t even blink. What a brave man my master was! They didn’t call him Deep Throat for nothing! I passed his teeth and down his esophagus until I reached his stomach. It was like falling through a long, dark hole forever. Acidic air tickled my blade, and I would’ve sneezed if that was possible. Then, unbeknownst to me, a stupid fly perched on my master’s face. I couldn’t see a damn thing in the pitch dark, but my haft told me about it later. How the fly crept toward his nose.
You can imagine the rest. Yes, there was blood. A lot of it. As its sweet smell filled my nose, I tried in vain to fight off my urge. The MC called for an ambulance, but it was too late. The paramedics threw up their hands. There was nothing they could do.
Come again? Do you mean blood? Once you taste it, you won’t forget it. Trust me, you’ll want to come back for more. Hey, why don’t you take me to your garage? Turn off your iPod, won’t you, sweetheart? Oh, easy there. Be careful. I don’t want you to get distracted. Remember, I’m designed to cut. Watch your step. I don’t want you to slip and fall, okay? Here we go. Even the noise of the garage door opening sounds melodious. Grab that piece of sandpaper. Here we go. Come to Daddy. Yes, that feels so good. You scratch my back, and I scratch yours, right? You won’t regret it. Decades in dirt. Imagine that. Who deserves that? Not me. No wonder I’m so thirsty.
Toshiya Kamei is an Asian writer who takes inspiration from fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. Their short stories have appeared in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. Their piece, “Hungry Moon,” won Apex Magazine’s October 2022 Microfiction Contest.
I am the watcher at the end of the world.
At least, that’s what I like to tell myself.
It would be boring otherwise. This whole situation would seem anticlimactic and agonizing without those little reassurances. I need little reassurances as the landscape around me plunges into its season of darkness. March brings with it blistery winds and never-ending midnight, as the wintery rolling hills shift from a blinding white to a crystalline blue. Peppered with glistening specks like the remnants of starlight tossed to the wayside by the hand of a deity who gave up on their creation.
A midnight that brings on shadows, shadows accompanied by the sharp gnashing of teeth in the form of bitter winds. The spirits of the planet seem to cry out in rebellion, in anger against the thunderous boot prints humanity stamped upon its once proud face. The night is long and cold.
Antarctica is cold. This outpost is cold and I am a fool for opting to stay one more season.
One more season turned into two. Then three.
The last I heard from the mainland, from my employers, was that something catastrophic happened. It started in North America and spread outward, bouncing across the landscapes like a doe over fresh fallen snow. I heard the sky tear. Something shifted the course of humanity, of Earth, and radio silence quickly followed. The receiver doesn’t buzz anymore.
So I sit here alone, gazing at the wide open expanse of tundras and tidal waves of snow with bleary eyes and a growl in my stomach. Waiting for a call, a plane, another human face in the blanket of endless white. A confirmation that the end has arrived so I can stop drowning in my anxieties and what-ifs. Pondering the fate of the planet out beyond the winter wastelands. Out beyond the technology-laden halls of this damned building I now call home.
It’s lonely at the end of the world.
I’m bored of soup, of puncturing the cans open with my knife and wishing it was warmer than it is. It can be scalding and still not be warm enough. I’m tired of listening to the walls of machinery scream at me that something is wrong. My heavy coat feels all the heavier over my shoulders as it becomes a necessity. Another layer of skin, toned army green.
My notebooks—meant for research—have filled themselves with mindless nonsense as I jot down my thoughts. The lines of binary have turned to swirling cursive. Zeroes and ones turn to poetry and prose as I try to process the eternal damnation that sits outside of my window. I wait in my tower, like a forlorn Rapunzel, praying for someone to breach my walls. Lost in the metal spire, in my outpost, with a sad beeping radar to keep me company with its uneven and rhythmless melody.
All I can do is wait and watch. Wait and watch. Wait and watch at the end of the world.
And so I watch. Watch the planet melt and the stars burn out in real-time, amplified by the isolation at the end of the world as the horizon line tears asunder. And I think to myself, “Was this worth it?”
I don’t know.
It’s hard to tell, hard to justify, hard to grasp.
Was the research worth it? Was the stint in this cold box worth it? Being away from my family? My friends? My lover? Was sitting in the silence, in the chill, worth all of this?
Wondering if I’m the last human alive, stuck in that split where the snow meets the stars. Where the glisten on the ground is indiscernible from the twinkle in the sky. Where the whole of the world becomes a snow globe of stars, shaken until they come loose and fall in spirals like a meteor shower, and I feel my body twist alongside their trails, tumbling without gravity. I am without gravity here.
Was it worth it?
A thousand times yes!
In this isolation, the quiet and loneliness and wondering and waiting and hoping and watching at the end of the world meant I could gaze upon the colors with my own eyes. The aurora wafts with twisted lines, blown in like a gale on the surface of the ocean, calling lost souls toward where I am stranded. Stranded in my lightless lighthouse that dreams to beckon to someone with no avail.
For a brief moment, it shifts the unnerving blue, the unyielding darkness, to something magical. Otherworldly, like a massive hand tearing through the fabric of reality to peer down at the chaos with wonder and a cocked eyebrow filled with question. I see the universe shatter. I see the eyes of something greater than myself peer down with question. The creators did not forsake us.
They still have judgement to pass.
I stand in the snow, starving and frozen, on what may be the last night of my life. I stand still, hood caked in crystals of ice and cheeks so painfully brushed by the wind, and I gaze at those glowing eyes, white-hot like a sun. I see its hand stretch out to crush the crust below me. I feel those damning winds rip the tears from my eyes, clog my pores with ice and freeze my blood as quick as a bolt of lightning.
Unable to do more than drop to my knees and watch the end of the world ripple. Watch this deity collapse the universe with quick and chaotic brushstrokes, lighting the darkness for the briefest of moments and I think to myself, yes, this was worth it.
Watching the world unravel like a worn-down cardigan was worth it.
Watching the universe explode in magnificent shades was worth it.
Watching the end of it all at the end of it all was, most assuredly, worth it.
A.L. Davidson (she/they) is a queer and disabled writer who specializes in massive space operas and tiny disturbances. She writes stories about ghosts, grief, isolation, space exploration, eco-horror, queerness, and the human condition. They live with their cat Jukebox in Kansas City. Their debut novella, When The Rain Begins To Burn, was funded via Kickstarter and they hope to have many more books follow suit in the near future. Her web novels, The Wayward Souls of Avalon and Lonely Planet Hotel are available on Patreon and Tapas.
Disturbances by Alycia
Patreon - Alycia Davidson Author
Twitter - @MayBMockingbird
Insta/TikTok/Threads/Blue Sky - @MaybeMockingbird
The heart I cut from the tallest oak of the forest. It has lived and brought life for over a hundred years, and it will surely bring much more.
Without it, the forest withers and dies.
The lungs I steal from a Siren. Strong and healthy, able to breathe underwater and on land, never will they struggle to catch a breath or gasp for air.
The Siren tries to curse me, but without air she has no words.
The blood needs to be special, magical. I hunt and trap a Unicorn. I bleed it dry, collecting every drop, and ask for forgiveness.
The Unicorn's dead eyes blink, a guttural rasp escapes its throat. "What are you waiting for? Drink my blood, take my horn. Nothing else can save you now."
"It's not for me." My shoulders slump and I turn away from the once magnificent being. I leave the horn.
You told me I would need these three things and a wish to bind them.
We were both supposed to protect her, take care of her.
Now, we must pay the price to make it right again. You turn around so that I may pluck the wings from your back.
What better way to gain a wish than through fairy dust made from a fairy's wings.
My sins are taking their toll. I don’t have much time.
I crumble the wings upon the small body before me. Upon the oak heart, the Siren lungs, and the Unicorn blood.
I'm fading, but my daughter will live again. A long and healthy life.
You failed as her fairy godmother but that is behind us now.
Please, watch over her when I’m gone.
Kai Delmas loves creating worlds and magic systems and is a slush reader for Apex Magazine. He is a winner of the monthly Apex Microfiction Contest, his fiction is forthcoming in Zooscape, and can be found in Martian, Etherea, Tree And Stone, Wyldblood, and several Shacklebound anthologies. If you like his work you can support him at www.patreon.com/kaidelmas and find him on Twitter @KaiDelmas
This story was originally published by Black Hare Press via their Patreon.
Even now, with her bones thinning more every day and her memories leaking out the base of her skull, Lucille’s hands dance. She’s playing along with the music she hears, music that gifted her a career as a virtuoso violinist decades ago when women hardly ever did such things. It’s louder out here in the oak woodland behind her home.
Her hands falter on her imagined Stradivarius as she forgets again. How did she get outside? She doesn’t remember coming outside. Her cotton nightgown is too thin for the night air, and her diaper feels heavy and wet against her skin. Why is she wearing a diaper? And why do her joints ache? She’s a young woman in her early twenties.
She looks at her fingers and is surprised by the crepe-paper skin, the joints thick with arthritis, and the nails yellowed and too long. Panic begins to well up in her. Her heart beatbeat beatbeats in her chest, like her aortic valve might rupture at any moment and bleed out into her chest.
What has happened to her body? Has she been cursed by the faeries her mother used to warn her about? She used to dream about meeting real faeries, wondering what magical gifts they might give her. Is that why she’s out in the woods? Is she here to beg for a gift? For mercy?
The music grows louder, a haunting and driving dance. Almost like a Chopin waltz but with a jazz undercurrent, reminiscent of Gershwin or Cole Porter. She lifts her hands to play along on a violin that isn’t there, the way she always does when one of these compositions pop into her head. She’ll play along to develop muscle memory and write it down when she gets home, and then she’ll release a new vinyl, and it’ll sell spectacularly, and won’t she be adored? She walks as she plays, following the melody deeper into the trees, crushing common violets and bloodroot underfoot.
She trips on her nightgown, forgetting the music for a moment. She looks around herself, confused and cold. How did she get outside? She doesn’t remember coming outside. The music gets louder. She must remember this composition! She lifts her hands and plays. She follows the music deep into the woodlands.
Sharp branches catch her papyrus skin as she walks, and it tears into delicate tatters. Her blood flows too thinly from these wounds, thanks to the aspirin she takes to reduce the stress on her heart. When she stumbles, her fragile veins break, and bruises bloom across her silken flesh. She plays on. It sounds like there are lyrics.
Strange lyrics, these. Lyrics lacking verse or chorus, lyrics she forgets as soon as she hears them. They are like talking with an old friend. She hardly even pays attention. She already knows what they’re going to say.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
A gift for a gift
A noose for a noose
A deal for a dream
A world for a wife
A dance for a song
An end for a life
The moonlight grows stronger. Lucille’s hands grow more certain. Her fingers dance in time with the bodhran drum beat, the goat hide’s oily surface thrumming a driving pulse. She approaches the clearing she’s been returning to all along but can’t quite seem to remember visiting before, and there’s nothing inside other than clover and deep green grass and a ring of tawny mushrooms on the outskirts.
She steps over the mushroom border, and she can see them.
The faeries are tall and sinewy as they dance. They fly, though they don’t have wings. Rather, as their feet strike the soil in time with the bodhran, they lift and float in concentric circles, clasping hands with one another and weaving under and over and in between and outside arms. A handsome fae with knifelike cheekbones, jawbones, and collarbones spins off to invite Lucille to the dance.
She steps backwards, finding an invisible, impenetrable wall has appeared just behind the mushroom ring. The handsome fae laughs. “Come now, human,” they chide with a voice that rings like bluebells, “You made your deal, a dance for a song. The time is nigh.”
“No,” she refuses, and scrabbles at the wall behind her back with her feeble fingernails. They would dance her until she died; that’s what her mother always said.
“No?” the handsome fae stares at her for a moment. Their pupils slowly expand until the entirety of their eyeballs are a yawning abyss. They pull back their lips, flashing mandible teeth that part in six directions to reveal a straw-like maw designed to suck life from mortals.
“I don’t remember making any deal,” she cries out in desperation.
“You don’t remember?” the fae’s pupils shrink back to normal size, and the mandibles and lips close, and they are handsome again. “Listen. Do you remember the song?”
She listens. The music is a waltz, ethereal and rich. She raises her hands to mime playing along on her violin, so she’ll remember it later. How did she get outside?
The handsome fae snaps their fingers, and a violin made of frost and gold leaf materializes in her grip. She plays perfectly, a virtuoso, as was the deal. She dances as she plays, enjoying the rhythm and the company of the other dancers. Even once she grows weary, she dances. Even once her brittle bones snap (first the tibia, then the patella, then the femur, and up, and up), she dances. It’s only when her heart beatbeat beatbeat beatbeats so hard that it bursts, a great wine stain bruise leaking across her chest, that she falls. The faeries close in with clicking mandible mouths to suck the spirit from her corpse.
When they rise, her body has already decomposed. The mushroom ring has spread a little further.
Grace Daly (she/her) is an author with multiple invisible chronic illnesses. In her writing, she often explores the experience of living with disability through horror, romance, and low fantasy. Her work can be found in anthologies by Ghost Orchid Press and Sliced Up Press as well as in JMWW Journal and MIDLVLMAG. She lives near Chicago, Illinois and spends most of her time with her dog, who is a very good boy. She can be found at www.GraceDalyAuthor.com, or @GraceDalyAuthor for Twitter and Instagram.
There’s a little ghost that swings under a tree.
In my backyard, every night when the sun goes down.
I put that tire swing up for my kids.
When they outgrew it, I left it to remember,
Their youth and those days that I’ll never get back.
On a night when I couldn’t fall asleep
The creak and the groan of old rope called me to my window.
I pushed aside the curtain, a flutter of material hitching my breath.
A little ghost was swinging under my tree.
A little child pumping its legs and smiling with glee.
I wanted to go down and ask who they were.
I wanted to go sit and watch them awhile.
Instead, I remained and offered a wave,
The little ghost saw and offered one back.
They’ve come to swing under my tree for years,
As long as I’m alive I’ll leave that swing there.
For there’s a little ghost who once died, their life over too soon,
If my swing can bring them joy, then that’s what I’ll do.
A 2X Splatterpunk-Nominated Author, Steve Stred lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with his
wife, son and their staffy, Cocoa.
His work has been described as haunting, bleak and is frequently set in the woods near where he grew up. He’s been fortunate to appear in numerous anthologies with some truly amazing
He is an Active Member of the HWA.
Follow Steve below:
Tik Tok: @stevestredauthor
Universal Book Link: author.to/stevestred
The final three miles of the ride,
that part when you drop down into the Cliff Creek drainage,
is mostly alpine meadows.
In early summer the grasses wave and the birds sing
except for one stretch where the forest has taken over, pine and fir from creek bottom to cliffside.
When you come to it you know you’re finally getting close to camp and it’s where
in late summer the evergreens offer cool dark respite from the sun and the heat and the dust
but it’s late fall now and late fall here in the high country might as well be middle of winter in the lowlands.
Trouble with the pack string has me running behind
past sundown and still facing an hour on the trail
thank god for the full moon on the crusty snow--
the world is drained of color, all blacks and whites and greys in-between--
but it’s enough that I can keep an eye on the string behind me and watch that the packs are riding true.
We hit that stretch of pines, though, and everything is different;
the trees eat all the moonlight, drink all the sound and swallow us up.
I’ve traveled this path more times than I can count, I’d thought it a familiar friend
but now I’m desperate to be done with it, to be gone from here.
The darkness has weight and mass and form from which I might never emerge.
Dry mouth and pounding heart.
Reins slack in my hands, I leave it to my saddlehorse to lead us onward
he plods, unconcerned, no thoughts beyond the feed bucket waiting at the end of the trek.
When he and the rest of the string have been unsaddled and fed
And I’m in the cook tent at the stove
warm and dry and tired
I laugh at myself to be so shook at a little bit of darkness.
There was never anything going to reach out at me from the shadows
there was nothing in the forest or the fields turning its attention to my passage.
Years away and miles later, I think I understand why my thoughts return to that night.
I think I’ve come to realize that a country breeze can seem a loving caress,
a storm may appear to be all anger and fury,
but to the wind, to the trees, the rocks, the wilds, it’s really none of it to do with me;
we flatter ourselves that nature notices us but it’s all playacting
on someone’s part.
Plants grow and waters flow;
where the sunbeams and moonbeams fall, there is light and where they don’t, there is not.
With me or without.
That night, I glimpsed the indifference that is the truth of the wilderness.
RK Rugg is a non-Native native of the American West, a Jewish cowboy who spent most of his life wrangling both horses and words in the Montana Rockies and the Great Basin of Nevada. He currently lives in New England where he teaches middle-school writing by day and writes genre fiction, nonfiction and poetry by night. His work has appeared in Utopia, Illumen and Asimov's, among others, and he regularly presents at academic conferences on the topic of identity in speculative fiction. He can be found online at www.raymondkrugg.com.
No flowers grow there, just glass eyes
Glaring out of the dirt
The tops of their porcelain heads peeking
Mouths full of mud
Limbs woven with weeds
What secrets planted there?
Can be inflicted
On ones so small and still?
No little hearts to stop.
For rocks and stones
Spilled like milk
Gone sour in a swollen breast
The dog has defecated here
The headstones have been disturbed
The sacred ground made profane.
Nothing will grow.
Then nine months
Then nine months
Ripped from the earth
Torn out and cast aside.
Whose secrets do you, dear ones,
Melissa Pleckham is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor, and musician. Her work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Rooster Republic Press, Flame Tree Fiction, Luna Luna, Mind's Eye Publications' The Vampiricon, Head Shot Press’ Bang! An Anthology of Noir Fiction, and more. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association. She also plays bass and sings for the garage-goth duo Black Lullabies. Find her online at melissapleckham.com or on social media at @mpleckham.
You will linger, he told her,
In murksome memories made manifest
Through the guttering glow of tallow candles
And the mold-tinged stagnant bathwater.
You will howl from the other side
Your face pressed into the superviscous Veil
Your ectoplasmic essence seeping
Through pinprick perforations of bobbin lace.
Your return, an inevitability for those left behind
Who will denude every gilt-edged mirror
And, with the slow reluctance of death-row prisoners,
Lower the temperature to greet you.
You will sit at the kitchen table, he told her,
Facing the unctuous contrition of your family
And dance your slow-solidifying fingers
Through the blackest of bitter coffees.
The cemetery soil will congeal into a paste
Under your fractured fingernails,
The long-ingested poison
A regurgitation upon your tongue.
Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange Horizons, Vastarien, Asimov's, Reckoning, and F&SF. The Saint of Witches, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).