I can’t remember the first time I went to a bookstore. I mean a store whose central product is books. Growing up in rural parts of Utah, I had the Scholastic Book order forms, like so many others of my generation. I don’t think Scholastic gets the credit they deserve for being a publisher of gateway horror. My first copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came from them, as did the gloriously skeletal—but ultimately disappointing--The Train by Diane Hoh. My memory wants me to believe Scholastic published Christopher Pike, too, but I never bought any of those. Two other things found in the book order form helped make me the horror writer I am today.
I still have the first copy of Edgar Allan Poe works I ever bought. The Raven and Other Poems was an Apple Classic from Scholastic and, as you can imagine, the cover was gloriously purple. I must have known something about Poe before buying it, but I don’t remember. “The Raven” hypnotized me and “Annabelle Lee” made me cry, although I didn’t fully understand it at the time. I had not read much poetry outside of Shel Silverstein—a good precursor to reading Poe, in my opinion—and so it took some getting used to the format.
The slim volume was only poetry and so I would soon search out the short stories and began to notice how often Poe showed up in other media. I remember one episode of the sitcom Cheers in which Carla invoked the spirit of “The Tell-tale Heart” to freak out someone else at the bar. Later there would be The Simpsons epic version of “The Raven” pitting Homer against Bart the raven.
Around this time, ages nine to 13, I truly began to embrace horror. I had been a casual fan and a sufferer of nightmares. But my birthday is on Halloween, and I soon sickened of other people scaring me. It was my turn.
Re-enter the Scholastic book order form.
During my sixth-grade year, Scholastic sponsored a contest to complete an unfinished R.L. Stine story. Later, as Stephen King took over my reading life, I learned that King had done the same thing with a men’s magazine in the 1970s. “Finish this story,” beckoned the flimsy catalogue. So I did. I took Stine’s story of basement experiments and paternal secrets and created a Moreau-esque bird monster. I did not, however, win. I could consider this my first rejection but more importantly, it was the first real story I finished. The Goosebumps book that Stine’s start later became featured sentient and monstrous plants, not a birdman, so at least he didn’t steal my idea. Someone won that contest and I hope they stayed the course and became a writer.
What I got out of that story, besides the important act of finishing something, was a nomination by my teacher and acceptance to the Utah State University young writers conference. My mom and I got to spend the day on the college campus. Somebody gave a speech, we were given lunch, and I got a medal. We also got to hear other participants read their stories and essays. We heard quite a bit of monotone reading, but I wanted to scare people.
That was my first public reading. Gasps at the scary parts and a round of applause and that was it for me. Even though I didn’t immediately devote my life to writing, I always craved the applause… and the screams.
I’ve done theater and worked in haunted houses. Those are all collaborative experiences. I might be the focus in the moment, but there’s a mask or a character between me and the audience. There’s the set and maybe music. During a reading, it’s only me and the words I put down on paper. A reading is a performance. I’ve read about Poe’s public readings and attended a large outdoor reading by Stine. I know they both understand.
Without them, and the access to their work via the Scholastic book orders, you wouldn’t be reading this now.
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. He has been a grocery store janitor, a college English and journalism instructor, an essential oils warehouse worker, a reporter, and a fast food grunt. He holds a Master's degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son.
Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net.
Who saw the Farmer’s Wife fall facedown on her bedroom floor, crushing her Sunday hat? Who watched her shake and bubble up like skillet bacon? Who then saw Farmer McKidd himself approach his fallen wife, like she was some ornery goat, the way she kicked out at him with her hind legs and her gurgling wheeze, which sounded so very barnyard. Farmer McKidd got kicked several times by his wife that day, until he finally retreated into the kitchen to figure out how to fix his wife. He opened the fridge and didn’t find any answers in there. Just a little leftover ham. He ate some to help his thinking.
He stood in that kitchen, chewing that ham and listened to his wife kick over her lamp and then trample her prayer stool. He tried not to listen to all her foul language, but it was hard. She was so articulate. He stared out the kitchen window for strength, just in time to see his newborn calf fall dead in the field. The heat was getting everyone. Farmer McKidd rushed out, leaving his wife to curse God and cook up to a fever of one hundred and eight.
Who saw beyond the farmer’s field, in the forest, a herd of deer standing in a perfect circle, communicating their thoughts telepathically? The deer, though shy at first, were finally able to express to one another their true horror of being caught in the glare of headlights, and the keen yearning they had for their now-dead mothers. Then they wondered about what it was about them that made people shoot them. Their ability to talk to each other this way was a gift, but they weren’t used to it, and it tired them out and then they all drifted apart out of telepathic range.
Could anyone have seen further in the forest, they would have seen a man in a suit made of mylar and polymers, now burnt and frayed. Who witnessed the appearance of this man on the forest floor, a man changed by centuries of travel performed in an Earth’s instant? A man lying there, rippling with stories of the cosmos; those stories told by viruses and bacteria that colonized distant worlds and then destroyed them? Who could see that the man was neither dead nor alive, but was warm with the blood of the thousand worlds he had visited?
A tick. A tick saw all this happen. The tick that made its way to the spaceman and pulled out the blood. Then moved onto the deer. Then finally to the Farmer’s Wife where it now sat, bulging with blood, in the nest of her hairline. The Farmer’s Wife was getting the benefit of telepathy too, and suddenly knew all her husband’s thoughts that he’d never dared speak aloud. But she was also tasting the fall of Europa. First comes the kicking and the squealing. Then her flesh will peel off and wander away and attach itself to the nearest rock or tree.
The tick would climb off the farmer’s wife before that happened. It would find a nice warm cow or the neck of a sheep dog, and would pass along the messages from those strangers in the cosmos.
Mary Crosbie howls from Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Gross and Unlikeable, Blood Bath LitZine and Space Squid. Follow her on Twitter or her website: Www.marycrosbie.com
To start with, the TV people were excited about Mars being the closest that it had ever been to earth. Now, mom says I don’t have to go to school so long as I don’t turn on the TV or look out the window.
She makes me play games like boarding up the doors. She says it’s fun, but it is not.
Neither are the screams outside.
I miss the sun’s heat on my face and the cooling rain, but I made a promise—I will not look outside. Even when I recognise neighbors' voices begging for help. Sometimes there are gunshots, or the screaming goes on throughout the night.
Mom says they are dreams—all good boys have them, but now I’m starting to think the closeness of Mars is driving mom crazy since the food is running out.
I said I didn’t mind going to the store. However, Mom laughed and told me there was more than enough food. The cooked meat tasted like chicken, but when I tried to find my cat, Argo, I couldn’t.
Mom says he must have run away, but he’d never do that. Not after I found his collar in the trash can.
Now all mom does is cry when she thinks I’m not looking.
I wish I knew what to do.
I wish that I could help her or look out the window and see Mars’ beauty.
Before the TV went off, they said it would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That the populace devoured too many trash movies—now was the time to look up to the heavens.
But mom won’t let me go outside.
She says only naughty children look at Mars.
Things are getting so bad that I’m ready to return to school. Staying indoors 24/7 is making me crazy.
But when I tell her that, mom just cries more.
To pass the time, I pick at forgotten books; some are history, some describe this war God Mars who gave his name to the red planet.
I have yet to find ONE nice story about his terrible fury.
Everything he threw his crimson light at he destroyed, and I wonder what could be so beautiful about the little red planet now it’s so close to earth.
Even though I promised mom not to peek, sometimes I wonder about that a lot.
Matthew Wilson has been published in Star*Line, Night to Dawn magazine, Zimbell House publishing and many more. He is currently editing his first novel and can be found on Twitter.
It reminds me of home when the roads used to freeze over. Solid ice. Days when snow was predicted were the only ones I woke up early. I’d set my alarm the night before, wake up without even feeling tired, turn on the TV and watch the local news. My eyes fixed to that scrawling list at the bottom of the screen with the names of all the school districts that had cancelled their classes. Snow days. I remember snow days. How could I forget? They only canceled school when the ice was so thick that even the plow trucks couldn’t break through. Except for that one day.
My parents were surprised, weren’t they? School was open, though they delayed the start of classes by two hours. Two hours. Yes, it was two hours. I remember standing at the bus stop. It was later than usual. The sun was out, the wind was harsh. My sister was there. Wasn’t she?
Miranda… Miranda, can you hear me?
I remember the bus, the harsh wind blowing down on us, and the bus coming around the bend. It was heading towards us—sun glistening off that polished steel, yellow on orange combining to make green: the color of the covered grass; brown once the snow thaws—and it’s driving across the ice-covered road. I can’t see the driver’s face. The sun is reflecting off the windshield. It’s all I can see: the sun. Oh, the sun! It’s reflecting off of everything! The snow, the bus, my sister’s glasses: and it’s shining in my eyes. I can’t see anything. The bus. Wait, there’s the bus. It’s coming this way across the ice. It slips, then--
Where am I? This place…
It reminds me of home when the roads used to freeze over. Solid ice.
Ethan S. Berry (February 20th, 1996) was raised in West Virginia hollers and has been writing since he was seven years old. Now he lives in San Antonio, Texas with his supporting wife and their two cats: Romeo & Pablo. While he can't help but obsess over the act of writing, he is also a student of psychology and in 2019 he was officially recognized for his contributions as an undergraduate to the field of psychology by the Southwestern Chapter of the American Psychological Association (APA). When Ethan’s not writing, he is either spending time with his wife and cats, getting wrapped up in collaborative art projects (whether it be a producing podcast or a recording sound for a short film), attending classes at the University of Texas in San Antonio, or lounged out somewhere reading a good book with a mug of coffee at his side.
Follow Ethan on Facebook and Instagram
Something drips. Interminably slow, heavy, and monotonous, it is a beat at the very edge of consciousness, lulling him slowly back to awareness. There is no other point of reference, the darkness about him absolute, though he can feel the roughness of the stone wall against his back and the smooth coldness of the metal bonds that hold his wrists and ankles tight against it. Flexing his toes, he feels water lap around them. The damp infects his bones.
Straining his senses, he searches the cold black air, though he has no idea for what. He has no memory of what has happened, no memory of anything that has gone before, yet he knows that he is waiting, waiting for... something.
Then, suddenly, there it is a change in the sound, the drip accelerating until it becomes a trickle, then a cascade. The rising water reaches his knees, his waist, his chest. The coldness of it makes him gasp, presses against his ribcage, forces his lungs to fight for breath. Through his panic, a thought surfaces: there are so very many ways to die–perhaps drowning is not the worst.
The water splashes his face. It has reached his chin and will soon be in his mouth, in his nostrils, in his throat. He wonders how long he could hold his breath, or if it might not be better to breathe the deadly liquid in, a swift conclusion to this life that he cannot quite call to mind. Then, as if some faraway valve has been shut down, the gushing water stops. It drips for a moment, then silence returns.
Something brushes his leg in the darkness, and in that instant, the sluice gates of his memory burst apart, and he remembers. He remembers the terror in the eyes of his son and the bargain that was struck. He remembers the oozing, milk-white eyes of the beast and the yellowed stumps of teeth that spewed saliva as it shook its awful head in triumph. He remembers his last sight of the boy, running for all he was worth, running because his life depended on it. And he remembers submitting to the fetid embrace of the worm; a living sacrifice, a lamb to the slaughter.
A sound disturbs the darkness, a sound as soft and chill as the flick of a serpent’s tongue—a gentle movement of the water, sending saltwater ripples to lap against his lips. The sweet, stagnant smell of decay fills the chamber, announcing the arrival of his host as surely as a fanfare of trumpets. The beast is on the move. Its huge, elongated body cuts effortlessly through the water, scarcely disturbing the surface. His fists clench, a futile act of resistance. There can be no going back, no change to the terms of the contract. In the stinking blackness, he turns his head to the wall and steels himself for what is to come.
The water seethes as the creature rises before him, its rank, hot breath burning his cheek. He tries to scream, but it is useless; his voice was taken long ago. He will do what he has always done; take the pain inside himself and await oblivion. Tomorrow he will wake and have no recollection until the dripping starts again.
KB Willson is a British author, specialising in SF, Fantasy, and Horror. As his ‘day job’ requires him to be professionally jolly – he has spent his working life as a performer, everything from theatre to circus via magic and fire-eating – writing enables him to indulge his darker side! He lives beside the sea in Dorset with his wife and dachshund dog, one of whom likes to sit on his lap while he is writing.
For more information visit www.kbwillson.com or follow him on Twitter at @kbwillsonauthor.
Dr. Eliza Reilly picked up the doll and scratched at the crust of dried blood on its cheek. Its only remaining eye stared up at her, orb-like, lifeless. Nearby, a dog sunk its teeth into an unidentifiable piece of flesh, consuming it violently, tattered strips of denim and all.
She hadn’t meant for any of this to happen.
No terrorist’s explosive had littered bone fragments and entrails through the dust-shrouded streets of her little hometown. Mother Nature’s wrath had not moved like a wraith down Main Street, splitting the earth at its fault lines. But, She had split Eliza, imperfectly, asymmetrically, so that the frayed pieces could never again become a whole.
Her brother was dead.
Eliza wouldn’t stand for it. The stages of death had not landed her wearily upon acceptance. Instead, they festered inside her like an open sore, amalgamating into sickness, into obsession. She had poured every fragment of herself and her profession into taking back what Mother Nature had stolen. When she discovered the fungus, a grotesque little organism that could resurrect, albeit enslave, the corpses of some insects, her line between genius and madness blew away like so much salt.
The experiments had taken months.
A few reanimated rabbit corpses had given her hope, if only because she’d ignored how they had cannibalized each other only minutes after waking.
They were animals, after all. Her brother would be different.
Last night, on the anniversary of his death, she’d packed up her syringes and driven to St. Gertrude’s Cemetery. Eliza remembered now, as she stood in the aftermath of her genius, the six feet of packed earth that had stood between her and her brother. The raw blisters on her hands reminded her of the hours she’d spent digging, and of the hollow sound a coffin makes when it’s struck with a rusted shovel.
Her brother’s sunken cheeks and shriveled lips, pulled back from his teeth in a ghoulish grin, made it easier to jab the needle into his neck. She might have lost her nerve if only she’d recognized his ornery smile, or the dimple in his right cheek.
Eliza held her breath.
The fungus blossomed, black and malevolent beneath the mottled skin, and then disappeared. She remembered the sharp crack of stiff tendons as her brother’s fingers flexed one by one. The spores swelled beneath parchment-thin flesh. Black veins crept into his neck and fanned like lightning across his face. She watched in horror as his eyelids cracked open, the deflated eyeballs like salt-shriveled slugs inside his skull.
Eliza fell backward against the dirt wall of the grave, a scream lodged in her throat. In twitching, unnatural movements, her brother sat up and fixed his black eyes upon her.
“Johnny?” she whispered.
The creature opened its mouth as if to answer, the skin on its face cracking and exposing a line of yellow teeth. She buried her face in her hands like a child and listened to it claw its way out of the wound in the earth.
By the time she had worked up the courage to follow it, the Jacobs family was dead. She found them on the kitchen floor in their shotgun house, their limbs ripped from their bodies, bits of half-consumed brain matter clinging to dish towels and silverware.
Grief suffocated her again, its dark fingers cold around her throat. She knelt beside the remains of the youngest girl and squeezed her severed hand. God, what had she done?
The hand squeezed back.
The family fell upon her all at once, ravenously seizing fistfuls of her hair, tearing at her skin with jagged fingernails and broken teeth. The girl’s grip tightened until she heard the sick crack of bone, and then the pain came.
With a savage cry, Eliza ripped herself from them and stumbled out into the street. Blood poured freely from a wound on her forehead and stained the town scarlet. There were more of them. They were everywhere, emerging from the houses and climbing over wrought iron fences. She recognized the faces of her neighbors and friends, twisted now in pain or hatred, or hunger. Soulless moans escaped their bloodstained mouths, a death rattle beneath a Cheshire cat moon.
Gasping for breath, she burst through the doors of the cemetery’s empty church, folded herself into the space beneath the altar, and prayed. The hope she had clung to all these months faded to a bruise.
Her brother was dead, really, truly dead. Even as the tears stained her skin, she wondered at the strange blackness that mercifully infested her grief, mutating it into half-recognized craving. Even her shattered hand ceased to throb. It was easier this way, in the dark.
By midnight, half the town had been infected, and by dawn, when she finally emerged from her hiding place, they were all dead. Only the dogs remained. As the fungus crept beneath her skin, one of the dogs lifted its head. Her fingers moved without her consent.
The dog sniffed the air, and then it ran.
H.B. Diaz is an internationally published gothic horror writer and HWA member whose short stories have been featured in publications from the likes of Horror Tree, ID Press, Flame Tree Press, and Sirens Call Publications, among others. She lives with her husband and son in a historic (and likely haunted) East Coast town.
Follow her on Twitter and her website: www.authorhbdiaz.com/
You dart into the twilight, your wife’s voice, her pleas, trailing behind you. The screen door slaps shut, an abrupt end to a suffocating conversation. Through the mesh of the door, you hear the words, “Stay. Let’s talk it out.”
But you don’t stay. You don’t talk it out. Instead, you run. Like always.
You hit the street, shifting into a jog. The asphalt, slick with fresh rainfall, shimmers like onyx under the streetlights. On any other night, you’d be captured by this iridescence. But tonight, your eyes don’t linger on your footsteps. No. They’re set ahead.
On escape from the trappings of modernity: the passive-aggressive nature of your relationship, the mundanity of your chair-bound 9-to-5. Running frees you. It reduces you to a single purpose: forward. And while in motion, you can focus on just that. Everything else falls away. Momentarily, at least.
Head level, spine straight, you pump your arms close to your chest, allowing your hands to wobble limp at the wrists. Your forefeet slap the pavement, the soft steps swishing like a distant cicada song.
Your wife’s voice chases you through the cookie-cutter lanes of your suburban neighborhood, reverberating between the single-story bungalows, each one unimaginative and uniform in its architecture.
Drizzles start. They pitter-patter, pitter-patter, drowning out the noise and coalescing with the sweat beads forming on your skin, blurring the boundary between yourself and the universe.
You near the end of the cul-de-sac.
Ahead, thunderheads brood above the winter-stripped forest. You bound over the curb and head for the overgrown trailhead near the tree line. The bare branches of the forest reach out as if reclaiming the manicured lawn reminding you that civilization is a collective dream—the wild waits on society’s peripheries, ready to reclaim its dominion.
A sharp crack, paired with a bulbous white flash, emanates from on high. A streak of translucent lightning slithers from the clouds. It doesn’t make sense, this psychedelic shimmer, but the atmospheric trick doesn’t stop you.
You push forward towards the trail. The grass shifts to dirt. Scattered pebbles jab the bottoms of your feet. But you don’t wince. You grit your teeth and smile.
The forest wraps you in its embrace.
Illuminated by the glow of your headlamp, the trail snakes through the brush, the long grass high as your head. Branches scrape your elbows, shins, and knees. There’s pain, but the repetition of your movements dulls the sensation. A biochemical urge, part of an ancient natural reward system, drives you forward. You imagine yourself as a predator chasing prey.
This is how we used to live, you tell yourself. Our ancestors descended from the trees so our legs could carry us. Then we exchanged our freedom for creature comforts. For huts, houses, and offices.
The trail zigs and zags, skirting past overlooks that abut a polluted river.
You hop over logs and roots, causing dead leaves to whirl in your wake. Every so often, you catch ember eyes in the reflective glow of your headlamp, but you never catch sight of the forest creature the eyes belong to.
You forge ahead, your body a blade carving through the universe. Your mind is absent of any thought besides the task.
In your ecstasy, you forget that the creature comforts—the huts, the houses, the offices—were erected as forms of protection, as boundaries between ourselves and the wild. You forget that out in nature, humans aren’t just predators. They’re also prey.
The trail ends at a beach sheltered by a weeping willow. Your steps form depressions in the sand as your calves tighten in response to the uneven terrain.
Whispers burble from the river ahead, lulling you like a sweet enchantment. “Just a little further.”
You stop at the banks of the river, lacing your fingers behind your head and stretching backward. But it’s no use. Cramps skewer you between the ribs. Your lungs sear with each breath. Nail aches plague your feet, shins, and knees, their sharp pinpricks striking irregularly as if scraping bone.
You slip your shoes off and dig your toes into the sand, pushing against the pain. You step into the river, the water a cold salve that laps at your feet. In the cold calm, you collect your thoughts.
By the time you get home, they’ll be asleep, you think. The argument will be forgotten. Tomorrow will be another day.
This is why you run: for the clarity you gain through exertion.
You turn to leave but are stopped by a cerebral shudder, an alarm in your reptilian brain that indicates you’re being watched. You feel it, the devouring gaze of unseen eyes.
Your headlight illuminates a thick layer of fog above the water’s surface. You can’t see the other side of the river, but you hear something splash beyond the swirling veil.
Suddenly, a guttural screech fills the soundscape, the sonic assault drilling into your skull and causing you to double over. You wobble in the water as a cataclysmic rift splits your consciousness, opening you to a different plane of reality, one blooming with malevolence.
A predator lies in wait. It seeps into this.
You dry heave into the water, choking on the scent of sulfur. Through hot, teary eyes, you see something break the water’s surface. Whatever it is, its black-scaled body moves as if unencumbered by vertebrae.
The sound drones on, paralyzing you in place. You recognize something familiar in the discordant thrum. The call of the predator.
As your mind falls down the well of primordial memory, you grow blind to the present plane. Starbursts assault your eyes. White noise bathes your senses.
Amidst the humdrum, you don’t notice the crocodilian-like snout inching closer, nor the stalk, snail-like eyes peeking above the water’s surface. No, you don’t notice them at all.
All you notice is a sudden cacophonous silence and then the sound of the ambush.
G.D. Watry is a writer from California. His fiction and poetry have been published in Like The Wind Magazine, Pantheon Magazine, OCCULUM, and Hinnom Magazine, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.
A steady stream of cold air pummels my upper molars as I recline in the dentist’s chair, my arms tightly wrapped around my middle to hold myself still. The air and the scraping send pulses of ice and fire through the nerves in my teeth, and every muscle in my body stiffens; my shoulders and neck feel like rocks.
“All done!” The dentist says. “But I did find a cavity that we need to fill.”
I stand up, steady myself, and walk over to the receptionist’s desk to make my appointment.
“How about Monday, April 24th to have that filled?” the receptionist asks.
The date sounds familiar, but I’m not sure why. I check my appointments on my phone, and it looks like that day is open, so I take it.
“Great! Just remember that we send lots of texts and reminders. Some people find it annoying. You can opt-out if you want.”
“Thanks,” I say, relieved to be leaving for now but dreading next week.
The volume on my phone is turned up because I’m expecting a package any day, and I have to hear the doorbell alert system chime. With the volume turned up, though, my appointment reminders make me jump from my seat every time they come in. At least five times a day, I see “Appointment Reminder: April 24th.” These alerts are synchronized with my email, so the messages make additional pinging sounds, which won’t go away.
I’ve counted how many reminders I’ve gotten in one day, over the past two days: ten. That’s too many, but I don’t opt-out. I like getting the automated birthday texts from the dentist, but every time I see the Monday, April 24th date, I shiver. Not because I have to get a cavity filled. There’s something else I should remember, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Over the next two days, I get twenty more alerts, but when I look carefully at the messages, I notice something I didn’t see before. The reminders say, “Monday, April 24th, 2:30 a.m. @ Hyram Lake.”
I couldn’t possibly be getting a cavity filled at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday, and Hyram Lake is not the dentist’s address. When I finally try to opt-out, there isn’t a link.
During the weekend, the reminders come in at all hours of the day and night. I spend hours deleting them with a sinking feeling in my heart—like I’m supposed to remember something else, something soul-aching and important.
I set my alarm for 1:45 a.m. Sunday night.
The lake is smooth this time of day, a flat extension of land, almost like a solid patch of desert, shrouded by fog. The water in the air pulls at the loose strands of my unkempt locks. At 2:30 a.m., the appointment reminder goes off: Hyram Lake, Monday, April 24.
I look out over the water, hoping to remember, but dreading how deeply I’ll feel the mist that rises.
A shape, somewhat familiar, materializes, walking towards me in the fog, and my breath catches in my chest. I recognize it—the shape of my brother. Flashes from that fateful day hang in the air: he told me he would dive to the bottom of the lake; he said he’d return in precisely one year; when Mom and Dad asked, I said he’d drowned; they’d said they weren’t surprised since he was hell-bent on self-destruction and they were tired.
He stops walking, and we look at each other once more, holding each other’s gaze; a wide cavity grows. His form shifts, and wings like those of the ancient eagle shark spread, filling the void. Turning, he disappears into the fog.
Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here:
I open my eyes, and I’m no longer in the alleyway but in a drafty, dark place. After the haziness leaves my mind like a lifting fog, I blink, and the place—an attic—becomes clear. Cobwebs blanket the downward sloping rafters, and a pale light comes in through a small window behind me, illuminating the dust-covered floorboards.
“Take off your clothes,” a man demands, drunkenly, words slurred and slow. He comes out from behind the brick support beam in the center of the room.
I push myself up to a sitting position—a sharp pain shoots from my head down to my toes. I wince and touch the back of my skull to find my hair soaked in what I guess to be blood.
“No,” I mumble.
Dusty boxes are along the walls, knick-knacks and other garbage are strewn about on the ground, and a set of stairs, leading down to a closed door is beyond the brick pillar.
I slowly stand. The room spins, and I grab a rafter until the vertigo passes.
“Do it,” he says, nearing. Floppy ginger hair covers his forehead, a patchy orangish-red beard splotches his pasty face; he wears an oversized flannel shirt and torn jeans and mud-caked boots. He holds a lead pipe. My black blood is dry on the end of it.
“No,” I repeat.
He raises the pipe, inspects it as if it were something he just found and looks at me. “You want this pipe again? You want to bleed some more? And, not just from your head, if you catch my drift.”
Too much is happening at once. I shake my head, clearing away the fog. “You don’t want me to do that… You don’t want to see me naked.”
“Don’t tell me what I do or don’t want. I’m letting you undress yourself as a courtesy. I could’ve stripped you when you were passed out,” he says.
“Fine.” There’s no other option.
I pull the long-sleeved sweater over my head, letting it fall to the ground. His eyes grow wide, and his lips part when the deep scars lining my body like fissures are revealed. They begin near my waist and slither up my stomach, weave around my breasts, curl over my shoulders, and stream down my arms and back. They splinter off like pleading branches, forming ancient, unknowable patterns.
“Wha—” he starts, swallows, starts again. “What happened? Those scars…”
“My father,” I say flatly, an image of my birth flashes across my mind.
“I'm so sorry, so… very sorry.” He said, tears streaming from bleary eyes, saliva dripping from an open mouth. “I shouldn't have, I shouldn't have trusted them, the Ancient Ones, shouldn't have… shouldn't have made the— the deal… ”
He knelt before me; a meat tenderizer held above his head.
He looked down at me—
“I mean, my real father,” I correct myself, unsure why. Another image burns into my mind.
The tenderizer came down fast, but as it neared my head, his wrist jerked, hitting the floor. His eyes widened, releasing it as if it were red hot.
Stumbling back, he fell onto his ass.
The ground shook.
A pressure-filled the air, tingling with palpable malevolence.
A deep gurgling resonated from everywhere, nowhere; inside and out. Spoke words he couldn’t understand, but I did.
The pact granted life, not the destruction of life. No harm could come to me, an Ancient One’s offspring.
Suddenly, fiery pain shot through my veins, ignited bone and muscle, boiled flesh… Simmered, cooled, leaving scars…
He protected me then, but not since I've grown into myself.
“What?” he says, confused, becoming angry. “Fine, whatever…” He shakes his head. “I don’t care… Just, just take off your pants.”
“Just do it!” He slams the pipe against the rafter again.
I refuse again, wrapping my arms around my chest.
“I’ve had enough of your sass, girl, just do what I say!”
“Then I’ll make you,” he says and grabs my arm, wrenching it from my body—stops when the room trembles, and the pale light coming through the window vanishes.
“What happened to the light?” he stutters.
“I said, no.”
Like smoldering embers, an undulating glow emits from beneath flesh, ascending the depths of the scars. In the faint, red-orange light, his jaw slackens. He stumbles back, dropping the pipe, clanging on the ground.
It becomes brighter, strengthening, radiating heat and tangible energy. Stifling warmth swells within the room. He perspires through his flannel, his hair drips with sweat.
“Stop,” he says, backing into the brick pillar.
Flesh peels back, hissing with steam, revealing what the scars truly hold…
The world beyond, the shapes, sigils, the sounds of a place that’s only a needle prick away.
There’s no blood, no innards; there is nothing inside for a person to enjoy, to ravage—tar-filled valleys, steaming skies of pestilence; wavering monstrous aberrations, rising from umber soil, intertwined at the core of what shouldn’t be.
“No, please, stop!” He collapses onto his knees, covering his face with his hands.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” I ask.
Black tendrils eject out from within, wrap around him. He turns, trying to grip the pillar, his nails scrape and claw but quickly rip from skin. He receives what he demanded.
He's inside me.
The steaming flesh crawls its way back over the gaping hole, like a million insects over bark.
I wait as seams cauterize with scarred symbols, seal, cool…
Then, it’s done, and I’m as whole as I’ll ever be once more.
I grab my sweatshirt, dust it off, and slip it back on. I walk to the door, find it unlocked, and leave the attic, the empty house, returning to the city, to the alleys.
About the Author: Micah Castle is a weird fiction and horror writer. His stories have appeared in various magazines, websites, and anthologies, and has three collections currently out.
While away from the keyboard, he enjoys spending time with his wife, spending hours hiking through the woods, playing with his animals, and can typically be found reading a book somewhere in his Pennsylvania home.
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Grandpa’s house had too many rules. Kevin’s parents would diligently remind him of those rules every time they visited.
“Don’t look at the neighbors for too long. Don’t wave to them. Don’t play outside after dark. Keep the windows and doors closed at all times. All the windows and doors. Keep all the lights on at all times.”
The list continued, but Kevin got tired of hearing it. Why did they insist on leaving him here at all? He hated it. Who cared about “maintaining the perimeter,” anyway? Whatever that meant.
Besides, what was the point of being on a farm in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t explore?
They pulled off the highway onto the even quieter backroads and drove another hour to the farm. The sun was setting as they approached the farmhouse.
“Looks like we’re staying the night,” Mom said. Dad nodded in brief assent.
Kevin saw a few tall, dark figures walking among the stalks of corn not far from the road. The neighbors.
Kevin never saw their faces.
“Close your eyes, Kevin,” Mom cautioned. “We’re almost there.”
Kevin sighed and did as he was told. They bumped down the rest of the road and came to a gradual stop. The doors opened and closed; Kevin felt Mom grab him out of his seat and huff as she carried him into the house.
She chuckled and said, “Sweetie, you’re almost too big for me to carry anymore. You can open your eyes now, baby boy.”
Kevin opened his eyes to take in the vista of musty old orange furniture and brown shag carpet. There were so many paintings on the walls that it was almost difficult to see the faded wallpaper beneath. The paintings in Grandpa’s house had always creeped Kevin out. Kevin thought it had something to do with all the red and black streaks that dominated the frames. Supposedly Grandma had painted them. She must have been a scary lady, but Kevin wouldn’t know because he couldn’t remember her.
“I’m not a baby, mom.” Kevin sniffed and rubbed his nose.
“You’ll always be my baby, honey.” Mom grabbed Kevin up in a big bear hug.
Mom was always calling him some pet name. Kevin wriggled himself free of her hug and looked up as Grandpa shuffled into the room. Kevin was always reminded of the cowboys in old movies when he saw his Grandpa.
“Y’all’re cuttin’ it close,” Grandpa grunted as he closed the door behind Kevin’s parents.
A heavy lock clicked and Grandpa placed a metal bar across the door. The grown-ups talked about how they were getting closer, even during the day, and some other things that Kevin didn’t understand or care about. Grandpa’s voice sounded different than Kevin remembered, and he smelled like he hadn’t showered in a while. But, his parents didn’t seem to notice, so Kevin decided it didn’t matter.
“Grandpa, can I go read in my old room now?” Kevin asked as he tugged on his grandpa’s belt.
“Sure, kiddo. Head’n up there,” Grandpa said, then he squatted so his face and Kevin’s were level and winked.
Strange. He’d never done that before.
Kevin couldn’t be sure, but it looked like something was swimming around in Grandpa’s eye. Grandpa turned back and ushered Mom and Dad into another room. Kevin ignored the discomfort he felt at the wink and strange behavior and hurried up the stairs to “his” room. The room was actually the attic of Grandpa’s house. As he opened the door from the stairs into the attic room, he noticed a draft of air and that the lights were off. That also had never happened before. There was a light on in the closet, and as Kevin turned to call to his parents, he noticed the window was broken open, with the boards on the floor.
BANG! Something hit the closet door from the inside at the sound of his voice. The beating on the door continued, and Kevin heard his Grandpa shout from inside the closet, “GET OUT NOW KEVIN! RUN!”
Tall shadows moved in the darkness of the room towards where Kevin stood at the head of the stairs.
Kevin tumbled down the stairs in his hurry to obey his Grandpa’s command. He looked at the opening to the attic as the light in the hall began to flicker.
If that was Grandpa in the closet, then who was down here with Mom and Dad? Kevin thought. A hand that couldn’t be human gripped the edge of the doorway, the light continued to dim. Blackness spread from the hand on the doorway to cover the walls in a web of writhing veins. The black tendrils choked the light even further as they seemed to drain the warmth from the space. Kevin screamed again for his Mom and backed away from the hallway. He could still hear banging from the closet upstairs.
Kevin could not tear his gaze away from the inky figure struggling through the door above him and backed up until he felt his Mom’s shoes. He turned and looked up at his Mom, but he couldn’t see her face. The lights flickered out, and all Kevin saw was a pair of eyes as black as the void.
The world turned cold as Kevin screamed.
About the author: Jesse White is a Georgia-based author who dreams of the American Southwest. An avid reader of steamy romances, mindless poetry, horror fiction, and bad puns, Jesse also loves writing the same. Jesse is a Gemini sun/Libra rising.