Gran’s Centaur

In keeping with our mission, Scrutiny has produced a little black book that offers up a lot of magical realism. Below you’ll be able to read one of the stories included in both the print and eBook version. You can learn more about that book here.

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The first time my little sister Sammy heard Gran’s centaur story was the last time I heard it. Sammy was having some tough times in sixth grade like I did at her age and I thought the story might give her something else to think about. Plus, you could never tell when Gran was going to tell her story, so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. That’s a phrase Chuck used, but when he said it, it usually involved something not as good as hearing a crazy story, more like cheating on an algebra test or kissing Stacey Pringle when she was drunk. Gran’s story would erupt unpredictably like a musty volcano. Once she began when I was on the toilet.

Wouldn’t Chuck love to hear about that. The fact was this: When Gran decided it was time, it was time. I grabbed Sammy by her skinny tan arm and pulled her into the living room.

When Gran told the story, it was always the same, which was weird in itself. Gran could never get her socks to match and she would call me all the names of her own children and pets, living and dead, before settling on my actual name, but her centaur story was water tight, like a crab’s ass (another Chuck phrase). The details never varied and she never forgot a scene.

That day, after I saw Gran preparing to tell her story, I made Sammy sit next to me, cross-legged on the floor in front of Gran in her faded Laz-E-Boy. When Gran got ready to tell her centaur story, she looked at the back wall of the living room as if we were in some sort of auditorium, with an audience of thousands in front of her. Also, she clutched her mug of tea delicately with both hands like it was a beating heart. She opened her thin lips and the tip of her tongue would come to the corner of her mouth, then retreat, like it was assessing the weather conditions.

Then she started, as always, like this: “No one knew where he came from.”

I should also mention that whenever Gran began her story, the cluttered, wood-paneled living room in our shared home was always empty save for me and the ticking coo-coo clock on the davenport that was forever an hour behind. But, unerringly at some later point, I would find Grandpops settled somewhere in the back of the room. He would always interrupt the story, peppering it with his own barked comments, staring at Gran with his one eye, which was always cloudy and usually runny. According to Gran, that’s where Sammy got hers.

The day of my last hearing, Gran continued as usual. “He just showed up one day coming from the north. Walked right down Main Street in broad daylight, just rags hanging from his torso. Didn’t seem to know where he was and no one could get a word out of him. ’Course, no one approached him right away, neither. A half-naked horse-man walking down Main Street? This town’s seen some odd things, but this took the cake. People were skittish and ol’ Father Percy declared End of Days right then and there, standing on the stone steps of the church as the centaur clopped by, pointin’ and declarin’ instead of helping the poor thing. Hmpf.”

Gran didn’t like Father Percy. I didn’t either. After Chuck had been in town a month or so, he released some crickets in the confessional. He said he was asking for forgiveness while he was doing it, so it canceled out. A few stayed in there for weeks, chirping, occasionally leaping into old women’s hair, and driving Father crazy. I’ll admit, it was hilarious.

I told Gran about the prank, as a way of introduction to my new school acquaintance Chuck, but she only gave me this unsettling, thin smile in return—this wasn’t a happy smile, it was a warning. She used that same smile when we would talk late at night at the kitchen table, with a pot of tea under a glowing red lamp about why I hadn’t uncovered what my tell was yet. I had a shadow; I had two eyes. There weren’t many options left. I could become an undead, always the lesser of the tells, although no one in town outright admitted it. Gran’s warning smile said only that time will determine all. It frightened me a little. No. It frightened me a lot.

The centaur story from there built steam. Gran said, “Even though he was in rags, you could tell he was a beautiful creature. His coat was chocolate brown and us women loved his dark tail, so long and full. Although his torso was human, there was still an equine element to his facial expressions. His big, dark eyes would go wide with fright and roll around in his head when he got nervous, which was often. He would look at things sideways and cock his head. He would snort. But he didn’t talk. Never uttered a word the entire time he was here. No one ever knew if it was because he couldn’t or if he wouldn’t. Both the physician and the vet had a look at him a few days after he arrived. They both agreed he seemed healthy—had some worms but who don’t—but you see, that was the start of the problem. He didn’t belong nowhere. Always stuck in between.”

After my third time hearing this story, I started to wonder if, in a way, that’s what Chuck’s problem was, too. Teachers at school told us not to pay attention to him, it only encouraged his outbursts and crazy stunts. I began to think that maybe he did the things he did because otherwise, who would pay attention to him? He was purposefully moved to our town, instead of being born here or a wanderer. He was brought in to live with his aunt because his mom was sick. His aunt was the type who didn’t cast a shadow. Chuck had a shadow. He had everything. He was normal.

“I’m not sure where the centaur spent the first few nights. Probably an empty garage somewhere on the outskirts,” continued Gran. “Someone’s barn, maybe. But every morning, sure as the sun rises, he was out walking Main Street. His hooves would echo off the cobblestones with a satisfying staccato I could hear from this very kitchen.

“After the initial shock of his arrival, folks started interacting with him. Sayin’ good morning, smiling, being polite because we’re good people here despite what outsiders may say. Maybe that’s why he came here. Thought he might find a place where he was accepted.”

Gran always shook her head at this point. “It was clear as day that creature was starving. So the council held an emergency meeting. At that time, the council only held men. No women allowed. And only certain men—even then, there were prejudices. Nothing’s changed, really. Men with birds in their beards weren’t allowed. No undeads.” Gran shrugged her shoulders. Every time she got to this part, she shrugged.

“Didn’t matter. While the stuffy men locked themselves up to secretly decide this creature’s life, the rest of us gathered in the street to introduce ourselves and welcome him to our town. Ms. Louisa brought him one of her husband’s old work shirts to replace his rags, and Ms. Cleo put together a large basket of food—apples, carrots, oat muffins. Charlie May was getting ready to show him to his barn where he said he had a spare stall below the hay loft when those giant oak doors of the town hall opened and the council came out looking very proud of themselves and declared that the centaur would stay in Barn 4 of the fairgrounds and be given an allotment of grain and hay equivalent to that of the workhorses. They decreed he would be expected to find employment within one week because they didn’t want to encourage loafing, never mind that half the members of the council were professional loafers themselves.”

“But Gran, where did he come from?” Sammy piped up. I expected this interruption, since it was Sammy’s first time hearing the story. Sammy didn’t know yet that Gran never answered questions about her stories. It was Sammy’s nature to ask a lot of questions. I was that way at her age, too.

Gran hardly paused, totally ignoring Sammy, which made Sammy indignant, her one eye squinting hard at Gran. I gave Sammy a warning look to shut her mouth. I was afraid if Gran were sufficiently interrupted, she would shut down and never tell the story again. Then again, Grandpops sometimes made some pretty big interruptions and Gran never minded. Maybe it was because he was there, too. At that point, I could hear Grandpops in the back of the room, shifting his weight and breathing his shallow, raspy breaths.

“So the centaur went to Barn 4 at the fairgrounds, which we all knew was drafty and housed a large extended family of ornery, vindictive rats, but he seemed grateful. Meanwhile, we all talked about where he could work. Some unkind man actually suggested he be harnessed to the trolley so we could get transport up and down Main Street again, since the trolley sat motionless after the pair of oxen broke away in that storm a few years prior. We were aghast at this proposal, arguing he wasn’t a beast of burden, he was just like the rest of us and some of the undead in the group cheered the loudest, but then again, they always had the most at stake in any discussion.

“Someone else said we should race him in the steeplechase coming up, and again there was a roar of dissent. Then old Doc Tally the dentist stood up and said he was looking for an assistant. Everyone thought that was a decent, upstanding career for anyone, so the next day at eight in the morning while the roosters were announcing daybreak and the bakery filled the entire town with that wonderful smell of fresh biscuits, the centaur trotted smartly down to Doc Tally’s office for his first day of work, dressed in Ms. Louisa’s husband’s old shirt. At this point, most of us had really taken a liking to him.”

“O’ course you did! All the women loved him!” Grandpops hollered from the back of the room. Sammy jumped. She forgot he was there. I knew this was coming. I had heard it before. “He had balls like a bull!”

My newfound knowledge of balls at the time, courtesy of Chuck, caused me to blush. Sammy giggled. I wondered what exactly my baby sister knew of balls.

Gran continued without so much a glance toward Grandpops. “Naturally the first few days of the centaur’s employment were tough, but we all knew Doc Tally to be a patient man and the centaur seemed smart and earnest. He learned how to clean Doc’s tools and hand him the right drills when he was workin’ on someone, but the main problem was the centaur just took up all the space in the exam room with his four legs and all, barely leaving any room left for the patients!

“Doc seemed willing to re-arrange some things—I told you he was patient—but really the last straw was one afternoon during the second week. Doc asked the centaur to fetch him a replacement bit for his drill, stored in a corner cabinet. To this day, I don’t know if it was the word bit, that hateful metal piece on a horse’s bridle, that spooked the centaur or the fact that he somehow got wedged in the corner of the room and panicked because he thought he was trapped, but there was a mighty explosion and the centaur leapt over old Dreyfus, who was in the exam chair at the time with his mouth wide open and filled with gauze, and galloped out of the building, hooves flying.

“There was some damage to the exam room in the wake of the centaur’s hasty retreat and for that, Doc Tally was upset. We couldn’t blame him. But we felt most sorry for the centaur, for it seemed he was unemployable.”

“Professional loafer!” Grandpops exclaimed. Sammy jumped again. Grandpops leaned against the back wall near the chesterfield. He sounded angry, but that was no different than he always sounded, like when he asked for more soup at dinner or for me to read him the newspaper. His one eye was soft, however, and he examined Gran thoughtfully. He ran a large, gnarled knuckle under his eyelid to catch some loose tears. Cyclops get rheumy eyes as they get older. Sammy would have to watch out for that.

Suddenly, something rattled against the window in the kitchen. I got up to look as Gran continued. Peering out the single pane, I spotted Chuck below, throwing gravel and chunks of mud at the house.

“Why don’t you ever just knock at the door?” I hissed, after I opened the window a crack. I was sorely conscious of missing Gran’s story.

“Cuz your grand-dad creeps me out,” Chuck smirked, standing directly below the window with his neck bent back like he was crowing at the moon. “Wanna hang out?”

I shook my head. “Busy.”

“Busy doing what?”

“None of your dang business,” I replied, trying not to let on that I was irritated. If Chuck sensed that, he would purposefully set out to annoy me all night. Gran used to say that you know a boy likes you when he bothers you all the time. I suspected Chuck bothered everyone, though.

I had considered telling Chuck about Gran’s story before, but decided against it. I felt very protective of the story, like it was a family secret, especially since no one else in town would really talk about it other than provide vague nods when I asked if they remembered the centaur. Also, I thought Chuck would make fun of the whole thing. I wasn’t convinced he had learned his lesson about living in town even after the first day of school when he made fun of Martha’s mother—who, after Martha, gave birth to rabbits—and the entire class beat the snot out of him out of respect for Martha’s mother who made the most amazing blisterberry scones and was a really sweet lady.

Mostly, though, I felt Chuck didn’t deserve to hear the story. He wasn’t from our town and there was the expectation that when his mom got better, his aunt would ship him back home, back to wherever he came. At the time, I hadn’t run all these reasons by Gran yet, and although she wasn’t as spiteful as me, I had no doubt she’d agree.

I could hear Grandpops in the front room interrupting again. I had to get back.

“Look here, I gotta go help Grandpops.” I tossed the lie easily enough out the window. A trick I learned from Chuck.

“He says he can’t read the directions in the cookbook.”

Chuck let out a dramatic sigh. “Fine. Later.”

“Later.” I closed the window and hurried back to Gran.

The room was not as I had left it. I entered and immediately saw Sammy curled in Gran’s lap, wailing, and

Grandpops morose in the corner, dabbing his eye.

“I hate this place!” Sammy yelled between sobs. “It’s not fair! I hate them!”

I had never seen Sammy this despondent. Gran’s story was sad, sure, but not tragic.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, running over to Gran and Sammy. Sammy, who was frankly a little too big to be curled on Gran’s frail lap, was sliding to the ground, the pile of afghan blankets coming with her in an avalanche of checkered color. “Did you finish the story?”

“You said I should hear this story!” Sammy yelled at me. “Why did you make me listen?”

“Wait—” I stammered, confused. “I mean, he just leaves. His own choice, right Gran? He moved on after Doc Tally let him go?” I softly touched Sammy’s shoulder. “He might still be out there, Sammy.”

When I was much younger and heard the story for the first time, I balked at this consideration—the thought of a hungry, perhaps vengeful centaur lurking in the woods at the edge of town frightened me. But as I grew older, I caught myself sometimes staring into the dark, thick forest behind the house in hopes of glimpsing a retreating tail flagging in the wind or a hoof print—any sign suggesting he was making do on his own.

“They killed him!” Sammy yelled again.

“Who?” I asked, startled at this suggestion. Only, Sammy wasn’t suggesting.

Gran turned to me and raised her cloudy, soft eyes to mine. Her tea mug was listing dangerously to the side. Gray hairs had fallen out of her bun and danced around her mouth. “This is Sammy’s version, now. Her time to hear what she’s ready for, not you.”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, Sammy’s version?” Panic danced at the back of my throat. “Gran? Your story never changes.”

Gran nodded—peaceful, accommodating. “For you it stays the same. For someone else, it’s different.”

“But it happened!” I insisted. “The story doesn’t change. What happened is what happened.”

Gran bent over to gather her afghans, which sat in a pile on the floor. She had finished talking. She was done.

I grabbed Sammy’s arm and shook her roughly. How dare she change the story? “Sammy, what happened to the centaur?”

Sammy’s eye focused on me with alarming clarity, and I lost myself for a moment in its cool green color, a woodland pool in which I almost fell. She spoke suddenly with a maturity that surpassed both of us at the time. “The council chased him out of town. Pitchforks. Burned Barn 4 down.”

“An immodest beast!” shouted Grandpops from the back. But even his familiar holler, scratchy like sandpaper, had a dullness about it now. Softer.

“He broke his leg running into the woods to escape.” She wiped her eye, a motion that mimicked Grandpops. Then, a declaration: “So they shot him.”

I was shocked and without reply. This is not Gran’s centaur story, my centaur story, where every detail remained reliably steadfast, like the rising sun. The story was clockwork. Now Gran had gone and changed the time for someone else. What was so different about Sammy that she has another version?

I burst out of the front door, desperate for fresh air and space. I was crying. I was confused, perhaps hysterical. I was hurt, I thought even maybe mortally wounded. I saw Chuck leaning up against the lamppost across the street. Had he been standing there the whole evening?

I plopped down in the grass in the front yard. Crickets chirped and a busy insect buzz ended abruptly when I moved my hand over the seed heads that stood watch over the lawn.

“Fight?” Chuck asked, sitting down beside me.

I shook my head and quickly tried to wipe the tears from my face. I wasn’t typically a crying kind of girl. Neither was Sammy.

He shrugged. I could hear his nasally breathing, the reason he said he never won races. Adenoids.

“Well, want to make out?”

My breath caught in my throat. Chuck was not my boyfriend. I didn’t even want a boyfriend. I wanted Gran’s story back the way I knew it. I wanted Sammy to know it that way, open and with hope. Not that mangled version with death, the ultimate definitive ending.

Suddenly I realized I actually didn’t know how old Chuck was. Maybe he was a lot older than me. Maybe he was just slow and that was why he was in my grade. He was definitely bigger than me. And another thing—he was never clear about where he actually came from and exactly what was wrong with his mom.

There quickly became too many things I wasn’t sure about. My guts felt icy and the black road in front of the house appeared to move like a snake. I turned and grabbed Chuck’s arm and in something akin to desperation, I kissed him forcefully on the lips. He was there, I was there, sitting in the grass in the humid night. I was pretty sure Chuck would never change, even though I knew nothing about him. Gran changed, and I thought I knew everything about her.

“Whoa!” he said, breaking free. The grin on his face made me want to puke. I started to stand up and he grabbed my arm. “Wait! Where are you going?”

I roughly shook away and ran down the street. I had two legs, two eyes. I was alive. Maybe I would have rabbits instead of babies when I got married. Maybe I wouldn’t. Only time would tell; that was what Gran’s smile said. How could I believe her now? I kept running, watching my shadow in the sodium glow of the street lamps, both wishing I didn’t have one and relieved that I saw it at the same time.


Anna O’Brien is a writer and veterinarian in Maryland. She is a contributing editor for the magazine Horse Illustrated and has had fiction most recently published in Bewildering Stories, Blue Fifth Review, and Cheap Pop. She is also the managing blog editor for Luna Station Quarterly. She likes fat, slow dogs, and fast bicycles. She has one of each and posts pictures of them on Twitter: @annaobriendvm.

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The Streams of Ziria

Nikos groaned from the exertion of climbing the steep incline. He had spied the thin, winding dirt track while walking his usual route through the foothills of the Ziria Mountain Range and now, curious, he followed the path as it snaked its way up a precipitous, rocky hill before descending into a darkened valley. Dog-tired, he rested on the brow of the hill and drained the last of the tepid water from his drinking flask. The gloom of the valley was inviting in the fierce afternoon heat and made even more so by the refreshing sound of running water, from what he imagined to be an icy, mountain stream.

He had promised his wife, Daphne, he would be back before dinner, but after fourteen years of marriage she knew Nikos was easily distracted on his Sunday excursions and it was not uncommon for him to be late. It would be at least two hours before he made it back to the car and then another thirty minutes before he would arrive home. The thought of spending that time hot and thirsty was not appealing in the least.

Shouldering his pack, his drinking flask still in his hand, he followed the track down the hill and into the shaded valley. He trusted in the path now lined with ferns and cascading willows instead of the mean shrubs that clung stubbornly to life on the surrounding hills and mountainsides. The path was true, coming to an end at a bubbling stream in which floated a naked woman, her moon-white skin luminous in the late afternoon sun. Her arms were outstretched and her hands turned up in supplication. Nikos stopped mid stride, dumbfounded. He licked his dry lips and continued to stare; any concerns he may have had for the woman’s modesty were forgotten in his sudden shock and the woman’s extraordinary beauty.

She was watching him, her ice-blue eyes the same color as the stream, expressionless, her lithe body relaxed. He could see her lips moving, the sonance of a babbling brook resounding from them. He could make out words in the sound now but he could not understand them. Unusually long, white hair floated around her, touching the sides of the stream, which was easily several feet across. “My god,” he gasped, lowering himself slowly down on to a mossy boulder, still staring at the woman, mouth agape and eyes wide.

A stem of fluorescent green water weed was tangled in the woman’s hair; another had beached itself on her flat stomach, its long stem trailing down to a patch of pubic hair that shimmered like gold under the clear water. The sight brought a flood of heat to Nikos’s face and loins.

A coy smile formed on the woman’s lips as if she knew his desire. “Hello,” she said. Her voice resonated, a cascading sound wave like the note of a harp.

“Oh, hi.”

“Come,” she said.

Nikos did not hesitate. He hurriedly undressed, flinging his clothes on to the bough of a willow, and splashed eagerly into the water. The woman rose to greet him, her long hair clinging to the back of her legs, the water weed still entangled in it.

The vision wrapped her arms around his neck. Nikos could feel her hard nipples pressed against his chest. “What is your name?” Nikos asked, suddenly feeling shy.

“I am the stream,” the woman murmured, her ice-blue eyes sparkling. She bit at his lip. He responded hungrily, his tongue pushing between her teeth and finding hers, the organs tussling as she forced Nikos down into the shallows of the water. Reaching between his legs she guided him inside her, thrusting down upon him, her thighs slapping the water, creating waves that rippled to the stream’s banks. Faster and faster she moved until they both cried out at once and the woman collapsed panting upon Nikos. They lay there quietly, bodies entwined, listening to each other’s breath. “I must go,” Nikos said in the fading light. “It’s late, I need to get home.”

“As you wish,” she said, sinking back into the water.

“Are you coming?” Nikos said, gathering his clothes and tugging them on. The woman did not answer. She began to chant, arms outstretched, hands upturned in supplication. Nikos did not understand the words; they were strange to him, ancient. Her body began to emit a strange glow as she sank below the water. He could still see her glowing silhouette as it began to dissipate and break into tiny pinpricks of light that faded like sparks from a fire.

Nikos made it home in half the time, desperate to return to familiarity, to be far away from the strangeness of the day. His wife had been waiting at the front door. “You’re so late, I was getting a little worried.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, kissing her. “I lost track of time.” His wife had kept his meal warm for him. His young daughter and two sons clamoured around him but he paid them little heed. He was thinking of the dark valley and the beautiful woman from the stream.

The next morning, when he awoke in bed beside his sleeping wife, he could hear the soft murmur of flowing water, the sound the woman had made with her sweet lips. Nikos lay there quietly recalling the events of the previous day. He remembered the intense heat and his exhaustion and thirst. Had he become so severely dehydrated and delirious that he imagined the woman inviting him into the cool water? Were his ears injured when he plunged into the stream to join this figment in frenzied lovemaking? Nikos sighed and forced himself into his daily routine, but during that week the woman never left his mind, nor did the murmuring leave his ears. The following Sunday, Nikos returned to the mountains. It was late afternoon when he reached the dirt track leading up the hill. The desire to see the woman was overwhelming; her lips whispered an enchanting melody into the gentle murmuring of water in his ears. He hurried up the hill and into the gloom of the valley.

The woman was floating naked in the stream. He waded into the water fully clothed. She laughed at him. “I thought you were a dream,” he said, staring down at her, revelling in her beauty, her raw sexuality. The urge to embrace her consumed him but he held back, just for a moment. She was too perfect, flawless. “What are you?” he asked.

“I am water, I am this stream that runs from the mountain to the sea, a daughter of Tethys.”

A naiad. He recalled the warnings of his grandmother about naiads. As a young boy living in a town in the Ziria Mountains, he had pointed out to his grandmother a man staggering down the main street, a dazed look in his eyes.

“What is wrong with him, Papou?” Nikos had asked.

“He is naiad-struck, a besotted fool.”

“What do you mean?”

“A water nymph has cast a spell on him. Unless he breaks the spell or surrenders to her he will waste away to nothing.”

“Have you cast a spell on me,” Nikos said to the woman in the stream.

“If love is a spell,” the naiad said demurely, helping Nikos out of his clothes. He tried to guide her to the mossy bank but she stopped at the water’s edge, unwilling to go farther. They lay in the shallow water and made love. When they both tired, she moved back into the deep of the stream and floated, the strange chanting upon her lips until she vanished beneath the water in a shower of light.

The naiad did not leave Nikos’s thoughts that week. He moved as if in a dream; images of her beauty, her sensuality crowded his mind, the sound of the stream whispered in his ears. He told his wife that he was ill and his family fussed over him, showering him with love and sympathy. He went to work, eager to find a distraction, but appeared stupefied and was sent home. But he didn’t go home; he drove to the Mountains of Ziria.

The watery whispers grew louder, more urgent, excited as he walked along the familiar dirt track to the dark valley. Nikos increased his pace, sweat running freely from his brow. He paused to mop his face and from his handkerchief fluttered a paper. His daughter had handed him a picture that morning before he left for work, and he had stuffed it in his pocket without a second glance. He unfolded it; it was a picture of him carrying his daughter upon his back as they walked through the mountains under a gloaming sun. He had taken her there as a young child. It had been a day of adventure, stories, and magic. A day she evidently treasured. Nikos was filled with shame. He recalled further the conversation with his grandmother about the naiad-struck man.

“But how do you break the spell of a naiad, Papou?’

“You take her water away from her, of course.”

Turning from the path before it reached the stream, he walked parallel to it as it wound through the valley to the mountains. Through the trees he caught glimpses of the naiad shadowing him from the stream. Her whispers had grown to a yell, a watery roaring in his ears. He had ignored her, and his betrayal had angered her. It was late in the evening when he reached the foot of the mountains. The stream ended at a cliff face, the moonlight shining on the water pouring through a fissure in the rock. The naiad was waiting for him at the beginning of the stream. Nikos ignored her and climbed the cliff face and began to move rocks and rubble to block the fissure.

“Why are you doing this?” she called up to him.

“I cannot be with you and I know you’ll never let me go.”

“I can make you the stream, we will be one.”

Nikos was panting from the effort of maneuvering the heavier rocks into position. He turned and looked down at her. “I have a family; it is all I need.”

“I can show you pleasures you will never know as just a man.” He did not reply but turned away and continued to strain against the face of a massive boulder.

She danced below him as he wedged in stones to secure the rocks blocking the fissure, her lithe body twirling in the moonlight, the whisperings no longer shrill and urgent but seductive, a warm breath in his ear beckoning him to stop fussing with silly rocks and come down to her. As the first rays of sunshine found their way through the dense canopy of trees in the valley, Nikos realized he was alone. The naiad had returned to their first meeting place, where the stream was deep and the water would pool until the summer heat dried it up. His work was complete. The fissure was sealed and the stream would receive no more water unless it rained, and that was unlikely at this time of year.

He left the valley and returned to his family, his work, his life. The naiad’s gentle whispering continued, growing fainter each day until one morning he awoke and the sound was gone. A few months passed before he returned to the foothills. He followed the dirt track up the hill and down into the valley. The stream had dried up. In the dust where they had made love were the bones of many men; some of the bones were porous, others smooth like river pebbles. Each man had given his life to the naiad in the stream.


Simon McHardy is an Australian archivist and historian. He has published numerous fantasy and horror short stories which have appeared in such publications as Jitter, Kzine, Devolution Z, Five on the Fifth, and 9Tales Told in the Dark. He is currently working on a short story compendium which will be completed in 2018.

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Island of Fiends

I stumbled up the beach after drifting several days on the open sea. I didn’t know if anyone else had survived or what their fate might have been, but I could scarcely consider it because my mouth was so parched and dry from thirst. Ahead of me there was nothing but a grove of trees, but to the north I saw a break.

Hurrying toward it, I came to a stream where I fell to my knees. I took deep swallows of fresh, clear water. The moon would soon begin to rise and would find me without shelter, but, in my mind, being on dry land more than compensated for this. I washed the salt from my face, cleaned my beard, and ran my hands through my long hair.

The sky changed quickly from midnight blue to black. My shirt was dry and whipping against my chest as I sat beside the stream. My hair had dried also and blew in the stiff wind. What struck me was that the birds seemed to quiet as night fell. The insects, on the other hand, could not keep from chirping and humming in a cacophony.

I felt utterly alone on that stretch of sandy beach as the stars pierced the night. As I looked up into the heavens, I recognized the constellations and that gave me a vain hope that I was not too far from home. I was still under the same sky. This hopeful thought may have allowed me to fall asleep, but my sleep might also have been the result of exhaustion.

Soon after, I was awakened with a jolt. A man stood above me. I jerked back and wound up scrambling into the stream where I stood in knee-deep water, looking around frantically. There was no one there, but I was sure I’d seen a figure of some kind. My heart pounded in my chest and I was chilled. I narrowed my eyes and stared deeper into the grove, then back out over the ocean where the moonlight shone on the rippling waves.

As I sat back down, I was sure that I had dreamed the man. But had it been a man? In the darkness, it was impossible to tell. In fact, it had appeared more like an apparition or living shadow with the height and shape of a human. After I laid back down and was just about to close my eyes, I saw the fiend again. And this time there were two.

I stood, saying, “Who’s there? Who goes there!”

There was no answer, nothing but the moonshine and faint light of the stars. And as quickly as I blinked, the fiends had dissipated. This did not stop me from moving quickly to the grove and rummaging around in the brush until I’d found a broken limb that I could use as a weapon. I carried the stick with me back to the beach where I sat and began to wait out the night.

My nerves were now playing tricks on me. I saw dark movements all along the sand, which slowly led me to believe that this was all I’d seen–some kind of shadow play on the beach. It was simply that my eyes had deceived me. I had taken on too much salt water and it had made me dizzy. Therefore, I had to remind myself that it was just a dream and that I was needlessly working myself into fits. But, at that very moment, I felt someone or something standing behind me. I jumped to my feet again and turned, and when I did, several of these figures darted off in varying directions.

I wielded my stick screaming, “Stay back!”

It didn’t matter what I said because they did not retreat for long. Instead, they moved quickly and overtook me. I was lifted into the air and taken through the nearby trees. I didn’t understand how these men could move so fast. They carried me, each holding an arm or a leg, running inland like jungle cats. Tree limbs and fronds slapped against my face and arms as a burgeoning terror began to swell in my chest.

When they dropped me to the forest floor, I found myself flat on my back in the sand. Upon sitting up, I tried to regain my bearings. In so doing, I saw something ghostly white before me. I picked it up as I stood. Then, I moved toward a clearing, noticing that the object wasn’t heavy enough to be a stone and felt more like a giant seashell. Moving slowly toward a part of the clearing where the moonlight shone more brightly, I searched for the dark figures that had carried me but did not see them. When I came to the light, I held what I thought was a piece of a white conch shell up to it and saw that what I was holding was actually a fragment of a human skull. I dropped it and nearly cried out, but was stopped by the harsh sound of tree limbs breaking near me.

Staring into the dark jungle, I said, “What do you want! What do you want from me?”

I now understood these were ghastly figures–not ones I could reason with. What I did not know was if they were ghosts or just painted islanders. Standing there, I began to believe I’d stood a better chance surviving at sea. There might have been another island that was not filled with cannibals or devils that I could have come upon. But that had not been my destiny, and I did not think it much mattered how I felt for I would soon be dead.

* * *

I woke up in the clearing where I’d found that piece of skull. As I climbed to my feet, the sun shone bright and high in the sky and I realized there were no bones to be found. There were also no dark figures. Alone in the grove, I saw for the first time a small path. One that seemed to be used by animals given the fact that I could see fresh tracks and droppings. As I followed it, I wondered if I could escape this island by building some kind of raft.

But I still wondered if I’d imagined all of the events from the previous night. Had I carried myself through the grove by sleepwalking? This is exactly what I asked myself as I meandered back to the shore. I also thought that this was a strange island and that I was severely disturbed. Of course, I was assuming it was an island. I had not seen enough to be sure. I knew only the passage we’d taken and that after twenty days and nights at sea we could not have reached mainland.

I found another limb and sharpened the end with a rock. Then I waded into the stream to spear a fish. I spent most of the morning fishing and eating my catch. I even dozed in the warm afternoon sun on the island, planning to walk around it once I woke. Without much hope, I’d decided I should attempt to learn if anyone else had survived. Perhaps then we could escape together. But I must admit that I did not have high hopes. It had taken a good deal of effort to stay afloat for as long as I did. And I had been lucky enough to find a charred piece of decking to hold onto.

After drinking from the stream and waking from my nap, I began down the beach. I walked until the sun began to set. The beach went on to a vanishing point that I could not reach. And as I headed back to my stream, night began to fall. I walked as far away from the grove as possible at the upper reaches of the crashing waves. I slept under the same stars that night but felt a little further from home than I had the evening before. I also woke continually expecting to see the fiends, but there was no one. It made me question even more whether or not I had dreamed the entire episode.

I worked on a raft the next day, but felling trees proved difficult without any tools with which to fell them. I wasn’t sure it mattered because the chances of rescue were minuscule. My raft’s progress was also limited because the task of gathering enough food took up a great deal of sunlight. I managed to produce a lean-to to give myself some shelter but it would not keep out the animals or anything else for that matter. The lean-to was also knocked over by the wind several days later during a heavy rainstorm. Finally, I decided to return to searching of the perimeter of the island for other survivors. I went much further than I had the first time and slept on the beach but found that I was utterly alone. However, other pieces of the ship had washed ashore. I rummaged through them finding no usable supplies.

I returned to the stream where I first washed ashore at dusk. I could scarcely believe it, but I saw the figure of a man sitting by the stream just like I had been a few days before. As I was about to call out to him, I saw four fiends emerging from the grove. These rushed toward the one and picked him up just like they had me. As the apparitions carried this unfortunate soul into the woods something came over me. If someone else had come to shore, then I needed to help him. Perhaps I was too late to warn him, but I still rushed through the underbrush chasing after these shadows.

I quickly found that I was running along the trail I’d followed several mornings before, crashing through the foliage. When I came to that same clearing, I saw the man sprawled out in the sand just like I had been. Approaching him slowly, I glanced side to side searching the darkness for those which laid him there.

Kneeling beside the body, a sickening feeling came over me. The man’s face was turned away, but I recognized the clothing. It was my body still lying here in the clearing. I reached for my head and turned it so I could stare into my own dead eyes only to find that my skull had been crushed. The entire left side of my head was caved in, forcing my left eye to bulge slightly from its socket.

I turned my gaze in disgust, but, not a moment later, I wondered why I should be so disgusted by my own death. The tragedy was not that I was a deceased castaway. My fate was far worse. I had been condemned to an island of fiends, seemingly destined to become one of them.


Justin Meckes is the Founding Editor of Scrutiny. Find out more at justinmeckes.com.

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An Appointment with Mr. Dee

If you had to choose his very best characteristic (and there were so, so many), he would tell you that it had to be his ironic sense of humor. He was perhaps the most talked about, infamous representation of all of God’s handiwork, enjoying his role in the grand scheme of things immensely. Sometimes, every now and then, all the good, important work he did threatened to bring him down. For although he was a celebrity in his own right, he did not always experience the adulation and credit that he felt was his due. At times, he was rebuffed, evaded, other times embraced and desired. It ran hot and cold, day in and day out always the same, the duality of his calling becoming more jarring to him with every passing year. If one could not find amusement in such a boring, maddening situation, really, what was the point of it all?

He considered taking a vacation, to try to “find himself,” as they say. He knew that he was too invaluable to take any time off (modesty admittedly not being one of his strong suits), so he decided to incorporate a part-time career into his busy existence.

For a while he played around with being a stand-up comedian, prowling the clubs on open mic night. The late hours got to be a little much, his famed droll sense of humor going over more than one head. Politics tickled his fancy for a bit, his peculiar talents being well suited for that bloodthirsty arena, but the sheer brutishness of it eventually repelled even him. He was, at various times and in no particular order, a journalist, divorce attorney, aspiring YouTube star, and card-carrying member of the paparazzi, the latter profession utilizing his unrivaled ability to be seen and unseen all at the same time. None of them lasted very long or ever filled the urgent longing residing in his heart.

If he were to be completely honest with himself (as he always prided himself to be), he would say that he was simply worn out. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis of some sort, searching in vain for any kind of self-fulfillment. He was never much for talking about his feelings, as much as he had any. In the end he decided to embrace the solution of the modern age. He went to therapy.

* * *

When Dr. Ethan Childs first saw the patient he came to know as Mr. Dee, he experienced a sudden feeling of deja vu, convinced that he had seen the man somewhere before. Mr. Dee assured him they had never met, that he simply evoked that reaction. “My countenance is one that captivates or repels, occasionally at the exact same moment,” the man said as he lowered his long, elegant form onto the nondescript black pleather couch in the corner.

Ethan prided himself on always putting his clients at ease, the gold standard of what a good psychotherapist should do. He was always professional, masking any random reaction to a particular client, making sure to never prejudge or make any assumptions. This time, however, Ethan had to admit he was more than a little intrigued.

Dee always wore an expensively tailored suit, usually black pinstripe with a jaunty silken red pocket square expertly perched in his left breast pocket. He was tall—well over six feet, but carried himself with such a natural grace that his height was not intimidating. He had soft and well-manicured hands, taking Ethan’s own hand warmly into his in a firm handshake upon their first meeting. Ethan couldn’t place his age, guessed him to be in early middle age due to his thick head of salt and pepper hair, but he could have just as easily been older or younger than that. The most striking thing about him was the polished black cane he always carried. It had an enormous gold knob at the top, a symbol that Ethan couldn’t quite make out, for he didn’t want to seem rude and stare. With his confident air and refined stature, Mr. Dee would have fit quite nicely into any era. There was a certain timeless, classic quality about him.

Dee’s voice had a slight lilt to it, an accent he couldn’t quite place, piquing Child’s curiosity even further. Ethan was discovering that he had to be wary; conversations with Dee were completely intoxicating. The man’s razor-sharp wit and knowledge on a variety of subjects was extensive. They had long, impassioned discussions about history, philosophy, and art, Ethan always attempting to steer Dee back to talking about himself, as the man would wax on poetically from one subject to another.

Mr. Dee had an uncanny way of turning every question or subject around so that Ethan would find himself fending off personal questions about his own life. This was something he knew was strictly forbidden, doubling his guard whenever Dee would steer the conversation in an uncomfortable direction. It was clear that Mr. Dee had experience in this kind of thing, telling Ethan, “I treasure confidences and pride myself on discretion. You can trust in me.” More than once, Ethan had to remind himself that he was the therapist, and not the other way around.

* * *

In the three months that Ethan had been working with Mr. Dee, he came to look forward to their sessions, found himself thinking about seeing the man with anticipation. Ethan tried to mentally step back and assess what was happening in his own mind. Am I attracted to this man, is that what’s going on? The question tortured him late into the night.

Ethan’s partner had died four years earlier from cancer, twenty years of life together passing by, seemingly in an instant. He felt the life drain away from his love as he sat by, day in and day out, powerless against death’s relentless assault. Ethan was angry, still grieving. The pain lived like a dull ache just under the surface, coloring every aspect of his life. He had refused to even consider dating again, much less ever develop feelings for a client. Ethan had always been extremely professional in every regard, would never dream of crossing that line. He analyzed himself relentlessly, thought about seeing his own therapist about the dilemma before deciding that there was really only one solution. Ethan would have to stop treating the fascinating Mr. Dee, no matter how painful that would be for both of them.

* * *

Ethan spent the morning of their last session in a state of high anxiety. He really thought they had made some progress in the past few weeks; Mr. Dee was finally starting to open up. Dee refused to reference his childhood, even the slightest detail, except to say that he worked in a family business and had many diverse accomplishments to his name. He would never say exactly what that meant, but Childs knew that they were close to a major breakthrough—he could feel it.

Ethan rummaged through his desk, searching for his ever-present roll of Tums. His heartburn was particularly bad that day, the stress of what he had to do wreaking havoc with his body. He felt like he was coming down with something, physically sick about having to tell Mr. Dee that he would need to find another therapist. Ethan had put together a referral list for him, had it waiting on the desk as he practiced what he would say over and over again in his mind.

He had just gone over it once more when he felt a quiet presence move in directly behind him. It was eerie how Dee could enter a room in complete stealth, giving Ethan a physical shiver down his spine. He jumped to get up, completely caught off guard by the man’s sudden appearance as Dee gently placed his hand on Ethan’s shoulder, guiding him back down into his chair.

“There is no need to get up, Doctor, I already know what you are going to say.” Ethan stared up at him, noticing that the symbol on the golden head of his cane appeared to be a large, grinning skull. “You see, I was afraid of just this very thing happening. I am an irresistibly charming fellow, another of my many positive attributes. Back in the Enlightenment years, I was a highly sought after guest. I think even old Ben Franklin had a thing for me then, ladies’ man though he was, through and through.”

Ethan felt a mild, warm sensation work its way from his toes all the way up to his chest and settle there. His mind was a blank, refusing to believe what Dee had just told him was real. Maybe this was all some kind of a strange dream.

“I am sad that our acquaintance must come to an end, Doctor. I have so enjoyed conversing with you. While I appreciate your graciousness in compiling a list for me, I have no further need of therapy. No other doctor will do and I am afraid that I just got the word from headquarters this morning, you are due to be processed momentarily.” Dee pulled out an antique round timepiece on a golden chain, checking the time before clicking it shut and continuing on.

“Oh, the things you will see, Ethan! I am a bit envious, I’m afraid. It is a blessing and a curse to always be wandering the earth. Life is beautiful and violent in all of its manifestations. I do tend to get rather attached to you all. I have become worldly throughout the long centuries—it is a particular fault of mine, you see.”

Ethan felt the warmth in his chest suddenly explode, his heart seizing up as he desperately reached out, Dee placing a hand on each of Ethan’s shoulders in a fond embrace. “My dear man, you are going on a wondrous journey. Do tell Jonathan hello for me.”

In the midst of his pain and fear, Ethan jolted up at the mention of his partner, never having told Dee anything about him. He had a sudden realization of what kind of business Mr. Dee must be in, who he was; the breakthrough he had been after had finally occurred. It was his last conscious thought before the darkness began to close in around him, the sympathetic face of Mr. Dee bidding him farewell, his final sight.

* * *

Dee sighed and gently lowered his therapist’s eyelids, arranging him in a dignified fashion. Ethan’s next patient was due in about an hour; he would not be left unattended for long. Dee had really enjoyed their sessions together. It had amused him. He gripped his cane tightly, allowing his emotions to overcome him for just a moment, before leaving the office and closing the door softly behind him. Each passing both fed and diminished Dee, allowing him the sensation of approaching perfection without actually attaining it. All of life’s infinite tragic comedy swirled around him, heartbreaking and euphoric as their souls ascended, passing him by, only ever allowing him to scratch at the surface of the grand plan like some sort of metaphysical lap dog. It was maddening, frustrating. It was pure bliss.

Dee sighed in resignation. Such were the perils of his existence, had been since time immemorial. Maybe he should continue with therapy after all. He did appear to be in need of further exploration of his feelings—oh, how Dr. Childs would be pleased to hear that! A real breakthrough, if he did say so himself.

* * *

Dee stepped out into the bright sunshine. He had just over thirty minutes before his next appointment, a job interview with the local IRS office, was scheduled to begin. He was excited for this newest opportunity, knew it would be a perfect fit for him. Oh, the irony! he laughed to himself, whistling tunelessly as he sauntered down the street in pure contentment, therapy obviously agreeing with him. He was in good spirits, better than he’d felt in over a millennium.


A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had short stories featured in Bewildering Stories, Cafe Aphra, Dark Fire Fiction, Edify Fiction, Fictive Dream, 50-Word Stories, Friday Fiction, Literally Stories, New Realm, Peacock Journal, Pilcrow&Dagger, Quail Bell Magazine, Speculative 66, Storyteller, The Flash Fiction Press and Under the Bed. She has also published non-fiction work in Denver Pieces Magazine and bioStories, and completed a novel called Wet Birds Don’t Fly at Night that she is hoping to find a home for. For more of her work/contact her at sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter

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La muñeca de cristal

Javier De La Cruz was an honest and somber man. He didn’t ask for anything unearned and he certainly never took. The old caballero, owner of a small business that made little ceramic dolls with faces painted like sugar skulls, received an invitation one spring to hand deliver the biggest order he’d ever seen. He was to leave his one-room shop in Mazatlán, cross the border, and drive into Tucson with fourteen handcrafted muñecas, each wearing unique, fragile smiles and dresses that danced in the light. The trip would be a long, lonely one. But Javier told his wife, who had always remained unwavering in her support, to fear nothing, for she was all he truly needed. She put a hand on his cheek, telling him to drive safe and come home soon. He said he would.

The master craftsman packed his rusted van, complete with its two missing hubcaps, one on each side, with his many carved, painted, and sealed boxes. As he got out of the city and onto the highway, the horizon opened up before him. The clouds were such a deep color of blue that they seemed almost purple to Javier, who thought that they looked like oddly colored cotton balls. He imagined it was God himself that shined through the tiny gaps found here and there, shooting divine, golden rays to the earth. It wasn’t for some time that Javier recognized that his favorite muñeca, the one he crafted last and had poured the most amount of time, energy, and amor into, had pried open her box and crawled into the passenger seat. It was her gaze he first felt. And as he turned his head, Javier nearly took the van off the road, swerving at the sight of the small, child-sized muñeca casually sitting beside him.

Once confident that the doll was in fact alive, not simply a manifestation of a shattered mind, Javier pulled the car to the side of the road by the Navojoa exit. He took his creation in, recalling each steady stroke of her painted face. He cautiously ran his finger over the intricate pink locket shaped like a heart in the center of her forehead, the tiny blue petals that danced and floated around it, and the swirling ribbons of bright pink intertwining a bloody red racing down her cheekbones. He asked his new companion whether she was an angel or demon. Should he fear or rejoice? La muñeca gave him no answer. She simply sat there, staring with her empty, hollow sockets. He felt the call to flee, but couldn’t. He was drawn to the ceramic doll sitting there, a compassion of sorts. After all, it was he who had made her, he who had shaped her, molded her, given her vida.

Some time passed in silence, some miles beneath the tires went by, and eventually Javier realized, or at least thought, that he was not in any danger. He figured it was rather silly to fear something of his own doing. Now the man was simply intrigued. He made multiple attempts at sparking conversation, unsure of whether or not the child could even understand him. She only replied with reticence, occasionally lifting her hands with their long, meatless fingers, opening and closing them with a slight creaking noise. He turned on the radio and decided it best to just drive.

* * *

When the van approached the border between Mexico and the United States, Javier grew restless. Crossing was nothing new for him. He had done it many times throughout his years, mostly with his wife by his side and a wild coyote leading the way. They often traveled there as a young couple, going up the coast of California and back down again. Together they had seen the giant sequoias, with their massive trunks and limbs that reached to the clouds. They saw the wake of God’s anger in the Grand Canyon. They had crossed too many times to count, but that was before the broken hearts. When having a family was still an option. That was before he became a craftsman, before they struggled to feed themselves. It was back when they didn’t have to work so hard to love one another. Now, though, was the first time since those bright days that Javier was crossing with what he could only describe as love’s gentle warmth.

“Esta es mi hija, Ofelia De La Cruz,” Javier told the man with a badge. The border patrol officer had just asked Javier what on earth sat beside him and, upon hearing this answer, asked why she was dressed in carnival colors with a face painted like muerte. Javier simply told the officer that his daughter was to perform in a play. A grand spectacle just outside of Tucson. The officer spit a blackish stream of saliva out and peered over his shades, passing a watchful grin to the odd pair before him. Now, it must be understood that this particular patrol officer, Mr. Brian García, was as crooked as they came. He’d guarded the border for four years and liked to think he knew a thing or two about rats. One thing he knew for sure: Rats don’t play in plays.

So with that, García tipped his hat, told the two to hold tight, and moved to the back of the van. He couldn’t help but notice the fourteen child-sized coffins within, and found that reason enough to ask Javier to step out of the car for a second. The old craftsman didn’t argue, but reached across the cab of his van and tenderly picked up la muñeca. He held her close, shielding her from the sun and the wind, while she rested her head on his shoulder. She was far heavier than Javier recalled. The officer, circling the vehicle with his hand on his radio, peered through the slightly tinted windows in an attempt to decipher what all this was about. He poked a tire with the tip of his brown boot and rounded to the front of the van. For just a moment, Mr. García let his eyes wander. They strayed to the father and daughter. He noticed how tightly they held onto each other. The old man embraced her like she could shatter, like she was made of glass. García deemed him too old to have such a young child and was beginning to contemplate what he’d be able to get for snagging this old fool.

As he reached for his radio, the little girl lifted her head, giving the badged man an opportunity to see her face in all its color. He noticed how her skin, in the spots where the paint was missing, reflected the sun a little and was as white as a bone. He then looked right into her empty, endless eyes and something he must have found there led him to quickly change his mind. What’s an old man and a little girl worth, anyways? Wiping his mouth with the edge of his sleeve, he told Javier to get back in his van and get out of here. Mr. García wondered where the sun had gone and why the air felt so damn cold all of a sudden.

* * *

With the border in his rearview, Javier was surprised when he didn’t feel any sense of relief. He figured crossing would’ve been the worst part of it, the hardest moment of this journey. But now he was beginning to feel apprehension toward reaching his destination, toward separating with this thing of his, this thing he now considered his own. When they finally did arrive, Javier was shocked by the massive estate before him. It was glorious. More money went into the stone and iron fence work surrounding the property than he had seen in his fifty-some-odd years of being alive. He parked the car outside the gate and got out; the little muñeca, who over the past few hours practiced in many ways the bounds of her new body, climbed clumsily into the muddy drive after him.

As they approached the unopened gate Javier slowed, his knees aching from the many hours spent sitting. La muñeca, with mud caked to her velvet shoes, reached up and grabbed for his hand. Javier looked down at her, receiving a reassuring glance, and took her cold hand in his. The gates shuddered open without warning, echoing a dismal moan. Javier told the girl to not be afraid, that everything was going to be okay, and that he would keep her safe. She nodded back, beginning the walk forward. The two went a fair distance down to the door, passing by a small pond with tall cattails and two white swans watching them. They stood before the biggest, oldest building that he had ever seen. It was made of reddish-brown bricks with a certain sense of proportionality running throughout. Thick columns guarded the door with their titanic proportions and a single, lonely saint, carved in marble, sat niched above the door. A looming clock was embedded in the center of the edifice, its slow ticking slightly audible.

Javier had never been more frightened in his life. Dry knuckles rapped the wooden door. There was nothing for some time, so long that Javier had nearly decided to simply pick up the little one and run. But just as the thought entered his mind, a series of shifting bolts and turning locks could be heard. The ugly door opened and a woman stood in the entryway. She had long, red hair as bright as the embers of his kiln and wore golden earrings studded with obsidian stones. To Javier, the woman didn’t seem a day over thirty. She addressed the craftsman politely, telling him to come in, all the while looking down at la muñeca who shied behind the man. Javier took off his frayed hat, entered the abode, and the door closed behind all three.

The curious woman, introducing herself as Mrs. Mictlan, ushered Javier and the ceramic muñeca to a great mahogany table covered in a long, tassled tablecloth and ornate candelabras that flickered patiently. The columns that stood outside continued inside, spreading across the room. His shaggy brown coat and cap made him feel entirely out of place amid the elegance. The hostess instructed them to wait as she fetched refreshments and Javier thanked her, pulling a seat out for his skeleton child. He took a moment while Mrs. Mictlan was away to excitedly whisper to the little one that he planned to take her back home, back to Mazatlán, so she could meet her madre, his wife. See, as Javier approached the colonial mansion with the girl holding onto him, he decided that this was the feeling he had been missing his entire vida, the passion of being a father and of loving something more than anything else. This was his creation, his own work; surely the woman would understand his argument, especially with such wonders at play.

Upon returning with two tall glasses of what Javier could only assume was either blood or wine, the woman asked him how the drive had gone. He told her it went well, that he’d made many long trips as younger man. He asked her to share a little about herself, inquiring as to what a woman could want with so many dolls. The woman told him about her husband, a traveling doctor, who often left her alone in this dreary place. She shared with him stories of her daughter, about how she was lost to a sickness many years ago. Javier told her he understood the feeling, that he’d seen those dark days too. She flashed a smile, briefly, and told Javier that she saw it as though she was protecting the little bone dolls. Though he felt a touch of unease, Javier managed to lean forward in his chair and looked down at his chalky hands. The master craftsman told Mrs. Mictlan that he had an awful request of her. She took a sip from her glass, leaving behind a touch of lipstick, but didn’t give him a response. A few seconds passed before Javier felt the need to say something again.

“I have never loved something the way I love her,” he said, putting his hand on top of the doll’s naked skull that fought to reach above the table’s edge. The lady laughed maniacally, falling back in her chair. When her breath returned she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and told Javier that they’d figure something out. He thanked her again and told her anything, anything at all, would do. The woman asked to see the rest of his work, sending Javier to retrieve his van with the thirteen other lifeless dolls. When he had finished placing each one delicately upon the table, he asked the woman how she wanted to move forward. The crimson lady, softly playing with one of her earrings, proposed he could simply work from here, that she had all the necessary tools and materials to weave new dresses and craft elegant jewelry. He began to argue, seeing this as the most problematic idea imaginable. But upon catching his daughter standing before her useless counterparts, he swallowed his doubts and extended his hand to her. She took it.

That evening, Javier penned a letter to his wife on an old piece of parchment and tied it to the leg of an owl. He wrote of their skeleton daughter, of the woman bathed in embers and the deal he had made with her. He pleaded with her not to worry and told her he’d return soon enough. He asked for her to forgive him and explained that she must understand. Signing the letter with amor, Javier De La Cruz sent the bird over the plains of Arizona toward home. But that was three months ago now.

* * *

Over the first few weeks, Javier was not made uncomfortable by any means. Mrs. Mictlan, while relatively shrouded, remained polite. She fed him well and provided him with all that he needed. It was not hard work, either. He was simply required to sew new dresses and craft small trinkets. Javier got along fine by spending time with his little bone princess. Each night, at the top of the pointed tower, behind the clock, he’d read to her and they’d dance to the norteño playing through an old wooden radio. He’d fall asleep in the highest room, his muñeca cuddled beside him, and each morning he’d wake to her colorful face and obsidian eyes.

However, at the end of the first month things began changing. Mrs. Mictlan demanded his work go uninterrupted, pulling his daughter from him often. The work itself became more difficult, more intense. At the end of the second month, Mrs. Mictlan started to lock the man in his workshop for days at a time, insisting he focus. He grew impatient and troubled. Javier knew he had worked enough to pay for his daughter twice over, but never said anything for fear of insulting the lady in red. On the last Friday of the third month, Javier figured he had done enough. For the first time in his vida, he decided it was okay to take. He packed his few belongings into a small bag, explained to his child that he planned to escape within the night, and waited for the sun to fall behind the mountains to the west.

In the safety of shadows, when nothing but the winds could be heard, Javier snuck down the spiraling stairs, daughter in hand. He kept her close to him, staying against the wall and within the darkness. Mrs. Mictlan had always made Javier uneasy, like there was something beneath her skin crawling to escape. He didn’t know how she’d react to this betrayal, so when he reached the bottom of the stairs he proceeded with caution. All seemed silent, save for the ticking that echoed. As he stepped toward the front door, a voice came from behind asking him where he was going. He turned slowly and saw the woman, donned in a red silk nightgown and holding a single, dancing flame that cast long shadows across her face. He held his chin up and told her his work here was done, that he was taking his daughter and leaving. A laughter filled the entryway, sounding as though it came from the walls.

My little girl of bones isn’t going anywhere, she told him. Javier saw the woman’s face, usually a perfect example of beauty, contort itself within the candlelight. He told her this muñeca was his, not hers. Mrs. Mictlan let out a hideous wail that extinguished the light, and she flung herself at the craftsman. Her body passed through him, pushing him with a force that knocked him off his feet and la muñeca from his arms. The little skeleton, who had never before found her voice, called out for her papa. As she put her delicate hands out in an attempt to catch herself, they shattered, glass meeting stone. The rest of her tiny body quickly followed. Ofelia De La Cruz laid on the floor of the dark entryway, strewn in a million bits of dazzling whites and reds and blues and greens. Javier let out a cry, the wail of a man who had just lost everything. He began picking up the shards, wrapping them in the bright dress that they had just filled. The hysteric laughter filled the room, fading into the recesses of the mansion. Welcome home, Death, it seemed to say.

Javier ran from the house with the broken pieces of his daughter and got in the van he hadn’t used in months. He turned the engine over and barreled through the gate. He went straight to Mazatlán, not noticing the border for even a moment. He sped down the highway, all the while telling the heap of nothingness beside him that everything would be okay, that he’d fix her up just like new. As he burst through the door of his one-room shop, he threw the remnants on the table and began gluing them back together. Javier worked for two weeks, ignoring the pleas of his wife to stop for only a minute, to please come eat something, to sleep just a little. He wouldn’t listen. He worked endlessly, eventually piecing his daughter together again. And as he pulled her from the kiln for the second time, he cradled little Ofelia, running his fingers over the heart-shaped locket with sharp, white scars that ran like rivers where the pieces met once more. He peered into the dark, empty eyes of his little muñeca, hoping he’d succeeded in giving her life once more. Javier, in this moment, didn’t know whether to fear or rejoice.


Chaze Copeland is a recent graduate of Miami University in Ohio. He’s come to realize labeling himself is always awkward and that he’s not very good at it. His personal website is undergoing reconstruction, but you can still find him at www.chazecopeland.com.

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The Collector of Cursed Objects

I can’t tell her age to any degree, her face is only a little lined and her hair is deep stringy tar black, but the mass, the sheer volume of things in the room suggests she’s ancient, impossibly old. Her voice is a little raspy, as though she’s unused to talking, though I can’t imagine how that could be considering her occupation.

My Arabic is worse than my French, so we speak to each other in French. She asks how long I’ve been in Morocco and it occurs to me I don’t remember. I ask her was she born here and she smiles, says no, and I feel a little stupid for asking. Not because it’s a stupid question but because her expression makes me feel like I should have known.

She has nervous, flitting black eyes lined with smudged kohl. They’re a little red and I wonder if she sleeps. At one point that evening, when we are discussing the odd physical quirks of the objects themselves, she will point at my feet.

“That rug, for instance. Safavid. It’s five hundred years old and still in perfect condition. But it brings on nightmares. I sleep on it every night. I’d be mad by now if that thing”—she gestures carelessly at a glass cabinet to her right full of curios, alabaster table lighters, ugly ceramic spaniels. I have no idea what thing she’s pointing at—“didn’t steal my dreams.”

She flits around the room like a bowerbird, presenting me with curiosities, though she stops my hand when I move to pick up an opal necklace, set in delicate scrolled silver. “I must remember to put that behind glass.”

And there are other, more innocuous items than the necklace and the rug, merely inconvenient. She bustles around the room—I’ve ceased thinking of it as a shop—tidying, making tea, as she tells me about them. She seems pleased at the interest I take in the things she’s collected, she hands them to me freely.

“He who eats from this karahi will end up hungrier than when he began.”

She hands it to me. It’s got cigarette ash in it, or maybe incense. The whole place smells like musk. I look around for somewhere to put it and nestle it on a cabinet behind me, between a cat skull and a little cornflower colored box with silver corners. The lid of this is translucent and I can see something narrow, oblong, resting inside. I wonder if the cat used to be hers. She seems the type. Or maybe not, because there is also a nervous-looking little finch, dusty brown, hopping silently around a silver cage.

“That bird is over a hundred years old. I’ve never taken it out of that cage.”

She seems almost disappointed when the tea is brewed and the biscuit tin unearthed and we finally sit down to discuss business. I tell her about it though, of course—the curse, the prophecy, all of it—because my life depends on it. She sits cross-legged on the rug facing me, her knees flat against the floor. She watches me so intently I feel like I’m being bored into, and after I tell her I feel a little empty, a little hopeful, as though I’ve been hollowed out so that something new can fill me. She’s the first person I’ve ever really explained the whole thing to. I told her more than I needed to but she made it so easy.

“So you must have been the first boy-child.” She uses the phrase boy-child like it says in the prophecy. It rolls off her tongue like she’s said it before. “In…”

Cent quatre-vingts ans,” I pronounce carefully. In French I feel insulated from it, from the weight of the numbers. Small comfort.

“And how old are you now?”

My voice catches in my throat and I have to repeat myself.

Trente.”

“So you’re living on borrowed time, eh?”

I nod, dumbly. She’s right. She’s been taking notes this whole time in a little brown leather book and I realize she’s using a reed pen, dipping the nib in a little soapstone inkpot by her knee.

“And how did your, great-great-great uncle, was it? How did he die?”

“Auto accident.”

“And before him?”

“His father fell down a cliff. His father died at Kastania. He was twenty nine and a half.”

She dips her pen again. “And why did it take you so long to find me?”

There’s reproach in her voice, and I look at the floor, guilty, even though it’s not my fault. I’ve been searching since I was twenty, I would have given anything, done anything, to find someone like her in all that time. It really did take ten years to get here. Ten years of ships and planes and food poisoning and sunburn and dead ends and false leads and charlatan diviners and well-meaning ineffectual witches and day-labor and hope and despair and exhaustion.

“And have you entertained the possibility,” she says showing for the first time a hint of trepidation, a hint of the pity I know she must be feeling, “that finding your book will not solve your problem?”

“Of course I have.” I almost get up and leave right then. “I think about that every day. But what the fuck else am I supposed to do?”

She lays a conciliatory hand on my arm and I relax.

* * *

I go back to her several times that month. She contacts me in my hotel, always when I’m in bed, lying awake or dozing; I’ll hear footsteps in the hall, slow, measured. In a hotel this is normal, but then a single knock comes and a ssh as something slides under the door. I scramble out of bed and to the door and look out but there’s no one there. Just a little folded piece of paper with some writing on it. I’m fairly sure she knows I can’t read Arabic.

I ask the desk manager to read it to me and he gives me a funny look. Come after the evening call to prayer. Bring a live chicken.

I bring the bird, clucking calmly in a covered basket under my arm. I try not to think about what’s going to happen to it. I find her place easily this time, and I feel as though I’ve been inducted into something. I can come and go freely. It’s night now and there are a couple of lamps lit, the light is yellow and it makes it difficult to see things in detail. She makes me strip down to my underwear for this part, though I’m not entirely sure this is necessary.

What happens to the chicken is exactly what I was expecting. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time, just for good measure in the karmic sense, and I have to look away when she cuts off its head. She makes me put my hands into its chest cavity, pull out its guts and drop them—no, like this, with more force—onto a silver plate. They’re still hot and the smell of blood makes me gag. She hovers over them, her nose an inch from the plate, she even closes her eyes at one point and breathes in deeply. But when she opens them she looks disappointed. She shakes her head,

“I am sorry. But we will try again,” she says with an encouraging smile. I force myself to smile back and then wander home. She doesn’t charge me for the day’s session.

* * *

The next time I see her she is locking her front door. She takes my hand and leads me away, toward the street.

“We will try something new today, something my great grandmother taught me.”

We go deeper into the medina, to a bazaar, thick with people. The air is smoky and fragrant. The noise is cacophonous, men and women are haggling, shouting, laughing with each other across the aisles and yelling at the two of us, trying to sell us things. She leads me through it as if we were alone, walking slowly, her eyes unfocused, head cocked to one side. I start to say something but she shushes me.

“Listen, Milos. Let them speak to you. Listen to the air.”

I try, but like I said, my Arabic is not good.

* * *

Gradually, over the course of these visits, my hope turns back into that familiar disappointment, mingled with fear, though lately the latter is beginning to overshadow the former. She doesn’t have my book, and she doesn’t know how to find it. I’ve been thinking of it as mine, anyway. It’s supposed to be in Ancient Macedonian, though, so I probably couldn’t read it even if I found it. I haven’t thought that far ahead.

I feel a thrill of resentment at my relatives, my ancestors, for not finding it over the years; at countless generations of mothers so relieved to have borne daughters not to care much about the needs of a hypothetical boy, nothing more than a bogeyman for a future generation to deal with. A willful ignorance that lasted for two hundred happy years after the death of my great-great-great uncle Adrastos. But how could I blame them all, really? In their position I think I’d be happier without me too.

I break down a little when our final session yields no results. I feel stupid for having pinned so much hope on it, embarrassed—even after all this time—for crying in front of another person. She lets the pendulum fall onto the map between us and puts a hand on one of my hands. I think I’ll miss her. She’s done a lot for me and hasn’t asked for any money. And more importantly she’s been kind to me, in her quiet, twitchy way.

* * *

I think of going home, feel the pull of the beach and afternoons dangling my feet off the pier and the comforts of home—decent olive oil, my mother’s ryzogalo. But I don’t want to be in a place where people know me, and I don’t think I can face my mother, her offers of money, her tears, and her apologies. By now they are a meaningless reflex; I’m sorry you were born. So I go to Skopelos and lie on the beach and get drunk for a week. It’s almost a ritual by now, which in recent years has taken on more finality, more heft.

I’ve still got some money left at this point, and I’m feeling a little more hopeful. I go to Thessaly to get a passage translated from Aeolic by a professor at the university there. I’ve got a black book full of these less-promising leads, names, dates, locations, collected but not acted on over the years. I’ve gone back to them before when the trail goes cold and now I do so again, but my list is growing thin; my despair has turned into a compulsive kind of hope and I keep searching. My moods are up and down like a rollercoaster these days.

The translation is unhelpful. I’d hoped it was about one of my maternal ancestors, but it’s a different person with the same name. Dr. Sanna can’t help me, but is sympathetic to my plight (I’ve told him I’m writing a history of my family) and enthusiastic about the mystery and we go out to dinner to discuss it. I have too much to drink and I think he catches on to how desperate I am, though for what he seems to misinterpret. We have sex in my hotel room and when I wake up in the morning we have breakfast together, and I pack up and leave without saying goodbye.

* * *

I find myself back in Morocco, the last place my searching bore any fruit. The sun rises on the day of my thirty-first birthday. I haven’t slept. I stand on my hotel room’s balcony, watching the sunrise pink and blue on Marrakech.

I was born at night. I itch, deep in my body. I’m restless and I wonder if I should go in search of a drink, or something stronger, to pass the time until evening. But no, if this is my last day I want to see it, to feel it. I try to think what to do but I’m paralyzed by indecision. I leave the hotel. I can’t meet anyone’s eye as I walk downstairs.

I go into the first teahouse I find, and I order coffee. I want to be awake. When I can think again I pick up a brochure booklet and look through it, but nothing strikes me and anyway I don’t think I can bear to talk to anyone today. I want to go to the sea but it’s too far. I don’t want to get in a car, talk to a cab driver. I should have gone to Casablanca for my last week. I decide to walk instead. I get lost for a while and every time a car passes me too close, every dark alley I walk down, I think, Is this it? But I’m still alive.

* * *

I do get a little drunk in the evening. I eat at Palais Soleiman and buy a bottle of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair and drink it by myself. Part of me screams I’m spending the paltry rest of my savings, how will I get home, how will I pay for the hotel, but another part knows I won’t go home, I won’t return to the hotel. The wine is very good. I have it with rice and dates and a really nice lamb shoulder. Fuck karma.

As I linger over the last of the wine in my glass, that restlessness comes back again, bubbling up like bile in my throat. My hands shake a little and I tap two fingers on the table, a rhythmless staccato. I catch the waiter’s eye and he rushes over, looking a little relieved. My clothes are not nice and I think he’s been worried I’m not going to pay.

As I walk out into the evening, it’s cooling. A little breeze comes from where I think the sea must be and cools my face, which feels very hot and red. Something shifts in my head and I know why I’m here. I need to see her one more time.

It takes me a while to find her place. I have to wander around the medina for a while until I spot a landmark I know and my feet start to carry me in the right direction, following old pathways. I almost give up, but then there’s the door, squat and dark painted through a clay-colored peaked archway. The blue nazar above the door glints blackly in the shade. I remember with a little jolt that she’s not Moroccan. I don’t know where she’s from. I don’t know anything about her.

No one answers my knock. I think of leaving but the late hour and the wine make me bold and I turn the knob and push the door open. The place is a little messy. I heard someone reciting Salat al Asr as I was turning the corner before her door. The quavering voice finishes as I cross the threshold.

It’s empty. I’ve never been able to get in before without her being there, never been able to find the door. The place is so cluttered it’s hard to tell at first, but I’ve been here so many times I know where things are supposed to be, and there’s something off in the arrangement, an imbalance that rubs me the wrong way.

The light is wrong, too. One of the cloths that used to hang over the window has been ripped down. The setting sun, shining through the hanging fabric, catches red in something glittering. A silver birdcage, dented and lying open. I step closer and my shoe crunches delicately on something. With a shiver of revulsion I crouch and peer in the gloom. A little brown form, a tiny beaked skeleton strung with shriveled flesh, lies half crushed into the Safavid rug.


Eris Young is a transgender writer from Southern California, currently living in Edinburgh. Eris’ fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Esoterica magazines.

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Staring at the Sun

Don’t look up. Keep Calm and Carry On, said the Government. Some mastermind at the Home Office had decided it was time to use the posters that had become so popular during the Recession. What people saw in the sky was even worse than a financial recession.

Don’t look up they said. So of course everyone looked up. Amy kept the curtains closed when he got ready in the morning though, resisting the itch to see if it was still was there. The thing was, everyone in the world saw something different. It was always different, always apocalyptic.

“Why don’t you open the curtains?” Jacob said. Amy stood in the middle of the room, her face sad, as ever. “It’s a bright, fresh morning,” Jacob persisted. They lived together, so far apart. She was a ghost of the wife she had once been. Her presence still here was a haunting. “You know. There’s no sense in being in denial.”

Amy said nothing, just shook her head.

Jacob’s mouth twisted in a smile. “It’ll be there, whether you open the curtains or not. We might as well get some daylight.”

“Do you have to go? Stay with me.” Her tone said she knew he wouldn’t. Jacob was a counselor, he could tell. He chewed it over for a moment.

“I have to see a patient. I would consider her psychologically vulnerable.”

“That’s more important than us?” Amy looked down, considered, but got out the words, with a little difficulty, “I’m afraid. They keep looking at me.”

“It’s work. I’ve got to carry on. Of course it’s not more important than you. But I have to work. I have to pay the mortgage.”

“The world’s ending! Fuck the mortgage.”

“Amy, the world is not ending. Stay indoors if you need to. I’ll not be late home. You’re rational enough to know that it’s mass hysteria. A reaction to an atmospheric effect people‘s minds can’t properly process. No one has yet had any physical contact with what they see in the sky.”

“That we know of yet. If anyone’s been killed we wouldn’t know.”

“All I know is that I think we should carry on as normal until we find out what’s going on.”

Amy looked away at the dormant TV set, as if watching something intently, in avoidance.

Jacob grasped Amy’s hands gently and looked in her eyes. “Tell me you’ll be okay.” He had decided to stay if she needed it enough to ask. He let her take the responsibility.

“You know I will be,” but she did not meet his eyes. “Do you really have to work today? It was nice when you only worked three days a week.” Jacob had reduced his hours to spend more time with Amy and her shattered nerves. Three days a week just about paid enough, but it was hard.

“I’ve got a responsibility to my patients. Even working flat out there’s no way to see everyone who needs it. Two of me working every hour couldn’t. This has tipped so many people off the edge. And there is nothing up there, no monsters, no alien armada and certainly no god watching over us, there is just us.” He stopped, and looking at Amy’s face realised he had started to rant. He stroked her face gently and spoke quietly, “We’re going to have to look out for each other.”

Jacob knew very well his words sounded hollow; he wasn’t even convincing himself. He looked away as Amy’s eyes finally locked on his.

Jacob left, and as he looked back, saw Amy opening the curtains. He couldn’t help but see that the sky still burned, great billowing red and orange flames, clouds of black smoke, he had even started to smell the ash, feel the heat. He knew it could not be real; it was not what Amy saw.

Amy had told him she saw eyes, watching, watching all the time.

* * *

As Jacob drove to work, he listened to Radio 4 for reassurance. Terrible idea: it was not reassuring. The presenter John Humphrys was interviewing the Home Secretary, his tone was incredulity mixed with cynicism.

“Is that the best you can do?” Humphrys said. “Keep Calm and Carry On: really?”

“We’ve been monitoring the situation. Our scientists have been working with other nations very closely, and all are agreed that nothing has physically changed up there. There is nothing in the sky. It is an optical illusion. There is nothing to fear except fear itself.”

“Seriously, it looks pretty terrifying to me. So tell me what do you see?” Jacob laughed at this deflection.

“I’m not here to talk about what I see,” the Home Secretary said. “It’s been scientifically proven there is nothing up there.”

“So you do see something! What is it?”

“That’s not relevant here, it’s personal.”

“The public deserve to know your state of mind.”

“My state of mind is focussed on being Home Secretary, John.”

“Really? You don’t fear what you see? Well, I see a host of angels with flaming swords. And I’m a born again atheist! What do you think is really there?”

“It’s a mass hallucination.”

Typical lay people trying to make psychiatric diagnoses, thought Jacob. Pop psychology, everyone thought they were an expert.

“A mass hallucination that is different to everyone? Come on. You haven’t got a clue what’s going on have you?”

“That’s rather an unhelpful way of putting it. Our emergency planners and analysts are on top of this and have determined there is no clear and present danger, except from panic. My message is that people need to keep working, keep paying the bills, keep buying. Carry on with normal life and this will work out.”

“But how will it work out? And what are you doing about the thing in the sky? Most councils even have contingency plans for zombies for god’s sake. You say it’s been scientifically proven there is nothing up there. But you haven’t shown us any convincing proof!”

And so they argued.

As Jacob drove on, the streets were filthy, so many people had given up. Rubbish was piling up, rats and dogs ran freely. The smell of the city was a bouquet of rotting vegetable matter. At least there were fewer cars on the roads, as more people stayed at home. People felt like they were on notice. Analyzing himself, Jacob was throwing himself into his work, he was avoiding the situation before him, he was in denial, even as he was helping his patients to live with these dramatically changed circumstances, this esoteric new normal. It was too hot in the car, he was sweating. Of course the flames weren’t real, he told himself despite the evidence of his senses. It couldn’t be the flames he felt.

His first case today, Elise Ridley was a young woman who had at one point been on suicide watch, and before that self-harming. Divorced parents, who both loved their careers more than each other, who just found family life too difficult. Like so many, including his own parents.

Elise walked in haltingly, Jacob welcomed her and tried to make her comfortable, offering her a seat. As she put her coat on the back of the chair, she wore a t-shirt, and Jacob was glad to see there were no signs of scarring, or drug use on her arms. Not that she looked well, her nail varnish was deteriorating, she even picked at it when they talked. Her hair hadn’t been washed for several days either, and the rings under her eyes spoke of missed sleep.

Jacob went through his process. Pleasantries to make the patient feel at ease, questions to draw her out, probing questions to clarify, open questions to help the girl come to her own conclusions. Last time she had opened up about her family background that left her needing to find meaning through her work, but her work was so difficult. Elise lived with depression, the pressure she was under fed it, but as a teacher she had to be alert which precluded a lot of potential drug treatments. Her boyfriend lived through computer games. Jacob could not count on her boyfriend giving her adequate support, he was living in his own fantasies.

“He sees an armada of spaceships,” Elise said. “Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters, from Star Wars. Poor Glyn, he’s afraid to go up his crane now. He’s taken two weeks off work in the hope all this will blow over. I wish I could share his optimism.”

“And what do you see?” This was the crux. Despite his questions, she had not explained what she had seen, but it had triggered a new episode of depression. She hadn’t been able to face work or leave the house, apart from this appointment for two weeks.

She shook her head.

“Elise, if you don’t tell me, then I can’t help you.”

The girl twisted her necklace around her fingers and looked around, and at the window. The blinds were closed.

“I mean I don’t know. I haven’t looked.”

“How could you avoid it?” Jacob had been unable to avoid his own hallucinations. He could smell the smoke, feel the warmth of the flames even now.

“I’m afraid to look.”

“You can’t face something if you don’t look at it.”

How could the girl not look, did she have no natural curiosity? The session ended without any agreement. They arranged another appointment for a week’s time.

Jacob opened the blind an inch and peeked out. The sky was still on fire, even though the online weather report showed it was a cold fresh morning. He went back to the positive anchors: his desk, his framed qualifications, his orderly stationery. Limited comfort when the sky was burning. Jacob picked up the phone. He had fifteen minutes until his next appointment.

With just five minutes until the next appointment, Jacob called Amy. The next appointment would have to wait. On the other end of the phone Amy sounded obviously frightened. She was still at home.

“It’s the eyes,” Amy said. “They’ve got closer.”

“You think the world’s ending.”

“Jacob for god’s sake, open your office blinds. Look out the window.”

Jacob looked outside, and to his horror, the flames were closer. He had even started to feel the heat through the window.

“Amy. I’m coming home.”

As he left the office, he spoke to the receptionist. “Katie,” he said. “Tell the egomaniac he’ll have to reschedule. It’ll do him good.”

Jacob kept his eyes on the rubbish-strewn pavement, then on the road when he drove, but the flames were low enough now that everything had an orange tinge, and he felt the heat rising in the car. The way was diverted because of the rioting, then the traffic just stopped. The route was blocked by abandoned cars, scattered like discarded toys. Jacob could smell ashes now, the heat was so close he was sweating uncontrollably and he wondered how long it would be until his exposed skin started to blister. He got out of the car and walked purposefully, avoiding eye contact with any of the increasingly desperate people in their own private hells, looking skyward or looking at the floor. Some stumbled around with eyes closed, or even blindfolded. One poor wretch lying in a shop doorway had blinded himself, pencils gruesomely sticking out of his eyes.

Jacob’s mobile rang. No, not now. He had to get back to Amy and could not get involved with a call. He clicked to cut the call off, without seeing who it was.

Walking on, he gritted his teeth. He was only a few miles from home. He felt the heat on his skin now, saw it started to blister. He could smell his own flesh cooking. He had to get home.

Jacob found the curtains drawn when he got home. Amy was visibly shaken, as she poured him a whisky. He looked down at his blistered, shaking hands. Amy did not seem to notice the state of his hands.

“What happened?” Jacob said.

“There are mouths now, as well as the eyes. They won’t stop talking. They say terrible things. Obscene things. And the smell… What is it all about?” Amy said. “Why do we all see something different. If we at least saw the same thing, the same fears maybe we could all face them together. But this. We’re all so alone.”

Jacob nodded, and necked his whisky, then checked his voicemail. It was a young woman’s voice, distant as if she was speaking from another world.

“I’m sitting here by the river,” she said. God. It was Elise Ridley. That lost young woman. How did she get his number? “Everyone is acting like it’s the end of the world. They’re so afraid. They’re just running into the river, jumping off the bridge. But I don’t see anything. The sky is just the sky. I can see the sun in a break in white clouds. There’s nothing to fear. And I think I’m the most alone person in the world.”

Jacob’s face crumbled with despair and Amy grasped his hand.

“You can’t fix it all Jacob. You never could. Not even us. But bless you for trying.”

Jacob switched the phone off and poured himself another whisky, as he felt himself burning, saw the smoke, smelled his flesh cooking. He was resigned now, as he burned he accepted it was too late to save anyone else as he could not even save himself. He would go gentle into that good night. He closed his eyes, the noise in the background did not matter any more.


M.M. Lewis has been widely published in the independent press, including the British Fantasy Society Journal, Kind of a Hurricane Press anthologies and recently won the Theaker’s Quarterly short fiction contest. M.M. Lewis lives by the sea in South West England.

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The Red Light Room

If Emilia, as a young girl, had known what was in that room, she might never have gone in. If she’d known what that red light leaking out from that room meant, all those sobs that went in. Then she’d have never needed to open up the house, years later, to the new police lieutenant. If she’d never gone in, if she’d never sat in that chair, perhaps her father never would’ve asked her, instead of one of her siblings, to keep the secret of the red light room.

Hours before the police arrived, there’d been an omen. It was four in the morning when somebody knocked at her door. Half asleep and in her dressing gown, she led an unknown man to the room. Middle-aged and quite good-looking, he wore a shabby coat and broken shoes. He’d taken the trouble to disguise himself so as to go unnoticed in the neighborhood, but he’d forgotten to take off his gold-crowned watch, which peaked out from under a sleeve. Emilia took him to the room, and after a few seconds of doubt, the man went in.

The rest is history. Actually, all stories are both distinct and the same. The man left from where he’d come in, a bit sadder, a bit wiser, and he’d left a piece of his soul to pay for everything he’d learned that night. But although it was nothing to do with Emilia what would happen next, her gut instinct told her she’d see or hear from him again. And she wasn’t wrong.

Two hours later, a rural policeman knocked at the door. Emilia had hardly gotten back to sleep after that man had gone, and she was surprised to see a law enforcement officer at her house. She invited him in.

“You don’t look like a whore,” he blurted out as soon as he came in.

The officer took a few steps into the tiny kitchen the entrance opened up into. Emilia saw how the man looked around, ignoring her, as if he was looking for pieces of evidence he wanted to find. The flat was humble. From where they were, they could see two more rooms; one was the bathroom, the other was Emilia’s bedroom. When she lived there with her siblings, that room was their parents’ and they slept on mattresses in the kitchen. There was nothing else.

“I’m not,” she said.

“Do you know this person?” he asked, ignoring her response.

He took a photograph from his blue jacket. It had been taken from quite a distance, in the street, but there was no doubt: he was the rich man who’d been hiding under the worn coat.

“His wife’s just found him hanging from the kitchen,” he continued. “She heard him leave early in the morning, and it seems he paid you a visit. One of the servants saw him come back an hour later.”

“I’m sorry,” said Emilia.

The officer grabbed one of the kitchen chairs and sat down at the small table.

“We think he killed himself because you were blackmailing him.”

“Me? Why?” asked Emilia, still standing.

“I don’t know,” the officer shrugged. “Are you his lover? Are you pregnant?”

“I’ve already told you I’m not a whore,” she answered sharply.

The officer gestured with his hand to calm her down.

“I know. Whores don’t do that sort of stuff. Just tell me what he was doing here, and if it has nothing to do with his death, I promise you I’ll leave and never bother you again.”

For the first time since her father had left her in charge, almost eighty years ago, Emilia saw herself at a crossroads. She was never supposed to reveal the existence of the room, something that was to be left to its own devices. Through the grapevine information was given about where to find it. It was the first time that without looking for it, somebody had wanted to find it.

“No,” said Emilia in a moment of clarity. “That man, you say, left his house early in the morning. Had he already said where he was going or did he tell somebody when he returned?”

“Look darling, you’re very young and you don’t know…”

Emilia waved at him to make him stop.

“I don’t believe anything you say,” she said, sitting down in a chair in front of him. “It’s been less than an hour since they found him and they already have a suspect—for a suicide. What are you really doing here?”

The officer rose in his seat and leaned toward Emilia, raising his right hand to her.

“I’m a police officer, I’m asking you nicely. Can I take you to the police station right now?”

“You’re not taking me anywhere because I don’t want to leave this place,” said Emilia in an almost whisper.

She was sure he knew something, but she wasn’t sure how far it’d go. The man leaned on the back of his chair and looked around again, almost distracted. He’s asking for it, thought Emilia. Finally, the officer took a breath and leaned on the edge of the table.

“My father wasn’t a good person,” he started slowly. “I think that’s why things always went so badly for us. If you’re a jerk, you pay back in life in the end. The thing is that, one day, a man came to our house and they were talking for a while. He told my father he knew how everything would be fixed, which was a bit extreme, but in the end…” he paused and cleared her throat, “it would do him some use to clear his head.”

“I understand.”

“He gave him an address, and told him to go alone,” he continued. “It was more than twenty years ago, but I remember my father’s face when he left and when he came back. And it was already different.”

“And do you know where he went?”

“Right here, in this very building, flat, and at this same number,” he said.

“And did it work? I mean, did it help him clarify the ideas?”

“My father killed himself five days later. In one shot.” The officer took a pause and stared at her.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, “but I didn’t kill him.”

“I know, it was a long time ago; you’d have been a little girl then. But a few years ago, I was on a neighborhood watch and the suspect came here,” he continued. “I couldn’t believe it. At first I imagined the same person no longer lived here. But when I saw him leave the building, it was like seeing my father again, years before, coming home from that strange visit. I followed him. I even considered risking the investigation by asking him what he’d seen or done, and who lived there. But when I’d almost decided to do it, when I got out of the car and was at the door, he landed next to me on the pavement, after jumping from the window.”

Emilia swallowed. She never got involved in what happened after, life beyond the room. She knew, from experience, that it was something horrible that would change you. But she also knew, from hearsay, that most died old or from stuff unrelated to their visit to the room.

“And there’s this handsome bugger,” said the officer pointing to the photo he’d left on the table. “He controls the northern area alone, and has partners in high places. Last night I wondered if he was going to meet with one of them.” He loosened his shirt collar and clenched his teeth. “I saw him come here. Two hours later we were informed he’d committed suicide. Doesn’t it all seem incredible?”

Dawn was starting to break, and the officer looked out the window.

“Or was it just a coincidence?” he asked almost to himself.

“That’s because, officer, you deal with bad people. As I said, life gives you back what you give it.”

The sun was already shining on the rooftops when the officer seemed to wake up. He turned and stared at her, almost as if the new light had changed her face. He slammed his hand down angrily on the table and made the dinner plates dance.

“I’m getting tired. You’re going to explain what the hell is going on here, or I’ll take you with me and you’ll explain everything at the police station. And I don’t give a shit if they find out where I’ve been.”

It’d been almost a century since her father had left the job to her, Emilia recalled. His instructions had been clear: Only those who want to go in can do so. And they could only come to her if they knew somebody who’d gone in before. For Emilia, the officer’s story made it clear he met all those requirements.

“Follow me,” she said, standing up.

The flat where Emilia lived seemed very small, much tinier if you’d seen other flats from the same building. Years before she was born, her grandfather had split the bathroom with a partition wall, and constructed a small room that could only be accessed from behind a cabinet. Emilia moved the small cupboard and opened the door.

From inside, a strong red light escaped. The officer leaned in to see over the young girl, who was still holding onto the door handle. The space was small, no more than two by two square meters. There was no window, and the only piece of furniture was a wooden chair, which presided the room under a light bulb that emitted a strong red light.

“I know this type of light bulb. They’re like the ones photographers use to reveal film rolls.”

“Yes,” answered Emilia, “that’s exactly what he does with the ones who come in.”

The officer looked at her confused.

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“You have to sit there. Don’t worry,” she said, getting ahead of his protests. “The door doesn’t have a lock, and you can already see the cabinet weighs almost nothing. Go in, sit in the chair, and when you’re ready, come out. I’ll wait for you in the kitchen.”

They all smiled when they heard that. The majority with disbelief, others from nerves. There was always that moment of doubt. The officer grinned from ear to ear and licked his lips. Finally, he raised his brows and, breathing in, leaned in to go under the lintel. He sat down very slowly in the chair and turned his head in time to see how Emilia closed the door.

The sun was already flooding the kitchen when Emilia took the coffee maker off the stovetop. In the background, she thought she heard something like a shriek of anger. She poured the coffee into two mugs and added a sugar lump to hers. Then she took some pastries out of a small tin box, put a few on each little plate, and sat down to read a novel she was already behind on. In the bathroom, the sergeant started to cry, and she felt him fall from the chair. Emilia took a breath and kept on reading.

After half an hour, she’d already finished her coffee when the bathroom door opened. The officer came out with his head hanging. He’d undone his jacket, and had his shirt untucked from his trousers. He went down the bathroom step and closed the door carefully, dragging his feet back to the chair that Emilia handed to him.

“Here,” she said, pouring him a fresh mug of coffee. “It will go down warm.”

The officer combed his fingers through his hair and brought the mug to his lips. He was trembling.

“The problem with those men,” started Emilia, “the ones you’ve told me about, I mean, is they cheated themselves. We live for ourselves, and when somebody shows us who we really are—” she signaled at the bathroom door, “—some can take it, others can’t.”

Emilia was silent for a moment. She didn’t usually offer them coffee or even a chat. But while she was looking at that man, who little before had seemed so strong and secure, shaking like a leaf, she understood why her father had decided to give up. It was difficult being the guardian.

“Thanks,” was the only response he gave before leaving from where he’d come in.

That day, the officer left there a little sadder, a bit wiser. And in one payment he left, unknowingly, a piece of his soul; so Emilia could be the red room guardian until one day she’d give up and distance herself from it to die.


María Entrialgo has a degree from the University of Oviedo specializing in Archeology and European Middle Ages History. As a writer she has collaborated with Spanish artists. Nowadays she is secretary in an english academy in her city, Gijón. She also writes at http://mariaentrialgoe.wordpress.com.

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Heart of Gold

In the time that I spent looking for David Adcock, it never occurred to me that he was not human, but a spirit, a rumor. Maybe he had been human at one point, but time had eroded his name into nothing but a whisper on the wind. How did I even find myself in this place? Two years ago, a palm reader looks deep into my eyes and tells me the secret to living forever lies inside a man called David Adcock, and I just take her word for it? I must be completely crazy.

I didn’t let those words consume me at first, but then the accident happened. All it took was one boneheaded decision. I stepped out onto that street, not even bothering to check for cars, and the next thing I knew, there was a truck barreling straight for me, the driver leaning hard on his horn. I could barely make out the sound of the horn through my headphones. That was the last thing I remembered before waking up floating in the middle of nothing. I was hanging inside of some endless empty space. A cold wind blew through my body and shook me to the core. Darkness stretched out into eternity. I couldn’t breathe, move, or speak. I just hung there like a marionette abandoned by its owner. For a moment I thought it was all over, until a fluorescent light pierced through the nothing and washed over my clammy face. My eyes flickered open and I was lying in a hospital bed. My girlfriend, Sandra, was sitting next to me. She’d nodded off while gripping my hand tightly.

It’s a miracle I wasn’t killed, even if my leg was broken. The leg healed eventually, but I couldn’t go anywhere without the cane after that. The entire two weeks I spent staring at the hospital ceiling, those words from the palm reader floated back into my mind like low hanging clouds.

The secret to living forever lies in a man called David Adcock.

I didn’t want to die anymore. I’d gotten a taste of it. There was nothing there, and I could not stomach that. You can be as noble as you’d like, but the thought of death in any circumstance scares me more than anything else. I never wanted to go back to that pitch black darkness, hanging in that empty, hollow void, completely alone, no matter the cost.

The search for David Adcock started as a mild curiosity. I couldn’t afford to drop everything and hunt down this hypothetical figure. I still had too many bills to pay and I had no intention of leaving Sandra high and dry. It was a daydream, a fantasy, to one day run into this mysterious person and learn his secrets and let the fear of death wash away from me. Then one particularly boring day at work, I searched for his name online. The results were more than underwhelming. Each David Adcock was more boring than the next, a dullard living in peaceful obscurity. I went back to work, but the fantasy of finding the exact David Adcock that the palm reader had mentioned never left the back of my mind.

I noticed the daydreams becoming much more prolonged. I’d be staring into space for hours, never realizing it until my supervisor passed by my desk and clapped his hands in front of my face, reminding me all that important data wasn’t going to collect itself. I kept putting David Adcock’s name into different search engines. I actually started a file on my computer, just to compile all the information about all these nameless strangers.

That weekend, I went back to the palm reader. She had a little house on the corner of 10th and Miller Street, with a faded wooden sign reading “Psychic Readings” on her lawn. Underneath the poorly scrawled words hung the image of a hand with an eye in the middle of it. No matter where you stood on that street corner, it always looked like that eye was watching you. We lived a couple of blocks away and walked by it constantly, always joking about going inside. Finally, one day, Sandra had convinced me to actually do it. Now I’d returned, only to find out that another sign had been added to the front lawn, a sign that read “FORECLOSED” in big blocky red letters. The front door was open and the crisp October breeze was blowing the screen door back and forth as it playfully banged against its frame.

I glanced around the neighborhood. Other than a little child riding a scooter a few feet down the street, the area seemed unnaturally quiet. I strolled down the cement walkway and up the rickety wooden porch, and leaned my head into the house. The atmosphere was still, frozen in time. The last rays of evening sun gave the dusty front living room a golden hue while dirt particles danced through the air.

What compelled me to step into the home like it was my own, I’m not sure I’ll ever know, but as I moved my way through the living room, my eyes were drawn to a large box in the corner of the room, overflowing with old photographs. I knelt down and began to go through them. All the pictures seemed to be of a large family living on a quaint farm ranch. The further I dug, the more generations I uncovered. A few generations in, I found a portrait of a man that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. He was tall and burly with harsh eyes staring right into the lens. A pointy gray goatee with peppered specks of white wrapped itself around his pursed mouth. On the edges of the portrait, someone had lovingly written the name “David” in cursive. I scanned the room to see if I was still alone. No one was there, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched. I pocketed the picture and raced out of the house and down the street.

I had a frame of reference now. The search became a minor obsession, growing steadily, day by day. I was going back through all the other Davids and making sure the photo didn’t mirror their own images. It got to a point when I was coming into work late, and never working on anything but my research. It didn’t take long before I was discovered and promptly fired. Sandra didn’t understand, but I never really expected her to. I hardly understood what I was doing myself. I told her I’d start looking for another job right away, but most of my days ended up being spent in the library, doing more research on some arbitrary figure I wasn’t even sure existed.

My research never went anywhere and my savings were dwindling into nothing. Sandra offered to help out, although she was growing suspicious about whether or not a job hunt was actually taking place.

I’d been through every single name. Nothing helped. At this point I really should have reconsidered whether any of this mattered. I should have gone back to my everyday life. I should have appreciated what I had with Sandra. I didn’t. I couldn’t. My next thought was to find out more about the palm reader. That was a little easier. After a little digging at the library, I found out her name was Ruth Balan. I was able to track down the real estate agent in charge of her home. He informed me she’d left the state to return to her family home—all the way to the deserts of Albuquerque. The rest of that day was spent trying to figure out how to explain to Sandra that I needed to leave town to hunt down a woman who’d given me cryptic advice a little under a year ago. Sandra made the process much simpler for me that night by letting me know the relationship was over. She couldn’t do this anymore. I didn’t blame her. I didn’t try to fight this conclusion.

Considering the fact that I didn’t have a penny to my name anymore, the trip to Albuquerque was made through hitchhiking with long bouts of walking along highways in between. Needless to say, starting from Seattle, this took a fair amount of time, but I did it. I tracked her down, finding a little home that was almost identical to the house at the corner of my old neighborhood. When I’d approached her home, I was tired, sore, hungry, and just a little crazy looking, with my unwashed clothes and weathered pack thrown over my shoulder. I stepped onto the porch and saw the front door was swinging open. I walked inside to see her sitting at a small round table in the middle of a comfortable living room. That fragile skeleton of a woman looked up at me with her beady dark eyes and immediately recognized me. Her wrinkled lips spread to reveal a pleasant smile beneath all the cracks.

“You’ve been thinking about David,” she said after looking me up and down. She knew exactly who I was, even after all this time.

Without warning, my eyes watered and my lips trembled. “I just don’t want to die anymore,” I sputtered.

My knees were buckling, and I needed to sit down. She pulled out a chair, and I collapsed into it. She kept studying me with her eyes. They were warm and friendly, but a serious glint illuminated them.

“Are you sure? There’s a lot more baggage to living forever than most people take into consideration.”

My response was swift. “I’ve been on the other side. I’ve seen that void, and I’m never going back.”

We stared into each other’s eyes. She knew I meant what I said.

“You can find David out in the western mountains of North Carolina. I wish I could tell you more than that, but that’s the last bit of information he ever gave me.”

I stayed with her a few months. In exchange for room and board I helped her with chores and tasks around the home. She’d tell me stories when she wasn’t seeing to clients. Most of them were about David.

He was a dear friend of her family. He’d stumbled onto their ranch as an orphan boy and had grown up with Ruth and her siblings. When he was seventeen, he died in an accident, falling from the rafters of their barn, and had been pulled back into life, just like me. He’d once been an amiable, free spirited boy, but after coming back his temperament was dark, cloudy. He’d disappeared one day, and no one saw him again for years. He returned home with a strange light in his eyes and a skip in his step. He claimed he’d found what he was looking for. But he only stayed in town for a day or two. Early one morning he’d just disappeared. Ruth had woken up that morning to find him standing outside her bedroom window. He told her where he was going, to the mountains of North Carolina. He told her he still had a promise to keep. He’d only returned to say goodbye. Ruth watched him disappear into the foggy dawn with tears brimming in her eyes. It was the last time she saw him.

The night before I left, we were sitting on her porch and listening to the world fall asleep. I turned to her and asked “Why did you tell me about David?” She didn’t answer right away, staring off into the Arizona plains.

“I hadn’t thought of his name in ages, but that evening you came to my door, it bubbled back into my subconscious, and I knew you had to be told.” That was all she said. She fell back into silence. A few minutes later, she broke the silence and whispered, “When you find him, tell him I think of him often.” Her voice faltered and broke, and I saw a small tear slip through the lines in her skin. I promised her I would, and then helped her into her bed. I sat on the porch for a little while longer and then collected what little I still owned and started traveling again.

I didn’t care to talk to anyone on the second leg of my trip. It took me twenty days to walk all the way to North Carolina, often wondering if I’d even make it at all, but I did. I ended up in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Sylva. Against my stubborn defiance, Ruth had snuck a portion of her own savings into my knapsack. It was enough to live out of a run-down roadside hotel called the Gem Motel for a while. I did the best I could to hunt down anyone who knew who David Adcock was.

One day, I tracked down someone who claimed to be his daughter. She met me at the library. She looked even older than Ruth Balan was. In a secluded, empty corner of the building, she told me she wasn’t sure what I needed to know. I told her all I really needed to know was where he was. She stared at me for a long time, then finally responded.

“Well, then I really don’t know what to tell you. He left home when I was in high school. The last I ever saw of him he was hiking up the mountains behind the family house. He never came back down. We searched all over those mountains and found nothing. There’s no way he’s still alive.”

And there it was. The reality of the situation that I never even thought to consider. I was chasing a ghost, a dream, a legend. I’d wasted years of my life on this chase now. Now I was alone, with no money, no possessions, and no one to believe me, stranded in a place where I had only cemented my persona as a crazy hermit chasing a pipe dream. I’d come to the end of the line. But even so, it was impossible to believe there was nothing left of David Adcock. I couldn’t believe it. I laughed in the face of logic, only because I couldn’t imagine life outside of my obsession. I left all my belongings in the empty hotel room and headed into the wild of the mountains.

I searched high and low in those forests. Stepping into the forest, I sensed I had entered a supernatural realm. I could smell it in the air and feel it in my bones. I lost track of time. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. I grew haggard and mad. Yet I never died.

Then I found it.

Deep in the middle of that claustrophobic, unnamed forest, I came across a large house. It must have been elegant at one point, but it had deteriorated over time, although it still stood strong. The paint had cracked away, leaving an ugly dark hue. The windows were smashed in. Plants and vines entangled themselves all over the structure. The wood of the front steps felt soft and moldy under my feet.

I stepped inside the building and looked around. It felt like entering a tomb. Someone had lived here long ago, but whatever human remains had once been here were long gone. All that was left were faded pieces of furniture covered in dust and cobwebs. There was only one photograph. It was a portrait of what looked like a very young Ruth.

I climbed the stairs, all the while holding my breath and praying they wouldn’t collapse underneath me. Each intensifying creak made me seriously doubt those prayers were doing any good. Somehow I made it to the top. There was a long empty hallway before me. At the end of it was a doorway with an old rusted door hanging off its hinges. I approached the door with caution. Standing right outside the door, I heard the faintest sound of difficult wheezy breathing. Then I heard the croaking voice.

“Come inside already.”

It made chills run up and down my spine, yet I still did what it said and pushed the door open, walking inside.

Before me sat the same tall man from the photograph I had found two years ago, sitting on a makeshift moldy wooden throne. He’d grown much older, and his body had warped into something to behold. His limbs seemed to have stretched and grown bonier over time. His tired arms hung from the chair like sick tree branches, and his fingers dangled and danced like crisp autumn leaves in the light breeze blowing through the far window. His round skull hung precariously from a neck that looked to be in danger of snapping in half. The small trimmed beard from the photograph had turned long and unkempt, spooling up in a large pile on the floor behind his long scrawny feet. His head, though, was still perfectly bald. The skin around his eyelids had grown puffy and had concealed his eyes behind little folds of skin. The head creaked upward and he looked me over with those folds. I started to speak, but he interrupted. Each rasping word forced from his throat sounded like it would be the death of this fragile figure that was once a human.

“No need to explain. I know why you’re here. And I won’t try to change your mind, because I know that’s impossible. But before we begin, is there anything you want to say?”

I couldn’t think of anything. I wasn’t interested in anything other than the immortality he guarded. I was about to shake my head when I stopped myself and blurted out.

“Ruth Balan misses you dearly.”

Even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I saw that what I’d said had affected David Adcock deeply. At first his thin lips frowned, then curled into a smile. With that, he stuck out his bony chest toward me and a loud snapping sound could be heard. I watched in awe as a tear in his skin opened up between his two lungs and grew wide to reveal a cavernous dark space. He didn’t say anything, but I heard a soft voice inside my head instruct me in what to do next. I reached out my hand and inserted it into the open cavity. I felt around the dark, wet space for a minute and found something warm, slimy, and pulsating. I gave a little tug and removed from his chest a shining, golden, still beating heart. I watched the heart pulse in my hand. The golden organ glistened in the fading sunlight and a strange, glittering juice seeped from its pores, soaking my arm. It dripped from my elbow into a little golden puddle on the floor. I looked up at Adcock one last time. He smiled and nodded his head, coaxing me on. I brought the heart to my lips, opened wide, and took a large bite out of it, feeling the juices drip out of my mouth and down my chin.

Nothing happened. I felt the mouthful of heart slide down my throat and into my stomach, but there was no revelation. David Adcock said nothing. He just kept staring at me with those invisible eyes. My vision started to fray at the corners and my legs grew weak as I fell to the floor. The last thought that passed through my head was, “I’ve been tricked,” and then I fell into darkness

But I did wake up. I wasn’t stuck in that void. Instead, I was sitting on that wooden throne I had found David on. I looked down at my arms and legs. My skin looked older, my fingers seemed longer. I tried to move my arms, but some invisible force held them back. I looked up and saw him standing at the end of the long hallway, silhouetted by the light shining through the window. It was David Adcock, but he was no longer the strange creature I had stumbled upon. It was the David Adcock from the photograph I had found so long ago. He gave me a grateful nod and disappeared down the stairs. I sat back in the throne and closed my eyes.

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, and while eternal life may not have turned out to be exactly what I expected, I’m content with what I’ve received. This life is not the black void I experienced long ago. The forest is alive with many animals and creatures that find their way into the strange house to visit me. And somewhere deep inside my heart, I know this is not the end. I have become the legend that David was once to me. I am a ghost, awaiting a stranger to relieve me of my post. I drift off into sleep every now and then where I experience the most vivid dreams. They are the most wonderful part of this new life. Most of them are about David and Ruth, sitting together on her porch, watching the sunset. I stand between the two of them and watch their faces glow while they soak up the rays of the dying red sun. I sincerely hope this is more vision than dream. I want only the best for those two, the ones who granted me the only wish I ever had.


Quentin Norris attended the North Carolina School of the Arts where he studied filmmaking and screenwriting, and received a Bachelor’s Degree in film direction. He writes short stories, comics, and screenplays, while also developing and directing film projects with his brother. His stories have been published in DOOM Magazine, Scrutiny Journal, One for One Thousand, and Devolution Z Magazine. He currently shares an apartment with his brother, a cat, and a dog in Austin, Texas. His other writing work can be found at www.qnorris.com

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The Sign For Grief Is Crow

The crow perched on the fire escape rail. It was the first day of spring and, somehow, there wasn’t a cloud in Queens.

The crow eyed the meat that flopped from Frank’s sandwich on the table.

Frank flung his hands in the air and the bird dropped off the railing, swooped low in the street, and rose to the apartment across the way. A breeze swept Frank’s hair, the ventilation within the building groaned. He fished the old, silver pocket watch his mother had given him out of his pants—flicked it open, ran his thumb over the crack in the glass, closed it. He placed it on the table.

His phone chimed. Area code: Seattle. 206. His stomach lurched—what had his mother loved about crows? Scavengers.

“Hello. . . speaking. Yes I know. . . okay. . . yes. Yes. Thank you. . . of course. See you Tuesday,” he hung up and with a hand that barely shook slid his phone back into his pocket.

Across the street the crow watched Frank, it’s dark-chasm eyes were a mystery.

“You win,” said Frank, gripping the fire escape rail.

He left the sandwich on the table and booked a flight to Seattle.

* * *

Frank’s favorite part about Seattle was that he only had to visit a couple days each year.

His mother’s epitaph was carved into dull, gray concrete. Had that been her choice, or Nina’s? They were the only ones left at the grave now, but stood on either side of it.

“You’re an asshole,” his sister said.

Frank said, “I know.”

There was silence except for the drip-drip of water from the trees. Miraculously, it wasn’t raining—not just then, anyway.

“I told you it would be soon,” she said.

Frank said, “I know.”

“And you still didn’t come,” she said.

Frank said, “I know.”

Nina grunted. She walked away, her heels sinking into the sod with each step.

The wind blew. The trees shivered. The cold spring air bit Frank’s nostrils. He heard a car door slam, an engine start. He drew out a small note from his jacket. His knees popped as he bent to the grave.

“Hey, Mom,” he said. “I brought this for you.” He placed the note near the flowers that leaned against the headstone. “Sorry I didn’t speak at the service. I think you would have understood.”

A sound like crashing waves grew around him. Above, sifting through the trees, were thousands of crows.

“Perfect,” he said, from where he crouched. “I suppose you would have been pleased.”

His mother had loved their intelligence, sociability, and language. She’d told Frank that crow language wasn’t about the small differences of each cry, but the most easily noticeable variance between a warning caw and a non-contextual caw. Once you can identify those, the rest came with time.

He hadn’t.

The crows filtered through the branches as the trees bucked in the wind. Frank reached to secure the note he’d placed on the grave. His finger was an inch from it when a dark form flashed before him. The note was gone.

“Hey!”

The crow stood on the headstone, the note clutched in a wiry claw.

“Give it back.”

The crow tilted its head.

It launched into the air and glided toward the line of trees.

“No. No. No.” Frank leaped around his mother’s grave. He dashed between headstones and didn’t care where he stepped.

The crow ascended and perched in a tree among its brothers. The noise they gave was like the rapids of a river.

“Give it back,” yelled Frank, his arms wide.

What is lost is just lost, but can be found.

Frank froze.

Thousands of crows peered down at him. Their wild voices cascaded upon his shoulders.

Something inside has been locked away.

“A raven isn’t like a fucking writing desk! It’s just a stupid kids story,” screamed Frank.

Come.

Every last oil-black bird jumped into flight and Frank followed, his eyes on the crow with the note clutched in one claw.

The graveyard was ringed by a low stone wall and Frank vaulted it easily. On the other side was a trail, not yet overgrown. The birds moved through the woods like shadows. For the first time they were silent, the only sound, the wind, the sigh of trees, the whisper of many wings.
They stopped at a clearing encircled by tall swamp grass. At the center of the clearing was a ring of pure white stones. Within the circle were. . .

Frank bent down and picked up the necklace his mother had warn years ago, shaped like a half moon. The chain ran between his fingers like water. He saw an old black and white picture of a woman laughing. That was her. A pair of baby shoes. A wedding ring. And his pocket watch—the one his mother had given him, he knew, it had the same crack in the glass and gleamed silver. Frank shut his eyes. He’d left the watch on his table outside in Queens.

A dark blur flashed in front of him. The note he’d placed on his mother’s grave was propped up against the baby shoes.

We cannot grieve without you.

Something rose in his throat.

“I,” his voice caught. “I wasn’t ready for her to die.”

Nor were we. Feel this within you. Unlock your pain.

His heart burned with loss, but now he felt it. Welcomed it. Didn’t lock it away. Tears formed near the corner of his eyes, but they didn’t drop. Something changed within him, something that made him want to visit Seattle, his mother, Nina, everyday of the week. Oh, Nina. It was. . . he had no name for it.

“Thank you,” he said.

The crows did not respond.

Frank replaced the necklace within the ring of stones. He turned away, and left it all behind, even the note and watch. As he walked he felt, behind him, the birds rise into the air, and as they did, some unknowable weight was lifted from his shoulders.


Alex Clark-McGlenn is a freelance writer by profession, a fiction writer by passion. He’s a graduate of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. His fiction has appeared in eFiction Magazine, and Smokebox Literary Magazine. His story “The Lost Doll” appeared in the Best New Writing 2016 anthology as one of three stories to win the Editor’s Choice Award. His piece “The Story of Grandma Snow,” can be found in The Cost of Writing vol. 3, published by the 1888 Center. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest and is hard at work on his first novel.

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Photo by Qurratul Ayin