Copyright @ Shannon Lawrence. “Dearest” was originally published in Tales From the Moonlit Path (August 2019). This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission.
The need for your touch is a craving I cannot withstand. I hunger for you each moment we’re apart, imagining your tender hand upon my cheek, your soft, hungry lips upon mine. I want nothing more than to feel the hard lines of your body pressed against me. It won’t be long now until we’re together forever.
I remember the first time I saw you, sitting at that bistro on the corner of Baptist and Red Oak, your chestnut hair haloed red and golden by the sunlight. You sat deep in conversation, eyes intent, leaning forward. No one could ever say you’re not a good listener.
Then you smiled.
The first time that smile graced your lips it caressed my insides, stroked every single inch of me. I froze where I stood, letting the heat of you fill me, build to an eruption. You stole my heart in that moment, imprisoned it. We’re soulmates, the passage of time having only made this all the clearer to me.
Nobody can ever keep us apart. We are one.
My memories have all been tied to you. There is no moment I remember without you in it somehow. You are the sun of my emotional solar system, the bright shining beacon that gets me through each day. My every need is fulfilled by you. I can’t imagine life being just me ever again.
It is you and me forever.
There have been dark times through these many months. I’m the first to admit that things have not been perfect. Hard times have come and gone. Times I thought we’d be kept apart, that our bodies and minds would be forever estranged. We’ve made it through the bad, survived it and come out the other side. True love brought us through.
You are my destiny. And I yours.
Flowery words don’t forge relationships. You already know we’re meant to be together, though sometimes your behavior makes me wonder. At times you can be so aloof, so self-involved. I don’t understand why you do this to me, why this selfish beast tears forward from inside you. What have I done other than adore you?
When you ignore me, fail to acknowledge my feelings for you, fail even to acknowledge me, my presence, it hurts more deeply than you could ever imagine. It shreds my soul, rips my heart out. I have ruined more pillows with the stains of my grief than you could possibly grasp. Love should not be buoyed by a sea of tears. It should be made of laughter, smiles, and kisses. I should be able to come to you when I hurt, not flee, hide, because it is you who hurts me.
Through much soul searching, I know there’s only one way to fix this, to strip away the distractions and make us one soul as we should be.
I need to take care of Her.
I know all about you two. She may temporarily possess your heart, but it’s on loan from me. Always from me. You have allowed her to steal from me for the last time. I have given you time to work through this on your own, but it seems I allowed you too much rope. It has reached the point that I either let you hang yourself with it or save you from yourself.
And, my love, I cannot let you destroy yourself or us. I must do whatever it takes.
I look at Her and see what it was that attracted you. Believe me, I do. She’s the type of woman they cast in movies, with a face meant to be on screens and billboards, and curves that would stop traffic. It’s true She bears more physical beauty than I do, but I can give you so much more than She can in the way of love, of consistency, of dedication. I am smarter than She will ever be, and you and I have more in common.
From that moment on the street corner you were mine.
Even as you sat across from Her, we became one.
When you married Her, I thought I’d never breathe again. I watched, you know. The audience at these weddings is so big that anyone can lose themselves in the crowd. I sat in the back next to your great-aunt Sandy and her breathing apparatus, her wheezing a steady background to despicable vows being exchanged at the front of the church. It took everything within me not to kink that tube as I rolled it between my fingers, to let her suffocate, much as my heart was doing right then. But sense prevailed, and I held myself back. You should be thanking me. That old wretch begged for it, sobbing away, the scent of mothballs a suffocating cloud of putrescence around us.
You put on a good show with those empty vows you spoke at the altar. That woman you call your wife ate it up, lapping at your voice like a dog at the water bowl. The dress was perfect, and She was flawless in it. I bet Her brain weighs half what a normal person’s does, and it showed in the vapid expression She fixed on you as you spoke those falsities, poisonous vows pouring from your tongue. I nearly threw up on your Uncle Gene, there in the pew ahead of me, his bald dome reflecting the church lighting like a beacon. How I wanted to eradicate that light, to crack his skull, to flail at anyone near me and kill the smiles they wore in their ignorance.
You looked so handsome in your tuxedo. I want you to wear it when our time comes to wed. We’ll need to exorcise Her stink from it first. Then again, there’s probably no way to clean that off. We’ll find you an identical tuxedo instead. I don’t want a church wedding. Rather, a small wedding on a vineyard is my preference. Rolling hills of green, luscious grapes, the blue sky above us.
Yes, we’ll make this right. She can take the baby with Her when She leaves, that devilish spawn. No child should be born of false love, but that will be Her problem, not ours. You and I will have our own children, products of real love. Forget that ugly, squalling little wretch. Who knew babies could be so hideous? Ours won’t be. They’ll have your hair and lips, and my nose and eyes. They’ll be healthy and quiet, not like that thing currently sleeping in its crib, snot-stained and foul. I hear it breathing, smell the spoiled milk odor it constantly exudes.
It’s time for me to clean up this final mess, as I am always forced to do when it comes to you. I’m not sure you understand how much I do for you. How much time I’ve put into this relationship, what an investment I’ve made. It all seems so one sided when I think of everything I’ve done and how little you’ve given. A true relationship takes two, not one slaving away and the other taking advantage.
That all changes soon.
Tomorrow, we meet in person. I will finally get to touch your skin, feel that smile directed at me. It will be me you embrace, me you caress, me your voice strokes. I’ve waited all this time for you to look at me the way you look at Her, but without the deception. All this time I have been right here, sometimes inches from you, and you have looked right past me, ignored my presence. Surely you’ve seen me in all those public spaces. I can’t have been invisible to you, not really. You just had to act like I was so She wouldn’t know what existed between us.
I’m sure it will be a relief for you to be able to stop play acting this way. You want me as much as I want you. I know this. Every touch from Her must feel like sandpaper across your skin. Every laugh must grate on your nerves the way it does on mine. The time for pretending is done. Your freedom awaits, along with our future together. The gods smile down upon us, urging us toward our destiny.
You’ll know when the time is right, when the clock chimes the time of our first meeting on our anniversary tomorrow. I’m ready for you, for us. As I lie here in the spawn’s closet, listening to the sound of your voices downstairs, I steel myself against the false sounds of happiness, knowing that at every moment you await our meeting, that every touch and laugh is one you intend to share with me.
While neither of us wants it to come to this, I am prepared in case She fights to stay. How deliciously ironic that it may be Her own gardening tools that end Her life. And the baby, if it comes to that. If She dies, so must the baby. After all, we can’t move forward saddled with baggage from the heresy of your flawed relationship. It would be a curse upon us.
Wait for me tomorrow, dearest. For I will come for you once I have finished here, so that we may forge ahead with this love that was meant to be, released from the shackles that have held us for the past two years. Our destiny will be realized.
All my love,
The Woman of your Dreams.
A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in over forty anthologies and magazines, and her two solo horror short story collections, Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations and Bruised Souls & Other Torments are available from online retailers. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there’s always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find more at thewarriormuse.com.
Happy Ghoulidays Family time can lead to murder and mayhem, especially during the holidays. A turkey with a tale to tell, elves under attack, sorority sisters putting on a killer party, a woman’s desperation to save her family, and a stranger ringing in the New Year. These and other tales of woe await you beneath the mistletoe.
Copyright @ Angela Sylvaine. “The Beautiful People” was originally published in Dark Moon Digest (January 2021). This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission.
Emmeline hitched the tote bag up her shoulder and raced across the morgue’s tile floor, past row upon row of contestants. Two to four children worked at each station preparing their entries. Forgetting the supplies in the transport had cost Em and her sister valuable time.
“Took you long enough.” Brigitte snatched the bag from Em and dumped the contents on a wheeled metal table.
Em pushed her sweat dampened curls from her forehead and cinched the ill-fitting pants of her scrubs tighter. “I ran as fast as I could.”
“Get started on her nails, then.” Brigitte plugged the air supply unit into an outlet set flush into the floor.
“Everyone else’s entries are so young,” Em said in a harsh whisper.
“Exactly. We’ll get extra points for difficulty.”
Em cast a glance over her shoulder at the contestants beside them. The three siblings seemed focused on their own corpse, a handsome young man in his early twenties. She hoped Brigitte’s idea to use an airbrush to decorate their entry would be enough to push them over the top. It had cost them each a full week’s worth of food in trade.
Em rolled her stool closer to the metal table where their elderly woman laid, hands crossed over her midsection. She looked so peaceful, like she could be asleep. Em had always wished for a grandmother, a kind older woman to comfort and protect her, and said, “I’m going to call her Oma.”
Brigitte shrugged and mixed brown colorant with water in a small glass jar and attached it to the airbrush.
Em wrinkled her nose. “That color is ugly.”
“It’s used to create shadows, like contouring. She’ll look more alive this way.” Brigitte raised an eye brow. “Nails?”
Em grabbed a bottle of glitter lacquer and pulled one of the old woman’s hands closer, cringing at the resistance of her stiff joints and the feel of her cold, papery skin. Em should be used to it by now, given her caste, but death still upset her.
“You’ve got this, Emmy.” Brigitte gave Em’s shoulder a squeeze. “You’re stronger than you think.”
Em straightened and gave a firm nod. She had to be tough now, like Brigitte. This was their only chance to get out of Lowtown. If they won, they would live in one of the glass towers and have beds to lie on instead of dirt floors. They’d be able to sleep the whole night through, never having to take turns or keep watch. Em wouldn’t even need her little homemade knife, the one she’d used to stab the boys who’d tried to hurt Brigitte.
Em unscrewed the bottle of lacquer and leaned close to apply a layer to each nail.
A loud alarm sounded, silencing the children’s chatter, followed by a voice. “Sixty minutes remaining until judging.”
Em gripped Brigitte’s hand, too hard, but her big sister didn’t let go.
“I hope they appreciate our creativity,” Em said. “Maybe we should have done something more traditional.”
“She’s a tribute to the Matriarch. They’ll love it,” Brigitte said.
Still clothed in their scrubs, the sisters joined the rest of the contestants in the fiftieth-floor ballroom, where they filed onto a set of bleachers against the far wall. The room itself was spectacular, boasting a huge crystal chandelier, jeweled sconces on the walls, and three hundred and sixty degree windows offering a view of Uptown Em had never seen before.
Lowtown was a jumble of wood and corrugated metal shacks crowded along dirt roads isolated beyond the wall. Here, she was surrounded by shimmering glass and metal structures, skyscrapers Brigitte called them, rising up in every direction. Lights twinkled in the buildings and scattered across the ground far, far below like a blanket of stars. Em gazed out at the city scape, trying to commit it to memory. Just in case.
After all the children were seated, the double doors of the ballroom opened to let in men in brightly colored tuxedos, orange for the Clergy, green for the Financiers, blue for the Soothers, and so on, and women in gowns adorned with all manner of sequins, feathers, and beads, again in the colors that matched their station. Many carried glasses of Froth, a pinkish bubbly liquid Em had heard stories of but had never seen or tasted.
The crowd applauded as figures began to descend from the blackened cavity of the ceiling. There must have been cables suspending each entry, but they were so thin the bodies looked to be floating. They stopped their descent just a few feet from the floor, and were left to hover, like angels without wings.
A small group of men and women emerged from the larger crowd, each with a white orchid pinned to their collar. The judges.
“Where is she? Do you see her?” Brigitte asked.
Em craned her neck, trying to locate Oma. The other bodies were dressed in the finest clothes and made up to look as if they still lived and breathed, but there, at the center, Oma stood out among the rest, sparkling and reminiscent of royalty.
“How long do you think they’ll take?” Em asked, conversely wanting to get the judging over with and to drag out this night as long as possible.
“It’ll be okay, Emmy.” Bridgette put her arm around Em’s shoulders. “No matter what happens, we still have each other.”
Em blew out a breath, focused on the spectators. She’d never seen a single person who was so beautiful, much less an entire crowd.
A murmur ran through the bleachers as the hanging bodies began to move. One by one they were lifted up and away, disappearing into the ceiling, dwindling the selection from several dozen to just six.
Spot lights illuminated the remaining entries.
Em leapt to her feet. Oma still hovered near the center of the ballroom floor.
All around them, children began to cry. Their entries hadn’t made it. Em’s stomach twisted at the hopelessness in their cries, knew this was all they’d ever see of the city of light.
“Contestants 2, 7, 15, 22, 23, and 31, please take your places beside your entries.”
Em followed Brigitte down the bleacher stairs on legs so shaky it was a miracle she could even walk, but she managed it. They were so close now.
She huddled at her sister’s side as they reached Oma. Brigitte had been the one to suggest they choose the elderly woman to showcase their potential as Preservers, but it had been Em who came up with the designs, reminiscent of the ornate jewelry worn by the Matriarch. Em had pored over the pages of every newspaper she could find, each one sure to have at least one picture of their sublime ruler.
The lights played off the silver scrollwork they’d stenciled around Oma’s eyes, down her neck, across the backs of her hands. The jeweled barrettes they’d used to fasten back Oma’s snow-white hair sparkled under the lights, only outmatched by the silver snakeskin fabric of Oma’s wrap dress.
A man clad in the purple suit of a Decanter stopped to admire their work. “How old was the specimen?” He looked down at them with eyes the exact shade of his suit.
“Oma was eighty-three,” Em said, beaming.
“Remarkable.” He sipped his Froth and moved on to the next corpse.
The sisters watched and waited as the judges inspected each entry, until they seemed to reach an agreement and called all the remaining contestants to the front. Em wiped her palms on her pants and tried to look as calm as Brigitte. They stood with the other children, twenty of them in all, waiting for the judge’s final decision.
The man in the purple suit touched a button on his collar, activating a hidden microphone. “We had some outstanding entries, but one stood out among the rest as a demonstration of the true beauty that can be achieved in death.” He paused and looed out over the crowd. “Entry 7.”
Em threw herself into her sister’s arms. They’d done it. Everything would be different now.
The remaining contestants were led, sobbing, from the room. Belonging to the Death caste, this had been a once in a lifetime chance to rise up, to become an Uptowner. A Preserver spot was only offered once per decade. Now, the children would return to Lowtown, to the violence and rot, where they’d become Diggers or Cutters. Em felt a flash of pity, then it was gone. She and Brigitte had earned this new life.
“Well done, children. Well done.” The man ushered them forward as the crowd clapped and cheered.
“Thank you, sir.” Em gripped her sister’s arm to stay standing.
The man raised his hand and the applause died. “There is one last challenge you must undertake so we may decide which of you will stay.” His eyes shone with excitement.
“What?” Em asked. “Our entry won, we earned this. Both of us.”
A tittering wave of laughter rolled through the crowd. Em glared out at the beautiful people, whose faces had cracked and twisted into cruel smiles.
The man held out a vial filled with a vibrant blue liquid. “We must also test that you can preserve the young. One of you will die, and the other will preserve them.”
Em looked at Brigitte. She’d fix this. She’d know what to do.
Her big sister had gone completely still, completely white, as if she were one of the corpses.
“We’ll go back then. Just send us back,” Em said. They’d return to Lowtown, but at least they’d still be together, still have each other.
“I’m afraid that isn’t an option. If you refuse to choose, then both of you will be executed.”
Em began to tremble, all the muscles in her body protesting. She eyed the vial sitting in the evil man’s palm and willed herself to reach out and grab it. Her body was frozen, unable and unwilling to follow her commands, and before she could force herself to move Brigitte snatched the vial, pulled out the stopper, and tipped the blue liquid down her throat.
“No!” Em screamed, lunging for her sister, but one of the beautiful women wrapped an arm around Em’s chest and held her tight.
Brigitte frowned, licking her lips. “It’s sweet.”
“The choice has been made.” The man in purple swung on his heel to stare at Em.
Em felt a sting in her shoulder and cried out. She looked back at the woman, who now held a syringe in her hand.
“What was that?” Em whispered.
“Just a little paralytic mixed with pain killers. Won’t hurt a bit, dear.”
Brigitte grabbed the man’s arm. “But I volunteered.”
The man in purple laughed, a booming sound that hurt Em’s ears. “We don’t want cowards.”
Em slumped to the floor. I’m going to die, she thought. Tears burned her eyes, scorched a path down her face.
“I’m so sorry, Emmy. I didn’t know.” Brigitte fell to her knees and clasped Em’s hand.
Em hugged her sister. She was the smart one, the pretty one, the brave one. Brigitte deserved to live. And now Em had to be strong. “Promise you’ll make me look pretty?
“I promise.” Brigitte choked out the words before someone grabbed her, pulled her away.
She was one of the beautiful people now.
The muscles in Em’s body began to stiffen and she struggled to breathe. Fear spiked in her veins, then swam away on a stream of whatever drugs they’d given her. She felt weightless, carefree.
In the back, hovering above the crowd, Oma watched.
And Emmeline joined the angels without wings.
Angela is a self proclaimed cheerful goth who still believes in monsters. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications and anthologies, including Places We Fear to Tread and What One Wouldn’t Do. A North Dakota girl transplanted to Colorado, she lives with her sweetheart and three creepy cats on the front range of the Rockies. You can find her online angelasylvaine.com.
Angela Sylvaine’s debut novella, Chopping Spree, is available now. This fast-paced, fun tribute to slashers, the 1980’s, and mall culture is the perfect fall read. Pick up your copy now in paperback, kindle, or kindle unlimited at Amazon.
A noose swayed gently above my head, borne by a breeze which only offered more debilitating heat. It hung from a large tree full of leaves that branched out and cast glorious, wonderful shade. Shade that ended feet from where I lay.
Sunlight pounded me. I felt my skin drying up and crisping. Even where the remains of my shredded clothing covered me, my body broiled. My lips parched and water lay so close I could smell it. So close, yet so out of reach.
Desperate, I shifted my hand, but stilled at chilling buzz. Shifting my gaze down from the tree and its shade, I stared at my stomach. Or rather I stared at the coiled snake sunning on my stomach. Black soulless eyes stared at my face as its tongue flicked in and out of its angular mouth. I moaned softly, and a sound like the rustle of dry leaves answered.
The snake slithered closer to my face. Its flesh, the first coolness I’d experienced in hours, raised chilblains on my bared bosom. Every sinew of my body tightened like plucked bowstrings. I struggled not to shiver knowing the slightest movement would bring a venomous death.
Certain death at the hands of a rattlesnake or the possibility of a slower death by dehydration. If I survived the day, well, I still had to survive the night.
“Juniper Rue, you are hereby charged with witchcraft and will be taken by prison cart to Philadelphia to stand trial.”
I couldn’t believe the hunter’s words. Witchcraft? This wasn’t the 1600’s anymore. Did people still get persecuted for witchcraft? Why didn’t my neighbors standing for me? The ones I’d healed with a bit of innocent herbal knowledge. Sure, I really was a witch, but no one knew that. Sheriff Clancy leaned against a post not twenty feet from where I stood, bound by the hunter’s strong-arm man. Meeting his eyes, I entreated him to interfere. This was beyond ridiculous. He looked away, kicked the ground with his boot, then walked back toward the saloon.
They couldn’t do this to me!
Wracking my brain, I tried to think of a way to escape. I wasn’t the type of witch who could cast spells and fry people with lightning. I wasn’t sure witches like that existed, though it would be handy right about now. Before I could do much than voice a wordless protest, the strong-arm tossed me in the back of a prison cart with two other women and we clattered away from my hard-won life. I hoped someone would go out and feed the chickens.
After two torturous days, I finally dared to talk to my traveling companions. One, a woman with skin dark as oak bark I’d met once from a town not to far from where I’d lived was an herbalist, like me, but she wasn’t a witch. Rumor was that she’d failed to save a sick child and that brought the witch hunter down on her. Even I, with my magic, couldn’t save everyone. The other woman, pale-skinned like me, but dark haired where I was blond, I didn’t know. She knelt for hours at a time, eyes shut, hands clasped in front of her, as if she prayed but at times she muttered a quiet word and I could feel magic rolling off of her, prickling against my skin like the sting from a nettle.
Shortly after she sank back into a cross-legged position, and opened her eyes, I told them my name.
“Sarah,” the dark woman whispered back.
“Constance,” the other witch said after a moment.
“Quiet back there!” Our jailor pounded on the wooden roof of our prison.
Wincing, I fell silent.
“It won’t be long,” Constance breathed, a feral gleam in her eyes.
The rolling cage imprisoning us had nothing to ease the ride, though the hunter and his strong arm didn’t seem to mind the bouncing. Shackled hand and foot, with nothing to brace myself except the bars of the cage, I felt every bounce and jolt. At the beginning of the journey I had thought it would be nice to have sides on our cage to protect us from the weather. Now I was glad for the open construction. The heat was unbearable and though no breeze blew, at least we weren’t baking in a wooden box. I was certain we all smelled horrible, but I couldn’t tell at this point.
“Where are you taking us?” I couldn’t remain silent any longer.
“There’s a bounty for witches,” the strong-arm cackled. “They’ll burn you good.”
“Quiet,” the hunter snarled. “We’re doing God’s work.” His voice took on a pious quality that make me think he actually believed that.
“God’s work or the devil’s, don’t matter to me… just as long as I get paid, and I like to see’em burn.”
“Burn?” Sarah gasped. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Witches area an abomination. You’ll be put to the death, as is proper,” the hunter answered. He spoke as if he talked of the weather, not our lives. “Now, be quiet.”
“I’m not a witch!” Sarah wailed.
He pounded on the roof of the jail box.
Dust, bitter with the sweat of countless prisoners, sprinkled from cracks in the boards, making me cough.
Tears streamed from Sarah’s eyes. Constance winked when I glanced at her. I felt too numb to react. The heat dragging everything out of me.
I prayed for rain.
The sun beat down on us.
“It’s time.” Constance smiled before closing her eyes, as if in prayer again.
Sarah and I shared a glance before looking out of our cage. We saw more of the same. Miles and miles of endless grasslands. The sun hovered in the eastern sky, not quite past morning yet.
I pressed my head against the bars and tried to see what lay in front of us. I thought I saw trees. Trees meant water. Maybe there was a river. If they let us out, I would try to drown myself.
“Time for what?” Sarah asked.
“Quiet!” More pounding on our jail.
I stared out the side of the wagon, wondering what would happen. I’d felt her magic, and wondered what she’d done.
“Boss, ain’t this Gaol? What’er we doing here?”
The hunter swore. “Wasn’t on our route.”
My blood chilled. Gaol. The execution town. Many people had died, some rightfully, many wrongfully, in this wretched place. They said none living survived the night in the abandoned town. Vengeful spirits stalked the darkness, howling like cyclones stealing souls with the very sound.
They first chose this place to hang cattle rustlers because it had strong, tall trees—a rarity on the plains. As the crude cemetery filled, it just seemed to be a good spot to continue the killing. No one lived in Gaol. No one came here anymore. I’d thought the place a legend, like so many other dark tales whispered at night. I’d thought wrong.
I wanted to sleep, wanted to move, wanted to crawl to the shade mere feet away, but the rattler on my stomach prevented all of that. I had to breathe. It was the only movement I dared make. At some point, madness would drive me to reach for the water container that lay near me, but not yet. For the moment, I retained control.
Again, I wished for the type of magic that would let me call the water to me. Magic that would allow me to ask the snake to kindly remove itself from my stomach so I could get out of the sun. Unfortunately, all I could do was heal. Turning that power inward, I tried to relieve some of my suffering. I wasn’t sure how well it worked.
Trying to keep myself from passing out, and potentially angering the rattler, I turned my eyes back to the noose swinging from the hanging tree. As I stared my eyes blurred and the ground lurched underneath me though there was no possible way it actually moved. I shut my eyes and tried not to vomit. Mustn’t disturb the serpent.
Part of Gaol’s legend was the noose. Always ready, always swinging, as it did today, even in still air. So many had died in this place. Some of them earlier today.
While the hunter and his strong-arm argued over how best to go around town, Constance again gathered magical energy to her and chanted quietly.
“Turn the cart!” the hunter snarled at his strong-arm.
“I’m trying,” he whined.
“Give me that.”
Reins smacked against horseflesh. One of the horses neighed nervously but the cart didn’t turn.
“Damn it,” the hunter shouted.
Leather cracked against flesh.
The horses squealed.
The cart lurched as the horses screamed. I pictured them rearing in their traces, eyes rolling, foam lathering where leather rubbed flesh.
The hunter snapped his whip.
Wood cracked as hooves struck the cart. The wagon lurched again and the horses bolted.
I couldn’t prevent myself from striking the hot, sweaty bodies of my fellow captives as we bounced around in the lurching cart. Blood flowed from a wound on Sarah’s shoulder. Constance’s magic prickled over me, stinging anytime I touched her. A jolt threw me into the bars, and I cracked my head. Dazed, I heard a massive crack and then it seemed like I flew through the air before everything went dark.
I didn’t truly sleep. Though I was unconscious, I thought I felt what went on around me. Wild magic screamed around me, tearing at everything in its path. I felt the chaotic energy interact with the auras of the horses. One managed to free itself from its traces and bolt. The other, trapped by the heavy cart, thrashed until it lay exhausted.
The hunter was dead, buried under the cart as was Sarah. Briefly, I mourned her death. The strong-arm lay unconscious like me and Constance had vanished. A miasma of putrescent colors seeped from the ground, riled up by whatever Constance had done to wreck the cart. It snaked counter-clockwise around the tree, caressing its bark, before pulsating toward the graveyard, and sinking into the ground.
With that, my extra awareness fled and I slept. Sometime later, not knowing how much time passed, I cracked open my eyes.
Bared fangs and a heart-stopping buzz greeted me.
Slowly the sun crept across the sky. Apparently not understanding that his perch required water and shade, the snake barely moved, except when I tried to. Desperate for liquid, my hand inched toward the container, chains clinking and pulling slightly across my chest. It was just visible at the edge of my vision. I made it an inch, two, before the snake buzzed its rattles.
Exhausted and defeated, I gave up. I would dehydrate to death, all the while praying the snake would move.
At first, I had hoped the sun would go behind the big hanging tree and provide me with relief, but I’d fallen on the wrong side, and the heat only grew more intense as the afternoon wore on.
I felt like my skin had turned black, seared to a crisp and about to flake away like charred bacon. Unable to move my head to see, I had to believe that my meager healing energy kept it from burning completely.
My eyes burned. Dry, no moisture available for tears. I wanted to keep them shut and protect them from the sun, but if I left them closed for too long, I started to drift off to sleep. Fearing the snake more than sun blindness, I alternated between briefly resting them and blearily staring at the hanging noose.
To occupy my mind, I tried to think of the legends of the town. Mostly stories of people entering and not returning. I’d join their number if the snake didn’t remove itself from its perch soon.
As the shadows lengthened, I lost my battle with sleep. When I woke next, it was full dark, though by the weight on my abdomen, the serpent still nestled there. For a while the cool air relieved my sun-baked skin, but as the air continued to chill, goosebumps broke out, and I feared what would happen if I started to shiver. The snake dealt with my breathing, it would have to deal with the shivering, too. Or so I told myself.
My eyes, dry and feeling full of sand, wouldn’t focus in the starlight. I could still make out the darker patch of the hanging tree, but the pinprick stars in the sky blurred to my tired eyes.
While I couldn’t see well, I could hear, and smell. The water container was still close. I wanted to wet my tongue, which currently stuck to my mouth, and dribble cool moisture on my cracked lips.
An owl hooted nearby, and the leaves of the hanging tree rustled.
The slight breeze grew stronger and the owl stopped making noise, either gone or quiet, I didn’t know. A low moan, at first blending with the wind, then rising above its quiet noise filled the night.
My heart raced, and I shut my eyes, willing it all to go away. With my eyes shut, I could feel the magical energies pulsed around me. The strong-arm, still lying near the wagon, stirred. The downed horse thrashed once before going still again.
Restless spirits grabbed at the energy of the wind combined with the magic. They used it to pull themselves from the ground.
Terrified of what I sensed with my eyes shut, I snapped them open and stifled a scream. A man stood over me, shotgun in hand, nasty sneer on his face. My tired eyes must have been worse than I thought, because he glowed in the darkness, the only reason I could make out his features.
The snake buzzed urgently, but the man didn’t react, as if he couldn’t see the creature. This time the serpent wasn’t looking at me when it rattled and I was too terrified of what the man would do, to worry about the snake. It was a known danger.
Where had he come from?
I heard someone grunt and shuffle before collapsing to the ground.
The man above me stepped over me as if I weren’t there.
“Hey, who are you?” The strong-arm slurred.
I heard no answer until the strong-arm squealed in fear. I thought I smelled urine, and the man screamed before falling silent.
This was too much for the horse, and it tried again to free itself. Thrashing violently in the tangle of its harness and the wagon, it too screamed before falling silent.
The moan grew in strength until the wind whipped around me, stinging me with dust from the ground and making the giant tree bend and sway.
Clenching my eyes shut to keep the grit out of them, I didn’t see what happened next, but I smelled and heard everything.
Voices laughed, though I couldn’t make out any words. Cracking timbers made me think of something tearing the wagon to bits. After a time I heard crackling flames and smelled roasting meat. Stew?
More laughter, though anytime the laughter drifted near, the snake buzzed. Wind continued to whip around me, and I worried about the fire setting the grasslands aflame. I wondered who cooked and who laughed and why they didn’t see me on the ground and help me.
The moaning wind grew louder and the laughter more boisterous and fear chilled me as I remembered the story of one man hung at Gaol.
He’d had a gang. All human eaters.
I seemed to recall that burnt human flesh smelled like pork or sometimes beef.
My stomach turned and I wanted to heave.
As I moved, the snake buzzed and I felt its attention return to me. What would be worse, being eaten or dying from snakebite? I didn’t want to find out, so I lay still again.
My heart raced against my chest, and I prayed for daylight.
At some point, exhausted from the heat of the day, and the tension of the evening, I fell into a deep sleep, despite the sounds of laughter and the smell of cooked food.
When I woke again, the snake had gone and the first rays of dawn lightened the eastern sky.
Hardly able to believe what happened, I twisted my head, looking for the snake. It was nowhere to be seen.
Struggling to my feet, I grasped for the water container laying nearby. Gulping the stale liquid, I hoped I wouldn’t make myself sick as I sucked it all down. Once my thirst abated, I noticed the first real miracle I’d ever experienced. My chains had vanished. Elated, I clutched the empty container as I struggled to my feet. There might be a well, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to drink any water that came from Gaol.
The events of the night before flashed through my mind as I staggered, trying to find my balance.
A small campfire lay nearby and lying next to it, burnt bones.
The poor horse, dead, still lay in its traces, untouched. The wagon contributed to the fire. I saw no other bodies, though I had sensed Sarah and the hunter crushed beneath the wagon’s weight.
Not sure where I was going, I staggered away from town. I might die on the plains, but I wasn’t about to spend another night in Gaol.
When Julie is not writing she’s often out riding horses, or working sheep with her dogs. She lives in Colorado with a handful of cats, some sheep, Kira and Bran her border collies, her Arabian endurance horses Triska and Cavalier, and her Irish Sailor. She is the author of many Vampire and Ghost-Hunting Dog stories, the Tales of the Travelers series, and many other young adult books. Her passions include horses, writing about horses, dogs and writing about dogs. She writes fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and all related genres. She’s a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Science Fiction Writers of America. Find more at www.writerjacampbell.com.
This anthology features deadly romances that cross-examine the nature and meaning of love.
One story examines emotions through an extraterrestrial’s eyes as an alien meets humans for the first time. The darkest aspects of humanity are revealed when the fantasy of their love is threatened. In contrast, we witness a man haunted by the memory of his flame, yearning to connect with her—even if it’s only a delusion. We also discover a woman who is prepared to die over and over again for an immature infatuation, but is her lover devoted enough to follow?
Let your mind wander to the dark places and share your horror love stories about relationships gone wrong.
Ted E. Hamster was a fat, fuzzy, waddling teddy bear hamster, and my seven-year-old daughter, Melody, thought he was the cutest thing ever. She made me buy the little ball of golden fur on the spot. It was my fault for trying to be a good father and taking her to the Animal Rescue. After her elementary school decided to sponsor the shelter, she said all of the kids kept talking about going there, and I didn’t want her to feel left out.
Besides, who expects to find rodents in an animal rescue? If only we had been ten minutes later … some poor sap was asking about hamsters just as we were walking out.
When we got home, Melody got on eBay and picked out the biggest, most elaborate contraption of plastic tubes for him to live in that she was able to find.
I couldn’t tell her no.
She’d wanted a pet since she was old enough to ask, but dogs weren’t allowed in our small apartment. There was no place to walk one anyway. My wife, Anne, was allergic to cats, so those were out. And fish just aren’t cuddly.
So, we got a hamster.
At first it wasn’t a big deal. Ted lived in his plastic tubular castle and slept the daylight hours away. When Melody was home, she would take him out and let him sit on her shoulder as she lounged in front of her bookcase and re-read the Harry Potter books. Sometimes she put him in the clear plastic ball and watched him waddle his four-legged penguin walk, rolling it all around the apartment. She even had a ball of yarn she teased Ted with. He chased it like a kitten.
Nights were a different story though.
My nights were hell.
Ted rattled around inside his cage incessantly while I was trying to sleep. I don’t know why it didn’t bother Melody or Anne, but they slept right through it.
The little plastic wheel built into the side of the cage had a particularly unholy squeak that set my soul on edge. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d get up and wander around our little apartment. Eventually I always ended up looking into my daughter’s room, where the noises came from.
Melody used a black light for a nightlight, and although Ted turned dark in the light, he was easy to spot in the glowing neon tubes making up his castle. As soon as I peeked into the room, Ted froze, his beady little black eyes locked on me, reflecting the purple light back eerily.
We would stare at each other.
The first few times this happened, I was just tired, but as time went on, I began to glare hatred at Ted. Flat out hatred. He glared the same at me. You would think I was just having projection issues, thinking the little rodent hated me because I hated him. But he really did hate me, I know it. And every night he woke me up with that ungodly squeak squeak squeak of that damned plastic wheel, I hated him more.
Eventually I stopped going into my daughter’s room. I felt guilty looking in with something less than fatherly love and concern. And I didn’t like actively hating anything as much as I hated Ted.
Worse, I’m ashamed to admit, Ted scared me. I couldn’t believe something so small was capable of emanating so much palpable animosity back at me.
I tried using spray lubricant on his wheel one day when Melody wasn’t home. I didn’t want her to be afraid the oily stuff would make Ted sick. It was all I could do to stick my hand inside the plastic cage. Ted stared at me the whole time, and all I could think about was him biting me. Sharp pain, big red bead of blood on my finger….
I knew that’s what he wanted. I could see it in his eyes.
The spray didn’t work. It made things worse. Apparently, it is good for everything but polycarbonate plastic. The squeak got louder.
I checked the pet stores and the internet. Turns out you can’t replace the wheel without replacing the whole damned castle, and I couldn’t even find another one of those.
My nights grew longer as I refrained from roaming. Instead, I stayed in bed and fantasized about horrible things happening to Ted. I would imagine ‘accidentally’ knocking over his cage while vacuuming, and, with a flup noise, Ted would vanish into the machine. I envisioned incidents involving toasters, microwaves, blenders, toilets, and open doors.
It became my nightly routine. I would lie down, wait for the squeaking to start, and try to come up with the perfect hamster murder. I had given up on accidents I knew would never happen; no cat would ever sneak in and get Ted, he wasn’t going to get stomped on by a fat aunt who was afraid of mice, and no bald eagle was going to spot him through the open window and dive bomb his castle.
My musings always ended at the thought of Melody in tears over her lost baby. There was nothing I found more distressing than my daughter in pain.
Except possibly that squeaky wheel.
It drove me insane, all night, every night. Squeak, squeak, squeak.
Until it stopped.
My eyes opened wide. Ted never stopped.
Yes he did.
He stopped when I looked into the room.
He stopped to stare at me, to shoot his little rodent hatred at me through his nasty little black eyes. It had been so long since I’d looked into Melody’s room at night, I’d forgotten the sound of the silence as the abhorrence hung in the air between us.
My ears strained at the silence in the house.
What was going on? Had the hateful little fuzzball died of a heart attack? I almost smiled at the thought.
Then I heard something. A very small scratching sound.
Had Ted finally found a way out of the castle? I did smile at the hope Ted might fall into the toilet.
But then I had a darker thought.
Ted might be coming after me.
Had he spent night after night running on his little wheel trying to figure out how to off Melody’s old man so he could have her all to himself? Ludicrous! —a hamster trying to figure out a way to kill me.
Well, why not? I spent my nights trying to figure out how to kill him. I had projected so much hatred at him that he had learned to send it back at me when I stood in Melody’s doorway. They say animals can sense things. If that were true, surely Ted knew my feelings and reciprocated them. There was no way to be aware of that much animosity and not feel it in return, if for no other reason than self-preservation.
Then I heard the other sound.
I didn’t know what the noise was. It was muffled, hidden from me, but it didn’t belong in my house. It was a foreign sound, one that set my hair on end.
Gritting my teeth, I got out of bed silently.
More skittering noises. Ted’s little clawed feet on the hardwood floor, I was sure. It was easy to imagine him running around on the floor in my mind’s eye, but that didn’t fit the sounds. There was something more….
I heard footfalls upon the floor and realized Melody must have woken up. She must have taken Ted out of his cage for some reason. My relief melted over me like a liquid blanket. How could I have been so silly as to think Ted had gotten out on his own and was planning to kill me?
I quit trying to sneak and walked down the hallway to Melody’s room. Her light was still off, but her black light was more than enough to see by. More than enough to tell the glowing neon castle lid was open. And more than enough to make out the man who stood in the middle of the room.
His eyes were wide, the black light making the whites luminous. He brandished a long knife, the blade flashing in the purple light as he twisted back and forth, looking around for something on the ground. He hadn’t noticed me.
I panicked. “Melody!”
The man looked up. Under the black light, his skin was purple, and his eyes and teeth glowed in a terrible grimace. He lunged at me, but his feet betrayed him. Yarn had been wrapped around his ankles, tying them together, and he fell, face first onto the wooden floor with a thump that shook the room.
Melody sat up in bed and screamed the ear-splitting shriek of a little girl.
I braced myself to leap past the man and protect my daughter.
“Damn hamster! I’ll kill you yet!” The man cursed from the floor, wildly brandishing his blade at the darkness around him.
Before I could get past him and grab Melody, her bookcase rocked forward and came crashing down onto the intruder’s head. The sharp blade fell from his limp fingers as his body jerked once, twice, and was still.
A small, quick, black shape appeared at his shoulder. I saw beady eyes flash purple hatred and sharp little white teeth gnashed at the man’s ear, drawing a shiny, dark drop of blood. Ted hopped off the man’s shoulder and turned to glare at me for a moment.
I watched in disbelief as he did his slow little penguin waddle back to his castle, climbed in, shut the lid, and resumed his nightly routine.
Squeak, squeak, squeak.
A Colorado native, Sam Knight spent ten years in California’s wine country before returning to the Rockies. When asked if he misses California, he gets a wistful look in his eyes and replies he misses the green mountains in the winter, but he is glad to be back home. As well as having worked for at least three publishing companies, Sam is author of six children’s books, five short story collections, three novels, and over five dozen short stories, including two media tie-ins co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson: Wayward Pines: Aberration (Kindle Worlds, 2014) and Of Monsters and Men, Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone (Titan, 2016). Find more at http://samknight.com/.
Down a forgotten hallway lie rooms no one has entered.
Each room contains a world waiting to be explored.
Some beautiful and full of wonder, other dark and full of terrors.
You won’t know which until you step inside.
So take a deep breath, and open the door…
Featuring stories by Elmdea Adams, Jen Bair, David Boop, J.T. Evans, Todd Fahnestock, Arlen Feldman, Shannon Fox, Jessica Guernsey, Sam Knight, Chris Mandeville, Kim May, John D. Payne, Wayland Smith, Stephannie Tallent, and Marie Whittaker
Copyright @ Carina Bissett. “The Stages of Monster Grief: A Guide for Middle-Aged Vampires” was originally published in Coffin Blossoms(October 2020). This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission.
Ladies, you may have dreamed of a day when you no longer have to “age gracefully” or are forced into obscurity by a wardrobe filled with basic neutrals. You look in the mirror only to be confronted with sagging skin, pebbled cellulite, and wrinkles in places you never expected. You start to wonder if you’ll be old and alone forever. A little bit of blood is worth the price to drink at the fountain of youth, isn’t it?
And then it happens: some figure seduces you from the shadows, and you fall lovingly into their arms with your throat bared by a torn turtleneck. You think you’ve beaten the odds. Only, death is never as romantic as it is in the movies, and rebirth is downright disgusting. That two hundred dollar cut and color is reduced to a dirt-matted mop, and your nails are broken from digging your way out of a shallow grave. Don’t even get started on the state of your skin. And they say mud makes a magical facial. Call bullshit on that one.
You blow it off, decide you were slipped a mickey, and some teenage asshat buried your passed out body in a mound of moldy leaves as a joke. No Prince Charming dressed like Bela Lugosi. No sexy interlude behind the cocktail lounge. No throb of the forbidden. You refuse to acknowledge the truth. So you rub at the bruise on your neck and search through the closet for an even higher collar to hide the arterial bloom.
The next day, you call in sick. After all, you’ve been working at the college, wearing your nicest smile for twenty fucking years. Don’t you deserve some time off for good behavior? You’ve never acted on the impulse to fail a student just because they are a monster in the classroom. But no one has ever thanked you—not once. Screw that.
When you wake up, the day has disappeared and September’s Harvest Moon squats low on the horizon. You’ve been eating vegan in an attempt to lose belly fat and to reduce cholesterol, but all you can think about is a nice, juicy steak. Rare. And why shouldn’t you treat yourself? You only live once, right?
Okay, so maybe you didn’t make it to the restaurant on your walk from campus to downtown. And those belligerent frat boys probably had it coming, anyway.
Back at home, you take a shower and toss your blood-soaked clothes in the bin. No more beige for you. From here on out, you will only wear velvet and lace, cut seductively to show off the new you. But, when you look in the mirror, nothing has changed. That crepey skin is still visible on your neck, your breasts sag without the support of an underwire, and the cellulite on your thighs appears even more dimpled than it did before.
You go out the next night looking for answers from your vampire progenitor. You figure they have some explaining to do. Why can you see yourself in a mirror? Better yet, where’s the god-damn fountain of youth? You wouldn’t have wanted the cursed blessing if you knew that you’d have to spend the rest of your presumably immortal days alone at the resting age of fifty-five. What kind of sick fuck would damn you to that particular purgatory?
You think about walking outside and ending it all with a little vitamin D, but you’ve never liked the sun—skin cancer and all of that. You didn’t wear wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves, and your weight in SPF 100 for thirty years to go out in a blaze of glory.
Instead, you go on a binge of boys and booze.
It could be worse.
You invest in corsets, light your home with candles. Still, it takes some time to let go of modern perceptions of youth and beauty, even though you know from experience there’s more to life than that.
After all, you can deadlift a family sedan. You’ve gotten out of the academic grind with a few well-placed casualties. And snapshots of your new, “I don’t give a fuck” stylings turned you into an Instagram hit. Sure, those pictures are mistakenly titled “Sexy at Sixty,” but whatever.
It doesn’t take long before your memoir is sold as fiction for six-figures, and you start the popular blog “So You Want to Write a Vampire Novel.” In between readings and convention appearances, you stalk the streets looking for one of your own kind. Even though you never found the vampire who turned you (or any other vampire for that matter), you crave a companion. So, when you see the foxy woman astride a black beast of a motorcycle, silver hair streaming out behind her, you act on impulse.
You pretend you didn’t notice it was a full moon, or that the howls dogging her trail sounded like wolves.
It’s your nature after all, you tell yourself as you dig a shallow grave with a broken fender. You tell yourself that she’ll love you forever even as you push the dirt over her drained body. She’ll forget her lover with the moon-bright eyes. She’ll forget the spat that sent her far from her pack. Your blood will triumph; you’re sure of it. But when she rises, the silver-haired woman looks right through you.
She stumbles away and leaves you behind to stare at an empty hole filled with nothing more than moonlight and frost.
Over the distant sounds of traffic and sirens, a wolf howls.
Overhead, January’s Wolf Moon watches with an amused grin. The silver-haired woman breaks into a lope.
You don’t need a magic mirror to tell you how this will play out. The movies are full of stories about romantic triangles and unrequited love. If nothing else, you’ll no longer be alone. You gather your cape. And follow.
Carina Bissett is a writer, poet, and educator working primarily in the fields of dark fiction and fabulism. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in multiple journals and anthologies including Upon a Twice Time, Bitter Distillations: An Anthology of Poisonous Tales, Arterial Bloom, Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, Hath No Fury, and the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, VI, and VIII. She is also the co-editor of Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas. Find more at http://carinabissett.com.
There is an old saying that wisdom sits in places. Open an atlas across the Americas, and you will soon discover this knowledge hidden in fragments of shared memory marked on maps. The ancient peoples knew which areas to avoid, which spirits to appease. Later, invasive superstitions from far-flung countries seeded into the landscape. In order to survive, newcomers learned the cautionary tales and secret lore linked to the terrain. But not all paid heed to superstitions. These are their stories, each tale a new entry in the field guide to dark landscapes.
Copyright @ Saytchyn Maddux-Creech. “Ceremony” was originally published in Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism (2004). This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission.
by Saytchyn Maddux-Creech
A flattened dragonfly lies on the funeral home step, shaded by a crooked sumac tree. Inches away stands a pair of leather wingtips below trousers made of dark rough wool. They match the jacket and the slow deep voice: “It should be raining.”
This is my father, mourning me.
Farther away are two closed-toed pumps, somber leather over charcoal nylons. My mother lifts a Styrofoam cup. Instead of the sound of hot sipping, I hear her release the tiniest of sobs.
Blue jays cry out and land on the grass below the steps, threatening the sparrows away. The dragonfly lies belly-up, its underside dotted with grains of sand, like armor.
I wonder how it got here, how it got to be flat, whether it was alive when whatever smashed it.
* * *
Half of the dragonfly glistens in the sunlight when Cary stands where my father stood. Cary taps his cigarette, and the ashes fall to rest beside his chocolate-colored oxfords. He’s wearing the same brown suit he wore to our graduation.
“Come inside,” my little sister, April, whispers from the doorway. The wind nudges the sumac’s branches.
“I’m smoking,” Ricky answers.
“You don’t smoke,” April says.
“I’m smoking,” he tells her again.
* * *
Three little boys in Hushpuppies and rumpled pants come, whispering, out of the funeral home. One of them coughs. His voice is hoarse. “See? There it is.” He bends over and points at the dragonfly.
They gather around it, and the coughing boy turns the dragonfly over with his pale hand. The smallest boy asks in a baby voice, “Is it real?”
I don’t remember these boys, but I assume it is one of their mothers who comes outside in beige stockings and low black boots.
“Inside, now,” she says, “and wash your hands.”
In a dance of chunky heels and polyester pant legs, the boys hurry inside. The young mother’s boot makes a delicate sweep at the dragonfly, flipping it onto the shady wood chips under the sumac.
* * *
Shadows crawl across the grass. Ants have found the dragonfly. They gather around its crisp body, explore the tender parts, and then form trails to pack the choicest pieces off to their nest.
The largest pair of Hushpuppies hesitates at the door. The other two appear behind him. “There,” he whispers.
They crunch into the wood chips, and the tallest boy lifts the dragonfly by its tail. I wish I could smell his hot, peppermint-flavored breath as he blows black ants through the cooling air. He places the dragonfly in a small tissue box. Its wings stick out over the edges. With nail-bitten fingers, he folds them close to the body and drapes a peach-colored tissue over it.
“Now,” he says, striding through the wood chips, “follow me.”
* * *
I am rising up through the first raindrops as the mourners move down the steps. My mother cries. My father leads her by the arm. April and Cary follow.
The young mother in black boots paces the walkway in front of the building, calling three boys’ names.
I’m above the funeral home now. I can see the boys in the field behind the building, standing around a small mound of earth.
The tallest boy has one hand in the air, and he’s speaking words I can’t hear.
The other two are solemn, their eyes cast down.
Saytchyn Maddux-Creech survived the MFA program at Colorado State University with their love of all things creepy intact. Saytchyn writes horror, fantasy, and mystery with a literary accent. Their short stories have been published in numerous journals under their own name and the name Sandra Maddux-Creech.
The doorbell rang, prompting Alicia Clark to sigh and pause Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. She scooped up her bowl of Halloween treats, with its the scant handful of remaining candies. The clock read almost ten p.m.
It was a little late for trick-or-treaters. Nevertheless, the simple distraction of an evening full of adorable little ghosts and goblins let her pretend for a while that her life had not been blasted off the rails.
She opened the door, and the stench hit her first. Death and fresh earth.
The bowl clattered at her feet, scattering candy.
She let out the kind of gasp that got the angels’ attention. “Oh, Lord! Oh, Jesus!” she shrilled, throwing herself back against into the door jamb. The strength gushed from her legs until she could only sink to her haunches on her doorstep.
Collapsed, half-lidded eye sockets stared her in the face. Gray flesh stretched over cheek bones. The funeral suit was stained and stiffened by dirt and the juices of decomposition. Clumps of grave earth gathered in the creases, in the dark thatch of kinky hair, in the lightning bolt shaved above one ear.
Thank the Lord the body wasn’t moving or she’d have made an Alicia-shaped hole in the back wall. The corpse was propped up against a narrow slab of plywood, secured by loops of wire around his chest and neck. The plywood slab leaned against one of the porch roof supports.
Tears burst out of her. Her chest felt like a great claw squeezed it tight. Her lip began to tremble.
Pinned to the lapel, scrawled on notebook paper: TRICK OR TREAT UPITY BITCH.
It was not a trick.
It was not a joke.
It was not a prank.
Because that was the suit he’d gone to prom in last year, the suit she’d buried him in. The white rose from funeral was still pinned to his lapel, now gray, stained, and desiccated.
She still remembered how that face had looked when it emerged into the world. She had combed the boy’s hair. Wiped his nose. Kissed his hurts.
But there was one great gaping hurt she could not kiss away, an exit wound her whole hand could not have staunched.
“Oh, Anthony,” she said into her hand, choking back the thick sobs.
She used the door jamb for support as she staggered to her feet and took a step toward him on trembling legs, scanning the street for whoever had done this.
Because they were watching. No one would do such a thing and not watch the results of their handiwork.
But she would not give them the satisfaction. They would not see her cry again. She had done too much crying on television.
Alicia’s house lay on a dark stretch of Rose Street, shadowed from the single streetlight by a huge oak tree. Jack-o-lanterns glowed on porches and stoops, but the scampering superheroes should all have sugar-crashed by now. The only cars on the street belonged to neighbors, and Alicia had lived on Rose Street all her life. She knew her neighbors. She knew her community. Her church was a six-block walk every Sunday.
“I know you’re out there,” she said to the tree frogs and whippoorwills, forcing steadiness into voice. “Someday, the Lord’s gonna judge you. It ain’t gonna be me.”
How many heartbeats—how many centuries—passed as she stood there looking at her son, she did not know. Her breath came in short, shallow gasps, and her heart felt cinched tight by barbed wire. She wanted to bring him inside. He must be cold, after six months in the ground. But her strength had deserted her. Nevertheless, she couldn’t leave him there.
She backed into the house, never taking her eyes from Anthony’s slack, gray face, so devoid of life, until she had to step into the living room to grab her cell phone. Her thumb poked the “9,” but hovered over the “1.”
Would anyone bother to come?
Police cruisers did not venture down Rose Street nowadays. The wounds were still too raw on both sides, the killer’s acquittal too recent. She had stood at the forefront of the black community’s pleas for justice, faced swarms of reporters, and became the voice of a movement, at least for a little while. Bill Baxter, her son’s killer, still had friends on the police force, even though he had been fired, which meant that she had enemies on the police force, white men who might harbor personal vendettas.
What would be the police response when she told the operator who she was?
She hung up the phone.
How long must her poor Anthony stand on the porch?
In Oak Park Cemetery, her baby’s grave now yawned open and defiled.
Out there in the dark, within sight of her porch, the perpetrators hid, at least two of them. Digging the grave, securing the body, toting it up onto her porch silently enough for her to have heard nothing, had to be the work of at least two people.
What hate had to exist in someone’s heart for a deed like this? This was an effort of concentrated, clinging malignancy.
How big was the leap from such hatred to violence?
She picked up the phone again.
While she waited for the police, she locked the front door, then went through the house and checked every door and window. Everything looked secure. Then a strange, tingling hunch seized her.
She set her cell phone to record video, streaming the recording to an internet archive, as the entire community had learned to do in the wake Anthony’s shooting. Then she placed it in an innocuous corner near the television, where it would have a broad view of the room. The way the police had turned on the peaceful demonstrators had been a harsh lesson. There wasn’t a cop in this town—good or bad—who didn’t know who she was. She would never interact with them again without video evidence. Not that video evidence had brought Anthony any justice, but somewhere, sometime, things had to change. As police brutality videos from across the country flooded the internet, even white people were finally taking notice and demanding change. For the black community, police indifference and brutality were a fact of life going all the way back. But now, change was being built with the bones of dead young men.
The sound of heavy feet on the porch brought her to the door. Two cops—white males—stood staring at her son’s corpse. Her heart skipped a beat and her hand trembled on the door knob.
“Is that who I think it is?” said one.
“Maybe,” said the other.
She opened the door and eyed them warily. “Officers.” She couldn’t bring herself to produce any pleasantries or gratitude.
“How long has this been here?” said the first one. He was a barrel-chested man about her height, salt-and-pepper crew cut, mustache like a soiled brush. His name plate read Harris.
“I don’t know for sure. Half an hour?”
The two officers regarded her son’s body as if it were a museum exhibit. Being so close to two cops sent a cold tightness up her spine. The sight of Anthony, desecrated like this, flanked by two men wearing the same uniform as the man who murdered him, the same as those who’d brutalized demonstrators with truncheons and rubber bullets, tightened her hands into fists, whipped her pulse into a run. One of them smelled of sweat and booze, detectable over even the stench of the grave.
“Aren’t you bringing an ambulance or something to put him back?” she said.
“We need to investigate first,” said Harris. “Graverobbing is a felony.”
She wondered if the cameras on their chests were turned on. There was no way for her to know. After the demonstrations subsided, the city had made a great show of requiring body cams for every officer, but the fine print allowed the officers the discretion to turn them off.
“This your boy?” Officer Harris thumbed toward Anthony’s body. Something about him was familiar. Had she encountered him before?
Anthony’s sunken empty eyes stared through her. If she could have afforded to have him embalmed, he’d be more presentable right now. A strange thought.
She said, “How long you gonna leave him standing there?”
Harris said, “The morgue is on their way.” Meanwhile he stepped off the porch and shined his flashlight around the flower bed, walking toward the corner of the house.
The flashers on the cruiser were dark, but by now her neighbors would have noticed its presence. What would she tell them tomorrow?
The other officer, in his twenties, tall and blond, said, “Mind if we come in and take your statement?” His name was Dalton.
She wanted to say no, but she’d set up the video camera. “Come on in,” she said. She couldn’t keep the tension out of her voice.
Before she led Dalton into the house, she scanned the darkness one last time for whoever might be watching.
In the living room, Officer Dalton took out a notebook. Alicia sat on the sofa. Anyone else, anyone else, she’d have offered tea.
Then began the long string of questions. Dalton scribbled while Harris poked around outside. Her back was rod straight, hands folded in her lap as she talked. In this city, a black woman did not spend twenty years teaching public school without a backbone. She wished Latisha were here. Alicia’s daughter had been her rock all through the dark times, but Alicia had insisted Latisha go back to law school for the fall semester. They couldn’t afford to lose her scholarship.
There was almost nothing to tell in her statement. She had been watching TV. There was a knock on the door. Her son’s corpse was on her porch. She called the police. End of story.
Harris came in. “No footprints or anything. I did find this, though.” He threw a plastic bag stuffed with dried green leaves onto the coffee table. “That much Mary-J amounts to Intent to Distribute.”
“That’s not mine,” she said, her heart tripping over itself, her breath quickening. Dizziness washed over her. This was it. This was how it started. Criminalize the victim. All they needed was an excuse, however flimsy.
After Anthony’s death, his innocence had been smeared in every newspaper, on every news network. He became “just another black punk.” Even if the charges were dropped, the damage would be done.
“You put that there,” she said. Not that this would matter, either. If such men could commit murder with impunity, why would planting evidence even raise an eyebrow?
Suddenly Harris’ nose was two inches from hers. “You accusing me of something?” The smell of bourbon flooded her face.
Behind Harris, Officer Dalton stood frozen, a look of uncertainty on his face.
She swallowed hard and met Harris’ gaze. “I’ve been a school teacher for twenty years, and you think I smoke weed?”
Harris lurched back, then snatched her by the back of the head and slammed her face onto the coffee table.
Pain exploded in Alicia’s nose and teeth, bursting through her eyes in blinding sparks, stealing her breath. She cried out in pain.
“Stop resisting!” he roared.
His hands seized her wrists and snapped cuffs on one.
“I’m not resisting!” she gasped, tasting blood.
A fist slammed into the back of her head, driving her eye socket against the anvil of the coffee table. “Stop resisting!”
Officer Dalton was making incoherent noises.
A knee drove into the back of her neck, squeezing her throat against the table, pinching off the blood flow to her brain.
A cuff snapped around her other wrist, then a hand dragged her across the coffee table until she flopped face down on the floor.
Officer Dalton said, “What the fuck are you doing, man?”
“Our job, dickhead,” Harris said. Then he keyed the mic hooked to his shoulder and called for backup.
Alicia’s gasps for air drowned out the dispatcher’s dispassionate response.
Dalton slapped Harris hard on the shoulder. “What the fuck, man!”
“Is your body cam off?” Harris said.
“Just like you said…”
“Do you not know who this bitch is?”
“Then shut the fuck up. You’re either with us, or against us, you got that straight?”
Alicia raised her voice into a scream. “Help me! Help! Help me!” Her neighbors might be the only thing that could save her life. Her heart swelled with prayer. Dear Lord, please send me help–
A boot slammed into the side of her head.
Voices swam in and out of her awareness, more than two of them.
“Wow, you guys were quick getting here.” Dalton’s voice.
A male voice. “Yeah, it’s like we were right around the corner.” His words were slurred.
One of them smelled of cigarettes and rancid sweat.
“Hey! Guys! Fucking bitch is recording this!”
The sound of crunching glass and plastic.
“You guys are going down.”
“Shut the fuck up, Dalton.”
“No way I’m keeping quiet about this.”
The snap of a holster, the click of a hammer. “I said shut the fuck up, Dalton.”
“Hey, easy, Tom,” said Harris. “He might could come over to our side.”
A second new voice. “This is the question for our friend Dalton here. Whose side are you on? One of these days you’re gonna find yourself out on a call, all by yourself in this neighborhood, with these animals, and you’re gonna call for backup. And then what? Who you gonna trust? Porch monkeys or your brothers in blue?”
“Chambers is right. ’Sides, we’re just after little payback here,” Tom said. “Making sure this bitch knows her place.”
“And you think she’s not going to talk?”
“Who’s going to believe her?”
“What if she was sending that video to the internet?” Chambers said.
“You guys are fucked.”
“We go down, you go down.”
“Fuck it,” Tom said. “Should have done this months ago.”
Rough hands seized one of her arms. “Grab her.”
Agony wrenched through her shoulder. Another pair of hands snatched her other arm. Together they dragged her toward the front door, her feet trailing.
Dull pain throbbed through her face. Her mouth left a pattern of drool and blood droplets on her floor. One of her eyes had swollen shut. The worn planks of her porch drifted beneath her. Anthony’s shoes came into view. One of the shoes quivered and shifted. But that couldn’t happen. Then they were carrying her down the porch steps. Behind her, cloth chafed on rough plywood.
“What are you doing?” Dalton said.
“Put her in my car,” Tom said.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m arresting her. What do you think I’m doing?” Tom said. But something in the way he said it indicated otherwise.
They hoisted her into the back seat of a police car and slammed the door. With her hands pinned behind her, her wrists and shoulders screaming in pain, her head still swimming, she could not right herself.
Down here on the floor of the cruiser, the smell of fresh earth was strong, thick.
“Back off, Dalton. Or we won’t let this slide,” Tom said.
“Yeah, we’re doing the world a favor,” Chambers said from beside the driver’s door. “They’re fucking animals. Don’t you know there’s a war on? Them against us!”
Harris’ voice. “You’re either with us or against us.”
An incongruous sound caught her attention—the sound of splintering wood. Then a clatter. Heavy, lurching footsteps on her porch.
“Jesus Christ!” said the man by the driver’s door.
More crunching wood.
“Get down!” Harris screamed. “Get down now!”
More thumping footsteps on her porch. Another loud, wooden crunch.
Painfully, she wormed onto the seat, struggling to right herself. A cop’s back—the driver’s—blocked her much of her view.
Up on the porch, something smashed across Harris’ face, launching him into the rose bushes. He screamed.
“Get down on the ground!” Chambers shrilled, pulling his gun. A heartbeat later, he opened fire.
Something slammed Chambers against the side of the cruiser so hard the rear side-window shattered. His body went limp. Something wet splattered across the sidewalk. The stench of hot blood flooded the interior of the cruiser.
As Chambers’ body sagged out of sight, sliding to earth, Alicia saw something she could not process.
Another gunshot thundered, and the bullet burst through the suit coat of the… of Anthony’s suit coat, and punched through the driver’s window.
More grave stench sprayed over her face, and she fought back a gag reflex.
She could only stare as the thing in Anthony’s funeral suit charged Harris, who was still trying to extricate himself from the rose bushes. A moldering hand seized Harris’ face and squeezed. Harris screamed into the rotting palm, raised his gun to Anthony’s face and managed one shot before the hand crumpled his face like a wet sheet of paper.
Dalton stood in the front doorway, staring, transfixed.
In the distance, her neighbors were calling down the street, investigating the gunshots, but unwilling to stick out their heads.
Tom stood on the front steps, trying to hold his aim steady as Anthony flung Harris’ body across the lawn like a ragdoll. Anthony turned those empty, glass-like eyes onto this man. From those depths, a glimmering orange fire glowed like candlelight through marbles.
Tom’s face jumped into her memory. Tom was not his last name, but his first. Tom Lucas. He was Bill Baxter’s partner. Tom Lucas had watched as Bill Baxter had gunned down Anthony in a convenience store parking lot. Tom Lucas had helped Baxter try to cover up the fact that Anthony was unarmed. Tom Lucas corroborated every aspect of Baxter’s story, even though surveillance cam video made liars of them both. Tom Lucas had sworn, under penalty of perjury, that no secret group of white supremacists had infiltrated the police force, even though circumstantial evidence emerged in social media circles during the trial suggesting otherwise. Bill Baxter had been fired from the police force, but acquitted of all charges.
This was Tom Lucas’ police cruiser. And it smelled like the grave.
Anthony stalked toward him, his gait shaky, lurching, but purposeful.
Alicia called through the shattered window, “No, baby, don’t! Don’t do it!”
Lucas’ pistol thundered again and again, but still Anthony advanced. When the pistol’s action locked open, Lucas threw the gun aside, whipped out his night stick, and charged, screaming curses and epithets.
Anthony snatched at him, but Lucas evaded the grasp, seized Anthony’s wrist, and executed an arm lock that snapped Anthony’s elbow like a dry twig. Lucas twisted, and Anthony’s arm tore free. He threw the arm aside and swung his truncheon at Anthony’s face, which was now riddled with ragged bullet holes. With his remaining hand, Anthony seized Lucas’ throat. Lucas’ scream died. The wet, crunching, popping noise would stay with Alicia the rest of her days. She retched onto the floor of the car until a trickle of bile came.
“Please, no. It wasn’t me. It’s not me,” whimpered Dalton.
She wiped her mouth and peered out. Anthony stood on the porch regarding Officer Dalton.
Dalton’s hands were raised, but he stood his ground. “Please, no. You got them. You got them all.”
Alicia’s heart thundered so hard it felt like it would burst out of her chest. “No, baby, stop now!”
Anthony’s cigarette-burn eyes seared into Dalton’s for a long moment, as if he were looking into Dalton’s soul. Then those eyes turned toward her.
Relief deflated Dalton like a balloon. He clutched his cheek and used the door frame for support.
Anthony came down across the lawn and opened the cruiser’s door for his mother.
Alicia climbed out. “You saved me, baby. But you can stop now. Please, stop.”
Anthony breathed deep, expanding his dry, empty lungs like great bellows, his eyes flaring bright. As his chest expanded, shapes appeared on the lawn, in the street, as if he had inhaled them into existence. The shapes coalesced, hazy at first but congealing into faces and torsos, legs trailing away into black. A host of them, eyes like embers.
The nearest wraith she recognized from newscasts of six months ago. He was shot by police while drunk but unarmed. His spectral dreadlocks waved around his head like the snakes of Medusa. Another familiar face from a month before that. Shot by police for defending his girlfriend. Another one, a “suicide” in jail for a trumped-up drug charge. Another, shot in the leg outside a gas station while reaching for his ID. He had bled out before the ambulance arrived. Their faces went back years, decades.
The mob of apparitions stretched away into the darkness.
She knew their names. She knew all their names.
The air itself crackled with their purpose.
On this night when the veil between life and death was thinnest, they had come forth with a hunger for justice.
All those smoldering eyes fixed upon Anthony. Anthony raised his bloody fist, a call to arms.
“No!” She seized Anthony’s coat by the lapel. “Don’t. Please. Violence is not the answer.” Dr. King had often warned of the scars violence left upon those who perpetrated it. It was a lesson she had driven into her children from an early age.
Anthony faced her. His scars would be eternal. His ruined lips smiled. He took her by the shoulders, and her blood turned to slush. Don’t worry, Momma. We got this. Then he leaned forward—the stench of putrefaction flooded her nostrils—and kissed her on the cheek.
These wraiths knew their killers, all of them. A thousand miles was nothing to a thing that could travel between worlds. They swooped off into the night.
God help them all, tonight there would be a reckoning.
Tomorrow, the video from her living room would go viral.
Anthony gave her a bittersweet smile, and shambled off toward the cemetery.
Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, an Active member of SFWA and the HWA, and the author of the Tokyo Blood Magic, The Hammer Falls, The Ronin Trilogy, and other novels. His more than thirty short stories appear in Baen Books’ anthology Straight Outta Deadwood, plus Apex Magazine, Tales to Terrify,Fiction River, Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII, and others. As a freelance writer, he has contributed a metric ton of work to such game properties as Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, EVE Online, and BattleTech, for which he’s been nominated for a Scribe Award. Find more at http://travisheermann.com/.
A yakuza warlock butchered his family, but that was just the beginning…
When Django Wong discovers the Black Lotus Clan murdered his family, he vows to destroy them, but the Council of Five Elders forbids it.
But then the Black Lotus starts a gang war in Tokyo, wielding terrifying new magical powers. Django must team up with three witches—and a snarky alley cat who’s not really a cat at all—to find the source of the Black Lotus Clan’s power. If they can prove the Black Lotus Clan is behind the plague of soul-sucking vampires, the Council might just let him have what his honor demands.
Perfect for fans of Bleach or Fullmetal Alchemist,Tokyo Monster Mash brings you mind-bending magic, femme fatales, savage monsters, martial arts action, and powerful cultivation.
It is the favorite time of year for horror writers. To celebrate all things spooky, COS HWA writers have worked together to contribute a collection of short stories for your reading pleasure. Starting on Monday, you’ll have access to a story a day through the end of October. Mark your calendars, and sit back and ENJOY!