Oops

Our apologies, but there was a scheduling issue this last week. We will publish the remaining Ghouls, Ghosts, and Grave Robbers stories this week. Swords, Socercery, and Subway Cars will start the following week. The Ghouls contest will be pushed back a week.

STAY TUNED BECAUSE WE HAVE A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT REGARDING FUTURE SUBMISSIONS.

The Dive

THE DIVE

By Colin S. Bradley

It is rumored that in the waning days of summer in 1993, famed Oceanic explorer Pierre Lamont visited the California side of the Sierra Mountains for the purpose of assisting the United States Geographical Administration in their quest to finally map the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
During Lamont’s first and only dive, attempting 1,000 feet beneath the surface in his famed submersible “Midas”, all communications were lost for approximately 30 minutes.
When a visibly shaken Lamont surfaced, he greeted his support staff with silence, immediately canceled all further dives and retreated to his hotel room alone.
When asked repeatedly about what happened to him below the freezing blue of Tahoe he finally stated simply; “The world isn’t ready for what’s at the bottom of that lake.”
No video or data from his lone dive was ever released.

June 12, 1993
“All clear for launch” The tinny radio voice blared giving Lamont the go-ahead to dive. “Good luck sir, we’ll be here when you’re all finished showing the world your sack.”
“Thank you control” He chuckled into his microphone, “I do believe that you have successfully re-named our mission.”
“Just make sure you keep an eye on the back-up batteries, I’m sure I caught the leak in time and they’re holding a charge” His assistant Joe Padilla commanded, “For now at least.”
He had wanted to scrap the whole dive but Pierre wouldn’t change his mind. He had committed to the job and his word was his bond.
“Relax control, just a walk in the park.” He said confidently, “Be back before you know it.”
“Copy direct,” Joe replied professionally, switching to his game face.
The interior of the mini-sub was small and a little cramped, but he never felt more at home anywhere on the Earth than in the cramped, single seat cockpit of his baby. The myriad of controls, gauges, pipes and display screens always comforted him and he felt, as always, an enormous amount of pride as her twin screws engaged and she began to pull away from the dock with just a minute push of its joystick.
Unlike most mini-sub’s that were equipped with tiny round portals in which the pilot could view the undersea world, Midas was retro-fitted with a large Plexiglas window for more shallow missions. It was deemed safe at 1400 feet but hadn’t been tested at further depths and what he saw now delighted him. A deep blue world opened up beneath the surface of the mountain lake. Sandy bottom littered with boulders both jagged and rounded by time. Tiny minnows were being chased by a large Rainbow trout and the diminutive fish were giving their bigger brother a run for his money, darting around rocks and in between the sparse green aquatic vegetation that swayed in time with the slight current. Visibility was at 100 percent and it felt to Lamont as if he were floating through air instead of a clear, icy lake.
His mission was two-fold. He was to dive to a depth of 900 feet into the area of the lake called the “Petrified Forest” and retrieve a lost data/seismic sensor owned by the government. The USGA had strategically placed twenty of these high tech sensors at various points in the lake in order to gauge the terrain, depth and any strange seismic anomalies that could provide further information on the fault line that ran directly through the deep mountain lake. All but one had been retrieved and it was his job to rescue the little lost lamb and bring her home. He was also tasked with photographing everything he and Midas saw during their time below. Including, he hoped, the wreck of the paddleboat “Sierra glory”, scuttled in 1892 after being damaged beyond repair in a storm. Tales of the petrified forest of trees also piqued his curiosity.
Then there were the bodies.
Supposedly, a fisherman snagged his line while angling for trout near a deep part of the lake just off of emerald bay; when the line suddenly sprung free he reeled in a portion of a human ear. When the story made the rounds at the local watering holes, all sorts of rumors took flight and stories of an underwater graveyard were born. Tales of the perfectly preserved bodies of people who for one reason or another, were thrown into the Tahoe’s icy waters, of course all in period dress. Flapper girls from the 20’s, mobsters and Native American warriors stood on the bottom in an endless state of near perfect preservation, swaying in time with the currents as the lack of flesh eating organisms and the freezing temperatures of the water didn’t allow the bodies to decompose and in fact caused them to stand as if at attention. Lamont had read this “fact” during his research and since no photographic evidence existed of the graveyard, he dismissed it as drivel brought about by the fantasies of whiskey fueled tavern-talk.
He also remembered the Washoe Indian legend of the Water Babies, or the Paakniwut. It was known that in ancient times, when a native child died, its body was entrusted to the lake in an elaborate ceremony and its spirit became a tribal protector from the unseen world, terrifying were the tales of these infant sized, vicious creatures dragging the unwary to the icy, black depths.
Out of his viewfinder, Lamont gazed in awe at the unspoiled beauty of the lake’s bottom. Different shades of blue surrounded him, the deeper he went, the darker the hue.
After a solid thirty minutes, his depth gauge read 920 feet and the marvelous scenery he’d begun to really enjoy had faded quite rapidly. The bright, cerulean blue deepened and darkened with every minute of descent until nothing could be seen from the viewfinder but inky blackness and a familiar spark of apprehension blossomed quietly in his chest. Lamont was used to this feeling and welcomed it heartily as he considered the adrenaline flow useful in keeping himself awake and alert. He flipped a series of switches and the exterior halogen lights blazed into life.
The normally clean feeling of nervous energy and excitement was slowly being replaced with a deep sense of apprehension and a spreading wave of darkness despite the glow of the lighting array. It was normal for a man in an alien environment to feel out of place, an intrusion into a world in which he didn’t belong and Lamont was no stranger to it. He felt it on every dive he’d ever made. He liked to think that any ghosts in the black abyss would look to his heart and see that his only desire was to learn, to not harm or interrupt. That, hopefully, if they saw the purity of his intent; maybe they’d leave him alone.
This was different.
He felt his apprehension transform into a slow and steady fear, a fear that wasn’t rational and a fear that caused a droplet of perspiration to sting his eye.
He performed an early radio check simply to hear another voice.
He drifted slowly, a single source of light in an empty, black void.
Seconds later, the first of the sunken trees slowly manifested through his window, ghostly and pale the figure solidifying in his viewfinder. Dead for eons, the lifeless branches, sharp as razors and solid as stone seemed to reach for him, like thin arms, stretching, beckoning for him. Then more appeared, an entire forest of dead petrified trees, just as the report he’d read described them.
It was, without a doubt, the spookiest thing he’d ever seen and it did nothing to quell the unusual dread that grew deeper by the moment. He’d been on hundreds of dives, deep into every ocean on the planet and had never felt the pulse quickening fear that was now causing a slow rivulet of sweat to drip off his chin.
Oceans were scary, deep lakes were just fucking creepy.
“Jesus, get ahold of yourself,” He whispered to himself as he briefly considered another radio check.
The radar unit beeped and brought him out of his thoughts. It was pre-programmed to alert him when he was approaching his target area and that the sensor he came to retrieve was just ahead. Lamont carefully guided the sub through the arm-like branches of the ancient trees that were illuminated brightly by Midas’s powerful exterior light array. The ghastly forest closed in around him and he cringed when he heard the stony branches scrape against the hull of Midas. He slowly maneuvered the sub through the dense and terrible forest. Twice he had to backtrack and approach the still unseen sensor from a different angle. Gentle manipulations of the joystick allowed the diminutive submarine to drift elegantly, until at last, he saw that he was almost on top of the target but still couldn’t see it through the window. As he drifted further and deeper into the dark forest, he felt as though something were out there in the darkness, watching his every move and his nervousness increased ten-fold.
Looking through the Plexiglas window, as far as his sight could reach stood dead tree after dead tree, thicker and thicker the further he drifted. The radar unit gave a loud, steady beep and he felt a heart-freeing relief when finally, the black boxed sensory unit drifted into sight. It lay atop the pale sand and a red blinking light on its side pulsed with a steady rhythm. It lent a small feeling of comfort to see a modern, man-made device down here in the dark and it somehow gave him a sense of company, that he wasn’t the last man on earth.
He set Midas down gently on the bottom and prepared to engage the robotic arms that he would manipulate with a second joystick. He would simply grasp the object, place it into a cage that he’d affixed on the outer frame of the mini-sub and then he’d get the hell out of this creepy place.
“Midas to surface, I have located sensor and have bottomed the boat. Preparing to recover,” He stated into the radio.
“Preparing to recover, copy,” was the reply. “Take it slow and easy, that’s some seriously expensive equipment you’re handling there.”
“Copy that surface,” Lamont replied steadily. “Should have it on board in a minute or two.”
He flexed his hand and grabbed the joystick manipulator and watched the long robotic arm extend towards the black box. His focus wasn’t as intense as it normally was and right before the arm settled above the target, he glanced up and saw a shape in the darkness just passed the object. It was a gray blot against a velvet black background.
He adjusted his eyes to try and see what it was but it floated just out of the glare from the lights that where pointing at the equipment and the task at hand. Lamont grabbed the toggle and twisted the aiming device on his upper lights and when the glare hit the object the fear exploded in his belly and his muscles clenched in primal and unexpected terror.
The beam of his light exposed the still body of a woman. She floated a foot above the sandy bottom and Lamont saw that a thick rusted chain was affixed to a leg and the other end was wrapped securely around a large concrete brick. Her long blond hair and the hem of her thin white dress moved languidly with the gentle current. One arm hung lifelessly to her side and Lamont placed his shaking hand on the sub’s window as he realized that her other arm clutched a small bundle to her lifeless chest.
He wiped the slight condensation that fogged his window and squinted to get a better look.
“Ok, you knew you might see this old man,” he whispered to himself, “Just a body, a dead floating fucking body, nothing to be afraid of.”
As he peered through the darkness, his heart sank as he saw a tiny head of dark hair atop the white mass the woman held.
His heart dropped as he realized with sickening clarity that the lady in white held an infant. Someone, at some unknown point in history had consigned a woman and a baby to a cold and terrifying death. His incredulity at the scene before him was being replaced with a hot, pulsing anger and heartbreaking sadness.
The sensor he’d been hired to retrieve had been forgotten as Lamont pushed the joystick forward. The sub moved slowly and he pulled back as he approached the tragic scene. The sub bottomed again a few feet away from the bodies and he looked closer. The small current caused by the sub hit the two and caused them to wave slightly, back and forth as if in slow motion. The silent waves caused her dress to billow and it exposed one of the woman’s breasts and Lamont cringed as he saw that it bore four long, jagged gashes. The high beamed lights now fully engulfed the pair and exposed the woman’s face. It was beautiful; the flesh was smooth and her pale pink lips were slightly open. Her crystalline, colorless eyes stared directly at him, unblinking and still. The only exception of her perfect visage was, like her breast, four long, bloodless gashes that adorned both of her pale cheeks. The infant, he saw, was naked and he couldn’t see its face as it was held tightly in her left arm, facing her. A lump swelled in his throat as he surmised that this mother’s final act of love was simply to hold her child to her heart as they were consigned to an icy death. She couldn’t offer life but she could, at least, offer the comfort of togetherness as the water closed over their heads.
Lamont offered a silent prayer to pray for the souls of the woman and the child, in the slim hope that they didn’t suffer, that the spark of life and awareness fled quickly and they didn’t feel the crushing pressure of the deep as they died. He thanked God that at least they were together and finally prayed for heavenly justice that the person who killed them would pay.
Prayer finished, he opened his eyes and prepared to get back to the job he was hired to complete, but first he grabbed the camera controls to document what he’d seen. Maybe someone somewhere could identify the mother and child with a photo and could at least give them a name.
As the camera’s light flashed, he noticed that one of the child’s chubby hands, a hand previously tucked between it and its mother now clutched the thin lapel of the dress.
“What the…,” He began, when all of the sudden he saw, to his dismay, the tiny hand open.
He also saw, with terrifying clarity that each diminutive finger was adorned with a long thick claw.
Slowly, the infant’s head turned from the woman in white and to his horror, the subs piercing light reflected the bright glow of two infinitesimal eyes.
He watched in frozen fear as the baby disengage from the woman and give a kick of its legs and tiny webbed feet pushing it towards the Midas.
Lamont never felt real terror before, he felt an incredible thick pulsing in his veins and as though his belly was about to burst open. All he could do was gasp in disbelief and the hand that still clutched the propulsion stick responded and the sub lurched violently to the right. He jerked the toggle back and forth to get Midas under control but it was too late and it came to a crashing halt when it struck the side of a large boulder and the world went black as it settled to the bottom.
He felt around the controls and found the control and despite rapid hand movements, it wouldn’t budge. He felt for the knob that would engage emergency power and flipped it on.
Nothing happened.
He grabbed the radio and brought it to his mouth while frantically looking out the Plexiglas window, searching for what he couldn’t quite believe he saw.
“Midas to surface come in,” He almost screamed.
Silence was the response.
“Come on,” He stammered. “Please help me, this can’t be happening. COME IN SURFACE!”
A scratchy static was the only reply.
He was silent as he awaited radio response and in the quiet he heard a soft mewling permeate the stillness of the sub.
“Oh, Jesus” he whispered.
Jesus didn’t respond but the sub’s control board beeped. He grasped the emergency toggle again and flipped it up and down rapidly. The interior lights faded in and bathed the cockpit in a low green light. He glanced up at the window and gasped in terror when he saw the infant’s face pressed against the Plexiglas, looking at him. Tiny webbed fingers splayed out and a horrible grin on its little face. Its black hair waved silently across its face. He heard a scratching sound and saw the black claws scratch small furrows in the inch thick plastic as the fingers clenched and unclenched.
It was trying to get in.
It grinned horribly, pure white eyes excited as the scratching and scraping intensified. The baby’s grin faltered as it floated and scratched, its eyes shifted. They became angry.
“Come in surface Goddam it!” He shouted into the hand held unit, his other hand twisting and pulling the main power control of the still motionless sub, never breaking eye contact with the creature.
He heard a quiet but high pitched wail and ceased his frantic hand movements. Lamont looked again at the infant who had stopped scratching on the window. It stared at him and opened its mouth in a cry exposing small, needle sharp teeth that lined its black gums. He gazed into its tiny eyes that now took on a look of sadness, not otherworldly rage. He tried to look away, to wish himself away from this terror but couldn’t. Their eyes were locked onto each other and Lamont felt his mind begin to slip. He felt the absence of time and the blackness of the deep enveloped his mind completely.
He began to travel.
He was transported to another time. His consciousness was abruptly returned and he saw that he stood on the lakeshore. He saw the small Indian village. He saw the excitement of the villagers at the impending birth. He smelled pine smoke in the air and saw the doeskin lodge. He saw the bloody delivery and felt its mother’s pain and joy. He felt the young Squaw’s unconditional love as she held her newborn to her breast for the first time.
Then he beheld the baby’s father, a warrior held in great honor amongst the people, but he also held a countenance of darkness. Lamont felt his anger and jealous rage. He saw that the father had come from his brother’s lodge and his hands were covered in dark blood. He saw the father force his way into the lodge past the birthing aides and tear the nursing baby from its mother’s arms and walk rapidly towards the shore. He saw the great warrior scream as he threw the squirming, squalling bundle into the icy water.
He looked across the small cove and saw the tribe’s elderly medicine man, hiding behind a great boulder and speaking the sacred words.
Then Lamont cried as he felt the fierce numbing cold.
He saw and felt the child’s confusion, its anguish and pain, he saw it cry for its mother, alone and afraid unable to return to the village of its birth. He saw it drift and swim for time eternal.
The years passed.
Lamont felt what the small creature felt, an immense and never ending aloneness that transcended mere tears.
Through the little swimmers eyes he saw the eventual discovery of the lady in white, frozen in time and chained to stone, drifting in silent darkness. He saw her beauty and felt the nervousness as he swam around and around, waiting for the courage to approach.
Then he saw his tiny arm reach up and caress her white cheek and dart away as his claw tore open her fragile skin. He saw that it didn’t anger her and he swam close again. Then he saw, at last, a cold embrace and it was no longer alone.
Lamont’s mind violently sparked and he returned to the present with an inarticulate shout.
He raised his head as he wiped away the wetness on his cheek.
The infant was gone.
The interior lights turned on and power was restored.
The sensor forgotten, he pulled back on the joystick and felt immense relief as the sub lifted slowly out of the sand. With agonizing slowness, Lamont manipulated the toggle and within a few minutes rose clear from the stony dead trees.
His radio crackled and Padilla’s concerned voice broke through, “ surface to Midas, come in.”
“I’m here Joe, had to abort.” He replied.
“Copy that Midas, see you soon.”
“10-4” was the reply as Pierre gazed out the portal where the inky blackness was slowly being replaced with deep hues of icy blue.
END.
By Colin S. Bradley

Merry Christmas, Mary

 

Merry Christmas, Mary

 

In the dark, the white snow fell gently, flashing like flares through the pathway of the streetlamps. The snow piled on the sides of roads, turning to black slush as inexhaustible cars came and went. Bundled in a heavy black coat, her breath streaming from her lips like smoke from some inhuman factory, she passed into the graveyard.

The moment that she passed from the street with its traffic and its cars and its lights to the graveyard, the sounds hushed, muted. Few lights illuminated the crumbling stone of the graves, packed into this small plot of city land. The old church beside the graveyard existed now only as a relic, as a museum piece for the quaint and foolish beliefs of stupid primitive man. No services took place within it these days. Disparate caretakers moved in and out, no one staying for very long as the church and its accompanying graveyard fell deeper and deeper into disrepair.

She often wondered what would become of the church and its cemetery when the world stopped with even the pretense of concern for human dignity and the dignity of the dead. The church would be bulldozed, the cemetery with its dead churned amidst the steel teeth of mighty man’s mighty machine-dogs. In their place, a new church would be erected, a church of business perhaps, a mall or a soaring skyscraper to be populated by various and sundry enterprises. And soon, all would be forgotten with the church and its graves.

But for now, she remembered.

For now, the name etched into the stone, worn down by the continual current of seconds and minutes, remained alive within her.

The name belonged to a woman. The woman had been called Mary Corey. Perhaps there had once been a set of dates below that name, but time had taken them long ago.

The woman in the cemetery bent down and wiped cold snow from the stone, feeling the wet through the cotton of her gloves.

She spared a glance for the road, and then she stood up again. Moving neither casually nor quickly, she strode across the graveyard to the church. Into the mouth of the door, she inserted a key. The lock gave way, and inside, she found the unheated space nearly as cold. Her fingers found the switch that she sought, and she flipped it.

The few lights left on in the graveyard went out.

She stood for a moment in the doorway of the cold church, letting her eyes adjust to darkness. The spell of the old church and its graveyard deepened then. Without the staccato interruption of the electric lights, an older time reared its head with all its ghosts and glories. Although she could still see the street lights beyond and, if she strained, hear the rumbling growl of the city’s traffic, it was beyond the bounds of the enchantment. It could neither break the enchantment, nor penetrate it.

From beside the door, she took the shovel. It belonged to the gardener. There was no gardener these days. For many years, years that sound unending to a modern American ear, maybe even a hundred or two hundred years, there had been flowers on these graves, and a gardener to tend the beds of the dead.

But now, there was no gardener. The grass, so close to dead in the height of summer, was either long or gone beneath the snow.

The woman returned to Mary Corey’s grave.

The winter is not the best time for digging, but some things are worth the effort. This was a truth that everyone who intends to survive in a vacuum must learn. And this particular woman had longed survived a vacuum.

The earth gave way after much effort, and she began to make headway into the ground.

At times, she felt the stir of eyes upon her neck, but she was a grown-up woman. She knew that the fears and imaginings of childhood never quite leave us, that such intuitions and feelings are merely the vestigial remains of a past state from which she’d evolved. Such things were best ignored.

And so she went on digging until the end of the shovel rang out against the side of a wooden casket.

The woman exhaled a breath of smoke.

Her pace increasing now, sweat mingling with the sop of snow, she redoubled her efforts until she could see enough of the wood to do what needed doing.

She stared at what lay at her sodden black snow boots. The wood of the casket was very old and very frail, but within the dirt, it had lasted all these many years. It had been here when there was only a church of stone nestled far away from the noise and clatter of the nearest large town. It had been here below the earth as the town became a city, as the city became the City, as the City became a Concrete Jungle of steel and spires and blood that soaked the earth from end to end. This wood had laid over Mary Corey’s head.

And now, the woman lifted her shovel high and brought it stabbing down, down, down. It splintered through the aged wood, and the entire casket lurched. She stumbled, but she kept herself upright.

Kneeling down, she cleared the wood and ignited the end of a flashlight. Turning the light into the shadows, Mary Corey stared up at her.

“Hello, Mary,” she said.

The desiccated skull looked up at her with her eyeless sockets. There was so little of the human left about Mary Corey now.

Tenderly, gently, the woman reached down and pulled off the head. There was a little snap as the head detached from the spinal column. The head was all the woman wanted. She stood up, placed the head next to the hole, and then she set about her task of restoring the dirt. This was accomplished more quickly than she’d expected.

When she was done, she picked up the head, and she placed it in the case she’d brought for just this purpose.

Next, she restored the shovel to its place, turned on the three meager lights above the graveyard, sending the past skittering back into the past.

She relocked the church door and strode across the graveyard to the gate.

As she passed out of the graveyard, she passed beyond the enchantment back into the roar and the blaze of modernity with all its dashing lights and carnivorous, hungry roars of cars.

As the woman strode down the concrete, she thought longingly of a hot shower. She thought very little, in fact, about the graveyard and even less about the head of Mary Corey. All she really felt was a vague sort of satisfaction with a job well done.

On the corner of the street, standing in a bold spray of light, she got into a cab. The driver talked about his life and asked her a few questions to which she gave polite replies.

At one point, the driver went so far as to ask, “What’s in the case?”

“A Christmas gift,” she said, “for a very, very old friend.”

“Lovely,” he said before regaling her with what he was buying for his own friends and family for Christmas.

When she arrived in her apartment, she knew she wasn’t alone. Standing silhouetted in the neon bath of city light that poured in from the floor to ceiling windows of her penthouse apartment, she recognized the back of him.

“Couldn’t wait?” she asked as she shut and locked the door behind her.

“You got it, then?” asked the man.

“I got her, yes,” she said, unzipping her wet boots and placing them beside the door.

The man still looked out the window.

“Anyone see?” he asked.

She unbuttoned her coat and hung it on the coat stand. “No,” she said. “No one saw.”

The woman picked up the case from where she’d set it down when she first walked in. Then she strode across the apartment to the man, placing her hand upon his back as she offered him the case.

“Merry Christmas, John,” she said, looking up at the face that she knew so well and so deeply, those dark brown irises in whose dark pathways she’d spent years walking. The light from the City beyond cast a green mask over his pale face as he took the case from her, his hands trembling.

He walked with the case to a glass table and set it down.

Then he leaned over, the long fingers of both hands sprawling outward from where he placed them on the glass. They would leave the print of his hands so clearly that a good palm reader could tell him that his long days were about to come short and that a woman was to blame as women always were for John Corey.

The woman watched him, a look of pain upon her face. It was a pain that a stranger would find difficult to read. The look upon her face spoke of longing, of desire, and of concern. And of fear. A strange medley of emotions all rendered clear the slim dimples around her mouth and the tight set of her pale jaw.

“I’ll give you a moment,” she said.

And with that, the woman went to take that hot shower she’d dreamed about all the way back from the graveyard.

The woman thought little as she showered and dressed.

She blew her hair dry, and when she was done, she went out to see if John Corey was still in her apartment.

He was.

He was exactly as she’d left him, bent over the case, still closed.

She poured herself a glass of champagne.

Then she walked over to him, placing her hand on his shoulder. “John,” she said. “I thought this was what you needed?”

“It is,” he said, his voice full of rock and dirt.

“Then why not open the case?” she asked.

He looked at her then. He really looked at her for the first time that night. He took in the woman who had robbed a grave for him. This woman of money and means with her blonde hair and her noose of diamonds around her neck. The dark gown she wore showed little of her skin, but it had a certain way of provoking the question: what lay beneath?

But here tonight, the question didn’t seem as safe as it once had. And although he kissed the question onto the ruby of her lips, she knew that those lips were not hers.

“It’s okay, John,” she said. “I don’t expect anything from you. Especially not your love. Just open my present, John. It’s just what you asked for.”

Her voice bore that tender inflection of Golden age starlets, a siren’s voice. And even as he turned away, he wondered if he were about to be dashed upon the rocks.

She removed her hand from his shoulder, gave the scruff of his face a delicate touch, and then stepped back.

John took a deep breath, and he stood up, his hands coming away from the glass of the table.

Bumbling in a way those fingers never bumbled, he unclasped the latches of the case.

The woman took her drink.

And John Corey opened the case.

The skull of Mary Corey gazed up at him insensibly. A tiny sob escaped the grown man’s lips.

A funny thing happened then to the woman turned grave robber. A funny thing indeed.

At the back of her neck, exposed as she wore her hair pulled up on top of her head, she felt those tiny hairs stand on end. And the sense that eyes were boring into the back of her seized her with the same rigor as when she’d stood in that grave.

In the grave, she had expected such a feeling. She’d been ready, and she dismissed it for the foolishness she knew it to be.

Such a feeling did not belong in the penthouse of a skyscraper with a view of the greatest city on earth. Such a feeling did not belong here.

And the woman, Emma Donaghue, shuddered. What remained of the champagne in her glass she downed in one.

“Oh, Mary,” John Corey said.

“John,” Emma began. She cast her gaze around the apartment, unable to dismiss the feeling. “John, I think…”

“Mary,” he sobbed, and he went down on his knees, his arms clasping the case, his head resting against the glass table.

Emma bit her lip.

The next several things happened in quick succession.

“Mary,” John cried one final time, and he made to bring his hands down to his face so that he could bury it.

As he did, he knocked the case from the glass table. The case landed on its side, and the skull rolled out onto the hardwood floor.

And as it rolled, Emma saw the reflection in the glass windows.

Standing where she now saw the skull, she saw a woman. The woman had dark hair and fine features, but her eyes. Her eyes wore all the darkness of those empty sockets.

Emma screamed.

John Corey looked first to Emma, and then to the glass.

“Mary!” he yelled.

Emma’s hands found the pistol where she’d left it in the pocket of her coat.

She aimed it steadily at the glass. Mary Corey smirked.

John Corey rose to his feet and stumbled toward his wife. As he did, he stepped on the skull. It smashed beneath his leather shoe.

And as it smashed, the reflection of Mary Corey vanished.

Where the skull lay in pieces, a cold wind blew up from the floor. A wind that took the broken shards of bone and danced with them and a green smoke into the air.

Emma fired her pistol.

The shot shattered the glass of her windows, and a great torrent of snow and cold swept into the apartment. But along with the sound of shattering glass, there came the wicked laugh of a wicked witch.

And there she stood.

Mary Corey. In the flesh.

Emma’s apartment lay embedded in snow, and Mary Corey stood there, her pale skin alight with some ghastly light.

John Corey staggered to her.

“John, no!” Emma said.

“My wife,” he said.

And Mary Corey, dead woman that she was, kissed John Corey’s lips for the first time in two hundred years.

Emma Donaghue’s pistol remained pointed at the dead woman.

“Put that thing down, you silly thing,” said Mary Corey.

Emma did not.

Mary stepped out of John’s rapturous arms and walked briskly toward Emma. Blood ran cold.

She did not hesitate. She put a bullet in Mary’s brain. In Mary’s heart. In Mary’s stomach. And when none of those bullets had an effect. When those bullets simply disappeared, showing no signs of damage, she poured the rest wherever they might strike until Mary Corey stood with her forehead pressed to the end of the barrel.

Emma pulled the trigger one last time. It clicked. Empty.

Mary grabbed the gun, yanked it out of the other woman’s hands, and turned it on Emma.

Mary smiled. “I should thank you, Grave Robber,” she said, “for reuniting me with my dear husband.”

“But your ancient,” she said. “You’re…you’re his ancestor. You were hanged as a witch.”

“I am a witch,” she said. “And I did hang. And I gave my dear John eternal life. And what did he do with it? You.”

And Mary pulled the trigger.

Emma Donaghue had time to think that there were no bullets in that gun. She knew that for a fact. But then a bullet went through her brain after all. And Emma Donaghue was dead.

Mary Corey turned and ran over to her husband. She kissed him passionately, reverently, joyously.

And he kissed her back.

He threw himself wholly into that kiss until he was unaware of anything else.

John Corey did not realize how close they were to the broken glass that looked out upon the skyline, that great cliff hundreds of feet in the air.

No, John Corey was not aware of how close they were into Mary Corey pushed him off it.

It was a long way down, and he had time to hear her speak.

“That’s what you get, John Corey,” she said. “It was you turned me in, and when you regretted it, you got some harlot you bedded who didn’t believe in anything to dig me up. Go to Hell, John Corey, and meet the master you’ve been so long in avoiding.”

And then John Corey landed.

That left Mary Corey.

She stood at the top of that skyscraper, looking out over a Concrete Jungle of neon flame and roaring machines.

“My, my,” she said to herself. “I feel as if I’m home.”

And Mary Corey smiled wildly.

“Merry Christmas, Mary,” she said to herself softly. “Merry Christmas, indeed.”

END.

By Josh Dygert

Josh Dygert grew up amid the cornfields of Indiana, went to college amid the cornfields of Michigan, tried life amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and now teaches middle school English back amid the original cornfields.He writes fantasy novels and short stories.

 

Wedding Night

There was no dancing at the reception, because of poor Hal. Nor did they offer music or wine. No one reproached the newlyweds, but Sebastian could well imagine how the villagers complained to each other. Most of them disapproved of the proceedings in general- yet they’d all come to eat the wedding feast.

But he didn’t care what anyone said or thought as long as Lilja cleaved to his side, her long golden hair shining and her wide eyes gazing up at him. She’d looked at Hal the same way once, but Sebastian held no jealousy or resentment. He only felt grateful that her gaze was now fixed on him.

Sebastian had left the best man’s chair empty, in the dark-paneled tavern where the reception was held. Lilja’s sister, the maid of honor, had processed up the church aisle alone.

When they were twelve and girls had begun to seem more mysterious than annoying, Hal had asked him, “When I get married, will you stand up for me?”

His bright blue eyes had been earnest. Maybe he was even thinking of Lilja back then, though at that time she’d been angular and shy. Sebastian nodded. “And you’ll stand for me, won’t you?”

“Of course!” Hal had shown his teeth in a laugh, which always made Sebastian laugh too. They’d been born two days apart on adjacent farms. Neither had any siblings, but everyone said it didn’t matter, for Hal and Sebastian were closer than any brothers.

“Congratulations!” Some bearded relative of Lilja’s lumbered toward Sebastian. His breath smelled sour- someone must have brought a few bottles to share in the alley between the tavern and the tailor’s. The disrespect to their wishes- to Hal- lit a flame of anger in Sebastian. He opened his mouth to snap at the man.

But Lilja suddenly appeared at his side, slipping her hand into his. Sebastian ran his thumb over the unfamiliar but welcome gold ring encircling one slender finger. He looked down at Lilja, her small round face sprinkled with freckles. Her lips curled into a smile.

“I’m sorry, Uncle,” she said, never looking away from Sebastian’s face. “I require my husband.”

She led him to the tavern’s double doors. The pegs lining the walls to either side were sparsely occupied- the summer had been wet and cool, but this day was warm and bright, perfect for a wedding. Sebastian lifted Lilja’s thin white shawl and draped it over her shoulders, his fingers lingering on the soft skin of her neck. Lilja tilted her head and smiled at him, then lowered her gaze modestly. But the smile remained.

“Should we say goodbye to our guests?” he asked his wife.

She shook her head. “I told my mother we were leaving. No one else will care.”

Sebastian glanced around the long room. The villagers chatted, or picked at the remains of the wedding feast. None of them paid the bride and groom any mind. Sebastian took Lilja’s hand and they slipped out the door.

The hired carriage waited in the yard, decorated all over with ivy and white flowers. Flowers had also been woven into the horse’s mane. The driver slumped in his seat, snoring. Sebastian reached up to shake him, but Lilja stopped him.

“Let him sleep,” she laughed. “We’ll walk.”

Sebastian plucked a flower from the horse’s mane and offered it to her. Lilja took it and together they started down the lane to the cottage that was now theirs.

The summer sun had sunk low, staining the sky pink. The air smelled of night flowers, heady and sweet. Crickets chirped in the hedges. Lilja hummed under her breath as they walked side by side.

It was very different from the winter night that proved to be Hal’s last. He had died only eight months before in the very cottage where they were now going.

Hal’s illness was sudden and crippling; everyone knew but didn’t say it would be fatal. Sebastian had stayed with his best friend every moment that Hal’s fiancee Lilja couldn’t be with him. That evening he’d arrived as soon as he could lay off work. Lilja had been sitting by Hal’s bed, her golden head drooping and shadows clinging to her eyes. Hal was asleep. Sebastian had ushered Lilja out with comforting words that sounded as barren and cold as the ground outside. Back then she hadn’t so much as glanced at Sebastian, but kept turning back to Hal with every step until the door finally closed behind her and she went back to her mother’s house.

The fire roared, making the room uncomfortably hot, but Hal’s hand had been icy in his. Sebastian thought he slept, but as soon as the door clicked shut Hal’s eyes flew open. They were huge in his wasted face, burning with fever and more vibrantly blue than ever. Only his eyes still belonged to him, Sebastian had thought. The rest of his gaunt, gray body was a stranger. Hal gripped his hand with a strength that seemed impossible for one in his state.

“Brother!” he rasped. “Closer than brothers, we’ve always been. I’m dying- no, don’t tell me otherwise, I can feel it- and I must ask you something. A favor. More like a lifelong obligation, to be honest.”

“Lilja?” Sebastian guessed.

Hal’s shrunken lips lifted in a weak smile at her name. “My will is in the top drawer of the desk- I wrote it once we got engaged…maybe I had a premonition.” His eyes slid shut and he was silent for long minutes. Sebastian waited. When Hal spoke again, his voice was brittle. “All the money and land I inherited from my parents, and this house. She can live here the rest of her life. But I need you to help her, when she needs it. Look after her. I couldn’t bear for her to be lonely after I’m gone. Even after you marry and have a family, maybe your wife can be her friend…”

“Of course,” Sebastian had promised, gently squeezing Hal’s waxy hand. His friend had never spoken again.

In the morning he’d trudged to Lilja’s mother’s house, snow crumbling over the tops of his boots to numb his feet. He told Hal’s fiance that he had died in the night, and they wept in each other’s arms. In those moments Sebastian felt only his own misery. Love came later. After the funeral Lilja sought him out, to talk about Hal, to laugh over memories and to cry.  It came when, eventually, their talk turned to other matters. When Sebastian realized that he didn’t need a story about Hal to make her laugh. When she smiled at him, not at Hal’s friend. It came quickly, and Sebastian, who had never been in love, let it. Hal had been in the churchyard only six months when he proposed. And to his amazement Lilja had accepted.

The little cottage that was now their home looked cheerful now, with lamps glowing in the windows and a wreath of white flowers on the door. They ambled through the gate and up the walk, Lilja casting nervous glances at him, suddenly shy. Sebastian opened the door and kissed her there on the threshold, lingering, promising. When he drew back they were both breathing hard.

“Go inside, love.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “I’ll return in just a bit.”

“Tell him how happy we are,” she said softly. “And give him this.” She held out the flower Sebastian had plucked from the horse’s mane. He took it.

“I love you!” he called, backing down the walk. His heel caught on a tilted flagstone and he stumbled, wheeling his arms comically to make his wife laugh. He continued to walk backwards, watching her in the doorway, her dim figure surrounded by a halo of light cast off by the lamps within. He didn’t turn around until he’d latched the gate behind him. The cottage door closed, and Sebastian set off for the church.

The tall gate of the churchyard was locked, but Sebastian didn’t hesitate. He clenched the flower between his teeth, placed his foot on the lowest crossbar and hauled himself up. He swung his leg over the second crossbar and gingerly maneuvered over the spikes that adorned the top of the fence, careful of his new suit. He hopped down into the long summer grass, ruefully thinking how much easier this had been when he had been a lanky boy, climbing this fence with Hal to whisper ghost stories in the moonlight, among the worn stones.

The night was clear, the sky scattered with stars, the moon a crescent that layered everything with silver light. The gravestones rose up like sentinels. His steps were silent in the soft grass as he approached Hal’s resting place by the fence. His stone was the newest, the edges sharp, his name- Harald Larsson- still easily read. Grass had grown over the mound of dark earth. Sebastian realized with a touch of guilt that he hadn’t been here in almost two months, when he’d come to share news of his engagement with his best friend.

Now he crouched on the freshly-grown grass, breathing in the smell of stone and green things, and lay the white flower on the granite, pausing to run his fingers over Hal’s birth and death dates.

“Hal, my brother.” He spoke softly, though the little cemetery was deserted save for him. “It’s done. Lilja’s  my wife.” A grin split his face, he couldn’t help it. “I’m keeping my promise. I’ll take care of her, Hal. She’ll never be lonely. I love her.”

Sebastian paused and breathed deeply of the cooling night air. Then he frowned. He’d caught a strong scent of earth, moist and freshly dug. A new grave nearby? No, no one in the village had died since Hal. He shook off the oddness of it. His wife was waiting.

Sebastian touched Hal’s headstone once more, then braced his other hand in the grass to push himself out of his crouch. His fingers struck something damp and yielding. Startled, he looked down and saw what he hadn’t before- the grass over Hal’s grave had been torn up, leaving a streak of mud a little bigger than his palm. The dirt looked black in the moonlight, oozing up around his fingers as if trying to swallow them. A shiver of unease ran up Sebastian’s spine. An animal must have been digging here. He just hadn’t noticed. Surely the grass had not quietly torn itself up while he talked to Hal! He tried to lift his muddy hand, but something closed around it- something below the ground- and held him fast.

He yanked his arm up, but the sudden rush of panic made him unsteady and he fell to his knees. He hit the ground heavily, and as he did he felt the mounded soil crumble beneath him. For a hideous moment Sebastian was seized by vertigo. Then he was lying on something hard, with the loose soil crumbling into his hair, his eyes. He tried to breathe and spat out dirt. His hands closed convulsively into fists, his nails scraping the slick surface below him. With a stab of horror Sebastian realized it was the polished lid of Hal’s coffin. He scrambled to get his legs under him and climb out of the grave, but fear made him clumsy. Before he could gain his feet the coffin lid splintered, spikes of oak flying upward. Tiny bits lodged themselves in his hands and face, stinging like tiny fangs. Sebastian cried out hoarsely, a strangled sound between a yelp and a scream, as he looked into the face of his dead best friend.

Sebastian had thought Hal wasted and strange as he neared the end of his life, but the face he confronted now was far worse. Hal’s skin had seemingly melted to his skull, and patches had peeled off to expose yellowed bone. His dark hair fell brittle over his forehead. The front of his grave suit was stained with fluids Sebastian didn’t want to think about. The sweetish-sick smell of mold and rot struck him full in the face, making his eyes water.

It’s not Hal it’s not Hal it’s not Hal, Sebastian’s mind howled. But the bright blue eyes sunk far into their sockets insisted otherwise.

“Lilja.” Her name shuddered from the dead thing’s lips in a cracked whisper. Two dry, bony arms grasped his shoulders with startling strength. Sebastian opened his mouth to scream, to sob, to say whatever Hal wanted of him, but the loose dirt of Hal’s gave suddenly collapsed, driving the air from his lungs and filling his mouth and nose with wet soil.

#####

Lilja sat in the rocking chair before the fire, her hands folded in her lap, in the white expanse of her wedding dress. She’d removed her gloves and jewelry, but thought it her husband’s right to undress his wife on their wedding night. She hadn’t made a dress for her wedding to Hal that never happened. There had been no time; they’d been engaged only three weeks when Hal fell ill. As always the thought of her former fiance pricked at her, but now it was affectionate nostalgia and not grief that she felt. Tonight memories of Hal were quickly lost in the nervous-excited butterfly flapping of her heart.

Sebastian had been gone a while, or maybe it just seemed that way. Lilja had risen before dawn to prepare for the celebration, and she was tired. Finally she dozed off in the rocking chair.

The sound of the door opening snapped Lilja awake. She jumped to her feet, smoothing the front of her dress. The door had closed. Sebastian stood in the shadows, an indistinct dark figure.

“Welcome home.” Lilja’s voice trembled with anticipation.

Sebastian shuffled forward. When the firelight caught his eyes and showed that they weren’t warm and brown, but a feverish bright blue, she began to scream. But by then it was already too late.

END.

by Patricia Correll

 

Mine Shaft to Hell

 A scorpion with a death wish skittered onto my boot. I stomped the ground until it fell off and squashed it flat. Orange goop oozed from its body like nothing I’d witnessed before in my entire sixty years. Thousands of the darn pests had emerged since the mine collapse, filled with slime and running around like crazy. They seemed to be fleeing Winthrop like everyone else. With the silver long gone, the mine was as good as dead to everyone. It was the reason we’d all come to the middle of nowhere. Although most men packed up and rode off, some just disappeared. Those who remained had been acting as mad as hatters. Many nights, I regretted not leaving, too, before the horses ran off.

I wasn’t a hundred yards from the mine tunnel entrance when folks commenced to running and shouting toward Main Street. All the hubbub was over two horses thundering into Winthrop at a full gallop, spurred on by their riders. The swift-moving figures could be spotted a mile away on the desolate plain. The dusty cloud behind them spun high in the breeze like a swirling dirt devil and seemed to swallow up the sparse vegetation in its wake.

The riders were silhouetted against the sunset, so I hobbled down the road as fast as I could to get a better look.     When they stormed past Winthrop’s welcome sign, the mayor’s squat form was easy to identify. The other man, a stranger, sat tall in the saddle. White foam bubbled from his horse’s mouth. With each snort, clumps of the gooey substance splattered on the animal’s sweaty coat.

The riders slowed their horses to a trot on Winthrop’s only street, gathering the few remaining residents. I hoped the mayor brought good news because our town was in trouble. They dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office, but before they tied the horses down, the crazed animals reared up. The crowd, me included, gasped in surprise. The whites of the horses’ eyes were as wide as could be, and they screamed like a horse fight had broken out. Before anyone could calm the animals, they galloped away as if a pack of hungry coyotes was after them.

It sent a shiver down my spine that Mayor Stout didn’t have more of a reaction to losing the last horses in town. We were stranded now without any way to get help. He stepped up on the boardwalk and removed his dusty hat, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. “Residents of Winthrop. In the wake of the tragedy that befell Sheriff Reading, I have appointed a new sheriff. Boyd Blue will be taking over immediately.”

Winthrop didn’t need a sheriff or a mayor to contain the twenty residents, we needed a means to leave. The broad-shouldered stranger opened his fancy coat to reveal the sheriff’s badge. Raising the brim of his hat, he stared over the crowd. He had dark pits for eyes. Trouble always followed men with eyes that cold. When his hollow gaze found mine, my mouth turned as dry as the desert wasteland beneath my boots. I could tell he didn’t plan on helping us leave.

The mayor motioned toward the square-jawed man. “Sheriff Blue’s priority is the mine collapse.” Townsfolk shouted out questions, but the mayor waved them off. “We will have answers for you later. We’ve had a long ride as was apparent from the behavior of our horses. Please, just go home.”

With all the strange happenings in town over the last month, Mayor Stout looked like he was breathing his last. His fingers gnarled like claws, and the skin on his cheeks drooped. His weathered face had changed from tan to ashen gray. He hadn’t been acting like himself neither. He used to bid everyone the time of day, but of late, he hadn’t given townsfolk more than an empty glance. It was like a stranger wore his face.

As the lawmen closed the office door behind them, the crowd broke up and headed about their business. Townsfolk grumbled, but I didn’t blame them. I was afraid, too. Without more than a shovel for a weapon, I took refuge in the mine after dark. Something was released when the ground cracked open and spread evil over Winthrop. It couldn’t be seen, but it lurked about and left death in its wake.

The faint orange glow was sinking behind the mountains. I lit my lantern and limped down the hill to the wooden door that led to the southernmost tunnel entrance. I yanked it open, and a painful tingling shot through my finger. I flicked a scorpion off my knuckle. Darn it. Third sting in a week.

The lantern illuminated a glistening trail of blood dotted across the rodent feces, roaches, and guano on the ground. I followed the red drops, which led to long smudges farther up.

Whirring and buzzing echoed through the tunnel like a million bees swarmed about. My first instinct was to run, but the blood made me pause. Someone could’ve been hurt up there and needed help. The whirring grew louder and mixed with cracking and popping. My body stiffened at the noise, and goose bumps raised across my bony arms. I’d never heard such commotion when the mine was active.

My heart raced with each step. My boot skidded in something slick. I shined the light on the sole. Pieces of flesh were ground into it. A rancid odor pierced my nostrils. My head spun, and the stench made me heave. I should’ve turned back, but I pressed on, needing to know what made the horrid noise.

Up ahead, light flickered off the reddish walls and cast shadows of two figures. I dimmed my lantern and peered around a protruding boulder. A naked woman was balanced upright by her arm. Little remained of her. Her legs were gone and part of her torso. I shuddered, almost dropping my lantern. Bile rose in my throat, but I couldn’t stop watching. A creature that resembled a woman but had a mouth larger than a carp was eating the corpse. The creature’s cavernous mouth, lined with rows of sharp teeth, ground through the woman’s flesh and bones, making the awful sounds. The whirring continued. When the woman’s arm snapped off, blood splattered everywhere. I turned away, but just for a second.

The whirring pulsed in my head, and my knees buckled, but I dared another look. I cupped a hand over my mouth to hold back upchucking. The creature ground up the arm in its giant mouth while blood gurgled over its bloated lips. I turned and ran.

I had to warn the others. We needed to leave Winthrop by foot and take our chances. I struggled on, stumbling over the cacti and scrub brush that tore through my trousers. I gulped breaths of dust and creosote hanging in the hot air, but the rancid stench of death remained in my nostrils.

The general store’s lantern glowed in the window. The owners were good people. They’d believe me. They’d help. I rushed inside. The shop was empty. “Cal, Emma! Are you here? It’s Willie!” My body quivered in pain. Sweat burned into my scratches, and the scorpion venom pulsed through my finger. I thrust open the back door. “Emma!” My heart was relieved. Emma gazed out over the desert. “Emma, where’s Cal?”

She turned to face me, clutching a rat’s lifeless body in her bloody hands. Her lips glistened red in the moonlight. The rat had chunks missing, and its innards hung in a long, stringy mass. Clumps of crimson fur stuck to the front of her dress. She gazed at me with foggy eyes, and the breath was sucked from my lungs. I stumbled through the doorway and ran through town.

Screams erupted from every building and poured into the street. My escape from Winthrop became more urgent, but each labored step seemed to take me nowhere. My chest heaved with pain, and I crumpled to the dust. I lay in a heap, unable to move. Boots crunched into the gravel next to my head.

“You can never leave.” His voice chilled me to the bone.

I raised my head with my last bit of strength. Sheriff Blue stared down at me with orange flames flickering in his eyes. Coldness swept through my body until I was numb. Since that night, the summer sun hadn’t burned my skin, nor had the winter breeze numbed my nose. It seemed like ages that I’d wanted to leave but couldn’t. The evil in Winthrop had a face, and he never left anyone leave town again.

END.

By T.W. Kirchner  

Although writing is her passion, her first loves are her husband, two children, and furry menagerie known as the Kirchner Zoo. She wishes she had more time to paint, draw and play tennis. If she could, she’d spend all my time outdoors. Anything wolf, pirate, or zombie-related will grab her attention.

Her latest published series is the YA supernatural horror Dagger & Brimstone. She also has two middle grade series published through Short on Time Books.

ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE

                                                                          

 

Dark clouds had been gathering since sunrise, slowly blotting out the sky and draping the uniformed rows of grave markers with shadows. A biting wind transformed a scatter of dead leaves into a swirling mass that spiraled into a dance of death before falling back to the earth to wait for another gust to send them airborne. It was only the second day of November – All Souls’ Day – but the merciless chill of winter was already in the air.

A light drizzle began to descend from the heavens like weeping tears, darkening the mournful marble figures of religious icons and innocent lambs that stood in silent vigil over the final resting places of the dead. As the drops landed upon their heads and rolled down their cheeks, they gave the solemn stone faces the eerie appearance of crying.

Jerome Crippen paused for a moment to open his black, five hundred dollar, Maglia Francesco umbrella to shield himself from the rain. He then continued on his way until he arrived at the grave of his dearly departed wife, Leonora. He had nearly forgotten where her grave was located. He had only been to it once, and that was on the day of her burial. He stood as still as the statuary around him and stared down at the small bronze grave marker before him, which bore his wife’s name, along with the dates of her birth and death, the image of a cross, and the Biblical quote: WHITHER THOU GOEST, I WILL GO. He recalled that it was also raining on the day her body was laid to rest, and felt strangely amused by the coincidence of it.

Leonora Crippen had died exactly one year ago on this day, leaving Jerome an enormously wealthy widower, thanks to a hefty life insurance policy that he had taken out on her several years prior to her passing. According to her death certificate, the cause of death was cardiac arrest. Despite her demise occurring at such a young age, nobody questioned the certifying physician’s opinion, for Leonora was known to possess an enlarged heart resulting from years of untreated high blood pressure.  

Jerome took a quick look around to determine if anyone else was in the cemetery with him. Confident that he was the sole person there – at least, the sole living person – he cracked a bit of a crooked grin.

“Wake up, Leonora,” he said softly, almost in a singing voice, to the bronze grave marker. “It’s Jerome, your loving husband. It’s been one whole year now since you’ve been gone. Time sure flies, doesn’t it, my dear? Do forgive me for not coming to visit you sooner, but you see, I’ve been rather busy enjoying that money your insurance policy paid out to me. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that you left me well provided for. In fact…” he paused to snicker, “I’ve been living like a king and enjoying the finest of cars, clothes, restaurants and women. Mmmm, especially the women!”

Another gust of wind swept through the cemetery and a miniature tornado of brown leaves that had dropped from the branches of some nearby trees during the previous month sailed past Jerome’s Italian leather shoes. The rain felt like it had suddenly grown colder, almost icy to the touch, and was now falling harder than before, giving off a loud pitter-patter as it struck the grave marker.

“It’s a bit amusing, don’t you think,” Jerome continued, “that you always told me I could never do anything right. Not even poison a rat. Yet, I succeeded in poisoning you, Leonora, and I did it quite well and got away with it, if you don’t mind me touting my own horn. Nobody suspected a thing. With that bad ticker of yours, they all knew you had one foot in the grave.”

Jerome chuckled to himself as his mind rewound to that fateful day when, after months of careful plotting and indecision, he finally mustered up enough courage and greed to see his plan through and spike the whiskey sour drink of his unsuspecting wife with a tincture of aconite root. During his researching of poisons, he had read online that a fatal dose of this plant, which is also known as wolf’s bane, results in paralysis of the heart or respiratory center, with the only post mortem signs being those of asphyxia. It sounded to him like the ideal, and least messy, way to dispose of one’s unwanted spouse.

Jerome remembered, with what only can be described as a fiendish fondness, the agonized expressions on his dying wife’s face as the poisoning process inched her closer to death’s door, and him closer to a world of freedom made sweeter by a half-million dollar death benefit payout. Leonora had initially complained of a bad headache, followed by unpleasant bouts of nausea and diarrhea. In time, her mouth and face began to tingle and then grow numb, as did her arms and legs. A fiery sensation burned deep within her abdomen, causing her to double up in pain. Confused and sweating profusely, she struggled desperately to get a breath of air as her husband nonchalantly observed from the comfort of a tufted chair in the corner of their master bedroom, while leisurely savoring a glass of imported cognac.

And then, nearly three hours from the time that Leonora had unwittingly ingested the cleverly disguised poison, she let out one last loud and horrible gasp and her painful ordeal finally reached its deadly conclusion. Her body lay cold and still upon the heavy damask comforter of black and gold that draped the queen-size bed. Her pink peignoir was brown and sodden with vomit, and her lifeless eyes wide open and staring accusingly at her murderer.       

A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance and Jerome looked up at the sky. It had formed into an ominous patchwork of gray, dark green and black, illuminated by random flashes of lightning.

“Well, my dear,” Jerome sighed as he returned his gaze to his deceased wife’s grave marker. “I believe the time has come for me to bid you farewell. Go back to sleep now, Leonora.”

He turned and started to walk away. But then, for some unexplainable reason, an odd urge overcame him. He stopped and bent down to snatch up a rain-soaked wreath from a nearby burial plot. He then made his way back to Leonora’s grave with the wreath in his hand and tossed it onto the grassy ground that covered her remains. After blowing her a mocking kiss, he uttered, “I’ll see you around.”

Suddenly, with a loud explosive boom, a jagged bolt of blinding lightning struck Leonora’s bronze marker and shook the ground. It instantly knocked Jerome off his feet and the costly umbrella from out of his hand. He flew backwards and landed on his backside atop the wet and sticky ground that had been turned to sludge by the rain. His dropped umbrella was lifted up by a howling gust of wind and carried off before he could grab onto its curved cherry wood handle.

“Damn it!” he cursed.

As he struggled to free himself from the grip of the earthy-smelling muck, the unthinkable happened.

Like a scene from out of a horror film, or perhaps from the darkest of nightmares, the ground in front of Leonora’s grave marker began to tremble until a small fissure appeared, and from out of it emerged the foul and rotting limb of a woman. Its purplish hand turned in Jerome’s direction and slowly opened like a blossoming nightshade.

Paralyzed by abysmal horror, Jerome recognized the gold rings on one of the corpse’s fingers. They were Leonora’s bridal set. He felt a scream rise up in his numb throat. But before it could exit his mouth, Leonora’s bony, claw-like hand wrapped itself around his right ankle and began dragging him toward her grave.

Jerome’s scream finally found its way out, but was drowned out by another deafening crash of thunder. He fought desperately to free himself from the dead woman’s powerful clutch, but her supernatural-infused strength won out.

The corpse had pulled Jerome’s leg calf-deep into the grave when, all at once, he felt the terrifying sensation of teeth chewing on his ankle. Deeper and deeper into his bone they gnawed. The pain was unbearable and unlike anything he had ever experienced. He continued to struggle, and he bellowed out a series of hair-raising man-shrieks that reverberated in all directions, ricocheting off of tombstones and statues and the walls of mausoleums. The pain was tantamount to the most horrendous of torture and Jerome found himself drifting in and out of consciousness until the agony was mercifully supplanted by a numbness that raced up the entire length of his leg.

At last he was able to free himself from the hellish hole that had swallowed him alive. He yanked his limb from the muddy grave, only to discover that his right foot was gone. It had been completely chewed off and a gory hemorrhage was pouring out from the ragged stump at the bottom of his partially devoured leg.

His mind reeled from the horrendous sight and his thoughts swirled inside his brain like the dead leaves whipping in the wind around him. Soon, his vision blurred and faded to black. His body violently convulsed. The rapid-fire beating of his heart ceased and Jerome Crippen lay lifeless at the foot of Leonora’s grave, his blood staining the wet blades of dormant grass a ruddy color that not even the November rain could wash away.

END.

By Gerri R. Gray

Author bio: Gerri R. Gray is a poet with a dark soul, and the author of the bizarre adventure novel, “The Amnesia Girl” (HellBound Books, 2017). Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including “Beautiful Tragedies;” “Demons, Devils & Denizens of Hell 2;” and “Deadman’s Tome Cthulhu Christmas Special.” She has also contributed to the book,”Ghost Hunting the Mohawk Valley” by Lynda Lee Macken (Black Cat Press, 2012). Among her passions are cemetery photography, paranormal investigating, and watching reruns of Dark Shadows. She lives in Upstate New York. For more information, please visit Gerri’s website at: http://gerrigray.webs.com. Follow her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorGerriGray

 

Neural Nets Winners

After a very rough editorial battle, we can announce the WINNERS OF neural nets Uplinks, and Wet Ware.

First  place goes to Burner., second goes to Catching Cemron Ellis, third to Never Lonely. The editors choice goes to No Place to Hide. Congratulations to the Heural Nets winners.

On the Beach

On the Beach

She was sitting just outside the firelight. When Tom had glanced over, just a few minutes before, she wasn’t there. Now, she was off to his right, sitting all alone. He caught her looking at him. He smiled and turned his head. The next time she seemed to be looking at someone or something behind him. He spun to see who might have caught her eye, but there was nobody back there.
She reminded him of one of those girls in the movies, the best friend of the hot chick. She was pretty in her own right, but was usually lost in the glare of the friend and uncomfortable in the darkness when the star wasn’t around. The light from the beach bonfire didn’t illuminate her, but he saw her attractiveness in the glow from the moon and stars. She was wearing a plain sundress and her dark hair was pulled back.
Tom grabbed a couple beers from the cooler and walked over. She didn’t look up until he was right in front of her. Her eyes were as dark as her hair. He took one bottle by the neck and held it out towards her.
“Hi. Like one?”
She shook her head and looked down at the sand around her feet. Her silence was accentuated by the crowd behind him and the soft crash of the nearby waves.
“I was getting hot and the smoke started blowing in my face. Mind if I join you?”
She gave him a slight smile and wiped at the log next to her, as if sweeping off a spot for him. He sat and put the beers next to his feet. He turned to the girl and put his right hand forward. “I’m Tom.”
“Dorothy,” she said, holding the backs of her fingers towards him, almost like she wanted him to kiss her hand. He shook it awkwardly.
“Nice to meet you.”
He was met with silence again. Oh, great, he thought. If she’s as shy as I am, this is going to go nowhere fast.
“I’ve been here for a couple weeks, but haven’t seen you around. Are you here with someone?”
“No. I don’t know anyone. I just saw the fire and wanted to be close.”
“I came down with my cousin, Will. We know a few of the people.” He pointed to the other side of the fire. “He’s the one taking out the guitar.”
Aw geez, a few drinks and the guitar. Here we go. And sure enough, Will struck an odd chord and started singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
“We get in a crowd like this, and Will’s had a few beers, he starts singing Bob Dylan songs. I tell him that nobody wants to hear that crap, it’s our grandfather’s music for God’s sake. Then he says, ‘They’re classic for a reason.’ You like Dylan?”
She gave the slightest shoulder shrug. “I don’t know him.”
“Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.”
She smiled at that. Tom took a long drink from his bottle. Liquid encouragement.
“I hear this all the time, and I’m not in the mood for it tonight. You wanna walk down the beach or something?”
“Sure.”
He stood and held his hand out. Dorothy placed her fingers in his palms and he helped her up. Her fingers were chilly, and he found himself wishing he had a jacket to offer.
“Are you cold?”
“No. I’m quite comfortable. Are you?”
“No. I’m good.” But as they stepped away from the bonfire a gust blew in from the ocean and gooseflesh crawled up his arm.
They walked along the sand, the noise of the bonfire crowd vanishing behind them. Tom tried to wait for her to break the silence, but she was content not speaking. The girl walked close beside him, her shoulder brushing the top of his left arm from time to time. It was a kind of intimacy he’d never experienced with a stranger before.
“I’m heading back to Boston College in a couple weeks. Are you in school?”
“No. High school was all I needed.”
“Really? So what do you do with yourself?”
“Oh, you know…” She trailed off as if he truly could fill in the blank of what encompassed her life.
He got lost in his thoughts, trying to imagine this pretty girl’s life. She obviously wasn’t spending her time on the beach. She was pale. The moonlight almost made her glow. He was certain she wasn’t married or engaged; he’d checked for a ring. And the fact that she was alone and walking with him seemed to rule out a boyfriend, too.
He was trying to figure out if she was a local or a summer person when he realized that she wasn’t adding to the conversation. He’d have to try to get things started yet again.
Another strong breeze came in from the ocean, blowing the tips of her hair against his face and neck. The gentle brush tickled, and he shivered again.
“You know,” she said. “On a night like this, at this time of the year, it’s warmer in the water. Come on.” Dorothy peeled off her dress and tossed it into the beachgrass near the dunes.
Tom’s jaw dropped. Where’d this come from. She stood before him in her white underwear. She didn’t have much of a chest, but her bra was heavy-duty. The word industrial came to mind. It wasn’t like any he’d ever seen before. The few girls he’d been with didn’t even wear bras most of the time. He watched her do that trick that girls do, a twist, a stretch, and a wiggle, and the bra was off, joining the dress in the grass.
She patted the back of his hand and ran to the water, into the moonlight reflection. He jerked off his shirt and took two steps before dropping his pants. He should follow the lady’s example. And besides, he had to keep his phone and wallet dry.
When Tom looked back up, she was gone. She had run into the water right in front of him, she couldn’t be more than twenty or thirty feet away. The water should be way too shallow for swimming, and even then, he’d see her kicking legs. But there were only the undisturbed waves, marching to the shore.
To his mind, the whole scene had been playing like the opening of “Jaws” and now he was scared. He called out, “Dorothy!”
As if on command, she popped out of the water, just beyond the breakers, a hundred feet from the beach. She bent back her head, wiping stray hairs from her face. “Are you coming?” she shouted.
Tom ran until he had to high-step in the water, then dove and swam out to her. She was right about the warmth. The water was much more comfortable than the air. He stood up and shook the water from his face and hair.
The water was shoulder deep and they were softly buffeted by the waves. She embraced him, pulling herself close, hard nipples prodding into his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, unsure of what else to do. Even after the past hour, she was a complete stranger. He wanted to kiss her, but he didn’t have the nerve to try.
She put the side of her head against his shoulder. “You remind me of a boy,” she said. He brought one hand up and stroked her hair. “My parents didn’t like him. They called him a hoodlum. Just because he hung with Frank Barelli. But he was nice. Are you nice, Tom?”
The question took him aback. “I think I am.”
She hugged him tighter, then let go and disappeared under the water again. The stars were vanishing as clouds gathered, so it was almost impossible to see, but there was no sound of her splashing anywhere. She was the quietest swimmer Tom had ever been around.
He spun to look in every direction for any sign, and saw her in the shallows near the beach. He swam in as fast as he could, letting the waves help him along the way. By the time he reached the sand, she had put her sundress on her wet body and was holding out his clothes to him.
As he pulled on his shorts, she started walking west again. He went after her, awkwardly trying to pull on his shirt as he jogged.
They came to a break in the dunes and she turned toward a house up the beach. “Good night, Tom.”
“What? Already?”
“I have to go.”
“Can I see you again? Maybe tomorrow?”
“No.” She paused, and looked at Tom with a stare that told him not to interrupt. “Tonight was nice, but you’re just another boy who’s going to leave. And every time, you don’t come back.”
“Well, yeah, I’m going back to school, but—”
Dorothy grabbed his arms and pressed her cool lips against the corner of his mouth. Goose pimples sprang from his arms, but an electric heat shot through his feet. She pushed away, spun, and ran to the house. He wanted to run after, but his legs felt stunned by that shock.
A cloud passed over the moon as she ran into the shadows along the house and he didn’t see her re-emerge from the darkness.
Tom took two steps toward the house, then realized if he wanted any chance with her, he’d have to wait.
He turned and walked back to the bonfire, wet body shivering in the cool night. As he traced his own footprints back along the beach, he thought it odd how the waves had washed away the girl’s prints, but not his own.
#####
The clouds that gathered at the end of the night had become a storm by the next morning and Tom spent the day at his uncle’s place in town.
The following day, he rode his bike out to the house at the beach. He hated showing up uninvited, but had to see Dorothy again. He stopped on the shoulder across the street and walked up the board sidewalk to the house.
He knocked, and a middle-aged woman answered the door. “Yes?” she asked.
“Hi. Is… uh… is Dorothy at home?”
“I think you have the wrong house,” the woman said, and started to close the door.
“No. We met on the beach the other night and I dropped her off here.”
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t anyone who lives here. Good day.”
The woman pushed the door further, making it clear that he was dismissed, but left it open enough to watch him leave. Tom turned and stepped off the porch.
He was about halfway down the walk when he heard a mumbled commotion behind him. It ended with a clear, “Mother, don’t do this.”
Then he heard another voice call to him. “Young man.” He turned and saw an elderly woman at the door. She must have been eighty or so. Maybe almost as old as his great grandmother. “Did you say you were looking for Dorothy?”
“Yeah. Dorothy. You know her?”
The woman stepped back and opened the door. “Maybe you should come in.”
In the back he heard the other woman. “Mom!”
“You hush. It’s my house and he’s my guest.” She looked back at Tom and waved him forward. He followed her into the living room and she motioned at a sofa, inviting him to sit.
“Why are you here?” she asked. Before he could answer, she walked over to a side table and picked up a picture.
“I was at a bonfire down the beach the other night, and I met Dorothy. We walked for a while and she said goodnight to me out back and came into this house. Is she your granddaughter?”
She handed him the picture. “She was my aunt.”
The words barely registered to Tom. He was staring at a yellowing black and white photo of two young ladies in front of this house that looked like it was taken back around World War II. The younger one was unmistakably Dorothy.
“But I don’t… What? No, no, it can’t…”
“Did she say anything to you?”
“We talked. A little. She didn’t say much.”
“Did she maybe tell you why?”
“I don’t know what you mean. Why what?”
“In the fall of 1946, my grandfather awoke one morning and saw my Aunt Dorothy walking out into the ocean. At first, he thought nothing of it. She loved the water. A moment later, he realized she was fully dressed. He ran down to the shoreline calling her name. He said she turned to him once and waved, then calmly walked until the water was over her head. He swam out to where she went under, but she was gone. No one ever saw her again.”
“No. No, you’re lying. We talked. She held my hand. She kissed me.”
“This isn’t the first time, young man. Tell me. Did she tell you why she killed herself?”
“No.”
He tossed the picture frame to the other end of the couch. He needed to get away. None it made any sense. He leapt from the couch.
The old woman was in front of him and grasped his hands. “Please. Did she say anything? Anything.”
“No. She said I reminded her of a boy. A boy her parents didn’t like.”
“Who?”
“I don’t know. Wait. Frank someone. Petrocelli or Garelli. Something Italian. No. He wasn’t Frank, he was Frank’s friend.”
“That’s all?”
“She said he was nice, and she asked me if I was nice, and that was it. Then she said goodbye.”
The corners of the wrinkled mouth turned down and the old woman looked down at the floor. “Thank you.”
“Oh, and then she said something about the boy leaving and never coming back.”
“But here you are. You came back.”
He paused a moment. “I guess I did.”
The woman wrapped him in her thin arms and hugged him with a strength he hadn’t imagined she had. She took his face in her hands, pulled it down and kissed him under one eye. Then she walked him to the front hall, saying only “Thank you” as she closed the door behind him.
Tom walked around the house, down to the beach. The tide was pulling out and there was a wide expanse of smooth wet sand.
Except for a single line of delicate footprints leading into the ocean.
END.
by T. L. Emery

Ghost Writer

GHOST WRITER

Jim saw the sign tacked to the telephone pole on the corner, and put on the directional. He turned onto the street, and spotted a sedan pulling away from a parking spot in front of the house.
“Oh look, they’re leaving.”
“Yep, I see it…I’ll grab the spot.”
Jim slipped the SUV into the spot being vacated by the ladies leaving the yard sale that his wife Carol wanted to check out.
Carol strode into the driveway, saying hello to the lady sitting on the lounge chair, and Jim hung back by the end of the driveway. He scanned the tables quickly, and saw the typical collection of clutter that he’d just toss out.
“You don’t look as interested as your wife does,” came a voice from his left. Jim turned, and saw an older man had come out of the neighboring house, and walked over to where he was standing.
“No, it’s not for me, but my wife enjoys browsing these things.”
“My wife was the same way in her time, but I generally waited in the car while she looked. Bum leg from Nam.”
“Hey honey, I found a nice jacket, and it’s my size. Can I have some cash? Hi there!” Carol had come over while Jim was talking to the old timer, and he pulled out his wallet.
“Well hello, young lady. Looks like a good day for you.”
“Yes it is,” Carol smiled as she took the bills from Jim, and turned to walk back over.
“That’s a smart looking wallet you have there,” the old timer said. Jim held it up so he could have a better look.

“It was a lucky find. I have a thing for distressed leather, and this was perfect.”
“Give me just a minute. I want you to see something,” he said, and walked back to his house. Carol walked over wearing her new jacket, and did a twirl for him.
“So? What do you think, Jim?”
“It really looks good, babe. Good find for you.”
“I love it too, and thanks,” she flashed her brilliant smile.
“Well that looks marvelous, young lady,” the old timer said. He’d come back over, and held a very old looking leather bound book in his hand.
“Here’s what I wanted you to see,” he said, handing the book to Jim.
Looking closely, Jim could see that the thick leather cover appeared to have been trimmed and sewn by hand. He opened it and found pages of heavy vellum paper, also bound by hand. The paper had a silky, almost creamy texture, and he wondered where it had come from.
“Wow, this is a beautiful book…but you haven’t written anything in it?”
“I’m not much for writing. Hell, I’m not much for talking usually. Oh, begging your pardon, Ma’am. Not used to having company, especially ladies around here.”
“My husband writes all the time,” Carol said. “He’s trying to break through as a writer.”
“Yeah, and keeping my day job too,” Jim laughed. “Have to keep up with the mortgage.”
“Smart man. Do what you need to do, so you can do what you want to do. Tell you what…take this book, and see what a writer can make of it.”
“Oh, I couldn’t. Besides, that looks like it might be worth some money…it looks very old.”
“Well, so do I,” he laughed, “but I’m not worth a whole lot these days. When my time comes, somebody cleaning up will just toss it out. At least, you’re a man that will appreciate it.”
“At least let me give you something for it.”
“Nah,” he waved his hand, “Here…when you write a million seller, come on back and take me out for a nice steak dinner, how’s that?”
“Well, thanks…hey, I don’t even know your name.”
“Name’s Ed, and the young Missus called you Jim, so there we are.”
“Thanks very much, Ed,” Jim said, shaking Ed’s strong, calloused hand.
“You’re welcome, Jim. You folks have a nice day now…I have to get some chores done,” Ed said, as he turned and headed back to his house.
“Hey, lucky you, fella! We both got something nice at this one,” Carol said, smiling up at Jim.
“We sure did…this book is beautiful. I’m going to have to make sure I make good use of it.”
“Yes you will. Hey, I’m getting hungry…wanna get some lunch?”
“Sounds great,” Jim said, as he put his arm around Carol, and they walked back to the SUV. They put her jacket and his book in the back seat, and headed off to find a place to have lunch. They chatted casually as Jim drove, but his thoughts kept returning to that book. There was something about it, something that compelled him to write.
Neither of them noticed the old man watching them from his window.
That evening, Jim sat in his recliner, oblivious to the news program Carol was watching on TV. He had the book in his lap, and had brought one of his mechanical pencils along, which he tapped against his chin.
“Somebody’s deep in thought,” Carol said, as she muted the sound of the commercials coming on.
“Yeah…I think I’m going to write out some ideas for a new story longhand, and see if it might help the outline process.”
“I thought you might save that book to write your first novel in.”
“Don’t I wish,” Jim said ruefully, “but the magic muse hasn’t stopped by yet, babe. I’ve got some ideas going, but they’re for short stories, not a complete novel.”
“Don’t worry hon. It’ll come when it comes.”
She put the sound back on, as her show was coming on, but lowered the volume so Jim could concentrate better.
He opened the cover of the book, and clicked the pencil to advance the lead. At the top of the first page, he wrote the title for the story he wanted to do next, and then a paragraph below to outline the general idea.
He was surprised at how smoothly the pencil would glide across the page, feeling no friction in his fingers at all from writing. If he didn’t see the words on the paper, he’d have thought the pencil wasn’t even touching the page at all.
By the time Carol’s show ended, he’d written far more than he intended, a complete outline of the story, and thumbnail sketches of the characters that would be in it. He was surprised at how easily the whole thing flowed, almost of its own doing.
“End of day, Hemingway,” Carol laughed. “We have work tomorrow, and we still need to clean the kitchen and set up the coffee maker before bed.”
“Yep, you’re right, honey,” Jim said, setting the book and pencil on the end table.
As they moved around in the kitchen, tending to the cleanup, they chatted about the coming week, as couples usually do.
Jim felt completely at ease, as though he’d satisfied the thoughts and idea for his next story, and could put it out of his mind completely. That was unusual, as he generally second guessed and revised his first notes over and over in his mind before starting the actual writing.
The week progressed as most do, with them comparing notes about the good days, the not so good days, and some of the more interesting encounters with customers they’d had. Friday arrived, and they went out for dinner.
When the server took away the plates from their appetizer, Carol looked up with a surprised expression.
“Oh, I meant to ask you…when did you have the time to work on your new story?”
“I haven’t, well not since last Sunday…why do you ask?”
“I had no idea you wrote as much as you did then, hon. I was dusting one day, and I moved your book and the cover opened up. I didn’t read it, but it looked like a whole story. I like the fancy handwriting too, by the way.”
Jim was confused. Fancy handwriting? He’d done his outline in block letters, and it was far from a whole story.
“Well babe, I guess I must be writing in my sleep now…I didn’t do a complete story last Sunday at all. Just an outline and some details I wanted to capture, that’s all.”
“I must have thought it was more, because you never wrote by hand before.”
Two hours later, Jim sat in his recliner with the book in his lap. Carol had turned in, as she was tired, and Jim said he was going to sit up for a bit. After kissing her goodnight, he opened the book and read the story, the whole, completed story inside.
Carol was right about the distinctive hand, and the story was his idea, with his characters, but expertly written, gripping him as he read, unable to put the book down until he came to the terrifying end. He caught himself holding his breath during the more frightening sequences, which had turned out far better than he’d originally envisioned them.
The front page he’d written his notes on was gone, replaced by the first page of the completed work, yet there was no sign of a page having been torn out of the book. The binding was completely undisturbed, no trace of a torn or ragged edge anywhere. What he was seeing was clearly impossible, yet there it was.
The thought suddenly occurred to him that the story could disappear as quickly as it had arrived, so he got up, and brought the book to his desk and opened his laptop.
He devised a serviceable stand for the book, and opened his word processing program. He typed slowly, making sure he copied every word, every detail from the notebook, and once it was completed, saved it to the laptop, then to the network backup drive, and then to his cloud account.
If this wasn’t the most elaborate dream he’d ever had, he wanted to be sure he saved that story, so he could dissect it, analyze it, and try to learn how to write that well himself. He noticed he was holding his breath again, as he typed some of the more chilling passages.
Finally satisfied, he closed the program, lowered the screen to put the laptop to sleep, and put the book back on the end table next to the recliner. He needed sleep, and felt now it would finally come.
He slipped quietly into the bed, so he didn’t disturb Carol, and fell immediately into a deep sleep, undisturbed by dreams.
Jim rolled over in bed, and realized two things. Carol was not there, and the light coming in from behind the drapes was bright, much brighter than it is on a work day. He’d obviously slept late, and desperately needed to pee. He rolled out of bed and padded quickly to the bathroom, letting out a deep sigh as the pressure backed off. He washed up, and made his way to the kitchen, where he found a Post-it note on the counter in front of the coffee maker.
‘Went to class, see you later. Love ya, C.’
He poured a cup of coffee, adding just a little Half & Half, and brought it to the desk. Taking a sip, he lifted the lid on his laptop to wake it, and saw the story file on his desktop, right where he’d left it. He hadn’t even been aware that his neck muscles had tensed up until he felt them relax once he saw that the file was safely there.
He walked into the living room, sat in his recliner, and set his coffee cup on the end table after taking another sip. He picked up the book and opened it up and gasped out loud, nearly dropping it.
The story was gone.
The pages were as blank as the day he first saw the book, not even an impression from where the pencil had touched the page.
“What the hell?” Jim’s eyes widened, and he took a deep breath. He put the book on the table, nearly spilling the coffee, and jumped up, running to the other room.
“Please, please, please,” he muttered, as he clicked on the file. It opened in his word processing program, and was exactly as he’d saved it the night before.
“Oh, thank God,” he whispered aloud. He closed the program, noticing that his hand was shaking, making the mouse miss its target twice before it finally closed. He walked back into the living room, sitting back in the recliner. He picked up his cup carefully, and sat back as he drank.
None of it made any sense at all. In fact, the circumstances surrounding the book would make as good a story as anything else he’d ever read, and he was living it. He glanced at the clock on the DVR, and guessed that Carol would be home soon.
Jim decided to try something. He put his cup down, picked up the book and his pencil, and again wrote down a short synopsis for a story, a couple character ideas, and a working title, much like he’d done before. And again, the pencil flowed so smoothly that he expanded on his original ideas without even trying, as though he’d become a conduit for the words that flowed onto the sheet.
Satisfied, he put down the book and pencil in their accustomed spot, and got up to get another cup of coffee. His had gone as cold as the chill he’d felt when he found the blank pages in the notebook. He had to go back to that house, to talk to Ed, who gave him the book. If anyone had any answers, he’d be the one.
As he sipped his coffee, his cell phone rang. He picked it up, saw it was Carol, and pressed the icon to answer.
“Hiya beautiful. How was your class?”
“It was awesome! I feel like a million bucks.”
“That’s great, babe. Heading back now?”
“Well, that’s why I called. I ran into Judy at the class, and she’s having a demonstration at her house this afternoon. Would you be really upset if I came home to shower and change, and then took off again?”
“Tupperware party, huh?”
“No, you dinosaur. It’s jewelry, not Tupperware. They don’t even make that anymore.”
“Just kidding, babe. No, it’s fine. I have a few things I can get done, so sure.”
“Thanks honey. I’ll tell her, then I’ll be home soon.”
“Drive safe. Love ya.”
“Love ya back,” she said, hanging up.
Jim smiled, setting the phone down. This would give him some time to go back to Ed’s house and ask some questions about the book. Speaking of the book, he walked over to the end table, and opened the cover. Still his own notes, in his own handwriting, no change.
Not yet, anyway.
Jim got out of the SUV, noting ruefully that it was the same spot he’d parked in the day of the yard sale. The day it all started. The curtains were drawn, the house quiet.
He walked to the door, reaching for the doorbell, when he noticed the door was slightly open. He heard the voice from inside.
“Come on in. I’ve been expecting you.”
Jim stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
“If you’ve been expecting me, then you probably know why I’m here.”
“Yep. The book.”
“Where the hell did that book come from? And more important, why me?”
“Sit down, young fella. I’ll tell you what I know, but it didn’t come with instructions.”
Jim took a seat on the sofa and looked around. There was a mantle over the fireplace with only two items on it. A framed portrait of a younger Ed with a beautiful woman, and next to that, a hardcover book lying on its side.
“I wasn’t exactly truthful when we met. I don’t write anymore, but I did write back in the day. That damn book was a big part of it, and made me a lot of money, but it had a cost that I didn’t know about.”
Jim stood up and walked to the fireplace, picking up the book there. ‘Break Of Dawn’, by Ed Garrett. He remembered this book causing quite a stir when it came out.
“So, you’re Ed Garrett, and this is yours.”
“Yep. My first, and only novel.”
“Let me guess. You put down some ideas, some character sketches…”
“And found the completed novel in the book a few days later,” he finished.
“I did the same thing with a short story idea, and it also came out finished. But, once I copied it out on my computer, it vanished. The pages were all blank when I looked at it later on.”
“Yep. Did the same to me with my book. Or, its book, I should say. Did you publish your story?”
“No. I wanted to look at…”
“Don’t. Don’t even show it to anyone. Just erase your copy, and write your own story.”
“The writing was brilliant…I was going to try and put my own spin on it.”
“Let me tell you something. After I copied out my book, and the writing had gone away, I left the book open in the kitchen while I was making a salad. I cut my finger pretty bad slicing an onion, and when I reached for the napkins on the table, I spilled a lot of blood on the book.”
“I didn’t see any stains on it.”
“That’s because when I went to mop it up with a napkin, the blood was moving. It flowed to the binding, and went down those little holes where the thread holds the pages all together. It was like a kid with a straw, sucking it all up.”
“Come on, that’s impossible!”
“Maybe so, but that’s what happened. Damned thing has a taste for blood.”
“OK, if that’s all true, then why didn’t you destroy it?”
“I tried. I got a nice fire going right in that fireplace there, and set the book on top. I sat here in this chair and watched it burn to a crisp. Must have dozed off watching the fire, because I woke up later, the fire had gone out, and that damned book was back on the coffee table, none the worse for wear. Not a mark on it.”
“And you gave that to me.”
“I thought that was the only way to get rid of it. That’s how I wound up with it, and nothing else I tried worked. Like I said, it don’t come with instructions.”
“The lady in the picture. Your wife?”
“She was. Claire was the payment the notebook took in return for the sale.”
“What?”
“You know how they promise payment upon publication when you sell your work? The very day the money from the publisher arrived, she had a heart attack and died right in this room. Never had any health problems, her heart just stopped cold when that damned check went into the bank.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jim said, sitting heavily back on the sofa. He realized he still had Ed’s book in his hand, and set it on the coffee table, as far away from him as he could.
“Look, do yourself a favor. You have a nice missus. Erase anything you got from that book, don’t use a word of it, and find someone to give the book to. Do your own work, and save yourself a lot of trouble.”
“Why me, Ed? Why’d you give it to me?”
“Nothing personal. Just wanted to see if it would stay away, or if it would wind up back on my table, like it did after I burned it. And it stayed with you, so that has to be the key. I got it from a stranger, and then you did too, so find a stranger and pass it along.”
“And kill someone else’s wife? No thanks. There has to be a way to just get rid of it.”
“Sure, try it,” Ed shrugged, “maybe you’ll have better luck than I did. Maybe I could have tried something else, I don’t know. With Claire gone, nothing really matters anymore.”
The despair in Ed’s voice was clear. He hadn’t given the book to Jim out of malice or fear, he’d just given up.
“Look, I get it. You didn’t mean to hurt me or my wife, but you did. If I’d have done what you did…” he couldn’t finish the thought. The thought of anything happening to Carol would be unbearable.
“I don’t know how, but I’m going to get rid of the God damned thing. Good luck living with yourself.”
Jim got up without another word, and walked to the door, stepping outside. He closed the door behind him, and returned to the SUV, clicking the remote to unlock the door.
As he started the engine, he thought he heard a bang, and wondered if the SUV had backfired, but it was idling smoothly.
“Oh damn, don’t tell me,” he wondered aloud. He thought for a moment about going back to the house to check on Ed, but decided against it. If Ed was still sitting in his chair, he’d look like a skittish fool.
And if not, if he found Ed with a hole in his head, and a smoking gun on the floor, then what? He’d call 911, of course, but then he’d have to explain why he was there, how he knew Ed, and tell them about a haunted book that writes stories for its owner. If they didn’t consider him a suspect, they’d likely have him committed.
“Nope, let it be,” he said, putting the SUV in gear and driving away. Let someone else make the discovery, if that were the case. He had other things to do.
Jim got home before Carol, and went inside. He glanced at his end table, and the book and pencil were exactly as he left them. He considered looking to see if his notes were still there, and decided against it. He didn’t want to know.
He sat at the desk in their home office and tapped the touchpad, bringing the laptop to life. He selected the story file, and hit Delete. He then went to the local backup and deleted it there, and did the same at the cloud backup.
Three copies, all deleted. Click on the wastebasket icon, and select Empty.
“Am I sure? You bet your ass I’m sure,” he muttered, sending all traces of the story file to oblivion.
That done, he had two things yet to do. First, he wanted to tell Carol everything, knowing full well she’d have a hard time believing him. Hell, he had a hard time believing it himself.
Then, with her help, he had to get rid of the book. He wanted to destroy it and insure no one else would find it, and use it.
“Timing is everything,” he said softly, as he started the coffeemaker. He heard the garage door open, signaling Carol’s arrival home. The kitchen door opened, and she walked in with a radiant smile.
“Hey sweetie! How was your alone time?”
“Oh, it was pretty interesting. How was the Tupperware party?”
“You asshole,” she laughed, “It was fun, but I didn’t see anything that appealed to me. Well, except the wine. Hey, is that fresh coffee I smell?”
“Yeah it is, hon. We need to talk.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s not. It’s nothing that either of us did, but we have a problem to take care of.”
Two hours and one pot of coffee later, he’d told her everything, fielded her questions as best he could, and they sat quietly, each lost in thought.
“So, how do you want to try and get rid of it, Jim? If what Ed told you is true, it sounds like it heals itself somehow.”
“I’ve been thinking about that. He said he saw it burn to nothing, but fell asleep. When he woke up, it was on the table, like nothing happened.”
“So?”
“So, maybe Ed was drowning his sorrows a bit, and lit a fire, and thought he put the book in. And maybe he didn’t. Honestly, I don’t know, but something about his story just doesn’t click.”
“You want to try and burn it yourself? We don’t have a fireplace, hon.”
“No, but we do have a fire pit out back. And we have wood. And we have lighter fluid for the barbecue.”
“Okay…what do you want me to do?”
Jim got up, and walked behind her seat, wrapping his arms around her.
“I want you to stay in here, as far away from that thing as you can. Remember what he told me about his wife.”
“He told you that happened when he published a book, hon. You didn’t publish anything, you didn’t gain anything from it. There is no debt.”
“Maybe so, but humor me please? I don’t want to take any chances with this damned thing.”
“Jim, you’re scaring me,” Carol’s eyes were filling up as she spoke.
“That’s good, scared is good. Scared makes you more careful,” Jim heard the tremor in his voice, and knew she heard it too.
“Can’t we just call somebody for help?”
“Hello 911, we’re being held hostage by a ghost in a notebook. Babe, I think we’re on our own here.”
Carol stood and turned, wrapping her arms tightly around Jim.
“Fine. But, be careful! If something goes wrong, run like hell to get me so we can get away, okay?”
“Promise. I’m no hero, babe. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replied, hugging him as tightly as she could.
It was time. Jim went out back and loaded kindling in the pit, adding some wood scraps on top. He saturated the whole pile with the lighter fluid, and set the can down away from the pit. He went inside and picked up the book. He held it tightly closed now, not wanting to even see what was on that first page.
He set the book on top of the wood, then picked up the can and saturated it. He took the long nose lighter from the table, put it against the kindling and clicked the trigger.
The result was immediate, and powerful. Jim jumped back from the flashback as the fluid ignited, and the entire pit was consumed in flames. His neighbor looked over from her backyard next door and yelled at him to be careful, just as they both heard the bloodcurdling scream coming from inside Jim’s house.
“No, no, no, NO!” Jim yelled hoarsely, dropping the lighter and running as fast as he could into his house. His neighbor was frantically poking at her cell phone, trying to call for help.
Jim stopped abruptly in the kitchen, staring in horror, mouth moving, but not making any sounds.
Carol was lying on the floor, burning from within. Flames came out of her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She made a horrible retching sound, trying to form words, her hands clutching at thin air. She jerked from side to side, her body reacting violently to being cooked from within. Her back arched once more, and then she lay still, as the flames continued exiting her body wherever they could. Her eyes closed, and tendrils of black smoke crept up from beneath her blistered eyelids.
Jim grabbed the cordless phone from the counter and dialed 911. As the dispatcher answered, he turned to look away from Carol, and saw that the fire had gone out in the pit. The book lay on top, completely untouched by the flames.
Jim started screaming incoherently, the dispatcher trying in vain to get him to calm down so she could get information. She already had his name from Caller ID, and knew police and fire were en route.
The aroma of burnt pork suddenly reached him, and Jim fell to his knees, retching furiously. Between spasms, he kept screaming her name over and over again.
Outside, sirens were getting louder, as the first responders got closer. Diane Peterson stood outside her house, cell phone in hand, ready to point the paramedics to the Carter’s house.
The rescue van turned the corner, a fire truck right behind it, and Diane began waving frantically.
“Help, please! They’re inside, someone is hurt, and the fire pit is out of control in their yard!”
“Relax ma’am, we’ll take care of it now. Please step away, and let us do our job,” the first EMT said to her. He and his partner headed to the house as the fire captain and a couple of firemen went to the back to survey the fire pit. A police cruiser had arrived, and a patrolman asked Diane if she could make a statement.
One of the EMT’s spoke quietly to a policeman, who began speaking into the microphone on his shoulder. Someone thought he said “crime scene”, and rumors started spreading through the crowd.

Three weeks had passed, and detectives Bannon and Perez were at their desks, catching up on paperwork.
“Dammit Felix, looks like the Carter case is going cold on us.”
“How so?”
“Doc Wilkins returned an open verdict on the wife. Evidence points to spontaneous human combustion, but she had none of the underlying conditions that are generally associated with that.”
“Her husband was a suicide, from what I read.”
“Yeah, no doubt about him. He took a chef’s knife and dragged it across his throat. Hit both the carotid and jugular. The EMT said he’d have bled out in a minute or two at most. He wouldn’t have lasted the walk out to the bus.”
“Guilt, ya think?”
“Nah, he was in full view of the neighbor when the wife lit up inside. Looks like he lost his mind when he went in and found her cooking like a pig roast.”
Perez grimaced. Joe Bannon was a good detective, but as blunt as a rock.
“The wife was,” Bannon squinted and pushed his reading glasses up on his nose, “not elderly, not obese, not a smoker, and not an alcoholic. Everything associated with spontaneous combustion was not present or applicable here. In other words, we got bubkus.”
“What about the neighbor?”
“Let’s see, that’s Diane Peterson. Said Carter was starting a fire in his pit and used way too much fluid. When the fire blew up, she yelled to him to be careful. That’s when they heard the screaming from inside the house. He went running inside, and she dialed 911, which gives us a time stamp for when the wife lit up.”
“Why was he building such a big fire?”
“FD found a book in the pit. Said it was a miracle that it wasn’t even singed, even though the fire blew itself out once the fluid was exhausted. They say miracle, I say weird.”
“Why weird?”
“The fireman that moved the book out of the pit said he saw the words ‘Paid in Full’ on the first page in it, but crime scene said there was nothing written inside when they bagged it for the lab. Also, the lab found no sign whatsoever of damage or stains, but the bricks at the top of the pit were still hot from the fire.”
“Okay, you win. That is weird…I agree.”
“Like I said, we got bubkus here,” Joe closed the folder, pushing it away. “C’mon, let’s get a coffee. We got other cases waiting, and this one sure as hell ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
END.
by G.A. Miller

G.A. Miller is a new voice in the chorus of horror authors, drawing his ideas from every day, commonplace events that take unforeseen turns down dark corridors, often with horrific consequences.

Born between the original Japanese “Gojira”, and the Americanized “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”, G.A.’s interest in horror developed early on, nourished by televised movies on “Shock Theater” (Hosted by Zacherley, the “Cool Ghoul”), Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines, old issues of the late, great EC Comics, the British Horror Invasion of great films from Hammer Studios…the list goes on.

Making a living as a technician, he enjoys stepping away from the digital world, where ones and zeros are absolute, and entering the world of dark imagination, where a single “What If?” can turn normalcy to nightmare in a frenzied heartbeat, and rules of logic do not apply.

His published tales include:

“Bequeath” – Hinnom Magazine 001, Gehenna & Hinnom publishers.
“Shower Time” – The Edge: Infinite Darkness, Patrick Reuman publisher.
“Ear Wax” – Year’s Best Body Horror Anthology 2017 – Gehenna & Hinnom publishers.
“Nightmare” – Horror Bites Magazine, November 2017 Issue
“Just A Little Bloob” – Trembling With Fear column, Horror Tree web site, November 5th update

G.A. lives where Lovecraft lived, due south of where King lives. Perhaps there’s something in the water in New England? One wonders…

GHOSTS ON THE LINES

 

The cell phone rang.

Brittany did not move off the raft. She looked to where the phone sat and gingerly paddled across the green water, trying not to get more than her fingertips wet.  

Avoiding the water as much as possible, she slid off the raft and grabbed the phone. There was silence, then hissing and finally a lifeless computer-generated voice saying, “Good-Day, we are taking a survey—“

Brittany flipped the phone shut and wiped the sweat off her forehead with the dirty towel on the lounge chair.  She stared at the blue sky and knew that the thunderstorms would be rolling in soon, just like they did every afternoon. Her science teacher had explained last spring that the sudden climate changes that made New Jersey much like the tropics were a direct result of global warming and greenhouse gases.  She so wanted to find him now and see how he’d wheedle out of being so wrong, but she was pretty sure he was dead or a ghost.  

She looked back at the pool and wondered if she should ask her dad on his next foraging raid to look for some chemicals to turn the water clear again. She figured chlorine should be plentiful since the ghosts probably didn’t use pools.  

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Brittany frowned, she hadn’t really been done working on her tan, not that she got a good one this late in October. Tears burned her eyes. There were so many things she missed, and she admitted to missing just about everything, including, to her total surprise, even school. All the tanning and nail salons sitting ready but totally empty. The spas, the multiplexes, the fast food restaurants, The mall!   The mall was probably a war zone. And all her friends, all so far away, only reachable over lines haunted by ghosts of a dying world. How long, she wondered would the phones continue to ring with calls from dead computer-generated voices selling a world that no longer existed.

The afternoon storm wind began to build as clouds darkened the sky, The sickly green water darkened, She picked up her towel and headed inside when the cell rang again. She grabbed it, hesitated, looked to see who was calling, but all calls now read, Out- Of- Area, so she flipped it open.

“Hi, Brit!”

A smile crossed her face, and it felt stiff and unnatural. Smiles were getting more and more rare. “Hi, I was sure it was another automated call. Thank God it’s you, Nikki.”

“Getting your tan?”

“Yeah, you too?”

“Who’d have thought we’d be spending the first two months of the school year sunning like it’s still summer. If the trees were alive, they’d have turned colors. Oh well, having the world end so slowly does have its up-side.”

Brittany grimaced at the idea that this was really the end, although she was almost sure it was. How could those awful people do this to the world, first the climate then the plague.  Didn’t they know it was their world too?

God, she missed everyone, especially Nikki.  If only she could see her, but Nikki lived in that high rise building 3 miles toward Philly.  Three miles—three hundred miles—what did it matter now? “Have you heard from Kaitlyn, she hasn’t called in over a week. Maybe her cell broke.”

“No, and I haven’t heard from Kelly or Shawn either. Brit, I think they’re gone,” Nikki said with a catch in her voice. “Even if their cells were broken, the land lines still work. I reached Tiffany a while ago. She told me her parents are gone, went out for supplies and either became ghosts or died.”

A ghost, Mom had become a ghost, one of the first, so they hadn’t sent her away. The tears fell, a shudder shook her from head to foot like a giant unpleasant rush and she tried to blank out the vision. Brittany still had nightmares from it, and sometimes started throwing up if she remembered it in living color. “I wonder how Dad deals,” she mumbled then remembered she’d been talking to Nikki about Tiffany.  “Oh that’s awful.  What will she do for food and stuff?”

“Here’s the really awful part, worse than being left totally alone, That old guy in the next condo came over and made her come live with him, at least, he said, until they find out if she’s really alone.”

“Yeww… that’s like totally disgusting.”

“No, wait, it gets even worse. He said if she’s an orphan, he’ll marry her and take care of her forever.  Tiff says he licks his lips when he looks at her. Man, that guy’s so old he’ll be dead any day now. He’s got to be at least 40! Maybe she’ll be lucky and like he’ll become ED or something.”

Brittany thought about all the people left in her walled development and sighed. A few single woman, no one from her high school, no one even from middle school. Most of the houses were empty because anyone who looked the least bit pale was put out immediately. “At least someone’s there for her. Remember what happened to Mitch, Jess and Becky? Soon as their mom and dad started to turn, the neighbors threw both of them off the roof of the apartment house and the kids had to watch.”

“Really?  I hadn’t heard that, how do you know?”

“Rachel told me before she… oh anyway… she said that the people in the building took all their supplies and tossed all three kids out onto the street. Mitch and Jess and Becky called everyone for help, but no one could convince their parents to let them into their enclave.  After a day or so no one ever heard from them again.”

“Man, it’s like, getting really bad. I wonder how many enclaves are left?” Tiffany said, the fear traveling between their cells. “I wonder if we are all going to turn into ghosts?”

“I don’t know, I just want life to return to normal, I want a giant sweet sixteen party next summer, I want all our friends back, I want to hang out at the mall, I want a date, I want my mom!” Brittany started crying loudly.  “I… I gotta go.”  

Her tears fell and the storm raged outside, but it didn’t matter. Brittany knew that within the hour it would be gone and the summerlike heat would return. She turned on the TV and watched a few infomercials. She pretty well knew them all by heart, just like the cycling and recycling music on the radio, and the haunting phone calls selling to a public that didn’t exist.  If the ghosts didn’t crave the light so much, everything would have shut down months ago.

Dad and Mr. Eggers next door had talked one afternoon about how the ghosts kept the power grid up because they needed the light so much.  Mr. Eggers claimed the ghosts congregated in the stadiums with the night-lights on, that they couldn’t survive in the dark. Dad had said he was full off shit. Mr. Eggers also told everyone in the enclave that the ghosts skinned people and wore them to cover up their insides. Brittany smiled at the memory of Dad punching Mr. Eggers for saying that. Dad was still sensitive about Mom.

Mr. Eggers stormed out and on the next foraging raid, disappeared. Everyone said the ghosts probably got him. No one said it, but that was probably too bad for the ghosts.

The house phone rang and Brittany picked it up.  “Need your carpets clea—.“

She slammed the receiver down and looked around the kitchen. The same and yet so different. Nothing was really clean; clear, fresh water had become a scarce commodity after the first few months.

Brittany saw the calendar and stared at the date, Mischief Night! God, how she always loved mischief night!  She dialed her cell and heard Nikki pick up. “Hey, it’s October 30th. Wanna go to the mall and hang out? “

Nikki laughed. “Yeah, I do. I really do. Oh Brit, what’s the point of all this. We are all just waiting to become ghosts and die. Why’d those terrorists do this to the world? Didn’t they realize that they were killing everyone?”

Brittany didn’t say anything right away but finally found words, “I wish things were normal again… I wish I could see you again. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to live like this!”

“Me either,” Nikki said and started to cry. They spent the next few minutes sobbing out all the frustrations of living through the end of the world as they knew it.   

Finally, Brittany said, “Maybe I can go with Dad, they are going out foraging as soon as it gets good and dark. Maybe, you can get out and we could pick you up at least for a couple of days. I miss you so much!”

Nikki’s voice perked up. “Ya think so?” Then she dropped down to a hopeless tone, “Mom and Dad would never allow it. They’d be afraid you’re all ghosts trying to entice me out so you can wear my skin.”

“You’ve heard that story too?” Brittany asked, remembering Mr. Eggers’ words.

“Yeah, someone here actually saw a skinned body and a ghost wearing it, dripping blood as it walked in the sunlight.”

“That’s disgusting!”

“So’s having your skin fade away, melt off a few cells at a time, until you’re clear and your guts just pulse, shine and glow in the light while they are still inside of you!” Nikki said.

Brittany gasped and choked back a sob.  The memory couldn’t be stopped this time.  Mom, pretty, olive skinned, black haired Mom, turning white, and then whiter, and finally transparent as her skin dissolved, layer by layer, until it dissolved completely and her insides splattered on the floor as she died. And through it all, she didn’t die right away. Her parts twitched and jerked until they finally stopped  and her eyes, still attached to her skull, glazed over.

Brittany saw the whole thing, and since then, often watched her dad for signs of fading. She worked on her tan every day making sure she wouldn’t fade, ever. She wondered every night as she drifted off to sleep how anyone could have purposely created such an awful disease and she hoped that they were still alive to watch everyone they loved fade away and splash out their life onto a dirty floor.

She caught her breath then let it out, long and slow. “I’m OK, Nik.”

“I’m sorry,” Nikki said. “Look I have an idea. I don’t want to live like this anymore.”

“Don’t talk that way!”

“No, I’m serious, it’s Mischief Night and I’m going to call everyone I know and tell them I’ll be at the mall just like every year and they should join us. If enough of us show up, the ghosts will stay away.”

“If there are enough of us left,” Brittany muttered.

“I’m serious, we can’t go on like this, waiting to die or starve. Let’s all meet at the mall and make it our own enclave. Then we can call our parents and have them join us.”

“Wow!” Brittany breathed. “That’s a great idea, a giant enclave instead of a bunch of little sheltered forts, gated communities, and apartment buildings. Why didn’t someone think of that before?”

“Look, we will wait till dark and sneak into the mall through the loading dock, remember that door with the broken lock? Anyway, once inside, we will knock out most of the lights and it will be safe. Once we get everyone in, we’ll just barricade the whole place up. There’s plenty to eat and do, and we might even get the cinema working again and actually watch something besides those forever spooling infomercials.”

Hope, a feeling almost dead, suddenly reemerged from the deep place it had been hidden. This was going to work! She knew it. At last, hope, an end to despair and that awful loneliness. Brittany hung up and spent the next hour on the phone, most of the time calling numbers with no answer, but occasionally hitting a live friend or acquaintance.

She made dinner, canned soup, for her dad and tried to pretend everything was normal. Luckily, her dad rarely noticed her moods anymore. Life had become too serious to pay attention to anyone normal. She fought off the jittery feeling in her belly, the weakness in her knees. This was a great plan, a hope for the future! There was nothing to be afraid of, her friends would protect themselves and they start life over in her favorite place in the world. Dad wouldn’t even be mad once she called him from the mall.

Darkness fell early as usual, as autumn slowly moved toward winter. Her dad kissed her cheek. “Lock up, Baby, and I’ll be home in a few hours.”

As soon as he left to go on the foraging raid with the other remaining men, she dressed for the mall. It was the first time she’d had real clothes on in weeks and it felt so good. She took half an hour with her hair and make-up.

At the door, she had one last look at herself in the mirror and noted with relief that she still had a healthy tan. She went outside, shimmied up the dead tree next to the wall and jumped over it.

It felt funny, free for the first time in what seemed forever and yet she was so scared. Her stomach fluttered and clenched as she tried to tiptoe the mile and a half to the mall. She avoided all the streetlights and hugged the shadows. After what seemed like hours, even though she knew it was less than one, she saw the mall loom up. The ghosts were shimmering under the huge parking lot floodlights and she gasped. This was the first time she’d really been around them since… since Mom.  She wondered if they were contagious, if they really killed the healthy-skinned.  She wondered how they could live huddled together watching each other die hideously and knowing that they were next.  A part of her half wanted to go up to them and offer comfort, but she turned and ran silently to the loading dock and into the silent mall.   

The fountain was quiet and filled with algae covered water. Brittany sat beside it and waited for Nikki and the gang. She felt such relief that she and her friends had found a solution to the loneliness, and as everyone knows, there is strength in numbers. Yet here she was, alone. Noises echoed down the empty halls. She knew it had to be just random sounds. She tried to feel brave , she got up and walked to the store across the way. The fashions were old, last season, but she realized with a semi-hysterical laugh, that fashion would always be last season. Maybe this was a dumb idea after all. She looked at another storefront and went in to try on a pair of shoes. Some of the lights were on and Brittany wished that Nikki would hurry and show up so they could dim them more, just to be on the safe side.

She heard a loud noise and ducked down. Could it be ghosts?  She stayed  hunched behind a rack and panicked. What if the place was full of ghosts? What if it were her friends?

No matter, she had to get out, either find Nikki or run home. She tiptoed out in her new sandals and looked down the long corridor to the right. Nothing!

The sounds were coming from the left.  She prepared to run, as she looked over her shoulder and heaved a shaky sigh of relief.  A group of figures were coming toward her in the low light and the leader was wearing Nikki’s favorite hat. Nikki never went to the mall without it, it was her signature. Brittany had always been jealous that Nikki thought of the hat first.

She waved and Nikki waved back. See, everything was going to be fine, she thought, berating herself for any doubts she’d had. But all the same, a tickle of fear run up her back as she noticed that the group coming toward her was getting larger as more people joined in from the stores. Chilled, in the hot building, she started to back away.

The overhead lights snapped off completely. Brittany stood in the total dark, a wave of relief covering her with a comforting weakness. Her heart struggled to return to a normal rhythm. The crowd couldn’t be ghosts after all, not in the dark.  They hated the dark.

Just as suddenly as they’d gone off, all the lights flashed on, momentarily blinding her.

As her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She stared at the ghost standing directly in front of her, the ghost wearing Nikki’s hat and, of course, Nikki’s skin.  The other ghosts were similarly attired. They all appeared to be holding large, sharp knives.

Brittany stood frozen. A hopeless giggle bubbled up her throat and she came to the inane and random realization she was obviously a night off, when the Nikki garbed ghost whispered, “Trick Or Treat,” and closed in on her.

END.

By Diane Arrelle

Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has sold more than 250 short stories and has two published books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She has a new collection of horror stories, Season’s Of Fear, due out in late 2017.

She is a founding member and past-president of the Garden State Horror Writers and past president of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.

A recently retired director of a municipal senior citizen center, she is co-owner of a small publishing company, Jersey Pines Ink LLC. She resides with her husband  the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).