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

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…

Hellbound Express Chapter 6

For your reading pleasure, here is the third installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first 5. chapters, here (1, 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) are the links for them. Enjoy.
Chapter 6
By Mel Odom

A zombie in the ragged remains of a gray mechanic’s uniform rushed Gant with its mouth open and black ichor gleaming on its teeth. It moaned without emotion. In life, the dead man had been big, taller than Gant and heavier, but death had stripped away the excess weight.

Raising his left arm, Gant blocked the zombie’s right arm with his forearm and brought the ASP down in a hard arc with his right. The matte black baton slammed into the zombie’s forehead with a liquid crunch, breaking through bone. Its rheumy eyes exploded. Bloody black goo leaked down its withered cheeks as its head came apart.

Setting himself, Gant caught the zombie’s collapsing weight against his left arm and shoved forward, driving the corpse back into the one dressed in shorts and a t-shirt behind it. The two things toppled back and down, then hit the ground hard. The one with the crushed forehead lay still, but the one underneath fought to get free. For the moment, the dead weight on top of it kept it pinned.

A few feet away, Jenni knocked her closest attacker’s feet from under it with a leg sweep and side-stepped the falling body as she slid toward the second zombie facing her.

In life, the fallen zombie had probably been a thirty-something year old mom. Now the PTA t-shirt and stretch pants hung in tatters. Before the virus spread, the woman had been someone’s mom and wife. Gant remembered his own lost family and the cinnamon smell that had pervaded his childhood home on holidays.

He forced that memory out of his mind.

As the dead thing tried to get up and reach for Jenni, Gant crossed over, leaned down, and swung the tomahawk into its temple. Desiccated flesh ripped and bone shattered as the blade drove into its brain and stilled it.

Jenni drove her broad-bladed hunting knife up under the zombie’s jaw, putting enough force into the effort to shove the tip up into its brain. It went still and slack and dropped to the ground.

Gant turned, intending to get to the zombie he’d left behind, when something smashed into him and drove him backward. Unable to keep his feet under him, he stumbled and went down, putting out his left hand to keep him from falling facefirst to the ground.

“Aaaaahhhhhhhh.” The zombie clung to Gant’s shoulder and moaned into his ear. The cry deafened Gant even through the helmet.

In life, the zombie had been big and strong. Faded tattoos ran the length of the dead thing’s forearms. One of them showed a nude woman in a cowboy hat and boots riding a dolphin leaping up from the ocean. Frayed, braided cord bracelets had sunk into the undead flesh at its wrists. Long, scraggly hair and an unkempt beard scratched at the thin line of Gant’s neck that lay exposed between his helmet and body armor.

The thing’s rancid stink so close to Gant almost made him violently ill. Its breath was strong enough to blister paint. Gant tried to roll to dislodge the corpse, but it gripped him solidly. Its large head came forward, jaws wide, and yellowed teeth snapped and gnawed at his Kevlar-covered shoulder.

Fear rose inside Gant even though he’d faced zombies dozens of times. They were bad enough at a distance, and even killing them in hand-to-hand combat still jarred him, but having one at his throat again brought up all those old memories of being trapped with no place to run.

For a moment, he panicked and tried pushing it off him even though he didn’t have the leverage he needed. The thing was godawful strong and—even a husk of its former self—was heavier and taller than Gant. Before he could shift and try to counter the thing’s hold, a gloved hand closed in the hair at its forehead and yanked back. Then a knife plunged into the zombie’s right eye to the hilt.

Instantly, the dead thing went slack and the sudden surge of its weight almost knocked Gant over. He twisted aside and let the body fall as Jenni yanked it to the side using the fistful of hair she still clung to. She had one knee in the thing’s back as she guided it away from Gant.

“Don’t leave one of these things operational behind you in close quarters.” Jenni ripped her blade free as she spoke in a harsh, angry tone. “Isn’t that one of the rules you taught me?”

Gant didn’t answer because he’d taught her exactly that.
“Take out what’s in front of you.” Jenni breathed raggedly. “Keep moving in the direction you’re headed. Break free, then assess your situation. Trust your partner to cover your back. I remember that one too.”

“I thought you needed help.” Even as he said that, Gant knew it was weak. He hadn’t trusted Jenni to handle the things she’d faced. She was still new to scavenging, which was why he’d paired her with him. He’d felt the need to watch over her.
She drove her knife through the temple of the zombie still working its way from beneath the mechanic.

“Wrong! You know that’s wrong.” Jenni knelt to wipe the ichor from her knife. “You thought I couldn’t deal with those two. So you decided to go all macho and save me.” She stood and sheathed her knife. “Never save someone who can’t save himself or herself. You look for allies. You don’t throw your life away for someone who’s gonna die. Didn’t you tell me that?”

“I did.” Gant knelt and wiped off his weapons as well.

“Well?”

“I screwed up.”

“Almost got yourself killed, you mean.” Jenni’s helmet shook from side to side. She nodded to where three more zombies loped toward them. “Might have got me killed too.” She moved into a fighting stance, loose and ready, just like Gant had taught her.

“I thought about leaving you.”

“Maybe you should have.”

“After the example you set? Not likely.”

Gant stood and moved a couple feet away from here. “We’ll talk about this later.”
“Bet your ass we will,” Jenni promised.

Settled now, Gant stepped to the side and dropped to a crouch, long enough to brace himself to put a shoulder into a dead woman’s chest. The thing stumbled to the side and he swung the tomahawk to catch it at the base of the skull. He yanked the tomahawk free as Jenni drove her knife through the temple of a dead man in the remnants of a cheap business suit. He stayed back, out of the way, while she dealt with the remaining zombie by offering it her armored forearm and then smashing the knife down into its skull when it took the bait.

“See what you can find.” Jenni took up a position a few feet away and faced away from Gant. “I’ll keep watch.”

Gant knelt and placed his weapons nearby on the ground. He went through the dead things’ pockets quickly, taking out keyrings from the three that had them. He took all of the wallets he could find.

Working quickly, Gant sorted through the wallets, looking at the driver’s licenses and other cards he found. Excitement filled him when he found cards that interested him.
“What did you find?” Jenni asked.

“Federal Firearms License.” Gant paired it with the keyring that had come from the mechanic’s pocket.

“Cool. Thinking he might have some guns?”

“Hope so. Unless somebody knew about them. Or he carried them out of the house while trying to get out of town.”

“Maybe he wandered back home after he died.”
“Maybe.”

Sometimes the zombies returned back to where they’d lived and stayed in the vicinity. There was no way of knowing how much of the person remained in the walking corpse.

“I saw you take another card,” Jenni prompted.

“This one was a doctor.” Gant held up hospital identification and pointed to a woman in a sports halter and shorts. She’d carried a small wallet with her keys, cards, and a little cash. The money was no good to anyone.

“Local?”

“Yes.”

Her driver’s license had indicated she’d also lived in one of the nearby houses.
“If she kept meds at the house,” Jenni said, “this will be a good run.”

Pharmaceuticals remained hard to come by so long after the initial outbreak. That was why they didn’t search drug stores or pharmacies as a general rule. Those areas often held groups of the dead and the space got too easily blocked to get back out again.

Plus, any kind of encounter within a store usually ended up with broken glass and maybe alarms going off. Those noises drew the dead immediately.
“Let’s go.” Gant gathered his weapons and headed for the nearest house. “We’ll hit the doc’s place first.”

Organ Manipulators

Organ Manipulators

By Justin Boote

Wayne peered above the gravestone and watched the large group which stood around the freshly dug grave, listening to the vicar recite his passage. Most wept uncontrollably, others simply hung their heads, hats in hand.
His eyes gleamed with anticipation. A low growl escaped his throat. Tonight, he’d have new material. He had no idea of the age or sex of the person now being covered in dirt, and it was largely irrelevant, although it was always nice to know what one was dealing with beforehand. On one occasion, it had been a young child he’d retrieved, who had evidently been subject to a nasty accident of some kind. Half his face had been missing, and what remained of his vital organs had been useless for his purposes. The shock had almost provoked his own death via a serious heart-attack. How ironic that would have been.

The family and friends-he assumed-finally began to leave. Some hugging, others hands in pockets, shaking their heads. Now they would head to a family member’s home and initiate a process he had never comprehended. Sandwiches would be eaten, beer or wine drunk, an occasional chuckle or perhaps a bellow of laughter. One might think it was a birthday party were it not for the black veils, black suits, and women weeping in the corner.
It was said that it was to remember the deceased. Why? Had he/she been forgotten for some reason? If not, why prolong the agony? How could anyone be hungry after paying their farewell to a loved one?

Finally, everyone left. Wayne was alone. He crept towards the grave, hunched down, checking to make sure no-one might detect him. This was imperative. Being caught now, when he was so close, would be disastrous. Looking at the grave marker, he made a mental note of the name and age;Jeremy Stim. 1995-2017.

Perfect; only twenty-two years old. Hopefully it had been a car crash, or some bizarre accident, that would have left enough organs in conditions for him to work with. Had it been cancer or some other disease, the risk was too great. The organs had to be in perfect conditions.

Memorizing the location of the grave, he crept away and returned home. To wait until nightfall, when hopefully his faculties would be sufficiently intact to return and claim his prize.
#####

“Hey Mike! How’s it going?”

“Hi Stewart. Well, not too bad. Why?” This was an understatement. Mike was feeling terrible.
“I ask, because we’re meeting at the Crown tonight for a few drinks. Thought you might like to come.”
“No, thanks for the offer, but I don’t really feel like it. Maybe another time,” he said. He was sweating. And shaking.
“Ah, come on Mike. It’ll do you good to get out once in awhile. I can’t remember the last time you came out with us.”
“Sorry Stewart. Maybe next time.” Mike hung up, and slumped into his armchair. The sweat was pouring from every orifice, the muscles and veins in his body throbbing.

“No, please no. Not again,” he sobbed. He tried to think of something-anything- to prevent the inevitable. It was futile, and he knew it. He was powerless to resist. All he could hope for was that his victim that night might be some forgotten soul, lost to the underworld, where no-one would lament their departure.

Mike grimaced. The pain was always intense during the first stage. He’d tried drowning his stomach in whiskey to alleviate the changes, but it never worked. The only result was the pounding headache when he awoke the next day, lost in some abandoned warehouse or nearby field.

His chest became a cauldron. His organs burned as they expanded, his heart furiously pumping the scalding blood throughout his body. He tensed and gritted his teeth as the wire-like strands of hair began to grow all over his body and face, bristling with vitality. Claws slowly stretched from hands and feet that might have shamed Nosferatu himself.

And then, as Mike began to scream in agony, his muscles contracted and took on new proportions and strength, until-gleaming, white fangs protruding from cracked lips- his metamorphosis was complete.
A deafening howl broke the tranquil night, sending rodents, owls, and all nocturnal creatures running or flying in terror, as the creature threw open the front door of its cottage and bounded away on all fours into the night. It was ravenous, ecstatic and ruthless. A victim was needed and it cared nothing should it be its own mother it came across first.

#####

A large cloud passed in front of the moon, obscuring the light that highlighted the gravestones.
“Perfect,” Wayne whispered. Ensuring that nobody was looking, he climbed over the short, wire-mesh fence and jumped. He ran to a large oak tree to prevent being seen by passers-by, then squatted. If his memory didn’t fail him-and it rarely did-the grave he wanted was just a few yards to his right, next to a smaller oak.

Wayne opened his rucksack and once again, checked its contents. It wouldn’t do to be half-way through the job and realize he’d forgotten his torch or even worse, the ebony handled, silver knife he used to finish. The risks were high already without receiving reward at the end of it.

Confident that all was in order, he crept to where the smaller oak tree was, and knelt. Yes, here it was; the grave marker to the burial he’d witnessed earlier that day.

Sweating with nervous apprehension of the task ahead, Wayne produced a short, folding spade and began to dig. Being summer, the soil was still soft and fresh, not like in winter when occasionally he’d had to hack at it due to the frozen ground.

After excavating half a metre or so of soil, he stopped for a cigarette. As time went by, and his disease took a stronger hold, the job was getting harder. Inhaling smoke from the cigarette, he began to cough and splutter. He was already seriously out of breath from digging, and the cigarette wasn’t helping, and now he could discern spots of blood on his hands that could only have come from his lungs.

“Great,” he whispered. “Just what I needed.”

He leaned back against the oak and, breathing heavily, wiped off the blanket of sweat that covered his face. There was still some way to go before he reached the coffin, and while haste was required before any guard came around, he still needed to recuperate. His lungs were getting worse it seemed, although- just when he had begun to lose faith in what the old Gypsy had invoked- the cancer that had ravaged his bladder also, had disappeared.

Burying the cigarette butt in the soil-can’t leave evidence of any kind-Wayne resumed digging. After another hour, his spade finally clanked on metal. Sighing with relief, he threw away the spade and brought out a small crowbar. Once more he checked to ensure no-one was in the vicinity. On another occasion, a couple of damn kids had almost provoked another heart-attack after they had sneaked in the graveyard for a session of illicit snogging. For a moment he’d considered killing them instead and taking their organs, such was his fury.

Slowly, he began to pry open the lid, until suddenly, he stopped. A bolt of fear flew up his spine and he almost dropped the crowbar. A terrifyingly loud howl came from nearby. A sound that could not possibly come from any dog or human.

Although the graveyard was situated close to a main road, few houses dotted the skyline. The village was made up mainly of fields and small woods, the only inhabitants those that made their living working away or farmers that grew and bred both crops and deer. For this reason, he had chosen this graveyard for his nightly excursions. It was small, and the chances of discovery were slim.

So where the hell had that noise come from?

Then, it came again. Closer. Long and drawn out as if some animal had trapped a leg in some vicious trap. But, by Christ, it sounded like a damn wolf! And here in Norfolk, wolves had died out hundreds of years ago.

Wayne crouched down, shivering, but not from cold. Something was in the vicinity, and getting closer. He waited a few minutes, cursing whatever it was that spooked him, until a gasp of fright burst from his lips. Two Red Deer were bolting across the adjacent field, and in close pursuit, some giant animal was sprinting after them. Wayne watched in shock and horror. Even though the light from the moon was faint, he could still discern a creature running on all fours that had to be almost the size of the deer itself; black, covered in hair and growling like a rabid bear. Eventually it caught up to one of the deer and leaped onto it, tearing into its throat with a purpose and fury, until just a few seconds later, the deer’s head came free in its mouth. The creature spitted it out and resumed its insatiable devouring of the rest of the animal, growling and slobbering as it did so.

“Jesus, what the hell is that?” Wayne whispered to himself. He poked his head above the hole he was squatting in, and watched as the creature finished ravishing the deer, emitted another great howl of triumph and sped off.
Wayne reeled with the shock of what he had just witnessed, but there were more urgent matters to take care of, and he’d already wasted too much time already.

With one great heave, he finally managed to release the lid of the coffin, and taking a deep breath, looked inside.
Despite having repeated this operation on numerous occasions, a sense of uncertainty and sadness always overcame him. On the one hand, the person before him was already dead, so wasn’t going to miss an organ or two, but at the same time, he felt like a thief, a rapist. Stealing and violating another. One who had never caused him grief, or had even met before, yet principles dictated that what he was doing was still wrong; stealing from another to sustain his own pathetic existence.

The boy’s face was at least intact. Nothing was missing that would cause nightmares later, after replenishing. In a way, he thought, this was worse. He’d had a whole life ahead of him, and something had happened to end it. Death was not biased when it came to choosing acolytes.

Now moving quickly, Wayne produced the silver knife that he had considered adequate for the job(it came as a box set for Christmas from his parents) and deftly opened the boy’s chest. The organs were all intact. Removing the heart, he placed it in a small box and climbed back out of the hole. Replacing the dirt-it was the least he could do-he grabbed his rucksack and headed for safety and the comfort of home, where he would eat the heart raw and hope that another section of the cancer that was ravaging his lungs would disintegrate.

As he approached the door of his house, another blood-curdling howl stole through the warm, summer air, sending him panicking and bundling inside.

The next day, Wayne awoke feeling replenished, vibrant. Tentatively, he lit a cigarette. Poised, awaiting the first bout of coughing to hit him, he dragged on the fumes and blew out the smoke. Nothing. He took another, longer drag. Nothing.

“I don’t believe it,” he said, smiling. No blood, no manic coughing fits for the first time in weeks.

“God damn that old Gypsy!” One, maybe two more sessions of grave-robbing and he thought he might at last be fully cured. With the heart he’d eaten last night, that was now seven. The gypsy had said not to stop until all signs of the cancer disappeared. Well, he’d stopped pissing blood weeks ago. All that was left was the cancer in his lungs.
Sighing, he lay back in bed, took deep, long drags of his cigarette and recalled the encounter with the old gypsy.

#####

“You are dying man!”

Wayne looked up. He was sitting on a park bench having just vomited-again.

“I know, thank you,” he said.

“I know you,” said the gypsy.

Wayne looked at him. The gypsy was old, he had to be at least a hundred judging by the wrinkles that adorned his entire face. Straggles of grey hair blew wildly in the wind. The old man was so gaunt Wayne wondered if a stronger gust of wind might blow him over and yet there was something in his eyes that suggested a strength far more potent than a few meagre muscles on a withered body. They pierced straight into Wayne as though they could detect every secret, every hidden memory that lay behind the grey mass between his ears.

Wayne looked away. He felt as though he was being inspected by some voyeur surgeon on the operating table.
“What do you want?” he asked.

“You work at bank.”

“Correct. What do you want? A loan?” Wayne chuckled, provoking a bout of coughing.

The gypsy ignored the comment, but remained passive, staring at Wayne. “You help me, I help you,” he said.
“See, I knew it. How much do you need?”

“Money-nothing. But your bank has possession of our land where we stay for now. Allow us one more month at site. We leave, I help you.”

“And how exactly can you help me? You a doctor or shaman or something?” Wayne shook his head and chuckled again.

“Do not joke with me. You help, I help.”

Wayne stopped chuckling and looked at him. The old guy was probably senile but he at least looked serious.
“Okay, sorry. But how do you suppose I might help you stay for another month on the field?”
“You are bank manager. You decide if we stay or go.”

“Okay, let’s say I do let you stay. Look at me. The doctor has said I have another six months left to live at most. My bladder and lungs are ridden with cancer. I’m finishing work this very week to ‘get things in order’, as they like to say. How can you help me?”

The gypsy sat down beside him and produced a small knife.
“Give me your wrist.”

“Hey! What do you think you’re going to do with that?” He edged away, wondering if he’d have the nerve to punch or push the guy should he become aggressive.

“Give.”

Wayne looked at the gypsy. From the harsh, intense look in his eyes he appeared deadly serious. Well, what damage could he do that might be worse than that already inflicted upon him? He stuck out his arm and tensed, ready to retaliate should it become necessary.

The gypsy began to mumble something unintelligible in his own language and with his free hand, placed it on Wayne’s stomach.

Immediately Wayne felt a warmth inside, as though the sun’s rays were penetrating directly at his intestines, and then, before he had even realized, the gypsy made a small slit in Wayne’s wrist and began to slurp at the wound, drinking the small stream of blood the slit had produced.

“Hey! The hell you doing?” he exclaimed, as he tried to release his arm and failed. The grip the gypsy had on it was surprisingly strong.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “no blood. Only urine. Remove order for expulsion from field, and I will show you how to cure completely.”

The gypsy’s prophecy had proved correct. The next morning Wayne had almost forgotten about his encounter and had only remembered when he looked suspiciously into the toilet bowl. For the first time in weeks there was no blood swimming in the bowl.

I don’t believe it! He felt a rush of adrenaline and joy course through him. Maybe there was something in what he had said after all. But he had slit his wrist in the process of demonstrating his evident power. What would he do to cure him completely? Cut his arm off?

After ensuring that permission was granted for one more month to the gypsies at the nearby field the old man had told him what he needed to do.

Wayne had almost thrown him out of the bank in his shock and disgust. The gypsy told him that he needed to remove and eat the heart of those recently buried to regain his health; thus the tissue and organ would regenerate in his own body and, at the same time, remove all malignant tissue.
Wayne stared at him aghast, disgusted.

“You’re telling me I have to become a grave robber-a ghoul?”

“If you want to live, you must do it. If not, you die. Your choice.” With that, the gypsy left. Wayne never saw him again.

Wayne spent several days pondering over his situation. Being a divorcee with no kids he didn’t have to worry about being interrogated as to his sudden late-night excursions, but the thought of digging up a recently buried person, risking the humiliation of being caught, and then actually eating their organs filled him with a repulsion and dread only comparable to when he’d been told he had cancer in the first place. This was a perfect example of the cure being worse than the diagnosis. And yet, the gypsy had been right. What were his options? If he was caught and sent to prison, at least he wouldn’t be there for very long, or have to worry about ‘getting his things in order’.
So, after an important session with a bottle of whiskey he kept as pain-killer, he did it. And fortunately, it hadn’t gone too bad. Primarily terrified about being caught, he’d dug up the grave and been confronted by his first dead body. The young girl looked asleep. He’d half-expected to be confronted by a writhing mass of maggots and worms but because she’d only been buried that same day, he had been spared.

And then, he had taken the heart home. Almost vomiting just from looking at it, he took several shots of whiskey and forced himself to eat it. Slowly at first, only minute bites and forcing himself to think of the long and fruitful life he’d have ahead of him if he persevered, until it was all devoured. His first human heart was now battling against the disease inside.

So, a week later, he had repeated. Until now. Only one or two more. But there was something else that bothered him; the something that had ravaged the deer in the field opposite, and then made that terrifying howl. Wayne had seen enough movies to recognize the kind of animal associated with that kind of howling and he didn’t like it, but worse was that only a few weeks ago he would have dismissed it as paranoia. And yet, a few weeks ago, he had scoffed at an old gypsy who had offered him a cure for cancer.

He decided that the next time he returned to the cemetery, he’d take a larger knife with him.

#####

Mike opened his eyes, looked around and then at himself. He was naked.

“Shit,” he exclaimed. Sitting upright, he scanned the field he found himself in. It looked familiar somehow, and then he saw them. In the adjacent field were gravestones; it was the local cemetery.

“Well, at least I’m not too far from home this time,” he muttered. Rising to his feet, he checked that nobody was in the vicinity and began to scamper away in the direction of home. As always, he had no idea how he had come to end up in the field, but the circumstances that led him there, he did.

He had been fishing one night in a river that ran through the larger of the surrounding woods. At night was always the best time; no-one else would be in his spot and he enjoyed the secluded and peaceful atmosphere that reigned. The only sounds were the owls that called to friends or loved ones, or the occasional scurrying of some small animal or rodent. In order to get to the river, one had to park the ca, and then walk for at least ten minutes through the wood until reaching the path that led to the river. From there, there was no continuing any woodland stroll and the clearing was small. Thus few people knew of its existence. It was his own secret fishing hole.

And then, one night, he had heard a noise in the wood. It sounded like a bear or some such creature was in pain or ecstasy; a deep, resonating howl emanating from close-by. He’d heard strange noises before and sometimes the silence contrived to enhance the screams and shrieks of the nocturnal hunters that patrolled in search of food, but this was something completely different. He knew of no animal that could possible make such a sound-at least one that still thrived in this part of the world.

And then it had begun to draw closer. Heavy panting mixed with a thick growl like some rabid dog was pacing the area. Loud cracking of twigs and branches as it approached suggested that it was big as well. A rabid fox maybe? He could hear it sniffing the air; for what? Food? Increasingly nervous, he fumbled in his fishing bag for any utensil to ward off the animal should it approach. All he had was a small knife for cutting bait and line.

Taking it in trembling hands, he gripped it and stood up. He thought about throwing something in the direction of the panting in the hope of scaring it away, but before he could even stoop to collect anything, something huge came charging through the clearing and, growling and roaring incessantly, pounced at him.

Screaming in terror, he thrust the knife in the path of the creature as it landed on top of him, sending them rolling around on the floor. The knife must have found a direct hit, because the creature let out a piercing howl of agony as jaws clacked manically in its search for flesh. Mike writhed and struggled to avoid having his head ripped off by the hairy beast, as he withdrew the knife and stabbed it once more. Another shriek of pain filled the night sky, until, without realizing the danger, both fell entangled into the cold river’s water.

Such was his panic and terror that Mike didn’t even feel the cold as the water engulfed him, but the creature that had now released its grip, apparently did. It became a wriggling mass of fur and claws as it desperately tried to swim to the opposite bank and escape, splashing and roaring in panic but it was evident that swimming was not a strong point as it was dragged down the river by the strong current, constantly being sucked under and re-surfacing again, until it disappeared from view.

Mike managed to swim to the nearest bank where his fishing gear lay, and dragged himself out, laying there breathless, trembling and in shock, yet when he eventually managed to calm down, he noticed the deep cuts in his arm where the creature’s claws had struck him. Three weeks later, the process was complete.

He could never recall exactly what he did when he transformed, only what he learned from reading the local newspaper. Should a person or animal be found mauled or decapitated in or around the nearby woods, he knew he was responsible. And yet, occasionally he had flashbacks; a sense of power, of malice, of a great feeling of ecstasy and adrenaline that flowed through him like a tidal wave as he prowled the night sky. All were afraid of him; he was the master of the universe and nothing could stop him.

He’d recall a smell of blood and how the desire to rip and tear into flesh would be almost overpowering. Bursting through undergrowth in pursuit of his prey, smelling their fear which only enhanced his heightened state and need for nourishment. And then; entrapment, as he’d sink his enormous teeth into…

He stopped. Something else had happened last night. He had smelled something different. Something that only a finely-tuned and sharpened sense of smell could detect. And he knew it for what it was.

It had been the smell of fear and adrenaline, yet mixed with death; of decaying organs and tissue. As he had chased the deer through the field, it had come from the one opposite. What was it? Stones came to mind. An abandoned settlement? No, there was no such place. And then it hit him; the graveyard. Something had been uprooted. Someone or thing had desecrated a grave, but for what terrible purpose? He decided, curious, that when transformation was dormant, he would hide among the gravestones and keep a vigilance for the imposter.

#####

Wayne finished his cigarette. There was only one left in the packet, and it would save until hopefully his last excursion into graverobbing was carried out later that night. It wouldn’t be the wisest thing, he considered, to finally rid himself of lung cancer and then cheat the devil by continuing to smoke, and thus provoke it again.
No, after tonight, he’d begin a new life. Perhaps start working out at the gym, cut back on the liquor intake. And, he vowed, he’d never visit a graveyard again, not even if it was his elderly mother’s funeral. He still felt certain remorse for his acts and the threat of discovery was ever-present, but it had served a purpose. Thinking about it, he might even put flowers on the graves he’d dug up, as a final thank you.

But that was for later. Wayne grabbed his backpack, and headed, stealthily, for the cemetery.

There it was; the burial he’d witnessed earlier that day. Only a handful of people had been present, and no-one had been crying, so he guessed that it was either someone from out of town with no family or an elderly person who had outlived their own acquaintances. The gypsy hadn’t said anything about age being important and had they suffered cancer or some other disease, he’d know. He had, after all, done his research into autopsies and surgical operations on the Internet.

Nervous as always, he set about digging up the fresh earth. An owl hooted nearby, provoking a short gasp of shock.
“Damn thing, go away,” he spat. Tonight, he was especially tense. That howl he’d heard previously had scared him badly, and he’d read in the newspaper about some strange mutilations occurring in the vicinity, both animal and human. The police were being especially vigilant, and there was a sense of dread and stupor in the village. As added protection, he’d brought with him a larger knife, similar to the first; ebony handle with a long, curved, silver blade made in Spanish Toledo.

Half-way through removing the earth, he stopped. His heart skipped a beat and then began a manic jig in his chest, as if awakened from its lethargy. A twig had just snapped nearby, followed by another. He was not alone.
He peered over the top of the hole he was digging and looked around, while his free hand fumbled frantically in his rucksack for the bigger knife. The owl hooted again and took flight, disturbed from its vantage point on the arm of a large oak tree. Another cracking of twigs. Whatever was out there was heading in his direction. But what? A local constable? A hungry dog? The…the thing…?

Shit. His chest a great empty chamber, all breath having evaporated from his lungs. He clutched at the knife and decided to confront whatever it was that approached. Were it to be a policeman or security guard, there was nothing he could possibly say to defend his actions, and, being so close to success, prison was not an option. He would fight to the death if necessary and it would be on his head alone to assume the psychological consequences of murdering a living person.

As Wayne climbed out of the grave, he was stopped short by a voice;

“You sick pervert! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” it asked.

Wayne looked up. A man stood before him, heavily bearded and wearing jeans and a jacket-no uniform or badge in sight. So convinced had he been that an officer or guard had finally caught him, that he was lost for words.
“Know the person buried there, did you? Come back to pay final respects?” the man asked.

Wayne finally found his voice, although he was trembling slightly in anticipation of a probable fight.

“Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and rather difficult to explain, so why don’t you leave now, and pretend you never saw anything,” he said rising to his feet, the large knife hidden behind his back.

“Well, you could say I’m used to strange occurrences and explications, so why don’t you give me a try?”

Wayne looked at him. He was big and muscular, giving him the appearance of a body builder or professional wrestler. His eyes seemed void of colour. He found it impossible to discern the colour of his irises and they stared into him with a malice that sparked an icy shard to fly up his spine. A sneer on his face suggested a grave lack of humour and a lack of qualms about breaking his neck should his response be sarcastic.

But Wayne was no spindly figure either. At six foot six and a firm body developed through weeks of backbreaking digging, he tried to ascertain rapidly if he might be a match should the inevitable happen. With the knife in his hand, he thought he had a good chance. He tried to change the subject.
“What are you doing here anyway? Surely up to no good either.”

The man’s response left him aghast.

“I smelled you the other night.”

“What? What do you mean: you smelled me? I know I’m probably not the most regular user of showers, but even so. Besides, you haven’t answered my question.”

“You were graverobbing, just like now. I could smell your fear and the organs of the cadaver you were removing. You’re sick. I want to know why, and I might let you live.”

I might let you live. Not; I won’t phone the police. There was something seriously wrong about this guy and the outcome did not bode well.

He took a firmer grip on the knife behind his back.
“I told you, and actually you’re not too far from the truth. I am sick, and I need the organs from the dead to recuperate.”

“Bullshit. You a necrophiliac as well?”
“Don’t be stupid. Do I look like one?” he said and then regretted doing so. What does a necrophiliac look like? Or a graverobber for that matter?

“So, are you going to answer my question? If you smelled me the other night, what were you doing out here?”
The man produced what might have passed for a smile. “Hunting,” he said.
A realization came over Wayne. The deer, the howling. His original, preposterous thought was maybe not so ridiculous after all. He looked at the man’s hands. They were huge, as were the unnaturally long nails that protruded from each finger.

“It was you! The howling the other night. The thing chasing the deer. My God, what the hell are you?”
“One who has certain needs just like you. Sustainment is the word that comes to mind. Although I believe there is a small problem here. I have survived for a long time with my…condition, and now here you are, putting in jeopardy everything. How long will it be before someone discovers what you are doing, begin to patrol the area, and thus; put me at risk?”

“Well, I thought you were doing quite a good job of that yourself. You have the police and the whole village in turmoil and scared half to death.”

At this, Mike’s features began to change. He crunched his nose as a low growl began to emanate from his permanently sneering mouth, showing teeth that were unnaturally long and sharp. His eyes grew wider, darker if possible, the eyebrows becoming as one, as without warning, he launched himself with both hands at Wayne’s throat, the growl slowly developing into a piercing howl, as gnashing teeth searched for his jugular.
Wayne shrieked at the sudden attack and was thrown backwards, edging precariously towards the grave he had just dug. With one hand, he pushed Mike’s chin upwards to avoid having his throat ripped out, while at the same time produced the knife from behind his back and thrust it into Mike’s side.

Mike howled again, this time in great pain as the knife sunk in; it’s silver edging causing him more harm than the knife itself. In their struggle, both toppled over; Mike raking furiously at Wayne’s arms and throat, while in return Wayne withdrew the knife and thrust it again and again in Mike’s stomach.

The change was instant. The buttons split on Mike’s shirt as his chest began to expand like an inflatable balloon. Claws extended from giant hands. Spittle flew from exposed and jutting jaws-fangs snapping furiously still searching for a hold on Wayne, but the wound had proved too much.

Never had it felt so much pain as when the knife entered. It had been invincible. A creature both created and cursed at the same time to rule the night, to devour all that dared cross its path, and yet, this graverobber-this ghoul- had defeated it.

As life began to ebb rapidly from its body, in one final burst of grim determination, it managed to rake one clawed hand across Wayne’s face, almost removing his nose with the force of the attack.
Wayne screamed in pain as the werewolf rolled on top of him, trying his hardest to sink the knife further while the blood from his disfigured face seeped into eyes and mouth, only for both of them to fall directly into the hole in their tussle, the werewolf breathing its final putrid breath as it came to land on top of him.
Gasping and wheezing in relief, Wayne managed to squeeze his way out from under the creature and climbed out of the hole. All thoughts of organ manipulation were now forgotten as he staggered to a nearby tree and slid to the floor.

A werewolf! A God-damn werewolf! But these were the invention of comics and movies. How could such a thing exist in the 21st Century? It was one thing having a gypsy provide some kind of remedy to remove cancer, but a damn monster? This implied that maybe vampires and ghosts, and all kinds of demonic creatures existed also. But, he reasoned, that was a philosophical debate for another day. Right now, there were more important things to worry about.

Carefully removing his blood-soaked shirt, he put it to his bleeding nose, grimaced and looked around the graveyard for any signs of onlookers or anyone that may have been alerted to their fight. The howling from the werewolf must surely have woken the dead, he thought, but; despite the pain, chuckled at the pun.
Satisfied that he was safe, he struggled to his feet, collected his utensils that were now strewn around the grave, and crept away.

#####

A week passed. All signs of the cancer that had ravaged his body had vanished. Not a single cigarette had he smoked since the fight at the graveyard, not because he was afraid of provoking cancer again, but simply because his body didn’t require the nicotine anymore. He thought it rather strange that he had been able to give up smoking so easily, yet there were other things that had him more concerned.

His shirts no longer fit him, although his stomach was a perfect example of muscular development. Where previously he had shaved every three or four days, now he was forced to shave every morning and the razor that usually lasted for months now had to be replaced weekly. His finger and toe-nails required a serious snipping daily as well.

Wayne sat, sobbing, while downing what remained of the bottle of Jameson he had begun earlier. All he had ever wanted was a simple life where he wouldn’t have to worry about how to pay the next bill, where the next meal came from, and a clean bill of health.

And yet, circumstances, fate, or simple bad luck had seen all his hopes for the future thrown into jeopardy because of some disease that still resisted all attempts to eradicate it. He had been popular at the office, promotion seemed a very real possibility, and the secretary had started looking at him in a way he had almost forgotten existed.
All this had gone to ruins because his simple, primitive desire to live had seen his fate-through pure coincidence- put into the hands of a simple gypsy, with a special gift. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, when two worlds collided; one where a creature that should not have existed outside of the comic books, had been prowling the woods and fields, and his own world where he was obliged to carry out a task that belonged in the realms of the horror movie.

Since discovering that the curse of the creature would now be transferred to him, he had spent the long, lonely days and nights contemplating suicide. It seemed paradoxical. Just when he had finally been cured of cancer, and thought he could finally enjoy what few pleasures life might provide him with, here he was wishing he was dead. The idea of roaming around the countryside in a manic, malicious desire for blood-regardless of where it came from-filled him with a terror far greater than having to dig up a grave. Aside from the fight two weeks previous, he couldn’t remember the last time he had been put in a violent situation. A vision of the wolf huffing and puffing on the piggy’s door came to mind, except this time, he had an idea that the piggies might be replaced by some poor soul sitting at home watching television or asleep in bed.

Wayne was also something of a coward. The courage required to end his own life-in whatever way he saw fit-he simply didn’t possess. He’d read stories of those that had put a gun to their heads and it had gone wrong, leaving them in a vegetative state, throwing themselves in front of a bus or train, only to awake in hospital with all their limbs missing. Quite simply, he couldn’t do it. All he could do, was finish the bottle of whiskey and hope and pray that the next day, when he read the morning newspaper, he wouldn’t see a headline that insinuated some bestial creature or madman was on the loose and savaging the villagers. Which of course is what had been happening, and he, inadvertently, had stopped it.

Wayne grimaced. His blood felt as though it was boiling inside. His bones expanding, ready to explode. Tears poured down his face, their route made difficult by the wire-like hair that was rapidly growing across his whole head. He fell to the floor clutching his chest, as the buttons on his shirt began to pop and fly across the room.

Ten minutes later, Wayne was gone. In his place, a creature with only one thought in its head, began to howl. The front door blew across the garden, as it burst outside and began sniffing the air. It was hungry and knew instinctively a place where fresh food could be acquired with minimum effort. By simply digging a soft hole. It had, after all, been there only a few days before.

END.
By Justin Boote

The Barrow-wright

The Barrow-wright

ByClint Wastling
It reminds me of one of those wartime films with search lights arcing across the night sky. There must be four security guards up on the ridge, each idly searching the undergrowth for me. They’ll give up long before reaching the rig. I’ve seen it happen before, they’d rather wait until dawn and send out a helicopter than walk miles in a fruitless search. Besides I’m not a criminal yet, only a suspect.
I push myself into a disused badger sett and wait. This gives my eyes plenty of time to acclimatise and seek out familiar shapes in the landscape. With the full moon to aid me I have no difficulty in picking out a circular mound. I notice that frost glistens on the blackened heather stems around me. It reminds me of the silver I’m searching for in the darkness. More frequently I find verdigrised copper, only once did a piece of gold sit in the palm of my hand. That was a real eye opener, a £1000 bonus courtesy of the long dead.
There are miles of forestry tracks and they all seem to end at the Rigg. A friend said it was the convergence of ley lines on a place of power but you don’t want to believe that sort of thing, it can drive you mad alone on the moors. The torch lights are disappearing between the trees and Thompson’s Rigg is alone under the stars and moon. Here I feel at one with the world, as though I’ve always belonged here. I pull my coat around me in an attempt to drop my teeth chattering. Whatever the security guards are doing, I’m going to have to move or when they decide to investigate they’ll find a frozen body.
I forge a path through the heather. Twigs shatter beneath my boots. The full moon has an almost sapphire glow and the stars definitely twinkle. Even through its perishing, I can still see the magic of the place, the haunting beauty of the nightscape with which I’ve become so familiar since losing my job. Shit happens. Fortunately I met this German collector who’ll pay cash for any artefacts I find. He wants something special this month. A present possibly? Whatever it is he’s paid me in advance. That came in handy to buy Jenny something. Usually there’s just enough for essentials like food and bills but he gave me £100 and I feel lucky.
I pace around the site I’ve chosen. It’s definitely circular and to my mind there’s a slight ditch around one side. I get out the metal detector. There’s a response and I start digging. Alone under a myriad stars I believe the past and present are one. Time might have ceased to exist and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a chariot or Landrover speed across the flatland.
Out here you could believe time had been suspended except for the passage of moon and stars. My spade cuts the peat. A partridge screeches in flight. I wait until my heart rate calms. I lift a shovel full of soil. When you dig peat on a frosty night, an earthy smell is released as though phantoms from the soil are escaping. The odour sticks behind my nose and doesn’t go away until I have a coffee on the way home.
I begin hacking into the contorted stems of heather and push off the loose peat underneath. Soon the side of the barrow is revealed and I begin to dig downwards. The soil becomes clay then a spark shoots from the edge of my spade in in imitation of the shooting star racing across the firmament. I stop and catch my breath and cross my fingers this is the capstone.
My fingers go stiff over the spade handle. Between shovelling dirt, I look up. The glistening firmament reminds me of Jenny’s philosophy that time curves like the night sky. We’ve had several late night talks discussing the idea. If time curves around us all then surely reincarnation is fact? I stop to rest. The only thing between me and success is the capstone sparkling under the setting moon.
I wait for a moment to get my breath back then with all my strength, using the spade as a lever, I shift the stone. It scrapes like a scream. I dive for cover expecting the night to be filled with torch beams but the sky is empty. The security guards have not returned.
My heart pounds and I hear blood hiss in my ears. Excitement and fear mix equally as the tomb sucks in air as if returning to life.
I peer into the depths, seeing nothing until my eyes acclimatise and darkness reveals its remains. The wheel, the bones of fingers holding the reins, I take a deep breath and enter the tomb. There’s a ring, a torc of gold, I can barely contain my excitement. I am the first person to see this majestic loot in three thousand years. I hardly dare breathe in case the wood becomes dust or the bones disintegrate. I reach and touch the gold. It is cold and heavy. It easily slips off the neck and my life warms it. I turn on the torch and its light scatters on dust and reveals more bones. Each was once a person. I stare into the empty eye sockets of the chieftain. I feel the chill of death permeate my bones. It is time to leave. I heave myself up then thinking I’ve seen something, look back. I imagine the line of bodies behind the chariot are chained to it and all are headless. Skulls dangle from a golden belt adorning the warrior.
I stand outside in the freezing night. I push the capstone back and conceal some of my handiwork, making a careful note of the position so I can return and take the golden belt. The torc is cold and heavy, it wants to go back. The further I get from the tomb the more of a burden it becomes. After half a mile a wave of tiredness rushes on me. I stop and look around. The stars twinkle and begin to dance. It’s as if I’m sliding down a passage of time dragging the night sky with me. I draw in enough cold air to make me cough and bring me to my senses.
A roar permeates the moor. I sense movement and the sound explodes into the grating of metal against stone. Panic seizes me. I run. I run uphill panting bent double with stitch. I hear horses galloping. I hear metal wheel rims on the earth. I turn. The chieftain is pursuing me, whipping his horses to greater speed, the heads of his foes rattling from his belt. I run and almost gain the car before the spectre is upon me. His cape flaps wildly. My breath steams in the air between us. I notice his does the same. The car body is cold. I take out the key and smile. I will outrun the ghost in my vehicle. My hand touches the handle when I hear a whipping sound. I somersault. I pulse out a warm liquid. I watch my decapitated body stand as a fountain of blood sprays the white paintwork of my car. I see all this. I feel lifted by my hair and roughly fastened next to the decaying trophies of the warlord’s belt.
The cold wind, the encroaching night and my dimming sight see only the slender band of gold as it is taken from my crumbling body and replaced round the neck of its rightful owner. What is left of me is dragged behind the chariot. Whatever fate awaits me I am powerless out here on the moor under the vast firmament of the eternal sky.
The End
Clint Wastling

They Don’t know

They Don’t know
By Donna J. W. Munro

“That’s the thing. They don’t know they are dead.”
“Ghosts?”
“Yeah, they’re clueless. Reenacting the motions of their minutes days, trying to find the groove of their life only to slide with a shriek along the ridges of reality.”
“They know something’s wrong though, right?”
“Maybe. Or Maybe they just keep trying because it’s all they know. Not who they were or what things might have been, just what cost them their lives. They don’t know it’s all over, the fat lady sang, and the ushers are sweeping the aisles.”
“It’s too dark in here. Turn on your headlamp will you? The ghosts never find out? They keep going around in circles, until what? Doomsday?”
“I thought that maybe we’d let them know. Like if we found a way to tell them that they were gone, then maybe we’d be heroes, right. Ghost busting heroes. Oops, watch it. I almost ran into the door. It’s like this place eats the light.”
“Where do we find them? If they don’t know that they are dead, then they aren’t like… seeking out help, you know. They just are wherever. We gotta tell them, but to figure it out, we gotta find them. Stay close, there’s no windows in this hallway. No moon, no light, broken up mansion on hill—it’s perfect for finding ghosts.”
“That’s what I thought when I saw it. But I still don’t get how we’re going to do this. We’re going to help them by telling them they’re dead. If they just keep going on and on, living the last few minutes of their lives, over and over, how are they going to tell us who they are if they don’t remember?”
“They’ll be doing the same thing over and over. Maybe that’s where we start. Watch them… you know… die again. Then we can research about them, figure out who they are, and tell them. Maybe they can move on then.”
“Do they always show the way they die?”
“I dunno, do I? I’ve never done this before. We just watch and wait.”
“Maybe if I check the cellar? Seems like a good place for ghosts.”
“These stairs, don’t they seem rickety to you?”
“They’re fine. Go look in that corner, will you?”
“I am. Don’t get worked up. So, if they don’t know they are dead and they just keep repeating their lives…”
“Their deaths, you mean.”
“Right. How do we know that anything is real? Know what I mean? Like us even?”
“I think there’s something back here. I feel air or something. Help me pull this shelf away from the wall.”
“Okay… how do we know? Damn! That’s heavy. Put your back into it… What’s your name again?”
“Huh…I don’t… Push, there’s something…”
“Watch it… the shelf is falling!”
“The shelf was… not solid? Went right through me!”
“How can a shelf be a ghost?”
“Or maybe…”
“What?”
“Why can’t I remember my name? Or yours?”
“Hmmm. But… I can’t…”
“I can’t remember anything.”
“That’s ok. They can’t either.”
“They?”
“The ghosts don’t know they are dead.”
“So, they’re just clueless?”
“Clueless. We’ll just tell them then?”
“That they’re dead.”
“Dead.”