Sheepshead Review Fall 2021 Issue

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House on cover orginally created by: 1 officialpsds.com/spooky-house/ MrsTeresaJean


o t e m o c l e W d a e h s p e e Sh r o n a M 2


Editors Brooke Poarch

Editor-in-Chief

Dr. Rebecca Meacham

Advisor

JouLee Yang

Managing Editor

Brandi Charles

Assistant Managing Editor

Samantha Vondrum

Layout Editor

Kori Koehler

Merchandise Coordinator Social Media Editor

Rosalindae Siegfried

Communications Team and Multimedia Editor

Hannah Abrahamson Tabatha Zwicky

Blog Editor

Shianne Draganowski

Chief Copy Editor

Jair Zeuske

Assistant Copy Editors

Austin Votis Sidney Grady

Fiction Editor

Abby Kaczynski

Poetry Editors

Adriana Culverhouse Visual Arts Editor

Sky Hunt

Nonfiction Editor

Bruce Kong 3


Genre Staffs Fiction

Poetry

Staff

Staff

Rosalindae Siegfried

Tabatha Zwicky

Kallie Knueppel

Jair Zeuske

Serena Siudzinski

Brandi Charles

Visual Arts Nonfiction Staff Staff Zo Baker

Shianne Draganowski

Benjamin Morrison

Austin Votis

Gabi Enriquez

Hannah Abrahamson

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Table of Contents Visual Arts Too Bad for Us 11 Misfortune, Misfortune 12 Married to PTSD 13 His Face in the Mirror 14 What’s the Point? 15 Electrified Man 16 Clash of Colors 2 18 The Happenings at Mystery Mountain 20 Days Passing 3 22 Seeing His Future 24 The Alien Walkers 25 Getting Lost in the Sauce 1 26 Phoenix 27 Abstract Portrait 28 The Wind Gathering Ashes 29 Untitled 30 Rest Only 31 Final Days 32 The Utter Indifference of Time 33 Immured 34 Close Friends 2 35 Streaming Video 36 Vengeance Rising 37 Wicomico County’s Unintended Pun 38 Fiction Perdition 41 Song of Scylla 42 Within Sanity’s Stroll 47 Even the Sun 50 Honest Darkness 53 Oracle 60 The Door 61 5


Poetry in the case of an unattended death 67 Regional Rail 68 Ms. Scarlet in the Study 69 Etiquette of the Séance 71 Six Feet 72 Sestina for a Vampire 73 The Horror 74 Decomposing Reality 77 The Cailleach 78 Ghost in the Graveyard 79 Deliverance 80 Cry the Tempest Knight 81 Complete Collection 82 Apology for a Ghost 85 Death’s Beauty 86 The Wicked Ones 87 Rumpelstiltskin’s Revenge 88 Nonfiction Wax Baby Trapped Miasma Wolf Woman When the Candles Burn Low Papa Loves Mambo “I had no choice...I had to turn the page” Soul of Mine The Study

Bo marks UW-Green Bay Submissions! 6

91 93 96 98 104 108 111 112 113


Editor’s Last Words Welcome, dear reader, to the Fall 2021 issue of Sheepshead Review, or, as we call it, Sheepshead Manor. Please don’t mind the cobwebs, and do try not to wander too far just yet. Ever since I was a little girl, I have adored the horror genre. Some people get a thrill riding roller coasters; others enjoy the rush that comes with launching over a cliff with little more than a cord to hold them back. Horror was—and still is—my blood-pumping, adrenalineinducing, spine-tingling escape from reality. I would often kick back and watch as my fears exploded on the pages and screen before me, excitedly anticipating the next creaking rocking chair, another music cue, the one last scare before the final flip of the page. It was this all-consuming rush that inspired this journal’s theme, In the Shadows, an exploration into all things that go bump in the night. It is my belief that horror is the perfect genre as it allows us as readers and writers to experience fear in its truest form without ever having to throw ourselves in the lion’s den. As creators, it is our job to sink our teeth into every aspect of life, both fun and terrifying, and to invite our audiences to take the journey with us. Horror begs writers and artists to ask not only what terrifies us, but also why and, more importantly, how can one ensure that our audience experiences the same shiver down their spine? Horror is the foundation for Sheepshead Manor, where every room opens a new terror-tory and you race up the stairs in the dark without daring to look back. The eagerness from my staff and contributors was 7 these very pages. The contagious, and it bleeds into


poetry piece “The Horror” beautifully captures the intensity of the genre through familiar settings, themes, and motifs found in modern slasher films via the lens of Black audiences. The visual arts acrylic painting “Immured” is a haunting piece that conveys a man trapped in the floor, trying to crawl his way out into the real world. This piece brilliantly captures the anxieties of the modern world and the struggle people face when they attempt to breakfree from the norm. “I had no choice...I had to turn the page” is a nonfiction piece that captures the power of horror and how it makes people stronger by forcing them to encounter the dark and unsettling. Thump, thump, crash. I would love to stay and chat, but the manor is dying to let you in. Watch your step now, for you never know what is lurking in the dark around here, and whatever you do, don’t look behind you. I do hope you enjoy your visit and find some beauty in the darkness to come. Goodbye (for now)...

Brooke Poarch Editor-in-Chief

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Visual 10

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Too Bad for Us

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Dave Sims

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Digital Canvas

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Miranda Rios

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Misfortune, Misfortune

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Reduction print

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Married to PTSD

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Verity Langan


Malia Nahinu

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His Face in the Mirror

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makeup and acrylic paints

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What’s the Point?

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Edward Supranowicz

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Digital Painting

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Alora Clark

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Getting Lost in the Sauce 1

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Prisma Colored Pencils

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Electrified Man

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Digital Canvas

Dave Sims

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Clash of Colors 2

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Digital painting

Edward Supranowicz

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The Happenings at Mystery Mountain

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Sheilagh Casey

Oil on Wood

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Days Passing 3

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Digital painting

Edward Supranowicz

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The Alien Walkers

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Willy Conley

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photography

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Seeing His Future

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Dave Sims

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Digital Canvas

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Phoenix

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Weining Wang

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Foam & Rubber

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Abstract Portrait

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Hanna Wright

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Ink on paper

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Bill Wolak

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The Wind Gathering Ashes

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digital collage

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Untitled

Rachel Coyne

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Acrylic

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Rest Only

Timothy Dodd

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oil

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Final Days

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Timothy Dodd

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oil

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Bill Wolak

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The Utter Indifference of Time

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digital collage

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Immured

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Lino Azevedo

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Acrylic

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Close Friends 2

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Alora Clark

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Relief Print from wood block

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Streaming Video

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Dave Sims

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Digital Canvas

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Vengeance Rising

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Erik Suchy

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photography

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Wicomico County’s Unintended Pun

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Willy Conley

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photography

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Fiction

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I

s this not euphoria for those with hearts most vicious? First, sniff the wind like the reprehensible dog you are, savoring a scent most succulent and tainted with smoldering charcoal. Next, relish in the hot spell of the dragon’s breath on your face, flickering like how the miscreants adance in a blood-orange shade. Then, feel your toes around the ash, charred and blackened like the shores along the most poisonous oceans that this torrid universe has to offer. Finally, look upon the suffering of the others. They are ready to meet you. Well? Is eternal damnation not my finest work?

Perdition

Erik Suchy 41


T

he first fish seems innocuous enough. Dante calls for me from the shore, his slight figure silhouetted against the sunrise. Fish often wash up on the beach, their briny corpses lying in the sun until Dante or I can be bothered to do away with them. I stumble outside, still half-asleep, to see him pointing at a small, dark lump at his feet. “Marlow,” he calls. “Look at this.” Dante nudges it with the side of his foot, and from under the sand three black tendrils emerge. I lean closer, squinting in the weak light. It appears that they have burst forth from the creature’s back, tearing the scales asunder. “Is it some sort of illness?” I ask him. “A parasite?” “I don’t know,” Dante says, and prods at the fish again. “It’s nothing I’ve seen before. I’ll have to ask the other men.” “Throw it back to the sea,” I tell him. “There’s nothing we can do for it.” He picks the fish up and tosses it. As it sinks below the waves I hear a keening, almost like the call of a gull. It’s carried by the wind, tickling my ears as it tousles my hair. I turn to Dante, a half-formed question on my lips, but he is already gone. I spend the day alone, as I always do. The fishing boats are a hard occupation, taking Dante away from dawn until dusk, but there are few other options. Someday we will leave, he tells me. Away from the nearby village, filled with dead gray houses and bitter people, away from the rocky shore. There are sunnier places, somewhere. It’s a nice thought. It keeps me company while I stitch by the window, hour after hour, and bake loaf after loaf of bread. I imagine fields and flowers, the sun on my face. Sometimes I imagine Dante with me; sometimes not. At dusk I am standing in the kitchen, dinner in the oven, when I hear it again. A gull’s cry, but different, stranger, as if the bird were singing underwater. I walk to the window and pull back the curtain. The pink sky reflects across the darkening water, a shimmering mirage, but there’s nothing else to see. It came again, the cry, but louder this time, as though it were right outside the window. I shiver, every hair on my neck standing straight. I’m startled by the sound of the door opening behind me. The sound cuts off suddenly at the exact same moment. Dante wipes his boots on the mat. He plants a kiss on my cheek. Through the window I see a light in the distance, a red glow. Or perhaps it is only the dying sun. The next morning Dante and I walk outside together at dawn and look upon

Song of Scylla 42

Brittany Grady


43 the corpses of hundreds of fish upon the beach, each with their own shiny black appendages. Dante begins to lock the door at night. He hears it now too, the call, but it sounds more like a whistle now. Every night, like the sound of a passing train, it grows louder, then softer, then louder again, until it fades away just before dawn. Dante doesn’t like to show his fear but I can sense it in him, the growing unease with each passing morning, the mounting pile of dead fish outside. I want to comfort him, but his unease is earned, and it would only worry him to know I don’t share in it. I unlock the back door, once, while Dante is sleeping. I hear the rush of waves outside, the tide only feet from our house. There is the whistle, too, louder than normal. It sounds like a voice. Or perhaps it is a voice underneath it, a slow drawl not unlike the sound of the sea. It sounds like my name. Marlow. Like the way Dante whispers it in his sleep. Marlow. He only calls for me when caught in a nightmare, his fingers twitching against the quilt. Marlow. It’s a cry for comfort. I stand in the doorway and watch the waves. Eventually dawn arrives, and I must crawl back to bed before Dante awakes. I close the door behind me and the call fades away, the last tone melancholy, as if it’s sad to see me go. Dante still leaves for the boats every morning. There is too much work to do and he cannot abandon it to fear. He rubs at his red eyes, dragging his fingers across the patchy stubble on his cheeks. I wonder how much he slept last night. I wonder if he heard me leave the bed. “I’ll try to be back before dusk,” he tells me. “There’s no need to worry. It does not come out in the daylight.” I’m not sure who he is trying to reassure. I lie on the floor all day. I have chores to do, bread to bake, socks to mend, but all I can do is listen. I listen for the whistle, for the voice, for my name in the wind. But I only hear ordinary sounds, the call of seagulls, familiar and comforting, and the sounds of the tide. I close my eyes and urge the day to pass. I am impatient, but I don’t know what I’m waiting for. Dante returns before sundown, and we sit down to dinner. It’s only cheese and day-old bread, a few odds and ends from the pantry. He is upset with me, I know, but his mind is elsewhere, too distracted to even mention his displeasure. I clean up the table while Dante settles by the fire. When the last of the light disappears, we wait in silence, neither moving nor breathing. Then it begins. It is so quiet at first that I think it is only the ringing in my ears. A whistle. Dante sighs. He stands and pours himself a glass of whiskey. He drinks more than he used to. “It has to stop eventually,” he says. “I cannot abide by this, night after night.” “There’s nothing you can do,” I tell him. “Even if you were less afraid.” He will not meet my eyes. Instead, he grabs the bottle of whiskey and storms away to bed. I sit in the kitchen with my eyes closed, listening. The whistle has changed, the pitch rising along with the wind. Now it is almost a scream.


Dante wakes me in the morning, his hand on the back of my neck. “This is the first time I’ve known you to sleepwalk.” I am on the floor, curled up under the window, one hand gripping the edge of the sill. I look up at him, his face pale and drawn. I stand and pull back the curtain. On the glass there are the faint outlines of eight small circles lined up in two rows, and there is something thick and transparent smeared underneath. My gaze drifts beyond the marks to the beach. All of the fish are gone—all of the hundreds of black tentacled bodies. All that is left is an indentation, a long drag mark leading from the edge of the water to just below our window. Dante reaches around me and pulls the curtain closed. “Do you want me to stay today?” he asks. “No,” I tell him. “Go. It only comes at night.” “For now.” He wants me to ask him to stay, to beg, to be afraid. I turn and button his shirt for him. “Go, Dante. I don’t need you.” He leaves without saying goodbye. Once he is gone, I pull a chair to the window and settle down to watch. I trace the marks on the window, over and over, as though I am hypnotized. I close my eyes and lean my head against the cool glass. Then I whistle. It is not a song. Just one long, unchanging note. I stop, out of breath, and then I hear it. An answering whistle, quiet but clear. I open my eyes. Through my eyelashes I see movement. Something slices across the surface of the water, breaking through the dapples of afternoon sun. It’s far from shore but moving closer. I whistle again; again, it answers. Something dark flicks upwards, as if in greeting. I place my hand on the glass in reply, my fingers splayed, and then it slides back under the water and disappears. The screaming starts before Dante comes home. He rushes in, cheeks red, hair disheveled, and drops to his knees beside me, still seated next to the window. “Close the curtains,” he tells me. “I told you, didn’t I? It’s not even dark yet.” “You don’t need to be afraid,” I assure him, but he closes the curtain anyway. “We should leave, Marlow.” I shake my head. How could I, knowing what I know? “What do you mean, no? We don’t know what that is.” “Exactly.” I smooth back his hair. “Why would you assume it means us harm?” “It only screams. All those fish on the beach, the way they looked. How could that be anything but menacing?” “Perhaps they were an offering.” He gapes at me, silent. He doesn’t understand, just as I feared. I take his hand. “We need to open the door tonight, Dante. As an invitation.”

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45 “Enough.” He slams his hand against the wall. “This is foolishness.” I do not reply. Instead, I stand and walk into the kitchen, Dante following at my heels. He watches me as I walk to the back door, the one that leads to the beach, and it is only when my hand is on the handle that he speaks. “Marlow, stop.” He holds out a hand, and I can see that it shakes. “Don’t go out there.” “Dante...” “If you step out there, I will bolt the door behind you. I will not allow you in, no matter what.” His lips tremble. “I mean it. Stay.” We stand there in silence, the only sound the wailing outside, and I know that it is not the time. I cannot leave him, not yet, at least. I take a step back, and Dante sighs. “I haven’t made dinner,” I tell him. “That’s alright,” he says. “Let’s just sit down for a while.” He sits at the table, his hands clasped before him as if in prayer. “Let me get you a drink,” I say, and before he can answer I am at the cabinet, the whiskey already in my hand. I pour it into a glass and hand it to him. He drinks it quickly and hands the empty glass to me for more. By the time it is completely dark the bottle is nearly gone. Dante slumps at the table, rolling the glass on its side—up and down, up and down—the sound of glass against wood mingling nicely with the cries outside. “Tell me something, Marlow.” He sits up, his eyes half-closed. “Why aren’t you frightened of it? I’d feel so much better if you were.” I do not know what to tell him. How can I explain the yearning I feel when I hear it, like a mother reacting to her baby’s cries? He would not understand it. The song isn’t sung for him. He stands up and walks to me, unsteady as a newborn doe. “Do you want me to leave?” Dante asks me. He leans close, his breath hot. “Or do you want to leave me?” I pour him another glass, the last of the whiskey drippling out in thick, wet drops. “I do not.” He swallows it, wincing as it burns his throat. “But I shall, if I have to.” He stares at me. There are tears in his unfocused eyes. “Sleep, Dante.” He takes a step towards me but stumbles, his knees hitting the floor. I gently push against his shoulder and he falls to his back. He opens his mouth once, twice, gaping like a fish, searching for words. But the whiskey does its trick. Dante is heavy. My arms already shake by the time I reach the door and throw it open to the cool night air. I hold him under the arms as I struggle across the pebbles, my feet slipping on the wet rocks, but still, he doesn’t wake.


I bring him nearly to the water’s edge, where the sand is wet and heavy, and finally I release him. I wait. I don’t know what I am waiting for. There is movement just below the surface. A tentacle writhes slowly out of the water and reaches forward like a thin, black finger. It probes the sand, searching, until it brushes against Dante’s leg. It investigates the still body like a hound, prodding it from every angle, and then suddenly retreats. I see light in the water. At first, I think it is only the reflection of the moon but it’s too big, too red, glowing like hot coals. It is all fire, but I don’t sense anger or cunning. It wants. It desires. It is lonely, down where it swells in the dark. And it is watching me. “Take him,” I whisper. “But be gentle. He means so much to me.” The eye shifts, moving closer, and then disappears. The black appendage springs up, wraps around his legs, and drags him forward. Dante’s eyes flutter open as the cold water splashes over him, and he opens his mouth wide in a yawning, silent scream until the water rushes in and chokes him as he disappears. At first I think it has gone. I step forward, sending ripples across the glassy surface of the water, and it returns. I flinch when it touches me, but the touch is gentle, like a caress. I stand still as it wraps loosely around one ankle, then the other. The eye returns, now a dusky orange. A wail sounds across the water, first in anguish, then in celebration, a keening song. It does not call my name anymore. It doesn’t need to. The tendrils pull gently, and I allow them to guide me into deeper water, my feet shuffling through rocky sand. As the water hits my waist, my feet lift from the sea bed. I am cradled, held tightly by my legs, arms, back, even my head, as I float away from shore. I taste salt as I open my mouth to laugh, as I am carried out, out, out to sea.

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M

ary had never seen so many people out and about in her neighborhood at once. Sure, she lived in an active city, but it seemed everyone on her street had decided to be outside: there was Mrs. Johnson from the house on the end of the cul-de-sac, and Matthew Case with his dog Piper, and even the adorable little H family, named for the giant wooden H that hung on their front door. True, it was a little jarring to see everyone out today since Mary considered herself a bit of an introvert. While she did know a lot about her neighbors just from observation, she’d never said more than a few words to any of them at one time. A simple “How are you?” and “Good!” repeated over and over again until they all either moved or died. But it was a nice day out today, so why shouldn’t they all be enjoying it? The sun is shining brightly, there’s a light breeze blowing just enough to ruffle her hair; it’s a serene and a peaceful Saturday. She’d been awake all night, hard at work, but by all definitions, it was a lovely day. Maybe that’s what causes Mary to step out of her shell a little bit. “Howdy neighbor!” She greeted as she approached Mr. Case and Piper. The little Shih Tzu tugged on her leash to get closer, happily licking at Mary’s palms as she crouched down to pet the pup. “Mr. Case?” Mary asked, tilting her head as she glanced up at him. The man was staring at her blankly, appearing almost frozen in place. He had one arm outstretched, looking to all the world like he was going to shake her hand. “Well, it was good to see you,” Mary hummed, reaching out to shake his hand. “You might want to give Piper a bath—she’s a little dirty.” She quickly dropped his hand and continued her leisurely stroll down her street as the man squatted down to pet Piper. The H family’s house was next, the beautiful front lawn covered in children’s toys—dolls and toy cars and colorful balls of all shapes and sizes. Mary loved observing the little H family with their young love and even younger children. It was sweet, if a little painful—a reminder of all the things Mary would never have. Now, though, the children laughed and squealed as they pushed each other on the tire swing hanging from the tall oak tree in their front yard. “Good morning,” Mary said gleefully, waving to the children as she approached. They hopped from the swing at the sight of her, shrieking joyfully as they

Within Sanity’s Stroll

Dorothy Shytles

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started darting around the yard in a fast-paced game of tag. Mary chased them playfully for a short while before stopping to catch her breath. “I’m not as young as I used to be,” she said, waving goodbye to the children as they threw their front door closed behind them, the wooden H on the door rattling. It’s Mrs. Johnson she happens upon afterwards, the woman tending her garden in a large sun hat to help keep her face from burning in the sunshine. “Mrs. Johnson, how are you?” Mary inquired innocently. “Terrible,” the old woman growled without looking up, ripping weeds from her perfectly–manicured flower beds. If Mary didn’t know better—and she did—she’d assume that all Mrs. Johnson ever did was yell at children to get off her lawn and terrorize the dandelions that just wanted to grow peacefully in her well-watered yard. “Why so terrible?” Mary asked, furrowing her brow. “It’s these stupid weeds,” the woman huffed, wiping her brow with her wrist as she continued to mostly ignore Mary’s presence. “Your yard is perfect,” Mary said, trying to stop the jealousy from seeping into her voice. Her own yard looked like the heat was slowly killing it, leaving it brown and wilting when compared to Mrs. Johnson’s own lush landscape. “Perfectly covered in weeds,” the woman tacked on, standing up and facing Mary as she continued, “and I’ve been kept up til all hours of the night because of that infernal noise you call music—” Mrs. Johnson cut herself off, gasping as if she had suddenly remembered something important she might have forgotten. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, Mrs. Johnson,” Mary sighed, brushing her hands on her pants as the woman moved back down to her flower beds. Mary wandered towards her own home, ignoring her neighbor’s indignant shrieks at being cut off mid-complaint. Mrs. Johnson had always had an issue with Mary’s music, the kind she and her husband had loved to play together before his early passing. The car crash that had happened just over six months ago had been sudden and painful for Mary; she’d never love again. Many of the neighbors had attended the small service, having loved her husband almost as much as her. He had always been the more outgoing one of the pair. She hadn’t yet reached her front door when several cars pulled up, their tires squealing on the pavement as they came to a quick stop. Several people stepped out of them, but the tallest man started walking towards her. She smiled politely at him. “Good afternoon, gentlemen, what can I do for you—” “Mary Williams, you are under arrest for possible first-degree murder of two individuals.”

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49 Oh, Mary thought passively. “You have the right to remain silent,” the man in uniform continued. “Anything you say can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right—” “What gave me away?” Mary asked him, not resisting in the slightest as she tucked her hands behind her back. He paid her no mind. “—if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you—” “Of course,” Mary sighed. “I should have known. I know it’s important to tie up loose ends. But I just loved the little H family so much, you know?” The man who was speaking had fallen silent, having finished his monologue, and was listening to her. She appreciated his patience. “I figured I could leave them be. They didn’t come to the service because their youngest was ill—flu season and all that,” Mary said, muttering to herself, running her hand through her hair that was sticking to her face. “Not like Matthew and his stupid dog. Good Lord she was irritating, always yapping when people were trying to sleep,” Mary plowed on as the other officers started to herd her towards the vehicle. “And Mrs. Johnson, with her—” The man situating her in the back of the car stopped to offer her a rag for her hands. “Oh, thank you kindly, Mr...” the man paused in his act of shutting the door. “Miller,” he said hesitantly. “Officer Miller.” The car door closed quietly. “What a lovely name,” Mary hummed to herself as she scrubbed at the dark red stains on her hands.


I

don’t regret what I did, Your Honor. Beatitude is fine, after all. You would have done the same thing if you grew up like me, a girl from the sewers. But all of you top-dwellers are so full of yourselves, you forget us bottomdwellers exist. Not your concern, right? If you don’t see us, why should

you care? Everyone out for themselves. I was born a top-dweller, you know. My dad was an engineer at the Air Filtration Plant and my mom was a telesurgeon. I can still remember our apartment in Sector 108. We had access to the park on level 47. I loved going there. Sunlight—real sunlight—would come in through the tiny windows. I couldn’t see anything but I loved lying in those bright yellow squares. So warm. It was like I was glowing inside. That was the best hour of every week. I didn’t know there would be a day I would see my parents smile for the last time. When I was seven, dad took his own life. Couldn’t take it anymore was all the note said. To this day I can’t figure out what the signs were, whether he’d still be here if I had given him one more hug. Not even mom noticed. And perhaps she never forgave herself. To cope, she started taking extra sun pills. I saw her when she thought I wasn’t looking, and denied it when I asked her. Heliodor was her favorite. Extra potent. Could make you hallucinate for hours. HelioTech eventually pulled them off the shelves but not before they made their trillions and mom was an addict. She lost her job after almost killing a patient while high. No one would help. My grandparents were already gone. If there hadn’t been the one-child policy, we might have had aunts and uncles to depend on like in those old books. Friends and neighbors didn’t want to be accused of addiction, or worse, selling that stuff illegally. Hypocrites. Sure, a corporation can sell something addicting and that’s legal but some rando looking to make an extra coin is a criminal. What choice do people have? Sun pills are expensive. And sun booths only offer a minute of vitamin D. Mom became a laborer and the only place we could afford was a coffin home down in the Barracks. When the company downsized, Mom lost her job and we ended up in the sewers. I was eight. I didn’t know darkness—real darkness—until then. In Sector 108 we might not have had direct sunlight all the time and the Bar-

Even the Sun Eric Odynocki 50


51 racks were a confusing maze of cages and doors lit in harsh LED but down there, in the sewers, we only had those flickering bulbs. At Curfew, I would lie down as close to one as possible so I could look at dad’s picture on his employee badge. It was the only thing I could slip out unnoticed during the eviction. The thing about the sewers is they lead to everywhere in the Trove: The Waste Recycling Plant: The Trash Compactor: The Composter. That’s how we survived, my mom and me. We’d sneak into those places and dig up what we could. Banana peels. Chicken legs. You could tell which chutes led up to the Outer Rim because that’s where the most delicious leftovers landed. One time I even found half of a strawberry cheesecake. About a year ago, mom and I were in the Trash Compactor picking out whatever we could. Winter was coming and the gales outside the Trove made the sewers draftier. Mom found a bottle of Heliodor. It had been years. We got our vitamin D pills—knockoffs—by trading with the other bottom dwellers. I told mom to put the bottle down. That’s when the Compactor turned on. We must have misjudged the compacting schedule. I yanked my mom’s arm, screamed her name, but she had already swallowed one. I was able to get out in time. The last I saw, she was just standing there, on top of a pile of trash, looking dazed at that bottle of pills. I don’t know how long I spent wandering the sewers. Sometimes I slumped against the wall and wouldn’t move. Other times my eyes burned from all the crying. At one point, I bartered for Heliodor. I sat and stared at the gelcaps glinting in the dim light of the bulbs. That was when I made my decision. I wasn’t going to die like a rat. Or end up like dad, like those suicides lying in the gutter, dead because they couldn’t take it anymore either, couldn’t take the darkness anymore. And I was tired. Sick and tired of seeing all those kids. Bow-legged kids in the shadows with crooked arms because broken bones never healed right. A lot of them were born in the sewers and would die there. But not me. So first I tried going to Assistance. Up top, I ignored all the stares along the way. Ignored how they covered their noses. At the kiosk, my case was denied. Because I couldn’t prove who I was. I dialed for a live agent. “Our funds are not for iDNA,” she said. One drop of my blood and five minutes of their time and they would have found my citizen number. But no, why spend tax dollars on bottomdwellers? So I went to Employment, said I could work as a waste collector, livestock groomer, anything. They said they couldn’t help someone who didn’t have a citizen number. And in any case, all jobs were full. It wasn’t fair. How was I ever going to get out of the sewers? What did I do to deserve any of this? Before I went under I passed a hologram that was talking about Beatitude Sherman. I stared at the feed. Heiress to trillions. The parties she


attended. The celebrities she was romantically involved with. Her home was a 10,000 square foot penthouse in Sector 1. Both of us twenty-three. Such different lives. It’s so nice when daddy’s CEO of HelioTech. A childhood in the sewers teaches you a lot. Like I said, those tunnels lead everywhere. Even to the Air Filtration Plant. I used dad’s badge to sneak into his old office and unlock the computer. From there it was only a matter of time before I learned which vents go to the Outer Rim. Of course, when I found which penthouse was hers, I didn’t break in immediately. I waited. Learned her schedule. When the AI slept. I made my move at Curfew. It was dark in her room but my eyes were used to it. She tried to scream but I shoved a few Heliodor pills in her mouth. Knocked her out cold. And then I lived the happiest few hours of my life. I took a shower. I hadn’t felt hot water in fifteen years. I raided the kitchen. I got crumbs everywhere, ate spaghetti by the handful. I let the juices of fresh fruit drip all along my chin. I didn’t care. But the best was when Curfew ended. The time called dawn. Or morning. I’m not sure what the difference is, just that besides sun, those are the two most beautiful words I’ve ever heard. Dawn. Morning. I could not believe what I saw. Through those massive windows the blackness broke in half, the top half lighter—like wine—than the bottom half. I think the division is called horizon. And the upper part is the sky. And then I saw pink and orange and red. Colors I only saw on screens in school. And then I saw the brightest thing. It first peaked over the horizon and then slowly drifted up and up, all on its own. Turning the sky blue, exposing the scorched earth that, even in its emptiness, was stunning. And then I felt something I hadn’t in years. That glow. On the inside. I got so angry with the tears for blurring my vision. They say the sun goes down at some point. I never saw it. I didn’t even hear Security come in. I do have one last thing to say. I know the Law. I know the consequences for what I did. When the Council decides on how I’ll be executed, let it be by Exposure. That’s right, Exposure. So what if I’ll be incinerated the second I step outside the Trove? At least for that last moment, the sun will be mine.

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J

acob was ordered to leave before nightfall. Nobody trusted him at night anymore. He finished eating at the farmhands’ table, wiped the paste of sweat and sawdust from his brow, and walked to the hitching post on the property’s edge, where the travelers’ tethered mounts nervously tapped their hooves on the threshold of a vast and stygian desert. The farmer, Garner, watched him suspiciously from the kitchen window. Jacob noticed this and moved with hateful slowness so that his exit would come annoyingly close to the advent of dark. Drenched in the residue of his work and warmed by the mild tinder of his payment-meal, he departed. Miles ahead, the sun descended behind the sierra-knuckled horizon. He glanced back. The farm radiated in the distance, an infernal globe that exuded the demonic smog of bonfires, flickered with the shadows of winged creatures and whispered with the presence of faint, insignificant human life. He kept riding, the plug of a half-full stomach eroding with every trot. The moon peered over the highest peak, outlining its lithic lodestar and precariously orienting him in the desert void. He floated past prickly bushes and splintered elbows of stone, narrowly missed near-invisible craters, and leapt at every primeval howl that hurled through the boundlessness like blindly fired arrows. His horse paused to sniff the carcass of a pronghorn, but the sight sickened Jacob and he kicked the horse onward. After several dread-filled hours, he stopped, removed his hat, and squinted through the dense night. A pale button of light was pinned to the mountain’s lapel. He rode to the base of the incline, located at a thin and snaky trail cut back and forth across the climbing rock, and cautiously steered a path toward the roosting glint. Partway up the mountain, the track levelled into a platform. It was a pleasant spot: elevated, remote, and gifted with a clear view of the desert plain. There was a domicile up ahead, its flaxen gleam stamped upon the backdrop of gnarled rock. A shrivelled mass of juniper trees engulfed the glow, like protective fingers shielding a candle’s flame, so he couldn’t ascertain the building’s exact contours. There was a shed behind the thicket, as well as a slumbering chicken coop and a garden whose well-kept produce shone like jellyfish in the moonlight. He dismounted, hitched his horse to a twist of igneous rock, and ducked

Honest Darkness 53

Owen Schalk


through the fragrant trees. The home was smaller than he expected; there were at least five strides between the trunks and the walls, and enough space above the ceiling to erect a steeple. One sylvan outlier had angled into the building’s upper corner, and forced the home to bend under the weight of its warped spine. He knocked upon the tilted door. It squealed open, and a frayed old man appeared before a shudder of firelight. He was draped in shabby burlaps, his skin was gnarled and chipped, and the silver mold that stubbled his jaw pulsed with the taut flickers of the flames. He was only as tall as Jacob’s chest; scratching his neck, he straightened, extending his spine and staring his visitor in the eye. “Evening, sir,” Jacob nodded. “Got any work?” The man’s gaze narrowed. He glanced inside furtively, and then turned back, pensive and distracted. He kept itching his neck. “I need somewhere to sleep,” Jacob added. “That’s all I’m asking.” “Hm,” the old man grunted. Slowly, his back bowed to its natural stature. He dropped his hand. “Yes, yes, okay. Come with me.” Jacob stepped back. The man scuttled outside, almost doubled over. His movements were wide and ungainly, as though hindered by some inner pain. He staggered as he led Jacob to the side of his home that overlooked the expanse. “Here,” he said, pointing to a large square window that faced the plain. “This is the window, see? I can look out while I eat dinner, or while I’m trying to fall asleep, and see nearly to the end of the world. Heh, I saw you coming, better believe that.” He gestured to a small black tree, no higher than Jacob’s shoulder, which had sprouted up the exterior wal—a half-grown sapling, frozen in demise. “But there’s this tree here, you see?” He swatted a branch dismissively. “An old cedar. Long dead. I don’t like it anymore. It’s a bleak sight, don’t you think? Despairing. It spoils my view.” “You want me to chop it down?” “No, no, no,” he asserted, waving his arms. “I want you to bring it back to life.” Jacob watched the man carefully, scouting for a hint of jest. When his seriousness persisted, Jacob rubbed his eyes, inhaled the cool, lucid mountain air, and said, “Well, I’ll try. But if I can’t manage it, should I chop it down?” The old man chewed his lip. After a moment, he shrugged. “I suppose. Yes, yes, if that’s the case, then I suppose it’s time. The axe is by the chicken coop if you need it.” He rounded the corner, scurried through the canted door, and appeared in the glass next to Jacob. When Jacob stared at him curiously, the old man rolled his eyes and waved toward the cedar. He leaned his elbows on the windowsill and watched. Jacob hesitated, then edged up to the tree. To avoid offending the man, he conjured an expression of intense concentration, and knelt. On a whim, he

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55 slithered a hand through the cage of splintered branches and placed his fingers around its brittle spine. The bark was flaked, scaly, strangely cold. It felt almost pathetic against the firm flesh of his palm. He tightened his grip and waited, struggling to guise his pantomime behind a façade of sincerity. Minutes passed. The night was quiet, as crisp and clean as onyx. As time went by, his fake cerebration gradually deliquesced into a genuine calmness, a real, unforeseen meditation. Without thinking, he kissed his other palm and slunk it around the trunk. The sensation doubled. The texture of the rotted cedar spilled through his palms, down his arms, and into his spine; it drizzled out his feet, hardened, and rooted him within an endogenous bubble of tranquility. He lost all sense of time, space, and personality. Far down on the plain, a single wolf yelped; a second later, a pack of lamentations careened through the night. His fantasy shattered. He gasped and broke free. “So?” asked the old man, his voice bulbous against the glass. “It’s gone,” he answered, rubbing his eyes. “There’s nothing I can do.” The man shook his head mournfully. “Well, damn it all.” He stroked his beard and said, “Eh, the way of the world, isn’t it? Get the axe. I can use the firewood.” Jacob looked at the frail, helpless tree, and felt a sadness for the task ahead of him. A bird jostled its nest somewhere in the juniper membrane, either taking leave or returning, and the entire net of branches shook with consternation. Glumly, he fetched the weapon and hacked the tree into a bundle of emaciated logs. He dropped them at the door and called: “Can you spare some water for my horse?” The old man grabbed the firewood and pointed outside the trees, to the chicken coop. Between a discarded knife and an anthill-sized stack of feathers sat a bucket, rimmed with dirty foam. Jacob examined its contents for a long time before scooping it up and delivering it to his horse, who guzzled its contents. He left the bucket there and dove back into the junipers. Midway through, a branch snagged his ear. It yanked. He winced, detached himself, and stumbled into the enclosure. He swore and pawed at the ripped pinna. Purplish sparkles slid down his fingertips. He cleaned his ear with a rag and entered the old man’s slanted, one-room home. The smell of roasting meat greeted him. He looked around. The floor was dirt. There was a bed on one side of the room, with a rusty shovel planted at its foot, and on the opposite end a wooden table and a squat iron stove. The table was next to the window, and from his seat the old man could monitor the flames, check the meal’s progress, or gaze into the darkness-flooded desert. On the wall above his chair hung an intriguing ornament, round and flat, like a plate, with a malachite sheen and a filigree of gold tracing its center. “Join me,” the old man said, nodding to the other chair. A tin mug of whiskey awaited him.


“Thank you,” said Jacob, sitting. His eyes remained on the plate. “That’s much better,” the man grinned, indicating the window. “Isn’t the view so much nicer now?” Jacob looked through the glass and saw blackness. There was a thin dandruff of stars in the upper half, barely visible through the junipers. He nodded and sipped his drink. The old man snatched a metal rod and poked the base of the cedar logs, prodding a spark and a crackle. “Where’d you leave from, young man?” “Garner’s farm. It’s a short trek down the plain.” “I know Garner.” On a tray above the flames, pink meat sizzled grey. He extracted the rod and aimlessly nudged the chunks of chicken. “Doesn’t he let his workers stay the night?” “Usually, but it was a big job. Even the stables were packed.” “Hm…it’s not like Garner to turn a man away.” He jabbed the rod into the dirt and leaned back. “Headed somewhere in particular?” “Well, for a time I was thinking about going west. A friend of mine went over there to hunt scalps. He says the money’s good, but I don’t know if that’s for me.” “Too grisly?” “I think so. I’ve never killed before. I prefer simpler work. Farm work.” He dabbed his ear, and came back with a crust of dried blood. He rubbed it on his pants and self-consciously slugged his drink. “For the moment, though, I’m wandering. Trying to find a home I can settle for.” He met the old man’s gaze and realized with discomfort that he was being probed. His eyes floated upward, toward the ornament. “Where’d you get that?” The man turned, as though he’d somehow forgotten about his lone decoration. “A traveler gave it to me years ago. He told me it’s an ancient artifact. Thousands of years old.” “Is that gold?” “Could be. The fellow said it’s from Mexico. Maybe it’s Aztec, maybe it’s Mayan. He didn’t know, and I certainly don’t. Either way, the damned thing’s been around for centuries, if he’s to be believed.” He faced Jacob. His expression was different. The curiosity was gone, replaced by a stern suspicion. Jacob fidgeted. “Do you think he was telling the truth?” “I don’t know. I never met him.” “Do you value honesty, young man? More than anything else?” The auric tracery lapped hypnotically in the flames, its specks ranging like fireflies through an emerald twilight. “I’d say I do.” The green sank into a yawning tunnel above the old man’s head. It didn’t sparkle. The flames could find no purchase in its depths. “Hm.” He scowled, and bent to examine the meat. “Honesty is one of the

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57 rarest qualities in the world. Sometimes I doubt it’s ever existed.” He rumbled his throat and spat into the maw of the stove, narrowly missing the tray. His saliva hissed. “You know, I used to think it was possible to stumble upon honesty. Before I moved here, I’d wander the streets of my town and ask to speak with the most honest man, hoping to restore my hopes for humanity. I realized, eventually, that it was an impossible task. See, if honesty almost definitely doesn’t exist, then how can you trust someone’s word when they send you after an honest man? Most likely they’re lying, or they’ve been deceived.” He sat back. A breeze flowed through the junipers. The membrane susurrated, and a smattering of dust scraped the window. “But after years of searching, I did find a man—one honest man, in a town of thousands.” He tipped forward, rapt by his own recollections. The closer he came, the less influence the flames held over his features. “Would you like to meet him?” he asked, a gloomy visage distanced from the light. Jacob searched the room nervously. “Is he here?” “Yes, he’s here.” He shot up, handed Jacob the rod, and scampered to the other side of the house. “Watch the meat.” With frenzied excitement he cracked his knuckles, snatched the shovel, and plunged its point into the dirt at the foot of his bed. The flames copied his fervor, undulating feverishly as he threw clod after lumpy clod into the middle of the room, sometimes with so much ferocity that pebbles ricocheted off the iron stove. A heap formed between them. Just as it rose above the bed’s height, he stabbed the shovel into the floor and fell to his knees. He thrust his hands into the hole, grimaced, and yanked loose a large rectangular chest. Jacob muttered a prayer. His grip on the metal rod was sturdy, defensive. The old man slammed the box down, tinkered with some latches, and tossed open the lid. He reached inside, seized an object with both hands, and lifted it into the tremulous firelight. Jacob lowered the rod. Between the old man’s palms, shadows licked the skull’s eye sockets, nasal cavity, and gnarled brown teeth. He turned the face toward Jacob and mimicked its smile. “Do you understand?” he asked, scrambling to the table with the skull in his hands. “The only honest man in the world. Do you get it?” “I…I don’t know…” “Darkness! Darkness is the closest thing to honesty in the world, and nobody knows darkness like the dead!” He set the skull beside them, in place of a third table setting. “Light is nothing but a magic show. It gives things shape in order to mislead, and people gullibly accept those shapes as reality, and this fake reality turns each and every one of them into a different kind of liar. But this…” He patted the stained cranium like a pet. “This is what honesty looks like. This is the only thing honesty looks like. Hand me that poker, the chicken is burning.” When Jacob didn’t respond, the old man plucked the rod from his grasp and flipped the chunks. Once they were cooked, he took two clay plates from the top


of the stove and evenly distributed the meat. Jacob chewed silently, eyes moving between the dangling artifact and the skull. Its cavernous eyeholes studied the nightscape contentedly. “I tell everyone that comes here,” the old man said, juices dribbling down his chin, “if you value honesty as much as you claim, you’d be more like the skull.” He slurped his whiskey. “You’ve gone awfully quiet. Got anything to say?” Jacob looked out the window and said, “That cedar…how long was it there?” “Long before I showed up. It was why I chose to build here. I liked how the little guy looked, nestled in with the junipers. It was like a cub curled up with its parents.” He shrugged. “Oh, well. Couldn’t be helped.” After they ate, the old man stacked their plates on the stove and topped off his whiskey. Jacob declined a refill. While downing the final sip, the man raised a finger and said, “It almost slipped my mind. Before you go to sleep, I want to give you something.” “Give me what?” He went to the chest, which he’d left open on the floor, and dug a tiny cylindrical item out of its depths. He returned to the table and extended his hand over the skull. “I give one to all my guests.” Jacob leaned forward. There was a pinkie-sized vial on his palm. It was filled with a murky amaranthine liquid, and plugged by a shred of burlap. “I make it from juniper berries. Did you know they can be poisonous? I ate a batch when I first got here and almost killed myself.” Jacob gingerly picked the vial out of his hand. “If you truly value honesty as much as you say, you won’t think twice about drinking it. You don’t have to do it right now—I’m not so vain that I need to see it—but in the future, after you’ve thought about what I’ve said.” Wordlessly, Jacob pocketed the poison. “Now, I’m going to sleep. You got a blanket you can throw down?” He nodded and retrieved his bedroll from the horse, which had passed out beside the drained bucket. When he returned, the old man was asleep on the bed. A tempest of snores clattered gracelessly up his chasmal gullet. Jacob sighed. He scanned the room exhaustedly: the hole in the dirt, the open chest, the mound in the middle of the floor, the skull on the table, the ancient plate. He wrung the bedroll broodingly. A moment passed, and he pulled the vial out of his pocket. A wind rattled the branches, scratched at the windowpane. He dropped the bedroll and crouched in the dirt next to his unconscious host. The cloth plug came out easily. He threw it aside and carefully positioned the vial above the man’s gaping mouth. Very gently, he tipped the opening forward, and a single droplet disappeared into the snoring pit. Jacob froze, waited, and added another drop.

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59 A minute later, the vial was empty. He leaned close and watched, curiously, as the old man’s throat closed and a mild convulsion pumped his chest up and down. The movement intensified. Seconds later his eyes flung open, blurry with blood, and his snores became grating wheezes of pain. The old man rolled toward him but Jacob moved aside, letting him thump onto the ground. He studied the man as he died in the dirt. Jacob stood, checked his ear for blood, and surveyed the home once more. The first thing he took was the plate.


Y

ou stare at the ceiling, the black mold sprouting in the corner, seeping into the veiny fault lines that sprawl across the alabaster paint. Wrapping around the seam between wall and roof, a garden filled with cherub babies dance, mocking you, whispering, snickering. Their voices harmonize with the fan that is caked with the dirt of the past five decades, aqua net as a sticky base for the cigarette smog and fly carcasses. You focus in on a fly that’s twitching, clinging to life. Or maybe, it’s the breeze from the fan that momentarily revives the earthly being. Something wet hits you on the peak of your skull, sliding down the back of your neck and trailing down your spine until it finds a rest stop in the dimple of your tailbone. The micro hairs that cover your body stand straight as you realize how bitterly cold you are. A deep breath in and out to regain your composure releases a cloud of condensation. You look through the fog and remember when you were a child how you used to pretend to be a Mobster when it was cold enough on the playground, smoking a pipe and blowing it into the faces of your peers who failed to finish the job. Another drop taps you, is anyone home? You look up and stare into the face of a shower head, its last few tears pulled down by the weight of the atmosphere. It’s hard to move right now, but your eyes freely scan the bathroom–as long as a grown man’s wingspan and half that in width. The walls are finger-painted in red, a trail that spirals and cascades like the skies of Van Gogh. You stop, frozen. The cold has taken over your body solid as you stare at your palette covered in crimson, the clock behind her reading 3:32AM.

Oracle

Ally Gorenchan 60


T

he Door has many rules. Do not look at the Door. Do not talk about the Door. Definitely do not talk to the Door, and if the Door itself talks, do not listen to its whispers. Do not open the Door, and do not go through the Door, not frontwards, backwards, sideways or any other way that could possibly be conceived of. In fact, do not go near the Door for any reason, and and do not breathe near the Door. A thousand little rules, for something that appears quite toothless. Its appearance then, to help with avoidance. It is a simple affair. The wood had been bright red once, but after an indeterminable number of years, the color had become faded and worn. White stone formed the frame, each irregular block stacked on top of another. It may have been pristine once, but is now yellowed and grimy with age. It was in the middle of nowhere, remembered by no one. The surrounding land was a fertile, overgrown sea of green. Here and there the crumbled remains of walls and buildings peaked through the foliage. The air hummed and buzzed with thousands of bugs. Except for the area directly around the Door. That small circle of land was completely and utterly dead, as if even nature knew to avoid it. But this is not the full picture. A door, a single surviving remnant of a long dead structure, surrounded by reclaimed ruins, is hardly cause for all these rules and superstition. Perhaps if there was something behind it, but there are no walls. The secret of the Door lies lies through it, not behind. It is a room, and it feels small and claustrophobic, despite the fact the walls cannot be seen. There is light, but it is difficult to say where exactly it comes from, and in any case it is not enough to illuminate the room. Only enough to extenuate the shadows. Any potential visitors would notice none of this. Their eyes would undoubtedly be glued to the creature that called the place home. He is called the Silver Prince, and his impressive bulk is held aloft by five arms. They stretch off into the darkness from different angles of his body. His eyes, of which there are seven, are locked on the Door, and have been for a very long time. Waiting for it to open. Waiting for prey. The Prince had not eaten in many years. Prey was on the other side of the Door, and therefore had to come to him. It would happen. It had to. It was how he himself had wound up there, after all; despite the rules surrounding it, someone always got curious about the Door. He had been lucky, and quick, and now

The Door

Jason Hill 61


the space was his. Prey would find its way in. He would wait and wait and wait, and when he had all but given up hope, the Door would open. Either the prey would come in, or it would be waiting outside. This is how it has always been. The prince shifts his bulk, bracing with three arms on the clammy walls of his prison. With the fourth and fifth, he reaches out reverently to the Door. The hands came within a hairbreadth of the corrupted wood, but never actually touched it. The Door could not be opened from this side; even touching it was painful for him. Not as painful as the Doors’ refusal to open, of course. Not as painful as the hunger eating away at it from the inside. But painful nonetheless. But then, for a moment, pain. Blinding, searing pain, running up the Prince’s arms like a cleansing flame. He recoils in horror with an awful screech, and the room quivers in sympathy with its prisoner. Then the Prince realised what it meant. The Door had touched the Prince’s fingers. He had made contact, though he went no closer than was usual in his hourly pleas for succour. In other words, the Door had opened. Taloned fingers slipped around sun faded wood, and the SIlver Prince pulled himself into a world that was no longer green. Five eyes blinked under the glare of a sickly yellow light before taking in a scene that was almost more depressing than the room had been. Structures poked out of the snow like the ribs of a long dead colossus. The burned out remains were hundreds of feet tall, looming over the Door with barely constrained hostility. This was not a world of life, of prey, and it hadn’t been for quite a while. Which raised a very simple, but veryimportant, question: who opened the Door? No one had entered it, and no one was waiting. These points stuck in the Prince’s mind as he took a few tentative steps into the city. Eyes blinked and rolled in the weak sunlight that was still much brighter than anything he was used to. Maybe it was this that staggered him and kept his eyes cast low. Maybe he was too focused on the questions in his head. Either way, he did not see the eyes watching from the ruined buildings. Eyes that watched his every move with a feral hunger. They were human once, these ghoulish monsters. But time changes all things. They were cadaverous, their ribs poking through taunt skin. Mad eyes rolled in sunken sockets, and rotten teeth gnashed and ground in hunger. A hunger that was just as terrible as that of the Silver Prince, if not moreso. They came as one, a pack of nightmares that ripped and tore at the Prince. He tried to fight. When that did not work, he tried to run. And when running failed, the Silver Prince died. The ghouls ate well for the first time in ages. But as the food ran out, their eyes turned to the Door. Food had come from there. They did not quite know how, as noting could be seen on the other side, but they had all seen the Prince enter

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their world. Perhaps there was more food on the other side? The pack moved towards the Door. slowly at first, but gaining certainty with every step. The leader enters the Door, caution thrown to the wind at the prospect of food. He disappears as he crosses the threshold, but this does nothing to deter the rest. On the other side is a suffocating darkness, the dim light available to the Prince nowhere near enough for the newcomers. Unlike the world they left, the air is hot and humid. The walls are slick and close. There is a sound very nearly like the rumbling of a stomach. Unseen, the Door closes.

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64


65


Poetry

66


67

August Wiegman

in the case of an unattended death

T

from Aftermath: Specialists in Trauma Cleaning & Biohazard Removal Stage One: Autolysis aka self digestion Immediately after death, the body ceases breathing, becomes an autocannibal— cells rupturing and eating themselves from the inside and outwards. A shine may be present, the glistening of broken blisters on loose skin Stage Two: Bloat aka gas production Skin discolored, insects swarming, immense gain in size— Resulting bacteria, infestation, and mold may cause serious damage to a building’s structure as putrefaction leaks from every pore, every fissure, every blister Stage Three: Active Decay aka liquidization No one will ever find you. You hate this, don’t you? Your nails have left you, your teeth have fallen to the back of your throat Skin, no longer your skin, no longer skin— Eyes and mouth leaking putrid death You wish to escape, anyone would, and yet— Stage Four: Skeletonization aka your fate

S

The skeleton’s decomposition rate is based on the loss of collagen and inorganic components, and so there is no set time frame in which skeletonization occurs.


S

Kryst Le Grif

111111111111

Regional Rail

Forward diving His body splashes onto the track Devoured by the pilot Succumbed to force Sucked under by inertia Swallowed through the uncarriage Blades slicing through him like butter. Metal and bone Butchered meat Limbs displaced Sliced Splattered Scattered Tumbling, rolling, spilling Crimson painted display of completion. A train delay that makes you late for work.

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Corinna Schulenburg

Ms. Scarlet in the Study

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So stunned they stand in a semicircle around it, the body, as it decants into the floral rug and gives the study a surgical feel, that glint of knife and glove. There is no one whose throat fills with blood that has not, at some point, been loved. We’re careless with it, she thinks, just as we’re careless with this, our hate, as if each person, even the worst of us, wasn’t the handiwork of a thousand tendernesses, now all undone. Well, he was a jerk, this fresh cadaver, he gave us all a quiver of reasons and it was only a matter of logistics, the when, the how, not the why. But who? She looks around: there’s his father, a turnip-faced man with hands like canned hams, who hated him for being smarter. There’s his mother, a bouquet of raw nerves, who despised him since that week of nights when he would not, could not, sleep. He’s sleeping now, if death is rest, and not a long fall into a starless box. There’s his wife, weeping like a sprung dam, keening like a bowed saw. Convincing, if you’re the kind to find grief reliable. She’s not. She’s wept over commercials and turned stone for the death of beloveds. Anyway, the wife, more than anyone, had had enough. He was loathsome in the ways that are common: coward, bully, hypocrite. But he also cultivated rare orchids of cruelty, of spite. So this was the night all that ended. The daughter also sniffles, though that could just be allergies. The friend is mumbling something, maybe an elegy, or apology.

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No, wait: they’re all turning to look at her. Why? Oh, the knife, the knife that’s in her hand, the one slick with more than blood. Well, that has nothing to do with this, she protests. I was trapped within some beast, she swears, some creature had swallowed me whole, sure as the wolf took grandma. It took me years to carve my way out. She looks down at the body, sees the cut from the nethers to the neck, how thin his skin, like a cheap costume. The wife nods, dries her eyes, refreshes drinks as father and friend drag the guts away. The wife offers her a gin martini, two olives, just the way she likes it. The mother talks about the weather. The daughter hands her a tissue to wipe the blade clean.

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Susen James

Etiquette of the Séance

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1. You wanted séance. This is the real thing. But there are no guarantees. If Elsa, Gentile Roger, Ernest or your chosen entity desire to speak they will do so. Remember the spirit you wish to contact may not be interested in contact with you. 2. My home is their home. You are the guest. 3. Lights are dimmed for easier visualization. Bright flashes startle them. Photographs & videography are forbidden. 4. They are to feel at home, to cackle croon moan mutter rumble thunder stutter pant or purr. They may stink smoke warble squawk caw squeal spit grunt gargle garble squeak hum or bleat. They may finger fondle or vibrate, but not molest. 5. Do not call them ghosts, ghouls or such dirty fingered insulting monikers as phantoms. Refer to them as friends or family. In the spirit or presences are also acceptable, but they may prefer you call them the names they themselves identify. 6. All of my pretty presences speak English. (& often several other tongues) Once they begin speaking you must be respectful & remain seated & silent until they quiet. 7. Do not be alarmed if they outcling you (follow you home by clutching to your clothing). They miss the warmth of human skin & may try to burrow in. (You may feel them spoon you in bed). Usually they disperse within a week. If you are extremely uncomfortable ask that they leave you. Spirits only come to those who summon. (Consciously or unconsciously). You have been extended this invitation, consider before you accept. You will abide by the rules or be asked to leave!

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For the housebound, séance may be conducted by telephone 847.555.1213 or E-mail Ursula@spiritmail.com


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H.S.

Gratia Serpento

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Six Feet Bury me six feet

Six feet

Six feet more

Six feet Deeper Til I’m knocking on Hell’s door Down with the sinners, The freaks, the dead Down till the screams Wash out my dread Bury me six feet Six feet

Six feet more.

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Cristina Legarda

Sestina for a Vampire

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Three coronary arteries supply blood to the heart, muscle of our emotion, servant of our fear. When we are small we learn to be afraid of the dark from shadows provoking that flow of blood forward, sending us running toward desired shelter, away from ghosts, from demon possession.

No one suspects an angel of possession, so when you arrived, I didn’t run. My heart quickened instead sensing invisible wings, desired nothing but time in your haloic glow, entirely free of fear and suspicion. Nothing sinister–no cape, no blood on your hands, no pallor, nothing dark anywhere around you except the deliciously dark thoughts in my head that suddenly took possession of me, black reflections flickering in your light eyes, hot blood arising in our secret parts, the heart of one against the other pounding, the rush of fear giving way to the joy of being desired. With unsurprising arrogance you were sure I desired that brush of lips across my neck, my dark tresses so easily caressed aside to expose, I fear, a hollow of flesh all too ready for possession. You saw my pulse there, a secret my heart couldn’t keep; just under the surface, the coursing blood drawing you in. Make no mistake: I will suck your blood too. I caught a glimpse of your fangs, of what you desired– no, hungered for, in the depths of your heart. In the secret chambers where your blood flowed, the dark thing you longed for was ultimate possession, not just body and blood, nor desire, nor fear, but love–you dared to want my love. Fear me too, prince of darkness, let not your blood rest easy, for my love is more powerful than possession; it will swallow us whole, bury us alive, desired ecstasy with no possibility of breath, a drowning in the dark, the madness of surrender, the ravished, battered heart.

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My love, I no longer fear what I once desired because I see my blood pouring out, thick and dark, when at last I have the self-possession to drive a stake through your heart.


The Horror

Not even the part when they hear the creak mumble hum shriek moan and walk towards the sound. Stupid curiosity and youthful invincibility are the leading actors (both white), supported by unattractive hesitation, C-cup summer highlights, and nerdy-needing-to-be-accepted only black person. They are all supposedly in high school but look deadass in their thirties. There’s a kitchen full of knives a jeep full of gas a shed full of guns but they decide empty-handed to follow busty softcore blonde who, acting like she’s never seen a horror film before, asks,

“Did you all hear that?”

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Wendy M. Thompson

(You’ve watched this scene unfold hundreds of times and holler back, “Oh my god, you already know that’s the killer. Run away! Run away!”)

Even the one black character who deserves to die just for going on a no-cell-phone-service-having camping trip with a group of white kids who he barely knows and who scream the “n” word while singing their favorite rap song acts like 400 years of evading slave catchers is not an inheritable trait as he willingly and trustingly turns to frosty lip gloss who looks even more frightened at the enhanced banging clawing whimpering growling

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and cry-whispers,

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“Oh my god, guys, tell me you heard that.”

Not even the part when they go to open the closet attic basement front door and your hands become tiny branches in front of your face, thickets weaving layers of underbrush over your eyes, giving you glimpses of the gore; a barrier between your beating heart and the moment they figure out that it’s behind them when they suddenly turn around.

(When the white girl’s hand reached for the knob, you hollered for their lives, “Oh my god, don’t go in there! Y’all gone die!”)

Not even the part when they split up and run into the woods warehouse abandoned cabin haunted factory each body now a prey, each hiding spot now a grave, each neck now a copper river, each chest now an open cavern. The killer, an off-season tourist, meanders through the meat and tendon, photographs bones before vandalizing them. No ranger for miles to stop him from posing on top of delicate arches and trampling over all that is natural and beautiful and pristine. (“They are so dumb,” you say to the rest of your mostly black, five person viewing party, to the popcorn, to the guac.)

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Not even the part when the rest of them are dead except for one who falls over her own feet in a scene that started off


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promising, both legs synchronized. An innocent teen running away. The killer who is somehow always too slow, lugging a heavy, bleeding axe. He won’t catch her at his pace but then somehow she forgets how to run. One foot in front of the other becomes one foot falling into an ankle, a knee bowing outward, a calf refusing to stand, her legs sending her body careening into a pile of leaves or freshly overturned dirt.

(You hiss at the screen, “Don’t look near your hand!”—it isn’t a root but someone’s partially buried leg.) Because, of course, it’s always the woods it’s always dark it’s always the white girl who trips and falls whenever white people go wandering off before/during/after swimming in the infested/infected/contaminated lake. No, not even the part where the worst thing happens to the worst character with butcher knives and meat hooks and saw blades and parasitic alien spores

can compare to the tremble on the lips of a white woman ready and able to convict and execute an unarmed black person in the middle of nowhere/everywhere minding their business using a loaded officer on the other end of her iPhone.

This corroboration between citizen and state is nothing short of Broadway ready: her tears the opening line, the street her stage, the officer and the gun her props, (y)our body, the finale, a smear of blood on the pavement.

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Everyone in the audience watching, asks, “Who was the monster?” even though they all saw it coming.

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James Piatt

Decomposing Reality

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Arriving in the gray hours of an iron colored, and eerie night, bloody metallic symbols covered with rusting contractions screamed across people’s minds causing a terrifying agony. Glass poems written in scarlet ink became shattered by metamorphic hammers pounding words of apprehension into shattered synonyms, causing dark allegories to become lost inside the weariness of their decomposing minds. While staggering into a cemetery, images of broken tombstones in a field of unknown graves entered their consciousness and trails of terrified tears melted into the cemetery’s soil filling it with fear, and anxiety. The people sensed something horrible being awakened, and sharp pangs of foreboding started piercing their collapsing minds in a fit of decomposing reality. Then something grabbed their decomposing minds, pulling them under tombstones where their names were etched in blood.

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Calista Malone

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The Cailleach

Clouds circle Edinburgh. On some corner in Leith, he and his mate post up against the pawn shop. Red joggers bunched at the ankles, red zip-up dashed with oil from the chippy. A cigarette flipping from finger to finger, unlit, watching women as they make their way home just before the city street lights flicker on. They whistle when one gets too close, walks a little faster, looks up at them with eyes in a needle. A woman, with skin that’s never seen the sun, pulls her cart behind her, full of granite, cooled and collected somewhere around Ben Nevis, or so the sign on her wagon says. Maybe to make a new countertop in the kitchen of some posher’s flat. Maybe to make a sculpture of some Celtic deity in on the Georgian side of the city. One of the mates, finally lights up, flicking ashes at her feet, sighs, can you believe this old crow, hauling rocks across town? Watch this, he says. Louder he says, Hey hen, gimme a smile. She looks up, eyes like ash and grins, blood lining her teeth, yellowing the sharpening canines beneath her lips.

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79 Joseph Kerschbaum

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beyond bedtime children venture into the exotic dark under summer constellations firefly morse code horde of mosquitoes benign suburban danger

Ghost in the Graveyard

agree to the rules all players start safe they don’t stay that way lamp post home base countdown together until mock midnight hunt the spirits boys & girls disperse into thick dark stumble across lawns lose sight of safety alone in the night ghosts shaped like kids hide behind bushes & trees lurk around corners wait to be found then pounce

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hear a rustle see a shadow with white eyes warning scream ghost in the graveyard! scatter panic terror gives chase running laughing sprint back to base not fast enough someone is tagged lost soul doesn’t return home begin again count hunt run one by one all children turn to ghost


For reasons reason cannot know we were the ones he wanted to kill and he would have, had I let him. I stashed the kids in a closet, in cabinets, hoping to outsmart the fragile frantic mind of a man child gone amuck. I told him, when he looked around, they were playing in the gym, as they should be even now. Disappointed, he shot me then. Some say If I’d carried a gun, if all teachers did, not just me, we’d be less vulnerable, and I’d still be alive, and so’d the kids. But the thought of shooting off every unfamiliar face, as if being new, or being an outsider is somehow a kind of a crime, rather than a new beginning, offends me so I’d rather take a dive. In the end, the same bitter and grasping questions are asked again, and again, as if to numb the living. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls: it’s not for me. This one’s on you.

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Deliverance

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Jim Ross

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Mindy Mensen

Cry the Tempest Knight

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Darkness falls and kills the light, Sunlit shadows fade to night. Stars will hide as thunder crashes, Monsters come when lightning flashes. Sounds of things you dare not see, As silently it comes for thee. Rain falls like ice to sting the skin, And so, the beast must rise again. The howling wind brings voice and breath, Un-life that will not bow to death. The whirling clouds part to reveal, Eyes that glow and pierce like steel. Spine-numbing echoes shake the trees, As shapes appear in twos and threes. These are the monsters of the mind, That bars won’t trap, and chains won’t bind. They haunt a life embraced at death, And taunt him as he gasps for breath. Forgetting things that were before, He rides the storm along the shore. He lies awake, finds truth in sleep, And in his dreams, he learns to weep. A human spark that’s all but gone, Yet fading like a dying swan.

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Night by night he’ll watch the sea, And dream of things that cannot be, ‘Til all alone he waits on shore, To ride the tempest — evermore…


Everyone I saw had orbs of color. I loved the colors: blue, brown, green, silver. I wanted, no, I needed to have all of them, all of the possible sets. Each contributor was a stranger. I plucked and scooped and placed. None of them saw it coming. It started with the two girls, patiently waiting on their food. At first, they didn’t want to help, but all it took was a push into the wall and a roll down the alleyway. I never even broke a sweat. Lapis lazuli and jade, This was the beautiful start to my vast collection. The next few were difficult, the mailman and my neighbor’s dog both gave the same whimpering cry. I found Neptunes at the supermarket, Plutos at the local church, then Jupiters in the coffee shop. When I saw my own reflection, in the window of that coffee shop, I knew what I had to do. Dazzling blue to magnetic grey, I required one more pair, and did not need to look far.

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Complete Collection

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Grace Priddy

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Staring into my bathroom mirror, I gazed upon the emerald forest and the unforgiving sea. I observed my features, admiring the riveting colors. It was the last time. Taking a clean melon baller, the metal one from the kitchen drawer, I plunged it into my left eye. I ignored the pain as I yanked and jabbed. It burned as I lifted a serrated knife and sliced the ball from the optic nerve. The sea was gone. I sat down my tools, smiling at the bleeding hole in my head. Taking a rest on the toilet, I made eye contact with the golden moon. She watched as I tugged. She observed as I placed. She was then going to witness the end. I slowly stood, not wanting to faint from blood loss, not when I was almost there. Washing my hands with warm water from the once white porcelain sink, I took a steady breath.

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I picked up the melon baller, feeling sticky blood rush down, covering my shaky fingers.


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After severing the nerve, it was done. I dropped the forest into isopropyl alcohol. Closing the jar, I followed the cool tiled wall to the closed wooden cabinet. I placed the forest and sea onto the top shelf. I assumed the others watched in jealousy, my new audience. Coolness ran down my face. I could only guess that it was tears, adding a salty flare to my stinging sockets. I sat on the chilly floor, in front of the jars, surrounded by darkness, taking in a deep breath of blood-scented air.

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I then drove the scoop into the sclera, pulling the eye from the socket with a newfound force.

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Adam Tavel

Apology for a Ghost

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She only haunts the second floor in fall when business slows, when August tourists wilt and shuffle home. The cape seems wider then, retirees and widowers, the sort of folks who wake at dawn and keep our den pristine. They watch their salt, get no calls, and crossword through the week. The best ones sport their L. L. Bean. We think her husband killed her in the tub. Pills first then blub. That’s just what the former owner said, of course. It’s tough to trust a thing revealed at settlement. We chose new paint to match her gown. The rust from sea-spray scrubbed away. There’s nothing rough except her moan. Your key has been unbent.

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Death’s Beauty The moon shimmers on the lake as my eyes peel wide my limbs wont move yet my heart races like the wind how can this be what I see as I look upon a myth and my death and drool strings from fang to lip my blood thunders to be released from my still living veins as though it could take refuge soaking into the soil as my body dies hiding from the truth even my mind refuses to accept shaggy fur that would otherwise be beautiful coats my murderer and a tail wags with anticipation gleeful at the feast before it she howls louder than my protests then lunges for my throat I go still and all I can do is think werewolves aren’t even real...

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Laura Austin

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Jo Angela Edwins

The Wicked Ones An ancient story. Imagine it this way:

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not the old woman, but the children running from another woman they swear to be evil. (Perhaps she is, but perhaps she only asked them to set the table, toss out dinner scraps, something simple to ease her heavy burden.) Here they come on pinched feet weary from treading half a mile on the forest’s green floor to arrive at what this lone earth mother built with sweat and sugar and an eye for the loveliest gumdrops, here, just far enough from busybody villages and the clatter of tins and gossip. And what do they do but help themselves without an ask or a curtsy, imagining, like so many pampered children, that everything they find belongs to them, that all the work of old female hands is good for nothing if not filling their shining hungers?

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Is it any wonder they climbed willingly into her silver roaster? Is it any wonder they thought her wide-bellied stove a glowing bedchamber made warm just for them?


Black arches crawl across the sky, Devouring the stars like caterpillars. Shadows scrape stone. The imp climbs to the lullaby. Cold winds tiptoe under the sluggish moon, Circling slowly like scattered killers. The staircase creaks, Grating like bone. He drops the bloodstained moonbeam on the bed, Closes her eyes and whistles a Fae tune. Her baby squeaks. A straw-spun cloak of gold surrounds her head.

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Rumpelstiltskin’s Revenge

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Cassandra Sigmon

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Wax Baby

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Stefanie Fair-King

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ichael Henry left this world the day after he came into it. His tombstone is etched with the dates Nov. 9 - Nov. 10, 1956. In bold letters carved at the top of his marker, the word “Baby” is announced. If he had lived, Michael would have been my uncle, my dad’s older brother. I never met him, but I remember him. The story of Michael was the first ghost story I ever heard. Michael’s mother, or Grandma as I called her, lived in Kansas, a state that when viewed from above appears to be a giant’s quilt, an endless patchwork of wheat and sunflower fields. My parents divorced when I was young, and every summer my brother and I would fly from Texas, where we lived with our mom, to Kansas where our dad and his side of the family lived. After the divorce, Dad moved back in with his parents into a small gray house outfitted with plush living room furniture draped with knitted blankets, side tables covered with dollies, and shelves lined with knickknacks—tiny anthropomorphic creatures carved from wood or assembled from seashells with googly eyes behind wire glasses. The kitchen housed olive green appliances, and the refrigerator hummed and ticked in a comforting rhythm. In the evening the kitchen filled with the aroma of meats and vegetables battered in flour or cornmeal and drowned in sizzling grease. I helped Grandma make the most scrumptious chocolate cupcakes. She taught me to seal the moisture in each mini cake by filling all the nooks and crannies of the paper wrapper with the homemade icing. Grandma oozed sweetness. She was a petite woman with short hair which she colored auburn with a box of Clairol hair dye. Smoker’s lines framed her thin lips. Her signature phrase, “Aww, heck,” was accompanied with a smile that made little crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She also said, “I seen” instead of “I saw,” but I knew better than to correct her grammar. She considered it her duty to educate us kids on the hardships her generation had endured. Fresh out of school for the summer and ready to play, my brother and I would have to be pried away from the TV or backyard and coaxed into the dining room for another lesson in Grandma’s personal history. I ached to get back to the rope swing in the backyard, and sensing my frustration she’d say, “This is important.” She told us about how she grew up in some kind of underground house called a dugout, which to my mind was akin to the kind of dwelling cave people had lived in. As a baby, she didn’t have the luxury of a crib—her bed was the bottom drawer of a chest of drawers. Back then, as soon as kids could walk, they were expected help out, unlike my brother and I who were paid if we did optional chores at Grandma’s. We recorded any cleaning we completed on a little notepad attached to the wall. I doubt there was a notepad


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attached to the dirt wall where my grandmother grew up, one where she could write her name if she completed a chore, and I bet she never expected to get paid for helping out. I found out about Michael during one of Grandma’s lectures. She set the scene, explaining how she was asleep one night when she woke up coughing, choking. “The sheets had wrapped around my neck,” she said, demonstrating with her hands clasping her throat in a mock strangulation gesture. “I looked over and I seen this baby right under the window.” This baby, she explained, looked like he was made of wax, and when she looked at him, he began to melt. She didn’t say what color he was, but in my mind’s eye he is golden wax with a buttery sheen, casting a yellow glow into the dark bedroom. I imagine his waxy form like a candle dribbling beads of wax in reverse, the droplets pooling upward. She explained how the puddle of wax the baby melted into swooshed right up and out the window. I thought of Grandma’s bedroom with its fluffy brown carpet and flowery bedspread covered in cotton candy pink and blue hydrangeas. The room no longer seemed cozy, but eerie, like the wax baby had left behind a thin layer of paranormal dust that blanketed the room. Grandma explained how she’d had a child that died when he was a baby, and that she believed the wax baby to be that child, a boy named Michael. Grandma had seen Michael in her bedroom four decades prior to her telling me about it that summer when I sat wide-eyed listening to her story, believing every word. I felt sorry for Michael. What was a one-day-old baby doing wandering the afterlife alone? I grew up hearing that if a baby dies, then that little soul just gets back in line to be born into the world. Round two. I was shocked to learn that a baby could be left to his own devices, to go back and haunt his mother as a melting wax baby. Years later, Grandma and Grandpa moved to a large house out in the country and Dad bought their little gray house from them. After they’d taken down their decorations and shelves, perfect outlines of what was removed remained: the wallpaper had yellowed from years of Grandma and Grandpa’s smoking and left crisp impressions of what had once hung on the walls. And that wasn’t the only impression that remained long after Grandma and Grandpa moved out. The window in Grandma’s room still held a psychic outline of Michael beneath it. That eerie room became my brother’s when he chose to move in with our dad. The window under which Michael melted was covered with a gun rack which housed a row of shotguns. The window was no longer visible. Nevertheless, any time I entered the room, I eyed the area with suspicion, on guard against any potential wax babies appearing under the window, cautious of Michael coming back to haunt my brother and me, the nephew and niece he never met.


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Trapped

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Victoria Wittenbrock

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ilence. The best word to describe that day. Not a tranquilizing, calming, peaceful silence. An eerie, sinister, disconcerting silence. Not in the way that one might venture outside on a Sunday morning to find that the usual noises of the hustle and bustle of the city are calmer, and there is a sense of serenity set in place by the sound of running water in the nearby creek or crickets chirping in the distance. Silence that occurs in the scene of a horror movie to generate suspense before the long-anticipated jump-scare flashes across the screen as the speakers emit a high-pitched shriek or deafening boom. Little did I know, things in my own life were about to go boom as well. My father and I sat in the living room of our condo together, just the two of us. A father-daughter fishing trip my senior year of high school. Likely our last one before I abandoned my family to travel across the country the next year to pursue my college career. I laid on one side of the couch, my father on the other, my feet stretched across his lap. I was reading a book and he was on his laptop catching up on some work. I took a brief intermission from my novel to stare aimlessly out of the window. The sky was menacingly grey with clouds. I realized to my dismay that it was still lightly raining. Not quite hard enough to elicit the typical pitter-patter sound of rain cascading onto the roof, but just hard enough to be an inconvenience. Typical mid-October weather, I thought. It was at this moment I began to ponder the peculiarity of how not even the fire was crackling like it normally seemed to. Even the monotonous clicks on my dad’s keyboard seemed gentler than usual as he typed away. Another hour or so wasted away and although the storm clouds continued to loom overhead, the rain dissipated, and the forecast seemed promising. My father and I had gotten restless; we had succumbed to the unrelenting, inescapable cabin fever. We loaded up the fishing gear and clamored into the truck, preparing to head out for a few hours of fishing in one of the streams just outside of town. We journeyed about 30 minutes or so beyond the confines of the little mountain town. We turned off the main highway onto a little mountain backroad that one of the town locals my father had become recently acquainted with told us about. The car lurched back and forth as we trudged along. In retrospect, I am in awe of how strong the suspension must have been. The sage brush along the sides of the narrow path occasionally scraped against the sides of the vehicle. Of course, my dad was more than willing to sacrifice his truck for the opportunity to snag an impressive trout. The path gradually got hairier. It started as we came across small puddles that he took extra care


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to maneuver around. The farther we ventured out from the highway, however, the more viscous and treacherous the mud became. I could feel it squishing out from underneath the tires. Eventually, we reached the creek. The fishing was decent, but I most enjoyed the bonding time with my dad. As time moved along, we decided that our misery from our frostbitten hands and stiff backs outweighed the thrill of reeling in a fish. The fish must have had the same experience because just as our apparent zeal began to diminish, they became less than compelled to bite. Before we began our departure, I asked my dad if I could drive back to the condo. I had recently obtained my driver’s permit and felt I had become very confident behind the wheel, a feat I was eager to display. He reluctantly agreed. I snatched the keys and turned them in the ignition. The series of events that was about to unfold would have an effect on me so prevalent that they would change my perspective on the world forever. I stepped on the gas and instantly knew something wasn’t right. The tires spun and the engine revved, but the car failed to do the one thing it was built to do—move. My dad advised me to stop, and he got out of the car to investigate. The wheels had been digging into the mud and we were stuck. He instructed me to roll down my window so I could hear him yell. When he began to push, I was supposed to step on the gas. Nothing worked. After about 30 minutes of trying in vain to jerk the car free, we came to the gut-wrenching conclusion: we were stranded. Darkness began to envelop the surrounding areas. I glanced through the frost-covered windshield and realized that I could visibly see the fog moving steadily towards us from the field of sage ahead of us. Within minutes, the car and everything as far as the eye could see would be veiled by a dense layer of fog and impenetrable darkness. At this point, my father called his friend who lived in the area to ask for much-needed help. Predictably, he was away on a camping trip two or so hours out of town. In the meantime, I sat patiently in the passenger seat, but as time wore on, I began to grow worrisome. Having nothing to entertain me allowed my mind to wander. To conclude our series of comically unfortunate events, it began to snow. At this point I had come to accept our fate and while my father was frantically searching for a solution, I began to devour the bag of beef jerky I had scrounged up from the center console. I had hoped we wouldn’t be there much longer because that had meant I only left my dad with two sticks of gum to survive. As this trivial thought crossed my mind, my heart stopped. My fingers tapping on the dash stopped. I stared straight ahead into the distance. I didn’t even have to look over to realize that my dad had frozen too.


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There, about 100 or so yards in the distance, was a light. My initial hope was that it was the headlights of my dad’s friend coming to our rescue. In my heart, I knew it was too early for him to have made it back. The light had been radiating out of a flashlight. As it grew closer, a figure appeared. My dad and I sat in silence, fixated on the dark shadow of a man sauntering ominously straight towards us with an awkward gait. Once he broke 25 yards, a tall, dark figure dressed in all black emerged from the fog line into the stream of our headlights. I could just make out his heavy rain-slicker and obnoxious rubber boots. Beside him he was dragging a heavy-duty metal chain. This moment made the scenes from cheesy teenage horror movies seem far less cheesy. As he approached the car, I reached for my dad’s hand, and he said, “I see him.” He began to roll up the window. I said in an attempt to lighten the mood but with an air of genuine panic, “He’s gonna kill us.” His reply was, “I know.” I looked at him with utter horror and squeezed his hand harder than I ever thought possible. I was not expecting to hear those words come out of his mouth. I had turned to my father, as every little girl does at some point in her life, seeking comfort and solace. I looked to him to reassure me that everything would be alright. That was not the case. He was as equally terrified as I had been. The man slunk to the window with one hand in his pocket, the other holding the large metal chain. We had nothing to defend ourselves with besides a couple of fishing poles, some dead trout, and an empty beef jerky package, none of which would place us at an advantage to a clearly experienced, psychotic, serial killer. He knocked on the glass. My heart dropped. My father rolled down the window about an inch. To our relief, the man slid a business card through the crack and explained that he was a tow truck driver that patrolled the area at night looking for people to pull out of the mud. He saw our headlights from the road and figured we needed help because, who else would be crazy enough to be outside under those conditions. To our utter embarrassment, we discovered that we clearly were not the only ones to be caught in this situation before. Turns out, the chain would come in handy towing us out of the huge hole we dug ourselves. Ten minutes and $600 later, we were out of the mud and on our way back to town, my dad behind the wheel this time.

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Miasma

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Sidney Grady

“It was worse for the poor. They stayed in their homes, and being without help of any kind, could not hope to escape death. They died at all hours in the streets; those who died at home were not missed by their neighbors, until they noticed the stench of their putrefying bodies. The whole city was a sepulchre.” Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

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he dead of winter gives way to lively spring. This is the way it has always been. This year, we track less mud on the sidewalks. Lights off in the office, in the classroom; doors locked at the mall, but we need to eat. We warily eye the woman next to us in the pasta aisle, stifle a cough. Empty aisles, empty shelves. It’s quiet, even here, and we do not linger long. The guy at point-of-sale will touch our canned beans and hand soap just after us — because he must — and we will imagine someone tossing him a fiver and some pocket change for his service. Anyone with a bit of luck on their side would stay home and labor through a screen in their shoebox apartments and answer another email and watch Oscar nominees sing at them in solidarity from the unused display offices in their ugly McMansions and maybe feel the claws of something rage-hot and rotting and ancient threatening to climb up out of their throats and their skin and their eyes and eat the bastards whole and answer another email and maybe take their lunch outside today, if the weather is kind. “The unfortunate husbandmen and their families, bereft of doctors’ or servants’ care, died day and night, not as men, but rather as beasts.” Disease does not discriminate — I know, I know — but the crowd of scientists shouting, “We don’t know! We don’t know why the poor are dying in higher numbers! We don’t know!” has got me thinking. The Red Death — like a thief in the night — crashed Prince Prospero’s party eventually. The ebony clock tick tick ticks for all, and so on. I know, I know, but Poe failed to consider the science of the glorious future — there is always a pill or a potion, if you can pay. “They walked around carrying flowers or fragrant herbs, which they held to their noses,thinking that it would provide some comfort against the air which reeked with the stench of the dead and dying.” A strange new holy-day ritual. Unemployment must open on Sunday for a reason. Are you working? How many hours? How much do you have? How much do you need? How many hours can you work? Why aren’t you working more? Are


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you looking? Why aren’t you working more? Are you sure? Why aren’t you working more? Are you sure? Are you sure? Confess. Repent. Buy dinner (not dessert). No cake on the government’s dime. Eat and rot alone. “Citizen avoided citizen, neighbors lost all feeling for each other.” EAT THE RICH has never been literal, but I imagine it anyway. Imagine steak knife sawing and fork stabbing. Imagine blood-soaked and filthy and laughing and the house is on fire and you’ve broken all their shit. Imagine the taste of meat. Now eat. “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time.”1 Medieval plague doctors stuffed their beaks with flowers and herbs — the scent would protect them from miasma, or the bad air that carried disease (almost had it). Imagine a murder of black-cloaked bird-monsters descending on your village. Imagine dying under their faceless gaze. Imagine watching them flitter and float uphill to your lord’s castle, to his pleasance. Did it thrill them? The peasants? Did they snicker in joy, thinking of their lord writhing and bleeding and swollen and shitting himself to death? His blood turning black? When the churchbell tolled, were they hungry for his flesh, poisoned and rotting, filthying his bed, his silks and furs? They were already dying anyway. Imagine if someone had taught them to write. “What if we just cut off the unemployment? Hunger is a pretty powerful thing.”2 It’s true. That’s why the guy ringing up my groceries was even there, why no noxious black cloud ever stopped the shelves from being stocked or the packages from being delivered. The miasma is invisible, untouchable. Not there until it is, until it clogs your throat and lungs and suffocates you in your own burning. And, hey, maybe it won’t. We’ve all played the lottery before; we know how these things work. But the hunger: we all need to eat. “They only feed a military dog at night, because a hungry dog is an obedient dog.”3 Obedient to the hunger, yes. Even the dogs will eventually figure out who starves them.

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1 Kim Kardashian West, Twitter, October 2020. Happy 40th. 2 Laura Ingraham, Fox News, August 2021 3 Jon Taffer, who received approximately $60,000 dollars in “Paycheck” “Protection” “Loans” from the government for his “small business”. I guess he was hungry. Fox News, August 2021.


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Wolf Woman

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Kathryn Engelmann

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n the sleepy mountain community of Ridgway, Colorado, there are no secrets. There are roughly eight people per square mile, and most people have a half-hour commute minimum to get to work. In a town like Ridgway, where the days coast by like ships on glassy water, people stir the stillness with the salacious juices of rumors and whispers. “Did you hear that so-and-so got pregnant? She’s only sixteen–I wonder who the father is. I bet we won’t see her in church for a while.” “Oh, I hear the dad is some druggie from Montrose. Not surprising, really. Her poor parents never could keep her in check.” “What about that new family that just moved into Solar Ranch? What do you think of them? They’re from Chicago, if you can believe it! What on Earth are they doing out here?” “Witness Protection, I bet. They don’t have any family nearby.” And so on. There are, of course, rumors that are universally accepted to be true. For example, Log Hill is haunted. Nearly all of the residents in that area of town have experienced some kind of paranormal phenomena. It could be the loneliness of the place playing tricks on the mind. Log Hill is a heavily wooded mesa looming over Ridgway Valley. The only way into Log Hill from the town below is County Road 24, an ill-maintained, winding mountain road, many of its guardrails rusted to oblivion or taken out entirely by an unlucky driver. No one is entirely sure why Log Hill is haunted, but as you might imagine, the citizens of Ridgway have concocted a long and muddled history for the place, ranging from the tragic to the absurd to the horrifying. There are some who believe Log Hill Mesa was not a natural formation, but a burial mound constructed by the true citizens of the land thousands of years ago. Others believe there are monsters–Bigfoot-esque to shadow beast-y–that call amongst themselves at night, rustle garbage cans and open windows, and generally create a spooky nuisance for those who reside there. And there are some true stories of unfortunate accidental deaths that contribute to the lore of ghost hauntings: a boy, inexplicably flung from his car and run over; a young man who, while riding in the back of a pickup truck, fell to his death into the ravine along County Road 24 after the truck hit a pothole. It takes a special kind of no-nonsense person to live in Log Hill. There’s no time to worry about ghost stories when you’re trying to stay on the icy road right at the place where three people slid into the ravine the night before, or think twice


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about the not-human, but also distinctly not-animal sounds coming from the forest when you’re chopping wood to keep the stove burning. My Aunt Kathy was one such no-nonsense person. She would watch an episode of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries, enraptured in Colin Firth’s tortured longing, and in the next instant, shoot and kill a family of rabbits perusing her garden. She was always direct, stern, and at times, more blunt than a situation called for, but her eyes and voice betrayed a calming kindness. Aunt Kathy’s house was far from the main road into Log Hill. First, there was a dirt path hidden in a thicket of scrub oak and overhanging tree branches. If your car managed to brave its way through the mess, you would then have to identify the proper hole in the fence. We were warned that one of the neighbors was trigger-happy, and if you strayed past his hole in the fence, he’d only give you one warning shot. After identifying the proper fencehole, you’d make your way from clay and dirt onto gravel and wind your way through a series of towering ponderosas before reaching a long, straight stretch. At this point, the log cabin-style house came into full view, its splendorous gardens cheerfully defying the rocky, unforgiving soil behind tall deer fences. It was a difficult place to find, even if you had been before. As such, Aunt Kathy never had an uninvited human visitor. Given the difficult terrain, hidden pathways, and the potential of being shot by the hermit neighbor, it was nearly impossible to find her house by accident. *** In the summer of 2008, Aunt Kathy found herself saddled with the task she hated most in the world: watching her grandchildren’s pet dog, Sophie. Aunt Kathy never particularly liked any animal, except perhaps for an outdoor cat or two, and Sophie was a uniquely infuriating dog. She was a lab mix who had spent more time at the vet clinic than in her own backyard because of her penchant for eating things that were not meant to be eaten. Rocks. Paint chips. Whole, unopened tin cans. Fencing, both wire and wood. Recently, Sophie had developed a taste for the fertilizer Kathy used for her gardens, and had managed to dig, tear, and eat her way past the deer fencing and into the many beds of delicate, fickle plants that Kathy had spent years tending. Kathy had contemplated, many times, getting rid of Sophie. There were only two things preventing her from doing so: 1. Her grandchildren adored Sophie. They had called Kathy every evening that summer to ask how Sophie was doing while their family renovated their house. 2. Sophie, despite her evolutionary shortcomings, was a bit charming. Kathy would never openly admit it, but she had appreciated the friendliness and clumsy affection the dog had shown her over the past few weeks. That summer had been an unusually hot one. Even the wild horned toads hid themselves from the sun, coming out only in the evenings and early mornings to bask. Kathy had worried for the safety of her garden, and, to a lesser extent, for


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Sophie, who would have happily burned the pads of her feet off if it meant getting to dig at the gardens again. One July day, an early afternoon thunderstorm cooled Log Hill enough for Kathy and Sophie to venture outside. Kathy placed her cellphone in the side pocket of her cargo shorts, knowing that her grandchildren would call soon to inquire about Sophie’s dietary decisions of the day. She eyed Sophie sprinting gleefully into the miles of forest behind the house. Maybe today would be the day Sophie’s complete lack of instinct would get her lost. With a shrug, Kathy made her way into the gardens, listening for Sophie as she tended to her poor, bedraggled flowers. She faced the house as she worked, listening to the familiar sounds of Sophie artlessly navigating her way past low brush, small cactuses, and loose rocks. Kathy could almost hear the cars from the road. Wait–car, singular. It must be someone visiting the neighbor. Wait–the neighbor doesn’t have visitors. Kathy stood up and turned to face the long stretch of driveway. The sound of the car came closer, and then the unmistakable sound of tires crunching through gravel. The gravel on her own driveway. Kathy paused for a moment. Did she invite anyone over that day? Was her husband coming home early from work? It couldn’t be him–it didn’t sound like his truck. It was a small car, by the sound of it. And by the look of it. A small, beat-up coup slowly came into view and made its way all the way down the long driveway. Aunt Kathy described it to me as a car she had never seen in the States before–it reminded her of the tiny, boxy European cars she had seen when she visited Ireland. Cautiously, Kathy pushed past the deer fence and out of the gardens. She could see the driver now. Kathy had lived in Ridgway for over twenty years and knew everyone in town, and most everyone’s extended family who had come to visit over the years. The old woman who sat behind the wheel, squinting at Kathy through thick glasses, was a complete stranger. Her greasy grey hair fell in loose coils around her thin, wrinkled face. As Kathy approached the car, she felt a deep shiver run from her heart all the way through her spine. Instinctively, she took a small step back. The woman laboriously opened the door, cracking it just wide enough for Kathy to see that her body was contorted into the entire space of the front two seats of the car. Suddenly, Sophie charged from the woods behind the house, barking ferociously, murderous eyes fixated on the strange woman. Kathy leapt to intercept Sophie and just grabbed her collar before the strange woman slammed the car door shut.


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“I’m so sorry about the dog. She’s never been like this before–let me just put her inside.” The strange woman’s gaze fell on Sophie, who responded by yanking, snarling, and barking with all her might. It took Kathy a good several minutes to wrestle the dog into the house. When she returned, the woman smiled, unperturbed, and cranked down her window. “That happens to me a lot. Are you the one selling wolf pups?” Kathy did not immediately know how to answer. The woman’s unexpected statements and demeanor sprung multitudes of new questions in her mind. Keeping a healthy distance from the car, Kathy asked: “I’m sorry, wolf pups? Is that what you said? No, I don’t have those.” “Oh, that’s odd. I found this flyer here–” The strange woman leaned all the way to the passenger side window to reach into her pocket, where she fished out a crumpled piece of paper. “Yes, here it is. See this flyer? It appears to have your address listed.” Kathy surveyed the flyer. It did, in fact, list her address. And it promised a healthy 90% wolf pup to anyone with $1500. Kathy told me that she had never heard of anyone in Ridgway raising and selling wolf pups. To her knowledge, a wolf dog of that strain was illegal in the county, and it’s unlikely that someone would have advertised an illegal wolf-selling business with a flyer. “That is my address. I think whoever made this flyer must have made a mistake, but I don’t know of anyone in this area selling wolf pups. I think your best bet is to call the number on the flyer. Do you have a cellphone?” “No, I don’t, actually–silly things don’t work for me.” “Oh.” Kathy chalked it up to the woman’s age. “Would you like to use mine?” Kathy pulled her phone from her pocket, noted that it had three out of five bars of coverage, and was fully charged. She handed the phone to the strange woman, who stretched out an unusually long, thin arm to grab it. As she dialed the number, Kathy surveyed more of the woman’s features. Her fingers were long and thin, and her nails, which appeared to be natural, were nearly an inch long, and roughly filed into points. She wasn’t wearing any jewelry. No wristwatch. No makeup. She looked as if she had just come from a funeral, or maybe (as Kathy put it) she was a Goth–she was dressed in black, wearing an old-fashioned long-sleeve dress with black lace ruffles at the wrists and throat. The strange woman was also wearing an absurdly ornate hat–its wide brim curled against the frame of the car door, and black feathers spilled from every possible surface, as if an entire murder of crows got caught in her hair. Holding the phone at the very ends of her fingertips, she put it up to her ear. “Oh, sorry dear. It looks like your phone is dead.” “What? That can’t be right–are you sure you know how to use it?” “Quite sure.” Kathy took back her cell phone, dumbfounded, and held it to her ear. No ring


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tone. She flipped it shut and then opened it again. The screen was completely black–the low battery icon didn’t even appear–and after several attempts to turn the phone on, Kathy concluded that the batteries must have been completely drained. “Well, sorry about that. That’s weird–I could have sworn it was fully charged before I gave it to you.” The woman’s eyes shifted behind her glasses. Kathy hadn’t had the chance yet to get a good, close look at the woman’s eyes, which had almost no whites, except at the very corners. “Hmm. That’s exactly what I was talking about. Cell phones just don’t work for me. Could I use your landline?” Kathy walked back toward the house, where the sound of Sophie’s barking rang more frantically through the walls. With concerted effort, she edged her way past Sophie, who had tried to dig and eat through the door to get back outside. Large pieces of wood lay scattered in the entryway. This fucking dog, Kathy thought. She’d figure out what to do about the door (and, likely, Sophie’s stomach) later–the longer that strange woman stayed in her driveway, the more her nerves felt like exposed piano wires. She quickly scaled the steps up to the living room, where the home phone was docked in its base. She grabbed the phone, ran down the stairs, and shoved her way past Sophie, who leveraged all of her weight to block Kathy from using the door. Once Kathy maneuvered past Sophie and closed the front door behind her, she walked back toward the strange woman’s car. “Could you dial the number for me, darling? I imagine that will help. I have the flyer here.” Kathy punched in the number, dialed, and listened to confirm that the phone was ringing. Then, she handed the phone back to the strange woman. The woman held the phone against her ear using her fingertips, cocked her head, and then closed her eyes. “This one’s dead, too.” “No way, that’s impossible! I just dialed the number and I heard ringing myself. We never leave the home phone out of its base, so it’s fully charged–” The strange woman twisted herself halfway out of the driver’s side window to hand the phone back to Kathy. For a brief moment, Kathy felt the woman’s icy fingertips against her hand during the transfer. She listened to the phone again, and this time, there was no sound. The faint green light behind the buttons had disappeared completely. The home phone, too, was dead. “Well.” That was all Kathy could say for a moment. She shook her head and met the strange woman’s gaze. An instinctual, icy fear darted through her heart. She imagined this was how it felt to be stalked by a wild animal.


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“Look. Neither phone seems to be working, and I don’t have any wolf pups here, as you can see. I don’t really think I can help you out here.” The strange woman’s gaze lingered on Kathy for what felt like ages. Finally, she spoke. “Alright, I’ll leave. I’ll see if I can find the place on my own. Thank you for your help so far–I’m sorry to have been a burden to you.” The small car sputtered back to life, and the strange woman drove back down the driveway. Kathy listened as the tires moved from gravel to dirt. In the very instant those tires turned back down the path to the main road, the phone in Kathy’s hands began blaring a busy signal. She looked down to see the familiar green glow of the buttons, and the battery power restored to full. Shaken, she fished into the side pocket of her cargo shorts for her cellphone. She flipped the phone open and searched for the battery icon. Fully charged. Kathy took a steadying breath, walked back to the house, and let Sophie out. Initially, Sophie searched and smelled every square inch of the driveway, gardens, and the area round the hole in the fence. Once she was content that the intruder was gone, she leaned heavily against Kathy’s legs, shaking and licking her lips. When Aunt Kathy told people about the Wolf Woman, she was surprised to learn that she was the only person in Ridgway who had seen her. Some people questioned if she was telling the truth–it can get lonely on Log Hill, after all, and it’s nice to have a story someone’s never heard before. But Kathy wasn’t a liar. Nor was she prone to believing ghost stories, or any of the monster stories folks would sometimes tell around their firepits. When Kathy told me about the Wolf Woman, it always struck me as unusual that a woman with such a strange car would not have been noticed by anyone else in town. Furthermore, how could she have been comfortable in such heavy, dark clothing on an eighty-degree day? Why were her irises so strangely large? Was she wearing contacts? But if so, why would she need glasses? It’s a memory that haunted me in the years that I lived in Ridgway, and even more so when I eventually lived in my Aunt Kathy’s house. Sometimes in the early morning hours, when I couldn’t fall asleep, I would hear–or, maybe more accurately, imagine that I heard–a sound deep in the woods, almost like a wolf, and nearly human, piercing the cool stillness of the dark.

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When the Candles Burn Low

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Callie S.Blackstone

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hen I was young, I had a small social circle because I was an awkward girl with a temper. I found that some of the people I best connected with were interested in ghosts, just like I was. We traded urban legends and stories we read on angelfire websites with requisite black backgrounds and gifs of dripping blood. We approached our world through the lens of the paranormal. Everything was a potential sign from the dead. For some reason, none of us could obtain a copy of what we considered a “real” Ouija board at the time—the cheap Hasboro produced “game.” I became known for creating homemade boards. I’m not sure I deserved the infamy—I only wrote out the alphabet and numbers on a piece of paper. After my friends and I worked each other up with ghost stories, we would “get on” the board. We took it very seriously. We were, after all, students of the occult—some of us knew more about this topic than those we learned about at school. We were familiar with the various popular theories about the how the board worked—that those using it became possessed or that they subconsciously moved the planchette themselves. We also knew that many people believed that the board was a hoax, but we were confident that our experiences with it were valid. We met several characters on the board. One was a woman who told us she lost several children to influenza. Another was a supposed serial killer who claimed to have buried a victim in the front yard of my mother’s 1960s-era condo. As we grew older the “spirits” were more titillating. They suddenly started to verbalize the sexual desires we were all having for one another. We took all of these messages seriously without considering the likelihood or convenience of their claims. As I entered adulthood, I discovered it was not what I expected it to be. I did not easily transition from an angry, lonely kid to a satisfied, popular adult. With the realization that adulthood is not a cure all, I began to lose hope. The world was no longer as magical and mysterious as it once was. My brain continued to store an unsubstantiated amount of theories about ghosts and historical hauntings. But, despite the fact that I wanted to, I found I could no longer believe in them as I once did. I eventually found paganism, which opened a path to something bigger than myself. But, I stepped on my pagan path hesitantly. I had difficulty believing in anything—ghost or deity. My rituals were hesitant attempts to connect with something bigger than myself. I struggled with my faith. The afterlife and ghosts were still too far out for me to consider.


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Things changed when Jared died. Various people in my life had died before. They were older and suffering from complicated medical conditions. While these deaths were tragic, they were expected and appeared to relieve them from pain. Jared was different. I saw him in my first college class. He was tall and thin with brown hair and glasses that obscured his eyes. He sat rigidly. He spent the majority of the classes in silence, periodically providing answers that were so insightful they were devastating. I was intrigued—the whole class was. I sat behind him and watched him, treasuring every word. Each one was a precious clue about the handsome, intelligent young man. Over the years we both worked on our school’s literary magazine and we entered a tentative friendship. We would go to art galleries and movies. My chatter was more often than not met with a cold silence. I often felt he was judging the drivel I was spewing. Later I would learn that Jared was not judging me. He often remained silent due to social anxiety. Over the years, we opened up to one another and became close. After college, Jared moved south for graduate school. During his first semester we had a huge argument. It was an awful fight, and we stopped talking to each other for a year or two. I didn’t care. He was an amazing young man who had become one of the only constant people in my life. I was confident we would overcome our fight and he would be a part of my life forever. Eventually, we begun to text each other again. We took hikes when he came home from school, his athleticism carrying him farther on the trails than I could ever go. Things were awkward and uncomfortable at times but they were getting better. Until they weren’t. I learned of Jared’s death one morning while I was getting ready for work. I saw an ambiguous Facebook status that insinuated something negative had happened to him. But, I already knew what happened to him deep in my heart. My gut instinct was confirmed when I learned that Jared had shot himself in the head. I was in such deep denial that I flatly told my boyfriend, went into the bathroom, and continued getting ready for work like nothing happened. When I got into my car that morning, the first song that came on was a popular pop punk song. The lyrics consisted of a young man’s suicide note. Something changed inside of me that day. I am still not sure what it was, exactly: a light switch got shut off, a candle burned down to nothing. Perhaps that was the last day I carried hope. I had grown up thinking things would get better in adulthood. I had grown up thinking our souls would carry on after we died. I had believed that Jared would always be in my life. Then he was gone. Before Jared died, I had been fostering my newfound paganism. While I


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had still been skeptical, I allowed myself to explore my faith and take pleasure in the experiences I was having. After Jared died, I struggled with my paganism for several years. I wrote numerous rituals to honor Jared on Sabbats. I would adjust the symbolism so it was appropriate, no matter the season. Yet the day would approach and I would be unable to act. I vacillated between feeling frozen inside and sobbing endlessly. I could not return to my newfound path until I was able to conduct a ritual honoring Jared. Yet, it seemed to be an impossible task. One time of year was especially important to me: Samhain. My childhood belief in ghosts had not returned, and I was still frozen inside. I was not sure where I thought Jared was, but I needed to try to connect to him. I knew that Samhain was when the veil was supposedly at its thinnest, and I could not lose any chances. I needed to know he forgave me for our argument and my betrayal. I needed to apologize for overlooking obvious cries for help. Overall, I needed him to know that despite how alone he felt in those last hours, and despite the fact that we were just rekindling our relationship, he was deeply important to me. I needed to sing his praises — if he couldn’t know them in this life, I wanted him to know them in the next. Samhains came and went. I created charms to attract Jared, beacons of light to shine on him beyond the veil and draw him to me. I finally purchased a Hasboro copy of a ouija board, still too skeptical to invest in a more expensive, pagan-made spirit board. I broke the cardinal rule of Ouija and sat at the board alone late at night, waiting to hear something. Anything. The planchette never moved. I went to self-proclaimed mediums. I attended a spiritualist seance in Salem, Massachusetts. I attended ghost tours of New England’s historically haunted homes and eagerly anticipated the gallery readings that followed the events. I went to other pagans who charged fees for their supposed abilities to connect to the other side. The rational part of my mind doubted that people seeking exorbitant money and publicity for these skills had the best intentions. Yet, every time one of them stated they sensed a young man in the room, I became rigid and carefully listened to each message. I added them up hoping they would equal Jared. They never did. At a dead supper, someone who didn’t know Jared gazed at his picture and said my friend had benign messages for me—he wasn’t suffering, he cared about me. None of the messages were specific to Jared and I found that other event attendees received what were essentially the same ones. I craved a genuine connection with Jared so badly, but my rational mind found issues with each generic message I received. It has been years since Jared died. Things have gotten easier in that the grief and ache have dulled. But in my body and soul is still a question, a longing, a


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need for connection. Some grand and obvious show that provides closure. Unfortunately becoming an adult means understanding that very few questions have obvious, neat answers. I still attempt to reach out in a myriad of ways every year, but the freshness of grief has declined. As time passes, evidence continues to build against me—there are no responses to my attempts to reach out. There may never be. One Samhain, I began constructing an ancestor altar for Jared. It was extremely painful to take his photos, poetry, and letters out of storage. But I constructed the altar as a way to honor the handsome, intelligent man I had cared about so much. As I constructed it, I had to acknowledge that Jared may never respond to me. I wondered who such communications would serve anyway. His life had not been an easy one. Long before his death he relied on various unhealthy coping skills to get through the day—he starved himself, cut himself, and abused alcohol. He often felt isolated and he blamed this on his belief that he was fundamentally defected on some level. At the end of his life, he had left an unhealthy relationship and was trying to deal with the aftermath. But, it became too difficult for him, and he felt he could only answer life’s questions with a gun. That Samhain I arranged Jared’s photos on my wall. Even after my belief in ghosts waned, I had considered myself an expert on the subject. I could have a conversation about different types of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings at length. I thought about the pain Jared had suffered throughout his life. I knew that some believed death is a release from pain. I knew that others believed some spirits fester in their suffering after they die. I thought about which was likely for Jared, a man who had spent so much of his life hating himself and trying to cope with that hate. I still think about Jared often. I light candles for him at my ancestor altar. I miss him deeply, and I am not sure I will regain what I lost inside when he died. While I would still deeply appreciate some communication from the other side, I now have new priorities. Wherever Jared is, I simply hope he is at peace. Resting.

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Papa Loves Mambo

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Tricia Gates Brown

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oughly five years ago; late-summer day under a New Mexico sky, the blue of which rivals all sky. Blue like taffeta. Like a French painter’s dream of sky—which is what lured painters to Taos in the 20th century to eventually become the “Taos School,” setting stage for an influx of artists and intellectuals including the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and D. H. Lawrence. I drove out of Taos where I’d retreated to an adobe, pond-side casita on a farm, attempting to mend my heart with beauty, art, and spicy-good food. Early that year, my then-husband had left our marriage in the midst of personal crisis—a blind side departure that nearly shattered me. But not quite. That day the highway carried me north into Colorado and across to Four Corners where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona share a geographical hip bump. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, to sleep over in Cortez, Colorado, the childhood hometown on my maternal grandmother (whom I and the family called ‘Nana’), en route to Four Corners. I was unprepared for the experience I encountered. Driving into Cortez I headed for Nana’s girlhood home, but instead of finding her 30s-era State Street neighborhood, discovered a 1970s off-ramp. Disappointed, I photographed two houses remaining from Nana’s era before turning toward Cortez’ Main Street that features buildings from her childhood. Training my imagination on Nana, I pictured her walking those streets as a girl. I felt closer to her than I had in decades—since her death. After parking on a downtown side street, I strolled to Nana’s high school, a building as rundown and defunct as an old drive-in; and as I ventured, kept her ever on my mind. Though Nana and my maternal grandfather (who we called ‘Papa’) were pivotal in my earliest years, they had lived a full-day’s drive from our family for most of my life. I hadn’t been close to Nana until her waning months. Through my time in middle school, my siblings and I shared short visits with Nana and Papa only once a year. Which turns me to the beginning. At the time of my birth, my father was a naval officer stationed in the Pacific. Overwhelmed and lonely, with toddler and baby in tow, my mother moved to her parents’ home where, in my first year of life, Nana and Papa were ancillary caregivers. I especially bonded with my grandfather. Warm and affectionate and effusive, Papa was an inwardly and outwardly beautiful man. Apparently when I was old enough to crawl, I propped myself on the sliding door, crying as he went off to work—already attached to his magnetism. With the dark features and coloring of his ancestors from southern France


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(northern Spain?), Papa could have passed for Hispanic, his smile brilliant as New Mexico’s sky. In fact, he’d resided in the Land of Enchantment for several years as a boy. Nana and Papa were deeply in love and loved to dance. They went out dancing; they danced to records in their front room; they danced at their golf club. Somewhere exists a photo of Papa dipping Nana in a dramatic move not long before his death. Their life was not without challenge, as Papa hid an anxiety condition that crippled him in certain respects, and a since-childhood heart condition that stole his life in his 50s. And Nana ran out her days waiting to join him. In her 70s, Nana developed colon cancer, coming to live with my parents for care and help with treatments that ultimately failed; and it was in this stage that she and I bonded. Nestled into the corner of her tiny grandmother apartment was a hospital bed, and on a handful of occasions I sat alongside that bed brushing her hair, grooming her nails, or simply talking. I was 23. When I visited Nana’s childhood home roughly twenty years later, it felt like a historical pilgrimage more than a personal one. My roots interested me; roots I might have in a place where my ancestors had roots. I wondered if the place influenced them in ways that conferred influence on me. The curiosity was abstract, impersonal. So as I walked around the abandoned schoolhouse where Nana attended high school and felt a chilling, overwhelming sense of something spirit-y bearing down on me, something I would describe as a presence—the presence of Nana—I was not at all prepared. It felt heavy. Eerie. Charged. Unexpected. Certainly, I was not seeking it out. Since I’d never experienced such a thing, I wouldn’t even have known to seek it out. I immediately felt incredulous. Why would Nana—Nana’s presence, her spirit—have been closer or more present to me there than in any other place? She had not lived in Cortez since her childhood and as far as I know, had no special attachment to the town throughout her life. I had not known her there. Yet, it did seem, suddenly,that she was with me. Despite what I felt, however, I was—as I said—incredulous. The words: You’re gonna have to be more obvious, passed through my head. If, in some strange never-before-experienced way, Nana was making her presence known to me, I was going to need something more. After leaving the school grounds, I headed for downtown. Strolling through blocks of historic buildings, I visited a fabric store in a building that housed the post office in Nana’s day, buying fabric to craft a table runner for my mom. I then headed to find a meal. As it was happy hour, the Loungin’ Lizard pub drew me with promise of a G & T. During the 1930s, in Nana’s high school years, the ‘Lizard’ building was home to the local soda fountain. Though the space had been refurbished in many ways, it still featured the ornate early-20th-century ceiling tiles Nana would have seen when looking up, perhaps giggling with her friends or flirting-up the soda jerk.


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As I spent an hour at my table, sipping my gin and tonic and enjoying a Reuben, I noted the music playing conspicuously in the background.It was an 80s/90s mix, mostly rock—everything from Journey to Dire Straits, the classics of my high school and college years. At one point, after I’d sat a good while, I gazed up at the 1930s ceiling and thought: I’m going to tell the waitress my grandma grew up here. Then just after this—out of the blue—started a song in such stark contrast to the preceding playlist that I immediately noticed it. And the incongruous song that blared through the speakers was the early-50s Perry Como tune “Papa Loves Mambo.” (Remember, Nana and Papa loved to dance.) Now, could this mean something? And what could it mean? For me, it did mean something. What it meant, I was not entirely sure. But I did at the time, and continually in intervening years, see it as something ... meaningful. The occurrence of that song, at that moment and in that place, felt playful. Was some—something—in the universe—playing with me? Was Nana saying, Yes, I am here? Was she conferring what I had asked for—the something more? Though this incident occurred a number of years ago, I have not written about it and have relayed it to few people—to avoid subjecting the experience to dismissal as coincidence or worse. But I felt my dead grandmother near to me, communicating with me. Perhaps for no other reason than at that time, I was open. I was focused on her in a particular, unique way. Leaving the mystery right there is enough for me. Perhaps it is enough for you too.

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“I had no choice...I had to turn the page”

Nicole Kemp

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t started with Danny. King’s Overlook Hotel hung from my brain, cliffside, like an entity demanding recognition. It waited for me. A dark mass bidding me to enter. I faint, like Danny. The doctor calls it syncope, but for me, it’s a transgression from this world into another. We both come back to concerned faces of well meaning people who thought we were dead...for a moment. I’ve learned to feel it come upon me. A wave of unconsciousness. When I turned thirty-three, I was pregnant with my second child. A receptacle for life, but my world was disintegrating around me. My mother was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. My best friend and piece of the puzzle that held my dreams together, a vision of peace and comfort. I imagined my children growing up baking bread with my mum, knitting, and taking long convoluted walks to the library for mountains of books we could not carry. Four years of pain; she endured treatments, exhaustion, estrangement from the living. I had to help her pass on from this world to the next, like a harbinger of death. We wait for death like we wait for babies, she always said. Depression closed in around me in the form of a house. Paralyzed by my thoughts, I was unable to get out. My legs immobilized, I could not run from monsters and ghosts. Hit by the pandemic, my mental restriction became truly physical. I started reading horror, science fiction, anything to help me make sense of the dystopia around me. I could not escape to an idyllic world, it was too far removed. I could no longer stand romance, the sickening sweet fruit we save in our fridge until it rots and is no longer recognizable. Life felt more like a Shirley Jackson novel. Horror makes you face the macabre, unsettling, forces we have no control over. But I need these stories. I need the moments of courage and heroism. I can visit the house we all know is there. I can open the door, walk down the corridor. There will be monsters on the other side. It will take fortitude and gumption to turn the page toward agony and despair. But I will be able to Feel...Myself....Here....Now. And know I will be able to breathe again.


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he beat pulses in my ears like a fishbowl effect gone wrong, my heart strung up tight in my chest with string. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. It’s dark back here and I feel safe in the shadows. Invisible dust in my lungs, I choke when I catch a glimpse of light seeping underneath the curtain’s edge. I’d rather die than be enveloped in the bright hotness of that crisp light, so I stay where I am. Back against the shimmering tulle and warm velvet hung up on racks with masks and hats close by, their blank faces smiling because they know why I came here to join them. “They’re waiting.” He urges me to come forward. The masks keep smirking. For a moment I think that maybe it won’t be so bad if I feel it. After all, I eventually will have to, and so I should get used to it while the choice to enter its reach is still mine. But then its fingers curl from underneath the curtain, slowly, in tendrils and patterns that flit and flicker with the breeze of a nearby fan. They beckon. I gag on the musky smell within these fabrics and drapes. “You are being ridiculous.” Insulting. The textures seem to consume me further each second. I push against them and walk forward, reaching the curtain itself, and the light shies away from each Mary Jane. Coward. I’ll be fine. My tongue is heavy in my mouth, but I push this from my mind along with the curtain from my view, closing my eyes. I take a breath and they reopen. The applause brings me back to this moment, and the glass prison I’d been hiding behind seems to fade. That’s when I see her waiting for me, exactly where I’d left her, alone, but a presence demanding to be seen—to be admired by anyone who laid their eyes upon her. And it’s now that I realize I don’t need to worry. Not one soul in this auditorium is looking at the player. They are looking at the instrument, anticipating the sound of her melody. I am only the channel to which her music travels through the strings. “You’ve got this.”

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The Study

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Rowan MacDonald

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October 1999. I can’t sleep. Another restless night spent lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I don’t want to go to school the next day. I roll over to check the time. 4:00am. Hmmph. A few more hours and I have to be up for school. I dread the thought. My room is pitch black, apart from some old glow-in-the-dark star stickers adorning my bedroom wall. Their ability to glow is slowly diminishing, along with my ability to withstand too many more sleepless nights. I close my eyes, in one last vain attempt at sleep. What’s that? I can hear a faint noise coming from downstairs. The study is immediately below my bedroom. I can just make out the sound of typing. Who the hell is on the computer this time of night? I open my eyes and continue listening. I subconsciously begin holding my breath in an effort to be as silent as possible. The sound of typing from the computer downstairs becomes more distinct and increases speed. Is Mum up late working from home? A mouse is being furiously clicked, as if someone is becoming impatient for a webpage to load. Puzzled, I grab my flashlight and tiptoe out of my bedroom into the hallway. The rest of the house is dark and still. It’s silent, apart from the frenetic touch-typing from downstairs. I approach the landing at the top of the stairs and abruptly swing my torch down into the study, illuminating the desk and computer. Nothing. No one. Complete silence. No more typing. No more clicking. These sleepless nights were clearly getting to me. *** December 1999. The mysterious typing had begun featuring on a regular basis. It was typically happening between the hours of 4 and 8am. Like that first event in October, I set out to try solve the riddle, but came up empty each time. I resigned myself to the fact I was probably going insane. My parents often worked from home in that downstairs study. Neither of them was ever in that room during these incidents. Most of the time, everyone else asleep in bed. I kept things to myself. The last thing I needed was being admitted to a psych ward. I found myself hesitating before stepping into that room. It was always


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so cold, but I assumed it was due to its downstairs location. My parents often argued in that room and seemingly transformed into different people. I assumed it was due to work being stressful. Unfortunately, I had to do homework and a computer was increasingly required. I felt uneasy with each keystroke, almost as if something (or someone) was watching me. One day, the ceiling light in the middle of the room began flashing. Fast. Strobe-like. I wasn’t taking any chances in this damn room. I briskly got up and walked towards the door, while keeping my eyes fixated on the spontaneous nightclub taking place. BANG! The light globe exploded violently, sending shards of glass flying across the room. I hated homework. *** May 2000. I was sitting eating a bowl of Coco Puffs for breakfast, when I heard Mum yell out from the top of the stairs. “You’re not down there on that computer already?!” I froze. I ran. “What? I’m just here, Mum. I was in the living room having breakfast and watching cartoons.” Mum looked puzzled. “Really? I was certain I heard typing coming from downstairs.” She had heard it! I was amazed she had heard the sounds too. We both stared down towards the study. Empty. I felt a wave of emotions roll over me; relief, bewilderment, terror. My sister heard the commotion and was sleepily walking down the hallway towards us. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Mum just heard typing from the computer downstairs. She thought I was down there–I wasn’t. I have been hearing typing for months!” My sister turned slightly pale. “I have been hearing that typing too! I thought I was hearing things.” I jumped up and down in excitement. I couldn’t believe it. All three of us had been hearing it, yet keeping it to ourselves.


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In the space of 5 minutes, I had gone from contemplating what to bring with me to the psych ward, to having my experiences completely validated. I was not alone. *** April 2001. We had grown to live with the phantom typing emanating from the study– after all, it wasn’t every day. I started wishing I possessed the same ingenuity and gadgets that Kevin McCallister did in Home Alone. That would help me solve this for sure. Our parents’ arguments had increased, culminating in them getting a divorce. Strong emotions and negativity ran throughout the house during this turbulent time. The typing episodes became more frequent. Mum had mentioned the Ouija board fad that took place during her school years of the 60s. Naturally, and perhaps foolishly, 12-year-old me decided this was how we would solve the mystery. I set it up. “Is anybody there?” The planchette moved a little, but nothing significant. My sister and I were convinced the other was moving it anyway. All I got out of the experience was an intense fever dream later that night, which left me feeling particularly nauseated. A few weeks later I was at home by myself. It was nighttime and I was reluctantly downstairs, on the computer. The fears one is willing to overcome, simply to talk to a crush! Everything was going well, despite my occasional feeling of unease. And then it happened–the thing which resulted in me never being alone in the study again. From nowhere, I suddenly felt (and heard) a very sharp intake of breath, directly behind my right shoulder, near my ear. I never ran so fast in all my life. I leapt multiple stairs at once, in my haphazard attempt to escape whatever evil presence had suddenly made itself known. I shut myself in my bedroom, clutched my dog for comfort, and waited for someone to arrive home. My heart raced as I hid under the bed covers. Soon after, my parents’ divorce was finalized and we listed the house for sale. I wasn’t exactly sad to say goodbye to my childhood home, nor the evil touch-typist with the breathing problem. *** August 2021. “Hey! Did you know the old Hammonds’ house was recently sold?” My sister had developed a recent interest in real estate. The Hammonds were a lovely old couple who had lived next door to us during childhood.


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“No, I wasn’t aware of that. Mrs Hammond was such a friendly lady.” “Yes, like a second grandmother.” My sister continued browsing the real estate ads online. “Oh wow, check it out! The Donaldson’s house has just been listed for sale too.” “No way! What are the chances both neighbours sell-up just weeks apart?” “Probably slim,” she replied. “Let’s go for a drive.” We jumped in the car and made the familiar journey back to our old street. It had been many years since either of us had ventured to this part of our hometown. “Does this street somehow seem smaller to you?” I asked. “I think it’s just because we’ve grown bigger.” my sister laughed. The “sold” sign in front of the Hammonds’ house came into view. We slowed down. From here, we could also see the side of our childhood home and some of the backyard. “Oh wow,” I muttered. The garden of our childhood home had completely overgrown.Trees and vines were out of control ,and the grass had reached mammoth heights. It had deteriorated dramatically and more resembled a combination of mental illness or poverty than it did childhood memories. It was sad to see. The woman who purchased it from us had clearly let it go. We sat in the car soaking it all up. “You know, what if that presence and its typing have sent that woman crazy?” I asked. “I guess it’s possible,” my sister reflected. “Maybe she doesn’t have anyone. We were lucky. We had each other.” “Yes. We have each other.”

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