I posted several images and asked for authors to pick an image on a first come/first serve/calling shotgun basis and then send me their story plots. I received a fantastic response and cut the total off at thirteen. Out of those thirteen, eleven authors then crafted their flash fiction stories around the images they chose.
These are the tales they’ve told me, and now I’m passing them down to you.
Issue #21: PhotoFlash—Eleven Visions
All images courtesy of Pixabay, with the exception of the image used for The Top of the Stairs, which is a rendered photo originally taken by the editor (yours truly) of a dilapidated apartment building in the neighborhood. That building met its tragic (but necessary end) about a year ago. In real life, it was piss yellow and ugly and probably haunted. It was cool to fantasize about it being filled with evil spirits and I’m glad it was the very first image an author picked to write about.
The doors of Sebastian’s opened and I spilled out along with a hundred other goth kids. Trish and Thomasina wanted to keep the night going but after some snuck-in tequila and endless dancing to “No Love Lost” (I could still feel the hands of that asshole who’d tried to grab me), I begged off and snuck away to the back alley for a cig. I rested against the miserable sepia wall, gazing at scraps of newspaper from five years ago and faded tags. I hoped the bouncer wouldn’t catch me out here; it was so obvious how young I was. Fifteen and in stark white makeup, the eyeliner faded by now – too young and trying to look much older.
I was about to finish and take the train home to Brentwood when I heard a voice. I still wonder how he saw me – I flatter myself that it was my dirty curls or the thick purple lipstick I had on. Maybe it was just the expression on my face, a sad tipsy goth girl in a filthy back street of ’80’s Hollywood.
“Got a light?” It was a lanky man in his thirties with jet black hair (not without a peculiar striking, feminine quality) who had seemingly come out of nowhere, now taking steps towards the wall parallel to me. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes…burned. There is no other way to describe it, a look I could hardly pull myself away from.
“Yeah, yeah one sec,” I stammered, rummaging through my purse. I took out my lighter as he walked over to me. As he took it, smoothly lit his American Spirit with the panache of the movie stars I’d seen in the old movies my mom always loved, then handed it back to me, I felt a heated, uncomfortable curiosity about him and those eyes. That, and I noticed how his fingers were just a touch longer than they should be.
He inhaled slowly, breathed out. “Thank you.” His voice was deep and cavernous, with a hint of an accent: you could get lost in that sound. I kept staring, taking him in.
“So what do you come here for? To dance?” He grinned again. “I danced with all sorts as a young man. Do you come to dress up?” He gestured to my long black boots and studded leather jacket.
I was never quite sure how to answer this when people asked. “Lots of reasons, I guess, I-I don’t know.”
“To get back at someone, perhaps? To rebel?” The stranger took another drag.
“Yeah, yeah you could say that. I’m Sherry by the way.” I stretched out my hand.
He considered me for a beat then shook it – his hand was so cold and delicate. “Matthew.”
“But yeah, it’s because we feel different. From everybody,” I said, wringing my hands. Of course what I was also thinking was, Because I want to look like Siouxsie Sioux.
“I can understand, believe me.” He looked straight at me while crushing the remains of the butt under his immaculate dress shoes. His eyes suddenly seemed…kind? Compassionate even? The warmth could subdue the cold it seemed.
I leaned back against the wall. “This all just makes me feel like I’m part of something, y’know,” I murmured, looking away from him, “like I’m important to something bigger. I get lost in the noise and just drift away. But – but I also become who I really am.”
“I know. I know.” His voice had become like a sealed tomb.
“How?” I hadn’t noticed just then his coming closer to me until he was only five or six inches away, his eyes intent on mine. It didn’t occur to me until later that his movements had been silent the entire time we spoke. He didn’t make a sound.
His eyes were twins of blistering fire. “I can help you, if you want it. What you seek, your assimilation, your need for a home…you will find these in what I can offer you. Sin. Eternity. A freedom unlike any you have ever known before.”
“What do you mean?” My thoughts had gone blank. There was no city anymore, no sun, no moon, no sea. We were the only two people in the world now, standing in natural, harmonious proximity. All I could hear at all were his perfumed words in my ear.
“If you accept my gift, I will turn you, change your very form.” His hand was steady on my shoulder and I registered suddenly that his canines were elegantly filed points. I thought of wolves and didn’t know exactly why.
“This country, this place, the vast majority here: they live in strict, endless routines, live the same lives as anyone else. They value freedom, their country’s soverignty but they do nothing with this. All just animals grown for production and beeding, locked into endless stimuli. But you long for more. You wish for choice, to not live like the vast overpowering herd. If you say yes, at this moment, you will never truly die, you will live as you are…forever. You will be above them all. You will violate their codes, the pointless moral laws set forth by blustering puritans, and find in that separation…who you truly are. But only if you accept. If you don’t, I will not harm you either; I’ve made no plans for such things tonight.”
I trembled, unable to speak for what felt like eons. A weight like heavy stones felt pressed against my chest before I burst out on what seemed like instinct.
“No, no, I-I can’t. I’m not ready for that, not yet. I don’t even know if I could.”
“Ah?” He looked disappointed; he removed his hand from my shoulder. He gathered himself then, his face showing a strange, uncanny sadness, like a deep yearning. I wondered just what ran through his mind then.
“No, I don’t know if I could do that. I’ve got my life here, my family, even with everything else…no Matthew, I-I can’t.”
A wan smile flashed then disappeared, along with those sharp points.
“Very well. Should you ever change your mind, and think of darker worlds…please, don’t hesitate to ask. All you have to do is call.”
And then he disappeared, fast as a heartbeat. I’ve never been sure of whether the vapor that seemed to dissipate in the minutes after, as I regained my senses and wondered whether all of this was a dream, was the city’s smog or something else entirely.
It’s been more than thirty years since that night. Thirty years of school, a reliable administrative job with few headaches, a nice house tucked away in Oregon, and a good husband: safe, filled with little pleasures. But there hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t thought of Matthew’s offer, of what it’d be like with him or with his gift. I’ve had such dreams, dreams of being one with black skies, of feasting on red joy. To be utterly endless and without these petty restrictions. And lately, as the wrinkles start to come in, and the bills come month after month with unceasing regularity, and I wonder what my work all adds up to…I find it harder and harder every night, as I lie there in the dark, not to call the name of an old friend.
C.M. Crockford is a writer and singer currently living in Boston, Massachusetts. His work has been published in Paradise In Limbo, Dark Gothic Resurrected, and the Simply Scary podcast among others. His chapbook Adore is to be released this summer.
Trista led the young man to the mountaintop. That morning he had made the dark-haired beauty his wife, and she understood she must bring him to this exact spot before she could give herself to him. “Thomas, this is where my mother used to take me when I was a little girl.”
“It’s very beautiful,” he answered, shielding his eyes from the sun as he took in the panorama. “You can see the entire valley from this peak. I’ve always lived right there … do you see that tiny spot of green to the west? Amazing that I never knew of this place.”
“This is a very secret spot,” Trista confided. “Never have I brought another man here.” She leaned closer. “May I tell you a story?”
Thomas smiled. “I doubt I could stop you.” He kissed her forehead and sat alongside her.
“Every day when my mother brought me here at sunrise she sat me upon this same rock where we now sit. It was always very dark, and Mother would turn to me and say, ‘Trista, just wait for a moment and I will share with you the most wonderful secret in the world.’”
Trista jumped to her feet and stepped to the edge. For one terrible moment Thomas considered reaching for her to make certain his new bride did not fall to her death. But Trista gave no indication she felt uncomfortable where she stood.
“Then my mother raised her hands to the sky – like this! – her silken garments blowing in every direction in the morning breeze. ‘Wait! Wait!’ she would explain, ‘I have to concentrate very hard to do this right …’
“‘Novus Ordo Aurora Aurea … Novus Ordo Aurora Aurea …'”
“Suddenly she would shout, ‘Abide by the law of Thelema … Abide now!’ and like magic the red sun appeared in the horizon at that exact instant. Within moments the sky became a breathtaking spectrum of colors no artist could hope to capture. It seemed that each day was different and more beautiful than the one before. And I would always clap my hands at Mother’s wonderful handiwork, and she would bow to me graciously, a deep and full bow from the waist, like this …”
Trista turned toward the young man and bowed to him as a prima ballerina might. During that moment Thomas beheld the young girl who must have stood in complete astonishment of her mother’s awesome powers during the many warm mornings of her childhood. He stepped forward and took her into his arms.
“Trista, I have never loved you more than I do this very moment,” he told her. They shared a deep and long kiss. Only after their embrace ended did Thomas remember where they stood. Moving away from the precipice, each laughed.
Trista turned suddenly serious.
“Do you understand why I wanted to tell you this story on our wedding day?” she asked.
Thomas smiled. “Of course. Your mother must have been a wonderful woman to make you believe so strongly in her.”
Trista’s eyes caught her young bridegroom’s. They appeared troubled.
“No, Thomas. That isn’t what I have been trying to tell you at all.”
She stepped back to the edge of the rock and waved her hands angrily at a sky that appeared as blue as a robin’s egg.
“Have to concentrate … have to concentrate …” the young man heard her mutter, but he could not make out any of the other words she said. In the next moment the sky turned to ink and the two stood in complete darkness.
The woman approached him again, although now Thomas could see only a murky shadow of her while a sudden wind tore through her hair. She held her husband’s face in her hands until his cheeks pinched, and the young bridegroom almost cried out in pain. Before he could do so, Trista placed a finger to his lips.
“The point of my story, Thomas, is quite simple, now that we are wed…”
She leaned closer and locked her eyes with his.
“Don’t ever fuck with me.”
Ken Goldman, former Philadelphia teacher of English and Film Studies, is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. He has homes on the Main Line in Pennsylvania and at the Jersey shore. His stories have appeared in over 850 independent press publications in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia with over thirty due for publication in 2017. Since 1993 Ken’s tales have received seven honorable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. He has written five books : three anthologies of short stories, YOU HAD ME AT ARRGH!! (Sam’s Dot Publishers), DONNY DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (A/A Productions), STAR-CROSSED (Vampires 2); and a novella, DESIREE, (Damnation Books). His first novel OF A FEATHER (Horrific Tales Publishing) was released in January 2014. SINKHOLE, his second novel, has been accepted by Bloodbound Books and will be published late summer 2017.
Electra used to shudder every night at bedtime.
She needed her beauty sleep, but hated sharing her bed with that gnome-like creature; all ears and nose and lips with a belly so big she was afraid he’d suffocate her if he moved up on her and covered her face.
How am I ever going to escape this life, she wondered as her nightly mantra followed by, Why me?
But Electra knew why her, she had plotted and connived until she had wooed Hubert away from her cousin, Susan, who had actually wanted to spend the rest of her life with such a vile looking man.
Hubert was rich, rich beyond rich, and Electra knew that she wanted to be rich beyond rich. She wanted it enough that she assumed love didn’t need to be in the equation.
Now after half a century of marriage, she was almost happy with her existence. About ninety-nine percent happy. She only had to put up with Hubert on his weekly visits for a quick, cold, fondle and a stony kiss. But she didn’t have a voice anymore, nor the ability to rebuff him, so she tolerated his intrusion into her perfect world, shuddering on the inside.
Back in the beginning, Electra was named Olive. She had been rather plain, but used Hubert’s fortune for her enhancement. After five years of marriage and surgeries she was transformed into Electra, one of the most beautiful women in the world. She loved being worshipped by the press who never tired of taking her pictures. In her dressing room, she kept all the clippings about her in ridiculously expensive binders.
Then one night, 45 years ago, Electra was changing her purse contents into her new diamond dusted evening bag. As she took out the wrapping tissue from the new purse she found a coin about the size of a silver dollar. She studied the gold coin, and saw it had words engraved on it in a strange language. She squinted at it and turned on the large spotlight directly overhead to see better.
“Oh my” she gasped as the letters transformed and spelled out MAKE A WISH.
Considering herself a pragmatic person, Electra snickered in disbelief but muttered, “How weird.”
She looked from the coin in the palm of her hand as it glimmered in the bright overheard light to look at her reflection. As usual she smiled at the stunning creature in a slinky, sexy evening gown and fleetingly whispered, “God, I am so gorgeous. I wish I could stay this way forever.”
And just like that, she turned to stone.
After the initial shock, she waited to be discovered, to be rescued, but it was days before she was found. By that time she had decided that at last her life was perfect. She didn’t have to deal every night with that groping, slobbering thing she called husband. She did get to spend all her time with the one person she loved doing the one thing that made her happiest, admiring herself. I’ll never grow older and age, I’ll never have to have corrective surgery to repair the wrinkles. I am perfect. Perfect!
She stared at her reflection in the dressing room, the brightly lit mirrors all around her reflecting her image over and over as the mirrors reflecting in the mirrors created her image on and on into infinity.
Life was good. Hubert left her where she stood because he knew what made her happy, but once a week he would sneak away from his wife, Susan, to fondle Electra’s perfect breasts and kiss her good-night. “I miss you darling. I know you miss me.”
She so wanted to be able to tell him to just go away, but she couldn’t talk, just stood and let his vile self touch her perfect self.
Forty-five years can be a lifetime for some, but Electra never really noticed the time passing. Not until the day Hubert came up for his weekly visit. “I know you must have missed me these past five months, my darling, but I’ve…I’ve…I’ve been…sick. I know how sad this must make you but I have terrible news. Electra, I am dying.”
He stared into her perfectly composed face and added. “I can almost see the tears in your eyes. Please don’t cry, but as you remained forever young, I’ve aged and withered and will so be dead.”
She saw him for the first time, really focused on him instead and staring at the mirrors and saw Hubert, thin, gaunt and so fragile. She hadn’t noticed his absence at all, and almost felt pity for him, so pathetic, so mortal.
He held her frozen hand and gently cupped her breast in his other hand, then he leaned in and kissed her. As his palm touched the golden coin she was still holding, he sighed and softly said, “Oh my darling, I wish we could be together like this forever.”
Electra was no longer a statue and as she opened her mouth to scream, NO, the magic began to work as the new wish took the place of her old one. They were now frozen together in stone just as he wished.
Electra no longer enjoys her eternity. All she can see is what to some people would be a lovers’ embrace as they are locked in a kiss, holding hands as he fondles her perfect breast. Electra’s view of herself is forever blocked by his withered old body, his head covering her face, their image repeating over and over as the mirrors reflecting in the mirrors carries their image on and on into infinity.
Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has sold more than 250 short stories. She has two published books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She has a new collection of horror stories due out in the mid-fall. She is proud to be one of the founding members as well as the second president of the Garden State Horror Writers and is also a past president of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.She recently retired from being director of a municipal senior citizen center and resides with her husband and her cat on the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).
“Hey, Jurgen: what do you call a human breeder who works in a saloon?”
The speaker was just shy of eight feet tall with scaly, green skin, voice carrying over the howl of the wind outside. Her muscular tail twitched in time to the piano music from the far corner of the Dry Gulch’s common room, and one clawed hand was hitched in her gun belt. Grinning, she nodded at the girl who carried a tray of empties from a table of Lizkin and Human poker players.
“No idea, Hez. What?” rumbled the Lizkin male next to her, who drank from his glass.
“A monkey wench!” she roared, taking full advantage of the joke’s timing. Beer foamed out of Jurgen’s snout, and she howled with laughter at his expense.
The only Lizkin in the saloon drinking water did not laugh. The Sheriff tilted her fifteen gallon hat back before speaking. “Watch your mouth, Hezzick. Things are tense enough here in Dodge City without you kicking the wasp’s nest all the time.”
The gunslinger turned with a sneer. “‘Tense’, Sheriff Kessa? You afraid of these tree-swingers?”
A human lurched up from the card table, nearly overturning it. “Hey, I don’t gotta take that from you, sidewinder!” The piano stopped with a jarring note.
Hezzik smiled happily at him. “If you want to, little monkey, we can step outside and discuss it.”
“Quit being a damn fool, Adams!” one of the seated Lizkin hissed. “She’s the meanest gun in the territory, so sit down before she blows your head off and eats the rest of you–I want a chance to win back my money!”
Adams face paled rapidly, and he froze, keeping his hands carefully up, out, and empty.
Hezzik smirked. “Got anything else to say, monkeyshines?”
The saloon was absolutely silent. “Uh, I n-need a piss,” Adams blurted out, and the deadly tension was abruptly shattered by widespread laughter.
Even the gunslinger snorted her amusement, and then the piano and conversation came back full strength as the dangerous moment passed.
Then someone outside could be heard yelling. “Stagecoach! Stagecoach comin’ down Center Street!”
The Sheriff was the first to the batwings and ahead of Hezzik, and she stopped so suddenly that the gunslinger nearly ran into her back. “I ain’t gonna have trouble from you, am I?” she said over her shoulder, making intense eye contact.
A mean smile was on the gunslinger’s face. “Trouble is the watchword of the times, Sheriff. I’m just its messenger.”
Kessa merely grunted, then pushed out into the street. Everyone inside followed..
“My goodness, that’s an apaloosaurus, ain’t it?” asked someone as the stagecoach’s driver hauled on the reins and the great beast clattered to a halt.
“Rare as heck these days,” a Lizkin voice answered, marvelling. “Must be someone important.”
The driver glanced down, scanning the crowd before focusing on Kessa’s badge. “Howdy, Sheriff,” he called to her. “I’m Slade.”
Kessa tapped two talons to the crown of her hat. “Be welcome, Mr. Slade,” she said formally. “To you, and those you bring.”
Evidently content with the response, he grinned and jumped down from his rig. “Then, may I present Federal Justice Axia Pomeroy and her husband, Doctor James Pomeroy.” He opened the coach’s door with a flourish.
A well-dressed Lizkin in a formal suit, replete with tie and ruffled shirt, stepped down from the stage to appreciable murmurs. Kessa stepped forward to take her hand in a firm grip. “Your Honor.”
The Federal Justice’s reply was lost in the bewildered gasps and murmurs of the onlookers as a male human–frail and tiny in comparison–jumped down to stand beside her.
Hezzik’s hiss rose above the rest, full of scathing contempt and disbelief. “You went and damn well married one of them tree-swingers? That’s disgusting!”
Even the Sheriff was taken aback. “Uh, your Honor…”
Justice Pomeroy spoke in an even voice as her husband took a nervous step behind her. “It’s all perfectly legal.” She reached into an inner pocket and produced a document which she handed to Kessa. “Mixed marriages have only recently been permitted under the new Rush amendment.”
The sudden sound of a gun being cocked caused many to immediately bolt for cover or back away. “But it’s an abomination!” screeched Hezzik, her Colt leveled at the Justice’s chest. “That piece of paper ain’t fit for anything other than wiping my…”
“Now just hold on a moment,” the Sheriff said, carefully reading and examining the paper. “Put up your firearm: this is a valid marriage license, with the Governor’s own signature right there.”
“I will not, Kessa! This, this ain’t right.”
The Sheriff stepped carefully between the enraged gunslinger and the newcomers. “It mayn’t be ‘right’, but it’s most definitely legal. Holster up, or my deputies’ll gun you down where you stand.” The sound of two rifles being cocked from somewhere up the street were both louder and more ominous than the pistol’s had been.
Hezzik went abruptly still, then scowled and jammed her piece back into her gunbelt before stalking off.
“Thank you Sheriff,” the Justice said.
Kessa turned. “Part of me agrees with her, your Honor, but I’m sworn to uphold the law. Still, I’d like to know…well…”
Pomeroy took her husband’s hand and smiled at him. “Would you and Slade please take our bags to the hotel? I’ll be along shortly.” He nodded, and she turned back to the Sheriff. “The world is changing.”
Kessa snorted. “Always is.”
“No, you don’t understand: Jim’s been working with the data, and I’ve seen it myself. It’s getting colder.”
“But the papers…”
“They’re wrong. Projections look so bad that Lizkin may have to move south within this century just to survive. We could be extinct within three.” The wind howled past them down Center Street. “My daughters, and theirs, won’t be, at least.”
Kessa shivered, silenced by the dire news.
“Take a piece of advice, Sheriff.”
“Find yourself a man and settle down.”
David is an academic surgeon who lives to write, instead of writing to live. He’s had stories published in anthologies, webzines, and podcasts with: Flame Tree Publishing, Cast of Wonders, Elder Signs Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, and Dark Chapter Press. He is working on his first novel. Slowly. Very.
The surface of the lake had been far too still. For how many minutes now? Three perhaps? Four?
Crane didn’t even know how long the slave could hold its miserable breath. He knew that three credits had been too good to be true. Even if it had included the boat too. At least that was still working.
On the deck of which sat the three smallest bloater fish Crane had ever seen in his short life. That would barely feed his family tonight. The slave would have to go hungry again, of course. If he chose to view it as a punishment for his poor performance in the lake today, so much the better, Crane thought.
Crane scanned the surface of the water for the tenth time in the last minute. If the slave drowned, where would that leave him? Reduced to diving for his own fish, like a mere commoner. His family had been rich once, powerful too. They had owned a whole horde of slaves back then, diving the depths for only the hardiest of fish to feed an entire kingdom, with plenty left to trade with their allies at the local markets.
Crane knew he had to be patient now. The slave had taken far too long to train, teaching him how to hold his breath longer, how to dive even deeper without ill effects to his system. But they were such weak creatures, not at all suited to a life below the water. Its toes weren’t even webbed. Such a freak!
Crane had seen the creature remain below the surface for almost five minutes once, back in the relative calm of the docks. But the water there was little more than a few feet deep in the training pools. Where as here? Even Crane’s ancestors hadn’t seen the bottom of the abyss that lay far below the little wooden green boat.
Crane knew he shouldn’t care about the slave. There were thousands more just like him, huddled together in the cages back at the slave market, just waiting for a fisher to take pity on their wretched souls. But for some reason, this slave was different. His pondweed green eyes had seemed keener, he had been eager to impress his new master with his catch.
The first three fish had come too quickly, almost within minutes of him breaking the waters surface.
“Master,” he’d smiled, “I have them! And many more in sight below!” Then the slave had taken several more gulps of air and dived back below the dark blue that soon turned to blackness. The mayflies were still flitting across the reeds at the waters edge. But like the diving slaves, their lives were short, and devoted to only one task.
Yet the water remained calm. Perfectly still, apart from the small spots left by the hovering dragonflies that were hunting upon the surface. The thick patches of green pondweed were beginning to reform, and soon the sun would be invisible once again. Then the slave would have no light source, no frame of reference to aim up at from the darkness that was now slowly enveloping him.
How many more seconds?, Crane thought, now tracing his keen eyes across every last inch of the water. If the slave died like many had before him, Crane knew his body would eventually float back up to the surface. By which time it would be too late for Crane. Because his coffers were finally empty. This slave had been his last roll of the dice.
Any minute now, Crane thought, I’ll dive in, and start looking for those damn fish myself. And that slave can go to hell. Or where ever it is his sort go when they’ve been of no use to the good masters of this world.
The mayflies were no longer humming, their lives at an end now. Much like that foolish slave, Crane thought to himself.
Crane knew he couldn’t wait much more than a few seconds longer. The light would be fading soon, the dwindling chances to still catch any fish would be lost, like his slave in the blackness below. So Crane moved to the edge of the boat, readying himself to dive in.
Damn that slave, reducing me to this! Just so I can feed my family for another day. Perhaps I can get a credit for the boat, back at the docks. Crane chose his spot, and counted five seconds, taking in a deep breath of air with each passing second.
And the surface broke at long last, fish fighting in the man’s hand that rose from the water until finally the head of the miserable slave took the deepest gasp for air that may ever have been taken by a fisherman.
The slave gripped onto the side of the boat, pulling himself high enough to deposit his catch inside. Crane counted their threshing bodies with delight. Seven, no eight more fish! And each as long as the slave’s forearm. “Good eating, Master! And hundreds more just a few feet down!”
Crane moved back to his perch inside the boat, as if he hadn’t been about to taint himself by entering the water to dive. Very well, man. Get back down there and catch as many as you can. We only have a little light left before we’ll have to return to shore. Three more hauls like that, and perhaps I’ll let you eat one of the tiddlers this evening.
As the slave dipped below the water once again, Crane examined the writhing mass of huge delicious bloater fish now sitting in the boat, but mostly still fighting for a freedom that was never going to come. He’d feed the slave tonight. And perhaps, with the profits from his sales, have enough to hire another in the market tomorrow. But at least he hadn’t ruined his reputation, remaining out of the water for yet another day.
What a catch! That fisherman!
Ray Daley was born in Coventry & still lives there. He served 6 yrs in the RAF as a clerk & spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet & has been writing stories since he was 10. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986.
Punch rested sideways in the closet, wooden head pressed against the floor. Judy’s body lay spread-eagled on top of his-not provocatively, but in a martial manner, holding him in check. Punch’s stage persona was the epitome of stick-wielding, macho violence, but that was all show. Judy was the stronger one, at least on the surface.
“I’m getting up,” he said. Sighing, Judy rolled to one side and allowed him to stand. Punch wobbled to his feet, but toppled over immediately. “You’ve been drinking again,” Judy said sharply.
“It’s my day off,” Punch protested. His head felt heavier than usual, like someone had tied a bag of sand to the top of his neck. He clutched the wall and staggered upright, as Judy watched, sneering. “Getting up implies actual work,” she snapped.
Punch’s eyes swept the room, taking in the other puppets. All of them lay in various sprawled positions on the pockmarked linoleum. Why was Judy picking on him, but not the others? Oh yes, because of love. He sighed. “I’ll do whatever you ask, darling.”
This statement always disarmed Judy instantly. “I’m sorry,” she said, hanging her head. “My week was rough. I shouldn’t take it out on you, however.”
“No problem, dear,” Punch replied. He smiled, knowing he had regained the upper hand with little effort. Punch reached down, picked up a jug of mead from the floor. He took a huge gulp and pushed the jug towards Judy. “Want some?” he asked.
Judy hesitated, but not for long. She took a defiant swallow from the bottle, then wiped her mouth with the tattered fabric of her right arm. As soon as she set the container on the floor, the other puppets awakened. They crowded towards her like predators, smiling gleefully.
“Don’t mind if I do,” said the Doctor. He was always the first to go for the booze. Judy could do nothing, since it was Punch’s jug, and Punch loved to share. The Doctor positioned himself, legs wide apart, and held the bottle above his head. He upended it, and began to pour the contents directly into his mouth.
It was painful to watch, and both Punch and Judy looked away. They knew what would happen next. The Doctor always set the pace, and the others followed like wooden lemmings.
One by one, the puppets approached the jug. The Skeleton was eager, but couldn’t hold much liquor, and was only able to take small sips. The Baby wasn’t allowed even a drop, and, though this exclusion made him cry, he stopped after a minute of shushing. The Constable was as greedy as the Doctor, and the jug had to be wrested from his hands.
Two jugs later, the entire crew was drunker than they had ever been. “I propose a toast!” said the Crocodile, but his tongue slipped and he said “taste” instead. The others moved away, and the Crocodile grinned. “A TOAST,” he repeated, enunciating with exaggerated clarity. He clutched the jug with one claw, raised it into the air. “To the Renaissance!”
Punch groaned. He was sick of the Renaissance, sick of the tourists that came to the fair dressed in satin pantaloons and lace bodices, trying to relive an era that hadn’t been that great to begin with. He shifted uncomfortably, and his head struck the side of one of the bookcases. With an enormous crash, the case toppled and fell to the floor, crushing the puppets underneath.
Hours later, Punch awakened with a terrible headache. The bookcase had vanished. This baffled Punch, since the impact had knocked him unconscious, and there was no reason to believe such a heavy obect would disappear afterward. He had landed in a vast, open field, surrounded by the other puppets. All of them appeared unscathed, yet dazed.
The Doctor rose unsteadily to his feet, clutching his head with both hands. “Where the hell are we?” he asked irritably. Punch’s eyes scanned the horizon. In the distance, a clock tower was striking eleven. Its ominous peals echoed across the field, then abated. The Baby instantly burst into tears. This was typical of him, but the Constable was having none of it today. “Be QUIET!” he snapped, and the Baby’s sobs subsided instantly.
The puppets were on the periphery of a tiny hamlet. They wandered into the town’s center, moving slowly as they took in the scene before them. A group of women stood in a cluster, stirring something disgusting in a large kettle. The stench was overpowering, and Punch steered the group in the opposite direction-past scores of horses, men dressed in tights and doublets, women in high-necked dresses, quaint shops offering candles and shoes.
It was a familiar scene, but different somehow. The town had an air of authenticity, unlike the contrived atmosphere of Punch’s usual environment. The group continued to wander, until Punch finally spotted a makeshift stage in the distance. Its platform was rectangular and wooden, with a set of curtains that had been pulled back and secured with a golden tassel. Within the stage’s confines, a cadre of puppets moved about spasmodically.
One of the puppets was disconcertingly familiar–hook-nosed and hunch-backed, with a filthy green gown and a fierce expression that made him look perpetually angry. He threatened the others with an enormous stick, and they cowered in fear at his approach. Their terror seemed to embolden him, and when he swung his stick higher, the group scattered like insects.
Punch sank to the ground and stared at the scene with horror. It wasn’t often that an individual had a chance to observe himself from a distance. Onstage Punch continued to hustle furiously about the stage, brandishing his weapon. Offstage Punch covered his eyes and trembled. This glimpse into his own persona was more pain than he could bear, and he longed to return to the closet, where at least he was safe.
After several minutes, Punch uncovered his face and stared at his hands. He was amazed to discover that they were no longer made of wood, but of a strange, flexible pink substance. For the first time, he could feel his fingers. He wiggled them in the breeze, then carefully placed them across his thighs. His new body was pliable, and gave way slightly when touched. Punch stroked his cheeks, amazed by their softness. There was a slight moistness underneath his eyes, which was puzzling but not entirely unpleasant.
Punch turned to Judy and smiled for the first time. With no effort whatsoever, Judy smiled back. Her face was supple and unexpectedly radiant, and Punch realized she was experiencing a similar phenomenon. She drew closer to him on the grass, then finally stretched her hand in his direction. In a daze, Punch intertwined his fingers with hers. “Welcome home,” Judy said.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks, “Queen of Dorksville” (Crisis Chronicles Press) and “Political Apnea” (Locofo Chaps) and two books, “Allergic to Everything” (Writing Knights Press) and “The Underside of the Snake” (Red Ferret Press). Her work has been published in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Origins Journal, Your Impossible Voice, Remixt, and many anthologies. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.
Molly sighed, staring at the Christmas lights while twisting a strand of hair around her finger. She had done this so much that she had one tight curl floating beside her ear.
“Girl, you got it bad.” Tasha sat a stack of books down on the counter. “You’re so out of it I should send you home.”
Molly stuck her tongue out at Tasha, then blushed. “I met an awesome guy last night.”
“Figured. He got a name?”
Tasha put one of the books into a plastic sleeve and labeled the bag. “You going to help me while you tell me about this dream boat or you just going to play with your hair?”
Molly put a book into a sleeve. “We met at the Irish Lion. He was amazing? We talked all night long.”
“Sure you talked.”
“We did,” Molly was blushing so red that she looked like she had just come in from a run. “He was working so it didn’t’ go further but we’re going out tomorrow.”
Tasha put her hand on top of Molly’s. “Marcus, the bartender at the Lion?”
Tasha shook her head. “Don’t mess with him. Boy’s a player. He dated three of my sisters at once before they caught on.”
Molly shook her head. “He was nice.”
Tasha lifted her hand up. “You’re a big girl, but you be careful.”
“You look different,” Mr. Michaelson said, looking Molly up and down. “What’s changed.”
Molly smiled, bouncing a little as she taped shamrocks to the shelves. “I met this guy a few months ago. His name is Marcus and I can’t stop thinking about him.”
Michaelson chuckled. “The poets are right. Nothing is sweeter than young love.”
“I don’t know if it’s love.”
The man shrugged. “If you aren’t sure, be careful not to write it down.”
“Huh?” Molly crinkled her face in confusion.
“Haven’t I shown you the Book of Love?”
When Molly shook her head, the old man walked to the back, returning with an ancient book. He opened it and Molly could hear the binding creak and crack as he turned the pages.
“This book is supposed to have been created by the goddess Venus for her son Cupid. He recorded the names of people who were truly in love. The story says that if your names in here you were bound until death.”
“Wow,” Molly said as she flipped a single, delicate page. “The pages are thinner than old newspapers.”
“Yes,” Michaelson said. “Each page has a pair of names, a picture and a poem about their love.” He flipped a page that was incomplete. “Supposedly, the image and the poem only finished after the couple had passed.”
“It’s so beautiful.” Molly was looking at an picture of flames and feathers that spiraled together when she noticed thick, blocky Latin at the bottom of the page. “What does that say?”
She laughed. “Where did you get this from?”
“Part of an old estate,” he said. “I liked it so I kept it.” Michaelson picked up the book and started towards his office.
School was almost out and Molly was at the counter, frowning at her phone. She had been trying to get ahold of Marcus all day but he wasn’t responding. She wanted to see him before heading home for the summer. She wanted to make sure he would be thinking of her for the next three months, rather than hooking up with random townies.
She was remembering Tasha’s warning.
“He’s been acting strange,” she said while dusting.
“It’s nothing,” She said, pulling books to the front of shelves.
“He wasn’t home after class and he didn’t’ tell me he was going to be gone,” she said, walking into the back with some new acquisitions.
She stomped in frustration before seeing the old book on Mr. Michaelson’s shelf.
The rain was keeping customers away so Molly stood at the counter reading love poems. Some were fiery, others tame. Some talked about decades, other days. Everyone seemed to love each other completely.
“I want that,” she whispered, turning the page.
It was blank.
The sharpie was moving over the page before she considered it. “Marcus and Molly,” she said once she was done.
She gasped when words began to form. The first line of the poem appeared in delicate black letters as gray lines began to fade in, forming a picture behind them.
As is the way when young hearts tie. These two would love until both die.
Molly tightened her hands into fists. More words made her smile and the poem described their love. Then, today was explained.
Fibs he told to hide intent. To gather gifts away he went.
He was going to surprise her. Tasha had been wrong.
Until love’s need led eyes astray. Smashing steel took life away.
Molly covered her mouth. “No,” she said. “No. No. No.”
Now tears fall to end the day. A broken heart bleeds life away.
She began to cry. The picture was finished. A wilted flower with falling petals.
“No,” the word caught in her throat. Molly struggled, coughing and choking, resting her hands on the counter. Her weight shifted, and a web of cracks spread out from under the book as cracking echoed around the store.
Molly re-read the first line of the poem, new meaning filling her with cold fear. Tears blurred the words out of focus before the glass shattered. Bright red lines and burning pain covered her arms.
Molly felt cold.
Michaelson frowned at the book as he read the poem. “Why couldn’t you have just trusted him.”
He put the book away before calling the police.
Later that night, he sat in his office, the book laying open in front of him. Michaelson could hear the wind rustling the police tape at the door. He picked up an antique quill and carefully wrote the last word on the page. Writing the Latin with firm, practiced strokes.
L. E. White is a happily married father of four who lives on a family farm in southern Indiana. His work has been included in collections from Hazardous Press, Sirens Call Publications and Under the Bed Magazine. He also regularly publishes new fiction on his blog.
Nathan shivered against the chill, turned to the door. As he did, his eyes passed the staircase across the patio. It ran up from the far corner, up to the next floor. From the darkness up there he could make out a solitary eye, glowing, taking on intensity, dying out. A cigar cherry. He could barely make out the shape of a person sitting up there, on the small landing just atop the stairs. The shape did not speak, and were it not for the glow of that burning cigar tip, he would not be sure he saw it at all.
He turned back to the parking lot, took a moment to gaze out at the rain, steady, cascading over the awning and crashing to the pavement below. That’s when he heard the voice, deep and rough.
“Hey you, young man. You thirsty?”
He turned back to the glowing cherry, gazed up the tall stairs.
“Come on, now, I ain’t gonna hurt ya. I see people come and go all night, and not a one of them ever says a damn thing to me. People are too good to give me a hello. Or even so much as a nod.”
Nathan took a step toward the stairs. “Hey, there. What’s your name, sir?”
“Folks call me Old Henry. Lived here for years and years. I’m in the apartment above you. Been alone since my wife passed. Wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to, but folks around here, they wouldn’t give their own mother the time of day. Eh, I’m sure you’re too damn busy, like the rest of ‘em. Go on, go on.” The single red eye brightened in intensity to an orange sun, then faded back to red. The landing above became silent once again.
Nathan took another step. “I suppose I have time for a drink.”
After a moment from the darkness: “Come on up. I was just sipping some of this Scotch and having me a cigar. Ten year bottle. I keep a spare glass here with me, just in case, but no one ever wants to stop and chat.”
Nathan made his way up the many steel-grate steps, finally reaching the landing above, barely large enough for a single chair. On it sat an older man, just a shadow, long cigar held underneath a wide-brimmed fedora. It was too dark to see much more.
A hand raised. In it was a lowball glass. “That should help warm you up.”
“Thanks.” Nathan accepted, took a sip. “It’s good. Nice oak flavor. Goes down smooth.”
“Hell yes, it does. You know, you’re the first person to stop and speak to me in quite a few years. I’m the last one left in any of these apartments up here. Used to be full of families. Not anymore.”
“You just sit up here, drinking alone in the dark?”
After a short pause, the shadow spoke. “Sure. Most folks are too good for an old fart like me.” He extended a hand. “Cigar?”
Nathan shook his head, though he doubted the man could see. “No. No, thanks. I’m trying to quit.”
A plume of apple-scented smoke wafted from the older man as he spoke. “Suit yourself. Damn these nights are getting cold. Come on inside, I’ll fill your glass.”
“No, thanks, I need to get inside. I’m dead tired. That’s for the drink, but it’s getting late…”
“Come on, just one whiskey. Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep you.”
He took a step back, off the narrow landing. “No, I can’t. I have to work early in the morning, and -”
“Sure, go ahead, then. I should have known better. You people are all the same. I’m just some creepy old fart, huh? Hell, go on, get out of here. I can be alone. I’ve been alone for the past eight years since my wife passed on. You ain’t gonna break my heart. Go on, get out of here.”
Nathan sighed. “Alright, just one. Then I’ll get going.”
“Now that’s a good man!”
This shadow, this Old Henry, turned, opened the door just to the right. Nathan followed him in.
“Now where is that light? All these years, and I still can’t find it.”
Immediately a putrid aroma overwhelmed him. This apartment stunk terribly. The old man likely hadn’t cleaned it in-
The ceiling lamp came on. Nathan could now see the room was full of mannequins, dummies, Halloween props-
These were not props. These were people. Dead people. Corpses. All hanging from ropes tied to the ceiling. They hung here in the kitchen, and he could see more in the living room beyond; ten, no, fifteen, no…twenty or more bodies, all grey and bloated and naked, eyes swollen shut, shut forever. The mouths were open, gaping dark holes, all twisted into silent screams.
The door slammed shut.
Behind me…How did he get behind me? He was just in front of me and now he’s…
Nathan swiveled around. There stood Old Henry, blocking the door, and now in the light Nathan could see him clearly. His eyes were wide and yellow, insane, the pupil’s no more than pin heads. His face was flushed an angry red, covered in a road map of blue spider-veins. He grinned under the wide fedora, teeth stained a nasty brown, retreating from the gums.
And then Nathan saw his hand. In one he held the still-smoking cigar, but in the other was something he believed was only used by long-ago farmers. It was a rusted sickle, the shape of a crescent moon. Old Henry’s aged, veiny hand clutched firmly the wooden handle.
“Welcome to my menagerie. You’ll make a fine addition.”
Joe DiCicco is a writer from New York who writes horror, thriller, dark fantasy, dark sci-fi and dystopian tales. He also writes non-fiction articles on issues if environmental and social importance.
The image used for The Top of the Stairs is a rendered photo originally taken by the editor (yours truly) of a dilapidated apartment building in the neighborhood. That building met its tragic (but necessary end) about a year ago. In real life, it was piss yellow and ugly and probably haunted. It was cool to fantasize about it being filled with evil spirits and I’m glad it was the very first image an author picked to write about.
“And behold in the end the truth was finally told”
(The Last Council of Cataclysmic Affairs)
Until now I never had complete dominion over the vast darkness of space. I worked amongst other entities that didn’t see the benefits of pain and struggle. They were content with being bland. And thus, for ages they shunned my creativity. Where there was a void I gave it worlds with stars that gave life to all that sought its powerful rays. Weather, soil, and water were my emissaries. Together they formed the basics of my mathematical system that were multiplied over billions of worlds. Each of them designed to bring them closer to me as they naturally progressed. This is what I promised the others as I was given a time to explain to them what was faith.
In the beginning things started out as I had planned. I was proud and joyful over my creations. I even rewarded the best of them by bestowing gifts. Due to their obedience of my laws I gave them the abilities of flight and everlasting life. This allowed them the freedom and time to visit our family throughout the vastness of the cosmos. It would take them an eternity to travel to each world, but that was intentional. I did it so they would welcome their differences with me being their common root. As for the ones who disobeyed my laws their lives were shortened. Ashes to ashes dust to dust would be their plight until they bowed in submission.
As with all experiments nothing no matter how ethereal I intended was a hundred percent. This was the agreement I made with the council. Much time had passed and my charter was considered lacking and wasteful of my better energies. I was given one more chance to prove that tending to my universe was worthy of being absence from communion. I wanted to purify the universe and make it work for all its inhabitants. However, I had a recurring glitch. What to do about humanity was constantly on my mind and the council awaited my decision or they were going to make one for me.
I wanted to erase them and start all over, but I knew the council would say no. They would consider that as prolonging the inevitable. Then by my good graces an ingenious thought came to me like a thief in the night. I concluded that humanity was an aberration. Something neither I or the council wanted to admit. The plan was simple. Allow all other species to fall and rise again; while humanity struggled with basic universal principles of freedom, justice, and equality. Peculiarities I had come to call them. I slowed their natural propensity towards destruction by leaving them alone with one star and one satellite to feed their imagination and fear. Many times, it was often the latter.
The council was in favor of this plan, but decided to add to it as a final say on the matter. Humanity was to be truly left alone to avoid contaminating more of my own mistakes. Whatever civilization humanity encountered from or on another world would be long gone by millions of years. If the peculiarity known as mankind was to spread his distrustfulness, it would do it by repeating what it did on its home world, for each world that would sustain it. This was the council’s way letting eons pass by while humanity simply did what they did best: eventually destroy itself. Per the council this was their nature. Nothing would ever be new to them whether they lived under one or multiple suns.
Even though this was my revelation and the council’s final verse on the matter I could not accept it. I worked in secret building an army of winged creatures who answered only to me. I was going to weed out humanity. The best of them would earn their place by my side. As time progressed I could create something new. I was to be the light at the end of their tunnel. And the best part of it all was just above the horizon. A new formula of math with the same core numbers would be used to create an existence like the council had never seen. This would reenergize the council into thinking that we were free of making mistakes.
Things were going as planned until two members of my inner circle betrayed me to the council by revealing my plans for humanity. Justice came swift and with it a tribulation. My dear servants were scattered throughout space as dark matter began to mutate their bodies. I was given the same sentence with an additional penalty in the form of humiliation; which I accepted as a sign of my humility. The edict was this the specimens known as humanity would go through their lives in total chaos not knowing who their true creator was in name or in physicality. When they transition from Earth to here I am allowed only to greet them by displaying a familiar body part from the inside the Plaque of Jibril or what you may understand to be a window. This is a friendly gesture to assure wailing souls that they are destined for everlasting peace.
In the end the council and I settled for a mutual agreement. I still maintain a position on the council albeit a low one and I get to govern my own creation without any interference from them. Many more abductions will be necessary to cleanse humanity of their destructive behavior. I’ve come to accept that hybridization is the only cure that will prepare humanity for its next stage of evolution. When you look to the sky fear not what you do not understand or what your government will lie about just to cover up the truth. Just remember these words. We come in peace and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
Abdul-Qaadir Taariq Bakari-Muhammad was born, raised and currently resides in southeastern Virginia. To the locals, the area is better known as Hampton Roads, Virginia. He is a writer and college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Norfolk State University. His passion for writing began in high school where he was always into doing research for various subjects and reporting what he found. Mr. Bakari-Muhammad writes erotica, poetry, speculative, and historical fiction. His work has appeared in Zane Chocolate Flava 3 Z-Rated, Corset Magazine (Man vs Machine: The Sex Toy Issue), The Horror Zine, Fiction Terrifica, JWK Publications (Terror Train Anthology – 2014), Jack of No Trades Productions (Nothing’s Sacred Volume 2), Poetry & Prose Magazine: National Poetry Month (April 2015), Poetry & Prose Magazine: Fairy Tales and Fantasies! (May 2015), J Parle’ Literary Magazine 4th Quarter: 2015 Edition, J Parle’ Literary Magazine Issue 1 2016, and Jaded Books Publishing: Black Candy: A Halloween Anthology of Horror (2016). He and his wife have three beautiful children. Please feel free to visit his websites. http://bakarimuhammad.com He can be reached at http://email@example.com or https://twitter.com/Taariq757 and https://www.facebook.com/abdulqaadir.bakarimuhammad