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We received a humongous amount of fantastic poetry submissions. Not all of the poems made the cut for the issue, but a good many were too good to pass up on. So as a result, this will be the largest volume ever published by The Were-Traveler.
This issue contains poetry from newcomers and seasoned, award-winning poets alike. There’s everything from old myths to new ones, from serious to humorous verse, and, like true speculative writing, fabulous blends of fantasy, science fiction and horror. There’s something for every fan of spec-genre poetry to enjoy.
Authors, please check out our Calls For Submissions page for upcoming themes. You can send your work to any issue that has a deadline posted.
There’s nothing else to say, except I hope you enjoy these fabulous poems.
Happy Holidays from The Traveler!
M.X. Kelly, editor/publisher
Issue #19: Speculative Poetry
Images courtesy of Pixabay with the exception of the images used for “Theda Bara” and “Brown Recluse Obsession” which are in the public domain.
To think the death of Annabel Lee drove him mad,
Or the streets of his fair city
Pulled him into their depths
Without so much as a fair-thee-well,
And we both richer and poorer
In our too-small grasp of that dark illumination.
Or, what carrion cause the heart to race,
Hidden within the chest of our imagination,
And the horror of the faceless death
Awaiting all who tremble still,
As the pressing of time, and its swift
And terrible pendulum swings back, unbidden,
Relentless at our heels. No amount
Of wishing will change this severing of ourselves
From what fears we ourselves bring forth. He dared
Look deep, and often askew, into the frail greed
As defines our kind, trembled in his thrall
To the opiate of the unknown, it’s relentless pull
That he himself could not avoid, nor delay the day
His own sad heart would race, bellowing from his
Bricked-in chest to scream those names
Who’d driven him lost and lonely, Baltimore
No Lord nor manor awaiting his gentle entry,
But despair his roof, and alone his wail.
No red death, but black and solitary, no fine wine
To make his passing happy, no masque to honor
The tales his life created, his a solitary dance,
Not even Death herself had time to waste, to ferry
His torn and shattered spirit, into the deep oblivion
His every word promised, to we who read his dreams.
Notty Bumbo is a writer, artist, and poet living in Fort Bragg, California. He has been published in a number of small journals and presses, including the Amphigoric Sauce Factory, Words Without Walls, Poesis, Telling Our Stories Press, and Calabash Cadence’ Taisgeadan. His novella, Tyrian Dreams, is available on Kindle via Amazon Publishing. He has recently been responsible for Questor’s Odyssey, a daily commentary on life as we seldom appreciate it, from the perspective of a Trans-Universal visitor with three green hairs.
The smell of used cat litter
Is beyond the rotting flesh of humans
stinking up a condemned building.
The boldest cats don’t bury their shit
because they do not care
about your presence
and secretly hope
to leave a putrid present
on your fallen body
First published in Zodiac Review.
Vampire paramours but vanished brides of Christ.
Allah as warmonger but warlocks as heroes.
Fashionable witches but forgotten saints.
Buddha as bracelet charm but beloved murderers.
To abandon Gods
And fixate on monsters.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty seven years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had over fifty stories published thus far, most also reprinted.
I’ll give you a gift, my love
more perfect than an ear.
Take my arm, instead. It’s
never been any good to me.
You might like it, though.
You always said you could use
another hand around the house.
J.A. Grier is a scientist, educator, poet, and fiction writer who loves hiking, wine tasting, arts and crafts, and cats. Dr. Grier’s poems and stories have been published in venues such as: Mad Scientist Journal, Liquid Imagination, Eye to the Telescope, Mirror Dance, and an anthology of the Maryland Writer’s Association entitled Life in Me Like Grass on Fire. She shares posts and tweets of astronomical facts and strange fictions at jagrier.com and @grierja on Twitter.
“A Frightening Metaphysical Puzzle” was first published in Illumen (Vol. X, No. 1, Autumn 2013).
When confronted by the stranger
demanding answers or else
a fate worse than death
is it better to be philosophical or practical
honest or deceptive?
The stranger, I should add,
is unearthly and sinister
with a gunlike apparatus
you don’t recognize
but assume is as functional
as any worldly weapon.
The questions, of course,
strain your intellectual grasp
and lifetime of this-planet experience,
questions that even astute theologians
and proficient game-show contestants
would have difficulty with.
Trembling, you answer question
after question, adrenaline somehow
conjuring up knowledge and wisdom
stumble on the tenth one
a frightening metaphysical puzzle
and pray that the gunlike apparatus
Canadian writer J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published seventeen books, including Disturbing Identities (Stories, Ekstasis Editions), Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), Identity Dreams and Memory Sounds (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell (Stories, Ekstasis Editions), and An Unauthorized Biography of Being (110 Short Fictions Hovering Between the Absurd and the Existential, Ekstasis Editions).
***NOTE: This poem has disturbing imagery of male rape. We don’t often publish these kind of pieces, but in this case, the artistry and mastery of the verse spoke to us, as did the story it tells from the victim point of view; a desire for vengeance.
Child of Tartarus, stand! I rebuke your rule,
Your proven mastery over these halls.
To this Hell before have I fallen,
Shattered woe, bane and doom entire.
Labyrinth complete my feet did drag.
Having heard loathsome shadows fall.
No claw needed for rape of innocence
Odin’s wisdom gained, pure eye taken
And that done three years shy of ten
Let us paint once again the loss of hope
With coarse brushes of hair and bone
Stripped from still screaming men.
I am not cruel, seeking not to bring pain,
Except where the cruel have taught me.
No longer who then was I. Now, not even I.
Stand pass that I walk again dread halls.
Enduring your claws, your bloody kiss,
Wicked hungers awakened within me.
Testicles again hanging, take my own as well.
Make of them yet again a hell-spawned toy,
Bounce apart-together moaning, dark-wicked.
Remember you, echoed forgiveness calling.
Your love broke me then, but cannot now,
Then I but a fragile, helpless child of Joy.
Time now I return to you, refusing lies,
No apology, going not meekly without fight.
Not alone this fall take I, but you and memory.
By twisting blade in gut, and payment long due.
Can you see? Know you that from thy gift,
Father, I can no longer believe in light.
BanWynn (Suta) Oakshadow has been a poet, writer, artist and photographer since 1978 He grew up in rural Ohio, lived much of his adult life in the desserts of Colorado and Arizona and lives on a 400 yo farm in Sweden.. He writes about Native American & Viking history, lots of speculative fiction, Child Abuse, Mental Illness and Spirituality. He loves donating works to animal charity anthologies and publications that don’t pay, but give people who live to write and write to live a place to share it. You can find him at uncleoakie.wordpress.com
The Crusader’s Latin was crudely scribed, with many misspellings, but Brother Willman read along quickly, absorbing the narrator’s pride in the pillage and destruction of Constantinople. Christians off handedly killing Christians. The writer had felt no need for apology.
Brother Willman sighed. The victors always wrote from moral superiority. He turned off the light above the vellum book and took a step over to an adjacent table, where loose parchment sheets were arranged. These sheets, also written in Latin, were an account of the same events by a Byzantine priest. He claimed moral superiority as well, but in defeat, and cited the atrocities of the Crusaders as evidence of their demonic nature.
Willman’s thoughts wallowed in ancient gore. He typed his Latin notes into a computer and left, unlocking and relocking the door. A Vatican guard let him out of the library wing housing among other sections the Liborum Prohibitorum, the works condemned by the church.
Niles was waiting for him in the vestibule. Both men were Dominican brothers, sworn to vows of poverty and chastity. Both had the stooped posture of scholars who hunched over documents for weeks on end..
“So, Willman, did you obsess about the winners or the losers today?”
“Both. It’s incredible how much material was retrieved from the losing sides, given that the winners wrote the histories and burnt the libraries of the losers. Squads of friars must have searched through the rubble for heretical scraps.”
They walked to their customary cafe. The waiter brought them each a bottle of Moretti beer.
“Well, learned associate, any revelations?”
“No. Same daily grind, atrocities and sins, sins and atrocities.”
“I envy your exploration of churchly shortcomings. My hagiography is almost too uplifting. The saints are all so good.”
“Don’t be sarcastic Niles. We can’t all be virgins and martyrs.”
“It’s just ironic that I, sardonic if not cynical, am assigned to study the blessed and you, who could have written Pollyanna’s autobiography, study the church’s shortcomings.”
“Blame it on the cardinal.”
Willman had been tucked away in a Catholic university in Connecticut, presenting dead languages to uncaring undergraduates. One evening, while flickering his attention between computer chess and television, he received a telephone call from his bishop. He muted President Obama’s assurances about troop withdrawal from Iraq and picked up the telephone.
The bishop was almost brusque. “Brother Willman, your aptitude in languages and analysis has come to the attention of the Vatican.”
“We’re sending you to Rome for evaluation. If you pass their scrutiny they’ll have some sort of long term assignment for you.”
Willman’s thoughts churned. “Your Excellency, did they indicate the nature of the task?”
“No. They’re being coy and won’t tell me what it is.”
Once in Rome Willman was tested in medieval German and French, as well as Latin. His arcane capabilities impressed both his evaluators and Cardinal Benetelli, who summoned Brother Willman to his private quarters.
“Brother Willman we want you to study the church’s defects.”
“Your Eminence, Holy Mother Church is not considered fallible.”
“Yes, yes, like our holy father in pronouncements on matters of faith. But our history has been…deviled by a series of horrific transgressions. We don’t want you to look at individual failings, although the Lord knows we’ve had enough of those. No, we want you to study our systemic aberrations-the murders committed by early Christian sects, simony and indulgence selling in the Middle Ages, papal wars, the crusades, the persecution of Jews and trials of witches, down to pederasty in our own days. We’ve never had a century without some sort of collective travesty.
“We want you to study two millennia of our defects. You’ll need to set aside the random violence- the wars, pillage and rape engaged in by the laity for which we were spectators, and focus on church instigated atrocities.
Then, assuming you’ve been able to digest all that, we want you to try and project what our future transgressions could be.”
“I don’t think I‘m capable of accomplishing that, your Eminence.”
“We have no one better suited. You’ll have access to the entire Vatican library, including the books that are condemned and restricted. This is a labor of years, so you should plan on becoming a Roman.”
Willman burrowed into his research, so deeply buried during the day that his thoughts were in the Latin vulgate. His evening reversions into English and Italian required several minutes. The church has no index of aberrations, and Willman had to speed read through stacks of documents and pick out the blemishes. He identified scores of monstrous jig saw pieces but couldn’t fit the abnormalities into a meaningful pattern.
His fertile imagination let Willman stare at the horror underneath the dry and self-praising descriptions- the unrecorded torture and rape, looting, disease and starvation. The souls wrenched from their bodies for no sin other than being in the way. He was amazed that the church repeatedly held together and healed, a spiritual amoeba able to absorb and neutralize the poisons of persecutions and internal rots.
Willman’s mind spun without traction, his thinking soggy. He felt trapped in a confessional with a series of boastful transgressors. He prayed daily to see a structure behind the vicious acts, to accept that these evil deeds were balanced by great good, but could only painfully absorb the egregious sins.
Months passed without progress. He began to imagine that he heard the cackles of demons rejoicing in his failure, that the butchered dead stood nearby in silent recrimination to his futile efforts. Brother Willman, by nature upbeat, succumbed to depression.
“Niles, tell me about a saint, I need something to counteract the day’s readings.”
“Well, I’m working on St. Jerome, doctor of the church, translator of the bible into the Latin vulgate. He often used a quotation from Vergil to describe hell, ‘The horror and the silences terrified their souls.’ At one point, in Rome, he was accused of having an improper relationship with the widow Paula, but that may have been because he was exposing the wrong doing of many priests. He died in a hermit’s cell near Bethlehem. His head was revered posthumously in two different locations at the same time.”
“’The horror and the silences terrified their souls.’ That’s maybe also true outside of hell.”
“Don’t get morose on me. God has given us ample reading material and Moretti beer.”
Willman’s summaries to the cardinal read like a child’s book report, describing actions with no clue about motivation. Cardinal Benetelli knew the hours and intellect that Willman devoted to his labor, and felt guilty about being unable to offer guidance.
It was while studying the persecution of Spanish witches and heretics that Willman sensed a faint outline, a skeleton with a few bones protruding from the graveyard dirt. And something else. The hint of infernal will that impelled clergy into violators of Christ’s teachings.
Willman circled through the library like a dervish, not just comparing aberrations but interweaving them, creating tapestries in his mind’s eye that blanketed the walls of the rooms. His cringed as he climbed inside the minds of the perpetrators, but delighted as he drew closer to the underlying pattern.
He lived within the scriptorium, and left Niles to drink his daily beer alone. His thoughts rode the collective failings like dragons, and he saw the violence and killings in the present tense, with identifiable faces, through the eyes of the perpetrators. As his reality lurched he intensified his prayers.
Then, like the unfolding of a particularly ugly flower, he saw the pattern, a suppurating tableaux of wounds barely healed before being reopened. The eagle that each day ate away at bound Prometheus’ liver.
Willman felt afraid to put his thoughts into the computer, and wrote them down in Latin. Had he vellum and a quill pen he might have used them. Willman carefully arranged the religious riots and deaths in first century Alexandria, the slaughter of French Huguenots in the sixteenth century, the machinations of often unholy Popes.
He paused several days to let his findings settle into the belly of his mind and made an about face- staring into the future and discerning with great fear the shapes of the atrocities to come. The wars driven by religious hatreds. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents.
The long hours and wracking tension had ground down his health. Willman wrote a guarded note to the cardinal suggesting that he might have a hypothesis and allowed himself three days of bed rest and meditation.
On the fourth day, needing a human voice, he called Niles. They met at the café.
“Niles, I think I’ve detected a pattern.”
“Little Brother, at the pace you were working I assumed you would either have a stroke of genius or just a stroke.”
“I need to think it through a bit more, but I have my hands around it.”
“Willman, just be prudent in your presentation. We sometimes treat new ideas with hostility. Look what happened to Galileo.”
They finished their one beer and parted. Willman was too excited to return to his small apartment and walked back to the Vatican library. He stood in the center of his scriptorium and viewed his many work tables covered with books and scrolls. Like music stands in an orchestra, he thought, and wondered that evil could create such terrifying harmony and melody.
The thought further saddened him, and he turned to leave. After the watchman had let him out and he was pacing down the corridor there was a bell like noise behind him. Willman turned and saw a very large man, backlit in the corridor lighting. His frayed nerves tore inwards from his skin.
“You’re…you’re not allowed in here.”
Willman had blurted this out in third century vulgate. The person before him responded in kind.
“Brother Willman I came to offer consul.”
“Do I know you?”
“Not in the sense you mean. We have observed your work.”
“I work alone, without observation.”
“And yet we are aware of what you surmise. Come with me.”
It was a command and not an invitation. Brother Willman crossed himself and followed the figure through basket weave passageways to a dead end alcove. In the dimness the figure seemed faintly self illuminated.
“You know your way here.”
The figure smiled, “I have visited often.”
“Who are you?”
“Your names are vague and tongue distorted, but two you would recognize are Malach and Raziel.”
“Those are angelic.”
The visitor shrugged. “Perhaps. Lucifer is also an angel. Brother Willman, I must show you the impact of revealing what you think you know.”
“I won’t talk of private church matters.”
“There is no need. Our only wish is to illuminate the consequences of your deductions becoming known to others.
“You see a pattern through a billowing veil. What you infer approaches truth, but your telling of this partial truth will set no one free.”
“But I’m charged with reporting my findings to the church.”
“And would be sinless in so doing, Brother Willman. Most of what is unfortunate is not evil.”
“But these two thousand years of outrages are surely inspired by the devil!”
“Are you so sure? Is not Asmodeus in his efforts self-ish, working for the ruin of individual souls rather than whole churches? Are not calamities and group transgressions rife outside of religious contexts? Do we not accept that life consists largely of pains and disappointments?
“Think in terms of the chess games that you love Brother Willman. What do you do if your opponent makes a move that is unexpected?”
“I would think through the new variables.”
“And have you considered the consequences of your revealing this partial truth? Or have you just assumed that your pearls of wisdom would somehow eliminate the inequities for which the church is the stage? Do not answer immediately- devote at least as much thought to it as you would to a chess game.”
Willman noticed that the presence in front of him did not seem to breathe, but also discovered that he had lost his fear.
“You’re saying that the future would be worse than what I now see?”
“Beloved Brother, do you remember the quotation used by St. Jerome to describe hell?”
“The horror and the silences terrify their souls.”
“If you reveal your findings, you will have discharged your duty. You’ll be spared much personal anguish. But by acting to diminish or eliminate your visions of future evil the church will create even worse alternatives. Your silence spares others painful and useless foreknowledge. But you must abide in self inflicted anguish. You would be uniquely burdened and tormented. You have free will. It is your choice.”
Willman found himself alone in the alcove. He stood motionless for several minutes, then turned and went back to the scriptorium. The guard seemed unsurprised by his reappearance. He walked into the center of the prohibited wing and rehung the mental tapestries that illustrated his solution. Willman impelled his thoughts forward in time, racing through almost endless chains of if-then, if-then. After two hours of motionless thought his shoulders slumped.
Willman had a farewell beer with Niles two weeks later.
“So you’re going back to teaching dead languages to over privileged children?”
“How badly did Cardinal Benetelli beat you up?”
“Not so badly, considering all the time and money involved. When I told him that my note was in error, and that I’d been unable to make any sense of the church’s missteps, he seemed unsurprised. He thanked me for my efforts and asked for my research. I’ve provided him with all the computerized files. He assured me that I have an academic position to return to.
“May real peace be with you Brother.”
“Thanks Niles. You remind me of someone I met recently. I think that’s a compliment.”
As Willman walked slowly back to his apartment he thought of what he hadn’t told Niles. About carefully burning his handwritten notes and stirring the ashes. About the Cardinal’s final comment to him.
“Brother Willman, I should tell you that you were not the first to be given this task, nor the first to admit defeat. Two hundred years ago we assigned the project to a Franciscan priest. After lengthy study and prayer he acknowledged his failure to resolve this issue. He was thanked for his strenuous efforts and assigned to a quiet parish here in Italy. But the work had a malignant effect on him, and he drank himself to death a few years later. We sincerely hope that if you become troubled you will rely on us for help.”
Brother Willman’s apartment, sparse as a monk’s cell, was not welcoming. He sat down in the only chair in the room and opened his breviary. But his vision refused to shift focus from dark images of the future. He knew that sleep would come grudgingly, and would be infested with unshared dread.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty eight years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had a hundred forty stories and poems published thus far, most also reprinted. His collected fairy and folk tales, The Witch Made Me Do It is available from Gypsy Shadow Press, and his mystery/horror novella, The Witches’ Bane from World Castle Publishing.
“Yes, Detective, I know you wish me to tell the story again—about how Mr. Becker disappeared. I doubt, though, that you will believe me more than any of the others, for you have all decided I am mad. While there may be some truth to that, I can assure you I have done nothing to harm this man. If you insist, however, I shall recount the pertinent events that concluded on that most dreadful evening to the best of my ability.
“He was a curious sort—rather odd indeed, this Mr. Becker. Not long before winter, he had moved into the house across the way, an undistinguished brownstone much like any other on the street, bringing with him a minimum of furnishings and housewares, and little in the way of anything besides several boxes of books. By all appearances, he had neither wife nor family, nor friends of any sort as no visitor ever graced his doorstep as far as I could tell. During the first months of his stay, the few times we chanced to meet he said nothing, giving little more than a nod to any greeting no matter how cheerfully given.
“Yet in all, he was a good neighbor, keeping to his own company and causing little concern for those along my quiet street, and although not a friendly sort, was never truly disagreeable. Physically, he was of average height and appearance, and somewhat darkly complected, similar to those who live in the southern part of Europe. Other than his reclusive nature, however, he had no distinctive characteristics of which one might take any particular notice. Nevertheless, something about the man set me ill at ease. As I have said, he was a curious sort.
“The problem, if one would call it that, began in late December when I opened my drapes one evening and looked outside to find it snowing. This was not entirely unexpected as it had been quite cold and cloudy for several days. Through his front window, which sat directly opposite my own, I could see Mr. Becker seated at a desk with a lamp burning brightly in front of him. I watched for a moment, my intrigue about Mr. Becker’s behavior overcoming my manners, and it appeared he was reading out of a rather large book. The volume had an ornate cover suggesting it to be rather old, as those sort of artistic decorations seldom find their way onto modern tomes. Other than that, I could tell little else due to the distance involved. At first, I thought it might be a Bible, yet I had never seen the man attend our nearby church. In fact, I had never seen him out on a Sunday at all.
“He was quite animated as he read from the book, his hands moving about with great alacrity. Then he would walk away as if in disgust, only to return and read again. I was never certain as to why.
“After many weeks of this, I noticed he would leave his house on a regular schedule. Every Tuesday he would depart and not return for at least one hour. I cannot say where he went, but he often carried a small bag or box when he returned to his home. This regular schedule was what gave me the idea to enter his house surreptitiously in an effort to satisfy my curiosity.
“I remember the day I visited his home quite well. It was a rainy evening, and Mr. Becker had just left for whatever usual errand he had to perform. The incessant precipitation aided my bold actions as it assisted in hiding my movements; there were few if any people about in that miserable weather. To further reduce any chance of being caught, I departed out of the rear entrance of my house, made my way around the block, and then to the alleyway behind Mr. Becker’s address, which I deemed a more discrete path than to boldly walk across the street from my own residence. I took a brief glance at the nearby houses, and seeing no one, moved stealthily down the stairway to his cellar door. Knowing that many of the houses employ a simple skeleton key for use in such entrances, I had brought with me the key to my own door, and found that, indeed, the lock opened easily.
“As I had mentioned before, Mr. Becker had brought little with him, and I could see in the dim light that the dank cellar was quite empty. The layout of the house is also similar to my own, only reversed, and so making my way through the cellar to the stairs leading upward required little effort, even in the darkness. I walked up the stairs as quietly as possible for I did not want the neighbors to hear me, and fearing an intruder to be present, alert the police.
“Once on the main level, I went into the sitting room where the book sat open on the desk, just as Mr. Becker had left it. Due to the weather and the lateness of the day, I pulled the curtains to the room, noting their original position, and lighted the desk lamp, adjusting the flame to the lowest possible level at which I would still be able to read.
“The book, being quite old, was bound in leather with metal buckles affixed to straps to keep it closed and thus preserve the pages when not being read. Upon further inspection, I observed that the words in the book were very strange, with many in a script unknown to me. Next to the book were a number of papers with repeated lines that appeared to be an effort at translation, and one sheet held the name of a man, Abdul Alhazred, with which I am not familiar.
“I could tell that the writings on the paper matched a section of the book as if Mr. Becker was trying to determine how to pronounce the words, with the same phrase appearing many times in a slightly altered form. Viewing the corresponding words in the ancient book, I began to mouth them quietly. After several repetitions, I noticed that while I spoke the words I felt odd, as if floating or dreaming, the room seeming to distort and spin. My mind kept repeating the words as if they were the only ones it could send to my lips, with my lips forced to chant those same phrases which held no meaning for my mind. I cannot explain why they set me in such a mood.
“Soon thereafter, I began to hallucinate, or so I thought, with a nebulous distortion appearing in one corner of the room, gaining size as I continued to speak, a shadow that grew larger with each word. Whether this was some demon’s work or only the machinations of my confused brain as the chanting took over my senses, I do not know. Adding to these feelings were the strangest of odors, much like that found deep within the bowels of the Earth, dark and musky, with the foul smell of death hovering around my nostrils.
“Whatever the cause, my straining eyes detected a shape in front of me, moving toward me as if crawling out of a portal from Hell. It was like a man, but dark and rubbery in appearance, and had large unfeathered wings that seemed to twitch and move nervously in coordination with its pointed, serpentine tail. What sight pierced my soul with a cold dagger, however, was its face, for it did not exist, and yet it knew where I was as if there were eyes on that blank visage, turning its head toward the slightest movement or sound. I know the description is difficult for a sane person to accept, but I swear this to be what appeared to me on that night.
“It was at this point that Mr. Becker appeared, apparently returning from his errands. I cannot say if he returned early or if I was in such a state that my mind no longer understood the passage of time, but it is of little consequence to the outcome of these events.
“Mr. Becker entered the room between me and the black creature, his eyes wide with terror. He saw the creature, too, and turned to me screaming, ‘Stop! You must not speak those words! Do not call this creature into our world!’ Although I heard him plainly, I had no control over my actions, my mouth continuing to utter the phrases I had found in the book. He started to reach for me, but the creature took hold of him first, pulling him into the portal. Mr. Becker called out once more, his voice echoing in the void beyond what my eyes could discern, all the while descending into that abyss, the dark, clawed hands of the creature clutching his helpless prey.
“Once the beast had taken poor Mr. Becker, I felt released, no longer needing to recite the words that had accompanied his doom. The portal faded until there was no sign that anything unusual had taken place, with the room becoming silent.
“That, as you know, is where they found me—my finger on the page from which I was reading, my lips moving as if speaking, yet with no sound issuing forth. It seems the neighbors heard Mr. Becker calling out and asked the authorities to investigate. I do not remember any of that, though I have no reason to doubt this explanation. I know the events portrayed are beyond credulity for most, and I do not blame anyone for calling me mad, but these are the proceedings of the evening as best I know them.
“In any case, you can see I have little information that might be of use in your investigation, but I can assure you I have done nothing to harm poor Mr. Becker. His whereabouts are as much a mystery to me as the creature that appeared that evening.
“But it is now close to time for my evening meal and I should probably end this conversation. They shall be bringing it soon; something I can eat with a spoon, no doubt, as knives—or any sort of sharp implement—are strictly forbidden here.
“Then again, perhaps it would be good to have company as I eat, though as your host I can offer you nothing. If you would like to stay, however, and rest as I consume the meager rations my keeper provides, please allow yourself the luxury of the only seating this cell offers; I can make myself comfortable on the floor.
“As you can plainly see, they have allowed me only a minimum of personal belongings to accompany my stay here. They did, however, permit me to keep the book from which I was reading that night, as I seemed to be singularly possessive of it, and with no one else to claim it, no reason appeared for them to deny me this one pleasure. Although I have not opened it since that time, if you wish to join me, I shall read from it again this evening. I imagine it could be most entertaining. Would you like for me to begin?”
K. R. Smith is an Information Technology Specialist and writer, frustrated by his inability to get any meaningful programming code to rhyme and still function properly. While mainly interested in writing short stories of the horror genre, he occasionally delves into poetry, songwriting, and the visual arts. He recently had a poem, The Ballad of Drunken Jack, published in Gothic Blue Book III by Burial Day Books. Links to this and other works can be found on his blog at www.theworldofkrsmith.com or via Twitter at @wokrsmith.
“All I wanted was a hot dog,” Leesa wailed. She looked at the mound of ingredients; mac-n-cheese, cooked bananas, cashews, pineapple, sprouts, on an oversized bun, searching for a meat-filled tube. She then turned to the boy beside her. “Is there a hot dog anywhere in this?” After sliding the orange jacket sleeve up, she poked a finger at the cheesy mess.
“’Course there is.” The boy beamed and brushed dirty-blonde hair out of his eyes. “They’re called Zombiedogs. Aren’t they spastic?”
Zombies. Leesa shivered
“I’m Michael.” He wiped his right hand on the leg of his jeans and stuck it out. “Call me Mikie. My paw said you ain’t been here but a few days.”
Seventy-one hours ago, Leesa had escaped the Zombie infestation, coming to this promised asylum. She envisioned the hordes of undead stumbling through the streets, heard the yowl of hunger that came when they’d cornered a meal, and smelled the putrid scent of fecal matter as perforated bowels evacuated onto the piss covered heated asphalt. Steam rose. Blinking away the horror, she looked at Mikie before turning her attention back to the hot dog.
“I could eat these every day,” Mikie said. “I think it’d be cool to see zombie up close. You know, live. Don’t you?”
Mikie’s words were about to earn him a reprimand when Leesa saw child-like eyes hidden beneath the bill of a brown ball cap, the team name long faded.
He couldn’t be more than 12, she thought probably never left this town.
The bright orange backpack he’d slung over his shoulder in a rush to show her the school playground and where to get the world’s best hot dogs, looked new. His shoes were well worn. He wasn’t thin or obese. His chin, devoid of facial hair.
“You’ve got to see the new video game they just released. ‘Shoot ‘em Dead, in the Head.’ Kinda rhymes, right? If they come out this far, I’m gonna be ready. My paw bought me a six-shooter and my maw shown me how to wield a meat cleaver like they do on the pig farm.”
His face turned serious and Leesa saw worry on his face.
“Think they’ll come out this far?”
This far? She lifted an eyebrow. What would stop them?
The epidemic remained sequestered to a few large cities. So the government claimed. Leesa knew it was only a matter of time before those hopes were smashed along with a few political zombie heads.
“’Couple guys who useda live in the city came up with the idea for these.” Mikie lifted the bun. “Hot dogs covered in stuff that looks like it coulda fallin off a body. This one’s called Chewed Heart. Yours is Carnivorous Flesh. They have humus and pineapples on some of them. A few have sauerkraut and spinach. Next time I’m gonna try one with Vienna sausages. They look like gnarled fingers.”
Bile burned Leesa’s throat as she swallowed. Stepping away from the food-truck hearse, she tripped over the curb, walked toward the schoolyard, and sat hard on a swing. The stench of overcooked meat filled the area accompanied by the sound of the swing eerily screeching.
“Ever seen a real zombie?” Mikie asked with the enthusiasm only a novice could muster.
He stuffed the entire dog, massive mound of disgust, into his mouth smearing the bloody sauce across his arm.
Leesa felt her color drain.
“Too many.” She looked to an angry scratch on her thumb, unsure of when or how she’d acquired it. Three days ago, it was almost healed.
“Have you seen anyone turn?” A twinkle glistened in his eyes. He put his fingers, one by one, in his mouth and sucked the clinging ooze left from his Chewed Heart, pulling each out with a sharp pop. Mixed with the pink of a strawberry and the yellowish mush of banana was the green string from celery.
Averting her eyes, Leesa focused on his red shoes. Her Papi’s face went from red, to green, to grey as the virus claimed host. The image brought her to her feet. Leesa pressed the Carnivorous Flesh at Mikie and crammed her hands deep into the front pocket of her jeans. Feeling the rush of adrenalin, she turned in circles searching for some place near. Safe. Somewhere to hide. She had been in their grasps before and was convinced she could sense the undead-approach of reanimated-hungry-humans fixated on a next meal.
Her stomach protested loudly.
“I saw one,” a voice yelled from across the street. “It was wearing jeans and an orange jacket.”
Leesa looked at Mikie’s backpack, then to the jacket, she’d “borrowed.”
A dog bawled at the end of a lead the man held. “Popeye can smell them a mile away.” He patted Popeye’s hind end as the dog pulled him forward, nose twitching as they came closer.
Mikie shifted foot to foot.
“What about the Brown’s ball cap. My cap.” A hunched old man a few feet behind leaned heavily on a cane clenched in his hand. “’Stole that cap from my truck.”
The sheriff Leesa met yesterday followed the two, man and dog. He carried a shotgun that looked like the Winchester her grandfather kept.
Mikie snatched the cap from his head and stuck it on Leesa’s blonde curls before she could stop him.
“I can’t be caught theif’n again,” he said.
He turned to run and the sheriff lifted the rifle, “Hold it right there.”
Leesa brushed cold sweet from her brow. When she pulled her hand down, in the encroaching darkness, it looked grey.
“We need you to come with us.” The old man tapped his cane in the direction of Leesa and Mikie. “No one wants you to get hurt.”
The dog barked frantically. The man reached for Mikie’s arm. Before Leesa could move, his words, “She woulda turned you boy,” hit. Less than a second later, pellets penetrated her skull and the blast of shotgun echoed into the night.
Lori Fetters Lopez is an author, military wife, mother of three, sister, dog owner, friend, and postal worker. Her completed works include a series of six young adult fantasy, one thriller and one Romantic suspense novel, as well a handful of short stories.