“BEARMIND” by Will Bernardara Jr

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The human mind is like a honeycomb: dripping, taunting – that is how nightmare bears see it. If you’ve not heard of nightmare bears, well, lucky you.

This – my account, my story, my warning – isn’t about me. Not principally. The key mover in this sad, grisly (and grizzly-stuffed) tale is a little girl by the unlikely name of Auriferous Bangs. I promise to get to her in a moment. First though, a bit of data on nightmare bears:

Nightmare bears paw and scratch inside people’s skulls, wreaking havoc, rooting around with their hooked, obsidian claws, oftentimes compelling their hosts to commit horrendously deviant acts. They’re interdimensional. They lumber from universe to universe, trudging through both physical, metaphysical, and indescribable planes of unknowable makeup.

Auriferous, a rather morbid little girl, once told me that nightmare bears had been responsible for the “bodies-in-barrels” murders in Australia, the rape and killing of Tori Stafford, 9/11, the 1999 Hello Kitty murder in Hong Kong, the unimaginably brutal “Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs” killings in Ukraine, as well as a ghoulish bunch of others I’d rather forget.

I met Auriferous at Corkboard’s, a children’s-book store that sold handsome, colorful volumes as well as bookworm-friendly arts & crafts. I’d gone there to chat up the owners, whom I knew rather well, and to inspect the H section to insure that it had a healthy stock of my latest book. I write children’s books for a living, and my ex-wife Enid illustrates them. And before you jump to conclusions, I’ll tell you straight out: I’m not a senile, doddering storyteller so far as this account is concerned. I’m no dotty prevaricator. This is as true as the air you breathe, this short tale I’m going to unravel.

My name is Duncan Hounding. If you have children, perhaps you’ve heard of me. I wrote Cathead Manna, for which I won the Newbery, as well as Scarf’s Gigglefest, Goblin Loam, and the popular pop-up book Mimsy’s Farm & the Lollipop Enigma.

I first noticed the girl by the C’s. She was pensively scrutinizing a large annotated edition of Carroll’s Alice, her elfin face scrunched into a portrait of keen concentration. She dressed like that TV character Punky Brewster: red sneakers with yellow laces, pink-plastic reading glasses, multicolored barrettes in blondish-brown hair that had gnarled some time ago into dreadlocks – Auriferous had a phobia of shampoo. Her jean jacket was rackety with buttons and pins for cartoon beasts and silly computer music.

“Do you enjoy Carroll?” I asked, standing nearby with my cane poised, wearing my token gray trench coat.

“Dodgson,” she said, not looking up from the book of discussion. “Charles Lutwidge. I don’t acknowledge pen names.” Knowledgeable, I thought, for a girl of, at most, twelve or thirteen. A touch ironic too, considering the probable fictive nature of the name Auriferous Bangs. (“No relation to Lester,” Auriferous would often quip in a deadpan tone.) Much later, the newspaper would inform me that Auriferous’s birth name was Autumn Lowe.

She seemed to want solitude, so I quietly hobbled over to the shelf supporting my work to find, satisfyingly, a healthy stock of Hounding titles. I was a second away from heading to the front of the store to ask Vera, my favorite cashier, if Clay, the owner, would be interested in my doing a reading and signing in the near future, when the girl turned to me and said, “You’re Duncan Hounding. The author. You live in this neighborhood.”

Pleasantly surprised, I smiled and said, “Guilty as charged.” Among local moms, I was a minor celebrity. Auriferous, though, was not a mom and a little old for my books. She must’ve read about me in the paper or seen my photo on a dust jacket.

“Do you like books, young lady?” I asked, and found myself feeling oddly fearful of her response. She seemed to hum with a kind of cold intellect. I suspected criticism from her could be ugly.

“I’ve never read you. I’m a little old for pop-ups.”

I hemmed and hawed a bit. “Well,” I said. “I’d like to think my little tales can be appreciated by certain older readers as well as the tykes. They have some subtext, you know, a little meat stirred in…” I trailed off, sensing the girl no longer cared to hear my blather. She retrieved her powder-blue backpack from the floor. The pack had four stuffed animals sewn to its outside. Ratty, aged things with button-eyes dangling by string, brown fur torn and bleeding white cotton. Teddy bears.

“You sewed those bears on there yourself, did you? My ex-wife liked to sew. She made quilts.” I had no idea what I was trying to accomplish with this inane small talk.

“It’s not art,” the girl said, hiking the pack over one shoulder. It looked heavy. I didn’t know it then, but she’d filled the backpack with books from the shelves. Auriferous was a chronic, efficient shoplifter.

“Decoration then, not art. It’s very, um, cool. Boss, I mean,” I said, feeling deferential to this kid, and not mock deferential either. There was something otherworldly about her.

Auriferous stared at me with her honey-colored eyes. I imagined flies frozen in those eyes like amber. Her look bordered on hateful.

“The teddies aren’t decoration, Hounding. They’re charms. Apotropaic talismans.”

My chin must’ve bonked my loafers. I am a professional writer and had no clue as to what apotropaic meant. I supposed the girl was a child prodigy or spelling bee champ.

I should’ve left then. Unfortunately, I didn’t. And had I left, would things have gone differently? No way to know. I doubt it would’ve mattered.

“They’re after you, aren’t they?” the girl said in an urgent whisper. I was alarmed. Her neutral, apathetic demeanor abruptly turned into a kind of horrible compassion, as if she were a cancer patient detecting the disease in another. I felt frightened. Perhaps the child was mad? One of those death-worshipping tots you see on the nightly news, skipping into a school building with an AR-15 and blowing holes in their classmates.

“Who, my dear?” I smiled, hoping to calm her. “No one’s after anybody.”

The girl’s intensity dissipated then. She seemed to shrink by several inches, tension gone. “Oh,” she said. “It hasn’t happened yet. It will though, Hounding, it will. I can always tell.”

“Tell what?”

“The plagued know the about-to-be-plagued, Hounding. I was where you are once, you know. Before.”

The girl unzipped her pack and ferreted out an orange cube of Post-it-style notes emblazoned with Japanimated neon-green, black-sunglasses-wearing lizards. She scribbled down her name, address, and phone number with a glitter-enhanced marker/pen thingy. I reluctantly took the proffered note.

“Call me when it starts,” she said, turning to leave the store with her stolen goods. Then she stopped, remembering something, and, in a confessional tone said, “You’re the third. They mark you like you’re territory. Just like any other animal does. You’re marked. Like a tree. I can smell them on you.”

I looked at the noxiously colorful note: Auriferous Bangs.

“Is this a prank or something?” I said. “Something you kids do these days to befuddle grown-ups?”

Auriferous shot me a lithic glare that silenced me instantly. She strode over to the shelf that held my books, deposited one of each title into her pack, and said, “Call me, Hounding. You’re going to need my help.”

Of course she left Corkboard’s without paying a dime.

I should’ve wadded up the note and tossed it in the trash. I was going to. Though an author of children’s books, a lot is made these days of child predators. I’d never accepted a child’s information unless the info came from the mother. And yet something made me hesitate; I pocketed the note.

A week later it started.

 

The subconscious is the Black Forest. In the subliminal murk is where the bears shit, fuck, growl, hunt. This is not metaphor. Your brain, your spongy gray matter, is a woodland, and the neurons’ electrical impulses are its lightning storms. The bears like the dark and the moisture in there. They like it a great deal.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a few defenses against them. Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime tea – yes, the box with the pajama-clad, snoozing bear on it – dulls the bears’ nighttime activity. Do not consume honey or have porridge in your fridge. And of course, keep a lot of stuffed bears around your house. They act as decoys, somehow. Distractions. None of this is infallible, but it’s better than nothing.

 

One week after meeting Auriferous, I stood in my sunlit kitchen. It was 7 AM on a Tuesday. My coffeemaker burbled and gargled, its black oil rasping into the pot. I splayed the morning newspaper out on the counter and skim-read a poignant editorial about victims of bird flu. The tops of my hands on the paper were illuminated by the bright sunlight spilling through the alcove’s window. I thought about all the death in the world, the disease and famine, and that is when my hands dimmed to a shade of gray. Inexplicably, the kitchen had darkened. The sun still shone boldly through the glass, yet it no longer affected the inside of my house. This defied certain photonic laws. The sunlight seemed to stop dead at my windows as if by some invisible tint.

Beneath the aroma of fresh brew, I detected a hint of wet leaves, damp mulch, soil, earth. And, growing in strength, a foul wave of rot and filth.

I turned from the counter to the kitchen and the connected living room. The whole house was cobwebbed in a very strange, indefinable darkness. The light bulbs hadn’t dimmed. They, like the sun, seemed to have simply lost their effect. Some bits of darkness were more disturbing than others. The chairs around my kitchen table began to resemble eerily gnarled trees. I spotted adumbrations of branches blotting the ceiling. I believe I whimpered. My heart felt pinched.

There is not a thing cute or natural about nightmare bears. They’re resoundingly un-Pooh-like. Their hot breath reeks of moldered flesh and bluebottles buzz forever about their bloodshot eyes, wet-black snouts, and diseased heads, like halos of putrefaction. They are covered paw to head with a revolting layer of feces and spoiled blood.

That morning, when reality first showed itself to me to be disreputable, I didn’t, thankfully, actually see a nightmare bear. I’ve seen them since, at a distance, but not that morning. I did, that morning, smell them, however. I gagged at the rancid-honey-and-dead-blood stink caked to their hides. I heard the buzzing of the flies. They were horribly near.

I broke out in a fear-sodden funk, certain I was going to suffer a heart attack. Dizziness nearly toppled me. I braced myself by planting both hands on the countertop.

Then, quicker than it had come, the darkness and inklings of forest vanished, along with the reek of the bears. The kitchen was again glorious with light and the odor of fresh coffee. Or so I thought.

When I raised the cup of coffee to my lips to sip from it, I noticed the bottom of the mug was filthy with dirt and leaves.

 

I did not sleep well that night after the kitchen incident. I had a nightmare of being pursued through the woods by colossal, furred beasts. They cornered me in a small hole in a tree that I’d squeezed myself into. The hole became like a blender as the black claws frenzied in and began tearing me to bits. I woke in a state of absolute horror.

What’s worse, I had a signing to do the following morning at a bookstore called Springtime of Life, a forty-five-minute drive from my house. I felt drained and shaky, completely unenthused about meeting the public. I knocked back a few energy drinks (the coffeemaker gave me the creeps) and hit the road with a box of my books.

The bookstore was located next to a Ramada Inn. It was a horridly stressful signing. All I remember is sweating and shaking, my mind frantic, feeling as though this ordinariness was a distant memory, a shade of a former life that had been altered forever by the incident in the kitchen. I felt they were waiting for me to come home. To feed them.

I signed book after book, all mothers and their children. I don’t even recall what the bookstore looked like. When I glanced up to see a bear through the bookstore’s large front window, I nearly suffered a coronary. The bear lumbered through the parking lot toward the Ramada, followed by a human-sized squirrel and an equally large unicorn. It wasn’t until later that the owner of Springtime of Life, a woman named Acacia, informed me that the Ramada Inn was hosting what is called a Furry convention. Furries, as you may know, are a subculture of oddballs who dress as anthropomorphic animals and I suppose have sex with each other. The bear, squirrel, and unicorn were merely costumes. I felt like a fool.

 

I met with Auriferous a total of three times during the week after the frightful kitchen experience. We would meet in nearby Penny Park and she would school me about the nightmare bears, telling me what little she knew. I’d really rather not recount our meetings in detail. It’s simply too painful in light of what happened.

Sunday morning I woke to a neighbor’s lawnmower – I’d been dreaming and mistook the mower for a growl. A bear’s growl. I kicked off the sheets and went to the kitchen to look around for some tea. The kitchen and living room by this time were cluttered with protective teddy bears. I have a landline, and as I brought a pan of water to a boil I noticed the answering machine’s single red eye blinking silently. I had a message. From Auriferous.

Thinking about the message now makes me cringe. I took it for understandable paranoia and not the precursor to impending tragedy it turned out to be.

This is her message, verbatim, copied from the answering machine tape:

She spoke in a terrified whisper, which was unlike her, for she was a fearless little girl. She sounded as though she didn’t want anyone to hear her –

“Hounding, you need to come here. Don’t… no. Don’t come. Don’t come. They’re in my head, Hounding. They got in. My fucking mother bought something, some honey or something. I don’t know. I don’t know. It isn’t safe here, Hounding. I feel them behind my eyes. The flies that are on them all the time – I feel the flies buzzing behind my eyes. In my head. And I feel claws in my head. Claws and teeth, Hounding. They’re doing something to my brain. I won’t… wait. Wait. My father has – “

She hung up midsentence. I didn’t call because I didn’t want to aggravate the poor girl’s state – we rarely discussed anything other than the bears. I drank my tea, hoping she’d settle down and call back later.

But then I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something about Auriferous’s tone, its frayed perturbation, made me dress and rush out of the house to my Datsun. I fumbled the car keys and had to stoop to retrieve them. I drove recklessly for the first time since turning seventy.

 

 

The Lowe house was a blue ranch-style house with white trim. A bit rundown but welcoming and comfy. I’d never met Auriferous’s parents.

I parked across the street along the curb and walked to the driveway. The house felt unoccupied. I can’t explain why. Have you ever sensed emptiness in a structure prior to entering it? That is the feeling I had then.

I called hello through the front door’s screen. “Is anyone home?” I said, knowing the answer. I knocked several times before deciding to let myself in.

The house was dim. I passed through a laundry room, in which the washer was churning. I smelled burnt toast and, beneath it or mixed with it, rather, something sharp and smoky. I came to a living room strewn with leaves and rocks, as if someone had dumped shovelfuls of forest into the house. Flies droned and whizzed about the room. I hurried through the living room and into a hall, my heart hammering. “Auriferous?” I called. No answer.

In the first bedroom on the right I found their bodies. Auriferous’s parents, May and Bram. They’d been in bed when they were killed. From the neck up, Bram’s head had been obliterated into a ruined pulp. A sheet of blood highlighted the wall behind the headboard. May, beside the body of Bram, had two holes in her stomach the size of grapefruits. Two hoses of intestine protruded grotesquely from the lower of the two wounds. The sheets and mattress were splattered, soaked in blood. The room stank of cordite and shit. A 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun lay on the carpet at the foot of the bed. Three spent cartridges were visible beside it.

I stumbled backward into the hall, mumbling “no” repeatedly, like a mantra, unconsciously. “Auriferous!” I screamed, and shakily made my way into a smaller bedroom. Inside was a crib. The mobile above it was bloodied from arterial spray. I peered into the crib to find the butchered corpse of Auriferous’s one-year-old brother, Caleb. The baby looked like a psychopath’s idea of a pin cushion – every knife and fork and peeler from the house’s kitchen drawer had been stabbed into the baby and left there, the utensils projecting gruesomely upward at skewed angles.

I screamed again and pounded my shaking palms on the crib’s rods. As hyperbolic as it sounds, I felt my soul shatter.

Auriferous’s bedroom was littered with chunks of tree bark and the flies were heaviest there. The stuffed teddies had been shredded to fluff and scraps. There was no sign of the girl. There was a box of shotgun shells on the nightstand.

I phoned the police from the house’s landline. I waited for them on the porch, unable to stand being in that abattoir of a house for a moment longer. I was questioned at length down at the precinct and released four hours later. I went home, drained and queasy.

 

The homicide detectives determined that May, Bram, and baby Caleb had indeed been murdered by Auriferous. How that little girl managed to wield that ugly shotgun I’ll never know. What isn’t known is who (or what) killed Auriferous. The investigators found Auriferous’s body – what was left of it – in the woods behind the Lowe house, about a mile in. She’d been torn to pieces.

The murders at the Lowe’s have become the subject of much local speculation and macabre interest in the last year or so. Children point at the house on their way to school and tell ghastly tales about the mad little girl who shotgunned her parents and stabbed her baby brother to death in his crib.

As for me, I’m hanging on. I drink my Sleepytime tea every evening and buy new stuffed bears each week. These safety measures are starting to lose their effectiveness though, I’m afraid. I’ve begun seeing them in the corners of rooms, in the dark. They’re slavering and breathing their rank breath into my bedroom. They hunch over me while I sleep, eager to root around in my mind and compel me to do horrendous things to the children in town.

I don’t know how much longer I can resist them. They’re terribly hungry.

 

Will Bernardara Jr. is an artist and co-founder of the occult, criminal collective The Tender Wolves Society. His stories have appeared in places such as Broadswords and Blasters, The Society of Misfit Stories, Underbelly Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, and elsewhere. His debut novel, America, was published in 2018 by voidfront press. 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bill.voynich.5

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“Pantomath” by Andrew Davie

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“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

       – Thomas Gray

 

 

Frank’s power of telepathic perception was no longer in his control. Initially, he needed to be close to someone; however, the radius of his ability to read other people’s minds had grown exponentially, and he was bombarded with overlapping fragments of thoughts coming from neighbors. Emotions now come inexorably linked to each outside thought. Anger, pain, loss, happiness; it fluctuated, and Frank latched on crying or laughing involuntarily.    

The sonic vibration left him a spastic mess careening around his apartment. To the outsider, it would appear he was the disciple of some Pentecostal preacher speaking in tongues and writhing around as an embodiment of “Himself.” All that was missing were the venomous snakes and strychnine.

Frank awoke at four in the morning covered in a foul sheen of body fluids, a carcass of used thoughts and emotions.

He decided he needed help to battle his condition.

Curtis always imagined the song Deterioration, by Noothgrush.

   “Worthless, lifeless being, beaten beneath the strain.”

The ominous first few words entered Frank’s mind and resonated within his auditory canals. It was as if the song was a product of his own synaptic firing. The tempo increased as Curtis made his way closer to the door. The intensity filled Frank’s head.   

There had been other examples, but historically these manifestations of telepathy had been diagnosed as symptoms of previously existing ailments. The afflicted people had been locked away and studied by covert paramilitary organizations, executed during religious persecution, or worse.

Curtis had been a friend, but any benevolence he may have had had long since vanished. Over time, he had been able to shield his thoughts and manipulate Frank through commands.

The previous night, Curtis made Frank do an interpretive dance by merely imagining it. Imposing his will, he flung Frank around the room. “Nijinsky in Captivity,” he called it. Two nights before, he had Frank re-enact the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter. Frank’s anguished cries and pleading were his own, not fabricated by Curtis’ ruminations.

Now, however, Frank’s usefulness had come to an end.

As a child, Frank thought it would be euphoric; the ability to read people’s minds, know all of the answers; see the truth. He discovered, quickly, the horrors of knowing the truth.

Half-asleep, exhausted, Frank stirred. Mental and physical faculties were operating at a single percentage, he barely processed the new information. A few houses down, from where he was stored in Curtis’ basement, Frank sensed the thoughts of Mr. Smith, recently back from an excursion to Africa.

Trouble differentiating reality anymore, in his weakened state, Frank suddenly felt the satisfaction which accompanied Mr. Smith’s nicotine buzz at the intake of his Marb Red, the co-opted sensations register in Frank’s cortex. More importantly, within milliseconds, he was able to draw upon Mr. Smith’s other abilities: small arms, edged weapons, hand to hand combat, tactics. Mr. Smith, practically a manual for an efficient soldier. Frank felt a sense of renewed vigor.

Memories of atrocities perpetrated in Rwanda, Kosovo, Columbia, were so clear Frank could have been the protagonist of those envoys. Executing Mozambique drills, laying suppressive fire, compromising for wind resistance; all now seared into the subconscious.

   “Worthless, lifeless being, beaten beneath the strain.

The tumblers fell into place, and the door opened.  Curtis turned on the light, and his smile disappeared. Frank’s newfound confidence, his Metamorphoses, is not lost on Curtis who though he can’t tell for sure the details sees the change.

Curtis attempted to enforce his will. Frank felt enveloped in quicksand and burst blood vessels in his face maintaining the connection with Mr. Smith. Like a mime fighting against a strong wind, Frank slowly made headway toward Curtis.

Initially annoyed, now fearful, Curtis realized Frank’s will was intact. He lost some of his grip and allowed Frank to gain ground. Curtis attempted to flee, but his legs were swept out from under him. He landed on the floor with an audible thud and cried out in pain. He fully relinquished his grasp. Frank felt Smith walk away, so he grabbed Curtis’ leg and dragged him down the hall in the same direction.

Curtis looked up at Frank and begged for mercy.

For a moment, Frank imagined granting clemency.

The thrashing which followed continued for a full minute even after Curtis was dead and Smith long gone from the vicinity.

Frank cleaned himself up. It took a Herculean effort to maintain focus. The symptoms have nearly rendered him in a vegetative state. Thoughts bombarded him from every direction an orchestration of pure sound. On more than one occasion, he dropped to his knees and clutched at his head; blood flowed freely from every orifice. Out the front door, energized by the cold air he trudged forth into the night.

Eventually, the circle will grow big enough to the point where he will not be able to escape his ability. Freed from his captivity, for now, he knows he’s living on borrowed time, and the victory against Curtis was of the Pyrrhic variety.

Stopping on a street corner, unsure of his direction, he finally spotted salvation.

It will be quick; Frank does not know if it will be painless, but at this point he just desired peace. His footsteps slowed as he got closer to the building. Random thoughts entered his mind crashing like ocean waves. He stumbled. The pain was unbearable. With one last effort, Frank the telepath climbed the steps leading to the front door of the building.

He readied himself for death and opened the door to the public library.

 

Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. He’s also taught in New York, Virginia, and Hong Kong. In June of 2018, he survived a ruptured aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His work can be found on his website: asdavie.wordpress.com

“Five Trees” by B F Jones

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The neighbours aggravated him a couple of years ago, implying he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. He had put barbed wire on top of his chicken wire fence to prevent wildlife from getting into his garden and they had mocked him. Completely unacceptable.

So he’s been getting his revenge, in installments, one sporadic act of vandalism at a time.

This month, the trees are taking it.

There are five small trees at the front of their house, screening it from the road.

He takes the first one down on a Friday evening. The house is empty, he’s seen the neighbours walk out with another couple, all dolled up.

He waits till night falls and then, under the light of the full moon, starts sawing, excitement spreading through his limbs, pumping him up to all extremities, including the tip of his very small penis. An erected man, dealing with an erected tree. Hard wood and hard wood. Oh yeah. It takes under 3 minutes to saw it, snap it and ditch it into the ravine across the road.

He rushes back home and tears off his Y fronts. He’s feeling so tough; Marcia is about to get it real nice. She might not be in the mood but hey ho, who’s the boss.

She’s not looking her best under this pale moonlight and he doesn’t care for her chin, or absence there off, or the slight oniony smell coming out with each of her sleepy exhalations.

He flips her over. Much better.

He comes back for the second tree a few days later, much later in the night, after having made sure the neighbours are asleep. He’s looking forward to the noise of the saw as it bites into the wood, the poking of his penis against his trousers, and doing Marcia again. 


Saw, snap, ditch, boink.

The third tree doesn’t provide as much excitement as the first two, mainly mild irritation to have to wake up in the middle of the night again, and painful arms from dragging the tree across the road. And Marcia is away for a few days. She hasn’t bothered calling to say what her plan was and he hasn’t checked on her. Not his job. He wanks thinking of anyone but her and goes to bed.


He decides to come back for the fourth tree the following night as he’s seen the neighbours taking pictures and hovering over their front lawn. They might be onto him so he needs to act quick and finish the job before they have time to do anything else.

When he gets to the fourth tree, it’s already gone. Neatly chopped at the base, just like he’s been operating. A thick cloak of confusion wraps around him. What is happening? This is in no way fun. He walks across the road and inspects the ditch. The fourth tree is there, nestled with the others in their open grave. He comes back home aghast. Did he take this tree down already? Is there a copycat in the neighbourhood? He wishes he could ask Marcia but she hasn’t come home yet and still hasn’t called. Bitch.

Better stay put for a week, looks like someone might be onto him. So he goes back to his writing of complain letters to various industries and hassling other neighbours, wishing he hadn’t punched Marcia the other day, wondering when she’d come back. She always did.

The Perkins have been watching their trees disappear with a mix of startlement and fascination. Retrospectively, they wish they hadn’t taken the fourth tree down. Though they enjoyed the idiot’s sheer confusion, they do regret the delay in his return. They wish he would come back already to find the note pinned to the fifth tree, reading: “We have your wife, replace the trees if you want to see her again.”


They’ve been stuck with the unpleasant lady wailing in the cellar for a couple of weeks now and that extra mouth to feed and that piss pot to empty have been nothing but a burden.

B F Jones lives in Surrey with her husband, 3 children, and cat. She has stories in (or soon in) STORGY magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Soft Cartel, and Spelk Fiction.

 

“The Night I Spent with Pre-Accident Montgomery Clift” by Anthony Dragonetti

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A little order, please. I’m on Wikipedia trying to get my arms back around my thoughts so I can smother them, but my muscles are wasting. There has to be something new to know. Some factoid I haven’t already committed to memory.

My body is failing me. It’s terminal. It started in the stomach, like so many things do. If I had a CT scan, I’d show you. I don’t have the money, but I know. It began like ink being spilled in a bowl of water, blooming tendrils reaching into my soft meat. I feel it every time I eat, and the food gets pushed back up into my throat. My central nervous system has been compromised by now, no doubt.

I’ve been twitching more. My leg just jerked. A heart palpitation. No, I have to burp. I’ve been burping a lot. I keep a fecal journal for color and consistency. I piss in a glass to keep an eye out for blood and foam. It always foams in the toilet, but I’m told you can’t go by that. I only have a few glasses and I forget which one I use for piss, so I make sure I wash them all in very hot water.

My shit has been floating for the past couple of days. It looks lighter than usual. I turn my phone’s flashlight on it to really get a look. I’m Googling “clay colored” because I don’t know what clay colored actually is, but I know it’s a possible sign of bile duct obstruction. Hepatitis. Cirrhosis. Pancreatic cancer.

I drink too much, I know that. I did this to myself. I knew it would catch up to me. I get up and look in the mirror, pulling my cheeks down away from the whites of my eyes to check for jaundice. Is my skin more yellow than yesterday? Could be the light. I’m naturally pale as it is.

I finish up in the bathroom and sit in my bed to watch TV. I scroll through the channels. The words in the guide don’t mean anything. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I forget what I wanted to watch. Memory loss and twitching can mean a brain tumor. If you cut me open, I’d be a single carcinogenic mass, blackened inflammation. How do you donate your body to science?

I think I’m starting to smell, but sometimes I imagine BO. I haven’t left the house in a few days, but I shower. Three times a day if I feel like it. The running water is nice when I’m anxious. If I go out, people will know I smell.

The Misfits is playing on TCM. A black and white movie in the dark is cozy and I need cozy, considering my condition. I turn it on the moment the camera is fixated on Montgomery Clift and his broken face. There are hints of beauty still there, at least on his right side, but the drugs and alcohol were eating away at that too. I feel you, Monty. I’m being eaten, too. Neither of us can remember our lines.

I pick up my phone because I’m spooked. This is a sign. A handsome, bisexual guy dies tragically at a young age after years of suicide. That’s me. They’ll find me here, like this. He had so much potential, they’ll say. So cute, too. Now look at him. Yellow, in a U shape from rigor mortis.

I’m having chest pain. I think I feel it in my left arm. I reach for the aspirin next to my bed and chew a couple. That’s good for heart attacks. I need to take the edge off. I open my phone and search for pictures of pre-accident Montgomery Clift. Impossibly handsome. How could someone like that have lived? And died?

I shove my hand into my shorts. I wince when my fingers touch the raw, tender flesh. I’ve been extra nervous lately. I look up at the TV to see Montgomery Clift in a cowboy hat, half his face paralyzed. Everyone in this movie died shortly after filming it. I shut off the TV and get comfortable, looking at him on my phone before death took root inside of him. Maybe it started in his stomach, too.

Monty, stay with me for a few minutes while we’re both beautiful and our bodies work.

 

Anthony Dragonetti writes fiction and criticism. He lives in New York City. You can read more here: http://neutralspaces.co/anthony_dragonetti/
Twitter @dragoneddied

“Maria, at the Kitchen Table” by Tyler Dempsey

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Detectives. Police. 1:45 a.m. husband yelled her name, wake up. Deaf. She kind of hears.

 

Greased hair, husband rolls pamphlet reflexively grabbed when detective showed photo. Rolls it. “Poor girls,” thinks Maria.

 

Age six, Maria resembled Christmas present in orange and white blanket. “Her salve,” grandpa called deafness. Orange, white blanket. Soft, enormous sunset and landscapes running hill-like.

 

Shaken arm. “Is that right?” Husband nodding. Detective’s lips. “That right, ma’am?” Sweat splits husband’s eyes. Blue, now black. She nods. German Shepherds pull police through on ropes. I should make a pot of coffee, thinks Maria.

 

Thinks Maria, “Salve.”

 

Maria, at the kitchen table. Tall detective whispers clean-shaven detective glances husband rolling pamphlet, dripping sweat. ConversationsMaria stops reading lips. Teeters on memory. “What’s her problem?” Gestures at Maria, palm flat.

 

Housekeeping, motels. Nights. People go in, out. In, out. Laundry bags feeding hopes, dreams, and sins accompany Maria on metro. 64th St. Laundromat. T.V.’s loop soaps, magazines displaying large-breasted women. Boss dodging expenses. Once, she found a hundred dollar bill on a bed, folded smaller, smaller. Size of a Tic-Tac.

 

Maria, at the kitchen table detective takes stance standing opposite husband raises photo mouths, “Surveillance videos show a ’57, station wagon, turquoise, white. Around where they found the body. Not a lot of white, turquoise, ‘57 station wagons in Bloomington. We believe it’s your station wagon, Mr. Allens.” Aunt Griselda’s German Shepherd Max. Maria’s little kid hands, little, exploring Max’s coat. Dandelion-fur erupting sunlit air. Detective nods, lifts coffee mug picture of Goofy she got at Disney Land.

 

Father opened mare’s neck. Dry rip. Barn burst smell of hay and life.  Maria on knees, dress to face sobbing. Eight. “Old enough,” her father assured Maria’s mother, Maria. Next year divorced. Feed too expensive. House too expensive. Car, expensive.

 

Maria, at the kitchen table, detectives levitate further over table toward husband saying, “We picked them up. 8 o’clock, Sunday.” Maria thinks, “We?” “Said we’s goin the liquor store, they’d like to come along.” “We had to, save the foal,” father said. Foal-shaky-legs. Afterbirth slick. Hay creased Maria’s face. Crimson cheeks. Barn wood on back. “What happened next?” Detectives parallel floor three feet above kitchen table, hold notebooks.

 

Maria’s head in horse’s blood. “Renewed by Holy Spirit.” Let me show you something. Turquoise, white. Chrysanthemums. After bowling ice cream in station wagon kid on bike Maria screaming. Clunk, scrape, bike metal. Hand to mouth looking side mirror kid not moving bike tire spinning. Lateral, warble, newly bent bike tire spinning. Maria thought, “To save the foal.” Husband licked ice cream veining down arm.

 

Maria, at the kitchen table. Scene with detectives, kitchen table she envisioned before. Different reasons. Baby’s head in horse’s blood. Maria. Detectives quiet, once ceased levitating, and the clean-shaven one nods at the other one and they’re nodding. And they’re doing that now. In the kitchen. Red hat spinning on hood of station wagon. Beautiful, little kid hat. Turquoise. White.

 

Maria . . .

 

Tyler Dempsey was a finalist in Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings competitions, has work forthcoming in Soft Cartel Magazine and appears in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Five:2:One Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Gone Lawn, amongst others. Find him on Twitter @tylercdempsey or at: http://tylerdempseywriting.com

“The Light Around the Shadow Is Never Ready For the Night” by Donald Ryan

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The ceiling flickered psychedelic blue gray hues. Tinnitus from all directions muffled the sound of his heartbeat to the stillness of breathing. He only imagined an echo dancing in fusion. In and out. Free over his chest.

“I had a long day at work,” she said, wrapped around his arm, her voice the only part of her awake.

“I’m sure you did.” The rhythm slowed to the other side of the room, resting like low tide before stopping. “I know you did.”

“Can we finish the movie tomorrow?”

“Whenever you want.”

“No. Never mind. You can finish it.”

He lolled his head but failed to rock the ceiling back into motion.

“I’ll wait for you. I’ve seen it before.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. It’s been awhile, but I remember it.”

“No.” She massaged her nose into his upper arm.

“Yes.” He powered off the TV.

She was asleep.

 

 

He was dreading the coming days. The arrival. Their arrival. All unavoidable. Like mortality and the never knowing.

 

 

He woke. Or was he asleep? Lately through the dark there’d been no way to tell. He slowly shifted and tilted her off his arm. The vibration from creaky springs stirred her awake.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m thirsty.”

“Mmm.”

 

 

She was up before him, as was usually the case. She sat in her spot on the kitchen counter, her ritualistic morning tea hot in her hands. She watched through the glasses she only wore before the day began as he entered from the hallway, the hair on the right side of his head tangled every way but down.

“There any coffee?” Squinting out the fluorescents, he made out her silhouette pointing to the overhead cabinet.

“Where it always is.”

“Right.”

He poured out the remnants of yesterday’s offering. She refused to clean the stained ring two cups high from the bottom, the appliance only he used and immediately forgot daily. The pot forever sullied. His method of swirling water never removing the tinge.

“Did you sleep?”

“Soundly as always.”

“Are you nervous?”

He poured grounds into the filter. She took a sip of tea.

 

 

He didn’t hear her come in but felt her presence.

“Do you mind?”

“No.” He peeked around the curtain. Shampoo rippled down his face. She examined a nonexistent spot on her poked out and twisted chin.

“You shouldn’t pick at that.”

“I know.”

 

 

“Don’t wear the blue one with that shirt,” she said while he still had one foot in the closet. “Actually, don’t even wear a tie.”

“But it’s mandatory.”

“Then let’s skip work.”

“That’s what they expect us to do.”

“Then let’s not disappoint them.”

“Let’s not be predictable.” He draped the yellow tie around his neck.

“Forget it. Wear the blue one.”

 

 

They never made it to work. Instead they got biscuits. But the morning offering remained on the soggy end of a paper sack. The two parked at the open end of an overpriced parking deck, and she straddled him in the driver’s seat. Little honks occasionally echoed around the garage.

 

 

“The sunrise wasn’t as beautiful this morning as I was hoping.”

“Maybe you were over anticipating it.”

“Maybe.” She slipped her strap of underwear back up her skirt.

He glanced into the rearview mirror, disappointed by the black bags packed under each eye.

“I’m sorry.”

She squeezed his knee and smiled. “You should be.”

 

 

The sun, excruciating, punched though the windshield. He dropped the visor like she had done. The arm along the tracks mandated they stop, and the bells went off around them in tune with the lights. A jackpot of false hope. Little vibrations burrowed up from the road. Loose items rattled in the car. The train was otherwise silent, absolute and serene.

“I should have ran it.”

“Maybe.”

“Where do you think it ends?”

“Does it matter?”

“We’re going to find out eventually.”

“And when we do it won’t be together. We’ll go in separate direction.”

“I know.”

The tie was choking him. He took it off.

 

 

For dinner they cooked frozen hamburger and put the patties on toast. She drizzled mustard on the bread and spread a glob of ketchup on the meat. He used what was left of the ketchup, splattering the last where it landed. They sat on the floor in front of the TV, sound muted, radio up. The news crooned top 40 hits. They wanted to laugh, but they chewed, disappointed, mouths full.

 

 

He brushed his teeth while she flossed. He never flossed. He should have when there was no time like the present. But it was too late for that now. He spat the foam down the drain.

 

 

They came sometime before twilight.

She screamed awake into the nightmare but didn’t make a sound as they led her from the room. Natural tranquil willed bravery. Her soul stronger than his. He tried this. He held out his hands, palms up without fight. But panic, faulty flight filled panic, thrashed and pleaded against the ground as they dragged him from the room.

Through anger and tears, he watched a mosaic of her step into a van, separated from him and the one they threw him into. The door slammed, the latch clicked, switching off the light around the shadow. A shade darker than the night.

 

Donald Ryan’s words have or will appear in Cleaver, Unbroken, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. He’s a full-time part-time librarian in the GA Pines. T: @dryanswords / IG: @dryansimages

“The Strange Tale of Cunt-Face McGee” by Rick White

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Ezekiel got the letter through the door of his family’s pod on the first day of spring. Of course no one sent letters any more, except for the Corporation, and only then in exceptional circumstances. This particular circumstance was not particularly exceptional (everyone got the same letter on their 16th birthday). However, the fact it was sent by the Corporation made it exceptional.

That is important to understand.

Ezekiel had been invited to attend an interview for an entry level position within the Ubiquitous Trading Corporation, or UbiCorp as it was typically known. To Ezekiel’s knowledge, no one who had attended an interview with UbiCorp had ever failed to secure a position there. Unfortunately the fact that he had never met anyone who had failed to secure a position could mean something entirely different, such as the existence of that particular person having come to an end suddenly and without warning.

That is also important to understand.

Ezekiel was not in possession of any smart clothes or shoes, only the uniform he wore for school and the one he wore for exercise, so the requisite items were supplied to him in advance by UbiCorp, and deducted from his parents’ monthly credits. Ezekiel was relieved to see a smart dark suit and shoes emerge from the package which was delivered on the morning of his interview. He had performed well at school, and achieved the highest possible grades. Others amongst his classmates would be receiving field-smocks, graphene-helmets and radiation vests, but Ezekiel had a suit, and that was important to understand.

It was a short cab journey from the outlying suburbs to the central UbiCorp campus which served Ezekiel’s region, and as the driverless cab made its way through the rows of pods and farming facilities he took the opportunity to bone up on the history of UbiCorp and the myriad ways in which it had served humanity. Not that he really needed to of course, he’d learned it all in school and was destined for a fine career in the data mines (or so he desperately hoped). His father had worked in farming, maintaining the larvae in the vast protein farms which were the bedrock of Ezekiel’s region. This was a noble profession, but the data mines were much more salubrious. A man could really get on in the that particular department, and Ezekiel had high hopes.

The cab dropped Ezekiel at the entrance to the Campus. Huge, monolithic black buildings stretched as far as the eye could see. The Ubiquitous Trading Corporation sign stood fifty storeys high and a mile wide (apparently).

But just in front of this colossal monument to consumerism, this Brobdingnagian corporate prison, there were some rather ornate gardens which (no one would dare to argue) lent it a rather genteel air.

Ezekiel walked through the gravel paths and flowerbeds, the rock gardens and water fountains, making his way towards a sign which said ‘Reception’ although there did not appear to be a door, only a solid black wall stretching on for infinity.

As Ezekiel grew nearer he noticed something else; there was no path to the reception sign without a door, only a wide flower bed which separated the path from the building. How was one to enter? Ezekiel didn’t want to dirty his new shoes by walking through the soil, that would surely not play well in his interview. It was too far to jump and besides there was nowhere to land on the other side. It was flower bed then solid black wall. The reception sign was the only evidence that this was where he was supposed to enter.

Ezekiel stood contemplating his predicament for a few moments – maybe it was some sort of test?

Then the silence was ripped by a loud groaning noise – the voice of an old man who sounded as if he had just spent a night locked in a coffin before emerging in to the daylight. Either that or he was being disemboweled.

‘Aaaaaarrrrrrgghhhhhhhhh!!!’ said the voice.

Ezekiel looked down and saw that a head had emerged from the flowerbed just in front of his feet and was now looking up at him. It was a man’s head, dirty and scabbed and horribly discoloured. Even more startling (perhaps) than the sudden appearance of a head in the dirt, was that the face was partially obscured by a lacy, woman’s undergarment. An ivory coloured g-string was draped over the head, making the wearer look like some bizarre interpretation of the superheroes Ezekiel had seen in illicit literature.

‘Afternoon’ said the voice in what Ezekiel knew to be a colloquial British accent, long since eradicated. ‘You must be here for the interview?’ The voice sounded chatty, jovial, deeply unsettling.

‘Yes, that’s right.’ said Ezekiel, falling back in to the safety net of social protocol. ‘Ezekiel Mathis, my interview’s at 11.’

‘Right you are young man.’ said the head. Followed by a deathly silence as the eyes swivelled dementedly beneath the gusset of the g-string.

Ezekiel remained calm, this had to be some sort of initiative test. He decided to try and engage with the disembodied head in the dirt.

‘Do you work for UbiCorp? Are you the receptionist?’

‘The Receptionist?’ said the head. ‘Well, well, well thank you kindly young sir that is most gracious of you. I could only dream of one day having the title of The Receptionist bestowed upon me, although I suppose my function is not dissimilar. No, the name’s Cunt-Face McGee, pleased to meet you.’

Panic – it crept slowly up Ezekiel’s spine and wound its way around his guts. This was all wrong. What on earth was happening here? Just stay calm.

‘I see, nice to meet you….Mr McGee.’

‘Call me Cunt-Face.’

‘Ok…Cunt-Face. Could you help me find my way to my interview please?’

The head stared back at Ezekiel with unblinking, terrible eyes.

‘Well I suppose I could, but wouldn’t you like to get to know me first?’

Ok – definitely a test.

‘Yes.’ said Ezekiel, making every effort to sound as convivial as possible given the circumstances. ‘That would be nice.’

‘I suppose you want to know why I’m just a head in the dirt? That’s what most people want to know.’

‘Well yes. I suppose that is the obvious question.’

‘I wasn’t always just a head in the dirt son, nah nah nah. I was a proper employee. Going places I was, everyone said so. I was Head of Internal Affairs.’

‘What does that involve?’

‘I’m glad you asked, young man. The facilitation and subsequent overseeing, of illicit extramarital activity in the workplace. People need to have affairs at work, that’s well proven. Keeps them engaged, so to speak. Trouble is I was conducting a training exercise, a role-play. I went too far, got too involved in the premise. Got sucked in to the conceit. I went native, upriver. I couldn’t get out. Failed my annual performance review and now here I am, a head in the dirt. You’ll need to step on me to enter.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Don’t be sorry son just get it done. Tread on my head, trample me back down in to the dirt and doors will open for you. Go on, off you go.’

Ezekiel thought about it. There really was no other option. Whatever this whole exercise was supposed to be, disengaging was simply not an option at this point. So he took one step forward on to the top of Cunt-Face’s head, feeling it sink back down in to the soil as he did so. Just as the head started to disappear, a door opened out of the black wall beneath the reception sign, a white room just beyond it. Ezekiel pushed down on Cunt-Face McGee and hopped over the flowerbed. Just as the head disappeared in to the dirt, Ezekiel landed through the door and in to the white room. The door closed immediately behind him.

The room had no furniture, no windows, no discernible features of any kind save for the intensely bright white light which seemed to be emanating from everywhere. Neither particularly large, nor particularly small – the room was about the length and breadth of three adult males. It was easy to estimate this, because there were three adult males lying down on the floor. They were smartly dressed in pinstripe suits, shirts and ties. Their black shoes were polished to a high shine, made even more pronounced by the almost blinding white light.

One of the figures, the one in the middle, now spoke.

‘Ezekiel Mathis?’

‘Yes, hello.’

‘So glad to meet you. The first thing you should know about UbiCorp is that we have an extremely flat management structure. Ha ha. Ha ha.’

The laugh was joyless. Ezekiel made no sound or movement. One by one the figures started to rise, joining in with the slow, monotone laughter as they did so. They were all tall, much taller than Ezekiel and from looking at their eyes he couldn’t be sure whether they were human – although it was basically impossible to tell these days. One of the men was wearing thick rimmed spectacles, he was the one who spoke.

‘That was a little joke. We always do that one to new interviewees so don’t worry. That’s the kind of high-spirited japery you can expect at UbiCorp. Along with a lifetime of hard work of course.’

The three figures formed a half moon around Ezekiel, and regarded him with completely neutral expressions. Spectacles continued to speak.

‘You’ll have met Cunt-Face McGee on the way in I suppose?’ A look of pure hatred passed across his face.

‘Yes, he made me step on him.’

‘Excellent. And did you?’

‘Well yes I had to.’

‘A-ha! You hear that my dear colleagues? He had to. Very good dear boy, very good indeed. And how did it make you feel?’

‘I don’t know. I suppose I felt quite bad for him.’

‘Oh you must do away with that, no, no, no, no, dear me no. This is business dear boy – commerce! We mustn’t feel bad for the likes of Cunt-Face McGee as we tread them back in to the dirt where they belong must we?’

Ezekiel hadn’t quite realised that the interview had started. Now he did, and he needed to get it back on track.

‘Yes. I mean, no. No we must not feel bad for him, them.’

‘Precisely. Cunt-Face is a most vile creature is he not? A scabrous wretch, deserving of only the purest contempt. Why, he even said it himself, tread on me and doors will open for you. We must smash his horrible face back in to the filth from whence it came dear boy. Would you tread on him again?’

‘Yes I would.’

‘Would you tread on anyone to work here boy? Your mother, your father? Your whole family? Would you grind them down in to the grimy depths with the rest of the unwashed?’

‘Yes I would.’

‘And would you enjoy it? Would you savour it boy? Would you revel in the most exquisite feeling of power as you watch the suffering of others?’

‘I would.’

‘Good. You’ll start immediately on 25 credits per week.’

’25 credits? I was hoping for…’

Hoping for? Yes that’s the spirit boy. Never lose that! You must always hope. But 25 credits it shall be. Plus free water and bandwidth for your pod – agreed? Don’t keep me waiting boy, otherwise there’s a job as Receptionist with your name on it.’

Ezekiel thought for a moment.

‘Agreed.’

Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester UK. Rick has previously had work published in Storgy, Soft Cartel and Vice Magazine among others. Rick is 34 years old and lives with his wife Sarah and their small furry overlord, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Harry.

@ricketywhite