‘Special Mention’ by Douglas Ross

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My wife called me a dog in the journal. She said everyone put something there. Her
editor had a pug named Iskra. All she could think of was ‘Brooklyn’. I told her she was
an aunt to four. It didn’t feel earned.

We toured some cages. I spoke up and they got smaller. We learned the different types
of prolapse, how when you saw a bulldog it was either ruined, or somebody’s.

Short of that, I made our front porch hostile. I laid stone cherubs, pots of barbed
succulents, a St. Francis. Mothers came anyway. There were close to a thousand now,
down the street. They liked to sit and smoke together after missing curfew. I bought a
machine for her that put out creek sounds. A pillow for her arms and knees.

From her cycle app it was clear she was padding things by a few days. I came into a tetra
water. Heard a canner and his child rooting through our bin. They checked the bottle
under our porchlight, decided against.

One guy from her unpeopling group showed up drunk. He gained speed, launched a
cart at the Wegmans. What went through my head was: Lenin’s mom helped him. The
doors opened, admitting it inside. She stopped him, helped him to his knees, puke
flowing on the asphalt, over the woodlands and the admirals’ mansions.

My father hit the ground in his own way. I flew to Providence. They scheduled two
machines for his heart. She was home, interviewing an expert on Retreat. She promised
he was gay, he couldn’t want anything. But he’s brilliant, I said. She said, that’s true.
The next morning I did my tests. Squatted, rose. They didn’t put me on a treadmill.
We’ll do this every three years, the doctor said, in case that gene wakes up.

I went straight to the shelter from JFK. Lock the doors, I announced, nobody lets me
leave without one. I’d taken three benadryl. The volunteer led me through. Behind the
wall, a cage popped open. Who’s first, I said. We thought we’d start you with King, the
volunteer said. I asked why ‘King’. Well, they said. He loves everyone.

‘November Story’ by Mike Lee

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It was in the beginning of November, on All Souls Day, when Eliana became sick.

This illness came upon her as a sudden malady, as if being struck by a loose and crumbling brick that had fallen from an inner urban tenement windowsill.

The sickness made its presence known, heralding with a short, sharp shock of pain that flowed from the front of her brain, down her spinal cord and straight to her lower abdomen.

She stood up in her cubicle, with an explosion of sweat. Then she ran down the carpeted floor in stockinged feet to the bathroom, barely making it to the stall in time.

Eliana sat on the commode for nearly twenty minutes, feeling corrosive while expunging disgusting bile. After she was finally finished she told her boss she had to leave, and took a Lyft home.

On the way to her house, she visualized the scrambled eggs she had at the morning buffet. This prompted another wave of need, and the last three blocks were pure hell, but she did make it in time for a much longer evacuation of bowels after she arrived home.

After pulling the keys from the front door, texting her boyfriend to say she arrived and to come with meds and herbal tea, she showered, wrapped herself in a bathrobe, and pulled the comforter out of the closet.

Half-dragging the comforter to the living room, she spread it on her daybed and curled underneath it, sweating from a miserable fever.

Her boyfriend, Anthony, texted he was stuck in traffic. In the midst of typing her response, Eliana felt another rolling wave of pressure and gas. She made it to the toilet on time, but found little relief. The aching and fever was coming on strong.

“Stomach fever,” she murmured, distraught. “With eggs on the side. Ugh.”

“Thank you, fucking eggs.”

Eliana leaned back against the pillows and closed her eyes.

How long she slept until reaching the dream stage is unknown, but Eliana opened the curtain of sleep and entered a soft delirium of delightful sensation, framed with hypnopompic hallucinations.

She cut the delicate fabric with her fingernail, slicing through with a shimmering that echoed around her. While coming through the opening, Eliana found herself falling upwards above an endless plain of field grains, its orange color burnished by multiple suns.

The fields soon vanished into endless desert sands under a tourmaline sky, speckled with stars.

Eliana floated above it all, her colorful, striped bathrobe transforming into Technicolor wings. Immediately upon their formation, she tested her newfound means of flight, unafraid of falling. As luck would have it, or fate, Eliana was caught up in a slight current of air from a westerly direction. This she used to her advantage by confidently turning to her left to gently glide above the endless desert.

She dared to look below, and found a green dot. Spreading her arms outward Eliana began to swoop downward toward the oasis.

When she landed, soft-footed in the undergrowth, Eliana was overwhelmed with the fragrance of teak, tamarind and palm; vespertine flavors surrounding her with the blossoms of unknowable flowers growing impossibly high for such a tiny garden in the wasteland.

This oasis garden granted her a tranquil moment, stealing from her the sickness she endured, and erasing discomfort as she stepped over the soft ground toward the sound of water, a spring surrounded by a wall of ferns and herbaceous plants. The spring was fed by an underground fossil river, which provided enough water for heavy vegetation, including a grove of eucalyptus.

She made her way to the water, cupping her hands and drank the clear fluid. The waters acted as an opiate and Eliana leaned on her side and rolled over into the deep, lush green, staring at the eucalyptus looming above.

This felt too good. It’s pleasure forbidden, like symbolic adultery. Or symbiotic, parasitical, its messages carved in stone with vermiculated script. She wandered endlessly in her mind as she stared into the treetops.

***

She was startled by Anthony’s face looming above her. He was pulling her comforter closer to her chin.

After drinking a glass of water, she started talking about her vision, hoping by doing so she would not forget it.

When she was done, Eliana asked him. “Have you ever dreamed of anything so wondrous and weird?”

Anthony paused briefly in contemplation, stroking his chin until he responded.

“I dreamed I was being suffocated by multitudes of dog snouts,” he said, with a shrug.

Eliana closed her eyes, nodding as desert sands blew over the comforting singing waters of the oasis.

“I am at a loss for words,” she said, feeling ill again, a little more so than before. When she closed her eyes, she tried to remember the oasis, yet as it is with all dreams, her vision had already begun to fragment those internal memories into precious bits, floating away.

Anthony sensed he inadvertently did wrong.

“Sorry,” he said.

With that, he glanced out the window, watching the cardinal fly to the birdhouse in the backyard to feed worms to her chicks as the autumn breeze carried the first fallen leaves swirling into the air.

Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Alexandria Quarterly and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story.

‘The Grumpy Cake’ by Hermey the Elf

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I’ve always been a little grumpy.  When I was a baby, I puked and cried no matter my mood.  Nowadays I swallow my puke.  It’s a concession I make to get along.

The rites of youth bored me.  I didn’t care for school.  Never had friends or hobbies.  Neither climb of the career ladder nor walk of the wedding aisle stopped my tummy gurgling.

My beloved blocked the television.

“Aren’t you getting a cake?  It’s your daughter’s fourth birthday.  Remember?  Hello?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of cake are you getting?  We need mustard, too.”

“I want a cookie cake,” Arlanda said.

“You don’t have a choice,” yelled Yolanda. “Will you tell her?”

I shoved away the couch and headed for the door.  My wife followed me, arms akimbo.

“I suppose I’ll get an ice cream cake,” I said to the wall.

Yolanda sighed.

“I don’t even like cake.”

What?  I didn’t know that.  Who doesn’t like cake?  My high school sweetheart, the mother of my child, doesn’t like cake.  I took the knowledge on the chin and stumbled backwards out the door.

“Don’t walk on the grass, that’s where people piss and shit!”

The door slammed shut.

Tears flooded the streets as I taxied toward the supermarket.  Flashing halos zigzagged across my vision.  I went blind in my left eye and blew a stop sign.  Though I couldn’t see the road, I couldn’t turn back without cake.  The thought of frosting tickled my teeth.  I snapped the blinker and swung into a gas station.  I sat there a minute, dreaming of zebra cakes.

Someone tapped my window.  I almost jumped out of my skin.  The man looked like trouble.  His bandana was red and his nose was red and his eyes were so big behind his glasses that I was sure he could see my heart slamming out my chest.  A cigarette glowed between his muddy fingers.  I cracked the window a little.  He slurred through his yellow smile like a deaf man.

“Don’t I know you?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“What?” The deaf man shrugged. “It’s your daughter’s big day, right?”

“How did you know?”

“There’re only so many days in a year.”

The deaf man flicked his half-eaten cigarette in the sewer and immediately bit into another.  I suppose I should’ve been upset that this stranger knew anything about my family, but I didn’t blame him.  My wife is somehow responsible.

“You need cake?”

“What?”

“Cake, cake, do you need any cake?  Here, come here.”

The deaf man turned toward a piebald pickup parked at the pump opposite.  I smeared my face against its cool window.  My migraine miraculously vanished as I beheld stacks and stacks of plump cakes in windowed boxes.  The lock pin sprang.  I immediately tore open the door and swallowed the sweet stink of buttercream.

“Take your pick.  I’ll be right back.”

Watching the deaf man waddle across the parking lot, the most unpleasant impulse seized mind and muscle.  My migraine returned, my vision checkered, and I about broke a canine grinding my teeth.  I acted on the impulse and shoveled every last cake into my trunk while the man fumbled for change at the register.

He doesn’t need the sweets.  He’s very out of shape.  Maybe the deaf man secretly meant to humiliate me.  Surely the deaf man, having so much cake to throw around, thinks he’s my superior.  He’s showing off.  But that’s not why I’m robbing this deaf man blind.  It’s because he belongs to a lesser socioeconomic caste and doesn’t deserve the common courtesies afforded productive members of polite society.  That’s right.  Clay pots ought not to keep company with metal pots.

I peeled out and over the curb.  Though I popped a tire on a fire hydrant, I didn’t have time to stop.  I was almost home.  Watching my rearview for the pickup, I turned up the radio, picked my scalp and screamed.

*

The screen door whapped shut behind me.  I danced into the kitchen and slammed a cake on the table.  My girls immediately materialized.  I slurped the slobber surrounding my smile and faced them.

Yolanda gulped.

“What have you done?” She stammered.

Arlanda peeked around her mother’s spanx.

“Is daddy crazy?”

I had devoured an entire cake during a long red light.  Chocolate frosting masked my face.  Marshmallow fluff pleated my seersucker.  Sugar jangled in my blood and lightning burned at the ends of my fingers.  My jaw locked.

“Happy birthday,” I whispered through black teeth.

I lurched toward my daughter, sticky fingers curled into claws at the ends of my meathook arms.  Arlanda whimpered as I hoisted her onto my shoulders.

“Here’s your cake, sweetie.”

She stopped pulling my hair and cooed.

“It looks yummy.  What flavor is it?”

“Let’s find out.”

I unsheathed my hunting knife and took aim, but a muffled scream repelled me.  I glanced at my wife, who pointed at the cake, a hand over her mouth.  As the scream intensified, the cake bubbled and swelled, taking the appearance of moldy bread.  The spidery eyelashes I had neglected to pluck parted for a beady pair of blood blisters.  Jagged whiskers sprouted upon droopy jowls.

Finally, the middle of the cake tore into two rows of rotten teeth.  A taffy tongue wagged between them like a fat serpent.  The stench of coffee and cigarettes soured the air.  A bubble of acid burst in the back of my throat.  I belched.

“Excuse you,” my wife snapped.

The scream tapered into a coughing fit.  The cake looked so feeble, so miserable.  I wanted to hug the cake, but I had to pretend to protect my family.

“I don’t do birthdays,” the cake grumbled between gasps.

“You have to, it’s the law,” I said, trying to be firm.

“To hell with the laws of man and God.  It’s my dying wish not to suffer another goddamn birthday.”

My wife crossed her arms.

“You bought a dying cake?”

“I thought it was already dead.”

“Actually, your husband abducted me at a gas station.”

My girls crinkled their noses and bore their teeth.

“No!  Don’t listen to him!  You wouldn’t feed a turkey on Thanksgiving or unhand a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day, would you?  No.  No, you wouldn’t!  That’s just ridiculous.”

I sneered at the cake.

“Your pathetic charade won’t save your life.”

I raised my knife.  But my wife shielded the cake.

“I’ll cut the cake when you’re dead,” she screamed. “I hate liars.”

“Don’t kill my talking cake, daddy!”

The cake, I knew, was capable of more than talk.  The cake was disturbed.  The cake was grumpy.

“I’m taking you all hostage,” wheezed the grumpy cake.

“Whoopee!”

Arlanda hugged the grumpy cake.  It tousled her hair with its tongue, drooling pungent yellow batter all over her head.

“Yuck!  You got your hair in my mouth!”

“Sorry, Mister Cake!”

My wife beamed as Arlanda dug strands of her hair out of the cake’s goopy mouth.  Arlanda giggled.

“That tickles!”

“Don’t you tickle my daughter you goddamn psycho.”

“Where the hell are your manners, Tangier?  We have a guest!  Is this how you’re going to behave at the party?”

“You don’t even like cake!”

“Liar.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

The cake cleared its throat.  Snotty sprinkles splattered everywhere.

“I’m going to kill you all if my wish goes unfulfilled.  As a matter of fact, I have another wish.”

Yolanda lit a candle and cuddled the cake.

“Make your wish.”

The cake glared at me.

“You leave.  I’d like to be alone with the ladies.”

“Yeah, dad, girls only.”

Arlanda giggled and stuck out her tongue.

 

*

          I did what was asked of me.  In fact, I did one better and locked myself in the powder room.

I faced the vanity.  The layer of frosting on my face couldn’t smooth the purple lumps under my colorless eyes, the caves and trenches of my pocked skin.  I tried to smile, but I couldn’t work my face.  I think I’m colorblind, asthmatic, too.  My scaly scalp shined between frog fine hairs.

My twelfth birthday was a disaster.  Ask most of my friends, they can show you their disfigurements.  But they didn’t have it nearly as bad as me.  A wasp stung my palm.  My blood has been poisonous ever since.  I figure that’s what made the cake so grumpy.  It can smell my poisonous blood.

I dangled my head over the toilet.  Puke still speckled the woodwork from the last time I got sick.  I’d missed the toilet by a mile.  Spit dribbled down my chin and I shuddered.

“Why doesn’t that stupid cake like me?”

I caught my reflection in the toilet water and breathed a whiff of shit.  Then I jumped upon the toilet and violently evacuated my bowels.  I twitched like a squashed bug as my throbbing rectum surpassed my buttocks and blackened the water.  The blowback soaked my thighs.  After the deluge, I slouched like a gargoyle and cried.

I mummified my hand in toilet paper and swiped delicately at my dark side.  The tissue liquefied, wetting my fingers.  Reaching for more, I struck cardboard.  My eyes watered again.  I tried to call for help, but my voice snagged somewhere in my belly.  My puckered sphincter continued to spigot clumpy liquid in painful bursts that hurt my tailbone.  I pounded on the door.  Only ignorant laughter seeped through.

My cell phone jangled.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” said the deaf man.

“What do you want?  I’m busy.”

“I’m in jail.”

“That’s not my problem.” I took a deep breath. “Listen, could you possibly bring me some toilet paper?”

“The cake doesn’t like you, huh.”

My thighs grew goose bumps.

“It yelled at me.  I don’t know what I did.”

“Alright, I’ll send someone.”

The line died.  Paper party napkins slipped under the door.  They were so scratchy.  I bled, and the toilet flooded.

*

          I quick stuffed my rectum back inside my body and about broke down the bathroom door.  The doorbell bleeped again, buried beneath the giggles bubbling from the kitchen.  I tucked my shirt and turned the knob.

“You dropped your pocket.”

The visitor guffawed as I combed the doormat on all fours.

“I’m just kidding.”

I stood back up.  My cheeks seared.

“You’re not funny.”

“I’m not a comedian.  So, I understand you’re at odds with a cake.”

“Wrong!  The cake hates me.  I didn’t even do anything.  I just wanted to be friends.  I still want to be friends, but I think the cake ought to be disciplined for my trouble.  It’s only fair.”

The visitor darkened.

“What did you have in mind?”

“That’s your job.”

“I’m unemployed.”

I gasped.

“What’re your credentials?”

“I’m a friend of a friend.”

I balled my fists and stomped a foot.  The visitor winced.

“You’re awfully quick to anger.”

“I’m just having a bad day,” I burped. “Please, make yourself at home.  What’s mine is yours.” I swept the visitor into the foyer. “Sit there, on the newspapers.  Can I interest you in some cake?  There’s more.  But this cake is dead.  Wait here.”

I jogged to my car, popping the trunk by remote control.  Cigarettes and coffee singed my nostrils as umpteen cakes screamed in my face.  I should have known.  Instead, I grabbed expired gelato from the freezer in the garage.

“I need a spoon,” my visitor whined, making a face at the gooey film topping his treat.

“Use your tongue,” I said, mounting a rocking horse.

“By the way, here’s a little something for kiddo.”

I tore open the envelope.  Two dollars wrapped in a card.  I pocketed the cash and crumpled the card.

“So, what’s the plan?” I asked, chucking the wad of cardboard over my shoulder.

“Beats me.  I think best in the shower.”

“Me, too.”

I smiled unconvincingly.  The little plastic spoons shook in my remaining pocket.  My tongue was orange, my hands spotted.  Laughter soaked through the walls and boxed my ears.  My visitor leaned forward menacingly.

“I’d like to use your bathroom.”

I thumbed my nose.

“Cross your legs, you lazy vegetable.  I want results.  I want that stupid cake to like me.  Well?  I’m waiting!”

My newspapers toppled over as the stranger stood.  He took a long cold look at me as I rocked upon the wooden horse licking my gelato.

“It’s my opinion that the cake is mentally sound.  You’re unlikeable.”

*

          I snuck back into the kitchen.  My wife cradled the sleeping cake in her lap.  Arlanda lay on the floor, drawing a picture of her, mom, and the cake holding hands.  I floated in the background, my eyes crossed out.

“He’s my new daddy,” Arlanda whispered.

“Shush,” Yolanda screeched.

The cake cracked its eyes.

“I’ve made up my mind,” the cake moaned. “I want a big party.  I want piñatas and piggyback rides.  And I want jellybeans for every guest.  Invite all my friends; they’re in your trunk.”

“Excuse me, I just want to clarify something—what’s in your trunk?”

I sweat, I convulsed.  I stank worse than a drunk.

“A brand new puppy, that’s what.  For my one and only daughter.”

I tried to blow Arlanda a kiss, but I accidentally spit in her face.  I can’t do anything right.

“You’re disgusting, daddy.”

A crash upstairs silenced everyone.  My girls squeezed the cake and stared at the shivering chandelier.  I quietly volunteered to investigate.

Who did I find but the deaf man bleeding out on my carpet?  He waved.

“I’m on the lamb.”

My throat constricted.

“Can I stay here for a couple nights?”

Puke swelled my cheeks.  Minding my manners, I swallowed and smiled, my eyes submerged in tears.

“I’ll have to ask my wife.”

“Okay,” he mumbled, distracted by his phone. “Could you dress my wounds, too?  Thanks.”

“I’m kind of in the middle of something,” I muttered, one foot out the door.

“—but I gave you cake.”

“Alright, fine.  I’ll be right back with some toilet paper.”

I slipped back downstairs.  My girls were busy streaming streamers and sticking stickers.  The cake groaned.

“What the fuck?  Where’s the party at, bitches?”

“We’re decorating, darling,” my wife replied in a cute voice I’d never heard before.

“But I’m bored.  Let’s open presents now, or else I’ll maim someone.”

“We can’t open presents until after sex!”

“Sex smells bad.  Farts are funny.  Won’t you fart in my face, little girl?”

Arlanda looked at me and my beloved with eyes full of hope.

“No, honey, you’re not allowed to fart on the cake,” I said.

Arlanda pouted.  The grumpy cake growled.

“No one asked you, party pooper.”

“What’s the matter, Tangier?  They’re just having fun.”

“I didn’t raise my daughter to fart on cakes for every Tom, Dick, and Harry who asks.”

“You’re right.  You didn’t raise your daughter at all.  You haven’t lifted a finger in years.  You’re a deadbeat dad.  It’s nothing to brag about.”

Arlanda started to cry.

“No, don’t!  I hate it when you guys fight!”

“Hello?  What about me?  I’m not having FUN,” the cake shrieked. “I want to dance.  I’ve never danced before.  Teach me how to dance.  Do the electric slide.”

No one moved.

“I SAID DO IT!  FUCKING DO IT!  DO THE FUCKING ELECTRIC SLIDE OR YOU’RE ALL FUCKING DEAD!”

We did the electric slide in silence.  Four side steps to the right, four side steps to the left, two steps back, three step-touch, pivot and brush, ad nauseam.  My wife wept, but they seemed tears of joy like those she cried on our wedding day, only harder, happier.

“FASTER FASTER I’LL KILL YOU ALL IF YOU DON’T DANCE FASTER, FASTER DAMN YOU FASTER!”

I tried, but I got dizzy.  I began to step out of time, to flail and wobble.  Finally, I stopped the electric slide in defiance.

“WHAT THE HELL’S WRONG WITH YOU!  DIDN’T I TELL YOU TO LEAVE?  THIS!  THIS IS WHY!  WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF, YOU PATHETIC MAN?”

I swear I had the best comeback.  It was right on the tip of my tongue.  But as soon as I opened my mouth, I puked.  I seemed to puke up every piece of cake I had ever eaten, every little cupcake, every lick of a frosted whisk, sarcastically resurrected as projectile vomit and launched through my nostrils.  My wife gasped.

“Tangier!  Tangier, STOP!  Please, just STOP!  Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”

“Eww, daddy, you’re so disgusting!”

The grumpy cake snorted.

“BORING.  I’m bored.  I want to play a goddamn game now!”

“I know a game we can play,” I said.  I summoned the last of my strength and swallowed back a wave of bile. “Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker’s man . . .”

The grumpy cake splattered under my palms.  Cutting a finger on a tooth, I clapped harder.  I balled my fists and punched the screaming cake.  Soggy cigarette butts and coffee grounds splashed everywhere as the screams dwindled and died.

My muscles cramped.  I teetered backwards and collapsed onto a chair.  Arlanda burst into tears and bolted for the bathroom.  My wife tilted her head and gave me a funny look.

“What’s the matter with you today, Tangier?”

“I need my medicine,” I whined, snapping my teeth.

Yolanda smiled.

“Silly me.  I totally forgot.”

Standing on her tippy toes, she opened the cupboard above the fridge and retrieved the cure for grumpiness.  The skull on the bottle mirrored my smile.  My wife plopped a hairy blob of cake onto a paper plate and drizzled a spoonful of silvery syrup over the top.

I offered her the first bite, but she wagged her head.  I shrugged.  I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.  Everyone loves cake, especially me.  I think I love cake more than anyone.  I dunked my face into the slop and squealed.

“Yummy in my tummy!

<em>”there’s no such thing as twitter in christmas town” – hermey the elf</em>

‘The Man from Ulm’ by Alexander Blum

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Long before the twilight of the Winter King, some nine centuries ago in the long night of Germany before it was Germany in a peasant principality located under the crown, scepter and sword of the Catholic Church, a hideous man with bad teeth and unshaven beard was chained to a decaying wooden post beside the hen’s house of the town of Ulm. A dirty, diseased lean-to filled with fowls was his home, destiny and company. A rooster with a scar in his red muff was his only friend, and this friend often pecked at him with little stings harsher than a fencer’s tips. Pinned to a stalk of wood, his face was always stretched to the point of breaking with venomous and indissoluble stress. He found only mud and chicken feathers with his worn fingers no matter how far he grasped, no matter what pleasures he imagined, conceived and reached for, his fingers stuck only the warp and woof of bleeding chicken mane. If he scrounged hard enough, and dug into the dirt with a true fealty to the spirit of Protestant work, perhaps a splinter would dig up under his nails, and that would be his reward for great works. Offered soup, he flailed it away, and lived and rutted as a hog in his own discarded foodstuff, and his piss.

We were in 1225 with our man in Ulm, an age known to moderns as an impossibility, a place akin to the Inferno, though for Dante it was his beloved world, the only one he had ever known. It was a land synonymous with darkness, the light of Luther three-hundred years away, the colder blue light of Voltaire farther still, and of course in such dark ages a man representative of the light would find himself posed against the times. Our man, pinned to a wooden pole sticking from a torn-up ugly stack of sticks in a fowls’ den, burnt bronze beneath unrelenting summer sun in the desolate south of Germany, was a humanist, a rationalist, and a skeptic. He had been a professor, which in those days was synonymous with theologian — but our man was, once more, a man out of time. He believed, in essence, only one thing — that the Holy Trinity was fraud, that this world of the lean-to and the foul feathers was always, and still is, all that there is. Earth, alone, no hand with which to guide it. Today, he is an ordinary man. Yesterday, a terror.

Appalled by his tongue, the friars of the Church gathered together like gossiping women to pluck it out. As a crowd of old ladies preparing to play bridge, the friars took counsel and feigned collapse and great birth pangs at the reality of a man who challenged the faith. One friar grasped his spleen and repeated: “He says the miracles are false, he says the miracles are false.” Another wept great globs of spittle and tears that became one and stained the sullen dirt with a pained liquid not unlike the blood of Christ. The drama of these men was like the drama of great women, powerful impressive women whose motions were each the curve of the Earth and each lifting of the hand signaled a new revelation to twist upon the emotions of the last. As the upstanding men of the Church constitute the harem of the bridegroom of God, all holy men seek nothing less than to become women.

A nun, hopped up on the Holy See, took a long, thin needle from her tourniquet in a fit of wrath one morning and approached the man at the post with innocence, a wrinkled smile on her young face. He turned toward her, hands behind her back, watching her walk toward him in such grace that for an instant he even fooled himself into believing in the holiness of women, of Mary, of Churches. The nun knelt down before him and recited a line of Latin, which I could repeat for you here to no understanding, so I will not even type it, and she jabbed the six-inch needle into the man’s open eyeball, the pupil that craved vision, and spread blood outward in that blind eye until it gushed from his face as an open wound. The nun stood and walked away, leaving the needle embedded in his skull. She was later reprimanded by the parish priest, eighty-eight days in solitude with nothing but the Gospels — a fitting punishment — but the damage was done. The surgery to remove the needle and seal up the eye left our man in Ulm blind in both eyes, somehow, as if the doctor’s little Igor had plucked out the second just to bring balance according to the first.

Like vultures the Churchmen often gathered around his body in the chickens and the dust and beat him down with their hands, which were frail and bony like beaks, and he took the blows imparted upon him by the kicking and slapping priests, a nail in every nerve ending shooting upward to his brain, telling him to hurt, telling him over and over again, that strange communication of the muscle and the nerve, demanding imminent suffering. The man, in his heart, retained victory — he knew they were nothing but nerves kicking nerves, an imagination of a man, and he cackled as they beat him with the sublime knowledge that they were but apes, and all structure and system to the contrary was an illusion placed atop the jutting forehead of an orangutan. He wore a crown as they stumbled about like beggars after each kick, skeletons moving with momentum, nerves speaking fury, puppets not of the most high but of the squirming brain. He cackled. There was an ultimate victory in his lashings.

Conversation amongst the sisters produced a novel situation. One young nun had heard of the elder who impaled the eye of the heretic with a tourniquet’s needle, and it brought her into sadness for days. If even a nun could be moved to such impulsive hate, then where in the world is God? This question met little answer. The Book of Job showed God as a brute, a pair of knuckles dragging so hard upon the forest floor that they dug canyons in their wake. There was not mercy, only strength, in Yahweh’s response to Job. The nun wept.

Playing the Virgin herself, this young woman had taken pity on our man in the hen’s house in Ulm. On Ash Wednesday she approached the filthy man in earnest. He looked, and could not see her. She was the treasure of her hometown, born Catherine Ziegler, baptized Catherine of the Rose-Cross, wearing the icon of the crucified upon her chest, the androgyne Christ dangling above chaste nipples that would never feed a child’s yearning lips. Catherine of the Rose-Cross smiled. Before him, the sun at her back, she was as an icon, a thing frozen in time, the true believer who dines of the flesh of Christ at communion, and takes wine, and licks blood from her lips without shame.

The man could not see her, or he would have reached for her. Instead he only felt her footsteps, and fearing the whip or the pointed shoe, he feasted on a raw chicken, ripping up the rind of its neck and sitting in the stained mess of blood and wax-feathers he had spread on cracked and dry ground. It had not rained in a month. Gnawing at the neck of a hen, he shook his head. He felt the shadow of her body cast upon him. At last, he screamed:

“Torturer!”

“I am not your torturer,” replied the holy woman of the Rose-Cross. “I take pity on you in the name of God. I have seen you out here every day on my travels to the orchards. Every single day. I have seen how they beat you. And each time I see you, I feel, in my heart, that you, and not the priest of my parish, is the Christ crucified. It is you who is the martyr, not the patriarchs of the Church. You are the humble, the meek, the broken one…and if I am a true Christian, I am to follow you, not the monsters who have tied you here with this unholy brood of chickens.”

The man’s lower lip curled in response to this Christian speech. Against his greater reason, tears began to form in his bloodied eyes at the speech of a Catholic woman. Against all his aching, solidified over three long years in captivity, he was loved by someone on this Earth. He buried his face in his hands. Like Hephaestus, he began to rock with sobs. He shuddered with memories of home, the mother who had chosen the Church over her own son, and does not see him. The father who had disowned him with eloquence, declaring at the podium the Kingdom of Christ and damning his son to the ice of Cocytus. Catherine of the Rose-Cross fell on her knees in her gown, sullied in the mud, and bursting through those memories, she held him. She lifted him up like a child, a pieta as good as any other. She held him cradled and walked.

“I will free you,” she said, stroking his hair, matted with grease, stuck with flies. “I will free you from the Pilate of the Church.”

“But how?” he asked. “Where will I go?”

“We will go to France, and take you to the Cathars. You are the lamb who has gone astray, more valuable to Him than the flock.”

And so Catherine of Thorns made her promise to the heretic in Ulm, to take his crippled body to the heretics in France, and to leave the cursed soil of the Holy Roman Empire.

Then, she dropped him, and left. Heretics must move in the dead of night, not the broad daylight of holy Thrones. This she said to him, and this he begged her against believing — he begged her to take him away now. She repeated the Our Father as proof of her intention and left.

That night, Catherine of Thorns did try the seal of the musted window beside her stone bed and pried it open, weaseling through the cavity like a bird into a bath. She fell upon a low pool of rainwater, and cursed, the name of God escaping her lips. She covered her mouth. She gathered herself from the puddle, and proceeded beneath moonlight and the stench of frogs. Of course, this one night among a thousand, it had chosen to rain.

Empty stone houses stinking of myrrh and small candles in their windowsills were all that separated the rainwater in the streets from the rock of man’s ambitions. The wax had burnt down with the day, no sounds but snores and silence, and the nun alone trod the beaten path toward the heretic. No souls were about, as all were asleep, contained in the empyrean sphere as embryos in vats until morning. As she made it to the edge of the town, the rare persimmons imported from voyages to the East breathed and rustled in the midnight air with their sheathes of wet leaves. He could tell at once by her footsteps it was her, and again he wept.

“You fool,” he said. “You really are a holy fool…”

She knelt down before him as water dripped from all eaves. As she went to work on the cords binding our man’s wrist to the pole, the old professor began to ask:

“Why do you save me? Do you forsake your Christ?”

She did not reply. She loosed a horse on a rope from the stable across from the hens and made a prayer for the mare’s owner. The fine horse trotted across the running watery way, toward the filthy man, and the nun instructed him how to ride. He did not know how. He was a man of minds. Worse, he was too feeble to rise. The nun, looking in each direction, took a desperate act.

She loosed her dress and took out a pale breast, bringing it to the mouth of the man. Greedily, like an insect, he drank. He kneaded on the milk of her body and climbed, then, up the tall body of the beast. The nun, ripping one side of her dress, climbed up after him, and took the reins. She took the cloth from her head and cast it down. White, beautiful hair dangled in the moonlight. With the heretic she rode.

Rain fell like the hate of an army. It drowned out her eyes, it made blinking a chore. The horse trod through sinking Earth as a genuine monsoon seemed to be roaring about German land. The hillsides green were slicked with rivers. A watery pool had formed at the edges of the road, lines of turmoil. Her hair was drenched and her back was freezing. The heretic, swishing from side to side atop the horse’s hind, was drinking it in by the mouthful. The downpour only grew stronger. And as one hour went by, now two, and his strength resumed, the nun began to hear him speak:

“I am from the future,” he said. “I know these days are limited. Soon they will be done.”

She wiped a globlet of moisture from her eye like a tear.

He swayed back and forth, his mouth open, eyes alight with the reflections of moondrenched stars. “I am telling you, sister, that the day will come when Christ is not a King but a curiosity, an odd thing that is impossible, a distant star, as far from men and women as you and I are now from the constellations, a forgotten thing unattainable.”

The nun narrowed her brows. The mare’s hooves stuck in inches of mud, and sucked and popped with every step. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean that Christianity is finished. Your world is done. I know what happens in this very town, this place full of shit you call Ulm. A young man will station here, joined by a garrison. He will make a camp and set himself against the empire of an alchemist. His name is Rene Descartes. He will take Euclid’s machines and he will dream of a golden ball, handed to him by an angel, telling him to divorce the study of nature from the study of God. He will carry forth that revelation forever, into eternity, to separate the world from God. And he will succeed. He will succeed in dethroning you, forever. Your rule will never return. Your Christ will lose his crown, and it will not be given to another prophet, nor any Mohammed, but the crown of thorns will be shattered, and lose all its meaning.”

“You’re a liar.”

“I am not,” he seethed. “A garrison is coming, of men led by a pope who is an atheist. They will encircle the Churches and they will open great coffers of treasure, and men of theology will become men of business, and the laws of the world will not be written by Thomas Aquinas, but by bureaucrats who believe in nothing. Men will look at the stars and see not the Intelligence of the Spheres but a steaming rock, and in the afterlife an abyss. This will become the only truth there is. Heaven and hell do not exist. There are no Powers nor any Thrones above. Only stars, gleaming with fire, material, unholy fire.”

“You-”

“And all things will be decoded, as at their core is not light, but tendon, sinew and bone. And beneath that, ribbons of instruction, written by a mindless mind, authored by no one, and this truth will be incontrovertible, to the end, till the end of all time. And the consequence it will have-” Blue lightning stabbed jagged across the sky. The man from Ulm hesitated, then considering his lot, he laughed. “All men will believe what they wish to believe, and fiction will become reality. All mythology and all religion will be as one, Christ as good as Apollo, Apollo as good as Mithra. And the consequence, dear sister, will be that there is no rule that is agreed to by all, there is no moral law, there is no order to which men and minds submit themselves. No, the mind shall not submit. The mind alone shall rule the world. And the mind will make all decisions, and it will split open the sky with light made by men, not by God, and this man-made light will be indistinguishable from life itself, and all things sacred will become like Socrates, a corpse that hated life, and men will move on from it, and women will become whores, and men will become judges, who abide not by religious law but by courts made by men, and men will rule the world without submission, without authority above, and they will invent truths and those truths will clash with opponents without any crown to unite them. All people will believe a different thing, brothers will live in the same household and gaze down different directions, and brothers will kill each other. Cities will emerge, cities of millions, seething houses of men with nothing in common, who will all invent their own laws, and sow discord, and never again once the sowing begins will it ever stop, never will Christ return. Only ambiguity, and the rolling ball, will follow men forever, and their women will die, their children will be born as in tubes, and flesh and blood and plastic and glass will have the same essence — material, as there is no other substance in this world. And it will begin in Ulm,” he gasped for breath, laughter breaking from his chest. “It will all begin at a garrison in Ulm when the little man has a big dream and he divorces nature from God, and shows how it is so, and no theologian will ever be able to disprove him.”

In darkness, the nun halted her horse. She dismounted it, and walked to the edge of the cold road.

“What has happened?” asked the man, looking frantically in all directions. “Where have you gone?”

The nun said nothing. She waited, waited for his true nature to emerge. Waited for him to grow angry, to grow violent. But nothing changed.

“Come back,” he said. “Please, return.”

She walked back to the horse, her feet in rags sucking in the sullen dirt with every step, and grabbed him by the right thigh.

“Is that true?” she demanded.

“Yes,” he said nobly, nose to the rain.

“And you are part of it?”

“Yes,” he said. “I have been sent here from the distant ahead just to make it happen sooner.”

The nun released his thigh. She turned back. She wandered to the edge of the road again, to the same place, rain boring down on her like a cloud of ashes, pouring death upon her. As she turned again in her cloak of death she set her mind to a decision and grasped the man’s thigh again. This time, she pushed upwards, and unsettled him.

“What are you doing?” he demanded. He was too weak to tilt backward. She pushed him, up, and he tilted far away and over the edge of the horse, at last like a drawbridge he was extended, and fell flat sideways into the mud below, where he groaned in agony as he ate mud, and his ribs smarted.

“Christ is our King,” said the nun, taking the horse and mounting it once more. She doubled-back on the road and trotted away. Her mouth was pregnant with feelings, desirous of more words, but none came. That was all she had said. And she continued to ride her horse back down the road she had come, to the parish.

The man in Ulm cried out in uproarious laughter. Arced blasts of lightning crossed the bow of the world and stained the firmament brightly. He screamed with joy in his mud as he imagined chickens all around him, a house for savages, and he laughed in knowledge that time was on his side, that he had won, no matter what, that the world would be delivered once more as it already had been, to the birds. And he laid there, blind, drowning in water and stinking marsh, a broken road, worn down by the waters, no food for miles, no sight in the world, and he was given over to the elements like a slave, and he died as all men do today, beneath empty skies and moonlight, blind and starving, yearning for a crown. The elements took him. They thought nothing of it. Intelligence was purged from the world. The elements seized him as a scalpel seizes a wound.

That very same nun later went on to pen a rebuttal to the man from Ulm, and all he had said that day. It was discovered by scholars in 1983 and prized as a rare insight into the stupidity of the past.

 

‘A History of Bad Men’ by Jake Kendall

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Peter Calloway was not the worst man in the room. However, he was easily the most annoying.

Everyone was obligated to take their therapy very fucking seriously of course. Each of them feeling the instinctive compulsion to display deep remorse, contrarian, and humility. After all, who knows what the doctors might advise the courts if they did not?

Yet no one dedicated themselves to the performance quite as sincerely as Peter fucking Calloway.

Alex hated Peter. He hated his ego; huge and ever-expanding. Like an aging star, and every bit as doomed for a terminal collapse. Sooner or later Peter dominated every group session, complete with theatrical hand gestures, and a booming voice well-used to projecting itself.

“Of course one mustn’t attribute quite all of one’s failings on the behaviour of others” Peter declared. “Of course, of course not. Agency raises us above the fauna, to the dizzying heights of responsibility. We are then, mortal gods. Yet, like the great Achilles, we are imperfect deities. We have flaws, weaknesses… and lo, it is that old friend – that vile Janus – we call agency who sniffs, and searches, preying upon our worst impulses, making foul opportunists – neigh, Hyena’s – of mankind. What is the greater tragedy? To be born imperfect, or to have imperfections thrust upon us? Would the misunderstandings around my life be plagued by accusations of sexual assault – assault, aye, assault! Those are indeed the charges, though not one claimant declined my advances…”

Peter had left his chair, his hands instinctively forming the pose of a tragic soliloquy. His rhetoric had excited his own blood a little too much, his anger and outrage eclipsing the expression of sad contemplation he had begun with.

Peter’s theatre career spanned decades. He was an actor in the eighties. An actor-director by the nineties. Eventually he was appointed artistic director of a big London theatre some ten years back. Alex knew all of this because Peter was an over-sharer of information. With a little calculation, Alex could probably deduce the consistency of the man’s stools.

Peter’s face flushed a little as he realised that once again, his chair was unable to contain his lustre.

“Where was I?” he muttered quietly as he retook his seat. “Oh yes… misunderstandings. Would they have happened if I had not endured the slings and arrows of a troubled school life? The names and insults, here comes Poofter Callowaybacks to the wall lads. Which schoolmaster is having you for supper tonight? Not to mention, I hope you die riddled with HIV, like the rest of your kind…” Peter bowed his head having arrived a suitably powerful conclusion for the day.

Young men auditioning at Calloway’s theatre were often summoned to his office for a chat. Around the London theatre world this was just one of those ‘open secrets’ that up-and-coming performers would often be expected to get their artistic director, well…

When the first few stepped forward the levy well and truly broke – over a hundred allegations of coercion and blackmail, plus numerous counts of harassment and even assault on the ones that didn’t give it up.

“We are men” interjected Tobias, the American lawyer with a pleasing notes of old New York in his voice. “We function as a sperm dispensary. This is our evolutionary purpose. That need to fuck things is our fundamental nature. These days, our nature is distasteful. We are asked to beg forgiveness on account of a sex drive that wasn’t asked for. Well, I have a dog. Truthfully, I find his need to sniff asses distasteful. What am I to do? Ask him to stop doing this?”

Tobias liked young women. Anywhere around 18-24 was best for him. Mainly though he didn’t touch them. He just masturbated. His office burned through a lot of interns; dozens of women told they would be blacklisted if they didn’t keep their mouths shut about it afterwards.

Everyone in the room has a story like these. The sneering music producer and his pop hopefuls. The Slovakian tennis player and the women-only training facility he established. The tech millionaire, well… perhaps he was ‘avenging’ years of rejections and disinterest, but in a room full of monsters Damian might just be the worst.

Damian was filmed at a private members club night, auctioning women. It wasn’t just the seediness of event itself either. Many of the women couldn’t speak English and were unaware of the extent of the sheer arrogance, the unapologetic crudeness, and the outright woman-hating present in Damian’s commentary. The video had gone viral. Alex watched it before he himself was checked in. He remembered thinking that this man was almost as if Giuseppe made a brother for Pinocchio; only this time instead of using wood, he worked exclusively with bile, misogyny, and shit.

Damian was also rich enough that he could pay every one of their fees. This wasn’t cheap either; ten thousand a week. A gilded cage for them to sit and sing their songs of victimhood and misconstructions.

Dr Wilkins oversaw the group therapy with infinite patience. His job was to talk to celebrities and millionaires, explaining the rudimentary principle of egotism – what you want might not be what other people want – that kind of thing. Some of them could be here for years and never understand it. Tobias for one. “This… this fashion, this, craze for consent, where does it fucking end?” he asked in one of their first sessions, marking quotation marks with his fingers as he said the word consent.

The group therapy was always a circle. A circle of trust. A circle of hell. Alex highly suspected the idea was that each of them could look at the speakers and hear their own shitty behaviour and ugly thoughts reflected back upon them. That way they can truly judge each other, truly come to hate each other. Maybe strive to become better people from that. Well, if that’s the thinking – they were half right. Alex hated and judged just about everyone here, but no one here reflected him or his thoughts.

Every predatory fuck in the room claims they made mistakes, but Alex’s misdemeanours really could’ve happened to anyone. He was here, more to save his marriage than to avoid jail. He had run one of the country’s biggest nightclubs. There was sex. There was infidelity. There were a couple of girls he maybe should’ve asked for ID. Maybe even a couple of instances in younger days when lines were blurry, and drunk girls didn’t know how to be clear about what they did or didn’t want to happen. Nothing predatory though, nothing calculated, nothing compulsive.

Not that any of that mattered to the snowflakes, the “me-tooers”, and the fucking Woke Stasi. Facebook and Twitter came for him and his club. The accusations started. Alex was forced to resign, his wife threatened to leave him and take the children with her, along with a substantial divorce settlement. The only alternative offered was an admission of sex addiction and enrolment in this bullshit clinic.

The eight-week programme here was the slightly cheaper source of humiliation at least.

The three pm coffee was being laid out at the back of the room. Today it was needed. The boost of caffeine – the hit of sugar from those little muffins they put out. Alex found his gaze drawn wistfully towards the table. There were no women on the facility; that was just common sense. The catering staff here were young men: teenagers and students. People who had never experienced things such as power, responsibility, or the temptations that come with; the imposed innocence of the nobody, the involuntary integrity of a person with fuck-all to offer.

The two boys moved with the brisk and nervous energy that close proximity to the rich and influential inspires. They barely looked at each other, let alone spoke. One of them, short and dark-haired, set cups out for the coffee. The other, tall, thin and with long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, placed the muffins on a silver serving tray. It was a strange feeling, to envy them. Spotty virgins they might be, but at least they don’t have to listen to Peter Calloway monologue every god-damn day.

Blonde hair leaned forward, reaching towards the back of the tray for the final muffins. Alex couldn’t help notice that the boy actually had quite a nice arse, rounded, and distinctly defined against his thin and supple thighs. He tore his eyes away from it and back into the circle. Dr Wilkins hadn’t noticed Alex’s lapse in concentration – he was deeply engrossed in conversation with the South African CEO who was crying his trademark big snotty crocodile tears. Emboldened, Alex allowed his eyes to drift back.

He wasn’t pretty, the blonde boy, though neither was he ugly. He had a narrow face with thin lips, a roman nose and a weak chin with not even a suggestion of facial hair to it. Androgynous – that was the word.

Alex recalled a girl he’d known who had looked similar once upon a time. He dusted off the memory, he was fairly sure her name was Becky. She had held a house party, he was sure of that detail. Half their school year, left to celebrate unsupervised for the first time at the conclusion of their O level exams. Alex had taken a bottle of sherry he had stolen from his parents drinks cabinet.

Alex idly pictured blonde hair looking the way Becky had looked that night: her flowing maxi dress, and her hair released from the tightness of her trademark ponytail. Alex had thought she looked good outside of the school uniform, though he didn’t share the thought with his friends – they would have mocked them both relentlessly. Instead he followed Becky to the bathroom when the opportunity occurred. Waited for her on the landing and suggested they took his sherry into her bedroom. They sat on her bed, drinking fast from the bottle, getting drunk almost instantly.

He had felt flush with the drink. Confident enough to ask her if she would show him her tits. Becky had been coy at first but after some persuasion she dropped her straps. They weren’t big and she wasn’t particularly pretty either. It didn’t matter. He ripped his trousers off and begged her to get naked or suck his cock. Becky did neither but she kissed him as he masturbated.

She even got into it; she touched his penis – stroking it gently at first, giggling at the sight of it. Then Alex told her how hold it right and she got into it. She bit her bottom lip and began pumping until, at last…

Everyone else was standing.

The group therapy had concluded. Alex took shakily to his feet and realised the happy memory left him semi-erect. Alex shuffled past the refreshments, giving a smile and a nod to anyone who caught his eye. He left the therapy room and headed down the corridor towards the nearest bathroom.

Inside the air was cool. Alex splashed cold water across his face and counted twenty deep breaths: inhale, 1-2-3; exhale 1-2-3… He let the protestations and agitations of his pent-up sex drive ebb back into his subconscious once more. He had reached fourteen.

Just to be sure Alex counted down the final six breaths – just as Dr Wilkins had instructed – all the way to twenty.

Alex decided against the coffee after all – maybe just a cool glass of water would suffice. At the opposite end of the corridor a door swung open. Blonde Hair walked through, his caterer’s uniform swapped for denim shorts and a loose tee shirt.

Alex tried hard to ignore the vision. He kept walking. Eyes to the floor. The young man approached so closely Alex could reach out and touch him, if he wanted to.

He felt great pride, holding himself together and letting the boy pass without incident. He felt the relief coursing through him. Still, the closest thing to sex he had felt in a month was passing him by. Surely he could snatch something for later? Alex stopped, closed his eyes and…

“Did you… did you just sniff me?” The boy asked, stopping dead in his tracks.

Alex found his pace quickening. He said nothing.

“Hey. Hey don’t pretend you can’t hear me. You did, didn’t you? You sniffed at me as I passed.”

Alex found a hand grabbing his shoulder and pulling him back round with wiry and unexpected strength. Alex wanted to push back and defend himself. Instead, finding himself face-to-face, he noticed that Blonde Hair was really quite pretty after all.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Blonde Hair asked through his cute, thin-lipped mouth. Alex didn’t want to talk to that mouth, he wanted to pull it close and thrust his tongue inside. To pull the boy close and grab a hold of that pert arse. He resisted the urge and tried his best to offer friendly smile. The effort was forced and toothy he knew, but at least he couldn’t feel a blush coming on.

Blonde Hair stared hard in return. Alex saw the other man’s eyes dart downwards before the hand on his shoulder was jerked back. Alex looked down. Shit. That’s why there was no blushing; his blood was elsewhere. Blonde Hair was moving quickly away, back towards the meeting room.

Alex raced back towards the toilet. His trousers were down almost before he made inside the cubicle. Jesus that erection was massive – days’ worth of build-up. Alex thought of that mouth, of that pony tail. He thought of pulling those denim shorts down. He thought of that girl and her teenage bedroom – of reclining onto fluffy purple pillows and tasting the sherry on her breath as she kissed him and became the first female ever to touch his penis.

Alex was masturbating with such vigour that his knees nearly gave way. He planted his free hand on the wall to stabilise himself. If he closed his eyes he could recall the girls face clearly. He remembered the way she stopped giggling and bit her bottom lip. He took that as a signal that she’d finish him and that he could just relax into it now. If only he could relax here. He was almost there though. Just think of that lip-bite one more time.

“Mr Farrow?” Dr Wilkins could put on a stern voice when necessary. “Mr Farrow, are you in there?”

Alex did not reply, he let go of his penis and pulled himself back up to height.

Almost.

“Mr Farrow, I can see you in that cubical. What are you doing in there?”

“Taking a fucking shit.”

“Mr Farrow, I… I believe your feet are facing the wrong way for that.”

“Fuck off. Leave me alone.”

“I can’t do that Mr Farrow. I have just had a complaint from a staff member alleging… alleging that you smelt them while displaying clear signs of arousal. And… and sir, I can see your trousers around your ankles. I cannot go away until you come out of the toilet, sir.”

Alex sighed. He pulled his pants and trousers awkwardly over his frustrated penis and opened the door.

Dr Wilkins was accompanied by a security guard. It was a perfect moment of mutual misery – all eyes above the neckline as they ushered him out of the toilets. Mortifying enough to constitute a breakthrough: for the first time since his arrival, Alex wondered if he might just belong here after all.

Jake Kendall writes tragicomedy from his hometown of Oxford. His words can be found in the Cabinet of Heed, the Mechanics Institute Review, Idle Ink, Burning House Press, Coffin Bell Journal and Here Come’s Everyone. He rambles into the ether and self-promotes shamelessly on Twitter – @jakendallox

‘Pimp Land’ by Mirabella Magno

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Perhaps all children growing, that is, all children, like to play with their nails, to imagine them long and sharp, and dangerous, powerful with some weight to them, white like milk-fortified bone, while, at the same time, translucent, or even invisible, made of energy, electrically charged.

Matilda, if that is really her name, was one of those children. She imagined her nails black as the night with tiny white spots like stars, and when she stroke her beastly paws through thin air, she would rip the very fabric of space and time, and she would try to peer into these rips, but they never lasted long enough for her eyes to adjust to the seemingly light-less interior, or, in this case, exterior, perhaps. What was that? Space? The Nothing behind it all? She always wanted to know, but never did.

Eli, in its own way, preferred its pink nails to not slash anything open, it would be better if not. Not because it would hurt something, but because nails were not made for that, they were not made for anything in particular, they just were. So why not make them as beautiful as they could get? That seemed more interesting, not to say more promising.

However they used to imagine their nails before, it was not how they were now. And, by now, what is meant is the moment after the embrace of said hands, one cold as ennobled marble, the other as warm as fresh pavement during sun season.

“It’s always good to make business with you, ochibi-chan.” Said Matilda.

“And with you, too, Tara Morgana.” Said Eli.

“Where did you find this one?”

“It’s actually mine.” Said someone else.

“And who are you, o great artisan?”

“Well, I don’t know about great. I am the sculptor of some of these pieces string-lined by a theme, a series, to be more exact, a thematic entanglement I’ve been developing around a concept, which, in its own way, is itself a subversion of…”

While the young prospect artist summarized the complex web of intentions and hopes behind his masterful work and the many others to come, Matilda, with a calm smile and eyes of quiet and patient perversion, signaled with two fingers to a bulky figure in the corner behind many other pieces, particularly close was a high solitary pillar, which he was hiding behind, close to a classic fountain where the water was replaced by a mucosal substance that even seemed to flow better than water, but that more resembled a residue of something else rather than a pure thing in-itself like water, and where the little complimentary statues of winged babies bathing joyfully were either drawn over – grimaces, glasses, tattoos, gang signs, the ephemeral represented in the stone’s flesh with permanent markers – or replaced by plastic-looking mutants not even like baby demons, but altogether otherworldly in their blank stare looking nowhere, but, nevertheless, not blind – perhaps seeing something beyond the nowhere which they seemingly stared at so intently. The bulky figure quickly understood the sign and disappeared behind the pillar without a noise of crumpling leaves or smooched moist mossy grass.

Eli tried to hint away the floating mouth to stop moving by itself when Matilda finally said “What about the price? Name yours.”

“Oh, we usually passively wait for the bidder to open negotiations.”

“I know. But look around, what do you see?”

“I… I see an experiment, a big one, a huge one, indeed, a magnanimous work of art in itself that I… would love to see mine as a part of.”

“You see a corpse.”

“Excuse me?”

“Here we go again.” Said Eli.

“This, my fellow artist, is not a garden. An experiment, yes, maybe, but art? What even is art? No offense, I loved your work here. But are you one of those artists, the general type that comes here?”

“How, what type?”

“The type to say that art is alive, that creating art is like breathing life into something that wasn’t, like having a baby.”

“I…”

“Yes, you. Are you willing to sell this child, your child, this life you natured and nurtured, for just a quantity? Or anything else, for that matter. Even after seeing this place, this labyrinth of abandonment?”

“When you put it like that…”

“So, name your price.”

The young man loosened his tie and swallowed dry – it was a weird place, very, in fact, and it seemed endless, how big could this property be? He heard these lands stretched long, ever bigger than some countries, some yet undiscovered or undisclosed sites. But he had many an immaterial mouth to feed, maybe this was his chance, a shadow buyer of this caliber, a patron, and he landed that so early, that was beyond unexpected. Yes, this sounds fucked-up, but that was it, that was art, it would kickstart his career with just one piece of the many he had done or planned to do. That was it.

“Fifty… thousand…?”

“Fifty thousand for your child.”

“One hundred and fifty thousand!”

“Too late.” Said Eli.

“My associate is arriving with the legal formalities, the deposit was preset. I need a non-disclosure, are you comfortable with that?”

“…Sure…”

“Bring it.”

That was it, he thought, he got it. Maybe he could get more, but that was already more than he would ever dream for the first of his big sales. He looked one more time at the sculpture. What a masterpiece. Indeed, how talented he was. What an addition she would be to that weirdly lovely garden, exquisite, look at her perfectly shaped lips – my chthonic muse, the goddess-to-come, the sight of the future bleeding into the present, the ideal of more than just beauty, and that she was. What an astonishing two meters of woman.

“Here he comes.”

“Hey, what is that big hammer for?”

“Again this one?” Said Eli. “Already saw this too many times.”

“If you want new, win.” Said Matilda.

Her smirk almost came alive, slowly drifting off from her face into the air.

“Sign here, sir.” Said the bulky figure that had come back with the papers and a big-but-fashionable hammer.

The young artist looked not-so-confused at their faces, Tilda, Eli, the bulk holding the papers and, ultimately, his goddess. What was that? A trace of melancholy in her unperturbed, almost tyrannical, expression of virtue? Hesitantly, he grabbed the pen.

“All done. Do you want copies, sir?”

“Ahm, no, no need.”

“Sir, you are legally obliged to receive and maintain copies of these.”

He looked one more time to Tilda’s face. “Ok.” He said. She quickly proceeded to pick up the hammer, getting into position. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, you know. You already knew.”

“I thought it was a test, you know… an experiment… for your project. I saw the cameras…”

“My project? I’m no artist. The cameras are for security reasons.”

“Then…”

“Then it is how I told you. This is my corpse, and your life here is already beginning to infest it.”

“Wait!”

Too late. The blow landed perfectly, severing the poor image’s head a little below the neck – it always crumbled. The head fell right next to the rest by some meters, head a body, but not together.

“Do not pick it up.”

“Yes, madam.”

“Let the grass around this piece grow until I say so.”

“Yes, madam.”

“That will be all.”

“But—“

“Always a pleasure making business with talented young prospects like you. You can see how I pride myself a kind of curator. And I see a bright future ahead of you, you are brilliant.”

“Maybe too brilliant, let some of that dank for us, too.” Said Eli.

“He will show you the way, follow him.”

Then the young artist, following the man, also disappeared behind the lone white stone pillar, but not before checking his bank account with his phone. They could not see his reaction.

“And I lose again.”

“You always have the next time.”

“Put it in my tab.”

Mirabella Magno lives in the region of Cariri, a liminal space and natural reserve in Brazil. She works as a nomad-like type of linguist and does metaphysical research at the Federal University of Cariri. She is part, along with her surname-sharing accomplice, of the AF arts collective.

‘Praying Hands’ by RJC Smith

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If I had been born right, I would’ve been born out the bottom of my adoptive mother—not out of some anonymous woman, probably on the non-sanitized floor of a mobile home.  But Mother hadn’t been blessed, health-wise.

We were killing time, walking the insides of a museum not far from the hospital.  It was a perfect time for my father to hammer home a sentiment he held, and expressed repeatedly, as though he thought I was too stupid to pick up on it.

The museum we were in was an art museum.  It was called The Museum of Ephemeral Art.

The universe presented my father with opportunities to belittle me because it loved him.  The jury was out on how it felt about me, though I had vivid dreams—premonitions, I thought—of living alone and dying in a one-bedroom apartment.

I wanted to look at the paintings and I did my best to look at the paintings.  Father walked forward with his shoulders up high—his head like a turtle’s going into a shell.  I did not have time to look and linger at the paintings much.  I tried.  It was difficult to meet my own needs while abiding by his authority, and I did know Father had other things on his mind.

Mother was really sick and it was a shock to me that that could happen to her.  I thought we were Loved.

I was so taken by the building’s labyrinthine design: its multiple levels, its high ceilings, its hallways, its nooks and crannies, and little rooms where perhaps only one piece, if anything, was hung.  On its bottom floor, we walked a long hallway where only big sad clowns looked down at us from their frames.

“Is this the sort of place you’d like to be commemorated,” my father said, frowning like one of the wall’s clowns.  “You want to put yourself up for everyone to gawk at, huh?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe.”  Though I could tell, looking around, that artists were clearly defective in some ways known by God and foreign to medical science.

Our car was parked on the curb outside the museum.  From the top of the hill, the street sloping down from the museum, I could see much of the museum and hospital’s city—mostly alien to me.  I could see moving cars and building lights beginning to flicker on against a background of waning sunlight.

I thought, what’s so great anyway, about being kept alive through art?  I didn’t want to exist anywhere at all, let alone in something so abstract and potentially unending.

In that dusk, before the street lamps lit up, with my adoptive father of ten years finagling with the car door a few yards ahead of me, I thought about bolting.  But I didn’t.  I walked to the car and got in the passenger seat.

I had just turned sixteen years old.

I had been praying to God for something to change.

I would say to Him, “Please God, deliver me from here.  Cast me to a new home, or let me be free, at least, of these people.”

I looked out of the car window at the rows of rectangular city buildings we passed.

Every night my adoptive parents fought.  They stormed up and down each of the house’s levels, fulfilling their seeming need to occupy each room with their noise.  I couldn’t take their yelling—or rather, Mother would yell, and after she had yelled for a few minutes, Father would speak in a hushed scathing tone, that burbled louder and louder until he shook all  the area surrounding him like a booming subwoofer.

A road sign indicated we were nearing the hospital.  I imagined what my father would do once he got in there.  I imagined him stomping his feet at the front desk, yelling at some nurse for being made to wait.  He would always make a stink at any minor inconvenience that could be attributed to someone nearby.  Mother was the same way.   They were always angry all the fricking time.

I couldn’t even escape their hatred in the basement—my sacred grounds.  No one  went down there but me.  Down there I would paint.  Mostly pictures of animals that I drew from reference books.  But it was my art—mine.  But even down there I couldn’t escape the sound of Mother’s high-pitched feverish ranting, or the terrible vibrations of my Father’s voice.

We walked out of the automatic hospital doors with Mom in a wheelchair.  She was very still and wasn’t talking.  Her grayish blonde hair was fallen around her shoulders, looking dirty like a wet mop.  He whispered to her in her ear, I couldn’t make out what, his body bent over the chair as he pushed it forward—his ass swaying back and forth in my lower nine o’clock.

We stopped and stood on the curb.  One large hospital employee moved Mother, while retaining her sitting position, into the passenger seat, while another folded the wheelchair and stuck it into the trunk.  I got in the back and Dad got in the front.

He started up the car and we pulled out of the hospital and headed home.

“BILLY LOVED THE MUSEUM,” Father said, saying it loud like it would help Mother hear, but really so I could hear in the back, “HE LOVED ALL THOSE WACKY PICTURES—YOU COULD IMAGINE.”

When we got home, the workers had finished installing the stair lift on the railing and were pulling out of our driveway.  We both stood facing the staircase watching Mother travel upstairs.

The staircase was in the big marble foyer when you first walked in.  It was a spiral that went up to the landing on the second floor.  I wondered, why isn’t he going up there to get her?

He was looking right at me, I noticed, when I looked down.

“Are you going to help me here, Billy?” he asked, under his breath as if it were possible Mother could hear even if she wasn’t sitting on the chairlift, idle, at the top of the stairs.

“What?” I asked, flatly, giving him the side-eye.

“Are you going to help me here, Billy,” he said again.

Coming back downstairs later I found Mother sitting in the kitchen outside the sliding glass door that opened out onto the veranda.  Sunlight framed her around the frame of her wheelchair.  She sat perfectly still—her eyes aimed forward.

“Hi Mom,” I said, walking up to her.  She looked past me.

Father was sitting out on the deck.  I could see him in profile through the wall-length windows in the foyer. Father was sitting with his head back, sunglasses on—ambiguously asleep.  The wooden patio hung over an intensely sloped, nearly vertical hill, filled with brush and thorny bushes to be snagged on if you were to fall down it.

“Ian?” Mother asked.  She lifted a weak hand slightly, towards me.  Her mouth hung open slightly.  Her eyes were far off somewhere.

“Ian?” I said. “Who’s Ian?”

She put her hand down.  Her eyes returned to nowhere.  I felt something sink deep into my chest and a brief prickling all over my body.  I turned around and exited the house out the back door.  I did not go out the front door.

The backyard was half an acre.   It was barren except for the overgrown grass.  High sheet metal fencing enclosed the property—my father said it was the only really effective way to keep out deer.

I sat down on the grass and gritted my teeth and opened my lips and breathed through my gritted teeth.  I ripped out patch after patch of the half tall grass while nearly hyperventilating.  After a while I got tired and I laid down in the sun and fell asleep for a bit.

We sat around and ate at the dining room table. My father was teaching himself to cook, for obvious reasons.  We were eating some kind of chicken stir-fry.  It was okay.  The chicken was a bit overcooked—little bland tough overcooked chunks in the bed of vegetables on my brown plate on the brown table.

My head hurt and I drank Pepsi from a clear plastic glass with circular ice cubes in it.

“So you really loved that museum, huh,” Father said.

Father had reached the point of his eating where he was no longer shoveling food into his mouth, and this allowed him to speak in this way while still eating intermittently.  I continued eating at my own pace.

“You should have seen him in there, Mother, he was so enamored,” my father continued, in some kind of affect, “You’d think he might start painting clowns and midgets and crop circles.”

We were sitting at the dinner table and Mother was doing nothing but sitting there in her wheelchair staring at something behind my shoulder.

“Is that where you’d see yourself hung, Billy?”

“I think you liked it there,” I said, in a rush of energy.

My father looked at me and my mother did not look at me, obviously.

“Yeah,” I said.  I went on autopilot.  “I found him in there, Mother, in a little alcove completely by himself.  It was just a small cube of a room like my room upstairs.  The whole museum was like a maze and I had lost him.  He was against one wall, completely out of it.  I had to shake him awake.  I don’t know what came over him.  The only thing in the room was on the opposite wall, it was a framed drawing of a bear on loose-leaf paper.”

I laughed at him.  For about five or six seconds he looked mortified.  Then his entire face contorted in a kind of fitful rage before he began laughing himself.  It was convincing sounding but I had stopped already.

When I lay in bed that night I replayed what I had said at the dinner table.  I thought of my father slumped against a wall, maybe sitting on the floor, in a kind of stupor.  Maybe when I found him, before I nudged or shook him, there was some spit trailing out from one end of his mouth and onto his shoulder.

My room was small and cubic.   There was an attached bathroom and room enough for a small couch and a TV set.  I had it made, really.  I wondered why I was so miserable.

On the wall opposite my bed was a poster of a photograph of the musician Johnny Cash flipping off the person taking the photograph.  I hadn’t heard his music but I’d seen the poster once in a television show about high school students.

The more I thought of finding my father at the museum near the hospital, the more it seemed less like something I was making up in my head and like something that actually happened.

I heard Father skulking around downstairs.  This had been happening recently.

I was lying in bed.  I had turned the TV to face my bed and not the small sofa.  I was watching a digital cable channel that had been skipped over in the mass parental block.  Late at night it played a program that interviewed women in bikinis—models—and was intercut with shots of them walking around a pool and white cement patio, palms of palm trees hanging above them.  Watching it muted with closed captioning, every so often black boxes of text covered up their bodies.  Even though I was there to look at them I felt bad not to hear them out, and in the end no one was the winner.  A drawing I had made, an approximation of what a woman looked like naked, though I had no idea where the nipple went on the boob—which spanned three torn out pages of yellow legal pad paper for attempted accuracy’s sake—was missing from my dresser drawer when we returned from the hospital.  I found this upsetting.

I imagined that Father was up these nights because of Mother’s condition.  I imagined her lying in bed, in the same position she sat in her chair but facing the ceiling: her legs up and bent at the knee, her arms straight out with her hands down like they were falling off the ends and edges of her arm rests.  Maybe it unnerved him to be lying next to someone like that.

I could not sleep much.  I turned and turned in bed, glancing intermittently at the digital alarm clock on the dresser a foot from my head.  The last I remember it was nearly four in the morning.   I woke up early, at 6, before I would normally get up for homeschooling at 7:30.  I had done this before and I did this so I could have time to work on my paintings, which were in the basement.

The basement was less redone, less taken care of then the rest of the house.  There was one room that housed an unmade bed—just a mattress on a frame—for the company that was never there.  The other room had a couch and a Ping-Pong table, but was mostly used for storage.  Boxes of crap and old books were piled around.

Centipedes scurried everywhere down there.  Sometimes on the walls.  Sometimes they’d even find their way upstairs, and onto the walls up on the main floor.

I walked downstairs to the basement, in my socks, careful not to make noise, to miss the squeaking step.  I walked through the short hall past the bedroom with the empty bed.  I walked into the Game Room.

In the Game Room, so named because it had the Ping-Pong table—though there was never anyone there playing on it—was my easel covered in a sheet, and all of my completed or abandoned paintings stacked up against one wall.

There was my father.  There was a towel draped over his head, and a comforter wrapped around his body.  His body rotated slightly, in an unconscious way, like he had been spun at one point and was now finally running out of momentum.  It seemed like it was something the body does when it feels itself to be alone.

“Oh, hello,” he drawled, turning slowly to look at me, “Billy.”  I’d been standing there ten seconds.  He got up and walked past me in a slow gloom.  I watched him disappear up the stairs, dragging the comforter up behind him.

I went to the corner where I painted.  My finished paintings were stacked against one wall.  I never looked at them.  I decided I hated what I was currently working on.  I was painting a picture of a pregnant seahorse, using an encyclopedia picture as reference.

I stared at my freshly placed blank canvas and what came to mind was the little boy who was staring at me in church.

I had dreaded going to church with Mother in the wheelchair.  It wasn’t because I was ashamed it was because I didn’t want to have all the eyes on me.  I didn’t want everyone gawking because then I felt like they were gawking at me.

I remember I was wearing a very creased button-up.  It was buttoned all the way up.  My hair was still damp from the morning shower.  It was mostly dry at the top of my head but I could still feel the moisture in my scalp.  There were very wet patches around the back at my neck.  It had grown long, and the sensation of it brushing against my neck made me shiver a bit in disgust.

And it looked so awkward.

And all those hairs growing on my upper lip, oh God.

I was at the end of a cramped pew with Father next to me, and Mother on the other side, in the aisle.  The day’s minister stood on the stage up front, which was only slightly elevated from the ground.  She was a short middle-aged woman in a red pantsuit, tiny glasses and bun hairdo.  She said something into her microphone that made my father scoff.  It was about praying not only for the American soldier but for the enemy soldier as well.  For he was one who had been led astray but was still a child of God.

Father said something like, “Please,” or, “Come on,” or, “Give me a break,” under his breath.

When she was done she got off stage and the projector screen came down.  Christian rock music played.  We all had to stand up on our feet for half an hour.  People put their hands in the air.  Some people shook their bodies and fell to their seats.  I stood there with Father while Mother was still sitting there and it felt awkward.  Father had his hands clasped while mine were at my side.

I looked around at the light pouring in from behind the panes of stained glass, which had made the projected lyrics faded and harder to read on the screen.  On the second floor of seating was a little boy looking at me from between the wooden posts of the railing.  He stood at a diagonal to all the people around him that were faced the screen and singing.  The light bounced off the top right side of his black bowl-cut hair.  He stared at me.  He was wearing a button-up shirt, white with green lines.  He was wearing khaki pants.

It turned out I didn’t need to wake up early anymore—Father had decided not to continue Mother’s homeschooling regimen.

My father had a second stair lift installed, this one to the basement.  My mother was put in the guest room.  In the nights following I imagined the centipedes crawling all around her, and on her.  I hoped that at least fresh bedding had been put on the bed.

Every day, the door to the guest bedroom was locked.  Every time I went past it, it was locked.

A doctor made a house call and went into the locked room.  I walked past it to get to my painting.  My father was standing outside the door in tremulous worry.  I was painting when the doctor came out, and I heard the hushed tone of the doctor and the blubbering of my adoptive father.

I was close to completing my painting.  There stood the little boy again, staring out from between the posts of the railing.  But there was something about approaching completion of this piece that made me incredibly tired.  I made eye contact with the little boy as I had in church that day and felt just as drained of everything.

It was also the most beautiful thing I had ever painted—a willfulness and stylishness to it, while still being startlingly accurate to my memory.  I looked at it while my father held his head in his hands behind me, out in the hallway.

I was left in the dark about everything, as I had been my entire life.

My father made filet mignon for dinner.  I said it was good.

“Oh you like this, huh,” he asked, or said, I wasn’t sure.  “You like the good stuff.”

“I guess,” I said, “I like this.”

“Hmm,” he said, and we ate the rest in silence.

For two weeks we ate filet mignon.  Halfway through the second week I had become disgusted by the cut of meat—how it would fall apart in my mouth as I was eating it.

That TV channel fuzzed out completely, but I had become too depressed to masturbate.  My father started buying me video games, which I had never been allowed before.  I played them one after the other, every day of the week.  There was something dumbly meditative in occupying crude, pixelated worlds instead of my own.  Still, I prayed to God for anything to give, especially when lying awake.  I couldn’t imagine going on another year.  I couldn’t do it.

My father rented some sentimental movie from the TV one night.  He forced me to sit and watch with him.  At the end of it, when the lady was taken off life support, he shed a single tear and got at it with his finger.

“I’m sensitive, you know,” he said, “I’m sensitive even if it doesn’t seem like it.”

I looked at him.

After the second week of filet mignon, my father switched to some bland whitefish he had bought in bulk and kept in the freezer.  It was nearly as bad.

“I’m not a fan of this,” I said, one night.

“It was cost effective,” my father said.

I shoveled a bit more into my mouth.

“You can’t expect me to keep buying steak for you, night after night,” he said.

My eyes were burnt out from the video games.  I lay awake in bed until I’d reached a half sleep.

It was as if the entire house was shaking around me.  I then perceived myself to be floating outside, watching from the sky above the street, past the metal fencing.  I watched as the house was ripped from its foundation by an invisible hand and lifted in the air.  It was segmented like a Rubik’s cube.  Its segments spun as if it was being effortlessly solved.  I could see the basement it had become detached from in the ground.  I could see my paintings and my mother and the Ping Pong table.

Then I was back in my bed and I was waking up and it was morning.  I didn’t feel like I had slept at all.

I went downstairs and to the dining room.  I was confused to see Father dressed in his work suit.  It was blue with a blue tie and he was wearing a dress shirt under the jacket, too.  Then I saw the spread of food out on the table.  Mother came out wearing a long floral dress, beaming.  We all pulled out our chairs and made scratching noises on the hardwood and sat down.

There was none of the simmering resentment I had come to expect from the two of them, which was intermittently applied to me.  Instead they were happy—earnestly happy.  They started talking about starting up my homeschooling again.  Also, were they supposed to be paying for my art supplies, as well as these video games, now?  Sometimes it was the time to put these childish things behind us.  Father was looking forward to getting back to the office, after being away so long.  To get back in the swing of things.  Mother was looking forward to getting back to the paperback she had left with its spine cracked.  To have a drink with this object in the chair out on the veranda.  And though it seemed like everything was fine—possibly better than before, even—I felt so angry that I simply ate in silence.

RJC Smith is from New York and New Jersey. His work, published in X-R-A-Y and other places, and forthcoming in Post Road, can be found on his website: https://neutralspaces.co/rjcsmith/

“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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kat0n9000?lang=en

“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.