Tag Archives: psychological horror

Another Night in Paradise

Their key slid to the left of the lock, leading to Nick fumbling both with his wife, flung bridal-style over his arms, and the knob. The door gave too easily and the pair nearly fell into the darkened room. Bonnie slid, laughing, down and around his side like she was descending a firefighter’s pole.

“Welcome to paradise,” Nick said sarcastically.

“Hey, at least it’s got a door,” Bonnie said, kicking the scrunched floor-rug with her sandals. “And…a view?”

The porthole that sat just below a decorative coconut-fibre mat was nearly opaque with smeared grease and scratches. Bonnie stepped closer to peer through the muddied glass and yelped, jumping back. Moisture pooled at her feet, seeping from a point roughly at waist-height. “Nick, it’s wet.”

Nick nodded. “Health hazard. Hello, first class.” He peered around the cabin. “None of the outlets are at floor level, though. They’ll probably just send someone to seal it, move us and throw us coupons for the buffet.”

‘Oh, Nick.” The statement had no follow up. Bonnie hung listlessly to her husband’s side as he hung a waterproof coat on the cabin door’s hook. The hook immediately came away, startling laughter from the both of them.

“Remind me,” Nick said, “didn’t we say no more cruises, ever, after the last time?”

Bonnie clicked her tongue. “We also said no pizza after Atkins and no more road trips to your brother’s.”

“Yeah, but last time should have been the capper. Remember that disaster?”

“I try not to,” she said blithely, picking up the coat and hanging it on a drawer knob, “anyway, you don’t know. It could be fun.”

 

The upper deck smelled faintly of feces and spoiled food. Posted signs warned guests about consuming water directly from the boat’s taps and reminded that bottled water was available plentifully and for a modest price in any of the restaurants. Nick wadded up a gum wrapper and flung it at a sign, which unstuck from the wall and slid awkwardly to the ground. Nick grunted and shook his head, using his free arm to gather Bonnie to his side.

“Come on, vacations are supposed to be relaxing.” Bonnie was pushing the last of her stray hairs underneath the bathing cap she insisted on wearing to protect her dye job. “So relax.”

“Sure.” Nick leaned casually on a railing and his hand came away sticky. Bonnie laughed.

“”What gets me is how new this place looks. What possessed me to book a cruise on an untested ship? Nothing ever goes right in a new tourist trap.”

“So? I bet the first people into Disney World don’t regret it.” Bonnie paced to the edge of the non-slip tile surrounding the deck pool, shedding her towel like a cape. “Coming in?”

Nick shook his head. “Stinks too much like chlorine. I’ll sit this one out.” He scooped up her towel and went to claim an empty chaise lounge.

Bonnie set off into the pool to prove him wrong. The chlorine did sting her eyes a bit, no, a lot. Four minutes into her swim, she spotted a lone turd floating past.

“Too cold?” Nick asked airily, towel already out. Bonnie dried herself hastily, trying not to retch.

“Remind me to bring more hand sanitizer to the next cruise.”

“I don’t think there will be a next cruise.”

Someone’s boisterous child ran past, kicking over Nick’s thermal coffee cup and splattering their feet with milky coffee. The couple exchanged looks.

 

It seemed like every other light installed in the ship’s hallways was set to permanent flicker. Nick could feel a headache welling up deep in his skull. Bonnie’s attempt to purchase painkiller from the drug store only turned up a bland generic which did not dent the pain. As they strolled past yet another out-of-order elevator, Nick squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“What even is the point,” he said, “why do we do this? We’ve turned all our control over to this company, all our money, and for what? So we can be in a bubble everywhere we go? Why can’t we just travel like normal people?”

“So we can take part in the class-action suit,” Bonnie joked without conviction. Her corns were beginning to throb.

“But that’s the thing, people never win those. The companies settle out of court, nothing changes. We’re under marine law out here, they could kill us and we wouldn’t have any recourse.”

Bonnie stopped. “Don’t say that. Don’t joke about that.”

“I’m not joking, I’m—” Nick stopped to rub his eyes against the strobing onslaught of an overhead bulb. “God. Can we just go back to our room?”

Maintenance had been by and left a placard on their door, apologizing for not having the proper tools to fix the problem until the next port. Management left another, smaller, finer-print card apologizing for the inability to move them as the ship was booked full and invited them to partake in the complimentary fruit basket left for them.

Nick threw it at the wall. Kiwis and pluots, fruits that they were both allergic to, rained down on the wet floor. The cabin smelled like mold.

 

“First thing when we get to port,” Nick said, struggling on with his shirt in the damp air of the cabin, “first thing we’re doing is catching a plane back. This is ridiculous.”

Bonnie was squinting through the porthole, hands paused in the act of knotting her sarong. “Are you sure we didn’t port last night?”

“Yeah. Why?” Nick looked over at her.

“I just…remember waking and the boat was very still for a few hours in the middle of the night last night.” Bonnie looked over at the full-length mirror hanging beside the bed, petting her collarbone.

“That’s crazy. Why make port in the middle of the night, when no one’s awake?”

Bonnie looked into his eyes, just looked and looked. The question hung in the air between them.

They made their way up to the third deck, where the fire show was supposed to be taking place. Nick sucked air over his teeth when he saw the line. He put a hand on Bonnie’s arm. She huddled over and assumed a look of martyrdom.

“Sorry folks,” Nick called to the queue as they walked past, “MS flare up. I just need to get her sat down.”

They scored a table right up near the stage. Ten minutes passed as the other guests filed in. Twenty minutes. Nick sipped water out of a glass covered with fingerprints. It tasted how the air smelled. Half an hour. Finally a cruise employee came out and apologized for the cancellation of the show, passing out vouchers for the buffet. Nick shot an ‘I-told-you-so’ look to his wife.

The pool was crowded with unruly children. Bonnie watched one launch a snot rocket directly into the water and decided against entering. Nick spotted the blue stripe of an island vanishing into the boat’s wake and hunted down a docking schedule. Yes, they had made port in the middle of the night. The attendant who provided the chart promised to inform him of any future stops, scribbling their surname and cabin number in an illegible hand.

The couple killed a few hours wandering hand in hand, marveling at the various cracks in the cruise’s facade of pefection. Doors stuck. Surfaces were unsanitary. The mixed odor of everything unpleasant had only gotten stronger since the first day. They decided to brave the buffet, splitting their menu to sweeten the odds. Nick went with the chicken tandoori, reasoning that it would have been scorched to a temperature reasonable enough that would kill any hitchhiking E.coli. Bonnie stuck with fruit and the vegetables no one took, heaping her plate with raw broccoli and cauliflower.

As it happened, Nick lost the draw. He spent the rest of the night alternately hunched over or sitting on the toilet, which stopped flushing after the third visit. The card on their cabin door apologized yet again for the lack of repair, but they had attempted to stem the leak and broken the light in their efforts. The door stuck when they went to bed down, Bonnie’s hand slipping and cracking her customized vacation nail tips right through the palm trees.

Stomach subsiding into grumbles, Nick lay beside his wife in total darkness.

“…I mean,” Bonnie said, “if this is all this bad, imagine what the lifeboat are like.”

Nick sat up. Bonnie had put her finger on something that had been bothering him, niggling at the back of his head like a spawning migraine.

“You remember the last cruise,” he said slowly, “remember how we said we’d never go on another one…”

Bonnie laughed in the dark. “Yup. I said ‘if we ever get out of here—’”

“—‘if we ever survive,’” Nick interjected.

Bonnie was silent.

“They were calling us out to the lifeboats. We were listing to port and they were evacuating,” Nick said, worrying the memory like a splinter.

Bonnie gasped. “And we said I had muscular dystrophy, got us on one of the early boats. I remember. The sea was so choppy, there was this old woman wailing every time we went over a wave. Why would we book another cruise after that?”

Nick said grimly, “we wouldn’t.”

The air in the cabin was thick and wet.

“Why doesn’t anything work here?” Nick turned to her, unable though he was to actually look at his wife. “Not a single thing has gone right for us, why is that?”

“Nick,” Bonnie said in a hushed, urgent tone. She sat up and grasped his lapels. “I remember the lifeboat. I remember the water was so cold, we fell off but we kept getting back on. When did they rescue us, Nick? Why don’t I remember being rescued?

There was the groan of thousands of pounds of steel being overtaxed. The cabin, and the couple in it, tilted to one side.

“Nick,” Bonnie said, “Nick. Nick!

 

The door kicked open, and the couple behind it nearly fell into the room.

“Welcome to paradise.”

“Hey, at least it’s got a door. And…a view?” A yelp. “Nick, it’s wet.”

“Health hazard. Hello, first class…”

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The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

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That Time of the Month

“Sure is good of you to come to dinner like this.”

Amanda, hunched over her aching belly, smiled. She’d had misgivings, of course, but Kieran was good. They understood each other.

Her older sister Eliza had never gotten that part. She’d had plenty of boyfriends, men tended to be attracted to women who raged like fires, but in Amanda’s world it was quality, not quantity that set the standard.

Not like that had mattered to her. Lizzie, recipient of a little genetic…problem, had never put much truck in social niceties. Each time her father related a new emergency from Lizzie’s end, he’d point at Amanda and say, “don’t you ever be like that.”

And Amanda wasn’t. She starved and preened and bent herself into the good girl shape society left for her. That’s what it took. Even when the genetic curse struck her too, she kept to the wall. She was on her way to meet Kieran’s family, wearing a dress and a bow in her hair (a bow!) and even a hint of makeup. She could do this. Yes.

The waxing moon followed the car, puffing out its pale cheeks at her.

Kieran’s mother opened the door. She brushed kisses to either side of Amanda’s face and pronounced her the prettied thing under the sun. Amanda smiled back and willed herself not to scratch the spot where she’d waxed the unibrow away.

Kieran’s older brother and wife were there, and Kieran’s uncle, and Kieran’s father. Amanda’s smile went to all the right places in her face. She was properly demure. She laughed at off-color jokes. She let Kieran’s sister-in-law admire her nails, which always grew long and straight.

The first rumble of trouble was very much disguised as a well-meaning jest.

Kieran’s mother, a plump woman who didn’t look like she’d skipped a meal in her life, asked, “so when are you and Kieran going to give us kids?”

Amanda stopped and flushed. She hadn’t expected this so soon.

Kieran came to the rescue. “Mom it’s too early to be thinking about this.”

“Sure, sure, but when,” the old bitch prodded.

Amanda realized she was drooling and dabbed daintily at her mouth with her napkin.

“Actually,” her voice broke. She cleared her throat. “I have a genetic condition. I just as soon wouldn’t pass that down to anyone.”

The family blinked as if she’d spoken in a different language.

“You know, they do wonders with IVF these days,” Kieran’s uncle put in, “I bet you could season your turkey and cook it in another pot.”

“Oh, Bill,” Kieran’s mother said.

Amanda was on edge now. The questions picked at her like biting ants. She went to school where? Her family was from where? She was getting a job when? All the while a tingle and burn in her abdomen. She could do this. She could do this. Normal people did this all the time.

She was salivating excessively now. She thought to excuse herself from the table, but Kieran’s mother misunderstood it as a gesture to help clean. She ordered Amanda back down.

“Mom, it’s not that,” Kieran said, picking up on her body language. God bless that boy. “She’s got real intense monthlies, you know?”

“Oh dear.” His mother smiled widely at Amanda. “You know, a girlfirend of mine switched to soy? Never had cramps again.”

Amanda smiled tightly as she got up from the table. The bathroom was alarmingly neat, like no one had ever used it for its intended purpose. She went to rub her eye and—too late!—remembered her eyeshadow. Then she wasted clumps of wet toilet paper trying to scrub it off.

Someone knocked at the door. “Sweetie, are you almost done in there?”

She hadn’t been in here that long, had she? Amanda looked at her face in the mirror. God, she had really botched the removal job. And, yes, when she leaned in for a better look, she could see the unibrow was already trying to re-assert itself.

Kieran’s sister-in-law looked surprised when Amanda finally opened the door. She rallied, but Amanda had seen it.

Her skin was flush and felt prickly. God.

Kieran was conversing in the dining room over beers with the men in his family. He was just so good-looking and sweet it made her ache for a minute.

Kieran caught her gaze. He came to her, free and easy.

“I’m sorry sweetie,” she whispered as her stomach constricted, “but I’m going to have to go. Tell your family I’m sorry, okay?”

Kieran shook his head. “No.”

Amanda gulped down panic. No, not you. You were so good. “Sweetheart, I mean it. You agreed to let me go when I said go.”

But now Kieran was blocking her way, shaking his head and setting his beer aside to take her hand.

“You don’t get to walk out,” he said gently, “it’s family time. You’re always telling me on how you’ve run from family your whole life. Well it’s time to stop running.”

Amanda bent double with a twinge. “Not my family,” she managed through a constricted throat.

“Well they will be. So take an ibuprofen or two and lay on my mom’s bed, but you’re staying,” he lovingly ordered.

A thin drool ran from her mouth. No keeping it in any more.

Amanda lashed out with her free hand, slashing Kieran’s throat clean through.

Kieran was more surprised than anything. He put his hand to the blood at his throat and then looked at it, as if unsure what had just transpired.

Kieran’s mother happened to look down the hall at precisely the wrong moment. She dropped a dish. Her face was round and plump, her cheeks fat white moons that mocked Amanda.

Amanda threw back her head and howled.

 

Lizzie shut the door on her truck. “Jeeziz, smells like my bachelorette party.”

Amanda was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette. “It’s not funny. I thought it would be okay.”

“Ah, everyone thinks that. One more shot of whisky, one more hit, I’ll be okay.” Lizzie had embraced her monthly hirsuteness, scratching one hairy forearm with long nails. “You can’t get with someone normal and expect it to fix you. S’what I learned with Andrew.”

“Is he the guy dad liked?”

“No, that guy was actually a coke dealer.” Lizzie snorted through her nose as she surveyed the carnage within the house. “What have you done, Mandy Jane, Mandy Jane?”

“Lizzie Ann, Lizzie Anne, I done a shame,” Amanda said back.

Lizzie scrubbed her eyes with a sleeve. “That’s my girl. Now up and at ‘em, it’s gotta look like a wild dog let loose in there.”

“You won’t tell dad?”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

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Dave’s Blue Hole

Dave’s Blue Hole is an unusually deep freshwater spring located outside of Gunsmith, Colorado. The actual measure of the hole is unknown; the last attempt bottomed out at 115 meters before the surveyor ran out of line. The water becomes anoxic at about 43 meters. After the incident of 1988, the spring has been capped indefinitely by a metal gate. Dave’s Bait & Wait remains standing beside the entrance to the pool, abandoned after tourism dropped off completely.

The first recorded description of the spring comes from a Spanish traveler’s diary dated 1796. The writer, a Franciscan friar on his way to San Carlos, detailed a stop at a place sheltered by high bluffs. Within the cliffs, they found an unusually round spring that produced clear, crisp water. Another member of the traveler’s group fell into the spring and sank out of sight almost immediately. The group cast lines into the hole to no avail. What’s more, they found through experimentation that the water had almost no buoyancy. Light things like sticks and even folded paper would not stay on the surface for more than a moment.

The traveler also noted the existence of a petroglyph on the bluff immediately above the spring, depicting a whale-like creature. The petroglyph has been all but worn away in the intervening centuries. The rock where it sat now contains only a few faint lines.

The parcel of land where the hole lies was purchased by one David Killigan in 1860 for the princely sum of $.35 per acre. He initially intended to mine for silver but found the novelty of the hole too striking to pass up. He built a store in hopes of attracting travelers en route to the rockies, touting the supposed restorative powers of the spring. The place became a local fixture, Killigan a tolerated eccentric that added color to the countryside. When he disappeared in 1876, it raised a mild furor. Killigan’s lantern was found placed beside his shoes at the rim of the spring. A line was secured to the nearby horse-hitching post and led down into the water, upon retrieving the line they found it had been tied into a series of knots to serve as a ladder. Neighbors in town had heard him complaining of mild temblors coming from inside the spring just a few days prior. He had possibly entered the waters in hopes of discovering the source of the noise and fallen prey to a thermocline.

The shop passed from hand to hand over the years. It was a solid tourist draw, so the operation was run by an official town trust. The spring drew no more unusual interest until the onset of recreational diving as a pastime.

The spring had long been a draw for thrill-seeking divers when Mark Boyle attempted his descent on June 5th, 1988. The anoxic nature of the spring meant that many animal skeletons littered the walls of the hole. Divers who ventured past the indicated safety zone spoke of human skeletons glimpsed at greater depths, in numbers that might suggest human sacrifice. The spring had been equipped with a submerged gate that warned divers that venturing past that point was unadvisable. Mark’s plan that day was to do exactly that.

Mark had brought along two friends and a safety line as guards against a possible accident. Neither friend was diving-certified, nor did they have diving equipment.

At 3:07pm, Mark went over the side of the spring.

At 3:46 the safety line began trembling. Mark’s friends became alarmed.

At approximately 4pm, the safety line went taut. Mark attempted a rapid ascent, too rapid. He showed signs of decompression sickness when he surfaced, slurring his words and lacking coordination. As one friend raced to call an ambulance, the other attempted to administer first aid. Mark rambled about something that lived in the waters of the spring, that the spring was really just a small outlet of a much-larger subterranean body of water. He was incoherent when the ambulance arrived. He fell unconscious on the way to Gunsmith’s only hospital and died a few hours later.

After an inquiry, a second gate was set on the mouth of the spring and welded in place. Through possible corruption due to metals fallen into the spring, the water has taken on a corrosive effect. Seismic activity in the region has increased steadily since 1988.

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Hen’s Teeth

There was a large, grey egg under Norma. Norma was an Araucana, her eggs had always been light blue. What’s more, the egg was almost twice the size of a regular chicken egg.

“Whatcha say, Norma,” Denise said half in jest, “you take up with an ostrich?”

Norma was their only brooding hen, the only animal left on the farm after old Hep had been hit by a passing semi. Mitch thought it would be just fine to get along without animals on a farm that didn’t grow anything.

“Talk to me, girl.”

Norma’s eyelids were rolled up over her eyes. She seemed to tremble a little with the sharp breeze that stitched through the open coop slats. Denise set her gently down over the monstrous lump, making sure it was in the gap between her wing and body.

“Wherever you found it, you can keep it,” Denise said.

Mitch had draped the kitchen table with newspaper as he disassembled a motor. Denise set the empty egg basket on top of the fridge and picked up a rag.

“Old girl not laying?” Mitch’s tone was light.

“Damndest thing. She’s got a big ol’ grey egg out there. You think it come from a pheasant?”

“No damn pheasant I know lays grey eggs. Maybe she just needs a creme rinse. What color you call that?” Mitch pointed to her hair with an oily finger.

“Barn slat brown.” Denise flicked a ragful of crumbs at him. It was their way, the shape that love took between them.

 

The next day, the feed lay in the same place where she had scattered it. Denise frowned and put today’s scoop back in the can.

Norma was still in her little henhouse, one little cubby out of twenty. Norma had come with the house, same as the coop and the barn and the fields that were growing a fine crop of thistles. Even the man who sold them the place didn’t know how old she was. Maybe she’d gotten something rotten inside, something twisted around wrong, and she’d laid the last egg she’d ever lay.

Denise felt her little cheek patches. Were they supposed to be warm? Norma shivered in place, not stirring when Denise checked beneath her. There was the grey oval and beside it was the blue shell and saffron yolk of a smashed egg.

“Oh, hell.” Denise picked up the remnants of the wasted egg, as if that would fix anything.

“Whatcha after?” Today Mitch was staining a tobacco box.

“I’m mixing some cornmeal with water and give it to her with an eyedropper. Poor girl’s so weak she can’t come down to feed. She’s et her own.”

Mitch snorted. “Why don’t you mix her up some formula while you’re at it?”

“Don’t make fun. She’s in a bad way. Maybe we should take her to the vet.”

“Might as well take a field mouse to the vet.” Mitch wiped his hands on an oilrag. “Or even a fly.”

“I’m serious.” Denise set her hands flat on the counter. “I can’t just let the old girl go. She’s like…”

The air between them was as familiar as the track worn in the carpet from their bedroom to the bathroom. Mitch stood up suddenly.

“Up to bed,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

From the second floor, Denise could get a good look at the corner of the coop. A large pinewood box, built for many chickens before factory farms put them out of business.

No, wait. Had it been before that? Something gone bad, left only Norma?

“I don’t know why it sticks me,” she admitted, “I just—”

He said, “hush,” and they did what many couples do when they are left to their own devices in the middle of a slow day.

 

Mitch’s shout brought her from the cellar the next evening. She set down a can of preserves and hiked to where Mitch had built his work bench. “Catch your finger?”

Mitch stuck his thumb in his mouth. “Damndest thing. Some little sucker stuck me. Look over there.”

Denise looked. On the windowsill lay a deflated hornworm. The corpse was wreathed by dozens of little cotton cocoons no bigger than its eyespots. Denise felt a little chill go down her spine.

“Tobacco worms.” Mitch nodded. “I remember now. The man who had this place before couldn’t make a go of it, too many of them. He imported these little cotton wasps as a last gasp, but I guess they didn’t do the job.”

“He just ordered them?” Denise frowned at the little fiber pills. There was something unwholesome about their dust-colored thread. “How’s a man do that?”

“You can order ladybirds to eat the aphids, can’t you? Don’t see why this’d be any different.” The spot on his thumb swelled, denting in the middle. “Hell, it really stuck me. Better get the baking soda.”

“Cider vinegar,” Denise called after her husband, not turning from the cocoons.

Norma had been huddled into herself that morning, not even opening her beak for an eyedropper of corn mush. The blue egg beneath her had been whole this time, but the grey behemoth retained its place of pride. Denise had taken the blue egg inside and cracked it into her enamel mixing bowl. The yolk was a black tangle and the white was brown. She’d dumped it before Mitch could see.

So Norma was going to die. Denise knew, and perhaps had known for a long time, but something about it wasn’t sitting right with her. She wanted someone else to witness it, to confirm the wrongess of it, but she didn’t have the words to make her husband understand.

“Denny, where’s the gauze?”

Denise went to make herself useful.

 

Denise had a nightmare. Like many of the nightmares she had, it involved her husband. They were sitting around the table like always, but everything was wrong. They were both just empty, slippery skins being manipulated by something within. It was truly terrible to see Mitch turn to her, that familiar face collapsed into a hollow mask, and drop the same wink he had honed over decades of their marriage.

There were other things, murky things she forgot the second she woke. Early pre-morning light leaked into their bedroom. Mitch lay half on his side and made a buzzing sound that wasn’t quite a snore. It reminded her so vaguely of her unpleasant dream that Denise got out of bed, bare feet cringing at every creak of the floor.

The coop was still dark. Denise shuffled inside, not knowing exactly why she’d come there, but unable to find a good enough reason to turn around and get back into bed. In what little light was available, Denise could see Norma’s silhouette as she shuddered with breath. She was close to the end.

Denise drew up close. In this meager light, Norma’s lids looked almost sunken. Her breath came erratically as if she were trying to breathe at a different speed with each lung.

Denise put her hands up to the chicken’s neck. Her stomach sank as the skin depressed without resistance, only the stiff cage of backbone held chicken’s neck upright. Her mouth ashen, her hands trembling, Denise lifted the bird.

Norma’s cloaca was gaping open and black, an evil smell drifted from within. The grey egg sat beneath her, as inscrutable as the day it had been laid. Denise put a fingertip out. The surface dented easily. The egg was not shell but a soft material, resilient enough to spring back once she removed her finger. When Denise turned the egg, she found a gaping hole at the other end of it where something had torn its way out.

The chicken still moved.

 

Mitch stretched as a beam of morning light roused him.

“Den?” He knew before he opened his eyes that the bed was empty.

The kitchen was cold, the fry-pans hung in their place by the stove. “Denny? Where you been, girl?”

The truck was still in the driveway. No quilted nightgown-wearing figure sat on the porch swing or reclined on the couch.

Mitch stood barefoot in the yard. He noticed the door of the coop hung open.

“Denise?” He stalked through wet grass, dismayed at the stillness within. “Denny? You ain’t still broken up about that hen, are ya?” He stood at the threshold of the door, peering into the dim interior of the coop. “Denise? Denise? Denise?

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All Things In Time

When they opened the time capsule, there was a body inside.

Simon dropped his shovel in the red clay and fell to his knees. Kate shrieked, muffling it with her hand. Beside her, Ryan let out the response they had all thought but been unable to voice.

“Goddamn,” he gasped, “who is that? Who the hell is that?”

The body was a milk-fair girl in her teens. Her skin was so clear and white it almost seemed like her irises were visible behind her lids. Her hair was white blonde. Simon struggled to place her with any of the faces he’d ever seen in highschool, but his mind was a panicked blank.

Terry shook his head as he backed away from the hole. “We need to call the cops.”

Becky grabbed his elbow. “Are you nuts? We’re not even supposed to be out here.”

“I think the little matter of trespassing is kind of insignificant now, Beck,” Ryan said, looping an arm around Kate. “She wasn’t there when we buried the time capsule, was she?”

“No,” Kate blurted, “and that means someone dug our capsule up and re-buried it with her in it.”

Terry rolled his eyes. “No they didn’t. Disturbing packed earth would leave too much of a mound.”

“Really? That sounds like bullshit.”

“It’s not.”

“Really? Then I’m looking it up.” Kate brought out her smartphone.

Terry hit it down. “No.”

“What the f—you fucking psycho!”

Ryan got physically in-between the two. “Look, it’s not important right now. We need to call the cops sooner rather than later, it’ll make it look worse if we don’t.”

“Oh, and who’s calling them? This asshole?” Kate thumbed at Terry. “He’ll probably get into an argument with the cops about whether they’re allowed to pat us down.”

“The constitution says—”

“Fuck it!” Ryan held up his hands. “I’m going to the school, find somebody. I’ll say we’re old friends, we wanted to meet somewhere nostalgic, we stumbled on a body.”

“Oh yeah, and how will you explain the shovels?” Becky asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ryan said smoothly. “Look, I want everybody to stay cool while I’m gone, okay?”

Simon shot him a feeble thumbs-up. The others mumbled vaguely agreeing noises. Ryan set off over the field to their old high school, dodging chattering sprinklers.

“Look at her,” Becky mumbled reverently, “she’s so young.”

Becky had filled out a bit since high school, her hair chopped to jaw-level and dyed a bright red. In her high school ID, which nestled just above the girl’s shoulder, Becky smiled awkwardly at the camera in glasses and a forest of dark brown hair that sprouted from her head like sargassum.

The girl wore a plain white dress that bore no recognizable style. It could easily have been made in the 1980’s or the 1880’s. Though she was a few feet from his face, Simon was having trouble believing she was actually real. He could touch her, that might prove things conclusively, but he felt like the oil from his fingertips would stain her.

“Notice anything?” Kate asked. “She doesn’t smell.”

Simon dared to lean forward and flare his nostrils. That was right. All he could smell was the astringent odor of packed earth.

Becky frowned. “That’s…weird. People who had been dead even a little while should smell.”

“Who says she’s dead?”

Both women looked at Terry silently and then back to the hole.

“Holy hell, the ground was packed when we started digging,” Kate said, getting in close to the hole, “she would have had to be in there for a while at least.”

“Well, hermetically sealed—”

Kate stuck her hand back at Terry and made a quacking motion with it. “The ground was hard when you dug into it, wasn’t it?”

Simon realized he was being put on the spot. “Um, yeah.”

Becky sidled away from the hole it was getting harder and harder not to call a grave, rubbing her upper arms as if she was cold. “This is all really weird.”

Terry crouched beside Becky. “How’d they fit her in there, anyway? Did they take stuff out?”

Kate frowned. “They better not have taken out my judo trophy, I will be majorly fucking pissed.”

“Your trophy? That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Oh sorry, am I supposed to get gooshy over a letter my tenth grade boyfriend wrote me?” Kate snapped. “He was gay anyway.”

Becky arched her brows. “Does Ryan know you two slept together?”

Kate and Terry flushed. “Whatever. That was years ago! We don’t need to dig up the past.”

“Dig up the past,” Simon said, “ha.”

It was amazing how they could still fight over these things when they had the mystery of the century at their feet. But hadn’t that been the way, even from the beginning? The time capsule had no real significance, Kate had learned about the bicentennial capsule in the next town over and bent Ryan’s ear until he convinced the rest of them. Even now, in this heat that made everything seem slightly unreal, Simon could not even be sure of their friendship. Did he truly know these people? One of them could have been easily replaced by a stranger who had done their homework and he’d be none the wiser. None of them looked like they had in highschool, not really.

Simon looked down at the girl, puzzling. Yes he had known a truly pale blonde in high school, Becky had gone around calling her an albino until the girl crushed her in dodgeball. But she had been plumper and nearly six feet tall. This girl was a whisp, a perfectly formed doll that would have barely come up to Simon’s shoulder if she stood. The soles of her feet were perfect and clean, as they had never touched the ground.

Ryan legged it back over the  soccer field shimmering with heat.

“No one’s around,” he said, leaning on his knees. Kate got to her feet and hewed to his side, giving insistent little murmurs.

“Well, that’s not a shock.” Terry stood and dusted off his pants, not looking at Ryan. “We chose this day because no one would be here.”

“So what do we do?” Becky asked, “do we…do we just call them?”

Ryan held up his hands. “Look, I have an idea and it may not be the best thing…we re-bury it.”

Shoulders of the whole group relaxed.

“But the body,” Terry protested, not very hard.

Ryan shook his head. “It’s beyond us, guys.”

Kate hunched her shoulders. “But what about the time capsule? Can we take it out?”

Ryan threw an arm around her shoulders. “Can’t, babe. That would leave a cavity. We re-bury it as is and the groundskeeper thinks some dog was screwing around up here.”

“Or burying beer,” Becky joked. They were all resetting to the people they had been before the hole. Simon felt that he was the only one stuck. He could not wrench his mind from the girl in the hole, so he faked it like he always did.

“Guess I’ll go first,” he joked thinly, grabbing up the shovel.

The first shovel-load fell like blasphemy. Simon watched the earth rattle down on the girl’s white dress and wondered if it would stain. He looked back at the group and saw them eagerly looking at him.

He kept shoveling.

The girl’s face was the last to be covered, it shone out like the bone of some extinct creature exposed by the very elements that would wear it away. Simon winced as dirt fell on her eyes. Finally there was nothing for it, and he gently laid dirt across the last remaining piece of the girl. Kate sighed behind him. They were sliding back into place like building blocks, taking shapes that were familiar and easy. Could he have gone against it? Planted his feet and refused to let it lie?

No, Simon thought, this was his place. The gap left by the four of them fitting in with each other.

They took turns stepping on the soil, pressing it out flat. The tension brought on by the girl had evaporated in the sun.

Becky almost danced out to the cars, linking arms with Kate and trying to run in step. Terry joked with Ryan as if nothing had ever been amiss. And Simon reverted to his natural place at the back of the group.

Becky hopped into her Jeep without so much as a wave. Terry took his sweet time getting into his Miata, he even sat as if it was part of a ritual. Kate had already squeezed into the passenger side of the Escape and Ryan was standing at the open driver’s door. It was now or never.

“Tell me,” Simon murmured, bending close, “you didn’t look for anyone, did you?”

Ryan looked surprised for a minute, then laughed. His laugh was infectious.

“Ya got me. Sometimes you have to bend the truth for people’s own good, you know?”

Simon glanced past him at Kate, who was busy scrolling through her phone.

“I hear that,” he said. Ryan slapped him on the back.

“Going to Paddy’s later,” Ryan said as he eased himself in, “see you there?”

Simon smiled tightlipped.

“Got work,” he lied, “I have to go clean up now anyway.”

Ryan did not press him, just threw the car into reverse and sped away. Simon was left holding the shovel, gripping it tightly.

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Mulberry Leaves

There is a nameless shrine on a mountaintop somewhere in the Nanpo islands of japan. Maps do not list it, and the torii crowning the entrance has been buried. A single red lacquer horn is all that exists to show the way to this shrine, which lies up a difficult incline of 108 steps.

The body of the shrine itself was constructed of driftwood and fitted together without nails. The only adornment of the shrine is a hemp rope bearing two ragged rice paper shide.

In this shrine is a mulberry tree. No matter how many years pass, this tree remains exactly eight inches in diameter. Instead of fruit, the tree bears silk strands.

There is a village at the foot of this mountain. They have no record of any shrine, only that the village once produced fabrics of the finest caliber during the Tokugawa shogunate. Villagers will blithely say the silk was imported, that no mulberry has ever grown on island soil. Invite them to the mountain, they will decline. There is nothing up there, why bother?

The mulberry silk strands are unusually tough and course, many magnitudes thicker than that produced by Bombyx mori. Coring the trunk is inexact, for the wood had a plasticity not common in the mulberry family. The only factor restraining regular harvest is that the silk, once plucked, takes many weeks to grow back.

In the village of this island, there were five founding families. Five homes producing silk. This is evident in the tax records of the Edo merchant who imported the fabric. Then, suddenly, there were four families. Why? Where did they go? Modern villagers will shrug their shoulders. Lots of things happen in a few years. Battles are found or lost. Ships crash. Why bother digging up the past?

Examination of the tree roots will turn up another anomaly. At the end of each root is a peculiar oblong scale. Tests of these scales show that they are not wood but a protein structure unique to the tree. Attempted removal only results in an excess of sap flowing from the point of injury.

Tax records from mainland Honshu tell of a time of unrest on the island. A dip in both quality and quantity. A peculiar red, unique to the island, vanished from the shipment forever. A note of usury from the silk supplier, demanding to know the whereabouts of a third of the raw materials. And then…nothing. The next year shows a slight uptick in production, minus the red fabric. The village no longer produces silk, getting by on subsistence farming and fishing in the modern day.

There is a matsuri unique to the island, taking place at the end of spring. Thirteen square holes are dug, and straw dummies that have been beaten with farm implements are places in the holes and set alight “to salt the ground.” Minor excavation of the festival grounds have turned up roof tiles, indicating there was once a house on the land.

Every spring, as matsuri lanterns light up the village at night, the tree weeps sap.

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The End of the Hunt

The painting hung in his supervisor’s office above the desk. Milo would toe up to the edge of the carpet and stare at it when he was being reprimanded. A lot was crammed into the canvas. Medieval hounds, painted with little care given to proper anatomy, dominated the scene. Snarls distorted their snouts. They had the eyes of men. The unlucky goose hung like an afterthought from the muzzle of the lead dog. The artist hadn’t even bothered to fill in detail on the bird’s head, leaving only a thin cyan oval to suggest a skull. The meaning of the name had escaped him until the day he spied the hunters, dressed in the same earthen tones as the surrounding vegetation. Two of them held up a theater backdrop, a painted sky that had presumably lured the bird to its doom.

“Do you see what I’m saying?” Nealy looked over the rims of his glasses.

“Yes, sir.” Milo had long ago memorized a stock set of phrases designed to appease. “I hope I can live up to your expectations.”

Nealy sighed through his nose. “Well, I guess I do too, Milo.”

Milo nodded. There was a tension in him that did not ease until he closed the door behind him. He disliked scrutiny, even in the most harmless of forms. The secretary Janet’s once-over of his body rankled, her unfocused eyes woke a nameless hunger in him. The weekend could not come soon enough.

Milo wedged his body in an aisle of the warehouse. Nearby, the guys were huddled in a rough circle, talking over styofoam coffee cups and vending machine snacks.

“…Moscone county killer.”

Milo had developed a trick wherein he appeared very absorbed in a meaningless task, but was really focused intently on something nearby. He sorted order envelopes and listened.

“I mean, really? This guy broke into five houses?”

“Always comes from the place you suspect the least, am I right?”

“Yeah. I mean, the unabomber was literally the most unassuming guy in the world.”

“The guy in the sketch was.”

“I’m just saying, Caramina’s a rich county. Nothing but rent-a-cops. I wouldn’t trust ’em to arrest the Hamburglar.”

Janet walked up, pink receipt pages in her hand.

“They’re really treating you today, aren’t they?” she said, fanning herself. Her perfume was too sweet and sat like a blanket long after she left a room.

Milo mumbled a reply. The weather was hot and damp, neither condition was relieved by the swamp cooler running behind him. He actually preferred this weather, it made his skin feel tight. It was a secret kind of excitement, kept him going despite the people around him. They looked past him, unsuspecting. He had an urge, deep and pathological, to tell them what he really did when he wasn’t at work, to watch their faces change.

“We should really do something about it,” Janet said, tucking the paper into a folder on the top of a box. Milo did not reply. He had learned that people mostly talked at him and not to him. Replies broke the rhythym of office talk. Replies brought him to their attention. He didn’t want that.

Nealy walked up, arm around a younger, shorter man. “Milo, this is Bill.”

Milo gave him a damp handshake.

The three of them stood awkwardly.

“…you know, that thing I was talking about?” Nealy prompted.

Milo assumed a look of recognition. “Of course, sir. It’s just this heat…”

Nealy nodded. “I get ya. We really need a proper AC unit.” He turned and pushed the young man forward. “Just show Bill the ins and outs. Whip him if you need to.”

Bill stumbled in mock horror. Milo donned noncommital work smile #4 and gestured out to the warehouse floor. The quicker he accomplished the task, the sooner he could be left to his own devices.

Bill was good. Too good. He asked too many questions. About the office. About Milo.

Milo began to wonder. Was he training a replacement? He didn’t mind being fired, he had been fired from many jobs, but being replaced rankled.

“So what do you do for the big weekend?” Bill was never less than a step behind, always full of bright energy.

“Erm, biking.” Milo tossed an answer off the top of his brain.

“No shit. You train for the M.E.C.? Because I’ve been looking for a partner—”

“Not professionally.” Damn. He’d gone on autopilot and dropped an order form behind a shelf. Milo scrambled to retrieve it before Bill could see the other files he’d “lost” over the course of a few months.

“Whoa, nervous there big guy?” Bill smiled. Milo hated how white it was.

“No, I’m just—I’m off my routine.”

The radio in the loading dock was on as Milo showed Bill how to fill out order reports. Blue went to the supervisor, pink was logged in the order, white—

“—was captured earlier this morning. Martin David Howe was living in a secluded shelter just off the West Jefferson trail. He had a history of stalking behavior and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. Police say he was the main suspect in the Moscone county killings for some time, it was the nature of the terrain that made the investigation drag on so long.

Milo stopped, forgetting what he was doing. His eardrums grew taught, his whole body stiffening like a receiving antenna.

Earl, at his station, nudged the radio dial. Through static, the speaker changed to a twangy country ballad. Milo stood up, perspiration cascading from his face and neck. He felt like he was peeling, like his skin was coming off in layers. He had seen it happen to a frog he’d touched against the neighbor’s electric fence in third grade. He’d savored the animal’s tense flailing at the time. Now he was afraid he might do that, lose control of himself. And he must never, ever do that where people could see.

“You okay, big guy?” Bill had his hands in his pockets, still crisp and dry, still smiling. He probably was there to replace Milo. Why not? Nothing he did mattered.

Milo bent, hands to his knees. “Sorry, I think I need to go.”

The bathroom smelled like swamp. Everywhere smelled like swamp. Milo spit in the toilet and examined the whites of his eyes. It wasn’t fair. He knew he wasn’t the smartest or best looking. But a man had to have something.

When he came out, Bill was over at the office door. He was facing out at the windows, hands in his pockets as he spoke to Nealy. So casual after a single day. Milo wished for one savage second that he could quit. Throw the coffee pot in Nealy’s face, see the glass shatter and watch red mix in with the dark brown of the coffee.

Instead, he slithered over like a slug. Bill turned around before he got to them, smile flawless as always.

“There he is! Feel better?”

“Actually, sir,” Milo made a point of adressing Nealy, “I think I have food poisoning. You think I can go home?”

“Again? It’s been two days—” Nealy began, but Bill interrupted him.

“I saw him earlier, Ken, he was pretty white. I’d hate to get chunked on, my first day.”

First name basis already? Milo decided not to bother coming back after he went home. There were other jobs like this. There were always other jobs.

Nealy gave his weary nod. Bill grinned.

“Hey, it’s nearly lunch. I’ll take you.”

“Oh it’s really—”

“Milo, you can’t get on the bus with food poisoning, just let him take you,” Nealy snapped, taking a shop towel to his perspiring neck. He would not look at Milo. Milo gave a one-shoulder shrug.

“I really appreciate you showing me around like this,” Bill said as Milo buckled in, “real stand-up of you. Ken says you’ve been sick a lot lately.”

Milo sank into his seat and grunted. Bill made no motion to start the car.

“Boy, I tell you, it has to be this weather. Food won’t stay good a single minute in this air. I had a hoagie, turned around to grab the salt, I swear it was moldy when I turned back.”

Milo nodded, closing his eyes and leaning his forehead against the cool window glass. The AC wasn’t on. The air in the car was still and hot.

“Lemme, guess, you got sick around the 4th, am I right?”

Milo nodded again.

“Knew it, knew it. No one cooks their meat all the way that day, too busy looking at fireworks. Then you were sick on the 14th, right? Coming back from Caramina?”

Milo nodded, drifting away. If he only had to nod, this was a good conversation.

“Must’ve had the crawfish. I hate those things, but I love ’em, y’know? More than five and my guts come up. You must’ve puked on the way back, right? They said someone cleaned the truck bed with caustics.”

Milo nodded dreamily. The car still wasn’t moving. Maybe the guy was just delaying going back to work. He hadn’t asked where Milo lived yet.

“So that was you? Whew, must’ve been some big job. Stayed out three days. Slip said you were scheduled two. You see the promenade?”

Milo nodded.

“Stuck around, see the sights? Do a little tourism? Don’t blame you, the way you’ve been working. They say they can never figure out what you’ve been doing. Making yourself indispensable, smart move. This is a good job, flexible hours. Not a lot of questions.

Milo was descending into a blissful mire. The shock of loss was beginning to wear off, and he was already planning for the future. He could find another job, another low-effort slog where they looked past him.

“I can see you’re tired, big guy. Just one thing I have to tell you.”

A metallic click. Something cold on Milo’s wrist.

“You’re under arrest.”

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Amy on the Train

Amy was thirteen, and had been thirteen for a very long time. The train car she sat in was an overnighter, meant for people who couldn’t afford a sleeper car. The night dimmed the windows to opacity, so Amy used the glass as a mirror to watch the compartment door open. A nicely-dressed man and three children hustled in, chattering before they even got the door open. There was a teenage girl, a boy with glasses who looked a few years younger, and a little red-faced boy in a sailor suit who immediately set to kicking the seat opposite his.

“Jack,” said the man without much heat or conviction, “stop that.”

The boy made no such motion. The family immediately spread out, capturing so much of the seating Amy was forced to press against the window. Her breath didn’t steam the glass.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t get a sleeper,” said the girl, tossing her hair. It was quite voluminous and chased with ribbons so that it looked almost like a cake.

“Amelia, dear, I have explained this,” said the father, not looking up from his papers, “we will be in at your grandmother’s stop within a few hours. It would be a waste of money.”

“But we have to share compartments with any dirty old stranger!”

Not once did any of them look over at Amy. The little boy bored with kicking the seat and began bumping the makeshift desk his father held on his lap with his knees.

“Jack, stop that,” said the man, pulling away. Jack turned his heels up to his sister Amelia, who gave him a withering glare.

“Father,” said the glasses-wearing boy, “Amelia’s right, to a certain degree. These compartments are made to fit four comfortably. By rights we shouldn’t have to share.”

“I suppose you’re right, Thomas.” The father turned to Amy, not looking at her but in a direction that happened to hold her. “Would you mind getting out, terribly? We’re all very tired.”

Amy looked the group over once. “Yes, I see.”

The older boy slammed the door behind her with a loud snap. Amy stepped slightly to the side and leaned her back against the wall, listening.

“Well I don’t see why I have to mind the smelly little beast, he’s old enough to—”

“Amelia, please stop arguing with me. If you don’t learn now what will you do when you have children?”

“I’ll have nannies and maids to look after them. Really, daddy. You think I’m as malleable as that silly girl who trespassed in our car. Dirty little thing. She’s probably one of those war orphans.”

“Now Amelia, children can’t help how they appear. It’s the fault of the parents, most of the time.”

“So who can we blame that hair on, eh Ames?”

“Shut up, Thomas.”

Amy crept off. Not to another compartment, but to a quiet place where she could conceal herself. She had boarded without a ticket or bags, because she was not traveling but looking. And the family had looked quite promising.

 

11:30. The little boy Jack had escaped the compartment, or been allowed to escape to give his father some measure of peace. He throttled the external door like a pet bird’s neck, kicking the bottom panel with his heels. Amy watched the scenery pass by indifferently, gauging their speed. They were on a flat plain. Soon there would be a hill.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

The boy jumped, then his face turned mean when he saw she wasn’t an adult. He sneered at her and resumed kicking at the door. Amy watched the restraining bolt as it rattled in its hinge. Too much force would make it vibrate free.

“I don’t believe that’s safe.”

“I don’t believe that’s safe,” the boy repeated back in a mocking tone. He reared back and gave a mighty kick, edging the bolt a millimeter. Amy could feel as the train slowed, starting up an incline.

“Are you traveling on holiday? Perhaps we’re going the same way.”

The boy kicked faster, eyes gleaming from his red face like bits of bottle glass. The bolt did not move.

“Does your sister have any friends where she’s going? Perhaps we could become acquainted.”

At mention of his sister, the boy doubled his force. Amy could feel their assent slowing. Soon they would be at the peak. The bolt was only halfway loose.

“Shall I tell your father you’re here?”

Shall I tell your father you’re here?” Kick. Throttle. Kick. The train was beginning to pick up speed.

“I only worry, because you’ve been left unsupervised.”

“Stupid girl.” Kick. Throttle. The train slipped faster down the incline.

“Something terrible could happen to a small child left alone.”

“Ugly girl.” Kick. Throttle. They were nearing the end of the slope, hitting the pinnacle of the train’s speed.

“I don’t believe this door is safe at all,’ Amy said, letting her eyes flick to the bolt. Jack followed her gaze and crowed in triumph. He yanked the bolt back and gave a final kick. The door bowed open from the force of the kick and Jack went with it, disappearing into the rushing night air. As the door bounced back, Amy caught it and latched it securely again.

 

12am. On her way down the hall, Amy ran into the older boy, Thomas, waiting in her path with a smug expression.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“Not particularly,” Amy said. Thomas tapped the thin book in his hands.

“I’ve been reading the train regulations. Father says I’m to take over his business one day, so I read everything I get my hands on.”

“How nice for you,” Amy said.

“It says that those without fare can be charged with up to five years in debtor’s prison.” Thomas tapped the book again. “Tell me, do you have train fare?”

Amy slowly looked him up and down.

“I read all sorts of books,” Thomas bragged, having departed the real world for his own head, “read one recently that revealed the poorer classes have no choice but to continue to be poor. Bad breeding, you see. I’m sure you can’t help your lowbrow criminal behavior, but it is my duty as a paragon of good breeding to correct you. I’m going to tell the conductor and he’s going to throw you off the train. Seeing as you’re a lady, he might be tempted to go easy. But I will remind him of the rules and regulations.” Thomas tapped the book again.

Amy smiled at him, so long that he began to shift uneasily.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “have you ever read the riddle of the Sphinx?”

The boy colored slightly. Apparently he had skimped on the classics.

“The sphinx of greek legend sat outside a city and asked a riddle of every passer-by. If any of them got it wrong, she would tear them to pieces. Want to hear a riddle?” Amy asked sweetly.

Thomas turned slightly pale. The train ride had become bumpy, the lamps in the corridor were flickering.

Amy smiled wide and white as she leaned forward until their faces were inches apart.

“What’s black. And white. And red all over?” she whispered.

Thomas trembled. “The financial times?”

Amy laughed as the lights flickered and then went out. “No,” she said.

 

1 in the morning. The girl Amelia was in the lavatory, petting her own face listlessly. She gave a little scream when she turned around and found Amy standing very close behind her.

“You startled me,” she said, fanning her face.

Amy clustered in, preventing her from turning back to the mirror. “Oh dear. How sorry I must be. What’s keeping you up so late?”

Amelia donned a haughty look. “Looking for my horrid little brothers. You haven’t seen either of them?”

“Not recently” Amy said truthfully.

Amelia sighed and then daintily pushed her out of the way. “Then you’re of no use to me.”

“Amelia.”

The girl stopped part-way down the hall. Amy had shut the lavatory door, so the car was lit only by what little light bled from outside.

“Do you know my name is Amy? It’s quite like yours, isn’t it?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Amy is cheap substitute for a real name. Is it short for something?”

“Several things.”

Amelia shook her head, which made her hair flap like a circus tent in a breeze. “A cheap name for gutter trash. I told daddy to book us a sleeper, nothing good comes from interacting with common folk.”

“Wait.”

Amelia’s hand was on the door latch. Amy walked closer, pitching her voice so that Amelia had to lean forward to hear it.

“Your brothers are dead. They died while under your watch.”

Amelia, disturbed, took her hand off the latch. As Amy drew closer, she backed away.

“There was nothing you could have done to prevent it,” Amy whispered, drawing her feet along the carpet so her steps made no sound, “but more importantly, nothing you did prevented it. You feel that your father’s money affords you a comfortable measure of safety? But that measure means nothing if it’s not enforced.”

Amy paced, slowly chasing her to the end of the car.

“You feel that if anything happened to you, it would raise a mighty furor,” Amy continued, “and you think that guards against misfortune. But it doesn’t. Collaring the burglar does not fill the safe back up. Damming the river does not un-drown the flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree Ames?”

Amelia’s back hit the connecting door. She pressed her lips together so they turned white.

“Daddy,” she whispered, barely loud enough that Amy heard her over the train.

“He’s not here,” Amy said, petting her head like one would a dog, “but I am.”

 

2 and a bit. Amy closed the compartment door snugly behind her. The man(she never had gotten his name, had she?) dozed in the corner. Amy shook his arm, looking deeply into his eyes as he woke.

“Your children are dead,” she said.

“Yes, I see,” he said back.

“You no longer have any reason to travel to your original destination.”

“Yes.”

“Shall you accompany me, then? I’m getting off at the city.”

“Seems only logical,” the man said.

 

The passengers disembarked around five in the morning, which was still dark at this time of year. Amy stepped confidently off the train, looking like a girl who knew exactly where she was and where she was going. Still, she waited until a blank-eyed gentleman stepped off the train, linking arms with her so that it looked like he was escorting her and not the other way around.

Because Amy was thirteen, and would continue to be thirteen for the foreseeable future.

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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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