Riverwalk, by Kathleen McCluskey
Photo by Jan Tielens on Unsplash
Julia and Richard strolled arm in arm down the picturesque Riverwalk. The city always seemed to come to life for them when the warm lights of the shops began to reflect on the dark water. The Riverwalk was always so crowded during the day; for them, the night hours were more enjoyable. Julia and Richard stopped and leaned against the railing. They watched the small gondolas float down the calm water. The tourists were always easy to pinpoint. The laughter and excitement was palatable and the never ending presence of a camera or cell phone was a dead giveaway. The pair continued down the Riverwalk, looking into windows and people watching. Julia had the uncanny ability to notice when somebody felt out of sorts. She was able to infiltrate their mind and senses to bring them to Richard and herself. Richard never possessed that ability. He wasn’t envious just confused why he had to use brute force but Julia only had to smile.
They spotted a young man and woman sitting on a bench. The young woman seemed to be crying. Julia went straight to her. Without saying a word, Julia sat down and brushed the hair away from the woman’s face. The woman recoiled but as soon as her eyes met Julia’s all of her fears were pushed aside. The man began to protest but Julia looked him in the eyes and he settled. Richard stood behind the man with his hands on his shoulders. He lifted the man to his feet and walked with him to the darkened alley. Julia took the woman by the hand and they followed the two men.
Richard struck first. He grabbed the man by the back of the neck and spun him around. Richard hissed loudly at the man. That broke Julia’s mental hold on him. The man tried to scream but Richard sank his razor-sharp fangs into the man’s throat. Blood began to pulse out and seep out from between Richard’s lips. He raised his head and let out a guttural growl, “Blood always tastes sweeter when they are scared. Thank you, my love for releasing him just in time. Your timing is impeccable.” Julia smiled. She was a delicate creature and was almost timid in her approach, she lifted the woman’s wrist to her lips. She sank her sharp fangs into the woman; still holding onto her mind the woman let out a small sigh as her life drained out. Julia looked at Richard, “I enjoy it better when the blood is calm.”
Kathleen McCluskey is the novelist of THE LONG FALL trilogy. She has been featured in numerous magazines and compilation books both nationally (USA) and internationally.
Tsumi, by Sarah Hozumi
Photo by Nguyen TP Hai on Unsplash
While Kyoto seemed almost overrun by famous temples and shrines, Hakai Satoh managed to come across a shrine hidden in the mountains of the tourist-saturated Arashiyama mountains. Hakai was driven by a deep desire to be completely alone, and the paths leading up the mountain had offered nothing but an assortment of people complaining about the hike and randomly stopping to take photos. As the tourists plodded along the well-beaten trails, Hakai eased past them and let the call for silence guide him to paths that grew narrower and steeper. At last, he stumbled upon a path of stone that led to a series of old, neglected buildings dominated by clusters of hawk statues warily observing him.
He knew it was a shrine thanks to the black torii gate marking the entrance, but otherwise it could have been excused as a bazaar selling the statues. No two seemed alike, though all were made of some kind of gray stone. The shrine seemed too quiet and dark considering it was a bright afternoon, but Hakai felt himself drawn to the curious hawk statues littering the walkways and sides of the buildings. With crumbling buildings and broken statues, every corner of the shrine suggested it had been worn into the ground by time.
The entire shrine was buried in the statues, making it difficult for Hakai to find his way to the main area where visitors usually throw money into a box with a grated lid and pray.
Hakai was supposed to be meeting family friends on Arashiyama at the ridiculous monkey tourist site, but his desire for solitude had almost possessed him and pushed him to this altogether neglected shrine.
As Hakai tripped over the fallen figure of a hawk statue half buried in the ground and steadied his balance by using the head of a massive hawk statue next to him, he thought about how deeply he hated his mother for forcing him to meet people he didn’t even know, all because they had helped his family somehow in the past.
The family on his mother’s side had lived in Kyoto for centuries before his great-great-grandfather had fled to America long before World War II. Hardly anyone on his mother’s side spoke about their family’s history except to say they had been deeply wronged and driven out of the country.
Why, then, did his mother seem to have a profound love of Japan? She had forced Japanese lessons on him, dragged him across most of the country every summer since he had been 10, and now she had ordered he meet family friends he’d never even heard of on a mountain locals enjoyed avoiding.
Hakai planned on giving the little shrine some coins, praying for patience, then leaving. He also vaguely hoped he could run into someone at the shrine who could possibly guide him back to where the monkey tourist trap was. Considering he had no idea how he had gotten to the shrine, he knew it would take him hours to find his way back to the more touristy areas of the mountains if no one was around to help. The family friends would probably be long gone by then, and his mother would be furious.
He took his cell phone out of his pocket to check for any missed messages and stared at the blackened screen. Several attempts to push the power button were met with indifference. With a sigh, he stuffed the phone back into his pocket and took stock of his surroundings. Rows upon rows of hawk statues in varying states of decay greeted him, offering no suggestions as to where the main area of the shrine even was. It felt like a maze with its meandering stone pathways and walls of statues.
It was quiet enough that Hakai could easily make out footsteps approach him from his right. He turned and found a young woman in a white robe with red flowing pants traditional of priestesses slowly moving toward him, her arm stiffly held in front of her as she walked. Hakai took in only the brief look of annoyance on the woman’s face before he openly stared at the hawk resting on the woman’s forearm.
“Welcome to the Tsumi Shrine,” she said in Japanese. “May I give you a tour?”
Hakai’s mother had forced him to take Japanese lessons every weekend since he was five, and for the first time in his life, he was grateful for it.
“I’m trying to find where I pray here.” He held out his map of Arashiyama, which she briefly glanced at before returning to study his eyes. “I got lost, but I think I should pray before I go. Can you help me find my way back to the main path, too?”
“Are you American?” The hawk shifted restlessly on her forearm, drawing Hakai to openly stare at it again. Did she have no paddings on to protect herself from its talons? It looked like she had nothing but the single layer of the white robe. With a thrill of dread mixed with something akin to anticipation, he tried to indirectly focus on her forearm to look for signs of blood.
“I am. Is my accent that bad?”
The woman nodded at the map he was now stuffing back into his pocket.
“It’s in English. Either you’re British or American.”
Hakai held out his hand to shake hers. “I’m Hakai Satoh. It’s nice to meet you.”
She studied his hand but made no move to take it. Several uncomfortable seconds later, Hakai returned his hand to his side and took to staring at the statues. The woman followed his wandering gaze.
He gave an uncomfortable laugh. Everyone he met in Japan never stopped commenting on how his name, which sounded like the word for “destruction”, was ridiculous to them.
“My mom picked it out.”
The woman didn’t seem to hear him.
“This is a shrine dedicated to a tsumi from long ago,” she said.
Tsumi? Hakai struggled to remember what the word meant. Didn’t it mean “a crime”? He struggled to remember if the word meant anything else, nodding at the woman as he did so. Her long black hair was pulled back to fully reveal her face, but her eyes still seemed covered somehow. Reserved, perhaps. She was beautiful and quite possibly entirely alone in a neglected section of the mountain. It made him worry about her safety on her behalf, though she seemed entirely comfortable with statues for company and a hawk digging into her arm.
“What’s a tsumi?” he finally asked.
The woman held the hawk up to her eye-level, causing the bird of prey to flap its wings before settling into a new position on her arm.
“Perhaps I can give you a tour before you leave? This place has a fascinating story to tell.”
The sound of feet crunching against the gravel lining the stone walkways the shrine offered caused Hakai to turn around. A group of five college-age boys were walking in almost complete silence, their eyes careful to avoid the statues as they stared at the ground. Hakai tried to move closer to them.
“Hi, can you tell me how I get out of here?” Hakai went to reach for his map again, but the group of boys had passed him as if he hadn’t spoken. “Hello?”
The woman nodded at the boys, who nodded almost as one back at her before disappearing into the folds of the shrine.
“It really is an interesting shrine,” the woman said to Hakai. “I’d be happy to give you directions after a tour.”
The air felt too heavy in such a congested shrine so overpowered by broken statues. He felt seized by the urge to simply leave.
“I’d really rather just get directions. I’ll come back another time to pray.” He pulled out his map and tried to find Tsumi Shrine within Arashiyama. Nothing suggested there was anything worth visiting at all there beyond the monkey-feeding area carved out near the summit.
The woman began walking back into the depths of the shrine.
“Go back the way you came, and you’ll find the path again.”
Slightly incensed by the woman’s brisk sendoff and useless advice, Hakai watched her until she disappeared behind a corner of a decayed building. He was about to turn to leave, his eyes on the black torii gate in the distance, when he heard his own voice call out, “Hey, actually I’d love that tour.”
His hand went to his mouth, touching his lips. Why had he said that? No part of him had felt any inclination to stay any longer than he needed to at such a bizarre shrine.
The woman appeared from around the corner of another building, the hawk still on her arm. She attempted to offer him a smile, but the look of annoyance was clear in her eyes.
“Great, follow me.”
How could he tell her he had no idea why he’d called out to her like that? He silently followed behind her and hoped it would be a quick tour.
They meandered between rows and rows of buildings, all pale white with black roofs of stone. So many statues lay scattered enough across their path that Hakai took to looking down to avoiding falling over them.
“Long ago, there was a farming village near this mountain.” The woman continued her saunter along the path as the buildings on either side began to show increasing signs of decay, as if they were slowly traveling to the future on the pathway. Hakai nearly fell over several fallen hawk statues as he became mesmerized by the buildings. The pristine white of the first buildings had given way to charred stone, cracks running throughout the walls.
There’s no greenery anywhere, Hakai realized. This much decay usually was a call to plants to take over, but the shrine had only stone. Everything was a shade of black and white.
“They were a poor farming village,” she said, “but they were good. They did not deserve to be driven out.”
“Driven out?” Hakai realized the shrine was narrow yet unfathomably long. He was used to shrines in Kyoto that seemed to spread out like a blanket over a swath of the city. This felt more like someone had dug into the mountain with a shovel and left behind a scar of a shrine.
“The villagers were driven out by a wealthy man who wanted to make his grand home there. He tricked many of the villagers into selling their homes to him until he owned everything.”
Again, Hakai heard his voice despite having no inclination to speak.
“Hardly trickery if the villagers were well paid.”
The woman’s eyes briefly widened, and the hawk on her arm flapped its wings once in irritation. Her face became unreadable as she settled back into telling the story while continuing her slow walk around the shrine.
Hakai, for his part, wondered how he could suddenly speak such eloquent Japanese. He knew his accent was rough; he knew he could make only basic conversation. Where had such words come from? The shrine made him feel deeply unsettled.
His footsteps stilled, and the air was filled with silence save for the droning of the woman’s feet pushing against the stone path as she walked. Stopping like that felt like standing in the middle of a river swiftly gathering force to push itself off the edge of a waterfall. He tried to make himself back up, go back the way he came, but he could no longer see the black gate.
“I really should go,” he said. His voice grew small. “Please.”
Another look of deep irritation flickered across the woman’s face as she turned to face him. With her free hand, she reached out and took his.
“There’s something I need to show you.”
Hakai felt her pulling his hand, but somewhere in the far corners of his mind, he found the strength to pull back. Their hands broke, and using the momentum of resistance, Hakai turned and ran.
He had no idea which way to turn, and he fell too many times over broken statues littering the ground. His hands and knees scraped and bleeding, Hakai at last found the black gate ahead. Just beyond, he could make out a path with tourists on it, though no one seemed to even notice the torii gate. It took more strength than he thought was entirely needed to will his feet to take one step, then another, toward the way out. He could almost touch the gate.
The five boys seemed to appear from nowhere and stood in front of him, their heads down. Hakai leapt back with a cry. They paid him little attention as they walked past in almost uniform steps, and Hakai couldn’t help but stop and follow them with his eyes as they walked back into the shrine. They were the exact same boys from before. What were they doing?
Fighting the desperate plea from within to simply leave, Hakai couldn’t help but follow the boys back into the folds of the broken shrine. They never once acknowledged him walking a few steps behind them, nor did they seem to notice anything. Only when one of them stumbled over pieces of statue did Hakai recognize they must be somewhat conscious of what they were doing.
Following behind gave Hakai a chance to better study them. He noted their shoes were all worn to the point of falling off; he took in the scratches and scrapes on their legs and arms, the holes and stains on their clothing, the backpacks that seemed to be falling apart on their shoulders. For how long had they been there?
The five boys led Hakai to the heart of the shrine, the largest building where the woman sat on steps leading to a massive prayer-offering box. The boys went to the edge of the first step and kneeled, their heads bowed. The woman nodded at them, and the boys stood and disappeared into the shrine’s grounds.
Hakai alone remained as he reached for his cell phone again. Something about all of this was profoundly unnatural. His phone lacked any breath of life, and he shoved it back down into his pocket again in frustration.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” the woman said as she stood. The hawk was now perched on the roof, and it screeched as Hakai moved closer to the stairs.
Behind the box, covered in shadows within the interior of the massive building, Hakai could make out the outline of a massive hawk statue. Unlike the others, this one seemed to be in pristine condition as its eyes bore into Hakai’s.
The woman continued her story.
“One villager refused to sell his land.” Hakai pushed himself past the box blocking the entrance to the building, drawn to the statue. “He refused, so the wealthy man killed him. The villager’s wife tried to seek justice, but the wealthy man threatened to kill her.” The eyes of the statue seemed to be glowing, perhaps thanks to a stray ray of sunlight filtering through one of the holes in the roof above. “She went to the magistrate, who told her she was needlessly panicking. The magistrate threw her out of his building, and the wealthy man murdered her when she went home.”
The statue seemed almost familiar to Hakai. He saw his hand reach out without realizing he had ordered his hand to do anything.
“When the woman died, it is said a hawk circled her house for five days after. Then, a hawk circled the magistrate’s house. Five days later, members of his household died. Then, the hawk was spotted over the wealthy man’s house. All but one member of his house died shortly thereafter.”
Hakai’s skin touched the cold statue, and he felt himself smile without wanting to. In a rush of darkness, his mind seemed to slip into a great abyss within as he felt something pushing its way forward through his consciousness. Another form.
“So, you’re the cause of my suffering,” he murmured.
The woman touched his wrist and pulled his hand away from the statue. Their eyes met, and within the woman, he could see the ties she held with the pathetic villager’s wife who had so boldly dismissed her place in society.
“You must break it,” the woman said. She briefly looked at the statue, and fear crossed her eyes. He felt a rush of joy seeing the fear there. Fear always served him so well. He saw his hand reach out to touch her face, to relive that glorious moment once more.
“Break it, Hakai, please.”
His hand hesitated in the space between himself and the terror she so beautifully kept in her eyes.
Was that his name?
“Hakai, please.” Her voice sounded small, weak.
“I am well within my rights of exacting justice if you are the one who brought forth a ghostly sparrowhawk to murder my family,” he said. “Hiding in the form of your descendent offers you no protection from me.”
How should he kill her this time? Perhaps more slowly for having not helped him awaken in his own descendant’s body sooner.
The woman shook her head as she jerked her body away from him. “No, I’m me. I’m still me. Even if you trap me here, even if you trap every descendant from that woman here, I am still me. In all of this time, I have not lost sight of myself. Please, Hakai, please don’t fall to him. Please break this nightmare.”
Who is Hakai?
“What else could I do, woman? You cursed my family; you gave me five days. What did I have left but to use my last days alive finding a curse of my own? You brought this upon yourself.”
An enormous offering box blocked the woman’s chance of escaping him. The man studied the box, which he had erected so long ago here, and noted it was almost half full of gold coins.
What better way to appease a vengeful ghost than to build a shrine honoring it? He silently applauded himself for finding a way to appease the sparrowhawk ghost and to trap the descendants of that spiteful woman in the confines of the shrine. Everything to ensure his family line, which all stemmed from his youngest son miraculously surviving the woman’s supernatural wrath, would continue to survive.
Yet here stood one of the descendants of that reprehensible farmer’s wife, still in her right mind. The curse should have slowly decayed her senses to the point of oblivion, much like the other five children he had managed to trap at the shrine so many years ago.
Such an odd name, the man thought. Why would one of his descendants have given their offspring such a name?
The woman managed to push her way around the offering box and was running down the stairs just as the five boys continued their unending pilgrimage to the box to offer pieces of their sanity. On the roof, the sparrowhawk cried out before swooping down to land on the edge of the box, blocking the man from following the woman.
He frowned as the sparrowhawk spread its wings, temporarily shielding the woman from the man’s sight.
“I have no quarrel with you,” the man said. “I merely wish to make amends for the past wrongdoing.”
His eyes briefly studied the five boys as they knelt before the shrine, and he wondered if they, like the woman, were still secretly holding onto their consciousness somehow. Why had he allowed his soul to be devoured by such a curse if it didn’t properly work?
It had been his every intention to move past the sparrowhawk, around the box and hunt the woman down, but his mind found itself fixated on the name Hakai. It belonged to someone who was now screaming his way back to consciousness.
The man tried to suppress the flailing attempts of the child within, but he nevertheless found himself once more before the great statue of the hawk inside the building. In horror he watched his arms reach out and grab the statue’s head. His arms pulled, and with a heavy groan, the statue fell at his feet, breaking into several pieces.
He heard a single word ring out into the disturbed air around him.
The building began to shake as though the side of the mountain was collapsing, and the man was forced to his knees before the fallen statue. Despite his inner pleas to somehow fix the statue and appease the ghost of the sparrowhawk once more, his body seemed to no longer listen to his commands.
His body twisted itself back toward the box, where he saw the woman fighting to remain standing as buildings fell around her. The sparrowhawk had disappeared.
“Run!” His voice sounded entirely unnatural, entirely other.
The woman disappeared down the stairs and began running to the black torii gate now visible through the destroyed buildings and statues.
As the roof of the main building collapsed in on him, the last thoughts occupying the ancient man was stunned rage that a descendant of his could so deeply betray him.
Sarah Hozumi is a translator and rewriter who has lived near Tokyo for about 13 years. To see short stories she’s had published, and to read her blog mostly about all things Japan, please visit sarahhozumi.com. You can also follow her on Facebook at sarahjhozumi.
Samuel's Folder, by Mark Keane
Photo by Annemarie Grudën on Unsplash
Samuel leafed through the user manual while Carol set up the laptop for him. A retirement gift, after forty years in the civil service. Not an end but the beginning of a new chapter, or so he’d been told at his retirement party. He was to use the laptop to explore the endless possibilities awaiting him in this new chapter. “I’ve finished loading the photos,” Carol said. The files seemed to go on forever as she scrolled down the screen. “I’ll let you organize them into different folders. Ask if you need any help.”
When she’d gone, Samuel opened the first set of files. Pictures from his niece’s graduation, mostly people he didn’t know. One of Carol linking arms with him. He hated seeing himself in photographs. Moving the cursor along a row of folders, he came to one that didn’t have a title. It contained more files.
He placed the cursor over the first file. A small box popped up: Date created, 12/09/1956. His date of birth. That can’t be right, he thought. He clicked on the file, and his birth certificate appeared on the screen. Place of birth: Dublin. Father’s profession: plumber. Pristine, virgin white—not the yellowed and creased document he kept in a trunk in the attic. Carol never said anything about putting this on the laptop.
He went to the second file, dated 22/05/1958. A grainy black and white image. His mother in horn-rimmed glasses, hair short and curled, wearing a pencil skirt, blouse and cardigan. It was how he liked to remember her, as a young woman. He had seen similar photographs but not this one. She leaned forward with her arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, her face expressing such joy. “Samuel!” Carol called from downstairs.
He closed everything down and went to see what she wanted. He didn’t ask her about the folder, unsure what to ask and self-conscious about his ignorance of computers. She had already done enough, setting up the laptop. Not even a week into his retirement, he didn’t want to appear totally helpless.
Later that evening, he climbed into the attic and searched for his birth certificate but couldn’t find it. While he was there, he went through a box containing his old stamp album, Billy Bunter books and Meccano set. As he fiddled with the Meccano pieces, he recalled past Christmases and birthdays. He thought of the photograph of his mother, her kindness and gentleness.
The next time he turned on the laptop, the nameless folder was still there. Had the number of files increased? Possibly, but hard to tell. He clicked on one with the date 13/04/1959: a photograph of the house where he grew up. Number 34 Saint Lawrence Road, three storeys and a basement, cracked harlequin tiles leading to the front door. A woman stood at the gate, her head turned but Samuel recognized Mrs. Breen, the widow who had rented rooms on the top floor. He pictured her puffy face and the hairs that sprouted from moles on her chin.
Samuel closed the file and went to the next image. The garden of Number 32, a clothesline loaded with bed sheets. In the background, his black and white cat, Tom, sat outside the coal shed. Samuel recalled the disastrous day when he and Tom prospected for gold among the piles of coal. Tom jumped onto the sheets hanging from the line, leaving a track of black paw marks. There was no way to hide the evidence, and Samuel had endured hours of agony anticipating his punishment.
Another image, 26/06/1960: his two brothers in the lane behind the house. Robert, aged seven, sitting in a homemade cart built from a wooden crate with pram wheels and rudimentary steering using ropes. Standing behind the cart, Jack, the eldest, gave the thumbs up sign to the camera. Samuel felt a queer mixture of wonder and regret on seeing Jack. His easy-going brother, never offhand, always interested in what Samuel was doing. Jack had softened the worst of Robert’s bullying. Images from that summer coincided with Samuel’s earliest memories. Pictures of Jack and Robert exploring the abandoned manse at the end of the lane. Their mother with a neighbour, sitting in the living room, laughing at a shared joke. Tom stretched out on a sunlit patch of grass.
He opened a document, dated 09/06/1965: a school report. Geography, A; excellent. English, B; very good. Mathematics, B; very good. Religion, C; good. The headmaster’s summation read: A well-mannered boy but difficult to get to know. Progress is satisfactory.
Next, an icon that looked like a film reel. It took him to a white screen, then blurred monochrome as the picture came into focus. A page lined in squares on a sloping desk and a round hole containing a ceramic pot of ink. A hand holding a nibbed pen. The sleeve of a jumper and a satchel lying against a chair leg. The view switched to a figure in a dark suit, scrawny turkey neck and widow’s peak. Haddington, his primary school teacher. Samuel turned up the volume. “You sneaky, slimy snakes. I’ve had enough of you villainous snakes, you nest of vipers.” Haddington came closer. “Particularly you, Dunne, you sneaky adder.” He bent down, his face filling the screen, long nose and crazed eyes. It had been a misunderstanding, a mix-up over a broken metre stick. Samuel had done nothing wrong but Haddington wouldn’t listen and blamed him.
Samuel got up from his chair and paced the study, still seeing Haddington’s face and feeling the humiliation of that day. He went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. Carol was out, at lunch with friends. Haddington and his metre stick. When was the last time he’d thought about that monster? All that was buried in the past.
He returned to the laptop, and clicked on another film reel. Though the lighting was poor, he could make out the old range cooker in the kitchen of Number 34. A man walked on-screen, the camera trained on his legs. A voice, undeniably his father’s. “All I ask, boy, is some respect. A little bit of respect.” He approached the camera. A leather strap swayed in his fist. “You’ll learn to show respect.” The strap raised, a confusion of movement and noise, the whack of leather on bare skin. The film ended. The silence in the study magnified. Samuel held his breath. He was back in that kitchen, the fear as raw and crippling as fifty years ago. He shut down the laptop. Where had these films come from? Who had put them there?
A distraction, that’s what he needed, something practical and mechanical. There were plenty of jobs to do around the house, chores he had put off until retirement. He went from room to room, making a list of repairs. In the downstairs bathroom, he inspected the grouting but couldn’t concentrate, his brain flipping through images from the laptop. The films, Haddington just like he was at school, and the beating, exactly how Samuel remembered it.
The following day, he busied himself with paperwork relating to his pension, forms to fill, trips to the post office and bank. The laptop remained closed on his desk, its silver sheen unsettling. “How are you doing with the photos?” Carol asked. “Let me know if you need any help. ”He said nothing about the folder. The files felt private, for him alone. Seeing the old house and Jack induced a yearning, and with it a swell of tenderness for his childhood. Days spent playing with Tom or exploring mysterious cupboards, nooks under the stairs and the dark basement. Immersed in the past, questioning and wondering, he fought the temptation and gave in.
The folder waited at the end of the row. He opened pages from the school magazine, an account he had written of a teachers versus pupils football match. A puerile piece, toadying to the teachers and masquerading as irony. Pretentious juvenilia that summed him up as he was then. Images from 1973: schoolmates standing and sitting, not posing but looking away from the camera. Some he identified immediately. One who now ran a gift shop hadn’t changed, apart from the grey thatch of hair that once was black. Another he had met recently, the jowls and comb-over unimaginable in the smiling sixteen year old on the screen. At least three had died. Others he remembered imprecisely, different attributes coming to mind: generosity, spite, humour, vulgarity.
He lingered over an image of Jack on his motorbike, helmet dangling from his hand. Samuel relived the breath-whipping sensation on the back of the Kawasaki as it sped along country roads, dipping crazily to take corners, his awe at his brother’s control of the growling machine. He clicked on the film icon without checking the date. The video started with a view of a ceiling and a fluorescent light tube before cutting to a door with a window. His mother’s voice, “It’s time to go in.” She walked into frame with Robert, her hand on his shoulder. Samuel knew his father was also there. His mother pushed the door open. Inside, a chair with a folded newspaper on the seat. A window, Venetian blinds partially closed. The end of a bed. A slow pan along the covers, the shape of a body beneath. It was Jack’s room in the hospital. After his accident. The room where he died.
One afternoon, Carol called him in from the garden. “I’ve found more photos,” she said. She laid them out in rows on the kitchen table. All the photographs were of him. As a toddler, sitting on a blanket under billowing sheets. Standing between his mother and Mrs. Breen. Holding Tom in his arms. The images seemed dull and lifeless after what he’d seen on the laptop.
“Can you have an unnamed folder on a computer?” he asked. “The default setting is New Folder.” Carol gave him a quizzical look. “Why do you ask?” “No reason, just wondering.” He waited for her to say something about the folder. Instead, she gathered up the photographs. “I can put these on the laptop, if you like.”“No,” he said, “there’s no need for that.”
Samuel whiled away afternoons in cafés, observing the people around him.
The mother hissing at her two children—what was in her past that made her so angry?
And the businessman grimacing as he checked his phone—was he haunted by a shameful incident as a child, some cruelty or misunderstanding?
How much did anyone remember of their past?
Samuel had stopped questioning where the folder came from. It belonged to him, a record of his life. The past was not a dead thing for Samuel. His past was alive on the laptop.
The films lasted ten or twenty seconds, no more than a glimpse, the duration of a memory. One began with a view of a hand reaching for magazines arranged on a shelf. Then, hurried movement and the grim face of a security man. Samuel could feel the iron grip on his arm forty years after the act. Accused of shoplifting, he had brazened it out at the time but felt his shame all the more deeply now.
He had opened more than half the files. Better to take it slowly, and savour each recaptured moment.
Each visit to the laptop offered an element of the unexpected, not knowing exactly what was coming next.
His university years: half-empty lecture halls, and the maths professor who covered the blackboard with an illegible scrawl. Samuel was captivated by snapshots in the college bar of his coterie of friends. The excitement of Rag Week, dunkings in the canal, painted faces and laughter.
His brain tingled with anticipation, going through photos from a student party, scrutinising each face. In one, a group gathered around a plastic bin that must have held home-brewed beer or wine. His eyes led him along a line to Carol, standing with a cup in one hand, the other raised in the air.
Samuel had not forgotten that night. Tom Scanlon, who threw the party, told him that John Cazale had died. They toasted the genius actor.
Then, Samuel met Carol for the first time. Her animated face on the screen brought back those first tentative weeks and months. Captivated and intimidated, he had marvelled at her easy confidence. A time of flux. Constant movement. Forward, always going forward.
He paused whenever he came to a film, steadying himself before clicking on the icon.
A close-up of a clock, lettering on the face: William & Smith London. A familiar ticking, the sound that had announced the passage of time in Number 34.
His mother, leaning against a cupboard stacked with plates, a ball of shredded tissue held to her nose. She looked at him with raw accusing eyes.
“You won’t do this one thing, for me, if not for him.”
Her request that he attend his father’s funeral. A request he could not grant. She had begged him but he refused.
Samuel allowed himself one session on the laptop per day, and no more than five files per session. He studied every square inch of the computer screen. Afterwards, he went for long walks with no particular destination, walking to regulate his thoughts as he digested what he had seen. Going over every detail, re-experiencing his life.
He replayed the film from his wedding to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. The registry office seemed so austere. He was struck by the lack of occasion. The registrar had a birthmark covering much of her neck and cheek. He had forgotten that, as he had forgotten so many other things.
The folder contained images from their honeymoon in Lisbon. Not pictures as such, but impressions; arbitrary views of shops, monuments, sky, a distant horizon obscured in haze. The gaping mouths of fish in the Tagus. A table with a plate of chicken and a glass of wine. Graffiti emblazoned junction boxes. A dried fountain littered with cigarette butts.
He examined a photograph of Carol. She posed beside the statue of Pessao, hand raised to keep her straw hat in place. Samuel recalled the abrupt winds that passed through Lisbon. Her hesitant smile transported him to that time and place and to other places and times, half-formed plans and unacted intentions.
Samuel had kept a diary for six months in 1989. Pages from the diary appeared in the folder, filled with the minutiae of his life—meals he had eaten, films he had seen and books he had read.
An entry from week 5, February 2nd: Meeting with N. tomorrow, very nervous. He had no notion who N. was or what the meeting was about. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember.
Two months into retirement, Samuel still hadn’t made a start on the home repairs. There was no rush, nothing urgent required fixing. Nothing that couldn’t wait until the days got shorter.
Robert came to visit with his daughter, Lucy.
“So, how are you handling the void of retirement?” Robert asked.
“It’s not that bad.” Samuel laughed off the jibe, and turned his attention to Lucy. “I hear you’ll soon be starting a PhD. You must be excited.”
Lucy shrugged and looked away.
“She’s worked hard for it.” Robert gave Samuel one of his stern looks. “She’s not going for an easy option, like the civil service.”
Samuel let the remark pass. Carol took Lucy into the sitting room, leaving the two of them at the kitchen table.
“Do you ever think of Jack?” Samuel asked.
“Why? Has something come up?”
“It just crossed my mind, Jack and his motorbike.”
Robert drummed his fingers on the table. “Jack was the wild boy on his Kawasaki, stupid and reckless. A senseless way to go. It hit the old man hard.”
“Our old man was an abusive brute.”
Robert waved that away. “You got off lightly, you were too young. He had worn himself out by the time he got to you. Jack had the worst of it. That’s what the old man couldn’t live with, afterwards.”
They sat in silence. Samuel could feel his brother’s eyes on him.
“What’s prompted all this, asking about Jack?”
Samuel hesitated, then he said it. “It’s a strange folder on the laptop with pictures and films.”
“Really?” Robert pursed his lips. “Forget about that. You don’t know half of what goes on around you. All you see is what you want to see. Get off your arse and stop sniffing your old farts. Go out and live a little, make the most of retirement.”
Carol returned to the kitchen.
“Sam here has been digging around on his laptop,” Robert said.
She shook her head in exasperation. “Ever since retiring, he’s never off the thing.”
Robert turned to Samuel. “You need to pay more attention to your wife.”
“Chance would be a fine thing.” Carol raised her eyes to the ceiling.
“Come on, Sam. Take her on a holiday. Start spending some of that money you’re hoarding.”
Robert laughed, and Carol joined in.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Samuel stayed out until he was sure Robert had left. It was a mistake to have mentioned the laptop. Nothing had changed with his brother—still dismissive, still talking down to him. Maybe he should say something to Carol. But no, not after the way she’d laughed with Robert at his expense.
Samuel decided to take a break from the folder. He went back to planning the home repairs.
“You’re very quiet,” Carol remarked at breakfast. “Is something wrong?”
“No, why should there be anything wrong?”
“I’ve noticed you haven’t gone near the laptop in days.”
Carol had to know something about the folder. She had installed everything on the laptop.
He spent more time out of the house, sitting in cafés, rehashing events from his past. After a week, he was ready to dip back into the folder. But not at home, not with Carol around. He packed the laptop in the bag he had used for work.
“I’m taking this out with me.”
“It’s your laptop,” Carol said. “If the battery is fully charged, it should last you four hours.”
There was a Costa Coffee nearby, a characterless place but it had plenty of tables with space for the laptop. He sipped his coffee and looked around the room, not taking much notice of anything.
The difficult truth was that the folder no longer excited him. He found the entries from the 1990s and 2000s disappointing. Not as many files and longer stretches of time between them.
The images still seemed unplanned but were incidental and mundane. Soulless buildings, street corners and tram stops that defined his trips to and from work. Views of the supermarket car park where he shopped every Thursday.
Faces obscured because they were too close or smudged by movement. Neighbours, his doctor, the barman in his local, ancillary members of the cast of his life.
Pictures from his retirement party: people he never liked, standing awkwardly with slices of cake on paper plates. He shut the screen as the head of department began a trite speech about his years of service.
Everything had been so fresh and fascinating at the start, when Samuel first looked inside the folder—his school days, university, meeting Carol. There must have been a point in his life when the urgency waned and the future became a sterile present.
He kept up a routine of going to Costa and viewing two new files each time. Arriving late one afternoon, all the tables inside were occupied. No matter, the day was warm, an Indian summer forecasted. He took his iced tea to the furthest outside table and watched the cars sweeping by before starting the laptop.
The files to do with his brother’s visit bothered him. Not so much the images: Robert grinning as he delivered some put-down and Lucy looking bored. It was the film of the conversation between Carol and Robert in the kitchen.
“Have you said anything to Sam?”
Carol shook her head. “He’s so moody and preoccupied.”
“I tried to talk sense to him, but you know what he’s like.” Robert shrugged. “Passive but wanting more. Never satisfied but not doing anything about it. Sam has always been a victim.”
They had appeared exactly as Samuel pictured them in his mind’s eye. The derision on Robert’s face and Carol’s half-smile. He still hadn’t spoken to her about the laptop. Not yet. First, he would get to the last file and, then, begin again in reverse. Start at the end and trace his way to the beginning—see if that told him anything. When he’d completed the second cycle, he would talk to Carol.
The laptop came to life. He moved the cursor across the screen and clicked the mouse. The folder was almost empty, only one row of files. He opened a different folder, then went back to the unnamed folder. It made no difference. His body flooded with dread. What had he done? Could he have deleted the files by mistake and wiped out his precious past?
He clicked on the first file in the row. An image, today’s date. The café in the background, the laptop on the table, iced tea to one side. What about the other files? What was left? He clicked on the last file, the final entry, a film reel icon.
A white screen, cloudiness, then a car moving at speed, accelerating. He looked up and saw with his own eyes what was playing on the screen.
The car veered off course, coming towards him, seconds away.
The driver, hands on his chest and off the wheel, face contorted.
Samuel heard shrieking, sensed movement around him, tables scraping against the ground.
The screen went blank.
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in the UK and North America. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Granfalloon, Terror House, upstreet, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Liquid Imagination, Superpresent, Into the Void, Firewords, Night Picnic, Dog and Vile Short Fiction, the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies, and Best Indie Speculative Fiction 2021. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).
UR OE4O, by Peter Portelli
Photo by Alec Favale on Unsplash
My first thought was that I was still dreaming. But no, this is no dream. I really am standing alone on the side of a road. I’ve no idea how I got here. Even worse, I’ve no idea where "here" is.
The sun’s disappeared but it isn’t dark yet. I look to my right and then to my left. The road stretches in both directions. Do I walk? Do I sit down and wait? I check my pockets. No phone, no keys, no money. Nothing.
I try to remember how I ended up here. I think I was at a party. Yes, that’s it. I was at a party. With Jonas and his new date. Jonas had asked me if I wanted to tag along. I was the third wheel that quickly got unstuck. The rave was in a penthouse where, sadly for me, everyone was coupled up. I did what most people would do at a party when flying solo. I got plastered. Yeah, flashes of memories are returning. I was sussing out the late afternoon skyline and smashing those 5-star Mojitos. There might or might not have been a couple of pills involved too.
I’m not quite sure what happened after that. Jonas was meant to drop me home after the party but he must have found me worse for drink and dumped me here instead. What a wanker! He’s probably hiding here somewhere, laughing his head off.
I shout, “Hey dickhead, enough of this. Come on out. Take me home.”
My voice breaks the deadly silence. The last syllable fades away, replaced by an eerie quietness. The distinctive smell of desolation, which is neither good or bad but just dead, hangs in the air.
I dig my shoes into the loose reddish earth. There’s no tarmac on the road. He must have driven for miles to get to this place. I live and study in Adelaide, you see, as far away as possible from this back of beyond. I wouldn’t have it any other way. People look at me in horror when I say this but give me the polluted air of a city any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Cities make me feel alive. Country air gives me nothing but headaches. The rush of traffic, people with empty stares on their faces walking like robots to their workplaces, loud music, loud horns, loud noises … so much better than this sterile silence.
Who would want to live in a place like this? Before we moved Down Under, my father used to take us to visit our grandparents in Wales. How I hated those journeys through those endless stretches of roads with barely a house in sight. I used to be on edge the whole trip. What if the car breaks down? What if we steer off the road? We would be alone, stuck between two points. Which is exactly where I am now, in that dreaded spot between the "w" and "h" of nowhere.
I cup my hands against my mouth and scream at the top of my voice, “Jonas, stop jerking around. It’s getting late.” Nothing.
Where can he be hiding? There’s a field opposite with some ground-hugging shrubs, certainly not tall enough to hide the bugger. Bluish, silvery fog, like a mystical tsunami, is rolling over the ground. It reminds me of when my grandfather used to scare us with tales of the Old Grey King who sits on his mountain and comes down to snatch children who get lost on the bogs.
I walk a few paces up the road. My head hurts. I can feel a splitting headache coming on. It must have been one hell of a party. It always is when you can’t remember exactly what happened. Admittedly, this is not the first time it happened. I once woke up next to a naked stranger. Don’t laugh. If you ever find yourself in that position, pretend that you know their name, even if you don’t. I can tell you from experience that you’re kind of expected to, after having slept with them.
One of my hands is on my hip; the other is scratching my head. I look into the distance. Is that a dust cloud that I see? Yes! A car’s approaching. I stand as close as possible to the edge of the road. I don’t want the driver to miss me because of the rising fog. He might be the only passer-by before darkness sets in -- my only ride out of here.
My eyes immediately try to focus on the number plate. It is an instinctive reaction. I have this thing with number plates, especially personalized plates. I try to find the hidden meaning in that group of letters and numbers.
Sometimes, letters must be read as Roman numerals. A friend of mine bought a supercar after winning big at roulette. His number plate is XXIX BLK. Some numbers are interchangeable with letters. A 7 or a 4 can be an A. I saw a ‘777’ number plate once and wondered why anybody going to Alcoholics Anonymous would want to advertise it on his car. Mad, I’d say. Totally mad. Number 3 can be an E, and number 5 a S. The easiest one is, of course, the letter o which is often used as a 0 and vice-versa. But be careful: sometimes, the 0 is a D.
The car’s very close now. It’s a black 1963 Ford Consul Cortina. How do I know? My grandfather had one of those, same color and all. I can hear the gravel under the tires as it approaches, the same crunching noise followed by the rattling of the stones as they hit the underside of the car. It looks like the driver has seen me. He’s slowing down.
I look at the number plate and freeze. Cold sweat covers my body. Suddenly, everything becomes clear.
Peter Portelli is Maltese and calls the Mediterranean island of Malta his home. He is a career civil servant and writing has always been central to his professional life. For many years he thought about writing fiction but somehow never got around to it. Until recently. He started out writing short stories and flash fiction and, so far, his work has been published in The Chamber Magazine and Bright Flash Literary Review.
Paranormal Blues, by Jack Adler
Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash
I was suddenly conscious of a faintly grey presence only a few feet away from me that was sliding through the hallway as I sat at my desk. I stared in disbelief. I was about to speak as if the apparition could hear let alone respond, but then it disappeared. I say “it” as I sensed the figure was female. Why, I don’t know. Nothing like this had ever happened to be before. I thought paranormal occurrences were possible, but I didn’t believe they were common-or that I would ever be affected. Indeed, after a few moments of surprise, I resumed work on my computer.
The following day, around the same time in the morning, an even more astonishing thing happened. I saw the shape of a slightly familiar looking dog marching throughout the hallway. We’ve had several dogs as pets whose memories we treasured. He looked so real that I wanted to reach out and pet him or her. Unlike the other presence I didn’t have any sense of gender. But the immediate reality of the sight was even more striking than the human apparition.
I didn’t recognize the “woman” or the “dog.” But why did they appear? Did their presence reveal some momentous development? Was I being forewarned? Or had I become a way-station on some paranormal trail? But it was easy, I realized, to invent all sorts of theories and possibilities, one more absurd than another. Assuming I had been visited by paranormal beings, human and canine, how did I know that I wasn’t just a random instance of their appearance? Why was I special?
Against my better judgment I decided to relate these two visual experiences to my wife, Jane, and our 15 year old son, Ned.
I thought they’d share the mystery of these dual appearances with me. Not so.
“Did she have any expression on her face?” Jane asked, not unreasonably.
“Did she have a face?” Ned immediately cracked, bringing a smile to Jane’s face.
“Why are you making fun? I saw what I saw.”
Jane nodded. “Of course. But you’ve been working very hard. It could be just a …
I don’t know ...a ….”
“Figment of my imagination?” I reacted with indignation. My account, no matter how unusual or fantastic, should be treated with more respect. I taught history at a community college. I was busy marking papers and other activities, and I was a bit tired, especially my eyes. But I was hardly overworked. I was lucid, observant, and totally rational.
“Come on, Dad,” Ned argued, “a woman and a dog! She wasn’t walking the dog, was she?”
Ned laughed and Jane resisted a spreading smile.
“Well, I didn’t expect to be made fun of. I won’t bother you with any more spectral sightings.”
“Steve,” Jane said, “don’t be insulted. We believe you.”
“Sure, Dad. We were just joshing you.”
Joshing, indeed! But I smiled nonetheless, wondering if the figures, especially the woman, would reappear. And hoping they would.
But there was no return. I felt foolish staring at the hallway at the same times each morning the next few days and being disappointed on a daily basis. I was actually pining for a second paranormal experience. Naturally, I kept this bizarre lookout to myself to avoid any further embarrassment. I could easily envision such other questions as:
Do you think the figure is of a former girlfriend?
What do you think her name was?
What’s the position of her hands? Is she pleading?
Was the dog wagging his tail? Did he have a collar?
I’d be a target, a marked man even to my family, if I opened my mouth again. But there was no diminution of my belief in what I saw. I didn’t imagine anything. Even if these fleeting figures never reappeared visions of them were fixed in my mind.
We had some friends over for dinner on a Saturday night, two couples we knew well. Just a small gathering. I don’t know how the conversation turned from politics to exploration of space with all the ultra-powerful telescopes and then to what creatures might be found on planets yet to be seen.
“They could be composed of anything, not flesh and blood like us,” Jeff mused. He was an executive at an insurance company.
“Even invisible, like paranormal beings,” Eve, his wife, a part time interior decorator, conjectured.
I couldn’t help myself. My face, I knew, had turned one shade redder. Jane winced. Obviously, she had shared a confidence with Eve, one of her best friends. But it seemed Jeff, her husband, didn’t have a clue how her comment involved me. Nor did the other couple, Doug and Doris, who both worked in the entertainment field. But I still felt betrayed and embarrassed.
Suddenly, a feeling of strange calm came over me. My normal pallor returned. I glanced confidently at the others. There, before us all, was a slim, barely visible shape of a woman.
“Don’t go!” I shouted at the diaphanous body. I leaped forward as if I could actually put my hand on her. But hands on what? There was was nothing but air. Everyone was staring at me as if I were insane but I didn’t care. Whoever it was, and whatever it was, had returned. Perhaps willed to do so by my firm belief? Vouchsafing my perceptions, my very integrity. Could I summon a paranormal in this method? Was I so gifted? A discovery none too late at the age of 42.
But the gathering ended. Not my fault. After the others left, embarrassed at what they had seen and not knowing its significance, Jane came over and comforted me.
“The doctor will know what to do,” she said, touching my forehead as if mere fever could explain my stunning paranormal epiphany.
“So will I,” I said with supreme confidence.
Jack Adler is a Los Angeles-based author and editor.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
The scorching heat from the sun was unbearable, the blue sky cloudless, the few green leaved acacia trees distantly dotted around far away from the over trodden narrow path, making it difficult to even entertain the thought of going to seek shade from under them. The twenty kilometer journey was proving to be near impossible for the three ladies walking one behind the other on this path.
They were all in their forties, the youngest and less talkative being anything between forty and forty two. Madhuve, the oldest, was doing much of the talking. She was tall, dark, a bit heavy around the waist, with chilling eyes that twinkled when she stared at you; you could tell that during her young age days, she had been a very strong woman. Masivanda, the second oldest, spoke here and there, mostly just nodding her head in agreement with Madhuve. She walked with a slight limp, and, according to her, she had tripped and fallen while running away from an angry charging bull from their village. She was slender, good looking and avoided looking people in the eye for reasons best known to herself. Stembile was the youngest. She was light in complexion and very beautiful. Her body and curves left many men drooling, some even walked into walls, trees and sometimes ditches while staring at her. She barely spoke, just listened to the others talk, occasionally laughing at something funny said by Madhuve. They were all married.
They had started this journey just before sunrise and hoped to arrive at their destination before sunset, but as they looked at the horizon ahead of them, with the sun just a few moments from touching it, they knew they would not make it today. They were going to attend a passover; a church event that happened once every year. The church leaders this time had decided to hold it very far from their village, but since they were devoted christians, they could not miss it.
The heat of the day had caused them to use up all their water and they knew that sooner or later they would have to find some. Since this was in the rural area, homesteads were within a few kilometers from each other and villagers did not mind sharing their water, or even food. It was also going to be a moonless night and walking in the dark, without seeing where one's foot was going, would not be a good idea. Snakes hunt at night and you don't want to step on one, especially puff adders that tend to just freeze when they sense danger. Hyenas, even though presumed timid, were talked about a lot in these villages. They were nocturnal because of the enmity between them and humans, and staring back at one, on a pitch black night like this one would be a terrifying experience. The ladies would have to find a home to seek shelter for the night and proceed the next morning. They could also use a hot meal, and, knocking on someone's door, way before dinner, was the wise thing to do, otherwise they would only be given somewhere to sleep for the night, a thought that was not pleasant at all.
As they walked on, hoping to set foot in a village soon, they listened to songs from the evening birds, that seemed to celebrate yet another day lived amid near misses from slingshot yielding village boys; yes, having stiff porridge (sadza) accompanied by a roasted bird was an achievement, a complete meal in every boy's dream. With one small roasted bird, two to three boys could finish two kgs of parlenta (sadza).
"Wait a minute," Madhuve said, excitedly, stopping, and, signalling the others to do the same. "I think I heard something, like people singing. Doesn't sound too far away."
"I hear them too." Masivanda spoke, her head craned to one side as if to catch the sound waves. "Sounds like some funeral songs. Oh yes, it's coming from over there, by that hill." She was pointing at what seemed like a glowing fire about two or so kilometers to their left.
The darkness was getting thicker and they could hear their own footsteps quite clearly. All birds had stopped singing and all that could be heard were frogs making their loud croaking noises; the males' deep loud distinctive croaks could be heard coming from different spots as they tried harder and harder to lure the females over for some romantic moments. A few fireflies could be seen floating all around them.
Now, when Masivanda mentioned the funeral, she and Madhuve exchanged glances that filled Stembile with fear. She had never seen anything like it. Their eyes had glowed for a moment and their long tongues had simultaneously slid out of their mouths and given their lips a chilling swab. Braving herself, Stembile started walking. "Maybe we can go over there and ask for shelter and food, am sure there must be a path brunching off this one not far ahead of us, oh yes, there it is." She increased her pace, her heart pounding. She hoped the other two could not hear it. All she wanted was not to be with these two alone in this darkness. She had no idea what was wrong with them but a cold stream of sweat running down the small of her back told her there was something sinister about them. All the stories she had heard in the village of ghosts and witches, and had brushed aside as mare myths, started flooding her head. Her mind was racing as she remembered Madhuve's response to her food statement.
"Yes, food! Funerals have lots of food, particularly meat. Yes, meat, am craving meat tonight, bloody raw..." Masivanda had given her a nasty nudge, stopping her in mid sentence. She had noticed Stembile 's terrified look. "Shut up." She had loudly whispered to her.
As they drew nearer to the home, they were relieved to see a lot of people, some singing and dancing to a rhythmic traditional drum bit that somebody, whoever that was, surely knew how to put together. This was happening around one big fire while some others just sat around another small one, chatting in low tones.
African funerals can be so much fun; people just do not sit or stand around looking sad and all, they break into song and dance; they share jokes, with some even imitating the deceased's behavior while they were still alive. The only time everyone is really sad and concerned is when they have just heard the news, or a few moments after someone's death; a few minutes after that, it is time to comfort and get the close members of the family to divert their attention from mourning all the time.
Even none relatives attend funerals and am sure most of them just for the entertainment, plus, of course, meat. On almost every funeral, a cow is slain and this does not happen often in any African village. Meat is eaten at very important functions only, such as weddings, funerals, anniversaries, memorials, and, on Christmas day. It is very common for a group of African women going to a funeral to be chatting excitedly, laughing, doing hi fives until they are close to the home, when suddenly they give off a cacophony of wails, screams and sobs, with some even going an extra mile by staggering and finally collapsing, falling short of passing out.
A dog barked at them from somewhere behind the main house, but a small teenage boy silenced it with some kind of a whistle tune.
"May we be welcome in your home, Papa?" Masivanda politely spoke, clapping her hands together, a thing villagers do as a sign of respect when entering someone's yard. An old man of around seventy years had appeared from the direction of what seemed like a chicken run and noticed them.
"Sure." The white haired old man responded, approaching them. "You are welcome. It's not a very pleasant day of course with the funeral and all but, as you can see, there is lots of people here from all over, please feel free to join."
He showed them where to sit. A young lady offered them some food and water and they accepted without hesitation. They told them their story and that they where happy to finally sit comfortably for the first time since before sunrise. Soft moans could be heard coming from one of the round huts surrounding the fire, and, Stembile could not hold back her own tears as she felt the pain the mourners felt.
An elderly lady sitting close to them started sobbing too, uncontrollably. She spoke with a shaking voice that was filled with emotion. "He was only twenty, oh Lord, why why why?"
Two young ladies wearing sarongs came up to her and put their arms around her shoulders, murmuring soft words of comfort. Her sobs subsided but the pain could still be seen in her eyes, and this was too much to take for Stembile who was using the color of her dress to wipe her own tears. She looked at her friends. They did not seem a bit moved by what was going on and she had to fight hard to clear her memory of what she had, or thought she had seen early on. She got into some small talk with the other ladies who were sitting by the fire. At least the home owners were happy to offer them accommodation for the night. What did not stop bothering Stembile was how her two friends kept looking at each other in a weird way, glancing at their wrist watches as if they were worried about time. Their minds seemed so far away from here, and, at this point, she knew she should not have come on this journey. Regrettably, it was too late.
As the night wore on, the singing and dancing intensified- beautiful round-assed middle aged women displayed their worldly possessions without fear or remorse, in the most entertaining erotic of ways. They took turns entering center stage to outperform each other, their hips and waistlines vibrating in a way no one had ever seen before. This was their one of very few chances to show off their moves without fear of being judged, demonized or condemned by the so-called holier than holy. At funerals anything went and if you had a problem with it, you were free to up and leave, no one cared a brass farthing. At some point, Stembile was tempted to join in but shyness got the best of her. While contemplating this, she had not noticed Madhuve and Masivanda getting up and disappearing into the dark behind one of the huts. Suddenly anxious, she looked around, her eyes searching all around the fire but to no avail. She wanted to ask one of the ladies there to help her look for her friends but realized she may have just been overreacting. What if they had just gone to answer the call of nature? What if they had gone to retire in one of the houses? Not wanting to embarrass herself, she settled back down and diverted her attention back to the entertainment. A few moments later, when she instinctively turned her head towards where her friends had been, her heart skipped a bit. They were back, sitting there, staring at her with glaring eyes that seemed to speak a horrifying language. They had that, 'what the hell' look in them that sent shivers down her spine. It was as if they had never left. She couldn't hold their stare, instead, she decided it was time to go to bed.
She rose and went into one of the huts closest to the fire. A lot of other women lay on their sides on the floor; a few were snoring and someone mumbled something in their sleep. She found herself a small gape enough to wiggle her slim body in and was fast asleep in no time at all; last thing she remembered was her praying silently to God that those two would not follow her here.
As if Stembile's departure from the fire had been their queue, Madhuve and Masivanda exchanged knowing looks, then Madhuve surreptitiously opened her small hand bag, reached in and took out something that looked like a small woolen sachet, stuffed with a substance only known to themselves. She looked around to make sure none were watching before casually tossing it into the fire. A tiny spiral of smoke rose from the burning sachet into the air and disappeared without anyone noticing.
A few moments later, one by one, people around the fire started yawning and falling asleep. The singing and dancing around the other fire started to slowly subside until every single one of the singers and dancers could not keep their eyes open. Within a few minutes, silence replaced all the noise and only a few hee, hees from an awl somewhere in the trees nearby could be heard amid the snoring all over the yard. A happy black smith lapwing flew overhead, letting you a loud clack clack sound, before disappearing into the dark. For Madhuve and Masivanda, it was time to act. They had four hours before sunrise and that was more than enough time. They both seemed to transform into super humans that could float just above the ground. They went into the hut in which Stembile was sleeping, found her and stood above her.
Madhuve leaned over, slapped Stembile lightly on the face and when she snapped her eyes open, recognizing them, Madhuve waved her open hand three times from side to side above her face and suddenly, Stembile found herself getting up and, following them outside with a blank look about her face. She had been hypnotized by Madhuve's hand and started to enjoy their company as they floated in the direction of the termite mound, behind which a fresh grave awaited them.
Stembile would later remember feeling light headed and amazed by the fact that she could just float through the air, her feet barely touching the ground; how it felt so cool to be able to see all the way across the fields as if a big light had been switched on and placed over the whole area; how, like a helicopter, she had the lift, drop, forward thrust and reverse without using her feet, just her invisible wings.
At the grave site were several graves, some of them very old with only an old granite tombstone sticking up, probably belonging to some ancestors, and a couple of others could have been anything between one and many years old. They were not interested in those ones, their sights were on the freshly built one, one without a tombstone yet. While Stembile watched in ewe, Madhuve pulled out from under her dress, some kind of a leather whip, went to stand at the head of the grave and gave it a hard smack, while mumbling some words Stembile memorized. Masivanda stood by the foot of the grave, whistling softly, her eyes sparkling. The top of the grave opened up like sliding doors and revealed nothing but chilling darkness inside. Performing some kind of a ritual dance, with their arms flailing, Madhuve and Masivanda circled the grave twice before Madhuve walked up to Stembile and handed her the whip.
In an echoing, hoarse voice, she said. "You wait out here and stand guard, just before light, do what I just did to open the restaurant up, so we can come out. Understood?"
Stembile just nodded, a distant tingling sensation crawling up the back of her neck into the back of her head. The two disappeared into the grave and it closed up again. Later, Stembile would vaguely recall going to sit on the grave, burying her head between her drawn up knees, before everything went blank.
Early morning birds singing woke her up with a start, wondering where she was. The rising sun's rays blinded her and she had to hold her open hand just above the eyes to see a big crowd of astonished people staring at her from a good thirty yards away, their eyes wide with horror. She looked around herself and shot to her feet, stepping away from the grave. The people staring at her were angry but also confused. They were saying something she could not make out. She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out. Her knees buckled and she collapsed on to the ground, suddenly aware of what was going on. She had been sitting on a grave, for how long, she had no idea; why, she could not comprehend. The crowd slowly and cautiously approached her. Terror gripped her as she watched them edge closer and closer through her long braids that hung loosely over her eyes. Some were carrying long whips, some knobkerries and some, long curly ropes. This told her they had seen her a while back, gone back to gang up and come back to deliver mob justice. It is customary in many African tribes to visit a fresh grave early the next day just to make sure it has not been tempered with. How could she get out of this, how had she gotten here in the first place? All these unanswered questions flooded her head as she tried to recall.
The crowd stopped about ten yards away and one elder came closer and stood above her. He was not carrying any weapon but his eyes were red with anger. His chest was rising and falling as he struggled to rein in his rage. Stembile recognized him. She had seen him before. Wait a minute, from last night. He was the elder that had welcomed them.. them. What, them? She and who? Then, suddenly her memory came back, and so did her voice and sanity. The funeral, the food, drinks, the song and dance, the fire. Where were her friends, Madhuve and Masivanda? Had these people hurt them in some way? Was this a man-eating tribe? She could not bear the thought of being devoured alive by these hungry looking people. She had to run away from here. She felt cornered like a wounded animal. Her only weapon maybe anger.
Then on top of her voice, she screamed, "Where are my friends! Where are they?" She was now up on her feet, looking around frantically.
The old man 's anger immediately turned into concern. With a soft voice that was barely audible, he spoke.
"Young lady, are you okay? Do you understand where you are and how you got here?"
"I am okay," she screamed, stomping her feet against the hard ground. "Where are my friends, what did you do to them? " She broke down and started sobbing loudly through short deep breaths.
Someone in the crowd screamed, "Witch! Let's deal with her!" Everyone else joined in and instantly, it was a chorus of, "Whip the witch! Human eater! Whip the witch! Human eater!" They were now surrounding her and raising and waving their weapons, waiting for the old man to give them the thumbs up. The old man did not. Instead, he reached out his hand and carefully led Stembile through the crowd towards a big loquat tree about twenty yards from the grave. He sat her down and gave her enough time to calm down. Someone from the crowd ran up to them, holding some kind of leather whip. "Uncle, uncle," he shouted, "ask her if this is hers."
Stembile gave one look at the whip and before the old man could say anything, she got up and took it out of the man's hand. Suddenly it all started coming back. Her friends' weird looks, the waving hand in her face, the floating to the termite mound, the...she started walking slowly towards the grave, the whip held firmly in both her hands. Everybody's gaze followed her until she stopped at the head of the grave. She raised the whip above her head and paused.. something occurred to her just before she brought it down onto the grave.
Her face twisted into a raging grin as she processed what the two ladies had subjected her to..this humiliation, the embarrassment, the fear. How would the world view her now? A witch from Nengoma Village? How would her family, friends, relatives react to this news? How would her husband regard her upon hearing this?
An avenging spirit was fast engulfing her. She thought deep, tears rolling down her chicks, and, with all her might, she brought the whip down onto the grave and a shattering noise echoed through the hills close by. Nothing happened.
Stembile realized she had forgotten the words Madhuve had spoken while slamming the whip hard against the grave, and, without saying them, the grave would remain closed. She told the chief and his people what had happened until she got to the opening of the grave part, then stopped and, crying softly, she said she could not remember the rest; only that the other two women were definitely down there feeding on the dead young man's body, and since this was taboo in this village, and, digging up a grave for whatever reason was not something allowed, everyone chose to believe her story and agreed to let her go. Back at her village, when she narrated her story, no one believed her, they brushed her aside and advised her to see the village traditional doctor, because, surely, she was losing it.
In Chamba village, where the unthinkable happened, there is talk of people hearing knocking sounds coming from deep in the grave, heard whenever they pass by at night. Nobody has ever had the nerve to stop and listen carefully. Some even claim to have heard pleading voices begging to be let out; it's been twenty years now.
But, hey, that's not what happened. Repeating Madhuve's exact words, Stembile smacked the grave again, circled it twice and all of a sudden, a strong whirlwind came out of nowhere, kicking up debris, sand and dust. Everyone closed their eyes until it passed, and when they opened them, they were horrified by what they saw. Two scary looking women were standing in front of the grave, their lips, hands and dresses covered in blood- some of it trickling down their arms. They just stood there, their eyes almost popping out of their skulls. They seemed powerless, confused, frightened and unable to move. The villagers on the other hand were equally mesmerized. Some collapsed to the ground, some had run off into the hills. Everyone was trembling except for the old man who stared back at the two ladies. He seemed to wait for a particular moment to say something or make a move. The two ladies looked at each other, at their bloody hands and understood. Their faces changed immediately from being horrifying to being afraid, ashamed and vulnerable. Simultaneously, they dropped to their knees and buried their heads in their hands, waiting for what they knew was coming.
Without anyone saying anything, the crowd moved in on them and started whipping them.
Realizing what was happening, and what would happen if he did not stop the crowd, the old men muscled through to the center where the witches lay groaning and screaming in pain and pushed away the crowd, shouting on top of his voice. "Stop stop stop! You gonna kill them and then what? Let's take them to the chief and he will deal with them according to our laws!"
Someone shouted, "kill them, the chief will just pardon them! Kill the witches, kill the human eaters!"
"No no no!" The old man insisted and after a few moments of silence, the crowd dispersed. The three ladies were taken to the chief 's house where they were locked up in a cattle kraal, waiting for elders from their village, whom the chief had sent his aids to summon, to arrive.
The old man, who at this moment could not hold back his tears, approached the kraal and spoke to the ladies with a raspy, trembling voice filled with agony, "You have no shame. I let you into my home, feed you and give you shelter and you pay me back by feeding on my grandson? Really? May the Lord punish you with the most extreme curse imaginable."
He swung around and weakly staggered back to his house.
A few hours later, when their elders arrived, after a long agitated debate, they were released after the two who had actually gone into the grave agreed to pay a fine of ten cows each. Stembile was pardoned since she had just been a victim of circumstances.
Now, I could end this story here. Yes, don't you think it would be a good ending? Something like, Stembile realized she had forgotten the words spoken by Madhuve to open the grave and without saying them, it would not open.
Lesley Mukwacha is an African storyteller who has been leading and guiding international tourists around Africa for over a decade, sharing with them his real life experiences in the safari industry, together with fictitious stories of his around campfires, and, would like to share these stories with the rest of the world. He currently lives in Zimbabwe but moves around a lot throughout Africa.
Watch Bobby Fly, by Joshua Greenleaf
Floating Baby - https://bit.ly/3W5Wh5j
When Mrs. Donna Wills went to her baby’s room to check on her one-year-old son, he was floating above the crib, in a standing position looking down at her. She rushed to him, grabbed him and held him close. “I must be hallucinating. He couldn’t have been floating in the air…but he was,” she said and put her son back in his crib. Immediately, he rose up, she grabbed him, and, as she did, her husband came home, and she hurried down to meet him.
“Hi, Donna,” he said and kissed her. “How’s my family?” He took Bobby and held him. “How’s my boy?”
“Arnie, I want to show you something.”
“What’s that, honey?”
“Put Bobby down.”
“Okay. There y’ go Bobby,” he said and put him on the floor. “Watch Bobby.” As he watched, Bobby rose up, went into a standing position, smiled, gurgled, and went to his father, who held him. “Donna, what…? Uh, let ‘s go sit down before I fall down,” he said and they went into the living room. “This is unbelievable.”
“I think we should take him to the…the…God, who would know about this?”
“Let’s start with Dr. Jones. He might know what to do?”
Donna was sitting with Bobby on her lap when Dr. Jones entered the examination room. “Hi, Arnie, Donna. What’s up with Bobby?”
“I’ll show you,” Donna said and put Bobby on the floor. Bobby gurgled, rose up and went to Dr. Jones, who held him.
“I…I don’t believe it. How does he do that?”
“We don’t know, Dr. Jones, but we hoped you might know?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t. The university has a para psychology department. I would go there.”
At the university, they demonstrated Bobby to a psychiatrist/parapsychologist, Dr. Mason. “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Wills, this is an amazing phenomenon. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I can’t imagine how or why your baby can fly. We deal with paranormal activity. If you thought your house was haunted we would investigate, but…uh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you about Bobby.”
“Well, thank you for your time, Dr. Mason,” Arnie said, and they left.
The Wills' sat in their car in silence for several minutes. “I guess we’ll have to hope he grows out of it as he gets older. What else can we do?” Donna said, and they went home.
As Bobby grew older, he didn’t grow out of it; he was still flying, and the Wills could never let him out of their site. They imagined that he would fly out of their reach. When he was five, he was able to control his flying, but Donna home-schooled him to be sure he had controlled his flying. Bobby learned so fast that she had difficulty keeping up with him. By the time he was eight, he was speaking Spanish and Russian fluently, and, by the time he was twelve, he was immersed in physics. The Wills thought he was probably a genius, so when Bobby was fifteen, they sent him to an acclaimed private school. His teachers all agreed that they could not teach him anything because intellectually he was far above them, so he was sent to a university. By the time he was twenty, he had earned two doctorates and became known as a brilliant physicist. His peers admitted that they had difficulty understanding his theories.
When he was with his mother and father, he felt like a stranger. He felt that he wasn’t in the right place, but he couldn’t define what the right place was. When he was thirty, he was given his own laboratory at a major university and a place to live on campus. No one bothered him. He sat alone for hours and produced hundreds of scholarly papers, and, as time went by, his body changed. Each hand grew a sixth finger, his arms and legs became shorter, and he shrunk to four feet. A four-inch antenna grew over each eye, his brain grew, and his skull grew to accommodate his growing brain. No one had seen Bobby in a year, so no one knew how he had changed.
The scientific community contacted the president of the university to request that he ask Bobby to give a lecture. The president contacted Bobby, who agreed, providing the lecture be held just outside the door of his apartment. His conditions were met and the day arrived. The greatest minds had gathered to listen to Bobby, and the time came. His apartment door opened, and he stepped out not looking at his audience, and went to his podium. There was a gasp from his listeners as they witnessed what they couldn’t imagine, someone who didn’t look human.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the scientific community, for several years, I have been changing and I have become what you see. For several years, I have felt like a stranger here on your planet. In fact, I am a stranger on your planet. I know now that I am from a distant planet where my brilliance is common. You have tried to understand my theories, but you could not because I and my kind are superior, and you are inferior. From the time I was a baby, I flew. No one knew how or why. Now, I know why. Look up. You can see an object. That is the vehicle that will take me home. It will not land; I will fly to it, and after I fly to it, your inferior planet and all life on it will disappear. We have decided that there is no justification for you to exist. Goodbye,” he said and flew like a bullet to the ship. The second he disappeared from sight, the earth exploded and the particles that were once earth, flew into a million directions.
While teaching communication skills and writing at a community college, Mr. Greenleaf wrote short stories and plays. Since retiring in 2000, he has written short stories, novellas, and plays. Latest publisher: Once Upon A Crocodile.
Savior, by Scott Craven
New Mexico's Very Large Array Radio Telescope
Debra lost count of the hours, days … weeks? Two things she knew: her restraints were looser and the stories more depraved.
Oh, and that she is probably going to die when this is all over. If you ask her, it’s a shitty way to treat a savior. Or, as they refer to her, The Savior.
Debra sits in a cold barren room on a sturdy wooden chair, one that had sucked the feeling from her butt within the first hour. She listens to them one by one, each story worse than the first. Not just stories, though. Confessions. She is a sin sponge, absorbing their transgressions and granting them absolution, an act that will – as she’s been told time and time again – to save the world.
She shifts to restore blood flow to at least one butt cheek, but it only aggravates the pain in her back. Debra focuses on her current confessor, as if she can concentrate the discomfort away.
“So, I continue to have sex with Toby even though I know it’s an abomination,” he says while wringing his hands.
Though Debra’s she is to say nothing until the forgiveness phase, she can’t let this one pass. What are they going to do, kill her? Yes.
She shifts again, levels her gaze at eyes that reveal a hollowness behind them. “Homosexuality,” she says, pausing a half beat, “is not an abomination.”
“Oh, I know,” the man nods. “Toby is my neighbor’s dog.”
He is followed by another and another and another, each in shapeless gray sweatsuits purchased at a thrift store’s going-out-of-business sale.
Debra remembers nothing between the accident and waking up shackled to a bed, her head throbbing and her ribcage feeling as if being squeezed by a giant nutcracker. The details over the next few days remain fuzzy, but all comes into brutal clarity with the first visit of Valkronus, surely not her birth name unless her parents knew she was destined to lead a cult.
Debra’s arrival, as if she’d had a choice in the matter, was no accident, but destiny (though Debra would come to believe it was more kidnapping than anything else). Valkronus went on to spell out Debra’s duties for the next hours, days … weeks? Those pursuing moral awakening and blessed enlightenment would sit across from Debra and divulge their deepest (and as it turned out, depraved) secrets. Debra, in turn, was to listen in silence, speaking only at the end to offer forgiveness’ and absolution.
“We do this not to save ourselves,” Valkronus said, voice dripping with grave concern, “but the world, as we have done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
Valkronus, a frail woman whose billowy sweatsuit suggested she could be carried off in a slight breeze, placed two fingers under Debra’s chin, their gazes meeting. “This is your duty as The Savior, and The Saviors before you.”
How many, Debra wonders, sat on this same chair in the same featureless room listening to the same degenerates mistaking hostages for saviors?
Another enters. Debra recognizes her as the woman ordered to feed Debra, emptying the bed pan as needed. She reaches into the memory haze for a name. Esmandia? Delvania? Something like that, if not more ridiculous. Wrinkles crease a forehead framed by graying brown hair. A round, soft face shows none of the anxiety of Debra’s previous visitors.
“Forgive us Savior, for we have sinned,” she starts.
Us, we? Debra thinks. For the first time, a confessor has her complete attention.
“I’m sorry for the way you’ve been treated,” the woman continues. “It’s time to atone for our greatest sin.”
In a dramatic fashion, the woman pulls off her sweats to reveal jeans and a white “I (heart) SF.” She goes to work on the restraints, Debra feeling the blood rush back into her hands. She stands but the world tilts. Debra stumbles backward, preparing for impact just as hands grip her elbows, hoisting her back to vertical. Her vision clears, revealing a second person, the one still holding her upright. He’s young, no more than thirty. His expression seems to be one of sympathy, a look Debra never thought she would see again.
“We’re getting you out of here,” he says.
“Why?” The question crosses Debra’s lips before she even knows she’s asking it. She doesn’t trust anyone, especially those who want to help her.
“Because it’s time this came to an end,” he says.
He steers her toward the door. “I’m Eric, by the way, formerly known as Osvalder. You know Bess as Marvanya.” Noticing Debra’s hesitation, he adds, “I know you have a million questions. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for answers. If you want to live, you’ll follow us.”
“They’re going to kill me, then,” Debra says.
“Yes,” Bess says, holding the door open. “Burned alive, to be exact, which happens to every sixth Savior.”
“How many have there been?” Debra asks.
“Enough to save the planet,” Bess says. “Too many,” Eric says at the same time.
Sandwiched by her two (maybe) rescuers, Debra rushes down one hallway after another before bursting through a door and into the cold night air. She briefly wonders what time it is, only because time hadn’t mattered for days.
They race through a maze of alleys, Debra keeping up because it’s the only thing she can think of doing. Every step away from the chair and its restraints was a step closer to freedom. She has to believe that if she is to cling to hope.
A door opens and Debra stumbles into a room identical to the one she left, this one without a chair but with a window high on the opposite wall, which casts a moonlit square in the middle of a concrete floor.
“They’re close,” Bess says. “I can feel them.”
“How much longer?” Eric says, nodding toward Bess’s wrist. She looks at her watch. “Sixteen minutes.”
“According to the Book of The Prophecy,” Eric says, sounding to Debra as if a challenge.
“Exactly. And as long as they believe it, that’s all that matters. We just have to-“
Shouts echo outside. Debra has no idea how far away they are, but she they make those sixteen minutes an eternity.
“What the hell is going on?” Debra manages to say. “Who are you people and what does a book have to do with anything?”
Bess and Eric exchange glances. “She deserves to know, especially if …” Eric trails off, Debra hardly needing to read his mind to know where he was going.
“Fine,” Bess says, taking a seat on the cold concrete. Debra and Eric do the same. “Welcome to the Sacrificial Order of Divine Perpetuity, keeping the world alive one death spectacle at a time. Every few months, at a specific time outlined in the Book of Prophecies, we kill someone by various and rotating means. You were to be burned alive.”
“That is fucking crazy,” Debra says.
“Yet perfectly logical to everyone’s who’s witnessed a sacrifice and woken up the next day, sun shining,” Bess says. “Small price to pay to save the planet, right? Until the day they take your brother” (she looks at Eric) “or your mother. Because just maybe they don’t believe as strong as they should.”
“But if you miss a sacrifice and the sun still rises, it ends,” Bess says. She looks at her watch. “Eleven minutes from now, with another five minutes built in to adjust for any errant timing, all this come crumbling down.”
Seconds tick as shouts approach. By the time the door is broken down, the three are surrounded by the absolved, it is too late.
Bess smiles at Debra. “You’re free,” she says. “So are we.”
The report comes up on a computer terminal rarely checked by the handful of astronomers whose days are filled with coffee and boredom.
The intern taps a few keys, double-checks the results. It’s significant enough to bring to one of the more sympathetic researchers.
“A solar ejection,” the scientist says. “Unusual given the age of the star, so catalog it-“
“That’s not the most unusual thing about this,” the intern says. “That system has, well, several planets, can’t remember exactly. But only one that’s inhabitable. And that ejection? Wiped it out, as if aiming at it.”
“Nice catch, young lady. Exceptional work. How did you find it?”
“For some reason, I had an urge to check the Deep Exploration Base Radio Array. There it was.
“Funny, I thought we’d taken DEBRA offline. Anyway, write it up the notes so we can present them tomorrow.”
“But I’m off tomorrow.”
“Finish them when you return to the office then. It’s a fascinating discovery but hardly worth sacrificing your free time.”
Scott Craven is a former journalist with more than forty years in the newspaper business, spending his retirement to spill a few stories of his own. He recently placed a twisted tale, “Gone Fishin’,” with Dread Imaginings. On the lighter side, Scott's middle-grade trilogy “Dead Jed: Adventures of a Middle School Zombie” was originally published by Month9Books and Blackstone Audio. The first book was optioned for a TV movie by Nickelodeon.
Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash
Overcast skies and salted air antagonized Milo at the end of a long morning's drive to the Oregon Coast. Charleston Harbor butted against a heavily wooded arm of the South Slough estuary at the mouth of Coos Bay where idle Dungeness crab trawlers crowded the marina for the off-season. Milo searched for the address listed in his copy of the Charleston Bulletin and tracked it to a run-down Bait & Tackle shop on the wharf. Inside, an overweight Frederick M. Price, the Bulletin's Editor-in-Chief, scowled from behind the counter with a half-done bowline in one hand and a tarnished double hook in the other.
"Excuse me. I'm Milo, the biology student from Siskiyou University. I wrote to you about the ecology paper I was working on? The one about the effects of encroachment on Oregon Coastal habitat?"
He recognized Milo's name from the letters.
"I was hoping you might provide more details about the recent . . . 'animals found butchered on the outskirts of town, their bones missing'?" Milo quoted from Mr. Price's article.
Price shifted his bulging gut. His eyes sank back down to the line and hook in his hands. He mumbled, "Doesn't concern you," and "Wasting your time."
Milo insisted, "Any information you have might help. Then I'll be out of your hair."
Milo wouldn't leave, and Price's face turned cruel. He looked at the young student sideways and told him, "Try the library . . . across the bay. One-O-One North . . . second left after the Eastside Bridge . . . can't miss it."
Milo thanked him, and Price bid his visitor goodbye with an evil smirk.
Certain colleagues of Milo liked to label him "Bigfoot-chaser", among other things, for running after the strangest of leads. But he didn't do so to entertain what he considered to be fairy tales. He did so because no one else would, leaving them all to himself. Charleston was just another case of man's clash with nature after encroaching on the habitat of mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, and other predators, like many others he'd documented. He was sure of it. And just like the others, it was going to help him earn the prestige he deserved. He wouldn't let obstinate locals or anyone else stand in his way.
Before heading to the library, he detoured to Ivy Landing, the neighborhood mentioned in the Bulletin. Swaths of overgrown blackberry bushes, with shriveled, overripened fruit clinging to their vines well past season, crowded against backyard fences, forming a natural barrier between Charleston and the untamed forest beyond. Misted darkwoods lurked on the other side, swooping into the hills of Oregon's coastal wilderness, a mossy temperate rainforest with pockets of unexplored, centuries-old forest so dense that the sun never touched their lowest levels.
"--the last house on Ivy Landing," the article mentioned.
A weather-worn 1950's style ranch home took up the end of the lane with a neatly trimmed lawn, sculpted hedges, and thoroughly weeded flower beds. A rusted station wagon occupied the driveway that had clearly been in recent use.
Milo knocked. No one answered.
A ragged curtain flapped through a broken window behind one of the flower beds. A quick look inside showed a living room that had been tidied. However, dark splotches on the carpet and walls hinted at what must have occurred there. Unless the window had been broken previous to the incident, such circumstances ruled out virtually every predator besides black bear. Rare behavior, indeed, but not entirely unheard-of.
Milo saw a next-door neighbor inch halfway onto his front porch out of the corner of his eye, a balding, middle-aged man in a flannel bath robe. He stared down his nose at Milo through a pair of gold-framed spectacles.
Milo hollered, "Do you know the people who live here? Do you know when to expect them?"
The man sneered, and said, "No one lives there anymore." He slid back inside. The door clicked shut.
Milo eventually found something useful in the Coos County Library archives--with no help from the librarian, a cantankerous skeleton of a woman. After wading through a slew of microfiche dating back to Charleston's "Gold Rush" days, a grainy headline jumped out at him:
BONE EATER MASSACRES TERRORIZE CHARLESTON GOLD MINERS
People had been found butchered all over 19th-century Charleston, their bones missing--people, not animals--entire families gone overnight. That explained what might have happened on Ivy Landing and what Mr. Price might have been concealing. Milo shivered.
Graves had also been robbed, especially those of Charleston's oldest cemeteries. Coffins had been dug up and left exposed, bones taken.
One author in the Coos Bay Gazette, 1857, made accusations towards Redmaw, Charleston's closest neighbor to the south: "Those pale-skinned reprobates are the ones to blame. The ones we've all seen skulking in the hills outside our beloved Charleston. The ones with nothing moral or decent to offer the world. Those debauched souls who spend their days in sloth and their nights at the feet of unGodly, unholy idols! Those wretched denizens of Redmaw!"
A bony finger tapped on his shoulder.
"The library will be closing--"
Milo left equally horrified and titillated. People as victims better suited his thesis. To identify whatever terror was responsible for the killings would make a fine capstone to his project and no doubt earn him high marks, not to mention boost his chances at candidacy for graduate work. He was tempted to gloat to Mr. Price about what he'd uncovered, but returned to the Bait & Tackle shop only to find the place closed for the night.
Milo was hungry.
Sunset turned Charleston's gray skies into deep shades of indigo, crimson, and violet. Milo sat at the bar in Kilgore's Fish House up the road from the wharf, asking everyone within earshot, between baskets of fish-'n-chips, for directions to Redmaw. Customers and waitresses turned their backs and shunned his questions. The bartender, out of pure cruelty or simple impatience, eventually scrawled what he knew on a greasy napkin and handed it over.
That quieted Milo. He parted with a belly full of deep fried cod and holed up for the night in a shabby motel across the street.
The town of Charleston was built on Coos Indian land. Even Milo had heard their stories, as well as those of the Siletz, Siuslaw, Umpqua, and others, about certain non-human races who walked the earth before mankind: there was Tall Man, known to white folk as Bigfoot or Sasquatch, who wielded powerful medicine; Tall Man's cousin, the evil one, who wasn't to be spoken of; the Little People who helped lost ones, especially children; and the Mist People, servants of the sea-god, who emerged from their cave dwellings when the fog was heaviest. If the recent attacks had anything to do with such legends, or if the people of Redmaw were of any relation to the so-called Mist People, Milo wasn't concerned.
The unmarked turnoff down Seven Devils Highway was easy to miss. A poor excuse for a service route branched off into moss-covered woods and ended at an assemblage of bizarre lean-tos huddled together within a twisted knot of dirt roads. This was Redmaw.
Every shack displayed ugly collections of sun-bleached driftwood and ocean-smoothed stone carved into obscene idols that would've been more at home among the gargoyles of Europe's most grotesque cathedrals, or the ancient sculptures that haunted many Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mesoamerica. Local Indian tribes shunned such practices and attributed them solely to the Mist People, or "Tehshu Kheh'she" in the extinct Coosan tongue. The most prevalent image, and the most unnerving, was that of the sea-god, the two-headed serpent Ci'Suotl, whom the Mist People supposedly served.
Milo paid these no mind. He pounded on doors, yelling for someone to come out and answer his questions. Small-framed, pallid figures hid inside of every tumbledown shanty and refused to speak to him. They peered from mute shadows, faces, hair, and clothes all uncouth, disheveled messes, and stared as if Milo's words were utterly incomprehensible. None would help him. He exhausted himself trying.
He wandered to the edge of the village where clumps of squalid dwellings teetered on the edge of a precipice overlooking the ocean. He followed a steep, narrow path down the cliffside to an isolated beach. Frothed, clouded waters crashed over jagged rocks and licked mottled beds of smoothed stone and coarse, grayish, volcanic sand. A sheer bluff met the water in layers of rust-colored sandstone pockmarked with gypsum and reddish-brown iron-oxide veins. Milo felt eyes on him wherever he went.
At the base of the rock, Milo uncovered inlets where the cliff face had eroded into hidden caves and alcoves, some deeper than others. These were littered with more obscene idols, depictions of unnatural beings more grotesque than the ones above ground. Hardened amorphous pools of wax hinted at what must have been nightly vigils held in those places. Again and again, Milo stumbled on two-headed statues of the serpent-god Ci'Suotl decked with strange offerings, each one larger and more disturbing than the last.
The deepest recess sliced away from the shore, unreachable by foot. Milo searched for another path when movement caught his eye. Something scampered up the ledge. Reddish-brown fur blended in too well to distinguish from the cliff until it moved again. The thing scaled the precipice, lunging from rock to rock with inhuman strength and agility. It paused at the top and stared. Then it was gone.
The tide was rising. Milo was out of time. He retraced his steps through Redmaw under the depraved eyes of its inhabitants and returned to Charleston to seek a means to reach the inaccessible cave.
Most sailors in Charleston shied away from the first mention of Redmaw, pretending not to be sure of the way, or making up some other reason to withdraw from the conversation. The one skipper daring or desperate enough to hear Milo out was a man called Moe, short for Moebius, who captained a trawler named La Vierge.
"I'll pay you double the cost to take me there and back," Milo offered.
With finances stretched thin waiting for Dungeness season to kick off, and many mouths to feed at home, Moe agreed.
The ocean was an abyss without end in the hours before dawn. Black waves slapped against the hull of La Vierge. A weary Milo huddled in the cabin over a borrowed thermos of coffee behind Moe who navigated the dark sea by instrument and flood light. Moe's lanky first mate walked the deck bearing an electric lantern, floating through the night like a ghost.
They arrived at an eerie spot. Turbulent waters shook the boat in ways that left Milo disoriented. The bluffs of Redmaw were shadowy walls basking in the spray of murky waves. Somewhere beyond the reach of the trawler's flood lights was the cave.
They dropped anchor and lowered Milo in a flimsy raft with only a flash light and a hardcover journal in which he kept his notes. Tide-worn pebbles crunched on the shore where he landed as he dragged the raft away from the ocean's dark roar.
Candles flickered in distant alcoves. Faceless shadows flitted in an out, scuttling up the path which Milo had taken before to the ramshackle village, their pale bodies making spectral blurs in the twilight. Milo found the cave ahead.
Dampness crept up the walls and along the sandy ground. The deeper cavities were stratified by jagged bands of red jasper, tiger's eye, burnt orange calcite, and rust-tinted aragonite. Fallen, fallow-colored boulders showed sings of scraping where something had been sharpened against then. Stone flakes, slivers, and coarse dust piled around them. An awful, fetid smell wafted from some unseen place.
Milo aimed his light upwards and saw strings of bones hanging down by the hundreds. Not a square foot of cave roof was unadorned. Cryptic skeletal designs also decorated the upper walls, spelling out things that Milo couldn't comprehend. Others were clear depictions of the two-headed serpent Ci'Suotl.
Milo jumped when a shadow stepped in front of the cave entrance. He spun around with his light and found a beast hunched over on its foreknuckles, its fur gross and discolored in mangy patches. Lidless eyes jerked under a sloping forehead, trying to steal a better look at Milo. Its pupils contracted, and its nostrils twitched in his direction. In one hand, it held a long, pointed stone with an uneven, tapered edge. As rapidly as it appeared, it darted away.
Milo was shaken and exhilarated in the same rush. Whatever that thing was, it spelled the discovery of a lifetime. He needed evidence.
He climbed onto the boulders to better reach the hanging bones. He pulled one, and a piece broke off. The string that held the bones together was a sinewy fiber that Milo didn't recognize. The bones were marred by jagged grooves made by the creature's primitive stone tool, as well as teeth marks where it had gnawed. Milo bundled them under his arm and sprinted back to the raft, looking over his shoulder for another sight of the creature but saw nothing. He reached La Vierge and the first mate hauled him aboard.
"Did you see it?" Milo asked, catching his breath. "Did you see which way it went?"
The first mate said nothing. Milo hurried to the cabin and asked Moe if he'd seen which way the thing had gone, but he said nothing either. They weighed anchor and sailed full speed for Charleston, Milo searching the dark coastline for another glimpse of that wretched, hairy, cave-dwelling thing.
Milo gave Moe the rest of what he owed back at the docks, then the two parted ways. Milo went straight to his motel room to start documenting what he had found while it was still fresh in his mind.
The sea raged that night. Thunderous clouds rolled in on terrible winds. The water was blackened by an ominous shadow, a dark, serpentine mass. Frightening swells rose wherever it went. It raced from one end of the bay to the other. Waves surged into the harbor, tossing boats aground. The marina was ripped and tangled up into a complete wreckage. A heavy mist descended from the hills so thick that neighbors couldn't see each other across the street. The tempest forced every man, woman, and child of Charleston to barricade themselves indoors.
Through the mist, small, pale-skinned figures scurried down streets and alleyways and loped over rooftops. Even Milo heard thumping on the motel roof but dismissed it as the wind.
In the aftermath the following day, the windows of Milo's room were found shattered and the inside strewn with remains. If they were Milo's, his bones, along with his journal and the sum of his findings, were gone.
Nathan Sweem served as an Army linguist specializing in Arabic and taught high school algebra for a stint. He writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Worlds Within, The Antihumanist, Active Muse, and others. Connect with him and find more of his work through social media (@nathan_sweem) and his personal website (darkislandfire.net).
Saturday Night Off, by Linda Boroff
The four occupants fall silent as the Buick crests the top of Empire Grade and begins to wind down the narrow blacktop road, nearly invisible in the night fog.
“Pick it out, willya?” says the man beside the driver. In response, Royal throws the car into neutral, takes his hands off the wheel and crosses his arms. He removes his black-booted foot from the gas pedal and rests it against the dashboard. The car instantly surges forward like a horse with the bit in its teeth.
“You was soundin’ like you was wantin’ to drive, Don,” Royal says as the car accelerates toward a stand of young oaks bisected by the road.
“Shit, you crazy bastard!” Don lunges for the wheel, but his glancing touch only causes the car to veer and careen, throwing the two women in the back up against each other and eliciting sharp screams. Royal winks at Don and resumes the wheel with exaggerated cool, throwing the car into second and turning calmly into the skid as trees flash past.
The women yelp and whimper, shielding their faces. Lauren, the one with long dark hair, covers her eyes with her arms. When she dares peek out, the car is again traveling smoothly down the steep grade. The blonde-haired woman beside her now focuses in silence on the back of Royal’s neck, her lips pursed and eyes narrow.
“Oh my God,” Lauren gasps.
“Just watch it the hell,’ says Don to Royal, trying to reclaim his hegemony with this loser.
But Royal only laughs, scowling. “Just you open that pie hole one more time, Don.”
Don glares straight ahead, consumed with rage. Royal half-turns to the two women. “And that goes for you too. I’m the one drivin’, you got that clear?” As Don’s mouth opens, Royal raises his voice. “And you don’t none of you know shit.”
Don exhales noisily. Headlights loom, but the cars narrowly clear one another. “Fuck you very much,” mutters Royal at the other driver.
“Are we getting close yet?” Lauren ventures after what feels to her like a long time.
“Shut up,” says Don. “We get there when we get there.” Royal gives a short, contemptuous huff.
“Just be patient, honey,” says Kathi. Lauren turns to her, and Kathi smiles apologetically. Royal’s just testy that way, the smile seems to say. Don’t take it personal. Lauren tries to smile back at Kathi.
Women are so much more understanding, Lauren thinks. We really are the superior sex. We know how to be nice to each other even when we’re nervous. To show simple human kindness.
Kathi’s very short blonde hair is cut in playfully ragged wisps. Even in the dark, her eyes look bright blue. Those must be contacts, Lauren thinks. She wonders vaguely if Kathi’s daring hairstyle would look good on her, then dismisses the thought. No, she was a classic brunette through and through. She had tried all that when she was younger, dyeing her hair, and the roots kept growing out and looking cheap. She just didn’t have the persistence to be a proper bottle blonde. Anyway, inch for inch she is prettier than Kathi; her breasts fuller, and her face more sophisticated, more classic, everyone says as much. Just because Kathi has those plump cheeks, people assume she’s still a teenager, but she’s at most three or four years younger than Lauren. Tops.
“This’ll all be over in a few minutes honey,” Kathi says. Royal turns and glares at her. “… And you’ll be on your way home,” Kathi continues, staring back defiantly at Royal, who turns away with an exasperated head shake.
The hair falling over his collar is blond, thick and wavy, enough hair for a woman, Lauren thinks; two women, in fact. Royal’s hairline is low for his age—forties—which makes him look like an animal, albeit a kind of handsome one. But a low forehead is a sign of bestiality. Lauren has heard that alcoholics don’t lose their hair because the booze suppresses their male hormones. So anytime you see a mature man with the hairline of a ten-year-old boy, that man is most likely an alkie.
Lauren cups her hands to her temples and tries to look out the window into the night, but here in the deep woods, there is nothing to see, not even the lights of a cabin. No street lamps either. Santa Cruz might be one of the world’s most beautiful places by day, but now, amid thick redwoods and fog, beauty did not exist. Nothing existed.
“You remember that movie The Lost Boys?” Don says, and nobody answers. “Well this here place reminds me of that movie. Pure Santa Cruz.”
“This place is nothing like that movie,” says Lauren. “That movie was mostly on the beach. And the boardwalk.”
“The hell,” says Don.
“Are you getting senile or something?”
“Will you two morons shut the fuck up?” Royal snarls. Kathi turns to Lauren and puts a finger to her lips in mute appeal. Silence again crushes the car like an iron weight. “Pardon my French, you two ladies,” Royal finally says.
“I guess it’s somewhere around here,” Kathi ventures.
“You guess?” Royal bridles again.
“I can’t see nothin’ in this dark.”
“Well ain’t that just peachykeen,’ says Royal. “Our guests here are expecting a quarter million’s worth of blow, and you ‘guess’ the house is ‘somewhere around here.’”
“I done everything just like you told me,” says Kathi, and Royal reaches around and smacks her face so hard that she grunts. He slams on the brakes, and Kathi begins to sob softly.
“Now wait just a fucking minute, man,” says Don. “I think this is maybe where Lauren and me get out.”
“No, there it is, the house,” Kathi says through her tears. “Thank God.”
“You sure?” says Royal. “Or I got some knuckles for you.”
“That’s the place.”
“S’more like it.” Royal pulls the car off the road, and sure enough, Lauren sees a lighted house through the trees. But a deep ravine separates it from the road. Were they going to have to descend all the way down to the bottom and cross the river in the dark and then climb back up the other side to get to that damn house? That sounded crazy. How she yearned to be in that lighted house right now, warm and cozy, with a drink in her hand and some lines on the table. A nice, strong whisky and ginger ale would be perfect.
“How do we get across the ravine?” Lauren says.
Royal looks straight at her. “You don’t,” he says, “until me and Kathi search you. And then I will show you the way. There’s a bridge. But you can’t cross it till we search you.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” says Lauren. “Here. Look at me. You can see I’m not carrying anything. Not even my purse, just like you said.” Royal scans her closely. She wears only a white tank top with no bra and tight yellow pants. There’s no way she could fit a playing card into those pants, let alone a gun or a wire or anything else, not even underwear.
“Them’s the rules,” he says. “Climb on out. Kathi’ll search you, okay?”
“It’s just a formality, honey,’ says Kathi.
“You wait here,’ Royal says to Don, who is looking deep into the dark ahead and not moving.
“Don’t you get no ideas neither,” says Royal. “We don’t show up with the money, we’re dead. We trusted you with this and don’t you try to bail on us now. We gotta bring you in one at a time, and all searched, so we’ll be right back.” Kathi is patting Lauren’s body gently with her hands, running them up and down Lauren’s curves. Watching her, Don feels a little aroused, nervous as he is. Those two would be quite an interesting pair, except for the fact that he never wanted to see Kathi or that crazy-ass Royal again. This is the last piece of business he will ever conduct with those two batshits.
Don lights a cigarette and watches the moon play hide and seek through fast-scudding clouds; stars prick the dense black sky. He tries not to dwell on what he would do to Royal if given half a chance.
“Stanislaus County Superior Court… etcetera,” Denny reads from the legal-size manila folder in his lap, “denies appellant’s motion for modification of the penalty and imposes a judgment of death. Appeal is automatic.” He looks up at Fanchon like a little kid who has found a buck. “Did you hear that, baby? Appeal is automatic, and they’re letting me handle it.”
But Fanchon does not respond. Is this intentional, he wonders, or is she merely preoccupied? Feeling a little foolish now, he bends once again to the file and pretends to read for a few moments, but he is really listening to Fanchon make the salad. He steals a glance to see her shaving the cucumber’s deep green, warty skin in long, sinuous strips.
Off in some parallel salad-creation cosmos, she wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, then seizes a red onion the size of a softball, peels its purple parchment, and slices it deftly into concentric rings, which she frisbees into the monkeypod bowl. They land on a glistening bed of ruffled emerald lettuce. When she shakes the vinegar, the sudden, sharp smell makes Denny’s mouth water. And it waters too at her spandex-clad ass tilted up as she leans on one leg, bending her knees a little at the counter because she is nearly six feet tall.
Denny lifts his wine goblet, so large and thin that he has to cup it breastlike from the bottom to raise it to his lips: Oh, this is too good; his cup truly runneth over: Saturday night off, just him and Fanchon alone together, the baby with his parents. He should simply bask in the moment.
Still, he can’t leave it alone. “Did you hear me? About the death penalty?”
“Stop reading right now.” Fanchon tosses the salad with two giant, square-tined wooden forks. “Can you just stop for a little while?” Her tone is playful, but irritation lurks beneath.
Instantly, he feels like a rebellious little boy. Why did she marry an assistant D.A. if she was so squeamish about crime? “You act like I committed the damn murder,” he grumbles. To conduct a truly juicy capital murder trial had been his sustaining fantasy, his holy grail. What other reason for all those nights battling the waves of sleep lapping seductively at his splintery little craft, tossing on the vast, shoreless ocean of law school.
“You just seem as if,” Fanchon searches for words, shaking one of the forks like a ruler at a student, “I don’t know, you’re beginning to sound as if all these people exist only to populate your trial. As if they weren’t even real people, just… names in a file. Or a cast of characters, yes, in your very own play.”
He swallows his wine, still deep in recalling his student self, lonely and scared shitless, swilling bitter vending machine coffee, memorizing each self-inflated professor’s favorite aphorism as if it were scripture. Enduring the patronizing sneers and veiled threats and rumors; wriggling like an insect on a pin under the merciless fluorescent classroom lights. Now he feels more like a cat who has laid its hard-hunted rat at the feet of an adored mistress only to be greeted by a scream and the broom.
“Somebody has to deliver justice; it’s the least they deserve, these victims. Even if they were dope dealers.”
“Well that’s better. At least you aren’t seeing this case totally as a career builder.”
“Not totally. Just monumentally.”
“Or I should say, you’ve learned the right formulaic response to placate me.”
Fanchon tilts her head the better to admire the salad she has constructed: how can something so simple and cheap be so utterly gorgeous? The lettuce—brilliant shades of green that don’t even have names—sparkles in its bath of thin, savory oil. The sliced tomatoes, speckled with coarse grated pepper, jut vermillion from their leafy nests. And here came the croutons thundering, dark with rich garlic, real, jagged-edged bombers, not those little prefab porous cubes in a plastic bag.
Would he even notice this joyous riot of a salad, this synthesis of nature and art—or would he merely shovel it in, oblivious, while he went on about his bloody murder and scumbag defendants and witnesses rotten with secrets; his colleagues conniving in backstage machinations. Fanchon shudders. The sun is slipping down toward the deck, but she had better put up the table umbrella or they would be baked alive.
“Admit it,” Denny says at the worst possible moment, “Murder is fascinating.”
“If you read one more gruesome sentence, though, you can eat dinner alone.”
“Okay okay.” He tops off his glass of wine. “A great pinot,” he says to flatter her, because he really can’t tell the difference.
She whips her head around grinning, and her dark blonde curls bounce like a little girl’s. “It took me half an hour to pick that out.”
“Time well spent.” But he is thinking, good save. And the baked potatoes smell incredible. So he reads on alone, his internal sea once again balmy and blue, letting the pinot carry him back into the moment.
“I’m sorry, Denny,” she intrudes suddenly, contrite. His slightly downcast expression reminds her of one of her students struggling with long division. The shock of brown hair falling over his forehead is boyish too, and his gray eyes are softened now from the keen, cynical glance he has recently affected—perhaps to compensate for being the youngest assistant DA working felonies? “But you prosecutors,” she continues, searching for words, “you get so… desensitized. You don’t even realize how all that ghastly stuff affects regular people. It may be fascinating, but it’s nothing to read out loud before a nice romantic dinner sans Her Diapered Majesty. And we haven’t had a night off in so long.”
The setting sun suddenly sneaks below the kitchen blinds and shoots a molten golden arrow right into Denny’s eyes. Blinded, he reaches for her, and she permits him a promising grope before dancing out of his arms and then playfully yielding again to his imploring hands.
“At least listen to this part then,” Denny dares, emboldened by the wine and by the affectionate weight of Fanchon now in his lap, curled around him in her half serpent, half ingenue way.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Fanchon says. “Okay, just make it quick.” Denny gives her his mischievous cat/canary stare and reaches behind her and opens the manila folder.
“Thank you for humoring me. This is a big event in my life, a trial like this. In our lives.” Fanchon sighs with good-humored resignation and reaches for her wine goblet as Denny shuffles the papers in the file.
“This is one of the perps testifying, we charged her with accessory and she caved; that was major. ‘Royal,’” he reads, “‘first he made me dig a couple of shallow holes to bury them in. That was the day before. He lured the two of them there to pick up the $250,000 worth of cocaine. He told them that this was where they was to take delivery, in a house nearby.
‘I went along with Lauren. See, Royal told them they had to be searched before they went in the house to get their coke. Then after I searched her, Lauren leaned up against a tree, and he shot her in the back of the head. Then he turned quick around and Don was standing by the car, and Royal did the same thing but in his chest. But Don did not die at first, and so Royal shot him a second time, in the head that time, and then he did die.
‘And then Royal, he cut off their heads and put the torsos, that’s what they call them, in the holes I had dug. And then we had some quicklime that Royal’s friends, these two girls he knew, had bought.’”
Denny stops reading. “Got that?” he says. “Remember that, Fanchon: quicklime.”
“Okay. I shall remember quicklime,” Fanchon says, cuddling compliantly.
Denny reads again: “‘… because Royal he said that dissolves bodies fast. So we put the quicklime on them and then we covered the graves with dirt and brush and leaves. The rest of the body parts, we put into plastic bags, and Royal got rid of all that shit. And the gun too. I never did know what he did with that.’”
Denny stops reading and lights a cigarette, an infrequent indulgence these days. Fanchon suppresses her urge to admonish him. “On February 20,” Denny reads, slowly and distinctly, “a mushroom hunter off Empire Grade discovered fragments of a female skull. They belonged to a missing woman named Lauren Graven.”
“How horrible. Now I won’t sleep tonight.”
“You won’t anyway.” Denny grins. “The mushroom hunter brought the fragments to the sheriff’s office—I know, he should not have moved them, chain of evidence, but there was plenty of other evidence, believe me. The sheriffs went back to the site and they pieced the other fragments together. One skull had a hole the size of a .44- or .45-caliber slug. The next day they found more bone fragments, some hair, a shovel, a kitchen or steak knife, and a green garbage bag.”
“How do you like your steak. You like peppercorns?”
“You really have to ask me that?”
“Medium rare, is that right?”
Denny nods. “Humor me,” he says. “They found another naked body the next day. And here is the grand denouement. Here’s the fascinating part. Each torso had a white, clay-like substance clinging to it.”
“What was it?”
“Can’t you guess? No. We couldn’t either, at first. Anyway, Don Macalister’s skull, the second skull, they found in the same area on March 18. And there was a .45-caliber hole in the skull, no surprises there. They surmised from neck and wrist wounds that the heads and hands had been removed post mortem with a slicing or chopping instrument, perhaps a hatchet, machete, or cleaver. They confirmed the identity of the victims through dental records.”
Denny reads quickly now. “Defendant’s involvement became known when Kathi Kent, fearing for her life and the safety of her family, disclosed her participation to her brother-in-law, who arranged for her to meet with an FBI agent and local law enforcement officials.
“Kathi Kent claimed to have acted under the domination of defendant and to have feared him. She testified about her relationship with him and about various drug-related criminal activities they had participated in prior to the murders.”
“Okay, but aside from all the legalese,” Fanchon says, “what about the white substance?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Fanchon looks at him blinking expectantly. Slowly, with relish, Denny returns to the file. “...The evidence, insofar as it relates to the murder counts, blah blah blah.... okay. Royal’s two teenybopper accomplices waiting in that house came out after the shots and joined them at the murder site. They were ordered to take the clothing off the bodies and place the clothing in one of the garbage bags. As they were doing so, Royal Cooney tried to use a hacksaw to cut off Macalister’s head, but the blade broke.” Fanchon closes her eyes.
“I’ll spare you that. Anyway, here comes the good part.” Denny looks up and grins. “See, the perp had sent these two Rhodes scholars waiting in the house to buy quicklime that would dissolve the bodies, but what they brought back instead was regular oyster shell lime they had bought at some garden shop. That was the white substance we found all over the bodies. So nothing dissolved, all the evidence was preserved, and we now get to send Royal Cooney’s worthless ass to the gurney. Tell me that’s not sweet.”
“Oh my God,” Fanchon blinks. “You guys caught a big break there.”
“Did we not.”
She embraces him. “So tell me, what possible defense could there be in a case like this?”
“Oh they pulled out a whole bag of tricks at trial, all right,” Denny says, “but they kept getting buried in that damned oyster shell lime.”
“Tell me some of the tricks.”
“Happy to.” Denny takes a deep drink of wine. Finally, at long last, she is hooked.
Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. She was nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2016 and 2021. Her first novel, Twisted Fate, was published by Champagne Book Group in March 2022. Her Young Adult novel, The Dressmaker’s Daughter, was published in March 2022 by Santa Monica Press.
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