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Gossamer Hall

The bones had memory. Their silence spoke of a vicious past, and like anything that could recall history, they sought vengeance. In the hills above the lake, buried deep in the earth, they rested in an evil that did not sleep, in soil that did not nurture, in a state of unforgotten hate. In this place of damnation, the bones waited and listened. Years passed before they heard him coming. Their champion, the one who would bring them alive again. Their maker. Continue reading »

Disconnection

The murderous air thickened into gray mist around Dee Nilsson’s underground tomb, but she watched with little thought and even less awareness. Time had suspended her in a mysteriously dark place, and there was no escape, no safety, only a nightmarish world which she could not leave and no one else could enter. She reached one crippled hand to her forehead. The wound near her hairline had stopped bleeding, but the gash was deep and wide, reminding Dee of her defeat. The siege of her life had begun twelve hours ago, and she knew above all things that her death was fast approaching. The only question was when. Minutes drowned into hours before Dee finally drew her arms around her knees and leaned back against the mud walls, resigned to her situation. The air smelled of C H A P T E R decay and rain. A slither of light hailed from the cracks above, just bright enough to remind her of the daylight that she would never see again. Amid the misty haze of her surroundings, Dee fought to remember. She knew, as she rubbed her hands together, as she felt the scraped soles of her feet, the light brush of her eyelids as they opened and closed over two swollen eyes, that there had been life once. She had been an energy to be reckoned with. She had been an intact person. She flattened her hands in front of her face. Memories began to reflect in her palms like slides in a projector. Soft shards of light showed glimpses of the past and present. Her dog Jack appeared, a Maltese whom she had saved from an animal shelter just an hour before his scheduled euthanasia. In her vision, he was asleep on her bed, lying on his back near her pillows. She saw her house in Oakland, a brick two-story with three bedrooms, one which she used for an office. A kitchen painted purple, a backyard with a screened-in porch. She saw her parents attending church, and her younger sister stationed in Iraq playing cards with other soldiers. Dee saw her ex-fiancé in Miami, sharing a table at Starbucks with an attractive redhead. She saw herself dancing at her best friend’s wedding, and walking on the Santa Monica Promenade. She saw herself graduating from UCLA and falling in love for the first time with her parents’ Mexican yard boy. She saw herself happy, relaxed, anxious, laughing, delirious. Most importantly, Dee saw 2 herself alive. What Dee could not see, what she could not remember, was how she had arrived here, to this place. When she tried to reach back, a black cloud blocked her brain. A barricade of nothingness invaded her mental highway. Dee closed her eyes, forcing herself to remember. Something, she thought. Something has to trigger something. And then something closely resembling a male voice spoke inside the darkness: Can’t remember how you got here, sugar pie? The noise startled Dee. Until now she had been under the impression that she was alone. “Who’s there?” she asked as her eyes flew open. The answer came in silver droplets that fell from the cave’s surface and formed one large puddle on the dirt beside Dee. Do you really want to know, Dee? The voice seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once, low and deep, barely audible under the pressure of its density. “Help me,” Dee screamed, her head turning from side to side, unsure of which direction the voice was coming from. “Please help me.” You’re asking the wrong person, sweetheart. “Who are you?” Dee asked, her voice becoming even more frantic. “Why am I here?” To die was what she thought the voice would say, but it surprised her by simply asking, Why do you think you are here, Dee Nilsson? 3 Dee shook her head frantically. “I don’t know. I don’t . . . ” Don’t give me that shit. Of course you do. “Please,” Dee sobbed, tears falling from her eyes. “I can’t remember.” Then let me help you, cutie pie. Come and look inside. As if hypnotized, Dee leaned over the ground where the puddle no longer reflected translucent blue, but now changed into flashes of color, until solid shapes formed, and Dee saw herself on the wet surface. It was not her as she was now, with a long gash across her forehead and her entire body covered in dirt. The Dee in the image was laughing and taking sips from a drink that looked suspiciously like a whiskey sour. She sat on a barstool in a mahogany room, lavishing in the attention of male company.

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“Stuart Reed,” Dee said aloud, suddenly remembering. The voice laughed. Listen, it said. Go ahead and listen. Watch. See why you’re here. So, Dee listened. And watched. And listened. It was Stuart Reed’s voice she heard first. He said, “It’s great fun if you kill somethin’. Warm blood all over your hands and the smell of the kill.” The Dee in the image tossed back her whiskey sour before exclaiming, “Vile! It’s so vile. I hate hunting. I think it’s cruel how those deer suffer. They’re just defenseless animals. Haven’t you ever thought of that?” Continue reading »

Witch, The

Down a long wooded dirt road there lives a witch in a secluded cottage. No, the cottage is not made of gingerbread.   It is made from the bones of animals and humans. Notches are cut into the bones so that each bone fits snugly into the bone next to it. The bones have been carefully prepared and lacquered to give the house a gloss in the afternoon sun. The doors and windows have tiny bones meshed decoratively into each other. Flourishes rise up the sides of the cottage, leading to a widow’s walk of exhusbands.   Some of the husbands were gentle and loving, and those bones she put to the front so she can always be reminded of them. The cruel, uncaring husbands’ bones are used as connective material, out of sight, covered by a putty-like substance that is of her own making. Please do not ask what it is made from.   For a witch, she is a pleasant-looking woman with small, brittle bones surrounded by several layers of fat that give her a grandmotherly look. Her hair is coarse and cut bluntly to her shoulders. The color is a reddish, blondish grey, with dark greasy spots marking where she had laid her head the night before. Her facial features are delicate, with a small pug nose, huge almond eyes, and full lips, the bottom one making her look pouty.   Her clothes are simple and second-hand. No clotheshorse, this witch. She uses the clothes she collects from her visitors who never leave. She can always find room for another set of bones. Currently she is thinking about building an extension to the cottage, although she does worry about losing the well-planned flow of the house. A garden is situated to the right of the house. Here she grows herbs for her brews and vegetables for her stews. Long stalks of corn have about ripened. Soon she will take her scythe to the plants.   The day we arrive, the stone path that leads to the front door is slick. She has just finished watering the lawn and cleaning off the path. Her home is very tidy. As we walk the path, please look out for the squiggly snakes that like to bask in the sun. Most of the snakes are harmless.   One or two are poisonous and quite large, but they are also lazy, and I’m sure you’ll be able to outrun them. When you climb the steps to the front door, you’ll see a brass knocker. It is the shape of a twisted braid of garlic.   A memento from when she was trying to get rid of her third husband. No, you’ll not find his bones here. Actually, you’ll probably not find him within a million miles of this house. The break-up was not amicable. Carefully lift the bottom bulb of the knocker and gently rap it against the door. She has sensitive hearing, and you don’t want to irritate her before you even get to meet her. And, by the way, IT will be in view as soon as she opens the door. Very proud she is of IT.   Yes, yes, she’s at home. I can hear her oversized shoes shuffling across the floor. This is the time of day when she usually cleans. She’ll be shaking out her bed covers and dusting the few pieces of furniture. The mirror on the hall wall she always keeps covered. A fine silk scarf dangles from the top edges of the mirror’s frame. Note the frame when you go in. Bone and teeth speckle the frame. She has painted them delightful colors that shine in the dark.   Don’t dawdle! I must insist you rap now before I rush off to hide myself.   “Rap, rap, rap.”   The shuffling feet are coming nearer. I must now depart.

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Floating Staircase

It has been said that nature does not know extinction. In effect, it knows only change: nothing ever truly disappears, for there is always something— some part, some particle, some formidable semblance—left behind. You can boil water into vapor, but it hasn’t disappeared. Curiosity killed the cat, but condensation brought it back. Therefore, such logic should enlighten us to the understanding that if something should happen to develop—should arrive, should become thus, should suddenly appear—then it has always been. Forms evolve and devolve but things always are. There exists no creation and, consequently, no destruction—there exists only transformation. It is a collision of electrons and positrons, this life: the transformation of matter to rays of light, of molecular currents, of water to vapor to water again. When I was twenty-three, I wrote a novel called The Ocean Serene. It was about a young boy who, having survived a near drowning, has a door of repressed memories opened in his brain, but in truth it was really about my dead brother, Kyle. I wrote it in the evenings at a small desk in my depressed one-bedroom apartment in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown (across the street from a smattering of university buildings and just a few blocks from where The Exorcist had been filmed many years before). A mug of coffee—black, no sugar—expelled ribbons of steam to one side of my word processor while an ashtray sprouting the flattened, yellowed elbows of cigarette butts sat on the other side. The central air did not always function properly, and I would occasionally crank open the bedroom windows to allow fresh air in. In fact, I remember opening the windows and smoking countless cigarettes and drinking cup after cup after cup of oily coffee more than the actual writing of the manuscript. I wrote in a fog, in a haze . . . as though a length of gauze had been gently draped over the undulating contours of my brain. After writing the first draft, it took the accumulation of a couple more years and some deep personal reflection before I could once again tackle the manuscript and assemble it into something honest. For whatever reason, I felt this nagging drive to write it as honest as I could. So I wrote the first draft, then tucked it away and busied my mind with other matters until, moons later, I felt I had attained some fraction of personal growth—both in my writing and in the way I interpreted and understood the world—to revisit it. While the story was undeniably an exercise in speculative fiction—a horror novel, in other words—it was as real to me as the memories I carried of my childhood. It was difficult to relive the past. Age brings with it a certain Kryptonite that drains our faith like vampires, and reading the manuscript again almost destroyed me. But I rewrote and finished it in a fever. It was done, and I couldn’t help but feel relieved. It was tantamount to the spiritual and emotional exhaustion felt after my younger brother’s death. I did not understand why such a thing had eluded me during the writing of the manuscript, but it struck me like a mallet to a gong after finally completing it. And I found I did not know how to feel about what I had just done. Read more. . . Continue reading »

Personal Demons

Perched on a bar stool with her legs crossed, Shannon Reynolds sipped her Tom Collins and played with the fluffy, spotted tail of her costume. Around her, young Americans in colorful getups hoisted pints of beer to their lips and threw back Jell-O shots, their loud voices giving way to drunken laughter. Jack-o’-lanterns leered at her from the lacquered bar top, the candles within them flickering whenever the front door opened, and a giant spiderweb made of orange and black crepe paper dripped from the ceiling. In Ireland, Shannon had celebrated the festival of Samhain with her family each year on this night. The ancient Celtic and Druid ritual marked the end of summer and the start of a new year, and spirits walked the earth. Her mum cooked the traditional Colcannon dinner of broiled potato and curly cale cabbage, followed by Barnbrack cake, and at bedtime, each family member cast an ivy leaf into his personal cup of water. According to legend, those whose leaves remained unblemished at sunrise were destined to enjoy a prosperous year. But if any leaf developed spots during the night, its bearer was destined to suffer a dreadful fate. Shannon smiled at the memory of her favorite superstitious tradition. Here in the States, Halloween had become nothing but an excuse for shop owners to sell garish costumes and candy corn, and for television stations to dust off lame sequels to bad horror films. She’d been looking forward to the exotic parade in Greenwich Village, but her employers, the Smythes, had forbidden her from exposing their children to the “sexually deviant behavior” associated with the pageant. Instead, she took her charges, Evan and Paige, trick-or-treating within the safety of their luxury apartment building on the Upper West Side. Evan had dressed up as Captain America, and Paige had gone as Wonder Woman. Later, while the kids watched black-and-white monster movies on TV—no Jason or Freddy for them—she inspected their sweets for razor blades and other signs of tampering. Bloody insane world. “The Monster Mash” came over the speakers for the second time since Shannon had arrived at the pub, and the costumed drunks singing along still couldn’t manage to get the lyrics right. Shannon looked at her watch: midnight, the Witching Hour. Her roommate, Meg, must have gone to the flat of her new boyfriend, Ronald or Donald or something, a cocky investment banker. Stroking the gold crucifix suspended from a chain around her neck, she gazed at its reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Orange candlelight flickered on the crucifix’s polished surface. Bollocks, she thought, draining her tall glass. Too late to make other plans. She pulled on her red leather jacket and tossed back her blond hair. As she slid from the stool, her eyes locked on those of a man sitting in the shadows at the far end of the bar. Sitting alone, he appeared to be in his midtwenties, clean shaven, with short, sandy brown hair. His charcoal gray business suit blended with the shadows, which explained why she had not noticed him nursing his bottle of Heineken. But she noticed him now, and he’d obviously noticed her. How long had he been watching her? Holding her gaze, he smiled at her and then raised the green bottle to his mouth. Shannon’s body tingled with nervous excitement. Raising her glass to her lips, she used her tongue to separate the maraschino cherry from half-melted ice cubes. Then she set the glass down and sucked on the cherry between her teeth. Perhaps the night would not be a waste of time after all. With the gin in her bloodstream emboldening her, she took a deep breath, detached herself from the bar, and circled it on numb legs. Had she already had too much to drink? Clearing the costumed bodies in her path, she zeroed in on the empty seat beside her target. In the dingy glow emanating from a neon beer sign, his features appeared delicate, almost feminine, his Brooks Brothers suit tailored for his slim frame. Stepping before him, she felt his liquid blue eyes measuring the curves of her body. “Nice costume,” he said over the music and drunken chatter. She had almost forgotten about the feline ears clipped to her hair, and the tail pinned to her miniskirt. “And what are ye supposed to be?” Following Meg’s advice, she played up her brogue. “A Hell’s Angel.” He said this without even a hint of irony. She summoned an appreciative laugh. “Actually, I’m a CPA.” Smiling, he raised a black leather briefcase into view. “I had a late business dinner with a client and thought I’d have a drink before cabbing it home to Brooklyn. I completely forgot about Halloween.” Shannon leaned against the bar, offering him a glimpse of her cleavage through the flaps of her jacket. If only Meg could have seen her! “Sure ye did. I bet that’s just your bag for trick-or-treating, and it’s full of goodies.” His eyes dipped to where she desired them. “Just an adding machine and a worn-down Number Two pencil, I’m afraid.” “I’m Shannon.” She held out her left hand instead of her right, and when he shook it she saw no wedding band on his finger. “Byron.” He paused. “What’s a pretty kitty like you doing alone on a night like this?” Shannon shrugged. “‘Where’s Old Nick?’” The phrase had become a common response to unanswerable questions ever since Nicholas Tower, the world-famous billionaire, had gone into self-imposed exile three years earlier. Byron’s smile widened. “Can I buy you a drink?” “Only if I can buy the next round.” “It’s a deal.” Lou Reed’s “Halloween Parade” blasted over the speakers. Read more. . .

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Desperate Souls

Avenue in Brooklyn. Returning from church, where she served on a committee dedicated to serving the poor, she had stopped for milk at a corner bodega, where she had spent too much time discussing the sorry state of the neighborhood with the proprietor, Miguel Ruiz. Now she found herself hurrying home and scanning shadowy doorways for signs of danger. After the Great Recession, New York City had seen its most dramatic crime increase since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Lucile remembered those days well, and in her opinion, the current environment posed a far greater threat to senior citizens like herself. At sixty-seven, she had begun to give serious consideration to her sister’s invitation for Lucile to move in with her in Florida. With swollen ankles and creaking knees, the retired bookkeeper crossed the street, passing a blockade constructed of graffiti-covered plywood. The plywood obstructed the entrance to a subway station that city officials had closed in a desperate attempt to help stave off impending financial disaster. A homeless couple covered in filth slept sitting up with their backs pressed against the blockade. Cut the services and the cops, Lucile thought as she passed beneath the construction awning that ran the length of the block. You might as well cut our throats. After Governor Raymond Santucci’s recent cutbacks, Mayor Myron Madigan had been forced to lay off thousands of police officers, which contributed to the crime wave, especially in downtrodden neighborhoods. Lucile had watched Flatbush Avenue rise and fall and rise and fall again. A scarecrow, tall and gaunt, stood at the far corner, silhouetted by the dying light. Drawing closer to him, she discerned emaciated gray features. Dark, bulbous eyes that reminded her of a frog’s locked on her from within sunken sockets. She did not recall seeing him before, but the scarecrows all looked the same, regardless of race. Dangerous new drugs had created a dangerous new breed of criminal, driven to brutal acts by the all-consuming need to get high. Pulling her purse tight against her bosom, Lucile stepped closer to the metal framework supporting the awning at the sidewalk’s edge. The scarecrow’s dull eyes followed her, although the addict’s head did not move. Lucile slipped her right hand inside her purse and closed her fingers around the cool metal of the tear gas canister. Just try it, she thought. I’m ready for you. She had been mugged three times in the last six months—once at gunpoint, once at knifepoint, and once with no weapon at all, just three wild-eyed young men with pallid skin and darkened eyes. Never again. Lucile would welcome death before allowing another one of these fiends to rob her dignity, let alone what little money she carried on her person. She kept her cash in a secret pocket on her dress, not in her purse. If the fiends demanded her money, she would surprise them with a gas blast from the canister, which she had purchased from a sympathetic pawnshop owner. It didn’t matter that automobiles traversed the busy avenue beside her; none of the drivers would stop for an old woman taking a beating. And any people with sense had already gone inside and locked their doors. As she reached her block, her instincts told her to look over her shoulder. Sure enough, the scarecrow lumbered across the street behind her. Quickening her gait, she increased the distance separating them and reached her building’s entrance. Inside the vestibule, she withdrew her keys, making it harder to grasp the canister if she needed it, and jammed the longest one into the lock. Her heart thumped from her panicked rush inside, and she almost dropped the keys. If the fiend cornered her in the foyer before she opened the door, she didn’t stand a chance. Entering the lobby, she closed the inside door behind her, making sure the latch clicked into place. The scarecrow stopped outside the front door and turned in her direction. She couldn’t tell if he saw her through both doors or not. Then he opened the outside door and entered the vestibule. You ugly, godless son of a bitch! The scarecrow crossed the tiled floor, and the first door closed behind him. Praying he didn’t have keys, Lucile stepped back as his shadow fell over her. The scarecrow pressed his face against the glass, his eyes locating hers. Read more. . . Continue reading »

Cosmic Forces

The man and woman scrambled out of the forest and over the rocky crest overlooking the cliff, their gait disjointed because her left hip had been fused to his right side. They had broken all of their limbs after leaping to the bottom of a canyon months earlier. They had survived, as always, and their unattended bones healed in such a manner that they now resembled some strange hybrid of a spider and a praying mantis more than a pair of human beings. The tanned animal hides they wore for clothing had become stuck to their open wounds and had become part of them, and flies and other insects nested in the wounds that remained exposed. Scabs and blisters covered them from head to toe, blood just one of several fluids that seeped from their cracked skin. The man had lost an eye in the fall, the woman most of her teeth. To make matters worse, the woman carried a child in her belly, for despite their misery and self-mutilation, they still found each other desirable. They had been together for more years than either of them could count, their love surviving famine and flood, winter and warfare, pestilence and punishment. But this last year on God’s green earth had been the worst. Even before their self-inflicted injuries, hunting for food had become all but impossible, requiring them to subsist on fruits and vegetables and, during their time on the ice, fish. On occasion they had stumbled upon fresh kills abandoned by other people and animals, and they had torn into the carrion with wild abandon, all the while becoming even more dependent upon each other to achieve even the simplest tasks. Things had changed so much since the days when they had been young and beautiful. Now they crawled and kicked and stumbled along the shale cliff in the odd rhythm that had become normal for them, the mist from the waterfall cooling their tortured flesh in the afternoon sun. A stream of obscenities poured from their mouths, hers more guttural than his; that too had become part of their rhythm. Spasms of pain ripped through their ankles and shins and the bloody fingers they used to stab the ground for balance. Salty tears burned the sores on their cheeks, causing whimpers and drool to slide off their tongues in unison. At last they reached the cliff’s edge, where they stood as erect as possible, man and woman, husband and wife, and gazed across the great lake. The clear blue sky permitted them to discern the hazy shore on the opposite side, some sixty miles away. The man’s right hand found the woman’s left hand, their fingers interlocking. The lake appeared beautiful, natural, and serene. Seagulls swooped above the choppy waves. The man turned his head so his good eye focused on his woman. I love you, he thought. And I you, he heard her think. They each mustered a hopeful smile. Then they stepped off the cliff. Maybe we’ll die even before we strike the water, he hoped. But he knew better and so did she. They plummeted, their stomachs rising up their throats. The velocity pulled at their flesh and blurred their vision as the water grew closer, the sun’s silver reflection on its surface brighter. Impact. The water shattered their bodies. The man prayed they would lose consciousness, for it would be impossible to swim to shore in their fleshy sacks of broken bones. But water filled his nostrils and mouth, and he found himself choking and alert. Husband, his wife cried into his brain, still gripping his hand. They did not drown. They did not die. Sinking deep into the water, they changed. Read more. . . Continue reading »

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Tortured Spirits

The sign on Jake Helman’s office door says Private Investigator, but this ex-cop’s profession is more complicated than spying on cheating spouses. Over the course of two years, Jake has battled demons, zombies, even a cosmic monster—and he has paid … Continue reading »

Wormfood

Grandma woke me up with her .10 gauge, shooting at the ground squirrels again. I think that was the morning it all started, when the worms got loose and the Sawyer brothers stole the dead steer and Fat Ernst had us break into Earl’s coffin and I tasted Misty Johnson’s sweat and that witch crawled out of the darkness under her lawn mower and a whole hell of a lot of blood got spilled. Yeah. It started with Grandma and her Browning. Those squirrels pissed her off like you wouldn’t believe, burrowing into the rich black soil and eating her vegetables. She grew nearly everything we ate in her garden out there behind the trailer, from tomatoes that swelled up like water balloons about to burst to red onions the size of softballs to ears of corn so sweet they tasted like they were half sugar cane. So when the squirrels snuck in and tried to eat the results of her hard work, Grandma went to war. And she didn’t take prisoners. Read more. . .

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Frenzy Way, The

John Stalk awoke with a sudden jerk, his fingers clawing empty air for the M-4 assault rifle he hadn’t held in six months. In that same instant, he expected to see clouds of mortar erupting from the grimy walls of sun-bleached buildings, machine gunfire strafing dusty streets, and figures in bulky uniforms scattering among panicked civilians. Instead he saw pale blue moonlight seeping through the windows and glinting off knotty pine walls. Kindling burned in the stone fireplace across the main room. Not in Fallujah, he thought, the thick comforter falling away as he sat up on the futon. His father’s cabin. As a boy, he had come here with Chief Dan to hunt and fish. Now, after being stateside for half a year, the dreams of Fallujah persisted with unyielding clarity, the dead men from his unit calling to him with silent mouths. Jameson. Pillman. Raeckel. The list went on. The sweat on his forehead cooled. What had awakened him? He wondered if he would ever be able to sleep through common background noise again. The forest surrounding the cabin had always been serene. If he couldn’t relax here . . . Then he heard it: a long, high-pitched wail descending from the mountaintop, piercing the night with its stark loneliness. The howling rose and fell in a melody, the pitiful singing filling him with inexplicable sadness. For reasons he did not comprehend, he felt instant kinship with the beast crying in the night. Read more. . . Continue reading »