Category Archives: Short Stories

A Strange Encounter. Short Story.

Jack paced in the small white room, it was about six foot by six foot, a bed was bolted to the floor against one wall and that was it for furniture. The floors were hard concrete but the walls were covered in some kind of soft, spongy material. They had thrown him in here hours ago and since then there had been nothing. At first he thought they were arresting him for something drugs related, but this wasn’t a prison or a police station. He had been standing in the street, talking to that strung out woman when he had been tackled, handcuffed and shoved into the back of a windowless van. The van had driven for about half an hour before he was pulled from the back and into an underground car park. From there it was just a short elevator ride and followed by being pushed through a few hallways. No one had spoken to him since they had put him in handcuffs.

He sat down on the bed, this was bullshit, he didn’t do anything, they couldn’t keep him locked up like this forever, he had rights. He had tried yelling but that hadn’t gotten him anywhere, the room seemed to dampen sounds and he had heard nothing from outside once the door had closed.

The door opened and a man stepped inside, he was wearing a grey suit, he stuck one hand forward and smiled, “Hi, I’m Sam Smith. I’d like to apologise for all this trouble, we’ve had a bit of a hectic day here and unfortunately you kind of slipped through the cracks. First things first, you’re not in trouble, you are not under arrest and you are free to leave once we finish our interview. You were supposed to be kept under medical observation for only two hours, but unfortunately things got in the way. If you’d like to follow me please.” Sam turned and left the room, Jack went after him. They walked through the halls taking turns until they were in another small room, this one had a large table with two comfortable chairs on either side. A large jug of water sat in the middle of the table along with a selection of sandwiches. “I figured you’d be hungry after that. They really put you in the shit one too, most of them have TV’s or some magazines at the very least. I think the staff have been slacking a bit. I know some of them keep a room spare for sleeping, so maybe they put you in there by accident. Now, I’m sure you have a lot of questions and I’ll be happy to answer them, if you’d just like to take a seat and please, help yourself to the food and drinks there, if you’d like something else like coffee or tea please let me know.”
Jack sat down and grabbed a sandwich, once he had finished eating he took a long drink of water. “Ok, so first I want to know where I am and who you are.”
“You’re currently in a kind of detainment centre, I can’t give you the exact location unfortunately. Don’t worry though, we can give you a lift home once we’re done the interview. As to who we are, well, we’re a small, government run agency, you won’t have heard of us so you’ll excuse me if I don’t give you the name. We investigate cases like yours.”
“Like mine?”
“Yes, don’t tell me you didn’t notice anything strange today.”
“Well, yeah, I did but it had to but like she was just a junkie or something, wasn’t she?”
“Look. I’m not going to lie to you. She wasn’t just a junkie and we need to figure out what happened to her and what happened between the two of you. So, why don’t you start from the beginning?”
“Um. Ok, well, I woke up and had breakfast and all that, then I left the house for work. Everything was pretty normal until I came to South Street, I cut through it because it takes about ten minutes off my walk in the mornings. Everything was fine, I guess the street was emptier than usual. Normally there’s a few people walking along it, or a couple of old guys sitting outside having a smoke. I noticed her pretty quick, she was the only other person on the street. What first caught my attention was the way she was walking. Like she was drunk, I assumed she was on her way home from a night out at first, but then I noticed she was wearing a suit. She was walking slowly and stumbling every few steps so it didn’t take long before I caught up with her. I asked if she was all right and she turned slowly to look at me. Something about the way she moved sent chills up my spine. It was slow, but fast at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt this enormous weight drop in my stomach, I knew I shouldn’t have spoken to her. I tried to convince myself I was just being paranoid, after all it was a Wednesday morning for Christ sakes. She looked at me for a second, there was something wrong with her eyes, they were slightly too wide and it looked like she was having difficulty focusing. It was then that I thought she was probably on drugs. She smiled at me, it wasn’t a normal smile, it was threatening some how, like I had done exactly what she wanted. Her hand reached out for me and I took a step back, I didn’t want her touching me if I’m being honest, but I half thought maybe she was going to try and pick my pocket. She frowned when I stepped back, then she spoke to me. I don’t know what was wrong with her but her voice was all wrong, raspy and shrieky, but whisper quiet with almost like an echo? She said “come a little closer, I need to tell you a secret.” It’s weird, the last thing I wanted to do was get any closer to her, but I started to step forward. She smiled at me and I saw her teeth, they were blackened and rotten, with bits of blood pooling around the gums.” Jack shuddered.
“If you need to take a moment, that’s fine.”
“No, I’m ok. It feels good talking about it. I kept replaying it in my head earlier, it’s good to get it out. It kind of feels like I’m draining a wound or something.”
Sam nodded, “Yes, people often feel that way.”
“When I saw her teeth I kind of stepped back in surprise and she looked angry, it was like her eyes got darker, her hand shot out and grabbed my tie, she yanked me forward, she was strong, stronger than she looked. She leaned in close to me, I could smell her breath, rotting and bitter, but I could smell something else too, her perfume and then underneath that a smell of damp and mildew, of dark, wet places that despised the sun. She said something to me, but I don’t really remember. It’s like there’s a blank spot. Then there were people around, yelling at us.”
Sam leaned on the table, “Are you sure you don’t remember what she said? No matter what it was you won’t get in trouble, but it is important that if you do remember you let us know.”

Jack frowned, “I feel like it’s on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t figure out the words.”

Sam smiled at him, “That’s ok, it’s common in cases like these. The woman was sick, unfortunately, but she had some good information that we could have used. We’re not entirely sure what was wrong with her yet, she is incoherent at the moment, we were hoping we’d be able to get something from you.”

“I’m going to be all right aren’t I? She wasn’t contagious or anything?”
Sam chuckled, “No, don’t worry, there’s no chance you caught what she had.” He stood from the table, “All right, that’s pretty much it. We’ve you’re statement recorded, you’ll have to sign some forms on the way out but that’s just formality. After that we’ll get you home, we already put in a phone call to your place of work, they know you were assisting us after witnessing an incident.”

Sam sat in the empty room, they’d have to keep an eye on Jack, for the next few months, make sure he didn’t start behaving strangely. The woman was already gone, reduced to nothing but a pile of disgusting mush, but then that was always the way with her kind. Sam believed Jack when he said he didn’t remember but he felt like what ever Jack had heard was important. He always hated cases like this, all loose ends and no resolutions. It wasn’t the first time it happened, nor would it be the last. Hopefully what ever that thing was it wouldn’t be back for another few years.

Returned. Short Story.

Gwen was dead for almost twelve hours when she started screaming. The high pitched shrieked rattled the windows of the dark room, outside a man walking by clapped his hands over his ears, his palms wet and slick with blood that dripped from them.

The scream slowly trailed off to silence, Gwen sat motionless for a few seconds, then there was a loud gasp and the rushing sound of air as she breathed deeply, coughed violently then breathed deeply again before she spat up a lump of phlegm.

Gwen looked around herself,  the dark room was strange but also familiar.  There was something about it, but the realisation danced just beyond her reach. She coughed again, deep and booming, she spat out more phlegm. She knew it was too dark to see but that didn’t stop her from being able to make out things in the gloom. The worn brown or red couch that was pushed against the wall, the coffee table laden and overflowing with rubbish that sprawled its way across the floor. Gwen shifted slightly and stood, her body felt stiff and pins and needles jabbed at her entire body. A wave of dizzyness hit and Gwen stumbled backwards, falling onto a chair behind her. The chair was soft but the fall was still jarring. She sat for a moment, she felt cold, colder than she ever had before, part of her wondered if she’d ever feel warm again. She pulled her knees up to her chest and looped her arms around them. She was shivering, though she hadn’t noticed yet. Why was she here?  The last thing she remembered was going out to get a cup of coffee early Monday morning. It was night now, wherever she was, was it still Monday? The thought frightened her, how long had she been unconscious? No, she hadn’t been unconscious,  it was more than that. She had been dead. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart stopped for and brief, terrifying second before it resumed its steady beating.

Outside the man got shakily to his feet, he felt sick and disorientated, splatters of blood coated the ground on either side of him. Not sure who, or where he was, the man stumbled on, leaving nothing behind himself but bloodstains and a briefcase.

Gwen gripped her knees tightly. Tears were flowing freely down her face, she wasn’t aware she was crying. Something had happened to her; someone had brought her here, someone had killed her and something had brought her back.

Gwen didn’t know how long she had been sitting there when the sun started to rise. The heat was strangely soothing and she could finally feel her body start to warm up. As the room brightened she could see more clearly, the couch was red and heavily stained, there was a door beside it. Gwen’s stomach grumbled and groaned, she was starting to get hungry. A pang of fear hit her, what if she was some kind of zombie? A sudden image came into her head, French toast, covered in syrup and served with bacon, a flood of saliva filled her mouth, she smiled to herself. At least she was craving normal food.

Gwen stood carefully, her body felt stiff, uncoordinated, she stretched for a moment, then started walking across the room. As she picked her way through the rubbish Gwen felt her muscles relaxing. The room really was gross, old pizza boxes were scattered about the place, glasses that were half full of liquid and mold, greasy, shiny wrappers and clothes seemed to cover most things. At the door she paused and listened, she hadn’t heard anyone moving around but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. With her heart beating wildly she reached out and twisted the handle, the door opened smoothly. It revealed a short and thin hallway that was also covered in various rubbish, a rickety looking staircase led upstairs. Carefully Gwen moved down the hallway towards another door, this one looked like it would lead outside.

Gwen stood outside the building, squinting in the bright light of the morning. The area was deserted and more than a little seedy. She glanced at the briefcase lying on the ground and continued past it. She wasn’t sure where she was but Gwen knew that standing around would do her no good. She felt like she needed to keep moving, that she couldn’t sit or think any longer. She could feel something crowding at the back of her mind, a heavy pressure, like someone took their thumb and was steadily pressing it into her brain. She hoped that as she walked she would start to recognise things, but there was nothing. The area itself had a few noteworthy landmarks, like the large neon sign of a woman sitting atop a banana, or the larger, flashing neon beside it that promised Girls! Girls! Girls! To the empty street.

Gwen stopped. The sign was familiar. She could see it in her mind, blurry and distracting, the street was full of people trying to push past her, in a hurry to get to whatever seedy place they were going. She had been with someone, but she couldn’t quite picture them. Gwen took a deep breath, she didn’t need this right now, she needed to get home, to be safe, after that she could worry about everything else.

It took almost an hour of wandering before Gwen saw something slightly familiar, it took her a moment to place it, but she knew the café, she had been there on a date with someone, Toby? She wasn’t sure of the name, it had been about five years before, but at least she knew where she was.

Gwen stood outside her door, she was exhausted, she patted her pockets for her key and after finding it she let herself into her apartment. She paused at the hall mirror, she hadn’t had a chance to look at herself since she had woken up. Her hair was messy, her skin pale and her eyes were dark, she looked like she was hung-over and doing the walk of shame. Well, at least none of the neighbours had seen her. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water, she drank it quickly, then went rifling through the cupboards for food.

After she had eaten and showered Gwen was feeling better, she had now realised that what had probably happened was that she was drugged and dragged out to that building by someone. It didn’t seem like anything really bad had happened to her, maybe who ever it was had run or gotten distracted by something. Obviously the whole being dead thing was just a delusion brought on by the drugs. She couldn’t really have died, it would be impossible. It was time to just put the whole thing behind her. Going to the police would bring up too many questions she couldn’t answer, most of the day before was fuzzy if not completely gone. Besides she had always classed herself as somewhat intelligent, the thought of going to the police and telling them she had allowed something like that to happen filled her with more than a little shame.

Gwen gasped as she felt a burning pain in her stomach, she could feel something deep inside, cold and twisting, then with a sudden flare of pain, it was gone. Gwen carefully lifted her t-shirt, there near her belly button was a small red line, almost like a scratch, there were more across her stomach, how hadn’t she noticed them earlier? The pain hit her again, this time it didn’t stay in one place, it moved across her stomach and chest again and again, quick, stabbing pains. Gwen cried out and fell backwards.

She wasn’t in her apartment anymore, she was somewhere else, somewhere dark and gloomy, someone was standing in front of her, a knife in their hand. The knife seemed huge and somehow shone in the darkness, she felt it plunge into her flesh. Gwen gasped, the room was bright again, she was lying on the floor of her apartment. She sat up shakily, no, it didn’t happen, it couldn’t have. This was just some kind of weird flashback from what ever they had drugged her with. Gwen carefully got to her feet, she needed to lie down, that was all. She had a stressful day and it was all just too much. Once she had a rest she’d feel better. The scratches on her stomach throbbed steadily as she moved, she could almost feel the cold, sticky blood coating her body. Gwen lay down on her bed, she just needed to forget about it, to move on with her life.

The Price of Beauty. Short Story.

Selena carefully dabbed the moisturiser onto her face, the smell of it was intoxicating and already it was filling the air. As she breathed deeply she felt a calmness spread through her body, relaxing every muscle. As she rubbed it into her skin she could feel it tighten, the wrinkles were being smoothed away. It really was marvellous stuff. Illegal so far, but soon everyone would catch up with the times, they used it all the time over in Europe according to Debra. Selena looked at herself in the mirror and smiled, it really did do wonders for the skin.

Selena looked at the small pot sitting on her dressing room table, she was only supposed to use it for special occasions, but she was feeling down today. Surely that was reason enough to use it? Just a little boost to help her get through the rest of the day. No one was going to see her, but she’d feel better about herself. Her hand hovered over the small pot, there wasn’t a whole lot in it, but a little went a long way. Besides Debra could always get her more, it was expensive but Selena could afford it.

Selena examined her face in the mirror, her skin was starting to feel itchy. Debra had warned her about that, using too much too often would create this weird itchiness, the only cure was to lay off the cream for a while. Though Selena hadn’t been using it all that much, maybe every second or third day. She carefully poked and prodded at her skin, it seemed that her face was slightly swollen, perhaps some kind of mild allergic reaction? Or maybe the cream was more harsh than Debra had let on. That wouldn’t be a huge shock, Debra was always trying to underplay all the cosmetic procedures she had had, brushing it away with an “Oh it was nothing really, people just like to make a bigger deal out of it than it is.” Selena sighed, the cream had been amazing but perhaps she should give it a rest for a little while. She had asked around a few of their friends, discretely of course, and none of them had ever heard of it, which was unusual. Debra was always crowing about this new treatment or cream that she was using.

Selena looked at herself in horror, her face was still slightly swollen but now it was bright red, small dark red circles, almost like pinpricks, dotted her face. Selena carefully dabbed her face with a cold cloth, sighing as it took away some of the heat. She had tried to ring Debra, but she wasn’t answering, probably off on another trip somewhere. Carefully Selena moved her hands along her face, feeling and testing, it was still sore and hot to the touch, but that seemed to be the worst of it. Hopefully it the swelling would go down in a few hours.

It didn’t. Her face was more swollen than it had been before and now the heat radiating from it was intense. Debra had finally called her back and dismissed her worries, telling her that it happened sometimes and she’d be fine in a day or two.

Selena turned her head a little, it looked like the swelling had gone down, even if it wasn’t by much. She had also broken out in a couple of pimples, something which hadn’t happened for a long time. She had tried to clean the area a little but anything other than plain water stung, and she could only gingerly dab at her face with a soft towel. She sighed, hopefully in a day or two they’d be gone.

The pimples had gotten worse, she hadn’t left the house for the past three days, how could she? Looking like this? The swelling and redness had gotten worse, as had the pimples, what was a small smattering became huge lumps that covered almost her entire face. Debra had again told her it was fine, that was just what happened, in a few days it would all go down and she’d look better than ever. Selena was doubting it, how could she ever look the same again? What if her face was just stuck like this?

Selena winced as another pimple popped under her fingers. Instead of the relief she had expected instead there was only pain. The pimples weren’t going down, they were just getting worse, seemingly by the hour. The swelling had gone down a little, as had the redness, which was something. She looked down at the pus on her fingers and carefully washed it away. Her hands were dry and getting a little sore from all the washing, but she had to get rid of these damned things. Part of her wanted to find a dermatologist but another part was ashamed. How would she even explain how she had gotten herself into this mess? Besides that the cream was illegal, she couldn’t very well say she was using it. She had tried looking it up on the internet, but that was a bust. Debra wasn’t taking her calls anymore, the last one had ended with a frustrated sigh, “I’m telling you it’s fine. Stop calling me about your face. Just relax and give it a few days. I’ll ring you on Friday and then we can laugh about how silly you’re being, ok?”

The swelling was finally gone, as was the redness, the pimples remained though, along with all the scabs from the burst ones. It really did look dreadful, like some kind of wrinkled, acne-ridden teenager. The larger pimples were deep, she could feel them bulging against the surface of her skin, each one carefully and painfully felt out. She felt off, tired, a little feverish. Obviously the stress of all this had taken its toll on her. Once it was over she’d have to take a nice vacation somewhere, somewhere quiet, where no one would see her.

Selena lay in bed, she couldn’t sleep, her face was hurting again, a steady throbbing, she just knew that in the morning it would be swollen and red again and this entire thing would just start all over. Screw that stupid bitch Debra, she had made an appointment for the dermatologist, she’d get this all sorted tomorrow. And if they couldn’t fix it well, they could at least give her something to bring down the swelling and reduce the pain.

Selena woke the next morning feeling better, the steady throbbing in her face was gone. As she rolled over she screamed, there was blood on her pillow. Selena raced to the mirror, it seemed like the pimples had popped while she was asleep. She carefully cleaned off her face, the holes where the pimples were seemed deeper than they should have been, the dermatologist would give her something to help the wounds heal at least. As she cleaned her bedding, Selena didn’t notice the thin trails of blood that lead from her pillow and off her bed. By noon the holes had shrunk and her skin seemed to have tightened up again. If anything Debra had been right, without the small wounds, which seemed to be shrinking by the second, her skin really did look better than ever. She picked up the small pot, there was still a quarter of it left, she held it in her hands for a moment before putting it down again. Maybe it was worth it after all.

 

Life Eternal. Short Story.

The car rumbled along the dirt road, in the back John could hear Anna whispering gently to the tree as the stroked its bark. He felt like it was wrong to hear, like he was intruding, but the radio was playing nothing but pop songs and that felt wrong too.
“It’s ok, we’ll be there soon. You’ll be fine then, I promise.”

John stared straight ahead at the road, he didn’t want to be the one to tell her there was no hope, that things could never be the same again. He glanced in the mirror and tried not to shudder, he had seen a few bad ones before but this was the worst. The face of Thomas was twisted in agony and immortalised in the bark of the tree, his clenched and gnarled fingers elongated into branches, his hair turned into a bright shock of green leaves, his legs fused together into one thick trunk, his feet nothing but roots. Despite it obviously being a tree, there was life in Thomas’ eyes, a dreadful, terrible life. He was still in there, and he would be until for eternity.

John stopped the car and got out without saying anything. He grabbed a shovel from the trunk and waited. After a minute Anna stepped out of the car, “Where do you think we should put him?”
“You knew him best, where do you think he would like to go?”
Anna shook her head, “I don’t know. Somewhere nice I guess, maybe with the others? I don’t want him to be lonely”
John nodded, “I know just the place.”
Together they pulled the tree from the car and carefully carried it along the overgrown dirt path.

The path was short but the tree was heavy and soon they were both panting. When they reached the stream they carefully placed the tree on the ground. Anna looked around and shuddered. They were surrounded by trees, each one had a face in the trunk, some looked as though they were screaming, others as though they were crying. John knew there were no normal trees around here, each one of them had been a person. Part of him suspected that even the large trees, with their reaching branches and smooth trunks, had once been people too, but over time their faces were stretched out and smoothed over. Little nubs could be a nose, that odd jagged line could have been a mouth, those little marks could have been eyes.

The sound of the gurgling stream should have been peaceful, but instead it sounded almost mournful. John walked back to the car and grabbed the shovel, he found it was always best to let people have some alone time before the tree was planted. When he returned Anna was gently stroking Thomas’ face. “Did you pick a spot?”
“Yes, over there, it seems like a good place.” She pointed to a clearing in the trees, plenty of room for sunlight and growth, John nodded and got to work.

When the hole was dug they carefully moved the roots into it, John buried it again and when he was done stood back. He wanted them to have some privacy. He could still hear Anna over the sound of the stream, he tried not to listen as she promised to visit him, as she told him that she still loved him. John had heard it all before and he knew how it would go. She would visit every chance she could at first, then slowly the frequency would fade and she would move on.

The drive back was silent, Anna sat beside him in the front, her hands clasped loosely in her lap, with head bowed and her eyes staring at nothing.
“I think he’ll be happy there, it was a good spot. Quiet, peaceful.”
Anna nodded. Finally she straightened up a little, looking straight ahead, glaring at the road in front of her.
John sighed, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to go confront her. Don’t. It won’t end well for you, it never does. She’ll do to you what she did to him. That might seem romantic, growing old and ancient together, side by side, but it isn’t an existence. It isn’t a life. Can you imagine how awful it would be? Forcing him to look at you for all time? Seeing what has become of you? He’d blame himself for that. So close but you could never touch, maybe if you’re lucky a strong breeze might cause the branches to glance against each other. At least now you can visit him still, take care of him.”
Anna turned her glare on John, “You don’t understand. You could never understand.”
John shook his head, “I planted my wife here about fifteen years back. I still visit her. I know what you want to do because I wanted to do it myself. My parents are out there too. Did you know that? That’s the deal my family made. Eternal life but no one ever read the fine print. When I’m close to death I’ll be sent out here, just like Thomas, just like my wife. I know the horror of watching your loved one turned to a tree, their agony there for all to see. I also know that being trapped beside the person you love, having to see them like that day after day, unable to help them, save them, unable to even look away, it’s hell.”
“I don’t care. I want to be with him. I can’t live without him.”

“You’ll find a way. You have to.”

“If I do go to her, will you put me beside him?”
John stopped the car, “please don’t ask me to do that to someone. Please.”
“I’m sorry. There’s no other way. I can’t just leave him there.”
John slowly let out a long breath, “Ok. I’ll put you beside him, but you must do something for me first.”
“What? I’ll do anything.”
“Wait one year. If you still feel the same then go to her and I’ll make sure you’re side by side for the rest of your lives. That’s all you have to do. Wait one year.”
Anna sat in silence for a moment, “Ok. Deal.”

John started the car, he had made this deal with almost everyone he brought out here. So far none had gone to the witch after a year. She would see the horror she would be inflicting on herself with every visit. She would see their pain for ever etched into the bark. In time the grief would lesson and she would move on, as she should. John reached out and flicked on the radio, allowing the music to fill the silence.

#ShortStory: Trapped

Hello my Freaky Darlings,

It’s Friday!!

Here’s a short story for you…

Trapped

Hey you! Yes, I’m talking to you. Don’t pretend you don’t see me. There is no way you could possibly miss a woman locked in a box in the middle of a field. You’re not completely blind are you? Please don’t just walk away. I need your help. Come a little closer. I won’t hurt you. Can’t you see I’m trapped in here?

Okay, I can see from your expression that you think this is some sort of hoax. There are no hidden cameras. No one’s going to jump out from behind a bush and scream “surprise”. Have a look around; it’s just you and me. Yes, I feel it too. It feels like we’re being watched, but I’m sure it’s nothing. Please just get me out of this thing. Sorry! I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’m a little frustrated. Being locked in a box for a night and all day will do that to a girl. They’ve all gone. Packed up and left in the middle of the night like something was chasing them. Hopefully whatever was chasing them isn’t here. Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s not.

Those freaks from Dark’s Carnival left in such a hurry they left this field scarred by their caravan wheels. It’ll take the earth a while to recover from their destruction. And that god awful smell, in case you’re wondering, is elephant and horse shit. It’ll be dark soon and if I don’t get out of here before then something terrible is going to happen to me. Don’t pull that face. This is no joke. I’m being serious. Look, I’m still not sure how it happened or why she did this to me. I didn’t insult her, or at least I don’t think I did. Did I? Okay, so I might have told her that her tarot reading was the biggest load of crap. And maybe I did freak out a little, but if she’d told you the things she told me, you would also have freaked out. Anybody would. I’m not some homicidal demon stuck in human form. The woman is clearly off her rocker. Tarot readings are supposed to be fun. They’re not supposed to be all gloom and doom, are they? I’d never had one before. Have you?

Anyway, Madam Zinzi and the rest of her tribe of unwashed carnie folk left me here, stuck in this bloody box stage magicians use to saw people in half, with only my head, hands, and feet sticking out. They wrapped that chain around the top and the bottom and the padlocks are out of reach. They also didn’t leave me a key to unlock them. I don’t suppose you have any tools in your car? I’m not an escape artist for fuck’s sake. It doesn’t matter how hard I bang around in here, I can’t get out. And now thanks to the constant rain my head is also soaking wet. I just know I’m going to get a cold. Those bastards told me I had until sundown then he would come for me. You’re not him, are you? It’s not an unreasonable question. You are a he, aren’t you? And it’s almost sundown, and you’re here in this field. So it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that you’re him. So … are you him? No. You sure? Okay. I believe you.

Sorry. I’m rambling. I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself and forgotten my manners. Let me take a breath and a virtual step back so I can tell you the story as calmly as possible. I’m Josephine. If you take a step over this way, I can shake your hand. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I don’t suppose you can move your umbrella to cover my head as well as yours. I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.

So … This mess started last night when my friends decided that a trip to Dark’s Carnival would be a good laugh. Boy were they wrong. It certainly started off as a fun night out. Who doesn’t enjoy candy floss, toffee apples, and carousels? I know I certainly do. We even met a few attractive guys from town who bought us a couple drinks at the beer tent. Some of the men from the carnival were also rather cute, although there were a few freaks as well. The elephant man scared the crap out of me. Don’t get me started on what some of the women looked like. If I had a face like some of them I don’t think I’d have a mirror anywhere in my house. Were you here last night? Did you see what the bearded lady looked like? Talk about being hit by the ugly stick. Sorry! I’m digressing. I tend to do that when I’m freaking out.

It was shaping up to be such a promising night. Jeff, I think his name was Jeff, asked me if I’d have dinner with him next week. I even gave him my number. I don’t normally do that but it’s been such a long time since I went on a proper date. I was actually feeling a little giddy. I haven’t felt like that since I was a teenager. Jeff took me up on the Ferris wheel. I hadn’t done that in years. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I’m afraid of heights, but I think he guessed that I was scared and held my hand the whole time. We kissed right at the top and, for a few moments, I forgot all about my fears. For that moment in time I was just a girl enjoying her first kiss with a boy. It was all so very romantic.

The hall of mirrors was a little creepy. A sign of things to come. I always thought that those mirrors were only supposed to make your body look a bit funny, but this one was different. Jeff said it was just trick lighting, but I’m not so sure. I kept seeing a shadowy figure just at the edge of the reflection, but when I turned around to see if anybody was behind me, there was nothing there. When I turned back to look at the mirror, my reflection was different. My eyes seemed to change. It was slight, almost imperceptible. My eyes went from brown to red then back to brown. I would probably have thought it was a pretty cool trick if it hadn’t been for that shadow giving me the creeps.

I was already feeling a little on edge when Jodi came up with that hare-brained scheme. Stupid bloody woman. She decided that we all had to go have our fortunes read. Madam Zinzi was at the edge of their encampment. The bright red caravan stood out of the dark like a beacon in the night. Mist from the river swirled around our feet, giving the whole place an otherworldly feel. Although she may also have had one of those fog machines they use in night clubs. I wouldn’t put it past that bitch. We all took turns to have our fortunes told. Jodi went first and came out in tears. Apparently Madam Zinzi had seen death in Jodi’s near future. I mean, everybody dies at some point or another. Nobody gets out alive. Why death was such a shock to her system was beyond me. But then the rest of the gang had similar experiences. Which was a little strange, I grant you. They all came running out one by one, with these horrified expressions then they all gawked at me as though I’d killed their dogs. From the looks they gave me, one could have sworn that I was pointing a gun at them and threatening to pull the trigger then and there. It was completely nuts.

Madame Zinzi’s voice came from inside her blood red camper, calling my name. I must admit the sound of her voice gave me a shiver up my spine. One of my so-called friends must have told her my name. There’s no other explanation for it, is there? She couldn’t have known it by herself. She couldn’t have plucked it out of the ether, could she?

My heart was thumping up a storm as I walked up those steps to her caravan. Candles were burning all over the place. A real fire hazard if you ask me. She sat in the corner behind a small makeshift camping table which looked like it would buckle under the weight of her ample breasts. They had to be a double D at the very least. After I recovered from my cleavage envy and got my heart to stop racing I managed to observe more. A crystal ball rested on the counter. I was mesmerized by the smoke churning inside. The smoke formed into a huge eye and as I watched, I felt as though I was being pulled towards it. The eye was staring at me, into me, and examining my soul. Judging by what happened next, I think my soul came up wanting.

The candle flames flickered in the breeze, but I couldn’t figure out where the air was coming from, the door and windows were all closed. Madame Zinzi’s eyes went pitch black. My throat tightened and my palms got sweaty. The hair on my nape stood on end. I’ve always heard that expression but never actually experienced it until last night, and I hope never to experience it again. My heart still hasn’t recovered. My ears itched and felt blocked. You know how your ears get blocked up when the cabin pressure changes in an aeroplane? Like that. I didn’t think things could get stranger, but I was wrong.

Madame Zinzi shuffled her deck of cards and grinned at me. Her teeth were skew and yellowing from smoking too many cigarettes. A cigarette smouldered in a dirty ashtray that was already filled with butts. The smoke mingled with that from the candles, the small space filled up with smoke quickly and I struggled to breathe. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia, but last night I did. I wanted to run. I needed to get out of that tiny, smoke-filled caravan, but the door was locked. I know I didn’t lock it when I went in. I know I didn’t. No matter how hard I tried, the damn door wouldn’t open. I even tried kicking it, but it wouldn’t budge.

‘Calm yourself.’ Her voice was sharp and heavily accented. She sounded Russian. I couldn’t help but do as she commanded. I was transfixed. I had to obey her. ‘Come. Sit.’ The cards flew through her fingers as she shuffled. The Tower, Death, and The Hanged Man landed on the table in front of me.

‘A sacrifice is required.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’ I asked. I thought it was a perfectly acceptable question, but she didn’t seem to think so. She just ignored me

‘He is coming.’ She sounded like one of those cryptic oracles foretelling death and destruction.

‘Who is coming?’ I asked. Once again she ignored me. It took me a while, but I eventually realised that she was channelling something. Madame Zinzi had left the building. Okay the caravan. Same thing. You know what I mean. There was something else inside that camper, and I don’t think it was human.

‘He comes on the wind calling for Josephine. All will die who stand in his way. He searches for his mate, his other half trapped inside the human. She must be given to him. Death will follow swiftly unless he is reunited with his love.’

The next thing I knew I was in this box and everybody was gone. My friends abandoned me. I can’t believe they left me here to die. How could they believe that fortune teller? Don’t look at me like that. Not you too? It’s ridiculous. I’m not some demoness trapped in human form. I told you the crazy bitch was off her rocker. I’m not some great evils long lost love. I know that crap is all romantic in the movies, but when you’re the one shoved in the box waiting to be sacrificed, it’s not so romantic. Trust me.

What are you looking at? Do you see something?

Shit! The sun is setting. I have to get out of here. Please. Help me. What was that? Did you hear that?

No. Please don’t leave me here alone. Come on. Be a man. Where’s a hero when you need one. I’m sorry I didn’t mean that. Please come back. Fuck! Please don’t leave me here. I’ll do anything. Oh! Come on. This is so not fair. And now I’m talking to myself. Great. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, it goes pitch black. Oh my god! What the hell is that thing? No!

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This story was originally published in Noir Carnival

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Possession. Short Story.

Tommy flexed his hands, looking at how the skin wrinkled and bunched together, his joints felt swollen, tight. He hated being old. All his wrinkled skin, the constant dull aches in his ankles, knees and hips, the slowness of his movements. He picked up his cup of coffee and took a sip, as he put it back down he noticed the tremors. When had they started? He didn’t remember noticing them before, but he hadn’t really had time to acclimatize to this body. That was the problem of grabbing on the go, he should have prepared better, had someone ready. He could feel the original owner of the body in the back of his mind, a bulging presence that was trying to force its way back through. Tommy wasn’t too worried about the old man, people in their prime had never bested him, never mind someone like this, who was already well on their way out. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise him if all the excitement lead to a heart attack.

Tommy stood from the kitchen table and shuffled to the sink, there he rinsed out his coffee cup and filled it with water. He enjoyed his coffee, but this body didn’t. His stomach felt like it was bubbling, burning mass. He sighed and sipped the water, the sooner he was back in his own body the better. He moved back to the table and slowly sat down, at least he was going to be well compensated for this, even if it was a rush job. He glanced at the clock, squinting to read it. He still had about an hours wait. Great. He had already made sure everything was ready twice, now all he had to do was wait. At least with younger bodies you had a chance to do something, go somewhere, by the time he got this walking skeleton down to the end of the driveway he’d just have to start walking back.

Tommy turned off the TV, he had forgotten how bad daytime television was, but at the same time it was oddly comforting. He shook his head, he was starting to sink back into who the person was. Damn. Maybe the old guy had some strength left in him after all. Tommy took a deep breath and started to repeat his full name, after a moment he stopped and smiled. It was an old trick, but they were the best, helped him stay centred, helped him stay himself. That was the danger of taking over a body, if you weren’t careful the mind of the original host could draw you in, force you to fit the patterns the brain was used to and if that happened you could be lost. Tommy thought it was a fate worse than death for both parties. You weren’t really your self, nor were you the other person. You were a shell, a mind at war with itself.

Tommy stood as there was a knock at the door followed by a key sliding into the lock, Christine always let herself in. He moved towards the hallway, as she entered the house he could smell her perfume, strong and overpowering, even to his deadened senses. She swept into the room, followed by the wake of that smell, and gave him a soft hug. “Hey dad, how’re you doing?”
“I’m good sweetheart, how are you?”
“Oh can’t complain really, work has me run off my feet, but then what’s new there?”
Tommy smiled, “You work too hard, you’ll wear yourself out.”
Christine rolled her eyes, “You always say that! I’m fine, great in fact. I love my job and no, I won’t look for another one.”
Tommy nodded, “I know sweetheart, I just worry about you is all.”
“I know Dad.”
“Come into the kitchen, I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

Tommy watched as Christine slowly sipped her tea. The banal conversation was starting to frustrate him, Christine was gossiping about people he had never heard of and had no interest in knowing. Finally Christine dropped the cup, she frowned at her hand, “I’m sorry, that’s so weird. It was like my fingers just let go.”

Tommy smiled at her, “Don’t worry about it love.”
“No, no, I’ll clean it up, I just need a second. I’m feeling a bit tired, maybe I’m coming down with something.”
Tommy shook his head, “No, I don’t think you’re getting sick. I think it’s the poison that was in your tea.”
“What? That’s not funny Dad.”
“Oh I know, I’m not joking and I’m not your father.”

Tommy watched Christine die, it was a quick enough process, but he didn’t want to take any risks. Once she was slumped over the kitchen table he waited for fifteen minutes, then he closed his eyes and relaxed.

Tommy opened his eyes, he was lying on a couch in a bright office. He took a few deep breaths and gave himself a few seconds to adjust. He didn’t bother drinking the coffee that had been left out for him. He knew it was safe but his stomach still clenched at the thought, it would be a few hours before that would go away. Tommy yawned, then stretched. He announced “It’s done” to the room before standing and leaving. The money would be deposited into his account once they had confirmation, they’d probably mark it down as an accident, a confused old bastard mixing up what went where in the kitchen. Tommy looked down at his hands, smooth, soft, clean, he flexed them and smiled, it was good to be back.

The Heatwave. Short Story.

Jack wiped the sweat from his forehead, the damn heat was starting to drive him crazy. It had been two weeks since the heat wave began, with everyone promising it would end soon. Two weeks of scorching heat and no air conditioning. Jack stood from the couch and peeled his t-shirt away from his body, it was only 11 A.M. and already he was drenched in sweat. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a glass, filling it with water, he took a sip and swallowed, even the damn water was lukewarm. There was ice in the freezer but not much, he wanted to save it until later, every shop he’d been to were sold out of ice, not that he’d have been able to get it home before it melted.

Jack turned off the radio, the weather report claimed the heat would break tomorrow, but they had been saying that for the last three days. No one seemed to know when things were going to go back to normal. A breezed moved through the room and Jack closed his eyes, enjoying it, however warm and slight a breeze it was. It was the first breath of fresh air that had entered the house all day, despite all the windows being wide open. He looked around the living room and again noted it would have to be cleaned, but on a cooler day, already he was considering having another shower and it was only midday. He shook his head, it was the first weekend he’d ever wished he was in work, at least the building had air-conditioning.

Jack woke the next morning with the thin sheet clinging to his sweat drenched body. The heat was still unbearable. He went to the bathroom and had a cool shower, feeling a little better he dressed and went to the kitchen. He flicked on the radio out of habit while he made breakfast, just as he was finishing the weather came on. Jack rolled his eyes as he heard the opening jingle, he knew where this was going, the heat wave will break tomorrow, we swear this time for real. “Today will be a cool and pleasant day with a few scattered showers, which I’m sure we’ll all be thankful for!” Jack paused, spoon midway to his mouth, he grabbed his phone and checked, the temperature was only supposed to be fifteen degrees today but it felt just as hot as every day before it. Jack went to the window and stuck his head outside, looking around he saw people were walking down the street again, and they were wearing jeans rather than shorts.

He had taken his temperature three times and it said it was normal, but if that was the case why was he so hot? He had tested going outside but found it almost unbearable to stand in the sunlight, the heat was just too much.

Jack sipped his water, he was feeling hotter now than before, he kept periodically checking his temperature but the thermometer said it was well within the normal range. Sweat ran down his body in thin rivulets, his entire body felt drained, like he had been running about the place all day.

As night began to fall Jack breathed a sigh of relief, with it should come some cool breezes. He had decided that it was just his body being weird after the heat wave, hopefully by tomorrow he’d adjust and everything would be normal again. The internet wasn’t much use, mostly it just told him he was either anxious or experiencing menopause. Jack stood from the couch and went into the bathroom, the heat wasn’t dying off, if anything it was starting to get a little worse. He turned on the shower and stepped in, breathing a sigh of relief as the cool water washed over him. The relief only lasted for a few seconds before he felt hot again, even the water touching his skin seemed warm. Jack groaned in frustration and turned the water colder. He stood under the spray with his eyes closed, the water was as cold as it would go but it still felt warm. After a few minutes he decided he should stop, if it was psychological the cold water probably wasn’t doing him much good. Jack opened his eyes, the bathroom was full of steam. He looked down at his body, the water wasn’t steaming until it hit him. He turned off the water and gasped, the heat was almost unbearable, he reached out to turn the shower back on then started screaming, blisters were appearing on his skin, giant angry looking swellings filled with fluid. The pain was almost unbearable, he turned the shower back on.

Jack stood under the water, whimpering. The pain was getting worse and the water was feeling hotter. He wouldn’t make it to the phone without considerable agony, even now blisters were appearing on any skin that wasn’t under the water. Something was boiling him alive in his own skin. Jack took a deep steadying breath, he just had to make it to the phone, dial 911 and run back to the shower. He could do that, right? He stepped out of the shower and started running, he made it to the hallway before he collapsed, he writhed on the ground. Jack could no longer scream, his throat was full of blisters, he could barely breathe, his breath coming in high pitched gasps. With a sudden roar of flames his entire body caught fire, the flames licked at the ceilings and walls, it wasn’t long before the entire building went up.

Faulty wiring, that was the final verdict, and a man who couldn’t outrun the smoke. The case was discretely filed away with all the other strange cases, the ones that no one liked to talk about. There had been several others like it that occurred during the heat wave, but no one was looking into it. They knew that investigating something like that was dangerous, you’d never know what you’d find, or what would find you.

 

 

#ShortStory: The Trial

Hello my Freaky Darlings,

Since it’s Friday I thought I’d share another short story with you. I hope you enjoy it.

The Trial

The Judge presiding over my case sat on his oversized and overstuffed throne. He was one of the three men who decided over life and death in our city. Judge Farris had a reputation for being a hard case. He’d put more people to death during the culling than all of the other judges put together. He would be the one who would decide if I was a useful member of society or not. If he decided I wasn’t, that would be it. I’d lose my head. The thought of the executioners axe coming down on my scrawny little neck made me want to run to the bathroom again. I hadn’t stopped needing to pee since my number had been drawn.

In every town, in every part of the world, identity numbers had been thrown into wooden boxes and one by one our numbers were drawn to decide if we would live or die, depending on how useful we were. Prisoners were executed first, and prisons stood as empty, reminders of the past. Then the over sixty-fives were crossed off the list, their assets seized by the state and their organs recycled. Those with IQ’s under 110 were also immediately crossed off the list and deemed as unfit breeding stock. The culling had begun two years ago, and the executioner was very busy.

I’d been one of the lucky ones who’d had those extra two years of life. It had taken the courts longer than anticipated to get through all the numbers. They’d only managed to execute about two thousand people in our city over the last two years through the court system, not including the prisoners and over sixty-fives. Two years of daily executions can be deadening on the spirit, but I’d had the time to meet my nephew, see a few more sunsets, and enjoy the feel of the sun on my skin, which so many others could no longer do. It’s amazing how the small things that count when your number could be up at any moment.

The world population had reached the nine billion mark. Famine and water shortages raged.  Governments all over the world came to the conclusion that there was only one solution. The courts were tasked with deciding on which members of society were the most productive, whose life had the most value. My mother had been one of the first to go. She had been over sixty-five. My sister was a teacher, with an IQ of 130 and therefore useful. My brother, a farmer, was also found useful in a world where there wasn’t enough food and too many lawyers and accountants. The old university degrees, once so sought after, were no longer as important as they once were — now it was genetics and intelligence that mattered. If university graduates didn’t have an added skill, or were not the best at what they did, or were not classified as good breeding stock, they were crossed off the list; even being prematurely bald was a reason for being culled. No ordinary citizen was safe.

My heart felt as though it was trying to escape from my chest. I understood its desire for escape. The thought of running away had crossed my mind more than once, but there was nowhere to run. At this rate, I’d die of a heart attack long before the trial was over, saving the judge the trouble of deciding my fate. My trial wouldn’t take long. I’d have a day at the most to convince them that I was worthy to continue breathing. I was allowed to plead my case because I had good genes and a relatively high IQ, but the question was: was I useful? Was a writer needed in this new society? Was a freethinking author someone they wanted to keep in the new world order? I didn’t hold out much hope. I wasn’t a bestselling author or famous; the rich and famous were pretty much exempt for their ‘social’ contributions.

The courthouse had been built in 1802, two hundred and fifty years ago, and had survived two world wars and an attempted bombing two years ago by terrorists protesting the culling — they’d only succeeded in blowing themselves up, four more people the courts didn’t have to worry about. The wooden panelling on the walls of the courtroom was a dark mahogany and made the room feel solemn and yet strangely warm.  It felt right that my fate would be decided in a room as old and as grand as this one.

“Marin Brown,” the Bailiff called. I heard my name through a wall of nervous fuzz in my ears.

I walked down the stairs and stood in the wooden box, where the Bailiff told me to stand, my legs wobbling under me. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to stand throughout the ordeal. Judge Farris sat on my right, looking down his nose at me. His white wig looked like it dated back to when the court had first been built; it probably itched like hell. His eyes were dark and cold. He probably only had another five years to go before he too was culled. The thought gave me some comfort, but not much. My bladder wanted to go, but I would have to hold it till the end, there would be no recess.

The Judge banged his gavel a few times, calling the court to order. The wood hitting wood reverberated through my brain and made the hair on my arms stand up. I spotted my brother and   sister sitting in the front row. They would speak on my behalf during the proceedings. It was up to them and the few people who had read my work to convince the judge that my life should be spared. There would be no lawyer to defend me; the few left were too expensive for a poor writer. I would have to argue my own case, fight for my own survival.

The judge looked over the rim of his glasses and stared down at me from his judgemental height. His beaked nose reminded me of a Dickensian character. I couldn’t decide if he looked more like Martin Chuzzlewit or Fagin.

“Stand up properly young lady,” Judge Farris said. His voice was hard. “This court has been called to order, and you will stand to attention throughout the proceedings. If you sit at any time I will make my ruling immediately, and it will not be favourable. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I choked. My tongue was too thick for my mouth. My brother’s neighbours, who were often spectators at trials and had seen Judge Farris in action, had told me that the Judge felt that standing to attention was a point of respect, and failure to do so was to demonstrate contempt. He’d once made a pregnant woman stand for several hours before declaring that she had to have an abortion. It had been her third child, and unless she was prepared to have one of her other children culled, she would have to get rid of her latest addition. He had also declared that if she didn’t start practising safe sex, she, too, would be culled.

“Would those who are here to speak for this woman stand?” Judge Farris instructed. My sister, brother, a few fellow writers, and a couple people I didn’t know, stood. Together, they didn’t even fill up half of the front row. There had been a public announcement letting people know about my trial, the usual notification that went out for all trials, asking anybody who knew me to show up and speak on my behalf. Notifications, however, were only sent out the day before the trials.

“Your testimony must be completely accurate. If you are found to commit perjury, your status will be called into question and you will find yourself in the dock. Is that clear?” The judge instructed.

The witnesses for my defence nodded in unison. My stomach fell a few notches. Nobody would lie for me or exaggerate my usefulness — I wasn’t worth dying for.

“You,” the judge pointed at my brother, his short, cropped blond hair, calloused hands, and deep tan screamed that he spent many hours working the land, “step forward.” Jason took a few tentative steps closer. “Come closer,” the judge commanded. “Stand where I can see you properly.” Judge Farris leaned forward in his seat. “Who is this woman to you?” The judge asked.

“She’s my sister, Your Honour,” Jason replied.

“Besides being your sister, is there a reason she should be allowed to continue to exist in our midst?”

“Y… Yes your honour,” Jason stammered. “She’s a very talented writer, she helps my wife with our child, and she cooks really well, and she pays us rent when she can.”

“Did you get permission to have this child?” The judge asked with a furrowed brow.

“Y… Yes your honour.” Jason’s face turned white. The implication in the judge’s question was obvious. If he didn’t have permission, his son’s life would be forfeit.

“And your sister stays with you?” Judge Farris raised his eyebrow.

“Yes your honour. She used to stay with our mother and looked after her, but when Mom was culled, my sister moved in with me and my wife. We needed help with our baby because our nanny was culled.”

“Why was your nanny culled?”

“She was classified as being poor breeding stock, but as you can see my sister is from very good breeding stock.”

“Is she?” The judge looked over at me. I felt his eyes roving over every inch of me, judging me, looking for imperfections — they wouldn’t be hard to find. My slightly crooked teeth and pale blue eyes, indicative of eventual bad eyesight, were painfully obvious. Even though I didn’t need glasses, my eyesight was not perfect and the judge would most certainly use it against me. Then there was my broken nose too, which I’d broken when I was six while trying to prove that I could climb a tree just as well as Jason.

“You may be seated.” My brother was dismissed. His testimony hadn’t lasted as long as I thought it would. At this rate, my trial wouldn’t even last an hour. I had a feeling the judge had already made up his mind.

He then called up my sister, Iris, to testify. She looked every bit the teacher, but unlike me, her eyesight was perfect. She and Jason both had brown eyes, the same as our mother. I’d inherited our fathers blue eyes and poor eyesight. Her testimony was even shorter than my brother’s. He asked her only one question. “Does your sister make enough money from her writing to support herself or is she a burden on your brother and you?”

My sister looked like a doe caught in the headlights.

“She’s not a burden, Your Honour,” Iris finally managed to say. “She pays her own way.”

“Does she?” Judge Farris leaned further forward and eyed my sister over his glasses. Iris took a step backwards. Her lower lip shivered, usually a sign that she was about to cry.

“Dismissed,” the Judge said, and sounded bored. He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Next,” he said without looking to see who would be speaking for me. I didn’t recognise the man who stepped forward. He wore an old tweed jacket and looked like a university professor.

“Have you read this woman’s work?” The Judge asked.

“Yes,” the stranger said.

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes.”

“Would you buy anything else she wrote?”

“I think so, yes,” the stranger said looking at me and smiling. I tried to smile in return, but my face didn’t co-operate.

“Dismissed.” The Judge then looked at the handful of people still standing. “Are the rest of you all here to give similar testimony?”

They all nodded in reply.

“So noted. I’ll stipulate for the record that the remaining witnesses all stated the exact same thing as the previous witness.” The Judge banged his gavel when audience members started to chatter amongst themselves at his decision. The stenographer typed out his stipulation. His decision recorded for posterity. “Looks like I’ll make my tee time after all.” The judge sounded pleased with himself.

“May I object to that ruling, Your Honour?” I asked, my voice just above a whisper.

“No you may not.” Judge Farris banged his gavel again. “I’m ready to deliver my verdict.”

“But I haven’t had a chance to defend myself,” I said, my voice rising above the sound of the gavel.

“I have made my decision and there’s nothing you can say that will change your fate. You are a burden on your family. You are not prolific enough or good enough to compete with other high calibre writers. There is not room in our society for yet another mediocre author. I therefore sentence you to death. You will be sent from here to your place of execution. There will be no reprieve.” The Judge banged his gavel.

My sister collapsed in a hysterical heap. My brother stared at me, his mouth open in shock.

“Bailiff, take her away.” I heard the Judge’s words as though from a distance. My skin tingled on my face and I desperately needed to go to the toilet, but I refused to embarrass myself. I promised myself that I would be culled with some dignity.

We’d all heard the stories of how some people carried on when they were led away, the hysteria. I would leave that to my sister. I squared my shoulders and allowed the bailiff to lead me out. There was a part of me that still clung to some small hope that the judge would change his mind, that he’d realised he’d made a mistake, but I knew those hopes were futile. The judge never changed his mind.

I would be dead before sunset.

There was a short queue waiting for the executioner in the holding cell. There were three trials everyday, of which two, at least, ended with a death sentence. It didn’t happen often that one of the judges allowed someone to carry on existing, especially Judge Farris.

Another woman waiting to be culled sat in a corner, sobbing. She had paint splatters on her clothes. From the way she was dressed, she looked to be an artist. I sat down next to a man who stared at a spot on the wall opposite us. There was nothing remarkable about him. He was dressed in a simple, cheap suit. His shoes were cracked and looked more plastic than leather. He rocked himself slowly. The shock of where he was and what was about to happen to him stamped on his face. I probably wore the same shocked look.

Two men in uniform came into the holding cell. They headed straight for the woman in the corner and dragged her out. I heard her scream as they took her down the passage towards the chopping block. Next would be the man sitting next to me. I would be the last of the day. The executioner would take a break between each of us; apparently chopping people’s heads off is hard work. Two hours later, they came for him. He went quietly. He hadn’t said a word while we waited and he was silent when they culled him.

They’ve come for me. I try to stand, but my legs betray me. One of them helps me to stand and I thank him. My mother taught me to be courteous. I thank them again for helping me to walk, with some dignity, to the execution chamber.

The chopping block is a huge piece of black granite with a hollowed out bit where I place my head. They tried to wash away some of the blood from the previous two victims, but they missed a few spots. The site of the blood makes the little bit of food I managed to get into my stomach before my trial travel back up my throat, I swallow it back down. I hate that I will die with the taste of bile on my tongue. It’s rather rude that they didn’t even give us a last meal.

The executioner stands with his axe resting on his shoulder. The blade looks sharp enough. I hope he’ll be able to do it with one blow. He looks strong enough. I kneel and place my head in the hollow. I’m grateful that they didn’t allow any family members to attend. It’s a private matter. It’s just between me, the executioner, and whatever god I believe in. Only problem is I’m not sure any god exists.

Well… I’m about to find out.

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This story originally appeared in AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers  in 2013.

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“Mystery and Suspense in Poetry” (by Jackie Sherbow)

There isnt an author for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine who has not corresponded, at some point, with the magazines associate editor, Jackie Sherbow. For the past six years, she has been an integral part of the Dell mystery magazines team, brightening every day for the rest of the staff with her cheerfulness, energy, and capable handling of all that finds its way to her desk. What most of those who know her are probably unaware of, though, is that these are not the only magazines to which Jackie has a connection. In her free time, she volunteers her talents as associate editor for Newtown Literary Journal. EQMM has had many assistant, associate, and managing editors who were also writers (most famously, novelist and magician Clayton Rawson), but we have never before had someone in the position whose primary field is poetry. What makes this even more remarkable is that Jackies current counterpart with the Dell science fiction magazines, Emily Hockaday, is also a published poet, a fact that highlights a kinship between the short story and the poem. Weve explored before on this site the affinity between poetry and mystery, and in this post Jackie illuminates it with compelling examples. Readers whod like to sample Jackies own poetry should go to: Go Places (Issues 5 and 6), Bluestockings Magazine, and The Opiate.—Janet Hutchings

“Thanks for the tree between me and a sniper’s bullet.”

These are the two opening lines of the poem “Thanks” by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa—but I think they’d make an enticing hook for a mystery story. As a poet, a mystery-fiction editor, and a reader of both genres and forms, I’ve often been struck by the relationship between poetry and mystery fiction, particularly when it comes to a poem’s language and structure.

Poetry has an important connection to the American mystery genre—and particularly the short-story side of it, as Edgar Allan Poe is considered by many to have written the first mystery short story. EQMM specifically has a noteworthy history with poetry. Frederic Dannay had a bond with the form, which you can read more about in Janet Hutchings’ post from June 2015. Furthermore, the magazine publishes poetry; many readers will remember the “Detectiverses” and “Criminalimericks” that were at a time found often in EQMM’s pages: short, rhyming verses, usually including a puzzle or a punch-line. And verse by EQMM authors such as William Bankier, John Dobbyn, and Donald Yates has appeared over the years.

Last year, in the March/April 2016 issue, we published a handful of Clerihews by Richard Stout, along with a bit of history by him about “the only poetic form created by a writer of detective fiction.” Along similar lines, in 1955 Frederick Dannay included a prose poem by Norman MacLeod titled “Twelve Knives” accompanied by an explanation by the author analyzing and annotating the poem. Poetry was even included in the Department of First Stories in 1969: “Acrostecs” by Laurel Anne McVicker. In his introduction, editor Dannay said, “Yes, it is stretching the form to call these three sonnets a ‘first story’—but as the first-published work of a new writer they are much too good to be passed by because of a technicality of definition . . .” So it seems that the magazine’s goal of providing a diverse collection of writing in each issue spreads across form. The magazine has a history of providing a dynamic reading experience by giving space to the criticism, history, and analysis of poetry as well as the lines of poetry themselves.

The characters that inhabit mystery stories inhabit poems, too; in poetry contemporary to classical, we find gamblers, drug dealers, money, violence, jilted lovers, and plenty of weaponry. Thematically, the heart of a poem often resides where the heart of a mystery story does. How do we handle tense situations, relationships gone wrong, frustrated hopes, and genuine or perceived injustice? What do we do with strong emotion, external pressures, and struggles with physical and mental health? Mystery writers are testing the boundaries of the self, digging for the darkness and the truth about what resides inside all of us. Poets are excavating the same thing.

But the connection that interests me most is that of the language itself. While many stories include poetic language, plenty of contemporary poetry rings with the tense and the mysterious. Many poems are full of suspense, and poets achieve this in many ways:

Pacing and Repetition

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is one of my favorites, largely because of the turn in the final stanza and the slowly paced build to it. The first three stanzas are carefully constructed description and consideration, unfolding as measuredly and quietly as the scene described. The tone in the final stanza is a shift, and the repetition of the final line—and the fact that it’s the first instance of repetition in the poem—gives those lines and the “promises” the poet references a deep sense of gravity. The quiet deepens and, somehow, the dark becomes darker. It’s so simple, but chill inducing.

Anne Carson’s “Thunderstorm Stack” uses short lines and tight sentences pushed through by repetition to create a quick pace in another evocation of a dark and stormy night. Her piece opens:

A bird flashed by as if mistaken then it
starts. . . .

Meter and Rhythm

Meter specifically is something that most fiction writers aren’t privy to in their prose toolbox (although I’m sure there’s someone out there who can prove that wrong). Some meters, the ones beginning with trochaic feet, are designed to start with a stressed syllable—a punch. Since most traditional English verse is iambic (and begins with an unstressed syllable), it can throw the reader off kilter from the outset, a goal achieved by many mystery writers too. Shakespeare utilized this: In Macbeth, the witches speak in an altered form of trochaic tetrameter, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies. Poe, too, often started lines with trochees.

And what can be more jarring than interrupted meter? In “In a Station of the Metro,” a short poem by Ezra Pound, the title and first line establish an imprecise, rhythmic meter that carries onto the third line, just for the final three words to branch from it in three subsequent stresses. To me, it has a nice disruptive effect.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Line Breaks and Page Structure

Another power that prose doesn’t exactly share is the line break—something that can work as a built-in cliffhanger. The end of a line or stanza and a phrase’s enjambment onto the next creates an immediate moment of tension, often emphasizing the relationship between the connecting words, or giving multiple meanings to them. Kimiko Hahn’s poem “Alarm” is a good example of this. In the first stanza, “vanity” takes on several meanings:

In her dark she surveys empty: the vanity
from the in-law’s Bronx apartment,

And between the third and fourth stanza, a break creates suspense after the world “alarm”:

the husband’s profile, an alarm

for news and forecast. . . .

Poets can also play with how and where words appear on their pages. The end of Victor Hernández Cruz’s poem “Latin & Soul” reads:

 

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-9-44-45-am

It’s interesting to think about how a short-story writer would describe a similar scene, and create similar geography, tension, and emotion through entirely different techniques.

I’ll leave you with the final stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “Love, Part 4: Suspense”, which reads:

What fortitude the soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot,
The opening of a door!

Once you’re looking for them, the connections don’t stop. Poet Stephen Dobyns has a poem dedicated to Stephen King (see “Lullaby”). “Feeling frightened? / Are you scared?” he asks. Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire is a mysterious, haunting approach to both poetry and fiction.

What are your favorites? I’d love to hear.

Many writers are quick to point out there’s “no market” for short stories or for poetry—and many readers are quick to casually stuff mystery writers and poets in their own boxes (artistically, socially, historically, and otherwise). It is hard to ignore the shuttering of small-fiction presses and literary journals, and the proliferation of nonpaying markets for poetry. I’m optimistic enough to think, though, that neither form is in danger—as I’m lucky enough to be connected to both communities, and fond enough of both to seek them out whenever I can. Whether I’m reading poetry or mystery fiction, I’m always searching for the tension between the light of day and whatever element is lurking below the surface.

Hunted. Short Story.

Debbie sipped her drink, she always hated places like this, loud music, expensive booze, assholes everywhere you looked. If it weren’t for Abby they would have just gone to their usual spot, but she wanted to try something new, something fun. They had stood outside in the cold, for what seemed like hours waiting to get in, then almost as soon as they got their drinks Abby went off with some guy. Not that Debbie should have been surprised, Abby always ended up with some guy. Normally it wasn’t a problem, but everyone else had cancelled tonight. Debbie took another drink, maybe if she got drunk enough she’d be able to enjoy this place.

Debbie stood outside in the cold night air, cigarette in one hand. Normally she didn’t smoke, but it always seemed to happen when she was drinking. There was no sign of Abby, though Debbie hadn’t particularly looked for her. She took a drag from her cigarette, then a sip from her drink. She was definitely getting drunk, but the usual feelings weren’t kicking in. Normally she felt relaxed, smoothed out with a desire to dance, but tonight she felt off, on edge. This place just wasn’t for her and it seemed like everyone there knew it. She had tried to start conversations with a few people but each time she was shut down, most places she had been before were welcoming enough. She took another drag, she felt like people were looking at her weirdly, like she wasn’t welcome, even getting the cigarette had been a damn hassle. Her phone buzzed, Debbie grabbed it out of her bag, “Hey, I’m heading off with someone, hope you’re enjoying your night. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow xx” Debbie rolled her eyes and stubbed out her cigarette, of course Abby had gone off with that guy, she should have just left the moment Abby did her vanishing act. Debbie downed the rest of her drink, put the glass on a table and went back inside to grab her things from the coatroom.

As she walked Debbie felt a bit better, it wasn’t an amazing night but at least it got her out of the house, and she did get to have a bit of a chat with Abby. Checking the time she was pleased to see the buses were still running, it was earlier than she had expected, time had seemed to drag in that place.

Debbie stood at the bus stop, coat pulled tightly around herself to protect her from the cold breeze. She was surprised at how empty the road was, normally the place was busy up until four or five am, but tonight there were only a few people hurriedly making their way to where ever they were going. Debbie sighed in relief as she saw the bus turn onto the road, at least she wasn’t waiting too long. The rest of the night was a no brainer, she’d go home, stop into the chipper on the way, grab some food for soakage then watch some TV before going to sleep.

Debbie felt a little nervous, there was no one else on the bus, something that had never happened before, there was always at least three or four other people scattered about. She took a deep breath and told herself not to be silly. She was on a bus, what could happen? It was brightly lit and there were cameras. She looked out the window into the darkness as the bus continued along its route, Debbie smiled to herself, at least she’d get home quickly.

Debbie wanted to move seats, but that seemed like it would be a weird thing to do. The bus had finally picked up another passenger, a man in a long coat, he didn’t look dirty, but there was a musty smell that hung about him. She had sat upstairs out of habit, a habit she regretted. He had come up the stairs and looked around at the empty seats, his head swinging slowly from side to side, he moved down the aisle and took the seat behind her. She could hear him breathing, it was heavy and had a kind of thick quality to it, like he was breathing through a cloth. Behind her she could hear him shifting and movement of cloth, a second later the smell became stronger, a smell of damp and rot, of mould and of things that liked to live in the dark. Debbie’s heart started beating faster, there was something wrong with that smell. She felt something against the back of her head, faint and ticklish, Debbie stood up and turned around quickly, his hand was still in the air, right where he head had been, he had been stroking her hair. Debbie turned and without saying anything went downstairs. As she sat down again she noticed she was shaking slightly, she took a calming breath and told herself it was fine, it was over. She would get off at her stop, grab food and get home, maybe have a shower. God only knew where that man’s hands had been and he obviously hadn’t showered in a long while.

A few seconds later the man came down the stairs, Debbie felt relief flooding through her, he would get off at his stop and he wouldn’t see hers. He scanned the bus, as he had upstairs, then he moved down the aisle and sat behind her again. His breathing was heavier, the smell stronger again.  Debbie was frozen in place, she had always thought if something like this happened she would be proactive, she would shout or yell, but there was no one else around but the driver. She breathed slowly, she was ok, he hadn’t really done anything and if he did do anything again she’d march right up to the driver and tell him exactly what was going on. Feeling a little better with a plan of action she counted the stops until hers.

The man still hadn’t gotten off the bus and her stop was next. It wouldn’t be safe to get off at her stop, he could follow her. She considered getting the bus to the next stop then if he followed she would have time to lose him. The only problem with that plan was that getting off at the stop after hears would mean walking through some empty residential streets and alleys. No, better to get off sooner, where there were shops, people. Debbie waited until the last second then she quickly stood and pressed the stop button. The bus stopped with a sudden lurch, as she got off the bus driver glared at her. Debbie didn’t care, the man hadn’t followed he was still sitting in his seat. She laughed to herself, she was just getting worked up over nothing, as she walked towards the chipper she decided that she needed a glass of wine to help calm her down after that, her hands were even shaking a little bit.

By the time she had gotten to the brightly lit chipper Debbie was feeling almost normal again, she had just over reacted, that was all. She ordered her food and with the bag held tightly in one hand she left the shop. The walk home was only five minutes but she felt a little nervous, the streets were emptier than usual, she wondered if perhaps there was a match on tonight and she just hadn’t heard about it. Debbie paused, there was something wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what, she looked around herself but saw nothing. She started walking again, then it hit her, that smell, stronger than ever. Without thinking Debbie started to run, once she was home she’d lock to the door and call the police, she knew she couldn’t go back towards the shops, there was no way he had gotten ahead of her.

Debbie slammed her door closed and collapsed against it, breathing heavily. That smell had followed her, she never spotted him, but she could feel him chasing her, and she had known that any second his hand would reach out and grab her. After catching her breath she stood and looked out the peephole, there was no one in the driveway, but it was dark out and hard to see. She looked down at the bag of chips, still clutched tightly in her hand, she laughed a little, there was a faint edge to it, at least she hadn’t dropped her dinner.

Debbie sat in the sitting room, the TV was on and it made her feel a bit better, like she wasn’t completely alone. She had decided against calling the police, after all nothing really happened, she didn’t see him following her, and the smell could have come from anywhere. There was a knock on the door, Debbie froze, her heart thudding heavily. What if it was him? She stood slowly and carefully walked to the door, making sure to avoid any creaky floorboards. She looked out the peephole but there was no one there. Her hand reached up towards the lock, realising what she was doing she snatched it back. What the hell was wrong with her? Obviously she had drank more than she realised, especially considering she was just about to open the damn door to have a look around. She stepped back from the door, a thin thread of unease was slowly growing in her stomach. How long had it taken her to get to the door? If it was a wrong address or someone delivering food they might have left. She looked out the peephole again, trying to see through the shadows, to see what was actually there.

After a few minutes Debbie felt better, there was nothing out there that she could see and she had been looking. Just as she was about to go back to the sitting room she saw something, nothing more than an outline. Debbie watched as it detached itself from the shadows of a bush and slowly made its way into the street, Debbie’s heart thudded loudly in her chest, she knew it before he stepped out into the streetlight, it was him, the man from the bus. He took one last look at the house, then he turned and started to walk away.

Debbie didn’t sleep that night, anytime she dozed off she would snap back awake almost immediately. She had a bat beside her, a relic left over from a previous tenant, and her phone gripped tightly in one hand. The man had left so there wasn’t much point calling the police, and she felt silly calling someone to ask them to spend the night. She had a cup of coffee to help perk her up a bit, at least it was a Sunday so she didn’t have work. Feeling a bit more comfortable in the daylight Debbie carefully opened her door and peered out into the garden, there was no one there, there weren’t many places to hide now that it was bright out, the bushes were ragged and she could see through them. She sighed in relief and felt a little better. Maybe it had all been in her head? Just her own fears and a drunk imagination conjuring the rest. She stepped outside to look at where she thought he had been standing, there was something on the ground, glinting slightly in the light. Debbie moved closer and saw a knife. Immediately she turned and ran back into the house, locking the door behind herself and with shaking hands Debbie called the police.