DP Fiction #27B: “The Aunties Return the Ocean” by Chris Kuriata

Editor’s note: Content warning for harm to children

Auntie Roberta landed badly on the roof of her escarpment house, scraping her knees across the flagstone shingles and splitting her pantyhose. Her arms were too full of black water to keep her balance so she nearly slid off the edge.

She carried so much ocean she barely knew where to hide it all. Inside her stony home, she filled the kitchen drawers and cupboards with cold dark brine. Every pot and tankard as well. She quickly ran out of places, yet her weary arms were still loaded with the stuff. Where would it all fit? Auntie Roberta got on her knees and stuffed the final bits of ocean into the mouse holes. She heard the panicked mice squeak before drowning.

What an exhausting evening she’d endured. At the appointed hour, all the Aunties of the world had banded together like a swarm of locusts, and set upon the heart of the ocean. Their grubby hands tore the water apart, breaking up the reflection of the moon as they scrambled to load every last drop into their arms.  All along the empty ocean floor, fish flopped and ships jammed into rock beds. The neighbours had called the Aunties’ bluff, refusing to give in to their demands. So, just as the Aunties threatened, they stole the ocean.

During the theft, Auntie Roberta kept close watch on the other Aunties, noticing none of her sisters carried away as much ocean as she did. Auntie Roberta always did more than her fair share and never received thanks. The other Aunties thought they were smarter than her, but really they were just lazier.

“Hey!” Auntie Robert shouted. “Get away from there!”

A burr covered cat with collapsed ears sat on the kitchen table, lapping away at a mug filled with ocean. Auntie Roberta flung a wooden spoon and sent the cat retreating through a gnawed hole in the parlour wall.

“Sneaky thief,” she huffed.

***

“It smells damp in here,” the neighbour woman Marilyn said. She didn’t outright accuse Auntie Roberta of helping to steal the ocean, but she certainly sounded suspicious.

Normally, Auntie Roberta threw rocks at nosey neighbours, but the neighbour woman Marilyn came bearing a freshly baked pie and, well, Auntie Roberta didn’t know any spells strong enough to compete with flawlessly executed baking.

“Roof leaks when it rains,” Auntie Roberta said, stuffing pie into her mouth with both hands. “Makes the house damp. Can’t do nothing about it.”

The neighbour woman Marilyn pointed to the ceramic mugs, each filled to the brim with a curious liquid the colour of midnight. “What’s in all these?”

“Coffee what’s gone off.”

The neighbour woman Marilyn put her nose to the rim and breathed in the scent of salt and seaweed, triggering memories of her uncle’s tugboat and the baskets of crabs she helped haul from the deep.

Auntie Roberta licked the last of the crumbs from the bottom of the pie pan and the neighbour woman took her cue to leave. A neighbour had nothing to fear in the house of an Auntie so long as she was eating, but once an Auntie’s belly was full, staying under their roof was like leaving your head in a lion’s mouth–sooner or later the jaw would get tired and CHOMP.

Auntie Roberta washed her sticky lips in a mug of the ocean, breaking up the reflection of the midnight moon that continued to shine from the still water.

***

Word of their victory reached Auntie Roberta in her rain barrel: “The neighbours have agreed to our demands. Therefore, return your section of the ocean back where it belongs.”

Auntie Roberta took stock of the ocean squirreled away all over her house and wondered how on earth she’d manage to carry so much. She couldn’t believe she had done it the first time.

“Looks like I’m making two trips,” she grumbled.

To distract her mind from the inconvenient task, she looked forward to the coming spring. At last, no more sneaking around or disguising her identity. No more inventing schemes to trick the offspring into entering her service. Thanks to the ocean theft, this year the Aunties could snatch up whatever offspring they desired and the neighbours couldn’t lift a finger in protest. It had been agreed.

***

The sight of the returned ocean astonished Auntie Roberta.

“Are we joking?”

The returned ocean sat miles below its original level. The water had gone off, turning grey as stale root-brew. Auntie Roberta saw all sorts of detritus swirling in the stunted ocean; cobwebs, bits of crayon, pocket lint, silky upper-lip hair… You couldn’t even see the reflection of the moon anymore. It was an embarrassment. The Aunties left the ocean looking torn apart as a robbed grave.

The original genius of their plan, having every Auntie take part (for how could the neighbours track down and punish a million Aunties?) turned out to be its greatest weakness, for while a dozen Aunties will be cunning and precise, two dozen will be absent-minded and deceitful. Harvesting the effort of every Auntie in the world? Good Lord. The neighbours ought to be thankful there was any ocean left.

***

The day after, Auntie Roberta lay on her roof, camouflaged beneath a blanket of shingles, her arms loaded with rocks to repel the invading neighbours she was sure were coming once they switched on the morning news and got a look at the mess the Aunties had made of their beloved ocean.

Not a single rock needed to be thrown. The angry neighbours never came. Instead of seeking retribution, the neighbours gathered together as a community and held a day of mourning for their once vital ocean.

No action would be taken against the Aunties. The neighbours would honour their agreement, terrified if they reneged the Aunties would rise up and do something even worse.

That evening, Auntie Roberta smelled fresh bran muffins and opened the door on the neighbour woman Marilyn. Auntie Roberta stuffed muffins into her mouth, famished after spending all day on the roof with nothing to eat but the occasional low flying sparrow.

The neighbour woman Marilyn lifted a mug from the kitchen table. A bit of the ocean remained inside: a mouthful’s worth. The neighbour woman Marilyn swirled the mug, making the ocean race around the ceramic walls like a fat, black worm.

“I’d never looked closely before at how beautiful it was,” she said.

Auntie Roberta kept quiet, unwilling to admit her involvement in the ocean fiasco.

The ocean in the mug retained its midnight colour, and when allowed to pool the reflection of the moon shone brightly, dancing on the wall like candle flame.

“May I keep this?” the neighbour woman Marilyn asked. “So that one day my grandchildren can see what the ocean used to look like?”

Auntie Roberta’s full belly made her agreeable, and she waved her hand generously. “I suppose so, on the condition of future baking.”

She watched the neighbour woman Marilyn carry the mug down the escarpment, clutching it between her hands, not wanting to spill a precious drop of the original ocean. Neighbours made a bad habit of deifying things. Such reverence for objects made them easy to take advantage of.

***

When an Auntie grabbed an offspring, they performed a series of alterations to make the offspring more compatible with their needs. Some were muted. Others had their limbs lengthened or shortened. A few had their eyes cut out in order to heighten their other senses.

Auntie Roberta modified her offspring by burning the hair down to stubble, compacting the feet into cloven hooves, and replacing the teeth with chunks of rock. This kept the neighbours from recognizing their darlings when Auntie Roberta sent them into town to purchase necessities. She didn’t mind the extra work. She re-sculpted the offspring so effectively that even if their mothers did recognize them, their mothers always let them go, correctly believing they were beyond hope.

For days, Auntie Roberta waited in vain for fresh baking. Because of the damage done to the ocean, the temperature soared and there was scarcely air to breathe. Few neighbours could make the trip up the escarpment. There were no more markets and all the stores were closed. The moon did its best to keep the tidal waves in effect, but the new handicapped ocean could no longer provide the neighbours with the luxuries they had taken for granted all these millennia.

Before the receiver in her radio went out, Auntie Roberta heard about the neighbours’ pitiful attempt to rehabilitate the ocean. They emptied the tank of every aquarium and science lab. They hoped these fish would adapt to the new environment. “Nature will find a way” was the motto. Over the next thousand years, the fish might evolve into new species–guppies the size of whales–that would clean the waters and make the ocean once again capable of reflecting the moon. No neighbour alive would live to see that day, but maybe the children of their grandchildrens’ children would know the ocean as their ancestors once had.

Auntie Roberta allowed none of this tumult to affect her. So long as her house remained protected and she had her latest offspring to aid her daily tasks, she could endure anything.

The other Aunties, however, decided the neighbours had suffered long enough, and so they began bartering back the other half of the ocean.

***

Auntie Balut came to visit, trekking up the escarpment on the back of her long-legged offspring. The sunburned beast of burden collapsed after delivering her master. Auntie Roberta found an old can of stewed tomatoes. She cracked the tin and slowly fed the convulsing offspring the life-giving water inside. The last thing Auntie Roberta wanted was for the offspring to croak. With no one to carry her down the escarpment, lazy Auntie Balut would declare herself a houseguest and expect to be waited on hand and foot. The trouble with Aunties was their obnoxious insistence on making themselves at home.

With her shoes off and her bare feet propped on the kitchen table, Auntie Balut showed off the fine jewelry swaddled six layers thick around her neck. “This here had been in the family seven generations. And this here? They actually had to break into the mausoleum to strip it off the body.”

All the Aunties were rolling in wealth, for each held back a parcel of the ocean, stowed away in a kitchen drawer or under the bed like an antique vase they were waiting to appreciate.

“I could ask for all ten of their fingers, and they’d happily slice ‘em off with one hand and then wedge the knife between their teeth to slice ‘em off the other.” Auntie Balut dumped a purse of chopped fingers onto the table to prove she spoke no hyperbole.

In these harsh times, a bucket of the original ocean went a long way, and so the Aunties made out like bandits. The neighbours learned to extract threads of algae and encourage new growth. They pulled tiny fish from the black depths, happy to see new schools spawned the next morning.

Most impressive of all, when the sun set and the neighbours’ pitiful hovels were cast in darkness, their bucket of original ocean reflected the bright full moon just as it had shined the night the ocean was stolen. Whole families from age eight to eighty circled the bucket, hypnotized by the twinkling light and fortified by the fresh air.

When Auntie Balut finished crowing about her recent windfall, she looked around Auntie Roberta’s kitchen and her mood turned dour. Auntie Roberta had no mounds of jewels or ancestral skulls or even piles of snipped-off fingers to attest to profitable negotiations for her share of the ocean.

“Oh sweetie,” Auntie Balut said. “Did it not occur to you to keep a bit of the ocean for yourself? You know, to make a little—” she rubbed her fingers together in the sign of filthy lucre. Auntie Balut threw her head back and cackled till she broke wind, relishing the embarrassed look on Auntie Roberta’s face.

“You put all your ocean back? What, was someone supposed to spell out what we were really up to?”

Auntie Roberta held her chin high, waiting for Auntie Balut to laugh herself out. Instead, the laughter and the insults intensified, turned mean. “Maybe you gave the neighbours ocean freely. Maybe you love them more than your own Aunties.”

When she’d had enough, Auntie Roberta retrieved her knife from beside the whetstone and went outside. On the lawn, Auntie Balut’s offspring slept heavily, full of tomato water and dreaming of its old life. Auntie Roberta swung her knife, ripping the throat open from ear to ear, effectively bringing the offspring’s service to an early retirement.

“Leave all your jewelry on the table,” Auntie Roberta said as she wiped her bloody hands on her apron. “That should lighten you up enough to carry your own fat ass down the escarpment.”

***

Ages had passed since Auntie Roberta last paid someone a visit, so she intended to do this one right. Instead of squeezing herself into a ball to roll down the chimney or gnawing her way through the tasty kitchen floorboard, Auntie Roberta clicked her heels together on the front porch’s WELCOME mat in a perfect parody of one of the neighbours. She even brought a gift.

“Good morning,” Auntie Roberta said, proudly displaying a tray of baking. She hadn’t the right ingredients for her cookies; mostly sand and flour made from crushed mice bones, held together with spit and tomato water. She decorated the tops with broken Christmas lights.

The neighbour woman Marilyn nodded, and ushered Auntie Roberta inside. She had shorn her head bald, and her dry skin wrinkled like an impression of an alligator.

“Is your husband at work?” Auntie Roberta asked.

“No,” the neighbour woman Marilyn said, casting her eyes to the bloodstained hole blasted into the wall over the couch.

“Too lazy, is he?”

The neighbour woman showed no interest in the cookies, so Auntie Roberta snatched a couple and tossed them into her mouth. The glass crunched and made colourful clumps between her teeth.

She cut to the chase. “Have you still got it?”

The neighbour woman Marilyn nodded. “Have you come to take that from me too?”

Auntie Roberta reached for more cookies. “Things freely given cannot be taken back. But there’s nothing to stop us from making a trade.”

“What could you possibly have to trade me?”

The last of the cookies flew into Auntie Roberta’s mouth. “Anything you’d like, so long as you’re not too greedy.”

“Too greedy?”

“Meaning ask for one thing, not a dozen.”

She licked the empty tray and tossed it into the corner. The ceramic shattered, sending white shards flying like punched out teeth.

The neighbour woman Marilyn closed her eyes. Praying? Thinking? After a moment of privacy, she nodded and said, “Come with me.”

Stuffed animals made a pyramid on the too-tiny bed. Auntie Roberta’s back ached to see a bed that small. She would have to saw her legs off to fit, and there would be no room for the occasional late night company. The heads of plastic dolls crunched beneath her feet. This was a gaudy, immature room.

The neighbour woman Marilyn reached beneath the bed, retrieving a lunchbox painted over with frolicking cartoon animals. The frivolous object offended Auntie Roberta’s sensibilities, but the neighbour woman handled it reverentially, as though it were part of a daily religious ritual.

She split the box open and removed the Thermos rattling inside. Before passing the pink canister to Auntie Roberta, she held it to her chest, resting the lid against her cheek. Auntie Roberta thought she looked ridiculous, like a chimpanzee fooled into accepting a surrogate dolly.

“At night, I’d unscrew the lid, and moon light would cover the ceiling. We used to lie on our backs and watch the light ripple. She said it looked like friendly ghosts.” The memory pained her, and she thrust the Thermos towards Auntie Roberta. “It sings to me at night, begging to be let out, but I’m afraid it will evaporate and I’ll be left with nothing.”

“Relax, I’ve handled ocean before.”

At the front door, with the Thermos tucked snugly into her apron, Auntie Roberta lingered, about to suggest the neighbour woman continue to visit her little house on top of the escarpment. She could bring fresh bread, baked on the rocks in her yard. Neighbours often made feeble attempts to befriend Aunties, either out of awe or fear, but such partnerships were forbidden. This was a new world, however, and Auntie Roberta didn’t feel like she needed to play by the rules anymore.

She turned back, about to extend an invitation, but changed her mind. The light in the neighbour woman’s eyes, dim when she first arrived, had now gone out completely. She was a woman without hope, and Auntie Roberta knew she would never see her again.

***

Using steady, freshly licked fingers, Auntie Roberta poured the ocean into a hollow glass amulet the shape of a spider with its legs ripped off. She sealed the amulet tight and hung the chain over her neck. Ice coldness stabbed her breast and she shrieked. Unexpectedly, the ocean remained as cold as it had been the night the Aunties scooped the water up.

“You’re a tenacious bugger,” she saluted the ocean.

The heavy amulet swung from her chest proudly. No Auntie could laugh at her now, like stupid Auntie Balut had done. The ocean around her neck proved she was just as devious and cunning as the lot of them. She couldn’t be mocked—just so long as the embarrassing truth of her giving the ocean away to a neighbour woman (and having to pathetically make a deal for it back) stayed secret.

“I didn’t trade mine away for useless trinkets. I still got my piece of the ocean.”

All that was left now was for Auntie Roberta to fulfill her end of the trade between her and the neighbour woman.

“It’s a goddamn shame,” Auntie Roberta said.

The offspring stirred at the sound of her approaching footsteps. For practical purposes, Auntie Roberta kept the offspring crated beneath the basement steps when she went out. So much easier than worrying what mischief they were getting up to in her absence.

Auntie Roberta paid dearly for the return of her dignity. She knew this offspring was the last she’d ever have in her service. Without the ocean, the land was mute of the sound of copulation. Neighbours were unwilling or unable to create future offspring.

“I promised your mommy a strange mercy.”

Auntie Roberta slid the block of wood from the crate door. Her apron held the same knife used to cut the throat of Auntie Balut’s offspring. Used properly, it would do the job just as the neighbour woman Marilyn had demanded:

“Release my daughter from your service, quickly and painlessly,” she had said.

She must have thought Auntie Roberta would use a spell, giving her daughter a final dream of their happy family on a clean ocean before magically stopping her heart. Charming, that the neighbour woman thought spells came as  easily to the Aunties as snapping their fingers, but no. Auntie Roberta wasn’t going to waste the effort of a spell on the offspring.

“Come to Auntie.”

The offspring remained in the cramped crate. Normally so eager to get out, this time they crouched on their elbows and knees, eyes opened wide. Monkey noises came from their throat, contractions that normally turned into… what, cheers? Laughter?

In the darkness of the basement, the reflection of the moon beamed from Auntie Roberta’s amulet, shimmering over the steps, filling the crate with its cool, blue light.

“Oh, you like that, eh?”

Auntie Roberta lifted the amulet. The reflection of the moon brightened the clay wall. The offspring rolled onto their back, looking up at the light as it rippled and twinkled, dancing across the wall like friendly ghosts. Purring softly, the offspring threaded an arm into the dirt, cuddling the imaginary mommy tucked lovingly beside them.

Auntie Roberta twirled the amulet between her fingers, sending the moonlight gleaming all over the basement. She hated her sisters, the rest of the Aunties. Since the inception of the universe they had a glorious, renewable pool of fresh neighbours that provided them with everything they needed to survive. And they’d fucked it up irreversibly and for what? A fleeting moment of superiority? Untold riches for the cleverest of speculators? Well, that worked out just great, hadn’t it?

“What a goddamn shame.”

With the last of the shimmering ocean lying cold against her breast, Auntie Roberta pulled the knife from her apron and held up her end of the trade, completing the task faster and more mercifully than any spell she might have cast.


© 2017 by Chris Kuriata

 
Chris Kuriata lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. His short fiction about elderly poisoners, whale-hunting clowns, ghastly family photographs, and childhood necromancy have appeared in many fine publications. You can read more about his work at www.chriskuriata.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #25: “Bloody Therapy” by Suzan Palumbo

I hugged my daughter, Ashley, when she returned home from school crying. She told me she was scared of going to the bathroom alone,because of Bloody Mary, and had wet her pants on the bus ride home. I wiped her eyes and kissed her forehead.

“The kids in my class said Bloody Mary would steal my soul if I said her name three times in the bathroom mirror,” she said rubbing her eyes.

“Bloody Mary doesn’t exist, Sweetheart. She’s a story people made up to scare each other.”

“But Mom, you said I would make friends with the kids here if I looked for the good in them. How can they be good if they try to scare me?” Her sobs receded into the focused expression of a child trying to make sense of the world.

“Trust me, Hon, everyone is capable of being good. Even not-real Bloody Mary could be nice if she wanted to be.”

***

That night, I surveyed myself in the bathroom mirror. The frown lines between my eyebrows seemed deeper; the corners of my mouth drooped lower. I had sworn during the custody hearing to provide a stable environment for Ashley. I massaged my temples and recalled my own childhood fears of shadowy closets and pitch black bathrooms. I pursed my lips. I wanted to shake every kid in Ashley’s grade for making her cry.

I locked my bathroom door and turned off the lights. In the darkness, I repeated the forbidden name in front of the mirror in an even and deliberate tone: “Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary.”

The luminescent face of a pale, young woman emerged in the mirror. Her eyes were dull black orbs. Her hair was matted and tangled with red clots of blood. She stared at me. I took a step backwards.

“I want your soul,” Bloody Mary shrieked. I trembled but then steadied myself. I wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore and Ben wasn’t here to save me. I looked into Bloody Mary’s soul-less  eyes.

“You’ve come for my soul because I said your name three times in front of a mirror? That’s an overreaction.”

She blinked.  “What?”

“This whole shtick is so melodramatic. What are you getting out of this other than making my poor kid wet her pants?”

“You summoned me. You can’t call me and then question my soul stealing. You know nothing about me.” Her voice had transformed from a paranormal screech into the whine of a petulant teenager.

“This is my fault? The only person who controls you is you, Bloody Mary. You need to rethink this haunting bathrooms gig.” I pointed my finger at her, echoing the jargon I’d internalized in couples counselling. I was about to continue the dressing down when Ashley began knocking on the door.

“Mom, who are you talking to?”

“I’m on my cell. I’ll be out soon.”

I returned my attention to Bloody Mary. She glared at me in the dark.

“You’re right, I don’t know you. Come back tomorrow. You can explain yourself then.”

Mary sighed and rolled her eyes.

“All right, but anger me and I will claim your soul.”

“Okay, whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow, and do something about all the blood in your hair, Mary — Maybe wash and comb it. You’re in bathrooms all the time.”

“My name is Bloody Mary.” She rattled the mirror as she disappeared into the darkness.

The following night I turned off the lights and summoned Bloody Mary to the mirror. She was sullen.

“Bloody Mary, why do you enjoy terrorizing people?” She assumed the shape of purple brooding clouds and drizzled blood.

I continued. “Why are you drawn to mirrors?” She returned to her regular form and stood silently, leaving the rest of my questions to bounce off the mirror’s reflective surface.

“Your hair looks better,” I said with an artificial smile. A dim light appeared in one of her eyes  before she faded away.

***

I began calling Bloody Mary through the mirror twice a week; trying to tease out the roots of her behavior.

“Was your father abusive? Your mother, neglectful? What motivates you, fear or revenge, Bloody Mary?” I took quick showers and left the water running in the dark to muffle our voices.

Over the months her appearance improved. Her hair became shiny and tangle free. Her eyes developed deep brown irises that reflected centuries of loneliness and sorrow.

She no longer shape-shifted to deflect my questions. She forced her memories to surface and they would wash over her, leaving her voiceless and causing her to rock back and forth. During her breaks, I unpacked the burdens of my bitter divorce and laid them before the mirror. It was a relief to talk to someone who didn’t know us when we were Alicia and Ben: Happily Married Couple.

“I’ve heard you tell Ashley to look for the good in people. What happened to the good in Ben?” Bloody Mary asked.

“I lost track of the good in Ben.” I cast my eyes downward. “We alternated between skewering each other with insults and avoiding contact until I convinced myself there was nothing to salvage between us.” I put one hand on the vanity. “He said and did things to hurt me on purpose.” I rubbed my forehead. I was a failure at marriage. If I couldn’t apply my own advice to Ashley’s father, wasn’t I a failure as a mother, too?

***

Bloody Mary’s history began to coalesce in drops and trickles.

“I saw my mother drown,” she revealed after one of her long silences. I reached out and touched the image of Mary’s cheek in the mirror, attempting to brush away a tear that had escaped her now-human eyes.

***

We planned a girls’ night. I mixed Bloody Marys.

“I like the name,” she said. I placed her drink on the vanity and sat with my back against the bathroom door.

“Sometimes I eavesdrop on Ashley at school,” Bloody Mary said after her second cocktail.

“How?”

“Her teacher has a mirror at the back of the class. I can hear what goes on.” Mary tilted her head to the side. “You don’t need to worry about her. You’re doing a good job.”

“You think?” I sat up straight.

“You should see her. She’s kind but she’s no pushover.”

“I hope so.” I leaned back, letting the door support my full weight.

“Trust me. I would tell you if you needed to worry.” Bloody Mary spent the rest of the evening creating pink fractal patterns in the mirror.

***

“I never want to see another Bloody Mary again,” she moaned the next night. I laughed and got her some water.

***

One weekend, when Ashley was at Ben’s, Bloody Mary arrived wearing an earnest expression. I waited for her to speak.

“We were robbed and murdered on our wedding day,” she whispered. She clutched a silver hand mirror to her chest. “This was James’ wedding gift to me.” Her pale cheeks flushed and became rosy and full.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, it was a secret I needed to tell.”

I nodded at her in the mirror. The dashed promises of my own wedding vows still colored my reflection.

“I can’t cling to the past anymore.” She lowered the hand mirror and held it at her side, out of view. “I need to leave. I need to figure out what I’m going to do now.”

“What about all of the souls you’ve stolen?” I bit my bottom lip.

“I’ve never stolen a soul — No one’s stayed long enough for me to capture theirs.”

I placed my hand on the reflection of her shoulder in the mirror.

“That’s not true,” I said.

“I’m sorry Ashley was afraid of me.”

“It’s okay, Bloody Mary.”

A smile flickered across her lips.

“Just call me Mary.”

I smiled back as she vanished from the mirror.

***

I parked my car at the curb in front of Ben’s house. I got out and tried to lean casually on the passenger side door. Ashley waved at me from the window. A minute later she skipped out the front door with her overnight bag. Ben followed her, stopping at the midpoint of his lawn.

“Mom!”

“Hey, Did you have fun?”

“Yes! We saw a movie and went to the park.”

I inspected her appearance. Her hair was a mass of fly-aways and her pants were covered in dirt. I looked up at Ben. He put his hands on his hips and clenched his jaw.

“Thanks, Ben.”

“You’re welcome, Alicia.” His words were shaded with caution.

“I can’t wait to tell Rebecca at school about the movie.” Ashley bounced up and down next to me. I hugged her. We both waved at Ben after I started the car. I saw him shake his head as he turned to go inside.

At home, I went to my ensuite and looked at myself in the mirror.

“Thank you, Mary,” I whispered. I closed the bathroom door and went to help Ashley unpack.


© 2017 by Suzan Palumbo

 

Author’s Note: “Bloody Therapy” was inspired by my five year old who came home from school one afternoon and declared that she, “didn’t like Bloody Mary.”  She had drawn a picture of medicine for Bloody Mary during art time and explained that we needed to give the medicine to Bloody Mary because, “the Bloody Mary Lady needs help.”   I promised my daughter that I’d help Bloody Mary.  This story is part of my effort.

 

suzan photoSuzan lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and two daughters.  Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she is an ESL teacher, free lance writer and slush reading badger for Shimmer.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Best of Pseudopod 2016

written by David Steffen

Pseudopod, the weekly horror podcast edited by Shawn Garrett and Alex Hofelich, has now been running for more than ten years, an incredible feat for a podcast, which often fade away after a year or two. 2016 marked some major moments in the podcast’s history–they increased their pay rate for flash stories, which I believe should have started their one-year timer for eligibility to become a SFWA-qualifying market, they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the paying of narrators for the podcast, and also launched an anthology (which includes, among many others, my flash fiction horror story “What Makes You Tick”).

In February Pseudopod once again participated in the Artemis Rising theme across the Escape Artists podcasts, publishing horror stories by women (including some originals picked out from a special slushpile just for this purpose).

Pseudopod publishes episodes weekly, with occasional Flash on the Borderlands episodes that collect 3 similar-themed flash stories for a single episode, for a total of 63 stories published in 2016.

Stories that are eligible for this year’s Hugo and Nebula Awards are marked with an asterisk (*).

The List

1. “Like Dolls” by J. Lily Corbie*
When the story begins, the protagonist is already dead, and pretty much content to be so.  But her betrothed digs her up, disturbing her restful state, dragging her back to the land of the living.

2. “The Christmas Spirits, a Tale of the White Street Society” by Grady Hendrix
One of a series of stories in a series about the White Street Society.  The series is hard to describe without reading it, speculative stories based around a sort of “old boys club” in New England, sort of comedies based around how horrible the worldview of the members of this society are.

3. “Night Games” by Aeryn Rudel
I don’t really like baseball.  I’m kindof tired of vampires. But somehow, to my great surprise, this vampire baseball story totally works for me.

4. “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong
This is the story of Lily, who works on her father’s fishing boat whose primary catch is mermaids.  Mermaids are prized as an exotic catch, and one day in the hold, one of the mermaids talks to her.

5. “Cold Spots” by Lena Coakley*
A love story between someone who is still alive, trying to recapture the memory or the ghost of their dead love.

6. “Falling Under, Through the Dark” by Damien Angelica Walters
A story of living through the deepest of grief after the most tragic of loss.

Honorable Mentions

“Mr. Hill’s Death” by S.L. Gilbow

“The Show” by Priya Sharma

“The Masters” by Theodore Cogswell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left off at Dermot, page 2

DP Fiction #20: “October’s Wedding of the Month” by Emma McDonald

When Percy and Astrid met they’d no idea that only a few short weeks later they’d be getting married.

“Percy really swept me off my feet” said Astrid. “I’d just stepped outside the pub for a quick smoke and suddenly this guy was bundling me into his car.”

“It was love at first sight,” Percy confirmed. “I saw her and I just had to have her.”

Despite their unconventional first meeting our October couple are obviously very much in love. Sitting in their home, admiring the various objects of cult paraphernalia, including an antique sacrificial dagger, it’s also obvious that this was never going to be a normal wedding.

“We never really discussed it, because the cult is so important to Percy that I just took it for granted that the wedding would be a dark ceremony honouring the Elder Gods.” Astrid says. “Also, as I spent the weeks building up to the wedding locked in a cellar most of the preparations had to be done by Percy and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking him to compromise his beliefs when he was having to put in so much effort to make the day perfect.”

“Astrid was incredibly supportive.” Percy gives her a quick hug. “She even agreed to convert to the cult of the Elder Gods, which was something I’d not dared hope for. I’d had a few previous engagements which I’d had to break off once the bride realised what the cult involved, but Astrid just went for it.”

“Killing the owl was difficult,” said Astrid. “But it made for a really memorable hen night. Percy’s mother helped mix the cocktail of laudanum, owl blood, and gin that’s part of the traditional cult initiation and I don’t remember much of what happened afterwards, but I woke up covered in feathers and children’s teeth so it must have been a good night.”

While Percy’s wedding suit was fairly traditional cult attire, including a mask made out of broken dreams, the couple wanted the wedding dress to be a bit more personal. Astrid’s confinement made fittings difficult, but the final gown was still something spectacular.

“I think everyone worries about the dress.” Confided Astrid. “I was definitely one of those girls who cut wedding dresses out of magazines and I’d always seen myself getting married in something big and white.” So the vintage lace dress was something of a departure. “Percy’s mother brought around a trunk of old dresses, including her own, which was a long Bohemian number from the seventies. Sadly we had to reconsider because of the blood stains, but we salvaged some of the lace from the sleeves and used it for my hairpiece.’

“The dress I eventually chose was a real one-off. We think it might have been made for a great aunt, but the pictures of the wedding it was worn at have all been defaced so it’s only a guess. I was worried that it might seem a bit ordinary, but the rotten seams and mildew stains helped lift it above what you’d find on the high street.”

Percy chose the venue in accordance with the rituals necessary for the cult ceremony he’d always dreamed off. “Several people commented on how isolated the chapel was. Although it did make things easier from the point of view of parking, and it was very convenient for the reception which we held on the beach. The most important thing about the venue for me was that it was in the same place that I’d been having premonitions about since I was a small child. Nightmarish visions can be tricky things to pinpoint, and it took me several years of investigation before I found the perfect venue. When I told my mother she laughed and said I should have just asked Uncle Norman, as it’s the very chapel he was baptised at. There’s a funny story attached to that, because shortly after he went mad and murdered his twin brother.”

“The family connection is very important to Percy,” Astrid interrupts. “He went to a lot of trouble to ensure that my family were present at the ceremony, even chloroforming my dad when he objected to being kidnapped. We want to have a big family in the future and by making the wedding so family-oriented. I hope we’ve started off on the right track for that.”

The wedding was officiated by Mordiggan, a deity chosen by Percy due to a longstanding family connection. “It did mean we had to advise the guests to close their eyes during the ceremony, as any sighting of him causes blindness. The photographer had a particularly difficult job, and sadly didn’t survive, but he did get some beautiful shots of the service.” Indeed one of these was our cover for this month. The ominous dark cloud that stands at the altar while Astrid and Percy exchange rings gives a real sense of atmosphere, and it’s hard to fault Percy for risking his guests’ eyesight when the end result is so impressive.

While the wedding ceremony was a small affair, the reception was even more select, something most couples would consider unusual. But for Percy and Astrid the process of culling the guests was a core part of their day.

“I think we were both a little wary of how our friends and family would perceive Astrid’s newfound religious zeal,” admitted Percy. “There was a lot of talk of brainwashing and some mentions of the police, although the local police force is very sympathetic to cult members and we’d paid the usual bribes.”

“Percy and I didn’t want anyone at the reception who wasn’t really celebrating with us.” Astrid takes over as Percy seems visibly upset by the idea of anyone doubting their affection for each other. “The ritual culling wasn’t something I’d ever heard of before, but it’s part of Percy’s religion and I thought it was a good way of symbolising our new life together.” For those who aren’t adherents, the ritual culling is a ceremony in which guests are pursued and slaughtered by beasts. A small number of guests survive, either by luck or prior knowledge, and these are then invited to the reception. “Percy choose to have the pursuit led by his father, who owns a pack of dire wolves. The slaughtered guests were then dismembered and their brains and hearts used to adorn the wedding cake.”

The cake was a custom-made four-tier chocolate cake from a local baker who specialises in catering for occult ceremonies, so were well aware of the need for discretion and dark ritual.

“Chocolate cake was the one thing I was adamant about,” said Astrid, “as I’m a huge chocoholic and I didn’t want to go without on my big day. The caterers covered it with ganache, but otherwise left it bare so it could be decorated with the spoils of the hunt. We had to offer a tier to Cthulthu, along with the remains of the dead guests, but otherwise it was sliced up and handed round. As is tradition, the blood of Percy’s family and mine had been mixed into the batter so the consuming of the cake really brought us closer together.”

“Sadly Astrid’s father was one of those who died during the culling, but we placed his heart on the very top of the cake so that we could both take a big bite and make sure he’s with us in the years to come.” Percy gives Astrid a hug as she wipes away a tear at the memory. “It’s a huge shame that so many of Astrid’s close family died on the day, but I like to think that they’d have been glad to know that their sacrifice helped ensure a happy future for us both.”

The reception was held on the beach as is traditional for cult weddings. The summoning of Cthulhu that formed the climax of the evening can only be done in an area next to tidal waters and while it might have been possible to hire a local pier Percy explained that he’d been reluctant to do so due to the likelihood of losing his deposit. “Cthulhu does tend to cause damage, and while there are some local venues which are sympathetic, most of them will charge for broken windows and bloodstains.

“Despite living only a short drive away Astrid had never before seen Cthulhu, so the reception was extra special as it meant I got to introduce her to the Elder God as my wife, as well as see the horror on her face that all new initiates experience.”

“It was really terrifying.” Astrid nods. “Percy had said a lot about how important it was to him that Cthulhu accepted me, and I think I’d just built it up in my mind to something which made it a lot scarier than it really was. There was all the stress of having just gotten married and then having had to run down a cliff while being chased by dire wolves and seeing this huge tentacled dragon-man-thing emerge from the sea was sort of the last straw.”

“She went a little mad, but luckily my mother had remembered the straitjacket and once Astrid had been restrained she calmed down a lot.”

“The laudanum helped.” Astrid giggles. “I felt so stupid once it was all over, but Percy didn’t mind at all.”

“I’d been to a few weddings where the bride really lost it. My cousin Irene cut off her husband’s fingers and ate them, so Astrid was pretty unfazed by comparison. I don’t think you can expect everyone to adapt to the Elder Gods in the same way, especially if they’ve not really been part of your upbringing.”

It seems a bit unfair to ask if Astrid has any concerns about that difference in upbringing now, especially when they make such a lovely couple, but her words on the subject are an inspiration to any young bride in a similar situation.

“Everything before the wedding was such a whirlwind that I didn’t really have time to sit down and think about what was happening, but since then I’ve been on a few retreats and had my mind eaten by Shogothath and that’s made a real difference. I guess my advice to any bride in a similar situation would be to not panic, and remember that you’re needed for breeding. If the Elder Gods are going to eat anyone it’ll be the groom.” With that Astrid smiles and turns to Percy and as they exchange a heartfelt kiss we bid them adieu.


© 2016 by Emma McDonald

 

Author’s Note: The story was inspired by a conversation at a friends wedding about the different types of wedding you could have and how a fancy wedding magazine might cover them.  (The friend’s wedding was very nice and no one was sacrificed)

 

head shotEmma McDonald has been writing for years, but this is her first piece to be accepted for publication.  She usually writes regency era stories with a touch of magic and the occasional vampire – and generally uses this as an excuse to visit English Country Houses for research.  Her website is at www.emmamcdonald.co.uk and she’s on twitter as @telute.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #14: “The Blood Tree War” by Daniel Ausema

My roots felt only earth. Thin, and good for nothing but wild grass. As I stretched under the ground, I caught the tang of metal, something sharp and not yet rusted. Clean metal, likely dropped when this patch of land was well behind the battle line. Still, the promise it made helped me exert all my energy into those roots, willing them deeper and farther out.

Sunlight glistened off my barbed leaves, feeding its pale energy to my efforts.

I was not the only blood tree growing on the battlefield, and my concentration broke when my sister began chanting. She was double my height already, as if she’d focused her efforts on leaves and branches instead of roots, but her chanting told me she hadn’t needed to work hard below ground. By instinct I recognized the nature of her words, the cadence of syllables sighing from the pores in her leaves. She chanted the lives of those whose blood she drank.

I sent a root toward her, running just beneath the surface. There was blood, battle-spilled blood. My purpose, my need, a far greater energy than the sun’s.

Her roots fought back. They sliced the tip off my root, so I branched out to either side, but they bludgeoned those runners into a pulp. Already, the blood had made her strong.

Over the silent warfare of our roots, my sister’s voice kept chanting the lives of the fallen.

She grew taller, and her leaves turned a green so dark it was nearly black.

I needed a different approach. For several days I tried focusing nearby, redoubling my efforts to dig deep, to widen my circumference. I found one patch of blood, but it was old, no part of the recent battle. It fed me, but its energy was gone too soon, and my voice had no life to chant. The nutrient-poor soil kept me small. Too long of this, and my sister would be able to block the sun from my leaves, as well as the blood from my roots.

My first break came when I discovered I could send a root over the ground. I sent a dozen one night, sipping at the earth as they went deep into her territory. Ah, the blood. She had no defense, since she wasn’t even aware of my presence. I kept them moving, never letting them sink too deeply into the patches of blood, so I might keep their presence a secret.

But my voice I could not keep silent. When the sun rose, I had no choice but to chant. Harsh lives and brief, I sent their deeds into the air. A child who’d lied about his age. A peasant unsure what to do with the weapon in his hands. A woman in disguise who brought down a dozen enemies before she finally fell. One of her victims a veteran of earlier wars who should have been allowed to rest at home.

The words tumbled out into the dawn, and my sister broke off her chanting to counterattack. By noon my runners were dead, spilling no blood by which they might be remembered. My sister’s chants went on.

As the last of the stolen blood passed up to the buds on my twigs, I discovered that even when it was gone I didn’t have to be silent. I had no more lives to chant, but I could sing a strange cry. The blood-fed buds rang out my voice. I imitated my sister’s chants, made up lives to speak. She wasted energy pursuing my roots, trying to find the blood she thought I drank.

She would discover the truth soon. My words wouldn’t fool her forever.

I played with the sounds of my voice, trying other noises that didn’t resemble our usual chants, and a bird came near to investigate. Birds avoid our kind, but my song overcame its instinct. I strangled the bird with a vine and added its blood to my song.

What else might I attempt? I changed the patterns, and squirrels came to see. Their blood tasted of hard nuts and high leaps, and their fur made my leaves droop in distaste. They made my song wilder and louder.

My sister’s trunk twisted in her desperation to find the source of my song. Her own chants continued, of warriors and the many lives lost to blade and spear, but less sure as the days went on. Doubt bled her, even though the blood of birds and rodents couldn’t give me the strength of her soldiers.

Larger animals came to my call, in the days and months that followed. An elk’s blood is strong, but the animals are wary. Wolf blood is rarer still, but when I managed to catch one, it gave me a fierce strength to rival my sister at her greatest. Deer and feral pigs and jittery pronghorns made me grow, made my bark thick.

My sister grew taller than me, though. She tended the battlefield’s blood with care so it aged beneath her without its strength leaching away. We were no longer saplings when she gave up trying to find my secret source of blood and took to attacking me directly. We know the many ways animals hunt, we trees–slow or fast, in darkness or from hiding–and we’ve chanted enough human lives to know the ways of war. When trees hunt, it is like and unlike those. Slower, no doubt. A gradual advance where each of us aims for a sense of the inevitable. But just as bloodthirsty and mindless, a single focus of angry contempt. I wondered if her sap would taste of blood when I defeated her, wondered if I would someday chant her life as I drank all that remained of her. I imagined ruling the entire plain of the battlefield on my own. But most of the time I knew well that I wouldn’t win. Eventually she would drink my sap-blood, would chant my sorry life, would rule alone.

If it was to be a battle, I would need more blood.

I wasted no energy on defense. Nor on attacking. Instead I crafted a new song, put every dram of blood into a summoning.

Humans. They are always ready for war. A simple push, a siren’s call, and they will march. Two armies drew toward me.

As my sister’s branches reached toward me to block the sun, the armies closed in. With my roots I pulled at the ground, channeling their charges toward my meager shade, where I waited to drink. Their clamor tasted of the brightest sunlight any tree has known. I drank and chanted their lives and grew strong.

My sister’s branches shrunk back, and her roots tried desperately to break through to the fresh blood. My chanting became laughter as I beat back every attack she sent. My unlikely dreams of ruling the field might even come true.

Then the humans did something new. Was it simply a flight of fire arrows? An arcane spell? New and explosive technology? I didn’t know, but my sister and I both burst into flame. No amount of blood could put out the fire.

By the time the flames were out, I was reduced to charred roots and a single spire of dead wood. I had no buds to sing even a simple summoning. My sister was similarly broken, her proud strength now nothing.

Every drop of blood in the field was gone, drunk by flames even more greedy than I.


© 2016 by Daniel Ausema

 

Author’s Note:  This one started as a writing exercise. An online writing group I’m part of meets together, roughly once a week, as many as can manage. Someone will post a topic, and we’ll have an hour to come up with whatever we can manage. It’s a great exercise for simply getting used to turning off that questioning voice inside and just writing, so even if none of the exercises turn into viable stories, I recommend it strongly. But given how frequently the members of the group manage to turn those one-hour starts into complete short stories that sell to a variety of places or key character development pieces for their novels, it’s even better than just an exercise, but a great way to get a story down on paper. I can’t even recall the exact prompt for this one, and I’m sure I hadn’t completely finished it when the hour was done, but that was where the story began. Besides, I love trees, and carnivorous plants are simply cool, so the idea of cruel and carnivorous trees that feast on spilled blood was one I knew I had to finish as soon as it occurred to me!

 

Daniel Ausema headshotA runner, writer, reader, teacher, and parent, Daniel Ausema has had fiction and poetry appear in many publications, including Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction. He is also the creator of a steampunk-fantasy, serial-fiction project, Spire City, which is now entering its third and final season. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #8: “The Grave Can Wait” by Thomas Berubeg

Old James McGrath was widely held to be the orneriest man on the frontier. They say he glared down a rattler so bad the critter’s great-great grandkids were afeared of venturing onto his land. They say that, once, a real big twister, one of them mean old suckers only found in the frontier lands, was sent packing straight back into its girlfriend’s arms by his bilious vitriol. They even say that tricky Coyote tried to swindle him out of his ranch, but ended up walking away missing thirty acres of prime real estate. It came as no surprise, then, that when Death came for McGrath in the shape of a late spring cold, he sent Old Boney packing with pant bottoms full of lead.

For a time, McGrath kept on with his ranching and riding and drinking and shooting and thought little of his close call. “Goddamned solicitors,” was the only thing he said about the incident, muttered between two slugs of whiskey and a cigarette.

Death was kept occupied by the rigors of the frontier. It was a busy time for the man, and he put old James McGrath out of his skull. Truth be told, no cowboy old or young came willingly, and Death had gotten used to dodging bullets and Indian curses. But they all came eventually, and so would McGrath.

A week passed in a hurry, and then another, and Death heard nothing. Surprised and not a little confused, Death went back to Tombstone, Arizona, where he kept his office. He usually tried to avoid it, if he could, preferring the open range and the starry sky, but these were peculiar circumstances.

Both Old Smokey and the Holy Gatekeeper kept regional offices nearby. Death checked in with them, just to make sure the old man hadn’t snuck through unnoticed. Peter, a mousy, bookish man, hemmed and hawed and checked a bunch of dusty ledgers and kept Death waiting, which is the main job of government men everywhere, but eventually admitted that, no, James McGrath hadn’t snuck in through the Pearlies. The offices of Mammon, Lucifer & Asmodeus, Attorneys at Law, were not really any better in Death’s opinion. He never left the place without the vague feeling of having been swindled.

Meanwhile, James McGrath had taken to being dead like a fish takes to water or fire to the scrublands of California. Even before his death he could drink anyone under the table, but now he could do that without breaking a sweat, and any young buck who challenged him to a gunfight had best have already sent his Ma some flowers and bought a plot at the church. In the two weeks after his death, Old James sent more people packing than the Union Pacific. Everyone but young McCauley, one of the old man’s drinking partners, had taken to avoiding him. While that suited McGrath just fine, even McCauley had been rather scarce in recent days.

And so he was surprised when one Sunday morning there came a knock at his door. Old James put down the bottle of watery and weak whiskey he had had the misfortune to have been cheated into buying, and cracked the door open, peaking out with gummy, unfocused eyes. There stood the Reaper himself, black robes draped over his skeletal frame, silver six shooter at his hip (Nobody on the frontier took you seriously unless you had a big old hand cannon strapped to your side, and Death thought the scythe was old fashioned anyhow: a symbol of the Old World he’d shed when he followed the masses seeking fortune in the New.)

“Now,” Old James said. “I know I sent you scurrying away not two weeks ago. What’re you doing here?”

“Well, Mr. McGrath, I’m afraid there must’ve been a mistake. See, you’re supposed to be dead. And, hmmm, while you are starting to look… smell… quite dead, I can see your body up and about and kicking. That leaves me with a bit of a problem.”

“Yeah? What d’you think you’re gonna do about it?”

“I was hoping to appeal to your better nature…” Death started.

The old man interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Haw, I ain’t got one of those.”

“I see that,” Death said pensively, riffling through the ream of papers shoved under one boney elbow. “How about a game? I see here you’re a deft hand at cards.”

A greedy gleam lit up the old man’s eyes. “Aww, hell. I ain’t that good, but I’ll play. What’re the stakes?”

“If I win, you come with me. If you win, I’ll make sure no one bothers you about this ever again.”

“Deal,” said McGrath.

Now you see, when Death’s papers said that the Old Man was a deft hand at cards, they weren’t lying. McGrath’s gimlet stare was known from Yukon to El Dorado, and in his youth he had left a trail of broken men, women, and ghosts in the saloons of the West. In fact, his ranch was financed by the honest winnings of half the frontier.

Not to say that the Great Equalizer was out of his depth: any game was old hat to Death. This method of dealing with the recalcitrant and the reticent was tried and true, and Death rarely, if ever, had to work hard to win. This, of course, led to a degree of indifference towards the game. Now, though, sitting across from Old Man McGrath, Death felt the same shiver as when he had sat across from old Methuselah, who had been adept at Sumerian dice back in his day.

What I mean to say is that Old McGrath and The Reaper himself were not unevenly matched. Billy McCauley, they agreed, would deal. They spit in their hands and shook on the terms. The sound of McGrath’s great phlegmy hock echoed off the mesas and started stampedes seven states over. When Death spit, fourteen stars and the spirits of the ghost riders in the sky blinked out of existence.

They sat at the table, pistols just out of arm’s reach. A solitary beam of sunlight bounced off the polished bone handle of Death’s pistol, then flicked the tip of McGrath’s greased up plugger, before stopping short and realizing exactly who it was in the room with. It respectfully tipped its cap and skedaddled outta there as quickly as it darn well could.

Death waved a skeletal hand, and a small heap of silver dollars, leering skulls embossed into both sides, rained into existence with a light jangle in front of Mcgrath. “These are the hours of your life, McGrath, and we’ll be playing for them.” With a second wave, a much smaller pile of coins appeared in front of Death. “These are the hours you owe me.”

“Bullshit. I don’t owe you nothing.” McGrath spit out. The Great Equalizer merely tilted his head to the side, looking at the decrepit old man curiously. McGrath glared stubbornly, but death remained impassive. Finally, he grumbled “Fine, if it’ll get you outta my house faster.”

The cards were dealt: five each, and the game was on. The cards did not favor McGrath on this day. Slowly, steadily, the pile of coins shifted towards Death, and soon both were equal. Barely suppressed rage glinted in McGrath’s eyes. He had never lost before, and he wasn’t about to start.

“All in.” He pushed his pile of coins to the middle of the table. Death responded in kind.

In McGrath’s hands were three aces and a queen, but Death was shooting for a straight flush. He had the queen and the jack and the nine and the ten of spades,but he needed the king or the eight to take the prize. He called for another card, and McCauley passed him an eight of clubs. McGrath grinned, and as McCauley queasily passed him another card, he slipped another ace from under his sleeve . He locked eyes with the shadowy chasms of his opponent, and nodded, once.

“It is time,” Death boomed, and one of the flies that had been buzzing around McGrath’s face shriveled up in a puff of smoke.

The cards were flipped.

“I win.” Old Man McGrath grinned. “Now get your sorry ass out of here, I never want to see you again. And take your damned chill, too.”

“That’s your prize and your right, but one day you’ll call to me and you will be mine,” a mighty peeved Death promised as he backed out of the shack. McGrath slammed the door in his face.

McGrath cracked open his best bottle of whiskey in celebration. “Come on, Billy, it’s not every day you pull a fast one over one of the manifested forces of nature. We’re gonna drink this ‘till there’s none left, and then we’re gonna drink some more.”

“I’d… uh, love to, boss, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” McCauley answered, a bit too quickly. He looked a bit green around the gills.

“When’s that ever stopped you?” McGrath asked.

McCauley looked anywhere but at McGrath. “I’ve just gotta be somewhere. Church.” He added, lying through his teeth.

“Suit yourself then, this here whiskey’s gonna be all mine then.” McCauley scurried out, and McGrath sat back down in his rocking chair by the fireplace. The cold held him tenderly in its embrace, like some soiled dove he had tipped handsomely.

He yanked the cork out between his teeth and spat it across the room. As he brought the bottle to his mouth, though, he saw the glint of something white lodged in the cork.

A tooth. His tooth. McGrath was no stranger to losing teeth, but this was the first time that it had happened without the taste of blood in his mouth, or the sharp pain of a knuckle to his face.

Not easily fazed, McGrath shrugged and brought the bottle to his mouth, taking a deep swig. In shock, he realized that there was nothing. He could feel the liquid pour down his throat, settle in a seething pool in his stomach, but there was no taste, no burn in his throat. “What the hell is this? Water?”

He opened a second bottle of whiskey and took a swig. Again, nothing.

Let it never be said that Old James McGrath was a coward, but, panicked, he ran from bottle to bottle, each time getting nothing. Finally, he skidded to a stop in front of the tarnished silver mirror hanging above his washbasin for the occasional shave.

The face looking back at him was not his own, of that he was sure. His own face was old, wrinkled, thin, and had hairs sprouting from where there shouldn’t have been hair. The face staring at him out from the mirror was bloated, green, and was peeling skin where skin shouldn’t have been peeling.

For the first time in a week, McGrath decided to make his way to town. He walked, ‘cause his horse was too scared to let him near. When he got to the village a little after noon on Sunday, as all kinds of respectable people were leaving church, the sight of him caused fourteen little old ladies to pass out, seven feared outlaws to turn themselves in to the sheriff, and one mortician to die of glee.

The real clincher, though, was that none of his friends wanted to sit with him in the saloon, and when he sat down to drink alone, the drink did nothing at all for him.

For, you see, when James McGrath had been supposed to die, his ornery soul had refused to leave the body he’d had for near on sixty years, even if it had followed the proper order of things. Resolving himself, McGrath made his way to the pastor.

“Father, I’m dead. I need me a grave.”

“Well, son, I’m sure I can help you.” The pastor said. “I’ve got some real nice plots, far up on the hill.” He pointed towards a distant lonely tree.

“That’ll do.” He handed the pastor a silver dollar and slowly shambled towards his grave.

“You can come with me, now, if you want.” James practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice, before recognizing Death.

“I thought we had a deal,” McGrath fingered the gun at his side.

“Why are you here, then?” Death’s boney hand gestured at the cemetery.

“I’m dead. Dead people live in graves. This is my new home, and I’m certainly not going with you when I just got myself a new house.” Old Man McGrath’s tone was sure.

Death shrugged and disappeared with a sound like that of a thousand leathery wings beating once in the middle of a thunderstorm. Satisfied, McGrath sat in his grave, six shooter by his side and bottle of whiskey by the other.

Some say he went off with Death after a year, greeting him as an old friend, and others claim he got eaten by some coyotes, but I can’t believe that. Old Man McGrath, eaten by coyotes? Never.

Me? I’d be willing to bet my soul that he’s still sitting there in that old grave, rotten to the bone, waiting for Death to try to come and take him again.


© 2015 by Thomas Berubeg

 

Author’s Note:  The inspiration for this story was threefold. The character of James Mcgrath was one that I had been wanting to write for a while, lounging with a pistol and a scowl in my brain for months, the walking corpse simply refusing to die but not being malevolent came from a family member’s dream, and, finally, I’ve always found the concept of gambling with death an interesting one. In this case, the game of poker was inspired by the western setting (where poker felt more appropriate than the more traditional chess.)

 

5VZumXbThomas Berubeg is a twenty-three year old French-Canadian man currently living in these great United States. A recent graduate, he studied Archaeology and History, and is currently working on a number of short stories and a novel. This is his first published story.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #7: “A Room for Lost Things” by Chloe N. Clark

“It’s not always there,” Kelly said.

Rose looked at her niece. “What isn’t always there?”

“The room next to mine. It’s not there all the time.”

Rose regretted her willingness to babysit that night. She had only said yes because her sister had finally decided to move closer to Rose. It would be a good thing to get to know Kelly who she hadn’t seen since Kelly was just a baby. Her sister had lived so far away for so long, moving not long after their parents’ death. This was Rose’s whole family now, after all.

Kelly was quiet, much less buoyant than how Rose expected a nine year old to act, rarely saying much more than a word. The three of them went out to dinner the first night after the move and the kid had just sat at the table staring at her plate of pasta. Perhaps, the move was tougher on her than she was letting on.

Rose assumed the night would be easy; the kind that every babysitter wants where the kid just keeps to herself. So this sudden unfathomable statement seemed extra odd. Was the girl going to start exhibiting stranger behavior? Or could this be leading to some sort of prank?

“You mean the guest room?” Rose asked. Kelly’s bedroom was on the outside of the house so it only had one room bordering it.

“No. Not the guest room. That’s always there.”

“Then, what room?” Rose tried not to sound annoyed. She didn’t like riddles. She’d never liked them. Her mother, a professor of mythology, had always told riddles to her and when Rose inevitably burst into exasperated tears, her mother would try to explain the answers. But the answers always made even less sense than the questions.

“The one on the other side. Sometimes there’s a door to it and sometimes there isn’t.”

Rose stared at Kelly. Kelly didn’t seem like the type to make up fantastical stories. She seemed almost too boring, neatly coloring within the lines of her drawings of tiny houses with curly-smoked chimneys. It was the kind of drawing children made in advertisements featuring perfect families.

“Is the room there now, Kelly?” Rose asked.

Kelly shrugged.

Rose peered up at the ceiling. They were in the living room which was directly underneath Kelly’s room. “Well, let’s go find out, then.”

It had to be some kind of odd game. Rose could never tell with children. She hadn’t had much experience with them. Not since she had been one at least. Kelly nodded and they walked up the stairs and then down the hall to Kelly’s door. Rose opened the door slowly. They both looked inside. The room was as it should be. Bed. Stuffed animals everywhere. No door. “No room today, huh?”

Kelly looked at the opposite wall with the window that looked out onto the garden. She shook her head, satisfied that there was nothing. They went back down and had ice cream, playing Monopoly until Kelly’s bedtime. Rose let Kelly win. She wasn’t a fan of Monopoly and so she rarely ever played it, but she knew that it was never fun to lose.

Rose sat reading in the living room. It was past ten and her sister would be back any minute. Then she heard something from upstairs. It sounded like music, the same type of music that her parents had played at Christmas when Rose and her sister were little. Her father had taught music and sometimes told the stories behind the songs. Rose used to imagine the musicians making songs blossom out of pieces of sound like the magic trick where a magician placed a seed in dirt and then it burst into a tree. So the stories of frustration and the time that it took to create music always disappointed her. She longed for music to be sudden in its creation.

Rose walked up the steps and then down the hall to Kelly’s room. She gently opened the door, peeking inside. Kelly was asleep in bed. On her wall was a door. Rose blinked. It was still there. She tiptoed up to it, a mahogany door with a golden knob. It looked a lot like the door in her grandmother’s house, the one that led into the cinnamon-scented kitchen. Her grandmother had been an amazing baker and Rose still remembered the taste of the pinwheel cookies that she made—the perfect blend of salty butter cookie with a ring of super sweet cinnamon and walnuts. She had stood on tiptoe to steal the cookies off the high shelf her grandmother kept them on. The music came from behind the door. Rose reached out, but heard her sister driving up. She turned away at the sound and then turned back quickly. The door was gone. She never thought that she was a suggestible person, but, maybe she was now.

Rose went downstairs and chatted with her sister for a few minutes. “Yes, everything was fine. I’d be happy to help again, anytime.”

A month passed and Rose began to forget about the door. It had been a silly trick of her mind. One night her sister called and asked her to babysit again. She agreed.

She spent the first part of the night helping Kelly with some math homework. Rose liked math. It always meant something and every problem could be solved. As she and Kelly were eating cookies and milk, as a reward for completing all of the questions, she asked, “Kelly, have you ever gone inside that other room?”

Kelly looked up. Her eyes were wide. She nodded. Once, quick.

“Why do you look so worried?”

Kelly looked down. “I don’t think I should have. I don’t think my mom would like it.”

“Well, it’s our secret.”

Kelly looked back up, smiling.

“What was it like in there? Was it nice?”

“Well…It was filled up with all these…Well, they were things I’d lost. A doll from years ago and my mouse that ran away. The room was so big; there was room for so much more. Shelves and shelves.”

“Was there music playing?”

Kelly looked surprised. “Yes. It, well, don’t tell my mom but it was this song that my dad used to play when we went for drives before…Before he left…It was so nice. But…” Kelly stopped to study her glass of milk, cookie crumbs floating up to the surface like dead fish.

“What, Kelly?”

“Well, I think the room, I think, it didn’t want me to leave, it wanted me to stay, to keep me safe and tucked away.”

Later, Rose tucked Kelly into bed. Then she read, only she wasn’t really reading. She was waiting. She listened but didn’t hear anything. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. Kelly was asleep. There was no other door. Rose sighed and went back downstairs.

Rose spent the next few days hoping that her sister would call and ask her to babysit again. She wanted to see the door again. She needed to know that it really existed or that it didn’t. She didn’t like the not knowing. She never had. When her father was in the hospital, the doctors didn’t know if he would wake up. Her mother was gone already and she overhead the police saying that he was the only surviving witness if he recovered to testify.  So much was contained in that “if”.  Rose kept wishing to know one way or the other–would he wake up or would he also be gone? Then she’d gotten her wish and hated herself for being foolish enough to make it.

One night the phone rang and she answered it on the first ring. She was already set to say yes.

It wasn’t her sister. It was the police. They spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, icily. There had been an accident. The curvy road and the rain and the moonless night.

Rose went to the station, to the morgue, and she looked at two tables. Cold tables. Two sheets pulled back. Two faces and she gave them each a name, saying the words aloud. She said the names without thinking and then couldn’t call them back. To name them made it real. They had been her whole family, she wanted to tell someone. The coroner or the police or anyone who would have understood. Can a family be reduced to one person? Was there a word for that?

Rose went to her sister’s house. She didn’t think about it. She just knew that was where she had to go. When she stepped in, she almost called out from habit. Then her voice caught in her throat and she thought that the words might be choking her.

She heard music. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. It wasn’t as it should be. There was no one asleep in the bed. The room was dark, drained of something that she couldn’t quite place.

There was the door. Rose walked up to it. She pressed her ear against it and could hear the faint sounds of music and voices and laughter. Rose reached out, closing her hand around the golden door knob. She gently turned it. Rose opened the door and stepped inside to see what she could find.


© 2015 by Chloe N. Clark

 

author_photo_4 (1)Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate, baker extraordinaire, and amateur folklorist. Her work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Supernatural Tales, and more. She is currently at work on a novel about stage magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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