ISSUE 6, January 2017


Cover Art by Glass Valkyrie Studios

Final Goodbye
By Sarah Gribble

I miss the turn, surprised that I’m here already. I’ve been in a sort of trance the long drive here. Highway hypnosis, born out of self-preservation. I slam on my breaks and wince as my aging Civic protests when I kick it into reverse. Pulling into the lane, I pause, my heart racing, and briefly wonder if I should just park here and walk, give my car a break. The lane is overgrown, barely distinguishable from the equally wild fields on either side. The gravel has long since seeped into the dirt, back from where it came, and grass has taken over. I navigate from memory, praying there aren’t any large holes that my car can disappear into. After a few hiccups, I make it relatively unscathed to the side of the house and park in my old spot. I turn the key and the engine gratefully shudders and dies. Vaguely, I wonder if it will start again when I’m ready to leave. Somewhere deep inside is a hope that it doesn’t so I can stay a little longer.
The house has been empty for years now, abandoned by my dad when he died and my mom not long after that when she begrudgingly gave up on life alone and entered the nursing home. And by me, for no other reason than I’ve been busy. Or at least claimed I was. I look up at it now: the white paint yellowing and peeling away, the shingles detaching themselves, the porch sagging in more than a few places as vines and weeds crawl up it, gripping anything they find and dragging it down. Nature has been busy trying to reclaim the wood. Teenagers have been busy too, judging by the busted out windows.
Uglier than sin. The phrase creeps into my head, a favorite of my mother’s. I always hated it, but it seems fitting at the moment.
A wave of guilt hits me in the gut. I should’ve taken better care of this place, my childhood home. I briefly consider going inside, taking one last tour down memory lane before the property is auctioned off next week, but the exterior condition of the house deters me. For all I know, the walls are full of bees and the floors could give way at any moment. And in my current condition, exploring a dilapidated house shouldn’t be a priority. Besides, I would rather just get this over with.
I sigh and look at the passenger seat; the reason I’m here. I don’t want to do this, but I’m the only one that can.
I grab the box and get out. The car door sounds like a gunshot as I slam it shut, scaring a nest of crows in the awnings of the house. They fly out, squawking and complaining at the interruption to their day.
I make my way, slowly, through the overgrown yard. The tall grass seems to come alive and cling to my feet, threatening to trip me. I imagine falling face first onto the ground and the weeds moving in to strangle me, claim me for their own, return me to nature along with everything else on this property.
I reach the edge of the yard and look out into the vast expanse of what used to be a hay field and the edge of the woods beyond that. The weeds are even taller here, hiding who knows what in their depths. Snakes, groundhog holes, anything for me to trip on. I look around for a stick. My mom used a lot of walking sticks before she left, insisting on continuing her sentinel route around the farm each evening, but needing some help getting it done. I spot one quickly, leaned up against the rotting picnic table as if it were waiting for me. I grab it, caressing the smooth wood. The wood my mom’s hands ran over every day, polishing it until it almost gleamed. I smile a bit, thinking of my mom when she was younger, when I was younger. She was a formidable woman back in the day, someone who could make you confess your deepest, darkest secrets just by lifting an eyebrow and cocking her head slightly. Watching that same woman become a frail, paper-thin wisp of a being in the nursing home had been unbearable.
I take a deep, shuddering sigh, squeezing my eyes shut against the stinging tears. Gripping the box firmly against my body with one hand and holding the stick out like a weapon with the other, I prepare for the trek across the field. The grass swishes as I attack it with the stick, sweeping my makeshift weapon quickly from side to side, knocking down the high grass and hopefully scaring away anything that would enjoy sinking its teeth into my flesh. I can hear scuttling around me as tiny animals make a break for it, and at one point glimpse a fat groundhog run-waddling away before disappearing into the safety of a hole.
I make it to the woods unharmed, but sweaty. I wish I would have left my cardigan in the car. The woman on the weather channel had said it wouldn’t be this hot today: only a nice, breezy sixty-five like any other average day in May. But when are they ever right? It feels more like ninety to me as the sun beats down on my head, as if it’s punishing me for coming back. Or maybe punishing me for staying away so long.
I linger at the edge of the tree line, squinting inside trying to adjust my eyes before I enter the shadows. It doesn’t work. I’ll just have to step inside and hope for the best.
When did I become so scared of the woods? I used to tromp through the trees daily, without ever worrying about being eaten or bitten. Now the idea of coming across a snake or coyote makes my heart thump loudly in my chest.  
Steeling my nerves, I take a deep breath then step forward, my hand instinctively bringing the box up to cover my lower abdomen, shielding the new life that clings inside. I’m only a few months along, but I’ve already developed mommy paranoia. I never thought I would, never thought I even wanted kids. I’m still nervous at the idea. But my husband is ecstatic; he’s got a countdown on his phone and has barreled through more baby books than I can count, a feat that’s especially impressive since the only thing he normally reads is Sports Illustrated.
I wait for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. The trees loom before me, exuding the sort of majesty only untouched nature can provide. The sun fights with the canopy, only succeeding to penetrate it in a few places, sending tendrils of light down to the mossy, leaf-covered ground. It’s quiet. Too quiet. I feel like an intruder here, like the wildlife is watching me, waiting to see what I’ll do and wishing I would just leave immediately. I wish I could just leave, but I can’t. I promised I would do this.
So I continue on, looking up more than looking down, and stumbling more than a few times as a result. The woods are different than I remember: more intimidating and a bit scary. The trees are bigger, the well-worn paths that snaked through during my teenage years are gone. I struggle to navigate, trying to find the rock.   
The all-important rock. The one my entire family revered. The one I went to for comfort when I was feeling misunderstood. The one my mom sat on to rest and look out over the ravine, over her land. The one that provided a sense of serenity and peace to generations of my family. The one that I’ve abandoned for more years than I care to admit.  
And finally, there it is, jutting out of the side of the hill, a remnant of some long ago glacier debris. It’s perched at the top of the ravine, where the great gash in the earth begins, like a guardian to the lower lands of the forest. The forest has claimed it a bit, so I have to take my stick and beat back the briars, clearing a spot to sit. When it’s fully cleared of detritus, like it was when I lived here, three grown people could easily fit on it lying side by side. As it is, I only clear enough for my slight frame. That’s all I’ll need.
I plop down, suddenly exhausted, and place the box and stick beside me. The rock is just as I remember: smooth and cool to the touch with patches of dark green moss scattered over its surface in an erratic pattern that reminds me of a child’s finger painting.
Leaning back, I kick my feet out and gaze out over the ravine. A smile comes to my face. Sitting here, the woods are less intimidating. It’s a peaceful spot, removed from the world. I sit for a moment, watching the water trickle down the smaller stones beneath me to form a small stream at the bottom of the ravine.
My plan was to get down here and do what I have to do quickly, then leave. But now that I’m here, I linger. I don’t want to go just yet. I don’t want to say goodbye. To my family farm, to this rock and these woods, to my childhood.
To my mother.
I sit quietly, listening to the trickling water, not moving a muscle. If I let my mind wander, I can almost hear the faint hum of a tractor as my dad plows the back forty, getting ready to plant the feed corn that will keep the cows full in the winter. I imagine I can hear my mother as she stands on the back stoop, calling me in for dinner in the loud call only a farmer who’s accustomed to yelling across acres can muster.
I close my eyes and pretend.
Pretend I’m back there, a child, and everything is fine. There aren’t any responsibilities and my parents take care of everything. I pretend I can get up and run out of the woods and into my mother’s kitchen, full of the smell of cooking meat and warm with the heat of the oven. Pretend my dad will come waltzing in the door halfway through dinner, smelling of tractor grease and sweat as he makes his way to the kitchen sink to clean up before sitting down to eat. Pretend we’re all sitting at the table and my dad makes a stupid joke that has my mom laughing so hard milk shoots out her nose, which makes us all laugh even harder.
Slowly, as I sit pretending, the forest accepts me—or forgets about me—and it comes back to life. I hear birds chirp far up in the treetops. Something rustles a few feet to my left and I turn my head to see chipmunks play-fighting in the decomposing leaves. I hear a snap somewhere at the bottom of the ravine and a doe emerges from the woods, two spotted fawns trailing behind her. She looks around before bending to drink from the stream. I hold my breath, knowing she can hear even the slightest sound and not wanting to scare her away. My eyes mist while I watch them. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any kind of wildlife. Any wildlife that doesn’t live off of food in dumpsters, that is.
My phone chirps, breaking the bubble of tranquility that had formed around me. The doe jerks her head up, then I see the flash of white on the underside of her tail as she turns and shuffles her babies back to the safety of the trees.
I curse under my breath as I pull my cell from my back pocket, wishing I would have left it in the car. It’s a text from my husband, asking if I made it okay. After my initial surprise at getting cell service here at all, I consider sending a snarky response, but check myself. He’s just worried. He wanted to come with me, for moral support, but I insisted this was something I had to do alone. I type out a simple ‘I’m fine’ then hit send, hoping he’ll leave it at that.
The serenity of my location sufficiently destroyed, I resolve to get on with it. I look at the box beside me, dread gripping my chest and forming a hard knot in my stomach as the full realization of what I’m here to do washes over me.
The box looks so innocent. It’s about a foot tall, black with a grey lid. No markings, no indication of what’s inside. It’s a simple, unassuming box. And I hate it. I hate it with every fiber of my being.
I think back to the day the box was chosen. My mom, not yet the wisp of a being she was to become, was sitting in her bed at the nursing home, sifting through catalogues from funeral homes, trying to decide on an urn. All of a sudden, she threw the pamphlets off her bed with a huff.
“I don’t want any of this,” she said.
“I don’t know why you’re even looking at this stuff right now,” I said as I bent to gather the papers from the floor.
She pursed her lips at me and scowled. “It’s always better to be prepared.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Mom,” I insisted. My dad had died from the heart attack six months before and I thought my mom had become quite morbid ever since. She was constantly talking about death and telling me things I should remember when she ‘kicked the bucket,’ as she liked to say. She claimed it was practical to discuss it. My mom, always the pragmatist. “You’re in perfect health.” It wasn’t exactly true, but she wasn’t quite as close to the white light as she liked to pretend.
“I’m old,” she said with a shrug. “Old people die.” She glared at the catalogues for another minute before saying, “I’m not going to be kept in some glorified vase, anyway.” She waved a hand at me as she rearranged the pillow behind her back. “Just tell them I’ll take the standard box. Nothing fancy. You’ll be spreading my ashes on the farm, so I don’t need some elaborate box for the short time I’ll be in there.” She paused, rolling her bottom lip in and out of her toothless mouth. She’d given up on putting her dentures in a while ago. “And no funeral, either,” she announced, a pleased, almost gleeful, look on her face. “I don’t want a bunch of people standing around gossiping and fake bawling. They should have better things to do. And you should have better things to do than feeding a swarm of virtual strangers who’re only there for the free food. And no crying.” She made a disgusted face. “You know I can’t stand crying. You say goodbye and move on, ya hear me?”
I’d opened my mouth to protest, but she held up a hand to silence me. That had been the end of the conversation, and she’d moved on to telling me what to do with her furniture. She did this for years as she wasted away in the nursing home, driving her wishes into my brain so deep, I could recite them in my sleep. She was always convinced that she was going to die within the hour, and wanted to make sure I was prepared when it happened. Her own demise became her obsession. I started to wonder, after a while, if she was trying to prepare me, or trying to prepare herself.  
Now, I look at the standard box she’d wanted as it sits beside me, taunting me with its contents. It’s plastic, which offends me. It seems disrespectful for it to be plastic. But that’s what she wanted, and no matter how much I argued with her, she didn’t see the point in wasting money on something that I wasn’t going to keep.
I have yet to look inside. I tried the night I picked it up from the funeral home. Picked it up. As if it were simply a package. As if UPS had tried to deliver it three times and given up, leaving me a note saying I’d need to go to the distribution center to get it. And according to the cremation options, I actually could have had the ashes mailed to me. I could have let her remains be tossed on conveyor belts by college kids, then jostled around in the back of a truck before being left on my front porch to bake in the sun all day. I actually laughed when they explained that option to me, a high-pitched laugh that bordered on hysteria. The nice woman from the funeral home gave me an odd look, then said, “I guess you’ll want to pick her up, then?” And so I did.
But I couldn’t bring myself to slide the lid back that night. I must have sat on my bed for an hour, staring at the offending box, trying to get up the nerve to look at its contents. It was smaller than I expected. I couldn’t imagine a whole person being reduced to a box that size. The entire situation seemed ridiculous to me. It still does. It’s like some sick joke, being left with the body of my own mother, stuffed in a tiny box not big enough to house a gerbil. Then having to dump her out like I would dump out the vacuum bin. It was all more than a little overwhelming. I wish she would have opted for a burial as my father had.
But I have a job to do. If there is one thing my mother was known for, it was keeping her word. Whether it was helping out a friend or punishing me for sneaking out, if she said it, she did it. Now I have to follow her example.
I place my hand on the top of the box and slide the lid back. I take a deep breath before looking inside, my imagination running wild, not knowing exactly what I’ll see.
It’s a plastic bag. Filled with dust. With a twist tie holding the bag closed.
I almost laugh. How ludicrous this all seems. How ridiculously average. How unemotional the packaging. Is that the goal? To remove the drama from the equation so that the person spreading the ashes has an easier time of it? Or do they really just not care?
I remind myself that this is what my mother wanted. And, if I’m honest, it suits her. She was never one for fancy things, never spending a cent on something that she would consider to be a luxury, which in her mind could include anything from a vacation to a new shirt if she still owned one that wasn’t riddled with holes. No reason to buy new clothes if the old ones still cover the naughty bits, she always said. So it actually makes sense that her ashes are in a plain plastic bag stuffed inside a plain plastic box.
I pull out the bag and hold it against my stomach for a moment, the superstitious portion of my brain thinking this is the equivalent of my baby meeting its grandmother. The forest has gone deathly quiet as I hold it there, as if it’s paying its respects to her as well. And why wouldn’t it? This is her home. She knew these woods like the back of her hand.
My hands tremble as I undo the twist tie and tilt the bag ever so slightly toward the ravine, a single tear slowly trailing down my cheek. The remains come rushing out, quicker than I expected. What little bit of breeze there is pushes the ashes slightly to the right, but mostly they fall straight down toward the rocky stream below. It’s over before my brain can really register what is happening. A sob escapes, but no more tears come. I didn’t even say anything. Should I have said something?
I sit on the rock a while longer, staring down into the ravine. Then my phone chirps again. It’s another text from my husband, this time asking me if I’m back on the road. I don’t bother to respond. Instead, I sigh and stand. I take one last look around, at the woods that helped raise me, that are part of my blood. Then I pick up my stick and head back to the car.
I pause again at the tree line and look back into the woods. I can hear the birds chattering inside again. The forest is alive once more. I imagine the spirit of it converging on the ravine, embracing my mother, welcoming her back into its fold. I smile.
“Goodbye, Mom,” I murmur into the trees. I can feel the tears welling again, but I hold them back. She told me no crying. You say goodbye and move on.
I turn and leave, the tears breaking through the dam as I get back on the road. I can’t help it. But I’ll move on, like she asked. I’ll have this baby and maybe a couple more. I’ll auction off the house and use the money to start a college fund. I’ll get promotions, have more than a few fights with my husband, become a grandmother. I’ll see wars and blizzards and idiotic politicians. I’ll see sunny days and celebrations and cures for diseases.
And through all of it, I’ll miss my mother, no matter how much she wanted me not to. Life goes forward, no matter how much I want it to go back.
I watch the house fade in my rearview mirror as I leave my past behind and drive toward my future, whispering a final goodbye to the life that was.

Sarah Gribble

Sarah Gribble physically resides somewhere in Ohio, but where her mind resides depends on the day. She spends her days writing and trying to satisfy the intense attention requirements of a houseful of animals and one patient husband. She enjoys things most other authors like, namely reading, people watching, and procrastinating. Her writing has appeared in Wordhaus and Hindered Souls Vol. 1, and is forthcoming on the Manor House podcast, and in Digital Fiction Publishing’s Quickfic, and World Unknown Review. You can find her at Sarah’s Typos and on Facebook.


Bring Your Kid to Work Day
By David J. Wing

Looking back, I’d have to say it wasn’t all my fault.
I could have easily gone to work with Mom at the office. I could have spent the morning eating Geoff’s doughnuts and in the afternoon, I could have let the water cooler run out over the carpet. It would have been a great day, but oh no, Dad had to take me to work with him.
Whoever came up with Bring-Your-Kid-to-Work Day is a dick. Ordinarily, it means unwanted distraction for the other employees and for the employer it means a slow day, profit-wise. It’s not like the kid in question ever learns anything, either. We just mess about, get under-foot, whine, cry and moan until we get to go home and watch Power Rangers.
Dad said, “I’ll take him with me; it’ll be good for us. Besides, there’s a lot going on today and we can take this time to bond a little.”
Remember that, ‘bond.’
What he really meant was - he needs shaping up. I’d been a touch mischievous in recent months. Why? I was eight, that’s surely enough reason. Anyway, graffiti in the toilets and obnoxious behaviour in general doesn’t make teachers happy, and the letters home were getting all too frequent.   
So off we went to work.
We drove out past the suburbs, past the new buildings and the old factories and on still. After an hour I was beginning to get frustrated and started singing the most annoying songs I could think of. I even farted once or twice. Dad just kept driving. I asked “Are we there yet?” at least thirty-three times in a row and eventually ran out of breath and flopped back into my seat.
The landscape changed and before too long we were in the desert. Cactus trees and sand everywhere.
To be fair, I’d never gone to work with Dad before. Other than him being in the Military, I hadn’t a clue what he did; all I knew was that whenever we played soldiers, he always had to be the general.
Pulling up to the front gate I began to get an idea why.
“Colonel.”
A young private stood to attention, saluted and lifted the gate to let the car drive through. I saw this as an opportunity and stuck my tongue out at the guard. He didn’t flinch, no fun.
We pulled up to a small office, surrounded by a few other small offices, and went inside. Dad saluted a few more people and waved at Gladys - his secretary. I’d met Gladys plenty of times and I would later come to believe she was part of the reason for my early onset diabetes.
I palmed the candy she gave me before Dad noticed and followed him into his office.
The walls were covered in photographs; a general here, an admiral there and in more than one, there was Dad with a president’s arm on his shoulder. The family photo we took last summer on vacation in Yellowstone took the place of pride on his desk.
Dad sat down behind his desk and grabbed the phone.
“Gladys.”
“Yes, Colonel?”
“Gladys, Thomas and I are going on inspection, please call ahead.”
“Yes, Colonel.”
I was busy admiring my dad’s collection of mint WWII figurines when he slapped me on the shoulder. I jumped.
“OK, Son, time to inspect the troops.”
I beamed. This would be great.
We headed out of the office and stopped at the lift. A lieutenant joined us, inserting a key just above the floor buttons and turned. The doors slid shut and the lights on the buttons began to descend until they reached sub-level 3 and stopped, but the lift kept on going. I looked up at Dad and he shone a sly smile my way.
I waited and waited and after a while we came to a stop. The doors silently opened and the lieutenant waited for us to pass.
“Colonel.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
It was a corridor, a long one. Way down at the end there was a faint light, but the more we walked, the more I began to feel like that light was getting further and further away. Eventually we arrived at a desk and a private jumped to attention.
After the official greetings, Dad and the private placed their hands on matching pads on either side of a steel panel, looked into a camera and typed in a code I couldn’t see. A door seemed to appear from within the walls and then moved sideways. It was thick too, almost a foot deep. The private waited until we had walked through and then the door slid shut behind us.
We stood in total darkness. I looked up at Dad, not that I could see a thing and waited. A noise screeched in my ears and a green laser shone up and down us, then vanished. A white light glowed through the walls and a door rolled open in front of us.
We stepped forward and there it was; a big ass missile. I sort of floated over to the viewing window, unable to quite believe what I was seeing. I stared down the silo shaft, all the way to the bottom and then had to crane my head back to see how far up it went. It was white, tail to tip and around halfway up, there was a painted flag and just underneath, in black pen, someone had written:
S.A.M. says Hello
SAM of course was a very witty name; Surface to Air Missile, Uncle Sam too, I guess.
Gobsmacked? You could have knocked me over with a stiff breeze.
People were walking around with purpose, working hard and saluting whenever they saw Dad. I just stared at him.
“Impressed, Son?”
I think I nodded, I certainly meant to.
“Feel free to wander around. I’ve got a few things to work on through there.” He indicated the silo and walked through a small maintenance door and disappeared.
I spent the next few hours wandering around and watching the men and women at their work; they scarcely noticed me. I found the water cooler but I realised, even at the age of eight, that spilling water all over the place in a nuclear missile bunker was probably not the best course of action.
There were no doughnuts.
I began to lose interest. After the initial shock, you’d be surprised how quickly atomic weapons lose their appeal. I sat down on a swivel chair at the back of the control room and span a bit.
Lunchtime rolled around and the shift changed. I’d been quiet for a good while and I guess they forgot me. The doors slammed shut and before I knew it, I was alone. Dad must have been really busy because I hadn’t seen him all morning and I was getting hungry. I blew my lips in a huff and slouched over the desk.
I’d never seen more buttons and knobs in my life and you’d be surprised how basic it actually was. There was a monitor above, but it looked like it hadn’t been updated since the Carter administration. Budget cuts, Dad would always moan about budget cuts. I never paid much attention.
It was one long board, but split into three parts. There was a chair for each controller and a phone sat under a Perspex box. Each button had a small LED light next to it and on the screen there was a notice that read ERROR.
I frowned a little and turned around. No one in sight. I looked back and a second ERROR message flashed up, then a third and a fourth. I was becoming a little suspicious. Where had they all gone?
“Hey,” I called out. “HEEEY! Doesn’t anyone work here?”
Nothing. No one came; the messages kept flashing and they looked angrier and angrier the longer I stood there.   
When the message got specific, that’s when I realised I needed to take action.
The screen read:
MISSILE LAUNCH DETECTED.
ORIGIN SOURCE: RUSSIA.
INDICATED COURSE OF ACTION: RETALIATION.
I started screaming. I’m not proud, I’ll admit it, I even wet myself a little bit.
“Help! Really, HELP! Someone’s got to help me!”
I ran my eyes over the console and watched the lights flickering, blinking, yelling at me to make a decision. I shot my eyes around the room again and when I saw no one and no one answered my final plea, I started pressing buttons - all the buttons.
I pressed the yellow and the blue, the green, the purple. Then my eyes rested on the big red one.
The screen was clear; it told me to do it, so I did it.
I reached out my right fist and slammed it down.
As the button depressed, I heard laughing. There was an observation window high up behind me. I guess it’s where the top brass watch when they do those War Games where they pretend to obliterate Russia or China or… Belgium. And there was my dad, and all the people that should have been in the room, doing their jobs. But they weren’t, they were laughing at me instead. Hell, one of them was even eating a jelly doughnut.
Dad stopped laughing when the silo started to steam.
The others followed suit and ran down the stairs to the control room and started scanning their hands and retinas, frantically trying to get in. But they couldn’t. I’d pressed the locking button or twisted the security knob or something. They were locked out and the countdown was counting… fast.
The screen flashed. Ten, Nine, Eight…
The phone on the desk rang and I smashed the Perspex with more force and speed than I imagined I had in me.
“Son, press the override.”
I scoured the desk.
“It’s the blue with the red around it!”
Who designed this place? That’s what I wanted to know, but I didn’t have time to ask the question.
“It’s on the right!”
I looked.
“NO! Further to your right, it’s under th…”
And that’s the last thing he said before SAM left to say Hello to his little red friends.
The door opened a few seconds later, but it was too late and it didn’t matter how many buttons they pressed and knobs they twisted, I’d fouled up the system too much. They’d need a week to fix it and the world would end in a little less than three hours.
The site had a bunker; convenient and stocked to the rafters with all the mod-cons and essentials. We all managed to get to it in time, even Gladys. Mom got obliterated in the retaliation of course. I blame Dad; he blames me. We don’t talk much and I don’t think this is the kind of ‘bonding’ he had in mind. Well, there’s plenty of time for building bridges, mending fences, etc… I’m told around 20 years in fact, until the radiation dies down.
When you look at it with fresh eyes, you might be able to accept it as a bit of a whoopsie, but at the end of the day (the end of days), who in their right mind thinks scaring a kid straight with the threat of nuclear devastation is a good idea?

David J. Wing

David J. Wing is a flash and short fiction writer. His work is dotted all around the Internet. He holds a Master's degree in creative writing from Anglia Ruskin University. He is a husband to Clarissa and a father to Alexandra. He also runs www.zeroflash.org


The Wager
By Matthew Green

“Let me get this straight, you’re telling me that if this coin lands on heads you’ll give me one million dollars?”
“Correct”
“And if I lose?”
“You will owe me a favor”
“That’s all?”
“That is all”
“Wait… What kind of favor is it?”
“I am afraid I cannot tell you.”
“Hmm… Okay. I’m not much of a gambling man, but this is too extraordinary of a wager to pass up. I’m in.”
“Excellent.”
The gamester flipped the coin. Tails.
“Shit.”
“Bad luck. I am afraid I must request that favor from you.”
“What do I have to do?”
“It is simple. I need you to kill a man.”
“…What did he do?”
“He won the last bet.”

Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a genre-bending author, specializing in short works of fiction that deal with mortality, religion, and technology, prophesying the future as well as looking at the past for answers to the great questions dominating our existence.


Implied Ascent
By Ken MacGregor

My thighs burn. I drag my foot up the next step. The stone is concave in the center, worn down by centuries of feet: climbing, striving, aching.
My big toes poke through holes in the tops of my mauve canvas shoes. The sole is worn cotton-thin; I can feel the cool of the stone.
For the ten-thousandth time, I think about stopping, giving up. I could simply sit on this step, this one right here, close my eyes and go to sleep. Maybe just rest for a minute. But, I don’t. I can’t. What if the top is around the next bend? Or the one after that?
But, I have a history of taking the easy way out, and I’m trying to get better about that.
I lift my other foot, scraping the toes along the riser to the next step. I blink sweat from my eyes, lean precariously to the left and slap a palm to the wall.
It occurs to me that I can’t remember the last time I slept, or ate something. The last time I had water.
I remember details about my life before the stairs. Tiny, ephemeral snatches of imagery: the taste of salt on Veronica’s lips when I kissed her, a white-frosted birthday cake with nine candles, the twitch of the leather steering wheel in my hands, the hot shame of my first period in algebra class; the smell of my mother’s shampoo, my father’s deep and infectious laugh.
These are things I know I experienced, but there’s a disconnect, a distancing. There’s no emotional substance to it. I’d like to believe I felt something for Veronica; I know she was pretty in an asymmetrical way, explosively funny and shockingly sarcastic. Did I love her? I’m sure I loved my father. Who wouldn’t? He was a great guy.
But, it’s all flat now. I am flat.
There is only the stairway, the constant curve of the wall, the ache in my hips, my ankles, my lower back. There is also the certainty that this will end. I will find the top. When I do, it will have been worth the climb, the pain, the suffering.
My mother, Grace - I remember her name but not her face - told me that good girls go to Heaven. I wasn’t good all the time, though I tried. I know I sinned plenty, but I was kind, mostly, and rarely cruel. I think I did right by the ones I loved. I made Daddy proud, he told me, and Daddy wasn’t one to lie. I took care of Veronica when she was so sick she puked all over everything, including me.
Grace stopped speaking to me when I came out.
I stop on the stairs. I had forgotten that until just now. That should hurt. I know it did then and for years after. I kept thinking she’d get over it. That she would call me, in tears, and tell me she loved me no matter what.
She never called.
My foot is hovering over the next step. How long have I been standing like this? I shake my head. Sweat sprays off my bangs and spatters the wall. I stomp my foot down. The impact jars my spine and I gasp. I lift my other foot and continue. The worn steps curve up and to the left interminably. How long have I been on the stairs? Hours? Days? Years?
I hear something. Not far. Around the next bend maybe. Though my thighs scream in protest, I move faster. This is the first time I’ve heard a noise. My thin soles slap against the stone as I run.
It’s louder now: a sliding, scraping sound.
There.
A door.
On the right wall, a single rough wooden door, slightly ajar. The steps continue past it. I can smell something through the crack. Grass maybe? Hay? Wheat? I grew up in St. Louis. I have no idea what it might be.
I push on the door. Turns out it’s grass: tall and yellow-green. It goes on forever. The cerulean sky is vast. Not a single cloud to mar its perfection. No sun either, though it is clearly daytime.
Is this it? Have I made it?
I take off my shoes, sit on the door’s sill and push my feet into the soft blades of grass. I smile for the first time in eons. A slight breeze sighs over me, cooling the sweat on my forehead and cheeks. It feels so good I laugh aloud. The breeze picks up, whistling, pushing the grass towards me. I lift my chin, savoring the cool air.
Another memory sweeps over me, so vivid it’s like it’s happening now: empty pill bottle in one hand, vodka bottle in the other. The sharp, icy feel as the latter washes the former down my throat. The clarity of my thought, it’s easier this way burns in green neon letters across the surface of my brain. Again, no emotional content. Just sensations.
Beneath my feet, the ground trembles. Earthquake? I look up, scanning the horizon. Huge, tan shapes lumber toward me, too far to make out clearly. I pull my feet back onto the stone floor. The shapes, animals, I suppose, are coming fast. They are the size of houses, bony ridges extend around their heads and horns protrude from them. Dinosaurs? Dragons? Monsters? I’m not waiting to find out. I stand, though my legs balk and I almost fall. I pull the door closed on the sound of huge hammering feet. My heart is slamming inside my chest.
There are only two directions. Up and down.
I climb. I’m a climber. It is what I have become.
The rest, brief though it was, has made the pain, the exhaustion, worse. Each step takes all my strength, my will. Somehow, I keep going. I left my shoes in the grass. I wonder if the monsters are eating them, savoring the sweat-stink of my feet.
The step is wet here. That’s new. Oh. It’s my blood.
I have a sudden vivid flashback. I was 22, maybe 23, sitting at an outdoor patio of a bar not far from the Arch. My friends Jenny and Gil had been with me. A fight broke out and escalated fast. In seconds, it went from two people yelling to a guy getting a glass smashed against his head. Blood was everywhere. One of the combatants threw a blood-soaked rag toward the bartender, who jerked out of the way.
Every other step has a little blood smear on it now. It doesn’t hurt. Small favors, I guess. Maybe they’ll have a first aid kit at the top. Probably they will. Probably all hurts and wounds go away up there. You can’t bleed in paradise, right? “Bleeding in Paradise” would be a great name for a band. Maybe an album instead. Band could be “Broken Angels” or something. Maybe this isn’t paradise. Maybe it’s Purgatory. Or Hell.
I wonder if I’m delirious.
I am counting the steps again. The last time I did that, I got to 700-something and lost count. I’m up to 246 now. There have been hundreds, if not thousands I forgot to count.
I swipe away sweat from my forehead with an arm already moist with it. Staggering off-balance, my shoulder hits the wall. I groan, blink several times and pull my leaden foot off the step. The next one up has blood on it. Two steps higher up has a splat of blood, too. I stare at it. My blood.
I have been here already.
I sit. I bleed. I think I should cry. I don’t.
I give up.
Time passes. Nothing changes. There is nowhere to go. Nowhere but up.
After a while, I stand. My legs hate me for it. My feet must weigh thirty-pounds each. I drag the left one just high enough and let it fall on the next step.
My thighs burn. The stone of the steps is worn from thousands of footfalls.
I climb.​

Ken MacGregor

Ken MacGregor’s written work has appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines, and the occasional podcast. His story collection, “An Aberrant Mind” is available online and in select bookstores. He edits an annual anthology (Recurring Nightmares) for the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers. Ken is an Affiliate member of HWA. He has also written TV commercials, sketch comedy, a music video, and even a zombie movie. Recently, he co-wrote a novel and is working on the sequel. Ken lives in Michigan with his family and three cats, one of whom is dead but still haunts the place.
Website: http://ken-macgregor.com
Twitter: @kenmacgregor
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KenMacGregorAuthor?ref=hl



The Mists
By Katta Hules

The tears fell with the leftover rain dripping off the trees. The sobs shook the branches so they cascaded like the remnants of the rainstorm they were. The mist obscured the crier, muffling her voice, her keening wails.
           The mist also hid the wanderers as they approached, their spectral forms blending with the rolling moisture. By the time they were close enough to be made out, they were surrounding her.
           When she looked up, there was nowhere to go. She reached her arms out, spreading her fingers wide, straining to touch them. They mirrored her, palms passing through hers. Their pain was written on her face and they crowded closer, huddling around her warmth.
           Though they drained the heat from her veins, she urged them closer, closer, closer until the wanderers swarmed into her body, burrowing into her bones and freezing her further.
           As the last of the rain dropped from the trees, spattering the salt drying on her cheeks, she sat alone. She sat so still and so silent under the trees, but out in the mist, she walked free.

Katta Hules

Katta Hules is a freelance writer in the throes working on her first novel. Currently, she works as an editor at TUBE. Magazine and a freelance journalist for Arcadia Weekly.


Photos
By Christine King

It was late afternoon when Jules arrived at the graveyard in her small, black Mini Cooper.
    The sun was going to set soon and she didn’t want to miss the light. A gentle wind made the autumn leaves dance a merry jig. The sky was darkening and clouds were forming, threatening rain.
Jules parked her car at the far edge of the carpark under some autumn trees. Stepping out onto the hard tarmac of the parking lot, she walked around to the trunk of her car.
    Through the gloomy metal gates, she could see the graveyard. It looked older than any she had photographed before. The new parking area was well lit, but beyond the gates, the dark headstones were falling apart and the entire place seemed to be bathed in silence and a hushed stillness, like it was holding its breath.
    A piercing, screeched “Caw!” of a crow perched high atop the gates shattered the quiet and startled Jules. Cursing the bird under her breath, she ran her fingers through her hair. The bird shrieked again, this time closer.  She scanned the bare branches of the nearby trees to locate the bird. Finally, she spotted it sitting closer than before, low over her car in a small tree that made the large black mass of feathers and beak seem bigger and more menacing. Jules observed the creature, it looked unkempt and scruffy, old and dirty. It stared at Jules with glassy black eyes. She dismissed it as not photogenic enough and called out “If you shit on my car I’ll come back and wring your neck, Mr. Ugly.”
    Jules opened her trunk and the noise made the bird flap its wings. She was glad to have returned the favour after it had given her a fright. Inside, her photography gear lay neatly; shaped foam encapsulated it to stop it from sliding about. She lifted out her camera, pulled out two other lenses, one for still shots and the other for distance, and draped their cords around her neck. She grabbed a waterproof bag and pushed the heavy trunk shut.
    Leaving the car and heading through the large rusty gates, she glanced back at the large, old crow. He was sitting in the same spot and Jules fancied that he was giving her a disapproving look. She smiled at her imagination and passed through the gates. The cold grass crunched under her shoes as she surveyed the area, looking for a place to set up.
Headstones stretched in every direction. The place looked so abandoned, there wasn’t even a church nearby, just the crumbling cemetery. Jules felt a cold chill, she should have packed a bigger coat.
    She stopped at a bench under the shelter of some old, gnarled trees, and after a few moments of contemplation, decided this was as good a place as any to set up.
    Soon, she was ready to begin shooting, her camera battery was almost gone but she knew she should have quite a few shots left before it actually died.
The wind picked up, blowing more briskly, and Jules quickly put her long hair into a makeshift ponytail to keep it from interfering with her camera work. She shivered, but tried to block it out.
    Jules wondered again at the futility of this photoshoot, but the man paying her was paying quite a bit, so who was she to argue. She didn’t for a moment think she could get a picture of what he wanted, she didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits, but a pay check was a pay check. If she had to take pictures of every cemetery in the local area for the crackpot then she would do it. She just hoped that he would still pay her when she didn’t get that all important ghost pic that he obviously wanted.
She had thought of mocking something up or faking a picture but her integrity wouldn’t allow that. Were cemeteries the best place to encounter spirits, anyway? What sort of ghost hung out at the place they were buried?
Surely it was more fun to visit those you missed or haunt someone you hated. She figured spirits had more interesting places to hang out than a gloomy, boring cemetery. Still, the guy paying her bills had said cemeteries and so she was here, freezing, probably catching a bloody cold.
    After several adjustments to her camera settings, she started clicking shots, getting as many different angles as she could. From here, she moved slightly down the row to get the other gravestones in a similar fashion.
    Overhead, the sky grew darker and Jules figured she had only about twenty minutes before the clouds let loose. Looking at her screen, she saw the battery symbol was flashing red.
    She moved quickly away from the shelter of the trees, making any needed adjustments to the camera settings and snapping more photos.
    Ready to snap a quick shot of the closest headstone, Jules bent her head to view it in the small camera screen. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something stir in the camera’s LCD. She raised her head and looked over but all she saw was a quickly darkening view of the cemetery. The air grew heavy and Jules knew a soaking was imminent. Turning again, she extended her right arm and attempted just a couple more shots before the rain came. Aiming the camera randomly across the grass, she snapped another shot.
    Then, she turned her head slightly to the left, but kept one eye on the camera. Startled, she froze looking at the screen, unsure of what she was seeing. It showed a white figure crawling across the lawn in her direction. Jules dropped her arm awkwardly, her heart pounding and visually inspected the area she was shooting without looking through the LCD. There was no white figure visible, only the graveyard: very still and very, very quiet.
Lifting her arm and returning the camera to its previous position she watched through the LCD as the white figure crept slowly and insidiously across the grass. She pressed the button. Holding it down, she took several shots in quick succession. The thing was closer now. Jules tried again to look at it without the camera, but it wasn’t there.
At least, she thought, I can’t see it. I know it’s there. My camera isn’t a television it can’t show me what isn’t there.
    Lifting her digital camera once again, she relocated the spectre. It had moved much closer and this time Jules was able to pick up details in its form. It was creeping along on its belly, arms bent, dragging itself forward. The lower half of its body seemed limp and useless. In jerky, unnatural motions, it moved using the long grass to pull itself along, head lurching from side to side. The face was almost a skull. Two dark sockets glared at Jules across the distance while its tongue lolled in its mouth; teeth showed but no lips, as though the flesh had rotted away.
    Terrified, Jules dropped the camera, her hands shaking with fear. She shook her head, unsure of what she was seeing and even more unsure of her own sanity. Clumsily, she scooped up the fallen camera, feeling the first of the raindrops hit her head and arms. Without looking at the screen, she turned to run from whatever was coming towards her, unseen. As she turned, she felt something blocking her way and with her heart pounding she lifted up the camera aiming it at the space in front of her. The screen was cracked but it was still working. The small frame was filled with teeth and rotting flesh. She saw a red, blood filled eye descending upon her as the camera's battery finally gave up and the LCD went black. She screamed as unseen hands grabbed her and something clawed at her legs as though trying to climb up her body.
The crow cawed quietly on his sheltered perch above the black mini. He really didn’t like the screaming; but he had tried to warn her before she had insulted him.
‘Mr. Ugly’ thought that he could do whatever he pleased now to the woman’s car, so he let nature take its course and popped a white poo straight onto the bonnet, where it ran down and mingled with the rain drops flowing over the black metal.
He watched as the many figures in the cemetery began to rip apart the woman. The rain got heavier and after a while, her screams stopped. He supposed as a crow he should go over and pick at the bones, but the other things would be there soon, to clear up the mess. They always came to eat what was left, dark and greedy. He didn’t like them very much; the crunching was worse than the screaming.
He wasn’t a fool. He wouldn’t go into that cemetery. Not alone.

Christine King

Christine King loves to write short horror stories, and has written a few novels but finds herself constantly drawn back to the short story. Stephen King once said that a short story was like a kiss. Well, she likes kissing in the dark, sometimes she startles or even alarms. Her kisses have been known to surprise or send a shiver up your spine. She loves writing horror and has been a writer for as long as she can remember and also is an avid reader. Not only Stephen King but Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, James Herbert and many, many more. She is a wife and mother as well as a volunteer and PTA member. She lives in Barcelona at the moment working as a struggling author, although she is originally from London, England. She runs an online group to encourage female horror writers as she feels they are underrepresented in the genre. She is always a little bemused by the response she receives from people when they hear she writes horror: “But you seem so nice!”
She has a web page if anyone is interested in her other published work http://christinekingauthor.wixsite.com/mysite. Sometimes one kiss is just not enough.


The Sharpest Tool
By C.M. Saunders

The door was always locked. It only opened once a day, when Josie's captor slid a tall glass of water over the threshold. The cool liquid that kept her alive. Occasionally she was given a few morsels of food, and once she was given an entire roast beef dinner on a warmed plate. That had been the best meal ever! She was so famished she devoured it in its entirety in what seemed like just a minute or two, though telling the time was difficult in the dark so she couldn't really be certain how long it took. Locked in here, time means nothing. What is time, anyway? Just a manufactured illusion. Seconds can seem like hours while huge slabs of time pass by in the blink of an eye.
When she ate the roast dinner, her stomach, unused to such luxury, instantly rejected it. Josie vomited repeatedly in the far corner of the room down the little hole in the floor she sometimes used as a toilet, if she could find it when she needed to go. Later, when the hunger pangs returned, sharp and ceaseless, she sank to her knees on the filthy cold floor, feeling around the hole in the darkness with her fingers for any scrap of sustenance that may have escaped the unglamorous fate. Through her protracted endeavours she found only a couple of soggy chunks of unidentifiable organic matter, which she eagerly crammed into her mouth without pause to savour the taste, texture or aroma.
As she hunted around in the dark she whimpered softly. How could she have been so stupid? Maybe her mother was right; she wasn't the sharpest tool. Her mother always warned her that it would land her in trouble. And here she was. In trouble.
There were no windows. The walls were rough, unforgiving concrete and just as cold as the bare floor. The air was stale and stank of shit. She stank of shit. Each morning (at least she thought it was morning) she contemplated using a little of her daily allowance of water to wash. Just her hands, armpits and private parts, if nothing else. But the water was far too precious to waste even a single drop.
She was so thirsty. So she waited for the water, sitting cross-legged, rocking back and forth and fantasising about how she would hold the glass to her parched lips and take in the fluid. And how good it would feel to finally get some respite, however brief, from the raging thirst that threatened to consume her from within. When the water arrived she would greedily consume about half in a few deep, indulgent gulps, then leave the glass in the same spot by the door where she would be able to find it later. That seemed sensible, even though her body demanded that she drink every blessed drop the minute she got it. The rest she would drink slowly, one small mouthful at a time, at irregular intervals throughout the day. Or night. It would last longer that way. This method also broke up the tedium, giving her something to look forward to.
When the glass was by the door she had to be careful not to trip over and spill it. Even though the room was devoid of furniture or any other potential pitfalls, she still seemed to fall over a lot. She just got dizzy, or lost her footing and tripped. She knew that if she could see it her body would be a mask of grey and purple bruises, untreated cuts, scratches and weeping sores. Perhaps it was better that she couldn't see.
Not the sharpest tool.
When she fell, Josie didn't even know which way was up. It often felt like she was buoyant in water, or drifting like a cloud on air. Once, she recalled lying on her back with both arms outstretched in front of her. She thought she could see her fingertips, suspended before her eyes as if by magic. But she could be wrong. She didn't always know if her eyes were open or closed, or even if she were asleep or awake. In her head there were some scattered abstract images that offered a tantalizing glimpse at some other existence, a distant life full of meaning, colour and joy. But each day the images faded a little more. Now she wasn't even sure if what she saw were snatches of memory or some product of her fractured mind.
She spent most of the time lying on the cold, damp, unforgiving floor with her back against the wall and her knees pulled up to her chest. Sometimes, if she was lucky, something tiny with lots of legs would crawl over her. If she was quick she could catch it. Then she would hold it for a while in her balled up fist, feeling it kick as it tried to escape her grasp. It was easy to imagine its terror. It was the same terror she felt. When it stopped kicking, or even before it stopped, depending on her mood, Josie would ram it into her mouth and bite down hard, moaning with pleasure as the brittle shell cracked between her teeth sending a sour, sticky liquid squirting into her mouth. It did little to satisfy the permanent craving for sustenance that twisted and contorted her insides, but over time she began to enjoy those interludes.
She never thought about running away. She was too weak to even stand most of the time, never mind run. Besides, where would she go?
She didn't even know where she was.
Sometimes her captor spoke. The life-giver who brought water. Over time, this entity had assumed an almost supernatural-like aura, their word sacred. When you only hear a few words, those words take on added significance.
Her captor had spoken to her only yesterday.
Or was it the day before?
It said:
“Not the sharpest tool are you, oh daughter of mine?”

C.M. Saunders

The dark fiction of Welshman C.M. Saunders has appeared in over 30 magazines, ezines and anthologies, including Raw Nerve, Fantastic Horror, Trigger Warning, Liquid imagination, and the Literary Hatchet. He is a hybrid author with nine long-from releases under his belt, the most recent being the novel Sker House and the charity novella No Man's Land: Horror in the Trenches, available via Deviant Dolls Publications. He is represented by Media Bitch literary agency.


Slaying Thru the Snow
By Paul Sherman

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring…”
This was not entirely true, thought the Angel, reciting the poem as he prowled through the magnificent, but decaying, old building.   
“I am stirring!” His manic shout echoed through the hallways and corridors. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future.”
    He laughed inwardly, the silent laughter seeming to resound around the spacious stone hall. His perambulations brought him to the attic; the room he was looking for. His hand touched the doorknob, caressing it, cherishing it, before he went into this special room, his creative effort, his shrine.
The room was candle-lit and almost perfect. The Angel looked proudly upon his handiwork. The light from a thousand candles danced about and illuminated the walls. The scene was set. By morning, it would be complete.
Moving to the turret window, he looked through the leaded glass. Snowflakes had begun to flutter and fall in the soft evening light. The Angel pressed his nose to the glass and took solace in the elemental iciness of the window against him. His eyes searched the snow-clad town square. As pretty as a Christmas card.
Across the square, the carollers were beginning to gather.
***
Tom and Alice were the first to arrive. They came up Leversfield Central Street, throwing snowballs at each other and laughing like young children. Tom, his striped scarf flying, took pleasure in knowing that his witty college humor both amused and irritated Alice, a serious undergrad, dark-haired, intelligent and beautiful.
“Hey Alice,” Tom called, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“What are you talking about, you jerk?”  The way Alice tossed her hair aside from her face had conquered many a heart, but Tom was not prepared to show that his was in any way affected by her throwaway gesture. However, he was affected. Greatly.
“It’s the way snowballs bounce off you without melting.” His tone was earnest, his eyes laughing.
“What?”  Again, there was a touch of irritation in her good humor.
“It’s because you’re an ice queen that snowballs just don’t melt on you.”  The punch line delivered, Tom moved in.  
“You’re a jerk-off, Tom,” she said, taking the insult to heart.
“Hey Alice, it was a joke, for Chrissakes.”
“Implying I’m frigid is your idea of a joke?” She spat at him.  
“So, show me it’s not true, Alice,” he taunted. “Never mind the snowballs. Melt me instead.”
She shot him a look of disdain, and then in an apparent change of heart, came up, put her mittened hands around his neck and kissed him fiercely on the lips.
“Hey you two, break it up. Break it up,” Joe Blue said as he shuffled up Main Street towards them with his brother, Brad. “We’ve come to carol, not canoodle.”
Brad Blue was the taller of the two twins. Needless to say, in the youthful circles of Leversfield, Joe and Brad were known as the Blues Brothers.
“Anyway,” put in Alice, “Tom was merely demonstrating how to melt an ice queen. Weren’t you Tom?”
The Blues Brothers whooped, yelled, nudged each other and fell apart.
“Ouch!” said Tom. “You’re going to let me smart on that forever, aren’t you?”
“Yep!” she replied smugly.
Joe, practical as ever, started dishing out the carol sheets, and Brad lit the lanterns.
“We’re still waiting on Mary and Sally to come,” Joe said.
***
The Angel looked at the gathered company. There were two missing. Two girls.       Not that gender mattered. It was what he did with them after their death that was important.  As soon as all the carollers were assembled, it would be time to get into his outdoor costume.  It was cold, even for Angels. This Angel in particular needed to be snug and warm. He liked to hear his own blood singing in his ears and vital organs as he deprived mere mortals of theirs.
***
Sally Groom, a diminutive blonde with doll-like features, approached them from across the square. She lived in the house nearest to the dreaded Peavey Mansion. The mansion stood shuttered and desolate for ten years or more, ever since the horrible happenings there shocked the town. Leversfield citizens had come to terms with the dreadful matricide and the institutionalisation of Terry Peavey for slaying his mother, but the building stood as a grim reminder. Some thought the building should be demolished. Others believed it might stir too many ghosts.
“I don’t know how she can live next to that creepy place,” Alice commented as they watched Sally draw nearer.
“She doesn’t have a choice. It’s her home. Her parents’ home. Why should they move?” Tom’s voice of reason niggled Alice.
“Well, I would,” she snapped. “I’d make my parents move. I wouldn’t live next to the house where that creepy kid killed his mother at Christmas, just because she made him sing carols.”
“Hi guys!” Sally shouted breathlessly as she approached. “Mary rang. She can’t make it. ‘Flu and all.”
“That’s our alto missing then,” Joe complained.  
“That’s all right,” said Alice cattily, “Tom will sing alto. He seems to be able to do anything tonight.”
“Mary did say to call in on our way round town,” Sally said. “If we sing for her, she’ll provide some liquid refreshment.”
“I think we’ll be needing that by the time we finish,” Brad said, looking up. “There’s going be some snow flying tonight.”
They looked up at the lowering sky that hung threateningly above the streetlights of Leversfield.
“Let’s go then,” Joe suggested. “Let’s do as much of the town as we can before the weather heads us off at the pass.”
***
Somebody else was looking at the weather. The Angel decided that it might be as well to wait for a while. Poor visibility might prove to be an asset. Besides, if Mary Loomis had decided not to join the carol singers, then she must be at home, having a cosy evening in. It could prove extremely profitable to pay Mary a visit. As he left the house, hooded and defended against the December weather, he caught sight of the carollers just turning off the square into Linter Avenue. The strains of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ came drifting through the cold rarefied air.
***
Mary Loomis was entirely pissed at the situation. Her mother and father had gone out for Christmas drinks with friends, her younger sister was sleeping over with a school pal and Mary was housebound, the victim of a heavy cold, verging on influenza, which prevented her from joining the carol singing.
In any event, she felt terrible. She ached all over, her throat hurt so much that every time she swallowed, it was like ingesting razor blades and her head throbbed with the ache of the damned. She was currently swallowing a hot lemon and paracetamol drink and looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her pretty brown freckled face was flushed and puffy, her eyes looked rheumy and distant and the space between her mouth and nose was red and sore.
In short, Mary Loomis looked a mess. Which was a bigger reason for not going carol singing than the way she felt.
The front doorbell rang, making Mary’s heart leap with anticipation. They had come to persuade her to go after all. And do you know what? She might just forget her illness and go out with them. Anything was better than being under house arrest, feeling miserable.
She bounded down the stairs and yanked the front door open.  
There was nobody there. The front step was empty and snow swirled mockingly around the porch light.   
“Guys?” she called. “What are you playing at? You are supposed to sing me carols.  ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ might be appropriate under the circumstances. But don’t try to spook me. My evening is going to be bad enough without your stupid tricks.”
A thin reedy voice that she didn’t recognise began to sing to her.
“In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan…”
She stepped out from the house on to the porch. Gusts of icy wind made her pull her cardigan tighter around herself. She shivered, not entirely from the cold.
“Tom? Is that you singing in that stupid voice?”
It didn’t sound like Tom. It sounded somehow… hollow and ghoulish. She walked onto the path, steadying herself by placing one hand against the porch strut.
She never even saw the Angel as he came like a bat out of hell, robes flying, from behind the hedgerow. She didn’t feel the steel of the sharp knife slice through her. There was just confusion, and darkness. Her cold symptoms ceased to bother her. She collapsed into the Angel’s arms, her eyes wide and pointlessly staring; the rest of her body limp.
***
The Angel held his prize, amazed at his own efficiency as a killing machine. He would like to have felt her life ebbing away after he killed her. He would have liked to see her eyes questioning, pleading; to have seen the words on her lips, “Why have you done this to me?”  However, there was no time for reflection. Mary Loomis would be the first to join the party. He had to get her back to his place and then go in search of the others. As he carried her effortlessly through the freezing night air, a trail of blood in the snow followed him every step of the way. He smiled.
***
The carollers were not meeting with a large amount of success. Only two doors had opened to them so far.
The first was Lieutenant Briggs, who had known them all since their births. His cheery words and the festive drink he gave them uplifted their spirits and made them feel it was worthwhile carrying on.  
The feel-good factor was not destined to last long.
When the second door opened, the blood froze in their veins. Standing there was Crazy Davy, a one-time sidekick of the ill-fated, mother-killing Terry Peavey. The carollers were mesmerised by the grotesque sight of Crazy Davy, his staring, wayward eyes, his cadaverous complexion and the saliva that dribbled from both sides of his mouth.  
“You know about carols, do you?” Davy strangely emitted a voice that had lost both its communication and reason.  
“The holly and the ivy…” sang the small choir.
“He can hear you a-singin’ them carols. He don’t forget.”
“When they are both full grown…”
“You know who I be talking about don’t you?”
“Of all the trees that are in the wood…”
“Terry Peavey is back in town! Why don’t you go and sing your carols to him?” he shouted. He then addressed himself menacingly to Sally. “You need to watch yourself, girlie,” he said in a malevolent whisper. “You’re little. You’re the same sort of size and frame as his mother was. That puts you in danger. That makes you like her.”
Crazy Davy retreated into his house and slammed the door. Moving curtains suggested that he was still watching them.
Sally threw herself headlong at the closed door and beat her tiny fists against it. “Weirdo Freak!”
“Hey Sal.” Joe approached her and she collapsed in tears, enveloped in his big arms.  “It’s O.K. That’s exactly what he is. A weirdo. A freak. The time he spent with Terry Peavey turned his mind. He became obsessed with him. Like his slave or something. Or so my old man says.”
“Where’s Brad?” asked Tom suddenly.  
They all looked around. There was no sign of Brad Blue. The street was empty
“It’s a hell of a time for him to be playing practical jokes,” Alice whispered bitterly.
“Now hang on just a minute, Alice. It’s not Brad’s style to play practical jokes like this.” Joe defended his twin brother. “Equally, it’s not like him to run out on people.”
“You’re right, that’s more in Tom’s line,” Alice returned brightly.
Tom said nothing in retaliation. He was too disturbed by Brad’s disappearance.
“I suggest we quit needling each other and look for Brad,” Tom suggested. “He can’t have gone far. Joe, you and Sally go back up the street and Alice and I will carry on down.  Let’s meet outside the Peavey Mansion in twenty minutes.”
Alice started to reply, but a sudden gust of wind-borne snow took the words from her mouth. The weather was beginning to deteriorate. It was important to get moving. She grabbed Tom’s arm and they set off.
***
Brad was so easy, thought the Angel. Who would have thought a big strong lad like that would have offered his throat to be cut so easily? He owed it all to his old friend, Crazy Davy of course. That diversion was just what the Angel needed. While they were all concentrating on the antics of the ‘weirdo freak,’ Brad had been standing in the back. The Angel had attracted his attention by some insignificant little gesture and poor Brad had come to investigate. The Angel took him from behind, forcing his head back with his strong wrists.   Brad’s neck might have been snapped before the knife sliced through his carotid artery, but no matter. The warm blood spurting over the Angel’s hands had been highly satisfying.  Wasn’t it the Blues Brother’s father, Matthew Blue, who was so outspoken at the trial? Brad deserved what he got because he was the spawn of that man. And it would not be long before his brother Joe suffered a similar fate. As for that miniscule little bitch Sally Groom… well, Crazy Davy was right. She did put you in mind of his darling mother. That gave her a very special role to play.  
***
Joe Blue and Sally Groom reached the intersection of Essington and Arlington and were undecided which way to go. Then Joe saw the blood in the snow.
“Come on!” he yelled at Sally, grabbing her hand. They set off at full pelt down Essington Avenue. Alas, they misjudged the conditions. Sally’s shoes, sensible as they were, met an icy patch on the sidewalk and down she went onto an ankle, knowing as soon as she landed that she had sprained it badly. Sobbing with pain, she called out to Joe.
“Leave me, Joe. Find Brad. But call my folks.”
“I will.” Joe scooted off up Essington Avenue, as fast as he dared on the snow and ice.
Sally’s eyes followed him.
Suddenly, a hooded figure stepped out in front of him. Sally stared in disbelief.  Something slim, shiny and sharp was reflecting off the snow and the streetlights; something that seemed to penetrate Joe from just below the diaphragm and lift him off the ground. Something that caused strangled choking sounds to emerge from his mouth.
Finally, he fell to the ground and the shiny object changed color. It was now the color of Christmas berries. Drops of red fruit juice dropped from it into the snow. Joe stopped making noises and lay silent and immobile, the red stain spreading rapidly around him.
The hooded figure made its way down the street towards Sally. She whimpered to herself, unable to rise from the position in which she had fallen.
***
The scene was set. There were just two more imbeciles to come. The pompous Tom and the superior Alice, delivering themselves right into his hands. They would find the door of Peavey Mansion open, and there would be something to entice them in.  
Then let the carolling begin in earnest!  
***
“The… the doors are… open,” Alice said cautiously. “This place is supposed to be shuttered up. My father says…”
“Sssshhh! What’s that on the step?” Tom approached the doorway, holding Alice’s hand. She held back, frightened.
“Tom, I can’t, I don’t want to set foot inside that place.” She was shivering from cold and fear.  
“Terry Peavey is in an institution for the criminally insane,” Tom reminded her. “He’s been there for ten years. Yes, he did slice his mother up for making him sing carols, which was a pretty irrational thing to do. It blew his mind and he went berserk. But he’s not here now. The place looks deserted.”
Tom pulled his hand free of Alice’s and stepped onto the porch. He picked up the items.
“Do you want proof that the others were here?” he asked, holding them up to the light of Alice’s lantern. “Look. Three carol sheets and Sally’s glove. That means they’ve been here. I don’t know why. Perhaps they were following Brad, but we’ve got to look. Don’t we, Alice?”
Again, Alice pulled back.
“You look!” she shouted. “I’m not going in. I’ve seen the horror films.”
“Well if you’ve seen the horror films, you’ll know the heroine always goes into the house. Why should you be different?”
“I want to live!” she screamed. “I want to live, Tom.”
“Go home!” he snarled unreasonably. “I’ll call you.”
Reluctantly, looking back at him, Alice trudged through the snow away from the mansion.
Tom watched her go, turned and went into the dark house.
***
The Angel had been watching the conversation between Tom and Alice with interest.  He was angry when he saw Alice walking away. He wanted them all there and now he had a problem. Tom was walking straight into his lair, ready for the taking. The girl was another matter. If she chose to go straight home, he might lose her forever. So who would be left to appreciate his masterpiece? There was nothing else for it. He would have to take the boy first and worry about the girl later. He cleaned his blade on his robe and emerged on to the landing at the top of the staircase to meet Tom, yet another son of the Town Elders who had accused and convicted him ten years ago of the murder of his precious mother. Revenge was going to be so sweet.
***
Tom ascended the wide staircase cautiously. However, the whirlwind at the top of the stairs could not have been anticipated. The hooded cyclone that he felt rather than saw came at him slashing and sawing, hewing and hacking, slicing and stabbing. Tom’s eyes went first, then his throat. His clothes were effective protection against the weather, but not the Angel’s manic onslaught.
The hooded figure managed to catch Tom’s flailing body and carry it up to the attic room, where he arranged it carefully with his other trophies.
***
Alice had reached the other side of the square when she had a change of heart. She had put up with Tom’s joking since they were both in kindergarten together. They had gone through school and into college like brother and sister. Who always called on her when she thought the rest of the world had forgotten her? Who always comforted her and taken care of her when she was a scrawny little kid with grazed knees? Who always encouraged her when she thought her home assignments were below standard?
Tom.
She let Tom go alone into that house, because of some crazy notion that she was going to be sliced up like those kids in Scream or Friday the 13th. Get a life, Alice. For God’s sake, learn to divorce horror fiction from reality. Go back and help your best buddy find the rest of your friends. Otherwise, you’ll regret your own cowardice for the rest of your life.
And so Alice turned back.
***
The Angel pressed his face against the window. The girl was coming back. His lips peeled back revealing his teeth and gums, until he truly resembled a living skeleton. His mission was charmed tonight, although he didn’t have time to work on Tom properly. Everything was going his way.
***
Alice entered the open door and ascended the stairs. The house shuttered in the winter wind as the stairs beneath her feet creaked. A chilling, wicked breeze blew from somewhere above her. The moan of the wind in the eaves resounded around her.
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…
The words of the familiar Christmas poem rang through her head. She desperately needed to break the eerie silence.
“Tom?” she called aloud.
“Tom? Tom? Tom?”  The word echoed throughout the building.
Then Alice saw a light. Up on the second landing, beneath a door, she saw a thin slit of flickering light. Candlelight, she guessed.  
The gang was in there. They were sipping liquor and laughing at Alice’s dumbness.  They were waiting for her to burst in so Tom could shout something insulting and pathetic at her. And yet there were no stifled giggles, no one calling for the others to shush, no whispered jokes. Everything was too silent. She had to see what was in that room.
She was outside the door, her hand upon the doorknob.
Well, come on Alice, don’t beat about the bush, turn the knob and burst in there.
She did.
The sight was almost beautiful. Only the gore spoiled the illusion.
A group of carollers stood in a candlelit tableau, holding their lanterns and carol sheets. There was Mary, dried blood caked about the middle of her dressing gown, and Brad with two mouths, one on his face and the other adorning his throat. Finally, Joe and Tom, propped against each other, Joe impaled through the middle and Tom a bleeding mess from top to bottom.
Alice’s mouth opened in preparation for a scream, but there was another surprise to come. A door at the far end of the attic opened and a hooded figure emerged, pushing a wheelchair in front of him. Its occupant was a small-boned, wizened creature which Alice at first took to be a little old lady, but on closer inspection turned out to be little Sally Groom, adorned in a wig and drained of blood, making her look pale and old.
Terry Peavey threw off his hood and revealed his lipless face.
“Let the carol singing COMMENCE!”  he roared. “You can’t wait, can you Mother?” His question was directed to the cadaver lolling in the wheelchair.
At this point, Alice’s scream gave birth, echoing around the Peavey Mansion from rafters to cellars, from wall to wall, throughout hall and chamber. It echoed out into the square and throughout the town.
Lieutenant Briggs heard it. Crazy Davy heard it, his nose turned up to the moon like a rat. Folks heard it over their Christmas drinks.   
And all through the scream which kept on coming, tearing Alice’s throat apart, Terry Peavey, self-appointed ‘Angel.’ sang in his thin reedy voice:
“Hark the Herald Angels Scream…”
Alice realised that she had legs still. She could run. She could escape. She scrambled out of the attic door and threw it shut behind her. Gibbering and whimpering to herself, she skittered down the two flights of stairs. She paused to look back. He was not following her, but she could still hear him singing. The front door was but a few feet away. She made for it.
A shadow appeared in front of her.
“Lieutenant Briggs?” she pleaded.
No.  
Crazy Davy.
“Leaving the party so soon?” he leered. “I don’t think so!”     

Paul Sherman

Paul Sherman is a teacher, author and director of youth and adult theatre. He has had stories published in various hard copy magazines, but most recently, he has had three fantasy-horror stories (The Jokers of Sarzuz, Daemon Page and Missed!) published by TWB Press which are available on Amazon, Omni Lit, etc. His black magic story ‘Satan’s Grip’ (published by Dreaming Big) is also available on Amazon as paperback or for kindle. His current collection of short stories 'Tales out of Herm' all set at different locations on the tiny channel island of Herm (steeped in history and mythology and ripe for short stories), is due to be launched in the Channel Islands next year.


About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She started Fantasia Divinity to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. Madeline is the author of the children’s series Once Upon a Unicorn. Volume one will be available January 20th, 2017.

Visit her website to check out her latest projects.


Want to know more? Madeline is featured in an interview by Cathleen Townsend, where she discusses the magazine and her writing.