ISSUE 9, April 2017


Cover Art by Glass Valkyrie Studios




*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

A Moth
By Patrick Doerksen

It was a November evening in the year 1409. Giles and Maud were in their cottage home in Kent, which stood only a stone’s throw from a very old and, sometimes, magical forest. Sometimes, according to Maud.
Maud had told Giles the story before they had moved out to the country: how her family, years and years ago, had worked magic on the woods, how they had opened it to human minds, how people had begun making pilgrimages to the spot, how stories abounded all over Britain of the woods and of pilgrims who entered and came out again changed, vibrating with the energy of a numinous encounter. The magic, however, had faded with the years, for her family had left the spot for other realms. Now it came only in fits and spurts—so seldom that Giles had yet to experience it for himself. Indeed, he had begun to disbelieve the stories, and even to suspect his wife of feeding him half-truths to keep him in the country longer.
“That’s not just night on the horizon,” said Maud. “There’s an upcasting. You’d better gather some brattlings or we’ll have more smoke than fire this evening.”
This was her way of saying that he had better refill the tinderbox before the rain came. Giles, looking out the window to fact-check, shivered. It was dark and winter winds were aprowl. “Yes. When my port is finished.” But he shouldn’t have looked away.
“Finished,” said Maud neatly. Then she burped.
Giles was a large man, and his coat was of inflexible wool; it took him a while to get it on. “The king hates coats,” he said, grunting. “Too restrictive. Got servants, he has, that’ll run alongside him with fires in weather like this.”
He spoke as though making conversation, but Maud knew his purpose. If she was not careful, she’d find herself being accused of tearing him kicking and screaming from the king’s service to this no-man’s-land, for he could not seem to recall that he had, in fact, come only too willingly. So she said nothing, only threw him the burlap sack. Collect that many, it meant—and Giles nodded bitterly as though it had been a spoken commandment. When he was disgruntled he tended to construe things that way.
In the winter season, the land became what his wife’s family, who had many strange words for things, called water-sick—that is, much in need of draining. To get across to the woods opposite the cottage, Giles had made a bridge of a few logs felled by a windstorm that had passed through the week before. Thankfully, deep enough in, there was plenty of dry branch-litter, for the woods rose in elevation.
Giles considered his wife as he trudged and gathered; he considered the way she manoeuvred him so adroitly into this and that task, the way she seemed to manage even the moods of the home with her deft use of candle-light and the well-timed scents of butter and garlic frying on the stove. The way he saw it now, even the decision to move out here had been part of her management: an effort to teach him simpler desires. Well, he was the kind of man who liked to know which wars were being fought; the kind of man who, in the quiet moments before sleep, wondered not whether he had left any live embers in the hearth as Maud did, but whether Harlech Castle had been taken yet. He was a man who liked his port, and, sure, even some bawdy court music now and then. No, there was no changing him; he knew what he needed, and he could not stand this country living much longer. Even the port was no comfort; to his taste it was but a liquid embodiment of all the triteness and dull-eyed resignation of the country folk who made it. And would he ever have news of Harlech out here? A year after the fact, if he was lucky. Oh, when he got back to the cottage he would let Maud have it, he would speak his mind for once.
So went Giles’s thoughts as he gathered tinder. And yet once or twice, a little chagrined at their vehemence, Giles said a quiet, “Oh Lord, forgive me,” to himself, confident in the silence of the woods and the absence of ears.
On any other night, his confidence would not have been misplaced.
It began by a sense of the leaves stirring in their sleep, yawning and stretching all about him. And this was, Giles realized with a start, no metaphor. The old magic his wife had told him about was waking up. All around him Giles felt the trees like a silent and sombre crowd. And in the crowd were other crowds. Here and there were the hurried whispers of mice avoiding him. Here and there were the quick, sharp desires of night-bugs. Ferns felt starlight on their spines, slugs gloried in the dank underbrush, and somewhere deeper in, an owl made a sharp cry that sounded to Giles like, “Gotcha.”
So much was happening.
All grumbling thoughts departed; Giles fumbled to make contact.
There, clinging to a poplar and not wanting to be noticed, was a moth.
“Moth,” he said.
But he might have meant any moth, and the moth did not move. Giles gripped his armful of sticks and came so close that his breath condensed on its brown, tissue-thin wings.
“On the tree. Yes, you.” For the moth had flicked its wings uncomfortably. “I can understand you.”
    “But I have said nothing,” said the moth.
    “Ah, well, I only meant—” But he did not know what he meant. Giles scratched his beard, a little surprised that the moth did not share his sense of intimacy. “Look,” he said, apologetic, “I don’t know how long this will last. Do you wish to tell me anything, now that we can talk?”
    “Not particularly.”
    “Well, ah, do you wish to know anything from me?”
    “Not particularly.”
    Giles scratched his beard, rougher this time. This was not how it was supposed to go. There had been nothing comedic about his wife’s stories; pilgrims wandered in and came out shaken to the core. But this—this seemed to Giles like something from the fairy tales of his childhood. Was he doing something wrong? There must, he felt, be some way to up the ante, to speak outside of the script.
    “Tell me,” he said slowly, for he wanted there to be no mistaking his seriousness, “What is your highest fancy? What does a moth like you desire above all else?” He realized his error. “No, not a moth like you—but you.”
The moth considered, unused to indulging it’s fantasies out loud. Once or twice it seemed about to speak, then refrained. At last it said, rather decisively, “You first.”
“Me?”
The moth answered with its silence.
“All right,” said Giles, willing to play. “Ah, let’s see. My heart’s desire? Well, I should like a large family—” but this was not quite right, and he stopped. The trouble was that he knew what he should want, and it kept getting in the way. A large family was what his wife wanted. “Wisdom,” alternatively, was the kind of answer a hero in a story might have given, but as his answer it also was not quite right—and to his credit Giles did not use it. He felt the dread certainty that, among these ancient trees, only truth could pass.
What had he involved himself in? This was big; it was immense. He began to sweat.
“I really don’t know.”
And now, to make matters even worse, Giles felt something changing in the woods: one by one presences were dropping away. It was like sitting in a theatre after the performance and listening to the audience depart, taking with them their excitement, their energy, their chattering minds.
He gave a weak laugh. “I’m very sorry. But—” Here he hesitated. It would be shameless of him, he knew—ah, but things really were moving rapidly now. What had once been a great warm breath was now just air. Giles was desperate. “But you do have an answer. I can tell.”
He had intuited rightly. “Well…” said the moth. “There is something.” But it needed more coaxing.
“Go on,” he said. “I’m very interested.”
“In all honesty?”
“In all honesty.” It was a formality: they both knew that there could be no other way.
“Then,” said the moth, “I should very much like to be king.”
“Pardon?”
They were, it seemed, the last two things alive in the woods. When the moth spoke again, it spoke more boldly and it’s earnestness filled the darkness.
“I should like,” it said, “to be the king of all Britain. To hold the golden sceptre, a queen by my side, and to eat pork every day and command dukes from my throne. Oh, yes, it does keep me up some nights. Imagining.”
For a long time Giles could say nothing. He almost laughed; he almost blurted, But you’re a moth! But something stopped him.
At last, Giles nodded soberly. “Thank you, moth,” he said.
The moth did not hear; the magic was gone, the moth was just a moth, and Giles just Giles, holding his bundle of tinderwood.
***
“I was beginning to fear tonight there’d be no tea,” said Maud as he shut the door. She had lit candles and was reading at the table. The book, a great leather volume that Maud herself could barely lift, had been in her family since the beginning, whenever that had been. It was almost priceless, and their secret.
Giles did not look at her; he unloaded the tinder and heaved himself on one of the two chairs in front of the hearth. Maud studied him a moment to see if this might have anything to do with her. Satisfied that there would be no drama, she busied herself with building a fire. When it was built, and the tea steeped, and his feet propped in a privileged position by the flames, Giles looked up.
“I had the strangest encounter.”
“The magic?” said Maud, for she had guessed.
Giles nodded distantly.
Maud clapped her hands; she couldn’t stop herself, it was in her nature to erupt in sympathetic excitement. “Delightful! Oh, didn’t I tell you that if you were patient it’d come? The city hasn’t got a claim on all the interesting things.” She returned her tone to neutrality, for she was very glad to make this last point. “We will do some good work on it; we will make it stronger. Even today I’ve learned two new spells. Oh, Giles, can you imagine the woods again in their prime? One might simply stoop and find toadstools to talk to, and even the underbrush would be alive; only a cold heart could burn them as we’re doing now!”
Suddenly Maud became mute, afraid she might have been rubbing it in.
But when Giles spoke, it was not to bring up the old argument. Indeed, nothing was further from his mind. The rain was coming down now; he was watching it out the window as it made the trees heavy.
“I was embarrassed for it, Maud. It was so serious. I asked it what it wanted, and it said it would like to be king.” He looked up at Maud helplessly. “A moth.”
Perhaps it was how he said the word, or perhaps it was the silence around it, but Maud fully discerned the change in Giles now, and realized she had underestimated it. She saw how mildly he held himself, saw all the resentment of an earlier hour drained away. And—what was this? He reached now to take her hand, his eyes exposing a great need of a kind she could not fathom.
She was a woman who knew what was what. She got up and sat on his lap.
“Go on.”
Giles began slowly. He was glad to have her ear so close; he wanted to talk in whispers now. “When the magic left, I stood there, looking at it. And I just kept thinking: Right here on this tree is a moth, just a moth, not saying anything—and yet it wants to be king. This moth. This one here.” He made a pointing motion with his hand, then glanced at Maud. “I was trembling all the way home. I felt all tangled up. Shamed. Because…”
Maud waited.
“Because I couldn’t answer the question myself. I—I hadn’t courage for it.” Giles, remembering his tea, held it to his lips; but here the mug hovered for a long moment until, without sipping, he set it back down. “I’m such a fool, Maud. You would have flicked my pate with a wet dishrag had you been there. But—how can I tell you? It was a holy moment, and too demanding. Those woods—”
But she knew. They were her family’s woods. Only, she knew more; she knew that however it seemed, it wasn’t holy moments that make a coward of one. “So that’s what this is about,” she said. “But why should you be embarrassed by desire? One’s highest fancy—what is it but that, a fancy? It’s nothing; we can speak freely of it.”
Giles nodded wearily. “All the same, it’s so silly; I don’t want—”
And then she really did flick his pate. The effect was immediate: Giles, stunned, began to laugh and shake his head. “Oh, Maud, it really is silly, and terrible, because when I really put the question to myself, there’s only this: I wanted to be king, too.”
And then, strangely, his laughter turned to tears.
When the sobbing had reduced to sniffles, Giles accepted the handkerchief proffered him.
“Course, it’s over now, Maud,” he said. “Isn’t it funny? That only tonight I should realize it, and now I don’t want it anymore.”
***
There is nothing much more to tell, at least as concerns this November evening. It is true that, years later, when Maud got her wish and bore several children, and when the woods had the promise of again—thanks to Maud’s work—becoming a site of pilgrimage, Giles occasionally doubted the project. The children worried him especially; they were unusual, given to secrecy, and spoke often together in a made-up language that Giles could not follow. Was it good for them, this isolated country life? But each year the winter would approach and he would need to send them out for firewood before the rain came; and always it was then he found himself telling a certain story which began, “Your mother’s magic is a queer thing. But, you know, there is something queerer still. Somewhere in those woods is a moth…”

Patrick Doerksen

Patrick Doerksen lives in British Columbia. His fiction, poetry, and haiku have appeared in Aurealis, Abyss and Apex, (parenthetical), and the Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2016, among other venues. He wishes his carbon footprint were smaller and his memory for large German compound words were bigger—and is glad that reading seems to accomplish at least the first goal.


The Race
By Alison McBain

Melinda plunged into the ocean, but Paul quickly pulled ahead of her using steady strokes. She really shouldn’t have boasted in front of everyone that she was the better swimmer, pricking Paul's ego.
           Her friends chanted her name from the shore, encouraging her. Even with lungs burning and muscles aching, she put on a burst of speed at the sound. It wasn’t quite enough to make a difference. When the sea monster rose up out of the depths, Paul was still far in the lead.
Darn. He had been a good boyfriend, too.
At least she won the race.

Alison McBain

Alison McBain is an award-winning author with more than fifty short stories and poems published. When not writing, she practices origami meditation and draws all over the walls of the house with the enthusiastic help of her kids. Once in a while she puts on her Book Reviews Editor hat for the magazine Bewildering Stories or blogs at http://www.alisonmcbain.com.


Missing: Friendly Spook
By Mary E. Lowd

I wake up in a cold sweat, but nothing is wrong.  There is no supernatural wailing, no undead yowling, no eerie scratching at my door.  Not even an unsettling purr.  All is silence.  As it has been for the last several nights.  I wrack my memory, but I can't recall how long it's been since I heard Cassie carousing in the dark, haunting my house and keeping me awake.
The fat calico cat had appeared after a big snow storm, nearly ten years ago.  Her orange and black splotches were faded like she'd had flour dumped on her, but her face was ghost white.  And she could walk through walls.  I think she was the spirit of a neighborhood cat who'd frozen to death under my house.  So, I called her Cassie, short for Casper.
Uncertain as to whether my personal spook is missing, I can't get back to sleep.  So, I get up, open a can of tuna, and poor the tuna water down the drain.  Cassie hates that. Even though she can't lap up the tuna water with her spectral tongue, she'll yowl at me for hours if I don't leave it sitting in a bowl on the counter.  When pouring the tuna water down the drain doesn't summon her, I get really worried.  I should have cast a binding spell on Cassie when I realized I'd grown attached to her.  Somehow, it had never seemed urgent.  She was always there.  Where was she going to go?
The next morning, I find a few photographs that Cassie had photo-bombed with her paranormal distortion and post them to all the local neighborhood groups.  I even print out a few and staple them to telephone poles, old school.  
That night, I get my first call.
“Hello?  I think I found your ghost.” The phrase is more of a question. “It's been wandering around my backyard all night.”
I throw a few candles, matches, catnip, and a collar, to function symbolically, of course, into a bag and drive right over, relieved this will be over so soon.  I had never realized how much I would miss Cassie if she ever moved on.
The house is on the other side of the hill, and the woman who called is waiting for me on her front porch.  She shows me through her house and into the backyard, where I immediately light one of the candles, ready to cast a binding spell on Cassie.
But it's not Cassie.
“That's the ghost of a dog,” I say.
“Is it?”  The woman peers at the translucent canine and shrugs.  “Oh, yeah, I guess there was a dog that got run over down the street yesterday.  You want it anyway?”
Over the next few days, phone calls and emails keep rolling in.  I keep my bag of candles and catnip in the car so I'm always ready.  With each call, I jump and run, ready to bring my friendly spook cat back home, and each time, it's not her.
Sometimes, it seems like the people who call aren't even trying.  Over the course of a week, I visit the ghosts of a rat, two squirrels, a deer, a Roomba, and a very cranky old man who won't give up his favorite seat at the local coffee shop.  How anyone could mistake any of these ghosts for a friendly little cat ghost is beyond me.
Over the next month, I get to know every haunted house and wandering specter in the neighborhood.  There are a lot more spooks around than I'd realized before beginning this search for Cassie.  
With every phone call that begins, “I saw your ad about the missing ghost…” my heart leaps, and my tongue stumbles to say the right polite things, wading through the conversation until some clue gives away that, yet again, the ghost is not Cassie.  I have to stay polite.  The people who call mean well, and maybe someday, one of them will have really found her.
At night, I wander the neighborhood, watching for feline-shaped shimmers and am disappointed every time I see one, only to realize the shadowy figure is opaque, solid, alive.
As the months pass, I start to believe that Cassie has moved on to another plane, finally resigned herself to her horrible death and transcended to a feline heaven or embodiment in a new life.  She'd make an excellent raccoon.
Or maybe, Cassie didn't think I was scared enough by her anymore and has moved on to haunting someone who's still startled by her piercing yowls and gets too rattled to sleep when she claws at the door.
I miss her restless midnight clawing.
Eventually, I get a kitten, a little orange tabby who I call Ally.  He claws at the doors, but he never does it as long as Cassie used to.  When he drinks the tuna water, I think about how loudly Cassie would have yowled to see another cat drink her fishy offering.
I dream about moaning spectral meows and wake to silence, Ally curled up peacefully at the end of the bed, warm at my feet, instead of walking through me, passing by like a cold wind.
This is how Cassie haunts me now.

Mary E. Lowd

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than seventy short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.


Alchemy
By Cindar Harrell

Albin stared at the book. Brushing a lock of his golden hair back, he drew the symbols he saw on the pages and then rechecked his work. This was going to work.
It has to.
He had been practicing for months. Well, years really. His whole life had been spent training for this. Now it was time. His other attempts were all in the past. Although failures, they were just the warm-up. This was the real thing. Before, he had been missing the primary ingredient, the one thing that made all the difference. But now he had it.
This will work.
The words cycled through his head like a mantra. Like a prayer to whatever gods would listen. Images of his sister drifted into his mind, mingling with his internal chant.
She wouldn’t like what he was about to do, she valued sorcery over science. She was always his opposite.
Science destroyed you, and science will fix you. I will fix you.
He had always blamed himself for her death, even though deep down he knew he couldn’t have stopped it. The image of her consumed by flames still haunted him at night. However, he wasn’t responsible for what she had become. What she was now.
Inhuman.
He would have given anything to bring her back, but he was no fool. He knew that what was dead stayed that way, and there was nothing you could do to change that.
But someone else had other ideas.
They resurrected her body, but not her soul. She may still look like his sister, talk like her, but it wasn’t her. There was a darkness inside her.
But he was going to fix it. He would bring her back right. He had studied both alchemy and magic, searching for a way to remove the darkness from his beloved sister. It was all a matter of heart.
I can do this.
Taking a knife made of the finest steel he could afford, he heated the blade to a burning red in the flames of the brazier standing next to his work desk. Carefully, he carried the blazing knife to the center of the large room. Kneeling, he used it to carve the symbols from the book, the symbols he had drawn and redrawn a thousand times, into the dusty planks of the floor.
When he was finished, he poured the required ingredients on the floor where he had drawn the symbols.
Now, for the reactive agent.
He took a flask from his desk, careful not to spill the precious liquid inside, and carried it to the symbol. Holding it out at arm's length, he poured it over the symbol and other ingredients.
Come on… come on…
He watched as the mound of granulated material slowly took form.
“Yes!”
His eyes widened as the structure began to glow inside the carved circle. When the light faded, he picked up the solidified object. He sighed and threw the small figure onto the ever-growing pile by his desk.
If it takes my entire life, I will get this right… One day.
Once again he had made a heart of bronze instead of gold. 

Cindar Harrell

Cindar Harrell loves fairy tales, especially ones with a dark twist. She is currently writing a series of erotic short fairy tale retellings. Her released stories can be found on Kindle. You can follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/CindarHarrell/ and visit her blog, which she promises to try and update more often, https://cindarharrell.wordpress.com/.



Dragon's Tongue
By J.M. Williams

Iric kicked the door in, blasting it off its overheated hinges.
The smoke and heat bellowed out at the watchman, like a dragon’s tongue trying to envelop him. Iric put a hand over his mouth and pushed his way through the hazy black. He could hear the cries, a sharp wailing in an upstairs room.
The heat was intense, causing his eyes to throb in pain. Sweat cascaded down his face. But Iric pushed on, straight into melee with the flames. He placed a cautious foot on an ascending stair.
Iric had only joined the City Watch months before; he had yet to develop much experience with danger. His inexperience revealed itself in the terror coursing through his veins. He second-guessed himself with every step, especially for not removing his armor before launching the brash rescue attempt. That was until a flaming beam dropped on his back. He found his stomach pinned to the stairs. He couldn’t raise his body or roll. Only the breastplate kept him from being crushed.
The cries from above rose in intensity, the sounds of a baby, too young to comprehend the assault of vicious sensations. Iric coughed out a mixture of smoke and mucus. His throat throbbed, dry and singed.
Iric struggled to free himself, but only managed to slide the burning beam closer to his naked head, the heat of the live flames fingering his short brown hair. He had never found himself in such a perilous situation before; the horror of it overloaded his mind with panic. He didn’t want to die, burned away into nothingness. But his thoughts—the few that managed to speak louder than the roaring fire and his own internal screams—drifted to the trapped child.
As a Watch recruit, he had been lectured and drilled endlessly on his duty to protect the public; it was the reason he had joined. His sergeant—a bearish man named Vott—had taken Iric around town and forced him to learn the names of everyone he met.
“They should be precious to you,” the sergeant had said to him. “A watchman doesn’t earn money or glory, just the respect and love of the people. That’s all we got.”
Lying on the ground with the rumble of the flames all around, thoughts of failure began to usurp his fear of death.
Iric refused to capitulate to his elemental foe. Placing both hands on the stair, and his fate with the gods, Iric heaved himself up. The smoldering log tumbled down and crashed into a crumbling wall. He sprinted up the stairwell, dodging flame and ember.
Iric followed the screams to their locus, shouldering another door open. The room was untouched by the fire, but filled so thick with gray smoke that nothing could be seen. He dropped to his knees and felt around with his hands, blindly seeking the threatened infant.
His hand settled on something soft, both in texture and density. Sharp teeth settled on his hand. He pulled the fat orange cat to him, staring at it in self-chastising disbelief. The crying ceased; he fumbled around the room, but found no trace of a child. Just my dumb luck, he cursed to himself.
Behind him, a burning chunk of wall collapsed, cutting off his retreat. The flames passed around the door frame like devilish fingers, groping the walls. The cat released its bite and the pair stared at the fire in stoic horror. It can’t end like this.
Refusing to surrender, Iric turned and kicked the outer wall. He threw all his weight into the blows until the thin wood cracked. He continued his attack, shifting legs when the other grew tired. He finally created a hole big enough to toss the cat out; the hole wasn’t big enough for him.
The fire sucked in air from the new opening, growing stronger with each breath. Iric fell to a knee, his strength spent. Down on the street he saw Sergeant Vott, the big man making grand gestures with his hands. Next to him stood a taller man in red robes, reaching a hand out towards the burning building. Iric tried to make sense of Vott’s signals; the man was screaming something as well. 
Got… Got down… go down… get down!
Iric threw himself to the floor as the weakened wall split apart, wooden shrapnel bursting into the room. A few pieces stabbed into his skin, but Iric was more struck by shock than physical pain. The wall was completely gone.
Seizing the moment, Iric rolled off the edge, losing his breath as he landed hard on the ground. Then he felt the trickle of wondrously cold drops all over his body. The wizard stood with hands raised, calling down a torrent of rain. The savage downpour ceased after a few wet moments.
Vott and the wizard stared down at Iric. The sergeant looked displeased; he always looked displeased. As Iric lay on the cool ground catching his breath, the cat stumbled back, climbing up on his sore chest. It licked his damp, burnt hair, and purred weakly as it lay on his wet breastplate. Iric tried to smile. It hurt too much.
“Are you out of your…” Vott began to say, but was interrupted by the shove of a young girl pushing past him.
“Bean!” the girl screamed, lifting the wet and terrified creature off Iric’s chest. Iric was relieved to have the weight off; his battered and dented armor made it difficult enough to breathe without any extra pressure.
“Thank you, Mister!” the girl said to him, her face filled with a smile. She put a hand forcefully on Iric’s shoulder and the watchman groaned. “Oh, sorry!”
A young woman with long blonde hair came up from behind, kneeling and taking the girl into her grateful arms.
“Gods, Signy! I told you not to run off!” the woman scolded. “What if something…”
“Mama, this man saved Bean!” The girl beamed. The woman turned to him and smiled.
Sergeant Vott knelt down beside Iric, speaking softly. “Just what in Raza’s name were you thinking boy?”
Iric glanced over at the overjoyed girl, holding her precious pet tightly. “Love of the people,” he said. “That’s all we got, right, Sarge?”
The big man let out an airy laugh and smiled; he never smiled.

J.M. Williams

J.M. Williams is a Fantasy and Sci-fi author who writes stories centered on strong characters. He has been writing since childhood and focused on the short story form as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota. He currently lives in Korea with his wife and 10 cats—teaching, writing, and blogging at JMWWriting.wordpress.com.

Snow Serenade
By Claerie Kavanaugh

I flicked at the dying embers and wrapped my cloak a little tighter around my shoulders. My breath crystallized in the frigid night air. The fog was thick enough to cloud my vision. I crunched my boots against the fresh snow, glad that even if I had no memory of how I’d gotten here, or where I was going, I had at least been smart enough to wear appropriate clothes. Leaning a little closer to the dwindling pile of kindle, once meant to keep me warm, I flattened my palms against the makeshift poker—really only a twig that had snapped from a nearby oak, thanks to the weight of the snow covering it’s branches— and rubbed.
“Come on…” I hissed, hoping to coax one last flare out of the charcoaled wood. I could feel my lips and the tips of my fingers coloring with frostbite. My feet were merely dead weights on the ends of my legs, even surrounded by the warmest fur. The wind whipped against my ashen cheeks, convincing me for an instant that a flame had finally sparked, only instead of dancing on the logs, it licked and gnawed at my frozen flesh. I never knew until that moment how searing hot the cold could feel.
Stay calm, I told myself. It’s only a dream. Nothing can hurt you here.  At least, I hoped.
The last thing I remembered was crawling beneath my heavy duvet, minutes before the clock struck midnight. When I awoke, my back lay flat against the icy snow and the silver tinge of an oncoming storm blanketed the sky.
I continued to stoke the nonexistent flames, desperate for anything that would rid me of the blistering cold paralyzing my thoughts and soaking through the depths of my bones. It took all of my energy to continue drawing breath as burning pain radiated from my chest. Like ironclad fists, it wrapped around my heart, sapping my life force from the inside out.
The wind whistled through the shivering branches I clung to as my only source of shelter, gripping my throat every time I tried to choke back a fresh gulp of air. My eyes watered, I could barely make out the sodden wood pile any longer, but I gnashed my teeth and blinked back the sting even as the flimsy twig became heavy in my arms. Just a few more minutes, Holly.
Another gust slithered down from the gathering clouds, slapping my cheeks until they were raw and red. Soon after, light flakes tumbled around me, dusting my dampened chestnut hair and catching in its matted locks. Tremors quaked my limbs and I could no longer keep my teeth from chattering. The storm wasn’t far off now. I was trapped.
In a matter of minutes, all I could see was a steady stream of white. I no longer had any fingers or toes, no hands to build a fire with, or feet to find my way home. I was weightless. Unable to feel anything but the tingling of my skin beneath the howling winds. I curled my knees up to my chest and burrowed further beneath my cloak. My eyelids began to droop, heavy with exhaustion, but I fought to keep them open. I couldn’t fall asleep here, completely exposed in the middle of a thick pinewood forest as an eerie chill soaked me through. I was beginning to doubt the possibility of my precarious situation being nothing more than a simple nightmare. If I lost consciousness now, I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever wake up.  
I managed to evade the crushing onset of fatigue for another five minutes after that, but with each passing second, my mind became less tethered to my body. I was suspended somewhere between reality and a strange swirl of senseless colors. Images flashed behind the darkness, threatening to consume me. Kayla, who had raised me since I was the tender age of eight and our Mom and Dad passed in a car crash, Carter, who’d given me my first kiss only two weeks prior at the Winter Formal, Andrea, my best friend, who had stood by me since we were three years old, and, finally, my parents. My memory of them was fuzzy, but the longer I watched, the more focused they became. My mother’s face was almost a mirror image of my own: a sun-kissed complexion peppered in freckles, and accentuated with full pink lips. Only her eyes were different: a stunning emerald green. Mine, on the other hand, were a deep blue, so dark they were often mistaken to be grey. They must have come from my father.
My lips puckered in a slight “o.” I swiveled to face the broad shouldered man whose strong arm was draped around my mother’s shoulder. I gasped, finally understanding where my sister had gotten her exotic charm. My father had thick hair, darker than even the new moon sky. His features were sharp and chiseled, and I had a strange feeling that he was a man whose bad side I did not want to see.
But the eyes, my eyes, danced with a warm and gleeful light. As his hand extended down to mine, my arm involuntarily rose to meet it. His gaze banished any trace of cold from my mind. I was safe. I was loved. I wanted to be with them.
The tips of our fingers brushed together and an electric current danced all across my body, igniting me with a new energy. A soft smile spread across my face. I was home.

Claerie Kavanaugh

Claerie Kavanaugh is a 22-year-old writer with a love for fantasy, historical fiction, and YA and NA contemporary. She has been writing seriously since her sophomore year of high school, but her love of words started as early as first grade. In May 2017, she will have a BA in English and a minor in Technical and Professional writing. She has recently discovered a passion for editing and helping other authors while working as an intern at a new independent publisher, Owl Hollow Press. She lives with her mother, and sister, and a very sassy cat. In her spare time, she works on her debut novel and writes an author advice and flash fiction blog at https://claeriekavanaughblog.wordpress.com.

Together We Are Complete
By M.A. Kastle

Part One
Carly looked at the bank of windows as the early afternoon sun started over the library. She shifted her gaze to the stairs, found them empty.
Of course they are going to make me wait, she thought as she leaned against the car, that’s what a sorority does. After spending the week playing their puppet and passing their tests, her patience was beginning to thin.
She turned her face to the sun and couldn’t help appreciating the cool summer breeze, azure sky, and the fat white clouds. There weren’t any signs of a storm, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t change.
“In a heartbeat,” she mumbled. Like the day Mother Nature used a tornado to turn her world to hell. With a nervous sweep, Carly moved her shoulder length auburn hair away from her neck.
There was a time when a tornado sent a rush through her; a sick fascination wrapped in fear, excitement, and the destruction it promised. And the sounds; the wind crashing through the trees, making the limbs bend and hiss, and then wrapping around the house causing the wood to groan. Hearing the rain and hail as it, too, promised to punish everything it touched. But that day, it had been different.
***
Carly had raced to her room for her backpack when, behind her eyes, a swirling started; a building pressure that felt like it might burst through her skull. She had leaned against the doorframe for support and waited for the feeling to pass. It felt like hours, but she knew it had been only seconds before she dared to open her eyes. And when she did, she had been staring at her shotgun.
At the same time, thunder rolled across the sky, the cyclone was shredding its path toward them.
She had considered taking it with her. It should have been a hint.  
***
“Carly,” Heather greeted.
She jumped, instantly feeling stupid for letting herself slip back to a life better off forgotten, and met Heather’s gaze. The woman smiled as she closed the distance between them.
“Madam Heather,” Carly responded as she straightened.
“All right, ladies. You two have passed each test leading up to this moment, however, the final test is still ahead. Are you ready?” Heather asked, her hazel eyes almost glowing in the sunlight.
“Yes.” They answered together.
“Let’s go get’em, girls,” Mandy said hitting the button on the key fob to unlock the doors.  
“That’s code for ‘get in the car.’” Veronica said with a grin.
“I’ll sit in the middle, if you don’t want to,” Carly offered, looking at the other girl. She picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder.
“No, thanks,” Sandy replied. She smiled and opened the car door.
Carly waited while Sandy scooted to the center of the bench seat next to Veronica. After getting in the car, she placed her pack between her feet, and buckled her seatbelt. With her nerves working overtime, Carly smoothed her sweat damp hands down her thighs. The weather wasn’t cool, but the decision to wear jeans had been a good one. Like deciding to wear her running shoes instead of the hiking boots she had considered.
Without a word, Veronica opened the car door, quickly got out, ran around to the back and hit the trunk twice.
Mandy pulled the lever and at the same time gave Heather a sideways smile. Carly noticed and wondered what had passed between them. At the same time, an uncomfortable feeling stole over her. Am I jealous, or worried about the test?
“Sorry, I almost forgot the water,” Veronica said.
Sandy took a bottle and gave it to Carly, then grabbed one for herself.
“Thanks,” Carly said.
Veronica took her seat, scooted closer to Sandy, and leaned between the two front seats. “Madam Heather, Mandy.” she said as she handed them each a bottle.
“You’re so kind,” Heather said over her shoulder.   
“Yea, thanks, Veronica,” Mandy said as she started the car.
“Time to go, I’m sure the pledges are dying to get this over with,” Heather announced, snickering.
Carly and Sandy shared a look while everyone laughed with Heather.
It isn’t funny, Carly thought.
Anxiety opened the wound and her thoughts went back to the Surge, the weather event that had swept across the nation, hungrily snatching victims into its current. The destruction had churned for weeks, leaving a massive wake of broken, distorted victims that were empty shells of their former selves.
Around her, the girls continued to laugh. Carly, struggling for control, faked a smile and turned toward Sandy. When Mandy started the car, music blared from the speakers causing her to jump.
Carly cursed under her breath, but didn’t feel as stupid knowing Sandy, shaken from the blast of music, felt the same way. Their nervousness prompted another round of laughter that filled the car and drowned out the music. Adding insult to her already injured ego, Mandy hit the steering wheel several times with her hand, before gaining control and turning the music off.
“Nice job,” Heather mumbled.
Mandy giggled, put the car in gear and started out of the parking lot.
Carly’s anxiety continued to crawl over her, and whether it was from her memories or from watching them, she didn’t know. She understood that she had to get a grip. This was the final test and she didn’t need anything to distract her. With determination, Carly worked to calm herself and took a sip of her water.
Carly met Mandy’s gaze in the rearview mirror for a second before Sandy scooted closer to Veronica. While she was thankful for the extra room, Carly couldn’t help thinking there was an ulterior motive.
It’s in my head, she thought, I’m being paranoid.
Carly leaned closer to the window and gazed at the overgrown bushes swallowing the remains of a neighborhood. Crowded by thick pine and cedar trees, the road stretched out in front of them like a foreboding story with no end. Until I reach the corral, she thought.
“I heard you lost your dad in the Surge?” Heather asked. “Hello- Carly.”
“What?” Carly sat up and met Heather’s dark hazel stare.
“Your dad. You lost him in the Surge?” she repeated.
“Yea,” Carly answered. A flash of her dad’s lemon-lime colored eyes and the bulging vein across his forehead filled her vision. With nervous movements, she unscrewed the cap and took a drink of water.
Mandy accelerated into the next curve and what space there was between them vanished when Sandy slid into Carly smashing her into the side of the car.
“How did your mom handle it?” Veronica asked. “Is she a shadow?”
“No,” Carly replied quickly. She isn’t a shadow. The shadow virus settled in the minds of its victim’s, waiting to reveal itself. With equal coldness, the infected were given a printed warning label. Forever marked with a tattoo. Forever infected. Carly knew there was disgust in her tone, and there was nothing she was going to do about it. “After my dad got sick, he attacked her and died. She hasn’t been the same since.”
The dimly lit room, the smell of burning cigarettes and stale whiskey drifted around her memory. On the rare occasion Carly confronted her, her mom gave her the same excuses while her eyes held unsaid accusations. Guilt filled her, Carly knew her mother needed the escape. Part of her hated her mom for it. It was cowardly. Part of her wished she, too, could give in and simply exist.
“He attacked her? Were you there?” Mandy asked. She glanced in the rearview mirror, her bright sapphire eyes glittering.
“Yes,” Carly answered. “He almost killed her.” The image of her mom’s scar joined in the torture of the conversation.
“You were a kid,” Veronica replied. “That sucks.”
“She’s the reason, I moved out here. I couldn’t stay there any longer,” Carly admitted. “Too many memories.”
“We’ve all been there,” Heather began. “Not many people made it through the Surge untouched. The ones that did, crashed when they found out about the shadow virus. The virus divided the entire country.”
“Infecting some and turning the others into monsters,” Veronica added looking at Carly. “Damn shadows.”
“Shadows,” Carly mumbled. The walking, talking, infected.
The road lowered, then rose to a rolling hill causing Carly’s stomach to touch her throat. It was all she could do to swallow, take several deep breaths, and hope to stop herself from getting car sick.
“Are you two getting nervous?” Heather asked as she turned around.
“A little. This road isn’t helping.” Carly answered first. After taking a small sip of water, she looked at Sandy who was staring forward past Heather and out the windshield. “How about you?”  
“Nervous.” Sandy answered. She gave a tight smile that never reached her eyes, and with a nervous laugh returned her attention to the road.
The eerie feeling from earlier came back and warned her there was more going on than a sorority test.
No, she thought, I have commitment issues. She could thank her mother for that.
Carly shoved the feeling away as the car slipped into silence.
After humanity had successfully fought and gained control over the deviants, it faced the problem of having to contain the braindead murderers. Simply putting them down had been an idea, but was quickly rejected as inhumane. The answer came in the form of the corral. As if she needed a reminder, the sign for Crystal Lake Corral glared at her from the side of the road.
Thirty miles and I face the deviants. Exactly, what I hate, she thought. Carly had never wanted to go see what happened behind the walls. Never wanted to see who was behind the walls.
“Since we have about twenty minutes, we’ll go over the history and the importance of our beloved Bane Society chapter,” Heather announced. “Carly, when did the Bane Society advance from being a colony to an established chapter?”
“On the eight year anniversary of the Surge. The first madam, Annette Hughes, signed the license in front of the regional president,” Carly answered.
“Sharp as a tack,” Heather replied. “Sandy, what is the core dictum of the Bane Society?”
Carly swore Sandy physically shuddered when Heather asked the question. With everyone’s attention on her, Sandy hesitated a second, started to answer and then grew quiet. When Carly decided she would answer instead, Sandy cleared her throat, interrupting her, and began mumbling.
“Being part of the sisterhood that builds a foundation but does not rest on one. I am bound by honor and the oath to inspire others knowing we are all individually unique, but as a sisterhood, we are complete.”
“Damn, that was fantastic,” Heather said.
Carly couldn’t tell if Heather was mocking Sandy or was being serious. Not that it mattered. The feeling she was on the wrong side of the group started in again. Carly recognized the feeling and didn’t like it, not one bit. It was the same unnerving tinge that had driven through her when her parents had finally joined her at the cellar door.
***
As she made her way down the stairs, her dad held the door open. Carly paused when thunder rumbled and turned around, wanting to see the lightning's flare streak across the sky. Instead, she saw her father staring down at her. His squinted eyes barely visible under his hand that was pressed against his forehead. When his hand slowly lowered, she saw pain digging into the lines around his eyes and mouth, twisting his face. She hadn’t recognized him. His eyes stared at nothing, and that’s when the fear built up and began to invade her veins. She had never feared her dad. But at that moment, with the wind howling, thunder crashing in the sky, and the rain pounding the ground, she wished she could have pushed him into the storm and closed the door.  
***
“Hey Carly, you with us?” Heather asked, laughing. Her hazel eyes had changed color; now dark green stared at her from the front seat. “You seem to have something on your mind.”
“The test,” she answered automatically.
“Don’t go weak on us now. Right, Sandy?”
“Right,” Sandy quietly replied. She didn’t look at Carly, rather, she stared at Heather.
“The first group of women to be honored with becoming part of the Bane Society stood together against the hatred the uninfected humans held for the shadow people,” Heather explained.
“The hatred?” Carly asked. “They spread a disease. They are the disease.” She hated the shadows.  
“It’s not their fault,” Mandy said disagreeing.  
“As I was saying, ladies. When a shadow was near death, they would bring him or her here to the corral. The Bane Society would keep vigil until the shadow died and turned,” Heather finished.  
“Does that still happen?” Carly asked. She wasn’t going to coddle a shadow in their final moments.
“No, the shadows are delivered after they change. And it’s against the rules to hang-out at the corral. Someone could get hurt- so says security,” Veronica answered with a frown. Meeting Carly’s eyes, she shrugged her shoulders, huffed, and sat back in her seat.
Carly was beginning to think she should have researched the Bane Society before being part of bid day, and then signing on to be a pledge.
Too late now. Having felt alone since she arrived at college, she was desperate to be part of a group. It wasn’t a surprise, when Sandy asked her to visit the Bane house, Carly jumped at the chance. It’s fear, she told herself, I might not make it.
“I wanted to say thanks for this, for including me,” Carly said. They could like the shadows all they wanted. She just needed a place to belong. And everyone had their hang-ups. God knew, she did.
“That’s what we’re here for. We’re a sisterhood,” Sandy replied.
“A sisterhood,” Carly repeated. Did she see a shadow pass in Sandy’s mocha eyes?
“We’re all from somewhere that’s not here,” Mandy said staring at her in the rearview mirror. “Do you have anyone in a corral?”
“No. Thank goodness,” she answered. “Only child.”
“Me… too.” Veronica chimed in. “I think it’s better that way, you know, if there’s another surge.”
Carly knew she was lucky. Not having anyone to worry about made it easier. Not totally, I have mom, she thought. The idea of another surge, and if her mother would survive on her own or at all, created guilt that felt like stones in her middle.
***
While the tornado intensified and wreaked havoc outside, her dad’s attack grew worse. Adrenalin had driven through her, pushing Carly to pull her mom down the stairs, despite her protests. Carly pushed on the cellar door and when it opened, the wind caught it and pulled it from its hinges. Her dad sluggishly gathered his balance and stumbled after them. His boots, heavy with his weight, thumped each wood stair warning them of his approach.
***
“Be warned, Carly, this isn’t Sandy’s first time,” Heather said pulling her from her memories. “If she fails today, she’s out.”
“Really?” Carly asked.
“Yes,” Sandy mumbled. Her attention on her running shoes.
Carly almost felt bad. Heather’s tone had changed from casual, fun, to stern with an edge of meanness that ran through her words. Sitting back, she thought she should have understood the tension between them and the nagging feeling bugging her. Maybe, the task at hand was beginning to take shape. Yes, of course, she convinced herself, they were pledges and were about to go through their final test.  
Mandy turned off the main road, sending everyone to Veronica’s side of the car. The tires hit the dirt kicking gravel up and the sound of rocks hitting the undercarriage drowned out their conversation. No one talked. Heather didn’t turn around and Sandy tried her best not to touch Carly.
“Nice driving,” Heather commented.
“I can’t help it when I see dirt,” Mandy replied, giggling. She slowed the car, drove between two bushes and stopped.  
“Everyone out,” Heather ordered.
Carly grabbed her pack, inhaled, and paused before opening the door. Using it as a shield against the branches, she carefully got out and scooted down the side.
“If you’re scared, you can back out,” Heather offered. “Sandy? Carly?”
“No.” They answered at the same time.
“Are you sure?” Heather’s tone cut through their decision and mocked them. She turned her head, her blonde shoulder length hair moving over her sun bronzed skin. The amber yellow sunlight shone through the tree limbs bringing attention to the scar that stretched down her arm.
“I’m good,” Sandy answered.
“Yea, me too,” Carly replied.
“I’m sure you are,” Mandy challenged. No one missed the sarcasm wrapping around every word. “You know, when I had to do it, I was scared to death. Just the sounds they make are disgusting.”
“Right. All that grunting. And holy shit, don’t get me started on the smell,” Veronica said with disgust. “And the flies. Their bites leave open sores behind.”
“They’re the rotting dead. They’re going to smell,” Heather said looking at Veronica. “Yea, the flies are almost worse than the deviants.”  
Carly rolled her eyes. Yes, she knew the sounds they made and knew they smelled, she didn’t need to be reminded. She hadn’t known about the flies. Did it surprise her? No. Any bug feeding off an infected, walking, decaying corpse had to be bad. Determined to get it over with, she brushed her hair off her shoulders. Taking a hair band out of her jean pocket, she pulled her hair into a ponytail.
Heather took the lead and started walking away from the car. When everyone else saw her, they chased after in an attempt to catch up.
Except Carly. She waited for a second, took the bottle of water out of her pack and started after them. The memories of her parents and the Surge following her.
“Get it over with,” she mumbled.
“We could stick to the road,” Sandy suggested. Leaves, branches, and stones crunched under their footsteps as the five of them made their way deeper into the forest. “It’s creepy back here.”
“We could. And we could get caught by security. Do you want them asking us why we’re here after hours?” Heather shot back.
“No,” she answered weakly. “I guess not.”
“Anyway, this adds adventure to it and it gives you two time to think about things.”
The pine, cedar, and oak trees soon thinned allowing the late afternoon sun to shine down on the manzanita bushes and scattered wild flowers. The air smelled earthy and fresh, the soft breeze a cool caress.
Carly took a deep breath and watched Heather as she made her way over rocks and fallen limbs. With the thicker limbs, Heather had to stop, shift her weight and then step over. Carly wanted to ask what happened, but never did because she wouldn’t give up her own secrets.
Her eyes shifted from Heather to the direction of their destination. Ahead of them, shrouded by trees, sat the corral. The name alone was wrong. It gave the impression they were cattle and not virus infested man-eaters.  
Despite the sun shining on her, a chill raced down her spine and over her skin.
It isn’t right, Carly thought. Her stomach churned making it feel like there weren’t butterflies, but a flock of pterodactyls beating her insides.
“How do you feel?” Heather asked over her shoulder.
Carly waited for Sandy to answer and when she didn’t, figured she should.
“Great. I just want to get this over with.”
“Have you ever been to the visiting area?” Veronica asked.
“No,” Carly responded. “I’ve never wanted to see this place.”
“You didn’t come up here to check it out?” Sandy asked. “To see what you would be up against?”
“No. I didn’t think about it.” Carly looked around the woods and back at Sandy.
“You’ve never had anyone get sick? Ever?” Sandy asked.
“My dad was the one and only.”
“You don’t know anyone that got infected from the shadow virus?” Mandy asked.
“We lost contact with family during the Surge. After my dad died, my mom shut down and pushed everyone away. She said we were better off by ourselves.”
“You don’t like the infected or the shadows. You blame them for how things are, don’t you?” Heather asked.
“They carry the disease, threatening to spread it, and when they die they turn into those things in the corral. Why would I want to be around that?” Carly said defending herself.
Sandy’s question, you didn’t check it out, drifted through her thoughts. She wasn’t purposely going to see the decay of humanity living behind a wall.
“We’re closing in ladies,” Heather said. With a quicker pace, she hiked through the woods.

Part Two: Test Time
They continued walking in silence, the wind through the trees reminding her of the tornado. Carly’s attention left the corral and drifted to her mother.
***
She had sat on the floor of the living room crying and trying to stop the bleeding with a dish towel. He had bitten her several times, leaving teeth marks over both shoulders, but the worse had been the chunk taken from her chest. The hole bled freely, staining her white and blue checked apron a dark crimson.
His brown eyes had been glazed over, clear liquid seeped from the corners while yellow goo leaked from his ears. When she saw his dark form standing over her mom, she yelled at him to stop. Begged him to stop. He ignored her as if she hadn’t been there. She understood the man threatening them was no longer her dad. Somehow, he had died.
***
“Are you going to be all right? You look lost in thought,” Sandy asked.
“I think you need to worry about yourself, Sandy,” Heather advised, before Carly could answer.
“Yes.” Sandy nodded. She slowed down and looking at the ground, let the group pass her.
“The Crystal Creek Corral is the tallest wall in Northern California because the inmates are the most violent. They think it’s the extreme changes in weather, but who knows,” Veronica started. “Other places dig down, sixty feet or so, then build up and around, eliminating any chance of escape, but they couldn’t do that here because half of the facility is on the side of a mountain.”
“How tall is the wall?” Carly asked. She didn’t care, didn’t want to care.
“Seventy-five feet tall, all cables, wires, and steel. The posts go almost a hundred feet down, and there are miles of concrete making sure they stay there. It was featured in a magazine once,” Mandy offered.
“The concrete goes up twenty feet, but on the inside, there are steel slats. If one of the deviants try to escape by climbing out, their fingers and feet are sliced off,” Veronica added. “And you know what the smell of blood does to them.”
“The deviants go into a blood rage. Like sharks go into a feeding frenzy,” Mandy said. “They attack and eat like animals.”  
“How do you all know so much about this place?” Carly asked. She quickly realized, she was the only one who didn’t know anything about the wall or the corral.
“They’re sick. We’re the Bane Society, the name means plague. And I know a lot of things, some good, some bad,” Mandy answered.
After that, no one else said anything. Carly went over the conversation, trying to understand their obsession with the corral and the ‘better off dead.’ It wasn’t her fault, she didn’t have a fixation on the stupid thing. She shook her head; she was defensive because they knew more than she did about a topic she didn’t care about. Well done.
“Tick-tock, Carly. We’re getting closer,” Heather said, singing the last words.
Carly didn’t respond for fear of saying something that might ruin her chances of passing the test.
They all continued onward. When metal shined in the sunlight, the sight stopped her. Her time had come. She was going to have to prove she was Bane Society material.
Was she really Bane material? The doubts about being part of a sorority with the name meaning plague wrapped around her fear. She did want to be part of something. However, that need was beginning to weaken as the corral grew closer.
Together, they walked across the empty parking lot. No one paid attention to the warnings; they would face prosecution if they were caught after hours and the victims in the corral carried a million diseases as well as the shadow virus.
“Here we are,” Heather announced. She stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and took a bottle of water out of her pack. “The Crystal Creek Corral in all its bloody glory.”
“Wow, it’s bigger than I thought it was going to be,” Carly mumbled looking at the monstrosity.
Concrete rose up and out of the ground making it impossible to see inside. Most of the wall was hidden by trees and flowering bushes as if they were trying to make it as serene as possible. Further down the sidewalk, there was a gate. Behind it, a set of stairs ascended to what she guessed was the observation deck. Who the hell would come here?
“Everyone says that the first time,” Veronica responded. “It’s worse than a prison when you think about it. They had to build it strong enough to keep a cannibalistic, diseased, and dying population from getting out.”
“It’s awful,” Sandy said. “And sad.”
“Is it?” Heather asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Not the corral. The families,” Sandy answered quickly. “The families who have to come here for a chance to see what’s left.”
“Good. Wouldn’t want things to change, would we?”
“No,” Sandy agreed.
Carly paid them little attention. She looked down and saw her hands were sticky with drying blood. Shaking her head, the imagined blood disappeared. She knew what she was going to do, what she needed to do.    
“Snap out of it, Carly, you’re up,” Heather said looking at her.
“Me first?” Carly asked and looked at Sandy.
“Yes, you first. Sandy, here has things to think about,” Heather replied.  
“Fine, I got this.” Carly met Heather’s gaze for a breath before her eyes darted to the wall.
“That’a girl. All you have to do is go inside and get an article. It’s up to you, be it a hand, foot, finger, but it has to be something we can recognize as belonging to one of them,” Heather explained. “Don’t let them touch you, diseases and the virus, you know. Off you go.”
She wasn’t worried about the diseases and the virus. If she was close enough that they touched her, she was going to be dead. Or part of the population, she thought grimly.
“You can’t take your backpack,” Veronica added.
“Why not? How am I supposed to carry the article out if I don’t have a backpack? Plus, I need my hands free,” Carly argued.
“We don’t believe you would cheat by having human pieces in your pack, but I do love a challenge,” Heather answered. “No pack.”
Carly waited to see if Heather was going to change her mind. When her hazel eyes narrowed and her hands went to her hips, Carly knew it was a losing battle. She regretfully took her pack off, set it on the ground, unzipped it and with a shaking hand shoved her empty bottle inside.
“The later it is, the more active they become. You might want to get a move on,” Heather advised.
“I’m going,” Carly replied as she stared at the concrete wall.
With her past alive in her head, she turned away from the group and started toward the stairs. When she was several feet away, she stopped, her mind racing through a dozen scenarios and none of them good.
“You don’t have all day; or night.”
She wouldn’t turn around and acknowledge Heather’s sarcastic tone, not with fear etched on her face. And she really didn’t want to see the smug look of satisfaction on Heather’s. She inhaled a deep breath and continued. If her mother knew what she was doing, she would kill her.
Carly put her hands on the locked gate, balanced, swung one leg over and hopped down. She walked down the short walkway and to the stairs.  
“This is stupid,” she mumbled.
“It’s OK to quit,” Heather yelled.
“Dammit.” Making the first step, a chill raced down her spine contradicting the sheen of sweat on her skin. Step after step, she couldn’t stop the thousand reasons why she should ditch the Bane Society.  
She reached the top and surveyed the benches, the scattered bug bodies and the trash cans overflowing with empty cans of bug spray. With a crunching sound under her running shoes, she ignored the scene and continued to the railing. The breeze blew around her, giving her faint hints of what was brewing on the other side. Carly held her breath, gripped the edge, and leaned over. There was no sign of a deviant, but it was still early in the day and she hadn’t invaded their territory.
It had to be enough. She could be in and out without getting their attention. Carly backed up to get a better view of the cyclone fencing around the visitor area. It had been built to keep people from climbing over, like her. She walked around to a gate marked, security only and searched. It was lower and less guarded, and once inside, she would be able to climb over and into the corral.  
“We can see you. You can beat half dead people, can’t you?” Heather yelled.
“Yea, yea, bitch,” she mumbled. She wished Heather would shut-up. “Half dead people. I can beat half dead people.”
Who knew the barometric pressure would fuck up a person’s brain, turn it to jelly and create the Surge? No one.
Carly climbed up and over the gate then down the other side. When she reached the guard’s station, she turned around and searched the corral. The same cyclone fencing surrounded the entire platform protecting the guards from the deviants, and maybe the visitors. In the corral, clusters of trees and brush stopped her from seeing deeper into the woods while the moans and cries echoed.
“Shit, shit, shit.” If she waited, it was going to get worse. She had to be quick.
With icy apprehension, she stared down and wondered if she jumped, would the landing kill her, or worse, would she break a leg and become dinner. Without waiting, because if she did she would change her mind, she turned and started to climb. She reached the top and went down the other side until the fence ran out. Once there, she clung to the platform. The muscles in her arms burned and when her hands started to cramp, she closed her eyes and dropped.
Carly landed hard, her knees buckling, and fell backward. Lying on the ground, she stared up at the sky as a thread of exhaustion weaved through her body and a buzzing sound filled her ears. She released the breath she had been holding and inhaled. The sharp smell of spoiled ground, the sour scent of human waste and decay joined the bouquet of odors bringing her stomach to her throat. She breathed in through her mouth, hoping to swallow the rising nausea.
After willing her stiffening muscles to move, she got to her feet and turned around to face the woodline. The silence ended when a growl vibrated from the woods, sounding too close for comfort. She looked up. When she didn’t see anything, she focused on her search.  
“How hard can it be,” she mumbled as she started walking.
She counted her steps, stopped, listened, and hearing nothing, bent down, and picked up a stick. After thirty yards and not finding anything, she turned around and headed back to where she had started. Mumbling curses the entire time, she walked with her head down, searching the ground for anything that might serve as evidence.
She stopped. With the stick, she started poking a pile of rags and then a clump of grass. The rags fell over, beetles crawled from the grass, and she cursed. Nothing. Half dead people and no body parts. Frustrated, Carly continued walking while keeping watch of the woodline.
She stopped, frozen where she stood and fighting the urge to scream. She stared at scabbed, dirty feet sticking out from thin ankles. Wet ribbons of skin hung from its left shin while flies crawled in and out of the ragged wounds. Nausea bubbled up, threatening her throat, with the sight. She slowly raised her head not wanting to make any sudden moves, and looking up, automatically took a step backward.
It- he- didn’t matter, stood inches in front of her, slightly swaying, with its mouth hanging open showing broken teeth, black gums, and half a tongue. The bones of its shoulders hunched inward, caving in while darkened blood seeped from cuts and scrapes soaking through a blue t-shirt.
She met its bulging eyes and saw a darkness swimming in insanity. Whatever the eyes were staring at, it wasn’t her. A guttural moan gurgled out of the slack mouth, releasing a mass of tiny bugs that moved as a wave up and over its ashen cheek. The next moan sent fear cascading over her as it sounded more alive than dead. And loud.
It sounded loud.
Carly started walking backwards, too afraid to take her eyes off him. With each step, she feared going too far from the platform.
“There’s only one of them. There’s only one of them,” she repeated, like the mantra was going to help her.
“I bet you thought you were going to make it.”
Carly’s head jerked up and she saw Heather standing on the guard’s platform with Sandy and the others beside her.
“What the hell is this? Get me the hell out of here!” Carly yelled.
“Um, no,” Heather replied.
“Come on.” Carly looked away from Heather to watch the man lumber closer. “Get me out of here.”
“No!” Heather yelled. Her voice rising to a squeal.
Fear sat in the shock of Heather’s answer, causing Carly to look up at her. “What is this?”
“Initiation, Carly,” Heather replied. “How are you feeling?” She stood with her hands on her hips, her lips curved in a grin.
“Like I want out of here.”
“Let me think… No.” Heather bent down and sat on the platform, her legs folded in front of her. “You’re not Bane Society material.”
“What?” Carly stopped. Her head spinning with having to split her attention between the deviant and Heather.
The nagging feeling came back, only this time, she invited its warning. Sandy. She stood her ground beside Heather but denied Carly eye contact.
“You guessed it. Sandy is the pledge. And to be accepted into the Bane Society, she had to get someone, like you, in the corral. That was the test. Boy howdy, there for a minute, I thought you might run, turning the table and forcing us to toss Sandy over. But damn, you jumped right in.”
“Someone like me?” Carly asked.
“We’re shadows, Carly. And you’re not.”  
Carly was having a hard time wrapping her mind around the words coming from Heather. Her concentration riddled with the deviant, escape, and the threads of exhaustion gripping her body.
“You never answered my question. But you don’t need to. I can see the results of the drugs written all over your face.”
“Drugs,” Carly mumbled. Her thoughts swam in a sea of fatigue and panic. Shadows. They trapped her.
“That’s how we roll,” Heather said. “It paralyzes you. We can’t have our entertainment running away. I mean, we have to be able to watch.”
“You all are sick. Traitors!” Carly yelled. “You’re murderers.”
“No, they are,” Mandy corrected.
Carly watched two more decaying bodies emerge from the trees, their slow shamble creating enough noise to attract others. With the threat of facing more of them, she had one choice.
“She’s going to go for it,” Veronica said. “I think, I miss calculated the drugs.”
“It’s enough,” Heather replied.
“If she would have visited, she would know there’s no way out.” Sandy offered. “That’s poor planning.”
Carly looked up at Heather then at the approaching deviants. She needed to make it to the slats, climb up and get to the platform. Easy. Once she was out, she was going to toss every one of those shadow bitches to the deviants. Carly inhaled, choked down her fear and started running straight at the man. When she was beside him, he raised his ragged arm covered in bugs and tried to catch her. Carly didn’t stop, she ran as hard and fast as she could and then leaped to the thick strips of metal.
The first bites of pain were drowned out under the adrenaline pumping through her veins. It quickly spread and the searing fire raced into her wrists and arms. At the same time, a sharp sting invaded her feet, ankles, and travelled up her calves. Before she understood what was happening, she was falling backward, leaving the skin of her fingers hanging on the steel plates. Chunks of her running shoes and slices of her feet fell to the ground. With raw pain engulfing her, she saw white bone covered with a thin sheen of crimson stuck out from her wrists.
“Oh damn, that was ballsy,” Mandy said with approval.
Carly’s scream stopped when she hit the hard packed dirt and her breath rushed from her lungs. Around her, the footsteps of the deviants thundered with her heartbeat and she began to frantically gulp for air. As if it had pulled the muscles from her body, a chill seized and paralyzed her. Carly’s eyes burned as tears soaked the sides of her face.
She stared up and watched the concrete wall fade and change into her mom’s house.
***
Carly wouldn’t risk going for help. She wouldn’t leave her mom with… her dad. She had raced to her room, grabbed her shotgun, and headed back to the living room. The wind howled as she tucked the shotgun on her shoulder. Her father turned to look at her with pieces of her mom’s skin hanging from his mouth.
Carly pulled the trigger. Flesh and blood erupted and he stumbled backward from the force. She didn’t know how he did it, but he gained his footing and narrowed his gaze at her. She reloaded the gun and waited. He stumbled toward her and with a slow inhale, she fired again. His chest exploded and he hit the floor with a heavy thud.
***
“I’m sorry, mom,” she whispered. Her mom was completely alone now.
The image dissolved, the sounds faded, and Carly’s thoughts stilled as the golden light of the sun sank behind the mountains. The deviants moved in, taking her view of the sky as their multiplying footsteps forced the flies to abandon their meals.
***
“How many times did we have to say Bane, before she connected it to the virus? She didn’t even get it,” Mandy said.
“No, she didn’t. But who would guess a couple of shadow girls with serial numbers tattooed on their necks, would have a club,” Heather responded.
“It’s one thing to want to be a Bane Society member and another to give to the society,” Mandy said.
“Well said,” Veronica offered.
“Sandy, you are officially a Bane Society member. Congratulations, sister,” Heather announced.
Sandy heard the word traitor float through her thoughts. “Thank you, it is an honor,” she replied.
“Hey, they got her,” Veronica’s voice had risen with her excitement.
Carly’s screams, as they tore at her flesh, drowned out the cracking of breaking branches and the shuffling of feet as dozens emerged from the woodline.
“Sisters, together we are complete,” Heather said as she put her arm around Sandy.  

M.A. Kastle

M.A. Kastle, resides in Southern California. She has been published in the Women in Horror Annual. With a notebook, pen, and camera she travels, camps, and always enjoys an afternoon at a winery.

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.