Author Archives: Kenneth W. Cain

About Kenneth W. Cain

Dark Fiction Author

Jack Wallen: Cry Zombie Cry excerpt

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chapter 3 | exit light, enter Rizzo

 

“Oh my God, turn that fucking thing off!” Joshua shouted over the Obliterator.

“What’s the matter, tough guy?” Morgan chided.

Jamal leaned forward, his head between the front seats, to address Josh and Morgan. “Tell me you have an ETA on your unit.”

“Aren’t you having fun? It’s like Camp of the Damned.” Joshua laughed at his attempted humor.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that film; it doesn’t end well—at least not for us.”

Morgan leaned over and smacked the back of Joshua’s head. “Stop being such a goofball, Josh. Tell the poor man how soon the cavalry will arrive.”

Josh laughed and glanced at his watch. “They should be here any minute.”

The distant sound of moans wafted up from the darkening sky.

“Please don’t get dark yet,” Echo whispered, as if to hide her plea. I wrapped my arms around her tiny frame and pulled her into me.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let anything hurt you.”

The words took me back to broken promises from the past. Susan—another young girl I’d promised to protect. That failure would eat at my heart for eternity. The only thing to be done was to finally make good on a similar promise and ensure nothing happened to Echo.

So far, so good.

“By the way, what’s the plan once we’re gassed up and on the road?” Jamal spoke softly. I loved that about him, how he always knew when to effect peace in a room—one of his many gifts.

“The plan hasn’t changed,” I started. “We hunt down and kill the Zero Day Collective and reclaim Jacob.”

Echo shuddered. “Jesus, when you put it that way it makes Jacob seem more property than prophet.”

The sentiment cut sharply. The thought that Jacob would ever be seen as a commodity to be tossed back and forth between enemy lines was insane. He was my baby, my joy, my hope for life. The idea threatened to spiral me down into emotional withdrawal. I had to change the subject before I reached critical psychological mass.

“Speaking of which,” I added, as I focused my attention back to the laptop, “I need to see if the tracker has any hits.”

It has always been rumored that technology would eventually be the ultimate demise of man. The singularity would occur and machines would take over. The tiniest fragment of my intelligence begged me to consider it possible the singularity had finally arrived—in human form. The lowest common denominator had won out and would overtake the planet with predictable stupidity and greed. Ignorance and power were the new currency.

I propped the laptop back on my lap and minimized the Obliterator application. In its place came the tracker. The application ran in the background, collecting tons of data from the network at large. Any time specific suspect words were captured, traveling across the global network of connected computers and communication satellites, a flag would be raised and the data packets logged. Once the tracker had collected enough data, I could sift through the information and begin piecing together the location of the Zero Day Collective and Jacob. It was only a matter of time before they appeared on my radar. The NSA and Sherlock Holmes had nothing on me.

As soon as the tracker window was open, Jamal peered over my shoulder, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. I could feel his warm breath on my neck as my eyes ripped through the information. A pattern started to develop.

Mobile unit.

Biologist.

Zero Day Collective.

Jacob.

40.0176 degrees North.

105.2797 degrees West.

“Bethany,” Jamal whispered, “that’s Boulder, Colorado. But what does it mean by “Mobile unit”?”

“Well, Jamal, I would assume it means that whoever is sending out these communications happens to be on some sort of mobile Zero Day Collective biological unit. In other words, it’s moving.”

Jamal sighed. “So getting a fixed location isn’t likely.”

I nodded.

Jamal grinned. “Yes, but…if you get a number of consecutive coordinates, you can at least predict where the unit will be at a given time. Of course, that would require knowing what type of unit and at what speed they were traveling.”

Before Jamal could continue, I silenced him with a palm to the lips.

“Joshua, how quickly can you get us to Boulder?”

Josh laughed. “At this rate it’ll take, oh, forever!”

Again, Morgan smacked Josh across the back of the head.

“I’m just fucking with you. We get back up to speed soon, and I can have you there in a day…tops.”

“B, what do you have in mind?”

Before I could answer Jamal, a soul-destroying roar ripped through the truck. The prehistoric release was followed by the shattering of glass and a pale arm reaching into the truck. Dirty, blood-soaked fingers tangled deep into Echo’s hair and yanked hard. Echo released a cry that was almost too high in pitch to hear as the arm pulled her head toward the shattered glass.

“What the hell? The Obliterator is running strong.” Josh shouted, as he gave the volume knob for the Obliterator one last turn.

“Oh my God, look at its ears,” was all Morgan needed to say.

Blood was caked around both ears. A thick, viscous liquid bubbled from the holes on the side of his head.

“The fucker cracked his skull on the cement until he went deaf,” Joshua added. “Perfect immunity to the power of the Obliterator.”

The beast gave another tug that pulled Echo’s head nearer the shattered window. Echo’s arms flailed outward to thwart the thing’s attempts at commandeering her skull.

 

* *   *   *   *

 jack_hands

The stench of frozen rotted meat is in the air! Welcome to the Winter of Zombie Blog Tour 2014, with 10 of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of November.

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Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser… and pick up some great swag as well! Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them! #WinterZombie2014

https://www.facebook.com/events/1524813084430035/?ref_notif_type=plan_user_joined&source=1

AND so you don’t miss any of the posts in November, here’s the complete list, updated daily:

http://armandrosamilia.com/2014/11/01/winter-of-zombie-post-list-winterzombie2014/


Wordslinger Shootout – Round 15

BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND ANDREW NIENABER IS GIVING AWAY A SIGNED PAPERBACK COPY OF HIS LATEST BOOK, STZ  AND PETER SALOMON IS GIVING AWAY A PAPERBACK COPY OF HIS BOOK, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE ON SEPTEMBER 26th (around noon time).

Round15

MINOS

by Andrew Nienaber

At first, when the thing attached itself to the back of Todd’s neck, he barely even noticed. It wasn’t big, about the size of a large spider back home, and it barely weighed anything at all. He ran into the colony in the crag of a rock near the touchdown site shortly after disembarking from the lander.

It was a routine scouting mission for the mining company he worked for, one of dozens he’d done in the past several months. Land on an asteroid or small exo-planet, scan for valuable minerals, check to be sure the planet didn’t have hydrochloric acid for an atmosphere or meat-eating flora, and pop back up to the ship. In point of fact, he’d found very little in the way of life on his trips. Mostly they were just lifeless stones hurtling through space, their cores filled with tungsten and platinum.

But a few minutes into his time on the tiny, rapidly-spinning dustball the company was calling Minos he put his hand into an oddly-shaped indentation in a rock and stirred a nest of creatures he’d never seen before. They were transparent, glass-like, with an array of ten to twelve multi-segmented legs in a perfect circle around a central thorax. The organs were a blueish green, almost aqua, and the things appeared to have no eyes or apertures of any sort. Todd was fascinated and pulled out his scanner to record them scuttling over the surface of the stone.

Having gathered ten minutes or so of video and a wide variety of bio-scans, Todd was satisfied that the animals posed no threat to the potential of stripping Minos of its rich beryllium and, more excitingly, rhodium deposits. He turned his back on the hive and was heading toward the lander when he felt a feather-light brushing sensation on the back of his neck. He assumed it was the collar of his grimy work shirt or a small fleck of stone whisking around in the brisk breeze that Minos’ Earth-like atmosphere provided. He tugged on the bottom of his shirt to straighten it and took another few steps then screamed as he felt every nerve in his body come suddenly, explosively to life. He found himself on the rocky ground, rolling back and forth as though trying to put out flames, the agony abating just long enough for him to take stock of his situation before drowning him in pain again.

It was as though his entire nervous system was on fire. He felt his nerves individually, could track their paths through his body by the burning. His muscles were involuntarily contracting then spasming and jumping, causing him to flop around like a fish out of water in Minos’ lowered gravity. Eventually he passed out.

—–

When Todd awoke he was laying on his stomach on the table in the ship’s mess area. His pilot Anders was sitting at a chair on the other side of the room, just staring at him. The pain had subsided to a hazy but ceaseless throb, and his limbs still twitched occasionally.

“I was worried you’d never come to,” said Anders.

Todd barely had the strength to speak. “What…”

“Something on the back of your neck.” With a great effort, Todd tried to raise his hand to feel it, but he couldn’t get his arm much off of the table. “I wouldn’t move too much right now if I were you. I tried to pull it off, but it seems to have dug into your brain stem. Fascinating little thing.”

“Like a spider, but clear?”

“Yeah. So you saw it?”

“I found a nest of them on the surface. I didn’t notice that one managed to get itself on me.”

“I ran some scans on it,” Anders said, pulling out a tablet and putting it in front of Todd’s face. “I’ll have to leave it to science division to fully parse all this data, but it looks like it’s sending some sort of electrical pulse directly into your nervous system through two of those…I don’t know if ‘legs’ is exactly the right word, but…”

Todd shuddered with revulsion.

“There’s a third appendage that’s also dug in, closer to the spine. It doesn’t seem to have hit any nerves. I think it’s some sort of anchor, something to keep you from just plucking the thing out and tossing it out the airlock.”

“How did I get here?”

“You were gone for hours and not responding to my calls. I finally took the life raft down and found you. I dragged you into the drop ship and brought it back up. Had to leave the raft for now. You can help me retrieve it when you’re feeling better. After we get that thing off of you.”

“Speaking of…”

“Yeah, I wanted to wait a bit to see if you’d wake up before I did anything. It was impossible to tell whether the pain you were feeling was from the thing or from my attempts to remove it.”

“Well, I’m awake now and I’d really like it if you-”

“There’s one more thing, and it’s a doozy. The scans…well, this sounds ridiculous, but…” He swiped a few screens over on the tablet and held it back in front of Todd’s face. “See these metabolism spikes? Each one corresponds with a wave of tremors and screaming on your part. I think…I mean, I’m just a dumb space jockey so take this however you want, but…I think this thing is feeding on your pain, metabolizing it somehow. That would explain why it was so bad at first and then tapered off. I think it…I think it just got full.”

Todd’s mind was spinning. Anders was not a man prone to humor, but the whole experience was nearly impossible to process as anything other than an elaborate prank. It did, however, explain why a creature would evolve the peculiar talent to inflict instant and thorough agony. At the thought, Todd felt an echo of his previous torment shoot through his limbs.

“Pull it out, Anders. I don’t care what it takes.”

“It’s in your brain stem, man. I’m worried that if I move it too much you might end up paralyzed or worse.”

“I need you to get this thing out of me before it gets hungry again.”

Anders nodded and reached for the pair of tweezers sitting on a tray to his left. As he walked to the table, Todd closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. The second Anders touched the thing a new wave of pain shot through him, and his legs shook uncontrollably. Anders leaned hard on his back with his left forearm to stabilize him and got a solid grip on the creature.

“Oh fuck, Anders, I think it’s defending itself. It’s like hot metal is pouring through my bones.”

“Do you want me to stop?” Anders asked, his voice trembling slightly as he backed away from the table.”

“No, I want you to get the fucking thing off of me right fucking now.

Anders leaned on Todd’s back again and gripped the thing with his tweezers.

“One…”

A fresh round of hell hit Todd. He screamed.

“Two…”

White spots overtook his vision. Anders’ voice sounded a mile away. He could hear the rush of blood through his eardrums, feel every single nerve ending in his body vibrating like a bell.

“Th-“

Oblivion.

—–

It was six more days before the trip ended. There had been some persistent discomfort at the site where the thing had attached itself – a bit of mild swelling and an itch that refused to go away – but Anders had done a thorough job of getting all of its appendages out of Todd’s neck. They spent a day letting him recover, then retrieved the life raft and continued on with the mission.

Todd had experienced the occasional headache and, every so often, a Tourette’s-like spasm in one of his extremities, but on the whole he felt worlds better. The other four objects they scouted – two asteroids, a tiny moon and an unusually slow comet – had shown little promise for minerals and absolutely no life, much to Todd’s relief. When they at last docked back at the depot, he checked himself in to the medical unit to make sure no lasting damage was done to him.

The doctors put him through a battery of tests, some of them nearly as excruciating as what the creature had done to him. They examined its carcass and probed the red, swollen spot where it had pierced his brain stem. Finally, they did a series of resonance images. As Todd was changing out of the hospital robe and back into his street clothes, a doctor knocked politely on the exam room door then entered, tablet in hand.

“Mr. Ahrens, I’ve got the results of the resonance images here and…” He cleared his throat.

Todd’s palms began to sweat. He felt a headache stirring. “Something wrong?”

The doctor held out the tablet for him to take. He looked at the picture but couldn’t make out a thing. “What am I looking at here?”

“That’s the area around the wound. That comma-shaped thing taking up most of the screen is your brain stem. See the small cluster of red dots about two-thirds of the way down?”

“Yeah, I see it. What is that?”

“Mr. Lund told us that there were three points of ingress where the creature punctured you. The two that went into your nerves seem to have been there to stimulate pain. The third, we thought, was an anchor. It seems that that was a mistake.”

“So…” Todd felt a jolt of panic that made his stomach flip. “So what do you think it was?”

“We think…we can’t be sure, mind you…but we think it was an ovipositor.”

“A…”

The doctor leaned over and pointed at the cluster of red dots on the screen.

“I’m sorry to have to say this, Mr. Ahrens, but I don’t think you’re quite finished with this yet. These? These are eggs.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Nienaber has been an ice cream truck driver, a bartender, a teacher, a writer, a blogger, a director of operas, and all-around theater professional and a long-time observer of the human condition. He is one of the founders of FatalDownflaw.com and his short-lived blog about his experiences selling ice cream, The Ill Humor Man, drew hundreds of hits per day. Andrew’s premiere novel Truly, Deeply Disturbed was nominated for novel of the year by both Pulp Ark and his story “What We Found” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can receive periodic updates about his work – as well as a huge amount of snark – through Andrew Nienaber’s Grammar Correction Institute at http://facebook.com/ANGrammar.

*********************

BILLY

by Peter “Doc” Salomon

They met deep in the woods behind Billy’s house, following the map he’d sold them in lunch. Nothing much every really happened in Elk Grove Middle School, and promises of something dangerous and unusual ran like wildfire though the cafeteria. The rumor started in recess, that Billy had a secret he refused to tell. Could be anything. No one knew, and Billy wasn’t the sort to kiss and tell.

Not that anyone knew anyone who might have kissed Billy. But it was a rumor, of a secret, of a promise, of something dangerous. The four of them had pooled their lunch money, offered it to Billy in the bathroom, and Billy had taken the money with a smile. He drew a map on the back of a napkin, told them to bring their most prized possession in trade and then left, whistling while he counted his newfound wealth.

Now, they hoped it wasn’t too late as they tried to figure out which path was which on the balled up napkin. A ketchup stain covered most of the white square, making it more difficult that it needed to be. Still, they continued through the woods.

It was a little chilly, not cold yet. October in Elk Grove tended to mild more than anything, as average as the whole town really, where nothing much ever happened and every kid dreamed of nothing so much as getting out and only returning for reunions. The trees still had leaves, orange and red mostly, and they rustled in the wind.

The boys kept going until they reached the spot they thought corresponded to the ‘X’ Billy had drawn.

“Should be right here,” Steve said, pulling the napkin out of Mike’s hands.

“Give that back,” Mike said, but he didn’t try reaching for it. Steve had a good twenty pounds on him, most of it blubber, but still, twenty pounds was twenty pounds.

“Has to be around here somewhere,” Rami said. “Unless Billy just sent us on a wild goose chase and he’s at home laughing his ass off right now.”

“Nope,” Billy said, walking down another path. “No wild geese.”

“So, what’s the big secret?” Chris asked, looking around the woods.

“This way,” Billy said, waving them over.

As they walked, the sun played with the leaves, so they kept walking in and out of shadows. “What did you bring?” Billy asked as they entered a small clearing. A broken down car sat on the side, covered over with weeds. Most of it was rust.

It was the most fascinating thing they’d ever seen.

“Has to be a hundred years old,” Steve said, staring at it.

“More.”

“My old man says about sixty,” Billy said. “But that’s not the big secret.”

“Here,” Chris said, pulling a baseball out of his coat pocket and handing it over. “I caught it at a Red Sox game when we went last year.”

“Cool,” Billy said as he put it in his own pocket and then turned to Steve.

Steve pulled out a small plastic bag but didn’t let go. He looked at the comic book inside, a small smile on his face as he studied it. “It’s the first issue,” he said, before giving it to Billy. Still, he kept touching the bag as long as possible.

“Spawn,” Billy said, reading the cover. “Who wrote all over it?”

“Joss Whedon,” Steve said with a shrug.

“Joss Whedon didn’t have anything to do with Spawn,” Mike said. “Did he?”

“No,” Steve said. “I just didn’t have anything else on me for Joss Whedon to sign and it was Joss freaking Whedon.”

Everyone laughed at that, except Steve as he watched Billy roll the comic book up and shove it in his coat pocket.

Billy then turned to Mike. “What did you bring?”

Mike turned a couple different shades of red as the sun dipped behind a cloud. Then he fished a piece of cloth out of his back pocket and threw it at Billy.

The fabric smacked Billy in the face and then fell to the ground. Everyone stared at it. Small and pink, with lace trim. No one made a move to pick it up.

“What are those?” Billy asked.

Mike laughed, but it was a little too forced. “Panties,” he said. “Lisa left them at my house after a sleepover with my sister.”

“They’re probably your sister’s panties, you perv,” Steve said, punching Mike in the shoulder.

“No,” Mike said, “I heard Lisa complaining that she’d lost them.”

Billy picked them up, holding them in his hands for a moment. “Nice,” he said before hiding them away.

Everyone turned toward Rami, who shrugged. “Sorry,” he said, before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a handful of scrunched up bills and some change. Coins fell through his fingers to the ground. “It’s $57.43. That’s all I could find.” He shrugged. “Could have brought you a pair of my mom’s panties if I thought anyone would want them.”

“I want your mom’s panties,” Mike said.

“Shut up,” Billy said, as he counted the bills, ignoring the coins on the ground. Then, he turned back to the car. “You can’t tell anyone, ok?”

They all promised.

“No one would believe you anyway, they’d just say you’re insane and lock you up.” He laughed, then opened the door to the car.

Rust flakes fell to the ground, and the squealing was loud enough to wake the dead. Inside, a pile of clothes filled the front seat, the smell of mold and decay strong now that it was open.

Billy picked up a quarter that Rami had dropped and tossed it onto the clothes. Then another, harder. “Wake up!” Another quarter bounced off the clothes before they started moving.

The boys took a step back, staring at the front seat of the ancient car as a thin, bony hand started pushing the clothes aside. But it wasn’t the hand that had them backing up. Not even the long dirty fingernails that looked as though they’d been filed to points. It was the skin. Dark green. Sickly green. Glowing green as the sun hit it.

Inhuman green.

Then, momentum took over and all the clothes fell to the floor of the car. Dust billowed up. The green hand was attached to a green arm, of course. An entire green body, no taller than a couple of feet. A large green head. Too large, really. With big green eyes that stared back at them.

Then, it hissed, exposing far too many teeth.

It reached for them, lunging, but was caught short on a hunter’s trap that bit into both its legs. Green blood dripped over the metal teeth.

The hiss turned into a squeal and the creature opened its mouth in a scream. Green teeth, also filed to points, and a green tongue. The creature’s pain was obvious.

“Master will come for me,” it said, the words hissed out.

The boys shook as the voice crawled over their eardrums, down their spinal columns. It was English, but it didn’t sound like English. It sounded like a snake hacking up a smaller snake it was trying to eat, fingernails on a blackboard, and that threshing sound when the disposal in the sink had a spoon caught in it all rolled up together, then played back too quickly and in reverse. Still, they understood every word.

“Help me,” the creature said, wrapping long green fingers around the metal teeth, trying to pull the trap open. Then it gave up, turning back to the boys with another hiss.

“Feed me,” it hissed. “Master will reward you.”

“It says that a lot,” Billy said.

The boys looked back and forth from Billy to the creature. “What does it eat?”

Billy shrugged, then took the baseball out of his pocket. He underhanded it into the car. It bounced off the creature’s face.

“Hey!” Chris said, but he didn’t make a move to retrieve his ball.

The creature hissed but didn’t pay any attention to the baseball.

Billy placed his hand on Chris’ shoulder. “Sorry,” he said. “Had to test that, you know.”

Chris nodded. “I know,” he said but if he had anything else to say it disappeared as Billy shoved him toward the car. Chris tripped on a root, falling a little short. But close enough for the creature to reach at the end of his chain.

Long bony green fingers snaked out with another brutal hiss, pulling Chris closer. He screamed, but it was drowned out by the wind in the leaves, by the screams of the other boys as they yelled at Billy.

Steve spun around, starting to run away when he ran into someone standing at the edge of the clearing. Behind him, he could hear the hissing slurping sounds as the creature started eating. Chris screamed, but every scream was softer than the one before until finally the screams ended completely.

Steve stood absolutely still. Not that he had a choice as large green bony hands grabbed each of his arms. Steve looked up. And up. And up. At the giant green creature holding him. The creature hissed, dark and deep like boulders rubbing together.

“Master will be coming,” the creature said, dragging Steve back to the car. Other giant green creatures held the other boys. Except Billy, who bent over the creature in the car, pulling the teeth of the trap apart.

The small creature hissed, then grabbed Billy’s hand and limped out of the car.

“Tasty?” the largest creature hissed.

“Very.”

“We had a deal,” Billy said as the creatures started eating the other boys.

Screams filled the small clearing for a few minutes. Then, there was silence.

“Tasty,” the largest creature hissed.

When even the bones had been eaten, the creatures turned to Billy. The smallest one stood in front of him. “Master,” he said, before they all knelt in the clearing.

Billy picked up the littlest creature. “I hope it was worth it,” he said. “All this just to eat a human.” Then he took a bite out of the creature’s skull. He spit out a tuft of green hair before finishing his meal.

The larger creatures hissed and cried but made to move to stop him as he fed.

Finally, he sat down in the middle of the clearing, took out Lisa’s panties and used them to wipe the green blood off his face. Then he removed Spawn from its plastic bag and began to read while the large green creatures picked up the remains of their child and left their master alone.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Adam Salomon graduated Emory University in Atlanta, GA with a BA in Theater and Film Studies in 1989.

He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Horror Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers, and The Authors Guild and is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. His debut novel, HENRY FRANKS, was published by Flux in September 2012. His next novel, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS, a ghost story set in Savannah, GA, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2014 by Flux.

His short fiction has appeared in the Demonic Visions series and he was the featured author for Gothic Blue Book III: The Graveyard Edition. His poem ‘Electricity and Language and Me’ appeared on BBC Radio 6 performed by The Radiophonic Workshop in December 2013. In addition, he edited the first book of poetry released by the Horror Writers Association, Horror Poetry Showcase Volume 1.

He was also a Judge for the 2006 Savannah Children’s Book Festival Young Writer’s Contest and served on the Jury for the Poetry Category of the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards. He was a Judge for the Inaugural Horror Poetry Showcase of the Horror Writers Association. He is also the Chair for the Jury for the First Novel Category of the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards and serves as a Judge for the Royal Palm Literary Awards of the Florida Writers Association.

Peter Adam Salomon lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his wife Anna and their three sons: André Logan, Joshua Kyle and Adin Jeremy.

www.peteradamsalomon.com
www.henry-franks.com
www.allthosebrokenangels.com
www.facebook.com/peteradamsalomon
Twitter: @petersalomon

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Wordslinger Shootout – Round 14

BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND PETER SALOMON IS GIVING AWAY A PAPERBACK COPY OF HIS BOOK, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING HAS BEEN CLOSED DUE TO A DISQUALIFICATION.

Round14

COBBLER

by Peter “Doc” Salomon

Paul collapsed into the chair in slow motion. First he stumbled backwards until his legs hit, folding his knees. Then he landed, hard, on the seat. There was never enough padding, either on him or the chair. He’d always been thin, bony. His joints ached as he collapsed. Arthritic and fragile.

It always felt so good to sit. Eight-hour shifts at the pharmacy were deadly. He’d bought his own mat to stand on, talking to old people about their medicines. Or eighteen year olds about birth control. Where were the girls like that when he was young enough to do anything about it?

Of course, there were also the anti-psychotics, picked up by the down and out or the parents and loved ones of the down and out. Well, not all were, but enough. Every so often they didn’t have a scrip, had nothing but alcohol laced breath and a weapon of some kind. Probably empty, hard to afford bullets nowadays.

No way to tell, of course. Paul hobbled off his mat, each step a nightmare he bit down on, opened the safe and handed over all those precious pills. He’d tried them all, at one time or another. Whether a doctor autographed an Rx or not. Some worked, at first at least. But not for long. The pain always returned.

Paul collapsed into the chair. Another day done. Some nights he hurt too much to get up so he’d skip dinner, sleep in the chair, wake in the morning and go to work. He’d even wet himself once or twice to avoid unnecessary standing. Better to be wet than to re-awake the pain in his feet.

Tonight was going to be one of those skipping dinner nights. Sleeping in the chair night. Wetting the chair night.

In the morning, the sun woke him, shining through the window. Paul took stock of the situation, gently moving each part of him to check the pain level. Tolerable this morning. For now, at least.

The pain grew through the day. Even with the mat, he hurt. Nothing to be done.

“Still hurting?” the old woman said, holding her overstuffed bag of prescriptions in palsied hands. They shook, the skin like parchment, spotted like a dalmation.

“Same old, same old,” Paul said.

“I’m telling you, you should go see my guy. Fix you right up.”

Paul smiled. Everyone had someone who could cure the sun of brightness if given a chance and a bunch of money. But Paul had tried all the drugs. Hell, he’d tried every pill in the store just in case one of them might have an off-label effect. There was no medicine available to help. Even the painkillers were of limited value, the more he took the less they helped.

“Thanks,” he said, as she left a card on the counter.

Paul watched her walk away. Even at her age, she walked steadily despite her shaking hands. Almost with a spring in her step.

The pain got worse after lunch, after he’d had a few minutes to sit and let the burning intensify. By the time he returned to the counter, it was almost unbearable. It was going to be another wet the chair night. Two in a row. Not a good sign.

The card was still sitting where the old woman had left it.

‘COBBLER,’ it read. ‘The Perfect Shoe For Every Foot.’

He’d expected some type of doctor. Instead, the old woman’s ‘guy’ was set up at the local mall.

Paul had tried every shoe and insert and pad known to man. Nothing made much difference. The mat helped, and he had a few dozen spread across the carpeting at home.

The pain increased throughout the day until quitting time. He knew he’d never leave the chair after sitting down, so he drove through for fast food. Across the street, the mall was lit up for the holidays. Still two months away, of course, but prepared for the eventuality.

When he was finished eating, he put the car in drive but instead of heading home, he turned into the mall parking lot. He took the first handicapped spot and hobbled out of the car, hoping he’d parked near wherever the cobbler was located.

Christmas carols were playing even through Halloween had just ended. He’d turned out all his lights, unable to keep getting up to give out candy. Pretended to not be home, the pain spiking with every doorbell reminding him how crippled he was. How life was passing him by one ring at a time.

There, between the silver Apple store and one of the numerous Gaps, a metal door. He’d probably passed it a thousand times and never noticed.

Inside, the small space was brightly lit, shelves full of shoes lining the walls. They looked handmade, beautiful. Other than the shoes, there was a single chair and another small door, reading ‘Employee Only.’

Paul examined the shoes. Heavier than they looked, until he saw the wooden blocks inside helping them keep their shape. When he pulled one out, the shoe seemed light enough to float away. The leather butter soft. The craftsmanship exquisite.

“May I help you?” someone said behind him and Paul almost dropped the shoe in surprise.

He turned too fast, the pain in his feet flaring up, and he staggered. The man who’d spoken was there in an instant, a strong, sure hand on Paul’s arm, leading him to the chair. Paul collapsed into it with a grateful sigh.

“Sorry,” Paul said, handing the shoe to the man. There was nothing out of the ordinary about him, plain brown hair and plain brown eyes. Glasses, with one of those jeweler’s magnifying lenses attached. A light red leather apron covered him all the way to his feet.

The man waved his hand in the air. “Nonsense,” he said. “No need to apologize for being startled.” He walked quickly to the wall and put the wooden block back in the shoe and placed it on the shelf. Then he returned, hand outstretched. “Demetrius Cobbler, at your service. And you are?”

“Paul Chate,” he said. “I thought you were a cobbler?”

“I am.” Demetrius laughed, taking off his glasses when they started sliding down his nose. “With a name like mine, what else would I be?” Then he stopped laughing, pulled over a rolling stool, and sat in front of Paul. “What seems to be the problem?”

Paul had gone over this a hundred times with dozens of doctors and specialists. He’d been to alternative medical practitioners who had poked him with needles, burned him with hot stones, smacked him with fragrant leaves, and half a hundred other unhelpful remedies.

Demetrius sat there, listening as Paul told his story.

“May I?” Demetrius said, pointing at Paul’s feet.

“Yes, of course.”

Demetrius leaned forward and gently picked up Paul’s right foot.

Paul hissed with the movement but Demetrius just moved slower, until he was able to slip the shoe off. They were larger than he needed, to accommodate the thickest socks he could find, trying to cushion them as much as possible. After the shoe, Demetrius unrolled the sock and then repeated the process until both feet were exposed.

The skin was pale white, unblemished. They looked like perfectly normal feet. The cobbler put his glasses back on and got down off his stool to examine them. He knelt on the floor, bending over to get closer. He tilted his head, resting his ear against the top of each foot, as though listening to them.

Then he took a pad out of one of his apron pockets and started taking notes, measuring Paul’s feet with his fingers, touching as gently as possible. Finally, he stood up, a small smile on his face.

“I think I can help you,” he said.

Despite how often Paul had heard the same words, his heart skipped a beat. He’d never stopped believing that someone could help him, and was always willing to give the benefit of the doubt until the cures failed. He still believed. He wanted to believe. So, once more, he got his hopes up.

“I’ll be right back,” the cobbler said.

When he returned with a wooden box, the cobbler kicked Paul’s socks out of the way. “Won’t be needing those anymore.”

He placed the box down and unlocked it. Inside, two shoes rested on dark velvet. “These should be your size.”

Paul relaxed in the chair as Demetrius gently picked up his right foot and slid the shoe on. The butter soft leather molded itself to his foot, as though it had been made for him alone. So soft, there was virtually no pain from touching his foot, so light as though he weren’t wearing shoes at all. Didn’t even need socks.

Then the cobbler repeated the process with Paul’s left foot. Paul sighed, staring at the shoes to remind himself he actually had them on.

“How do they feel?”

“It’s almost like I’m not wearing shoes at all.”

“Why don’t you try standing?”

Paul rested his hands on the armrests and levered himself up the way he always did. His feet hurt when he stood but they always hurt. Wasn’t any worse and the shoes were really comfortable.

“How much are they?” he asked, very much afraid of the answer.

The cobbler waved his hand in the air again. “Have to make sure they’re the right shoes, first.”

“They feel like the right shoes.”

“Why don’t you try walking around the store, and then we’ll discuss whether they are or not?”

Paul hobbled to the wall, looking at the beautiful shoes lined up on the shelves. He kept going, the pain flaring in his feet with each step, but determined to convince the cobbler that these were the shoes for him. They were so comfortable. So he kept walking.

“See if you can go a little faster,” Demetrius said. “More of a jog, maybe?”

Paul sped up. He’d never jogged in his life. He could barely walk. Jogging was a joke. But he sped up a little.

The Cobbler walked with him, then opened the door to the mall. Christmas carols filled the room. “Take a walk through the mall,” he said. “Or a jog, whichever. I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Paul smiled, almost skipping out the door. In the Apple store he wandered the aisles. He’d never browsed before. Browsing was a fancy name for walking and that wasn’t an option. He’d go to the mall for only what he needed, never just to window shop. Now he sped up even more. Jogging every so often just to feel how comfortable his new shoes were.

Sure, there was still pain, but the shoes were so comfortable, a little pain was worth it. After all, his entire life had been filled with pain, didn’t he deserve a little comfort? Hadn’t he earned it?

He started jogging for good at Starbucks, each time his feet landed on the ground the pain returned but he kept going, marveling in how comfortable the shoes were. He passed Demetrius on his first circuit of the mall and waved as he ran by. There was no stopping him now, Paul was on a mission to convince the cobbler that these were the shoes for him.

Around the mall, the pain almost constant now, shoppers jumping out of his way, Paul kept jogging. His lungs burned, his feet ached. But he kept going. The shoes were so comfortable. He’d passed Demetrius a dozen times, listened to the same Christmas carols over and over.

On the floor in front of the soap store, he had to jump over some red soapy liquid on the ground. As he got closer, it looked thicker than soap, almost like blood. He jumped. His feet screamed in pain when he landed, but he kept going. The blood or soap or whatever it was seemed to be everywhere, almost like footprints, as though he was following a trail of them.

He passed Demetrius again, waved, and saw that now there were two trails of bloody footprints. He looked behind him, to where there were three trails. Paul looked at his feet. The beautiful brown leather shoes were darker now, stained almost red as they left a new trail on the ground. He tripped over a planter but got up almost immediately, still jogging, leaving another bloody trail behind.

Paul tried to stop, but his legs kept pumping, his feet kept churning, squishing now in the blood soaked leather shoes. The pain kept building and he screamed, but people were already avoiding him and screaming didn’t accomplish much. A security guard waved for him to be quiet but paid him no other attention. When he passed Demetrius again, the man was holding the door to his little shop open and Paul ran inside. The Christmas carols faded away as soon as the door closed. Paul jogged in place, leaving a puddle of blood on the carpet.

The pain was unbearable. The comfortable shoes pinched everywhere, as though they’d never fit at all.

“Help me,” Paul said, trying to catch his breath as he kept jogging in place.

“You were right,” the cobbler said, “those are the shoes for you.”

“What?” Paul said, sure he had heard wrong. “Help me.”

“I am.” The cobbler walked around Paul and rested his hands on Paul’s shoulders. “This might hurt,” he said before pushing Paul over like a tree.

Paul floundered on the ground, his legs still churning even though he was lying down. The cobbler grabbed Paul’s top foot, his arms keeping up with the movement until he managed to get his fingers all the way around Paul’s ankle. Finally, he looked at Paul.

“Ready?” he asked.

Paul tried to nod but it was difficult to move his head with the constant motion of his feet. “Yes.”

“Outer pocket,” Demetrius said, cocking his hip to bring the apron pocket closer to Paul. “I can’t let go or we’ll have to start all over again.”

Paul reached his arm over, sticking his hand in the pocket. He pulled out a small pair of scissors and tossed them aside. Then stuck his hand back in. There was nothing else there.

“Grab the scissors,” the cobbler said.

“For what?”

“For cutting, what else do you use scissors for.”

Paul picked them up off the floor. They were so small, barely large enough to fit his fingers in the holes. Then he lined the blades up on the lip of the shoe on his foot.

“Not the shoes,” the cobbler said. “Your foot.”

“What?”

“You asked me to help, I’m helping.” Demetrius pulled Paul’s foot farther up. “Start cutting.”

Paul shook his head. “No.”

“Cut.”

Again, he shook his head.

Pain flared, hotter and sharper. “Cut. It’s the only way.”

Paul closed his eyes, and snipped.

The small scissors barely scratched the surface of his skin. Unbearable pain, worse than every single day of his life combined.

“Again,” the cobbler said. “Deeper.”

Paul snipped again, into the skin. More blood soaked the floor. The scissors were so small, the pain of each cut worse than the one before. A thousand cuts. A thousand more. Screaming and burning and pain. Nothing but screaming and burning and pain and cutting. One quarter inch snip at a time.

The bones were the hardest part. The scissors were so dull by that point. The blood everywhere. Each cut a nightmare.

“Cut.”

“Again.”

“Deeper.”

Until finally, with a thud and a small splash, Paul’s foot dropped to the blood soaked floor and one of his legs stopped jogging.

The cobbler reached for his other foot, struggling to get his fingers around the ankle.

Paul screamed, cursed, cried.

“Cut.”

“Again.”

“Deeper.”

Paul snipped. The pain was even worse. The screaming even louder. The burning even hotter. Until finally, with a thud and a small splash, Paul’s other foot dropped to the blood soaked floor and his legs were finally still.

Paul sobbed, curled into a fetal ball on the floor, his blood pouring out of the stumps where his feet had been.

The cobbler stood up, wiping his hands off on his apron, a little redder now. Then he walked around the room, until he reached the shoes Paul had originally been looking at. He brought them over.

“You liked these, right?” the cobbler asked.

Paul couldn’t answer through his tears and his screams.

The cobbler shrugged, then rummaged through another pocket for a needle and thread. He slid down the jeweler’s lens and hummed while he threaded the needle. Then he lifted Paul’s right leg up. Paul screamed.

He kept screaming as the cobbler sewed the shoe onto his ankle. Each stitch pulled tight until there was a perfect seal. The flow of blood slowed. Then stopped.

The cobbler kept humming as he lifted Paul’s other leg. Paul screamed with every stitch, thousands of them to attach the second shoe as tightly as the first.

“Keep them out of direct sunlight for a couple days,” the cobbler said. “Aspirin for the pain. I’ll send you the bill.”

Then the cobbler gathered his tools and walked through the small door at the back of the store.

Paul tried to stand. It took a long time. His clothes were soaked from lying down in the puddle of blood. He stumbled when he first put weight on his new feet, but the shoes were surprisingly comfortable.

The old woman smiled as she picked up her pills with shaking, spotted hands. “Still hurting?” she asked.

Paul shook his head. “Not so much,” he said.

“I told you my guy would fix you up.” She spun around, walking steadily away on a beautiful pair of boots.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Adam Salomon graduated Emory University in Atlanta, GA with a BA in Theater and Film Studies in 1989.

He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Horror Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers, and The Authors Guild and is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. His debut novel, HENRY FRANKS, was published by Flux in September 2012. His next novel, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS, a ghost story set in Savannah, GA, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2014 by Flux.

His short fiction has appeared in the Demonic Visions series and he was the featured author for Gothic Blue Book III: The Graveyard Edition. His poem ‘Electricity and Language and Me’ appeared on BBC Radio 6 performed by The Radiophonic Workshop in December 2013. In addition, he edited the first book of poetry released by the Horror Writers Association, Horror Poetry Showcase Volume 1.

He was also a Judge for the 2006 Savannah Children’s Book Festival Young Writer’s Contest and served on the Jury for the Poetry Category of the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards. He was a Judge for the Inaugural Horror Poetry Showcase of the Horror Writers Association. He is also the Chair for the Jury for the First Novel Category of the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards and serves as a Judge for the Royal Palm Literary Awards of the Florida Writers Association.

Peter Adam Salomon lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his wife Anna and their three sons: André Logan, Joshua Kyle and Adin Jeremy.

www.peteradamsalomon.com
www.henry-franks.com
www.allthosebrokenangels.com
www.facebook.com/peteradamsalomon
Twitter: @petersalomon

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Mike Strom was unable to participate this round.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael R Strom is an engineer by trade and a writer by choice. His writings tend to explore the darker side of the human condition, emphasizing damaged characters who perceive their worlds in blurred shades of grey. Being a native from Chicago, he now lives with his loving and supportive family in the Northwood’s of Wisconsin.

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Wordslinger Shootout – Round 13

BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND ANDREW NIENABER IS GIVING AWAY AN EBOOK COPY OF HIS LATEST BOOK, STZ  AND JAMES CHAMBERS IS GIVING AWAY AN EBOOK COPY OF HIS NOVELLA(S) THREE CHORDS OF CHAOS OR DEAD BEAR WITNESS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.

Round13

O FORTUNA

by Andrew Nienaber

He walks off the casino floor and heads for the bank of elevators, his winnings heavy in his pocket. It’s only a few grand this time. He’s learned his lesson. In the beginning he was stopped by security every time he went to cash in his chips. It was a frustrating experience for them both: anonymity is crucial to what he’s trying to accomplish, and being escorted from the line at the cage to the secretive back security offices always draws a lot of attention. And, of course, the guards never found anything on him to implicate him for cheating. They invariably talked a lot of shit, pushed him around a little, and then let him go with a wealth of invectives and an admonishment to never show his face in their casino again. He’d been banned from half of Freemont St. before he figured out that keeping his winnings reasonable was the right course of action.

He’s also had to learn how to throw a game now and then, because if he doesn’t he’d win every single hand. He never plays craps or roulette anymore, because he has no control over those games. With blackjack or pai gow he can make intentional mistakes, overplay his hand or hit on a hard 17.

The elevator doors open with a muted ding, and he steps inside and hits the button for the 24th floor. He examines the face of the pit boss glaring at him from the pit as the doors close. He was sloppy tonight, hit a few too many miraculous 21s in a row to fly under the radar. They’d sent a cooler to his table after only half an hour, and every time he switched tables the dealer would change quickly. It doesn’t matter – he made his nut tonight and even a little more. He decides to move to a different resort tomorrow, to give this one a little time to forget his face. He has three more days in Vegas, three more days to hit half a million. He can still do it; he just has to be careful. He can’t afford to get banned from the high-roller rooms. If he goes back to Pittsburgh without the money…

He shudders. No sense in thinking about that. He’s more than halfway there. Almost three hundred large in a week, and he’s been playing it pretty cautiously. Step up the game a bit and he’s home free. He’s free to go home. Not that there’s anywhere else he can go. Len will find him. Running would only delay the inevitable.

The doors open and he ambles into the plush hallway with a sigh, shaking off the dark thoughts. The gaudy red and blue carpet, patterned to hide stains, seems to stretch off into eternity. He’s tired. He pushed himself too hard today. Fifteen hours in the casinos on only four hours of sleep. His hand throbs and he unconsciously rubs his thumb over the fresh, damp bandage on his pinky. The painkillers are starting to wear off. He turns the corner, pulling the plastic keycard from his pocket, and opens the door to his room. Before the door can close again he picks up the ice bucket from the countertop and heads back into the hallway. He’ll ice his hand, pop another vicodin and try to get some sleep.

He allows himself the luxury of a couple of hilariously overpriced tiny bottles of liquor from the fridge, uses them to wash down his pills, and lays on the bed, a hand towel wrapped around his hand, submerged in the ice. The television drones on, a looped video introduction to the resort telling him over and over about the many restaurants and nightclubs, the shows and the lavish room service menu, as he drifts off into a queasy sleep.

The sun is trampling on his face when he opens his eyes. He forgot to close the curtains when he passed out. It’s another cloudless desert day, and though the air conditioning is pumping cold air into the room he feels like he’s baking. He looks blearily at the alarm clock. It’s almost noon. He’s slept far more than he intended. He goes to stand and wobbles, sinking involuntarily back to the bed. He looks at his hand, and the towel that covers it is soaked with blackening blood. He grunts his displeasure, grits his teeth and gets to his feet. He showers, gingerly cleaning his wounds, and dresses the freshest ones. He calls in an order for a grilled chicken sandwich on fancy bread with some sort of smoked cheese. He never really cared for any food that was more upscale than a Wendy’s, but given how short he is on time and energy he doesn’t think he has much choice in the matter.

He punches in the code and opens the hotel safe, pulling out the leather bag in which he keeps his winnings. He counts them while he waits for his food. He’s kept a precise mental tally since he got to Vegas, but the counting the calms him, reassures him that it’s real. That it’s almost over. There’s a knock at the door and he stuffs the money back into the bag and the bag back into the safe. He eats, watching the resort concierge loop. Smoked gouda, he thinks. Why on earth would you smoke cheese? He pops another vicodin.

When he’s done he puts the dishes in the hallway and goes back to his suitcase. He pulls out the altar and sets it on the counter in the bathroom. He sits on the toilet and looks at it. It’s about six inches tall, made out of some sort of highly polished black stone – maybe obsidian – and inlaid in scarlet. The top is a carved icon of a snarling creature with rows of wickedly curved teeth and small, beady eyes. He supposes it’s a deity, but has no idea of its provenance. The carving is vaguely Asiatic but also has the feel of an old Viking relic. It sits atop an oval box with glyphs hewn into it and a lid with hidden hinges.

He does some quick math in his head. Two hundred twelve thousand dollars in just under three days. The toothy god’s blessing usually lasts about twelve hours, longer if the offering is more substantial. He splays his hands out on his thighs and looks at them. There’s so little left, and he can’t lose his thumbs, he needs them to hold cards. He looks down at his bare feet. A big toe will work, and he might even get eighteen hours out of it. He thinks about the inconvenience of walking up and down the strip from casino to casino with a shoe full of blood, his balance newly thrown off. Worth it.

He goes back to his suitcase and pulls out the branch cutter. He sits on the ledge of the tub and starts the water running cold. The drug is starting to wash over him and he’s feeling calm. He puts his foot leftover water in the ice bucket to numb it, then arranges the clipper blades around his left big toe. He thinks about his wife and two kids, about how he could never live with himself if Len did something to them because of him. He takes a deep breath, feels the cold metal blades pressing against his skin. He stuffs a washcloth in his mouth, closes his eyes and squeezes with all his might. He screams into the washcloth as the toe separates from his body with a crunch and a molten blast of agony. Blood paints the inside walls of the tub with lurid spatter marks that immediately begin to drip down in streaks. The toe splashes into the gathering water and settles on the drain. He screams and screams.

When he finally catches his breath he reaches into the drawer beneath the sink and pulls out a wad of cotton pads and surgical tape. He presses the pads to the spurting stump where his toe once was, binding it as tightly as he can. He’s worried that one of his amputations may get infected, but there’s no time to go to the hospital now. He can deal with that once he’s set things right.

When he can breathe normally again he turns to the altar and opens the lid. He gently places the toe inside the oval box, says the words the old man taught him, and closes the lid. There’s a grinding noise, deep and ancient, as though thousand-ton boulders were scraping against each other inside the little idol. Then there is a noise like a snapping tree trunk. Then there is silence.

He stands, woozy from the pain and the blood loss, and hobbles back into the bedroom, returning the altar to his suitcase. He cleans off the clippers and returns them as well, then washes the blood from inside the tub. He dresses very carefully, puts on socks and shoes, switches off the hotel video loop and heads back into the bustle of Las Vegas to try his hand at a few more games of chance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Nienaber has been an ice cream truck driver, a bartender, a teacher, a writer, a blogger, a director of operas, and all-around theater professional and a long-time observer of the human condition. He is one of the founders of FatalDownflaw.com and his short-lived blog about his experiences selling ice cream, The Ill Humor Man, drew hundreds of hits per day. Andrew’s premiere novel Truly, Deeply Disturbed was nominated for novel of the year by both Pulp Ark and his story “What We Found” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can receive periodic updates about his work – as well as a huge amount of snark – through Andrew Nienaber’s Grammar Correction Institute at http://facebook.com/ANGrammar.

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THE RULES OF LUCKY GHOSTS

by James “The Judge” Chambers

You have to follow the rules. The rules keep you safe and happy.

The first rule: If you want to own a lucky ghost, you have to steal it.

You can’t buy it or accept it as a gift. You can’t find it on the street or pick it out of the trash or win it in a card game. You have to prove yourself worthy of the ghost by beating its luck and taking it from its owner. If a little theft makes you nervous, you don’t deserve a lucky ghost. Go home, watch reruns, and stuff your face with cheese puffs. That’s all you’re good for.

Kara got that part right, at least.

She stole her lucky ghost from me.

The second rule: Never use the ghost to harm the living.

Things go south fast if you do. Lucky ghosts enjoy their freedom from earthly concerns, but deep down—although they might never admit it—they miss food, sex, hot showers, and all that good stuff you can do with a corporeal form. Force a ghost to pay too much attention to the living, and you might inspire it to snatch a body. Possibly yours. Then you’ve got a psychic mess on your hands and a fair chance of stagnant discorporeation phenomenon, which is worse than it sounds. Much worse.

As far as I know, Kara obeyed that rule too.

The third—and hardest to follow—rule: Don’t. Get. Greedy.

Ghosts hate a glutton. No one knows why, but they do. You find a ghost generous enough to throw its luck your way, take whatever it gives and show your gratitude. Pay attention. You’ll feel it when the luck runs dry. That’s your cue to call it a night. Whether you’re betting on ponies or pork bellies, or cruising your favorite singles bar, when you feel the fade, go home. Throw on your ghost’s favorite CD or television show. Indulge that ethereal rabbit’s foot. Take a breather. Know when to say when. Or your ghost might let you down.

That rule, Kara never liked to follow.

Which explains why I’m standing in her bedroom in the middle of the night, while she stares at me wide-eyed and tied, buck naked, to her bed by lengths of inch-thick hemp rope with her balled-up underwear duct-taped into her mouth to keep her quiet. Now before you go pointing fingers and summoning the local constabulary, I’m not the one who tied her up. I don’t go for that sort of thing. I’ve never lifted a finger against a member of the fairer sex and I never will. That’s one of the reasons it’s taken me seven years to steal my lucky ghost back from Kara.

The guy who tied her up, that’s Ricky Sutton, though he prefers the name Mr. Rope Burn.

He hopes the nickname catches on in the media soon, but despite his signature means of slowly tightening a rope around his victim’s neck, no one has connected his murders yet. Which baffles Ricky because he figured three or four and he’d be famous. Now he’s up to twelve, and he wonders if his heart’s really in it anymore or if an old-fashioned psychopath can even make it big in today’s jaded world.

Have to admit, damned if I know.

He told Kara this before he headed downstairs to raid her fridge. Who knew tying people up so roused the psychopath’s need to express existential doubt?

I overheard it all hiding in Kara’s closet.

Even though I’m not tying anyone up, I suppose I should confess too

I’ve been stalking Kara.

Not in a scary, mean, “love you/kill you” way, but purely for practical purposes, waiting for a chance to steal back my ghost. I first stole that ghost the summer I turned fifteen. Took it off Old Man Benton who owned the factory that laid off my Dad and started him drinking again. That shit didn’t end well for anybody. By the time Dad wound up in the hospital and Mom took off with the traveling pet groomer, we lost our family car off a cliff, my brother joined a troupe of living statue street performers, and our dog, a mutt named Frankie, lost one of his legs when our neighbor’s six year old took the tractor mower for a joyride. All of that from avoidable situations, better known as bad luck. All our bad luck started with Dad losing his job, and that got me thinking about the law of conservation of energy—I was still in school then—that energy can never be destroyed but only transformed. What if luck worked the same way, and our bad luck meant good luck for someone else? That notion and my aching need for some payback set me on the path that led to tonight.

Now, I could say once I got that idea stuck in my head, I learned all about lucky ghosts from the local swamp witch who lived on the edge of town with thirty-nine cats and a ferret named Tapioca that liked to curl around her neck, but—hey, you know what? I’m going to leave it at that. Where and how I learned about lucky ghosts doesn’t matter. I did and that’s that. You want to know more, do your own homework. What matters is once I did know, it didn’t take long to figure out that Old Man Benton himself had a lucky ghost. And that, as I suspected, his luck had turned solid the moment ours took a piss.

So I figured out how to steal that ghost away from him.

No, I won’t say how I did it.

If you want to steal a lucky ghost, you do it on your own. No help. That’s cheating. Call that rule number one point five.

Within a week of my successful theft, the hospital discharged Dad good as new, we won a new car in a raffle, and my brother got accepted to medical school. Mom never came back, but that actually turned out well for Dad who wound up remarrying to a local beauty queen who later inherited a chain of fried chicken restaurants from a rich uncle.

And Frankie grew back his missing leg!

Well, no, he didn’t. Ghost brings luck, not miracles.

But, damn, wouldn’t that have been cool if he did? Ah, Frankie.

As for Old Man Benton, his factory burned to the ground, he lost his fortune on bad investments, rats invaded his mansion, his wife skipped out on him with the pool boy, and he crashed his Rolls and wound up paraplegic.

Understand, that’s part of the game.

You take a ghost’s luck, hold onto it, because when it goes, the heavens split wide and bad luck rains down on you to compensate for all the good luck you had and all the good luck now going to the bastard who ripped off your ghost. It’s a real bad luck typhoon.

Maybe now you see why I stalked Kara for seven years to get my ghost back.

Life hasn’t been easy. I’m lucky to be alive. I haven’t got a penny to my name and I live in an old AMC Gremlin with so many miles on it the odometer rolled over to zero last month, and shows 112 now. On top of which, I’ve got an actual hellhound on my trail.

Robert Johnson sang true about that, my friend. Hellhounds exist and they love to hunt.

I heard it howling outside while Ricky tied up Kara.

They heard it too. Mr. Rope Burn even paused and looked up, curious.

He knew it was no dog.

While I’ve been living on the run, Kara has been rolling in dough in a nice big house where she entertains all her super-rich, square-jawed lovers who shower her with money and expensive gifts she doesn’t need and beg her to share her investment wisdom and gambling tips. They all want to stand beside her at the craps table, hoping a little of her luck might rub off on them. Enough of it always does to keep them coming back.

It’s a good life. I’ve been there.

I want to go back.

My ghost awaits me on top of Kara’s dresser.

He’s chilling in a glass Coke bottle, circa 1950, only 6.5 ounces but plenty roomy for a noncorporeal being. I figure the person who captured him did it unprepared and grabbed the first container at hand. It works well enough, and my ghost peeks out of it, happy to see me. I always treated him right. Kara, though, liked to short change him, skipping the songs she doesn’t like on his favorite CDs even if they’re his favorite tracks, not fast-forwarding through the commercials on his DVR’d shows.

That’s no way to treat a lucky ghost.

You need to keep them happy, and my ghost knows he can count on me for good times. The luck pendulum will swing my way the moment I grab the bottle.

Only the tears in Kara’s eyes hold me back.

She knows what’s coming if I pick up that ghost.

Mr. Rope Burn and the end of Kara Martin’s lucky streak.

If I don’t touch the bottle, she’s got a chance. A rope might slip lose so she can escape. A group of friends might stop by. The police might randomly check on her house. Hell, a chunk of blue ice from an airplane toilet might crash through the roof and cave in Mr. Rope Burn’s skull. That’s how good luck goes. All I have to do is go back to my bad luck and my hungry hellhound, and Kara lives on.

That’s not a trivial consideration.

Me and Kara, we’ve been married off and on for twenty years.

She’s still a looker, and I still love her. We’re not married, now, though, so I don’t owe her anything. Divorce number five saw to that. The last time she stole my ghost, she didn’t even throw me a bone. Left me high and dry in Tucson with a $15,000 hotel bill. I can grab my ghost without breaking rule three because I don’t mean to harm Kara even if that’s how it works out.

There’s another rule, though. An unofficial rule four.

I discovered it for myself. Most lucky ghost owners never learn it because most don’t survive losing their ghosts more than once let alone twice. No one goes back and forth like Kara and I have. That takes tenacity, quick-thinking, and—

Rule number four: You make your own luck.

A lucky ghost can take you to the finish line, but you’ve got to cross it alone.

When you steal a lucky ghost, there’s a fleeting few seconds when you share its luck with the owner you’re robbing. If I time things exactly right, maybe Kara and I can get back our life together. Right now Mr. Rope Burn is climbing the creaky stairs to finish off victim thirteen, and outside Kara’s window, my hellhound is steaming up the glass and scratching to come in. If I grab the ghost at the right moment, maybe hellhound and Rope Burn will cancel each other out, I can rescue Kara, be her hero, and win her—and my good luck—back again.

Until that moment, though, Kara has all the luck, and I have none.

I see it in her eyes, she doesn’t even want me to risk it, afraid my bad luck will foul it up. Maybe it will. Hell, probably it will.

Mr. Rope Burn comes through the door.

The window explodes inward and a black, slavering shape fills the hole.

My ghost’s smile widens as I reach for the Coke bottle. An old song comes to mind: If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.

Kara, honey, this one’s for you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Chambers’ tales of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, and Publisher’s Weekly described his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas, The Engines of Sacrificeas “chillingly evocative.” His other books include the novellas Three Chords of Chaos, as well as The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood (the first two volumes in the Corpse Fauna series), and the story collections Resurrection House and The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales with illustrator Jason Whitley. His stories have appeared in the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries and Defending the Future anthology series as well as Allen K’s InhumanBare BoneChiral Mad 2Clockwork ChaosDeep CutsFantastic Futures 13The Green Hornet ChroniclesIn an Iron CageMermaids 13The Spider: Extreme PrejudiceTo Hell in a Fast CarWalrus Tales, and many other publications. He has edited and written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals and the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow HouseHe is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the recipient of the HWA’s 2012 Richard Laymon Award. He is online at www.jameschambersonline.com and https://www.facebook.com/ThreeChordsOfChaos.

*********************


Wordslinger Shootout – Round 12

BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND JOSEF MATULICH IS GIVING AWAY A COPY OF HIS BOOK, CAMP ARCANUM AND I’M GIVING AWAY A COPY OF THESE OLD TALES (WINNERS CHOICE OF EBOOK OR AUDIOBOOK) FOR MIKE. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.

Round12

HEAD FULL OF WORMS

by Josef Matulich

In spite of my having fantasized about it for years, I did not enjoy shooting my neighbor in the head. I always thought he was a drug dealer from the stream of lowlifes he had going in and out of his apartment. The way he hit my car in the parking lot once, wedged in a “T” against my front bumper trying to drive over the grass, he had to have been on crack. There were a dozen different reasons why I should have killed him with gusto, but he was still a human being. Until this morning.

Now his head was full of worms and he was trying to force his way into my apartment. He let out the high-pitched scream of the infected and battered against my kitchen door with bloody fists. The piece of shit deadbolt busted out of the door jamb and my neighbor fell through onto my linoleum floor.

That’s when I blew the top of his head off with my shotgun.

Blood, brains and worms gushed across the white and yellow tiles. Though the body should have died instantly, it kept squealing and thrashing, spreading gore and thread-like parasites everywhere. I stepped back, not knowing whether the worms could chew through the bare skin of my ankles and eventually burrow into my brain. I didn’t know what I could do if they did, maybe cut off my own legs at the knees?

I leaned against the far counter, well outside the splash zone, and watched his body die. Nobody came at the sound of gunfire; there were no cars that I could hear on the street. My guess was that the worms had got them all. My girlfriend Emily had been gone for hours.

Her long-haired cat brushed past my ankles without my really registering it. It padded across the floor to sniff at the carnage, curious like all cats. That’s what killed it.

A mass of slick grey worms, bound together like a naked muscle, lashed out of my neighbor’s brainpan a wrapped around the cat’s neck. It reared back, its eyes wide in terror, and hissed. With that opening, the worms forced themselves down its throat. My girlfriend’s pet fell over on its side and seized in the blood and brains and bone.

It finally got up on its feet after about a minute, though it wasn’t really a cat anymore. It was just another body being ridden by the worms. It opened it mouth with the same scream my neighbor had just made and came for me.

My shotgun was an antique: one shot and break the breach to reload. I didn’t have time to do that. I swung the gun around and brought the butt down hard on its back. I kept swinging until it stopped thrashing around. Then, I backed away, out of the reach of the worms.

That’s when my girlfriend appeared with that dead, mad look of the worm-ridden in her eyes. That was too much for me. Now I was completely alone against the parasites.

I pulled back with the shotgun and swung for the fences. The wooden stock caught her across the side of the face. The force knocked her to the floor, but within only a few seconds she was starting to get up again. I switched my grip up to come in high and hard right on the crown of her head to put us both out the misery of this moment.

Other hands grabbed me from behind, then, I cranked my neck around to see who. Three or four men, still in the uniforms of cops and firefighters, surrounded me. They all had that crazed look in their eyes the worm-ridden get when they were on the attack.

I clenched my jaws tight to keep them from forcing worms down my throat. As I dropped the shotgun and clapped my hands over my mouth, they beat me with sticks and fists. Somewhere in all this, I blacked out.

I came to I don’t know how much later. My arms were wrapped around me in a canvas strait jacket. The walls of my cell were padded in dirty-white vinyl and the door was a heavy riveted piece of steel. I was grateful.

There was no way those worms were going to get me in here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josef Matulich is an author, special effects artist and costumer. His first novel “Camp Arcanum”, a comedy about sex, magick and power tools, was released by Post Mortem Press in March 2014. The sequel is in the works. His flash fiction has appeared on the Wicked Library podcast and the up-coming compilation “44 Lies by 22 Liars” by Post Mortem. A horror/comedy screenplay of his is currently in pre-production.

Blog: http://dalmatianalley.wordpress.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JosefMatulciAuthor?ref=hl

Twitter: @JosefMatulich

*********************

SEVERANCE

by Mike “Bones” Strom

The grim reaper ushered Phil from his cubicle to a small conference room. The door was closed and then, awkward silence. Time appeared to slow as the gravity of the situation settled in. An envelope was opened containing pristine documentation packets.

The reaper was a consultant hired by Phil’s employer to perform the dirty work of the layoff. After placing the packets in neat piles, she looked up at Phil and said, “Mr. Morrison, unfortunately the company—“

This was it. It was happening. Instead of fighting for composure, Phil simply let go, allowing himself to become detached. Though her lips were moving, he could only comprehend fragments of what was said.

“We have to let you go—“

We? There are no we here. You aren’t part of this, never were.

She slid a packet across the table. “This outlines your severance package—“

Severance, axed, hacked away, and tossed aside like waste.

“Your health insurance terminates at the end of the month.”

Terminates? How about amputated? Phil stifled a laugh.

It was then that Phil began to notice the imperfections, the chinks in her armor. Hairline cracks in her lipstick. Mouth wrinkles hidden beneath makeup. Age spots. She is aging just like everyone else. There was a paint chip on the jagged edge of a fingernail. This was the one she chewed when nervous. There was a slight indentation and a callous on her ring finger. She’s recently divorced.

A power shift occurred as she slid another pamphlet across the table, titled Challenges are Opportunities. It was all too much. Phil leaned back and grinned.

The woman paused. Phil started to laugh.

“Mr. Morrison, are you okay?”

“Okay?” Phil asked. “How you can be so deluded?”

Her expression changed to concern. Phil enjoyed her unease. It felt good.

“You know, this job of yours is a rather shitty way to make a living. How do you sleep at night knowing that you profit from the ruin of others?”

“Mr. Morrison, there’s no need to—“

“To what? To face the reality of what’s happening here? Save your canned and sterilized homilies. They are an insult. The true message here is that people are deemed expendable by the company they had served for years.”

Phil stood up, grabbed the severance papers, and said, “We’re done here,” and left with his self-esteem intact.

###

Phil’s triumph was short lived. While driving home, the financial realities of someone who lived check-to-check washed over him like a dark tide. His thoughts swirled into a whirlpool of despair. By the time he pulled into his driveway, he felt like he was drowning.

Phil’s neighbor, Fred, was out washing his new car. Fred claimed to be a salesman who worked out of his home, yet no one knew exactly what Fred sold. Phil bit down on his jealousy. Fred was a good guy, an ideal neighbor who was friendly and unobtrusive. Like all successful salesmen, he had the ability to make anyone feel like an old friend. Phil waved to Fred.

“You playing hooky?” Fred asked.

Phil froze. His wife and kids were spending the week with his in-laws, so the house was empty. All he wanted was privacy. His emotions were wavering.

Fred walked over. “You okay buddy? You don’t look so good.”

Phil looked at Fred. His emotional stamina crumbled as tears welled up in his eyes.

“Shit. You got canned, didn’t you?”

Phil nodded.

Fred patted Phil on the shoulder. “Bastards. I’m so sorry. You look like you need some alone time. Don’t mind me. Go inside and we’ll talk later.”

Phil appreciated Fred’s understanding. He went inside and released his emotions in private.

###

As night fell, Phil felt the tide of gloom returning. He began to pace about the house. Everything he looked at lost its functionality and became potential items to pawn. Phil began to tabulate the values. Even if he pawned everything, it wouldn’t cover the next month’s health insurance premium. Phil began to hyperventilate He paced faster. Collection agencies were imminent.

The doorbell rang.

Who the hell could that be? Probably another goddamned charity. He marched to the door and swung it open.

It was Fred, with a six-pack and an empathetic expression. “Hey buddy. Figured you could use a diversion. How about coming on over and we’ll start with these and move on to some high caliber bourbon.”

Phil smiled. It was exactly what he needed. That simple act of being neighborly made him feel less alone. “Sounds great. Let me clean up here and I’ll be right over.”

###

When Phil arrived, the front door was open. The house was dark. He stepped inside and followed the sound of muffled punk rock to the kitchen where light was shining from an open door to the basement. Phil walked down the stairs to Fred’s rec room. The music became louder, angrier. It was a typical man cave with a seating area, a fully stocked bar, and a pool table. The room was empty. Phil called out, but there was no response. The bathroom door was closed. Phil walked to the door and knocked. Nothing. He placed his hand on the doorknob. A set of hands grabbed his neck from behind.

“Boo, motherfucker!” Fred yelled.

Phil’s instincts caused him to jump forward, smacking his forehead on the door.

“Oh shit man, I’m sorry,” Fred said as he led Phil to the bar and popped open a couple beers.

Phil touched his forehead, and then looked at his fingers but found no blood. “What the hell?” He grabbed a beer and took a long pull.

“I figured you could use a good scare.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

Fred took a swig and belched. “A jolt of fear releases tension.”

“Bullshit.”

“I’m serious. It’s a proven fact. Why do you think horror movies do so well during recessions?”

Phil didn’t agree, but dropped it. He didn’t come there to argue. Instead he drained his beer. Fred opened another and poured a couple shots of whisky.

Phil smiled, and tossed back the shot. It was smooth, dangerously smooth. He then looked at Fred and asked, “How the hell did you sneak up on me like that?”

Fred drank his shot and smiled. “Sorry, can’t divulge that. It’s a trade secret.”

Phil didn’t understand. Instead he grabbed the bourbon and poured two more shots. They both held up their shots in a toast.

“To your damned trade secrets.” Phil offered.

“Damned straight, buddy.”

They tossed back the shots, turned down the music, and moved to the lounge area with their beers. They sat in chairs facing each other, both leaning forward in a confessional-like posture. Fred was a great listener and very empathetic, enabling Phil’s personal thoughts, his emotions, to flow as freely as the liquor. Uncertainty led to anger, anger led to fear.

“Anger is much healthier than fear. So, what pisses you off the most?” Fred asked.

“It should be my cowardly bosses who didn’t have the stones to get their hands dirty. But right now, deep down, it’s the grim reaper.”

“Reaper?”

“The consultant that was brought in to do the layoffs. She’s a leach that feeds off of the devastation of others.”

“Profiting from your misery.”

“Exactly.”

Fred leaned back in his chair. They stared at each other in silence. Fred pulled out his cell phone and looked through his contacts.

“Listen buddy, I have to make a call. Why don’t you grab another beer and I’ll be right back. Fred then went upstairs to make the call.

When Fred returned, he said, “Sorry, but I have to run out for some business. I don’t want to leave you hanging like this, so why don’t you come with so we can continue our discussion.”

It was midnight. Phil was drunk and didn’t want to go, but the darkness was swirling, and he knew that his thoughts would only spiral downwards. He needed to talk some more, to gain perspective. He reluctantly agreed.

###

During the drive, Phil asked, “So what is it that you sell?”

“Fear.”

Phil thought Fred was a joking. He decided to play along. “How do you sell fear?”

“Easy. I just post online ads selling my services as a fear renderer.”

“Who buys fear?”

“You’d be surprised. It’s like a fetish and business is booming.”

“How does it work?”

“People hire me to scare them. I only have one rule: the victim must be the customer, never a third party. That way there is full consent and I can’t be arrested.”

Phil realized that Fred was serious. “But the victim knows?”

“Creativity and patience. Mostly, I focus on violating their sense of security.”

“Considering this new car, your customers must be wealthy.”

“Who else would lay out serious cash just to be scared? They’re bored. They’re buying some excitement.”

Fred pulled the car over to the curb, and killed the engine. Phil looked about the neighborhood. It reeked of wealth.

“Are we here to scare a client?”

“Not a client. I have a friend who traced your reaper.” Fred pointed his thumb towards the rear window. “She lives one block back. We passed her house and the lights are off.”

Phil was shocked. “What? But what about your rule?”

“I ain’t getting paid, so the rule doesn’t apply.”

They sat in silence as Phil’s mind spun.

Fred grinned at him. “Consider it a gift.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. You know she deserves it.”

“But—“

“She profited from your loss.”

“Yeah, but this?”

“We’ll just violate her security like she did yours. The difference is that your violation is real, hers will just be staged.”

Phil couldn’t deny that payback was enticing. Retribution would soften his sense of helplessness. Hell, it was justice.

Phil agreed.

###

After scoping out the house, Fred used a long wire hook to pop the release on the garage door opener. Phil’s resolve hardened when he saw a lone European sports car. Being a reaper pays well. The house door to the garage was unlocked and led to the kitchen. They glanced inside. There were no dog bowls on the floor. Only silence.

“This is too easy.” Fred whispered.

While in the kitchen, Fred grabbed a large carving knife from the counter and whispered, “We’ll put this on her pillow and leave. She’ll find it when she wakes up and freak.”

Phil visualized it and was both, impressed and frightened, at Fred’s capacity to instill fear.

They found her in a bedroom in the back of the house. She was in a deep sleep. Phil’s heart pounded. He feared its sound would wake her. Fred walked over to the empty side of the bed. Phil held his breath as Fred laid the knife on the unused pillow. Phil stared as Fred motioned him towards the door. There was a trickle of drool from the side of her mouth. Fred tapped him on the shoulder. Phil turned to leave. He thought of her chipped fingernail. What was he doing? This was a human being, not some evil plaything.

Phil turned back to retrieve the knife. He tripped on a discarded slipper, and put his hand on the bed to stop his fall. The woman’s eyes opened. There was recognition.

“What are you doing here?” she screamed.

Fred leapt onto the bed, grabbed the knife, and plunged it into her chest. The woman struggled. Fred held a pillow over her face until she no longer moved.

Fred stared back at Phil, who was frozen in disbelief at the horror he just witnessed. “We have to go. Now.” Fred yelled.

Still holding the knife, Fred grabbed Phil by the shoulders and pushed him out the door. They ran to the kitchen.

Fred stopped Phil from running out the door. He looked him in the eyes. “We need to keep our cool. We need to be slow and careful leaving the house.”

Phil was catatonic.

Fred slapped him.

“Did you see her eyes?” Phil asked.

“She recognized you. I had no choice.”

“Yes you did. This was supposed to be a prank. You killed her!”

Fred gave Phil a look of pity. “I’m sorry Phil.”

“You killed her and you’re just sorry?”

“No, I’m sorry for this,” Fred said, as he brought up the bloody knife and slashed Phil’s throat.

Phil gasped at the chill of the blade. His scream never reached his vocal cords as bubbles gurgled from his open throat. A heavy weakness weighed down on him as he felt his life draining.

The last thing he heard was Fred’s voice. “I saw it in your eyes. You would’ve cracked. It’s better this way. I’ve given you a gift. Murder-suicide is revenge perfected.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael R Strom is an engineer by trade and a writer by choice. His writings tend to explore the darker side of the human condition, emphasizing damaged characters who perceive their worlds in blurred shades of grey. Being a native from Chicago, he now lives with his loving and supportive family in the Northwood’s of Wisconsin.

*********************


Wordslinger Shootout – Round 11

BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND PETER SALOMON IS GIVING AWAY A PAPERBACK COPY OF HIS BOOK, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS AND C. BRYAN BROWN IS GIVING AWAY AN EBOOK COPY OF HIS COLLECTION, BITS & PIECES. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.

Round11

SHOPPING

by Peter “Doc” Salomon

Patrick’s fingers were trembling. They’d never done that before. He swallowed even though his mouth was dry, clenched his teeth, and then reached out with his trembling fingers. He didn’t need to be here. It wasn’t one of those things that had to be done.

“Too green,” he said, the words barely spoken out loud. Not that anyone was near enough to hear him. His trembling fingers rested on the fabric. Nubby. Too nubby, nubbier than she’d have liked.

He sniffled, wiping trembling fingers across his nose. Blinked the tears away so he could see each curtain.

They hung on racks, twenty some odd curtains per rack. Patrick was surrounded by racks.

This entire row was too green. The color soft and gentle but all wrong.

He ignored the stripes. She hated stripes. Said they made her look fat. She’d never been fat. Not to him. And who cared what the rest of the world thought. She was never fat, not even nine months pregnant.

She hated stripes. He turned away, green stripes and green patterns. Nubby or soft or thick or whatever.

None of it mattered.

Not really.

It didn’t need to be done. Patrick just needed to be doing something.

“She would’ve loved this one,” he said. He turned around, to see if anyone had heard him. He ran trembling fingers along the curtain. It was the color of orchids. Someone had sent a bouquet of them, her favorite flower. The smell had lingered for days, filling the whole empty house.

They’d just moved in, living out of boxes as their daughter made a fort out of the empties. Even the smallest moving box was bigger than Sandra, so the fort didn’t need to be very tall. Her room was nothing but a dream, filled with boxes still.

Nightmare, now.

The orchid curtain fell back as he released it. For a moment it moved, as though breathing. He wiped his tears away with trembling fingers, left moisture behind as he gave the curtain one final caress.

He couldn’t fill their empty home with curtains the color of his wife’s favorite flower. Not now. There was no way to fill their empty home now. He could buy every curtain in the store. In every store. It would never fill their house.

The next rack had more stripes, then a whole row of neon, which he walked right by. Then Patrick stopped. It hurt to breathe sometimes, hitting out of the blue, for no reason. Why did the world turn still? Was there a reason that life continued? The world had ended, did it not get the message yet?

Purple curtains lined a dozen racks.

Sandra’s favorite color.

He couldn’t breathe, tears stinging his eyes out of focus. He tried to swallow. Coughed. Bit down on his lips so hard he drew blood.

Patrick took a deep breath. That’s what they kept telling him. Deep breaths would help. What a crock. Know what deep breaths did? Nothing.

Know what helped?

Nothing.

‘Get out of the house,’ his doctor said as she signed her name to one more prescription. ‘The sun will do you good.’

The sun hurt his eyes, he’d been crying too long for his eyes to ever stop hurting.

Patrick’s fingers trembled as he ran them over the purple curtains. Sandra’s favorite color. The first one was slick, cool. She would hate it. Sandra liked soft. He walked, trailing his fingers over the purple curtains, until reaching the soft ones. So soft.

He stood in the aisle, caressing the fabric. Feeling each tuft and thread of it. Patrick looked around, then rubbed his face over the curtain. So soft. His tears left streaks on the fabric.

“Sir?” someone said and Patrick looked up too fast. The world tilted, as though his balance had fled. Then everything came into focus. He could see every stitch of the purple curtain, the stains from his tears. Stains on Sandra’s favorite color.

“She’d have loved these,” he said to the salesclerk before spinning around and running out of the store.

The sun hurt his eyes and he closed them and stopped moving. People pushed passed him but he didn’t care. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cared. Caring required something he no longer possessed.

Caring died with his wife. Maybe if Sandra had lived. He might have been able to go on caring then, after the drunk driver took his wife away. But his daughter too? That was a death too far.

Patrick wiped trembling fingers over his closed eyes, pressing the tears away. It didn’t work. Nothing worked.

Finally, he turned around. When he opened his eyes all he could see were the purple curtains. They’d been so soft. Not too thick, not too thin. But soft, like Sandra’s hair. Late at night, after his wife fell asleep, Patrick used to walk around the box filled house and try to imagine what everything would look like when they’d finished unpacking. He’d tiptoe into Sandra’s room, climb inside her empty box fort, and stroke her hair. Promise to protect her.

So soft.

She was so small. Even her birth had been a miracle, the doctors said she’d never leave the hospital. But she was a fighter. A superhero, wearing the same purple cape to bed every night.

She kept fighting, long after his wife had given up and left them. But there’s only so much fight a five year old can give. Patrick never left her side. Never stopped stroking her hair until the doctor’s shaved it off to insert the shunt to drain the bleeding.

Sandra never gave up. But she lost anyway.

Back inside the curtain store, Patrick skipped the greens and the stripes, heading straight for the purples. There, he took down the stained soft purple curtain.

“I’d like this one,” he said to the same salesclerk.

“We have those in back, do you know the size?”

“No,” Patrick said. “I stained it, see.” He held the tear stains up like a talisman.

“That’s the sample,” the salesclerk said.

Patrick shook his head. “This one, please.”

“Sir, that’s not actually for sale.”

It took some doing, but finally the salesclerk relented. After all, the curtain was stained.

Patrick didn’t want to go home. He never wanted to go home. It was a giant empty reminder of all he’d lost. Like choosing to have the same nightmare every night, going home was killing him. There was nothing there. Whatever home had once meant was gone.

Home now was boxes he’d never unpack. What if he came across her clothes? Her toys? Her stuffed animals? The picture the nurse had taken the day they’d released her from the hospital when she turned five months old? Or maybe the next box he opened would be his wife’s clothes? He’d found one of her bras in the laundry the week after the funeral and cried so long and hard he passed out.

Home was a minefield he’d given up ever trying to figure his way through. Instead, he stayed in the kitchen. The kitchen was safe. Sandra never much cared for food and his wife never really cooked all that much. Plastic silverware, paper plates, delivery pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. His pillow rested in a pile with a blanket where a breakfast table was supposed to go.

Patrick pulled the blanket over his face even though the sun was still out. He rested his face on the soft purple curtain and stared at the photos covering the floor. Sandra smiling. Always smiling. Laughing. Playing. One with his wife pushing Sandra on a swing. The sun was shining on them both. They looked so soft.

He cried himself to sleep.

When he woke, it was still light. It could have been the same day. It might be the next. He’d taken to sleeping twelve or more hours straight. There was no reason to get up most days. His job let him go when he stopped showing up after the funeral. They understood, they said. Take your time, they said. But even friends stopped coming by.

How long since he’d showered? Hell, he couldn’t remember how long since he’d eaten. The stacks of pizza boxes kept growing but he couldn’t remember eating. Or shaving, how long since he’d shaved? He didn’t know. Didn’t care.

The mail was piled up next to the pizza boxes. On top of the boxes. Inside them. He’d stopped paying much attention. The power was still on, that was good. Right? Was there anything any longer on the planet that was actually good?

No.

He flipped his soft purple curtain pillow over to find a side that wasn’t stained with a night’s worth of tears. It wasn’t quite as soft now.

He studied the photograph, his wife pushing Sandra. He could still hear her laughter. Smell the ocean on the breeze. Sandra had always wanted to see the Pacific. She settled for the Atlantic. It was closer. It was still the ocean. She played in the sand, building castles and laughing. Always laughing.

Patrick unrolled the soft purple curtain. His fingers trembled as he tried to straighten out the kinks in it from being used as a pillow. The fabric wasn’t very thick, but it was soft and sturdy.

He walked from one end of the kitchen to the other, finally working up the nerve to step into the entryway. He kept his eyes on the front door, refusing to look at the stairway that would take him upstairs, to Sandra’s room. At the door, he stopped. Ran trembling fingers over the purple curtain before wiping his tears away. Unable to help himself, he looked up.

Loose wires hung from the ceiling where they’d yet to install the light fixture. On the staircase, the banister curved, a nice dark wood. His wife had spent hours choosing the perfect stain. Leaning against the wall, their ladder waited for an electrician to be called to hang the light. It still sat in boxes by the front door.

Sandra hadn’t liked it very much, but his wife wanted something ‘classy’ and he’d agreed because she’d really wanted it.

Patrick climbed the ladder.

Maybe if Sandra had lived. Maybe then. But now?

His fingers were steady as they gripped the metal steps. The soft purple curtain hung around his shoulders. The picture of Sandra swinging in the sun peeked out of his shirt pocket.

He leaned over just a little. Enough to tie the curtain to the dark wood banister his wife had chosen. Then, his fingers no longer trembling, he tied the other end of the soft purple curtain around his neck.

From where Patrick stood on the top step of the ladder he could see the closed door to Sandra’s room. She’d drawn a small purple heart in crayon on the wall next to it. Cried when he’d yelled at her. The accident was four hours and eight minutes after she stopped crying. Just his wife and Sandra, going out for ice cream. Because he’d made her cry. Before she’d left, he’d made her scrub it away.

Now the small purple heart existed nowhere but in his memory.

With steady fingers, Patrick took the picture out. It was hard to focus on Sandra’s smile. His wife’s smile. The smile he knew he’d worn when he’d taken the picture. There were too many tears. There would always be too many tears. The small purple heart was gone. Nothing would ever bring it back.

And it was all his fault.

Patrick stepped off the ladder.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Adam Salomon graduated Emory University in Atlanta, GA with a BA in Theater and Film Studies in 1989.

He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Horror Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers, and The Authors Guild and is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. His debut novel, HENRY FRANKS, was published by Flux in September 2012. His next novel, ALL THOSE BROKEN ANGELS, a ghost story set in Savannah, GA, is scheduled for publication in Fall 2014 by Flux.

His short fiction has appeared in the Demonic Visions series and he was the featured author for Gothic Blue Book III: The Graveyard Edition. His poem ‘Electricity and Language and Me’ appeared on BBC Radio 6 performed by The Radiophonic Workshop in December 2013. In addition, he edited the first book of poetry released by the Horror Writers Association, Horror Poetry Showcase Volume 1.

He was also a Judge for the 2006 Savannah Children’s Book Festival Young Writer’s Contest and served on the Jury for the Poetry Category of the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards. He was a Judge for the Inaugural Horror Poetry Showcase of the Horror Writers Association. He is also the Chair for the Jury for the First Novel Category of the 2014 Bram Stoker Awards and serves as a Judge for the Royal Palm Literary Awards of the Florida Writers Association.

Peter Adam Salomon lives in St. Petersburg, FL with his wife Anna and their three sons: André Logan, Joshua Kyle and Adin Jeremy.

www.peteradamsalomon.com
www.henry-franks.com
www.allthosebrokenangels.com
www.facebook.com/peteradamsalomon
Twitter: @petersalomon

*********************

A PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAINS

by  C. Bryan Brown

Patterns.

Faces.

Death.

That’s how Joe explained what happened to Mr. Pink.

Susan sat on the opposite end of the couch as Joe and stared at the living room curtains that covered the large picture window. The old, faded beige color didn’t even match the furniture. She almost laughed. Up until a week ago they’d been an enormous, musty old blanket he’d picked up at a garage sale. Joe’d fallen in love with the tribal Fleur de Lis design, and while she was out of town on business, decided said blanket would make awesome window coverings.

Sage and sulfur hung in the air, the results of Joe’s most recent “cleansing,” which, according to him, was necessary after Mr. Pink’s murder. The house smelled as bad as the curtains looked.

“What am I looking for, Joe?”

“You can’t see them?”

“I see the ugly blanket you bought,” she said. “You hemmed the edges, added a thing, and made curtains. What can I say? You’re a wizard in the home ec department.”

“Look,” he said, springing off the couch. He smoothed the curtain and pointed. “Here.”

His finger traced one of the patterns, a wide V shape, between the Fleur de Lis swirls and called it a beak. Above that, the top of the Fleur de Lis formed a vaguely heart-shaped hump that indicated the rest of the head. Jammed above the beak and in the head were two dark spots: the eyes. The outer curves of the Fleur de Lis made up the creature’s wingspan.

“It’s a bird of prey of some sort,” Joe explained. “Mr. Pink was swatting that stupid mouse toy—you know, the one with the catnip—and it went under the window. He ran after it, disturbing the curtains, and when he came out again, this bird exploded off the curtain and snatched him up. It flew around the living room with the cat, pecking …”

Joe dry heaved and, clutching his stomach, sat back down.

“Okay, Joe,” Susan said, twisting around to stare at him. “Maybe that outline could be construed as a bird’s head, but do you really expect me to believe it came alive and ate my cat?”

“What are you saying?”

“You never liked Mr. Pink.”

“No, but I’d never kill him.”

“I didn’t say you killed him. Maybe you just forgot to shut the door.”

“Jesus, Susan, is that what you think of me?”

“You haven’t been right since your mom died,” she said. “Every little thing sets you off.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Joe said.

He rose and stalked off down the hallway, shoulder muscles shifting with each step. His fingers clenched into fists, the knuckles popping like firecrackers. Joe slammed the bedroom door and the bed squeaked when he flopped on it. Susan shot him the bird.

The curtain rustled in her peripheral vision.

She looked back and it stilled. The air conditioning wasn’t running and none of the other windows were open, so it shouldn’t have moved.

It didn’t move. Joe’s story is still fresh in my mind and I’m grieving over Mr. Pink. That’s all it was. It was just my imagination.

Susan stood and turned toward the bedroom and spun back. The curtain had moved again, she was sure, and she’d glimpsed a face staring at her. Looking directly at the hanging fabric, though, it was gone. She stepped toward the window, twisting her head this way and then that way, trying to recapture the angle. Joe’s bird kept taking her focus, the way the head peaked and curved outward and—Yes! There!

The bird’s head formed strong cheekbones and just above the bird’s eyes were two smaller spots that resembled the soft fur of an animal’s nose. The bird’s beak was a sharply pointed chin here. The face’s eyes, just dark spots on the fabric, seemed to follow her movements. The crown of the head was narrow and pointed, coming up off the Fleur de Lis’s tip. It wasn’t quite human, but it wasn’t completely inhuman, either. It almost looked feline …

“I wouldn’t touch it.”

Joe’s voice startled Susan, and she yelped, whirling on him. She poked him hard in the chest and did it again, all without saying a word. He put his hands up and backed away.

“Hey, after Mr. Pink,” he said. “That looks dangerous. A lion of some sort?”

“Goddammit, Joe, just drop it. I don’t want to hear anything else about Mr. Pink or this stupid curtain.”

“No,” he said.

“What?”

“I said no. Listen to me, Susan, after what happened, I went back to the house where we bought the blanket.”

“I’m sure they were delighted to see you.”

“The lady didn’t seem to mind,” Joe said. “As a matter of fact, she asked me what happened.”

“Fascinating.”

“Don’t do that. You always do that.”

“Do what?”

“Trivialize me.”

“I don’t.”

“It pisses me off.”

“Everything pisses you off.”

Joe’s eyes widened and Susan held up a hand to stop his next verbal bowel movement. He swore and grabbed her shoulders, finger digging furrows into her flesh. Susan shrieked and latched onto his wrists as he threw her across the room onto the couch. She landed askew, one leg on, the other off, and bounced. Joe yelled and punched the curtain, his fists billowing the fabric into exaggerated parachutes that floated back into place.

His fist struck the face and this time the parachute didn’t straighten, but sucked Joe’s hand in until he screamed. The curtain darkened with blood.

“Help me,” he begged.

It’s eating him, Susan thought and shoved herself off the couch, forgetting Joe’d just thrown her there. She wrapped her arms around Joe’s midsection. Joe put his foot on the low sill and his free hand against the wall. She pulled as he pushed. His hand came free and they fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs.

“I told you,” he panted. “It’s dangerous.”

Susan gained her feet and dragged Joe to the bathroom sink. Under warm water, she examined him, and found individual wounds ringing his wrist, as if the face had a circular mouth with wide-set, independent teeth.

Well, why not? A curtain just tried to eat Joe.

She wound an old washcloth around his wrist and tied it off. Joe winced and prodded the makeshift bandage with a finger.

“Thanks,” he said.

“You should go to the hospital and have that looked at.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Take down that curtain,” she said.

“Are you sure that’s smart?” he asked, holding up his wrist.

“No,” she said. “But you’re bleeding through the towel and I can’t stitch you up.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll go. But before I do, listen to me. The lady said that old thing I bought was a Native American Love Blanket. The tribe’s medicine man would imbue it with properties to remove obstacles on the path to true love.”

“So you’re saying it’s a marvelously magical murdering piece of American history?”

Joe stared at her for a long moment before finally shrugging. He left the bathroom and collected his car keys from the peg in the kitchen. Susan trailed along after him, tried to smile as Joe gave her one last look before leaving through the back door.

Susan withdrew the chef’s knife from the wooden block on the counter and removed the broom from its spot in the pantry. Thus armed, she approached the curtains on her tiptoes, her cheeks burning with embarrassment, a stark contrast to the claws gouging her midsection. She imagined the people in the audience calling her a plethora of choice names and screaming at her to run the other way. But in real life, when you faced the apparent silliness of the supernatural, it was different. You never ran away, but rather sought the logical source, if only to prove to you’d set aside those childhood fears.

Love was the same way: silly and frightening, yet people stayed in bad relationships for no reason other than to be with someone. And if a person happened to get out of a bad relationship, he or she couldn’t wait to jump into the next one. At that point, Susan figured it was no longer about being with someone, but more what’s wrong with me? Why do all my relationships fall to pieces? Why am I always left holding the bag with no bottom? That tunnel vision squeezed out the obvious, which was the other half of the failed relationship was in the same boat, struggling up the same shit-colored creek, with just as many paddles.

Joe had cut the blanket into four separate panels—one for each pane of glass—and she swept aside the second. It rippled and swayed, and otherwise acted the way a curtain should. Nothing hid behind it, nothing bulged from the fabric itself. She did the same to the third and fourth panels and was rewarded with the same results. Susan turned to the blood-soaked first panel, the one Joe had punched. The one that had bit him. She held the knife up, ready to slash the curtain to ribbons, and jabbed with the broom.

Nothing.

The curtain hung, limp and dead, as it should.

Susan moved closer and twirled the curtain around the broom handle, twisting the two together. She pushed the curtain out of the way and stared at the window. With its hand-sized hole and dried blood, it reminded her of a trap she’d seen in a movie: Joe’s hand had gone through the glass to the wrist and the jagged glass had caught it when he tried to pull it back. They’d used blades in the film, but the result was the same, except the glass had eventually given up.

Several knife cuts near the rod brought the panel down and Susan tossed it behind her. She repeated the process with the other three panels until only jagged edges remained. The upside down peaks and valleys fit perfectly for this relationship. Joe hadn’t even asked her if she liked the blanket, much less whether she wanted it as a curtains. And were curtains not one of those couple decisions, something mutually agreed upon since it was for their house?

Susan turned and came face to face with the sheared pieces of blanket. They’d risen from the floor like ghosts. She screamed when they reached for her and struck with the knife, again and again, even as it grunted and lurched forward. Warm blood poured over her fingers and the knife, buried in the cloth, jerked out of Susan’s hand. The blanket collided with her and bore her down. Her head bounced off the floor hard enough that her vision dimmed and a hasty breath expunged whatever air she’d had left in her lungs.

The love blanket landed on top of her, settling on the upper half of her body, including her face. It was far weightier than two minutes ago, and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t dislodge it. It continued to press down, preventing her from taking in air. Her hands slapped at the weight and met denim, leather, hair.

Joe.

Her heart, the mythical source of love, pounded in her ears as air, the proven necessity of life, was denied.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

C. Bryan Brown writes, watches too many movies, and has a great fondness for coffee, liquor, and sex…not necessarily in that order. His first novel, Necromancer, was released in 2012 and his short fiction can be found in numerous anthologies, magazines, and websites. He also writes TV and movie reviews for Destroy the Brain. You can find links to his published work, Facebook, Twitter, and the ramblings that keep him out of jail on his website.

*********************


Wordslinger Shootout – Round 10

BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND I’M GIVING AWAY A COPY OF MY COLLECTION, THESE OLD TALES (WINNERS CHOICE OF EBOOK OR AUDIOBOOK) FOR DAVID ANDERSON AND JAMES CHAMBERS IS GIVING AWAY AN EBOOK COPY OF HIS NOVELLA(S) THREE CHORDS OF CHAOS OR DEAD BEAR WITNESS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.

Round10

SPEED DEMON

by “Dead Aim” David Anderson

I sit at the red light, enjoying the night air. The rumble of the engine gently shakes the car, rocking me like a comforting mother. I never feel more peaceful, more at ease, than behind the wheel of Betsy, my 2034 Ford Mustang Classic Reissue. She isn’t the newest model on the road but I’ve added a few customizations that make her unique, make her mine. I like to say she’s black as night, fast as light. Silly, I know, but we all do stupid things for what we love.

A low growl pulls my attention to the left. A brand new coupe, some oddly configured foreign thing, hovers a couple of feet off the ground. It looks like it just rolled off the assembly line on Mars. All the overpriced sports cars are built there now. It’s this hideous neon green with smooth curves and strange patterns etched in the chassis. Hover cars are all the rage among the rich and elite. They’re supposed to be faster than wheeled cars because of less friction. Hopefully, it’s just a passing fad. I still prefer contact with the road. It’s not just the power, it’s the control, the feeling. The pull of the tires on pavement is therapeutic, a woman caressing her lover after a long day.

The driver looks at me and flashes a slimy, stuck up smile. He’s young, cocky, and bottled blonde. A spoiled brat driving his graduation present. His seat covers cost more than I make in three months. He gives me a curt nod and revs the engine again. Everything switched to total electric a few years ago but the manufacturers added gyros to cause the body to shake and fake engine nose to appease public demand. We may be trying to treat the environment a little better but everyone knows how an engine is supposed to sound.

I know I shouldn’t but I nod and smile back. If this kid wants to throw down with me, he better be willing to pay for it. I’ve been in this game a long time. Boy, I think to myself, you have no idea what you’re up against.

The challenge accepted, we both face the stop light. Seconds drag on for years. Both engines rev and growl. The car bodies rock back and forth as we both anticipate the inevitable change. This is the age old competition: old school versus new school. Terran versus foreign. Experience versus technology.

In a split second, the red is gone and before the green can even appear, the other driver takes off. It’s somewhat anticlimactic as there’s no screech of the tires, no smoke from burning rubber. He just glides ahead, leaving me sitting at the intersection. I like to toy with them like this. I shouldn’t, but I do. Give them a good start, a feeling of accomplishment, a false sense of security.

I reach across the dash and flick some of the customized switches. I can still see his tail lights, but they’re pretty far ahead. I stomp on the accelerator and feel the blessed force of gravity pin me to my seat. Right now, I couldn’t lean forward even if I wanted to. In a moment I’ve switched to second gear, then third, fourth. My heart rate increases with the RPM’s. Don’t know how fast I’m going. Don’t really care. I hear an insane sounding cackle and realize it’s me. I can’t deny it. I live for this.

Before I can enjoy myself too much, I’ve reached the other car. Far too easy. I aim a little gizmo at his hood and hit a button. His car automatically slows down and he pulls over. I match his speed then fall behind him. A new safety feature for those fancy flying jobs is a wireless kill switch. Once they hit 350 kph, the switch become active. I bet the dealer didn’t mention that when he was selling it to Mommy and Daddy.

There’s no denying the kid’s been beaten. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast he goes. It doesn’t matter for any of them. I always catch them. I pull Betsy in behind him and flip one of the switches off. The area’s dark except for the custom lights installed under my windshield. Dramatic shadows and all that. It’s not easy but I suppress my smile and get out. I take my time walking up to his window, letting the tension build. It glides down and he laughs nervously. Looks like the poor kid is about to hyperventilate. It takes a minute, but he’s finally able to speak.

“G-Good evening, officer. Is there a problem?”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J. David Anderson is an author of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and anything else that strikes his fancy. He lives in Indiana with his wife, son, dog, and imaginary friends.

*********************

THE THREE A.M. ROAD

by  James “The Judge” Chambers

“More to it than how fast you ride,” Barbary said. “The dead hafta want you to see ‘em. They need a reason. And you gotta have the stones to look. Even then, get out there, pump the needle to the red, still could wind up with nothing but empty road blurring past and wind spitting in your face. This thing I can do don’t always work.”

“Any chance to see Joanie again is worth it,” DeLeo said.

“I get paid either way.”

“The money doesn’t matter, only me and Joanie.”

“Fine, fine. But I gotta see the long green in advance.”

DeLeo placed an envelope on the bar, handing over the last of his money, the last of his hope. Barbary flicked it open, riffled the bills inside. Satisfied, he grunted and stuffed the packet inside his motorcycle jacket. He grabbed the full mug of beer before him and chugged half of it. DeLeo read the words tattooed in black and red across his scarred knuckles, “The Dead,” on his right hand, “Travel Fast,” on his left. Barbary belched, wiped beer suds from his red beard, then flagged down the bartender, tight leather creaking as he stretched his arm.

“Two tequilas, right here, Hambone,” Barbary said, tapping the bar.

Hambone set up two shot glasses, grabbed a bottle, and splashed tequila into them. He snickered at DeLeo, and then resumed wiping down the bar. Barbary raised one of the glasses.

“Seal the deal,” he said.

“You have to drive us later. Should you be drinking?” DeLeo said.

“Drinking?” Barbary laughed. “Call this drinking? Brother, you can’t stomach a sip or three without dimming your bulb, you ain’t got the stones required to ride where you want me to take you. Dig?”

“Okay, it’s just that ever since Joanie’s stint in rehab, I try to avoid alcohol. If she gave it up, so can I.” DeLeo lifted his glass and clinked it to Barbary’s. “But one drink won’t hurt. Seal the deal.”

“Tha’s right,” Barbary said.

The two men drank. The liquor burned DeLeo’s throat and traveled right to his head with a dizzy feeling. Barbary’s face loomed in the mirror behind the bar, and his wild eyes flashed with the amber light of a neon beer sign. A long blues jam freight-trained out of the jukebox, filling the bar with weary rhythms and a sad melody. Barbary seemed right at home here, but DeLeo hated bars like Starry-Eyed Darla’s. He had seen too many dingy, strange places, too many desperate people and the grifters who preyed on them. He hoped Barbary lived up to his reputation.

He placed his empty glass on the bar. “When do we go?”

“Witching time,” Barbary said.

“Midnight?” DeLeo said.

Barbary shook his head. “Tha’s Hollywood bullshit. Three a.m. when the whole damn world’s asleep. Quietest, coldest part of the night. Ever try to keep warm at three a.m.? S’bitch. Hear a lousy pin drop on the highway. The ones you want to see don’t like lights and noise. Sure don’t like crowds. Or heat either. So, three a.m. And, brother, you better be ready, cause I feel something hungry on the road tonight. The dead don’t ever stop moving. Bodies lie down, don’t get up again. Most times anyway. But what goes on after death, they’re a restless bunch. You gotta move fast if you wanta catch up to ‘em. Thing is maybe they got something different than what you want.”

“How bad could it be?” DeLeo asked.

Barbary rolled his eyes. “I seen some shit, s’all I’m saying.”

“It makes no difference. I must see Joanie.”

“If anyone can get you there, it’s me. Let’s meet here at three. Got to get myself ready.”

DeLeo walked back to his motel, where he stretched out on the bed, and thought of Joanie until the ache of missing her made him cry. He paged through his scrapbook of photos, newspaper clippings, autographs, postcards, and other mementos he’d gathered over the years. Not enough to fill the hole she left in his life. He hated himself for not saving her. He had been so near when she died. If only she’d listened to him, let him take her away like he’d asked, she’d still be alive. He closed the book and let his tears fall.

Around quarter to three he walked back to Starry-Eyed Darla’s where light and music erupted from the bar. The life inside did nothing to warm him, chilled to the bone, like Barbary said. And there Barbary sat on a motorcycle with a sidecar attached. His bushy, red hair hung in a ponytail down his back, his beard in a long, tight braid. A silver pentacle glinted on his chest, hanging from a thick chain around his neck. Another chain held teeth, shards of bone, and animal skulls that clinked dully. Daubs of white, red, and black paint sketched a rough skull on his face. He beamed a smile at DeLeo and dismounted. Painted matte black, the motorcycle and sidecar seemed like fragments yanked from the night. Only the glass headlights gleamed in the lights from Darla’s.

“Hop in,” Barbary said.

DeLeo stared at the rig and Barbary’s outrageous appearance. Another waste of money, he thought. Another fraud or a loon or a headcase running a con or looking for losers to validate his delusions of grandeur. And I fell for it, again.

Joanie would be so disappointed.

“What?” Barbary said, smile wilting.

“Thought you’d bring me a helmet,” DeLeo said.

Barbary scoffed. “Can’t wear one on this ride. Gotta have all your senses open and leave your life in the cold hands of fate. Pair of goggles in the hack, though. No need to ride blind.”

DeLeo climbed into the sidecar and donned the goggles.

“When things happen,” Barbary said, pulling goggles over his eyes, “you’re gonna feel it in your sphincter first, then your whole body’ll tense up. You gotta relax. Be cool. Ignore most of what you see. Don’t talk to anyone except the one you’re seeking. We keep moving, they can’t really mess with us.”

Barbary hopped on his bike and coaxed it to life. The engine roared. With a laugh and a last manic glance at DeLeo, he guided it away from Darla’s and opened it up on the road. The icy wind swept DeLeo’s breath away. They accelerated, and Barbary guided the bike onto the highway, abandoned at this time of night like he’d predicted. They passed a lone car and then settled into a ninety miles per hour run down a long tree-lined straightaway. The black bike and sidecar blended seamlessly with the dark, making it seem they rushed along on a stream of night itself. Only the moon and the headlights showed the way. They drove for a long time, Barbary working the throttle, seeking the right speed. Nothing happened.

DeLeo felt cheated and ready to give up.

How long, he wondered, before he brings me back to Darla’s and claims the spirits weren’t cooperating.

Then, like Barbary described, his sphincter clenched.

Every muscle in his body yanked tight.

He struggled in the wind to ease his breathing and stay calm.

The moon vanished behind a dark veil. The ground and trees shimmered. DeLeo felt a sensation of slipping between currents of energy while being stretched sideways.

Firelight appeared ahead. They rounded a curve and came upon a massive bonfire where hundreds of gray figures danced in a circle, darting among rows of gallows that surrounded the conflagration. Bodies hung from the hangman’s beams in groups of three and four, and black, winged creatures fluttered around them. The dancers all watched the motorcycle speed by, their dead eyes staring.

Barbary gave a triumphant whoop.

“We did it! We’re here,” he cried. “Think hard about this Joanie of yours, and keep them eyes peeled. She got a reason to see you, she’ll come.”

As the bonfire faded behind them, they rushed by packs of dead, gray figures roaming the shoulder, their outstretched arms reaching for the bike. The road became a tour of horrors. Wild dogs chased a family around their broken-down car with its hood up, the dogs catching them, savaging them, then letting them go to continue the hunt. Farther on, a line of people climbed to the top of an overpass, jumped off onto the rocks below it, and dragged themselves back to do it again. A tribe of folks with broken legs and knives sticking out of them like pins in a pincushion crawled along the shoulder on hands and knees. Beyond them, eyeless people with razors for fingers sliced each other as they scrambled up a hill toward a dark, clawed giant at the top.

They rounded a sharp S-curve, and a red light flared.

A woman screamed.

“Joanie!” DeLeo shouted.

“You see her?” Barbary yelled.

“Down there!”

DeLeo pointed to the bottom of a slope, where the road dog-legged.

A woman walked there, her silky white dress glowing in the dark, arms outstretched, face obscured by a milky fog. Barbary aimed the bike at her, but as they neared the bottom of the hill, the engine coughed and sputtered. The bike swerved. Barbary struggled to control it. Metal shrieked, and then the bike rolled to a stop, a hundred feet from the woman.

“Oh, shit,” Barbary said.

He tried to restart the engine. It growled but refused to turn over.

The woman rushed them, the fog clearing to reveal her cold, white, beautiful face, and the death marks on her torso. Her caved-in chest. A ragged slash at the base of her throat. A line from one side of her abdomen to the other weeping blood into her dress. She shrieked as she lifted into the air and flowed over Barbary and DeLeo.

“Whoa!” Barbary said. “That’s Joanie Owens! Your Joanie is the freaking movie star?”

“Yes, yes, that’s her! She’s supposed to be with me. We’re meant to be together.”

“Hold it! Wait a minute!” Barbary scowled. “You’re him, ain’t you?”

Ignoring Barbary, DeLeo rose to exit the sidecar. Barbary clamped him by the shoulder and pushed him back down

“Uh-uh. You get out, you stay here. Nothing I can do. That’s how it works.”

DeLeo sat down.

“You’re the one who was stalking her.” Barbary said. “You’re one of those celebrity-worshiping nutbags, and she was running from you when she crashed. You killed her—and you’re still coming after her? Man, I’ve met some weirdos, but, brother, let it go. You already destroyed the thing you love. Move on. Didn’t they put you in jail, anyway?”

“I did my time! Now I want Joanie. I earned it. We belong together.”

Barbary groaned. “I gotta start screening you freaks.”

“There she is!” DeLeo pointed down the road. “Get going.”

Barbary tried the ignition again, and this time the bike snarled to life. He wheeled around, brushing back the dead ones closing around them, and gunned it toward Joanie. She screamed in the road, her beautiful face distorted by anger and sorrow, her body skewed as if her torso might slide free of her hips. She raised her arms and pointed her accusation and fury at DeLeo, who called out to tell her everything would be all right now that he was here, and they could be together.

The ranks of the dead thickened behind her, swarming to block the road.

“Shit, they’re coming for us!” Barbary drove faster, seeking the right speed to slip back to the living world. He felt it so close yet out of reach, and then he remembered reading online—127 miles per hour. The speed of Joanie Owen’s Jaguar when it shot off the road into a bridge stanchion, the collision cutting her in two as she fled from DeLeo.

“Deal’s off, brother. We gotta get out of here now!”

“No!” DeLeo shouted. “Not without Joanie!”

He raised himself in the sidecar and spread his arms, mirroring the embrace Joanie offered. An embrace he’d longed for since he first saw her on the silver screen.

“Sit down, you moron!” Barbary screamed.

They rocketed toward Joanie. Barbary inched the speedometer to 127.

DeLeo screamed Joanie’s name, stretched over the edge of the sidecar, reached for her.

As they passed Joanie, the bike hitched and jerked, and Barbary wrested it steady as more and more dead rushed into their path. With a sound like an enormous bubble popping, the bike and sidecar skidded from one world to the next. In the span of a second empty road replaced the ghosts of the dead.

Barbary braked and shuddered to the shoulder.

Panting, he said, “Made it! Sorry, brother, but we had to jet. No choice.”

DeLeo didn’t answer.

Barbary sighed and lifted his goggles. “Don’t start angling for a refund, cause—.”

He glanced at the sidecar and quieted.

Blood spatters painted the black finish. The bottom half of DeLeo’s body lay wedged in the compartment. The rest of him—well, Barbary figured that part remained in the arms of the one he loved, torn in half like her. Paybacks’ a bitch, and more than enough reason for a dead soul to come meet them out on the three a.m. road.

“Sometimes, brother, s’best to let ‘em rest in peace,” he said and then he rode back to Darla’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Chambers’ tales of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, and Publisher’s Weekly described his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas, The Engines of Sacrificeas “chillingly evocative.” His other books include the novellas Three Chords of Chaos, as well as The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood (the first two volumes in the Corpse Fauna series), and the story collections Resurrection House and The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales with illustrator Jason Whitley. His stories have appeared in the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries and Defending the Future anthology series as well as Allen K’s InhumanBare BoneChiral Mad 2Clockwork ChaosDeep CutsFantastic Futures 13The Green Hornet ChroniclesIn an Iron CageMermaids 13The Spider: Extreme PrejudiceTo Hell in a Fast CarWalrus Tales, and many other publications. He has edited and written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals and the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow HouseHe is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the recipient of the HWA’s 2012 Richard Laymon Award. He is online at www.jameschambersonline.com and https://www.facebook.com/ThreeChordsOfChaos.

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