Jon Bennett

The West Is Dying And There’s Nowhere To Go But The Sea

After coffee the day stretched out before me, impossibly long, like a desert I’d die in trying to cross. I wished I didn’t have a month sober. If I didn’t have a month sober going down to pill corner would be fine, just another day, but I did so getting drugs would represent a major failure.

I pulled on my pants and put on my hat. 

As I walked a woman I thought I loved texted me from Illinois. She had moved and gotten sober. Now she was doing great all the time. She was on a handful of psych meds and going to 12 Step meetings. It was a race to see who would start dating first but I knew she’d win because she was much more attractive than me.

“How’re you doing?” that was her.

“Fine. Have you started dating again?” I knew not to ask how she was doing because it was always “Great!” 

“Yes!” she wrote, and stabbed in a picture of a bouquet.

I thought angry thoughts. I thought what’d you ever bring to the table besides that body, she never read anything or wrote anything and her paintings weren’t that good. I guessed I had loved her for years but I didn’t know, maybe she was only a reason for getting high, maybe I needed someone to forget and she happened to be that person.

But then I loved her again, I loved my princess and now she was dating and since she was sober chances were this boyfriend would be permanent, because that’s what happens when 40 year old women who are still pretty get a boyfriend, they marry him. It had happened enough that I knew.

I let the text thread die.

At pill corner no one had anything.

“You got anything small?” I said. They never knew what I meant.

“What?”

“Any Vicodins, Percocets, like 5 mgs?”

“I got heroin.”

“I have Xanax.” 

“All I got are 80s.”

An 80 mg oxycodone is a pill they give people with terminal disease who have already been on painkillers for a long time. It’s a hospice drug. An 80 mg for a normal person is suicide, like taking 16 Percocets at once. If you don’t puke it up you’ll stop breathing.

“How much?”

“100.”

“Fuck!”

“Want it?”

“OK.”

Or maybe Illinois girl was my muse. A muse is somewhere for a lonely person to put all their emotions, like a UPS guy filling up a truck. I take all those pent up feelings that need to go somewhere and put them in the truck, I write them down and the truck drives away. Plenty of metaphors there about sore backs, flat tires, packages I can’t lift. Stupid shit.

As he gave me the pill we coughed Covid in each other’s faces. Maybe. The air was smoky.  It was fire season. Down in Las Vegas the lie of ample water was crushing the South West and in San Francisco the fog was burning off. And every time I did drugs I knew there wasn’t much brain left either, that it too would soon be a cinder.

“Take care, bro.”

Yeah, right.

Since I was on foot I could go to a bar. I wouldn’t drink and drive anymore because I’d nearly killed some DoorDash motherfucker on an electric scooter, and anyhow driving around the Tenderloin was dangerous, people walked in front of traffic as a way to end their addiction to fentanyl, at least that’s how it seemed.

I decided on the old merchant marine bar. They didn’t open until 4 but it took a while to get there, a couple bus rides. My fingers found the switchblade I carry and as I rode I opened and closed it inside my pocket, and my fingers found the round green pill, the size of a gem, a topaz, and I thought about it sitting there waiting for me.

At the bar I looked at the Jewish bartender. She was obviously Jewish to me as I am also Jewish. She was pretty and her shirt revealed her midriff which was pale and flat and reminded me of the low-hanging paunch beneath my layers of clothes that I hate so much. I drank 2 shots of tequila too fast and then I wanted something better and went to the bathroom.

You’d think 80 milligrams would be a big pill but it was the size of an aspirin. I decided I’d have to cut it into 8 slivers. There was also a 50/50 chance it was actually fake, fentanyl instead of oxycodone, which would make me extremely sick.

I wasn’t drunk enough to try the operation on the toilet paper holder. So I held off and went back to the bar and tried not to look at the bartender’s naval.

In my life I had good friends I didn’t see that often and one very good friend I used to see a lot, but her life had gotten busier and so I didn’t see her much anymore either. She was another woman on a short list of ex-girlfriends I could’ve married. I was grateful I still had her as a friend but I missed hanging out with her and when I got drunk sometimes I got angry about it. I was always angry at myself but when drunk it turned into being angry at other people. I drank two tequila sunrises for the sugar and the 80 milligram started heating up like a little sun in my pocket. But I still held off.  Instead I texted my good friend even though I knew she was busy.

“Will you come get me? I took a fentanyl,” I lied.  “I think I’m going to be sick.”

She got back to me pretty fast.

“I’m working on my thesis.”

“?” I said.

“Fine.” 

I told her where and she came and got me in her fucked up Prius with the Bernie Sanders sticker. She didn’t know how wholesome she was.

“Hi,” I said.

“Do we need to go to the ER?!”

“I’m not really sick.”

“How much did you take?”

“I didn’t take anything,” I said. “Are you hungry?”

“John!”

“You aren’t hungry?”

“Do you realize how much work I have to do?”

“You should get a medal,” I said.

She knew I wasn’t doing well. Lying was as close as I could come to asking her for help.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Golden Boy Pizza. Thanks.”

We went and got cheese slices and sat in Washington Park because she was afraid of Covid. The sun had gone down already and it was cold. The pizza was cold too.  And I was not a golden boy, not to her, not to anyone. I was almost old. But at least the 80 mg oxycodone stopped yelling at me. It was just one more thing with potential that would probably never happen.

Robert Pettus

Meat Machines

The box crusher buzzed and shoved the collected cardboard forcefully to the bottom of the machine. Neil loved that. It would be the favorite part of his job if the rest of his work didn’t involve chopping, slicing, and grinding meat. Nothing beat that. He grinned sadistically at the box crusher as it completed its only task, wondering what would happen if you stuffed a person in there. 

“They might not even die,” he thought pessimistically, “I’m just getting my hopes up.”

The boxes totally smashed, he walked through the back-of-store hallway back into the meat department, his thick green tote-bin in hand. Pushing through the swinging doors, he noticed and savored that smell eternally present in the meat room—the scent of raw flesh. Neil never felt truly awake until he came to work and sniffed inside that concrete, neutral room –until he dirtied the white plastic cutting boards of its heavy rectangular tables with blood and fat. Everyone said working in the IGA meat department made him smell like shit. He loved that—both the smell and its manufactured repulsion of others. He liked to think of it as his de-deodorant.

His boss, Jimmy P—a grouchy old alcoholic—was sitting atop his wobbly wooden stool, which was cushioned with a cut up yellow foam mattress-pad, in the corner of the room, smoking his twentieth Pall Mall Orange of the day. 

“Start wrapping that shit up,” his raspy voice grumbled through perpetually gritted teeth.

Neil obeyed. He placed Styrofoam tray after Styrofoam tray of ground beef onto the wrapping scale, occasionally intentionally letting some meat fall onto the heated plate used for gluing shut the plastic. He drank in that sizzling scent. Jimmy P assumed that no one liked wrapping, but Neil found joy in it. Something about wrapping the plastic around the meat got him off—he fucking loved it. 

He finished up the cart of family-pack ground beef and rolled it out into the grocery store, placing each package carefully onto its place on the shelf. Some of it would sell, going on to be used to make a tasty burgers or spaghetti Bolognese, but some of it would rot and turn green—that was the circle of life in the meat house.

“Hey there, Neil!” came a voice from behind. It was Mrs. Cunningham. “You’re doing such a great job working here! I’m glad they gave you the job. Say, you think you can cut me up a couple of those boneless pork-chops when you get a chance? You cut them just right!”

“Sure, Mrs. Cunningham,” responded Neil. He hurried inside to slice up her chops. 

Neil despised Mrs. Cunningham—she was such a miserable bitch, always happy for no reason—but he loved slicing meat. He would cut pork chops for her all day, no problem. 

Pushing back through the swinging door, Neil was confronted by Jimmy P:

“What the hell are you doing?” Jimmy said, “I thought I told you to go stock the beef?”

“Mrs. Cunningham is here,” said Neil, “She wants me to slice her up some chops.”

“Get the fuck back out there. I’ll take care of the chops. You finish stocking the shelves.”

Neil walked back outside, into the meat-section aisle. He was so pissed—what was Jimmy P thinking? Stealing his meat slicing opportunity! Neil would have to deal with him eventually, he knew.

Neil stuffed the remaining packages onto the shelf. Typical grocery store music played around him. He hated all that noisy shit. It was I’m the Only One, by Melissa Etheridge. If he had to hear that song one more fucking time, Neil was going to kill someone. 

He finished stocking the ground beef and walked back into the meat house. Jimmy P, who stood limping crookedly—another Pall Mall Orange dangling from his mouth—handed Neil the wrapped package of thick, boneless pork-chops.

“Go give that shit to Mrs. Cunningham,” he said.

Neil took the package and walked back outside, sliding the it across the meat department counter to Mrs. Cunningham, who stood smiling toothily on the other side. 

“Thank you so much, Neil!” she said, “I just love these chops, but I prefer them a bit meatier than you keep them on the shelf. I like to taste some juice when I take a bite. Thanks!”

She walked off happily, pushing her cart into the cookies and crackers aisle, looking with curiosity at some pecan sandies that were on sale. 

Neil walked back into the meat house.

“You’re in college, right?” said Jimmy P, “Up there in Indiana?”

“Yeah,” responded Neil.

“Why you back here in Abry? I liked having you here, back when you were in high school—you’re a good worker—but why are you here again? Shouldn’t you be studying and whatnot?”

“I’m taking a semester off,” said Neil. “Thought I may as well make some money before I go back.”

“I guess that makes sense,” said Jimmy P. “What kind of classes you taking up there in Bloomington? Not Hoosier 101, hopefully? Not the red-striped pajamas seminar?” Jimmy P chuckled to himself at that, then hacking repeatedly, momentarily setting his lit cigarette into the ash tray with the horde of those already finished. Abry, Neil’s hometown, was in Central Kentucky. Most people there were huge Kentucky Wildcats basketball fans, and they all hated the Indiana Hoosiers—their natural rivals. Neil didn’t give a single shit about any of that. Basketball was stupid. Baseball was the real sport, where people used heavy bats to swing away and hit bombs. 

“Mostly just general education stuff.” Neil responded, “I’m not sure what I want to major in yet—that’s why I’m taking a semester off. I took psychology last semester. I liked that class.”

“You know, I took Psychology too, back when I went to Thomas Merton. It wasn’t called that back then—Thomas Merton the actual guy hadn’t been dead long enough to get colleges named after him; it was called St. Catherine—but I took psychology there. I liked that class; think I was good at it. It’s important, you know? Being able to read people; being able to understand them.”

“I liked it too,” said Neil. “Might major in it when I go back. Not much money in psychology though.”

“Ah, fuck the money,” said Jimmy P, “If you like psychology, study psychology.”

“I like meat, too,” said Neil, “and I’ve already got some experience with that. You seem to have made a good life for yourself cutting meat.”

“Cutting meat is fucking stupid,” said Jimmy P, “All I do is slice pork-chops, grind beef, salt and age hams. It’s pointless as hell. Sometimes I’ll order something off-the-wall, like a beef-tongue or some strange seafood item, but that’s about as exciting as it gets.”

Beef tongues indeed excited Neil. 

“It’s not pointless to me,” said Neil. “There’s something primal about it—something natural. It feels right.”

Jimmy P stared at Neil uncertainly, the aged wrinkles on his forehead rippling up and down, his bushy white eyebrows splintering as if alert. He ashed his finished cigarette and grabbed another from the chest-pocket of his white butcher’s coat, lighting up and immediately inhaling: “You’re a weird kid,” said Jimmy P, “You’re smart, but you’re fucking weird.”

Neil didn’t respond. He instead turned, wrenched open the freezer door, and stepped inside. 

Neil loved the freezer. It was the place where he kept all his secrets; his secrets he could never tell anyone about. The freezer was huge—four stories of rusted metal shelving stretched up to the frigid, fan-blasting ceiling. Jimmy P never checked back in the hidden corners under the shelving, not even when he allegedly cleaned the place out each spring. That’s where Neil kept his secrets. 

Neil shoved aside the box containing bricks of frozen green, expired meat, which Jimmy P liked to grind up and place back on the shelves as hamburger patties. Those things sold like crazy; people loved them, totally unaware that the burgers were composed of rotten mystery meat.

Neil squatted and stared into the blackness of the corner of the freezer. He couldn’t see much back there, only the geometrically perfect angles of boxes and room-corners, but he recognized what he was looking for—his most cherished box; the one he had saved. The one that had been sitting there untainted during his semesters in Bloomington.  

Neil got down onto the jiggly cushion of his potbelly and crawled below the shelving so he could grab his hidden box. His shirt lifted a little, causing his sensitive bellybutton to slide against the stone-cold metal flooring of the room. Neil couldn’t help but instinctively arch his back at that, which caused him to scrape it against the rusty grating of the ancient shelving. It hurt—Neil thought he was bleeding—but he didn’t care much about that. He at that moment had a one-track mind. 

He grabbed the flapping side of his prized box, hidden in the frozen blackness of the corner of the room, and yanked it out into the open. Looking inside, he saw that his collection was still there—a duck, a raccoon, an opossum—all bleach-white and petrified, their brittle, skeletal figures still holding on through months spent in the blasting wind of the freezer. 

Neil was happy. He grabbed the duck’s beak, for some reason thinking it might crumble within his hands. He wanted to break something. It didn’t, though. That angered Neil. He then squeezed as tightly as he could, finally snapping off the beak. He threw it against the wall in annoyance. He then grabbed the opossum’s snout, attempting to do the same. 

Neil’s mood had shifted instantaneously from elation at finding his box to unexplained psychotic fury over its contents not being to his imagined desire. 

He kept yanking at the snout of the frozen opossum, trying with both hands to snap it in half. It wouldn’t work – the bones were frozen. He looked at the lifeless mammal; it’s vantablack, empty eyes glaring into his putrid soul as if sarcastically. 

Neil hated that. He slung the brick-like body of the opossum against the wall of the freezer door, this time creating a much heavier THUD than that of the previously launched duck-beak.

Neil heard the latch to the large door click. He felt the light and warmth of the outside meat-house room as the door swung ajar. Neil was startled, but also pissed. Jimmy P looked at him in the opening. He was also pissed.  

Jimmy P waddled into the room, slouching, favoring his left side. His posture was terrible—he looked a bit like a hunchback. It was because he was getting old. He was an elderly, fragile, chain-smoking alcoholic. He was frail, and in terrible health. That didn’t stop him from bitching about everything, though. It also didn’t abate his natural tendency toward bossiness, or his illogical fearlessness. 

“The fuck is that goddamn ‘possum doing in here?” He said, “And is that a duck beak? I didn’t order any fucking ducks. What the hell is this shit? You go hunting and store your kills in here? Because that horse-shit ain’t allowed. And who hunts ‘possums, anyway? Shit has to taste nastier thank dog dick.”

“Shut up, you decrepit old fuck,” said Neil, stepping toward Jimmy P. 

Jimmy P wasn’t a strong man. Maybe he had been, at some point in his life, but at this point he was in no way capable of defending himself against much of anyone –especially not Neil’s hulking figure, hardened by endless summer days stripping tobacco out in his uncle’s field. Jimmy P could do nothing to prevent Neil from grabbing his throat and pushing him against the frigid metal wall of the freezer. He flailed around, but it was no use—it only bruised his old bones. Jimmy P couldn’t stop Neil from holding him in place while he reached to the ground and picked up the stone-frozen opossum. He most certainly couldn’t do anything about Neil beating him to death with it, either.

Neil, grabbing the opossum by its leathery, naked tail, lifted the frozen varmint and swung it down hard onto the droopy, wrinkled skin of Jimmy P’s skull. Jimmy P was out after that first swing—unconscious and likely on the fast-track to death—but that didn’t stop Neil from continuing to hammer away. Neil swung again and again, burying the face of the frozen animal into Jimmy P’s flabby red, booze-swollen cheeks. He shattered the butcher’s teeth, broke his nose—he even popped out one of his eyeballs, which hung like an unscrewed light from a wire out from within its wet, pink socket. 

Neil enjoyed beating him like that, but he wasn’t stupid. He couldn’t sit there swinging away all damn day. He needed to get the hell out of there. It wouldn’t hurt to hide Jimmy P’s body, either. Neil walked out into the hallway, waiting until absolutely no one was around, and then dragged Jimmy P by his feet to the box crusher, first laying his bloody head atop a cardboard box—which used to house frozen chicken breasts—to prevent streaking. Before slinging his limp body inside, he removed Jimmy P’s white butcher’s coat, putting it on proudly, briefly posing in his excitement. He then pressed the button, his hand shaking, his eyes wide with anticipation. He knew he should get out of there as quickly as possible, but he couldn’t help himself—he had to watch. One of his dreams was coming true; he was actually seeing someone get crushed by the box crusher—an actual person! This made Neil unexplainably joyous. 

Jimmy P’s dead bones cracked under the push of the box crusher, which shoved him down into his cardboard-surrounded, metal grave. When the machine had again lifted, Neil looked inside, gazing upon the butcher’s mangled, pathetic form. 

Neil covered his body with a collection of flattened cardboard boxes. That way, no one would notice him until at least the following morning. Hell, they may not even notice him at all—stranger things had happened, Neil reckoned. 

He walked back into the meat house with a wide grin spread across his manic face. His new white, meat-stained coat was a little tight, but it fit well enough. Neil thought it looked fashionable with the dark red Indiana Hoosiers crewneck he was wearing underneath. He rubbed at his thin red moustache—he would be able to grow a full one, eventually. When he got a little older. He adjusted his glasses; his bloodshot eyeballs appearing twice their normal size from within the thick lenses. Neil felt good.

 Neil couldn’t stop here—this was too much fun! He was drunk with bloodlust. He grabbed a cleaver and a metal tenderizing mallet from the butcher’s table and walked out into the grocery store.

“I’ve officially filed my resignation,” he proclaimed loudly to no one as he stepped through IGA’s automatic front doors out into the Kentucky sunlight. The day was still bright, but dusk was approaching. The clouds hung heavy in the sky, ready to shield the small town of Abry like a blanket from the beating autumnal sun. It was hot for October—Neil appreciated that; it matched his mood. Neil was going to have one hell of a night. Nothing could stop him. The trick-or-treaters were in for one hell of a surprise.

*  *  *

Neil began walking down highway 555 toward downtown. Abry was a small town, but this would still be a hell of a walk—at least forty minutes. That was okay with Neil, he didn’t want to arrive until the sun had set, anyway—he intentionally chose to walk, leaving his green, 1993 Ford F150 in the IGA parking lot. He loved his truck, he thought she had a wonderful personality, but this side of his personality—what he was about to do tonight—she didn’t need to see all that… 

The sun was beginning to set. Bright rays flashed annoyingly into Neil’s squinting eyes, making him wince, causing a headache. He hated headaches; they made him crazy. He lost control of himself. He shielded himself from the glare, forgetting he was carrying a heavy mallet and accidentally knocking himself in the forehead with its handle, which only increased the now throbbing pain. 

“Fuck!” yelled Neil to no one in particular. The sun further descended into the edge of the horizon; the gloaming set in, a nightlight-like glow rippling over the distant bluegrass hillside as if to comfort the town while it settled into the uncertainty of Halloween night. Neil appreciated that—he liked a good, natural view. He was a man of nature.

A cop car drove past as he walked down the road, which he had feared. It didn’t stop though, not even upon noticing Neil’s ridiculous outfit—he was still wearing the bloody butcher’s coat and holding both the cleaver and the tenderizing mallet. That, combined with his thick-rimmed glasses and his scraggly, crazy red hair, made him look like a fucking psycho, he was sure.

“Dumb bastard thinks it’s a costume,” chuckled Neil, trudging down the road. He scraped his Red Wing boots against the chalky gravel of the shoulder, one time almost tripping on the growlers, the toe of his boot momentarily wedging into one of the treads. 

Neil made it to Main Street without issue. He took a left at the Hardee’s. He walked past the putrid-smelling cheese factory. He walked past the old reservoir, the heavy-flowing creek of its outpour morphing into a temporary waterfall due to heavy rain the previous week. He walked past the abandoned, decrepit old factory—he wasn’t what the hell that place had ever been. He walked past Thomas Merton Catholic School; he walked past the newly constructed public library and the fire department. He made it downtown, seeing the onion-domed cupola of the Robertson Building rise over the smalltown skyline as if the tower of an eastern European fantasy castle. That was his destination. The evening darkened further; night began setting in. 

*  *  *

Crowds of children littered Main Street, scavenging for whatever candy they could find like a colony of ants. Local small business owners—the few of whom remained on the deteriorating, classic American Main Street, sat on the stone front stoops and porches of their offices and gave candy to the passing kids. Neil noticed that they were actually giving out the good stuff this year—Reese’s, Snickers, Kit-Kat’s, etc. – not that off-brand bullshit. One lady—Carol, from Johnson’s Jeweler’s—was giving out handfuls of candy corn, however. What a fucking loser. The kids avoided that spot—hell, the parents didn’t even like it; they were visibly affronted watching Carol dig her long, purple-painted, likely dirty fingernails into that big box of candy corn, a witches hat atop her head, her face painted green. She was fucking creepy. The parents knew; even Neil knew it. He walked up and dug his thick hand—still stained and greasy with dried blood and meat fat—into her box of candy, glaring at her unintentionally psychotically. She recoiled, opening the glass door to her business and slamming it in his face, the bell on the front door jingling annoyingly, furthering Neil’s headache. She stared at him in terror from within the dark office.

Neil inhaled a handful of candy corn, crunching sloppily as ejected bits fell to the sidewalk. Giving her one more amused grin, he then turned and continued down Main Street. He needed to be more careful. Though scaring Carol was undoubtedly hilarious, it wasn’t his goal.

Reaching the corner of Main Street and Lincoln Hill—Cross Main, as local Abrian citizens called it—Neil looked across the street to the dark green, circular street-clock on the opposite corner. It read 7:15. Neil still had time, but not enough to be fooling around. The haunted house in the Robertson Building closed at 9:00. If he wanted to accomplish his goal, he needed to get there soon and settle in. He looked away from the clock across the other street—he was still on the corner—to the towering statue of Abraham Lincoln standing slouching with poor posture outside the county courthouse. Abe was wearing a vest, a thick coat, and a bowtie, as if he were about to go out for a night on the town. Maybe this sculpture was based on the night he got blasted, thought Neil—but no, that couldn’t be true. He looked too young. Across from Abe sat a World War I memorial, featuring ghostly twin statues of faceless army and navy soldiers. Realizing his temporary distraction, Neil shook his head and began to cross the street before remembering that he didn’t need to—he had already arrived at his destination. The haunted house, put on by the local Lion’s Club in The Robertson Building, stood right in front of him. It was still going strong—there was a line running out of the building and down the street, the arms of its participants flailing wildly in excited conversation like the limbs of a human centipede.  Neil chuckled at that thought, then walked around the corner. He needed to enter the building from the backside. Hopefully it would be unlocked; he was pretty sure it would be—small town folks were never cautious enough; they didn’t sense any danger anywhere. They were wrong for that, though, the truth of which made Neil grin widely. He tried, but he couldn’t stop—he walked around the backside of the building like an elated maniac, his facial muscles tensing up and cramping from his unstoppable, intense, quivering smile. 

*  *  *

The building was locked, which really pissed Neil off.

“They’re not supposed to be ready for anything,” he said aloud to no one, “They’re supposed to be clueless, like those fuckers in Whoville! Celebrating, eating roast-beast and shit. Not ready for the Grinch.”

The lock wasn’t difficult to remove—it was an old, rusted thing easily busted apart with the metal tenderizing mallet—but that’s not what angered Neil; it was the principle of the thing. The fact that someone locked their doors—that they, however subconsciously, prepared for the worst, however unlikely they imagined it to be, really grated at Neil’s nerves. It cracked whatever fragile, stable pieces of a coherent psyche he had left. 

He threw the lock to the asphalt parking lot, noticing a kid—probably twelve years old—standing in the parking lot watching him. The kid was standing atop his skateboard; he had been trying to ollie a six-stair at the dance studio across the alley. Neil glared at him, his fury building: 

“Get the fuck out of here, you stupid little shit,” he said, then making to approach the kid. This scared the kid enough. He pressed his foot to the pavement and kicked off, skating quickly away.

  Neil wrenched open the old door and stepped into the dark basement of the place. It was pitch-black. 

“Why the hell didn’t they use this dusty basement for the haunted house?” whispered Neil, “This place is creepy as hell.”

Neil trudged through the darkness, seeing in the shadowy, geometrical shapes comprising the totality of his vision a distant right-angular staircase. Pressing his heavy Red Wing boot on the first creaking step, he accidentally kicked a sleeping cat, who squealed at him, swiping with no success at his thick denim jeans before darting into the blackness of the room.

“Fucking cats,” said Neil, “Wonder what they taste like?” Neil chuckled again, which almost evolved into a cackling belly-laugh, but he successfully suppressed it and continued up the stairs, fingering his beloved cleaver.

*  *  *

Upon opening the door from the basement into the main floor of the Robertson Building, Neil stepped into an only slightly more lighted area. Manufactured fog flowed across the hardwood flooring so thickly that Neil couldn’t see his shit-kicker boots at all. A dull, wavering green light flashed on and off, becoming totally black and then flashing back into a swampy dimness. Neil heard screams coming from the other room, strobe lights from that direction momentarily better lighting the room where he stood. The place smelled like chemical bullshit—nothing like the natural, heavy, welcoming scent of the meat house. 

Neil saw in the corner of the room a table covered with a white cloth. An electronic candelabra sat flickering atop it.

“What a stupid prop,” thought Neil, raising the tablecloth and sliding into the interior. This would be a perfect place to wait out the rest of the night. 

Neil sat in silence for a half hour, his only communication with the outside world being the shaking, vibrational rumble against the wooden floor as—placing his palm to the ground—he felt children running in horror throughout the haunted attraction. 

Eventually, the lights came on; the evening’s entertainment was finished. Neil waited for the kids to leave. Once the building closed, he heard voices:

“Good work, team,” said one, “We raised a hell of a lot of money this evening! I think we’ll be able to reach our charity goal this Halloween.” 

It was a man Neil recognized as Mr. Cunningham, the husband of Mrs. Cunningham. Neil wondered whether they had enjoyed Jimmy P’s porkchops. Probably not—Neil cut chops much better than Jimmy P ever did, that rotting old bastard. Neil wasn’t completely sure it would be the Cunningham’s who would be here this evening. He had a good hunch—he knew they organized the Lion’s Club haunted house—but he wasn’t totally sure. They were his preferred prey, but he would’ve accepted just about anyone. He simply needed to quench his thirst. The fact that it was indeed the Cunningham’s, though, made it all the better. He wanted to confront someone he knew.

“Pretentious little bitches,” thought Neil. 

“Who said that?” said Mrs. Cunningham.

“Fuck,” thought Neil. He was thinking aloud again. He couldn’t always control that—he often didn’t know whether he was merely thinking or also speaking. He was a crazy bastard, he knew that. 

“Now or never, I reckon,” said Neil, lifting the tablecloth and crawling like a goblin out from beneath. He hit his back on the firm wood while exiting, grunting in pain as the candelabra wobbled and fell from the flat surface. Its bulb cracked – its dim light went out. 

“Neil?” said Mrs. Cunningham, squinting at his shadowy figure, “What are you doing here?”

Neil said nothing, he stood tall, brandishing his cleaver and mallet. Mr. Cunningham, who had been ushering his volunteer workers out the front door, now turned to look at Neil.

“What the hell are you doing, son?” he said. 

Neil said nothing, he only pressed the head of the mallet firmly on the surface of the table, leaning against it as the brittle wood splintered and groaned. 

“What are you doing here?”  repeated Mrs. Cunningham, “We’re closed now, Neil—you need to go on home!”

Neil looked at her and grinned sadistically. “Mallet or cleaver?” he said. 

“Whaa… what?” sputtered Mrs. Cunningham, spittle spewing from her mouth, snot rolling like a polluted river from her cavernous nostrils.

“You heard me,” smiled Neil. He was in control of the situation—he was so happy. 

Mr. Cunningham stepped in front of his wife: “Now you get the hell out of here, boy! I won’t let you harm me or my wife. Don’t make me hurt you!”

Though his words were confident, his voice was cracked and shaky. He didn’t fool Neil.

You don’t get a choice,” said Neil, “I know what I’m using on you.”

Neil stepped forward and lifted the mallet. Mr. Cunningham, not ready for the rapidity of Neil’s onslaught, could only raise his forearms in protective self-defense of his face. That didn’t work out too well for him. 

Neil slung the mallet down into the shield of Mr. Cunningham’s uplifted arms, crushing both into wobbly uselessness. Mr. Cunningham shrieked and fell backward but didn’t have time to do much else. Neil continued his attack, swinging the mallet again and again onto the relatively fragile shell of Mr. Cunningham’s skull. He was out cold after that second blow. He was dead by the third. Neil didn’t care about that, though—he kept swinging away, not even paying attention to whether he made contact. He didn’t care about that, he knew some of his shots would connect, and those that did would be absolute bombs. He had learned that from his favorite baseball player, Jay Bruce. He swung again and again, busting up the wooden floor—its splinters flying skyward—bashing Mr. Cunningham’s skull into slimy goop. 

Ravenous, Neil looked up, glaring wild-eyed with his slimy, brain-covered face up to Mrs. Cunningham.

AHHHHHHHHH!” she wailed, turning to scramble out the door. 

AHHHHHHHH!!” Neil yelled ecstatically in return.

She wouldn’t have time, Neil knew that. He grabbed the cleaver from the table, rushing with brisk purpose toward her. She was nearing the glass of the front door, reaching forward to pull it ajar. It was no use—Neil knew that. He raised the cleaver and began laughing in manic, psychotic ecstasy. 

Pop, pop… pop.

Craaaaaaash.

Glass shattered and fell all over Mrs. Cunningham. She was cut up a bit, but unharmed, relatively speaking. Whimpering loudly, she looked behind herself. Neil’s corpse lay sprawled out, lifeless on the ground. He was still grinning, even twitching spasmodically—but he was dead. She then looked to the unrecognizable stain that used to be her husband. She fell to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. 

The police rushed in: “Come on, ma’am,” they said, “We have to get out of here. We need to get you to a hospital. Let’s go.”

Mrs. Cunningham screamed. There was so much pain, so much confusion in that cracked, multi-pitched, haunted wail.

The sirens blared; the lights flashed. It was Halloween night. 

Rory Hughes

See Yourself

The case worker ran the arse end of his biro down the checklist; the sound of it scraping against paper and clipboard was deafening.

“So,” said the case worker.

Ray began to inhale nasally in anticipation, and then stopped, worried the sound of it would be scrutinized, analysed… anal eyes? … my god, Ray thought, the horrors you would see with eyes in your…

“Let’s see,” said the case worker, interrupting Ray’s deranged free association, “in the last month, maximum 5 units in a week, you didn’t exceed four standard drinks once, zero blackouts, zero cases of withdrawal syndrome, zero seizures, zero instances of suicidal ideation, zero instances of self-harm… quality of life, you’ve put eight?”

He dumped the clipboard on a coffee table cluttered with flyers adorned with pictures of the recovered, the “liberated”: sunlit faces beholding life-affirming futures, which of course, although arbitrary, always exist somewhere skyward. Up: good. Down: bad. Downers: bad. Uppers: good? White always led to brown though, and he did give it a fair go to avoid the brown, especially after what he put Zoe, his missus, through; too pissed to know how much gear he was tipping onto the kitchen foil; the cancerous Irishman ignoring Zoe’s desperate pleas to call an ambulance; Ray’s lips turning blue, his eyeballs rotating backwards 180° to see the thing he hated most: his defective brain, contoured like a gelatinous orgy of earthworms.

“Eight,” he said, again.

The Irishman, Dom was his name; he never even had cancer. He was a pathological con artist working in every medium; lied about it in some pathetic bid for sympathy; love; money? Three things Ray knew nothing of.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Ray. “Eight.”

A sparrow landed on the windowsill and joined the case worker in staring at Ray, who was starting to feel his sweat pores open as if he were some sort of deep sea sponge. He looked at the sparrow, back at the case worker, back at the sparrow. Why were they doing this to him?

Back at the case worker.

This was beyond the fucking pale.

Back at the sparrow.

Just seconds short of a meltdown the case worker said, “I must say, Ray, you’re looking the part, and that’s what’s most important.”

Ray’s nerve endings were dunked into cool water.

“Patients can put any old numbers down and if it doesn’t reflect what’s sitting in front of me, I can only call them out on it; but the proof is in the pudding, and today, Ray, you look like my grandmother’s apple crumble. Last week’s score was great, but this week’s is just fantastic.”

“Well, numbers don’t lie,” said Ray.

“Tell me, Ray, where do you see yourself?”

“Where do I see myself?”

“Where do you see yourself?”

The sparrow had gone, the cunt.

“I see myself.”

The case worker crossed his legs and put a contemplative index finger to his lips.

Ray’s blue lips returned to their normal booze-cracked brown once they’d pumped enough Naloxone into him; lips that would never touch Zoe’s again, because although he promised never to touch the shit again, he did. Of course he did; because he was Ray. And that was excuse enough.

“I see myself… getting through each day better than I did the last. I see myself as more confident, more driven. I see myself going back and righting all the things and people I’ve wronged. I see myself… I see myself chasing all the things I couldn’t when I was drinking. I see myself being good. Doing good. I see myself changing, I really do.”

“That’s really great, Ray, really positive, but…”

Here it fucking came.

“Where do you see yourself, physically?”

“In… Europe… China?… all the continents, exploring the world. I can really see it.”

“With Zoe?”

“Yes! Zoe, of course. I see us in the best place we’ve ever been, moving our relationship to the next level.”

“Oh?”

“Yes… I see myself proposing to her… in the little Greek place in Dulwich where we met. I see it all.”

The case worker uncrossed his legs and smiled. The cunt had done his job.

“I’ll see you next Thursday, Ray,” he said, and extended a hand.

Ray had no time to wipe the sweat off of his palm before they shook. Hyperhidrosis: probably not even drink-related.

“Sorry, just so excited.”

“It’s okay, Ray, I’m excited for you too.”

Outside, Ray felt the cool air hit his forehead. He inhaled deeply, exhaled, and looked skyward. He heard some avian chirps to his left. Thesparrow: perched on a bush, cocking its head back and forth in stop-motion. Ray lunged and booted the bush, sending the fucker fluttering.

“Nosy cunt!”

He strolled down to the corner shop and bought three bottles of Guinness Extra, went outside and did each one in no more than two gulps.

Fucking see yourself; where the fuck do you see your fucking self.

He went back in and bought three more. The fucker behind the till: “My friend, I don’t mind you drink out front, you know for me it’s okay, but please, always leaving the bottles on the floor, it’s not nice.”

“Okay,” said Ray, “so maybe I’ll stop coming here and you can lose business, shut down shop and go back to Cuntistan or Wankladesh or wherever the fuck it is you swam from.”

He cracked one of the bottles with his teeth, spat the cap at the cunt and left before he could respond. He walked quickly down the road, hearing the dickhead come outside, shouting after him in his gutter language. He pulled out his phone and texted Zoe.

enjoying your jailbait boytoy you fucking slut? I hope he gets lost spelunking in that fucking cave you call a cunt. good luck to the fucking rescue team they’ll need god on their side if they ever wanna make it out alive

That felt good. He downed another.

See yourself. Where do you see yourself?

The 468 bus flew by and he saw himself on it. Right on the fucking front of it, strapped to it, Jesus Christ pose, on a space odyssey: Bowman’s red-faced stargate voyage; Willy Wonka’s tunnel of horror; launch him into a psychotropical cuntisphere where every fucker who ever wronged him would fly by, leng tche’d, their guts fluttering out of their arseholes, orbiting the immeasurable cuntscape in infinite purgatorial agony.

He hit the next offy and bought 35cl of cheap whiskey; came out, sat on a bench, rolled a fag, and started doing the bastard.

So weird to think, every car that passed was being driven by an absolute cunt.

Zoe hadn’t texted back. He squeezed his phone hard until his fingers felt numb.

Where do you see yourself?

At the clocktower, five minutes down the road from his shithole of a flat. Everyone at the clocktower was a real fuck-up; the real down-and-outs, the lost fucking causes. He could go down and watch the people he wasn’t quite. Stacey was there, the 60-something ex-whore, rambling about beauty standards and her fag son and the landlord. Muhammed, the only rockstar in a 10-mile radius that somehow always kept himself looking six out of ten apart from his teeth. The rock had gnawed those away years ago. Ray sat with them, not speaking, just rolling fags, glugging his bottle, grimacing at them, pitying them, seeing himself.

Where?

“You never talk much, do you, love?” said Stacey.

“And what would I say to you, exactly?”

“Well, I dunno… sorry I asked!” Stacy laughed. Muhammed tried to join in, but his facial muscles were working overtime from the rock so he just ended up sneering dementedly. These really were the scum of the earth. Ray threw his roll-up on the dirt and headed home. He pulled a bottle of white cider out of the desolate kitchen cupboard, opened it slowly, well-practiced, so it didn’t fizz over. He put on the telly and downed half of it. There was a reality show on about retards dating each other. It was perfect. He wasn’t retarded. He was so much better than them. Zoe still hadn’t texted him back so he chucked her another one.

I just saw on the news that there’s a retard epidemic. maybe if you stopped letting spastics blow their tard beans up your cunt we’d have a chance of seeing the other side of it

He downed the other half and went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

Where do you see yourself?

This was a fucking cliché. He punched the mirror to smash it but just hurt his hand. He went out to the offy again, bought a litre of cheap vodka and came home. He popped it open and watched more of the retard dating show. Then he had a flick through and found a show about a 600-pound whale-woman who was so big she hadn’t been able to leave her bed in three years.

There were so many people that he was so much better than.

Where?

He went for a piss and saw the mirror was smashed.

Try and see yourself.

He hadn’t smashed it, he was certain of it; he’d tried for sure, but it didn’t happen. Must be a sign; must be the Gods; must be a reason to wake up tomorrow and do the same thing again; see himself through and do it worse, do it worse each day; become more and more what he despised.

Be Ray.

Where do you see yourself?

Here, every day, like this, reflected in the scattered shards of a mirror that was broken when I got there, I promise.

Mike Sharlow

The River of Lost Limbs

I was the only one working through the afternoon break on this Friday afternoon. I found a rhythm, throwing one 2×4 after another onto the saw bed then dragging the blade precisely through it. Vreet! Vreet! Vreet! The blade resounded every few seconds as it chewed through the wood voraciously. Sawdust spit out behind the saw onto a mounting pile that looked like a snowdrift.

When I stopped to double check my measurements, I let the saw run. The blade hummed hypnotically, musically. I pulled my tape measure across the board to check my accuracy, and I felt the slight breeze from the whirring blade glide over my hand like a ghostly caress. This gentle breeze didn’t fool me. Even a kiss from this sawblade could leave a painful and lasting impression.

I continued to cut with the same rhythm, the same way, but then the saw hiccupped temperamentally. The blade bit into the 2×4 and sucked it in with so much power and aggression, there was no way I could hold it back, even if there was a warning, even if I saw it coming, but I didn’t. I did hear the resounding KACHING! It was an angry sound the saw made when a small chunk of wood got launched against the metal guard and ricocheted off like a bullet. This time the blade not only bit into the 2×4, but it also bit my hand. I felt the force of the saw grab me, and I pulled back and jumped away, but it was too late. It took a moment to focus and realize what I was looking at, given the damage. My hand was brutally disfigured. For what I had grown accustomed to seeing all my life had changed dramatically, grotesquely. It was a mutilated mess of red and white, bone and blood. Despite the indecipherable sight, the blur trauma, I knew for sure that I had lost my index finger, possibly more. The flayed flesh and exposed bone had never felt the outside world. I was surprised that the pain was minimal. It stung, but it felt more numb and cold than painful. Eventually, it would have to hurt. 

I placed my left hand over my mutilated right hand to stop the bleeding. I wondered if I could bleed to death from my injury. Still, as I walked away to get help, I was conflicted about whether I should look for my finger or any other part of my hand that was somewhere in the sawdust

“What are you doing, Mick?” 

“Just looking for a finger, maybe two.”

Dizzy and nauseous, I walked through the empty shop to look for the foreman. He would know what to do. He would know how to help me. I thought I might pass out, so I took a deep breath to try to control my anxiety. Can’t lose it. Can’t lose it.

I stopped outside the breakroom, and I listened to the indiscernible chatter and laughter of my coworkers. I cracked open the door and peaked inside to see if the foreman was in there. He wasn’t. A couple of the guys looked at me, but even in my desperation to find help, I couldn’t go in there. I thought if I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die in there in front of them. To me, there was something extremely sad about dying in front of coworkers. No one wanted to work here, not really. No one, as a young boy or girl, wanted to grow up to work in a manufacturing plant for wood components. It was a back breaking, bust your ass job. The plant was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It dusty, dirty, and obviously dangerous. The pay wasn’t great either.

Maybe the foreman was in his office, so that was my next destination. On my way up the wood stairs leading to his office, blood began to seep through my fingers. Drops fell with a soft pop and spread into crimson spiders that I thought I saw scurry away. 

The foreman’s office was empty.

Now the drip of blood was constant like a leaky faucet. The stress put me on the verge of panic. I walked gingerly back down the stairs and went into the shop bathroom. I wheeled off a two-foot sheet of the brown towel and wrapped it around my hand.

When I stepped out of the bathroom, the shop was still empty. I couldn’t believe that break wasn’t over yet. It felt like an hour had passed since the saw attacked me. Do trauma and tragedy slow time?

I pressed my good hand to my bad and felt blood seep into the paper towel.

I’ve got to get to the hospital.

I looked around the empty shop. I left the saw running, and the whirring blade screamed an excruciating dirge. I shivered and felt cold. The walls closed in, and the saw moved towards me.

Got to get out of here!

Bay door #2 was open. Sunlight gushed through, and I could see the crisp clear blue sky of the beautiful autumn day. The turning leaves blazed with shades of red and orange. That was where I had to go, out there. I walked through the door and left behind the cold concrete and harsh machinery and went to my car. Opening the door on the old red Valiant wasn’t a problem but getting the key into the ignition with my left hand, now my good hand, was slightly awkward. Is this what I would have to do for the rest of my life?

In less than a minute I was on Highway 35 and headed for the hospital, but as I drove, I felt myself physically and psychologically breaking down. Pins of white crept in from the corners of my eyes blurred my vision and pushed me towards unconsciousness. Shit, I’ve got to stay awake! I used my right foreman to steer and rolled down the window with my left hand. The cool autumn air whipped through the window and slapped me in the face. 

Up ahead there was a large orange and black DETOUR sign with an arrow pointing to County Road K. “Goddamnit! How far is this going to take me out of my way?” I considered going back the other way and take I-90 but it might take so much more time to get to the hospital, so I took the detour. County K wasn’t a familiar road to me, and I tried to remember if I had ever taken it.

How far will this take me out of my way?

The road wound through hills. Rich colors of fall cascaded around me, as the late afternoon sun flickered through the trees. This would have been a beautiful drive on any other day, but the reds of the turning leaves ran cold and matched the color of the blood-soaked wrap on my hand.

I kept waiting for another road sign to appear and lead me back to Highway 35 and into the city. Instead, the road led me down through a deep cut with sheer bluffs on either side. The sun was obscured. The trees became dark and bare, as an ominous charcoal gray sky shrouded the valley.

The road leveled out and suddenly ended “What the hell is going on?” I drove into an opening where there was a weathered gray wooden booth. A battered rusty “Information” sign painted in red hung crookedly on the booth.

I stumbled down a dirt path to the booth, and I was greeted by a scrawny old man with albino wrinkled skin and disheveled white hair. His was missing his right hand and flipping through the pages of an S&M porno mag on the counter. He looked over his black rimmed glasses at me and asked, “What can I do for you, son?”

“How do I get out of here. I have to get to the hospital. I hurt my hand bad,” I said urgently. 

“Let’s have a look. Unwrap it,” he chirped.

“Why? Are you a doctor or something?”

“Come on, boy, time’s wastin’,” he snapped.

I reacted like a scolded child and gave up my damaged hand. “You do it, please.”

He peeled back the paper towel and took a long look. “Lost your pointer and middle finger-fucker. Ripped ‘em clean off,” he said heartily.

Nausea gurgled in my stomach, and dizziness shook my head. “I’ve got to get to town. I need to get to the hospital.” My words came out in a heave, and I was on the verge of tears.

“Do you want your fingers back?”

“I just want to get to the hospital! Please help me get out of here!”

“Get a grip, boy. Everything will be okay.” He patted me on the shoulder. The stump of his other arm flapped slightly. “You’re not going to die.”

I had no idea who this man was, but I chose believe him, and relief washed over me.

“So, do you want your fingers back? Time’s a wastin’.”

“I don’t know,” I said. When I left them back at the shop, I figured I had already made the decision. And in the smallest way, I began to accept my loss and live life without them in the most immediate sense.

“You don’t know?” My indecision annoyed him. “You want to go through life with people gawking at you like you’re some kind of freak? They will, you know. They will think you’re a dumb ass for cutting your fingers off. They will wonder why you let that happen.” The cranky old man paused for a second. “When you shake someone’s, your stump will make them quiver with revulsion.”

“I’ll shake with my left hand.” I’ll keep my right hand in my pocket forever.

“Women? You like them?” he asked.

“Yes.” 

“Do you think they’ll like you rubbing your stump over their tits?”

“I don’t need this shit!” Wishing the was all a nightmare I could wake from, I closed my eyes tight to make the old man disappear.

His voice broke through. “Do you want your fingers back or not?”

“They’re gone. What are talking about?” I felt lightheaded. Pins of white were creeping into my vision again, so I leaned against the booth to steady myself.

“They’re not gone. They’re out there.” The old man pointed with his stump. “They’re in the River of Lost Limbs.”

I turned around and looked to where he pointed. In the distance a wide soupy red river flowed slowly with drifting debris.  “What’s in that river?” I asked.

“Your fingers. And the amputated body parts from a thousand battles and a million accidents like yours.”

The sight of the River of Lost Limbs made my mouth salivate, the lubricant and precursor to vomiting. I turned away and bent over to throw up.

“You’re not the first to puke on your shoes at the banks of the ROLL.”

“ROLL?”

“River of Lost Limbs, boy. Like YOLO. You wanna ROLLO?” He laughed.

“Yeah, real funny,” I said. 

“Jump in that canoe down. Your fingers out there waiting for you. You can’t get out of here, until you go down there.” 

Where is here? Hell? 

“How am I supposed to find them?”

“Body parts are like children. You can pick them out of a crowd.”

“You obviously didn’t find your arm.” I knew how absurd the conversation I was having with him, but within the parameters of what happened to me and where I presently was, the absurd was the only thing that made sense right now.

“I gave my arm for love,” the old man said soberly.

“For love?”

“You’ll see.” The old man gazed out at the bobbing slurry of the River of Lost Limbs. 

I looked at my blood stump, and I wondered how I was supposed to do this.

“Take that canoe down there. Better hurry before someone else fishes your fingers out.”

“Why would anyone else want my fingers?”

“Someone will find a purpose for them. Get them before someone else does. Godspeed, boy!”

I walked down to the river and climbed into a dented and battered old aluminum canoe. The river carried every combination of amputated arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, and toes downstream. I wondered what sea of death awaited at the end of this river. 

Body parts clanked and banged against the canoe with varying emphasis depending on their size. I scanned the melee of carnage, the pogrom of human potential snatched ruthlessly away from so many people, from so many different places. Long highways, dirt roads, and narrow paths led here, to the River of Lost Limbs.

I wondered when this nightmare would end. When could I go to the hospital and lie in a bed with clean white sheets and breathe sterile air, as morphine dripped into my veins and killed the pain. That was all I wanted? Why couldn’t I have that?

Then my eyes fixed upon two fingers barely attached to each other by a flay of skin and meat. I saw how nasty and violent the amputation was. My fingers stood out, like the old man said.  As I rowed frantically, awkwardly with my left hand and right foreman, towards them I wondered how reattachment could occur. I was clueless, but hope gave me strength to pursue my fingers bobbing in the murky bloody water.

I closed the distance, and when I was within arm’s length of my fingers, a net pulled them away from me in a wash towards the riverbank. A woman with long sooty hair in a yellow sundress-stained pink from the river hauled the net onto the shore.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I yelled.

The woman squatted over her catch and examined the contents like any good fisherman, then gathered her catch into a wicker basket and ran off.

“No! Come back!”

She looked back but kept going and scampered up a path that disappeared into a forest of charred trees. 

“Come back!” I rowed as hard as I could to the shore. The weight of my damaged hand was taking its toll. Where did you go, bitch? I stumbled out of the canoe. My legs were stiff and shaky. Using my good hand for leverage, I pulled myself up the steep riverbank and followed the path. I stumbled through the old dead forest. There wasn’t the chirp of birds or the chirring insects, only the sounds of my shuffling-tired feet and labored breathing. The silence and the vacuum of death was thick in the air. 

The path led to a rickety old wood shack with a rusty roof. I crept up to a window and smeared away a layer of dirt to peek inside. The woman in the yellow dress was standing next to a table where she had dumped her catch of limbs. I noticed my fingers immediately. Then she walked to the sink and in one sweeping motion she pulled off her dress and dropped it into the sink. Her sleek, naked, athletic body glistened with a sheen of perspiration and diluted blood. At that moment I realized how hot and humid it was here. 

We were less than two feet apart, only the pane of glass the window separated us. I stared at her without notice. She was beautiful, but her gaunt face, blue lips, and pallid skin made her look of the grave. I wondered where the blood was coming from to get me hard. It felt like I had been bleeding for hours. Blood rushes to vital organs when one’s body sustains a traumatic injury. I guess my cock is a vital organ.

She looked up and saw me. Our eyes met and the ineffable love at first sight moment flooded over me. I didn’t believe this could be real, but I couldn’t deny how my body was reacting. Despite my debilitated condition, I was still lusting her. 

She smiled and said, “Come inside.”

I walked around to the door. 

“My name is Mary. What’s your name?”

Her nakedness was distracting, but she appeared completely comfortable with it like girls in a strip club. “I’m Mick.” I had many questions, but the most pressing was, “Why did you take my fingers?”

“For him.” She pointed to a male cadaver on a bed in the corner. He was missing his left arm at the elbow, two fingers on his right hand, and his head. His left and right leg were complete because two different legs that didn’t belong to this body were attached just above the knee. As a matter of fact, the attached legs came from two different bodies. Mary had done a good job finding matching legs in size, but it was easy to see that they didn’t come from the same body. The foreign limbs were sewn on and looked like the sutures of Frankenstein’s monster. 

“I want my fingers back, so they can be reattached on me.”

“I’m creating my soulmate. Don’t you want to be my soulmate?” We were standing about ten feet apart, and she took my amputated fingers, slid them between her legs, and inserted.  She released my fingers but left them inside her, and from across the room I was now controlling my amputated fingers. I felt her warmth and slippery wetness. I slid my fingers deeper inside her, and she responded with moans and rolling eyes. Mary crossed the room and kissed me, her tongue softly exploring my mouth. With my good hand I roamed her body and pressed mine against hers, as my amputated fingers continued to pleasure her. She rubbed my erection, and I could feel myself getting close. Noticing my building excitement, she went to her knees, pulled my pants down and took me in her mouth.  

When we finished, Mary said, “You have to go. You have to take care of your hand.” Then she took my bloody stump and held it to her breast. I thought I could now accept the impending gawks, the looks of revulsion, and the whispers of the ignorant at my aberration.

With newfound energy and less desperation, I paddled back to the old man. 

“Did you find your fingers?”

“Yeah, I left them with her.”

“You fell for her, didn’t ya? So what body part are you gonna lose next to come back?”

“I’m not going to lose my head.” I tapped my forehead to indicate what head I was talking about.

A confused look came over the old man’s face.

“Her soulmate needs a head.”

The old man shrugged. “Well, get outta my way, boy. I got a date.” He hobbled out from behind the counter with a craggy crutch under each arm. His right foot had been recently amputated and was wrapped with soiled rags. “Well, I’m looking for a man who needs a foot, and a girl who’ll give me love for it.”

“How do I get out of here?” I asked.

“That way.” He pointed towards woods.

“There’s no road there, just the woods.”

“Drive that way, the road will appear. See ya.” And he made his way down to a canoe on the banks of the River of Lost Limbs and paddled away.

I slowly drove towards the direction he indicated, and the trees opened up to reveal a road.

I woke up in a hospital bed. My hand was neatly bandaged, and my girlfriend was standing by my side. “How did I get here?”

“You’re okay.” She softly cried. “Does it hurt?”

“Not as much as I thought it would.” I slid my hand towards her, and she recoiled subtly and winced. 

“Here take this.” She forced a smiled. “It’s a morphine pump. For the pain.”

I hit the button, and a bell dinged acknowledging the dose before I drifted off to sleep to search for my soulmate in the River of Lost Limbs.

Judge Santiago Burdon

Suffering Pleasure 

Darkness had punched the time clock showing up to work the night shift, so I lit a couple of candles in my Studio apartment. The purpose wasn’t to create a romantic or Gothic ambience, but instead to be able to navigate around my four hundred square foot living space with some type of light. It seems my memory has been on a drunk once again and forgot to pay the electric bill.

The Electric and Power guy pointed out I’ve used that somewhat creative as well as almost humorous excuse far too often. The novelty has worn off with the consequence being orders to confiscate the Electric Meter and return it to the office. It meant he couldn’t just pull it out, turn it upside down, and push it back in. The company mid-level suits had become aware of me pulling it out then placing it back into the service restoring my power after the electric guy left

I guess I’ll be playing pioneer for a while. Maybe I should stock up on candles or get one of those oil lamps. You know what? My neighbors are leaving on vacation for a month tomorrow. So I’ll be able to jump their electric power and their Cable, which I think is still hooked up from the last time I tapped in. I’ll try to find some way to get my TV out of hock. Quite possibly I’ll just borrow one of my neighbor’s. This guy will be living like a suburban scumbag in no time at all. I’ve got it all worked out.

“This has to stop Santiago. There’s no future in what you refer to as a recreational activity.” I said out loud.

“Ya I know. I’ve gotta straighten up.” Answering back with a four a.m. honesty.

I emptied the entire contents of the paper into the small pool of water in the spoon. 

“When do you think that might happen?”

“I’m not sure. It may manifest as a revelation or an epiphany? Maybe there’ll be an intervention, or the never-fail cure, incarceration.”

Bubbles appeared on the surface caused by the heat as I held the spoon over the candle flame.

“It doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta get clean. This is just no fun anymore.”  

“I can’t remember when it didn’t become fun any longer.”

I drew up the warm liquid mixture through the cigarette butt I used as a filter, inspecting the contents for air bubbles.

“You look at life as though it’s a nonstop parade and you just watch it pass by. Let me tell you, the last float will be showing up soon signaling your demise. It’s got to stop!”

My voice echoed in the near empty apartment.

 “Ya, it’ll happen. I just can’t say when.” I answered sincerely. But even I didn’t believe myself.

I stabbed the syringe deep into my vein. I didn’t even have to pull back on the plunger to register. My dark, thick, rich red blood billowed into it, offering a crimson preview of the explosion about to erupt inside my body.

Boom!

***

Originally published in Raven Cage Zine #73

Cooper Barrow

Leashed

During the first weekend that we met Lucia offered herself as my sex slave. We stayed in a hotel room in downstate New York and explored. That Sunday afternoon, before parting for the week, we went to a large department store with an extensive pet section. Lucia had been wearing a use collar that I had provided; this next one would be permanent. After spending several minutes viewing various collars, I approved a demure and glittery and frankly quite trashy collar – which she loved. She began wearing it that day.

Many people stared but no one commented directly. I think a few people understood the significance; at least, they seemed to have knowing looks on their faces. For the little bit of time left that day I began casually and quietly training Lucia to hand signals. I would point, raise a hand flat, or make a shushing gesture. She seemed very responsive to such direction.

The next weekend it was time for the leash. Behind closed doors, in the privacy of the hotel room, I told her to undress, which was to be standard. There were basic rules that I had enumerated. I reviewed: the bathroom door must be left open, she was to ask before acting, she was required to be extremely polite. 

Then it was time for her to kneel. Chin up, on her knees on the floor, and I snapped the leash to the collar. Now onto all fours, and I began using the riding crop to adjust positioning. Her knees needed to be further apart; I swept the crop between them. This served to spread her ass crack, opening it, keeping her displayed.

Starting at the small of her back, she needed to begin curving downward. A smooth touch and light pressure of the crop brought this about. Her torso would then begin curving upward again, but the level of shoulders and top of head had to be below the level of the still-spread ass cheeks. Face down, parallel to the floor, not looking up or side to side and follow the leash lead. I walked her around for several minutes until I was satisfied her performance was adequate. At first I led her, having her crawl behind me; later, I rotated the collar to the back of her neck and had her crawl in front. I gave directional commands while watching to ensure she maintained proper position.

Then I had her kneel back, and re-assume the crawling position on command. She practiced this until I was confident she could assume it on command. Then more crawling, to habituate her to the leash. And as she crawled, I told her, “Kiss my foot.”

“Please…”

“You are an animal. Animals don’t talk. Do as told.”

She still hesitated.

“Now!”

“Up on the bed.”

She hesitates, on the floor on all fours.

“Jump up, like an animal would.”

And she does, awkwardly, and is now on all fours in the middle of the bed. I use the crop to again adjust her posture, but she is getting it mostly correctly already. 

“Bark. Bark like a dog.”

Silence. She does not respond.

“Do as told. Bark like a dog.”

Still silence. I strike her twice on the left ass cheek. But she is still silent. I repeat my actions, the command and the crops. She is still silent and unresponsive.

“I have told you several times to bark. You disobey. So now I am going to beat you with the crop until you obey.”

One word, a single response, but I am already striking her.

“Wait.”

But I am striking her. Do as told. She starts to bark, and maintains it, and I keep hitting her. She keeps barking and I keep cropping; she defied me; she needs to learn discipline. Finally I stop and she keeps barking until I tell her she may stop. She seems to be learning.

“Good dog.”

“Lift a leg up, as if you are going to piss.”

“Roll over.”

“Sit.”

“Good dog.”

She quite respectfully informed me that she needed to urinate. Not a problem. I led her to the bathroom and sat her on the toilet. I told her she was to sit there and NOT urinate. Then I turned the tap on and went back into the main room and watched TV.

Eduardo Repsold

The Left Hand Of God

To the Parents of Penelope Peterson,

Hi. I don’t usually contact my victims nor their family members. I think about it. Taunting them must be a risky extra delicacy. And I hope you feel my tongue unwelcome on your tear ducts, for I have risked. I am contacting you because this time was not like most of the little ones I have mangled and snuffed out. Yourbundle of joy has transcended me. Usually in my path I leave violated fragments of children, discarded in places where they will never be bothered. But I have made your daughter into art! I want eyes dragged across what I have made out of her. I didn’t plan for this. I mean, I did for her kidnapping. Mama Peterson, you made it way too easy. Every day she waits for you to pick her up from school and every day this month from the moment she gets out at 2 O’clock every day she waited for you an average of 35 minutes-every day which she would spend at the playground by the cafeteria. Did you know her favorite toy was the jungle gym? I’m sure you did, she called for you a lot, you must have been real close like, I bet you’d know which teeth she lost to the tooth faerie and which I beat out of her.  After 30 days of Mama Petersons consistent tardiness, I made my move and it was an easy nab. Penny was playing all alonesome and the after-school teachers weren’t looking. I hit her on the head with my Nana’s femur. Did you know the human femur has the same hardness as concrete? I have never swung as hard at anything in my life. I needed to make sure she would be knocked out. I felt a crack and she fell right off the jungle gym. She slept quietly on her concussion until I woke her up with a bucket of water where she could scream freely. I tied her to a chair. I told her I would untie one of her arms so she could wipe her tears away and blow her nostrils if she needed but it was so I could get to her fingers. Driving to where little Penny’s journey would end I noticed her bedazzling fingernails. Little ladybugs manicured on the keratin tips of little digits. I wanted those cute little fingeys.  I pulled and clipped off each little piggy of her right hand with a pair of pliers.  When I reached her ring finger, I lingered. I daydreamed of a disfigured bride who couldn’t say “I do” because nubby little stubs had no perch for love’s metallic ring. The daydream’s anguish tasted delicious. I ran my fingers through Penny’s hair, complimenting her on the pseudovisuals I was getting from our playdate. Dawn broke on me in that tender moment that I was the only one having fun. Here my caress of Penny’s bushy golden hair tiptoed curiously to her face. I applied rouge on both of us, but she was the cat’s pajamas of the two. It was only skin deep I quickly discovered. Your whore rat spawn tried to bite me when I tried to smudge her lipstick with my muddied man fingers. Your little blond piranha almost bit off one of my ringed claspers. Your girl needed discipline. And trojaned within punishment, her role as muse would emerge. I hit her in the mouth with Nana. Many, many, many times aplenty. She couldn’t properly cry because every time she opened her mouth to caterwaul I socked her again. When I was done I looked at the snaggletooth train wreck enclosed in her swollen, redder than rouge, lips. The shards and jagged bits of teeth left Penny’s chompers looking vicious. It’s a good thing she had already lost most of her baby teeth, I would have hated for her to have hoped that her smile could be saved. I looked at the beartrap looking babe I made and thought to myself, “damn, she looks like she could chew up an arm now”. Right then and there I got a quick glimpse of what a masterpiece she would become. I knew then what I had to do. Your daughter went through a lot of pain, but I believe the most physical pain she endured on our play date was when I sawed her left forearm off. The bone, and nerve endings. It was like gnawing through guitar strings with a bread knife. Once all the fleshy sinewy bits were cut and the bone snapped off, I burned the wound. I’m not sure if that stops the blood loss or if it just closed up the outer damage, but the puddle stopped getting bigger. All her yummy screams paled in comparison to the shock in her little green eyes from what I did next.  Better than Picasso and Goya before me, I encompassed atrocity! I forced little Penny’s battered mouth open and began pushing her little arm down her throat. She was gagging, eyes wild and wetting themselves. A few times it seemed like it would not go further but we persevered, and I pushed through. I lodged it at a height where what protruded looked like a little palm tree, with ladybugs on the branch tips. She neither gasped or grasped anymore, she just gurgled. Stupefied I fell to my knees and watched as the darting of her eyes slowly stopped. I swear to you Peterson Family if I had molten bronze I would have coated her and sold her to the Louvre. I did attempt to paint it, represent visually how amazing my experience with her made me feel while showing the triumphant product of our encounter. The little left hand of innocence, reaching out of the maw of the pleasures of the flesh and their vile savagery? ABSOLUTE ZHEITGEIST! And she did die innocent. I was entranced by her suffocation that I only thought of fucking her after she was dead, but by then I didn’t want to reposition the art. I have decided to call the piece, “The Left Hand Of god”.  The illustration I will keep for myself, but the source material you may retrieve. You will find her in the basement of the last house of Honeyoak road. Go to her, before she rots, though even spotted in purple blotches, she would look very debonair as a center piece in any family room or den.

One of her fingers is enclosed as proof.

Delightedly,

Buck Jim

Wayne Turmel

The Voyeur

She kissed him like she wanted to suck the enamel off his teeth. Kyle smirked  and slid his hand down her back, tracing the zipper with his fingertip, but not undoing it. Yet. He knew enough to take his time. After all, eager older women were his specialty.

Connie gave a soft growl and pressed herself against him, her head nestling against his throat. This one knew what he was doing, which was a tad disappointing. Corrupting the truly innocent was much more fun. On the other hand, a young man already familiar with both the mechanics and geography of a woman’s body made for less work and better results.

He pulled away from her eager lips, wiping the small, waxy, crimson remnants from the corner of his mouth with his thumb. Her lipstick was mostly unsmeared, but then women like her only used the best. Like her perfume. He ran his nose against her collarbone, audibly inhaling her, knowing it would turn her on. “You smell amazing.”

She chuckled and ran her French tips through his hair. “You do too.” It was true. Young men never used decent cologne, and the healthy smell of his drugstore deodorant, sweat, and hormones beat that toxic, cheap body spray. 

They fumbled and groped and banged off walls all the way to her bedroom door. She pulled him in by the hand, kissed him again, then pulled away. With a knowing smile, she gestured around the room. “So. Here we are.”

There they were. Kyle looked around at a real woman’s room. No dorm room fumbling or roommate hushing tonight. Spotless. Classy. Expensive. Maybe the priciest room he’d seen outside a hotel room. And probably high maintenance. Like her. But that wasn’t his problem, was it? 

Surprisingly, all the lights were on. Most older women went for mood lighting that not only set a tone, but concealed imperfections and masked insecurity. Not that Connie-Bonnie? No, definitely Connie, had anything to be insecure about. A gym-toned, firm body wiggled under that satiny fabric. Between a personal trainer, expensive lingerie and good genes, she was probably ten years older than she looked. And she clearly wanted him to see everything she had. The way she danced and squeezed his junk right at the bar in front of everyone—the woman was definitely an exhibitionist. Kyle had no complaints.

He spun her around so he stood behind her, pressing himself against the muscled product of all that gym time. Big hands circled her waist and slid upward as he ran his lips along her flawless nape. Just as about to let his hands cup her breasts, he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. 

Up in the corner. He wasn’t seeing things. A tiny, single, red dot.

“Is that… is that a camera?”

Connie spun around, took his chin in her fingers and nodded. “A girl can’t have too much security. You never know who might find his way into her house.” She gave a naughty chuckle and playfully nipped at his lips.

“Yeah, but it’s on now? Like it can see us?” He gave the camera a mocking salute, and then stopped as the possible consequences occurred to him. His hands dropped to his side and every other part of him was perfectly still.

“Afraid you’re going to wind up on the internet or something? Don’t be, honey. It’s just for me. Kind of my thing.” The thought hadn’t occurred to him until that moment, but yeah. Getting splashed across the interwebs wouldn’t be great. Not a big deal. He was the guy, after all. But not something he wanted.

She pressed against him. “Don’t you think it’s kind of hot? You ever done it on camera before?” Connie reached up and toyed with the buttons of his polo shirt. “What? I’ll bet you’ve got what it takes to be my big, bad, porno stud, dontcha?” She punctuated the question by running the pink tip of her tongue along the V of his collarbone. 

Kyle groaned. He’d seen himself on video before—grainy cell phone shots meant only for himself and his partner. It was the twenty-twenties after all. And if she enjoyed performing for the camera, this could be a lot of fun. “Just for us, right?”

Connie nodded. “Just for us. ‘Kay?”

The evening was getting wilder and weirder, which was just fine with him. Life is about the stories you can tell, and he’d swapped more than a few war stories with his cronies at the car lot. Kyle let out a playful growl and dropped his head to her chest, eliciting a squeal from the woman. 

There was another sound as well and froze. It was almost inaudible, just slightly lower in tone. Barely detectable above the AC.

“What?” Connie squinted, studying him. The unexpected appearance of microscopic crow’s feet showing her exasperation.

“Did you hear that?” Kyle stood and looked around for the source of the noise. If might be just his overactive imagination. There were certainly enough wicked ideas bouncing around in his skull at that moment to confound his senses.

She took his chin and turned it to her, those eyes burning into him. “No. Come on, let’s…”

That time, he was sure he heard it. A low, deep moan, muffled and unrecognizable. Kyle couldn’t place it, maybe a sick animal, maybe not, but the sound oozed through the walls. Whatever it was made the hair on his arms tingle and stand up. He pushed off her, holding her at arm’s length, and looked around, trying to home in on the source. “Shush.”

“Don’t shush me.” Connie hissed. She halted a moment, then clearly reached a conclusion. “Okay fine. You want to know the truth? I think you’ll like it. You seem like the type.” 

She bunched his shirtfront in her small fists and dragged him to the bed. He landed on his back, legs dangling over the edge of the mattress. Then she straddled his legs and looked down at him, a cat smugly studying her mouse. She raised her blond head up to look directly at the camera, gave a smug smile and a finger-waggling wave, then turned those eyes back on him.

“Since you like to ruin surprises, you naughty boy. My husband likes to watch. Me. With other men.”

Kyle scrambled out from under her, rising to his feet, tucking his shirt into his pants. “Your husband?”

Disappointment crossed Connie’s pretty face and she blew a raspberry at him. “Don’t BS me. You knew I was married.” The married woman displayed her fingers to him, bright light catching the huge sparkling stones in her ring. “You sure didn’t mind a minute ago Or when I was buying your drinks and letting you shoot tequila off my tits.”

Kyle ran a hand through his perfect black hair. “Yeah, I know but… I thought you were divorced. Or at least he was out of town—” His eyes whipped one way, then the other. “Is he here? Like, he won’t come and axe murder me or anything, will he?”

Chuckling, Connie took Kyle’s shirt and ripped it out of his pants, then ran a chilly hand under it and across his firm, young abs. “No, Tiger. He’s somewhere he can’t do anything about this but watch. Just like we like it. Now stop wasting my time.” The icy fingers dropped from his stomach inside his pants, gripping the part of him in charge of his decision making..

He groaned, and any opposition vanished. “You are a freak, aren’t you?”

“No argument. Think you can keep up, Junior?” Connie pulled her hand out enough to unsnap his tight jeans, then reclaimed him in her grip. She shuffled to her left a tad, knowing that when the kid did what she knew he’d do, the camera would capture it perfectly.

Young men seldom disappointed. He unzipped her dress and yanked it down, then undid her bra and dropped it to the floor, exposing her breasts; real and close to perfect. As his mouth dropped to her chest, her left hand stroked his head. The other offered a playful hello to the camera, and she blew her audience a kiss.

Kyle moaned at the sheer decadence of the moment. He’d never felt like such a stud, and his determination to prove his worth swelled. Aggressively, his lips captured a hard nipple, and he heard another moan. Louder but no less muffled and indistinct.

But this sound wasn’t from either of the room’s occupants. It was unlike their panting or gasping. This wasn’t pleasure. It was soul-deep pain. Kyle stepped back, shaken.

“That didn’t sound like he’s enjoying this at all. Is he okay?”

“He’s fine, goddammit.” 

She reached for him, eager to distract her playmate, but Kyle pulled away and took tentative steps towards the closet. “Is he in there? I mean, I know this is all a game with you guys. He’s really okay with it?”

Connie’s lips curled in a sneer. “What do you want, a fucking permission slip?” Her voice was becoming more harpy than siren..

The young man, thinking about how this might ruin the evening, was about to concede when another plaintive sound wafted into the room. 

“Noooooooo. Stop it.” No level of denial could pretend someone wasn’t begging for help.

“That doesn’t sound like he’s digging this at all. Is he in there? Whaddya have him tied up in the closet?” Moving faster than her, Kyle threw the sliding closet door open and ducked inside. He pushed aside a rack of designer dresses and almost tripped over the dozens of shoes scattered across the floor.

 In the back corner, a razor-thin line of light extended from floor to ceiling. He pressed his hand to the sheetrock, and it gave a bit. He froze with his hand on the wall, undecided whether to continue.

A shriek assaulted his ears. Connie’s voice echoed in the small space, “Don’t you fucking dare.”

The other voice persuaded him. It was guttural, obviously male, and knotted his guts to hear it. He ignored Connie’s pleas and leaned forward. The hair on his arms stood at attention, his mouth dry as sand. 

“Help. Me. God, help me.”

Kyle pushed and nearly fell into another room tucked behind the enormous closet. His forward momentum drew him forward, just out of Connie’s reach. A single fingernail scratched down Kyle’s back, and somehow it registered in his mind he was bleeding.

Scrambling to avoid the woman’s talons, he scooted on his knees into a small, dark room. Raising his head, he blinked to help take in what he thought, but couldn’t believe he saw.

The only light in the space came from four thirty-inch screens, one per wall. No matter which way one looked, there was no missing the high-resolution, garishly lit, color view of Connie’s now-empty bedroom. 

Kyle didn’t have time to think about the walls. On the floor in the center of the room, taking up most of the space, was a ring of white crystals, several inches deep. In the center of the circle  was a faint figure, not lit by lamplight but by an inner phosphorescent glow. Kyle was sure it was a man.

 Only it wasn’t. At least not a live one.

The figure hovered motionless in the air. Its lower body fading to nothingness the closer it got to the floor. It didn’t even appear to have feet. The body simply faded to nothing the closer it got to the floor. The upper body was more solid, but still opaque. It wore colorless khakis and a golf shirt. Then Kyle saw the figure’s face. The left half appeared to be a handsome man, about fifty years old, although the face was droopy and lined, as if deprived of sleep for years. Where the right side of the face should be was a dark, mangled, scabbed over mess, unrecognizable as anything human. No one could mistake the agony behind the clouded, damaged eye.

“HI honey, I’m home.” Connie put her hand on Kyle’s shoulder and moved alongside him, her attention on the spectral vision. Was it a fucking ghost? He couldn’t believe it but that had to be what it was, right? “Kyle, this is Bert. Bert likes to watch, don’t you, babe?”

 The spirit’s head tilted to the ceiling and a pitiful roar vomited up from somewhere inside it.

She continued, her voice artificially calm, like oil over shards of glass. “Bert, honey. This is Kyle. Isn’t he pretty? We’re going to have so much fun. And you get to watch. Again.” She pursed her lips in a mock kiss to what was left of the man she married. Icy fingertips stroked the younger man’s cheek for a microsecond before he jerked away, almost slamming into the wall  to avoid her touch. 

The question croaked out of Kyle’s throat. “What the fuck is this?”

“He’s what’s left of my dear husband. Maybe you’re not as smart as you look.”

He had to know. “What happened to him?”

The smile never left the woman’s painted lips. “A little gardening accident. He keeps all kinds of equipment in the garage. Some of it is really dangerous, apparently. Like that hoe. Sharper than it looked, huh Babe?”

The figure pointed to its mangled face and screamed its fury at her. Kyle cowered against the wall, his tan complexion turned ashy grey. Connie stood with her hands on her hips, talking to her guest but keeping one satisfied eye on the specter. 

“Since he likes to watch so much, I figured I’d let him. He can watch me. Just like he made me watch him with that little slut.” She turned to Kyle, trying to regain her composure. It didn’t really work. The madness in her eyes belied the perfect makeup and clothes.

“I found a video on his phone. The bastard wasn’t even sorry. He laughed and told me he was leaving me for a hotter piece of ass. Then held me down and made me watch it. Didn’t you, you limp-dick bastard?” 

She continued explaining to Kyle in a freakishly calm voice, “She was even younger than you, sugar. I didn’t want to see it, but he sat on top of me and made me watch. Every minute of it. Then again. Holding the phone up to my face. Told me he was going to divorce me and marry her. Thought it was hysterical. Said his lawyers would make sure I got nothing. Can you believe that shit?”

Kyle wasn’t sure if it was a question, or if she directed it at him, but he was incapable of responding. His eyes were wide with terror, and his throat dry and constricted— equally appalled by the woman at his side and the horrible figure floating in the circle.

He raised a finger and pointed at the apparition. “How did you…?”

“It’s called a Devil’s Trap. It’s just rock salt, but spirits can’t cross an unbroken line. There’s enough there he’s not going anywhere. Ever. Are you sweetheart? Even his shit-hot attorneys can’t get him out of this. We won’t be disturbed.”

The figure’s mouth formed a circle, and the voice struggled to form clearer words. “Let me go.”

Connie chuckled. “Don’t think so. It’s your turn to watch.” She reached out to take Kyle’s trembling hand. “Come on, kid. Let’s go.”

He ripped his hand away from her; the nails leaving bloody tracks down the back of his hand. “You’re frickin’ nuts. I’m not going with you.”

The thing that had once been Bert inched closer to the salt line but couldn’t get any closer. It spoke to Kyle.

“Break the Circle. Let me go.” 

“Don’t you dare, you little shit. He has this coming.” She turned to the spectre. It’s my turn to put on a show isn’t it darling.. My. Turn.”

The voice on the other side of the line pleaded. “Do it. For the love of God.” The sound echoed in Kyle’s chest, painfully churning his guts.

Connie shrieked. “Don’t!”

Desperate to take some kind of action, Kyle shouted incoherently and stepped forward, taking a kick at the salt line. The first kicked merely left a smeared but intact barrier. Connie leapt at him, tugging at him, trying to pull him back. The second time, his shoe left a bare spot on the floor. As the woman screamed her outrage, the spirit collapsed into a dense fog and drifted through the opening. It reformed on the other side, its mangled face inches from Connie’s . Her face was a mask of fury and horror. The gaping hole that was once Bert’s mouth opened. The odor of rotted meat filled the room, and the walls shook with the figure’s horrible scream. 

Then it was gone.

Kyle stood immobile for a second, panting and looking around, uncomprehending. There was no misunderstanding the hatred in the woman’s eyes though. She lunged at him, talons first. He’d never hit a woman before, but he shoved as hard as he could. Her head hit the wall with a sickening thud, and he ducked through the entry to the closet.

Connie yelled after him, “You don’t know what you’ve done! Get back here!”

Kyle banged his head on the door frame in his rush to escape and he stumbled into her bedroom. Connie’s voice trailed after him. He thought he heard her footsteps behind him, but all he could think of was escape. He tripped over a pair of Manolo Blahniks, yet scrambled away, making a break for the door with Connie screaming like a harpy behind him.

He almost made the stairs when cold fingers grabbed his ankle and he felt gravity betray him.

Two weeks later, the door opened and a drunken couple stumbled into the foyer. The young man — twenty-first birthday shots scenting his breath, pushed the woman against the door and kissed her hard.

“You sure we’re alone?”

In response, Connie wrapped her arms around his neck and stuck her tongue down his throat. When she needed air, she pulled back to smile into his baby blue eyes.

“My boyfriend’s home.”

The kid’s eyes widened. She put a finger to his lips.

“Shh. It’s cool. He likes to watch.”

Robert Lewis

See No Longer

His name is Curtis. His eyes are green. He’s almost gone; I see it. Sometimes Curtis and I work graveyard shifts together in the airport restaurants, or else trade off solitary shifts in the dishpit. The dishpit is underground and smells like hot mold.

The dishpit has a pair of commercial dishwashing machines shaking and churning on the far side of the room. For each machine there is an industrial sink. Conveyor belts jut through the wall in several places and feed filthy dishes onto their warm awaiting surfaces.

Today, as I am trying to sweep the lunch rush sludge off the sink tops, a pristine white coffee cup tumbles out of the chute. Inside, there is a bright-blue sticky note. I’m curious and bored, so I carefully unfold the soaking wet paper.

The ink is runny but I know Curtis’ handwriting, all loops and no space. The note reads: “Where were you last night?” 

Usually I don’t think about anything as I work. Today, I cannot think of anything else. Until recently, this was not like him. Passive-aggressive notes delivered strangely. We were friends. But he has not been thinking clearly lately. Neither have I. 

I once met his daughter, Jenny, and his wife, whose name I forget. Another time Jenny looked at me and didn’t know. She was looking at somebody else. 

And then later I remember looking down at his wife, her jet-black hair gathered on the white sheets beneath her, dark eyes half-closed as our naked bodies pressed together. This was a strange thing – Iwould never have fucked her. Yet I had seen skin, felt hipbones and heard somebody’s laughter. I liked it. No one knew, not even her.

Each time the faces of Curtis’ family look at me, I feel whole. Often, I go back again to see these things, at night and in the day. I go back at work. I reach inside myself and go to him all the time.

Until about a month ago, after our night shifts, Curtis and I met for a drink at the bar on Terminal C. I would drink several lite beers and he would sip a single shot of whiskey with remarkable temperance, staring over at me with those exhausted eyes that never lost their understated confidence. The kind that see down into everything. I wanted to see like that, and often did.

The last time Curtis met me there, a couple weeks before today, he arrived late. He always came early to get back to his family as soon as possible without slighting me. On this particular Friday, instead of taking his customary stool, he remained standing and shifted from foot to hip to foot. When I asked him what was wrong, he glanced up and down the bar, behind us. Leered suspiciously at the bartender, a tolerant college kid we both knew well. Then Curtis leaned in and whispered:

There was another member of the staff, a new guy I’d never met or even seen. He was specific about that fact. I could never have met him. This guy, he said, was moving things around inside his locker. He believed that the new guy was stalking him. Claimed to have seen a figure out front of his house. Curtis said that he often heard the new guy behind him when they worked together, whispering strange comments, and he was always gone before Curtis turned around. And the new guy whispered things in Curtis’ ear that no stranger could have known. Things about Jenny, about his favorite drinks. What it meant when Curtis narrowed one eye and smiled at a person. I loved that.

Then he leaned in closer, and I could smell vodka on his breath — not his drink. 

He said, “I know it’s you.”

When I asked him how it could be possible, a shadow passed across his face. He froze. The TV from behind the bar lit up the whites of his eyes, spread so wide that you could see strips of white along the bottom. He dashed out of the bar. So you see why I prefer to look out from his eyes, and not from mine.

Since that day he won’t meet or speak with me. I peered around the corner of the break room last week and spotted him at my locker, jiggling the combination lock. When I replay our conversation in the bar and think about the note, I wonder what might be happening to my friend. 

All I do is dream my dreams – it’s pure fantasy. Nobody could know where my mind goes when it’s dark. I am safe and innocent.

I work six more hours in the pit, and next to my station a millipede lurks above the trash. I am not authorized to take it to the dumpster, or even leave through any door except the elevator I entered from. Security purposes, of course, you understand. The room is windowless and the vents, although powerful, are clogged with grease. After a first hour of blistering hot water, and the steam generated by droplets against half-eaten shrimp cocktail and empty cups of ice water, all the walls begin to sweat. 

My palms get slippery. I drop a cup. The shattering sound is what a person does after an injury, before they realize there will be pain. A sharp-edge inhale. I think of Curtis’ face. I hear the glass this way and am blaming him for my mind and hating him for his fucking note.

Where was I last night? I was here. He sawme here. I am always down here and I do not admit to leaving.

Usually somebody comes through the elevator to cover me for lunch. The person always used to be Curtis. His face was the first thing I understood on any day. Since the bar, he changed shifts. We don’t see each other anymore. Now I don’t see anyone I can understand. I crave the feeling of a shared glance between friends.

And today, of all days, the coffee cup note day, nobody comes at all. Why won’t somebody come? My break comes and goes, and my eyes begin to float over my hands, their work. I must eat. 

I claw back to the surface of the airport and take my 30 minute lunch alone. I sit over a wet ham sandwich: rye bread with a swirl and a tepid lettuce leaf dangling from the side.

And beyond the plate glass windows of terminal C, I watch the planes glow neon beneath the false dawn cast by downtown Denver. Although I want to give up, I look around for a new employee that could be the one Curtis mentioned. Of course, there is nobody like that. Curtis is working the greasiest breakfast rush in the airport, at Fiesta Taqueria, so I cannot ask him about the note until later. I buy and slam a half pint of vodka, return to the dishpit, and finish my shift submerged in a throbbing liquid silence.

***

When the work is done, I find Curtis in the locker room. My hands are shaking. He’s at the far end, changing out of his black uniform polo.

He turns around and greets me. “Hey, my dishpit friend!” I am shocked by his friendliness, and I am relieved we have seen each other’s faces and not looked away.

I ask him how life is, how his wife is doing, where does that shitty neighbor live again? And we talk. I mention it: “I got a note earlier,” I say.

“Oh, from Jenny? A note from Jenny, eh?” he asks gleefully, with a strange high-pitched cackle that I’ve never heard from him. An uncharacteristic joke, too, both because Jenny is his daughter’s name and we both know Curtis wrote the note. Or is Jenny his wife’s name? This happens when I panic; I forget the details I want to know the most.

“No,” I got a note from us. I got a note from you. You got a note from me. You got a note from me. I got a note. “I got a note,” I manage.

He asks, “What do you mean? What kind of note?” even though he knows the answer already. Narrows one eye. Smiles crookedly. The expression does not mean what it used to.

My head thrums, it is speechless, jaw locked in place until he walks. Away. 

When he is gone I, myself, walk toward the escalator, pursued by the buzzing and the shouting of the world. Each footfall is an accusation, and every mumbled comment a shout directed at me. I run through the crowded terminal, bouncing off families with their baggage, pinballing out into the parking garage. I slam my car door and with a last furious thump, my door muffles all the rage and anxiety of the world, and it pounds down ceaselessly.

As I drive home, the sicknesses of the world begin to fizzle back in through the gaps. The wind gusts, an assault. There is only one way to escape. I go away from my mind, reaching out with thin blue tendrils from the bottom of nothing, the jellyfish tentacles which flail in the void like I am drowning in air. Then relief: the gauzy sound of Curtis singing in the car, “Bad company, and I won’t deny.” I found him. He is driving 90 miles per hour, going the wrong way on Highway 36 South. I pull in closer.

“Bad Company, until the day I die.” I feel the dial as he turns the music up. I smell the coke in his cigarette – I taste the smoke bitter, like a corroded penny. 

Behind us, blue-red-white-blue-red-white light leaps onto the highway and Curtis panics, I feel his panic like a rapidly expanding balloon in the throat, popping, shredding, and he kicks in the gas. The back end of our car slips left to right, he overcorrects, we are losing control and the wheel tears out of the other hand. Inertia is spinning them into the concrete barrier, slamming into it. A tearing sensation. We are separate. I float into dark, all abuzz with colorless white noise. The nothingness behind eyelids.

***

I wake up in my own bed. Dull morning light filters weakly through the blinds. The apartment stinks. Take-out containers, trash, two cardboard boxes that have stayed taped for five years. 

First thing I feel is alone and I try to find the other presence. Curtis is not there, not beside me, perhaps not anywhere at all.

Why should he be? What a fucked up dream. That was not me; I was not there.

The sheets press on my arms. I must rise. Get down the hall. Twist on the shower. The water stings my forearms, speckled purple and red with bruises under the skin, like a grotesque new tattoo. Stumble out of the shower and look in the mirror. My chest is purple. A flat, diagonal, impossible bruise runs from my left shoulder to my right hip. Seatbelt. I was not there. It happened to him, not me. It didn’t even happen!

I want to wake up, wake up again, so I get back under my sheets. They stick to my raw forearms. Stand up. White sheets have streaks of blood. I look down at my arms and they are seeping, bleeding without cuts. Dizzying darkness presses me down onto the bed again. I sleep the static.

***

When I wake up, sweating face-down in the hot afternoon, light is filtering through my fifth-floor window. My sheets are crisp with blood, and my right collarbone sticks at the pillow. I have to know what we did the night before: the man with green eyes, Curtis, and myself.

I drive up Route 36 North from my house for fifteen minutes and back down Route 36 South, but I don’t see any signs of a crash. I turn around to drive North again. I am late for work. Five minutes away from my exit, I am pulled to a stop.

A plastic shard glitters on the pavement just a few yards ahead of the car. Looking closer, I see a shard of reflector from inside a headlight. To the right, down the steep embankment, a youngish tree stands ahead of the rest with a massive gash in its side. The fresh sap bleeds.

And further beyond, hidden in the shadows that gather in forest dusk, there is a low moaning. My first thought: roadkill. A dying deer or dog, maybe, hit so hard that its haunches tore apart the impacting headlight and sent shattered pieces flying along with the carcass down into the trees below.

But then there is the gash in the tree. Too deep a cut for bone-flesh impact. I walk down the hill, drag my fingers through the sap of the tree’s cut as I pass by. A smell cloying, like honey. Not at all pine sap. Something else is wrong, too, first felt. Then the moaning I heard grows quieter. Stops.

I begin to run, my feet crackling along the pine needles. The sound of the highway disappears in the irreconcilable stench of honeyed sap that now permeates the forest. I see another shattered piece of reflector, a splinter of plastic buried in the ground, and a dark tear through the pine needles that cover the rest of the forest floor. Tucked beneath a cluster of trees, I see the still-smoking remnants of the car that Curtis wrecked last night. With me.

Curtis is draped over the warped front bumper, hanging aloft the wreck like so much dripping wet laundry. His eyes are green and pure and dead. I know he was in the driver’s seat because the steering column bent back over itself and extends from the crumpled windshield beneath his body, like another broken limb.

Curtis’s forearms hang down over the bumper, bloodied like mine, scabbing over in almost the exact same places. I take his hand and I look into his face. I saw it all happening. I had been with Curtis as he drove. And I had been there before, behind him as he worked, slept with his wife, loved his child. I was his new guy, standing not behind but beside his mind, a passenger. And now I am whispering to his body about Jenny and his wife and the drinks at the bar and all the beautiful ways that only his face could move.

I only wanted to know every angle of you.

Carefully, leading with my fingertips, I lift Curtis down from the bumper and lay him in the pine needles. His head rolls left.

Down here, among this wreckage, there is nothing for me. I have it all inside. Back to the highway. Listen to the traffic scream past. Wash the dishes, scrub the floors. I will hide myself in the sub-basement, surrounded by the rhythm of airport byproducts. I won’t promise not to do this again.

Zeke Jarvis

The End of Most Things

God spoke to me in a dream last night, and I was informed that the end of the world would be much more absurd and a bit less dramatic than most of us assume. It will begin with squids rising from the earth. The squids will be equipped with flamethrowers on each tentacle for some reason. Like teenagers, the squids will be angry, horny, and confused. After they shoot flames and try to mate for a while they will turn into land dwelling dolphins. The dolphins will have caustic urine and full bladders. Said dolphins will urinate on a wide variety of human beings. Half of said humans will dissolve at the touch of the urine, but half will turn into clowns. The clowns will masturbate in public for reasons unrelated to Diogenes. This cycle will repeat for a few days, and then teddy bears will sprout from the ground. The teddy bears will split open, and those murder hornets that you’ve heard so much about will emerge. The murder hornets will carry with them miniature bass guitars, playing ominous basslines while they destroy humanity. 

But wait, there’s more. Even after mankind is vanquished, the apocalypse will continue. Specifically, giant bagpipes will fall upon the earth, cracking it open. Lava will flow over the land. The lava will turn into sentient creatures who will, unfortunately, begin holding committee meetings. While talking, the lava beings will melt the earth’s surface. Eventually, the earth will devolve into an amalgamation of tiny Geraldo Riveras. Then, it will wither away into ash, disappearing from the universe. This is how our world will end. Please plan accordingly.