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Happy Birthday, Joshie by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

 

 

Usually Rachel Harding did not want to go to her brother Joshie’s birthday party. This year was different. She had finally figured out what to get him.

Rachel made sure her parents did not see the change in her. She took as long in the shower as she usually did. She hesitated between two dresses before deciding on a third. She intentionally left her backpack-slash-purse up in her room so she had to run back for it. She slipped her birthday present for her brother into the backpack and then pouted down the stairs and out to the car.

“Really, darling, I don’t understand why you make such a fuss.” Her father’s seatbelt clicked with a sense of finality. “It’s only twice a year.”

Three times a year. Rachel’s mother dragged their family to the viewing home on Mother’s Day too. Christmas, Mother’s Day and Joshie’s birthday. Rachel’s three least favorite days of the year. She suspected her mother went more often, but she hadn’t figured out a way to prove it.

“She’s here. That’s the important thing.” Rachel’s mother cradled the boxed cake in her lap. “This is a day for the whole family.”

This was a day for Rachel’s mother. Rachel and her father were just in the car to keep her happy. Rachel kept her mouth shut and looked out the window. The countryside blurred into streaks of dying grass and withering trees that made Rachel feel sticky just looking at them. The weatherman predicted rain sometime this week. She knew how the sky felt. Stifled, like it could burst at any second. If only conditions were right.

The drive out to Eternal Rest Viewing Center only took an hour and a half, but it always seemed longer to Rachel. At last the family car passed the ruins that meant they were getting close. Rachel often wondered if they put the viewing center out here simply because no one wanted it in their back yard, or if there was a conscious irony. A viewing home in the middle of a ghost town.

They pulled up in front of what looked like a large hospital. Rachel supposed it had been a hospital, before the Troubles. Whatever had happened out here must have been bad. No one wanted to move back. But when the U.S. got control again, the viewing home had taken over the hospital. As the family got out of the car, Rachel resisted the temptation to slam the car door. No sense in overdoing things. She did trudge up the steps after her parents.

Her mother signed them in. Someone who looked like a nurse but wasn’t ushered them into the waiting room. Rachel and her father sat in the hard plastic chairs while her mother paced the floor. Rachel lost count of how many times she went back and forth.

She had been moving back and forth ever since Joshie got sick. Carrying Rachel and her father in her wake.

“Party seventeen, we’re ready for you in viewing room three.”

Rachel’s mother was off, making it hard for Rachel to keep up with her. Beyond the waiting room ran a corridor with marked doors. The viewing room was only slightly smaller than the waiting room. It was dimly lit. A curtain ran the length of the long side opposite the door. Rachel could never decide if the curtain was grey or blue. Rachel’s mother already had the cake out of the box and was setting up the candles. A large one and six made of red wax. The curtain slowly drew back.

The entire length of the wall was a large window. It looked onto a room decorated as a small boy’s room. Rachel knew Joshie didn’t live here. The bed and dresser and toys on the floor were just for the rest of the family.

“There’s the birthday boy. Happy birthday to you…”

Rachel joined in with the song, but the room swallowed up the sound. The glow from the candles lit up the face of a boy about ten years old. His dark hair was buzzed short. He wore jeans and a striped polo shirt. His skin had a greenish pallor, his eyes a milky film.

Joshie, Rachel’s older brother.

“Look! He’s smiling! He’s happy to see us.”

The creature that had been Joshie was opening and closing his mouth, revealing grey-black gums. No teeth, just in case. Rachel thought it more than likely that her zombie-brother realized the light from the candles meant there was food nearby. Of course he was happy to see his family. He thought he was about to get a snack. Of course Rachel didn’t say anything.

Their mother stood right up at the window rubbing her fingers against the glass where Joshie pressed his face. He gummed at the window as if he were trying to eat her fingers and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t biting down on human flesh.

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

Rachel’s mother didn’t say anything. There were times when Rachel wondered if she had gotten the cancer instead of Joshie, would her mother gone through all the trouble and expense to…preserve her. Rachel didn’t think so. She didn’t know whether she hated or loved her mother for that.

Rachel’s father rested a hand on her shoulder but he was staring at the viewing window. His face bore the same expression Rachel had seen on it when they passed a highway accident. Or when he watched the news on the last of the Troubles. Compassion mixed with disgust and horror. And curiosity. You didn’t want to look, but you still couldn’t look away.

“Do you want me to go with you, darling?”

It gave Rachel some comfort that she wasn’t the only one in her family who thought what had been done to Joshie was wrong. But her father had never said anything about it, in six years. Was that love, or cowardice?

“Dad… It’s…personal stuff…”

Rachel had hated it when she started menstruating. It was messy and gross. But she had learned a new power came with her period. Especially since her father didn’t keep track of her cycle. He blushed.

“Well, um, hurry back.”

“I’ll do my best.” She shouldered her backpack and headed out of the viewing room.

There were bathrooms near the viewing room. Rachel went in, making what she told her father not a lie. She waited a minute and walked right out. A quick look around. No one else was in the corridor. Rachel pushed open the door marked Authorized Personnel Only.

Rachel expected alarms to sound and half a dozen security officers to swarm her. Nothing happened. She stepped through the door. It swung closed behind her with a solid, final thud.

She could do this. Rachel looked around her. She shouldn’t be too far from the other side of the viewing rooms. She turned the corner and found a large door — more solid than the one she had just passed through — marked Viewing Rooms 1-4. A heavy steel door, with the hinges on the inside. A steel bar fit over the door in two heavy brackets. Next to the bar was a key card slot, its red light staring at Rachel.

Before the girl could even curse, footsteps echoed down the corridor. She heard female laughter and a male voice in reply.

“Don’t worry. That one could be there for the rest of the day. You can tell it creeps the guy and the girl out. She must really have him by the short hairs.”

More laughter. Rachel ran away from the sound as quietly as she could. Only after she started did she realize she was going further into the former hospital. She turned a corner, listening for pursuit. When she stopped, she nearly gagged. Something smelled awful.

A loud whirring sound made Rachel jump. It continued for a full minute and stopped again. The putrid smell grew stronger. Rachel put her hand over her nose and pressed onward. There had to be another way to get to Joshie.

The whirring sound started again, louder this time. Light spilled onto Rachel’s path from a half-open doorway. The stench and the whirring sound both came from inside. Rachel crouched down and stuck her head inside. The sound cut off.

A man stood at a long black counter like the lab tables at school. He wore a long dark apron, black gloves up to his elbows and enormous safety goggles, giving him a mad-scientist look. He was standing at an industrial-sized blender and singing off key to himself.

“Feeding the zombies, feeding the zombies…”

He reached into a grey bin to the side and pulled out a brain. A cow brain, Rachel hoped. He stuffed it into the blender and added organs and bits of intestines and other things Rachel couldn’t identify. He put the top on the blender and started it up. Rachel had to turn away. She still threw up into her mouth. She forced herself to swallow it.

As she looked away, she saw a white lab coat draped over the back of a chair. More important was the name badge clipped to the lapel. If it was a dual badge and key card, it was Rachel’s ticket further into the viewing center.

The sound of a viscous liquid poured into a container. Rachel didn’t look. As the blender whirred again, she crept forward. When it stopped, she stopped. She didn’t look at the man. If she didn’t look, he wouldn’t look. That’s what she told herself. He kept singing. Rachel inched forward with each pulse of the blender.

As she made her slow progress, Rachel found herself wondering if Joshie liked the slurry the man was making. Did cow guts taste as good as human flesh? If she got caught, would she find her way into the blender as a special treat?

She reached the badge at last and unclipped it from the lab coat. Scott Bridges looked like an ordinary guy in his photo. Not at all like the goggled ghoul in the room with her. Rachel slipped the badge into her pocket and turned to make her way back to the door.

“Where did you get to?”

Rachel froze. Had the man known she was there all along? She envisioned him cheerily pulling her intestines from her guts and adding them to his mixture. She hazarded a look in his direction.

The man was bent over his table, evidently trying to chase down a bit of organ that had escaped.

“There you are. Into the soup you go.”

When the blender started again, Rachel crawled to the door as fast as she could. She sat outside the gruesome kitchen panting. This was crazy. There was no way she could pull this off.

She saw Joshie’s face in her mind, and the glow of the candles on her mother’s face. She adjusted the strap of her backpack on her shoulder and rose. She had a birthday present to deliver.

She wondered how long she had been gone. Were her parents worrying about her? Her mother was probably still glued to the window, laughing at everything her precious not-Joshie did. Her father usually zoned out at a viewing, in his own world of loss and guilt. Rachel had plenty of time.

Would there even be a back way into the viewing area? The viewing center did everything to make its wards as non-lethal as possible, but they were still dangerous. The lock on the door leading to the viewing rooms, not to mention the bar on the outside of the door, suggested that they didn’t want to take any chances of the zombies escaping.

No. There had to be a way in. Rachel owed it to Joshie to find it. She owed it to Joshie, to her father, to herself. Even to her mother. She crept further into the viewing home.

Rachel wondered why her mother couldn’t see what she had done. Rachel couldn’t even remember Joshie’s face any more. Not his real face. The face of the brother who had pushed her on the swings and chased her around the back yard. The face of the brother who had held her hand when the Troubles began and made sure she brought Mr. Ted to the relocation camp.

The face of the brother who had held her and cried when the president went on TV and declared the war against the zombies over. The face of the brother as he got sick. The face of the brother nestled among all the tubes and monitors at the hospital.

A low sound from up ahead. Rachel slowed. The sound was constant and grew louder as she walked. She fingered the strap of her backpack and went on, looking around with each step.

Over Rachel’s every memory of her brother had spread the face of the zombie. She understood why her mother did what she did. But she just didn’t get it. Turning him hadn’t kept Joshie’s memory alive. It killed his memory, infected it. The zombie ate away at the real Joshie every time they came to see it. It would continue to eat away at the Joshie who lived in their hearts until there was nothing left.

Joshie was dead. Rachel had to believe that.

The sound grew still louder. Rachel recognized it at last. The moan of the walking dead as they roamed the earth hungering for human flesh. Even as the sound increased in volume, it still had a muffled, contained quality. Rachel frowned. Her muscles tensed, ready to flee from a lurching horde.

She turned a corner and came upon another door barred and locked like the door leading to the viewing rooms. Had she found a back way in? Unlike the other door, this one had a large window. Wire crisscrossed through the glass. Rachel crept closer and looked inside.

The room had maybe been an operating room before. Something big. Any equipment had long since been removed. Chained along the far wall were perhaps a dozen zombies. They wore iron collars and heavy shackles on their wrists. Their feet were unchained. The zombies all walked in place, the chains keeping them from going anywhere.

The zombies moaned as black gums chomped down on nothing. Perhaps they were all waiting for Scott Bridges to make his rounds. The all wore grey hospital robes, some with red-brown stains. Lunch apparently was messy.

Rachel scanned the room. Two of the creatures on the far end were children. There was a gap in the line before the adults began. Collar and shackles hung limply. Rachel just knew that was Joshie’s spot. The zombie-Joshie’s spot.

“Would Rachel Harding please report to the sign-in desk? Rachel Harding to the sign-in desk. Your family is waiting for you.”

That was it then. Her mother was done, and they were leaving the viewing home. They had started to look for her. Rachel had missed her chance.

She looked back at the zombies chained to the wall. She could still do this. If her mother was done, that meant Joshie was on his way back here.

She lifted up the heavy bar and slid Scott Bridge’s card through the lock. The light switched from red to green. She pulled the door open. The scent and sound pushed her back. She forced herself into the room.

The door swung closed. The zombies moaned louder. Could they sense her in the room? See her? Smell her? She heard the sound of chains pulled taught. She waited to hear links snap. Nothing happened. All four walls held zombies, not just the one wall she had seen from outside. But there was a clear space on either side of the door, about four feet wide. Rachel stood against the wall next to the door hinges.

She opened her backpack and pulled out her present for Joshie. The machete her father used for clearing out brush in the yard. She heard footsteps and voices in the hall. The door opened.

Two guards marched the Joshie-thing into the room. One was a man, the other a woman. They directed the zombie with a long pole with a noose on the end. The door swung closed.

Rachel let out a shout. She swung the machete. The guards were too shocked to do anything. The blade cut through the restraining noose. It stuck in the zombie’s neck.

Rachel yanked the machete out. She shouted and swung the blade again and again. She closed her eyes at the dull, wet sound of the blade. Tears streamed down her face. She didn’t care.

Hands grabbed Rachel’s arm. She swung the machete a final time. The zombie’s spine gave way with a sticky snap. The guards pulled her back. The blade clattered to the floor. Her whole body felt limp. It didn’t matter. She had done it. She looked at her big brother’s body.

“Happy birthday, Joshie.”

And she could have sworn that Joshie’s head smiled at her from the floor.

 

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Sex Toy by Bob Freville

 

Illustration by James Neyman

They had been happy once, Eric thought. Before that primordial pecker monster, that god-fuck-it-all sexual sacrilege, made its entrance. The thought of the damned thing and the word entrance brought bile to his bearded throat, stuck in the craw of this love sick loser in his unwashed attire.

The rolled legs of his jeans smelled of piss and he hadn’t showered in longer than he could remember. What was the point? Ain’t no fuckin’ goin’ down, you can bet on that. Why bother? Truth be told, sex no longer held much fancy for Eric. He felt like chemical castration might be the answer for the human animal as a species. Neuter the damned.

Entrance. That word, goddammit. A reminder of that sick demonic curio’s slow then furious entrance into his wife’s sopping wet slot. And her. His angel. His whole world. The chick who’d sworn to be faithful, pledged to always be his, so easily losing herself in slobbering stupid devotion to something so wretched.

Thinking on it like that transferred Eric’s blind hatred from the thing to her. Elle, that ginger stupid, that harlot.

How had something so magical, so seemingly solid, been quashed out, made moot? Why?! He cried inside his piston of a head as he packed the box of bullets into his gym bag.

The worst part was that he still loved her. That dumb whore, taken in with the snap of a finger or the spurt of an inanimate ugliness by abject evil. What were you thinking? What happened to us?

No answer.

Only his recollection of the day they decided to try some new kinks on, inject some strange into their lives.

“Doesn’t it just…” Elle sighed, the muscles of her throat contracting where they faced the ceiling.

She was on her back, head hanging off the side of the mattress, still-wet ropes of permed auburn hair tickling the floorboards. Eric sat Indian-style against the wall, watching her delicate neck as what looked like two electric eels writhed beneath the dermis. He was so hot for her, he couldn’t wrap his mind around this.

“Just what?”

What was the matter with the way they’d been doing it all along? What she was saying was all Chinese to him. Not a word made any sense.

“Just, I don’t know,” she said, sighing again.  She came up on one elbow and fixed her eyes on the man she’d been sleeping with for four years of marital bliss, a marital bliss that had recently run dry, at least in her opinion.

“What?” Eric reiterated, exasperation in his voice this time.

“Come correct,” she said.

Eric threw up his palms. “I’m for real,” he said, wide-eyed, trying to stress how earnest his ignorance was. “I don’t know what you’re trying to say. You’re what? Sayin’ the flame’s burned out? At thirty?”

“No,” Elle cooed, bringing a warm hand to Eric’s cheek.

He resented this gesture, knowing that it was a mock-parental display, that he was, in essence, being placated in the way a small child is placated. Still, the warmth of her palm sent tingles to his loins. He wondered if she was getting moist…decided, balefully, that she wasn’t.

“I’m just sayin,” Elle blurted anticlimactically before taking her hand away from Eric and crossing the room to a Bic and a pack of Nepenthe ® cigarettes. She lit one of the smokes, exhaled a silky purple plume and, with her back to Eric, she said the words she knew she’d regret.

“I don’t get off, I don’t feel anything.” A long pause, penetrating the room the way she wished she could be penetrated, causing an unbearable silence that felt more leaden than any cock.

“You’re saying,” Eric started with painful uncertainty, choking back tears, the word flaccid whirling around in his aching brain.

Elle cut him off, determined to squash her husband’s suffering before it grew any more acute. “I’m saying that I’m in love with you, that I love you as much as I did the first minute, the first millisecond I saw you…but it’s all, the sex, it’s just grown stale. Routine. Ritual…tired.”

Eric contemplated this for a long beat, unable to think of a single sex act they hadn’t engaged in. Without a doubt, their twenties, especially those first two years before tying the knot, had been spent crotch-locked in estrus, tearing motel rooms apart with their intertwined flesh. They’d pissed in each others’ mouths, fucked in every conceivable public and private place, made love in virtually impossible positions. Eric had delivered the fruits of his loins to every inch and orifice of Elle’s body. And she’d thirsted for it! He thought. Hadn’t she hungrily sucked up every drop?

“Okay,” Eric said and watched as Elle turned to him, her eyes brightening with hope. “But,” he continued, and her face dropped.

“But what?”

“But…we’ve…done…everything.”

Elle’s shoulders went slack. She returned to the bed in a state of begrudging resignation, stubbing her cigarette out on the lid of a flat can of beer on her way.

“Everything,” she said.

“Well…” Eric thought. “You already agreed that a threesome or…cuckhold…it would ruin us for each other.”

“So,” Elle spat, sparking a fresh Nepenthe, blowing the smoke in Eric’s direction.

“So we’ve done the facial thing, we went bungee fucking that time.”

Elle blushed with amusement at this last part, a smile cracking defiantly across her grill. “It was bungee jumping. You made it into bungee humping.”

“Yeah,” Eric said, smiling too now, edging down on the mattress to meet his wife’s gaze. “And we made love in the middle of that field with all the houses around. Woke up when the sprinklers went off, fucked in broad daylight for anyone to see.”

“Could’ve gotten arrested,” Elle added.

“Okay, so we could’ve fucked in the back of a police cruiser. I’ll give you that.”

Elle laughed out loud at this one.

“Seriously,” Eric said. “What do we need to spice things up?”

They were at the XXX shop the next day. Except it wasn’t called a marital aid shop. It was called “Spanky’s Erotic Novelty Emporium” and it sparkled with neon-lit glittery shades, a sore thumb sticking way out amidst a complex of cluttered gray industrial factories along the Interstate.

Spanky’s, it turned out, only sounded janky. Truth be told, it was the finest triple X shop operating on Long Island. From its mirrored ceilings hung chandeliers. Its mirrored walls were bordered by ornamental mosaics depicting every variety of Tantra. The shelves, racks and wall hangings were festooned with every high-end product line people read about in lad mags but seldom see in real life.

Browsing Spanky’s aisles, they bore witness to the full canon of fuck possibilities (or so it seemed), marveling at the uber-expensive gadgets—Kia Sorrento-sized Sybians, full body latex replicas of adult film performers, even a $4,000 orgy simulator with six remote-operated dongs—and they yawned as they explored the more cost-efficient apparatuses on display. Whips. Been there. Nipple clamps. Ouch! Ball gags. What for?  Ben Wa Balls. Already wearin’ ’em. Cock ring. No thanks. Nobody likes a purple dick going black and begging for an ER visit. Labia stimulant? Done that. Grape-flavored cock cream? Done that too. What’s good, kid? What else you got?

Turned out the answer was nothing, at least as far as Spanky’s was concerned. After forty-five minutes, they’d looked at everything Spanky’s made accessible to the public. When Eric and Elle had exhausted all these options, from crotchless undies and feather boas to home video titles as sophomoric as “Nad Santa” and “DVDA: Black In Black,” they both felt boring and bored. None of this stuff was for them or, if it was, it already had been.

They were about to step out empty-handed when Elle spotted a black door at the rear of the store, on which hung a sign that read: RING STAFF FOR ACCESS, NO FREE ADMITTANCE.

Eric peeped the message and scoffed, “No free admittance. You know who that’s for? Some Williamsburg hipster in khaki pedal pushers and Buddy Holly glasses, comes to visit his relatives on ‘Lawnguyluhnd,’ decides he’ll plunk down all his blog earnings on something priced like a truckload of Ed Hardy swag so he can make some SoHo bar skank think he’s a collector of rare and special shit.”

But Elle wasn’t hearing anything. She was entranced by the door and the sensual scent spewing forth from the slat at their feet.

“Rare and special,” she droned.

“Oh Jesus! Don’t tell me you’re taken in by this hokum. It’s a fetish room dressed up as somethin’ exotic and exclusive. And can’t you smell that? We’re outside a friggin’ head shop!”

The odor, strong enough to provoke olfactory hallucinations of hellish BDSM acts, was one of Teutonic ecstasy, of sexual holocaust. Incense, foreign spices, a faint touch of lavender and sweat, definitely sweat. Oily flesh came to mind, mixed with something more, something ineffable.

“Patchouli and surface cuts,” Eric mocked. “We’re outside some emo kid’s dorm room in Bushwick.”

But he could see Elle wouldn’t let up til they’d glimpsed its presumably bogus wonders. So he flagged down the store manager, a thirty-something guy with a soul patch and a ridiculously receding Rockabilly hairdo.

“How do we get in here?” Eric asked.

“That’s not us, bro.” Soul Patch. “That’s kind of a sub-contractor. Private dealer throws us some dough for loanin’ him some space for his collection, dig?”

“Yeah, I dig it,” Eric said, biting his tongue. “So what’s it gonna cost to ring this dude’s bell?”

“He sets the price, that’s ‘tween him and you. We just get a kick-back. Number’s on the wall, bro.”

Eric looked around and, as if materializing straight from scratch, he saw what he hadn’t seen previously—a business card, laminated but yellowed and peeling, taped to the wall by the door. The black Book Antigua typeface stated no business name, only digits: 632-3232.

Eric took out his cell, stole a glance at Elle, whose eyes remained glued to the door, shook his head and punched in the number. A voice came on the line before the first ring was completed. Naturally, Eric thought. Cat’s so desperate for business, he’s been waiting by the phone, praying for two Rubes to come along as we just have.

“Yeah, what can I do yuh for?” the voice asked in a hoarse guido tone.

“We’re outside your…establishment,” Eric started. “Can we come in and play?”

“I’ll be right witcha.”

“How much?” Eric inquired, but the line was dead. The door was creeping open without an answer. Before them stood a hirsute man of indeterminate age, crow-black hair greasy and gleaming, slicked back severely to reveal an emphatic widows peak. His moon-shaped face was shrouded in a heavy beard, his grotesquely obese midsection ensconced in a thick dark vestment of sorts. His cupped hands could do nothing to conceal the shiny gaudiness of the gold rings that strangled his sausage fingers.

“Come on in,” the man said, waving and grinning at them, wonky eyes taking both of them in at once.

Eric craned his neck and could see that Soul Patch had already returned to stocking out suck pumps by the storefront windows.

“Before we come in, what’s this gonna run us? Dude up front said you determine the price.”

Stan smiled at Eric. “Yes, I base it on whether I like you for my pieces. If you’re suitable for my wares.”

“So?”

“So lemme ask yuh dis. How’d you say yer relationship is?”

Eric laughed faintly at the absurdity of this dollar store interrogation. But Elle answered straight away without considering him. “It’s great! We love each other very much. We’re just looking for something to key us up.”

The guido’s grin spread wide across the cratered plains of his fat skull.

“Excellent,” he said. He extended a hand. Elle took it. “Name’s Stan A. And you sound like just the type uh clientele I’m after.”

“Hazzat?” Eric interjected.

“Happy couple,” Stan A. said. “That’s what I want.”

“Your customers so happy, why do they need you?” Eric could see, almost feel the daggers Elle’s eyes threw at him.

“Stop it,” she murmured.

Stan guffawed. “You got jokes, huh, kid? That’s all right. You work in this biz, you hear it all. Had a customer once, brung back a butt plug that was, shall we say, drippy. Said, ‘What’s your return policy?’ I shit yuh not.”

Stan howled with laughter at this recollection.

Eric wasn’t having it. “No refunds, I take it?”

“Correct,” Stan said. “You comin’ in?”

“You haven’t priced the admission,” Eric reminded him.

“Fuhgedduhbotit!” Stan insisted. “You’ll pay once you’re in.”

Eric shifted from one foot to the other, wrapping his mind around this, trying to figure the grift. Finally, after some seconds, Elle poked him in the back and they crossed the threshold. Before the darkness of the hallway opened up into a dust mote ruled space of overhead fixtures, Eric was asking about the name.

“Stan A, you said?”

“I did.”

“Don’t people usually abbreviate their first name?”

“You just call me Stan. I abbreviate my last name ’cause you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. Pretty long and indecipherable.”

“What? Like Ahmadinejad? You’re talkin’ to a career journalist,” Eric lied. “Try me.”

“Fair enough,” Stan said as he found the light switch and allowed his bloated hand to hover over it. “It’s Stan Alilamasabachtani.”

“You were right to abbreviate it,” Eric said.

Stan drew a short laugh then threw the switch. The dull shape of objects previously scanned, unimpressed, by Eric as he grilled Stan in the dimness, jumped to life in the harsh luminescence of the fluorescents. Now they were in a relative museum of awesome attractions. A monolithic statue of Adonis, chiseled features thrust out, stood before them in a stance of glory, a mortal a mere eighth of his size dangling from the shaft of his magnificent erection, gleefully milking the god. And his well-defined arm, flexed for the tension borne of his conquest, was extended to the east, pointing the way to the rest of Stan’s curios, ushering them to indulge their curiosity.

Eric’s peepers were naturally poised on Adonis’s ungodly prick, a plaster that put his—and every other human man’s—to shame. Elle’s eyes, on the other hand, had wandered down to grovel at the god’s feet where she could see the gold plate and its engraving, a verse ironically torn verbatim from the King James Bible: “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

As they inched their way along, the clutter of marvels appeared to reveal itself one glorious object at a time, as if every object waited for a spotlight to alight it so that its individual power could be fully appreciated without distraction from its predecessor. There was the Pearl of Anguish, a medieval metallic torture egg meant to be fitted inside an offender’s vagina where it would then open up and ruin the offender’s insides. And by the side of this so-called pearl, legs akimbo, head thrown back in terror recoil or terrible euphoria, was the porcelain effigy of a woman who wouldn’t have been out of place in the Korovo milk bar of Clockwork. Beside this medieval atrocity of eros stood a psychedelic lantern that spun of its own will, hurling mini-silhouettes of sodomy against the back wall. To its left were stacks of literary antiquities, first editions of Bataille’s “The Story of the Eye” and de Sade’s “Juliette,” to name but two.

Eric was chuckling like a dirty old man, gaping at mannequins with blinders on and phallus spilling from their plastic mouths, when Elle declared, “This is what I was.”

“What?” Eric said. He knew what he’d heard, but it made no sense.

Elle corrected herself. “This is what I…want. This is it.”

She delivered the words in a spent voice of sexual agitation, that panting, jittery sound of exasperation. Eric could remember hearing it the first time they’d gotten hot and heavy when, after sucking face for close to forty-five minutes, he’d asked her what she wanted him to do. And her answer was one he hadn’t heard since: “Everything you want.”

His head jerked around from the mannequins to meet the thing head on. His stomach sank at once. Elle stood before a marble table on top of which, dead center, sat a gargantuan…what? Not a big, black cock exactly and not quite a fist and forearm. Something of its vine-like shaft and helmet-like head’s spiky circumference suggested a sea creature from some sci-fi world. A moon snake, that’s what it was! A Mars-roving eel, Eric thought. Most definitely not a replica of any living manhood or other appendage. And was it pulsating underneath the opaque glow of the fluorescents? Sho nuff! But—and then the pulsing was gone, removed from the now inanimate object and placed inside Elle’s heaving chest.

“Fuck no!” Eric exclaimed.

Elle’s head shot around, snapped toward him and, with one eye on him and one never leaving the benighted battering ram beastie on the marble table, she shot Eric a look so cold it could create icicles in a dude’s urethra.

“This is what I want,” she said.

“I’m not using that, whatever it is, I’m not usin’ that on you.”

Stan laughed.

“Somethin’ funny?” Eric barked.

“Hey, don’t worry about it, kid. Your lady’s box, it contracts, same as her asshole.”

“Excuse me?! You talkin’ about my wife’s vagina?!”

“Easy, sport,” Stan said, holding up a chubby palm. “I’m just sayin.”

“I want it, Eric.” Elle, still staring.

“Nah, this is some bullshit.” Eric was flush with anger and awkwardness. “No.”

“How much?” Elle practically frothing like feral animal at the lips. Presumably at both sets.

“Give it to you for six.” Stan looked beyond Eric, through him, as he said this.

“Six hundred dollars!” Eric cried. “You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me!”

“I’ll take it,” Elle replied.

“You’ll…what?!” Eric was on the verge of whiplash now.

“Give him a check, Eric.”

At a loss now, all Eric could muster was, “You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me” again.

No joke.

On the car ride home, Eric watched with unease as Elle peeled back the upper folds of the packaging and fixed her incandescent irises on the toy. “Touch it, Eric,” she cooed.

“What? No! I’m not touching that thing. It’s hideous!”

They drove in silence the rest of the way.

He could see the signs that something bad was happening that first night. Almost at once, Elle regarded him differently than she normally had. As soon as she’d unwrapped the onyx toy and set it down on the glass coffee table in their living room, she’d been unable or unwilling to move from the spot where she sat, on the bearskin throw rug, in front of It. She was adhered there, transfixed, from, the very moment after she’d drawn the venetian blinds and dimmed the recessed lighting.

After taking a shower, buzzing his pubic hair, lathering his crotch and belly in Elle’s favorite body lotion and brushing his teeth, Eric had returned to the living room, expecting to find a randy wife good and worked up and ready for marital intimacy. What he found, instead, was Elle, in moistened panties and nothing else, running her hands up and down the thing, from base to head. Sweat. Not unlike the smell from the black room. Heat. A stifling heat like a furnace.

Although disturbed by this sight, and against his better judgment, Eric disrobed and crept up behind his wife, placing a hand on the back of her neck and bringing his hot mouth to rest over her pulsing carotid artery.

There was no response from her, other than the pulse’s erratic drum beat, but when Eric opened his eyes, he thought he could see the onyx “toy” pulsing too, would swear the thing emitted a tea kettle hiss.

Illustration by James Neyman

Before he could react to what he hoped was a hallucination, Elle whirled around and smacked him away. Eric was stunned for a beat, then his eyes temporarily brightened.

“You wanna play rough?” He went to kiss her anew.

Elle shot out with both palms to his chest, knocking him off balance and on to his back. He briefly expected her to go cowgirl, but no straddling was forthcoming and, when he chanced a look by burying his chin in his chest, he could see that his wife had returned her attention to the toy, stroking it protectively like a dog that’s been kicked by an abusive boyfriend.

Eric got up and stormed down the hall to the bedroom, grabbed up Elle’s pillow and marched it into the living room, hurling it at her back. She didn’t move, didn’t break her silent vigil before the black Martian eel.

“Here! Sleep with yer fuckin’ toy then! I try to play along and this is what I get? Six hundy in the fuckin’ red and this is what I get?!”

She didn’t answer, clutched the onyx toy instead.

“Huh?!”

No dice.

“Fuck you,” he sighed and, seconds later, after he’d slammed the bedroom door and lay in bed, jerking off, he thought he could hear slurping sounds. But was it his wife or that hideous “toy?” The thought haunted him long after he’d reconciled himself to not getting off before slipping into restless sleep.

That night he dreamed of his wedding day. But it wasn’t his real wedding. The proceedings were held in a black lodge, divorced of excitement, imbued with dread. The flower girl slunk, hunched, along the aisle, surrounded by suited freaks in gnarled face masks, her skin melting, bones splintering as she reached the stage. Her little flower girl body wilting as she went and the rings she beared in her arthritic claws turning to ash and water.

On the altar they were not Eric and Elle, they were exoskeletons, aged and broken, ring fingers stuck in their cankered mouths, tears welded to their jowls in a fine crust. And when they stopped sucking their brittle digits and the high priest made his wicked pronouncement, their jaws dropped open and they howled in unison, an ear-shattering outcry of sad babbling hurt.

When Eric awoke, he knew nothing would ever be the same ever again. Entering the living room, ready with an apology for throwing the pillow, he found his wife crouched in the same spot on the now-soiled shag carpet where she’d been seated when he left. A puddle darkened the area of rug right in front of her and condensation had formed on the glass beneath the “toy,” so that it was impossible to tell whether the ejaculate fouling said rug belonged to his wife or her plaything.

The answer to this was, of course, both, something Eric ascertained when he sidled up behind Elle and saw her drenched nether regions and saw, too, the smaller puddle spreading under the toy. It was different from Elle’s effluence. It was thicker. It carried with it a stronger, more pungent scent, something between expired milk and industrial solvent.

Eric’s intense focus on the toy and its effluvia was broken when Elle turned to face him. Time was suspended and life dropped out of Eric when he saw her face. She was panting like a dog, prickly heat ruining her rosy cheeks, blisters scoring her sweat-saturated forehead.

When she opened her mouth, he could see nothing of the perfectly pearly chompers he’d always admired and loved. All that remained in their stead were crimson stalagtites of torn gum, shredded threads of pink-gray skin. That’s when he saw the needle nose splashed in red by her knees and the same red coating the head of the plaything, a head that had swelled, bloated with purple color, the purple of anguish. Or, rather, the purple of ecstasy. Unholy ecstasy!

 

 


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Pruning The Garden by David M. Hoenig

“Won’t you tell me about the girls who have passed, Lily?  No one else is willing to say anything.”  The speaker was a brunette, dressed in a dark red and black corset with stockings and garters, and she sat at one of the saloon tables with a blonde girl wearing a similar costume in white and pale green.  Both her accent and diction placed her origins somewhere far to the east of where she now found herself: St. Joseph, Missouri, ‘Gateway to the West’.

“Well, it’s like nobody even cares that they died, Dusk Rose!  Not the John Laws, not Bo Shanks, who owns this whorehouse.  We mean less than nothing.”

‘Dusk Rose’ pursed her lips, and glanced around to see who might be listening to her conversation.  She leaned closer to Lily, working girl at the Garden of Endless Flowers, and when she spoke her voice was soft.  “That’s exactly why I’m here, Lily.  My real name is Nellie Bly, and I’m an investigative reporter for a New York newspaper.”

“What?  You mean you ain’t a real ‘Flower’?’

“No.  I came because we’d heard of the recent deaths of Becky Hargrave, Jill Wheaton, and Tai Meifing in recent months, and they certainly seemed unusual.  I also don’t like the fact that the news hasn’t carried anything about why or how three young women might die unremarked upon.  It’s not fair and someone’s got to speak for the dead, I say, but all I’ve really learned so far is that no one in charge seems to care much.”

“They wasn’t just deaths, Miss Bly.  Them girls were murdered, and any of us could be next!”

A small furrow appeared between the reporter’s eyes.  “But I was told that they Miss Hargrave’s and Miss Meifing’s deaths were accidents, and that Miss Wheaton committed suicide.”

“I don’t believe none of that.  Pansy–that was Jill Wheaton, mind–was happier than a pig in slop working the Garden!  She was a one who really liked her work, and she’d never have just killed herself.  This life was just fine for her, though maybe she was a mite mouthy over who she took to bed.”

“What about the others?”

“Becky– she was Violet–had a powerful fear of the water.  She’d never have gone down to the Missouri River for a swim, no matter what Sheriff Hooky says.  And Lotus… uh, Tai… well, she drowned in the big tub downstairs, out back.  They said she must’ve slipped and hit her head, but she didn’t have no bumps or cuts, just a peaceful expression like she’d gone to sleep at the bottom of it.”  Lily leaned forward conspiratorially.  “It weren’t natural,” she whispered.

“Is there anything that links them besides working here?”

Lily shrugged.

“Can I trust the House Madam?”

“Miss Ruby?  She’s about the only one here you could.”

“You mean here in the Garden?”

“In St. Joseph.”  Lily maintained eye contact for emphasis before she finally stood.  “I’ll take you.”

Nellie got up and let the girl lead her through the great room and past the early afternoon crowd of the saloon-brothel.  Some of the girls were working the crowd, friendly as sunshine, but to the reporter’s trained eye there was an undercurrent of tension in the way they comported themselves. They went behind the main staircase and stopped at a door along the back wall.  Lily knocked.  After a muffled reply came indistinctly through the wood, she opened the door and led Nellie into the office beyond.

“Now, what do you girls want?” Madam Ruby Beaumont asked from behind her desk.

With an almost shy look at the reporter, Lily told the woman the truth about her newest Flower.

Nellie met the thinning of Ruby’s lips with a hurried explanation.  “I’m convinced that people need to know about the needs of you and the women who work here.  After all, they’re folk, just like everyone else, and especially vulnerable to the evils of the world when they have no one to speak for them.”

“You are looking to stir up a world of troubles, missy.  No one around here cares about these girls except me, not even Mr. Shanks.”  

“That’s exactly the problem I want to address, Madam Beaumont.  I know I can make people care about them.”

“Like you did in New York last year, Miss Bly?  With those poor wretches in the asylum?”

Nellie pursed her lips for a few moments, then abruptly sat in one of the chairs before the desk and crossed her legs.  “You are awfully well-read for a house madam, Ruby.”

“I am.”

“And you don’t seem half surprised enough.  How long have you known who I am?”

The madam leaned back in her own chair.  “There was something off about you when we first met–too self-assured, maybe–but I didn’t twig to your identity until after I went through your things.  After that it was just a matter of research.”  She paused, put a cigarette in a holder and lit it.  “So.  What brings you here besides the thrill of having some cowpoke grunt in your ear as he tries to shove you through a bed?”

The reporter laughed out loud, and the madam smiled along with her.  Lily, standing to one side, had a somewhat forced smile on her face.

When the hilarity had passed, Nellie’s tone was all business.  “I’m here about the recent deaths of Becky, Jill, and Tai.”

Ruby grimaced.  “They were good girls, and treated like less than nothing.”

“And that’s not right.  Lily told me some of the circumstances; I’d like to know more.”

The madam turned to Lily.  “You get, girl.  I think Miss Bly and I need to talk.”

“Alright.”  Lily went to the door and opened it.

“You done good bringing her to me, missy, but mum’s the word for now.”

“Yes, Ruby.”  The girl curtsied and left.

The madam leaned back in her chair after the door closed.  “These girls mostly have nothing else, Miss Bly.  The sad truth is they mostly die young, from disease or rough treatment by unscrupulous men.  Very few ever get out once they’re in this life… and now I’ve got three dead girls in almost as many months.”

“The Sheriff?”

Ruby let out a very unladylike snort.  “Useless as balls on a milk-cow.”

The reporter was quiet for a moment, thinking.  “Did the dead girls share a patron?”

Madam Beaumont bit her lip before finally replying.  “A mouthy woman could get herself pretty dead.”

“I can’t promise you safety, but if there is someone to blame, maybe you and I together can protect your girls.”

Some moments passed as Ruby Beaumont considered this, then the lines of her mouth firmed.  “Mayor Holloway’s wife, Virginia.”

The reporter’s eyes widened.

“Ginny’s a very rich and powerful woman, Miss Bly, and it’s no secret among certain quarters of her preferences.  And yet, if aspersions were cast on a lady of her stature that might threaten her relationship with the Mayor or her standing in town, well, any of us would likely meet the hangman’s noose faster’n a virgin finishes his first time.”

“And you think she’s somehow responsible for your girls’ deaths?”

“I know how crazy it sounds.  But I know Ginny gave Becky a present after their first time together because she showed it to me.  Horrid thing it was, too; looked mean and nasty first time I saw it, and thought ‘what a strange gift to give’.”  She licked her lips.  “But you know keepsakes–what’s important to someone may make it more valuable than what it is, right?”  At Nellie’s nod, she continued.  “But then it showed up later in Jill’s things after she died, and again in Tai’s effects after hers.  I think, somehow, maybe it killed them for Ginny.”  The Madam crossed herself in a very incongruous gesture, considering the surroundings.  “It’s a cursed, evil thing, Miss Bly.”

“Ruby, you strike me as one very sharp woman. You can’t believe that superstitious nonsense, can you?”

“You haven’t seen the devilish thing, or you wouldn’t think it’s so crazy.  I asked questions about it, quietly: an ugly jade toad that first came to town with Ginny’s first husband, a confederate officer.  I don’t know where he got it, maybe somewhere during the war.”

“First husband?”

“Yes.  He drowned–sound familiar?”

“In the river?”

“In a damned horse trough.”

“I think I’d like to meet this Ginny Holloway.”

“Oh, she’d just love you as you are right now,” Ruby gestured at the reporter’s ensemble with a half-hearted leer.  “But you might want to fancy up instead, and catch her over at the Women’s Temperance League for tea right about now.”

Thirty minutes later, Nellie Bly strolled into the building housing the Temperance League, suitably accoutered for the surroundings.  “May I help you?” asked a starchy matron by the entrance.

“I’m a reporter from New York, doing a feature article.  I’d very much like to speak to Mayor Holloway’s wife, if she’s about.”

A quick glance at a table with three ladies affirmed she was there.  “I’ll ask her.”  She went, spoke to a woman easily in her fifties, but immaculate in dress and appearance, then returned to Nellie.  “Mrs. Holloway would be happy to have tea with you in one of our private rooms.  Please come with me?”

The reporter followed the matron to a room in the back.  After a few minutes, Ginny Holloway swept in shortly to take her own seat.  “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I’m doing a story about events in St. Joseph, Mrs. Holloway.”  She told the Mayor’s wife her name and occupation.

“Oh!  Regarding the upcoming Faire?”

“Actually, I’m more curious about the recent deaths of three prostitutes from the Garden of Endless Flowers.”

Ginny’s face closed like the book of Judgment.  “I’m certain I know nothing about such distasteful matters.”

“Are you talking about the deaths or the prostitutes, Mrs. Holloway?”

The look she received in return was scornful.  “I don’t generally concern myself with either of those subjects, Miss Bly.”

Nellie met her gaze evenly, underscoring her disbelief, and the older woman looked away first.  “Even so, you don’t find the circumstances of their deaths worrying for women of this city, Mrs. Holloway?”

“They weren’t proper women!  And, as I understand, their deaths have been ruled accidents or whatever, so it’s nothing to me.”

“So, you wouldn’t have any objection to me looking into their deaths in pursuit of, say, a common patron the girls had, if I believed that the investigation has been incomplete?”

Ginny’s cheeks reddened, and when she spoke her tone was harsh.  “Young lady, if you are not out of this city by dusk, I will have the Sheriff arrest you for troublemaking and we’ll just see how you like that.”

“And he’ll jump to do your bidding?  Are you sleeping with him too?”

“You bitch!” Ginny breathed.  She stood so quickly that her chair crashed to the ground behind her.

Just then the matron came in, and Ginny turned and pushed roughly past her.  Bewildered, the woman looked at the reporter with concern.

“I don’t think she enjoyed the tea, I’m afraid.”  Nellie finished hers and stood.  “Good day.  I’m certain Mrs. Holloway is generous enough to cover the bill.”

She left the Women’s Temperance League and returned to the Garden of Endless Flowers to speak with Ruby Beaumont.  “I’m afraid that I’ve worn out my welcome in St. Joseph.”

“You’d best be out of town then, and right quick.”

Nellie nodded.  “I’m not letting this drop though.  I just wanted you to know that I’m going to write the story as I understand it, and let the facts speak for themselves.  What the women do here and elsewhere may not be glorious, uplifting, or heroic, but it’s not like they could do it if there wasn’t a market for it.”

The madam looked away, then nodded slowly.  

“And, what they do doesn’t mean they don’t merit kindness, justice, and recognition as people just like everyone else.”

When she turned back to look at the reporter, Ruby’s eyes were tear-filled.  “Thank you, Miss Bly.”

Nellie stood, shook the madam’s hand, and went directly to the rail station to take the first train back to New York.

#

A week later, Nellie Bly was at her desk at New York World, editing the article which would champion the rights of all women, not just those of privilege.  A young man from the mailroom arrived in her office.

“Package, Miss Bly.”

“Thank you, Wally.  Where’s it from?”

“Postmark says St. Joseph, Missouri.  Where should I leave it?”

There was a considerable pause before she replied.  “Do me a favor, Wally, and just toss it in the garbage?”

“You really don’t want it?”

“No.”

“Okay, Miss Bly.”

“Thanks, Wally.”

The young man took the package with him when he left her office, and took it home at the end of the day to see what it was.

He was found drowned in the pond in Central Park later that week.  

Sadly, his was not the only such incident to occur in New York City that year…

 

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Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.

 

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Lost In The Dark by Matt Michaelis

 

The road curved through the swamp.  Headlights preceded the car as it careened over the asphalt, faster than the signs would allow it.

“Slow down, John, you’re going too fast!”

“We have to get to my parents’ house tonight, Sue.  We can’t afford a hotel room.”

“We won’t make it if you slide off the road and into a ditch!”

His voice rose, “Jesus Christ, will you calm down?  You’re just like your mom, you know.”

Sue fell silent, her desire for safe travel losing the battle with her desire to distance herself from her mother.  In her mind, the face of the angry woman who demanded full obedience loomed the way that it did when she was five, terrifying her until she ran to the only safety available, her uncle, Pete.

John had proposed to her three weeks ago.  Sue thought it was weird when he wanted to go to a baseball game.  Suddenly, she found herself broadcast on the  KissCam, with a ring in her face.  Stunned, all she could say was “yes,” unenthusiastically.

Sue looked at him, smug satisfaction shining out of him.  Not for the first time, Sue thought about throwing the ring in his face.  The voice of her mother calling her out for being impetuous and ungrateful kept her from acting in anger, so she kept her opinions about his reckless driving habits to herself.

Thus, the car continued careening down a winding, foggy road, and neither of them saw the plank of wood with the protruding nails until the front tire had driven over it.  The spikes penetrated the inner tube, and the sudden change in balance made John swerve violently.

“Shit!” he shouted as the car hydroplaned.  Sue held her breath, eyes wide, as they spun around and the car fell into the ditch onto its side.

 

The world came back into focus slowly.  John’s voice came through her delirium.

“Sue?  Sue, are you okay?”

“Huh?” she said, shaken.  “Y-yeah, I’m okay.  Wh…are you okay?”

He touched his forehead.  “I think so.”  He took his hand away.  Blood shone dark red on his hand.  “Oh, hell.  We have to get out of here.”

He tried his door, but it wouldn’t budge.  The frame must have bent, keeping it from opening.  Sue’s window had broken over the flooded ditch.

“Okay Sue, listen to me,” John began.  “You have to crawl out the window and into the water.”

“I-I can’t!  There’s glass-”

“Shut up and listen!  There is only one way out of here, and it’s out that window.  You have to go first.”

She looked at the window where the safety glass had shattered.  The swampy water sat, stagnant and dark like pitch.  She hesitated.  The abysmal water seemed endless and full of unknown terrors.

“Sue!”

His shout brought her back, and she tugged at her seat belt.  Her fingers fumbled the latch open with a click.  Sue took a deep breath and crawled into the murky water that lay beneath her.  John followed with a whimper, which he was relieved that she hadn’t heard.

They stood by the road, clothes dripping.  Her arm bore a few scratches, but other than that, Sue wasn’t hurt.  Aside from the cut on his forehead, John wasn’t bleeding.  No serious damage could be seen, although Sue worried about the bump on John’s head.

“Let’s see if we can get the trunk open.  The first aid kit should be in there.”

John moved to the trunk, and with some difficulty, managed to open it.  The kit had stayed together, and they patched their woundss.  John grabbed the tool kit and took out a flashlight, and a folding knife with a four-inch blade.

John took out his phone, but there was no signal.  Sue’s phone wouldn’t come on.  “Damn, that’s weird.  The compass keeps spinning around.”  He put the phone back into his pocket.

Sue shivered.  “How cold is it supposed to get tonight?”

“Low thirties.  Let’s change into something dry.”

They got their suitcases out of the trunk.  Sue looked up and down the road before disrobing.  John gave a snort of derision at her modesty.  He stripped completely nude, toweled off, then dressed.  He handed her the towel, smirking at how Sue danced in the cold to keep warm.

Teeth chattering, Sue toweled off quickly, and put on fresh clothes.  She looked down the road.

“Any idea how far it is through the swamp?” she asked.

He shrugged.  “Hard to say.  I think we had another hour’s drive before anything resembling civilization.”

“How far back was the last house?”

“At least an hour.”

“So what do we do?” Panic crept into Sue’s voice.

“Someone’s bound to drive by sooner or later.  Let’s go ahead and start walking up the road and we’ll stop the first car we see.”

“What if no one drives through?”

John fought the irritation rising in him.  “Then we walk until we find a store or something.  Stop whining.”

They set out down the road, the flashlight bobbing along the path.  Sue wrapped her arms around herself.  Even with dry clothes, the wind whipped through them.  John tried to look unaffected by the cold, but he clenched his teeth to prevent them from chattering.  His hand gripped the knife in his pocket. He stroked the spine of the blade with his thumb, the hard steel comforting him.

An hour later, they hadn’t seen a single car, nor had they seen a single building.

“Maybe we should go back to that turn-off and see if there is anything down there,” Sue suggested.

“It’s at least twenty minutes back, and I don’t want to leave the main road.  Something will turn up soon.”

“But we don’t know that!  You wanted to try the short-cut that you found on the GPS.  Neither of us have ever been here before.”

“For Christ’s sake, Sue,” he rubbed his head.  “I can’t take this.  I have a headache, and your pissing and moaning isn’t helping!”

Sue resumed her silence, and they trudged on.  John’s head got worse.  The steps he took were more uneven as they went on.

“Sweetie, we should probably stop, you aren’t looking so good.”

“I’ll be fine without your constant nagging.  I just need some food, maybe a beer.  Look!”

He shouted and pointed the flashlight into the swamp.  There, over the water, was a light, bouncing over the ground.  It looked like lantern.

“Come on, let’s go!”

“John, you must be crazy!”

“Crazy about getting out of this stupid swamp and getting some help, yeah.”

“He could be a serial killer!”

“Relax, I can handle it,” he patted the pocket where the knife was.  “Come on!”

Without waiting for her, he shined the flashlight on the ground and found a dry patch.  Sue followed him as he slowly picked his way through the brush.

“John, we’re never going to get through this.”

“This is the first sign of life that we have seen.  They must see us because they’re signaling to us.  Come on.”

They pressed on as best they could.  Sue’s jeans got snagged on brambles that tore through to her skin, like the forest was reaching out fingers to snare her.  The further they went in, the more that she felt like they would never get out.

John grunted as his toe hit a root.  “Jeez, he keeps moving back with that light.  I guess he’s leading us to his house.”

“Who could possibly live out here?  There’s no road!”

“There’s probably a back road that connects to a highway.”

Slow as they were moving, they still made progress, but the light stayed ahead.  The brush continued to harass them, as though it was warning them back.  Sue couldn’t tell how far they had gone, or for how long.

“Hold on!” John shouted.  “We’re coming, stop, ow!  Stop moving away!”

He increased his speed, and so did the lantern.  Sue tried desperately to keep up.  His breath came in heavier drags.  Sue was falling behind him, but could still see his flashlight bouncing and the lantern bobbing.

“John, wait!”  She couldn’t tell if he ignored her or couldn’t hear her, but didn’t even break his stride.

Suddenly, Sue crashed into John.  He had stopped in a clearing and was looking around.  He whipped around and yelped, as though he hadn’t known she was following him.  His sudden jolt knocked her over, and he shined the flashlight into her face while she was on the ground.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?”

“You just stopped!  What happened?  Where are they?”

“I…don’t know.  I must have lost him when you bumped into me.  Why didn’t you look where you were going, stupid?”

“I can’t see anything!  You have the flashlight and you nearly left me behind.  I’m sorry,” she said in a hurt voice.

The light they had followed was gone.  The stars and a full moon made the clearing visible.  There was no sign that anyone had been there.  John shined his light on the ground.  No footprints.  The clearing turned into a meadow with clusters of trees.

Sue shivered.  “What do we do now?”

“We go back, what the hell else do we do?”

“John, we barely made it through there once, and we have no way to tell which way we came.”

He pointed back into the woods.  “We walked straight the whole way, it was only about ten minutes.  We walk back, get on the road and keep going.  Come on, before it really gets cold.”

Sue followed him into the brush.  She wondered why she accepted his proposal, then she remembered all the people cheering at the Kisscam.  You can’t say no in front of thousands of people.  She was positive that had been his plan all along.

Her ears perked at the sound of a soft voice nearby.  She tried to listen to it over the cracking of debris under their feet.  Sue couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like her mother.

The quiet is getting to me, she thought.  It’s just the wind.

“Never listened to me either.”

She spun around, that time the voice was clear.  Almost as if it was in her ear.

“Is someone there?” she said, her voice rasping out.

“He’s the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Her hands clamped over her ears.  The voice sounded like it was still beside her.

“You’d just throw it away, because you can’t shape up for him.  That’s how you’ve always been.  Stubborn.  Useless.”

“Stop it!” she cried.

“What the hell are you yelling about?”

She looked at John, who was standing with the flashlight pointed at her.  He sounded exasperated.

“You didn’t hear that?  That voice?”

“There’s no fucking voice, Sue, or I would ask it how to get out of this fucking swamp!  I wish that there was a voice, but the only voice out here is your pathetic whimpering!”

She tried to cover up the sob that slipped out of her mouth.

John’s tone softened, barely.  “Come on.  We’ll make it back.”  He walked off without offering her a hand.

John went ahead, grumbling to himself.  “Oughta just leave her here.  Stupid bitch is useless.”

“You were the idiot driving.”

He spun around and pointed the flashlight at Sue.  “What the hell did you say?”

She looked at him wide-eyed.  “What?  Nothing.”

“That’s just cute.  Get cheeky, since you can’t be any fucking help.”

“John, I didn’t say anything!  What did you hear?”

She looked genuinely shocked at his reaction, which did nothing to make him feel better.  “Nothing, just shut up and come on.”

They continued, and Sue found the idea of being on a man-made path comforting.  Her heart lightened, and she moved faster, keeping up with John.

They were deposited into a clearing.  John’s curse echoed off the trees as Sue looked around.

“This is the same clearing that we were in a moment ago!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, it can’t be.”

“It is, look!”

His eyes followed where she pointed.  Already, in the mud, were their tracks from when they had arrived before.

“This isn’t happening.  We went back!”

Sue could see his eyes in the moonlight, and his look frightened her.  He was repeating, “we went back,” softly to himself.  She was afraid to say anything, just watched him as he looked around.  Suddenly, she realized that night air had gone eerily silent the moment they left the road.

“John, the crickets are gone.”

“Oh, big fucking deal!” he shouted, rounding on her.  “We’re, lost in fucking nowhere, and you’re worried about fucking bugs!  God damn, you are stupid, woman.”

That was the last straw.  “Fuck you.”

His expression turned dark.  “What did you just say?”

“You heard me, you bastard.  You always want to cut me down!  When we get home, you can choke on your ring.  I’m not marrying some pathetic-”

Something broke in John, too.  “Pathetic?” he said through gritted teeth.  “Pathetic?  I’ve been there for you when you were down more times than I can even count.  You think I cut you down?  I raised you up, you fucking cow!”

“You really are a pathetic, little man.  You can have your ring right now!” she screamed at him as she stripped it off her finger and threw it at him.

The ring bounced off his chest and he caught it

“Fine, let’s see how well you do without me.  Good luck not getting raped and murdered out here, you dumb bitch.”  John pocketed the ring and strode off.

“You can’t just leave me out here!  You have the only flashlight!”

“You should have thought of that before you went after my nuts.”

“Come on, we’ll walk back to the road.”  

Lights popped into her vision when he backhanded her.

“Don’t follow me, you little whore.  If I see you, I’ll kill you.”

Sue stood dumbfounded as the sting in her cheek subsided.  He had never hit her before.  It was like he was some other person, some monster, that she had never known until now.  A monster with the only flashlight.

 

John felt a small amount of satisfaction from leaving Sue whining in the dark.  Her biggest mistake was not appreciating him.  Well, she’d appreciate him now.

She was as good as dead out here, and good riddance.  He would get home, play the bereaved fiancé, then he would be free to find someone else, and give her the ring instead, someone who appreciated what a solid man he was.

The ring!

Shit, if they found her dead and he had the ring, it would look like he killed her.  He couldn’t leave her behind.  He had to find her and make up long enough to get them out of the swamp.  Grimacing and frustrated, he set off to find her before she did something stupid.

 

Sue wiped the tears from her eyes.  She had never felt so alone before.  Abandoned and afraid, she fought the despair that threatened to paralyze her.

“Oh, hell,” she sighed.  “I’m scared.”

“You should be.”

She jumped and nearly fell down again.  A woman stood in front of her.

“Mom!” she cried out.  “Oh, thank god!  How did you get here?  Please, you have to help me get out of here.  John’s gone crazy.”  She ran to embrace her mother.

The second slap made her spin.  “You ingrate!  For years I’ve watched you screw up, and now you’re going to die, all because you didn’t listen to someone who knew better than you!”

Sue looked up, but her mother was gone.  Her mind must be playing tricks on her.  But her cheek still throbbed.

  She had to find a way out.  If only she could stop her knees from shaking and take that first step.

 

John hoped Sue was where he had left her.  Dumb bitch would probably try to find her way out of the damn swamp by herself.  

“Where are you going, John?”

He turned around at Sue’s voice.  “What the hell are you doing there?  I was just looking for you.”

“And I had to find you, because you can’t handle anything by yourself.  Can you even wonder why I wouldn’t want to marry a little boy like you?”

He stopped, stunned by her words.

“We can talk about your attitude when we get to the road.  Come on, let’s go.”

She laughed.  “I’ll find my own way.  I’m leaving you out here.  You’re the one who’s lost.  Like you’ve always been.”

He blinked.  And she was gone.

How dare she talk to him that way?

“I’ll find you, you bitch.”

 

“I’m never going to find my way out of here,” she thought.

The woods had not looked so intimidating before.  Maybe it was the company of another human being, even John, that had made it less frightening.  Now, lost and alone, Sue felt despair creeping up in her.  The brambles tore at her, but she didn’t even notice anymore.  She was focused on finding the road, but she felt like she was just walking in circles through the trees.

“Don’t panic, Sue.  Don’t panic.  The worst that will happen is that you find the road in the morning, and then get picked up by some random driver…who hopefully isn’t a psychopath.  Oh God, I’m going to die out here.”

Suddenly, she heard a laugh, a high-pitched, chattering laugh.  Dismissing it as her imagination, she moved on, but she heard it again, closer this time.

“John?  Is that you?” she called at the trees, but all that answered was the laughter.  

“That’s not funny.  Who’s there?”

She felt something brush at her skin, and she gasped and turned towards it.  She felt it again at her back, and spun.  It brushed her again, this time, it felt like a hand on her shoulder, and she cried out.  It was as though the darkness was alive and mocking her.

“Stop it!  Stop it!” she sank to the forest floor.  The whispers became clearer.

“All alone,” the darkness said.

She put her hands over her ears, but that only made the laughter louder.

“You’re here forever.”

She sobbed as the words penetrated her thoughts.

“Here with us!”

“Shut up!” she cried.

She closed her eyes as tight as she could and screamed to drown out the voices.  When her lungs were empty, she fell to the ground and cried into the leaves.  She heard one last, tiny whisper.

“No escape!”  It trailed off with a giggle.

 

“Shit,” John said as he turned towards the scream.

He hoped she was just overreacting, like she always did, but he tried harder to find her.

“Sue!” he shouted.  “Sue, where are you?”

“Here!” he heard her from his right.  He turned to run towards the voice.  

“No, here!”

He spun around as her voice came from his back now, a malicious giggle at the end.

“Here I am, lover!”

He turned around again, but he couldn’t see her.  “Dammit, this isn’t funny!  Where are you?”

His whole body tingled as he felt breath in his ear, “Right here, baby!”

John threw his arm around in a hook, but his fist connected with the air.  His ear still tingled.  He tried to get his breath to slow down, but it was impossible.

“Calm down, John.  You’re in control.  She’s fucking with you, is all.  Just fucking with you, but you won’t let her.”  Determination solidified on his face.  “You’re in control, and you will show everyone. You’re the man, John.  You’re the fucking man.”

As he started to move again, his thoughts were interrupted by her voice.  “You going my way, cutie?” Sue stood right next to him, a mirthful smirk on her face.

He gave a start and looked at her.  He remembered that he needed to leave here with her thinking that everything was forgiven, so he managed a smile.  “Oh, baby, there you are!  I heard you scream.  Are you alright?”

“I’m better than ever!” she said, her voice sultry.  She walked towards him, her hips swaying seductively.

“What, um, what makes you say that?” he said, puzzled.

“Oh sweetie,” she purred, one hand coming to his cheek.  “I found someone out here.”  He stared at her, all response completely lost to him.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he said.

“I let the dark in.  It’s alive out here.”

“Sue, you’ve gone nuts.”

“No, baby,” her finger touched his lips and stroked them softly.  He quivered with desire, which warred with confusion and rage.  “You feel it, too.  The dark led us out here.  It’s lonely, baby, just like me.”  Her finger trailed down his torso, to his belt and below.  His eyes bulged and he gasped.

“What are you doing?” he said, warily.  She was never the type to be flirtatious or seductive.  Was she capable of this kind of trick?

All women are, he thought.

“I’m trying to help you, John.  We don’t have to be lost out here.  The dark can take care of us.”

The smile playing on her lips pissed him off more than the words.  “You’re not making any sense.  Stop trying to fuck with me and let’s get out of here.”

“We can’t, lover.  It won’t let us.”

“You think you’re going to keep me here?”

“Not me, lover.  The dark.”

“Stop saying that!” he shouted, rage grabbing him by the heart.  He lashed out with the flashlight and struck her in the temple.  Her head whipped back, and she toppled to the ground.

Lying in the brush, she still managed that infuriating smile.  “Is that it, lover?  I could barely feel it.”  Her tongue flicked the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth.  “As usual.”

She began laughing.  Laughing at him.

The rage boiled.  His heart pounded in his chest like it wanted to get out.  His teeth ground together hard enough to crush bone.  “Shut the fuck up!”

She just looked at him and laughed.  He could feel her laugh all around him, running into his ears and down to his soul, tearing it like razors until the holes in him were filled with something else.

Something dark.

With a roar, he threw the flashlight aside and leapt on her.  His right fist came down on her face and he heard her jaw crack.  Still she laughed.  His left drilled into her eye socket, skin splitting, and slinging blood from her lips as her head whipped around.  Still she laughed.  He struck, again and again, her skin bruising and bleeding, her bones cracking.  Her hair whipped back and forth as her head slung around with each blow that crushed her face into something between meat and human.

And still, she laughed.

His thoughts didn’t collect into words.  The rage was its own language.  He couldn’t feel his knuckles as they cracked against her skull.  He felt her bones come apart.  The opening in her head oozed blood and gore, and still he struck.

And still she laughed.

“J-John?”

He heard the timid voice behind him, and whipped around.

 

Sue didn’t know what to think.

She heard the screams and grunts, and went to see if John was in trouble.  She was not expecting to see him hunched over a rotten log, beating it with his fists.

“John?”

He whipped around and looked at her with sheer madness in his eyes.  Spit frothed around his mouth, his knuckles were wet and dark.

“A-are you okay?  I heard you shouting and-”

He looked back at the log and looked back at her, confusion etched in his face.  He got up awkwardly and stumbled over to her, his hands reaching out to her.  She stepped back.

“Dead.  Why not…dead?  Kill you again…laugh at me, you bitch!  In fucking control…”

She turned and ran.  John had gone insane.  An odd thought popped into her head, unbidden.  Despite rejecting his proposal, she might spend the rest of her life with him anyway.  The idea nearly made the insane laughter in her mind boil out of her mouth.

 

John caught himself on a tree and stood up.  Why wouldn’t his head clear?  Thoughts felt like they were moving through tar.

He’d killed her.  Then she was standing there.  She laughed at him.  No one laughs at him.

“The dark.”

With those two syllables, it became clear.  He could kill her again.  The dark could give him all the Sues he could kill, forever.  This time, he could do it differently.

He pulled the knife from his pocket and opened it, the blade slipping in his blood-slick, trembling fingers.  He tested the edge against his thumb, and felt it slip into his flesh.  A dark bead pooled on his thumb. He stared into it.  He could feel himself sliding, falling into the dark as it filled him with a freedom he had never before experienced.  A freedom from hope, a freedom from consequence.  A freedom from humanity.

Fits of laughter shook his body.  The more that the darkness filled him, the more he laughed.  And with his knife out, he ran to find his love, his victim, and begin his new found life in a Heaven of ripping her flesh forever.

 

Sue slowed to a stop.  Fear and exertion had nearly drained her completely.  Somehow, she had to get away from the thing that John had become.  

The look in his eyes was totally animal, not a shred of human mercy at all.  She couldn’t run away from him while finding the road.  She was going to die here.

The realization did not horrify her as much as she thought it might.  She had been driven to the brink.  She had been brought all the way to zero.  Hunted, lost and desperate, she had nowhere to go but forward.

She heard him shouting her name as though he were calling a pet.

“Sue!  Here, baby!”

She moved away from his voice and took off her jacket, then threw it over a stump.  She picked up a branch and doubled back to a clump of bushes.  The anticipation of turning the hunt on the hunter thrilled her.  She could hear her heart pumping with the adrenaline coursing through her body.

Before long, he came into view, whistling.  Moonlight glinted off the blade of the knife he held.

“Come on, Sue.  Here, kitty, kitty!  Let’s get crazy and see where the night takes us!  You and me, what do you say?”

She saw him through the bush, his face obscured.  He movd towards the jacket, taking the bait.  With a shout of fury, she launched at him and swung for his head.  He turned, but not quickly enough.  The branch caught the side of his temple and he went sprawling.  The ground knocked the wind out of him, stars dancing in his eyes.  Still shouting, Sue brought the club down on him again, and he raised an arm to block it.  He cried out as it connected with his forearm, the crack announcing a fracture in the bone.  Her next swing caught him on the cheek.  He spat blood.

She came in for another swing, this time at his head, but he rolled away.  She toppled forward as he slashed her leg.

Sue fell to the ground with an agonized scream.  She crawled away from John, who was staggering to his feet, knife in hand.  He made a move towards her, but lurched to the right.

The pain of her injury was hard to ignore, but Sue made herself stand.  John had caught himself on a tree, and Sue launched at him and swung wildly, connecting with his shoulder.  As he fell, the knife came up and slashed under her arm.

It wasn’t deep, but her artery was cut.  She was losing blood fast.

John came at her again, but she side-stepped on her good leg, and struck again.  He crumpled to the ground.  With a wordless cry, she delivered a blow to his ribs.  Her vision became fuzzy.  She was bleeding out.  Tearing off her shirt, she bundled it up under her arm.  Clamping down helped staunch the flow, but she didn’t know how long it would take John to recover and attack again.  Her vision cleared, and the club slipped out of her hand as she limped away.

Her steps became shorter as the pain increased.  Each bounce made a little blood from her arm squirt out into the shirt.  Finally, she couldn’t run any more, and sank to her knees.

Half-conscious, she felt her senses slipping.  It was only a matter of time before she’d pass out.  She only hoped that she died of blood loss before John regained his senses and found her.

“He’s going to find me,” her voice came in a croak.  “He’s going to kill me.”

“No, Honey.  He won’t,” a man’s voice said soothingly.

She looked up and saw the moon was brighter than it had been all night.  His silhouette stood over her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she recognized the voice and the comfort of his presence.  But that was impossible.

“Uncle Pete?” she felt his strong fingers grip hers. “You…you died.”

“Everyone dies, but not everyone stays strong.  You held onto yourself.  I’m proud of you.  Come with us, Honey.  Come to the dark.  We have such wonderful things to show you.”

She couldn’t think anymore.  The hand that held hers was so warm and strong, she felt that it would never let her go.  It wasn’t the man who had comforted her as a child.  It was something else, something that could comfort her forever.  And she would be one with it.  One with the dark.

Her last breath came in a whisper that sounded very much like “yes.”

 

Carly drove the car down the foggy highway, faster than she should.  Beside her, John slept in his seat.  It had been a rough two years for him.

He was found dehydrated and raving in the woods and brought to the hospital.  When he recovered enough to tell what happened to himself and his fiance, he couldn’t remember anything.  Where she had gone, or how he had received his injuries, why he had her ring. After they searched the area, they found no trace of her body.  That was all that Carly knew, he wouldn’t talk about it.

He was haunted by nightmares that made him whimper.  He was so terrified of the dark, he slept with a nightlight.  Thankfully, his soul was finally on the way to recovery.

Carly had been a volunteer at the hospital through her church.  They hit it off.  When she stopped volunteering, she still came to visit him.  One thing led to another, and they began dating.

Now she was on the way to meet her future in-laws.

John stirred as they rounded a curve and grumbled.  He rubbed his eye and sat up in his seat. “Where are we?”

“The GPS found a shortcut, I thought I would take it.  We should be there soon after we get through this swamp.”

“Shortcut?” the word was barely out of his mouth when his face went pale.  “Oh God, no!  No!”

He began screaming hysterically and grabbing for the wheel.  Carly’s eyes went wide with fear as she fought to control the car.  When she looked back up, she screamed as well.

A woman in tattered, stained clothes was standing in the middle of the road, her tangled and matted hair over her face.  John’s fit became more intense as they came closer to hitting her.  Carly yanked the wheel to the left, and the car spun off the road and hit a tree.

Carly’s head impacted the steering wheel, and she lay there.  John’s vision swam, but he stayed awake.  He shrieked as he fumbled to get free.  Spilling out of the door, he scrambled to get up.  He ran down the road crying and shouting, “Please!  Oh God, please, someone help me!”

“Here, kitty, kitty!”

He turned towards the voice that he never expected to hear again, and fell back as he screamed. Crawling away on the road, he looked at the figure of Sue.  Her hair was snarled in swamp debris and her skin was lacerated from brambles.  Blood trickled down one arm, where he had stabbed her two years ago.

“No!” he screamed.  “No, it can’t be!  You’re dead!  You’re dead!  You’re dead!”

Her cracked lips parted in a smile that held all the cruelty in the world.  Her eyes menaced him.

“Everyone dies, John,” she said as she advanced, her hoarse voice clawing at his mind.  He scrambled back, gibbering.  “You only need to be afraid if you think you’ve done something bad.  Have you, John?”

Her fingertips touched his cheek.  He shrieked and curled into a ball.  “Shh, it’s okay.  It’s only Hell.  Come with me, Honey,” she extended her hand.  “I have such wonderful things to show you.”

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Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.

 

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Horror Movie Horrors – Demon Seed

SatanMistress

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SATAN’S MISTRESS, (aka DARK EYES, aka DEMON RAGE, aka FURY OF THE SUCCUBUS), US poster, Lana Wood, 1982. ©MPM

Hold on here? Is this Demon Seed or Demon Rage, and why is there another poster titled Dark Eyes? Why does IMDB refer to this movie as Satan’s Mistress? WTF is going on here?

This horrible hour and a half is sloppy, poorly edited, haphazardly cropped together mess about a MILF that desperately yearns for some dick. No, I’m not talking about the latest video from BangBus or what have you, but I understand the confusion. Not even a minute in and we are presented with a nip slip. I’m not complaining, mind you. Britt Ekland is a busty ex-bond girl that starred in The Man With The Golden Gun, and she’s not shy about showing off her assets.

 

 

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Interview with David Wright

Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel reference? What is this, Sunday school? No. Mr. Deadman meets up with horror author David Wright to discuss The Babel Frequency – a short morbid story of absolute memory loss on a grand scale. David Wright talks about the biblical reference and how it influence his story.

https://youtu.be/nhaKw9h0r-s
https://www.spreaker.com/embed/player/standard?episode_id=8848888&autoplay=false

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Interview with L K Scott

necromeme

necromeme2

Wait, hold on! Did I just see a necrophilia joke AND a rape joke!?!? That’s it. Someone get PC principle on the line. We got ourselves a major case of micro aggression in this post.

If you find yourself triggered, then don’t listen to this interview, because the conversation gets dirty and dark, but with a comedic perspective. Mr. Deadman meets with horror author L K Scott to talk about Snoflower, the inspiration behind the story, evil Canadians, necrophilia, and much more.
https://www.spreaker.com/embed/player/standard?episode_id=8849179&autoplay=false

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Deadman’s Tome LIVE @ 10PM CST

Mr. Deadman interviews David Wright, author of Babel Frequency – a short, dark and horrific depiction of a society robbed of all memory, and talks about his upcoming work, inspiration, and other projects.

https://www.spreaker.com/embed/player/standard?episode_id=8848888&autoplay=false

Stick around for the post show at 11PM as Mr. Deadman interviews LK Scott, author of Snoflower – a horrific short about an infidelity of a different, colder sort.

https://www.spreaker.com/embed/player/standard?episode_id=8849179&autoplay=false
Access the podcast by clicking the link below.

Deadman’s Tome Podcast

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The Boxer by Charles Gramlich

 

The Boxer sits on his stool in the corner of the ring. He sits hunched, eyes closed. He can’t hear the crowd, though they must be near. All that his ears register is the rasp in his throat and the thunder-boom of his heart.

The Boxer’s arms lie heavy across his legs, and the legs tremble from the weight. He wants the shaking to stop but the legs are past the point of listening to such commands. He thinks about water then, and wonders for a moment why he doesn’t have a manager. Shouldn’t someone be offering him a drink and wiping the sweat from his face? Those thoughts soon fade to be replaced by more important ones.

How long until the bell sounds again? How long until I have to get up? Again.

It can be only seconds now. The interlude between rounds isn’t long. It’s never long enough. He wishes the bell would never sound, that he could sit here until time itself turned to amber around him. That boon is not to be his.

The bell rings.

The Boxer opens his eyes. Brightness explodes like shrapnel in his face; tears fog his vision. He blinks rapidly, then reaches out and grasps one of the cables that define the ring and levers himself to his feet. Without looking for his opponent, he shuffles toward the center of this combat zone while the ringside commentator spews verbal fireworks in a voice engineered for drama.

What round is it? the Boxer wonders.

The fight is scheduled for fifteen rounds. Surely this is the last one. He just has to stay on his feet a little longer.

Three more minutes and I can rest.

Then words register from the referee: “Round Thirteen!”

Almost, the Boxer’s knees give out. Not just one round to go. Three!

He hasn’t the strength for three.

He sees his opponent stalking him then, coming quickly. His foe is big, big as life, and seems fresh. It’s as if all the blows the Boxer landed in early rounds have done nothing. The Boxer lifts his arms, though it is agony. He takes the first blow from his opponent on his left forearm. More punches rain in; the Boxer is pummeled around the ring. In earlier rounds he’d grunted each time he’d been hit, and had often sent his ripostes flying back into the big body of his foe. He no longer has the strength for any of that. In silence, he takes his beating, with no chance to strike back.

With only a few seconds left in the round, a blow sneaks through the Boxer’s guard and caroms off his skull. He is down. For a few seconds he doesn’t even realize it. The referee’s count is already at three when the Boxer understands what has happened. Four and five pass as he lies thinking.

I won’t get up. Could never last two more rounds anyway. Thirteen. Made it almost through thirteen. Surely that’s enough.

But the voice, the voice he has heard rasping in his ears all night…all his life. The voice doesn’t agree that thirteen is enough.

“Get up,” it rages. “Giving up is a sin. Get up or you’ll regret it. A man would get up!”

“No,” he whispers from a throat so dry it feels seared.

But he knows the voice is right. And he won’t be the only one who regrets it. Others depend on him.

He flops his gloved hands in front of his body. He starts to push.

“Eight!” the referee counts.

The Boxer rises to his hands and knees. His breath comes like a bellows. His arms shake like willows in a storm as they try to hold up his weight. Sweat and blood comingle as they drip from his body to the canvas. The resulting pattern is almost artistic, he thinks, a surreal image scrawled by a sadistic painter.

“Nine!”

Not going to do it. I can’t do it.

“Te—”

The Boxer is on his feet somehow. The bell signals that the round is over. The referee catches the Boxer’s gloves, holds him while he looks him in the face. The Boxer tries to make eye contact but his vision is blurry. ‘Two’ referees study him, or so it seems. Finally, the Boxer just stands there, his whole body aflame as his many hurts weave themselves into one.

The referee releases the Boxer’s hands and nods that the bout can continue. The Boxer staggers to his corner, falls onto his stool. His opponent’s manager is talking to the referee, gesturing wildly as he protests…something. The Boxer thinks the man is telling the referee to “call it.” The referee is shaking his head.

The Boxer wonders if the referee gave him a long count on that last knockdown. He can’t be sure, and he doesn’t know whether he would be grateful for such consideration, or would be filled with intense hate for the person who prolonged his agony. Right now, he is capable of neither emotion, nor of any other.

The bell rings, though he doesn’t know how a minute could have passed already. He struggles to rise, struggles to rise. Then he hears the referee declare:

“Round fifteen!”

The Boxer blinks. He knows he is not thinking clearly but he remembers, or thinks he does, that the last round was thirteen. Now it’s fifteen? How could he have lost a whole round? But even his blurred vision sees his opponent coming at him, huge, shadowy, like a shark in darkened waters.

The Boxer makes it to his feet. The thought that this is his last round pours a bit of strength back into his arms. He knows he must use it wisely. He can’t throw it away. His opponent looms, so confident in his dominance of the fight that his own arms aren’t even in defensive position.

For a moment the Boxer stands toe-to-toe with his foe. The other seems to be measuring him for a final blow that will stretch him cold on the canvas. In that instant the Boxer throws every regained ounce of strength into a one-two punch—a left into his foe’s solar plexus, a right to the chin.

Twenty years ago the fight would have been over, with the Boxer lifting his hands in victory. Ten years ago the punches would have given the Boxer needed time to recover. Now, the opponent only staggers back with a look of surprise, a look that quickly flares into anger. Quick as a riff of lightning, the foe surges forward, raining blows from thunderous fists.

The Boxer goes reeling against the ropes, is beaten along them. His nose crunches. A tooth breaks and cuts its way out between his lips. Any one of these heavy blows should have sent him to the floor, but the combined storm of them actually works to keep him on his feet.

The opponent makes the mistake in anger of stepping in too close. The Boxer flings his arms around his foe in a last defiant gesture. He clinches, holds on. There is a moment of frenetic dance as the other fighter tries to break free and finish the Boxer before the last bell sounds. He doesn’t quite manage it.

The Boxer hears the bell, knows the fight is over. He made it to the end. The relief in that thought is exquisite. He lets go of his opponent, turns a wobbly head to see the stool waiting for him in the corner. He lurches toward it like a skid-row drunk, a thin bloody smile creasing his lips.

Barely, he summons the strength to climb onto his stool. The ropes support him as he collapses back against them. In the center of the ring, his foe is congratulated on a victory. That doesn’t change the fact that the Boxer made it all the way through the match without being knocked out. A sense of pride fills him.

The Boxer looks up. The light overhead is bright and shining, like a burnished shield. But it doesn’t hurt his eyes. He nods toward the light, mumbles a few words through torn lips—“Thank you!” He is smiling when the bell rings. That smile dies when he looks at the referee standing like a whirlwind of dark smoke before him.

“Round one!” the referee says.

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I See Your Night, and Raise You Hell by Charles Gramlich

 

I was crossing the University of Arkansas campus at Fayetteville with my wife, Rachel, when a young male student approached us and said something weird. It was Saturday and there weren’t many people around. Just a few moments before, I’d found one of those squirt-flowers like clowns often wear. It lay on the ground like a yellow sunflower with a tube and squeeze bulb attached. I figured it belonged to some college prankster and picked it up on impulse. It was still in my hand when the kid made his comment.

“Nasty piece of work that,” he said, pointing at the flower. “You could do some serious damage.”

Now, Rachel and I were older than your average college kid and both of us were dressed well. I had on a jacket and tie. Surely the kid would have thought of us as parents, or perhaps considered us faculty. What student says that kind of thing to parents or to faculty members he doesn’t recognize?

The comment clearly made Rachel uncomfortable so I just ignored the guy and walked on. We were here to see Rachel’s son and within a few moments found his dorm room and began our visit. A little while later I had to use the dorm’s bathroom and was standing at the sink washing my hands when the same young man came up beside me.

“Bet you’re wearing that squirt-flower already,” he said. “Hurt anyone with it yet?”

Irritated, and not eager to have an uncomfortable discussion with a strange young fellow in the bathroom, I snapped an answer to his question, “No! And it’s not in my plans for today.”

He smiled crookedly. “Look,” he said. “I know that under your respectable clothing you’re a clown. I recognize you because I’m one too. And every one of us has the brain of a psychopath in our heads. You’ll hurt someone with that flower. Just like I would.”

I sighed, then lifted the left side of my coat to reveal the flower where I’d hooked it to my shirt pocket. The kid smiled, without getting too close, and while the dangerous little toy held his attention I slid my right hand into my pocket and drew out the silenced 9 millimeter I carried there. Quickly placing the business end of the pistol against the young man’s chest just over the heart, I pulled the trigger.

“Phfhfft.”

The kid’s eyes widened but my movements had been too swift for him to react. He collapsed slowly to the floor, like a blow-up doll deflating. He kept looking up at me as life fled him.

“When psycho clowns meet,” I told him, “it’s best for one to kill the other immediately and get it over with.”  

Pocketing the pistol, I dragged the body into one of the stalls and locked the door. It’d be a while before it was found. After climbing out over the top of the stall and washing my hands, I left the bathroom. I kept the squirt-flower. The kid was right. It was a great tool for mayhem and murder. A little poison. The right kind of acid. Something viral. All were far more subtle than a bullet.

The kid had clearly been new to clown-work; he hadn’t deserved such artistry. There were plenty who did.