Brand new issue loaded with chilling stories. Seriously, straight out the gate, this issue does not pull any punches. Horse Play is a demented story that works as a gut punch for the beating delivered by the other stories. What is Horse Play? a tale about a good ole country boy with a psychopathic edge.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“Okay, Miss Bly.”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
He rubs bare bone with longing fingertips, staring into abyssal sockets. “Oh Agatha,” He bellows, “Why do you do it?”
He repeats these words for a few moments as he swirls his burning drink around in a stained glass. Throwing his head forward in a rush of blood he stares down a once bustling gallery of statuettes and ancient trinkets. His eyes once again meet the painting’s automaton eyes.
That old portrait, hung above the sitting room he no longer dares, is half visible from his fireplace chair. A woman poses there, her figure refined, her eyes a stately blue and her face immaculate. With skin pale as milk and soft as feathers she wears a gown of white with trimmings of gold and holds a single red rose between the gentle fingers of her left and a book of poems in the right from author unknown.
“It’s been too long my love.” He says turning back to the cracked bone, lifting it towards his nose and smelling deeply.
“Too long,” He says with a cracking voice, “Since the days when you lied to me. Since the days you betrayed me and left me to wonder.” His eyes glow savagely in the dancing flame of the hearth as his pounding heart forces his hands to tremble.
“Those promises you made to me. Bah! What promises did you keep Agatha? Oh mistress of my sorrow. Agatha the liar, that name suits you well.” He places the skull on the end table by his chair as he stares down countless corridors and looming ceilings, shadows itching ever closer in the dark.
He begins pacing in circles as he talks. “How many promises you did break in your day I wonder? Promises you left behind. All for me to forgive! But now you sit there dead and I cursed to live.” He turns to the yellowed bone. “Was I never enough for you Agatha?”
His mind wanders to painful thoughts and the burning of it shows prominently on his face. “It all started with a name didn’t it? ‘Weatherby.’ ‘A name like that was never suited for a DuPont woman!’ ” He says in a voice deep and full of hate. “That’s what your father said when I asked for your hand! ‘Weatherby will never be a household name.’ He said to me! The bastard!”
He screams into the dark, throwing his drink into the flame with roaring remarks. “What would he know! My name glows at every drug store from Portland to Baltimore! Countless papers know my name and my face will live on forever!” He lifts the skull in the air and laughs horribly. “Where is his fame now Agatha? What can he say to me while he rots in his hole and the DuPont line thrives no more? What would he say now that Charles Weatherby is wealthier than he? That Charles Weatherby is better than he!” Noticing his breathing rapid and appearance ragged, he removes the hair from his eyes and adjusts his vest. The skull stares blankly at his flushed face from behind pale and cracking fingers.
“No,” He smiles crudely as another thought enters his mind, “No it wasn’t my name,” he places the skull on the mantel. “It was that man wasn’t it Agatha? That polo player from New York who I had befriended in Washington many summers ago. A man whom I quickly discovered enjoyed more than my spring parties in the Boston Harbor!” He slams his fist into the wall, his hand throbbing in pain and cracking at the knuckles.
“I moved away from him you know!” He shouts as he covers his blood with a cloth from his desk drawer. “I moved us away because I didn’t want to lose you! I lost my family and my home for you! So we could start anew.” His eyes begin to moisten as his voice snaps between rage and sorrow.
“But I come home Agatha, I come home and you both shout like animals. In my bed! In my home!” He throws the stained rag across the room into the swallowing darkness and storms over, staring the bone down long and menacingly. “Naked beasts, grunting and thrusting in my home!”
His head spins as he begins to fall to the floor, the skull ever watchful from the mantel in silence. He smirks as he crawls back towards it, his head throbbing from the collision, the fire glowing before him like the gates of hell. His face is shadowed and pale like a devil.
“Oh he was such a man wasn’t he? Weren’t his thighs so tight and arms so big? Best of all his name and pockets were deeper than you could have ever dreamed.” He claws himself to his feet. “But where is he now Agatha? Hmm? Where is this man now I dare you tell me?” He cackles at the silence and thrusts his fingers towards the open window, to the churning sea. “He’s at the bottom with cement around his ankles, all because of you!”
Grief fills his face and stiffens it horribly as he dawn’s despairs mask. “It was his little girl that I hated most about it. She was so beautiful Agatha, but she was his! Her hair was brown and her eyes green. Green! That’s how I knew she wasn’t made from me!” He sobs into his hand as he sinks into the chair. “But I tried my best to be a father to her and called her my baby girl.” He shakes his head violently. “But even still, it wasn’t enough. The world took her from me, how cruel and cold it is truly, to take her the way it did.” He looks out the window, at a light on the dock. A ship in the distance bounces in the waves as the memories of the past further distort his face.
“She was sleeping in her bed when they came Agatha. Those terrible men. She was such a pretty girl and they knew she didn’t want to play. But…they…they made her anyway.” He shudders for a moment, “The blood on her gown…after they were done,” His hands cover his mouth as the images flash before him. “I carried her to the car when it was all over, but she was already gone.” He begins to rock, stroking his hands.
“I remember her screams… They made me watch! Held me down!” Suddenly he finds a smile. “But I got away, and returned from our room.” He looks above an old cabinet at two bleached skulls, the shadows of the fire drawing their yellowed smiles into long frowns. “But where were you Agatha? You were gone weren’t you? Nowhere to be found!” His fists tighten and his muscles stiffen as rage boils in his abdomen.
“You were never there! You left me in this darkness; you betrayed me!” he roars, throwing his chair and end table over. “Forever I gave myself to you, forever I loved you and you always spat at me! Even in death you have mocked me.” He grabs the skull with both hands and squeezes tighter with each passing word. “I was your husband! The man you never cared for! The man you’ve left to live in this world alone! Well I say no more Agatha! I curse that name until I am no more!” He throws the skull towards the wall. It strikes on the temple and shatters into four pieces on the floor.
He rushes over and picks them up, his hands trembling as he speaks. “All that blood,” He mumbles as he carries the shards to a gilded jewelry box and places them gently inside. “They told me you would not make it,” He says softly as he shuts the lid. “They said that our baby would be the end of you. But I told them to try anyway, to try and save you. Even after that bastard’s daughter died we tried again. We tried to forget all that you had done.” He stares out the window again, a storm blackening the night and flashing the sky on the sea’s horizon.
“But it was too late.” He wipes the tears from his eyes. “You sinned me Agatha. When they pulled out our son it…it was the first time in years you said you loved me.” He walks towards the box and begins petting the lid.
“It’s funny; you thought you would win, that I wouldn’t punish you for what you did. Didn’t you Agatha?” The scars on his hands sting with the thought and flashes of darkness blur his eyes. “I made them keep you alive. You begged me to let you rest on the table. ‘Just a minute I beg of you my love.’ ” He says in a voice high and mocking.
“My love indeed.” He laughs. “No act of God was going to have the satisfaction of removing the wind from your lungs!” A crooked smile graces his face. “It’s funny Agatha. Did you or your foolish line ever imagine that DuPont blood looks the same as any other? You know what else? Our son had green eyes. You thought I would never know? That I wouldn’t guess what you had done, again!”
He turns to the the window at two unmarked graves under a dead willow tree. Leaning in close to the box he whispers into the key hole. “Now is the time for your release and I hope you suffer it all just as you made me. The flames await you, my love.”
He lifts the box and throws it into the flame, staring envious of its fury as it swallows the shards, charring them black. “Now your skull matches your heart Agatha. Ha! Imagine it.” He watches joyfully as his silhouette dances and slowly falls from the wall as the flames begin to die and the world around him is consumed in darkness.
Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, dark fiction, 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.
In the walls, I hear her voice. She speaks very plainly. It was the same voice she used to ask me for a kiss. To invite me into her bed. To say she loved me. And finally, when the sickness had reached her mind, to ask “Who are you?” over and over again.
I put my ear to the drywall, and I could still hear her, speaking the garbled chant of a dead language. It’s a constant sermon that family and friends dismiss as a problem with the plumbing. Pipes being pipes. But they don’t listen closely. Those syllables touch upon something primal, like a surgeon poking along at the folds of a patient’s brain, pressing on the uncanny and fleshy crevice that makes you feel like you’re being watched.
Brian looked at the walls closely, glasses resting snugly on his nose, eyes darting behind the glass. “And you’re sure it’s not the pipes?”
While Brian was always my most skeptical friend, he was also the most empathetic. In the face of a thousand curt grimaces and I-just-don’t-know-what-to-say’s, true empathy was a rare commodity. He looked at me seriously, as if to say that he was taking this seriously and said, “Okay. Then we wait.”
In the past, before Elizabeth died and I became a morose wreck of paranoid visions, Brian and I used to talk about our problems over a six-pack. He had brought one today, as much a gesture as anything, and as we settled down into the living room chairs, he popped the cap off of two and gave one to me.
“Here,” he said, “Drink up.”
I didn’t want it but I took it with as much grace as I could, out of appreciation for the gesture.
There was some heavy silence as we both took sips of our beer. Brian kept looking at me, like he had something to say, or there was something he wanted to say. Probably a thousand things. But, without the business of the noises, the forced professionalism of a friend making a house call to check on the plumbing, there wasn’t much to be said. Elizabeth was dead and I was sad. And that was that.
He cocked his head as if he heard something, or as if he was trying to hear something, or as if he wanted me to think he was trying to hear something, but I knew there was no chanting right now. It was silent except for the shuffling of our bodies and the clink of glass on wood.
Finally, he said: “When did it all start?”
“Right, after she passed,” I said. The words were hard to muster. As the word ‘died’ choked my throat, I discovered the utility of euphemisms. “As soon as I got back from the funeral, I could hear her.”
Brian nodded politely, and ran a hand through his wavy black hair. He studied the condensation on his bottle and said, with difficulty, “Are you doing okay, man?”
I thought a moment, and said, “No.”
“I’m so sorry any of this happened to you.” His eyes looked as sad as my own.
I thanked him and we sat there a little longer in silence, sipping on our beers. I stripped the paper label from the bottle with my thumbnail to honor the silence.
And then, low, but intelligible, the voice came. It was plainly Elizabeth. But the words were unpronounceable perversions of language. Brian’s eyes widened, and I could see that he heard them too.
His eyes were a question mark. I nodded curtly. “Yes, that’s it. That’s her.”
I sprung up from my chair and went to the wall, pressing my ear up against it. “She’s in there,” I said. The unique timbre of air passing through her vocal cords was almost too much for me to handle, and I was on the verge of breaking down. I didn’t care what Brian thought or saw, I wanted to break down and cry, just as freely as I did alone. I wanted to smash a hole in that wall and climb in. Anything to be closer to Elizabeth.
Brian had stood up. He was behind me now, watching me press my ear to the wall with a mixture of curiosity and pity. “What is that?”
He said it to himself, but I couldn’t help but answer, “It’s her, Brian. It’s her.”
He took a step back. I couldn’t tear myself away from the wall. “I think it’s coming from below,” I muttered.
Brian might have nodded, or might have just been staring dumbly at me. I was drunk on those enchanted incantations. I’d heard that the sound of a deceased loved one’s voice is the first thing you forget. I was working hard to never let it happen for me. I studied every lilt of her cadence for a desperate taste of the past.
“Does your house have a basement?”
The thought never occurred to me. “No,” I said. But I tore myself from the wall, painfully, and looked at the floor. Brian was looking too.
“Is she down there?” I asked aloud, to myself mostly.
Brian answered, “Something is.”
I had a toolkit that my father gave me when I bought the house. “You’re gonna need it,” he said wryly. I was never much of a handyman but I accepted it with a smile, as a joke.
Now I was armed with a flat-head screwdriver, hammering it into the creases where the floorboards met, splintering wood with every levering motion. Brian was on the other side doing the same. Two city boys tearing at the work of real workmen with the feverish intensity of armageddon street preachers.
One end of a board came loose, rigidly bent upwards. Brian and I pulled on it together, snapping it in half. I tossed the board aside and looked down.
A window, with a jagged, splintered bottom– staring deep into impenetrable blackness. We looked at each other, then back down at the hole in my floor. I felt silly for a moment. We were grown men hunting for ghosts. I was grieving. I probably wasn’t in my right mind, I should–
And then, it was Elizabeth’s voice. Louder than before. That same impeccable diction learned in an east coast boarding school, speaking impossible sounds.
“I can hear her, Brian.”
“Me too,” he said.
His face was growing worried, pale like the blood had been drained from it. He looked older now.
“I need to go down there,” I said.
Brian looked at me like he had already become acquainted with the eventuality of our actions. “Do you have a flashlight?” he asked.
I rummaged around in a kitchen drawer for a moment, back in the living room, he explained, “Before anyone goes down we should shine a light in there, see if there’s anything dangerous.”
Logic trumped excitement and I agreed. We stood over the hole in the floor, almost ceremonially. He had the flashlight turned downward, but not illuminated yet. His eyes turned upwards at me, locking with my own, “Alright, are you ready?”
It was a silly amount of suspense for a hole in the floor. It was probably just earth, or maybe a rat. Maybe it was nothing. But we were tense nonetheless, jittery with curiosity and fear. Behind this tiny black window could be nothing, but the other possibility was that it could be anything. It was looking straight into the eyes of the unknown and we both felt the nervous energy shudder like electricity through our limbs.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
He flicked the light on. He was shaking so much he missed the hole at first. Brian apologized quietly and steadied his hand and moved the beam of light to the jagged black rectangle.
Nothing, or anything.
As soon as we saw it, Brian jerked the beam away. I jumped backwards; awe and revulsion cooking my consciousness. Brian was braver, or perhaps more foolhardy. He stood over the six-inch wide sliver of black and shined the light into it again. Even having prepared himself for whatever was down there, he couldn’t handle it any better a second time. He dropped the flashlight onto the hard floor, looking numb and scrambled. I was having trouble breathing, my lungs were filled with rocks, I leaned up against the wall. Brian stepped out to the kitchen, out of the corner of my eye I saw him with his hands on the counter, vacantly staring down into the brushed metal of the sink.
When I finally caught enough air to keep me moving, I staggered to a chair and sat down. Elizabeth started chanting again. It filled the house, louder than ever.
“What did we just see?” Brian said, finally.
I didn’t have the words to describe what I saw in the black hole in the floor, and judging by his reaction, he hadn’t either. It fried every nerve ending I had, and sent me caterwauling into an abyss I could scarcely conceive.
I shook my head. My tongue was thick and dry in my mouth. Brian re-entered the room and sat down opposite of me. I saw his eyes. His irises were rimmed with blood, his cheeks and nose had the impression of frostbite.
“What was that?”
He started to speak, then stopped and slumped back into the chair and stared into the ceiling.
Elizabeth called from the blackness, dread words of an unknown origin. Perfectly pronounced and impenetrable.
“I understand everything,” Brian said finally.
I looked at him curiously. And then he repeated, “I understand everything. Literally.”
He took a deep breath and stood up and said, “I’m sorry, Paul. I can’t live like this.”
And I saw the red rim of blood around his iris spread and overcome the whites of his eyes. “There are forces… They stretched me like putty, man. I understand everything. Elizabeth isn’t dead, Paul!” He was raving now, frothing at the mouth. His lips twitched when he spoke.
He was tearing at his own face and eyes, all the while he kept saying he was sorry. He stood up, and for a moment I forgot about my grief. I was genuinely scared for my friend. “I can’t do this,” he kept saying. And then he laughed, “They understand everything and nothing.” He looked me in the eyes, with his own blood-red orbs, as if this were of particular note. His pacings kept bringing him closer to the hole in the floor.
And then he stopped, standing over the broken floorboard, “I can help you.” He got on his hands and knees and started stabbing his wrists into the sharps splinters of shattered wood. He grunted athletically until both wrists were an ugly, battered mess of torn flesh and fresh blood. I got up to stop him but he was too quick, he had both hands down into the blackness of the floor before I could get to him. I heard his bones crack.
He was being reshaped. Crushed and dismantled inside the shell of his skin. His skull was first, turning his face into a slack and bloodied tube of meat. He was being dragged into the blackness, through the half-floorboard opening. He didn’t scream, the new dimensions of his body didn’t allow for extravagances like air.
In a matter of seconds, the only thing left of my friend were the remnants of a six-pack and a pool of blood seeping down between the crevices of the floorboards.
The toolbox sat lonely on the floor next to the hole, and I decided to give it some company. I rummaged through it idly, not sure yet whether I was searching for anything in earnest. Maybe I wouldn’t know until I found it.
As I poured over the tools I was keeping my mind busy, counting the degrees of separation between myself and tangible reality. It was like everything I knew was painted on a flimsy sheet that I could see billowing in existential winds.
Elizabeth was still speaking an impenetrable essay in that same casually affluent tone. Even with Brian dead, sucked into the chasm below my starter home, I still grieved for her first.
My fingers found themselves on a hammer. I gripped the shaft of its handle solidly, its absurd weight brought me careening back to earth. It hurt to breathe. My muscles ached. I was eerily aware of my own heartbeat. But, I was here, and just like the hammer in my hands, I had weight and purpose. I looked at the hole in the floor and was overcome with the desire to make it larger. To stare into madness again, if only to get a glimpse of Elizabeth. I started swinging the hammer, the sharp thwacks could probably be heard around the block. I didn’t care. Let them hear, I thought. Let them complain. The widower is at it again, they’ll say. And they’ll be right.
I ripped out floorboards like weeds in a garden. I tossed boards aside, soon there was a pile. The blackness lay in front of me like a slab of lightless eternity.
Without taking my eyes off of it, I reached for the flashlight Brian dropped and switched it on without hesitation.
Beneath my floorboards was a nightmare of colors and inverted flesh– a phantasmagoric menagerie of life and light that pulsed and swelled on a scale as large as the universe. And there, floating in membranes and fluid, was my Elizabeth. The pool she lay in looked like the giant pupil of a massive eyeball. Just like Brian said, she wasn’t dead. They were putting the finishing touches on her skin, her hair was growing. Her lips were moving, chanting those awful syllables.
I wanted to look away. I could feel my eyes burning with hot and salty blood. I knew I was seeing something I wasn’t supposed to. Like a child walking in on intimate parents. But she was there. She was alive, and breathing. And yet, impossibly, I knew she was not. She was in a churchyard in northern Connecticut. She was decomposing. And yet, she was also here, born again in a kaleidoscopic web of organs beyond my capacity to comprehend.
I was piecing together the secrets of everything. Overloaded with stimuli, it was like identifying ingredients you’ve never had in foods you’ve never eaten. I stared into the abyss, never taking my eyes off Elizabeth. If you concentrate, you can pick out the broad strokes of anything. Meat. Broth. Sauce.
I knew what Brian meant when he said he knew everything. I knew now why he laughed.
They reconstituted a vessel. But not a living one. They made from scratch a person who’d already been alive. I shuddered excitedly at the thought, smiling broadly while my irises began to bleed.
I reached down into the corporeal cosmos and grabbed Elizabeth by the wrist, she floated up with my touch like a balloon. And soon she was gripping the edge of the floorboards and I was helping her out. She lay naked on the floor, amniotic fluids pooling around her new body as she gasped her first breaths of air.
They needed a proselytizing sack of organs and bone.
They didn’t realize they were performing a miracle.
I was very lucky.
In the coming weeks, we started a new life. We moved quickly to a place we’d never been; a place where the sun shines. There were questions about Brian, but the floor was repaired and there was no trace of our sacrifice. I discovered a bevy of loose ends could be tied with a shrug and an earnest, “I don’t know.”
She only remembers what I told her.
I’ll keep her as long as I can, before she’s urged away to do their bidding. Even now, she has strange intrusive thoughts, but they haven’t consumed her yet. Next time, I’ll be more prepared for her leaving. For now, we’ll enjoy lazy days and Sunday mornings. We’ll laugh and kiss and cook dinners. We’ll make new friends, people who never had the pleasure of meeting her. In some time, there’ll be another funeral, with an entirely different group of mourners, lucky to have loved her. I’ll be the only one who was there for both services.
Elizabeth was reborn to spread the gospel of those strange and wonderful Ancients, but for now, she’s mine.
We lay in bed, close to each other, high on each other’s warmth. My fingers brush her hair to the side, just like I did the first time I kissed her. When she sleeps, her lips move in those old, impossible shapes. I smile and hold her close, thankful for God’s folly.
The Best of the Demonic compiles an assortment of editor picks as a way to celebrate our two years of publication. Loaded with ten gruesome, horrific tales that will pull you to the edge of your seat, this greatest hits anthology will deliver back-to-back a complimentary sample of what Deadman’s Tome is all about.
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If you crave horror, if you enjoy a good chill running down your spine, then look no further. Deadman’s Tome delivers.