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Having been in the publishing business for a few years now, I’ve learned that submissions tend to slow down to a crawl in the summer time. I’m not sure if it’s because of the family gatherings, travel, socializing, beach parties, and youth sports stuff, but what I do know is that summer is a time of many distractions.
It appears that Deadman’s Tome is ONE of those distractions! Take a look! Readership has spiked.
The flow of submissions, however, has dwindled this week. I have a few that I’m sitting on, not too impressed with them.
Authors and writers of horror and dark fiction, submit your work to Deadman’s Tome. No, I’m not the biggest and most established horror magazine out there, but the audience is growing, because the zine encourages community engagement. Your story will be read, it will be shared, and you will receive ego-inflating attention!
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Behold the Book of Horrors: Pages of flesh, bound by bone, contains passages inked in blood of murderous desires, demonic cultic practices, nagging old hags, and long forgotten ancient cities. And while the original document had a nasty habit of crippling and maiming the reader, you get the benefit of a safe electronic copy.
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“It smells funny in here.” Lucy wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Jesus, it really does.”
“You’re the one who wanted to come in here. Why in God’s name would you want to visit this place?”
Kate looked around the shop and shivered. The windows were blackened to block out the early evening light from outside and candles covered every surface, dried red wax covering ancient candlesticks. The air was heavy with humidity and a musty smell Kate was afraid would cling to her clothes. Arcane symbols were painted on the walls and floor, and shelves held jars, cans, and bottles in every shape and size, their contents unidentifiable.
Peering into a jar, Kate jumped back when a small movement disturbed the murky fluid. She answered her friend’s question. “For a laugh. We’re on a weekend away and you HAVE to go to a voodoo shop when you’re visiting New Orleans. It’s like a law or something. Like those hurricanes we had this afternoon.” She waved a hand around nervously, glancing at the jar again. Nothing moved this time. “It’s all done for tourists, isn’t it.” It was then that she noticed the tall black woman standing behind a glass counter filled with small animal skulls. Behind her, painted on the wall, was a large symbol comprised of a triangle, a heart, and various intersecting lines.
“Can I help you ladies?” The woman’s broad Creole accent was slow and measured.
“Um, no, we’re…” Kate looked at her friend, “we’re just browsing.” She nearly laughed as she said it, like they were browsing a department store for a new shirt.
The woman nodded. “Let me know. I’m Marie. This shop is mine. My mother owned it before me, and her mother before that. My line goes back to ancient times.”
Kate nodded and turned to Lucy, knocking jars over on a shelf in the process. Whispering, she leaned toward her friend, using a shelf to steady herself. “Obviously a speech for tourists.” Her words slurred. “The woman’s probably from New Jersey.”
Lucy giggled and playfully slapped her friend. “Shh, she’ll hear you.”
Buoyed by Lucy’s laughter Kate continued. “I’m sure that accent is fake too.”
Lucy’s laugh earned them a look from the shop owner. They turned their backs to the counter and pretended to be interested in a can of something neither could pronounce.
Voice lowered again, Kate spoke. “I’ll bet you any money she reads palms or some other crap.”
“No, but I do read the cards.” They jumped at the sound, the voice directly behind them. The scare made them both giggle.
Addressing them both she spoke again. “Would you like a reading?” The owner looked directly into Kate’s eyes. “No charge.”
Kate felt an elbow in her ribs as she was nudged forward a step by her friend. “Uh, sure, why not.” She slapped Lucy’s elbow away.
As they walked toward the counter, Kate muttered, “This should be hilarious.”
Lucy shushed her again and stood by the counter as Marie unwrapped her cards from a faded purple cloth.
Kate had seen tarot cards before; they had all messed around with them in high school. But never anything like these. They were very old, that was obvious by the faded designs and worn corners. And while she recognized the suits, the illustrative drawings were nothing like she remembered at all. Priests, nuns, and angels mixed with demons and other unnatural creatures in every carnal pose imaginable. She turned away, blushing. The heat in the shop and the numerous drinks she’d had were making her light-headed.
Marie seemed not to notice her embarrassment. “Take the deck. Hold it between your palms. Let your spirit enter the cards.”
Kate took the deck from the counter and held them as instructed. They were awkward to hold at first; too large for her hand to grasp completely but the cards’ age had softened them and soon they moulded themselves into her hand.
“How long do I hold them?”
Marie’s head tilted as she started at Kate. “A moment is all the spirits need to see into your soul.”
Kate snuck a look at Lucy and mouthed ‘dee speereets’.
“Now. Give them to me.”
Marie muttered words Kate didn’t understand as she waved a smooth black hand over the cards, then began placing single cards in an elaborate pattern on the counter top.
“What?” Despite her earlier mocking, Kate wanted to know. “What does it mean?”
Marie waited a moment before replying. “You are unhappy. With a man. Your husband.”
Kate’s interest plummeted as soon as she heard this. Typical charlatan’s guess. She wore a wedding ring and who wasn’t unhappy with their relationship sometimes. But it struck a nerve. The buzz she’d felt earlier was wearing off, leaving her with a heavy, sick feeling. She covered her irritation. “’Wit ah mahn’? Really?”
Marie ignored her and continued. “And your work. You’re frustrated.”
Kate snorted. She didn’t know anyone who was happy at work. Still, another nerve hummed strongly and in her current state it bothered her.
The shop owner looked at a further card then at Kate. “You want a child. You think a child will save your marriage.” She nodded. “And keep Ian from seeking another’s bed.”
“What did you say?” Kate was scared now. How did this woman know her husband’s name? Did Lucy or her mention Ian earlier? She couldn’t remember.
Marie shrugged. “Not me, chere. The spirits.” She waved her hand over the cards.
Kate’s anger grew; fuelled by the hurricanes, it masked her unease.
Marie continued. “Yes, you are very unhappy. Desperate. For fortune, riches. For your husband’s dying love.”
Kate backed away from the counter, stumbling. “You fucking bitch! How do you know these things?”
“I reveal what my Loa already knows.” She pointed to the symbol on the wall.
“A bunch of fucking chalk drawings told you?” Kate put a hand onto the counter to steady herself. “Fuck your Loa! You can both go to hell!”
Marie made no mention of Kate’s outburst but her eyes narrowed and her lips were thin and bloodless when she spoke. “Let me help you to the life you seek.” She grabbed Kate’s arm.
Shrugging off the woman’s hand, she couldn’t help the acid in her voice. “What, a fucking worthless spell or some other bullshit?”
“A gris gris bag. That’s all. To bring you fortune.”
Kate hesitated long enough for Lucy to lean in and whisper. “Do it. Then we’ll leave.” Her friend glanced at Marie’s still narrow eyes and lowered her head.
“Fine. How much?”
The shop owner waved her hand. “Like the cards, no charge.” She turned and disappeared into a back room, but not before making a sign to the symbol on the wall. After a moment she returned carrying a red drawstring bag, small enough to fit into a pocket.
“Here.” She handed the bag over to Kate.
Kate smelled the bag and frowned. “Is it safe? It smells fucking foul.” The hurricane-induced nausea she felt was made worse by the mix of herbs and burnt material.
A look of fury passed over Marie’s face, there only a moment then replaced by a blank look. “There is no reason for me to wish you harm, is there?”
Kate took the bag and shoved it in her purse. She looked at Marie and saw her smile was gone. In its place was a look Kate couldn’t identify. Anger? No, something else. Satisfaction? Triumph? She couldn’t tell but she was suddenly afraid.
“C’mon Luce, let’s go.” She grabbed her friend’s arm again and led her out the door.
Lucy spoke as they left. “You okay?”
Kate hesitated. She felt an unease she couldn’t name. Avoiding her friend’s question she started down the street. “I need another drink.”
“I’m home!” Kate closed the front door “Ian?”
She left her bag in the hall and walked into the kitchen. The remains of a meal sat on the counter and there were dishes in the sink. Sighing, she went into the living room where she found Ian laying on the sofa, watching football. Bits of potato chips and cheese puffs littered the floor.
Kate stood behind the couch and waited. When she received no sign that she’d been noticed, she coughed.
Ian jumped. “Jesus, when did you get back?”
He turned back to the TV. “Good, the washing machine isn’t working, can you take a look?”
“You couldn’t have done something about it while I was away? You left it for me?”
“You know more about it than I do.”
Kate shivered, the hangover from her weekend still haunting her. “I’m going to bed. The least you can do is tidy the kitchen, I’m not doing it in the morning.” She stormed off, Ian’s grunt of acknowledgement following her.
Arriving late at work, Kate groaned when she saw the files on her desk. Someone had worked the weekend and had left it all scattered in no discernable order. Being an accounts payable clerk was not glamorous but it paid the bills. She flopped down in her chair and opened the first file but the words swam before her. Closing the file she leaned back and shut her eyes. Her head ached and she was exhausted. Maybe she should go home. But there was work and she’d already been passed over for more than one promotion; leaving all this wouldn’t look good.
Kate opened her eyes. Her colleague, Gordon, stood before her, arms filled with more files. “I’m fine, just tired.”
“You look wiped.” He dumped the papers on her desk. “Sorry.” He looked embarrassed.
She waved an exhausted hand at him. “Don’t worry about it.”
He smiled crookedly and left.
It was true: her job frustrated her, as the stupid voodoo woman had guessed. Not only the work but the commute. There was an office ten minutes from her house but, try as she might, she couldn’t land a position there. Instead she had an hour-long drive.
Ignoring the nausea she now felt, she set her head in order and opened the file again.
“You don’t look well.” Ian was sitting across from her at the dinner table. She didn’t feel like cooking and had picked up a pizza for Ian on the way home.
“I don’t feel well.” Another wave of nausea washed over her as the smell of pepperoni rose from the box and she hesitated, ready to run to the bathroom. The feeling passed.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, it’s probably just something I ate.”
It was only after she had forced down a handful of dry crackers that Kate realized it was the first time in months her husband had paid any attention to her.
Kate woke suddenly and threw herself out of the bed to rush to the bathroom. She barely made the toilet before what remained of her meal last night came hurling out of her. After what seemed like an eternity she suffered through the dry heaves that continued long after her stomach was empty. She heard Ian behind her.
Finally it was over and she stood, using the back of the toilet to steady herself.
“Jesus, you look awful.”
Charming, she thought. Looking in the mirror Kate saw a pale drawn face staring back at her, with pinprick dots of red around her eyes and across her cheeks where the violence of her vomiting had broken blood vessels. She muttered a sarcastic ‘thanks’ to Ian and crawled back into bed, curling herself into a tight ball.
Ian left the room without a word and Kate felt that flare of anger once more. But it was short-lived because he returned with a glass of water and the blanket she used when watching TV.
“Here.” He handed her the water. “Drink. Small sips, not too much at once.”
While she drank gratefully, Ian spread the blanket on the bed around her, waiting until she had drank as much as she could.
“What can I do?”
Kate shook her head but the movement made her feel ill again. “Nothing.”
“Do you want me to stay home with you? I’m assuming you’re not going in?”
“No, it’s okay. Just a stomach bug.”
Ian shrugged, a look of helplessness on his face. Kate felt bad for him. He was being so nice to her, after such a long period of coldness between them.
She watched him get ready for work. “You sure I can’t do anything for you?” His concerned face regarded her from the bedroom doorway.
“No, really. It’s a bug. I’ll be fine.”
He started to exit the bedroom and she could see his shoulders sag a little.
“Ian?” He turned back toward her. “Thank you.”
Eventually Kate forced herself to get up and call work. Expecting a lecture, she instead got a sympathetic HR rep who made noises like a mother hen and told her to take care. “Drink lots of fluids, dear.” Following this advice Kate refilled her water glass and went back to bed, falling asleep instantly.
Later in the day, feeling better, she rose and managed to keep down some soup. She dragged her blanket downstairs to the living room and made herself comfortable on the couch, tuning the TV to a mundane daytime talk show. As she settled in her work phone beeped. Kate considered ignoring the message but in the end reached over to grab the phone. It was from HR; they wanted to meet with her tomorrow. ‘Great, they’ll probably fire me for taking the day off.’ But she didn’t care. The nausea had returned.
That night Ian and Kate had a light meal; he ordered in again and she stuck with crackers and soup. They snuggled on the couch and watched a movie, Ian’s arm closing protectively around her. Maybe the weekend away WAS just what their relationship needed. Yes or no, she felt comfortable with him again.
“Sorry about yesterday.”
Marg, the HR woman Kate had spoken with when she called in sick, smiled. “You still look pale.”
Kate reached into her bag and took out the pack of crackers she had brought in with her. “My stomach is still upset but these help.” She put them back. “And I am sorry, I’m usually very healthy.”
Marg dismissed the comment with a wave. “It’s fine, really. That’s not why I called you in.”
Curiosity replaced the worry Kate had felt. “Oh?” They weren’t going to fire her.
The HR woman smiled again. “No, not at all. In fact I have some good news for you. A position has opened in another office, it’s a senior role, located at our head office, I believe you live quite close to that building?” She waited for Kate’s nod of affirmation before continuing. “We’d like to offer you the position.”
A whisper could have knocked Kate off of her chair. “Really?”
“Yes, of course. We know you’ve been passed over before but we’re positive this would be an excellent fit for you.”
Kate’s head ached but she was clear-minded enough to consider what this would mean. More money. Less travel. More seniority, responsibility. And the office, so close to home! She could eat lunch at the house and be back at the office without even getting into a car.
Marg interpreted Kate’s silence for hesitation. “Do you want to think it over tonight? Talk it over with your husband?”
Kate knew what Ian would say. “No, I don’t need any time. The answer is yes.”
Dinner was in the oven, candles were on the table, and champagne was on ice. Now all she needed was Ian. It wasn’t long before she heard his key scrape in the front door lock.
Ian entered the kitchen. “What’s all this?”
“We’re celebrating.” She told him about the new job as she poured champagne.
Ian listened intently, his smile growing wider. “That’s fantastic, congratulations.” He reached over and held up his champagne flute. “To your new job.”
It may have been the meal, or the news, or the champagne but Kate felt like she was on a first date. It was like their early years together, before the arguments and tension and tears. And instead of watching a movie after dinner, Ian silently took her hand and led her to the bedroom. It had been months since they made love but thankfully, some things are not forgotten.
Kate stood in the circle of people, watching the dancer. The drums grew louder and louder with each wild gyration he performed. They were outside and it was hot, unbearably so. But she couldn’t move, couldn’t force herself to look away from the dance nor escape from the circle or the heat. Suddenly the dancer grabbed her hand and led her to the centre of the circle. Kate stood alone, aware that all eyes were now on her. A tall dark woman with elaborate white markings covering her body stared at her. The dancer continued his exotic steps, this time around Kate. With each turn he ripped a piece of her clothing from her body until she stood completely naked. Kate tried to cover herself but the dancer took her arms and placed them by her side. She felt sweat trickling between her shoulders and down the small of her back; the heat was suffocating. Her head pounded along with the drums, the sound coming from all around her.
With a last flourish the dancer forced her to the ground and mounted her, at the same time speaking a language she didn’t understand. She looked up at the painted woman then dared to look down as he positioned himself on top of her. What she saw horrified her: a snake where his genitals should be. As the serpent entered her she screamed.
“Kate.” She was being rocked back and forth, the snake moving inside of her. Disgust filled her, along with fear, and she knew she would vomit. She tried to turn away from him, to get out from beneath him, her stomach closer and closer to expelling its contents.
“Kate!” More shaking and she sat up in bed, eyes wide, looking around the room, trying to catch her breath.
“You were having a nightmare. You screamed.”
“Where am I?”
She heard the puzzlement in Ian’s voice. “Home. In bed.”
Kate closed her eyes. It was a dream. Just a dream. But then why, if it wasn’t real, could she still feel something moving inside her?
Ian insisted on her staying home the next day, but Kate was excited about her new role, despite the exhaustion she felt. She signed the contract and was surprised by the salary, much more than she had expected. Immersing herself in learning about her new role, Kate convinced herself that she was fine, that the nausea she still felt was nothing more than nerves. But no matter how much she tried to hide it, Ian noticed.
“Something from your weekend away with Lucy?”
She shook her head. “Probably not.”
“Are you sure? A parasite maybe?”
“I don’t think there are any parasites in New Orleans,” she snapped. Seeing the look on Ian’s face, she immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry, I’m tired. New job and all.” She stood and cupped his face in her hands. “I love you. Don’t worry about me.” She placed a kiss on his forehead. “I’m off to bed.”
“Kate! Wake up!” She felt herself being shaken again and relief flooded her as she woke and saw Ian’s worried face looking down at her. “You were dreaming again.”
“Was I?” Kate felt the dream trying to lure her back.
“Judging by the scream a bloody bad one.”
“I screamed?” She thought back. “I was being chased, running from something. It wanted to kill me. There was a woman in the trees, she was laughing at me. I kept running and she kept appearing, closer to me each time. Then suddenly she was right in front of me.” Kate shuddered. “She was holding a head.”
“A head? Like, a human head?”
Kate nodded, unable to describe the horror of her dream. It was less the visual, although the severed, mutilated head made her feel ill. No, it was the feeling. The smell of the wet earth. The sound of the wind. The fear. She shivered and covered herself in blankets. “I can’t seem to get warm. Can we turn up the heat?”
Ian nodded and without a word went downstairs to the thermostat. When he came back there was a determined look on his face. “You’re going to the doctor tomorrow.”
She didn’t have the energy to argue.
“What?!” Ian chocked on his pasta.
“I’m pregnant. Having a baby.”
Ian jumped up, a look of confusion on his face. “You’re sure?”
Kate nodded. “I got the results from the doctor today.” She grabbed her glass of water from the table and held it in front of her. “Congrats, you’re going to be a daddy.”
Ian sat down again, shaking his head. “Pregnant?”
“With a baby.”
“Well, of course, what else would it be?” Ian remained silent. “Aren’t you happy?”
His face finally relaxed into a smile. “Of course I am, god, I’m ecstatic!” He rushed over to hold her and placed a hand on her belly. “A baby.”
Kate laughed. “Yes, a baby.”
After dinner they snuggled on the couch. Kate couldn’t remember a time when everything had been going so well. And that night, for the first time in a week, she had no dreams.
Over the next few months Kate worked at becoming an expert in her new role. She sat at her desk, her hand unconsciously cradling her swelling stomach. Still constantly exhausted, it took all of her resources to focus. During the day she grew into her management position; at night she prepared for their child and enjoyed Ian’s company. Her visits to the doctor raised no concerns; it was a normal pregnancy. Except for one thing she learned at her appointment that afternoon.
“I have news.”
“We’re having twins.”
The woman was back, decorated as usual. This time she held two snakes, one white and the other black. She twirled seductively, using the snakes as props and somehow coaxing them to sway along with her. She danced in a circle that had been painted on the floor, two elaborate symbols painted within the circle’s borders. Kate watched from outside the circle. There was no one else there.
Reaching down carefully, the woman placed the snakes on the ground, one inside each of the symbols. Kate watched, fascinated.
The snakes slithered toward each other, meeting in the middle. Kate was suddenly very afraid, although she didn’t know why. Something bad was about to happen, something she couldn’t stop. She could feel it inside.
In a flash of movement the black snake attacked, launching itself at the white snake. The white snake turned, desperate to protect itself but was too late: blood flowed from a large gash in its neck where the black snake had torn a piece of flesh out. As the white snake lay dying, the black snake began to swallow the body, ignoring the feeble thrashing of its prey. Soon it was over.
Kate could still hear the woman’s laughter long after she had woken.
“I had the strangest dream last night.” Kate was eating breakfast with Ian.
“You ARE pregnant. Probably all that bizarre food you’ve been eating.” He reached over to the corkboard and pulled a piece of paper from it. “Look at this grocery list: hot peppers, crawfish, garlic – and you put black pepper on your cereal yesterday.”
Kate shrugged. “I know. All this stuff used to give me the worst heartburn but these days I can’t seem to get enough.”
Ian frowned as she grabbed the hot sauce and added a generous amount to her coffee.
The months went by, season followed by season, and Kate grew larger and larger. Her dreams continued; sometimes mild and curious, but often too horrible to believe her own mind could come up with such images. She stopped mentioning them to Ian, convincing herself they were a result of the pregnancy, or the odd food she constantly craved. Surely that must explain them. Right?
Kate was part of a crowd of onlookers again, a circle of bodies tightly packed around a large stone table. The forest was filled with the sound of insects and animals although none revealed themselves. A smell of dark, damp soil that she had become used to permeated everything: the forest, her hair, her clothes, what little there was. All had the musty smell of death and decay.
The dark painted woman was there; she was always there, watching. She stood beside the table and with a glance at Kate, signalled to someone Kate couldn’t see. A moment later a young woman was led to the table, heavily pregnant. She stumbled a few times and was held up by one of the woman’s helpers. Her eyes were wide with fear and she was moving her lips but Kate couldn’t hear what she was saying. The woman was helped onto the table and tied down with ropes: feet, hands and neck. It seemed unnecessary as the young woman seemed unable to move but Kate soon understood the reason for the bindings.
The painted woman addressed the watching crowd then raised a knife in the air over her head, holding it with both hands. She began to chant and soon the crowd joined in, repeating the same phrase over and over. Kate tried to run but couldn’t. When she looked down at her feet she saw they had melted into the floor. She screamed but no sound came out. Looking back up she saw the dark woman staring at her, a small smile playing on her painted lips. Her chanting grew louder and the young pregnant woman on the table finally began to move, struggling to free herself of her bindings.
The chanting reached a crescendo and on the last syllable the dark woman plunged the knife into the pregnant woman’s belly. The young woman’s scream was inhuman; like an animal in pain, a demon escaping from hell. She tried to look away but felt an invisible pressure on the back of her head, forcing her to watch.
The dark woman laughed as she reached inside the young woman and brought out a deformed foetus, a pathetic mockery of a human. She held the creature in the air, laughing as the foetus mewled, mucus in its throat making a wet sound. Grabbing the knife once more, she cut the umbilical cord and licked the blood and tissue off of the knife-edge. Kate could see pieces of flesh in the dark woman’s teeth as she smiled broadly. She began to laugh again and Kate could hear whispering: foreign evil-sounding words.
The pain started at that moment and Kate grabbed her stomach, doubling over in agony. Suddenly the dark woman was standing in front of her, foetus held by the neck in one hand, knife at the ready in the other.
Kate woke screaming as the knife entered her stomach, the woman saying only one word to her: ‘Now’.
“Ian.” It was her turn to nudge him. She had lain awake after the dream, trying to calm her breathing when the pain hit again. “Ian! Wake up! It’s time.”
Ian rolled over, mumbling in his sleep. As another wave of pain washed over her Kate kicked her husband in the leg. “IAN!”
He was finally awake. “What? What is it? What’s wrong?”
She saw the look of understanding creep onto his face. “Now? You’re serious?” He leaped from the bed as he spoke. “Okay, right, we’re good, we’re good.” He was running around the room. “I’m ready, I’m ready.”
They got to the car and Kate was grateful the traffic was light. Reaching the hospital in record time Kate was quickly checked in and ushered into the delivery ward.
“Is dad coming in?” The nurse smiled at Ian.
Kate replied on his behalf. “Dad is not, dad faints at the sight of blood.” She laughed and then grimaced as another contraction gripped her. Through clenched teeth she continued. “Dad can’t even watch hospital shows on TV without feeling dizzy.”
“Right then, it’s just you and me.” The nurse winked at Ian and wheeled Kate through a door.
It was a quick birth with no complications. Within an hour of arriving at the hospital Kate’s family grew by two members: a boy and a girl, both healthy and loud.
“They’re beautiful.” Ian was looking from one to the other of his children.
“They’re perfect.” Kate smiled through her exhaustion.
“Have you thought of any names?” The nurse had come back in to check on Kate and the twins.
“I have.” She ignored Ian’s raised eyebrows. “Aaron and Maura.”
Ian smiled. “They’re beautiful.” He looked at the boy, light haired like himself. “Welcome Aaron.” Then to the girl, who’s patchy dark hair was similar to Kate’s. “And you, Maura. Welcome to the family.”
They remained like that in silence until the nurse interrupted. “Sorry dad, mum needs her sleep. As do the little ones.” She winked at Ian again. “Can you stand to be away for a while?”
Ian nodded and leaned over to place a kiss on Kate’s forehead. “I’ll go home and bring you a few things.”
Kate nodded, already falling asleep. She took one last look at her children before nodding off. It was the first night in months she slept peacefully, nightmare-free.
The years passed and the twins grew. Kate and Ian moved into a bigger house; Kate had gotten generous raises each year, along with a substantial annual bonus. The house suited them well: there was room for them all, with modern appliances and parking for both of their cars. The neighbourhood was upscale with a highly rated school just two blocks away.
Ian’s business thrived and Kate continued to excel in her managerial role, despite the constant exhaustion.
“You’re a working mother, of course you’re tired.” She was sick of people telling her this. “Are you getting enough sleep?”
Yes, actually, she was. Since the twins’ birth, she’d experienced no nightmares, or at least did not remember them, and had grown used to their absence.
Maybe those people offering unwanted parental advice were right: working and looking after twins WAS making her tired. It must be.
She was with the watching crowd again, standing in a circle around the stone table. The dark woman was there, leering at her with her white painted lips. There was no chanting this time, only signs made in the air above the table. The crowd’s silence was like a blanket of snow, and only their breathing could be heard.
A child’s wail made Kate’s heart ache, tears forming in her eyes. No. Please. But as soon as she spoke the words they were whipped away from her mouth. The woman laughed and showed Kate her clenched hand. When she opened it and blew on her palm Kate’s own words blew back in her face.
Tears stung her eyes as the child was brought out to the table. It was a newborn, it’s skin red and angry-looking. No bindings were needed for such a helpless creature.
The woman beckoned to Kate with a long painted finger. “Come.”
She couldn’t help herself; no matter how she tried to disobey the command, her body was not her own. It no longer followed Kate’s orders; rather it belonged to the dark woman entirely. She was handed a knife, a small sharp blade with a worn ivory handle. Once more her words were snatched from her mouth before she could voice them. She couldn’t even shake her head.
A gesture from the woman caused Kate’s hand lifted of its own accord. She tried to control it, tried to stab herself with the blade. She was rewarded with a mocking laugh and a finger wagging, no no. The hand continued to lift until Kate’s arm was fully extended, the knife pointing down at the child.
Please. No. The tears were streaming down her face, blurring her vision. But it was too late. Suddenly her arm plunged, burying the knife in the child’s chest. The child screamed in pain and began twitching, its small limbs convulsing. Withdrawing the blade Kate reached in with one hand and grabbed the tiny heart.
The painted woman laughed triumphantly and made another motion. Kate felt her hand move again. No no no no no. Her hand came closer and closer, the small bloody heart nearing her mouth.
Suddenly she had her voice. “NOOOOOOOOOO!”
Kate’s eyes flew open. She couldn’t catch her breath, she felt like she was suffocating. The room was pitch black and when she reached for Ian she found she couldn’t move. Her breathing grew worse as she tried to gulp in enough air. A moan escaped her lips when she discovered that her legs were useless to her as well.
“Ah, you’re awake.” A broad Creole accent came from somewhere in the dark. “Good.”
Kate rolled her eyes, frantically trying to determine the source of the voice. A voice that sounded so familiar to her.
A pale light flicked on and a face appeared above her, one she recognised instantly. She willed herself to move, her leg, her arm, anything. Nothing happened.
“You remember me, no?” The dark lady smiled. “Yes, I can see you do.” She moved away and the laughter that had haunted Kate for years assaulted her from the other side of the room.
Was this another dream? Without moving her head she looked around the room as best she could, rolling her eyes left and right. The room was empty; a single dirty bulb swinging from the ceiling caused shadows to play on the peeling walls. The smell of something rotting permeated the space, making Kate gag.
“No, chere. This is no dream. You are here. I am here.”
She can read my thoughts.
The silence lay heavy. Then, from the corner of the room, “Tch.” The face appeared above her again. “You still think this is a dream? You still think you can escape me?” She wagged a long finger. “No, not possible. You are mine.”
Kate’s mind raced. She thought of her children, her husband, her home.
“You think you have children? That this life you live is real? That you have a beautiful house and wonderful job? No chere. THAT was the dream.”
It wasn’t possible. Every part of her screamed that it wasn’t true. She thought of Ian.
“Ian will come to this city. He will hear that your friend returned without you and come looking.”
Lucy! The trip here with Lucy was years ago.
“No. Only yesterday. I took your friend’s memory, she will return remembering nothing of my shop or your visit here.” Marie stared into Kate’s eyes. “Nor of the grave insult you gave to my Loa.”
Kate’s eyes widened as understanding washed over her. But still she had to try. Ian will come.
“No one knows you came to my shop. No one will look here for you. No one.”
The truth violated her and her mind screamed. The twins, who she loved more than life itself, had never been born. Her relationship with Ian was as she had left it when she travelled to New Orleans, on the verge of collapse. She still had a job she hated. A house she hated. None of it had been real.
“Who is to say what is real and what is not, eh?” Marie laughed again and swept out of the room, leaving Kate’s mind to fall apart. After a while she returned, dressed in robes, face fully painted. A large man was with her. She motioned at Kate and the man picked Kate up, tossing her over his shoulder. She felt the pain of the treatment but still could not move.
They carried her outside. It was dark, a sliver of moon hanging in the sky. After half a mile they slowed and Kate was put on the ground, propped up against a tree trunk.
“Welcome to your new home.” Marie spread her arms wide.
Through the haze that had entered Kate’s mind she saw the dirt mounds, each one with a crude wooden cross at the head. Her eyes rolled wildly, still the only part of her body she could move. They were in a small hollow surrounded by a dense forest of dead and dying trees. The moon shone through the bare branches and in the diffused light Kate could see that many of the graves were fresh. All were ornamented; pictures, candles, and personal items adorning the spaces, the crosses heavy under the weight of crucifixes.
“You like your home? Good.” A terse word to her assistant and Kate felt herself being lifted once more. A few steps later she was placed in a box and a lid was nailed onto the top. Kate could see Marie’s triumphant face through the cross that was carved into the coffin lid.
“Au revoir, chere.” Marie’s painted lips parted into a smile.
It was the last thing Kate saw before the first shovelful of dirt hit the coffin.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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!