The Absence of Conflict

March 23, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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The teacher strode across the front of the room, looking out at her class. “And so with the invention of Concordance 5 true peace finally enveloped the world,” she said with a serene smile. “For one hundred years we have lived without conflict. The dream of world peace that so many strove for before is ours.”

A young man in the front row frowned and raised a hand. “Can you truly define peace as the absence of conflict?” he asked. “If people are not allowed to disagree they are not at peace. They live in constant fear.”

She cocked her head, eyes narrowing. “And so you disagree with me then?”

The young man nodded automatically. “Yes,” he said, and then his eyes widened. “I mean, no, I–” The veins in his throat seemed to bulge and twist as his hands grasped at his neck. He sputtered for a few moments and then fell on his desk.

The teacher smiled gratefully at the class monitor as he removed the body from the chair. “Version 5 is ten times faster than version 4, leaving no time for argument, which is truly key,” she continued. There was a meaty thump outside the door but no on paid it any heed. The janitors would have everything cleaned up before the bell rang. And thus peace reigned over the classroom.

Credit To – Star Kindler

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Hollow

March 10, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Then

Dark thunderheads blanketed the Suffolk sky, and fat droplets of rain began to spatter the golden leaves scattered across the ground. In the distance, silver lightning streaked between the clouds above, illuminating rolling hills and terrified sheep scampering for shelter.

Jack began to count the seconds as his father had taught him, barely reaching eight before an enormous crack of thunder boomed across the sky. One of the cabinets in the study contained four or five model cannons, and he imagined this was how their functioning counterparts must have once sounded.

He looked over his shoulder towards Nighthill Manor, his home, distant and aloof on the cusp of the valley, unsure if he was expected to go inside now that the weather had turned foul. Although, in truth, Jack didn’t consider it foul at all; a storm like this would be perfect for playing soldiers. Anyway, his father would come and collect him in the jeep if he wanted Jack home early.

He’d been shooting Nazis for about ten minutes when he heard the bleating. It was almost inaudible over the now considerable rumbling overhead, and it took Jack a few seconds to locate the source.

There, just beyond the fence marking the border of King’s Forest, in a dense patch of withered brown bracken. He squinted against the rain, and a pair of twisted horns resolved themselves, curving down around a head covered in shaggy black fur. He didn’t need to see the snapped tip of one of the horns to recognise the visitor.

‘’Sebastian!’’ Jack shouted, dropping his plastic Luger in the grass and hurrying over to the fence, all thoughts of war and soldiers pushed aside by the delight of the sudden reappearance of his friend.

It had been over three weeks since he’d woken up to find the goat absent from its pen. His father had merely grumbled about loose latches and set Maxwell to fitting a new gate, convinced the marauding animal would make its way home in due course. But to Jack, after Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio’s escape the week before, Sebastian’s disappearance had upset him quite considerably.

So it was with no hesitation that he scrambled over the wire fence and followed the retreating goat into the forest.

He’d been walking for quite a while, picking his way through autumnal foliage and around withered trees with only fleeting glimpses of Sebastian’s shaggy head to guide him, when he stepped into the clearing. As he did so, a deafening peal of thunder sounded above, and he flinched despite himself.

Then he noticed the long, low table standing in the middle of the clearing, and when he saw the pair seated at it side by side, he began to smile.

Jiminy Cricket, holding a pink floral teacup in one furry paw, a dark green flat cap cocked back on his head and a yellow scarf fluttering gently in the breeze, and Pinocchio, who looked simply marvellous in a deep burgundy waistcoat, top hat and matching cravat. The hares twitched their heads to regard Jack as he took a few tentative steps across the clearing, and Pinocchio motioned stiffly with a thin foreleg for him to join them at the table.

There were others there who Jack didn’t recognise; a grinning fox whose tooth-filled snout poked out from beneath a black trimmed fedora; a slim white ferret, similar to those that Maxwell kept behind the stables, stared at him with glazed yellow eyes as it sipped from a teacup; something that looked like a small monkey crouched at the opposite end of the table, its humanlike features obscured beneath falls of lace and a frilled pink bonnet.

Jack sat down in the only empty seat, opposite Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio, beside a large badger, its snouted face dominated by pale white eyes, and a tabby-and-white cat with long drooping whiskers. Behind Cricket and Pinocchio stood a huge tree with withered, drooping branches and a hollow trunk. Sebastian’s face was barely visible in the darkened hollow, but his dull red eyes winked in the gloom and Jack waved for him to come out. The goat seemed reluctant to leave, however, and shook its head in response, retreating further into the murk.

Something cold and filthy with bristles touched Jack’s hand, and he instantly recoiled before realising that it was only Jiminy Cricket, reaching across the table to place his diminutive paw on top of Jack’s equally tiny hand. The hare’s mouth pulled back in a lopsided grin, and the boy smiled back.

So engrossed was he as the hare showed him the plates and cups and teapots and cutlery lining the table, that he didn’t hear the dried out leaves crunching behind him.

A gloved hand clamped over his mouth and a strong arm wrapped itself around him, yanking his hand away from Jiminy Cricket’s and pulling him down, down, down into the darkness.

Now

Martin dreamt of music, soft and distant, but beautiful nonetheless.

Faint noises in the corridor roused him from his fitful slumber. Was that a pair of tiny feet slapping against the plush maroon carpet, a slight form running past the slightly ajar bedroom door?

No, of course it wasn’t. Maxwell would have retired to bed by now, and even if he hadn’t the boxer-turned-groundskeeper’s days of running anywhere were long since passed.

Nobody ran in Nighthill Manor’s panelled corridors now. Not for almost a year. Not since Jack. Oh God.

Martin swung his legs out of bed, elbows resting on his thighs, put his head in his hands and began to cry.

He should have sent Maxwell to fetch Jack that day. He should never have let him play so far from the manor in the first place. Without Maria, he hadn’t had a clue how to care for their son. When he was young, his parents had let him roam far and wide, so it was his natural assumption that Jack should be allowed to do the same.

Of course, back then paedophiles and child murderers had been relatively unheard of. The world had changed, but Martin hadn’t changed with it. Raising his head he looked around the room – the Napoleonic oil paintings; the gilded furniture; the gold-trimmed oak panelling. Even this God-forsaken manor house. He’d tear it all down with his bare hands if it would bring Jack back.

Standing, he crossed to the window, which opened onto Nighthill Manor’s rear garden and the valley beyond.

And the woods. The woods where, detectives reasoned, his only son had been stolen from him forever.

Martin’s breath caught in his throat, and he felt as though an ethereal hand had reached into his chest and taken hold of his heart.

About halfway down the valley, moving away from the house towards the woods was a bobbing orange light: A lantern. Martin narrowed his eyes, but was unable to discern the shape or size of whoever was carrying it.

Maxwell? No. The elderly man wouldn’t risk the valley with its holes and pitfalls at this hour; he would know better. There was no need for either of them to go into the woods at all, let alone this late at night.

Martin wasted no time at all in scrambling into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, pulling on his jacket as he hurtled down the sweeping spiral staircase to the entrance hall. On his way to the front doors, he passed a dark shape against the far wall, frozen in a stream of moonlight. The piano. His son’s piano.
Oh Jack, he thought as he pulled on his walking boots. Oh Jack, I’m so, so sorry.

He had his hand on the antique silver door handle when his mind fully registered what he’d just seen. The piano, yes. But he’d actually seen the piano, seen its polished teak surface and ivory keys, bright white like rows of teeth.

Nobody had touched the piano since…since Jack. Maxwell had thoughtfully covered the beautiful instrument with a thick velvet sheet, and that was how it had stayed. Now, the sheet was pooled on the floor to the right of the piano, yanked aside and left where it had fallen.

Rage welled up inside Martin like a ferocious storm. Somebody had been here, in his house. But that intrusion paled in comparison to the fact that the intruder had touched his son’s piano.

He snatched the door open and dashed out into the night.

From the shadowed doorway to the dining room, a pair of burnished yellow eyes watched the man leave. Satisfied, the stoat slipped out the same way it had entered, through the kitchen. Its breathing was torn and ragged, its blackened tongue lolling from a mouth bursting with needle-sharp teeth. The faint groan of shifting wood and the near-inaudible hum of whirring gears followed it through the darkness.

The woods were black as pitch, and Martin cursed himself a fool for not bringing a torch. He’d lost sight of the orange light when it disappeared into the clusters of spindly trees, and now he caught only the merest snatches of its flickering glow in the distance.

His shins were bleeding and he’d cut his face the first time he’d fallen, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing except catching whoever it was that had defiled his precious memories of Jack. The only things he had left.

There was a definite awareness of perception here. He cautiously scanned his surroundings for inquisitive eyes.

Something moved in the bracken off to the left, but by the time he’d snapped his head in that direction the motion had ceased. The light reappeared, directly ahead of him, and he hurried towards it. He kept low to the ground, moving as silently as possible, but was almost shocked into screaming when something sleek and furry brushed past his legs before vanishing into the undergrowth.

Composing himself and breathing deeply, he stepped into a clearing that had once been flooded with yellow tape and ultraviolet light.

There, beneath the eaves of a drooping willow where he’d held a distraught Maria as forensic teams combed the area, was a table. Pink plastic with garish chairs to match, it was the sort one would expect to see at a little girl’s tea party, were it not so stained and filthy.

It wasn’t the table that snatched the breath from Martin’s lungs. Nor was it the chairs. It was the slumped forms seated upon them.

The lantern he’d seen the figure carrying had been placed on the table and its flickering light illuminated his surroundings with sickening clarity. As he stepped closer, Martin raised a hand to cover his mouth. Dear God, the stench was enough to make him vomit.

The warm, welcoming glow of the lantern belied its surroundings. The things at the table were monstrosities. The closest of them was an egregious fox; a fedora perched almost comically atop its head and a grimy plastic fork in its hand. What the devil was going on here? There was a bloody fox in –

About to turn away, Martin froze. Its hand. Since when did foxes have hands?

Against his better judgement, he looked back down. A swollen fly crawled across the small pale hand protruding from the sleeve of the fox’s tweed jacket. The flesh had blackened in places, sloughing away to reveal glimpses of yellowing bone. It had a strange, burnished finish to it.

Steeling himself, he reached forward and tugged the fox’s sleeve back. The wrist – so tiny he could have encircled it with thumb and forefinger – ended in jagged stitches an inch or so from the hand. The remainder of the arm to be seen was thin and covered in glossy red fur. He stumbled away in horror, screaming aloud as he backed straight into the fox’s neighbour, an abominable hare with a jaundiced yellow scarf wrapped tightly around its neck.
It tumbled out of its seat and…hung in the air.

The air itself seemed to pull taut. Wires, so fine as to be almost imperceptible, ran from every major joint of the hare’s body, up into the branches of the willow, suspending it in mid-air like some deplorable puppet. The wires hung from the willow’s branches like a giant spider-web, ascending to lofty heights before descending the trunk and disappearing into the darkness of the hollow.

The scarf slipped from the hare’s neck and fluttered to the ground. Martin fell to his knees and vomited. Its head was nestled atop the stump of a human neck, rudimentary stitching holding the animals furred cheeks in place. Needing to tear his eyes away from the bloodless, marble-like neck, he looked up at the hare’s face.

Realisation smashed into him like a sledgehammer. Jiminy Cricket.

It could be any hare, of course, but Martin knew that it wasn’t. He stumbled to his feet, standing groggily on legs threatening to give way any second.

Pinocchio’s paw jerked into motion, sending a rigid wave across the table to Martin. He screamed and staggered backwards. The police. He needed to call the police.

In the willow’s hollow trunk, twigs cracked underfoot.

Martin exploded over the table in a spray of cheap plastic dinnerware, nausea and law enforcement forgotten, knocking Pinnochio aside and crashing into a monstrous, monocle-wearing pig. He shoved the thing away in disgust, repulsed at the feel of its clammy skin, snatched the lantern from the table and squeezed into the hollow.

The stench was overwhelming. One summer, when he was a boy, he’d visited his uncle’s slaughterhouse. Beneath a scorching August sun, the odour of decaying flesh had infested every inch of the place. This was worse. Martin immediately saw why.

Leaning against the wall was a long metal pole. Impaled upon its tip was a goat’s head. He knew it was Sebastian without even looking. Aligned vertically next to it, a row of wooden levers and cogs; so that was where the wires led.

Dear God, how long had this maniac been watching his family?

He raised the lantern higher and answered his own question. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Polaroids were pinned to the inside of the stump; Jack laughing and petting Sebastian; Jack standing on Martin’s shoulders, wearing his Spider-Man t-shirt and waving an ice-cream above his head. They had been taken from the edge of the treeline, judging by their angles.

The next photo turned Martin’s blood to ice. Wrapped in a duvet adorned with purple dinosaurs, Jack dozed peacefully. One hand was clutching the duvet. The other was snaked around Martin’s shoulders as the two of them dozed peacefully.

That had been on Jack’s fourth birthday.

Oh God.

He was crying now, tears streaming down his face as he took in the twisted visual history spread before him. Two A4 sized photos were tacked in the center. Martin howled in agony.

The first showed Jack, wearing the same khaki shorts and brown t-shirt as the day he’d disappeared. He was laying on his back, pale and motionless, eyes closed and hands clasped on his chest. Next to him was a pig, bloated and bloody. Beneath them both was a sheet of light blue tarpaulin. Between them, small clear bags of what looked like sawdust, tiny blocks of wood and a pile of miniscule cogs and gears.

In the second, Martin lay sleeping in his own bed. Standing beside him, staring fixedly at his prone form, was a monocle-wearing pig. The photograph was dated September 22nd.

Today.

Something shuffled behind him, fallen leaves crunching beneath its cloven hooves. Martin couldn’t turn to face it, couldn’t even move.

Silence. He stood in the reeking hollow with his heart thudding in his ears. The lantern slipped from his grasp, and something was pressed into his palm to replace it.

Holding the plastic Luger in a white-knuckle grip, Martin sank to his knees.

Small arms enfolded him from behind and a cold snout pressed itself against the back of his neck. The subtle click of hidden machinery was followed by a shallow breath.

From the darkness, a rasping voice.

‘’Father.’’

Credit To – Tom Farr

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TLC

February 12, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Thomas rose from his modest flower garden and wiped his filthy hands on his jeans. He stood there for a moment, his eyes lingering on the lush blossoms. A sense of accomplishment overcame him. Though the plot was humble, what it lacked in quantity, it was overly abundant in quality. The blooms were vibrant and full of life; the stems and leaves were rich and crisp. Even the dark earth was fresh and moist to the point that it caused his neighbors to envy his garden.
However, very few people knew the amount of blood, sweat and tears that had gone into perfecting his garden. He had prepared the foundation of the plot himself, choosing the strenuous task of double-digging rather than tilling the soil, which loosened the earth even further so that his precious blossoms wouldn’t struggle as they stretched out their roots. After planting the seedlings, Thomas had applied a thick layer of organic compost – ground leaves, banana peels, coffee grounds, and grass clippings – to ensure that the flowers would receive proper nutrition. Atop that, he deposited a thin coat of mulch to assist the soil in better retaining water. Thomas had even insisted on using an organic fertilizer that, as far as he knew, could not be found in stores. The price was dear, but he soon found it was well worth it.
The first time he laid his loving gaze on the pioneer stem that had broken free of the earth’s clutches, an overwhelming rush of joy seized him. He was sure that the feeling could never be surpassed. He was swiftly proven wrong the next day, however, when he was delighted to find that two more seedlings had followed closely behind the first. A childlike joy filled his life, one that he had desperately been seeking.
Thomas was never late to tend to his plants. He was often caught singing to each blossom individually just as the morning light broke over the horizon and bathed his garden in an elegant radiance. At these times, even the dew droplets danced and shimmered like diamonds. It was breath-taking, and he never wanted it to end.
Thomas kept his adoring stare glued to the graceful blooms, even as he heard a faint rustling behind him that soon turned into muffled footsteps.
“Thomas? Thomas Conner?”
As a momentary scowl of frustration passed over Thomas’s tender face, he reluctantly tore his eyes from his darling garden and turned around. To his surprise, he found himself face-to-face with his long-ago childhood friend.
“If it isn’t ol’ Roy Mather!” Thomas chuckled, moving in to greet his old friend with a hug.
“In the flesh,” Roy joked.
“What brings you back to this sleepy town, buddy?”
Roy tossed his hands into the air in mock defeat. “The wife insisted it was high time we came down here and visited the family. Women, eh?” A wily grin cut across his boyish features, but it was cut short. It was as if a storm cloud had passed over him, one which Thomas could neither see nor feel. “Speaking of.. I heard about Tabitha—“
Thomas quickly cut him off, in no mood for an unannounced pity party. “She’s in a better place, Roy.”
Roy seemed uncertain. “I suppose so.. I might complain a lot, but I don’t know what I’d do if I lost Carroll. As sad as it might sound, I don’t think I could properly function without my wife’s constant nagging.” He flashed a half-hearted smirk.
Thomas placed a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed tightly. The two stood there for a few minutes in silence, allowing the awkwardness to evaporate until Roy finally broke the quiet.
“Those sure are some mighty fine flowers, Tommy.”
Thomas couldn’t help but feel a sensation of pride. “Thanks buddy. They’re my babies.”
“Carroll and I – well, mostly Carroll – have been trying to grow our own flower garden for over a year now, but it seems we don’t exactly have green thumbs. Could you let me in on your secret? So I could pass it along to the wife, of course.” He beamed sheepishly.
“Just some good, old fashioned TLC,” Thomas mused, snickering at what appeared to be an inside joke.
Slightly confused, Roy thanked him and headed off, leaving the man giggling to himself.
“TLC,” Thomas repeated as he brushed some stray dirt off of a plaque at the base of his garden. “Isn’t that right, dear?”
He ran a dirty finger over the words inscribed. In loving memory of Tabitha L. Conner.

Credit To – Ali Kae

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Farmer John

February 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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Farmer John was dead and gone;
Hay-men watched his fields still:
Lumpy sacks that had for long
Drawn the crows in manner ill

Some had come to pull them down
But always failed in the task,
Bound to flee at hinted frown
Seen, they swore, in vacant mask

Passersby would scarce arrive –
Merely then to talk, no more:
“My, but crows do love those five – ”
“Strange, I thought them only four…”

Land forsook turned callous ear
To the murmur of the straw,
As the moon revolved the years
O’er the din of sated caw

Farmer John had died and gone,
Yet his hay-men still remained,
Soulless things to greet each dawn
Till such time as fate ordained:

Seasons turned their clothes to dust,
Naked truth at last reveal’d:
Gutted bodies, neatly stuffed
With straw had been resealed

‘Twas his family, time would show:
Wife and daughters, no mistake;
No one, though, would ever know
Who’d got John up on his stake.

Credit To – alapanamo

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The Invitation

February 5, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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They call him “The Hatter”. His face is only a rumor. His body is an urban legend. But, his intentions are always clear; once the invitation arrives, he will be waiting, likely with a knowing smile and lashing tongue.

Marcus was an unexceptional man. He worked eight hours a day in some indistinct office, punching numbers, balancing accounts, and taking phone calls. He kept to himself, preferring to spend his evenings alone, sinking into a good book rather than the revelries of bars and nightclubs. Though he had his eyes set on Janet from accounting, Marcus seldom spoke with her, and their relationship was best described as accidental.

Ever a creature of habit, Marcus was a predictable man, always living under an invisibly ticking clock. He would wake up every morning at 6:30 AM, never sleeping a minute under or over. He would shave, shower, and cook a simple breakfast of faintly buttered rye toast and coffee. Two slices on his plate, two sugars in his coffee, and Marcus was ready to go. He drove to work, clocked in, and stayed in the same place for eight hours, leaving only to eat lunch or use the bathroom. Sometimes his coworkers would drop in for a casual conversation, but this happened with increasing rarity. He’d drive home, change into his pajamas, and cook a simple meal of meat, potatoes, and some greenery if he felt adventurous. For him, excitement and color came through carrots and peas. Then, at exactly 11:00 PM, Marcus went to sleep, never to rise until the next morning. Marcus was boring, and he liked it that way. The Hatter had other plans.

After a grey day at work, Marcus was ready for new reading material. Perhaps his issue of Reader’s Digest had arrived, or perhaps his family had sent him an early Christmas card. He needed some entertainment, and with a brisk walk approached his mailbox. Sure enough, a pile of letters waited for him, and like a vulture with an affinity for milk toast, Marcus scooped these up, taking great care to conceal his treasures from the pouring rain. Dripping and dashing, he gingerly slammed the door shut, unceremoniously tossing his coat over a nearby chair.

Sadly, it seems Marcus would be met with disappointment this evening. Instead of his favorite magazine or warm greetings, he found bills, advertisements, and one pamphlet about his local Congressman several months too early. In the hopes that he had missed something, he flipped through the stack again and again, only to be met in vain. Then, he heard the faint swish of a letter landing on the floor.

The Hatter was terribly fond of grand gestures, and the invitations to his party are always carefully hidden. Whether hidden with care or in plain sight, he made sure his potential guests always found their letter in time, and Marcus was no exception. He’d been watching Marcus, and he eagerly awaited his response.

The letter was small, no larger than a Christmas card. It was addressed to Marcus in clear, elaborate cursive, and the return address was his own house. This is The Hatter’s way, for both the destination and the starting point come together in his plans. Perhaps placing the letter back in the mail can drive off his eye. Perhaps it is another of the Hatter’s games, silently mocking his prey that there is no escape. Either way, Marcus opened the letter. It offered no resistance; it longed to be opened.

Inside, he found a simple card, embroidered with shades of red and gold lettering. He saw the shine of golden script on both sides, and casually turned the invitation over. The reverse side held a date and a time; April 14th, 2:31 PM. Curiously, he glanced at the other side. And there it was, in bold print.

You should sit.

This phrase is The Hatter’s invitation. It is a simple command, no more threatening than asking to continue breathing. But to follow the instruction is to answer the Hatter’s call, and many fall into this gentle trap. Marcus knew no better, and sat down, pondering the strange letter. A single footstep echoed behind him. Perhaps a cup of tea would calm him down. Was he nervous? No, strangely not. He had forgotten his movement to the kitchen, a momentary amnesia as he brewed a steaming pot of Earl Grey.

As the moist aroma wafted through the room, he felt an intense relaxation. He could hear a faint bubbling amidst the silence of his home, and with each pop an excitement began to overtake him. Perhaps I have been too hasty, he thought to himself. I hardly give my coworkers the time of day.

The gentle flow of hot tea pouring into his mug brought feelings of joyous guilt, and unfamiliar thoughts flew into Marcus’ head. I should reach out to them. After all, what harm is a new friend? A silent sip, and a beaming grin crossed his face. In some dark place, The Hatter returned the gesture.

The next day, Marcus rose at 6:00 AM. He sprung out of bed with an unknown energy. Surely, he had been rejuvenated, and his blood felt hot and bubbly. Such an exceptional blend of Earl Grey, he thought to himself. This morning it was eggs and bacon. He didn’t remember buying those, but who was he to argue?

At the office, his coworkers found a completely alien Marcus. He went out of his way to ask people how they were doing, hold doors, and tell jokes. Even his boss went along with it, and Marcus became the life of the party. His charm was contagious, and over the course of a month, the stagehand had gone center stage. He knew their names now; Janet, her sister, Clara, Andrew, Gary, and his boss, Everett. Every day, he had another cup of tea, often brewing pots for his coworkers during lulls in paperwork. They had grown to love Marcus, and The Hatter enjoyed the show.

He would go out with them, though he cared little for clubs. Instead, he would take his new friends to comedy clubs, or invite them to the local theatre. He showed them culture, and for reasons unknown, they loved it. All the while, the burning feeling flowed through his veins.

One day, Marcus realized something dire; despite his new friends, he had never invited them to his home. Even Janet had never seen his home, and no one seemed to notice but him. He knew he had to rectify this. During their lunch break, he proposed a classy gathering of olden times; a tea party. His infectious charm did the work for him, and his friends all agreed to such a lovely gesture. And so, on April 14th at 2:31 PM, five guests stepped through his door, and six pairs of footsteps echoed through his home.
With grand gestures and an elaborate table set, Marcus greeted them, the smile on his face as broad as always. Ever the gentlemen, he offered Janet a seat before all else, and she beamed at how lucky she was. Then, clasping his hands together, he addressed his friends.

“You should sit.” As they obeyed, they were gone. No longer were they Marcus, nor Janet, nor any of their friends. There was only The Hatter, and he had waited long for this entertainment.

Suddenly, Marcus’ grin widened to sickening proportions, and the guests followed suit. Janet’s sister had come along, and as the guests sat at the dinner table, she placed herself on the dinner table, lying back and sighing. They looked on hungrily, and The Hatter deemed that they should say their prayers before their meal. Then, their forks and knives dug into her, severing raw flesh and spurting blood.

Their gory meal continued, and it devolved into frenzy, with guests forsaking their utensils and biting at her. They shredded her like wild animals, bits of flesh and blood caking to their fine dress and teeth. As she was devoured, they all smiled, including the eviscerated remnants of her sister, an unnatural force keeping her alive until The Hatter deemed she had suffered enough, her mind trapped helpless and silently screaming within her own body.

You may die now. As she had her moment to scream, Marcus bit down on her throat, her shriek devolved into a gurgle. Janet scooped up a severed finger, placing it in her mouth. With inhuman strength, she chewed and swallowed, stifling a giggle. Clara’s face inhumanely twisted back into a grin, cracking bone and holding far too wide. She was The Hatter’s now.

Yet The Hatter’s party was far from over, and the guests were ready for his party games. While Marcus escorted their boss into the kitchen, Janet pounced on Gary, her hands on his throat. She viciously slammed his skull on the floor, holding him down, though they all knew it was too late already. His face draining, Janet slowly eased a fork in each of his eyes, gore and white slime oozing and pouring down his cheeks. All the while, Andrew observed, clapping his hands excitedly.

Marcus offered his boss a cup of tea, still stuffed and dripping with the blood of Janet’s sister. Against his will, he smiled.

“That would be ever so lovely!” His consciousness clawed and scraped inside his skull. Please God, let me go. Let me out! HELP ME! His screams echoed inside, but not a sound could escape, a prisoner in his own mind. Perhaps Marcus could hear his plight; perhaps not. Either way, he set the kettle on the oven, and switched the burner on. As blue flames lapped the No, NO, PLEASE DON’T DO THIS teapot, Marcus reached for his meat cleaver. As man who regularly dined on meaJUST LET ME GO PLEASEt and potatoes nightly, his tools for carving flesh were remarkably advanced. Unfortunately for Everett, their usage today would not be for beef or chicken.

As the kettle came to a boil, Marcus smiled. He raised the pot above his head, and Andrew’s cheering and applause could be heard in the other room.

“Your tea’s ready!” exclaimed Marcus as he poured the boiling water over Everett’s head, searing and peeling away flesh and hair. Amused, The Hatter released him, and his screams came free just in time for Marcus’ cleaver to strike his chest. The Hatter forced his blow to strike true and strong, and Everett’s heart beat for the last time. But time was wasting, and Marcus got returned to his task of severing his former boss’ limbs.

Upstairs, Andrew and Janet had made their way to Marcus’ bathroom, all the while dragging Gary’s body. Andrew’s fate, deemed The Hatter, would be the most merciful. Andrew began to fill the tub, water sloshing and splashing. He’d decided that icy cold would be best, and PLEASE DON’T THEY DIDN’T DO ANYTHING more hot water was far from original. All the while, Janet gnawed at Gary’s neck, her dark appetite not yet sated from her sister. From below, Marcus shouted up.

“Janet? Are you almost done up there?”

She cupped her hands, glancing out into the hall. “Yes, I shouldn’t be more than a minute!” Her internal screams had broken down into uncontrollable sobbing, and she begged for someone to save her. Only The Hatter heard.

With the tub full of frigid water, Andrew smiled externally. He knew his fate, and LOOK AWAY FOR GOD SAKES LOOK AWAY their terrible host was not yet satisfied. Andrew plunged his head beneath the icy water, and The Hatter released him just in time for Janet’s hands to force him further in, pressing his face against the bathtub’s surface. Arctic waters rushed into his lungs, and each painful gasp only brought more flowing in. Violent bubbles danced to the water’s surface, and Janet’s lips ran red with ruby droplets. Andrew’s screams were little more than a humming whisper, and he heard DON’T DO IT PLEASE the same whispering command that had damned Clara. You may die now.

His crumpled body draped into the tub, Janet left the two bodies behind, making her way downstairs. Marcus was waiting, holding the same tea pot he’d seared Everett’s flesh with only minutes before. She smiled, giving a curtsy.

“Oh, Marcus, this was such a lovely party.”

He just kept beaming, raising the pot high before striking Janet’s head with it. She fell to the ground, and Marcus loomed over her. He hit her again and again until the pot could take no more, cast iron FOR GOD SAKES SOMEONE HELP crumpling from the repeated impacts. A terrible strength poured through Marcus. Leaning down, he kissed what remained of Janet’s head gently. And then, The Hatter released him.

Regaining control of his body, Marcus gripped Janet’s hands, holding them one last time. He collapsed into quiet sobs, praying to no one in particular for this to just be some awful dream. He wanted to wake up at 6:30 AM, sit eight hours in his cubicle, and know none of them. He just wanted them to be safe again. Then, Marcus felt a hand slowly rest on his shoulder, and The Hatter’s invitation came again. Like the original letter, it could come from anywhere, and it will always find a way to reach the intended recipient, such as this story. You should sit.

Credit To – M.L. Zane

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A Funny Thing Happened

February 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM
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There was no doubt – my mouth had moved a centimeter to the left overnight. I check between reflection and picture before accepting the impossible.

“Hitler, you gotta see this,” I call to my roommate, nicknamed for being the image of Arian perfection – blonde hair, blue eyes (the works). I find him in his favorite pass-out hiding place – behind the couch under a layer of PBR cans.

“Listen, something funny is happening. I think I’m turning into one of those weirdies from the X-files!” I give him a shake.

He doesn’t show any response at all, not even his trademark, ‘Fuck off’. Looks like you reached for the moon and landed on your face last night. I’d hate to be you in a few hours.

Content my transformation would remain after Hitler wakes up, I head to the kitchen for a breakfast of B12 vitamins before returning to the couch. I find a fresh nitrous cartridge from the box on the coffee table (‘Whippit good!’ as sage Hitler would say), load it into a brass cracker and give it a healthy twist. The aluminum seal punctures with a satisfying pop. Finally, I snap a balloon on the end and gently unscrew the device, filling the latex sphere with precious laughing gas.

Waiting for the air to warm up, I bounce the balloon against Hitler’s sleeping face, “Remind me, I take two vitamins for every lung-full, right? I don’t wanna get limp-dick. I like having feeling in my extremities.” He gives a huge yawn and rolls over on his side. “Two it is then.”

I always get laughy before partaking in any narcotic, and this time’s no different. I can hardly control my excitement as I pick the huge balloon off and take in a breath of the sweet-sweet drug. My vision blurs and all thought takes on a slanted quality. Our dog Trigger trots in from the hallway which is about the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. I laugh and (can it be?) Trigger laughs with me, licking chunks of hair out of my face.

For a brief, awkward moment, I consider French kissing the Golden Retriever when I’m hit with a wave of dizziness. The room spins before me and I have the nauseating feeling that I’m somehow looking at both the ceiling and floor at the same time. Trigger sits down and tilts his head, wondering what the silly human is doing. I look past him and spot the cause of my discomfort in the reflection of our old TV.

My face has changed again. I raise a hand, too scared to confirm what I’m seeing, but having to know. I touch my right eye which had slipped down (socket and all) to rest beneath my chin. The pain that registers when I nudge its wet surface is proof of the awful reality. My ears too, have gone for a trip around my skull and now reside one on the back of my head, the other on my neck. Though perhaps most terrifying of all is a new eye which has opened on my cheek. This one a different color, unlike mine in every way. And looking; watching me, unblinking.

“Holy fuck, shit!” I look back at Trigger, but he’s left the room, unimpressed by his master’s situation.

“Hitler! Hitler, wake up!” I really go at him this time, alternating between kicking and slapping. But he’s dead to the world.

A doctor! I can call a doctor. There’s gotta be someone else who’s had this (disease?) problem and been fixed. Even in a shit small- town like this one.

I reach for the phone in my pocket and realize it’s not there. NO, NO! Why do I always lose everything? I consider looking for it, but catch another glimpse of my destroyed face in the hallway mirror (I’ve never been ‘attractive’ and now my face is a fucking rubix cube) and decide to just drive the five minutes to the clinic. Time is of the essence, as they say. I pull on my hoodie and set out into the late afternoon air of Linderville.

I’ve only just left the porch when I hear my best friend Chris talking a few doors over, and I pull the hood further down my face. I love the guy to death, but he’s never been one for recreational drug use (did nitrous do this?) and I didn’t have time for a lecture.

“Ya, I’m telling you,” says Chris to a pretty girl in a short dress, “This deer was bigger than a horse. Jumped out like he wanted to die.”

I glance at his pickup. Sure enough, the front’s been totaled and smeared with blood. That’s not gonna be cheap. Sucks to be you, buddy.

I glance inside my garage and stop. Sucks to be me. The car’s not there. I think for a moment, the sun beating down and soaking into the dark fabric I’m wearing, when I’m caught off guard by the mental image of headlights cutting through trees. I feel the blood drain from my face and then, faint as a whisper, I recall my brother saying he’d borrow it.

No choice then – I foot it, carefully avoiding the eyes of the few pedestrians I pass until I make it to Dr. Genn’s family practice. He’d taken care of me since I’d been smoking cans with a bb gun instead of joints and was one of my favorite people. Even if he couldn’t fix me, he’d console me until someone else could.

There’s the familiar chime of bells above me as I push through the door. Dr. Genn is sitting behind the counter invested in a crossword puzzle, his KFC Colonel beard twisting between his fingers.

He hears my approach and looks up smiling, “Well ‘an how can I be of assista-”, he stops when he meets my eyes (well, eye), and then casts his gaze around the room as if he’d forgotten where he was.

Conflicting emotions dance across his face, alternating between fear and revulsion, the desire to help and the urge to run. I give my best smile, despite the flutter of unease in my stomach.

“Get out.” He says with such finality that it catches me off guard. This wasn’t what I’d expected from the man who’d given me suckers for booster shots.

“Dr. Genn-,” I start, but then he stands up and shouts.

“Get out! Get out of here, whatever you are, and don’t come back!” His eyes bug out and his lemon tea falls to the ground in a twinkle of glass and ice.

Never had I been rejected so out right by someone I cared and respected. It hurts in a way I hadn’t experienced since childhood. A loss of control, I suppose (or a challenge to what you thought you knew as fact). I back out the door, bells jingling overhead and run to the only person I knew who would never reject me, never run in fear.

Day has moved on towards dusk when I finally arrive at the gates of Cedar Hill Cemetary. It must be a holiday because I’m not the only who’s chosen today for a visit. A large procession of people mill about the stones, leaving flowers and tears on the graves of their relatives.

I look up at the overcast sky. Perfect weather for a depression-session. My dad’s headstone stands near the middle of the manicured lawn. I could find it eyes closed, I’d been here enough times – which is good because my face starts rearranging itself again, making me lose my balance but not my motivation.

When I see the familiar mini pine tree, I quicken my stride. I’m practically running before I fall to my knees at the foot of His name, carved for eternity (until acid rain do ye part).

“Dad…” It’s not much, but enough to express all the warring emotions inside me. “I need you, Dad. What should I do?”

As if on cue, the voice of my brother Donny drifts from behind me, “This is a shitty situation we’re in, huh, Eddie?” I twist around, surprised, but he’s not there. A woman glances up at me, meeting my gaze before returning to her mourning.

“Donny, where are you?”

“Ha, well,” he replies, “I’ve been here. Inside you.”

For a moment I’m certain my heart has frozen solid. I slip my hands beneath the hood, to the back of my head, and sure enough, a new mouth has formed beneath my mat of hair. It bursts into life and I let out a yelp.

“Nothing?” he says, “I set up the perfect, ‘that’s what she said’, for you.” He starts laughing, and Jesus-Christ-I-Can-Feel-His-Mouth-Moving. I feel like I’m going to vomit.

“Donny?” I manage, “Donny, what’s going on? Am I having a bad nitrous trip?”

There’s no response except for the twitter of blue jays in the surrounding oaks. A light rain begins to fall, and one by one the visitors pop up their umbrellas in reply.

“Eddie,” he whispers, “You know you’re dead, right?”

The pitter-patter of rain swells and I’m once again surprised at the number of people in the park that day. The sweet smell of rotting leaves reaches my nose and I hold it in, tasting it. Yes, I guess I had known. Some things are just harder to face than others.

“That man – three headstones over,” I say, “That’s Richard Grady, isn’t it? He’s dead too.”

I feel the extra eye (his eye) swivel on my cheek towards the direction I’m pointing.

“That’s him,” Donny replies, “Used to piss him off so much in chem. class. Remember when we set his desk on fire?”

I did – when he mentioned it.

“He died four years after his wife,” he continues, “There was a rumor that he’d spend more time here than at home to be with her. Looks like old habits die hard.”

I watch the old man kneel over the grave of his equally-deceased wife. There’s an odd flicker emanating from his face that obscures his eyes, though I’m sure they’re filled with grief. Something about the dead mourning the dead gives me the creeps; I shudder and put a hand on Dad’s headstone to steady myself.

“It’s not so strange really,” my brother says, “You were doing the same, just now.”

I tremble again, disturbed by the fact that he’d just read my mind.

“How did it happen? Us dying, I mean.” I realize I’d forgotten a pivotal moment in my life/death.

“Close your eyes.”

I do, and find myself walking through a forest with Donny at my side. We are hiking to the perfect camping spot in the nearby mountains of Perth. Something reflective catches my eye and I call him back to help me. It’s a mason jar, buried so that only the lid pokes out above the compact dirt. A childish curiosity overcomes us and we start digging it out with the back of a hammer. After all – anything could be inside it.

Both of us take turns going at when I hear the low rumble of what sounds like a cougar or black bear. I look up in time to see the grill of the truck that crushes both of our heads against the tree behind us. I’m thrown from my body as if from the impact of the crash. From my new vantage point, I watch as the truck pulls back, the hood and bumper crumpled like paper, allowing the mess that is our bodies to slide to the ground.

The driver gets out, assessing first the damage to his car, before turning to our lifeless bodies. One glance at our faces, crushed to the point of unrecognition, confirms our deaths to him and he gives an approving nod. Lighting a cigarette, he kneels forward into the beam of headlights and for the first time I see his face. It’s Chris. My old buddy Chris who’d ‘had the run in with a suicidal deer’. He loads our bodies into the back of his trunk, washes down the tree with bleach and leaves.

“Good friends are hard to come by, huh?” Donny says this from within and without my head.

I open my eyes and we’re back in the cemetery. Night has swallowed day. Still, the mourners wander about on the lawn; pausing to cry, sometimes giving in to hysterics before continuing their march.

“Why did he do it?” I ask.

“Why do any of us do anything?” he replies. “Personal gain. Even when we help others, we do it for the good feelings and butterflies we get, as much as we don’t like to admit it.”

“Doesn’t seem like he helped either of us much.”

“No,” he agrees, “This time was purely selfish. He did it for Lily. I hadn’t had the heart to tell you, but they’ve been sleeping together for a while now. You don’t blame me right, man? I mean, he was your best friend. It’s hard to breach that kind of subject. Besides, I told you she was a bitch.”

To be honest, I don’t remember a girl named Lily, let alone a humiliating relationship with her. Donny again picks up on this thought.

“I guess even love isn’t safe from death. She was with him today, when he was hamming up the story about the deer – she could hardly keep a straight face.”

A fragment of memory floats down to me and I grasp at it hungrily: a date we’d had that ended with us sneaking onto the top of the old Alladin movie theater. The first place we’d made love; though certainly not the last.

She cheated on me. I can feel my face burn hot with shame. Another abandonment. This time ending in the death of not only me but my brother as well.

But it didn’t have to be over yet.

I stand up with a purpose, avoiding the eternally grieving spirits as I make my exit. And when I reach the gate, I run.

“Why run?” He says, “We’re dead. Wherever we want to be, that’s where we are.”

We’re standing inside Chris’ house now, just outside his room. The door is shut, but I can hear him talking. Talking to the girlfriend he’d stolen. The seed of rage sprouts into a clawing thrush of vines.

“This is it, brother,” his voice echoes more inside my head than out, “You can make them pay. They killed us. They killed me, Eddie,” his voice cracks for a moment and I’m fed the memory of late night gaming sessions together, fighting over the last beer and secrets told in confidence. “You can’t let him get away with it, big brother. You couldn’t protect me, but you can make things even. Make things fair.”

I think over what should be an easy decision, but it’s not. Chris did the unspeakable, but did that mean I should return the favor? We’d been best friends since we were kids. Even if he’d forgotten that bond, it didn’t mean I had to too.

Suddenly the room begins flickering in and out of focus like a strobe light. I’m reminded of Richard Grady and the same flashing light I’d seen slipping from his eyes. I know then without explanation that this is a crossroads. This is where I can forgive and surrender to the universe or unleash it on Chris.

The image of Dad smiling and shaking his head blossoms in my mind; and with it, the flicker continues to grow. Love takes a long time to grow.

Donny pipes up again, “Let’s see how long her neck can stretch.”

* * *

Chris sits at the edge of his bed, still reeling from the phone call he’d received. Lily had slept through the whole thing, and though he considers waking her up with the news, decides against it. There’d be plenty of time for grief. Eddie’s pickup had been found at the bottom of a cliff with his body crushed inside. The officer who’d told him this had explained he’d likely fallen asleep at the wheel, which wasn’t uncommon at all. They suspected he’d been out for a night of camping judging by all the gear scattered around the impact site.

My best friend, Chris marvels, gone. God, I wonder how his mom’s doing. First her husband, and now her only child. He stands and heads for the door, thirsty for a drink. The stickiness is the first thing he notices; it oozes up between his toes, causing the carpet to cling to his bare feet. He glances down to find a thickening pool of blood seeping from beneath the door which swings open with awful finality.

He has enough time to whisper, ‘Eddie?’, before the air around him reverberates into a deep hum like a subwoofer, accented by the agonizing (elongating) screams of his wife behind him.

Credit To – ARScroggins

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