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Pale and Afraid

July 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Quick, grab some drinks and some seats, let’s go!” I yelled to Dominic as he fumbled through my uncle’s fridge. The night of the Super Bowl, I always like my drink on hand and a bag of chips before the game starts. Likewise, I prefer to send my best friend Dominic into the kitchen to do it for me. As a result, I was left sitting on the couch waiting for him to get back with the stash. That is, the snacks.

I heard the toilet from across the room, and the sink followed it. My Uncle Nate emerged from the restroom refreshed and ready for the game.

“Let’s go boys; time for some football!”

As my uncle declined from standing and flopped onto the couch, Dominic emerged with our drinks and tossed one to me. At fifteen, Dom and I probably shouldn’t have been drinking beers, but my uncle is just that cool. He did warn us that pairing the chips with beer and the various chocolate snacks he had laid out in front of us would give us vivid nightmares, but he didn’t know the science to prove it.

Dominic popped open his can of beer, and I opened my own. Oddly, Uncle Nate was sipping on a cola instead, but there was no reason to complain.

Three guys, drinking soda and beer, eating chips, watching the Super Bowl in a cardboard box of an apartment; it’s the American dream. This guy knows how to live.

“Alright, here we go!” My uncle grabbed some chips from the bag as the Super Bowl started.


“Shitty game, huh?” I yawned to Uncle Nathan. I turned to see him cleaning up the mess we had left; soda, chips, candy wrappers, and vomit. Don’t ask how the vomit got there.

“Yeah Jeff, but at least our team won.”

Dominic just laughed, “Uncle Nathan, the Browns versus the Bears isn’t exactly a great match up anyways. The Browns are the best in the league; the Bears are the worst.”

My uncle just snickered in attentiveness to the obvious mistruth of this statement. The Browns aren’t exactly a very talented bunch of athletes. That’s not to say the Bears are though. Let’s just say it was a sloppy, unexciting Super Bowl.

It took about ten minutes to relocate the disarray of the living room to the garbage can in the kitchen. We all pitched in, but all I had to do was wash the barf off the boring, brown and dingy carpet. Eventually though, we all retreated to our bedrooms for the night.

“I get the bed, Jeff!” Dominic shouted tossing his bag of clothes and video games onto my bed.

“I give you the bed every weekend Dom, you gotta let me sleep there this time!”

“Jeff, I’m the guest!”

“I am too!”

I picked up my pillow and whipped it across the room at Dominic, making contact with his face. It was just a pillow, so all it did was make him smirk and leap across the half-made bed to knock me over. It was a very unfair fight, as usual. Every weekend, we come over my uncle Nathan’s apartment, play games, watch sports, and when we get to bed, we find something to argue about and we wrestle. I can never manage to win, since Dom’s a beast. He’s not on any sports teams or anything at school, but I think he lifts weights. That’s enough to trump my nonexistent fighting abilities and lanky body.

The fight ended with me tapping out of a triangle choke, just as my Uncle shouted from the other room to “Go to sleep!”

“You really need to start working out, Jeff.” Dominic laughed matter-of-factly as he set up my bed and hopped into it.

“You need to stop working out.” I mumbled as I tossed some blankets and a pillow onto the floor.

It took about five minutes for Dominic to start snoring, but I was awake well into the morning. I checked my watch with a click of the glow button; one thirty. My left ankle itched a little bit so I scratched it with the sock on my right foot. I sighed and fluffed my pillow up against the leg of the bedpost. I figured if I curled up comfortable enough, and spaced out, I could lull myself to sleep soundly. It came as a surprise.

I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I shot awake out of nowhere. My eyes were blurry so I rubbed them in a startled search for some clarity. When they came to, I stood up and looked around the room. I didn’t know why, but I knew something was up. I kicked the blankets away from my ankles, as they were twisted haphazardly around me. The carpet felt rough against my bare feet. The sound of the wall clock was ticking sadistically against the silent environments. My ears began to pound. I was so preoccupied by the darkly vibrant room that I didn’t even react when the door to my room slammed shut. It took a moment, and then I panicked. I leaped across the room and ripped Dom’s pillow away from him.

“Wake up!” I shouted in a whisper.

“What the hell?” he moaned, “Are you insane? I was just getting the key to the city!”

“Quiet, you can get it later! Someone broke into the apartment!”

“Whoa, your dream was worse than mine,” he yawned, “Well, forget about it. I’m going back to sleep.”

I pulled the blankets off his body to assure he wasn’t going to do just that.

“Jeff, what’s wrong with y-”

The sound of some objects falling in the kitchen shaved the end off his sentence down a bit. He also appeared to come to his senses. He stood up in one whoosh of the bed sheets.

“I heard that,” he whispered, “does this room have a lock? Is that screen up in your window? We could make the jump; we’re only on the third floor!”

“Shut-up Dominic!” I hissed.

A quiet whistle-like, buzzing noise began to pick up all around us. There was now a darker hue to the room, only pierced by the streetlights pointing in from across the street. Everything looked almost grey, though, it’s hard to explain. It was like a dark grey veil was tossed over our room. The sound began to get louder. It escalated to the point where Dom and I had to cover our ears.

“What is that? Jeff, are we under a lock down? Why are you grey?!”

For a tough guy like Dom, this sort of annoyance was really pathetic.

“Dominic, calm down. We could just bang on Uncle Nathan’s wall to see if he’s alright.”

“What if whoever broke in hears us, and finds out we’re in here?”

“The door’s locked, and do you really have a better idea right now?”

Dominic just stared at me. He shook his head and dipped away from the wall to let me pass. I lined up my fist with where the headboard of Uncle Nathan’s bed was and gave it a rap. We waited. No answer. The buzzing began to numb my ears.

“Did he knock back?” Dominic asked.

I didn’t answer him. I knocked on the wall again with the same negative results.

“Shit!” I shouted, “Uncle Nathan, you in there? Uncle Na-”

Dominic curled his hand around my mouth, so I spit on it, seething a growl into his palm.

“You sick bastard!” he shouted, wiping his hand onto his flannel pants, “Are you crazy? Honestly dude, are you suddenly just insane?”

I just shook my head and frowned at him. Then, my face softened a bit and I sat down onto the bed, defeated and confused. Dominic continued.

“Look, we don’t want whoever is out there, to know we’re in here. They probably know by now man – shit! What are we going to do now?”

I looked toward the door. I spoke slowly but surely.

“We’re going to open the door, and get into Uncle Nathan’s room.”

Dominic chortled a bit, scathingly, “Jeff, how about you don’t call the shots anymore. I have an idea. I’ll go turn the light on first.”

He walked across the room and kept speaking on his way to the switch.

“This is why we need phones man; we would’ve had the cops on their way by now.”

He flicked the switch to the on position. Nothing. He flicked the switch off and on a few times as if it was on a fixed-ratio timer; still, no light. He turned around and laughed a little bit.

“I don’t know Jeff, I don’t know.” He said with his hands on his hips, while biting his lip, and shaking his head wistfully.

I humored him and responded, “Don’t know what Dom?”

He cut me off and screamed, “What the fuck is going on, dude?”

He sat down next to me, sweating and exhausted.

“Dominic, I’m going to open the door.” I picked my ear to no avail, trying to relieve the numbness that the buzzing had tattooed to my ear drum.

“Go ahead Jeff, I’m staying here-”

I pulled him up by his arm as I stood up as well.

“Stop being stupid, we’re gonna get Uncle Nathan, and we’re going to get out of this okay?”

He hung his head in defeat. We approached the door, frightened together.

We stopped just short of the door because I noticed something quite peculiar. A sound, emanating from the living room like a low rumble or a growl, caused my heart to skip a few beats.

“Holy…? Jeff, did you hear that?” Dom whispered to me.

He put his finger up for no other reason but to point out the silence that followed the sound.

“Dom, it’s nothing. It’s probably just the floors settling or something. Let’s go!”

I didn’t even think twice; I just swung the door open with hasty abandon.

“What?” Dominic gasped.

“What?” I mimicked.

“I thought you said that was locked?” Dom uttered in confusion.

“Sssh, let’s keep moving!”

We made an immediate shuffle toward the epicenter of our mission; Uncle Nathan’s room. The door was shut, which aggravated me highly. I tugged on the doorknob and of course it was locked. The doorknob appeared to chip away its gold paint beneath my determined fingers.

“Dammit Jeff, just knock on it,” Dominic shouted harshly in a sore whisper.

He began calling out my uncle’s name and slamming the agitated knobs of his fists against the wooden barrier between the bedroom and us. Amidst Dominic’s solo driven chaos, I began to hear something else. It was a quiet sound; breathy and heavy though and it seemed to pass back and forth. It startled me, because it was behind me. Then it stopped, but I could feel as if whatever it was still lingered behind us.

I grabbed his arms out from the flurry and shut him up.

“Dominic, on the count of three we turn around.”


“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something behind us. On the slow count of three, okay?”

He nodded. I started the count.


I felt the hair on my neck stand up, and tickle with the breath behind me.


Dominic took a premature breath.


We turned around.

From the perspective of Uncle Nathan:

I yawned through the early morning muck in my mouth and shuffled into the kitchen. I had a strange urge for a PB & J sandwich, which left me hungry and eager. I sifted through the fridge for the jelly but there was none left. Damn, I thought, Jeff told me there was some left. I laughed to myself. He did that on purpose. I switched my hand direction toward the bowl of salad in the front, but a wrong flick of the wrist sent it sailing to the floor along with the unopened gallon of soda.

“Shit!” I fumed, “Not in the mood.”

Though tired and groggy, I still managed to clean up the newly opened soda pop and now inedible salad. Satisfied with the spotless job I’d done, I decided watching some early morning TV was a better idea. I trotted contently into the living room and threw myself onto the cushiony couch with a plop. The remote, as usual, rested on the coffee table as so I didn’t have to get up to grab it. I pushed the power button. A low, irritating buzzing noise was all that I received. The screen had popped on but escaped speedily from the box leaving the strange noise.

“What now?” I mumbled.

Standing up was a chore, and walking over to the TV was overkill for my stubby, pasty legs. I checked the back of the box but nothing pointed to an issue. The sound got increasingly louder so I just unplugged the TV and stepped away after only a few minutes of investigation. The sound rang in my ears even after, if only as an aftershock on my eardrums.

As I walked back toward my bedroom, my stomach growled in hunger but I chose to ignore it. I looked toward my nephew’s bedroom. The dark of the apartment did not conceal the door’s closed position. I had shut it before going into the kitchen to block out Dominic’s loud, monstrous snoring. The snoring had ceased. I stood expressionless in front of the door, wondering if they were awake.

“Dominic, Jeffrey? You awake?”

No response. I opened the door and shut off the moving fan by the door. Dominic likes the fan on even in the cold of February. I turned on the light and looked around the room. I gasped in horror.

Jeff and Dominic were white as ghosts; bleached by fear. Their faces were shaped by fright; eyes and mouths open wide. Expert’s judgment: They died of fear, in their sleep.

Credit: Mike Maxim

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July 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Well, this is embarrassing. Usually, I check on the new arrivals, and they’re already begging to make it all stop. I mean, even if they had no regrets before, they sure do now, right? But this… this is new. Just a room with blank walls. I haven’t seen an occupied room that didn’t at least have scenes of torment projected on the walls.

“Okay, so first things first. This is Hell… Who am I? No one important. I came down here the same as everyone else, with all the torment and loss of hope and knowing that this would be my eternity. But then, after a while, I was given a job. Trusted lieutenant in charge of recruitment. Armageddon, you know. Need to find the ruthless ones, separate the strong from the cannon fodder. It’s all in how you handle your torment. I guess I handled mine better than most.

“No, no fire pits or anything like that. Dante had a good imagination, but that’s not what hell is. Hell is whatever you bring with you. And you, my friend, have brought nothing with you at all. No regrets, no torment. Jack diddly squat. Well, of course you miss your wife and kids and family and friends. And football, of course. And coffee. But that… that’s not grounds for torment, pardon the pun. By all rights, you shouldn’t even be here.

“What does it mean? No clue. I haven’t heard of us transferring anyone up to you-know-where, but I haven’t been here all that long compared to my superiors. So it might have happened before.

“Now, normally I’d be tempted to torture you myself, but regrettably, that’s not my job. So I’m going to find out what’s going on. I’ll get back to you. Don’t go anywhere… yeah, I know, but it is Hell. Mostly bad puns and Dad jokes.”


“Okay, my friend, I might have some… hey, how did you make that chair? And the bed? How the… wait, it’s a projection. You’re projecting your desires instead of torment… I had no idea that could be done. I was only gone for a week, and look at you! I’m actually really impressed… Yeah, I’ll bet it does take epic concentration.

“Anyway, I… wait, can I sit? I don’t ever get to sit…. thanks, buddy. Anyway, human souls. Perception determines reality, and that’s true no matter if you’re generally good, evil, or somewhere in between. And just to clue you in, pretty much everyone is in that third category. You’ve done things you shouldn’t have, told lies, sinned, all that, and while you yourself regret those actions, that regret is not enough to make you want to self-flagellate for all eternity. Nor does it mean you don’t feel bad. Unless you’re a psychopath, which you aren’t, you have a conscience. So you’ve made peace with your sins, and you’re certainly not unique in that.

“Now, contrary to the general belief of humanity, you don’t accumulate a point value for your good and bad deeds and get sent up there or down here based on your score. It’s more like a whole-life approach. Did you do enough to help ensure the continuation of humanity as a species? Now, on the surface, many people, going up or Hell-bound, can say that. They had kids and raised them right, they did their part to leave the outdoors cleaner than it was before, and so on. But what were you doing when nobody was watching, when you stepped away from glorifying your family and accomplishments on social media, when it was just you, or just you and your family. Did you maintain the same values? Or did you molest your kids? Did you beat your wife? Did you rape, murder, decrease the value of someone else’s life in some way? Mankind’s inhumanity to mankind. Were you the same person in the dark as in the light? Because that plays a factor.

“I can tell I’m losing you, so I’ll simplify it. Human souls only get routed here because they deserve it, or because they are so full of regret that they cannot possibly accept salvation. You fall into neither category. I have read and re-read your file, and the file includes everything you have ever done, good, bad, ugly, every thought, every deed. I had my superiors take a look, and they have soft spots for nobody. They agree with me. There is no reason for you to have been sent down here.

“I agree, that’s a comforting thing for you. The problem is that the only precedent of someone coming to Hell and leaving again… well, you can guess who that was, and even then He made a stop in the mortal realm first before ascending, didn’t He? A direct transfer of a soul from Hell to… there? Way above my pay grade, my friend. So it may take a while to get a decision on this. So you just sit tight… and try not to make yourself too much at home.”


“Okay, so I… wait, what did you do? This… wait a minute… this looks like your house! The window, the view? How do you have a view? This is Hell, man! You’re not supposed… okay, okay, I know, unique situation, but if anyone else figured out they could do this, then Hell wouldn’t be Hell anymore. Everyone would delight in their own depraved little fantasies… what do you mean, including me? I… okay, well, yeah, but that’s not the point!

“Anyway, here’s the deal. You’ve been brought to the attention of the Morning Star himself, and a decision is pending. You’ll be happy to know that even the Father of Lies thinks you don’t deserve to be here. And that, paradoxically, is no lie. It doesn’t guarantee you a way out, though. They’re still trying to figure out how you got here in the first place.

“How did… man, you can’t say that name down here! Not unless you’re screaming for deliverance, anyway. So okay, how did He come down here and then leave? Well, when you’re the son of… well, you know… that pretty much gives you free reign to go wherever you please. Part of the whole ‘new covenant’ thing. All you have to do is believe in Him, and up to… there… you go.

“But there’s the rub. How many truly believe, and how many just say they do so that they can act however they want and justify it in His name? My personal favorites? The ones who talk about Him but worship at the altar of Ayn Rand; in other words, ‘I got mine, so fuck you!’ The ones who give to charity because of the tax write-off instead than the good they can do; for the purposes of the afterlife, it’s the intent that counts, not the result. The ones who use tax havens so that their tax dollars don’t go to services for the elderly and the poor. The only reason they say they believe is because it’s politically expedient and good business. Yeah, I’m a sinner, and in a big way, but there are some transgressions that even make me sick. It pleases me no end to see pricks like that get what’s coming to them. I’ll sit there and watch them suffer for hours, if I can…

“Why am I here in the first place? Let’s just say I had a lot of fun over many years with teenagers and cutlery. Oh, don’t give me that look. If you knew what my own mother did to me… yeah, Mister Morals, I know that doesn’t excuse it, but at least you know I wasn’t born that way. And besides, unlike those hypocrites I just mentioned, I never had any illusions about who I am. Still don’t, as a matter of fact.

“Right, anyway, I’ll let you know what Lucifer decides. Sanctimonious little…”


“Hey, buddy… wait, where are you? Hello? … okay, are you hiding now? Not cool, my man. Maybe you’re downstairs? Anyway, I know you’re here, and I know you can hear me. So the decision was made… wow, something smells good… the decision was made to keep you here… the one pure soul in Hell. You’re going to be leverage, my man. They have people up there that we want here, and we’re going to get them with your help. You should be honored.

“Not in the kitchen… wow, and a roast in the crockpot. You really have taken ownership of your reality. I am truly impressed. I wish I didn’t have to say what I have to say next…

“More stairs? How big is this damn house? Anyway, I’ve been ordered to keep you company until the exchange, which could take a few centuries to arrange. So in the meantime, we’re going to tarnish your soul a bit, just to make a point for when we hand you over. You’re going to view my sins. Over and over. Who knows? You might start to see your own kids in the faces of those that I… ended. I consider myself a craftsman, and after I… broke them, I turned each of them into a work of art. I think you’ll come to appreciate me…

“Wow, spacious basement. Come on out so I can…”


“Wha… what the hell? How do I have a headache? Why does… you! You hit me! How does that even work? It’s the fucking afterlife! My head shouldn’t… shouldn’t… yeah, I remember what I said about perception determining reality, but what does… what… oh no… you didn’t… you can’t… hey! You tied me up… but you didn’t even move, you… just… thought it. Look, man, I don’t know what you think you’re going to accomplish here, but… ahhh! No!!! No, please! Make it stop! Nooo! I can’t fucking take it! Jesus God, please help me, ohh nooo!”


“N-no… no, I’m n-not telling you shit… they’ll be here any m-minute… oh nooo! No! It fucking hurts! No, please stop! Okay, okay! Okay! Stop! Stop!!! … Okay, they don’t know when I’m c-coming out… I told my superiors I w-wanted at least 100 years to break you d-down, s-so they got someone else to do recruiting… Bundy, I think, or D-Dahmer… no, I can’t. No! I can’t tell you how to move between… nooo! Kill me! Kill me for good! Stop stop stop stop stop…..please… pleeeeeease! Okay, I’ll tell! I’ll fucking tell!!!…”


“You know … I don’t even know how long… eight months? Seems l-longer…

“Made them watch… I made them w-watch the n-news about themselves… their p-parents crying… new depths of despair… recorded and made them watch it while I used them… drilled the hope out of them… but I still hope, Whenever you l-leave, I have hope. I’ll do all this to y-you one day. I’ve tried to change reality when you leave, but… but I fucking can’t! Why? I have the p-power here! I have… nnoooooooOOOOOO!!!”


“Rumble… rumble rumble… never been rumbling… earthquake? Fuckin’ earthquake. Hell doesn’t get earthquakes… or does it… can’t r-remember…

“Oh… back again… got earthquakes now… how… how do… whoa… whoa… I feel… better… why am I… why did you heal me? I’ve been in constant pain for years and… okay… I’ll… yeah, I’ll shut up…

“Dead? Man, I thought you were smarter than that. Lucifer may be fallen, but he’s still an angel, and he can only be killed by… by… They came? From up there? But we had the best of the best! I helped recruit… you posed as me… what? Oh, you clever fuck. You altered their perception. That’s what all the… the crockpot, the smell… the attention to detail… that was you training yourself. But wait… you unbelievable bastard, you were sent here! That was your whole… oh, nice, slow clap for me… arrogant fuck… ow, fuck, okay! Okay!

“So what, all the ones I recruited, all the ones like me, they’re tied up in other basements? … What do you mean, or worse? You know what? Forget it, I don’t want to know.

“So It’s all fucking over? We lost? Okay, fine, so what, though? You still have billions of souls here, and one of them is bound to pick up the mantle… selected for forgiveness? How does that work? … Wait, the ones who were worthy but refused to believe? You took them??? What the fuck, man! They turned it down! … Saw the error of their… unbelievable.

“So the rest of us? What, are you going to wink us out of existence? … Wait, finish out our sentences? The sentence is eternal damnation, so how can we… how can… no… no… you call me a sadistic bastard, and you do this? How is this just? How is this fair? We don’t get cleansed? We don’t get shown mercy? The dregs of the earth? Those who fucking need it most? Those who were damned to this fate by their own parents? By a mother who used her fucking needle-nose pliers on every inch of flesh she could find? I never had a chance! I never… yes, I’m fucking crying! … Why should I say I’m sorry? Why shouldn’t she have to do that? … Okay! I’m fucking sorry, okay? I’m sorry I hurt them! I’m sorry I killed them! Now, please let me out, please!! … How can you say that? Of course I meant it! … Well who the fuck cares if I meant it! Let me out of here! Please!!!

“Wh… where did you go? Where did… oh, you vanished upstairs. I hear you up there, rummaging through your drawer! What, too lazy to walk up the damn stairs? Oh, coming back down, I see. You’re just a … just…


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The Piano Man

July 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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When I graduated from college, my best friend Diana and I embarked upon a grand tour of Europe. Halfway through our trip, we had planned to spend three days in Prague, but had completely failed to account for poor weather hindering all of our sight-seeing plans. As a result of ensuing downpour for our entire time we spent in the city, we found ourselves aimlessly wandering through back alleys and side streets, entering every vaguely interesting shop as an excuse to get out of the rain. On our last day, we found an antique book store. Upon entering, we were blown away by the sheer vastness of the place and the overwhelming stacks of books. An elderly woman behind a desk in the front gave us a little smile and greeted us before we both separated and began exploring.

The store was impressively large for a seemingly unassuming place. I spent over an hour wandering through the aisles, before I found myself in the shop’s basement. Upon entering the basement, my eyes fell upon a beautiful, old piano. As a well practiced pianist and having not seen a piano in over two months, I was thrilled. I looked around excitedly to make sure I wouldn’t be bothering any other shoppers, but there was no one around. Grinning to myself, I strode over to the piano and took a seat on the bench in front of it. The cold of the leather on the seat bit into my skin, but I didn’t care. I ran my hands over the keys. Ivory, most likely, I thought to myself. I could tell the piano was old and therefore expected it to be out of tune, but was delighted when the chords I executed rang with perfect clarity.

“You play very beautiful,” a voice cracked behind me, and I jumped. An old man was standing directly behind me, and I hadn’t heard him approach. Smiling at the complement, I thanked him before he continued in very broken English, “She plays very good, but is missing two keys…Only 86.” I was having a hard time understanding what the man was saying through his accent and was going to ask him to repeat what he meant, but he smiled again and gestured for me to continue playing. After a few minutes, I gave up playing as Diana entered the basement, laughing at the absurdity of the scene in front of her. I had not noticed the old man leave, but was too busy excitedly telling Diana about how beautifully the piano played to put much thought to the matter.

Upon paying for our books back upstairs at the cash, the old woman complimented my playing and surprised me by asking if I would like the piano. At first I laughed, shocked by the offer. However, she went on to explain that the piano had passed through a variety of homes over the years, with no one ever keeping it long enough to enjoy its grandeur. She continued that she had been having difficulty selling it as the body cavity had been glued shut, and therefore could never be tuned. She told me that if I could cover the shipping costs to get the instrument home, I could take it for free, as she was just hoping to pass it on to someone more musical than herself. Seeing as we were travelling with nothing but backpacks, I laughed and told her I’d think it over for the night. However, Diana was ecstatic about the idea. When we returned to the flat we were staying in, we did some searching around on the internet, and placed a few phone calls, before establishing that shipping the piano home would actually be relatively cheap. As I was going to be moving in to my very first apartment upon returning from my trip, the prospect of having my own piano was thrilling.

When I returned from Europe at the end of the summer, my mysterious piano finally arrived. As I began to adjust to my new routine- new job, new apartment, new boyfriend- playing my piano became the part of the day I most looked forward to. I would practically race off the bus after a long day at work, run inside to feed the cat, and then sit down on the warm leather of the bench and begin to create my music. I remember one cold night in March, Peter was over and he was teasing me by insisting he had never heard me play.

“You’ll have to start staying over some more if you want Friday to like you,” I giggled, gesturing to my cat, who was vehemently hissing at him. “She takes about a solid month to warm up to people.” At Pete’s insistence, I sat down on the bench and smiled as the familiar feeling of contentedness washed over me. After about half an hour, I heard my cell phone ring, and answered it to hear Diana talking. She was out of breath and excitedly trying to explain that she had found an old photograph in one of the books she had bought months ago in Prague, and that she was pretty sure it was of a young girl sitting at the very piano in my apartment. I told her to email me the picture, before we started gossiping about the Bachelorette finale that had aired the night before.

When I hung up, Peter was putting on his jacket, saying he needed to go to work early in the morning. I was a bit annoyed he didn’t want to stay the night, but I pretended not to care, so I walked him downstairs. On the way back up to my apartment, I realized I had gotten the email Diana had sent me. Upon opening the picture, I could see right away that she was right about the piano being the same. It was the same leather-bound bench, the same beautiful woodwork, the same porcelain-white keys. However, something about the photo seemed a bit off. As I was trying to decide what was strange about it, Friday ran past me and bolted towards a man at the end of the hallway.

“Friday come here!” I exclaimed loudly. As I ran over the man, I was already apologizing, “I’m sorry she’s not normally like this.” When the man’s eyes met mine, I felt as though I had seen that smile before. Before I could dwell on this, Friday clawed at my leg, and I hoisted her up and carried her back to my apartment. I returned back to my phone and the picture Diana had emailed, and took a seat on the bench on front of the piano to study the picture some more. What was it? Then it occurred to me. The piano in the picture was smaller than the one in front of me right now. As an eerie feeling washed over me, I remembered something I had been told about the instrument months before, and found myself counting the keys of the piano in the photograph. 71. What the fuck, I thought.

But then it hit me. And as it did, a chill swept over me. A chill made worst by the fact that the bench I was sitting on was ice cold. The coldness swept through me as it dawned on me that my piano bench was never cold. Ever. This bench is always warm. And that was when I realized where I had seen that smile before. Friday darted towards my apartment door as I heard a soft whisper,

And you will be 87.

Credit: Satine Fenner

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Truth or Dare

July 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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“Okay, now it’s your turn!” Chloe cheered loudly.

“Sssshhh! You’re going to wake up your mom,” said Krissie.

“Oops, sorry. Teehee… So truth or dare?”

“Erm… truth…” Krissie seemed to be hesitating, but Chloe couldn’t have it.

“Why truth? That’s boring! You never pick dare… Chicken!”

“But I…”

“Chicken! Chicken!” Chloe crossed her arms and turned away.

“Fine. Dare then. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to… Go to my mother’s room, flicker the lights and slam the bedroom door shut,” Chloe pointed towards the door in the hallway. Right next to Chloe’s bedroom, facing the stairs. “Just to scare my mother, because she forbade us to talk so late at night,”

“Are you sure?” Asked Krissie. “Won’t I get caught? Maybe she’ll find out we’ve been up all this time. Maybe she’ll get mad and maybe I won’t be able to come over anymore,”

“Why of course not, silly! She’ll probably blame me anyways. Now go for it, go,”

Krissie went into the hallway and as Chloe said, she flickered the lights, closed the bedroom door with a loud slam, enjoying the sound of her mother’s loud gasp and returned to Chloe’s bedroom, closing the door behind her. They giggled together about what Krissie just did.

The giggling stopped when Chloe’s mother had found her way to the hallway, stomping towards Chloe’s room frustrated. Chloe quickly gathered the Ouija board, candles, books and other mickmack, threw it in a corner, jumped in her bed and pretended to be asleep.

Her mother opened the door, about to say something, but didn’t. She sighed, stood there for a second, then closed the door again. She retrieved to her bedroom, went back to sleep, keeping the lights on and the door closed this time.

After a few minutes Chloe crawled out of bed quietly, grabbed the Ouija board and searched the ground for the playing chart. She then sat down in the middle of the room again, lighting four candles and spelling out the words:

“That was a close call,” on the Ouija board.

Credit: IQuackInTheDark

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July 7, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Think of a drop of dark red ink falling towards a sterile marble floor. It splashes into a crown and branches into threads of alternating lengths, ejecting droplets into the air. The droplets too skim across the floor, and eventually, the drop is gone. The crown settles in the image of a shining sun, but red, like a plague of rash. The splatter brightens the red at the extremities while maintaining a thicker, darker core in the center. Imagine a face protruding from the core. Then imagine the shoulders emerging. Arms. Now chest. Stop. There it is. We call him Hank.

He is an atypical contiguous single spore issue germinated by the colony seen surrounding him. Picture half a man implanted to the corner of a room, the blood vessels arcing out from beneath him like bronchi, creeping and thinning as one zooms out. These are called forelegs, and although blood relatives, they compete with each other to wheedle nutrients from the parent pod as self-preserving individuals, coaxing, cajoling, seducing, and sometimes even drugging or coercing what in botanical terms would be the central xylem for their due. It is undying, it is highly resilient, and it is expensive. Growing the fungal colony has helped solve 2 maritime crises, saved the African continent from an unending drought, and salvaged 80% of the world’s timber waste.

The way it is grown is a complex duology. In the first part, a human being volunteers to submit bone marrow and other tissue samples to undergo advanced bioengineering. In the second, the engineered genetic isolate is cultured with plant matter. The setup for this is accomplished during the former stage, where the human samples are retrofitted with numerous enzymes coded to diffuse into the plant substrate in the latter stage, making what’s known among the scientific community as the ‘green goo’. The petri dishes are let sit for 34 hours under intense monitoring for signs of germination. Once the initial polyp sprouts, the node is tested for blood vessel merger, maturation and efficiency. After that, it is replanted in damp carbohydrate-injected soil and left in the dark. Once this point is reached, the spore begins reproducing asexually with its own genetic information. The fusion of proteins involved in this process is analyzed monthly by 6000 agriculture scientists and critics worldwide for unethical practices. Debates are held biweekly to lay down ground rules and, to an extent, insurrect the first system to legally recognize undesired scenarios. This way, the public could rest assured the life-binding is continually filtered of any moral dilemmas.

In one such debate, the vanishingly low probability event of a dominant human allele was suggested. Although the splice is strained 1,000,232 times over to ensure passiveness, the human allele may sometimes emerge triumphant. Under the ‘human’ influence, when two compatible heterokaryotic forelegs of the newly germinating pod compete, they may ‘consider’ collective success a more viable option instead, thereby disengaging from the deathmatch and joining to form a larger dikaryotic foreleg. Once an unsympathetic organism concerned solely with a net survival status, its canny is dulled by an attitude of interdependence. Our social instinct causes this tweak in the symbiosis, and the resulting growth metastasizes, transcending a rather human psychology to a part of the whole colony. This part, if left unchecked, may form a fruiting body. That is Hank. Hank is sentient.

The odds of these conditions aligning dwindle infinitesimally, shaking off a billion or so at each step. The extreme unlikelihood of the scenario caused it to be deemed theoretical, and was dismissed with a “To be revised” prescription.

It has taken Hank 2 years to grow into this office room. An initially captivated staff had to be cleared out by management after receiving a critical number of immutable reports of being deeply unsettled by the sight of “a melting man”. He started out in the unlit agroforestry vault just by the breezeway. Thirst is said to have been the motivator for the ‘migration’, the mechanics of a ‘breadcrumb-trail’ scenario charged the culprit. The water cooler on this floor sits a short walk away from the office area, just before the greenhouse. Employees are known to stagger along this route to and fro in pursuit and consumption of water, and the janitorial department revealed that the area was therefore subject to the most cleaning. In the same pursuit, Hank became the permanent and only occupant of office #238.

The blood vessels—Hank’s pod—are the crop yield of this splice. They boast remedial properties when processed into a serum and injected into the bloodstream due to their ability to distill a targeted molecule. By the same virtue, they can be utilized to retrieve the most nectar out of a flower, for modest example. Some unorthodox methods such as using the product as seasoning in food have been reported to give enhanced results but remain scientifically unverified.

These are pros. They are the benefits the project was intended to produce. They are clear and loud. But the cons are even clearer, and by today’s evening, probably just as loud. And they can be summed up with minimal simplification by the eponymous question.

Hank does not talk but he has been observed mumbling. His eyes barely open and seem to be milky white, indicating subpar vision capabilities. The ears are deformed and functionless as Hank does not respond to auditory cues. His skull is doughy and inflates and deflates like a granule of maggots, seemingly in rhythmic discipline with his breathing, indicating the lungs share an inhospitable space with the brain. However, he has shown tremendous touch sensory competence, which is a note of both marvel and despondency for the world at large.

A senate hearing has been called to address the issue at once. The streets are flooded with rhetoric and judgments. The internet is riddled with support groups, fan-pages and pseudo personality profiles based on what is known of Hank.

They are going to cut him out in 3 hours, and somehow, Hank seems to be clairvoyantly aware of his fate. He has grown restless and the commotion has only made his coping worse. Some are calling it a harvest. Others are saying ‘abortion’. The question is, will Hank be euthanized, disposed of, the paperwork burned, the ledgers closed, the history erased, the dilemma forgotten, the incident buried and piled on with minutia and quibbles, or will he become the first legal subhuman subject of scientific study to live in a glass box for years to come? What are we going to do with Hank?

Credit: Kash

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The Old School Night Nurse

July 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This all happened when I was 13. Things weren’t great at home, And I drifted into the habit of going out very late most nights and just walking aimlessly around, exploring the pretty dull town in which I grew up.

My parents went to bed early since they had actual responsibilities, so it was pretty easy to say I was going to watch TV at a friends house, and stay out til the small hours, creeping into bed well after midnight.

There was a girl in my classes called Janet, who I didn’t think had ever even noticed me previously; she was stunningly attractive and witty and warm and generally perfect, and I was very much invisible to girls, invisible to most people in fact. Don’t ask me how this came about as I am unsure myself, but we began to meet up on some of these nocturnal excursions, though we were never more than friends. I guess she must’ve been a fellow night-owl, or maybe she was just bored like I was.

I had no idea how to talk to girls, but I must have done something right as somehow she seemed to like me, though I am hardly what you would call a ladies man. I sure as hell liked her. We got into a routine whereby she’d slip me a note in school with something scribbled like “meet me by the shop at nine o’ clock” and we’d hang around in the dark and talk about dumb things.

It was the sort of town where everything shut down at night and so we had the roads, parks and cemetery to ourselves; she’d show me the house she grew up in and I’d tell her about some local ghosts and legends that I’d half invented myself. We’d usually gravitate towards our school, which is surrounded now by a seven-foot chain-link fence like a concentration camp, but in those days anyone could wander around the paths & grounds, with a big playing field and forest at the rear. There were benches and bike-sheds if we needed to rest or shelter. We were still just about young enough to have a good time without cigarettes and alcohol.

So one night we had arranged to meet as normal, and I I stood over the road from the corner shop that was the only place in town still open so late, sorta watching from the shadows as sometimes one of the staff would see me, and storm outside to tell me to get lost. But Janet never showed, which was the first time. I gave her another hour and left pretty hurt & angry, which in hindsight was an over-reaction; In all probability she’d wanted to come meet me, but maybe her parents had stopped her, or something had come up. Neither of us could afford a mobile phone which were still for the rich kids back then.

I couldn’t really hang around waiting any longer anyway as it was October, and cold enough so that even an indestructible teen like me could feel the chill. I wandered aimlessly until about midnight, when I wound up sat on an old bench overlooking our school, at the top of some long, gradual steps which led down to one of several entrances to the sprawling school structures.

I was miserable and dejected and could see my own breath, for like an idiot I was always under-dressed for the cold British weather, with only a thin sports jacket over a t-shirt. I was one of those kids who never needed much of a shove to sulk and strop, so I sat and shivered and felt sorry for myself. Thoughts flashed through my head of suicide or self-harm, until I noticed there was a light on, at the bottom of the steps, which, strangely, I hadn’t noticed earlier.

The dim light shone through a small window in a door which led into the school science block. This was bizarre; no-one should’ve been inside the school at this hour. I sometimes stayed late with a detention and even a couple of hours after the students left for the day, there were no cleaners or teachers left around, the place was eerily deserted and as quiet as the grave.

I decided to go and have a closer look, I don’t think I would have done if I wasn’t in such a lousy mood; I guess I figured that the evening could not get any worse. So I made my way down the steps to the pale yellow glow which seemed comforting, like a sanctuary from everything wrong with the world. My curiosity was “off the scale” too; Maybe this something exciting like a robbery in progress, or some older kids who’d broke in looking for someplace warm to get high.

The door to the school wasn’t locked, and I saw the light was coming from another door leading to a room beneath some stairs, which I hadn’t ever really noticed before. I cautiously entered into a nurse’s station of sorts, a small room with a couple of old battered school chairs and a mirror on the walk over a sink. It was stiflingly warm inside, though I saw no radiator and heard no heater. There were a couple of ancient yellowing posters on the walls about not passing on flu germs or something similar.

Just before I announced my presence, a lady appeared in a small alcove and asked how she could help.

I told her I had seen the light and followed my feet. I realised my thoughts of death and dismemberment were draining, and felt too foolish to tell her of such things. She had a manner about her which screamed that the only love she give was of the tough variety. So I said I wasn’t sure what I wanted, and politely enquired about her presence.

She told me she was always there at night, as a crisis nurse, without going into specifics, and I was too shy to ask any more questions. It was a small town, and the school also acted as kind of a community centre too, serving as a voting station and blood donation centre, that sort of thing. So to my naive 13-year old mind, her story sort-of checked out.

She was tiny, literally four feet tall, and dressed like someone from the Salvation army, with a khaki shirt & shorts, old-fashioned sandals and a dark crimson sash around her stocky chest. I never once saw her smile, but didn’t really see this as strange or unfriendly until I thought about it later, also reflecting on how her language was cold for a nurse; they always call you “love” or “dear”, ask nice friendly questions and seem to want to talk, enjoy it even. Her attitude was formal and businesslike.

There was an awkward silence before she suggested that I must’ve known know why I had arrived there, so I said that I guessed I lacked direction, which was a stupid thing to say, but it seemed appropriate somehow. She said she was part of a team, who people could turn to when they felt alone, or under-valued. Showing no emotion, she began to speak of pills which might help. I mumbled some vague agreement, a little bewildered as I knew nothing really of medication back then, and she disappeared back around the corner from where she had first emerged. I could hear cupboards and drawers opening and tablets rattling in plastic jars.

She told me she had just the thing to make me feel better, and spoke of doses and suchlike, but while she was talking in her low, soft and slightly gravelly voice, I began to pay attention to my growing sense of dread. It dawned on me that I did not like this woman at all. Something was very wrong with the entire situation. Worse, I sensed that I was in real danger there, and that I had to leave immediately.

So while she was still in the back, rummaging and muttering, I slipped straight out the door and hurried home to bed, not looking back once. I have no more memories of that night.

When I awoke, the whole thing seemed unreal, with my recollection rapidly disintegrating, details vague like in my dreams. I probably would’ve dismissed the whole thing as some bad nightmare if it were not for the breaking news at school that morning.

Janet had vanished in the night. She had gone out to meet someone and never returned. Everyone was talking about it. The speculation was predictably ridiculous, a smorgasbord of half-baked theories and vindictive gossip.

They held an emergency assembly for everyone in our year, with a police officer stood on the stage urging us to come forward if we knew or heard of anything even vaguely strange or suspicious. Afterwards, officers spoke privately to some of Janet’s closest friends; she had quite a few, she was always very well-liked. Of course, they didn’t bother speaking to me, as no-one had a clue about our late night rendezvous. In fact, no-one even knew I existed. I did wonder if anyone would have even believed me if I had come forward to say that I’d been meeting with Janet. I probably would’ve been dismissed as an attention-seeker.

Or maybe they’d have seen me as the prime suspect. “Weird, shambling misanthrope meets popular, pretty girl.” The thought did cross my mind. And how could I have told anybody about what had happened to me that very same night? They’d have pegged me as “insane” and thrown me to the wolves, one way or another.

Strangely enough, Janet was very rarely mentioned by anyone again afterwards. No anniversaries were marked. Her close friends quickly began to talk about other things. A couple of weeks and things were back to normal.

Except… about a year later, one of our teachers took down some old posters, and beneath one was a bright scribble in permanent marker pen about Janet, some stupid insult. The teacher froze for a few moments, then remarked quietly on how she couldn’t remember Janet’s surname. Then she dismissed the whole thing and carried on with her day. I turned around to look back at the rest of the class, but no-one else was even listening.

That was the last time I heard anyone say her name. She has seemingly ceased to exist, which is strange to say the least. The police seemed to drop the case pretty soon and an internet search throws up no record of her at all. I have no way of knowing if she got mixed up with the weird old woman I encountered that night, but the whole thing seems too bizarre to be coincidental. But for all I know, Janet ran away to join the circus. It is maddeningly vague. I did discreetly ask if the school ran some sort of late-night therapy service for troubled teens, but you can probably guess the answer.

I really should’ve gone and said something to Janet’s parents, as I considered myself at least partly responsible for her disappearance. But I was far too immature and awkward to ever have confronted them. What a total wimp. And that is the end of the story. The end of Janet, I guess.

I’ve since moved to a new town but sometimes I return to revisit the places where me and Janet would go to on those few fleeting late summer nights. The school is still there. It’s been pretty heavily redeveloped in recent years, every part seems totally different except for those long, gradual steps down to the old science block. I walk past every once in a while, and I stand above those steps and stare down at the school, and I still wonder what the hell happened.

Credit: Hack Shuck

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