Crater—Lucy Zhou

One morning, as Anna awakened from a moonless dream, she discovered a hole the size of a small child’s fist above her belly button. Crunching her stomach to get a closer look, she scrutinized the oblong cavity—about one-inch deep and freshly-pink like marbled ham. It was as if someone had picked up a tablespoon and swiped at the soft cream of her flesh, at the taut-skinned tissue and nerve fibers. A clean, decisive blow. As she probed the hole for any bumps or alien tenderness, she felt no pain, nothing but the warm, familiar hum of her body, rushing to meet her fingertips.

In the bathroom mirror, she surveyed her reflection—wide-eyed, a pink dash of a mouth, coffee-ground hair smeared wildly down her nape. As she turned off the faucet to splash water on her face, she could have sworn—if she closed her eyes and held her breath—that somewhere air thumped against a wire-mesh screen. A distant whistling, although the lone window in the bathroom remained shut. Undisturbed. Her eyes traveled south to the mirror’s edge—the shadow-indent below her small breasts—and then back up to her face. An oversized pore, she finally told herself as the cream-colored blouse swallowed up her torso—or the vestigial pockmark of a particularly deep-rooted pimple. Another hallmark of getting older that no one talks about, the slow uncoupling of your flesh from its velvet grip. She buttoned up her worries—for later.

That day, like any other, Anna commuted downtown to a high-rise flat that refracted the skyline’s grey and teal. There, on the top floor in the office closest to the yawning bay, she answered phones for a corporate lawyer named David, a man in his mid-fifties with the exuberance of a gangly teen. The day’s tasks consumed her—coffee filters to dispose of, various legal documents to photocopy and file, a steady stream of calls to field, and clients to smile for and appease. Burrowing herself in the requests and demands of others, she rode the circadian rhythm of the corporate organ, punctuated by David’s booming laugh—its familiar rituals making it easy to forget.

His bedroom door—first clumsily opened and then slammed shut—was hard and cold against her back. Clothing discarded like a trail of breadcrumbs crumpled at their feet. Anna closed her eyes, felt David’s hand moving inside her. A tug of desire pulled at her navel. His staccato breaths raining hail down her neck. Then his fingers withdrew, now slippery with her want. Turn around, he ordered. And Anna obeyed. As David furiously worked behind her, Anna thought back to the unspoken tension in the air during those first few weeks—like something you had to tease out, an ingrown hair, a pomegranate seed. Green-footed, unsure Anna, still new to her responsibilities and grateful for the health insurance, who observed the fit of David’s blue oxford shirt around his forearms, the sharp jut of his chin, the laugh lines around his eyes as light as a graphite drawing.

So when David propositioned her two months into the job, with that open, boyish smile of his, and assured her that his wife had previously agreed to this arrangement, Anna was surprised that her body had intuited what her mind could not—had dismissed as one-sided. Impossible. Although she would never admit it to anyone, a feeling of childish gratitude flooded her. That someone like him—attractive, successful, and self-possessed because of it, with a tongue that could shape words out of clay and acquit war criminals—would notice someone like her. A man whom she could never love.

The wet tarp sound of flesh on flesh echoed through the hallway. On the opposite wall hung a large portrait of David and a woman with warm, intelligent eyes and a shock of auburn hair. Her red mouth coiled into a squashed half-moon. His wife.

Their cheeks still damp from a tropical storm, Anna and David rose to get dressed. What’s this? He hooked a finger inside the hole. Careless. Anna quickly turned away and pulled down her blouse. It’s nothing. In the car ride back, David went on about his upcoming cases, the palm of his hand uncomfortably hot against her left thigh. But all Anna could think about was the shiver of pleasure that had captured and then released her like a wet sock. Later, when she got home and took off her clothes for a bath, she noticed that the hole had widened by a finger’s width.

Anna redownloaded a popular dating app. She figured enough time had passed since her last heartbreak two years ago when she caught her fiancé—her first love—in bed with another woman. The day had unfolded like a bad rom-com—her keys splattering onto the floor; their bare-slicked bodies cracked open like fleshy oysters, the sheets splayed around them in a makeshift altar; her spittle-filled scream to get out, get the fuck out; an overturned flowerpot, a keyed car, a returned engagement ring. Carved underneath her breastbone was the memory of that day—a weathered score on a tree trunk, scabbed over with silt and leaves. Before a warbly love song playing in a coffee shop would lash it open, or an artifact surfacing from the burial ground of their shared history—like when the washer spat out from its bowels her ex’s bright-yellow sock, left behind years ago in the haste of packing. Now, with the damp sock in her hand, she felt nothing but a hollow detachment—her sorrow finally bleaching into petrified wood, the clack-clack of dead branches scraping against an old worn-down house, her body.

Her first date stood her up at a tiki bar. Her second date was a graduate student in philosophy who spent an hour pontificating about authors Anna had never heard of and would never read. Her third date was a phlebotomist named Cat with spiky hair and a mouth that showed all her teeth when she laughed. Anna immediately liked her, and after a night of dancing under swathes of purple and blue light, they found themselves in front of Anna’s apartment. Hands running over silver clasps, untying hair.

In the dark against moonlit sheets, Cat gently took off Anna’s dress and drew a line from her chin down to her belly button. What’s this? Cat asked when her finger dipped inside the hole’s basin. But before Anna could turn away, Cat leaned down and pressed her ear against the hollow curve.

What the fuck are you doing? Anna pushed Cat away and quickly wrapped herself up in a blanket.

I’m sorry, I was just trying to help—

Get out.

Are you serious?

Cat left Anna alone in the slanted moonlight. Once the gunpowder of Anna’s fury burned itself out, a deep-gulfed shame crashed in and carried out to sea a soughing of batwings, a whistling.

The squelch of time was slow, Anna knew that. But the following days were unbearable—as if plunged underwater, and she gulped a lungful. Two weeks later, Anna climbed back into David’s silver Lexus after work. And they drove, like they had many times before, toward his house across the darkening bay. The air pulsed with the first autumnal chill. Branches raked an orange-crisp sky, preparing to drop their leaves. A few intimate sessions later, Anna realized he had stopped taking off her shirt. His eyes stared straight ahead as if still concentrating on a legal brief. Another stale ritual. A business formality.

Home alone, she started getting dressed in the closet—careful to avoid brushing against her torso—and showering in the dark, the beads of rainfall collecting on cave walls and sliding down her hips. The whistling licked at her eardrums at all hours of the day—and at work, to drown it out, she picked up the receiver and listened to the dial tone. At night, it gathered speed, rattling the small bones of her ribcage like wind chimes. She slept under a garbage bag of the first things she saw and grabbed—metal pots and pans, a stack of unread books, a vibrator, dirty laundry, and a velvet throw pillow—as if the combined weight of her life in these assorted fragments could press her into herself, flattening the hole into a dried daisy on parchment paper, and remind herself that she was still here.

Finally, one-midafternoon at work, the elevator dinged, and a woman with auburn hair stepped out. She headed for Anna, eating lunch quietly at her desk. Before Anna could even look up and whisper hello, David’s wife, her eyes full of shards, screamed and pushed Anna to the ground.

You little bitch! How could you do this to me?

Anna hurried to the bathroom and locked the door. But the wife’s ragged sobs still echoed through her ear canal. She felt a pang underneath her breastbone, the score on the tree trunk dribbling milky sap, tearing shrapnel. To her horror, Anna realized that the mangled wailing was rippling from her own mouth. The sound of a cornered animal.

She yanked off her blouse and gaped at the hole, now a gash-filled crater eating away at her midsection. Running her hand along the seafloor of her flesh, she stumbled upon an orifice the size of a quarter—a hole within a hole, thrumming with the energy of a wound-up clock—and stuck her thumb clean through. Her thumbnail protruding from her back—exposed to the sour bathroom air. 

The hole within a hole gripped her thumb before pulling her in up to her elbow. A second mouth.

Hunched over and panicking, Anna dialed Cat’s number for the first time since they argued that night. Strands of hair started to lift above her head like a ghostly crown, the whistling turning into a howl.

Cat, please, I think I get it now, I’m sor—But before Anna could finish, the hole ripped open with the sound of a toothpick snapping, and she was sucked in.

Lucy Zhou is a technical writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Rejection Letters, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. In 2020, she received an honorable mention for the Felicia Farr Lemmon Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. You can find her on Twitter @lrenazhou. 

photo by Pars Sahin (via unsplash)

Weather the Storm—Callie S. Blackstone

content warning: death of a child (off-page)

Rain pounded down and plastered my hair to the back of my neck. My cable knit sweater grew heavy. The flannel I wore underneath it was slowly growing damp. I banged my fist on the door again. I paused and banged on the door again. I would make noise all night until someone answered. 

The rain blurred the porch light. I couldn’t see much of the house, but I knew it well enough. I had passed by many times. I would continue to do so, even after that night.  Each swing of my arm flung more water back onto my face. I almost lifted a foot to the door but the action was interrupted when she finally answered.

I pushed my way past her, perhaps shoving my shoulder against her more than I needed to. She jumped back at the contact, acting as if my body was cursed, as if I was some vessel of despair. 

In a way, she was right. 

I was wet, I was cold. The endeavor had not even started and I was already exhausted. I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. My presence was accompanied by the slow dripping of water. Puddles began to gather at my feet.

“Tea,” I murmured.  It was likely the first time she hesitated to fulfill a request for a cuppa. “Tea,” I repeated. “I take it with lots of milk and sugar. Thank you.” 

Her brow furrowed for a moment. Then she moved to the kettle. Her shoulders relaxed slightly when she finally began working on the familiar task: filling the electric kettle with water, covering the tea bag until fragrant steam clouded her face, removing the bag and adding milk before the thing could get too bitter. She added the sugar last, so much that it bordered on saccharine. She placed the mug in front of me.

I held it in my hands and let the warmth slowly travel up my arms. I sipped the piping liquid. The heat unfurled in my chest.

“Sarah,” I took several sips and savored the warmth. My body slowly reanimated. “We both know I am here for Sarah. It’s time.” 

Maggie stared into the table as if I had not said anything. This is how they were sometimes. They were like the living dead, as if they wanted to join their loved one on the other side. As if life itself could not carry on when the one they cherished died. 

I had cut out the obituary neatly prior to my visit. The paper was flimsy and delicate. I placed it gently on the table in front of Maggie. I peeled off my sweater prior to moving forward. Maggie instinctually took it from me and held it close to her face. She ran her hands over every knitted row. She ran the garment across her cheek, her eyes closed to the roughness. I imagined Sarah in such a sweater. All the girls in our village had one.

Maggie took her time with the thing before she draped it over the back of a chair, which she pushed close to the roaring fireplace. It was the only thing that Maggie kept going after she received the news. She never allowed the fire to die.

Maggie returned to her chair at the table and I took my place next to her. I looped my arm around her, held it there. I was her preacher, I was her witness, I was the one true love she had never met, I was the grandchild she would never have. I was always whatever they needed me to be. 

Maggie shifted her shoulders towards me. This was my cue. I gently took her hand and placed it on a corner of the obituary. Maggie’s eyes seemed to flicker toward the paper for a moment, but that may have been the light of the fire. I turned my eyes to the paper. 

Sarah Ana Greshem born March 3, 1990, passed away on April 2, 2000. Sarah is survived by her mother, Maggie Greshem, and her cat Mickey. Sarah was a shy, sweet girl who enjoyed spending time outdoors. 

I continued to read the paper. The young girl’s funeral occurred the day before. Maggie’s body stiffened when I read the date and time aloud. She slowly lowered her head onto my shoulder. Her eyes began to fill with tears. The drops fell down her face and into the palms that sat open on her lap. The obituary had done its job. It helped her fully acknowledge the event, even if she could not speak about it out loud. 

The room was quiet save for the soft sound of tears falling on flesh, water falling from my sweater, and the hungry burn of fire. We sat together, the flames playing across our pale skin. My flannel was slowly losing its dampness, although it remained wet on my shoulder where she rested her head. That was ok. It would do.

After a long moment of silence, she spoke. “The wine. The cookies.” 

She began to stand up and I followed suit. She looked at me with confusion but I could not leave her alone in these moments, this close to death and ready to leave. Part of my role was being a safe keeper. I was only here to help those to the other side who had been called. It was not Maggie’s time.

She opened a door by the fireplace and flicked on a switch. The basement lit up with the dimness of a single naked bulb. She met my eyes and I nodded. It was time. We descended the rickety staircase together. I followed her through the basement, past shelves of home-canned fruits and holiday decorations. I  noticed that she had gained speed and her gait was now steady. She was better when she had a task to complete.

She led me straight to a chest in the back corner of the room, a dark place the light did not fully reach. Her hands ran against the wood in the dark, seeking the latch, which she had to ease open. The metal creaked loudly and violently. 

She propped the lid of the chest back against the wall. She murmured the traditional prayer as her eyes focused on the contents. I sensed her passion, the pleading nature of her words, from several feet away. She loved Sarah as any mother loves a child, diligently and blindly and with everything in her body. Maggie began to sob but she carried on, repeating the words over and over until her gut told her to stop. 

She took the black, lacy cloth that hung on a nearby hook and used it to pick up the first item in the chest. She presented it to me, a red that had been bottled in the year of Sarah’s birth. I nodded my head to indicate that it would do. 

I followed her back up the stairs as she cradled the wine. She took every step slowly, carefully, as if she was cradling her newborn and feared dropping it. She had one remaining task as Sarah’s mother and she was intent on carrying it out to the best of her ability. First, the wine. Then, the cookies. 

She placed the wine on the kitchen table before turning to the counter. I took in the row of baking ingredient—the new sacks of flour and sugar, the butter left out to soften. Maggie had been adrift after the loss, but she had still been able to purchase the necessary ingredients. She met my eyes briefly, before looking at the ground and taking several steps towards the counter. She took out a stepping stool and placed it in front of a cabinet, reaching for a series of bowls and measuring cups towards the back. While others were more accessible, these were the special tools she had purchased ten years ago, when her child was born, should she ever have to perform this task.

We got to work. I measured out everything and Maggie stirred and prayed, stirred and prayed. Her energy began to flow into the dough, an infusion of everlasting motherly love and sorrow. This was the last meal she would ever make for her daughter. She began to weep into the dough, but that is why the recipe called for unsalted butter. Something extra always found its way in. Once the ball had formed she rolled it out and cut out the crescent shaped cookies, placed them on the tray, and slid them into the hot oven. The almondy perfume filled the kitchen and intermingled with the smell of burning wood. 

When I encountered Maggie Greshem at the farmer’s market or the library after that night, she would avert her eyes and shift her body away from me. She would not acknowledge me again—her house would be empty, save for herself and the roaring fire which she would never let die down. She would have no need for me. There were no loved ones left to die.

She had to take the next steps of the journey on her own. I would finish the mission as I always did, alone. 

I walked down to the graveyard so there was enough time to get there for sunset. I counted my steps, I greeted the trees and their inhabitants. It was a familiar route and a familiar dance. 

When I arrived, I paused at the open iron gate. The graveyard was generally closed at sunset but tonight it would remain open. Only one person would be entering tonight. When I was done, three would be leaving. I paused at the gate and recited my prayers, explaining my mission and asking permission to enter. The place seemed to grow quiet and my soul settled into my body. All things became still. A gentle breeze picked up and rifled through my hair, pushing the gate open further. It was my sign. I crossed over the threshold.

The recognizable round face hung in the booth. Alden tipped his head so steeply that it felt like a bow. We both knew that is what it was. I always felt so beautiful in the graveyard under the mild moonlight, the breeze, and Alden’s gaze. Even when he stepped out of the booth and his diminutive figure was revealed, even when his clothes looked a little ragged up close. He extended an arm to me to lead me to the grave. Always the gentleman. 

I reviewed the scene. The headstone shone in the bright moonlight. A realistic cat was engraved next to her name. Mickey, I thought. The breeze picked up again. Sarah was restless in her grave and her spirit stirred. 

Mickey is ok, I thought. I pictured Maggie’s warm kitchen and thought of the black cat that watched us while we spoke that rainy night, that curled around Maggie’s feet while she faced the obituary and her daughter’s death. Mickey is taking care of your mom. The wind whipped up when Maggie was mentioned, carrying dead leaves and acorns. The objects pelted my arms. I pulled my wool coat tighter around me, hoping to take away some of the sting. 

“Sarah,” I whispered. “Do you know who I am? Why I am here?” The wind began to escalate, a flurry of leaves and sticks began to fly around. 

The young were often confused, afraid, enraged. They had pictured so much life in front of them. Sarah’s visions flooded my mind. She had dreamed of learning to sail, of spending her summers on the water. She had dreamed of traveling, of seeing America and China. She had begun to dream of how a boy’s lips may taste. All of it, stolen from her! The wind howled and I felt hard drops of rain starting to hit my head. I started to get a little grumpy myself. If this case had taught me anything, it was that I really needed to buy a raincoat.

Movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn. Alden was shining a light out into the dark in the agreed upon pattern that our families had used for centuries. He wanted to ensure that I was alright, that I could weather the storm. And I could. So I pulled the dense metal flashlight from my own pocket and signaled back. He quieted down. 

“Sarah, you’re scaring Alden, that poor old man. We both know that isn’t like you.” The wind and rain didn’t stop, but they didn’t increase, either. I was pretty sure I was getting hit with feweracorns and sticks, too. 

“Thank you, Sarah. I can take it, but sometimes I’m afraid Alden can’t.” Although we had both been bred and raised for our role in this production, Alden was getting older. But then I thought of what happened with the Enfield case and knew if he could handle that, he could handle this little girl. Or anything, really. Despite his reassuring presence and the fact we had both walked away from that case alive, I began to shiver. It was cold, I was getting wet yet again, and I was remembering the fact that pure evil can live long after human flesh has died. 

After several moments, the weather really had started to calm down. Sarah was always a kind girl at heart. Afraid, yes. Unkind, no.

“Sarah, I know I’m a little older than you, so I didn’t know you well. Your mother told me that all of your loved ones were at the services—even the neighbor girls you played with. The twins.” I had learned not to use the word funeral, at least not with spirits like this—spirits who were not at peace with their death, spirits who were not ready to move on. They were still upset and knew what I was talking about, but the language seemed softer. Gentler. It was easier to swallow.

“It sounded like everyone had such kind things to say.” And it was true. After the girl died there had been no whispers or murmurs, no clues unearthed that proved a bad temperament. She was considered to be a shy but well-behaved girl. The breeze lifted some leaves off the ground, gently moved them in a circle. 

“I remember seeing you in the park often. You seemed to love playing outside, no matter the weather. I’m sure if I was younger, I would have loved to join you. We were pretty similar, you and I—loners. But sometimes you need a friend. That’s why I’m here now.” 

“Sarah, do you know why I am here? Did your mother ever explain my purpose to you? Did she ever talk about my family, the Reeds?” The answering silence seemed to answer with its own questions. “I’m sure she didn’t explain that nice gentleman’s family, either—the Drydens.” There was no response. 

I shook my head slightly. Maggie had protected her daughter, who had already lived through so much—a father leaving his family with no explanation, no goodbye. In other parts of the world, “the talk” consisted of sex education. In our part of the world, “the talk” consisted of death education. Or, death how it worked here—how it works in small villages in England, a place that had not loosened its grip on all of the old ways.

Sarah did not seem to like these topics because the wind picked up again and sticks began to pelt gravestones around me. 

“Now, Sarah, that is just rude. You were raised better than that.” The wind died down. “You can think of me as your friend, as your big sister. I will explain everything to you now.”

I explained that the Reeds and the Drydens were two of the founding families of our village. We had been here for hundreds of years, and we would be here for hundreds more. Some family members had the luxury of choice. Some were able to leave whenever they wanted. Then there were those of us—the first born of either lineage—who could not. We stayed in the village, in the role, whether we wanted to or not. There were first-borns from either line that tried to leave, but they were always stopped, one way or another. I had always embraced my role, as did Alden—or so it seemed. We did not discuss the work at length. There were no after-work drinks for us. There were no midnight rendezvouses in graveyards. There were waves and smiles if we bumped into each other, as we gave anyone else in the village. That was it. 

I moved on. The next part of the presentation generally consisted of an explanation of my role and how it was conducted. But the fresh dead were still people. They were often intensely emotional people at that. Even those that were familiar with my role often stopped to ask questions, complain, beg for an exemption. It was difficult for many to understand that despite my seeming powerful, I truly did not have much capacity. I was just an actor in a natural cycle that had gone on for centuries and would go on long after my body decayed in its own grave plot. 

They seemed to think I had a choice in the matter, that I did not have to carry out my tasks. There were stories that have gone down through my family and the village at large. Stories of those who refused the task for whatever reason. Stories of what happened to them and the dead after the fact. These were stories no one wanted to hear, let alone star in. These stories scared even me, someone who commingled with the dead.

My comments about rudeness ultimately quieted Sarah, but there was a lingering  silence that seemed to act as inquiry. The dead were still unique and each had their own questions. She came to understand my role quickly without doubting it. She seemed to understand that her time to cross over was coming. Instead of bemoaning her inability to visit Boston or Shenzhen, she merely wanted to know what was next. 

I asked Sarah if she had sensed Alden leading me to her grave and a breeze shook autumn leaves down into my hair. I interpreted this as an affirmation. I explained that my role was similar to Alden’s; my role was to walk Sarah to the next place. That it was like walking someone to the porch of a darkened house. I could not see past the curtained windows and was not permitted entrance. I was merely a guide on a small part of her journey. 

Rain began falling again. It was heavier this time. It began to collect on my eyelashes and the night blurred. My body grew more and more tense and I tried flexing my muscles. I was still antsy with Sarah’s anxiety and felt myself doing a small dance on her grave, fidgeting, shaking out my limbs.

“Sarah, as your friend, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know what comes next. But part of my role is taking some of the bad things from you and carrying them so you don’t have to. Sarah, my people are called sin eaters. Now don’t freak out, I know it sounds weird. And if it’s your first time hearing about it, it is. Your mom made you one last batch of cookies and left out a bottle of wine for you. You aren’t really meant to eat the cookies, and I know for sure she did not let you taste the wine, so you won’t be drinking it, either.” I paused. “I’m sorry you could not taste wine in this life, that you could not experience the sensation of a boy’s lips.” 

My own lover flashed in my mind briefly and some of the tension drained from my body. “Cute, huh?” 

It seemed Sarah agreed that the man’s dark brown eyes were quite entrancing.

“Your mom did everything right. She made every cookie with her love. She walked down to the graveyard and placed them on the freshly turned earth so they could sit under the moon for a night. They soaked up the moon and they soaked up you. All of the wrongs you have done in this life—no matter what they are—all that has caused you shame or embarrassment, is in the cookies now.” My body grew tense again and I cracked each knuckle individually, despite my doctor’s warnings. 

“Now Sarah, you are a sweet, young girl. And I have done this for longer than you could imagine. I was even younger than you when I first started…” I trailed off, caught in the memory of guiding over a farmer who had been kicked in the head by his cow. My first time. 

“I do not know your secrets now, but I will when I eat. I am sure I have seen far worse in my brief career—murder and other unspeakable things—than what these cookies contain. Think of me as your big sister, listening to your secrets and taking your burdens for you. Then we will walk to the other side, and you will feel lighter than you ever have—lighter than playing on the swings, lighter than running in the summer sun.” 

I sat down in the soil, which was slowly turning to mud with the rain of her tears. I didn’t care, I was used to my wardrobe being encrusted with graveyard dirt, and I was getting used to being perpetually damp.

 How my lover could stand it, I didn’t know. I let my last thoughts of him linger, how his rough lips felt against mine, how he smelled of pine and his own type of earth. I wanted Sarah to experience it before she went. She was so young, and I would come to find she carried so little shame. She had done such little living. 

I closed my eyes and placed my hands in the soil of the young girl’s grave. Sarah’s presence grew stronger. I never saw the spirits beyond briefly glimpsing their memories. But I could sense them in other ways. Some spoke through the weather, like Sarah had. Some spoke through animals. Alden had even been used once or twice. Some used my body, causing pain or tension to express themselves as if I was some physical instrument. Whatever it was, it always got stronger as I grounded myself in the grass above their tomb.

I allowed my breathing to come long and slow until the feeling of leaves and dirt faded; until the heaviness of wet denim was no longer present. My human sounds died down, my soul settled in the bowl of my hips. I asked the universe for its guidance, for strength, for patience, for grace, as I always did. The things I would need to succeed. I sensed Sarah’s spirit rising from the grave, pushing through the earth, and hanging around the stone. If I was allowed to talk to Maggie again, I would have reassured her that her daughter loved the image of Mickey on the stone. But the woman would never want to see me again. 

“It is time, Sarah.” 

I opened the royal blue tin to find the cookies packed in loving rows. The powdered sugar became damp with the rain. Wet cookies were not pleasant but they were something I had come to endure. My job was a soggy mess. I pulled the wine opener out of my pocket and removed the cork from the bottle. It would be left on the grave as a final offering, a sign of completion. 

I placed the first cookie on my tongue and was hit with the sweetness of sugar. The flavor was something I associated so strongly with my job that I no longer enjoyed sweets of any kind. Sweets were for the dead. The cookie disintegrated in my mouth. The almond flavor was cloying.

The images began as soon as the cookie hit my tongue. I saw many things. Childish things, childish sins. I could have laughed at Sarah’s innocence if it would not have been disrespectful. I saw a 6-year-old Sarah stealing a fistful of chocolate cake; she would blame it on the family dog. Once, when her mother told her she could not have a chocolate bar, the child decided to steal it. I smiled and acknowledged that she loved desserts. The sugar burned brighter on my tongue. I took a swig of the red, a nice merlot. I held it in my mouth although it too had become something I disliked, something I associated with death. I wanted Sarah to partake in this, if only once. My body began to shiver, and my throat began to close in an attempt to evacuate the liquid.  I quickly swallowed and laughed, wiping drops away on the back of my hand. I hadn’t liked it either when I first drank it, a gulp I swiped at a party long before I set foot in the graveyard. She wouldn’t have the chance to acquire the taste.

Another cookie. More memories. A boy that constantly made fun of her, that pinched her, that snapped the straps of her training bra. A boy who cornered her when they were alone, who made himself big and scary. He was big and scary until Sarah pulled back and slapped him. As I swallowed I let Sarah know that the act was ok, it was just self-defense. That she didn’t need to feel guilty, she hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone. With each bite I took, Sarah’s soul became lighter. The cookies had soaked up all of her pain and shame. I was here to consume it before she left. It only took three cookies. Most took a dozen. I had met those who required more, who I had to sit with for days and days to cleanse.

Sarah had a good moral compass. Her life was short and she had not yet felt the intensity of love or wine or any of the strong things that make us lose it. Her ritual was short. When I swallowed the last crumb with more wine—I let it flow down the back of my throat so neither of us would have to taste it, as she preferred—she struggled to stay by her gravestone. I sensed that her spirit was now hanging several feet above me.

She was the one dancing now. Free of pain, free of sadness. 

Let’s go, let’s go! She cried with the energy of a young child who wanted to explore the world. She was free of the fear that had been holding her back. 

I asked the universe once again for guidance on our journey. I reverently placed the remainder of the cookies on the base of her headstone. They would be gone by morning. The earth soaked up the remainder of the wine as I slowly poured it out. I gently placed the container and bottle in my bag, ready to be disposed of once the work was done.

“Ok, ok,” I responded to the antsy dead girl. “Let’s go.”

Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Plainsongs, Lily Poetry Review, Prime Number Magazine, and others. Callie is lucky enough to wake up to the smell of saltwater and the call of seagulls everyday. You can find her online home at

photo by Scott Rodgerson and Daniel van den Berg (via unsplash)

The Sextant and the Fish—Claire Hampton

‘Twas a long journey through the mountain pass, o’er desolate carpet of brown and green, tae the place where the sparklin’ cyan of the sea meets the powder sands of the west and the vast cleavage of Corrieshalloch – where ice parted the mountains long before the likes of us daunnered the lands -has ‘em all gawpin’. The North Coast 500, Scotland’s grand answer to Route 66. A loon went ‘round peddlin’ a penny farthin’, would you believe? 

Now, our newlyweds were almost there, one bar of fuel – bloody fools – headin’ for a wee hotel that sat on the banks of a loch, four-star reviews, and a restaurant exclusive tae the nephrops (langoustines to you and I, owned by a Frenchman of dubious character, if you heed the gossip of the village folk, mind).  Tin roofed croft houses welcomed them tae the village, abandoned ‘til summer when their keepers cast off their city shackles and the descendants of fishermen past make way for their fair-weather neighbours. But autumn it was, and twilight fell upon our weary travellers, for here, the sun falls from the very sky. 

A bent auld wifey in a woollen hat creaked along the road with a hound so rounded that its bristly undercarriage swept the ground. When approached, she gave ‘em fair warnin’: 

‘Aye, I know the hotel,’ she said, ‘it’s just doon the road on the left, but I shan’t think you’ll find anyone there, the owner ran off, you see, without a peep. Visitors amuck in the village findin’ new lodgin’s… where there ain’t nun to be found.’ She chortled.

Her sunken glare followed them intently as they turned down the lane, passing a church and pictish stone, engraved with sextant and fish. Along the shore they caught glimpse of their lodgin’s, just as the dashboard blinked red. 

Across the gravel, they cast an eye tae the grand hunting lodge that had graced the banks of the loch for three hundred years, the Laird’s extravagant retreat for he and his pals tae feast on their game and drink tae their prize far from the eyes of their fair, gentile wives. 

Centuries three of Atlantic gales forcing sea, salt and watter against its walls. Aye, she could blow a hooley, and fresh white paint was soon mottled and worn. Not this evening though, no… this evening there was an eerie calmness cast over the loch – tonight, the house sleeps.

No light pierced the darkness within as they tried the fashionable lavender door, the brass knob rattled but there it stood, stiff and fixed as a tombstone as they rang ‘n’ hooted ‘n’ hollered, yelling greeting through glass, yet none but an echo replied. 

He pulled out his phone and paced tae find signal, huffin’ n puffin’, his face all aglow. Raising it skyward as if it were Yorick – alas, it was not tae be.  His wife, seduced by her wild surroundings, stepped o’er a wall tae the beach. His disgruntled voice grew distant as she picked across the shore, drawn tae a glint washed up by her feet. A silver coin with tattered edges, worn but still visible, sextant and fish. She rooted ‘round for further treasures but found only this, but oh, ‘twas a fine souvenir indeed. 

And with that, came rain on a bitter sou’wester, and darkness fell like a widow’s veil. A crash and a whine came from above her as the sky led a dance with the sea. They ran for the car, their warm breath misting the windows opaque as the deafening rain drummed upon the steel. 

Yet through the din they heard the slam of the lavender door and with hoods o’er heads they set course for their beds when they noticed wet footprints upon the polished wooden floors. By torchlight they followed them tae a room of blue tartan, where they seemingly faded tae naught, and nothing remained but a banqueting table, dressed for a glorious meal. The blue walls were adorned with photographs of the Frenchman and his wife. As the woman drew closer, she noticed another of black and white, a large naval vessel and men with huge hammers breaking thick ice from the stern. 

Russian Arctic Convoys’ read the plaque, where villagers traded their line and creel for uniform and gun, as their loch was home tae depots of oil, on land and underfoot. The ships would fill their tanks for the long, brutal journey across the Atlantic, the hotel serving as an infirmary for the merchants of the soviet cause. Now the villagers strung nets tae capture the U-boats and swept the depths for iron creel, manning the battlements and protecting their home, kith and kin forever lost amongst the waves. 

Engrossed in the image, she heard a chink and a scrape, looking downward as a silver coin rolled up tae her shoe and stopped with a whirr. She patted her pockets, perhaps the coin was hers. 

She froze. 

Stood in the doorway, she recognised the Frenchman, translucent and slick as sculpted ice, his finger extended towards her, dripping, tracking her as she ebbed towards her spouse, who was lighting kindling and coal in the stove. She whispered his name with an urgent resonance and on sight of the spectre, he screamed. 

Tae the left had appeared a soldier, tae the right – a fisherman, then one by one the room filled with the lost souls of the loch until they were surrounded, corralled intae the heart of the room, outstretched, icy fingers creeping close enough tae touch. They closed their eyes and said goodbyes, then, with a splash, the apparitions collapsed intae puddles and the couple found themselves ankle deep in sea watter. Stunned, they began tae run, but as they tried they were dragged down by scores of cold, watery hands as if being strangled by kelp, the storm maskin’ their cries for help as they gasped ‘n’ gargled ‘n’ their bodies dragged out tae the hungry sea… 

Then silence fell over the tumultuous loch and the lilting waves washed gently ashore a silver coin with sextant and fish, a shiny lure… for some unfortunate soul. 

Aye, they say the loch found a taste for death in war, flesh o’ man quenching the bloodlust beneath, for once it lay still, fat on its riches, the fishermen may fear no more.

Claire Hampton is a neurodivergent writer from Teesside, England who once lived and worked in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. Her work has featured/is upcoming in VersificationThe Daily Drunk, SledgehammerThe Mark Literary Review, Full House Literary Magazine, Selcouth Station Press, and others. Check out her stories at

photo by K B (via unsplash)

What They Left Behind—Bradley Sides

Ash, not many years away from entering adulthood, continued with his morning ritual as he had since he’d been trusted to feed himself his own breakfast. Shirtless, he sat on the edge of his bed, stretched his arms above his head, and walked down the hallway to where the soft light from beyond the window barely lit the hard backs of the chairs at the kitchen table. He sat alone and reached inside the chipped porcelain bowl to grab an apple that was past ripeness. As he chewed around the browning spots, he dabbed at the edges of his lips with his open hand, trying his best to contain all of the fruit’s juices. Outside, the moon said goodbye to another night.

Ash’s father emerged with daylight and came into the kitchen. He, husky and balding, patted his son’s back. After wrestling matches and baseball games, it was the same—the unspoken language they both knew. 

As the father began to walk away to find his own nourishment, he turned again to his son. 

“What is that?” the father asked, harsher than he intended. His cracked hands pushed, again, harder as they rubbed his son’s back. 

“Haha,” Ash said. “I’m a beast, Dad. I told you that you should train with me.” 

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” the father said. “I’m serious, though. There feels like something’s on your back.”

Ash hugged himself trying to feel. “Are you joking?” he asked.

The father flipped on the light switch and led his son into the hallway to the mirror. “My God,” he said. His eyes bulged as he looked, not directly at Ash, but at the boy’s unusual reflection.

Ash slowly turned his head to see his image. Instantaneously, whatever sleepiness he possessed vanished. He swatted at his own body. Afraid of who—what—he saw. He spun in circles, bending his arms toward his shoulder blades and slapping at what sprouted from him. “Get them off! Get them off!” he cried. 

The father grabbed Ash’s arms and held him still. Ash struggled to catch his breath. But the father wrapped his arms around his son. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he said. He drew his son into his embrace. Ash’s breathing slowed. 

This was the father’s job—to comfort his son.

“Let me look again,” the father said, his hands delicately inspecting the boy’s skin. Two small, translucent calamuses, sprouting pillowy barbs, dug into Ash’s back. 

“What’s going on?” Ash’s mother asked, appearing from the darkened hallway.

The father looked into his son’s eyes before he spoke. To reassure him. To tell him it would be okay. Then, he grabbed Ash’s thick shoulders, and he turned his son so she could gaze upon her son’s back. 

She didn’t speak. She couldn’t. Her hand clutched her lips so tightly that nothing could escape. 

“It’s wings,” the father said. 

The doctor looked away when Ash unveiled the pair of unusual wings from under his heavy shirt. But the old man recovered quickly, clearing his throat. “It could be a cancer. Or a benign growth,” he said sternly. “Either way, it needs to be removed.”

Ash and his parents agreed.  

The doctor didn’t hesitate when he took a pair of sterilized scissors to the boy’s back. He guided the blade into the boy’s sallow skin and snapped the thin stems of wing—first under one shoulder and, then, the other. The bloodied bundles of budding feathers fell atop the steel operating table and looked as if they were misplaced bouquets of tattered wild orchids. 

The doctor was still in the room, when a nurse called for him again. “They’re returning,” the nurse said. 

“Sew him up as best you can. We’ll wait on the results to know more.” 

The nurse did as he was told.

The father and the mother didn’t cry when the doctor told them the news. They wanted to see Ash.

The doctor led them to his hospital room. “Stay the night if you’d like,” he said in a tired voice.

When they opened the door, Ash was asleep, turned on his side. He woke only briefly—to ask how the surgery went, but before they could answer, he was already back asleep.

His sprouting new plumes fluttered in the cramped room’s manufactured breeze. His bandages were under him, broken apart, on the floor. His scars already invisible. 

An apologetic nurse finished tying Ash’s left foot to the edge of the bed. “Just in case,” she murmured. She grabbed a blue blanket from the closet and placed it on his legs. 

The father and mother went to hold their son’s hands. “I wouldn’t,” the nurse said. “He could be contagious.” 

She met their desperate hands with two bags. “His feathers,” she said. “They’ve been decontaminated.” 

At the father’s first attempt to doze, a pair of frantic voices in the hallway caught his attention. “What did they say?” he asked the mother. 

She didn’t answer him. Instead, she reached for the television remote. “I’m turning it up,” she said. 

There were more winged children. Boys and girls. Different ages. From countries all over. Canada. Tanzania. Spain. Bolivia. Thailand. Reports updated at the top of each hour. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. 

The father and the mother wept.

As the sun rose, Ash flew wildly in his room. His wings strengthening and growing at what seemed like each minute. The nurse who’d tied him down videoed him when he took flight. “It’s for the doctor,” she promised. 

“Try to calm down, son,” the father said, reaching for Ash. “Come on. Try.”    

Ash was still enough to hover above them—the father and the mother—these two souls whom he loved and loved him in return. 

His mouth opened. And closed.

Then, he tried again, but it was no use. 

His feathers fell on them, and it was as if they understood what he couldn’t find the ability to say. 

Before noon, broken farmers seeking the only thing they were capable of loving voiced quick solutions. They offered their empty barns and barren fields. Their containers full of nothingness could be made alive again. “It’s only temporary,” they insisted. “Until the kids are back to normal.” 

They could keep the winged children safe. They could care for them. They could watch over them. Their words, though, broadcasted on screens and speakers throughout the world were static variations of blind assurance. 

Of course, the powers agreed.

The farms were established before the weekend, with newly-ordained “keepers” at the helm. Cleaned troughs and assembled cages shined as the keepers awaited the children.

“We’ll keep him indoors,” the mother insisted to the nurses—and, then, to the doctors. “He won’t burden anyone. He’s our son. It’s our right,” she explained, her voice growing louder with each declaration. 

“He will not be going home. Your son isn’t your son right now,” the doctor said. 

“But he is. He has always been our son,” the father interjected.

“You’ve lost him,” the doctor said. Realizing his pitilessness, he corrected himself. “For now,” he added. 

The keepers went to retrieve Ash first. Boy 1 the paper said. The father and the mother stood at the entrance of Ash’s hospital room door and blocked the six protected men. A cameraman followed behind the keepers. “They are just trying to help,” he said. 

“Yes. Themselves,” the father replied. He stretched his arms from one wall to the other, his legs stout and firm. The mother did the same behind the father. 

But they were only stones to be stepped on by the new kings. 

The keepers did not speak. Not to the father. Not to the mother. And, when they reached him, not to Ash. 

The boy, flying, arched his body toward the men, his wings powerfully rocking the flimsy walls of the room and beating against the window. He looked majestic with his rolling golden wings, which were already larger than the bed below the boy’s body.

His mouth opened. He tried to call. To scream. To cry. Finally, his voice broke through. But it was a new sound—a shriek of otherness that pierced through the entire ward of the hospital that shattered the glass and buckled the tiles beneath him. 

As the keepers crouched, the father and the mother raced frantically to their son to clutch him. “Ash!” the mother called. “My boy!” the father followed. But they knew of nothing to tell the boy because they knew of no comfort they could utter. They sought to touch him—to calm his heart, but the gloved, cold hands of the keepers stole their embrace.  

The keepers unfolded the black tarp tucked under the largest man’s arms, and they stretched it across Ash’s outspread, beautiful body. His wings fought the heavy sheet, but the men swarmed him. 

He, this spectacular winged boy, fell to the ground and succumbed to their power. His feet twitched in submission.

The keepers injected him with a sedative and dragged him down the hallway. His feathers dislodged from his back and littered the floor. “We’ll follow the road to our boy,” the father said. The mother already was, picking up each feather as she went all the way to the fuming truck and its dirty trailer where the cameraman ended his recording.  

Two of the men stayed behind and strutted to the desk to sign the papers. Then, they went to the nearby rooms and grabbed the other recently-admitted winged children. 

The keepers took them all way. 

They were the ones, too, who received the praise when, on that initial transport day, only three winged children dissolved into the sun.  

At the local farm, after he awoke, Ash cradled himself in the back of his dark cage. Morning and night became the same. He didn’t want to see the others because he didn’t want to see himself. 

The father and the mother bagged Ash’s feathers and took them home. They made no distinction in the clean feathers the hospital staff had already given them from the unwashed. They were all priceless relics of the boy who held their joy.  

For the keepers, the feathers were a nuisance. Replenishing. Scattering. There was no easy way to contain them. 

In the hospitals, they were decontaminated and bagged. Eventually, they were sent away as keepsakes of the past. 

But on the farms, it wasn’t as easy. The keepers bagged and tied. Bagged and tied. Bagged and tied. Reminders of the present—and indicators of the unknown future. Incinerators arrived, but those contrived fires were only temporary relief. There were always more feathers in the waiting no matter how much the keepers swept, gathered, and burned. 

After the initial week of isolation, the keepers agreed on evening visiting hours. The only time Ash truly came alive was when the father and the mother came to see him, which was every time they were allowed. 

During these hours, the keepers unlocked the shiny doors and ushered the physically unchanged inside. “Welcome,” they sang. “Enjoy visiting your children.”

The father and the mother walked among many other families who came with the same purpose. 

Although the keepers prescribed specific clothing, few obeyed.  

The gray interior sparkled underneath the layers of bleach that permeated the air. Feathers and hay littered the walkway to each cage, which were placed side-by-side along the walls and in the center to form rows. 

The farm that held Ash held thousands of winged children split among seven barns. “We clean at the top of every hour,” one keeper explained, as he walked the facility in his protective attire. “It’s an ongoing task.” He laughed to himself.  

Ash’s wings flapped furiously against the dense metallic walls that enclosed him each time he saw his parents. He flew to them and rubbed against the bars, their hands petting his ever-growing back of wings. 

The father and the mother cried when they saw the linked chain that wrapped around his foot. 

“You are so beautiful,” the mother said.   

They slipped him apples. He squawked as he tore the flesh from the red fruit and tossed pieces into his mouth. 

He put his back to them and flapped furiously again and again throughout the visit, creating a storm of feathers that encircled them. 

They picked up each loose fragment of their son, and Ash cawed when they did. 

His voice grew louder when they dropped each feather into the bags they’d brought from home. 

“If we can’t take you, we take what you give us,” the father said. 

After the visitors left, the keepers wheeled the cages into the field, where they allowed the children recess. When the keepers loosened the locks, stretched chains polluted the play yard’s packed sky. A pile of cinder blocks polluted the corner of the open space. “Just in case,” one of the keepers warned the children.  

As their wings buzzed in the warm air, their voices cried loudly—creating words that only they could ever know. 

Their bodies flew to the peaks of the adolescent pines, and, then, toward the light of the moon. The metal clinked and broke their ascension. Their bodies collapsed to the ground, with their wings still beating. Defeated, but not permanently. 

When they gathered their strength, they lifted off the ground again, repeating until morning. Stronger by the hour.

Wars ended. New ones began. There was always something new to make a headline. The plight of the winged children lost its sensation. 

The father and the mother continued to visit. Some of the other most devoted did, too. But many who promised love and compassion gave up on their unusual children. 

The children, even those without visitors, continued to offer their feathers to anyone who would take them. 

It was no surprise when the father and the mother came to visit Ash with their own set of sewn wings, which they draped over their backs. “We got tired of you being the only special one,” the mother whispered. 

The other visiting families saw the parents’ display of affection and mimicked their winged creation. 

After a full week of no new diagnoses, the winged children rose with the sun and announced their departure with a synchronized piercing cry. From the keepers employed at the farms to the doctors wondering if their unusual surgeries were over, humans everywhere turned toward the sound.

The cages were broken. The barns were dented. The children were in the sky. Higher and higher. Some still had chains dangling from their legs. With others, it was impossible to tell if they still carried that part of the human world or not because the feathers clouded the sky and fell like rain.

So many of the humans hid under buildings to keep out of the way.

Others merely said, “Good riddance.”

Ash, leading the winged into the sky, looked below one last time. He was curious about what they, these uncompassionate humans, had become. But, then, he focused on love. It still existed. He knew so because he heard two familiar voices calling just behind him. “Ash, our joy. Our beloved boy.” 

Bradley Sides’ writing appears at BULL, Ghost Parachute, Occulum, Rose Red Review, and Syntax & Salt. He is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife. His debut collection of stories, Those Fantastic Lives, is forthcoming from City of Light Publishing. For more, visit

photo by Landon Parenteau (via unsplash)

“What They Left Behind” will be appearing in Bradley Sides’ debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives.

Coming October 2021 from City of Light Publishing.

Pre-order here from Bradley’s local bookstore!

Pal—Hannah Rovska-Strider

Sammy told us that it stayed in the old playhouse behind his stepdad’s deer stand. His Skeletor action figure went missing because of it, and it was responsible for another kid’s stolen bike. 

No one had ever seen it, but its presence was carried through passing voices in the hallways of the Northland community schools. Most of the kids said it was some type of troll or goblin. At the high school, the theories had evolved from mischievous fantasy creatures into depressed meth addicts. Supposedly, someone had found a dog outside of the tiny blue house a few months before we arrived in town. The contrast between its delicate face and the grotesque, bite-sized chunk taken out of its torso cemented the incident in the minds of the youth of Longville for that entire summer. 

We had just moved back into the neighborhood after our dad got his old job back, me and Carrie. The other kids accepted her as if she had never left, but I still had dues to pay if I wanted to be included in whatever mayhem they got up to on the weekends. 

That Saturday, I sat on the floor of my sister’s bedroom and begged her to let me accompany her to Janet Schezzworth’s treehouse. 

“But they’re my friends too,” I screamed as Carrie shoved various juice boxes and small bags of chips into her neon-green backpack. 

“No, you’re too little. Besides, they’re only your friends when the moms yell at us for leaving you out. No one really wants you there.” She grabbed her Nikon Coolpix from its box under her bed, the focal point of most conversations since her 10th birthday, snapped a picture of me sulking on the ground, and carefully placed it in her pack as I tried to wrestle back tears. My attempts failed though, and, after a four-minute-meltdown that ended with a guest appearance from our mother, my sister relented, and we went hand-in-hand to the treehouse.

We arrived to find that a meeting between the children had already been in session for some time. We were met with shouts being exchanged between Sammy and one of his cousins, the twinless twin, over the best course of action when it came to cornering the unseen force in the playhouse. 

“It’s not going to come out for us,” said the twin. “It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave it. We’re too big. It probably gets scared as soon as we open the door.”

“Then we’ll just send someone smaller in,” yelled Sammy through gritted teeth. By that time, a few of the other children in the wooden room began to look my way. I stared back as Carrie tried to covertly position herself in front of me. Sammy and the twin noticed her movement and then everyone was looking at me. Carrie looked horrified. I was elated. “Whatchu got there, Figteeth?”

“It’s just Lizbeth. Mom said that I had to bring her with me or she’d take away my camera,” replied Carrie.

“How tall are you, Lizbeth,” asked the singular twin.

“Thirty-nine inches,” I proudly stated. From the corner of my eye, I could see Carrie shifting her weight back and forth as I spoke, but I was just happy to be acknowledged by someone who wasn’t being forced to speak to me. “I’m very small for my age. In fact, I’m the smallest in my class. Most people who see me think I should be in pre-school. I’m also very good at running, following directions, hide and seek, counting backwards, and making owl noises.”

“Perfect. Absolutely perfect. You wanna do something important, Liz,” inquired Sammy.

“It’s Lizbeth, and absolutely. I’m very good at doing important things because I’m very trustworthy. I’m also very good at spelling things and remembering big words.”

“I believe it. I bet you’re also really brave.”

“The bravest.”

“She’s not actually brave,” interjected Carrie. “She can’t watch The Never-Ending Story without crying and she hates Scooby Doo.” 

Sammy and I both glared at her.

“Are you brave enough to go in the playhouse,” asked the twin. “The one behind Sammy’s—”

“Oh, I know which one it is,” I said. “I’ve been there before. In fact, I go there all the time.” 

“You’re lying,” Carrie hissed.

“I’m not,” I hissed back. I was.

“It doesn’t matter if she’s lying or not. If she’ll go in the playhouse then she’ll go in the playhouse,” said Sammy. He had seemingly managed to make a backpack appear out of thin air and was now filling it with a box of crayolas and a bumblebee notebook. “Hand me your camera, Figteeth.”

“Sammy, I’m not about to—” 

“Camera. Now.” My sister reluctantly handed over her most prized possession before moving to sulk in a corner. 

“Listen, Lizbeth,” said the boy as he turned to face me. “We’re going to drop you off by the playhouse, alright. You’re gonna go in there, camp out for a few minutes, and try to see if you can see the thing that’s been taking our stuff. We’re giving you a camera and a notebook. If you can, take a picture of it. If you can’t, draw it. Simple stuff. Got it?” I nodded. “Good. Let’s go.”

By the time they took me to the playhouse, it was already well past noon. Sammy and Carrie were the only two that accompanied me the entire way. The other children had formed an informal funeral procession for me that steadily diminished the further we walked into the woods. When we arrived at the playhouse, the two older children informed me that this was as far as they were going. I was to stay in the playhouse until the sun started going down. After that, I would go back to the treehouse to give them a progress report. They left and I entered the structure.

The playhouse had seen better days. Its wooden floors were rotted, its pastel paint faded. The entrance that led to the kitchen was adorned with various weeds and vines while the gingham curtains that hung from the four visible windows were spotted with holes and discoloration. A doorway that led to a bedroom was partially blocked by a once-purple cabinet that had fallen to the ground and various plastic cutlery was strewn across the floor.

 I began to walk deeper into the building when I stubbed my foot on something sharp and plastic. At my feet was the infamous model of He-Man’s greatest adversary. Waterlogged and covered in leaves and bitemarks, Skeletor had seen better days. I had picked him up and was examining the damages when something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Standing to the right of me, right in front of the fallen cupboard was a large, gray, furry creature that nearly tripled me in size. Its white head tilted to both sides as it stared at me and twitched its long pink nose. My fingers loosened around the figure as the creature’s gray and pink tail hovered above the fallen furniture.

“Hello,” I said. Large, glassy, black eyes gawked at me as I slowly put the action figure down onto the ground and tried to rebury it with my foot.

“Hello,” the creature responded. It slowly shuffled towards me as I tried to speed up the burial process. 

“My name’s Lizbeth,” I squeaked. “I’m just here to drop some stuff off. I don’t want to bother you or anything.”

“You’re very small,” it said.

“That’s very rude.”

“I’m sorry,” said the creature. It was about two feet away from me at that point. I halted my attempt at concealing the action figure and tried to stand my ground. The creature’s matted fur resembled the carpet that my grandmother purchased for my dad’s den and smelled like sewage infused with spoiled leftovers from a creole restaurant. 

“It’s okay. I forgive you. My name is Lizbeth.”

“Yes, I heard you the first time.”

“Oh.” We stared at each other in silence for a while before I spoke again. “Do you have a name?”


“Oh.” More silence. “Do you live here?” I inquired.

“I suppose.”


“Are you the one that’s been taking all of the stuff around town?”

“I could be.”

“Oh. Did you eat the dog?” I asked. 

The creature just shrugged. “I don’t know what that is.” 

I nodded and took the bumblebee notebook and a brown crayon from my backpack. The creature watched attentively as I drew nine circles and a face. When I was done, I passed the finished product to my conversation partner. I stared as its vacant, beady eyes scanned the blue-lined piece of paper for any trace of recognition. One set of fleshy fingers nervously traced the wax-based shapes as the other curled tightly around the parchment. 

“So, did you do it?”

“Maybe. I do a lot of things.” The creature handed me the notebook and walked over to the window. “Do you like living here?” Its long, fleshy fingers caressed the frayed gingham drapes before drawing them back to peek outside

“In the playhouse?”

“Do you live in the playhouse?” The creature looked alarmed. 


“Oh. I didn’t think that you did.” Overgrown yellow toenails lightly scratched against the rotted floors as the creature nervously shuffled its feet. “I don’t remember ever seeing you before, so I would have felt bad if you had lived here the whole time and I hadn’t noticed.” I nodded and started sketching. “But do you like living here? In the woods? Or do you live somewhere else?”

“I live somewhere else. Near the woods. In a real house.” I said as I tried to compose an abridged blueprint of my home in crayola. “We have lights… and a refrigerator… and a bathtub.”

 “That’s nice.”

“It is. Do you like living here?” I was met with a shrug.

“Sometimes. I like when I find tiny things in the rooms under there,” it said as it motioned to the cupboard under a miniature, yellow rotted sink. It shuffled to the blue-lined doorway and ducked inside. I continued my masterpiece. 

“I have some here,” said the creature as it reappeared from the doorway, cradling a plethora of shiny baubles, single earrings, miniature cars, and sticky candies in its arms. It brought them over and laid them out on the floor before me. We quietly picked through and examined each trinket, unwrapped and tasted every candy before it spoke again. “A lot of people like you come through here just to leave these. I always mean to thank them, but they usually leave before I can get to it… I’m also very shy.”

“That’s okay. I’m shy too,” I replied through a mouth full of tootsie rolls. “I mean, I might be. I like to talk to people, but my sister says that I’m shy. I don’t know if that’s really true though. Sometimes I think that she says it so our friends won’t try to talk to me.”

“I see.”

“Are you lonely?”

“Sometimes. Not right now, but sometimes.”

“Then you should go to Mr. Leeroy’s.” I began to gently nudge at the leaf-covered Skeletor. 

“Is that one of your friends?”

“No. Well, yes. But no. It’s the toy store in town. The guy that owns it, Mr. Leeroy, he’s really nice. He always talks to you and gives you suckers when you buy stuff. And all of my friends go there, so you could go and see them and then you probably wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”

“Oh,” said the creature. “That sounds nice.”

“Yeah. You can get one of these,” I said, motioning to the half-buried action figure. “Not this one, because it’s Sammy’s, and I need to bring it back, but maybe you can find one like it.”

“I like that one,” replied the creature. It reached out towards the toy and pulled it from its hiding spot. I winced as I imagined Sammy’s reaction to my new acquaintance claiming his beloved Skeletor as its own but quickly whooshed the mental image away once I saw my conversation partner caress the piece of plastic in its hands. 

“I mean, you could probably keep this one. Carrie told me that Sammy’s dad got him a go-kart for Christmas, so he’s probably rich. I heard that we’re going to try to buy him a Beast Man toy for his birthday anyway.”

“Do you think they would like me?”

“My friends?”



“Then Mr. Leroy’s sounds very nice. I suppose I could come out for that.”

“I think you should,” I said. Our shadows grew bigger along the wall as we spoke for a little while longer. The conversation wasn’t particularly good, but I grew rather fond of the creature’s presence. When I noticed that it was growing dark, I informed the creature that I had to be going.

“Will you come back,” it asked.

“I will. We’re friends now, you and me. Buddies forever, pals until we die. That sorta thing.”

“That’s nice. I’ll wait to eat the rest of the stuff until you get back then. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I repeated as I waved and left. When I met the others back at the treehouse, they asked me if I had seen anything. I told them that all I found was a bunch of unopened candy, but that I was sure that we would find something eventually. Sammy looked unimpressed, but Carrie was relieved to get her camera back. 

Two days later, a giant mound of gray and crimson fur was found splayed out on the road between the Shipley’s and Leeroy’s Toy Store. People would drive out of their way gawk and theorize about what it was. The adults said it was a bear. The kids said it was a werewolf. After a few weeks of rumors and speculations, the city closed the road off so that some guys in long cars could gather what was left of the carcass and take it off for examination. 

Before they took it away, Sammy held a meeting in the treehouse to plan a pilgrimage to the scene of the crime. Carrie said she would bring her camera to take pictures. I didn’t go because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, but I still have the mangled Skeletor that Carrie brought me back as a souvenir.

Hannah Rovska-Strider (she/her/hers) is a queer fiction writer and MFA candidate at Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing about giant talking animals, she can often be seen walking the beaches of Long Island at 11pm, looking for sea glass and ruining the nights of young couples who just want to snog on the beach uninterrupted. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Toadsoup_ and @Toad_soup, respectively.

photo by Chris Cooper (via unsplash)

The Serials of Rasmont Road—Lena Kinder

“What do you think, Wendy?” Laura asked as she twirled her pencil eraser in her mouth and wrinkled her forehead. “‘Rots slow’ and its got seven letters.” 

Wendy rubbed against the entryway before lifting her leg and licking her butt. Coffee burst from the tiny nozzle, and the smell of fresh caffeine filled the air. The telephone rang. And Laura ignored its chime. 

“Yeah, you’re right.” Laura tossed the newspaper and dropped five spoonfuls of sugar into her mid-morning coffee. “It’s probably something stupid, anyway. Like bananas or animals or—now don’t give me that look!” 

Wendy stretched with slanted eyes before strutting out of sight. 

“Shit,” Laura sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it.” 

She held her cup to her lips and felt the steam opening her pores. She wondered how many blackheads she had and if this counted as a facial. She took a sip and heard a bubbling croak. Laura searched the kitchen table, pushing past piles of newspapers and looking in half-empty coffee mugs. 

“Hello there,” Laura said, lifting a cup with webbed fingers gripping its edge. “Let me guess, a fluffy dame kidnapped you, didn’t she?”

The frog croaked. 

“Thought so. Well, don’t you worry. I’ve got an escape route right here.” She opened the kitchen window, setting him on the ledge. “Now, if I were you, I wouldn’t come around here anymore. Reptiles, amphibians, rodents—you all just don’t last. Not around here anyway. You get what I’m saying?” 

The frog’s black eyes watched her for a moment, then he leapt away, vanishing in green blades. Laura heard knocks on the front door. She just knew it was her neighbor—Faye—who was unquestionably the culprit of the ten o’clock phone call. Laura turned on the kitchen faucet, pretending not to hear, washing the frog’s cup one, two, and three times. Still, the knocking grew louder. 

“Excuse me,” Faye yelled. “Ms. Villers, your cat did it again!” 

Laura turned off the water. 

“What did she do, Faye?” Laura called. 

“You know what she did, and if she does it again, I’ll have the Association take care of it.” 

“Will you?” Laura walked to the door and held her hand on the knob. “What would they do, do you think? Like they have any competency to begin with.” She could feel Faye twisting the copper handle. 

“I – I don’t want to call them,” Faye said, the knob twisting faster as she spoke. “But I will. Carcasses on doorsteps? There are children in this neighborhood. What if one of them saw? What would their parents think? What would the schools think? Do you know what kind of neighborhood this could turn us into?” 

“Carcass!” Laura opened the door, and Faye nearly fell inside. 

“What?” Faye stumbled back, and she straightened her Sunday hat. A large, frilly thing. Laura never went to church. But if she did, she knew she’d find Faye sitting in the front row, obstructing followers from some sort of salvation. 

“Don’t be. I think you just solved fifty-four down.” Faye gawked at Laura for a few very long moments, then finally, she shook her head. 

“Look at what your cat did.” Faye violently pointed down. Laura followed: a frog lying belly up, bled out on her cement step. 

“My vet says it’s a present,” Laura said, lifting the frog—by what she figured was its toe—and held the green body between them. “I’m not so sure, though. We’ve hit a bit of a rough patch, spats, and such. You understand, I’m sure.”

“I always knew there was something wrong with you—but this! I mean, do you think this is funny?” Faye asked, her thin lips pressed together until they reddened. “Dead things out where everyone can see them?” 

“Oh, of course not.” Laura smiled and tossed the frog into the yard. 

“Oh my God,” Faye said, mouth gaping. With protruding eyes, she watched the grass where the ‘dead thing’s’ leg poked out. 

“Don’t worry,” Laura continued before her neighbor could collect herself. “The kids will probably think it’s a blade of grass, and by next week I’ll have the yard cut! It’ll be gone—in a way—by then.”      

Nearly breaking her neck, Faye snapped back, and with a little wave, Laura shut the door.

The next morning Laura stirred her coffee and scribbled on her notepad, marking out old words and writing down new possibilities as she continued her crossword puzzle. Right as thirty-nine across tip-toed in her mind, several thuds came from her front door. 

“Oh, Wendy! What did you do this time?” Laura said, her concentration broken. “Just a moment, Faye!”

The house became silent. Laura scratched her brow, her eraser now gone, and squinted her eyes at the newspaper. “A way to say goodbye,” she pondered aloud. “Seven again.”

The front door thumped.

“One more second!” Several loud thuds followed, and Laura threw her pencil. “I said wait,” she yelled as she wrenched open the door. 

No one was there. Well, not no one, not quite. Countless frogs hopped across her lawn and crowded around the green body, which lay rotting in the grass. 

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a croak came from below her. Laura peeled her eyes away from the commotion and looked down. A toad stood on its hind legs, holding a tiny golden badge in her direction. “I’m Agent Fowler, from the Bureau of Investigations. We’re sorry to bother you this morning, but there seems to have been a terrible incident.” The toad’s arm gestured towards the dried blood on the stoop.

 “Now, I’m certain you had nothing to do with this,” Agent Fowler said. 

Laura felt the toad didn’t look so certain. 

“But I felt it was my responsibility to ask, considering the situation.” 

“Situation?” Laura said.

“Yes, ma’am. There has been a string of homicides these past few months. Have you not heard?” Agent Fowler seemed stunned in disbelief. 

“I might have,” she began but trailed off at the sight of fluffy hair sticking out of Faye’s azalea bushes just across the street. “My neighbor mentioned something yesterday, but I haven’t seen a thing.” 

“Well,” the toad continued. “I’m glad to see someone is keeping you informed. However, it seems that murder has reached your front door, and I must ask—” cries wailed from behind him. 

“What’s happening over there,” Laura asked, as she peered in the direction of the dead frog. A small group of frogs dabbed their eyes as another shoveled dirt. Agent Fowler’s mouth dropped, and his long tongue rolled out in shock. “I mean – I mean, will they be okay?” 

“They’re burying a loved one.” The toad’s words came in slurs as he grabbed his tongue and rolled it back up into his mouth.

“Funeral.” Laura grinned, realizing the answer to number thirty-nine across.

“Yes,” Agent Fowler nodded uneasily; his beady black eyes watched her with intent. Laura could have sworn she heard a hint of accusation in his tone. “Well, I was hoping you could tell me if you saw anything unusual.” 

“Oh,” Laura knew she had to choose her words carefully. “Not at all. Of course, if I do, I’ll let you know. We wouldn’t want our neighborhood to be a dangerous place for kids to grow up. What would happen to the schools? Oh no – what would happen to our community?”   

The toad croaked happily and gave a kind “ah-ha!” and “right you are” at that. As he did, Laura watched Wendy sprint across the road and jump through the cracked living room window. Still, the felines reptilian diet had left her less agile in recent days. The window slammed shut just as tabby colored fur vanished.  

“What was that?” The agent asked. His long legs sent him flying through the air. “It nearly sounded like a gun-shot!”

“No guns here,” said Laura. “Just a faulty window.” 

“Ah, well, you might want to have that looked at,” the toad eyed her again, cleared his throat, and continued. “Is there a mister of the house?” 

“Oh, no.” Laura watched as the group of frogs lined up one-by-one in front of a tiny casket. A ribbiting eulogy began. “No men needed here.” 

“Let me take a look at it for you,” he perused. “And for payment, we could further discuss neighborhood safety over din—”     

“To tell you the truth,” Laura interrupted. “Something about the case just popped into my mind. There’s a Labrador who lives down the road, in a cul-de-sac, I believe. He’s keen on retrieving turtles. God only knows what he does with them. Although, I’ve seen several brown patches in the owner’s yard.” 

“Brown patches?” Asked the agent, scribbling down notes as he listened. 

“Yes, brown patches. The kind you see when the ground has been dug up, you know?” 

“I know the very kind,” the toad croaked. “I’ve seen pictures during training but never thought I’d come across them in the field. But why would a retriever leave his prey out in the open? I’ve never heard of a canine leaving behind his victims.”

“I wish I could be of more help to you,” Laura said. “I’m not a dog person myself.”  

“Well, thank you for your time,” he said, flicking his notebook shut. “I’ll have to follow this lead, so we will have to take a raincheck on dinner.” 

“Such a shame.”

“I hope the Bureau can catch the killer before they strike again. For the safety of the neighborhood,” he said, turning towards the crying group of frogs as the undertaker buried the casket two-feet down. “And for the families of the victims.” 

Laura gave a nod in reply; she wondered if it was time for another cup of coffee.

“Well, it’s been a pleasure. I only wish we could have met under different circumstances, Ms—”

“Villers,” Laura answered with a smile. “I wish you the best of luck with your investigation and take your time with the funeral.” Laura shut the door with this and found Wendy lying on the couch, her tail flicking in the sun. “Now,” Laura began. “What am I going to do with you? Are baths called for in matters of murder?” 

The telephone rang.  

“You’d better answer that,” Wendy replied. 

Laura held the phone, imagining her neighbor—dressed in a nightgown, twirling a long seafoam-green telephone cord between her fingers. The image was always the same. 

“Faye,” Laura said, picking up the receiver, glad to have had the first word. 

“I told you so!”    

Lena Kinder is a writer, recently graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She hails from the suburban wilderness of Eagle River, Alaska, discovering her craft under the midnight sun. She is an enthusiast of the strange and meets her characters in the oddest of places. Her other works can be found in Prometheus Dreaming and Quest Log. Forthcoming tales will appear in the Sucarnochee Review.

photo by Thomas Oxford (via unsplash)

One For Sorrow, But Sorrow Sleeps—Hadassah Shiradski

The magpie wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times Baudelaire glared at it, or asked nicely. Baudelaire could only assume that it had found its way in by using the oak opposite her – the tree that had been old when Baudelaire had arrived was still living. Its branches arched over the entire forgotten courtyard and annually coated all in a shower: first of acorns, then fallen leaves. The snow would always follow, blanketing the paving stones, Baudelaire and bench in a stifling smother. 

Baudelaire saw them sometimes, the mice and corvids alike, and preferred both over the magpie that had shown up in an ungainly flutter and refused to leave. Instead of being sensible, like a raven or crow, it just hopped closer and closer on the bench, trying to provoke a reaction.

Go on, I dare you. I dare you, little girl.

It wanted the coins in the bowl that it – or was it she – kept at her feet. That much was obvious; magpies were thieves, and her skin had long since tarnished to the point of no longer being attractive to pesky birds. A relief; it had taken ages to remove droppings from her head, shoulders, and arms. The only shiny things were the thirteen coins, glinting in the snow that had collected in her bowl. The coins had been a present from her last visitor; she wanted to treasure them for their full value. That magpie was getting none of them, no matter what it thought. 

There hadn’t been many visitors lately; a shame, but not unexpected. In winter, her garden was too cold, too unwelcoming. Not many people knew of this place, and even fewer found the wherewithal to attempt entry through the twisted iron gate at the far end. She treasured every gift.

Baudelaire knew that one magpie meant incoming sorrow, but she didn’t want it to be hers. 

One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for – 

She didn’t know what three stood for; the inscription had become unreadable, and lowering her head to decipher the rest of it would take effort that she wanted to save, not to mention distract her from the one magpie that was sneaking closer and closer and closer. Clawed talons left twiggy imprints in the snow; in her peripheral vision, she saw the mist of displaced snowflakes drifting down between the bench slats.

You can’t prevent me from taking those coins. The snow’s slowed you, but I’m just fine. You couldn’t catch me if you tried. I dare you.

It was partially right, but she’d never admit that the arrival of winter had been to her detriment. The snow that had settled over her form would have been comforting in its softness, but this blanket sapped her latent strength and replaced it with an insidious lethargy that wound deep in her statuary, forcing her into slow slumber.

That blasted bird hopped yet closer and closer, cocking its head insolently, and jumped, flapping its sleek wings and swirling up a flurry of settled snow until it was perched on her frozen arm.

Not gonna stop me? Oh wait, you can’t. Or rather, you don’t dare.

With that, it slipped down to the book in her lap and strolled across the pages to squat on the far edge, ignoring the scratch of talons on sculpted brass. It waited there for a moment and Baudelaire fought to act now, through the seeping stillness, but –

Too slow! Ha, too slow!

It teetered and fell from the open book just in time, spiralling down like a sycamore leaf. She felt feathers brush against her shins and heard the infuriating scrape of claws against metal, the thump of snow falling onto more snow. It had reached the bowl, then.

A fresh bout of snow began to drift down from the grey skies above; adding another layer of down to her blanket, dusting the exposed rim of a newer coin with frosted, frozen white.

The bowl at her feet was half-hidden by the furthermost edge of her open tome, but she could still see some of what laid there.

The black beak poked and prodded at the gifts, impudently tossing the snow into puffs of frozen cloud. Two oak leaves, brown and long-dead, cracked and split under the talons, the fragments scattered, the mouse skeleton underneath gaining a new comforter of snowflakes. A warning and an offering wrapped up in one tiny, curled frame, ignored in favour of the closest coin. 

An irritated chik-chik, a frustrated ruffle-snap of wings, and the magpie shuffled a bit to try again, yanking fruitlessly on the coin that had adhered to the brass when the ice had come. That beak was sharp enough to chip away the ice, but to Baudelaire’s delight, it instead leaped up her lap to screech in her face and stamp its stupid feet, opting to harangue and berate instead of persist with stealing the coin.

Unfair, girl! A dare’s a dare and you weren’t playing properly. Cheat –

The brass book slammed shut with a screech of metal. Cut off in the middle of a self-righteous, scurrilous stretch, a black-and-white flight feather drifted down from the dust of the magpie’s wing-tip to join the carcass and the coins.

Baudelaire did dare, magpie. She’d been trying to call your bluff the entire time you taunted her – you’d been too slow to spot her sanguinity.

Too slow. She creaked her book open again. The only sign of the magpie was a mound of crushed bone, quickly freezing in the spine of the book, and a third tally mark near where her right-hand thumb rested on the page.

One for sorrow, two for mirth, and the third made… 

Well, the snow was falling thicker now. She had no hope of reading the rest, even if she hadn’t just spent her reserves on that magpie. Maybe another visitor would come along soon, and read the rest of the poem to her.

She was so very tired.

Hadassah Shiradski (she/her) is a bisexual horror writer from Hertfordshire, UK, who graduated in 2020 with a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and Philosophy. She has a love of gothic fantasy, quiet horror, and folklore, and tends to fixate on horror puzzle games. Her ramblings can be found on her twitter, @DassaWrites.

photo by Natasha Miller (via unsplash)

The Witch’s Daughter—Rachael Llewellyn


They called her the Witch’s Daughter, but in truth, she was just a little girl. 

From the tales in town, I’d expected to see a monster. Some terrible misshapen thing, too horrifying to behold, too scary to even begin to describe. From the stories, I expected bulging eyes, sharp white teeth, claws, an inhuman snarling voice, a hunched back and webbed toes. 

So when I came to the place where they kept her, I peeked through the window to the little black room where she was held. There were no bulging eyes and sharp teeth. She was just a normal looking little girl. 


They called her the Witch’s Daughter and everyone in town knew that she was a monster. Magistrate Bailey had her confined to the little black room at the top floor of his house. For the people’s safety. To stop her black magic seeping down into the town. To stop wickedness from surfacing once more and spread door-to-door, as it did when her mother, the Witch walked these lands. 

The stories called her a monster. A snarling, vicious thing who communicates only in lies. A forgotten thing of flesh and shadow. An unnatural union of devil and man, like her mother before her. I find that even my children whisper of a creature in the Magistrate’s halls whose feet do not touch the ground. 

I hear the stories well. 

But you see, I remember the Witch. 

I even remember a time before she was called ‘Witch’, before it was forbidden to speak her name. I am not allowed to say it aloud. None are allowed to speak it. Magistrate Bailey goes as far as to say that he will know if any of us so much as think it. 

Still, when the night is cold and the north wind blows, even though it is forbidden, I remember my friend and I pray for her child. 


I edveileb eh dluow llik em. 


The Witch’s Daughter has a split tongue like that of a snake! I heard she has no tongue at all, that Magistrate Bailey had it burned out to stop her from calling to the Devil himself. I heard my mother say that the Witch’s Daughter speaks backwards with her words all jumbled together. And she has bumps on her forehead from where her devil’s horns have been worn down for grace of God! She speaks in lies and falsehoods and howls in the night like a beast. I hear she runs around on all fours like a hound. No, no, I heard that her feet do not touch the ground. I hear that her eyes are red. I heard pitch black. I heard she sleeps through the day and rises with the moon at night. 

I went by Magistrate Bailey’s attic once and I heard evil laughter. My father was a guard there for a while and he swore blind that she tried to call him into her cell. Old Robert told me that men who look at her die three moons later in mysterious circumstances. My ma says that the Witch’s Daughter can see how you’re going to die if she looks at you. 

I heard her hair is blood red – no it’s all white like an old woman. I heard she has black hair and reddened skin. I heard her skin is covered with pricks and marks from Father Bryant’s crucifix. I heard that her body won’t endure harm. She won’t bleed or burn. I heard she could survive on no food or water. 

I heard she eats children. No, that she drinks blood. Children’s blood. No – anyone’s will do! She drinks blood once a month. And her teeth can transform to be sharp like a dog. I heard that Magistrate Bailey is the Witch’s Daughter’s father. 

No. No. That’s not true at all. Don’t you dare let me hear you saying so again, Jonathon! 


Are you awake now, Iris?

Father Bryant said the pain would subdue you for longer than this. Can you hear me, little one? Don’t cry now. You know how I feel about crying. You know why you must suffer, don’t you, my dear? Yes, Iris, that’s right. Because you are wicked. It is not your fault, but it is the reality of the world, child. It is in your body, your blood, carved into your soul. 

Your mother was a truly wicked woman.  

Like you, she seemed ordinary at a glance. Nothing to fear. But if you looked closer, she wore her evil in plain sight. A fool could have seen it, and yet so many chose to ignore it.  

It is why you live here, Iris, so I can protect the good people from you and your cursed nature. 

I knew your mother for what she was. I have known wickedness all my life and fought against it. Stop crying, girl. I have warned you once already! 

Now listen. I want to make you a good and proper young girl. I know you want that, my dear. Do you know why I do not allow the servants to read to you? It is because your mother could read forbidden texts and spoke to a Dark God who taught her to write her name. She tried to pass on that sickness to other women in the village. Wives and mothers and impressionable young girls. Claiming that the book was only the bible, but that was a lie, Iris. The book she read from had been filled with deception: pages and pages with dark words and spells. She spread her lies to the good people of this town as easily as the rain comes. 

Of course, child, you don’t understand. You have never seen the rain and you won’t. You’ll never leave this room. 


I never paid much thought to who my husband would be. My sister has a particular love of fairy tales, silly, frivolous stories. I do not. I never imagined that I would marry a handsome prince or a noble thief. If I was to be completely honest, I may have fancied that I would marry a man with a townhouse in the capital. My mother believed in the family legacy, of doing the proper thing, the proper way.  She passed when I was but a child and my father lost his mind to the pursuit of righteousness and a holy life. My husband is an important man, a magistrate. He saved this small town on the edge of the woods, from wickedness and witchcraft – should you believe the rumours. I was five and ten when I became his wife. 

We are yet to be blessed with a child of our own. He suspects the little creature he keeps upstairs has placed a curse on me. I am not permitted in that wing of the house to ask her myself if this is the case. 


The old lady said that she would be vicious and bite when I went to bring her food. She showed me a scar on her leg, dents from teeth deep and reddened. She told me that the marks never faded and always felt fresh and wet. Reckon she just said it to frighten me a little. But as I climbed the stairs, I found my hands had started to shake. 

Don’t you dare leave them old plates, she’d said to me. 

I’d need to go in there, into the little black cell, put down her food and get her leftovers. I’d heard the stories me whole childhood. I knew that the Witch’s Daughter was more beast than girl. I heard that her feet did not touch the ground. I heard that her mouth was filled with fangs and her forehead bore stumps where her horns had been removed. I heard she spoke in lies and riddles, that she could prophesise my death like. 

As I reached that cell, I was shaking, trying to imagine if I could fight back a beast like that, someone more animal than child. Would I be able to fight her off? 

But I reached the cell and she was just sat there. Quiet and still at her bed. She didn’t so much as flinch when I opened the door. Didn’t make a sound. But when I reached over her to put her tray down before she, she sort of squealed and put her hands to her head like she was expecting me to strike her.

She reminded me of Mabel then. Me sister. Scrawny and shrill thing, she is. Cries easy. And when I went away, I kept thinking about how much Mabel would cry if she was locked up all alone by herself in that room painted black. 


It’s never discussed, o’ course. We don’t talk like that round here – certainly not where no-one can hear. But we all know where that kid came from. The Witch’s Daughter, don’t we? Seems awful convenient, doesn’t it? I swear he must reckon we can’t tell the days from the years. I remember a time before he was Magistrate Bailey. Just jumped up young Bailey who wants to be magistrate so bad if old Gordan had died in mysterious circumstances like, we wouldn’t ‘ave needed to look far for his killer. 

And let’s not forget how he had his eye on Lady Margaret. Back then she was comin’ of age. A real lovely young thing. 

But Bailey was married, wasn’t he? To old Gordan’s daughter no less. He thinks we don’t remember, but you’ve got to admire the old dog. It seems an easy enough thing for a man to be rid of his wife n’ child by spewing out words like ‘witch’. 

She didn’t help herself, none. You remember, don’t ya? What kind of girl she was.  


It was a tragic affair, but you have to understand, there were too many things about the young lady for the accusation to go ignored. 

She was wild – her father said that she was just a free spirit. 

She wouldn’t bind her hair behind a bonnet as a lady – we thought that would change after she got married. But she wouldn’t listen. I told her as much myself, do you know what she told me? She said that her hair was God’s gift to her and why should she have to cover it. 

I never found out who taught her to read. Deceitful girl would play act that she couldn’t in church. But I caught her reading the bible to the other girls when she was barely three and ten. She promised that her intentions were pure. For my foolishness, I believed her. I let it slide. That will always be my sin. 

And the way she carried on with the other girls, dancing and singing in the fields. It was very ungodly. She caused disruption wherever she went. Quick to talk back. Of course, we all said that it would stop when she married, but Bailey couldn’t control her. He came to me about it often. I told him to seek out her father for advice. But alas Gordan was… well, he wasn’t that sort of man, the kind who forced an issue, not even to aid his daughter and son-in-law to a more Christian life. I know it is not meant to be said, but Gordan was a dear friend. What happened to him was wrong.

The trial made all of the facts so clear. Things we had all known for years but had let slide. To our own sins. That book Bailey produced when her room was searched. All spells and enchantments, hateful words and poisons. She argued that the book was not in her hand, that she could not write. But had I not seen her drawing words into the soot of her fireplace? And had the book not come from her very chamber? 

She was pregnant while she stood trial. Bailey saw the child wasn’t his. He claimed that they had not been together as husband and wife in many moons. He swore to me and the court on the bible that he hadn’t touched her. Yet throughout the trial she grew large, even after starvation, even after torture. Bailey claimed at first that she had been observed lying with devils in the fields, then that she bewitched men into her bed using dark magic – but when no such men came forward, he claimed it was the devil attempting to shape her into a figure of pity. 

He denied there was a child at all. 

She said the child was Bailey’s. No, her story never changed.


When I realised my husband wanted rid of me, I fled to my father’s house. I believed with all my heart, that if I remained in that house, he would poison my food or push me down the stairs. I believed that with that distance between us, I would be safe from him. I believed that by returning to my father’s open arms, I could not be touched. 


Milord is a good man. A man of virtue and righteousness. He trusts me. Appointed me to his personal guard when I was just a lad. He confides in me. Has me look after his lady wife, protect her from prying eyes and unworthy mouths. Milord told me once he was born to sniff out wickedness and burn it to ash. 

Some down in the tavern sneer behind milord’s back when he speaks at church. They sneer and look down their nose and fill their insides with bile and drink. They say I’m a fool to believe him in all he says and does. But what would they have me do? Turn to ale for answers and drip sin from my skin as they do?

He rescued me from wickedness, so if milord says that child is the Witch’s Daughter, then she is. If he has me hold her down as Father Bryant dowses her with holy water, then I will. If he says that her cries and pleas are devil’s tricks, then they are so. If he says to tell him if anyone, anyone at all, is heard communing with the child, so he can purge that person of the wickedness the Witch’s Daughter has passed along. 

I must. Milord is a man of God. 


It was handy having Daisy on the serving staff. Useful to have someone who didn’t weep or cry at the notion of going upstairs. I spoke up as much as I dared when the Master said that the girl would be culled for consorting with demons. I tried to tell him that she was a good worker, just simple in the head, friendly of disposition and soft of heart. 

It did nothing for her in the end, but I’d tried. 

Kind girl she was and a hard worker. She deserved better than what happened. 


Iris, are you awake? 

I know you’re sad about your little friend from the kitchens, but you have no-one to blame but yourself. Silly, girl, what am I always telling you? You are cursed. Everyone who comes into contact with you dies. You know this to be one of the truths of this world. 

It was cruel of you to befriend the kitchen girl. I know it is your nature to be wicked, but you promised me that you would try. Father Bryant and I have worked so tirelessly to show you the right path. I’m disappointed, Iris. I know this must cause you pain, but this is your fault and one day you will understand. 


Magistrate Bailey says that we’re safe from the Witch as long as we have her daughter. The Witch wouldn’t dare use her magic against her own child. Mam says that’s how all mothers are, even the bad ones, I suppose. 

It’s hard for Mam because the Witch used to be her friend and a lot of people remember that. Mam says when the Finders get their hooks into a witch, they always find more, and people get silly and start pointing fingers at anyone whose done them a wrong turn. She don’t like people remembering her and the Witch being friendly in case they start to think she’s a wicked one as well. 

You know, I remember her a little, the Witch. Know I’m not supposed to say. But I do all the same. People say witches are ugly, but I remember that she was beautiful with all this long red hair. When I was right little, she used to carry me around on her shoulders. I remember her laugh, it was loud and happy, not like an evil cackle like what witches are supposed to have. And she told these dead good stories. 

I’m not supposed to say though. 


I was ti nehw yeht dellik ym rehtaf. 


When I miscarried for a third time, he left my bedside to scream and rage and curse the creature he keeps under lock and key. Some men might offer words of comfort, though it is scarcely expected of them, when their wife is in pain. Within minutes, I heard her screaming. 

He has instructed my maids to sing loudly when she screams. We are all supposed to pretend it isn’t happening, even me. 

Mr Grey, who worships my husband like the most devout cleric, stands guard for me often. He counters the presence of the child in our house with long, rambling speeches of my husband’s goodness. It is more tiresome than the maids who sing and raise their voices to the heavens. 

It makes me feel as though the world has gone mad. 


That’s the thing. Peter’s brother’s got a job as a guard at Magistrate Bailey’s house and he says that the Witch’s Daughter is dead ordinary looking. I didn’t believe him like, we all know the stories. She’s meant to have fangs and red eyes and horns. Mam’s friend used to clean for Magistrate Bailey and she reckoned that the Witch’s Daughter had hooves instead of feet, like a goat. 

But Pete’s brother swears that she’s just ordinary looking. Skinny and pale. And she just sits there all quiet, like someone’s little sister. I told him I didn’t believe a word of it. So Pete’s brother asked Mr Grey if I could go along with him one day. Told him I had designs on being a guard when I’m older, and I got to go see her, the Witch’s Daughter. 

I hoped she’d have claws and webbed hands and feet. I heard that she had long ratty white hair that trailed past her feet. I reckoned Pete’s brother was just trying to trick us into thinking she was just normal, but he wasn’t. 

She really does look like just a regular girl. I looked right at her through the bars and all she did was cower away n’ cry. I had to do a whole day’s work with Pete’s brother after as well. All that, just to go n’ look at a regular little girl. Could’ve done that at home, ya know? 

But, you want to know something else? I noticed when I was there like, she’s got eyes like Magistrate Bailey. All pale and grey. I saw his eyes up close once, I dropped the big silver candle in church last year, n’ he rushed down and took it from me. I was right frightened – he’s got this scary look and his eyes are so pale it’s like looking in a mirror. Only she’s got them too. The Witch’s Daughter. 

Funny, right? Anyway, I told the boys back in the square that Pete’s brother was lying. Said she had fangs and claws and wings like a bat – all twisted and sharp and bound to her with chains to stop her from flying off. 

It’s a much better story, right? 


I don’t much care for beggars. Laziness and sin, I always thought. How with some of them, I can’t see how they’d find work any other way. The Harding boy with his twisted spine, when his parents passed, how was he supposed to support himself? Too slow to work the fields. He begged until Magistrate Bailey took pity on him, had him working with Father Bryant. The Harding boy is unsightly, sweeping the floor of the chapel, but it keeps him from the streets. 

It’s the same for Mad Madge. Twisted with scars all over her face. Who could say how old she is? There are times she carries herself like a young thing, and at others she hunches and contorts herself like she’s not long for this world. Scraggly white hair, missing a few fingers. Some days, she’s clear as a bell – please sir, spare me a coin – and at others, she babbles in tongues and twisted verses. 

Magistrate Bailey and Father Bryant offer beds in the church to those on the street, to keep them from the rain and the cruelty of others. 

Magistrate Bailey says it’s our Christian duty to have mercy on the weak, old and diseased. 

Like I say, I don’t much care for it, but I can see his point, I suppose. 


I was asleep when the men came to our home with pitchforks and fire. I watched them, terrified, from my window in the attic room. My father told me that he would send them away and I believed him. I crept to the foot of the stairs, believing that my father could fix it. But then Wendy, our housekeeper cried out in pain as they forced her to the ground and trampled over her body to get into the house. My father told me to hide, he shouted it, it was the first time I had ever heard him raise his voice. I heard glass smashing. The servants were screaming, my handmaid crawled under my bed and sobbed silently. 

Witch, they called, Witch! 

I knew then that nothing would ever be the same again. 

I saw it when they killed my father. He was trying to talk to them. He still believed that this matter could be resolved peacefully. He was mid-sentence, hands up above his head. So calm and so still. ‘Good people,’ he said, ‘You know us, you know me’. Then Joab York knocked him to the ground. I ran back, I tried to pull them away from him. I was knocked down when I tried to throw myself over his body to stop them from stamping down on him.  

When they killed my father, I screamed for so long it felt like it would never end. The world could crumble away, and I would remain, red and pulsing like a sore. I tore at my hair, beat my fists against the ground and I howled at them when they came close, I swiped and fought. My eyes felt heavy in my head from sobbing and I cursed them, I cursed them all. 

Three men died that night. 

Bailey said that I was the one who did it. He said that when I screamed, blood poured from their ears and they collapsed. I didn’t care if that were true. My father was dead and the world so much colder. 

Witch, they called me. Men and women, I’d known my whole life, blamed me for rotten harvests, for sickness and death in the town. They tortured me, hissed at me, spat, beat me with sticks, starved me, burnt and bled me. Tossed my aching, pregnant body into the filthy river to see if I would drown. 

There were days where my grief and pain chocked all sound out of me. There were others where I would be brave and defiant and repeat the same truth that got my father killed, the same truth that had me on trial for witchcraft. And there were days where, for my shame, I’d ramble and rave and scream and cry. I’d talk in tongues and snarl like an animal to watch the husbands tremble in fear and the wives cover their children’s eyes. 

Bailey told me that he could free me from the devil’s hold on me. He said I should confess. He said that I should write a confession admitting that the child inside me was that of the devil. I know he has designs to marry little Lady Margaret, just fifteen. I know he wants me gone so he can free himself from our union. He said that I should confess, and all of this pain and suffering would end. He said that I should stop claiming that the child inside me was his. He said that I would be burned if I did not comply. 

It was the last time we spoke. 

I told him that there was no place in God’s light for a father who murders his own child. 

She was born with her father’s pale eyes. And taken from my arms before she’d so much as made a sound. 


When I was pregnant for the fourth time, I had decided that I was tired of beds of blood and my husband’s rage. 

So I waited until my sanctimonious husband had business in the city. I found Mr Grey something to do to get him out of my hair. Then I dismissed my ladies for the day and travelled upstairs to the Witch’s Daughter’s room. 

Unsurprisingly, she had no claws or talons of so to speak. There were no hooves or horns. If not for her hair, which has grown scraggly past her waist, she could be just another scrawny peasant girl. She does have his eyes though. Such distinctive pale eyes. 

She was afraid to speak at first. She scrambled under the cover her bed like I was the one the town feared and just cried and cried. I told her that I was the lady of the house and commanded her to answer me when I spoke.

In the tiny voice of one unused to speaking, the wretched creature told me her name was Iris and that Magistrate Bailey gave her that name. I asked her if she was cursing me to miscarry my babies over and over, and she told me no, no, she would never, she could never curse anyone. 

This came as no surprise to me. 

Quite frankly I’ve had rather enough of my husband and his stories. 


It was a cold and crisp All Hallows Eve night when the Magistrate’s house perished in the fire. The townspeople looked on in horror. The heat of the flames blew out the windows, even the little red one at the very top of the house. Amongst the chaos, someone screamed that Magistrate Bailey was still trapped inside. Men and women tried to douse the flames with pales of water, but the fire roared against it, reaching up high towards the sky like a great red hand. 

Lady Margaret blended in amongst the common women of the village, her finery hidden beneath a dirty, soot covered cloak. She watched her marital home crumble beneath the flames. Her baby howled and wriggled restlessly against her chest. She watched as her husband’s men busied themselves with pales of water, shouting instructions over the blaze as the servant girls wept. She watched Old Cook stare at the ruined house, silent for the first time, her mouth hung open in horror. 

Mad Madge danced in the street as Father Bryant begged her to cease at once, to show some respect. 

While the common people rushed around her, Margaret felt frozen in place. How trivial it seemed, their panic and their rush. She knew plainly that John would never leave the ruins of their home. She thought to open her mouth and tell those attempting so desperately to rescue her husband from the blaze to stop and wait, as she was, for the fire to burn out. A piece of ash touched her cheek and Margaret brushed it aside, rocking her baby gently in her arms. 

“Hush, little one,” she said softly. “All will be well.” 

In the chaos at the town square, nobody noticed a child slip out from under Lady Margaret’s soot-covered cloak. Why would they? She was such an ordinary looking thing after all. Pale, scrawny and slightly sooty. Nobody noticed her slip away from the crowd, past rows of houses and finally out into the woods that surrounded the town. 

In the morning, a rain came that doused the fire that consumed the house of Magistrate Bailey. His blackened remains were buried in the town cemetery and his fearful congregation grieved for him most admirably. Lady Margaret did not attend. She made a new match with a rich merchant in the city. She left the town in a smart black carriage and never looked back. 

The townsfolk would whisper reverently about their fallen leader, who saw witches in every shadow and made one of them his prisoner. They told stories of the witch even as the years passed and those who remembered her came to rest in the earth behind the chapel. The town would whisper about the Witch and her daughter and the fire as the years stretched on. They whispered of the Witch’s Daughter, who perished in the fire that destroyed the house that had been her prison all of her eight years, of the fire that killed the jailor that had likely been her father. 

Some would whisper that the Witch’s Daughter caused the fire that killed Magistrate Bailey. 

Some would claim that the Witch had returned at last for her child and burned the house to cinders to take revenge on Magistrate Bailey for keeping the two of them apart. 

Strangest of all were the rumours of a girl with pale hair and pale eyes who wandered the woods at night. It was said that her feet never touched the ground.

Rachael Llewellyn is a novelist living in Wales. Her previous work includes the Red Creek series (Down Red Creek and Impulse Control, both with Sulis International Press), and her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Heartland Society of Women Writers, Nymphs Magazine and Jazz House Publications. Her first collection of short fiction, Human Beings, is due for publication with Bear Hill Books in 2021. She is currently a PhD candidate at Swansea University, and is completing her thesis on trauma and memory in folklore.

photo by Feix Braas (via unsplash)

The Doll Maker—Pam Knapp

Jenna held the small parcel in her hands tightly. “You say you’ve done this before? More than once before? Has it ever failed?” 

She and Tom stood before the desk of the doll maker. He gestured to the wall behind them covered in thank you notes and snaps of happy customers with their purchases.  

The doll maker smiled with a fixed grin. “All that’s needed is something that was always close to him and a lock of his hair.”

Jenna handed over Henry’s tiny, curled lock of hair from her locket and his blanket, the one she’d sewn in the months spent in blissful anticipation of his arrival. The one he’d been wrapped in for his first hours of life. The one that she tucked around him in his cot each night. Tom shifted uneasily beside his wife. The doll maker solemnly placed the items and closed the casket. They should return after three days had passed. 

For those three days Tom’s tense resistance, pulled at every part of Jenna. He thought it a stupid, sick idea. How had they let it get this far? They should pull out. Seeing how his words stung her, he crossed the kitchen to make the most of the impact. “I agreed because I thought it would make you see there’s no sense in looking back, Jen.” He folded his arms around her trying to find the old warmth he’d felt between them before all of this, before Henry, before the doll maker. Jenna slid away and out of his smothering reach. She didn’t want to hear another reason to stop what they’d agreed. Here was a chance and she wasn’t going to let Tom browbeat her into letting it go.  

“We’ve paid him now.” Jenna’s eyes were fixed to the floor. Her heart had been heavy for so long she’d almost stopped looking anywhere else. “We might as well see what he’s done. It’s a lot of money.” She watched as Tom pressed his lips tight together, exhaling heavily through flared nostrils. Her tone hardened. “I’m going to collect what we’ve paid for. You don’t have to come with me, but I am going.”  

Since she had heard of the doll maker, she’d thought of nothing else. She knew that Tom couldn’t be reached by the idea now. He had sobbed pitifully in the car after their visit to the doll maker’s, parting with Henry’s things was too much to bear. He thought that the whole business was a cruel play on their grief. A con. These things had occurred to Jenna, yes, of course they had. But there was no room left in her mind for doubt to take root because ‘What if?’ grew like wild vines wrapping around every thought. There could be no going back. There would be no going back. 

The doll maker greeted them with the same fixed smile. “Take a look. He’s yours.” Inside the casket a replica of their child, Henry. Still and unmoving like the doll it was, but with an uncanny life-like resemblance, it caught Jenna’s breath, snagging her heart.

Tom’s reaction was immediate and searing. “It’s a doll, an overpriced sick stunt! You feed people’s misery and prey on their heartache! I’ll be damned if I let you do it to us!”

Tom stormed out of the doll maker’s studio. The grey chill of winter frost hung heavily on the gravel drive of the studio as Tom pounded manically at the trunks of its bare branched cherry trees, kicking at its kerbs and spitting oaths at the indifferent world. The reignited suffering had wrenched his heart from its seating and left Tom’s hurt to bleed out. “Bastard! Bastaaaaard!”

In the studio, Jenna remained rooted, looking down into the casket. Her fragile wishes for Henry’s return granted, she dared not move nor speak for fear of the vision disappearing like the fantasy Tom had said it was. 

“Why don’t you hold him?” 

Jenna, tenderly raised the doll. Heavy and solid like a child’s weight, soft and supple like a child’s body. She pulled the familiar blanket aside to reveal one of the doll’s hands and brushed her index finger across the tiny fist. 

Had she seen it unfurl? Just slightly, not fully but just a little, like a half asleep reflex? Jenna’s eyes darted to meet those of the doll maker. His head inclined in a slow conspiring nod that sent Jenna’s pulse racing. She turned her back on him, nestling the doll more closely in her arms and held the hand of the doll in her own. Tiny fingers splayed out and curled around her fingers, she was sure, before they returned to a tight fist. A sob escaped from Jenna’s soul, a release that was raw and terrible.  

Tom appeared at the doorway. “Put that thing down, Jen. A doll won’t replace a baby no matter how much it looks like ours did, and it won’t bring him back either. Let’s go.”

“I’ve paid the money, Tom. I’m taking him.” 

“Taking it, you mean?”

She cradled the doll as if it were their own lost son. “Yes. Taking it.” Jenna’s eyes were fixed onto the face of the doll, as if she were to look away, the spell would break, and he’d be gone again. Tom, gripped by nausea rising in his gut, was struck dumb by her sudden wild possessiveness. 

Repulsed by the doll, Tom, refused all contact with it, convinced that Jenna’s obsession would fade. At first, Jenna hid her routines letting Tom believe that the doll remained in Henry’s cot for her to look at, as she might a photograph. But the bond between Jenna and this new Henry ignited each time Tom left for work. She fed it from breasts that bore no milk. She changed unsoiled nappies and washed the unblemished doll in warm baby baths. Her memory filled the silent rooms with the cries of her baby son, the cooing and babbling she recalled from that time before. She thought she could smell the talcum dusted skin of her child, feel again, the warmth of his skin against hers. She remembered the rise and fall of his breathing body, and the tiny sighs and mews that came from his dream filled sleep. She conjured all of these memories filling the house with them so often that she couldn’t tell which were recollections and which, she was convinced, were new to her. It made her smile; it had been so very long since she had smiled. 

Routine turned days into weeks and life had a little of the old brightness about it, she might even say she was happy again.  She was so busy with this baby. Just listen to that crying! The more attention she gave, the more was needed. More feeding. More comforting. More bathing. More lullabies. More rocking. This new Henry needed her and what mother could deny her baby anything? 

Knowing that the doll was in Henry’s room, Tom found it impossible to enter there, and so frequent changes of the doll’s clothes remained undiscovered, as did the opened packs of nappies and the mounting quantities of baby paraphernalia accumulating on every surface. What was noticeable was Jenna’s increasingly frequent and obsessive need to check on, to fetch, to search for an array of obscurely urgent things. It was on such an errand that Tom found Jenna leaning over Henry’s cot, cooing and comforting the doll. 

His heart sank low into the pit of his stomach, aching with pity, with appalling horror. But Jenna didn’t flinch. Defiant accusations flew from her. It was Tom who was cold and unnatural, whose heart had hardened and whose love had fled from their family! She would not stop. It made her happy.  

“It’s not Henry. It’s a doll, we bought it, for Christ’s sake!” 

Her face reddened with resentment at Tom’s his pleading, his sour looks and sermons. It was all too severe. Who were they hurting? Why didn’t he just let them be? 

Tom watched on bleakly, unable to stop his wife’s wilful embrace of this dark make believe, so utterly bereft of anything wholesome. Pretenses were dropped, and Jenna chattered each evening about ‘the baby’, impervious to Tom’s brooding disgust and silences. 

“Did you see that lovely smile?”, “Oh what a racket that child can make when he’s hungry!”

He’d thought about going, leaving Jenna with the hideous doll. But he wouldn’t. In time, he was sure the illusion would pale and she’d see what she had been doing, what her life had become. Tom wanted to be there when the realisation came. She would need him. She was his wife.

It was a fine Spring Saturday when Tom suggested they go out, “Let’s get some fresh air and a change of scenery, eh?”

“It’s too cold for the baby. What if he caught a chill?”

Tom’s voice was tender, “Let’s leave the doll here. We can spend some time together, y’know, like we used to. It’ll still be here when we get back.”

“Leave him here?! How can you say that? No!” Jenna scuttled off with the doll in her arms, mumbling baby voice reassurances into the blanketed bundle as she placed it back in the cot. She turned to find Tom standing close behind her. 

“Come back to me, Jen.”

“No. Not without him.”

Tom held Jenna’s hands. Their faces close enough to touch. 

“Please Tom, what’s the harm?”

Tom folded into Jenna’s embrace, resting his head on her shoulder as he allowed his tormented sorrow to erupt in great heaving sobs. 

And it was then that he saw. The head of the doll had moved, barely, but unmistakably and a tiny sigh had escaped the sleeping form. Jenna felt the change in Tom’s body and saw the stunned apprehension on his face. 

“You see? You could love him as I do!” Jenna’s voice was urgent and rasping. But she had read Tom’s reaction poorly. 

Tom reached into the cot and wrenched the puppet from Henry’s blanket. Fury and fear mixed and raced within him, hatred for this usurper bubbled over into a red, red mist. Jenna ripped and clawed at Tom’s arms to reach the doll but was flung away by the strength of his rage. Growling and howling like a wounded animal, Tom hurtled the doll into the corner of the room, watching it plumb to the floor and lay there twitching for a moment before stillness and silence filled the room. 

Still not quite summer, the funeral flowers carried the sharpness of early blooms. Jenna’s folks had come to stay for a day or two to help sort her things. They expressed some surprise at the way Henry’s room still looked as if it was used. They scowled at it, linking it to their own child’s demise, silently blaming Tom for the help he didn’t give or seek for their daughter. Surely, he had seen the signs? He must have seen her suffering. Why hadn’t he cleared this room to help her? Perhaps then, it would never have come to this. 

Blossoms fell from the cherry trees like snow, covering the gravel drive and collecting in deep drifts at the edges of kerbs. Tom stood and started at the door of the doll makers studio. A lock of Jenna’s hair in his locket.

Pam Knapp lives in the UK’s rolling countryside of the Sussex Downs, close enough to London to feel the heat, far enough away to avoid being burnt. Optimism is her greatest asset. Her recent writing can be found in Dreich Magazine, Green Ink Poetry, Owl Hollow Press and In Parentheses Literary Magazine.

photo by StockSnap (via pixabay)

Ferrari—Helena Baptiste

I stand at the bedroom window, my fingernails digging into the window sill and worry about Gregg’s prized Ferrari because there’s a bull—big and black and threatening like a bull is supposed to look—outside near the detached garage in the too-bright glare of the security lights. Sometimes the bull gallops back and forth across the lawn, tossing its great head, scaring me with its horns, other times it just chews its cud, waiting. I first noticed the bull last night when I couldn’t sleep. Gregg was snoring as he usually does, his exhalations and inhalations Hoovering up the carpet and the roof and the walls. It felt like I was in an earthquake, everything rumbling and the ground undulating beneath me, making me dizzy and lightheaded and shaking me out of bed. I steadied myself against the dresser I hadn’t wanted, the one Gregg insisted we buy because he says his taste is better than mine. That’s when I first saw the bull.

Gregg keeps his cherry-red Ferrari in the detached garage. He only drives it during the summer, so he has limited insurance on it for the rest of the year. I’m not allowed to go into the garage or near it. Gregg says the garage is the inner sanctum, the “holy of holies.” I park my car (a Ford, which Gregg insists stands for Found On Road Dead) on the street as if I’m only here for a short visit.

I watch the bull out the back kitchen window as I make chamomile tea to wash down a couple of melatonin tablets. I mean, it’s not doing anything, really, just being a bull. But still. I wonder if I should tell Gregg. He’ll probably just say that he doesn’t see anything, or if he does see it, he’ll say that it’s my fault, that I’m the one endangering his Ferrari, that there was no bull in his backyard before I came.

The night before I first saw the bull Gregg had told me that I didn’t dress sexy enough, so I think about where I can go to find sexier clothes as I sip my tea. I don’t want to spend too much: Gregg will have something to say about that as well. When I was younger people used to say I dressed too sexy. They were always commenting on the neckline of my shirt, the length of my skirt or how it clung to the contours of my ass. I thought once I said “I do” I wouldn’t have to deal with that bullshit anymore. Marriage would cloak me in the most respectable of garments: virgin white, dove gray, pale pink; refined, reserved, delicate. Something classic. Something worth cherishing. Now it turns out I’m not sexy enough.

I’m wearing the new dress I bought and we are going out to dinner. I like the dress, form-fitting, black and sleek, sleeveless. It does make me feel sexier. I found it at a consignment shop but I don’t tell Gregg that. We pull up to a ridiculously expensive restaurant, one of those lauded places where they pile your food up in the middle of the plate in some sort of design and you’re not really sure what it is or if you want to eat it, but it looks stylish. Gregg likes these kinds of restaurants. I remember how he took me to a ritzy steakhouse when we first started dating and I ordered my steak well done. He said that he’d be taking me to Western Sizzler from then on. I’d laughed.

Gregg parks the Ferrari himself because he never trusts valets and I walk into the restaurant to wait for him. When he returns, later than what it should have taken, he seems flustered and snaps at me for no reason. I want to order the filet—I love filet mignon—but don’t because now that I’m wearing sexier clothes I really should lose ten pounds. Perhaps this was what this was about all along; Gregg wants me to lose ten pounds but didn’t want to come right out and say it. I eat my thin soup, making sure to sit up straight and lift my spoon correctly. I imagine I’m a movie star filming a scene of a woman dining alone.

As we leave the restaurant, a man looks at me appreciatively and I almost smile, but then Gregg blurts out, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” so I don’t. He stalks off to get the Ferrari and then we’re home and he’s asleep and snoring and I’m awake at the kitchen window again, sipping chamomile tea and looking at the bull.  I don’t like my tea without sugar but I’m drinking it unsweetened because I’ve got to lose those ten pounds and maybe it’s thinking about all the little things I love that I have to give up—like sugar in my tea—that drives me outside into the backyard.

The bull is still near the detached garage, but the Ferrari is locked away and safe. I, however, am in my dorm shirt and slippers with a cup of bitter tea and a bull on the lawn. Greg had promised he’d keep me safe. Long nights we’d spent talking when we were dating until I’d spilled everything: my childhood, the poverty, the abuse, the abandonment, my fears and he’d made me the promise. One night, when we’d been dating for a year, when I was sure he was “The One” he’d said, “You know, I really can’t understand what you’ve been through. I’ve always had a good and happy life,” and I was stunned how intense the hatred was that I felt for him for a moment.

The bull is pacing back and forth across the yard, tense. I watch the powerful muscles bunch and undulate beneath the glossy black hide, the massive penis bobbing and the heavy scrotum swinging low. Looking at it I am fascinated and disgusted at the same time. I think about giving the bull a name. After all, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere now that he’s taken residence in the backyard. I try out different names in my head, but I can’t settle on one. Some of the names are too dark, terrifying; others so light and inconsequential they might float away into the starry night sky. I lose myself in a waking dream about dancing in a field of wildflowers, weaving a garland of blossoms and draping them around the bull’s horns. The end of the garland in one hand is comprised of beautiful spring flowers, bright and lush; the other end turns black and wilts as I hold it and I wonder how one thing can be two different things at once.

On the grass, here and there, I notice black spots. Then it dawns on me what it is. Cow patties! I stifle a giggle and steal a sideways glance at the neighbors’ houses. All their windows are dark. Whew! Gregg would blow a gasket if he knew. A friend—he was my friend, what happened to him?—used to joke that Gregg spent his spare time lying on his stomach on the lawn with a ruler and a pair of manicure scissors and he wasn’t far wrong (Really, what happened to him? My friend? He used to make me laugh). I run into the house to get a garbage bag, a gardening trowel and some rubber gloves. I clean up as much of it as I can until my back starts to hurt, but I worry that Gregg will see spots where the dung was fresh and stuck to blades of grass, particularly near the detached garage where the Ferrari is stored.

The bull remains by the garage, thoughtfully chewing its cud, watching me frantically pick up its shit in the moonlight. Then it tosses its head from side to side, snorts, and disappears behind the garage. Standing in the backyard in my dorm shirt, my favorite slippers I’ll have to throw away and orange rubber gloves now brown with shit, I can’t help but feel the bull disapproves of me and it makes me disapprove of myself.

The next morning I cook Gregg his favorite breakfast—bacon and eggs—because he has an early golf game. I read somewhere that bacon and eggs used to be considered a king’s breakfast because, at the time, only royalty could afford to have meat for breakfast every day. I imagine Gregg sitting in the sunny breakfast nook, an ermine robe casually tossed over his sloping shoulders, a golden crown cocked precariously on his bald head. I stand propped against the kitchen counter and have only black coffee myself, though I like it pale with cream and lots of sugar. Gregg will take his truck to the golf course; he wouldn’t dream of stuffing a bag of golf clubs in his Ferrari, so I don’t worry about him seeing the shit stains that remain on the grass. Gregg loves golf and talks about it all the time. I don’t understand the game, but that may be because I’ve never played. Whenever I’ve tried to learn about it I always think about the old George Carlin joke that all golf courses should be used for housing the homeless.

When we were dating Gregg had relished telling me about one golf game he attended where someone had hired strippers who passed out beer naked and turned cartwheels for tips. I didn’t let it show but I’d been appalled by the story. I thought that people who could afford to play golf had more class and valued women and I wondered why Greg had even told me about it in the first place. I imagined the girls tumbling forever end-over-end across the greens like blow-up sex dolls caught in a gale and asked Gregg why he had participated. He said that’s what those girls were there for and that they had been doing them a favor, saving them, really, because the girls needed the money.

After Gregg leaves, I clear away the breakfast dishes and go through the motions of washing them: lift, wipe, rinse, dry, put away, repeat. Simple routine for simple dishes. In the dining room we keep our wedding china in a lighted glass display cabinet. Gregg had let me pick out the pattern, but only with his approval. We finally settled on one exquisite pattern, almost too beautiful to eat off, so we didn’t. 

Outside in the backyard there are more cow patties dotting the lawn like the round part of exclamation points. The bull is closer now, standing near the sourwood tree and the cherry tree halfway between the garage and the house; pawing the ground, his eyes bloodshot and wild. Watching. Waiting. I press my whole body against the kitchen window, willing the bull closer, daring it closer; my heart revving, wheels spinning, red blood pumping, pulse racing, feeling myself open, drawing it into me, but the glass keeps me safe.

Helena Baptiste is an aspiring writer whose work has been featured in The Weeklings and Aforementioned Productions. She is currently working on a young adult series.

photo by Mrdidg (via pixabay)