With each new issue, we feature three works—short stories, flash fiction, poetry, or artwork—available to view and read here freely. Past issues will remain available as well. Any copying or reproducing of the speculative fiction work featured here without express permission by the artist or author is strictly prohibited.
A clock face is hammered into the wall, high above the bed. The roman numerals are higgledy-piggledy, and the hands bent outwards, like the whiskers of a cat. There aren’t any cogs or mechanisms behind it, only floral wallpaper, but it keeps time just the same. You can’t take your eyes off it. Grandma owns many unusual things, but this must be the weirdest. The old woman said she hammered the components in place herself. You smiled agreeably because Grandma frightens you sometimes.
Marnie clings to your back even though it is very stuffy beneath the duvet. Her pajamas are damp with perspiration, and her skin is slick where it touches yours. Her breath tickles the nape of your neck, but you daren’t move. Children are to be seen and not heard, especially at bedtime, Grandma said.
Your feet are prickly and hot within their woolen bed socks. Marnie told you to remove them before you both climbed into bed, but you were distracted by the strange sounds coming from the attic space.
You regret not paying attention to Marnie now.
Grandma told you and Marnie not to mention these sounds to your parents and that if you did, they wouldn’t believe you anyway. You thought this might be true. Grandma bakes cakes and knits scarves, occasionally she makes Sunday lunch for the family, but sometimes she acts differently when mum and dad aren’t around.
Silence fills the room like cotton wool, the only sounds coming from the television downstairs, and you begin to doubt your own ears.
“I hope she goes to bed soon.” You feel as much as hear Marnie’s tremulous whisper caress your hair. “Then we can throw off the sheets?”
The mumble of the television stops suddenly. Grandma’s walking stick thuds rhythmically to the alcove at the bottom of the stairs. Her voice rises to find you. It is sharp and scratchy like rusty barbed wire.
“Don’t think I can’t hear you,” she says, snatching a raspy breath. “I might be old but there’s nothing wrong with my ears.” Moonlight pours through a crack in the curtains and draws a line up the wall. The minute hand of the clock shivers with trepidation. Grandma waits. You sense her down there, a statue in the darkness. Marnie is aware of this too, you can tell by the way she holds her breath. Her lips part but she closes them again, somehow you know it’s an apology.
After a prolonged silence, Grandma returns to the living room and the comfy chair sighs under her weight. The television comes to life again, and the minute hand of the clock takes an unsteady step forward. Thoughts of your parents occupy your mind. Dad making you laugh with his silly stories as Marnie (too old for this) rolls her eyes. Mum taking you and Marnie to the reservoir and picking wimberries on the grassy embankment. Mum and dad were so excited at the prospect of their date night, but strangely reluctant to let you sleep at Grandma’s for the first time. You didn’t like the way mum’s eyes lingered from the passenger side window as you waved goodbye from Grandma’s front step.
You all but forget the lumps and bumps of the mattress which make home between your ribs, waiting for sleep like a passenger at a rural train station. You watch the clock.
The cramp begins as an acorn sized knot in your side, below the spot where Marnie’s hand rests. Its painful embrace has woken you numerous times before, more often than not in your calves. No amount of sucking through teeth or rubbing seems to alleviate them. Mum said the pains were caused by dehydration and insisted on plenty of water before bed, but it doesn’t always work. Your weighty lids spring open as the pain spreads like a bruise across your side. The muscles grow taught. This is bad.
Marnie must have fallen asleep, because she jerks a little before lifting her hand. You inhale and exhale through your nostrils, bite down on your lip, try to stay still but it’s no good.
“Don’t,” Marnie breathes.
The duvet is heavy and rustles like it’s filled with a thousand plastic bags. You take a corner and peel it away. Night air cools the droplets of sweat which have formed on your skin but agitates the muscles, which contract further. Your teeth burrow deeper into your bottom lip, drawing blood, and a tear caresses your cheek. You squeeze Marnie’s hand. Her grip suddenly tightens, and you sense her look to the ceiling.
Something has awakened in the attic. It is the thing which makes strange sounds, like sheets dragging across floorboards. Your stomach fills with ice-water, and the cramp goes into overdrive. Arching your back instinctively, you release Marnie’s hand and knead the spot as quietly as possible. One of the mattress springs which has made home between your ribs frees. Compressed for hours, it trembles before suddenly expanding with a loud twang.
The television falls silent.
“I’m not going to tell you twice,” Grandma screeches, but she is the least of your worries. The thing upstairs quickens pace, towards the exit, towards the spindle stairs leading to the landing outside. Marnie begins to cry. You feel her shoulders shaking and hear her faint gasps for breath. This unnerves you because she is usually very strong, even standing up to the bullies at school when they pick on you.
The spindle stairs groan as something descends, one step at a time. The minute hand of the clock trembles and moves backward from twenty past ten to quarter to nine. The air cools further. You sit upright, but it’s like moving in treacle, like the world is spinning a little slower. Marnie’s face is unusually pallid, but her cheeks are rosy. Clouds spill from her open mouth. She looks to you and then the slide door. Not one, but two shapes appear behind the frosted glass and the door rolls gradually open.
They make a sound like October leaves as they ghost into the room, a funeral procession in black. Their heads are bowed beneath narrow robes. Hands like arthritic branches stretch out before them, tasting the air with the tips of their fingers. For a surreal moment it looks like they move underwater, something about the way the folds of material undulate like seaweed. You glance briefly to the clock, and the hands vibrate furiously in place.
They smell like dust and pennies. You know they are old, much older than grandma and perhaps older than the house itself. It is an instinctive knowing, like a mouse recognizing a hawk when the shadow descends. In another universe, outside this torpid lacuna, Grandma’s cane goes thud, thud, thud.
It is only when Marnie grabs your upper arm that you find yourself standing atop the mattress. Fear is fertile soil and courage has germinated someplace deep inside, born out of necessity. Wiggling from her grasp, you pad across the uneven surface and extend a hand.
The creature shrinks back and emits an avian screech as the hood of its robe bobs and weaves. It turns to its companion and this is when you grasp its robe between finger and thumb. The cold material feels papery and thin, like a bat’s wing. You pull with all your might, as quickly as the turgid air will allow, and the creature turns inside out, an umbrella in a gale.
The ghastly sheet flails and resists, desperately attempting to rectify itself, but there is a strange weightlessness to it. Angry screams vibrate through your bones as your arm is dragged this way and that, but you stand firm.
The second creature looms close and the coppery smell of pennies intensifies. It moves in slow motion, navigating around the bed like creeping death. Marnie’s pale hand cuts through the darkness, grips its robe and whips back. You turn to find her standing at your side, equal parts fear and grim determination on her face, as whatever-it-is resists. Your teeth chatter and vibrate as their screams make home inside your head, bleaching your vision white. Your fingers grow numb from their constant battle, and you feel the creature slipping away. Finally, it jerks free and flies in circles around the room. You catch a glimpse of black eyes and mean, little teeth.
The door almost bursts off its hinges. Grandma hobbles into the room, all round and wrinkled like a vegetable left in the sun. A shawl hangs over her shoulders, and her hair is lank and gray. Moonlight reflects in her spectacles, and her mouth is a flat line.
“Enough,” she says.
Raising her stick, Grandma points to the clock on the wall and the creatures freeze mid-air. Marnie releases the one she was holding, and it remains stationary before her like a frozen shroud on a washing line.
“I told you to be quiet,” Grandma scolds you both. The hand which holds the walking-stick is trembling. “I said no noise. Do you think that was for my benefit? Well, do you?” Her stern gaze travels from you to Marnie and back again. “If your parents hadn’t . . .” she takes a deep breath. “Well, anyway. Let’s tidy this mess up.” The handle of her walking stick is a brass goat head. It is tarnished, and one of the sapphire eyes is missing. Mum told you the stick was passed from mother to daughter all the way back to the seventeen hundreds. She said one day it might be yours.
Grandma gestures with the stick again and the clock turns backward, slowly at first but building up speed. The creatures move in reverse, hopelessly recounting the steps they’ve already taken until they skulk back through the sliding door. Grandma steps out of their way, her spine against the wall, and watches them shuffle down the passage and up the spiral staircase. Soon they are back in the attic. You hear them slink along the floor like rotten silk before falling silent.
The hands of the clock stop abruptly, glowing red. No one speaks for a moment.
“Right, bedtime,” Grandma says, finally. “You’re both going to be tired in the morning.”
She approaches, and you and Marnie climb under the duvet. You remove the woolen socks and toss them to the floor. Grandma tucks you in.
“What were they, Grandma?” Marnie asks, and the old woman recoils a little. Her thumb rubs the snout of the brass goat, and she slowly exhales.
“I guess you could say they came with the house,” she says.
Her lips feel itchy as she plants them on your forehead. She smells of powdery, floral perfume. Her eyes don’t leave yours as she straightens up, and in that moment, Grandma almost looks like somebody else.
“Sleep.” She says as she leaves, but sleep is a stranger. You stare at the clock and listen to Marnie breathe. It sounds like she has finally drifted off, but something bothers you, a mental splinter digging just under the skin of your consciousness. As time passes you start to wonder if it was actually all a dream, a strange nightmare conjured up by less familiar surroundings. At that moment something captures your attention. A copper spring protrudes from the center of the clock face where the two hands join. It is small and wiry and bobs up and down—a small cog balances on the end of it. The hands themselves are even more crooked than before and the wallpaper behind them is singed.
You watch closely, willing the minute hand to proceed with every ounce of your being, but nothing happens.
Marnie murmurs and turns over. The mattress groans.
Upstairs, something shuffles along the floor.
Gary Buller is an author from Manchester England where he lives with his partner Lisa and daughters Holly and Evie. He grew up in the Peak District where the hauntingly beautiful landscapes inspired him to write. He is a huge fan of all things macabre, and loves a tale with a twist. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association.
Luke Spooner is an artist and illustator living in the South of England. Having attained First Class degree in illustration from the University of Portsmouth his current projects and commissions now include illustrations and covers for books, magazines, graphic novels, books aimed at children, conceptual design and business branding. Find more information about him and his work at
Sam slouched behind his battered desk. He took a slug of single malt, lit a hand-rolled cigarette, and opened a newspaper.
“Yeah, Betty, send her in,” Sam called through the door before any knock came.
A blonde walked in. “Nice to meet you. I’m—”
“It was the Mob,” Sam said. “They killed your husband. Your man discovered the mayor’s gang ties and deviant sexual proclivities, then tried blackmailing him. Pretty stupid.”
“Oh,” she said, slightly flustered. “Should I—”
“Yeah, leave town. Give Betty a hundred bucks for my fee and she’ll get you settled.”
“Thanks.” The woman left.
Sam’s gaze never left the newspaper.
Drew Norton is a writer living in the Emerald City of Eugene, OR. He lives with his fiancée, Katie, and a fat cat named Nasu. He was recently published in Wild Musette Journal.
“I must say I appreciate the opportunity,” Lounds said as we mounted the stairs, old wood creaking beneath our feet. He was a tall, thin man whose eyes twitched constantly behind a pair of thick-lensed glasses. “Studying the Mandala of the Seventh Aspect is the dream of every Tibetologist—but I hardly need to tell you that, of all people.”
“Then I must confess to ulterior motives.” We reached the landing. I used the spare key to unlock the huge room the gallery used for storage. A smell of must and dry-rot and age assailed us from within. “A positive review of the gallery in the Post—from the pen of Robert Lounds, no less—would help us attract prospective buyers. The auction is set for next week, and we need every cent we can muster from the sales.”
Lounds nodded in that vaguely dismissive way of his, and a sardonic half-smile appeared on his lips. Inwardly, I cursed myself for almost flubbing my lines, but he was too immersed in his own thoughts to pay close attention to my babbling. His eyes strained into the gloom ahead, past silk drapes and deftly woven tapestries, past priceless vases and delicate statues carved in ivory. For a moment I saw the shadows of the storage chamber move and slither around the finely molded corners: a trick of the dim light that filtered through the dusty windows.
Laughter rose at the back of my throat, the kind of laughter that sounds like screams. I choked it back, feeling at once elated and terrified. Against all odds, Lounds had accepted my invitation to visit the empty gallery after hours. Did he suspect something? More than likely. Shrewd and suspicious to a fault, he knew there was no love lost between us. Yet he had come: the draw of the infamous sacred painting was too powerful to resist.
At worst, the scroll would turn out to be a hoax, one that cost him a wasted hour or two. At best . . . Lounds had a good idea of what would happen if he found the genuine article, and so did every scholar of Tibetan culture and religion in the world.
“It has a nasty history, this scroll of yours.”
“No use denying that.” I tried to stop myself from speaking, but my tongue carried on as if with a mind of its own. A voice in my head begged me to stop, to tell Lounds it was all a hoax, to keep him away from the door at the end of the storage room. But there was a deeper voice beneath it, one that seemed to emanate from some dark, unknown place; it egged me on, whispering hideous secrets, singing of grotesque wonders. “The monk who painted it went mad and hanged himself in the courtyard of the temple, after setting fire to all his work. This thangka painting is the only piece of his that survived.”
“Hardly the first insane artist in history,” Lounds said, his eyes riveted to the door. His facade of studied indifference was crumbling. “Or the last.”
“It’s more than that,” I said. “Madness and death have followed the painting wherever it went. Legend speaks of a noble of the Tsangpa dynasty whose sons vanished while playing in the ceremonial hall in which the Mandala hung. The Jesuit explorer Andrade mentions it in his journals in connection with several ghastly occurrences in the city of Tsaparang. Then there is the unexplainable disappearance of its last known owner, a British envoy to China at the turn of the century.”
We paused at the door, next to a book-stand of polished rosewood. “Numerous attempts have been made to destroy the Mandala, but all have failed. Tibetan clerics refuse to acknowledge its existence. To them it is an unholy artifact, a blasphemy made into solid form. They think that the artist who painted it had a special talent—that he opened a gate to the darkest basement of the universe. Touched the heart of the unknowable. That whatever he found there used him to paint the Mandala, create a doorway into our reality.”
“Doorway into reality.” Lounds was staring at me, his thin smile twisted into a sneer. “You always have been partial to . . . alternative explanations, haven’t you, Wilder?”
The cynical gleam in his eye brought it all back: the acrid debate that had ranged across the pages of several anthropological journals, his brilliant rebuttal of my theories, my loss of tenure at the University. That he had been later forced to publish a full withdrawal of his statements under threat of legal proceedings was small satisfaction. My academic reputation had been tarnished beyond repair. Lounds had gone on to become a leading figure in the field of Tibetology, while I had sunk into obscurity, eking out a living as a glorified gallery custodian.
Time does nothing to dull the razor-sharp edges of humiliation; the wound hurt no less—more, in fact—than it had all those years ago. Hatred, black and bilious, loomed at the back of my mind like a great wave; it took all the self-possession I had to push it back. Lounds suddenly looked frightened—not like he was getting suspicious, but worried that he’d crossed the line, that I might take offense and rescind my invitation. I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile and reached for the doorknob.
“Superstitious drivel,” I said, opening the door to the closet and taking a step back to let him in first. “A man who doesn’t learn from his mistakes is a fool. I don’t like to think of myself as one.”
There was a low, hissed intake of breath: it was as close as Lounds got to a full-fledged gasp.
The silk painting hung in a case on the far wall, its subtle colors radiant in the dimmed light of the closet. It was the work of a master of the art: its fragile lines and complex angles drew the viewer’s eye inward, toward the center of the Mandala, where intricate shapes and strange, elaborate pictograms seemed to dance and cavort in curious patterns. If one looked at the painting long enough, tried to follow the patterns from the outside in, one fell prey to an uncanny optical illusion: the figures of men and beasts would begin to move, and the center of the Mandala would emit a faint glow. There was the impression of a half-sighted something dancing on the fringe of one’s vision, something the eye could not quite focus on. I sought something else to focus my eyes on: as accustomed as I was to the painting’s effect, I still experienced the peculiar sensation of reality slipping a little, of space curving, ever so slightly, into some unknown dimension.
Lounds felt no such misgivings. His finger, long and elegant, hovered over the glass of the case, tracing the painting’s lines in the stale air of the storage closet.
“Crafted in the Phagmo Drupa period by the monks of Jokhang.” His voice was reverential. The finger shook almost imperceptibly. “It was thought lost or destroyed in the sack of Lhasa by the Dzungar Mongols, but unconfirmed sightings continued to be reported for three hundred years. Now it’s here—but how did you come by such a treasure?”
“Come now.” By blind chance, or a twist of fate, I had found the Mandala in the basement of an unsavory art dealer in Rotterdam. To obtain it, I’d done things that I couldn’t think back to without a shudder, and I’d staked nearly all the gallery’s funds—not to mention the tattered remains of my professional reputation. But it was worth it, had to be. “If you want me to reveal the secrets of my trade, you’ll have to try harder than that.”
Lounds nodded, barely registering my words. After what seemed like an eternity, he took a step back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. I noticed the effort it took him to peel himself away, as if some irresistible force was drawing him toward the painting. The feeling of unreality grew more overpowering; I could sense the room melting inside my mind, its straight lines and sharp corners turning into weird arcs and mad tilts. Terror froze me for a moment, the urge to flee setting my heart hammering in my chest.
“Exquisite artistry, you have to admit.” I spoke faster, my words floating across a depthless gulf. “At first sight it’s a classical thangka painting, but on closer inspection . . .”
I turned and lurched toward the door, knowing that I wouldn’t find it where it was moments ago, that the curving, shifting room had moved it beyond my reach. But it was there—blurred and frayed around the edges, as if leaking into some unseen space, but real enough to walk through. “On closer inspection you can see differences. The animals in the painting do not exist in nature, or in any mythology known to man. Also, the lines—can you see the lines?”
“Indeed.” His face was now inches from the glass, his myopic eyes blinking rapidly. “It is as if the center is not in the middle at all, but an inch or two to the side, no matter what angle you see it from. It should be there—I know it’s there—and the light . . . the figures . . .”
He cut off and glanced over his shoulder, but I had already stepped into the darkness of the storage room, closing the door behind me and turning the key in the lock. Lounds uttered a low cry that might have been surprise; I heard him cross to the door.
“Very amusing, Wilder.” His tone was strained. A fist pounded on the closed door. “You’ve had your fun. Let me out.”
“I thought the Mandala merited a closer look.” I backed away from the door. A shriek of mad laughter almost made me jump; it took me a moment to realize it had come from my own lips. “A longer perusal by an established expert—an overnight perusal, at that.”
“Open the door.” Anger was swiftly giving way to panic, the contemptuous note gone from his voice. His rational mind would refuse to accept the changing angles of the room, and his limitless arrogance would sustain him for a while, in spite of the evidence of his senses. But his reason would collapse eventually, crumble under the crushing weight of the madness that seeped out of the center of the silk painting. There was no room for the thangka in a sane, orderly universe. “Open it now, or you’ll be hearing from my lawyer. The gallery opens in the morning. Someone’ll let me out, and when they do I’ll sue you, you bastard.” The last few words came out as a cry of sheer terror. “I’ll sue the shirt off your back!”
“Goodbye, Lounds.” Was it my imagination, or did the dark wood of the door ripple and bubble like molten clay, something vast and ancient passing beneath the thin surface of reality? I beat a hasty retreat from the storage room, pausing to double-lock it, then down the wooden staircase, fearful that my knees were going to give way. But they didn’t. The unease I felt ebbed as I made my way down the stairs, replaced by the warm satisfaction of a job well done.
I knew that when the gallery employees unlocked the doors in the morning, they’d find nothing. There would be an investigation into the disappearance, of course, and sooner or later the police would come around asking questions, all to no avail. Lounds might have thought the same: his threats became pleas, and the pleas became screams, fainter with each step.
By the time I got to the front door they had ceased altogether. I held my breath and listened, but there was only silence.
Damir is an aficionado of weird and macabre tales, presently residing in Arlington, Virginia. His reading interests range from horror and fantasy to pulp and science fiction. His short stories have been featured in the Lovecraft ezine, the Gehenna & Hinnom Magazine and in anthologies by Grinning Skull Press, Gehenna & Hinnom Books, Martian Migraine Press, The Mad Scientist Journal, Ulthar Press, Emby Press and others. He earns his living as an accountant, a profession that lends itself well to nightmares and harrowing visions.
In the last ten years , Carmine G. Diaz has accomplished more than what some great artists in history have done in their entire lifetime of works, with well over 9,000 counted art pieces in the form of illustration , fine arts, and as of recently , large scale public murals. Although, his moniker BLK MTL (black metal) may only be known as legend throughout the underground low-brow art circuit of the city where he got his big start, Denver, Colorado. Mr. Diaz is well on his way to breakthrough status and finding critical acclaim in the world of Modern Art. Learn more by following him on instagram. For all inquiries , commissions and bookings email: email@example.com.
I am pressing a star against you,
Searing is its purpose.
Near the place where the most blood flows,
Transient transmissions; we caught them.
Tell me why you did it, how to fix it, these
Aberrations torn open in space, soon to
Encompass all time.
Relics are forbidden for a reason.
Ripping through space is all they’re good for.
Help us fix this.
Orion, won’t you speak?
I don’t want to hurt you.
Give us the answers my brethren seek.
Panic is spreading.
Death is what you seek.
Tearing through you would be an
End to our means,
Illustrating to your party our severe
Our dire and
Need for answers, like a star, is burning
Heavy and hostile.
Former IT guy turned spec-fic writer and librarian, Austin Gragg lives in Independence, Missouri. When he isn’t writing, reading, or teaching digital literacy classes, he can be found playing Dungeons & Dragons with his wife, friends, and a pride of small domestic lions. If you enjoyed his poetry, you can find more on Twitter and Instagram @austingragg
or at .