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.
William Russell had enough time to think, ‘Oh no!’ as he saw the other car speeding toward his. Then there was the sound of grinding metal, squealing tires, and a screaming voice. As pain lanced through his body he had just enough time to realize the screams were his own. Then . . .
. . . flashing lights, a man’s face staring at him . . .
. . . jarring pain as his body was moved . . .
. . . the sound of an ambulance siren, the feeling
of moving . . .
. . . a cluster of concerned faces, and a mix of electronic sounds . . .
The next time consciousness returned was different. This time, it was a slow climb back to reality. There was no jarring, no sudden pain, instead he seemed almost like a
machine coming back online, system by system. It was
a luxurious feeling. He stretched his legs, but there was a problem. His right leg felt unusually heavy and unable to move comfortably. Then the feeling of, not pain exactly, but twinges, started to impinge on his comfort. With a sigh, he realized that he would have to confront existence head on.
He opened his eyes. There were black spots on a white background. No, they were holes. He was, he realized, looking at perforated ceiling tiles. That made sense: the rest of his body was telling him he was lying on his back. He turned his head a little to the right. Part of a thick pillow, in a clean white case. That explained the comfortable feeling. Beyond that, a white wall, and a picture of a vase of flowers.
Time to try the other way. He turned his head, past the ceiling tiles again, to the left. The same white pillow, but above it something different. Mousy brown hair. A pair of blue eyes. Smooth white skin. A small nose. A face, he decided. A face he felt he liked. It looked friendly, particularly as small lines appeared at the corners of the eyes. A smile. A smile, to William, seemed like a very nice thing to see.
“Welcome,” said a soft voice from the direction of the face, “I thought it was about time you returned to reality. I can normally judge these things pretty well, though the Doctor said you’d be out for another hour
The face moved, going up and out of William’s sight till he remembered to track it with his, still surprisingly heavy, head. He saw now that it belonged to a woman in a nurse’s uniform. She seemed younger than him, and she moved in a careful and gentle manner that made him feel safe and contented. Then again, the bed had made him feel contented too. Maybe, he thought, he was on some sort of drug? He hoped not. The feeling was too nice to be artificial. He wanted it to last.
“Hmm,” said the face as it looked at him, “awake, but perhaps not yet really back to reality. Maybe a little too much of the painkillers.”
William felt it was time to express himself. He had always been a good speaker. “Whaa . . . ?” was the best he could manage now though.
“What happened? Where are you? That sort of thing?” said the nurse.
William nodded. It seemed a safer bet than trying to speak again.
She picked up a clipboard from the end of his bed, made a notation, and then turned back to him. “You’ve been in a rather serious car accident,” she said. “I don’t know all the details of the accident, but you broke your right leg in three places, suffered several internal injuries, and took a rather serious knock to the head. The Doctor had to operate to reduce the swelling up there, and we were a bit worried about you for a while.”
She came back to the head of the bed and leaned over him to adjust something on the wall above his head. She smelled great to him. She smelled—he could think of no other words—soft and safe.
She completed her adjustments and sat by the bed again. “You are in a facility, but I assume you understand that already. We are a facility that manages special cases like your own.”
William mentally thanked himself for the decision to buy such extensive health insurance.
“Now,” she said, staring into his eyes, “I think the best thing you can do is to get some more sleep.”
William found he couldn’t break the stare. He looked deep into her strikingly blue eyes. He found himself falling, and falling—asleep.
William woke again. He felt refreshed, more aware, more like his old self. He had no idea how much time had passed, but he quickly ascertained he was in the same room. Same ceiling, same pillows, same picture on the wall. He raised himself slightly and saw a small bedside cabinet. On top of it were some of his possessions: his wallet, his appointment book, and his phone. Phone! He could use that, find out how long he’d been out. He could find out how the company was doing without him. Surely someone would be scheming to replace him. He needed to nip any back-stabbing in the bud, and put people in their places.
With some difficulty, he managed to reach over to the cabinet and pick up his phone. He tried to turn it on, but nothing happened. Must be powered off, he thought. He held the button down, but all that greeted him was a dead battery icon. No luck there.
“Now why do you want that on?” came a voice from behind him. He rolled over to see the nurse standing by his bed. He must have been concentrating so hard on the phone he didn’t hear her come in. It made sense to him.
“Well?” she asked, looking down at him with a half smile. Somehow, he felt guilty, as if trying to use his phone had somehow been a reflection on her hospitality. Silly, he thought, it wasn’t her hospitality. She just worked here.
“Work,” he managed to say at last.
“No, no. Doctor was quite adamant that you shouldn’t be stressed by anything. No contact with work. Just lie here and recover.”
“Visitors?” he asked in a croaky voice.
“None,” she said. He felt a little disappointed. Sure, he hadn’t expected his family, but maybe that girl, what was her name? Sally? Sarah? Sue?
“Doctor wouldn’t allow any, anyway. Remember, we don’t want to stress you.” Well, that explained it then.
She picked up a glass of water from a cabinet on the other side of the bed. “Now, you drink this. You sound thirsty.”
He rolled back onto his back. He was thirsty. He hadn’t noticed until that point. How had she known? Well, she was a nurse, that was her job, he guessed.
She touched a control and the head of the bed slowly rose, pushing William into a half-sitting position. Then she gently put the glass to his lips. He felt the cool refreshing water slide down his throat, soothing it. He felt, again, how safe and contented she made him feel. It was like having a mother, who just looked after you and never judged.
When she was happy he’d drunk enough (and he had), she took the glass away. She fluffed his pillow a bit and then made her way down to the foot of the bed to make another note on the clipboard.
The nurse raised her face and looked into William’s eyes again. “You will have to see a visitor this afternoon, though.” Her face turned dark, briefly, before she continued.
“Not that I like him, or that Doctor wants him to disturb you. Never mind, if you want, you never have to see him again.”
William was confused. He had no idea what, or who, she might be talking about.
She must have seen the confusion on his face because she smiled a small smile and said, “Don’t worry.” She came back to the head of the bed and lowered it. “I’ll look after you. I won’t let him disturb you too much.”
William smiled. She had such a way of comforting him. He trusted her.
“Now,” she said, “don’t let it bother you. Get some sleep and we’ll deal with it this afternoon.”
William couldn’t disagree with that. He slipped down under the covers a bit more, and closed his eyes, content in the knowledge that the nurse was looking after him. She was almost addictive. He could do with a bit more water, though. He opened his eyes, intending to ask her for some. Except she’d gone. The room was empty again. Oh well, he thought, she must have gone out the door already. Except . . .
He raised himself up as well as he could, resting on his elbows, and looked around. No door in the wall with the picture. No door opposite the foot of the bed. No door to his left. No door in the wall at the head of the bed. There was no door to the room. Just four white walls. His mind whirled, then gave up and crashed into relieved unconsciousness.
William woke slowly, almost struggling to regain consciousness. It was like the slow coming to he had experienced when he’d first woken in the facility, only now it didn’t seem like fun. It seemed like a fight to recover his senses and understand what they were trying to tell him. Voices were impinging on his mind. People were speaking in his room, but they were so unclear.
“Might . . . noticed something. Not . . .
“ . . . matter. Won’t effect . . . Decisions need . . .”
William’s eyes eased open. Her face was at his side. It swung, almost immediately, in his direction. Her smile made his heart flutter. Then his memories came back.
“Door . . .” he gasped, trying to push himself up.
“There, there.” She leaned over him and her hands pushed gently on his shoulders, holding him down on the bed. “Doctor said you had some sort of mild seizure this afternoon, but you’re better now. Feeling better, yes? Relax now.”
Staring at her face, those eyes, smelling that smell, he felt himself relax. Brain injury, mild seizure. Yes. It all made sense. He lay back and stopped struggling. “Mmm,” he said.
She looked into his eyes before standing, and touching the control to raise the head of the bed. “Good,” she said, “that means you can talk to your visitor.”
Suddenly he was aware that there was another person in the room. Standing at the foot of the bed was a man, a few years younger than him, William thought. The man had his blond hair slicked down. He wore a light colored suit that managed to look both expensive and cheap at the same time, almost as if the man had spent a lot of money on a suit designed to look cheap. He had a pair of sunglasses on, and he favored William with a gleaming smile that William felt was anything but sincere.
William knew exactly what he was. “Lawyer,” he muttered.
The man slipped off his sunglasses and came toward the head of the bed, on the opposite side to the nurse, smiling his insincere smile. “Bill, Bill, Billy my son, you’re exactly right. I’m here to help you.”
William, who hated being called Bill, could not understand how someone younger than him would call him ‘son.’ It irked him. “Ambulance chaser,” he growled.
“Billy, my man,” said the lawyer, lowering himself onto a stool by the right side of the bed, “you and I need to talk. You have some issues, and I can help. Maybe we could talk in private.” He gestured with his head toward the nurse on the other side of
William thought for a minute. A lawyer meant something had gone wrong. Lawyers were the people you brought in to clean up messes. Maybe a private conversation would be a good idea, but the nurse made him feel safe. He liked having her around. She supported him.
“Nurse stays,” he said.
He saw the look of dismay, or was it distaste, that flitted over the lawyer’s face. Then he felt the comfortable feeling of her hand on his left shoulder. She made him feel good.
“Okay Billy, it’s your call,” said the lawyer. “We have to get real, though. You have some responsibilities to take up. There are people who want a piece of you.”
William was used to that. His ruthless climb to the top of the company had not
made him many friends. He had to ask, though, “Who?”
“Well, the husband of the young lady who was in the car with you.”
“Why? If he’s too boring for her it’s not my fault.”
“Because she’s dead. She died in the crash, Bill.”
Well, that was a bit of a shock to William. She’d been a nice young thing. He felt cheated that he couldn’t remember her name, almost as if she was doing that on purpose. Not that—he supposed—he would have remembered her in a year anyway.
“Not just her,” continued the lawyer, “there were also two people in the other car who died, and one more who will never walk again. Given your blood alcohol level at the time of the accident, their families consider you to have a major degree of responsibility for this.”
“So, you’re a lawyer. If I pay you enough you can get me off this.”
“It’s not that easy. Anyone who looks at this can see that you are responsible, at least for a good majority of what happened. I can help you, we can bargain, but you’ll have to stand up and admit responsibility for your actions.”
William sighed. “Do you think I got to where I am today by admitting guilt? There are always ways around these things. Loopholes that can be exploited, others who can take the blame. That’s what lawyers are for. You find the loopholes for me. You stop me being held responsible.”
The lawyer finally lost his smile. “Not this time, Bill. It’s too clear. This time you can’t hide behind others. This time you have to man up and confess what you did. Then we can negotiate and get a reduced punishment. I can help you—”
“Wait,” said the nurse on William’s left. “There is another way.”
William leaned back against his pillows so he could easily turn his head between the two. “What do you mean?” he asked. She was just a nurse, but something about her made him listen to her, trust her.
The nurse took her hand from his shoulder and grasped his hand. “I mean you don’t have to do what this man says. I can take you away from here.”
This was unexpected, but he wanted to hear more. The thought of going somewhere with her was not at all unpleasant.
She continued, “Come with me and you’ll never have to see someone like this again. You’ll never have anyone telling you that you need to confess anything. You’ll never have to take responsibility for yourself.”
William looked between the two of them. The lawyer meant well, but he was promising a whole bundle of heartache. The nurse, though, she’d looked after him, made him feel comfortable. She had made reality bearable. He had enough money stashed away from the company. He could go anywhere, live like a king. If she could help him get out of this, well, she could come along too. It surprised him, he didn’t normally trust others so easily, but he liked the way she made him feel. Well, it wasn’t like he’d have to stay with her forever once she got him out of this mess. People could always be replaced.
He looked at the nurse. “Can you?”
“Yes.” She squeezed his hand.
“Yes, but she . . .” the lawyer began.
“Don’t argue. I’m going with her. Thank you for your offer, but I have no intention of confessing anything to anyone.”
William looked back at the nurse, who was smiling broadly. Her smile continued to widen, spreading so far and so wide that her mouth began to split at the sides.
“What?” William tried to pull his hand away, only to find that her grip was a lot stronger than he’d thought. He couldn’t pull his hand back.
The nurse’s smile had now split her face in two. With a flick of her head she sent the upper half flying in a fine shower of blood. The face that was uncovered was not at all human. It had eyes like a cat’s, a dark red mottled skin, and a ridge of horn or bone running across the top of the head. The smiling mouth was now filled with yellow fangs.
“You can come with me, to a place for people who don’t like to be responsible. We have a whole lot of ways of dealing with people like you.”
William desperately tried to pull his hand away. He looked down to find that her skin had peeled back from her hand as well, revealing long dark taloned digits that were digging into his hand.
The floor started to tear. Before William’s incredulous eyes, a hole began to form. The tear grew bigger. It was blacker than anything William had ever seen. It wasn’t just black, it was an absolute absence of any light.
“Come on, dear.” With a superhuman burst of strength, what had been the nurse pulled William from the bed and hurled him, screaming, into the hole. She winked at the lawyer, and then followed William in. The hole vanished after she went through.
The lawyer stood and brushed down his suit.
“I guess you can’t help them all,” he said. Then he vanished.
A few seconds later, so did the room.
David is originally from New Zealand, though he currently lives and works in South China. He lives with his wife and young son. He used to write a lot when he was a university student (and that was a wee time ago), but only really began to write short fiction a few years ago. While he is normally a happy and outgoing person, much of his fiction tends to be a bit dark. His short stories have appeared in online and print publications, most recently including Wild Musette, Teach. Write., and Crimson Streets.
We’re sitting on the rooftop watching the city burn. When we moved in, I was skeptical about paying for the view, but I have to admit that the light playing across the skyscrapers and the bridge is beautiful. Romantic, even.
I pass the canteen. You slip one end of your straw into the cap and the other into your gas mask. This isn’t ideal, but if you close your eyes, the screams of the dying almost sound like Auld Lang Syne. We’ve got food, water, and ammunition, and we always wanted to live somewhere with a fireplace.
Thomas Cavazos is a writer living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California’s MFA program. His science-fiction, horror, and poetry have been published online at NewMyths.com, Rise Up Review, Constant Readers, and Trembling With Fear. You can find more of his work at and you can follow him on Twitter (@t_cavazos) to see him harass politicians, corporations, and other public figures.
Anna Ploeger is a student at Utah State University and is currently studying Art Education. She plans on being an art teacher so she can share her love of art and culture. She has loved to draw and doodle ever since she could hold a pencil. Anna loves the outdoors and spends most of her time outside. She enjoys the mountains and everything that goes with them. She started making comics just this last year, starting with Rip. She first met Rip a year ago during Inktober when she created him.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 .