‘A Coffee Date With Death’ by Ian Canon

Coffee Date

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“You’re late, Isaac.”

“You’re mistaken, Labe,” he said, raising a finger in the air as he sat down. “The Grim Reaper is never early—nor late. He always arrives just in time.”

Labe, the elder of the two, had a mangy red beard and eyes like fava beans. He curled his fingers around a cup of coffee, the steam somersaulting across his forehead. Isaac had a neat, close-cropped beard and rounded eye-glasses.

“You’re still late.”

“You really haven’t seen?”

“Seen what?”

“It’s all over the news. I was schlepping souls up off the street all afternoon! What a day, a night, a week, if it was a month!”

“Explain.”

“The stock market crashed. Kaput! Nobody has money. Nothing! Zilch! They’re jumping out of buildings left and right.” Isaac threw up his hands as if tossing imaginary paper bills in the air. “The roof to The Bank of New York had an hour wait just to jump. An hour!

“That’s just the way these humans are. Such fickle beings. So proud yet prone to despair. But you, Isaac,” he said, extending an accusatory index finger. “Always with the excuses. Always late. We had a meeting. One you called, I remind you. So souls can wait. God knows they have an eternity.”

“Labe! I couldn’t help it, I swear. You don’t understand the difficulties of someone in my position! The angel of death, the man with a giant, terrifying scimitar. These are not positive things, mind you. A thankless job, if ever there was—”

“Welcome to Monk’s! Coffee?” a young boy sidled up to the table.

“Please, please.” Isaac wiped the sweat from his glistening forehead.  “Oy. I’m famished.”

“Cream or Sugar?”

“Black, my boy, always black. I’m getting old, you know! Weight’s becoming a factor.”

“Black. Got it.” The waiter turned to Isaac. “And you, sir? Need anything else?”

“My coffee is still serving me quite well, thank you.”

“Let me know if you two need anything else,” the boy said. He disappeared behind a swivelling back kitchen door.

“Why do you do that, Isaac?”

“Do what?”

“My weight. My age. These things aren’t real.”

“I like to play the part. It’s fun. What’s it matter?”

“Ugh…” Labe said, shaking his head, waving Isaac away. “I guess it doesn’t.”

“Anyway, what were we on about.”

“Your, as you put it, thankless job.”

“That’s right. A thankless job. One you wouldn’t understand.”

“My appointment is every much as difficult as yours.” He furrowed his thick red brows. “Some might say it’s more difficult, even. Let’s look at the facts, shall we? The crude birth rate, per 1000 people, is 19.4, while the mortality rate is significantly less, sitting at just under 8 deaths per 1000 people.” He slurped his coffee, his mustache coming back damp. “I have to usher into existence twice the souls you usher out on a daily basis, and you’re trying to tell me about difficulty. You have much to learn, Isaac.”

He raised a finger in the air. “Still, still. You’re held up in high esteem for your actions. A hero! Whereas I’m hated, feared, and misunderstood! The humans praise the lord every time you perform your little miracle, while they curse my name. It’s the most thankless job! One that I’ve been doing forever!”

“We’ve both been at it forever. This is nothing new to you.”

“That’s why I called this meeting. I’m fed up!” He collapsed onto the table, still talking into his arms. “When does it end? When do we get a day off? When can I go on vacation? How long are we here for?”

“I’ve never considered the question before.” He stroked his beard. “I would imagine this is our lot for eternity, my old friend.”

“Eternity!” Isaac stuck his tongue out in a mock-gag. “Bupkes! But tell me, Labe, in your infinite wisdom, what was before eternity? What did you do before this? What is after this? These people have their death, their escape, and what do we have? Are we human? Are we something else?”

“I do not know.” He looked up at the ceiling as if the answer were written on a poorly dusted overhead light. “I’ve only known life. This life. That’s it.”

“But you must know more than me! Life by very definition preceded death. What was I before this… whatever this is!”

“These are questions I do not have an answer for, but they are excellent questions, nonetheless.”

“Who does, Labe?” He leaned in closer and whispered. “The humans? Can we ask them? Surely, before they come to life or shortly after they leave it, they must have something to say!”

“An interesting possibility. I do not see why not. Where shall we begin our line of questioning?”

Isaac’s eyes glowed at the possibility of answers. “The beginning,” he said. “And the end. A hospital.”

“Just 12 blocks east.”

“Let’s go! Souls, those weary travellers, are waiting to be ushered into existence!” Isaac stood up and hopped, from one foot to the other, like a school boy playing hopscotch, out of the cafe.

Labe stood in a stiff, almost robotic, motion, brushed himself off, and left a $5.00 bill on the table. Shortly after, the boy-waiter brought over a pot of coffee, shrugged at the empty seats, and pocketed the change.

Despite the bodies raining from the rooftops, blotting out the sun as they fell through the air, it was a beautiful summer day in New York.

“Have you ever attempted to talk to the unborn?” Isaac said, stepping over a body.

“No, Isaac. I never quite saw the point.”

“What are they like?”

“They’re not really like anything. They’re quiet, I suppose. They arrive, from God knows where, these frail winged babes, to be ushered into a body. It’s an unglamorous activity with nothing of note to report. Have you talked to the dearly departed?”

“Talked? No. Listened? Not if I can help it! The damn things don’t shut up. They yap about this and that and the other. Always yapping.” A homeless man leaned into Isaac and asked for spare change. Isaac, ignoring the man, continued. “Yap, yap, yap. I rarely get a word in.”

“What’s the process like when you pull them out of a body?”

“More often than not, they’re confused before they fly off to, as you said, God knows where. Probably the same place they came from.”

“Have you ever seen a dead soul after the ushering? Say, walking around the street amongst the living?”

“Hmmm. That’s a good question. No, I can’t say that I have. I guess they don’t come back, then. Isn’t that odd?”

“I suppose it is. Where do they go off to?”

“Up there, I imagine.” Issac gestured towards the sky.

Entering the hospital, they lost their elderly exterior and took on the appearance of two middle-aged doctors. They carried with them an air of ease, comfort, and respectability as they walked through the narrow corridors of the hospital and towards the maternity wing. With their new skins, no one doubted their position or purpose.

“Where are we going, Labe?”

“Just a little farther, Isaac. At the end of the hall, on the left, up here, there’s a woman a few minutes from birth. A soul will soon be entering her. It’ll make a perfect specimen to question.”

They walked into the room. A woman, legs high in sternums, was red-faced and panting. No one seemed to care or notice the doctors’ intrusion.

“So what happens now?” Isaac asked.

Labe put his finger to his lips. He turned his chin to the sky. A small, wingless cherub floated through the roof, head first, and held out his hands towards Labe. Labe grasped the soul’s hands and gently set him on the ground.

“We have some questions to ask you, child.”

The bodiless soul blinked into the void.

“Ask him where he comes from!” Isaac said, a few feet behind Labe.

Labe glowered at Isaac, annoyed by his impulsiveness, then turned back to the small translucent soul and asked, “My child. Where do you come from? What came before this? Do you remember anything?”

No one said anything for several minutes.

Issac leaped forward. “Well, what is it, human! Where do you come from?”

If there was any effect on the child from Isaac’s outburst, it was not visible on its outward appearance. It remained lifeless and without expression, except for the empty smile on its face.

Labe tried his hand again. “Do you understand my words, child? Do you know what it is I am saying? We must know where you come from.”

Blankness. No response.

Labe knelt down. “Do you have any memory of anything before this?” He stared into the child’s eyes, hoping something would disturb its stillness, but the boy simply looked through him.

Labe stood up and turned to Isaac. “Its small cherub lips would likely not part for anything, man or beast.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe it has the capability to communicate. This thing here is a blank slate. It has no memories, thoughts or desires. Before us is an empty soul, waiting to experience the life of a human and to feast on its many experiences. It waits to learn, to play, to love. As of now, it has no knowledge to give us because it has no knowledge.”

“Are you saying there is nothing to gain here?”

“Perhaps not. The soul prior to birth is as lost, if not more so than we are. It is only through life that it gains some knowledge.”

“Then perhaps we must question it after it has lived a full life. We must question the dead!”

“Indeed, Isaac. We must.”

Labe lifted the pre-born by the shoulders and laid him over the pregnant woman as if it were a clean bed sheet.

“We’ve got a head,” A doctor said, as they left the room.

Isaac and Labe walked through the corridors of the hospital until they came upon a small commotion of nurses and doctors.

“This should do nicely,” Isaac said.

They entered the room. There was a man on the operating table with his chest open, hooked up to a variety of machines, the ominous steady ring of a heart monitor, the 21st century calling of the dead and dying, still heavy in the air.

“Is he dead?” Labe asked. He had always been uncomfortable around the dead. He assumed this uneasiness was bestowed upon him, for his duties regarded the living, not the dead.

“A goner.”

Isaac pinched the skin of the man’s shoulders and lifted up a soul, vaguely outlined by the shape of the man it came from. He placed it on the ground and it, as if Isaac stepped on a hidden air pedal, began to inflate. Fully animated, it judged its surroundings with the wide eyes of terror.

“Where am I?”

“You’ve passed,” Isaac said.

“Passed? What do you mean?”

“You’re dead. You’ve died.”

The soul looked around again, seeing its former shell laying, stiff and still, on the operating table. “I… I… I’m dead?” He looked at the pale feet of his old body with disappointment.

“Dead as the day is long.”

“My God,” the man said, throwing his hands around, pacing the room. “My friends. My family.”

“They’ll be fine. What’s your name, soul?”

“B-brian. My name is Brian. Brian Thompson. When will I see my family again?”

Labe walked forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Be calm, gentle soul, your family will be fine.” Labe stepped back behind Isaac.

“We would like to ask you some questions,” Isaac said.

An unnatural stillness, cased in confusion, came over Brian. “You want to ask me questions?

“Yes,” Labe said.

“I have a few questions of my own.”

“If we answer yours,” Isaac said, “will you answer ours?”

“I guess.”

“Then go ahead.”

“First of all, who are you two? What are you?”

“I am Isaac. Some people call me the Grim Reaper, or Death, or the Angel of Death, or Michael, but I prefer simply Isaac.” Isaac looked back at Labe. “And my friend over there is my counterpart. People don’t call him anything. Most don’t know he exists. I take the souls out at death and he puts them in at birth. He goes by Labe.”

“Okay. Isaac and Labe. What happens now?”

“We were hoping you could tell us that.”

The soul’s face contorted, and he took a step back. “I don’t understand. Isn’t that your job? Aren’t you supposed to take me somewhere? What do you usually do with a soul?”

“We don’t do anything. My job is to pull the soul from its body and Labe’s is to place it in a body. Beyond that, we have no clue where you come from or go when you die.”

“And you want me to tell you where I’m supposed to go when I know nothing?”

Yes,” Labe said. “We’ve been here on earth for an eternity, and it appears we are stuck here for an eternity more. What we don’t know, and what we may never know, is what happens beyond death, and you lot seem to be free’d, upon death, from your earthly confinements.”

“Well,” the soul said, attempting to stroke his chin, but slipping through his bottom lip. “Let’s work this out together. What happens to a soul after you free it… Isaac, was it?”

“They’re usually out of their mind, or in shock, or overwhelmingly sad. They ask me questions, questions I can’t answer, then I tell them they’re free to go, to fly off into the sky, wherever they wish.”

“And you’ve never asked one where they planned to go?”

“Honestly? I’ve thought about it.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t really say. Something always stopped me, I guess. Besides, they always find their way, wherever they go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never seen a soul return to earth. I haven’t seen them on the streets, or in the supermarket, or at the bottom of a bottle of milk.

“Do you know where you’ll go?” Labe asked.

“I don’t have a damn clue. Where would you go, if you suddenly found yourself free?”

“I suppose I would look for answers,” Labe said.

“Where would you do that?”

“Everywhere,” Labe said. “The universe is unimaginably large.”

“Maybe that’s why you’ve never seen one return,” the soul said.

“Why?”

“There are no road maps out there. Once you’re gone, it’s like finding a spec of dust in an ocean of sand.”

“You believe them—those like you—to be lost? All of them?”

“Or maybe this state gives way too, sooner or later,” he said, examining his opaque exterior.

“Think so?” Isaac said.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned on earth, it’s that nothing is forever.”

“What’s it like?” Isaac asked.

“What?”

“That body. I’ve always meant to ask.”

“There’s a certain lightness to it.” Brian lifted a few centimetres off the ground. “But some things, physiologically, don’t make a whole lot of sense. I can feel, but I don’t have skin. I don’t have eyes, but I can see. I don’t have lungs or hold air, but something is producing a voice. My body has weight, but I’m floating here, seemingly unaware of gravity’s existence.”

Isaac smiled. “Maybe we were once human, you think?”

“Perhaps,” Labe said. “But I am not aware of any death of mine.”

“Did it hurt?” Isaac asked. “Do you remember it?”

“It hurt for a bit, but it was sudden. A heart attack, I think. I was watching my daughter’s school play—her head sticking through a hole in a tree—when I toppled over, digging my fingernails into my chest. Then I woke up here, whatever this is.”

“Whatever this is, indeed,” Labe said.

“So, have I been of any help?” Brian said.

“Absolutely none,” Isaac said. “But it’s sure been an interesting experiment.”

“This experiment has done nothing but double my questions.”

“Answers are a monkey’s paw—they always come with more questions.”

“Where to now?”

Brian looked up, hands on his hips, floating in the room like Peter Pan’s shadow. “Somewhere up there, I guess.”

“Don’t let us keep you,” Isaac said.

“Goodbye,” Labe said.

“So long my supernatural companions.” The soul floated into the ceiling, never to be seen again.

As they left the hospital, Isaac and Labe walked with their heads down and their voices quiet. They pondered the complex nature of the universe, so vast and untamed, a wild horse unbroken by man or ghost until they reached the Bank of New York. The ground was littered with bodies and blood ran down the sidewalk, emptying into a nearby drain.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you, Isaac,” Labe said.

Isaac put a hand across his brow and looked up at the roof of the building. “Never a weekend, or a vacation, or a day off—an eternity of work—toiling for God knows why.” He pulled away from the roof and looked at Labe. “What difference does it make if I release the souls? Who would be the wiser if I took a month off?”

“It is our purpose for being, Isaac.”

“Maybe I don’t need a purpose. Have you ever thought of that? Maybe I just want to be free! Maybe I just want to wander the universe, a lost soul.”

And at that moment, a body came careening through the sky, splattering the being formerly known as death into a thousand pieces, like a bug on a windshield and Labe never saw Isaac again.

 


IAN CANON is the author of the novel It’s A Long Way Down (2018) and the poetry collection Before Oblivion (2017). He’ll be releasing his second novel What We Do On Weekends in 2020. His stories have been featured in The Sunlight Press, The Spadina Literary Review, Kyler Zeleny’s short story collection Found Polaroids, and he has been interviewed for Vue Magazine. He runs a small writing workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada through which he mentors young writers and helps them advance their work through both traditional publishing and self-publishing. For more, visit thisisallcanon.com.

Copyright © 2019 by Ian Canon. All rights reserved.

Poems by John Wiley

Devil’s Bargain

Devil’s bargains
are the only ones I know,
so put it to me.
Bad terms suit me –
I’m a bad bargainer.
You don’t know how bad.
You’ve been forcing hands a long time,
but you don’t have to force mine.
No need for the trapdoor
you’ve invited me to stand on.

Thank you for having me
to your office, but…
somehow we’ve ended up in mine.
Now you’re standing on the trap,
and underneath the trap’s
the Devil’s Bargain Basement.
Will I take your devil’s bargain, sir?
Of course –
I’m the Devil’s Bargainer.

 


Fictional Ghosts

Fictional ghosts
always want something.
Real ghosts don’t want anything you have.
They don’t want anything anyone has.
They don’t even know you’re there –
why would they?

You might as well be the ghost.
Because they don’t have anything for you either.

 


JOHN WILEY was a ballet dancer and began writing poetry when his knees gave out for good.  He lives in California and works in his wife’s audiology practice.  His work has appeared in Terror House Magazine, Detritus, and Outsider Poetry, among others.

Copyright © 2019 by John Wiley. All rights reserved.

‘Miss Marigold’s Self-Portrait’ by Danielle Eyer

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Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

The summer I turned ten was filled with church bells and local choirs singing the town’s sorrows. The news blared from every television and radio –– they were investigating a death near my old house. A kid had died falling off a rocky cliff on the shores of Lake Erie, and the accident had awakened our small town. That night, police sirens screeched past our cottage. It took the entire fire department to retrieve his broken body by the rocks at the bottom. It had only been a dare. After the boy died, cliff jumping decreased in popularity.

I found Miss Marigold a year later on that same cliff. It was a day in early October, so it was too cold for swimming. The waves were too rough, and the clouds were too low. Miss Marigold sat facing the lake, her back against a boulder.

She was a colourful stain in a grayscale landscape. She looked like she had emerged from a mound of fabric swatches –– the textile equivalent of a scrapbook. Red and green ribbons in her hair, denim and suede patches to cover tears in her dress, a wide-brimmed yellow hat tied to her chin with twine. She balanced an oversized sketchbook on her knees and, trailed charcoal across the blank page in a sweeping motion.

I approached her from behind, half-hidden by the rocks. Her shoulders tensed when I stopped. I held my breath, stood still for a full minute. When I ventured upward again, she was back to sketching, her hat flopping in the wind.

She never acknowledged me, but I knew that she was aware of my presence. She waited for me. I waited for her. The sun waited for no one, and continued its slow descent behind the layers of clouds.

I closed my eyes for just a moment. When I opened them again, it was dark and she was gone.

I returned to the cliff the next day after school. Miss Marigold was back at her boulder with her sketchbook. Today she wore a red baseball cap and a skirt, layered like a wedding cake. A paint-splattered shawl was wrapped around her shoulders to keep warm.

I stopped a few feet before her and rolled up the collar of my turtleneck to keep out the wind.

“What are you drawing?” I asked.

She set down the piece of charcoal, her fingers smudged black. “It’s a self-portrait. Do you know what that is?”

I stepped forward to peer at the drawing. “That’s like, when you draw yourself, right?”

It was unfinished, but I recognized the image of a young lady’s profile, her small nose pointing upward, her eyes soft and shining, her lips full, smiling. It was only the start of a portrait, but it was radiant, even in black and white. I almost wished I could climb inside the picture just to be in the Beautiful Lady’s presence.

“So?” she asked. “Does it look like me?”

“I can’t tell with your hat on.”

She removed her hat. My initial reaction was to step back in horror, but my curiosity overcame my shock, and I inched forward to peer into her face.

Her murky eyes were wide-set. Her nose sank into her face. A deep scar ran from her hairline to her mouth. Her teeth were crooked and yellow, and her crayon-drawn lips were smeared across her face.

I grimaced. “That doesn’t look like you at all!”

She frowned at my words, her lips pressed together. Her eyes flared up as she glared at the image. She tore the page out of the book and crumpled it up, saying: “You’re right! Oh god, you’re right. She’s beautiful, she looks nothing like me!” She flung the crumpled paper over the side of the cliff.

“No, don’t!” I cried. I raced to the edge and watched it sink into the water. My eyes stung. Never again would I see those smiling eyes, the lady radiating on the page. “Why’d you do that? You didn’t have to throw it away.”

“Yes, I did.”

I softened when I heard her voice, high-pitched and near sobbing. She sunk her face into her hands. “I will never look like her,” she muttered. “Never.”

I stuck my hands into my jacket pockets and sat down, close but not too close. I saw the hurt I had caused, and needed to repair the damage I had done.

“You’re not ugly,” I said, and even as I said it I knew it wasn’t true. “Maybe you just need more drawing practice. My daddy says you can get good at anything with practice.”

Lifting her face from her hands, she asked, sniffling, “Really? You think so?”

I gulped and nodded. She smiled at my answer and wiped her face with some loose fabric on her sleeve.

Even now, I don’t remember if she ever introduced herself as Miss Marigold or if I baptized her myself. Her name came to me as I sat with her every day. It suited her, with her brightly coloured hats and clothing.

I’d come home from school every day and find her at that same boulder like a stray dog. I didn’t know where she came from. My classmates shrugged when I brought her up at school. Perhaps she never left, never stood up and stretched her legs. I sat with her as she sketched.

As the month wore on, the lady in the portrait grew clearer. Her delicate features sharpened as Miss Marigold added detail to her sketch: her curled eyelashes, the blush in her cheeks, her slightly upturned nose.

But just when the lady became real, Miss Marigold screamed and tore up the page, whimpering as if she were in physical pain.

It became a pattern. With every attempt, she grew more furious. The mere existence of the image hurt a deep part in her, and she wouldn’t keep quiet until it was destroyed.

The destruction of the image pained me. The lady’s existence, or perhaps her inexistence, haunted me. I woke up in a cold sweat from dreams in which she was burning, writhing in the flames. Her arms flailed like tree branches in the wind, reaching toward me. I watched helplessly.

Perhaps two weeks into this endeavor, whenever I felt one of Miss Marigold’s fits coming on, I would ripped the book from her hands before she could tear out the page. I stood up and held it behind me, stepping back. I thought that after a few seconds, she might calm down from her fit. She would see that she and the picture could coexist in peace.

Instead, Miss Marigold pulled at my hair and scratching at my face until I returned the sketchbook. I tried to push her away, but she was stronger than she looked. I stopped struggling when my chest began to hurt from the weight, and only then did she let me go. Once I had regained my breath, I found her a few feet away from the ledge, staring at the water below. I stayed back until she turned to me, smiling.

“Well,” she said with a contented sigh. “Let’s try again, shall we?”

My parents wouldn’t allow me to go out when it rained. “Your Miss Marigold will survive one day without you,” Mom would say.

I wondered if she sketched then, too. I’d ask my parents if she could come inside from the rain, but they laughed and told me not to be silly.

The day after a bad storm, I found her by the waves. I noticed that her picture was a smudged, watery mess. The pages of her sketchbook were wrinkled and deformed. But Miss Marigold only smiled and continued sketching.

I don’t know why I kept returning. Perhaps it was because I wished to see the Beautiful Lady again. I was drawn to her. At school, at home, in bed, I felt a string tugging on my heart. She called to me. So I returned, day after day, just to see her portrait be torn apart or crumpled or soaked in the lake.

The pain that came with her destruction only increased. I knew what would happen if I tried to stop Miss Marigold from destroying it, but something within me still made me want to try. The Lady stared at me through the paper. She called to me, begged me to save her. I cried at night, wishing that I could.

Snow began to fall. We went to the city for the holidays to visit family, and those two weeks I spent away from the Lady were spent in pure agony. I grew irritated at my cousins and snapped at family members. I spent most of my time in any empty room I could find, lying on my back and staring at the ceiling. Only then could I attempt to visualize the Beautiful Lady. Still, it wasn’t enough. Her image liked to slip away from me just as I began to get comfortable.

When I returned from the city, I rushed back to Miss Marigold’s side and sat by her as she put the finishing touches on the picture.

I knew what was coming. I knew that in just a few moments, Miss Marigold would lose her calm and wouldn’t regain it until she had destroyed the Lady.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Miss Marigold got to choose whether her artwork lived or died, whether she existed or didn’t. I wanted to decide, I wanted the Lady to be mine. That’s what she’d say in my dreams.

I’m yours, she’d call as she folded in on herself in the flames. I belong to you. Why would you let a stranger do this to me?

“She’s pretty.”

“Yes,” she frowned. “She is, isn’t she?” Her lips twitched. “Too pretty.”

Her body recoiled like a spring preparing to be released. But before it happened, I grabbed the sketchbook from her lap.

“No!” I screamed, sprinting away from her.

“Give it back!”

“Stop it, it’s mine!”

She ran after me, but I tripped on a loose stone and fell onto the rocks. Sharp pain shot up my leg, and my palms tingled when they hit the ground. The sketchbook slid on the icy floor toward the edge of the cliff. The world froze. If the Lady fell over the edge, into the water, it would all be over. But it stopped a few inches from the side, and I jumped up and raced toward it, Miss Marigold a few steps ahead of me.

She stopped at the edge and leaned down to pick it up. Pick it up or push it over. She seemed to catch fire before my eyes, her skirts billowing about her in reds and oranges, a blazing sun silhouetted on a grey sky. In the back of my brain I thought, water.

I slammed into her thin body. Her weight dragged her over the edge.

I didn’t hear her screaming. I didn’t hear her bones crack on the rocks or her body hit the lake below.

Instead, I picked up the sketchbook, and gazed at the Beautiful Lady. She was nearly finished, but a few curls at her shoulders were only outlined, not filled in with charcoal. I didn’t trust myself to complete it. It was enough.

I kicked the charcoal over the edge and tossed her yellow hat away like a frisbee. The rock ledge was just as I had found it that first day in October. Only this time, Miss Marigold had been traded for her artwork.

“Where did you get that?” my parents asked later that evening.

“Miss Marigold gave it to me.”

“Aren’t you getting a bit old for that imaginary friend stuff, Sweetie?”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m done with Miss Marigold, now.”

I hung the picture in my room, and the lady watched over me at night. Outside, tree branches tapped on my bedroom window. The rest of the world was quiet.

 


DANIELLE EYER is an emerging writer and playwright based in Montreal, with a fondness for musical theatre, big cities, and typewriters, although she’s never used one and doubts she would enjoy it. Roman Payne said that “all forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.” Luckily, Danielle benefits from every one of these.

Copyright © 2018 by Danielle Eyer. All rights reserved.

‘A Sense of Dread’ by Mark Towse

2

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Tom has been waking up the last few days with a sense of dread. Always very anxious, but recently experiencing severe bouts of panic, Tom’s heartburn has been almost unbearable. Today is no exception—Tom feels that this impending feeling of dread will manifest itself in some shape or form, and it’s making him even more anxious than ever.

He leaves the bed and pulls the covers back over his wife, telling her he is going to make a drink. He leans over, turns off the alarm clock and heads down to the kitchen to grind some coffee beans. He grabs the pestle and mortar from the cupboard, deciding that he needs to alleviate some stress, and starts grinding the coffee with an unnecessary ferocity. Most of the coffee spills over onto the floor, so he gives up, unable to cope with the prospect of picking it out from the already dirty tiles. He sighs, grabs the teabags and shouts, “I’ve made a small mess, but don’t worry! I’ll clean it up.”

The pots are piled high, so he rinses two dirty cups and fills them with water once the kettle boils. He begins to dip the bag into the first one, but it bursts, so he empties both cups in the kitchen sink and then bends down to spoon the powdered coffee into the filter.

He starts to sob.

Eventually, he gathers himself, pours the coffee and takes the cups with him through to the hallway and up the dimly lit stairs, towards the bedroom. He stops halfway up to look at the picture of him and Judith on the wall, their wedding day, and a snapshot of history when everything was okay—before the accident. He studied the photo as he had done many times—her skin like porcelain and a smile that just drew him in from the moment he saw her. She had Chrysanthemums in her hair. On the day itself, he thought they were daisies until Judith had laughed and corrected him. His own face too was one of genuine happiness; after all, he had just landed the love of his life, and nothing could stop him.

Christ, I love you, Judith.

As he reaches the top of the stairs, he tries to elbow away an annoying bluebottle fly that is buzzing around his head, causing him to spill some of the coffee as he trips over the damned vacuum once again. Tom rushes to the bathroom, puts the coffee on the edge of the tub and grabs a towel from the rack to wipe himself down. He sighs, leans over and turns both taps, watching her as the water rushes in, filling the tub. When it’s half full, Tom turns off the water and heads into the bedroom to help his wife out of bed. She’s heavier than usual, but Tom doesn’t comment. He knows it will only get him in trouble.

Tom carries Judith into the bathroom and helps lower her in the bath. He asks if the temperature is okay, not bothering to wait for a response as he lights some scented candles and pours in some bubble bath—the lavender one she likes. The colour contrasts nicely against her pale skin.

His mobile phone begins to ring, and immediately his pulse quickens. He knows it’s his boss—he didn’t go in last week and ignored the e-mails. Questions were being asked, and it would only be a matter of time before they found out. It had started small, a little bit at a time from a couple of clients, but a few bad bets and he started to get careless. Once a gambler!

He lets it go to voicemail.

Tom checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror and even through the steam, he can make out his sallow skin that frames the large dark circles under his eyes. He has seen better days. His mostly grey hair is matted and unwashed, and he hasn’t shaved for nearly a week. He contemplates showering, but the thought of the required effort distresses him, and so he splashes some water on his face instead and swallows some toothpaste straight from the tube. His wife recently told him that toothpaste causes cancer. He had laughed at this, pinched his nose and asked for a kiss. Tom enjoyed the times they fooled around like that.

He walks through to their bedroom, lifts up his dressing gown and, for the next few minutes, masturbates furiously—a habit he has picked up over the last few days. Once he’s done, he goes back downstairs with his coffee, being careful not to trip over the vacuum. He puts some bread in the toaster and opens the fridge to find he has no margarine left. In fact, there is nothing spreadable at all. He sits and waits for the toast to pop up. Eventually, it does, and even though he prepared himself for the pop, it still startles him, and he estimates his heart rate increases by at least ten beats per minute. He takes the toast and places it on the cleanest plate he can find from the dirty stack of pots, but when he reaches for his coffee, the toast slides from his plate onto the kitchen floor.

He wants to cry again but refrains as he bends over and collects it from the dirty floor and gives it a quick shake. He takes a bite and chews solemnly, washing it down with a swig of his coffee. He stops to pull some hair from his teeth, no doubt gathered from the floor and then pours the remainder of the coffee down the sink.

Tom looks down at his overhanging belly and suddenly feels the impulse to go for a run. He considers it very seriously for a few seconds before deciding it would be quite an upheaval, so he switches on the television instead. He flicks through the various channels until he finds a nature documentary. Settling into his chair, he begins to pick at his immature beard and pulls out a huge dark hair with the follicle still attached. Tom chews off the follicle and begins to think he is losing his mind.

On TV, the deer is running for its life, closely followed by the jaguar that is hungry for its dinner. Tom changes the channel quickly, suddenly contemplating how savage existence is.  He convinces himself that if reincarnation is real, he would no doubt come back as a deer. Or worse, he’d come back as himself.

In his melancholy state, he finds himself wandering back to the early years, before marriage and back when he and his wife told each other everything. Judith said she once ate a worm when she was nine, and that was pretty much the worst thing she had done. He confessed to her about a few things from his not so clean past, including his previous gambling problem and how he had kicked it well before they met. It was true, at least in the way you can ever really kick an addiction.

Tom snaps out if it just in time to see the jaguar bring the deer down.

He shouts upstairs, “I’m just going for a lie-down love. Let me know if the water gets cold.”

No reply, but that’s standard when Judith bathes. She hates to ruin the experience with chatter and normally scolds him if he tries to talk to her before she’s out the bath. He lies down on the couch—eyes closed but his mind is wide open, and the bad thoughts come. He pulls more hair out and realizes there is zero chance he will be able to get any sleep, so he gets off the couch, does one press up, and walks back to the kitchen to put the kettle back on.

Someone knocks at the door.

Tom runs back into the living room and ducks behind the couch, as though the knocker has x-ray vision.

“Tom!”

His breathing increases rapidly, he is very conscious of it, and he is sure they will hear it.

“Tom! It’s Irene from the apartment next door. Are you okay?”

She knocks again, and Tom tries to squeeze into an even smaller shape. Irene shouts through the door, “Tom, I’m coming back with a key. I haven’t seen you or Judith for a few days. I’m worried.”

There is some relief that it’s only Irene, but he doesn’t want the nosy old bag coming back. He curses Judith for giving her a key and estimates that it’s been nearly a year since they went away and left it with her. They still hadn’t got it back.

He straightens up and shouts from behind the couch “Irene, it’s all good. I’m not decent though, and Judith has gone to stay at her sister’s for a while.”

“Oh… okay. Did you take your garbage out by the way?”

When he hears her footsteps moving away, he gets up, moves back in the kitchen and makes two teas with unwashed cups: one for his wife and one for himself. He takes them up to the bathroom and places them on the edge of the bath, next to the cup he made earlier.

“Have some tea darling. You look cold—this will warm you up,” he says.

He smiles at her before disrobing and stepping into the water, “Room for one more?”

As Tom squeezes in on the opposite side of Judith, being careful not to disturb her, there is a loud knock on the door—one with a sense of urgency.

“Tom, are you in there?” a male voice shouts.

He takes a gulp of tea and swills it around his mouth.

He had considered calling it in as an accident when it happened. That’s why he put a dead bulb in the landing area and moved the vacuum to the top of the stairs — tripping over it three times since. In a way, it was an accident. He tried to convince himself of that anyway.

“I think we are going to need more scented candles,” Tom says as he leans over and kisses his wife on the forehead.

The thought of living without her, though, was too much to bear. Not to mention the additional lies and deceit that would be required.

She died for nothing.

Work are onto him now anyway—the emails from his boss and the voicemails asking to see him urgently. He feels like the deer from the nature documentary.

It was a dead cert!

There’s another loud knock at the door, “Tom!”

Tom stands up and reaches across to the cabinet to retrieve the small brown packet and then sits back down on the edge of the bathtub.

He didn’t mean for her to fall down the stairs—he was only trying to stop her from calling the police. He had grabbed the arm of her nightgown, and when she yanked it away, she lost her balance and tumbled all the way down. She moaned for a while—an awful wail that has stayed with him over the last few days. He won’t miss that.

“Tom!”

He just wanted to unload, share the burden—work through it before it got out of control. If they came up with a plan, they could probably find a way to put the money back before anyone noticed and then he could get help again. Going to prison wasn’t an option—he wasn’t cut out for that.

He should have known. Judith was always so black and white.

She is now, he thought.

“I love you, Judith,” he says as he empties the packet into his cup before taking a large gulp of tea.

 


MARK TOWSE has only been writing short stories for two months now, but his passion and enthusiasm are unparalleled, and this has recently resulted in his first paid piece in the publication Books N Pieces along with imminent publication in four other prestigious magazines. Mark currently works in sales and is ready to sell his soul to the devil for a full-time career as an author. He resides in Melbourne, Australia with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Towse. All rights reserved.

‘Under My Bed’ by Greg Santos

I keep my umbilical cord in a box.
Nobody knows of its existence but me.

Every night I take it out of its snug home,
recite prayers to it before sleeping.

I’m not sad but I cannot stop crying.
It sings me lullabies to soothe my colicky brain.

It twitches at the sound of my voice,
sometimes curves into a crimson smile.

 


GREG SANTOS is the author of Blackbirds (Eyewear Publishing, 2018), Rabbit Punch! (DC Books, 2014), and The Emperor’s Sofa (DC Books, 2010). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He regularly works with at-risk communities and teaches at the Thomas More Institute. He is the poetry editor of carte blanche and lives in Montreal with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 2018 by Greg Santos. All rights reserved.

‘Moosgraben’ by Ilona Martonfi

This is the classroom that doesn’t have
windows, doors, or time: movie days

all those who hear a knock on the door
it is the night moon. She comes in to turn down
the cot and place candy on your pillow.
And this moon is blue. Pigtailed nine year old.
You have a conversation with her

all those taking a walk by the Moosgraben creek
eery harbinger, Ilka

bare walls of your room. Gessoed canvases.
All those who look upon field and sky and
gnarled houses and refugee children,
sea of lime giving way to burnt flesh,
red brick, bomb craters. A bunker

long and narrow, not bigger than a dirt cellar,
a cold water tap, wood stove,
cotton curtains, oak table and chairs.
All those not losing the feeling of being underground
evenings lit by fireflies
six black-shawled nuns
cloister on Sudetenstraße

there are shelves up to the stucco ceiling
boxes and boxes festooned with
collage: photographs,
excised words, letters.
All those suns still high over chalk mountains,
the more times it is told. You disappear.
All those who talk about it

surrounded by scree, dogs barking,
the distance between present and past

by turns, you see the birch trees
purple lilacs and the plums. Sedges and grasses.
Shallow marshes.
Black and white films
whirring reels. In the silence
teacher touching you.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is the author of three poetry books, Blue Poppy (Coracle Press, 2009), Black Grass (Broken Rules Press, 2012) and The Snow Kimono (Inanna Publications, 2015). Forthcoming, Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019). The Tempest (Inanna 2020). Founder and Artistic Director of The Yellow Door and Visual Arts Centre Readings. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2018 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘An Annual Affair’ by Désiré Betty

1

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

In the small town of Hamnia, a healthy baby girl named Melissa was born to proud parents, Mr. and Mrs. Denver Campus.  She would be their only child. Their life together was anything but ideal, yet Melissa managed to bring joy to a loveless marriage.

Denver, a handsome and successful man in his mid-thirties, had recently been promoted to Vice-President of a new and progressive IT Company called Viral X.  Despite his arrogance, he was well-liked by his co-workers. His wife Taborra was an unattractive, stay at home mom that was at least thirty pounds overweight.  As an adolescent, she suffered from severe acne, which had left her with facial scars that contributed to her low self-esteem. She was a loving soul that lacked self-respect; allowing herself to be treated disrespectfully by others, especially her husband.  Denver used to find her humbleness endearing, but over the years became annoyed by her lack of intrigue for excitement and new adventures. Taborra never had many friends and when she resigned from her career as a construction manager to become a stay at home mother, her world became very small.  Denver distanced himself and lost all respect for his wife; seeking adventure outside of their marriage. Many often wondered why a man of his standing would marry such a lack-luster woman, as he was clearly unhappy.

Two years later, on a beautiful sunny day in July, the birds were chirping and the light breeze was blissful.  The Campus’ left with their beloved daughter, to attend the annual Viral X company picnic. They reached their destination just before noon and made their way to where the employees and their families were gathered.  Denver was greeted by his pal and colleague, Steve Adams, a genuine guy. Taborra had become accustomed to accompanying Denver to events, only to not be introduced and abandoned the entire night. The first time this happened, Taborra continued to stand by Denver, introducing herself as his wife and trying to interact, but quickly noticed that he would shut down any of her conversation starters and solely talk business to exclude her.  Within minutes, others would join the group conversation and Taborra would be left to fend for herself.

She was often accused of being an overprotective mother that devoted all of her attention to her daughter.  She instinctively refused to leave her side in fear that something bad would happen to her in her absence. While other mothers sunbathed on the beach and their husbands tended to their children, Taborra built sand castles with her daughter.  When Melissa tired of that activity, she made her way towards the beach. Taborra followed behind, cautiously introducing her to the water. She never left Melissa out of her sight, not even to socialize with other people. Unbeknownst to her, she was nicknamed, ‘the weirdo’ by the other employees and their spouses, simply because her priorities were different.  Her insecurities prevented her from confidently mingling with the other women, allowing her shyness to often be mistaken for mental instability due to her excessive introversion.

An hour later, Melissa fell asleep in her mother’s arms.  Taborra laid her down to sleep in her playpen, situated in the shade, away from the incessant chatter and loud music.  She planned to take this time to relax, but to her dismay, she realized that Denver neglected to bring her straw bag with the book she intended to read.  She spotted her husband walking along the beach with his secretary, andfrantically tried to get his attention, but to no avail; he was clearly preoccupied.

This led Taborra to act completely out of character. She did something that still haunts her to this day.  A young woman she had noticed earlier was walking her way, and Taborra assumed her to be an employee of Viral X.  Taborra politely intercepted her, “Excuse me? I wouldn’t normally ask this of a total stranger, but I am getting rather restless now that my daughter has settled down for a nap.  I was wondering if you would be willing to watch her while I run over to my car to retrieve my book.” The personable stranger did not hesitate to accommodate her request.

As Taborra thanked her and walked away, she felt a chill run down her spine.  Her gut told her to go back, but she ignored it. She felt obligated to go through with her initial request because she feared the gossip that would ensue should she change her mind.

***

The woman eyed Melissa in the crib and a surge of hatred rushed through her.  Never in her wildest dreams had she suspected Denver, the man she had spent countless evenings with while eating Chinese food and drinking cheap wine, to have a wife, yet alone a child.

She looked down at the infant with disgust, and felt something come over her.  Hatred resonated through her and she quickly reached down, grabbed the teddy bear, and smothered the child with it.  It was quick, and the child fell still without a sound. The woman placed the teddy bear back the way she had found it, smiling to herself as she took in the child’s soft, sleeping face.  Then, she slipped away before allowing herself to feel an ounce of remorse.

***

Taborra hurried, her heart beating faster as she failed to shake the fear triggered in the pit of her stomach.  She kept thinking that her daughter was in danger, but had no concrete reasoning behind her indescribable fear.  She hoped that she was simply overreacting. She made it to her car, quickly retrieved her book and raced back, all while allowing her mind to wander through the possibility that her daughter would not be present when she returned.  With tears in her eyes, she ran madly through the crowd. Denver spotted her in the distance and he instinctively made a mad dash after her.

As he got closer to his wife, he shouted, “Taborra, Taborra stop!” demanding her to come to a halt.  It did not stop her, in fact, she sped up. He had never seen her run so fast.

Out of breath, she finally reached their daughter’s playpen, still asleep in the same position she had left her.  The young woman was nowhere to be found.. At that moment, Taborra’s intuition led her to believe that the kind stranger was more than just a stranger.  It was not out of character for Denver to attract the admiration of a female employee. Nevertheless, it was rather irresponsible of her to leave after gladly accepting to watch her child.  Taborra swore she would never leave her precious daughter with a stranger ever again.

Denver’s cheeks turned pink from embarrassment and Taborra could tell he wanted to scream at her, but was restraining himself so as not to draw more unwanted attention.  She had demonstrated such erratic behavior in front of his friends and colleagues. She could not bring herself to tell him the truth. Instead of explaining the situation, she allowed him to believe she was crazy.  All was well, their daughter was fast asleep.

Denver sat down by the playpen, put his head in his palms and let out a long, frustrated sigh.  Taborra sat beside him and rubbed his back, but he instinctively moved away from her touch. She apologized for her behavior.  She explained that she had experienced a terrible premonition that had not come true. He snapped and said, “You’re ridiculous.  What is wrong with you?”

Taborra just stared blankly at him as tears filled her eyes.  She got up and walked towards the playpen as her daughter always seemed to alleviate any tension.  She noticed that Melissa remained undisturbed despite all the commotion. She softly touched her daughter’s face and it was then she noticed that Melissa was not breathing.  “Oh my God! Denver!” she screamed.

Denver looked at Taborra with such discontent while shaking his head in disbelief as he retorted, “Holy shit!  What now?”

She picked up her daughter’s lifeless body in her arms and screamed, “Something is wrong.  She isn’t breathing!”

Denver jumped up and took Melissa from her arms.  He cried, “My baby! What happened? What did you do?”

He attempted CPR and told Taborra to call an ambulance.  As her hands shook uncontrollably, she dialed as fast as she could.  Minutes, felt like hours, before an ambulance arrived. Melissa was pronounced dead at the scene.

Denver screamed and fell to his knees.  He could not look Taborra in the eyes. He despised her with every ounce of his being.  The hatred he already felt towards her was now tenfold. He wanted to hurt her, his eyes wide and raging, but she was already dead to him.  Taborra did not mention the woman as she was in too deep and feared speaking one more word during this calamitous moment.

An autopsy was conducted and determined that Melissa had been asphyxiated.  Despite being the doting mother she was, her unstable behavior witnessed at the party and previous work engagements easily led her to be the only suspect.  This was not the first time that her love for her daughter proved to be too intense. Denver often confided in his secretary about how he worried about his wife’s unhealthy attachment to their daughter.  She could easily testify to solidify Denver’s position on the matter. There was no further investigation, and without any support from her husband or witnesses, Taborra was found guilty.

It was an unfortunate reality for Taborra, as Denver had long lost his admiration and respect for his wife; desecrating her true love and care for their daughter into a vile representation of her unfortunate demise.  A judge sentenced her to life in prison, with no chance of parole. Melissa’s death had sucked the remaining life out of Taborra. She did not possess the energy to defend herself, and silently accepted her fate, as she knew that no one would believe her.  She held herself responsible. The mystery woman at the beach had disappeared into thin air. Given all her self-doubt, she believed the accounts that maybe she was the crazy one and that the woman was in fact a figment of her imagination.

Denver was at the lowest point of his life.  He was relieved to see his wife put away for the devastation that she had caused, but incredibly broken by the loss of his precious daughter.  For Stella, his mistress, her eerie fairytale had come true. She stood by her lover throughout this difficult time; consoling him, despite being the cause of his endless misery.  

Denver would never know the truth about that fateful day or his merciless mistress.  Stella had won, she had solidified her spot as his one and only.

 


DÉSIRÉ BETTY is a Mississauga, Ontario based artist that began her innovative journey at an early age.  Her passion for the arts, led her to pursue a career in Architecture; broadening her quest for constant creativity from the canvas to the built environment.  Although content in her profession, there is nothing more fulfilling than creating art, in all its forms.  In 2009, she vowed to complement her architecturally based career with her artistic pursuits. Désiré has since exhibited in several solo and group shows, had her art and poetry published in several magazines and sold pieces to art enthusiasts around the world.

Copyright © 2018 by Désiré Betty. All rights reserved.

‘Unburden’ by Michael Formato

4

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“What are you waiting for?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been over this.” I snapped my fingers a couple of times. “Hello? You listening?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” The man in front of me had his arms glued to his sides like a dead old tree stump, and his hands were shaking like all hell.

“It’s the only way you’ll ever get better. What are you waiting for?” I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me. Not again.

“I don’t even know who you are. Where am I?”

Marcus.” I said his name the way a person would speak to a misbehaving dog.

“Who are you?”

“A friend. I’m here to help you, remember? You don’t remember me?” I walked over to him and forcibly raised his right hand up at a ninety-degree angle, the cold metal of the gun in his hand leaving its residual sensation on my skin. The brightness of the room was beginning to annoy me, but not as much as my client was right now. Perhaps I should have selected a different setting.

“It’s easy.” I smiled and turned away from him then. I stepped a couple of paces back to where I stood earlier. “We’ve been through this.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” he yelled.

“You’re losing yourself again.” I remarked, facing him again. “You’re the one that requested these sessions, right? You’re the one who said you were ready. I’m just the one you enlisted to help.”

He screamed again, covering his face and sobbing. “Wh- hu- why do you keep doing that? Your face!”

I sighed. I kept switching through faces in his memory –– enemies, rivals, people he wouldn’t think twice about shooting in the face within the confines of a controlled setting. It usually helps, but this wasn’t a usual case.

“I don’t know what to do!” He fell to his knees, the gun falling out of his hands and clacking across the blank white floor.

I couldn’t help but sigh. I walked towards him again. “I’m telling you! All your fears and anxieties will be gone! You just gotta take that leap! That’s what I’m here to do: to make you take that leap. It’s what you wanted, more than anything in this world.” I crouched beside him, reaching for his shoulder as my skin changed from white to black. “When I asked you what you wanted most in this world, what did you tell me?”

He started sobbing again, not paying attention.

I shook my head. “You’ve made so much progress. We are at the divide now, the one we have both worked so hard to get you to. There is nothing more I can do. Nothing other than encourage you to take that leap.”

He peered up at me again and let out another cry.

Maybe the face changes weren’t the best idea. I picked up the gun again and nestled it into his grip. His hands were wet. I urged him to his feet, and once he was there, I dropped to my knees. I looked up at him, hands and fingers crossed as if in prayer. “Don’t throw it all away now,” I said. “It’s your last chance. Take the shot.”

He shook his head.

“Would a change of scenery help?”

The blank room turned into a vast grassy plain, rolling hills. New Zealand. The first thing that came to mind.

“That doesn’t help me! No amount of face-changing or room-changing is going to help. It doesn’t work that way. You’re asking me to kill a part of myself!”

“A diseased, corrupted parasite that happens to reside within the boundaries of your existence. Sapping away at your delicate life, your happiness. I am the personification of this parasite, this tumor, that needs to be cut out. I am that tumor! And you are holding the scalpel. This is what it’s all about!”

I saw him calm down a bit. He wiped away a few tears, and I decided to change faces one final time. He didn’t flinch, thankfully.

“You asked for this. We’ve worked for this. I’ve counselled you, trained you, and now you’re here, on the cusp of it all. I’m right here. Please. Take the shot.”

The wind felt so real on my face as it must have felt for him. The new-found warmth in the air filled me with its wonderful scent, as I hoped it did him.

“Marcus. Time is running out.”

It really was, and I could mentally see my pay-check getting picked up by the breeze behind him and fly out of eyeshot. I was glad he didn’t see that. My own blips of thought making their way into the projection I had created for him.

He took a moment, then slowly raised his arm at an angle, pointing it at my forehead. Finally.

“That’s it. Take the shot. You got this. One more step, and it’ll be done. You’ll be free!”

His hands were shaking now, branches in the wind.

“Take the shot, Marcus.”

“I can’t.”

“Do not give up on this now. Take the shot.”

“I can’t!”

I yanked his arm and pressed the barrel against my temple. “Take the shot.”

“I–”

“Take the shot.”

“Please!”

“Shoot me!”

“I don’t know if I can!!”

“You’ve told me yourself: you hate me with all of your heart! You would do anything to get rid of me. I ruined your life! I did! And now you can end it all! The gun is in your hand. Shoot!”

“I–”

“Do it.”

Darkness. The gun went off, and the sound almost made my ears pop, which was scary, even for me. I quickly deactivated the layer of mental projections and waited for him to get to his senses. He had collapsed onto the floor in a slobbering heap. When he would open his eyes again, the room before him would become familiar. The house he stood in, the room he resided in… it had to be perfect.

This had to be her room. This had to be the year 2047, sixty years ago.

When he stopped crying, I hooked my arm under his arm and tried to lift him up. “You did it Marcus.”

“I…what?”

“Get up!” I grinned at him, and urged him to look down at what he had done. “Look! You did it!”

Flustered, he looked down at the small bed before him. A child lay within it, a bullet through the side of her head, blood spewing from her open skull, pieces of her brain adorning the pillows. He fell backwards, recoiling as far as he could, his back hitting the wall behind him. “Oh my god, what have I done? What have I done?

“All that hard work, all this time, and you actually did it. I’m so proud of you.” I sat down next to him. My smile was beginning to hurt my jaw. “This was what you wanted, remember? Clear your mind, and remember.” I projected my own face this time, my true face, and suddenly his own began to turn. He remembered it.

“Wha–”

“It’s me Marcus! Look! Stand up and look at what all those sessions and all that training has done for you! Don’t be scared!”

He got to his feet, and looked at the corpse, like a small child analyzing a lizard.

“You took the shot, buddy!”

“I did it.”

“It’s what you wanted.” I stole a glance at my watch. Right on time, too. “You wanted this, and you went out and did it, my friend! A success.” Thank fucking Christ.

“Yeah!” He was beaming now. Fully remembering the task he had laid out for us both, and realizing that we had succeeded. He turned swiftly to the girl’s nightstand and brushed all the toys and pill bottles and machines off the top and watched them fall onto the floor.

“How are you feeling?” I asked him.

“Relieved.”

“Like a weight has been lifted?” I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You won’t be needing those machines anymore, or the pills to keep her alive, right? No more expenses or bills. The minivan you hate. The physiotherapy, that wheelchair you needed to push around. All that money you threw away. It’s over now. You have what you wanted. Calm. Peace.”

He ran from the room and tossed the wheelchair –– the one he had once bought for her comfort –– down the flight of stairs outside her room, past the electric lift he had once installed along its length for her. He was on top of the world. The happiest I’ve ever seen a person. I suddenly felt a vibration on my wrist, the kick, and with a final look of what pure ecstasy felt like –– perhaps something I’d never feel –– I removed my physical projection from the environment.

I watched like a ghost, as Marcus returned to the little girl’s room, completely forgetting my existence altogether. He picked up the corpse like a doll, and began dancing with it, laughing as only the happiest man in the whole world could, blood pouring from the open wound, the child’s body flailing limply as he shuffled across the room. I stared at my watch again. I let him enjoy one last moment of ecstasy, the last he’d ever feel, before I cut the simulation.

I quickly removed the diodes from my temples and the Halo Mechanism from my head, setting it on the table beside me as I put the real world back into focus once again. I was greeted by a myriad of medical machines blaring, all to their own tunes. A solid flat line across the heart rate monitor. I found my tablet and peered a my watch once more.

Time of death: ten minutes to 5:00pm.

I leaned over and snapped the heart rate monitor off, along with the life support machine, before standing and removing his own Halo from its mounting points, and the diodes that sent the projections from my brain directly into his, hijacking his dream and implanting my own. I nodded, and one of the nurses who oversaw the operation began removing the tubes from his nose and the IV from his arm, and prepared the body to be removed.  I looked to my tablet again, filling in the rest of the post-mortem information necessary to satisfy the mediators, who by law had the final say over the success of the operation.

Time within: ten and a half minutes.

The time on the outside world was minimal. It always feels longer on the inside, where hours within accounted for minutes in the real world.

Target: reached with success. Transmission sent to base. 

With everything off him, I looked down at the elderly corpse of Marcus Ball, ninety-eight years old, and dead of multiple organ failure. Even in death, the cutting out and the replacing of his memories had done its job. He died smiling, believing that what he had done within his own mind had happened in reality. The faintest of grins etched across his dead lips.

Notes: died happy.

Without another thought, I shut off my tablet and left the hospital room, closing the door behind me.

“Doctor!”

I froze. My pulse sped up. I turned around, and a woman with tears already streaming down her face approached me. I had hoped to avoid this confrontation.

“They called me, they… they said he was dying, and I came as fast as I could. I ––” She burst into tears.

I lowered my head. “I am sincerely sorry for your loss. I want you to know that the staff and I took every measure at our disposal to make sure he died peacefully.”

She nodded, regaining some resolve. “He was the only one I had.” She chuckled, trying to see the bright side of it all, and wiped her eyes. “When I was young, he was the only one who took care of me. After my mom passed away, I mean. I loved him so much.”

I nodded. “He was a great man. He was so proud of you.”

She turned her electric wheelchair towards the door. “Can I see him?”

“Of course, Ms. Ball.”

She didn’t move from her spot, peering at her father though the glass slit in the door. “What were his final moment like?”

“We made the preparations to make him comfortable. I’m afraid he was asleep in his ––”

“No. I mean his final moments.” She wheeled back towards me, the small electric motor humming softly in the silent corridor. “I know he had the procedure done.” She smiled. “You gave him once final experience. You fabricated a memory, a moment he believed he lived. His final moment. I know he did.”

“I see. I apologize, Ms. Ball. He requested to keep the procedure private. He didn’t want to alarm you. The operations can be quite intense.”

“I understand. You reconstructed a memory, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“Was it about me?” she asked. “I always remember him telling me that he would see me walking and sprinting and jumping in his dreams, and that it would make him so happy. Was that it? Was that the memory you constructed for him in his final moments? Me getting up from my chair and running into his arms one last time?”

My lips parted, but no words came out.

“You don’t need to tell me.” She nodded and reached for the door handle. “I loved him so much, but deep down, I knew he always loved me even more.” She pushed through the door. “Thank you, doctor. I appreciate everything you’ve done for him.” She disappeared behind the partition, the door closing behind her.

I stood there motionless, and after a few moments I walked towards the door and laid my fingers on the handle, peering through the glass. I stopped myself. Ms. Ball was holding the hand of her deceased father, a fresh fountain of tears streaming down her face.

I stood at a crossroads. Ms. Ball believed that her father loved her. Was she blind to how he truly felt? A burning hatred, masked by a façade of unwavering love and support. Would knowing the truth even change the way she thought about him? Would it change anything? Would it change everything? I felt my hand slip off the lever.

It was in that moment, through the small slit of glass in the hospital door, that I witnessed what love truly is. An illusion. To the eyes of the beholder, and threshed within the lies we tell ourselves on a daily basis. It is the cage that imprisons us all. A cage to which we hold a key that we have swallowed long ago.

 


MICHAEL FORMATO is a science-fiction writer born and raised in Montreal Quebec. He is currently a student at McGill University in the faculty of Education. As a writer of fiction, he is obsessed with twisting and contorting what we as a society take for granted in life. Things like technology, family, relationships, the very idea of love, and bringing out the subconscious anxieties that reside just below the surface of our paranoid thoughts.

Copyright © 2018 by Michael Formato. All rights reserved.

‘Halloween Rhyme: Fright Night!’ by Robyn Martelly

Trick or Treaters should beware,
Can you feel it in the air?

Scary costumes, monster masks,
ghost stories and black cats.

Knocking on doors for Halloween treats,
You may get more than what you reap.

Witches casting spells in the moonlight,
Graveyards moan, the dead come to life.

Zombies roam the crowded streets,
Searching for little brains to eat.

Vampires thirst for juicy blood,
Tracking your footprints in the mud.

A full moon in the sky,
Can you hear the screaming cries?

Pumpkin eyes light up bright,
Howling werewolf’s tear through the night.

Little kids should be scared,
Goblins and Ghouls smell your fear.

Fright is in the air.

 


ROBYN MARTELLY is from magical Cape Breton Island. She grew up in the diverse community of Whitney Pier, a Canadian heritage site. She’s a contributing author, writes a monthly community column in the Cape Breton Post called Pier Dear and is a self-taught artist, with her skills ranging from painting to poetry. She has 15+ years’ experience creating beautiful art and writing children’s poetry. Robyn’s art is inspired by her culture, community and current events.

Copyright © 2018 by Robyn Martelly. All rights reserved.

‘Night Shades’ by Matthew Murphy

6

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

(from Fugitive Dreams)

When his eyes opened he found himself curled into a crescent against the corrugated metal of the culvert, wedged into the exact position he was in when he fell asleep. It was still dark, the wee hours of the night when desires ran loose and dreams filled the world with their allusive illusions, their mirage worlds built of hopes and fears and insecurities, their shifting vistas ever-changing, the space behind them infinite.

For a moment all was still and quiet save for a puff of breeze exhaling through the pipe that lifted a strand of his hair and tickled his scalp, sending a not unpleasant shiver down his back. He took stock of himself and his surroundings—he was Tommy Roenick, it came to mind, and he was a fugitive from a federal penitentiary, had been so for over a day now as a matter of fact, and he was now cowering in a wet culvert under a country road somewhere up in the northern reaches of the province. His father he had never met, his mother and brother were dead, and he was all alone in the world, more so now than ever. And he hadn’t eaten in a day and a half.

He looked drowsily to his left, at the open mouth of the culvert, at the small creek of runoff rivulets now silver in the moonlight, and thought of how pretty it looked in the hint of light that sifted spectral from the sky. As he did so, hoping to once again close his eyes and catch another hour or two of sleep, he felt on his other side a sudden feeling of arctic coldness, encroaching and drawing what warmth there was away from him. He turned, and when he saw what was there he froze with fear.

He was not alone.

A couple metres away hunched a shadowy presence, as if coalesced out of the very darkness, drawing shade as well as heat. He was unable to even gasp, the sound locked in his throat. He felt paralyzed, much like he did back in his solitary cell when a shadowy presence hung over him and held him frozen as he lay in his bed. Perhaps this same presence that was crouching in wait in these close confines with him, a blackness, a coldness, an insidious absence.

A high-pitched, whimpery sigh escaped his mouth as though he were deflating, and the sound jarred him out of his frozen trance. He shimmied backward toward the mouth of the culvert, only to see the shadow elongate itself toward him, its spindly arms reaching and stretching, elastic, approaching, encroaching like a darker shade of night unlit by any moon. Again, he backed up a foot toward the mouth of the tunnel and then stopped, realizing that this person, this spirit, this entity, this whatever it was, could reach for him anyway even if he tried to bolt. He looked into the dark blankness of the face cut from the cloth of midnight, tried to see into the blackness for any sign of features, and saw only an indistinct wavering born from the strain of his squinting.

“Who are you?” barked Tommy in a ragged, frightened voice, much like he did in his solitary cell when he felt the presence stalking behind him. “What are you? What do you want from me?”

He heard a low, basso-profundo moaning, a bestial growl coming through the ether like a faraway radio transmission. From here, from there, from everywhere. Or from some other plane entirely.

He gasped, frozen to the spot with fear.

Once again he felt icy fingers seize his heart. He felt cold and fragile in the clutch of this being; he felt invaded and infiltrated and unable to do anything but sit rigid in fear while an invisible force held his heart like a ripe tomato and threatened to squeeze it till it burst inside his chest and his life dissolved into the blackness of the night.

He felt the vise upon his heart tighten, and spots formed in front of his eyes. He gasped in pain and then backed out of the culvert, falling into the muddy puddles of standing runoff below. As he picked himself up off the ground he felt the pressure round his heart slacken, the invisible fingers like cold metal cuffs around his heart unclasping. With the sudden infusion of air into his lungs, he inhaled in relief and took off through a break between the trees, running through the bushes as fast as he could, the twigs snapping against his face, his lungs tugging for air. He tripped over a root and fell headlong onto the rocky path, scraping his hands in the dirt as he put them out ahead of himself to break his fall. No time to lick his wounds. He got back up on strained and rubbery legs and continued running.

Behind, he could hear footfalls on the trail, the rustled parting of foliage, the snap of twigs underfoot. Adrenaline propelled him forward, and he responded to this chemical call with great clarity, legs pumping, feet deftly avoiding the catch of roots, the gnashing stub of rocks. A fork in the trail: which way? Each option trailed off into a night-black hole in the hairy brush. He opted for left and kept running, running and sweating. How long could he keep this up? His legs burned with every stride, the furious pumping of his thighs reaching the limits of muscular exertion.

He stopped a moment to catch his breath and rest his legs. Enfolded in the gnarled, bristling trunks and arms of the forest, and in the cloak of night, he felt as though trapped in a childhood nightmare. He wondered a moment, am I really being chased? Now that he had stopped a moment, the cuts in his back and hand began stinging, singing with pain. He needed a doctor and he knew it. He looked down at his hand, cut badly on the prison sewer-grate, at the dried blood that soaked into the dressing, the blood tracing the jagged fissure of bad luck running through his palm.

A crunch, a crash, the forest transmuting the sound of footfalls to the sound of its own rustled foliage, its own disturbed stones and roots and fallen twigs. An icy presence looming behind him.

A cold breath on his neck.

He continued running. He wished, oh he wished he knew where he was going. He had started out north when riding in the truck. At least he thought so. Now where? What would he run into? And what would happen if he stopped?

The sound of running water, a burbling stream in the bristling nightwood blackness. A few steps ahead through a tangle of twigs and leaves and he could see the flashing water of the stream carrying a quicksilver skim of moonlight on its downward course. He bent down and cupped his hands and slurped several deep handfuls of the cold water, his cut hand stinging, and looked behind him to see if there was some other way he could go to avoid getting drenched.

He saw a slight opening in the tangled weaving of the foliage, and as he parted the branches to further explore he felt invisible talons slice down his left forearm. He gasped in pain and looked down at a row of four deep furrows scratched into his skin, his blood blooming black in the night. He looked all about him, straining his eyes in the darkness, but could see no one or nothing.

Frightened, he jumped into the running water, slipping and sliding among the boulders and tumble of mossy logs and branches. The cold seized his breath. He gained a footing by holding onto the branch of a fallen tree, it reaching up as though for help in its dying fall. He helped himself along, using his grip for leverage, and then slipped down into deeper water, up to his waist, sliding amongst the slimy boulders and sunken branches. His groin froze; his penis protested and withdrew from the temperature, and the flow of water was nearly overwhelming. He feared he was going to be carried away downstream to God knows what fate. He struggled to regain his footing, and paddled himself with struggling, wheeling arms against the current, and he lunged forward and managed to grab a fistful of twigs and leaves dangling from a bent-backed birch leaning over the river from the other side as though to lend a hand. He pulled himself up, straining, with the handful of birch foliage, and he managed his way across, and he disappeared through an opening in the tangled bush and was again enfolded in the spiny embrace of the forest.

***

Overhead, the flapping of a crow in the gnarled woven canopy. He was cold, shivering at the base of a cedar, obscured in the foliage. His pants were soaked, and the temperature was dropping, autumn in the air and cooling it fast these darkest hours of the early morning. No sign of his mysterious pursuer anymore, no telltale crunch and rustle through the underbrush, no ominous vibrations of impending approach. It smelled of woodchip earthen dampness, of bitter bark and rotting leaves. The pain in his hand and arm and back had numbed awhile from his dash through the stream, but his nerves were now awakening, and an itchy throbbing now defined the edges of the deep lacerations he had incurred. For all he knew he could now get tetanus, lockjaw, whatever the hell they called it. Where the hell am I, he wondered, and where the hell do I go next?

There was no room for carelessness. The story had surely broken by now. The sky would be abuzz with helicopters in the morning, and the police would be scouring the countryside from high above with binoculars, all the way down through the snouts of sniffing dogs. They had probably been doing so already, were perhaps already near. Every main road was probably blocked at some point; police from every force would be mobilized; even military reservists could be in on the search. Most breakouts did not end well.

He shivered and he shook and he ran his fingers through his hair, and he squatted, too tense to actually sit, too primed to relax. God, how he craved a cigarette now, something to calm the nerves. He felt frightened in the forest, directionless. He looked about and all he could see traced in the blackness was the tangle of the thick impenetrable bush, the bristling forest that grew seemingly from the stones themselves through a thin medium of acidic soil ground under the press of glaciers long retreated to their alpine and arctic redoubts.

He looked about in the oppressive darkness and guessed it was about three o’clock in the morning. It was late whatever the exact time, and he was adrenalized and starving. He felt as though he could not carry on much longer without some sort of a meal and some rest. But the pressure was on to keep moving. Oh Christ, hope I can find some shelter and some food, he thought, I gotta move, I gotta move, and it’s getting cold and I can’t sleep in the open in the bush with the cold and the animals and all the heat that’s surely coming my way. And whatever it is that’s on my tail.

He stood up, embowered in the thick brush about him, and continued his way through the forest, on a winding root- and boulder-strewn path, feeling his stumbly, uncertain way in the dark, pushing twigs out of the way, brushing against leaves. He heard only his own footsteps, his own heartbeat, the rustle of the foliage and the crunch of stones he stepped upon, with nary a thought as his mind had contracted like his stomach from hunger and nerves and fatigue.

At last, the woods gave out into a stony field, and he walked out watched only by the ancient eyes of stars staring out from the prehistoric past, some long since burned out, their spectres glowing faintly in the night.  A cool breeze brushed through the long grasses of the field and through his hair, and it ruffled his sodden clothes. He shivered and kept on his way. An owl hooted. He stood to take stock of where he was, what he should do.

“Okay,” he said aloud, squatting in the field over a pitted table stone in which were embedded the fossilized denizens of an ageless sea, a Braille record of earthen memory, trilobites and shellfish and nameless ancient plants turned to stone in the gorgon stare of half a billion years. His breath smoked in the darkness. “Okay, I think I’ve lost it. I’m fuckin’ crazy. That thing—that thing—fuckin’ chased me all this way.”

He ran his hands through his hair on the sides of his head over and over again for sake of nerves, and continued speaking in the solitude of night. “Then it scratches me. I don’t fuckin’ get it, what’s goin’ on, I don’t understand a goddamn thing. And I’m all—I’m all cut up and bleeding everywhere and I need a fuckin’ doctor.” He stood up and kicked at the earth in impotent rage, dislodging a stone from the grass and the shallow soil.

“And I, I gotta be, I gotta be all over the news by now.” He paced back and forth, a few steps this way, a few steps that, his hands on the side of his face. “I need a fucking smoke, I’d kill for a smoke right now, I’d absolutely kill for a cigarette right now.”

A glance up at the stars in their midnight millions fixed in their burning points into the depthless cold of eternal night, fixed and impassive on his plight. What you need, he thought, weaving his self questioning back under the surface, back into thought, “Is to get your hands on a car,” his thoughts threading out through speech once again. And get your hands on a gun and hit a bank or a store—there’s no way around it—and take the cash. And get to a safe house of some kind so you can make further plans to disappear. Only then can you breathe easy. Only then.

“But now,” he continued aloud, choosing his words with care as he tried to still the mounting and inarticulate panic within him. “Rest. Get some sleep. You have no idea where you’re going or what is even happening right now.”

To this end he walked to the edge of the clearing and sat at the base of a tall cedar. He huddled himself against the cold and he shivered, and he lay his head against the rough bark of the tree, and he clutched the throbbing furrows of his arm with this hand, and he sat, teeth chattering in the coolness of the night, and awaited the arrival of sleep. He dissolved into drowsiness, eyes looking absently out at the darker shades of the trees against the lighter darkness of the night, and as he looked out he saw something in the corner of his gaze.

A pair of yellow eyes were fixed on him in the distance, shining faintly though staring with cold intent. Small pinpricks, hard to make out, but very much there, their indistinct pupils trained on him. A shiver of fear prickled through him.

“Go away,” he mumbled hoarsely, meeting the gaze of the eyes upon him in the night. “Fuck off! Leave me alone, whoever you are!”

But the eyes just stared at him as he muttered another curse and slowly closed his eyes and clutched the furrows in his arm now scabbing over. His own consciousness scabbed over for a while to undo the damage of the last couple days and make him forget the growing, gnawing hunger in his contracting, boiling gut. From time to time he emerged from his shallow, uncomfortable sleep and looked out and saw, or thought he saw, those beady yellow eyes still trained upon him in the blurry darkness.

And when he closed his eyes again he would plunge into staticky electric dreams of shapes and shadows and the breath of his uncle stinking of booze as he wound up to whip him with his belt and the drawn mask of his mother’s face in the prison visiting room and her croaking voice, “Sleep tight in here, Tommy, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” And the whirling sirens of the police upon him escape after escape and … and the twisted, broken shape of Lynne Hurst lying on the pavement as he looked down in horror at what he had done. She suddenly pulled herself up onto her elbows, her movements jerky, unnatural, animated as though her body were a puppet poorly worn by another spirit. Her head turned toward him, the eyes white, a grimace on her dead white face as she looked at him, into him, through him—

And still those eyes when he opened his, burning fires of midnight light, beacons to Bedlam’s shore, he drifting ever closer.

“Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite,” that haggish croak as his mother hovered over him, her bony fingers clamped upon his throat. She flashed decaying, sharpened teeth as she grimaced, her hands upon his neck squeezing, squeezing, pools of black tar bleeding into his vision, signifying his own extinction—

“Jesus Christ,” he murmured, opening his eyes again, a light breeze blowing through his hair, the eyes upon him still, “I just want to sleep without any goddamn dreams, please God just let me sleep just let me sleep—”

This cycle carried on through the eternity of the wee hours until at last the sky lightened, and the dreams went the way of the darkness.

 


MATTHEW MURPHY was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, and currently lives in Montreal. His debut novel A Beckoning War (Baraka Books, 2016) has been called “the product of an amazing new talent” by Quill & Quire, and “a creditable 1st novel” by Margaret Atwood (on Twitter.) Night Shades is an excerpt from his completed novel manuscript, a literary horror thriller entitled Fugitive Dreams.

Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Murphy. All rights reserved.