Trembling With Fear – End Of Summer 2019 Edition
Welcome to the Summer Special…you might want to grab a sweater because there are stories here to chill you to the bone!
The waning days of August mean many of us will try to eke out the last hot, lazy days of the season. In Toronto, the last two weeks before ‘back to school’ means the Canadian National Exhibition, where carnies compete with midway rides, novelty foods and ‘guess your weight and age’ type of games.
I was always mesmerized by the carnies—the shifty-looking, unkempt characters who cajoled the rubes and the couples on dates to toss a ring or shoot a balloon: “Make her happy, win a big prize for your girl!” they’d shout, “Five tosses for two bucks!”
We all knew it was nigh impossible to beat the odds on those rigged games, but we’d play anyway. Most likely, the worst outcome would be losing a few or more bucks and a hunk of hubris. But you might think twice about your odds after reading Ray Beer’s The Ring Toss. Ray writes about a carnival game that has consequences much grimmer than expected…and yet, his characters can’t stop playing until they ‘win’. Ray’s surprise conclusion will leave you wondering what could possibly happen next…for everyone involved.
And who hasn’t, at one time, been wrapped up in the nostalgia of a summer friendship? Years later, we can recall the sights, sounds, and smells of those endless summer days. In The Old Grey Dungeon, Timothy Wilkie returns to his beachside community to bury a friend and reminisces to the point where it feels real all over again. Alone with his thoughts, he’s haunted by memories of the past in an almost-deserted seaside community.
In A Drought For the Dead, Kirsten Baltz delivers a short shot of horror with witches, zombies, apocalyptic drought, and…hope for the future! It’s chilling, given the alarming rate in which our climate is changing…could this be us, 100 years from now? Despite the horror elements, I laughed out loud when I read Kirsten’s clever tale, and I’ve read it several times since.
Now, ants are a nuisance at a summer picnic, but be thankful you’ve never had to deal with ants like the ones in Gary Wosk’s The Raid. Poor fella can’t bring himself to kill the insect invaders…until they start to take over, and then all bets are off as to who will win the war. Gary’s visceral descriptions of the tiny predators will prompt even the most benevolent of pacifists to squash bugs that come too close.
Quick note about the Summer Special: this is my first ‘special’ since taking on the role of co-editor for specials, and wow, I have to admit I was knocked out by these stories and their authors. Thanks to Ray, Timothy, Kirsten, Gary and Ferdison for your superb submissions!
We’re still accepting stories for the Halloween and Christmas Specials so keep writing and submitting, and thanks again, everyone, for keeping us…Trembling.
All good things must come to an end, such as the Summer which is in its final days. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Fall. It likely is my favorite season.
However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to despise the winter and it is fast approaching. Thankfully, we’ll have some great stories to keep us going through the cold nights and help ease the ending of having the sun beat down on us all day long.
A Drought for the Dead
Arica pushed open the patio door to join her husband in the oppressive heat of the California summer. The birds whistled languished songs in the too-dry trees and in the distance, she could see the haze of the wildfires barreling down thirsty mountains. Arica handed her husband a cup of iced coffee, envious of how cool his skin was even beneath the punishing sun.
“How are my two favorite witches doing this morning?” Andy asked, kissing Arica’s rounded stomach.
“Restless and in need of rest,” laughed Arica as their child kicked her bladder.
“I can’t wait to meet you, little girl.”
“Soon,” cooed Arica, “soon.”
“Could you call down some rain this morning? The reservoir dried up last night, we have maybe two days of water for the cows in the cistern.”
Arica reached into the air around her, searching for any moisture. The warm breezes crackled like lightening and reminded her of the bones of long-dead cows she would find in the pastures above their home. Frowning, she sent her conscious further abroad, reaching toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Finding nothing she stretched to their peaks, where she found ancient snows. She was ready to pick up the snows and drop them over the farm when she sensed them; little tornado spirits just waiting for an excuse to start ripping across the Midwest. A less considerate weather witch may have ignored them. Arica sighed.
“I’m sorry, love. It looks like we will just have to make do for a while longer,” she said as she took Andy’s hand.
A sharp pain struck Arica’s stomach and she curled over in two. She thought that she may have started contractions, but the smell of ozone suggested something else was happening.
She slowly straightened. Her husband stood above her, looking confused. All her senses were drawn to the end of their driveway where a shadowy silhouette stood. Sensing her gaze, the figure stumbled toward them, its legs bent at painful angles and head lolling from side to side.
“Oh, not again,” Arica whispered.
As the figure limped closer she could see the bright red nails that dug the remains of the woman out of her own grave. The see-through once-white dress left little to the imagination about the condition of the putrid flesh that lay beneath it. The smell alone made her glad she was well out of the first trimester.
The corpse girl opened her mouth and a slurry of wet mud and greenery fell out. As it hit the patio a single small fish began to flop about.
Arica groaned in disgust. The mess!
“Baby girl found some water,” whooped Andy.
Arica looked at him like he had grown a second head, never mind that his actual head was heavily jeweled and in a lockbox beneath their bed. A lich didn’t just keep his phylactery on his person.
“What? That much mud means water.”
As if understanding, the dead woman stumbled back in the direction she came from, Andy quick on her skin-bare heels.
Arica sighed and waddled after him, thinking of the strange complications of this pregnancy.
They followed the dripping corpse for nearly a mile through the dry forest. Sticks cracked under their feet. Just as Arica was thinking of turning back, they came to an opening in the paper birches. Dead leaves circled a dark pit. Without pause the woman threw herself into the hole and it was long seconds before they heard the plop that said she reached the bottom.
Andy whooped again and knelt to kiss Arica’s belly.
“Oh, who is my smart little necromancer? Oh yes, you are! My little girl!”
Arica shook her head. “This is your fault you know; she isn’t even born yet and she is already raising the dead.”
“Isn’t it wonderful,” exclaimed Andy, “she will be a force to be reckoned with!”
“We have to survive her first.”
“We can figure that out as we go. First, we need the water.”
“The dead lady water?”
“Let’s go get some hoses, it shouldn’t bother the cows too much after we put her through a filter.”
Arica gagged a little to herself and hoped that storm forming over Hawaii would get there soon.
KB Baltz was born in a Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea a month early and sideways. She has been doing things backward ever since. She is still new at this short story thing, but you can find her poetry in Inquietudes Literary Magazine and in “A Storm Glass Heart”.
I’m Still Here
The crow’s guts were tough. Dave wedged his teeth in between bone and sinew, but the rotten carcass wouldn’t budge. The briny air bathed his sun-bleached skin as clotted blood and maggots oozed down his chin. He snapped a tiny bone in his blackened maw and munched on feathers, meat, and gore.
The waves rippled alongside his campfire and the earthen mound he sat beside. The flames spat onto his flesh, but Dave felt no warmth. Corrosive nausea consumed his mind. Soon, soon, soon, the words repeated in machine-gun succession.
The mound throbbed.
“They’ll come. They must come. I’m still here.”
“I know they’ll find me. Soon.”
Dave observed the moon as it crept away from an engorged cloud. He counted the stars and sketched constellations with the swipe of his fingers. For hours he watched the bright lights twinkle and for hours he waited. He waited, and he waited, the stars scintillated, their cold, dead light but a reminder of—the mound throbbed.
“You know they’re dead,” he sighed heavily, “all of ‘em. Dead.”
“I’m hungry too.”
Dave trudged along his usual track. It was an unwieldy stretch of land flecked with deformed roots, vines, and trunks. The air was thick with fumes of sulfur, he was unable to wander for too long. Each footstep discharged a wail, each breath and blink wracked Dave’s nerves with malady.
The muck had worn holes into his once brown leather boots and stained the cowhide scarlet as he wandered with a gnarled stick in the shape of a spear. Dave whistled to pass the time but shuddered as the forest echoed his voice. It was a garbled mess of chords corrupted into a guttural hiss.
“Leave me alone!”
Dave passed an ebon stream that made no sound as he trudged through the sludge. With his spear-like stick, he aimed for a nimble streak that wove around his feet. He dipped and stabbed the water but was unable to prick the agile shadow. An effervescent boil belched onto his thighs and melted his taut flesh. The shadow dissipated.
His lips quivered and eyes watered. “Not again. I’m so hungry. I—I—not like—”
A toll ensnared Dave with a sense of dread as he lay by the crow’s decay. Blowflies dug into her marrow and mated amid pus. This was the harmony of the island and the symphony of his night. The mound once more.
Eyes shut, Dave fell into the marsh. His limbs, swallowed, his torso and neck, constricted. He couldn’t breathe nor could he open his eyes. His heart raced, Dave clenched his teeth as spines delved into his belly. No blood, no liquid, no tissue, the marsh boiled, popped, and clogged his pores and wounds with infected spores. Invaded, his body sundered as he was eaten from within. The marsh ingested Dave’s bones. His arm, still aloft, blackened, and crumbled into ash.
“Shut up!” Dave yelled and flicked sand onto the meatless crow. He knelt by her bones and fingered her beak. They came apart with ease.
Dave dredged bones, gold, and rusted metals as he scoured through the sandy, barren mesa. Not far from his campsite, the mesa was terribly warm, too warm considering the sky was still enveloped in shadows.
Dave snapped the crow’s beak together with his thumb and forefinger. With his other hand, he buried his fingers into the sand and threw aside more bones and gold.
“We should take some back,” he muttered and unveiled a mildewed sack befouled with lice and weevils.
He looted a gem-encrusted chalice, some golden doubloons, an emerald ring with the finger still attached, and a skull with a dagger embedded by the temple.
He snapped his fingers together but there was still no answer. “Maybe it’ll be different once I go home. Maybe she’ ll—maybe she’ll—”
Dave sighed as he knelt by the trove, toes deep into the coarse grit. He lay over the mound as it throbbed yet again. The waves crashed but he was unable to blot out the mound’s pulsations. An oily shadow obscured the crow’s remains, the trove, and even Dave in a bitter arc of dimness. The jaw of the skull fragmented into shards as the shadow clasped onto the dagger.
“I’m here, I’m still here,” Dave cried atop the mound.
The shadow careened around his torso and pricked his gut with the dulled point. There was only a numbness as Dave fell by the fire.
The mound’s throbs turned into quakes.
“I’m still here. I’m still…here,” he mouthed and felt for his wound. There was no blood on his fingers, just waxy pus.
The shadow pricked him again and again. Sand, brine, and muck seeped from the punctures.
“They’ll find me. They…must.”
“Caw, caw,” the shadow’s tone wormed into Dave’s brain. “Caw, caw!”
A huff, Dave crawled towards the crow’s corpse. “Not…again.”
The shadow overwhelmed Dave and his trove and suffused him with guilt.
“I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t be.”
A woman’s voice chimed amid the wind, “But you are, aren’t you?”
The mound’s quakes grew unbearable, “But you are, aren’t you, Dave?”
Dave wept as the shadow lay by his side. A waifish hand sheathed him with a miasmic malaise. “I’m…still…here.”
The engorged clouds blotted out the island as Dave sunk into the sand alongside the crow, his trove, and the shadow. The waves crashed and thunder lashed the grit.
“But I’m still…here,” Dave whispered as he sunk into the mound alongside his lover.
Dann Lewis hasa PhD in creative writing from Deakin University, Melbourne. His thesis was about writing cyberpunk fiction in the post-2010’s.
Dann has also been published in various magazines such as Aurealis, Phase 2 Magazine. and The Horror Zine. He is also a frequent contributor to Grimdark Magazine. You can follow Dann on Twitter here: DNN_Lewis.
The Old Grey Dungeon
Day after day I sat on the front porch of my father’s seaside cottage, listening to the soothing kiss of the waves upon the shore. There was a cemetery on the hill behind the cottage that just two days ago I had put my best friend Terry in. Tomorrow the stone was to be delivered and I would have a decision to make. I would have to decide if I was going to stay here on the island or go back to my cramped flat in Boston.
Terry had been fighting cancer for almost a year and I had spent a lot of time commuting between the island and Boston, burning the candle at both ends so to speak. As much as I loved her there was a part of me that was relieved that she wasn’t suffering anymore.
The last two days I had spent a lot of time walking the beach. It was late September so the summer tourists were long gone, and I had the rugged shoreline pretty much to myself. I would walk along the beach, climbing over boulders and listening to the sharp cries of the seagulls. I was really in no hurry to return to Boston there was nothing for me there.
Most of the houses I passed along the shore were empty. All the houses were solidly built with unpainted shingles that had turned silver from the salt and surf. I was suddenly distracted by a movement up by the cemetery. There was a little girl standing by the gate wearing a black hooded sweaty, and as I watched her she turned and gave me a kind of a half-wave. She looked to be no more than ten or eleven and I wondered who she was and where she had come from. I walked slowly up towards her but she turned and ran away evaporating in the cold gray mist that seemed to encompass the island in autumn.
I walked down the beach a ways and then cut up towards the old Truman place. When it was first built it had been the ultra-modern beach house of the future now twenty years later it looked old and beaten like all the rest of the houses. I was eleven when the Trumans first moved in. Mister Truman had been a lawyer in Boston and they had, had a daughter Terry just my age. We became the best of friends and even dated for a brief time in our teens. However the whole boy-girl thing effected our friendship in a negative way so we went back to being best friends.
We kept in touch for a while after high school, but as old friends often do we slowly were erased from each other’s lives as new circles of friends were formed. The old seemed to fade away with a whisper not a scream. It wasn’t until she returned to the island with cancer that we got together again.
Her father had suffered a stroke and lived his last few years in a nursing home in Salem and her mother maintained the house alone until about five years ago when she died of a massive heart attack. They had both been laid to rest in the island cemetery. Both of my parents were long gone too and placed neatly up on the hill with the Trumans. Terry had no one to take care of her, just an empty house with a lot of memories. Life had thrown me one disappointing business deal after another until I
found myself on the balls of my ass, depending on my inheritance to bail me out. Terry had sworn she’d never come back and that her future lay far from this cold, misty island in New England, as far as I knew she didn’t, not to visit her parents or even drop in on the holidays until she got sick.
Looking out at the ocean I found myself thinking about Terry and how much I missed her. It had been nice to have a best friend that I could share all my secrets with when I was growing up.
Under overcast skies, I walked along the beach towards the Truman house and climbed the wooden stairs from the beach to the house and looked in the glass doors. I was just checking to make sure everything was secure, doors were locked and windows were closed that sort of thing. With their whole family gone the estate would either go into probate or to some distant asshole relation. Either way my work was done here. I had cleaned up the house and covered the furniture and sadly this part of my life was over.
I was just about to leave when I decided to walk around the house one last time. I walked around the side admiring the construction. It really was a beautiful design. I pushed on the front door and to my surprise it swung open. Popping my head inside I hollered, “hello!” All I heard back was that hollow empty sound that all vacant houses possess.
I don’t know why but I opened the door the rest of the way and stepped inside. I got this strange feeling the minute I did. My entire being was filled with her sweet essence. It was as if Terry had been here all along and had never left. I got a lump in my throat and I started to tear up.
There was what had served as a living room off to my right and I remembered Mrs. Truman had used it just to entertain guests. We kids were never allowed to play in there. Now it seemed empty and bare without a heart or soul.
With the sofa and piano gone, not to mention the huge marble coffee table that Terry used to brag about how expensive it was, it was just a room. The plush white carpet was still there but it didn’t look quite so plush anymore.
I walked down the hall to the kitchen and looked out the double glass doors in the dining-room. The ocean waves crashed on the shore down below. When I opened them the gulls were crying out like they did when a storm was coming. I wiped the tears from my eyes with my shirtsleeve and wondered why I had let it all slip away. I had, had the true meaning of happiness in my hands and I had let it all slip away like grains of sand through my fingers.
As I stepped out on the deck I could see and feel it all– the mellow sun of a late summer’s day and the smell of hamburgers cooking on the grill while Terry and I played chasing games on the beach with her golden retriever Marley. It was all there, all I had had to do was hold on and I didn’t, or couldn’t. I don’t know which one was sadder. I knew it was time to go so I stepped back inside, closing and locking the patio doors behind me. I double checked the front door before I left to make sure it was locked this time. On the way back to the cottage the seagulls screeched as they swooped down low over my head.
Just after midnight I woke suddenly to the sound of a child’s laughter. Before I was fully awake I jumped off the couch and was looking all around totally disoriented. By the time I realized that I was probably dreaming I was wide awake. I stumbled toward the kitchen in the dark and poured myself a glass of milk and stood out on the deck watching this thick gray fog roll in.
The laughter had been so real it was hard for me to accept it was just a dream. I turned and looked up the beach towards the Truman house. Of course it was concealed completely by the fog but suddenly I thought I saw someone walking on the beach. As I stared out at the figure my eyes straining for more detail the wind began to blow and the fog cleared there was no one there.
My thoughts wandered back to the little girl by the gates of what we kids use to call the Old Grey Dungeon. At one time long, long, ago there had been a fortress on the island to protect the mainland. When they started digging graves up there they dug up the stone foundation. Terry and I had played up there by the hour. We had pretended that she was a princess and I was her knight in shining armor, there to protect her from the monsters; but the real monsters in life were never that simple. We had named it the Old Grey Dungeon.
The next day I watched them set her stone. When the two guys were finished they both just kind of stood there waiting like they were expecting something so I tipped them each twenty bucks. They both looked at me kind of funny as they were leaving but I didn’t know. Was there an admission charge to the Old Grey Dungeon now?
“The gates of the Old Grey Dungeon had taken another soul,” I whispered. I didn’t know where the words had come from but Terry had said it often when we were kids.
I sighed and stood up from the concrete bench at her grave-side. Sorrow could be a lonely place especially here on the island. I thought of the words to Taxi by Harry Chapin.
She was going to be an actress,
And I was going to learn to fly.
But she had learned to fly first on the wings of the angels.
“Wow! Where did that come from?” I thought.
Later I threw a couple of Hot Pockets in the microwave and was sitting on the steps leading down to the beach having my dinner. The stars glittered overhead like precious jewels. It was one of those perfect September nights when it was still warm enough to be outside and star gaze. Back in Boston you never got to see the stars unless you went to one of the shows. Terry and I had sat on these very steps and looked up at these very stars wondering what the future had in store for us.
Suddenly it was as if she was sitting on the steps next to me. It was like my senses were filled with her essence. A wonderful, magical, merry-go-round of her swirling around me like a twister, but then the merry-go-round began to slow down to a stop and a feeling came over me as if I was lost in a huge labyrinth of shadows. I became frightened of the darkness that surrounded me, and started to shake all over as a cold wind skipped across the waves turning them into whitecaps that relentlessly pounded the shore.
“It’s me, Terry,” a voice whispered in my ear and in the true spirit of the chase games we played on the beach so many years ago the voice whispered, “come and find me.”
Timothy Wilkie is an author living in Kingston New York. He has two grown sons and a Golden Retriever named Marley. He is active in the local music scene as a folk singer.
As I waited for the nurses to wheel me into the operation room for surgery on my mutilated right arm, a reporter from the Los Angeles Time suddenly appeared by my bedside. I don’t know how he got past security, but here he was. He wanted the full scoop.
“Okay, but I only have about twenty minutes,” I said.
“Can you give it to me in fifteen?”
With that, I began to describe the events that led up to the surgery I was about to have.
It was an unusually hot summer in Los Angeles and the ants desperately needed water and they would do anything to quench their thirst.
I discovered the little pests inside the bathtub, an undulating mass of red. The predators were stacked on top of each other. They must have numbered in the thousands. Soon, my wife, Karen, and I were sure they’d figure out how to climb over the top of the porcelain lip and begin colonizing our home, leaving it uninhabitable for humans.
A lover of science fiction and horror films, clips of giant ants from the movie “Them!” began flashing through my mind. Granted the ants in our house were small, but clustered together, this species was a formidable force.
Karen and I needed to eradicate them soon or we’d be forced to take up residence in a hotel and hire an exterminator. We knew one, but first we’d give it a try. Why pay someone hundreds of dollars, or even more, if we could do it ourselves.
So, we fought back. We had first dibs on the house.
“What are we going to do?” asked my wife.
I handed the can of Raid to her. No, I was not a Buddhist, but my natural inclination was to relocate uninvited guests such as these to their outside insect world. She had no qualms about carrying out annihilating the nuisances. She was experienced. A real trouper. Still, there was no denying the fact, I was an accomplice to mass murder. I was concerned we had created bad karma.
Karen lightly pulled the trigger of the Raid spray can twice. The ants didn’t know what hit them. There they were, motionless, ready to be washed down the drain with the turn of the faucet, a task I volunteered Michelle for as well.
Since we were now in the business of pest control, the perfectionist in me came out.
“There, Karen, you missed one.”
“You’re a big help. Thanks. I should make you do it.”
Suddenly I had a flashback. It occurred to me that I’d seen these particular ants before. Yes! The ficus trees in the backyard. A tree trimmer we’d hired destroyed their hiding place located in four-foot tall thicket of tiny twigs. Not only were they thirsty for water, but also revenge.
After the bathtub incident, every morning, from then on, we’d check the inside and outside of the house for any signs of the ants mounting a new offensive. They were few and far between. A spray here and a spray there did the trick. Amazing, “Peace in our time,” as England’s prime minister, Neville Chamberlin, said many years ago. Was he ever wrong, and so were we.
One night when I had awakened to use the bathroom, my right arm also was itching like crazy. The culprit was an ant that was strolling along my forearm. I wasn’t going to wake up Michelle for this simple execution. Surely, I could handle one ant. I showed it no mercy and swatted it to kingdom come.
As I walked down the hallway I was shocked by the sight of hundreds of thousands of ants gallivanting around. Some had also taken to the air. The ants were everywhere. I could feel the antennae of the drones brushing against my skin as they flew by. What type of freakish hybrid of ants were these? Was this their D-Day? Were the bombardiers getting ready to drop some type of deadly insect acid on their enemy? My imagination was running wild.
I called out to my wife.
“Karen, quick, wake up. The ants are back and they can fly too!”
No answer. She was sound asleep. I tried to wake her by gently shaking her shoulders, but she remained unresponsive. With no time to spare, I’d have to destroy the invaders all by myself. Maybe Karen would consider me a brave domestic hero. I wouldn’t expect a decoration. A nice home-cooked meal would be just fine.
Wearing slippers, I quickly made my way into the laundry room, trying the best I could not to slip on the one-inch high pile of ants which had grown in size substantially since I had last seen them. If I had to take a wild guess, they must have one quarter of an inch in length. The damn drones targeted my right arm and stung me over and over again, incensed that I had squished their larvae. I reached into the cabinet and grabbed the can of Raid bug spray. It was empty. What else could I fight them back with? I tried a plastic bottle of Windex, which surprisingly worked well until it went dry too. One hundred ants down, and hundreds of thousands more to go!
I didn’t know what to do. I broke out into cold sweat. I needed more ammunition and Karen’s help as well. “Karen, you have to wake up. Ants, ants, everywhere!” I was hyperventilating.
Her eyes slowly opened.
“What’s all the commotion about, Benjamin?” she weakly said.
“Ants, ants. Everywhere! There’s probably a million of them!”
“You can handle it,” she babbled. “Leave me alone. I want to sleep.”
“Sweetie pie, please. They’re in the bedroom, about to climb into bed with you.”
“I need a vacation. I need to get away,” she mumbled.
Fine then, I thought as I stormed off. If she wasn’t going to lift a finger, then she couldn’t complain when she found herself covered from head to toe with the little monsters.
“Okay, I’m just letting you know,” I whispered into her ear.
With the Raid and Windex all gone, I decided to dress quickly and drive to the twenty-four-hour local market, however, there were too many ants on my jeans and shirt, so I decided to stay in my pajamas.
“Ahem, excuse me sir,” said the market manager.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Do you realize that you’re still in your pajamas?”
“And?” I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture.
“Well, it against our dress code policy.”
“Well, I don’t give a fuck about your dress code policy.
“Excuse me. That’s no way to talk. You don’t want me to call security, do you?”
“Since when do markets have dress codes.”
“It’s an unwritten rule, but I find your choice of attire to be very offensive. Our shoppers tend to be very conservative, even at this time of the day.”
I was nearly at the end of my rope. I contemplated knocking him senseless, but then I would have been arrested and the ants would have won. And what would have happened to my dear wife?
“I’ll just be a few minutes. I have an emergency at home. I’m in a rush, that’s why I’m wearing pajamas,” I said.
He continued to read me the riot act which was taking up some valuable time. At this pace, I didn’t know what I’d find when I arrived home.
After warning me for umpteenth time not to ever return to the market in pajamas, I was finally able to find what I came looking for. Several cans of Raid. My trip to the market had taken longer than expected. The chitty-chatty checker for the ten items or less lane exacerbated matters even more. She was as slow as molasses, which, thankfully, we didn’t have at home.
Getting back into the house proved to be a chore. I know it sounds crazy, but the ants somehow had barricaded themselves inside. I feared my wife was in mortal danger. I shouldn’t have left her alone. I climbed in through a window.
“Karen, Karen, get dressed. You need to leave the house.”
She was still peacefully asleep.
“Karen! What’s wrong with you?” I screamed. “Damn it. Wake up.”
That’s when I awakened from one of the worst nightmares of my life. Thank God, there were no ants. What a relief.
It was the crack of dawn. Time to get up anyway and get ready for work. My God, I hoped I wouldn’t have the same dream the next night. Maybe someone spiked my food at the deli with marijuana, which caused the nightmare. It all seemed so real.
I turned to my wife who was on her side.
“Good morning, Karen. Are you awake?”
I tried again and again.
Finally, I gently rolled her over. She felt cold to my touch.
There were black holes where her eyes used to be. The flesh from her cheeks had been gnawed away, leaving blood vessels and other jelly-like innards exposed. I shrieked in horror.
If only I hadn’t been delayed at the market, I could have saved her.
And then I felt a shooting pain along the length of my right arm. And there she stood, on my shriveled right arm, proud and powerful, the Queen Ant. At one-half inches in length, she had a hearty appetite and satiated it by feverishly chewing and digesting my flesh, picking my hypodermis layer of skin clean, exposing an only a coroner would be familiar with. She was now holding and nibbling on miniscule pieces of gooey tendon, and sipping on driblets of my blood to wash down the meat.
“Damn it hell! Get off of me you filthy ants,” I screamed.
With the palm of my left hand, I flattened the Queen. So much for my Buddhist tendencies. That’s when the angry drones arrived, diving toward me from all directions.
I ran outside the house in my pajamas. There was nothing I could do about Karen.
I frantically knocked on the next-door neighbor’s front door.
“Help,” I yelled in panic. There’s ants in my house and they’ve killed Karen.”
He seemed completely underwhelmed. Maybe he had just smoked a joint.
“And she was such a sweet woman. Jeez, Louise, and I thought we were the only ones that had the ant problem,” said Jim. “Man, you’re dripping blood all over the place. It looks like something’s been chewing on your arm.”
“That’s a fair assessment.”
You stay outside. Let me get you a few band-aids.”
I didn’t know what world he was living in. As if a few band aids were going to do the trick.
“Just call an ambulance!” I implored him. “We’ll worry about the band-aids later.
I have to go now. My gurney ride is here. They’re ready to sew me up. Later on, I’ll undergo an MRI to see if any of the ants are inside my body. I told the doctors that something was crawling in my stomach. They suspect that the bastards started a colony in my gastronomical tract. A blood test revealed that my blood sugar levels were too low, but that it probably wasn’t Type 2 Diabetes.
“It’s time to go, Benjamin,” the nurse informed me.
“Sorry, if you have any additional questions, come back to the hospital tomorrow.”
That’s some story, Benjamin,” the reporter said. “Before they wheel you off, can I take a few photographs?”
“Sure, but the paper would never print something like that, would they?”
“Probably not, but I collect grisly photographs which I share with my colleagues. They think I’m crazy. I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about these types of things.”
I shrugged my head.
And now, as they move me into the operating room, my thoughts are of poor Karen. She was a great wife. My life will never be the same without her. I’m also thinking about Joe Bullock. I had warned the exterminator about going into the home alone. All that was left of him was a shrunken head and ants traveling in and out of his nostrils, mouth and ears. What a way to go.
After I’m released from the hospital, I’ll go live with my brother. My house is no more.
“We’re sorry, Benjamin, but your house is unsalvageable. The only way to stop the ants is set it house ablaze,” said an official with the Los Angeles County Department of Vector Control.
As I said earlier, bad karma.
Gary Wosk mostly writes creep science fiction/horror and fantasy short stories and introspective essays about real life situations. The former newspaper reporter and transit agency spokesperson currently works in the field of media relations. He lives in North Hills, California with his wife Mina and Australian Cattle Dog Shelley.
The Ring Toss Stand
“Hey there, lassy,” said the thin, mustached man at the ring toss stand. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, tan with a red stripe along its base. “The booth’s booming with winners today. Only five dollars for five rings. Ten dollars for fifteen. Want to win your sister a prize?”
“No,” the young girl said, “for me!” With playful giddiness, she hopped, arms flapping at her sides like a bird, pink slip-ons bouncing in the dirt and kicking up dust. She wore a bright, yellow T-shirt underneath denim overalls. Her mother stood behind her with arms crossed against a plain blue dress.
“Good,” the man said with a grin that foregrounded his mustache. He bent over and spoke in a hushed tone to the girl. “That big fella – the one right over there with the black fur and floppy ears – he saw you walking by and told me to try my darndest in getting you to play. He wants you to bring him home.” The prize, who sat between a divergent cast from centaurs to dinosaurs, was a stuffed dog. His eyes glinted blue. To the mother-daughter pair, he looked like their black lab, Cal, who passed away the previous year.
“Dogs don’t talk.”
“This one does.” The man winked at the girl before straightening and raising his voice once more. “So, will you be wanting five or fifteen?”
No one else was tossing rings at the booth. The whole area lay deserted, untouched in its remote corner of the carnival save for two teal porta potties. The mother and daughter had discovered the ring toss stand behind the large “May’s Mirror Maze” tent after locating the nearby toilets.
“We haven’t decided if we’re getting any rings yet,” the mother said.
“Please, mommy! Please.” The girl tugged at her mother’s purse, then put on a large smile—fake but endearing—with eyes closed and mouth agape revealing rows of miniature teeth.
“Alright, fine.” The mother took a wallet out of her purse and drew a five-dollar bill. She handed it to the man, who, after pocketing the payment, grabbed five rings from underneath the booth’s counter. The rings were brightly colored: two yellow, two blue, one red.
The man handed the rings over to the girl. They looked just wide enough to fit over the glass bottles populating the center of the ring toss stand. The girl set the rings on the counter and picked up a yellow one.
“Good luck,” the man said with his mustache-grin. Then, his face turned dour. “If you miss all five, you die.”
“What?” the girl said.
“Hey,” the mother snapped, “that’s not funny! She’s just a kid.” The man shrugged. The mother wanted to take her daughter and leave, but she had already paid. Another part of her wanted to confront the man further, going so far as to demand a word with his manager, but she didn’t want to be that kind of mother (not here, not in front of her daughter). In the end, she stayed. “It’s okay, sweetie. He was just joking.”
“Oh.” The girl’s look of confusion morphed into a baby-toothed smile once more. She looked up at the man for confirmation, but his face remained grim, stone-like in its stillness. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance.
Like a slot machine lever, the girl threw the yellow ring overhand into the tent. It bounced off one bottle near the center, then another, and another, until finally sliding between two green glass bottles. The man stood in the corner of the ring toss stand with his hands linked at the waist. His face remained unfazed.
“Ah, man,” the girl said. “Mommy, I missed!”
“It’s okay, sweetie. You still have four tries.” The mother gave her daughter the placating smile that all mothers knew. Grey clouds gathered above. “Hurry, though. It looks like it’s about to rain.”
This time, the girl picked up a blue ring and tossed it underhand. The ring propelled so high that it nipped the Black Lab and fell to the dirt-covered ground inside the booth.
With a sudden shift, the thin, mustached man jumped to the booth’s counter with arms splayed and hands gripping the outer-edge. He recited a rhyme—each scheme emphasized by pitch, each word pressed through a gritted grin.
“Five rings were started for fun, but moods may change when the game is done.
You had four rings, but here’s one in the dirt. Let’s hope that no one gets hurt.
Now three is the number left to throw. Make one count, and the girl may go.”
The girl giggled and clapped.
The man, no longer fanciful but again grim, had already crept back into his corner.
“Let’s go,” the mother said as she pushed on the small of the girl’s back to leave.
“No! I still have three rings left.”
“You have three throws remaining,” the man said. His voice was now monotone. “The contract is bound.”
The mother ignored him. “Hurry up, then, sweetie. Throw the rings and let’s go.”
The girl picked up the other blue ring and held it with both hands close to her chest. She smiled and peered up at her mother, then threw the ring overhand into the boxed enclosure of glass bottles. It clinked and clanked until finally clunking outside the box altogether, where it joined the preceding blue ring on the ground.
“Ah, I missed it again,” the girl said as she drooped into an over-dramatic slump.
The mother contemplated the rings on the ground: each was blue, each had missed its mark, each had landed atop the dirt in nearly the same spot. She scanned the rest of the booth; no other rings littered the ring toss stand ground.
A flash of lightning shot across the grey-clouded sky and thunder cracked. The girl jumped. Soon after, her look of surprise transformed into one of wonder and awe.
“Whoa,” she cooed. “Mommy, did you see that? Did you see the lightning?”
The man stood still in his corner like a gargoyle. He stared at the mother and daughter in waiting.
“Come on, now.” The mother’s voice had a slight tinge of panic. “Hurry up.”
The girl skipped from her mother to the counter where the two remaining rings—one yellow, one red—lay. After eyeing each, she picked up the yellow ring and, stepping into the throw with her right foot, thrust it at the glass bottles. The ring bee-lined toward a bottle, where, despite the lack in altitude, appeared on track to connect with success. The mother’s heart fluttered. The man, who broke his stillness for a brief moment, raised his bushy, salt-and-peppered eyebrows. The velocity of the ring, however, proved too much. It hit the round, cap-less opening—even going so far as to travel an inch down the bottleneck—then reverberated off and fell into an abyss between the glass bottles.
“Shoot!” The girl stomped her foot. “It bounced right off. Did you see?”
“Yes. One more, hurry now.” The mother’s distress leaked through in her voice. She glanced around with evident nervousness. Rain trickled onto the carnival grounds and a murder of crows sat atop the mirror maze tent. With a swift motion, the man leaned over the ring toss counter. Once more, his demeanor contorted. The mustache-grin—now appearing unnatural, grotesque even—grew broader than before while his voice pitched higher on every word.
“With two to go, you almost made the throw.
But now there’s one; the danger grew. Miss again, and he’ll kill you.”
Just as before, the man slunk back into the ring toss corner. He was a gargoyle again, a maleficent sentinel over the mother and daughter.
“Mommy,” the girl whimpered, “I’m scared. Can we go home?”
“Yes — yes, baby. Let’s go.”
The mother attempted to grab her daughter, who stood close by the ring toss stand’s counter. She instead tripped with hands flailing in the air. The mother remained grounded as her top half fell forward and her face met the shackles binding her down. Sprung from the soil, earthy tendrils wrapped around her and her daughter’s feet. They looked like enlarged roots of condensed dirt.
“What the hell is going on?” the mother sputtered.
“I can’t reach you,” the girl said. She stretched her arms, hands grasping air, fingers straining. She cried.
“Let us leave,” the mother said at the man while struggling against the tendrils. “Whatever carnival trick this is, it isn’t funny!”
“You have one throw remaining,” the man said to the girl. “The contract is bound.”
“What contract?” the mother demanded. “You’re deranged — I didn’t sign any contract.”
The man, reaching into the canvas pouch that hung from his waist, held up the five-dollar bill.
“My cousin’s a lawyer! He’s civil litigation — he’ll shut this place down, I promise you.” The mother gasped for air. “He’ll do it. It’ll be paying my bills till I’m in the ground.”
“That might not be too long,” the man said.
The crows fluttered and cawed as more perched atop the mirror maze tent. The birds all faced the ring toss stand. From an adjacent corn field, a group of people in the distance walked towards the stand.
“Help!” the mother screamed. “Please, help us! This man is crazy!” The group did not react, but walked on. The mother shouted again and again. As the figures drew nearer, the mother eyed them with a look of familiarity: a mannish woman who wore a yellow and pink polka-dotted dress, a hairless, muscular man in a black leotard, and twins, conjoined at the hip, who shared a ripped and ragged grey gown. They were the carnival workers. The mother-daughter pair had seen them throughout the fair.
The group—unaffected by the screams of the mother and sobbing of the girl—moved methodically toward the ring toss stand. More figures emerged elsewhere. A dwarf with a thick beard, flannel shirt, and blue ripped jeans strode in from one side of the mirror maze tent, while a clown, face painted white with enlarged blue eye paint, came around the other side. The clown had an orange poof of permed hair, a rainbow jumpsuit, and tiny, bare feet. From in between the porta potties, a skin-and-bone girl with a crooked nose slithered through.
One-by-one, the carnival workers emerged into view of the ring toss stand as each one marched onward. All of them stopped together. They formed a circle around the ring toss stand. Each person stood with the same blank, motionless presence, until, like a choir of Tibetan monks, a low, guttural hum emitted from the mouth of each figure. In unison, they harmonized into one ominous requiem.
The mother wanted to tell her daughter that she loved her very much, but she could not form the words.
“I want to go home,” the girl said, half to her mother and half to the man.
“You have one throw remaining,” he said. “The contract is bound.”
Barely able to reach the final ring, the girl stretched her arm forward and fiddled the object into reach with the tips of her fingers. After a struggle, she grasped it in her small hand.
The girl leaned forward, snapped at the elbow, and flicked her wrist as if tossing a frisbee. The ring left her hand and glided toward the glass bottles.
Every eye shadowed its path.
The cacophony of chants, blocking out all other noise around the ring toss stand, rose to a crescendo. With his hat now off and crumpled against his chest, the thin, mustached man—bald head riddled with tattooed markings in a foreign script—bit his lower lip.
The mother fainted.
When she regained consciousness, the mother found herself slumped in a rusted fold-up chair beside the ring toss stand. Her mouth was dry and she felt weak. In the grass field a few yards away, her daughter danced around with a large stuffed animal. It was the Black Lab.
The girl spun around and skipped over with the dog wrapped in her arms.
“Mommy, look! I won! I won the big doggie.” She let out a giggle and shoved the dog in her mother’s lap. It’s fur felt soft, almost real. “You fell and the ring toss man helped you into that chair. Are you okay, Mommy? You hit the ground pretty hard.” She tugged against the neckline of her bright, orange shirt.
“Yes — sure, sweetie. But…” The mother looked around. The carnival workers were gone and the only noise was the chirping of some sparrows overhead. “But, the —”
“Ah, I see you’re finally awake, m’am. You took quite the tumble after walking over here. Must’ve been the heat, I say.” The man pointed to the clear sky, which spread bright sunshine all around them. “Your daughter turned all sour — a tad scared even — but she was mighty brave. So, I gave her five throws on the house! And, what do you know, she just went on up and won that big doggie there.”
“Yeah, Mommy,” the daughter chimed in. “Just like Cam!”
A sharp shout drew the mother’s attention towards the mirror maze tent, but it was just a surprised little boy. The clown had surprised him with a jump, so the boy yelped and ran off. Then, the clown turned around and caught the mother’s gaze. He smiled and sent her a wave, his palm rigid, his fingers rippling in rapid fashion. The mother’s head felt dizzy. She needed water.
“Oh…well, thank you, sir. Sweetie, let’s go back. Mommy has a headache.”
“Thanks again, Mister! Buh-bye!” The girl waved the Black Lab’s paw in the air toward the man, then walked away hand-in-hand with her mother.
The thin, mustached man stood still in his stand. Underneath the ring toss counter, a little hand poked out from the shadows. Connected to the little hand was a little body, clothed in a little yellow T-shirt and little denim overalls. The man nudged the limp hand back into the darkness with his foot. Against the mother-daughter pair, he held a steady gaze, transfixed on the dog, who the girl now carried over her shoulder like a baby. Its eyes burned a deep blood-red.
“Another sacrifice lay here at my feet. The master’s journey is almost complete.”
Ray Beer originates from the exotic suburban landscape of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he grew up participating in such American pastimes as bowling (except on Sabbath), “hanging out” at the mall, and attending local dive bars, of which he definitely did not get kicked out. Ray graduated from Penn State at University Park with a degree in Information Sciences & Technology, so it only makes sense that he now aspires to write speculative fiction. Currently, he resides in Arlington, Virginia.
5 Unforgettable, Must-Visit New York City Destinations!
Now I’m no NYC native, but I’ve got family there and I visit them every chance I get. With them as my guides I’ve seen parts of the city that you couldn’t find in a thousand tourist-trap guidebooks. Here’s a couple of my favorite places to eat, walk around, or just hang out!
- THE HIGH LINE
Yeah, yeah, I know what I said. “Can’t find it in a guidebook.” So what if a bunch of you already know about this place? If I teach just one person something new, convince just one person to spend more time in New York City, I consider that time well spent. The High Line was a dilapidated, crumbling railway, and now it’s one of the most startling and innovative parks on the planet. And something about nature taking this place back from mankind, right in the heart of the city, really speaks to me. Check it out!
- GRAY’S PAPAYA
Also not exactly a secret. Gray’s Papaya has been featured in movies and television alike as one of the best eateries in New York. There’s two of these, both fantastic, but I like the one in Midtown better. You’ll have to try ‘em both to be sure, but I promise you that you won’t regret it! Without exaggeration I can tell you that these are some of the best hot dogs in the United States. Nothing beats a Gray’s Papaya hot dog at 2 A.M. when you’re staggering back home from a night out. Fatten yourself up! We won’t regret it.
- JEFFERSON MARKET GARDEN
A perfect place to relax or just take in the atmosphere. It’s a wonder how this place never seems to have too many people in it at once. Colors riot as flowers bloom, especially in the springtime. The surrounding neighborhood has been fighting for and maintaining this place for decades. You can really feel the love they’ve poured into this place. Jefferson Market Garden is an oasis of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, and you owe it to yourself to experience not just New York’s famous restlessness, but all its tranquilities as well.
Experience everything. You must remember to experience everything.
- OLD CITY HALL STATION
If you know what you’re looking for, you can find ways to go even deeper beneath New York than any subway ever has. The New York City we see today is a product of hundreds of years of expansion, not only upwards but downwards, into the earth. It’s a paradise for urban explorers. There are lower levels that are hundreds of years old, and when you stand in them you can feel the weight of the entire city in the air, pressing down upon you. You can almost hear the foundations of the city creak.
Doesn’t that sound fun?
In any case, before your tour starts be sure to check out the rest of the New York Transit Museum! I know it’s a name that might have already put you to sleep, but it’s way more interesting than you think, I promise. A tour through New York’s subway stations is a tour through a century of American architecture, ingenuity, and innovation. Don’t pass up this chance to see what really makes the world go round. So come on down.
If you dare!
Haha, I’m kidding. Obviously.
- CATHEDRAL OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE
One of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world. Worth a visit, even if you’re not religious. Of particular note are the Chapels of the Tongues, seven chapels built in different regional styles, meant to represent the ethnicities most common in New York City during the construction of the cathedral.
You know, this place actually wasn’t the easiest to recommend. My family has an old, old history of Christian persecution, and St. John’s is just one big reminder. It’s a painful place for them. But not for me. For me, beauty overshadows pain. The peals of that organ rippling up and down those high cathedral walls are a sound that will be forever etched into my mind.
Have you sinned recently? Hell, have you sinned ever? Don’t lie. Of course you have. While you’re here, take this opportunity to confess.
Come on, you’ll feel better! Just talking about your problems helps, sometimes. Get that weight off your shoulders.
You should purify yourself for what is to come. Where I come from, purity matters a great deal.
- ROOSEVELT ISLAND SMALLPOX HOSPITAL
Yes, they are ruins. No, that does not make them any less beautiful, or any less worthy of your attention. It is a magnificent place.
Smallpox often ravaged the immigrants who poured into New York in the early twentieth century, and those desperate attempts to keep the disease confined to one tiny part of New York gave birth to this hospital, erected and then left to ruin.
Left to ruin, perhaps, but not to memory. Oh, how my family has a long memory.
“The Smallpox Hospital could easily become the American equivalent of the great Gothic ruins of England,” writes the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and standing among these overgrown walls you will see that you have no choice but to agree. Here you walk on truly hallowed ground. Not St. John’s, no. Never St. John’s. Here.
Here, where masses of vines crack the foundations and split the stonemasonry and threaten to bring down the very walls themselves. Here, where the air still reeks faintly of blackened lesions and rancid pus. In the subways you witnessed the lifeblood that courses through the veins of New York. Here you will face death.
It is truly a magnificent place. And you want nothing more than to visit it.
You want to visit the hospital.
You want to visit the hospital. You want to visit the hospital. You want to visit the hospital. You want to visit the hospital. You want to visit the hospital. You want to visit the hospital you want to visit the hospital you want to visit the hospital you want to visit the hospital you want to visit the hospital you want to visit the hospital.
And more importantly, you want to break the rusted lock on the trapdoor in the corner of the basement, and use that ladder to climb down into the darkness, down, down, down, down down down down down…
- ATLANTIC AVENUE SUBWAY TUNNEL
They don’t let people down here. Not anymore.
But that won’t stop you, will it?
Here, at last, is the most hidden place in all of New York City. The most secret place. And it will itch at you, won’t it, that you’ll never get to see it, really see it, with your own two eyes. Curiosity will overwhelm you. That is an unarguable fact, set in concrete. In a month’s time, a year’s, a decade’s, it does not matter to us. We’ve waited far, far longer between meals.
We wait, because we know that the urge to see the subway tunnel that runs beneath Atlantic Avenue will become greater than even the urge to preserve your own life.
You will descend into the depths and into madness. You will cut padlocks and trample fences and wade through sewage as New York groans over your head, searching for us at the bottom of the world.
And you will find us.
We are here. We have always been here.
And we are so very hungry.
Summer shakes its death rattle; breathes one final humid breath. Around the towering straw man the village children dance. The girls wear red, the boys blue. Red signifies their ripening into women.
“Come hither, child.” Mistress Jouncy places a gnarled hand upon each sun blonded head. “This be your husband, this be your wife. Pair bonded.”
No one leaves the village. If they do, it’s whispered, the monsters beyond devour them.
Only one girl remains; thin, sickly.
Mercy, her mother named her, in desperation.
The straw man scoops up the offering, mouth ripping open, gaping.
Insects pour onto Mercy’s flesh.
Alyson lives in West Yorkshire with her husband, teen son and 4 rescue animals. She has been a teacher, a carer, a road safety instructor and a lifetime film buff. Currently she teaches creative writing workshops and writes dark fiction, both short (flash) and long. Her short stories have appeared in print in the anthologies, Women in Horror Annual 2, Stories from Stone, DeadCades:The Infernal Decimation, Coffin Bell Journal 1 and Crackers. Her debut flash fiction collection, Badlands, was published in January 2018 by indie publisher, Chapel Town Books and her own Trio of Terror – Supernatural Tales (all set in Yorkshire) came out in December 2018. Her flash fiction has appeared in several charity anthologies and can be heard on several podcasts. Her fiction has won, or been shortlisted in several competitions.
Her latest horror story is out as an ebook from Demain publishing, on amazon, Night of the Rider.
Her blog is at www.alysonfayewordpress.wordpress.com.
Her amazon author is at https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B01NBYSLRT and she’s on twitter as @AlysonFaye2.
Bucket and Spade
“Got your bucket and spade, honey?”
“Yes, Daddy. Got yours?”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
They soon found themselves a secluded corner of the beach. One woman sunbathing nearby.
“Can I dig?” asked Laura.
“Go ahead, sweetheart. I’ll have a swim first, join you in a bit.”
Laura dug as the sunbather looked on.
“Wow, that’s a big hole for a little girl.”
“It’s for Daddy. Test it for me? Please?”
The woman laughed as she covered her. Stopping only when the grains clogged her mouth, covered her completely.
“That’s right, honey,” said her father. “Pat it down good. Now, ice cream?”
Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative fiction, finding success in a variety of magazines and anthologies, the latest being Asylum of Shadows as part of Demain Publishing’s Short Sharp Shocks! series and The Way of the Mother in Nosetouch Press, The Fiends in the Furrows anthology. Her own collection of short stories has been published in The Reckoning and her dark verse has been gathered in Dark is my Playground. She is co-editor and contributor to The Infernal Clock, a fledgling press which has produced three anthologies to-date. She is also co-editor of Trembling With Fear, HorrorTree.com’s online magazine.
She is also an affiliate member of the HWA.
She can be found at https://stephanieellis.org and on twitter at @el_stevie.