Trembling With Fear – End Of Summer 2021 Edition
The sun of Summer of 2021 has nearly set. This year seems to be going by at warp speed. Perhaps it’s because that for a few months in a post-COVID vaccine world, we had a bit of normalcy and strove to make each moment of being a few steps out of lockdown count. Unfortunately, as we travel into the Autumn, we are on the cusp of falling back into another quarantine period with a rise in COVID variants giving the vaccines a run for their money.
Mother Nature also wanted to throw her hat into the ring to celebrate the seasonal change. A few days before Labor Day, Hurricane Ida screamed like a banshee against the mid-Atlantic US shores. In Philadelphia, we were hit quite hard and for a few days, the city morphed into Venice as the Vine Street Expressway flooded. The last breath of summer enticed some… brave… people to do backflips off overpasses into the “Vine Street Canal” or float on innertubes along this hurricane-made lazy river. Everyone who dipped a toe in these waters seemed oblivious to the fact that there could be a flooded vehicle or a sharp current or perhaps an escaped alligator hiding beneath the murky surface. As the media gave these people their thirty seconds of fame, the first thought that came to my mind for once wasn’t “Do they have their COVID vaccine?”, but “Are they up to date on their tetanus and hepatitis shots?” because after all, they are swimming the Schuylkill River waters in the middle of Philadelphia downstream from water treatment plants.
And thus, we close the chapter on the Summer of 2021.
Meanwhile at The Horror Tree, as we mourn the departing sunshine of summer, we can’t help look forward to the most wonderful time of the year: Halloween. Yet, before we can dive into the spooky décor and candy at our local shops, we must properly bid adieu to the Summer of 2021 in true The Horror Tree style with a tribute of Summer Specials.
This year, we have tales that will take you back to the pre-COVID summers where it isn’t the masks or social distancing that we need to fear, but demons and serial killers. This year’s collection is the stuff of nightmares, which will leave you chilled to the bone during these final hot summer nights. The Summer Specials 2021 authors have pulled out all the stops to bring you gristly and macabre tales that will have you looking forward to the haunts of Halloween.
Co-Editor of Trembling with Fear – Specials
The summer has come to another close which means it’s time for Halloween, Pumpins, Apple Picking, Costumes, Spooky Nights, Flannel, and for many of you… Pumpkin Spice.
Yes, let’s face it, all so many of you want is a return to that Pumpkin Spice addiction. 😉
As always, we’ve got a great lineup of tales to share with you this year and I hope they have you remembering the summer heat fondly.
Ghost Town by Kelly Piner
While Don loaded the couple’s luggage into the rented SUV, Mattie lowered the window and inhaled the pungent, salt air. “Florida. Soon, this will be home. This is what we’ve waited for our entire married life.”
“You got that right.” Don headed south for the thirty-mile drive to their rented condo; one full week of dining, swimming, and searching for the perfect retirement home. Heaven.
“Hungry?” he asked, already knowing the answer. They’d stop for lunch at Irelands, where they’d enjoy savory homemade shepherd’s pie, just as they had every year for the past ten years. Afterwards, they’d indulge in Irish whiskey, not the most expensive, but smooth Bushmills, and deep-dish apple pie.
Mattie reached over and caressed Don’s arm. “Soon, Hon, we can dine here every week if we’d like.”
“You mean every day if we’d like.”
They crossed the large high-rise bridge and cruised up to the historic haunt. Two stories tall, the old building had a second-story wraparound porch with weathered wooden boards, which gave it the feel of an old saloon.
But the parking lot was empty and foot-high weeds had overtaken the property, obscuring the ground floor windows. Thick streams of ivy clung to the clapboards, like bony fingers.
Disappointment washed over Mattie. “They can’t be closed?” She had mentally savored the meal for the past couple hours and nearly choked on her own words.
Don killed the engine and climbed from the vehicle without speaking. Mattie adjusted her floppy hat and followed behind him.
In bold red letters, a sign posted to the front door read, Keep Out. Danger. “What on earth?” Don cupped his hands up to the window and peeked inside.
“What do you see?” Mattie asked.
“The place has been stripped clean. Just a big, barren room.”
“Maybe they relocated?” A hint of hope crept into her voice.
“I don’t think so.” Don backed away from the deserted building, then kicked a rock and returned to the vehicle.
Mattie broke the silence first. “Where do you want to have lunch now?”
Don shrugged. “I don’t know. I had my heart set on shepherd’s pie.”
Ten minutes later, Mattie pointed to a strip mall, and Don pulled into the lot and up to The Striped Bass, a seafood eatery where they’d dined once before. Most of the surrounding shops had been boarded up.
Inside the restaurant, the hardwood floors of previous times had been replaced by slabs of concrete, warehouse-style, and yellow tape roped off the main dining room. Only a handful of wobbly tables with rickety chairs remained for customers. An unidentified stench permeated the air.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Mattie looked pointedly at the bare table and then glanced at Don.
“Where else? It looks like the whole area has taken a steep downward turn.”
Mattie stalled while he slid into a chair and then reluctantly joined him. She glanced half-heartedly at the menu as an elderly man shuffled up to the table and pulled a pen from behind his ear.
“Did you folks decide?”
Mattie locked eyes with the waiter. “What’s going on? Do you know why Ireland’s closed?”
The waiter pursed his lips. “It’s been happening all over since the disease set in.”
“It’s all through the water. Haven’t you heard?”
“We just flew in from out of state.” Don laid down his menu and glanced at Mattie. “We didn’t know. We haven’t been here for almost a year. Is it red tide?”
The waiter didn’t seem to hear Don’s question, and Mattie now felt obligated to order. It would feel rude to get up and leave after they had already settled in. She relinquished her menu to the waiter and said, “Just clam chowder for me.”
Don nodded and ordered the same. He said nothing until the waiter disappeared into the kitchen, and then he said to Mattie, “Probably red tide. It kills off the ocean life and hurts tourism.”
“But what does this mean for us, you know, moving here and buying a home?”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions until we have more information.” He didn’t seem willing to say much more.
When the soup arrived, Mattie lifted the spoon to her lips and took a small sip, then placed the spoon back into the bowl. “Tastes like it came right out of a can.”
“And it’s lukewarm at that.”
They sat in silence and stirred around the chowder, spoons clanking against the ceramic bowls, until Don stood and said, “Let’s go.” He threw a couple of bills on the table, and they walked out into the empty parking lot.
Don ran his gaze over the landscape, attempting to pinpoint what had changed since their last trip to the coast.
Mattie touched his arm. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. Definitely something. Let’s go to the condo and unpack.”
During the ten-mile stretch to their rental unit, they drove past abandoned restaurants and boarded up strip malls. Gone were the upscale boutiques and stately antique shops. Neither spoke when Don wheeled up to Sea Crest Condominiums, where only a handful of cars remained in the lot. Mattie had been yearning to swim in the ocean and go for her early morning walks along the promenade, but when Don pulled in next to a Ford station wagon, its windows had been smashed out. The dumpsters in the lot were overflowing, and the sliding patio door of the condo next to theirs had been boarded shut. Several men stood near the dumpster speaking an unfamiliar language. “My God,” Mattie said. “What’s happened here?”
“Let’s leave the luggage for a bit,” Don said, “and go take a look first.” He took Mattie’s hand as they rounded the corner and entered into the corridor, where multiple Boiling Alert warnings had been posted. When he unlocked the condo door and opened it for Mattie, the putrid odor of raw sewage hit them.
Mattie held her hand over her mouth. “What’s that smell?”
“The sewage system’s probably backed up. Maybe if we air it out.” Don slid open the patio door, but that only attracted flies from the nearby dumpster.
Mattie turned on the kitchen faucet and shouted, “Oh my God!”
Thick, black sludge dripped from the spigot, a small trickle at first, and then the faucet spat and sputtered and spewed out a slow stream of sewer debris.
Don rushed to Mattie’s side and adjusted his glasses. “What the hell?”
Small worms wiggled on the bottom of the kitchen sink, and a pinkish fluid oozed from them.
Mattie backed away and gasped. “Is this part of the disease?”
“Damned if I know,” Don said. “Leave it running to flush out the line.” He placed a colander under the faucet to collect the sludge.
But after the spigot ran full blast for another minute, more worms and bleeding insects unlike anything the couple had ever seen overflowed from the colander and climbed around in the sink. Don shut off the faucet and silently stared down.
Mattie slid into a nearby chair. “What will we do if the whole town is ruined? Our house just sold back home.”
Don frowned. “I’ll call the health department to get a better handle on the problem.” He located the number on his smart phone, but when they didn’t answer, he slipped his phone back into his pocket. “Let’s get out of here and walk. It’ll help me think.”
They crossed the road to the driftwood fence that partially obscured the ocean. Don opened the gate and they walked down ten steps to the sand.
Mattie shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and ran her gaze over the beach. “Where is everyone? It’s usually so crowded this time of day.”
Don only tightened his grip on her hand and led her through the drifts and out to the edge of the water.
“What’s that?” Mattie pointed.
Washed up along the shoreline, dozens of fish flopped from side to side, as if trying to escape from a net. Hundreds more lay dead, rotting in the blazing afternoon sun. Another fifty feet down, scores of dead starfish had been shoveled into a pile.
“This can’t be red tide. More likely a chemical spill that’s being covered up,” Don said.
Mattie leaned against him, images of their beachfront retirement evaporating right before her eyes. A knot gripped her chest when she noticed a large figure washed up on the beach. “Look,” she said.
As they drew nearer, a sea creature lay motionless on the wet sand, all four limbs spread out around it. They took slow, cautious steps toward it.
“Don, what is it?”
Don leaned over the creature and drew his hand up to his mouth. “Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. Looks almost human. Whatever it is, it’s dead.”
Mattie gasped. “No, it moved,”
The size of a full-grown man, the creature had a large fin that rose from the top of its head, and thick scales covered its body. When it opened its large amphibian eyes, it stared right at Mattie and moaned.
“He’s hurt or sick. What’ll we do?”
When Don leaned closer, the creature swiped one limb toward him and caught him with a razor sharp claw covered in black debris.
Don fell backward, off balance.
“Oh God! Be careful.” Mattie helped Don to his feet and then screamed as blood seeped through his t-shirt. “Come on, we need help.” They stumbled towards the security gate.
Don pulled his cell from his jeans and dialed 911, but his phone flashed No Service, and he winced in pain. “This makes no sense at all.” A thick rivulet of blood ran down his chest.
“We need to get you cleaned up before infection sets in.” Mattie tried to contain the panic rising within her chest.
“But there’s no water. Better to drive me to the hospital.”
They crossed the road into the parking lot and stopped to gape at their SUV. In the short time since they had left it, it had been stripped of its tires and now rested on large blocks. The windows lay in shards on the pavement, all smashed out. The group of men congregating near the dumpsters had all disbanded.
“Bloody hell!” Don said.
Mattie’s skin went cold in the hot sun. “What’ll we do with no car and no phone service?”
Don pushed one hand against the wound on his chest and looked at his watch on the other wrist. “The realtor’s supposed to meet us between three and four. Maybe she can tell us what’s going on. But honestly, I think we should get out of here.”
As if on cue, a white Mercedes SUV pulled into the parking lot, and a woman in her mid-forties hopped out. Dressed casually in a white sundress and large sunglasses, her blonde hair whipped around in the breeze. She walked toward the couple and said, “Don? Mattie? Kay Kline.”
“Thank God you’re here,” Mattie said, her voice wavering with relief. “Don’s hurt. He needs help.”
The realtor pressed her hand to her heart. “What on earth happened to you?” She motioned to Don’s chest.
“You wouldn’t believe it if we told you. Craziest thing I ever saw. Some kind of sea creature has washed up on the shore. It swiped me with its claws.”
“Oh my God! A sea creature?” Kay lifted her glasses to take a look at Don’s wound.
“Plus, the water is all worms and sludge, and we have no cell service,” Mattie added.
“I don’t mean to alarm you, but with the water situation and a shortage of supplies, most of the ERs have closed. Hop in and we’ll stop by my office. I have a first aid kit for starts.”
“No ER?” Mattie blanched. “What if someone has a heart attack or car wreck?”
“They’re transporting people over fifty miles away,” Mattie said.
Hesitantly, Don eased into the front seat of the Mercedes, and Mattie climbed into the back. Left with no vehicle or cell service, what choice did they have?
Kay handed Don a beach towel from the back of her seat, and he pressed it against his chest. “I’ll have you fixed up in no time,” she said, the cheeriness of her voice in sharp contrast to the day’s events.
Mattie leaned forward. “What happened to the water? At first Don thought of red tide, but now he’s not so sure.”
“You’ve got that right,” he muttered.
“Something similar to red tide, only worse,” Kay explained. “As you’ve seen, it’s killed sea life and contaminated the water supply. I don’t fully understand it myself, but the authorities have assured us it’s only temporary. Not to worry. You’ll be settled in your dream home before the year is out.”
Dream home? At the moment, Mattie only wanted to flee this god-forsaken town, but she kept the thought to herself.
A couple miles down the street, the realtor wheeled into a lot and parked next to a large sign that read, Kline Realty. Inside the spacious office, tastefully decorated in rattan, Kay disappeared into a back room and emerged with a first aid kit. She cleaned Don’s wound with bottled water and swabbed it with peroxide, and then she placed a large gauze bandage over it. “That should hold until you can get to an ER, but frankly, I wouldn’t hold out much hope of that today. Ambulance service is limited on weekends and with no car….” She shook her head.
Mattie’s mind raced with a thousand half-formed questions, but paralyzed with dread, she couldn’t formulate a single one. She eased herself into an armchair.
“Let’s take your mind off your troubles,” Kay said. “Just one block down is the home of your dreams.”
Don and Mattie exchanged looks, and when Mattie spoke, her voice trembled. “I don’t know, Kay. With everything that’s happened, maybe Don and I should think this over.”
“I completely understand. Your trip got off to a rough start, but at least look at the home. No pressure. I guarantee it won’t be on the market for long.”
Don’s voice took on an edge. “I’m not buying anything until I get some answers. This isn’t what we bargained for.”
“I agree,” Kay said. “You don’t have to commit. But since you’re already here, and it’s so close, it won’t hurt to have a look.”
“Don? Like Kay said, we don’t have to commit, but I’m curious to see what’s available, just in case.”
He shrugged and extended an acquiescent hand to help Mattie from the armchair, and they followed Kay out of her office, past an aqua-colored condo complex and a terracotta Spanish-style home with a large pool out front.
When Kay motioned to a yellow bungalow with a sign out front that read, Heavenly Seaside Bungalow, Mattie couldn’t help but smile. “Oh, Don,” she said, and grasped his arm. It was cuter and homier than she had dared imagine.
Kay marched up the front door and knocked. “Renters are here this week, but they’ll leave so I can show you the home.”
Mattie locked eyes with Don, somehow praying the bungalow could be the forever home they had imagined before the diseased water and bizarre sea creatures.
When no one answered, Kay used her key to unlock the front door. Inside the entry, a large picture window looked out onto the beach. Colorful emerald green tiles graced the living room floor and extended into the fully renovated open-concept kitchen.
But voices came from the back.
“There they are.” Kay said, sounding pleased. She removed her sunglasses. “Come with me and meet the Waters. They’re darling.” As they neared the patio, she turned back to Mattie and Don.
Large hooded lids covered Kay’s tiny eye-slits. She waved at the couple out back and said to Mattie, “Meet your new zoo keepers.”
Mattie’s knees buckled, and she gripped Don’s arm. Two large sea creatures, just like the one that had washed up on shore, stood in the tiny back yard digging a hole. The larger one looked up and growled, exposing dozens of razor sharp teeth.
Don tugged on Mattie’s arm, but before they could escape, the creatures overpowered them and blocked their exit. As Don grabbed a hammer from the nearby kitchen counter, Kay yelled, “Look out!”
The massive creature turned and clubbed Don on the head with the shovel, and Don collapsed, crumbling unconscious to the floor.
Mattie watched, helpless, as the sea monster secured Don’s hands. When the second creature tied her arms behind her back with heavy rope, the fibers cut into her wrists until a ring of blood broke through her flesh. Mattie winced in pain and tears streamed down her face.
Nearby, Kay looked on, her eyes wild, like a ghoulish spectator gazing at an auto accident.
The sea animals emitted a fetid smell of rotting seaweed. One of them hauled Don by the legs down a set of stairs and into a dark, dank cellar, Don’s torso and head banging against each step. The smaller creature followed closely behind, dragging Mattie by her hair, while Mattie’s bare feet and knees smashed against the stairs.
Kay held up a lantern, illuminating a cage in the back of room that housed two senior couples. Large, unidentified insects scurried up the wall, and dark fluid ran from a slop bucket that leaned against the cell. Inside the cage, an elderly woman in her late seventies moaned, her nude body covered in sludge and blood. In the muted light of the lantern, the left side of the woman’s face appeared to be missing.
Kay unlocked the cell, and the sea creatures tossed the couple inside. Don fell on the floor like a discarded ragdoll, and Mattie hit the concrete with a thud. Beside her, a woman with fresh bruises on her face mumbled incoherently. Her Bermuda shorts and top reeked of human waste, and next to her, an elderly man wore only a pair of ripped underwear. Rope burns and cuts marred his shriveled body, and his front teeth were missing, allowing thick globs of drool to run down his chin.
“Why are you doing this?” Mattie whimpered.
Kay blinked her hooded eyelids twice. “You humans are never satisfied. You take and take and never give back. With callous disregard, you’ve nearly destroyed the oceans with your debris and have killed off countless sea creatures. You drink and sunbathe and never think of anyone but yourselves. It’s high time we take back the planet. You wanted a forever home by the sea. Now you have one. We creatures have to survive too.”
Kelly Piner is a practicing Clinical Psychologist, specializing in the treatment of addictions. Her short story “Lazy River” was accepted for publication in Weirdbook’s upcoming zombie issue. “Halloween Pie” recently won the Halloween contest sponsored by Spookbrain, and her dark Christmas story “O Christmas Tree” was just selected for the Dark Lane Christmas Anthology. Her short story “Baggage Claim” was published on Page 47 at be-a-better-writer.com. Drunken Pen Writing featured her short story “Halloween Retreat” in its October 2019 issue. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet and Dark Dossier. She just completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.
Over the Edge by James Rumpel
“The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead.”
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot
The sightseers, probably a mother and her children, were climbing the narrow trail to Eagle Point, one of Lake Superior’s most scenic overlooks. The oldest child, an early teen, raced ahead of the others. Wes figured the boy was about his age.
Wes had been standing here, on the edge of this cliff, since the accident. His family had come here on vacation in 2007 but he had no idea how long ago that had been. It was impossible to keep track of time when every day and night was spent standing in solitude. A while ago, one of the tourists had worn a 2017 Super Bowl sweater. He shook his head, thinking of everything he had missed. He wondered how many Super Bowls his favorite team, the Minnesota Vikings, had won.
The boy coming toward him was wearing a green pullover sweatshirt. Wes heard the boy’s mother yelling for him to wait. Part of Wes’s curse was that he could see and hear the living, but he could not interact with them in any way. Years of failed attempts to get the attention of the people who visited the overlook each summer had taught him well.
Wes could not move from his position a few feet from the edge of the cliff from which he had fallen so many years earlier. He had watched his family’s panic and, after that, their sorrow. Worse still was looking on as the rescue crew retrieved his body from the rocks below. Now, he longed for human interaction, any sort of company.
Wes didn’t know why he was stuck at the point from which he fell. Maybe there was some curse that forced the dead to remain forever trapped where they perished. Maybe that was what happened to everyone who died. Though he didn’t know the answers to these questions, he did know that he wanted his loneliness to end.
The first few years had been bearable. Listening to families or groups of friends talking and laughing was enough to let Wes pass the time even if he could not be a part of the conversations. As time went on, however, the loneliness became excruciating. It was worst in the winter when nearly no one braved the weather to visit the scenic outlook, but even sunny summer days with hundreds of visitors brought nothing but emptiness and envy to Wes.
“Wait up, Kenny,” called the woman, “I have to tie Susan’s shoe.”
The young man didn’t listen. He raced to the five-foot-tall chain-link fence that had been installed to protect visitors from falling, a fence that had been erected too late for Wes.
Wes knew that if he could talk to someone, he could hold on to his sanity. He needed someone who could fill him in on the details he had missed during his time on this rock. He accepted the fact that he was a ghost. It only made sense that another ghost would be able to hear him, talk to him. After all, he could hear the mournful wails of the Frenchman who cried out every night.
Kenny leaned against the fence, took out his cell phone, and began to take pictures. This was the opportunity Wes had been waiting for. He spent countless days and nights trying to touch that fence, to interact with something solid. At first, his hands would pass through the wire just like they passed through everything else, but he kept trying. Eventually, he found that, with great effort, he could feel and even move the wires a tiny bit.
Wes had no intention of shaking the fence this day. Focusing on the boy’s phone, Wes swung his arm as hard as he could. He smiled for the first time in years when he felt his hand knock the phone from the boy’s grasp. It clattered to the ground on Wes’s side of the fence.
“Damn,” shouted the boy. “Mom, I dropped my phone over the fence.”
The boy’s mother was still trying to coax the younger kids up the steep stone stairway. “Did it fall off the edge?” she asked.
“No, I’ll climb over and get it.”
“No, you won’t, Kenny” she called. “Wait for me, I’ll help you.”
Kenny looked back toward his mother and the other kids. They were moving at a snail’s pace. Shaking his head, he began scaling the wire barrier.
For the briefest of moments, Wes’ remaining humanity pushed itself to the surface. It would be wrong to push the boy off the cliff. It would be murder. Was he willing to pay that price for companionship? Just then, a mournful wail rose from below, providing a reminder of what was in store for Wes if he didn’t find someone to talk to soon.
The first time Wes had heard the Frenchman was the day he had fallen. As near as he could figure, the Frenchman was trapped like him. Somewhere below and a short distance up the shoreline was another ghost. Wes had no idea when the Frenchman had died, but it must have been a long time ago. For hours each evening, his ghost would cry out. At first, Wes had tried to answer the stranger’s calls, but the Frenchman would only moan louder. All Wes heard from the poor soul were painful screams, “Aidez moi, aidez moi.”
But Kenny couldn’t hear the Frenchman. He dropped down from the fence and bent over to pick up his phone. Wes concentrated on pushing the boy over the edge onto the rocks below. Once dead, Wes hoped that Kenny would appear beside him as a companion in the afterlife.
It was difficult to muster the concentration needed to push the boy. It wasn’t right to murder the kid, but Wes couldn’t go on alone. This was something he had to do.
The Frenchman’s screaming didn’t help his concentration. Wes extended his arms the same way he did when he rattled the fence. He felt the boy’s sweatshirt against his hands and prepared to push.
Wes hesitated as his sense of right and wrong battled against his desire for companionship. His humanity won out. Wes pulled his hand away from the boy and watched the young man pick the phone off the ground. Another wave of loneliness and the desire to shove Kenny came over Wes, but it was too late. The boy’s mother, three other children in tow, reached the top of the rock staircase.
“What are you doing, Kenny?” shouted his mother as she ran to him, leaving the younger siblings behind. “I told you to wait till I got here!”
“It’s okay, Mom. See, I got it. I was safe the entire time.”
His mother grabbed his arm. “We’ll talk about this later,” she said. “Let me help you climb back to this side.”
“I’m sorry,” said the boy.
“I said we’d talk about it later.”
Wes watched as the boy pulled himself over the fence. He didn’t know whether to smile or cry. At least he knew that somewhere inside he was still human. He was grateful for that. At the same time, he wondered how much longer it would last.
When he watched the family descend the rock staircase, heading back to their car and their lives, he shook with sadness. He would never get to return to his life.
A response came from off in the distance, “Aidez moi.”
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has enjoyed spending some of his additional free time trying to put some of the weird ideas circling his brain into words.
Don’t Let the Sleeping Bag Bugs Bite by Harold Hoss
Angus waited until Kimberly, explaining how caterpillars feasted on leaves by disguising themselves to look like leaves, looked away. Then he cupped his hand over his mouth and nose and exhaled.
The results were inconclusive. His breath didn’t smell good, but it didn’t smell bad either. Angus frowned. He might only be a first-year camp counselor, but everyone knew what the counselors did after the campers went to bed: Sex, and lots of it. Determined not to look like a newbie, Angus had asked his older brother Frank for advice. The checking your breath technique was one of many tricks Frank taught him and it hadn’t worked. Now he wondered which of the other tricks wouldn’t work. Maybe Frank didn’t know as much about women as he claimed.
Kimberly turned back around, holding a leaf. On the leaf sat a caterpillar, its body quivering and so full it looked ready to burst. Then it moved, bending at the middle and bringing its rear up, then creeping forward with its front half.
“Sorry, I sound like a weirdo talking about this bug stuff,” Kimberly said, likely mistaking Angus’s frown for boredom. Even with only the light of the moon and their flashlights, he could see her blushing.
“No, it’s interesting, really,” Angus said.
Kimberly, a third-year counselor with curly brown hair and long, tan legs, could have said anything and made it interesting for Angus. The uniform for the counselors comprised two options: a tank top or a t-shirt, and all the girls chose tank tops. Angus kept trying not to stare at Kimberly’s breasts, to not even look anywhere beneath her shoulders, only to catch himself staring later.
“You’re sweet.” Kimberly smiled. “It’s just…nature’s so creative. And with humans displacing more animals, nature is just getting more creative.”
An alarm bell rang in Angus’s head. Girls described their little brothers and campers as sweet, not boys they wanted to kiss, and certainly not boys they wanted to have sex with. Angus mentally flipped through the pages of tricks from his brother, looking for a way to save the situation. There had to be a line, or a joke, or something he could say to sweep Kimberly off her feet.
“Thanks for showing me,” he said at last, and now he blushed. Could he sound any more like a virgin?
“We should get back. You don’t want to miss the big sleep out under the stars.” Bending over, retrieved their walking sticks from where they leaned against a tree. Each counselor had been given the choice between a free frisbee and a free walking stick, each labeled with the camp logo. “It’s a tradition.”
Taking his walking stick, a stone formed in his stomach. There wouldn’t be any kissing out under the moon tonight, and he dreaded the thought of sleeping out under the stars, with only a sleeping bag and no tent. Sleeping in a cabin with minimal air condition all summer would be bad enough.
“It’s a strange tradition, right?” Angus said, following Kimberly as she walked through the trees and down a barely visible dirt path. Around them the woods came to life with the chirping of crickets, broken occasionally by the hoot of an owl or the high-pitched trill of some other nocturnal bird. The air smelled crisp and clean, but drawing closer to the field of sleeping bags, the smell of wet grass filled Angus’s nostrils, along with something else. The something else reminded Angus of the ‘character building’ trips his dad took him on to the hardware store, the coppery smell of metal shavings.
“I love it,” Kimberly said. “We spend all summer crammed in cabins with campers. But tonight it’s just us, out here under the stars, at one with nature.”
Kimberly spread her arms out to either side, fingers splayed, and spun around once. Angus wondered what made him think he ever had a shot with a girl like her. The hope that had once filled Angus was replaced with mere longing.
“But what about animals? Is it safe?”
Kimberly smiled. “There are no bears here, Angus.”
“But what about displacement? Displaced bears? And what about all those bugs you showed me?”
“If you’re worried about that there’s bug spray in the SC.” Kimberly pointed to a cabin just past the field.
‘SC’ meant supply cabin, and it held everything the counselors would need to keep the campers entertained all summer. Whether that be sports equipment or band aids. Seeing the cabin, Angus nodded his thanks, then turned to look back at the field.
For the rest of the summer, the field would serve as ‘Sports Field 1B’, where campers would play everything from organized sports like football to more camp specific ones like capture the flag. Tonight, in the moonlight, it looked like a sea of grass, dotted with a hundred sleeping bags like slick black rafts. While many of the sleeping bags lay flat and empty, more than one writhed about, arms and legs pressing against the sides. Angus heard a muffled moan and turned to stare at the sleeping bag writhing closest to him, wondering who the lucky guy was inside. He thought he might find out, as he saw a hand press against the bag’s black shell, pushing out so far the nylon of the sleeping bag turned gray, then white, and almost broke before the hand sank back down.
“I wonder who put the sleeping bags out. Usually you have to grab your own.” Kimberly scanned the sleeping bags. “I guess everyone went to bed.”
“To bed, but not to sleep.” Angus pointed at one of the writhing bags and Kimberly laughed. The laughter was contagious, and Angus joined in.
Hadn’t this been one of Frank’s tricks? To make girls laugh? Angus felt a trickle of hope. He might not be getting lucky tonight, but he had the entire summer. Plenty of time.
“You’re funny.” Kimberly wiped her eyes and pointed at a nearby sleeping bag. “I’m going to bed. To sleep.”
“Wait, Kimberly,” Angus said, and she stopped, turning to look at him. “Sleep tight.”
“Sleep tight,” Kimberly said. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
“We’re not sleeping in beds tonight,” Angus shot back, eager to prolong the conversation.
“Don’t let the sleeping bag bugs bite then.” Kimberly winked, before turning and walking to an empty sleeping bag.
Angus smiled. He considered following her, but decided to end the night there on the perfect note. Turning towards the SC, he picked his way between the sleeping bags, tapping the ground lightly with his walking stick as he went. Coming up on one of the writhing bags, he started to veer around it, but then stopped. Watching the bodies writhe about beneath the sleeping bag, stretching it out and then pressing back in, he took a shaky breath. In cartoons, moral tug-of-wars were always shown as a devil and angel sitting on each shoulder, but for Angus it was always a twisting in his gut combined with a tingling in his groin. He knew he shouldn’t, but he crept forward softly, careful not to make a sound.
The black, outer layer of the sleeping bag shimmered in the moonlight, almost like fish scales or the shell of a cockroach, until a writhing figure within pressed against the sides, stretching the material and turning it a pale, milky white in the process. There was something wrong about the scene before him, and it took him a moment to realize it was more than just his feelings of guilt over being a peeping tom. The coppery metallic smell grew stronger, only now it didn’t remind him of the hardware store, but of the time he broke his nose, his nostrils filling with blood. The memory of the metallic taste filled his mouth and he wished he had something to drink. Again, the writhing figure in the sleeping bag pressed against the side, but weakly this time, pushing only hard enough to turn the material a dull gray before sinking back into the recesses of the sleeping bag.
Sensing movement out of the corner of his eye, Angus whipped his head around, clutching his walking stick to his chest. Three bags, sleek and black in the night, sat perfectly still behind him, barring his path back through the field. As he watched, the corner of one slowly unfolded, opening like the pedals of a flower, to reveal a soft, milky white material underneath. A sweet, citrusy smell filled his nostrils and all at once, aches of pain and exhaustion hit his muscles and bones. He had been like a car running on fumes, kept alive by the adrenaline of being close to Kimberly, only that well was now dry. He wanted to lay down. Needed to lay down. To slip down between the folds of the bag, burrowing down deep for warmth.
Angus released his grip on the walking stick and took a shaky step forward, letting it fall like a tree before him. The stick landed in the pool of milky white, rolling harmlessly to the ground, but the world exploded. A ripple of bright red splashed out from around where the stick fell and the bag snapped shut. Angus blinked then squinted in pain, his brain like a wrung out sponge, as a sound like the chirping of cicadas filled the air. All around him, the bags, the bugs, whatever they were, shook and bounced, the sound growing in intensity.
Angus snatched the stick up from the ground and held aloft. He saw one of the other bugs slide towards him, mouth unfolding, and brought the staff down with a crack. His first blow landed harmlessly along the outer shell, but the second one caught the creature in the milky white mouth and it squeaked in pain. When something black moved behind him, Angus spun around, his stick clanging against the creature’s outer shell but sending it scurrying back. He kept swinging, his strikes clanging like a bell amidst the roar of chirps, trying to keep the space around him clear.
Angus tried to ignore the endless, writhing sea around him. Some, like the caterpillars from before, bulged around the middle, so full they looked ready to burst, but most were still lean and hungry, and as his arms grew heavy the circle around him grew smaller and smaller. Until, at last, Angus heard his walking stick splinter, then break down the middle.
Sinking to his knees in despair, Angus thought of Kimberly’s words from earlier, about how creative nature could be. Creative, but maybe not patient, Angus thought, as the chirping of the creatures rose to a deafening roar.
I am a demon who prefers a quiet life. Consequently, the boisterous summer tourism in my seaside town used to irritate me. To combat this nuisance, I opened a shop and stocked it with deviously doctored items.
The sun cream contained toxins that liquefied the users’ skin.
The inflatable dinghies sank without warning. No one survived.
The deckchairs snapped shut on the sitters and ingested them.
Even so, the visitors kept coming. Nothing I did could deter their touristic desire for sun and sand.
Eventually, I became bored. I sold the shop and took a round-the-world cruise with the proceeds.
“The lines are showing,” said his wife, looking at the tell-tale marks running across her mother’s shoulders.
“Could stretch the break a couple more days, go topless,” slurred his mother-in-law.
Derek cringed at the thought. He couldn’t stand Beryl in her dressed state, never mind sans clothing, sagging and shrivelled.
The women dozed in the sun. Derek stared at the nearby tramlines. Tan lines, tramlines? Not a lot of difference. Taking care not to wake his wife, he pulled a comatose Beryl onto the track. Further down the deserted prom he spotted the tram. Soon all the lines would disappear.
New Balls, Please!
No way that was out. Lily served again.
She blinked the sweat from her eyes, wiped her hand on her skirt. Stalked over to grab a towel to wipe the racquet handle. Its weight felt heavy in her hand even though it was a newer model. Her arms ached from exertion.
Lily glared at Humphrey. He thought she didn’t know about his bit on the side. The knife inside her bag winked at her.
It was late and no one else was around. Sometimes, you just had to do it yourself.
It was time for new balls.
Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative prose and poetry and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her latest work includes the novella, Bottled, published by Silver Shamrock, who will also be publishing her novel, The Five Turns of the Wheel in October. She has recently been published in Flame Tree Press’ A Dying Planet anthology with “Milking Time” and the NHS charity anthology, Diabolica Britannica. She is also included in Silver Shamrock’s upcoming Midnight in the Pentagram anthology with “Family Reunion”.
Steph can be found at https://stephanieellis.org and on twitter at @el_stevie.
Sammy’s Summer Sandy Sunday Beach Blanket Party A-Go-Go
Butties on the beach are a bitch, and it’s not just the grit in his shitty Marmite sarnie.
It’s the same every Summer. Sammy’s family hit the seaside. Within minutes they’re dredging up his childhood fear: mis-hearing SANDWICH as SANDWITCH.
“Blubbering baby!” guffaws Grandpa.
Sammy’s cheeks are burning before UV’s even get a look-in.
Later, as the clan splash in the surf, Sammy watches the old man doze. A frenzy of bucket and spade action and the codger’s covered from head to toe, carefully constructed castles concealing his nose.
Meanwhile, beneath the surface, the sandwitch twitches, sniffing out another sacrifice.
Steven Holding lives with his family in the United Kingdom. His stories have appeared both online and in print. Most recently his work has featured in the collections ‘TREMBLING WITH FEAR YEAR TWO’, ‘SPLASH OF INK’, and the anthologies ‘MONSTERS’, ‘BEYOND’,’LOVE’,’OCEANS’ and ‘DARK MOMENTS – YEAR ONE’ from Black Hare Press. He is currently working upon further short fiction and a novel. You can follow his work at www.stevenholding.co.uk
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Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative prose and poetry and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her longer work includes the folk horror novels, The Five Turns of the Wheel and Reborn, and the novellas, Bottled and Paused. Her novel, The Woodcutter, is due for release via Brigids Gate Press in 2023. Her dark poetry has been published in her collections Lilith Rising (co-authored with Shane Douglas Keene), Foundlings (co-authored with Cindy O’Quinn) and Metallurgy, as well as the HWA Poetry Showcase Volumes VI, VII, VIII, and IX and Black Spot Books Under Her Skin. She can be found supporting indie authors at HorrorTree.com via the weekly Indie Bookshelf Releases. She is an active member of the HWA and can be found at https://stephanieellis.org, on Twitter at @el_stevie, Instagram stephanieellis7963 and also somewhere on Facebook.