by E. E. King
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Kate and Michael had come to the beach for the entire summer. Three months stretched out before them endless as the tide that painted white ribbons of foam on the sand. A diving pelican crashed into the waves as if someone had dropped a small rock out of the sky.
They stood hand-in-hand breathing shallowly, motionless, made temporarily mute and still by the glory before them, but only for a moment. Then they kicked off their shoes and socks, leaving them behind like the discarded skins of cicadas clinging to the tall, golden grass that lined the beach. Never looking back, they raced toward the crashing sea, laughing hearts beating in time with the tide and with all of creation on this perfect first day of summer. It was a summer that would last forever. They knew it by the way the sand crept in between their toes like the rough, adoring tongue of a family dog.
Somewhere, in a distant world, the townies stocked empty shelves with shiny packaged goods, filled their freezers with bags of ice and waited. Their parents prepared the Summer House, unpacking their suitcases, putting food in cupboards, ordering propane, and doing all the boring, unimportant things grownups did.
It was a strange beach, full of odd mounding stones that formed a wavy line right where the high tide washed against the shore, darkening each grain of sand. The mounds had once been sand themselves, hardened into rock by the centuries.
That very first day when they ran breathlessly down to the sea, daring the waves to catch them, Kate thought she saw first one, then two, then three, then dozens and dozens of boys, each standing in front of a stone mound, flickering in the mist that had risen from the meeting between sea and shore. But it had only been a trick of light, an illusion of the rising shimmering heat, of salt and surf and too much sun. Because when she blinked and rubbed her eyes, the mist and boys were gone, vanished into foaming surf.
“Did you see…” began Kate turning to Michael, but he was playing tag with the tide, screeching with laughter as the chill waters nipped his toes.
“This coast has history,” Father had said. “It was home to an ancient people and you can still find artifacts on the shore and in the woods.”
“Arrowheads? asked Kate. She loved searching for treasures, carved stones, odd rocks delicate seashells, and almost any kind of feather. Whatever she could find, which in the city wasn’t much. Michael preferred books, magical lands that would not dirty his feet, scratch his thighs or make him itch, but only mark his imagination. He lived in a world apart from other boys, a place of gods and monsters, of dragons and enchantments. It made school difficult.
“There might be arrowheads, Father said, “Or small round stones that they used to place on the graves of their dead to make sure they didn’t rise from the earth. They feared ghosts and worshipped a wild god of sea and woods, a kind of Pan.”
“Pan?” asked Kate. “A frying pan?”
“No silly,” said Michael. “Pan was a god with goat legs and horns who played a bamboo flute. No one could resist his music.”
“It is said they stole children from other tribes, and buried them alive, under bridges and beneath crossroads as a sacrifice to their god. In exchange, he left them alone and kept their children safe.”
“Are kids buried under our street?” asked Kate.
“Perhaps we should go out tonight with a shovel and see… Ah hahahaha….” Father’s voice rose into a maniacal chuckle.
“Jonathan,” Mother said. “Don’t scare the children.
“I’m not scared,” said Michael, but he shivered despite the heat.
Now they forgot ghosts and history, arrowheads and dead bodies. They played chase with the tide letting the cold waters tug their toes, before running backwards screaming.
“Look,” said Michael, poking his big toe into the damp sand, so that the grains dried, making a lightened circle around each foot. “It’s as if each step I take turns the earth into diamonds.”
Kate poked her toe in, too. “We’re rich,” she cried. “I’m turning everything into diamonds!”
“It’s how they will know that we are the King and Queen,” Michael said. “All the people will follow the shining footsteps and crown us, Rulers of the Beach.”
They marked solemnly down the shore, tucking big toes into sand, so caught up watching the creation of diamonds they didn’t notice the boy standing in front of them until they saw ten naked toes wiggling at the edge of their circle of light.
The boy was four or five years older than Michael, his ragged cut-offs were frayed and faded. His bare chest had been tanned same deep bronzed color as the wet sandstone dunes. Ocean breezes tousled his sun-whiten hair. And his light brown eyes were tawny, almost golden, flecked with tiny grains of darkness, like bugs in amber.
“I’m Tom,” he said, holding out a salt-rough hand.
“I’m Kate and this is my brother Michael.”
“Come play,” Tom smiled. And in the way of children and young animals, that was the only introduction they needed. They raced down the shore looking for seashells and curious stones.
“Look,” Michael pointed. “That moved.”
Tom scooped it up. “It’s a hermit crab,” he said. “They don’t even make their own shells, they just look for empty ones and use them. When they get too big they have to find a new home.”
At night, their parents let them go to the beach.
“But just for an hour,” Mother said. “And don’t get wet.”
At the shore’s edge Tom waited. They wandered the strand, searching for small white sand dollars so fragile, a mean look could shatter them into a million pieces.
“Oh,” Kate pointed at one sand dollar as big a flattened tennis ball.
Tom scooped it up and broke it.
“Why…” began Kate, till, like a conjurer, Tom extracted small bits of dove-shaped bones from the shell’s fragments so perfect, it seemed they might fly away into the setting sun.
Tom showed them how the night water flashed when they moved their hands beneath the surface.
“It’s magic!” cried Michael, making light trails in the water with his fingers.
But Kate knew it was not magic. She was the more skeptical of the two, less trusting, less willing to accept the welcoming invitation of an open door.
Tom studied them. “You’re both right,” he said. “Those light flashes are actually caused by little animals… or maybe they’re plants, I forget which. But you can only see them at night, when the water is stirred up.”
“Then how is he right?” Kate said. “I’m right. It’s made by animals.”
“Or plants,” said Michael.
“Or plants,” agree Kate. “And neither animals or plants are magic.”
“They can make light,” said Tom. “I mean - you can’t make light - I can’t make light, but they can – isn’t that a kind of magic?”
Kate supposed Tom was just being nice, trying not to make Michael feel dumb. She liked him for it. Michael was usually not so lucky. All year long he’d been called a sissy, a girl, a moon-calf and a dreamer for preferring stories to baseballs, and magic kingdoms to soldiers.
“But I can make light,” Michael cried. “Look! Everywhere I walk turns to diamonds!” He raced to where the tide had turned the sand dark and poked his toes in, pulling the grains upward.
“We are rich!” cried Tom. They raced down the shore together, laughing and jostling each other until Michael lost his balance and tumbled into the damp surf.
“Uh oh,” said Michael
“Uh oh,” said Kate. “You are going to be in trouble.” She drew it out long, like it was two words- troub- el.
“Just wash it off,” said Tom, pulling him toward and under the beating waves. Michael struggled. Then he emerged, soaking and shivering, coughing up water as salty as tears.
Michael stumbled up and chased Tom out of the water. Tom, though half wet, didn’t even seem cold, but Michael’s skin was as bumpy as the plucked chicken Kate had once seen hanging from a butcher’s window.
“Won’t you get in trouble?” Asked Michael.
“Me?” Laughed Tom. “I’d like to see someone try. Besides, I’m not the one who’s all wet.”
“You are now,” said Kate, pushing him backward into the lapping waves. He held onto her arm, dragging her with him. Soon all three were rolling in the sand and icy water, sputtering and laughing.
Kate and Michael got in trouble.
“Where does this Tom you talk so much about, live?” Asked Father. “Is he a townie, or are his people, summer people like us?”
Summer people. Kate liked the sound of that. As if they could spend their whole lives in summer, never returning to school, and winter, and the tormenting laughter of other children.
“I don’t know,” said Kate.
“Haven’t you asked him?” Her father shook his head and sighed. “What do his parents do?”
Both children looked at him as if he were speaking a foreign language. They didn’t care what Tom parents did, they only wanted to play in the waves, hunt for hermit crabs and sand dollars and make glowing trails of light in the night sea.
“Why don’t you ask Tom to come for dinner,” said their mother.
And Kate did, but Tom just shook his head.
“Can’t,” he said, disappearing into the darkening night. The children watched him go, fading into the flickering luminescence of sea and shore.
One night, at the end of summer, as they raced to meet Tom, Mother gave them a big bag of sunflower seeds.
“One – two - three - Crunch!” Shouted Tom.
They cracked in unison, spitting the empty husks into the surf and chomping the small tender seeds like a chorus of frogs. Kate still remembers it as the happiest night of her life. Why was it so wonderful? So much fun? She still doesn’t know, only that for a moment, they were all together, heart, soul, mouth, and teeth working as one.
Michael had been right after all, she thought. It had been magic. Magic, making the sea glow. Magic, letting them move through sand, surf and summer as though they belonged.
The night after the sunflowers seeds, Kate, Michael and Tom played hide and seek. The obvious place to hide was the behind a mound. So Kate lay in the tall golden grasses, barely breathing, but they scratched her bare arms and legs, and the sand fleas nipped her ankles. Cautiously she raised her head. No one was in sight. She sprang up, racing to crouch behind a dune. It must have been the perfect hiding place, because they never found her. She never found them either. She returned home after dark, tired and dirty.
“Where’s Michael?” asked Mother.
“He’s not home?” asked Kate.
“We were playing hide ‘n seek with Tom and I lost them.”
“Tom again,” said Father. “I’d like to meet that young man and his parents.”
They waited for three hours, but Michael didn’t return.
The police were called. Mother and Father asked about Tom. But neither the police or the townies had seen, or heard of a ragged boy with golden eyes and beached hair. They grew silent when questioned, hastily changing the subject, organizing search parties, spending days and nights combing beach and woods.
“It just shows how good people can be,” Mother wept. “All these neighbors we didn’t even know we had. I always looked down on the townies… b-b-but now…”
“Don’t worry,” said Father. “We’ll find him.” He put an arm around Mother and patted Kate’s arm awkwardly.
But Kate knew they would never find Michael. The night after he had not come home she had raced down to the shore, searching for Tom. She did not find him. Instead she saw a new mound. It looked like all the others, but slightly darker, slightly fresher as if it had only now changed from sand to stone.
And surely, thought Kate, there must be a single moment when that happens? When sand becomes stone, summer turns to fall, ancient gods return. and childhood ends.
She knew that Michael had joined the other children, the ghosts she had seen that very first night, flickering in the light between day and dusk, shimmering in the place between shore and sea.
Kate could imagine the scene.
“Why don’t we bury each other?”
“Me first! Me first!” cried Michael. He lay down on the damp line where the water met the land.
“No,” said Tom. “We have to dig a hole first, otherwise your toes will show. Lie here.”
He carefully scooped out a hole just a little bit bigger than Michael’s body. Throwing handfuls of wet sand back into the sea. The tide flattened them into beach and swept them away leaving no trace.
But Kate was wrong about two things, or perhaps she was both right and wrong. For she did see Michael one last time. It was not he, who was buried under the mound by the sea, or at least not yet.
It was five years after his disappearance. She’d been begging Mother and Father to return to the Summer House.
“I want to go in memory of Michael,” she’d cried. Tears flowing down her face like rivers to the sea. “I want to return to the place of our last summer.”
Mother shook her head, retreated to her room and bolted her door. The catch clicked in the silence, as final as endings.
“I will take you,” said Father, his voice flat and toneless as a tide-less ocean.
This trip was as different as from the last one as day from night, as life from death, as joy from sorrow. There was no joking talk of ghosts, or arrowheads. There was no talk at all.
Kate had to wait till Father was in the bathroom to race down to the beach. The sun was sinking into the ocean. A splinter of light lingered on the horizon and was gone. A tattered cloud, like a blood-spattered rag, swayed over the spot of its going. Then dusk crept over the sky, darkness crept over the sea, and all was as still as the last sunset at the end of eternity.
She remembered watching the sun sink into the waves from this very spot, hand and hand with Michael, not so long ago, but a lifetime away.
And then, in front of the newest mound of sand she saw two boys dashing madly through the surf, foam breaking against their legs as bubbly as laughter.
“Hey!” Kate called.
The boys froze. They turned toward her in the dying light. One was a stranger, but the other was Michael, her Michael! She tried to call to him but the words stuck in her throat.
For just a moment his face was illuminated by the fading light and she saw his eyes, no longer the clear blue of a cloudless sky, but tawny, almost golden, flecked with tiny grains of darkness, like bugs in amber. He stared at her like a stranger, like a townie, like an adversary, then pulled the unknown boy off into the sea and the sand and the night.
E.E. King is an award-winning painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories, “marvelously inventive, wildly funny, and deeply thought-provoking.” She’s been published in over 100 magazines. Her novels include, Dirk Quigby's Guide to the Afterlife: All you need to know to choose the right heaven . She’s shown paintings at LACMA and painted murals all over! She also co-hosts The Long-Lost Friends, spends summers rescuing birds and winters planting coral. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at: www.elizabetheveking.com and amazon.com/author/eeking
A Quintana dos Mortos in Love
By Rosemary Thorne
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
He had crossed A Quintana dos Mortos at the same place and the same time for years, yet he had never seen that woman before. Dressed in white light, she was sensually laid down on the magnificent stone floor. Almost levitating, her feminine figure created an absorbing and mesmerizing visual. Those huge and primeval slabs covered the plaza generously from the nunnery to the back side of the cathedral, creating the most enchanting atmosphere. La Berenguela, the watch tower, oversees it knowingly. Her bells had just struck midday, composing a supernatural echo that liquefied the surface of the sturdy old pavement just for an instant.
She was so alluring in her pearly dress that he couldn’t feel but smitten. A bright magnetic field originated from her, and he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, avoid its embrace. He descended the stairs with stars in his eyes, and approached her in a direct and candid manner. “My name is Jonathan. And yours?” She welcomed him as if he were her sweetheart. She pronounced a distorted sound, but by the power of the stones, her utterance was turned into a name he had always loved, Mina. Had his name been Tristan, he would have heard Isolde. And if Dante, Beatrice.
Whatever this eerie creature said, it was transformed into exactly what he expected to hear. They talked all the afternoon, and in the evening they saw together how the blue moon, the one that occurred on August 22nd 2021, rose above the cathedral escorted by Saturn and Jupiter. He was so enchanted he couldn’t see himself away from her soft feather-like presence, carefully caressed by the sparkles she naturally emanated.
Minutes before midnight, the memory of all the chores he had failed to do that day fell on him like a bucket of cold water. He felt overwhelmed but charmed, not at all bad for being so obviously absent-minded. He asked her for a way to reach her in the morning, and she promptly wrote a number on the palm of his hand. Pressing the figures close to his heart he ascended the stairs with intimate joy, not realizing she had just jotted down his own phone number.
As soon as he turned the corner of Via Sacra, the watch tower imposed the witchy hour throughout the entire city and valley. Like tears of white sap she slowly melted down through the pores of the monstrous carcass, thinking of how much she liked ascending to the surface every blue moon to conquer a human. Of all the hobbies a ghost could entertain, infatuation was no doubt her favourite. She took up scaring for a while, but quit because others were more gifted and would cause deeper frights, persistent like lethal wounds. Her snowy eyelids lovingly held images of Jonathan until the contours of our visible world became blurry and non-existent. She descended more and more into the lands belonging to the dead. There she remains, gathered and dreamy like a precious moonstone looking forward to the next blue moon on August 30th 2023.
Rosemary Thorne is a Spanish bilingual writer living in Madrid, Spain, who has spent her entire life producing fiction in her mother tongue, with not much local professional encouragement. That’s why in 2019 she became a HWA member and began to think Horror in English terms. It’s worth mentioning that she was born in 1968, year of shocking revolutions, beautiful women and great red wine, and that’s why she doesn’t give up: she has published her first novel in Spain in December 2021, and her goal for 2022 is to have it translated into several languages and to populate the world with her monsters. Find out more about her: https://linktr.ee/Rosemary_thorne
by Jacqueline Gabbitas
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
You know the forest well. You walk it everyday – oh, how you walk – long loping strides when the summer sun’s high, brisk steps kicking up leaves that litter the floor brown and gold, and those tiny, careful footfalls crunching through snow in the very stillness of winter. You walk it with your skin, eyes, nose, the minute anvil and hammer in your ears working hard to bring this forest’s voice to a place so deep inside it’s as if it has a language just for you.
This day, the sun is warm. Spring has been in sway for almost a month now. And yet you will wish you had not left the house this morning. You will wish you hadn’t trusted the direction the little spaniel that you’d rescued from the dog’s home four years ago had chosen to take. You will even wish that you had never started the game she loves so much, the game in which, after she has fetched her ball a dozen times or so, you ask her: — Which way should we go?
And every time, being a creature of ritual and habit and limping a little in her ageing bones, she will take the path to the left of the great fir tree, the shortest path back to the car and her dog treats. Except today she sees that the gate across the main path is open, and it is never open. She is a curious dog.
You find it charming how normally she dislikes the gloom of the forest and will wait for you to catch her up, for you to step ahead and show her there is nothing to fear. The dark of the trees is empty of any danger but the chance of the snag of a root, or thorns from brambles, stings of nettles. Every time she does this you smile, chat away to her as if she were a child, cross her on the path, then anticipate the soft nudging on the backs of your legs to say that she is here and she is no longer afraid. You’ve never known a dog like her.
But now this path is open. Broad and welcoming to a curious dog, with smells she hasn’t savoured before, markers from other dogs, other beasts. She wants to know what these markers mean. Her nose twitches in time with the wagging of her tail.
This path is intriguing to you, also. You know the forest well but you have never crossed the borders of this gate before. Not in half a decade. You ask the dog – her name is Sally – if she is taking you on an adventure, not knowing as you do so there is truth in it. Some adventures should be left in books and on the tongues of storytellers.
The morning continues with its warmth.
The path is as wide as a tractor and you wonder if, indeed, tractors from the nearby farms had made use of it some long while ago – there are runnels the breadth of tyre tracks, overgrown with grass, daisies and dandelions but still easy enough to see. You walk in one in fact and your feet look small. Sally ambles a good five metres ahead. You take off your jacket and tie it round your waist. Soon, you will know this is a mistake.
There seems no end to the path. In the distance you can see the village where your house is. Your little house with its uneven roof and stone walls. As you walk, you think about the carrots you’ve just planted and the broad beans, too. You’ll need to net them against the mice that nest in the compost heap or else your harvest will be small again this year. Except, the mice will not matter after today, and you will not taste those carrots.
Off the path are deer tracks and badger trails – this one barely a trace, that one full of nettles, that other going in the wrong direction. Sally stops at the edge of the path and stares into the green depths of the forest. She drops her ball. Her nose twitches. Ears too. She barks once and sits waiting. She shares her glances between you and the trees. Her tail is still. As you approach, it starts slowly to wag, carving out a fan in the dust of the path. You call her a good dog, because she is a good dog. You stroke her head as you say: –– Which way now?
She has stopped by a track overgrown but walkable. ––This way? you ask, knowing there is no other. It’s too far to walk back and Sally is tired and your feet ache. You wish you’d worn better shoes. Sally picks up her ball, drops it once more, rolls it in the dirt then picks it up again. She likes this grubby play even though it bemuses you, but she likes it better when you take the ball, slimy and wet from her maw, and throw it far enough to fetch but not too far for it to be a chore. You reach out but she snatches herself away and heads into the forest on the deer track.
You think you can hear something. Familiar. Deep. It sounds like the wind in the trees, like birdsong, the scampering of squirrels, trundling of ants and termites, moles digging, seeds falling, blossoms breaking, like spiders burying themselves in leaf mould, like caterpillars dangling from birch branches. Like all of this and no one single thing of it. Like a language just for you. An entreaty. You will wish you had listened to it. Instead you follow your little dog along the overgrown track.
The bracken’s already high. Nettles fat with leaves, the tiny vicious hairs on their stems threatening as you walk on, arms raised just a little. You worry about Sally’s eyes but she’s already a metre ahead. Ferns and brambles thicken on the edges of the track. The stealth of wild plants in spring is vigorous and awesome. When the trail thins to almost nothing you pause. Sally pauses, too. The little dog is shivering, you see.
— Hey girl, you say, and she wags her tail, but before you can touch her she’s off. You smile at this, at how once she's outdoors she never lets you pat her but indoors she never leaves your side, watches TV in your lap, sleeps on your feet at night. You see her fur is proud around her shoulders and wonder at how excited she must be by this new-found territory but do not notice she has not once sniffed the ground or the grass or the trees. She is panting and so you think she must be hot. You look up in order to get your bearings. The car is that way, you say. You will wish you’d been more certain.
The trees do not part in any wondrous fashion, the house isn’t revealed mysteriously. It’s just there. Rough red brick. Arched lintels. A single brick engraved with the name ‘Sherwood Colliery’ hunkers alone on a window ledge. Window frames metal and warped. You never knew there was a house in this forest but it made sense. It was a forest as old as the land, where hunters hunted, lumberjacks lumbered, and people… you’re not sure how people earned their livings from this place only that they must have – wood gatherers, foragers, poachers. It made sense there would be a lodge for the squire and later the steward. This is exciting. A ruined old house in the middle of your forest! Sally has gone on ahead. You can’t see her anymore.
The way to the house is clear, the deer track merging with an old path that leads to a doorway. There’s still good oak in the frame but the door itself is gone, the threshold stone cracked and crumbling. You crouch, all the better to examine what kind of stone it is. A millipede scampers out, its red carapace shining in the gloom, two inches long and thick as a slip of string, its legs spiky and quick. You fall back, startled, and catch yourself before your hand is scraped by a nail, bent, blunt but jagged and red as black blood. You stand up but at the base of your neck is a feeling you haven’t felt since you were twelve. Tingling, disorienting, almost painful. It spreads around your face, stings your eyes. Bleeds down your back, cold, like rain in winter. It’s the feeling you used to have at the foot of the stairs come bedtime when the lights on the landing didn’t work and all that was ahead of you was darkness.
— Sally? you call out, suddenly nervous. You hear snuffling in the background and her panting, steady and familiar. You’ll go land look for her, but first you need to shake off the feeling that she isn’t actually here. That she died a year ago to the day.
— Sally? you call again. The dog barks once in response. The feeling vanishes, quick as light. You let out a breath, unsure of how long you were holding it. Step over the threshold of the ruined house. Into a Hallway. There’s a mirror to your left. When you look in it you can see yourself, clear as nightmares, along with the rest of the room behind you. Pictures on the walls of men and women, Edwardian and severe, a wooden staircase, sconces burning with little flames. You turn around and it’s all there – even a fireplace, its stack of wood waiting to be burned, its wrought iron hearth-set black and patient. The door covering the entryway is heavy and oak, pinned with iron clouts. And through it, you can see Sally crouching on the other side, her head on her paws, mithering and growling. The cramped little feeling comes back, gripping the back of your neck. Your fingers start to tingle.
— Can I help you?
A woman is standing at your side, her voice immediate and mellifluous. It’s as if you know her, you’ve always known her. Her voice has the same tenor as your own, the same deep tone. There’s even that little lilt in the way she ends the question, that little pause mid-line. You know she cannot be there, she isn’t there, and yet you can hear her as clear as the voice in your head. You look at her. She’s smiling. Her eyes, sharp and shining. In her hands is a dish-towel. She’s wearing a simple cream suit but you could have sworn when she first spoke you saw out the corner of your eye she was wearing a dress, old fashioned and blue with crinoline and hoop. She has pale lips, glossed but almost white, her make-up is muted. And as with the door, you can see through her to the trees of the forest, to Sally cowering and angry.
— What…? you ask, but the answer to this question isn’t something you need. Not what, or who, or why, or where but how? How do you get out?
The woman is still smiling. It’s a flat smile as if her lips have been pulled at the edges. You cannot see her teeth. You don’t know why but you want to see her teeth. Want to see them normal and white, shining with the spit of a living person. Even when she spoke you couldn’t see her teeth. She speaks again:
— Is there something you need?
— Need? you ask. And now the woman is dressed all in black. A long dress, almost to the floor, a veil almost to the bottom of her chin. She’s wearing gloves and in her hands is a pair of secateurs.
— What are you doing in this house? she asks. — Why won’t you speak to me? Her voice is strained.
— But I am speaking, you say. Sally’s whines are painful in your ears. She starts to howl. The woman notices her, steps to the door and opens it. The door is still oak, still pinned with iron clouts, but the paint around its jamb is now the colour of robin eggs, and there’s a fan of woven grass and pink flowers where the mirror should be. Sally doesn’t move. No more howling, no more whining. The woman crouches, and now she’s wearing jeans and a jumper, and reaches out a hand, longer and fatter than you expect it to be.
— Hello, she says to the animal. Sally’s tail is stiff.
— Hey!, you shout and step forward, breaking some sort of spell. Now the woman is behind you.
—Ahh, there you are, she says.
You can feel something real on your neck. Cold. You turn. You want to turn quickly. Want to show this woman that you are not afraid. But your body is like the rusted rudder on an ancient barge moving in slow, wrenching jerks. Your breath stays high in your chest as you face her.
— You’ve come back, she says. She is so close you can’t see her, only feel her. Her breath is like the smell of the churchyard in the village after it rains. She is whiter than its marble headstones. Where her eyes are, there is shadow darkened by proximity. Her voice, sweet, envelopes you.
— Back? you say.
— Back home, she answers. — And you’ve brought your little dog again, I see.
— Home? This isn’t home, you say. Your voice is cracking and uncertain but you manage to keep the two of you talking. You’re not sure that you want this conversation but you are sure that if you stop that will be the end of it. Sally starts mithering again.
— Don’t be silly, says the woman in a melodic whisper. This close, cold pours over the skin of your face.
— I’ve never been here before, you say.
— You were here only yesterday, she snaps.
— Yes. Yes. She draws the word out as if she were tasting it.
— I’ve never--
— Have you noticed, she says, — how the word yesterday starts on a yes?
— Erm, I hadn’t thought of it, you say.
— Isn’t that delightful? There’s movement in the shadows of the face in front of you. She’s smiling again, you can tell by her voice.
Sally’s cries from over the doorway start up once more. Angry. Afraid. You step back. If you can see the woman clearly, you think, you will be able to make sense of this. But with each step you take she is there, the distance between you immutable. You feel like she is laughing at you.
— What did we do? you say, firmly.
— Do? she asks, and there is puzzlement in her voice.
— If I was here yesterday, what did we do?
— Yes. Yes, she says. ––I told you about the ghosts. I told you and you listened.
— The ghosts?
— The ghosts, yes. You are being silly, today, she says. The air is suddenly freezing. You feel it in your throat, on the backs of your wrists, on your cheeks.
— Could you tell me again? you ask. You don’t know how to escape this. All you know is that you need to keep her talking.
— This house is haunted, she whispers. — I see them. At night. In the daytime. Ghosts. Women. Always women, she says. Now her voice is hard at the edges.
— Do they frighten you? you ask.
— They used to, the woman answers.
— And now?
— Sometimes, she says.
— Why are they here?
— This house is haunted, she repeats. — By the houses it was built upon.
— I don’t understand, you say.
The woman’s face is impossible to read.
— I see their deaths, she says.
–– You see?
—Strangulation. Childbirth. Poison. Old age. Consumption. Burning. Burning. Burning. Flood. I see them. The walls change, floors, trappings, but they? They stay the same.
You’ve been moving slowly, but pause as she continues.
— The heart of a woman my own age caves in, she says. — She takes a day to die and more than a week before they find her.
You don’t know what to say, so you say nothing. She carries on.
— I’m never sure when I will see them. When I’m baking. Reading. Listening to music. When I’m sewing. Drawing. Eating supper. Cleaning draws them to me, so I’ve stopped cleaning quite so much.
— What do you do? you ask. You’re moving little by little now until your back is to the door again. You can hear the rigid strop, stropping of Sally’s tail beyond the threshold. Such a hopeful sound.
— Do? the woman asks. –– There’s nothing I can do. I have to just watch them. They don’t speak, see. They make no sounds in fact. But now you’re here. We can watch them together. Maybe we could give them voices! And there was glee in the woman’s voice. — Maybe we could act out their deaths with them, screaming and howling as they scream, as they howl. Does that sound fun?
— Sounds…terrifying, you say.
— No, says the woman, firmly. –– Not if we’re together.
You know the threshold of the door is behind you, its frame oak and solid even though the reality of the door has long since rotted. You know your dog is beyond it, chattering and barking. Only a few moments ago, surely only a few, you saw a millipede crawl from a crack in the flagstone, its carapace shiny and red. You nearly cut your hand. You know your forest is over that threshold. Deep and green and new. You step back towards it.
Your jacket, wrapped tightly around your waist making a band of sweat even in the gelid air, snags on a blunt rusty nail red as black blood, and in the fractured light of the ruins it looks something like the long, fat finger of a woman’s hand.
Jacqueline Gabbitas lives on a canal boat in the UK. She has published three short collections of poetry, Mid Lands (Hearing Eye), Earthworks and Small Grass (Stonewood Press) and her work has been featured in various magazines, including Poetry Review, anthologies such as the Forward Prize Anthology, and broadcast on BBC radio. She has won two Arts Council England awards, and is a Hawthornden Fellow. As a child, Jacqueline cut her teeth on ghost stories and fairytales (greedily reading the Armada Book of Ghost Stories, Poe, King, Koontz, Herbert and whoever she could get her hands on). During the first lockdown she returned to reading and writing ghost stories (especially focusing on stories written by women). She found it a way to try to understand the isolation and loss of contact many of us were feeling. Her stories can be found in New Ghost Stories IV (The Fiction Desk) and Unfeared: a podcast of ghost stories written by women, which she hosts. The ruins in ‘The Forest House’ exist. So does the nail.
Backdoor to Paradise
By Jason Sabbagh
Dimitra rocked in her chair and looked out at the morning dew. She sat on the wrap around porch that circled the Holloway House. People in town called her 'the Gypsy,' and she never corrected them, even though she was born and raised in Detroit. Her mother was Greek and her father Mexican, which made her ethnicity hard to place. The gypsy lore was an asset to her business. That business being the owner and spiritual guide of the Holloway House.
Dimitra didn’t live in the house. That would be maddening. No. It was her place of work, but there was no rational way to explain just what she did there. Which meant she had to run a cash business. The prices she charged could only be afforded by the obscenely wealthy. And they paid. Willingly.
For a woman in her sixties, Dimitra had kept up with the times, technologically speaking. She didn’t use technology to promote Holloway House. In fact, her clients were forbidden from posting anything about the old three story Victorian online. And they obeyed.
But she was able to remove posts on the various platforms, mostly written by locals. They called her a snake oil salesman, a side show act, a con artist, so on and so forth. A local television crew showed up to Holloway House once. Dimitra pretended to speak broken English and played dumb to their cheeky line of questioning. They were doing a bit for a Halloween segment. But Dimitra played it so boring, the piece never aired.
Her business spread solely through word of mouth. Wealthy family to wealthy family. The trickiest part was the legal system. Since 1982, sixty-seven people had died in Holloway house, and that sort of anomaly tends to raise red flags with law enforcement.
Dimitra had operated under four different Sheriffs. Each had to be wooed in their own way. That morning, rocking in her chair, she was awaiting a visit from the newly elected young Sheriff, her fifth. His police cruiser pulled up the gravel drive at nine am sharp, just as he’d said.
His name was Bill Shaw and he was 42, young for a Sheriff. He was alone, which was a positive sign. Perhaps he wished to have a conversation that he didn’t want his peers to hear. Dimitra stood from her chair as Bill walked onto the porch.
“Good Morning, Bill Shaw.” He tipped his obnoxious cowboy hat.
“Good morning, Sheriff Shaw, I am Dimitra.”
“Oh I am aware. You got the one-name thing going, like Madonna.”
Dimitra smiled. “I must say Sheriff, that was the first time in my life I’ve been compared to Madonna.”
Bill smiled. “You know, I ran up on this porch one time, God, twenty-five years ago.”
“Ahh. One of the brave young teenagers dared to climb the steps of the haunted house. I imagine I’ve cleaned up a few of your beer cans left at the end of my driveway.”
Bill smiled again. “Yeah, that may be, I apologize for that.”
“No need, teenagers will be teenagers.”
Bill stared through the fogged glass window into Holloway House. “Thing is, back then, it was just rumors, fun and games, I never really thought this place was haunted. Well, still don’t, but I did read all the files we have on this place at the Sheriff’s Department.”
“And you are wondering how it is that sixty-seven people have died in this house.”
The two met eyes, and Bill nodded, “Yes ma'am.”
“I’m afraid the answer is not as scandalous as you might think.”
“Well that’s great because, if it’s one thing I’m not looking for, it’s a scandal. Just got through with a pretty vicious campaign.”
“Would you care to sit?” she gestured to a rocking chair. When the sheriff sat opposite her, she said, “You may think me a fraud. I couldn’t blame you for that. But I saw the spiritual nature of this place the first time I laid eyes on it in 1981. I was a waitress at a roadside diner, living in a rented room above the place, not a penny to my name. I came into town to look for affordable accommodations and walked by this old house.”
“What does that mean, you saw the spiritual nature?”
“I saw the dead being welcomed here.”
Bill smiled and scratched his face. “Listen Dimitra, I don’t ascribe to all that afterlife stuff.”
“So if you could just tell me the logistics of why so many have come here to die.”
“They come here as my guests because they believe.”
Bill nodded slowly. “They believe you. And you tell them what?”
“I tell them the truth, that all those who die in this house have safe passage to the next world.”
“And they believe that?”
“They do. I give them proof.”
“I commune with the deceased after they pass.”
Bill took a deep breath. “Sounds to me like you take advantage of people.”
Dimitra smiled. “The people who come here are very wealthy, very educated. From what I understand, my house is seen as a status symbol among certain circles.”
“How exactly do you earn money? You have no businesses registered, no income filed.”
“I do not earn money. But, as you may know, an individual may gift another individual $15,000 a year tax free. My guests are often very thankful and very generous. I accept gifts, all legal.”
“Gifts. So you live off thirty grand a year?”
“Well, for instance. This Friday, some guests will be flying in from California. The Lamberts. George Lambert was a hedge fund manager. He has been battling cancer for some time now, and has asked to come visit me for a time. He will be flying in with his wife, two adult children, and a nurse. Now sheriff, I can not say with certainty that all four members of the Lambert family will gift me $15,000 each as they are legally allowed to do, but they did seem very generous on the phone.”
Bill’s smile faded. It may have turned to a frown had he known about the $100,000 cash they would be bringing as well. “This man is coming Friday? He plans on dying here?”
“Plans? No. He is ill, but he is simply coming for a visit. If he passes due to his illness while he is here, I suppose there is nothing I can do about that. Nor is it illegal.”
“Bit of a grey area don’t you think?”
“Sheriff, life is a grey area is it not.” Bill averted his eyes, lost in thought. Dimitra patted his shoulder. “Perhaps you would like to stop by for a visit on Friday, see how I interact with my guests.”
Bill, who had stood like peacock displaying his plume as he stepped out of his cruiser with his aviator shades and cowboy hat, now looked like a scared teen, but he said, “I think I'll do that. But listen to me Dimitra. I don’t know what your relationship was like with the sheriffs before me. But with me, everything will be strictly above board. I don’t think you are breaking any laws, technically, but you are walking a fine line. The 80s are over. Nothing is private anymore with the internet.”
“I understand, Sheriff.”
Bill Shaw put his hat and his shades back on, but he didn’t exactly strut back to his car.
Dimitra peered through a window into the dining room. A chill washed over her. That old doubt crept up her flesh for a moment, then vanished as quickly as it came.
No, it wasn’t the 80s anymore… as if they had been a better time. Detroit was in its death throes, then, and didn’t even know it. The evictions, the homelessness, the drugs were all part of the city's future. The prosperity of the few at the expense of people like her parents. People who thought they had stable jobs, people who worked hard building the behemoth corporations up with their sweat and time, only to be discarded for cheap overseas labor, for record profits, for executive bonuses.
No, it wasn’t the 80s anymore. She wasn’t eating the scraps off people's plates in the kitchen of the diner. What did Bill Shaw know of that time? He had been a toddler.
Dimitra shook her head at the memories, then walked to her old pickup truck and headed home to Galesport. Her house was small, but finely furnished, a luxury of living off secret cash. She’d chosen Galesport, thirty miles from Holloway House, because she couldn’t see the house's light radiating from that distance. She could watch television and momentarily forget that the old rift existed.
For as long as she could remember, she'd seen rifts, refractions of light and logic, like little tears in the world. Behind the rifts existed what remained of a person after the flesh gave out. The deceased bled in and out of space, blinking, flickering, always changing shapes. But she had never seen anything like Holloway House until she stumbled upon it all those years ago.
Holloway House was no tear, it was a gaping hole, and a strange one. She could see light refracting off it from miles away. It was like staring into the sun. The doctors had diagnosed her with schizophrenia. Before Holloway house, she'd believed them.
After the house, she had proof that she wasn’t ill, that she didn’t hallucinate. She’d try and give Bill Shaw a show of that proof on Friday. Just enough to make him never want to know more. To leave her alone.
The Lambert family arrived on Friday in two black SUVs. George, attached to an IV drip was helped out of his vehicle by a muscular male nurse and guided to a walker. His wife Rebecca stepped out of the vehicle and made the sign of the cross as she stared up at Holloway House.
Dimitra sat in her rocking chair, looking as Gypsyish as she could. The Lambert children exited their own car. George Jr. and Melissa, both in their thirties. Neither offered to help their father up the stairs to the porch. That’s what the nurse was for.
Dimitra stood and gave a slight bow of the head to George and Rebecca once they reached the landing. “Welcome to my home.”
George stared at her wearily, he barely seemed lucid. Rebecca smiled. “Thank you for having us. We were given your name by the Carlisles, they are dear friends of ours.”
Dimitra touched her hand to her heart. “Yes. Hugh was a gracious man. He left this world with dignity and entered the next with the wondrous smile of a child. How is Anne?”
“Drunk I imagine. She usually is,” piped in George Junior. He flashed Dimitra a devilish smile and took off his sunglasses. “And I’ve never heard a person call Hugh Carlisle gracious. Vindictive, ruthless, pompous...yes, but never gracious.”
Rebecca turned to her son. “Georgie, please…”
Dimitra’s expression did not change. She was used to the children of the elite. Used to people thinking she was a charlatan. Junior would leave that house singing a different tune. She was confident of that.
“It is quite alright, Mrs. Lambert. Believe it or not, I used to struggle with faith, with being asked to believe in something without proof. So I will not ask you to have faith in me. I will give you proof.”
Junior gave her a different smile then. A genuine one. She could tell he wanted to believe, that he was excited to see what was going to happen.
Dimitra continued. “There is one thing I must ask. Our county has just elected a new sheriff. He would like to stop by this evening so he may see what it is I do here. Is that alright with you?”
Rebecca looked at her son nervously. He spoke for her. “I was assured we aren’t breaking any laws. Well, except for the briefcase in my SUV.”
“We are not breaking any laws, except for your briefcase. I’ve done this with the past four sheriffs as well. Really they come for your protection. To see if I am swindling you.”
“Are you?” he responded coldly.
“No, I am not.”
The nurse carried George through the doorway like he was carrying his bride into their new home. The family followed behind, inspecting the old house. Dimitra lingered on the porch a moment before stepping inside. She only went in when she had to.
As soon as she crossed the threshold the color came alive. Not inside the house, the old wood and brick remained the same. It was the light shining through the windows from outside. She turned back to the open door. From inside the Holloway House, looking outside to the porch where they had just stood, the world was breathtaking.
There was no wrap-around porch, no SUVs, no gravel driveway. Where those things had been just a moment before, was now a shifting array of light and color. Rolling hills twisted into calming waters. Calming waters twisted into satin sheets where two bodies were intertwined in the throes of passion, then two faces laughing, hands picking shimmering succulent fruit from a tree that wasn’t there and then was. It was pure joy, all experiences of the flesh and of the mind tangled and twisted in layers upon layers of light.
It was beyond beautiful. Dimitra found she couldn’t look out the windows of Holloway House from inside for very long. Look too long and a deep depression would set in. It made the living world seem duller than it already was.
Dimitra turned away and spoke to the group. “How shall I address you all going forward?”
Rebecca smiled. “Please use our first names.”
“Just call me junior. It’s easier,” George Jr said as he ran a finger over the dusty banister. Melissa had yet to speak, she seemed sleepy, medicated.
Dimitra continued, “As per our original conversation. Have you all chosen specific statements for George to relay back to you from beyond? Statements I could not possibly know.”
Rebecca nodded. “Yes, we all have.”
Dimitra looked at George, who had been put down and was leaning on his walker. “I mean no offense, George, but I must ask, do you recall what your family has said to you?”
He grimaced and spoke with a hoarse voice, “I remember just fine, I’m not dead yet, like it or not.”
The statement hung in the air a moment, the family members eyes were fixed on the ground. Dimitra was used to dealing with rich people in their dying days.
“Excellent. George and Rebecca, the large room is the second door on the right. Melissa and Junior, there are two rooms down the left hall.”
She turned to the nurse. “Your name is Nate, correct?”
He nodded. “There is a room for you on the second floor. All the rooms are made up. You are free to explore the top floors of the house if you wish. But..."
She paused to get their attention. Five faces peered at her expectantly. "...before you get settled in, allow me to provide you with some proof of this place.”
Dimitra had been actively ignoring the shimmers of light that flitted about inside the house. But now, she focused on one flash a few feet from her, which let her see the flashes for what they were.
From the shimmers, faces appeared, then bodies, old, young, middle aged. They swarmed around her, nude and scowling. She looked at the multitude of swirling, shape-shifting, angry apparitions, their voices a mesh of anger.
You God Damned witch!
You miserable old whore!
Fuck you! Let me out of this fucking place!
Please! God Damnit, it’s right there!
Burn this fucking house down! I will eat your fucking heart bitch!
I’m sorry! Whatever I did I’m sorry!
So many voices, so much rage. Dimitra had learned to ignore the jumble—she scanned the room. Then saw the man she wanted to speak with. “Hugh Carlisle, come forward,” she said aloud.
The figure she was focused on lunged through the air and settled an inch from her face. Beyond his half translucent, shape shifting form--the angry old Landlord to a toddler, a teen, an old man-- she saw the fixed gazes of the Lambert family on her.
You evil bitch! The flickering Hue Carlisle screamed at her. Brought George Lambert here did you? Why? Let him go! Let me go! Please, please!
“Anything you wish to say to George?” Dimitra asked the spectre out loud.
Georgie! Help me God Dammit! We are stuck here! Get out now! Kill the fucking Gypsy! I forgive you for Erudite you rotten bastard! Help me!
Dimitra tuned the blinking light out, looked past it at the Lambert family. At George. “George. Hugh says he forgives you for Erudite.”
All heads turned to George. What little color was in his face drained away. He looked confused. “Excuse me…”
“Hugh is here, he said he forgives you for Erudite, whatever that means.”
Junior turned to her. “How do you know about that?”
“Hugh just spo…”
“Cut the shit," he cut her off, "What? Did you hire private investigators to dig into my father’s fund?”
Rebecca stepped forward. Her voice, which had been submissive and soft, changed. She spoke firmly, with confidence. “Calm down Georgie. No private investigator could have dug up that name. The FTC couldn’t. Just old Hubert Carlisle.”
Rebecca smiled at Dimitra. “She’s real. She speaks to the dead. Do me a favor, would you Dimitra? Tell old Hubert that he has nothing to forgive my husband for. He was fine with playing fast and loose with the law when he was making money, not so much when Erudite didn’t pan out as he thought.”
Becca you fucking bitch! You sold me on a pile of shit! Hugh was screaming, inches from Rebecca’s face.
Dimitra remained stoic. “He can hear you Rebecca. Shall I repeat what he is currently screaming? The word 'bitch' features prominently.”
Melissa’s eyes opened wide from her half zonked slumber, her mouth in a twisty smile. “Oh shit, I think this is actually going to be interesting.”
Dimitra waited in her rocking chair back on the porch while the Lamberts settled in and explored the house. No need to spend any more time in there than necessary. Hopefully George would pass away by Sunday. Rebecca had told her over the phone that the doctors said he had days at most.
It was probably a steal to them. One hundred and sixty thousand dollars and George would get a guaranteed spot in heaven. It sounded silly when said out loud. That Holloway House was some kind of back door into heaven, letting everyone who died under its roof up to paradise. Even if they were on the naughty list.
All it took were those first clients in the eighties. Then it became a perpetually expanding business. When the mega wealthy discovered other mega wealthy people were engaged in some type of elite practice, they coveted access. Even something as foolish as Dimitra and her back door to heaven.
She’d seen so many small rips in the world. Strange light seeping through. It always looked the same. Blissful, unending. Like all possible paths the mind could travel being traveled at once. She’d seen no God, felt no judgment. Just some other place, some different light.
Still, every now and again a fear would grip her heart. Fear that she would be judged. All those things inside Holloway House, sixty-seven to be exact, trapped. Allowed to peer out the windows of the house at that wonderful paradise that they would never reach. A cruel torture.
Dimitra shook the doubt from her mind. No. They'd lived well here in this world. They exploited the less fortunate in this world so that they may live like kings. Why should they get to have the next place as well? The exploited should have that place, people like her parents. George Lambert would make a fine addition to Holloway House.
She could get a few more oligarchs in before she got too old. Once it became difficult for her to climb stairs or if she were given some bad news from a doctor, then, she would pack her mounds of cash into her pickup truck and get as far away from Holloway House as possible. She wanted to be nowhere near that place when she died.
Jason Sabbagh lives in New England with his wife and two children. He loves writing fiction, and is currently seeking representation for his debut novel. Is this little aspiring-author-bio actually a shameless plea? Yes it is. Also, if you dig this story, he’s got piles more collecting digital dust on his hard drive.
By Andrew Hughes
“What do you mean you don’t want to go in anymore?” Sarah said. “This was your idea!”
They stood on the cracked asphalt bathed in muddled darkness. The only light came from the last working street-lamp on the block, four houses down. In front of them, Old Richard’s house loomed like a monolith obscuring the crescent moon.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Paul said. He tried to keep his voice from wavering, but the words still came out in a pathetic, shivering pitch. This outing was a joke to everyone else, his sister, her friends, and her boyfriend, Jason, but not to him. He was the one who’d done the research. He was the one who’d read every horror novel in the town library. He was the one who believed.
Jason shot Sarah a surveying glance before kneeling down and placing a hand on Paul’s shoulder. “Come on man, you can do this. You’re the one who knows the Ouija board and the stories.” He leaned in close and gestured over his shoulder at Sarah’s friends. They stood a few feet up the block, huddled together with their arms crossed. Their silhouettes reminded him of a murder of crows.
“You’ll be the hero of the night. Go scare the pants off ‘em.”
Paul opened his mouth and shut it again. He’d always wanted to hang out with the older kids, and this was the first time they’d invited him somewhere. He wanted to be cool. He wanted to be liked. But he couldn’t ignore what he’d seen when they’d walked up. The silhouette of Old Richard in the upstairs window wearing tattered overalls and leaning on a cane. He’d been smiling with broken teeth.
“What do you say, buddy?” Jason squeezed his shoulders. “Want to be the hero?”
“I don’t-” Paul swallowed, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I don’t think it’s safe.”
Jason studied his face with genuine concern, but before he could respond, Sarah’s arm swooped down like a guillotine, snatching Paul’s satchel bag full of flashlights and tarot cards.
The force of the pull rocked Paul back on his butt, and Sarah stared down with disgust.
“You’re a fucking loser,” she said, then turned and walked through the rusted gate and up the stone pathway overgrown by grass and weeds. Her friends followed close behind, squealing with fabricated terror, the kind people had when they sat down with a blanket and popcorn to watch a slasher flick.
They weren’t really scared. Not enough.
“Wait,” Paul said under his breath, not loud enough for anyone but Jason to hear.
“Don’t worry.” The older boy squeezed his shoulder before standing up. “I’ll keep an eye on them. Go ahead, you can go home.” With that, he followed Sarah’s posse through the gaping front entrance, shutting the old wood door shut behind them.
Paul sat on the sidewalk and waited, kneading the grass that had squeezed through the cracks.
His heart pulsed, and he shivered despite the warmth of the summer air. He strained his ears and longed to hear the sound of laughter from within the old house. Once or twice he thought he heard it, although it may have just been the faint breeze curling the leaves of the roadside oaks. He stared straight ahead at the front door, the wood almost completely stripped of its white paint and waited for it to swing open, waited for Jason and Sarah and the other girls to come pouring back out.
From within, he heard Sarah’s voice, high pitched and full of unintelligible mirth.
Paul let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Maybe he’d imagined the specter. Maybe he’d gotten all worked up over nothing.
Movement flashed in the corner of his eye.
He didn’t want to look, knew what he would see, felt his heart tearing free from his chest cavity as he turned his head toward the upstairs window.
Within the cracked glass, Old Richard stood bent over his cane. Behind his wire glasses, his eyes glowed bright with glee, his smile wide.
Paul felt cold sweat beading on his forehead.
Sarah. Jason. Oh, no. Please, no.
The old man raised one hand from his cane and brought a bony finger to his lips, mouthing, shh, before turning and hobbling into the depths of the house.
Paul scrambled to his feet and stumbled to the gate, his hands stretching out to grasp the rusty metal. He had to go in. He had to save them.
Then, he pictured Old Richard’s face again and that ghastly, horrible smile. The same smile his grandfather had had in the nursing home when the young, pretty nurse came to give him a bath. A smile that stunk of carnal desire. A smile of a dying man’s perversion. Even at ten years old, it’d made him feel funny, and now, as he stood at the entryway to something terrible, the thought of it made his knees quiver.
Inside the house, something crashed to the ground with a shatter that hung in the air.
Paul pinched his eyes shut and bit his lip. He could feel warm wetness on his crotch.
Then, the screaming began.
Paul turned and ran home, his eyes stinging with tears.
The next time he saw his sister was in broad daylight, when he and his parents stood behind police tape and officers carried out her body on a stretcher. Even beneath the white sheet, he could tell that Sarah wasn’t whole anymore.
--- Sixteen Years Later ---
Midnight struck as Paul drove into Oakville. It’d been over ten years since he’d last set foot in the place. His parent’s had long since moved away, but everything looked the same. Same old rundown Mapco on the corner. Same old sleepy houses with the lights out. Same old cracked asphalt that led him all the way to Old Richard’s house.
He parked on the curb and got out.
The breeze was still, and a full moon hung suspended over a thin wafting of clouds. He sniffed the air. A faint scent of rot carried itself across the overgrown grass. Everything else might have stayed the same, but this place had grown even more decrepit. All the paint had been stripped off, leaving nothing but bare boards, some of which hung from rusted nails that refused to support weight any longer. The corroded fence had buckled in spots, and the path to the sagging front porch was completely obscured by tangles of dead weeds.
Movement flashed in the upstairs window, and Paul looked up.
Old Richard stood leaning on his cane, his face ghastly white, the unpleasant smile already spread beneath his withered lips. He raised a shaking, arthritic hand, and waved.
Paul stared, unperturbed.
Richard turned his wrist and curled his fingers toward himself, beckoning.
Paul pulled his backpack from the passenger seat of the car and started up the walkway. Before he set foot on the dilapidated porch, the front door creaked open. Without breaking his stride, he stepped inside.
The rotting stench burnt his nostrils as he entered the foyer. All around, decrepit furniture sunk into the floor like animals trapped in a bog. As the door creaked shut behind him, he reached into his pocket and turned on the flashlight.
The house was laid out just as it had been in the crime scene photographs. Family portraits on the walls, a plush couch across from an archaic, boxy television. A chandelier of cheap spangled glass hanging from the ceiling. Everything was in its place, except now, a thick layer of rot covered it all.
The clicking of Old Richard’s cane sounded from up the shattered staircase.
Paul walked further into the house, the flashlight beam swinging from wall to wall. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, their arachnid occupants fat off flies drawn to the smell of spoiled flesh.
Above, the clicking sound moved. He stepped into the kitchen.
The cupboards hung open, the doors sagging on worn hinges. Shattered dishes covered the floor.
The clicking sound was just above him now, traveling slowly down the upstairs hallway.
Suddenly, it stopped.
Paul stepped out of the kitchen and started up the stairs. The steps buckled beneath him and he outstretched his arms, grasping the walls, the flashlight beam drifting erratically across the ceiling as he ascended.
He emerged into the long hallway. If he went right, he knew he’d find the bedrooms. The site where Old Richard had butchered his own children and wife. And if he went left…
A whistle sounded through the closed door at the end of the hall, shrill as a teakettle but as weak and airy as the rest of the house.
Paul tugged the straps of his backpack taught, and walked to the door. When he reached out and twisted the doorknob, the whistling stopped.
So this is where it happened?
For a moment, a faint familiar voice urged him to stop. The same fearful utterance that had held him back on the sidewalk all those years ago, but this time he stomached it deep within himself. He’d sacrificed too much to turn back now. College, his relationship with his parents, a normal life.
Paul pushed the door open and entered the recreation room.
All of the furniture had been shattered and broken, piled against the walls to clear a space in the center of the room where a noose hung from the bare rafters. Beneath it, his old possessions had been strewn about like children’s toys. Tarot cards. Newspaper clippings. The Ouija board. His old satchel bag laid in the center of the mess.
As he stepped closer, his boots squelched on the hardwood. He looked down and saw the pool of blood. In it, bloated maggots curled and squirmed.
The whistle sounded from an open closet at the end of the room.
When Paul pointed his flashlight toward it, the beam flickered and died.
“The little brother,” Old Richard croaked. “He came back.”
The cane clicked in the depths of the closet.
Paul pulled off the backpack and set it at his feet.
“Back to avenge poor little Sarah.” Another click. “And what’d he bring? A backpack?” Rasping, airy laughter echoed from the closet, ending in a phlegmy cough. “Rich. Very rich.”
Paul knelt down and unzipped the bag.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had a visitor.” Click. “I’ve been so very…” The darkness of the closet seemed to morph, and in the faint moonlight sneaking in through the cracked ceiling, Old Richard stepped into the living room. Meek and shriveled, the overalls hung to his barren frame by tattered denim strings. His yellow, cracked teeth were bared, “...hungry.”
Paul reached into the backpack and felt the book, running his fingers down the worn leather binding.
“But you’re not my taste,” Richard growled. “You’re much too old and much too unafraid.” He took one more step and leered over his cane. “So what brought you in, Paul? Did you come to take revenge? Come to rid this house of me?”
Richard laughed, doubling over with the hacking expirations. After a moment, he wiped his eyes and leaned forward. “How amusing. Let me guess. Have you brought fire? Are you going to burn me out?” Richard took a few steps closer. Click. Click. Click. “Or is it the holy bible? Another exorcism? Oh, how they tickle.”
“No.” Paul shook his head. “You’re much too embedded for that.”
“Have you heard, Paul? Have you heard what happened to me? They came to my house,” Richard growled, his voice growing to a yell that filled the room. “Dragged me out of bed and hung me from the rafters!”
“Yes,” Paul said, standing up with the book. “After you butchered sixteen children.”
“Oh, I didn’t just butcher them,” Richard said gleefully, his teeth grinding together. “I tricked them. Then I beat them. Then I tore them to pieces and ate what looked appetizing. Just like I did to your sister and her little friends.”
He took another step closer. Click. Paul could see pieces of festered gristle hanging from his blackened gums.
“They hung me from the rafters, and I came back.” Richard took a step closer to Paul. Click. “They tried to burn down the house, and I blew out the flames!” Click. “They sent a priest to exorcize me, and I tore out his heart!” Click. “So what is it you’re going to do, Paul?”
Only a few feet separated them now. Paul could see Richard’s long nails tapping anxiously on the head of the cane, awaiting the pounce and the tear, the warmth of flesh and blood.
“It’s been a long time since you killed my sister,” Paul said. “And I would have been back sooner, but I had to prepare. I traveled a long way searching for a solution. Egypt, Italy, Asia. Ancient, tainted places.” He opened the book. “Out there, a lot of people tried to talk me out of my research. They called me a lunatic. A sociopath.” He began to flick through the brittle pages. “But I was stubborn. I persisted.” He found the page with the razor blade tucked in the crease like a bookmark. “Because I knew I’d never be able to move on. Not if your ghost still haunts this dump.”
Richard’s eyes flooded with panic, and in an instance, he tossed the cane aside and leapt, but it was too late. Paul ran his finger along the razor and warm, sticky blood flowed across the seal. The book vibrated and leapt from his grasp, spinning on the floor, mushing the maggots and splattering the blood. Tendrils of red and black flames sprung from the pages, hurling Richard back against the wall where he cowered as a massive clawed hand emerged.
“You’re a madman,” Old Richard sputtered. “A Satanist.”
“And you’re a cannibal and a murderer,” Paul said. “Nothing but a speck compared to the real evils of this world.”
Paul watched as the demon grabbed Richard in a bone crushing grip and dragged him, screaming back into the pages. Then, when the book had closed and the room had grown dark and quiet once again, Paul thought of Sarah and cried.
Andrew has been writing for the past decade. His short stories have appeared in Sanitarium Magazine, Sinister Smile Press anthologies, and on the No Sleep Podcast. His fantasy novella, Children of the Arc, was published in 2023 by TWB Press. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a middle school English teacher, and mediating heated debates between his roommates, a Maine Coon cat and the world’s most rambunctious husky.
Stay With Me
by Iseult Murphy
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai Podcast.
I didn’t know why Mom thought I’d like to live by the sea. Maybe she thought I’d like the illusion of space after the hospital, or that all the blustery sea air would drive the last cobwebs of Richard from me. I couldn’t afford to live in such a fancy apartment with its sea views, even though Mom got a great deal on the rent. She told me the owner was eager to get away after his relationship ended, so he let the apartment for a ridiculously low price.
It seemed fitting that the forsaken widow moved into the abandoned home.
Richard never liked the sea. Its depths, teeming with unseen life, terrified him. It must have reminded him too much of his own demons, tormenting him below the surface of his conscious mind. Maybe Mum thought the proximity to the water would help me forget him, since we'd made no memories on the beach.
The living room looked out on the shore, but the rest of the rooms either faced the road or the concrete courtyard between the apartment blocks. The whole apartment smelled of bleach, which I found comforting. It reminded me of the hospital with its disinfected walls and corridors. Mom brought the remnants of my possessions, neatly boxed up with labels, and sorted them into their corresponding rooms. The things she didn’t know what to do with she left in the hallway. Most of it was Richard’s stuff. His work clothes, his papers and books from the office, the heavy boxes full of melted tin soldiers that still smelled of smoke.
I thought she’d forget to pack his things when she brought my stuff from the old place to the new one. She wanted me to let go of Richard and move on with my life. She worried I’d obsess about him and get sick again, but it was all I had left of him. Everything else was destroyed with the house.
There were no curtains in the living room or on the small window beside the front door, but there were blinds in the bedroom. I sat on the bed until it grew dark, staring at the boxes of my thrift store clothes and bargain cosmetics that Mum dutifully packed up and carted around while I was in the hospital. I didn’t want any of it. I decided I wouldn’t even bother unpacking it. It didn’t speak to me.
I wished I was in the old apartment, with its dark pokey rooms and the smell of smoke wafting rich off the tin soldiers as I forced them to march across the kitchen table. It was always so cold, but I didn’t mind because Richard was there. I’d put up with anything to keep him with me.
How was he going to find me now? I was so far away from where we lived together, and the sea wind would blow the smoke away from the soldiers.
I wandered through the rooms again. I gazed at the twinkling lights of the distant houses on the other side of the bay and listened to the waves crash against the rocks below. I realized there were cold spots in this apartment, too, and rubbed the goosebumps on my arms. A whisper of breath brushed against my neck and I tensed, frightened, not because it was happening again, but because I was afraid it wouldn’t.
A sigh and noises elsewhere in the apartment. Maybe the normal creaks and groans of the building. I didn’t know its rhythms. When I went into the hallway, I caught a shadow slipping into the bedroom.
“Richard?” I hardly recognised my cracked, hoarse voice, my vocal chords damaged by too much smoke inhalation. A low husky voice that Richard would have loved.
There was no response. The cold spot no longer lingered beside me. I felt no phantom caress my hair. I shook my head. It was my imagination. I was all better now. My medication was too high to allow me to be anything else.
I went into the kitchen to make tea to warm myself. Just as the kettle boiled, I heard a thump in the corridor. The pile of boxes in the hallway had toppled, spilling Richard’s belongings across the beige carpet. Hope swelled within me. This was a sign. I scooped up the items, handling them tenderly as I returned them to the boxes and lifted the containers into orderly rows.
They felt heavier than they should, so I looked inside to find the reason for the sudden weight gain. Odd shaped objects lined the bottom of the first box I examined. Heavy and cold, they felt familiar to the touch. The texture reminded me of handling ham joints at Christmas and inexpertly stuffing the turkey, cramming butter under the skin and rubbing it into dead flesh.
I reached in with both hands and grasped one object, lifting it up to be revealed by the pale light of the single low-watt bulb.
A foot, human, the toes carefully painted pink, the leg roughly hacked off at the ankle.
I dropped the foot and tossed the box aside, flinging out treasured possessions to get to the bottom of the next box. An arm, or something that looked like an arm, rested awkwardly at the bottom under Richard’s textbooks. The hand waved as I lifted it out, the fingernails painted the same seashell hue as the foot.
I didn’t want to check the next box because I knew it would contain my head, and I wasn’t ready to face my accusing stare.
Why did Richard show me these horrible things? Had death brought him no peace? Had his pain atrophied into hatred?
I took my tea into the bedroom and sat at the end of the bed. The tea was stone cold. I must have forgotten to boil the kettle.
They told me I wasn’t really seeing Richard, that he was a hallucination brought on by grief. It was unhealthy. They said I should let him move on. It would be what he wanted. Apparently, it wasn’t unusual to have a psychotic break after experiencing trauma, but that I was all better now.
I didn’t want to believe them. Richard had been with me. He had been real. The fact that he didn’t follow me to the hospital proved that to me. He couldn’t find me so far away from our house, and then the apartment.
Maybe the doctors were right. If not about Richard, then about me. I hadn’t helped him in life, why would I be enough to keep him with me in death? These horrific visions must come from my own mind. Survivor’s guilt, the doctors said. Hallucinations so real I could still feel the chill of dead flesh on my hands.
I saw movement in the vanity’s mirror. Someone stood at the bedroom door. As soon as I turned, the shadow moved swiftly down the corridor towards the living room.
I looked in the vanity mirror, hoping that the shadow would return. Perhaps he was too shy to reveal himself directly. Maybe mirrors could be portals that allowed spirits to make themselves known.
The bank of mirrored wardrobe doors behind me reflected my back in a row of slump shouldered soldiers. Richard wouldn’t recognise me anymore, with my burned out voice and overweight body covered in cheap charity shop jumpers and jeans. I hardly recognised the body in the bank of wardrobe mirrors or the heavily jowled face in the mirror before me, the eyes dull and red.
The reflection in the centre panel of the wardrobe mirrors didn’t match its companions. Instead of my wide, round back it showed a front view of a woman sitting upright on the bed in a baggy black jumper with a panda on the front and a pair of pink and grey leggings. She was slim, with blonde hair sticking out in a short frazzled halo around her head, hands folded in her lap, her expression blank. Her eyes were ringed with bruises, like the panda on her chest, and tear trails glistened down her cheeks. A large clown smile of smeared red lipstick made an angry gash across her face.
I leaned closer to the vanity and gazed at that middle reflection. Who was she? A figment of my fractured mind or a glimpse into another time or dimension? As I studied her, the other woman lifted her head and looked at me in the vanity mirror, her slack lips slowly rising in a smile that followed the lines of lipstick drawn across her skin.
Jumping to my feet, I spun to the middle door of the wardrobe to confront this intruder, but the bank of mirrors had unified and all showed me the repeated image of a plump woman with shoulder length greasy brown hair, a baggy jumper and a pair of faded denim jeans.
I checked the vanity mirror in case the apparition had fled in there, but all the reflections were mine.
When I went into the corridor, the door to the boxroom stood open. A chill breeze eddied out, and when I looked through the dark doorway, I could no longer see the bed and bedside locker inside. It had become a black hole. I sensed a presence there, dark and foreboding, and heard the sounds of a saw cutting through flesh and bone. The stench of blood made me gag, and I looked away because I didn’t want to see what lurked within the room.
I knelt beside the boxes, looking for the severed limbs, but they were gone, even though I could still smell their rancid aroma.
Running footsteps thudded on the carpet and a body brushed against me as a shadow flickered across the walls.
I knew it wasn’t him. He didn’t play tricks, not in life, and not when he visited me in death. It wasn’t his way to hide or play coy. Maybe he had passed on. Maybe he was still waiting for me in the old apartment, or had returned to the ruin of our house to kick through the debris until I came for him.
This was the woman from the mirror. Abandoned like the apartment. Unwanted and left alone.
I stood, keeping my back to the boxroom. Its icy breath felt like the chill from an open freezer door. The noises of some brutal slaughter continued, but I couldn’t force myself to look.
Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me because it was my first night of freedom from the hospital. My first night alone. I hated to be alone. I knew that was why Richard stayed with me, even though he couldn’t keep on living.
I went into the living room and turned on the lights, transforming the window into an opaque pane that reflected the bare room with its cracked brown leatherette suite and yellow walls. The coffee table in front of the sofa had gained a homemade seashell bracelet. It wasn’t mine or Mom’s, and it hadn’t been there earlier. Perhaps it belonged to the woman who had lived here before me.
I felt her standing beside me, breathing heavily onto my neck.
The doctors said ghosts were my subconscious trying to reveal some deep truth and teach me an important lesson about myself. They didn’t believe in spirits. It was all chemicals and psychology with them.
I picked up the bracelet from the table. Thin leather cord threaded through crudely bored holes in the shells held the whole thing together. I wondered if they were from the local beach, carefully gathered by the woman and her lover on romantic walks in happier times. I rubbed my thumb over the ridges on the shells, then held the bracelet to my nose. It smelled of salt and seaweed, with the faint hint of floral perfume on the leather.
The yellow corduroy cushion pressed hard and lumpy against my back, and the armchair creaked and sagged as it took my weight. I looked at the window and saw the woman leaning over me in the reflection. Tall and thin, with salt frizzed hair and seashell pink nail polish, she no longer had the bruises around her eyes, but red lines like faded lipstick marked her neck and wrists. She stared at me with such longing.
If my subconscious was sending me a message, I didn’t understand it. I wished Richard was with me.
When I turned my head, I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her hovering over me, pushing like a cool wind against me, nudging me with gentle but consistent pressure. Maybe, if I closed my eyes, I could pretend she was Richard.
“Who are you?”
When I opened my eyes, she was gone from the window, but I could still feel her.
“What do you want?”
Perhaps she was shy. Richard had no problem talking to me. I wondered if there were people living in my old apartment and if Richard ever talked to them, if he was still there. Selfishly, I hoped he didn’t, but I wouldn’t want him to suffer alone, excluded, waiting for me to return and worrying about where I’d gone. I hoped they talked to him, in that case, so he wouldn’t feel abandoned. It was terrible to be abandoned and alone.
“How can I help you?”
The air moved around me. For a second, the room shimmered and changed. I saw pink rose patterned curtains over the windows, and pictures of horses on the walls. A faux fur throw rested over the back of the nasty brown couch. The room was warm, loved, lived in. Someone took pride in the touches. A large conch shell sat on the table in front of me.
The woman was back in the window. She looked into the reflection, meeting my gaze through the glass.
“Let me stay,” she mouthed.
How could I turn her away? Perhaps she was waiting for her boyfriend to return. This was her home. I was the temporary spirit haunting it.
“Yes, of course. You are welcome to stay here for as long as you want.”
She solidified beside me. Younger than me, only early twenties, with a waiflike vulnerability. I saw bruises on her arms and the chop marks along her wrists and throat. Her eyes were dark, but she smiled. She seemed happy.
Her body weighed nothing as it came to rest on top of me. Her coldness made me shiver. At first she hovered over me, her body superimposed over mine, and then she slowly sank into me, melding with me until we were one. Together. No longer alone.
Iseult Murphy is a chronically ill, multi-genre writer from Ireland. She has published several novels and over two dozen short stories. Her short fiction has appeared in NewMyths, the Drabblecast and The Creepy Podcast. Find out more at Iseultmurphy.com.
A SPECIAL, SPECIAL THANKS TO THE JUDGES OF THE HAUNTED HORROR CONTEST:
Catherine A. MacKenzie's
writings are found in numerous print and online publications. She writes all genres but invariably veers toward the dark—so much so her late mother once asked, “Can’t you write anything happy?” (She can!)
She’s published two novels: Wolves Don’t Knock and Mister Wolfe. Two volumes of grief poetry commemorate her late son Matthew: My Heart Is Broken and Broken Hearts Can’t Always Be Fixed. She has also published other books of poetry and short story compilations, all available on Amazon or from her. Her latest publication is an anthology with 75 authors: No One Should Kiss a Frog. She’s also compiling stories for two anthologies about loss. Check her website for submission details - http://writingwicket.wordpress.com
Cathy lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
is a published poet and author of 25 published books. Her stories have been featured on the Kaidankai podcast and by Sweetycat Press, Ravens Quoth Press, Clarendon House Publications, Spillwords, and other publications. She served as Editor for Valkyrie Magazine. She was selected as “Best In Collection” 2023 by Ravens Quoth Press and she also won the Emerald Award for her poem “Dancing Girl” awarded by Sweetycat Press. She prefers writing horror but also writes science fiction, paranormal mystery and fantasy. She lives with her family in Florida.
is Deputy Director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Smithsonian Affiliations (SITES | SA), where she provides executive leadership and direction for overall planning, development, and management of SITES | SA programs and activities. She is currently leading the organization in the implementation of a new strategic plan to catalyze public engagement and spark learning, enjoyment, and wonder by connecting the resources of the Smithsonian to a vital network of museums and other educational and cultural organizations. Prior to this role, she served as the Deputy Director for Smithsonian Affiliations and Interim Deputy Director for Exhibits, Finance & Administration for SITES.
Bram Stoker Award nominated author and editor, Douglas Gwilym has been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. His short story "Year Six" is on Ellen Datlow's recommended reading list for Best Horror 14. He co-edits The Midnight Zone—forthcoming edition, Novus Monstrum, a collection of never-before-seen monsters, featuring original stories by greats, and new voices, in strange, dark fiction. He reads classics of the proto-Weird on YouTube and has been guest staff at Alpha Young Writers workshop. His short fiction appears in LampLight, Lucent Dreaming, Dark Horses, Shelter of Daylight, Tales from the Moonlit Path, Penumbric, Creepy podcast, and Tales to Terrify.
hosts the Kaidankai. She is a journalist and author whose fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in outlets around the world. One of her fondest memories is hanging out summers in a tree or in the back corner of the library reading ghost stories.