by L.N. Hunter
"Skin Deep" first appeared in Corrugated Sky Publishing’s Obscura anthology in 2019
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
“How original,” drawled the tall, black-suited man standing within the pentagram. “You humans! Is eternal life really the best you can come up with?”
He sucked deeply on his cigarette and casually blew several smoke rings: first, a perfect triangle, then a square, and a pentagon and, finally, a hexagon. He flicked the spent cigarette away and ground it out, his shiny black wing tips making scratches on the elaborate parquet floor.
“I want to remain young and healthy, too—I’m not going to suffer Tithonus’s fate, when he forgot to ask to stop aging.”
The young woman knew she looked good. Her inheritance had already paid for a few little nips and tucks, but her youthful beauty wouldn’t last forever, unless she made sure to include that in the bargain. She thought for a moment. “And no tricks about having to find special food or drink. No killing things to absorb their life essence or whatever. I’m vegan, you know.”
The man lifted another cigarette to his lips, where it spontaneously ignited. “You ask a lot, my dear Emilia Beatrice Kilburn.”
He smiled and exhaled a thick cloud of smoke, which grew and swirled around his body. When it dissipated, a red-skinned demon stood in his place, horns grazing the ceiling of the private library. He had the same orange eyes as the man, and the same cigarette dangling from his thin lips.
“Is there anything else?” Smoke drifted from the demon’s mouth as he spoke. “Or is that an acceptable exchange for your soul?”
Emilia knew that dealing with demonkind was fraught with danger, but she was clever and had done her homework.
“One more thing. I don’t want an injury or illness to leave me in any way disabled. I don’t want to suffer any accidents.”
The demon removed the cigarette from his mouth and smiled widely, showing all his yellowed teeth. “Smart girl, indeed. Your Daddy-funded education is paying off, isn’t it?”
He gestured at the elegant oil pictures lining the walls and shelves of antique books. “Would you like more riches to go with your very long life? A country to rule, perhaps? You could be a—what do you mortals call it—a ‘media personality’ with hordes of adoring fans.” He looked around the room. “I can see that you’re used to comfort, but you didn’t think twice about ruining this beautiful floor with your pentagram. Surely you could do with some help to keep you, as they say, in the style to which you are accustomed…”
Emilia didn’t hesitate. She shook her head. “Nope, no way. I’m rich enough already, and sensible investing will keep me going. I’m smart enough to look after my own finances, thank you very much. The more I ask you for, on the other hand, the more chance there is of you finding some loophole.”
The demon heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Some people. All I’m trying to do is make your life much more pleasurable.”
“For you, you mean, not me! I’m not falling for your lies.”
The dark prince pouted. “I could take offence at that. I never utter falsehoods. Your… research… must have told you that. You know, I’ve always thought the title ‘Prince of Lies’ incredibly unfair.” He shrugged. “We just don’t always tell the complete truth.”
Emilia scowled and she shouted, “Tempt me not, foul fiend!” When the demon’s face froze and his stare lanced into her, she felt her heart pause. Had she taken a step too far?
Then he roared with laughter. “The old lines really are the best.”
“Eternal life, that’s what I want,” she muttered. “No physical or mental degradation, no accidents. And that’s it.”
“Perhaps I might be permitted to make one more suggestion?”
Emelia eyed him suspiciously but let him proceed.
“Existence as an unchanging immortal can be a nuisance; I speak from experience. Your friends will wonder why you don’t appear to age and, should you do something to attract unwanted attention, it will be difficult to escape the eye of the oh-so-critical public.” He pursed his lips. “I could give you deliberate conscious control of your appearance.” He paused and let the edges of his mouth twitch upward. “That is, if you think it could be helpful.”
Emilia stiffened and licked her lips. This was something she hadn’t considered. Her face went blank as she thought about the possibilities. If she always looked the same, she’d have to keep moving every few years, and ensuring continuous access to her wealth would require a lot of effort. On the other hand, she could allow herself to take on the natural appearance of age and, simultaneously, gradually introduce another version of herself as a younger cousin or distant niece to the household. This young relative would inherit everything from her doting elder, and Emilia could perpetuate herself that way. There’d be few awkward questions. She couldn’t think of any disadvantage of being able to alter her appearance but, remembering that the demon said he never lied, she asked, “What am I missing here?”
“Why, nothing at all! You think it, you look it—what could be simpler, my dear Ms. Kilburn?” The demon inhaled on his cigarette, causing the end to glow as brightly as his orange eyes, then shrugged again. As if he’d been reading her mind, he said, “If you’d rather not invent nieces and prefer to spend eternity running from people, that’s entirely up to you. I can do no more than offer it; you make the decision.”
Emilia stared into his unblinking eyes until hers started to water and she had to look away. “Okay then, I agree.”
The demon’s form snapped back to the tall, lawyerly appearance from before, and he dropped his cigarette on to the mahogany floor, once again grinding it into the varnish. He extracted a parchment and an ornate quill from inside his suit. Stepping forward, he crossed the lines of the pentagram with ease and pricked Emilia’s forearm with the quill, drawing blood.
“Ow!” She flinched. Then she paused, rubbing her arm where she’d been stabbed, and asked in a weak voice, “Wait, you could’ve left the pentagram any time?”
“Of course, my dear. Your pretty patterns mean nothing to me. I came because your soul called to me, not because of your spells and scribbles.”
He held the parchment out to her. “Please do verify that this corresponds with your desires.” He offered the quill, charged with Emilia’s blood, and said in a deeper voice that reverberated as if they were standing in a room considerably larger than the library, “and then please sign.”
Emelia read the brief document from beginning to end three times, carefully considering every nuance of language, looking for tricks and hidden escape clauses. She finally concluded that the contract was accurate and correct, and signed. The parchment seemed to suck the ink—her blood—from the quill. Her signature was dry by the time she handed the parchment and now-drained quill back to the demon. She started to speak but faltered with a suddenly dry mouth. She swallowed and tried again, managing no more than a hoarse whisper. “I do have one question.”
The tall man raised an eyebrow.
“If I’m immortal, how will you get my soul?”
The man’s lips turned up at the edges, the smile not reaching his hypnotic eyes. “My dear Ms. Kilburn, your soul is not the important thing here and it never was; the promise is enough. What do you think I would do with a soul? It’s an insubstantial, trivial thing and irrelevant to the physical universe; it can affect me as much as a peanut can satisfy an elephant. No, it’s your torment I enjoy, and that doesn’t have to wait until your death.”
He chuckled as he faded from existence. Emilia was left with the echo of his laugh and the thick smell of cigarette smoke, along with a sick feeling in her stomach.
She expected to feel different, but nothing seemed to change in the weeks that followed. She caught herself wondering if she’d really summoned a demon and exchanged her soul for eternal life, or if she might be suffering from some mental illness. How could she tell? She swallowed an uncomfortable giggle at the thought that all she had to do was wait for a very long time and see whether she died or not.
Assuming she had made a deal with a demon, Emilia considered all the things she could do now: travel the world, learn to play a musical instrument—heck, several. Then she realized that normal people--mortal people—could do, and did do, these things; all that was different was she had more time in which to do them.
So, she did the same as most people, rich or poor. She procrastinated.
And while she procrastinated, she thought about her sister, the initial trigger for her deal-making. Suzanne had died after a battle with leukemia, despite the application of the best medical attention vast sums of inherited money could buy. Emilia wanted to save her sister, or to at least extend her unfairly shortened life. Once conventional medicine had conceded defeat, she followed many paths on the internet and elsewhere in search of treatments. At best, some of the legion of self-proclaimed healers alleviated Suzanne’s pain a little, but most were charlatans, mere purveyors of snake-oil.
A week before Suzanne died, Emilia came across a web site that looked different from the others. Nothing more than an old-fashioned form, white text boxes on a plain black background, inviting visitors to describe what would drive them to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Normally, Emilia would have closed the browser window and moved on, but she was desperate—Suzanne had endured a particularly bad episode that day—so she filled in the form. She said she loved her sister and couldn’t imagine living without her. She paused briefly and added, “Please allow her a few more years? Just a few. That’s all I ask.”
As soon as she hit Enter, the page cleared, and a line of text appeared: Your plea has been received; if we deem you worthy, you will receive instructions.
Emilia sighed and turned off her laptop. What had she expected anyway?
A week passed. Suzanne died.
Emilia forgot about the web site but, several weeks after her sister’s funeral, a small, neatly wrapped black parcel arrived in the mail. As she extracted a slim book from the package, a note slid out and fluttered to the floor. She picked it up and read: You, not your sister, have been deemed worthy; follow these instructions.
In disgust, Emilia threw the book in the back of a drawer and ignored it.
Several months passed before she stumbled across it again. She took it out for a closer look and idly examined the cover. How ridiculous, she thought, a book on demonology. But, as she read, she started to wonder if it would work. She tracked down other sources on the internet, some directing her to obscure libraries, hidden bookstores and shadowy museums.
Though she couldn’t bring her sister back, she could at least make sure she didn’t suffer a similar pathetic, painful end herself.
And now, after following the trail to its conclusion, immortality beckoned. If, that is, she believed the demon… If she believed her mind.
As the years passed, Emilia attracted more and more comments from friends about her youthful appearance. She laughed and said, “You can’t believe how much I spend at Gerardo’s and the Spa. It takes a lot of time and effort to look this good.” To her closest friends, she confessed to hiding a lot under make-up, and admitted that the best cosmetic surgery could offer was paying off. However, she realized it was time to think about changing her appearance.
She stared at herself in the mirror and wondered what to do. After a moment, feeling somewhat self-conscious, she commanded, “Get older.”
She remembered what the demon had offered: control of her appearance. But what did that really mean? She suddenly grasped that she had to worry about the details, every single wrinkle and blemish. She couldn’t be vague. Shit!
She also realized that she couldn’t picture what her face should look like at her correct age, quite a few years older than she currently appeared. The only thing that came to mind was a vague impression of the crow’s feet around her friend’s eyes, not having ever closely examined the precise pattern of creases—who really ever looks at a friend’s face in critical detail? She opened her laptop and searched for pictures of women her age. It was harder than she expected, since most people attempted to hide signs of aging in anything they allowed to be made public. In the age range from about 25 to 45, people in the public eye pay ever increasing attention to retaining their youth, before relenting and accepting the effects of time. Eventually, Emilia had a number of photographs of the same people at different ages, so she could study how age affected their appearance.
She placed the laptop beside her mirror and, switching her gaze between her reflection and the screen, concentrated on precisely copying the patterns of small wrinkles from the pictures to the skin around her eyes and lips, willing the creases into place. Eventually, exhausted and with a throbbing headache, she achieved satisfactory results; there was an older woman in the mirror, but one who moved like her and wore expressions she was accustomed to seeing in her reflection. She even managed an amused thought as she went to bed: first thing in the morning, she’d be applying make-up to hide most of this painstaking work.
Something felt wrong when she woke up. Her mouth was numb, and her left eye wouldn’t open properly. There was a sticky, pulling sensation as she lifted her head from the pillow. She staggered to the bathroom and switched on the light. She stared uncomprehendingly at the mirror, then screamed.
Her face had melted; at least that’s what it looked like. It was as if gravity had caused everything to sag while she slept. The skin was tight on the right side, while loose, flabby folds had collected on the left, covering her eye and making her mouth droop and drool.
“No-no-no-no!” she slurred. “This can’t be happening.” She dropped to the floor and fought back tears as she tried to figure out what was going on. It couldn’t be an illness; the demon had promised that.
She replayed what exactly he’d said: deliberate conscious control. Then she understood. She had conscious control of her looks, but no-one had said anything about unconscious effects. The bastard! The bloody bastard! No wonder he’d been laughing. Was this going to happen every night? More importantly for the moment, could she fix it?
She quickly pushed and pulled and thought her skin back to a face shape, but it still wasn’t her own face. Something looked not quite right, but she couldn’t tell what—some almost imperceptible detail was wrong, throwing the whole out of shape. As with most of her friends, her phone was full of selfies, so she had plenty of material showing what she looked like. She pored over the photos; move this freckle here, sharpen that line there, compare the results with her photographs, and move on to the next patch of skin. An hour later, she recognized herself. Then she set about aging herself again.
She got to work very late that day, carrying with her the worry that the backs of her ears might not be quite right, along with other areas she didn’t have any photos of or couldn’t see in her mirrors. She couldn’t tell if people were staring at her, or if it was merely her frantic imagination.
The following morning, and every morning after, she discovered the answer to her first question: yes, this was going to happen every night.
She gave up her job; it wasn’t as if she needed the money. Instead, she spent most of her days working on her face.
Emilia stopped going out in the evening after that incident with Steve. Or was it Stefan… or possibly Scott? She couldn’t remember; she never paid much attention to their names. A cute surfer blond with a hot body, whom she’d picked up in her favorite nightclub while wearing the face and body of her younger self.
Fueled by tequila, they lurched from the taxi and made their way through Emilia’s house. They passed the door to the library, a room Emilia hadn’t entered since her demonic visit, and staggered up the stairs, giggling and discarding clothes along the way.
At first, Steve—or whoever he was—took control, and Emilia let the tingle of pleasure run up and down her body. After a while, growing impatient, she pushed him back on to the bed and stroked and fondled and sucked and pinched until the world shrank to contain just the pair of them. It didn’t take long before she was on the brink of orgasm.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” Emilia panted, eyes closed and hips moving in time with the thrusting beneath her.
Steve slowed, then halted completely.
Eyes still closed, Emilia licked her lips and murmured, “Don’t stop.” When nothing happened, she opened her eyes to see a shocked expression below her.
“Your body…? What’s happening to it?”
Shit! She could feel her face sagging and looked down to see her breasts stretching across the bed, drooping over the sides. “Wait, it’s nothing. Wait!”
She pulled her breasts into a bundle in her arms and concentrated on bringing her body back to normal, but the mood was shattered.
Steve pushed her away and scrabbled out from underneath, thudding onto the floor. Mouth flapping soundlessly, he stared at her for a moment longer, then ran for the door, not even taking time to collect his clothes.
In any case, she thought afterwards, when she stopped crying, it’ll be easier if I go to bed earlier; I’ll have more time the next day to fix my face. And my body. She started crying again.
Another year passed, with Emilia getting better at pulling her face and body back into shape. She spent fewer and fewer hours on the task each day; but daydreaming could be disastrous.
Maybe it was time to finally start her journey round the world, though out of necessity rather than desire. Now, she’d stick to places where few people would see her.
Over the next few decades, Emilia contributed to cryptozoological legends of strange semi-humans sighted in various parts of the world. She was adept at snapping back to a normal person now—she had a repertoire of appearances—but she found it impossible to make her mask persist when her thoughts strayed. She became accustomed to being a wrinkled, sagging creature most of the time.
In her eighth decade, she caught herself wondering why she had asked the demon for eternal life. She’d only thought of avoiding pain and death, but could those be much worse than her current lonely life? Emilia smiled wryly at the thought of rejecting his offer of riches and comfort because she thought she knew better. What did all the money from her investments mean now?
Sometime during her second century, she spent several months unsuccessfully trying to kill herself. Wounds closed up within minutes; poisons sweated themselves out of her body; drowning just left her feeling very thirsty.
She entombed herself via a cave explosion and existed for thirteen years as a blob of human porridge squeezed beneath heavy rocks, until she finally got bored and oozed free. She had only the dimmest recollection of that time. She might have gone insane for some of that period. Or maybe a human brain doesn’t work properly when it’s spread pancake-thin.
Regaining at least the semblance of a human form after that, she travelled from country to country, from continent to continent, looking for a solution to her problem. She ventured to monasteries high in the Himalayas, grateful for the warmth of the shaggy coat of fur she grew. She visited hermitages deep in arid deserts, where she found her dwindling wealth could still open doors. She conferred with occultists and sorcerers, witches and warlocks, in the hope that they could fix her physical form. Despite most being as ineffectual as the medical snake-oil peddlers from so long ago, Emilia gained knowledge from those who were true. She came to understand many mystical secrets and esoteric magics, but there was no cure for her condition.
Perhaps, then, she could find a spell to call the demon back to her, to plead for a renegotiation of the deal, a trade of some of her life for her appearance, but the closest she got was hearing the whisper of his laugh on the wind. She learned that the only currency demons were interested in was souls, and she’d already promised the solitary one she owned.
She trained herself to tune and modulate her senses. With her ability to change her shape, Emilia could grow ears which could hear better than a bat’s, and eyes which could see farther than an eagle’s. She found she could travel without being seen, making herself a pale, insubstantial cloud which could pass through any gap. She could even detach small fragments of her body and morph them into other objects. But she still had to concentrate on maintaining a human appearance most of the time she was awake, and she had to rebuild her body after every period of sleep.
She could be a comic book superhero, if she cared, but Emilia Beatrice Kilburn no longer considered herself a part of humanity. She even resented those dumb humans who had never suffered as she did.
Emilia eventually returned to her home city, which seemed to have changed very little in the centuries since she was last there. Wandering the streets like some homeless bag-lady, she stumbled across a library which still had retro computer terminals. She was surprised that such a place still existed—probably the result of a bequest from some wealthy, old-fashioned reader unwilling to give up the past. Smiling wryly at that thought, she entered and sat down at one of the terminals, conscious of stares from the librarian and the handful of other occupants.
She typed in the address of the web site which had started her journey, intending to ask for help again. Hoping for more than a ‘site not found’ message, she hit Enter. Instead of the empty form from before, the screen displayed an already filled-in request. There was a name, Ernest Roberts, and a street address on the page. A map site gave her directions to a gated community in the suburbs.
She made her way to the man’s house, her morphing abilities enabling her to pass by the community’s security guards with ease. It was a large, blocky building with tall casement windows and a solid oak front door, and reminded her of the house in which she’d first met her demon. Did she still own that house, she wondered. Her memory didn’t seem to be as good as it used to be; the demon had promised mental health, but it seemed that didn’t include memory.
One of the windows on the first floor showed some light, so she peered in. She stumbled back at what she saw, but then laughed and immediately knew what she had to do next. If it worked, she would gain another soul—another chance.
She eased her form through a gap in the window frame and appeared in a cloud of smoke within the pentagram chalked on the floor.
The man stared at the tall black-dressed woman in surprise.
Emilia materialized a lit cigarette and popped it between her lips. She inhaled deeply, paused for a few seconds, then let the smoke escape in a long slow breath. She took the cigarette from her mouth and studied the glowing tip for a few seconds, before looking at the man.
“What do you most desire, my dear Ernest Oliver Roberts?”
She let her eyes glow orange, as she smiled, showing all her teeth.
L.N. Hunter’s comic fantasy novel, ‘The Feather and the Lamp,’ sits alongside works in anthologies such as ‘The Monsters Next Door’ and ‘Best of British Science Fiction 2022’ as well as Short Édition’s ‘Short Circuit’ and the ‘Horrifying Tales of Wonder’ podcast. There have also been papers in the IEEE ‘Transactions on Neural Networks,’ which are probably somewhat less relevant and definitely less fun. When not writing, L.N. unwinds in a disorganised home in rural Cambridgeshire, UK, along with two cats and a soulmate.
Linktree (publications list): https://linktr.ee/l.n.hunter
FU 9 1806
by Stewart Bernstein
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Last Wednesday, June 12th, hump-day, was our usual poker night. As we always say, “Just a bunch of studs playing stud poker.” From 7 until the last hand, my house is where you can find us. I’m the host, so I’m always sitting near the kitchen. You know, so I don’t have to yell too loud for my wife to bring more food and beer. Sonny sits to my right, Marvin to his right, Jay to his, and then Jeff. No place cards needed.
We all grew up in South Philly, a working-class neighborhood. Same experiences, same values; play hard, work hard, get married, have kids, and go to church, synagogue or whatever, but only on the important holidays. And lastly, and this is the most important, poker every Wednesday. A simple life for us simple peons. A simple life that was about to change.
Sitting in front of us are our bottles of beer, our cards and ash trays each overflowing with the remains from our Phillies cigars, (What else did you expect?). And one was overflowing with the ashes from the sweet cherry smell of Prince Albert pipe tobacco. Yeah, one of us thinks he’s sophisticated. Go figure. And you can't forget the half-eaten slices of pizza on oil-stained paper plates. Pizza and beer, the poker snack of champs. Although our wives might say it a bit differently, “Pizza and beer, the Poker Snack of Chumps.”
Poker is just an excuse to drive each other nuts. No one really cares who wins. It relieves our stress. That’s what it’s all about. We bet, bluff, and poke fun at each other with every draw of the card and bet. (Hey, maybe that’s how poker got its name?)
“You call that a bet, 25 cents? What’s the matter wife shortchanged your allowance this week?
“Hey, bet already. We’re playing poker. This isn’t your old lady’s canasta club.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see my wife Connie in the kitchen giving me the sign. It’s our special sign that involves the use of just one of her fingers. She’s letting me know that she’s tired. It will take at least an hour to clean up our mess, and she wants to get to bed at a decent hour, so wrap it up! I sign back.
“Boys, last game by order of the management.” I shuffle. Someone starts to talk about our old neighborhood, which got me to thinking,
“Hey, does anyone remember their phone number from the old neighborhood?” Not a one did. But I did- FU 9-1806. To every adult FU stood for Fulton, but not to certain kids like me. Maybe that’s why I never forgot it.
Anyway, Sonny started it. “Do you think it’s still a number?” The argument began. “How can it? That’s when we had rotary phones and party lines.” “Yeah, and we now have ten digits?” “Well, why don’t you try it. What do you got to lose?”
They were right. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I picked up my cell phone, set it on the table, put it on loudspeaker and dialed.
The phone rang. That’s strange I thought, and I could see on their faces that they were thinking the same thing. “How could seven digits connect?” But it was ringing. It didn’t have the tone that you normally get with a cell phone. The ring had a tinny and faraway sound to it.
“Must be going to an automated operator”, I said, “You know, telling you that ‘The number you dialed is not in service, please check the number and dial again.’"
We all had surprised, confused looks on our faces as it continued to ring. After about four rings a boy’s voice answered, “Hello”.
My breath took a breath. The hairs on my arms, chest, legs, all of them, stood at attention. My whole body was tingling. I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t make a sound. I had no voice. I was paralyzed.
You see, I recognized that voice. That was my voice as a kid. It was me! I must have been about 11 or 12 as best as I could tell. I looked at my phone. The caller ID had my last name on it. My last name! I hung up. The phone and I were mute. I just stared.
Sonny yelled out first, “Hey that sounded like you!” Jeff and the others joined in. “Yeah, it did.”
I could hardly hear them. That voice, my voice, was like a tidal wave crashing inside my head, drowning out and muffling whatever they were saying. I needed to regroup. I needed time to think. To clear my head. There has to be a rational, logical answer. There has to be. I just need time to think. I need to be alone.
“Guys, come on, it was just a voice. It wasn’t me. I’m right here. It’s what those computer nerds always say when they can’t explain why the computer or internet isn’t working, ‘It’s something in the ether’.” That was the best I could come up with, even though I didn’t believe it. They all had a yeah-yeah-sure look on their faces. They shrugged their shoulders and we finished the game. Afterwards they put on their coats, gave each other back slaps and left, except for Sonny.
We were next door neighbors and best friends when we lived in the old neighborhood, and to this day we still live next to each other and still are the best of friends. As kids, every Saturday, we would go to the matinee and take in the cartoons, the next chapter in the “Rocket Man” serial, and the double feature. We talked religion, heaven, hell, life, afterlife, nothing was off limits. He was there whenever I needed him. He was there for the good times and the bad. The worst was when I lost my younger brother in a car accident.
I caused it. Everyone says I didn’t, that it was the driver’s fault, but I know better, I was there. It was my fault. I killed him. That moment is always with me. It’s an 8mm movie stuck in the projection room of my brain, waiting to restart and replay his death whenever it feels like. He is always the victim. I am always the villain.
When it starts, I watch as I near the curb on the other side of the street. My back is to him. I hear the scream, “Watch out! Watch out!” I hear the screech of brakes, the thud. I turn and look behind me. I see the car. I see him lying in the street, jangled, mangled, unmoving. I run and stop. I’m standing over him, numb. I hear the sirens. I see the stretcher, my Mom and Dad’s contorted, anguished faces wet with tears. Their words, between the sobs, “How? Why?"
I know how. I know why. I didn’t hold his hand as we crossed. That’s how. That’s why. I killed him. And over and over again I see it, hear it, relive it. It’s my punishment.
Sonny looked at me, “Look I don’t buy that ether shit. You know and I know that was your voice”.
I was standing but feeling lightheaded. I had to sit. I leaned forward with elbows on the table holding the sides of my head.
“Sonny, I don’t understand. That was my voice. But how is that possible?”
“I don’t know. But if I were you, I would forget what you heard and never, ever dial that number again. Never. You hear me?”
I promised but I wasn’t sure I could keep that promise.
That night, I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I was twelve again and reliving my brother’s death. I could see it so clearly. It was a Saturday, June 15. I’ll never forget that date. Sonny couldn’t make the movies, so I took my younger brother. He was seven, and this was the first time we were going together to the movies. He had the biggest smile. He was going on a big adventure with his big brother. Mom made me promise to make sure I held his hand as we crossed the streets.
“Of course, mom.” Another promise I didn’t keep.
Before we could get to the movies, we had to cross the Avenue. It was a busy two-way street filled with cars and buses moving up and down its four lanes. If you crossed with the green light, no problem. Cross with the yellow and you needed to time it just so. Do that and you’re safe. If I had only held onto his hand, he would have been safe. He kissed and hugged our mom and off he went on his last big adventure.
I still hadn't slept, and it was now Thursday morning. Connie sensed something was wrong. She was used to those times when I remembered, and she knew how to deal with it. But this was different. I heard her voice. I heard the sounds she was making, but they were not turning themselves into words. The sounds entered my ears and there they died. They never made it to my brain.
I knew I was in trouble, and I knew I couldn’t face reality. I needed some help. I took a tranquilizer and a sleeping pill. Connie helped me crawl back into bed. I closed my eyes and prayed that the pills would switch off the projector, turn off the guilt, even if it was just for a few hours. It worked. I slept all through Thursday.
I woke up on Friday morning vaguely remembering what had occurred. My brain felt fuzzy. I had to concentrate to peek through the pills’ veil of fog clouding my thoughts. Then, slowly I began to remember. My phone number, FU 9 1806. The call. The voice! I jumped out of bed. I called for Connie. She wasn’t home. She left me a note, “I’m visiting my sister for the day. And Sonny came by yesterday when you were asleep to see how you were.”
I was alone. I made and ate some scrambled eggs. I made and drank a full pot of Maxwell House. My brain was back to normal even though the situation was far from normal. I knew I had to do something. But, what? Call again? No, I promised Sonny. I got to think.
I got it. I know what I need to do.
I got into the car, turned the ignition, took a deep breath, then put it in drive and took off. I was going back to my old neighborhood. My old address. With all that’s happened, I needed to see, to confront whatever was going on, to realize it was not real. Just my imagination ignited by my sense of guilt.
When I was only a few blocks away from my old neighborhood, I parked the car and decided to walk, to kind of sneak up on ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ was.
As I walked, I looked around and saw how gentrification had changed the look, smell and the flavor of the neighborhood. The corner church was now condos. Grocery stores were now high-end markets and luncheonettes, like Kramer’s and Nate’s, were now coffee shops.
I was now approaching the corner that was just one block from my old street. That’s where Kramer’s and Nate’s luncheonettes were located. Back in my time, they had served the neighborhood and the teachers who taught at Key Elementary school just a few blocks away.
It was lunchtime as I got to the corner. I stopped and couldn’t believe, refused to believe, what I saw. There were my elementary school teachers-Miss. Green, Mrs. Frazier, Miss Barker-walking into Nate’s. How can that be? They looked and were dressed just like I remembered them. Even Nate’s looked exactly the same. His luncheon special was posted in the window: “Corned beef with slaw, $1.25. Onions two cents extra”. What’s going on? I couldn't stop to think. I had one block before turning into my street. I had to keep moving forward.
Then, as I turned into my old street, what I saw caused me to stop in my tracks...again. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were coming home from school to eat lunch, watch some TV and get back to school. I knew all this because the two I saw were my brother and me! But how? I had returned to find answers, get clarity, restore some of my sanity. Instead, I now had more questions than answers. Everything was far from clear.
Was I going insane?
There had to be a reason for all of this. I panicked and hurried back to my car. As I passed Nate’s, I had the sensation of passing through whatever was covering the past, stepping through it and into the present. When I did turn back, the old was gone. No more Nate’s. No more Kramer’s. No more little me. No more little brother. My old world was gone.
I don’t know how I got home. My mind couldn’t, wouldn’t focus. Instinct must have taken the wheel and gotten me safely home. Connie was still out. I thought of calling Sonny, but I knew he would be angry with me. I had to figure this out on my own. Why was this happening and why now? I’m not a true believer but was this the devil’s work? God’s? I kept coming back to the same questions, ‘Why? And why now’?
I looked at my watch to see if Connie might be home soon. Then, it hit me. It’s Friday June 14th. Tomorrow's Saturday the 15th. The day I killed my brother. If this was the devil’s work, was he tormenting me, giving me a taste of what hell would be like? But what if this was God’s work, that he’s ready to perform a miracle, to let me go back, to return to the scene, and save my brother? That he is forgiving me, absolving me, allowing me to finally get rid of my guilt, which has attached itself to my soul and been a part of every beat of my heart since my brother’s death.
I was ready to believe. I must believe that it is God, not the devil doing this. Tomorrow I would save my brother!
I went to bed early. Connie was not yet home. Strangely I was at peace and fell into a quick and deep sleep. When I woke, Connie was already in the kitchen making our traditional Saturday stack of pancakes, with melted butter, syrup, and lots of coffee. That aroma of pancakes, coffee and the knowledge that I was going to save my brother filled me with joy, the kind of joy I would see on the faces of the congregants on TV during one of those hallelujah sermons. I could have been right there beside them, jumping, raising my hands, and giving praise to the Almighty. I didn’t tell my wife why I was so full of joy, and she didn’t ask. I could see that she was just relieved that I had bounced back.
It was 11:30 AM. The matinee would start promptly at 1. My brother and I would leave the house at 12:30. It was time for me to leave. I kissed Connie, gave her a big hug and told her I had something important to do and would be home late afternoon. I got in my car and left to save my brother.
I wasn’t going to take any chances that I would be late, so I went directly to the Avenue, parked my car, and waited a little off from the corner. I knew what I was going to do. I would yell and warn my brother and save him before the car hit him. I won’t be the villain anymore. I will be that unknown hero in the crowd who yelled out and saved the boy.
When I got there, I looked around. I didn’t recognize anything. It was the present. The present. “Come on God, stop joking. Stop toying with me. Please, haven’t I suffered enough?”
It was now 12:30 and my brother and I would just be leaving our home. It was almost time. Time was ticking and nothing was changing. Everything was as it should be if you were living in the present. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted the past. My past. Ten minutes to accident. Nine, eight. Still nothing.
And then it happened. The buildings, streets, now appeared like one of those watercolor paintings, where everything is runny, blurry. The lines of the buildings became wavy. Their colors started to fade, and their shapes began to blend into each other. But, when I looked at my hands, my clothes, they were unlike those paintings. I was an oil painting with bright, vivid, colors and crisp lines.
As I continued to look at the Avenue and the buildings, I saw the oil paint begin to replace the watercolors and repaint the scene with those bright and vivid colors and crisp lines. The buildings were being redrawn, reshaped. They were now as solid and real as I was. They were now my familiar past.
I looked around but still didn’t see them. There were kids still in line in front of the movie theater, so I knew the doors hadn't opened yet. I knew I wasn’t late. But still no sign of them.
This was where it happened. I couldn’t be wrong about that. I… I see them!
They’re approaching the corner. It’s crowded. We are at the back of the crowd. I’m holding my brother’s hand. I didn’t remember that. We pause with the crowd who are looking at the traffic light. It turns green but for some reason the crowd doesn’t move right away. By the time we start to cross the street it’s yellow. I’m still holding my brother’s hand. I start to quicken my pace; my steps are longer than my brother’s. By the time we get to the middle of the street, the light changes. I run. My hand slips from his.
I, the adult me, sees the car. Now’s the time. I scream out with all my might, “Watch out! Watch out!” My brother is startled. He looks around to see who’s calling.
He stops right in the path of the car.
He’s hit. He’s dead again. I killed him again. This time I wasn’t twelve. This time I was an adult. I thought it was God’s work giving me a second chance, but God wouldn’t do that, would he? It had to be the devil, right?
Anyway, I swear that’s what happened. At least, I think that’s what happened. And, if it did, when did it begin, in the present, in the past? I can’t even be sure when it ended. Then, now? Nothing has changed though, he’s still dead. We killed him, adult me and child me killed him.
Wait, maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe I don’t even have a brother. Maybe I’m merely insane which means I didn’t kill him, or anybody. But if I am sane then we did kill our brother.
Doctor, please you got to tell me, I’m begging you, what am I?
As a child of the 50s, Stewart Bernstein spent too many afternoons in darkened theaters watching horror movies like "Them," "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "Dracula," "Frankenstein,", "Rocket Ship X-M”, the “Flash Gordon” serials, and too many hours in front of the TV watching shows like, “Science Fiction Theater”, “The Twilight Zone” and later on, “Tales From The Crypt”. After retiring from law, he now has the time to incorporate in his writings the themes and feelings from those old time sci-fi movies and TV shows that still haunt him.
Lemon and Yellow
by John A. Monaghan
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
I appreciate the irony of suffering hypothermia because of an overheated engine but the humor isn’t funny until later. I’d filled up the gas tank in preparation for entering the stretch, or what I call the stretch, a lonely barren part of the highway between Prestonsburg and Ashland. But when the engine temperature began to rise while the heater blew cold air, I knew I had trouble. I’m not a mechanical man and on that road at that time, twisting and turning through Appalachia, the towns miles below and miles away, made me feel helpless. But I was closer to the stretch’s end than the beginning, and so I pushed on, peering through the darkness hoping for an exit.
It did not come before my car died. A look under the hood with the cell’s flashlight told me that I had an empty radiator and a faulty hose – not that it mattered; I’d no
water for the radiator or the hose or the tools. I held my already-numbed hands to the engine block for heat but it was already growing cold from the intense weather. I smelled only the acridity of burnt coolant. My cell had no signal and the battery was low from my overuse. I was completely on my own.
I was already freezing and knew that I needed warmth soon. My ears hurt in the cold. Ahead, I saw the outline of a change from guardrails to concrete barriers, indicating a bridge, and so I walked to find the sign that I hoped to be near it or to better see the North Star. The sign gave the nearest town as eleven miles. That put the nearest station as probably even further, too far to walk in the night’s intense cold. But I’d no choice; if a gas station was at the exit I’d be alright.
Then I saw the light. The bridge was really an overpass and below in the valley shined
the steady light of a farmhouse.
In the night’s gloom, I could just make out the edges of the steep descent to the valley below. I began to walk west when I heard a steady jingling of something metal behind me. I turned. A dog emerged out of the gloom, tags hanging from the collar. It’s funny the things I notice when I’m are freezing to death. He was a lemon yellow beagle. He paused and eyed me then turned around. For some reason, I followed him back, back east towards the car. He leapt over the guardrail and down the mountainside. He stopped and looked at me.
I followed. I don’t know why. In the moonlight, the mountainside was a field of grays and blacks and whites in all shapes. The dog never ran away but always stayed just ahead. Indeed, in the gloom and shadows, I saw that he took a path down. The only sounds were the crackling of ice beneath my feet and my breathing.
He was a perfectly normal dog. He leapt off the path to chase a rabbit. He bayed at the moon or something. He dug and sniffed in the snow. I stayed to the path. It twisted and
turned and curved and moved about without rhyme or reason but always the lemon yellow stayed in front. I followed his prints in the snow – little pools of grayed white in the moonlight. Sniffing, digging, chasing unseen game... in all ways a perfectly normal dog.
Slowly, we made our way down and then through a group of trees. Without the dog’s prints before me, I could not have found the path.
As we went down the steepest part of the path, it was almost a cliff, I thrust my hands into the snow banks, onto rocks or ice wrapped branches to keep my balance. The ice-cold snow felt warm. My ears ached,I ached, inside. I tripped off the slope to collapse into a snow bank. I sat up and held my hands to my numb face. In the dimness, they were no longer flesh tinted white but darker, like bluer. I could no longer smell a thing. I was lost and it was cold, too cold to be lost.
I thought of my wife and kids. I wondered if I had enough life insurance. I tried to remember the last time I told her “I love you.”
Warmth stung my hands. The dog was breathing on me.
I got up and pushed on. A few minutes later, I stumbled, my head swam, I felt level ground below and saw, as though behind a fogged over window, the farmhouse light. I walked the last hundred yards or so to the driveway. Those hundred yards were glorious. I saw daisies sprout from the snow. The yellow of daffodils broke the monotony of white and gray. I was that bad.
I walked up the driveway and knocked on the door. They took one look and pulled me inside.
“It’s too cold to be outside,” the man said as he put away his gun. The woman gave me hot tea. They called a tow truck and we waited. They told me that someone had frozen to death at the overpass last year. That I had taken the only path down. The other sides all ended in cliffs that the darkness hide well.
I looked around for lemon yellow, who was no where around, but there was a picture of him.
I said, “That’s a nice dog you got. What’s his name?”
“His name was Nicholas," the man answered, "the best hunter I ever had. Why
he could follow a trail that no other dog could.”
“I believe it. He led me here.”
They stared at me, then he said, “Nicholas died forty years ago. I buried him next to the creek.”
I didn’t know what to say. The dog that guided me and the dog in the picture, were the same dog. I’m sure of it. Now, I don’t know what to think.
John A. Monaghan lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia with his wife and children and three dogs. He can be found on Twitter at TitusLivy72, but be warned, he does not tweet much.
Living With Kappa
By Linda A. Gould
First published in Honeyguide Magazine in 2021
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai Podcast.
“Don’t go down to the river,” Hiro’s mother warned him.
“Ok, mom,” Hiro called back as he went outside, then rolled his eyes and mimicked the next words as his mom spoke them: “There are Kappa there and they’ll drag you underwater and eat you alive.”
Hiro knew all about kappa because his mom was obsessed with them. She told him she had once seen a friend drowned by a kappa, and every now and then she showed him a sketch she had drawn, “Just so you know one if you see one.”
But now that he was ten, Hiro understood that his mom didn’t know everything. His friends had told him that kappa were friendly and that the cute little creatures would do anything for a cucumber. Still, he never went to the river. It was much easier than having to deal with his mom should she ever find out.
Instead, Hiro was on his way to take photos of an ant colony he had discovered a week earlier after tripping over a fallen log in his back yard. Until he’d found the ants, Hiro had no idea what he was going to do for his science project.
He pulled the camera from his bag, then kicked the log over to reveal a line of ants carrying a beetle carcass. They scurried for cover from the sudden blast of light, but never dropped their prey. He zoomed in close to snap a few photos of the insects and the trails they’d made in the decaying log. When finished, he shrouded the ants again with darkness by rolling it back into place.
A rustle in some nearby bushes caught his attention. A black cat, bleeding from claw marks in its side, limped by, then stopped.
“Awww, kitty…here, kitty, kitty.” Hiro pulled a towel from his bag and moved slowly toward the cat. His neighborhood had several cat colonies, and he sometimes caught injured or sick animals. His mom told him to let nature take its course, but injured animals always seemed to cross his path, and he knew somehow that he was meant to care for them. His mom became so frustrated with the menagerie of injured animals that he brought into her home— cats, squirrels, birds, even a tanuki once,— she converted a small shed into a shelter for him to use as a hospital.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” he inched yet closer to the cat, but when he took another step, the cat darted away as fast as it could on an injured leg. It ran to the riverbank where Hiro blindly followed it into a tangle of vines that were wrapped around a dead tree. The cat scuttled with ease into the undergrowth, then edged past some brambles. Hiro, though, was trapped; thorns caught at his hand, grasped onto his jacket, and tugged at his jeans.
He carefully disentangled himself, then tried retracing his steps, but the riverbank was so thick with vines and brambles he wondered how he had managed to get this deep into the foliage. There was no clear path back that he could see, but at the water’s edge, the brambles gave way to pampas grass, which waved lazily in the light breeze. He made his way down the riverbank, pushed aside an overgrown clump of pampas and stepped on a foot—green, webbed, and slimy. Splayed out on the ground was a kappa, its turtle shell back cracked, as if hit by a rock. A patch of mud revealed the depression in its head that needed to be kept filled with life-sustaining water had spilled out.
Without hesitation, Hiro checked the kappa for broken limbs, then carried the near-dead creature to the river’s edge where he propped it against a rock, filled the bowl on its head with water, wiped away the dirt from its face, then stepped back to see if his patient would revive.
After a few minutes, the kappa’s eyes opened. It shook its head as if trying to focus, then found Hiro.
Hiro finally understood his mother’s warning.
Lidless, red-rimmed eyes glared at Hiro. Fangs peeked from the creature’s upper lip and dug into its lower. It rose on spindly legs and stalked toward Hiro, who clambered backwards up the riverbank, too terrified to turn and run, but he slipped, landing with a thump and sliding right into the kappa’s legs. It grabbed his neck with one clammy hand and pulled him close, the webbing between its fingers pulsing against Hiro’s neck as if it were a separate, hungry being. It leaned in and sniffed Hiro’s neck, and even though he was afraid, Hiro wondered how the creature could smell anything over its own stink of dank water. When the kappa’s teeth began chattering the way cats do before they attack, Hiro could control himself no longer; a warm trickle spread across the seat of his pants and down the back of his legs.
The kappa sniffed again, then glanced down at Hiro’s soiled pants. Its mouth widened into what Hiro thought looked like a sneer, exposing crooked, brown teeth between its fangs. Then, it released him and dove into the water.
Hiro was only slightly less afraid of his mother’s wrath than the kappa, so he never told her about his encounter, but he also never went to the river again. As he grew older, he attributed his fear of the river to a bad dream. In school, he learned kappa didn’t exist, that they were simply legendary creatures. By the time he got through university and set up his veterinary practice in Tokyo, the riverbank encounter was forgotten.
Years later, Hiro went for a walk while visiting his elderly parents. It was hot and humid, so he strolled the riverbank, holding his arms out wide to let the breeze cool the wet spots under his arms. When he reached an area with a tree kept standing only because of the tangle of vines wrapped around it, a dizzying sense of deja vu knocked into him. His heart unaccountably pounded in his chest. Hiro peered into the brush, willing a memory to emerge. None did, but as he focused on the brush and vines, the surrounding bushes and grasses grew fuzzy, and a sense of curiosity pushed away his fear. Was something in there? He stepped into the brush. A bird cried out at being disturbed and darted away. Halfway down the embankment, a tangle of thorny bushes blocked his way. He would have to go back.
A branch snapped behind him.
Hiro jerked around. Nothing. He spun around again at a rustle in the bushes to his right. Again nothing, but the hairs on his neck rose. Hiro turned to go back to the riverwalk, but his arm had gotten caught in a vine.
As he struggled to untangle his arm, a kappa crawled on spindly legs from the undergrowth. Red-rimmed eyes caught Hiro’s. Another rustle in the bushes, then another. Two more creatures emerged from their ambush and circled him. One dug its claws into his arm and drew blood.
“He’s mine! I found him first.”
“I’ll fight you for him,” said another.
“Stop fighting,” said the third, poking at the flesh in Hiro’s arm. “There’s enough here for all of us.”
They collectively snorted and opened their mouths wide, pushing and shoving Hiro like a cat playing with its prey before the kill. After one violent lurch, the third kappa lunged for Hiro’s neck, mouth wide, fangs dripping.
The kappa sniffed, then drew back. It gazed at each of its fellow creatures who, muttered their dissatisfaction, but disappeared into the brush.
“There is one smell missing from you,” the kappa said. That was all it took for Hiro’s memories to come crashing back, especially the humiliation at peeing his pants.
“It’s you!” Hiro whispered, still terrified by his near death, but also happy to see that the kappa he had saved was still alive. “Is…is…are those others your family?” The kappa snorted its reply. Hiro took it as a yes.
“You saved my life many years ago,” the kappa cut him off, “Now, we’re even. Don’t EVER come here again. I won’t be able to protect you. Go!”
When Hiro’s parents grew sick, he moved his family to his childhood home. He wasn’t likely to forget or discount his experience with the kappa this time, nor was he willing to take a chance with his children’s lives, so he built a wall to prevent anyone from accessing the river from his property. Over the years, people occasionally went missing, presumed drowned, and he wondered if they died at the hands of kappa, but he never told anyone of his encounter for fear of public ridicule. Instead, he ran for Mayor, then erected barriers along the riverbank and organized brush clearing events.
On the wall behind his house, Hiro set out cucumbers—kappas’ favorite snack— once a month and called out thanks to the kappa who saved his life. He didn’t know if it was his “friend” or one of the others who ate the treats, but sometimes, fresh ginger, which grew along the riverbank, was placed on the wall in return. He bowed and said his thanks each time the ginger gift was left.
His parents died, his children moved away for university, then to Tokyo, visiting only on holidays. He traveled with his wife for a few years after retirement, but when she died, he was alone. He sometimes went days speaking to no one but the plants in his garden.
One hot day, Hiro carried a pile of grass clippings to toss over the wall, and paused to let the river’s cool breeze wash over him. The new Mayor had let the brush grow tall and dense again. In a moment of childish abandon, Hiro climbed up onto the wall, legs dangling over the edge, and watched the river eddies play against the rocks. He wondered if the kappa family were still alive.
As if he had willed it, there was a shuffle in the brush and a kappa emerged. Like him, it had aged; its skin was mottled and its water bowl had sunk deeper into its head. Hiro spun around to jump to the safety of his yard, but the kappa’s spindly legs shook with the effort of climbing, and he just didn’t seem as threatening as before. It breathed heavily through its mouth, and only one fang was visible. The malicious glare that terrified young Hiro was now watery and focused on the uneven ground. Hiro remained on the wall, ready to jump away if need be. The kappa climbed onto the wall, and sat down. Its shoulders slouched, its head dangling forward on a scrawny neck that craned upward so as not to spill the water in its bowl.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Hiro, nervous about his safety, was the first to speak.
“It’s been a long time…”
The kappa scratched its leg, dipped a finger into the water on its head, then sucked it off the finger. “I told you never to come back here.”
“I know, but…well, this isn’t your territory; it’s mine.”
“Hm!” the kappa grunted.
“Did you get the cucumbers I left for you?”
“I got them.”
Hiro waited for a thank you, then shrugged when none came. He knew enough not to expect animals to act like humans. “Where are the other kappa? Were they your children?”
“They left this area. There are too many walls built along the river and someone keeps clearing away the bushes where we live. Besides, this water isn’t what it used to be…too many houses. The water is dirty.”
“Why didn’t you go with them?”
For the first time, the kappa let down its guard and Hiro could read its expression, a mix of nostalgia, affection and surprise at the question. “This is my home.”
“Of course, of course,” Hiro replied. “So, you’re all alone.”
The kappa bowed his head, careful not to spill its water.
“Me, too. My wife died, my kids moved away…”
The two sat for a few minutes in silence, looking out at the river. Hiro watched a bird flit from one branch to another in the tangled brush. He glanced over at the kappa, its slouch now more pronounced, as if sitting upright on a wall required too much energy. Sorrow overwhelmed Hiro.
“To tell the truth, I’m lonely,” he admitted. “You, too?”
The kappa, inscrutable again, snorted. Hiro interpreted it as a yes.
He put his arm around the kappa.
“Well, my friend,” he said, “I guess it’s just the two of us now.”
The kappa rested its spindly arm across Hiro’s shoulders and turned to face him.
“It’s just me.”
Linda Gould is an American who lived for 26 years in Japan. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in media outlets around the world and is host of “Kaidankai,” a podcast of supernatural stories.
About the Host
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.