Shawn-a- Lee McCutcheon Bell 

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Shawn-a-lee McCutcheon-Bell is a Canadian-born author and short story writer. Flung into the world on January 7, 1966 in Barrie, Ontario; she cut her horror teeth on late night Chiller Thriller features and the occasional Stephen King book knicked from her mum's library.
Author of “The Raising” and “Darkness Springs” (written under her pseudonym Cassandra Lee), she has contributed to numerous anthologies and magazines, winning an Honourable Mention in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of 2009 for her short story “Matty”.
She currently lives on the Northwest coast of England, where she hides from the rain and pens scary tales to frighten the masses. She can be reached for interviews, book signings or comments at cassiepatlee@gmail.com

Bibliography Novels

“The Raising” (Black Bed Sheet Books)
Novellas

“Darkness Springs” (Blu Phi'er Publishing)

Anthologies

“Forrest J Ackerman Presents: The Anthology of the Living Dead”(Black Bed Sheet Books)

“Concrete Blood: dark tales of the city” (Editor/Contributor)

“Threads” (Editor/Contributor)

“Snips in Time” (Co-written with Stephen Bell)

“From The Mouth”(Sonar4 Publishing)

“Diabolic Tales II” (Diabolic Publishing)

Edward Ballister (Static Movement)

“Isabella Rose's Twisted Fairy Tales”

“Atrum Tempestas” (Black Hound Publishing)

“Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror” (Word Weavers Publishing)

“HELP” - An Anthology Benefiting Preditors and Editors

“Till Death Do We Part” (Darkened Horizons Publishing)

“Requiem for the Damned” (Word Weavers Publishing)

“Darkened Horizons” (Darkened Horizons Publishing)

“Tabloid Purposes IV”

“Word Weavers Compilation” (Word Weavers Publishing)

“Cadaver Girls Magazine”

                                                                                     ***

                                                                  Down By The River

                                                     Shawn-a-lee McCutcheon-Bell

            "Dammit, Skythe! Don't go back in there!"

            "I have to! You know that, Jade."

            "Don't be a bleeding idiot. You saw what happened! You wanna end up like a piece of ground meat?"

            Jade was trembling, sprawled across the parking lot's pavement, fingernails scraping cold cement as if the world might tilt on its axis and send him shooting off into outer space. The young lad's lime-green buzzcut seemed to glow a little brighter under the swollen moon of London's night sky. Or perhaps it was just his unnatural ashen palette that made it seem as such. His bottom lip was quivering. Ebony pencil liner accentuating the wide eyed stare of pure terror. It was a strange comparison to the outer package of leather motorcycle jacket, tight black jeans, and Sid Vicious tee.

            Maybe it was that image that made Skythe all the more eager to head back inside. His friend had been reduced to a jelly like mass of fear and it seriously pissed him off.

            "Holy fuck, Jade! I'm not just gonna tuck my bollocks between my legs and run. I'm not asking you to go. I know you're scared! I'm going in myself."

            Jade wrung his hands uncomfortably beneath the wrinkled, worn sleeves of his jacket. "It's not that I'm a coward, Skythe. I... I just don't want you getting your guts ripped open too."

            Skythe tossed a loose clump of jet-black hair back across his forehead and brooded. The twenty-year-old college dropout, had befriended Jade late one night at a local punk bar after finding the seventeen-year-old kid passed out on the floor of the club's festering bathroom. He'd been getting rousted for cash by a sickly looking fag who obviously had more on his mind than just the twenty pounds in the unconscious youngster's pocket.

            Skythe, 6-foot-2 and built like a steam engine, had entered just as the giggling, greasy punk had begun tugging Jade's jeans down and was getting set to take a taste of what lay between his sprawled legs. Skythe had picked up the orange-haired puke and beat his head against a stall door a few times before kicking him, screaming and cursing, out of the loo. After dousing the youth with a couple of handfuls of water and a few good shakes, Jade had finally come to.

            Skythe recounted the tale as Jade fumbled with his rumpled jeans, tugging them up over his pale, bare ass. Still bleary eyed from a bad hit of E, he thanked the older youth profusely. It didn't take long for the homeless kid to find a role model in his saviour and eventually began following him round like a faithful puppy. A month later, Jade moved into Skythe's dingy East London flat and the two had been like brothers ever since.

            Retrieving a cigarette from his well-worn Levi jacket, Skythe tossed it between his teeth and grinned crazily. "You gonna let fear stomp all over you, Jade? Haven't you learned one fuckin' thing I've said in this last year?"

            Jade was mute. He stared at the gray concrete beneath his trainers as if hoping the answer would bubble up from between its cracks. It wouldn't. Besides, Jade already knew the answer to that question. He'd never be like Skythe. He didn't have the balls to look at things in black and white. The cruel universe that delivered him into the needle-pocked arms of a prostitute mother had made sure of that. Survival was the only thing that mattered. Getting from each shit-filled-day to the next. Skythe's protection had become the one weapon in his arsenal that Jade could count on. But... he'd never be like him.

            Skythe shook his head exasperated, dropped his unlit cigarette to the ground and turned to survey the large building directly in front of them. "I'm going in. Karen may still be alive and I fully intend to save those big tits of hers."

            Skythe's dark eyes peered coldly at the vacant warehouse. Eyes that had seen an immeasurable amount of insanity in this world, but never before had witnessed anything like what transpired moments ago. The feeling of terror had passed as quickly as it had come. Now all Skythe could think was - What a fuckin' rush!

            Now... most people, knowing when they've been spared a fate quite literally worse than death, would have had the good sense to take that deliverance, hightail it to the nearest church and offer up a word of thanks to the man above. Not Skythe. He craved adversity. Almost like a rock dependent junkie craved his next hit. The more violent, the better. Lately, he'd been putting Jade in harm's way just to pull the kid from a bad situation. To get that next fix. Tonight had been no different.

            They'd picked up Karen, Skythe's current girlfriend, and headed down to the Thames. A private party in an abandoned, dockside warehouse beckoned. Hosted by a couple of local drug dealers, the night promised a diversion from the reality of life. Plus, the dealers owed Skythe.

            He'd on more than one occasion, tracked down and shaken a few dollars out of a crackhead who'd failed to bring in money or product. That happened a lot. Drug addicts made bad dealers. Product usually wound up coursing through their own veins and they hid like scared rabbits when they didn't have the cash to pay for the appropriated crank. Skythe didn't imbibe in that shit. But Karen and Jade did. It was entirely amusing to the hardened youth to see the two whacked out of their minds. Besides, Karen gave up a little more when she was high. More willing to play the games that Skythe enjoyed.

            Before their night had been so rudely interrupted, Skythe had even managed to get the Latin minx to agree to some of his "fun" and leave the small group settled on the floor of the empty warehouse.  The Damned echoed loudly from a stolen CD player, while the two weasels and their hopped-up bitch girlfriends; shot, snorted and sucked back an unholy concoction of drugs. Karen had nearly floated two feet off the floor as she followed her hulking boyfriend of a whole-three-weeks across the dank warehouse to a nearby deserted office. Giggling like a Catholic virgin school girl - none of which she was - she'd readily agreed to Skythe's twisted sexual advances.

            Stringing her naked, coffee-cream flesh up with a rope he'd acquired from the belly of the warehouse, Skythe watched mesmerized as Karen swung back and forth from a dripping water pipe. Her green eyes were glazed by the Meth that swept through her petite five-foot-four frame. Long platinum blond hair spilled over dark, coaster sized nipples. Skythe grinned like a Cheshire cat as he tweaked the tantalizing beacons. His black-leather belt and a six-inch blade lay to the side on a deserted desk. A doling of discipline was just what the doctor ordered tonight. A damned good lashing across that curved lush ass. She was nearly begging for it as he twisted her nipples even harder. The drugs urging her need for more severe stimulation as she panted hotly and groaned in anticipation. Skythe was just thumbing his boxers down over an eager straining member, when the first scream had cut through the warehouse.

            Karen's head shot up from it's lolling position. "What the fuck was that!"

            "Don't know. Son of a bitch! If those assholes did something to Jade, I'm gonna have to rip a few throats out." Skythe grunted as he tugged back up his jeans. Great. Just when I was gonna get me some ass. Figures! Fucking kid couldn't have waited to get into trouble?

            "I'll go check." Skythe's manner had changed. His dark eyes gleamed as he pocketed the blade and strung his belt back through his jeans loops. A fight meant bloodshed. Which meant a rush. His body was tingling with excitement as he trod heavily across the office and peered out through a crack in the grimy glass door. No one was there. The warehouse was as empty as when they'd first come in. The music had also abruptly ended. Where the fuck is everyone?

            The cache of drugs still lay scattered on the ground in the centre of the dark warehouse. A burning candle, baggies of crystal Meth, spoons, tinfoil and various other tools of the walking dead were the only tell tale signs that the two dealers, their swooning girlfriends and Jade, had been there.

            "I'm gonna go look around. Don't move, pet. I'll be right back." Skythe winked at Karen still swinging by her wrists.

            "Fuck you, Skythe! Let me down!" Karen wriggled under the ropes. The pipe above her creaking with each thrash.

            "I wouldn't do that, luv. You pull that pipe down and you're gonna get your pretty ass knocked out cold. Besides, this won't take long. They're probably outside. More than likely hanging Jade by his toes over the river."

            Jade had a problem with his mouth. He tended to open it before thinking and usually a verbal slew of sarcasm poured out and people got offended. Usually to the point where Skythe had to step in and bang a few heads together to keep his shadow from being wiped from the face of the earth. He didn't mind playing protector. Hell, he enjoyed it. In fact, it's what he'd been hoping for tonight. He'd been itching to get his hands dirty lately and he instinctively knew bringing Jade along on this jaunt would eventually afford him that opportunity. He just wished the kid would have waited till he got his dick wet.

            "Won't be two seconds..."

            "SKYTHE! You son of a- " Karen's onslaught was muffled as he shut the door behind him.

            Skythe gazed across the warehouse. The building had once housed a printing press but had been gutted clean by thieves. The machinery, delivered into the hands of the repossessors. The remaining odds and sods, picked clean by the desperate hands of the homeless looking for any small piece of worth to fence for cash. A vacuous shadowed space with the leavings of a few stacks of bundled stock paper and a hand dolly or two was all that remained. Above him, Skythe eyed the lateral support beams criss-crossing the building. A catwalk, directly above his head, was accessible by a narrow, steel ladder off to the left side of the warehouse.

            Well, they sure as hell ain't in here.

            Skythe crossed the large warehouse and shoved the front heavy wood door open with his shoulder. Searching the empty lot, abutting the murky depths of the Thames, it afforded him nothing. "JADE!" he shouted.

            Skythe waited.

            Nothing.

            If the group had decided to leave, there was no way Jade would have just up and left without informing Skythe. He knew better. And if he'd been forcibly taken, he would have thrown a cataclysmic sized fit. So where the fuck are they?

            The hulking man turned, re-entering the building. "Jade? You in here?" Not a sound - save for the odd garbled threat from Karen - piddled out of the warehouse.

            "Goddamit!"

            Skythe was getting majorly pissed off. If the slimy bastards had absconded with Jade, it was gonna take him all night to track him down. Fuck! The dark-haired man decided the best thing for now would be to untie Karen, get her dimpled ass home, then start searching. He'd eventually find him. He just hoped the kid was okay.

            Maybe tonight hadn't been such a good idea after all, he thought,starting for the office. He called out as he drew near, "Okay Karen. I'm coming. Keep your-"

            Skythe's words were cut off as something dropped from the ceiling above and landed directly in front of him with a wet SMACK! It was a human. At least, it once was a human. Skythe gazed down at the piece of rendered meat. The person's skin had been stripped like a sausage casing. A glistening face of interwoven coral and scarlet stared up at him. Perfect, white teeth smiled broadly under a glossy, salmon nose.

            Skythe didn't even flinch as he said with an air of respectful amazement, "Holy shit. Would you look at that." He'd done a number on people in his day, but never had he seen something so delicately and precisely conducted. It was miraculous considering the time frame in which this must have occurred. He bent over, examining the now oozing body. A single gold molar shone brightly inside the corpses mouth identifying him as Tiny, the drug dealer, who just minutes ago had been boating about his new thousand pound car.

            Skythe looked up and inspected the catwalk above him. There was no one there. "Okay motherfucker. I don't know where you went to, but if you got a score to settle with these dumb sacks of shit... that's fine. But you have a personal friend of mine who has nothing to do with your war. The green haired kid. Jade. Let him go and you can play Jack the Ripper all you want with the rest of these twats and we'll be leaving."

            A fluttering sound echoed in the large space. It reminded Skythe of the moths that got trapped inside the flat when they left the windows open on humid nights. The size of sparrows, the insects would dodge and weave Jade's frantic arms as he swatted at them with rolled up newspapers. He followed the disturbing noise above him to the right and sucked in a breath as he spotted a gray mass hanging from one of the warehouse beams. "How the fuck-"

            Skythe didn't have time to wonder how someone could have reached such a position with no ladder. The dark shadow suddenly dove from its roost and careened directly at him. The bulky man ducked as the thing swept over his head. Two forked talons clutched at his back and Skythe felt razor sharp appendages pierce the heavy layer of his jean jacket and enter his flesh.

            "Jesus Christ!"

            He dropped to the ground, dislodging its claws, and the thing climbed upwards, settling on top of a tall stack of bond white paper shoved against a nearby wall. It inspected Skythe. And Skythe inspected it.

            A plume of wings spread from its back. Skythe counted four - no - six sets of veined translucent veils that ruffled, agitated in the gloom. In front, a muscular pale-gray body, naked and which he assumed was male, although no genitalia could be distinguished to give confirmation, shuddered gently.

            Although the deadly force of its talons were apparent, Skythe was oblivious to the danger and fixated on its face. Two blood red eyes, set deep in a baby smooth palette of gray - blinked. Open, then closed. Over and over. A wide grinning maw ended on either side in two hanging flaps of skin where ears should be. It opened its mouth to reveal a long line of jagged, russet stained teeth.

            Then it spoke.

            Skythe had never known fear.

            Even when he'd been nearly beaten to death one night by his alcoholic dad with a leather belt. His mother, standing on the other side of the bed where his father had him tied him to an decrepit headboard in their dingy one bedroom flat, giggled as she aided in the torture. Tossing lit matches at his thin, nude twelve-year-old body.

            No. Even then Skythe knew that was just life. He accepted it and showed no fear.

            Even after he'd taken that very same belt and strangled his bitch of a mother, and then hung his father by his fat, bloated neck till his twitching body ceased struggling from the fourth-story balcony of their East London shithole. Even then, he accepted it and showed no fear.

            As he'd strung the very same belt he wore now through the loops of his sagging jeans and closed the window on his dead father. As the coppers had burst in, peeling him away from the flickering telly and the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny. He accepted it and showed no fear.

            Not when he'd spent his remaining three years of childhood in a psyche ward, drugged and ignored till his eighteenth birthday. Not when they'd tossed him twenty quid and the number for a shelter and kicked his ass out into the street. Even then, he'd accepted it and showed no fear.

            Tonight all of that went out the window. For the first time in his life, fear came to call.

            "You shouldnnnnnn't be here..." it hissed.

            Skythe wholeheartedly agreed. "No shit!"

            Backing up, he stumbled over the dead dealer's body. Skythe caught himself as the thing in front of him shifted positions. It studied the large man, looking for a vulnerable moment to attack.        "Look, whatever the fuck you are, this place is all yours. I just want my friend and we'll piss off outta here. I promise."

            Skythe warily eyed the creature as it stood tall. Wings outstretched, it shook them like a line of sheets ruffling in a stiff breeze on a cool summer night. A long gray arm extended. Three fingers stretched from a thin hand, pointing at an office towards the rear of the building.

            "Theeeeeeere..."

            The man nervously looked over his shoulder, following the thing's directions. An office door stood partially open. He turned back to the creature. "Okay, give me one second and we're gone."

            The beast never moved.

            Skythe quickly hopped over the corpse and jogged backwards towards the office, keeping one eye on the creature. Reaching the door, he pushed it open. As he turned to gaze inside, a stench poured from the depths of the small space. A copper smell so strong, he gagged at its intensity.            "Holy mother of God."

            Inside, blood painted the walls and floor like a surreal masterpiece. The remaining drug dealer had succumbed to the same fate as his friend. Bent in half, the slender man hung like a limp rag doll over a low hanging water pipe. His skin pooled on the floor like a scarlet curtain, still partially attached to the top of his head. The remains of his flayed body glared brightly in the dark.

            Beneath him, the two remaining girls, lay crumpled on the cold concrete. Naked, they'd escaped the skinning, but perhaps, it would have been a better fate. Skythe felt stinging bile rise in his throat and he threw up all over what was left of the two women.

            They lay entangled in a weave of flesh and guts. Their breasts had been gnawed off and lay in four tattered fatty clumps beside them. The brunette's right hand was buried deep inside the lining of the other girl's yawning stomach. Intestines spilled from the blonde's interior, draped across her friend's still form.

            The brunette's left hand had been torn off at the wrist and lay in front of Skythe's boots. He kicked it away and it bounced across the floor, landing near her exposed back. It was then that Skythe saw in clear view what the creature had done to her. A long gaping gash began at the tip of her neck and followed to the small of her back. In what must have been an incredible amount of force, her spine had been ripped from its station and curved outwards. White cartilage and discs popped out like a rollercoaster's tracks, dipping back inside the still plump curves of her ass. Skythe gagged. "Sweet Jesus..."

            Suddenly, a voice pleaded from behind a large desk. "Fuck Jesus, Skythe! Get me out of here!"

            "Jade? Where the fuck are you!" Skythe gingerly made his way across the carnage and peered over the claret spattered metal desk.

            Jade lay prone on the floor. His leg, bent at an ungainly proportion, jutted sideways under an overturned swiveling chair. "Get me out of here before that thing gets back!" He was crying. Streams of tears spilled across his blood smeared cheeks.

            "Okay, hold on." Skythe hopped over the desk. Reaching down, he lifted Jade cautiously under the arms and the youngster squealed as his leg broke free and dangled beneath him.

            "Fuck Skythe... That fucking hurts."

            "Screw that. No time for being careful." Skythe grunted as he swung the bony kid across his back like a knapsack and tilted over the desk. Jade's legs smacked rudely against the metal as Skythe pulled him over. "OOOOWWW!"

            "Suck it up and shut the fuck up!" the older man growled.

            He locked  his hands in a death grip on Jade's wrists, then started out of the office towards the warehouse's exit. Skythe noted that the creature was gone as he reached the front door. He turned as he left, hearing Karen's voice still yelling from the office.

            "Fuck." he growled, then left.

            Now, he was surveying the warehouse. Jade, still shaking on the pavement, rubbing his broken leg woefully. Skythe spoke softly. "This won't take long. I promise. I'll just slip inside, grab Karen and get the hell out."

            Jade went to protest again, but stopped. He knew it was no use. Once Skythe had his mind set on something, there was no changing it. No matter what the circumstance. And that included beasts from Hell. "Go. Just make sure you get the fuck out if that thing shows its ugly face. Screw the bitch."

            Skythe made his way towards the warehouse door, cautiously opened it and laughed as he slipped inside, making one last pun. "That's the whole point, my friend."

            The warehouse was silent as Skythe peered across is length. His head bobbed as he scanned the ceiling for any sign of the creature. It was all clear. As softly and quickly as he could, the hefty man made his way to the office where he'd left the young girl. He thrust open the door.

            "Oh fuck..."

            The pipe Karen had been hanging on was torn loose. A steady stream of water trickled from its rusty interior and puddled on the floor.

            A high pitched squeal suddenly broke the blanket of silence. Followed by another. And another. A din of shrieking blared through the warehouse. Skythe abruptly pivoted. Above, perched in line after line, a multitude of winged beasts were strapped to the beams by their glistening talons. Their mouth's peeled back over jagged ridges of teeth, high pitched squeals calling to one another as their wings beat the stale air. Skythe didn't wait for them to make the first move.

            He bounded for the door as a body was flung through the air from above. Karen's tan form bounced twice off the concrete, then came to a rest directly in front of the exit. Her face had been bitten off. A hole, the size of a coffee cup, had been dug through the top of her head and wet pink bits of brain matter clung to her long blonde hair. Skythe dove through the front door, scaling his girlfriend's corpse as he tumbled out onto the outer lot.

            Jade pivoted where he sat. Skythe hit the ground hard, shouting, "GET DOWN!"

            From all around them, a heavy fluttering, like the props of a hundred helicopters, echoed through the night sky. From the depths of the warehouse, the creatures poured from the upper windows. Some crashing through the grimy glass panes, others spilling from long broken exits. Above the pair, they swarmed like oversized moths caught in a bug zappers trance. Then, they disappeared over the Thames and into the black night sky.

            Jade bawled. Huddled on the ground, his arms wrapped around his body, he trembled ferociously. Skythe crawled from his position to his wailing friend and propped himself up, sitting beside him. He passed a hand through his dark hair and sighed.

            Jade looked up, his sobs turning into snivels. "What do we know, Skythe?"

            "We go home."

            Skythe looked down at Jade and smiled. "The sun's coming up and I need a shower."

            Jade nodded as the older man tucked his arms under his friend and lifted him to his feet.    Skythe turned, peering one more time at the dawn cresting over the London skyline and commented as they rounded the building. "Remind me to shut the fuckin' windows when we get home."


Leland Thoburn 

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Leland Thoburn has been writing fiction for three years, during which time he has had thirty-eight stories published in a variety of journals and magazines. He is a business consultant, he plays jazz saxophone and flute, and he explores old ghost towns and mines in the California desert. You can read more of his creative works at his web site at http://lelandthoburn.wordpress.com








                                                                           A Rodent’s Revenge

                                                                            By Leland Thoburn

The big people peered into his cage.

“Let’s replace his water with vodka and see if he notices.”

“Let’s put his cage on the floor and see what the cat does.”

“I wonder if he likes fireworks.”

            Every day held a new terror. Da Vinci the hamster paced his cage and vowed the most horrible revenge.

            ‘Da Vinci’ my ass. Try ‘Lord of Darkness’ you poor, tragically doomed souls, he seethed.

            Da Vinci prowled his cage like a lion, back and forth, back and forth, looking for the smallest opening, waiting for even the slimmest of chances.

            He tried gnawing the bars, but after seventeen weeks he gave up. He tried attacking the “hand” thing when it entered his cage, but he just got slapped.

            When the strain of failure became too great he would jump on his wheel and run until he would fall in a heap – trembling, exhausted, and drenched with sweat – on the sawdust at the bottom of his cage. One day, while laying on his back with his paws in the air, gasping for breath, he had a thought. I wonder why you can’t tickle yourself? That thought was irrelevant to our story, so we’ll move on to his second thought which was, I wonder how fast that thing will go. He vowed to find out.

            Two days later, after failing to talk the cat in to plugging its tail into an electrical outlet, he found himself back on the wheel. Harder, faster, he pushed himself to his limit and beyond. He counted three hundred and twelve RPMs before blacking out and hurtling from the wheel against the walls of his cage and ricocheting into his water cup.

            He awoke to find he had fouled his water. The indignity only steeled his resolve.

            Using his knowledge of rudimentary algebra he performed the necessary calculations. That metal is almost certainly cheap steel, with a breaking coefficient of .237, he thought.  The wheel has a radius of about two and a quarter inches, thus the coefficient of force transmitted is about .476 of the speed, as measured in feet per second of the perimeter...

            The figures danced through his excited little head as he scratched out formula after formula in the sawdust. He could snap the bars of his cage if only he could build up enough speed. His tiny mind raced as he completed his calculations. There it was! Four hundred and seventy seven revolutions per minute. That would do it.

That’s only about...um, fifty two, almost fifty three percent faster than I can go today.      His heart sank. It didn’t seem possible. At least not without performance enhancing drugs.

            Then he looked down. There, in the paper lining his cage, was a picture of Lance Armstrong. DaVinci became inspired. If Lance can come back from cancer to win the Tour de France seven times, I can do this! He drew himself up and vowed to give it his best shot. He gnawed Lance’s picture out of the newspaper and hung it from his bars for inspiration.

            Every day he spun the wheel longer, harder, faster than he had the day before. Whenever he felt discouraged he would look over and ask, What would you do, Lance? Finding inspiration, he pushed himself even longer, even harder, even faster. To boldly go where no hamster had gone before: that was his mission.

            One week later he checked his progress. Three hundred and thirty RPMs. Again, his heart sank. He’d die of old age before reaching his goal. He looked over at Lance. His upper lip stiffened over his buck teeth as he vowed to redouble his efforts. He staggered over to his water dish and quaffed deeply. The water tasted odd yet somehow invigorating. A weight seemed to lift from his shoulders. Determination suffused his soul. He stretched, then climbed back on the wheel. Soon, his paws were flying. Never had he felt so light. Never had the quest for speed been so effortless. Faster, faster. He could hear the bars of the cage humming. Would today be the day?

            Suddenly the wheel began to wobble. Da Vinci’ face became a picture of grim resolve as he kept spinning. The wobble only worsened. Try as he might, he could find no way to correct the oscillation that now seemed to threaten his very existence. Just when disaster seemed imminent, he jumped. Instead of safety, da Vinci found himself flying through the air, thrown to the far side of the cage with a violence he had not thought possible. The force of the impact rendered him instantly unconscious. He lay in the sawdust – face up, paws curled – senseless, motionless, by all appearances dead to the world.

            Da Vinci awoke in a fog. He waited for his head to clear, and then he stirred. His body felt so light, his paws so strong. He wiggled his forelimbs. Nothing broken.

            He decided to try the wheel again. Soon, the bars were humming at a higher pitch than he had ever heard. They seemed to sing to him, “today’s the day.” He pushed himself harder than even he had thought possible. The wheel began to wobble again but this time he hung on. His legs were on fire but the pain only inspired him to spin faster.

            The oscillation became terrible. So this is what Chuck Yeager experienced before breaking the sound barrier, he thought. Well, Chuck’s got nothing on me. He spun faster as if challenging the wheel, the cage – the universe – to do its worst. Da Vinci closed his eyes and strained. He could almost hear Alec Guinness telling him the Force would be with him, whatever that was.

            The cage exploded with a crash. When he came to, Da Vinci found himself lying on his back on the floor. He was stunned. Never before had any hamster accomplished what he had just done. He vowed to use the knowledge he’d gained to help free varmints everywhere. But first, there was the small matter of revenge.

            There, in the corner, lay the cat. It was sleeping. Again.

            Da Vinci felt no fear, only excitement, as he crept forward. As stealthily as a ninja he tiptoed over and studied the hated figure. He scratched his chin with his paw while he planned. A wicked smile spread across his face.

            He crawled to the cat’s nether region and lifted its tail. It felt surprisingly light. Deftly, and with what he thought were extremely salutary results, da Vinci jammed the tail into a nearby electrical socket.

            Onward, he cried as he ran through the house. I’m free, he shouted. Free.

            He scampered up on a table. There, near the edge, sat a crystal pitcher. He sniffed at it. Water. The smell reminded da Vinci that he was thirsty. But the pitcher was too tall. He couldn’t reach inside. He stood behind the pitcher and pushed. Almost effortlessly he shoved the pitcher to the table’s edge and over, on to the floor where it exploded into shards of glass and cascading water.

            He hopped down on the floor and there, awaiting him, was all the water he could ever want. Fully quenched, he resumed his quest.

            Cups, dishes, platters, saucepans – all fell clattering or shattering on to the floor with the merest whiff of effort. Da Vinci danced with glee.

            The noise awoke the big people. Lights snapped on. Da Vinci froze, caught in the glare just as he was about to overturn a very large, very heavy, and very expensive table lamp. Time stood still as his beady, black eyes met their astonished stare.

            “Oh my God, look what he’s done to the cat!” one of them shouted. With the big people distracted, da Vinci summoned all of his strength and gave the lamp one...last...final...fearsome...push. It fell, crashing to the floor. Flames shot from the wreckage as it shorted out in the spilled water.

            “Get him!” one of the big people shouted, and the chase was on. All those hours of spinning had made da Vinci uncommonly fast. As a result, no one could catch the wily crepuscular.

            With everyone focused on catching da Vinci, none were attentive to the danger of the broken lamp. Fire spread to the drapes. In no time at all the house was ablaze. Da Vinci escaped with the big people as they fled screaming into the night.

            Da Vinci sat nibbling a seed. A grin of satisfaction spread across his face as his eyes reflected the fire’s glow. Sweet revenge is mine, he thought savagely.

            Yet, somehow, he wasn’t fulfilled. Freedom for one was not enough when so many remained oppressed. He would champion their cause – the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed varmints of the world. A dour purpose took form in his mind. He welcomed it, sharpening the blade of his soul on the whetstone of his destiny. As he did, he seemed to grow. No longer merely a hamster, he was becoming something more, something bigger, something – terrible.

            Soon, he was as large as a bear. Within minutes he was prowling the streets of the city, searching for pet shops. People ran screaming from him at every corner. Nothing could stop him. Anger filled his soul, and as it did, he grew. His rage consumed him as he hurled cars, trucks, even buses at the fleeing crowds.

            It didn’t take long for the soldiers to appear. Da Vinci delighted in the futility with which they fired the latest weaponry at the gargantua that he had become. With a wave of his paw he swept aside the greatest forces that man could assemble, leaving them shattered and broken, to bother him no more. Da Vinci continued to grow.

            Now he was as tall as Godzilla. Under his attack New York City fell like matchsticks. He knew his duty. Tokyo would be next. He strode across the face of the planet, a planet that would soon bow only to him, a planet that would soon call him “Lord and Master.” He danced on his hind legs and began to laugh aloud. “Bwaa haa haa haa...” His laughter resonated throughout the universe.

            Da Vinci awoke with a splitting headache. He gazed about his cage. Everything seemed so bright. And the noise – even the sound of crunching sawdust pained his sensitive little head.

            Very gingerly, he got up. There, outside of his cage, two of the big people were peering at him and laughing. He paused to retch, after which he felt better. Then, he realized what had happened. The sadists had put vodka in his water again. It had all been a dream.

            He crawled back on his wheel and began, very slowly, to spin. Not for the last time, da Vinci the hamster vowed the most horrible revenge.




Noah Copley

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Noah Copley, the author of Late Season and Of Monsters, is a Marshall University graduate with his Master's of Arts in Teaching in English. Noah is currently researching the Bible and writing his next novel.

                                        The Bandaged Man

                                                       By

                                              Noah Copley

            The orphaned asphalt of a bygone age welcomed the feet of the young intruders as they entered the haunted city.  Minatory fingers from the collapsing sun stretched scraping and scratching before them. The newly traveled road’s enthusiastic clasp soon proved transient.  An empty moon just recently shelved in its rundown spot above the wrecked ruins shared lonely kinship with the countless rows of abandoned buildings along the silent streets. Perfect quadrants of sophisticated ingenuity, structures long since deserted, whispered their lamentations through the wandering winds’ blowing across of their lidless windows. The sorrowful sounds carried to the blasted banks of the eastern river. The boulevard the two boys walked sluggishly merged into veiled terminator before effulgently bursting forth nickel colored metallic under earth’s natural satellite – the obligatory moon. 

Kent, the eldest of the duo by three days asked in stuttered breathlessness: “Exciting, isn’t it?”

            “Exciting is not the word I would use,” Theo surreptitiously replied.  “It is much bigger than it looked from the woods.”

            “This,” Kent dramatically swept his hand from one vacant building to the next, “was once one of the great wonders of the world.  One of man’s great achievements.”

            “Hmmmph!.  If it was so great, why couldn’t it stop LastWar?”

            Kent thoughtfully stared at Theo and rolled his eyes.  “Cities were built when we were still aspiring to greatness, to build, not to destroy.  This city was constructed when man was attempting to be a sculptor, an architect, an artist.  Concrete and glass could not save man’s darker self: the scavenger, the hunter, the savage in him.”

            “Ha!” Theo bellowed and cupped his mouth when the echo of his outburst reverberated through the man-made mountain-land.  In a lower voice, “you sound like your father.”

            “Tell me when father has ever been wrong?”

            Theo shrugged his shoulders and his non-response sufficiently satisfied his friend.

            “That’s what I thought.  Come on. We have to conduct the service before we see him.”

            “We’re not supposed to see him,” Theo anxiously answered as he continued to follow Kent. Kent’s head was dipped into the folds of the map that the elders of the village had given them before they had started on their journey two days prior.  “We are supposed to only pick up a few items from his home. That is our order,” Theo huffed as Kent picked up the pace.

            “I know,” Kent said as he pivoted slightly and threw his friend a quick wink.  “But wouldn’t it be cool to get a glimpse of the Bandaged Man?”

            Somewhere deeper in the recesses of the dead civilization’s canyons, a wildcat screamed.  Theo was feeling an oncoming claustrophobia from the silhouetted towers pressing in from all sides; and the wildcats of their world had grown quite large since civilization had fallen – and how could you give a wildcat a wide berth when there was such little room to give? Theo did not consider this ghost town or the Bandaged Man in the least bit ‘cool’.  Nevertheless, Theo squeezed his tongue between uneven teeth and followed his friend.  There was really nothing else he could do.  His people’s code required him to be here – to bring a relic of this place back to them so he could be granted his manhood.  Although his heart’s pulsing spiked and his sweat was winter cool on his heated skin, he suppressed his mounting fears.  Somewhere close by was a building, and in that building was a key that would open one door and close another for all eternity.  It was a test all the boys of his village had to take: the test of manhood that all boys had taken since the end of LastWar.  Village boys had faced their fears of this place and of the apparition that his people called the Bandaged Man for ages.  All boys had also lived and returned home as men, he reminded himself.

            Nevertheless, the thought of actually seeing the one that few had seen, but that had sparked hundreds of unsettling stories, sent numbing jolts of foreboding up Theo’s spine.

            “Cool is not exactly the word I would use,” Theo muttered (this time verbally) as he briskly trotted to keep step with Kent.

                                                                                   ****

The campfire puffed to life in fits and starts on the fringe of the interior forest that had once been the city’s park.  The close summer night and the heat’s tongues raised beads of sweat on the teenagers’ tanned hides.  Soon they sweated freely and the Theo was soothed by the comforting familiarity of remembrance.  His grandfather’s stone hearth raised itself within his inner vision.  The hearth was his and grandfather’s meeting place to talk about man things in their world’s frozen and hungry months.  The hearth was grandfather and his tall tales telling place. The hearth was where grandfather told him how to survive while moving through the very city in which he was now huddled.  The meager fire and wanting moon cast enough illumination to view the length to which the park and forest had extended into the city’s asphalt bedding.  Budding trees and stretching fescue had forced its way through patches of crushed stone and steel everywhere.

            “By the time our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren come here, the grassland will be at the buildings’ doorsteps.  Much of our dead peoples’ creations will be erased,” Kent solemnly announced as he added more sticks to the starving blaze.

            “You have to live long enough to have children before any thought can be given to great-grandchildren,” Theo smartly replied.

            “Our fathers did not send us here expecting us to die.  No one has ever died coming here.  You know that.  This journey is about facing our fears and understanding the mistakes of our ancestors.  Now, speak the words.”

            Theo obediently twisted and eyed the fire.  He removed the toys of their childhood from the traveling satchel and reached them forward.  A feeling of nostalgia pressed within him as he rubbed his fingers across the aged cloth and squeezed the softness of the goose feathers that were grandmotherly sewn inside the dolls.  These were the presents given to them for their first remembered Christmas.  He focused on the penciled in eyes and oddly thought about Kent rather than his own parents or grandparents.  Although they were not related, Theo could not remember a time when Kent had not been part of his life.  From different families, but sharing childhood, boyhood, and now coming manhood together, tears of years’ gone by formed on the perimeters of Theo’s eyes.  He tossed the dolls into the miniature inferno and recited from memory:

            “Man sought wisdom, but settled for desire. Man stretched mind and body toward the stars, but found wallowing in the mud more to their tastes.  For a time, man fought for peace, but realized he preferred war.  We leave these toys here as a reminder of our childhood in exchange for objects from this city.  We learned how to be boys from the men of our village. We hope to learn to be men from the mistakes men made in this city.  After our thievery from the home that belonged to the man who caused humanity to fall, we will be innocent no longer, but more appreciative of the mistakes of man, and careful not to repeat them again.”

            The crackle of knitted love burning dominated the quick silence.

            Finally, Kent rose and patted Theo’s shoulder.  “Well spoken, except for the thievery part. Let’s go.”

                                                                                     ****

            “It’s not really thievery if the owner is dead,” Kent argued as they approached the lawn of the sprawling estate that lay in the suburban section of the city.

            “If that line of reasoning makes you feel better, then by all means go with it,” Theo lightly answered.  Rain dusted their shoulders and dense clouds carpeted most of the starless sky.

            Kent fished his flashlight from his back pocket and clicked the ‘on’ switch.  The permissive beam lit upon a weathered, almost indistinguishable cobblestone path that uneasily traced its way to the speckled marble doorstep of the columned and officially recognized three-story building.  It was the grandest of all the grand buildings which surrounded it, but the enormity of the empty space between and among the edifices – each separate square of brick and wood caged within its former greatness by thorny weeds and stalk-like grasses – ruined any impression that the world leaders who once resided there bore any true importance to the history of the now.  The rusty and downed gates they stepped over were covered with unsullied lilies, unleashed roses, and unchecked rhododendron bushes once harnessed by a well paid gardener whose decayed bones their unkempt roots now enslaved.

            “Aren’t you going to use your flashlight?” Kent asked as Theo stumbled across a dogwood’s root that had broken the surface of the path.

            “What if the light is seen?”

            “By whom? A ghost?  What good will a ghost be to you if you break your neck before he cangetcha?”

            “There are more things in this city that cangetcha than the bogeyman,” Theo whispered.

            “All the more reason to use a flashlight.  It’ll make your getaway quicker!”

            Rain punctured the night with quick ferocity, and the duo sprinted toward the mansion until only twenty yards separated them from it.  One of the third story windows pulsed into life and the aged building seemed to heave a gargled sigh, as if their arrival had revived it from its decades’ long decease.

            “What was that?” Kent asked as he lurched to a stop in the mire.  He fearfully looked at Theo, who had also stopped; but instead of fear or reluctance in them, Theo’s eyes were charged with something akin to desperate knowing. 

            When Theo answered, his voice sounded distant and somehow foreign: “it was just a reflection from the lightning on that window.  Come on, slowpoke, it’s time to finish this.”

            Kent frowned at this unexpected role reversal as he quickened his pace to follow in Theo’s panting steps.  As the rain sped, thirsty for the ground’s company, Theo broke into a dead run, leapt up the marble steps, landed gracefully onto the verandah and threw his shoulder against the immense pine doors, which gave to his force much too easily.  The reception room was overlarge and fresh as the interior lights magically sparkled to life, and Kent slid to a halt at the entranceway.  The chandelier suspended over swept ornate rugs shimmered with a white and polished newness from today’s time, not generations’ before.  Cautious-eyed, Kent tried to remember his folks and friends telling him of a ghost who kept workable lights and his home swept clean.  He could not.  As lightning dismembered the sky and thunder barked its own irony, Kent clutched his throat as his lifetime friend raised his hands to the thirty feet high ceiling and said:

            “Home.  I’m home.”

            Inexplicably to Kent, Theo sprinted recklessly down the spotless hallway.

            Dread rushed through every nerve ending in Kent’s shocked body as if just struck by the lightning that was mercilessly dropping down outside; and for the first time since their manhood journey had begun, Kent’s feet felt feathery with fear.  A plethora of questions arose in Kent’s uneasy mind. Was this a village test only Theo knew about…had Theo been playacting resentment from the beginning?  Was it a trap?  But Kent had no way of fully realizing the possible answer to any question which presented itself.

            I could just grab an item and run for home, he thought.

            There were pictures on the walls.  Pictures of people who wore suits no different from the clothing of the village’s churchgoers were his first inclinations of a theft.  Perhaps snatching one of the clean pillows from one of the pristine couches, or one of the unblemished vases that rested on various curve legged coffee tables would be better…

            Just pick up one, run, and manhood is mine!

            Or would it be?

            How can I become a man if I leave my best friend behind?

            Was Theo entranced or possessed by the things that resided here? Were the ghosts of this place real rather than the fiction that he believed?

            Did he just hear footsteps from above?  There was a winding oak stairwell at the northern end of the reception room, beside the hallway that Theo had just passed through.  Following Theo meant moving further into the mansion.  To pass by the stairwell might mean confrontations with the unknown, something deadly, a thing that passed between worlds as Kent might pass through a door.

            Kent gathered his courage and sprinted in the wake of his friend.  But the hallway was not as long as he first thought and only seconds into full gallop, Kent whoa-ed his gait as he came in sight of plain concrete steps leading to an underground floor below him. The distinct sounds of a boy’s footfalls descended it.  Kent took a step downward.  A piercing alarm sounded and yellow lights began pulsating overhead.  Behind him, Kent could hear the sound of heavy running and – hollow-voiced – cursing?

              "Darn it!  Darn it!  Nosy kids!"

            Kent’s heart jackknifed in his chest and he swallowed his breathing when he saw the ghost of his people’s imagination clear the final twenty steps of the winding stairwell in one bound and land with an awkward THUD on the polished floor.  He was bandaged with dirty brown hospital dressing from head to toe, as if continual maintenance of the house took all his time away from personal hygiene.

            “After all these years, finally got this place spic and span and you kids are going to dirty it up!” The Bandaged Man bleated. His overflowing voice was filled with childish tantrum.

            Kent screamed and then screamed louder when the bandaged man spoke to him: “C’mere kid.  You and me’s gotta talk.”

            “You’re not real!  You’re not real!  Kent insanely wept as he fled down the steps, away from this hallucination, and towards his beloved Theo.  At some point in his descent, Kent’s feet tangled, but he was only three steps from the bottom when he tilted forward and fell.  His knees hurt from their contact with the hard surface, and the funny bone in his left arm had lost all of its comedy, but he was intact. From above, he could hear the staggered gait of the Bandaged Man.

            “Ouch! Shouldn’t have jumped down those steps!”  it whined.

            “Theo!” Kent yelled.  “Where are you?”

            Copies of his voice responded up and down the bleach colored tunnel.  There were shut steel doors on both sides of the seemingly endless and sophisticated cavern.  Kent chose to go right and was rewarded when Theo called to him from up ahead – in the white distance.  Kent ran hard toward the familiar, lingering voice.  He could hear the labored footsteps of the gimp ghost behind him.

            The brilliance under which Kent raced was indescribable – sun bright.  And where was the power source for this kind of energy?  Dead-ivory illumination blanketed Kent as he pumped his sore knees and swung his frantic arms. With each step he hoped that this passage led to a way out of this place instead of to a dead end.  As Kent rushed to the final and single opened door, hope was just another dashed thought, and the young man’s realizations fell on the side of the worst of possibilities.  Without taking time to survey his surroundings, Kent grabbed the inside door’s handle, and with some difficulty, pulled the heavy door shut behind him.  There was a bolt in it, so he slammed it through its aperture and turned it to its locked position.  Kent took a moment to place his hands on his knees and gasp for needed air, but his eyes quickly studied the room, and the abomination that stood before him cost him the breath he had just clutched from the sterile air.  Theo stood beside a body that was upright and identical to his own except that it was slightly taller.  Theo was holding in his hands the head of another body that lay prostrate on an inhuman metal cot.

            “Theo…”

            The explosion behind him and the bulge that appeared on their side of the bolted door pushed a desolate feeling to the forefront of Kent’s thoughts. The bulge expanded and widened as the ghost behind the door again made impact.  The next strike was a little weaker and the door shifted in appearance again, but less than it did from the previous two strikes.

            “Shoot,” the muffled voice on the other side said.

            Another weaker impact.

            “Darn.”

            Silence.

            Then:  “Theo, you open this door right now! Don’t make me break it down.” (Quieter but still audible), “Knew I should have taken all the bolts off. Wish I could remember where I put the keys.”

            Kent’s hand unconsciously fell across the sturdy hunting knife that hung high on his right hip’s deerskin breeches.  Theo wrenched his attention away from the head cradled in his lean hands.  His eyes took on that same unholy gleam they exhibited just before he had entered the mansion.

            “Yes, father, I’m coming,” Theo said.

            Kent blinked wildly. As Theo was ready to walk past him, head still in hands, Kent grasped his arm.  “What are you doing, Theo?  What is this? Your father is in the village…” (in a whisper) “…that’s the Bandaged Man out there.”

            Theo shook free from his grip and started for the door again.  Kent’s survival instincts surfaced.  He unsheathed the dagger and unflinchingly drove it between Theo’s shoulder blades.  The knife tore through synthetic flesh, but glanced off a harder frame underneath and Kent became unbalanced.  Almost falling on his own knife, Kent’s left elbow again took the impact that was meant for his chest and stomach. He desperately cried out and re-tightened his grip on the weapon when Theo shoved against the door’s warp, pressed it back, not flat again, but flat enough to throw back the bolt and let the door queasily swing inwards.  The Bandaged Man hobbled inside and placed his over-large hands on Theo’s shoulders.

            “Je-Sus H. Christ, boy!” the Bandaged Man heavily expressed, “didn’t expect that reaction from you.  I’ve been monitoring your programming since you began your journey.  You seemed perfectly human with perfect human characteristics.  Some of the others that have come back – I knew from the beginning that their systems would malfunction when they saw their birthplace, but not you.  I thought you were the one!”

            “I’m sorry, daddy,” Theo cried.

            “Shucks, son, no real harm done.  I guess, I’d…”

            “Shucks?” Kent suddenly interrupted. He had finally broken free from most of his fear and bewilderment.  Thinking of escape was not an option, not with the doorway blocked by this enormous piece of tissue wrapping.  On steadying legs, Kent unhooked the small chopping ax that was bundled on his shoulder’s carrying bag.  In one whopping arc, he brought the ax across the bandaged man’s face.  In a merciless clang, it dropped from Kent’s stunned fingertips; and the brave retort he had meant to follow the thing’s death evaporated soundless in the uncaring air.

            The Bandaged Man removed his hands from Theo’s shoulders and ripped the wrapping from his face to reveal porcelain steel in place of flesh and bone. Hollowed-out black resided for eye sockets. Pumpkin pinpoints replaced irises.  The Bandaged Man opened his mouth, but there were no teeth, just smooth metal for jawbone.  When he spoke, there was a hint of admiration in the so-so human warmth that leaked from its inhuman origination. 

            “The slow minded ones are always the bravest.  What did you expect, boy?  Did you expect that primitive weapon would have any chance against someone who almost smashed through a one ton door?”  The Bandaged Man stripped down to his metallic nakedness.  Thick bolted joints for elbows and knees and course, sharpened steel toes and fingers made of some other world’s construction configured him.

            “What are you?”

            “A robot.  What else?  Oh, wait, I must apologize, you have no reason to know about my kind since none of us has been seen since LastWar.”

            “I’ve heard of robots,” Kent stuttered. “Grandfather has told me stories about them, except his stories were supposed to be…stories.  I didn’t think LastWar society had the technology to make you…”

            “So capable?” the robot gleefully interrupted.

            “No, real,” Kent finished.

            The robot bubbled laughter, and when it spoke, it sounded like an older version of Theo. “Mankind didn’t, either.”

                                                                                  ****

            The quiet townsfolk continued listening.  The campfires crackled.  Men and women, the old and young, were stunned by this new version of their old ghost tale.

            “Everyone thinks that the Bandaged Man was the leader of this country, once called America,” told Kent, the elder.  The years between boyhood and his ascension to manhood had been very kind to him.  At forty, there were still no signs of the first wrinkle, or of gray or silver in his hair.  “The story has been told again and again that the Bandaged Man was the cause of LastWar and that when the few survivors remaining finally found him, they cut him to pieces for his war crimes.  It has been told for generations that he survived the attack, and while the remnants of humanity fled the cities, he doctored his own skin with the wrappings from a nearby hospital.  It has been told that he eventually died from the infections that raged through his body but that he rose again as the living dead because of the unconquerable evil that resided in his soul.  He has been a storybook wraith that forever lingers as a cancer in the haunted city. Our manhood ceremony has been a teaching tool to make us remember the mistakes of our past – and also to keep us in fear of ever attempting to become city dwellers again.”

            Kent rose and the muscles underneath his leather vest rippled in the torchlight.  Women half his age watched in rapture as the lifelong bachelor walked amongst his throng.

            “As you heard the story of my coming of age I must tell you…it is all a lie!  The Bandaged Man was originally created to serve humanity.  He and his kind were built to end LastWar and preserve our race, not end it and enslave us!  Before I escaped his clutches, he told me that robots turned LastWar in their favor and that after mankind was defeated, used their own cities as bases to control us.  Now, amongst us, half of our people are and have always been robots, disguised as humans.  These robots posing as us don’t even know it until they are needed to do the master’s bidding!  There is a control switch for each unit. These units are controlled by the city when needed to keep us in check! The robots manipulate our entire existence!”

            A questioning murmur was exhaled by his audience.  Eventually, an inquisitive young man, not yet ready for manhood asked:  “If that is the case, elder, then how do you explain the growth process or the birth of babies from these robots?”

            Light hearted laughter leapt between and amongst the crowd.

            “They come when we sleep and replace the outdated models.  Their children grow by building a bigger model for each growth spurt, like they did with Theo!” And he pointed in Theo’s direction. Theo remained quiet and complacently held his wife’s hand in both of his own.  “Theo’s wife is a robot!  That is the reason why he married her!  Don’t you see?  They have to stay with their own in family units!  They replaced her every month with an updated version as her belly grew big with child.  There was no child in her belly!  Who saw her give birth?”

            Several midwives stood and raised their hands.

            “How do you explain them?” Theo asked as a rosy smile crossed his face.

            “Robots as well!” Kent exclaimed as he heard his own, in-control voice alter.  “You gain the friendship of humans, but stay close with your own kind because you are controlled to do so!  You think you are human, Theo, like you did the day we went to the Bandaged Man’s home.  But you are dead! You’ve been dead for years!”

            Astonished epiphanies bulleted from Kent’s face and he hiccupped into his hands as a startlingly new revelation crossed his mind.

            “Perhaps you were never alive at all.”

            The volume from the audience grew.  People talked to their neighbors, who in turn talked to theirs. In unison, they began applauding and whistling at Kent’s creative tale.

            “No wait! Please!  The Bandaged Man told me that each city has thousands of worker robots underground that are constantly building duplicates and newer versions of our townspeople.  He said that every city has one like him that keeps the human populace under their control to constantly indoctrinate us with their ghost stories!  Our talented people: the doctors who care for us, our engineers, who make our standard of living better, are just some of the robots that live among us!  Those of us who cook, farm, hunt, and are garbage maintenance are their cattle!  They only keep enough of us around to learn more about our culture and nature…so they can appear more human!  My friends, it is much worse than fearing a spook.  We are caged guinea pigs on a spinning wheel forever running in place!”

            A spry autumn wind blew across Kent’s soaked face, and in the harvested cornfield where he spoke, he braced himself for the robots to attack.

            Theo was the first to clap.  Others soon followed until all were stamping their feet and slapping their hands.  Barks from men, yelps from boys, squeals from the girls, and hoots from the women dropped Kent’s eyes to his sandaled feet.

            “His yarns get better every time he tells them,” an old timer yelled in Theo’s ear over the din of laughter and applause.

            “Very authentic, the best storyteller in town,” Theo answered.  He kissed his wife on her bronzed cheek, stepped to the center and embraced Kent.  The crowd had already begun to disperse.

            “What, what happened? Kent asked.  “I began telling our manhood story and just blanked out.”

            Theo threw his dense arm around his dear friend’s shoulder and began to coax him through the cornfield, away from the campfire that was being doused by Theo’s two eldest. He led Kent toward the dark wood.

            “Nothing is wrong, my brother.  It is normal for you to embellish stories.  You have a knack for it.”

            “I…I did it again?”  Kent asked.  “I told the story about robots?”

            “A different version, a better version,” Theo sighed.  “It’s as if the human Kent, the elder, the storyteller, had his brainwaves hardwired into a computer brain.  Now, that would be a wild tale, wouldn’t it?  Wouldn’t it be something if a human’s memory could be stored in a robot’s head with the human side always fighting to take control of the rewiring planted by your imaginary robots?  Maybe you could use that in your story next time.”

            “That would be impossible. No one would believe that story,” Kent vacantly replied.

            “But just think how messed up that would make you in the head, if it could be done – to a human.  Consider being able to remember your old past as a human, mixed in with a robot’s hard-drive, both sides constantly fighting to maintain control,” Theo said as he reached over and lovingly patted Kent’s broad chest.

            Kent giggled, but it was a lingering, lost sound, “yes, that would be a real mind job.  Why are we going this way?”

            “You’ll know when you get there and you won’t be confused any more.  In fact, you’ll be just like new,” Theo’s pumpkin orange irises pierced the nightfall and he affectionately said:

            “Kent, there is no doubt that you are the greatest storyteller in the town’s history.  You just need to learn to get the story right.”

                                                                    End


Kimberly Bowling

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Kimberly Bowling is a born and raised Southerner. Her work depicts the quirks and macabre of the South from an honest perspective told like none other with first hand knowledge. Her short story ‘Not In My Kitchen’ will appear in an upcoming issue of Folly Magazine. She resides in Muscle Shoals, Al with her family, German Shepherd and an orphaned fox named Todd.

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                         TAXIDERMY: DEATH TIMES TWO

            Quitman Masterton had been known as the cheatin’, lyin’, whorin’ bastard of town for over twenty years. When his stuffed wild turkey supposedly scratched his eye out, his acquaintances  chalked it off to the whiskey brand rather than the actual bird. As the sad story goes, minds didn’t start churning until to many wheels had rolled into motion in the sleepy town of Trychana, Louisiana. The place was as rural as rural could get. A parish where bicycles weren’t foreign to kids and most cell phones couldn’t find reception if you taped a fork as an antenna.

            The night ceased to have an ending as Quitman drove his beat-up truck into Trychana. Gut-rot vodka fueled his veins and one dim headlight led the way through the sharp curves of Tribedaux Road. Willow trees hung over the edges of the pavement illuminating the shoulder with shadows that went on for miles. The moon was clouded with an orange hue that masked the stars from view. Quitman stepped on the gas while adjusting the mason jar full of his personal poison and situating his ratty fedora to sit at the back of his balding head. The old Ford wheezed through another turn taking him into the outskirts of town where businesses had a back room full of things that could get him into trouble in a dry county.

            He passed Constanthon LaRue walking into the old general store where his taxidermy business made a small fortune since hunters had slim choices. He was the only one for six counties and over a hundred miles. Quitman, along with every other man, was jealous of the awe he received from women. Maybe it had something to do with his long chestnut hair or his size fourteen shoe. Whatever it came to be, Quitman only raised his hand and continue to drive.

            Who would’ve known Constanthon had enough skeletons in his closet to create jewelry for an entire tribe of African Pigmies and would prove to be the cause of quite the upset on this side of Lake Ponchatrain.

            Quitman parked outside McCall’s One Stop and pulled out a wad of twenties before staggering through the double doors. The shelves held a bare minimum of supplies, the drink coolers weren’t even turned on, and the minnow tank had a handful of floaters belly up at the top. He walked toward the cash register before old man McCall even noticed he’d entered. McCall put down his latest copy of Natural Double D’s before lighting a cigar and offering one to Quitman.

                        “Don’t mind if I do,” Quitman answered taking the lighter and striking up  the cheap White Owl.

                        “What the hell happened to your eye?” McCall asked blowing smoke in  slow rings.

                        “Told ya and every other damn person in town. Turkey I killed last season             jumped right up and took to flappin’!”

            McCall fidgeted in his chair before curling his stumpy fingers around a quart sized mason jar, “Maybe, I ought to not sell you anymore of this..”

                        “No one has ever listened to me a damn day in my life. Even when I was  sober, so I wouldn’t expect it happenin’ now,” he slid a twenty across the counter,  tucked his jar under his arm and headed for the door with a swirl of purple tinted  smoke trailing behind him.

            His boots clinked against the rotting asphalt as he prayed the truck would start.

                        “Just one last fuckin’ time you old whore. One more time.”

            Quitman turned the key as the door creaked shut and speckles of green paint floated off with the wind. The clouds had covered the moon in a matter of minutes, and Quitman’s one headlight barely cut through the moisture soaked air of the bayou. He chewed the end of the cigar realizing he didn’t give a monkey’s last shit if any of the stuck up, rooty-tooty alligator hunters believed his story. Truth was, he planned on getting drunk enough to forget the whole thing, hell, he might even drink until he forgot what his name was.

            He twisted the jar of vodka open, and curled his dingy thumbnail under the lid breaking the seal. With his throat expanded like the gullet of a howling wolf, Quitman slurped down the alcohol just as his truck took a spin toward a lone Oak. As the metal collided, vodka spilled down his shirt soaking it to the skin. The gash on his forehead trickled down his face as Quitman moved across the bench seat and opened the passenger side door with white fumes coming off the ancient engine.Tumbling to the shoulder in the road, he started back toward McCall’s in search of a tow.

                        “My fuckin’ luck. I’ll have another damn DUI after this horse shit!”

            Quitman’s hat was lost in the wreckage. He felt completely naked without his ten year old felt security blanket. A whistle of bustling wind picked up causing him to pull up the collar on his shirt to guard his ears. As he shifted his head forward to sniff the stink of his shirt, blood stained his eye causing him to stop and wipe his wound with his sleeve. Across the road, Quitman heard the click of another wanderer coming closer.

                        “Did’ya see my truck? Damn wrecked it somethin’ bad,” he tried to clear   his eyes as he stepped toward the yellow line moving toward the sound.

            Once his eyes cleared, he stared toward the darkness taking in the yellow glow of a few random lighting bugs which flickered through the trees like nature’s own lamps. The woodlands the county road was cut through were eerily silent sending a chill through Quitman before his ears picked up the movement once more.

            A gust of wind blew a button off his cuffs before the thundering omen began. Galloping hoofs descended from the ditch with the antlers of a full grown white tail deer. Quitman noticed the hair on his chest was mangy with a patch of white underneath. His eyes were like the glassy black of a haunted midnight sans the moon. One fell to the road and shattered revealing an empty socket carved from the splinters of wood. Quitman screamed before he picked up his pace with his boots smacking the blacktop with every terrified step. His adrenaline kicked up a notch as the mounted deer bellowed deep from his artificial chest.

                        “McCall! McCall you son-of-a-bitch! Let me in!”

            His voice cracked as sweat coated his chest with every nearing sound of the ten-point deer. He looked back focusing on the buck which closed the gap by colliding with McCall’s old gas pump. The nozzle began to quirt as an ear fell onto the ground only to be replaced with cotton stuffing poking wildly from the hole.

                        “Quitman! What in tarnation are you tryin’ to do? Buy all my fuckin’ liquor?”             McCall opened the door immediately gasping at his friend’s appearance.

                        “Look you cock sucker! See that damn thing?” Quitman barreled into the  store and closed the door behind him with an echoing slam almost shattering the  window panes.

            McCall’s wad of greying hair blocked Quitman’s view as he shoved his crooked nose up to the glass. Gasoline puddled around the antique pump as the dead deer reared onto his haunches showing the intricate sewing pattern keeping the mount in place.

                        “Well, I’ll be slut of the county,” McCall’s voiced trailed away as he backed  from the door and went behind the counter in a fit. His old bones popped as he  leaned down to produce a sawed-off shotgun.

                        “Even to me the damn story sounded like shit,” as most things did to  Quitman, “but now you had better believe me.”

            The buck stared down the building with his one remaining glass eye. His hoof pawed at the metallic handicapped parking sign as he charged forward and rammed his horns into the door.

            McCall fired a shot toward the beast. The sound beat down Quitman’s eardrums in such an enclosed space. Backing up, the deer bucked toward them before a hysterical cry caught his attention. His ear turned to the East picking up the location as a piece of grey thread unwound in the stitching. It dropped sideways and hung limply against the side of his jowls. Before McCall had a clean shot: the animal loped through the parking spaces with gas splashing under his feet.

                        “Fuck! Glad that thing left us the hell alone!” Quitman turned on his heel             reaching for liquid courage and taking a swig of McCall’s drink, “now we can get  back to the finer things in life.” He downed the rest of the vodka with a burp   before resting his shoulders against the surface.

                        “You’re as sorry as they come, Quit! That thing could hurt everyone in  town, and you’re just gonna sit here and drink! People are gonna die if we don’t  do something!,” McCall hurried to the storeroom and returned with a .357 steel  blue revolver, “if you ain’t gonna do nothin’ then I’m going after the damn thing.”

            McCall shook bullets from the Winchester box and loaded his pockets. He stuck the handgun into his waistband looking like a regular country Bubba heading into the woods. After shoving a cheap straw cowboy hat onto his head, he turned to Quitman.

                        “Fine by me if you pussy out, but I’m not gonna,” he opened the door and  took to walking in the direction of the scream.

            Quitman picked a flask off the shelf just after McCall left, filled it with McCall’s personal bottle of Johnny Walker, and went to find him cussin’ all the way.

            Moving into the main strip of town, Quitman felt like the tips of his hair had been set aflame. The street in all it’s entirety, was struck by chaos. Women ran through doorways in their housecoats only to come out screeching for protection. Men pumped shotguns racking in shells to shoot randomly at anything that vaguely resembled an animal. The first thing that caught Quitman’s attention, knocked a hard breath back into his chest. A moose head with a rack of antlers the size of a car trunk, tilted its nose on the sidewalk and gritted its yellowing teeth to the cement. With a strain of the neck, the moose caught a gangly movement by shifting forward. The damn thing was moving with no body, not even a set of legs. When Webber Gargis took a Louisville Slugger to the back of it’s head: it erupted chips of wood splinters and cotton stuffing. The weight of the antlers tipped the moose head over where he tried to come back on Webber and bite at his ankles. His teeth dug into the muscle of his lower calf until pieces of them broke off in the flesh of Webber’s skin.

            Quitman ran as fast as his bum Vietnam-injured leg would let him before drawing the pistol and taking a shot, point blank.

                        “What the fuck is goin’ on here, man?” Quitman yelled over the chaos, but             Webber’s pain kept him from answering.

                       

            Before McCall could come over to help, a bear skinned rug leaped on Widow Chaney using his empty arms to engulf her elderly frame. McCall drew his gun, but realized right quick he had no shot without hitting the Widow. As he pulled at the flappy head of the Grizzly, the click of a trigger sent him jumping to the left. The Widow blasted two rounds into the bears mouth before it fell to the ground.

                        “Are you alright?” McCall asked as he shook the Widow who’s hair was  fashioned in her nightly curlers.

                        “Alright? Of course I’m not alright! Every goddam, stuffed animal from fish  to bird to deer is alive! Haven’t you heard, you cocksuckin’ butt pirate?” She had  always been on the right side of the 400 Unit, but tonight her insults bounced off  the ground like the casings of the guns the town was using to kill these stuffed  things.

                        “Where the fuck is Constanthon? Who the hell else would fashion  somethin’ like this. I told y’all asswipes he was into that black magic! Go find him,  damnnit!” She pushed McCall out of the way, and limped to a five pound bass   that was feeding on Webber. The fins flicked at his cheek, sharp as a razor. Crimson flowed into the bass’ mouth as he latched onto Webber’s jawline    gnawing with smacks that made McCall turn his head and vomit.

            Widow Chaney shot the fish as Quitman drug McCall to the sidewalk with his gun drawn, “Saw Constanthon ‘fore I came to the store the first time.” They hurried as fast as two old-timers could leaving most of the wreckage of Trychana behind.

                        “Locked up tight as a chastity belt,” Quitman shook the door handle before             McCall pushed him aside and took a shot. He re-loaded the twelve-gauge and racked one into the chamber.

                        “Constanthon, you pussy! Get out here!” Quitman yelled before a light turned on to the horrors of the taxidermist’s shop.

            A single table was in the middle of the room with a carving knife set directly into the stomach of this year’s Homecoming Queen, Adelia Clements. Her largely set blue eyes were drained of color as she looked at the men and screamed for help. Blood trickled down the side of her torso pooling underneath her body. Quitman rushed to her side and began untying her wrists.

                        “Not so fast, Quitman,” Constanthon said as he entered the room with his  hair dripping blood and his fingers prying an ear from his pocket. He lifted the  cartilage to his lips and chewed. His arrogance was as thick as molasses. It  might as well’ve been another presence in the room.

                        “What the fuck are you doin’? Call all this shit off man!” McCall held the  gun even with Constanthon’s torso.

                        “Call it off? Why I’ve waited for this my entire life. Waited for the day that all my creations would serve a greater purpose. Bloodshed for my lords, and little Adelia here will finally allow them to walk with me,” Constanthon brushed his   hands over the ivory handle of the knife and twisted causing the girl to scream in   gut-wrenching pain, “Put that gun down McCall... or she gets it.”

                        The gun rested on the floor without any hesitation, “There you go,” Constanthon removed his shirt before moving to the table. On his knees he  began unbuckling his pants, “All the girls just love this, Adelia. And remember,   it’s for our lord. Our master.”

            Adelia cried with large sobs causing her breath to catch in her throat as she realized she was being used in some demonized ritual. The binds on her legs tightened as the knife splayed more of her flesh opening up her abdominal cavity. Pain caused spots in her vision. The more Constanthon slashed, the bigger the spots became until she could see nothing but a dark film. Her eyes rolled into hiding as Constanthon positioned himself between her thighs threatening to take her virginity.

            If one more second had passed the ritual would have been complete. A bobcat soared through the window spraying bits of glass in every way possible. He was followed by an eagle that swooped down to pluck Constanthon’s right eye from its socket.

            Quitman took the opportunity to release Adelia and pull her off the table into a corner before grabbing McCall’s shotgun. Widow Chaney followed the mass stampede of stuffed wildlife. Her face was drenched with cold sweat, her pistol was tucked in the waistband of her bathrobe, and her hands were clutching a handful of yellow powder. Once she was absolutely certain Constanthon had been devoured like an all-you-can-eat trucker buffet, she rummaged through cabinet after cabinet before pulling out a jar filled with pieces of flesh, eyes, tongues, and teeth. She opened it and gagged at the stinch of rot before sprinkling the powder inside. It dissolved the contents, and one by one the animals fell to the ground beside Constanthon.

                        “Told y’all assholes he was into some bad Voodoo shit. Once I had me a chance to look at my old book, I knew ‘xactly what he was fixin’ to do. Sick little homo was tryin’ to lift Nemanstrathema. All these bad ones call him master and worship him. Makes the devil look like Cinderella. Calls for an open vessel of the virgin, chaos the world hasn’t seen before, and the de-flowerin’ in his honor,” the Widow went to Adelia’s side forcing her to stay alert, “lets get this little lady to the hospital.”

            On the way, Widow Chaney explained that Voodoo was still well and alive in the deep part of the bayou. She practiced natural healing and had done so since she was a child. Constanthon’s occult was as black you get could in the world of warlocks. He was one sick butt pirate.

                        “McCall, what you say, we go find some broads and talk to ‘em without pants on?” Quitman suggested as they cleaned up the aftermath of Constanthon’s almost resurrection of Nemanstrathema.

                        “Quit, don’t you think we got somethin’ better to do?”

                        “Not me, you old bastard. I’ve got fifty bucks and in need of some big ole tits,” with his words Quitman left to find breasts and anything willing to open her legs.

            He may have saved Trychana or had a hand in doing so: But, Quitman was still and will always be the cheatin’, lyin’, whorin’ bastard of town.

           

 



C.W. LaSart

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A lifelong fan of all things horror, C. W. LaSart has always been a story teller.  Residing in the Midwest with her soul mate, three wonderful children, an extremely ugly bulldog and a neurotic sheepdog, she spends her days writing and her evenings as a part-time bar wench in an Irish Pub. Her short story Jack and Jill, can be found in Issue #1 of Dark Moon Digest, and Sirens will be in Issue #4 which should be released this Summer. Also, a collection of her more extreme fiction, Ad Naseum, will be released in the Fall of 2011 by Dark Moon Books. She thanks Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon and Brian Lumley (just to name a few) for their inspiration in her life. She is still afraid of the dark.


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                                                           SODOMY

            Angel was a man tormented by demons his entire life.  A junkie, convicted pedophile, and petty criminal, he was not someone who was unaccustomed to the idea that his final destination would be the flames of Hell.  As fucked up as he was, Angel wasn't even all that surprised when five demons appeared in his darkened bedroom one night, but he strongly suspected they might be hallucinations caused by too much X.

            The first of the five, short and portly with a pair of comically small horns sprouting from its forehead, stepped forward and produced a gilded scroll from thin air, its hand moving with the flourish of an experienced magician.  Unrolling the parchment, it spoke in a squeaky voice.

            "Angel, due to your crimes and the particularly distasteful state of your soul, you have been deemed worthy of early judgment, the penalties of your actions to be meted out by my colleagues.  Are you prepared?"

            Realizing that he was paralyzed, unable to move more than his head, Angel still found the spectacle humorous.  "Sure, why not?"  He laughed, "I'm game."

            The next demon stepped up; its face twisted and ugly as it gave a curt bow and straightened.  "My name is Theft."

            After proceeding to strip Angel of all his clothes, the demon stole the golden rings from his nipples and ears, ripping them from the flesh slowly, as Angel gasped in pain.  Naked and bleeding, he no longer found humor in his situation, and was suddenly confident that this was no dream.

            Another demon stepped forward, this one more grotesque than the last, its face a mess of acne and festering sores.  "My name is Pestilence."

            The barest touch of Angels naked toe, and he instantly broke out in boils all over his body, foul smelling, green fluid oozing as they burst.  A nasty crop of herpes blisters itched and burned where they covered his exposed genitals.  He writhed on the bed, unable to move his hands to scratch himself.

            The next was too monstrous to look upon, though Angel was helpless to cast his gaze elsewhere.  "My name is Vengeance."

            With a swipe of its beastly hand, Angel was swept to the floor, where the demon proceeded to pummel him without mercy.  With every punch and kick, its face shifted fluidly from the visage of one victim to the next, a slideshow of all those Angel had hurt in his life.  The last face was his mother, accompanied by a savage kick that shattered his ribs.

            Battered and bleeding, Angel lay on his side on the wooden floor, gasping for breath through broken teeth.  Able to move again, he glanced up warily as the final demon stepped forward.  After the hideousness of the previous three, this one was almost handsome.  With kind features and an air of compassion, it seemed like a friend.  He felt a surge of hope when it smiled and held out a gentle hand.

            "My name is Sodomy."

            Angel began to scream.