Through the portal

by Hannah E. Phinney

Sam went through the portal. It had beckoned vaguely from within the mirror, its matter briefly shivering, his reflection there a granulated facsimile. He stuck his finger into the soupy dimensional plane – it felt like nothing. So he climbed onto the mantel and tumbled head-first across the divide. As he picked himself up from the floor, he couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t simply fallen backwards instead. Parlor room still, everything in its place. There was the scalloped sofa, the hanging birdcage, the grated fireplace…the red-brown-blue chinoiserie papering every inch of wall.

Sam wandered out to the enclosed patio, where his mother kept a lush but disorderly greenhouse that also included flowers (some freshly cut, some dying, others long gone and dried) in glass vases. Here he gasped. Dracaenas and crotons still rose into their habitual shapes from potters, and two-toned spider plants draped their curvilinear spears from twine baskets as before. But in the vases! In the vases, replacing cut blossoms, sprung a morbid assortment of human fingers. Tiny children’s fingers…thick and calloused workman’s fingers…slender piano-playing fingers topped with pearl-pink nails…shriveled arthritic fingers on their way to death. Sam could not see the severed ends, as each arrangement was plunged into several inches of viscous, wine-colored liquid. He began to back up slowly.

It was then, from the garden door opposite, that they waltzed in – giant blooms balancing their tall stalks on networks of roots that scuttled over the floor. Where pistils and stamens should have been: faces. Homicidal faces. Sam did not want to learn how they would separate his fingers from the rest of him. He turned and ran back to the parlor mirror, clambering up the mantel. Shit, he thought, as the botanic butchers approached him, their jagged leaves outstretched. The portal had disappeared.

 

In the Bunker, the Last Day

By J. J. Roth

The bunker’s slick, brown concrete walls are hidden behind drywall textured in the “California Knockdown” pattern and painted a fresh, calming, newborn-boy blue.

Solomon sits on the off white wall-to-wall Berber carpet, his back against the wall next to the leaden door on which a scene is painted: kids on slides and swings. His boots are untied, and he wipes the barrel of his M4 with a rag, wrinkling his nose at the hint of new-carpet chemicals still out-gassing from the Berber after all this time. The air filtration system spins on with an almost inaudible whir and Solomon’s nose relaxes.

Sayers sits at the door’s other side, at a cherry veneer Queen Anne-style table, her rifle propped against the empty wing chair next to her. The wing chair’s cushioned seat is upholstered in wide, pastel vertical stripes reminiscent of spumoni.

The Mombu boy hops three of Sayers’s checkers and asks to be kinged; Sayers fakes a scowl.

In the bulletproof glass enclosure in the corner, one of many in common rooms throughout the vast complex, Nguyen sips reconstituted coffee clumpy with creamer, checks external water and air toxicity readings, taps the computer keyboard that controls the exterior cameras panning them left and right, and examines the readouts from other posts across the complex as they scroll down a black window on her display.

A fly buzzes around the fluorescent ceiling fixture, tinted and muted to give the light a friendly, incandescent glow, and Baker looks up from the workstation next to Nguyen’s wondering for a millisecond how the fly got there.

In the corner opposite the control enclosure, Fuller kneels in front of a storage unit that matches the table where Sayers sits, replacing board games and DVDs on shelves that, despite their frequent use, eerily fail to display scuff marks.

The Martinez twins sit cross-legged on the protective Sesame Street rug behind Fuller, eyes glued to The Sound of Music playing on the 62″ television. The Garbadon boy spilled grape juice on Elmo a few days ago, but as always, the rug is pristine. The almost sub-aural filtration system hums on again and whisks away a child’s fart, sweet and milky.

McDonough walks in from the dining room in his undershirt and jeans, a toothbrush in his mouth, and leaves down the hall that leads to the apartments and barracks.

In the rec area next to the kiddy corner, the White boy plays ping pong with the Schwartz girl, while the Schwartz boy plays pool with the White boy’s older brother. The Schwartz boy chalks his cue and breaks, sinks the nine-ball, pumps his fist and shouts, “Yes!” The Tiffany-style lamps hanging over the other, unused pool tables are dark; all the lamps, dark or not, used to swing slightly when the lights and television flickered, but that hasn’t happened in a while.

Dexter slumps in a bean bag chair next to the carrom set, hunched over a Nintendo DSI 4D-5D, thumbs flapping, launching tinny electronic dings and beeps and snippets of music into the recycled air.

D’Souza sits alone in one of the conversation groupings next to the rec area, shuts an ancient issue of The Economist and tosses it onto the leather sofa beside him. He folds his reading glasses, snaps them into a faux-leather case, and slides the case into his breast pocket. He glares at Dexter, shivers, and gazes across the room to the far wall where teenagers have painted a trompe l’oeil over the spackled drywall texture — a window onto a grassy meadow, Holsteins grazing, a red barn and silo in the background. To either side of the “window” hang soulless acrylic seascapes in ornate gilt frames, in the same lack of style as the paintings of flowers and birds in the hallways and the landscapes in all of the apartments.

A gang of children, including the Banks girl, runs across the room’s expanse squealing, then back toward the gym.

Three chimes sound over the PA system and a calm, musical female voice says, “Second group dinner begins in ten minutes. Tonight we feature Shepherd’s Pie, Quiche Lorraine, and Hunan Chicken.”

Tsarangopoulos and Sorkin head toward the dining room, arguing over a mathematical proof, almost colliding with an ersatz potted palm.

Sanderson guides his wife past the arguing men, his arm around her as she dabs eyes which have not stopped tearing since they arrived here expecting to meet their daughter who never showed up. “Try to eat something,” he says. “Please. Maybe the Shepherd’s Pie? You’ve always liked Shepherd’s Pie.”

In the bunker, another set of chimes, five this time, announces the Civil Defense report, “This Land is Your Land” playing in the background.

Belkin shushes the three people he’d been chatting with and shifts to the edge of his chair. Wong stows her e-reader in her canvas bag, shuts her eyes, and rests her greying head on the back of the sofa, waiting. Borg stares at the PA speaker as though it has a face. Reiner powders her nose in the mirror of a Christian Dior compact and runs her index finger along the edge of her lower lip to contain a lipstick bleed.

In the control enclosure, Nguyen stands behind Baker, points her finger to his screen and asks him to zoom in to a tiny spot, which, when enlarged, becomes a patch of green in a waste of grey ash. “Beginning tomorrow,” the speakers intone, “it will be safe to leave the facility. Please stand by for further instructions.”

A cry goes up in the common room. Belkin hugs Wong. Borg hugs himself and then Reiner. D’Souza stands immobile, eyes on the PA speaker as if he’s expecting video, too. The Schwartz boy jumps onto the pool table shouting, “Yes!” while his sister dances with the White boys.

Dexter fails to avoid a pixelated lava pit, slams his fist into his DSI, hurls his Giant’s cap across the room and shouts, “I hate this fucking level!”

 

Saint Max

by Aaron Polson

Max is seven and his father, thirty years older, digs a hole in the backyard each night.

Seven is a perfect age for Max—a good age between too young and old enough.  He still fears monsters, but the monsters hide inside real people, like his father. The real monsters make people do strange things. Max sleeps in a bedroom on the second floor of his house. His bedroom walls are light blue with rockets and planets stenciled in acrylic paint around the border with the ceiling. He’s too old for the stencils because they are simple and childish, but not old enough to tell anyone he’d like something else, maybe soccer balls or baseball bats. For the past five nights, Max has watched his father dig a hole in the back yard. He tries to stay awake until his father stops digging, but each night the digging lasts a little longer.

Five minutes.

Ten minutes.

A little longer each night.

His father digs when it is dark. The house blocks the nearest streetlight from reaching the back yard. Heavy shadows hug his father, everything. If Max waits long enough, his eyes adjust and he can see his father, the shovel, and the hole. The shovel’s worked-honed edge glints silver on rare moments when his father lifts it high over his head and the metal catches moonlight.

Max wonders about the hole. He wonders about his father’s behavior. Why dig only at night? Why such a large hole?

His father pauses and looks toward the window. Max pulls away quickly, pulls away and tucks his head under his heavy denim quilt, the quilt Grandma Mary made for him with faded patches of Dad’s old jeans. Sweating and panting with fear under the quilt, Max waits. He waits for sounds. A door slamming. Footsteps. Anything which might speak of his father coming inside, plodding up the stairs and into the boys’ room.

Max imagines what his father might do, what his father could do if he catches him watching. He wonders about the monster behind his father’s eyes. The same monster he’s seen in the morning, hiding inside his mother, or the monster which uses Caleb Pickens at school.

He waits, imagining.

The house falls silent.

Eventually, Max finds sleep.


This is how the morning goes:

Max looks from his window before getting dressed. The backyard basks in early morning light, and nothing appears out of place, not single strand of grass—a thick, green rug of fat-bladed fescue. Max dresses and hurries to the kitchen and eats oatmeal and toast with a small glass of orange juice. His mother has made old fashioned oatmeal on the stove. Each morning, she mixes half water and half milk, brings it to a boil, and dumps in a cup of oats. The oats cook for five minutes.

Neither speak while Max eats. His mother cleans the pot for the oatmeal and wipes down the counters. This is how she is: quiet and efficient and regimented. This is how Max is: silent and patient and happy with the routine. If not happy, he gets by. This is good enough. When she isn’t silent, the times she pauses and looks at Max in the strange way and says strange things to him or his father, it is really the monster inside. Max knows this. He knows good enough is just that: good enough.

After he eats, Max goes into the yard checks up close for holes, but there are none. He can’t even find a small divot out of place. His hands run over the edges of the grass, seeking a seam maybe, something. He eats quickly so he has more time in the yard, crawling on hands and knees, looking for something he can’t find.

This is how most mornings go.

His father does not wake for a long time, long after Max has left for school. It’s better this way because his parents can’t both carry the monster if one of them is asleep.

Maybe that’s why his father digs.

He digs so he can sleep.


Nightmares come during the day.

Max thinks about his father and the hole and the shovel at school. He sees his father’s face, sweat-slicked and shaded with night as it turns toward his bedroom window. In the memory, his father has no eyes, just two holes where eyes should be. At recess, when Max stands on the edge of the concrete playground slab and referees the kickball game (mostly because the other boys—the bullies Caleb and Alex—won’t play fair), he thinks about his father. At recess he remembers his father’s eyes, wide and black but tangible—not holes but black like bits of moonless night pressed into the pulpy-white dough of a face. He knows the monster waits behind those eyes. He sees the shovel, the sweat. If he tries hard enough, he can hear the noise the blade makes as it cuts into the soil.

shuck

shuck

shuck

And Caleb yells at Max and calls him a dumbass because he wasn’t paying any attention when one of the big boys, a fourth-grader named Zane Bibble, kicks the red rubber playground ball over the chain link fence separating Sunset Hill Elementary’s playground with the bustle of West 9th.

“What’s your problem Plinsky?” Caleb scowls, and Max remembers a scowl on Caleb’s dad’s face, a similar sour look when Caleb missed an open goal in fall soccer. It’s one of the looks the monster uses.

“Nothing. Just—”

Caleb’s chest puffs out. “Just dreaming about your boyfriend.”

Other boys laugh.

Max looks past Caleb and finds Mrs. Annis. She moves a whistle to her mouth.

“Just thinking,” Max finishes as the whistle sounds.

Caleb puts both hands, palms open, against Max’s chest.

Max tumbles backward, arms circling at his side as he loses his balance, and he falls, butt first, on the hard pavement. Laughter rises through the fleeing crowd. Classmates scurry for the sidewalk near the building as pain weaves along Max’s arms from his asphalt-burned palms to his shoulders. Caleb’s lips roll from a sneer to a smile.

“Pussy,” he says.

Max frowns. His guts twist into a knot. His hands hurt; his wrists hurt.

“Stupid pussy.” The monster laughs behind Caleb’s eyes.


Routine owns Max’s life.

After school, he walks home three blocks, leaves his backpack on the kitchen floor, and goes into the backyard. His parents won’t interfere because Mom is at work and Dad is in his office. Maybe, he imagines, just maybe grass and his father’s digging will look different in the afternoon sun. He walks around the yard, pacing the perimeter of their fence and counting, slowly, under his breath. When he gets to seventy-six, he pauses.

Maybe it’s a trick of the light.

Max drops to his hands and knees. His wrists still sting from hitting the blacktop.

A section of the yard looks different somehow. Darker. He squints. The damp soil starts to soak the knees of his jeans, and cold trickles down his legs. He lowers his face until the grass tickles his cheek.

Routine owns Max’s life, but something else has slipped in.

Something has slipped in which creeps with his father and the shovel in the dark shadows at night.

His father is in the kitchen when Max comes back inside.

“What are you doing, buddy?”

Max shrugs.

His father takes a long drink from a glass of water. “Looks like you hurt yourself.”

“Just an accident at school,” Max says. He doesn’t want to look at his father’s face, afraid he will find the monster behind his eyes.

“Let me see.  Looks like you had a nasty spill.”

“I just fell down.”

His father pushes back his shoulders and examines the boy, sizing him with a drawn-out gaze. “You just fell down?”

Max shrugs.

“Did another boy do this to you? Did somebody knock you down at recess? At PE?”

Max’s eyes linger on the dirt packed beneath his father’s fingernails. “I just fell.”

“If somebody did this to you, buddy, you have to stand up for yourself. You have to do something about it.”

Max feels the monster’s hot breath. His neck tingles with heat. He smells the stench of old meat and blood. He closes his eyes and nods.


That night, Max cannot sleep.

He props his desk chair against the window, positions a pillow on the back of the chair, and balances there, watching the grass below, waiting for his father. The house is silent save for the tiny hum of television spilling from under his parents’ bedroom door.

He holds his breath.

He sits and waits until the back door opens with a soft, almost inaudible click. The house shakes when if shuts. Max hops from bed and scurries to the window. He counts to ten, thinking about whether or not he has the courage to look into the yard. His imagination has built a case during the day, a wild story about valuables his father must be hiding in the yard. Like pirates, Max reasons, even though he thinks he should be too old to think about pirates—especially to hope his father is one.

His father works from home, something on the computer.

He’s worked from home since losing his job eight months ago, but Max’s brain isn’t developed enough to start connecting the dots. He doesn’t have the abstract faculty to think about the backyard, his father, and the computer, and this is perhaps the most frightening piece of all.

No one knows what Max’s father does at home during the day, not even his wife.

Certainly not Max.

Max only knows about the backyard digging and only suspects as of that afternoon: someone has been tampering with the yard. Someone must sneak into the backyard while they’re all asleep, even after his father puts away the shovel and goes to bed. Someone must bring fresh grass and roll it over the yard like carpet—like the big rolls he saw on a flatbed trailer once.

“That’s grass,” his father had said. “They call it sod. They just roll it over the yard and water it.”

Someone must bring sod on a big flatbed trailer and roll it over his father’s holes. It can’t be the monster because it sleeps inside his parents at night and worms into Caleb’s skin during the day.

Max makes a vow to watch all night. He will watch until his father goes to bed, and then later still. Max plans to hold vigil until the sod truck comes and men roll a new carpet of grass over his father’s dig.

He stays in the chair past one… past two…

Sometime after three in the morning, sleep comes for Max. He wakes at seven with his forehead pressed against his bedroom window’s cool glass. Stiffness nags at his neck.

The yard looks fine again, smooth and green and complete, but the idea of strange men with a strange flatbed trailer of sod bothers Max. It frightens him almost as much as the monster inside his father, mother, and Caleb.  He can’t shake the thoughts as he gets dressed and tromps downstairs to breakfast. His mother has her back turned at the counter. Max plops into his chair and takes his spoon.

He pushes an oatmeal lump around his bowl. “Do you know what Dad does at night?” he asks.

She faces him and frowns. Talking is not part of the routine.

“At night?” her voice is smooth and robotic.

“Yes. Late. Like midnight or even later. Do you know what he does?”

His mother drops her gaze to her hands. She studies the backs of both hands laid on the table. She won’t look at Max.

“Eat your breakfast,” she says.

“He’s out there every night.”

“You don’t want to be late.”


On the playground that morning, Caleb trips Max. Max falls to the asphalt and hits hard, a sudden, jarring jolt, on the heels of both hands. It’s not the first time he’s felt the sting of playground asphalt. It’s not the first time Caleb has pushed him to the ground while Mrs. Annis and the other teachers faced away.

This time, Max’s hand starts to bleed.

“You going to cry, pussy?”

Max doesn’t look at Caleb’s face. He knows the monster is there; he can hear it now, hissing under Caleb’s eight-year-old voice. The pain throbs through Max’s hand. A small strip of skin hangs loosely from his left palm while blood, dark and rich and red, swells from the wound. It burns. He holds his wrist with his right hand, squeezing tightly—so much he could lose feeling in his fingers, but the pain tells him to squeeze.

“You going to go tattle, Pussy?”

Max shakes his head. “No,” he says.

He’s been afraid of Caleb since kindergarten—afraid and aware of how cruel Caleb could be. Still, still he doesn’t think about Caleb the way he thinks about the hole his father is digging in their backyard. Caleb might be a bully, but he isn’t a stranger rolling out new sod in the middle of the night. He’s a boy, just another boy, and the worst he can do is hurt Max. Even when the monster is inside Caleb, he still has an eight-year-old body. The worst he can do is make Max bleed.

Max looks at the blood on his palm.

He’s already hurt. He’s already bleeding.

Caleb stands only a few feet away, his eight-year-old face smashed together like a latex rubber mask, like some mock-up Max has seen hanging in Mr. Willy’s Magic Shop on Grand. Caleb’s just a kid, like him. Caleb’s weaker, in a way, because the monster can get inside him. Max wonders what Caleb would do should his father start digging a massive hole in his backyard.

Would he have nightmares?

Would he worry about what his father planned to hide under the sod?

Does he know about the monster? Can he feel it in his skin?

The whistle sounds, and Mrs. Annis waves an arm from across the playground.

“Damn you’re weird,” Caleb mutters as he backpedals.

Max loosens his grip on the wounded wrist and starts for the building.


Max walks home with a bandage-wrapped hand. He spent fifteen minutes in the school office with a tissue held over the wound before the secretary put on her nurse’s hat. He can’t move the hand much, and the tips of his fingers feel numb. A pair of scissors waits in third kitchen drawer at home. Max plans to cut the bandage free. He thinks about the bandage, the throbbing, and the numbness as he walks.

Before he finishes the second block, he finds the dead bird. It’s a robin with pale yellow-orange breast and wings frozen in a half-flap, lying in the middle of the sidewalk. The upward-facing eye still shines, slick and fresh. Max pauses. A breeze rattles the branches in the trees overhead. The sky stretches away, blue and calm and steady, in all directions. He looks, but there’s no sign of blood, no sign of struggle.

The bird just died. It died and fell to earth.

Max finds a sheet of paper, old math homework with a hand-scribbled “good job” from Mrs. Annis. Even without blood, Max is afraid of touching thing with bare hands. He folds the paper and uses it to scoop the dead bird from the ground. The lightness surprises him. Feathers flutter in the wind as Max holds the bird for closer examination.

No sign of struggle at all. No sign of foul play. The bird just died.

Max shivers. It’s an ancient shiver, one borne through evolutionary fear of the dark, fear of the grave, and fear of non-being. A seven-year-old boy doesn’t understand; he knows. The fear settles in his veins and stomach like ice, like something worse than ice, a frigid sludge which forces his blood away. Warmth and happiness become myths. Max’s chest tightens. He feels like puking. In that moment, he brushes the monster’s cape, and the monster pauses.

But there is more. A horror story cannot simply be about death.

The monster wants more than death.

Thoughts of his father’s digging come to Max, and he starts for home with the tiny corpse cradled in its makeshift paper coffin. He doesn’t go through the house. The backyard gate stands open, and Max edges around the undisturbed grass. He sets down the dead bird and drops his backpack. His fingers slid under the lip of the grass and pull it away from the inlaid brick border. Grass blades tickle his fingers as he rolls the sod away like a rug or play mat.

The dirt beneath is loose. Max shoves his right hand into the soft, black earth. He cradles his wounded and bandaged left to his side. The dirt is cool and loose, very loose from all the digging. With one good hand, Max scoops the loose dirt into a small. Again, he lifts the dead bird with the morning paper, and dumps the lifeless shape into the hole.

After pressing mud in place over the corpse, Max dusts away as much mud as he can before going inside and rinsing his hand. While the tap runs and cool, clear water pours over his hand, he starts to think. He realizes he could have never buried the little bird if his father hadn’t dug the soil. He could have never cleared as large a hole if it wasn’t for his father’s work. Max wants these thoughts to bring comfort, but they don’t.

They don’t bring comfort because he feels them like the monster’s sour breath on his neck, and he realizes the monster can travel without a body.


Sometimes, Max wonders if Caleb knows about the monster. He wonders if his parents know, too, but he figures they must because they are so much older. Adults surely know about the thing which crawls into another’s skin and makes a person do bad things. Adults surely know.

Max knows the monster hasn’t been in his skin. He knows because he’s never felt it—never felt the cold rot inside, in his own body. He’s touched the monster through his father’s hand, his mother’s arms, and Caleb’s little fists. He knows what it feels like. He knows now the monster is everywhere, waiting.


His parents fight after dinner, rare flare because the usually don’t talk to each other at all. His mother barks about his father’s flagging spirit and lack of initiative. His father speaks in cold clear tones about being nagged to death. He emphasizes the phrase “to death” like they are magic words. A disagreement over toothpaste—which of them left the cap off the tube—sparked the fight. Max clears his dishes from the table and starts washing them by hand, wearing a yellow rubber glove on his wounded left and running the tap for the duration to cover their voices. Their voices carry anyway.

He shuts his door and buries his head under the big quilt.

He tries to sleep, to shut out the voices, but even after they stop, he hears them. Phantom echoes, he would call them had he the vocabulary. Phantom echoes. The door slams downstairs. Max’s eyes find the bright red numbers on his alarm clock.

10:43. Early for digging.

Max glances at the window and imagines his father’s black shape moving up and down, up and down as the shovel sinks into the already softened soil. The room is quiet; the quilt hot and uncomfortable, but Max can’t move. He’s lead like a sinker on a fishing line his Uncle Greg showed him how to use two summers ago. He might sink into the mattress, straight through the subfloor, the floor below, and burrow into the mud and dirt and gravel below the house. If he burrows deep enough, there’ll be no more fighting.

At least he wouldn’t have to hear it.

Before he falls asleep, Max thinks about burying himself in the soft, well-turned earth in the backyard. It might feel cool, much cooler than the stale, stuffy bedroom air.


There is blood the next day, but not Max’s.

When Caleb mean-mugs him on the playground and taunts him with “pussy” again, Max fights back. Max comes at Caleb. His mouth peels back into a snarl. He swings tight little fists like packages of stones, like iron balls. They feel like iron balls to Max. He’s a wrecking machine. An animal. He knocks Caleb to the ground and keeps swinging until his fingers go numb and he’s forgotten if it is his blood or Caleb’s all over his little wrecking ball fists.

Voices fill Max’s head. Playground supervisors shout. Mrs. Annis’s voice cuts through the cacophony, but Max keeps swinging. Something makes a wet snapping sound like a green twig broken in a summer camp fire.

Strong hands circle Max’s bandy arms.

He lifts into the air.

On the ground, Caleb cries for his mother.


Max spends the day in the school office. Both hands are wrapped and bandaged.

The school secretary tries six times, but can’t reach either parent on cell phones or their home line.


There are no dead birds on the walk home.

There is only the sidewalk, Max’s bandaged hands, and a cool broad expanse of blue sky. There is the hope, a tiny hope, in Max’s chest that his father will be away from his office so Max can brag of his conquest. Max wants to tell his father of Caleb’s bloodied face. His insides pinch together when he thinks of it. The trees are afraid to rattle in the breeze. The breeze has lost the courage to blow. Max walks with power and grace and confidence, a conqueror surveying his plunder. The child who shivered and felt cold when he held the dead robin the day before is gone. The cold muck in his veins has solidified. He’s a giant now, a stone monster.

Monsters are not afraid.

Monsters do not fear adults fighting.

Monsters do not wonder about the strange digging in their backyards or lie sleepless waiting to hear the door shut again.

He holds these fleeting, seven-year-old thoughts in his brain like precious metal in a hording crow’s beak. He holds them until he arrives home, pushes open the door, and tosses his backpack to the floor in the dining room. The seven-year-old dies as he crosses the threshold. Something is wrong.

The odor of death lurks in the house. The cold feeling drips into his gut.

The house listens to him.

“Dad?”

Max rubs his nose with the rough, gauzy cotton bandage on his right hand.

“Mom?” he asks even though he knows she isn’t there, she shouldn’t be there. His mother always works until after five.

The silence observes him. It watches him like a scientist with a bug wriggling on a specimen pin. He feels the cold touch, the invisible fingers running along his skin, and Max the conqueror disappears.

“Mom? Dad?” he calls, moving from room to hallway to room.

The house almost laughs. Almost.

What do you expect to find?

What do you want, little boy?

They are in the last room.

Max enters his parents’ room. He finds his father on the bed, fully clothed, and cold. There is no sign of a wound or cut, but he is cold. His father is dead like the robin was dead. No glimmer remains in his eyes. He died before Max’s victory over Caleb. He couldn’t answer the phone because he was dead. But his mother hadn’t answered the phone, either…

Max moves around the bed, circling the foot to the side nearest the window. His heart pounds. His mouth dries. She is there, on the floor, one hand bent over her head and cocked at a funny angle. Again, there is no blood. No sign of struggle or wound or cut. Her skin is as cold as her husband’s.

The world slides through a slit in the sky. Max is left with the corpses of his parents.

His chest shakes. He stifles a sob. His veins break open, and the cold sludge slides to the floor, pouring over his arms and legs and torso. He wets himself a little. He swallows vomit, hot and acidic. He gnaws on anger and sorrow and other things for which a child can never have a name.

There are things seven-year-olds should never see.

There are things no one should ever see.

The monster doesn’t care. It tossed aside their bodies when it was through. Maybe the monster was never inside them. Maybe the monster doesn’t live inside anyone. Maybe there are only people trying to do the best they can when the monsters are near.

Max slumps to the hallway floor and cradles his chin between two bandaged hands. He thinks long and hard about what to do next, big thoughts no seven-year-old could think.

He closes his eyes and imagines Caleb’s bloody face.

He imagines his parents’ lifeless bodies and sees a robin fall from the sky.

He thinks of holes in the ground covered with a layer of carpet-like sod.

After a time, Max sloughs off his old skin and heads for the stairs. His victory over Caleb has prepared him for hard times. His parents, each in their own way, prepared him for the hard times. His mother trained him for silence; his father taught him the value of digging, of hard work. By the time Max stands in the backyard with his father’s shovel between bandaged hands, the sun has already kissed the horizon. The sod rolls away with ease. The soil—softened after so much of his father’s digging—gives with ease. He makes the hole big enough for both of them, and well after dark, drags the bodies to the waiting earth.


Maybe the monster wasn’t in his parents, just there, in the house. There are only people trying to do the best they can when the monsters are near. Maybe his parents only tried to prepare him for the monster.

Ghost Dancing

by Robert Lowell Russell

The girl’s hand was cool in mine, her hair long and dark, her doeskin dress as white as her smile.

“Ten beats and it’s done,” she said.

WHUM!

Tears trickled in the crags of the old man’s skin.

“I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young,” he said. “A people’s dream died in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. It was a beautiful dream.”

The old man met my gaze. “Nine beats and it’s done.”

WHUM!

I stepped over Alice as I danced, her chest no longer rising and falling in her grease stained uniform, her glassed eyes fixed on the roaring fire. She’d trembled when she’d told us, “They did things to me… They laughed.”

Her head lolled to the side, and my eyes met hers.

“Eight beats, and it’s done,” she said, her lips blue.

WHUM!

Across the fire, Captain Youn danced, shuffling, circling, twisting his arms. We sang the words together as we stepped over the others, wherever they’d fallen: the banker, the engineer, the teacher, and all the rest, all those who’d dreamt of the girl.

She twirled now in the flames, her voice high and strong, guiding ours.

The Captain stopped and swayed in place. “I didn’t know,” he said to her. “I just pushed the button. I didn’t know they were there. So small…” He held his hand to her. “I’ll see them?”

The girl nodded.

“I’ll explain. Apologize,” said Youn. “Seven beats and it’s done.”

He toppled.

WHUM.

The crack of the gavel, and the man was sorry. Very sorry. That’s what he told the judge. That’s what he told me. Sorry he’d driven that night, when he shouldn’t have.

Five years to get his life back. Five years, and I’d still be cold, my Annie gone.

The girl in the doeskin dress hugged herself to me.

“And I’ll see her again?” I asked.

She nodded.

The judge said, “Six beats and it’s done.”

WHUM.

The horse thundered across the snowy hills, its eyes wide, its muzzle lathered. The girl in white clung to her father as he urged the mount forward. A stain of red grew at the man’s side. Four Hotchkiss guns thudded behind them, drowning the screams.

The pair made it three miles from the creek called Wounded Knee before the horse threw them. Then the girl kissed her father’s brow, shut his eyes, and waded through the snow, searching for the horse. She made it almost another mile.

I held her hand as she lay on her back, her eyes fixed on the gray sky.

“It’s so cold,” she said, her breath frosting.

“I know. I’m sorry. Five beats and it’s done.”

WHUM.

She’d called to us in our dreams, the girl in white. We’d come and found her bones, buried in the earth. We’d brought sticks and wood with us, and books, and furniture; whatever we had to burn.

We built the blaze, then we danced, sweating in the heat, dancing as her people had, long ago. We sang, though we didn’t know the words. And the girl opened the way.

“What will happen?” we asked her.

“The dead will rise.”

Four beats and it’s done.

Whum.

“What will happen?” I asked the old man.

“It will come with terror like a thunder storm,” he said. “But when the storm has passed, the world will be greener and happier.”

Three beats and it’s done.

Whum.

The buffalo grunted, digging into the earth, grazing on the long, green grass covering the hills. On the horizon, crumbling mountains of steel and glass teetered. The winds carried the scent of ash.

“Is there no other way?” I asked.

“Sometimes, the forest must burn to grow,” said the girl.

Two beats and it’s done.

Whum.

I stumbled and fell, unable to rise from the ground. The heat from the fire was fading, and could not keep the cold at bay. An outline of a door grew in the flames. My left arm tingled. A weight crushed against my chest.

One beat and it’s done.

whum…

I stood in the flames with the girl, and the door swung wide. Men and women streamed through the portal. The grass smoldered where they tread. In paint and feathers they came, with lances and bows, on horse and on foot. Some wore ghost shirts and cradled rifles; others wore armor of bone and carried knives and clubs.

A tall, grim warrior stopped before the girl and hugged her to him. Then Annie stepped through, and she smiled and took my hand. “Hi, Dad. I’ve missed you. Are you coming? Mom’s waiting.”

I nodded. “Soon.”

I waited until the girl in white broke the embrace with her father, then I tugged her arm. “Are you coming?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s done,” she said.

Just before I stepped through the portal, I told her father, “I’ll look after her.”

He clasped my shoulder and smiled, then strode away.

Ashes fell like snow.

Garden Variety

by Jarod K. Anderson

The garden was beautiful. The garden was a massacre.

Ally sat with her back against the sun-warmed cedar siding of the tool shed, tucked in between the snapdragons and the bleeding hearts. The mulch underneath her had been flattened by countless long afternoons of sitting and watching. Ally’s mom had taken to calling the dented section of garden the “Ally Patch,” and teased that if she kept it up much longer, she would probably put down roots.

That would be fine with me, thought Ally. Her mom thought that she loved the flowers. She thought that she was watching the birds.

Ally loved monsters. Almost a year earlier, on her twelfth birthday, her uncle Mark had taken her to see her first real scary movie. He had had to pretend to be her father, but the theater sold him the tickets. The movie was all about a monster that looked human right up until it was ready to eat somebody. It wore a long brown trench coat and never said a word; its human-looking mouth wasn’t its real mouth, after all. Ally had been terrified. She had been exhilarated. She had been in love. After the movie, on the walk to the car, her uncle had mistaken her silence for fear, and had reminded her that it wasn’t real, but that was the last thing Ally wanted to hear.

She found it wasn’t easy to be in love with monsters. Her classmates that loved outer space could dream of being astronauts. They could ask for telescopes for their birthdays. They could tell their teachers about their love. What could she do?

The answer came late one Saturday afternoon when Ally was out in the yard hunting fireflies with a badminton racket. She was watching the wreckage of her last victim fading into the grass when movement in the lilac bush caught her attention. At first, she had a hard time understanding what she was seeing. It was a tangle of bright feathers and sharp green lines. It was beautiful.

A praying mantis, bigger than Ally’s hand, had caught a hummingbird. The combined weight of the bird and insect together was bending the slender branches of the lilac, but the mantis somehow kept its grip on both bush and the bird. Ally didn’t know how long ago the bird had been caught, but it wasn’t struggling. The mantis had gnawed into the bird’s chest, and as it ate bits of down and feather floated away on the breeze like dandelion fluff.

Ally was mesmerized. She had never seen anything like it. She watched the mantis eating until her neck was stiff, then she kept watching. When the streetlights hummed and fluttered to life, she prayed that her mom wouldn’t notice that it was getting dark. When her mom did call, she walked backwards toward the house, straining to keep watching through the darkness.

In the morning, she wolfed down her breakfast and begged permission to go “out to play.” A handful of feathers were scattered about on the lawn under the lilac, but there was no sign of the mantis, no sign of yesterday’s miracle. Ally put a few of the feathers in her pocket and turned to look around at the garden. She had seen under the garden’s brown trench coat. She had seen its real face, its real mouth, and all its beautiful teeth. She grinned. “I see you,” she whispered. “It’s ok. I’m like you.”

She was right. She found her love’s face under every rock and plant: scab-red ants peeling the skin from a caterpillar under the hosta; a fat spider, swollen with kills, lurking in the grey trumpet funnel of its web; flies whose soft pale bodies tapered to a scorpion’s sting. Every moment in the garden held expectations of new, gorgeous savagery.

Ally had quickly discovered that the garden was most beautiful when she didn’t go hunting for its charms. Sitting still, her eyes close to the ground, being coy with the monsters, that was the way to win their affections. She chose her spot, “The Ally Patch,” because the snapdragons and bleeding hearts seemed to attract numerous and various flies, butterflies, and other nectar loving insects. These were the sheep of the garden. And where there were sheep, the wolves were sure to follow.

On the Wednesday that Ally turned thirteen, she stopped being a child. After school, she quickly scribbled her way through her homework, thankfully nothing more than a vocabulary worksheet for Mr. Van Dorn’s science class, and prepared for her birthday party. The party was her mother’s idea. Ally didn’t particularly want a party, but she knew that it was important to her mom.

Brown trench coats come in lots of shapes and sizes, she thought as her mom carefully arranged the candles on her birthday cake.

She hung out on the back porch with Josie, Sarah, and Sam, the same three friends that had come to her twelfth birthday party. They laughed. They ate cake. Ally was happy when it was time for them to go.

After Josie’s mom’s red station wagon backed out of the driveway and pulled onto the road, Ally made a b-line for her place in the garden.

“Ally? You should really come inside. It’ll be dark soon. Why don’t we both sneak one more piece of cake before bedtime, hmm?” said Ally’s mom.

“I’ll be in in a little bit,” said Ally, barely stopping to answer.

“Ally, it’s a school night and…”

“It’s my birthday, mom. Please?”

“Okay. But, not too long.”

Ally had nearly rounded the corner of the house on her way to the garden before her mother had finished speaking. She had a feeling that her mother wouldn’t push the issue. It was her birthday.

She plopped down in the Ally-shaped divot that was her home away from home and opened her senses. There was a certain rhythm to tuning out the background noise of the garden and teasing out the precious horror.

The garden seemed to know that it was a special day. A colony of big black ants was challenging the reds under the snapdragons. The fight was congealing like old blood –coagulating into clumps of biting ants and discarded limbs.

Ally giggled. This was her favorite present of the day.

She watched the battle with contented tingles running up and down the length of her body. Then, something wonderful happened. A few of the bleeding heart flowers began to bob and sway. Ally looked up from the ant war to study the sudden movement. And there it was.

A praying mantis, the praying mantis was emerging from the center of the plant and moving steadily towards Ally. It looked like the bent stalks of the bleeding heart had spontaneously sprouted a tangle of living thorns.

The mantis simply froze, less than two feet from Ally’s wide-eyed face. Then, running the tip of one of its forelegs through its jaws, it began cleaning its oversized eyes in a strange feline motion.

Ally made a little gasping noise and shifted to lean closer to the mantis. Seeing the movement, the insect froze mid-cleaning and tilted its head to look directly into Ally’s face. Eye contact. Electricity coursed though Ally’s body. This was like nothing before it. She wasn’t simply watching a show. She wasn’t looking at the monster. Not a spectator. The monsters were looking back. They knew her face.

Ally shivered and leaned closer. The mantis recoiled for a moment and then it spoke. Not in words, but in action. In a trembling instant the mantis went from a startled reticence to a full defensive posture. It splayed wide its jagged forearms, grew to its full height, and spread iridescent wings that somehow caught the last rays of the fading sunlight.

Ally never broke contact with the mantis’s eyes and the alien intelligence behind them. She had no doubts about what she was looking at. This was an invitation, a message. An extended hand from the monsters.

Her mind raced. She had to respond, but it needed to be the right response. How could she make them understand? She wasn’t just a spectator. She wasn’t just a sheep, a brown trench coat with nothing underneath. She was…

Slender hands closed on the mantis. Less than a breath later, Ally’s teeth split the chitinous upper body of the huge insect. Its blood tasted the way fresh mown grass smells. It fought. It should fight, Ally thought.

Again and again she snapped and bit with vicious speed, but her eyes never stopped smiling. She heard the metallic ring of plate and forks clattering to the lawn, but she didn’t stop chewing. She looked up at her pale, wilting mother. She looked at her, then through her to the dark plane that was opening up in front of her and the shapes like cities of shadow that were rising up to welcome her home.