Browsing Category Horror

A Long Walk Alone

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His toes are starting to burn, but burning is better than no feeling at all. He wraps his scarf tighter against his nose and mouth, his hot breath beading sweat onto his brow. His nerves are shot – stretched out too thin like strings of a violin ready to be plucked. To play the melody that will be the soundtrack of his death. His swan song. He laughs bitterly as he continues to trudge through the ankle-deep snow.

The snow stretches for miles, untouched and glistening. In the very centre of the beautiful blank canvas stands a lone tree. It is huge and hulking and magnificent. The branches are outstretched and drooping with the weight of the thick cover of packed snow. It looks like a canopy – like a shelter created by nature. A haven in this dismal time.

His fur-lined boots crunch through the snow. His progression is slow and weighty and it makes his heart hammer harder and harder. His pack is slowing him down even more but he can’t risk leaving it behind. His crossbow is his only chance of survival.

He feels exposed in this huge expanse of whiteness. He looks back at his progression, seeing the churned-up trail behind him and he hopes that the thing isn’t smart enough to follow footprints. Tears well in his eyes at the emptiness behind him. He still half expects to see his little daughter struggling to keep up. Her arms flailing as the packed snow refuses to let her pass. Her little chubby face red from the harsh wind. But it’s just him now, and he wonders how long he’ll last.

He reaches the tree and pushes the willowing branches aside. A small avalanche of snow assaults him. Some of it goes down the back of his coat and he grits his teeth in frustration. He goes under the shelter and brushes himself off – his gloved hands slapping away the stuff from his coat and pants. He’s walking backwards towards the trunk, focusing more on getting himself clean than where he is going. The snow is a lot thinner under here and so he stamps his boots to free them of the stuff. The top of his head brushes against something and he assumes it’s a low branch. He turns, and almost chokes on his own shock. He stumbles back, trips on his feet and sprawls out on his back amongst the crisp snow and twigs.

Hanging above him is a body. It’s swinging on a frozen rope. The body itself is blue with frost and missing its legs. Beneath it, the thin layer of snow is red with old blood. Bile rises in his throat and he has to press his fist against his mouth to keep it down.

So much for a haven.

But the snow had looked so neat and crisp. The thing must have at least stayed away since the last snowfall, which was in the night. Knowing there is no other place to rest, he uses his last ounce of energy to climb up the tree as high as he can.

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Hameln

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I watch carefully as it rests on my chaise lounge. Sat myself with hands sheathed to the elbows in claret, I have poured generously into his trembling glass, provided grapes with only slight hints of rough cutting. Its eyes settle somewhere between the top of my head and the oil painting of my parents. I have lived lonely in my castle for so long that the colour has all turned stale; the silk has turned to cobwebs. The velvet is so drenched with blood that we can no longer tell what is dye and what is death; how many gallons have been shed and soaked up. Sharp corners follow you always and catch echoes. There are a hundred long corridors fit for racing down, if one ever had a child or friend. Rocks have long shot out the ornate windows, and I have long ceased replacing the wood boards when they rot. Old visitors would complain of the dust and dim light, the china plates and furniture left to fall into ruin; the clock always oscillating between midday and midnight. The cracking paper, grown grotesque with points and curls that were once purple, shrinks from corners, like dewy lettuce leaves folding back. Remembering to smile with no teeth, my voice lilts to grow musical and warm – to soft-speak the shivering thing with tones of saffron into a haze of almost-sleep.

On moon days, when melancholy has held me in bed for weeks upon months, I rouse myself with force. I float along upturned soil, chin held up as though pulled by elastic threads and a heart that I batter with threats. At my best I need only the barest of weapons to convince my prey to come hither. Sometimes just a smile will do. You have never seen such unsettling perfection that will not age and derelict with her home: eyes and canines that bicker so silently over which will pierce you first. My hair rushes for the ground like cascades of worm silk; my face, so unfairly proportioned the religious villagers cursed me and would not look in my eyes.

And I have nothing to do these days but catch strays. Invite them in and serve cold duck; bewitch them rotten and take out each eye. These eyes, most nights, become ornament: crystalline bluebells for lonely corners, that whisper to the sparkling sea. I hang up their shirts to replace the curtains long nibbled at by moths, spend endless nights sewing pocket squares into bunting. And I butcher, and I ravage, and I sing myself to sleep.

Do not look in her eyes, do not look in her eyes, chant the old hags. Eyes are the mirror of your wanting: eyes are the black pits of lost light wherein flesh is soaked in and gobbled up.

Picking my claws and brittle teeth, I sit for days in front of my mirrors, tripping into ever so slightly distorted reflections till I cannot be sure who I am. I talk and pretend they talk back. Whole floors are filled with them, by now – huge and small things that reflect each other and myself. Of course, it is easy to get lost, in this maze of distillations. Sometimes they do all the work for me – disorientating the poor rabbit until days have gone by and you are just full of imploration to be eaten: to be devastated and annihilated by the most delicate set of ivory hands.

Raised to be appreciative of beautiful things, I display my prey as I have seen others do in huge mansions. I have stared many a decapitated fox in the glassy eye, conversing with its master over red wine and soft cheeses that were always poked through with little bulbs of garlic. They hoped to catch me out, I suppose, the superstitious people who were once my neighbours, and spat over their left shoulders whenever we talked of blood.

Revolted, however, by the thought of decapitation, I hang up my dead bodies by the neck. Marionette threads pass through small holes in each hand and foot, before my tall babies are suspended from the ceilings and walls. And they dance! Oh, do they dance – they jerk in beautiful harmony with me; spin and entangle themselves in their strings, so they can never be freed to run away. When I tangle in with them, stay pressed to the skin as it cools – oh, you have not known such loveliness. I rub my cheek against their chests, smiling at a stillness of heart alike my own. Mais je suis désolé, jeune fils –désolé, désolé – we ballet. I bewitch more men to help manage the strings, sometimes; when there are over twenty marionettes and I cannot coordinate the dance myself. They spiral, they pirouette – they flit like the velveteen bats blending impeccably into our sharp, melancholy-spangled nights of red and rich blue. Our days are only pale lavender for countable hours a year; they dissolve, clandestine, into dusk-ridden nights that sit witness to endless slaughter.

But not yet, not yet, my new-born men. First, I will cradle your infantine bodies. Depleted, you shall dance through cobwebs and pools of sinking vermillion, learning the most ancient of this family’s footsteps. Dust rouses, blushing chests splice open and deluge: cataclysms follow each other with no breathing space, in these withering turrets of derelict that home a once tender, young mellow of a girl. She comes back up for air, at brief moments, when I lower my cocoons into safe-spaces under the floorboards, to rest for long hours and recoup.

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Hazel

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The eyes were staring at me through the window, colder than the breeze that caresses a lake in the winter.

They were intimidating, but they didn’t scare me. In fact, they were interesting. Something within them was enough to whet the appetite of anyone that peered into them, and it was the only thing that was present in them. No feeling, no liveliness. Just the incomprehensible, captivating, tempting…

The year was 1985, and I was standing outside the front window of Schroeder’s Antiques, a quaint, unimpeachable store that stood on the edge of the street of Maple Lane. It was surrounded by a handful of other businesses and stores, so it was typically overlooked. Not by me, though. I had always loved that store. The smell of the old wood filling my nostrils always relaxed me, eased my nerves. Besides, it was a nice distraction from all of hullabaloo rummaging through the town.

It wasn’t everyday that something like this happened in a small town like mine. Four children murdered in a span of three weeks? It was almost too much to handle. The town was still trying to wrap its head around it, but I didn’t want to. I just tried to ignore it. I had to ignore it. Dark things had no business being in such a bright place. And I guess you could surmise that my mind was on the list of bright places. You know what thoughts like that could do to you.

But I couldn’t ignore the doll in the window. Those eyes. The way it stood in the window like he was waving at everyone on the other side. He had been there since the first murder. I could remember him so vividly, yet I don’t remember why. I had never stood outside the window of the store before, I had always gone in. But yet it still lingered in my mind that I had seen this particular doll before, felt it before. And though I couldn’t recall every exact detail of it, it appeared to me like garden variety on that day on Maple Lane. Some part of me could only place one singular plastic balloon in his hand when I had first seen him, but somehow he had four as I watched him that day.

The eyes that were gazing at me were queerly human-like. Mere yellow orbs with their own life inside of them, like they each had their own heart. And though they were plastic you could almost see the breath rising behind them. I knew it wasn’t the case, though. There was no way that a doll could be even remotely human-like. That was stuff that only happened in movies.

Even if the doll was a clown, and it resembled something so alive, like it did there in the front display of the store.

In the reflection on the window in front of the clown’s face, I could see Jax. My son with chocolate brown hair like mine whose eyes would light up when the sun glinted against them just right. My pride and joy, the one that made it seem like everything that was good in the world was thriving inside of him like glorious caged heat. Jax was seven-years-old, and he had the liveliest attitude I had ever seen. How thrilled would he be to see a doll like the clown in the window.

One of Jax’s favorite things was to go see the circus with his father whenever it came to town. I never came along — the circus had always creeped me out — but Jax would always come home cheering of all the remarkable things he had seen. The music, the acrobats, the animals. But he had always loved the clowns; those seemed to be his favorite.

So of course, when his dad left and never returned, it was hard to see something like that stolen from him. To Jax, the clowns were his father, and when his was father was gone, so were the memories. The saying goes to let the dead dog lie, but when the dog was something that Jax needed, then I couldn’t just turn my head and walk away. It was medicine that he lurched for.

I scrutinized the doll a little closer. His demeanor seemed to send chills backflipping down my spine. His skin was a pallid, porcelain white, a scarlet painted-on smile hung over his face like Christmas lights. Those eyes that were staring so intently at me were a bright hazel, narrowed almost to slits, like a cat’s. He was dressed in a rainbow jumpsuit, with red pom-poms running down his front, finished with oversized, orange shoes. Tufts of vivid, sunset-orange hair protruded from his hairline, rays of the sun circling his head.

With my hair tickling the nape of my neck, tugging my sweater closer around my body, I made a decision. Swinging the door open to the store, I strolled in, the familiar smell of the ancient oak overwhelming my senses, giving me a similar feeling of strong vellichor. It seemed like I was the only customer. There was only one other person in the store besides me: a short, stout man with a thick mass of curly, brown hair on his head, dressed in a red floral Hawaiian shirt tucked into worn jeans. He was standing behind the counter of the checkout desk, and he flashed me an amiable smile upon entering. Anything to keep a customer, I guess. Any other reason couldn’t service the forced smile on his face, and it wasn’t like this place was Disneyworld.

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The House At St. Joseph’s

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It was a hot late summer’s day, and as the sun’s rays were reflected on the glass of the estate agent’s window, it was difficult to see the houses they were advertising. James, a town guide who worked for the council, and Rosie, a newly qualified schoolteacher, were linking arms and looking at the descriptions. Their eyes suddenly latched on to one of the photographs.

The Old School House
Period property in need of modernisation. This is believed to date from the 16th Century, and was a former school.
Two bedrooms
Lounge / diner with large dormer window
Kitchen

Rosie gave James a squeeze. “Huns, this looks lovely. It’s just perfect. Can’t we go in now and make an offer? Please?”

James gave a nervous frown. “Look at the price. Can we afford it?”

“Darling, you’ve got a good job at the council. You could be a museum curator in ten years. By that time I could be a Head of Department. We can do it! Please say yes!”

Moments later they were through the door.

April 2019

Rosie stood in the centre of her new house. A fresh maroon carpet had been laid, a sofa nestled by the bay window, and many unpacked boxes littered the floor. She looked up.

“Don’t you love the smell of an old house? You can smell history, past loves, past conquests and romances and arguments!” James stood still. The smell reminded him of his time as a guide at Hatfield House, where he would take wide-eyed tourists to the room where the lives of kings were made and broken. “This is ours now”, he mused. “The panelling over the old beams will have to go though.

Rosie turned and smiled. “You know what? I’m knackered. We’ve still got all these boxes to unpack, but I just can’t face it right now. How about we get some fish and chips and get an early night?”

James gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “Good idea! I’ll just pop down now. Have we unpacked the kitchen stuff yet?

“Yes – that’s one box I have done. See you in fifteen. I’ll be ready for you!” She gave him a broad smile.

It was just after Midnight when Rosie woke up with a start. She was sure she had heard something. She slipped on her kimono dressing gown and tiptoed down to investigate. A wine glass was lying shattered on the stone floor of the kitchen, its stem, still intact, pointing accusingly at her. She stood for a moment. She was sure she had unpacked all of the glasses, laid them in the cupboard above the sink in neat rows, and closed the door. She wasn’t so sure now. Maybe she had left the door open. Her memory was beginning to blur. She’d ask James in the morning. Determined to make no sound, she sidled gingerly up the stairs, opened the bedroom door, and very slowly and quietly eased it shut behind her.

The Easter Sun was streaming in through the bedroom window when James rolled over in bed and gave Rosie a kiss. “So how was your first night in our new bed?”

“Beautiful, slept like a baby”, Rosie lied

Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe it didn’t happen. Rosie slipped on her dressing gown again and crept downstairs. She always liked to have breakfast before she got dressed, something that often annoyed James, who stepped out of his side of the bed, slipped on a T shirt and shorts and followed her down, as Rosie turned towards him in the kitchen.

“Did you leave the cupboard door open last night?”

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Jury Duty

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“We the jury find the defendant guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree.”

With those words, three long months of sequestration was ended, and the twelve individuals who held the fate of Jonas Slab in their hands could go back to their lives. The trial had been intense- Slab was accused of murdering at least six people over the course of three years. The evidence was vile and nightmarish- more than one of the jurors had begun to have nightmares, and several talked frequently of needing the number of a good therapist.

It was not all bad. The jurors bonded. Tess- mother of three- and Abigail- grandmother of eight- had formed an almost mother/daughter bond. Reggie, Clive, and Zed had all decided it would be fun to go together to see their mutual favorite football team- the Houston Texans- play during the upcoming season. Sam and Liz had been flirting a lot during the time, and several jurors had actually placed bets on whether or not he would ask her out before the trial ended. Alexis and Ted won when after the previous night’s deliberation ended, Sam caught Liz in the hall and asked her to coffee after the verdict. Luis, Jeb, and Olga were just glad to be done.

Jonas Slab waived his right to appeal, and declared- “I just want it over with.” His execution was set for one year to the day after the trial concluded.

*****

They all received the notice about a week before the execution.

A jury summons.

They all had the same reaction- not surprising considering that they had just given three months of their lives the year before.

But a summons is law, so begrudgingly, they all showed up. Even though the location was at the old courthouse (Which they paid no attention to), and the summons was for eight in the morning (Which they did pay attention to).

When Reggie saw Alexis, he thought it odd that both of them would get called again. Olga, Liz, and Clive arrived next, then soon after all the rest were in the dark courtroom, in a vacant building. Ted was a contractor, and he noticed right away that the building was altered. But he couldn’t tell why.

Abigail noticed Liz and Sam were on opposite sides of the room. “Sam, did you not come with Liz?” Liz averted her eyes, and Sam gritted his teeth and mumbled, “We’re not together anymore.”

“Guys, something isn’t right,” Ted began. “This room has pipes it shouldn’t.”

Luis grunted. “It also has people it shouldn’t.”

As if on cue, a fine mist filled the room. “I don’t feel so good,” said Tess, just before passing out. The others followed in rapid succession.

*****

When Zed and Clive woke, they made eye contact. They both immediately displayed expressions of shock and terror. What they saw was the rest of their fellow jurors in a circle around the room. Each was strapped to a rudimentary wooden chair and each had a variety of devices behind them. Some looked like surgical instruments- needles and scalpels and knives. Some were more electrical in nature. Some were tools. And a few had large blades- like guillotines laying on their side.

Olga was the first to scream, then Sam, then a chorus of terrified voices cried out- some tearful, some angry, some pleading.

Ted was still looking around the room- the same they had entered into. But the furniture was different before- more like the courtroom. Now, it looked eerily similar to their deliberation room. Where the judges seat was, there was a large television. The lights were fluorescent, stark, and flickery. Below the television, on the wood panel was a clock. It read 6:00 in digital red numbers.

The television flickered on.

There was a shape- a dark, hooded shape not unlike a grim reaper. But where the face should be, there was only blackness. When it spoke, its voice was mechanical. Altered by some device to mask the true voice. There must have been speakers spread around the room, for when the shape spoke, it seemed to be right behind everyone at the same time.

“Welcome jurors. Today, we are holding court to judge crimes so heinous, so cruel that should a guilty verdict be rendered, then death will be swift and equally cruel. You are judge, jury…and defendant.”

It took a moment for that to sink in. Sam began to weep, as did Liz and Tess. Abigail, a woman who had been through much in her life, steeled herself. Jeb began to struggle with his restraints.

Ted- who had been foreman- fell back into his leadership role. He was a man of medium build, but large forearms that strained against the restraints told a story of a life wielding heavy hammers and tools. “What do you want from us?” he demanded, his stubbled jaw tense.

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The Painter, the Wife and the Critic

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The painter threw down his brushes in disgust. He stepped back to examine the canvas. Everyone said his talent was self-evident. So what was missing? His latest work was a portrait of an old family friend who was also his agent. Stefan had commissioned the work himself as he found it hard to see the artist struggle to make a living.

From a young age it was clear this painter was brilliant. Art school had confirmed this. A bright future was forecast. When they met, his wife had expressed her utter belief in him. Three years on and even she was beginning to lose faith.

His paintings exuded class and know-how… and yet. They simply would not sell. At least not for the price he needed to earn a crust. All who knew him were baffled. Artists who were far inferior had become internationally famous. He, however, was faced with penury or giving up on his life’s goal. In his heart, the painter sensed his work needed that elusive spark, but he could never discern what it was.

‘Darling,’ said his wife, ‘Stefan will love it.’

She rubbed his back reassuringly as he bent to pick up the brushes.

‘I hope so,’ he sighed. ‘But I can’t charge him what I need to.’

‘He can afford it.’

‘No. Look at how he has helped us. He’s lent us so much money. And he’s yet to see a penny back. I’m going to let him have it for free. Darling, could you fix me a drink?’

His wife placed his gin and tonic behind him on the table with his paints and left the room.

A minute later she heard glass shattering and her husband curse.

Months passed and it seemed he would have to give up on his dream. He began looking for a job, though the thought of actually taking one was tantamount to suicide in his mind.

He was typing out his C.V. when an email arrived from Stefan.

‘Hi Guys, I hope you’re well. I feel most embarrassed, but at the same time elated for you. I had this collector over for supper and he was so taken with the portrait! He wants to stop it going to auction. Would you be offended if I sold it to him? I know it was really a gift for me, but if I can get a good price…’

‘That’s great news,’ the painter typed back. ‘I must admit, I only ever intended it for you, but it’s your property. You can do as you wish with it.’

A week later an ecstatic Stefan arrived at the artist’s door. He announced that not only could the painter repay his debt, but there was a tidy sum on top, which he insisted on paying the artist.

‘Perhaps our luck is changing,’ said his wife later as they enjoyed a meal in celebration.

‘Yes, but I cannot understand why that particular painting attracted such a price. It’s no better than those before or since.’

‘I guess it just struck a chord with that buyer,’ said his wife.

‘Well, it’s a mystery to me.’

‘Just enjoy it,’ she replied.

As time passed it became clear this might be a one-off. Whatever he did, the painter could not repeat his success. He produced what he considered far superior works, some of which his agent friend was convinced would sell for more. Each one struggled to meet their reserve at auction, and he was once more faced with ruin.

One day, as the artist was shaving, his wife kissed him on the cheek.

‘Ow! Darling! Good morning. Much as I love your kisses, I’ve nicked myself.’

‘You know you maybe a wonderful artist, but you are so clumsy sometimes.’

‘I think I will take that as a compliment. I wish the buyers agreed with you though.’

She smiled and said: ‘I’ve a feeling things will begin to look up soon.’

Weeks passed, and the artist returned to tinkering with his C.V.  Then an upbeat email arrived.

‘Fabulous News!’ the title read. ‘The study of the swans you asked me to put to auction in Geneva has far exceeded our expectations. An American dealer has bought it for twenty thousand dollars!’

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The Writing On The Wall

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In a quiet road leading off of Brighton’s Trafalgar Street, Scott Kingdom was putting the finishing touches to a graffiti masterpiece – a giant multi-coloured tag, depicting the word ‘Scare’. Designed to appear as a 3D image, it featured a flock of giant bats flying out of an ‘S’ shaped crack in the brick wall. A student at the local art college by day, he was responsible for many of the area’s most skillfully composed murals. He specialised in anamorphic perspective, a technique used by artists to trick the eye since the Renaissance. Influenced by pavement chalk illusionist Kurt Wenner, Scott hoped soon to be recognised for his work in the way someone like Banksy, Paul Insect or Darren Cullen was. He had already earned a little money, receiving commissions to brighten up a wall in Kemp Town and a warehouse in Hollingbury among others. Still he could not still resist the thrill of going out at night to illegally spray his designs in the graffiti hotspots of the city, wanting them to be viewed and compared with the best of the local street art.

Scott grew up in Horsham, West Sussex and had moved to Brighton six months previously, to take a degree at the art college, encouraged by its vibrant street art scene, and reputation as a haven for members of the counter-culture. He also wanted to escape the ever-watchful gaze of his narrow-minded, overly aspirant parents. Brighton was a cosmopolitan place with a dark, sleazy underbelly that appealed to the rebel within him. It was a place where it was easy to slip under the radar of officialdom, and where individual self-expression was celebrated, or so he had imagined. While Scott had expected to find himself at the centre of a group of like-minded souls in Brighton, instead still felt like an outsider looking in. Brighton already had its graffiti heroes and was, as he was discovering, a very tough place to make an impression.

The major graffiti sites of Brighton were dominated by a shady and secretive cliché of ‘Old Masters’ as they were referred to in hushed tones. Several of them had alleged links to the criminal underworld. They only let an artist into their group, when they felt that person has paid their dues, and they judged the work of others with a critical and informed eye. Scott was doing everything to win their approval, but so far, the mysterious Old Masters had completely ignored his efforts. This was something he had to change, and the only way to do that, was to leave his dramatic mark on the city.

Scott’s part-time job in a supermarket paid towards the rent of his student room and allowed him to buy the best quality spray paints available. He also volunteered his time teaching school kids how to paint street art as part of community projects, and this year intended to take part in the city’s world famous B Festival. Scott’s best friend, Calum, was a lanky and slightly less cool teenager at the same college. Calum was on the photography course and dreamt of being a photojournalist on a top magazine. He was nerdily obsessed with graffiti, knowing the names of all the legends of London, Paris, New York, Rio and beyond. Calum regularly photographed Scott’s work for various magazines and websites. The escaping bat design has already taken Scott the best part of the night to create, and Calum had now arrived to photograph it. “Sweet” was his only comment as his shutter began to whirr.

The local police patrol car passed by, cruising down Trafalgar Street towards London Road. The guys hid in the shadows until it had gone. Upon returning to the wall however, Scott and Calum could not believe what now faced them. Black paint had been sprayed over Scott’s artwork, and painted upon it, in luminous white, was a realistic-looking cracked gravestone with ‘RIP Scott’ written on it.

“Were there any tags on the wall when you started, man?” Calum asked, looking worried.

Scott admitted there were. Calum freaked out, his voice suddenly high and shrill, “You must never spray over old graffs, man!” Calum explained that the art Scott had replaced might have been by one of the feared Old Masters. He looked around for a tag or some clue to the earlier painter’s identity, but Scott had obscured not only the design, but also the tag. There was the small possibility that the artist who has made the gravestone threat was bluffing, but in Brighton, there had been violent deaths attributed to feuds over graffiti – a fact Scott, as an outsider, was not until this moment aware of.

The black paint on his wall was too thick and wet to paint over for the time being, so Scott called it a night. Heading for his student room, in a house conversion off Stanford Avenue, he heard a low hiss as he passed beneath the viaduct. It was not the hiss of a spray can, he knew that much. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the spitting cobra in the centre of a graffiti design, coil and lunge towards him. Scott leapt back, a car’s hooter blared as it clipped him, knocking him to the ground.

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The Horror Within

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The shadows danced in the flickering torch light, my trembling hands pressing lightly against the smooth stone wall as I observed my surroundings coolly.

The cobbled hallway stretched on and the torches that were mounted every dozen feet or so did little to help my vision penetrate the dim light.

Every step I took was attempted with the utmost secrecy as I made my way in the direction of the college’s magical archives.

As I rounded the corner, the sounds of hushed voices fluttered in the air. Instinctively, I felt every muscle in my body tense. Standing stalk still, I forced myself to hide away into one of the hall’s many narrow classroom doorways.

“You must search for Malik! He cannot be allowed to perform the ritual!” A whispering voice spoke as an assortment of footsteps seemed to join it. “It’s your fault he can even accomplish this in the first place.” Another voice answered; this one sounded effeminate, angry and annoyed.

It could have been one of the many professors that lectured here but it was too difficult to tell at this distance. Tilting my head away from the whispers, I had to remind myself to not idly waste time. Pushing out from my dark shelter, I turned and double backed the way I came searching for a detour.

The voices and footsteps were echoing out from the far corner down the hall and they were all too close for comfort.
Years of preparation were in danger of being destroyed! I had spent so many days and nights secreting the materials in and out of the archives that were usually reserved for only the most accomplished of scholars.

Usually.

My eager and apparent innocent demeanor had earned me the title of the assistant to the curator and I had taken every advantage it afforded me to delve into the taboo secrets that were forbidden by law.

Blood rites, conjuration and divination into the outer planes were a few of the many subjects I had conspired to learn under my instructor’s complacent watch.

Reminding myself of the task at hand, I realized that the large wooden double doors of the archives had just come into view. I quietly padded down the last steps of the northern most stairway towards the doors.

It seemed no one had even searched down here yet in the archives themselves. My pursuers must have assumed that I would attempt the rituals away from the college grounds to avoid their interference.

‘They think too little of me.’ I thought to myself, a smug smile growing on my face as I reached for the wooden doors’ iron handles. My reach faltered as I realized my hands were trembling. It was difficult at this point to tell if it was from fear or excitement.

Shaking the thoughts away, I resumed pushing heavy oak doors open. They swung easily; the archives left unlocked by a ‘certain someone’ earlier in the evening when they watched the Curator leave for the night.

The doors were truly a testament of the craftsmen who balanced them delicately on their hinges in the year’s past. The very same hinges that squealed loudly in detest to their late-night use.

Surprise shot through me as I sharply turned to look over my shoulder at the staircase.

I forgot to grease the bloody hinges!

The yawning silence that followed went uninterrupted for a brief few moments. Relief flooded through my mind as I exhaled a breath that had somehow found itself stuck in my chest.

Grinding my teeth in frustration, the doors closed with similar argument as I shut them.

This time however, I swung them quickly to cut the noise down as I crossed into the threshold of the room. Hustling over to the nearest bookshelf by the door, I reached behind it into the tight space between the wall and the shelf.

The object I was searching for was still there. A hard beam made of yew that I had stashed away days previously. I had it cut by the village woodsman to a very specific size weeks ago. A size that with some clever positioning would work well as a barricade.

Awkwardly pushing the beam into the frame of the door, I grunted with exertion as I delivered some small applications of brute force to ensure it was thoroughly lodged across the entry way.

Satisfaction grew in my heart as I turned away to face the grandeur of the college’s archives.

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Kieran’s Jellyfish

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The gull stabbed at the bread with its beak. Kieran threw another slice. Then another.

A second gull landed and nudged its rival aside from the free lunch. The first bird lunged at the usurper and they exploded in a flurry of wings and feathers.

‘Kieran, don’t!’ his mother said.

‘Nothing but vermin, them creatures,’ his stepfather remarked from behind the daily paper.

Kieran turned from the gulls to the bright, shimmering shore. Scores of families had set up camp for the day. Everywhere he looked he saw overweight Mums and Dads, small children building sandcastles, dogs yapping. A nearby group of youths, a mix of lean boys and girls in undersized bikinis, were laughing aloud at some secret joke. There was no one Kieran’s age.

Kieran was eleven, a small dark-haired boy with eyes the colour of emeralds and a habit of squinting. His vision was perfect, but somehow the world seemed better through narrow eyelids.

The gulls ripped the bread to crumbs. They screeched in disappointment and flapped away. Kieran returned his attention to Mum and Archie.

He squinted at his mother. She looked a lot like him, except her locks were lighter and her eyes a dull brown. Archie, now in his third month as Kieran’s official stepfather, was a porky man with shiny bald pate, a greasy moustache and eyes as big as golf balls.

‘Feel free to wonder off, Kieran,’ Archie said, lowering his newspaper.

‘You’re so thoughtful, Archie,’ Mum added. “Kieran doesn’t want to hang around all day with crocks like us.’

Archie’s wide-eyed scowl burned into his stepson as if to say ‘clear off, I want your mother to myself, with no dumb kids in the way.’ Kieran retaliated with a frown, but his resolve melted faster than ice cream in the sun. He had to be careful. Archie’s temper was like a lurking crocodile. Kieran never knew when it would erupt from the depths and strike.

Kieran turned down his lower lip and threw his mother a look. She didn’t notice.

‘Yup, okay,’ he said at last, collecting his bucket and spade and stumbling off.

Kieran walked towards the far end of the beach, where jagged rocks broke through the sand like razors. As he came closer the sound of the holidaymakers faded.

The rocks were deserted.

‘Here there be monsters,’ he remarked in a glum voice.

He stopped at the first slab of basalt and rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. His flesh reeked of sunshine and sweat, summoning up a memory from last year.

Last year with Dad.

The two of them had explored this slanted world, charting rock pools, hunting crabs, inventing stories. Dad liked to pretend each sea-puddle was an uncharted lagoon teeming with bloodthirsty creatures. Everything was fun.

“Here there be monsters”, Dad used to say, over and over, grinning his cheeky grin and pushing back his wispy hair.

But Dad was gone now, Mum had seen to that. Mum and Archie.

Kieran sighed and inched nearer to his favourite rock pool. He knew from his explorations with Dad that this was the largest, the size of a paddling pool. A glassy underworld where fish and crustaceans lurked in seaweed jungles.

‘Here there be monsters,’ Kieran mumbled sadly, kneeling down on the stony rim.

He sat very quietly, as his father had taught him, and watched as the pool revealed its inhabitants. Small fish darted from side to side, searching for an escape back to the Atlantic. Shrimps glided over the sand like submarines. Limpets clung to the rock, hard as stones. Ruby red anemones trailed poisonous fronds in the water.

There! A slender, silvery young crab scuttled into the shadow of the rocks.

Kieran beat his chest in best King Kong fashion.

‘I am the giant of doom. Come to destroy-oh!’

A severed claw popped out.

‘Who’s snacking on you then?’ Kieran remarked to himself.

He waited. The minutes ticked away. Then, as he was about to give up and move on, something stirred. He almost missed it. A ripple in the sand, nothing more.

He hunched over the pool and lowered his head to the surface. A crescent of translucent skin had emerged from its hiding place, then halted. Perhaps it had seen him?

Kieran leaned back and froze every muscle in his body. More moments passed. The creature began slowly drifting out, across the sandy floor.

‘A jellyfish!’ he said. At least he thought it was a jellyfish. It reminded him of all the dead jellyfish scattered along the shoreline. Revolting blubber pancakes. This creature had a similar appearance. A circle of clear flesh, riddled with veins and dark spots.

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From The Earth

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They were everywhere. Each corner Leanne turned, her stomach lurched at the sight of another friend screaming in agony as hordes of the undead pulled and chewed at flesh and bathed in blood. For Leanne, it had stopped being about winning a long time ago. Now, all she wanted to do was survive long enough to see the light of day again. To see her family again. But as each second passed, salvation receded further and further out of reach. Soon enough, hope was a distant memory and the only thing left to keep her going was adrenaline, and it was running out, fast. As if sensing the end, Leann’s body started giving out, legs twanged and snapped with each step and every breath became more laboured than the last.

Finally, too bloody and bruised to carry on, Leanne slowed from a panicked sprint to a defeated stumbling. With almost all options exhausted, she gave into darkening dread and dropped to her knees at the mercy of one of the surrounding cameras and begged until she could cry no more. But all the camera did was look down at Leanne in pity, and the omniscient voice that once droned in the ear like a bee, was as quiet as a tomb. Leanne’s fate had been sealed. It was over. It was all over. Almost on que, waves of the undead began pouring in from both sides of the hallway, trapping Leanne in the middle like a sitting duck. Against the crescendo of Leanne’s beating heart, the undead inched closer and closer until all she could see was bared teeth and soulless eyes.

Her scream was like a gunshot.

*

As Leanne was torn limb from limb, Marcus and Ali clapped and cheered triumphally – the bitch was dead. As Marcus switched from camera to camera to ensure not a single spurt of blood went unseen in glorious high definition, Ali scrolled through and read each and every comment beneath the live stream on the website. Laughs and giggles laced his every word.

BiggWolf69: The bitch had it coming…

BritishBullDog11: Gutted. I had money on Leanne to make it out.

Long’n’Juicy:  Best show on the internet!

BuggzBunne: That’s it, I’m applying for the next season. I could out survive these spoilt rich kids, easy…

DonaldTopTrumps: @BuggzBunne, No, you couldn’t. Leanne kicked ass!

I really think she could have made it out, she just gave up too early.  

BuggzBunne: @DonaldTopTrumps, You don’t know what I’m capable of.

I’m ex-marine, bitch.

DonaldTopTrumps: @BuggzBunne, Ex-marine? Right… and I am the real Donald Trump.

JohnDoe88: I wish we still had dead heads in Britain! We killed the last of ours too quickly.

We could have had fun shit like this if we hadn’t. #BringBackTheDead   

Biscuit00001: @JohnDoe88, Fun shit? Watching the undead get exploited and butchered for mere entertainment is ‘fun shit’? You are fucked up.   

BiggWolf69: @Biscuit00001, Looks like we have a DeadLib p*ssy in our ranks, boys.

RealNi88er: @Bisucit0001, Get the F*ck out of here. They are dead, we can do

what we want to them. And the ‘human beings’ signed up for this…

As Ali continued to read through the comments section, Xanadu found himself increasingly feeling feint and lightheaded. He even had to close his eyes to help stop his head from spinning, which did not go unnoticed around the room.

Usually, it was Xanadu reading the comments aloud with macabre glee. However, in the last couple of weeks, he had been struggling to rustle up anything approaching enthusiasm for the bloodbaths. Some days, when it really got bad, Xanadu had to flee the room to avoid vomiting right there and then. Once in the hall, he would stay there until the survivors escaped or the last body had been devoured.

Because of his sudden, and stark, aversion to the violence of the game show, Xanadu had become a pariah in the control room and office. So much so that, unless it was absolutely necessary, no one spoke to him or even looked in his direction. And, when he wasn’t in the room, his colleagues often joked about knocking him out cold and locking him in the House of Horrors to fend for himself. But, as much as everyone had grown to hate him, there was nothing that could be done – Xanadu was the boss.

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The Cabin

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1

“Don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move,” Milo told himself over and over standing at the window. For fifty-one nights he stood this post, whispering his chant and staring out into the dark void of the woods surrounding the cabin. “Don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move.” Fifty-one nights of pounding heartbeats and moist, nervous hands gripping the slick steel of the shotgun he held close to his chest. He didn’t dare sit, fearing even the slightest bit of comfort would make him vulnerable. Milo needed to be alert for the fight of his life. “Don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t move.”

The descent into madness can be slight. So, much that one could begin that slow decline into mental turmoil and fail to realize the shift until it is too late to seek help. For days, Milo worked in the cabin, with a firm hold on his sanity, stippling leaves on his canvas of seaweed green acrylic landscapes. That was before the crazed anxiety and paranoia stalked him, begging him to come and join them in the dark corners of his mind. He was sure he wasn’t going mad, for fifty days he convinced himself of it. But on the fifty-first night of the fifty-first day, his certainty wavered, and he wondered if the fear that kept him at his post every night was coming from madness corroding his mind or a true threat from beyond the cold glass that separated him from the night air.

Milo wondered if his constant solitude created a fertile bed for insanity to grow. If hour after hour with only the sound of his breathing to comfort him had lulled him into this state. He had come to the cabin to be alone, truly alone far from civilization and distractions. When he left the busy city encouraged by his agent to reacquaint himself with his artistic talent, this had been the goal. He wanted to find a space to create uninhibited. The cabin was to be the birthplace of his renewed dedication to his painting. And, it had worked. The cabin gave him room to let his imagination stretch and crack its joints in satisfaction. In the 427 days he lived in the cabin, he had managed to create some of the most astounding pieces he ever saw. For 427 days he lived and worked in the forest surrounded by beauty and the sweet silence of nature punctured only by the sounds of the living earth.

It could be that 427 days of solitude is the limit for a healthy mind to survive on its own. That this is the threshold one shouldn’t cross to avoid the threat of losing the leverage of rational thought. Maybe this is the number of days a mind can exist without any companionship before the imagination takes over and the line between reality and fantasy blurs. Maybe 427 days was Milo’s personal breaking point, and his psyche could take no more of the seclusion. But on the 427th night of the 427th day, he saw something that held him at the window for 51 nights to follow.

He had developed a routine in his time in the cabin, slowly breaking the time restrictions of the rapidly moving city and the constant fear of being late for everything. That routine placed him in a rocking chair with lemon tea, reading as the skies darkened in the evening. He liked the way the smell of turpentine mixed with the scent of the pine walls as the air grew humid at night. He spent his days trying to capture the soul of the verdant grass and thick patches of moss in the woodlands but at night when he rested his relationship with the forest was purely platonic. Milo only wished to admire from a distance. Taking a moment to rest his eyes he stared out at the treetops just below the stars. He sat there with his book resting on his chest, doused in his comfort and mused about the success of his decision to come to the woods when his world changed. Very slowly, like someone standing with a stiff back after sitting too long, a few of the tree tops began to bend from side to side. His sane mind told him it was a strong wind causing the trees to move that way. But in the fringe, those dark corners where madness and doubt go to play, his inner voice spoke and reminded him that the wind would disturb all the trees, not a sporadically selected few.

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