“When you let go, you are truly free.”
By Ruth E.J. Booth
I’d wanted a dog ever since I was little. So when I finally moved out, I was bound to end up with my own. This scratty wee scrag of soot. I say he’s mine, I think we sort of found each other. Well, they say the dog picks the owner. I say he found me when nobody else wanted me.
He doesn’t do tricks or owt. He’s more a companion, really. Likes being talked to, taken for walks, that sort of thing. He prefers the quiet parts of town – the old industrial estate, or that scrap of trees down by the railway tracks – though he’s well-behaved in crowds, a stilling presence in all that madness.
I take him out more these days. He’s putting on weight, y’see. Funny, I used to be able to fit him in my hand, now it’s hard to heft his paws off of us. I’m not sure about him being at work so much – my boss doesn’t like him, for starters – but it’s nice, knowing he’s there, just over my shoulder. My constant shadow. Frankly, it’s become difficult to get through the day without him.
So he deserves a treat. I’ve meant to take him up to the bridge for a while, but it’s been a question of timing. Even then, I almost baulk it and climb back over the guard rail. That drop makes me fair dizzy – but, bless ‘im, suddenly he’s there, and the sickness just vanishes. God knows how he fits on the ledge.
He sits right up close to me, this big wet fuzzy thing. I bury my face in his damp black coat, until I’m not scared anymore. Just sort of warm, and numb. I lift my head, and all I can see is that same furred darkness. I pull myself up, stand on the edge and give his head one last scratch.
Good boy, I say. Good boy.
by Richard Farren Barber
I tried to ignore the woman because that’s what you do in a cemetery; you don’t intrude on someone else’s grief. But she was only a few rows behind me and I couldn’t concentrate on what I was saying to Gemma so I turned around.
I couldn’t see her at first. I looked over rows of pale gravestones and her voice rose between them as if the words came from the ground itself. There was movement and then I saw her. I hesitated – if there’s one thing you learn early on as a visitor to this place it is to keep your distance.
But I was concerned for her. It was impossible to remain human and not be a little worried. She wailed like an infant. I’ve heard people dying on a battlefield who were in less agony than she was.
I finished my conversation with Gemma – rushing through my update on the kids and her parents, the usual stuff – and stood up.
My feet crunched on the gravel path and I thought that the woman would hear my approach, but she was too wrapped up in her own pain. I got to within a few feet of her before she noticed me.
I hadn’t seen her in the cemetery before and I visit Gemma often enough to know most of the regulars. The woman was kneeling on the ground. Smudges of mud on her arms suggested that she had been lying on top of the grave. There was mud on her cheeks; mixed with tears that continued to stream down her face.
I hesitated. “Are you okay?” I still didn’t want to intrude. I thought she hadn’t heard me, or she’d heard me and decided to ignore me. And that would be okay, that would be fine – grief is a terrible thing, it can change you in ways you never expect and can’t understand. When Gemma went…
When Gemma went I hit a bad patch.
The woman turned to me.
“I can hear him.”
I looked at the headstone at the end of the grave. James Bowen.
“Your husband?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Lover.” She drew her hand through the grass on top of the grave in a way that made me shudder. It was as if she was caressing the body in the casket buried six foot below her.
“He’s gone,” I said.
She shook her head. Violently, so that the curled bangs of her hair swung back and forth. “No. He wouldn’t leave me.”
I sat down on the ground beside her. I made sure I was on the path, rather than James Bowen’s grave. Standing on plots gives me the creeps. When I see the cemetery’s gardeners taking short cuts across the grass I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from shouting at them.
“Can’t you hear him?” she asked. Her eyes were wide. Deep enough for a fool to fall into. I didn’t know her. I didn’t know James, and yet I understood what she was saying; how could he leave her? How could he ever leave? I’d asked Gemma the same question.
She kneeled forward on the grave once more. I put my hand on the grass beside her head and I thought I felt…movement.
“He’s waiting for me,” she said and started to pull away chunks of grass with her hands, gouging out black grooves in the earth. She stopped and put her cheek against the ground.
This time I heard it. A voice. Muffled. Almost hoarse from screaming.
“He’s still there,” she said.
I put my head to the ground and felt the thrum of noise rising to the surface. The scream of his pain.
And I ran back to Gemma, and started to dig.
A Thing in All My Things
By Samuel Marzioli
There’s a thing in my closet, crouched in the dark, black lines accentuating every crease and fold of its shriveled face. A cherry-red eye peeks at me. The slash of a frown hints at untold regrets even as its croaking voice spills into the silence.
You should have died in your sleep and saved me all the trouble, it says.
After taking a moment to compose myself, I slip out of bed and hurry past that raw, corrupted space with my eyes averted. In the gloom of the living room, I open the blinds and let the day pour through the slats in glowing strips of light. Breakfast consists of three bowls of cereal and a handful of pills meant–among other things–to squash the thing for good. I unfold the newspaper and try to cloud my brain with random bits of trivia. Stuff the gaps with distractions so that, for one slivered moment, I might forget what’s waiting in the other room.
Not that it does a lick of good. For three years it’s haunted my life and there’s no rhyme or reason for when or where it will manifest next. A week ago, it appeared hunkered beside me on the porcelain ledge of the bathtub, its eyes staring curses–but only visible through the chrome reflection of the overflow plate. A month ago, it hid beneath my pillow, its fingers worming out from the edges like heavy tongues lapping at the air. Before then, it was behind a hallway air vent, scratching and sobbing inside the living room walls, and on and on, through more days and places than I care to remember.
I head to the bathroom and dawdle through my morning routine: brush my teeth, wash my face, scrub my skin in the shower so it shines the pink of old, healed bruises. But after toweling off, there’s no more time to waste. My feet drag across the carpet like dead weights, room to room, until the bedroom closet looms before me.
A chill digs through my skin as I reach into the infected recess of the closet. The thing flattens against the wall, like it’s pretending to be a shadow or a patch of mold. As if it thinks I can’t hear the sound of its spectral lungs pulling in the thought of air. Though I know it will not scratch or bite, it takes some time for me to steady my nerves, assemble my clothes and prepare for work.
There’s a thing in the espresso maker of my barista station. It fiddles with the inner workings, making the shots burn too hot or steep too thin. Its scalded fingers wiggle from the spouts, deep red filling the gossamer cracks in its broken, bloated skin.
We’re slammed at exactly 6 AM. The line of vehicles stretches across the parking lot, like the boxcars of two stalled freight trains. My co-workers scurry around–with a manic intensity that makes the Café Stop’s interior feel small as a crypt–and all of them barking orders.
On my best days, I can knock out eighty drinks an hour. But my best days never come when the thing’s around. Its blood sprinkles into the milk pitchers, and I have to dump them out in the sink to start again. Its spit dribbles down the espresso spouts, forcing me to remove the portafilters and wash them. It even reaches out from the water reservoir and whacks at finished drinks, upsetting their lids and spilling the contents across the counter.
My boss yells at me for the mess. “Damn it, Tom! If you can’t get your shit together, maybe you should find another place to hang your apron, mister!” Like a parent scolding an unruly child. As if I wasn’t twice his size and hadn’t trained him the day he stepped through those doors.
I almost say as much, until the thing knocks against the espresso machine’s plastic interior. Its whispered taunts, hidden behind the screech of steaming milk, lift stark as any shouted voice: Can’t you do anything right? You’re useless. A waste of air.
It drains the fight from me. I nod, apologize and promise, “It won’t happen again.”
There’s a thing in my cigarette lighter. It wets the wire so it can’t spark and clogs the jet valve so the butane won’t release. Sometimes it sticks its head into the torch stream, infusing my cigarettes with the scent and taste of rotting flesh and burning hair.
My co-worker, Cara, slips out the Café Stop entrance and heads for the dumpster cage where we’re forced to spend our smoke breaks. She stands aloof, snatches the cigarette from behind her ear and lights it up. She avoids making eye contact with me, same as everyone on any given day. Because I’m intense, they say, and they sometimes catch me talking to the thing even though only I can see and hear it.
“Hi,” I say, to lighten the mood. Because Cara’s one of the good ones–beautiful inside and out–no matter how shy or scared of me she is.
“Hey, Tom.” She pauses to take a drag. “Mike’s a real asshole for yelling at you like that.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Don’t let it get to you. He knows you’re a good worker and it’s not like he doesn’t have his off days too.”
“Any plans for after work?” she says, examining her shoes like mushrooms just sprouted from the leather.
Now is the perfect time. I take a breath to calm the vicious beating of my heart, assembling the words I’ve rehearsed since the day she and I first met. “Actually, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to–”
But the world around me comes alive, spewing the thing’s vocalized disdain. Lardo, from the gray smoke leaking from Cara’s mouth.
“No what, Tom?”
Fatty plumpkin, from the burrows insects punched into the dumpster’s rotting food.
“Tom, I’m not doing anything.”
Chubby little bastard, from my own shadow wedged beneath my feet.
“Just go away, goddamn it!” I shout, swatting at the voices hording in, crawling all around me.
She runs for the café’s entrance before I can explain, and I’m left alone. Same as always.
It proves too much. Though I’ve managed to push the rage aside till now, the pressure builds, causing my inner parts to tear from all the strain. The thing can’t hurt me, I tell myself. But I know I’m wrong because it always does and nothing–not therapists, doctors, or even pills–can fix it or make it any better.
No more. Today’s the day it ends. After three years, the time has come to put the thing to rest. I flick my cigarette away and head inside, to finish my shift and make my plans for later.
When work is through, I fill a cup of espresso dregs and take it with me. Down on Main Street, I stop by the florist and buy a red rose and then drive along the route called Old Sutter Road. Before stepping out of my car onto the sun-baked cemetery parking lot, I ask myself what the point is. But I know the answer all too well: because there’s a thing haunting my life and it will never, ever go away until I finally confront it.
The quarter mile walk to the plot is a winding, deserted path of silent grass and still trees, all hedged in by a gaudy chain-link fence. Heat bears down like a crack to hell has opened up above me. I find the proper row, skip a few graves over and I’m there.
There’s a thing in my mother’s coffin. It scratches at the inside of the lid, shouting curses reduced to babble by the six feet of dirt above it. Nevertheless, the emotions it expresses are clear, stuff I’ve heard so many times I know it all by rote. Utter disappointment. Hate. But mostly regret for the life and freedom ruined by my unexpected birth.
She killed herself three years ago. She should be dead and gone and yet she returns as the thing in all my things, a malignant voice manifesting the poison words she fed me all my life. But now I’ll say my own words, kept locked away because of fear, because of deep-seated self-contempt. Because it hurts too much to voice aloud, no matter how true they are.
“For thirty years, you were a terrible mother. A monster, a hateful, selfish thing. I never said it before because I loved you, but I can’t let you hurt me anymore. You’re dead and buried and that’s all you’re allowed to be.”
I lay the flower on her plot, a symbol of my enduring love. As for the rest of me, the greater part? I dump the cup of espresso dregs, as bitter and cold as was her constant disposition. It drips down her tombstone, trickling across the words, “Loving Mother, Died Too Soon,” etched into its face. Then I spit on the grass above the remains of what has always been her small, decaying heart.
There’s a thing in my head, inhabiting the darkest grooves and wrinkles of my brain. It tells me terrible, degrading lies–lies that poke and prod and tear and hurt–and sometimes I still believe them. But now, for the first time since my mother’s death, my memories are the only place it haunts.
About the Authors
Samuel Marzioli is an Italian-Filipino writer, currently living in Oregon with his family. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Apex Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Shock Totem, and Penumbra eMag. His blog, marzioli.blogspot.com, featuring updates on his current projects, releases and sales, and a complete list of publications.
Richard Farren Barber was born in Nottingham in July 1970. After studying in London he returned to the East Midlands. He lives with his wife and son and works as a manager for a local university. He has over 50 short stories in publications including: Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, DarkFuse, ePocalypse – Tales from the End, Fever Dreams, Horror D’Oeuvres, Murky Depths, Midnight Echo, Midnight Street, Morpheus Tales, Night Terrors II & III, Siblings, The House of Horror, Trembles, When Red Snow Melts, and broadcast on Tales to Terrify, Pseudopod (#390!), and The Wicked Library. His first novella “The Power of Nothing” was published in September 2013. His second novella “The Sleeping Dead” was published by DarkFuse in August 2014. His third novella “Odette” is due to be published early in 2016. His website is www.richardfarrenbarber.co.uk.
Ruth EJ Booth is a BSFA award-winning writer from the North-East of England. Her fiction and poetry can be found in anthologies from NewCon Press, Fox Spirit books, and in Far Horizons e-magazine, amongst others. In 2015, her story ‘The Honey Trap’ won the BSFA’s Award for Best Short Fiction. Academic, musician, yogini and dilettante, she currently resides in Scotland, where she fosters a growing brood of hard and paperbacks. To keep up with her writing and photography (and everything else!), see her website at www.ruthbooth.com
About the Narrators
Andrew Reid is a teacher and author currently living in Sweden. He writes fantasy and alt-history, and harbours an unhealthy obsession with coffee. Not to mention being a damn fine Destiny team mate, if you’re looking for one. His first fantasy novel, Kingdom’s Fall, is currently available on Amazon.
An active member of the HWA, Moaner T. Lawrence comes from Long Island, New York and has been listening to Pseudopod since 2007. He has been the face of Rue Morgue Magazine’s German branch since 2011, and has also been a regular contributor to Germany’s largest horror magazine, Virus, since 2014. In 2015, Moaner became Assistant Editor at Pseudopod, and now helps with media relations. The pod’s resident ‘man-child of the night’ also has two tales on Pseudopod: “Bad Newes from New England,” a colorful re-imagining of the first American Thanksgiving; and “The Great American Nightmare,” a Lovecraftian yarn where C’thulhu is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America. You can find lots of Moaner’s old interviews with actors and artists on TheHorrorInBlog, and read his rants (Now available in 140-word bursts!) on Twitter.