The Squirrels of Madison Square Park

This selection is related to this story on Snopes.com.


It was mid-April and the days were nice enough again to take my lunch breaks in the park. Somehow every year this is a revelation: it can’t have ever been so green before. It can’t possibly have been so warm, last time around.

In my cubicle it was still winter, would always be winter.

It had been a strategic decision when I first got the reservationist job: no tchotkes, no photos, no plants. Just grey everything. A way to trick myself into believing that I wouldn’t stay. This was just a new-to-the-city, young-and-figuring-it-out, tide-me-over gig. I would quit before year one was out.

Okay, before year two was out, then.

Before year three was out or god help me.

So it was a bleak route to hopeful that my cubicle took, desolate as a reminder that this was not real life. Real life was outside, on a bench for an hour in the middle of the day. The warm sun, the cool wind. Lunch breaks in the park were a refresher course on sky.

The only problem was all the damn squirrels. The squirrels of Madison Square Park were city squirrels and foreign tourists fed them, posed with them, played paparazzi to the pests. So the squirrels had all become fucking entitled little assholes. One ran right across my lap — across my lap — one day and up a tree.

When something that ought to be scared of me isn’t, I become scared of it.

So I screamed and dropped my sandwich. I felt like I’d been violated.

When I looked up I saw Linda Leigh.

Linda. From work. Feeding the squirrels.

Linda Leigh was someone I had no feelings about at all until I caught her scattering bread crumbs that day, a wide smile spread out across her flat, circle face. After that, I was curious. I mean, what kind of maniac, you know?

So I set about befriending her. I cornered her at the coffee maker and accosted her with “How’s it going?”s in the elevator. I wore her down with my best work stories — the celebrities who’d called: which ones were nice and which ones were mean and which ones had finicky requirements: never by a window, booth if you have it. I toned down the sarcasm. I softened the resting bitch face. I ended up getting pretty close to Linda Leigh.

Linda was from a small town in the middle of the country, had come to New York just to be in New York, didn’t want to be an artist or anything, just wanted to be here. She was still starry-eyed with the city, didn’t even mind the subways, but went to the park whenever she was feeling low (Linda was the type of person who said cutesy things like feeling low).

Linda liked stories of celebrities being nice better than stories of celebrities being mean.

Linda took five sugars in her coffee.

And Linda had a boyfriend. It was one of the main things about her, part of every sentence she spoke: Last night at dinner with Boyfriend. Well, you know, My Boyfriend. As The Boyfriend always says.

I never outright asked her about the squirrel-thing but I came to understand it as some kind of Disney Princess fantasy. In her head, they must have been cartoons. I thought that somehow she must have failed to sense the threat of them, or know to be wary of their unearned arrogance.

Then one day Linda came into work all fidgety, holding her shoulders like the victim of a lightning strike, because she and her Boyfriend/My Boyfriend/The Boyfriend broke up.

She told me all about it by the Keurig machine:

“He left me,” she said. “I moved all the way to New York for him, and he didn’t even care.”

“I thought you just wanted to be here?” I asked.

“I can’t effing stand it here,” she said.

She talked to me less and less after the breakup, ditched me during lunch breaks. Instead I’d see her across the park, feeling low, I’m sure, and feeding the squirrels. Day after day, feeding the squirrels.

In my head I was so condescending, thinking how if I’d been dumped I would do something about it. Cut off my hair. Have revenge sex with one of his friends. Something.

Eventually Linda stopped coming to work all together. Ghosted the place without ever giving notice. But on my lunch breaks I’d still see her in the park. After a month of this, it had reached a new weird: Linda, standing in one of the concrete pits that would turn back into a fountain as soon as the summer came, with squirrels circled around her feet like worshippers at a temple, their little bodies held perfectly still, waiting to be smiled on by their benevolent god. I watched, transfixed, as Linda relinquished bits of bread, sparingly, according to some logic I couldn’t understand. I watched the squirrel’s chubby little cheeks move, their sharp little teeth chomp, and felt that familiar fear. Fear of the squirrels. And now fear of Linda too.

Then one day she wasn’t there. I didn’t think much of it — maybe she’d finally moved on — until I saw the headline on my phone, the reports of the odd arrest. Her name, her unflattering mugshot, the articles detailing the injuries sustained by her ex. The scratches down his face, the chunks of flesh taken from his arms and legs. The squirrels had rushed him en masse, climbed his body like a tree, dug in their claws and jesus.

I looked around the park where I was sitting on my lunch break.

There wasn’t an evil little varment in sight.


Phoebe Cramer is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her short fiction has appeared in Slink Chunk Press and Bard Papers. She can be found, very occasionally, on twitter @PhoebeLCramer

At a Waffle House, Alice Simply Wanted Grits

in a bowl—hot! Dogs hissed
outside; cats barked about
who had prayed everything upside down
to become normal again.
Outside-cats barked about
like drunken cows
to become normal.Again
it rained milk
like drunken cows—
now inflated red & white balloons.
It rained;milk
drenched the queen of hearts,
now inflated red & white. Balloons
burst like rain clouds—
drenched the queen of hearts
with relish (smothered her). Also she
burst.Like rain clouds
in a bowl, hotdogs hissed
with relish—smothered her also,she
who had prayed everything upside down.


NBR10 Mannone headshotJohn C. Mannone, three-time Pushcart nominee, has work in Inscape Literary Journal, Artemis, Town Creek Poetry and others. He has two literary collections, including Disabled Monsters (The Linnet’s Wings Press, December 2015). He edits poetry for Silver Blade and Abyss & Apex and teaches college physics in Tennessee. Visit http://jcmannone.wordpress.com

Inverted

Inside the rabbit hole, among the clotted
soil, the shivering roots, an earthworm’s holy
paradise, the moon burns black, and not
a soul eats corn. It’s perfectly natural
that not just mother bears will eat their young,
and mitochondria flee their cells. Lowly
mice are king. The minutes highlight gradual
lengthening days, and love’s bite is not this pain.
Our skin is no barrier, eyes wide, arms flung.
When a girl, not looking, finds soft love
in a girl’s raw heart, so it goes with the grain.
Limbs notched in their lavender haze, no thistle
to mar their daffodil limbs, hassle
their undomesticated love. Kissed full.


NBR10HumphreyssmallBethanie Humphreys is a writer, editor, mixed media visual artist, and curator for the Sacramento Poetry Center Art Gallery. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in several literary magazines and her artwork has been in several juried and group shows. She was Editor in Chief of the American River Review, and is on the staff of the Tule Review

Strange Verses

accidentallyinterruptingtriumphantlyneighboring
interruptedhandwritingrememberingneverending
adventuresbrightenedmelancholywonderland
beginningchildhoodcollectedcharacter
confuseddreamingyourselfnonsense
betweenteacupsturningstrange
dishesshrieksecretverses
Aliceupsetaboutfaces
madeeyesthatseem
offbutnotfar
itismyin

Found in the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll


NRB10 HopkinsonTrish Hopkinson has two chapbooks, Emissions and Pieced Into Treetops, and has been published in anthologies and literary magazines including The Found Poetry Review, Chagrin River Review, and The Fem. Trish is co-founder of a local poetry group, Rock Canyon Poets. You can follow her poetry adventures at http://trishhopkinson.com/.

Fever

I have to get this down.
I write until my hand gives out: L… A…
I name you. I call you back from oblivion.
They call you a madwoman – I know you. That’s not you.
I call you back to yourself, and you endure.
You return from the dead.

I sent your man away, then called to him in dreams.
The Pestilence won’t touch him – but fever gets me
among the flower pots on the veranda. I sleep. Strange.
It does not matter. What matters is: you’re safe.
You’re loved. You are yourself again,
and the two of you return to civilization.

That’s how your story will resolve –
“The story concluded by Walter Hartright,” he says.
(Your story will not be told by you.)
“The story of what a Woman’s patience can endure,
and a Man’s resolution can achieve.”
Civilization still hasn’t found any trace of me.

But he is a good man,
and will make a happy bride of you.
My fever was powerful – I was wetted through –
but it cooled and resolved. All fevers do.
I will lift up your child and I will name him, too.


 

NBR7NaumsmallKatie Naum is a writer in Brooklyn with a background in sustainability. She may be found as @naumstrosity on social media, and is currently at work on a memoir.

The Price of Secrets

I was solid once, glacial, even. Cold and calm and collected was I, Marian Halcombe. I am meltwater now as I stream across the deck. Fluid, each movement. The remnants of my old self, destroyed. I deserved a new identity, and that is what I’ve bought for myself…at a price.

“Lady Spirit,” says a beggar on the starship’s main deck, “spare a spell? Just a small one? Anything for me bairn.” At the ragged woman’s breast, a wee babe, blue and unmoving.

A thought: Count Fosco could have spies anywhere.

I gather my silver cloak around me, fearful the gossamer might fall and the Glimmer might fail. I would be exposed; still sick, cold, frightened, clinging for dear life to that gutter. But the mage promised me my new powers were ceaseless. They had cost me, yes…just a secret.

I aim to move on, past this woman and her choices, but the wretch grabs at the hem of my gown, and I spare her a coin and a blessing. Blonde and waifish, she thanks me. And in her I can see my Laura. Pain catches in my throat. Three words: I must know.

Past the woman, up to the gate where the mortal guards will be keeping watch—I laugh at the thought, “Mortal!”, ‘til I remember what I was. I know what these beings will tell me: “Visiting hours are over. Come again tomorrow, love.” But they will allow me—I shall make them allow me.

The nearer I come, the more detail I can make out in the dense fog. There is but one guard, and he is drunk. Dazedly so. He can be bribed, I think, reaching for my purse, only to remember I gave my last spendable coin to the beggar woman. The rest I need for a return journey.

The mage’s words return to me, a spitting hiss, like raindrops on hot embers: “First, use your words.”

I do not know what he meant, but I reach for my words. “I am come to see a patient.”

The man burps and staggers. “Visiting hours is over. Come again tomorrow, love—I mean, Lady Spirit.”

I ignore him. “Her name is Anne Catherick.”

“Visiting hours is over, m’lady.”

My movements are fluid as I lean forward, staring into his watery eyes. I will my way into his thoughts, which slosh around in his great melon-of-a-head. It is disorienting, but I persevere, until I seize on his string of consciousness and give it one tug followed by another.

The man blinks, lets out a great snort, then falls over in a dead sleep, which he will not waken from for hours…I hope.

I snatch the keys from his belt, and am through the front gates within the blinking of an eye. “So this is where my—” The thought stops in a whimper. No, I daren’t let myself even the merest shadow of hope. I force myself to speak the truth: “This is where Anne spends her days.” I cover my nose with my sleeve, but not before the stench engulfs my senses: medicine, cleaning fluid, human waste, despair.

A dry heave wracks my body, and I am glad I didn’t dine on the ride over. Able am I ere a nurse spies me and bustles my way. Collected, calm, cool. I cannot afford to yield like water. Not now, not yet. “For Laura,” I think.

“M’lady,” says the nurse in flowing grease-grey robes. “Visiting hours are over. With all respect due—”

I’ve raised my hand. I’ve raised my hand merely to scratch at an irritation, but the nurse cringes away from me. It’s my window of opportunity. I must press my advantage. “I’ve come to see a woman in white. Anne Catherick, though she’s been calling herself Lady Glyde as of late.” Laura, Laura, how I wish you were here with me now.

The nurse recovers herself, though her left eye twitches in sync with her pulse. “Lady Spirit, please do not grow angry with me, but it’ll cost my job if you take another step farther into the ward.”

The drunk had been easy to convince to sleep. This hyper-alert woman with the twitching eye will not be, not for a fledgling like me. I hear the mage’s voice, bold and brash like fists on a drum: “When your words fail, fear is your best tool.”

My gaze reaches deep into her eyes, searching their surprisingly shallow depths for the thread that is fear. I don’t look long, for it is red and throbbing like a vein pumping hot blood back to its source. Gently, ever so gently I stroke this thread until it sings with tension. Tighter, and tighter it becomes, until I pluck it and it screams.

“Right this way, m’lady.” The woman’s pupils are pinpricks. Her shoulders are hunched. She jumps at the sight of her own shadow.

Marian, that is unkind. They are Laura’s words. She was always the sweet one, the beautiful one. But I am no shadow. I always was the bold one, even before my…transformation. I am shade, but not shadow. I follow the nurse, who is all but running to do my bidding.

“In here,” the nurse says, jerking her head at the cell door. As fast as her fat fingers will fly, she undoes the lock, throws the door open and steps aside. “Ten minutes…if you please.”

In the corner of this tiny cell, there she sits on a cot. But who is she? I move in closer, but she shrinks.

“Who are you?” she rasps. It looks and sounds like Anne. It looks and sounds like Laura. I am confused, as is she.

“Miss Catherick, it is I, Miss Halcombe. We met? In the boathouse on the Glyde Estate? Remember?”

This news has her on her feet, and it is I who am afraid—afraid that for naught I am disturbing this poor woman. “You’ve changed,” she says.

I study her. She looks like Anne. She does not look like Anne. Oh, please let my fears be allayed! My voice is barely composed as I ask: “You know who I am, then?”

Anne’s legs buckle beneath the miniscule weight of her bird-thin frame, but she does not collapse. “O friend! O terrible, dreadful friend. Where am I? I know you, but I do not.” Shaking, a dry leaf on a twig snatched by the wind, fluttering, floating until down, down, down she comes to rest.

“I’ve gone through a…change of sorts, Miss Catherick.”

She rebuffs me. “Do not call me that, Marian. Marian, it is I!”

One moment passes. Then another. I feel a crackling in my veins, a stirring in my breast. All is light and energy inside me, and I scarce know what to do with this power, until I realize what it is: Love. Love has overcome me, and I can no longer stay a respectable distance. Like a scapegrace I rush at her, forgetting that she might fear me now, take her into my arms and hold my dear, my own, my sister! “You’re alive,” I say, choking on happy tears. “Oh, Laura, tell me it is you that I am holding.”

“It is I. But is it you, Marian? Is it really you? They told me terrible things. Dead. Oh, Marian.” She sobs into my gown, shaking, incoherent. “Take me from this dreadful place.”

With supernatural perception, I sense footsteps approaching and pull back from Laura. “We are not free. Not yet. But I will get you out of this prison—I promise, Laura. Laura, look at me.” I say this forcefully, for she is quite gone into hysterics. “I will not abandon you. We will be free. We will find W-Walter.” My voice breaks on his name, but Laura doesn’t notice. For her I am strong. “We will find Walter and everything will be all right.”

His name brings a light into her eyes, and I am all shame, for it was I who discouraged their romance. The fault is entirely mine that she wed the wrong man. Oh, what a wretched man at that! Had I faith in Walter’s love and none in my own, all might be well. If I had not been so conceited and foolish, Sir Percival, Count Fosco—I shudder at the thought of his name—wouldn’t be players in this perverse game of cat and mouse.

Laura sees the pain in my eyes, and is quick to assure me, “Do not blame yourself, Marian. You were only looking out for me.”

The footsteps are now audible to both our ears. “My visit ends. But I will back. I will be back with a plan. Trust me, Laura. Do you trust me?”

Her head bobs. I help her back into a reclining position. “You’re all I have.”

“Nonsense,” I sniff. “You have Walter.”

*   *   *

For days I plot, yet the best approach to freeing Laura eludes me. What power I have is limited by the simple fact that I have not had time or opportunity to cultivate all of my…talents.

Aboard the starship I remain, eating nothing, saying nothing. My soul, if I still possess one, should thrum with the vigor of hope. Yet I am all doubt and fear. I have my beloved sister, but I have her not. Curse that fiend Fosco! A pox upon Lord Glyde!

But the anger is all bravado. I am weak and sick, still clinging for dear life on that ledge, listening to the two men scheme. The words of the mage rumble in my mind. “Where there is will, there shall be resistance from Fear and Doubt. Both will fight the Will, two great titans against a mere god. The job of the mage is to harness the power of these giants. Use fear. Use doubt. Employ both and fight, Lady Spirit. Cloak yourself with the skins of your enemies.”

Until this moment, I’d thought it an odd expression. Perhaps the mage had meant it figuratively, but there is merit there. If I am able to manipulate the mind, this might be possible. Have I not knocked a guard unconscious without lifting a finger? Have I not reached into the mind of a frightened woman and stoked the fires of her terror?

Time is of the essence. My Laura is sickly and in need of tender care. The asylum would not admit me, a mage, into that ward again. No, I am certain that nurse had been found out and reprimanded.

Fear is strong, greed is stronger. I have yet one stronger still: love. With that, some luck, and an evening of practice, I will be ready. Tomorrow, I make my move!

*   *   *

Count Fosco. I recall his face, build, demeanor, and voice in my mind for the millionth time. But my memory is not what it should be, my former life hazy before mine eyes.

I try my trick on a few passersby. No one quakes, no one bows or tips their hat. There is a new briskness in their step and some whispering, exchanges of confused and conflicting opinions. I am afraid to attempt manipulating two minds at the same time. Either they or I—or both!—might find ourselves inside that wretched asylum and not as visitors.

The ship’s main deck is empty at this early hour, and I meet few people on the way to the asylum. There is the beggar woman, no babe at her breast, rocking and moaning to herself. My coin was too little too late. But I cannot let this tragedy distract me from preventing another tragedy…my own. I seek out the nearest mind. He is alone. He is a guard. This will be my first real test.

There are many threads within strands in the human mind. For instance, this man’s strand of recognition throbs blue as he squints. I seize this strand, freeze it along with four threads attached to one sickly green thread I cannot help but recognize. Plink! goes the first thread, facial recognition, severing. I quickly plink at build, demeanor, and voice. These four I replace with my own strands.

The guard wears an expression of bewilderment, and I fear that I have confused one of the threads with another. “Count Fosco. What an honor it is.” The man bows.

I hold my relief for later. In my regular voice I say, “I am come to collect Miss Anne Catherick.” I know he hears it as Count Fosco’s voice, for there is no alarm or confusion in his response. Forever more, if this man is to see me, he will see Fosco.

“But why?”

I, Count Fosco, raise my brows, lips twitching. “I feel the country air would be better for her.”

The guard blushes deep red. “I’m sorry, sir.”

For a moment, I believe he is denying my request. He surprises me by saying, “But are you not already inside?”

Blood freezes in my veins, but my plan is as supple as water. It can bend. It can also slip quickly out of my grasp.

I want to apologize to this burly man, but instead search for the thread attached to the strand of recent memories. There I see the ugly green again and severe that. “What were you saying, captain?”

The man blinks. “I-I don’t know. Why are you come outside so soon, Count Fosco? You surely caught me by surprise, sneaking up on me just now.”

Dratted luck. I severed the wrong memory of Fosco from his mind! He remembers the real Fosco is here, but he does not remember my Fosco from seconds ago. As another guard approaches, there is only one choice left me. I actually do apologize before seeking out a strand of silver that connects his recent memories to his memories of all. I freeze that, intending to revive it later. He will have no memory of anything, not his name, not his rank, nothing unless—until I am able to aid him.

There is the second guard, the drunkard from the previous day, approaching. He suffers from a hangover, all of his threads and strands throbbing coral pink. In my panic, I seize every single one and snap them back into place.

The first guard is staring around him, forgetting how to speak. The second is collapsed in a heap, vomiting.

I grab the first’s keys, step around the sick and the two men, praying that no one will come upon them until I’ve had time to sort things out. My next problem is imminent: Count Fosco is here. I cannot manipulate him or anyone else to thinking I am him. One slip, and all my hopes are dashed.

I recall the face of the nervous nurse from the other day as I put the largest key in the lock and turn. The door creaks open slowly, and I make my way with care inside. The hall is empty at the moment, but I hear voices coming from another room.

I dash to Laura’s holding cell. But the keys! They are all nearly identical, save for the scoring on each. I am about to try one key at a time, but someone in the room is talking. A man’s voice. In truth, the devil himself!

“And you are sure no one has come to see Miss Catherick?” he says, his tone calm, jolly even.

A second familiar voice answers, trembling, “I—I am not sure, Count Fosco.” The nurse from the other day, the nervous one. “There might’ve been the other day, but…”

“But what?”

I freeze, praying she will not mention that a she-mage had been to see “Anne.”

“I had a—fit on Monday, and my employer sent me home early. Someone might’ve called on her while I was out.”

“Well then,” Fosco says, “we will have to ask around, yes? See if there is anyone who knows.”

“Where is Laura in all this?” I find myself wondering. As if to answer me, the nervous nurse says, “The sedative should be wearing off soon. Maybe it’s best that we left her…”

I could simply duck into another room, if I had a key for it. There are footsteps moving toward the door. I try the handle, and it gives.

The two stare at me in shock. I am shocked and terrified as well. And I have waited too long; I am seen! Fosco reaches in his coat pocket, for I know not what, the nurse opens her mouth to call for security. And I recall the last words the mage spoke before dismissing me: “When Fear triumphs and Doubt seizes all, hold to Love above all else. Do not for a moment let it go.”

Laura moans from where she lies, and the thought of her seeing the count and becoming distraught overwhelms me. Love is courted by raw fury, and with a crash and clash of indigo light, both the count and the nurse are knocked off their feet. I know they are paralyzed, overcome with the feelings that have been gnawing on me to nth degree. But this will pass.

Burning under the heat of exhaustion, I stumble to Laura and try to rouse her. “Darling, it is I. I’ve come back for you.”

My sister stares at me as though she’s never seen me before. Then, face paling, she drops back to sleep.

Time. There is no time. I trick myself into believing this wraith-of-a-woman will be easy to carry. She is not. I need help, and there are less than two options left me. I clasp my arms under Laura’s armpits and fold my hand across her chest, and I heave. We collapse to the ground in a heap. If only I could make her weightless! My mind searches the many short lessons I was able to coax out of the mage, but there is nothing about changing a person’s weight or adding to one’s own strength. This plan was doomed from the start.

Fosco groans and rises to a sitting position. He chuckles. “Ah, Miss Halcombe—or should I say, My Lady?” He looks me up and down as I stumble to my feet. “You are just as clever and cunning as ever, a worthy opponent.”

I lift a trembling hand, searching my numb mind for some way to incapacitate him. He has no fears to stroke—save for a strand of dark purple, a deep wine that summons unbidden thoughts of Italy to my mind. What could he fear from Italy? I do not what to pluck or stroke the strand, for fear of putting him on his guard. There is not a drop of alcohol in his blood, no hint of drowsiness to coax. On the contrary, he is excited, energized, a man ready for a challenge.

Ready for a challenge…I must use this to my advantage. But how? It is not as if I can trick him. At a speed I did not know I was capable of, I begin sorting through the threads and strands I find in his mind, seeking one that might be of use to me. I sift and I search, and am just about ready to resign myself to freezing them all, when I come across one that is a dangerous orange, throbbing fast and unsteadily. I look at it with revulsion, like it is some sick, disgusting specimen, and it is.

“Ah, I see your mind working. Ingenious! She has a plan, the marvelous creature. I see it, in her eyes…”

I can’t stand to hear another word from him. I take that pulsing orange thread and I stroke it back and forth, back and forth, until I see that I have him.

Count Fosco’s eyes mist over and his cheeks flush. He won’t be a problem now. His will, his love, his everything, is mine…if but for a matter of minutes. And minutes are all I have anyway, before the alarm is sounded.

“Help me,” I order, and he obeys.

We lift Laura, who protests ever so slightly, and carry her down the hall, past two befuddled doctors, and to the front door.

And as I leave the man of my nightmares standing as one bemused, knock out the remaining guard at the door, and make for my rented space ship, Laura musters enough strength to hobble along with my help.

And now that we are safe, I cannot help but wonder. What if Glyde’s nasty side hadn’t been kept a secret? What if I hadn’t forced Walter to keep his?

Mr. Philip Fairlie’s secret had cost him a daughter.

Anne had her misinformed secret. It cost her the remainder of her sanity and her life.

Walter’s secret is now spent on Laura. It cost him his heart.

My secret…my secret I sold to the mage. It died with the birth of Laura’s. I paid for mine with my health. I paid for it with my hope.

Count Fosco, Sir Percival Glyde have more secrets. Why else would they commit a sane woman, passing her off as another? Walter, Laura, and I shall uncover their secrets. And they must pay for them. Yes, in the end, all secrets have a price.


 

NBR7OvermeyersmallBeth Overmyer writes short and long fiction in any age category and in any genre–except for horror and erotica. She has a middle grade book (In a Pickle) out with MuseItUp Publishing.

Numbers Game

Anne Catherick isn’t crazy. She can’t be crazy. Crazy is when person can’t see reality—or simply refuses to see it—through a haze that fogs every thought and observation. Anne, however, can see things quite clearly. That has never been a matter of concern or confusion for her. It was what lay beyond the surface that tugged and pulled at the innumerable threads running through her mind. Patterns and shapes and sequences that somehow surrounded everyone, but were only visible to her. It was this gift which Anne’s mother deemed a curse, sentencing her to a medical imprisonment within the four walls and 4,517 square meters of the Hampstead Sanatorium.

Unlike the facility’s other fifty-two patients, she and seven others who’d been deemed ‘a risk to themselves’ were housed in a hall dubbed the Watch Wing. In place of a front facing wall inset with a two by four meter steel door, their cells were adorned with eight metal bars, each approximately ten centimeters in diameter. It was supposedly for their own protection, although Anne found that notion to be cruelly absurd. The facility itself was the greatest threat to her well being. She was a healthy nine and a half stone upon entering the asylum nine years, seven months, and two weeks ago. Since then, she’d been gradually reduced to a frail ghost of her former self. Malnutrition certainly played a part in her deterioration, as did anxiety and depression born of crushing boredom. There were only so many times you could count a room’s 180 tiles.

Did any of the facility’s twenty-three staff members actually expect her mind and body to thrive in this environment? Or did they simply hope for her to wear down into a docile, compliant slug? That certainly appeared to be the goal of her treatments, of which daily lithium injections played an integral role. The piggish brutes who forcibly administered it were also charged with monitoring Anne and the rest of the Watch Wing for all 1,140 minutes of each day—at least, that’s what they were supposed to be doing.

Her warden tonight was Lewis Stanton, an orderly at Hampstead for five of his forty-two years. Approximately two meters tall and eighteen stone. Weak left knee. Very strong, but not fast. An unlikely combination of laziness and aggression. Most of this knowledge was gained from simple observation. When a man routinely holds you down on the floor so that foreign chemicals can be forced inside your body, you can’t help but learn some things about him. But Anne knew other things, too. Things she shouldn’t have known, like that Lewis killed his older brother when they were children and his family never found out. Perhaps it was something he muttered in his sleep after the staff went home and he and sat down in his chair and nodded off. Lewis did that a lot. Anne often struggled to discern whether she was asleep or dreaming, but she couldn’t help but be acutely aware of Lewis’ slumber on account of his snoring. The only time he stayed awake for his entire shift (10:00 PM to 6:00 AM) was if he happened to see a rat. Lewis had a crippling fear of rodents. Anne, on the other hand, found them to be quite adorable. That’s why she was so excited to finally catch one last week. She named it Percy, which was funny to her for some reason, but she couldn’t remember why.

Hiding Percy was easy at first. Then he began to speak. Anne knew that wasn’t normal. Rats aren’t supposed to talk. But when a rat starts speaking to you, you can’t just ignore it and pretend it’s not happening. Ignoring what you can plainly see and clearly hear is crazy. So Anne listened. Percy told her that the combination to the lock on her cell was 0-8-20-18-9-0. The sanatorium didn’t use keys because those could be taken. Combinations, however, had to be remembered, and no one expected crazy people to do that, especially those like Anne who’d been sent to the Watch Wing.

But Anne remembered everything, including the series of numbers Percy had been whispering in her ear every night for the last three days. She knew, of course, that there was no way a rat could know this. But after Anne waited for Lewis to fall asleep and tried the lock, it worked. Her excitement at this discovery was tempered by its source. If the lock hadn’t worked, she could have written off Percy’s revelation as yet another side effect of the chemicals coursing through her veins. Despite her steadily growing tolerance to them, they still managed to pulse and rage between her ears when sleep refused to come. There were also other things besides lithium being injected into her, as well. Chemicals that dulled her senses and caused the patterns which normally filled her world to melt into sludge. But the sequence spoken from between Percy’s clacking teeth and furry jaws had been correct. The lock had opened.

The more Anne thought about it, the more she realized (and hoped) that Percy himself might be just another symptom. A space between their hold over her mind and a stronger tolerance, revealing the patterns she once saw with such clarity through its presently cracked lens. Perhaps she’d simply counted the lock clicks when the orderlies opened her door. She’d used to be able to do things like that with ease. Predict a person’s location based on their stride and speed. Use probable outcomes to guess which shell the marble was hiding under. Determine the thread count of a dress her mother had just sewn based on length and width of its wearer. Numbers had always come easy to Anne. But little girls weren’t supposed to love numbers, much less obsess about them and dream about them and see them in every single corner of universe. Had she been a boy, her compulsive need to count and calculate everything around her would have been seen as a bizarre strength—or at worst, the cross of a tortured genius to bear. Instead, she was deemed unwell, unfit, and undesired, sentenced to a life of dulled senses in a four by four meter room with a floor to ceiling distance of—

“Anne? Are you awake?”

It was Percy—or rather the voice her mind had constructed for him. Anne ignored it. That raspy, high-pitched voice frightened her. Every word whispered from that rodent’s mouth was further proof that her sanity may be irrevocably lost.

“I know you can hear me,” Percy continued. “You listened when I told you how to open the lock. Why refuse to give me an audience now?”

“Because you are nothing but a figment of this wretched place!” Anne hissed. “I do acknowledge that I can hear you, much as it pains me to admit such foolishness. But I will not be forced to converse with you past this point!”

Anne huffed and rolled over. She could still feel Percy’s eyes still boring into her. He made few squeaking noises before speaking again.

“If you wish to get away from me, then why don’t you leave? You opened the lock. Why not simply flee as fast as your feet will allow?”

“Because that would not be prudent,” Anne replied. She was not speaking to Percy now, but to herself. Fleeing had been her first instinct when the lock clicked and pulled apart, but her mind was still sharp enough to know that the average time of two minutes and thirty-three seconds between guard shifts that she used to test it was not a large enough window. She’d wait for just the right moment. For the last few lingering medical staff members to leave. For the twenty-four lights leading down the sixty-two meter main hallway to be shut off, leaving only the three lights above her cell’s twenty meter side hallway on. And most importantly, for Lewis to doze off and begin snoring.

Anne waited in silence. To her great relief, Percy remained quiet, as well. Forty-three minutes and eighteen seconds later, a familiar sound rumbled from Lewis’ chair, like a steam train mixed with a freshly stoked fire. It was time.

Anne put on her Hampstead issued slippers and edged off the bed. She grabbed Percy, as well, mostly as insurance against the sixty-seven percent probability that Lewis would wake up at the sound of the lock unlatching (the man could sleep through own his snoring, but not much else). It was also in part to make sure damn rodent didn’t start talking again and give her away. As Anne wound the lock to its first notch, she chastised herself for having such a foolish concern. Lewis wouldn’t be able to hear Percy. Only she could hear Percy.

“He’s going to hear you,” Percy mumbled from beneath her sleeve. “The lock is quite loud when it comes undone. You must be prepared to—

CLICK!

The lock fell open, springing so hard that it nearly leapt from Anne’s palm. Her relief at catching the device before it clanged against was blasted apart by a loud snort. Lewis’ head whipped up off his chest and turned in her direction. The door had already swung open by then, leaving only ten empty meters between them. Anne instinctively flinched back, then stopped and straightened to her full height. She’d planed for this. Lewis lurched off his seat, sputtering and pointing with a wordless command to retreat to her cell. His first stride, made with his right foot, covered three meters. The next covered less than two.

Weak left knee.

Anne bolted forward. Lewis’ face tightened in surprise, but his body continued toward her. Once there was approximately a meter of space between them, she kicked out with her right leg, applying every bit of force her foot could manage against his left kneecap. Lewis yelped and crumpled to the floor. The hand he’d been reaching for her with smacked against the ground, propping him up before the rest of his bulk could collapse beneath him. Anne waited for two seconds, making sure that his face was facing hers when he started to get up, then flung her left arm forward. Percy flew through the air and landed on Lewis’ face. The guard squealed and reeled backwards. Less than a second later, he began to scream, attaining an octave of protest and dismay that Anne thought wouldn’t have been possible for a man his size. She past him down the hall, refusing to allow herself to look back.

Behind her, the seven other patients on her wing had begun screaming, as well. Some with a tone of understandable shock at such a disruption to their routine. Others carried a timbre of genuine madness, imitating the only clear sound they’d heard in months. None of them deserved this place. But this was Anne’s only chance—or at least the best she’d ever had. The probability of catching a rat again—any rat at all—was less than ten percent. But the probability of catching a rat that remained in her cell with her while acting as a conduit for the fractured workings of her formerly agile mind was—

Stop. No time for these thoughts. She had to leave.

Thirty-four steps took her to the end of the Watch Wing to the main hallway. It was quieter here, although some of the fifty-two patients had begun pounding on the inside of their padded doors. They’d no doubt heard the screams echoing from her wing, as would the other two orderlies. Anne shuffled out of the light glowing behind her and into the dark. It had been seven months, one week, and four days since she’d last had an opportunity to count the steps from her present location to the front entrance. She couldn’t remember the exact number, but even her best estimate was doomed to inaccuracy. Her stride was different now, faster, hitching, and not at all consistent.

After passing the tenth set of doors before the infirmary wing, Anne’s right foot snagged on her white robe. She pitched forward and landed almost immediately in a set of warm, hairless arms. The scented aftershave revealed who it was before she even saw him. Barnabus ‘Barney’ Lector. Thirty-nine years old. Similar size and weight to Lewis, but more solid. Much kinder, too. He’d often had to help hold Anne down during her twice-daily injections, but never seemed to relish the act. He also asked how she was feeling an average of three times a week, which was exponentially more than even the doctors and nurses managed.

“Easy there, Ms. Catherick,” he said, propping her back up onto his right arm. “What are you doing out of bed and out here in the hall? And what’s all the commotion back there about?”

She felt guilty lying to Barney, but there was no other choice. “It was awful, Mr. Barney! Mr. Lewis came into my cell—

“He came into your cell? At this hour?”

Barney stared hard at Anne. Either he didn’t believe her, or he was considering the possibility that Lewis might actually do something untoward with a patient. They both knew that Lewis was not a particularly good man, but he and the other staff were very well compensated. Enough so that taking physical liberties with the patients was a risk most weren’t willing to take. The few who did weren’t likely try it with patients on the Watch Wing. That was what her mother had explained the last time she came to visit four years, seven months, and three days ago. It was the closest she’d shown to a sentiment resembling concern for her daughter—which was of course followed up by a pointed recitation of what it cost to put her in this place she never wanted to be. 2 pounds a day for food, another five for treatment, multiplied at regular intervals of—

“Ms. Catherick?”

Anne blinked, then reminded eyes to widen when she spoke. “I think he was coming in to give me my morning injection early. It seemed odd, but I wasn’t sure. Before Lewis got to my bed, though, the poor man grabbed his chest, fell, and began that dreadful screaming. I know I’m not supposed to leave my room, but I had to find someone so he wouldn’t die right there in front of me!”

Barney considered her statement for approximately four seconds before his face softened from a questioning glare into a nod. “Okay, Ms. Catherick. I’m glad you came to find me. Let’s get you back in your room and get Lewis to the infirmary.”

Anne clutched Barney’s arm and stepped into him. He responded by relaxing his hold on her shoulders, seemingly convinced that she wanted to follow him. After taking seven steps back toward the Watch Wing (four and a half for Barney), she released her grip and bolted back the other way. Barney shouted something, but the blood pumping in her ears muddled the words. Footsteps clacked loudly behind her, which made Anne run even harder. Judging by the interval of Barney’s foot falls and her current rate of speed, Anne deduced that he would catch up to her within ten seconds. She’d planned for this, though. Not to fall into Barney’s arms, of course, but to be near the infirmary wing when she made it past his station. It wasn’t an ideal exit, but neither was the front entrance—certainly not now that she’d been spotted.

Anne rounded the corner and pulled herself behind the infirmary door. Just as she’d noted during her eleven visits there during the last four months, it was unlocked. She slammed the door shut and turned the deadbolt just as Barney barreled into it, rattling the entire frame. When she turned around, she found herself facing two men locked in an embrace and doing something she had often spied her mother doing with a man who she knew was not her father. They unlocked their lips and turned, staring back at Anne while Barney pounded his fist on the other side of the door.

On the left was Robert Becker. Approximately 175 centimeters tall and thirteen stone. Blond hair. Fair complexion. Far and away the most physically attractive staff member by anyone’s standard. In his arms was Logan O’Brien. Approximately 155 centimeters tall and fourteen stone. A fiery demeanor that matched his blazing orange hair. Anne had expected to possibly need to sneak by Robert, but not to encounter him inside the infirmary. His station was ten meters from the front entrance. And she certainly hadn’t anticipating finding him with O’Brien, whose shift had always ended no later than 9:00 PM during the three years, six months, two weeks, and four days he’d been at Hampstead. These were startling variables in the otherwise predicted order of things.

But so was she.

Anne screamed and charged forward. Robert froze in place, eyes wide with a shock of disbelief and fear. Logan turned to face her. She shifted her weight towards the Irishman and lunged. He opened his arms and spread his legs to catch her, forgetting to protect the one area the male staff members were usually very cognizant of guarding while restraining a patient. Logan did not notice how exposed and still substantially erect he was until Anne’s right foot connected with his groin. He howled and went down, knocking over a cart of medical supplies his arms flailed out behind him. His right foot caught Anne’s robe and pulled her down, as well. She landed hard next to the toppled supply cart. A sharp pain sliced through her hand as it slapped the ground in front of her. She looked to see what she’d landed on. Medical scissors. She grabbed them and rolled over just in time to see that Robert had regained his wits and was shuffling towards her. He yanked her up off the floor and into his chest. Before the man could speak, Anne jabbed the instrument beneath his neck, drawing a small drop of blood and halting his voice.

“Say another word, make another move, and river of red will flow from your flesh. Let me go. If you do not, I will gut you right here without pity or remorse.”

Robert nodded and released his grip. Anne backed away, careful not to trip over Logan, who was still groaning and writhing on the floor. She backed up, edging her way down the short hall behind them until her shoulders pressed against the infirmary exit. Robert continued to stare at her as she opened the door and slid behind it. She quickly closed the door and slid the scissors through the outside latch, effectively locking it from the outside. It wouldn’t stop Robert or the other guards from chasing her, but they would have to use the front entrance now, which was at least thirty more seconds away. Factor in the trauma caused to Lewis and Logan—along with Robert’s likely desire not to reveal that he was away from his post and in the infirmary with Logan—and she might have given herself even more time

Anne was still considering this when the realization struck just how fast her feet were moving. She didn’t even remember starting to run, but didn’t dare stop now, continuing to sprint across the dew stained grass and mud surrounding the asylum. Thirty seconds and 127 steps later, she was forced to stop. Her heart was beating so hard that it felt as though it might explode. She tried to count the beats, but quickly lost track. Her breathing was so sharp that it’d become impossible to focus on anything else.

One breath, two breaths, three—

Anne dropped to her knees, partly out of physical pain and partly from the wave of emotion flooding her senses. Her heart felt like it was coiling in on itself, twisting like a vice around the ventricles and shooting a pain up her left arm. It was terrible, but also paled in comparison to the wonderful sensation tingling up her spine. She’d been outside on rare occasions during her time at Hampstead, but never without a guard and never of her own volition. But now here she was, taking free steps and breathing free air.

Anne gasped, pulling oxygen and tears back inside her. She had to keep moving. The guards would no doubt call the authorities, embarrassment and personal injury not withstanding. They stood to lose far more from a patient escaping under their watch. She forced herself up, still clutching her violently knotting chest, and pressed forward, counting steps and estimating distance the whole way. Her soil slippers eventually found purchase on cobblestone, itself connected to an intersection of familiar looking streets.

“Limmerage,” Anne whispered. “I’m in Limmerage, which means I am not far from London.”

That was where she needed to go. For now, at least. A large city with plenty of places and people to hide her. A village like Limmerage was much too small and too close to Hampstead. The authorities surely would make their way here first. With this being the closest village to the facility, a perimeter search was unlikely. Moving at an estimated pace of one and a half times her average rate of travel, then they would arrive in Limmerage by…by….

Anne’s thoughts and calculations were interrupted by the sight of a man walking alone in her direction. He was well dressed, like one would to meet another for dinner. He did not appear to have a particular destination in mind, as evidenced by his small strides and non-purposeful demeanor. He also looked kind. Anne wasn’t sure how or why she felt this way about a person whom she’d never met. Perhaps it was because he was the first person she’d encountered since escaping the asylum. His heart very well might be cruel, but she didn’t think so. He seemed like someone who may be willing help, or at least point her in the right direction to London. It was a determination based on nothing more than a feeling. No calculations. No formulas. Just her heart, which had finally slowed enough that it no longer hurt.

Anne could tell that the man saw her now. How could he not? She was dressed all in white, which had always been her favorite color. It represented a completely blank slate, both devoid and full of every conceivable possibility. A canvas on which her mind could work at whatever feverish or languid pace it desired.

The man stepped toward her. Anne tried to calculate if his increased stride was indicative anything, then stopped. She would simply take the risk and speak to him. It would likely be one of many she’d take over the next few days. The price and reward for finally being free.


NBR7NafpliotisphotosmallNick Nafpliotis is a music teacher and writer from Charleston, South Carolina. During the day, he instructs students from the ages of 11-14 on how to play band instruments. At night, he writes about weird crime, bizarre history, pop culture, and humorous classroom experiences on his blog, RamblingBeachCat.com. He is a television, novel, and comic book reviewer for AdventuresinPoorTaste.com. He can also be found on Twitter @NickNafster79, where he brings shame to his family on a daily basis.

Smoke Signs

Three names were scrawled on the wall and Constanze could pronounce none of them. Pressed into the plaster with a now absent knife, the shape of the letters spoke of tree roots entwined through shattered animal bones and drowned sailors rotting on the beach. She ran her finger across the words and scraped white powder from underneath her nail.

Henrietta came into the room behind her.

“Did you write this?” Constanze said, not turning around. The younger woman placed her hand on Constanze’s shoulder.

“I can’t even read it. What do they say?”

Constanze motioned toward the desk and waited for Henrietta to pass her the laptop. The cheap, plastic, case scorched hot from the overworked battery.

“Do you even know where to start looking?”

Constanze rubbed a hand through her plait, staring at her fingers as she placed them on the keyboard. The inevitable loose hairs clumped in her palm. She shook her head. In the free drawing programme she sketched the names and tied the simple drawing to posts on three different forums. The first specialised in onomatology, the second etymology and the third occult alphabets.

While they waited for replies the two women collected mud from the flowerbed underneath the window and wove it through with dried pampas grass. Once the figure was finished, scalp raised to a three point crown, they placed it on the hearth and burnt it to clay with a cook’s blowtorch. The blue flame guttered as the fuel ran low. The room filled with the smell of burnt grass. Mustard coloured smoke pressed itself into the grooved letters on the wall.

Constanze walked up and rested her face against the first letters of all three names in turn until they left their mark upon her skin. Henrietta hooked her arm through her lover’s and led her across to the single bed, dragging the worn blankets from the floor and cocooning them together. Through the wall the street talked itself awake.

*   *   *

Sometime in the early hours the computer spat them answers, the only light the Chinese lantern glow through the sheet pinned across the open window.

Henrietta pulled the sheet free of the pelmet while Constanze poured stewed, thick tea from the cold teapot. On the wall smoke continued to swirl inside the letters.

Together the women clicked through the still open tabs on the screen, each one contradicting the last. The words were in an alphabet only found on a sand bank in the north Atlantic. The names used dipthongs carved into trees at the bottom of a backfilled mineshaft in the Yorkshire Dales. The words had been spotted in a single SETI analysed signal in 1992.

“Are any of these correct?” Constanze said, sipping her tea and spitting it into the hearth. The liquid soaked into the cracked clay figure.

“All of them,” Henrietta said.

Putting her mouth close to the wall Constanze inhaled the yellow smoke from the first name, Henrietta the smoke from the second. There was a hint of damp from unseen bricks. The final name they shared, the taste of burning haystacks sticking in the back of their throats.

Inside saturated lungs the spirits of the words felt at home. Their temporary, bronchial, abode reminded them of the trees worshippers used to carve their names on. Replacing oxygen they allowed themselves to be carried deep into the frontal lobes of the two women.

Feeling their new tenants squirm into comfort Constanze and Henrietta picked up the biscuitware figure from the hearth and carried him across to the Formica dining table where they ate at each sundown.

They placed the figure on his back on a fine porcelain plate, the gilding scraped off due to years consuming sweetmeats in aspic. With tarnished silver knives and forks they divided up the clay limbs and ate them in the order told to them by children’s books. The legs tasted of smoke, the arms rotting leaves. When finished they kissed, sharing the taste of their meal. Grit stuck in both their throats until they swallowed three times and took a mouthful of cold tea. Parting, a glaze descended over their eyes and they sat facing each other, arms resting on the table.

*   *   *

The trance lasted until dawn, the glow touching Constanze’s face first, then Henrietta’s. They stood and walked across to the window. They saw more names carved into the brick of the houses opposite, each chipped out with surgeon’s precision. The single room felt too small for them and their new dwellers.

In the street neighbours ignored each other, walking along with glass eyes and trembling hands. Glances turned inward.

Spirits branching the gap between the two women Constanze and Henrietta lifted their heads high and sauntered to the park, keeping any bare skin away from the iron of the fence. Hand in hand they walked to a small stand of trees and, picking one each, placed their mouths against the bark. The spirits swirling in their nerves turned themselves back to smoke and, axolotl like, dragged themselves out of the two women’s mouths into the split, silver bark. Exhaustion overtook Constanze and Henrietta and they fell to sleeping on broken branches.

Staying as smoke the spirits drilled into the roots of the silver birch trees, spreading through the surrounding soil. Gathering grains with a brambler’s grasp. Underneath the women’s resting the spirits created limbs from badger flesh and the white bones of long dead birds. They shaped fingers from the twist of tap roots and pulled water from deep springs to smooth out a smoke of skin. Once they counted the number of limbs, and were satisfied they were far in excess of any creature of flesh or carapace they had tasted, the spirits dragged their new bodies from the dirt. Dead roots ran through them, creaking as they stretched. Pollards crowning their heads rattled as they stepped.

The first picked up Constanze and pressed her through its navel until, still breathing, still dreaming, she was encased by clay sternum and clavicle. The second kissed Henrietta on the forehead, tasting the salt of her sleeping skin. The spirit knew the love it carried for her was Constanze’s even as it lowered her into its cranium and felt her squirm to settlement in the damp earth of its face.

With the women placed, and their dreams of plaster mould and rotting wallpaper shaping dioramas in the flesh of soil, the spirits rose themselves from the park and walked through the streets to return to the sea.


 

Steve Toase is an author and archaeologist living in North Yorkshire and occasionally Munich, Germany. In Steve’s work, Gods are found in boxes, trees hitch-hike and bears play chess in sunlit plazas. His story “Call Out” has recently been published in the Best Horror Of The Year Anthology 6

Fungal Night, Uninteresting

Reach into night’s fungal mask.
El Greco fingers slender as pale reeds.
Risen from distant Carcosan waters.
Where loons sing.

Turn as you have never done.
Weavening a star-sky storm.
Love the lightening’s
sharp, elective, infective shock.
pin head spores, injected

Fast motion bud invasive growth.
Re-branching thoughts.
Organic overwriting cuneiform.
Revelation falls.
Expect the unexpected.

Like an open book
I could always read you
Joy/terror streaked indistinguishable.
Emotional singularity.
You’re not as complex as you’d like to think.

Predicted, convoluted and folded.
Moulded mind pages.
Cortex mushrooms emergent.
ascomycotan cups of mediocre psychosis.
When the fruiting bodies explode,
you are nonsensical and utterly scripted.


Kelda Crich is a new born entity. She’s been lurking in her creator’s mind for a few years. Now she’s out in the open. Kelda’s work has appeared in the Lovecraft E-zine, Journal of Unlikely Acceptances, Dreams from the Witch House and in the Bram Stoker Award winning After Death anthology. Her poems have appeared in Nameless, Cthulhu Haiku II and the Future Lovecraft anthology.